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leave the gun on the table

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As far as kidnappings go, this one is almost civilized. Apart from the fact that they greet him by pulling a bag over his head and knock him unconscious before he can say a single word.

Tony wakes up in a mostly clean warehouse, though, instead of some cell in a ratty basement where he is sure to catch pneumonia and die before Stark Industries would have a chance to pay ransom, even if they were in the habit of doing so. His hands and feet are bound with rope that sits tight but not enough to hinder his blood circulation. It feels like a professional job, fancy knot and all.

Most importantly, he is not hurt beyond the distant throbbing of where they hit his temple earlier.

Blinking fully awake, Tony finds himself facing a man. He is rather short and stocky. A mop of dirty blond hair sticks up over the mask covering his face.

“Good evening,” Tony says amiably.

The man narrows his eyes at Tony but does not lash out as he half-expected. Somehow, he does not think that is a good sign. It feels as if they are waiting for something.

“Do you think we could deal with this unfortunate business quickly? I’ve got –” A slap cuts Tony off, the sound of flesh on flesh ringing loudly in the otherwise empty warehouse.

It was not hard enough to split his lip. Tony is not sure it will even bruise. It was a warning, nothing more. More so, this is all still so terribly polite that he considers heeding it.

Before he can decide on a course of action, the man steps forward and puts his hands on Tony’s jacket – or rather inside it. He goes for the inside pocket and gets out the USB drive Tony has taken to carrying everywhere as if he has known exactly what to go for. On the drive are Tony’s personal projects and some stuff he does not exactly want to fall into the hands of his board members. All of them have constant dollar signs in their eyes but Tony thinks there are limits to what they should make their money with.

Truth be told, his conscience got more or less only reborn when they refused all of his attempts at steering the company in new directions. Green energy, communication, medical technology. Tony is good at what he does. He can revolutionize more than just the weapons market. That would come with risks, though, and the board does not want to take any as long as Tony is making them enough money without them.

Tony glares at the man, who holds the drive up in the air, looking at it with some disdain as if he does not think that little thing is worth all the trouble of snatching Tony Stark off the street. He obviously does not know the kind of gold mine he is holding. The data on it is saved elsewhere too, of course, but getting the drive is much easier than breaking into Tony’s home and getting the information from there. This feels less and less like a random kidnapping.  

Tony’s mind immediately runs through the handful of people who know about the existence of the USB drive. Pepper and Obie do. Some of the board members should at least suspect that he is not going to stop making plans even if they rejected them. A few people down in R&D might know, not anything specific, though.

In front of him, the man speaks into an earpiece. “Got it.”

So there are more of them lurking somewhere. At least two where present when they picked him up, but Tony does not think that will be all. Getting to him, even if he is rather lax with his own security, needs more than two brains.

“If all you wanted was the USB drive, you could have asked, you know?” Tony speaks up in as nonchalant a tone as he dares. Sometimes, it is better to show some fear, but Tony has never quite managed to let go of his pride long enough for that. “There was no need to drag me all through town to your stunningly clean lair.”

The man’s mouth twitches, but Tony is sure it is not from amusement.

“Don’t they teach you posh people when to shut up?” the man growls, but makes no further move.

“Conversation furthers the horizon,” Tony quips, watching the man closely without being too obvious about it. “Perhaps you should try it sometime.”

The man takes a step forward until he towers over Tony. The hand holding the drive is balled into a fist. Tony knows how this story goes. They tell him to be quiet and follow their rules, he keeps provoking them until they make a mistake. Sometimes they do not make mistakes, but Tony has made it out of every kidnapping alive up until now.

“Don’t.” A woman steps up. Bright red hair, moving in her combat boots as if she is doing ballet. This one is dangerous.

“Why not?” the man asks. He whips up his hands but instead of them breaking Tony’s skin with a hit, he produces a mass of dirty cloth out of thin air and forces it into Tony’s mouth, effectively gagging him.

The woman glares. Even though it is not directed at Tony, he feels the primal urge to flee or at least duck. The man does not even flinch. Perhaps she looks tougher than she is, although Tony’s gut tells him it is the other way around.

Before they can continue their argument, two more men enter the room. They are both tall, but where one is blonde the other is dark. The dark one’s glare is almost as potent as the woman’s and definitely meant for Tony. His eyes are unforgiving, making Tony feel like this might be personal after all. All of their masks reveal just enough of their faces to make them fearsome, definitely human but less approachable for it.

When the men come closer, something metallic glints between them, but Tony cannot get a good look. It could be a gun but just as well a strangely coloured glove.

Without a word, the short guy hands over the USB drive to the tall blond, who studies it briefly then pockets it with a sigh. Just a moment ago, it seemed like they were only after the drive. Now, though, the air is filled with a new tension, harder somehow.

They communicate silently and it feels like an argument. For once, Tony thinks better of disturbing the silence. He would probably even do so if he were not currently gagged. The blond, who has to be the leader, considering that they are all waiting for his verdict, nods tersely. His shoulders are painfully straight, almost as if he does not want to be here.

“All right,” he says. His voice sounds like it could be melodic if it were not infused with disdain. When he turns his head and looks at Tony, his eyes are cold, making Tony shudder. “Let’s do this.”

Ice spreads through Tony at this and it has nothing to do with the sense of impending violence filling the air. He knows these words, knows them by heart. During his childhood, he used to recite them to himself as if they were a prayer. He has never imagined hearing them in a situation like this.

The words alone would not mean anything, of course. He has heard them a thousand times. They are accompanied by a burning sensation crawling up his arm, however, touching a place he has kept covered up since he was eight years old and woke up to these exact words in a sprawling script across his forearm. The first words his soulmate would ever say to him. It is just his miserable luck that he would hear them during a kidnapping.

Tony’s focus zeroes in on the man who has spoken them, oblivious to the fact that he has just now declared his soulmate fair game to his companions. He is still looking at Tony but no recognition flickers to life in his eyes.

Tony strains against the rope keeping him mostly immobile and then against the cloth in his mouth. He does not know what he would say, even if he had full control over his tongue, but he feels like he has to do something. He yells something unintelligible. It does not have any effect.

Before he can do anything else, a dark shape steps in front of him, obscuring his view of the gang leader, and the first punch hits him square in the stomach, dispersing all rational thought.

The first hit is never the worst. It feels like it, certainly, because no matter how unavoidable a fight appears, that first step from a simple argument into a violent, physical altercation will always have something unreal to it, something impossible to brace for.

This time, Tony did not know he had to brace for something. Despite the kidnapping and the harshness in these people’s words and movements, their encounter has almost felt like a straight up business transaction. Someone wants Tony’s personal files, so they are getting them. This does not feel like part of a deal, but not like they are just roughing him up for the fun of it either.

All other thoughts leave him when the fist hits him again, hard enough to throw him out of the chair. Distantly, he feverishly tries to concentrate on possible reasons for why they are doing this so he does not have to think about his burning forearm and the fact that the gang boss who has just ordered Tony’s beating is his soulmate.

Tony hits the ground with a crack. Years of practice have him guarding his head with his arms, even though that leaves the rest of his body unprotected. He rolls up into as tight a ball as possible and tries not to count the blows. His brain being what it is, he cannot help collecting information anyway.

Despite the flurry of blows and kicks, Tony is sure that only two of them are actually working on him, although they do not hold back and do enough damage on their own.

Some of Tony’s ribs crack with a dry sound. It is not so much the pain than the knowledge of what is happening to him that has whimpers escape his throat. When he instinctively reaches downward, the next blow lands in his face. The taste of copper and iron explodes on his tongue and blood clogs his nose, making him unable to breathe. A kick hits his ribcage and pushes the rest of the air out of his lungs.

After that, everything blurs, pain and the ringing in his ears and the proof that fate hates him. Hours might pass in which Tony is undone. The worst part is that, even caught in agony, Tony cannot stop wanting to know why.

Several long minutes after Tony is certain that he cannot take any more, he hears the leader say, “Enough.”

It is impossible to say whether anyone argues, and Tony does not even notice the exact moment the blows stop coming. All he can focus on beyond the impossible state of his body is his soulmate’s voice. Even like this, it causes an instinctive longing. If this were not one of the worst nights of his life, Tony might laugh.

“Are you feeling better now?” Tony hears he leader ask once his senses begin returning to him. There is a dry kind of humour in his tone that belongs anywhere but here, washing over Tony’s broken body.

“No,” comes the answer. Tony does not know that voice so it has to be the dark-haired man, the one with a grudge.

“We could cut off his arm,” the short man supplies with unholy glee. He barely sounds winded. “To make it fair.”

Terror has Tony flinching back from them. He tries to curl up around his arms, to protect them as best as he can, but stills when the pain is too much to bear. They cannot take his arms from him. He needs them so he can keep working. He has given so much of himself away already to satisfy the sharks constantly surrounding him, he cannot lose his arms too.

Distantly, the voice of the leaders filters through the rushing panic in Tony’s mind. “I said enough.”

The pathetic truth is, if Tony could, he would thank the gang leader for his mercy. He would push himself onto his knees and bow his head before him. He would –

“Let’s get rid of him.”

Steps are moving closer, but Tony stays where he is, pressed against the floor. When he blinks, his entire vision is stained red. If he is lying in a puddle if his own blood, it would explain the wetness on his cheek.

Hands reach for his arms and legs. He feels the sharp coldness of metal against his skin and then the ropes keeping him bound are cut. Tony’s relief at the sudden loss of pressure is short-lived, because then they are pulling at his limbs, stretching him to pick him up like a sack of flour.

No, Tony wants to scream. It comes out as nothing more than a muffled whimper as a new wave of agony rips through him. His head is dragged over the ground for several feet until the hoist him higher with an abrupt movement.

Tony is sure he loses his consciousness for several seconds because the next thing he feels is cold air against his skin, biting against bruises that are not yet fully formed. He is lying on the ground again, which is rougher now, like broken asphalt. Groaning, he tries to swallow but finds the rug still in his mouth.

It takes him an eternity to lift his hand to pull the gag out of his mouth, and then he still tastes more blood and ends up coughing when he tries to spit it out. After that, he greedily pushes fresh air into his lungs, no matter that this intensifies the pain in his ribs – or rather his pain everywhere. Tony feels like one giant wound, a plaything of fate, now abandoned by it.

His soulmate, he remembers then, and that pain is almost more acute than the physical one. Sentimentality has never had a place in their family but Tony has never stopped hoping he might find that one person who is best for him in all the world. Howard and Maria had not been soulmates but Jarvis and Ana had. Tony has always known whose life he would rather have.

Now, though, life has taken another cruel turn. Tony is not sure he can take it.

With a slow but impatient movement, he rips the brace from his left forearm, staring at the words he knows better than anything else in the world. Words that, tonight, have turned from grey to black, meaning that there is no mistake. He has met his soulmate and his soulmate has turned him into a wreck.

Let’s do this.

Tony has not needed this proof. The burning was enough. The feeling of a hook sinking into his intestines, pulling him apart, was enough. Perhaps Howard was right and Tony is really going to ruin everything he touches, and everything that touches him will ruin him more.

Defiance rises in his stomach, almost indistinguishable from fury. Staring at the words on his forearm, Tony yells, “Are you fucking kidding me?” It ends up as more of a whisper, but it tears at his throat as if he had screamed.

To his surprise, he hears footsteps closing in from behind him. Immediate fear takes hold of him even while he tries to crawl away. He does not come far, the pain makes it hard to properly coordinate his limbs.

The gang leader crouches down in front of him. Out of all of them, he is the one Tony wants to see the least. In fact, he would rather take another beating than face his shame head on.

“What did you just say?”

For the first time, he sounds angry. Inside the warehouse, he had been tense and resigned, but now it looks like he feels the first sliver of the disappointed rage that is nesting in Tony’s bones too, the sense of betrayal. Because this cannot be true, that the best thing in the world should be reduced to this.

A thousand different things sit on Tony’s tongue, ranging from curses over accusations to pleas. Instead, he blinks the blood out of his eyes and focuses on the man in front of him as best as he can.

“Are. You. Fucking. Kidding. Me,” he repeats his words, spits them out as if they do not mean anything, as if they are not tearing him apart anew.

“That’s not possible,” the gang leader says.

Tony opens his mouth to laugh, but there is somehow still more blood trickling down the back of his throat, so he ends up having another coughing fit.

Possible is such a pedestrian word. It has never played much of a role in Tony’s life. Everything is impossible until it is done for the first time. That said, he wishes that this were a lie too.

Impatiently, the blonde pulls Tony’s arm towards him, staring intensely at the black words curling condemningly over bruised skin. It is hard to say in the dim light and with just one eye working as it should, but Tony thinks the man has gone white as a sheet.

Not saying anything, he holds his own arm next to Tony’s and rips up his sleeve, revealing words that Tony knew would be there.

Are you fucking kidding me?

Still silent, the gang leader raises his head slowly, then stares at Tony for several long minutes. They are at an impasse. There is no good or right way forward from this. They have navigated themselves into a dead end before they even met. Well, mafia guy has done all the leading. Tony has been dragged in screaming and was kicked into place.

With a sigh that sounds like he is no stranger to impossibly fucked up situations, the gang leader pulls his mask from his head, revealing a handsome if tired face. Right after noticing the strong jaw line, Tony shuts his eyes and turns his head away. There is nothing for him to see here. Tony does not want to know the face of this man. He remembers the heaviness of his cold eyes well enough.

“Did you know?”

Incredulity spreads through Tony at the question. Still, he clenches his jaw and keeps his mouth shut. Nothing good will come of engaging in a conversation with the other man. Their story is already over. All he wants to do now is to go home, take a hot bath to soothe his bruises, and forget any of this ever happened.

A hand settles around Tony’s chin. It is gentle but he instinctively flinches away from it. The gang leader does not let him escape though. Firmly, he pulls Tony’s head back around, then leaves his hand there for a moment longer to make sure Tony stays facing him.

“What?” Tony snaps. He hates himself for noticing how handsome the man is, how easily he can imagine him smiling. “How could I have known? You obviously know who I am, so it should not surprise you that I don’t make a habit of dealing with the mob.”

Lips curling up slightly in what can only be amusement, the man replies, “We’re not the mob.”

That is so not the point, and still Tony lets himself fall into the argument willingly. He is lying on the cold ground, bleeding, with broken ribs, but talking about technicalities is better than dealing with the fact that this man is supposed to be the one person he gets his happily ever after with.

“No?” Tony drawls, feeling the split in his upper lip throb. “Yet someone paid you money to beat me up and you happily agreed. Quite thoroughly too.”

Fury, Tony knows, helps with the pain. It gives him something to cling to.

The man has the audacity to look embarrassed. At the same time, his face clouds over with the same hardness he carried when he first joined his men.

“We were told you’re dealing with weapons under the table.”

Tony stares. Tonight is a night of utter strangeness. Curiously enough, he finds this bit of information more unbelievable than finding his soulmate.

Dealing under the table? That does not even make sense. Stark Industries has countless standing contracts. They are making enough money. There is absolutely no reason why Tony would sell his weapons illegally. He would not even know to whom. It is not as if he wants there to be even more fighting in the world. On the contrary. With less war, he would perhaps get his board of directors to approve some of his personal projects.

“Oh wow, good point,” Tony drawls, unable to help himself. Fury might help with the pain but not exactly with keeping his tongue in check. “Even if that were true, you really would have done some good work today. Clearly I’m cured from my evil ways now.”

There must have been more to it. They went for the USB drive with the coldness of trained professionals. The rest of it felt personal and not like part of the job. They did not even give him a reason, did not attempt to teach him a lesson. It was just raw rage unleashed on him.

“We’ve had some reservations where it comes to weapons,” the gang leader says without explaining anything. 

Looking at his soulmate, Tony finds himself believing that someone must have told these people that he is dealing with weapons and that they took it at face value. They obviously have a problem with it, but they are clearly no pacifists. Threatening to cut someone’s arm off, too, goes far beyond reasonable indignation.

Still, he finds he does not actually want to know. The faster he gets out of here, the better. He has no desire to cure them of their misconception. Few people react kindly to that and he has had enough of their hospitality.

“Who paid you?” Tony asks, concentrating on the important things.

A big part of him wants to stay ignorant, to hide his head in the sand and continue on with his life. He needs to know, though. Accusing Tony of dealing under the table makes only sense if there is some evidence to back up the claim, and if there is evidence, Stark weapons might just really be out where they do not belong. Since Tony is not selling his weapons on the black market, someone else must be doing it. Tony can turn a blind eye to a lot of things but not to causing more death and destruction for profit.

“I can’t tell you that,” the gang leader says, although he has the decency to sound apologetic about it.

“Of course, you have to be the honourable kind of mob boss.” Tony sighs, feeling annoyed. All the while, he thinks he should be glad about that fact. Otherwise, the two men inside might have just beaten him to death or permanently maimed him. Tony knows which of these options he is more afraid of.

“We’re not the mob,” the blonde repeats, “and I’m no one’s boss.”

“Is that why your mob friends waited for your signal to split their knuckles on me?”

The blonde winces slightly, but Tony takes no satisfaction from it. The only reason he is still talking to the other man at all is because he is afraid of trying to move again. Now that he is lying very still, his body has turned into one throbbing wound, sharp spikes of warning shooting through him whenever he takes too deep a breath. Any kind of movement will throw him right back into agony.

“That’s not how we normally do things.”

How reassuring. Soulmates are supposed to protect each other, and even if they had not known, there should have been more reluctance about taking another man apart.

“I feel so fucking special right now,” Tony snaps and pointedly stares into the darkness above him.

The gang leader sighs and shifts his position so he sits down next to Tony. It would serve him well if his legs would hurt from crouching too long.

Tony would like to ask what he is even still doing here. They got the USB drive and a bit of personal revenge thrown in. They are done. The burning in their forearms will fade with time, so they can just go back to their own lives – which will hopefully never touch again. This once was enough.

“My name is Steve.”

The words fall into the silence between them like stones in a well. It feels like they are echoing several times inside Tony’s mind before they fully register. The gang leader – his soulmate – has a name now. Somehow, that makes it too real.

“Don’t tell me that,” Tony says shortly, wishing he could burn the knowledge from his brain. “I’ve already seen your face. You don’t have to give your guys more reasons to kill me.”

At the same time, he thinks the name fits. Despite his occupation, there is a kindness to his face, an all-American wholesomeness that matches the name. Tony still thinks he would have rather not found out. The more his soulmate turns into an actual person rather than a masked mob leader, the harder it will be to leave this behind.

Steve looks partly amused, partly guilty. “We’re not going to kill you.”

“Tell that to my body. Did you know that I have a heart condition?” Tony is rambling, he notices that too late. The exhaustion is creeping up on him.

“What?” Steve asks quickly as if he is actually concerned. “What happened? Are you all right?”

Another laugh is stuck in Tony’s throat. This situation gets more surreal by the minute.

“Stop this,” he croaks, batting away the hand that comes up unexpectedly, pressing against Tony’s sternum as if they have somehow passed into the level of intimacy where that is all right.

“What is wrong with your heart?” Steve asks, unimpressed by Tony’s attempts to push him away.

Momentarily, Tony is glad that whoever hired them did not know about his weak heart and the pacemaker sitting right under his skin. That might mean that it is not someone out of his inner circle – or they just thought the information irrelevant.

Distantly, he notices that Steve has now both of his hands on him, propping Tony up into a sitting position. Every fibre of his body protests at the sudden movement.

“What are you doing?” he demands, breathless from the pain.

“Getting you back inside,” Steve answers as if that is a reasonable thing to say. Inside is where Tony’s latest nightmare happened. Inside is where Steve’s friends are waiting, ready to cut off his arm after all.

“Like hell you will,” Tony mutters and puts all his energy into getting out of Steve’s hold.

It does not help much. He wants to struggle more, but the world is swimming in and out of sight before him as blackness creeps into his vision.

One of his blind hits actually meets flesh but Steve barely seems to notice. He does not react, in any case, other than readjusting his grip on Tony. Before he knows what is happening, Tony is lifted into the air, feet dangling, head pressed against Steve’s shoulder. The utter embarrassment of being carried bridal style by the very man who gave the order that has Tony currently unable to walk on his own is turning his cheeks hot.

“You’re hurt,” Steve explains as they are walking back towards the warehouse.

This time, Tony does not have it in him to even try to laugh. “I wonder how that happened,” he says, acid coating the words. “Let me go,” he then demands. His authority is dampened by both his physical state and the position he is in, but he tries his best. “Either you kill me now or you leave me alone. Choose one option.”

Abruptly, Steve comes to a halt. He does not let go of Tony, which has them standing awkwardly in the dim alleyway behind the warehouse, looking at each other with all the incomprehension of strangers unsure how to deal with each other. He seems actually contrite about Tony suggesting they would kill him. Finding his soulmate has certainly addled Tony’s wits too but not so much to entirely forget the past hours. If Steve is going to pretend nothing happened, they are going to have a problem with each other.

“But we’re –” Steve says but does not come any farther.

“Nothing,” Tony snaps with as much viciousness as he can muster. “We are obviously nothing.” Almost as if to punish himself, he adds, “I always thought that soulmate business was dubious. Guess I was right.”

He can deal with his disappointment later. With the crushing realization that Howard was right about so many things, that Tony will never be like Jarvis. There is no happy ending waiting for him here.

Still holding onto Tony, Steve looks down at him, face painfully earnest. “I didn’t know.”

Fury roars its ugly head in the pit of Tony’s stomach again. He wants to spit in Steve’s face, wants to scratch out his eyes. What does it matter if Steve has known? He is a gang leader, a thug. He took money to kidnap Tony, steal his private thoughts and projects, and then let his friends beat him up.

Tony sneers. “You say that as if it’s going to make anything better.”

It implies that, if Tony had not turned out Steve’s soulmate, it would have been all right what happened here tonight. Whether or not Tony is actually the one dealing with weapons. Steve is running a gang, they are kidnapping people up for money and possibly do worse. None of that is okay.

Slowly, Steve begins walking again. “Someone’s got it out for you,” he says calmly, ignoring Tony’s barb. “We can help.”

Unable to help himself, Tony snorts a laugh, even while he clenches his jaw to keep in the hysteria he feels rising inside himself.

“No, thanks,” he drawls, the disdain tasting bitter on his own tongue. “You’ve done quite enough. Also, wasn’t I just now still the bad guy? Just because your little tattoo is burning doesn’t mean I’m not selling weapons under the table.”

Looking down, he sees that Steve has covered up his arm again before he picked Tony up, probably unwilling to let his friends see the black words.

“You said you don’t,” Steve answers, sounding so earnest that Tony is not sure whether he should feel disgusted by it or in awe. “And you’re in no condition to lie.”

Just like that, Tony’s awe disperses as quickly as it has come. “Oh, darling,” he clicks his tongue, “if you believe that, don’t ever go into politics. People like us can lie even with our mouths sewn shut. It’s all we ever do.”

Steve frowns but does not stop walking. “You’re not a politician.”

It is a small mercy that Howard never had any patience for politics, or Tony would have been forced to deal with that too. Still, he smirks.

“I’m a businessman. That’s almost as bad.”

Despite the situation, despite who they are, Tony would have preferred to continue their argument to going back into the warehouse. Before he can add another barb or try to struggle out of Steve’s hold again, they are at the door – and Steve does not hesitate to go in.

As soon as the relative brightness inside is washing over them, Tony goes limp in Steve’s hold. No matter what is about to happen, he is not going to draw immediate attention to himself but will try to glean some more information from their surroundings.

What he sees are the three people from earlier, two men, one woman. They are still wearing their masks, although the stocky blonde has pushed it up far enough to eat something that looks suspiciously like soggy pizza. It smells like it too – which has Tony’s stomach roiling. Not only did someone think of picking up food before they went to beat someone up, their bloody work has also not diminished their appetite.

When Steve steps closer towards them, still carrying Tony with unexpected gentleness, they all look up. Their behaviour is not exactly deferential, but they do respect Steve, that much is obvious.

“What happened, Stevie?” the dark-haired man asks, taking a step closer. “Did the bastard die?”

There is unmistakeable glee in his voice. If his instincts had not let him go very still, Tony might have poked Steve and asked whether he would admit yet that taking him back inside was a bad idea. He is not sure what he has done to these people, but they are overly interested in his permanent demise.

“No,” Steve says. Tony feels the rumbling of his voice through the cheek his has still pressed against Steve’s shoulder. “He’s alive.”

That has the blond man perking up with interest. “Then what are you doing? Are we taking kill orders now?” He sounds a little bit too eager for Tony’s taste.

The woman, too, looks up, scrutinizing them more critically than either of the men. Tony is sure she knows that he is awake and listening to every word they say.

“We’re not going to kill anyone,” Steve says, making this sound like a normal conversation. “He didn’t do it.”

A stunned silence follows, in which Tony can feel their stares on him. Steve, however, does not let that push him off course. He lowers Tony down onto what feels like a metal table, perhaps a workbench. It is not comfortable but certainly a step up from the cracked concrete outside. He decides not to think too much about the way Steve runs his hands down Tony’s sides as if to make sure he is not going to fall off the table. Only when he is satisfied that Tony is secure, does he straighten his spine and faces his friends.

“And you know that how?” the blond asks, aggression crackling in his tone. “Did he look at you with his big innocent eyes and tell you? You know these assholes sing such pretty songs when they think you want to hear them.”

Tony dares to hope that it is a good sign that he waited for Steve to look at them before he voiced his argument. They step up closer, forming a half-circle in front of Steve. It does not look like they are going to go against Steve’s orders but Tony does not like to take any chances.

Swallowing down a groan, he pushes himself slowly into a sitting position. His movement has Steve whip around, eyeing him with concern. He neither stops nor tries to help him. Tony is unreasonably glad for that.

“One of his eyes is innocent,” Steve argues calmly, pointing at Tony’s face, which is now easily visible. “The other is already swollen shut, but I’m sure we’d find the same thing there.”

As if the mention of his eye triggers some reaction, Tony feels the pulsing pain covering most of his face. He also becomes acutely aware of the optical information he is missing while looking with just one eye.

“That’s still one eye too many he can still see with.”

While the blond man does most of the talking, Tony still feels the glare of the dark-haired one the most. Just as worrisome is the knife the woman is twirling almost absentmindedly. He does not doubt she could hit him with it before he ever noticed she is moving.

Steve’s position changes subtly. Where he was the very picture of nonchalance only moments before, he now shifts his position and his mere presence demands respect for his authority. Where he had just now been simply standing in front of Tony, he is now shielding him, declaring him off-limits with just the way he stands.

“Call Bruce,” Steve orders, causing a ripple to go through the room.

The twirling knife comes to a smooth halt in the woman’s hands, ready to be thrown. Next to her, the blond man is taking a step forward, arms half-raised to gesticulate wildly.

“We’re not going to patch the bastard up,” he yells, but could have been screaming against a wall for how little Steve reacts to it.

The most interesting is the dark-haired man, though. He somehow becomes even more still than before, his expression crumbling into something alive with betrayed fury. “Steve?” he asks, crossing his arms before him.

Only now does Tony see that the metallic glint he has seen earlier belongs to a prosthetic replacing most of the man’s left arm. That comment about cutting off Tony’s arm appears to be less random with every passing minute.

“He needs medical attention,” Steve says as if his friends have not been the one to put Tony into this position.

For several long moments, it feels like the tension is going to resolve not in their favour but in another bout of rampant violence. They are staring at each other, either communicating silently or simply waiting to see who caves first. Tony has never been good at being patient, though. Neither does he like to leave his fate up to anyone else.

“I can totally see that you’re no one’s boss around here,” Tony drawls. It takes him a few moments to realize that the words have come out of his own mouth. When all the attention shifts towards him, he can already taste blood again.

“Shut up, Stark,” the blond man hisses, taking another step forward until he is almost level with Steve, “or I’m going to kick out your teeth.”

For a fleeting moment, Tony thinks he would regret causing Steve’s men to turn against him. He does not owe Steve anything, but he is not going to deny the connection between them either. It might be frustrating to feel somewhat beholden to a man who has happily thrown him to the wolves just earlier this night, but fate is funny like that.

“That’s enough,” Steve speaks up. He does not exactly raise his voice, but it is still cutting through the tension easily, as if the pent-up wish for violence parts before his words.

The blond man glares for a second longer, then visibly steps down. The woman does not lower her knife, though, and the dark-haired man has not changed his stance at all.

“But he’s the one –” he trails off, his expression stricken, not the kind of helpless that comes from not knowing what to do but something angrier. He half-raises his prosthetic, holds it between them for a moment, then lets it fall back to his side.

Even without seeing Steve’s face, Tony notices that his entire being grows softer. “I know,” he says. These two words hold so much emotion that it has Tony’s throat constricting again. “But he says he didn’t do it and I believe him.” Before the storm of protest that is brewing in front of them can hit, Steve raises his arm. “He’s my soulmate.”

All eyes fall immediately on Steve’s arm before wandering over to where Tony is still sitting hunched over on the table. He feels like he should straighten, meet their judgement head on, but he is glad that he manages to remain somewhat upright at all.

“He’s –” the dark-haired man narrows his eyes. Before he can make his argument, the other man takes over.

“That’s awfully convenient, don’t you think?” There is still anger in his tone but it is more contained now, almost uncertain.

Steve keeps his eyes firmly on the man in the back. A whole lot more passes between them than the words that are being spoken.

“You want to have a look at my tattoo?” he asks, almost gently. “You know the words were still grey this morning.”

It reveals a lot about how close they are if Steve is so comfortable asking about his words in the open like this, has obviously shown them to at least the dark-haired man. The only people knowing about Tony’s are Jarvis and Rhodey.

Nobody says anything while the two men look at each other, waiting for the verdict. The hierarchy between them confuses Tony. He feels like an intruder, like he should cover his ears and close his eyes to give them some privacy, even though they are discussing his fate.

Then, the dark-haired man nods. His prosthetic hand, which had been clenched into a fist, uncurls slowly. With it, some of the tension lifts.

Unfortunately, the blond man decides that, now that this argument is over, he can start pushing his own again. “Just because you found your soulmate doesn’t mean we’re playing nice with criminals now.”

Despite himself, Tony has to snort, half in amusement, half in mounting frustration at them getting nowhere. He is hurting all over. All he wants is to go to bed, to get back to his old life. Navigating the board members and the press following him everywhere is still better than waiting to be judged by these people.

“Yes, because I’m clearly the criminal here.”

The blond turns on him, face a distorted grimace. “For the last time –”

“Clint.” Steve’s voice whips through the room and has them all standing straighter. Even Tony pushes his shoulders back, even though it makes breathing so much harder. Steve’s tone does not leave any more room for further arguments. “Call Bruce,” he then orders. “Nat, you find out exactly who hired us. And keep the USB drive safe. We won’t do anything more about this until we know what really happened.”

Distantly, Tony is aware that he should be worried about Steve throwing all their names out there where he can hear them. If this goes south, it reduces his chances of survival greatly. He is already not very happy to hear that his stay with Steve’s gang has apparently been extended for an unknown amount of time.

Clint stares balefully for a moment longer. “Fine,” he says with petulance, “but don’t expect me to hold his hands.”

Right in front of his eyes, Steve undergoes another transformation. From authoritative and unflinching, he grows smug and smirking. “Thank you,” he says with the kind of pleasantness that grates, “but I’ll do that myself.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Tony mutters, sharing a glance with Clint that could almost be conspiratorial if they were not both acutely aware of how very much they are not allies.

Turning around, Steve grins at Tony. “You already said that. But you’re welcome to continue. It makes my tattoo tingle.”

Briefly, Tony is tempted to ask Steve to repeat his words too, just to find out whether he is telling the truth. He holds himself back, though, thinking that they have more important things to deal with – and he does not suddenly think of Steve as a friend.

“Now,” Tony decides out loud, “would be a good time to wake up.”

He does not exactly think he is dreaming. He has the occasional weird dream, but he is too much in pain for this to not be real. Also, he is not in the habit of flirting with people who could order him dead with a single nod, asleep or not.

“You won’t say that tomorrow,” Steve says, returning to Tony’s side as if he wants to make true on what he said to Clint and hold Tony’s hands. “Everything will hurt more.”

Tony knows. This is not the first time he has gotten a beating. That does not mean he wants to be reminded of it.

“You’re not as encouraging as you hope,” he replies, realizing too late that he should not be joking. Soulmate or not, Tony is still in danger.

“We’ll get there,” Steve says cheerfully.

Before Tony can find something appropriate to answer, the woman – Nat – appears at their side. She has removed her mask and revealed a face that is all the more stunning for the control she has over it.  No matter how practiced Tony is at reading people, he cannot say at all what she is thinking.

“Here,” she lets two pieces of rope fall onto the table next to Tony.

“What’s that?” Steve asks, eyeing her with some amusement. “He’s not exactly in any condition to run.”

Tony thinks of protesting but he is still needing a lot of energy simply to keep sitting. Also, it might not be the worst thing if Steve underestimates him a bit, even though Natasha does not seem to be as easily fooled.

“You know who he is and what he can do,” she explains simply, no discernible judgement in her tone. She is just recounting facts. “Even if he’s not the one selling under the table, he can still do unholy things with his hands. I’d rather not find out first-hand.” 

She really is smart. Despite the newspaper stories about Tony’s accomplishments as a child, and his race through school and then MIT, people often think he is just a nice face and playboy who inherited his father’s company, making his only achievement that he has not yet managed to crash Stark Industries. People like to forget that he is the head of the R&D department, that his name is not for nothing on their products.

Tony cannot say whether she has done her research or is just that good at assessing people. In any case, Steve appears to believe her without doubt. He picks up the rope, throwing an apologetic glance at Tony.

“I’m not going to pull it too tight.”

Tony shrugs as if it does not matter to him and holds out his hands. It is demeaning, to be bound like a dog, offering up his own head for the slaughter. He does not have the energy to fight, though. And while he wants to leave, he also needs to find out what they know about who sold him out. He cannot go back to his old life ignoring what has happened here tonight.

The rope is tugged almost gently around his wrists, although Steve does not hesitate to make a proper knot. Once Natasha is satisfied with Steve’s work, she turns around and vanishes without another comment. When they are alone, Steve reaches out again, caressing Tony’s left forearm and the words sitting there innocently.

“I’ll get you an aspirin,” Steve promises. He still sounds like he expects everything to be all right.

Tony stares at him. Then his mouth opens without him knowing what he is going to say. “I wish I’d never met you.”

Inexplicably, it feels wrong to say that. Steve’s eyes turn sad for a moment, but he does not seem to believe it any more than Tony does. Despite the unfortunate circumstances of their meeting, this still feels like a beginning rather than a dead end.

“I know,” Steve replies quietly. “But I’m glad we did.” His lips curl up, making him look much more carefree than before.

“Don’t say it,” Tony warns but knows he will be ignored.

With a smirk, Steve says, “Let’s do this.”

With equal parts dismay and excitement, Tony realizes that Steve has been right. Saying the words again does make the tattoo tingle. Perhaps they will have to do some further study in whether or not that effect will fade over time.

 

Chapter Text

Tony blinks awake, a groan caught in his throat. He did not notice falling asleep, and it cannot have been for long since there is still no light filtering in through the dirt-stained windows of the warehouse, but the atmosphere has shifted.

Natasha is sitting cross-legged on another workbench in front of a laptop, glaring down at the screen as if it has personally offended her. Clint is nowhere in sight, for which Tony is very glad because the casual cruelty of the blonde is still ringing in his ears. At the far end of the warehouse, Steve and Bucky are standing close to each other, talking in low voices, with an urgency that is felt even from this distance.

Taking a deep breath, Tony stills. As promised, the pain has gotten worse. It has turned from the insistent throbbing of fresh bruises to the lingering pressure of wound pushing against wound. It is an easy decision to keep lying where he is for the moment, so he can think before he moves.

His head, at least, is clearer, less sluggish and, most importantly, less willing to just accept his fate. Exhaustions turns his eyelids heavy now that the adrenaline has drained out of his system, made worse by his short nap. What little hope he had that he would wake up at home, with this being nothing more than a particularly vivid nightmare is gone. And even while his thoughts feel more like his own again, he is not sure what to make of Steve.

Just from what is visible, Steve is a catch, tall and golden, with an impressive physique. His jawline speaks of stubbornness, and his lips of a readiness to smile. He carries himself with the easy confidence of a man comfortable in his own skin. If they had met out on the street somewhere, Tony has no doubt that he would have fallen for Steve like a bag of bricks.

They did not meet out on the streets, though, and now that Tony is more awake, it is hard to forget that.

The tingling of the completed soul bond has gotten worse. It spread from his forearm to settle inside his chest, where it is now sitting warm and heavy, almost alive as if it has any right to be there, as if this is somehow a good thing. 

Steve’s nearness fills Tony with that nonsensical longing, even though common sense tells him that is not real. These are not his feelings. They are altered through their bond, made worse by their physical closeness and Tony’s currently reduced energy levels. He has to get out of here to regain control over his senses. Like this, he cannot trust himself to make any decision.

Objectively, the matter is very easy, of course. Soulmates or not, Tony should get out of here and never look back. Every inch of his body feels the aftermath of what Steve is capable of.

For all his love of numbers and the simple logic of engineering, Tony has never been one for objectivity, however. He has been waiting to meet his soulmate for decades. He is not going to burn all his bridges before he has not studied them from afar.

Bracing himself, Tony sits up. That simple motion has him dizzy again, so he just sits for a long minute and concentrates on his breathing.

The ropes chafe. Tony is not sure why that is what his brain focuses on, considering that his entire body is one cramped ball of hurt, but every miniscule movement sends sharp spikes of pain through his wrists. The knot is expertly made but Tony can still move his fingers, and that is truly all he needs. Perhaps Steve should learn to listen more to his underlings. Tony definitely does not plan on staying put.

It takes him another moment to mentally prepare himself to get up, to will his body into complying. He never even manages to make the first step, though, because this is when the door of the warehouse opens and another man comes in, carrying a heavy bag and looking rather unwilling to be here.

Instinctively, Tony pushes back against the workbench, making himself small as he watches what is happening. With how badly Steve’s gang seems to think of him, he does not want to draw the newcomer’s attention.

The man does not look dangerous and definitely not like he belongs to the mob. Not in the way Natasha or Bucky do, or even Steve. All of them have a certain shady look to them, either too polished or too rugged. Bruce – for that is who Tony assumes the newcomer is - is wearing loose clothing and a pair of glasses that have seen better times, riding low on his nose. His hair stands up as wildly as Tony’s does after a long day in the workshop from running his hands through it while thinking.

“Who’s hurt?” he asks, wasting no breath on a greeting. His voice is hoarse but gentle.

Out of nowhere, Clint appears. Tony flinches in response, realizing he has not been as unwatched as he assumed. The mere thought has a shiver running down his back. Out of everyone here, he thinks Clint might be the most dangerous to him. Bucky might have a personal reason for hating him and Natasha appears to be the most competent, but Clint seems the most likely to act on his disdain.

“Over there,” Clint says, pointing directly at Tony. He looks like he wants to add something that is not going to be in Tony’s favour, but Steve comes towards them, occupying their attention easily.

Together they walk to where Tony is leaning against the workbench, doing his best to appear as if he does not need the metal to keep upright.

Bruce takes in the situation quickly, then narrows his eyes while his gaze lingers on the swollen side of Tony’s face. He trails deeper where more skin is exposed through tears in Tony’s clothing.

“What is going on here?” he asks in a flat tone.

Tony immediately changes his opinion about Bruce not being dangerous. The question holds an authority unlikely to be dismissed, trembling with the first hints of anger. It is just not clear yet whether it is directed at him.

“This is Stark,” Clint answers shortly, sparing a glare for Tony. “He’s responsible for –”

Cutting him off with a sharp gesture, Bruce keeps coming forward. “I can see that this is Tony Stark,” he says, sounding displeased. “I’m wondering why he looks the way he does.”

That, Tony decides, is a very good question. He would really like to know too what exactly happened that made these people hate him this much.

Bruce’s bag lands with a heavy thud on the workbench, and the vibration of that is enough to rattle Tony’s bruised bones. To his surprise, Bruce notices, his frown deepening. When he gestures at the metal surface, Tony does not hesitate to pull himself onto it again, relieved to take his weight off his legs.

“We had a misunderstanding,” Steve says. He is actually smiling, and Tony supposes it is meant to be reassuring. “He didn’t do what we were told.”

A misunderstanding, Tony thinks and swallows against the sudden dryness of his throat. Misunderstandings do no usually end in broken bones and concussions – and Tony is almost certain he has both of that. He cannot blame the directionless racing of his thought solely on the new soul bond, especially since it is paired with a searing headache.

At his side, Bruce glares. It is strangely powerful, all that intensity packed into such a small frame. Tony is not sure whether that bodes well for him, but for now, it is directed at Steve.

“Get out,” Bruce snaps, sounding ready to throw them out himself. Tony likes him more by the minute.

“But we’re –” Steve protests, holding out a hand as if to touch Tony but thinks better of it when Bruce shifts his position so that he stands in front of Tony. There is no denying that his stance is protective.

“Get. Out,” Bruce repeats, iron in his voice. “You especially, Steve.”

Steve does not want to go, that much is obvious, and Tony is at once afraid of being left alone with another possible enemy – although he does not think Bruce will turn out to be that – and glad to get more distance between himself and his supposed soulmate. It is hard to have a clear thought with the immediate, suggestive longing shooting through him every time he looks at Steve.

Natasha appears behind them and drags both Clint and Steve after her towards the door. She does not look any more moved by what is happening than she has all night.

Right before they are out of sight, she glances back at Bruce. “Leave his hands tied.”

Neither of them says anything while Steve and his friends leave. Tony stares at his wrists, unsure what to do or whether he should take his chance to get out now with only Bruce here to watch over him. He guesses everyone who is part of a gang must have had some training in hand-to-hand fighting, and Tony is not in any shape to offer much resistance, but he might be able to take Bruce with the element of surprise on his side.

Before he can make a decision, Bruce’s hands appear in his line of sight, holding a blade. Tony has no time to flinch away from it, because Bruce quickly cuts the rope binding him. With a sigh of relief, Tony rotates his wrists, staring at the abrasions, which burn now that the cold air can lick at them.

“I’m sorry,” Bruce says while Tony is still occupied with staring at his hands, not yet ready to look up again to face what is coming next.

“What?” Tony asks, surprised.

Tony’s situation is not Bruce’s fault. Even though he is part of Steve’s gang and must have known about their plan to kidnap Tony, he was not part of the attack. They will likely never become friends, but Tony knows better than to lay the blame where it does not belong. That is what put him in this situation, after all.

“I am sorry,” Bruce repeats slowly. “For what happened tonight.”

That is when Tony realizes that, no matter his abrupt turn of attitude, Steve has never apologized for letting Clint and Bucky beat him up. He picked Tony up, brought him in, made sure there would not be any more punishment for his imagined crimes, but it is as if Steve has decided to put the circumstances of their meeting behind them without further comment. With sudden clarity, Tony decides that is not going to happen.

“You weren’t here,” Tony says, even while he subtly rolls his shoulders, testing for pain. If he wants to get out of here, he needs to know which motions to avoid.

“Perhaps I should have been.” Bruce shrugs, although the gesture is not nonchalant. He turns towards his bag to open it, revealing a collection of bandages and other medical equipment. “I’m not usually part of that side of business, but I’ve heard them talking about you. Well, we’ve all been grumbling about Stark Industries for years.”

Wincing, Tony looks more warily at what Bruce is doing, afraid he might have misjudged after all. Bruce does not look like he is going to do Tony further harm, but Tony does not trust his instincts at the moment.

“Why? Is it true what Steve said? Someone told you I’m selling weapons on the black market?”

The questions barely make it over Tony’s lips. It is bad enough to think that someone is using his creations to cause more misery in this world and that they have been doing it for years. That someone also sold Tony out, perhaps knowing exactly how that would end – perhaps even counting on it and hoping that Steve’s friends would not stop.

Bruce stills, studying his bag closely enough that Tony knows he is vying for more time. Before he speaks, though, he looks up at Tony, meeting his eyes. Tony is very glad about that.

“Stark tech turns up where it shouldn’t be. It’s been going on for years. It’s done a lot of damage,” Bruce explains shortly, obviously not wanting to go into details. Tony is not ready to hear them anyway. “We’ve had some personal losses too. That doesn’t give them the right to take out their anger on you, though.”

He means what he is saying. Tony wonders whether he has ever met anyone not focused on revenge after having been wronged. 

“I’m obviously not going to defend them here,” Tony says slowly, absentmindedly rubbing his wrist, “but I don’t think rationality has anything to do with it.”

The corner of Bruce’s mouth lifts slightly. It is too sad to be a smile. “So you’re not angry at them?”

Tony is angry. For now, it is buried under a mess of conflicting emotions, though. His brain is releasing endorphins seemingly at random, even though that is not quite enough to drown out the pain and fear holding Tony’s body hostage. Once he has had time to think this through, to look back at this with a certain objectivity he cannot yet muster.

“I – Honestly, I’m just tired,” Tony admits. That is not all of it, but he is sure Bruce knows that without him spelling it out. “I’d be happy to just forget this all happened.”

“That won’t last, believe me,” Bruce replies, and now he is truly smiling. “I know a bit about anger and how it can simmer. Maybe you’ll handle it better, though.”

Surprising himself, Tony wants to ask what that means. Out of all of them, Bruce appears to be the least volatile one, yet he speaks so knowingly. Before he can make a decision about that, however, Bruce turns back to his medical supplies, his expression suddenly unreadable.

“Now, let me have a look at what they’ve done to you.”

Tony realizes abruptly that Bruce has not said a single word about whether he knows anything about Steve and him being soulmates, why they called him here to patch Tony up after messing him up in the first place. On the contrary, he apparently holds a grudge against Stark Industries too. And yet, he did not get angry at Tony but at his team, and threw them out without hesitation.

“Why would you help me?” Tony asks, not making a move to comply.

When Bruce looks up, he appears incredibly weary, tired of what humans do to each other. His hands are loose around the straps of his bag, but Tony can see a criss-cross pattern of scars across the knuckles.

“You don’t fix something by dealing out more damage,” Bruce says slowly, meaning every word. “Hurting others just because you’ve been hurt doesn’t make anything better.”

They fall silent after that. With Bruce’s help, Tony shrugs off his ruined shirt, and while he does not dare to look down at himself, he feels every scratch and bruise when Bruce dabs at them with an alcohol pad. When they get to his ribs, Tony’s breath catches at the sudden pain.

“You should get an x-ray,” Bruce advises even as he tapes the ribs with trained ease.

“I heard them break,” Tony says as nonchalantly as he can while remembering lying helplessly on the ground, Clint and Bucky’s boots meeting his skin with furious force. “I don’t think they hit the lung.”

They share a glance, in which Bruce likely wonders how a billionaire knows about what damage broken ribs can do. In the end, he simply nods, though.

“You should still get this checked out. I can’t be sure your spleen’s not bruised.”

Tony nods noncommittally. He does not like hospitals or doctors. JARVIS will look him over once he is home. If he gets home. He studies Bruce, wondering, but does not say anything further until Bruce appears satisfied with his work and packs up his things again.

“What are my chances of you letting me out of here?” Tony asks before he loses his courage.

It is a gamble. He is still Bruce’s enemy, whether or not he is dealing with weapons, because some damage has obviously been done already. And Bruce is still his enemy. He is part of Steve’s gang, and even while he might not condone open violence, he is apparently all right with kidnapping and stealing from other human beings.

Tony likes Bruce for some reason. He is not sure that is just because Bruce has not been there for the assault on him and has just now helped to patch him up again. 

The heavy feeling inside his chest tells him it would be all right if he stayed, that he is safe with Steve. They are soulmates. That is the highest form of connections possible. Common sense still has a hard time battling against that, even though, deep down, Tony feels anything but safe. Steve might be serious about their bond and would not harm him further, the rest of his gang is not beholden to any mythical bond.

“To do what?” Bruce asks, watching him closely.

His face is unreadable so that Tony has no chance to find out whether Bruce’s decision might be in his favour. 

“If it’s true that someone’s selling my weapons, I need to find out who that is,” Tony says, aiming for nonchalance. Less collected, he adds, “And I want to go home.”

For the longest moment, Tony thinks Bruce is going to pick up the remaining pieces of the rope and bind his freshly bandaged wrists back together before he calls Steve and the rest of his friends back in, informing them of Tony’s feeble attempt to get out.

Then something softens in his expression. “My bike is parked outside,” he says, and the words take the longest time to register with Tony. “If you promise not to wreck it, I’ll yell at them long enough for you to sneak out.”

Tony stares, unable to believe his ears. Despite asking for it, he has not actually entertained any hope that Bruce would agree. “You – why?” he asks before he realizes it might not be the best idea to question his good luck.

Bruce’s lips twitch back into that half-smile. “I’ve read your papers, heard some of your speeches,” he answers without explaining anything. “I always thought you were a little disinterested in weapons despite being the biggest name in the industry. Also, Steve wouldn’t have called me in, if he still believed you did it.”

That is not as reassuring as Bruce might believe it would be. It means that, if any kind of proof turns up that Tony is involved in the dealing after all, Steve will not protect him a second time. It means that, soulmate or not, Steve’s decisions regarding how to deal with Tony follow a rather fickle moral code. Tony might not be guilty of what he is accused, but he is far from an upstanding moral citizen.

A never-ending number of headlines depict his reprehensible life: drinking, sleeping around, the occasional drug incident from his college years, offending commentary. What if any of them ever had a bad run-in with a drunk? Will it be all right for them to beat up Tony then?

“And that’s good enough for you?” Tony asks nonetheless, not letting any of his doubt show. He is so close to getting out, he does not want to mess it up now.

Bruce shrugs, but there is something vaguely threatening to the movement. “If I’m wrong, they’ll hunt you down again. They’re good at that.”

Tony has no way of judging the truth of that statement. All he has to go on, is that they kidnapped him while he was on his way to dinner. For all that Tony likes to pretend he is untouchable, that is not actually hard to accomplish. He has tried being followed around by a bodyguard, but they either quit within a week or he got tired of them and being constantly supervised.

“I – Thank you, I guess,” Tony says, deciding to take a leap of faith and consider their deal a done thing.

Slowly, as to not aggravate his various bruises, Tony slips from the workbench. When Bruce does not stop him, he gets bolder, taking a few steps to work the stiffness out of his limbs.

“The key is in the ignition,” Bruce says and sounds encouraging of all things. “I’ll pick her up at your tower sometime.”

Tony half-expects to be hit in the back with a tranquilizer dart, or for the rest of the gang to come jumping out of the shadows, laughing about how gullible he is. Nothing happens.

When he hears steps, he whips around quickly, blinking against the dizziness, but sees that it is just Bruce walking over to the other door through which Steve and the others vanished.

“Go,” he says again when he notices Tony’s reluctance. “I’ll yell loud enough to drown out the sound of the engine.”

It is now or never, Tony decides and nods before he walks right out of the warehouse into the cool night beyond. The first breath he takes tastes sweet, but each of the following ones is filled with more trepidation.

His eyes fall on Bruce’s bike right away and the key truly is in the ignition. It is old, barely worthy to be called a bike. He does not think Bruce would be cruel enough to send him out only to find a getaway vehicle that does not work. In any case, he has to chance it.

Tony winces as he pulls himself onto the seat, acclimatizing himself with the feeling of the bike. He reaches out for the key but waits. Depending on how fast this thing runs, he could get away without waiting for Bruce’s distraction, but he does not actually want to be hunted down by Clint and Bucky in a bad mood. Them being regularly vengeful has been enough for one night.

He does not have to wait for long. As promised, there is actual yelling coming from the other side of the warehouse. Tony is far enough away to not be able to understand the specifics, but he recognizes Bruce’s voice. It is louder and angrier than Tony would have thought him capable of. Answering him are Clint, which has Tony immediately shivering, and Steve, whose voice Tony would already recognize amongst a thousand others.

Tony wonders for a moment whether he should stay and get his USB drive back. He does not want to risk it getting into the wrong hands, even though he is reasonably sure that Steve will not deliver it to whoever paid them for it. Yet, all that goodwill depends on the flimsy fact of their corresponding tattoos and the hope that whoever is trying to set Tony up for illegal weapons dealing has not also fabricated some evidence that will be good enough to fool Steve and his gang.

They will not get to the data on the drive anyway, no matter how good they think they are. Tony has made an art of being better than everybody else. Howard’s lessons paid off in that way, at least.

The moment they will put the drive in a computer, Tony will have an opening into their system. That might, in the long run, be worth something. And it means Tony can get out of here while no one is looking. Right now that is more important.

Taking a last deep breath, Tony turns the key in the ignition and, more recklessly than he would have usually been on an unknown bike, speeds off into the night. 

 


 

Finally at home, everything feels different. New York still spreads out far beneath Tony’s windows. The elevator opens without him having to do anything. Tony is, once again, the master of his surroundings.

Less tangible but undeniably there is the slight feeling of wrongness sitting inside his bones. Tony is not sure whether it comes from the newly formed soul bond or is a result from the beating, but it has him feeling restless, like a stranger inside his own skin.

Under different circumstances, having found his soulmate would have made him delirious with happiness. He has never exactly expected it to go over smoothly. Howard had always preached that, bond or not, people would only ever be after Tony’s money or the fame or whatever material things he has to offer. He was still eager to try to turn it into something real, to prove his father wrong. His money does not matter anything in the face of finding the one person that is perfect for him.

Compared to those imagined problems, reality is much worse.

Despite that, Tony feels the longing pooling inside him, the feeling of loss, as if getting out of that warehouse was somehow a mistake. If his own brain is going to keep sabotaging him like that, it would have been better to never have met his soulmate at all.

“Welcome home, sir,” JARVIS greets him, and the worry in his voice is familiar. As an AI, he is not prone to panic or to ask rapid questions. Yet, Tony feels the temperature in the penthouse rise a good deal the exact moment he trembles, even if it is only in relief.

“It’s good to be back,” Tony says, hoarsely. He wishes he would have already finished that mind-connecting interface for JARVIS he toyed with some years ago. It would be a blessing to just convey everything that happened tonight with nothing more than a though. Tony is not sure he will ever be able to put it into actual words.

“Preliminary scans show that you have five broken ribs, several hairline fractures along both arms and your right femur, a mild concussion, and a number of abrasions and bruises,” JARVIS says, while Tony stumbles along the hallway towards his bedroom. “For a more concrete scan, you will have to come to the workshop.”

For all that the workshop is usually his safe haven, Tony cannot imagine keeping upright for even a minute longer. “I think that is enough for now,” he says, wishing it would be that simple.

“What happened, sir?”

