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Hanging From a Cross of Iron

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Toni'd always wanted a soulmate. Hell, she'd even settle for a soulmark, just to feel normal.

Well. Not that Starks were ever truly normal.

No, her father had ingrained that in her from the moment she was born, and going decades without a rendezvous writing itself across her skin had only reinforced that, over and over again. It seemed like every other person who'd reached thirty-eight had had at least one soulmark appear, even if they'd let the opportunity pass them by to meet their soulmate.

But.

Starks were made of iron.

And iron didn't have soulmarks. Her father and mother hadn't had soulmarks, and even if they'd had them at one point, duty and dynasty was more important than mystical or divine meddling.

So no, it had been expected of her to never succumb to any soulmarks she might gain—but they weren't around anymore, were they? She could give in to the mystical if she so chose.

If a soulmark ever appeared.

And she'd checked.

Oh, yes, she'd checked every day. But there was always the chance the mark had appeared for a brief window of opportunity, and she'd missed it, not making it to the correct place on the right date or time simply because she'd been busy.

Hell, the mark could have appeared while she was in Afghanistan, as there had been no easy way of looking herself over every day.

Plus, well, she'd been a tad bit preoccupied.

A new soulmark, a new chance, a new rendezvous could still appear, but she was well into her thirties now, and her chances were looking slimmer and slimmer as the days went by that she'd be able to enjoy herself with a soulmate.

She hadn't let it stop her, though, and she had enjoyed herself plenty, and hell, she had the most beautiful woman in her life right now, Pepper Potts, even if they weren't soulmates.

Well.

She'd had her.

Past tense.

Right. She kept forgetting about that.

Toni'd been the one to find Pep's soulmark, her rendezvous, and she'd been the one to help her dress, to push her out the door, and wish her luck and happiness and love.

Because Pepper deserved it.

But damn if it didn't hurt, losing her in that way. It had only been a week, and the woman was still firmly planted in her life as CEO and official Toni Wrangler. It hurt not to be able to touch her, to look at her, like she used to.

Shaking her head at her internal musings, Toni threw herself back into her creation, and her thoughts became focused on the task at hand once again.


It was Rhodey who found it first.

Toni had been slouching over her work table, scrolling through her holo display and reading over some test results, when Rhodey entered the lab.

"Hey JARVIS, kill the music, will you?" Rhodey asked as he walked in.

JARVIS did as he asked, the traitor.

"Hey!" Toni shot up, glaring at her best friend. "I was listening to that!" She swiveled her chair around, releasing nervous energy as she did. It was the only thing that helped to still her mind, at least sometimes, when she was interrupted mid-thought. Toni clenched her eyes shut, breathed in, and then out, centering herself with the steady hum that was reverberating subtly through her body from the arc reactor.

"What gives?" she finally asked, opening her eyes and taking in the man in front of her. He was dressed down, in dark jeans and a blue button-up, so obviously it wasn't an official visit.

Rhodey raised an eyebrow at his friend, and Toni raised one right back at him, and then finally she grinned, getting up and hugging the tall man. "It's been a while," she said as she stepped back.

"Since after you nearly died, you mean?" Rhodey asked dryly, rhetorically. "It wasn't even that long ago. And you still haven't groveled enough for that, Tones. I mean, come on, who even does that?"

Toni mock-pouted at him. "I'll build you a new suit!" She turned around, pulling her holo display towards her as she went. "I mean, it's only been two weeks since I got a new heart, cut me some slack, boo bear!"

She barely registered the gasp that Rhodey let out, already hopping onto a train of thought that swiftly began to carry her away. But she couldn't miss a large hand settling onto her shoulder, gripping her, and pulling her away from her work once again.

Toni yelped as the back of her t-shirt was pulled down, and then, before she could say or do anything, Rhodey exclaimed, "You have a soulmark, Tones. A soulmark!"

"What!" Toni was off like one of her suits, running towards the bathroom and turning on the lights as she twisted around, trying desperately to see the words written there.

But she couldn't.

They were at the nape of her neck and she could only see a hint of the black print—holy shit it was finally happening, she'd waited so long, and now she was going to meet somebody who would accept every part of her, damaged goods and all, brains and all, faults and all, and she didn't care that that may be naïve of her. She didn't care, and the mark was out of sight, and she wanted to see, and luck of all luck she didn't have a second mirror. "JARVIS, can you tell—"

"I've got you, Tones—calm down, geez," Rhodey said gently, attempting to settle her as he strode swiftly towards her. Rhodey had been privy to every thought Toni had had about soulmarks over the years. The times she'd laughed at the idea, the times she'd tried to figure out how they worked, the times that she'd thrown herself into a deep, dark hole at the thought that she'd be markless and bondless forever, and Rhodey and Pepper had been her only ways out.

He knew what this meant to Toni. He wouldn't have lied to her about it. Never about something like this. Actually, never, period. End of story. Toni could trust Rhodey with her life and more.

Rhodey would never lie to her.

Even though he had a soulmark, heralding a rendezvous a few months down the road that he planned to be there for, he'd always be her Rhodey, too. They may not have ever been a thing, but their connection… it was deeper than what many of the soulmates she met had.

She stilled, waiting for Rhodey to come over. And then, finally, the man set his warm fingers against her neck and shoulders, and tugged the shirt down and—

"Holy shit."

Toni had never heard anything like what she was now hearing in Rhodey's tone. It was equal parts reverent, shocked, and disbelieving.

All as he looked at her soulmark.

Hers.

Wow.

It couldn't be that bad, right? All a soulmark could be was a string of numbers and words. How could that have garnered a response like that?

"Let me see!" Toni demanded, thrilled but also terrified—and the only reason she let that show was because it was Rhodey here with her.

But… was she ready? Was she ready to have someone so intrinsically tied to her life?

Yes.

It scared her, but yes. She'd always dreamed of being given the opportunity at a connection such as this.

Rhodey took out his phone and snapped a picture of the nape of Toni's neck, and then held it up for his friend to see.

The only thoughts that rushed through her mind as she stared, and stared, and stared at the letters and numbers were 'Holy shit indeed,' and 'I'm so glad I'm not holding the phone right now or else I would've dropped it.'

Because right there, plain as day—and she knew that Rhodey would never fuck with her on this—was the following:

November 10 th , 1944. 11:28pm. Ravenna, Italy.

Toni couldn't gather a single coherent thought anymore. She simply continued to stare, and stare, and then her hands began to shake at her sides. She gripped the fabric of her sweatpants in both hands, clenching with her fingers as her heart pounded in her ears.

Rhodey pulled the phone away, and that seemed to kick start her brain—at least somewhat.

"Is that—?" she asked, incapable of completing her sentence. She just… couldn't find the words.

And that was scary. She always had the right words.

"Yeah," Rhodey replied, knowing exactly what she meant. "Yeah, that's real, Tones." He sounded just as shaken as she did.

That was scary, too. Rhodey was always calm. Well. Calmer.

"But how is it still there?" Toni asked again, her voice cracking on the last word. She caught her own eyes in the mirror, and Toni wasn't quite sure what they showed. She didn't even know what she was feeling on the inside, never mind being able to read the physical manifestation of those feelings.

"I don't know, Tones. I don't know."

And he didn't. But neither did Toni.

She was barely aware of her best friend leaving the bathroom, let alone the lab entirely, as she descended further into her thoughts, pondering what exactly was going on.

A soulmark. Finally.

But it was in the past. Before she'd even been born.

How was that even possible?

It was a wonder that the mark had appeared and remained, even—all other marks, when the time came and went without a rendezvous occurring, would disappear, leaving the skin blank for another mark to appear for a different person sometime in the future.

And yet hers was still there.

Long past the time indicated.

What was she going to do?


There was no question about it—Toni Stark had to build herself a way back into the past if she was ever going to meet her soulmate. If she wanted to. She could just leave it be, pretend it didn't exist, move on with—

Fuck it. Who was she kidding?

Of course she wanted to meet her soulmate. Never mind whatever fucked up joke the universe was playing on her, giving her a rendezvous that was not only in the past, but also in the middle of the bloodiest war in history, in fucking Italy of all places. Where Howard fucking Stark was bound to be running around—she knew because the damn man had made her sit down with his collection from the war at least once a year, every year like clockwork, and listen to his retellings of running around like a lost puppy after the Howling Commandos in the "good ole days".

As if war was something good.

But fuck.

It was like some sort of cosmic joke, making fun of Toni as if the universe or whoever the hell was out there hadn't made Toni suffer enough already. And she shouldn't be taking the bait—she really shouldn't.

But she couldn't stop herself.

Always impulsive, even after Afghanistan, Toni knew she wouldn't be able to leave this alone.

And she was strong. She'd built the Iron Man suit; had built it after three months of torture and pain. She was keeping herself alive artificially, with a new element of all things.

Of course she could do this.

She had no idea where to even begin, but if anyone could figure something like this out… it would be her. Right?

She rolled her eyes. No, she wasn't arrogant at all.

Not one bit. She could handle this all by herself.

She was Toni fucking Stark, after all.

And she handled it.

She handled it right through the research. She handled it right through gathering different components and materials. She handled it through contacting multiple theorists and specialists and researchers, harassing them until they shared as much of their work as they were willing to fork over for monetary donations and with non-disclosure agreements. She handled it through Pep yelling at her for forty minutes straight for not telling her the wonderful news sooner—and then she handled it again for twice as long when Pep found out what her words said and what exactly she planned to do about. She handled it as she and JARVIS locked themselves in the lab for over sixty-eight hours—Pep and Rhodey forcing her to eat by unceremoniously dumping food on her work table before leaving just as quietly—and only had the barest of data to show for it when she stumbled to the lab's couch to sleep.

She handled it all the way through receiving a package addressed to her and having JARVIS scan it for dangerous materials—no sense blowing herself up before she could figure all this out.

And she handled it right up until she opened the box, and blue and green light erupted from within, blinding her and whiting out the noise around her until all she could hear was a high pitched whine, and a rushing noise that grew louder and louder until it stopped.

And then—

And then she was aware that there were people surrounding her, shouting at her, but she couldn't see, she still couldn't see, and couldn't make head nor tail of what was being yelled at her. Some words came through but they were muted, and they didn't make any sense, like her hearing was muffled and her brain muddled and—

Her vision and hearing came back all of a sudden, as if slotting into place, and she was able to see and hear

And with a gasp, Toni dropped to her knees, hands up in the air, and stared in shock as she took in the men surrounding her, every last one of them holding a gun, and every last one of those pointed at her.

Chapter Text

She was still reeling, but she breathed deep and pulled on the façade she had used so effectively in the past—her publicity face. The one she used when she didn't want to show exactly what she was feeling; the one she used when there were people out to hurt her, to bleed her, to lessen her.

Toni never let them.

Never let them see who she really was.

From her position on the cold, hard ground, Toni flashed a smile at the men surrounding her, though she kept her hands in the air. "Gentlemen, how are you?"

All she was met with was the sound of silence—which, really, wasn't silence, but… semantics.

It was dark out, though the soft glow of city lights could be seen in the distance, and Toni couldn't really make out the expressions on the faces around her. But the little she could see of their dirty, unshaven faces wasn't exactly welcoming.

They were…

…familiar?

What—

"Who are you?" a gruff voice asked from behind her.

The thought passed through her mind that maybe she shouldn't give her real name, should lie, but… well, that didn't always work out. So maybe…

"The name's Toni," she replied with a careless air.

A beat, then, "Pretty dame like you with a name like that?"

She bristled, but her smile never once faltered. In fact, she could feel it tightening, sharpening, before she replied, "My father chose Antonia and it never quite fit. You got a problem with that?"

There was another pause, but it seemed lighter this time, and then finally she heard a couple of chuckles. "She's as American as they come, Buck, you gotta admit that. Stand down, men. Falsworth, Dernier, you take first and second watch, I'll take third."

The guns lowered, but she could tell she was still being regarded as a threat, even as most of the men faded into the darkness around her.

Good. Because she was.

She might not know where she was, or who these people were; she may not have her suit, or a weapon—but she was a threat. The last people who hadn't treated her as such, well, they hadn't lived to regret it. She was—

Wait.

Those names. They were more than familiar.

Toni spun around on her knees, hands scrambling in the dirt as she tried to catch a glimpse of the person who had just spoken. And then she did and—

"Captain?" she choked out incredulously.

And it was him. Captain America. Steve Rogers, in the flesh. She'd know that mug anywhere, seeing as her father was absolutely head over heels with the man. He had a literal shrine to the captain in the mansion, one which Toni hadn't looked over in ages but could still picture with perfect clarity. Hell, her dad's trust was still looking for the plane in—

Toni's mind stuttered again. She was getting absolutely tired of the sensation, but she was feeling really out of her element.

"Do I know you?" the man in question asked, looking at her oddly.

The man at his side elbowed him in the ribs.

"Barnes?" She just couldn't stop herself. She was reeling, not knowing who to look at, what to do, where she was… when she was. Because… because…

She swiveled around, still on her knees, taking in the forms of the men surrounding them in the darkness. One, two… seven. Seven men.

Seven men she knew too well.

"Ma'am? Are you okay?" A hand on her shoulder had her startling back into awareness. She blinked her eyes a few times to try to clear them, and then stared.

"What year is it?" she asked suddenly. "The date? The time? Where am I?" She fired off the questions in rapid succession, barely stopping to breathe. She could feel her heart racing, blood pounding in her ears, the thrum of her arc reactor vibrating through her body. She brought a hand up, spreading her fingers across the glass and metal shining beneath her t-shirt, trying to calm her breathing. She closed her eyes and then opened them again quickly as she heard another man drop to his knees in front of her.

"Ma'am?" This time it was Barnes asking. James fucking Barnes. With Steve fucking Rogers. In front of her. Staring into her eyes. Reaching a hand out towards her other shoulder as if he could help stabilize her with his touch alone. Rogers glanced down to where her hand was splayed against the glow, and she could see the questions that he wanted to ask—questions she probably couldn't answer.

Oh shit.

She was so screwed.

She wanted this, to go back in time, but it was only now that she was fully realizing the potential for utter chaos that her presence could bring. She'd always been impulsive, always reactionary, never letting someone tell her 'no'—and in fact, doing the exact opposite, usually—and often leaping headfirst into danger.

It was only afterwards that she realized her mistakes. Sure, she learned from those mistakes, but it wasn't like she'd ever learned to stop doing what she did.

"The year—tell me what year it is!" she gasped out. She needed to know. She knew, but she needed her theory confirmed. It wasn't science until it was—

"1944, ma'am," the captain replied in a slightly unsure tone.

"Toni," she corrected him absently. "Ma'am was my mo… ther…"

Oh. Fuck.

Her dad. Her father. Howard Stark was nearly synonymous with the Howling Commandos during the war. During 1944. Nineteen fucking forty-four.

Shit. Shit shit shit shit.

She only realized she'd spoken the last bit out loud when Barnes laughed out loud and the captain gave her a consternated look.

Barnes clapped his hands together and then stood up, offering her his hand. "Oh I like her, Steve. Can we keep her?" He laughed again, grin spreading across his features.

It was infectious, and Toni found her own lips quirking upwards in a reflexive smile. His laugh was… nice. It was nice.

It was 1944 and it was nice.

Wow. What is her life?

She looked up, watching as Rogers himself stood up, and then she reached up to grab the hand that was proffered. Immediately, she was hauled upwards even as she pushed herself off of her knees.

The zap of energy had her stumbling, Barnes yelping, and Rogers reaching out to grab her bare elbow to stabilize her. She was hit by a second surge, and it surprised her just as much as the first. The men stared at her, eyes wide, and then immediately let go of her, taking a large step back. Rogers' hand looked like he was getting ready to reach for the shield on his back, and Barnes just went straight for his gun, though he didn't remove it from its holster.

Toni was sure the only thing that saved her was that she likely looked just as shocked as she felt; just as shocked as they were. She'd brought one hand to her lips, the other pressed tight against the reactor, and she knew that her mask was slipping completely off of her features—what little there was left of it by this point, at any rate.

They were silent, gazes darting back and forth between each other's faces in the dim glow of the moon and her reactor, their breaths shuddering in and out as they tried to control themselves. A couple of the men nearby were surely shooting glances their way, but they kept their peace, likely waiting for the captain or sergeant to notify them on if and how they should react.

But they were looking at her like they were waiting for Toni to make the first move. Like she was a bomb, waiting to go off. Like she was unwelcome, or unexpected, or a danger.

Well, she knew how to react to that.

Pasting her winsome smile back on to hide the bitter disappointment welling up within her—how could she have ever expected this to go in her favor; nothing ever went in her favor—she wiggled her toes into the cold earth.

"I assume today's November 10th?"

Silence.

She sighed, jutting her hip to the side and placing her hand on it. "And I assume this is Ravenna, Italy?"

Silence.

"Come on boys, what's a girl to do to get a jacket and some socks here?"

Their eyes snapped to her feet and back, and then suddenly she was moving, being propelled towards a small collection of motorcycles she hadn't even noticed.

Well, that had certainly gotten them moving.


"So…" Bucky kicked his heels out in front of him, crossing them at the ankles as he leaned back against Steve. The little bit of light coming from beneath her shirt—and he itched to see what the light was being powered by—was enough to see the way her eyes widened slightly, as if she hadn't expected their closeness, when Steve put his arm around his shoulders and pulled him back to rest comfortably against his chest.

Her stare was piercing, taking them all in, as best as she could in the near dark, and Bucky tilted his head slightly as he observed her in turn, trying to figure her out.

It wasn't like the romantic nature of his soulbond with Steve was common knowledge, but the way she looked at them, like she knew them, but was still surprised by their closeness… it was interesting.

He filed that thought away for later.

"Why don't you start with where you're from, and we'll figure out what to do with you?" he finally ventured.

Her eyes immediately narrowed. "Do with me?" she hissed. "I'd like to see you try!"

Woah, okay there.

Bucky lifted both hands in a placating gesture as Steve's entire body shook with silent laughter. He wanted to turn around and glare at the other man's whispered, "Thought you were good with the dames, jerk," but he didn't dare take his eyes off of the woman in front of him. She was glaring at him, still, but then her eyes darted towards Steve, taking in his laughter no doubt, and he could see her shoulders slump just a little.

A very little. She was a proud one alright.

His soulmate. Another soul—

He studiously ignored the thought, instead choosing to focus on the woman as she tugged one of the spare jackets tighter around her shoulders. "I'm from New York," she finally sighed, her eyes fluttering closed for a brief moment before they opened and her gaze pierced right through him again.

Lord, she was a spitfire. They'd known her for barely twenty minutes, and yet she'd already stared down seven guns pointed at her face with barely a wince. And her language. He wanted to whistle, but he wasn't entirely sure she wouldn't try to strangle him. The little—very little—that he could sense of her through the tenuous, accidental bond, was… not particularly encouraging, and he wanted to do anything he could to prevent that bitter disappointment and anger from being pushed out into the open.

"Your accent ain't quite New York," Steve accused.

Idiot,Bucky thought as the woman turned her stare on the blond.

"Not like yours, no," she finally replied, reaching up to shove a black curl behind her ear. "Upstate and Manhattan, not Brooklyn, but I also lived for quite a while in California."

"Ah," was all Steve could get out.

Bucky just rolled his eyes and then asked, pointedly, "What year y'from?"

Antonia simply stared at him, and the sudden stillness from Steve was telling in and of itself, even without the incredulity he could feel in the back of his mind that was coming from the man himself.

"How did you know?" she whispered, eyes darting around her.

He raised an eyebrow at her, and she raised one right back. In response, he quirked his lips upward, and tipped his hat at her. "Too many people underestimate me, ma'am, but I've gotta be observant to be good at what I do," he explained, without even a hint of arrogance. He didn't have an ego—he was just that good. "You asked what year you're in and, honestly, after the shit we've—Steve, what the hell, she cusses worse than you do, give it a rest—after the shit," he continued, emphasizing the word as he jabbed his elbow into his partner's stomach, "we've seen, it's honestly not entirely out of the realm of the possible for time travel to be a thing. Plus, y'know," he shrugged, "'destiny' and all that." He gestured at his temple in the near-universal symbol for a soulbond.

She looked startled that he was even acknowledging it.

Or rather, she felt startled, but the flippant mask she'd donned stayed right where it was, never adjusting one bit. She looked at him as if she were trying to disassemble him and figure out how he worked, how he thought, how he breathed. Her stare was calculating, assessing, and he could swear he saw a hint of Peggy in the way she tilted her head just so.

She was intelligent, that was for sure, and not to be trifled with. Much like Steve had learned with Peggy.

He tilted his head right back at her, inquisitive.

"2009," she finally said, nearly defiant, tilting her chin just that little bit higher as if she were daring them to defy her.

Steve practically jumped out of his skin, the only thing keeping him pressed against the tree trunk being Bucky pushing back even harder against him.

"Quiet," he shot back at Steve over his shoulder, and then turned his gaze back upon their… soulmate? Friend? Ally? He had no idea how to refer to her.

"That where you got the light, Antonia?" he asked.

"It's Toni," she growled back at him. "Only my dad ever—" She cut herself off suddenly, a flash of pain crossing her features. Bucky was about to ask her what was wrong when she continued, her expression smoothing out again. "Toni. With an I. Seriously, please don't call me… that." She sighed, bringing her fingers up to pinch the bridge of her nose. "Yeah, it's where I got the hardware." She tapped her knuckles against the light gleaming through her shirt, glowing through the vee of the jacket around her shoulders.

Bucky eyed it curiously. He'd always loved technology, and to see a new puzzle, a new marvel, before his very eyes… just wow. He wanted to see what it did, how it worked, what powered it… he just wanted to soak in the knowledge. And if she really was from—holy shit, really?—2009 of all things, there was so much she'd be able to tell him.

"What's it for? How does it work? What does it run on?" he heard himself ask, unable to curb his enthusiasm.

And her entire face lit up. It was like watching the sun come out from behind the clouds, her pert little nose scrunching up in excitement and a smile spreading like wildfire across her face. He couldn't help but to smile back as she sat forward excitedly, even as he felt a hint of pain and anger stabbing into him from the part of his brain where Toni now resided.

"Well, uh, it, it's for my hear—" She stumbled over her first words, and then looked slightly frustrated. "Shit, I don't know what I can and can't tell you. I mean, like, there's got to be some time-traveling rules or some shit I'm violating just by being here," she muttered to herself, brain already veering off in another direction entirely, Bucky could tell. "Ah fuck it," she whispered again, causing Steve to wince again.

It did not go unnoticed by the black-haired woman. She narrowed her eyes and then pointedly looked away from Steve, focusing in on Bucky—truly, the only sensible one of the two, Bucky would have to agree.

"It keeps me alive," she finally stated, as if it were no big deal.

Bucky blinked. "What happened?"

"Shrapnel to the chest. The reactor—" She gestured at the glow, "—keeps it from reaching my heart."

She said it so… tonelessly. Like… like it was nothing; as if it weren't a matter of life or death—which Bucky knew it was; he'd seen people die from shrapnel to their legs or arms, let alone their heart.

He was fascinated.

"It's sort of like a big magnet, I guess you could say." Toni shrugged one shoulder, and then pulled her shirt down slightly in the front.

Bucky and Steve leaned forward to get a better look. Bucky filled with awe, and Steve feeling the same way to Bucky, before—

"Steve, no—"

Too late.

"That looks like Hydra tech," Steve bit out.

Bucky scrambled to his feet as Steve pushed him off, the other man slowly rising to his full height as a frown tugged at his lips. Steve pushed his shoulders back defiantly, hands unclenched and ready at his sides, feet shoulder-width apart.

Bucky knew that stance all too well—the punk was ready to fight. Especially Hydra. Especially after Azz… Yeah, he was ready to fight.

But Bucky didn't need to step in. The woman was on her feet, hands clenched, and staring up at Steve from nearly a foot's height difference, especially with only secondhand socks on her feet. Her curly hair was sticking out in all sorts of directions from its bun at the back of her head, the blue glow—Christ, it did look like Hydra blue—lighting up her snarl from beneath.

And suddenly—

Well, suddenly, she really did look dangerous.

He'd known that already, had been keeping an eye on her, just in case, but now...

Behind enemy lines, from the future—was she really? Hydra was always advanced technologically—seemingly harmless, but she carried herself like a killer, a tactician, a warrior, a leader. Confident, smart, snarling, and dangerous.

"The tech is mine," she hissed up at Steve. "It's mine, and I fought tooth and nail to build it. I nearly died—someone else did die for it, for me. It's mine and no fucking Nazis would ever dare touch it because I would kill them for even looking at it; for daring to think that they could own a piece of me." She heaved in a deep breath, her shoulders drawing up and back. "No one owns me, Cap. Not even you." Her eyes flicked briefly towards Bucky, then went right back to glaring at Steve. "Not even him. I own myself."

And with all the force she could bring to bear she shoved her shoulder against Steve's, pushing past him and stalking towards the collection of rocks where the rest of the Commandos were sleeping.

Or, at least, trying to sleep.

Bucky caught Dugan glaring at Steve, right before that glare switched to himself. Of course the men had heard that.

He sighed, and then punched Steve in the arm, hard, as he walked past, snagging an extra blanket to give to the little hellion. He paused, for a brief moment, and looked Steve in the eye. "Stevie, you still don't know a damn thing about women, do ya?"

As he walked towards the group, he could hear Toni muttering, "Fuck Hydra. Fuck Nazis. Fuck Steve fucking Rogers," underneath her breath as she settled in a couple of feet away from Gabe. "Fuck the past."

Oh, he liked her.

Chapter Text

November 11th, 1944. Ravenna, Italy.

Dawn was approaching.

Steve Rogers could see the faint hint of lighter grey that edged the horizon. It wasn't quite dawn—not yet—but it was near. The sky would keep getting lighter until the sun peeked out, finally, and the colors that splashed across the heavens were something that made him itch for pencils and a sketchbook. He and Bucky'd never had enough for the wide array of shades that he would need to do the sky justice, however—never mind the fact that he'd been colorblind, and couldn't truly appreciate this before… before he had changed. But… maybe now they could, after the war. Pencils, paints, watercolors…

One could only dream.

Dawn wasn't the only reason that he took the final watch of the night. More often than not, after the serum, he could only sleep a handful of hours a night. So, no matter how tired he was, he was often awake before dawn anyway.

Well, even before the serum he had always been a light sleeper, easily awoken by the slightest sound—which usually turned out to be Bucky's snoring. Lord that man could snore.

He glanced behind him, a fond smile tugging on the corner of his lips, though he knew he wouldn't be able to make out much more than the barest hint of the group's shapes through the bushes surrounding them.

But he could sense the mostly contented but slightly anxious feel of Bucky's mind as he slept, and it soothed him in turn, knowing that he was safe. The nightmares had lessened, at least, the further they got from Azzano—both in distance and in time.

They'd not truly spoken of what Hydra had done to Bucky during his time as a prisoner, but he had noticed things, had felt things from Bucky. He had a general idea of what had happened, as well; one that made him want to blow up the whole damned base all over again, just for hurting what was his.

He knew Bucky would talk to him once he had found the words to say what he needed to. After nearly fifteen years together, Steve was an expert in dealing with Bucky. He would give him his time, but eventually something would have to be said. In the meantime, however, Steve would be the best damn partner, soulmate, friend that he could be.

The little bundle that was Antonia, however… that was another issue entirely. She was asleep, but plagued by nightmares that he knew would have woken Bucky and overcome both him and Steve alike if the soulbond was fully realized—like the one he and Bucky shared.

A part of him wanted to go to her, reach out to her, shake her awake and ask if she was okay; if she needed any help.

But the other part of him… well, first of all he wasn't sure if his inquiries would be welcome, or not, but he also wanted to keep his distance.

He and Bucky had been bonded soulmates since they were ten, when Bucky had jumped in and helped Steve—saved him, honestly—beat up a bunch of bullies.

"I had him on the ropes."

"'course ya did. I'm Bucky."

"Steve."

"Can I see your mark?"

He smiled softly at the thought.

They'd never looked back, and they'd never needed anyone else since. Except maybe his mother and Bucky's and Bucky's sisters. They knew. They'd always known, and had always been there to offer support when the world made them despair; when it made them angry and feel like they couldn't ever be their true selves in public.

Sure, the world—for the most part—viewed same-gender soulmates as platonic. The rate of same-gender soulmates was low compared to opposite-gender, but Bucky and he knew… they knew they were for each other.

They'd only ever had each other.

Even the ladies they—Bucky—went dancing with were for the public eye. But they always came home to each other.

And now there was someone intruding on what they had. Someone who could upset the balance of who they were together—the balance of their love—soulmate or no.

But she was definitely their soulmate. The shock of connection confirmed it.

If he had known, if he had seen the soulmark on he or Bucky—they barely had any time alone together right now, and besides that it was cold—he would have sought to avoid the area entirely.

But when that soft glow of green and blue was seen in the distance, he knew they'd had to check it out. Just in case.

He wish they hadn't.

He didn't want his life to change.

He was happy with the way things were—well, besides the war. But that was a given.

Still.

He was healthy, for the first time in his life, and he was making a difference, and he had Bucky.

He had Bucky.

He didn't want to share him. And yes, it was a triad bond. He'd seen the way Bucky had startled at the touch of skin to skin, and had felt the connection shock through Bucky's mind the same way it was shocking through his when he reached out instinctively, without thought, to steady the woman.

Triad bonds were extremely rare, and they hadn't seen a mark—hadn't been looking for one—so he'd had no compunction about touching her skin. He hadn't ever thought that he and Bucky would have a third, though they had entertained the idea of inviting a dame or gent to their bed for fun—one day.

Hell. They'd only ever truly considered maybe asking Peggy—the only other person who seemed to have seen Steve behind his appearance—before they found out exactly who she was bonded to. She meant a lot to him and Bucky alike, though, even if just for that.

But…

He didn't know what to make of this.

Steve sighed, running his hand through his hair. It was a little too long, he thought idly; he'd have to get it trimmed soon so it didn't get in his way.

He shook off the thought and sighed again.

What a night.

He was distracted from his thoughts again when he felt Bucky wake in the way that was particular to him. A way Steve had known since childhood. One moment he was asleep, the next awake, but he didn't move a muscle. Didn't change his breathing. Always aware, from the moment he woke. Steve supposed that it was part of what made him as good a sniper as he was; as good a soldier, and a sergeant right off the bat.

He stayed where he was, knowing that Bucky would come to him. Something they did together on many mornings, talking softly or holding each other while watching the sun peek out from beyond the horizon, but always careful for what dangers could be lurking.

"Stevie?" Bucky whispered into his ear as he came up behind him, wrapping his arms around the breadth of Steve's shoulders—and wow, that's still something he hasn't gotten used to, Bucky not being able to envelop him like he used to when he was small—and holding him tight. "You're thinking too loudly. You okay?"

Not like Steve'd ever had a hope of hiding what he was feeling—even without the soulbond, Steve would bet everything that he had that Bucky would be able to read him like one of his science fiction books. He was just that bad at keeping things from Bucky, at keeping his expressions neutral like he sometimes could with strangers.

"You're mine," Steve was finally able to get out. He hadn't meant to say that; he'd wanted to say something along the lines of him being okay, that Bucky needn't worry, but the words were out of his mouth before he could stop them.

A surge of embarrassment welled up within him at his neediness, and he was glad that Bucky wasn't looking at his face.

"I am," Bucky conceded after a moment. Steve could tell that the man was thinking carefully of his words, parsing through the emotions and the hints of thought that were likely leaking through the soulbond. "I'm yours, and you're mine, doll. Ain't nothing gonna change that." He pressed his lips to the sensitive patch of skin on the back of Steve's neck, knowing that that was one of Steve's favorite spots.

Steve took a moment to let the words and their meaning wash over him, reveling in the pet name and the fact that Bucky was his… before his thoughts change direction entirely.

Or rather, before his thoughts returned to their earlier track.

"But things are changing, Buck. I just… I didn't want this. I don't want this. I…" He struggled to put his thoughts into words. He knew he was being a bit of an asshole, and that wasn't necessarily the fault of Antonia—whoever she was in truth—but he couldn't help but to feel like his life was spinning out of control again, after he had finally gained control over it.

"I don't know what to do," he finally admitted, shoulders slumping slightly, leaning back into the warm comfort of Bucky's chest.

Bucky stayed silent for a few minutes, and Steve let the silence stretch. It wasn't an awkward silence, and Steve could feel Bucky thinking, though he didn't actively try to catch any of the specifics. Sometimes it was better—and more sane—to ignore most of the additional input from one's soulbond. It could be… loud. Distracting.

So Steve let him be, until he was ready to speak.

"Look," Bucky finally began, words soft and quiet for his ears alone. "I know this isn't what either of us expected. We don't know her. We didn't expect a triad. We weren't looking for one, not like this, at least. And we don't know anything about her, or if we can truly trust her. I will give you that." He nipped lightly at Steve's earlobe, and he couldn't help the shiver that ran through his body.

Bucky knew his body better than Steve did at times and he was sure the other man knew exactly what he was doing in that moment—at all times, really; the man was confidence personified, he swore.

"But," he continued. "Let's see how things go. There's nothing that says we can't at least be friends with her. Nothing more. That's up to us. It's up to anyone who meets their soulmate. It's our choice to pursue or not. She's our soulmate, but we have no idea what kind of connection it is, Stevie. And I won't pursue it or try to find out unless you want to as well." Before Steve could cut in, he quickly continued, slightly more forcefully than before.

More passionately.

Steve shivered a little and pressed back into Bucky's arms.

"You're mine, Stevie, punk. Mine. We're in this together, remember? To the end of the line. You're always going to be my best guy. It's always going to be me and you, Stevie. Always. And if it's just us at the end of the line, if that's what you want, then that's what it is. Okay?"

"I…" Steve didn't quite know what to say, but he knew that he was grateful. He couldn't help but to reply, however, "I feel guilty. She… she looked so… I don't know. I can't even put it into words, but you saw her. She had this mask on, put it on, but sometimes things slipped through. She looked… lost. Hurt. Disappointed. Never mind the anger at the end—that was entirely my fault, and I believe her when she says she's not Hydra, at least now, but still…" Steve stared off into the distance as he thought of how to put his thoughts and feelings into words. The horizon was a mix of soft gold and bright pink, and in the distance he could see the outline of the Alps more clearly than before.

"I know, Stevie," Bucky cut in before he could figure out what to say. "You don't need to say it. I know. I don't know what to do either, if that's any consolation." He squeezed Steve again, and then pressed the side of his face against the large plane of Steve's back. "She's an unknown element, in a war zone, but she's as American as they come, and more. Plus, she really seems to hate Hydra. Goodness gracious. That fire."

A hint of admiration was in Bucky's tone, and it came across the bond as well. He wasn't even sure if Bucky was aware.

He knew Bucky already liked her—at least a little bit—and he wasn't quite sure how to feel about that. She seemed feisty enough, and was probably a good person. Smart, for sure. But…

He sighed and turned around in Bucky's arms, and framed the other man's face with his hands, sweeping his thumbs across his cheeks. He leaned in and pressed a kiss to the slightly shorter man's lips, lingering so that he could revel in the feel of him against his mouth, his hands. It was chaste, but that didn't matter. The love was there.

It always would be.

"I'll always love you. Just the same as before, Stevie. That will never change," Bucky whispered as he drew back. "We'll take it a day at a time. Now, are you ready to grab some breakfast? Everyone else has started in on the rations and I'm pretty sure Morita pulled out some of his salted jerky for us all. I know how much you like that stuff." He smiled at Steve, and suddenly Steve felt like everything would be okay. They had each other.

They could figure the rest of it out later.

Except…

"Have you looked for your new mark?" he asked Bucky quietly, though he couldn't help the note of jealousy he knew was creeping into his tone.

Bucky stepped back and pulled at the tie keeping his right pant leg tight around his boots. He rolled up the fabric, and there, in stark black, were words wrapping around his calf just below his knee.

November 10 th , 1944. 11:28pm. Ravenna, Italy.

"Yours are here." And Bucky straightened up and traced his finger against the back of Steve's skull, right behind his left ear. "Saw them a little while ago, but didn't wanna interrupt ya," he said, slightly sheepishly, affection carrying through the bond. "Don't worry, they're hidden, but ya might wanna keep your hair a little longer when you cut it. And I can do that for ya."

Steve could only nod, staring at the words on Bucky's skin.

He wished he'd seen them earlier.

Bucky fixed his pant leg, and then straightened and gave Steve a lingering kiss, hands rubbing up and down Steve's arms. "I love you, punk."

"Love you too, jerk," Steve whispered back. "Thank you."

Bucky kissed him again, softly, and then they turned around and walked towards the rest of the group.


Toni eyed the men around her with a sort of detached awe. In the soft morning light of early dawn she was able to take in the men around her with a lot more clarity than the darkness—and the subtle glow of her arc reactor—had provided. But clarity didn't wipe away the fact that she still couldn't quite believe she was in Italy, of all places. In fucking 1944.

Wow.

She was still having trouble with that fact.

Christ.

She was chewing on some of the best salted jerky she'd ever had—wasn't quite sure what meat it was, but it wasn't like she really cared; it was good—and taking everything in.

She was bundled up in her borrowed coat—a simple brown leather jacket, a little big in the arms and shoulders, but otherwise it fit quite well. She had it buttoned, covering her arc reactor, and she gripped her wrists with each hand.

Toni sighed wistfully as her fingers rubbed over the band, metal, and glass of her watch. She wanted to use it, to hear his comforting voice, but there was no place for that right now. That was something private.

Being here, being in the past… she hadn't even really considered what it would feel like in her fervor to actually get here. She'd never stopped to think about what she'd do when she got here, focusing on the science, the math, the philosophy of time travel. She'd been in so much of a hurry that she hadn't thought of the most important things.

Things she was realizing now.

Like what to do when she met her soulmate.

Soulmates. Plural.

Wow.

And what the fuck kind of twist of fate—cosmic joke—was it that she would be tied to Captain fucking America and his sidekick James fucking Barnes?

They were pretty cool, she thought, if one disregarded the cold shoulder Rogers had been giving her and the curious, calculating looks Bucky had been shooting her across the other sleeping forms the previous evening.

She was pretty sure she could like them, but…

They died.

She was bonded—even if not fully—to two walking dead men. Who would be dying within three months.

What the absolute fuck, world.

She was tied to two men who didn't make it out of the war. Steve Rogers sacrificed himself when he downed a plane full of Hydra's version of nuclear warheads.

There'd been rumors, of course, that implied he'd gone a little mad after seeing his soulmate fall from a Hydra train in the Alps, that he'd downed the plane because he didn't want to live in a world that didn't have James Barnes in it—platonic or not.

Toni suspected there had been more truth to it than she had originally assumed.

They were very obviously much more than platonic soulmates, though she supposed that homosexuality was not quite as accepted now as it was in 2009.

Hell; they were still a far cry from actual acceptance in 2009, on that topic, let alone on triad bonds—those were accepted far less than same-gender romantic bonds were, and that was saying something.

But obviously the Howling Commandos knew about the true nature of Steve and Bucky's bond; it was just the world at large that had never known.

It made her wonder who else had been in on that particular secret.

And yet they'd trusted her enough—despite Cap's accusation that her arc reactor was Hydra tech—to show the depth of their relationship to her last night. Maybe because of their unexpected—and unwelcome, judging by Rogers' attitude, she reminded herself sadly—soulbond. Maybe because she was a woman, but she didn't think so. They'd all eyed her with enough suspicion that she was sure they wouldn't underestimate a woman—and stories from Aunt Peggy had underscored that fact.

Oh.

Holy shit.

Aunt Peggy.

She could feel her mask slipping at the thought of seeing her Aunt Peggy again. Of seeing her without the cloud and haze of Alzheimer's making her forget her godchild more times than she remembered her.

She missed her, even though she was still there, even though she could still reach out and touch her.

Toni suddenly found herself wondering if there had been any truth to the rumors that Peggy and Steve had shared anything during the war. She remembered the film reels showing Captain America with a locket with Peggy's photo within it… but…

Well fuck me, Toni thought, amusement bubbling up within her.

Aunt Peggy had almost certainly known about Bucky and Steve's relationship. She was probably Steve's fucking beard.

Oh my god, that was fucking hilarious!

Go Aunt Peggy! Fight the man!

Toni's eyes crinkled, but she kept her laughter locked up tight—but oh man, she wanted to let loose. That was just too awesome.

"Mademoiselle?" A voice interrupted her thoughts, and she looked up quickly, startled only slightly, but recovering quickly and placing a soft smile upon her face.

"Bon matin, monsieur," she replied, recognizing the man immediately. He and the rest of the Howling Commandos—the Howlies, her father and godmother had called them, fondly—were nearly as familiar of features to her as Captain America. "Vous êtes Dernier, non? Jacques Dernier?"

She didn't even care if that was a little weird. Didn't care if they had heard her say she was from fucking 2009—wow, yet again—since she was sure they'd be told or would find out at some point anyway. The Howlies were close. They were loyal. She knew they wouldn't reveal anything personal about Rogers and Barnes—though she wasn't sure if they were going to tell the men or not about the soulbond—and would follow their lead as far as she went… unless she gave them good cause to distrust her.

And hell no. She wouldn't do that.

Fucking Nazis.

She'd help them kick Nazi ass as best she could.

If they let her follow them.

"Oui, Dernier," he replied, sitting down on the log beside her. He held up a pair of boots, and at a glance it looked like they would fit her smaller feet. "J'ai du chaussures pour vous. On a des vêtements si vous voulez aussi. Vous êtes…?"

"Je suis Toni." She didn't provide her last name. She wasn't really sure how she'd answer that when the time came, but it's not like she could say she was a Stark. Or even a Carter. Or a Carbonelli, like her mother was. If she encountered her father, and she said that was her last name… even that could change the future. Maybe… hm. Maybe Potts or Rhodes. Those could work, she mused idly.

With a shake of her head, she realized the man had placed a cup of coffee in her hands. She'd been so lost in thought she hadn't even seen that someone had handed her something—and that was something she tried to avoid at all cost.

"Merci," was all she said, though, before she took a sip of the warm coffee. She sighed happily as she felt it go down. She'd actually gotten some decent sleep, though the haze and fear of her nightmares still lingered on the edge of her consciousness, as always. The coffee was the cheap swill officers sometimes got to carry, and she knew it was a precious commodity for the men, so it meant a lot that they had given her a portion of their precious coffee.

Yuck. She'd have to go without as much coffee as usual. This was going to be fun.

She downed the rest of it, then grabbed the boots off of the ground, shoving her feet, covered by borrowed socks, inside. Hm, there was a little bit of space in the toes, but she could make up for that a little by tying the laces tightly.

The offer of clothes… well, for now her sweatpants and t-shirt would work, covered as she was in the warm and lined leather jacket, but maybe she'd grab some gloves from them later, and some clothes if these got too dirty. Later.

She stood up and took a few experimental steps. "Merci," she said again as she turned around. She caught sight of what he was fiddling with, and her eyes lit up.

"Oh! Vous avez des explosifs? Que'est-ce qu'ils font avec?"

Dernier's face lit up, and he quickly launched into an explanation of what type of explosives he used, including the miniature bomb that he was rolling idly in the palms of his hands. She eyed it, her hands itching to get ahold of it. As much as she was a futurist, old tech was unbelievably fascinating to her—including weapons.

Especially weapons.

She might have scrubbed the weapons division of Stark Industries, she might believe and desperately want world peace, but… well, they were in the middle of World War II. It's not like she could change that. She wasn't in control.

And boy did that rankle.

As she listened to Dernier enthusiastically detailing some of his most daring exploits with bombs and other explosives, she smiled.

She kept the smile on her face even as she saw her two men—no, nope, not hers, fuck, nobody wanted her, she'd show them what they were missing—stroll back into camp. They weren't touching, but they walked closer together than others would, and she could tell that they were comfortable together. That they knew each other intimately, in more ways than one. That they fought and lived side by side, and had done so for years.

There was no place for her there.

Unusually quiet for Toni, she observed and listened, and asked questions here and there as Dernier carried on, moving the conversation in interesting directions.

But her mind wandered.

Of course it did. It always did—her greatest curse and her greatest gift, in one.

She had to figure out what to do. Should she stay, should she help, should she find a way back to her rightful time?

She wasn't sure, and she hated that.


The morning had flown by. The men had gotten on their motorcycles, Dernier offering for her to ride with him—the captain had announced she'd be joining them, and the men had simply looked at her and given her welcoming smiles.

Much of their ride was on back roads, and there was no easy way to speak, or at least no easy way to hear when someone spoke. So she'd been alone with her thoughts.

Her lonely—even in the middle of a crowd she always felt lonely—thoughts.

Fuck her life.

Like, seriously.

Thoughts speeding through her at a million miles a minute, she took in the breathtaking scenery. It may have been November, may have been cold, and the land freezing, the leaves fallen… but it was beautiful. They were moving closer to the Alps looming above them, and she found her eyes returning to them often.

She leaned back on the bike, her hands gripping the bars on the edge of the seat, and let the wind stream through her loose hair.

No matter what… this was freeing.

She'd enjoy herself while she could. Make the most of it.

As much as you could in a warzone.

With the motherfucking Howling Commandos.

She let a grin play at her lips briefly.

Actually, this could be awesome.


"What do you mean…" she said slowly, eyeing the blond man in front of her through her narrowed gaze, "…you want me to stay here? I can help!"

Steve Rogers swallowed, and she tracked the bob of his Adam's apple with her eyes, momentarily distracted by that truly magnificent jawline—so sue her, she could fucking admire him even if she was mad at him—and shook herself, then looked up and met his eyes, catching them and holding them.

Good. She could still make men tremble with just a look.

Fuck him.

And not in a nice way.

"Is this because I'm a woman?" she asked softly, a dangerous lilt in her voice. She took a step closer, and saw the man's muscles twitch as if he wished to take a step back and away from her. "Or is it because you don't trust me? Or both?"

A burly man—Timothy Dugan, also known as Dum Dum Dugan—took a few steps in towards them, from where the rest of the group was watching the tense confrontation between Steve and Toni. "Ma'am," he began, clapping a large hand on Steve's shoulder. "I think what our captain is trying to say—in a not so great way, c'mon Rogers, really? —is that we are unused to fighting alongside others at the moment, and we are not sure of your capabilities." He eyed the knife that Toni had grabbed from Dernier's bags; the one she was twirling around the fingers of one hand with skill and grace.

"I bet you're damn good, ma'am—Toni," he corrected as she just looked at him. "But we're used to fighting with each other, not with you."

Toni pondered his words, looking from man to man as she did. Most of them had varying degrees of respect on their features—though probably mostly because she was making the captain twitch, she thought amusedly—but Barnes just looked like he wanted to fucking laugh.

At who, she wasn't sure, but she could sense a shade of amusement in her mind from him.

She felt her lips twitch upward, just slightly, and she stepped back, finally releasing her glare.

She expertly tossed the knife into her other hand and held her right out to Dugan. He gripped it firmly, and then released it, and she nodded at him as she stepped back a few more steps so that she could perch on a fence post. "That's acceptable and fair," she told him, ignoring the captain, who honestly looked a little put out—and felt that way, too.

"We can always use another pair of eyes, as well, Toni, if you'd like. I've got a pair of binoculars here somewhere…" Bucky muttered as he started to look through the pockets of his bike's saddlebags.

Binoculars? Toni sighed as she eyed the sniper rifle that was Bucky's backup, strapped onto the edge of the bike.

She would be so much more useful with that than a pair of fucking binoculars. What the fuck. It wasn't like she was going to fucking shoot them with it if they gave her a gun.

But whatever.

She could grab it when they left for the base, and when Bucky moved to the sniper's nest he'd already plotted out.

"Fine," she muttered, only semi-graciously. She snatched the binoculars out of his hands, flinching only slightly when their fingers grazed. Steve gave Barnes, then her, a sharp, unreadable look, and he was too faint in her mind for her to make heads nor tails out of his thoughts.

"See you boys later," she said flippantly. Then more sincerely, "Good luck."

They muttered their thanks, and off they went, Toni just watching their backs as they went off on an adventure.

Without her.

The past fucking sucked so far.

But maybe she could show them what she could do later.

Yeah. Yeah, she could do that.

She smiled at the thought. She could run with the best of them—or, well, she could with her suit, at least. But it wasn't like she was helpless out of the suit either. She'd turned the tables on a number of kidnappers in her thirty-eight years of life, even as a child.

Nope. Not helpless.

Jarvis—oh how she missed the real Jarvis—had arranged for her to have hand-to-hand lessons as a child. Actually, he'd arranged for a lot more than that, including shooting lessons with his wife, so that she could better protect Toni. And damn if Mrs. Jarvis hadn't been amazing with that shotgun of hers… But hand to hand was the main thing, and boxing was her favorite, and the one she'd continued well into adulthood. At least until recently, after… after fucking Afghanistan—she practically growled at the thought—when she started to train in mixed combat. Mixed martial arts, Happy said. Whatever.

Fact was, she could kick ass.

She'd show fucking Rogers.

It was forty minutes later, as she was making another sweep with the binoculars over the lands around the Hydra outpost, that a convoy of three large military trucks came around the bend in the road on the opposite side of the facility.

And there was no doubt they were Hydra.

There was no change in the feelings coming through the thin bond. They must not have notice. Bucky must have gone inside.

Oh fuck.

And then she realized she didn't have anything she could use to indicate to the Howling Commandos that something was wrong. In her ire she hadn't even thought to ask if they had a whistle or a bird call or a light or anything that she could use to notify them.

Double fuck.

Toni backed away slowly from the ledge, careful not to rustle the underbrush and bushes, and then she raced towards the motorcycles, mind already planning what weapons left behind would be of the most use to her.

Chapter Text

Shit.

Shit, fuck, shit—

Calm down… calm! Toni told herself, interrupting her own internal monologue. Or rather, interrupting her internal freak out.

She could do this. She could—even without her suit she could do this. She was smart enough to figure out a way, at least.

The motorcycles had been left a fair distance into the forest, away from the Hydra base, camouflaged by bushes a dozen yards off of the back road they'd traveled on. It took her nearly five minutes of running to get there. She might have been able to run faster, once upon a time, but the arc reactor had done irreparable damage to her lung size and strength—and for running full out you definitely needed those things to be at an optimum level of health.

Which hers weren't.

But it wasn't like she couldn't overcome that little hurdle all on her own. She'd faced worse odds.

Five minutes wasn't the three minutes she likely could have made the run in, however, and that thought grated on her even as she was trying to remember all the weapons she'd seen—and had guessed—going into their bags or hanging off of racks on the side of the bikes, and which ones were likely to still be there.

That thought was spinning in there, knowing that every second she delayed was another second that Hydra had the advantage.

And she hadn't felt anything from either man in that small little spot in her brain that was their nascent bond. Ever since they'd first touched skin to skin, there had been a little part of her mind that was constantly aware of them, and could feel them, when they were awake or asleep. But this… there was nothing except the knowledge that they were both alive.

Something was definitely wrong.

Well, more wrong than a Hydra convoy unexpectedly showing up.

Toni nearly turned the wrong way at the creek they'd passed on the way to the top of the ridge. She paused for a moment, shoulders heaving as she tried to pull air into her distressed lungs—Christ, she really wished she had stayed in even slightly better shape—as she turned her head back and forth, finally settling on a direction, and then she was off again. The cool air of the afternoon was a blessing, but the borrowed military boots had her feet moving around too much inside of them.

She'd live.

The men might not.

Arguably, they should survive anyway, because the Howling Commandos survived the war—aside from their captain and one of their sergeants—but what if Toni's mere presence in the past had already caused irreversible damage to the timeline? What if they had approached this base differently because of her? What if they had—

"Shut the fuck up," she snarled at herself.

She had enough shit on her mind, and knew herself enough, that she couldn't afford to get lost in the mire that was that line of questioning.

She nearly tumbled over one of the motorcycles but she caught sight of it at the last second, skidding to a stop right before she hit it.

She quickly divested herself of her borrowed jacket, leaving herself clad in just her Black Sabbath t-shirt, her sweats, and the borrowed boots and socks. The jacket would have been useful to wear to keep ammo close at hand, but it was long in the sleeves and too baggy and thus would get in the way if she needed to do some close combat. It would do well enough if she filled it up and brought it along with her, dumping it in a spot she could easily come back to.

Choosing not to disturb the branches covering the bikes unless she absolutely needed to, Toni started to root through the saddlebags, pulling things out and strewing them haphazardly upon the ground as she came across anything interesting or that may be of use.

Only a minute of frantic searching later, Toni stepped back and surveyed what was lying in front of her in the light that was able to pierce the tree canopy above.

"Hot damn," Toni whispered to herself. "These guys sure know how to pack a punch. Oh this is going to be fun!" She let herself laugh, just for a moment, and then set to quickly grabbing what guns, knives, explosives, and ammo she might possibly use, pocketing them in the jacket or in the two pockets of her sweatpants. She tightened the drawstring so she wouldn't suddenly give someone a—admittedly spectacular—view of her ass, and then slung Barnes' backup rifle over her head, settling it comfortably on her back.

Toni took a deep breath, eyes darting over the other items strewn about, and then glanced at her watch. "Ah fuck, JARVIS, I wish I could hear your voice right now. But shit, I need to be quiet for once in my superhero career, y'know? I wish I had my suit. I wish I had you. But I can't. Not right now." She twisted her lips in something passable as a small smile. "Maybe later, okay?"

Then she took off running again.

She spared a single thought towards how fucking ridiculous it was for her to be running with fucking grenades and bombs bouncing around in the jacket she held in her arms, but dismissed it pretty quickly. She'd placed them as carefully as she could and made sure the jacket was wrapped well so that they wouldn't move around.

They were built to be transported, at least. Except she wasn't quite so sure about that… whatever it was that she had grabbed out of Dernier's bag.

Well… she liked living on the edge.

A rather manic grin pulled at her lips for a moment before she was back to trying not to pass out from running so hard and so quickly.

Finally, she reached the ridge and crouched down to view what was happening down there, outside the base.

She was just in time to see the tail end of a group of soldiers running inside the compound, their shouts loud enough to hear from where she was.

"Fuck," Toni bit out.

They'd left behind a few guards who stood by the three trucks from the convoy, their eyes constantly roving. They were holding weapons she'd never seen before that were—

Blue. Blue like her fucking arc reactor. "Christ, no wonder Ste—Rogers accused me of being Hydra," she muttered, not liking the idea that she might have been wrong for going off on him the way she had.

Whatever. No time for that.

Right.

"Okay… what do I do? Come on Toni, use that fucking brain of yours," she chastised herself, even as her mind whirred. "You're letting the fact that you're used to your suit now keep you from backdoor tactics—wait. That's it!" Toni barely kept her voice down at the last moment, her mind finally settling on something.

Iron Man tactics.

All flash, no subtlety to speak of.

Toni grinned, and then pushed the jacket aside a little more, pulling the rifle from her back by its sling. She set it down, barrel on the jut of earth that rose up again right before it dipped down into the valley. It was enough of a lip that Toni didn't need a tripod to act as her gun rest, and she splayed herself down on her stomach—propped up on her elbows so that she didn't put pressure on the arc reactor—so that she could see through the fixed scope of the M1C. Not as accurate as a scope sighted in for her, but it would do in a pinch.

It wasn't a bad gun, she thought idly. But she could do better.

Had done better, in fact.

The arc reactor was an excellent reminder of her weaponry-filled past.

"No time for this, what the fuck, Toni?" she said. "Okay, let's see…"

She peered through the scope. Three guards. She could definitely do this. Her father and Jarvis both had made sure she knew her guns, and she had kept her skills sharp.

She could do this. But it had to be quick.

Rolling and popping her neck to relieve the pressure that had built up there, Toni finally breathed in, breathed out… breathed in…

And on the last exhale, she pulled the trigger.

"Shit," she muttered, but kept her calm, readying herself for another shot quickly as her mind promptly adjusted for the wind that was a little stronger in the valley than where she was perched approximately 150 yards out and up. She missed the first time due to said fact, but she got him through the throat the second time.

There was no time to gloat; she simply adjusted the rifle slightly, sighted in again, and then—

The second went down, a bullet through his temple—what kind of fucking moron didn't wear a helmet?

Finally the third went down, again through the head, within twenty seconds of the first shot, her brain told her.

"Excellent," Toni breathed out on her last shaky exhale. She waited a few moments to see if anyone was going to come out. Once assured that the coast was clear, she stood and slung the rifle onto her back again, picking up the jacket as she went.

She needed to get the others out of the base, but on her timetable. Thus the guards needing to go.

"'Iron man, yes, Toni Stark, not recommended' my left foot!" Toni whooped. "Take that, cabbage patch!"

She let herself bask momentarily in the exhilaration, the rush of it all, and then half ran, half slid down the slope and into the valley, her mind reaching out and brushing against the blankness that was still her connection to the two men.

Her soulmates.

Wow. Again, wow.

"No fucking time for that, Toni," she snapped, even as she jogged from the base of the slope and towards the three trucks. "Save them, rescue the fuckers, crow about the silly woman from the future having to rescue their antiquated asses, and then think about it. Okay? Okay."

Flinging the back cloth of one of the trucks open, she stared inside at the benches. The empty benches. The ones that were probably inside.

Hopefully the trucks hadn't been full, but they probably were.

"Ah shit," she bit out.

Same with the second.

The third, however…

Toni tilted her head, knowing the clock was ticking, but still unable to look away.

The third truck was filled with tech. Some beyond what she knew the 1940s could offer. It was—it… damn if it wasn't alluring. Calling her name.

She wanted to jump in and peruse, take her time with it, see what there was to offer, and understand why in the hell she wasn't familiar with a number of the pieces she could see just from her spot on the ground, peering in.

She knew old tech—and this wasn't anything she knew.

How could she have missed this?

Nope. No time. Damn it.

She pouted and then quickly looked inside—rather covetously—one last time, trying to see if anything was combustible—she couldn't tell with a hundred percent certainty, but she didn't think there was anything. She wanted to draw attention outside, not blow herself or the base sky high before the Howlies could get out.

She sort of wanted to survive all this. That really wasn't too much to ask for, was it?

Shaking herself out of her thoughts and setting herself back on task, Toni backed up towards one of the cinderblock sheds beside the main building, set the jacket and the rifle safely down around the corner, and laid out five hand grenades within easy reach. Baratol-filled Mills bombs from Britain. Not bad. A far smaller fragmentation pattern than anything she had made, but for WWII… a pretty good choice, actually.

Toni took a knee. She then picked up one of the grenades, eyeballing it quickly. She wasn't quite sure what the delay of the mechanism was with such a quick look, but, well, she supposed she'd find out. She'd plan for four seconds instead of seven.

She yanked the pin from the first—one—threw it as far as she could, picked up the second—two—pulled the pin and threw it in the same direction—three—and then used her bent leg to throw herself behind the shed—

Four.

And the first grenade went off.

FiveSix.

And the second.

Following close on the heels of the second explosion was a huge rush of heat, and she could see the grass rustling in a strong gust of wind even as shrapnel flew by.

Toni closed her eyes at the first glimpse of the shrapnel, and as she heard the thuds of some pieces being buried in the dirt, she found herself shoving her head between her knees.

She heard the blood rushing in her ears and she felt dizzy, but she was able to keep herself calm, keep herself grounded, by brushing her mind loosely against the part of her brain that was the connection to her two soulmates. She nearly hadn't tried, but as she felt panic starting to tug at her, starting to drown her—as the images and sounds of Afghanistan started to sink their claws into her in ways that hadn't happened to her since before she'd made her armor. After the cave, after she'd gained a layer of protection that she currently didn't have…

As she felt the panic pull at her, she could feel the two men wake up—or come out of whatever the hell had happened to them—and she latched onto the feeling like a lifeline. Like a buoy, keeping her head out of the ocean depths.

They weren't aware of her, and she could barely feel them, in return, but that had been pretty much normal for the—wow, was it really just less than a day that she'd known them?

She wasn't quite sure what was normal, right then.

Pretty much everything was abnormal.

About everything.

But at least the abnormality had saved her from collapsing in an utterly embarrassing way. At least she'd been given something else to think about.

Pepper would say—

No, best not to think about that. That was a whole other kettle of fish.

She had other things to focus on.

Other things to blow up—and if that wasn't the best therapy, then she didn't know what was.

Talk therapy? Her? No thanks! Been there, got the t-shirt, didn't fucking work.

Not sure exactly how much time had been lost—the roar of the fire was still going strong—Toni finally peeked her head around the corner to stare at the blaze.

Huh.

Well, that wasn't really supposed to happen with a fragmentation grenade. It must have been whatever was in that third Hydra truck.

At least she hadn't died.

Though it might have been worth it—she hadn't had this much fun in a while, untainted by actually nearly dying, and it felt good.

She took a moment to bask in the glory of the destruction of enemy property—and enemy death, but she didn't fucking feel bad, because they were fucking Nazis, and Hydra at that—and then she heard the sound of raised voices.

Oh goodie.

More Nazi ass to kick.

Or shoot. Whatever worked. She didn't much care as long as they were dead.

Toni grabbed two knives and stuck them in the top of her combat boots—thankfully in their sheaths—along with the other two that were in each boot, and then paused a moment to grab the rifle as her gun of choice. At least for the moment.

Kneeling back down in the grass, Toni tucked herself against the side of the shed so that she had the best possible angle with the least amount of exposure—and waited.

A group of—at least, because she wasn't sure how many might still be coming—nine Hydra soldiers came out of the base. The first two Toni was able to pick off easily, as them and two others had ran out and then immediately stopped, but the remaining five were much more cautious after the first two had suddenly keeled over with the sound of her rifle slightly louder than the abating flames.

The other two who had accompanied the now absolutely dead men had thrown themselves back towards the rest of the group, and Toni could tell that they were trying to regroup and figure out what to do.

Seven to go. At least for now.

She couldn't let them go back into the base and gather any possible remaining soldiers to come. Sure, she would like as many of them to come outside and away from the Howlies—she still wasn't sure what had happened to Barnes and Rogers—but now that the element of surprise had been taken from her with, y'know, the explosions and fire and, well, gunfire—yep, now they were shooting back at her, hooray!—she'd much rather deal with them in small groups.

If there were more of them, that is.

Always best to assume there were. It's how you stayed alive, she'd learned.

Plus, it was like supervillains had some bunny breeding program for their goons. It was, frankly, rather ridiculous how many people moonlit as Henchman #X.

She was able to take down two more before they realized what she was hiding behind, and three started to shoot back at her with their pistols—joke was on them because she knew what the accuracy range was on those things—as the other two turned away from the entrance to the base and disappeared back into the halls of the facility.

Well, that probably wasn't a very good thing.

She needed to get rid of these three as soon as she could.

Toni grabbed another grenade, knowing she wouldn't quite reach the entrance that was about sixty feet away. She still stood up, pulled the pin, and then chucked it as hard as she could over the shed in the general vicinity of the base's entrance.

She could practically feel the fragmentation occur, and a grin pulled her lips back in what was probably more a snarl than a smile.

Looking around the corner, she could see one man down, and the other two were nowhere in sight. They had likely been more observant than their now-dead fellow soldier and had ducked back into the base.

Toni figured it was as good a time as any to start moving towards the base's entrance. There was another, smaller set of doors that was used as an emergency exit for the base, according to the Howlies' information, apparently, but she wasn't too worried about them coming out and circling around her. It could only be reached from the lowest level of the compound, so anyone who knew that something was going on up here would have a long way to go to flank her.

She placed the rifle down on the ground, picked up two handguns—double-checking to see if they were loaded first, because wouldn't that be embarrassing, and making sure the correct ammunition was in her pocket—and then swiftly moved out from behind the shed, crouched low as she ran. It was always such a fucking awkward way to run, she thought idly, but it was safest in this situation.

"That is a mighty fine fire, if I do say so myself," Toni half-laughed at herself as she ran. "Which, of course, I do say—yikes!"

Toni darted behind part of one of the truck's engine blocks as she saw two soldiers confidently step out from the base—and who the fuck wouldn't be confident when you sported a goddamn death ray—and fire in her direction.

It was a fucking death ray—or ray gun, whatever—because the grass that hadn't been scorched already had just, well, died.

The blue part only worked in its favor, as well.

She shuddered to think what would happen if she was hit by one of those, and then suddenly remembered a little tidbit her godmother had accidentally let slip decades ago—in the future?

Ugh, what a headache.

But she remember Aunt Peggy telling her about something blue, some weapon, and then her father had shot her a quelling look. Toni had only been four at the time, and she had thought Peggy was talking about a weapon painted blue… it wasn't until just now that she made the connection.

So that was what Aunt Peggy had been talking about. The powerful blue weapon that she and others had been so afraid of.

Well shit. If her Aunt Peggy had been afraid—or, well, as afraid as Peggy could be afraid…

Toni suddenly found herself wishing she'd grabbed one of the remaining grenades before she'd run over here like an idiot, but she'd make do with what she had.

She took a firm grip of one of the pistols, setting the other on the ground because she knew she couldn't quite handle the recoil with one hand—the guns were older than her and… wait, ugh, time travel—and snuck a glance around the edge of the engine block.

They must have stepped inside the protection of the entrance again, because there was nobody there.

Then she darted out, running as fast as she could towards the open doorway. The two men with the blue guns stepped out, and time seemed to slow down, and her breathing seemed too calm, too controlled for someone who wasn't so sure they'd be able to survive the next few seconds.

She raised her gun with both hands, fired, hit the one on the left in the shoulder—shit, these guns really kicked—from about fifteen feet out, pulled the hammer back and hit him in the skull with the next shot.

But she'd wasted a shot with the unfamiliar gun, and the second man was turning towards her, and her eyes widened as they met his equally-wide gaze, and she had a moment of surreality to realize that the man with a damn death ray slash ray gun was just as frightened as she was and then—

The man simply crumpled.

Toni nearly got shot in the face because she was so startled, but she was nothing if not a fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants kind of girl, and so she was able to meet the two remaining two soldiers—well, one at least—with a bullet to the heart—or lungs, she didn't quite care which because they were both as deadly out here in the countryside.

One more.

But then her gun was knocked from her grip and she was forced to grapple with the remaining soldier for his own. Toni blocked his arm with her forearm as he tried to swing his gun around to shoot her after using it to knock her own out of her hands. She then reached over and gripped his arm with her free hand, pulling the first arm around so she could grab his with that hand as well, and then twisted.

The man shrieked in a decidedly pleasing way, and Toni released her grip just long enough to reach for a knife in each boot, coming back up quickly with two underhand thrusts.

He hit her with a glancing blow high up on her jaw, but it was only enough to sting and throb and—okay, well, maybe he'd hit her just a little harder than she'd thought he had. But she still completed the arc of her thrusts, with only a slight hesitation.

The nauseating feel—she'd never liked knives, but had been happy to know how to use them on a couple of notable occasions—of the knives sliding into the man's gut through his clothes was cut short as a bullet tore through one side of the man's head and out the other.

At that point she had sort of been expecting it—was even glad of it.

It meant Bucky was alright. Because who the hell else besides James Barnes was confident enough to make that shot with a breeze in the valley, at least 350 yards out at his location, with a moving target, and one who was grappling hand to hand with an ally.

A soulmate.

Because if he'd hit her, even with their lesser soulbond, and killed her…

Toni pulled herself away from the thought and straightened up, giving a thumbs up in the direction from where the bullet had come from, and sent a thanks towards him through their bond.

Even if he wasn't able to feel it, well, it was the thought that counted, right?

She was sure he'd seen the thumbs up through his scope, however. And probably the big grin she had plastered on her face, half from the adrenaline rush, and half from gratefulness, and half from nerves.

Wait. That was three halves—

"Shut up, Toni." Even the sound of her voice was breathless, and she took a moment—but only one—before she composed herself. She gripped the knife in her hand, and was about to pick up her dropped gun when movement caught her eye in the doorway barely ten feet away.

Her arm was pulled back to throw one of her blades before she could even think, but the sight of Falsworth had her skewing her angle at the last second.

The blade clattered against the stone wall just to the side of the man, and Toni was very nearly fired upon.

She likely would've been if she hadn't yelled out, "It's me!" immediately after she spotted him. And, well, cut her some slack—maybe using her name would have been a better idea, because how the hell did they know who 'me' was?

She dropped her other knife and then held up her empty hands for him to see, and he nodded at her once before calling out behind him, "It's just Toni, boys. Move it!"

The men were still on alert, keeping their weapons at the ready just in case there were more Hydra soldiers around, she knew. They slowly exited the base, but kept against the building with Morita keeping an eye down the hall they'd just exited.

As soon as Toni caught a glimpse of Steve Rogers being supported between Gabe Jones and Timothy Dugan, she moved towards them quickly, all other thoughts escaping her besides him—and wasn't that an event to be celebrated, Rhodey would've said.

He was awake, though looking rather pale and dazed, and there was blood covering his uniform in pretty much most places that there wasn't a tear or a hole or a stain from grime and dirt. His shield was being carried by Morita.

She was barely aware of the men whistling as they surveyed the destruction she—and Bucky; she could give him like… five percent of the credit—had left in her wake, more focused on Steve and ascertaining for herself that he was alright.

"What happened?" she asked softly, one hand reaching out towards him before she snatched it back.

Mask. Mask, mask, mask! she yelled at herself internally. But thinking one thing wasn't the same as doing it.

Toni was only able to put a neutral expression on, instead of the fake one she'd been gunning—hah—for.

There was just something about this man that pushed all her buttons and lowered all of her walls. She could tell that already. They would either get along great, or kill each other before Steve even had the chance of killing himself in that stupid fucking plane—nope she wasn't bitter at all, what're you talking about?

Steve was giving her a funny look, even through the pain of his injury, and she had to assume that someone had already answered her question without her even hearing them.

"Sorry, can you repeat that?" she asked as evenly as she could.

"Got stabbed," Steve answered her. "By a fu—by a sword. Who the he—" He cleared his throat. "Who has a sword, anymore?"

"Well, at least your wit wasn't a casualty," Toni replied dryly, the man's near-cussing humoring her greatly and allowing her to step back, clutching her hands together behind her back. "And you are going to be fun trying to get to swear!"

Dugan laughed loudly, and Toni just lifted an eyebrow at him before she turned and started walking back towards the shed to retrieve her stockpile of goodies. "So that's what happened to you and Barnes." Whoops, well if the Howlies hadn't figured it out already, they would now. "At least your serum will heal you up quickly, you lucky super soldier," she added quickly, before she could think, eager to move on from the topic of her obvious rejection.

Only silence greeted her and she paused, looking back over her shoulder at the group of men staring at her with expressions ranging from shocked to angry to upset to suspicious—the last, of course, being fucking Steve.

"What did I say?" she asked, honestly bewildered for one of the few times in her life.

Chapter Text

As soon as he saw the men—his men, his boys, his fucking idiots, thank God—emerge from the tomb he'd feared for a fleeting moment the base would become, Bucky grabbed his rifle and high-tailed it down to where Toni and the other Howlies were facing off.

Again.

What the hell had he done to deserve this insanity?

Could they not be civil for a damn second?

Thankfully he was adept at avoiding obstacles and so he made it through the forest and the brush, and down the steep valley hillside without any incident. He was quick, so hopefully he could stem off the feeling of anger and incredulity that Steve was obviously feeling.

He was, thankfully, all too used to Steve being angry and incredulous about something—damned punk with his goddamned opinions getting into fights all the damn time—and relished in the familiar feeling. The shock of pain and unconsciousness from Steve's end of the bond had overwhelmed him with its unfamiliarity and left him so dazed he could barely see straight.

It had never happened like that before—not even when Steve had been sick when they were little and Father Johnson had given Stevie his last rites—the first two times—and it certainly hadn't happened during a mission.

He'd have to have words with Steve.

Thankfully he'd managed to pull himself together in time to catch the mayhem that Toni had wreaked.

A fucking sight to behold, honestly.

And then he'd gathered himself together, took aim, and quickly taken out two of Hydra's scum soldiers.

Then… then there was only Steve.

He'd caught sight of his Stevie, and his entire world had tilted, his heart pumping so loudly that all he could hear was the loud rush of blood in his ears. He'd seen the way Steve was being supported by the guys, the way his uniform was torn and bloodied and all he'd been able to think about was that he had to get to him.

Protect, protect, protect.

The fact that Steve was most likely spectacularly putting his foot in his mouth again did not register until he was zigzagging through the trees, trying to remind his frantic hindbrain, which was crying out for the reassuring touch of his soulmate, that Steve would already be healing.

Even if he did put his foot in his mouth—which he would, fucking dumbass that he was—Toni and the Howlies would have no issue berating him.

Thankfully Steve saw him coming, and the man snapped his jaw shut only to let it blossom into a relieved grin at the sight of Bucky barreling towards him.

He flicked his gaze towards Toni briefly, the itch in their bond demanding he reassure himself of her health and safety too, and noticed a small smile on her face, though guarded, composed… protective.

He had little time to analyze the smile though, skidding to a stop inches before he'd slam into Steve.

Steve first.

Always Steve first.

Dugan and Jones released Steve's upper arms the moment Bucky came within reach and stepped aside, both too used to Steve and Bucky's frantic energy after battle.

Steve barely managed to utter a soft 'thank you' before Bucky's hands were finally on him, and he could reassure himself by pressing one hand to Steve's chest, just above the large, alarming tear in Steve's uniform, counting his steady heartbeat as he cradled Steve's jaw with his other hand, thumb absently rubbing at a spot of dirt on his soulmate's cheek.

He took a moment to steady himself before gingerly moving his hands across Steve's body, ascertaining that he was alright—or, at least, that he wasn't in danger of keeling over and bleeding out.

"God damn it, Steve," Bucky exclaimed as he bent over to peel back the layers of Steve's stupid uniform where it had been severed above his right hip, leaving a nasty gash across Steve's creamy skin. "What did I tell ya about picking fights ya can't win, ya damn punk? Hell, what did they hit you with? I felt it all the way up in my nest—knocked me clean out, Stevie! Musta packed one hell of a punch!" He peered closer, and then looked up at Steve, who was actively trying to look anywhere but at Bucky.

Bucky had enough experience with Steve to know that meant one thing.

He narrowed his eyes and then slowly straightened himself up from his crouch. "Didya get stabbed with something again, Stevie? You know I'll ask Dugan and he won't lie ta me."

He nodded towards the man, who looked less than pleased to be included in the interaction, and glared at his goddamned stupid punk, waiting for the answer he knew would come.

"A sword," the blond murmured.

What.

"A what?" Bucky drew back a bit, startled, peering at Steve.

"A sword," Steve repeated, a bit louder, that stubborn set to his jaw Bucky knew so well starting to take shape on his features.

Dugan suddenly interjected, rather gleefully, Bucky thought, "He ran into a room without the shield because he thought Dernier needed some immediate assistance."

Steve practically deflated, and his pale cheeks gained a hint of pink embarrassment to them beneath the blood and dirt.

"You what?" Bucky asked incredulously. "Why'dya have to go and pull a dumb stunt like that, you dumb punk?"

But Bucky knew.

He was intimately aware of what Steve was like and, honestly, he wouldn't have him any other way.

Someday soon, though, Bucky was afraid Steve would run into a fight he couldn't win without Bucky to pull him out, and that would be the last of the luck he'd been bestowed with. Bucky never wanted to see that day, but at the same time… Steve was Steve.

And that… that was Steve, too.

It would not stop him from scolding his stupid, brilliant, idiot within an inch of his life, though—and the men, too, when he was finished with Steve.

He had learned from the best—Sarah Rogers had been formidable when chewing out her boy for picking fights and coming home with bloody lips and bruised knuckles.

"No wait, never mind." Bucky threw his hands in the air. "I don't even care—I oughta tan your hide, you punk!"

"Buck..." Steve smiled at him, all soft lips and blue eyes, even if it was a little pained, and Bucky couldn't help but to swoop in and plant a soft kiss on his lips, and then one to his forehead before he pulled away.

"Alright, well whatever the hell else you lot were planning to fight about can wait," Bucky ordered. "Dernier's been gone a few minutes and he's walking towards us at a fairly fast clip, so it's probably safe to assume the charges are set and we need to leave."

Everyone set to gathering their gear, including some of the readily available Hydra tech, and started walking as swiftly as they could with an injured soldier—and even enhanced individuals like Steve walked slower when they'd been stabbed with a goddamn sword—towards their bikes.

Halfway through the forest towards their vehicles, the base blew.

It was always satisfying to blow up a Hydra base, but the look on Dernier's face was nearly to die for.

But Toni… The glimpse of Toni's practically feral grin when the place blew was something to behold as well.


It was late evening by the time they pulled into an abandoned barn. It was one they'd used a number of times in the past, and was boarded up well enough that they could risk a small fire. It was a good thing, too, because the night was set to be a cold one, and they would need to bunch up together near the fire, and use as much of the hay that wasn't moldy as they could for warmth and insulation.

November outside of Ravenna wasn't always so harsh, they'd been told, but they had also been warned to expect the occasional freeze.

By the time Steve had pulled himself off of the back of Bucky's bike, stiff and sore, his ego only a little bruised when Bucky had to help him off, his anger had cooled. Just like his wound had healed—mostly, but he would be right as rain after sleep and a night's rest.

Once he and Bucky—he loved his man, but there was no way he was sitting idle without ensuring himself that the location was secure, and so Bucky tagged along, walking closer than Steve would like right then—returned from scouting the perimeter, Dugan went to set himself up outside, and Steve and his shadow walked into the barn to join the rest of the Howlies… and Toni.

Toni who was an enigma, despite—or perhaps because of—the little she had told them about herself. She had helped them, and yet she had no reason to help them other than the bond that had etched itself into their minds and consciousness, but that had not stopped bondmates from attacking each other before…

Steve would never forget the look on little Dolores Crawley's face when her soulmate sweetheart turned around and left her for Mrs. Lahey's rich widowed cousin.

Soulbonds did not guarantee loyalty, contrary to popular belief.

But, Toni had helped. She had seemed out of place, out of time—which would be an unbelievable concept except for… well, Hydra. And the serum, too, truth be told. Everything he'd seen so far actually made the concept more plausible.

She was hiding something, though. Or, at least, keeping secrets. He'd had time to think while Bucky rode and, after grouching to himself that he'd had to let Toni ride his motorcycle, Bucky's orders, he'd pondered the entire concept of time travel.

He wasn't stupid. When he was small, no one had even stopped to consider that he was intelligent—just that he seemed to be a troublemaker, righteous indignation be damned. Never mind that he observed, he watched, he knew what was going on amongst every family, every kid, every bully around him. He watched, and then he acted, protecting those who deserved it, and starting fights with those who deserved it.

People preferred to look at the fighting, the poverty, the sickness, and his overall weakness. They preferred to say it was because he'd grown up without a father—that his mother, God rest her soul, should have done right by her boy and remarried, even though it was a miracle that she survived a broken soulbond altogether.

Joseph Rogers had died a hero, but no one liked to look at it like that.

And when he became… this, Captain America… first he had been their damn dancing monkey, and all anybody saw was the propaganda.

Becoming a real soldier had been the turning point, but even so, outside of his men and the 107th, and the command group he reported to with the SSR… people still saw the persona, the muscles, the blond and blue-eyed man he had become.

They saw what they wanted to see.

Bucky liked to tease that people were finally seeing the part of him that Bucky had always seen, and that made it… better, somehow. But also as if the world was peering into something private between the two of them.

And Steve Rogers was a jealous man.

Hence… this.

Bucky and Steve checked each other over for injuries in the corner, and then watched as Dernier approached Toni, asking in hushed tones if she were alright and if she needed any of their medical supplies.

Her answer was obvious even if they couldn't hear her, the set of her shoulders and jaw much like how Bucky liked to describe Steve. Stubborn. Just like him.

Maybe they were more a match than he'd thought at first—but two stubborn people could be like a fire in a Brooklyn tenement. Barely controllable, and often destructive and deadly.

It… didn't necessarily have to be that way, however.

Surely they could learn to get along, at least as long as it took for them to part ways?

"Toni," he called out, just loud enough for her to hear. When she looked his way, he motioned at Bucky and him. "Come sit with us."

She looked as if she were about to ignore him, them, but then she was moving towards them and plunking herself down beside them, though closest to the fire.

Fine with him; he'd had a hard time truly feeling cold since the serum.

Speaking of…

He opened his mouth to speak, but Bucky had reached his hand forward and touched her cheek, lightly turning it towards him. It was then that Steve finally saw the bruise that was swiftly mottling the tanned skin of Toni's cheek, and into her unruly hairline.

Steve was surprised by what Bucky said, then. "You'll be alright. I'm sure you've taken worse in stride before this."

It wasn't his soulmate's usual coddling that Steve had been subjected to hundreds of times. No, instead… and with the look on Toni's face, he understood…

Toni was a survivor, and pointing out her injuries was belittling of her experiences.

He could understand that.

Steve shot Bucky a look as he pulled his hand back, but he ignored what had just happened rather than calling further attention to it. But the simple care, the simple touch and words, they put into perspective what Steve needed to say.

"Thank you," Steve said softly.

Toni blinked at him, her blank mask easing back over her features. And that frustrated him, for reasons he could not even begin to comprehend. .

When she didn't respond, he tried again. "Thank you for stepping in when you did. Bucky says you really knew what you were doing, and held your own against at least nine soldiers, and, well…" He looked off to the side, not quite able to meet her gaze.

Dames. No matter where or when they came from, he was still totally inept at speaking with dames.

"Just… thanks. You helped. A lot." And then he clammed up, looking at her, then Bucky, then the wall, then the fire, then Bucky, and finally back to Toni, just in time to catch a flippant look take over her features.

"No problem-o at all, Cap. Always wanted to rescue a dude-in-distress. Thanks for giving me the opportunity!" And then she winked—winked!—at him!

Bucky snorted, and Steve was left gaping, wondering what the hell she was implying.

No, he knew what she was saying.

He just couldn't help but feel flustered, and so he grasped for something—anything—that would get him out of the situation.

Well… they did have some things that needed discussing.

And they'd left them too long.

Steve pinched the bridge of his nose, and then immediately regretted it, realizing that his hands were still stained and greasy from their fight in the Hydra base. He sighed, but carried on, leaving the smear of grease where it was.

They'd all get a proper cleaning tomorrow, anyway.

"Look…" Steve started, carefully thinking of his words. "I'm sorry we all sort of… got angry when you mentioned the serum. The… project." At this point he could tell that the rest of the Howlies were listening in from their places not too far away at the fire. He knew that they could hear, but, well… it's not like they had anything to hide from each other anymore.

Toni, on the other hand…"It's highly classified information. The boys aren't even supposed to know," he nodded towards his team, who diligently pretended they weren't eavesdropping.

He still wasn't looking her in the eye, instead focusing on the scuffed toe of her too large right boot. "It never even crossed my mind that someone from… you know—" He motioned vaguely with one hand, encompassing the concept of being from the future. "—would have that sort of information. Is it… common knowledge in… where you come from?"

He was still struggling with that concept. He still hadn't seen enough to believe her one way or the other, but… she hadn't betrayed them yet.

Yet.

"It's… not," Toni replied thoughtfully, and Steve was finally able to look up and meet her eyes. She was peering at him curiously, as if trying to gauge his reaction. He'd seen the same look many times—from friend and foe alike.

"I have… my father," and here her lips curled slightly upwards in disgust, and he wondered at that, confused and slightly upset, "worked on the project. Project Rebirth, the one Captain America was born from. I grew up with tales of you, of Bucky, of the Howling Commandos. You all were practically family members, albeit ones we never saw. Except for… Peggy." She said the name carefully, as if there was more to that story, but Steve didn't interject.

Toni was finally giving them info. Hopefully true information.

"I was born in 1970, actually, after most of you had… moved elsewhere. Moved on with your lives. I still saw Aunt Peggy pretty regularly, however. She was a blast." Her eyes lit up with fondness, enough that they could see it in the shadows cast by the fire.

"Was?" Steve asked.

Toni simply looked at him levelly, obviously thinking of the appropriate response. Finally, she said, softly, almost regretfully, "I came from 2009. You do the math. It can mean a lot of things, but… time eats away at us all, Cap, and that doesn't necessarily mean death."

The wording, what she said, it meant something. Toni was trying to say something without making it obvious, but he had no time to ponder it, instead chasing what he saw in Toni in that moment. There was something shadowed, something awful in her eyes, but she glanced away and then caught Bucky's gaze, holding it as if it were a competition. He couldn't gather anything from the small ember that was his bond to her, either, to see what that darkness in her eyes had been. She'd closed herself off tight, willfully or not.

"Project Rebirth wasn't common knowledge," she continued. "It was buried under myth and legend, basically. Rumor and propaganda. The real knowledge was mixed in—only the little they couldn't control, or wasn't harmful or damning or informative enough to release—so the general population never knew what was right from wrong. But my dad did. He knew, uh… Well, we as a family kept ties with the United States Army and the government. Many governments, in fact, but that's a story for another time. The SSR, too. When I took over the family company at twenty-one, I gained access to information I'd only ever dreamed of knowing. I sucked it all in like a sponge. One of those good ones, too, that could take in a whole bowl of water, practically. And you… the serum… was there. Everything that was top secret, and need-to-know, and even the stuff that they hadn't released."

Steve leaned back a little, drawing his lower lip between his teeth as he tried to process the information he'd been given. But it was okay, he had the time, and the ability to recall the conversation and its details at a moment's notice.

"So, yeah, I know about the serum. I know about what it did to you. A lot of that is pretty common knowledge, even now, but I even know about the healing properties, and the metabolism uptick, and the way it sharped all of your skills and senses. You can hear better, see better, smell better, even draw better. Everything. Even your… your soulbond is stronger."

Steve twitched at that. That had never been common knowledge. "I—" he began.

She cut him off before he could get very far with that though, speaking as rapid fire as she had been gearing up to just moments before. "Not even the brass knew about the true nature of your soulbond. Or even if they did, none of them wrote it down. No guesses, no nothing. I don't think even my dad knew. Everyone just assumed, or grew up being taught, that you both were platonic. You were revered as, as—yeah."

She suddenly shot a cheeky grin his way, one that lightened her eyes and made her look eons younger than her usual mask of indifference did, and added, "Though I'll bet Peggy knows, right?"

Steve spluttered a little, cheeks burning with heat as Bucky chuckled—and damn him; perpetrating a faux-relationship with Peggy to keep brass off their backs had been his idea, damn it.

Toni simply grinned again before her gaze again turned more somber and she said, "I'm not going to tell. I've kept many of my own secrets, and others', sometimes for decades, and ongoing still, even into the past. Even though I'm away from anyone who could be harmed by me telling those secrets… well, I don't really know that for sure, now do I? Maybe something I says here has serious repercussions on the future, even if those people don't exist yet. Hell, my mere presence has to be upsetting something. I know it is. But I don't know what, and I can't wrap my mind around whether I'm in a paradoxical cycle or if what I do here… will change things. It's impossible to know and I'm practically killing my brain just thinking about it—and that is saying something."

Steve reached out and grabbed Bucky's hand with his own, holding it in the space between them. He hadn't… thought about it like that.

Actually, he hadn't even considered that at all.

And neither had Bucky, if the look on his face was any indication when he met Steve's eyes.

"I just—look," Toni continued, her voice quieting, "I'm honestly just as, or maybe even more, confused than you, any of you, as to what is going on with me practically appearing gift-wrapped at the rendezvous. I'm out of my depth, but I'm a smart cookie, and y'know…" Suddenly there was a gleam in her eye. "Honestly, how much harder can this be than showing up hungover at a takeover meeting two weeks after gaining ownership of the company, without Pepper, god forbid—I need to give that woman a raise…" She said wistfully. "But, I mean, come on! I was able to wrangle those assholes into giving me their company at two-thirds the value, all while they thought of me as some half-wit bimbo who suddenly had access to all of daddy's cash!" She glared at nothing, lost in the memory, but then a predatory grin crossed her lips, and Steve could tell this one was all her—nothing fake about it, whatsoever.

And wasn't that a scary thought.

"But no seriously!" Toni continued, remembering to keep her voice down at the last moment. "I walked in there with my short skirt, makeup a little mussed, hair up in a messy bun, no sleep for three days and booze still in my system, and I took them for everything they had!"

Bucky looked as if he was about to interject, and the Howlies were looking at Toni with a mixture of respect and humor, but Toni continued before anyone could say a thing, her voice softening to nearly a whisper, but with a thread of danger in it, and Steve couldn't help it—he found himself leaning in, listening closely to every word.

She was admittedly rather… fascinating.

In her own rather… crude manner.

"If I could survive three months in Afghanistan, tied to a car battery, and trounce the assholes—" Steve and Bucky were still catching up to her quick muttering, and had both opened their mouths to inquire as to what the hell she was talking about, but Toni just fluttered her hands and then spread them, cutting them off before they could speak, "—Long story, other time, it'll be fun—But seriously, if I can survive the fuckers who did this to me—" And here anger filled him and Buck up at the thought of anyone harming a woman, another person, in the way that Steve suspected Toni had been hurt , but they controlled themselves enough to keep following, "—then I can survive World War Two. If I could build my suit—" Suit? Steve pondered the odd use of the word, "—in a fucking cave and blow those fuckers sky high, I can survive time travel. I can survive. I can get home. I can… I can…" and she trailed off, looking rather distant. Contemplative and… sad.

It didn't look like she would be continuing her rambling.

Silence spread over them all like a blanket, everyone trying to catch up to what the woman had said, fast as she had spoken, and the soft crackle of the fire was the only thing that could be heard.

A few moments later, Bucky was the first to break the silence. "You're a hell of a dame, Toni, I'll give you that. I'd hate to get on your bad side, huh Stevie?"

The grunt Steve let out when Bucky elbowed him in the side was enough for Toni to draw in her own breath, eyes wide… and then she laughed, clear but soft, her eyes still sad but… better.

He didn't look too closely at why that mattered, beyond his general desire for people to be happy and free and protected.

Not that… well, not that Toni really needed protecting, honestly, but he couldn't help himself. It was just the way he was.

"So Toni…" Morita inquired, from the other side of the fire. Toni twisted around enough that she could look at him. "You said your father was part of Project Rebirth. That he knew Steve, knew us, enough to tell stories about us to his daughter. Who was he? Shouldn't we know who he was? Is?"

Toni stared. And stared. And stared some more, the silence becoming stifling.

Then, "I think… I don't think that would be a good idea," she replied, back stiffening, eyes becoming shadowed and secretive as she looked away.

Steve didn't like secrets, but… he no longer thought she would harm them. Not deliberately, at least. And maybe someday soon she would open up to them, or at least to him and Bucky, about who her father was.

Is.

He was obviously still connected to the project, to know who they were, who the Howling Commandos were.

"That's alright, Toni," Steve said. "You can tell us if and when you're ready. As long as I, we, can trust you not to harm us, we can accept your need for secrecy. On some things."

She nodded at him, eyes still guarded, but looking less like she was about to bolt or lash out at them. "Glad we had this talk," she said jovially, suddenly clapping her hands together in an obvious attempt to distract them from the awkward note they'd stranded on. "Let's not do it again too soon, I'm exhausted. Sharing is tough."

Steve could only roll his eyes, and Bucky huffed out a laugh at his side.

"Let's get some rest, men. Lady," he added belatedly, and caught a hint of a smile playing at Toni's lips.

Soon, the fire was banked, and the men curled up tight, knowing that they were in good hands with Dugan—and whoever took his place—patrolling the outside.

Steve curled up against Bucky, the other man pressed tight against his back and sharing his warmth, arm wrapped around Steve and pressed against the wound that was already almost fully healed. It was one of his favorite things about the cold, sharing heat between the two of them.

But he couldn't help the fact that his eyes were trained on the small form of Toni curled up close to the fire, at least a foot of space on each side of her.

He couldn't help but to think that she looked lonely.

And he knew that he was partially responsible. Because she was lonely. A woman out of time, away from anyone she knew, any of her comforts and away from her home. Stuck in the middle of a war, with soulmates who hadn't accepted her.

He couldn't help but hate himself just a little, and though this hatred felt a little different from everything else, it was still something he was intimately familiar with.

He didn't think he'd ever quite escape his self-hatred.

Chapter Text

Toni had barely slept at all.

She could, honestly, barely remember the last time she really had slept. Even before she had ended up in the past, she'd been up for over seventy hours, and the night she had arrived, the most she'd managed was a few hours of light, dream-filled, restless sleep.

It hadn't really helped, and much as Toni hated to admit it, even her body had its limits.

The previous night, after they'd sought out a safe spot and Steve and Bucky had isolated themselves a little as Barnes fussed over Steve, Toni had still been too hopped up on adrenaline to be able to settle down her mind for long enough to catch some z's.

The fight at the Hydra base had replayed in her mind over and over again, and the uneasy feeling it caused, tugging at something uncomfortably, deep within her gut, had made her feel a little too queasy for comfort. She ignored it, however, as she was quite adept at doing, and instead focused on the Howlies and how they joked around with Steve and Bucky even though the two men were clearly still not fully recovered from their scare at the base.

It made her wonder.

When they'd settled down to rest, Toni had, purposefully, forced her body into a sleep-like stillness, well-aware that Bucky's eyes were still on her—whenever he managed to look away from his Captain anyway—and she did not feel up to dealing with the whirlwind that was a worried Bucky Barnes turning his attention towards her.

Toni was woman enough to acknowledge she had a bit of an issue—and fuck if that wasn't the understatement of the century—with having people worry about her.

So, in the morning, she pretended she hadn't spent most of the night staring at the dying embers of the little campfire the boys had built and bantered playfully with Falsworth and Dernier as they packed up their gear, and greedily made grabby hands at Jones for the tin cup of substance—shooting a smile of gratitude as she went—that smelled like the closest thing to actual coffee that she was going to get.

She blatantly ignored the horrifying, bitter taste and sighed happily after her first swallow of life-affirming caffeine and pretended not to notice or need the breakfast that Bucky was distributing among the men. She also ignored the look he gave her when he noticed what she was doing—it was an all too familiar look, and she'd been on the receiving end quite a few times before.

He'd have to step up his game if he was going to make her do things she didn't want to.

He'd probably get along marvelously with Pepper, she mused distractedly. No one had ever been as successful at using increasingly creative methods to get her to do things as Pepper.

God.

Pepper.

Something deep inside her chest tugged painfully, and Toni wondered if Pepper was okay. If she'd settled in nicely and comfortably with her soulmate, even though Toni had not yet met them or vetted them to make sure they were worthy of her Pepper.

But then…

It hadn't really happened yet, had it?

Because she was in nineteen-forty-fucking-four.

For fuck's sake, that was getting old.

She refused to allow herself to dwell on the whole time paradox thing—it was a headache in the making and she did not have enough alcohol available to deal with that.

Instead, she hopped right back on Cap's motorcycle, with Bucky's enthusiastic blessing, and laughed at the petulant, disgruntled look on Steve's face as he was relegated to sitting behind Bucky on Bucky's motorcycle. Of course, she also didn't miss the way he melted against Bucky when he wrapped his arms tightly around his soulmate's waist—her soulmate's waist

That had made more than just her head hurt, and she'd decidedly thought of nothing but possible applications for the weapons she'd seen in Hydra's trucks—and in their hands—as they travelled through muddy, overgrown backroads until they passed a barricade of soldiers that eyed them warily but let them pass regardless.

They'd reached a city then and…

It hit her then.

It finally, truly, really, fucking, hit her then.

They were in the middle of a world war.

Dugan gestured sharply towards the right when they'd entered the city, and she followed, eyes wide as she took in the damage to the buildings, to the streets—to everything. Dugan parked his motorcycle in what looked like an abandoned warehouse, and Toni followed his lead mechanically, still feeling oddly shell-shocked by the sight of the city. Dugan must have caught her wide-eyed gaze, because he smiled wryly and patted her shoulder gently. "Sights like this one remind us why we fight, don't they?"

She nodded mutely, turning away from the men as they grabbed their gear from the saddlebags, and eyed the city before her. It was nothing like the small towns she'd seen in Afghanistan, nothing like the horrors the media liked to talk about at home—

She couldn't describe it.

The people…

They didn't look like people anymore. Many of them looked thin and gaunt, eyes hollow and haunted and frightened. They looked almost like human versions of the shells of buildings that were left, riddled with bullet holes and scorch marks that told tales of battle and blood so horrifying Toni couldn't quite wrap her mind around it.

"What is this place?"

The words fell from her lips before she'd had time to consider them, really, and it wasn't until Steve spoke up, suddenly appearing by her side, that she realized she'd spoken out loud. "What's left of Rimini, Italy," he said slowly, eyes travelling over the sight before him as a frown creased his forehead. "Allies managed to chase Germans out a couple of months ago, but…"

"Was it worth it?"

Steve fell silent, and Toni could sense he didn't know the answer to that question either.

"We gotta believe that it is," Bucky interrupted, slinging his duffel bag over his shoulder as he sidled up next to Steve. "What the hell are we fighting for if it ain't?"

She didn't have a smart answer for that.

For once in her life, she had nothing to say, nothing mocking to remark.

"Let's go," Dugan boomed, shattering the tension that had descended upon them, and Toni felt herself relax just a little as she followed the other men through the streets, unable to keep her eyes from taking in the true devastation of the city—she could plainly see where there had been an effort made to clean up the rubble, but there was so much left, it was like a losing battle…

There were houses with crumbling walls, blackened by flames and torn down by ammunition shells, streets with craters deep enough for even Steve to be able to stand in and still be hidden, stains on cobblestones that hadn't been washed away by rain that looked disturbingly like dried blood, and Toni felt a little sick at the realization that this

This was what her family's weapons were capable of.

Sure, she had shut down the weapons division of Stark Industries, but not before it had unleashed devastation even a fraction as bad as this—and even that had been too much.

Any of it was too much.

The weapons that had done this, here, weren't Stark tech, but they were the kind of weapons Toni had spent decades on improving and selling—

How had they not learned?

How the hell had the world not learned from a World War?

She remained silent the whole way to the airfield they were apparently heading towards.

She didn't really have anything to say anymore.

She felt sick.


She thought she might have slept a little, on the flight, but she wasn't sure.

The plane was loud though, and every time she felt she might be able to drop off into a light nap, the image of Rimini pushed itself back to the forefront of her mind, and she wasn't even sure if it was her own mind or one of her soulmates' that seemed intent on torturing her.

The snoring that echoed through the hold told her that none of the others seemed as bothered by the sights they'd been exposed to as she was—but she didn't need to turn to know that Bucky was as wide awake as she was, and that Steve was sleeping, fitfully and plagued by nightmares, caught within the sandman's sticky clutches.

No, she didn't need to look to know that Bucky would be holding him, rocking him gently, whispering soothing words of comfort that were indecipherable in the cacophony of the engines surrounding them.

She didn't need to look to feel the aching desire to be allowed to join them.

She ached to feel the comfort of her soulmates—even from Steve.

It had been so easy to see Steve Rogers as his Captain America persona before feeling the nightmares, even muted as they were to her.

It'd been so easy to just resent him for being everything her father blamed her for not being, to resent him for having Bucky, for keeping both himself and Bucky at arm's length from her, without truly talking to her, sitting down with her and discussing what all this was—

But now…

Now, fuck her, fuck him, he was human.

He was human, down to the basest degree, because who the fuck wouldn't be when they could feel that much fear, that much worry, that much love, that much despair?

So she did what she did best: avoid, avoid, avoid.

Time passed, she was sure, but it hardly felt like it did, as she desperately held onto consciousness, trying not to fall into her own nightmares, until a heavy hand suddenly fell upon her shoulder, shaking her gently.

"Toni, we're here."

She practically jumped clean out of her seat, but she was able to pull herself together enough to offer a smile to Morita. It wasn't one of her classic Stark charm smiles, but it was the best she could pull off for the moment without another five cups of coffee in her system and three days in her workshop.

Oh, her workshop. How she missed her workshop…

"Thanks, Jim," she said as she stood up, shoving her dark thoughts into the deep recesses of her mind for the time being so that she could at least somewhat operate at a normal level, and then groaned as she stretched, popping joint after joint that had stiffened from the long ride.

Speaking of, she really needed to relieve her bladder.

And some privacy to check on the arc reactor wouldn't be amiss, either. She had one of her multi-tools that had come along for the ride in her sweatpants' pocket, but she'd be so fucked if something happened to the reactor, honestly. Like, the dead type of fucked. She may as well prevent what damage she could with a little preventative maintenance, and hope that that would be enough.

"Where we at, anyway?" Toni yawned, glancing around the empty cargo hold of the aircraft. She snatched her hand away before it could tap against her arc reactor out of habit. No need to call more attention to it, even though they already knew it was there. She buttoned the top buttons of the jacket—no knowing who they were about to meet.

"London," Jim replied, pulling off his cap and rubbing his hair before replacing the cap more firmly. He eyed her a little oddly for a moment, and then gestured towards the exit door and ladder after she made no indication she was going to move.

"Oh! Yeah, sorry, don't know where my head's been," Toni replied with false cheer, as though they hadn't all seen her basically lose her shit in Rimini. "So, London, huh? Don't know how I missed that! Well, actually, I do. Sorta been lost in my mind for a bit, y'know? Well, maybe since we flew over France. Or, uh, since we got on the plane? Actually, I don't even really remember sitting down? Did someone strap me in? Now that I mention it, I…" Toni prattled on, mouth and mind warming up as she made her way down the ladder, letting her thoughts run ahead of her as she made small talk with herself and anyone who would listen, in this case, the Howlies.

They unloaded the gear from the plane wordlessly, Toni chipping in and chattering nonsensically right alongside the others as they watched two vehicles approach from the distance, and it took Toni a moment to realize that Steve and Bucky had separated themselves from the group again.

Toni stopped for a moment, a little annoyed, and took the time to observe what they were doing. It took her a moment to realise that they were quite literally changing before her eyes—adopting the public persona, the shield the rest of the world got to see. The transition was so smooth that Toni realized they'd become quite adept at hiding who they truly were.

Much like the public persona she herself used back in the twenty-first century, the one she used so that no one would know who she truly was so that they couldn't use that knowledge to hurt her.

And that—

Ah, shit.

That's what they were doing.

Toni's face and heart softened even further as she realized that they may have shut their features and selves off from the world, adopting different ways of touching, of acting, of interacting with each other… but that they hadn't shut themselves off from her, knowingly or unknowingly.

The little she was feeling from them was enough to tell that they already wished they could touch each other, comfort one another even further in the wake of the nightmares on the flight here, to finally get to a private room where they could undress slowly and check each other over for injuries that might not have healed yet, that they might have overlooked, and wash each other thoroughly, hold each other tight through the night and sleep in as late as they possibly could…

A part of Toni wished she could, as well. With them.

Fuck if she didn't.

She was damn good at lying to others, and others were pretty convinced she was quite excellent at lying to herself, but for things like this, things like this wanting…

Yeah, she'd admit it.

She wanted it.

She wanted to be held, she wanted to be loved, to be wanted, to be cared for, and to be comforted in the wake of her nightmares. She wanted to be caressed and to be told it was okay when the pain of her arc reactor overwhelmed her, when the fear crept deep into her bones and she was filled with paranoia and had to make sure that every last one of her weapons or tech was out of enemy hands.

She wanted. She wanted. And fuck if that didn't hurt. Fuck, fuck, fuck!

And she couldn't have it—them.

She could look, but she couldn't have, and wasn't that the story of her life?

But it was okay. She would be okay. She always was.

And… honestly? She couldn't begrudge them their happiness. They had fought for every last scrap of their love in a bigoted and hate-filled early America, early Europe, early world, and they deserved to have each other without her messing everything up for them.

It wasn't their fault that fate had brought her in years too late.

Years too late. And wasn't that just the greatest, cruelest, fucking joke.

What the fuck was the point of all this, universe?

Toni didn't believe in fate, never had, but it felt like it had something planned for her, and she'd be damned if she'd be its puppet.

She made her own damn decisions.

Toni was aware enough of the outside world, of the boys weaving around her stationary body, to pull herself back into awareness as the vehicles pulled to a roaring stop in front of them, engines cutting off suddenly, one after the other, and plunging the dusky darkness of the airfield into an eerie silence—Toni idly wondered why there weren't more aircrafts at this field, but filed the thought away for later.

Steve and Bucky stood at attention as a grizzly older man stepped out of the passenger side of one of the open Jeeps. They saluted him, and he nodded at them, allowing them to stand at ease as he addressed them, far enough away so that they could not be overheard.

The Howlies themselves didn't really stand on ceremony, it seemed, even the Americans among them, though the—Toni peered closer through the gathering gloom and fighting against the glare of the Jeeps' headlights—colonel was not addressing them. They were talking softly amongst themselves, Toni standing just to the side of them, though she wasn't talking, only staring and thinking, as their captain and sergeant spoke with the colonel.

"Quite the group, huh?"

Toni started, though she caught herself before she could do much more than wince, and she slowly turned her head to greet the person who had appeared at her shoulder. She started to answer before she had fully turned, "The Howlies? Yeah, they're a riot, honestly, couldn't ask for oh holy fu—" and so was only halfway through her response when she finally caught sight of who it was that had appeared at her elbow.

Howard.

Howard fucking Stark.

Howard motherfucking Stark.

No. Wait. That was a bad way to put it.

Howard holy fucking mother of god Stark.

Her fucking father was at her side, and she wasn't prepared.

She didn't know what to do.

She'd known this was a possibility, but only in the 'yeah maybe it's possible but what a fucking hoot, that would be funny not' way. Only in the 'yeah sure maybe I'll encounter him but I'll cross that bridge when I get there and only if I can't build my own bridge or swim across the river to avoid him in any and all possible ways' way.

Toni had thought she'd see Howard fucking Stark coming from a fucking mile away. That he would have neon flashing lights and halogen bulbs and sparks and glamor and dancing monkeys and chorus girls and canons announcing his presence. Never in a fucking million years had she imagined he would sneak up on her like a fucking… fucking… like…

"Miss? Are you alright?" he asked, all sincere charm and concerned smile, and just the right amount of care in his voice and oh my god

"I…" she stuttered.

Shit. Shit shit shit.

Her brain wasn't working. Her brain wasn't fucking working. She needed to reboot. No, no, she needed to purge the virus and then reboot, but that didn't look like it'd be happening anytime soon. She'd barely had time to process everything she'd seen in Italy, everything she'd done, and she hadn't…

God, she wasn't ready to face this man again.

She thought she'd left him in the dirt two decades ago, and now, now…

Ugh.

Fuck.

She watched detachedly as the Howlies started to slowly turn towards them, one by one, as if they could sense something was wrong with the castaway they'd picked up and seemingly adopted.

Maybe… maybe one of them would save her.

Maybe if she could just say something, without calling attention—

"Can I get you something? Water? When's the last time you ate?" he asked, and the genuine concern in his voice outright baffled her, because she couldn't recall the last time her father had spoken to her with kindness. "Have these boys not been taking good care of you? Hell, where'd they even find a beauty like you out in the wilderness?"

His voice just washed over her as she stared up at him, short for a man, but still taller than her—and the way he stood was such an enormous contrast to how he'd always made her feel so small—her eyes wide and taking in every detail, every movement, watching for the moment when he would make the slightest motion towards her. It was as if time had slowed down, and she could compare every minute part of his expressions and mannerisms, though as if through a lens, to the way he was in the future, to her past.

He was so similar, and yet so different, as if something had happened to him between now and when she knew him. Something of immense weight, something that had perhaps caused irreparable damage to his very soul…

But he was still the same.

He was still Howard.

He was her father.

"I…"

Toni looked to the side, and caught Steve and Bucky looking her way with twin expressions of creased worry on their brow—and that, that was where Toni drew the line.

She was a warrior. She had stood up to her demons before, many times. She could do it again.

Even to the original demon.

Toni shook her head slightly, as if dispelling a fog from her mind, and then turned a smile on Howard, though she never quite met his eyes—instead looking at the space right between his eyes in a little trick she'd learned for the moments when she didn't have her sunglasses. And oh how she wished for them right then. "I'm alright, my apologies, sir…?" she announced breezily.

"Mr. Stark," he replied immediately, lips turning up into a smile that oozed that famous Stark charm. Ah, there it was. "But you can call me Howard, if you like, beautiful." He winked.

Toni suppressed a grimace.

No different than when old lechers hit on you, Toni, keep it up, girl.

"Mr. Stark," she settled on, trying not to smile wider or more sharply as she deliberately chose the one name over the other. She chose her next words even more carefully. "My apologies, again. I'm just a little tired and I was stuck on figuring out some formula in my head when you interrupted me so precipitously. Sometimes I get a little stuck and can't respond properly for a few moments, much to my embarrassment."

Toni let a little laugh out, at her own expense, and breathed an internal sigh of relief when Howard took it hook, line, and sinker.

"Oh!" he replied, understanding dawning on his features, as well as academic interest. "I have those moments, myself, I must admit," he laughs charmingly. "And formula, you say? What is your field? Are you a visiting scientist from Italy? Your accent is American, though—what were you doing out there?—no, wait, it's of no matter—if the colonel says you're golden then you should come visit the workshop tomorrow when you get some rest. I would invite you now, but I believe that the boys here would have me for breakfast if I were to do so, by the looks of it…"

He trailed off with a raised eyebrow, not quelled in the least by the looks the Howlies were shooting him, some of the amusement mixed with varying degrees of seriousness, and Toni couldn't help but to feel warmth welling up within her at the thought of the men looking out for her, even though they'd only spent just less than two days together.

"Men," a voice cut into the charged silence, and the Howling Commandos turned to give the colonel sloppy salutes. Howard simply crossed his arms over his chest and smirked. The colonel snorted and said, "I told you boys to work on your salutes, didn't I?"

They'd all resumed their swaying, relaxed stances again, and were shooting grins back and forth between themselves and the colonel. "Well, Colonel Phillips, sir," Dugan began, "we were gonna work on our salutes, like you said, had ourselves all lined up in a row, all proper like, see, but there was this giant green and blue—"

"Oh save it, sarge," Phillips cut in, voice holding enough of a hint of relaxed laughter that Toni was intrigued. She still made sure to keep a damn eye on the fucking problem at her elbow, though.

Her fucking father.

Christ on a cracker.

As long as he didn't try to hit on her much more… Toni barely repressed a shudder, and tuned herself back into the conversation in time to catch the reply.

"You always have the best excuses," Philips grumbled. "It's become a running joke around here at this point."

"Aim to please, sir," Dugan smirked, and he pulled a cigar out, offering one to the colonel before lighting his own. And then the colonel's eyes were on Toni, and they were some of the sharpest damn eyes she'd seen on a military man, even Rhodey.

Holy shit.

"Who might you be?" the silver-haired man asked, peering at her through the gloom. She was partially lit by the headlights, but he… he was backlit by them and she could only barely see enough to catch the expressions on his face. She was aware of Steve and Bucky approaching quietly from behind the colonel, bracketing the man and watching, almost like they were waiting, though for what, Toni wasn't quite sure.

It was like she was staring at a minefield suddenly, and knowing she had to cross it—but not knowing how.

Well, the only damn way was to go forward, and then to fucking wing it.

"Antonia, sir," Toni began simply, testing the waters, keeping her expression neutral enough, but not empty… not like she was trying to hide.

He paused for a moment. "Do you have a last name, Antonia?"

Well, she'd known that one was coming. "Rhodes, sir. Antonia Rhodes. I'm from New York," she offered, knowing it was better to offer information than to have it pulled from you, "and somewhat of an amateur scientist, and I—"

Shit. She didn't have a good reason for being in Italy. Not one she could tell the military. They would wonder if she was working for Hydra, just like Steve had, aw fuck, and it wasn't like they'd believe time travel—or would they…?

"Sir," Steve suddenly interrupted, and Toni had to fight not to let out a little breath of relief as Philips' eyes darted to the side—but he didn't turn around to face the captain, only tilted his head in order to indicate that the man should continue. "If you'll allow Sergeant Barnes and I to debrief with you and Agent Carter," Toni's eyes widened just slightly, but she refused to allow herself anything more, as Philips still had the light of the headlights to view her with, and his eyes still trained on her features, "we'll be able to fill you in with what you need to know, sir, including where we found Ms. Antonia and what she has done to assist us. Because she has, sir. Assisted us."

"Yessir," Bucky murmured on Philips' other side, and then caught Toni's eye. He sent her a muted sense of reassurance and a request for trust through their underdeveloped bond, and Steve was doing one better by stepping forward and reaching out to grip her hand in his and bring it to his lips, pressing a kiss to the back of her hand.

Wait—what?

Why would he do that?

And lit amongst her confusion the bond seemed to spark a fiery connection from her mind straight into her belly at the contact of skin to skin and she felt her eyes widen against her will before she could control herself. At least she barely—barely—managed to keep from yanking her hand away from him. She was sure it wouldn't have fit into the game Steve was playing… whatever that may be.

Philips' eyes didn't miss a thing.

He squeezed her fingers reassuringly before letting her hand go.

She met his eyes, and he smiled warmly at her, the smile reaching all the way up. He wasn't—only—doing this for show, and that was frightening because it was dangerous. It was dangerous because it created hope. "Toni," he said deliberately—and seriously, what the fuck was he playing at? She couldn't sense anything from him at all, "—we'll see you in the morning? The men will be able to help you to a room in the SSR's barracks when you get there, and then we can figure out some logistics and outfitting. Okay?"

Toni could only nod, still wondering what the fuck was going on. She looked at Bucky and caught him smirking, and she barely resisted the intense desire to narrow her eyes at the man.

Well fine then.

"Okay," Toni agreed, nodding her head once, succinctly, with more confidence than she felt—and wasn't that the story of her life, sometimes? "Come along, boys! You can treat me to some drinks before we hit the hay, whadya say?" She powered right past Philips, right past Barnes and Rogers' hooded gazes, and left Howard in the dust without a backward glance—holy shit.

Times like this, she wished she were dreaming.

Fucking fuck sticks, seriously.

Falsworth jumped for the driver's seat, unsurprisingly so, and Toni didn't make a single comment about the men leaving her the passenger side, though she couldn't resist making a comment about the Brits and their choice of side of the road as the rest of the men piled into the back.

It was only as they were pulling away into the almost full dark that Toni heard a voice calling out towards them from the other Jeep. Someone with an eerily familiar, crisp British accent, who had been sitting and waiting in silence. "Hey Dum Dum! Target practice at dawn! You owe me!"

"You got it, Peggy!" the man called out, a big grin spreading across his face as Toni swiveled in her seat in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the woman who had made a larger than life impact on one young girl, young woman's life.

All thoughts of Howard left her mind—at least for the moment.

For now… she had another chance at spending time with the woman who meant the most to her. She no longer had to wonder if today would be a day where Peggy would remember her, or if it would be one of those half-there days, or a day where she was as unknown as the orderly, or as her new grandson.

She had… time.


One ale, not watered down, unrationed, strong and full-bodied.

"Some people think my rendezvous is bad luck," Dernier announced in perfect, though accented, English. The story was for Toni's benefit, of course, as the rest of the men at the table had heard the story many times already, she was sure. But she didn't mind. She liked them opening up to her, getting to know them, in a way that the history books and museums obviously never got to, and in a way that she had a suspicion her father hadn't gotten to, for all his talk.

"But I think," Dernier continued, "that it is good luck. Une bonne chance! That I will survive this war and meet my demoiselle in the wonderful year of 1948 and live on a beautiful farm like my maman et papa before me." He smiled, and took a big gulp of his ale, long used to the strong British drink by now, it seemed.

"With plenty of place to experiment with explosives, I hope!" Toni added in, a gleam in her eye.

"A large field with a giant tank in the middle would be perfect!" Falsworth grinned.

"Oh, bien sûr!" Dernier practically cackled in agreement, and then the three of them laughed together when the rest of the group eyed each other nervously, not sure quite what to do with three of them.

A second ale, slightly different than the first, brewed with less hops, but no less full for that.

Toni savored the taste as she listened to Falsworth express how good it would be to have this next week off so that he would be able to see his ladies—his soulmate and three young daughters—in between his wife's shifts at the hospital. He'd be off to see them in the morning, and the gleam in his eye was enough to bring happiness to Toni's heart, purely for his sake.

There was so little good in this war; let him find it where he could.

The happiness was all the more deserved when Gabe Jones whispered quietly to her that Falsworth had lost his eldest son in the first year of the war, and it was his death that had led him to enlisting, though he was old enough to avoid the draft.

Toni understood revenge, and she understood the happiness that came from it, too.

She issued a silent prayer for James Falsworth, that he would never lose himself to his revenge.

The third drink was a large glass of red wine, a Malbec, at Dernier's insistence, from a bottle of wine pulled from behind a brick, much to the disgruntlement of the barkeep. It was French, and very good, and Toni made note of the year and vineyard for the minute chance that she could get a bottle of it again in the future.

Near the bottom of the glass, Toni was finally able to admit to herself that she was unhappy and hiding herself in alcohol, but that didn't mean she had to stop.

Nope. No sirree.

In some cases it meant she had to continue.

Because feelings sucked.

Because she'd seen Steve and Bucky slip into the pub for a short moment to share a few rushed words with Dugan, who'd been getting them a fresh round of drinks at the bar, before they'd slipped right back out again, not even glancing back towards where she sat, and she didn't want to admit it hurt.

It hurt, even when—perhaps especially when, but damn it if she would admit it—Dugan and the boys quietly joked about their captain and their sergeant not being able to keep their hands to themselves when there was an empty room with a lock waiting for them.

So yeah… Feelings sucked.

"So… Jim," she addressed Morita. He was sitting beside her quietly, sipping from a flask as the other men were engaged in an arm wrestling match with a group of visiting Americans at the next table over.

"Yeah?" he asked, just as quiet as he'd been the rest of the night—and, would ya look at that, the early morning, too.

"Ever have a soulmark?" she asked.

It was… honestly, it was a rather rude question. One she had asked before, she'd own up to that, but to people she'd liked far less than she liked Jim Morita so far. And she wanted him to like her, but… well, uh, it was the first thing that had come to her mind, honestly.

"I'm sorry, that was really rude," she backtracked quickly, but quietly, shuttering her gaze and downing the rest of her wine.

"It's… alright," he replied.

"It is?" The words slipped out before she could stop them, but she refused to make the surprised expression that went along with them, as they would have embarrassed her even further.

"Yeah." He smiled softly, sadly, looking at the table and then sideways, at her, before shifting so that he could look at her fully. She turned her neck so that she could look at him as well, the soft warmth of the alcohol allowing her to meet his open and expressive gaze. "I had a soulmate. He and I joined the 107th together. We were lucky to not be split up, honestly, even though life was hard in an American regiment where being… us, was illegal."

Tears started to gather in his eyes, though not enough to spill over, and Toni found it impossible to look away. She was caught, and part of her was cursing him for weaving some sort of spell over her to stop her from disengaging. "He was hurt in an earlier engagement, and died in the field hospital. I was only allowed in because I was his soulmate. His platonic soulmate." And here, a flash of anger, a small one, crept into his eyes and into his voice, and Toni felt it echoed in her—it was so unfair.

"But," Morita continued, dialing the anger back into a strained smile, "he asked me to continue for him. To be strong for him. To smile and move on, and kick Nazi ass and show those bigots that being queer and being a Jap isn't what defines who I am, who we were—but it is a part of us, of me. Of him. So I go through with a smile on my face, and I honor his memory."

Toni held up her empty glass. "Here, here," she whispered.

Her fourth glass was more like three shots of strong Canadian whisky and damn if that shit wasn't fine. Smooth as all get out. She ignored the side-eyes that she was getting, because damn it, she was still standing straight. Sitting straight.

Whatever.

After Morita's talk about bigotry she'd remembered Howard and then remembered why she never half-assed drinking. She either didn't, or she got shit-faced, otherwise her mind went places she really didn't want to go.

And all she could focus on was how Howard had reacted when she had brought home her first girlfriend at fifteen. Yeah, that had been a hoot.

Not.

And here he was. Fighting the good fight, building tech to fight the Nazis and their buddies, and becoming a war hero and all that jazz, and building such a reputation for being part of liberating minorities that no one would believe he was a fucking bigot and neglectful parent, no one would believe he was a homophobe towards even his own daughter, and the stories he told didn't equate with someone who couldn't hold his liquor in his old age and now he was here but he seemed different and what the fuck did she do with that

"I recognize that look," a voice intruded on her thoughts.

Toni looked up as Gabe Jones traded places with a concerned looking Morita, and slid another shot glass of whisky towards her—four now, total.

Awesome.

"That," he continued without prompting, "looks like a 'my father's an asshole' problem." He tossed his drink back and then poured himself another before she even touched her fingers to her glass. Her surprise had made her slow.

"How did you know?" she asked, one hand brushing her curls off her sweaty forehead and behind her ear as the other grabbed the shot glass and brought it to her lips. The burn pushed the bad thoughts away just that little bit more, she was relieved to note, but she didn't reach for the bottle to pour herself another.

"Lucky guess, actually," Gabe replied with a shrug. "You looked like how I feel when I'm thinking about my dear old pa, and so I figured I'd lead with that. The others were looking a mite concerned, too, so I figured I'd give it a go. They've been trying to get you moving for the last twenty minutes but you've just been asking for more shots," he accused gently, tipping his own shot glass at her as if in demonstration.

"Sorry," she grumbled, staring at the grain of the table in front of her. She didn't say another word, her mind emptying, finally, in that way she was only able to obtain for moments at a time, here and there—

"My soulmate's a white girl, lives down the street a few blocks from us, but it may as well be like we're on different planets, yeah?" Gabe said, wholly unprompted and a little startlingly for its frankness. Toni's head shot right up and around, staring at him, her head swimming a little as it caught up. "And, yeah, I expected trouble from her da, but my pa… I thought he'd be on my side, our side, y'know? But he wasn't. He ain't. And it caused this rift between us, and between her and her pa. I moved out before the war, but she hadn't, and in some ways it's a good thing, yeah? Because she has a place to live, someone to support her, especially if something happens to me… but…"

Toni reached over and grabbed one of Gabe's hands, gripping it tight with hers. She looked over and caught his eyes, and said as clearly as she could, trying to impart to him her knowledge of the future, so that he could know. "It'll be okay," she began slowly, carefully. "Things will be tough, but it will turn out okay, Gabe, y'hear? There will still be fights that need fighting, and I can't say it won't be hard. But it's worth it, and if—when you get back to your girl, you hold her tight and love her and don't let go and show the way for everyone else, okay?"

Gabe could only nod rapidly, bringing his other hand up to his mouth.

Toni held his hand until he pulled away.

She didn't have a fifth glass of anything.

Instead, Timothy "Dum Dum" Dugan cheated her out of the glass and out of the last of the personal tales that she had inadvertently been racking up, by waiting until she was at her weakest—holy shit this stuff was stronger than it used to be, was gonna be, was… fucking hell.

Point being, the master strategist had lain in wait until she was half asleep, mostly drunk, and emotionally vulnerable—a hard fucking feat, hope you're proud, Dugan—and then sent the dogs in to mop up the pieces and call the battle a fait accomplit.

Asshole.

"I heard that," Dugan said, way too happily for someone who was going to be getting his ass handed to him by Peggy in two hours.

"Heard that, too," he said, a grin pulling at his lips.

"Fucker," she muttered. "And yeah, I know you herr'tha'too! I wanna y' ta!"

"Stellar use of the English language there, beautiful," an entirely new voice said, and Toni practically tripped over herself as she pushed herself away from Dugan.

"No! Traitor!" she grouched, but couldn't quite find herself to be more than just a little annoyed.

More like resigned indignation.

A state of being she was remarkably familiar with.

"Keep it down, doll," Bucky murmured. "This way." And he didn't even touch her, just gestured at the open door, and Toni knew that she was shit out of luck, shit out of options, too drunk to figure this shit out, and everyone had fucking ganged up on her.

"Fuck you all," she grumbled as Bucky guided her towards the room he and Steve obviously occupied. "I ge' the bed at least. You can sleep on the floor like… like g' soldiers." Steve barely made it off the bed before she crawled onto it, his expression almost comical as he dodged her outstretched arms.

Too bad. It would've been fun to push him off.

Her eyes flickered over him briefly, and somewhere in the back of her foggy, alcohol-diluted mind, she wanted to appreciate the sight before her, because sweet baby Jesus, that man looked fine shirtless, but she was already halfway towards sleep—the only way she was gonna get it right now was with alcohol, so score one for her and whoever had paid—as she listened to the voices die down, the door close, and then closer voices were speaking, though just as mutedly.

It was a fuzzy, pleasant haze, and it was underscored by a calming, soothing sensation wrapping itself around her mind, gentling her thoughts, her feelings, her worries and fears and anger and sadness.

She felt her boots being unlaced and tugged off, her socks pulled right off with them and her feet tucked under the blankets along with the rest of her, right up to under her chin. Two sets of hands brushed the hair from her face, but no more—and oh how she wished for more from them—and Toni found a frown tugging at her features for a moment before a single hand brushed across her lips, wiping away the frown, and her mind was wrapped in warmth and comfort once more, pulling her swiftly into sleep, even as the hand drew away.

But there was a tear in the mental blanket now, and Toni's mind couldn't help but want that hand back, all four hands.

She'd had a taste, and like a dying woman, thirsting for water, she wanted more.

Chapter Text

She didn't have to open her eyes to know where she was.

She knew where she was by the way the cold, damp air and stale atmosphere clung to the back of her throat. She knew where she was by the way the air pressed upon her lungs. The way each breath seemed to both burn and choke her.

It was burned into her mind, into her soul, into her existence… it was burned into her very molecules.

The cave.

It always seemed to come back to the damned cave.

It didn't matter that she had torn herself from its cold, uncaring grasp over a year ago, leaving only rubble and flames in her wake. It didn't matter that she was stronger and that she had worked hard—so fucking hard—to get away from everything that had happened in that cave.

In the end, it always seemed to come back to what happened in the cave.

And she was weak in that cave.

It was the only place she ever let herself be weak. The cave was the only thing in the world, the only place left that was witness to the weakness of those long months. She couldn't escape it, and she found that she just… she just couldn't fight it all the time anymore.

She was so tired.

So she didn't fight.

It was, after all, only a dream. One that made her ache, and that never ceased to cause her heart to pound so hard that she swore she could feel it through the damned arc reactor.

It was always so quiet in the cave, quiet in a way that nothing else in her life was. Toni's life was all screaming color and noise, confusion and organized chaos—well, and sometimes not so organized—in a way that allowed her all the time she needed to think while also taking away the chance to think too much.

Quiet unnerved her.

Quiet wasn't calm, wasn't peace. Quiet let the thoughts loose that she normally held firmly back, pressed into the back of her mind with the white noise that she'd made her life.

And here she was, again in the silent cave.

She shook her head and pressed back into the hard cot, wishing she would feel more, despite knowing she was trapped in a dream, that there would be nothing she could do until she woke up, gasping for breath. It was sad, she supposed, that her worst nightmare was one where she lay prone upon an uncomfortable surface, unable to move a damn muscle.

There were things so much worse. She knew that, at least theoretically.

And yet…

Here she was.

"Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes. 107th Infantry Division. 32557038…"

The whisper was so faint that for a moment she was convinced she hadn't heard anything at all. She never heard anything in the cave, after all, and it wouldn't be the first time her imagination ran wild on her, trying to snap her out of this fucking hell hole. But somewhere, even deeper in the cave, she could hear the steady drip of water splashing onto stone, and though the sound was soothing, in a way, and better than the quiet,it was also maddening in its steadiness and its overwhelming totality.

She couldn't hear anything but the water dripping onto stone.

Nothing but…

"Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes. 107th Infantry Division. 32557038…"

Her heart clenched, and the words hit her like a freight train. She suddenly understood the meaning behind the words she was hearing—Bucky. Bucky was… here? Was he in the cave with her? That didn't… why would he be in the middle of her nightmare?

A moment of panic almost completely overwhelmed her when the thought ran through her mind, quick as a shot, and almost as destructive, that maybe she wasn't dreaming—maybe this was reality, and they, she and Bucky, were somehow in Afghanistan together, in the fucking cave, and she had to get them out, holy fuck—

But fuck, no, this was a dream. This was the dream, her nightmare, and she had to fucking get a fucking grip on herself, and figure out what the absolute flying fuck was going on in her fucking dream, because so help her God, she may hate the ever-loving hell out of this fucking piece of shit cave, but if something or someone was messing with it, with her brain, there would be hell to fucking pay.

Okay.

Okay, so maybe she'd gone a little overboard. But, back to the important things, and this—this was important.

"B—Bucky?"

Her voice was raw and it ached to speak but it felt like a victory, because she had never been able to speak during her nightmares before.