Even the practiced, business-like tone cannot hide the urgency behind JARVIS’ question. Tony would bet that, right while they are talking, JARVIS is already scanning the security systems all over the city to find out where and when Tony went missing and who took him. Even more likely, he is probably already hashing out plans for his own vengeance.

Considering where thinking like that brought him, Tony will have to talk JARVIS out of that. With some regret on his part.  

“I found my soulmate,” Tony then finds himself saying. That is all the explanation he has for now, although it leaves him dissatisfied and lost. Just as aimlessly, he adds, “Tomorrow morning, we’ll need to start cleaning house.”

JARVIS is silent for a moment, clearly not able to make sense of that statement. “I would suggest you seek out a medical professional first.”

This is not something that can be fixed with a band-aid. “Someone’s sold me out, J. And someone’s dealing under the table at SI. I –” He shrugs and feels his eyes burning, which he blames on the pain and exhaustion and not on the feeling of utter betrayal shooting through him. “I’ll tell you tomorrow. For now I just need to –” close his eyes and ignore what happened, to pretend everything is all right and that he is just in pain because of a lab accident. “Sleep,” he finishes.

He hopes he will be able to sleep despite the way his thoughts are racing. He has so many things to do, too, so much to research and rebuild. Someone once told him that it is sometimes better to let a problem rest for a while instead of wrecking oneself trying to solve everything at once.

Tomorrow will be brighter.

Tony has always thought of that as a nice lie fit only for children. Now, though, he really hopes it is true.  

Chapter Text

“Now,” Bruce snaps when he joins them outside the warehouse, looking already more agitated then when he arrived, “who wants to tell me why we had Tony Stark in that condition with us, long after the job was supposed to be done?”

His arrival should be a welcome distraction from the tense silence pressing in around them for the past minutes. Clint has been muttering expletives under his breath, throwing glares at Steve, while Bucky got that lost expression that means he is holed up inside his head. And Steve is at a loss what to do against any of that.

He opens his mouth, not yet decided on what is the best explanation to give, when his mind catches on Bruce’s wording.

“What do you mean with had?”

Instant worry shoots through Steve, wondering whether Tony might have been hurt more than he initially thought. Surely, he would have felt it through their bond if something serious had happened. All there is, however, is the same throbbing want that has filled him since he heard his words, the need to not let Tony out of his eyes now that he has found him.

Which means he is immediately irritated when Bruce stops him with raised hands before he has taken even two steps back towards the door.

“You’re not going in there,” Bruce intones firmly, straightening his back as if he is ready to fight this out. And, knowing him for as long as Steve has, there is no question that he would.

“Where’s Tony?” Steve asks again, hearing the slight note of panic in his voice that makes Clint look at him snidely.

“Gone.”

That single word hits Steve like a punch in the stomach. Gone could mean a lot of things. Dead, on the run, locked up somewhere else, safe. All Steve knows for certain, is that he can open that door and not find his soulmate on the other side anymore. “Bruce?”

“I sent him home, Steve,” Bruce answers heatedly, bearing into Steve with an intensity that is usually reserved for the people opposing them. “Where he should be. Well, scratch that,” he corrects himself, his tone biting, “he should be in a hospital, thanks to you.”

Considering how his mind is occupied with the presumed loss of Tony – there is no reason to not believe Bruce but simply accepting it is impossible – he ignores the accusation. “You can’t just –” Steve interrupts himself, then straightens. “We need to go after him.”

He is half-turned around to his team, hoping they will not defy him about this, when Bruce cuts in again.

“If you make one step in the direction of this door,” Bruce says, and there is no mistaking that he is utterly serious about this, “I will make sure that you’ll need a hospital too.”

Caught in indecision, Steve never gets to decide whether he wants to chance that.

“What’s up with you?” Clint exclaims, none of the petulant defiance gone from his tone yet. “You don’t like Stark any more than we do.”

At some point, Steve’s brain has decided to divide between Stark and Tony. That might be a good thing as long as they do not have proof whether or not Tony is guilty of what he has been accused of. At the same time, it irritates him that the others do not seem to follow suit.

“Tell me, Clint,” Bruce says slowly, his gaze resting on Clint’s split knuckles, “do you feel good about beating up a defenceless man?”

Clint snorts in response as if there is anything funny about this situation. They are standing in the middle of the night outside an abandoned warehouse, arguing over the fate of another man.

“He’s hardly defenceless, considering what he’s making his money with,” Clint says, spitting out his words with disdain. “Or have you forgotten –”

“I have not forgotten anything,” Bruce cuts him off, eyes narrowed. With their particular group, it is never a good idea to mention their pasts, much less during an argument. “Especially not that we’re supposed to be the good guys. And criminal or not, we don’t punch things better.”

Feeling an immediate aversion against that word, Steve speaks up, “He’s not a criminal.”

The intensity of the emotion has him wondering whether it is truly his own or whether it is amplified through the bond. He is known to feel protective, sometimes to an unreasonable amount, but his feelings regarding Tony have changed so fast, he cannot be sure.

Irritated at the interruption, Bruce snaps his eyes up at Steve. “What?”

“Tony’s not a criminal,” Steve repeats with as much calm as he can muster. “He told me he didn’t do it.”

Rolling his eyes, Clint throws in, “And Steve actually believes him. Just like that.”

Sometimes, Steve misses the clear hierarchy of the military. Ending an argument was much easier back then.

“Not just like –”

“They’re soulmates,” Natasha cuts in. Despite the rising tension surrounding them, she sounds cool, unflappable. Her stance is vigilant, though, prepared for anything.

For a moment, silence falls as everybody is watching Bruce, who is not exactly known for dealing graciously with upsetting news. When he turns towards Steve, his face is deceptively calm, but his eyes are aflame.  

“You did this to your own soulmate?” he asks, voice quiet enough to make it seem impossible that they ever heard him roar in anger. Still, Steve has to fight the urge to back away.

“I didn’t know,” Steve affirms quickly. “When Clint and Bu-”

“When you let them,” Bruce corrects him, his tone precise in its coldness.

Flinching back, Steve swallows. “Yes. When they –” He looks down at his hands. “When we hurt Tony, I did not know.”

He feels Bruce’s eyes on him studying, judging, finding him wanting. It is made worse by the knowledge that he deserves this, that he really messed up.

“So what?” Bruce then snaps. “You beat him up, threw him out, then found out you’re soulmates and that he might not have been the one you were looking for, so you decided to bring him back in, keep him captive for a while longer and play at being a happy couple?”

Put like that, it sounds more horrible than it was. Perhaps Steve is simply deluding himself and it actually was that horrible. He does not know what to think or feel, though, thrown off balance by what he let happen to Tony and what happened to him.

“It’s not that simple,” Steve says tonelessly, not believing himself.

Bruce looks at Natasha, who appears to be the only one he currently trusts to give him a true answer. She nods curtly. “That’s about it.”

When Bruce turns back towards Steve, his expression has turned several degrees colder. “When did he know?”

Everybody is staring at Steve now, and he feels the hot shame in his cheeks. With effort, he manages to keep his head up. Things have not gone the way they should have and that is mostly his fault.

“Right before,” is all he manages to say before his voice gives out.

“Before what?” Bruce questions, but from the way his voice is filled with tightly coiled anger, he already knows.

“Right before we – beat him.”

The stubborn part of Steve’s mind insists that none of that is important now. It might have been unfortunate how they found each other, but what matters most should be that they did. He wants to make sure that Tony is safe from now on. They will not manage that if they linger on whether or not Steve is allowed to see him. He does not want him any harm now.

Bruce takes several deep breaths, making a futile attempt of calming himself down. “I will be going back to our base now,” he then says with strained calm. “I don’t want to see any of you there. I don’t care what you do, but you will stay away from Stark. If you go after him or contact him or even hurt him again in any way, I will not be responsible for what I do. Are we understood?”

It has been a while since they have seen Bruce this angry, and over a man whose weapons have done as much damage in his life as in Bucky’s no less. There is no doubt it is genuine, though. Bruce can easily be considered the best of them. That is not the only reason none of them is willing to cross him when it is not absolutely necessary.

Steve has a decision to make. He can follow his instincts and rush after Tony, he can throw all caution to the wind and offer protection even where it is not wanted. That is the way he wants to go. He trusts Bruce, though. While he has always followed his beliefs, letting his emotions guide him, some of that is not his own in the moment. He feels complete in a way he never has before, but that also means he cannot trust all of his parts right now the way he is used to.

“Yes,” Steve says slowly, wishing fervently that he is not making a mistake.

Bruce keeps looking at him for a long minute, probably gauging how truthful he is being. Then he nods, and turns to the rest of the team.

“I need to hear this from everyone.”

Unsurprisingly, Clint offers immediate protest. “He doesn’t deserve your protection.” He does not even look intimidated by the glare Bruce directs at him.

“Wrong,” Bruce exclaims with a cutting sharpness. “We’re here to stand up for the people who have been wronged. Instead, he’s been wronged by us.”

Before Clint can offer another argument, Natasha takes his arm, dragging him a step back. “We’re not going anywhere.”

They look at each other, communicating silently the way the rest of them has never managed to learn.

“Bucky?” Bruce prompts. Despite Bucky arguably being the reason for this whole, miserable situation, he sounds all the much gentler now.

“I’m –” Clearing his throat, Bucky needs a second to properly focus on them. He might have been following the gist of the argument, but Steve is sure the greater part of his mind was lost in the kind of spiralling thoughts he has been trying to escape for years now. “I’ll be staying too.”

“Good choice,” Bruce says immediately, accepting Bucky’s word like he has none of theirs. With a scowl, he looks at all of them again. “Don’t let me find out you’ve done something stupid.”

This is not all of it. Bruce might withdraw from them until his fury has drained out of him, but he will still stand up for his beliefs. Right now, that means that they have wronged Tony – and that is true – and that he will not let them do that again.

“What about all those dead people in your village?” Clint calls after Bruce, causing everybody to go very still.

“I don’t think blood can pay for blood,” Bruce says in as cold a voice as they have ever heard from him. “All that causes is more grief, and we have enough of that already.”

With that, he turns around and walks back into the warehouse to collect his things, a distinct tension to his shoulders that means nothing good for anyone daring to get in Bruce’s way right now. Steve thinks they have gotten off lightly, although this was certainly not all of it.

Bruce is surely right that they need to give Tony space, but the fact remains that someone hired them to kidnap him, and they did not sound concerned at all about what could happen to Tony. It might be hypocritical of Steve to be concerned about Tony’s well-being now, long after the fact, but that they are soulmates changes everything. That is not an honourable thing to think, probably not even the right one, but it is the best Steve has to offer for now.

 


 

By the time Tony gets up, JARVIS has a whole folder filled with information about Steve and his group of vigilantes. It does not even surprise him that JARVIS did not just accept the promise to be filled in later but went digging on his own – and very diligently too. From the looks of it, he must have broken into several confidential archives. All in a night’s work.

Tony breathes in and out, takes a long glance at the still closed trove of information hovering innocently in the air, which he is not sure he actually wants to know, and ignores it.

“Get the coffee machine running,” Tony says as he goes about convincing his body to carry him to the bathroom. “I need a shower first.”

What Tony really needs is a whole lot more complicated than that. He needs a time machine, a better sense of who to trust, better security, more control over his emotions. A shower is a good beginning, though. It might give him a chance to wash off the traces of the night before, to make sense of what is real and what is not. Despite the stiffness and pain clinging to each of his movements, Tony is half-convinced last night did not happen.

His sleep has been fitful, plagued by dreams that started out bright and happy, only to take a bitter turn. Let’s do this was a constant echo, complete with Steve’s face swimming in front of him, either with sweet smiles or hateful grimaces.

Let’s do this, right before Steve kissed him. Let’s do this, accompanying the first sharp kick to his ribs. Let’s do this, in the middle of a shady weapons deal. Let’s do this, during a wedding reception. Let’s do this, in a dark room with dried bloodstains on the ground. Let’s do this, before Steve took him to the dancing floor. Let’s do this. Let’s do this. Let’s do this.

He needs to somehow shake off the wrongness of wanting something capable of so much destruction. The realistic part of his brain is also afraid of the moment his bruises are faded and the fear of being helpless beneath masked strangers’ fists has drained out of him, because he is not sure whether he can fight the undeniable want pooling inside him then, the call of the soul bond.

All of this was supposed to be different. It was supposed to be good and wholesome and sweet. It was supposed to be as it was for Ana and Jarvis. And yet, happiness is the farthest thing from Tony’s mind.

In the bathroom, he pulls off his clothes. They are the same he wore yesterday since he was too tired to change before he fell into bed. Against the white of the tiles, he sees the tears and stains they have gathered but views them with a strange kind of indifference as if he was not wearing them when they were wrecked.

With mechanical movement, Tony makes short work of the bandages Bruce applied so diligently. Only then does he look up. In the mirror, his skin looks like a canvas attacked by an angry pre-schooler. It is all blues and greens and red bleeding into each other, drawing a detailed map of how Tony’s life has gone off the rails. The left side of his face is swollen so badly that it barely looks human, his eye straining against the unyielding cage of the lids.

Tony stares and stares, trying to find himself in the vaguely human shape looking back at him. Ironically, his first thought is that this will be hard to hide with make-up and lead to some seriously hard-to-answer questions from the press. And everybody else he knows.

Sighing, Tony forcefully keeps himself from thinking further about the matter and climbs into his shower. He will not be able to ignore the problem for long as it is.

The water burns. His skin feels like it is on fire but once he has gotten used to the sensation, he feels his muscles slowly relax under the steady stream of warmth. He should probably take a bath, let himself float, but he is afraid of the motionlessness, of letting himself drift.

“Sir?” JARVIS speaks up after an eternity.

They have a security protocol making JARVIS remind him when he spends more than thirty minutes in the shower. That is meant for nights when he stumbles home drunk and is in danger of accidentally drowning himself. Being drunk would be such a nice alternative to this.

“I’m good, J,” Tony promises, even though they both know it is a lie.

“Your coffee is waiting for you.”

Tony’s split lip stings when he smiles. As trivial as coffee is, it a piece of normality easily within reach. Bracing himself, he turns off the water and, without looking at himself again, wraps himself in the softest bathrobe he owns. Then he re-bandages his wrists but lets the rest of the wounds be.

He is tempted to stay like this all day, clad only in his bathrobe and misery. He cannot be just Tony today, though, but needs the trained stoicism of a Stark. His movements are much more fluid now when he goes to his closet and gets out a suit, crisp white shirt, smartly cut blazer. The sleeves cover the bandages on his wrists. There is nothing he can do about the bruises on his face, but he still feels safer already, clad in his very own kind of armour.

The coffee is heavenly, even though it stings where Tony bit the inside of his cheek sometime last night. Despite JARVIS’ unsubtle hints, he does not eat anything. The mere thought of food has his stomach roiling. He feels unmade, stumbling along familiar steps while not actually recognizing them. He is not recognizing himself either.

Clinging to his coffee mug, Tony just sits at his kitchen table for what feels like hours. There is so much to do, and yet he cannot bring himself to take the first step. Steve’s face is constantly filling his mind, the way he first stared at Tony with disgust and later smiled so easily.

“An unknown number is attempting to contact you, sir,” JARVIS says into the silence.

Tony’s first thought is that he lost his phone at some point last night. It is probably still with Steve, but JARVIS must have already taken the appropriate measures. Just like with his USB drive, Tony is sure they will not be able to glean much from his phone, especially not know that JARVIS is on to them.

“Trace it back,” Tony orders, despite knowing who it is, who it has to be.

He doubts life will make it so easy for him that whoever sold him out is calling to apologize and promise to stay on the right side of the law from now on. No, this will be Steve, making everything more complicated.

“The number belongs to Steve Grant Rogers.”

JARVIS helpfully pulls up a picture on a holoscreen in front of Tony. His soulmate’s face stares back at him, wholly innocent.

Tony’s arm tingles and he glares at it. Anger roars in his chest, but it is battling against an instinctive longing spreading through him, warming him from inside out. It is not right to be betrayed by his body like this. It is not right to want a man who is the reason Tony is barely able to move without crying out in pain.

Instead of giving into it, he concentrates on what he knows. Steve has a last name now, and a middle one too. That makes him altogether too real, more so than his face on the screen. It is time to stop denying this ever happened.

Against his better judgement, Tony tells JARVIS to accept the call. Instead of wasting time and energy on common courtesy, Tony barks, “What do you want?”

He sounds in control of his emotions even if he does not feel like it. He perks up instinctively, waiting for Steve’s answer, for the sound of his voice. This soulmate business is seriously messed up.

“Where are you?” Steve asks. He appears impatient, as if he has waited all night to call Tony. “Are you safe?”

Disbelieving, Tony stares at the phone, wishing Steve could feel the intensity of his glare. How dare he pretend to care about Tony’s safety after how they met? How dare he sound concerned?

Without another word, Tony hangs up.

Over the next hour, JARVIS informs him of seven more calls from Steve. Tony ignores all of them.

Instead, he finally finds himself a tablet – the holoscreens are nice but he is sure he will need something palpable to hold on to – and goes through the information JARVIS has prepared for him.

He is not sure what he expected to find, but Steve and his group are both more and less than what he thought they would be.

They call themselves the Avengers, which is dramatic enough to have him roll his eyes despite the situation. In a sense, Steve was right to protest the term mob. They do not control parts of the city or dabble in drugs or human trafficking or protection. They are everywhere at once, not caring for invisible borders. Their presence is also not limited to just New York.  

As far as Tony can tell, this started out as some kind of Robin Hood thing. Instead of stealing money, they concentrate on dispensing justice and helping out the wronged. They get back things that were unlawfully taken, bring down drug rings, go for the people who think themselves untouchable. It all looks nice on paper – if Tony had not gotten a taste of their debatable hospitality.

They are an eclectic group, mostly ex-military. Some also have more colourful background;  secret agencies, classified research, stints in prison.

Tony is tempted to pull up Steve’s file first but refrains. He needs to know at some point, but he is not sure he will be able to regard any information he gets now with the appropriate apprehension.

Instead, he pulls up the file of one James Buchanan ‘Bucky’ Barnes. Born in Brooklyn, veteran, loss of his left arm in the line of duty, prisoner of war. First confirmed contact with Steve Rogers when they were both five years old. Best friends since pre-school.

It is all hard facts, fit for a messed up curriculum vitae. None of it describes the way Barnes had clung to his prosthetic as if it needed protection from Tony instead of the other way around. There is no mention of the smouldering fury in those cold eyes, or of the reluctance when Steve told him to back down. The picture in the file shows a handsome man, smiling. Like this, he seems perfectly incapable of being dangerous.

Tony shudders and moves on quickly.

Clinton Francis Barton. Former foster kid, grew up in the circus, brother in prison, part of a secret government agency. Natasha Romanoff. Ex-KGB, trained spy and assassin, formerly wanted in a multitude of countries until the same government agency snapped her up.  Sam Wilson. Scott Lang. Wanda and Pietro Maximoff.

It reads like a bad novel. Or, Tony guesses, a good novel, full of underdgos banding together to do the right thing. Tony really wishes his Narnia would look different.

Feeling sick, Tony closes the folder and sits back, rubbing the closed lids of his eyes as if he could unsee everything he just read.

“Do you want me to notify the police of –” JARVIS speaks up, a distinct edge to his tone.

“No,” Tony exclaims and surprises himself with the vehemence of it.

It would make sense. More so, it would be the right thing to do. They did kidnap and assault him. Letting them get away with that – even aside of all personal reasons – would mean that Tony will be complicit, if not downright responsible, for the next person they decide to harm.

From the looks of it, they only target guilty people, especially those the law enforcement cannot touch. Tony is not guilty, though. Not of what they accused him of.

No matter how much he would perhaps admire their commitment to justice under different circumstances, their morality is faulty, Tony has felt that himself.

JARVIS’ answering silence is very telling.

“I need to think about this, J.”

Thinking will not get him anywhere, not this time. He is already in a dead-end, unable to make a decision, good or bad. He needs help.

Without thinking, he orders JARVIS to call Rhodey. His best friend might not be the best address to find a solution that will not end in Steve’s immediate demise, but there is no one else Tony can be so open with.

The dial tone is grating on Tony’s nerves. It takes Rhodey far too long to pick up, which is due to him working on someone else’s schedule, as he likes to remind Tony. Finally, when he hears the click of someone picking up on the other hand, he does not waste time on niceties.

“Rhodey, I have a problem –” That is how far Tony gets before his throat constricts and he runs out of words. So much for courage and honesty.

“No,” Rhodey answers immediately, in the long-suffering tone of someone who is used to Tony’s shenanigans. “I don’t have time to fly over to play fetch with the bots because you’re too lazy to get up.”

Despite himself, Tony has to smile. He realizes he needs a distraction just as much as a solution.

“That was one time,” he counters but does not let himself be drawn into the familiar banter. “But I’m serious. I need –” He shrugs, helplessly, and gets up to refill his cup. He needs more coffee for this conversation, and perhaps something stronger. “There are people out for my head.”

A short silence falls on the other end. There are some background noises but they cut abruptly right before Rhodey speaks again.

“Tones, there are always people after your head,” he says, but not so dismissively that Tony is discouraged from going on. “Probably since you’ve been born.”

“I know,” Tony says, and he does. “But this time they are real people with actual faces and names that I know. This has nothing to do with jealousy or creative business plays.”

He knows the names and faces of Steve and the Avengers, but he supposes that he also knows the people selling his weapons. Right now, he has to assume he is surrounded by enemies for now.

“Then talk to security,” Rhodey replies dryly. Tony knows him well enough, to be certain that Rhodey is going to talk to the head of Tony’s security department himself to make sure he is protected.

Back in the kitchen, Tony reaches for the coffee machine. “I’m afraid that’s –” A wrong movement has pain shooting down his ribcage, stealing his air. The cup he has been holding falls to the kitchen counter. It does not break, but a fresh crack runs along its side. “Shit.”

“Tony?” Rhodey’s tone turns from lax to concerned immediately, likely due to the slight gasp of pain Tony could not quite swallow.

“Sorry, it’s nothing. Just a broken rib.” Or five. He has already said too much, though.

The atmosphere shifts, becoming tenser in an instant, with Rhodey skipping from good-natured to downright concerned.  

“How did you break a rib?” Rhodey asks, at once suspicious and worried. Although that is probably the normal setting for dealing with anything Tony does.

There is no going back now. With a small sigh, Tony gets himself a new cup and leans against the counter while coffee is trickling into it.

“Someone kicked me repeatedly,” he admits like there is nothing to it. Like that is all that happened. “Pretty sure I got away without a concussion.” In his defence, JARVIS said it is a mild concussion, and Tony’s brain never works normally anyway. No one but him will likely notice any difference.

“I’m on my way,” Rhodey decides with a distinct growl to his voice that tells Tony there is a more detailed discussion about this waiting for him. Another lecture about taking better care of himself that Tony will ignore in its entirety.

“No,” Tony tries to protest. “You’ve got to work.”

In the safety of his own mind, Tony can admit that he wants Rhodey here. That he needs someone on his side. He is still reasonably sure that Steve is not going to come after him – not with the intention to harm in any case – and that his goons will listen to this orders. The emotional shock of all that has happened sits deep inside his bones, though. More battles are to come, and Tony does not want to fight them alone.

“You think I care about that?” Rhodey argues immediately, climbing even higher in the hierarchy of Tony’s favourite people. “What happened?”

Tony does not think it is possible for him to put that into words that make sense. He is a mess of conflicting feelings and wants, incapable of deciding which way to go.

“As I said, someone’s got it out for me,” Tony explains simply. Perhaps he will be able to figure this out once Rhodey is here. “They sent the mob after me. And they, as it turns out, have a personal grudge against me too. Although that is a misunderstanding.”

Tony winces when he echoes Steve’s words back at Rhodey, without much sarcasm too. He wonders whether that is the bond speaking, or whether he is truly losing his mind.

“You’re not making any sense, “Rhodey interrupts his slight rambling, and Tony has nothing to counter. It is the truth, after all. “Where are you?”

On my way to hell, Tony things miserably but does not say it. Hell is the one place he has always been headed to. He has just gotten that much closer to it, and quicker than he thought possible

“At home,” Tony answers, wishing he would never have to leave again. “Last time I went out, I got kidnapped, so I’m staying here.”

At least until he feels ready to start going through Stark Industries to kick out the moles and to change how they are doing things. Making the company into something more than just a weapons manufacturer without a moral backbone appears more important than ever.

“There’s got to be somewhere safer,” Rhodey says and trails off as if he expects Tony to boast about a secret bunker he has never mentioned before.

“And where would that be?” Tony asks, deciding to humour Rhodey. His tone ends up less amused than he intended.

“I could call the Pentagon?”

That is just Rhodey’s worry speaking. They both know that Tony is capable of keeping himself safe, and that few people are able to touch him inside the tower with its extensive security measures and an AI that is fiercely protective of its creator. Out of the few people who about JARVIS’ existence, only Rhodey has an inkling what the AI is actually capable of – and that mostly because he witnessed Tony’s early attempts to create a learning program suiting his needs at MIT. 

“Honey bear.” Tony sighs, smiling despite his situation. “I hacked the Pentagon for the first time when I was twelve and bored. Made myself one of their nice little lanyards, too, highest security clearance. I could have marched right in there, if only I’d been a little taller.”

Howard had been furious about having to make apologies for his son. Completely unexpectedly, Aunt Peggy had subtly praised him, though, telling him he should be more careful from now on, but that it is a good habit not to completely trust the government nor to expect any security to hold.

“I hope you have at least some bodyguards with you,” Rhodey argues, He does not quite give in, but he knows which battles to fight where Tony is concerned.

“It’s not the mob I’m worried about,” Tony counters with more confidence than he feels. “They’re not coming after me.”

“How can you know?” Rhodey questions immediately, sounding as if he will not believe anything Tony says.

Nothing is certain. From what Tony read, the Avengers have all been following Steve for a while, and while that is not clear marker for loyalty, Tony just has to believe that they are not going to ignore Steve’s orders. Whoever hired them could go to a less morally inclined group next, however, to make sure that Tony is not going to make another miraculous escape.

“I – I just know.” Tony clicks his tongue. “Listen, that’s not a topic for the telephone. The other issue isn’t either.” He does not even want to think about it, much less talk it through with someone. Tony’s plans tend to go more smoothly, however, when Rhodey is involved in making them. “I’ve already sent a plane for you.”

Rhodey sighs. It is such a familiar sound that Tony feels calmer at once. “You can’t just drop a bomb like this and then don’t tell me anything.”

An involuntary shiver runs down Tony’s back. “Please don’t talk about bombs.”

That is such a stupid thing to say, so close to admitting something he does not ever want to say. There is a short hesitation on Rhodey’s end, telling Tony that his best friend definitely noticed his blunder.

“What happened?” Rhodey asks, for once sounding exactly like a member of the Air Force would, expecting every order of his to be followed.

Thankfully, Tony is practiced in ignoring any sort of authority. “I’ll have pizza waiting for when you get here.”

“Don’t you dare hang –”

Tony does hang up on Rhodey. It appears to be a recurring theme this morning. He cannot talk about the finer details of what has happened over the phone, though, cannot allow his mind to delve into this when he will be alone afterwards with no one to pull him out again. He knows Rhodey will worry and a small part of him relishes that fact, even though Rhodey will be unbearably protective once he comes here. Since everything is going wrong at the moment, Tony thinks that might not be such a bad thing.

Before he can do anything more concrete about his situation, he has one more phone call to make. That one will be more difficult. He has never been able to lie well to Pepper.

Taking his coffee, Tony makes his slow way to the living room, where he takes care to find a comfortable position on the couch. There cannot be a repetition of accidentally betraying his being in pain like he did with Rhodey. Pepper is always unreasonably strict when it comes to Tony being hurt. It is not usually anything as sinister as this but simple lab accidents, but she does not approve of his careless approach to his own health.

Once he is settled, coffee in his lap and a blanket pulled up to his chest to stave off the waves of cold coming over him, Tony has JARVIS calling Pepper.

“Where are you?” she asks as soon as the call connects. As usual, she sounds stressed but in control, too used to running his company in his name. Somehow, she still has not given up hope that he will one day show more interest, be of more help. “We had a meeting with the Chinese this morning. I can’t do my job if you –”

“We have a problem,” Tony interrupts her, knowing the only way out of her lectures is to cut them off early.

Also, he only vaguely remembers that meeting. Something about new production sites in China Obie was pushing for. Tony thought he had been very clear about not wanting to move any of the production facilities out of country. He will have to ask Pepper about that later. For now, he does not have any energy to concentrate on trivial matters like that.

“I don’t have time for a Tony Stark-sized problem at the moment,” Pepper says sharply.

Tony knows her well enough to assume that she is already clearing her schedule anyway. How she keeps working for him without losing her mind will forever be a mystery to Tony. He is eternally grateful, though.

“Rhodey is on his way over,” Tony explains shortly, “I need you to be here at seven.”

This, he supposes, is easier than going through the whole thing again. Pepper is much more persistent about getting her answers immediately than Rhodey, so the more information he offers her, the more she wants to know.

“Tony,” Pepper asks. She, too, immediately knows there is something more going on than just Tony being difficult. “What’s going on?”

“We’re going to have pizza,” Tony says, evading her question without any subtlety. “If you want something healthier, you have to bring it yourself.”

Tony does not want to hang up on all of his friends this morning, it just so happens that he is better at avoiding conversations than holding them. He still regrets it slightly when he does not even give her the chance to confirm his invitation before he has JARVIS end the call.

At least he has a definite deadline until which he should have an idea how to go about this. Which leaves him now with the seemingly impossible task of accomplishing that.

Chapter Text

“Sir,” JARVIS speaks up just when Tony has decided that another hour of sleep might do him some good. Better, in any case, than rushing into his problems head on. “Mr. Stane has called several times now while you were otherwise occupied.”

Despite not wanting to talk to anyone else for the moment, Tony’s first instinct is to call back immediately. Then he pauses, though, and thinks first.

It is not that Tony does not trust Obadiah. If he told him about Steve’s claim that someone is selling their weapons to the enemy, he has no doubt that the matter would be dealt with quietly and efficiently. Obadiah has fixed enough of Tony’s mistakes to leave any doubt about that.

This is personal, though. Stark Industries is Tony’s company, if mostly in name only, but this is about his weapons, his designs. Therefore, it is his responsibility to clean this up. A small part of him also wants to know who sold him out and ask them why. Tony is not a good person, not by far. He is callous and careless and quick to replace one disaster with another. He is sure Pepper could add a lot more unpleasant adjectives, he is well aware of his failings. 

Also, and that is much harder to admit, he does not want Obadiah to think bad about him for this. Over the years, Tony has caused a number of scandals, leaving everyone scrambling to clean up after him, but this might just take the cake. Beat up by his soulmate and his friends on top of finding out that Tony does not have his own company under control enough to avoid his weapons ending up in the wrong hands. 

It always feels like he is constantly balancing on the edge of disapproval with Obadiah. They are family, and not just in terms of Obadiah being Tony’s godfather. Obadiah has always been a part of Tony’s life, has always been his ally, offering encouraging words or sneaking him materials to build things that Howard had disapproved of. Without Obadiah’s presence, Stark Industries might have just fallen to ruins after Howard and Maria’s death. Even now, Tony is not sure he could keep the company afloat on his own. He has always kept out of the business end as much as possible.

Before Obadiah had been Tony’s godfather, though, he was Howard’s friend. At some point, Obadiah might realize that Howard was right about Tony after all. That he is lazy and stupid and the worst kind of Stark. Every mistake Tony makes, every stupid question he asks, every project he does not finish on time because his mind got stuck on other things might be the one that puts an end to Obadiah’s patience with him.

Tony does not have enough people in his life who he trusts, so he cannot risk upsetting Obadiah with this. He will deal with it. It is certainly time he learns how to.

“Write him a message,” Tony tells JARVIS, “say that I had an idea and didn’t get out of the workshop all day.”

On most days, that would be the truth, so Tony does not fear that Obadiah will see through the lie.

“If he calls again, send him through to Pepper.”

Pepper does not know yet what happened, but she is well versed in running interference for him. She will feed Obadiah some story that will give Tony some time to come up with one of his own.

It must have been something business-related anyway for Obadiah does not usually call to inquire about Tony’s well-being. That is not a bad thing either. Tony knows Obadiah will be there for him when it matters, he always has been before. For now, it is better not to make him worry.

Once he has talked this through with Rhodey and Pepper, he will know whether he needs to bother his godfather with this. Until then, he will manage on his own.

 


 

When Pepper comes in, ten minutes after seven, she clings to a bottle of wine as if she instinctively knew she would need alcohol for this conversation. Tony studies her closely, almost involuntarily on guard. She knew about the USB drive. She is involved in everything at Stark Industries, has the highest security clearance, and is probably better at signing Tony’s name than he is himself. He has to see her reaction, has to be as sure as he can be – without outright accusing her of anything – that she had nothing to do with selling him out.

Tony does not believe Pepper would betray him, but he has trusted the wrong people before.

Once Pepper sees him, her eyes widen and her mouth opens for a gasp. Only years of training help her keep her composure enough to not let the bottle fall. Tony sees her hand twitch nonetheless.

Air floods into his lungs as he sighs in relief. There is no way of being certain, but Pepper looks like she is feeling every visible bruise of his herself. The worry in her eyes is not faked, and neither is the fury rising in them only moments later. He cannot afford to distrust her beyond that.

“What happened?” she asks with more venom than Rhodey had but with as much conviction to do something about it.

“We have a mole,” Tony says simply.

He has hoped that would draw her attention, to keep both her and Rhodey from focusing on the blaringly obvious wreck that is his face. He needs them to make sense of this for him.

Pepper opens her mouth and Tony is almost ready for the barrage of questions, but then she closes it again. With determined steps, she walks to the couch, sets the bottle down on the glass table heard enough that Tony half expects it to leave a crack, then sits down beside him and takes his face into her hands.

She turns his face to the light, studies the motley pattern of bruises and swelling. Gentler than her expression promises, she lifts the lid of his left eye to get a better look at it underneath the bruise.

Her gaze is burning in its intensity when she lets her hands drop. “What happened?” she then asks again in that tone of voice that regularly has the board of directors cowering before her.

She looks at Rhodey, who is sitting opposite them, arms spread out over the back of the couch, even though that does not hide the tension in his body. It will be easier to get answers from him than from Tony himself – which is part of the reason Tony has not told Rhodey anything substantial yet, insisting to wait until Pepper’s arrival. Going through it once will be hard enough, and he needs to keep this under his control as much as he can.

“Tony got himself kidnapped,” Rhodey says, aiming for a dry tone but is unable to hide the angry tremor in his voice.

Ever since Rhodey arrived half an hour earlier, he has been glaring, looking Tony over for every twinge of pain he is not sharing, and demanding answers. It has been near impossible to keep him from storming off to look for the people who did this to Tony.

“By whom?” Pepper asks, voice icy. It is a tone that is impossible to ignore. 

Rhodey shrugs. The motions is distinctly dangerous. “He doesn’t want to tell.”

“Then you must not have asked often enough.”

They are in their own little world right now, intent on solving another problem labelled Tony. When Tony first introduced them, he had been anxious whether they would get along, these two most important people in his life. These days, they team up against him far too often for comfort.

“I was getting there,” Rhodey says, and his impatience is not directed at Pepper. “You know how he is.”

He is right here.” Tony should have kept his mouth shut, because as soon as the words are out, both his friends’ attention is on him. They are wearing twin-unamused expressions of impatient concern. It is nice to have them looking out for him, but right now, he needs them to concentrate on the bigger picture.

“Why?” Pepper demands. One word is enough to convey she will not let this go, not until Tony has given her a satisfactory answer.

Tony stares at the bottle Pepper brought, at his own glass on the table, still containing about an inch of whiskey. He could reach for any of those, offer his friends a drink, stall for time. If he does not stark talking now, though, he might just never manage to.

“They wanted information about my personal projects. My USB drive?” Again, Tony looks closely at Pepper, gauging her reaction. When she nods, impatiently but without guilt, he continues. “Someone hired them to get it for them.”

Steve and his gang have not yet tried to open the files on it – JARVIS would have gotten a signal and alerted him. Tony is afraid that means they will not look at it at all. Almost a whole day has passed since they got the drive. If only they put it in a computer, Tony would know where they are, JARVIS could integrate himself into their system without them ever being the wiser.

It is also entirely possible, that they are going to hand it over to the buyer without ever touching it themselves at all. From a strategic point of view, that would be the better way, since it would lead Tony straight to the person who sold them out.

He wants that connection to Steve, though. He tells himself that is only because he wants to keep an eye on them, to make sure he will know beforehand if they come after him again. There is no denying the sheer demand in the throbbing of the soul bond, though. Perhaps Tony is just too weak to try.

“And you couldn’t just hand it over,” Rhodey says with the kind of accusation that was borne from years of trying to keep Tony safe from himself, “so they beat you up over it.”

The easiest thing would be to say yes. Tony hesitates too long for it to still be believable, though. Immediately, Pepper narrows her eyes at him.

“They took it first thing. That wasn’t the issue.” Tony grimaces, remembering how he thought the kidnapping was the most civil one he ever had. Thoughts like this just have to be punished. “It’s just that they have a personal grudge against –” He shrugs, swallows against the tightness of his throat. “Well, it’s complicated.”

This was a bad idea. He should have done what he always does and hidden away in the workshop until the bruises are faded and took care of this himself. It would have been much easier to not say anything than to fumble through an explanation, especially since he knows he will not be able to satisfy his friends. They will look right through him, and then all the things he wants to keep secret will come out anyway.

For once, he wanted to do the responsible thing and get help, if only because it will be easier like this to deal with the lost weapons. It was stupid to believe they could keep the personal part of the problem out of it.

“You’re obviously deflecting so we don’t have the whole story, but I don’t see what could be complicated about this,” Pepper says, steel in her voice. She shifts her position so she sits farther away from him to make her glare more effective. “Someone kidnapped you, stole your private data, and beat you up. Have you already informed the police?”

“No,” Tony exclaims hastily, the same kneejerk reaction he gave JARVIS. “And we’re not going to.”

Thoroughly unimpressed glances bear into him from both Rhodey and Pepper. Tony feels like withering under it. The disapproval of one of them is hard to shoulder. Both of them at the same time leave him no room to wiggle free.

“Pray tell,” Pepper drawls, ferocious in her worry, “why are we not doing that?”

Tony takes a deep breath and ignores the pain in his ribs. “Because,” he says slowly, silently begging them to listen, “we have bigger problems.”

They do not listen.

“Bigger than someone beating you up?” Pepper asks, staring at the visible bruises before her eyes wander down, attempting to look through his clothes to see the rest of the damage. “Have you been to the hospital?”

Not once in his life has Tony gone willingly to a hospital. They all know that. “JARVIS checked me,” Tony says, making a show of shrugging as if the motion does not hurt. “I’m all right.”

Not taking her eyes off him, Pepper says, “JARVIS?”

The AI answers before Tony can protest. He has probably waited for his cue. “Sir has several broken ribs, a mild concussion –”

Rhodey sits up abruptly, his tension growing tenfold. “You told me you don’t have a concussion,” he calls, cutting JARVIS off. “You’ve been running around all day. You should rest. No screens, no excitement.”

Tony knows how to deal with a concussion. He also knows how to ignore the symptoms. So what if his head starts hurting easier than usual? So what if his vision swims? That is what painkillers and speech output systems are for.

“I’ve slept,” Tony says with all the petulance of someone tired of getting reprimanded for the way he takes care of himself.

“Sir has indeed had a nap for one hour and twenty-seven minutes,” JARVIS speaks up. His tone is too pleased to hide that he let Tony look bad on purpose. They really have to talk about what that whole Protect Anthony E. Stark thing means again.

“That’s like a whole night’s sleep for me,” Tony adds, although there is no saving this blunder.

“We’re not in the mood for jokes,” Rhodey snaps, glaring but not surprised. “JARVIS, get me everything you know about this. Where Tony was kidnapped, who was in the vicinity when it happened, where he turned up again. We’re going to find these bastards.”

Before JARVIS can make things worse by volunteering all his data on the Avengers, Tony says, “We don’t. You don’t.” There is enough authority in his tone that Rhodey, begrudgingly, turns to him, not insisting on his order. “Look, I’ll handle them,” Tony continues, sounding weary. He has to fight the urge to scratch his itching arm. “I didn’t call you here for that.”

With carefully constructed calm, Rhodey asks, “What could be more important than that?”

He shares a look with Pepper, and Tony knows they will not be getting anywhere if he lets them continue this line of questioning. His bruises will fade. He will not do anything about Steve and his gang for now as long as they leave him alone. He will not advertise the fact that he has found his soulmate.

“We have a mole,” Tony repeats his earlier words as firmly as he can manage.

“What does that even mean?” Pepper asks in a high voice, looking ready to throw her hands in the air to show her frustration at how little sense he is making. “We’re not a spy organization, we’re a normal company. Is someone doing inside dealing?”

Now they are getting somewhere, although Pepper does not sound half as concerned about that as she should be.

“Someone’s selling my weapons under the table,” Tony says into the expectant silence. The words weigh heavy on his tongue. “To the enemy. To terrorists. To anyone willing to buy. They turn up where they shouldn’t be and people die.” He exhales slowly, watching his friends’ faces for the same urgent need to fix this as he feels. “Someone’s doing that and we need to find them.”

The first thing Tony notices is the doubt. It might be the way he looks or the fact that they now know he has a concussion or simply that he has just returned home after having been kidnapped. It is not that they do not believe him, but they obviously think there are more important things to deal with.

It makes Tony irrationally angry with them. He is tired and in pain and constantly battling a stream of emotions from the soul bond that he did not ask for. All he wants is for his friends to believe him so that they can do something against this. He does not need to be kept safe right now, he needs to fight.

“How do you know that?” Pepper asks, looking like she has ten arguments ready why this cannot be true.

She does know more about Stark Industries’ inner workings, that is why Tony needs her help. Her constant scepticism, on the other hand, is mostly a hindrance right now. Of course, Tony wants this to be false information. If they go digging and do not find anything, he will be more than happy with that. The do need to look, though.

“The guys who took me told me,” Tony replies. He knows how that sounds. Telling them that the gang leader is his soulmate will not make them trust his word any more – and push them even farther off topic.

“Of course,” Rhodey snaps. He sounds decidedly done with this. “Because kidnappers are a reliable source of information.”

“The leader said –” Tony tries to argue, but does not get any farther.

“Before or after he beat you into a pulp?”

Tension fills the air like static, crackling, ready to detonate at the tiniest spark. Rhodey is trembling with a mixture of anger and worry and the need to find this gang to teach them to never touch Tony again. Tony has seen all of that on his face before, several times even over their friendship. Pepper, too, looks ready to snap. She is pale but her posture is flawless, her back straight to the point where it looks ready to break.

All of that because of Tony, because of some bruises, because someone always has it out for him. A part of him wishes he could give in to them, could allow them to wrap him up in a blanket and hide him away until the world is safe for him. He could give them Steve’s name and watch from afar while they take care of it. No matter how good the Avengers are, they are no match for Colonel Rhodes and Virginia Potts on a mission.

It would feel good even. Probably. He would not have to worry anymore about what to do with Steve, with this bond he does not want. At the same time, though, it would be cheap, heaping the responsibility for this on his friends. He does not want to drag them into another personal drama of his.

“Listen,” Tony says. It should not be this hard to keep his voice calm. “I don’t like this situation either. You’re right. Anyone could have ordered that hit and the information could be false, but now that I have it, I can’t not act on it.”

Tony feels breathless, more so when he sees that Rhodey and Pepper are still hesitating. With a desperation that he hopes does not show, he reaches for his glass and drains it in one go. Feeling restless, he jumps to his feet and walks over to the liquor cabinet where he remains standing, his back to his friends. That gives him the chance to collect himself, although he feels their stares on him, hears their silent conversation.

“I believe that you believe this,” Pepper says slowly, cautiously as if anything could soften the blow of them questioning him still when they could already be acting, “but you hit your head –”

“Yes,” Tony whirls around, alit with frustration, “I hit my head. Repeatedly. Against two guys’ feet. Because they have been out there fighting against terrorists with my weapons.” He forces himself to make a pause, to calm himself. “I don’t like them, and I don’t trust them, but I believe them when they say that someone’s putting my weapons where they don’t belong, and that someone told them that was my doing.”

At least that gets their attention in a not completely doubtful way.

“When did they have time telling you that?” Rhodey asks, still hung up on Tony’s wounds,

Tony closes his eyes, briefly. He remembers the shift on Steve’s face from disgusted to incredulous to concerned, remembers his own dislike decreasing paradoxically every time they looked at each other afterwards, with every touch they shared that did not hurt.

“The leader made sure I did not actually die, because that’s apparently not something they’re doing,” Tony says, his tone as neutral as he can manage. “We had a little chat. He didn’t want me thinking they weren’t justified in what they did.”

Bitterness coats his tongue, but he swallows it. This is not the time to think about Steve. 

“And now you’re all chummy?” Rhodey raises his eyebrows, staring at Tony in the way that makes it clear he knows Tony is hiding something. “He believes you didn’t do it, and you believe they’re not coming after you again?”

Put like that, it really does not make sense. Tony cannot explain it to them, though, cannot open himself up to that misery. “They are passionate enough about this to look for proof before they do anything further.”

“How did you get out?”

Everything in Tony wants to turn around, grab a bottle, and just vanish. Perhaps it was naïve of him to think this would be easier, that they would not ask questions. He keeps his eyes steadily on Rhodey, not even blinking.

“That sounds suspiciously like you’re thinking I’m working with them,” he says, harsher than intended. It does not bring him any satisfaction when Rhodey winces. “This wasn’t my first kidnapping. They beat me up and threw me out. Their job was the USB drive. The punching was just a little extra.”

Where Rhodey looks ready to back down, Pepper is not yet done. “Why won’t you let the police deal with them?” she asks, easily sprinkling more salt into his wounds.

“Because they’re looking into the weapon deals from their end.” That answer will not satisfy her. It would not satisfy him if their roles were reversed, but he is done with this. “Now, could you please stop the interrogation? I asked you here to help. You’re not helping.”

To give them credit, they look ashamed. That does not mean they are giving up or that they are done worrying about him, but perhaps they can finally get to the business at hand.

“We – I’m sorry, Tony,” Pepper says. “We want to help.”

She pats the couch next to her to get him to come back, to sit down. Both of them must see the way Tony is leaning against the cabinet to take some of the weight of his legs. The nap earlier had helped but he still feels the aftershocks of the kidnapping in every movement. Stubbornly, Tony remains where he is.

“Good,” he says with the kind of authority he seldom uses on them. “Then let me handle the kidnappers and concentrate on finding out who’s selling my weapons.”

Pepper nods, although it looks like she is biting her cheek to keep herself from saying something.

Leaning forward, Rhodey studies Tony. “Are you really all right?”

A smile spreads on Tony’s lips, holding no humour, tugging at the bruises. “Of course not,” he replies dryly. “But I will be. I always am.”

Rhodey and Pepper share a look and are not even subtle about it. There is no mistaking their worry, and Tony knows he can trust them. He just needs them to trust him on this too. This is not the time to rest. He can do that afterwards, when this matter is dealt with. And he will get there much faster with their help.

“Of course we’re going to help,” Rhodey says. For a moment, Tony is afraid he has said all of his thoughts out loud. His head is hurting and the concussion might be more noticeable than he told them. “What do you need us to do?”

Tony exhales in relief. This is not over. By showing them that he is hurt, he has doomed himself to constant questions about his well-being, but he could not delay this any longer nor is this a topic that could be talked about on the phone.

“There has to be evidence. A paper trail, communication.” Tony trails off, thinking.

If his weapons are truly spread through the wrong hands, there are a thousand possible perpetrators. It could be someone at Stark Industries, although it would have to be someone high-ranked enough to tamper with the books without it being too obvious. Otherwise, the profits would hardly be worth the risks.

It could also be one of the buyers, which really only leaves someone in the military, and that is a hornet’s nest he does not want to poke unprepared.

The people who could have reasonably ordered the hit on Tony are even more numerous. Business opponents, women he has spurned, fired contractors, former employees. If Tony is good at something, it is at making enemies.

Stark Industries is the sensible place to start. That is where the most damage can be done, both to their future business opportunities and to himself. It is also a matter of pride.

“Pep, I need you to dig into accounting to look for irregularities. I’ve had JARVIS going through anything he can without uploading him to SI’s servers.” Pointing at his face, Tony adds, "I can’t go in to work looking like I do, but I’ll give you something to make it easier to get to the sensitive data. It’s a –” Tony interrupts himself. Pepper does not need to know about the technicalities, the algorithm. She just needs to put the USB drive into a computer at Stark Industries. “It’ll help me get in.”

He waits for her nod, then turns to Rhodey “You’re my ears within the military. We need to know where my weapons wind up. Maybe someone’s just selling them on. I don’t –”

Tony shrugs. A thousand different starting points and possible solutions race through his head, but he does not know which step to take first. He is so tired but there is no rest in sight.

“We’ll take care of it,” Pepper says, as resolute as he had hoped for her to be from the very beginning. Once she sees Tony bearing up to protests, she amends, “We’ll take care of our end.”

Rhodey nods his head in affirmation. “Show us what you’ve got already.”

This time, when Pepper beckons him back to the couch, he goes to her, glad to sink back into the cushions. Nothing is solved yet, nothing makes sense, but with his two friends at his side, he has come so much closer to it already.

For the rest of the night, they strategize, speculate, and if they try to send him off to bed several times or to keep him from looking at a screen to long, Tony can live with that. It is good, even, to let them take some of the control.

They never get around to drinking that bottle of wine after all.

 


 

Pepper leaves at some point, citing the need to get some sleep if she is to go to Stark Industries in the morning without raising suspicion. She has a reputation to uphold of being constantly perfect, unflappable. Pepper Potts is never too tired or too distracted to do her job and to do it well.

Rhodey stays, though. It will be only for one night and that is too much of an unauthorized leave already, but Tony does not have it in him to send his best friend away tonight. He is in need of comfort, even if he does not outright say it. Rhodey understands him well enough without words, and he does not need to know the exact reason.

They stay on the couch, cuddled up together like they have done a thousand times before. Tony does not say anything when Rhodey pushes the wine bottle out of his reach. The one glass of whiskey he had sits heavily inside his stomach already. Getting drunk might have been his universal response to any problem at one point, but his head feels messed up already without adding alcohol into the mix. If Rhodey thinks that means Tony is slowly learning something like common sense, Tony does not correct him.

Tony pulls a blanket up around them as he settles more comfortably against Rhodey, using Rhodey’s breathing as a template for his own. He is calmer now, having lifted a huge part of the weight off his chest. His arm is itching, but he has taken care all evening to not reach for it to not tip off his friends about it.

He knows that Rhodey has not yet met his soulmate, and he supposes Pepper has not either, although they have never specifically talked about it. If not for the complicated mess surrounding the whole matter, Tony would have told them. He would have never even hesitated. They are family, the people he trusts most in the world.

“Are you all right?” Rhodey asks, disrupting the comfortable silence with more concern.

“Asked and answered, platypus,” Tony replies briskly, closing his eyes as if Rhodey would believe him if he pretended to fall asleep. “It’s time to move on.”

A silent chuckle reverberates through Rhodey’s body. “That was several hours ago,” he argues, “when we had a problem to solve.”

Tony’s answer to that will never change. He is fine, and if he is not he will act like it until the situation has either blown over or he has fixed things. With this, of course, only one of these is an actual option.

“We haven’t solved anything,” Tony says, attempting to change the topic, no matter that he would prefer to not talk anymore at all.

“I know. But we’re getting there,” Rhodey says, sounding like he is rolling his eyes, but Tony is too tired to lift his head and look. “So, how are you really doing?”

Of course, Rhodey would not let himself be distracted this easily. Tony is silent for a long moment, burrowing his face closer into Rhodey’s warmth. He is not going to lie, Rhodey would see through him anyway. The question is just how much of the truth he is going to offer. 

“I’m tired and in pain and not as angry as I should be,” he finally says, quiet and disheartened, perhaps too honest.

Rhodey raises his arm and puts it around Tony to hold him closer. Inside his own mind, Tony can admit that he missed this, intimacy without any demands. There is no price to pay for Rhodey’s closeness other than opening himself up enough to accept it.

“You’ll get there,” Rhodey says, not a trace of doubt in his voice. “I’ll give you until tomorrow morning to snap out of feeling betrayed right into doing something about it.”

Part of Tony fears that moment. He can never be sure he will make the right decisions.

“I thought we were already doing something,” he answers somewhat flippant, then softens. “But I hope you’re right. It feels wrong to be so passive about this.”

“As long as I’ve known you, you’ve never been passive,” Rhodey says, clicking his tongue. “Sometimes, your brain is pulling you into too many directions at once, but I’ve never seen you pass by a problem or a wrong without doing something about it.”

It is nice to have someone believing in him, even though Tony obviously does not deserve that kind of trust. If he did, he would not have been so blind, he would not have a soulmate who hates what he is, what he stands for

“So that is how my weapons are ending up in terrorists’ hands. Because I always fix what’s wrong.” Tony’s voice is sharp, but he only cuts himself with it. He has practice doing that.

Rhodey sits up a bit straighter, looking down at Tony even when Tony avoids his eyes. “You didn’t know,” he intones firmly, leaving no room for discussion. “And now that you do, you are immediately acting to make up for it.”

Glancing up, Tony is overwhelmed by the sheer conviction in his best friend’s eyes. “I should have known,” he says nonetheless, not allowing his guilt to be taken from him so easily.

“No sense in dwelling on that” Rhodey insists, unwilling to move even one bit. “We’ll make it right.”

It would be easy to give into the ease with which Rhodey promises something that is not actually in his control to offer. Tony will still wake up tomorrow, and none of his problems will have gotten any smaller. On the contrary, time and distance do not seem to make the heaviness in his arm go away, nor the nonsensical longing.  Over the course of this day, it had periodically risen and fallen, even. There is no ignoring the fact that Steve and he are now connected. 

“Can we?” Tony asks, concentrating back on the topic at hand. “I mean, so much bad stuff has happened because of this. People are dead or hurt, the fighting never comes to an end.”

For all that it is a big part of Tony’s life, war has always been an abstract thing, captured in statistics and equations, not in actual human lives. Tony is familiar with the recoil of a gun, but not with the force of impact in a body. He knows about the blast radius of bombs but not about the wreckage they leave behind. His best friend is part of the military, but he has never allowed himself to think about Rhodey not coming home.

“They aren’t fighting because they have your weapons,” Rhodey argues with a ferocity that soothes Tony a bit. Not enough to keep him from loading more blame onto his plate, but it is a beginning.

“But they do it so much more effectively with them,” Tony replies, self-loathing dripping from his tongue.

He has had so many ideas not involving weapons. He should have ignored his board of directors, should have ignored Obadiah even, and done something good for the world for once. How hard could it be? They are afraid of losing money, but not all profit has to be paid for in blood. 

“Tones –” Rhodey says slowly, gearing up for another argument.

“I know, I know,” Tony cuts him off quickly. He even manages to paste a smile on his face. “Moving on.”

In response, Rhodey holds him tighter for a minute, another promise of safety that could not possibly be upheld. It almost seems like this is it, that Rhodey will let it go now. Then, however, with grating nonchalance, Rhodey asks, “Why are you protecting the kidnappers?”

“What? I don’t – why would I?”

Rhodey knows him too well. Tony could bury him under a never-ending flood of arguments, all of them solid and logical, and Rhodey would still zero in on the fact that Tony is hiding something.

 “Then why don’t you tell me their names,” Rhodey continues casually, as if he does not care for the answer either way. “I’m sure JARVIS has found something out already.”

The knowledge of all the information about the Avengers is weighing heavily on Tony. He sends a silent plea to his AI to not mess this up by unwanted autonomy for once. Miraculously, JARVIS remains silent.

“I can’t,” Tony then says as firmly as he can. He almost wants to disentangle from Rhodey but does not, knowing it would seem too defensive. “I – I know one of them.”

It is not even a complete lie. Bruce, as it turns out, is the one and only Dr. Bruce Banner. Tony has read all of his papers, has gushed over them really. It had been a hard hit for the scientific community when Bruce disappeared several years ago, running from a military contract he had apparently taken offense to. Colleagues had declared him another brilliant mind lost to scruples.  Considering the company Bruce is keeping now, something more sinister must have happened.

Bruce might not be the reason Tony is so tight-lipped about the kidnapping, but he will serve for now. He is a better alternative than making up some story about Steve without mentioning that they are soulmates.

“You know them?” Rhodey asks, leaning back to look at Tony with open incredulity. His eyes are turning just a shade more furious.

One of them,” Tony corrects, keeping his tone even as if his heart is not beating wildly. “And he didn’t harm me. On the contrary, he helped me get out. He promised that they won’t come after me again.”

Rhodey does not believe him. Not fully. There are too many holes in Tony’s story. “And you –”

“Please, Rhodey,” Tony interrupts him, shoulders dropping. “I can’t fight all these battles at once.”

They are at an impasse, neither of them willing to back down. In the end, though, Rhodey will always care for Tony’s well-being.

“All right,” he says, although nothing is. “As long as you promise me you won’t fight them alone.”

Tony opens his mouth, mindless agreement lying on his tongue. He thinks better of it, though. Despite all their years of friendship, it is still incredibly hard to reach out for help.

“I called you as soon as I came home, right?” he then says, skirting the topic graciously enough that Rhodey lets it drop.

“Right,” Rhodey says, drawing out the word, then relaxes back into the cushions. “Now, do you want to go sleep in an actual bed, or are you condemning us both to hurting backs tomorrow morning?”

Smiling, Tony wonders for the umpteenth time how he deserves a friend like this. “I’m comfortable where I am.”

Rhodey sighs but does not seem surprised. “I knew you’d say that,” he mutters, but already adjusts his position to make it more comfortable for the both of them on the couch. “Sleep, you maniac. I have to catch an early flight tomorrow.”

When Tony shifts his head a bit, he can hear Rhodey’s heartbeat, a steady, familiar sound. Like that, he knows he will be able to sleep, perhaps even dreamlessly. This is the soundtrack of his MIT years, which were perhaps the happiest of his life. Like this, with Rhodey at his side, Tony knows he is safe. 

Chapter Text

Steve does not know what to do. Normally, the way forward would be clear. Someone gave them information that Tony Stark himself is the reason Stark weaponry ends up in the wrong hands. Now, they have information indicating otherwise. They need to confirm which version is right, then deal with the problem accordingly. Like they do.

Feelings do not really filter in there anywhere, and Steve does not think of himself as an emotional person. They can rarely afford that.

Hearing his words had been – wonderful is not the right word. The situation they were in does not allow for it. The absolute feeling spreading through him, on the other hand, is nothing like Steve has ever experienced. It is as if he is just now feeling complete for the first time in his life.

Well, complete but already lacking an important part of him. He understands why. If he were Tony, he would have left too.

He is staring at the USB drive they took off Tony. It is supposed to contain weapon blueprints and engineering specs mostly, and they should have already delivered it to the buyer. Steve cannot help but think that it might also contain some of the information they need to decide whether his soulmate is one of the bad guys.

He does not want to know. At the same time, he needs to.

“Nat,” he calls as he grabs the drive and walks out of his room.

They mostly operate out of Washington, but they do have a base of operation in New York. This one is spacier, but considering that they are rarely here, it is unfamiliar, unused almost. That does not help with Steve feeling lost.

Natasha and Clint sit together at the kitchen table, one dark look away from turning this into a conspiratorial meeting. Those two always hold their own council, and it would not surprise him if they took off some day, never to be heard of again. Depending on how good a job he is doing until then, they might not even leave a knife in his back as a parting gift.

Steve is as sure as he can be that Natasha is on his side in this matter. She has grown up with violence and uses it readily as a tool whenever it is needed, but her violence always serves a purpose more than personal satisfaction. She did not stop Clint from beating up Tony, but Steve likes to think that she does not approve of it either.

Clint is more impulsive, making his decisions on a whim but then sticking to it. He has not shut up for a single minute since they snatched Tony off the street. It has all been angry rants and colourful insults. Steve trusts him, but Clint does not deal well with being wrong, holding onto his own concept of the truth until the bitter end. Steve will have to deal with that sooner or later. For now, Natasha will keep him in check.

“I need you to look into this,” Steve says and puts the USB drive on the table next to her. He keeps his finger on it, unwilling to let go of this last piece of Tony just yet.

It is ridiculous and he hates that his objectivity is clouded like this. At the same time, he craves the way his heartbeat picks up whenever he thinks of Tony. If he cannot trust his soulmate, can he trust anyone?

“I know you’re old-fashioned,” Clint drawls, leaning forward as if he is anticipating another fight, “but I’m sure even you can stick this into a computer and click on the folder that pops up.”

Thanks to years of practice, Steve ignores him easily but keeps looking at Natasha. Giving Clint the satisfaction of falling into another argument will not get them anywhere.

“It’ll be protected,” she says and makes no move to take it.

Next to her, Clint straightens further. “Stark must have a lot to hide.”

The phone they took off Tony was already useless by the time Steve dared to take a closer look to it. Bruce had taken it with him when he left them at the warehouse but gave it back later, once he felt he could stand to see Steve again without falling right back into a rage. All the data appeared to be deleted. When Steve called the number anyway, riding on a last sliver of hope, Tony had picked up, clearly having dealt with the matter already. There have to be advantages to building a phone for himself.  

The short exchange had meant a lot. Hearing Tony’s voice, no matter how angry, had made warmth spread through Steve’s chest that seems to linger still. It does not exactly chase away the memory of the sheer betrayal on Tony’s face outside of the warehouse when he said Steve’s words, but it gives Steve hope that this is something they can overcome. They are fated to be, after all.

People make mistakes. This was a big one, but he stopped Clint and Bucky from doing further damage. He stopped going down this road when Tony told him he is not responsible for those weapon deals. He is ready to make amends. The first step of that has to be ensuring Tony’s safety.

“Will you do it?” Steve questions quietly. If she refuses, he will have to ask Pietro, who is not bad but usually too impatient to do a good job.

“Of course,” Natasha huffs and pulls the drive right out from under Steve’s finger, pocketing it with the kind of business-like carelessness that has Steve itching to take it back from her.

“We’ll have to prove somehow that you’ve lost your mind,” Clint mutters but looks Steve straight in the eye.

Steve could argue, he wants to. He realizes that a lot of what he is feeling is due to the soul bond, though. This was not love on first sight. There is no rationality involved. He could be wrong about Tony, so he is not going to endanger the trust of his men by fighting for something he is not absolutely sure about. Natasha will find out what is on the USB drive and go after any leads she finds. She is good at what she does.

“Thank you,” Steve intones firmly, adding a glare at Clint, who does not back down in the least.

Considering that matter dealt with, Steve strides out, intent to find his best friend. Bucky has been quieter than usual. This whole business with Stark Industries had not sat right with him from the very beginning. Now that brief taste of vengeance has turned bitter on his tongue too. If it turns out that Tony is really not responsible, Steve can imagine that Bucky’s guilt will be even greater than his own. Bucky is not the type for outright vengeance, and likes being turned into another’s tool even less.

Someone obviously has it out for Tony. No matter the expected protest, Steve might just make it their next job to find out who that is and deal with them accordingly.

He finds Bucky in his room, sitting on the bed and looking at something only he can see. His hands are in his lap and he cradles the bruised knuckles of his right hand with his prosthesis. Misery is written across his face, a more visceral kind than the one Steve carries inside him.

“Are you all right?” Bucky asks when Steve hovers in the doorway, unsure whether he is welcome to enter. Life was easier when they were children. They could afford to be careless back then, did not have to navigate topics neither of them really wants to talk about.  

The sudden intensity of Bucky’s eyes on him, has Steve feeling worse. “I think I should be the one asking you that,” he counters, registering the dark rings under Bucky’s eyes. Neither of them has slept well for the past days, probably not even Clint, even though he would never admit that.

“I’m not the one who found his soulmate in the middle of a job,” Bucky replies without missing a beat as if he has waited for an opportunity to bring up this topic. “Hell, I didn’t find out my soulmate was the job.”

True enough, Steve has blocked all of his friends’ attempts to talk about this with him. Once he had regained his senses after Bruce’s act of insubordination, letting Tony go before they were done dealing with the matter, Steve had cut them all out, barking orders to not follow after Tony but to work on finding their employer instead, and disappeared out into the night to go running until his lungs burned hard enough to make him think his childhood asthma was back.

Morning was dawning by the time he returned and, Bruce’s warning notwithstanding, he went back to their base to lock himself in his room. Staying inside the shower forever, in the hopes of washing his conflicting feelings away, sounded never more appealing. Bruce had knocked at his door at some point, probably to make sure he was not doing anything stupid, and Bucky had brought him some food later, but Steve sent them all away.

Even now, he has not managed to regain any kind of inner peace again. It has never been a problem before, separating work and personal matters. They make a habit of going against the people who deserve it, who do wrong without fearing repercussions. Steve never had to feel bad about taking any of those men down.

As Steve sits down on the bed, a small sigh escapes him, weary in a way he usually does not like to show. “I’m dealing with it.”

“You aren’t,” Bucky says dryly, seeing right through Steve’s lie. Expression crumbling, he asks, “What if Stark told the truth? What if he –”

“Don’t you dare blame yourself for what happened,” Steve cuts Bucky off. Nothing is as effective in dragging him out of his misery as Bucky needing his help. A lot of things went wrong with this job, but none of that has been Bucky’s fault.

Looking up, Bucky is obviously of a different opinion. His eyes are dark and they weigh heavily on Steve. “He was on the ground,” he says tonelessly, “and I just kept kicking him.”

The reminder is definitely not needed. Every time Steve closes his eyes, he sees the ruined mess of Tony’s face after they were through with him, remembers the careful way he moved. Broken ribs, Bruce had reported later, and dozens of bruises, possible internal damage too.

“And I let you do it,” Steve answers, letting the new wave of guilt wash over him. Why could they not have run into each other on the street like other couples do? Why does life always have to make things complicated for Steve?

Bucky chuckles dryly. “You fancy yourself our leader, but you’re not responsible for what we do.” He shrugs, conveying so much helplessness that Steve wants to reach out and shield his best friend from further harm. “This is not who I want to be.”

“And you aren’t,” Steve says, putting all the conviction he can muster into these words. “I promise you, you aren’t”

For a brief moment, Steve wishes their information was right, that Tony is the one they are looking for. He hates himself immediately for the thought, but he does not want Bucky to feel miserable about something they cannot change anymore. They have been through a lot together, through everything important in their lives. Despite the way he is feeling right now, alive and full of longing and warm in places that were hollow for so long, Steve knows he would choose Bucky even over his own soulmate.

He shakes his head. These are thoughts he will leave for another day. If he gets lucky, there will not be any need to choose. He will just have to keep working to prove that.

 


 

When all the lights go out without warning, Steve knows it is Tony’s doing even before he hears Natasha’s cursing and rushes off to find her in front of a computer, glaring at the screen.

He remembers Natasha’s warning about what Tony can do with his hands, and the sharpness beneath Tony’s offended glare when Steve bound his hands again. He seemed to regard the rope as a mere inconvenience, not an actual hindrance. Considering that, they are probably lucky that Bruce let Tony go before Tony could turn his genius against them.

“Well,” Steve says as he is helplessly looking at whatever Natasha is doing on the computer. It still has power, even while the lights are out. “You knew Tony would have protected that thing.”

Without looking up, Natasha hisses, “Get out, Steve. You don’t understand anything about this.”

Steve would never pretend to. His friends would not believe him anyway. He likes to think his expertise lies elsewhere and lets other people deal with the wonders of modern technology.

“I’m sure you’ll –”

“I can’t talk to you right now,” Natasha cuts him off entirely unapologetic. “I need to make sure that Stark didn’t leave any other traps or even a backdoor into our system.”

Knowing when to back off, Steve walks off to the kitchen, which is close enough for him to be in hearing range should Natasha need him after all – no matter that he would not be of much help unless she needed someone to smash the computer. She would definitely be capable of that herself, although she usually shows more restraint.  

They have a bigger problem than Tony playing havoc with their systems, though. If he is talented enough to booby-trap one USB drive enough to manipulate the electronics in their base, how can they ever trust a piece of electronic evidence concerning him? Surely, Tony knows how to tamper with that too. Life has just gotten a lot more complicated.

Despite himself, he is also hopeful. If there is a backdoor, whatever that means, they have a connection to Tony. In his understanding, doors work both ways. Still, he decides not to mention this thought until Natasha has emerged from her invisible battle with Tony’s USB drive. He does not want to be skewered by a thrown pair of scissors or whatever else she has in her immediate vicinity.

“What happened?” Bruce comes into the room, looking the kind of irritated that means he was interrupted while he was working. “Why did the lights go out?”

“Natasha tried to open Tony’s USB drive,” Steve offers helplessly. That is hardly an explanation the way he sees it, but it is the best he can do.

Bruce, on the other hand, nods as if that makes sense and sets off again. He stops shortly before he is out of the door. “Is it just the lights?”

Shrugging, Steve tries to listen for the familiar noises of the fridge. He is not equipped to deal with things like this.

“Find out whether the coffee machine works,” Bruce orders, “And then keep us supplied.”

Steve does not dare to ask more about the matter or to protest. He knows to stay out of Bruce’s way when he looks like this, ready to throw himself into work, to tackle a problem and not come up for air until he has found a solution.

For over two hours, he migrates from the kitchen to their office and back, balancing cups with fresh coffee while he walks as quietly as possible. He listens to Bruce and Natasha talk in clipped sentences and does not understand a word of it.

“That’s it,” Bruce says, an eternity later, ripping Steve out of his thoughts, “We’re done.”

Instantly alert, Steve walks over to them and looks at the screens. To him, nothing is any different, apart from the fact that the lights are on again. “So, no damage done?” he asks.

“I can’t be completely sure,” Natasha answers, frowning at the screen, “but I can’t find anything. He’s good, but not that good.”

Next to her, Bruce stays suspiciously silent. His face is carefully neutral. There is no reason to suspect he knows more than Natasha, but he has been pouring over Tony’s published papers again since they bodged up the job, so he might just have more insight into Tony’s capabilities than anyone else. Steve does not push him, though, not with how fragile Bruce’s hold on his temper is at the moment, especially when it comes to Steve.

“Just – keep a lookout.” He knows this was the wrong thing to say even before the words are completely over his lips.

“No, Steve,” Natasha drawls, glaring at him with the kind of heat that makes him duck his head. “I was going to ignore the fact that simply putting Stark’s USB drive into our computer caused a partial blackout.”

Keeping his expression apologetic, Steve nods. “That’s fair. All right,” he adds, ready to make his escape. “I’ll leave you to it.”

When Natasha speaks up again, her voice is gentler. “I’ll look through the data I could save and tell you what I find.”

The data, of course. That is the very thing they targeted Tony for in the first place, before personal feelings took over, and Steve has almost forgotten about it over the short drama. He is curious. More than that. It is a glimpse at Tony and his work that he will likely not get otherwise. The drive could be full of weapon designs and perhaps even evidence for the dealing, but Steve pins all his hopes on there being more, something good about his soulmate.

Steve is going to have a look at the data himself at some point, but he is happy to let Natasha sort through it first. She is going to be more professional about it. To himself, Steve can admit that he also does not want to be disappointed by what they will find.

Right now, he needs to get out of here, away from his team’s lingering judgement and his own doubts. New York has always had something soothing with its mass of people constantly moving somewhere. Out here, time almost seems to stand still even while it is obvious how relentlessly it ticks forwards.

Steve walks and walks. He does not have a destination in mind and just wants to clear his head a little. In the end, though, he is not surprised by where he arrives. He could blame it on the tower being the tallest building in New York. Inside the safety of his own mind, though, he can admit that he is drawn here by the metaphorical compass lurking underneath the skin of his arm. Fate is relentless like that.

 


 

Progress is made slowly. So slowly that it feels like Tony is not getting anywhere at all. They do not yet have found any evidence or even substantial clue who is selling Tony’s weapons. Instead, they now know that one of Stark Industries’ board members has a gambling habit, and another is versed in tax evasion.

Some irregularities have been brought to light, and Pepper is doing the best she can, but the need to go to work and abandon all subtlety is growing with every day. Tony has always been impatient where it comes to his own mistakes.

He is distracting himself the best he can. Between too much sleep and mostly regular meals – courtesy of the combined efforts of Rhodey, Pepper and JARVIS – he also goes through all the data he can get his hands on without outright hacking his own company. In between that, he builds.

“Sir,” JARVIS speaks up, causing Tony to immediately abandon his work. He is constantly waiting for news. “Mr. Rogers is standing outside the tower.”

This is so far from what he expected – and hoped – to hear that the words do not even register with Tony at first. Instead of having found his lost weapons or whoever is trying to get rid of him, he just gets more problems heaped onto him.

“He is what?”

A video feed comes up on the screen nearest to him, showing the unmistakeable form of Steve Rogers lurking on the other side of the street. He is wearing normal clothes now, a bit outdated but formfitting. His face is clearly recognizable in the midday sun. His arm, Tony hates to notice, is covered, but Tony imagines it burns as much as his own.

It feels like Tony’s insides are being pulled towards his soulmate, like meeting him has left him with a hook sticking in his gut.

He is torn. On one hand, he is furious. How dare Steve come here, basically laying siege to Tony’s home? On the other hand, this gives Tony an opportunity to watch him. The video feed does not have the highest resolution but Tony’s mind fills out everything he cannot see clearly.

In the light of day, Steve appears both taller and not as intimidating. He is human, just like that. The sun makes his hair glow like a halo around his head. If he were smiling, he would look downright beautiful. As it is, he appears worried, staring up the tower as if he contemplates to either scale it or to burn it to the ground. Tony is not sure how he factors into that or whether he truly wants to find out.

“He has been standing there for approximately ten minutes,” JARVIS says when Tony does not do anything but look at the screen.

His soulmate has been this close to him for ten minutes. He tries to think back whether he has felt any differently during this time, whether the bond has announced Steve’s relative proximity.

Clearing his throat, Tony tries to regain control over his thoughts. “Why haven’t you said anything earlier?”

“He made no attempt to enter,” JARVIS answers dutifully. Something in his tone promises that this would not have ended well for Steve.

“What about his goons?” Tony asks, looking at the people moving around Steve. “Are they around too?”

Without being able to give a reason why, he does not think so. The way Steve just stands there, he looks lost, not like he is on a mission. In a way, that makes his presence worse because it means he is here for Tony. Not to finish the job, not for the missing weapons, not to get more information. He is searching for something, perhaps the same thing Tony is. Inner peace, a solution to this mess, a way to satisfy the bond without giving into it.

“No one else appears to accompany him,” JARVIS says.

The thing is, with former spies on the team, the Avengers surely know how to stay hidden from cameras, especially if JARVIS sticks to only the tower’s security surveillance instead of hacking into the city’s. No matter what his eyes tell Tony, he can never be sure that it is the truth.

“So he’s just standing there?” Tony mutters mostly to himself, hating that his entire life is not making sense anymore. “Call him.”

The order is over his lips before he is entirely sure what he is doing. Surely, talking to Steve will not make his inner turmoil any easier to deal with.

“Sir?” JARVIS asks, obviously thinking this is a bad idea. Paradoxically, that only helps Tony to make up his mind.

“You heard me right,” he says, ruthlessly pushing down his own doubts. “Let’s get this over with.”

When the dial tone rings in the air of the penthouse, Tony watches on the screen how Steve flinches, caught off guard perhaps by the ringing of his phone. For a moment, it looks like he will not get it out, unwilling to talk to anyone. The part of Tony that is not relieved at that thought is irrationally irritated at the prospect of being ignored.

Steve then gets his phone out, after all, and, after realizing that it is Tony who is calling, hurries to accept the call so much that he almost lets the phone fall.

“Tony.” Steve’s voice fills the penthouse. It is at once warm and frantic, shaping Tony’s name like it is something precious but foreign. “I was worried about you.”

“Why?” Tony snaps, bristling at Steve’s daring. “I haven’t been kidnapped since I left your tender care. Curious how that works.”

Steve looks stricken, but Tony will not fall for him that easily. Not again. Regret and an actual desire to do better in the future are not the same thing.

“You know that I could have you arrested very easily right now,” Tony adds before Steve has a chance to say anything.

It would be easy. The tower’s security guards are mere feet away from Steve. One call from Tony and they would be on the move. He tells himself it would not be smart to do so. He might be able to talk to Steve in much safer surroundings than last time, but it would turn the rest of the Avengers into a wild card. Without their leader holding them back, there is no telling what they would do, whether they would come after Tony again.

“But you won’t do that,” Steve says, right in time to shatter Tony’s conviction to go about this strategically.

Steve is not as cocky as he has been in the warehouse, but he still sounds convinced that he does not have anything to fear from Tony, that they can just ignore what happened.

“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t,” Tony barks, despite not being interested in reasons. In a way, he regrets not having set Rhodey on the Avengers. Then, at least, he would not have to deal with this.

On the screen, right beneath the camera feed, JARVIS writes, Initiate countermeasures?

An involuntary smile flickers over Tony’s face. The AI has turned out far more efficient than Tony had thought possible, and far more loyal than he could have hoped for. All these years he spent trying to build himself a friend under the guise of a lab assistant. He could not have invested that time any better way.

With some hesitation, Tony shakes his head no, knowing JARVIS will understand. He regrets that only moments later when Steve opens his mouth again.

“We’re soulmates.”

Steve’s eyes fall on the nearest security camera as if he knows it is there. That means, on the screen, he is looking directly at Tony. In response, Tony shivers, but not all of that is because he is uncomfortable.

There is no forgetting the fact that they are bonded. It has only been days, and Tony still hopes that the force of the soul bond will fade with time. For now, every step he takes seems to want to drag him closer to Steve. Every thought has an aftertaste that reminds him of that warehouse and that first time their eyes met.

Nothing romantic can be found in that, nothing desirable. Yet, logic has barely a chance to touch the matter.

“That doesn’t mean anything, as you’ve clearly already proven,” Tony argues nonetheless, with all the harshness he can muster.

He is feeling much better by now. The swelling around his eye has gone down, allowing him to see more clearly again. His head still hurts and he has taped his ribs to make it easier for him to move. His skin is still miscoloured and he still does not sleep well. He is better, though. Or on his way there.

It helps that he is at home where he has DUM-E and JARVIS making life easy for him, and Pepper who has meals delivered and shows up several times a day despite her busy schedule to make sure he takes care of himself. 

Steve’s eyes leave the camera and wander up the tower again, perhaps trying to find Tony from down there. “I didn’t –”

“Know, yes,” Tony cuts him off impatiently. “You said that. We know now, although I wish we didn’t.” He does not blame Steve for allowing him to be beat up because they are soulmates, but because he is a human being. Who they are – and especially who they are to each other – has no impact on the fact that what the Avengers did was wrong. “Now leave.”

Tony is not surprised when Steve does not show any sign of heeding Tony’s order. His shoulders are squared in a way that shows easily he is not leaving before he has said his part.

“We still need to find out who sent us after you,” Steve says. The fact that the we is rolling so naturally off his lips tears at Tony.

“One might think that you’d take better care with who you take money from,” Tony sneers.

He thinks there is not so much difference between them. They both do not have their business under control enough to know everything that is happening. Someone is putting Tony’s weapons into the wrong hands, and – perhaps the same – someone caused the Avengers’ fists to lay into the wrong person. Tony knows better than to mention that. No matter his anger and justification, Steve is still a dangerous enemy to have.

“It’s not that simple,” Steve argues, taking a deep breath as if he has a whole speech prepared.

“It doesn’t matter,” Tony cuts him off, feeling his headache getting worse again. “We’re done.”

Tony watches as Steve takes an abrupt step forward. It happens hundreds of feet beneath him, and yet he finds himself stiffening, and is irritated with himself for that reaction.

“We’re not done,” Steve says with the unshakeable conviction of someone who is not used to being defied. It is too bad for him that Tony has never reacted well to being ordered around.

“Listen, Rogers,” Tony snaps, surprising himself with the growl in his voice. He emphasizes Steve’s surname, making it clear that he is not completely blind anymore but has researched them as best as he could. “I don’t know whether you think we’ve come to some sort of understanding to let bygones be bygones upon finding out we’re soulmates, but I clearly was in no state of mind to make any major decision.” He still is not, if he is honest with himself, but he is practised in rationalizing. “Also, everything I said was under threat of further bodily harm. I wouldn’t even need a lawyer to argue that case.”

Tony is pretty sure there will never be a case. This is a matter best dealt with quietly. It would not do any good to advertise the fact that he has a soulmate like this or how they broke apart before they could ever get together.

“I know that you’re upset right now,” Steve says with some reluctance but otherwise still adamant that he knows the best way forward, “but we can still help each other.”

A laugh breaks over Tony’s lips, contorted into something ugly by the sheer incredulity he feels. Upset is not the word he would have used. If he were merely upset, they could solve this with a clear-cut discussion.

He is devastated, thrown by the way his life has been completely upended over the course of one particularly unfortunate night. 

“I’d say have a good life, but frankly I don’t care,” he scoffs, wishing Steve could feel the weight of his glare. “Don’t call me again. And stop lurking about outside my home or I will have you arrested.”

Tony has JARVIS end the call with a sharp gesture. His eyes are still fixed on the screen, unable to turn away just yet. This is how he sees the frown appearing on Steve’s face, the displeasure pulling his lips down. He keeps the phone up, talks into it as if Tony is going to answer after all. In a way, he looks frustrated more than angry, but Tony has no desire to decipher that, does not want to know what that means for them.

With some effort, Tony turns away from the screen and orders JARVIS, “Tell me the moment he or any of his little friends come back.”

“Noted, sir,” JARVIS answers. “Colonel Rhodes has also requested again that I send him all the information I have about the Avengers.”

Tony stops short, squinting suspiciously at the nearest camera. He trusts JARVIS not to go against his orders if they are not in a definite life-or-death situation. Rhodey can be persistent, though, and he might just persuade JARVIS to bend the rules a bit if not outright break them.

“You did not give him that name, yes?” he asks. Curiously enough, he is prepared to call Steve back right away and – warn him? Between Rhodey and Steve, Tony knows exactly who is on his side. He had better keep the situation from escalating to the point where he needs to make any decisions like that.

“No, I did not,” JARVIS says, sounding like he very much wants to, though.

“Good,” Tony nods, although he does not feel satisfied with this solution at all. “Keep it that way.”

He cannot solve all of his messes at once. If he is honest with himself, he is glad to push Steve down to the very end of his list. The problems he always liked the least to deal with involved emotions.

Chapter Text

The door to Steve’s room is thrown open without warning. Steve whirls around, ready for an attack or a barrage of bad news. With more relief than guilt, he abandons the report from Sam he was going through. He has not registered much of what Sam has written anyway. His thoughts these days are occupied with other things, other people.

Clint storms into his room, eyes ablaze, and holding his arm curled around his body as if he is wounded. That, at least, has Steve instantly alert. He has not yet accepted another job for them, but if there is something the Avengers are good at, it is getting into trouble.

“You need to talk to Bruce,” Clint announces, ignoring all proper curtesy.

Getting to his feet, Steve is glad to be pulled out of the monotony of his spiralling thoughts. “What happened?”

He is prepared for anything, for rivalling groups attacking, for the police knocking on their door, for Tony to – well, he is not prepared for Tony. Then again, he thinks he is neither lucky nor unlucky enough to have to be. The last time they talked, Tony still sounded so very angry, not like he wants to deal with Steve in any way.

Upon a closer look, it does not seem like there is an actual emergency. Clint looks angry but not in the way he is when he is gearing up for a fight. 

“He’s being an ass and refuses to give me something for my burnt hand,” Clint says. His voice holds enough petulance to tell Steve that there is more to the story than whatever Clint is going to tell him.

“That doesn’t sound like Bruce,” Steve says slowly, leaning back against his desk. “How did you burn your hand? Did you make him blow up one of his experiments again?”

He tries to keep all judgement out of his tone, but Clint huffs anyway. They are all on edge these days.

“The coffee machine malfunctioned,” Clint explains, glaring at Steve like that is his fault.

He then offers his hand. True enough, half of the back is coloured an angry red, a sole blister sticking out. It looks like it hurts.

“What did Bruce say?” Steve asks, unable to muster much sympathy for Clint, considering he knows someone who is in much more pain because of them at the moment.

“To put it in cool water,” Clint answers. “He’s still angry with me because of Stark.”

Steve winces involuntarily. There is still anger in Clint’s voice, but Steve does not know how to contain it, how to not make things worse. Clint does not like to be told what to think, and all Steve feels capable of at the moment is to yell at him. That is easier than seeking the blame with himself.

“I’m not sure it’ll help if I talk to Bruce,” Steve offers with a shrug.

Bruce might have stopped glaring at all of them whenever he leaves his lab, but nothing is resolved yet. They are all treading very carefully around him, and Steve especially has kept his distance. He is not sure whether that is because he is tired of defending himself or because he is not yet ready to admit the entirety of what has gone wrong with this job.

“Why, Cap,” Clint drawls. His hand is now hanging limply at his side, pain forgotten in favour of going against Steve. “You’re usually so eager to argue your way through everything.”

Steve’s preferred method of problem-solving is actually to punch it until it goes away. That very much did not turn out in his favour this time.

“Perhaps I think he’s right,” Steve mutters, mostly to himself, to test out the words.

Hypocrisy is not a virtue, he is aware of that. At the same time, though, he has never felt this torn about a decision he has made. His arm is constantly pulsing with a need to make this right – only he does not know how.

“Of course you would,” Clint snaps, straightening his spine with an expression of disappointment. “You only stick to your decisions when you get your happily ever after.”

“Clint –” Steve tries, but there is not getting through to Clint when he does not want to listen.

“You’ll see it’s wrong to trust that bastard. I don’t care.”

With that, Clint stomps right back out of the door, burnt hand clenched into a fist. Steve wonders whether Clint’s words sit as wrong with him as they do with Steve. They have worked together for years, have been friends for just as long. This is not the first time Clint’s impulsiveness has caused trouble. It has led to bodged missions, to all-out brawls in bars when they wanted a quiet night out, to full weeks of sulking and Clint making life difficult just because he can.

Clint’s loyalty belongs to Natasha and then the Avengers, in that order. Normally, that is not a problem, because Clint’s loyalty is absolute. Even now, Steve has no doubt that Clint would take a bullet for him without hesitation, even if he would be grumbling about it the entire time. If Steve ordered him to, he would probably take a bullet for Tony too.

Steve just hopes that will not be necessary.

 


 

Bruce’s door is closed. That in itself is not unusual. Years of being on the run have instilled a deep-seated need for privacy in him. He also often does experiments that do not do well with outside tampering. Any other door in their base is more of a warning than an actual barrier, but Bruce has a talent for reminding people of their manners.

Right now, the door feels like a solid wall for all that Steve does not want to knock on it. Some of Bruce’s anger about the whole mess with Tony is reverberating inside him, battling against the conviction that he could not have done anything differently, not with the knowledge he had at the time.

They are not violent in nature. They try to do good. Steve does not want to play down what they did, but it was a mistake. Life has left its scars, and one name has been a theme throughout all of their stories. Punching Tony did not solve anything. In fact, it will likely be something that Steve will regret for the rest of his life.

Berating himself for wasting time, Steve takes a deep breath and knocks on the door. “Bruce?”

For a moment, nothing happens. Then Bruce’s voice sounds from inside. “No.”

So much for clear communication, Steve thinks but knows better than to say it. Worse than making Bruce angry is poking him when he already is. Slowly, he opens the door, even though he does not enter.

Bruce is sitting at his desk, a mess of scientific papers in front of him that Steve would barely understand. He is wearing a lab coat and his glasses that barely hide the glare he greets Steve with.

“You don’t even know what I was going to say,” Steve says cautiously, hovering in the doorway. None of the things he currently has to discuss with Bruce is meant for other ears, but he does not want to be so presumptuous to go all the way into Bruce’s room and close the door behind him.

“Doesn’t matter,” Bruce answers shortly. “I’m not interested in hearing any of it.”

Steve can only imagine how the conversation with Clint worked out if Bruce is still this irritated.

“Clint said -”

“He’s not going to die because the coffee machine decided to spit at him,” Bruce cuts him off, even going so far as to look like he is going to pat the coffee machine later for a job well done. “And a little bit of pain might do him some good.”

With a sigh, Steve decides that knowing Bruce has a right to be angry and giving him room because of it is all nice and good, but he is still considered the Avengers’ leader and dissent like this will only cause them to fall apart when it matters. 

There is not much Bruce could do against a burn, but this is about the principle of the matter. Despite constantly arguing that he is not that kind of doctor, Bruce never refuses to look them over. He should not do so now just because he thinks Clint has done something wrong.

“I know you’re still angry about what happened,” Steve says, keeping his tone reasonable but firm, “but we’re still a team.”

The Avengers are a motley group, thrown together by fate and a desire to make the world better. Out of all of them, Bruce is perhaps the member whose presence is the hardest to explain, considering that they had been hired by a high-ranked military official to bring him in. Bruce does not look dangerous but he is. Before he fled the military research centre where he was working, he blew up his lab, burning whatever progress they made there as well as a few unlucky colleagues. Sometimes it is hard to imagine Bruce as capable of that, but sometimes the fire in his eyes does not leave any doubt.

These exact eyes weigh heavily on Steve now, leaving him nowhere to hide from their intensity.

“Do you remember what you told me when I decided to join you?” Bruce asks, his voice very calm. “That you wouldn’t hurt innocent people. That you wouldn’t hurt anyone just for the fun of it. That the Avengers, despite the name, aren’t about revenge but about justice.” He smiles, entirely without humour. “Tell me, where was the justice in beating up Tony Stark, who was bound and helpless?”

Steve opens his mouth without knowing what to say. That night was not about justice. It was about bringing closure to a lot of trauma. About looking at the man who caused it and seeing the guilt in his eyes, about teaching him about remorse.

In that warehouse, Steve was not the Captain, he was not bound by any code of honour, not even his own. All he saw was the memory of his best friend bleeding out and the man who, no matter how indirectly, was responsible for it.

Staring at his hands, Steve wonders about the way life can ruin good men and keeps haunting them relentlessly. At this moment, he is not sure he can make this right.

“I’ve hurt people without reason,” Bruce continues when it becomes obvious that Steve cannot find any words, right or wrong. “And I’ve sworn to never do so again.”

“It was a lapse of judgement,” Steve argues, even while he thinks about the people he has hurt. “We’re not –”

“Are you even listening to yourself?” Bruce snaps. The entire room is still between them but Bruce’s anger makes it small enough to steal Steve’s breath. “That wasn’t a lapse in anything. That was just cruel, and I thought better of you.” He makes a pause as if to make sure his words hit where they hurt. “And what now? You think you can apologize and everything will be well. Was a senseless bit of revenge worth losing your soulmate over?”

“I – I haven’t lost Tony,” Steve says, not even believing himself.

The worst thing is that none of them feels better now. Making the suspected perpetrator of the weapon dealing bleed has not done anything for them to make their peace with their past. On the contrary. Steve is lost in a way he has never been before, unable to trust his own feelings. Clint is convinced he is being wronged by everyone changing their minds quicker than him. And Bucky is downright miserable, unable to cope with the fact that he has doled out more pain into this world despite knowing how hard it is to live with it. 

Bruce’s smile turns cruel in how it pins Steve down to his mistakes. “Have you always been this blind?”

Probably. Steve’s sense of justice has always been a rather single-minded one, based on his convictions of what is right and wrong. Paired with his belief that he can dole out that justice and his inability to compromise, Bruce might be right in considering him hopeless. 

“Bruce –”

“No,” Bruce cuts him off, completely unapologetic, and gets to his feet, slowly walking over to Steve. “I don’t want to talk to you right now. Don’t come to me unless someone got shot. Or if you need someone with common sense to look over your decision if you plan to ever go anywhere near Stark again.”

Steve does not even know whether that means Bruce thinks there is hope. Maybe he just wants to run damage control and keep Steve as far away from Tony as he can. Maybe that is even the wisest decision – although Steve knows he will not stick to it. Cannot.

“I’m sorry,” he says quietly because he does not want to leave Bruce like this, does not want to put more distance between them.

Unfortunately, this only causes Bruce’s features to harden further. He is only a few feet away from Steve anymore, when he asks, “Have you told him that?”

With growing unease, Steve realizes he has not. Between all the different emotions fighting inside him, he has not even thought of apologizing. It sort of had been implied in taking Tony back in and – Steve is an idiot. People have told him so before, but there is no arguing that fact now.

Bruce’s face tells him he knows. Without further comment – and Steve is glad for that – he reaches for the door and throws it shut, not caring whether Steve is going to get hit by it.

Steve backs away in time but feels rattled nonetheless. He does need to apologize, of course he does. As he walks off, he wonders how he can accomplish that. His main priority is still to find out the truth – and to keep Tony safe until he does. It is supposed to be innocent until proven otherwise. He has messed that first thing up already, so he should really take his next steps with care.

Without thinking, his feet carry him towards the gym. He is getting nowhere by turning the problem over and over in his head and he has not slept well since it happened. Exhausting himself physically might help. It is his usual coping mechanism, after all.

The moment Steve stands before the punching bags, though, all energy drains out of him. Violence has pushed him into this mess, so he can hardly use it to get him out of it. His knuckles burn as if he had buried them in the bag anyway.

Dejected, Steve turns to the running mill. There is more than one way to exhaust himself, and while it feels like he is already running, trying to get away from his mistakes, he will take what he can get.

After his workout, Steve is not any closer to answers but feels calmer at least. He picks up his towel before he goes towards the shower, intent on washing off all the sweat and the rest of the tension still lingering in his shoulders.

The water does not get warm for the longest time. Steve uses all the tricks he knows and waits for minutes, but the steady stream remains at a temperature just above freezing. Since they have no official permission to live and work here, they cannot even call maintenance. Steve will have to ask Bucky to look into this later. He might not be as handy with these things like Scott, but since the rest of the team is still in Washington, they will have to make do. At least it will give Bucky something else to concentrate on than his own thoughts.

 


 

When JARVIS informs Tony that Bruce Banner is standing in the foyer of his tower, he wants to close his eyes, bury his head under a pillow, and ignore the world until it leaves him alone. He just cannot seem to get a break. First Steve shows up here, then the search for his lost weapons goes agonizingly slow, and now another Avenger has come to bother him.

Bruce is likely just here to pick up his bike, as promised. The key for it is at the front desk, ready to be handed over. Tony does not have to do anything. He can remain in his penthouse, playing at being invisible.

Yet, he finds himself saying, “Send him up.”

The entire five minutes it takes until the elevator doors open and Bruce steps out, Tony is caught between wanting to pace and finding a way to sit without betraying his nervousness. This is the first time he will come face to face with a member of Steve’s gang since the night of their first meeting, and while Bruce has not been part of the beating, Tony cannot entirely separate him from them. One act of kindness does not make up for the rest.

Still, he hopes he might get some information from Bruce too. Especially what Steve is up to now. They used his USB drive, but they do not have any cameras installed inside their lair, only outside. So Tony knows where they are but not what is going on inside. He also knows that most of their group is still in DC, but that they communicate via a different system. As nice as it had been to go through their files and get a better picture of them, it was not as helpful as Tony had hoped.

When Bruce steps into the penthouse, Tony thinks he looks even less like a member of a gang in broad daylight than he did that night in the warehouse. He is also not quite the man pictured in scientific papers anymore but something in between. The unknown is always dangerous.

“Dr. Banner,” Tony greets. The formality feels wrong, somehow, and he sees Bruce wincing at it. Even though Tony should not care about any of his kidnappers’ comfort, he adds, “Bruce.”

Using Bruce’s full name could be seen as a threat. Out of all of them, Bruce is the one Tony would want to threaten the least.

Bruce opens his mouth, his lips forming around a greeting, but he, too, does not seem to know what to call Tony. In the end, he just nods and says, “How are you doing?”

Tony smiles but does not mean it. “Did Steve send you?”

They are standing across from each other, Bruce still in front of the elevator, not really invited in, and Tony desperate to keep some distance between them while inwardly berating himself for it.   

“I am not reporting back to Steve,” Bruce answers slowly, making it sound like a promise.

Crossing his arms in front of him, Tony does not believe him. Steve has not given any sign that he is going to heed Tony’s wishes.

“So what?” Tony asks, with sarcasm dripping off his tongue. “He’s just going to leave me alone?”

He is not sure what to think about that prospect. It does not feel like their story is over, and part of him does not want it to be. The rational part does, however.

“Definitely not,” Bruce snorts without humour. They share a glance full of understanding. “But he knows I wouldn’t tell him anything. And he doesn’t know I’m here.”

That is perhaps what does it. Tony has no reason to think Bruce is telling the truth, but from the first time they met, Bruce has been steady in his behaviour, always calm and deliberate in what he was doing.

Before he can think better of it, Tony gestures for Bruce to follow him. He leads them into the kitchen, making a beeline for the coffee machine. Coffee, or so he is convinced, makes everything better. Even the nervousness that makes his fingers tingle and his stomach curl into a tight knot.

“Want a cup?” Tony asks and points at the table for Bruce to sit down, barely waiting for the affirmative nod before he pulls out two cups.

They are silent while the machine works, until they are both seated, holding their cups like shields in front of them. Any other time, this coordinated awkwardness would have amused Tony. Now, he is just wondering what he is doing here. He should have let the keys be handed over and never opened his door.

“Our coffee machine was malfunctioning today,” Bruce suddenly says. His tone might be nonchalant but the intensity in his gaze is not. “As did our showers. One burned everyone coming too close, the other did its best to turn us into ice blocks.”

Very carefully, Tony does not look in the direction of one of JARVIS’ cameras. It could be a coincidence since Tony has forbidden JARVIS to do the Avengers any harm other than when they are directly working against him, but little things like that could easily be considered harmless pranks. JARVIS loves to interpret things his way.

“So? Call maintenance,” Tony offers lightly, making sure not to seem guilty He is not, after all. If he really wanted to mess with them, he would do worse things. “Or wait,” he adds, smirking, “that’s not so easy when you’re living with the mob, right?”

Bruce hums, never looking away from Tony. “Just wondering whether that has something to do with your USB drive.”

He is too smart. Tony has no doubt that Bruce would have guessed the intrusion even without JARVIS messing with their systems. This is still Tony’s best way to gather intel on the Avengers, so he pretends he does not know anything about it. Also, it will surely be amusing to watch them try to get rid of JARVIS.

“Don’t tell me you didn’t sell that already,” Tony says, all wide-eyed scepticism. He does not actually think he will get any information about the buyer this way, but it will not hurt to try.

For a moment, it looks like Bruce is going to let himself be drawn into a conversation about this, but then his lips twitch into a small smile and he takes a sip of coffee.

“How are you doing?” he then asks again, with the same professional courtesy as if he did not know exactly that Tony’s pain cannot yet have faded. He might look better, his face not as much of a swollen ruin anymore, but the actual damage sits deeper.

“I’m fine,” Tony replies, dismissive. There is no reason to be honest with Bruce, even if he truly does not report back to Steve. Tony’s default setting is fine. At least until he really is not anymore, and unable to hide it too.

Bruce does not let Tony out of his sight when he says, “I imagine it must be hard to adapt to the soul bond.”

Heat flushes through Tony as he instinctively jerks his left arm farther away from Bruce and under the table. He should be better at keeping this secret, but he guesses it is already out.

He wants to ask about when Steve told Bruce about that. Whether this most intimate of things is something they discuss openly. Then again, the rest of the group found out right after it happened, so it should not surprise Tony that Bruce knows about it too. Only Tony has to keep it a secret, if only to keep these people safe who did him harm. It is just not fair.

“There’s no adaption needed. I’m not going to pursue it,” Tony says with all the conviction he can muster despite the bond thrumming with disagreement right inside his core. “And I’d prefer if Steve would not either.”

Sympathy flashes over Bruce’s face, which is not at all encouraging, but tells Tony what he has already known. There is no getting rid of Steve, not easily. They have already made a mess of something that is supposed to be wonderful. It is only natural that they will make everything else difficult too.

“No one has ever told Steve no,” Bruce says. He does not mean it as a threat but Tony cannot help but take it as one. He guesses he will just have to say no more clearly from now on.

“If your plan was to reassure me,” Tony replies dryly, “you failed.” He stares at his coffee and drinks half of it in one go before he looks up again.

“My plan was to tell you that we are still looking into who hired us, and that none of us is going to come after you,” Bruce says in a tone that makes it clear he believes what he is saying. “Not Bucky and especially not Clint.”

Tony winces at those names, remembers the hunger in Barton’s eyes. The only reason he does not end this conversation right here is that there is no trace of pity on Bruce’s face.

“Why would I believe you?” Tony asks, even though, for some reason, he already does.

It is, perhaps, because Bruce is a fellow scientist. More likely, it is because he has been kind to Tony up until now. For all of Tony’s bad experience with other people, he still falls for kindness every time.

“I don’t think you’ll do, and you’ll surely keep your eyes on us as well,” Bruce answers without judgment. “I’m not here to mend Steve’s bridges, but I believe in the common courtesy of giving you a heads up.”

Draining his cup, Bruce puts it down with a firmness that speaks of endings. Before he gets up, though, he reaches for his pocket. Tony hates the way he automatically tenses up, then inwardly scolds himself when all Bruce gets out is a piece of paper. A number is written on it.

“I’m not going to spy for either you or Steve,” Bruce says firmly as he pushes the paper over to Tony, “but you’re welcome to call me if you need anything.”

Tony does not say anything as he picks it up, studying it closely to buy himself some time. It feels like this is a test, but one where he can only lose no matter what he does. He can either trust Bruce and establish a line of communication that might just backfire terribly. Or he can spurn Bruce, who is likely the only ally he has among the Avengers. Or, more correctly, the only one who appears to be neutral where it comes to him.

Well, Tony has been told often enough he is the king of bad ideas, so he takes out his own phone, saves Bruce’s number and even sends a text so that Bruce will have his number too – all without giving himself too much time to think about it. He can always get himself a new number. Which he probably should have done the moment it became clear that Steve can contact him via his old one.

After that is done, Tony looks at Bruce, raises his eyebrows in challenge, although he is not sure what he is aiming for. Bruce does not rise to the bait anyway.

With a nod, he gets to his feet, clearly not eager to draw this out unnecessarily either, and Tony follows him to the door, wondering whether he should offer his thanks.

Right in front of the elevator, Bruce turns around again, finally some signs of conflict on his face. The part of Tony that does not wish to hide in dread shouts that he knew there was more to this visit.

“Fair warning,” Bruce says and looks guilty about it, “Steve might try to contact you again.”

Immediately, Tony’s arms snake around himself again, pressing against his broken ribs as if the pain will make it easier to deal with this.

“I told him to stay away from me,” he exclaims stubbornly as if words hold any power over them, especially over a gang leader who generally does what he wants.

“Yes.” Bruce nods sheepishly. “But I yelled at him and might have put the idea in his head that he needs to apologize.”

Good, Tony thinks, but it is immediately followed by a strong aversion to the whole idea. He wants to be left alone, wants to deal with the pile of shards his life has turned into, without having to listen to false apologies and even more speeches about fate. Fate has failed him, and he does not particularly want to fix it.

“I don’t need him to apologize to me just because Mummy told him to,” Tony snaps, taking an instinctive step back. For all that Bruce just said he is not here to mend Steve’s bridges, this feels suspiciously like he is doing it anyway.

“It’s not like that,” Bruce argues, even though he must see Tony is not inclined to listen. “Steve – he doesn’t do what others tell him to do. He only does what he cocks up in that stubborn head of his. If he doesn’t want to apologize, he won’t, but sometimes he needs a push to realize that some actual conversation is needed for others to know what he is thinking.”

That sounds like Steve has a lovely character but confirms that he has chosen the right job. Who is going to tell the mob what to do? Certainly no one in their right mind.

“My point stands,” Tony says dismissively, wishing Bruce would not look at him with so much understanding on his face. “I don’t need Rogers’ apology, coerced or not.”

“You do,” Bruce counters immediately, as if he has waited for Tony’s protest, knowing it would come. A small sigh escapes him. “You don’t have to forgive him because of it, but you need to hear that he is sorry.”

In the safety of his mind, Tony can admit that, maybe, he does. An apology is not going to make anything right, but it would go a long way in making him perhaps believe that Steve’s constant talks about keeping Tony safe are true. That there is no more danger coming for him from the Avengers.

He is not naïve enough to trust Steve’s words, but that does not mean he does not want to hear them.

“All right,” Tony exclaims and would have clapped his hands if he did not need them to hold himself together. “Enough of this psycho talk.” He gets enough of that from Pepper when he lets her.

Bruce looks like he is going to say more anyway but then shrugs. “Thank you for the coffee.”

And Tony, in a show of how great he is with human interaction, says, “Thank you for getting me out of the warehouse. Your key is waiting for you at the front desk.”

Right on cue, the elevator door opens. Tony hopes Bruce is too busy with psychoanalyzing him to notice that neither of them ever pressed the call button. For all that JARVIS is supposed to be a secret, he is sometimes very careless.

“Goodbye,” Bruce says as he steps in, still looking like he has much more to say to Tony but knows better than to waste his breath.

Tony waves awkwardly and breathes in relief when the elevator door closes. He is not sure what to make of this visit. All of what Bruce said appeared to be genuine, but they are still on opposing sides of this. Tony wishes there would not have to be any sides at all and they could all go on with their lives. Nothing is ever that simple, though.

While he is on his way back to his workshop, his phone buzzes inside his pocket. Right up until he pulls it out, he is convinced that it has to be Steve. He seems like the type to think that an apology per text message counts.

It is not Steve, and Tony is not sure how to interpret his relief.

What have you done to my bike? Bruce writes.

Tony must have stared off into space for longer than he thought if Bruce has already made his way down to the garage.

You’re welcome, he writes back. It’s not so much of a death trap anymore. But don’t worry, I only used parts that won’t take away its antique charm.

Tony really has not done much with it. He had not wanted to touch it at all, considering who it belongs to, but he could not get the bike off his mind and the way it had practically screamed for help when Tony rode it back to the tower. He could have spent hours on it, remade it into something that is worthy of the name motorcycle. Instead, he had just made sure that it would not fall apart beneath Bruce – all the while steadfastly ignoring why he would care.

Thank you, Bruce writes back, always one for proper manners, although it takes him a long minute to do so. He probably needs to get over the fact that he offered Tony a half-dead bike and got back one that could actually pass the next security check-up.

I didn’t do it for you. I was bored and that thing was an atrocity. He should, perhaps, not protest too much. Rhodey always says that reduces his credibility.

That doesn’t mean I can’t be grateful.  

Tony is sure that is meant as another lesson, as an indirect comment about the conversation they just had. He could take away something from that. Instead, Tony shakes his head and gets back to work. With some luck, this whole matter will be over soon and then he will not have to worry about it anymore.

Chapter Text

Steve wanders the base aimlessly, staring down at the screen of his phone as if words are magically going to appear, words that will make sense and make everything better. As he stumbles into the kitchen, he finds most of his team gathered there. Bruce is absent, which is nothing unusual.

Natasha has a laptop to her right, occasionally glancing at it but not like she expects any immediate result for what she is doing. Clint is drinking coffee, an ice pack on his by now bandaged hand. Bucky sits, looking off into space.

If they were talking about something, they stopped when they noticed Steve coming in. He decides not to let that bother him. With what is currently happening, it is only normal for everyone to need to talk about it. He understands that this cannot happen with him in the room. Steve is definitely part of the problem here.

Going into the room, Steve sets his phone down on the table, and says, “I don’t know how to apologize.”

He has not managed to take a single step towards the sink to get himself a glass of water, when Clint groans, making no secret of his displeasure.

“Don’t you think we have more important problems at the moment?” Clint asks, eyes bearing into Steve.

His glare is not malicious, but he hates being reminded of having been wrong. The jury might still be out on who did the weapons dealing, but there is no denying their bruised knuckles and the remaining shakiness of that horrid, enraged state they had been in the night they kidnapped Tony.

“Not while we don’t have any conclusive data,” Steve counters as calm as he can manage. It is not much. They are all on edge and Clint offers a perfect target, never backing down with his posturing.

“So what,” Clint drawls, “we’re all just sitting around watching you whine about your missed opportunity for eternal love?”

He does not appear bothered in the least by Steve towering over him, having abandoned his quest for water to better glare at his teammate.

Steve grinds his teeth, leaning forward just a bit so that he is within range to – do something. This constant arguing has him exhausted.

“Could you just shut up for a minute?” he snaps, gathering all the authority he can in his tone. “We all know you don’t like Tony, you’ve made that abundantly clear. But what you did –”

He cuts off when Clint gets to his feet abruptly. He is a shorter than Steve, but that does not mean his fury is any less tangible.

“I know what I did.” Clint’s voice cracks like a whip, almost causing Steve to take a step back. Then Clint’ fury changes into something ugly, condescending. “It’s funny, we all know what you did to the men who held Bucky prisoner. None of them lived to tell the tale,” he continues, still sharp and aimed to hurt. “But I kick the guy who might still be responsible for Bucky losing his arm, and now I’m the monster? Talk about double standards.”