"Serg—Sergeant James B—Buchanan Barnes. 107th Infantr—Infantry D—Division. 325—57038…"

The whispering continued, stuttering and quiet, without pause now, and she could hear Bucky breathe, shaky and rough, hacking with horrifying coughs every few breaths, a wheezing rattle filling in the rest. The pain he had to be in burned in her own lungs, and her heart was pounding painfully in a way it had never done before and fear burned in her veins—

But then she realized she couldn't move—she was never going to get there—she was going to be too late—she was going to lose him—she wasn't going to be able to save him—he was going to be dead and it would all be her fault—what would she—how could she ever—

"S—Sergeant—32557—Barnes—"

"Bucky!"

She couldn't tell if the scream came from her lips or from someone else's, but the way Bucky's whispers were starting to trail off, growing weaker as the seconds ticked by, terrified her in a way nothing else had ever managed, because she knew, she knew she was destined to lose him and Steve both… she was going to lose them before she ever really got a chance to know them both, or before she got a chance to make a case for herself, to see if they, war heroes, could offer even a little bit of their heart to a wretched soul such as this cave proved that she was.

"Bucky! I'm coming!"

Toni winced at the reminder, frozen, still, in her place in the cave. She was a prisoner, as much as Bucky, as much as she'd been that first day.

She was going to lose him, lose them, but she wasn't ready for it to happen, she wasn't ready to see it happening—

But suddenly, suddenly she knew whose voice that was she was hearing, whose voice was becoming even clearer as it moved closer towards her, towards Bucky, in the cave.

S—Steve?

Steve? Steve was here?

Something akin to relief flooded her system, because she may not always like the man, but she knew he'd get them out, she knew he'd save them and they'd be okay.

Wouldn't they?

And then suddenly, he was there, he was beside her, he was lifting her hands, he was holding both of hers in his too-large hands, and staring down at the car battery connected to her bared chest—and then quickly meeting her eyes, holding her eyes and staring at her with that hated horror in them but quickly wiped clean and replaced by grief and compassion and a tenderness she was fast learning was hidden behind all his bull-headedness.

And then he had both of her hands in one of his as he reached tentatively towards the source of her life, curiosity in his gaze, and fascination… and where before she had never liked anyone touching it—had feared them touching it—she wasn't going to stop him, was in fact holding her breath in anticipation of what he was going to do next—

A scream tore through the caverns, blood-curdling in its intensity—Christ, she didn't even want to come close to thinking about what could make a living being make that sound, let alone Bucky, and it was him, oh it was him—and Steve jumped away from Toni immediately. They both knew who it was. They knew who it was in an instant, and they could see it reflected in each other's eyes, the guilt evident on each other's faces, the pain and self-recrimination welling up, all within a moment.

They had distracted each other.

And this was the danger of triad bonds.

She knew exactly what Steve was going to do before he did it, and she didn't even blame him—it was exactly what she would have done, given the situation, given the choice. He broke their eye contact, his shoulders slumped, but only for a moment, as he turned around… and then he firmed them once more, and raced off in the direction of the moans of their—of his—soulmate.

Well fuck if that didn't hurt.

And it was going to hurt more when she woke up and faced them and what they had subconsciously—or not so subconsciously—decided, but she may as well get up and fucking face it.

Just like she always did, even if more often than not she took the long way around.

But she wasn't going to do that by listening to her soulmates cry in each other's arms, no matter how muted the words may be as they carried down the pitted halls to her ears. Right now, that was more painful than the only option she'd ever found to deliberately expel herself from the fucking cave.

Toni didn't even steel herself before yanking the car battery from where it was tethered to her chest.


November 13th , 1944, SSR Base, London, Great Britain

Toni barely held in the scream as she shot straight up in bed, but she wasn't able to stop the jerking of her limbs as they instinctively curled up around her arc reactor in a defensive position. Toni breathed in deeply, quickly trying to gain control of her body again—she'd done this one too many times, and knew how to pull herself together again.

Dreams. Nightmares. The world, even if science could not quite explain it yet, had long since known that these dreams could affect the physical world, even on the unbonded.

And now… Toni let out a long, slow breath as she untangled her limbs, lying back on the bed and staring at the ceiling as she pressed a steady hand against the casing of the arc reactor, slipped underneath her t-shirt.

And now she'd had Steve Rogers in her dreams. If she wasn't mistaken—hell no, she wasn't, she most certainly wasn't—Barnes had been in there, too, and fuck—fuck—listening to his whispers, listening to his screams, listening to him say his name, his division, his serial number in that halting, half-dead way…

Fuck.

She had wanted to go to him so badly, to make it stop, to make whatever was hurting him stop, to whisk him away from it all, but it was as if she'd been frozen to the cot, held there by the weight of her fear—the trauma she had never fully escaped—and she couldn't move, couldn't go to him, and then Rogers had been there, and everything had just faded away…

Faded away to just them.

Steve had looked at her as if she had been important, as if she wasn't just a mere pitiable curiosity. He hadn't looked at her as if she were something to be dissected and put down, or as if she were something to be used and discarded, wanted only for what she could offer him and then no longer kept around when she had outlived her purposed.

No, instead Steve had looked at her as if she was strong all on her own merits, as if she was someone who could be trusted, as if she could be an ally, as if she was someone he wanted at his side in a fight, whatever type of fight that might be. As if she were someone that could potentially be trusted with so much more than all that.

But Steve had also looked at her as if she were something that he was fascinated by, something he was mesmerized by, something that had piqued his artist's curiosity… and she had looked at him in kind.

And then—

And then the scream had reminded them that there was another.

The scream had reminded Steve that he had already chosen.

The scream had reminded Toni that he hadn't chosen her.

And Toni had woken.

Toni threw herself from the covers and then the bed itself, staggering a little as both the cold of hardwood floors on her bare feet and a headache suddenly making itself known at the base of her skull hit her at the same time. She glanced around the room, looking for the two other occupants whose bed she had taken over, and found them wrapped around each other on a small cot on the far side of the room, close to the dying embers of a small fireplace.

They were both covered under blankets so she couldn't see much except for the top of their heads, the blond and brunet hairs intermingling in a rather beautiful way, but the way that they were shivering and shaking under the covers belied the quality of their slumber.

Toni's lips twisted, and she didn't quite know what to think, too many emotions swirling around inside of her, and the pounding of her head growing steadily worse—but certainly, irrefutably not the worst hangover she'd ever experienced.

Too much shit to wade through for her to figure out what the fuck she was feeling.

She'd just swim along and figure shit out as she went.

Toni stumbled, way less gracefully than she wished, but fuck it, to the small little bathroom that contained a toilet, a sink, and a mirror. She shut herself in, used the amenities, and then splashed cold, cold water on her face, waking herself up as best she could without coffee.

"Christ, you guys better have some real coffee here," she mumbled at her reflection.

She pulled her normally curly, but now equal parts frizzy and oily—and not the normal motor oil from her workshop, nope—hair from its bun, and redid it into some semblance of a better one, and then washed her hands, before opening the door, and leaning on the doorjamb, and just… taking in the sight before her.

She hadn't ever really stopped to think, through all the tales that Howard had told her, about how young these men had been. She hadn't even really thought about how young her father had been, until she'd seen him last night, and that hadn't sunk in truly until last night, when she'd been listening to the men tell her about their lives as they'd been drinking round after round.

It had been nice, so very nice, but it had also been informative.

It had hurt that she hadn't been asked to spend time with the captain and sergeant, but… she understood.

Toni didn't really have a place with them. Not yet. Not right now. She might in the future. Being soulmates didn't just automatically afford her a place with them; she had to work for it. She respected that. She was okay with that.

Even if it did still hurt, at least a little bit.

It's not like she could really control her feelings.

Toni took a few steps into the room, and then sat down on the edge of the bed closest to the cot. She could see James' face from this angle, but Steve's face was hidden behind his soulmate's spread out hair.

And they were most definitely James and Steve now. James looked so young in his sleep, and the stories she had heard last night, and the way that her brain could fill in the gaps of all the knowledge she'd gathered over the years, dredged up from the pits of her mind…

They were younger than they acted. They were so much younger than her thirty-eight years.

But they were also so much older. War made them older—it made them all older. James, Steve, the rest of the Howling Commandos… her father.

It made them older in a way that Afghanistan had made her older. There was no way to compare the two, but… fuck, who was she kidding? Her experience was fucking peanuts compared to what they were going through—what they had gone through, and—

"Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes. 107th Infantry Division. 32557038…" James mumbled.

Toni was up and off of her seat on the edge of the bed, hovering over James and Steve, her eyes wide with fear and realization that she had left them in the dream. She had left them in her dream, their dream, whatever the fuck it was, she had left them in there, and hadn't even thought about it, not really, when she had gotten out. She'd just assumed that their dream would switch, or that they weren't there, or, or—

"Fuck, fuck, fuck, this is my fault, shit, James, I'm so sorry, please, forgive me, come on, you gotta wake up, okay?" Toni muttered, and then she cupped James' cheeks with both hands and gave him a firm little shake.

Within moments he was awake, blinking his eyes open, alertness asserting itself almost immediately. He sat up smoothly, disentangling himself from Steve and waking him all in one motion, obviously cultivated through years of practice, years of knowing each other.

"Toni?" he queried, brushing his hair back from his eyes, and away from his forehead. "What's going on? You alright?" He sounded genuinely concerned, and Toni couldn't help but to smile softly in response.

"I'm okay. I need some coffee for sure, and my stomach's protesting something fierce, but I'm more concerned about you at the moment. You okay?" Toni cast a glance at Steve as he propped himself up on one elbow, wiping a fist across his eyes to clear the sleep from them, but then looked away before she could catch his eyes.

She looked to James again, and he was eyeing her curiously. "I'm alright, why?" he asked with an arched brow.

"You—"

"We were caught in your dream," Steve cut in, sitting up fully now, cross-legged, and reaching over to smooth his hand across James' forehead and through his hair. Something about the way he was speaking was resigned, but affectionate, but… Toni couldn't quite place it all. It had to be something unique to the two of them; to the years they had been together. "Toni was in her own," Steve continued, "and you were in yours, and then I got pulled into a weird meld of the two of them but we both heard you…" He paused, but there was a heaviness to the silence, and then James looked at him, and his face shuttered, just a little, and he stood.

By the time James was standing, he had donned a smile and cast to his eyes—though there was pain behind them, still—that could only be called Bucky, and he straightened his clothes before speaking. "I'll run and grab us something from the kitchens to tide us over until breakfast," he announced. "Steve'll chew a hole in the wall if we don't pack him full, and I'm not much better," he laughed, and the laugh reached his eyes, Toni was thankful to notice, but it was too short, and her eyes widened just a hair, and she couldn't help the instinctive movement to follow him out the door, to make sure he was okay.

A hand wrapped around her wrist—light enough not to break anything, but strong enough to hold, and Christ, that man knew exactly what amount of strength and pressure to use and when—stopped her in her tracks and pulled her back down to where she was sitting sideways on her hip on the cot, opposite Steve, in the room that he shared with his soulmate James, who had just left to get them some food.

What the hell was her life, really?

She finally caught his eyes, for the first time since he woke up, let alone since… well, she couldn't really remember, honestly, so it had to be at least the day before… He released her wrist slowly, once she relaxed onto the cot, holding his gaze the entire time. There was something electrifying about his eyes, the blue just fucking unfairly intense off of the blue of his haphazardly-buttoned uniform jacket which he'd apparently thrown on after she arrived last night.

"He'll be fine," Steve said, and she blinked, looking away from his eyes, trying to pull herself back together again. Toni looked at the door, not fully latched, though still granting privacy, and she chewed on her lip as she couldn't help but to worry for the man Steve was saying would be fine. "It's… it's not something he'll ever get over—" and here Steve's tone was edged with anger and pain and even fear, "—but it's something that he has to overcome on his own. Or, at least, this part of it."

Then there were long, slender fingers—artist's fingers, Toni thought hazilytouching her chin, tilting it around until she was meeting his eyes again, and he was searching her gaze for something, she was sure. She didn't quite know what it was, but she could probably guess, by his next words: "The other part of it, I promise, I, we help him fight. We'll help him win, help the rest of the soldiers win, too, and… Toni?" He kept his fingers against her chin, but lightly, not possessively, and they moved every so often, as if they were learning her skin… learning her.

"Yes?" she asked, quietly.

"We need all the help we can get to help us win that fight, Toni." His words were just as quiet, as if they were speaking secrets, but they weren't, not really. It… it sort of felt like it, though, with the quality of the words, the tone, the subject… what he was asking of her…

He wanted her around.

He wanted her around.

To help protect James. To fight for James.

"Yes," Toni whispered, suddenly feeling like she was no longer drifting with nowhere to go, no tether tying her down. Suddenly feeling as if she had a purpose in the past where she didn't belong, where she had been feeling less than useless, less than wanted, and where she had been pondering the many ways to return to her own time where just scant days ago she had been trying to get here. It didn't matter, suddenly, that she knew what befell these two men. She had a purpose, and she could do this, and figure everything else out as she went.

Steve held her eyes, and she his, and in them she saw more than she probably thought he wanted her to see. The bond between them had been dormant since they'd woken, as half-fulfilled bonds sometimes did, but the eyes… sometimes the eyes could tell more.

But then his fingers swept from her chin, across her jaw, and down the outside of her neck, and Toni tilted her head into the movement, her eyelids fluttering partially shut and breaking their eye contact.

It was enough to let reality sink back in. Steve didn't want her. Or, at least, not yet. And she had to respect that. There were boundaries and, as much as the media called her a slut, she never fucking moved in on another man or woman's territory.

She pulled her face gently out of Steve's hand, making the movement seem natural, and not alerting him to her thoughts with her actions, or her body language, or the expression on her face.

Silence settled over them then, though not entirely awkward, as they waited for James to return with the food. Steve stood up within moments to go to the bathroom and rinse his face in the sink, returning to the cot and sitting opposite Toni in the same position he had been earlier, as if he didn't quite know what to do with himself.

It made Toni smile, just a little, to herself, because it was such a human characteristic to this man that her father had made into a god, and it felt… reassuring, in an odd way.

It helped.

"I'm sorry."

Toni's head snapped up as Steve's words stabbed into the comfortable silence that had surrounded them. She was sure she knew what he was apologizing for, what he was going to expound on, and she would really rather avoid this conversation like every other awkward and personal conversation she had avoided in her entire life. Or, at least, tried to avoid.

But she sighed, and then she narrowed her eyes as she looked at him, knowing there was no escaping this, and then relaxed her entire body and sighed again, in a manner that accepted the inevitability of the conversation that was incoming—well, it might be a monologue, or a soliloquy, or a villain's speech, even… whatever Steve wanted to call it, as long as it was just him talking, if Toni had her way.

But damn him, he still looked so young, and it was throwing her, and even though she'd thought it earlier, she still couldn't help but to think it again, to have it sear across her brain.

It'd been so easy to get caught up in what he looked like, in Steve's serious I-mean-business attitude, that it had been all too easy to forget that he was practically a child. He was twenty-six, for God's sake.

And doing a damn fine job of keeping her attention off of the fact that he had been in a nightmare right alongside she and James.

But she respected him, she respected personal fears and demons—she wouldn't bring it up unless she had to.

Toni fidgeted a little, and looked away again. She wasn't sure what she'd expected him to say after James had left them to find something to tie Steve's super soldier metabolism over until breakfast—but it sure as fuck hadn't been sorry.

"I've been…" He hesitated, and Toni hated this conversation already, even though it sure as fuck hadn't even started yet, because she knew, she knew it would make her Feel things.

Yep. Capital letter F.

She hated feeling things.

"Look," Steve spoke up again, drawing her attention back to him as he angled himself until he faced her more directly on the small cot. "I've been unfair to you. I'm sorry. It's… We gotta be careful, right now. Soulmate or not, I couldn't take the risk of just… trusting you for the sake of it when the lives of my men depended on it. When Bucky's life depended on it. We were behind enemy lines. Even if I'd wanted to, I couldn't take a risk like that."

"But you didn't," Toni whispered, replying despite her firm determination not to—the one, single fucking time she tried to control her impulses. "You didn't want to."

She could tell he was telling the truth, and after the things Toni had seen in Rimini, she couldn't even blame him for wanting to exercise that kind of caution, because fuck him, he was too perfect, but it's exactly what she would have done, as well, so who the fuck was she to fault him?

It was even what she had been telling herself. She'd been all set to wait, to be patient, but fuck, when someone put her back up, it just made her want to fight.

But no. She didn't blame him for not trusting her right off the bat, despite the soulmate thing…

No, she blamed him for not even being willing to see what their soulmate connection meant. He had shut her down completely and instantly.

"No," Steve admitted quietly, ducking his head down and hunching his shoulders as he stared at his hands. "I didn't want to."

And it hurt.

It hurt so much more than she had thought was possible to hear the admission out loud; to have the confirmation that even her goddamned soulmate didn't want her. "Great," she said hollowly, valiantly struggling to pull up her mask, so he couldn't see how he could hurt her, shatter her with just a few words if he wanted to. "Glad we had this talk, Cap. Let's not do it again, shall we?"

"No," Steve burst out, fingers curling around her arm before Toni had the chance to pull herself away from him. "I'm not… saying this right. I'm not good at talking to dames. Women. That's… Bucky's always been the ladies' man, not me."

She stared at him, unsure of what to do—what to say, because sassing this man just meant he'd sass her back twice as hard and she had no idea what to do with any of this, and really… the look on his face, it just made her still, keeping her eyes trained on him, trying to contain the little sizzle that was spreading through her bloodstream from where the man was touching her.

But within moments, Steve loosened his grip and leaned back a little before he shrugged. "I'm selfish," he said quietly, as though it were the worst thing he'd ever admitted to, and—

Toni couldn't help herself. She snorted at him, and shook her head, pulling her arm from the loose grip of his fingers, shoving the part of her brain that protested the action into a deep dark pit. "Right. You. Captain America, golden boy, who was brave enough to let a scientist experiment on him for the good of his country, who saved three-hundred men from behind enemy lines when no one else would? You're selfish? Gimme a fucking break, Cap."

Steve's laughter surprised her, more so because of the hysterical note to it, and the acute feeling of nausea that poked through their muted connection—the first feeling of the day, and it was enough to make Toni want to make a break for the bathroom, muted as it was on her end.

His gut must be practically roiling.

"I signed up because I wanted to," Steve spit harshly, anger and hurt and resentment broiling in his blue eyes. "Because I needed to be doing something worthwhile. I didn't want to be left behind. The day Bucky got his orders…"

There was something dark, something painful tugging at their underdeveloped bond, and Toni felt at a loss. What the hell was she supposed to do? Steve continued, regardless of Toni's obvious confusion, words tumbling from his lips almost faster than he could say them, and suddenly—

—suddenly Toni realized that he'd never been able to say these things before, and that that was what she was feeling through the bond. He hadn't been able to say these things before, not even to Bucky.

His Bucky, the man who was his soulmate, his everything.

Toni was privy to something that Bucky was not, but she wasn't filled with the satisfaction that she felt she might otherwise have been. Instead… instead she felt sick, and she wasn't sure if it was because she knew, in that split second before Steve opened his mouth, what he was about to say, or if it was because she was feeling the residual effect of the punch-to-the-gut look that was on Steve's face.

Whatever it was, Toni swallowed down the bile that was pushing its way up her throat, and stilled herself as much as she could, clamping both of her hands around the other's wrists, and forcing her knees and ankles into the least obvious pattern of jittering.

Toni had to learn, and for that she had to listen.

And this… them… it, they, were important.

"The day he got his orders was the worst day of my life." Steve's eyes were a little red-rimmed and a whole lot desperate. He looked a lot sicker than he had moments before, if that were possible and, before Toni could second-guess herself, she held back her nausea—which was really his nausea, ugh, soulbonds—unravelled her hands, and reached out to tap her fingers on the back of his hand, and then rested her hand beside his knee on the cot, a handbreadth between them.

It was all she could offer, but it seemed like it might just be enough.

"He was supposed to be mine," Steve whispered, hoarse and quiet like he was admitting to the gravest of sins. "I didn't have much of anything in life, but I had my soulmate, and he was mine. And the army… the war… They were taking him from me, and I didn't want to let that happen, so I kept trying and trying, and nothing was working… but when I got the chance to join him, I took it. Not for my country, but for me.

"All I did, all my accomplishments, all of it was built on a lie. Every last bit of Captain America was formed on top of the hypocrisy that is Steve Rogers, a… a…" and his voice dropped so low that she almost couldn't hear it, "…queer who's living a lie and didn't become… this—" he gestured angrily towards his own body, "—just to save his country. I did it for me, so I could be near the man I love."

And then he just… slumped.

He looked years older than he truly was, almost even older than she was, and even with his face hidden she could see the toll that this war had taken on him; the toll the lies, the half-truths, the hiding… just… the toll everything had taken on him. He looked so weary, as if he was ready to simply pack up the shield, grab Bucky, and head home right then, but she also knew… well, she felt… that there was more there.

That he did care for his country, and Europe, and the world, and the injustices being perpetrated wholesale across the globe.

But here? In this moment? Toni wished she could say he was lying, that Steve was over-exaggerating, but she could feel how much he meant every single word and it threw her. It fit in with everything that she knew about him, but it also… didn't. There was that little bit that didn't quite fit…

Well, but then again, she didn't really know him, did she now?

Hah, well there was a depressing thought that was going to be shoved directly out of her head.

But seriously, Toni had no idea what to do here. She had no idea what to say. She had no idea where to even begin, and she doubted Pepper, or even Rhodey, as a soldier, would know where to go from here.

So Toni stayed quiet, mulling over his words, mulling over everything he'd said, parsing it, stripping it into its component parts, seeing if there was something she could use—an in, so to speak, for how she could better understand his mind and what he needed in this moment.

What they both needed—or maybe even all three of them. Actually, yes. All three of them. Christ, they were all so fucking fucked up, it wasn't even funny at this point.

Steve beat her to filling the silence—and wasn't that concerning, she should really get that looked at…

After she paid attention to Steve, because, y'know, important, life-altering confessions going on.

"I saved those men because I was looking for Bucky," he continued, eyes downcast to where his fingers had curled into the bedspread. "I would never have done it if Bucky hadn't been there. If it hadn't been his Division… all I could think about was that he was in there and if they weren't going to rescue him, would. I didn't care about anyone else. I didn't do any of it for them. I did it because couldn't bear to lose my soulmate. Everyone could rot for all I cared, and I seriously…" He made a small choking sound, but wouldn't meet Toni's eyes, still looking at his fingers. But he continued, so he must be fine. "I seriously remember thinking that that day, and even on the way there. I told myself—me, Captain America, fuck—"

And it was a mark of how fucking serious this conversation had become—or how fucking feelingsed out she'd become—that she didn't comment at all on his language except for a quick drawn in breath.

But he wasn't done yet.

He looked up at her and she was struck by the sincerity in his gaze as he changed track and whispered, voice raw, "And then you showed up. And you could take him from me again."

Oh.

Oh.

And suddenly, it made so much sense.

"Steve," she said softly, reaching over, oh so slowly, and gently uncurling his fingers from where they'd balled into fists. "I'm not trying to take him from you. That's not—it's not—"

"No," he interrupted, shaking his head and shooting her a quick, tight smile that looked nothing like the smile she had seen him give Bucky before the other man left. "I know it's not, I just…" He shrugged helplessly and looked up at her with the saddest, most self-deprecating smile she'd ever seen on anyone—including herself. "I love him. And even when I didn't have anything, I had Bucky. I guess I don't think I'm ready for that to change."

"Triads," Toni stated simply, relating his fear to what she had seen from him in her nightmare.

"They're dangerous," was all he said, his face clamming right up.

She studied him, silence dragging between them. Then finally, she admitted, more softly than she'd spoken in a long time, "They can be."

Steve met her eyes, startled, as if he hadn't expected her to agree with him. And she wasn't, not really.

"Where I'm from… when, I suppose…" she corrected with a small smile, and Steve quirked one corner of his lips in response as well. "Triads are becoming more accepted. I am not trying to convince you, Steve, just offering information that I have, and that you don't. Is that not better than being ignorant?" she asked.

Steve gritted his jaw, looked away, and then his whole body relaxed as if on command. "Go on, please," he requested quietly.

"There's been more research into triad bonds," Toni continued. "On why they form and the psychological aspects of three people loving each other, on if it is equal or if it is two plus a platonic, etcetera, etcetera. But there has also been research done on triad blindness. I… I didn't pay a ton of attention to it, but I'm sure I could remember some of it. It'll be gathering dust in my brain somewhere, and believe you me, it's a big brain. And the research was… positive. I am truly not trying to insert myself into your relationship, Steve… Captain." Toni pulled her mask over her features, but softened her eyes just a touch when she met the man's gaze.

She needed him to believe her, because she meant it. "I only go where I'm wanted, however it is I'm wanted, at least in this regard." She let the corners of her lips lift up slightly, in a small, sad smile to herself. Not for him; he wouldn't understand. Not yet. She continued, stronger, "I simply ask that perhaps you keep an open mind on the concept that triad bonds may not be as bad as you think they are; as dangerous. And they can be platonic, as well, if that is… Or…"

"Toni."

She stopped as soon as the first consonant passed his lips—she couldn't help it.

He reached towards her, but then dropped his hand to rest on his knee instead, but looked her steadily in the eye. Then, shaking his head, he reached both of his hands up and cupped her jaw firmly, but not so hard that she couldn't break free if she didn't want to, leaning that little bit closer to do so. Toni's eyes widened, and she could feel her skin heat at the contact, the blush staining her chest and rising up her neck and into her cheeks. She knew that he could see it, even with his large hands cupping half her cheeks, but it was too late to hide, and honestly when had she ever hidden from anything?

Toni Stark looked Steve Rogers head on.

"What?" she asked evenly.

"I meant what I said earlier, about having you with me, with us, to fight Bucky's war, to fight this war with us. To protect him. I want that." He gulped, and then looked up and away, briefly, his eyelashes glinting golden in the sunlight that was slowly starting to peek through the windows. "But I also… I also want…" His fingers twitched just a little against her skin and she tilted her head a fraction, curious now, whereas before she just sort of wanted to hide. Steve continued, "… you remind me of me a little, actually, which could be either bad or good, but I like to think we could be friends? And Bucky seems to like you a lot already. Uh… uh, I mean, I uh…"

"It's okay, I understand," Toni said gently as she stood smoothly, Steve's hands falling easily into his lap. And she did. She understood what he meant. She understood that he wanted to get to know her, that James did as well, and that they could use another hand in this war they were fighting. And… oh.

Oh.

Well, he had said he was queer earlier.

Maybe there wasn't room for her here in that way, at all.

And fuck, she might say the word all the time, but that was not the main drive of Toni fucking Stark, and she could damn-well be what these men needed, and them what she needed, without a fucking inch of fucking going on.

And hey, the man had given her permission to tag along with the fucking Howling Commandos.

She could die celibate and still be happy.

Well, okay, maybe not, but the sentiment was there.

Toni smiled down at Steve, one of the most open ones she'd given since she'd arrived.

"I know what you meant. I'll help you, as best I can, and help protect him. And through it all, we'll get to know each other, and get to be friends, and see what fate has in store for us, right? And I get to follow you guys around! This'll be a blast, really!"

Steve smiled a little less assuredly up at her, as if he was questioning his entire existence—and Toni couldn't help but smile, as it was a look she was entirely too familiar with—but he stood all the same, and when he did, Toni said, "Alright, well, a woman's gotta do what a woman's gotta do. I'm gonna go find the showers, wherever the hell they are, I figure I'll run into them eventually, but damn I need them! I smell six ways to Sunday, and you seriously are from the forties if you haven't mentioned it by now, so… yeah, see ya!"

And with that, sparing not a single glance for the man, she was out the door, not even missing a beat as she changed her angle to barely avoid a half-smiling, half-confused James with a blown kiss, and giving a little wiggle of her fingers to Dugan, who tipped his hat to her with a little smirk, and Peggy Carter, who managed to sweep Toni from head to toes and right back up a good two or three times in the five seconds it took to get by them in the crowded, narrow hall.

But finally she got by.

"Fuck," Toni grumbled to herself, halfway down the stairs at the end of the private corridor. "I forgot to bitch out Captain fucking America for taking over my fucking dream. Asshole."

But there wasn't much heat to it at all.

Chapter Text

"Fuck," Toni grumbled to herself, halfway down the stairs at the end of the private corridor. "I forgot to bitch out Captain fucking America for taking over my fucking dream. Asshole."

Bucky seriously couldn't be faulted for not being able to hold in the bark of laughter that erupted from his throat. It was either that, or he was going to choke. That woman… He shook his head in fond exasperation. Not even the harsh memory of his dream could tarnish the bright feeling inside him at hearing her words and the way she said them, because there was just something so… so… so irreverent, so unique, so… Toni about it all, and he was fast becoming fascinated and drawn in by her, intrigued and distracted and—

Well, that way lay its own brand of quicksand.

He'd meant what he said to Steve. It had been him and Steve for over a decade, and he had believed it would be him and Steve to the end of line. He wasn't opposed to there being a third with them—he wasn't opposed to Toni being with them—but he understood the primal fear in Steve's mind when it came to the subject.

He wouldn't do anything unless it felt right for all of them.

But it didn't mean he couldn't be amused by her. It didn't mean he didn't want to be her friend. It didn't mean that he couldn't laugh at the way she spoke, even if it was—only slightly—deriding Steve.

'Captain fucking America,' hah.

Nothing they hadn't heard before, from sneering fellow-soldiers to giggly USO dancing girls, but there was a certain fond quality to the way Toni said it…

Bucky wasn't too sure what would have changed between his best guy and his… his Toni in the time he'd been raiding the kitchen, but it certainly suggested they'd at least found some common ground. He hoped it wasn't foolish to hope Stevie hadn't shoved his foot right back in his mouth on the first opportunity.

"What's the kerfuffle, sergeant?" a lilting voice intruded on his musings, and Bucky pulled himself out of his thoughts and back to his surroundings with only a little reluctance.

"Well hello my dearest Agent Margaret Elizabeth Carter." Bucky pasted on his brightest smile as he turned, winking teasingly at Peggy as he ducked the playful swipe of her hand towards his temple.

It was all in good fun.

He and Peggy got on like a house on fire. The look on Steve's face when he'd realized this and was forced to resign to his fate was still burned into Bucky's memory. It still made him crack up, even now. He'd known from the moment they'd met that she was no wilting flower or a weak-kneed dame. Peggy was a woman with more moxie than any man Bucky had ever met.

"Good morning, Sergeant Barnes," Peggy chuckled, crossing her arms as she regarded him with a raised eyebrow and a look in her eye so knowing that it nearly made Bucky squirm on the spot.

She always did see right through him.

She'd known about him and Steve before she'd ever even seen them together, before she'd ever seen them breathe in the same air—

Before she'd witnessed Bucky tear his stupid punk a new one for signing himself up for an experimental, damn-well near-lethal treatment the second Bucky turned his goddamned back.

Stupid. His stupid fucking fella.

Steve was just lucky he'd worked off most of his anger ranting at Peggy by the time he'd seen him in person after… that. Plus, well, there was Azzano…

Bucky suppressed a shiver at the reminder of the place that had thoroughly undone so much of who he was, and then a flash of his nightmare from barely an hour ago ran through his mind and he forcibly blocked it out, thinking of anything but… that.

Peggy. Yes, her.

The woman who had latched onto his and Steve's secret long before anyone else. She'd known who and what they were, and hadn't given one shit about it. Peggy was… she was Peggy, and he loved her in his own way, just as Steve did, and they would do whatever the hell it took to protect her—as long as she didn't think they were deliberately protecting her, because damn, they'd be castrated if she ever thought that. They would protect her, just like they promised her that they'd protect her soulmate, the man who was everything to her—

"You look positively knackered," Peggy remarked dryly, patting his cheek gently in a gesture that would be condescending coming from anyone but their Peggy. It grounded him, pulling him easily from the mental precipice he was perched on, and he leaned into the touch slightly before she let her hand fall. Peggy dropped her voice then, even though she knew the hallway contained only the rooms of the Howling Commandos. "Does that mean we'll be finding our dearest captain in a similar state?"

Bucky snorted a laugh as she waggled her eyebrows at him, nearly dropping the cloth sacks filled with food that he had snatched from the cookery.

Before he could, Dugan swept in—where the fuck had he come from?—and rescued the bags from his loose grip. "Lemme get that, Bucky-Bear."

Bucky mock-glared at the other man—that stupid Captain America propaganda had grown to surround them all and of course he was the one that got the worst of it. Stupid Bucky bears… the men couldn't get enough of teasing him about that. But Bucky let it slide, as usual, and saw the trajectory Dugan was aiming for, Peggy reaching for the door to hold it open for the burly man.

He shook his head to clear his thoughts, and then called out, "Hey doll, we got guests!"—using that nickname in front of others just to piss Stevie off—before following Peggy and Dugan into his and Steve's room at the top of the S.S.R. dorm.

"Shoulda known you three was making all the ruckus." Bucky grinned at his fella in response, his sight going soft around the edges as he looked at Steve sitting cross-legged on top of the tiny cot they'd slept on, hair ruffled and the curve of his lips still soft with sleep. Stevie's Brooklyn always came in thicker when he was tired. "You coulda woken up the whole regiment. They'll have your heads."

"Monty's downstairs getting ready to head off to see the wife and his little ladies," Dugan said as he crossed the room to the small table to the right of the fireplace, in front of the small window that showed just the faintest hint of frost still clinging to it despite the warmth inside the room. Dugan set the two cloth sacks down on the table and started to pull out the breakfast items that Bucky had raided from the kitchen for him and Steve—it looked like they'd be sharing, at least a little. Peggy sat in one of the chairs at the table, but pushed herself away from the table a good foot as she crossed her ankles one over the other, making no motion towards the food.

Perhaps they wouldn't be sharing after all—Peggy had never asked too many questions about Bucky's elevated need for food. He knew that he ate enough to rival Steve's appetite, and that it probably made people… curious.

Still, she said nothing. Steve said nothing. Bucky said nothing.

Even though he wondered… even though he craved an answer for what was done to him, for why he came out of Azzano the way he did, for why he was a changed man, in more than one way, and likely in ways he couldn't even guess at. Not yet, at least.

For now it was best for all of them to just… pretend.

Pretend he was perfectly alright, perfectly normal.

Because once he knew… if there really was something changed about him… there was no going back. There would be consequences, and Bucky didn't mind admitting he was scared of what those would be. Didn't mind admitting he was scared of knowing how he'd been changed, what he only suspected he could do now, after Azzano.

He didn't mind admitting it—to himself, at least.

It was best to just lock it all away, and not to look deep. As much as he craved an answer… he also feared that answer.

"The rest," Dugan continued, and Bucky lazily returned his attention back to the large man, "are likely still swimming in so much ale that I imagine they'll be asleep for another four, five hours. It's their day off and it's only seven in the morning, plus the men weren't even in bed until four, I don't think. We brought Toni here a little before that, maybe… three thirty, three forty-five?" He glanced around inquisitively as he placed the last item on the table and folded the sack up, tucking it to the side absently. "She had more to drink than the rest—I'm surprised she's not still sleeping, or cursing us to the moon and back. Where is she, anyway?" he asked.

"Didn't you hear her, Timothy?" Peggy asked. It was obviously rhetorical, as she answered her own question immediately with a little smile playing at her lips, "She went to find the showers so as not to, apparently—and I'm paraphrasing here—offend us with her smell." Peggy smirked a little at that, and Bucky couldn't help but smile in response, his body relaxing minutely at the evidence that maybe, just maybe, Peggy would like his soulm—Toni—that she would like Toni.

What a fucking mess, honestly.

"Yeah, yeah," grumbled Dugan good-naturedly. But then his voice softened, and his eyes turned inward, a frown tugging at his lips. "I heard her. Saw her, too. She looked as spooked as I've seen her yet, something wild in her eyes that she was trying to hide. A shower and food will do her good, but I think she'll need more than that to set herself to rights—if she even can. I've seen…" His voice lowered, and his face scrunched up. "I've seen men who… succumbed… who look more at peace than she does."

He whispered the word 'succumbed' as if it were a dirty word—and it practically was. It was a dirty word, truly, though they knew they could all trust each other with talking about it. Those who succumbed to battle fatigue, those whom Dugan was referencing… it was dangerous to succumb. There had been cases of men facing the firing squad if they succumbed.

But Toni… it was true. Dugan was right. There had been moments he'd looked into her eyes, or observed her from a distance… and there was something truly awful hounding her.

"Yeah," Steve murmured, looking down at his hands as he broke the silence that had followed Dugan's statement. "There's… something going on with her, and we only know so much. I'd like to help more, but…" He trailed off, then stood and walked slowly towards the table, not meeting anyone's eyes. They all watched him in silence as he grabbed bread, a chunk of cheese, an apple, and a paring knife, then turned back towards the fireplace. He didn't sit back down on the cot, however, and seemed frozen, staring down into the flames, his posture stiffening with every passing second. At least he was standing close enough that Bucky could reach his hand out and touch him if he needed to.

And he likely would need to. Bucky couldn't feel a damn thing from Steve's mind, from their bond, and though that wasn't unusual of late, in the war… it troubled him, still. When Steve blocked himself off, it wasn't always… good.

Scratch that—it almost never was with the punk. And he knew—he knew—that his nightmare from earlier had included both his soulmates, not just Toni, and Steve… Steve was trying to pretend like nothing had happened. Like he hadn't even been there. Always trying to protect Bucky from his own anguish, like the stubborn little punk he still was inside.

"Well, I suppose there's no sense beating around the bush. Care to tell me more about this… Toni? Antonia?" Peggy mused in that confident way she had—a way that said she wasn't backing down, and knew that she was prodding Steve. The woman was damn good at handling the punk where even Bucky failed.

"Toni," Steve replied, his shoulders finally relaxing. He turned around, and Bucky was pleased to see an openness to Steve's expression even though he was still closed off mentally. He sliced a piece of cheese off, the apple and bread tucked into his elbow, and moved to stand even closer to Bucky. Bucky transferred his items into one hand and then reached his arm out and wrapped it around the waist of his fella, drawing him in closer. They didn't need to hide around Peggy and Dum Dum, and Bucky was pleased to hear that Steve's voice was a little more relaxed as he replied, "She made it rather clear she disliked her full name," with a bit of a smirk before biting into the cheese and leaning more fully into Bucky's embrace.

"Duly noted," Peggy retorted dryly. She reached across the table and squeezed Dugan's elbow lightly before pulling back to sit upright in her chair once more—there was nothing they needed to hide in front of Steve and Bucky, either.

"What does Philips know?" Dugan, always perceptive, inquired.

Peggy shot a glance at the man, and then looked to Bucky, raising her eyebrows.

"We told him Toni's my soulmate," Bucky stated as he reached out and grabbed his own loaf of bread, cheese, and paring knife.

"But not Steve's." Dugan stated more than asked.

"Not Steve's, that's correct," Peggy confirmed, relaxing into the chair.

"So then what did he make of you kissing her hand last night, huh Steve?" Dugan teased. He eyed the food, then both Steve and Bucky, and deliberately moved his hands into his lap.

"Keeping Howard away from her," Steve mumbled.

Dugan caught the words anyway and looked like he was going to break into a fit of laughter. "You didn't really think that one through, didya?"

Steve colored—God, Bucky was so grateful that that hadn't been 'fixed' with the serum—and shook his head reluctantly. "Nope. Philips told me I was an idiot and said to keep my brain focused on battle tactics and not on relationship tactics. I think that was the closest to laughter I've ever seen him. I mean, she's my 'platonic' soulmate's soulmate, so I think that's the only reason he let it go, but…"

He raked a hand through his hair and then accepted the slice of apple Bucky passed him off of his knife with a smile. He took a bit and chewed for a moment before swallowing and continuing. "When Howard finds out she's Bucky's soulmate only, it won't be as good of protection as if she were mine, but we'll make do. Since she's, publicly, Bucky's, and Bucky's mine, we have societal privileges we wouldn't normally have. It'll all work out." He stated the last firmly, and caught Bucky's eye as he turned his head slightly to the side.

They'd make sure to keep an eye out for Howard's well-known… attentions… towards Toni.

"She didn't look at all comfortable with him—like she saw a ghost or something," Dugan added in what they were all thinking, from the encounter during the middle of the night after they deplaned.

"Yeah, exactly. But we'll make sure he knows she's mine," Bucky said, looking back towards the other two.

Peggy sighed and then sent a glare in Bucky's direction. "She's not anyone's, James. She's her own woman, and you know it."

Steve sniggered, and Bucky rolled his eyes in his direction. The other man was facing them again, at least, Bucky was glad to see—even if he wanted to punch him in the arm at the moment.

"Yes, I know, Agent Carter," Bucky teased back.

A tiny uptick at the corner of her mouth was her only response before she moved the subject back to where she so obviously wanted it. "But she is both of yours soulmate, correct? Not yours, per se, but she does have your marks, and there was obviously a physical connection between all three of you, yes?"

They'd never had a reason to hide anything with Peggy, and it wasn't like they wanted to start.

"Yes," Dugan answered for them both.

Steve simply took a large bite of his apple and nodded.

Sigh. Well. It wasn't like it wasn't the truth, which Bucky had already been set on, anyway.

"Yes," he confirmed, then took a bite of his own apple.

"But you're only telling Philips that she's yours, James?" Peggy continued, unfazed.

"Yup." He popped the 'p' just to be obnoxious.

Peggy didn't even bat an eyelash even as Dugan smirked.

"First phase bond, correct?" she asked.

"Yes," Steve replied softly.

She didn't push beyond that, for which Bucky was exceedingly grateful. He shot her a relieved glance, though only after making sure Steve was looking down at his knife as he carved out another piece of cheese. They were going to have enough problems with them between the two—three—of them as it were. But…

"We're figuring it out," Bucky said, just as softly. It didn't hurt to let people know their limitations. People they could trust, at least.

"But for now…" Peggy began carefully, "you will have to decide what being her public soulmate will entail. We all know how the propaganda machine enjoys blowing things out of proportion. Steve and I will have to… continue what we are doing. It seems to amuse the masses well enough."

"What did you tell Philips about where we found her?" Dugan inquired.

"Bombed out house, rest of her group killed, member of some Italian-American resistance that was trying to cause trouble for the Germans. Bucky's mark appeared so you made your way over, had your rendezvous, and then she stuck to your side like glue since then. That about sum it up?" Peggy raised an eyebrow, and then smirked at Dugan's attempt to hold back his smile in response to her summation. "Now tell me the truth," she directed towards all three of them.

Bucky and Steve caught each other's eye, and Steve obviously caught on to Bucky's plea to say something, because he opened his mouth to reply. To fill in the gaps, deliver the truth. "Neither of us actually had any clue that new marks had appeared on us. It's been a while since… well, since we could really look." The tips of his ears turned pink, and damn, if that wasn't the cutest flippin' thing ever. Steve cleared his throat. "We saw a bright green and blue light near to where we were going to set up camp and decided to check it out before we called an actual halt. And then she was just… there, when the light disappeared. On the ground, us surrounding her, and she… she knew who we were. It was…" He grasped for the right word, trying to speak, but his voice broke and then he fell silent.

Bucky reached out and grabbed his hand, squeezing it gently as he took up the thread of the conversation. "It was freaky," he settled on. And it was. More than just her knowing who they were. Having a third soulmate? A true triad? Even if everyone believed that he and Steve were still platonic, it was considered improper. Disrespectable. No… more than that. It was considered anathema to their society, even worse than inverts like he and Steve. Steve squeezed his hand, drawing him back, and Bucky looked at the sober faces of Peggy and Dugan, who he knew had followed his thoughts right along with him. "It was freaky," he repeated firmly. "And then we touched and that was when we knew." He fell silent, as if that was all that needed to be said. And perhaps it was, but one look from Peggy had him continuing again after a moment, admitting to everything; filling Peggy in on the most important piece of information they'd left out when speaking to Philips. "She said she's from the future, and, and…"

"You believe her?" Peggy asked, calm as can be, no telling how she felt about it.

"… Yeah." Steve said at the same time as Bucky released a breath and added in his own, "Yes."

Peggy looked towards Dugan and he shrugged before saying, "Woman knows things she shouldn't, and some things that make no sense, came out of a light that disappeared into the sky, and has a device trapped in her chest that looks like nothing I've ever seen—not even something Hydra could come up with, despite the blue color. She's years ahead of us, and I'd stake my name on that."

It was Dugan's words that seemed to settle it for Peggy, though Bucky knew she took Steve and Bucky's opinions to heart as well. "Okay," Peggy said with a shrug. "Well, we've seen strange things. Why not time travel?"

Wasn't much any of them could say in response to that. Wasn't much they could say to any of it, including the triad bond, so they didn't. They just moved right along. Bucky squeezed Steve's hand once more before dropping it.

"So what's to be done with her?" Dugan asked.

"I—" Steve started.

"Philips wants—" Bucky said at the same time.

They both paused and looked at each other before Steve smiled and nodded at Bucky to continue. "We're not really sure. I think Philips wants to meet with her in person before figuring out what to do with her. She proved herself an asset, we trust she's on our side, but there's not really anything positive in the record for allowing a soulmate—at least if it's a woman, sorry Peggy—to follow her partner into the field. Especially… well, especially with the sensitive ops we pull off. The info we need to know to complete them. It's… sensitive. Personally, and I agree with you, Dum Dum, I think she'd be an asset, and I know damn well that she won't just let us gallivant off without her… there's something…"

He looked at Steve, felt the faintest hint of jealousy coming through the otherwise locked-up bond, and then pulled himself back. "She's strong. Bull-headed. In a different way than you, Carter." He shot a smirk in her direction. "I… well, like I said, Philips wants to speak with her on his own." He finished lamely, hands spread out, only the knife and a bit of bread remaining.

"You'll have to go over the details with her before she goes to see Philips, and then make sure she tells you what she told him, so that none of you tell him something that contradicts whatever someone else told him." Peggy uncrossed and then crossed her ankles again, one foot bouncing slightly and the only sign of her slight agitation. But for her it was a fairly… large sign. Troubling.

They all fell quiet, and Steve and Bucky reached out and grabbed some more food from the table, chewing on it as they mused.

"Well, as long as she proves herself," Dugan finally added lamely. All they could do was nod. What more was there to say?

Lots, Bucky thought. But that was between Steve and him. Steve and him and Toni.

"So…" Dugan ventured into the silence that seemed to be getting more awkward the longer they stood there. "What's the next mission?"

Peggy seemed to jump happily into the opening granted to her. "I don't know much except it's a rescue op. The plans are still being worked on and I think there's one more report due, then Philips and I will finalize, and we'll call you in. Won't be more than a day or two until we get that report—but if we don't, we have other plans in place."

Steve straightened at the change of subject. "Where's the op planned for?" he half-asked, half-demanded.

"Belgium. Breendonk," Peggy answered, voice lowered as if that would make the horror of the place any less awful.

Bucky drew in a sharp breath. He couldn't help it. Because…

Breendonk.

Lord.

It wasn't Birkenau or Ravensbrück, but the fort in Belgium had a reputation that lived on a different plane entirely. So few that went in came out, and when they did, they were never the same. Bucky hadn't personally spoken to any survivors, but he knew that Peggy had, and the tales they had shared were… horrifying. Torture chambers and forced labor and beatings whenever one of the crueler SS-guards simply felt like it…

He didn't need to know more to feel sick to his stomach. He had always had an entirely too vivid imagination.

Suddenly, it was all Bucky could do to keep a straight face, to keep his breathing even, and his eyes open, but not too open because that would give him away. It would give away that all Bucky could picture in his mind's eye was the horror of Azzano. The cells, the frightened faces of men who never came back after they were hauled away, the slab that Bucky had been tied to, and the masked faces of the men who had bent over him in the darkness, holding him down even more so that the awful man—Zola, he'd found out his name later—could inject him with… with something.

Something that had changed him into who he was now. Something that… frightened him at times because he didn't recognize himself on the inside anymore.

Not fully. Not truly.

It was all he could do to grab another apple and the jar of milk from the table, and then turn and sit on the edge of the bed. It was all he could do to eat and drink methodically, giving his mind something to do, and a way to occupy his face so that nothing would come across.

But by the way that Steve opened up and pressed his mind right up against his, by the way Peggy squeezed his shoulder on her way out the door—he missed what she was leaving to go do, but was at least able to offer a smile and a soft "Goodbye"—and by the way that Steve sat at the table and engaged Dugan in conversation, distracting him from looking too hard or long at Bucky… he had failed.

He'd failed again.

Breendonk.

Azzano.

Fuck.


Toni was aware of those around her in the halls of the de facto S.S.R. headquarters in that way that people were aware of each other in the organized chaos of native New Yorkers in Times Square—meaning, she wasn't aware of anyone whatsoever and she simply operated on autopilot, swinging around faceless bodies, not even aware of if they were man or woman, as she made her way to the women's shower in the basement.

She'd run into Falsworth in the main hall of the dorm after she'd headed downstairs, and he had directed her towards the showers. Toni was still reeling from just… everything, and the sad, understanding little smile that had sat on his lips beneath the sweep of his moustache had been one raw, unvarnished, truthful emotion too many for her—piled on top of all the others of the morning, of the nightmare, of the previous night and the Howling Commandos' stories.

She knew that he knew. She knew they all knew, from the way they looked at her, at them, and the way that Dugan had brought her here, to their rooms, last night when she'd drank too much.

It was better to just… lock it up for now. If she could. So she'd smiled her best smile at Falsworth, wished him the best as he visited his wife and daughters—see, she could remember things about other people if she wanted to—and then meandered her way down to the showers.

She honestly didn't remember much of what happened in between that and when she slammed against the tile of the shower wall, naked, with both forearms and fists bracing her against the wall and providing privacy—along with the increasingly heavy curtain of her hair as it was saturated by the irregular and lukewarm spray from the shower head behind her.

There was no one in there with her. Not currently, at least, but anyone could come in at any time. She didn't care, but for now… for now, she needed peace. For now, she needed to be alone, even if it was for a split second before another woman walked in and started to strip, to wash, to dry, to leave.

Toni closed her eyes, shutting them tight and breathing, inhaling deep before she pressed her forehead against the tile, keeping her face out of the stream as best she could, and let the tepid water run over her back, run down, down, over her hips, her thighs, knees, calves, ankles, down the drain, gone, gone

She was just so fucking tired already, and she was still trying to process everything Steve had said to her, everything that had been going on… It was hard. So hard.

"I'm lost, J." Toni whispered the same three words she'd only said a handful of times over the years since she had breathed him into existence.

"I am not, miss—let me guide you."

And with those words, and with that voice, Toni pressed her cheek against the watch—waterproof like everything she made these days… those days, whatever—and let herself break into tears for the first time since she'd made her grand entrance—much like everything else she did in life—into the past, and into the lives of people with whom she had no idea where she belonged.

There was nothing controlled about her in that moment. Her shoulders were shaking violently, tears streaming down her cheeks and mixing with the water, sobs barely kept silent—only long practice kept them from getting loose—and her knees no longer supported her so she sunk to the cold, tiled bottom of the shower.

Her thoughts were no more organized. For all the power of her brain, when she reached this level of a breakdown, there was no way that she could follow any proper thought.

Except one—at least in that moment.

"J, I'm so glad you're here with me," she whispered over and over again, and she let his responses soothe her soul just enough that within a few moments her shaking, her tears, came to an end. She was able to breathe more regularly, but still took in a giant breath, letting it out slowly and shakily.

She repeated it until she could finally hear herself think.

Which wasn't… exactly a good thing.

There were so many things that Toni's mind could have latched onto, so many things she could have set herself to problem-solving… but instead Toni decided to focus on her soulmates.

More specifically on how much she longed for them, and the unfairness of it all. How she couldn't have them, but wanted them, and yet she should just let it lie… let it all lie and find herself someone else. Find her way back to the future, find herself someone that wanted her, and not… not two men who were about to die.

Two men who likely had zero interest in women, let alone Toni. She'd not seen anything to contradict her theory except for some fascination on the part of James—for her tech.

She was likely soulmated to two gay men, who had zero interest in her, and likely thought that she was here to try to poach their partner.

As if she would fucking ever.

The visceral fear in Steve's eyes when he'd tried to explain why he'd acted the way he did wouldn't leave her alone, though.

She could see his fear that she was here to take away everything that he held dear. James. Bucky.

And…

And even if they did want her, even if they were interested in a triad after all… they were about to die. In less than two months. And there wasn't a damn fucking thing she could do about it. She knew that, for all they called her the futurist, you didn't fuck with the past in the hopes of making the future better.

But… but what was so wrong about saving Captain America and his soulmate, Sergeant James Barnes? They were heroes, and surely only good could come of making sure they lived.

And then anger overtook her, bringing her in an entirely different direction. Even if she stayed here, she didn't have to just sit pretty and let those two decide her romantic—or sexual—future. Here she'd been, all set on helping them, acceding to what they decided was best… and what the fuck? Since when did Toni fucking Stark bow to the whims of anyone else, especially when they were making decisions that affected her personal life?

"What the hell was I thinking?" she murmured into the crook of her elbow.

"Was that a rhetorical question, miss?" J asked, with just a hint of teasing.

"I don't need your sass, boy," Toni grumbled, though she let a smile tug at the corners of her mouth. Oh, how she'd longed to speak with him these last few days, but she just couldn't risk it…

"Of course not, miss. What do you need instead?" he asked. Always trying to please, her boy…

She grunted. "I don't have to be celibate if those two dumbasses don't want me! If I'm 'platonic' to them, then I can have a relationship without them, and they have no say! Fuck them! Yeah! ...ugh. Fuck them. I don't want them. I don't… Damn it."

She sighed.

But the fact of the matter was, she did want them. There was nothing about this soulbond that felt platonic to her. Nothing whatsoever. There was an unmistakable draw she felt towards them, and it was more than just looks. It was… everything. They were… they were her soulmates, and she felt it deep within her, that knowledge that they should be more.

But…

"No, you certainly don't need their permission for that, miss," JARVIS replied consolingly. "But what, may I ask, will you do with them? Whether platonic or not, soulmates are brought into a person's life for some important reason or other. Or am I interpreting the literature incorrectly?"

Fuck.

What the fuck was she going to do? She needed to figure shit out, decide something, and seriously, most days she had problems deciding between Captain Crunch and Froot Loops for breakfast.

Some days she poured them both together and ate them that way and they tasted so good and she just bet that Bucky and Steve would taste delectable together because she knew there was no way in hell she'd be able to choose between—

"Oh my God…" Toni groaned as she smacked her forehead against the wall a couple of times a little harder than was probably good for her.

Of course her brain had gone down the sexual path. Again. Couldn't she get her mind out of the fucking gutter and stop objectifying them? But… they were her soulmates.

No. Nope. Still shouldn't be doing that.

"Miss?" JARVIS inquired gently.

Toni paused to gather her haphazard thoughts into the appropriate—well, 'correct' was likely a much more accurate term, because there was no fucking thing appropriate about this—words and then answered in a soft grumble, used to baring all her secrets to JARVIS. "I can't let myself be like one of those fetishizing bitches who just want two men all for their own selfish viewing pleasure, J. I mean, they're smoking hot, and I'll admit to liking gay porn, okay, you caught me—but hell, you know my entire browsing history, you great big stalker—but I could never stand for… that. And I can't do that here. I can't fantasize about them if they don't want me, and even with whatever ruse they concoct to explain away my presence and our soulmarks, I've been given my marching orders, and I need to respect that."

Before she could continue, a voice intruded, just loud enough to be heard over the spray of the now-cold water. "Good."

Chapter Text

"Miss?" JARVIS inquired gently.

Toni paused to gather her haphazard thoughts into the appropriate—well, 'correct' was likely a much more accurate term, because there was no fucking thing appropriate about this—words and then answered in a soft grumble, used to baring all her secrets to JARVIS. "I can't let myself be like one of those fetishizing bitches who just want two men all for their own selfish viewing pleasure, J. I mean, they're smoking hot, and I'll admit to liking gay porn, okay, you caught me—but hell, you know my entire browsing history, you great big stalker—but I could never stand for… that. And I can't do that here. I can't fantasize about them if they don't want me, and even with whatever ruse they concoct to explain away my presence and our soulmarks, I've been given my marching orders, and I need to respect that."

Before she could continue, a voice intruded, just loud enough to be heard over the spray of the now-cold water. "Good."

Toni whirled around, practically falling on her ass in the process because one hand went to instinctively cover the arc reactor and the other one was held out in front of her, repulsor whining as it charged up, glove fully encasing her hand from watch to fingertips. She didn't have an extra arm to steady herself, but she was able to somehow maintain her footing and defensive stance on the wet floor without making a complete fool of herself.

"Well that's certainly something you don't see every day," her aunt—nope, not her aunt, not yet at least—remarked dryly from where she was leaning, arms crossed, against the door frame of the shower room. "Even these days," she added as if in afterthought.

Toni's brain stuttered to a rare halt. "Um," was all she seemed capable of uttering, even as her mind started to boot up again in blind panic. Peggy. Showers. Naked. Tech.

Tech. Tech exposed in the past. Paradoxes. Timelines. Fuck, oh fuck.

She had heard Toni talking to JARVIS—and pretty much objectifying the soulmates who didn't want her, whom Peggy was fiercely protective of—she could see her arc reactor, and she had a repulsor pointed clearly and blatantly in her face.

All stuff which she'd hoped to keep as quiet and to herself as possible, and here she was pretty much hanging her laundry out for everyone and anyone to see.

Goddammit.

Yet she couldn't quite get her body or her mind to cooperate. Not yet. She was still pointing her repulsor right at the woman who could make her life more difficult than anyone else in the past if Peggy set her mind to it, and yet she couldn't boot her brain properly back to life.

She was working on it, okay?

"So it's true then," Peggy continued, pushing herself away from the door frame with her shoulder and then walking slowly but confidently into the shower room with Toni. She didn't show an ounce of fear—that was Peggy for you, alright—at the piece of futuristic tech pointed at her. Even if Peggy knew exactly what the repulsor could do to her, Toni doubted that she would bat an eye in the face of it.

Especially not when wielded by some wet, naked, wild-looking woman in the shower.

Yeah, no.

Toni would have laughed if their positions were switched. Peggy was the epitome of Ms. Manners by comparison.

Toni lowered her hand, tapping her thumb, pinky, and ring finger together at the same time in order to force the weapon to retract back into the watch, brain finally giving her back an ounce of control. Even though Toni didn't really know this Peggy—weren't they the same? no?—she knew that the woman wouldn't be a threat towards her. Not unless she posed a threat to Peggy or those who were hers… such as Steve and James.

Well. Maybe she should have kept her guard up, because apparently all she was was a walking threat to the men meant to be her soulmates.

She should have kept up her physical guard, that is. Emotional? Mental? Psychological? All of those guards would be in full force, no matter who it was she was around. No matter if they were practically family, like Peggy, or her soulmates, she'd need to continue to keep her guard up at all times, never letting it lapse.

Especially around her soulmates.

She knew where she wasn't wanted. And as much as she had vowed to Steve… No, Rogers… that she would protect James… No matter that, she knew she would not be mourned if she disappeared without a goodbye. She was an added complication that everyone would be glad to be rid of.

So… how should she proceed? Obviously Peggy—Ms. Carter… yeah, that was a much better way to separate this woman from her aunt in her mind—had seen the watch, and obviously she already knew that she was from the future. No surprise there, and she had sort of figured it would happen eventually, anyway—even if she really didn't want it to. But what else did Ms. Carter know? Did she know about the whole… soulmate thing?

"Ms. Rhodes?" Peggy said archly, voice cutting right through Toni's thoughts—much like it had when she was younger… older… whatever, this was so fucking tiring, God.

She was so done with all of this, honestly. She was tired and just wanted to go home, but there was a woman who needed answered before she could set her mind back to the problem, the solution, of getting home.

"Um," Toni couldn't help but stammer again, and Toni just wanted to facepalm at herself. God, Peggy had always been able to do that to her. She'd need to try better, do better, be better at this if she had any hope of surviving this until she could get home. Whatever this was. "Hang on a moment, please." Couldn't hurt to be polite.

She'd totally forgotten that she'd given Rhodey's last name as her own when she'd first arrived. Goddamn it, she needed to be more on point or she'd really fuck things up—and for more than just herself. There was so much shit riding on all of this, and the smallest thing could ruin her, ruin others… kill people.

She couldn't do that. She had to be better. She had to.

Peggy inclined her head and moved to one of the benches set between the lockers that were a few yards away. She crossed her ankles in that delicate English way she'd always had—strong as Ms. Carter was, she'd still always managed to pull off delicate, as well, in a way that Toni had never quite been able to emulate—and watched out of the corner of her eye as Toni wrung out her hair as best she could, quickly toweled herself off, and walked unashamedly naked towards her stack of clothes.

"I have some clothes you can wear, Ms. Rhodes," Peggy said before she could even lay an outstretched hand on the clothes in front of her. She turned, still naked, still unashamed, towards Peggy, who got back up and grabbed a sack from just outside of the doorway that she'd previously been standing in. She strode back in, eyes locked on Toni's, and handed her the bag, then sat back down in her previous position as Toni pulled the items out one at a time.

Well. She'd always loved Aunt Peggy's fashion sense, honestly, which had then went on to inform her own choices in fashion as she entered the public stage, even at a young age. Toni was actually rather excited at the thought of dressing in the clothes that Aunt Peggy—damn it, Ms. Carter—had chosen for her.

Toni smiled at what she saw as she set the items on the bench in front of her. Yes. It seemed that even in war Peggy dressed with practicality and style.

Well, except for the underwear. Toni wasn't sure there were any good kinds of underwear in this day and age.

Grimacing, she quickly pulled the beige panties and brassiere on. Next came something that was much more stylish—and practical, she was pleased to see. The dark grey pencil skirt was trimmed with black lace which covered panels acting as slits for better movement. For ass-kicking, more like it, while still managing to cover any potentially exposed thigh with the lace. Peggy—her Peggy, but of course that applied to the woman she had been in the past as well—had always been able to kick men's asses even while in dresses and skirts—or on one memorable occasion, in nothing at all. That had really been something to see, and teenage Toni had taken that confidence and sheer badassery to heart.

She finished buttoning up the skirt with a small smile playing on her lips, and then reached down for the next item of clothing, relishing in the beautiful texture of the fabric beneath her fingertips.

"Aren't you going to say something about it?" Toni suddenly muttered confrontationally, mood changing swiftly, only realizing as she buttoned the red blouse up over the thick beige camisole—thick enough to hide the bright blue light—that Ms. Carter hadn't said a word about the arc reactor. She remembered clearly the other woman's eyes dipping briefly down to look at it when Toni had first spun around to face her, but after that Ms. Carter's eyes had remained above the chest. Out of politeness or what, Toni wasn't sure. Peggy had always been hard to read, much as her aunt had taught her to read others over her childhood.

"It's not my business unless I believe that it will pose a threat to myself or others—or even yourself, if I may add." Ms. Carter definitely wasn't asking.

"Finally, someone with some common courtesy," Toni grumbled as she flipped her wet hair out from under the collar of her blouse, grabbing the elastic she always kept on her wrist and quickly throwing her long hair up in a bun that would do for the moment; she didn't want to ruin the lines of the lovely jacket that Ms. Carter had loaned—given?—her with her mop of wet hair.

"Let me guess, one of the men demanded answers?" Peggy—Ms. Carter—guessed with a wry tone. She definitely knew her friends, no doubt about that.

"Yeah," Toni answered shortly. "Gave me shit about it, too."

"Hm, how about another guess? A certain blond saw glowing blue and equated it with Hydra's weaponry?" Ms. Carter snorted—again, very delicately, damn the woman—and shook her head slightly. Before Toni could reply beyond a quirk of her lips, Ms. Carter continued. "I can see why they would, but putting together the facts that you assisted them during their mission at the Hydra base, and that you—apparently—are from the future… well, and adding in the fact that Mr. Barnes told me about your response to this exact topic, well, I'm not concerned. Not as of right now," she added with a hint of warning.

"Okay, fair enough," Toni said as she slipped the matching dark grey jacket on, leaving it unbuttoned but making sure that the camisole and blouse were tucked into the skirt properly. "I can't exactly say why I trust you, but I do to a certain extent. So, I may as well tell you that the device is for personal protection only. It's a… health device, in a way."

Ms. Carter's eyes dropped to the place where the arc reactor was concealed, looking like she was mulling over and weighing Toni's words. After another moment, Ms. Carter lifted a single shoulder in a slight shrug and moved her hand in a way that exhibited her acceptance of the words, closing the matter for the time being.