He does not wait for an answer but pushes away from the table and storms off, shouldering his way past Steve with a deliberate motion.

“It wasn’t him,” Steve calls after him, not expecting an answer. Then he watches, helpless, as Clint vanishes, throwing the kitchen door shut behind him.

What did he mean with I know what I did? Perhaps Clint is slowly realizing he made a mistake too and deals with it in his usual, uncooperative way.

The silence that falls in the kitchen is tense, thick enough to make breathing difficult. Not looking at his friends, Steve finally walks to the sink to get himself that water. He fills the glass slowly, watching the water rise. All the while, he keeps his back to Bucky and Natasha.

When he turns around, he catches them looking at each other, communicating silently in the way they have learned over the course of dozens of missions together. Despite the distinct wish to just leave again, Steve sits down, wondering how to mend things when he is not even sure what is broken.

“Usually,” Natasha speaks up, her tone light despite the situation, “it’s a good start to say you’re sorry. And mean it.”

They are not going to talk about Clint, then. Steve is secretly relieved. There is no solving this while tempers are this high, while they can endlessly lock themselves in an argument over whether Tony is innocent or not. Even if that is not the point. Steve understands Clint’s stubbornness. He has been there himself often enough.

“Of course, I mean it,” Steve says and looks up at Natasha, glad at her apparent willingness to help him out.

Natasha likes to keep herself out of emotional discussions. She has been taught to dismiss them. Underneath that learned stoicism, however, she cares a lot.

“Why?” she asks, her expression honestly curious.

One simple word and it sends Steve reeling. “What do you mean, why?”

They have dozens of reasons to be sorry, with new ones piling up each day. This entire situation should have been handled better. They – he – should have been better.

“Are you sorry because it might cost you your soulmate or because we really messed up?” Natasha clarifies, hitting right where it hurts without a trace of empathy on her face.

Steve opens his mouth. Of course, this is because they handled this whole thing wrong. Of course, this is because they hurt an innocent.

He also remembers standing outside in the darkness, looking at Tony’s broken body on the ground, and searching for signs of guilt. The thought of beating someone up who was bound before them was sitting wrong with him even then, but deep inside him was still the rage he has been nursing since Bucky was taken from him. He had not believed that Tony had pulled the trigger himself, but he was part of the system that keeps pushing them down, keeps taking from them without remorse. It was his name on the weapons that tore Steve’s life apart.

Before Steve can actually put any of these thoughts into words, Bucky speaks up.

“What if this isn’t the first time?” he asks, his prosthesis curled into a fist. “What if we hurt someone who was innocent before?”

Steve thoughts had wandered down that nightmarish road before, but he shut it down as quickly as he could. They cannot let themselves doubt everything they are at once.

“This is not something we do. This is not us,” Steve says with all the conviction he can muster. “We don’t beat up people.”

That is not a lie. They just beat up the one person who probably did not deserve it and turned out to be important to Steve. There is a cautionary tale in that.

“No,” Bucky says but makes it sound like he disagrees with Steve. “But we gather dirt on them. We dig out their secrets and make them visible. We hand them over to the government when they have nowhere to run anymore.” Pinching the bridge of his nose with his flesh hand, Bucky sighs. “Look at what happened with Bruce. Ross didn’t want to bring Bruce to justice. We knew that.”

Bruce’s story is one covered in as much blood as this one, if not more. It seemed a straightforward job at first. A scientist gone mad blew up his lab and then fled the country. Ross did not trust them, and they did not trust Ross. The Avengers are not usually hired to bring in official criminals, and Bruce had seemed that at first. It did not make sense that Ross would try to keep Bruce’s escape and subsequent capture a secret.

They made the mistake of informing Ross when they found Bruce. Steve will never forget the smouldering pile of ash and bones that was the only thing left of the village Bruce was hiding in, blown apart by Stark weaponry.

“And we didn’t hand Bruce over,” Steve says, but even to him it appears a weak argument. That is not what Bucky means, after all.

“What if we did?” Bucky counters, narrowing his eyes at Steve. “With some other job?”

Over the past days, Steve has asked himself these questions before and never found a satisfying answer.

“We don’t,” he still says, banning all the doubt from his voice. “We’ve always been careful.”

And they have. Sometimes, that is just not enough.

“But not with Stark,” Bucky says, something definite in his tone that speaks of endings. “We’ve been wilfully blind. I don’t know if we deserve forgiveness for that.”

With that, he gets to his feet, abandoning his coffee cup.

“Buck, listen –” Steve calls, immediately alert. He reaches out for his best friend, but Bucky avoids him easily.

“No, Steve,” Bucky says. The relative softness of his tone makes his blank expression only worse. “You only ever see the best in me, and that’s kind of you. But I just don’t feel particularly good about any of us at the moment.”

Helplessly, Steve has to watch another one of his friends walk away from him. He understands Bucky’s need to be alone, but that just makes it feel all the more like everything is falling apart.  

A few weeks ago, everything had been fine. They had been doing good work and they had worked well together. How can one mistake unravel all of that?

“He’s right, you know,” Natasha cuts through Steve’s spiralling thoughts. “We really messed up.”

Somehow, while she does not sound as devastated as Bucky, her clear-cut assessment makes it only worse. She is the only one of them who can separate her emotions from work. At least she gives the best impression of being able to do that.

“I didn’t think that would –” Steve trails off, shrugging. When Natasha raises an eyebrow at him, he ducks his head.

“What? Move me?” she asks sharply. She does not change her posture or tone, but the air between them takes on a distinct note of disappointment. “I’ve hurt a lot of people in my time, killed them too. Whether they were innocent or not didn’t really matter. I got my mission and I finished it. That’s why I ran.” Her eyes pierce into Steve, leaving nowhere to hide. “Life here was supposed to be different.”

The Avengers, as a whole, were supposed to be different. All of them had been tired of life running in the ever same circles of violence and suppression. Not all of them were soldiers, but they all know what people are doing to each other every day. They wanted to be better than that, make room for a bit of justice in the world.

“It is,” Steve says, trying to convince himself as much as her. “We – we made a mistake, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make up for it. This doesn’t have to be it.”

If he did not believe that, he could just give up right now. He has never given up before. That is a fundamental part of his being. It is not always a flattering trait, nor always helpful, but he cannot let go of that.

“I think that depends on how we handle this,” Natasha argues but sounds softer as she does. “Look at the data I saved from his USB drive. Stop having doubts about his character. Apologize.”

As far as tasks go, these are simple enough. And yet.

“I don’t have doubts,” Steve says. If he does, it means he either does not believe Tony or himself. Both can only end in more heartbreak.

“Of course, you do,” Natasha draws out the words, making it clear she does not think so at all. “That’s why you’re asking me a dozen times a day whether I’ve found anything yet about who hired us or who did the double dealing. You also hold your arm too stiffly as if you don’t want to use it. Don’t lie and say that has nothing to do with Stark and how you can’t just let yourself believe him.”

Steve almost asks what Natasha believes, even knowing that is not the point she is trying to make. Instead, he avoids her gaze and looks down at his hands. “We need evidence.”

Her disapproval is a nearly tangible thing between them. “What do your instincts say?”

Steve’s throat constricts as something that almost feels like laughter tries to claw its way up. His instincts are useless, scrambled by feelings not completely his own, peppered by guilt, spiked by hope, although he is not quite sure for what. A happy ending? Any kind of solution?

He shakes his head, unable to put the chaos inside him into words.

Natasha leans forward, briefly putting her hand over his and squeezes. “Make this right, Steve.”

What else is there to do but to try?

 


 

 

Just as Bruce has promised, Steve does call Tony again. It takes him almost a day, but to Tony, who whips up his head at every sound, feels like no time has passed at all. Even knowing it would happen, the ringing still leaves him frozen, undecided whether he should pick up.

Does he really need an apology when there is no way they will be going forward together? Would he really believe Steve either way?

With a sigh, Tony accepts the call, and says, “I thought I told you not to contact me again.”

That does not set a good premise for their conversation, but it is about the principle of the matter. Bruce’s warning or not, Tony has enough to deal with without Steve constantly butting in where he is not wanted.

On the other end, Steve does not say anything for a long minute. Tony wonders whether he is already losing his patience. Usually, people try a bit longer to get what they want out of Tony. Then again, most people have it easier to play nice with him because their first meeting is not as catastrophic as theirs. 

“Can we meet?” Steve then asks. He even sounds serious.

“What?” Tony forces down the inappropriate amusement building inside him. If he started laughing now, he is not sure he could stop again. “Have you lost your mind?”

Meeting Steve? Considering how that turned out the last time, getting anywhere near Steve again is the farthest thing from Tony’s mind. He is not in the habit of handing himself over to the devil.

“I – probably,” Steve answers and does not make anything better with it. “But I want to see you.”

Now, Tony does laugh. It is a choked thing, not actually filled with amusement. “I don’t see how that is my problem,” Tony says once he is sure he can get it out without peppering it with curses. “It’s definitely in my interest to stay as far away as possible from you.”

“Okay,” Steve agrees too quickly, as if he has known how his question would be received but decided to ask it nonetheless. “How about a video call then? That’s a thing, yes?”

With a disbelieving huff, Tony walks over to his desk to sit down and initiates a video call. Later. he will justify that by being unable to leave anyone this uneducated. Of course, video calls are a thing. It is only then that it occurs to him that Steve might have played him, tricked him into getting them eye to eye. By then, it is too late to take it back, though, for Steve’s image already fills his screen, not quite life-sized but close enough for Tony to stay a good few feet away.

The first thing he notices is that Steve looks tired, more so than he did that day when he came to the tower. The vindictive part of him is happy to see that Steve obviously has trouble sleeping too, or other problems that leave him exhausted. Another, far less welcome part, wants to ask Steve why.

“Happy now?” Tony snaps, even though he himself is decidedly unhappy.

Steve studies him and takes his time to do it. At first, his eyes are filled only with clinical interest, running over the lines of the bruises that might be fading but are still easily visible on Tony’s face. Then his expression falls, taking on a more desperate note.

“What is your eye doing? And your ribs?” Steve asks. The worst thing is that he sounds genuinely concerned. “Bruce said something about possible internal damage that night. Did you –” He trails off uncertainly, looking for a moment as if he knows that he has gone too far.

“I’m sorry to disappoint Barnes and Barton, but I’ll live,” Tony replies but does not manage as biting a tone as he aimed for. “The rest is none of your business.”

Steve drops his eyes, looking chastised, even ashamed. When he looks up again, it seems he is gearing up to argue. Surprisingly, one glare from Tony is enough to make him think better of it.  

Tony is faring better, just like he told Bruce. His head still aches constantly, but he is no stranger to migraines and hangovers so he knows how to push through it. Breathing still results in sharp pain whenever he forgets to keep it shallow, but he is not doing any strenuous activity locked up in his home. The various bruises adorning his body flare up when he moves, reminding him of the Avengers’ tender care, but he is doing fine.

“Was there something else?” Tony asks when Steve remains silent, looking at a point over Tony’s shoulder despite having been so adamant about seeing him. It is obvious that Steve is struggling with their situation too, then he might not be a victim in as literal a sense as Tony, but that he was still thrown into something he did not want.

It makes sense that the soul bond would tug at Steve as much as it would at Tony. Considering that the Avengers appear to view Tony and Stark Industries as something like their personal nemesis, that cannot be easy either. Full of disbelief, Tony thinks he is truly beginning to go crazy if he is now rationalizing Steve’s behaviour.

“We had a look at the data on your USB drive,” Steve then says, slowly as if he has to convince himself to speak the words.

Perhaps Bruce was wrong and Steve does not actually know how to apologize – or simply does not want to because he does not see the need.

“So what?” Tony asks, even though he is grudgingly impressed. Someone in their group must know their way around tech if they managed to get through the drive’s defences and saved some of the data. “Are you telling me you’ve found a buyer for it?”

“No,” Steve answers quickly, with enough vehemence to make Tony think they are truly not going to sell it. Then, far more hesitant, he continues, “But – there are not just weapon designs on there.”

All of Tony’s thoughts of how they might be able to find some middle ground someday evaporate more every time Steve opens his mouth.

This makes him wonder whether they made any research about him at all. Tony studied engineering, won several prizes in robotics competitions, refused to work for Stark Industries as long as he could before Howard’s death basically forced him to return. People might equal the Stark name with weapons, but that is not all there is to Tony.

Stupidly, Tony is disappointed by Steve’s disbelief. He should not be at all concerned by what his soulmate is thinking of him, considering that he does not really want this to go anywhere – and the far more damning fact that the bond does not seem to care what they actually think of each other but makes them want the other anyway.

“Are you sure you have the right drive?” Tony grits out between clenched teeth. He glares at Steve who has the audacity to look surprised by his worsened mood. “I’m pretty sure evil weapon designers are not allowed to do anything with their time than to make more weapons.”

Frowning, Steve shakes his head. He either does not understand where Tony is coming from or decides to push on regardless.

“There’s some brilliant stuff on there,” he says, and sounds almost like a child in a toy store now, full of wonder. Tony fears he will never be able to make sense of Steve Rogers. “That energy source is –”

“Not viable,” Tony cuts him off, his anger rising again. “Stop snooping through my things.”

He has wanted to discuss these projects with someone for ages – someone who does not look at him with pity and turns them down as not cost-effective. He wants someone to share his enthusiasm about green energy, about turning that ugly big arc reactor down the basement of their industrial complex in California into something that could change people’s lives everywhere. He also wanted that someone to share his vision – not to struggle with the concept that Tony might do something else with his time but to bring about more death and destruction.

“I’m just surprised,” Steve says as if he has read Tony’s thoughts.

Turning half away from the camera, Tony looks over his workshop, his kingdom. A dozen unfinished projects are clattered throughout the room, added to the numerous projects hidden inside his servers. He has always been told not to waste his potential, and yet it feels like that is exactly what he has done.

None of those doubts is meant for Steve’s ears, however, so Tony pulls a smirk on his face and asks, “That I’m not a completely vile human being?”

The change in Steve’s expression is instantaneous, from pensive to aghast. It is too earnest to be fake.

“Tony,” Steve exclaims, caressing the name like it is something familiar. Tony hates the way he instinctively leans closer towards the screen, towards Steve. “You’re not vile. There’s so much potential in those projects. And –”

“What do you want?”

Distantly, Tony thinks that he should stop cutting off Steve at every corner if he wants to make his peace with their situation. Steve has wronged him by letting his friends beat him up and consequently ignoring his wishes to be left alone, but running away and expecting Steve to do the same is obviously not going to work. 

“I don’t know what you mean,” Steve says slowly, clearly wanting to evade the question.

This is exactly what Tony means, Steve’s apparent inability to understand that Tony might not want this soul bond to dictate the rest of his life.

“What do you want from me, Steve?” Tony repeats. Compared to how Steve said his name, this is ugly and ready to shatter. “It’s simple. We might have some nice connected tattoos, but that’s all there is to it.”

“That’s not all,” Steve protests just like Tony expected him to. Much quieter, almost with regret, he adds, “It shouldn’t have to be.”

Tony smiles, full of sharp-edges, and stomps down hard on the urge to agree. “You should have thought about that before you let your goons beat me up.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve all but roars. It is too loud and too sudden to be an actual apology but filled with enough emotion that Tony finds himself believing it nonetheless.

On the screen, he sees Steve falter, sees Steve’s eyes fall on the bruises again, even sees Steve’s hand twitching as he wants to reach out.

Then, his voice much steadier, much calmer, he repeats, “I’m sorry.” His gaze drops and his shoulders tense before he raises his head and looks Tony directly in the eyes. “I’m sorry for what we did. And not just because you’re my soulmate. It was wrong, and yes it would have been wrong even if you would have been responsible for –”

He interrupts himself, waits for words that will not come. Now, he allows himself to look away from Tony, if only briefly.  

“Bucky lost his arm to a Stark Industries bomb activated by terrorists who took him captive,” he then says, his tone detached as if there is nothing personal about this. “Sam lost his partner to rebels carrying your guns. Our team was decimated out there, outmanned and outgunned. Natasha learned to shoot with a Stark revolver while she was with a Russian underground organization. That’s –” Steve takes a deep breath, searches for something in Tony’s gaze and smiles miserably when he finds it. “None of that is an excuse.”

“No,” Tony replies hoarsely, his mind swimming with all the new information. “No, it is not.”

Inwardly, Tony thinks it explains things, though. The Avengers are a group nursing their trauma and turning it into something they perceive as good. Confronted with the suspected source of all that trauma, a part of Tony can understand why they would snap.

He could argue, of course, that, if not Stark weapons, the enemies would have had something else. Perhaps nothing as ‘good’, but Stark Industries did not cause the war, it does not tell the government to throw men at problems that are none of their business. Tony did not kill their friends. At the same time, he understands irrationality, understands needing an outlet for these feelings that could easily tear one apart.

“We were glad to have SI-issued guns and gear out there,” Steve says almost eagerly, obviously taking Tony’s silence as permission to keep explaining himself. “They are the most reliable, they are good. But that doesn’t help much if the other side has them too. We –” he shrugs, a conflicted expression on his face, “there’s a lot of bad history between us. What we thought you did, what we actually did to you. I just don’t want that to be all.”

The thing is, Tony does not want that either. Even now, with enough distance to how the new bond makes him feel, with being mostly capable of rational thought again. Fate thought they would fit together, and all Tony ever really wanted was to be at home somewhere, with someone, without question whether he is going to be stabbed in the back.

Tony feels betrayed. Not just by Steve, but by how they met. By how little actual choice that leaves them about how to go forward. His entire life has been laid out for him by people who supposedly know better than him. His parents, Obie, even Pepper. His every move is watched and judged. If anything, nobody would have been able to predict Tony Stark ending up with a mob boss – not that he will do that.

The by now almost familiar exhaustion creeps up on Tony. He first thought that comes just from his wounds, but has realized by now that a large part of it is emotional. It is ridiculous that he, who has always avoided dealing with emotions as best as he could, is hampered by it now.

Life as he has known it is in shambles. It feels like he is on a sinking ship with holes everywhere, but instead of dealing with the damage one by one or even building himself a lifeboat, he is trying to fix all the holes at once, but each time he turns away the water rips them open again.

He needs to prioritize, needs to actually stick to that instead of just pretending to. He looks at Steve on the screen, at the way his expression is both hopeful and stubborn, thinks that nothing will move Steve if he does not want to be moved. For some reason, whether it is just because of the bond or not, Steve is ready to move for Tony. 

“I don’t –” Tony says, then tries again. “This doesn’t mean that I forgive you or that I’m suddenly all right with us being soulmates but – the smuggled weapons are the only thing we have in common right now, so – truce?”

The very word sits heavily on Tony’s tongue, not exactly like he is making a mistake, but like he is playing with the devil. He is offering his hand, quite aware that it could cost his entire arm.

Steve blinks at the camera, surprised at the sudden turn of events. “A truce means we could go back to being adversaries at any point,” he says, then audibly clicks his mouth shut, looking like he is berating himself for not accepting Tony’s offer immediately.

Despite himself, Tony smiles. “Depending on how serious both parties are about the truce, yes.”

It would be easier if Steve said no, if he kept protesting that there is no truce needed because they clearly belong together. Then, perhaps, Tony could have finally thrown Steve out of his life without a second thought.

Instead, Steve nods hurriedly as if he is afraid he is running out of time for it. “All right, yes. A truce.”

Definitely a devil’s deal, Tony thinks as he takes in the relief on Steve’s face. He looks better this way, though, far more approachable and less like a mob boss.

“Great,” Tony says and pauses, unsure how to interpret the lightness in his chest. “Don’t call me again while I’m working.”

He expects Steve to argue, to immediately turn this into another fight. Steve’s demeanour remains calm, however. “You’re always working,” he points out as if he knows Tony, as if he has a right to this information.

Tony has no way of knowing what kind of working hours the mob has, but he is sure they are just as unconventional as his own.

“Then wait until I call you,” Tony counters without sympathy, “or until there’s something important to tell me.”

Steve smiles, but it is self-deprecating in a way that Tony would not have expected Steve to be capable of. “Will you?” he asks with painful reluctance. “Call me, I mean?”

“We’ll see,” Tony says, even though he knows it is all but a done deal, thanks to the warmth spreading through his forearm, echoed beneath his sternum.

Already, the soul bond inside him hums as if he has pledged his eternal love to Steve. At the very least, though, he feels more at peace inside his own skin. The decision whether this was a healthy or sensible thing to do will have to wait for later. He is not giving up, he is just giving in for now.

The first steps of a plan begin to form inside Tony’s head, fuelled by several things Steve said and the old wishes of his younger self. It will plunge Tony’s life right back into chaos, but sometimes a broken piece cannot be repaired but has to be replaced entirely.

Chapter Text

Lunch that day is a rather burnt affair, but Steve could not care less. He barely pays it any mind when Bucky – who is the only one of them with cooking skills that go beyond pizza and reheating leftovers – complains about the oven switching to cleaning mode on its own. His steps are lighter than they have been in weeks as he strides into the kitchen.

Without warning, he sweeps Natasha up into something that is half hug and half swirl. The only reason he does not end up with a knife between his ribs, is because he caught her off guard. And, perhaps, because he is smiling. That has not happened in some time either.

“What happened?” Bucky asks. He holds a plate with something very black and slightly smoking between them like a shield, as if Steve’s sudden madness might be contagious.

Steve does not care. He is elated beyond measure. For the very first time, he has had an amicable conversation with Tony, one that did not end up creating a bigger rift between them. This might not be in any way Steve’s doing, but he did not immediately mess it up again. That is progress.  

“We have a truce,” he exclaims, feeling the smile splitting his face like a thing he can preserve.

His team looks at him with varying degrees of puzzlement.

“A what?” Bucky asks, still holding the plate.

Natasha takes a decisive step back to bring more distance between herself and Steve before she adds, “With whom?”

“A truce,” Steve repeats, “With Tony.” He shrugs as if to show how much lighter the weight on his shoulders has already become. “I called and he said,” biting his lips, Steve interrupts himself, “well, he said he’s got bigger problems than me at the moment. I mean, that still counts, right?”

Put like that, they have not made any progress at all but Tony has just decided to ignore his Steve-sized problem for the moment, throwing him a breadcrumb in hopes of distracting him. Steve is not even ashamed to say it worked. It gives them an opportunity to talk without immediately yelling. They might not be allies or even friends, but they are not adversaries for the moment either. 

“You apologized?” Natasha asks. Her face does not hold as much scepticism as Clint’s does but more of a warning. At some point, Steve will give up trying to guess what she is thinking.

“I did,” Steve says and does not elaborate.

His apology has been lacking, he is very aware of that. All the clever words he thought of beforehand had vanished the moment he heard Tony’s voice. He meant what he said, but he is aware that it is not enough. Perhaps it will never be enough.

Today, he has realized, was the first time he has seen Tony neither afraid nor battered. The bruises were still visible but they were not all Steve could see. Even with obvious distrust and exhaustion drawing shadows in his face, Tony is beautiful, inside and out. Steve is certain that, this time, it is not only their bond making him think that. 

“And he said you’re good?” Bruce speaks up. In a way, his expression is sharper even than Natasha’s. Then again, he was the only one who felt like Tony needed to be protected from them from the very beginning.

“No.” Steve’s smile falters a bit, but he keeps it in place. “He very explicitly did not say that. And he still told me to leave him alone.” None of them looks surprised by that. “But he didn’t curse my very existence. That’s more than I expected.”

Cocking his head to the side, Bruce musters him closely before saying. “That’s – nice to hear.”

Steve sees them sharing glances but cannot bring himself to care. He knows very well that this is not the first step to some happily ever after with Tony. But it is a first step away from being hated by his soulmate for the rest of his life. Perhaps they will never get together, will never see each other again once this mess is resolved, but there is a slight chance that they will. Perhaps Steve does not deserve that, but he wants it nonetheless.

Finally putting his plate down, Bucky nods. “Well, you can put your new-found enthusiasm to work and cut some vegetables.” He points at the burnt remnants of their meal. “Since our kitchen has recently decided to try to kill us, we’ll have to restart lunch.”

They should deal with their malfunctioning tech at some point, but Steve is in too good a mood to let it be ruined by their oven.

“Nope,” he exclaims with enough cheer for all of them. “I’m going to get us pizza. Or do you want Chinese? Doesn’t matter, lunch is on me.”

For the longest moment, none of his friends react. He wonders whether it is too much to ask for them to just let him have this moment. They messed up momentarily and nothing is resolved, but here he is, making the best of what he has.

Then, Natasha says shortly, “Sushi,” and it is like everyone finally remembers how to breathe.

“Pizza,” Clint calls, eyeing their oven with disgust, and that is seconded by Bucky.

Bruce stares at Steve the longest. Then his lips pull up into something that is not entirely friendly, and says “Indian.”

Steve is sure it is some elaborate scheme for revenge that they are going to send him on an odyssey to get their food, but he does not care. It already feels too much like they are losing each other, considering how high tension runs at all times now.

“Done,” Steve says and keeps his smile carefully in place.

Without further comment, he gets out of the kitchen, swallowing the urge to hum, but lingers in the hallway. Eavesdropping might not be polite, but he needs to know what they are thinking. Needs to know where he stands.

It is silent in the kitchen for long enough that Steve wonders whether they know exactly that he is not yet gone, but then Clint sighs long-sufferingly.

“A truce, really?” He does not sound as angry as Steve thought he would. Just disbelieving.

“Aren’t you writing with him, Bruce?” Natasha asks, causing Steve to freeze where he is.

Bruce and Tony? In a way, it makes sense, but he still did not see it coming. Bruce was the only one of them ready to defend Tony, and then he had to get his bike back somehow after letting Tony escape with it. It does not sound like Bruce knew about what Tony would offer, though.

“I don’t know how you found that out, but yes,” Bruce replies, not actually surprised that Natasha knows more than she should. Secrets seem to draw her in, no matter how well they are kept.

“And you didn’t warn him?” Natasha’s voice is full of scepticism. While Steve hates it, he cannot help but wonder the same.

“I did,” Bruce says simply. “Although I didn’t think that would turn out like this either.”

Steve does not know what to think of this. He is not going to begrudge Tony contact with the one person among the Avengers who showed him kindness from the very beginning, and he does not think that Bruce would harm the team. This still feels like something he should have known about.

“You’re writing with Stark?” Clint questions, sounding put off by the mere concept.

“You’re welcome to shut up about it,” Bruce snaps back, not missing a beat. He has likely expected protest. Clint is reliable in that he never accepts anything quietly.

Even outside the room, Steve can feel the tension between them rising again. How did they end up tearing into each other at every opportunity?

“I’m not saying anything,” Clint mutters, still distinctly offensive.

“That would be a first.”

Steve is caught between the urge to slink away, ignoring what he heard, and barging in to remind them that they are a team. All this bickering does more damage than they can afford.

“Could we please stop hating each other,” Bucky speaks up at that point, taking the decision from Steve. He sounds tired. “That’s not making anything easier.”

Another silence. There never used to be so much of that.

“Good plan,” Natasha offers, her tone brooking no argument. She still manages to keep them all in check. “Clint, help Bucky clean up the kitchen. I’ll get back to work until Steve is back.”

Alerted by his name, Steve decides to vanish before Natasha can find him spying on them. Food will make things easier, he is sure.  

 


 

Tony’s phone chimes barely an hour after his conversation with Steve. Chances are, Steve has once again ignored Tony’s wishes of being left alone, or took this offer for a truce as actual encouragement to contact him even more often.

Tony is ready to ignore it. He was supposed to be free of Steve for the moment, to concentrate on the other wrecks scattered through his life.

Even though the phone lies within reach, Tony asks, “Who is it, J?”

Once he has the phone in hand, he knows he will answer, but he can at least find out beforehand how unpleasant it will be.

“The message is from Dr. Banner,” JARVIS answers. “You also have two missed calls from Ms. Potts as well as several unread mails.”

“I know,” Tony says, hoping to interrupt the litany of open tasks waiting for him.

R&D has been running in his door, waiting for updates or needing to talk through specs. Tony does not have any interest or energy to deal with weapon design at the moment. The very thought has him feeling nauseous.

It is not unusual for him to disappear for days on end, but he usually emerges with new designs. It will be a rather rude awakening for everyone when they find out he has simply been moping in his rooms.

Picking up his phone, Tony still hesitates to read Bruce’s message. Chances are high that this means more problems. Bruce is not his friend, they are barely even acquaintances. Tony might not be afraid of Bruce or blame him for what happened, but they are still strangers. It is not even clear why Bruce continues to be kind to Tony.

Tony does not believe in good things happening to him without a reason. It might be overly optimistic to think of Bruce as a good thing, but he does. And he really hopes that he is not going to regret that.

Deciding to get it over with, Tony unlocks the screen, not quite prepared but expecting new problems.

A truce? Bruce has written. Nothing more.

It almost feels like they are the kind of friends to just start a conversation out of the blue, unprompted. There is naturally a reason to this. Bruce would not write if there was not some consequence to Tony’s conversation with Steve.

He wonders whether it is a good sign that Steve has apparently told his friends about the truce so quickly. Considering how little they like Tony, it might have been better to keep it a secret.  

Well, Tony answers, he wasn’t backing off.

He thinks about asking how everybody has taken the news, if he has to warn his security about possible visits from former secret agents. Strangely, he does not want to. Bruce told him he would not spy for either side, and Tony does not want to breach that

Even more strangely, he wants to ask Bruce whether he has had a look at Tony’s USB drive too, if he has thoughts, advice. He wants to pick Bruce’s brain. That truly says everything about how lonely Tony feels at times.

Then another message from Bruce arrives. This is the first time Steve’s been smiling in weeks.

Tony cannot imagine it. He has seen Steve smirk, cocky and full of confidence. He has seen him frowning and worried and irritated. Smiles have not had any room between them. Somehow, Tony still managed to cause some joy despite the misery between them. He is not sure how to feel about that, but he begins to wonder whether the warmth in his chest is an echo of Steve’s mood.

Are you telling me I shouldn’t have done it? Tony asks, feeling like he knows the answer already. His head, of course, is still saying something different than his heart.

Bruce takes a while to answer, but Tony tries not to interpret too much into that.

I’m saying you’ve given him hope.

Hope for what, Tony wants to ask but the endgame is rather obvious. This is about what they are going to do with the fact that they are soulmates, whether they will build something or put it to rest as a mistake. Fate cannot always be right, after all. 

Because he does not have any other answer for now, Tony writes, His apology sucked.

It had and it had not. It certainly was not refined and left a lot to be desired. It definitely does not make everything all right. Steve meant it, though, and that opens up a whole new load of problems.

I’m pretty sure he’s working on another one right now.

Ton does not know what to think of that. Bruce had been right in saying that it was good to hear Steve apologize, to look in his eyes and realize that he means it. There was honest regret. While that does not make everything okay, it does soothe some of Tony’s worries, especially about whether the Avengers are coming after him again. There is no being sure and Tony certainly does not trust them, but it allows him to look ahead more than over his shoulder.

Thanks for the heads up, Tony writes and puts his phone to the side. He does not have any time to waste. The conversation with Steve has been the final push for Tony to do something he should have done years ago.

The solution to at least one of his problems is very easy, and Tony has decided that he is going to announce it to the entire world to make sure that they will go through with it. The world they are living in does not believe in forgetting things anymore. Everything that is said and done will be remembered. For the first time, this is not an inconvenience. Tony wants people to remember this.

It is a stupid plan. JARVIS has calculated the abysmal chances of success, accompanied by a healthy dose of scepticism, urging him to reconsider.

Tony is set on this, though. Weapons are what brought them into this mess, so he needs to take them out of the equation. That way, he cuts the smuggle ring off from its source, and might be able to rouse them enough to take them out as a whole instead of painstakingly picking them off one by one.

The only problem lies with Obadiah and the board of directors, but Tony is sure he can make them understand that there is just as much if not more money to be made in other sectors. He has enough ideas to make this work, and the company can survive the initial stock crash. It has to.

Tony has his phone in hand again before he can reconsider, dialling Pepper’s number. The moment she picks up, he says, “I need you to call a press conference.”

It will all be last-minute and he can already hear people grumbling about it. Tony is pretty sure that hearing that Stark Industries will stop making weapons, effective immediately, will be worth the hassle.

“What happened?” Pepper asks. Tony does not want to know how often he has caused her to say these words. If there was a record for these things, he is sure they would break it constantly.

“I have something to say to the press,” Tony replies and can practically hear her rolling her eyes. Or perhaps not. That likely comes only after she knows he is not about to end the world as they know it or has gotten himself hurt again.

“That’s usually what a press conference is for,” Pepper comments dryly, although her sarcasm falls a bit flat. Hopefully, that means she is already working on informing the press. Somehow, Tony doubts it will be that easy. “Who else knows about this?”

That, Tony knows, is a trick question. Pepper usually knows everything about what he is doing, and if she does not it is probably a stupid idea of his that needs to be shut down. One might argue that this situation definitely falls into the latter category, but that is nothing new where Tony is concerned.

“You and I,” Tony says with fake cheer, desperately keeping his own doubts out of his voice. “Well, and everybody else as soon as you can get that conference set up.”

Pepper sighs, but it is the kind that means she will play along. “Do you know what you’re doing?”

Tony could kiss her. Instead of berating him or trying to find out what is going on, she is just asking whether he is sure. He is not, but that has never stopped him before.

“Yes,” Tony says as firmly as he can.

“All right.” Pepper hesitates for a moment, likely wondering what she is getting herself into. “Be ready in two hours.”

“Thank you, Pep.”

Two hours is hardly enough to get ready for something as condemning as this, for upending his entire life again, but Tony will not let that stop him. Up on that stage, he will have a role to play and that is what he has done for as long as he can remember. The real work will come only afterwards.

 


 

More and more little accidents happen, accumulating to the point where they cannot be blamed on coincidence anymore. Sometimes the showers are scalding hot or there is no warm water at all. One time, the fridge stopped working, causing the whole base to smell like rotten food by the time they noticed. Clint’s card was declined when he went for groceries for all of them. The TV played every movie in different languages but never in English.

Bruce, whose lab remains miraculously untouched by all the technical mishaps, does not offer his opinion about what is happening and does not join in the general grumbling either.

One or two of these incidents could have been explained away, but the malfunctioning oven has finally pushed Natasha into making the connection that all of this started the moment she tried to open the files on Tony’s USB drive.

“I knew he left himself a way into our system,” she exclaims and glares at the screen of her laptop, while Steve is still wondering how a harmless piece of tech could cause their showers to malfunction.

Ever since taking on the job to get Tony’s USB drive from him, Steve realized just how little he understands about what technology can do. It has never really mattered before since he always had other talents he could use and people to help him out. Now, though, he wishes he would know more if only to not feel so removed from his soulmate in this way as well. They already have so many other things separating them.

Natasha is muttering as her fingers fly over the keyboard. She has been working hard to find whoever sent them after Tony and been therefore especially annoyed by their appliances going haywire.

Steve turns towards Clint, hoping for an explanation, only to be met by a shrug.

“Don’t look at me,” Clint says, “she’s the expert, and you know my opinion of Stark. If someone’s petty enough for this, it’s him. So much for a truce.”

Clenching his jaw, Steve swallows the urge to start another argument. Over the past days, Clint has gotten better and has stopped to constantly offer his opinion of Tony and of Steve’s decision to switch sides to anyone willing to listen or not. They are still on edge with each other. 

“I think it’s only pettiness if he wouldn’t have a real reason to be angry,” Steve says with forced calm. He really does not have the energy to deal with the same old argument again and again.

“Well,” Clint drawls and leans forward, right into Steve’s personal space, “how about you tell lover boy that he should stop fucking with us. Now that you’re on speaking terms.”

“Or what?” Steve hears the danger in his own tone, feels it reverberating within his bones.

“Or we put an end and to this farce and –”

A set of hands grabs both their collars and drags them apart. It is abrupt enough that Steve regrets the sudden drop of tension in the air.

“Stop arguing.” Natasha appears between them, her face entirely blank. Her voice is sharp like a whip but she sounds distracted like she has not actively heard their arguing. 

Clint naturally does not let things go this easily. He looks just as eager as Steve to turn this into a fight. “You’re not happy about this situation either,” he says, gesticulating sharply at Steve. “Thanks to Steve announcing our names so carelessly, Stark probably knows who we are and –”

“Shut up,” Natasha snaps, her voice leaving no room for argument. “I know who hired us.”

Absolute silence falls between them if only for a second. This is what Steve has been waiting for, this piece of information that will finally push them back on a path of action. Yet, he is afraid of what Natasha will say, of having answers because then he cannot hide from them anymore.

“Who?” Steve asks, feeling his back straighten. His anticipation of a fight will finally be fulfilled. It might still be some time away, but he knows the expression on Natasha’s face. This will be ugly.

“It’s Obadiah Stane.”

 


 

Breathing is hard under the ton of makeup Tony has put on his face to hide the last lingering traces of his treatment at the Avengers’ hands. Objectively, he is aware that the weight on his chest has nothing to do with makeup but with what he is about to say once he steps out on the stage.

Stark Industries is his father’s company. It has made its name as the best weapons manufacturer in America and perhaps the world. Tony is going to take his father’s legacy and crash it into the ground. He plans to build it up stronger and better, more palatable for someone with a conscience.

Obadiah will not like that, which is why Tony did not tell him. Actually, he did not tell anyone because he is convinced that nobody will like this course. Instead of arguing needlessly to make them see reason, he will just present them with facts. He does not plan to ask for forgiveness either. Stark Industries is his now. His to shape after his own wishes. He should have done so much sooner.

A last glance at the mirror reveals that he looks as put together as he could possibly be. His suit is meticulous, his hair does not stick up for once, neither the bruises nor the bags under his eyes are visible. The man looking back at him truly is a Stark. He is nobody’s plaything, nobody’s metaphorical doormat. All he is worth to some people is his money and the weapons he comes up with. It is time to take that away and be his own person.

“Let’s go,” Tony tells himself in the mirror.

He decides this is enough of a pep talk. Spontaneity is not exactly something he was encouraged to develop, but he has been breaking his head trying to think all of this through, all of the consequences, all of what can go wrong. He has been unhappy for years, he just never had the courage to change that.

Down in the foyer, he runs into Obadiah, who looks not as surprised at seeing Tony as he should. Someone talked. It does not matter, though. Calling off the press conference would do more damage than letting Tony go on the stage and say what he has to say – at least under any other circumstances. No one suspects anything, so no one can think to stop him while they still can.

“Tony, my boy,” Obadiah calls, smiling as he hurries over, “what are you doing down here?”

Tony almost regrets that he has to wipe that smile off his godfather’s face by announcing the virtual bomb he is about to plant in his own company. Obadiah will deal with it, though. That is what he always does, even before Howard’s death sent Stark Industries reeling. Picking up the pieces and putting them back together is a speciality of his, and one without which Tony himself would have broken apart years ago.

“Work,” Tony answers shortly, needing to keep himself back from spilling anything. “Don’t you always tell me I should do more of that?”

Obadiah nods seriously but with unmistakeable worry on his face. It makes Tony want to head straight for the next mirror, afraid that his bruises are still showing. He has not yet told his godfather about the kidnapping. He is going to heap enough on Obadiah as it is.

“Pepper told me you’ve called a press conference,” Obadiah says, falling into step with Tony when Tony does not stop his way through the foyer. “We didn’t have anything scheduled.”

Laughter boils in the pit of Tony’s stomach, threatening to spill over. He feels the hysteria rising with it, so he fights to push it all down.

“Let’s say, I’ve had an epiphany,” Tony offers with an apologetic expression. “Trust me.”

Tony winces at his own words. Trust is something he has in short supply these days, perhaps always. To so blatantly expect it from someone else feels like challenging fate to mess things up even more.

Not knowing anything of his inner struggle, Obadiah puts a hand on Tony’s shoulder. “Of course, I trust you,” he says as if he has never had any reason not to, as if Tony has not made a sport out of causing negative headlines for so many years. Before Tony can be completely relieved, Obadiah adds, “This is our business, though. It doesn’t run on trust.” Taking his hand off Tony’s shoulder, he holds it out expectantly. “Show me your flashcards.”

This is the point where Tony has to take care not to falter. He is not sure how Obadiah will react, only that it will not be favourably, but he needs to do this.

“Don’t have any.” Tony shrugs for good measure. Years of acting carelessly for the press has its advantages. “Guess you’ll have to let yourself be as surprised as everybody else.”

They are outside now, at the car waiting to take Tony to the press conference.

“Come on,” Obadiah says, still smiling. “You know I only want what’s best for SI.”

That might be true, but Tony, for once, wants to do what is best for the world.

He does not say anything when Obadiah slips into the car after him, unsure how to interpret the way his throat constricts. He is probably just nervous about disappointing the closest thing to a father he has left.  

Chapter Text

Tony is not picking up his phone. For all their talk about a truce and Steve being allowed to call when there is something important to talk about, Tony is remaining stubbornly silent. He could just be without his phone, but somehow Steve thinks that the same man who answered a call to a phone that was stolen the morning after he was kidnapped is not ever actually unreachable.

Instant panic floods Steve’s system. It could just be that Tony does not want to talk to him – he never wants to – but in the light of what they have uncovered just now, about Tony’s godfather being the one who hired them, all of Steve’s instincts scream danger.

What if Stane decides to try another time to get rid of Tony, this time with less insinuation and more actual orders? What if it is already too late and that is why Tony does not pick up?

The soul bond would surely alarm Steve if there was something seriously wrong with Tony, but Steve’s insides are curled up so tight he could not differentiate his own panic from Tony’s.

“Steve.”

Bucky appears in the door to Steve’s room, visibly upset but, for once, Steve cannot pay any mind to that. He needs to reach Tony – who has not even been in Steve’s life a few weeks ago but who is somehow the most important person at the moment. He will gladly return to dealing with their personal problems, with Tony’s anger and his own mistakes, if only Tony is all right.

Just a minute ago, he had worried about how he will tell Tony, how he could soften the blow of his godfather betraying him, but that was before four of his calls went unanswered. Before one horror scenario after the other flashed through his mind.

“Not now, Bucky,” Steve says, not looking up from his phone. “I’m trying to reach Tony.”

Another call remains unanswered, causing Steve’s heartrate to climb higher.

“You can’t, that’s what I’m trying to tell you.” Bucky comes into the room, right up until he is looming over Steve to make him look up. “He’s on live television.”

The words do not make any sense.

Steve should be relieved. This means that Tony is not dead or in pain or held hostage. This means he is well enough to stand before a horde of reporters and give a speech. Steve’s worry still rises a notch. There has been no news about Stark Industries that would require a press conference, no event where Tony would hold a speech. There was nothing, really, that would explain Tony being on live TV. 

Perhaps he already knows about Stane, perhaps the matter has been dealt with and Tony is about to announce Stane’s exclusion from the company. Somehow, Steve does not think this is it.

“Come on,” Bucky urges him when Steve cannot seem to move.

Where he has been ready to turn over every stone in search of Tony, he is now frozen in place, partly glad that Tony is accounted for, and partly unable to believe the peace.

When Bucky reaches for his arm and pulls him up, Steve allows himself to be led to their living room where everybody is already gathered. Clint and Natasha are sitting on the couch close enough to touch. Both of them are tense, although Steve suspects it is for different reasons. Clint, certainly, is not worried about Tony. Bruce hovers in the background, face neutral but knuckles white around his mug.

It does not help with Steve’s nerves at all to see his entire team on edge. Once he actually looks at the screen, however, he gets an inkling why.

Tony is standing on the stage, looking slicked and flawless, one shiny figure amongst a mass of faces watching his every move. He does not appear uncomfortable, does not show any of the pain he must still be in. While he held himself carefully, moving with caution, during the video call with Steve, he now stands tall, and instead of walking, he strides.

Steve half expects Clint to comment on that. He feels some automatic resentment against this version of Tony himself, if only because it is impossible to see through him, to gauge what he is thinking.

Tony is not who they are glaring at, however. Next to him, almost fading into the background, is Obadiah Stane, and the smile on his face and fatherly hand on Tony’s shoulder cannot conceal the fact that he is angry.

“What did he say?” Steve asks as he sits down on the couch. He is too tense to sink back into the cushions but remains right at the edge, ready to jump up again at a moment’s notice.

“Nothing yet,” Bruce reports and comes a bit closer, just to the back of the couch.

“And if you don’t shut up, we won’t hear it at all,” Clint adds, snatching up the remote to turn up the volume.

On the screen, Tony steps up to the microphone, his expression carefully blank, not a hair out of place. Flashing before Steve’s eyes, he sees Tony as he has been that fateful night they met, afraid and in pain but defiant, not one to ever give up. At this moment, it is hard to imagine, that these two people are one and the same.  

“My father had a philosophy,” Tony opens his statement, not wasting any time on greetings. Everybody knows who he is anyway. His lips twitch up the slightest bit, almost mockingly so. “Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy.” He shrugs, making a show of opening himself up to the dozens of cameras pointed at him. “I have lived my entire life following that, always building bigger and better sticks, handing them out like candy.”

Tony looks down at his hands. Breathless, Steve wonders what he sees, whether he wonders about the metaphorical blood sticking to them the way the Avengers wanted him to but that Steve now thinks is not right anymore.

“We are not yet closer to peace, not a single step,” Tony continues, suddenly sharp as if all of them, on and off the stage, are responsible for that. “I have realized that I’ve become part of a system with zero accountability. I had my eyes opened.” Here, he looks directly at the camera, directly at Steve. “I came to realize that I have more to offer this world than just making things that blow up. And that is why, effective immediately, I am shutting down the weapons manufacturing division of Stark Industries until such a time as I can decide what the future of the company will be.”

For a single, short moment, there is absolute silence. Time seems to stand still as Tony stares at the world, his chin raised defiantly, and the world stares back, breathless, waiting for a punchline. Then, the press conference erupts into sheer pandemonium.

Reporters are yelling over each other, demanding answers about what Stark Industries is going to do now, what is to happen with the thousands of jobs tied to weapons manufacturing. About how Tony can live with throwing his father’s legacy away. About what happened to patriotism.

Steve knows what is going to happen. He has seen Tony’s plans, his daydreams and fully-fledged specs. Stark Industries’ future lies in whatever market Tony sets his eyes on. Communication, green energy, medical equipment. Tony is a genius.

Yet, Tony does not say any of that. He lets the chaos rise around him, stands like a beacon in the storm. He does not smile, does not look like he regrets his words either.

Next to him, Obadiah Stane steps up to the microphone and says something that gets drowned out easily. If he has looked angry before, he is now furious.

Steve does not know what to think, does not know where this is coming from. Stopping his weapons from getting sold under the table is one thing, but shutting down the entire weapons department of his company? What was Tony thinking, turning himself into a target like that? Before, he has been a supplier of new goods, the golden goose that needs to be kept oblivious. Now, he is an obstacle.

Staring at the screen, Steve wishes he could reach through it and wrap his arms around Tony to keep him safe. Instead, he has to watch Tony being escorted off the stage by Obadiah Stane. His vision goes red.

“Nat,” he calls, barely recognizing his own voice. It is calm, almost toneless, in stark contrast to the ringing panic he feels inside.

Natasha gets to her feet immediately, not needing to hear an actual order to know what he needs her to do.

“On it,” she says and hurries out of the door.

Where Steve has been unable to move before, he is now too restless to sit still. He wants to gear up and go out, to snatch Tony off the street and keep him safe. He is aware that would not go over well and running blindly after Tony is not going to help either. Just as pressing is the need to get to Stane and teach him to never touch his soulmate again. That is not how they do things, though, and Steve is sure Tony will never talk to him again if he does it anyway. They have crossed enough lines.

Getting out his phone, Steve tries calling Tony again and again. He does not want to drop this information by text message, it is too monumental for that. Yet, when each of his calls remains unanswered, he figured he does not have any other option.

Obadiah Stane, he writes and wants to add something more, an explanation or a warning, but his fingers are too tense to cooperate so he hits send before he is ready to.

Still, the message is out. It gives him a short moment to breathe. When he looks up from his phone, he finds the rest of his team watching him with varying degrees of the same worry, the same need to act.

“Pack all the evidence we have in a file,” Steve orders, despite being acutely aware of how little there is. It is certainly not enough to get Stane behind bars on its own, but Steve guesses Tony will not just take his word on this, and he needs to convince Tony before he has to worry about the rest of the world. “Make sure it cannot be traced back to us.”

Bruce nods and walks towards their office. He does not offer any comment, does not allow a glimpse at what he is thinking, but if one of them is ready to help Tony without question, it is Bruce.

That leaves Steve with Bucky and Clint. Before he can open his mouth, before he can think of a course of action, Clint crosses his arms in front of him.

“We’re not getting that asshole?” he asks, and Steve is almost certain he means Stane with that at least.

Steve wants nothing more than to pay Stane a visit, but he cannot. Not if he ever wants to have a chance with Tony – and while he is not yet entirely sure about that, the soul bond urges him not to burn his bridges any further.

“No. Not like this,” Steve says, knuckles going white around his phone. There is still no answer. “I need to talk to Tony first.”

“Stark is not –”

Steve is not sure what Clint wants to say. Not part of the team. Not important. Not in any position to make demands. It does not matter. Tony does, though.

“Tony has been wronged same as we have,” Steve snaps, equal parts glad and guilty for having someone to yell at, “and this is his godfather we’re talking about. He has a right to decide what is going to happen.” Because a large part of him is screaming for revenge too, he adds, “If he were to let Stane go, then we can go in on our own.”

Bucky steps up to Steve’s side, either in silent support or to be close enough to drag them off each other in case they decide to turn this into a physical fight. Steve wants to. The sneer on Clint’s face makes his blood boil. Perhaps Tony is right and they really are no better than the common mob.

“You’re completely whipped by a guy who doesn’t even like you,” Clint drawls, making a mockery of their soul bond. He knows exactly where to hit to make it hurt the most.

“Shut up, Clint,” Steve snarls, lunging forward until he looms over Clint. He keeps his hands at his side, clenched into fists but holding back. “Tony just announced on life TV that he is going to crash Stane’s little side business along with what their company has stood for all his life. And then Tony left with him.”

Steve’s voice fails him as he realizes anew that Tony is in actual danger while they are here arguing. Swallowing, he pushes that down.

“I get that you need to hold onto your grudge like the literally emotionally stumped guy you are, but I do not have time for your bullshit now,” Steve continues, voice a dangerous growl, daring Clint to argue. “Either you help, or you get back to DC where I don’t have to listen to your whining.”

With that, Steve whirls around, not waiting for an answer. He storms back to his room, where he tries to call Tony again, growing more frustrated with every unanswered ring.

He wonders what he will do if Clint decides to stay a problem. This is his team. The Avengers are a group built on trust more than necessity. They might have begun as a team thrown together by the wish to make a difference, but in the time since they have grown into a family. Clint is a good guy, he is like a brother to Steve. While Tony is not exactly anything yet –or perhaps never.

After sending another text, Steve takes to pacing his room. Staying at the base when all of his instincts are telling him that his soulmate is in acute danger feels wrong, almost like another betrayal. He cannot go out guns blazing, though, not without having all of the facts. Doing nothing, on the other hand, is not an option either.

Just when Steve has decided to screw restraint, his door opens and Bucky comes in.

“Clint has gone out to shadow Stane,” he reports. He sounds like there might have been more to it, a continuation of the argument that Steve missed.

“So he’s decided to stay?” Steve asks and does not hide his relief. With his life feeling so very brittle at the moment, he cannot stand his team cracking up too.

“Don’t expect an apology from him,” Bucky says, shrugging, “but he looked properly chastised. He doesn’t like to admit he’s wrong.”

Bucky’s expression changes then, taking on the kind of determination that means he is going to start a difficult conversation. There is no question what it will be about. Everything has been about Tony lately.

Right when he opens his mouth, Steve’s phone rings

 


 

Obadiah leads Tony off the stage, talking to some of the people they pass but otherwise taking the direct route to the car waiting for them. Tony does not hear what he is saying. His ears are ringing with the echoes of the shouting reporters and the racing gallop of his heart threatening to burst inside his chest.

This is it. He has done it. He has announced the death of Stark Industries on live TV. This is a gargantuan thing, the weight of all of his father’s expectations lifted off his chest. Yet, Tony does not feel relieved, not liberated in the way he thought he would. Exhaustion clings to him like a second skin, mulling his senses until all there is left is the excited buzzing of the crowd and the way Obadiah’s fingers dig into his arm as they walk. It reminds Tony uncomfortably of Howard.

Once they are in the car, all the noise is cut off, and while it makes breathing easier, Tony wishes he was still out there because now there is no escaping his thoughts. Distantly, he is aware of his phone vibrating in his jacket. It has done that for a while now, insistent in a way that means it must be something important.

Like a coward, he reaches for it instead of facing his godfather. Poor Obadiah who has invested all of his life to keep Stark Industries not only afloat but amongst the very stars of companies. Without Obadiah, Tony would not have an empire to throw away. Still, it needed to be done.

Nine missed calls from Steve. It appears someone else has something urgent to say about Tony ruining his company. Tony does not want to hear it. Just because he offered Steve a truce to get himself some much-needed breathing space does not mean he wants to listen to his opinions about everything.

Mostly by coincident, Tony looks at the times the calls were made and realizes the first four were made before he even went out on the stage. Since nobody knew Tony was going out there and much less what he was going to say, Steve might have been calling because of something else.

“What was that?” Obadiah hisses next to Tony. His hand has wandered from Tony’s arm up to his shoulder, but the grip is still too hard, almost painful even.

Tony is just about to turn to him, to face the inevitable inquisition, when a new text message comes in. Steve again. That is almost enough for Tony to put the phone down and ignore it for the rest of the day. Since he is caught between a rock and a hard place, he chooses the evil that is not currently glaring at him.

The message consists of only two words, and they do not make anything clearer.

Obadiah Stane.

All he can do is stare at the screen of his phone, unable to make sense of why Steve would send him his godfather’s name.

“What are you trying to accomplish with this?” Obadiah asks, shaking Tony’s shoulder to make him look up.

Caught in a daze, Tony raises his head. His godfather is angry, that much is obvious, a far cry from the jovial man who always has Tony’s back. This is where Tony has to man up and explain everything. The kidnapping, the weapon dealing, how helpless he feels being stuck in his own skin.

“I –” Tony says but does not get any farther.

“I know you’re trying to make a name for yourself apart from your father,” Obadiah argues but makes it sound like something ridiculous, “but this is not the way to do it.”

A strange calm comes over Tony. He does not like being compared to Howard, not in a way that makes him feel like he still has to catch up. Obadiah knows that, and for him to use it anyway in his anger means they are fighting dirty. Tony can do that. He can be uncooperative.

He turns the screen of his phone dark, making sure Steve’s message cannot be read even though he can hardly erase it from his mind. Then he puts one hand above Obadiah’s on his shoulder, nudging him to loosen his grip. For a moment, it feels like neither of them is going to budge, then Obadiah withdraws with an almost exasperated sigh, making no secret of his disappointment.

“I’m trying to not make the world worse than it already is,” Tony says with all the serenity of someone who knows his answer will not make anything better, no matter that it is the truth.

Obadiah builds himself up as far as possible in the car. He keeps his hands to himself, though, so Tony counts that as a victory – even while wondering when he has started to count his victories against his godfather. Already, Steve is ruining everything again.

“You won’t do that by throwing all of this away,” Obadiah says, eyes narrowed.

Just like that, Tony feels ashamed of posturing. Of course, Obadiah is worried. He has led Stark Industries for years, has made sure that Tony’s errant ideas were actually turned into profit. Tony might be able to announce a sudden change, but it has to be them, together, to make it happen.

“What are you so afraid of, Obie?” Tony asks, his voice much softer. He is still determined to do this, but he does not have to be so hard on people who have always been at his side. “I won’t let SI drown. I’ve got ideas, and they will work. We’ve pulled the company out of –”

“I did that,” Obadiah cuts him off, red-faced and unmoveable. “And you’ve made it very hard more often than not.”

That is inarguably the truth. Tony is ready now to take on more responsibility, though, to not watch passively while others steer his life. Not now that he knows what that leads to. He needs to hold on to the people he can trust and reorganize his life.

“All right, yes,” Tony admits as a peace offer. “But we are selling my products, my ideas. There are other industries to make money in if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Money is always a factor, Tony knows that even though he has never had to worry about it before. Other people have done that for him. That should not be all that they base their decisions on. Morality, for a weapons company, is something of a curse word, but that does not mean they should ignore it completely.

“Stark Industries is a weapons manufacturer, and you have just now announced to the world that we won’t make any more weapons,” Obadiah says, obviously struggling to keep his temper. He is losing that fight. “Of course, I’m worried about money. Just like I’m worried about our reputation. About our future.”

Tony’s phone chimes again. He wants to ignore it, wants to concentrate on this conversation, on not alienating his godfather further, the only family he has left. He is important to Tony, but not making any more weapons is a vital step of regaining control over his life. He cannot let himself be talked out of this.

He glances at the screen, wants to look right up again but finds that he cannot. His eyes are glued to the two simple sentences Steve sent him.

Obadiah Stane hired us. Call me.

For a moment, nothing happens. Tony reads the words but does not understand them, does not feel anything.

It must be a ruse, false information. Nothing else makes sense. Obadiah is his godfather, has been part of Tony’s life forever, has smiled more often at Tony than his parents, has encouraged him instead of trampling him down.

Why would Obadiah send the mob after him? Why would he want Tony harmed? The answer, of course, is as simple as it is impossible to accept. His USB drive, his trove full of secret projects, not only the humanitarian things Obadiah likes to turn his nose up at but also the weapon designs Tony thinks too dangerous to hand over to his board of directors. Everything is about Stark Industries, which has always been more Obadiah’s than Tony’s, despite its name.

“Tony,” Obadiah barks, intent on getting Tony’s attention back on him.

Tony looks up, looks at Obadiah and searches for a sign that what Steve has written is wrong. What he sees is not different than any of the thousand times he has looked at his godfather. The same sharp intelligence in his eyes, the same twist to his lips that means he will either frown or smile.

“It’ll be all right,” Tony says slowly, talking to himself as much as his godfather. His voice sounds wrong as if it is coming from somewhere far away.

“What are you –” Obadiah asks his eyes narrowed in suspicion, but Tony cuts him off.

“Sorry,” Tony says, pointing at his phone, although he is smart enough to turn off the screen before he pulls Obadiah’s attention to it. “I’ve got to take this.”

He bides the driver to let him out of the car. They are not much farther from the tower, but Tony needs to get out, needs to get away from Obadiah. He does not know what to think, does not yet feel anything. There is no way of telling whether Steve’s information is true, and even if it is, he does not know what to do with it.

It cannot be Obadiah. He has been on Tony’s side even when Howard was still alive. It does not make sense that he would betray Tony.

Alone on the busy street, and despite his better judgement, Tony calls Steve. He cannot tell anyone else for now, not without proof, but he needs to talk to someone. Otherwise, he would be left alone with his thoughts. Even when his life is not falling apart around him that is not always a nice place to be.

Steve picks up after the first ring. He is breathing heavily like he has been running, and Tony’s first thought is that Steve had better not be out here coming for him. Things are complicated enough without adding an enraged mob boss to the mix.

“Are you safe?” Steve asks before Tony can muster the energy to say something. “Are you still with him? What happened?”

So many questions and Tony can only answer one of them. Looking at the street, Tony watches the limousine turn a corner, vanishing from sight. “I’m alone,” he says.

His head hurts from his racing thoughts, and his ribs send spiking pain through his chest after having been subdued by excitement for the past hours. Tony feels anything but safe, his skin crawling with suspicion and the feeling that he has been misplaced into a new world where everybody has it out for him.

Distantly, he hears that Steve is talking, although he cannot make out any words.

“Are you sure?” he questions, cutting Steve off. He realizes only too late that it should have been are you insane? or who do you think you are to make accusations like that?

It is out there now and Tony cannot take it back. He can always turn back to yelling once he has some more answers. Although he supposes Steve does not have any answers for him that he actually wants to hear.

“Natasha is the best at what she does,” Steve says, sounding like he, too, regrets that fact. “I’m sure.”

Tony remembers Natasha, blank-faced and untouched by his fate, doing her job with the relentless professionalism of someone who has been taught not to care. She must also be the one who got into his data on the USB drive, which means she cannot be incompetent. He does not want to trust her word anyway. Does not trust Steve’s certainty.

If it was really Obadiah, he cannot trust anyone anymore.

“It can’t be.” Tony refuses to accept this, refuses to let something else in his life go so horribly wrong. He needs a break. He needs to just breathe for a while.

“Well, he’s been with the company for longer than you’ve been alive, yes?” Steve argues. He does not yet sound any calmer himself. “Took over as CEO until you were old enough after your father died?”

All of that is public information and yet it feels intrusive that Steve would know about it and throw it in Tony’s face like this.

Standing on the sidewalk, Tony watches people pass by, watches them laugh and talk. He concentrates on them while his head is trying to make sense of the impossible.

“He’s my godfather,” Tony says tonelessly. It is a hollow argument. “He wouldn’t betray me.”

And Steve, not missing a beat, counters, “But he would profit from you being taken out of the picture.”

He must have waited for this, has perhaps wracked his brain for reasons too. The small part of Tony that is not crying in outrage is glad that it did not have to be him to say it first.

Still, he cannot help his insides coiling in anger. “What a nice way of saying maimed and murdered by the mob,” he snarls, directing all his shattered anger at Steve.

“We –” Steve says but interrupts himself, obviously not going to let himself be dragged into the same old argument. Tony is almost disappointed by that. He wants to tear into someone – as long as that someone is not his godfather. “As far as I can tell, it was Stane. I wouldn’t have told you otherwise. I know you’re close.”

Apparently not as close as Tony thought. He shakes his head. Thinking things like that means that he is accepting this, and he is not ready for that.

“Have you talked to Obie directly?” Tony asks, grasping for straws. “Does your data make sense? Are you sure?”

Tony finds he wants Steve to say yes and no equally much. He wants to have a solution to this, but he does not want to face the possibility of Obadiah wanting him harm, does not want his entire life to have been a lie and himself to have been just a means for more profit.

“I’m not sure,” Steve snaps, clearly running on very little patience too. “I don’t know what’s going on in his head.”

“Well, you’re better suited to understand the villain’s point of view than I am,” Tony drawls, but there is no heat behind it.

The exhaustion is getting better of him. So much so, that he wants to curl up right here on the sidewalk. New York has seen stranger things than billionaires having an emotional crisis right out in the open for everyone to see.

“He ordered the hit on you,” Steve says with so much conviction that it barely leaves room for more protest. “He obviously knew about our history with Stark weaponry too because he made a lot of insinuations. He might just be the one selling –”

“I need that proof,” Tony says hurriedly, cutting Steve off.

Up until now, Tony has not even made the connection that, if Obadiah is the one who sent the Avengers after him, he might also be the one who is selling his weapons to terrorists. He obviously knew about it if he made insinuations to them. He cannot think about that right now, cannot let more of the foundation he has built his life on break away.

On the other end, Steve is silent for a long moment, like he is thinking about finishing his argument anyway. In the end, though, he lets it drop.

“I’ll send you what we have,” Steve promises, even though Tony wishes he would not have to look at it. “For now, it’s just communication. Nat traced the messages back to Stane’s phone.” With some reluctance, Steve adds, “That’s not enough to get him on the dealing, but it’s a place to start. We’ll -”

That, at least, rouses Tony from his stupor. “You won’t do anything,” he orders, almost no tremor to his voice anymore.

“What?” Steve objects immediately. “Tony, your godfather obviously has it out for you.”

Tony smiles. It feels wrong on his face. Everything is crumbling, but this is something he knows. He will not let the Avengers get their hands on Obadiah, not after Tony felt their anger, not after he stoked it further.

“And how are you going to help with that?” Tony asks sharply. “Do you want to beat him up too? Perhaps assassinate him? I don’t need the mob making my problems worse.”

He expects the protest before Steve has a chance to even draw breath. “We’re not –”

“I don’t care, Steve.” Whatever the Avengers want to call themselves, they are taking justice into their own hands. A group of vigilantes is still just a mob. “Just get me everything you have.”

Something clatters in the background and an impatient noise escapes Steve’s throat. If that was supposed to convince Tony that they are mature enough to help him solve this matter without harming Obadiah, it did not work.

“What are you going to do next?” Steve asks, just barely keeping his composure.

The flow of people never ebbs around Tony as he watches them walk by, all of them having some destination to walk towards to.

“I don’t know,” he admits but chastises himself for it right away. “That’s not an invitation for you to meddle. Stay out of this.”

Tony would bet the ruin of his company that Steve is not going to stay out of this, but he has to try.

“Tony –” Steve says but trails off.

For a long moment, they are both silent, unable to go forward but not wanting to let go yet either.

“Thank you for the information,” Tony says stiffly and digs his fingers into the burning skin of his left arm.

Then, he hangs up.

Chapter Text

The moment Tony finds out about Obadiah, all his meticulously laid plans of revenge and reparation evaporate into thin air. He had been prepared to fire his entire board of directors, to weed out scientists, to go up against the military. Not once has he thought this could be personal.

Instant denial builds up inside him. It turns his limbs heavy and his mind slow. Obadiah would not betray him. Throughout all the cold years of Tony’s childhood, he has been more of a father to Tony than Howard. He has always been the one who understood Tony.

Tony is used to people only ever wanting him for what he can offer them; money, fame, tech. While Obadiah happily took Tony’s ideas to turn them into more profit for the company, that has never been all there was between them. They are family.

Despite the dread of proving this true – even if he trusted Steve, he would not just believe information like this – Tony gets to work. The evidence Steve sent him is conclusive. Tony knows Obadiah’s phone number by heart. On top of the terror of seeing it and the whole long minutes he talked with the Avengers, it hurts that Obadiah did not even think to use a burner phone for this, feeling so sure about Tony rolling over and slinking out of the picture as he was supposed to.

At least, Tony assumes he was supposed to vanish quietly. He is not sure to what end other than Obadiah being in line of becoming the company’s CEO once more. Their success is built on Tony’s ideas, though. That is probably why Obadiah needed the USB drive, to tide him over until he kicked R&D back into proper shape.

Tony is getting ahead of himself here. All he knows is that Obadiah hired the Avengers. Nobody said anything about killing Tony. Perhaps the plan really was to only get the drive and let Tony be handled roughly. It might have pushed him into more defensive gear or guns that are easily concealed. Perhaps Obadiah ordered them outright not to harm Tony but the Avengers went ahead and did it anyway.

Even Tony’s great talent for delusion does not let him spin this into something harmless or an accident.

Pepper finally brings him back the data from Stark Industries’ internal servers, and Tony is hesitant to go through it even before he finds the dozens of shipping logs and names like Raza and the Ten Rings, and Obadiah’s metaphorical fingerprints all over it. For good measure, he finally lets JARVIS hijack the servers and watches him tear through them with a curious detachment, watches the condemning files pile up, undermining the very foundation Tony has built his life on.

It is true then. Obadiah did not just send the mob after Tony, he has also been selling their weapons to anyone willing to buy. The logs go back years. This was happening even when Howard was still alive.

Feeling the damning need to laugh, Tony wonders what his godfather is thinking about him shutting down the weapons manufacturing. That is, apparently, what Obadiah built both his lives on, the official one where he is Stark Industries’ CFO, and the secret one where he is filling his offshore accounts with money from illegal weapons trades.

Even in Tony’s head, this sounds ridiculous. Enough so that he refuses the actual danger Obadiah might pose to him right now. He hired the mob once to get his hands on Tony’s work. Now that Tony all but ruined his livelihood, there is no telling what he might do. Somehow not even Tony’s enormous talent for denial is enough to convince himself that Obadiah will not do anything.

Considering the sheer amount of evidence he found, there is no more hiding from this. All Tony has to do is pack it all up and hand it over to the authorities. He will have to watch his godfather being led away in handcuffs after strangers go through Stark Industries’ data, upturning all the ugly truths of what has been happening here.

It is the right thing to do to stop the illegal distribution of his weapons and to ensure his own safety. Instead, he has JARVIS saving all of it, queues it to be printed, and saves it again on a separate USB drive. He is fond of those. Then, in the true cowardly fashion of a Stark, he turns off his computers and walks right out of his workshop, giving in to the need to hide his head in the sand for a while longer, at least until the roiling nausea has passed and this knowledge does not turn every breath into an act of labour anymore.

“Sir?” JARVIS asks, not specifying what he means.

Everything is in disarray now. It is impossible to know where to best set his next steps.

“It’s all right, J,” Tony says, not recognizing his own voice. It is a quiet monotone, sounding like he is suffocating on the truth he has just read. “I’ll take care of it. I just – I need some time to think about it.”

“It is unwise to sit on this information too long,” JARVIS says with as much disapproval as eagerness to start acting. He sounds almost vengeful but Tony cannot muster up any pride for that. “Especially with –”

“I know,” Tony interrupts him, sharper than he intended. With how shattered he feels inside, it is no surprise that he cuts anyone coming too close. That is why he needs time. He cannot deal with this while he is falling apart.

Never do business while you’re emotional, his mother had told him once after they watched Howard ruin a business deal during dinner, drunk and angry like he often was. It makes you lose focus.

While Tony feels numb, he knows that, soon enough, the realization will hit and with it the betrayal. He wants to deal with this, but he cannot do so if he turns into a sobbing mess at the mere sight of Obadiah, capably only of one, devastating question: Why?

Tony knows why, just as much as he does not. Money and family. He thought the latter would always outweigh greed. That is only true, of course, if Obadiah ever considered them family too.

“Do you want me to call someone?” JARVIS asks, nearly turning it into an ultimatum. Either Tony is reasonable and does not shoulder this on his own, or JARVIS will snitch to someone to help him.

Under different circumstances, Tony would be glad for his AI’s initiative – well, that is not true. He is never actually happy to let other people in, not even those he trusts. Vulnerability is not something Howard allowed under his roof and old habits die hard.

“How big are my chances of Pepper listening if I send her on vacation?” Tony asks instead of answering JARVIS’ question. It is meant as a distraction for both of them, something to hold onto instead of thinking about his godfather.

“Considering recent events, non-existent,” JARVIS says, voice distinctly chiding. “Do you want me to inform her of your findings?”

It is a giant stroke of luck that Pepper got the USB drive without finding the information herself, without going digging.

“No,” Tony exclaims quickly, all the air in his lungs rushing out with the word. “Just – no.”

He cannot talk to Pepper. She will look at the evidence and believe it, and then she will act. Contrary to him, she does not let emotions keep her from doing what is right. Tony is not ready to act, not ready to face this shame. He also does not want to drag her into this. Obadiah has already proven that he is not above hurting those he is supposed to protect, and Tony cannot risk putting Pepper in danger.

“Keep an eye on her,” Tony orders. “If Obadiah gets in any way close to her or appears suspicious, alert me and make sure she stays safe.”

Safe from his godfather. What has the world come to? Tony is understanding it less than ever before. He always considered few things set in stone, and now even those are crumbling, and he with them.

“All right, sir,” JARVIS replies but sounds like he has more to say.

He does not approve of Tony’s inactiveness, and he is right. Obadiah is a wild card since Tony obviously does not know him at all.

Tony slowly makes his way to his bedroom, too restless to sleep but wanting to withdraw somewhere safe. Leaving the lights off, he sits down on his bed, feeling more alone than he has in a long time.

Obadiah. His godfather. All those memories of laughing together, of sneaking into Howard’s workshop, of leading the company together – all of that was a lie. A lie to enable Obadiah to amass more money for himself, not caring about the bodies he created, the blood he spilled. All of it on Tony’s back, guiding him right where he can do the most damage and therefore the most profit.

Nausea roars in Tony’s stomach. He thinks of Barnes’ missing arm, of dozens of news stories, of the statistics passing his desk every month. That is his doing. Obadiah might distribute the weapons, but Tony makes them. All this death comes from his brain, his hands.

“Sir,” JARVIS speaks up but he sounds like he is very far away. “Your heartbeat is picking up.”

Tony slashes his hand through the air, unable to say anything but needing JARVIS to stop speaking anyway. He does not need help, does not need anyone telling him this is not his fault. It is. It does not matter that he did not pull any trigger himself. He was blind to what was going on. Perhaps he could have seen what was happening if he had not buried himself under work and sex and alcohol. If he had not trusted blindly. He, Tony Stark, who is notorious for trusting no one.

Perhaps Steve was right. Perhaps all of the Avengers were right. He did not keep an eye on his weapons and people got hurt.

In a way, he now relishes the lingering pain in his own body. It anchors him, keeps his thoughts from wandering too much. He is still here. There is no ignoring the fact that he messed up, but he is going to make this right. As much as he is able to, considering all the damage that is already done.

Tony gets out his phone and stares at the dark screen for a long moment. He does not want to talk. At the same time, his throat is constricted with the building pressure of needing to let it all out.

He does not ask JARVIS to dial for him, does not want to admit that his AI is right that Tony should not be alone at the moment. He also does not quite know who he is calling. Scrolling through his contacts, his finger hovers over Steve’s name, too long to be a coincidence.

It is ridiculous. Steve is not going to help. He is not going to make the gaping hole in Tony’s thoughts any better. No matter their truce or that Tony would not even know about Obadiah yet without Steve, they are not friends. They are barely even allies. Talking to Steve will not solve anything. It will only give the throbbing soul bond more validation.

With a contemptuous snort, Tony scrolls up and finds Rhodey’s contact. He is not quite ready to submit himself to his best friend’s worry, but he is drowning in this silence with only his thoughts as company.

The dial tone rings in his ear, a distinct judging quality to it. Glancing at the window, Tony realizes it is dark outside. It must be later than he thought. Still, he keeps the phone up, knowing that Rhodey will always pick up when he is needed, be it in the middle of the night or a firefight. Been there, done that.

When the call finally connects, Tony can barely hold back a relieved sigh. How needy he has become.

“Tony?” Rhodey says, sounding like he has just woken up but is quickly growing alert. Late-night calls usually mean problems.

It pains Tony to hear how much trust resounds in that one word, his name. It feels like Rhodey should be allowed to take a large step back from Tony, considering that he, too, has been in more danger due to Tony’s carelessness.

A thought passes through Tony’s head, stabbing like a knife is attached to it. How easily Rhodey could have been killed by his bombs, his bullets. How easily he could have killed his best friend.

Tony swallows, tries to find his voice. He digs his fingers hard into his arm to ground himself. That does not help until his elbow accidentally pushes against his broken ribs. His mouth opens for a pained gasp but he remains silent, hugs himself.

“You can stop looking into the weapons dealing,” Tony finally manages to say, the words tumbling out slowly.

His eyes are closed as he wishes to be anywhere but here. A week ago, his life has been so uncomplicated, running in the ever-same circles. He hates himself a bit for wishing to go back to that despite needing to take responsibility for the present.

“What?” Rhodey’s voice pulls him out of his thoughts but not entirely. “Have you found out who’s doing this?”

“I mean, we still don’t know who is buying them, so maybe don’t stop looking at all,” Tony argues, almost toneless while Obadiah’s name is like a noose around his neck. “I want to round up every single bullet that got handed out to the wrong people.”

That is important, he realizes, and easier to concentrate on than the mess inside his own company. He will take faceless terrorists every day over the smiling memory of his godfather.

“Tony, what is going on?” Rhodey asks, but Tony barely lets him finish his question.

“That’ll be hard, right?” he counters. “Do you think I could hire a private squad or something if the brass doesn’t want to spare their soldiers for this?”

“Tony,” Rhodey barks, loud enough to snap Tony out of his rambling. “I need you to tell me what is going on.”

A thousand other nonsensical arguments lie on his tongue. How to keep the press quiet. How to not go down with Obadiah, since no one is going to believe that Tony is innocent in this.

Tony cannot avoid the inevitable anymore, though. “Obie ordered the hit on me,” he says. If not for the absolute silence between them, his words might have gone unheard as they are merely a whisper. It feels like any more volume would give it more weight too. “He’s been selling my weapons too. I mean, all the evidence points in his direction, but it can’t be true, right? He’s my godfather. He wouldn’t –”

Before Tony can sink into another litany of denial and random pieces of information, Rhodey cuts him off. “What kind of evidence?” he asks, voice sharp and ready to condemn Obadiah on Tony’s word alone.

Tony thinks of all the data he has secured from Obadiah’s phone and computers, of the communication trails, the shipment plans, the offshore accounts. All the numbers he will never be able to forget.

“The kind that is ironclad,” Tony says, weighed down by the admission. The arm around his chest presses against his ribs again. This time, his breath does not even catch as the pain shoots through him.

“Stane is –” Rhodey pauses, then asks, “Are you sure?”

Tony knows Rhodey does not ask because he does not believe Tony. He asks because he has to be sure before he gives in to the rage boiling in the pit of his stomach, just like Tony might once he has gotten over the personal betrayal. Once he does not feel like his entire being is dissolving anymore.

Taking a deep breath, Tony braces himself for the truth. “I’m sure.”

Not missing a beat, Rhodey declares, “I’m on my way.”

It leaves Tony reeling. He feels like there should be some reluctance, some kind of argument. Rhodey’s loyalty is a precious thing, and a big part of Tony is relieved. At the same time, it should not be this easy. Offering his godfather up as the bad guy should be harder than this. Tony cannot even trust himself, so it feels strange that Rhodey would.

“No. You’re not,” Tony says nonetheless, wondering how he can muster the strength to deny himself his best friend’s company. “I need to deal with this myself.”

That is certainly true, but he does not want to be alone. Does not want to face the coming days. He has to, though. Starks are not prone to sentimentality. Letting his arm drop from around his chest, Tony sits up straighter, stares into the darkness of his bedroom. He might still feel untethered but there are more important things to deal with for now than his personal comfort.

“You’re not going to confront the man who sent a hired gang of killers after you alone,” Rhodey argues but achieves nothing but to harden Tony’s resolve.

“They’re not –” he tries to argue, mostly to keep Rhodey occupied while he pieces himself back together.

“Well, I wouldn’t know because you refuse to tell me anything about them, so I have to assume the worst,” Rhodey cuts him off with all the harshness of someone tired of not being allowed to care for the people they love. He has always had little patience for Tony’s self-destructive tendencies. “But I know Stane, and I know that family obviously doesn’t mean anything to him, so you won’t do this alone.”

The echo of a smile pulls at Tony’s lips as he feels warmth spreading through his chest. Yet, he protests. “I’m not yet doing anything.”

That is the hardest part to admit. With anyone else, Tony would have gleefully let law enforcement storm their home and take them into custody. With Obadiah, he needs to know why first. He needs to know what he has done wrong, and how deep the damage goes. Whether, since this has already been going on when Howard was still alive, his father knew.

Tony has a lot of questions and he does not know how to ask them, nor whether he is ready to hear the answers.

“What does that mean?” Rhodey questions, one wrong word away from yelling.

“You should be glad I’m not rushing into anything here,” Tony argues but does not manage the teasing tone he has been aiming for. Perhaps he should not try to pretend everything is all right. Rhodey would look right through it anyway. “I mean, that’s me being responsible, right?”

The short silence that follows is answer enough to that. “Are you alone?” Rhodey then asks with the kind of impatience that means his fingers itch to pack his things and hijack one of the military jets to come home.

“I’m not,” Tony says and wonders what that has to do with anything. He is not going to fall into a bottle or do something stupid without a chaperone. That is why he is calling. “JARVIS is here and –”

Rhodey clicks his tongue, successfully cutting Tony off. “Let me rephrase that. Is Pepper there?”

“You’re not going to tell her,” Tony says slowly, voice brooking no argument. What is most important now is to keep his friends safe. “I can’t risk Obie finding out that she knows.”

That might not stop Obadiah from hurting her, of course. It is no secret that Pepper is the only reason why Tony has not pushed Stark Industries into ruin twice every week since taking over. If Obadiah really wanted to take Tony out of commission, Pepper is the perfect place to start.

“All right,” Rhodey sighs, not happy with it but conceding Tony’s point for now. Then, though, he adds, “I’m still coming.”

Tony shuts his eyes briefly, swallowing a curse. He still wants to say yes, to have someone watching his back here at home. Deciding to step up and take responsibility also means to go about this strategically. Serving Obadiah all the people he cares about on a silver platter is not that.

“No. I need you to find out where my weapons are. I’ll deal with Obadiah,” Tony argues. Softer, he adds, “I can’t have him become suspicious. If he finds out you’ve been rushing here for the second time in a row, it’s – He can’t find out.”

Tony does not do secrecy well. Since he wants this to be over, he is ready to be sensible.

There is a long silence on the other end while Rhodey comes to his decision. In a way, Tony is glad for his best friend’s reluctance.

“I don’t like this,” Rhodey then says, but it is obvious that he is giving in. Reason over emotions. Who would have thought they would ever get here?

“I know.” Tony forces a smile on his lips, even though it remains unseen. It might just help to build himself up. “I’ll tell you if anything changes.”

Hanging up, Tony lets his hand fall, drained of even his last bit of energy. Rhodey’s worry is appreciated but Tony is far beyond that.

What has been only a rumour before is now a fact. Tony’s weapons are out there. He does have blood on his hands – and no idea how to wash it off. He suspects he cannot. If asked, his friends will surely argue that this was not his fault, but they would be wrong. Accountability – that is what he said on live television just earlier this day. That feels like a lifetime ago.

Lying back on his bed, Tony closes his eyes. He does not think he will be able to sleep, does not want to either. That just means that tomorrow will be here much quicker, and with that Tony has to act. Against his godfather. Against years of blindness and quiet complicity. He just does not know what to do.

 


 

Morning comes too soon. Tony did sleep, although his dreams were plagued by stray bullets and bombs and flowing blood forming a steadily rising headcount. He gets up before the sun and scrubs his skin raw under the shower as if he could wash away who he was and emerge stronger. When he slips into his clothes, he still feels just as frail.

What he needs is a plan. He has evidence and a likely motive. Obadiah’s accomplices should not be hard to find. Then he needs to get together with the military and talk about how to take his weapons out of terrorists’ hands.

In between all these nice, logical steps, however, is the fact that he will have to confront Obadiah. Tony still wants answers but he begins to think that is not as important as to leave the whole matter behind without tainting his memories of family anymore. Every time he thinks he is ready to get to his feet and either call the police or take the elevator down to Obadiah’s office, his body refuses to move, keeping him frozen in place.

He is not ready.

When his phone chimes, Tony flinches. Once he has collected himself, he tries to laugh at himself for that. Nobody is going to jump out of his phone to either murder or judge him. He is perfectly safe up here in his tower’s penthouse. Nobody but Rhodey and Steve knows what he has found out. Most importantly, Obadiah does not know. It is still Tony’s turn to move.

Tony picks up his phone from his nightstand and walks towards the kitchen while he checks it. He has several missed calls from Rhodey and Pepper, and texts asking about his well-being. Pepper inquires about the USB drive, about whether he has found out anything yet. That means Rhodey has not told her, at least. Tony does not think that Obadiah would hurt her. Then again, he did not think Obadiah would sell their weapons on the black market.

The newest text is not from his friends but from Steve. Tony almost turns off his phone without reading it. He can imagine the kind of plans a mob boss with a personal grudge has to offer. Traitor or not, Tony does not want any harm to come to Obadiah. Not like that. Only, he kind of does. Deep down in his gut, Tony realizes he is angry.

You should hire a bodyguard, Steve writes, with all the pretentiousness of someone who does not know how to leave well enough alone.

This has Tony laughing out loud. The sound echoes ugly in the empty room around him, making the hair in Tony’s neck stand up. He turns on the coffee machine while he ponders whether he should reply at all. In the end, he is too glad for the distraction to pass up the opportunity. Steve might continuously butt in where he is not needed but at least there is no need to pretend with him that everything is all right. That Tony is all right.

I hope you’re not planning to offer yourself.

The very thought is ridiculous. The most danger Tony has been in years has been at the Avengers’ hands. He realizes that Steve’s concern about Tony’s safety is probably honest, fuelled by the soul bond or remorse, but that does not mean that Tony would actually trust him with it.

He is surrounded by security anyway. JARVIS, for one, who is usually the only security he needs. Mostly, Tony is his own biggest enemy. Pepper has also increased the guards down in the foyer. They were not even trying for subtlety when they followed Tony to the press conference the day before. The last thing Tony needs is more people looking over his shoulder, judging his every movement.

I would, Steve writes to Tony’s amusement, but your safety is more important than trying to prove a point. I know someone who is very good at his job.

While that is surprisingly considerate, there is still no chance that Tony is going to agree. I don’t need any of your underlings to follow me around.

Putting down his phone, Tony reaches for a mug. He fights the urge to fill himself an entire pot of coffee and drinking straight from it. With how much exhaustion is still pulling him down, he is going to need a lot of caffeine to keep him going.

Steve needs a while to answer. Enough to allow Tony to burn his tongue as he impatiently takes his first sip of coffee. That does not stop him from taking another one right away.

His name is Thor Odinson. Steve seems to attract people with strange names like Bucky and apparently Norse gods fanatics. Run a background check on him. He has never been part of the Avengers. He does not even know about us. I met him in the Army.

Steve seems to think that this is enough to alleviate Tony’s reluctance to get anywhere near the Avengers or their friends. Gripping his mug in one hand, he types with the other. I don’t trust any of your friends. Mob or not.

Tony almost hears Steve sighing. It might be more of a tugging sensation right in his core like the soul bond is reacting to their conversation, but the intention is clear. They are constantly dancing around each other. Glaring at his arm, Tony thinks Fate or whoever has thrown them into this should be glad they are talking to each other at all.

Just look him up.

Feeling his eyebrows rise, Tony is tempted to snap something back, to warn Steve away from giving him orders. That is half of the reason why they are in this mess. Because Steve does not know when to back off, how to let other people make their own decisions.

Instead, Tony takes a deep breath and writes, I won’t need a bodyguard anymore soon anyway.

He does not have the energy to fight on all these fronts at the same time. That is the reason he proposed the truce in the first place.  

How are you dealing with Stane? Steve asks immediately, not just sprinkling salt into Tony’s wound but dumping the whole bag on him.

Since the night before, Tony has not come any closer to having a feasible plan. Steve seems to know that. It is a good thing then, that Tony does not owe him anything, neither answers nor justification.

Locking his phone, Tony puts it facedown on his kitchen counter. He leaves it there when he goes back to his workshop. He needs to find out who else has been in on the weapons trading. If anything, that will take his mind off personal things for a while as well as giving him an excuse not to confront his godfather just yet.

Chapter Text

Steve looks up from his phone, not quite satisfied but calm in a way he has not been in days. Tony is safe for now, he knows what is going on and he will deal with it. If he does not want Steve to be part of that, it is his good right. It rankles Steve, of course, to be sitting idly while his soulmate is in danger, and perhaps this is not the right time to show restraint, but he is trying to do right by Tony.

Caught in his thoughts, he does not notice the shadow in his doorway until he speaks up.

“What are you doing?” Clint asks. He is wearing combat clothes and a matching expression, as ready to deal with the situation at hand as they all are.

In comparison, Steve feels comically small, sitting on his bed in a sweater. Waving his phone in the air, he replies cautiously, “Writing Tony.”

That was the wrong answer, Steve knows that as soon as it hangs between them in the air.

“So what?” Clint snaps, taking a step into the room. “You almost rip my throat out any time I said something about Stark, and now that we know who the actual bad guy is you sit there and write lover boy instead of doing something about it?”

It is thoroughly unfair to be blamed for something that Steve does not want to do. If not for Tony’s protest, he would be the first one out there to deal with Stane. He would not sit back, waiting for events to unfold, fearing for the worst.

“Tony doesn’t want me to –” Steve tries to argue but is cut off.

“Of course, he doesn’t.” Clint scoffs like it is obvious. Like he has defended Tony’s wishes all along. “But this is not just about him.”

This is still about revenge. Steve understands very well where Clint is coming from, but he is trying to be the voice of reason here.

“He has all the evidence,” Steve says as firmly as he dares and looks at Clint with a stern expression. He can afford his team dancing out of line even less than before.

“I don’t need evidence to take that asshat down,” Clint answers with careless confidence.

That is the point, though. The Avengers are supposed to come in where the justice system fails. There is conclusive evidence against Stane, enough so that he will be taken in and prosecuted once Tony sets that in motion. If that does not work out, that is the time where the Avengers act. Not before that. 

“Violence isn’t the answer to everything,” Steve says, despite feeling his knuckles yearn for the opportunity to knock that smirk off Stane’s face and keep Tony safe.

Crossing his arms in front of him, Clint stares down hard at Steve. “That’s rich, coming from Mr. Punch-First-Ask-Later,” he says. “What are you afraid of?”

It has never been more obvious that Clint is looking for a fight. That he is restless and unhappy and needs something to focus on. Steve knows his team, and he knows that Clint, when he feels guilty, wants to make things right through whatever means possible, until it seems like he is hell-bent on making them worse.

Steve shrugs, deciding on honesty, although he thinks that is obvious. “Losing Tony.”

Clint does not know what to do with Steve’s calm. “That ship has already sailed,” he says, shaking his head with a sneer. Then he leans forward. “Listen, he’s not going to do anything with the evidence.”

In one smooth motion, Steve gets to his feet, glowering. As suspected, Clint does not back down but straightens further in anticipation.

“What is your problem, Clint?” Steve asks, despite having no intention of giving in to Clint’s baiting. “I’ve listened to your grumbling about Tony for long enough now. He’s a good man and he’s not going to let Stane get away with this. It is his right to do this in his own time and –”

“Stane is his godfather,” Clint snaps like that is a viable argument.

His expression is pinched, eyes fixed somewhere over Steve’s shoulder as if he is not completely in the present. That is when Steve remembers that Clint has a brother. Specifically, a brother in jail who tried to take Clint down with him, and for whom Clint almost went to jail too. Perhaps he does know something about how hard it is to go up against family.

The air between them takes on a different tension, not ready to explode anymore, but one filled with the uncertainty of having said too much.

“He’ll do the right thing,” Steve says, voice gentle.

With renewed stubbornness, Clint stares at him. “That means running from you too.” The firmness of his tone leaves no doubt that he means his words.

Swallowing, Steve says very quietly, “I know.”

They look at each other for a long moment, unsure where to go from here. The will to fight has evaporated, but neither of them is satisfied. With a scoff, Clint turns around and goes. Steve does not try to stop him.

Instead, he brings his phone up again and writes Tony, I really am sorry.

He is not actually surprised when he does not get an answer.

 


 

Despite the eagerness to deal with the situation, things calm down after the rather monumental revelation of Obadiah Stane, long-time figurehead of Stark Industries, being the one they have been looking for.

If Steve said the word, they would readily swarm out to take Stane down, but when he tells them to wait, they settle down. Even Clint follows without much further complaint. They have sent out their information and now it is not their turn but Tony’s.

Despite his worry, despite the constant burning of the soul bond, this is the first time in a week that Steve feels like he can take a deep breath. He thinks a lot about what Bucky said, and Bruce before him. How rushing into this, hounding Tony, does not do either of them any favours.

He is not sure he will stay this calm if it looks like Stane is making a move, but for now, he has decided to let Tony deal with this in his own time.

For the first time since accepting this last job, the Avengers feel like a team again, not pitted against each other, not riled up by nerves and bad memories. Their whole group is based on trust, on having a common goal. All of them have been discouraged by life, by the purpose other people thought they had.

Steve and Bucky returned from war, not quite whole anymore, and wondering what they had even been fighting for. Those nice ideals they were taught to protect seemed to have vanished once their eyes were opened to the real world.

Natasha and Clint decided that whatever government agency they were working for before was just too shady, too close in nature to the people they were fighting, that they were looking for a way out.

No more ulterior motives, Natasha had said when they had their first meeting, which altogether felt too much like a conspiracy, the vague idea of the Avengers in mind.

No more bureaucrats pointing where they need us to shoot without knowing what it’s like out there, Clint had added, less eloquently but just as determined.

Sam had more or less stumbled into the group, turning from counsellor to friend to ally. He never knew when to keep away, and Steve does not want to think about where they would be without him.

They gathered the rest along the way. Scott had been caught up in some bad things. Pietro and Wanda had always been part of that seedy underworld that swallows good people whole and spits them out twisted.

The idea has always been to help. To go where no one else could and sort out the bad seeds, to find evidence to allow the police to arrest the untouchables, the moguls. Despite the name, they have never been about revenge. Not before.

Waiting makes Steve restless, but he carefully keeps that to himself. He insists on intensifying their training program to keep his team busy. He talks at length with Sam in DC to avoid both parts of his team going off the rail while he is otherwise occupied. He insists on team dinners and movie nights, just to get back some piece of normalcy, even while he feels like he is making a mistake by not watching over Tony.

He does not sleep well, haunted by dreams of what he did and of what could happen if he does nothing now. It is an impossible situation.

One of these evenings, when he cannot decide whether to try sleeping, he wanders the base, drawn in by the faint voices of his friends. He is not in the mood for conversation, but he would not mind the company.

“Do you think you’ll have it in you to apologize to Stark once all of this is over?” he hears Natasha ask when he is close enough.

Stopping abruptly, Steve holds his breath, hoping they did not notice him.

“I doubt he’ll want to hear it,” Clint answers. His voice is muffled like he is half-asleep.

Cautiously, Steve inches forward so he can peek through the half-open door.

Natasha and Clint are sitting on the couch. She is stretched out, her feet in Clint’s lap, wet hair piled up on her head. She has been out all day and Steve did not hear her coming in. Bruce sits at a table, reading a book but looking up at their conversation. He does not offer his thoughts. 

“So you admit you were wrong,” Natasha points out, her voice free of accusation.

That is the difference between them. Steve can never ignore his emotions, can never just use words without attaching them to what he feels.

Clint huffs but not like he wants to argue with her. “He didn’t exactly make it easy.”

This, Steve thinks, is the closest they will ever come to an admission of guilt.

“Things like this are never easy,” Natasha says, resting her head against the back of the couch.

“He’s still shady,” Clint speaks up, sounding more awake now but still not upset. “I mean, are we sure he didn’t know about the weapon deals?”

Just like that, all thoughts of sleep are gone from Steve’s mind. He is ready to storm in and fight it out with Clint once and for all. Tony is not part of Stane’s double-dealing. He does not have any ultimate proof, but he still has Tony’s voice in his ear, still sees the determination on his face.

“Clint,” Natasha cautions. With just one word, she manages to convey everything Steve feels but without setting Clint off.

“I know,” Clint hurries to say, sounding chastised if not exactly guilty. “Still, Steve decided to trust Stark just because of their tattoos. Shit like that gets you killed.”

The thing is, Clint is not wrong. Once the bond was established, it was like Steve lost his ability to think rationally. Everything is centred around Tony now, no matter how much he tries to focus.

“Is that jealousy because you haven’t met your soulmate yet?” Natasha questions, but there is humour in her tone.

Clint shudders visibly, exaggerating the motion. “I’m glad I didn’t, considering our line of work,” he says, shaking his head. Turning a bit more serious, he adds, “Look at how it’s turned out for Steve.”

As far as Steve knows, no one on the team has met their soulmate yet. Apart from Sam, of course, but he does not talk much about Riley. The grief of losing him is still tangible whenever Sam allows himself to think about him. They do seem to be very unlucky where fate is concerned.

“Story’s not over,” Natasha offers lightly, causing all of them to look at her with varying amounts of scepticism.

Straightening in his seat, Clint pats her feet and says serenely, “Bet you twenty it is.”

Before Natasha can accept – sometimes it seems like her hidden agenda is to bankrupt the Avengers from within – Bruce speaks up.

“Considering how long you’ve known her, you should know better than to bet against her,” he says, pointing his book at Clint, although he seems amused too.

“One of these days, she’s going to lose,” Clint replies sullenly, obviously not convinced of that himself.

Natasha simply smiles. “Not if no one’s left to tell the tale.”

Outside, Steve straightens and sneaks away, leaving them to their bickering. He does not want to let Clint’s words get close to him, but they hit exactly where it hurts. What if his story with Tony truly is already over?

He cannot afford to think about that while Tony is still in danger, while Stane is still out there. At the same time, he cannot stop doubting.

That night, he barely sleeps at all, curled around the words on his arm that constantly burn now, almost like they want to tell Steve something, urging him to listen. He is just afraid that he does not want to hear whatever it is.

 


 

Days pass, building up to almost an entire week. Hours blur into each other while Tony digs up exactly how deep this betrayal goes. Years and years of it. Millions of dollars. Thousands of lives.

Tony finds names and accounts. He finds evidence that Obadiah started his double-dealing when Howard was still alive, although he has been much more careful back then. After his death, with Tony in no shape to lead a company, distracted by misery and booze, he grew bolder, turning it into something really lucrative instead of just a side hobby.

Tony hides. His bruises are merely an afterthought now, easily covered if necessary and not an actual reason for him to lock himself away in his penthouse. He fields calls from Rhodey and visits from Pepper, worries about the conspicuous silence from Steve. In their own way, they are all being supportive. Yet, Tony still feels on the brink of falling apart.

Every day of inactiveness increases the chance of more lives being lost. Tony is monitoring the channels Obadiah and his smuggler ring use, ready to intercept any new shipments. That does not stop the weapons that are already out there.

Speaking up most likely means pushing Stark Industries into ruins. He might have announced their withdrawal from weapons manufacturing, their readiness to move into new directions, a new future. That does not change the fact that they were the number one name in the weapons industry and are rapidly losing investors even without a fresh scandal. Also, it will be hard to build his case against everyone calling for his downfall. He can already hear their arguments, declaring the impossibility of him not knowing about the double-dealing, especially considering how close Obadiah and he are. Were.

The more evidence he is gathering, the more it feels like he is putting his head on the chopping block, waiting for an axe of his own making to end him and everything he has built his life on.

That is no reason to give Obadiah any leeway. He should not be sitting on this knowledge. And yet.  

“Sir, Mr. Stane is on his way up to the penthouse,” JARVIS announces, sounding like he is seriously considering sucking all the air out of the elevator and thus dealing with the problem that has been keeping Tony up for several nights.

Tony loves him for it. That does not keep his insides from curling into tight knots, immediately frozen in anticipation of the confrontation he has been avoiding for almost a week now.

He knows why Obadiah is coming. Or suspects, at least. A board meeting is planned for later this day, which Tony declared he is coming to. That alone warrants a visit from his CFO since Tony usually avoids these meetings like the plague.

Still, there is a small chance that Obadiah knows that Tony found out about the double-dealing. Tony is not ready to have this conversation, probably never will be. At the very least, he needs to have it on his own terms.

“Tell him I’m busy,” Tony says, eyes lingering on his file with evidence.

“I tried. He showed himself unwilling to reconsider,” JARVIS replies with some dismay. Tony is not surprised. His godfather has always shown a particular disinterest in doing what others tell him to do. That had been an admirable trait once. “I could trap him in the elevator, though.”

The thought is tempting, causing a shaky smile to slip on Tony’s lips. For all that he is not ready to come face to face with Obadiah, he is out of time.

“Thank you,” Tony says not bothering to hide his fondness or his regret, “but I’m afraid we can’t do that.”

Above all, Tony needs to keep Obadiah from getting suspicious that Tony knows more than he should.

Right now, the greatest obstacle is getting over his hundreds of childhood memories to allow him to throw his godfather to the wolves. Obadiah deserves it, no question asked, but the act of actually abandoning him to the police is still enormous to consider. The small flame of anger is still burning bright inside Tony, but it is kept small by the sheer sense of betrayal and the numbness accompanying it.

All the information he has gathered, all his inescapable evidence, is packed into a file. He has several copies and an actual paper version. They are ready to be handed over. A small part of Tony still wishes that Obadiah’s visit right now will not be the thing that pushes Tony into finally doing that. Howard had always told him how weak he was. Perhaps the old man was right after all. Obadiah had no qualms sacrificing Tony. It gets harder every day to argue that Tony is the better person for not doing the same. 

Saving all his progress, Tony leaves his workshop and decides to wait for Obadiah in the living room. He sits on the couch, trying to make himself appear busy with a tablet in hand, but there is no hiding the painfully straight line of his shoulders or the way his knuckles are white from gripping too hard. For years, he has played people, has worn masks and been exactly what strangers wanted him to be. Faced with the prospect of meeting his godfather now, all of that crumbles.

Then, too soon, Obadiah is there. The elevator doors open and his steps come closer, as unhurried and familiar as ever. Tony turns around, waiting, wondering whether his perception of Obadiah will have changed.

It has not. Obadiah is still tall, unbowed, smiling in greeting as he has done for decades. He still opens his arms in greeting as if Tony was still at a hugging age.

“Tony,” he greets upon entering, jovial and entirely unsuspiciously. “It’s been impossible to get a hold of you for the past days.”

He walks over to the couch and lets himself sink into it, not close enough to touch but definitely too close for comfort. Tony cannot shift away, however, not without making it obvious that something is wrong.

“Sorry, Obie. I was busy,” Tony replies, voice too strained. He can do better than that. Pointing at his tablet, he shrugs. “I’ve been working on possible new projects to present to the board. Are you coming with me to the meeting?”

Something flickers over Obadiah’s face that has Tony thinking he might have miscalculated. Perhaps they are done posturing, done pretending that everything is fine. Then Obadiah’s expression shifts into one of regret and the moment has passed. Like a predator has decided not to join the hunt.

“The board meeting was cancelled.”

Has Obadiah’s smile always been like this? Too quick and too sharp. Too hungry. Tony cannot remember. He does remember soaking up any kind of positive attention without really questioning why he got it.

Now, the apology lurking under Obadiah’s words is sharp enough to cut, a trap to lure him in.

“Funny,” Tony says slowly, not a trace of a smile on his face, “I didn’t hear any of that.”

Nodding, Obadiah reaches out to pat Tony’s shoulder. It is all Tony can do not to flinch away. Betrayal, it turns out, is something he just never gets used to. And being betrayed by family is infinitely worse than by possible lovers or pretend-friends.

“I did that,” Obadiah says, much to Tony’s surprise. Admitting it this easily somehow seems out of character. “Don’t look like that, my boy.” Chuckling, Obadiah withdraws his hand, puts it down on his own leg in plain sight. The whole thing appears orchestrated. “Nobody is happy with your public announcement. I’m just trying to soothe their tempers.”

The concern Obadiah displays is painfully familiar. It is the same expression that accompanied his condolences for Howard and Maria’s death, and a hundred bottles of liquor finding their way into Tony’s hands, and even more of Tony’s projects being rejected. Tony always interpreted it as Obadiah being on his side, caring for him.

“Last time I checked, I’m still the one who’s supplying R&D with the most ideas,” Tony says, finally sharpening his voice into something that does not sound like he is already defeated.

It is certainly true. Getting rid of Tony means slaughtering their golden goose. Obadiah must be very confident in his ability to kick R&D into better shape – or that Tony has enough projects secreted away.

Obadiah leans forward, looking Tony directly in the eyes. “Nobody’s saying they want to push you out.”

A weight presses down on Tony’s chest, rendering him unable to breathe. The sheer audacity of it. If he had doubts before that his godfather could do such monstrous things as handing weapons out to terrorists and sending the mob after family, he does not have them anymore. The very calm with which Obadiah speaks, the unwavering smile. That is not a man moved by compassion or bound by honour.

Slowly, Tony’s back straightens and his heart rate evens. He still feels on the verge of breaking but not like he cannot do this.

“They just want to lead the company without me,” Tony adds, reeling as he realizes there is no more waiting. Looking up sharply, he asks, “You wouldn’t have anything to do with that?”

Obadiah’s composure is to be admired. He cocks his head like he is surprised by Tony’s question, like he does not know where it is coming from.

“Why would I?” he asks, all honest confusion. “I’ve been at your side since Howard died. I’ve helped him keep the company alive before that.”

That is the worst thing, that all these years apparently meant nothing.

“And you must have grown a taste for leading then,” Tony states dryly, feeling the last remnants of a friendly expression slip from his face. “Why did you even make me CEO? That must have been inconvenient for you.”

Tony did not even want the job. He was happy, ruling over R&D. His workshop was the only place he really needed. Yet, Obadiah pushed him to pick up the mantle of CEO, of living up to the Stark name. In the long run, that did not make either of them happy.

Before him, Obadiah frowns, looking almost grieved at the sudden argument building between them.

“What’s gotten into you, Tony?” he questions, voice dripping with concern that Tony would have believed two weeks ago. “We’re on the same side.”

This is it, Tony thinks. Now he will find the courage to confront Obadiah with what he has found. With Steve’s data of how Obadiah hired the Avengers. With the far more condemning logs detailing how Obadiah has made deals with terrorists and enemies of America for years. With treason.

It might even be gratifying to see that jovial expression drop and shatter, to talk clearly for the first time in – forever, really. Tony realizes he does not know his godfather at all, while Obadiah knows all about him. All his weaknesses and dreams, all his scars and lies and imperfections. It is no wonder he had such an easy time betraying Tony.

He does not want another fight, though. Not one he is going to lose. 

“I’m tired,” Tony says instead of offering his evidence. He withdraws, making himself small. This is the Tony Obadiah knows. “I was excited to do something new. Something that does not mean more death on our conscience.”

Tonight, as soon as Obadiah is gone, he is going to take all the evidence he has and hand it over to the law enforcement. Tonight, he is going to end this. He has thought a lot about personal revenge these past days but in the end, he just wants this to be over.

Obadiah is still talking, but Tony is barely listening. “And this is not the way to do it. We need to start small. We can talk about opening a smaller division, see if it’s able to carry itself.”

If he remembers correctly, promises like this have been made a dozen times before. Tony did not study robotic engineering only to never apply it in real life other than building his helper bots. Yet, no one jumped at the prospect of progress the way he thought they would.

“I’ve already announced that we won’t make any more weapons,” Tony says as if either of them needs the reminder. “I think it’s too late for small steps.”

The sheer dismissal passing Obadiah’s face is grating on Tony. “I’m handling that.” Suddenly, the light in his eyes grows sharper as he focuses on Tony. Almost slyly, he adds, “You know, someone on the board has filed to replace you.”

Someone or you, Tony thinks and knows the answer. He does not for one second believe that this is not Obadiah’s plan. Tony will not let himself be pushed out. He might have become CEO only grudgingly, but Stark Industries is his responsibility now. He does not run in times of crisis.

“Then it’s all the more important to show them I’m not only serious about this but that it will work, don’t you think?” Tony keeps his tone pleasant, thinking he deserves a medal for that. Finally, the anger inside him is roaring, no longer cowed by trepidation.

Getting to his feet, Tony looks down at Obadiah. He stares and stares but does not find anything familiar, nothing worth saving. “Now, if you excuse me. There’s a lot of work to do.”

His neck prickles as he turns his back to Obadiah. That is probably not the smartest move, but Tony is tired of hiding.

“Tony,” Obadiah calls when he is almost out of the room, “this is not over.”

But Tony thinks it really might be.

Ten minutes later, when Tony comes back out of his workshop, Obadiah is gone. He is gripping his folder with evidence, keeps his breathing carefully calm. This is it. JARVIS has alerted Happy to wait for them downstairs and then they will go hand his evidence over. Tony will watch Obadiah be taken in, taken down. He will not feel any regret.

Happy is already waiting out front when Tony steps out into the cool evening air. He looks concerned like all of his friends do lately, but Tony greets him with a smile. Everything will be fine.

Tony gets into the back of the car and watches New York slip by in the dark as they drive. He is glad that Happy does not try to talk to him. Afterwards, he owes them all some explanations. For now, silence is more fitting.

He does not see the man on the motorbike. Neither, apparently, does Happy. There is a shadow appearing suddenly in front of the car and while Happy slams down on the brake, they cannot avoid the crash.

A horrible screeching sound fills Tony’s ears as they hit the bike frontally and something big and dark rolls over the hood and vanishes into the darkness behind them. The car careens off the street, spinning until Tony loses his sense of direction. After an eternity, the car comes to a shuddering halt, causing Tony’s head to smash against the window. Then, everything goes black.

Chapter Text

Groaning, Tony blinks back to consciousness. His head is pounding and one side of his face feels wet. When he reaches up, his fingers come away bloody. As he stares at the crimson stains, time appears to come to a standstill in which he tries to make sense of his situation.

The folder, the drive to the police. The crash. The crash.

Suddenly alert, Tony rips his eyes away from his fingers and looks ahead. He is still in the car. Some alarm beeps incessantly. He is alive.

In the front, Tony sees Happy’s shape slumped over the steering wheel, unmoving. With a jolt, Tony jerks forward. Pain shoots out from his broken ribs, pushing all the air out of his lungs, but he barely notices, too focused on the body of his friend.

“Happy?” Tony calls, hearing the hysteria rise in his voice. “Happy, talk to me.”

He scrambles to unfasten his seatbelt and curses when he cannot release it at once. His fingers are slick and clumsy, trembling even while adrenaline rushes through him. When he finally hears the absolving click, he throws himself forward with no regard for his own injuries and reaches out for Happy.

“Happy,” he pleads, repeating the name like a prayer. He cannot lose anything more, cannot have more of his life in ruins.

Happy does not react. A thin trail of blood runs from his mouth that nearly has Tony despairing.

Reaching out, Tony leaves smears of blood on Happy’s collar and neck as he searches for a pulse. He fixates on the red until he almost collapses in relief when he finds a heartbeat, steady and strong. Happy is only unconscious, then.