"So," Ms. Carter said, and her tone of voice changed to something more serious. She stood, and Toni shoved her ratty and dirty clothes that she'd previously been wearing into the sack before shoving her feet into the low heels that Ms. Carter had—remarkably—guessed the correct size for. She shoved the nylon stockings into the bag as well. She fucking hated nylons and would go ten times the distance out of her way to avoid the damn things. She didn't care if she'd get disapproving looks from the men and other women of this time period—it's not like she wasn't used to disapproving stares and comments.

"So?" Toni queried after a few moments too long of silence, standing up straight and picking up the sack to carry with her.

Ms. Carter ran her eyes from the bottoms of her feet to the top of her head and then nodded as if pleased before making her way towards the door. "Let's get some food in you and you can tell me about what I overheard. Something about fantasies, Ms. Rhodes?"

Toni choked just a little. She couldn't see Ms. Carter's face but she was sure that it would be carefully blank if she was able to see. She wasn't quite sure what to say, but it was an inevitability that they'd have to talk about at least some of these topics hanging over their heads at some point. So… may as well get it over with, right? "Do you have somewhere private we can chit-chat, Ms. Carter? I don't share my… predilections in public," she teased lightly in lieu of a proper, polite response.

Ms. Carter didn't need to know that that was pretty close to a lie, if not an outright one—depending on which journalist or tabloid you asked.

"Come," was all Ms. Carter said, but there was a hint of a smile in her voice.

And thank God for that.

She wasn't really sure what she would do if Peggy—Ms. Carter, damn it, this was going to be hard—disliked her.

Well… she still had time to ruin that, like so many other things in her life.

Quickly composing herself for the outside world, Toni set herself to following the woman who was going to make—who had already made—a huge impact on Toni's life and the formation of who she was.

In the future, Peggy was one of the most important people in Toni's life, and Toni was bound and determined to make sure Ms. Carter was at the very least an ally in the past as well.

Chapter Text

Toni's determination not to screw up barely lasted three whole minutes. Her intentions were good, but her mind—her most prized asset—had devolved into a basic cat-and-mouse game, wherein the paradox that was now her life was the mouse and her mind trying—in vain—to understand it was the cat. The whole mess of thoughts were, naturally, incredibly distracting, and thus she missed most of Ms. Carter's explanations about the building and base they would be walking through.

She'd been cool as a fucking cucumber in the face of Ms. Carter's sudden entrance into her personal space—or, well, soon after, at the very least—but now here she was, letting her mind work itself up ridiculously quick, as it was wont to do, the more sensory input she took in. And there was a lot of it—pretty much all strange and foreign to her, in a way that was also surreally not.

But no. Bad brain, bad.

And it all stemmed from the fact that she needed to figure out what the hell she was going to say to Peggy, to this Peggy Carter, and how to act around her.

She was already failing, letting her mind get completely swamped in these thoughts, but she needed to figure something out, and quick, before she really stuck her foot in her mouth. Both feet, knowing her.

Toni's mind was consumed with swirling thoughts born mostly out of her vast repertoire of science fiction novels, movies, and television series, most specifically those which dealt with time travel and/or paradoxes.

She'd started off with general, though rapid-fire, musings on the situation she found herself in, and what the science behind time paradoxes was, but had quickly worked herself up into a frantic grouping of questions—she was now in the stage that Maria Stark had so often resignedly called a 'tizzy'.

Should she keep her mouth shut? Should she tell them everything she knew? Should she act like she belonged in this time and knew nothing about what was to come? Was she even capable of doing that? Probably not. But what were her other options? Did she try to change what was to come? Did she try to keep things happening along their original paths? What parts did she change, what parts did she not? Was her presence here already a sign that things would work out differently than she'd learned of history? Did the fact that Steve and James were her soulmates mean that she was meant to change things… that things were going to be different?

She didn't know. She only knew that she wouldn't be able to keep her mouth shut. So… so. Hm. She'd just have to do her best, use her brain, and figure out what was needed when and where and who deserved the truth and how much of it to give them.

If only she could gain some control of her thoughts, get them in order again, and feel a little calmer. She felt like she was going to be carried away by the thoughts bombarding her, worse than most of her creative engineering binges that would leave her blinking awake days later.

Oh god.

She wanted to smack her head into a wall, but instead she had to focus on pulling herself back and looking as outwardly normal as she could as she followed along in Ms. Carter's wake.

Still.

She didn't really know what else she could do except to do her best. She'd deal with everything as it came. But for now… she'd be as honest as she could be.

With whomever she could trust with the knowledge she had.

Obviously the universe had sent her back in time for a purpose—it should know damn well that she would run with it and not sit idly by with the knowledge tucked away forever inside her brain.

She needed to lose this… timidity—completely unacceptable for a Stark—and assert herself more, rather than simply following, letting others make decisions for her and her current lot in life. She needed to tell them what she wanted, what she needed, what she was going to do, and convince them that she was a worthy ally… not simply an obedient soldierwho should be relegated to simple soulmate status, and an unwanted one at that.

She would be more than that. She would make sure of it, but in a way that still allowed her to support said two men, the Commandos, Ms. Carter, and the S.S.R. as best she could.

She could do it.

She would.

And if they rejected all that, she'd say fuck'em, and go on her merry way and figure things out on her own. Like she always had.

But for now, she could work within the opportunities she had. Make some where there weren't any. Perhaps she could ask for some metal and tools, whatever level of technology she could get her hands on and make it into something better. She could definitely help that way. She would feel useful again and could—

"You probably haven't had a proper meal since you've arrived, if I'm not mistaken," Peggy said, voice breaking into her internal monologue and forcing Toni to pay attention—Ms. Carter obviously held that power, no matter her age, when she used that tone of voice.

"No ma'am," Toni replied, politely and firmly. Yes, that's what she was going for, firm. She could do that. Firm and polite and figuring out what the fuck she was going to do next. What the fuck she was going to tell this woman in the conversation to come.

She may feel completely wrong-footed but she was going to do her damnedest to feel stable and back on course and in control of her life once again—as in control as one could get when they'd been sent back in time by who the fuck knew for whatever the fuck reason.

Ugh.

She felt like a total idiot and probably looked one, too.

Nothing like the cool, level-headed businesswoman who took the world by storm—never mind being a fucking superhero—she was supposed to be to the outside world.

Toni shook her head, clearing her mind enough to focus on the outside world, and watched with now-keen and observant eyes as Ms. Carter stopped by the kitchen, speaking briefly and friendlily with one of the staff, who then handed her a small basket that was set to the side, a piece of plain cotton folded over the top of the contents.

Now that she was actually paying attention like she should have been all along, it was nearly impossible to miss the way that the servicemen and women were looking at her: curiosity mixed with a hint of healthy suspicion—in no way did she blame them—and the age-defying look of a bored group of usually very active individuals panting after the latest bit of gossip and rumor and scandal.

She knew that look very well. She was not remotely a stranger to it being directed her way. And she wasn't exactly surprised at having it directed her way here, in this time, either. She'd been hanging out with the Howlies in the bar last night, and now here she was in the company of the mysterious and highly-competent Agent Carter. Of course they were curious, and they were entirely right to sense gossip.

But there was one look she couldn't quite place…

"It's your mark, Ms. Rhodes," came Ms. Carter's voice, cutting into her musing—and there she went again, getting lost in her brain. Though that was no surprise, either; not for her. "In case you were wondering," the woman added.

"I was," Toni admitted, shooting a small, wry smile in Ms. Carter's direction. "I forgot that back… now. That currently it isn't something shown in public very often. That it's rather private."

Ms. Carter raised one eyebrow as they walked outside, and that eyebrow had always done things to Toni's younger self, so she took a moment to reply before giving in to the urge to look at her surroundings in the light of day. She lowered her voice just a little, even though there was no one around them—at least that she could see. "So in… about thirty years from now, through to my present day, a big revolution in the way society views and handles soulmarks and soulmates happens. Is happening. Will. Whatever." She ignored Ms. Carter's smirk.

"There's a lot of history in that, and some of it I don't even know how to explain without wracking my brain and going on for hours and hours filling even a smart lady like you in on all the necessary background. I just… know, since I lived it. It's hard to explain easily. But suffice to say, showing your mark, whether mated or not, or 'complicated'—" Toni made air quotes before she even realized the other woman might not recognize the gesture, but carried on anyway, "—is completely acceptable in my time, so I thought nothing of it."

Peggy—damn it—looked thoughtful for a moment before shrugging and hitching the basket a little more securely in the bend of her elbow and moving on again. "Please, it's quite alright. No need to wear your hair down. There are many… proclivities we tend to turn a blind eye to around here. It is, after all, wartime, and we all deal with its gruesome effects in a different way. No one here will judge you for straying from society's established norms…. Of course, to the greater public, we cannot operate with the same manner of transparency. Especially with figures that sit permanently in the spotlight."

Toni knew exactly what she was referring to. Steve. Captain America. Captain America and his British lady-love, Peggy Carter. His fucking beard.

But the amusement of the same thought as she'd had last night was muted in the face of the reality of her situation. She was an outsider in more than just a personal manner.

She was an outsider on an international scale.

"Set that thought aside for now, Ms. Rhodes. There are more important things to discuss. For the moment, at least. Sit down and eat, and we can talk."

It was only then that Toni realized she hadn't been looking where she was going in the least. She took a moment to gaze out upon her surroundings, turning in a circle to take it all in.

The S.S.R. base—what she could see of it, at least, from where she stood—was nestled beside a small hill adjacent to an even tinier town. She knew they were near London, but couldn't really see any signs of larger, urban life from here. Which made sense, considering that it was a military base, honestly. The base obviously continued up the hill, if the military vehicles and personnel were any indication, what had to be offices and labs likely converted out of appropriated homes and businesses—the command center was likely up there as well.

Surrounding her and Ms. Carter were barracks and mess halls as well as wide open training grounds and long, clear gun ranges with what looked to be a wide variety of moveable targets and obstacles. The warehouses, hangars, and the landing strip they'd arrived on last night must be just out of sight around the bend of the hill, though, since it was nowhere in sight on this side.

The whole base was in relatively good condition, especially considering that much of London had yet to recover this well from The Blitz which had occurred, what… two and a half years earlier? Two and a half to three years ago, yes. They'd obviously not been hit very hard here, or they had recovered well in the years since, probably as a result of being one of the top priorities of the British government. A few of the people walking across the base glanced her and Ms. Carter's way, but most of them minded their business and left them to their own in the slightly out of the way location Ms. Carter had brought them to. It was out of the way in that it was near few buildings, but it was on a small rise overlooking a ground combat training… paddock. Hah, it was repurposed from an old horse paddock, Toni realized with a small chuckle.

Her chuckle died right out when she saw who was in said paddock, horsing around like care-free children under the guise of practicing hand-to-hand, it would seem.

It was the first time she'd really gotten to look at Steve and James… Bucky, without them knowing—even subconsciously—that she was looking, and it was… it was pretty breathtaking. There was a sense of familiarity to their movements that Toni ached to experience—it was something she'd never had, and wanted desperately. They were laughing, swiping at each other playfully while the others hooted and hollered at them, and Toni could see it. She could see how they loved each other, how they made such a formidable team. They were a family. A family Toni wasn't a part of. She glanced towards Peggy, catching the same fond smile on the woman's lips as she watched the Howlies that she undoubtedly sported herself. She wasn't a part of the family, but… she could be. She could, even if not in the way she truly ached for. It was within her reach. All she had to do… all she had to do was—

Toni didn't know.

She froze just that little bit further, wondering why she hadn't felt them on approach, before realizing she'd been too distracted, and then too engaged, and that the small bundle of… them in the back of her mind was… diminished. Just enough she had to focus to feel anything from it, and even then the feelings coming from out of the bond were slight.

Happiness. Joy. Love for life and for each other.

It was… nice, the little bit that she could feel.

Toni wasn't too worried, though, even if it unsettled—and relieved—her a little. She'd read countless essays and research papers detailing the state a bond would fall into between the first skin-to-skin contact between soulmates and the final completion of the bond. It was normal for the bond to become muted and fallow, in a way, after the first few days, so that it did not overwhelm those who were first starting to come to know each other. Over time, and with repeated physical contact, it would grow in strength, until it was fully realized between said soulmates.

It was a survival mechanism, of a sort. And one she was glad for, at least in this case.

Toni refused to think of all the research she had read on the topic of what happened to bonds which were never completed, or which were forcefully severed by one or more of the persons involved. Or even the rare few—very rare, god rest their souls—who had their bonds severed from sources beyond their control. She refused to think of severed or unrealized bonds, even though she knew damn well she'd end up as one of them.

She was goddamn Iron Man—she would survive this, and in the manner of her choosing.

She'd fucking go down fighting, if that's what it took.

With a resounding sigh and an instinctive tightening of mental muscles she barely knew how to use, Toni flopped herself right down onto the grass of the small incline, barely giving a crap about the nice things she was wearing—they were serviceable and they were Peggy's, so that meant they could take a beating. And they would, knowing who was wearing them.

Deliberately looking away from the happy, hollering group of men down below, Toni turned to face Ms. Carter, a neutral expression carefully cultivated over her features.

All she was greeted with was a neutral expression to match.

Damn it, you could never beat the one who taught you a look.

With another sigh, Toni rolled her eyes, letting her features relax into their natural state. "Yeah, yeah, fine. Acceptable. Let's just eat. I'm starving." She made gimme hands at the basket, and Ms. Carter moved it with a smile to where it could be easily reached by the two of them, sitting on one hip each in rather matching positions, wearing much the same style of clothes—though hers were casual dress compared to Peggy's—damn it, Ms. Carter's—military threads.

"Can I call you Peggy, at least just in my head, instead of Ms. Carter? It's driving five year old me nuts," Toni blurted out without even thinking about it.

Oh, for fuck's sake.

She'd just told herself that she was going to separate the two women in her mind, and here she fucking went and did… this. Argh. But really, it was driving her nuts, constantly flip-flopping between the two names. This woman was the same woman. No need to really treat her that differently. No need to keep her distance.

"Ah, I was almost certain that you knew me, but that pretty much confirms it," Peggy said after a silent, startled moment.

Toni literally face-palmed. She'd never done so in her life, but now… well, the situation warranted it. She also groaned. Loudly. Loud enough she was sure that the supersoldier only a hundred or so yards away from her could hear her.

She looked—yup.

The whole lot of them were turning their heads towards them, following Steve's example. She couldn't see their expressions at this distance, but she wasn't exactly sure she wanted to.

She really just could not deal right now. Not with them. Either of them.

Any of them.

Completely ignoring the men yet again by looking back at Ms. Carter, Toni couldn't help but to join in and laugh along with the woman who'd started chuckling at the idiot in front of her.

Toni. Toni was the idiot.

But laughing made her feel better, more comfortable, and she could feel herself pulling in the tendrils of thought which had still been going in all sorts of manic directions, and felt herself calming right down. Felt herself settling more comfortably into her mind and body and the position she was in, both physically and logistically.

The cat was out of the bag, so to speak.

"Yeah, okay, I'm okay. Alright," she said as her laughter trailed off. "I feel better now, geez. Thanks." She smiled at the brunette, who smiled right back—albeit a little more reservedly—and dug into the basket between them, grabbing a few crumbled pieces of cheese and bread wrapped in a cloth and placing it all onto her lap. She pretended not to notice the canteen being offered to her by Ms. Carter—for all their similarities, this woman was an unknown to her comparatively—until the woman placed it on the ground by Toni's knees. She waited until she'd had a few bites of food so as not to seem rude, and then reached for the canteen as if she hadn't noticed it being offered to her a few moments ago.

By unspoken accord, they settled into eating and drinking a rather robust amount of food for wartime, leaving the questions and answers for after their stomachs were settled.

It was remarkably… nice. Amicable. Quiet, or close enough, with most of the base's sounds relegated to the distance.

Finally, she'd eaten her fill, and decided she really did need to respond to Peggy's assertion.

Toni weighed her next words carefully. Finally, she decided on something that Aunt Peggy had taught her as a young girl, soon after her first kidnapping… one where Peggy herself had done all the rescuing, and not her damn parents.

It was the best way she knew to get Peggy to trust her—or at least to give her the benefit of the doubt. And she needed her to, if she wanted her life to go smoothly here, if she wanted to be believed.

"When you were young, you and Michael—" Peggy froze at the mention of her deceased brother, "—came up with phrases you used with each other for certain situations. You closely guarded these code words and phrases, to the point that only you, him, I'm guessing the Commandos, and eventually myself, were the only ones who knew that they even existed, let alone that you used them. You took words designed as harmless aspects of your youth and turned them into lifesaving mechanisms. And yes, one of those lives your code saved was my own, more than once as I was growing up. Even as an adult, your code remained a standard part of our conversations. Yeah, I do know you. Even in 2009, I know you. I've known you for a long time, Ms. … Peggy. 'Great-Aunt Millicent has come for supper, and mother wants us to come inside.' That phrase right there? You taught it to me after I was kidnapped the very first time as a three year old."

Peggy's eyes were wide. It was the most shocked Toni had ever seen the woman… whatever time they may be in.

Toni continued before Peggy could interrupt. "And let me tell you, when you're three—and you're me—you remember a lesson like that, and anything that could even remotely be used to prevent another one just like that from occurring. It didn't prevent me from getting kidnapped again, not every time, but it stopped at least three more, including the very next one after that first. That first kidnapping which you yourself saved me from. You see, Peggy, you were, are an important part of my life… an integral part of my life, and I know you.

"I know that's not the same as knowing the person you are now, and you don't have the luxury of knowing me the same way, not like the three decades of knowledge I have of you… but I need an ally, for whatever the hell that is to come for me, for them, for us, and I know that means that I need to be honest with you, at the very least. That I need to tell you what you need to know, as best I can, and do it in advance instead of waiting to be asked questions. Questions that might come too late."

Toni ran a hand over her hair in attempt to steady her nerves, but it seemed like she only succeeded in making her still-damp hair even messier in its bun, curls frizzing out every which way. She took a deep breath instead, letting it out slowly before continuing, taking advantage of the silence that Peggy was giving her… no matter how disconcerting it may be, no matter what that silence may hide.

"I'll tell you about my tech, about the voice you heard me speaking to, about the war, about the future… about how I feel about this whole soulmate thing and what I plan to do—or not do—with Steve and Bucky. I trust you, or at least I trust one version of you, but I know you're still the same. The question is whether you can trust me. But I know that won't come right away, even with me knowing your code. Because I know what you're thinking: that they could be common knowledge in the future. That I somehow figured it out in some nefarious manner and that I'm using it to gain your trust for further nefarious purpose. Entirely possible. But… the universe wouldn't make me theirs if I didn't somehow match their version of right and wrong… would it?"

Toni desperately wanted to believe that.

"I… I'm overcomplicating things. And blathering. I do that a lot. I really need to let you get a word in edgewise here…" Toni trailed off in a mumble, looking briefly to the side, away from Peggy's keen, piercing gaze, before changing track and meeting the woman's dark brown eyes again.

Peggy finally decided to reply, thankfully saving Toni from speaking again and likely botching the whole thing if she hadn't already. "You must be more important than we imagined," she said, voice trailing off slightly as though she were lost in thought. She probably was, though her expression hid it rather well, gaze perusing Toni as she sat right there in front of her.

"I wouldn't say that." Toni chuckled darkly. Important in her own time? Sure. But here? "No. Just… well-informed. Well-connected. And okay, fine, smart and knowledgeable and uh… well." She trailed off. "My father was connected with the S.S.R. So I know some things. That's how I met you and you became such a big part of my life."

Peggy's expression went rather blank as she asked, slowly, as if weighing her words carefully, "Is your father one of the Commandos?"

Toni just stared at her for a moment before bursting into laughter. "No! God, no!" She couldn't contain her laughter at the thought. "Oh god, no, that would just be… weird. So weird."

Peggy's features relaxed into a smile and she joined in with Toni in her laughter, a feeling of good-humor falling over them. "Yes… yes, that would be rather odd for you, wouldn't it?" Peggy added finally, sobering up. Then she caught sight of the expression on Toni's face. It was there for just a moment, Toni swore, but of course Peggy saw it. "Your father is here currently, isn't he?"

Toni dragged her right hand down her face even as her left hand came up and tapped against the glass of her arc reactor through her blouse. "Yeah, yeah he is," she mumbled through the hand hiding her face.

Silence.

"I'm sorry. That must be… odd," Peggy finally said. Toni couldn't really tell what Peggy was thinking, especially with her hand over her eyes, but she was sure that even if she was looking, she probably wouldn't be able to tell anyway. "I couldn't imagine."

"Yup," she mumbled yet again through her hand, proving to Pepper exactly how rude she could be. "But I'm trying not to think about it. Hopefully I'll not encounter him much." Yeah right, Toni thought sarcastically.

"If there's anything I can do to help in that regard, you have but to ask. I'll do what I can," Peggy offered.

"Thanks," Toni replied, though she knew there was probably nothing much Peggy could do. But maybe, if the need arose… Well, it was good to keep her options open.

"Ms. Rhodes…" Peggy started.

"Please, call me Toni," she interrupted, finally removing her hand from off of her face and dropping it to her lap. She spread her other hand out across the glass of the reactor, grounding herself in the feel of the edges pressing into her palm. "At least when it's appropriate," Toni added, remembering where and when they were.

Peggy inclined her head, and then continued, leaning back with one hand pressed into the grass beside her. "Toni," she said. "You and I, we have plenty to speak about, but it can wait. Or, at least, be combined with other things. This is all rather unusual, even for the S.S.R. and the Commandos, but so far we have no cause to be overly suspicious of you or to think you untrustworthy. While you have yet to prove exactly who you are, we're not going to simply lock you up because we don't know you. We'll treat you with respect as long as you give us no cause to do otherwise, and don't betray our trust.

"And while, yes, you might have found out about mine and…" she gulped, "Michael's code in some other way, I don't really think that's the case. For whatever reason, I believe that you and I do know each other. Or, at least, you know the woman that I'll become. The way you look at me, the way you look at them, at all of us, and the way you handle yourself… I don't know if it's the right thing to do, but it's worth a try to see what you have to say. I can't say we won't be watching…" Toni nodded in acceptance, "but I can say that we're willing to see how things go.

"Colonel Philips, he'll want to speak with you. He's already asked to, but I told him he could wait at least a day, and that you deserved some rest for part of today at least, before we inundate you with our questions. You looked dead on your feet last night and not too much better today, though the shower was a boon."

Toni raised one eyebrow, but didn't deny it. Peggy smirked. "So, tomorrow you're going to have a conversation with the colonel, and I suggest you tell him the truth about who you are and where you come from. Because the boys certainly didn't last night. They were rather mum on the subject and gave some outright lies where they could, though later on they told me as much of the truth as they know."

Toni rolled her eyes at that. "Of course they did. It's not like they really talked to me about what I wanted to do or say, though I can't exactly blame them. We're not… uh, on the best of terms right now." She winced, just the barest bit, but Peggy caught it easily.

And that, right there, the hint of pity in the otherwise level look that Peggy gave her at that, was exactly why she didn't want to talk about any of this soulmate stuff. But… it also felt a little freeing to be able to say it out loud to someone who Toni knew would have compassion for her. The small hint of pity was the most she would get from this strong woman who would become her godmother. Everything else would be practicality and strength and understanding; an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on before she was helped back into a semblance of shape with a side of 'stiff upper lip' and help in carrying herself forward and standing on her own two feet again like the women in men's worlds that they were.

"Well, let's get you settled in my room for a touch so you can rest without being disturbed," Peggy offered as she stood and started gathering everything back into the basket. "I'll see that you get some more clothes to wear—and more practical ones, which I'm sure you'd probably prefer—and some gear, along with a sidearm, so that you won't feel so… open, around here."

God, her godmother could read her too well, no matter her age, and the trust that was implicit in the offer of a weapon

"I won't betray your trust. Thank you, ma'am," Toni said, staunchly blinking back a rise of hot tears and hiding them behind basic courtesy.

"I know you won't," Peggy replied gently, though her eyes glinted hard and dangerous with a rather explicit threat. "And you may call me Peggy, like you asked… Toni," she added as she turned and started down the hill. "Though we have much to discuss!"

Toni smiled and followed after the woman, feeling calm and a little more in control of everything going on around her. She knew it wouldn't last, but she would revel in it while it lasted.

"Let's get you rested so that you're ready for dinner. Can't have you be late," Peggy called over her shoulder.

"Why?" Toni asked, suddenly suspicious.

"Why, your date with Mr. Barnes, of course," came the rather impish reply as Peggy's legs carried her quickly away.

Toni stared after her for a moment before groaning and hurrying to catch up.

Nope, Peggy had never been a coddler. So much for that hint of pity and that feeling of control.

Short-lived, the lot of it.

Chapter Text

Bucky watched as Steve pouted at his feet, sitting cross-legged on their bed, hunched in on himself like he was still five foot nothing. "Come on, babydoll," he cajoled, dropping down on the bed beside Steve, slinging an arm around those broad, broad shoulders to drag his stubborn little punk closer. "You pretendin' I'm going off to war again. I'm just taking our ritzy Sheba to dinner."

"And you ain't lettin' me come," Steve pouted. Bucky rolled his eyes and smacked a kiss to Steve's cheek. "'Cause you two keep hissing at each other like alley cats. You gotta learn to play nice, Rogers."

Steve let out a gusty sigh, his whole body slumping as he leaned his not-inconsiderable weight against Bucky's front, tucking his head up and under Bucky's chin. "Yeah, yeah, I know, Buck. I know. I just don' like it," he muttered against the skin of Bucky's throat.

"I know, doll," Bucky murmured back, rubbing one hand up and down Steve's back, and the other carding through his hair—it was starting to get a little long; just the way Bucky liked it. The perfect length to comb through and tug and hold onto… "I'm pretty sure she got nothin' to like about it either."

"Oh, you're quite right, James Buchanan Barnes. She doesn't," Peggy said as strode into their room as though she owned it, closely followed by Dum Dum and his sharp gaze, as per usual. The words were ominous, combative, but her tone was still composed mostly of warmth that could be read between the clipped and curt way she spoke.

Bucky and Steve twisted around just enough so that they were able to look at the pair, but beyond that they didn't move, nor did they tense. They'd both heard them coming down the hall towards their room, and knew it was them on account of their voices. Neither of them needed to move; it wasn't the worst position—by far—which they'd been caught in, especially by these two.

Bucky frowned at Peg and wrinkled his nose. "Watcha full-namin' me for? What did I do?"

Steve peeked his head out at their newly arrived visitors and Bucky could practically feel the glower sent their way. "What would you know?" he muttered crankily, burrowing deeper into Bucky's side when Peggy simply raised her eyebrow at him.

Bucky sighed. This wasn't going to end well.

"Well, Steven," Peggy emphasized, crossing her arms over her chest and leaning back on one heel. "Considering you and I have been play-acting to be the picture-perfect soulmate couple, depriving us from the opportunity to truly join with those we love…"

Bucky didn't miss the way her gaze strayed to Dum Dum, who must've trailed his fingers down her back when the tension in her shoulders loosened a little. "I can at least relate to what she must be experiencing," Peggy continued, eyes hard and filled with emotion so deep and intense, Bucky almost felt it, despite the distinct lack of a mental bond between them. "Lord knows you two are so tightly wound up in each other you forget she craves that same connection. Right now, you are all that she has, Steve..." She flicked up her gaze to meet Bucky's, and his breath caught in his throat at the gentle but stern look in it. "Bucky."

To his shame, he looked away as soon as he could manage, drawing his lower lip between his teeth.

He knew that. He knew that he and Steve got caught up in their bond—it was one of the symptoms of having been bonded as long as the two of them had been.

"She's out of time, darlings," Peggy said kindly, softly, and her hand was equally soft when she laid it on Bucky's. "Quite literally. She can't be with you both, because quite clearly neither of you have an iota of interest in her, not the way she would clearly like you to have, and now she has to tip toe around you to avoid pissing you off—especially you, Steven."

Steve, to his credit, at least looked a little contrite.

They all remained silent for a long, drawn-out moment before Peggy sighed. "Come on then, Steven. You and I have a riveting evening planned, ourselves. Colonel Philips has decided it is high time you gain further knowledge on amphibious assaults. We believe we have actionable intel for your next mission for which this lesson could be of use."

She paused to breathe, but before Steve could do so much as open his mouth, she held up her hand and gave him a halfhearted glare—which was still pretty terrifying by normal-people-standards, Bucky thought—and said, "And yes, before you accuse me of it, I am absolutely getting you out of Bucky's hair so that he can treat our delightful Ms. Rhodes with the kindness she deserves."

And with that, Peggy goddamn Carter swept out of the room without a single backward glance, leaving Dugan to awkwardly tip his hat and them and depart in her wake.

The Queen, ladies and gents, Bucky thought, a little hysterically, torn between being impressed and feeling completely steamrolled.

Steve twisted around in Bucky's embrace, but before Steve could get a word out, Bucky captured his lips in a deep kiss. He threw every ounce of his love into it, using both body and bond, willing Steve to realize that Steve was his, that he was Steve's, and that he would neverever stray from him. That he would be loyal until the very end. That they were in this together.

"Yeah," Steve said breathlessly as Bucky finally pulled back. "Yeah, okay. Go. I trust you. You know I do. Ain't got nothing to show otherwise, Buck." He gave Bucky a smile that was most of the way to confident. "And you're right, I do need to do better 'round her. We're all she's got." He grimaced, looking both sad and angry for a moment. "I'll try," he finished with.

"I know you will, Stevie," Bucky murmured before pressing his lips chastely but firmly against Steve's once more. Then he pushed his great big punk off of his lap and right onto the floor, laughing at the expression of betrayal on the big lug's face.

"Go on, get. I promise I'll be home by nine."


Bucky knocked on the door right on the stroke of six, the loud sound of the banged up, reclaimed, and triple-fixed grandfather clock in the common room downstairs resounding throughout the building.

Philips had put Toni up in the boarding houses assigned to the female soldiers and nurses on the base, in the room next to Peggy's—one of three rooms on the top floor of the house, and one that was often empty, used mostly for guests.

Somehow, he did not think it likely that the placement was an accident.

A loud stomp, followed by a muffled string of impressive swear words greeted his knock, and Bucky couldn't help but smile. He'd met his fair share of impressive dames—had shown probably more than his fair share of them a good night out before going home to Steve—but none of them had ever quite showed the fire that Toni did.

It reminded him, oddly, of Peggy.

His smirk wanted to slide right off his face as soon as the door was yanked open and he got a good look at the glare aimed in his direction. It was an act of willpower on his end keeping it in place, though he softened it just enough so that his ritzy Sheba wouldn't think he was laughing at her.

No dice. The glare seemed to deepen into a glower, and Toni crossed her arms over her chest before tapping her foot—likely not even aware she was doing it.

"Can we just not do this?" Toni demanded, but Bucky sensed the desperate plea beneath her bluster, and Peggy's earlier words echoed in his head. .

"Oh, come on now, doll," he wheedled, leaning his shoulder against the doorjamb as he shot her his most charming smile—careful to keep it honest. He could already tell she was perceptive and blunt, and would never ever appreciate deception, no matter if it was kinder. "You're gonna break a fella's heart." He could tell she wanted to smile—her lips twitched just a little before she could stop herself—and he grinned back helplessly.

"As long as my name isn't Rogers," Toni replied sassily, raising an eyebrow at him, "I doubt I'd be able to achieve any actual heartbreaking."

The words hit him a lot harder than she intended them, likely, and his smile slipped right off his face. "Now don't say that," he said, pushing whatever positive feelings he could gather towards the tiny string of light that was his connection to her. "You must know you mean a great deal to me already."

"Do I?" she replied dryly, raising a single eyebrow at him. "Let's be real here. You and I both know this isn't going to go anywhere," she said flatly, gesturing at the space between their bodies with a dismissive gesture. "Fate may have brought us together but it doesn't mean we have to follow its dictates. Where I come from, plenty of people don't allow the whole soulmate thing to rule their lives. And we already know what your side of all this is, what with," she made a vague gesture he instinctively knew meant Steve, "all that, so why are we even bothering?"

Her glare was starting to look a little distressed on the edges, and Bucky could tell the mask she wore to protect herself was slipping, and that she was feeling increasingly vulnerable and was not happy about it. He just wanted to reach out and pull her into his arms and tell her it was going to be okay, but he couldn't.

Well, he could… but he couldn't, just the same.

He'd never felt so caught between a rock and a hard place.

He understood. He understood the desperation in her eyes and he could read the fear of getting hurt too.

Lord, he didn't want to hurt her. For better or for worse, she was his soulmate—his and Stevie's—and they needed to find a way to make this work.

Whatever that meant.

"Let's just… Let me take you to dinner, okay?" He reached out and carefully placed his hand on her cloth-covered forearm—he could feel the tension thrumming through her, between them, but thankfully she didn't draw away. Instead, she just watched him closely, carefully; her gaze assessing. "No expectations, no strings," he continued. "I know we kinda got pushed into doing this with the whole public eye thing…" He sighed and shook his head. "I'm sorry they didn't talk to you about it. I wasn't even really consulted about it. It all just sorta… happened. Tumbled along before I could even give my two cents' worth, y'know? I mean… It follows Stevie around these days, sticks to all of us, this whole tangled mess, but that don't mean we gotta let it define everything we do."

He nearly laughed at the incredulous look on her face and shrugged. "Let the gossips gossip. All you and I gotta do is have a good time, get to know each other. They can believe wha' they wan'." She stared at him for a long moment, then stared at his hand, then at him… and then harrumphed. But after that, she appeared looser, less tense, less angry, and she reached forward to take his other hand in a firm, but quick, handshake to signal her—at least momentary—agreement.

And thank goodness it was quick, because the heat of her grip, her bare skin touching his… damn.

Damn.

Gathering himself, he took a moment to appreciate the clothing Peggy had loaned to her as she stepped out of the room, body turned away from him for the moment, and closed the door softly behind her.

She was in one of Peggy's dresses, one of the ones Pegs only wore when she and Steve were going out, which was just a little long and just a little loose on her, but the soft, medium-blue fabric looked good draped over her form, and the ivory shrug over her shoulders complimented the dress, her skin color, and her hair altogether. The soft blue of her… device was only just peeking out from the collar of the dress, but he really only noticed it beside the blue of the dress because he knew what he was looking for.

She looked lovely.

Miles different from the grimy, barefoot, sleeveless top- and loose pants-wearing spitfire they'd picked up in the middle of Italy. She would look… Christ, she'd look absolutely breathtaking beside Steve, the blue of her dress matching his service jacket and his eyes, her dark tone to his light tone…

She noticed his gaze and gave him a half-hearted glare before stalking ahead of him down the hall, hips swaying—probably deliberately, good Lord.

She was going to kill him and Stevie both before Hydra could get their hands on them, at this rate.

Okay, so maybe not quite as different as how she'd first appeared to them.

New clothes did not a different person make.


Bucky would readily admit that calling the tiny building that sat tucked away in the corner of their base a restaurant was a little bit of a stretch—the wallpaper was peeling, the tables and chairs were a mismatched collection of hand outs and antiques and the food was painfully simple…

It was the best they had though, and Bucky would readily admit that eating there after having spent weeks, sometimes months, out on the front and behind enemy lines was one of the best treats he could imagine these days.

The Howlies usually retreated to this base, specifically designated for S.S.R. and M.I.6 operatives, and he felt more comfortable here than he did in HQ in Leicester Square in London.

Leicester Square tended to be overrun with people who liked to cozy up to Steve—and Bucky and the Howlies, by extension—to further their own political goals, and Bucky hated that they had to play nice with those jackasses.

But for now… for now he was home. As close to a place that could make him feel at home on the other side of the ocean from his family—his blood family; he had plenty of new family, found family, brothers and a sister in arms, who'd walked through hell with him and to the other side.

And there was further still to go.

Toni moving easily alongside him, eyes taking everything in as quickly as they were able to, Bucky stepped further into the little hole-in-the-wall and signaled to the lovely Mrs. Taylor that they would be grabbing the two-person table near the fireplace against the back wall. The elderly woman gave him a quick smile and a nod, indicating she'd be by in a few minutes, and Bucky started towards the table—but not without first making a little stop at the kitchen door to give plump Mrs. O'Dwyer a gentle kiss to her wrinkled cheek.

He could tell she wanted to ask him more—especially about Toni—but she kept her greeting to the basics, smiling back and swatting at him fondly when he called her his 'best girl' and saying he expected nothing but the best from her kitchen—because, of course, she could never turn out anything subpar.

Her cheeks coloring sweetly, she shooed him and a smirking Toni from the entrance to her small kitchen, stating, "Well, perfection don't happen on its own! O' wi' ye!" She'd always had a fond spot for Bucky, ever since he'd first shown up in her restaurant, looking a little broken and underfed after his… capture.

She'd always looked out for him ever since, and he wasn't really even stretching the truth when he called her his best girl. She really was something, Mrs. O'Dwyer.

He looked down at Toni, and remembered seeing her talking with Peggy earlier that day. Well, he sure had a lot of ladies who were 'something' in his life, that was for sure.

"So you and Peggy get along?" he asked a few moments after they sat down at their table, following his train of thought as he fiddled a little with the checkered blue and white table cloth.

She looked at him a little oddly for a moment before replying. "Yeah. She and I... I know her. Um. From where I'm from." She paused a moment, obviously thinking, and then spoke again. "She was a pretty big part of my childhood, and almost all of my adult years. She meant a lot to the family, but I think she meant the most to me, and that I meant the most to her. It's… weird, seeing her here, and talking with her, not knowing what to say, or do, or what—so of course I told her everything I could," Toni finished with a soft laugh, her eyes lighting up.

"Did you know us?" he found himself asking, desperately curious, despite everything the sci-fi stories he'd read said about asking about your future, and how it always backfired. "I mean, you knew our names, who we were, even the Howlies. You act pretty comfortable around us. As much as you can in your situation, I guess. But... did you?" He rested one elbow on the table and his chin on his fist, relaxing into his seat as he asked the questions.

A dark look passed over her features as she fell silent and still—completely at odds with the carefree laughter of moments before. She was stiller than he'd seen her since they pretty much literally ran into each other. He reached out just the tiniest bit towards the minimal bond she and him shared, but wasn't too surprised when he got nothing, just like the rest of the day had been like.

But Bucky didn't need to know what she was thinking to know the truth. To know that she didn't know them in person—and, of course, their bond would have made itself known to them in that time if they had met in person... before.

They were either dead in her time, dead and buried, or their paths hadn't crossed.

He was pretty sure he knew which of those options it was.

"It's okay," Bucky said into the silence between them, finding himself trying to reassure her instead of himself. "I sort of figured it was something like that." And he had, even if he hadn't quite acknowledged it. Before he could stop himself, acting more like Steve, with his big mouth, than himself in the moment, he blurted out a rather desperate question:

"At least… do we… do we go together?"

They both froze, Toni's eyes shooting up to meet and hold Bucky's. Her eyes widened and her pulse skyrocketed, heart beating fast and furious in her breast. Everything narrowed down to the two of them, nothing else, not even Steve's questioning and slightly panicked pulse through the bond. It was just the two of them, nothing else, as if all sound had disappeared and all he could hear were her quick breaths and the thrum of her heart racing.

"No," she said curtly, tightly, chin jerking in a single, negating shake of her head. "Not exactly." Her lips pressed so tightly together that there was a little white line edging around her lips.

Bucky could feel himself wanting to panic, but he squashed that part of him down, telling Steve to get out of his head—and he did—because he needed a moment to himself, and then he evened out his breathing. He was the practical one. He'd known there was little chance of him getting out of such a cold and bloody war and seeing the other side. He knew his chances, even with Steve at his side.

Steve's chances were far higher than his, especially with Bucky and the rest of the Commandos to watch his back. If anyone was getting out of this war, it was Steve, and Bucky would die to make that happen.

But…

Stevie. His Steve, left without him. Left with bond loss and Bucky's cold, dead body laid before him. Left alone in the world, no one else able to love him the way that he could. The thought was even more frightening than if Bucky were left without Steve. If Bucky went first, that was… He didn't ever want to do that to his Stevie. He'd rather Steve went first, if they couldn't go together, because he would spare Steve if he could. He would spare Steve the pain of a severed bond.

Especially a violent one, considering their occupations.

"Does—" Bucky started, but Toni interrupted him, heedless of the panic welling up within him.

"I don't really want to talk about it more right now, please." Bucky's mind went still at the anguish tingeing her tightly spoken words and the panic of her own shining in her eyes.

Bucky suddenly felt a rush of anger quickly overtaking his sadness—why the fuck was she upset, when he was the one who was gonna die? When Steve was gonna die, and she knew how both of them went? Why wouldn't she tell them?

But before he could get on her case, she continued, voice low and tight with pain, still, but softening, as if she sensed Bucky's thoughts and wished to soothe him, to take it all away from him if she could.

And as she spoke, Bucky realized he'd been misplaced with his anger—or, at the very least, that it was not the right time for it. All things had their place and time, and now was not the time for that.

"I… still haven't figured out what to say about it. About all of this." She wiggled in her seat in what would be a becoming manner if Bucky were in any other mindset than this, and then made a face. "I'm not that great with people in the first place. Put my foot in my mouth all the time. Say the wrong things. Hell, I need intervention—a babysitter, even-half the time for anything to do with people that doesn't have to do with business or… well, other things." She cleared her throat. "And here I am, trying to navigate what to say about a world that none of you know, things that could help, things that could possibly make things worse… And then I have to figure out what to say in response to questions like what you just asked. Figure out if I… if I…" Toni tensed right up and looked at the table in front of her, as if it held all of her answers.

After a moment, Bucky realized she probably wasn't going to continue speaking. She'd clammed right up. He set aside his rather… morbid curiosity and anger at learning about his own death—he was sure the concept hadn't really set in fully in his brain, because why else would he be so calm about it all of a sudden?—and set aside the desperate urge to race out of there, find his Stevie, and lock him up somewhere safe and sound, get him away from the war, away from the deaths which were looming over them like a cloud. To lock himself up to protect his Stevie from the despair of Bucky's own forthcoming death. He set all that and more aside, drawing on the stoic strength of the soldier in him, deep in his bones, in his mind, and focused instead on Toni. On the woman in front of him who his heart ached for in the face of all of… this. Whatever this was that was wrapping around the three of them like clinging vines. This which was likely going to hurt the three of them a lot more before it was all over.

Whenever that was. If it was.

Who was he kidding? The likelihood of all three of them coming out the other side of this war was slim.

But he set it all aside, grabbed the waitress' attention, and ordered the two of them some drinks—good Canadian whisky for the both of them that was hidden behind some carefully-disguised fake bricks in the cellar. They could sure as hell use the real stuff at a time like this.

After their drinks were delivered to them a couple of minutes later—Toni knocking hers back right away in desperation and signaling for yet another—Bucky finally spoke. He'd used the short break to gather his mind into some semblance of order, and to reassure Stevie over the bond, letting him feel that all would be explained later.

That he was okay.

But now to make sure Toni was okay.

"All this must be really hard for you. Being a woman out of time—Peg's words, not mine, I promise—out of place in the world. I'm sorry," Bucky murmured sincerely, and a moment later there was the minutest of shifts in the set of her shoulders and her jaw before she murmured,

"Yeah."

Bucky took a moment to let that settle over them, so as not to push this volatile creature too far, too fast. And then he offered, "Tell me about it."

She shifted her gaze to meet his eyes. "About what?"

Bucky waited for the waitress to exchange Toni's glass of whisky for another, which she sipped at instead, this time, and for them to order—fish and chips for Toni and meat pie for Bucky—before replying.

"About them. About the people you… left behind." He didn't mince words; he knew she wouldn't appreciate it. "The ones you were torn away from. Tell me about your life—the things and the people in it. What you do, what the world is like. Or not even the latter. Just… tell me."

A tense pause as her eyes darted over his features, looking for a tell of some kind; perhaps she thought he was having her on. "Why do you want to know?" she asked finally, voice carefully neutral.

"I just… I just do. Not for any reason other than getting to know you." When it looked like that answer wouldn't suffice, he smoothly—though very seriously—added, "We're going to be seeing each other around. We've got… a connection, whatever it is that we do with it. We should learn about each other. About our lives. I'd much rather we get to know each other than constantly guess at each other's motives or backgrounds or reasoning or whatever it is we're bound to do. We'll still do all that. But… we could be friends. And I'd rather that than enemies. I'd rather that than being acquaintances. I'd rather we all get along, my big lug of a punk included."

Toni just stared at him, her face blank instead of neutral, obviously hiding what she was thinking—and he was pretty damn sure he knew what was at the forefront of her mind.

"Stevie doesn't always know what he needs," Bucky said softly, ducking his head a little in an attempt to catch Toni's dropped gaze. He did, and she stared at him, which was a step in the right direction, though her face continued to show nothing. Not a clue.

At least Bucky had had plenty of practice learning the female brain.

Well. The 1930s female brain.

Who knew what they were like in 2009. Maybe they were all like this one, though Bucky had his doubts that any of them could quite match the… something that there was about Toni.

"He doesn't," Bucky insisted, speaking firmly but quietly. "And he doesn't speak for me. Not all the time. Toni," he tacked onto the end.

Her eyes softened a little.

It was enough.

"Here, I'll start," Bucky said casually as he sat back in his seat. He took a sip of his beer and then launched into some happy stories about his childhood. About his mother and his father, his sisters, his friends, his school. He carefully steered around meeting Steve at their rendezvous, but included little bits and pieces about their lives after the fact—the trouble they would get into, deliberately and accidentally, some of Steve's illnesses, their trips to Coney Island… little things.

Toni's features started to gentle as he went on, and soon she was interjecting, asking questions to further the stories, and even checking stories she'd learned about them against the unvarnished truth, straight from the horse's mouth.

Her favorite was definitely the classic one the Howlies told at every party and poker game they were invited to: Jones and Falsworth stealing a goddamn Hydra tank while the occupants were taking a bathroom break, and then breaking down the nearby base's front door with their own weaponry.

It was probably a good fifteen minutes later, already halfway through their meal which had arrived not too long ago with a kiss to Bucky's brow given by Mrs. Taylor, when Toni finally chimed in with the first tidbit about her own life. He was nearing the end of one of his and Stevie's drunken tales—the one involving Mr. Wallace and three raccoons—when she laughed fondly and then said, "That sounds exactly like something Rho— Like something Jim would have said!"

He didn't miss her catch but he wasn't exactly sure what she had been about to say. Perhaps one name was more painful than the other, or the person in question had more recently started going by another name; a nickname used or discarded. Either one was possible. He'd met a few people in the war who'd changed the name they were called by.

Bucky simply tilted his head in question, slightly too long hair swinging through the edge of his vision. Time to start avoiding the rules-obsessed officers yet again; he liked his hair this way. Even more importantly, so did Stevie.

"Jim. My best friend. He…" Toni glanced over his shoulder, eyes going a little distant and fork dropping to her plate with a slight clink before she settled back in her chair just a little more, and brought herself back into the moment. "He was the one who noticed…" Her fingers made an aborted movement towards the back of her neck.

Her mark.

"It doesn't matter." Toni shook her head, instead smiling at him as she continued with her story. "He and I went to university together. He was my first friend, really. I hadn't had much opportunity for that before. But we got on like two peas in a pod and were a pair of hellions, giving our professors heart attacks at every turn. This one time…" She chuckled, eyes lighting up. "We were celebrating, and got really, really drunk. And we decided it was high time we broke into Professor Fredrickson's office and stole her collection of vintage toy cars off the shelves. The ones she was always slipping into every conversation like some overly proud parent. Well. That was the time we nearly got caught. And he… God, he said almost exactly the same thing that you said to Steve: 'Well, next time we'll just be sure to drink more.' I mean… Completely innocuous and common phrase, but it just sort of… reminded me," she finished a little lamely, looking embarrassed. She awkwardly reached for her fork again.

But Bucky was smiling. It sounded like this Jim meant as much to Toni as Steve did to Bucky—minus the soulmate thing, but Bucky had always been of the mindset that one could have friends that exceeded the connection a soulmate could give some people. And also of the opinion that a person needed more than just their soulmate to have a full and fulfilling life.

That was what this Jim sounded like in Toni's case.

"Is he still in your life?" he asked, gently nudging her back on track.

She gave him a look that told him she knew exactly what he was doing, but continued in any case. "Yeah. Well." She let out a short, bitter bark of a laugh. "Present circumstances excluding." But she didn't dwell on that topic. "Yeah, he's still with me. I've known him since I was fifteen, all the way to now. And never once has he left my side. Except, well, that time I was dying, but I honestly can't blame honeybear for that one."

Wait. What?

"What?" Bucky demanded, remembering at the last moment to keep his voice down just enough to not be heard too easily. "You were dying? What happened? And what sort of punk would leave their friend when they were dying? Why would he do that?"

Toni gave a practiced one-shouldered shrug—too practiced—and replied, as if it were no big deal, "It's all good. Not even my girlfriend figured it out, and we slept in the same bed, saw each other without clothes… if Pepper couldn't see it, then I have zero expectations for my best friend to have seen it."

Bucky could only stare.

He wasn't sure which part he wanted to address first—she'd had a girlfriend? did she still? was that a thing that was allowed in her time, that she could speak so casually of it? and for Christ's sake; did she have to give him the mental image of them, her, without clothes on?—but finally settled for gathering himself together and fiercely going after his original—the most important—point.

"You were dying?" he asked again, even more sharply this time, feeling a surprising level of fierce protectiveness well up within him.

"It was a shit time for all of us," Toni replied defensively, just as sharp as Bucky.

"Tell me." He barely made it more of a request than a demand. But he needn't have bothered, because Toni was already starting to speak, one hand reaching up to tap agitatedly at the device in her chest.

Oh. Oh no.

How could Bucky have forgotten her mention of taking shrapnel to the chest? He had just assumed, because it was the future, because she had a futuristic device, that she hadn't come close to death.

Well, no. No. He'd been distracted—if he'd been thinking properly…

"So, a little backstory, I guess," Toni was saying. "My father founded a successful company. An engineering and technology company that became involved in weaponry. I know, yeah, we can talk about that more later, but I'm trying not to be my normally-blathering self here." She let out a small, self-deprecating laugh which Bucky gave a small smile to in return. She continued. "After his death I took over and took it to new heights. But apparently the universe decided I needed to be brought low. One of my mentors, a family friend, arranged to have me kidnapped and killed, except it didn't go exactly as planned. I was injured… by my own weaponry."

Bucky winced, and Toni gave him a wry look. "By some twist of fate, I was saved by another man being held captive with me. He… Yinsen saved my life, giving me the original basis for this design. But I needed something more powerful than what was originally powering it so that I could, well, survive. Survive long enough to escape my prison and leave no soul alive."

Bucky didn't need to ask about the other captive, seeing the look of pain in Toni's eyes and the way she clenched her fists.

"But ironically enough, the element—the… material that was keeping me alive turned out to be killing me. And there was nothing I could do about it. I had created a one-of-a-kind power device that powered a one-of-a-kind health device, so I was on my own. Well, except for one very loyal friend. But everyone else… I didn't know how to tell them. Didn't really want to tell them I was dying. I could find nothing to replace the material to help keep me alive, and I didn't want to put any of them through the process of waiting for me to finally kick the bucket. I didn't want to put them through that, especially Jim and Pepper.

"I'd already put them through so much in my life, been too much, and I didn't want to hurt them anymore than I already had. I didn't want them to worry. So really… it's not their fault. I didn't want them to know, so they didn't. Simple as that. My erratic behavior during the time I was dying was nothing they hadn't seen before, honestly. They just thought I was acting out and, well, I was. They just didn't know it was because I was literally dying. Instead of just being an idiot. Which I have been many, many times."

She flashed Bucky a brilliant smile, but he could see the edge of sadness to it and it just made him want to take her into his arms, into their family, and make sure that she was happy, past be damned. Appearances be damned.

They could find a way to make this work, damn it.

She was here for a reason, and Bucky was suddenly sure that this was that reason.

"How'd you live?" Bucky asked into the momentary lapse in speech.

And there was her true smile. "Discovered a new element, changed the face of science and technology forever, revolutionized the world. All in a day's work." Bucky let out a small laugh. "No really!" Toni spread her hands wide and her eyes wider. "I totally rocked it."

Bucky raised an eyebrow. "How close did you cut it?"

Toni pouted. "Ugh. Yeah, okay, you got me. It was way too close for comfort. But I'm good. I'm all good now. New ticker is ticking just fine as far as I can tell." She rapped a knuckle against the glass through the material of her dress.

"As far as…?" Yeah, Bucky's mother hen tendencies were really starting to shine through.

"Well, it was only two weeks ago! Cut me some slack!" Toni glared.

"Two weeks! Toni! What the—" He cut himself off, realizing his voice was rising in pitch a bit too much. "How can you be sure everything's okay, if that only happened two weeks ago? Have you tested everything properly? Have you checked out all the possibilities and, and—"

"Dude. Barnes." Toni reached across and placed a hand on top of one of his, gripping his knuckles tightly, but laughter dancing in her eyes. "Bucky. I'm fine. I'm going to be okay. I ran every test imaginable for days straight, using the best tech in the world at my disposal. Seriously. The best tech, and that isn't ego speaking."

He eyed her dubiously. "Yeah okay, maybe it's a little bit of ego," she said. For a moment he thought she was deliberately misinterpreting him, but then she continued. "Some call me a control freak. Some others call me less… nice names. But they're right. And especially where my family is concerned, my friends, I wouldn't ever hurt them—so I'm even more of a control freak then. And losing me, as much as I do not understand that," Oh Christ it hurt his heart to see that she really didn't, "would hurt them a lot. So throw in some healthy self-preservation, lots of money, and the world's worst, or best, babysitter in the world… and you have me looking at a ridiculously small percentage for a fail rate, with a nearly unlimited lifespan for the power supply, and all tested to the best of my abilities. Which is a lot.

"So. Yeah. Control freak, and I'm not keeling over anytime soon," she stated rather proudly, giving his knuckles a last squeeze before releasing them and leaning back into her chair.

"But what if something happens and you need that tech, the tech only you have back in your time," he whispered the last word, "and you'd die without the ability to get to it? What then?" he pointed out the obvious. He knew she'd already thought about it, but he needed to know what her answer would be.

"I'll find a way home, whether so I can use it in an emergency or if push comes to shove and I need to find a way home after said emergency has taken place," she said firmly, pushing a strand of hair off of her cheek and tucking it behind her ear. She blew out a short, sharp breath. "Like I said, control issues. I'll make sure I have everything covered, and what I don't have covered I'll find a way around. I will," she resolved. Then she rolled her eyes.

"I don't like feeling like I have no control," she reaffirmed. "This whole… thing. I'm usually in charge. Owner of my own company, remember?"

"I remember," Bucky replied wryly.

She continued right on. "I can usually do whatever I want. But I know I can't here. Not as much as I would like, as what I'm used to. It's beyond my control. I know I can't, shouldn't, stick my nose into a well-oiled machine like the S.S.R. but it just… Ugh. It frustrates me. So much. So I'm just left reeling, feeling lost, knowing I can help—and I will—but not knowing how or when and just…" Toni sighed, and then quickly adjusted herself so that she was leaning her chin on both of her fists, elbows propped close together on the table. "So yeah, I'm cranky. I'm flighty. I have control issues. Obviously. Well, maybe not to you. But everyone else knows it. I know it."

Bucky snorted and shrugged. "Ah well," he said, offering her a grin and letting some of the tension out of his body. "You should hear Steve sometimes. Stupid fucking idiot. You think you got it bad, you should see him when one of the generals expects him to do something without giving him a say in it."

It wasn't until he was near the end of his story, mind caught up in a memory of Steve's rant after Philips told him to take the Howlies through enemy territory for an inane, idiotic reason, that he realized Toni hadn't really responded well to him talking about Steve so much before, and he cringed without really meaning to do so, coming to an awkward halt right in the middle of a sentence.

Toni's eyes flashed and her shoulders went right back, rigid as could be, even as her face lost all expression.

This was it. That was apparently Toni's breaking point, and he'd walked right into it. It was probably inevitable, but he still felt like a jackass.

"You don't have to fu— you don't have to coddle me," she grit out. "In fact, please don't. Contrary to rather popular and prevalent belief, I am a grown woman, a functioning human being, and I won't become raveningly jealous at the mere mention of Steve Rogers." Toni's face went through a series of different expressions which Bucky was sure she hadn't intended to allow through the neutral expression she started with and then finally settled on.

He wasn't entirely sure, however, on if she was telling the truth or not. He could sense the hunger for something… something real in her, whether it came from a soul bond or not, and what Steve and he had was real. But she could… she seemed just as unhappy about the situation as Steve did—at times; don't think he didn't notice Steve's interest at times, willing or no—so perhaps they really could just make this work as… well, something other.

But he still needed to get her to understand. He had to try, had to get her to see he wasn't trying to hurt her. That neither of them were. That this was just… it was…

"Look, I'm not— I'm not trying to spare you," Bucky found himself saying. He hadn't intended to really speak, but he threw himself into it, letting the words flow straight from his heart, even though he knew this wasn't exactly the best place to being airing all of… this. But she really needed to hear what he had to say. "It's really weird for me—for us—okay? Toni. Steve and I have known we're soulmates since we were kids. We grew up together, I know every part of him and he knows every part of me. It's gonna take us a while to catch up with the idea of there being someone else out there who is meant to complete us... who's... who's supposed to be the missing piece we didn't even know was missing."

She held his gaze through it all, eyes piercing into him as if she could tell his deepest, darkest secret—and who knew, maybe she could. Maybe she could see right into him in that moment. But he didn't care—she needed to see what he was saying, what he was feeling, what he was trying to do.

"I don't know you," he continued, keeping hold of her gaze. "And you don't know me. You don't know Steve. That's gotta grow, and woman, you gotta give it time to grow. I know Steve's an ass, sometimes. Better than most people, and definitely better than you—don't look at me like that." Her glare evened out. "I've spent fifteen years with him. I know him. I know how he ticks, and I know he's balls out terrifie d of what you represent. I'm terrified of what you represent. You don't get to judge us for needing time to adjust to this. I'm good at rolling with the punches, but this—you—this means that everything I've believed since I was a kid is wrong. And that'll take some getting used to. For me and for him. Please... we're trying. Okay? While I can't imagine being in your shoes... please keep in mind that you're not in ours either."

Silence fell around them, bracketed by the quiet chatter of the other patrons, the crackle of the fire beside them, and the sound of the wind picking up and the rain starting to fall on the patched, though well-sealed, roof. They were silently observing the other, assessing, weighing each other—and Toni weighing Bucky's words.

Finally Toni sighed and leaned back, body relaxing into something much more casual and comfortable, and breathed out, "Okay. Yeah, yeah that's fair enough. She was quiet another moment and then she added, in a quieter, much more tired, voice, "I just want us to set this behind us. Set it aside, at least, for now. At the very least. We're all adults here and I'd just like to interact with you both, with all of you, without this getting in the way every moment of every day. I'd just like the chance to be friends, nothing more, okay?" Her eyes darted to the side, normally a sign of dishonesty, but Bucky could tell that wasn't exactly what was going on here. She didn't feel dishonest… but nor did she sound defeated. "Please," she added, voice strained.

Bucky considered her for a moment, trying to judge the situation for what it was—the entirety of the situation—before reaching across and gripping the fingers of both her hands in each of his own. "I'll talk to Steve. I'll talk to the boys and to Peggy and we'll try to be mindful of your needs, of what you want," he promised lowly.

She turned back and looked him straight in the eye, then gave a brief nod before drawing her hands out of his and placing them in her lap. He could tell she was fidgeting restlessly with them, however. "And this," she finally said after a moment, managing to indicate with the movement of her chin the concept of 'them'. "What about this public image thing you lot were all trying to plan without my consent?"

Christ, he felt the burn of that gaze, of those pointed words.

"We don't need to explain to anyone what they have no business knowing," he asserted.

She leveled him with a look. "I know how public relations work, Sergeant." Toni raised one brow archly. "The cat's out of the bag now, and no matter what we do—to a certain point, at least—we can't change their impression of the situation."

She was right, of course. Bucky sighed. "We'll figure something out. Keep private about it all as much as we can, and just tell them all we're—"

"You're what?" a new voice interjected, and Bucky saw Toni's eyes go wide wide wide as she took in the man standing just behind Bucky and to the left before she composed her features completely.

It was the exact same panicked look that she'd had on when the owner of said voice had been speaking to her early last evening, when they'd arrived on base.

A panicked look that made him worry deeply.

He'd have to get to the bottom of it, he promised himself, but for the moment, all he could do was stand and politely offer his hand.

"Howard."

Chapter Text

Oh for fuck's sake, Toni thought viciously, even as she schooled her features into something that would pass for polite interest at one of her public events back home. A mask she wished she had no cause to have perfected.

Just to be a contrary bitch, Toni stayed seated after James and Howard shook hands, even though James remained on his feet. She wasn't trying to make him uncomfortable, only force her father to come to her rather than have her jump to her feet the moment he decided to show up unannounced and unasked.

He probably planned it that way, the bastard.

Though there was a part of Toni that was wondering exactly how much Howard had heard, she'd had a pretty good view of the restaurant over James' shoulder in the direction which Howard had appeared from, and she would have noticed him a lot sooner if he'd been there any earlier than that—though yes, she had been wrapped up in her discussion with James, she hadn't been that far out of her public awareness.

He hadn't been there when she'd last looked over James' shoulder, so the most he could have heard would have been some confusing allusions to their public image and keeping something private—not entirely out of place for a war hero with a public persona and his newfound soulmate.

But still, Toni wondered what the fuck Howard was doing there.

"James," Howard returned the sergeant's greeting, and reached out to grip the hand offered to him. Toni could tell immediately it was one of Howard's typical 'I'm your friend but I'm still stronger than you,' handshakes, and that set her blood to boil, that he would treat this man of all people like that.

She'd had her doubts, her moments of realization over her childhood, but she'd still thought they were friends unlike any her father had ever had—James and Steve, that is. She'd always looked back on her father's stories with a certain jadedness as she grew older, but she'd never thought he would play his petty games with James, the man he'd apparently been 'thick as thieves' with. She'd thought…

Bucky, Toni vowed to herself. No way in hell was she calling him the same thing that Howard did, especially when she caught sight of the way Bucky's eyes tightened at the use of his first name from out of Howard's mouth.

Yep. Bucky.

Carefully setting aside the shock that was still fluttering around inside her at seeing her father, alive and young and, well, near her again, god damn it—she thought she'd finally escaped him back in 1991, no matter how shitty that sounded—Toni settled in to watch and observe. At least for the moment.

"Miss Rhodes," Howard nodded at her in greeting, always doing the right thing, at least at a surface level, with strangers he knew nothing much about. She nodded distantly in return, but kept her silence, allowing the social protocols of the 40s to work in her favor for the moment, and returned to watching the developing interaction.

She needed to figure out where to go with this, with her father, with Howard, and she couldn't do that unless she knew what she was working with.

Antonia Stark needed data.

Bucky dropped Howard's hand, not caring in the least that it was obviously what Howard would consider quick enough to have 'won'. "How ya doin', Howard?" Bucky asked politely.

Toni could see Mrs. O'Dwyer, the cook and restaurant owner whom Bucky had introduced her to on their way in, peering at them with a worried frown from the doorway of the kitchen. Bucky hadn't offered Howard a seat, either, despite societal niceties, despite other patrons giving them shuttered, curious glances, and Toni put two and two together: Bucky didn't like Howard much.

Hah! So her father had definitely been lying through his teeth about all those stories of being friends with Bucky—and she had her suspicions about how Steve and the other Howlies felt about Howard, too—all probably just to make himself feel good and look even better to the rest of the world. She knew for a fact he'd used those connections to smooth his way through the weapons industry. Even though Stark products her father invented were far better than the rest of the playing field, he went even further with the name of Captain America and the Howling Commandos. Playing up his war buddies.

Bastard. She had his number. Now it was what she did with it that remained to be seen…

But for now Toni would be patient—whoever said that Toni Stark couldn't be patient?

"Have you read the latest Olaf Stapledon?" Howard asked.

Toni very narrowly managed not to roll her eyes.

Bucky, however, hid his impatience a little less well. "You came here to talk about science fiction?" In the middle of my meal? was heavily implied. When I'm here with someone else? even more so.

When I'm here with my soulmate? Toni could swear she heard and felt.