Tony still has to call an ambulance immediately. He will not take any chances where his friends are concerned. He has so precious few of them left. When he turns back to search for his phone, his eyes fall on the street in front of them and he remembers the man they hit. Cursing, Tony scrambles to get out of the car.

Despite his dizziness and the reawakened pain every movement causes, Tony pushes the dented car door open and climbs out. Outside, it is eerily silent even while Tony’s ears are still ringing, filled with the sounds of the crash and his own panic.

The cold air stings against his new bruises but he does not pay them any mind. The bike they hit is lying on the street, one of the wheels is still spinning uselessly in the air. There is no sign of the man, no matter which direction Tony looks. He remembers something flying over the car.

They were not driving very fast, but it is still possible that the man was thrown a good distance. While Tony limps forward to look for the man, one arm wrapped around his torso as if that would actually help with broken ribs, he pulls out his phone to finally call an ambulance.

Blinded by the shockingly bright light of his screen, he sees nothing more but a shadow moving out of the corner of his eye. By then, it is already too late. Tony tries to duck out of the way, but he can see the blow coming for him almost in slow motion.

It does not connect.

Before Tony can fully realize what is happening, a second person engages the would-be attacker in a fight. For a long moment, they are simply two dark shapes grappling in the dark while Tony backs away, mind reeling to understand what is happening. Then he notices flying red hair, which gives his saviour away as Natasha even before Tony can catch a glimpse of her face.

Her presence more than anything makes him realize that this was not an ordinary crash. The timing itself is very curious, with Tony carrying his folder full of damning evidence, after his almost-argument with Obadiah.

When Tony’s breathing gets difficult, he blames that on his broken ribs, not on the fact that his godfather acts fast – and is definitely serious about taking Tony out. He should be running, should be getting that ambulance, should guard Happy’s unconscious body. Instead, Tony stands transfixed, watching the fight in front of him wide-eyed and full of denial.  

The fight is short and brutal, and ends with the man whimpering on the ground. At least before a perfectly aimed hit renders him unconscious. At least Tony hopes he is just unconscious. No matter whether the man was hired to attack him or not, Tony does not want any more blood on his hands.

He stares as Natasha reaches down and secures the man’s hands behind his back with zip ties. That is good, Tony thinks. Surely, she would not do that with a corpse.

“Are you hurt?” Natasha asks even while she is cataloguing the blood on his face and the way he stands curled in on himself. “What about your driver?”

Tony opens and closes his mouth several times. He has not yet regained any control over his racing thoughts.

“Unconscious,” he manages to say.   

Natasha nods but walks over to the car nonetheless to check for herself. She sticks to the shadows to keep her face hidden in case Happy is awake by now. Tony can only watch, his phone forgotten in his hand.

Everything happened so quickly, he can barely make sense of it. The man on the ground does not look like someone sent to take Tony out. Especially not like this, with blood on his face and barely breathing. He is breathing, though, Tony notices with some relief.

Only a few moments later, Natasha is back at his side. She does not say anything, so Tony guesses Happy’s status has not changed. He should ask, but then she puts an arm around his waist and gently pulls him back towards the car. Tony’s legs move before he can make up his mind whether he wants to snap at her to stop touching him. It is certainly the shock, but he does not feel unsafe with her.

When they reach the car, Natasha guides him to sit down on the backseat, still surprisingly kind. Reaching out for his face, she turns it to inspect his wounds in the dim light. It hurts when she brushes the skin over his brow.

That pain is what brings Tony back to the present, throwing off the shock enough to move out of her immediate reach.

“What the hell was that?” he asks, not as biting as he aimed for. The dizziness is only just receding.

Natasha looks at him for a long moment, likely pondering what she is going to say. “Stane offered us five million dollars to kill you. He seemed desperate,” she finally replies, her voice impassionate as if she is not just serving Tony another blow. “It is only natural that he went looking somewhere else when we declined.”

Five million, Tony thinks, wondering whether his life is worth that much. Five million to get rid of the unruly godson who could not leave well enough alone. Too late, it occurs to Tony that he should question this information. Things are strained between Obadiah and him but –

Laughter crawls up his throat, burning like his father’s old scotch. He is only making things harder for himself by still trying to find excuses. His godfather hired the mob to get his hands on Tony’s secret projects, and when Tony wrecked his business, Obadiah decided to get rid of him for good. He could have known. Tonight, in the tower, Obadiah’s behaviour was off. Turns out, Tony’s paranoia was not misguided.

“I talked to him half an hour ago,” Tony says, mostly to himself.

We’re on the same side, Obadiah has said. And then, a few minutes later, This is not over. He apparently wants it to be, though. Permanently.

“And then you were reckless enough to go out alone.” Natasha clicks her tongue, chiding him.

Of course, Tony went out alone. There was no reason to suspect Obadiah would send someone after him like this – apart from the fact that he has already done so once before.

“I didn’t think –”

All traces of pity vanish from Natasha’s eyes as she cuts him off, “Clearly.”

That has Tony’s adrenaline spiking again. He looks at her, at how she stands like nothing has happened, as if there is not an unconscious man lying somewhere behind her. She is wearing black clothes, a bulletproof vest. Her expression looks even slightly bored.

“Why do you sound so pissed?” Tony snaps, wondering how this is his life. “Do you think only you are allowed to beat me up?”

Natasha frowns at him, displeased but not surprised. “Nobody is allowed to beat you up,” she says and has the audacity to sound like she means it.

Tony remembers that quite differently, remembers how she just stood by when her friends lay into him. It is rather hypocritical of her to now care whether someone offs him out in the streets.

“Did you tell Barton that?” Tony asks.

Only now does it occur to him to wonder whether she is alone. Her sudden presence is convenient enough that she must have been following him. There could very well be someone else hiding in the background. The thought of Barton or Barnes being close has a shiver running down his back.

In front of him, Natasha shifts to fill his vision better, almost as if she knows what he has been looking for.

“You’d be surprised at how vocal he was about taking Stane out,” she says conversationally. To them, murder is likely an accepted topic for the dinner table. “He has a special arrow reserved just for him.”

Tony knows what she is doing, offering a conversation to take his mind off things, to stave off the lingering traces of panic. She needs him to compose himself before she vanishes back into the night.

“You know what? I’m not surprised at all,” Tony says. He does not want to know about any of this. “Why don’t you just leave me alone?”

He closes his eyes so he does not have to see her. Distantly, he thinks he is being ungrateful. She might have just saved his life. In any case, she saved him from whatever unpleasantness Obadiah’s hired goon had in store for him. He might have an issue with the mob shadowing him, and he will have words about that with Steve, but right now, he should be glad she was here.

“Because of those words on your arm that you all seem to put so much stock in,” Natasha replies, her voice surprisingly earnest as if she does not know Tony’s question was mostly rhetorical.

This has Tony looking up in surprise. His eyes fall unbidden on her arm, and before he can stop himself, he asks, “You don’t have any?”

Natasha’s teeth flash as she smiles at him. It looks more like a threat than anything else. With a careless motion, she rolls up her sleeve, revealing an ugly burn scar covering her forearm. “Mother Russia isn’t as sentimental as Americans.”

The air between them is tense, even after Natasha lets her sleeve down again. It does not feel like this is something she should – or would – reveal to just anyone. Tony is not sure it is a good sign that she would make an exception for him. It implicates that they are not yet done with each other, that there is no escaping this, no matter how fast Tony runs.

It is too much. He glances at Happy, who is still not moving, and then at his own hands, which are still bloody. His body is aching, but the physical pain is almost welcome since it dampens the emotional chaos inside him a bit.

How is he supposed to go on from here? How can he get over the fact that the last living member of his family just tried to have him killed?

Worse, he now owes the Avengers his life. Or he owes it to Natasha at the very least. He told Steve to keep out of this, and he has been surprisingly silent, but of course, he had someone shadowing Tony. Of course, he could not keep away completely. Tony can hardly yell at him for it since it might just be him lying zip-tied on the ground now, ready to meet his maker.

He will have to admit that his grand plan of dealing with his traitorous godfather was to hoard all the evidence until he was pushed into doing something, and then he got stopped while he was on his way to the police. He could have sent the files, could have had officers come by the tower. He could have had JARVIS lock Obadiah inside his office and make sure he could not use his phone or computer, could not communicate with the outside world to send an assassin after Tony.

He could have done any of these things, and yet he walked right into another trap. All because he is not able to stand up and deal with this like a man. Stark men are made of iron, Howard used to say. Well, they all knew that Tony ended up on the brittle end of that spectrum. Always a disappointment.

A hand on his arm startles him back to the present. He looks down, sees Natasha’s light skin contrasting with the caked blood on his. When she withdraws, he follows the movement, eyes wandering up until he meets her gaze.

“I – I can’t do this,” Tony says and is not quite sure himself what he means with this. Everything, probably.

“I understand that,” Natasha answers, still surprisingly gentle. She actually sounds like she does, too. “Steve doesn’t, although he will if you give it time.”

She thinks he is talking about the soul bond. In a way, Tony is relieved. That is far less damning than admitting that he has no idea what to do with his entire life at the moment. Compared to this, the problem with Steve appears barely worth mentioning.

Then, however, Natasha keeps talking, and it appears she has understood him better than he feared. “As for Stane, you can’t wait for him to set the next trap for you.” She speaks of a next time as if there is nothing to it. Business as usual. “You need to deal with this.”

Rubbing frantically at the dried blood on his hand, Tony says, “I’m trying to.” He does not dare to meet her eyes, unable to deal with her cool professionalism. All of this is wrong.

Natasha scoffs, but even that is not as harsh as it could be. “By carrying that folder around like it’s going to protect you?”

Yes, Tony thinks because in the world he thought he lives in people do not try to kill him, his godfather does not hate him, and Tony does not need to fear betrayal at every turn.

“That folder contains everything we have on Obadiah. Evidence,” he argues, unable to suppress the hysteria rising in his voice. “That’s what you need when you want someone to get locked up for their crimes. But of course, that’s not what you would do.” Gritting his teeth, Tony stares at Natasha in challenge. “Let me guess, you’ll say I should hire a killer of my own.”

She meets his eyes unflinchingly, showing no outward reaction that she thinks his accusation is misplaced.

“Do you want me to do it?” she asks nonchalantly, cocking her head to the side as if they are discussing the weather.

To his great shame, Tony’s first instinct is to say yes. He realizes that is borne from the aching sense of betrayal that has not let go of him since he talked to Steve after the press conference. He just wants to be done with this. He wants Obadiah gone so he can pick up the pieces of his life and his company and maybe build something new from them.

He does not want Obadiah dead, though, he realizes with equal parts relief and dismay. He maybe wants to hurt his godfather like he has been hurt, and he wants him to pay for his actions. That will not happen if Obadiah dies. 

“I knew Steve was lying when he said you don’t kill people,” Tony says, voice full of accusation. He realizes that is mostly because he wants to distract himself from the fact that he, if only for a moment, considered her offer.

“He doesn’t,” Natasha says simply. “I haven’t always been an Avenger. And that’s not all I am now, although Steve likes to think otherwise.”

Mother Russia. Secret Agencies. Spies. All of that sounds like it has come right out of a bad movie. And yet, one look at Natasha and Tony believes it without a doubt.

Straightening in the car seat as best as his protesting ribs allow, Tony says, “For the record, no, I don’t want you to kill my godfather.”

Amusement flickers over her face but is quickly replaced by the unfazed blankness from before. It should be unnerving to have her towering over him, filling the open car door, effectively trapping him. Despite that, he still feels safe with her so close.

“Then deal with it,” she says, just short of an order. “Steve might be against murder, but he will kill me if I let you commit suicide by letting your godfather take you out.”

Tony drops his gaze, wishing she would stop putting it so bluntly. There is no escaping the truth like this, but Tony is just so tired.

She appears to read his mood correctly because she takes a step back from the car. “You should call an ambulance now,” she suggests, then points at the man still lying unmoving on the street. “I’ll take care of this.”

An ambulance, right. Quickly, Tony looks towards Happy again to reassure himself that he is still there. The blood on his chin has dried and he is still too pale and still. While he fumbles with his phone, Tony scoots forwards to check for Happy’s pulse again. It is still going strong. When he turns back around, Natasha is still watching him. While neither of them says anything, she offers him a smile, so small it could easily be overlooked. It holds the same kindness her hands did.

When he finally dials emergency services, she turns around and gets to work. Once he has finished his phone call, he can only wait. He watches helplessly as Natasha puts the bike upright again and then picks up the still unconscious man as if he weighs nothing. It looks practised, how she flings the body over the seat of the bike and then climbs on herself.

“Tell the police that it was a hit and run,” she calls as she turns on the engine. It cannot be safe to drive the bike after the crash, but she does not seem to care.

“Are you going to keep following me around?” he asks, even though she should leave before the ambulance arrives. He does not care much for the Avengers, but he does not want her to be caught.

Natasha looks at him with an expression he cannot quite interpret. “Steve wants you protected.”

Tony nods, even though she does not appear to be waiting for an answer. Only when she has disappeared into the darkness, does he whisper, “Thank you.”

 


 

Happy wakes up before the ambulance gets to them, and he insists he is fine, but they still go to the hospital together since Tony knows how adrenaline can mess with one’s senses. With everything that is going wrong lately, Tony does not want anything happening to his friends on his watch.

He also does not want to go back to the tower where, only a few hours ago, Obadiah stood in front of him, making conversation while planning to have Tony killed. He did not need Natasha to tell him that he has to deal with this, and soon, but first off, he needs to make sure that Happy is all right.

A very insistent nurse bullies Tony into taking an x-ray of his ribs and then he stumbles through an explanation of why he would have a few weeks-old breaks. The doctor does not believe Tony’s tale about hazardous lab experiments. With his luck, someone is going to interpret it as a result of unsafe sex practices and write a nice article for next week’s rainbow press. It does not matter. Tony has bigger problems.

Two of the ribs are re-fractured and a nurse tapes them as efficiently as Bruce had the first time. Then she cleans the cuts in his face and on his arms before she asks whether he wants to talk to someone from their psychiatry department. His withering glare must have been answer enough for she does not mention it again.

It takes an eternity before he can get to Happy, who has a mild concussion and a broken collarbone – so much for being all right – and has to stay for at least the night. Happy greets him with as much worry as Tony is sure is visible on his own face. Bad enough that Obadiah tried to kill Tony, he endangered his friend too. That, in itself, is unforgivable.

“I am so sorry,” Tony says as he pulls a chair up to Happy’s bed. It is hard to meet Happy’s eyes, but he forces himself to.

Happy’s face is bruised, and Tony can still see the blood running even though the wounds have been cleaned and bandaged much like Tony’s own. This will be a sight he will never forget.

“Nothing to be sorry about, boss,” Happy says, aiming for a cheerful tone that ends up drowsy thanks to the pain medication the doctors gave him. Tony has refused his to keep his head as clear as possible. “You hardly arranged for that man to crash into us.”

Dismay has Tony closing his eyes briefly. He might as well have coordinated the crash himself, considering how lax he has been with his friends’ and his own safety. What did he think, facing off with Obadiah like that?

“It wasn’t an accident,” he hears himself say. By then it is too late to take the words back.

“What?” Happy asks, alert despite the pain medication.

This neither the right place nor time for this discussion. It is also unfair to unburden himself on Happy. Tony has done enough for one night.

“Don’t worry about it right now,” Tony tries to dissuade Happy, despite knowing it will never be successful.

“Boss,” Happy warns. He sits up straighter, wincing when it jostles his broken collarbone. He is wearing a sling to keep it in place, but he still should not move too much.

Reaching out, Tony pushes him gently back down. They stare at each other, and Happy silently conveys he is only going to comply if Tony starts talking.

With a sigh, Tony nods. It still takes him a long minute to gather the courage to begin. 

“That man,” he starts and trails off again. It occurs to him that he has never fully seen the guy’s face. That means he does not even know who to search for when he looks over his shoulder now. Then again, he might not need to, considering that Natasha said she was going to take care of it. It might be entirely possible that nobody is going to see that man ever again. Tony is not sure what to think about that.

“He was trying to kill me and he didn’t care about collateral damage,” Tony manages to say, then shrugs. “So, I have everything to be sorry about.”

Silence falls. This time, when Happy sits up, Tony does not stop him. He is too busy fighting his own shame.

“What happened?”

Tony has to start at the very beginning. Contrary to Pepper and Rhodey, Happy does not know about the kidnapping or the weapons deals. He certainly knew something was up, the press conference and Tony’s sudden reclusiveness made sure of that, but never any details.

The story comes out in bits and pieces, and Happy listens patiently, his expression growing stormier by the minute. It helps Tony to let it all out, pushes the loneliness back, even though he does not want to involve another friend in this. Happy is already right in the middle of it, of course.

Happy nods and frowns at all the right places, but is still too perceptive, even in pain and on medication. “Where did the guy go?”

If Happy had woken up just a little bit later, they could have avoided this question. Like this, Tony has to explain how he did not just avoid the assassination attempt but also cleared the crime scene, all while injured and in shock, in the little time before Happy regained consciousness.

Tony is not sure how much he wants to tell. It is time, he guesses, to come clean. To tell Rhodey and Pepper too about Steve and the Avengers, about his soulmate and why everything is going wrong lately.

“Someone helped,” Tony says evasively, unable to truly commit to the truth right now. “They –”

A glare from Happy is enough to cut him off. “Someone just happened to come by, save you, and get rid of the evidence?” he questions, full of scepticism. “Just like that.”

Fighting the urge to pull his knees up to make himself smaller, Tony stares at the sling covering Happy’s chest, the ultimate proof of where secrets got them. 

“The group that kidnapped me –” he begins, then shrugs. “We’ve come to an understanding when they realized I wasn’t who they really wanted.”

He is obviously not ready to come clean. This whole soulmate business just makes everything more complicated.

Happy is silent for a long moment, his expression stony. With a sigh, he then nods. “Are you all right, boss?”

“I –” Tony swallows, surprised that he would be allowed to get off this easily. This is not the end of it, of course, but Pepper would have never accepted this non-answer. “You’re the one with the concussion.”

Happy reaches out and clasps Tony’s arm as if Tony is the one who needs comfort here, as if it is not him who is at fault for this entire miserable situation. “That’s not what I mean, and you know it.”

“I’m dealing with it, Happy,” Tony says, forcing his expression into something far more confident than he feels. There is no escaping that anymore. “I’m – not all right, but I’ll get there.”

That is what he has been promising himself for decades. As long as he can remember, really. First, when he tried to escape Howard’s teachings, then while working on overcoming his parents’ deaths. Through hundreds of scathing articles and bad encounters. Through alcohol and reckless exploits. Through acting like someone he does not recognize in the mirror.

“So you have all the evidence,” Happy says, not quite letting it go after all. “In the folder you were clinging to earlier?”

As if it can actually protect you, Natasha’s mocking voice adds in Tony’s ear, although she has been nothing but kind during their entire encounter. He will have to deal with the emotional repercussion of that too, at some point. For now, the Avengers are not at all just monsters anymore.

Pushing all of that far down – he can barely deal with the emotional whiplash of Obadiah not turning out as the person Tony thought him to be without adding the Avengers to the mix – Tony nods. There might be blood on that folder now, but he has digital copies and no more excuses.

“Have JARVIS send it. Preferably right now,” Happy all but orders, likely recognizing Tony’s indecisiveness.

“It’s not so –” Tony protests, despite knowing the time for that has passed.

“Boss,” Happy warns. His tone is not accusing, and yet Tony feels chastised. “This is not a game anymore.”

It never was a game, of course, and yet Tony was searching for a way to win this. In the end, it was only ever a question of how much he is going to lose.

Tony nods, defeated in a way he should not feel. There was never any going back from this. When Obadiah first hired the Avengers, he had sealed his fate. Perhaps even when he sold the first weapon under the table.

Briefly, Tony wonders whether he should call Pepper. It was late when he left the tower, so she should have already been at home. The need to check up on her is pressing, but at the same time, he does not want to alert her. If he calls her from the hospital, she will insist to come. Everybody close to him is in danger for now. He cannot allow that, not after hurting Happy.

“And you’ll need better security,” Happy continues, satisfied for now with Tony’s acquiescence.

If Tony stays in his tower for the foreseeable future, he will not have to put someone else in the line of fire. Yet he knows that Happy is right, just as Steve was before. If Obadiah offered five million to take Tony out, someone is bound to try it again.

“I know someone,” Tony says, putting it on his ever-growing mental to-do list.

“Not JARVIS,” Happy protests, knowing Tony too well. “You can’t go anywhere alone if that bastard is trying again.”

When the use of bastard has an immediate urge to protest rising in Tony, he almost laughs. They are way past the point of pretence, and yet Tony’s heart does not seem to get with the program.

“I’m on it, I promise,” he says and means it, even if he did not know that Happy will involve Pepper in this the moment Tony is out of earshot.

“Give me their name,” Happy demands, clearly not trusting Tony to act in his best interest. Or perhaps he is trying to make up for the fact that Tony was almost killed on his watch. “I’ll vet them.”

Tony shakes his head, but he manages to smile while doing so. “You concentrate on getting better. He’s ex-military. I’ll ask Rhodey to look into him.”

He hopes that Thor Odinson will live up to his godly name and put Tony’s mind to rest. At least for as long as it takes to finally take down his treacherous godfather.

Chapter Text

It turns out that Pepper has already been notified of what happened. Tony is too tired to ask whether it was JARVIS or Happy or someone at the hospital. He is just glad that he does not have to come home to an empty penthouse where he would have to be alone with his thoughts.

Pepper is pacing when the elevator doors open to let Tony out. When she looks up and recognizes him, relief spreads from her in waves. For a moment, they simply muster each other, looking for wounds or obvious signs of distress. Tony does not like that Pepper is here instead of safe at home but the sight of her has a feeling of warmth settle around his shoulders.

Time starts moving again, and Pepper hurries towards him like she needs to touch him to makes sure he is real.

“Tony,” she says, and the world already feels much kinder with her looking out for him. “Are you all right?”

A grimace spreads on Tony’s face, which might be what stops Pepper from pulling him into a hug. He wants to be disappointed but shrugs it off. She is here, that has to be enough.

“I’m – no,” he admits. He thinks he has never been less all right. “But I’ll be fine.”

That is what he does, going forward no matter what happens. Putting on a smile and making sure nobody sees him break. That might be the best and hardest lesson Howard taught him.

“How could this happen?” Pepper asks, taking on an urgency that has Tony wincing. It is his fault, after all. He could have stopped this from happening, could have kept Happy safe. “I’m sorry.”

Shaking his head, Tony pulls his shoulders back, standing up as straight as he can. “It’s all right,” he says, his firm tone making up for what he lacks in conviction.

“Tony, it’s not –” Pepper interrupts herself, likely realizing how little words will help at this point.

She finally steps forwards and simply pulls Tony into her arms, standing strong where he sags slightly into her warmth. The world does not seem as harsh when he has someone else helping to hold him up. He has not even noticed that he does not feel safe in his own skin before.

Tony has the best of friends. Pepper, who puts up with all of his shenanigans, his unreliability, his inability to stick to his friends. Rhodey, who has kept him sane and whole since MIT. Happy, who did not have to adopt the maniac billionaire hiring him on a whim.

They are his family. More so than Obadiah. The betrayal still hurts, but he is not alone, does not have to deal with this on his own.

They stay like this for some minutes until Tony feels like he can hold himself together on his own again. When they part, Pepper squeezes his shoulder in an unspoken promise of being there for him whenever he needs her.

Tony feels like he can breathe much easier again. There is still something he has to deal with, though. 

“JARVIS,” he asks as they walk off towards the living room. “Where is Obie?” He keeps his voice strong, fights the urge to leave this problem for the next morning.

“He is not currently in the tower,” JARVIS answers. He sounds disappointed as much as angry, as if he would have liked nothing more than to test just how far the in-built security measures in the tower would allow him to go. “He left a few minutes after you.”

Perhaps Obadiah was not so sure his plan would succeed then, or he was smart enough to realize he needed to get out of the way of Pepper and JARVIS until Tony was dealt with and he could take over.

“He’s gone,” Pepper adds, looking like she has overturned every desk in the tower as if Obadiah is the kind to hide underneath them. “I’ve asked his assistant but he doesn’t know anything.”

Tony squashes the instant relief blossoming in his chest. He does not want to come face to face with his godfather no matter that he has to at some point.

“Take a look at his schedule,” Tony orders, although he is sure that will not reveal anything. Obadiah has not left the tower on official business, he is running away.

“Nothing in there, sir,” JARVIS says.

Standing in the middle of the living room, Tony is torn between wanting to lie down and to storm off and do – something. He could go through Obadiah’s office himself, could work out what allies he has and who he would likely depend on to disappear. There has to be something he can find and use.

The solution might be even simpler than that. Tony nods, ready to throw himself headfirst into disaster, and says, “I should probably call him.”

Absolute silence falls for a short minute, in which Tony is convinced this is the way forward. Obadiah is too proud, too used to being in control to not pick up if Tony were to call him, especially since he is supposed to be dead or captured right now. It will be a painful conversation, but one that can help them if Tony plays his cards right.

He should have known that blurting out this idea within earshot of Pepper would not end well.

“Or you can do the sensible thing,” she snaps turning on him as if she is prepared to physically hold him back, “and hand your evidence over so the police can do their work.”

“He was willing to spend five million to have me killed,” Tony says, although he is already faltering.

Pepper is right. Going after Obadiah will just make things worse. Obadiah probably counts on Tony being stupid. They have known each other long enough that Obadiah is aware of all of Tony’s weaknesses. He has nurtured them, too, all these years.

“One more reason to stay out of the way,” Pepper says, reaching out to put a hand on his arm. Her touch is light, even though she looks like she would want to dig her fingers in to keep him in place. “You should - You’re not going to do anything stupid?”

Tony almost laughs. When has he ever not done something stupid? “I promise,” he says nonetheless. “I just need to find out where Obie might have gone. I’ll stay safe, I won’t go after him.”

Pepper does not believe him, but Tony does not quite believe himself either. Within a matter of days, everything has changed. Tony’s trust has been shaken, his worldview has been upended. He needs to figure out how to go on from here, even though he barely manages to stay on his feet, much less take the first step.

Tony ushers Pepper out not long after that. He makes sure someone accompanies her home and stands guard outside her apartment. While he does not want to think that Obadiah would target his friends, he will not take any chances either.  He has underestimated his godfather for long enough.

 


 

Alone in his bedroom, Tony does not think he can sleep. He reaches for his phone, half-expecting to find a dozen missed calls and messages from Steve. Instead, there is just one.

Please tell me when you made it home.

Considering their history, this is almost dismissive, and Tony does not believe for one second that Steve is calm about what happened. For one, Tony’s arm is burning with an intensity that has nothing to do with the lingering effects of the crash. He also knows Steve a bit by now, can almost feel him pacing in their base, agonizing over every minute of silence.

It is not Tony’s job to reassure a mob boss, whether he is his soulmate or not, but he finds himself pulling up Steve’s contact nonetheless. He tells himself it does not mean anything, that this is more the bond’s doing than his own choice. Things will not go smoothly, and Steve is not entirely an ally, but Tony feels he does not have to pretend with him, if only because Steve has already seen him at his lowest.

Steve picks up before the first ring is over and that, in itself, is a relief.

“How are you?” Steve asks, sounding breathless. “Are you hurt?”

Natasha surely reported everything to him already, so he should know that Tony is all right. Physically at least.

“I’m fine,” Tony says, aiming for a dismissive tone but it falls flat.

Now that he is talking to Steve, it does not seem like such a good idea anymore. They are constantly moving in circles while Tony wants to leave all of this behind. Weapons and traitorous godfathers and soulmates he cannot trust. He is stuck, though.

“Natasha says your driver was hurt?” Steve continues hurriedly. “Is he –”

“Also fine,” Tony replies, feeling slightly mollified that Steve would think of Happy too. This way, it seems like this is not just about them being involuntary soulmates. Everything’s –”

“Not fine,” Steve finishes for him when Tony trails off, and Tony does not correct him. “Someone tried to kill you.”

There it is again, put so bluntly. Steve does not manage it in as calm a tone as Natasha did, however. The traces of panic in his voice coalesce into something almost physical. Like Steve is as pained by the fact that someone actually went after Tony as Tony is by the revelation that his godfather is not holding back anymore.

“Well, they didn’t,” Tony says. His voice sounds strange. Still miffed that Steve had him followed, and stricken that it was needed. “You made sure of that.”

Steve hesitates for a minute, growing quiet enough that Tony fears he might have hung up. Then, though, he exhales loudly and Tony is not sure why is relieved at that.

“I hope you don’t expect me to apologize for that,” Steve says but sounds cautious.

Tony does not, but this is still easier to concentrate on than the memory of their car spinning out of control and Obadiah’s voice calling this is not over in the back of his mind.

“Tell me, did you send Barnes after me too?” Tony asks, his tone sharp although he wants to stumble over the name. “And Barton? Because I’d feel so very protected if you did.”

His sarcasm echoes, even while he remembers staring into the darkness of the street, wondering who else was lurking there, friend or foe.

He is not sure what to think about Barnes and Barton. He is afraid of their fists and their anger, and that their policy appears to consist of punch first, ask later. When Natasha offered to kill Obadiah, Tony’s first instinct had been to say yes, picturing Obadiah being taken down, wishing to get a hit in too for all these years of lies. Does that not mean he is just as bad as Steve and his friends?

What if Happy had died in that car? What if Obadiah had touched Pepper? What if his weapons had torn down Tony’s home and family, and he had years to nurse that grief into anger?

The part of Tony that is not curling up in pain still wants to take down Obadiah. He wants to ruin his name, destroy his life, make sure he will never get back any kind of standing where he can hurt others. That is just another scale of beating someone up. That Obadiah is actually guilty of these crimes does not make it more justified.

“Bucky wants to apologize,” Steve says, pulling Tony back to the present.

The abrupt change of topic renders Tony speechless. At least that is what he tells himself so he does not have to admit that Steve’s sheer audacity to bring this up now has him reeling.

“Not going to happen,” Tony says shortly, secretly relishing the way this has his anger flickering back to life. He is sure Steve did not plan for that, but it pushes Tony out of the pitiable whirlwind of coping with Obadiah’s actions. 

“He’s –” Steve tries to explain himself, but Tony is not ready for that. Especially since he has just thought that Barnes and Barton’s reaction was not that incomprehensible.

“Drop it, Steve.” Tony wonders why he thought it would be a good idea to call Steve. He does not want to argue, yet that is all they ever do. He is not in the mood for forgiveness either.

Perhaps Steve feels Tony’s current susceptibility, or he is simply too stubborn to give up, but he naturally does not drop the topic. “I’m not saying this because he is my best friend or because I expect you to fall into each other’s arms –”

“How generous of you,” Tony drawls, and feels a little bit more alive again at least. The worst thing that can happen to him now is apathy.

“But he’s a good person, and it eats him up that he hurt you like that,” Steve continues, sounding desperate enough that Tony believes him. “He just wants to tell you that.”

Tony can imagine how that conversation would go. He would clam up, pull up his masks, and destroy whatever goodwill he gathered with the Avengers with a few pointed remarks. That is if he even wanted to play nice with them instead of keeping as much distance between them as possible.

Keeping these thoughts to himself, Tony asks, “What? Because you’ve got evidence now that I wasn’t the bad guy?”

He does not need to see Steve to know he is frowning in that way where he is not pleased with where the conversation is going while not knowing how to redirect it.

“He’s been the first of us to see sense, except for Bruce,” Steve argues. He even remains calm about it. “He’s been hurt before, badly, and it didn’t matter whether you were guilty or not, he regrets that night more than anything else.”

Tony is not sure what to say to that. Steve sounds like he believes what he is saying, but Tony does not know Bucky Barnes. He does not know any of them apart from the arguments he has had with Steve and the more amiable conversations with Bruce. He cannot make sense of any of them.

Even if he knew them, even if he knew without a doubt that Barnes regretted that night, could he forgive what happened? It was such an act of directionless violence, following no other need than the one to push down one’s inner bitterness and hurt someone with whatever methods available. Tony is sure that, in that warehouse, he was not a person to them, just an abstract concept of all their pain made flesh. He pities them for it, but that does not mean he can forget it.

“What about Barton?” Tony asks in a cutting tone. That is what he does when he does not know how to go on, he lashes out. “I’m sure he’s desperate to grovel before me too.”

“Clint is complicated,” Steve says with a sigh, sounding like he, too, has some problems with Barton. “He feels guilty too, though. I just don’t think he’s ready to say it yet.” Yet or ever, Tony thinks but allows Steve to keep talking. “He hasn’t followed you because we knew you wouldn’t want him close. But he’ll protect you, same as all of us.”

That is not as reassuring as Steve wants it to be. “What if I need protection from you?” Tony questions and means it. He needs to know that Steve will truly back off if Tony wants him too. Not this half-hearted dance they have kept up until now.

“That would be Bruce’s part,” Steve answers. More quietly, he adds, “And mine if you’ll let me.”

Tony does not know how to take that. The soul bond inside him hums, almost content with where they are going. He is in no position to make any decisions now, emotionally banged up and his ability to trust all but shattered. He wants to believe this feeling inside him just as much as he does not want to put himself into somebody else’s hands.

“Tell Barnes to send a text if he’s serious,” Tony finally says, extending an olive branch, because it will surely be better to garner some more goodwill. “I’m sure you shared my number with all your buddies anyway.”

Getting a new number will not take any effort at all if it becomes necessary.

“I didn’t,” Steve says firmly to Tony’s surprise.

“A postcard is okay too,” Tony replies, too tired to think about semantics. They have found him once, they will be able to do so again. “The tower is hard to miss, even without an address.”

“Is that a yes?” Steve asks, unable to take what he is given but always wanting more.

Tony thinks about talking to Barnes and realizes he would still prefer that to seeing his godfather again. “Just keep Barton away from me.”

“I want you to be safe,” Steve says, not clarifying what he means with that. Considering that they are mostly getting along at the moment, Tony is willing to leave it at that and give Steve the benefit of the doubt.

“I’m trying,” Tony replies, smoothly changing the topic. The Barnes tangent might have been a distraction, but Steve is going to want to know about Obadiah and why Tony let it come so far that he got another hit in. “We’re handing over the evidence in the morning. Then it’s up to the authorities to find Obie.”

There is a pause at the other end, then Steve asks in a strangely choked tone, “He’s gone then?” It is a mixture of worry and anger and determination that Tony does not know what to do with.

“Right before he sent an assassin after me,” Tony says, baring his teeth at the empty air in front of him in an attempt to act nonchalant. It barely resembles a smile. He used to be better at fooling people – and himself. “At least he’s stopped trying to look innocent.”

It is ridiculous to try to find a silver lining about this whole business. There is no way to make this any less damning or less painful.

“He will be found,” Steve all but promises, and Tony is just glad that he does not say that the Avengers will find Obadiah. That might solve a lot of his problems, but Tony has to face Obadiah again, no matter that he does not want to. Emerging from this without another, entirely too visible crack will be hard enough.

This is the point to end the call. Tony has said everything he wanted to say and some more. He is not sure how to feel about Barnes or what he might still need from Steve, but his hand stays up and keeps the phone against his ear, refusing to hang up. He cannot even blame it on the arm with the soulmate developing its own mind, because he is holding the phone in his other hand, pressing the soul mark against his belly as if that is going to dampen the sensations from it.

“How do you do it?” Tony asks before he knows what he is doing.

Asking questions he does not know what kind of answer to expect to is a dangerous thing. Especially where emotions are involved, whether they are fully his own or not.

“Do what?” Steve asks with obvious trepidation. He, too, knows that Tony would have normally hung up at this point. It should be counted in Steve’s favour that he is as nervous about it as Tony himself. It is Steve who initiated all of their previous contacts, so Tony’s sudden proactiveness is strange to the both of them.

“How do you go after your criminals without seeing their human side behind that?” Tony is grasping for straws to explain his restlessness. “How do you hold on to only the bad things people did while ignoring the good?”

Good is naturally a matter of definition. Looking back, every interaction Tony ever had with Obadiah appears tainted, driven by Obadiah’s greed and his wish to get the next figurehead of Stark Industries under his thumb. It was ridiculously easy to gain Tony’s loyalty. A few kind words, a smile, some encouragement to keep Tony building. Shame pools in Tony’s chest as he has to admit how gullible he was. Perhaps still is.

“Guilt and innocence do not work like a scale,” Steve answers after some hesitation. “You can’t just erase the bad.”

It is as generic an answer as Tony has feared he would get. Worse, it is the kind of thing people tell themselves to be able to sleep at night, knowing deep down that what they are doing might not hold up against a thorough moral questioning.

“So everybody who has ever done mistakes is doomed?” Tony asks, even though he is not in the mood for an ethical discussion. He just wants to calm his mind a bit without knowing how.

“If they don’t feel guilty about it,” Steve says slowly, clearly not knowing where this is going. Tony does not know either, but he does not want to be alone with his thoughts right now.

“Guilt can make up for crimes but reparation cannot?”

It becomes obvious then, that they could be talking about wildly different things. Tony might have started this to try and figure out what to do with his godfather, how to deal with this betrayal despite years of encouragement and aid before that – even if those were their own form of manipulation.

The same questions could be asked about Steve, who allowed Tony to be hurt, or the Avengers, whose entire line of business leans towards being shady, no matter their intentions. It could even apply to Tony himself, who was blind for so long as to what is happening with his weapons. Not knowing something is hardly an excuse when it should have been his job to know and stop it.

“I don’t think it can be called reparation if you do it without feeling remorse for what you did,” Steve says, and Tony has to give him credit for taking the matter seriously. They both have more important things to do on a night like this than talk philosophy. “You can’t make up for something if you don’t think it was wrong. Doing good things shouldn’t be calculated.”

Guilt is such a fickle thing, though. It is entirely subjective and in no way a guarantee that one will not repeat their mistakes. Tony does not know what to do with his guilt to keep it from swallowing him whole.

Taking a deep breath, Tony asks a question he is not sure he wants to hear the answer to, even while thinking he has known it all along. “Do you feel guilty for how we met?”

Without any hesitation, Steve answers, “Every day.”

Tony does not know what to say, does not know how to feel when, in the safety of his mind, he admits that he might believe it. That will only lead to him needing to make more decisions, to him needing to treat the future as something already close enough to touch, and he is not ready for that.

“Goodnight, Steve,” Tony says, nearly overwhelmed by a new wave of tiredness. He might still not be able to sleep, but he at least feels ready enough to try now.

There is a slight pause that Tony is sure means that Steve will fall into another speech about how Tony needs to stay safe, asking what he is going to do and whether he will stay in contact. Another barrage of apologies.

In the end though, Steve just says, “Goodnight, Tony.” With a click, the call disconnects.

Putting down the phone on his nightstand, Tony lies down, making himself small beneath his blanket, and tries to not think of godfathers or soulmates. He sleeps.

 


 

When the call disconnects, Steve keeps the phone against his ears for long minutes, trying to make sense of what might be going through Tony’s head and how he is feeling about it.

Ever since Natasha reported in the attempted hit on Tony, Steve has been restless, only held back from rushing out by Bruce, who talked him out of doing something stupid, and Clint, who ventured out to go to Natasha’s aid.

It is a relief to know that Tony is safely at home, but this entire business is far from over. The guy going after Tony was not an amateur, but he was not the best either. Considering how seldom Tony steps out of the tower these days, the would-be-assassin messed up his chance by not going in harder, by trying too hard to make it look like an accident. The next person Stane hires might not do that mistake.

Steve hates that he is thinking that way. This is about Tony. His soulmate. A man he wronged gravely. It is not his place to protect Tony, but Steve feels responsible nonetheless.

Getting to his feet, Steve knows he needs to do something if he does not want to go crazy. That Tony all but started a discussion about morals with him is a clear sign that he is not all right. And who would be? His godfather is out to kill him, his company has to be cleansed and rebuild, his soulmate is the kind of person that makes it unlikely there will ever be peace between them.

Perhaps he should find Bruce and ask for help about how to go forward. That would be the more sensible approach than to exhaust himself in the gym.

Walking out into the hallway, he does not get very far, stopping at Bucky’s door, which is propped open. Things are still awkward between them. They will get through this without doubt, having been friends for too long to give up on each other now. 

Steve knocks lightly on the door before stepping in. Bucky sits at his desk, a book in hand, which he lowers upon recognizing Steve.

“You look upset,” he says by way of greeting, no judgement in his tone, although everything they have done lately could be judged unfavourably.

Steve takes his time to answer while he makes his way over to the bed and sits down on the edge. Tony is almost more of a sore subject with Bucky than it is with the rest of them. Perhaps Steve should refer Tony to Bucky the next time he wants to talk about guilt and doing good.

“I talked to Tony,” Steve then says but trails off when Bucky’s expression becomes harder, less open.

Bucky looks down at his book as he puts it down on the desk, taking the time to arrange it neatly. “That is apparently all you do these days,” he says, his tone carefully flat.

Irritation flares up inside Steve. Considering that he would have liked nothing more than to rush out the minute they learned about Stane, and even more so since the assassination attempt earlier, he thinks he is handling this quite well.

“All of you told me to back off, and now it’s somehow wrong?” Steve questions, tired of never getting anything right anymore.

“You’re not backing off, though,” Bucky argues immediately, eyes piercing into Steve. “You have him shadowed, you constantly call him –”

“Tony called me,” Steve cuts him off. He is equal parts miffed and mollified at the way Bucky perks up, visibly surprised.

“What?”

When they were younger, Steve was used to being underestimated or dismissed. He has proven himself since then, most of all to his friends. This constant doubt between them, the tension in the air, feels like acid against his skin. They are a team, till the end of the line. Sometimes, it feels like they have reached that end. 

“When did I turn into the bad guy here, Buck?” Steve questions, voice turning out more desperate than planned. “I thought we were on the same side.”

In front of him, Bucky deflates. He still holds his shoulders in too tense a line, but his expression slackens into something tired and doubtful.

“I don’t even know what side we’re on anymore,” he says quietly and does not mean it as a jab against Steve. Everything that has happened over the past weeks is catching up with them. Getting hired to steal from Stark, which stoked all their old anger and hurt Unleashing said anger only to push them farther down that spiral of doubts. Learning they were wrong and not knowing how to deal with it.

If he was feeling more comfortable in his own skin right now, Steve would have tried to reassure Bucky. As it is, they are both feeling adrift.

“Well, Tony called me,” Steve repeats as if that is going to make either of them feel better. At the very least, it gives them new things to plan for. “Stane is gone. He slipped Clint when Natasha called him for help to deal with the attacker. Tony does not know where he is either.”

Bucky nods as if that is not an inconvenience. They knew it would not be easy to get Stane once he was given some room to wriggle himself free, but Steve still regrets not needling Tony into acting sooner. It would have led to more tension between them, but at least Tony would have been safer.

“Is he all right?” Bucky asks, although they both know the answer.

Even without hearing Tony’s voice just now, Steve can feel the grief radiating through the soul bond, the feeling of being lost.

“I told him that you want to apologize,” Steve says instead of reiterating feelings they are both too familiar with.

That was another mistake, however, judging on the way Bucky’s eyes narrow as he glares. “Steve,” he barks, the name alone an admonishment. “I said I would like to if it were feasible, but considering the way we met it’s better if I keep as far away from him as possible.”

It might have been bad timing, that is true, but Tony needs more people in his corner, and the Avengers can be just that if only they could put aside their differences to deal with the matter at hand. Steve is not naïve enough to believe that everything will be all right just like that, but they do have a common enemy right now, and Tony’s well-being is a top priority to him.

“He didn’t say no,” Steve offers but drops his gaze when Bucky’s glare gets worse.

“That means he didn’t say yes either,” Bucky replies in a sharp tone. Somewhat calmer, he adds, “We need to leave him alone.”

That is what they have been saying from the very beginning. Bruce and Bucky and even Natasha. How can Steve let go of this, though? Tony is his soulmate, but there is more to it. It is the bond promising that they will fit in with each other, but it is also an ingrained part of what makes Steve human that he needs to make sure he did not leave Tony worse for wear. He does not want all the interaction he ever had with Tony to end up doing him more damage.

“I can’t,” Steve says, unsure how to put these feelings into words. “I don’t know what to do. I can’t just let him go. Even less now than before. He’s in danger.”

Knowing that Tony is out there is like an itch between Steve’s shoulder blades that he cannot reach but refuses to leave alone all the same.

“Do you know what your problem is?” Bucky asks, going from tired to angry too quickly to see. “You think that bond of yours means you have some kind of right to him, that he’ll have to forgive you because you’re meant to be.”

That is not what Steve feels. This is not about ending up with Tony anymore but about keeping him safe. He feels everything Tony feels, no matter that it is dampened and blurred. Tony’s restlessness sits under Steve’s skin as if it is his own.

Steve is not going to argue that things are as they should be. None of this evolved naturally – but soulmates as a whole are not natural. This is not a matter of choice. It was thrust upon the both of them and now they have to make the best of it. For now, that is looking out for each other.

“You don’t know how it feels,” Steve tries to explain, despite the futility of it. “It’s always there. I can’t leave Tony alone when some part of me is always reminding me of his existence, always pulling me towards him. This is not love, it’s just – sheer need. I can’t –” He breaks off, does not look up from his arm. “You wouldn’t get it.”

“Why?” Bucky asks, voice sounding dangerous, causing Steve’s head to shoot up. “Because someone blew my arm off before I could meet my soulmate?”

Nobody knows whether that will keep the soul bond from forming. Steve almost constantly feels the words on his arm, but the bond has settled right in his core too. The arm is nothing but a display of the words, not the anchor necessary for the bond to take hold. Bucky remembers his words, and his match likely still has their words too.

Steve understands the sentiment, however. Losing the words is like losing a part of the future. Even though not everybody meets their soulmates, as long as the words are visible, they know someone is out there for them. They have grieved the loss of that before.

“Because you haven’t met them,” Steve says firmly. He has not meant this as an insult. “Because your head is still your own.”

When Bucky scoffs, it becomes obvious that they are not going to agree on this topic. Not now, and perhaps not ever if Bucky never meets his soulmate.

“Our heads haven’t been our own since the first time someone shot at us,” Bucky argues. He is not completely wrong about that, but this is a different kind of madness. “That’s not what I’m talking about. People used to praise you for your ability to strategize. Well, I think you’ve never been this stupid before.”

True enough, Steve has never felt this much out of depth. It is not even for the obvious reasons. Tony is a billionaire, a business man, a genius. He can build things with his hands that Steve does not even begin to grasp. Their cultural and intellectual differences alone would make this difficult. Yet, they will likely never get a chance to try to navigate that, thanks to Steve messing up before they even met.

“This is not about any possible relationship with Tony,” Steve insists and means it. “This is about him being in danger. You can hardly expect me to turn my back on him while his godfather wants him dead.”

Bucky nods, although it is not fully a concession. “If he never wants to talk to you again, you have to give him that,” he says, his tone very matter-of-fact, although that does not make it hurt any less. “We assaulted him, broke his bones and threw him out like trash. You turning all cocky on him afterwards didn’t help.”

Steve knows that. They have talked it through. When he lies awake at night and has stopped worrying, he cannot think about anything else.

“What if he never calls again?” Steve asks and barely recognizes the voice as his. It is too small, echoing with desperation.

Bucky meets his eyes unflinchingly, leaving him no escape. “Then you’ll have to live with that.”

That is the whole ugly truth. And yet. “I don’t know if I can.”

Sometimes, when the soul bond is quieter than usual, Steve wonders if it would be so bad if they went their separate ways. He has not been lacking anything before Tony was thrust in front of him. He was happy, had a goal in life. Why should he not be able to return to that?

He probably has to and he will manage it, but the way there will be long and hard. People have gone mad from losing their soulmate. Never meeting one’s soulmate at all would be kinder than to be rejected by them, even if Steve brought it down on himself.

“Well, I’m pretty sure Tony cannot imagine living with you,” Bucky replies, not unkindly but with a firmness that is not to be denied. “It’s up to you to decide whether you want to put your own needs over his. I mean, that would just continue the trend you set.”

Steve winces, dropping his eyes to his hands. “I’m sorry,” he says, wishing Tony could hear it too.

With a sigh, the hardness drains out of Bucky, leaving him to look simply tired once more. “I know you are, Stevie,” he says. “We all are.”

Being sorry will not make anything right. Keeping Tony alive and giving him space might. There is nothing else to do but try.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Tony’s body feels exactly like it has been in a car crash. His ribs hurt with a vengeance, his head pounds, and pain flares up in his neck with every movement. He has gathered some new bruises too that he looks at in the mirror, wondering what to do with all the pain his godfather doled out to him. Every thought circles back to Obadiah. It is hard to believe that, mere weeks ago, Tony’s life was simple and in control.

All night, he has been thinking about where he went wrong, what made Obadiah betray him. Tony has caused a lot of problems for everybody he knows, scandals and bad PR and near fatal decisions where he completely ignored his health for momentary satisfaction. He refuses to believe that is the sole reason for he has been like that, in one way or another, all his life. Something must have been the breaking point where Obadiah decided that Tony is more trouble than he is worth. Tony is not even sure he really wants to know because what if it is simply him being himself? How is he going to go on and look his friends in the eyes without wondering when it will be too much for them too?

When Tony emerges from his room, Pepper is already there. She has taken over the couch table in the living room, plastered it with papers and tablets as she works to keep Tony’s company from floundering. As soon as she notices him enter, all her attention shifts to him, the work in front of her forgotten as she never usually manages. He must look bad, then.

“How are you?” she asks and pats the couch next to her.

When Tony hesitates, she points at a thermos that is presumably full of coffee as if she knew he would try to get out of the conversation with the excuse of needing to go to the kitchen first. He still could. Something to eat would probably do him good as well, even while the nausea yesterday’s events caused has not yet passed.

“I’m –” Fine dies on his tongue, withering under Pepper’s concerned gaze and his own inability to keep hiding. “Getting there,” he finishes lamely, although it feels like he has not moved forward a single step since this whole sorry business started. Instead, he is just digging a bigger hole for himself.

Pepper nods, reserving judgement for the moment. She gestures more forcefully for him to sit down and then just waits until he does so. That does not bode well for him. Either she has bad news and does not want him to be standing for it or she has questions. Tony is not sure which would be worse.

As soon as he is sitting, he reaches out for the thermos but falters halfway there when Pepper speaks.

“Your story does not make much sense.”

She looks serious about it too, her lips pressed into a bloodless line, her eyes narrowed. Her expression is not exactly accusing, but she has clearly pulled herself together last night and decided to ask some long overdue questions.

“What?” Tony croaks, his throat suddenly dry. He wishes she would have waited until after his first sip of coffee at least. Then he would not have been caught this off guard, which is probably exactly why she started immediately.

“Stane sends an assassin after you, but someone from the group that kidnapped you just happens to pass by and help out?” Pepper reiterates, scepticism painfully audible in every syllable.

The game is up. Tony is not sure why he would still want to protect the Avengers after all that transpired between them. Although, of course, several reasons come to his mind immediately.

They got him the first pieces of evidence that Obadiah betrayed him. They saved his life. They pose an option for – something that Tony does not actually want to think about but is secretly glad to have available nonetheless. Lastly, Steve is his soulmate. As much as Tony fights against it, that is a ridiculous argument to bring, but the number of people he can trust has just shrunk down again, and while he does not actually trust Steve, he is reasonably sure that Steve means what he is saying about wanting to protect Tony.

Taking a deep breath, Tony does pick up the thermos and takes several sips of coffee before he fully looks at Pepper. His tongue burns thanks to the scalding coffee, but he is glad for it. It might make the words pass easier over his lips.

“They didn’t just pass by,” Tony says, then stops, wondering how he is going to resolve this without making things worse.

Pepper’s frown deepens. “So they are still after you too?”

She sounds ready to get up and deal with that for him. From her point of view, that problem must be far easier to deal with than Obadiah. To Tony, it is just one big interwoven ball of problems, getting bigger by the minute, threatening to suffocate him.

“No,” Tony says firmly and, strangely, does not doubt it. “We – I didn’t tell you everything about them.”

“I gathered,” Pepper remarks dryly. Her expression does not change. Straightening, as if to prepare herself for more bad news, she asks, “So what is it? Is it someone we know?”

Tony is not ready for this. Clinging to his thermos, he says, “We should call Rhodey.”

That will potentially be disastrous. He could barely keep Rhodey from coming here over the issues with Obadiah. Throwing in Tony’s soulmate, who hurt him and now does not leave him alone, will activate all of Rhodey’s protectiveness until there is no more escaping it.

“Don’t try to deflect, Tony,” Pepper says, tired of half-truths and ever more reasons to worry.

“I’m not,” Tony lies, trying his best to keep his face open as if she does not have years of experience reading him. “I just don’t want to tell this twice.”

Once will be hard enough. Tony is not even sure how to begin, how to justify his decision to stay in contact with Steve. It is in no way sensible, and Tony does not want to as much as he feels he needs to. Fate is such a fickle master.

“All right,” Pepper exclaims in a tone that means nothing but trouble for Tony. “Let’s call him right now. JARVIS, if you would be so kind.”

Tony should have seen that coming from a mile away. “I don’t –” he tries to protest, but JARVIS has been watching him agonize over this too long, so it is no surprise he takes initiative when given the chance.

“Of course, Ms. Potts,” JARVIS says, sounding eager enough.

A moment later, the dial tone fills the air and the television in front of them powers up automatically for an impromptu video call conference. With Pepper present, Tony has to keep his body language as nonchalant as he can anyway, but two sets of eyes always see more than one, especially since Rhodey has had some more practice in times when Tony’s acting skills where not as refined. 

“Tony,” Rhodey greets when he picks up, already looking worried. Calls from Tony have never resulted in good news lately. Then his eyes fall on Pepper and he turns all the more serious. “And Pepper. What happened?”

Tony needs to get this under control before Pepper can make it unnecessarily harder on him. “You wound me, platypus,” he says, a bit too loud to be subtle, but he is desperate and working with what little he has got here. “Can’t we just call our friend without –”

Pepper shuts him up with a single glare, and speaks before Tony can collect himself again. “Stane sent an assassin after Tony.”

There it is, put in such simple words as if it has not caused the rest of Tony’s life to crumble. Still, he puts on a strained smile, and says, “I think the term assassin is a bit harsh.”

Although he could not get Happy’s unconscious form slumped over the steering wheel out of his head all night, the trickle of blood in the corner of his mouth, how frail he looked in the hospital bed. Although he still feels the force of the crash in his bones. Although Natasha’s voice is still ringing in his ears, putting it all into simple facts.