Howard, of course, ignored it all, focused on whatever the hell his goal was for this… show. "It provides remarkable insight into a post-war world—"

Bucky narrowed his eyes and interjected, "I'd prefer to get through the war first—"

"—and it's rather fascinating how he merges—"

"Howard, there is a lack of recently published books on the front, especially where we end up and with the way we move around," Bucky came close to growling as he cut Howard Stark's words off entirely.

Toni got to her feet and placed a hand on Bucky's arm, gentle but firm, and angled her body just so, so that she could lean into Bucky, feeling the warmth coming off of him from where the fire had warmed his skin and clothes, and pulling his eyes to hers. Toni held his gaze for one beat, two beats, and then turned her head to look at Howard, still leaning into Bucky. "I've read it already, Bucky." She emphasized his nickname, and Howard's expression darkened just enough to satisfy the nasty, gnawing pit inside of Toni. "It's not something you'd enjoy, not right now at least. Wholly inappropriate for a soldier to read, honestly." It was, it really was. It wasn't something a battle-hardened, world-weary soldier who was likely experiencing ridiculous amounts of PTSD and disillusionment with life and everything, would want to read. Or should read. Seriously, what the hell, Howard? Are you so out of touch that you would suggest this?

Yes. Yes he was. He always would be.

"I don't believe we've been properly introduced, miss," Howard said, cutting into the silence which had thickened around them after her intervention. From Howard's tone, Toni was already well on her way to Howard's bad side which, seriously, was nothing new, and actually served to reinforce the steel in Toni's spine where her father was concerned.

Father only ever in the barest of senses.

"Howard Stark," the man said while inclining his head briefly towards her, eyes sharp as he took in her features.

"Who?" Toni blinked innocently at him, 'confusion' filling her tone of voice.

Bucky shook, just a little, beside her, and she had to repress a shark-like grin from spreading across her face at his poorly-hidden humor. He didn't know she knew the other man, but seeing Howard Stark baffled at someone not knowing who he was would be hilarious no matter what.

Before Howard could speak again, she introduced herself, calling on what she'd already decided would be her official cover story. "Antonia Rhodes. It's good to meet you, Mr. Stark. I'm an engineer originally out of Miami, specializing in mechanical and electrical engineering."

Howard looked intrigued now. Damn it. Oh well, it couldn't be helped. She was going to stick as close to the truth as possible—the best lies, of course, were ones with the most amount of truth incorporated within them. Much easier to keep things straight that way.

It would still be quite the task.

"Which school?" Howard inquired.

"MIT. Graduated in—" Toni quickly calculated a plausible date, "—1922. And you?" It was only polite.

"Ah, MIT," Howard said dismissively. Funny how a mere few decades could change a previously second-rate school for the middle class in the pre-war years, into something coveted by aspiring engineers of the upper class in the latter years of the century. "Harvard was more to my tastes." She just bet it was. "Physics, chemistry, and business, myself. My engineering skills were self-taught," he added.

So were mine, Toni thought. You never helped, you only ever told me how I'd fucked something up. Everything I learned was from observation and reading and trying for my own damn self.

"I didn't know MIT had any female graduates in those programs," he continued, eyeing her curiously.

Bucky shifted restlessly beneath her grip on his arm, and she squeezed his bicep just firmly enough to get him to meet her eyes when she turned to look at him. She gave him a reassuring smile, concealed from others by the fall of her dark curls, and he relaxed just a hint.

It was enough.

It was sweet.

He obviously wasn't quite sure what was going on, but he was letting her handle it. Probably trying to figure out what I know, she thought, but let it slide for the moment. What I know about Howard, and what that means.

"There have been a few over the years," she corrected Howard, turning back towards him. "I was not the first, and I will not be the last."

Howard nodded, conceding the point, even though Toni knew he had much to say on that topic. He wasn't exactly a misogynist… but, well, okay, yes he was. But he was a particular misogynist. She'd grant him that.

Toni decided to cut to the heart of what the other man was leading her towards, and answered him before he could even ask, shooting a quick glance at Bucky before returning to Howard. "My mother is Italian, Mr. Stark. So I moved to Italy soon after the completion of my degree, and was working for a private company specializing in energy production, though they did add experimental weaponry to the table in the years shortly before the war. I grew tired of them once they took a few too many steps towards fascism, and joined a group of Italian resistance fighters before I stumbled upon this one." She smiled at Bucky, making it look much softer than she really wanted it to in that moment, just so that Howard would kindly fuck off. She wanted to establish her identity, sure, but she also wanted him to just accept it and fucking leave.

She was tired of him already, no matter how excited some might be at the prospect of having a parent seemingly come back from the dead.

Not her. No, not her.

"I see," Howard said. "I do not have as much experience with the Italian business or engineering world, I must admit, otherwise we would have run in the same circles, you and I, and how could one forget a face such as yours?"

Yuck. Seriously, yuck.

Bucky stiffened at her side, but Howard completely ignored the man. It was a disconnect from what Toni had always been told about Bucky by Howard, and it served to knock Toni out of her disgust. She smiled up at Bucky and let him see that she was not moved by Howard, that she was only being polite, as she demurred, "Thank you." Bucky's expression softened, but he still let her know that she had only to ask for him to intervene, by trapping Toni's hand between his arm and the hand he brought to place upon hers. He clasped her fingers in his own, and they both suppressed a flinch at the fire the touch elicited.

To distract from that, Toni plastered on another type of smile, one she was going to reserve just for Howard. It had an edge to it, and one she dearly wished she could unveil even further. "If you will, Mr. Stark?" She squeezed Bucky's arm and allowed him to usher her back into her seat at the table. After he released her, hands trailing over hers with a spark that made her want to shiver, she settled her napkin back onto her lap, and stared expectantly up at the man who would become her father, her inspiration turned torment, as Bucky stood close by her seat, almost protectively.

Howard looked from her to Bucky and then back at her, then at the others who were now pretty much openly watching them in the restaurant, and then back at her once again. It was as if he suddenly realized where he was, and that the attention was not exactly as he would wish.

It wasn't exactly like Toni would wish either, but hey, at least now they'd have no problem at all spreading the word about Sergeant Barnes' new squeeze.

Rumor mills. Same in any decade, really.

Howard inclined his head, once to her and then once again to Bucky. "My apologies for the delay in your meal. Perhaps we can meet to discuss our mutual interest in books and engineering at another time, Miss Rhodes."

"Perhaps," was all Toni could get out, and she nodded at him before he took his leave and returned to a table—and a companion who had very obviously been waiting on Howard to start—near the front of the room.

A female companion—of course—who was dressed far and above more richly than anyone else in the room other than Howard. He'd never troubled himself with anyone so gauche as someone below him in status. Even though he himself was of the nouveau riche, he only ever demanded the best. The aristocratic. And she was sure his companion for the night was no less, never mind the fact he was being a hypocrite. Always the hypocrite.

Toni was startled out of her thoughts when Bucky, instead of sitting down, leaned over and spoke in her ear, sending a poorly-concealed frisson down her spine, "You know him, don't you? From before."

He held his place, staring in the same direction as she, obviously not caring one whit about the people still staring at them. When Toni let the silence drag on just a little bit, not knowing what to say, he placed one hand on her shoulder and the other hand on the arm of her chair, boxing her in. "He makes you jump, I've seen it more than once now, and I want to know why. You know him from your father's and Peggy's stories, don't you." He didn't make that a question. "Let me help you. Tell me what you know. If he makes you jump this badly, then there must be a damn good reason why."

Because he was an abusive monster of a joke of a father, and I don't know what to do with seeing him come back to life, haunting my waking hours once again when I thought he was confined only to my nightmares, Toni ached to say. But she didn't. She couldn't. She wouldn't know where to start, even if she did want to.

Toni, suddenly tired of this, of dinner, of her father, of coming back in time, of soulmates, of everything, fuck, slumped just the tiniest bit and relented even less—but it was more than she'd planned.

"I do," she confirmed, allowing too much of what she was feeling to show in her voice. "I know him. But I… I'll tell you. I'll tell you what I can, but I need to think first. I promise he's not a threat, there's just… something. Something unrelated." Something very related, she thought a little hysterically.

Bucky didn't move.

"Please," she half-demanded, half-pleaded. "I need to go lie down and think. Need to sleep. I just want to go now, please."

It was underhanded, but Toni was tired.

It was underhanded, and it worked.

Bucky stepped back and offered her a hand up, expression a mix of concern and determination… and that little bit of confusion and shock and hunger that Toni felt mirrored within her when their fingers touched for only as long as it took for her to get to her feet.

She stamped that hunger down, that longing, remembering exactly what Bucky had said to her about them needing time… and what she'd said about wanting to put it all behind them.

Maybe she should take to wearing gloves at all times.

With the way Bucky was holding himself, more stiffly than he had at any other time with her, and the way he clamped right down on their, albeit small, connection, he was likely thinking along similar lines.

After one last look, where Bucky only barely met her eyes, she hurried out of the restaurant—and even though she knew that Bucky would notice, she took the long way around to avoid passing her father's table.

He noticed a lot, that one. She'd need to be careful.

And she needed to decide what to tell him. What to tell Steve, Peggy, the other Howling Commandos… what she would tell Phillips, even. She'd made a promise, and she'd keep it. Somehow. Someway.

She had a lot of thinking to do, and she just knew her brain was far too manic to even contemplate sleep.

It would be a wasted effort.

And everything else would be a waste if she didn't use her presence here in the past for good. She couldn't let this opportunity go to waste.

She couldn't.

Chapter Text

 

"And that," Major Alexander Donnelly exclaimed semi-dramatically as he dropped into his chair, "is just about all I can teach you without outright tossing you into the Channel." He eyed Steve contemplatively before turning to the tall woman sat beside him. "Can we toss him into the Channel?"

Captain Samantha Schofield smirked at Steve before she chuckled, "Much as we all appreciate that idea, I'm afraid that might get our beloved Captain America killed." She winked at Steve. "The States would never forgive us."

"Not to mention the wrath you'd incur of every showgirl on the U.S.O. tour," Peggy quipped cheekily.

"Peggy!" Steve yelped, cheeks flaming with embarrassment. The other occupants in the room dissolved into breathless laughter at his expense, and Steve barely repressed the urge to pout at each and every one of them—damned traitors. Instead, he followed Major Donnelly's lead when the other man unbuttoned his jacket, signaling the end of today's lesson. Samantha and Peggy both relaxed into their chairs a little more, the captain even undoing the tight knot her red hair was bound up in. Dum Dum shifted in his chair, and Steve knew that the other man was probably searching in a pocket for one of his ubiquitous cigars.

He blew out the deep breath he'd been holding and leaned back into his seat, eyeing the blackboard they'd haphazardly set up by the head of the table again. Today, it was covered in Donnelly's dreadful handwriting and rapid sketches of rapidly evolving front lines, and though Steve knew he had an eidetic memory—one of the few things that were entirely his, and not due to the serum—and could replicate everything Donnelly had told him, down to the odd squiggle the man dotted his i's with, he always worried he would forget something essential, maybe screw up in the field and get people killed.

He knew he wouldn't—he knew Dum Dum and Bucky and the others would never let it get that far—but the fear niggled in the back of his mind, and when Bucky or one of the others didn't pull him out of it, he'd often find himself obsessing over his lessons for hours.

Today, thankfully, he could feel Peggy's eyes burn a hole into the side of his head, forcibly keeping him from obsessing. He was not, however, prepared to deal with her knowing gaze right now, so he let his eyes slide around the room instead, pushing the noise of the casual conversations starting up right into the background—at least for a few moments while he came out of what Falsworth laughingly called his 'scholarly mode'.

The room Steve's lessons took place in was, in essence, a small, out-of-the-way office down an out-of-the-way corridor that had kind of been forgotten until Phillips dug it up and put Steve in there for additional training. It was in a remote corner of the base, a good ten-minute walk from the main hangar and in a separate building altogether.

Bucky had grumbled the first time he and Steve had made their way there, but he'd grown more appreciative of its isolated state the first time he and Steve had somehow managed to be the only ones left after one of the lessons. Steve ducked his head when his cheeks burned, hoping no one noticed, and a smile tugged at his lips—Bucky could be insatiable, when given the right incentive.

Steve had been more than happy to provide said incentive.

He still couldn't look at the desk in the front of the room without blushing so hard he feared he'd pop a blood vessel. He was pretty sure Peggy knew, because… well, because she was Peggy.

She knew everything.

Which, right now, was working decidedly against him.

"Hey Steve?"

"Hm?" Steve refrained from sighing in relief when Samantha called his name, and tilted his head towards her to indicate he was listening. He steadfastly refused to look in Peggy's direction, though.

He was no chicken, but he was no fathead either. Peggy could and would eat him alive, if she so chose.

Madone! Having her poised to eat him alive was no less terrifying than when people had first started rumors of them making time together, and he'd been worried about how Bucky would react. Which had practically made him develop an ulcer, the first time he'd heard that.

Point being, Peggy was formidable.

She was not, however, the only formidable dame he knew.

Samantha Schofield was another such, as well as the rest of her team. Peggy's team, really. She'd been given permission partway through the war—with the backing of the Brits' Secret Intelligence Service, Steve was pretty sure, though she'd never confirmed it—to gather a team of women from across the British Dominion, train them, and use them for many different purposes, to many different ends. Even Steve wasn't exactly sure on everything they did, despite his own top secret clearance. They were much like the Commandos, at times, but he was almost certain a number of them were used for spying and codebreaking purposes, based on Peggy's experience with Bletchley Park. Women were a vital part of resistance networks, Peggy always said; never expected, always underestimated.

Samantha came from Canada, herself, and was known for her fierce and natural tactical mind long before she became a soldier. She'd caught Peggy's eye in 1942 when she kept trying to get to the front lines, sent back over and over despite the fact that she'd produced positive results. In frustration, Samantha had signed on as a nurse, and then cajoled herself into a combat medic position. But she kept… straying, and soon enough strayed right into Peggy's unit, rising quickly into command of the unit's combat branch, second only to Peggy—though the latter stuck to the bigger picture of fighting, spying, and codebreaking, rather than just the fighting.

Technically, that meant Captain Schofield was the field leader of the S.S.R's Dominion Company, colloquially known as the Heather Company or the Red Heathers—after one of their most… vocal and exuberant members. He still hadn't heard the entire story behind that, but what he had heard had burned his ears and made Bucky laugh for long, blissful minutes.

"Steve."

He snapped back to the present, giving Samantha his best aw shucks look. He wasn't normally this inattentive; he'd just had a lot on his mind, and not enough time with his soulmate.

"Apologies, ma'am, I was woolgathering," Steve murmured sincerely, smoothing out his features and focusing on the lady on the other side of the table from him.

She tsked fondly at him. "Oh, you know I hate it when you call me that," she said, a hint of mischief in her eyes, knowing exactly what he'd say next. It was one of the rituals the two of them had developed over the last year.

"I do know, ma'am." Steve flashed her his best innocent smile. "What can I do for you, ma'am?"

"Now you've done it!" Alexander laughed, the others taking a break just to make fun of him. It never seemed to grow old, to any of them. It was… nice. Though he was almost certain that it was because they viewed him as the baby of the lot, he didn't take offense. It contributed to the sense of extended family that Steve had seen—and felt—so often with the Barnes family.

Steve rolled his eyes, but Dum Dum and Peggy drew Alexander's focus once more with their own well-practiced squabble about Dum Dum's smoking habits. It was one of the few times where Dugan could get away with openly calling Peggy 'dainty', without getting a swift kick to an area God never meant to be treated so harshly, in Steve's humble opinion. Their voices quickly faded into the background as Steve focused on Samantha again, though he quickly realized he was smiling a little too widely when he saw Samantha's gaze turn contemplative.

He let it fade as naturally as he could, but he knew he'd been a little late on this one. Samantha and Alexander knew the four of them—Steve, Bucky, Peggy, Dugan—and the rest of the Howlies too well for them not to have picked up on some of the currents beneath the surface of their relationships and interactions.

Steve was pretty sure the both of them suspected there was more going on beneath the surface of their public relationships. Samantha did, at the very least. Peggy had spoken a few times about how there were a number of 'platonic' female soulbonds within the Red Heathers—just like Steve and Bucky were 'platonic'—and they were all a lot more open and laissez-faire about the whole thing, not making it into a big to-do, so it stood to reason that she and the other fighting and spying women would be a lot more… aware.

Regardless.

It wasn't something he quite felt comfortable acknowledging out loud to Samantha, much as he might like and respect her. He just wasn't… there yet, with her. Even less so with Alexander. Men were much harder to imagine knowing his secret without some kind of fear filling him up.

"I—" Samantha opened her mouth, and then shut it again, twisting her lips just a little as she obviously tried to figure out what to say or ask. She darted another look at Peggy, then Dugan, and then the door, and suddenly it clicked.

"You want to ask about her, don't you?" Steve asked evenly.

She tilted her head just a little. "Everyone does."

"Word sure spreads fast, huh."

"Of course it does. What better things do we have to do with our time than gossip like old biddies?" Samantha laughed, brown eyes sparkling, and Steve chuckled just a little as well. Inwardly, though, he was beating himself up over not quite being prepared to talk about the woman who had flown in with them from Italy.

He wasn't ready.

He didn't know what to say.

"There's not much to share as of yet, ma'am." Luckily for Steve, Dum Dum obviously knew what tack to take with the official response.

Samantha stuck her tongue out at him, just a little, in that childish way she still somehow managed to always pull in the middle of all this war, and despite all the eyes that were upon her career, waiting for her to mess up.

"Not going to change the answer any, honey," Peggy added, mock-reprimanding her second in command. Steve let his eyes slide over to the dark-haired woman, his eyes grateful, but she didn't look at him.

Yeah, he was definitely still in trouble with her.

"We don't know too much yet, Sam." He used her nickname and that seemed to appease her, distracting her into smiling and away from pressing the point. He slid easily through the conversational door opened for him by Peggy and Dum Dum—they always worked so well as a team, truly—and continued. "We haven't had much time to talk yet, though Bucky's taking the dame out for dinner tonight in an attempt to draw her out just a little more."

He didn't even stumble over a single word—proper respect to him.

He'd always been pretty good at shootin' the shit, Bucky said. Excellent, really, when he wanted something.

"And we'll be speaking all together with Phillips tomorrow," Peggy added.

"That'll sure be interesting," Alexander commented, the former First Special Service Force commando looking contemplative. "Trying to see where she fits in with all this?"

Steve was almost completely sure that the man wasn't talking about just where the woman would fit into the war. The other man might not know exactly where everyone in the Commandos fit with each other, but there had been times where he'd had much the same look to his gaze as Samantha had just minutes ago.

Suddenly Steve wasn't feeling entirely comfortable—part of him wanted to escape from these people who he trusted but didn't trust, and the other part of him wanted to take that leap and just tell them, tell these people who were his friends, even if not his family, everything that was going on in their messy, ridiculous lives.

He was sure they would understand. Sure they could keep the secret.

And yet… he couldn't. He just couldn't. Not when it was his friends' lives and careers—Bucky's life—on the line. If it was just him… yeah, probably, but it wasn't just him he had to worry about.

He had to protect his people.

"Yes," he forced out into the brief silence after Alexander's question. "It's… difficult. Figuring things out. In wartime, y'know?"

"I do," the man said, a hint of pain showing through. "Met my gal right before I shipped out to Fort William for training. Hardest damn thing I ever did, leaving her behind, maybe never to see her again."

They all nodded solemnly, even though they'd heard the story a couple of times in the last year. And even though Donnelly had been given the opportunity to bring his gal to Britain from the States when he and his battalion were transferred to the S.S.R., he'd told her to stay home. He told her to stay where it was safe.

If anywhere was safe during this war, it was the heartland, the inner plains, of the United States. If war reached them there, then the war was all but over.

"It was a good thing you did," Peggy said, calmly laying her hand on top of Alexander's across the table. He gave her a quick smile, before his attention was drawn to the doorway.

Everyone's attention, especially that of Steve.

The door was opening, revealing Bucky's grinning face long before he'd been meant to be over with dinner. It was only eight o'clock, and yet here his jerk of a soulmate was.

Something must have gone wrong. Steve wasn't entirely sure how he felt about that.

"Well it's a good thing you left her there, Major, or else we'd never see you. Then who would teach us all of the great wisdom you've been able to pass onto us? Captain Red?" Bucky joked easily, drawling in that way that came naturally to him.

He stopped just inside the door and to the side, but didn't sit down.

It meant he wanted to talk to Steve. Alone. And everyone knew it. They all knew each other so well, even the other two, which was just another point in the column of 'he should tell them'.

Steve got to his feet as everyone else did, out of politeness, though he stayed where he was as they gathered their things, laughing as Samantha scowled at Bucky, then stuck her tongue out just to get another laugh out of the man. She knew Bucky didn't mean anything by it, and especially didn't mean to imply the joke had anything to do with her gender.

God forbid.

They'd be run out of the base, considering a full third of the fighting force here were women.

Samantha did her hair back up into a looser version of its former bun, speaking even with her mouth occupied by two hairpins, cap tucked firmly beneath her arm. "I'll have you know I make a damn fine teacher, boy."

She and Bucky continued to snark back and forth as they all made their way to the door. First Donnelly left, then Peggy and Dugan—likely off to find their own classroom to have some 'private time' of their own, and good for them, they needed it just as much as he and Bucky did—and then Bucky finally shoved the redheaded woman out the door in their usual playful manner, both of them cackling like loons the entire time.

Ridiculous, the lot of them.

Especially his Bucky.

Finally, Bucky locked the door behind the others, and it was just the two of them staring each other down. One beat, two beats, and then—

Then Bucky was on top of him, shoving Steve's notepad onto the floor, scattering his pencils to either side—likely never to be found again—and scattering Steve's thoughts right along with them.

It felt like the first time in months, even though they'd only just reaffirmed their connection, their thoughts, their bodies, their love just the night before with some truly spectacular physical contact.

The sex was great too, of course, Steve thought a little hysterically, as he ran his hands through Bucky's hair, but it was the touch he craved so much. That step up from casual intimacy that they couldn't even quite manage in the field, despite their whole team knowing the true nature of their bond. They were too on point, too tense, too aware that there was a war that any moment could be brought to their doorstep, as it were, for them to be able to relax enough for this.

"What are you gigglin' about, punk? I'm trying to seduce y'here," Bucky grumbled, without much heat, against the hollow of Steve's throat, nipping at the skin lightly, following it up with a quick dart of his tongue to soothe the small hurt.

Steve trembled, bones practically liquefying, and the only thing keeping him somewhat on top of the table and not melted into a puddle on the floor was Bucky's strong body holding him up, holding him down. It should amaze him that Bucky had the strength to do that, but it didn't—he was a soldier, but first and foremost he was, and had been for as long as Steve had known him, a man who prided himself on his body, on his looks.

Even as a teen, Bucky had gotten into boxing solely because he'd known it'd make his body look phenomenal. It had worked too—Steve recalled being exceptionally appreciative of Bucky's increased musculature. Being drafted and becoming a soldier really hadn't changed that aspect of Bucky's personality. If anything, Bucky was more intense about keeping his body in peak condition now.

It still sent shivers down Steve's spine every time he remembered that Bucky could hold him up almost as easily as he could when Steve was small.

He'd never admit it to Bucky, but he had been afraid he'd lost that after the serum, and before they'd been reunited. Before Bucky had picked him up as easily as before, on that first night together since he'd been changed.

"You're doing a damn fine job with the seducing, jerk—not that y'need it. And I'm not laughing—I'm not!" he protested with a soppy grin, even as his eyes hooded when Bucky slowly pulled both of his hands from out of Bucky's hair and pinned them above Steve's head against the table.

"Hmm, I think you are, and until you admit what it is you're laughing about, you don't get what you so obviously want." Bucky licked his lips and ground his hips just a little bit into Steve's—enough so Steve could tell Bucky wanted just as bad—but then drew back when Steve tried to reach up for a kiss.

Steve whined—fuck it, but he definitely did—and tested the grip Bucky had on his hands. They barely gave, even when Steve was pushing it just a little, and so he gave into the illusion of being at the other man's mercy.

Sometimes it was all he craved, and he'd be grumpy as hell until he got what he wanted.

Steve pouted when Bucky laughed at him—hypocrite—but gave in. "I'm just… I'm happy. I love you." He barely kept a straight face at the surprised expression on Bucky's face—for all that the Howlies called them soppy bastards, they didn't actually say the words out loud all that often—and curled his fingers up, around Bucky's the best he could. "I didn't think I'd see you until late tonight."

And before Steve's mind could go off after that sudden distraction, before it could put the brakes on what had just started to go his way, Bucky leaned over him and pushed him into the table, kissing the wits right out of him. Steve was barely able to follow as Bucky's lips left his, his brain still trying to gather all of its cells back in the wake of being kissed stupid, and before his head stopped spinning he was being swallowed down into the hot, tight depths of Bucky's very talented mouth. Once that happened, there was no stopping his plunge towards the edge—not that he even remotely wanted that—and the two of them were a tangle of heat, suction, saliva, grasping hands and gripped hair and tightened muscles and oh fuck until he spilled with a barely-suppressed cry down Bucky's mouth who knew how much later—it could have been twenty minutes or two, or two hours. And it wasn't like he really cared much to check the damn time right then.

Fuck, but he'd been desperate.

Obviously, so had Bucky. So was Bucky, still.

And now that the edge had been taken off of him, he could turn his not-inconsiderable focus on the man he loved—taking a small breather, planning exactly what he wanted to do after he took Buck's own edge off, as soon as he could get his soulmate into bed. So he did just that, shoving Bucky to the ground and swallowing him down moments after he got his stupid pants unbuttoned—even though he was well used to them by now, he wasn't exactly sure why he couldn't just keep Bucky locked up with no pants on all the times, especially after… after he'd lost…

To drown out that thought, Steve worked all the harder, and quickly brought Bucky off, treating it like he had a point to prove in bringing his lover pleasure in so little time, and knowing exactly when to shove his hand over Bucky's mouth to stifle his full-throated cry—Bucky had never managed to get the hang of being quiet, not when he had Steve to stuff his mouth with something, the little jerk always told him cheekily.

Bucky would be the death of him, good lord in heaven.

It was long minutes later before they'd both found their breath and their voices, clothes buttoned and straightened and everything put back in place just in case they needed to make a quick getaway. They'd had many of years of practice, Steve thought idly, and it showed. But just because they had to hide, didn't mean they were ashamed. It spoke of society instead, and one that Steve wished desperately to change.

One step at a time, though, like Peggy had always told him. Know when to push, when to regroup. Know when the enemy was gathering its own strength or was drawing away in weakness.

He would wait, but one day he knew that he would push. One day.

Much like everything currently going on between him and their new… addition, Steve suddenly realized, his eyes widening just a little.

He'd been so… so… mad was as good a word as any.

He'd been so mad at the world—not necessarily at her—that he'd just run in without thinking, reacted without knowing, and that was probably at least half of why Peggy was so annoyed with him. He hadn't been listening to what she'd taught him, to what Bucky had taught him, what the Howlies had taught him… he'd just resorted back to being a fathead with a chip on his shoulder, letting go of everything that had turned him into such an effective commander and reducing him back to the skinny boy wailing on a wall of societal bricks to no avail.

He hadn't thought, he hadn't learned, he hadn't watched, he hadn't done much besides let his heart react in a kneejerk manner—one which wanted to protect what had always been his… and only his.

He'd never been good at sharing. He'd not even been good at sharing Bucky with his sisters, in all honesty, though he'd gotten better at that awful habit out of a sheer desire not to be murdered by the girls. And that wasn't even counting the other boys Steve had surreptitiously chased off over the years, much as he might cringe at that now. It hadn't been fair to Bucky, and it had only ever highlighted the sin of jealousy, his mother had said.

"I've been… unfair," Steve said a little hesitantly, a lot quietly, feeling out the words and the thoughts as he rested his head on top of Bucky's, his back against the wall and the dark-haired man held in the cage of his arms and legs.

"Why d'ya say that?" Bucky queried, voice light and a touch drowsy. That, Steve's favorite way for Bucky to sound, coupled with the fact that neither of them could see each other's expressions, made it a little easier for Steve to talk this out.

"Ma always taught me to get to know someone first without passing judgment," Steve said after a moment of gentle and comfortable silence between the two of them. "To never assume. I mean, I still did it anyway, and then got mad when people would do it to me, but I tried. It was one of the first lessons I remember her teaching me."

Bucky hummed and tucked himself a little more firmly in the cradle of Steve's arms, letting the other man carry the conversation forward without his input.

"And Peggy, well, she reinforced it. Never met a dame more headstrong than she, and even now I'm not entirely sure her lessons will stand me in good stead with getting to know other ladies very well—at least outside of the military, now, though look at how I stumble over my words with at least half of the Red Heathers."

Steve could feel the smile on Bucky's lips when he pressed them against the back of Steve's arm, even through the layers of Steve's jacket. He could always feel Bucky so much more than before, what with his nerves working properly now, and it never ceased to amaze him.

He brushed a kiss through Bucky's hair. "Point being, I've let down at least two of the women who matter most to me where it pertains to a third woman the Fates have thought might possibly be important enough to me to mark us. I don't…" Steve paused a moment, swallowing thickly as he tried to wrap his mind around what he was trying to say—even though, in his mind, he still wasn't entirely sure what he was thinking.

"I don't know what all this means, what she means to me, to you, to the both of us. But I know that if Peggy had actually been my—or our—soulmate, instead of Dum Dum's… if it had been her instead of Toni, for real… then I would have given it the chance to play out and see what was what. Platonic or romantic or nothing at all. I… well, you know that means I don't love you any less, right Buck?" he asked suddenly, realizing what exactly he'd said. "I don't love her like that, Peggy that is, I just— It's an example, I mean—" Steve huffed in frustration. "You know what I mean."

But Bucky had already turned in his arms and wrapped his arms around Steve's neck.

He was smiling, soft and gentle but not teasing in the least. "I know that. And it doesn't mean I love you any less if I want to be nice and be friends with the lady, you know?" he murmured against Steve's lips. "We can let it figure itself out, doll. She's not got it in her mind to chase after either of us, especially against our will. I have a feeling she has some experience with that, enough that it makes me want to chase the sleazes down and beat them up if she probably hasn't done it already—same as I would for Dame Carter, no? It's okay to be friends with a lady, Steve. You and I both know that platonic bonds don't always mean platonic, and romantic bonds—even between a man and a woman, remember the two 'married' couples down the hall from us? It don't always mean romantic. It's up to the individuals, not society, to figure out what each soulbond means, right? We've said that a thousand times, but we gotta live it a thousand times, too. Be an example."

"I was just thinking that," Steve agreed softly, his eyes locking onto Bucky's with understanding and love and thankfulness that he had this amazing man to share his life with.

"Don't mean it's gonna be easy, punk," Bucky began with a grin.

Steve finished Bucky's favorite saying with a roll of his eyes and a grin of his own, "—especially considering it's me. Yeah, yeah, you're a barrel of laughs. Laugh it up, punk."

And Bucky did, Steve joining in and feeling the residual tension of the last few days drain away… right up until Steve noticed the sound of a pair of combat boots making their way down the concrete hall towards their door.

The hall that should be deserted at this time of night.

Bucky quieted as soon as Steve did, from long practice, though Steve's heart ached to hear his laughter again. It wasn't the first time they'd been sought out after lessons when they'd stayed behind for some extra private time.

Steve stood up slowly, knowing exactly how much time he had based on where the boots were at in the hall outside. He straightened out his jacket and made sure his pants were done up completely, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand just in case, all while letting his eyes roam over Bucky from head to toe and back again, just in case—

Just in case it was the last time he'd get a good look at his sweetheart.

You never knew—not in wartime.

After one last kiss—just in case—Steve strode towards the door, opening it on the unsurprised features of one of Colonel Phillips' runners. They had done this a few times.

"Private Kenzies, what can we do for you?" he asked, getting right to the point no matter how much his ma scoffed at him in the back of his mind for forgetting his pleasantries. With some people, there was just no point.

"Colonel Phillips wishes to see you and Sergeant Barnes in his office in half an hour, at 21:30." And with that, the private offered Steve and Bucky a crisp salute, easily turning about-face and striding off back the way he'd come. Steve and Bucky watched him the whole way down before he passed out of sight at the top of the stairs.

Steve looked at Bucky, raising an eyebrow. All Bucky could do was shrug. "Well, you heard the man. Hop to it, Captain!"

Steve barely suppressed the yelp as Bucky swatted him on the ass, but didn't try in the least to suppress the wicked grin that spread across his lips. "I'll get you for that, Sarge. Don't see that I don't."

"I count on it," Bucky replied with a waggle of his eyebrows.

They weren't done talking—far from it—but Steve felt less like he was drowning and more like he just might be able to survive all this.


A little earlier

Fucking hell.

Toni really needed a damn drink or five, and what she really wanted—what she needed—was the one thing that seemed the furthest from reach, other than her friends: her workshop.

She desperately wanted to throw herself into it, lock the doors, shut down the house, shut out the world, shut out everything, and drown herself in the self-contained universe that was her mind when unleashed upon creativity and innovation and the future.

But mostly, she just wanted to escape. She wanted to stop thinking for a while. To stop being so bothered and to work herself to the bone, music screaming in her ears, past the point of exhaustion, past the point where mania would carry her on for another day or two, and straight into the oblivion of sleep that would come at the end of it all.

She craved.

She wanted.

She needed.

And she couldn't have it.

So instead, she was stuck in her own mind, nothing really to distract her as she turned the problem over for what seemed the thousand-and-first time…

She needed a goddamn drink.

Instead she was stuck worrying over a stupid as fuck problem that shouldn't even be bothering her.

Calming her mind just a touch more with a deep breath, her lungs pressing as far as they could against the arc reactor hidden beneath her blue dress, fingertips pressing firmly against the glass casing, material providing her something to focus on in lieu of tools… she thought. She turned the problem over again, certain that this time would be the last she would need to let it all go.

Deep breath.

Press fingers against the solid proof of being alive.

Deep breath out.

Now. Think.

Focus.

Toni wasn't even really sure why she was so bothered about this whole... whatever it was.

Sure, they were her soulmates, but she barely knew them.

Well—okay, that was a lie.

She'd never met them in person but they'd been brought to life through stories told to her all her life by her godmother, Howard, and the Howlies she'd met off and on over the years. Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes had seemed so real to her, even while seeming larger than life at the same time, and she knew so much about them it was bordering on creepy by the time she was fourteen and starting to, well... mature. Mature more.

Beyond childhood idolization and right on into teenage dreams.

Awkward.

Though there was probably something there that made sense about all this happening, because they were two of the only men she'd lusted after for their minds and deeds, and then for their bodies. If there was lust at all, for any other man, it was almost exclusively for their bodies.

These two, however…

But really, when Toni looked at it from another perspective, one a little more analytical and a little less emotional... there were plenty of reasons she shouldn't be so worked up.

One, she'd always preferred women. Sure, she was bi, pan, whatever it was they were calling it these days, and had dated and fucked her share of men over the years, but it was women she returned to time and again. Women that she fantasized about, dallied with, and even considered marrying, soulmate or not.

Two, she thought she'd given up on the whole concept of soulmate love.

She'd seen it go wrong, horribly wrong, over the years. Soulmates parted, soulmates abused, soulmates divorced, soulmates murdered, and beat each other, and so much more... Soulmates didn't always work, and there were plenty of couples who didn't share a mark who carried out some of the most wonderful relationships Toni had ever seen, and there was even the twenty percent of the population who didn't ever get a mark or chose to ignore the words when a rendezvous etched itself across their skin.

Three, she didn't poach. Ever. Never had, never would, no matter what some people might say. And those two? Nope. Not a chance.

Three, part B... They were super fucking great together, and she'd just ruin the hell out of it, out of them.

Three, part C, she didn't fucking deserve them. The Merchant of Death? In a relationship with two heroes?

Nope.

Four, going back to her original train of thought, she didn't really know them. It was never a good idea to throw oneself into a relationship, even if you happened to be soulmates. Perhaps especially. You should always take the time to get to know someone if you were serious. Or, well, so she'd learned. The one time she'd actually taken her time, with Pepper, it had been wonderful—albeit short, considering when Pepper had received her mark. But they'd had years of getting to know each other before that, even though she'd been a bit of a thoughtless, thankless brat for a good portion of it, and it had led to something… wonderful.

Five, she was used to rejection and she also should never have expected anything of a couple that was already together.

She didn't really.

She didn't know why it was bothering her—or, at least, why it had bothered her so much at the start—but it was probably a mix of being thrown back into the past and then getting such a… well, such a negative reaction so immediately.

But that was on her, honestly.

So really, she should be embracing all this. She should be embracing the pushback from her mere existence. No. No, that was a little harsh. She understood what they were feeling, she really did. She hadn't even really needed their explanations, though they had certainly helped to put things into certain perspectives for her. She'd never been in their position but she could just imagine. For all that she was accused of a lack of social awareness and empathy—screw them, they knew nothing—she could just see how hard this was on them.

She wasn't an idiot.

But really. Never mind the whole situation of being stuck in the past, there were plenty of things and tasks to set her mind to. Plenty of things to do to make herself useful.

And none of this precluded her being friends with them while she was making herself useful with other things. Like helping turn some of the upcoming events around on their head, for one. So much more important than feelings.

She was… remarkably okay with that. Relieved, in a way. She wasn't so great with emotions, with people, as much as she could intellectually understand them and pick them apart. But she didn't need to be their soulmate to do that. She would love to be friends with them, truly. They were… yeah. They were them.

Toni felt resolve all of a sudden.

She felt surer and more stable, more confident in her position here and with the others. She was okay with being friends with them, with helping them with the war to the full extent of her abilities, with getting a chance to be around her childhood—and honestly, current—heroes, and… hopefully she could save them. Hopefully she could do some good here.

And if there was a part of her brain that thought 'maybe… just maybe this will end up perfect, maybe they'll want me, maybe we'll work out, maybe, maybe, maybe…'—well, she wasn't going to deny herself some healthy dreaming. She would just have to stop short of pining.

She could do this.

She just needed to smack some damn sense into those two's thick skulls, making sure they knew where she stood and also telling them to cut out the jealousy shit. Because that would get old fast.

Toni was pretty sure the three of them had gotten out what they needed to say. Or, well… those two had. She still hadn't quite gotten to have her say, not truly, not on that topic. But she'd make sure she did soon.

If they could just sort this out, she had a feeling they could be a great team. And that was not ego talking. She just… she had a feeling. They could be good. They could be great. She had to remind herself it had only been a couple of rather fraught and high-tension days.

It would get better. It would.

She would make sure of that.

Because she was Toni Stark. She was goddamn Iron Man.

Toni smiled to herself, feeling more at peace than she had since she'd arrived, before tucking her hair under a grey scarf Peggy had given her, making sure her borrowed dress was covered by her borrowed dark overcoat, and stepping out into the cold, dark air of a November evening.

She had someone to find.


Somehow Toni had found her way past the four military secretaries still on duty at eight o'clock and into Colonel Phillips' office, seated in one of his plush special guest chairs instead of the 'you're in trouble, cadet' basic wooden chairs which had originally been placed in front of the desk, and sipping a fairly decently-sized glass of scotch alongside the man himself.

Neither of them said a word after the first initial greeting and had silently situated themselves in their chairs, only to let the silence continue to grow organically afterwards, minute after minute.

It was quite... lovely.

The most peace she'd had since arriving in the godforsaken past.

Of course, it wouldn't last for long. She may as well be the one to break it.

At least she’d had a drink first.

"So… let me tell you about the Battle of the Bulge," she opened, fairly abruptly. If I can remember enough, that is, she thought with dissatisfaction. Ask me anything about the history of weapons, sure, but even just general military history? Ugh. There's only so much I can take of goddamn logistics.

Phillips shot her a look, complete with raised eyebrow. "What the hell kind of name is that?" he asked after a moment, his voice containing some humor but more tired than anything, honestly.

Toni got it. She definitely got that.

It would only get worse from here on out.

"You'll understand when I explain," she answered resolutely, reaching for the bottle of scotch and pouring herself another double.

Fuck, what she wouldn't do to wrap her arms around DUM-E's struts.

Chapter Text

November 13 th , 1944, 21:35pm, S.S.R. Base, London, Great Britain

Antonia Stark felt different, better than she had in days, honestly, standing up at the front of the war room, looking at the people arrayed before her.

She was still wearing the beautiful blue dress Peggy had loaned her for her earlier dinner—what sorta felt like ages ago now, honestly—but she'd long since shed the dark overcoat and grey scarf. She let the neckline of the dress drape where it wished, not bothering to hide the hint of blue which was spilling up across her skin—she knew what type of image she made, on display for everyone to see, and yet she made no effort to play it up even further, as she once might have done. Casual dominance was much more effective, Peggy had always said, and damn but she was right.

She felt good. Resolved.

Ready to move the fuck on.

"So…" Toni drawled into the silence that had finally settled a few minutes after Steve and Bucky had found their seats. They'd been the last to arrive, and Toni had been momentarily derailed by the way Steve's hair was sticking up, messy and sloppy in a way she would never have dared imagining him. It made him look young and a lot kinder than the strait-laced Captain America look did, and it was that, combined with Bucky's shit-eating grin and the hint of satisfaction that echoed through the underdeveloped bond that clued her into why they were late.

Which, hey, good for them. At least someone was getting some.

Huh. That hadn't felt as snide as she was expecting it to.

Internally shrugging, she stayed put exactly where she was, and let everyone's eyes train in on her before she spoke again. "Colonel Phillips and I had a good discussion about a few things. Set a few things straight. Properly introduced myself and such. Y'know, all those sorts of things people randomly showing up from the future should do and say to the leader of the military base they're staying at." Toni raised an eyebrow, timing it perfectly with a smirk as she observed the different reactions from the other people in the room.

Peggy's eyes crinkled, Dugan choked out a laugh, and Phillips himself was observing the others much like how Toni was doing so—though only with a hint of laughter playing over his lips, instead of the full-out smirk Toni was continuing to sport.

It was Steve's reaction she was most interested in; Steve's and Bucky's both. She had made no indication to them that she was going to be talking to Phillips about this, at least not yet, and so far they had shown a little bit too much heavy-handedness where she and her choices were concerned. So this, in a way, was a test.

A test which gave her… surprising results, actually.

She'd expected annoyance or anger or protestation or even fear at what she might have told Phillips without them actually vetting every word that crossed her lips. She'd expected a bit of shock, a bit of crossness, perhaps a bit of weariness. What she got, instead, was…

"Good idea. The Colonel needed to know, though I was going to suggest telling him when we met with him tomorrow, if you didn't do it on your own during our meeting," Steve said, looking contemplative. He shared a look with Bucky, who nodded at him, before they both turned back to face Toni full-on. "Not that you needed my permission or approval or anything," he said, eyebrow raised right back at her and one of his own smirks on his lips.

"Who are you and what did you do with Rogers?" Toni demanded before she could stop her mouth from forming the words. She stood up straighter and pointed a finger at him, but switched it immediately to point at a now cackling Bucky Barnes. "And you! You—" Toni sputtered, then sighed, and then slouched back to lean against the desk once more, crossing her arms over her chest and rolling her eyes at the lot of them.

"No, I didn't need your permission, thank you for that, Rogers. And shush you, Barnes, he just surprised me is all." She pouted just a little bit but couldn't help relaxing into the ease that was now filling the room. It was probably the closest to comfortable she'd felt with them—all of them, even Peggy, even Dugan—since she'd arrived. There was just something… something which seemed to relax between them all in that brief exchange. Something that obviously hadn't happened in an instant and had probably required some serious thinking on all of their parts before this, but it was… it was nice.

But there was still something she needed to get straight with the lot of them, right from the get-go.

"Okay, okay, thanks. I needed that," she admitted, letting herself smile at the both of them unreservedly before she pulled herself back together. "But no, really, back to serious matters. You need to know, I can't really be herded. I don't want to be herded, nor will I allow you to make decisions for me. I want in on anything that concerns me, and I'm planning to make that pretty much everything, got it?" She looked around the room, meeting each and every one of their eyes for a quick second before moving on, not quite waiting around to take in the full extent of their reactions.

"I know that this is the 1940s, but I come from a different time, and I'm a completely different kinda gal—not that you aren't either, Peggy, but you know firsthand what struggles I'm talking about. I was pretty much raised by Peggy, boys—surprise—but in the future where such things as women's rights and feminism have free rein. Well, close to free rein. But no, seriously, just imagine Peggy but with the full freedom to kick as much ass as she wants, and to wear pants if she damn-well wants. Oh, and to cuss like a sailor too, but unfortunately that one is entirely my fault."

Toni laughed, and she was gladdened to see that the rest of them either let out small laughs or smiles of their own—Phillips' smile was in the eyes, but it was still there. She and he had surprisingly found some pretty common ground over the last hour, and she liked him a lot already. She was pretty sure the feeling was mutual, honestly. Which was awesome, because this was Colonel Phillips, arguably just as famous as Captain Ameri—

"Sounds like none of us would've survived," Dugan butt into her thoughts with a laugh. Peggy elbowed him and Bucky choked at the thought of it all, Steve smiling softly, wistfully, with a relaxed posture right beside him. It was… wow, yeah, this was really nice, and Toni felt really happy all of a sudden—and really homesick, too, because damn but this reminded her of how she and Rhodey would interact, Pepper laughing quietly at them, hand delicately covering her smiling mouth…

That brought Toni up short.

Home.

The future.

'Sounds like none of us would've survived.' Dugan's words rung over and over again in her ears.

Fuck. No, some of them wouldn't even survive the next few months if she didn't do something about it. That was what she was here for, and she had a job to do. A promise to keep. A promise to herself, to them, to the world.

She didn't really know how to get back on track, but when in doubt… shock and awe. Shock and awe rarely failed Toni.

"J.A.R.V.I.S., say hi to the group," Toni said suddenly, clearly, catching everyone's attention.

"It's an honor to meet those I have heard so much about," her baby boy said just as clearly, voice sounding from the watch upon her wrist.

Immediately, five pairs of eyes zeroed in on Toni's chest—because of course she'd forgotten to move her arms from their crossed position and now everyone was catching an eyeful and not that that was a bad thing but yeah okay maybe not entirely the right time for that sorta thing.

Toni sighed and uncrossed her arms, reaching to unclasp the watch from around her wrist and setting it on the desk right beside her.

"This, everyone, is J.A.R.V.I.S. Otherwise known as J. Like the letter 'J'. He's a… honestly, I don't really know how to explain it except as a, well, huh, that was in the 1950s, so you wouldn't know the term 'artificial int—''

"Like a robot, right?" Bucky interjected out of the blue, right into Toni's start of what was likely to be a rambling explanation—she seriously had zero clue how to explain things concisely, especially where the history of her favorite subjects applied.

"Uh, well. Sort of?" Toni replied, tilting her head and blinking, surprised.

"What? I like science fiction," he explained with a very disarming smile. "Writers have been discussing this sort of thing for ages. It's like those programmable machines they already have, though some science fiction authors like Butler and Mary Shelley have theorized that there'll be fully-thinking machines that look like humans and even think like us, too."

Toni grinned at him. "Yeah, exactly so." Wow, miracle of miracles, Steve was smiling too, not a trace of jealousy on his features or in the feel of him in the back of her mind—what was going on? But seriously, she wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially with this wonderful nerd in front of her.

"I've got three of those at home, actually," she continued with just a touch of sadness. She really missed her boys. "At least I have J with me. He's a bit different, though. My other boys have bodies. Metallic structures. Robots, essentially. J.A.R.V.I.S. here is what they call artificial intelligence. A… well, sort of what Doctor Frankenstein was trying to do with his Monster."

"I resent that, miss," J said drolly.

"No, you resemble it."

"I cannot resemble anything except for servers, miss."

Toni smiled gently in the direction of the watch, and then returned her eyes—and attention—to the rest of the group. "Okay, so the reason I'm introducing you to him is because I'm starting from scratch with all of you. I want to lay all of my cards out on the table, we're going to get some facts straightened out like professionals, and I'm going to tell you some stuff about the future. Stuff that you cannot even imagine will come. Events that you need to know about, and that we need to do something about. I'm here for a reason—" She deliberately didn't look in Steve or Bucky's direction. "—and I think this is it. Part of it," she conceded, knowing that Phillips 'knew' she was Bucky's soulmate.

She might have to correct him on that, letting him know she was also Steve's soulmate. The information might come up eventually on its own, so it might be better to get it out of the way in a controlled manner. But… it could wait. And she couldn't be a hypocrite—she'd asked for them to include her in decisions about her life; she couldn't turn around and do the opposite with their lives.

"So, um, yep. J will be helping me out on some facts. He's like… like an extra brain. An extension of me. He's not connected to his servers… um, never mind that, that's all technical jargon you wouldn't quite get without a long explanation…" she trailed off with a mutter, furrowing her brows. Not sure at all where to go next.

"You had an entire speech prepared, didn't you?" Peggy gently teased. Toni caught her gaze and found only approval there. Enough to bolster her just that little bit more for what she knew she needed—she certainly didn't want to tell them this part—to tell them next.

"Yeah, totally did," Toni admitted softly. "Stage fright."

A snort from Steve's direction. Toni looked his way and saw Bucky looking entirely too innocent and Steve clutching at his ribs closest to his soulmate. Nothing but amusement in the back of her mind, though.

"Rogers is more than familiar with that," Colonel Phillips drawled out, amused. He turned his gaze on Toni next, however, and tilted his end in encouragement. "Go on. You told me just fine earlier, this can't honestly be that much harder, can it?"

"You have no idea." She laughed. "Oh gosh, no, you have no idea. But I'm sure you'll all understand eventually."

Really though.

She could do this.

She'd already told Phillips earlier, like he said, and it's not really like this was something that needed to be kept secret. Didn't necessarily need to be told, either, but she had said she wanted to lay all her cards out—as many as she dared, at least—so that things could go as smoothly as possible. And this way? Well, this way they could protect her from—

"My father. It's about my father," she finally began. "I had this whole speech thing planned in my head like you said, figured I'd be able to get it all out, but that's proving harder than I thought. So. Let's start with the most basic thing. Introductions. Introductions which have to do with who my father was, is, whatever—honestly, story of my life, okay, living in my father's—but yeah, you don't need to hear all that.

"So. I'm sure it surprises no one that I'm not who you think I am—especially because you only met me like… seventy hours ago, seriously what the hell? But anyway. I obviously had my reasons, and pretty much all of them have to do with me not wanting to screw things up, like time itself or whatever. But… I have since decided to do what I do best which is to screw things. Up, that is. Heh. Um. Anyway." She coughed awkwardly and then took a deep breath, trying to calm her manic mind, but she stopped short of letting her eyes shut or letting herself look away from the group.

She looked every one of them in the eyes, even the colonel, who already knew what she was about to say, but then got stuck on Steve's eyes. He was looking at her… almost like he'd already figured it out somehow. Or, really, like he'd figured it out right that fucking moment. His eyes were just the littlest bit wide as they darted over her features, looking both focused and distant at the same time, contemplating exactly what he was taking in—and piecing it together.

For fuck's sake, that man was smart.

If he got it right, of course.

"My name is Antonia. That much is true. But the last name I—fuck it. Just go for it. I'm not a Rhodes—that's my best friend's last name. I… And this is why I know so much about Rebirth and the S.S.R., by the way… Well, it's not like I can prove any of this, I know—okay, I'm getting sidetracked, I'm sorry, I do this all the time!" She took a deep breath, knowing it would soothe her mind just the tiniest bit. Just enough for: "What I'm trying to get out is that my real name is Antonia Elizabeth Stark."

And I am Iron Man, she thought a little hysterically, trying hard not to say the words out loud. It was just rote by this point, seriously. There was practically a whole song and dance that went with it, too.

"So yeah, that's why I know all of you, and probably a lot more than you'd expect, even knowing that I'm Howard's kid. My father went on and on and on about his time with the S.S.R. and the Howling Commandos. He especially liked Steve." Toni tried to hide her grimace—that was a topic for another time… if ever.

Varying looks of surprise crossed four faces—the fifth person already knew as of an hour ago. Steve's, the one she was staring at when she spoke, looked sort of… surprised but in an 'ah-hah I knew it' sort of way—because of course he'd been on the nose. Even if he'd only just pieced it together, seriously, wow, dude had smarts. She'd have to ask him how he figured it out, later. Maybe she'd been super obvious in her lead-up—probably, honestly. Sometimes she was shit at things like this. But he also looked a little consternated, obviously trying to make sense of the last thing she'd said, about Howard liking him better.

She'd seen it here already, so he was obviously aware of it, but Toni was pretty sure she'd be fielding questions about this later. For now, though…

Bucky looked a bit more surprised, but she could see him making the connections in his head, probably from their dinner earlier that evening and their run-in with Howard, really. He looked like it was all suddenly making sense to him, and like he was trying to wrap his—beautiful, truly—brain around the concept of her being Howard's kid.

Yeah, big mood. Seriously. That made two of them.

Hell, that made way more than two of them.

Phillips already knew, and had spent a good ten minutes fact-checking her before he was as satisfied as he could be that she was telling the truth, and so he was taking in the others with as much amusement as she'd seen displayed by the man.

Peggy was leaning back in her chair by the time Toni looked at her, arms crossed and a thoughtful expression on her face. Thoughtful, but not… bad. It looked like she was putting together the clues that Toni had likely left during their conversation that afternoon. Maybe she was wondering how in the hell she'd become godmother and pseudo-aunt to a daughter of Howard's, whom she hadn't been so close with up to this point in the war besides being colleagues. Or maybe she was focusing on the fact that Toni's middle name was the same as Peggy's—subtle, Howard. It was… well, Toni would be sort of creeped out if she were in Peggy's shoes, but she wasn't, so…

Dugan, though… Dugan was totally shocked still, even though it had taken Toni more than long enough to make the rounds to look at him. It was actually… sort of cute. Hah. He looked adorable, with his mouth sort of trying to form words but totally unable to and just…

Toni snorted. Embarrassed, she brought her hand up to her mouth, but it was too late. She couldn't stop laughing. It was like… it was cathartic, almost. Like she was laughing off the stress of the last few days, carrying forward the feeling from minutes ago when they'd all been poking fun at each other and smiling.

She just couldn't. stop. laughing.

Oh my god.

It seemed she wasn't the only one. Bucky started to laugh too, and he was also the first of them to break into the laughter using words. "Howard? Seriously? He—oh my god that's way funnier than it should be, I'm sorry." Toni's heart practically skipped a beat. He looked so beautiful like this, so relaxed and open.

Steve, on the other hand, looked a little green at the gills, even though he was laughing as well. "He… he's been flirting with you, though! That's…"

"Yep." Toni popped the p. "It's super weird. You have no idea."

They all continued to look at her funny.

Phillips just looked amused, though a little tired on top of that, and Toni realized that she should probably move along so that they could all get some sleep—if they could after everything she was about to tell them. She knew she was likely to get zero sleep at all. She'd been sleeping more than usual as it was, but then throw in the really fucked up shared dream she'd had with Steve and Bucky last night, and she had a feeling she'd be avoiding sleep with more determination than ever before.

At least until she could figure out how to stop it from happening.

"Okay, there's a lot I want to tell you, a lot to get through, so there are some things we'll just have to come back to, and this is one of them. I just wanted to be honest with you, and yes; part of that is because I'd really like to get him to stop creeping me out, and I figure having you all in the know will best help with that. But we can figure that out later."

Toni pinched the bridge of her nose and fluttered her eyes shut for a moment.

"Anyway, like I said, Rhodes is my friend's last name and I used to use it on my fake IDs in places that didn't know who I was just from a glance—price of fame, honestly, but I suppose that qualifies as a first world problem. No?" Steve looked semi-comprehending of the issue, but Bucky just blinked at her, and she felt a little silly for using modern slang and being surprised when they didn't catch on as easily as she'd anticipated.

"Uh, I'll teach you that reference later, but for now what I'm asking is that you keep calling me Ms. Rhodes or just 'hey you' or whatever. If you could stick to that, that would be great. Or just Toni works fine, thanks, if at all possible. But do not call me Stark. I just wanted you to know—and no one else. Except for the other Howlies; they can be told, obviously," she added before someone could ask.

Toni flapped her hands in a casual dismissal of the topic—for the moment. "Like I said, we can go over that later. But for now just… sit down and shut up. Please."

The last was added because Peggy was looking at her with easy amusement and it reminded her of her godmother's amusement at her similar levels of rudeness as a teen. "Just listen, because I finally decided to tell you folks about past events—events in your, our I suppose now, future. Future events that occur in this war. Because honestly? I've already fucked things up just by being in the past."

Her mother would murder her for cussing in front of these people, especially Colonel Phillips; goodness, she would. But she forged on, because she had better things to fret over than their opinion of her potty mouth.

Plus it was just really hard to restrain her cussing when she was passionate about something and also didn't really give a damn. So she let her mouth run as free as her thoughts. Well. She reined them in a little, because otherwise no one would be able to follow her train of thoughts.

"The way I see it, I'm here for a reason, and I may as well fuck things up in a way that I can control. That we can control. That doesn't mean go full-tilt into changing things just because I said something. It just means I'm going to do my best to fix a few really fucked up things that happened, because I'm pretty damn sure no one but the enemy benefited from these few things which did happen in my timeline. Well, okay, overall they got their asses handed to them, but there are a few events that could really stand to be tampered with. Ugh, it's enough to give me a migraine, so please suffer with me. This paradox crap sucks, but what's done is done and what will be, now, will be. That's it. Finito. Fin. The end.

"The good news is that this is pretty much the end of the war. Unless something really big happens that changes it all, the Allies will win by Autumn of next year. 1945, that is, unless I'm completely off on my understanding of the current date."

"November 13th, 1944," Phillips supplied readily.

"Thanks. Okay, so yeah. About ten months from now, at least according to the timeline I came from. If it happens the same way or similar enough. I'll be honest, I don't know what me being here means for the future. If it's fated for it to play out the same way, or if I was always meant to go back and change things, or even if what I do change means I'm never actually born and I get erased from the timeline and… see? Migraine-inducing. The whole concept is really screwed up and we're never going to get it right unless we try it out to see what happens, though. So we work with what we've got, and what you've got is, well, me."

Toni sketched a little curtsy in her blue dress, smiling a little lopsidedly. "Toni Stark, at your service, good sirs and lady."

Her eyes crinkled as she smiled back at the others, who were giving her varying degrees of open smiles. Once she straightened, she moved towards the map board behind the desk she had previously been propping herself up on. She pulled down a map of the Ardennes Forest region covering north-eastern France and south-eastern Belgium, as well as the western front of Germany.

Toni had already received permission from Colonel Phillips to mark up his map, and so Toni picked up some pins and red-dyed twine and started to lay down a rough approximation of the front lines she remembered from Peggy's lessons on WWII.

"This here is the front line as it stands right now. And this…" Toni took another minute to set up a couple more lines with the twine. "And this here is where the German front lines will be by Christmas." She plucked the taut string and then stepped aside so that they could all get a good look at the overall picture.

"There's nothing really earth-shattering I can offer you about this battle. Which, as you can see from the shape of the push, is rather aptly—albeit sort of ridiculously—referred to in my time as 'The Battle of the Bulge'. I checked a bit with J.A.R.V.I.S. before coming over here, and we both agreed that we'd pass on the info we know—admittedly not as much as I would like, but it's enough for your sources to work their magic and double-check things and the like. Um." Toni blinked. And paused.

The Battle of the Bulge

She'd totally forgotten what she was about to say.

"Bastogne and Antwerp, miss," J gently reminded her.

"Yes!" Toni snapped her fingers and then pointed both index fingers at the map. She may be just the teensiest bit hyper-manic.

Hoo boy, she wasn't going to sleep for days, she could totally tell.

"So the whole reason that this last-ditch effort by the crazy Nazis happens, is because his highness Hitler really, really, really wants to get his hands back on Antwerp. Plus whatever other reasons sparked in his delusional mind."

Toni started to pace at the front of the room, passing back and forth before the map they were all studying. "So basically he put as many of his troops into this effort as he could, and his generals kept it secret for as long as possible. If memory serves, they used weather to their advantage, and are even now starting to amass their troops in the region.

"Colonel Phillips will be sending out some carefully-worded missives by code to the Allied Commanders, pretty much stating without lying that he's got info to this effect." The two of them nodded at her, though she didn't stop her pacing. Within a few steps she turned, and her back was now to the man.

"We're not going to bring up me, the time-travelling possible nutcase—in their eyes, though I wouldn't blame you all if you thought it too—" She deliberately didn't look at them when she said that. She had a self-confidence issue, she knew that already, but it wasn't like she would go out of her way to get confirmation people thought ill of her.

"—but the Colonel will make it clear that extra reconnaissance should be carried out in the region for the next month. And different sorts of it, too, not the mostly aerial surveying like what was carried out in my past. J confirmed this for me, and he also confirmed that that and bad weather was how the Germans snuck so much shit into position before the Americans even realized what was going on." Toni scoffed and turned sharply on her heel, nearly overbalancing as a result of wearing shoes that didn't quite fit right.

"Um." Toni paused talking and walking both, not just because she was trying to catch her balance and not make a fool of herself, but also because she was trying to figure out what to say next. Contrary to popular belief, she didn't always have something to say for every situation, didn't have a witty remark prepared at any given time.

A couple of seconds, and regaining her balance, later, she continued. "So really what's happening is that we're simply suggesting the Americans keep a better lookout than what they're presently doing, and Phillips also offered some information from a quote unquote spy that a military strike will be carried out along those lines. And that they should reinforce their land units instead of relying on the air force. Because—nah, that's my brain trying to sidetrack me."

Toni smiled to herself as she remembered how Pep would call her out on that all the time. It was a sweet memory, and Toni wished desperately that somehow she would find a way to get back home, to her friends and family, of both the found and the robot variety.

She would. She promised.

But for now, she had to get through this first. Then she could think of herself.

"Anyway," Toni continued, deciding she'd lean back against the wall to the right side of the map, facing the five others in the room, "that is now pretty much out of our hands, because the S.S.R. is best at precision attacks and smaller scale warfare rather than organizing an army of hundreds of thousands. Not really your style. But as a smaller battle part of the bigger one? Yeah, that sounds about right.

"That brings us to Antwerp and Bastogne. These are the two best options for the S.S.R. to involve themselves with. I know that the Heathers have a presence in Antwerp, correct me if I'm wrong—Peggy?" Toni queried, directing her attention to the other woman, tilting her head just a little to the side.

"Correct," Peggy replied evenly. Her eyes glinted happily in that way they always did when Peggy would talk about her soldiers and spies. She sat up just a little straighter in her chair, though her ankles remained crossed below her seat. Just like Peggy had taught her—a lesson Toni only ever used in the presence of company she respected. "The Dominion Company set up a post to operate out of there, and are coordinating a variety of missions, along with helping Antwerp recover after their recent occupation. Having scouts who look like harmless, unimposing ladies is a tactic which will never grow old."

"I always loved stories of the Heathers as a little girl," Toni remarked with a wide but melancholy smile. It was too bad she hadn't been able to meet any of them as a child, but she was pretty sure her father hadn't allowed it… for whatever reasons that only made sense to him. At least she'd been able to have Peggy in her life. Toni pressed her lips together in a firm line, then moved on.

No sense dwelling on her past when it was entirely possible she was erasing everything she knew of it. When there was a chance she could rewrite everything, change everything.

The thought was both startling and thrilling.

And it was something that would have to be analyzed later. Important, but… it was not the time nor the place.

"Antwerp is strategically important for its port," Toni continued, though she knew they were probably well aware of this, "and it's important to hold it for the supply lines as the Allies advance into the heart of Germany—which we do soon enough, I'm happy to tell you!" There were smiles all around at that, and Dugan even let out a little whoop of excitement. But they all settled down just enough for her to continue, thankfully.

There were so many things she could talk about, so many things that could easily divert their attention away from more current, more necessary, more important things to the here and now.

"But," Toni held up a hand, requesting patience, "we can discuss that and you can grill me for details after I tell you a little about Bastogne. Then we can talk about both of them. At least, that was Colonel Phillips' idea. Sir." She inclined her head in his direction.

"Bastogne essentially becomes what the entire Battle of the Bulge hinges on. It's a small town fairly smack-dab in the center of the fighting, and J.A.R.V.I.S. reminded me that on a few occasions it looked like the Allies might lose there. Our fighters were cut off due to enemies and bad weather both, and most of our efforts to get to them and help fight or help by pulling them out were shot down. And I mean literally."

Toni stopped and grimaced, fighting the urge to wipe away the nasty feeling that seemed to coat her lips and tongue just from talking about them. She succeeded, barely. "We all know the Nazis suck, but a lot of our people were being killed even when they surrendered. Some of it had to do with there being no place to keep prisoners during heavy fighting, some of it was bad weather, some of it was they had barely enough food for them let alone prisoners… and some was because they were bastards and just wanted to kill. They'd already broken basically every Geneva Convention in existence at the time—why not seal the deal? I'm not saying this happened to all or even most, but it was enough of them. Enough for them to redo the Conventions in 1949, seriously."

Toni sighed heavily, unhappily, and gave into that feeling of needing to wipe her mouth. She didn't care how it looked to the others, she just needed to do it—though she did do so rather delicately. She took a moment to pull herself together, and was glad that the others were letting her do so without interrupting.

Toni felt like she was on the cusp of breaking out into tears, and she really did not want to do that in front of these people. She didn't want to risk her already fragile reputation with them, and 1940s people weren't really that into public crying, from what she recalled being told. Mostly by Howard. So perhaps she shouldn't trust his word on that, every time he would yell at her as a child not to cry, that Starks did not cry, they were made of stronger stuff than that, they were—

"My thinking was that we could focus our attention on Bastogne. The Howling Commandos, the 107th, the Heathers if they're able. I don't think there's need to include the Allies—at least not to ask for troops, because I think the people available to the S.S.R. would do the trick. As long as it's not pulling them from anything vitally important.

Toni paused and thought for a second. "It might be beneficial to tell me what they're up to, so they're not pulled from something that would fuck up the future just because we were trying to help in another area. Only if you feel like you can trust me, of course, but then why would you believe me with any of this, if that were the case? Eh, anyway, we just need to be aware of all that and be careful."

"Time travel is so… odd," Steve said, sounding slightly bemused.

Toni smiled at him with some amusement, and he returned it. The smile made her heart beat faster, and she had to pull herself away from him quickly or make an idiot of herself. Because that smile was just lethal. It shouldn't be allowed.

It should be illegal.

Mentally facepalming at herself, she pressed on with her infodump. "Bastogne becomes a hotspot right before Christmas, if memory serves me correctly—"

"You are correct, miss," J butts in overtop of her, and Toni doesn't miss a beat speaking.

"—and it lasts for about… a week—"

"Yes, miss."

"—and it's because all of the main, properly constructed and paved roadways went through the town. So if they wanted to get to Antwerp—which they did, as I said—then they had to go through and control Bastogne. No other route would do, since pretty much every other road was a mire of mud. Thankfully so, as the mud really liked German tanks. So."

Toni clasped her hands together in front of her and rocked from side to side on her feet. "Those are the basics, but I'm prepared to answer any questions you may have, and I know that Colonel Phillips has a lot more info from his sources, and the latest Allied positions. So I suggest that we all go over what we know, ask questions about what we do not know, and you can all pick my brain—or J.A.R.V.I.S.', he's smarter than me, seriously—for any information I may be able to provide.

"But remember…" she warned, voice serious, "things I know might change just because I'm here in the past. We don't know what or how much, or even when, possibly. But I can give you what I know, we can check it all out here in the present, as much as you, or we, can, and you can decide what you want to do with all of the info."

The room was quiet as they digested what Toni said. She felt a hint of focus coming from her—from Steve and Bucky, coupled with a sense of determination from Steve and wonder from Bucky. Probably from the whole concept of time travel and her knowing what was to come, and telling it to them, or at least that was Toni's best guess at what the feeling meant.

Before anyone could say something—it was only a matter of time in a room filled with people such as them—Toni sat down in the seat left open for her at the conference table, and mentally prepared herself for the shitstorm she was about to bring about, the awfulness she was about to unveil… the devastation of this next conversation that was necessary to—hopefully—avoid the horror of the months to come.

"There's something else you need to know," she said into the quiet.

All eyes fell back on her, and she had to will herself not to shift uncomfortably like she so desperately wished to do.

"It's about Steve and Bucky," she continued. Colonel Phillips looked at her curiously; she had only spoken to him about her identity and the Battle of the Bulge. Not this. This was something better told to Steve and Bucky first—but the Howlies also needed to know, since it concerned them, so having at least three of them present, plus the Colonel and Peggy, worked for now.

"The Commandos need to know as well, since they were present on this mission as well—"

"Toni…" Bucky butted in, his voice impatient but his mind screaming worry at no one in particular in the back of her head.

She ignored him. She was getting there at her own pace, damn it.

Toni took a breath, and looked back at the map to her left, drawing the lines of the countries and front lines with her eyes.

"I know how and when both of you die," she said, as clear and precise as she could.

The silence was deafening; even quieter than moments before.

"I know how, but I think… I think we can prevent it. I obviously can't do it alone, but if we all work together…"

Toni finally looked at Steve—who had gone paler than she'd ever seen him, and who was looking at Bucky like he wanted to take him into his arms and never let go, but couldn't because Phillips was there, though he was probably a few seconds away from not giving a shit anymore.

And then she looked at Bucky—who was staring back at Steve, eyes wide as if he were trying to memorize the shape of him in under ten seconds, fingers clenching and unclenching sporadically.

Toni smiled sadly, scared for them and upset that she had to tell them all of this. Upset that she had to go into the details she'd learned straight from Howard, Peggy, and the other Howlies' mouths, and from all of the research—and hacking, because of course the government kept all the juicier details—she had done. But… well, why else was she sent to the 1940s, soulmate to two men fated to die, if not to screw things up entirely and save them?

If one could call that 'screwing up', though.

Really, though, she had to. No one else could, so it was on her, but she wished that she could just wrap them up in bubble wrap and hugs to protect them, or take them back to her time, or fly them to, say, Nicaragua or the Arctic or Canada or, or… somewhere she could hide them from all the horror. But also knowing that she couldn't; that these men would never want to leave when there were injustices that needed correcting. When they could protect people. Save people.

They were here to stay. So they all had to make sure that they did stay.

That they wouldn't die.

Toni glared at no one in particular, righteous anger starting to rise in her as she clenched her hands tighter and tighter.

"If we do it together, we can succeed. While still fighting those Nazi and Hydra fucks. Because screw that. No one's taking my—no one's taking you both away from this world. The world needs you. So I say let's figure out what we're doing next, tell Fate or the Universe or whatever to go fuck itself, and let's do this our way."

Chapter Text

November 20 th , 1944, 07:00am, S.S.R. Base, London, Great Britain

Bucky was honestly a little surprised at how much his—but especially Steve's—opinion of Toni had changed over the last six days. He'd already liked her, but then she'd turned their world upside down with the knowledge she'd given them during that meeting with Phillips, showing a depth of caring and verve and brilliance and passion and just... honestly, making it one of the least-traumatic war experiences he'd gone through, despite the fact she was talking about how he and Steve died.

It hadn't been anything he'd expected.

But this... well, this was the result of six days of hard work where she'd pretty much disappeared into a spare workshop every hour of the day and night. He hadn't been sure if she'd slept at all, but he was sure now.

She hadn't. Or, at least, not that he was aware of.

Because Toni was sleeping in what looked an awful lot like a puddle of her own drool, sprawled belly down on top of three crates marked with the Commandos' insignia.

Despite disappearing from almost all eyes for six days, Toni goddamn Stark had managed to completely flip the tables on everyone. Everyone except Phillips, and maybe even Peggy, but even then, he was sure that none of them had expected… well, even he wasn't that sure what those crates held, but they all had their suspicions.

There could be nothing in those crates, though, and he and Steve would still be absolutely flummoxed at how differently they felt about the woman. Giving them space to think was all it seemed they needed, apparently, not only for them to get their heads around the info she'd given them all, but also so that they could have time to get their minds in order where it pertained to her.

All it had taken were a couple of murmured sentences on the way out the door—"Don't worry, Cap, Sarge, I'm not in the business of stealing what doesn't belong to me. I was simply shocked and thrown for a loop, I promise there're no hard feelings. This takes priority, y'know, and this is probably why I'm back here. Probably the whole reason I was marked, so I can help."—and for Bucky to relay the gist of their dinner discussion for things to be turned on their head and for Steve to feel less… hunted.

Not that Bucky necessarily agreed, but in this he and his soulmate needed to be of one mind.

Bucky hitched his pack up a little more firmly onto his shoulders as he walked towards the woman, still not quite ready to look too closely at why it had felt so much easier to carry the pack's not inconsiderable weight in the year since… since then. He simply accepted it as it was for the moment, knowing there would be time to think about it in depth after the war. After he had put down those who had violated him and countless others before him—and likely afterwards.

There was no saying what these assholes were doing to those who weren't the best friend—and soulmate—of Captain America.

But, well, if Toni's past became his future, then really, there wasn't going to be time afterwards.

Bucky sighed as he resumed his walk towards the plane that was being loaded with the Commandos' stuff—the loud and bawdy discussion of the loaders not seeming in the least close to waking the raven-haired dame up. Quite the feat, truly.

He set his pack down with as loud a thump as he could manage without breaking anything, letting the heavy bulk smack against the wood of the crate closest to Toni's head.

Nope, not even a single hint of movement. Dead to the world.

He'd let her be for a little longer, but then he really should wake her—unless she wanted to be strapped in with the rest of the cargo.

Tempting, he thought with a little hint of mischief.

For the moment, however, he just looked down on her, eyes roaming over her features, and thought back over the last few days.

The first part of the impromptu meeting had been really fascinating, from both a military and an intellectual-curiosity perspective—especially this J.A.R.V.I.S.! He'd been drawn in from the start, and had continued to be drawn in even after… that.

After being told he'd soon fall from a train in the Alps to perish at the bottom of a ravine—either dead before he hit the ground, dead from the crash, or drowned in the river, no one knew because they had never found his body—and that Steve would crash a Hydra plane full of bombs into a watery grave somewhere in the Arctic—again, never to be found—he'd stared at her in shock… and then he'd laughed.

Steve had only been able to stare at him in horror, but somehow that had only made him laugh harder. Whether from hysteria or from true humor, he hadn't quite been able to tell at the time, but he supposed either could be true. He still wasn't exactly sure which it was, but it all just felt so… surreal.

Toni had looked at him, affronted, and that had started Steve laughing, of all things. The man was as serious as a heart attack with most things to do with Bucky, but apparently even he couldn't quite manage to wrap his mind around what was being told to him—or, as it turned out, he'd decided to focus on the absolutely offended look that Toni was giving them instead of on processing the severity of the matter, before finally settling down and drilling Toni for over an hour on everything she could remember.

Everything she could remember being told by Howard. By Peggy. By the other remaining Howling Commandos, which was still so odd to think about…

But not by him. Not by Steve.

The more she told them, the hoarser her voice became as she spoke and spoke and spoke, the more evident it became that they didn't make it into Toni's life, even when the rest of them did. That they didn't make it into the future beyond this war.

And the pain in Toni's eyes when she told them more and more about what she'd been told, what she'd researched, was touching.

It was that and numerous other small details which were easier to focus on than the larger-than-life details about, well, his death. His and Steve's death.

It just seemed so… impossible, even though he'd thought about dying during the war many times.

But knowing seemed a step too far. Somehow.

And, after they'd discussed the topic right into a surer grave than his, Bucky and Steve had actually settled.

Because none of it had happened yet, and the future wasn't set in stone.

Sure, having foreknowledge was a damn good thing—such as knowing about the German push into the Ardennes—and this was no exception, because they could certainly use the information that Toni had given them to good effect. But as of yet there had been no mission planned to do with a train or a Hydra base in the Alps. They hadn't even known—yet—where the Hydra base was until Toni had given them a general area to look, and Colonel Phillips and Peggy had been scribbling furiously onto loose sheets of paper as they asked her a few questions of their own.

He had a feeling that they'd be getting info on said Hydra base before the month was out.

And this time… well, this time they knew what to do and what not to do—and could perhaps avoid trains entirely.

On that, they were all in agreement.

The future wasn't set in stone, but Bucky and Steve were both going to be awful wary of getting on any Hydra planes or trains of all sorts after this.

But if they did find the Hydra base, they both knew they'd act.

They had spoken about it at length, in the precious few hours they had alone with each other after that. An hour here, an hour there… it wasn't enough. But they'd managed. They always did.

With a plan in place, Colonel Phillips had set a departure date for a week from that day, and they'd all been sent on their way to prepare. Well, bed first, and then to prepare.

Steve and he hadn't slept at all that night. Who could've?

They'd held each other, talked it all over—and then some—and had spent the rest of the night reassuring each other.

The next day, however, they put their heads to the ground and worked. Because deaths or not, soulmates or not, loving each other or not—but they did, very much so—they still had a job to do, a war to win, and Hydra to take down. They lived with the probability of dying every day. That's what war was. Just because they'd been lucky so far... he supposed he wasn't more upset because he'd made peace with dying to defend his home, his people, and his belief long before Toni showed up.

Although… there was a pretty strong chance they were both in denial, throwing themselves into their work, into their team, into the daily ins and outs of their lives together so that they didn't have a chance to stop and think about their own mortality—especially the other's mortality.

If they stopped, Bucky was pretty sure they'd fall to pieces. And there was no damn time nor place for that to happen. Not when so many others needed them, needed him.

Steve needed him to be at the top of his game.

And he would be at the top of his game for Steve.

He could lose his head later… figuratively speaking.

Bucky's lips quirked up, and then he pulled his booted foot back and landed a kick right into the side of the crate Toni was sleeping on.

The woman quite literally fell right off of her makeshift bed and right on onto the ground.

"Careful with the merchandise, buddy!" she shouted.

At least, that's what he thought she shouted. It was a jumbled mess of words that fell from her lips, that strange accent of hers thickening and making her sound even more like an affronted swell as she blinked up into the sky from under a tousle of wildly-mussed hair.

Bucky threw his head back and laughed. And laughed. He kept right on laughing until she'd picked herself up from the ground and looked like she was going to punch him.

He held up his hands, trailing his laughter off into a wide grin. "You wouldn't happen to have seen a svelte little lady around here, would ya?" he drawled, still chuckling. "About five foot four," he lifted his hand up to shoulder height and then let it drop, "with pretty black curls halfway down her back and light brown eyes that can set a man afire? She's a looker—you couldn't miss 'er."

He'd taken a gamble with flirting with her outrageously like this; he was sure that Steve would've frowned but, well, Steve didn't own him, and he was testing a theory that could, in fact, make their lives that much easier.

It paid off.

Toni immediately looked more at ease, her shoulders relaxing from out of the hunch they'd been locked in, and an expression of relief flashing across her face that looked more honest than anything he'd seen from her since they'd met—and that was something he hoped to fix, because they'd been right jerks to the dame since she arrived, no matter the circumstances.

Bucky'd had a theory since their talk a week ago, and she was confirming that theory right then and there.

Antonia Stark apparently flirted like she breathed, and she had been second-guessing herself with her… well, with her soulmates… since she'd stumbled into their lives.

Flirting, in a way, set her at ease, because she was on solid ground then, and could see the flirtation as nothing more than acceptance for her as a person, with no expectation for more, no fear of less.

He had a feeling if she were really trying to get with them, her language would change beyond that of flirtation and into the realm of seriousness and softness.

So, in a way, flirting was safer for them all.

Toni confirmed that by rolling her shoulders back and giving him an overdramatic but pretty pout. "Well, mister, what happens if I don't want you looking for this pretty dame?" She then let out a little cackle and her features shifted back to normal. "But no, really, hi there, Bucky. How are you? Long time no see!" she exclaimed.

"Pretty sure my bruises have bruises from all those drills we've been going through," Bucky answered with an entirely different smile.

"Ah, you'll get over it," she teased.

"I'm sure I will," he replied. He nodded towards the crates as four men came over to lift the first of three. They looked heavier than they appeared, it seemed. "Looks like you've been busy, Toni. I must admit we're all very curious."

Toni raised an eyebrow. "Wouldn't you like to know!"

Bucky was sure that this was some saying from the future, and he could sorta figure out what it meant, but… "Of course I want to know?"

"Workshop surprises!" She sounded excited, but she trailed off almost immediately, her eyes following the path of the first crate and seeming to forget her surroundings entirely.

After their revelatory discussion the other night, Toni had asked the Colonel for permission to use a workshop. Before he'd even said a word, though, she clarified that she was not looking to gain access to Howard's, let alone to share it. She just wanted a place to work in peace and quiet, maybe catch a nap on a pile of scrap metal, she'd joked—he hoped that it was a joke, but now realized it was probably very accurate—and be granted permission to fast track some orders on certain materials, as long as they weren't in shortage.

Phillips had asked what for, and Toni had leaned forward to whisper in his ear for close to a minute, and when she pulled back again, both of them had conspiratorial smiles on their faces. That wasn't scary at all.

Christ.

But Toni had received her workshop. No questions asked—well, other than that first, and last, one.

Bucky himself had so many questions. And not just the really important ones which were swirling around, constantly in the back of his mind, hidden behind every thought, word, and action. Not just the ones about what she'd been doing this last week.

He had questions about the future. Questions about the technology. Questions about equality and soulbonds and everything she'd alluded to over their sparse conversations. Questions about Howard and her upbringing and all that that entailed. Questions about her.

But she'd been almost impossible to track down this past week.

Oh, sure, he'd known where she'd disappeared to, but Phillips had volunteered a guard to block the entrance from any prying eyes—not to keep her in, as he'd originally, horrifyingly, assumed. And yet those prying eyes included even him. Included even her soulmate, the guard had told him, politely but firmly.

He'd relented. Barely.

He'd done much better than Steve, at least.

Steve, the big lug, had caught on pretty early that it had more to do with keeping Howard's prying eyes and grabbing hands away from what Toni had been working on… and away from her in general… and had then proceeded to show that he cared way more than he let on.

And once Steve had the bit between his teeth, it was nigh impossible to get him to stop.

In this case, Bucky didn't really want him to stop. So it worked out.

Also, as luck would have it, Howard had been away for most of the week at a conference of some sort with that businessman friend of his. Lucky for all involved, truly.

"When do we get our… 'workshop surprises'?" Bucky asked. They both turned to watch as the second crate was lifted up and walked towards the plane. It wasn't overly large, neither crate nor plane. The latter just large enough to fit the Howling Commandos plus Toni—who Peggy absolutely insisted they take with them, backed up by the Colonel himself. The rest of the troops coming from the S.S.R., mostly the remainder of the 107th, along with Peggy and Colonel Phillips, would be following the next day. Some had left the previous day, as well.

Toni didn't reply, and Bucky glanced over at her.

"You alright?" he asked, lowering his voice in true concern.

She didn't reply right away, seemingly lost in thought, but as her third crate was taken out of sight she seemed to snap out of it, slightly startled.

"I'm exhausted," Toni admitted quietly. "All this… talking with a capital T, I don't… I don't usually do that as much, and the first few days here were just… so I needed some… the workshop was just…"

"Quiet." Bucky smiled, gently cutting off her fumbling answer.

He got it. He really did. Sometimes all he wanted to do was throw himself into dancing, chasing that out-of-body feeling where he could just be and not think.

He hadn't danced since before the war.

There were so many things that Toni was missing, too, he was sure. And it wasn't like she could just go home.

She might not ever be able to go home again.

"I'm sorry this isn't really working out how… um, how you pictured it."

He thought he could see a flash of pain cross her features before she turned more fully and smiled at him breezily—and it looked so genuine. Either she was a damn good actress, or she really felt it. Or both, perhaps. "Are you kidding me?" she exclaimed, practically pinwheeling her arms.

Okay, perhaps it was genuine. Bucky smiled.

"Get to go on missions with the motherfucking Howling Commandos? God, it's a dream come true!"

"We're your dream come true?" came a voice from off to his left. They glanced over simultaneously, and saw the rest of the Commandos walking towards them in a loose group. Morita was the one who had spoken, and he was sporting an easy grin. "I knew you liked us, but come now, that's just pitiful." He winked at Toni as he came to a halt a few feet from the two of them.

"Har har," Toni remarked, dryly, but with a gleam in her eye.

She looked pleased to see the rest of his team, and Bucky echoed that sentiment—even though he'd seen them almost every waking moment of every day for… well, just over a year now, actually.

He caught Steve's eye and the two of them shared a warm look. Steve stopped in front of him, waiting for the others to go by.

As the other men moved past Bucky and moved towards the plane, they gathered Toni up in their wake. Dugan grabbed her pack despite her protest, only for her to 'magnanimously' accept his offer of 'gentlemanly' behavior as if it were her idea from the very start. She settled instead for gathering her curly hair up into a bun with that odd rubber band of hers, high up on the top of her head, twisting from side to side with her dramatic body language as she engaged the others in conversation.

"She looks like Peggy like that, y'know?" Steve mused softly. "The gear, that is."

A heck of a lot more than just the clothes and leather jacket, really, though Bucky readily hummed his agreement. "I bet it throws Dum Dum for a loop, seeing so much of Peggy in Toni. Clothes, mannerisms, some words and phrases here and there. Heck, even the hair and eyes sometimes, if you're not looking too closely."

"That's just weird, Buck," Steve complained—practically whined.

"What? You said it." Steve had not, in fact, said any such thing, but Bucky was more than happy to yank his partner's chain at any given moment.

Steve merely grunted, and then the two of them fell into an easy silence.

They'd said all they'd needed to say to each other over the last week, though Bucky was sure that there was much the two of them still wanted to say. There never seemed to be enough time, and so they'd gotten good at saying the important things to each other—in case it would be the last opportunity they had.

Bucky wondered if they had said everything they'd wanted to before dying in Toni's past, also.

He wondered if…

"Hey! You two!" Toni yelled at them from where she was leaning out of the hatch, interrupting Bucky's—albeit maudlin—train of thought. "We're waiting on you both, so move your pretty little behinds or Falsworth's gonna leave you here!"

Bucky cackled as Steve turned bright red. "It really is a pretty behind," he said reverently, a hint of a chuckle lacing his words..

"Bucky!"

"She said it!" Bucky shot back loudly, grinning from ear to ear.

"I did indeed!" Toni shouted back, even louder than before.

"Oh no, there are two of you now," Steve groaned, burying his face in his hands.

Bucky just started laughing again, picking up his pack and swinging it over his shoulder as he sauntered away to join the rest of the group.

It was time to head to Antwerp.

Chapter Text

November 20 th , 1944, 8:00am, a plane on the way to Antwerp, Belgium

While Steve had barely been able to relax since the conversation they'd had with Toni about their… their future, their deaths, he did manage to let go of a tiny but of tension once the plane's doors shut behind them.

The S.S.R. base in London had been home base for a while now, but he still itched to get back out to the front when he'd been there for longer than twenty-four hours. It didn't feel right to be there, protected and safe while there were so many others still laying down their lives on the front lines. It didn't feel right to sit idle on a cushy base, sleeping in a cushy bed with his soulmate while there were people dying out there.

People that he could… that he could help, that he could save.

Rationally, he knew that the strategy planning was a vital part of winning the war, and that, in the end, he would save more lives with a solid, decent plan than if he just went off half-cocked, punching everyone who looked at him sideways.

That didn't mean he had to like it.

He settled in a dark little corner of the plane, humming in satisfaction when Bucky settled close to him, their thighs pressed together, Bucky's arm pressed firmly against Steve's even as he pulled out a worn paperback and thumbed through the pages one-handed, his other hand coming to rest high on Steve's thigh—a warm, comforting weight Steve hadn't even known he needed.

Steve exhaled shakily and rested his hand on top of Bucky's for a long, drawn-out moment, allowing himself the grounding reality of his soulmate's touch while his other soulmate—unconfirmed but undeniable—was within his line of sight.

She'd settled down near the loading ramp, while he and Bucky had taken up positions directly behind the cockpit, in case trouble arose, but he had a clear view of her sitting on the other side of the plane, tucked into her harness with a blanket and coat slipping down her body as she fell into sleep. They'd barely been in the air for five minutes, and already it looked like she was dead to the world; like nothing short of gunfire would wake her, not even the loud and not quite smooth engines droning through the entire aircraft.

She was… beautiful, honestly. This morning was the first time he'd seen her in nearly a week, and, though he'd thought of her often over those days, she was more beautiful than even his eidetic memory had pictured for him.

Even he, obtuse as he was at times, could see that.

Even with little smudges of oil on her right cheek, even dressed in combat gear as she was—even if designed specifically for the Heathers—with an undershirt, overshirt, fleece, and jacket, with the thick pants, boots, and belt, and a carrying pack much like the rest of the Commandos used at her side… even—perhaps especially—then, he realized that any attraction he'd had before for Peggy paled in comparison to the sight that Toni presented to him.

Her curls were loose around her face, tumbling over her shoulder in a dark wave, and accentuating the paleness of her face—pretty much the only skin visible, but Steve drank it in all the same. Her small nose and narrow shoulders and short stature had originally had him underestimating her, but over the few days he'd been able to more closely observe her—and the aftermath of her helping them at the Hydra base over a week ago, especially—he'd taken more notice of the firm muscles in her arms, legs, even her stomach, from what he could tell. She had calluses on her hands that he clearly remembered being fascinated by during their surprise briefing, and his respect for her had gone up quite a number of notches.

The way she came to life, her personality ten times her stature and easily twice that of any good man he had known, the fire in her eyes and the way she moved…

One could almost forget that came from the woman before him, except… well, how could he? How could one ever forget Toni Stark?

How could Steve have ever dismissed her?

It was like… well, honestly, it was like the days immediately after meeting Bucky for the first time. Immediately after touching skin to skin, and the days that followed where he'd been tentative and unsure and untrusting of a world that had been cruel to him so many times before.

He'd thought that he could bring himself to treat her fairly, to be her friend. Well, apparently he couldn't—because he was starting to want more.

To want more, in the same way that he'd wanted more from Bucky after years of fighting what society and culture and expectation had ingrained in the two of them.

That didn't mean they'd just blindly accepted their connection, what the soulbond had decreed. They'd fought for it, they'd learned about each other, they'd come to know one another.

Much like he'd told himself a week ago, he vowed to be fair—but he also vowed to pursue her—with Bucky—to the ends of the Earth, if that's what was necessary of him. Whatever their bond may be, whatever it was, whatever they were… he would fight.

He wouldn't let society's prejudices against triad bonds destroy something, someone, potentially worth knowing. The same way he'd fought society's prejudices against romantic queer bonds.

There was someone worth knowing beneath his fear.

There was someone worth… wanting beneath his fear.

And Bucky shared the same sentiment.

It was far more comforting a thought than he would have anticipated.

He let his hand rest on Bucky's for another heartbeat longer before he moved, pulling his sketchbook out of his pack and resting it on his thighs. He began sketching mindlessly, the scratching sound of pencil on paper soothing where he could hear it over the roar of the plane's engines. He lifted his pencil from the paper just as he felt the plane start to lurch beneath his seat.

One of the unexpected benefits of the serum, he thought wryly, not for the first time, was being able to react quickly enough to save his sketches from too much jarring.

He hadn't been able to do this in a while—to just sit and create.

He didn't have much downtime anymore, and when he did, he usually preferred spending it with Bucky rather than sketching.

Of course, since Toni had shown up, he'd barely had any time to himself at all, and while he didn't resent her for that—it was hardly her fault—he couldn't help but feel a little miffed at the circumstances. As he would at anything or anyone that stopped him from spending time with Bucky.

His sketchbook was filled with quick drawings of Bucky and the Howlies, a sketched flash of Peggy's smug smirk when she did something that made him blush, a detailed drawing of Bucky's fingers splayed out on his own stomach, toying with that tantalizing little line of hair that trailed down from his navel into his pants…

And Toni.

So many sketches of Toni that Steve wasn't actually sure what to do with it. With them. With himself.

He usually didn't realize he'd begun to sketch her until he found himself lingering on the soft curve of her lips, or the graceful line of her neck, or the firm muscles of her arms, or the laughter in her eyes—

He shook himself abruptly and sighed.

He didn't know exactly how or why his thoughts and feelings concerning his other soulmate had changed, but he knew that it likely had something to do with Bucky—like most things in his life.

Bucky had seen an opening, seen Steve falter… and had gone in for the kill, quick and merciless and unending in his desire to make Steve change his mind—not that it had been all that hard, once he'd had his revelation last week.

It didn't help—well, actually, it did help—that during the past week, while Toni had been holed up in her appropriated workshop, Bucky had been talking about the woman. He'd talked about her in a soft, fond tone—one Steve knew he usually reserved for his sisters and Steve himself. He'd talked about her with complete and utter bafflement and undisguised admiration, and Steve had wondered, that entire week, why he didn't feel more jealous that his Bucky talked about someone else like that.

Bucky had decided he liked her, and once Bucky Barnes decided he liked someone, he was really damned hard to shake off. Steve suspected that even if they hadn't been soulmates, Bucky might have decided to keep Toni.

He always did have a penchant for taking in strays.

It was, unfortunately, part of the indomitable, devastating Barnes charm.

While Steve had been eager to ignore the… the problem—much as he hated to call it that—Toni presented to his life when they first met, hearing the way Bucky had talked about her… something had clicked.

A key in a lock, a trigger on a gun, a spark lighting tinder.

The last of his jealousy, of his fear, had drained away, because he could feel it. He could feel that Bucky cared, that he was curious, that he wanted to know her—but he wasn't in love with her.

She didn't seem so very scary, so very threatening anymore, when he knew that she wasn't there to sway Bucky from him—he had completely discounted himself being swayed, he thought with chagrin—and that Bucky wouldn't be swayed so very easily in the first place.

But the possibility was there, and somehow that was… okay. In some ways, it was nice, reassuring, warm, comforting to know that there were two people out there, made for him, and someone else out there, Toni, who could give Bucky the love he deserved. All that and more. Because Bucky deserved to be loved, for everything he is and everything he's done, especially when they were young. When he'd taken care of Steve, and Sarah too in the lead-up to her death, before she'd been confined.

He'd done so much, and Steve had always said that Bucky deserved the world.

Well, the world had delivered on Steve's unknowing request.

She was Bucky's chance at sanity if… when Steve didn't make it back from the war.

And he might have ruined it by being a dick.

The realization that he'd been… rudeabrasive—that he'd reverted back to his pre-serum state of being—had been a difficult one. When the last of his jealousy had drained away, he'd found that he… that he quite liked her.

Liked Toni.

He liked the way she made Bucky smile, with the corner of his mouth quirked up into a rakish grin, liked the way Peggy trusted her, even after a few days, liked the way Toni's eyes burned with passionate fire, the way she faced any and all challenge without a shred of fear, the way she was throwing herself full tilt into helping them survive, helping the world fight back even though it wasn't her fight, not really—

He liked the way she never stopped proving that she didn't mean to destroy his life, even when she shouldn't have to. That she wasn't pushing them, was trying to give them room, in her own way.

She was doing everything a soulmate should do.

No matter what they were to each other right now, she stared down Fate, stared down the world, stared down the past and the future and them, and held her chin up high despite the way her shoulders quivered with as much exhaustion as excitement.

She was their—his—soulmate… There was really no doubt about it.

She was their match.

And there was room for her in Steve's heart, he'd realized. It was slowly clicking into place, even so, but Steve preferred it that way. Rather than letting Fate dictate everything for them, there was still a certain amount of control that he and Bucky and Toni could exert on getting to know each other, coming together, perhaps loving each other one day…

Now… now the fierce protectiveness he felt for Bucky had extended itself to the brilliant woman who had greeted them cheerfully at the plane just under an hour ago. She'd managed to draw a feeling of lightness, of happiness from Bucky—a feeling that contrasted sharply with the sickly anxiety and fear that the man usually radiated when they returned to the front.

For that alone—that she'd made Bucky smile, that she'd comforted him so easily—she'd proved herself to Steve.

Not that she really had to.

She'd dedicated herself to keeping them both alive, keeping them alive from a threat they hadn't even known existed, keeping them alive and risking her own future to do it.

She'd promised to save them.

Learning how he was meant to die… how Bucky was meant to die—he'd felt sick when Toni had first told him what she knew about the mission that took Bucky from him. He'd spent that night frantic, fingers grasping at any part of Bucky's that he could reach, leaning into his soulmate's comforting touches, trying to reassure himself that it would never happen.

He wouldn't let it happen.

The conviction of that thought had, surprisingly, given him a new perspective on their lives. He always did better when there was an obvious target, a clearly defined mission—a bully to fight.

Death… Death didn't scare Steve as it scared many others. He was well acquainted with Death, had seen it grace his doorstep often when he had been younger, before he received the serum, before he became… became this.

He never sought to avoid death or even thoughts of death. The inevitability of death made him feel alive, made him appreciate life and everything he'd been given.

Including, finally, Antonia Stark. His soulmate.

His other soulmate—one that could, maybe, hopefully… become equal to his first.

Of course, there were still some things in his life that he was trying to wrap his mind around, but he felt his perspective had shifted in a major way. The fact that they'd had a full six days to prepare for the mission had both been a blessing and a nuisance—because Steve did not do well with sitting still.

On the other hand, he had relished in the chance to keep Bucky safe for a little longer, had relished in the opportunity to spend time with the boys and Peggy without the threat of an enemy attack hanging over their heads.

He'd hoped he could get to know Toni too, spend a little time with her, get to know her, at least start to… but she'd all but disappeared.

No one had been allowed into her appropriated workshop—not even Peggy, and they'd all been left to wonder what exactly she'd been up to… though apparently Phillips knew, because the man constantly dangled too-subtle hints above their heads, a smug, teasing look on his features.

It had driven them crazy. In a rather welcome way.

A little distance had helped to clear his head, though.

Obviously, based on the complete shift of his perspective. A shift that still boggled and confused Steve, just a little bit.

When she wasn't constantly there, he could see that her presence had been driving him a little mad, had been confusing and distracting him, sending his mind into a whirlwind of conflicting thoughts and emotions. With a little distance and a little time to think, he could recognize that he was on the precipice of something… something new.

With Toni.

With Toni and Bucky.

Now if only he could get her alone to tell her that.

And yes, Bucky, to apologize to her.

Jeez.


November 20 th , 1944, 9:00am, Antwerp, Belgium

Toni managed to snatch a nap that lasted the whole hour it took to fly from London to Antwerp, Belgium. She'd strapped herself in, thrown her jacket and a ratty blanket over top of her head, and then proceeded to get some much-needed shuteye.

She needed it if she was going to be at the top of her game—without the suit she was still a magnificent piece of work… in more ways than one—but she was still undeniably human. And humans needed sleep once in a blue moon, or so Pepper had told her twice. Maybe. That memory wasn't exactly the clearest.

But her workshop binge had been important. And, despite it being subpar in every single way, it had still been a rejuvenating experience all on its own. Never mind the fact that she'd managed to craft some gear in six days, the simple joy of throwing herself into the work had been worth every sleepless—and scant, but sleep-filled—moment.

Her sleep on the aircraft hadn't been entirely restful—she had vague recollections of the usual nightmares, someone murmuring something to her, then nothing—but it had been enough to last her to, she hoped, nightfall.

The sudden jerk of the landing jolted her awake, and Toni took her first glimpse of Antwerp on the other side of the year 2000—one drunken college trip in the '80s really didn't give you much of a glimpse, anyway, especially not when you had three hot older women and their boyfriend to distract you.

Good times, Toni thought with a slight, fond smile.

This, though—this was definitely not the same Antwerp; even she could remember that much.

It was… well, she couldn't see much since they'd landed a ways outside the city, but what she did see was easily distinguishable as the half bombed-out husk of something which had been grander not too long ago.

It… was war. War, Toni, and you'll never get rid of it, no matter how hard you try, the chilling voice of Obadiah reminded her. She could run from it, but it would always find her.

She and the others were silent as they made their way off the plane, blinking in the morning light, and eyes transfixed on the city. The airstrip was on high alert, air raid sirens clearly visible, though thankfully silent, and Toni put together the pieces of the puzzle she'd been missing: the Germans were bombing the city constantly, obviously pissed at having it taken from them.

And yet there was still an air of victory to the soldiers, an air of victory and hope to the citizens they saw as their convoy headed into the city proper. People called out to them in Flemish, English, and Dutch with greetings and questions and requests for news. Words of consolation and fear and anger were heard as well, of course, as were tears and shouts and cries of pain, but everywhere they looked they could see aid and comfort being quickly given and received.

Still, the ruins of Antwerp were a lot to take in. It reminded her a lot of parts of Afghanistan she'd visited in the years immediately after 9/11. Just… hell, there wasn't really a comparison. Each was bad in their own way.

"Are the attacks still coming?" Toni could hear Steve asking their driver, quietly, as they pulled up in front of their destination.

"Almost every night, sir," the man replied grimly. "But often not in force."

Steve nodded and motioned for everyone to get out. They swiftly unloaded their packs and Toni's crates, as well as boxes of rations and water they would draw from to supplement the temporary base's supplies. At least, that's what Toni assumed they were going to do. She hadn't exactly paid attention to the logistics of what they were doing, leaving that to the others to figure out once they'd worked on the broad strokes of what they were doing.

Well, the very broad strokes. Since they didn't know how the situation was going to pan out in the next few weeks, the Howling Commandos—plus Toni—would be deciding on the fly where they'd be most useful.

The idea was that the 107th and Dominion Company would be heading towards Bastogne to the south by the end of the week to help fortify the town and its artery-like roadways, leaving the Americans to spread out across the remaining countryside and throughout the forests, holding as tight a line as they could and pushing forward incrementally towards Germany.

The Polish and Canadian armies, it was hoped, would join them once they'd chased the Germans fully out and could clear the channel of the mines preventing Antwerp's port from opening to much-needed supply ships.

The Howling Commandos would act like a roving band of, well, commandos, and go where they were needed; wherever their leads and information took them—preferably towards Hydra; Schmidt and Zola in particular. Confident that Antwerp, Bastogne, the Ardennes Forest, and the future Battle of the Bulge would be in good hands.

For today, though, they were to stop at the temporary S.S.R. base set up near the docks in Antwerp and assess the situation on the ground.

And in the air, it seemed.

The 'base' was simply a collection of port buildings and two warehouses, but it was bustling with life. Soldiers, men and women alike dressed in the colors and insignia of the S.S.R., moved with surety and focus, though not without calling out greetings to the Commandos as they were spotted.

They weren't really that hard to miss. Especially not Captain America himself, Toni thought with some amusement. Even with his silly cowl off and a leather jacket over top of the rest of his… outfit—if only she had access to some Kevlar, oh the things she could do—he was easily recognizable, both in bearing and in appearance. Never mind the huge target of a shield.

She let a small smile play over her lips, the sight thawing something inside of her. It was similar to many of the photos and videos she'd seen of the man while she was growing up, but it was also… not. It was more intimate, more honest, more… free. She was seeing a side of Captain America that was also Steve Rogers. A blend of the two. Toni found herself wondering which was the truest version of the man, but she had a feeling that all three were equally valid identities to the man. One, the other, and the mix.

Not masks, though, for that man couldn't hide his true self if he even wanted to. Always honest, sometimes to the point of painfulness—for others and himself.

A man she could admire, a man she could…

Bucky's gaze caught hers as she looked away, and within them she found understanding. Truth and honesty all their own. Perhaps a little too much.

Toni looked away, quelling a flush.

"Okay! Who wants to see what goodies I brought?" she said quickly, shoving her welling feelings deep down inside her and tapping at her arc reactor to quell some of her agitation. It worked. A little.

The answering eagerness and curiosity worked even better. A wonderful distraction.

She had been so pleased to work on something for these men, something to help, and she wanted to share. She'd wanted to share a week ago but had refused to let anyone get a look until she was good and ready.

And she was. Now.

It had taken her a couple days, even as she worked, to get over the queasiness of working on weapons again. It wasn't quite the same as working on her suit, but it also was, because these were going in the right hands and they weren't for sale to anyone—but it was a slippery slope and she knew it.

"These aren't to be used by anyone but yourselves, you have to promise me. We can't control everything, but you need to do your best to get them back if they're taken. They might not look like much, but I… well, the why doesn't matter so much I suppose. Especially considering we're in World War Two…" she trailed off with a mutter, brain fizzing out.

Probably not enough sleep.

She couldn't believe she was even thinking that. Her? Sleep? Hah, in what centu—well. Okay.

Soon enough the eight of them had shooed a few clerks out of the small building they'd been preparing for use by the Commandos, insisting that they were just fine with how it was, they didn't need much, thank you, and were cracking open the crates they'd shuffled through the thankfully wide doorway.

Toni sat cross-legged on one of the three desks in the main room, clasping her hands with glee, and jittering her knees up and down with nervousness.

Silence.

Gabe and Dugan let out nigh-simultaneous whoops of excitement, and then they all started to dig in—carefully, thank Tesla.

The first crate held an assortment of guns.

The second, explosives.

The third held a few more guns and—her favorite—the new, encoded radios and sharper scopes than the general crap they had in goddamn 1944.

She started answering their questions, happy to show them the slight but impactful changes she'd made to pre-existing guns—rifles, machine guns, pistols, revolvers, shotguns… she'd sorta snooped and found out what their favorite weapons were in the field. She was happy to explain the increased oomph and mechanics and delays of the explosives she'd fiddled with—throwing in some of her own new, though simple, designs along with the old ones. She was happy to explain exactly how she'd increased the accuracy and distance of the scopes, how she'd increased the range and encrypted their old field telephones with new crystal oscillators to make something they could use to communicate from possibly halfway across a country the size of Belgium.

But most of all? Toni was just happy that no one had made noise about her joining them in the field. It was quite refreshing, honestly, and a truly lovely departure from the chauvinist pigs she usually dealt with seven decades in the supposedly progressive future.

Not a one of them blinked or looked at her askance when she pulled her own weapons out of one of the crates. Not even Steve or Bucky. In fact, they looked pleased, but not surprised, when she checked the barrels and magazines with a practiced efficiency, and then double-checked her pouches and bag for ammo and the explosives she'd already packed for herself. And food and spare clothes and essentials, yeah, those things were important too, but admittedly all that had been pressed on her by Peggy early that morning because she had entirely forgotten.

And then someone had to go and pop her happy bubble. Okay, fine, not really. But still, she could have done without the reminder of the thing she'd shoved far from her mind.

"You're definitely Howard's kid," Falsworth commented as he quickly attuned—heh—himself with the new radios. "What did you say you did for a living again?"

Toni made a face. "Jesus, please don't ever say that again. I'll have to punch you if you do." Falsworth leveled her an unimpressed look and she snorted—though she wasn't entirely joking. "I regret letting Phillips inform the rest of you," she grouched, just a little. She allowed, then, "We didn't have the best relationship. You know him; you can probably fill in the blanks just fine on your own as to why that is." Toni was acutely aware that the whole room had gone silent and was listening to her. She flashed them her showman's grin. "Engineer. Scientist. Genius." She winked at them. "Took over his company once he passed away. We made weapons until," just a little hitch, "I grew a conscience and now we're in the energy business. Specifically, renewable energy. And other tech, sorta like those radios there but way smaller. You wouldn't even believe me if I told you half the crap we make. But yeah, I still keep my weapons skills sharp for my flying suit."

That got a reaction.

Her grin widened. "You heard me right: flying suit. Think medieval armor but lighter and more maneuverable, powered by thrusters, um, a powerful engine of a sort, with sci-fi-like ray and stun guns! There's nothing else like it in the world, but they all want it."

They looked very skeptical.

She flapped her hands at them, chuckling. "You'd need to see it. Point being, I know weapons! I said I'd never make them for anyone else but, well… you're special."

When she gave them a truly genuine smile, they smiled back and thanked her, without going overboard, thank fuck, then turned back to continue checking out their new toys.

All except Steve and Bucky.

"Flying suit?" Bucky asked, wide-eyed. "You didn't say nothin' 'bout a flying suit." He stepped closer, shoving the gun in his hands into Steve's, who gripped it absently as he followed Bucky. "Does that mean he—"

Steve groaned. "Buck, not this a—"

"—got the flying car to work?"

The look on Bucky's face was fucking adorable, holy shit. She couldn't help but answer instead of snark, as she leaned back against the desk she'd been sitting on earlier. She smiled easily… happily, in a way. "Well, none of us are driving around in flying cars, I hate to break it to you. But." She held up a hand. "As much as I hate to admit it, he did get it working for a little bit. Just a little bit."

"Seriously?" Bucky looked so happy, like all his dreams of the future had come true, and even Steve had a pleasantly surprised expression gracing his handsome face.

"I mean, okay, it did blow up, but from all accounts I heard from both my father and from Peggy, it got about… twenty feet up, and flew for maybe ten seconds, I think? Before blowing up and saving the day, apparently, though that was a classified incident so I wasn't really supposed to know about it." She smirked. "So… it sort of worked?" Toni shrugged.

Bucky gripped her shoulders excitedly and turned his head to smile at Steve. "It worked! Stevie, I told you it would work someday!"

"I mean—" Toni tried to interject.

"Shh, it worked," Bucky continued over top of her. "That's all I need to hear. Don't care if it never worked again, it worked at least once so it's possible."

"I mean I could make it work, I guess," Toni mumbled lowly, a little distracted by the way Bucky's fingers practically burned through her heavy coat and shirt. "But the logistics of a society with flying cars is just ridiculous and—"

"Bucky really doesn't care," Steve laughed, gently dislodging Bucky's firm grip from Toni, and dizzying her a little bit by his loose, relaxed proximity. God, he smelled great. Both of them. And the way they weren't tense around her? Fucking amazing. Ambrosia all on its own.

This was the way they were supposed to be around each other.

"I mean, he really doesn't," Steve continued. "He's dreamed of that damn car flying, ever since we saw it at the Expo. You've pretty much answered his prayers."

"Today is a great day," Bucky added, nodding emphatically even as he shoved off Steve's hands.

Toni snorted rather indelicately and grinned at the two idiots in front of her. Her heart felt full, felt good, and she felt something indescribable ease between the three of them.

This really wasn't so bad at all, the three of them, like this. It was… nice.

Steve cleared his throat after a moment that was just about to turn awkward.

"But really, we wanted to thank you, Toni. You didn't have to do this," Steve said earnestly, flipping the conversation around. "The men look like they're really enjoying their new toys, but it was good of you to keep them as close to what they're used to as possible. They could have done just fine with their old gear, so… yeah. You didn't have to," he finished a little lamely.

"I know I didn't. I just… wanted to." Jesus, she was going to blush.

"That means a lot, and I wanted you to know, personally, that it's appreciated." The official Captain America voice was creeping up on him, but Toni recognized he meant it. Maybe, sometimes, that voice meant he meant it even more. Hmm.

"It'll be good to have you along, Toni. And for more than just all this," Bucky added in a more down to earth tone, indicating the crates with one hand.

At that she did blush. Damn it, it had been ages since she'd blushed this easily at a compliment!

What were they doing? Trying to kill her? With kindness? Ugh! So confusing.

"What'd you make for yourself, doll?" he continued, before Toni could even think to dismiss his comment—which she really wanted to.

Lucky for him, Toni was happy to oblige for this particular topic. She flipped her hand over, holding it palm up in front of her, and tapped the proper fingers together. Immediately, her watch unfolded to encase her palm and fingers, the repulsor node glowing faintly in standby mode.

"I'll have to show you it in action later, but we'd need some open space with nobody around, preferably," Toni said.

"That's… that must be the weapon Peggy told us about," Steve commented slowly, and Toni was pleased at the note of awe in his tone.

She kept her head ducked, looking down at her hand as she flipped it over and pulled back the sleeve of her jacket and long shirt, showing the wires lying just under the material. "Right now they're disconnected but when we're out in the field I'm going to keep them plugged in at all times, sort of like an electric plug. They go from the glove, all the way up my arm, and the reactor powers it for extra juice and almost infinite power."

Toni brought both hands up to the collar of her shirt, past the open sides of her jacket, and unbuttoned the top few buttons. She pulled the sides apart to display the majority of the reactor to their gazes, figuring now was as good a time as any for them to get a better look at it than that first night in the dark of an Italian midnight.

Toni was still a little squeamish about letting other people see it, but they were her soulmates, no matter what the hell that meant, and if they rejected this part of her… nothing would ever work between them, not even friendship. She let them get a good view of the white and light pink scar tissue surrounding the arc reactor's casing, let them see the curves of her breasts, unashamed, but quirking her lips at the hint of pink on Steve's cheeks, let them take in the blue light, the lines, the glass, the metal, before slowly tracing the wires where they connected into a port on the bottom of the casing.

Let them see what was now, indelibly, a part of her.

They… fuck, they took it in and didn't flinch in the glaring light of day at what was a blight upon her body, no matter how much of a symbol it had become for the renewal of her soul. She liked to pretend it didn't matter, that she was unashamed of her new… prosthetic, of a sorts—and she wasn't, not really, but… it was balm to her heart and soul and yes, even her pride and vanity, every time someone looked upon her arc reactor and just seemed to see… her.

She could see the questions in her eyes, too, but they could wait. Now wasn't the time.

If ever. There were some things she just didn't feel like telling everyone willy-nilly.

Like how she would die if this, her one and only arc reactor in the past, was broken or malfunctioned in some way. Or, say, if she drained the power from it.

Emotion welled up in her throat, threatening to bubble over. She cleared her throat, once, twice, and pulled the two halves of her shirt back over the arc reactor, covering it up once again. "Just one of the tricks up my sleeve, so to speak," she joked lightly, lifting up her gloved hand with the wires, and making a truly terrible joke in order to distract herself from the massive amounts of vulnerability and homesickness she was feeling. The two of them smirked at her, Bucky snorting lightly. Steve wrinkled his nose in a really adorable way, oh lordy. Moving on, Toni. Good grief.

"I'm more than just a pretty woman in a suit, boys." She winked at them, but there was nothing lighthearted about the sentiment. Not to her. She was Iron Man. With or without the suit.

The men didn't even bat an eye, didn't smirk or laugh or anything. They just nodded, switching from their amusement of moments ago to seriousness, without letting out a single word.

Just… accepting.

Questions and thoughts in their eyes, curiosity very faintly buzzing in the bond, but letting things rest for the time being.

The fuck was going on? she felt like asking.

"But, um, yeah." She backed them up a little. "You're welcome," Toni cleared her throat of the suspicious lump that was threatening to choke her up again. "Thank me by letting me look at the shield? I promise I'll give it back." Toni blustered, making grabby hands at Steve, a playful smirk pasted on over her nervousness and belief she was about to be duly rejected—but completely prepared for it.

To her absolute surprise, the man didn't even hesitate before pulling it off his back and handing it over, though his grip did linger just a touch before letting it go into Toni's hands.

Toni stared, wide-eyed, at the shield. Captain America's shield. In her hands. It didn't matter she'd seen it up close since she arrived, she'd been too focused on other things. And, for that matter, she'd treated it at as something she could never touch so she shouldn't even think about it, like many of her father's very special tools. But now…

"Oh my god," she breathed, turning it over in her hands and running her fingers along the edge.

"Gee Stevie, you'd think you gave her the holy grail or somethin'," Bucky said slyly.

Toni shushed him loudly, and then stopped even paying attention to him. She focused entirely on the metal in her hands, cataloguing by touch the arc of the perfect parabola, the way the metal vibrated gently and evenly when she knocked it in different places, continuing at the same pace until she stilled it with her hands… and facing one part of what her father considered his 'greatest creation'.

Her breaths slowed down until she was barely letting in or out but the slightest of breaths.

Howard's obsession with Steve had been… hard, but it had given her something to connect with her father over in her childhood. They had not had a close relationship, but Toni's own willingness and desire to learn as much as possible about Captain America, Sergeant Barnes, and the other Howling Commandos, had been a bridge between them—as much as anything could be a bridge between the two of them. In fact, there was pretty much nothing else.

In the end, through a mix of growing up, maturing, puberty, and a broader awareness of the world around her, she had come to see the obsession for what it was:

An old man holding on with increasing fervor and fanaticism to his youth, to the glory days, to anything that could make him feel again—to anything that wasn't his too-smart child, his self-medicating wife, and a cancer of a best friend and business partner. To anything other than the present day, anything other than the future. Once the war was over, Howard was increasingly stuck in the past. No longer the futurist he'd claimed to be.

It was one of many reasons Toni had latched on so tightly to the future. She refused to be anything like Howard, whatever the case may be.

Yet, for all that the shield represented her past, it was still just an object. It was an extension of Captain America, of Steve Rogers; a weapon and symbol both of what was most important to him. Of the people who were most important to him, both those he knew, and those he didn't, not personally, but who Steve knew were worth protecting.

For all that the shield was made by her father… it was no more his than Steve Rogers was.

Toni smiled to herself, and passed the shield back, giving it one last, longing look before it was taken from her grasp.

"Can I see you two use it? Please?" Toni pouted, deliberately trying to lighten the mood—but absolutely serious, as well.

Steve laughed, previously-unnoticed tension dissipating from his body. "Yeah, of course. Sometime on the road, but yeah. I'll even show you a few moves, if you like."

Toni's eyes widened. "Seriously? Get out!"

Steve blinked. "Is that… a good thing?"

"No, it's a horrible thing," she replied, completely straight-faced, locking the bare hint of them down in the back of her brain.

"Then why…" Steve looked a little unsure.

Bucky sighed as Toni stared at him just a little incredulously. "Ever hear of sarcasm, ya big lug?" Bucky asked, probably rhetorically. Probably.

"Of course, sugar," Steve replied, without even a pause, fluttering his eyelashes at Bucky playfully. "It's the tone I use to tell you that size don't matter, right?"

Toni goddamn lost it. "Holy shit!" she gasped out in between peals of laughter. "Get the hell out, Rogers! Oh my god."

"Steve," he said evenly, smiling calmly as he watched Toni. The smile reached his eyes, she noted offhandedly—but happily.

Toni recognized it as another olive branch—she was bad at interpersonal cues, not a total lost cause, Pepper. "Steve it is," she acknowledged, finally bringing her laughter down a notch. "Thanks, I needed that," she announced with total sincerity. She was referring to more than just the invitation (had he offered before? she wasn't sure) and was relieved to see that Steve understood the underlying thankfulness, and wasn't getting mad at her for the beginnings of affection lacing her words and probably plastered all over her features.

If he even noticed. God, she was such a loser.

No, she refused to let herself feel like that. She refused to not be the one in control. She was going to take this situation and plaster herself all over it as much as she could.

So… of course that meant launching herself at the two of them, because Toni was all about putting herself close to what she couldn't have, pushing the boundaries that were thrust upon her, pushing people.

Trying to push them for a reaction.

Trying to push them into an honest reaction.

Well, she didn't get stabbed, at least. Good going, Toni, dragging two soldiers into a hug with no warning.

"You're okay, this is okay," Bucky was saying, and Toni realized that she had sort of checked out.

They weren't pushing her away. In fact, they had both dropped their arms down to envelop her in between them. It wasn't tight, but it was… god, it was more than she thought she'd get from them. Fuck.

She reveled in the feeling for a long moment—a part of her brain chastising her, telling her that a moment was ninety seconds, and surely they wouldn't let her latch on so long as ninety seconds—letting her brain still, her heart, her body… her perception of time, in a way. She let herself just… feel. Feel, maybe, accepted if not wanted; feel that there was, perhaps, hope of more; feel safe and alright and like everything would be okay.

Feel like she wasn't alone in this ridiculous situation.

"Can we just be this?" Toni mumbled into the space between their arms. "Can we just be Toni, and Steve, and Bucky?" She looked up—ugh, why were they so tall?—and leaned back enough that she could see both of their faces. "Like, you're… the two of you, do your own thing, y'know, but I'm, like… just Toni, y'know? No pretending to the public, no trying to force anything, but also not a stranger. A friend. With hugs. I am apparently an octopus, according to Pepper and Rhodey. Once you're my friend, you're my friend, and that comes with a stupid amount of me being annoying and a menace, and you having to save me from myself and others and leaving the stove on and—uh, you get the point, oh please save me from myself, someone say something, I'm rambling, this is embarrassing, I swear sometimes I can't shut myself up—"

Bucky laughed—bright and beautiful and confident and oh fuck, she was in so much trouble but she had to try, damn it! —and did as asked. "Doll, that's the plan. We've been looking for an opportunity to apologize for all the insanity, for the way we've treated you. Both of us."

"I'm sorry," Steve butted in, practically blurting it out, and Toni couldn't smother her grin and the light little laugh that just happened to escape. "I was a jerk, and not in the way Bucky means it—usually."

That sobered Toni up a little, and she pulled back further, though not yet quite out of their arms. "You were," she said slowly. "And normally I don't have much of a tolerance for that sort of shit. I would crush you under my boots, with everything the Stark name brings to bear—and that's more than you can ever imagine." Steve shivered, just a little, and Toni didn't even try to suppress the satisfaction that brought her. "I would make you pay, Steve. Bucky. Even now, in the past, I would find a way."

She stepped back, letting go of the two of them—there was a flicker of longing in the bond, but she couldn't be sure that that wasn't from her, because fuck did she ever want to stay in their arms, and there was also no way in hell that they longed to be in hers, even if they were okay with the hugging. She cleared her throat, shoving that aside, and then gentled her tone, but not the steel of her backbone. "But given the circumstances, given the war, given how truly screwed up all of this is, I'm willing to forgive… and maybe, possibly, be convinced to forget sometime in the future." She winked, gentling the message. "Pepper says I don't know what's good for me. So… don't prove her right. Because she's insufferable when she's right and I'm wrong. And she'd murder you, there's that, huh now there's a sexy thought…" She trailed off, eyes going unfocused.

There was a pause, and then Bucky's voice called her back into the here and now. "As much as I'd like to know what image crossed your mind," he teased, his voice going just a little husky, oh god, but it set Toni at ease even as her eyes darted furtively to check how Steve reacted to that statement; he just smirked, oh god, kill her now, "I think I can speak for both of us when I say we'd like to be your friends. We can't promise we won't hurt you again, but we'll try. We'd like to get to know you, and learn to work with you properly in the field."

"Yeah, we can do that. We can try," Steve said softly. "I know we should've spoken more about this sooner, and in, uh, a lot more polite a way—"

Bucky elbowed him. "No kidding, punk."

"Shut up, jerk," Steve said as if by rote. He rolled his eyes. "Anyway, we were remiss in some of the first things we should've talked about, like practicing bond blocking. And, uh, if you're willing to work with us on that, I think it could help us all, uh…" He trailed off, then looked at Bucky, a little lost.

Toni laughed lightly. It was just too cute. Too… surreal. Captain America, looking like an adorable, lost little school boy. Sure, it lined up with some of the stories Aunt Peggy recounted over the years, but those had been few and far between compared to the stories of his stubbornness and courage and loudly expressed views.

"What Stevie is trying to say is that for us, and now for you, whatever they did to him with the serum amped up the bond as well. It's part of why we're all feeling the effects so strongly at times, and then not at all in others, when it should be settling to next to nothing at this stage."

"It's different for everyone, or so they say," Toni said absently, pondering his words. It was true, the bond had been wildly swinging, strong and barely there in turns. Uncontrollable. "Different strengths. Sort of like different volumes of sound."

"Sure," Bucky allowed. "But for this punk, nothing's in half measures. And then it went all weird again after we met you—" Credit given for not even hesitating over those words whereas before they'd both been squirrelly… okay, that was mostly Steve, not Bucky, but still, "—and that's probably why I conked out for a couple minutes at that Hydra base when this punk got goddamn stabbed."

"Shut up," Steve repeated, though he mostly just sounded exasperated, not irritated.

"Does he repeat himself like this a lot?" Toni cocked her head to the side. "It's sorta adorable."

Bucky grinned. "He really does. It's fucking adorable."

"Fucking adorable," Toni agreed with a surprised laugh, happy that she didn't have to moderate her language with at least one of them, like she could be herself, that she could tease, and feeling lighter than she had in… well, ten or so days.

It was so much of what she'd dreamed.

Steve groaned. "Oh no, there's two of you."

"You're goddamn right, punk."

"Live with it," Toni added, mock solemn but feeling exuberant inside.

"Fucking hell," Steve grumbled. "I'm going to go check with Intelligence. I hate you both."

His retreating back was met with laughter.


A little later that same morning

He finally tracked down the intelligence officer in charge, going up his chain of command because none of them had the full picture like this man, they said. Not a full enough picture for Captain America and the Howling Commandos, at least, knowing what sort of missions the group preferred.

"What've you got?" Steve asked the man once the door was closed behind the two of them.

The man in question was silent for a long minute, looking a little… disturbed. It took plenty to disturb an intelligence officer in this war, so Steve knew before he heard it that this was likely going to be just the thing for the Commandos.

They seemed to specialize in the disturbing, the things that nobody else wanted to touch—even the S.S.R.

"Well…"

Steve waited patiently.

"There's something that no one else wants to touch. The locals, that is. They dumped it in our laps just yesterday, because they couldn't find anyone who wanted the… duty."

Steve leaned against the wall, listening intently.

"Breendonk," the officer spat, nose wrinkling as though the fort's mere name left a bad taste in his mouth. Steve imagined it would—he didn't know much about the camp, but he'd heard a little about it when Peggy talked about the reports she usually dealt with.

It sounded a hell of a lot like a concentration camp to him, even if it'd never been called that.

"What about it?" he asked.

"It was freed a few months ago," the officer sighed, leaning back against his desk with a weary expression. "Not by us, but by a local resistance—it'd been mostly abandoned by then, but there were some guards and prisoners left." His mouth twisted into a scowl and he admitted, "The prisoners and their families kind of… took over. They've been treating the S.S. guards they managed to capture the same way they were treated. Been locking up so-called collaborators too."

Steve winced.

The issue of collaborators was not an unknown one. It was a layered issue too. Could a man who didn't outwardly fight the occupiers to protect his family be blamed for not fighting?

Could the shopkeeper who was forced to play nice with Germans be blamed for trying to keep a roof over his and his family's heads?

"Locals dumped it in our laps today," the man finally concluded. "The interim government not only has its hands full with recovery, but also doesn't want any war crimes laid at their door. They just don't want to look like they're Nazi sympathizers. Again." He shook his head. "They got kids in there, man. Women and children being treated like criminals. No deaths yet, but it's a matter of time. Personally, I don't care much about what they do to those S.S. bastards, but… there's been similar issues in the city—it's a damned witch hunt, but we can deal with that. We can't take Breendonk on too, though."

Ah.

Well, that certainly explained the look on the officer's face and his hesitance with the… problem.

Because Steve could empathize with the former prisoners. He also, however, knew that it wasn't the right or moral thing to do, let alone the fact that these people were turning into what they had hated the most while still recovering from shell shock, from trauma, from torture and imprisonment. Their judgment was skewed, no matter who they were or what had happened to them. Especially then.

What was just was not always what was right.

But he needed to go there and get all the info for himself, see for himself, before he could truly say that this was not right.

"I'll look into it," Steve finally said. "Have there been any signs of Schmidt?" he asked as he got ready to leave. He didn't have much hope of an affirmative reply; they'd been chasing ghosts for weeks, even before their hit on that last Hydra base. His knuckles creaking were the only outward signs of his anger at the thought—he hoped so, at least, but he honestly didn't care as long as he passed a basic check. Everyone knew of his hatred of the Hydra leader, but there was no sense in directing his rage towards his comrades.

The officer clenched his own jaw. "Nothing that's verifiable, sir. There's been some minor Hydra activity but most of that includes single operatives or small cells. It seems like they've gone to ground, and none of that really sits well with me, so we're looking through our intelligence for anything we might've missed. You'll be the first to know after the Colonel and Agent Carter, sir."

Steve nodded his thanks and ducked outside, eyes automatically surveying the area around him.

Out of the corner of his eye, to his left, he spied an unnatural green… something.

But as he turned, it was gone.

Steve shook his head, thinking that he must have just imagined what he'd seen… but no. No, he trusted his senses, and he knew he'd felt a soft displacement of air in the same direction as the green light had come from.

He might not have seen what it was, but there was definitely something going on.

Goddamn war.

Chapter Text

November 21st, 1944, Belgium

Toni hummed quietly to herself even as she shivered, pulling her coat closer and tighter around her body. The sun had set not too long ago, but considering it was November that meant that it was only just after 5:00pm. Though no snow had fallen yet, not this Autumn, the darkness combined with the damp and cold to create some really not so stellar conditions for Toni. Not that she was going to complain, fuck no, at least not out loud.

Her eyes darted down and to the right, watching the Howling Commandos effortlessly set up camp for the night. It wasn't much—they'd all be sleeping in the large covered truck bed tonight, besides one or two to keep watch at all times, so it wasn't like they needed to set up much besides a fire and make some food.