“The people who kidnapped him apparently saved him,” Pepper continues, not bothering to correct his argument or to hide her scepticism.

On the screen, Rhodey glances between them, at Pepper’s painfully straight back and Tony’s slumped shoulders. His eyes run over Tony’s form, looking for obvious wounds.

“Are you all right?” While his voice is soft, there is not hiding the hardening of his expression or the way he looks ready to jump up and steal the first plane he can find so he can come home.

It is caressing in the way a friend’s worry always is, but Tony needs Rhodey to be safe, so he nods his head, glaring when Pepper says, “No,” at the exact same time.

Rhodey looks like he has a thousand questions but visibly reins them in and simply asks, “Why?”

At that, both Rhodey and Pepper turn to look at Tony, expectant in that way that means they are preparing for the worst. Their scrutiny weighs heavily on him. No matter what else happened these last weeks, Tony trusts them. He trusts them to have his best interest at heart and to listen to him and to catch him when he falls. They are family, and in a different sense than Obadiah was.

Telling them will make this real, however. More real than having his arm burn constantly and longing for a man he does not particularly like. He will have to take a stand then. To keep running from it is not a viable option anymore.

Instead of answering, Tony rolls up the sleeve of his left arm and takes off the brace, wincing slightly when cool air hits his skin. Steve’s words are dark and the area still burns. Let’s do this, indeed.

They stare, caught in a sudden stillness like they know what is happening but do not want it to. Neither appears willing to break the sudden silence, so Tony shrugs, showing a nonchalance he does not feel.

“The leader of the group who kidnapped me is my soulmate.”

If the silence has been bad before, it now becomes stifling. Pure instinct has Tony curl his arm around himself, hiding the words against his stomach. It is not a shameful thing to have a soulmate. Over centuries that was the only thing that bridged differences in class and culture. It is celebrated, almost sacred. Yet, Tony feels like he is waiting for judgement.

“What?” Tony challenges when he feels like another second without a reaction will make him choke.

“Oh Tony.” Pepper sighs, too softly to fit her earlier determination.

It breaks the spell, at least.

“And he beat you up?” Rhodey snaps, turning from surprised to livid on Tony’s behalf. “What kind of sick monster would do that to anyone, let alone their soulmate? You had broken bones, Tony.”

Tony has broken bones, but that is not the point. A part of him is undeniably relieved at his friends’ reaction, even while the rest of him is already fearing the consequences. His neat little arrangement with Steve is bound to fail now, with Rhodey and Pepper looking over his shoulder. Tony is not sure why he would regret that.

“He didn’t know,” Tony hears himself saying, as if it his duty to protect Steve, even now. Two days ago, he might not have, even with their truce, even with the information they delivered on Obadiah.

Yesterday, though, the Avengers saved his life. More importantly, they saved Happy’s life because Tony is certain the man would not have let either of them live. And for one so used to taking matters into his own hands, Steve appears curiously amenable to letting Tony handle things on his own – even now that Tony has proven he might not be handling anything at all.

“That’s not an excuse,” Rhodey says, looking like he wants nothing more than to climb through the screen. Next to Tony, Pepper nods her sharp assent. “Tell me who it is. I’ll tell him exactly why –”

“This is why I didn’t tell you,” Tony cuts him off, louder than intended.

It puts a halt to Rhodey’s tirade, renders them both speechless for another long moment.

“What?” Rhodey then asks, with a sharpness that Tony knows is not directed at him but that has him straightening his back automatically anyway.

Suddenly feeling too bare, Tony tugs his sleeve back down and fingers the brace to give his hands something to do.

“This is not ideal, yes? I know that,” he then says, forcing his eyes up again to look at his friends. “And I’m not particularly eager to fall into a happily ever after with St- that guy.” Tony bites his tongue at that near blunder. Telling them the truth is one thing, but serving Steve on a silver platter is another. He hopes Steve would do the same for him. “But it’s – my own body is fighting against me here. My brain. And with everything else that’s going on –”

Shrugging, Tony trails off. Explaining what the soul bond does to him is impossible. His entire life is a rollercoaster of emotions right now – well, if rollercoasters only went down, in any case. He is so raw inside, he is barely able to make sense of anything he feels, can barely allow any of it to the surface.

Some might call that hiding or a delusion, but it is unbelievably hard to deal with the man who definitely wants Tony dead, so he does not know what to do with Steve, who first hurt and then saved him.

“Is he still a danger to you?” Pepper asks, giving him a break from the emotional ramifications of this.

That is the million-dollar question. Or, well, the over five-million-dollar question, really, because Obadiah’s offer apparently was not enough to shake their sudden loyalty. Everybody has their price, though, Tony is certain of that.

“I don’t think so,” Tony replies, realizing too late that appearing unsure about this does not do him any favours.

“You don’t think –” Rhodey repeats, sounding choked as if he wants to cry or laugh. “Tones, listen to me. I can deal with this problem. You’re right, you should concentrate on Stane and your company, not on a good-for-nothing soulmate who –”

“Could you please stop talking about him like that?” Tony snaps, effectively cutting Rhodey off. “That makes me feel like I need to defend him, and that’s really not helpful.”

They are at an impasse, Tony and Steve, where Tony has to decide what weighs heavier. Letting Barton and Barnes beat him up for some personal revenge, which at least Barnes appears to regret, if only after the fact. Not leaving Tony alone despite how clearly he asked for it several times. Or saving Tony’s life.

“You shouldn’t defend him,” Pepper argues and makes it sound easy, as if Steve could simply be cut out of his life again.

“I don’t want to,” Tony says and means it. He just wants his thoughts and emotions to be his own again, without mulling over betrayal and fate screwing him over. “The fact remains, they beat me up, but since then, they’ve been on my side. I don’t trust them, I wouldn’t feel safe being dropped into their midst again. But –” Tony shrugs, wishing he could make sense of this. “Right now, we have a common enemy. If we didn’t, that man tonight would have bashed my head in and probably Happy’s too.”

Pepper and Rhodey share a look full of worry and questions, but it only lasts a second before they both turn back to Tony, appearing almost afraid that he would dissolve into nothing if they let him out of their sight for too long.

“We need to get you better security,” Rhodey says, concentrating on the one thing he can do without losing his mind.

Tony is just glad that they are not questioning his reasoning despite how threadbare it is. “I’m working on that.”

Rhodey nods, not really satisfied but taking what he can get. “And then I want you to give me all you have about the kidnappers so I can –”

“No.” It is still too easy to deny them this. “I’m not here advocating everything is forgiven and that I’ll spend the rest of my life with St- him, but I have to deal with the ruins of my life first and he has helped with that.”

He is not forgetting anything either, but Steve is becoming less and less a problem he needs to tackle right now. That might very well backfire on him too, but Tony feels close to his breaking point and unable to deal with everything at once.

It looks like Rhodey is gearing up for an argument, but Pepper speaks up before he can get a single word out. “All right.”

That takes Tony so much by surprise that he feels his face slacken in shock as he turns to stare at Pepper. From the corner of his eye he sees Rhodey do the same.

Out of all of them, Pepper appears the one least likely to let this go. She has gone after people for less. Within days of meeting Tony, she has also started a crusade against his self-destructive tendencies. Her apparent compliancy now makes no sense.

“What?” Tony asks, certain he has missed something vital here.

“Yes, Pepper,” Rhodey chimes in, sounding just as lost. “What?”

Pepper looks at them, more collected than she has any right to be with the bomb Tony just dropped on them.

“This is obviously not over,” she says with nary a threat in her tone. Then her expression softens when she turns to Tony. “But we’re not questioning what you’re doing. We’re worried.”

Tony knows that. He has been working since his MIT days on getting himself to believe it too. “There’s so much to be worried about,” he argues weakly.

When Pepper reaches out to put her hand over his, he does not pull away.

“And we’re worried about you most of all,” she says, still in that gentle tone. “I realize that everything is a bit too much at the moment, so let us do our part. Don’t hide away.”

Tony is proficient at hiding, but it is not always the best course of action as recent developments have shown. If he had involved his friends more in taking Obadiah down, his godfather would have never gotten the chance to get another hit in, would have never been able to disappear.

“What can we do?” Pepper prompts when Tony remains silent. On the screen, Rhodey leans forward, clearly offering to do his part too.

There is a clear priority to things. “Stay safe, find Obie, deal with the police,” Tony says, feeling just as overwhelmed but not as helpless as before. “Oh, and Rhodey, could you look into a Thor Odinson? He’s ex-military. He was recommended to me as a bodyguard.”

They might as well deal with the security problem now. He might not completely trust Steve’s recommendations, but the Avengers are skilled. If Odinson has even a fraction of that, he will be an asset.

“By whom?” Rhodey asks, sounding immediately suspicious again, even though there could be dozens of people offering such recommendations. In the circles Tony usually moves in, personal security is nothing uncommon.

“He will look into it,” Pepper intercepts before they can argue about the value of sources. “Let JARVIS send the evidence, and I’ll make sure the police get what they need.”

Heat shoots up Tony’s neck. “That was not – you don’t need to –” he stammers. He knows they want to help, but he cannot hand over responsibility like that. Baring himself to the police will be its own kind of torture but it is nothing less than he deserves for nurturing a snake all these years.

“Tony,” Pepper says, squeezing his hand. “Let us help.”

Her sincerity washes over him and just like that his shoulders slump. He is not alone in this. More importantly, he does not have to be.

“Thank you,” he says, clinging to Pepper’s hand.

Rhodey watches them with a small smile. He still looks worried, but being reminded that there are people they can count on help immensely.

“We love you, Tones,” Rhodey says, then pauses to really let it sink in. “Now, let Pepper cuddle you for a bit, since I can’t. I’ll get back to you when I know something about that Odinson guy.”

Tony almost wants to say that Rhodey should only call if he has good news, but in a situation like this, good and bad are irrevocably interwoven. So he simply nods, lets it happen.

Rhodey and Pepper promise each other to stay in contact, and then Rhodey hangs up, leaving them with a silence that does not feel as heavy as before.

“You don’t have to cuddle me,” Tony speaks up because he has never dealt well with not knowing what is coming.

Pepper smiles and says, “I know.”

Before Tony has a chance to react, she pulls him closer. It is not a full embrace, but they lean into each other, holding the other up, while their hands stay intertwined. There is a lot to do, but for now Tony stays right where he is and simply breathes.

 


 

 

Rather cowardly, Tony lets Pepper deal with the police. They swarm the tower in the morning as if they have a right to the place, leaving the employees wide-eyed and fearful of what is happening.

Tony makes his statement and promises Stark Industries’ full cooperation, but he does not think he can handle going through all the evidence and details with strangers. It is probably better if he does not seem too involved. There is still the question of how he, as CEO and Stane’s godson, allegedly did not know anything about the double dealing. The less he meddles, the safer it will probably be for him.

When the police interview him, it is as uncomfortable as Tony thought it would be. No, he did not know what his godfather was up to behind his back. Yes, he has trusted him implicitly until he found the evidence. No, he cannot imagine why Obadiah would do such a thing. No, nothing has ever happened between them that would cause Tony to be suspicious.

It feels wrong to lie about Obadiah causing him to be kidnapped and almost killed, but Tony still refuses to drag the Avengers into this. If nothing else, he owes them that for saving his life, no matter that they could have easily taken it before Obadiah was ever revealed to be a problem.

Tony offers the police complete access to the Stark Industries’ servers. JARVIS is going to keep an eye on them, so he does not worry about it too much. They will not have access to current R&D projects or weapon blueprints. Mostly everything else, however, is fair game.

Obadiah remains gone. Nobody has seen him or has an idea where he might have gone. All of Obadiah’s properties are vacated, his phone has been turned off, his cars are unmoved. He must have planned for the eventuality of having to disappear. Money can make everything possible.

It has Tony feeling like he is constantly being watched. Even in the safety of his penthouse, he catches himself looking over his shoulder. Obadiah’s access has been revoked, of course, and JARVIS is ever vigilant. The problem is not that Obadiah could sneak up on Tony, but that he integrated himself in Tony’s life over the last decades, making his betrayal all the more painful. Even now, Tony feels uncomfortable with the manhunt that has been started, almost like he, in turn, is betraying Obadiah. It is a ridiculous notion, but Tony is unable to shake it.

Looking back, he sees how Obadiah has manipulated him. After his parents’ death, Tony descended into a grief-fuelled madness, trying to lose himself in booze and parties, giving pieces of himself freely to everyone willing to distract him for a few precious hours.

Obadiah had been there then, always wearing a smile, always putting a hand on Tony’s shoulder while he told him to take his time. They always shared a glass of expensive liquor too, first in Howard’s memory, then to help Tony unwind a bit. When Obadiah went back to taking care of the company, he always left whatever bottle he had brought. 

It had seemed kind then, that Obadiah would leave him room to grieve, to reassemble himself. Stark Industries was a burden Tony was not ready to take on his shoulders. For years, it had been a point of contempt between him and his father. Tony could not take responsibility for something that disgusted him, that he had always been told he would not be good enough for.

Tony had tested the waters back then, tried how far he could go until Obadiah, too, would lose patience with him. It had never taken any time at all with Howard, and Maria was so practiced in leaving, Tony had long ago given up on expecting her to come for him. With them gone, Obadiah was all the family he had left. He never thought Obadiah would stay.

And yet he did. He took every mood swing, every tantrum, every press scandal, and he still had smiles for Tony. He occasionally sent blueprints for Tony to look over or talked about ideas he thought Tony might want to pursue. He never pushed, though, never made Tony do something he did not want to do.

It was all a lie. Howard’s death put Obadiah in power and Tony’s unravelling must have been the best thing to happen to him. Even when he coaxed Tony back to become CEO it had played right into his hands because Tony did not want to be bothered with bureaucracy and business politics. He was a figurehead to soothe the more conservative board members who wanted the remaining Stark back with the company.

Disgust spreads through Tony as he realizes how gullible he has been, truly a lamb raised for slaughter.

“J,” Tony says into the empty air of the workshop, certain in the knowledge that at least JARVIS will always answer. “Let us go through everything we have.”

“We already did an extensive search, sir,” JARVIS cautions. He sounds like he wants nothing more than to send Tony to bed, and Tony would love to follow. He is too wired to think about resting, though.

“Maybe we missed something.”

The screens around him come alive, drenching him in blue light that would normally be enough to soothe him.

As the search runs, Tony is sure his teeth are going to crack from how hard he clenches his jaw. That does not help with getting them any more results than the last time.

“Again,” Tony tells JARVIS.

There must be something to be found.

Chapter Text

The information about Thor Odinson appears to have been accurate. He has a spotless record, was recommended by several less shady sources and, at least on paper, sounds like a good guy.

Pepper arranges an interview with him in one of the conference rooms in the tower, so Tony does not have to venture out on the streets nor invite a stranger into his home. Also, JARVIS will be able to monitor them at all times.

Still, Tony does not feel good about it. Current events, the new direction of the company as well as the disappearance of its CFO, mean that Tony has to be visible in the coming weeks. He is Stark Industries’ figurehead. If he does not want to completely destroy it, he will have to stand up, hold some speeches, give interviews, make his board of directors believe in him. It is all so blissfully removed from his personal grievances and the possibility of someone still trying to kill him that Tony dives almost eagerly into the task. He just cannot step out of the tower without protection.

The conference room has glass walls, so Tony can see his guest before he has to enter. He thought that would be a good idea to assess the man, but he did not think that Odinson would sit with his back to him. All Tony can see are broad shoulders and blond hair.

Tony’s steps falter. Tall and muscular and blonde. Odinson has been vetted and JARVIS has checked him the very moment he stepped into the tower. Still, Tony expects him to turn around and reveal himself to be Steve.

With the way his brain short-circuits, it would make sense. Steve is constantly going on about protecting Tony. He has recommended Odinson. He could have fooled them, could have slipped in without them noticing, without JARVIS –

The man turns his head, looking at the door, which reveals his profile and that his hair is hanging past his shoulders. This is not Steve.

When air rushes back into Tony’s lungs, it appears ridiculously obvious. Apart from the impressive shoulder line and the hair colour, Odinson looks nothing like Steve. Tony’s brain has just played a prank on him. As he begins walking again, he decides to ignore the faint trace of regret echoing inside him that he is sure originates from the soul bond. This is not about Steve and any possible relationship with him but about Tony’s safety.

Plastering a smile on his face to mask his nerves, Tony goes into the conference room. Odinson notices him immediately and gets to his feet. He is taller than Steve, too, but Tony does not feel intimidated. The man has a kind face and smiles at Tony with a brightness that just screams innocence.

“Mr. Odinson,” Tony greets as he comes closer.

“Mr. Stark.” Odinson shakes the hand Tony offers him, his grip firm but not crushing. “Call me Thor.”

Tony is aware that he is looking for signs of something – and that a simple smile and handshake will not help him decide on the nature of anyone. He of all people should know that, practised as he is in navigating the intricate dances of high society. It makes him feel infinitely safer, however, to cling to appearances no matter that they have failed him so spectacularly before.

“Tony, then,” he offers right back. “Do you need more coffee?”

While coffee intake is not an appropriate tool to measure a stranger’s character either, it puts Tony at ease to share something this simple with Thor. It also gives him the opportunity to stall for another minute while he picks up the coffee pot and fills their cups.

When they are both seated, Tony wonders how to start. He has never actually interviewed anyone in terms of security. They have reviewed all the information available about Thor Odinson. His records, his documented abilities. Apart from a demonstration, Tony is not sure how he should verify that Thor is capable of what he claims to be, much less whether he will turn out to be someone who sells Tony out at the first opportunity.

There is only one question that Tony is really interested in getting an answer to.  

“What do you know about the Avengers?”

That takes Thor by surprise and he does not try to hide it. He sits up a bit straighter, cocks his head to the side, and looks at Tony with a bit more interest than before. He does know something, that much is obvious from the way he hesitates

“I’m sure neither of us should know anything about them,” Thor answers in a measured tone with no trace of judgement. He does sound slightly curious as to what Tony knows and why he brought it up.

“So Steve lied and you are affiliated with them,” Tony sighs, almost disappointed that he will have to send Thor away again. Someone of that stature would have been helpful in keeping people at bay, even if he did nothing but stand glowering in Tony’s back.

It feels like a punch in the gut, knowing that Steve lied to him again.

“I am not,” Thor says firmly before Tony can wallow in his disappointment or end the interview prematurely. “We ran in to each other several times during our time in the military and later during jobs. While they are interested in bringing the guilty to justice, I merely keep people safe.”

All this talk about justice and doing the right thing, Tony is tired of it. This is not the right place or the right person to discuss the Avengers’ policies. He should talk to Thor about what kind of duties he would have, how high the danger level is. These kinds of things.

Instead, Tony keeps his eyes fixed on Thor’s face to not miss any reaction, and says, “You sound like you don’t approve.”

Tony so desperately wants an ally instead of another problem that he is willing to talk about this with a stranger.

Thor watches him right back. Behind his impressive physique sit two very intelligent eyes that tell he is not the type to hit all his issues until they go away.

“It’s not that easy,” Thor answers, sounding pensive instead of protesting. “In our world, guilt and innocence have a lot to do with how much money someone has or what colour their skin is.” He hesitates shortly and a brief smile tugs at his lips before he continues. “My brother is a lawyer. People are willing to pay a lot for their freedom. Our justice system is flawed but that does not mean it should be disregarded completely.”

That is the kind of smooth answer that leaves Tony wondering what Thor really thinks about the Avengers. Recognizing that the justice system is flawed does not equal being all right with vigilantes wreaking havoc in their midst.

Tony decides to just jump right in. He does not have anything to lose from asking pointed questions, other than to have to look for a new potential bodyguard. “Why not do something against them then?”

Thor cocks his head to the side, studying Tony with an intensity that has Tony wishing he had some sunglasses nearby. Pepper always tells him that his eyes betray him.

“They mean good,” Thor says slowly as if testing the waters. “They do their research. They –”

“Or not.” It is stupid, but Tony is disappointed by this man he has known for all of five minutes. “They listen to the first angry voice whispering false information in their ear and act on it with fists. All in the name of justice.”

The interview is over. Tony has had too many discussions like this with Steve or himself, about good and bad. He does not want to hear about people making mistakes and that Tony was a woeful exception to the rule.

“Humans are not creatures of reason,” Thor says, then raises a hand in front of himself when Tony makes to get up. He looks apologetic. “Ah, don’t think I am defending them when I don’t know how they have wronged you. What I mean is, I know Steve and he is driven to do good. We just don’t always end up doing good, no matter our intentions.”

That is not an excuse, Tony wants to yell. Then again, he is not looking for excuses. He already knows the Avengers’ reasons, even knows about Steve’s regrets. What he is really looking for, he supposes is absolution for himself because he keeps going back to Steve despite knowing better. He does not want them to be evil.

“So that’s it?” Tony snaps and does not know who he is irritated at the most here. “I should just forget what happened and forgive them?”

He wonders what he is doing here, unloading on a stranger, spilling his fears and secrets and actually hoping for answers. How far he has fallen. To give Thor credit, he does not look too spooked. Curious, certainly, but not like he is going to have Tony admitted the minute he gets up from the table.

“Nobody should dictate you what to do,” Thor then answers. It sounds practiced in a way but no less honest for it. Just as if he has been repeatedly telling this same thing to someone else already. “If you are hurt then it is your prerogative to withdraw.”

That might be what does it, Thor saying that, since Tony is hurt, it does not matter which intention the Avengers had or have now. He can just leave but does not have to. It is up to him, not what others tell him to do.

Tony leans back in his chair and it is mostly a sign that he is willing to continue the interview than an attempt to get more comfortable. He is too tense for that. Talking about Steve is always difficult. Waiting for Obadiah to jump out of the shadows does not actually help with keeping himself calm.

“My godfather is selling weapons on the black market,” Tony announces without warning. He does not believe in easing into things like this. There are no explanations that can make this topic easier. “He knows that I know and he has tried to kill me twice. He has vanished somewhere, but I’m sure he will try again.”

Across from him, Thor’s jovial expression has frozen somewhat, but his attention still rests solely on Tony. He nods once to show he has understood and does not make a move to interrupt.

“If you take the job, I need you to keep me safe from whatever goons my godfather hires next, and -” Here, Tony hesitates, wondering whether he can simply admit his fears. “And from the Avengers.” He does not think they will come after him, but he is not going to take any chances with that.  

“Of course,” Thor says as if it is as simple as that. “You point, I shield.”

An earnest nonchalance clings to Thor that does wonders to put Tony at ease. And the way he appears so utterly comfortable in his own skin separates him from Steve, who always appears driven, needing to take one more step, one more fight.

Usually, Tony trusts his gut instinct. That is what made him trust Rhodey at MIT and hire Pepper. Where Steve and the Avengers are concerned, the soul bond has made things difficult because he is not quite sure what exactly he feels. Now, however, he thinks Thor is a catch, no matter who recommended him.

Smiling, Tony says, “All right, you’re hired. Care to start right now?”

Thor is visibly startled, and the curiosity in his eyes becomes more intense when he looks at Tony. “As far as job interviews go, this one was rather unusual,” he says, slowly as if testing the water. “You did not ask me a single question about my abilities.”

“I did my research.” Tony shrugs. Facts are easy to check. Morality, on the other hand, is more difficult. Trying to lighten the mood a bit, Tony adds, “And incompetent people don’t look like you do.”

Tony does not exactly mean Thor’s physique, although he is nice to look at, but the calm he radiates, the simple determination.

Thor takes it with good humour, smiling in a way that makes him appear even safer. “Do you mind if I quote that in my resume?”

They shake hands before Tony calls Pepper in who will do a much better job of discussing schedules with Thor. Tony does not necessarily need anyone following him around in the tower, but he will have to get out in public far more often than he is comfortable with just to do some damage control where the company is concerned. There is nothing more counterproductive to appearing calm and competent in an interview about Stark Industries’ future if Obadiah keeps creeping up in the back of his mind, making him wonder when he will be stabbed in the back next.  

Much to his own surprise, Tony feels like a weight has been lifted off his shoulders. He has never fancied the idea of a bodyguard, loving his independence too much and being too prone to get into stupid situations, and perhaps too stubborn to let anybody help.

This could be all right, though. It is only temporary. And it will keep his friends off his back, will allow him to leave Happy at home, who would otherwise never agree to let Tony go anywhere unsupervised. 

On the way back up to the penthouse, Tony takes out his phone and sends a text to Steve.

Got myself a bodyguard so you can call your goons back home.

He is not sure why he does it, especially since he does not think that Steve will really stop looking out for him. It is another olive branch, proof that he listened to Steve’s concerns. Few people are in his corner, and he feels like he needs to keep them close.

His phone chimes when Steve’s answer comes in. I only want you to be safe.

That is what Tony thought. It does not matter. With some luck, Natasha’s services will not be needed again. People are looking for Obadiah, so he will not be able to hide forever.

Tony’s task now is to get his life back on track, to make something worthwhile of this mess. Perhaps he should invite Bruce over to pick his brain a bit. Tony is tempted to try to miniaturize the arc reactor again. Having another brilliant mind on board would surely help. Bruce has also seen him at a very low point in his life, so Tony feels like he does not have to pretend so much with him. He needs a break, he knows that. Since he cannot afford to just shut everything out for a while, he needs to do the next best thing and gather his allies close.

In the end, he puts the phone away. Bruce is not his friend, and right now, Bruce’s loyalty still lies with the Avengers. Once Tony does not have anything to fear from them anymore, when Obadiah is behind bars and the company is under Tony’s control again, he might invite Bruce over, offer them a platform to interact with each other that has nothing to do with their history but with what they can do with the future.

For now, he has to put his mind on putting the pieces of Stark Industries back together. There is no time for experiments. The arc reactor is a dream, but Tony needs facts. He has to sell his board of directors on the public on something more substantial than the possibility of green energy in the far future.

Tony is smart, though. If he can get his mind to stay off Obadiah and Steve for long enough, he will figure something out.

 


 

It is never quiet anymore in the tower. Just a few days have passed since they have opened their doors to the police, but it already feels like Tony’s territory has been taken from him. Even when he does not see any officers or tech specialists, he is met with wide-eyed or questioning or angry glances from his own employees. And that is ignoring the board, which has more or less loudly wondered about Tony’s state of sanity for throwing out on of their own like that.

Perhaps Tony simply feels strange because he is usually more invisible than this, perpetually locked inside his workshop instead of being out and about in the tower, actually meeting with people himself and being on time for it. It is not as bad as he always made it out to be, mostly because it helps to take his mind of the personal issues following this crisis and because he is far too restless to allow himself to fall into an actual working binge in the workshop. He needs to build, but he cannot deal with the rather vulnerable mental state he is in when he stumbles tired and hungry to his bed after a day or two of working nonstop.

His office, which he has never used much, has a nice view, too, although Tony does not have much time to look at the city below. He has never been one for paperwork. Even that is better than telling the same people the same things over and over again. Everybody seems to be out for blood right now and Tony cannot get his wounds to close.

A knock rips him out of his thoughts. It is late, already dark outside, but Tony guesses he has never explicitly told anyone he does not want to be disturbed.

The door opens and Thor sticks his head in. He should have gone home already, but he never does before he has not delivered Tony safely to the penthouse, even though he knows that JARVIS never stops watching inside the tower.

Informing Thor about JARVIS has been a necessity, but Tony thinks he is not going to regret it. It also makes Thor’s job marginally easier.

“Agent Coulson wants to speak to you,” Thor says, keeping his tone carefully neutral. His expression, on the other hand, seems to say that he will get rid of the agent if Tony wants him to.

A small smile steals itself onto Tony’s lips. Only a few days into their acquaintance and he is already certain that it was a good decision to take Thor on.

“Send him in.”

Coulson is with the FBI. Tony is not sure when they got involved, but the fact that Obadiah, on top of less interesting charges like embezzlement and bribery, sold weapons to enemies of America apparently makes this a matter of national security. That means that even more watchful eyes are combing through every aspect of Tony’s life, but for now he does not care if that also increases their chances of finding Obadiah.

Thor sends the agent in and, after a questioning look at Tony whether he should stay, closes the door behind him and leaves Tony to be picked apart in another interrogation.

“Agent Coulson,” Tony greets and gets to his feet to offer his hand. Then he gestures at the visitor chair and waits until they are both seated again. “Did you find anything?”

“No,” Coulson replies. In that mild-mannered tone of his, he adds, “I just have some more questions for you.”

Coulson looks like he has been born in that suit and that bland expression of polite disinterest. Contrary to most of his colleagues, he does not wear a visible weapon, does not posture or appear dangerous. He still exudes an aura of authority. Tony is not sure what to make of him, but he knows he will have to watch his words.

“We’ve already gone over everything,” Tony says, swallowing his impatience. There is too much he needs to keep secret to be comfortable with being questioned. “And Ms Potts is your official liaison for the duration of this investigation.”

Tony wonders how he can speak so calmly about the matter. He guesses years of having to act in public have some advantage. Inside, however, he is still raw, hurting constantly.

“Ms Potts isn’t going to be able to help me with this.” Coulson’s tone does not change, but Tony’s back automatically stiffens a bit. A promise of danger lies in the air. That Coulson circumvented Pepper and came here after dark, when it is more likely that Tony is alone, speaks of more problems coming his way.

“I have a meeting coming up,” Tony lies and keeps his face neutral. “So we need to make this quick.”

The corner of Coulson’s mouth creases into a small smile, gone again very quickly. Tony cannot even begin to question whether that is a good sign.

“I’ll be blunt then,” Coulson says, his gaze growing sharp. “Last week you were in the hospital. Why?”

Tony grows very quiet for the fraction of a second, even while clinging to his slightly bored expression, hoping his hesitation is not visible. Whether or not he visited the hospital should not be object of this investigation. It has nothing to do with Obadiah. Well, it does, but the police do not know that, and for good reason.

“We filed a report,” Tony says and cocks his head to the side dismissively. “There was an accident. A hit and run.”

For a moment, Coulson does not say anything but simply watches Tony. Then, with the same nonchalance as before, he asks, “That was the evening before you submitted your evidence against Mr. Stane to the police?”

“Yes,” Tony answers. He does not like where this is going.

“And it was also just a few days before you hired additional personal security?”

Tony stares. “Yes.”

Across from him, Coulson nods like he has known the answer all along but is still satisfied to have gotten it.

“Do you fear for your safety?” he then asks, the perfect picture of innocent professionalism like he has never had any ulterior motives for coming here. This still comes too close to an accusation for Tony to let it go.

Tony leans back in his chair, shoulders squared but arms open, showcasing that he does not have anything to hide. “I’m going to be in the spotlight quite a bit. People didn’t like me when I was making weapons.” He shrugs like he does not care. “They like me even less now that I’ve stopped and they know why.”

Rumours have gotten out. Of course, they have. A thing like this is impossible to keep quiet. A rogue CFO selling weapons to terrorists? Tony Stark, who the media loves to hate even without a fresh scandal, being possibly involved? Everybody wants a slice of that cake.

Coulson nods like he accepts that very reasonable answer. “Is there a more personal reason?” he then asks with deceiving calm. If Tony did not know better, he would think there is a glimmer of amusement in Coulson’s eyes.

“Like what?” Tony barely keeps himself from snapping. He is too close to the matter, to prone to making mistakes.

Shrugging, Coulson takes his time, although it is obvious he is ready to pounce. “It just seems too much of a coincidence. The accident, your godfather going rogue, a new bodyguard.”

He trails off, not quite expectant but very sure of himself. It is tempting to give in. Tony could just admit that he does have reasons to be afraid of Obadiah because an attempt on his life has already been made. Two, even. While it would certainly be satisfying to tell them exactly what kind of person Obadiah is, it would also raise questions Tony is not willing to answer.

Tony cannot quite tell when protecting the Avengers has become part of the plan. In the beginning it was merely a decision not to report the kidnapping. Now, however, he is actively keeping any and all information about them out of the reports. He likes to think that is not just because Steve is his soulmate. He owes Natasha, too. He does not want to harm Bruce. He has become far more entangled with them than he could have foreseen.

“What are you insinuating?” Tony questions, straightening in his seat just enough to show his displeasure about Coulson’s line of questioning. It still feels like Coulson can see right through him.

“Are you afraid that Mr. Stane is going to harm you?” Coulson rephrases his question, gives it a completely reasonable note as if he is not digging for things Tony has not told them but is honestly concerned for Tony’s safety.

Tony does not trust just anyone. Even less so now. He does not believe that Agent Coulson does not have a hidden agenda here. They probably think he has been involved in the weapons trading. They want him to compromise himself. Perhaps they are already impatient about not finding Obadiah and want to at least get him.  

“It is clear that I don’t know at all what he’s capable of,” Tony says, allowing some regret into his tone. He never takes his eyes off Coulson, though. “But no. I don’t think he’s waiting for an opportunity to sneak in here to kill me.”

Not missing a beat, Coulson says, “He could hire someone to do it.”

The breath gets stuck in Tony’s lungs as his heartrate climbs suddenly. His outward reaction is as practised as it is unfazed, a slight raising of his eyebrows, a small shrug, not a muscle twitching out of place.

Inside, he wonders what Coulson knows, whether they have unwittingly betrayed something. He has not even told Pepper and Rhodey any specifics about the Avengers. No names, not that he has the means to contact them and has done so. If Steve thought they were compromised, he would have surely called, either to warn Tony or to lay the blame at his feet.

Coulson cannot know anything. So Tony breathes, giving no sign how hard it is, and says, “I like to think that he wouldn’t.”

Coulson’s expression remains jovial, not at all surprised. He is not done, Tony knows that before he even opens his mouth again. “The hospital record says that you had several broken ribs pre-dating the car accident.”

This time, Tony does not suppress his reaction. He leans forward abruptly, not enough to appear spooked but showing his agitation. He is allowed to be angry at a violation of his privacy. Tony himself is not under investigation here. He has never had any illusions that they would not look into him too, but his medical records have nothing to do with smuggling.

“You have no right to access my medical history,” Tony says sharply. Full cooperation is apparently not enough when the national security is in question. If not for JARVIS, he would be worried about what other information the FBI might have gleaned from Stark Industries’ servers or his personal ones.

“It is if it pertains to the case,” Coulson replies, still sounding unflappable. Tony’s accusation does not seem to bother him at all.

“It doesn’t,” Tony says, intent on pushing back. Since he does not want them to dig even deeper, though, he adds, “It was a lab accident. It shouldn’t surprise you that I like to blow things up.”

Lab safety has never been much of a concern for Tony, but the truth is that, if he got injured, it was mostly during nights out with too much alcohol and too many strangers wanting a piece of him. Or, before that, thanks to Howard’s carelessness or bullies at school. Tony knows what he is doing in his workshop, and he has JARVIS and the bots watching over him. Coulson does not need to know that, however.

“Do you often get caught in the crossfire?” Coulson asks in a purposefully gentle tone, almost as if he cares.

Some part of Tony will always want to give in to that, but he knows better than to trust an FBI agent charged with sniffing around in his business.

“I appreciate your concern,” Tony says in a dry tone that makes it clear he does not, without ever changing his polite expression. “But I would prefer if you kept working on finding Stane.”

It still hurts to call Obadiah that, but Tony forces himself to whenever he is talking to the police. It would not do to give them reason to suspect he is still too attached to the man they are prosecuting.

A small smile appears on Coulson’s face, climbing all the way up to his eyes. It is as much a show of amusement as it is an acknowledgment.

“We simply want to make sure that you are safe.”

“I am,” Tony responds firmly, the lie rolling off his tongue easily. When he senses that Coulson does not believe him, he adds, “I’m the one who came up with most of the weapons Stane sold illegally. It would make no sense to kill the golden goose.”

Spite, revenge, defiance – Tony can come up with a dozen reasons why Obadiah would want him dead without even considering their personal relationship. He keeps that to himself though, not thinking for a moment that Coulson is not considering the same. He did not think Coulson would be so blunt to say it, though.

Yet, Coulson keeps his eyes on him, his mouth still slightly upturned. “The game is up now,” he says, not making it sound like a threat but a simple fact. “He doesn’t have much to lose.”

Privately, Tony thinks that freedom is a lot to lose, but he simply shrugs like it has not occurred to him that he is in danger. “He would have to come out of hiding to kill me, so I’ll trust you to notice and stop him or whoever he might hire.”

It will not be that easy, but this is the best he can offer the FBI at the moment. Or ever, really. He will be glad to see them go once this is over.

“We will,” Coulson says and gets smoothly to his feet, although he looks like he did not want their conversation to be over already. Then he reaches into his pocket, and Tony blames it on his tiredness that he winces at the movement. “Let me leave you my card so you can call me in case there is something you want to talk about.”

Coulson noticed his almost-flinch. There is no way he did not, considering that his eyes narrow briefly, and he slides the card over the surface of the desk between them slowly.

Picking it up, Tony studies it to avoid looking up at Coulson. What was he thinking? That Obadiah bought out the FBI and Coulson was coming in here to shoot him right in his office? He really needs all of this to be over.

“Thank you for your efforts, Agent Coulson,” Tony says, managing to sound nonchalant.

They shake hands again, and Tony accompanies Coulson to the door. It is unusual, but he wants to make sure that Coulson actually leaves instead of lingering or talking to Thor. Their conversation consisted of a lot of unspoken things and Tony will have to go over it again once he is alone to make sure that the FBI is only suspicious and does not know things that are none of their business.

Outside, Thor perks up the moment the door opens. He manages to look genial and attentive at the same time, as if sitting outside Tony’s office is not boring.

Together, they watch Coulson leave. Only when they are alone does Thor speak up. “Are you all right?”

If Tony attempted to smile right now, it would probably come out mangled, so he simply nods. “Yes.” A look at the clock makes Coulson’s visit appear even more suspicious, considering it is long after normal business hours. “You should go home now. And I should probably try to sleep.”

Thor stands up and gathers his things, shrugging on his jacket. “Let me escort you upstairs then.”

Tony wants to protest, to say that he can find the way to the elevator and his own home just fine on his own. Thor was hired for a reason, though, and Tony, judging on his reaction to Coulson simply reaching into his pocket, apparently does not feel safe in his own tower, even if he would not admit it out loud.

With a nod, he starts walking. “Let’s go.”

Exhaustion is tugging at him, making his legs heavier than they should be. Maybe he will even manage to sleep a night through for once.

Chapter Text

Tony’s reluctance over having a bodyguard diminishes greatly by the first time that Thor gets a very insistent reporter to back off with nothing more than straightening his back and glowering at the poor man until he decided harassing Tony is not in his best interest. He even apologized. That has never happened before. Reporters do not apologize. Tony thinks he is a little bit in love.

Even beyond that, Thor has a calming presence. It does not matter when Tony stumbles out of his workshop or how long an investor meeting takes, Thor is always there, always attentive. He inserts himself seamlessly into Tony’s life, handling the schedule with ease, making sure every outing goes without a hitch.

Thor also seems to be conspiring with Pepper and Happy concerning Tony’s self-care habits. More often than not, food appears on Tony’s desk or there are breaks scheduled between meetings.

None of that helps with the lurking feeling of Obadiah watching him, but Tony breathes a little easier each time his eyes fall on Thor, just from knowing there is someone close who has his back. Thor may be paid to do so, but every interaction he has with Tony seems so genial and unforced that he could almost be here by choice, without a generous paycheck bringing him in every morning but instead genuine worry about Tony.

Tony’s mind is so wired to expect new disasters at every turn that, when he sees Thor waiting outside the workshop one night, hours after Tony sent him home, he immediately steels himself for more bad news. It could be anything. Obadiah could have gone after Pepper or Rhodey. The police might have found out about the Avengers and put them all in jail. Another atrocity might have been caused by his weapons.

“Tony,” Thor greets him. He smiles, but that is not enough to hide the heaviness of his tone. “Do you have a minute to talk?”

No, everything in Tony screams. Talking means to accept whatever is going on. It means opening himself up to more things gone wrong.

“You can’t quit,” he says quickly, frozen in the still open door to the workshop. It comes out too desperate but he does not care. “I’ll give you a raise.”

Thor’s face softens, even if the line of his shoulders does not. “I’m not going to leave unless you want me to.”

That sounds ominous. Up until now, Tony did not have any reason to consider firing Thor. From the look on Thor’s face, though, that will change any minute now.

Tony does not want to know. Whatever it is, it can wait. They can just ignore it. It might hurt at a later date, but Tony really does not want to be hurt right now.

“All right,” he stills says, inwardly scolding himself for wanting to take the coward’s way out. “Let’s go up to the penthouse.”

Tony wants a drink. Depending on how this conversation goes, he might even succumb to the need, although he has sworn off alcohol the moment, he realized how easily Obadiah has manipulated him into using liquor as an escape mechanism. Alcoholism lies in the family, of course, but Tony hopes he would not have fallen as hard for the terrible allure of alcohol if he had not been pushed by Obadiah.

He walks off with mechanical steps, trusting Thor to follow him. It occurs to him that he perhaps should not bring Thor into his personal space, depending on what he is going to be told. If Thor wanted to seriously harm him, though, he could have done this at any point since he was hired. He believes this is just bad news, although he wonders what could still faze him at this point in his life.

They ride the elevator in silence. Thor stands a bit to the side but still in front of Tony as they have become used to, and when they arrive at the penthouse, he gets out first.

“Everything is clear,” JARVIS greets them, allowing Thor to relax a bit, although he never completely loses his protective stance.

Right now, Tony thinks that is a bit ridiculous. He has other things on his mind as potential invaders. On second thought, he might not mind someone attacking them right now if that stops the looming conversation from happening.

Tony shakes his head at himself. When has he become someone trying to outrun fate? After his parents died, he let it steamroll him, after that he always took it in stride. Now, however, he fights it for every inch, no matter that he feels like a fish out of water, desperate, panicked, and suffocating.

He leads them into the kitchen and, walking past the liquor cabinet, pours them both a glass of water. Some part of him is always hungry for caffeine, but he is already on edge and he has been sleeping so poorly that he is trying to do the responsible thing and not drink coffee this late in the day.

Turning around to put the glasses down, he finds that Thor is still standing, perhaps waiting to be offered a seat. That has Tony worrying even more. They do not have the most formal of relationships, despite Thor being employed by him. Tony inhales deeply and sets Thor’s glass down with a firm thud, gesturing at the chair.

Only when Thor is seated does Tony go around the table – as if he needs the additional space between them – and sits down himself.

“What happened?” Tony asks. While he is still dreading the answer, he is already tired of waiting.

He is mostly certain, at least, that this is nothing acute. If Obadiah had lashed out at his friends or another catastrophe happened, Thor would not have spent the past minutes in silence. So this cannot be something that requires immediate action.

That does not mean this will not hurt. Most likely, this is personal.

Thor looks up, lips lifted into something that is not quite a smile but appears hopeful nonetheless. “Let me start this by saying that this is not directly related to you,” he says, his tone measured. “This happened several years before we met and should not touch you at all. Things being as they are, however –”

“Please stop stalling,” Tony interrupts as he reaches out to pick up his glass. His mouth is dry, but he does not drink. He just needs something to cling to.

“Apologies. You know Bruce?” Thor asks, sounding like he already knows the answer, checking off another formality.

Surprise has Tony forgetting to be anxious for all of a minute until he realizes the implications behind Thor’s question. This is about the Avengers. The same Avengers Thor promised he has nothing to do with. Worse, this is apparently about Bruce specifically, who is without question the one Avenger Tony likes the most, whom he would even extend a certain amount of trust to.

“Banner?” Tony questions, his voice thick with ready denial. He cannot deal with another betrayal, not even from someone he barely knows.

“From the Avengers, yes,” Thor says, then takes a moment to breathe, long enough that the suspense rackets up almost unbearably. “We are soulmates.”

Silence falls abruptly as the air gets knocked out of Tony’s lungs and Thor simply waits for his reaction, his face still open and calm.

Soulmates, Tony thinks numbly. Everything seems to be circling back to that at the moment. Everything apart from Obadiah, and Tony cannot believe he wishes this was another problem caused by his godfather instead of Thor and the Avengers being closer than he thought – and hoped.

“You are –” Tony begins, caught in his circling thoughts before he collects himself enough to form a full sentence. When he does, his voice is full of accusation. “So you lied to me when you said you don’t have any connection to the Avengers?”

Thor winces at his tone, but he does not back down, does not even let his eyes drop.

“I would say I did not,” Thor replies cautiously and takes his time to continue. “Bruce and I met while he was already with the Avengers. I was never a part of them nor do I want to be. My opinion of them stays the same, no matter what is between me and Bruce.”

That sounds too good to be true, too simple. It would mean he could separate Bruce from the Avengers as if not a big part of his life is entangled with them. Tony cannot think of Steve without thinking of his little vigilante group. It is impossible.

Thor appears sincere, however, and Tony is too tired to launch into an argument before he has all the facts.

“Then why are you telling me now?” Tony asks, giving no sign that he does not quite believe Thor’s easy dismissal of not being involved with the Avengers.

Another small smile appears on Thor’s face, this one slightly more bitter than the last. “You asked me to protect you from the Avengers. They hurt you, and Bruce told me you are justified in your anger.” He pauses briefly, never looking away from Tony. “I have no intention of betraying you too.”

Pressure settles on Tony’s chest that could be panic or simply the weight of more disappointment. Bruce and Thor are talking about him. Thor knows this feels like betrayal. Tony does not think he can believe that the Avengers do not know about Bruce and Thor being soulmates, so Thor’s being here is even less of a coincidence.

“Did he tell you to come here?” Tony asks, his voice thin. “Is this just another way for Steve to monitor me?”

Even as he says it, before Thor’s expression crumbles right in front of him, Tony does not believe that is true. He does not quite trust himself enough to follow that instinct, however, because his ability to make rational decisions based on facts has been severely compromised since he has first found out about Steve and then Obadiah. More often than not these days, his gut instinct is drowned out by the wish to be with a man who hurt him.

“Bruce did not know Steve would recommend me,” Thor says firmly, for once leaving no room for doubt. “And I have not been in direct contact with Steve for years.”

Tony looks at the glass in his hands and consciously relaxes his fingers when he finds that his knuckles are white. “How does that work when you and Bruce are together?”

The question is entirely selfish. He wonders, really, how Thor can be with someone while disapproving of what they are doing with their life. How does one love one part of someone while ignoring the rest? Worse, how does one learn to love all the parts, even though some of them might be terrifying?

“We live in DC. We both have jobs, although his is a little bit less conventional than mine. We don’t bring our work home with us,” Thor says, still sounding like he means every word.

Tony gets to his feet abruptly, almost sloshing his water before he can put it down on the table. “I need to –” he says and trails off, unsure of what he needs.

He needs the world to right itself. For Obadiah to not be the villain, for his soulmate to be someone safe, for his friends to not have any secrets. Barring that, he needs some clarity of his mind and, most of all, answers.

“Do you want me to leave?” Thor asks, tone unbearably gentle, a hint of resignation shining through the words.

“No,” Tony says with unexpected firmness, surprising himself with how much he means that. “I just need a minute.” He steers himself towards the door, then pauses again. “Why don’t you order something to eat?”

That is at once an attempt to bring some normalcy back into their conversation and a means to tell Thor that he is still welcome. Or, at least, that Tony has not yet made up his mind completely in one direction or the other.

Thor nods, clearly understanding what is not said. “What do you want?” he asks quietly.

Tony almost laughs at being given a choice now, but he thinks that is unfair. Thor did come to him unprompted.

“I don’t care,” he says and starts walking again. “Make it enough for three.”

All Tony wants is to curl up in his bed and wake up to a brighter tomorrow. A day where Obadiah has been apprehended and the burning in his arm has subsided and he can make friends without wondering whether they have secrets that are going to hurt him.

Instead, he walks out of the kitchen with his head held high, intent on getting this matter dealt with. He cannot leave all his problems open-ended, risking them to keep haunting him. While he has no desire for further conflict, he owes it to Bruce to at least hear him out. He does not want to lose Thor, either. Too much is changing already.

Stopping in the living room, Tony leans against the window and gets out his phone. He has no plan what to say, is not even sure what he wants to hear in return, but he pulls up Bruce’s contact.

After leaving his fingers to hover over the screen for a small eternity, he writes, I think we need to talk.

He drags his eyes up to look at the city sprawling out beneath him but has barely time to take in the sight.

Thor told you. Bruce’s answer comes too quickly as if he has been waiting for a reaction from either Tony or Thor.

Still, Tony asks, You didn’t want him to? He does not believe it, but he needs an answer anyway for his peace of mind.

He thinks it would make him feel better to know that, up to a certain point, they planned this evening. That they decided Thor would come up to him after work to come clean. That Bruce is sitting at the Avengers’ base, waiting impatiently to hear how things went. It would still be a calculated move, but one to bring Tony back into the loop instead of keeping him in the dark. 

I thought he should be the one to do it, Bruce writes back.

Tony does not know what to say to that, whether he would not have preferred Bruce being the one to tell him. It would have been best, of course, if they had this conversation before he ever took Thor into his employ. He would not have, probably. And he would have never known that to be a loss.

If Bruce really did not know that Steve would recommend Thor, this might be all right. If Tony had not asked Thor about the Avengers in the very first conversation they ever had, Thor might not have even known there is a certain conflict of interest here. At least not until he told Bruce about his new employer.

No matter how unsettles he feels, Tony is grateful for not being lied to now. It is none of his business whether Bruce and Thor are soulmates, and yet they chose to respect his current situation and told him.

Before he can change his mind, Tony asks, Do you want to come over for dinner?

Bruce takes a moment to answer, almost long enough for Tony to doubt his decision. If you are sure about that.

Tony is not sure about anything anymore, but he has never felt unsafe with Bruce nor Thor. Both of them have made him feel comfortable. And they did not lie. They omitted that they are bonded, but soulmates are not a topic usually discussed between strangers or with employers.

Yes.

Then he waits. He should probably return to the kitchen instead of leaving Thor to stew there on his own. He cannot bring himself to move just yet, however.

When the doorbell rings for the first time, JARVIS informs him that it is the food delivery, and Tony still remains where he is, letting Thor handle it. Only when JARVIS announces that Bruce is in the elevator does he move.

Thor and he arrive in the foyer at the same time, but as soon as Thor notices him, he withdraws back to the kitchen, silently offering Tony the opportunity to have a moment alone with Bruce. He does not seem surprised, either because Bruce wrote him or because Tony’s order to get dinner for three was telling enough. It has Tony feeling like he is making this needlessly complicated.

Then the elevator doors open and there is no more time for self-doubt.

Bruce looks exactly like Tony remembers, cautious and bright, wearing comfortable clothes and a hesitant expression. He smiles when he steps closer to Tony even though there is a certain sadness clinging to his eyes.

“Bruce,” Tony greets, desperate to appear normal. Considering how the world keeps changing too quickly for him to catch up, he does not quite know what normal is anymore.

“Tony,” Bruce says, his tone fond. “How are you?”

That is a loaded question, and one that Tony has no interest in answering. It does not matter how he is feeling right now, anyway. What is important is how this evening ends.

“Thor is waiting in the kitchen,” Tony says instead and gestures for Bruce to follow him.

Perhaps he should have let Thor greet Bruce after all. To himself he can admit, though, that he did not want to give them more opportunity to collaborate. He wants them as honest as possible.

They arrive at the kitchen and everything becomes all the more awkward. Bruce and Thor greet each other with smiles but Thor does not get up from the table and Bruce does not step away from Tony. Tony is not sure whether they keep their distance to put him more at ease, but he can appreciate that they are not making a big deal out of it.

“Do you want something to drink?” Tony asks. Getting water for Thor was meant to give him some time to settle his thoughts. Now, he just wants to get this over with, but he also wants to make sure that he invited Bruce here as a guest, not to just interrogate the both of them.

Bruce still does not move from his spot close to the door. “You don’t have to do this if it makes you uncomfortable,” he says, always considerate of Tony’s feelings.

For once, though, Tony does not want that. It feels like all he does lately is running. He is not going to run from this.

“I didn’t invite you here only to throw you out again. I just needed to –” See what a healthy soul bond looks like. Tony carefully swallows the words.

Bruce appears uncertain where to sit, which almost has Tony laughing. This is not going to be a battle over loyalties. Tony could not win that if he wanted to, and he just wants to talk.

He puts down the third glass at the seat next to Thor and realizes too late that makes it look like Bruce and Thor are facing off against him. There is no going back on that decision without making things more awkward, so he shrugs it off and sits down, looking over the assortment of takeout. Thor has even put plates and cutlery on the table already. The whole set-up looks more precise than Tony likely would have managed on a good day, much less while waiting for a discussion like this with his employer.  

“Sit down,” Tony says when Bruce does not move. “The food is not getting any warmer.”

It might be the nonchalant tone or the realization that he should not have come at all if he did not want to talk, but Bruce finally comes closer and slides into the chair next to Thor.

For a brief moment, they lean into each other. Had Tony not been looking at them, he might have missed it. That simple display of affection has him reeling. Mostly, he is filled with want, his arm pulsing with new fervour.

In silence, they all fill their plates, although none of them starts eating. They are going through all the right motions without truly following through.

To his surprise, Tony finds that he is hungry. Just when he is about to tell his guests to stop stalling and dig in, Bruce opens his mouth. It seems like they are going to let the food get cold and have that heart-to-heart first.

“I told you in the very beginning that I’m not going to spy on you for Steve,” Bruce says, his face holding the same determination as it did back then. “The same is true for Thor. If I hadn’t thought it would be too pushy, I might have recommended him as your bodyguard myself because he is good at what he does. But you made it clear that the less you have to do with us the better.”

They share a glance. Thor’s lips twitch up in encouragement and Bruce smiles back without hesitation. When they look back at Tony, there is still the same heaviness sitting in their eyes.

“But he’s not part of the Avengers?” Tony asks, wondering why that is so important.

Natasha is an Avenger and she saved his life. Bruce is an Avenger, but Tony does not put him in the same category as the rest. Steve is an Avenger and – well, he is still a problem.

It should not matter whether Thor is part of their group. As Bruce’s soulmate, he is affiliated with them anyway. It is not the actual membership that is problematic but the mindset that seems to follow it, and Thor has made it clear that he does not fully approve of what the Avengers are doing.

“Never have been, never will be,” Thor says without any trace of hesitation in his voice.

Tony believes him – which ultimately means believing him about everything else too. Being sorry about omitting his connection to the group. Wanting to keep Tony safe. Being on his side.

“All right,” Tony says, feeling much lighter already.

He looks down at his place and takes the first bite, savouring the taste of curry. The silence at the table is too thick not to notice, but he still chews carefully and swallows before he raises his head again.

Both Bruce and Thor are staring at him, likely waiting for the other shoe to drop. Tony knows that feeling all too well. The matter is not over, of course, but he is not mad at them, cannot be. He is rapidly running out of people he can trust, so he is not going to shun Bruce, who has never been anything but kind to him, or Thor, who has made him feel safe, over this. He has questions he wants answered, but they can do that once this feels less like a stand-off.