Tasked with touching base with Peggy over radio, Toni had taken a perch on what amounted to the tailgate of the truck, the wood beneath her hard and cold and uncomfortable but still much nicer than being on her feet. Again. She'd dialed into the right frequency a few minutes ago, and had been about to get up and help when she'd been waved down by Dugan and told to sit and keep an ear out.

Honestly, she would've just gotten in the way anyway, so she sat back and let her mind wander just a little along with her eyes.

She and Bucky and Steve had actually gotten off to a really good start yesterday morning, all things considered. Well, a second start, she supposed, considering she'd barely known them a couple days when she'd just up and disappeared on them into the workshop. But things hadn't been that awkward at all, and she thought that maybe…

Well. Maybe.

Maybe they were starting to warm to her, finally, but not in the way her soul—and her teenage self—seemed to still yearn for.

At least she'd had plenty of practice denying herself over the years, when she wasn't in the habit of overindulging in the opposite direction.

It would go away… eventually.

Until then, she just had to grin and bear it.

Certainly didn't hurt that she'd taken to the whole bond blocking thing like a duck to water. She was pretty sure she'd miffed Bucky with her ease in picking it up, come to think of it.

"How are you so good at this?" he'd blurted out.

Toni had simply looked at him, arching an eyebrow. "It's not that hard once you get the hang of it."

"Well, yes, but it took me ages to get the hang of it. And you've done it in... way less. Way, way less."

"But yeah, I mean, once I saw the pattern and the sort of skill set needed, it was just a matter of applying myself, applying abilities from other aspects of my life, like multitasking—which I can do when I want, but not with all things, I'll admit. I can be a bit of a mess with some things."

She'd smiled, just a little chagrined, but still happy with herself, and something had just… eased between the three of them, then and there, even more than it had already been doing previously. It's like they had hit a tipping point, and things were just smooth sailing from there.

She knew better than to expect things to remain like that, though, and so having the ability to block the jackasses out when they got on her nerves was a positive.

Who was she kidding? She was going to keep those walls up as often as she could. Having someone permanently in her head sounded like something she'd only want to engage in with those she could trust fully, and, well…

Suffice to say, they were not there yet.

If ever.

But maybe one day, even if just as friends. That would be nice.

In the meantime, the men's presence had settled into something muted, indistinct... soft in the back of her mind. Steady, as if they weren't fighting her, it anymore. She felt happier than she had in days, despite the fact they were closer and closer to the Western Front of the European Theatre.

And that was taking into account their stop at Breendonk, yesterday, arriving in the later hours of the morning and then spending the rest of the evening there, only just making camp outside the fortifications before midnight.

That whole place had just… fuck, but the place creeped her out, knowing what exactly was going on there, had gone on there—the political prisoners, the torture, the executions and rape and more brought on by their own countrymen in league with the Nazis, and so many more sent on to death camps—and the haunted looks on the prisoners-turned-guards' faces was enough to haunt her nightmares.

The images had haunted her nightmares, in fact. She'd dreamed last night of Afghanistan, but for the first time she had been in the shoes of her tormentors.

Needless to say, she had not gotten any more sleep that night. But at least she hadn't shared her dream with anyone this time. It had been bad enough for her alone; she would've just felt worse if her dreams had bled out through the bond.

The rest of the day had been spent meeting up with small groups of the S.S.R. dotted around the countryside near Antwerp, and then they'd started to move south-east, towards Germany.

Okay, so it was pretty much all Germany to the east of here.

Ugh.

Barely a day and a half out in the field, and she was already tired of it all. She didn't mind helping, not at all, but it was the sheer… unknown of the situation that was tiring her out more and more with each day. She didn't know why she was in the past, let alone if she'd ever make it back to the future, and not knowing was something that Toni loathed with a fiery passion. If only she knew, one way or the other, whether she'd be going back to her time…

Sigh. Well, it was no matter. She'd just do her best, make the most of what she could, and keep moving forward, just as she'd been trying to the last half year or so since Afghanistan.

'Don't waste your life,' Yinsen had told her. His last words had been for her, he'd thought enough of her for that, and Toni thought of them—of him—nearly every damn day.

She'd do her best with what she'd been given, that was for fucking sure.

Fzzzshhhhhhh—

A short burst of radio static, and then there was a voice coming over the encrypted long-range radio. "This is Miss Union Jack, come in."

Toni whistled lightly and beckoned everyone closer before hopping down to the ground.

As the others moved towards her, she flicked a switch so that they could all listen in and passed the mouthpiece to Steve, who had reached her first, giving him a smile which she could feel reach her eyes.

She was pretty sure it was just wishful thinking that made her feel like his fingers had lingered as he took it from her. But the smile she got in return for hers wasn't, and that was… really nice. Fuck, he had a really nice smile.

Yesterday morning had been really good for them, for how she felt about him as a person, and apparently how he felt about her as a person as well—let alone the fear he had previously expressed about her as a soulmate potentially coming to steal Bucky away. She felt on firmer ground with him now, and was starting to knit the pieces of Steve Rogers, the person, with what she knew of Captain America, the icon, and her father's obsession.

Things were starting to make much more sense.

And then yesterday at Fort Breendonk, seeing how he treated the Belgians with respect, sympathy, and empathy without coming across in a condescending, America-is-better-than-you way… Well. He was something else to see in person, that was for sure.

If nothing else, that alone quelled her regret about being sent into the past. She had always loved Captain America, always loved Sergeant Barnes, always loved the Howling Commandos and Agent Carter and the 107th Battalion and the S.S.R. and the Heathers and so many different things tied to the mythos of Captain America. He, they, had been brought to life through the stories her godmother and the remaining Howlies had told her over the years, and now here he, here they were, right in front of her eyes. Here she was… living the life that she had always dreamt of as a child.

No, she couldn't regret that one bit.

I don't think this is quite what you imagined for my life, Yinsen… but I'm going to make the most of this, you just wait.

"This is Brooklyn Kid, I read you Miss Union Jack," Steve said into the mouthpiece. Toni grinned and Bucky had to smother a laugh with his hand. Steve sighed and rolled his eyes, but Toni didn't let her smile go. If anything, it widened even further.

She'd have to remember that nickname.

The smiles quickly drained from off of all of their faces as Peggy cut to the chase. "I have a new mission for you and it's right up your alley, Brooklyn. It's a rescue mission, or at least I hope it will be a rescue mission," she said in her clipped British. "My second was on reconnaissance yesterday afternoon and due before sundown, but she didn't make it. None of the women on the plane did, and the last reported coordinates we have from them put them along the German front almost due east of you. We got as close as we could, from as high as we could, and reports indicate wreckage. It is my hope that they survived." Here her voice broke just a little, but she continued after only the tiniest of pauses. "The colonel and I are in agreement that if anyone can do it, it's you. If nothing else, we will know. But she's important, and we absolutely must know if she's been taken prisoner."

Please, she didn't have to add as she fell silent.

Steve clenched his free hand into a fist and breathed out long and hard before replying in a measured, serious tone. "You can count on us."

"Thank you," Peggy replied. "The nearest major town to the wreckage that we could tell is the German town of Aachen. Please try not to make a big commotion—or rather, if you do," she corrected herself dryly, "then you better make it worth the while and make it the biggest damn commotion we've seen yet. I want her back." Her tone was hard again by the end, and Toni could see it reflected on the faces around her.

One of their own had been lost, potentially taken prisoner or worse.

It was then that Toni was reminded where the Howling Commandos had met each other, where they had formed bonds that went beyond blood or soul.

In that moment, she felt more connected to them than at any point in her past, their future; more connected to them than any child simply listening at their knee could ever be; more connected than she had felt even to Pepper and Rhodey, at least as far as war and pain and captivity was concerned.

"Yes ma'am," Steve said, tone outwardly gentle but steel layered beneath it. "You have my word, one way or the other. We'll find her. Give me a few days, but we'll check in twice daily as usual?"

"Yes, thank you," Peggy said, and they all lapsed into silence for a number of seconds, contemplative.

Toni took a deep breath, shoring her strength as she looked at the men around her. Her eyes finally came to dwell on first Steve, again, then Bucky, a little to his right. The expression on his face… fuck, but she wished she could reach out and offer him comfort, a hug, a push to knock him out of his thoughts, anything but the memories that were probably swirling around his mind. Before she could, however, Falsworth knocked shoulders with him, and Bucky blinked once, then twice, before glancing at the man to his side and giving him a smile of gentle gratitude and easy friendship.

"Now," Peggy continued, before anything else could be said, "could you please put me on with my sergeant and grant us some privacy?"

"Sure, ma'am," Steve said kindly, even as he gave Dugan a little eyebrow wiggle. With that, the tension broke, and they all moved back to what they'd previously been doing so that they could give Dum Dum some alone time with his soulmate.

"Those two have always been so sweet with each other," Toni remarked with a fond smile to Steve and Bucky as they walked towards the fire.

"You knew—Of course you knew," Steve replied, the latter part quite dryly.

"Um yeah of course I knew. She's my—"

"—godmother, yep, and isn't that still the damnedest thing," Bucky cut in easily as he flopped down onto a log.

Toni could only shrug as she took her own spot a few feet away, her legs sprawled out in front of her. The two men started to talk about their new mission to go free Peggy's second, Captain Samantha Schofield—someone she'd heard of before, but had never actually met—so she turned towards Dernier, who had taken the spot beside her, and started asking him questions about his siblings, whom she had met a few times during her childhood. He was charmingly delighted, albeit a little startled, and oops, maybe she shouldn't expect all of them to be happy she knew things about the lot of them already.

As they spoke, she watched from over Dernier's shoulder as Dugan froze for a long moment, then finished up his conversation. He marched over to Morita and dragged the other man into the woods, their heads close together as they whispered furtively to each other.

A few minutes later, the two of them came back to the fireside, though Morita stood a little distance away so he could keep watch, his expression carefully composed. Dugan just stood there, and then delivered in concise, to the point, and clear words, "I have a new soulmark. We do. Peggy and I, I mean."

Everyone stopped what they were doing and turned to look at their second in command. Stared. Thoughts going a mile a minute, probably, but Toni's mind decided instead to give her the finger and fuck right off.

Because what. the. fuck.

"What?" Toni practically squeaked, more eloquent words and phrases escaping her.

He didn't say anything in response, just rolled up his left sleeve and there his soulmark was—both soulmarks, in fact, one beside the other.

His rendezvous with Peggy Carter, plain as day, months before the Howling Commandos had formed in the wake of the daring rescue on Hydra's factory: July 16th, 1943. 7:30am. Palermo, Italy.

And a new one: November 29th, 1944. 3:02pm. Bastogne, Belgium.

"Dugan," Steve finally spoke over the crackling of the fire. "Is this what you want?" It wasn't an out of the ordinary question, not at all. In fact, it was traditional, and still considered polite seventy years in the future. No one assumed that everyone would be happy, would be ready, for a soulmate, and so society had placed great weight on asking the newly marked if this was what they wished before the friend or family member—and no one else, really, it just wasn't done—could move forward in discussing it.

"Peggy and I talked about it, before I even went looking for the mark," Dugan replied evenly after giving the question the consideration it deserved. There was a small smile playing at his lips. "We want to meet them."

Steve nodded, and then stood up to embrace his friend, smiling at him so genuinely that Toni got lost for a few seconds. "Congratulations, Dum Dum." He stepped back, hands still on the sergeant's shoulders. "We'll do our best to get you there on time. Six days, almost a week. If we're not in and out of Germany with Captain Schofield and her crew in that time, then we've got bigger problems, but I won't forget about this. My word."

No, he wouldn't forget about this, would he now?

She sure as hell wouldn't, because it threw her own circumstances right up in front of her.

Another triad bond appearing within the same social circle wasn't unheard of, especially as like seemed to flock to like, so that wasn't what was bothering her. And not what her own soulmates were thinking—because that way lay madness. No, instead it was the fact that in her own timeline, in her own past and present, it had always been just Peggy and Dum Dum, though he'd passed away in the late '80s. There had never been a third, or if there had been, they'd never mentioned him or her, whether they were platonic or romantic, none of that.

Toni stared at her hands as her fingernails started to dig into her palms. Was it because of her? Because of whatever had happened to her, to bring her back? Or maybe they had known her even before she was born, in their past, now, maybe they had known about her struggles with her own soulmates, and had chosen not to mention it… but no, none of that made sense with what she knew of them.

Fuck, what if he and Peggy didn't really want this, and she was the cause?

Goddammit.

"Toni?"

She looked up, startled. She'd obviously gotten lost in her head for a little there, and missed what had been said. "Yeah?" she replied, then cleared her throat. "Sorry, what's up?" she tried again.

Everyone was looking at her, but she studiously ignored the lot of them, focusing instead on the sergeant. He was peering at her through the flickering light, and she held his gaze when he met hers. She could only guess what he was looking for—and none of it was anything she wanted to address yet. Not even with herself.

She needed to think.

Needed to talk to Steve and Bucky, whether they liked it or not. But… she felt like they would be okay with that, somehow. Maybe.

"You okay?" Dugan asked finally, his eyes showing concern even with the shadows playing across his features.

No, she wanted to say.

"Yeah, I'm good, Sarge," she said instead, giving him most of her press smile—she wasn't exactly sure of its efficacy, though, because his lips turned down in a frown. She searched her brain for what he'd just said, and settled on, "I'm happy for you." She smirked, settling a little more comfortably as she shoved her loud thoughts right the fuck out of her head. "We'll get you there, and then we can all tease you about your love life, how does that sound?"

Dugan smiled finally, and that was what mattered, she realized, as her heart started to feel lighter again. It didn't matter how she felt, it didn't matter how her own bond with her two idiots was going—and they were, they really were, even if she wasn't much better—and it didn't matter that she was feeling sharply contrasted to him and Peggy and this new person… none of that mattered, because his life wasn't hers, and that was that.

Let him have his happiness. She would make her own.

Finally feeling more settled, she looked up, and her eyes were immediately drawn to her own soulmates. Toni almost looked away, but Bucky looked over and caught her eye, then smiled.

Her breath caught in her throat. His smile widened, as if he could tell, but there was just a little bit of hesitation to his expression, as if he were unsure of what to think of all this.

Well fuck, that made two of them. Three, she amended, as Steve shifted back towards the fire, obviously deep in thought.

Toni looked around, taking stock of everyone, especially Dugan, who looked both elated and terrified, probably wanting to drop everything and run back to Peggy, sweep her up in his arms like he did when Toni had been a child, and talk everything out.

War fucking sucked, for more than the obvious reasons. And she hadn't even seen a sliver of this one.

Toni sighed, tapping her fingers on her arc reactor as she closed her eyes, suddenly more tired than she'd been in a while.

I'm getting too old for this shit.

Chapter Text

November 23rd, 1944, 10:00am, the Western Front, near Aachen, Germany

Getting past the German line had been the easy part, Toni knew.

It might've taken them more than a day to travel to the front if they hadn't been motivated to get there as soon as possible, but it had been near enough. They'd spent the bulk of a whole day traveling to the line, by truck and on foot, and then they'd barely slept even after that was done. There were lives at stake, sensitive information at risk, and ties of friendship to honor.

The roads had been filled with American, Canadian, and Polish troops, preparing for the German push—the Battle of the Bulge, Toni had said it would become known as—into the Ardennes, and the Howling Commandos would have gotten mired down if they'd stayed with their transport truck, much the same as many of the others were finding. So they'd traveled as close as they could to the Front and then ditched the truck to begin trekking through the forests on foot.

They'd waited until nightfall for the actual crossing, when they would have the most cover. They had all worn their most muted colors—Steve, especially, had made sure the shield was covered in burlap over his back, his leather jacket done up tightly—though they were certainly not as camouflaged as they could be, considering a number of them were still wearing dark blues and reds, and Dugan's recognizable hat was in its ever-present spot on top of his head. They were the Howling Commandos, however, and they didn't need to be completely camouflaged. They were just that good, and besides: they far preferred force over stealth.

Stealth, though, was in order for this mission, and thus the long and very silent trek across the German lines. They didn't stop until they were a long way away, and even then they stayed alert until taking a quick nap in the pre-dawn and early dawn hours.

It had been a long fucking night, in other words. A long fucking couple of days, really, but it had all been pretty easy until last night. Not that Toni thought they'd been close to being spotted, not really, but it was the closest to the enemy she'd been since that Hydra base in Italy, nearly two weeks ago.

And God, but she could barely believe it had only been two weeks, rather than the lifetime it felt like, sometimes. Away from home, away from her family.

But they were here, finally—here being the wreck of Captain Samantha Schofield's Beechcraft Model 18 aircraft. It had split in two pieces on contact, other than the part of the tail which had obviously been the cause of their rapid, uncontrolled descent into enemy territory. What had possessed them to fly so close, Toni would never understand, but then again, so much of this war still felt so distant to her. As she walked around the wreck of the aircraft, she wrestled down the feeling that she was an outsider.

That this war wasn't hers.

But it was… wasn't it? She'd always been connected to this through her father, through her love of Captain America and the Howling Commandos, and now, well—now she was marked, connected, soulmated to an essential part of the war. Never mind the fact that she was here, in the flesh, living this alongside her heroes.

Looking down at the cold, nearly-frozen bodies of the S.S.R. flight crew definitely drove that home.

Seven.

Seven women dead, two men. Nine people shot dead, left where they fell. Nine. But there was room for one more in the cabin.

"She's not here," Steve announced. "None of these women are Sam." The use of her given name was the only thing betraying his distress. He, Bucky, and Dugan were obviously close to the woman, from what she could tell, and not finding her here, even if finding her here meant she was dead, was both a wonderful and a horrifying thing. Because—

"They musta taken her," Bucky said as he came up beside Toni, knocking his shoulder lightly against hers in that way he did with all the Howlies—but most often with Steve… and now her. They'd spent most of the day yesterday traveling in their large truck towards the Western front, the German line just their side of the German border, and it had afforded them some time to be more at ease with each other.

It had mostly been Bucky, but there had been a few occasions where Steve had joined them in the back, when he hadn't been up front either driving or navigating, or talking with the division leaders they encountered on their slow slog across the frozen, muddy roads of the Ardennes Forest.

All three of them had somehow managed to avoid talking about Dugan and Peggy's new mark; what it would mean for them as a triad—which, honestly, she was sorta glad for right now, because she sure as shit didn't wanna talk about it yet. But that didn't mean they'd been avoiding each other.

No, in fact, Toni was pleasantly surprised at the way the two men had been treating her, at how often they sought out her presence. Bucky had been at her side the most yesterday, and she was really rather… taken with the man. Not even in a romantic or sexual sense—but boy did she ever struggle to shove that down, because that man, both of them, were just… fuck her, they were hot, and they were kind and intelligent and goddamn heroes is what they were, but she wasn't going to just out and say all that, no sirree. She was going to be a good girl. But in the meantime, her respect for them grew, despite their rocky start.

They were trying. They really were. They apologized at least four times in the first hour yesterday, and by the advent of the fifth one Toni just started laughing at them both—most particularly Steve, because his earnest face was just all kinds of adorable—and by noon, Bucky had joined her in teasing Steve.

It was… nice, is what it was. In a way, in a lot of ways, it was as if they were seeking her forgiveness. At least, that was a little bit how it seemed, what it felt like. Or rather, she knew it was, but she just… there wasn't all that much to forgive, was there? They had been shaken to their core, and had reacted in a way that was really quite rude and bitchy, and she would've—

Okay, so, maybe she wouldn't have reacted the same if she were in their shoes, but she didn't know how to put herself in their shoes, so it really was a moot point on whether she would've reacted the same way or not. She knew how she would react, but not how she'd react if she had lived the same lives as they had.

And, well… she was more at ease with them than she had been ever since arriving in this godforsaken wasteland of the past. So… she was going to let things play out. She forgave them—mostly; there was still a part of her that wanted to rant and rage at them and she wasn't entirely sure that she wouldn't do that at some point—and they were starting to patch things up, little by little, and find what worked for them.

What surprised her… or, well, maybe not, considering she had spent her entire childhood hearing about them and their exploits, and learning more and more about them as she grew older… But, no, it did still surprise her, that she actually liked them. Kind. Intelligent. Even funny. And absolutely willing to listen to her tell stories about her life.

"So, this Pepper, she was your personal assistant first, an' then…" Bucky raised one eyebrow at her, a smirk tugging at his lips.

Toni was absolutely sure that the flush staining her cheeks pink was from the cold. "Uh, well it sort of happened together, but I made her CEO of my company because she's seriously brilliant and far better at the business things—I just like to make things, really, that's what I'm best at, though sometimes I help fight the sharks on the board down—and she's just so much more together than I am, always on top of things…"

"And then she became your girlfriend somewhere in there?" Steve clarified.

Toni scrunched her nose at him. "Yup. A little after. It was good while it lasted, but she and I make better friends than lovers. You guys aren't too squicked by that?" She just couldn't help testing them.

"No? Why would we be?" Steve replied immediately, sounding genuinely confused.

"Doll, we're together, even if no one really knows it," Bucky added in right away, "and we're in a multi-racial combat group, which still really ain't done in this war but they can take a hike. And, I mean, the Heathers ain't super secretive about the fact that a number of them go steady or fool around a little somethin' sometimes. So… no?"

"Okay," Toni said with a smile, something inside of her easing a little more. She grinned. "Did you know gay marriage is on the cusp of being legalized in the 21st century?"

Steve startled. "What?" he croaked.

Her grin grew. "I mean, it's bound to happen soon, there's been so much change, so much push for it. It's been decriminalized for ages, being together, then a bunch of laws repealed too, though not everywhere, even if they don't enforce it much. And same-gender soulmates are an acknowledged part of society, along with triads and even more than that, even if they are still rare, are becoming a little less marginalized. It's honestly amazing."

"Tell us more?" Bucky asked quietly, but intensely.

She obliged—gladly.

Toni smiled a little at Bucky in return as she pulled herself out of the memory. There had been a lot of good moments on the boring drive, and that had been just one of them. They were getting more comfortable with each other, and it was, plain and simple, nice.

Toni Stark could do with more nice in her life, honestly.

"So what does our great and powerful leader say?" Toni asked.

Bucky pushed his shoulder a little bit harder against hers, and she wasn't entirely sure he was aware he was doing so as he looked down at the body she'd been standing above.

It wasn't pretty. None of this was pretty, and she was reminded again why she'd halted weapons production. Because fuck.

"There're tracks leadin' further into Germany," Bucky started slowly. "Steve's pretty sure they've got Sam, 'specially since we don't see her here, and we know she was here because some of her things are in the passenger hold still."

"We going in?" she asked quietly.

He paused a moment and then nodded. "Yeah. We're gonna break here for a quick lunch, take stock a lil' more, and then we're gonna follow the trail in until we find her. Captain's orders."

"Good," was all she got out before she heard someone yell out—

"Germans! Germans in the woods!"


 

Gabe's shout cut through the thoughts that had been gathering in Bucky's mind as he looked at the trashed plane and the tableau of death in front of him.

He and Toni immediately reached for their weapons and put the plane at their backs even as they crouched down low, trying to make themselves less of a target. It was hard since neither of them knew where the enemies would be coming from, but Gabe hadn't specified a direction, so it was probably a safe bet that they were surrounded.

They'd been careful coming in, careful to set watch as they checked out the plane, but these woods were old growth, an ancient forest, deep and dark even with half the trees denuded of leaves, and it was easy to sneak up on someone—or to get snuck up on.

Plus, the Germans obviously knew this was an important plane and someone would come looking—they'd taken the most valuable member of the crew, someone who was known to the Germans and Hydra alike.

So, all in all, it wasn't that surprising that this entire clearing had been an ambush. They'd known there was a good chance of it going in, but it wasn't something they hadn't faced before. They'd had a fair mix of being caught in ambushes, though more often than not it was the Howling Commandos doing said ambushing.

"I've got your nine," Toni said, loud enough to be heard over the gunfire that was starting to come from all around, echoing off the metal of the plane at their backs. There was only a slight breathlessness to her voice, but no shaking. Good. He knew she could handle herself in a gunfight—boy did he ever, after that epic fight at the Hydra base in Italy—but she hadn't been surprised back then; she'd known what she was getting into.

No one could ever really be prepared for their first ambush, not really. But, then again, Bucky reminded himself a little detachedly, he was pretty damn sure this wasn't her first time being ambushed.

"I got twelve and three," he replied calmly, opening his bond just a little more with Steve, letting his soulmate's emotions flow over him, but not so much that they risked being overwhelmed like the last time he'd been careless.

Steve was to his right and a little behind their side of the aircraft, and probably running into the forest to hunt down their enemies one by one, as quickly as he could with the shield, just like he always did in situations like this.

He caught movement in the woods directly ahead of him. "Four to our front."

She immediately came back with, "Three to this side."

"Shit," he bit out. Too many, and they were too exposed. "We need t'—"

"Get cover," Toni finished for him, and he wasn't even mad she'd cut him off.

"Inside?" He looked over his shoulder and caught sight of the rip in the plane's fuselage, nearly eight feet to their right.

He heard a grunt from her direction and glanced over quickly. She nodded at him, her lips thin, and then looked at their advancing targets.

"I'm movin'," Bucky said, but not before taking the time to aim with his rifle at the closest target, still a good forty yards out. Pistols could only do so much. The man went down with a bullet between his eyes before he could duck behind the next nearest tree in the sparse clearing. As he went down, though, his submachine gun, an MP40, it looked like, went off and sprayed bullets towards him and Toni in a short, but dangerous, spray. They pinged off the metal between the two of them before the magazine ran dry, and he focused on Toni's hard breathing before she let one out in a long breath.

Her own rifle went off, once, twice... five times in quick succession, only to be immediately replaced by her voice.

"Two out of three down, I'm behind you, go," she gasped. "Fuck."

"You alright?" he asked, even as he started laying down suppressing fire, careful to preserve ammo but also not wanting to die.

"Yup, just peachy, go, come on, we don't got all day," she retorted.

"I'm movin'," he grumbled good-naturedly, feeling adrenaline zinging through his system as he let out a grin.

Damn, but she was fun in a firefight. Fiery dame indeed. Little spitfire, just like those beautiful British fighter planes. Deadly as one, too, it seemed.

He listened carefully for his friends as he moved quickly towards the split in the downed aircraft, able to place all except Steve and Dugan. He wasn't worried about Steve, though, since he knew he was alright, even if pissed off underneath a layer of battle calmness, and Dum Dum could take care of himself. Still, though, it would be good to have them all in front of his eyes again, so he could make sure.

More pinging on the metal and something that sounded like glass getting crushed, but Toni nudged him with her elbow—it was shaking, but he honestly didn't blame her—before he could look behind him.

She was okay. Good. He was really starting to like her in his life, starting to like getting to know her. He'd be more than pissed if someone took his soulmate away. Whatever they were to each other beyond that, that was for them all to choose, but he knew she was that at the very least.

Brushing that thought aside so he could focus, Bucky picked off one more before he made it to the split, but then caught sight of a black-clad individual quickly making his way towards them, a blue weapon raised—but the man, the Hydra soldier because who the fuck else dressed in black, didn't make a move to shoot them. Not with that weapon, at least. Instead, the Hydra soldier lifted a pistol and started taking shots at him and Toni.

Capture, then. That's what their goal was.

You'd think they'd learn by now, this being the Howling Commandos. They'd kicked Hydra's asses all across Europe by this point, even if their leadership still managed to evade them.

Not for long, with Toni's knowledge backing them.

He ducked inside as a bullet whizzed by his ear, immediately leaning around the edge to cover as Toni ran the last few feet inside.

In the meantime, it would do to not get shot.

As soon as Toni threw herself against one of the crates on the ground, he pulled back inside for a breather. He grinned at her, and she grinned right back. She had a hand to her chest and her breaths were coming heavy, but she was grinning like an idiot too.

"One more of your original four, and the Hydra bastard," she announced happily.

Bucky raised his eyebrow at that. "Damn, ya finished off three more while I was nappin'?"

She laughed, loud and happy. "Nah, I was just letting you do the hard part of acting as bait," she teased.

Bucky sketched a little bow that made her grin widen, but quickly moved back to full cover as bullets flew through the open space between the two of them.

"You sorta—"

"Yeah, yeah, I know," he grumped. He'd definitely gotten a little too out in the open there.

"Okay, nap time's over," Toni announced, pushing herself up with a grunt and a stagger.

It was only then that Bucky noticed the blood staining the left side of her pants. Her clothes were dark enough that he couldn't tell exactly where it was coming from, whether it was from her leg or from higher up, but it didn't goddamn matter because she was bleeding. Somewhere, she was bleeding, and he hadn't even picked up on it.

Toni caught his gaze as it wrenched up to hers, and she glared at him. "No time."

"But—"

"And don't even try to tell me to sit down, because you wouldn't say this to any of the others." She pushed herself over towards the opening and looked out again before ducking back inside with a wince.

"You're right, I'm sorry," he said with a nod, because she was. He wouldn't say that to any of the other Howling Commandos, never mind super soldier Steve, unless they were in danger, and so far she was on her feet and wasn't looking too pale or in too much pain.

She could hold her own, she'd already proven. Plus, she'd taken down basically every one of their original seven while he'd been, well, yes, being bait, essentially. His lips curled up a little at that, because just the reminder of their bantering was enough to make him smile. He really liked her, oh boy.

She caught him smiling as she ducked back in, and curled her lips up in response. "You wanna get the last of yours then we can both get the crazy dude who's about to open fire on us with whatever the fuck that is? Because he's about to roast us."

"Alright, so I guess we don't really rate for capture then. That gives us very little time," he groaned dramatically.

"Chop chop," Toni smirked, but her expression faltered as she slung her rifle back over her shoulder and around her back.

Bucky moved up and took a chance, stepping wide and shooting almost immediately, trusting his instincts to nail the last German soldier, all within a mere few seconds. He went down without a hitch, but the Hydra soldier was raising his blue energy weapon, ready to roast him.

Before he could shift his rifle over to roast him right back, a beam of white-yellow light shot out from over Bucky's shoulder, behind him, and took out the Hydra soldier before the faceless man could even get off a single shot of his own blue beam.

"Well shit," Toni said loudly into the silence that was starting to descend around them, only a few sporadic yells along with the odd gunfire coming from the other side of the plane.

"Damn, doll, what is that?" he crowed as he turned around. "That was amazing!"

"It's just…" she started, but cut herself off as she started pulling apart the buttons of her shirt, practically ripping it open in her haste. He noticed her mechanical gauntlet unwinding itself from around her hand, and figured he had a pretty good idea what the answer to his question was. It could wait, anyway.

Bucky kept one eye on their surroundings, and one eye on her, watching for any sign of injury as she slowly started to unveil a stretch of bare skin.

Toni stopped, staring down at the brilliant blue disc in her chest—her arc reactor, she called it, and it kept her alive—and fell still and silent.

His eyes swept over it and her skin for any sign of injury, but he couldn't… wait.

"Fuck," Bucky breathed as he slung his own weapon around his back, moving to her side as he noticed Dernier and Falsworth walking around to their side of the aircraft. He could focus all his attention on her now, as he pulled her further into the, albeit overcast, sunlight to get a better look. "Is that…?"

"Yeah, it's cracked. Splintered. Something not very good," she muttered angrily. "I should've been more careful!" Her eyes lifted to his and there was fire and venom in them, but Bucky suspected a lot of it was aimed at herself.

Probably way too much, but he was pretty sure that he shouldn't say anything about that right that moment. Plus, there were more important things to focus on. He could deal with her self-hatred another time.

"Come on, let's get you looked over and then we gotta move. The gunfire will have alerted anyone within hearing distance, and that's a pretty decent bit of ground, even if we are already behind their lines." He wrapped his arm behind her back and around her shoulders and gripped her closest elbow with his free hand.

She flinched, but Bucky had already known going in that she would since he was pressing himself up against the side of her that was bleeding. A flash of pain came through what had to be her bond with him, before she tightened it down on her side and he could no longer feel a thing—a part of him was starting to desperately miss that piece of her he'd been privy to.

"Let's get ya moving," he said instead. "I know it hurts, but you're a tough dame and I know you can handle this. Come on, Toni."

"I'm fine, I'm fine," she snapped, but Bucky didn't take it to heart. Hell, Dernier and Morita got mighty pissy themselves when they had the smallest cut.

This was cake in comparison, as his ma would say.

He grinned and started to distract Toni with tales of his ma, not even stopping when they passed Falsworth and Dernier, who turned to follow them as Bucky nodded in the direction of the gear they'd left on the ground near some rocks on the other side of the plane.

Bucky was kneeling in front of Toni, in the middle of his story about his ma beating old Mr. Farrow over the head with her broom when she'd caught him stealing the sweets she'd made for her children, way back before the Depression hit, when Steve showed up by his side.

Steve pressed his knee against the back of Bucky's arm in that casual way they had with each other, even though he didn't need to actually touch him for Bucky to know that he was there. He could just tell, bond opened or not, it seemed.

Steve didn't say a word, breathing in and out deeply as he calmed the fury still roiling around inside him, listening to Bucky finish his story. Bucky embellished the last bit, just to soothe and distract his soulmate all the more, even as he made motions with his hands for Toni to untuck her different shirts after he'd unbuttoned her coat for her.

Steve hissed as he saw the blood, grabbing the first aid kit and kneeling beside Toni to look at the deep furrow in her side, but waiting for her to nod her permission before putting his hands on her. She did, and then melted just a little into what Bucky knew were Steve's very warm and capable hands.

"Thank you," was all she said, and quietly at that. She was more preoccupied with the impact site on the glass of her arc reactor than on paying attention to the alcohol Steve was pressing against her side with a gauze pad, though she did let out a hiss at first contact.

"Pass me my bag, will you?" she asked Bucky finally. "I need my toolkit. Can't do much about it but I can at least get the stupid bullet outta the glass."

Bucky didn't like it, considering he knew it was what was keeping her alive, but he'd have to trust her to let them know what she needed to make it right. And, well, he could always push if it looked like things weren't going okay with the arc reactor.

He'd be sure to keep an eye out for any signs—he wasn't sure what he'd be looking for, but he was sure he'd figure it out soon enough if need be.

"I'm just glad you're okay," Steve finally said, the first words out of his mouth since he'd arrived. He was quiet, calmer than Bucky expected, but he could also tell that Steve was holding a lot back. Exactly what, he wasn't privy to, but he knew Steve, and knew how he reacted to seeing anyone get shot, let alone… well.

Let alone Toni.

Because she was sure as hell somewhere above friend right now, at least in their eyes, if what they were feeling was any indication.

He was only a little bit surprised at that.

"She took out five of them, Stevie, you shoulda seen it!" Bucky exclaimed. "It was amazing. She was amazing!" He grinned up at Toni as he passed her the tool kit that had been strapped to the front of her pack. She looked a little… shocked at his words, honestly, and Bucky narrowed his eyes at her.

Okay, so definitely self-hatred then. Or something. Self-deprecation, at the very least. But he could be patient. He would wait. He would work on her, because she really was something else, and she deserved to know that she was appreciated.

She cast her eyes downward and breathed for a second or two before digging into her bag, choosing to ignore the look Bucky had been giving her. Instead, Bucky caught Steve's gaze, shaking his head from side to side. They'd let it be, for the moment. But still, Bucky was glad to see the appreciation in his partner's eyes.

As she started to dig away at the bullet with some pliers from her bag, Steve finished wrapping a bandage around her midriff as expeditiously as he could, checking that it was all secure before he pulled her shirt back down, though he left her jacket unbuttoned so she could work without being disturbed. He stood up then, and nodded for Bucky and Dum Dum to join him.

"Hydra," he practically spit out.

Yep, there was the fire that had been hidden behind professionalism.

"Alongside regular Germans," Dum Dum added as he chewed on a new, albeit unlit, cigar.

"Not their usual, but not uncommon either," Bucky said.

"What did you find with the officer, Cap?" Dum Dum asked. "We had an officer and two grunts alongside nearly two dozen Germans over on our side," he explained to Bucky.

"Seven and a grunt," Bucky reported easily.

"Gabe got a little graze on his leg but he's fixing himself up right quick," the man added as he fixed his hat.

Bucky nodded at the information, casting his eyes about until they landed on the man in question and ensuring he was walking as best he could, given the situation.

"He'll be fine to get out of here," Steve said. "I already checked it over myself. But we'll make sure to keep an eye on him—on both of them, when we make camp tonight. We'll follow the trail out of here, out towards Aachen. Some intel suggested possible Hydra activity there a while back, at one of their factories, and their presence here just proves it." His eyes flashed and he ground his teeth together in a habit Bucky was trying to break him of.

"Anything on them?" Bucky reiterated Dum Dum's question instead. Steve's habits were a lost cause.

"A notepad and a letter on the officer," Steve replied, pulling them out of one of his jacket pockets. He passed the letter over to Bucky, the notepad to Dum Dum.

"It's in code," Bucky said after running his eyes over just a few lines.

He traded with Dum Dum and the other man quickly concurred.

Steve sighed. "Yeah, that's what I figured."

"Code?" came Toni's voice, from behind Steve. She reached around the blond and plucked the letter from out of Dum Dum's hands; he simply raised his eyebrows at her, practically putting them right into the band of his hat. "Huh," she said after a moment, then wandered off with the letter still in hand.

Steve turned around to blink, jaw dropping—his jaw was definitely hanging loose, and Bucky wouldn't let him live it down—at Toni, and all Bucky and Dum Dum could do was laugh at the absurdity of the situation.

It definitely helped that they were all safe, though, because mixed in with the absurdity was some relief. Relief that they were okay, even if a little scraped and bruised, and even though they were about to have to dodge and run from Germans and Hydra alike until who knew when.

They were as safe as war would let them be, and that was enough.

For now, at least. But, well, they were working on that.

Chapter Text

November 23rd, 1944, 10:30pm, just outside Aachen, Germany

Toni wanted to drop to the ground like a rock into a pond when they finally came to a stop for the night. She was tired, sore, tired, in pain, tired, and fucking freezing.

They had been pushing for nearly twelve hours straight once they finally left the site of the ambush, half of those in nearly full darkness. The going had been fast during the daylight hours so as to avoid any nearby soldiers coming to check on the commotion, and then they'd slowed down during the dark hours, once the sun had set, so as to avoid patrols more effectively, without the use of a single light.

Having your very own super soldier with special night vision was quite helpful with that, but even so, they had been slowed to a near crawl in some places, when the underbrush became too thick or treacherous, or when they realized that Toni was not a super soldier, nor a commando who'd had extensive time in the field to build muscles Toni hadn't even realized existed.

After one too many a time where she'd come inches from walking into a tree trunk or faceplanting right into the leaves at her feet when she tripped over a branch she couldn't even see when she picked herself up and literally looked for it, they took pity on the poor mortal in their midst. Dernier, who'd been by her side for most of the dark hours, had smiled understandingly at her before indicating that she should wait, and that he would return shortly. She'd taken the time to poke at the graze on her side, thankfully numb from the cold but also feeling hot to the touch, and also taken the chance to sip at her canteen.

Within minutes, Bucky—who'd been ranging far ahead with Steve, being the only one who seemed even remotely capable of keeping up with the super soldier—had appeared out of the darkness, taken one look at her disgruntled face, and muttered, "Sorry, doll, we forget sometimes."

She wasn't sure if he'd been referring to him and Steve, or if he'd meant the Howling Commandos as a whole.

In other places, both at night and during the daylight hours of that afternoon, they'd had to lie low and try to make as little sound as possible to avoid detection as a patrol passed, sometimes within inches of them.

The tension had been insane in spots—and yet, Toni almost threw herself into a giggle fit when she thought of the Nazgul nearly catching the hobbits in The Fellowship of the Ring. It was… oddly fitting, and the thought was bittersweet, yet she'd still barely been able to contain her laughter; instead she'd let out a sharp breath through her nostrils, and even that much noise had seemed like a whip crack in the near silent, wintry forest.

But they'd made it, and they'd continued on, same as they'd been doing for hours.

Toni had been preoccupied for much of it with what to do about her arc reactor if it got worse—while telling herself not to think about it, also.

She hadn't been that successful, to be quite honest.

The prospect filled her with dread, and she was still feeling it as she swayed on her feet with exhaustion in the late hours of the night. She could, and would, die if it failed, and she didn't think there was anything in the past that would be able to keep her from that fate if it came to pass—besides another fucking car battery, which she supposed she could pull from any of the vehicles they passed. But that brought up a whole host of issues to go along with them, not least of which being that a) she would need help, and all these big lugs had big hands, for one thing, b) she didn't have any of the necessary tools, let alone out here, and c) her arc reactor wasn't really equipped to be hooked up to a car battery anymore. She hadn't ever thought that she would need to, when she was crafting it.

Because fuck that noise.

Well, if she survived this, she knew better now. Car battery hookup on version 3.0, check.

Toni brushed aside her exhaustion, telling herself she could sleep when she was dead but that she needed to pull her weight right now, and followed along as she helped the others set up a makeshift, low to the ground shelter, camouflaging the area with a mix of dead leaves, fallen trunks, branches, and rocks. Obviously, the men had a lot of experience at this, and Toni mainly stuck to gathering items requested with words voiced barely louder than a gentle speaking voice.

There would be no fire, either, that much was clear, even with the night pressing down on them hard and cold. They were in the midst of their enemy's stronghold now.

Toni pulled her sleeves down a little further to cover her hands—she wanted to dig out her gloves, but hadn't had time to do so yet, and really, she was being kinda lazy—and let her mind wander a little more again.

"Sooo, who was your favorite Commando?" Bucky asked with a sly grin, trying to bring some humor back into the solemn silence that had fallen over them, hard to break even when they'd come to a stop to rest briefly before carrying on. They'd been keeping quiet for so long that the words startled Toni a little, and she blinked owlishly at him and Steve as they flopped to the cold ground in front of her, the men's fingertips brushing before tangling together. She wasn't even sure if they were aware.

Toni blinked a couple of times, but then came back with a wicked grin of her own. "Well. God, don't get me started on how closely I guarded my Bucky Bear as a kid—" the man in question groaned while Steve practically cackled, "and Aunt Peg, who absolutely counts and you know it, has always been both the closest thing I had to family and larger than life, stranger than fiction… While everyone here has their qualities, and I could extoll their virtues in a manner most creepy, I…"

And here she came to a stuttering stop, realizing that though she'd planned to treat this as a joke, she really couldn't. Because her next words would matter so much more than most anything she'd say in her life, and she needed to choose them with care.

She was also sort of… scared to open herself up again, even if things were going a lot better between her and the boys. But it wasn't just them—it was her too. She'd never really told anyone this, nobody except Peggy in part and Rhodey in full. Not even Pepper had known. It was… a weakness she learned to hide quite quickly as a child.

A skill one learned quickly in the Stark household.

Toni took a moment to pull her hair down from the messy ponytail it had been in, and started to french braid it with practiced ease as she thought carefully. "Um… I… Steve was. Is. Uh," she fumbled, feeling suddenly awkward. Apparently her normally babbling mouth and ability to always find something to say failed her in the face of their earnest, curious expressions.

Dead. She was so dead.

"Doll," Bucky started, but apparently that was what she needed to kickstart her brain—or mouth—so she rolled her eyes and cut in,

"Throughout my childhood, I didn't have a lot, even when surrounded by everything and anything money could buy," Toni started slowly, gaining speed as she caught Steve's eyes and held them, daring him without words to break the gaze first. Or to call her out on being a rich kid, like so many others liked to do. He did neither.

"That's a whole lot of stupid to unpack right now, so suffice it to say that I latched on to what I could. I threw myself into my studies, into inventing, for one thing, but the other thing I had was Captain America." Her gaze softened a little as Steve's did.

"But not just the jacked super soldier Captain America that my dad was obsessed with, and yeah, that's still weird, I know," she drawled wryly and flicked her eyes at Bucky, who was trying to contain the weird look on his face. "I latched on to him, sure, but what I couldn't get enough of was who you were before then, before the war, before Rebirth. I wanted to know what kept you going, so I could keep going. What got you up in the mornings, what you held onto to get through your days, what you told yourself to make it through one more bedridden night alive when no one thought you could."

Silence fell between them, and Toni realized everyone was looking at her. Everyone had heard what she'd intended only for two to hear. She fought off her blush, instead meeting everyone's eyes as she slowly stood up, trying to conceal her wince as her side speared with pain.

"Dad always told me that if Captain America could push beyond his limits and become a hero, then I could push beyond mine and become, well, what he wanted me to be. But that wasn't the real message behind Captain America, was it?"

No one said a word.

"It wasn't even the message behind Steve Rogers. He had it all wrong, right from the get-go… but I didn't. I saw."

She left the fact that she still sees unsaid.

Toni smiled to herself, albeit rather tiredly, as she was pulled from the memory—somewhat inconceivably already one of her most favorite, despite the heavy connection to her past, but it was—by Falsworth holding out to her a bag of what looked like jerky. Yup, she thought as she grabbed a strip and bit into it. Definitely jerky, though at least it was rather tasty and not super dry.

Well. Time to get cracking.

Toni undid the top few buttons of her jacket and all of her shirts except the last layer, so that the small sliver of light she let out didn't shine so brightly and let enemies within a whole damn mile know where they were. She pulled both the notebook and the letter from out of her front pocket, unfolding the latter and peering down at it with a critical eye. Parts of it she was sure she'd figured out, but she needed the time to look it over properly—and, unfortunately, they'd had barely any of it the entire way here. She was exhausted, so much more than she'd ever been outside of Afghanistan, and wanted to fall asleep—and that was as a big an indicator that something was wrong as anything, seriously—but this took priority.

Everything was encrypted—or, rather, in cipher—though there was a date at the top that clearly read November 21st, and a short signature near the bottom that was scrawled and, frankly, rather ugly and illegible. The handwriting was in one of those blasted scripts the Germans had been so fond of these last decades, but something of which she'd become sort of passing familiar with after all those many, many hours spent with her father's collection. It had been years, but the letters became clearer to her as she got used to them.

Her German was a mite rusty, too, but at least reading was easier than speaking… even if, so far, it was all a jumbled mess of some sort of code. But when she did decode it, at least she'd know what she was looking at.

Hopefully.

Toni let a small sliver more of her arc reactor's light spill onto the page in her hands as she chewed on another piece of jerky—honestly, she had zero clue how she'd gotten her hands on another, or who had given it to her, but hopefully she'd said thanks.

… Probably not.

"Alright J, look alive. We gotta keep it quiet, but what are we looking at here?" she whispered.

"I wouldn't know, miss," J.A.R.V.I.S. replied just as quietly from her wrist. "I do not have eyes, nor, in fact, a camera to act as my eyes."

"Oh quit your sass," Toni replied fondly, though her eyes were still roving over the page. She'd missed hearing his voice, however, and took a moment simply to revel in that before continuing. "I've got a puzzle for us to solve, and I can't seem to make it out fully for myself. Hm. So, let's see… I'll list off the letters in order and then we'll go through it together, but I think it's a polyalphabetic cipher. Too few patterns for anything else, unless I'm totally off my mark. I figured out some of it earlier, so it shouldn't be much work. I hope."

The slight rustling noises and the movement in her peripherals faded into the background as she and J.A.R.V.I.S. bent to their task.

A good fifteen or so minutes later—maybe, Toni wasn't entirely sure and didn't really care, but J had definitely made the process easier and, thus, faster—the words started to form a coherent message.

"Fucking Holocaust," Toni swore as she read the words unveiled to her. It was only when she noticed the others looking at her through the dim light of the moon that she realized she'd spoken a bit too loudly. "Sorry," she muttered. Waving at Steve and Bucky, she motioned for the two of them to come closer.

"I've got something," Toni said, then resumed pressing her lips tightly together until they sat on either side of her on the log she'd been perched on, shoulders brushing against hers as they looked at what she was holding.

"So," Toni said, brandishing the pencil she'd pulled from her pocket and tapping it against the back of the letter, where she'd written the decrypted text in German. "This can wait a second. First, though—" She thumbed open the notepad to the right spot. "I haven't read most of this because I started in the back. Figured that was the most recent info. They have Sam, like we thought."

Steve and Bucky both let out soft sighs of relief, pushing against her more closely, but not as stiffly. Toni let herself relax into it, enjoying the contact even if she shouldn't.

"See, it mentions one prisoner brought in for questioning to what has to be the Aachen facility, from an aircraft, female, only survivor, and high-ranking known associate of the S.S.R. and Captain America both," she pointed to each word as she translated it out loud.

"Okay," Steve said, sounding calm and in control, though steel laced his voice. "At least we know that she's alive."

"Yeah," Bucky added. "But where? The place is probably as big as…" He trailed off, and Toni didn't even stop to think before she placed a hand on his knee, squeezing tightly in an effort to be reassuring.

Her heart nearly beat right out of her chest—and she could swear she heard it thumping against the arc reactor casing, but that was impossible and she was being a dramatic bitch—when Steve reached around her back with one arm, resting it on the part of Bucky's shoulder that was brushing up against hers. She had never been more hyper aware of two people's proximity in her lifeNever.

"Sorry," Bucky said quietly, and she squeezed his knee all the harder, rubbing her thumb back and forth over the rough cloth of his pants. "I know it's been long enough I should be over—"

"No," Toni interrupted. "Don't be sorry. And don't think you need to be all stoic and shit after something like that happened to you. It may have been a while, but you're human, and we're all different, and thus we all heal at different rates—or so my therapist tells me," she added with a wry twist of her lips. She turned slightly, catching Bucky's eyes through the darkness and the faint blue glow filling the space between them. "I may not be all that together, myself, but I know PTSD—shell shock—when I see it. And there's no shame in it," she quickly added, "but I know how things are these days, and I'll keep it to myself. Just know you don't have to hide that side of yourself from me unless you want to. I can't judge. I've got enough shell shock to keep a host of shrinks rolling in dough for the rest of their lives."

Bucky smiled at her, but there was still a deep sadness in his eyes that she wanted to wipe away however she could.

But she wouldn't. She couldn't. She couldn't let herself, because that… that was a dangerous slope.

So, of course, she shoved all of the feelings she knew she shouldn't have to the side and focused on what should be her next words, looking down and away and swiveling back towards center on her seat, sandwiched between the two of them.

She took her hand away, and Steve dropped his, and she felt barren.

Empty.

"Now," she began again after a moment of collecting herself. "This letter. Can't tell who the fuck wrote it but it looks like a message sent out to more than one officer, copied out by hand. Hydra did that shit in the war, I remember, not wanting to trust their ideology to the encryption machines that the Nazis were using unless needing to issue out messages ASAP. Uh, so yeah, this is a pretty heavy letter, but we already knew most of what's mentioned. Or, at least, I did."

Steve shifted at her side, and she cast a look in his direction. He gave her a sheepish grin and stilled, though he quickly reverted to some level of impatience.

Well, she couldn't blame him.

"So the stuff we didn't know, first, and probably the most important for us right now… This spot here?" she poked it with the other end of her pencil, indicating the words near the bottom. "It looks like Zola's in Aachen."

That got their attention.

Not that they weren't paying attention before, but there had been a certain level of relaxation to their bodies before—though more like big, lazing predator cats than lazy couch potatoes—but at her words they were on high alert.

"He is?" Steve asked, loudly.

"Shh!" Bucky hissed, though honestly not that much quieter than his mate.

"Shut up, both of you," Toni whispered, quieter than the noises just starting to come out of Steve's throat, but thankfully they both stilled and shut up.

"Thank you," she added, primly. "Look here. It references the Großmeister, which the S.S.R. figured out was Zola some time ago, right?" They nodded, though Steve looked like he was one second away from interrupting, so she continued with a roll of her eyes. "Anyway, it doesn't give a date, but since this thing is dated two days ago, I'd say he's arrived already or will soon, but that's about as clear as it gets on that topic. But," she threw in quickly to keep them moving, "there is some mention of a… Project… I feel ridiculous but what is that word?"

"Winter," Bucky said from about shoulder height as he leaned in to get a closer look, chin pressing against her forearm.

Oh my god she was going to die all on her own from self-combustion before a bullet could do her in.

"Okay, yeah, duh, sorry," she whispered, voice a little strained to start. "So, some mention of a Project Winter he wants to recommence as soon as possible, and he'll need—" She stopped suddenly, all too aware of what she was reading.

"Bucky—" Steve started, lifting his hand to his soulmate's back this time.

His arm was warm, pressed against Toni's back, and she couldn't help but to feel like an outsider; like she was in the way. They didn't make her feel like that, not at all… but the tenderness of the situation… shit, she was just in the way. But before she could at least physically remove herself—

"It's okay," Bucky said, a little slowly, pulling himself upright again, and pressing back into the touch of Steve's hand. "I'm fine. I know it wasn't just me; that there were maybe hundreds of others like me. And he's obviously going to want to finish whatever it is he started. And I don't want that to happen to anyone else."

They were silent for a long moment, before Steve queried, "Do you think…"

"Sam," Bucky breathed. "Damn it. Yeah, maybe. And others, obviously, but she's right in the heart of it and we know it."

"We'll get her back," Steve vowed, then straightened himself in his seat again. "What else is there?" he asked Toni, looking closer at the words. "Is that… yeah, that's mention of the bombs you told us about, isn't it?"

"Yeah," Toni replied. "That's what I was cursing about when I first caught all of your attention. Seems Hydra wants to one-up the Nazi's Holocaust, and the bombs are being prepared for the 'perfect moment'—geez, they're dramatic. So, I mean…"

"We might not have as long as you first mentioned," Bucky finished for her.

"Well yeah, unfortunately. But the first week of February is only when they used them in my timeline, not when they were ready. Damn it, that was a little stupid on my part." She shook her head. "I say we look through every piece of intelligence we can in that place when we kick their asses out."

"I like the way you think. Works for me," Steve affirmed with a nod.

"Holocaust?" Bucky said after a moment, as if testing out the feel of the word on his lips and tongue. As if he'd never said it be—

"You don't know about the Holocaust?" Toni asked, just this side of incredulous while still trying to keep quiet.

"The what?" Even Steve sounded a little confused.

Right. That wasn't a super common word even immediately after the war. "The Holocaust. The camps?"

"Yeah, we know about those." Bucky made it sound like a question.

"But you said…" Her eyes widened. "Shit. Shit. Of course. You guys know about them, but you don't know how bad they were. Not yet, at least, I don't think. We grow up learning about these things, part of our collective consciousness; hell, even I managed to absorb that information, despite having my head buried in engines since I was four. We just know. But you guys didn't. You've known about them, but—Shit, I could've told you sooner, helped you find proof, instead I've been—"

"Toni?" Steve interrupted gently, reaching out and wrapping a loose but strong grip around each of her wrists and stilling her frantic movements and rising voice.

"Fuck," she breathed, then drew the air back in with a loud, shaking inhale.

"They kill them. Millions of them. Millions. The Jewish people, the Roma, the disabled, gays and lesbians and anyone who even looks at them sideways, and everyone who stood up against the party for those people. Everyone. Nearly, at least. Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau. Places like this Aachen, probably, though nothing can compare to the extermination camps. Three million, maybe, probably, more in the camps, another three million Jews elsewhere."

"That many?" Bucky asked, looking sick. "That's… Toni, they couldn't have, that's… they couldn't."

Toni could only nod. She felt completely off balance.

Suddenly she found herself pulled towards Steve, his arms wrapping tight around her, though careful of the graze on her side, and she refused to cry—she refused to. But she was fighting a losing battle. Not just because of the topic—no, she was used to that topic, sadly—but also because she was being comforted. She was being held, consoled, shushed soothingly, in a way she hadn't in, in…

Probably forever.

A small part of her was warning her not to get her hopes up, another telling her to relish what little sun shone on her, but the loudest part of her was telling her this had nothing to do with them being soulmates and everything to do with simple, human comfort.

It made it all the more special, since he was doing it because he wanted to.

Not because he felt obligated as a result of some stupid cosmic tie.

"We've known about them for a while," Steve began after a moment, voice rumbling in his chest where it was pressed against her ear. He sounded upset, but he was tightly reining it in, as if once unleashed there would be no calming down. "It's getting the rest of the world to believe it, because so few photographs have made their way out, and even then they're called into question. People think we're inflating the numbers, over-exaggerating any and all firsthand accounts from the mouths of survivors. For the longest time, the American people thought that it was just a ploy by the Allies to pull us into fighting 'their' war for them, and even the European citizens don't want to believe. They don't see, mostly because any time we advance far enough, the camps have been dismantled. But there's still enough knowledge out there that people should see and know. But they don't. They haven't seen things like we have.

"I want to do more. I have done more. But we have teams on it, and the Commandos have been providing distractions as other teams work, and they have worked, to some extent. The Commandos, despite our start, are remarkably not very good at liberating those camps. We get too angry, and we're just not geared that way. I wish we were, but we're not. Going after those in charge, however, especially Hydra, has shown to affect the camps. But we didn't know it was that bad. No one in the intelligence community has ever come close to that estimate, but now… Lord above, I'll make sure someone knows. We'll divert our full force towards them, if you can help us pinpoint some locations."

Toni muttered into the front of his thick jacket.

"What was that?"

"They'll just move them before you get there," Toni mumbled, just a little more clearly and loud enough to hear. "They called them death marches, if I recall correctly. Whenever someone got close, and if they had somewhere to fall back to—i.e. the entirety of Germany—they would march the prisoners out and kill any on the spot who couldn't make the journey. Kill them on the way, too."

"God damn it," she heard Bucky exclaim loudly, frustrated pain in his voice.

"You said it yourself, just now, Steve," Toni pointed out as she pulled herself back, refusing to call attention to her tears by wiping them away. "The dismantled camps. Where do you think all those people go? Back home, where it's safe?" She couldn't help the hint of snideness that had entered her tone. She glanced into her lap where the letter was clenched in her hand, then smoothed it out so that the two of them could see. "You say you didn't know it was that bad? Fuck that. Maybe you didn't, not personally. But someone fucking knows, I can guarantee it. If not the Americans or the Brits or the French, then the Russians knew. Know. Whatever. But I know they all know."

She finally chose to dash the tears off her face, too angry to care.

She stood up suddenly, throwing Steve's arms off of her from where they were wrapped around her. And, apparently, Bucky's—one of his hands had been resting on her knee before she stood up and turned to face them, shaking a little too much for her own sanity but not able to do much about it.

She let the letter fall between them, not even willing to hand someone else something in her state of mind. "There's your proof. Their proof. Whoever's. Hydra thinks that the Nazi extermination hasn't gone far enough, apparently; that the death marches are the beginning of the end and it is time for Hydra to rise to their full potential throughout the world. The world, guys. And those death marches have been going for a while now, so we don't have long. We need to strike, and soon."

A quickdrawn breath of air into her lungs and then she turned around, facing back the way they'd come through the forest. There was a clearing a little ways back, and she needed space, silence, to clear her head. "I need some time alone," she explained curtly. "I'll yell if I need anything. I won't be far."

And she walked off without another word, without another glance back, with just the clothes on her back, her pistol at her side, and a fucked up arc reactor as company.


See, the thing was… the thing was that Toni knew her life could be turned entirely upside down in a matter of seconds. She'd had it happen before, when her parents died, when the IED had blown her Humvee off its wheels, when she'd become Iron Man, when she'd first kissed Pepper—

When her soulmark had appeared.

And now, when she hurried away from her two soulmates, desperate for a moment to herself. Because if she hadn't, she would've done or said something she'd regret—or, rather, that she would really not regret at all, if it meant Steve and Bucky would hold her again.

"Oh, interesting," a voice suddenly intruded on Toni's private, riotous thoughts out of fucking nowhere. "Please, do feel free to push past those pesky moral boundaries you humans insist upon. It'll save me a lot of trouble; I have no desire to bed Amora, and I shan't be made to do so over an ill-advised wager concerning love-struck humans."

"What the fuck," she cursed. "Shit."

She didn't jump—she so fucking jumped—and whirled around, tapping her fingers together to engage her gauntlet, raising her palm as she spun in a slow circle.

She was, for all intents and purposes, alone.

Damn it.

"Where are you?" she demanded, spinning slowly, heart pounding heavily in her chest. "Who are you? The guys are literally five feet away, they'll be here in a split-second."

The voice chuckled, coming from seemingly everywhere. "That would imply they can hear you."

"Listen here, you little fucking shit," she retorted, because fuck if she was gonna take some disembodied, potentially malicious voice's word for it. For all she knew, Steve and Bucky and the others would hear her perfectly well, and they'd come charging over to investigate—backup would be better than getting knifed, even if she risked bringing the Germans down on them. For all she knew this man was a German. He certainly sounded like a movie villain. "I'm fucking tired, and cold, and my goddamned socks are wet, I don't have the patience for this. Show yourself or I am fucking out."

The voice chuckled again, and there, between the trees—a flash of green and gold.

A tall, slim silhouette—a man.

"You're brassy, little mortal," he grinned. "I should introduce you to my brother one day. He has a fondness for… breakable pets."

"Enough games," Toni exclaimed exasperatedly. "Either face me like a man or I'm leaving."

"Ah, but see," the man said, stepping forward into the clearing. "I am no man."

Toni wasn't afraid to admit she gaped a little. He looked… He looked like no one she'd ever seen before. At first glance, she could mistake him for someone with a serious leather fetish, but… but there was more to him. His skin was paler than she'd ever seen on a living person, like smooth alabaster, and his hair was darker even than hers. It was an inky black that was such a sharp contrast to his skin that it almost looked fake, and he was dressed from head to toe in green and black leather with, of all things, gold accents.

This dude wasn't from around here.

"Fine," she said begrudgingly. "I'll play along, Elrond. If not a man, then what are you?"

The man laughed, shaking his head a little. He stood perfectly straight and still, and there was something unnatural about his stillness, something aberrant… something superhuman.

"I suppose to you humans," he said, tilting his head a little to the side as he studied her, like she was a particularly interesting bug. "I am a god. But you, little mortal—you may call me Loki."

"As in the Norse God of Mischief, Loki?" she said incredulously, because… because time travel was one thing, but actual gods… she couldn't help but giggle. Once she'd started, she couldn't stop, and giggling turned into slightly hysterical chuckles and then full-blown laughter, right up until she realized the air surrounding her was tinged with green, and his face was twisted into a fierce scowl, teeth bared into a frightening sneer.

"Do you fear me, little mortal?" Loki hissed, long, slender fingers enshrouded with green motherfucking magic.

"No," she replied curtly, trying her very hardest to not show that at least 12% of her projected confidence was bravura.

It was clearly the wrong thing to say.

Before she could do so much as blink, she was frozen, unable to move, unable to breathe, unable to do anything but watch as he walked up to her, face twisted into an angry glower. "Now that is no way to speak to your god, is it, Man of Iron?"

Fucking hell.

"It was you," Toni choked, struggling feebly against the hold he had on her even as her mind cast about for how any of this was possible. "What did you do to me?"

Loki chuckled. "I provided entertainment. And, of course, I gave you access to your wildest dreams." He smirked and Toni's blood boiled.

"My life isn't entertainment," she hissed angrily.

"Oh, but it is," Loki laughed, shaking his head dismissively. "And I should thank you. As soon as you manage to get those two delicious men into bed with you, I will be rid of Amora's tedious whining, and I will no longer have to ponder a question that has bothered me for centuries."

"What question?" she asked—couldn't stop herself from asking.

Loki smiled, baring his teeth, and her stomach sank.

"Can one manufacture a soulmate connection?"

Chapter Text

November 24th, 1944, pre-dawn hours, just outside Aachen, Germany

Toni had come back to camp over an hour after she'd left, as silent as she'd been when she departed. Bucky had nudged him gently awake, and it was then that Steve had felt the flashes of anger and fear that were making their way through a bond block now as porous as a sieve.

But her face had been blank, her eyes staring at nothing in particular, and Bucky and Steve had reached for her without pause, guiding her through the shelter's closely packed, sleeping bodies. She'd offered only the slightest hesitation, finally acknowledging them even if she didn't quite meet their eyes, but finally giving in to the gentle tugs on her hands, letting them draw her closer and closer to them until they'd been able to tuck her in between them.

They hadn't even needed to consult each other; it just felt right. Physically, yes, having her there between them was… sublime, but in that moment they wanted more than anything to comfort her, to show her she wasn't alone, to show her she had nothing to be afraid of—at least with them.

Something had obviously happened. Something beyond the heavy topic they'd been discussing before she'd left them, staring after her, at a loss for any further words.

Their arms and hearts had felt strangely empty as she walked away. But it wasn't the right time to pursue her, so Bucky had instead drawn Steve into a hug, letting Steve quietly break down in the circle of his arms, his own tears running into his soulmate's hair.

All of that death, all of the horror of war, and yet her anger when she returned had felt fresher, newer, more sharp and immediate and coated in fear that hadn't been there before.

Times like that reminded Steve and Bucky both that they'd become jaded by war, despite their best efforts not to. It was easy to lose track of the details when they were inundated with it at every turn, but Toni was providing them with a fresh set of eyes to see through—ones which were also seven decades removed from the war.

She'd seen war, she'd seen pain, she'd seen fear and horror and death, but this… this wasn't that.

But they'd not had a chance to ask her what was agonizing her, because Toni had been out like a light within seconds of giving them a weary smile.

Bucky had buried his nose in her braid, then he'd tentatively rested a hand on her opposite hip. She'd noticeably relaxed at the weight of it, even in sleep—as if recognizing her soulmate at a cellular level, something easing in Bucky's eyes when she did—and then the rest of the tension filling her body had dissolved from it like sugar in water when Steve had touched his fingers lightly to her cheek.

Something in his own heart had eased at that very moment.

Something slotting into place.

He'd fallen asleep, hand curved around her cheek, peaceful and content.

It hadn't lasted.

A nightmare that wasn't his had woken Steve up while it was still dark, heart pounding and betrayal carving out an agonizing hole deep into his chest. He'd known instantly it hadn't been Bucky's dream either.

A large man, looming over him, placing a heavy hand on his shoulder as if he possessed Steve, owned Steve; him and no one else could lay claim.

He saw the man from the perspective of a small child, smiling down at him, dressed in an expensive business suit far sharper than anything Steve had seen before. His father—no, not his father… was that Howard?—frowning from behind the bald man as Steve lifted a small, carefully assembled sphere of metal and wire and blinking lights up for his perusal.

The man smiled wide, looking from Steve to the sphere and back. But before Steve's very eyes, the man grew larger, larger, largerand he was fully encased in dark metal, like a knight's armor, but more intimidating, more powerful, more futuristic.

Steve stumbled back, falling flat on his back as he tripped over his own feet, a gloating voice coming from everywhere and nowhere all at once:

"When I ordered the hit on you, I was worried that I was killing the golden goose. But, you see, it was just fate that you survived it, leaving one last golden egg to giveYou really think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you? Your father, he helped give us the atomic bomb. Now what kind of world would it be today if he was as selfish as you?"

Steve felt shaken to his very core. He hurt, he hurt  so badly , more than he'd ever hurt before, yet he couldn't move, and the ground beneath his body had become a white couch, with pillows softer than he'd ever known supporting his aching body, and yet  still he hurt .

There was a hole in his chest, both metaphorical and very, very literal. Betrayal and rage and anguish coursed through him, mixing with the fear and pain and deep, never-ending exhaustion which had been with him longer than he cared to count.

Exhaustion borne from the knowledge that he must rise, he must fight back; that he was the only one who could. That the world would not be safe if he did nothing. He could not stand aside, give in to the exhaustion, give in to Death waiting with open arms for him to finally, at last, join him.

Then the man was lifting a glowing white object before his eyes—his heartand Steve could do nothing but widen his eyes the tiniest fraction as the man practically crooned his next words, voice and expression rapturous, merging perfectly, sickly, with the evil and greed welling within his eyes.

"Oh, it's beautiful. Toni, this is your Ninth Symphony. What a masterpiece—look at that. This is your legacy. A new generation of weapons with this at its heart. Weapons that will help steer the world back on course, put the balance of power in our hands. The right hands."

And with a single tug, Steve screamed and screamed but no one—no one could hear him.

No one could help him.

He startled awake and stared, fear pounding his heart harder than it had in over two years, gaze frantically seeking out and then tracing the silhouette of Toni's features as tears tracked down her cheeks. Toni whimpered, just a little, but then she just… relaxed, falling into a deeper sleep—and hopefully a dreamless one.

He couldn't escape the dream as easily as she hopefully had; replaying it over and over again in his mind's eye, horror and understanding blanketing him more and more with each repetition of the sharp betrayal of a man who'd obviously been close to her.

How often did she dream of him? Of that event—for he could tell from how detailed the dream was that it had been real. That this had happened to her, and she relived it constantly in her dreams. Her nightmares.

Men had betrayed her before. Taken her heart and used it.

He vowed then and there, fingertips lightly pushing her hair back into place where Bucky's buried face had knocked it loose from her braid, that he would be more careful with her heart and soul both. With her beautiful, intelligent mind. With her other, technological heart. With her quick wit and sharp tongue and sparking, laughing eyes. With her everything.

Antonia Stark had already—somewhat inconceivably but also completely rightly—come to mean a lot to him in so little time. She could mean a lot more, he knew.

Where before he would have fought—and had—now he walked forward with open arms.

Steve didn't sleep another wink—instead, he spent the last hour or two before dawn looking over his soulmates.

Both of them.

And still, the voice echoed inside his mind.

"When I ordered the hit on you…"

The voice was chilling, sending shivers racing through his body and up his spine at the mere memory of it.

It probably had more to do with the way Toni's eyes looked so haunted when she woke, inches from his face, frown creasing her brow and a light sheen of sweat across her skin. It wasn't an easy waking, but moments later, she blinked her shield back into place, stood up with a murmured excuse, and walked away.

He and Bucky almost followed her, but Dugan gave them a look, so they let her be.

For now.

Later, after Aachen… they'd make sure she was okay. They would talk. Talk about them, because it was lying between them like a venomous snake no one quite wanted to pick up.

Steve couldn't help but to feel a new, deep protectiveness for the woman who'd stumbled into their lives in the midst of war—and who was burrowing closer and closer to his heart.

It was a different kind of protectiveness than the sort he felt for Bucky, but so similar, so comforting in its own way, that he didn't know why he'd fought it for so long. And the way that he and Bucky turned their attention and protection towards Toni felt so natural that it was as if she was slotting into a place that had always been there, but of which he had only just noticed.

Sometimes Steve wondered how his stubborn, dumb ass had lasted this long in life, but one look at Bucky gave him the answer.

An answer that was echoed when his eyes skimmed over Toni, the planes and hollows of her face lit beautifully by the rising sun as she joked with his friends.

Steve's fingers itched for his colored pencils.

Later.

He could take his time tracing her features in painstaking detail later. After Aachen.

After, he promised himself.


November 24th, 1944, 11:45am, Aachen Hydra Facility, Germany

They'd skirted a large convoy on the way in, column after column, row after row of German soldiers marching on the road between trucks and tanks. Heading towards the front line, ready to push into Belgium and the Ardennes.

Toni couldn't help but to feel some fear as they'd made their way by—even though she knew how the battle worked out in her timeline, that didn't mean that it would work out the same here, in this one. If it was another timeline, of course. But that made her brain hurt, and she had more important things to focus on.

Like the Aachen Hydra facility laid out before her eyes—at least a couple dozen of thousand square feet hiding behind drab gray walls and guard towers, but left seemingly unguarded by anyone but the small contingent of Hydra soldiers, guards, and scientists, the former of which were patrolling the grounds in rather-predictable patterns.

It had been two hours since the last of the regular Nazi soldiers had departed Aachen—enough time to survey the area and decide on a battle plan, but not so much that they ran the risk of losing Sam, of losing their chance at Zola. Goddamn Zola. A noon attack was reckless, but hell—reckless was pretty much the name of the game for the Howling Commandos and their fearless leader.

They'd be fine.

As they waited for the agreed upon time, her mind kept returning to the soldiers. Toni couldn't help but to wonder if their side would lose more than the twenty or so thousand who had died at the Battle of the Bulge in her timeline—the largest and bloodiest single battle the Americans fought in the entirety of their mission in World War II.

A futile thought exercise, but one that stuck with her nonetheless, tucked away in the back of her mind like every other thing that was sending her anxiety—and PTSD—into overdrive.

There were, unfortunately, a lot of things that fit that bill.

Toni took a deep breath, and let it shudder out from between her lips in a long, centering breath as her eyes fluttered shut. She needed to focus. She had a job to do.

They'd stashed their bags at a fallback position about half a mile back the way they'd come. All they'd carried with them to their survey position were as many weapons as they could fit—safely and for full effectiveness, of course; not overburdened—on their person, along with extra ammo clips and pouches and belts, and as many of the new and old bombs and grenades that they could carry.

Toni, Dernier, and Falsworth had an extra belt each of explosives, and a pouch with a few Claymore-like mines Toni had built that they would use specifically as large and noisy distractions. Dernier and Morita would be functioning as one diversion team, Falsworth, Jones, and Dugan another, and, well… she'd be with Steve and Bucky as they attempted to enter the facility as noiselessly as possible—only employing her explosives as a last result.

"You sure you can be subtle, Rogers?" she drawled, happily shoving her thoughts into the back of her mind in favor of poking the bear.

Hah. Bear.

Her smirk deepened.

They were the first words she'd spoken other than the ones pertaining to the plan they'd put together an hour or so ago; the first words that felt normal and not serious, since she'd woken up this morning, completely off-kilter.

In their arms.

She had slept in their arms, and had woken up warm and happy, her aches and pains soothed, albeit temporarily, by the feel of her soulmates wrapped around her as the group stirred awake.

And then the events of last night had flooded back into her and she'd opened her eyes. She hadn't been able to stop the fear and anger from overcoming her again. Not at first, at least. The way Steve's brow creased in a frown at the look in her eyes when she caught his gaze said everything.

She felt laid open. Bare. Seen, when she wanted to hide.

Off-kilter.

It hadn't lasted that long—she'd been able to pull her professional mask down over her features, controlling her expressions and emotions with practiced ease—but even so, she'd been more silent than she'd been in years, and couldn't help but notice the looks she'd received as a result.

Toni felt both more calm and more furious than she had last night when she'd stumbled back to their shelter. Her mind had finally quieted, focused, and the fury had refined itself into something cold and intense beneath the surface of her mind and thoughts.

Her nightmare last night had been more of the usual—things she'd seen over and over again these past nine months—but seeing Obie's face in her dreams, hearing his taunts and the delight in his voice… well, it had certainly framed her encounter with this… Loki, and allowed her to see it for what it was.

God of Mischief, indeed.

Lies, too, in all likelihood—she had no reason to trust him. In fact, she had every reason to distrust him.

The fucker was taunting her. She recognized that now, in the light of day.

She didn't know what his goal was, but Toni could recognize a threat when she saw one. A threat that they'd need all hands on deck for, all eyes, all minds.

Toni couldn't do this alone, and she was woman enough to admit it.

Later, though.

Now was for Hydra.

One problem at a time.

Steve rolled his eyes at her, turning to look at her a little more clearly than he'd been able to over his shoulder. "I've done subtle more than a few times, Miss Stark," he replied, warmth infusing his voice and a smile spreading from his lips to his eyes.

Toni was really glad that everyone else was at their assigned locations, because she couldn't help the way her eyes roamed over his features, over him as he stood above her, where she was sitting just inside the edge of the forest.

The way his lips quirked up with just the barest hint of a smirk—he could indeed do subtle—let her know that she'd been caught… and that he didn't mind.

Fucking hell, he was even returning the appraisal, and Toni was never more aware of being dirty and unwashed, with streaks of oil, grease, and dirt across her skin and clothes. For fuck's sake, she even had dried blood on her shirts and pants still, and she was sure the bags under her eyes were atrocious, not to mention her hair was frizzing in nearly every direction at this point.

Frankly put, she was a mess.

And yet… yet, there was heat in Steve's gaze as it swept over her, and Toni was just so damn confused and flattered both at the same time.

He liked what he was seeing.

She did too, but she damn-well knew that nothing would come of it… but only because of her and their choices, not because some so-called god said so.

Toni's features quickly fell into a glower, and Steve raised an eyebrow at her in surprise. She shook her head at him, trying to dismiss it all, but his brow only furrowed in… concern. For her?

Steve's bright blue eyes flicked behind her, but before she could look around, Bucky was kneeling in front of her, his expression pinched with concern as well.

"Doll, what's going on?" he asked softly, tilting his head slightly to the side and down in a really rather becoming way. She was pretty sure he wasn't doing it on purpose, but she also wouldn't put it past him to use his charm like a weapon to get what he wanted.

"Nothing," she tried to lie. She met his eyes with as much of her mask in place as she could manage—but she was just… so fucking tired, so fucking done, and she was pretty sure that there were cracks a mile wide in her facade.

He saw right through her. She was pretty sure he'd be able to see right through her even if her mask was fully in place—and that was both thrilling and scary all at the same time.

Bucky reached up with his right hand, slowly, as if she were a skittish horse he was trying to soothe—god, what an accurate description of how she felt these days—and pressed his fingers gently against the underside of her jaw. "That's bullshit, Toni," Bucky said firmly, trying to catch her gaze.

She wouldn't let him. She felt too bare all of a sudden; too raw for the human connection that Bucky was trying to make. Toni Stark couldn't afford to be this laid bare, let alone when she needed to be on alert for a raid they were about to commence.

But she wanted to.

She wanted to lay herself bare before them—and, really, could she afford not to let them in?

"We don't have time for this," Toni said stubbornly instead, lifting her chin a fraction but still refusing to meet his eyes.

His fingers shifted against her jaw and Toni shivered. His hands were warm, alive, softer than they should be, and felt like they were lighting her skin on fire where they touched her. It was both wonderful and cruel, but she was already addicted to the feel of his skin, to the way both their bonds were settling snugly against hers in her mind, warm and content and no longer buzzing with tension.

When had that happened? Just last week—

"We have time," Bucky said firmly, bringing his other hand up to drag his thumb slowly across her opposite cheek.

She'd never been so aware of another human being in her life.

"Toni." The way he said her name, so low, so soft, so… goddammit, she was confused. Finally she met his eyes, and she could tell when he finally realized how stricken she probably looked, because his eyes softened that much further.

"What happened last night?" Steve asked quietly, still standing watch over the two of them, expression soft but eyes still on alert for enemies.

Guarding his two soulmates.

Maybe.

Toni let them in—a little.

"I think I found out how I ended up in your time," she whispered, holding his gaze and searching for something, anything, to indicate his reaction to the news. "You wouldn't possibly believe me, but… someone sent me back on purpose. He told me last night. Came to me in the forest. Said he's responsible. For the portal that brought me here and for my soulbond. Your soulbond. It wasn't… it wasn't Fate. I'm not—"

Bucky caught on immediately, and his fingers against her skin became hands framing her face, wide palms and long fingers spread across skin and into her hair as he looked into her eyes.

"Doll—Toni. You telling me someone did this to you?" At her slight nod, he continued. "And you think that this means we were never meant for each other?"

"We're not—" she tried.

"We are," he said firmly, fingers gentling over her skin. "No matter how you came to be here, no matter who did this, these—" One hand slid to the back of her neck, over her mark, and she could swear butterflies were flying all around her insides; that, or she was going to hurl, "—these mean that it was Fate. Now we've all got some baggage, I know, and we've been jerks, but it doesn't matter how… doesn't matter when, doesn't matter why or what or any of that. Because you were made for us, and we were made for you. You're ours."

The fierceness behind his words, the conviction, made Toni's breath catch in her throat. She had no words to give him in response—to give either of them, she realized, as she caught Steve's equally intense—but good, so good—look from over Bucky's shoulder, accompanied by a confident nod—and although her mind was buzzing in a sort of shocked, happy daze, she was starting to feel quite overwhelmed. She didn't know what to make of those words. She had no frame of reference for anything like them, because no one had… no one had ever…

No one had ever chosen her.

Not for longer than a few weeks.

A sob caught in her throat, but before either of them could say or do anything else, Toni stood up and neatly sidestepped Bucky's kneeling form, his arms falling heavily back to his side from where they'd been cradling her face.

"It's almost noon," she said, voice rough with emotion she couldn't hide—but didn't know what to do with, either.

"Toni—"

Steve gently interrupted his mate. "Buck, she's right. We gotta get started. We can… we need to talk, Toni. Later. Please," he added after a pause.

We need to talk.

Never good words for Toni. They never were, never would be.

His next words soothed.

"What Buck said, though, Toni…" Steve added, a slight hitch in his throat. "He speaks for us both, and I'll leave it at that for now."

Barely able to breathe for all the emotions this stirred up, she cast her eyes to the side, and froze. The way Steve was looking at her, the way Bucky was still kneeling practically at her feet and gazing up at her—oh, what a beautiful sight that was—made something ease inside her. Eased some of the anxieties that seemed to plague her constantly. Made her breath even out, slow down, calm down, until she was breathing steadily, normally, again, and her eyes fluttered shut.

And behind the darkness of her eyelids, she felt the two of them reach across their connection towards her mind. She took a chance, Bucky's fiery declaration and Steve's solid presence helping her make the choice, putting herself, her heart, in their hands and trusting them not to break her. She opened her bond to them—just a little—and immediately felt warmth, calmness, and a fierce protectiveness that nearly stole her breath away again.

She didn't know what to make of any of this, but she knew three things for sure:

Loki could take a hike.

What she had was real—albeit confusing as fuck.

And even though she didn't understand it, she would still fight to her dying breath for it.

Toni opened her eyes and turned back towards the two men, though she kept her distance, not quite able to trust herself with all the emotions she was experiencing right then. And yet, she bared her teeth in what Pepper called her shark grin, her eyes flashing humor and anger and resolve in equal measure. She was pleased to see that their concern melted away into quirked lips. She tapped her fingers together and let her gauntlet envelop her hand as she held it palm-up between them, then let a smirk play over her lips. "Well Captain? High noon awaits."

Chapter Text

November 24th, 1944, 12:00pm, Aachen Hydra Facility, Germany

At noon, seven explosions rocked the German countryside. 

Steve, Toni, and Bucky stood side by side on the ridge and watched as smoke plumed into the sky from the north, east, and south. 

Both other teams had done their jobs well, from what Toni could tell, having crept through the bare forests to plant Toni’s mines far enough away from the Hydra facility to distract the guards, sending them away from the place where the team needed to get to. The rigged timers would give the other Howlies enough time to get away from the mines and to their next assigned position.

They only had to wait just a little bit longer, just until the assigned time. A few minutes more.

They all dealt with the wait a little differently. Toni’s knuckles were turning white on the hand that held her pistol, the fingers of her free hand, the gauntleted one, tapping a rhythm against her arc reactor—handily shoving aside the disturbing feel of the cracks beneath her fingers. 

Bucky, to her right, shifted slightly from side to side, though beyond that he showed nothing more of any kind of impatience or nerves. Ghostly silent, still beyond the shifting of his weight, eyes drilling into the distance to take in as much detail of the facility. Gathering information to keep them alive. He was still his usual self beneath all that intensity and focus, however. 

Steve, though? He became a different person entirely, and Toni had taken the opportunity to look her fill—something she’d rather much been avoiding doing before today, but just… everything about him drew the eye, and there was no holding back on Toni’s end. She just couldn’t. The way he held himself, feet planted wide and confident, bent just so at the knees, shield held in front of him with both fingerless gloves gripping firmly at the edge of the vibranium, was a sight she had only ever seen in old black and white photos and crackling, somewhat exposed film reels, and she knew then that she had only ever seen half—a quarter —of the raw power and poise that this man was displaying in this one moment.

Bucky nudged her with his elbow, and her eyes shot over to him, but her look of guilt was arrested before it could even form on her face. A smirk was playing on his lips and there was laughter in his eyes, and… yep, he totally understood exactly what she was looking at, exactly where her mind was, and exactly why she was thinking what she was thinking. 

And he agreed. 

Oh yeeeep, he definitely did, if the way his eyes raked his partner from the top of his head to the tips of his toes and all the way back was any indication.

The wink and silent laughter just sealed the deal.

Holy shit .

Coupled with his words from earlier, Toni had zero clue how to react. “You’re ours,” he’d said not twenty minutes ago, and the thought sent shivers down her spine. His lip curled up just a little more in a smile.

Toni diverted her eyes down to her watch, desperately looking for a distraction. 

12:09pm.

Saved by the goddamn bell. “Welp, there’s the time, let’s go, can’t be late, huh?” She started forward before they could even respond, though they ended up  behind her for only a few more steps, easily overtaking her and taking point with a raised eyebrow from each sent back at her from over their shoulders.

“Part of me is absolutely desperate to just yell out Leeroy Jenkins , J,” Toni muttered. “Please talk me out of it. That would just be really embarrassing, even if they have no clue what I’m flailing about.”

As it was, the two men shot her an odd look in—fairly scary—unison, before Steve’s lips turned up in a small smile and Bucky rolled his eyes.

“It is advisable to focus, Miss,” JARVIS replied succinctly, and Toni could practically hear the fond exasperation rolling off his robot circuits.

“Yeah, yeah,” she murmured happily, buoyed just from the sound of his voice and finally able to settle down.

Like being in the suit. Sorta. Kinda. Not really, but still ! She had J, she had her reactor, she had her repulsor… 

She had two soldiers who were waiting for her to move her ass.

Whoops.

Toni set her sights on the wall ahead, and focused.

The mines had done their job so effectively that they didn’t run into opposition until they were inside the second wall of the Hydra facility. It was a long and low building—and something about its appearance sparked a long-buried memory in Toni, though she couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was, other than the building being familiar… somehow —made of grey brick, and wouldn’t have been out of place back Stateside as a prison.

Which, essentially, is what it was, for at least one prisoner that they knew of. Sam. She didn’t really want to know how many others were being held here, but, well… they were about to find out, weren’t they.

Who was she kidding? Of course she wanted to know how many prisoners were being held here. She wanted to know how many prisoners were being held everywhere so that she could rescue them all, so that she could save those who could still be saved—and to try her hardest to save even those beyond saving—but she was enough of a pragmatist… just enough … that she knew she had to focus on the ones within her reach.

For now.

The first wall had been easy to scale with no one watching, the second a little harder, though mostly because they knew they had to get down quickly before they were fired upon.

Something easily solved by having goddamn Captain America on their side.

He leaped over the wall without even touching the thing, and all that could be heard from the other side were grunts and startled gasps, the shield slicing and singing through the cold air, and the thump of bodies as they hit the ground, one after the other in quick succession, three in all, before the soldiers could call for help.

“Well that’s one way to do it,” Toni pronounced as she popped her head over the top of the wall, pulling her way up and over with a grin, just a little out of breath.

Steve let his lips flit into a smile for a moment, his eyes warm as they watched her fall safely to the ground in a three point landing that felt weird, but still right , without the suit. She was just happy she hadn’t fallen on her face, even though she was confident enough in her physical capabilities that she was pretty sure that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.

She could hear the sound of the two other teams working their distraction magic in the distance as she stood straight, but her attention was caught when the loud bang of a rifle went off just behind and above her.

Bucky.

She looked over her shoulder and caught sight of him straddling the wall, rifle still held high as he scanned the building before him. Toni followed his gaze and caught sight of a crumpled form at the top of a guard tower they’d seemingly missed.

Just one aspect of this plan that Steve didn’t like not knowing what they were walking into, where the guards were inside and out, where the prisoners were, where the offices and interrogation chambers and even where the damn closets were. But he and the Howlies were used to working with limited knowledge, so they went forward even if he didn’t think it optimal.

Not really much of a choice when one of your friends was being held prisoner. Not with Bucky, and not with Sam now, either.

Toni wanted to find the woman as much for her own memories, her own history, as for Steve and Bucky’s. No woman, no one period , should be held prisoner and tortured for any longer than, well, ever .

She grit her teeth and followed the Captain towards one of the entrances to the building, Bucky taking up the rear with very little further noise, their eyes constantly on a swivel.

But when they got inside, the place was eerily silent.

Too silent.

Toni felt like a walking cliche even as she thought it, but it was true. Despite the two-layer distraction going on outside, despite the fact that they’d only fired one bullet and made minimal noise, there should have been more people. But there weren’t, and Toni could almost feel the hair rising on the back of her neck. There wasn’t a soul in sight as the door was pulled gently shut behind them, leaving Toni blinking in the dark as her eyes adjusted. 

Steve had no such trouble, and was already halfway down the long corridor, and Bucky not that much further behind. Checking each room, then the next would double check, and the movements were fluid and precise and quick, a testament to how easily they worked together, to how often they had done this.

For once, Toni didn’t find the thought, or the sight of them, leaving her feeling like she was an outsider.

She could just… appreciate.

And not lose sight of them; that would be good.

Toni shook herself and hurried down the corridor, her boots thumping heavily on the stone, eyes darting to the side as she passed room after room of what looked to be labs.

Something else sparked in her memory, but she swatted it aside when nothing was easily forthcoming.

The men were waiting for her outside of a large set of double doors, Steve’s brow furrowed as he listened for any noise, any indication that there were people waiting for them on the other side.

“Four, at least,” he said. “Two to the right, one straight ahead, one to the left, best I can tell.” He held up his gloved hand but held back on counting down from five until Toni tucked herself against the wall behind him.

She was a superhero, not dumb .

Plus, no suit made for a rather squishy human.

When the door was pulled back, there were way more than just four people waiting on the other side.

In addition to the two Steve took out and the other two Bucky shot down, there had to be at least eight more guards from the sounds of things.

And, as soon as the proverbial dust settled from taking down them and another few who’d run in, they could see that there were more than just guards in the room.

Cages.

Cages which lit a fiery anger in Steve’s eyes, and which made Bucky’s face shut down all emotions, his eyes going hard and steel-grey in the light of the incandescent light shining down on them from above.

Amidst the trappings of a large lab, they stood against the far wall, unnoticed until the last body had fallen to the ground, crimson red pooling across the floor and towards the drains in the middle of the room.

“What the fuck ,” Toni cursed vehemently. 

Neither man said anything, but the words were enough to unlock their frozen stances and get them moving around the room in a last sweep to make sure that they would be safe while they dealt with what Toni hoped were live people.

Toni turned the lock on the door they’d just come through as soon as the men did the same to the small door on the opposite wall. Even though they wouldn’t hold off anyone who truly set their mind on getting in, it would hopefully do the job long enough that they could assess the situation and get anyone out who could still get out—even if Toni had to carry them herself.

Steve and Bucky broke off their whispered conversation as soon as she approached. 

Bucky’s face finally showed a hint of pain—and there was likely way more of it, if what she was seeing were any indication, but his bond had been shut to her since the first moment they stepped into the facility, and it seemed to be sealed even tighter now, if that were possible.

“Go,” Steve murmured. “We’ve got this.” And the tenderness in his voice practically broke her heart, but she refused to cry. She couldn’t. She couldn’t afford to, for more than one reason.

Bucky nodded hollowly and turned towards the desks and filing cabinets, starting to rifle his way through them swiftly and proficiently, eyes scanning page after page, file after file.

Toni turned back to Steve after Bucky stuffed the first folder into a light backpack pulled from one of the dead Hydra soldiers.

Steve was quaking, but she wouldn’t have noticed it if she wasn’t on the lookout for some sign of emotion. At the touch of her gauntleted hand on his cheek, he squeezed his eyes shut and let out a shuddering breath. But he didn’t move away. Instead, he turned into the touch—the caress , if she were being honest with herself—and nuzzled his cheek and nose into her hand. Covered as it was by metal except at her fingertips, Toni couldn’t feel him, not really, but it didn’t seem to make a difference to her quickening heart rate. 

“Come on,” she whispered, but left her hand right where it was, fingers trembling as they curled into the scruff starting to grow rough on his jaw. 

Steve took another breath, then another, deeper one, and let it out in a long shudder before opening his eyes and drilling them into her own. “Yeah, okay,” he said finally, voice gruff with emotion. He held her gaze for another long breath— his , that is; she was pretty sure she hadn’t taken one in minutes—before slowly, almost grudgingly pulling away from her and turning towards the cages at the back of the room.

Toni was only just starting to regain the full use of her lungs by the time she caught up to him, just in time for him to lift his shield and bash the padlock off of one in a sudden fit of rage, a low, deep, painful growl coming loose from his chest—Toni was so startled she almost tripped right over one of the bodies when her attention shifted to him.

“Steve—” She reached out towards him.

“It’s Sam,” he announced, voice hoarse.

Toni holstered her gun—she reminded herself absently to reload it—and placed her hands over top of Steve’s trembling ones, pulling him gently aside. “Let me,” she murmured, knowing he would hear her, no matter how quiet she was.

She wasn’t sure if the fact he let her move him bodily aside the way he did was a good sign or not. Either way, she couldn’t focus on it, not when she caught sight of the woman in front of her.

Captain Samantha Schofield’s hair was matted with dirt and blood and soot, likely a remainder from her airplane crashing into enemy territory and not getting a chance to wash off the blood of her allies—and herself—in this miserable place. Toni could tell that her hair would normally be vibrant, but darker than her Pepper’s, but the filth was obscuring its beautiful color.

Toni carefully opened the heavy door on the cage, wincing a little as it creaked, but careful to catch the woman in one arm as the bars she’d been slumped against were moved. She lifted her gauntleted hand and gently pushed back some of Samantha’s hair so that she could see her face more clearly. 

Her brown eyes were mere slits, but they were focused intently on Toni’s face.

“Hi,” Toni said softly. “We’re here to rescue you.”

“Toni,” the woman rasped. 

Toni blinked, startled for a moment before realizing that obviously Aunt Peggy’s second in command would know who she was.

Sam swallowed, and her throat made a clicking sound Toni was all too familiar with. It was the sound of going too long without water, without being given the basic necessities of life, locked in a cold room with the walls and ceiling feeling like they were always closing in, always coming nearer, granting her less and less space with every breath—

Toni blinked the image away. It seemed that Afghanistan was following her around a lot more since she’d arrived in the past.

Who could’ve guessed that war would do that, huh?

Fucking trauma. No matter how much you moved past it, it would always get you again.

Toni grabbed the canteen of water and managed to unplug the top with her teeth, bringing it to Sam’s lips within seconds. The sound of her throat clicking, her breaths gasping, the rasping of her sandpaper tongue over her lips—those sounds were from her nightmares, and she wanted them gone. For both her and the other woman.

At least Steve had stopped hovering over her shoulder—checking on the other cages’ occupants—and she could let her body shake and tremble in peace, no one but Sam the wiser.

And the woman did notice. Her eyes were keen, and growing clearer and clearer the more water she sipped carefully down—after a first, initial gulp which she had to obviously fight not to continue. Strength and life was slowly seeping into her, though it was a lot quicker than Toni had initially estimated.

Within minutes, the woman was sitting up on her own, rubbing the cricks out of her back and neck as best she could, and splashing a little water on her face so she could clean it, at least somewhat, with a handkerchief that Toni had produced. She wasn’t speaking yet, but there was life to her that Toni had been worried would take far longer to appear—if ever.

“Are you alright?” Toni asked.

She immediately regretted it.

Of course this woman wasn’t okay. She had been captured after her friends and allies had been killed, after surviving being shot down by artillery, and then had likely suffered days of torture here at this facility before the cavalry had come.

And, from the looks of the lab surrounding them, they had likely been subjected to medical experimentation as well. Who the fuck knew what it was, but it couldn’t be good if Hydra were experimenting on their prisoners .

Toni regretted it even more when the woman started to tremble .

God, she was terrible at this.


She was magnificent, and it was the only thing holding Steve together.

Steve wanted to give into the rage welling up inside him. Rage that felt like it was burning hotter than it ever had before, boiling inside him like magma in a volcano, just waiting to erupt, waiting to burst forth when the pressure became too much.

None of the other prisoners had survived, and what had obviously—and that which Steve could only imagine —happened to his friend was threatening to set him off.  

He took a long, deep breath and let it out, letting his gaze settle on Toni for a minute—trusting Bucky, and his own senses, to warn him of any impending danger while he gave himself a moment—and taking in every detail he could.

It was an exercise he’d learned from Winnie Barnes; a way to calm his mind and collect himself when the anger started to become too much to handle. Sometimes it felt like he would be lost to it, but Winnie had taught him many tricks, and this one let him breathe .

Steve’s even breaths caught in his throat as Toni placed a gentle, albeit trembling, hand at the back of Sam’s neck and drew them closer together so that their foreheads were touching. She murmured words of comfort to the other woman, words that Steve deliberately tried not to listen to, focusing instead on listening to the sounds of Bucky rustling through the cabinets, even as his eyes continued to take in every detail of Toni’s form

She was beautiful, yes, but it was her kindness and compassion that was really shining through in this moment, and that more than anything —or rather, that combined with all the other little things which he’d barely noticed at first but had started to pile up in her favor over the last couple weeks—made him realize the depths of his feelings for her.

He was in love with Antonia Stark.

Love.

Something he never thought he could ever feel for someone other than Bucky, yet there it was. It didn’t replace or supplant Steve’s love for his soulmate—his other soulmate, because there were two of them now, and Toni was one. She had earned her place, fought for it tooth and nail even while trying to deny her hurt, even when in a fair world Steve would have come to his senses from the get-go and told her she didn’t need to fight for his, their , love.

She had Steve’s love. A love that was both similar and different to his love for Bucky.

He’d never realized you could love two people with the same intensity. His love for Toni may be newer—a lot newer, like only just realizing it newer—but the strength of that feeling was as strong as his feelings for Bucky.

Just… different.

And that was okay.

“Stevie.”

Steve startled out of his thoughts, catching himself before he could jump but letting it show with only the barest of twitches. Something only someone who knew him down to the dimples on his hips would know.

Bucky tilted his head, concern furrowing his brow. “What is it?” he asked quietly. His eyes flitted back and forth across Steve’s features, taking in every micro-expression with that too keen gaze of his before letting it take in what exactly Steve was staring at so determinedly moments before.

Toni had proceeded to pull Sam into a full body hug, and her eyes were closed as she stroked her hands up and down the redhead’s back and through her hair, not seeming to mind one bit that she was getting dirt and blood all over her. She was murmuring soft reassurances into Sam’s ear, it seemed, though Steve could only pick up every few words. He wasn’t trying very hard to listen in because he didn’t want to intrude on this moment between the two women—even though, as Sam started to shake, and Toni’s hug got tighter, Steve wanted to intrude and take them both into his arms. For very different reasons—one in comfort and love, one in comfort and friendship—but still. He held still only by exerting the tightest of control on himself.

Bucky touched his hand to Steve’s arm and pulled him nearly to the other side of the room so that they could give Toni the space to work whatever magic it was she was working, and not hover over her shoulder like two overprotective, well, soulmates.

“I think I love her, Buck,” he found himself blurting out as soon as they were out of earshot of the women. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to tell her, it’s just that… this really wasn’t the time or place for it.

It was barely the time and place for him to tell this to Bucky, even. They were in a Hydra facility, their teammates were holding off the cavalry for as long as they would need, Sam needed medical attention soon enough, there was more information to gather, and goddamn Zola might even be here—even though they’d been forced to let that drop to the bottom of the pile of things to deal with, Steve still wanted to get his hands on the bastard .

He could do with a bully to beat up.

Bucky smiled and reached up with both hands to push Steve’s hair out of his face, fingers lingering on Steve’s skin and making him shiver. “Yeah I know, Stevie,” he said fondly. “It was pretty obvious to me, even if it took you awhile to notice it yourself. You can be pretty slow,” he couldn’t help but to add, with a smirk. But the smirk was quickly overpowered by that sappy smile again. “I know now’s not the place for this, considering we have company about a minute down the halls and barreling towards us—” 

Steve stiffened, immediately reaching for his shield, and he could hear them now—he’d been too damn distracted, he could curse himself for a fool ; a lovesick fool—but Bucky’s hands tightened on his face, gripping his jaw with the strength that continued to grow every week. The strength that, in this moment, surprised even the both of them.

“—They can wait twenty seconds, Steve. Hear me out,” he said firmly. “I love her too, and when we stop for the night, you and I are going to tell her how we feel, because she deserves to hear that from us. That woman deserves love . Our love. Got it?” Steve nodded, eyes wide, whole body quivering with the adrenaline that was racing through him. “Good.” Bucky smiled and started leaning forward so that he could press his lips to Steve’s, but he barely got halfway before he froze, eyes going wide as they zeroed in on something behind Steve.

Steve whirled around, shield at the ready— 

“Who are you?” he demanded, voice booming and authoritative. He took two steps forward, but found that he couldn’t move .

“What the fuck!” he heard Toni curse, voice filled with venom in that way only she seemed to be able to manage. “Samantha? What did you do to her!”

“Just a little sleeping spell—it may even do the creature a world of good,” drawled the… woman standing before them.

Except that the word ‘woman’ was entirely inadequate for who… what was in the room with them.

With a flick of her hand, a golden, shimmering barrier covered the doors, and suddenly the sounds of the rapidly approaching Hydra soldiers were cut down to barely a murmur, even to his enhanced hearing.

“There, now we can have some alone time,” the golden-haired woman purred. Steve did his level best to keep his eyes respectfully on her face—even if he was pretty damn sure she was someone he shouldn’t show even an ounce of respect to, but his mama had raised him right, and this woman… this woman was dressed in less than any pin-up girl he’d ever seen gracing the side of a plane or staring out at him from a photograph.

She was prettier than every last one of them, too, that was for sure, but her beauty was… sharp. Violently and dangerously beautiful in the way of many of the most venomous creatures in this world.

“Is this the bastard who did this to you, Toni?” Bucky snarled.

Steve had been wondering the same thing.

“No,” Toni growled, but she was cut off by the woman.

“Yes, little one,” the blonde, green- and black-clad woman interjected. “I am Amora, but you may call me the Enchantress.”

Steve honestly wondered how the woman was alive, because if looks could kill, then Toni was in the middle of murdering her.

“I’ll call you whatever the fuck I want,” she hissed. “You took away my agency, bitch.”

Amora’s face went stone cold, and she snapped her fingers. Immediately, Steve felt something gripping his throat, and he tried—quite unsuccessfully—to speak, though his breathing wasn’t hampered. “You had agency enough to fall in love.” Her words rang like a bell through the room, and they shuddered through Steve. “You weren’t supposed to fall in love,” she added, a childish pout tugging at her lips. He watched as Toni went pale, though she couldn’t seem to speak either, and Steve wondered just who Amora was speaking to.

Him and Bucky… or Toni?

Or both?

“I tire of this bet,” she hummed, finally, into the tense silence, eyes flicking between the three of them.

“Do you concede?” another voice chimed, and Steve would look for the owner of said voice, but he was frozen in place. The look on Toni’s face as she caught sight of the speaker gave him a good guess as to who it was. “And Amora, tut tut for interrupting some truly spectacular moments of theatre. I wanted to see if they made it out alive.” The man’s voice was slick, like one of the mobsters who lived two floors down from he and Bucky, but combined with an accent that wouldn’t be out of place in Peggy’s posh home. 

It was… disturbing, and sent a shiver down Steve’s spine. 

“Yes, fine, I concede,” Amora said with a roll of her eyes. The man’s footsteps sounded against the stone of the lab’s floor—thud, thud, thud . “ But , I still do not believe that you can create a soulbond. You know that I theorized they would have met—”

“Quiet,” the man hissed.

Amora sniffed and then her lip curled in a sneer as her eyes tracked the man around the edge of the room, just outside of Steve’s field of vision. “Loki—”  

“A new bet, then,” the man— Loki ; Steve filed away the name and burned the man’s voice into his memory—interrupted smoothly, voice holding a sly, but curious, note to it. 

“Ah,” Amora said, crossing her arms beneath her chest, and Steve’s cheeks heated right up as he looked anywhere else. “What stakes?”

“Double,” Loki said immediately.

Amora’s grin spread slowly over her features, and reminded him very uncomfortably of a shark. “Deal. Shall you do the honors?” she asked, voice saccharine sweet.

“Gladly,” Loki replied.

And with a clap that reverberated through the room— literally , because dust started to rain down from the ceiling and Steve felt the shaking in his bones —the room was suddenly empty of their presence.

And a lot more than that.

Steve felt pain light up through his body like he hadn’t felt in years —not since the moment the serum was injected into his veins—as if his blood had been replaced with acid and his heart was being cut out from his chest with a serrated knife. Every nerve was on fire, and Steve barely felt it as whatever was holding him frozen disappeared and he collapsed to the ground, his legs no longer able to support him.

But it was the cavernous silence in his mind that hurt more than anything his body was feeling. Never before had Steve thought an absence could be painful, yet here he was, feeling the very foundations of his world, his beliefs, crumble in more ways than one.

Steve looked up, but it took him a number of seconds to blink the thick tears from out of his eyes before he could confirm what his soul knew to be truth.

Antonia Stark was gone.

Chapter Text

One moment she could breathe, the next she couldn't.

It was like being plunged into that cursed basin of water in the cave, cold and dark and filled with her blood and bile, choking off the involuntary gasps and screams that were shredding her throat apart.

It was over in a flash—but the relief was only temporary, as the pain which had consumed her was replaced by an absence. An empty space in her mind—no, a gap, a hole torn in her psyche, her mind was ripping to pieces—

And then that too was over, only to be replaced by the feeling of flames licking at her skin, clothing be damned, offering no protection from the heat that was consuming her, the flames that were searing her flesh.

This torment lingered.

Toni sobbed as she pulled desperately at the buttons and clasps and ties on her clothes, her mind focused solely on getting everything off, as much as she could, instinct guiding her movements as her mind screamed bloody murder.

Agony seared through her heart.

Toni only had the strength to whimper and clutch at her chest, and she started to fall forward with no ability to stop herself from impacting with the flo—

Her body lurched to a halt, and metal clanged against metal as her hands weakly clawed at her heart, and Toni froze, breaths puffing in and out from between her barely parted lips.

The pain was gone as suddenly as it had appeared—but certainly not as long as it had lasted, fuck no—and Toni's mind kicked into high gear, despite feeling as if it were being overwhelmed by everything and nothing all at once. Adrenaline; nature's miracle drug.

Toni blinked away her initial shock at everything going on around her, and tried to take stock of what she knew, no matter how little it made sense. She focused every ounce of her brain power on changing the tide of her thoughts, and those thoughts—and the looming, background shock she knew she was in—fought as if they were a raging river. She didn't want to focus, she didn't want to think, she didn't want to acknowledge what she feared, suspected, knew

For the first time in a long time, Toni didn't want to think.

She didn't want to.

Please, please, please

But she had to.

So Toni breathed deep, and focused. Focused on what she didn't want to—but had to—know.

One. She had been in a huge amount of pain. She no longer was, and only her memories provided proof of said fact; not even her heart hurt.

Two. Toni was in her suit. Somehow. She could feel every familiar line and curve as it pressed against her bare skin, which led her to—

Three. She must've stripped off the bulk of her clothes when she'd felt like she was on fire, though she could feel her ankle holster digging deep into her skin where it was in the way of her suit and its ability to fit seamlessly with her usually undersuit-clad body.

Four. It must have answered the call of the severe distress she'd been in, when her heart rate had been racing, and her watch must have picked it up… which meant—

Five. She must be in her Malibu workshop. She hoped.

No.

Hope was the wrong word. She was hoping for something entirely different, something half a world and decades away, but that… that was looking increasingly like it was out of her reach.

Toni felt panic rising through her.

She'd been ripped away from the men she was coming to love in a way that far exceeded the love she'd felt for them as a child, a teen, even as a young adult. She had been ripped away from the men who had been, even though they'd never met, the foundation of her life. The men who had offered her solace in the loneliness of her life, surrounded by those who wanted to take, take, take from the neglected and rebellious Stark heiress. She'd been taken from Steve, from Bucky, from people she was coming to love more than she ever had before, who were—just maybe—coming to love her in return. She'd been taken before she was ready, before—

"—detecting tachycardia well past safety margins as laid out by Dr. Cho. Initiating emergency—"

"No!" Toni gasped out, her voice rough and harsh and dry as goddamn Death Valley. She swallowed hard, licked her lips, and suddenly, desperately, hated the silence that surrounded her in this workshop.

"No. No, Jarvis, no, baby boy, I'm fi— I'll be okay. Just give me a couple minutes," she rasped.

Slowly, after another minute or two or five of sitting hunched over, sprawled on the floor of what was, yes, her Malibu workshop—against everything she'd known to be true these last two weeks—Toni pulled herself to her feet.

Once she was standing on her own power, she dismissed the suit back to its dock, letting it fly away piece by piece. Within moments she was down to her underwear, but she stumbled over to the sectional couch in the corner of the shop and wrapped herself in the well-loved and well-lived quilt Anna Jarvis had made for her—out of her husband's old gardening shirts and Toni's baby blankets—as a childhood gift.

She wasn't quite in shock—maybe—but once she was situated, once she was starting to warm up, Toni poked her head out from the folds of the blanket along with one hand to manipulate the hologram JARVIS had already so helpfully laid out right in front of her without needing to be asked.

"Time and date," Toni queried first as she zeroed in on the data that had already been uploaded from her repulsor watch.

"4:50am, July 8th, 2011," came the succinct reply. "Miss, may I—"

"Did a package arrive for me anytime in the last few hours, and did I open it only for there to be a flash of bright green and blue light?" Toni interrupted.

"Not even twenty minutes ago, Miss. You opened it by your main workbench and moments later you appeared on the other side of the shop, dressed completely differently."

Toni groaned, letting her head fall forward to hang between her shoulders.

"Miss?"

"So I wasn't gone that long. Not really," she muttered to herself. "A flash in the pan for this time, and yet I've literally aged two weeks."

Toni grumbled, then ordered, "J, baby boy, do a scan of me, check for any differences to the last upload and account for the time delay you're aware of, and then do a compare and contrast between yourself and the internal chronometer and save file on my gauntlet watch." She poked a few spots on the holographic interface. "There, I just overrode the manual lock I put on it last week. Uh, which you'll see what I mean in a moment."

She had a goddamn migraine already, but she needed to see for herself. Needed to know she wasn't crazy, despite the very real and physical and tangible evidence lying on the shop floor nearby in the shape and form of a pile of World War II era clothes, backpack, and recently-crafted (for 1940, that is) weapons.

While JARVIS was processing the data, she got shakily to her feet and began to pace. She needed something to do with her hands—so much better than actively thinking—so she dropped the blanket on the couch and started to take stock of her body. She had plenty of aches and pains, including the hot burn of her day's old bullet graze. It was as taken care of as it could be, though, so Toni's hands and eyes took stock of her arc reactor.

It was alright. Not great, but alright.

She'd need to get someone to help her swap it out, just as soon as she made a new arc reactor at least. She'd sort of used up her last spare arc reactor a few months ago and had never gotten around to fabricating another.

Shit.

Toni snatched her fingers away from where they'd wandered to the back of her neck while she'd been berating herself. She knew she wouldn't be able to feel anything, even if it were there—which it wasn't, she knew, deep in her soul, even without looking—but she didn't even want to think about it, let alone purposefully remind herself by touching the spot where her soulmark should be.

Where her soulmark used to be.

Before she could give in to the spiral looming ahead of her, JARVIS interrupted.

"I am detecting changes in your physiology, Miss. I am… distressed to admit that I cannot determine a logical answer as to why." JARVIS even managed to sound concerned, and that, combined with the sound of his voice piping through the speakers in her workshop, in her home, instead of from out of the small, though powerful, speaker on her watch, threatened to choke her up with tears.

She blinked away the desire to cry, swallowing thickly before replying, "Welcome to the first known time traveller, J." Her voice was a little shaky, but she was rather proud of the smile she gave him.

All else aside, she was happy to be here with him again—not just the baby version of him she'd had with her when she'd been swept back in time, but all of him, Stark satellite servers and all—despite feeling like she'd been hit by a semi truck and then backed over again. Mentally at least. Physically she felt… fine.

"I would have happily debated the point with you, Miss, if it were not for the watch's internal chronometer telling me different." If an Artificial Intelligence could sound incredulous, it would be her baby. He sure sounded it right now, and it made a small smile ghost over her lips. The first honest one she'd had since arriving back.

Since arriving back home.

It was really only just starting to sink in. She felt more off kilter than she had when she'd originally been sent back in time. Sent back by—

"Those fucks!" The words burst past her lips as she remembered what exactly had happened before she'd ended up back here. They had fucked with her, fucked with them, had tried to manufacture a soul bond—which, no, she didn't believe; she believed now with all her heart that she and Steve and Bucky would've been soulmates in this life or any other. In the past, in the future, in an alternate universe, even—they were meant for each other.

It had only taken two magical beings playing at Norse mythology and being yanked out of the figurative arms of her soulmates for her to realize it.

Toni didn't know if she should laugh or cry, and spent long minutes breathing deeply as JARVIS continued to go through the data on his servers and the internet at large, comparing it to the possible differences that would appear on her watch's storage.

Breathing. She could do breathing. That, she was good at.

It was probably the longest she'd gone without her mind racing, but Toni was exhausted. Her brain, amazing as it was, could only handle so much, and she was near to its limits. Limits she'd only ever achieved in the weeks before she'd 'agreed' to make the Ten Rings' weapons for them.

As the adrenaline started to drain out of her body, finally, she could feel herself sliding headfirst towards a crash.

But she couldn't do that. Not yet. She'd have time for that later.

Finally, with a long, heavy blink of her eyes, she knew where she needed to start.

It would be heartbreaking, but she needed to know what had happened to her soulmates.

No.

No, it was already heartbreaking, because she knew they'd be dead. There was no chance that they were anything but. She could feel the chasm where they had been, both in her mind and deep in her soul—and her heart—and that was answer enough as to what had happened to them.

It was too much to ask, apparently, for Loki and that Amora woman to have sent them into the future with her. Too much for the universe to grant her. All out of cosmic luck. Karma still biting her on the ass. Yep.

Life. fucking. sucked.

Toni shoved the feelings threatening to swamp her back into the box in her head she saved for Congressional hearings, and finally focused her eyes on the screens before her.

She needed to know.

"Okay, J, let's…" She paused, and then made a judgment call. "No, never mind, I already know they're dead," she said dully, eyes prickling, "so can you show me all the historical changes that do not make any mention of Captain Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, or of James Buchanan Barnes? That may exclude most of the S.S.R. archive and events, as well as those of the Howling Commandos."

JARVIS didn't ask why she was excluding them—Toni wasn't sure if she was glad for that or not—but instead started throwing screen after screen up around her, until Toni was buried in a veritable sea of digital blue.

"I'm almost scared to see what's changed, but it can't be much if I'm here with you, huh J?" Toni murmured as she reached out to bring the first of the many screens closer to where she was standing, nearly naked, in the middle of her shop.

"Initial data comparison suggests it is… good, Miss," he replied. "At least, I believe it to be. I must admit that my processors have not been able to account for every aspect of the changes from these mere few data points to start from, not yet, and if we wish a fuller understanding of all the changes made, we must work from your own memories, as well."

"Okay, okay," Toni laughed just a little at the enthusiasm of her A.I. "I get it, you're eager to determine which time travel theory is correct, if any, and so am I, but I'm pretty sure we're not going to be able to understand it even then."

Her smile ghosted back over her lips as she turned her eyes to the info sprawling across her workshop in the comforting, homely, lovely, friendly glow of digital blue.

She would get through this and then… then she could fall apart. Then she could break.

No sooner.


An hour later, Toni's mind was reeling.

The differences between her original timeline and this one were small but amazingly momentous the further forward in time she read.

The Butterfly Effect, in action.

So few things had changed, so many things were the same… and yet not.

The Battle of the Bulge had taken place earlier than she knew it had in her timeline. Earlier by three weeks—and it wasn't even called the Battle of the Bulge anymore, either. The initial, huge push by the Germans into Allied territory had never occurred, because the Allies had been warned and had instead launched their own offensive into German territory. No longer hampered by the blinding snowstorms that had plagued the original incursion and made it possible for the Germans to sneak so many troops into position, the Americans had banded together with the Polish, Canadian, and Belgian armies in the region, along with the S.S.R. and the Heathers' main bodies of troops. They'd pushed the Germans back until their lines broke in early December.

Then they'd regrouped and started pushing ever steadily towards Berlin. Any division that could be spared, that wasn't needed to hold the line elsewhere, started pushing towards the heart of Nazi Germany.

That small change, of a battle being over a month earlier than it would have otherwise been, had changed things.

The first of those changes had been the Allies and the Soviets arriving at Berlin nigh-simultaneously.

Sure, Hitler had still committed suicide in that dumb bunker that got covered up by a kiddie park and apartments without a plaque in sight, but the combined might of the Allies and Soviets had minimized the damage and death considerably, and Berlin had walked out of the war… well, still pretty destroyed, but at least it hadn't been divvied up between two world powers.

Oh they'd wanted to do it anyway, but neither side was as bloodthirsty for it as they'd been before, and Germany had slowly settled back into being its own, complete nation before a decade and a half was up.

Sure, the Pacific Theater had still happened almost exactly the same—the hard-on the U.S. had for the atomic bomb would've made it nearly impossible to change their minds—and the Cold War had still occurred, but it had been… diminished.

Was it the lack of a divided Berlin, the lack of the physical manifestation of their differences in the Berlin Wall, which had made the Cold War that much better for both sides? Or was it the fact that they'd fought together at the end, there in the streets of Berlin and all across the rest of Germany as they chased the Nazis—and Hydra—out? Was it the camaraderie of the moment, the feeling of being brothers and sisters in arms? Of toppling a vicious, evil empire together? Only to then have their differences shoved back in each other's faces, capitalism versus communism, East vs West, old world versus new?

Ugh, history. Not her strong suit. She'd never be able to answer that question with just this cursory look, but JARVIS was already happily crunching away at all the socio-cultural questions, as deeply fascinated as Toni had ever seen him.

Toni at least understood the implications of the arms race that had still occurred. It had been lessened to a degree, but from what Toni could tell, they'd still hit all the scientific and technological advancements on time, and were maybe even ahead on some, she was astounded to see.

Amazing what you can accomplish when the Space Race was more like a Space Relay.

Because—and she'd checked this five fucking times—the two superpowers had worked together to get to the goddamn moon and beyond. What the fuck.

Sure, they'd been at odds for every single year since, just the same as she was used to, but just… less, and space was considered sacrosanct. Even if they were fighting over other things, apparently that was something neither fucked with.

Which was awesome.

One thing that was less awesome—more like awful—was what she'd discovered when she'd first started looking into the S.S.R. and its affiliates, which included her father.

There had been no easy way for JARVIS to tell her or to show her that her parents had been murdered.

Oh, they had still died in a car accident on December 16th, 1991. Yes, her father had been driving, yes, he'd still been drinking—at least according to the private results of the autopsy. What was different, however, set her entire world to shaking. The foundation of her adulthood was set on one less pillar now, because what if… what if they had been murdered in her time as well? What if the only difference was that they had found evidence in this timeline, and Toni had gone her entire life believing that her father's alcoholism had taken he and her mother away from her before their time?

What if?

That way lay madness, but it wasn't like she could close Pandora's Box, now that she'd opened it.

She spent long minutes just staring at the photo of her mother, much the same as she had done in person as a teen, when she'd demanded to see their bodies. But this time she could see the clear imprint of long fingers in the crushing bruise wrapped around her mother's throat. Her mom had fought back, refused to go down easily, and neither had her father.

And yet they'd died all the same.

There'd been no leads, but plenty of evidence had been left behind, including five gouges ripped deep into the metal running the length of the vehicle, as well as boot prints and the tire tracks of a lone motorcycle.

A stamp near the top of each page declared the case cold.

She felt anger spark in her, bright and hot, but tamped it down, letting her breath out in a long, shaking exhale.

"I am sorry, Miss," JARVIS said gently, at so low a volume that she barely would've heard him if not for the utter silence of her workshop.

"I know, J, I know," she replied quietly. "Nothing I can do about it right now, but you can bet that I'll be back to look at this. I will find who did this, but I just… it can wait." The words tasted bitter in her mouth.

From there she moved on to the rest of the Howling Commandos and the S.S.R. as a whole. The S.S.R. had followed the same course as it had before, almost exactly, and had become S.H.I.E.L.D. with the help of her father and Peggy both, yet again.

Their lives had tracked similarly from what she could tell—including Samantha Schofield's, she was so glad to see—except for one very large exception.

Peggy and Dugan had found their third, and held on tight. A man named Daniel Sousa, she learned. Toni felt her anger seep away at least a little—not fully, but she could sure as fuck compartmentalize; she was good at ignoring her problems—as her eyes roamed the personnel file in front of her.

All three were still alive, and she took a small amount of pleasure in the fact she'd be able to meet the man listed alongside Dugan and Peggy as Toni's godparents.

And then she could no longer avoid it.

She had looked through everything else except for that which explicitly cross-indexed with Steve and Bucky.

She took a deep breath, letting her eyes flutter shut as she tried to center herself, tried to ground herself in reality and sanity and wakefulness before diving into the grief that was doubtless waiting for her in the compressed file before her.

But before she could open her eyes and tap that blue ball of data open, JARVIS spoke up.

"There is something I believe you should hear first, Miss, before looking at anything else. If I may?" came JARVIS's gentle voice.

Toni was silent for a long, breathless moment before she answered, eyes still closed, hands lifting up to tap at her arc reactor in a helpless display of anxiety, "Yes."

The room was immediately filled with the sound of Steve's voice, tinny and scratchy in that way everything from the '40s was, yet Toni nearly sobbed when she heard it, all the same.

"I have somethin' to say, alright." Steve's Brooklyn was creeping in, but his words were still clipped and short. "She's our soulmate, and we want to find her. She was taken right before our very eyes, behind enemy lines, yes, so we know there's not a great chance, we get that, and I know you're just doing your job, but you don't need to point it out to me one more time. I heard you the first four times."

A strange voice cut in, and Toni recognized the cadence of a reporter immediately—no matter the decade, they all sounded the same. "Yes, but you just said that you and Sergeant Barnes here are… soulmates." They hesitated awkwardly before needlessly clarifying, "As in partners."

"And?" That was Bucky's voice, and Toni couldn't help but let out a little laugh—while ignoring how much of a sob it was—at how much he sounded like he just didn't give a shit.

The reporter was clearly off balance. "Yes, but—"

Steve sighed as he interrupted, "Look, we are beyond caring at this point. They're not going to blue ticket either of us, even if they dared touch me, which they don't, and I don't care if the rest of the world hears. That's sort of the whole point of us talking to you. We want to find her, or at least for her to know we're looking for her—Toni, why wouldn't we, doll? You mean so much to us. And—"

It was as if Steve had reached through the decades and punched Toni right in the gut. Her breath rushed out of her in a gasp, and white noise filled her ears. She knew she was missing more words, but she just… fuck, she needed to get ahold of herself. With great effort, Toni refocused again in time to catch the rest.

Bucky was speaking, at this point. "—we want the world to know. She taught us somethin' important before she went missing, and it was that there's a better, brighter future ahead of us all. That we jus' hurt ourselves more by hidin' our feelings, by hiding our love, and that we can change the world if we just try. Which we're obviously doing with the war, but these problems won't just go away once we've gotten ridda the bad guys of the day."

"We," Steve interrupted impatiently, "just want to get the word out. Please," he added after a pause. "Can you do that for us? We asked you because we respect your work, and believe you could be a strong ally, and we'll be happy to answer as many of your other questions as we can, just… please."

A pause. "What can I do to help?" The reporter sounded like they honestly meant it.

Sighing with relief, Bucky picked up where Steve had left off earlier. "Her name is Antonia, she's our soulmate, our third, and we want her back. We'll tear apart the whole world if we hafta—"

"Turn it off, J," Toni said, heart in her throat.

The memory of Bucky and Steve's voices rang in her ears, filling the silence of the workshop around her.

The emptiness in the back of her mind pressed on her more than ever. She had been doing a damn good job of ignoring it, ignoring the emotional pain of it, until she'd heard their voices. Then, it was like the floodgates had opened, and Toni was drowning in memories.

Or she would've been, if JARVIS hadn't started speaking, obviously recognizing her distress. Toni latched onto his voice, onto the safety of him even when the words he was speaking were painful in and of themselves—she just knew they would be, but she needed to hear, needed to know, needed to see for herself what had happened to them.

She focused on breathing, focused on listening, focused on not falling apart.

"In the wake of that interview, the news spread like wildfire across the world, Miss. You would be proud of them, I imagine, as they helped to spark a conversation that apparently, according to the discrepancy between your watch's drive and my database, wouldn't have come in earnest for another couple of decades. It was not their primary aim, no, though there would be no word of you in the wake of your disappearance, as you have already surmised, but it was an aim, it seems. As with everything to do with Captain America and the Howling Commandos, this too has been picked apart, but it is my conclusion that it brought nothing but positive change. The advancement of same-sex civil rights has been linked back to this moment as clearly as to Stonewall, and the national discourse on polyamorous rights appears to be far ahead of your past timeline."

A bittersweet smile unfurled across Toni's lips. "Good," she whispered. She was so proud of them, so very proud. They had taken her words to heart, taken their many conversations as hope for the future, and decided to take their status and use it for the betterment of all, even if their primary motivation had been to… "To find me. J, they tried to find me?" She still couldn't open her eyes, both afraid and hopeful that this was all a dream.

"Yes, Miss. They did. They all did, including your father, it appears."

Toni inhaled sharply, surprised, and then laughed. She laughed, and laughed, until her sides started to hurt and tears were trailing down her cheeks. She laughed until a hysterical edge started to creep in and she was sure she was about to burst into tears at a moment's notice.

Earth's greatest defender, at your service.

Classy.

But, well, it wasn't every day that you realized your father in all likelihood named you after yourself.

"Okay, okay," she panted, still laughing but letting it trail off, and ignoring the tears that were tracking down her cheeks with increasing frequency. "I'm good, I'm good," she repeated to herself, over and over like a mantra. As if just saying it often enough would make it true.

She wasn't okay. Fuck no.

There was no good reason for her to be okay. Everything was different, and for the first time in her life Toni found herself unsure of the future. She was off balance, didn't know where she stood, and had just been wrenched from what amounted to one reality to another. She had just been finding her stride in 1944, had just been getting somewhere with the boys, only to find her head spinning yet again. She had just found out who had sent her back, only for them to come by again, now that they were fucking bored with her life, apparently, and to decide just like that to whisk her away once more.

A large part of her hadn't wanted to leave, she was just now realizing.

She needed to know more, though, and she was only delaying the inevitable.

Toni just needed to pull the goddamn trigger.

"What happened? How did they die?" she asked into the sudden silence made all the more looming for lack of her hysterics.

"I'm afraid to say it appears to have occurred in a similar manner in both timelines, Miss," JARVIS said quietly, and Toni's shoulders slumped.

She hadn't been able to save them after all. Bucky had still been lost in the Alps, and Steve had still gone down with the Valkyrie.

She hadn't been able to save two of those who mattered most to her. Two she had vowed to save.

She'd failed.

JARVIS continued after a moment of letting her absorb the information, "The only differences are the dates, and minor discrepancies in the locations and events leading up to their deaths, which do not amount to much. I have available the audio of Captain Rogers—"

"No," Toni whispered. "No, I can't. Not yet."

"Very well, Miss. I will keep the rest set aside and compile more for you for another time, then. It will be on your private server."

"Thank you," she replied by rote, before descending into silence once more. JARVIS was giving her space, she knew that, but she couldn't even drum up the ability to be grateful.

She was numb, so numb, and she wasn't even sure how she ended up on the floor—she just had, from one moment to the next, or from one hour to the next, she wasn't even sure. She didn't know what time it was, didn't know how she felt or what to think or what to do. She wasn't even aware that she'd put her head between her knees until she felt wetness pooling against her legs from tears she hadn't even been aware she was crying.

Pulling back just enough so that she could breathe, Toni froze when she caught sight of a flash of black ink out of the corner of her eye. Slowly, heart thundering in her ears, Toni pulled her foot closer, and with a gasp she realized what it was.

A soulmark.

Another soulmark.

There, written around her ankle, was another soulmark.

July 12th, 2011. 11:02am.  60°58'22.1"N 41°13'59.4"W

Four days from now.

Toni blinked, and stared. And stared. And stared.

"JARVIS…?" she finally queried, voice strained but hopeful—so very hopeful. She tamped down the fear that had initially rushed through her, the anger at the thought that Fate would so cruelly grant her someone else, someone other than the men who were hers, telling herself that no, no, she recognized those numbers.

She had seen them over and over throughout her life. They were—

"The coordinates are just off the shore of Greenland, Miss; on the ice shelf," JARVIS immediately replied, as if knowing exactly what she'd been asking.

"Is that…?" she trailed off, not quite able to say it.

"It matches the approximate location of Captain Rogers' last broadcast," he confirmed.

She gulped down the emotions that were trying to escape her throat and through the tears which had started to pour down her cheeks, but knew she was fighting a losing battle. "J… I think you should get me Pepper and Rhodey now. Please." A pause. "And start manufacturing the cold weather armor—Mark VIII, right?"

"IX in this timeline, Miss."

"Right," she replied softly. "That."