“The food is getting cold,” Tony prompts and takes another bite.

Thor is the first to pick up his fork and start eating too, and Bruce, while looking slightly bewildered, follows suit.

The silence, filled with the occasional clinking of forks against porcelain, becomes much easier to bear after that. The absence of chatter is still very noticeable.

They look good next to each other, Tony finds in between covert glances. Thor is huge and sharp, while Bruce is soft but attentive in his own way. He imagines they complete each other easily, just from what he knows of their personalities.

He remembers what Thor told him during their first meeting, that he keeps people safe. That is the first thing Bruce has done for Tony, too; talked to him to take him out of the sucking hole inside his mind, bandaged him up, sent him home to safety.

They are good people, he decides and is not even surprised at how easy that was.

“What is it like?” Tony asks when his plate is still mostly full but he feels like he is going to choke on the question.

The sudden interruption of the silence has them both looking up, but they seem glad about it, like they thought Tony would not say anything at all anymore.

“What is what like?” Thor asks and startles when Bruce puts a hand over his, clearly trying to nudge him to take the question back.

Tony is determined to get some answers, though, even if it will be uncomfortable to get through – mostly for him because he is clearly lacking in this regard.

“The soul bond. Does it ever –” he interrupts himself. Thor will need some context, and Tony does not hesitate as long as he might have before telling Rhodey and Pepper. Thor is already involved, in a way. “Steve is my soulmate.”

Understanding dawns on Thor’s face, even while he does not look overly surprised. He shares a look with Bruce, full of a silent conversation Tony is not privy to. The line of his shoulders grows a little tenser, displaying some discontent. Tony is not sure who it is directed at.

Tony is just glad to see that Bruce did not tell Thor. As far as he is concerned, that is as good a proof as any that he can trust Bruce.

Finally, Thor looks back at Tony. “You are afraid of him.”

Yes and no. Tony cannot forget what happened to him, even while believing that it will not happen again. Not like that. Steve might still hurt him again in the future but not with murderous intent based on revenge. The rest of the Avengers will not either, Tony is almost certain of that too.

“We had a rough start,” Tony admits, unwilling to get deeper into the matter, although he might need others to make sense of this. He does not know Thor, though, beyond the past days of having him constantly by his side. He does not know Bruce either, beyond having been saved by him. “He’s not an acute danger.”

“He does not want to hurt Tony again,” Bruce adds, which is not an absolution but seems to be enough for Thor. At least for now.

Despite knowing that on some level, Tony is still glad to hear it too. Bruce is still a better judge of this situation than Tony’s own, currently skewed feelings.

“So you want to know what happens when you reject him,” Thor clarifies, not stumbling over the words as if the mere idea is horrifying.

Rejecting one’s soulmates is often depicted as a terrible thing. People who do it are judged harshly, their every move questioned. It does, of course, take away some of the romanticism of having an ideal partner waiting somewhere out there.

“Yes. But also –” Tony interrupts himself, unsure how to make sense of his own needs. “Most literature doesn’t talk about cases like mine. We’re all supposed to happily fall in with each other, no questions asked. None of my friends has a bond, my parents weren’t a prime example either. It’s –” He shrugs, feeling helpless. “Does the bond ever settle?”

He cannot imagine life if it does not. How is he supposed to move on if Steve is always lurking underneath his own skin? If his own body keeps betraying him like this? He is not the first to feel this way, surely, but people do not like to listen to how these things can go wrong.

Everything is wrong with Tony now, however. He just wants to know whether he will ever feel normal again.

“We feel each other all the time, but it becomes a mostly subconscious thing,” Bruce says, his tone almost too gentle. “You always know there’s someone on the other side and you’ll notice if they’re feeling strong emotions or are in pain and things like that. But it stops to constantly draw your attention.”

If he settles into it. If he becomes comfortable with someone being bonded to him. If he does not fight. Bruce does not say any of that, but the implication lies heavily in the air, enough to clog Tony’s throat.

“My arm is still burning most of the time,” Tony says, almost subconsciously hiding said arm under the table – right up until he notices and puts it down on the tabletop, glaring at it.

He likes to think that is because both Steve and he are under constant stress at the moment. Of course, they are feeling very much. Of course, some of that translates through the bond. Once Obadiah is caught and Tony is safe again, it has to calm down. At least Tony clings to that hope.

“I can only speculate,” Bruce answers, and it is obvious from his expression that Tony will not like what he has to say. “But I think that is due to you still being undecided.”

Shame burns through Tony like someone has put a burning knife through his chest. “I’m not undecided,” he all but yells, the words scratching inside his throat. “I don’t want this. I never wanted it like this.”

He glares first at Bruce and then at Thor, daring them to argue, to tell him what he feels like people are so happy to do all the time. He did not choose to bond with Steve. It should not matter that he has reached out to Steve several times now. That is due to Obadiah, not because Tony secretly wants them to come together after all.

He is still bloody furious at fate for giving him such an impossible partner. Then again, Starks are meant for greatness. Happiness has never been part of that.

“All right,” Bruce says, his fork hovering uncertainly in the air. He sounds soothing but that only riles Tony up more.

“You don’t believe me,” Tony spats. A laugh tumbles over his lips after, heavy and bitter, directed mostly at himself.

He stares at his plate, nauseous all of a sudden. What does it say about him if he wants Steve after all that has happened?

“It’s not our place to believe you or not,” Bruce says, drawing Tony’s eyes back up to him. He looks slightly apologetic but not like he is going to take back what he said. “But as long as Stane is out there, as long as Stane is still between you and Steve, you won’t be able to make a decision either way.”

Tony thinks that is nonsense. He should be able to look at or talk to his soulmate and still decide not to let him close. It should not be a matter of distance or unfinished business between them.

Yet, deep down, he realizes Bruce is right. His perception of Steve has changed. First, he was a clear threat, now he is a tentative ally. They have talked without hurting each other, Steve is giving him space. None of that is erasing how they met, but it helps not to reduce Steve to just the brute mob boss Tony thought he was at first.

Perhaps Tony is undecided, but only in that he does not hate Steve anymore. He is not any closer to accepting the bond.

“We did not take to the bond lightly either,” Thor speaks up with a firm calmness to his tone, cleverly redirecting the conversation.

It works, pulling Tony from pondering his own misery to looking at Thor, surprised that they would freely offer information like that.

“What do you mean?”

They look at each other for a moment, long enough that Tony almost withdraws his question. It is obvious they did not agree beforehand on sharing their story, but Bruce does not look upset either, and when they turn back to him, it is Bruce who takes over.

“I hadn’t been with the Avengers for long. I still felt like I was on the run.” Bruce shrugs, his lips twisting into a sharp smile. “Technically I still am.” He softens again when Thor takes his hand, a simple gesture of comfort that has Tony’s heart bleeding. “We were going after someone who was doing business with one of Thor’s clients. It was a complete coincidence that Thor and I met at all.”

Most soulmates meet by accident, of course, although matchmaking databases grow ever more popular that organize meetings on a grand scale, allowing to sort through a lot of unmatched people in a short time. Tony always thought that was cheap, still hoping for a kinder meeting.

“I wasn’t looking for someone who’d only complicate my life,” Bruce continues, sounding like he is more than glad now for that complication.

“And I hadn’t been home long from the war. I was – unsettled,” Thor adds, hesitating to choose the right words. He still smiles at Bruce, face alight with a happy softness that makes him look like he is right at home with Bruce at his side.

If Tony still had any doubts whether they are telling the truth, they are now gone, just by seeing them close to each other. Jealousy rises hot and ugly in his chest, but Tony stamps it down ruthlessly. This is not about him, and he can easily acknowledge that he is happy for them.

“But you made it work?” Tony asks, despite seeing the clear evidence right in front of him. A part of him desperately needs to know how they got there, whether it was a choice or whether they simply stopped fighting the bond.

“We met up to get to know each other,” Bruce says as if it is that simple. It does not sound as if they hurt each other minutes within meeting, so perhaps, for them, it was. “Even if neither of us wanted a relationship it wouldn’t hurt to get another friend. Nobody said soulmates have to always be romantic and after – I never thought I would meet mine. I didn’t want to let the chance go.”

Even though he has only known Bruce for a short time, that sounds so very much like him that Tony finds himself smiling. Even when Bruce thought Tony was the enemy, during that horrible night in the warehouse, he extended him kindness and afterwards, he offered friendship.

No matter whether Bruce wanted his soulmate or not, he would naturally not let the chance go by. Even while being on the run from General Ross.

“And the bond wasn’t pushing for more?” Tony asks, curious more than hopeful.

He has noticed, of course, that the bond calms whenever he is having a mostly amicable conversation with Steve, content with them not fighting each other. It always flared back up afterwards, though, or whenever Tony comes to his senses and pushes Steve away.

Thor grimaces, glancing down at his arm. “It was rather intrusive in the beginning.”

Next to him, Bruce nods. “There’s a sudden, new presence settling inside your brain,” he says, always one to think in more scientific terms. Somewhat apologetic, he adds, “But we didn’t fight it. We became friends.”

Other than Tony and Steve. At that moment, Tony wonders what would happen if he rejected Steve but Steve kept pushing, wanting to pursue the bond after all. It seems unlikely they would ever get any peace like that. Although he does not think Steve would do that. Hopes for it, at least.

“The bond calmed down long before we even kissed,” Thor takes over again, probably noticing Tony’s unrest and trying to calm him down. “It took us two years to try a relationship, but we stopped noticing the bond perhaps a few months after meeting.”

Tony wants to ask what about me, but he knows that they will not have an answer to that. Months, he thinks, and wonders whether he could manage to deny the bond that long. Perhaps when Obadiah is gone and he does not feel vulnerable all the time anymore.

There is another pressing matter, however. Steeling himself, he asks, “What happened to the client you had when you met Bruce?”

If the Avengers were going after one of Thor’s client’s business partners, they could have easily been going after the client too. The question is whether Thor let them. All in the name of justice of course.

“The Avengers did not touch him,” Thor answers firmly, never leaving any doubt that he means what he is saying.

That has to be good enough. And Tony does breathe easier. Thor promised to protect him and Bruce has never posed much of a danger to him. He feels safe with them.

“Do you think you would have come together without the bond?” Tony asks. He feels bad for keeping to push questions on them, but he does not know anyone else who could have answers for him.

“No,” Thor answers. Tony is not sure how to feel about the complete conviction in his tone. “We’d never have met for dinner, would have never talked beyond the few words we shared concerning our jobs.”

Bruce nods but shrugs at the same time. “But if you’re asking whether we’re only together because of the bond, that answer is also no,” he says, likely knowing exactly what direction Tony’s thoughts have taken. “We might not have found each other without it, but becoming friends and falling in love took more than that.”

Without quite noticing it, Tony sits up straighter. That is what he has been waiting for.

“You still have a choice,” Thor says, allowing Tony to breathe deeply. “It is possible to reject the bond. It will not forever draw you towards Steve.”

It sounds liberating. They took the bond and made it theirs, in their own time, with their own stipulations. At the same time, it sounds too simple too.

“How do you know?” Tony questions, truly wondering. How can anything be their own choice with the bond already in place?

“There are studies about it, although only a few,” Bruce says, frowning slightly. “Soulmates are supposed to be the best thing that’s ever going to happen to us. It’s propagated as normal.”

“Isn’t it?”

Tony has read those studies Bruce talks about. He has had a lot of sleepless nights lately and a desire to take his mind off Obadiah – as if thinking about Steve would actually make things better. Too few people have been included to make the numbers actually representative. None of the individual cases was similar to Tony’s. All in all, they left him with more questions than answers.

“A lot of people never meet their soulmates. A growing number is born without any words at all. Not everybody deserves a soulmate or wants them.” Bruce leans forward. He has clearly thought about that even before he ever met Tony. “The bond doesn’t take your autonomy away.”

It sounds like his coming together with Thor was not as harmonic as this simple conversation propagates, and Tony has not expected it to. It is soothing to know that, despite their different circumstances, Bruce seems to have struggled too.

“You read up on that?” he asks anyway, never content with just guessing things.

Bruce looks at Thor, leans into his shoulder. “We ended up lucky. We liked each other. Thor didn’t get hung up on my past. We fit,” he says, his matter-of-fact tone never concealing that this must have been a surprise to him too. “That’s what the soul bond is supposed to do, of course, to show you the person you fit with best, but just because someone fits you doesn’t mean you have to accept them without question.”

Tony is not at all sure whether Steve and he fit together. They seem to both be stubborn and to want to make things right. Beyond that, they do not know each other at all. He does not know what compelled Steve to become a vigilante, but he knows about the small things even less. Where Steve comes from, whether he has family, what he does when he is not chasing criminals.

They have been set against each other from the very beginning, bringing in strong emotions before they even had a chance to get to know each other. Under different circumstances, Tony might not even be so opposed to Steve leading a mob. Perhaps he could see the good they are doing instead of searching constantly for their mistakes.

“Why was your past a problem?” Tony asks because that is easier than to wonder whether the rest of what Bruce said is true, whether he truly has a choice.

Bruce’s expression falls. It does not become closed off, but there is still pain there.

“We all make mistakes,” he says, keeping his head high even though his shoulders drop, causing him to slump further against Thor. “Thor doesn’t hold mine against me.”

The lab, Tony remembers. The entire building Bruce blew up so he could be entirely certain to destroy the data and experiments of whatever project he was working on for the military. The details were never made public and Bruce is not even on any official wanted list, thanks to General Ross’ anger and desire to deal with that treason himself. Without JARVIS’ help, Tony would have never found out about it either. And judging on Bruce’s face, any further questions are unwanted.

“But it is good now?” Tony asks, needing the clarification even though Bruce and Thor getting lucky will hardly change his own situation.

“It is just as perfect and imperfect as every other relationship,” Thor says, clearly taking over to give Bruce a moment to collect himself. “We love each other but we also argue. The difference is that you can also feel what the other person is feeling. With a bit of practice that is even rather accurate.”

They have given up all pretence of keeping a distance between them. Their shoulders are pressed together to the point of them keeping each other upright. Again, Tony is filled with longing at the sight, the words on his arm throbbing along with his heartbeat.

“Do you think –” Tony trails off, unsure how else to try to quell his fears other than with questions, without knowing what the right questions are.

Thor smiles at him, open and warm and not at all judging. “You will find some equilibrium.”

That does not equal peace but Tony guesses it is a good first step. And Thor makes it sound like a promise, so Tony has no other chance but to cling to that.

He looks down at his plate. The food is certainly cold by now, but he is not hungry anymore anyway. Still, he takes another bite, just to show that he is done interrogating them. Springing this on them was hardly fair, but Tony cannot feel guilty about it while he is also glad to have gotten some answers.

“Thank you for telling me,” he says, looking at both of them in turn. He hopes they know how much this means to him.

Bruce smiles, nodding as if in answer to Tony’s unasked question, but it is Thor who speaks up.

“It was the right thing to do.” He sounds so convinced about it, too, as if he has not only signed on to protect Tony’s life but also his feelings.

“But none of my business,” Tony cautions, basically giving them permission to tell him off.

Bruce’s eyes remain utterly serious when he says, “I meant it when I said I’d be there if you need anything.”

Tony breathes, wondering about how easy it is. He might have told himself he would not trust anyone after Obadiah’s betrayal, but here he is, mirroring Bruce’s smile.

“I believe you.”

Chapter Text

The next morning, Tony is glad to be greeted by Thor. They left things very amicably the night before, but a part of him still expected Thor to be gone when he left his penthouse for the day’s work.

Tony lay awake most night, mulling things over, and thinks he has come a little closer to peace. Choice is the big problem he has with this whole matter. Common sense tells him there is only one thing to do where it comes to Steve, but his own body is fighting against that. Or rather something new and terrifying that has settled inside his body as a chance of fate. Reason has nothing to do with the longing he feels. And yet he does not want to give it up completely either.

If Bruce is right and the bond will settle, even if it takes a while. Tony’s brain will be its own again and he can choose for himself.

“How is your apartment?” he asks Thor by way of greeting as they fall into step with each other on the way to Tony’s office.

For the duration of his contract, one of the guest apartments in the tower has been made available for Thor. Pepper overlooked their furbishing and Tony knows they are above standard – only the best for visiting investors or tech specialists. Thor has just assumed a more important role in Tony’s life, though, so Tony wants to make sure he has everything he needs.

“Very generous,” Thor answers, his brow slightly furrowed in surprise.

“Where’s Bruce living? At the base of –” he trails off. Nobody is close by to overhear them, but the nearly constant presence of the police and FBI has made Tony somewhat paranoid. The less they mention the Avengers, the less are the chances of anyone finding out about them.

“Yes,” Thor answers with more vehemence than Tony expected. “We wouldn’t have met up here without your knowledge.”

“Oh, that’s not –” Tony stumbles over the words in relief that his offer was not rebuffed before he could even make it. “He is welcome here. In your apartment, I mean, if you want to meet up somewhere out of sight.”

Thor looks at him from the side, but Tony keeps his eyes ahead. He does not particularly want to see what Thor is thinking, whether there is doubt visible on his face.

“Thank you, Tony,” Thor then says, his tone measured and unreadable. “We appreciate the offer but we don’t want to crowd you.”

Unable to help himself, Tony laughs. That could have come right out of Bruce’s mouth. He has an entire tower to hide inside here and JARVIS to look out for him to boot. Few people could disturb him here.

Tony stops walking and waits until Thor looks at him. “I don’t need space from you,” he says firmly, wondering since when he needs to convince people that he is not afraid of them. “You are welcome. Down in your apartment or up in mine.”

For a moment longer, Thor’s expression remains thoughtful, studying Tony’s face. Then he brightens and nods.

“Thank you,” he says, still not making any commitment, but that is enough for now. “We’ll keep that in mind.”

 


 

One of the unforeseen best things about having a bodyguard, Tony decides later that day, is that he has a viable excuse not to take things other people are handing him. He does not mind appearing eccentric, but things go so much more smoothly without others judging his character every time he refuses to take something from them.

Thor also has that quiet insistence that makes Tony punctual more than JARVIS’ reminders and Pepper’s disappointment do. Although that might be a situational thing. Once his world is not falling apart around him, Tony guesses he will be right back to being an irresponsible hermit hiding away in his workshop who does not come out for anything.

They are on their way to some meeting, when Tony decides to make a detour to Pepper’s office. He cannot get Agent Coulson out of his head. There had been something about him that goes beyond the doublehandedness of good investigators wanting to catch people in lies. Perhaps that is just his paranoia speaking, but he would like to avoid being caught off guard another time.

When they arrive at Pepper’s office, Tony wants to simply march in as he is used to do, but Thor quickens his pace for a moment and knocks. His expression does not change when he glances at Tony, but his eyes are swimming with amusement.

Pepper calls them in and Thor opens the door, staying in front of Tony until he has checked for potential threats. Tony keeps telling him that the tower is secure enough, that no one is going to sneak up on him here without JARVIS noticing, but a part of him appreciates the fact that Thor never seems to take his security lax.

“Tony, you have an appointment down in R&D,” Pepper calls when she looks up at Tony but takes the time to flash a smile at the both of them.

“I know, we’re on our way. I just have a quick question,” Tony promises. He gestures at Thor to stay in the room. This will not take long. “Do you know anything about Coulson?”

Pepper stares at him, caught off guard. “Agent Coulson? From the FBI?” Her expression evens out into something pensive, even as she shakes her head. “No, why?”

Because he ambushed Tony long after business hours were over and he has reason not to trust anyone at the moment.

“He’s digging,” Tony says simply. “I don’t know whether he knows more than he says, but he certainly pretends to, which means he is looking for something. Perhaps he needs me to confirm any of his suspicions.”

He tells himself this is why he was reluctant to allow the police into his home and company. They are making certain things more complicated than he is comfortable with. And now he finds himself in the unenviable position of having to cover up having been kidnapped and almost murdered. 

“The only thing he could reasonably suspect is that you were part of Stane’s deals,” Pepper points out, although she too sounds as if she knows what is at stake. “Since that isn’t true, we don’t have anything to worry about.”

At any other time, Tony would be glad to have her reassuring him. These days, though, that is not enough. He cannot let his guard down.

“He was asking about my injuries and knows I had broken ribs before the car crash.” Tony is still angry about the FBI accessing his medical records without permission. “He tried to get me to say that Obadiah wants to harm me, but that doesn’t make much sense. It would not make much of a difference to add attempted murder to the charges.”

Tony also does not want it on public record that his godfather almost succeeded with that, and so easily. So much of his life is already on record, people are always watching. If he can keep that part away from the vultures, he might sleep a little easier.

Sighing, Pepper looks at him, probably seeing the wariness stitched into his very posture. “Perhaps he is just taking his job seriously and wants to keep you safe,” she says but does not sound entirely convinced herself.

It is no surprise that she tries, anyway. One of the has to remain calm about all of this, and Tony is prone to reacting emotionally. 

“Yeah,” he says, shrugging for good measure as if she is going to believe his nonchalance. “Just, be careful when you talk to him?”

Pepper smiles, but it is full of sharp edges, threatening to cut anyone daring to cross her. “I’ve been guarding your secrets since the day we met, Tony,” she says, her tone almost gentle despite the ferociousness with which she usually fights for him. “I’m not going to say anything about them, even if I don’t completely agree with you covering for them.

When all of this is over, he owes her a vacation and a wagonload of shoes. And when she is back, he will have the paperwork ready to make her CEO. Stark Industries would not be standing anymore without her, and Tony includes himself in that.

“Thank you,” he says, hoping she knows how much he means it.

Pepper nods, looking at him for a moment longer before she turns back to her computer, nothing soft in her features anymore. “Now, get out of my office so I can get back to work.”

They leave and Tony grins to himself as they do. Pepper is a miracle and a saint, and he does not know what he would do without her.

As they reach the elevator, Tony does not call it to them but looks whether anyone is within earshot before he turns to Thor.

“You heard everything, right?” he asks. Ignoring the occasional danger, Thor’s job must be riddled with interesting tidbits about his employers. He might usually sit outside the office or stand in the back like a golem waiting to be activated, but he does have functioning ears.

Thor turns to him, expression serious. “I’m not going to repeat anything I hear while I’m employed by you.” If possible, he sounds hurt that Tony would insinuate that.

“That’s good to know but not what I meant,” Tony reassures him. Thor already knows too much to even contemplate the idea of not trusting him with this. Also, he is invested in Bruce’s well-being and is therefore unlikely to betray the Avengers. “Have you noticed anything strange about Coulson?”

Another thing Tony likes about Thor is that he thinks before he answers, like he takes every question seriously and does not just aim for the answer that is most likely to please whoever he is talking to.

“I am sure that he is more dangerous than he appears, and good at his job too,” Thor replies slowly, looking at the wall like he is picturing Coulson, remembering their last meeting. “But I don’t think he has any malicious intent.”

The problem is, even good intentions can harm all of them at the moment. Tony was hurt, and denying that harbours as much danger as admitting it. 

“Do you think he might know about the Avengers?” Tony asks. He keeps his tone low and is still worried someone might overhear, although they are alone in front of the elevator.

Life would be much easier if Tony could be selfish in this matter. Still, he does not even consider it.

“Why would you ask that?” Thor counters, looking instantly more alert.

Beyond how insistent Coulson had been, Tony only has his gut instinct to go on. “He seemed adamant that I consider that Obadiah might hire someone to harm me. He –” Tony interrupts himself, searching for the right words. “He didn’t explicitly ask if that happened, but it felt like he knew more than he was saying.”

That could range anywhere from knowing Tony was taken to Tony covering for the Avengers. He is not sure how dangerous Coulson could be even if he does not have any proof.

“He appears to be rather correct when it comes to sticking to the law,” Thor says. Then, as if he read Tony’s thoughts, he adds, “If he knew about a group of vigilantes operating right under his nose, I’m certain he would have already done something about them.”

In a way, that makes sense, even though it does not soothe the worry sitting inside Tony, welling up whenever the world quiets down around him. There is so much he has to keep in mind, so many loose ends and possible problems, so many things that can go wrong. The Avengers’ fate is currently intertwined with his own and that makes all of them vulnerable. 

“He can’t find anything out,” Tony says, surprised by the urgency in his own tone, even while Thor looks like he expected it.

Thor takes a step forward, almost looking like he is going to offer comfort, but then he stops at a distance where they can simply talk in lower tones without attracting attention if someone were to pass by.

“They have protocols in place to vanish if someone were to come after them,” Thor reassures him, then shrugs right after. “I obviously don’t know any details, but Bruce told me enough to know that Black Widow is efficient.”

Tony believes that without any doubt. He cannot forget the ease with which she hoisted the unconscious body of his would-be attacker onto the motorbike, the way she never faltered or stopped to think like this was all mere routine. Natasha does not leave anything to luck. She probably has a dozen protocols in place if Tony becomes a danger to them too, although he does not like to think of that. For the moment, they are allies. Until this thing is over and they can all go their separate ways, he wants to keep it that way.

“I’d rather they did not have to disappear,” Tony says before he knows what he is doing.

It takes effort to keep his face under control as he realizes what he just admitted. He cannot even blame it on the bond because it is almost quiet at the moment, just a low hum he barely notices when he is not actively concentrating on it.

He drops his eyes, studying the carpet beneath their feet as if that is going to keep Thor from following up on that.

“Why?”

And there it is. Tony shrugs, aiming for nonchalance, although he knows Thor is not going to believe it. “I’ve got enough on my conscience,” he says, still looking down.

It is not as easy as that, of course. They are connected and they do protect each other to a certain point, but Tony is not responsible for keeping them safe. With how much damage he has done to the world over the past years, it is impossible not to want to keep something safe for once.

Thor makes a movement that Tony is sure only serves to get him to look up, but he does so anyway. He should not get into the habit of appearing ashamed. The public would eat him alive.

“What they have done and whether they will be prosecuted for it is hardly on you,” Thor intones firmly, as if words will be enough to keep Tony from feeling guilty.

Now that he has raised his eyes again, it is hard to keep them away from Thor, who looks so earnest that it is hard to argue with him.

“No, but if they are found out because I’m careless would be. If not for –” Tony cuts off awkwardly and gestures vaguely with his left arm, trusting Thor to understand this is about the soul bond without having to say the words out loud where anybody could hear them. “I would never know enough about them to pose a danger to them.”

They would have thrown him out and Tony would have crawled home, perhaps never finding out about Obadiah until the next time someone tried to kill him.

“You shouldn’t burden yourself with that,” Thor says, sounding serious enough that Tony almost wants to give in. Almost. 

“Well, too late,” Tony quips, forcing a wry smile on his face.

He does not know what it is that puts him so at ease with Thor. They barely know each other and Tony has not the best track record with letting people close, but he has felt safe with Thor from the very beginning. Since sitting down with him and Bruce, they seem to have stepped over some threshold, catapulting them firmly into the realm of friends without stumbling through the awkward phase of learning to trust each other first.

The thing is, he does not even mind. Thor is capable and smart and probably dangerous in his own right, but Tony believes Thor is on his side. That is apparently all it takes these days.

Tony turns towards the elevator and finally presses the button. “J, find out everything you know about Philip Coulson,” he says out loud while they wait.

“I’ll get right on it, sir,” his faithful AI answers, and Tony feels the same wave of gratefulness rush through him he always does when JARVIS is on his side, even though it is arguably written into his code albeit Tony leaves his creations enough free will to think for themselves.

Quietly, Thor steps forward to be in front when the elevator doors open. “It might raise eyebrows if you dig into the FBI agent in charge of the investigation,” he says, not quite an admonishment but having the ring of one.

“Then it’s a good thing they’ll never find out.” Tony glances at him from the side, trying to gauge what he thinks. “You don’t approve?”

Thor takes a minute to answer, and then he does not look away from the elevator. “It’s not my place to approve or disapprove.”

For a moment, Tony is taken aback. Thor has never withheld his opinion before, even though he is often careful about wording it.

“Bullshit,” Tony says, louder than he planned. It serves to get Thor to look at him. “I think we passed the normal employer-employee relationship already. You’re good at hovering menacingly in the background, but I like to hear your thoughts, too. Whoever said one can’t have brawns and brains was obviously wrong.”

A smile tugs at Thor’s lips and Tony sees his shoulders relax marginally. “I’m not sure anybody ever said that,” Thor says, the humour back in his voice.

“I did. Just now. Or I negated it.” Tony waves his hand dismissively.

The elevator arrives and they both file in. Thor presses the button for the R&D main floor. Tony waits until he turns back around before he asks, “Anyway, what do you think?”

Thor keeps smiling, although it turns a bit sharper, like he hoped Tony would drop the matter. When he looks at Tony, he is completely serious, though. “It must be tempting to look for treason at every corner right now, but perhaps Agent Coulson is just doing his job and does not want to risk a civilian getting harmed.”

What Thor is saying makes sense. Tony is tempted to expect everybody to stab him in the back, but he was raised that way, with a ton of expectations on his shoulders and the knowledge that there is no other way but forward while people from all sides will always try to trip him.

“You know that I’m still going to look into him, yes?” Tony asks, mostly to lighten the mood a bit.

“Yes,” Thor replies, almost a sigh. “I just think you shouldn’t read too much into whatever you’re going to find.”

Tony will try not to, but he cannot let go of this. Perhaps he is becoming too distrusting, but after having been lied to for most of his life by his own godfather he should be allowed a bit of paranoia.

“You’re welcome to remind me when we’re at that point,” Tony says, grinning when he catches Thor rolling his eyes. When the elevator doors open, he adds, “Now, we’re going to be late for – where are we going?”

He is staying in the tower all day, he knows that, so he figured he would not have to prepare too much for any meeting he might have. This is his kingdom, he should know how to handle all problems arising here. Potentially, at least.

“The interviews for the project manager for the new StarkPhone,” Thor reminds him with humour in his tone. It is only a question of time until he will sound as exasperated with him as Pepper does. “Which is a rather pretentious name, if I might say so.”

Tony mock-gasps as they step out of the elevator. “My old man started the tradition of plastering our name easily visible on every one of our products until our name was seen equal to weaponry, even though we did a few other things,” he says, more serious than his initial reaction might have suggested. “So, I’m not going to break with that in the hopes of turning our public image around a bit through it.”

Making their products recognizable is a valid marketing strategy. If people start using Stark as something other than an insult or alias for objects of destruction that will be a nice side effect.

“Then let’s get going and make sure that the project doesn’t flounder before you’ve even properly started it,” Thor remarks good-naturedly and starts leading them towards the conference rooms.

It surprises Tony time and again how well Thor knows the tower despite having only worked here for such a short time. He must have scouted the entire thing to never flounder, no matter where they are going. 

“If you’re going to act as my conscience and make me stick to my schedule on top of being my bodyguard, you should talk to Pepper about a raise,” Tony says and means it. Already, Thor has been worth all the money they are paying him, if mostly because he enables Tony to feel safe.

Thor chuckles quietly, even while he shakes his head. “I’ll cash that in if we really get you alive through this.”

“Nothing has happened since we hired you,” Tony says, although he knows that could easily be due to Obadiah biding his time. He does not believe for a minute that his godfather is giving up. That is just not in his nature, which means that Tony is not yet safe.

Before his mood can sour, Thor looks at him, his expression fond even while he appears exasperated. “And yet you insist on torturing your body with too little food and next to no sleep.”

Everybody is conspiring to get Tony to change his self-care behaviour. One might think that they have bigger problems than whether Tony had dinner or stayed up all night trying to come up with more projects to keep his company afloat. But no, Pepper has found a valiant ally in nagging Tony.

“I liked you better when you called me Mr. Stark and still respected me,” Tony mutters, glaring at Thor half-heartedly, which only serves to make him laugh out loud.

“That was literally only for the first minute after meeting each other,” Thor says, still sounding too amused.

That is enough to make Tony smile too. Thor is infectious that way. “Better times,” he muses. Then he nods at the conference room ahead and smooths his face over into an appropriate mask of seriousness. “Now, let’s get our game faces on and get to work.”

 


 

Steve has not slept since the attack on Tony’s life. He had been feeling guilty before that he was going against Tony’s explicit wishes by having him followed. While that turned out to be a wise decision, he cannot help but think now that they should have done more. The attack failed, but Tony’s driver still got hurt and it could have easily been worse.

The moment they got the offer to take Tony out, he should have called Tony and made sure he was aware of the renewed threat. He just did not want to put even more on Tony, even more ugly realizations, more pressure. Steve is still not sure why Tony chose to believe him even before he went to look for more evidence.

Over the past days, Tony has been very visible. Every day there are new articles about Stark Industries. Accompanying those more often than not are pictures of Tony. He looks fine in them. Better than fine. The bruises are all gone, his eyes look less empty. Still, Steve wants to reach out and gather Tony up in his arms.

Even more so since Stane’s disappearance. Knowing that he was so close to Tony all this time is one thing, but being unable to guess where the next strike is coming from is much worse. It is like Stane disappeared into thin air. He must have planned for it for a while, and Steve does not like it when a target is always two steps ahead of him.

Since Tony apparently hired Thor, they can at least loosen the strict schedule of keeping an eye on him so they can concentrate on finding Stane. Strangely, that just makes Steve feel even more removed from Tony, even though Steve has never gone out himself to shadow him. That, he figured, would have been even more of a betrayal.

The involvement of the police now complicates matters further, of course. He half-expects the police to burst through their door any moment now, although he immediately feels guilty for that. Tony has all the right in the world to give them up, but it is not fair to him to think that he would. He protected Natasha after the assassination attempt, he did not swear revenge on Bucky and Clint, he never even threatened Steve with setting the police on them.

Word could still get out. Either Tony or his friends could accidentally – or on purpose, of course – reveal information about the Avengers. They should have already left New York. With sending word about Stane to Tony, they should have considered their job done and disappeared for their own safety. Steve has not considered that once, however, and none of his teammates said anything about it either.

He cannot leave Tony now, not while he is still in danger and Stane’s next, and hopefully, last strike is imminent. Dealing with their situation afterwards will be hard enough, but he cannot even contemplate abandoning Tony in his hour of need. He would send the rest of the team back to DC if it became necessary, but he would stay himself.

Steve is restless, unable to sit or sleep. Walking the base, he finds Clint and Natasha in the office, staring at their screens and barely looking up when he enters. 

“Any sign of Stane?” Steve asks, although he knows there is not. They would not have kept that information from him.

“He’s a slippery bastard,” Clint says without even glancing at Steve. “The money he has hidden away certainly helps.”

Since their last argument, they have taken care not to be caught alone with each other. Steve cannot get Clint’s words out of his mind, waiting for the moment that Tony decides he is really done with him. Rejecting a bond comes with an emotional toll, but more so for the one who is being rejected than the one who is desperately trying to get away.

Already, Steve’s entire life has been turned upside down. His priorities have always been clear. Bucky, his team, their mission. Logically, Tony should not replace any of them or push them down the line. He does not know Tony, not beyond this mess they have found themselves in.

Feelings are another matter altogether. The soul bond might have not been formed by choice, but Steve is holding onto it anyway. Voluntarily. Desperately even.

He has always fallen for people like that. Abruptly, not doing anything half-heartedly. Categorizing someone as friend or enemy usually only ever takes him a split second. Some part of Steve has decided that Tony is his friend and that is that.

“So nothing?” Steve asks, despite knowing better.

“No, Steve,” Natasha drawls, a clear warning in her tone. “We know exactly where he is, but we’re waiting to pounce to add to the drama.”

She is invested in this search, Steve knows, and that is not just due to wanting to take down another criminal. Steve is not sure what happened between her and Tony the night of the attack, but she came home with renewed determination to make this right.

“I was just asking.” Steve raises his hands in front of him. He has asked a dozen times today already and he probably will keep doing so.

Natasha looks up, focusing only on him for a long moment. Whatever she sees, she is not happy about it. “You should get out of here for a while,” she then says, her tone just short of an order.

Instinct has Steve taking a step back as if Natasha is going to bodily throw him out. “I’m not going back to DC while Tony is still in danger,” he snaps, insulted that she thinks she could cut him out that easily.

Also, Sam is doing fine in DC. They do not need him there, running around heedlessly, unable to concentrate on anything but Tony.

“I wouldn’t have dared to propose that,” Natasha says. Her expression clearly says that, if she wanted Steve out of New York, she would manage that no matter what he says. “I just meant you should talk a walk, look at something else than security feeds and dead ends.”

A walk? They do not have time for that. What if something else happens while he is out stretching his legs? He could never live with himself.

“I don’t need a break,” Steve says, fighting the urge to cross his arms. There is nothing to get defensive about.

“I agree with Natasha,” Clint speaks up. Of course, he does. “Get out of here. You won’t make us find Stane faster if you’re hovering.”

The both of them stare at him, urging him to take them by their word. It is only when Bruce appears suddenly at his side without Steve having noticed him coming into the room at all, that he thinks they might be right. He does need a break. All his senses are running haywire, pulling him into every direction without making anything easier.

“You might even miss something if you keep staring at screens,” Bruce says when Steve still does not move. He knows exactly how to push Steve into doing something he does not want to do. Orders have never worked well on him, but dangling the mere thought of failure in front of him will make him run as fast as he can.

Steve takes a deep breath, acknowledging to himself that he is going to do the smart thing before he says it out loud. “Call me if you find something. Anything.”

Clint opens his mouth, likely to offer another comment dripping with sarcasm, but Natasha cuts him off. “We will,” she promises. “Now shush. We’re working.”

He should probably point out that they have been looking for Stane nonstop too. Steve is not even sure when Natasha came back in last night after doing who knows what, probably rounding up old contacts or sniffing out sensible hiding places. Clint is gone quite often too. While Steve does not envy them their past as spies, it feels like they are able to do a whole lot more than him, who has to stay back and sort through data, worrying about Tony from the safety of his home.

“And if –”

“Steve, go,” Bruce interrupts him in a firm tone, leaving Steve no other choice but to comply.

Nodding his head abruptly, Steve turns around and marches out of the room and out of their base without looking back. He barely takes the time to pick up his jacket, just so he will not slink back into the office, hoping they will have changed their mind.

He cannot help being nervous. Part of that is certainly the soul bond, but mostly it is simply the feeling that he has failed Tony. After preaching a dozen times that he wants to keep Tony safe, Stane still managed to get a hit in and vanish afterwards. And now they are not any closer to finding him. He does not regret letting Tony deal with this in his own time, but he should have kept a closer look on things. If something happens to Tony now, it will be on him.

Chapter Text

The sun is shining. That is in such stark contrast to the swirling darkness of Steve’s thoughts, that he stands very still when he first steps out of the base, blinking against the brightness. He wants to immediately turn around and get back to work. His team might just lock him out, however, so he needs to at least make an effort. A walk around the block will surely satisfy them enough to give him a break.

Every step Steve takes makes his breathing easier. Fresh air and natural warmth and the sounds of other, happier people fill him, offering him the kind of energy he has become a stranger to over the past days.

He walks and walks, much farther than that one block. He finds himself a small park, drinks in the green around him, breathes. Then he keeps walking and stops only when he sees the Stark Tower looming in the background. The mere sight has his heart aching.

Communication with Tony has been scarce. A few texts, mostly to keep each other updated. After their last phone call, Steve has had hope that they would find some grounds to talk more comfortably on. With everything that is happening, it should not surprise him that Tony has much bigger worries than the soulmate he never asked for.

Tired all of a sudden, Steve goes into the first café he finds, intent on resting his legs and perhaps watching the tower a bit longer. When it was first built, he thought it ugly and too modern. Now that he knows that Tony resides at the very top and has seen some of the other marvels Tony’s brain has created, Steve sees the beauty in it. It is not so much the outside but what is held within, the potential, the future.

He is getting sappy and he cannot completely explain why. The soul bond has been curiously quiet. A constant stream of worry and exhaustion passes between them, but it has settled into something less obtrusive.

On a whim, Steve sends a text to Tony. It is a terrible idea that will most likely backfire, but he cannot help himself.

Do you want to have lunch with me?

He is lonely. Even with half of his team close, his best friend among them, Steve feels a kind of loneliness he has not experienced before. All of a sudden, he feels like some part of him is missing, even though he used to be comfortable in his own skin.

To some extent, that is certainly due to the soul bond. He has found the one person who is supposed to complete him, but things have not turned out so well. Worse than that, though, is the fact that meeting Tony showed him that the work they are doing as the Avengers is not as good as he thought.

They started this whole thing to bring some justice where it was lacking. It was ridiculous to think that they are not infallible, that they will not make mistakes. Perhaps Steve did know that but it was an acceptable sacrifice as long as they did more good than bad. Well, and as long as it did not involve his soulmate.

Staring down at his phone, Steve is almost convinced that Tony is going to ignore him. He does not have any reason to indulge Steve. Then, however, his phone chimes.

??? Tony writes, followed by, Have you lost your mind?

Despite the ache inside his chest, Steve smiles. He might be crazy. Who would be able to tell? He got into this world a little defective, throwing himself into every available fight, and he never grew out of that. Only now, he is searching for bigger causes. And he has finally learned how to pack a punch.

My team threw me out to take a walk. Steve writes back. When was the last time you had a break?

Tony takes a while to answer. Long enough that Steve is convinced he is not going to get a reply at all. It was a long shot anyway. He still keeps staring at the screen, exhaling in relief when a new message comes in.  

My company is falling apart. I don’t have time for breaks.

Of course, Tony is busy. He has to deal with his business on top of his private problems. But Steve is too delighted that Tony is writing back at all to back down now. You will feel better if you get some fresh air.

This time, it does not take Tony any time at all to answer. I doubt seeing you will make me feel better.

That stings. It is nothing Steve does not deserve. But. He did not choose Tony as little as Tony chose him. Whatever fate thought by pushing them together, they are bonded now. Steve is just trying to make the best of that. At least until this entire ugly business is over and he will have to accept what Tony decides.

Before Steve can think of anything to reply that does not sound like he is pushing Tony, another text comes in.

Where are you?

Unable to comprehend the question, Steve stares at the screen, reading it over and over again. Is Tony really asking where he is to come over? To actually meet Steve? It is possible, of course, that Tony just wants to make sure to avoid the entire block for the rest of the day so he will not run into Steve. Somehow, Steve does not believe that.

Not giving himself any more time to doubt, Steve sends Tony the name and address of the café, then sits back in his chair, feeling winded like he has just sprinted the entire way to the tower and back.

Give me fifteen minutes.

Steve cannot believe his luck. It is entirely possible that this will just end in another argument, another reason why it will not work out for them to stay in each other’s lives. It is also a chance, though. And Steve desperately hopes for something to go right for once.

Now, he can do nothing but wait.

 


 

Tony is not sure why he is doing this. He needs to get out of the tower, needs to get away from the constant reports from the police that only ever tell him the same: his godfather made a huge mess, ruining countless lives, but is still nowhere to be found. Memories and disappointment lurk at every corner.

The future does not look very bright at the moment. Neither his personal one – his stance regarding the Avengers in general and Steve in particular has not actually changed – nor Stark Industries’. His board of directors is running rampant, demanding answers while heaping the blame for this mess on everyone but themselves. Mostly on Tony. Obadiah is his godfather, after all, no matter they have been working with Obadiah for much longer than Tony.

“Thor,” Tony calls as he comes out of his office. “We’re going out.”

Thor is sitting in the chair usually reserved for his secretary. Tony does not spend enough time in this office to know if he even has a secretary anymore. Pepper usually takes care of everything for him.

So, for now, he has a giant, blonde guard dog sitting outside his door, who might not glare at everyone walking past but is nonetheless very strict about who is getting in to see Tony. Even under Pepper, Tony has never had a schedule as thoroughly planned as he does now with Thor responsible for his protection.

Thor has not had the job for an entire week but has been running a tight ship from day one. Pepper and he are getting along splendidly, and Tony has decided to just do what they tell him to do for the time being. It gives him an opportunity to stop overthinking everything.

“There’s nothing on your schedule,” Thor says slowly as he scans Tony’s appointments for the day. That is mostly for show because he knows everything Tony is doing for at least the next two weeks.

Tony hopes he will not need the extra security anymore in two weeks and that, shortly after that, he can go back to hiding himself away in his workshop instead of being the very visible head of his company.

“I shouldn’t have to put lunch on my schedule,” Tony says as he comes to a halt in front of Thor’s desk, tapping his fingers somewhat impatiently on the wood. “Pepper keeps telling me that other people just feel the need to eat every now and then and don’t forget about lunch.”

Looking up, Thor narrows his eyes at Tony. He looks like he knows something is up. Tony is probably not a very complicated creature to see through

“You never go outside if you don’t have to,” Thor remarks dryly, not hiding the question behind his words.

He is right. The past week, Tony has been out and about constantly, meeting with the press or investors or pitching ideas to his R&D department or pushing his board into going along with his plans. Normally, Tony leaves these things to other people to concentrate fully on his projects. Thor is observant enough to know that – and has asked the right people.

“Are you doubting my decisions?” Tony asks, sounding more snappish than he planned to. The thing is, he is not so sure himself what he is doing. Writing Steve is one thing, but going out to meet him? That just screams bad idea.

“Verily,” Thor replies with a smile. Up until now, he is showing a remarkable restraint when it comes to dealing with Tony’s moods. “But you’re the boss. Where are we going?”

Tony rattles off the name of the café, waiting for the inevitable question of who they are meeting there – because Thor is right, Tony does not just go out, not without a reason. Some part of him is hoping that Thor is going to talk him out of this meeting, but Thor simply nods and gets to his feet.

“I take it this is a spontaneous thing?” he asks. His tone is curious, but there is a slight frown on his face that echoes Tony’s reluctance.

“Yes,” Tony replies, although he thinks this might have been a long time coming. He has tried to keep his distance, but Steve and he are orbiting each other. If not for Obadiah’s betrayal, Tony might have been able to make a clean cut and keep the Avengers out of his life – but without Obadiah, they might as well have never met.

Thor is not happy with their impromptu outing since that means he is unable to scout ahead and make sure they are not walking into a trap. He is taking his job surprisingly serious. Tony does not worry about his physical safety, though. There is a lot to be said about Steve, but Tony is sure he is not working with Obadiah. The mental impact of that meeting, on the other hand, is not something he can predict.

They take a nondescript car, looking the same as what dozens of Stark Industries’ employees drive, and Tony is well-hidden between tinted glass. It still feels a bit ridiculous, the raised security, like everyone is trying to wrap Tony up in a dozen blankets to keep him from getting as much as a scratch.  

Tony is nervous. This will be the first time since the warehouse that he will come face to face with Steve. This is not a phone call or a bunch of texts. He cannot put down the phone and be done with it. He can still get up and walk out, he has Thor with him to keep Steve away, but it is still different. He is not yet sure whether good or bad different.

At the door of the café, Tony hesitates, looking at Thor.

“I will stay in the back,” Thor offers lightly, reading Tony’s reluctance easily.

Tony shrugs. He is looking for some kind of reassurance, even though he knows he cannot get it from Thor. So, instead of waiting for something impossible, Tony simply pushes the door open and goes in.

His eyes scan the small room, but they are immediately drawn to Steve, who is sitting in the back at the window, bouncing his leg like he, too, is nervous.

While Steve is staring into the distance, he notices Tony the moment he comes into view. And then they look only at each other. Steve appears smaller than Tony remembers. It might be the light or the fact that Tony is not in pain this time. There are bags under his eyes and the leather jacket he wears does not hide the atrocious shirt underneath. He is surprisingly human for someone who has first plagued Tony’s nightmares and then hounded Tony about his safety almost constantly.

For a moment, they all look at each other. Tony stares at Steve while Steve stares back, and Tony supposes Thor is assessing possible threats, or he is quietly judging Tony’s bad idea. After a few moments, he clears his throat, drawing Tony’s attention to him.

“I’ll let you talk,” Thor says simply, then gestures at the table closest to the door. “I’ll stay right here.”

It is the polite thing to do, but Tony still wants to ask him to stay, now that Steve is a reality in front of him instead of just a bad idea. He is not sure whether he wants Thor there as a statement that Tony does not trust Steve, or simply to calm his nerves.

The only thing to do, then, is to walk forward, although Tony’s feet feel like they are encased by lead, and his arm is burning with something that might be anticipation.

The walk is too short for Tony to compose himself. He could have taken the entire way from the tower by foot and not managed that, of course. A few feet and he is standing right in front of Steve.

Even from close up, he is not as threateningly huge as he was that night. His shoulders are drawn up, his fingers entangled with each other in a nervous knot. 

“Tony.” Steve greets, a hoarseness in his tone that resonates within Tony.

He looks up searchingly, lacking the cockiness he had during that first night. In fact, he appears to have lost most of his confidence somewhere over the past weeks.

“Steve,” Tony says, the name coming over his lips easier than he thought it would. With a jerk, he closes the last bit of distance to the table and sits down. It puts them on more equal footing.

He does not know what else to say, however. On the way here, he pictured them having another argument, to set boundaries, to perhaps plan for what to do if the police will not find Obadiah. He expected Steve to talk, certainly, to perhaps talk so much that Tony would not get in a word edgewise.

Instead, they are simply staring at each other. Waiting, wondering, wishing. When a minute passes, Tony’s heartbeat slows into something more regular. He is still nervous but not afraid.

When the silence becomes too much, they both start talking at once.

“Are you –”

“Why did you –”

Steve cuts himself off so abruptly when he notices that Tony is trying to ask a question that Tony almost feels sympathy for him. Normally, they should laugh about this and ease into a more comfortable conversation. Instead, Tony just trails off too, leaving them right where they started.

Biting his lip, Steve says, “You first.”

That is nice of him, Tony guesses, conveying that Steve is willing to listen to what he has to say. That, despite Steve being the one who invited Tony, Tony is going to have room here.

Tony thinks he would appreciate this more if he were not afraid to say the wrong thing or to put them right back to being at odds with each other. Then again, Steve does not look like he has any confidence to spare either.

“This is awkward,” he says out loud, as if that is going to change what he feels. Emotion acknowledged, move on to the next one.

It causes Steve to smile, and he looks charming like that. A far cry from the frowning mob boss or the panicked voice over the phone. For from the man who thought they could simply jump from being enemies to being soulmates, too.

“We’re not friends,” Tony exclaims, a bit more forceful than intended. It works in that it wipes the smile from Steve’s face. Curiously. Tony does not feel any satisfaction, just loss.

That only increases his irritation because he should not care for Steve’s feelings. That is the surest way to more heartbreak – or to insanity.

A waiter appears with two cups of coffee and two sandwiches, which he puts in front of them.

“The gentleman at the table at the door ordered for you,” the waiter says, gesturing needlessly at Thor, who is giving Tony a stern look that undoubtedly means he is going to watch whether Tony actually eats.

The mere thought of food has Tony’s stomach roiling, but he guesses that is his punishment for dragging Thor out here without prior warning despite Obadiah having put a price on his head.

“Tell him to stop meddling and to order anything he likes,” Tony tells the waiter, not without glaring back at Thor.

“He anticipated you saying that and already did,” the waiter replies, not bothering to hide his amusement, before he leaves.

Tony already knows he is going to leave a generous tip, even if Steve and he manage to actually have a civil conversation and not turn this café into the stage for their next big fight.

Refusing to look up at Steve, Tony reaches for his coffee. It is too hot to drink, but the scent alone helps to soothe his nerves.

“I was glad to hear you hired Thor,” Steve speaks up, still sounding strangely cautious, almost afraid of how his words will be received.

This version of Steve is very different from the one Tony first met when he was kidnapped but also from the one that insisted on pestering Tony about his safety and his plans. This Steve knows he is not in control, that there is no plan to follow, that there is no way of telling where they will end up. They are both thrown by that.

“He managed to say all the right things when I asked him about you,” Tony answers, feeling a little vindictive about being able to tell Steve that Thor is on his side. He cannot be sure, of course, but so far, he has never felt unsafe with Thor at his side.

Steve looks through the room at Thor and Tony refuses to follow his gaze. He does not want to know whether they are communicating silently, does not want to have to interpret Thor’s expression.

“So you trust him?” Steve then asks. He does not sound resentful, which is the only reason Tony decides to answer.

“I trust him to keep me safe,” he says. He does not exactly mean to imply that he does not completely trust Steve to do the same, but he does not amend his words when Steve winces. “He makes sure we have all the meetings we can in the tower, and that all outside locations are secure. He knows my schedule by heart, and he knows that the greatest danger comes from my godfather.”

Steve perks up at that, although he does not speak at once but searches Tony’s face. Tony tells himself it does not matter what Steve finds there.

“You didn’t tell him about us?”

Tony takes a sip of his coffee now, which is still hot but burns less than the thought of falling into another argument right now. “He knows,” he then says shortly, swallowing a There’s nothing to tell.

Only there is. Tony cannot quite say how it happened. He has not forgiven Steve, not by far, but he is still sitting with him in a café without being under duress, drinking coffee. He might not see his soulmate in Steve, but he does not just think of him as a cold-blooded mob boss anymore either.

Some part of Tony is sure that is due to Steve knowing the entire story from the very beginning. Tony lied to his friends. Or, well, he omitted certain things, which is why everything is less straightforward than they think. Even now that they know about Steve, they cannot understand why Tony does not just turn his back on him. He tried, but the soul bond and necessity had him turning back time and again.

Tony puts his coffee cup down with a click and looks at Steve, studying him like this might be the last chance he will ever get.

“What are we doing here?”

Steve’s expression turns stricken as if Tony has just rejected him again, told him to leave and never come back. That is not at all Tony’s intention, though. He just really wants to know where this is leading. Where this can lead since they have already ruined their chances of going about this any normal way.

“I told you,” Steve answers quietly, tapping his fingers against the top of the table in a nervous pattern. “I was forced to get out of the base and realized that fresh air might be exactly what I need.”

That is a more specific answer than Tony was hoping for, but it was probably too much to ask for a solution to their entire soulmate problem at once.

“So this is not a setup?” Tony asks because that is just as pressing a concern.

He is still not sure why he agreed to meet with Steve. It was a mixture between wanting to get out of the tower and wishing to perhaps settle at least one of his battles. He will find out soon enough whether he is going to regret this.

“Tony, no,” Steve says, a new urgency to his tone. His eyes are wide, underlined by the dark bags beneath them. “I mean, I hoped we could talk, but not like that.” He looks at Tony, waiting for some sign that he is believed. And Tony does. “I’m not here about Stane, although I hope you know we’re ready to help if you need us to. I’m here because of you.”

What is that supposed to mean? Tony does not ask that. Some part of him already knows. The same part that pushed him into coming. A part entirely separate from the soul bond, although that, too, feels smugly satisfied with what is happening.

“Are you staying out of it?” Tony questions. That is easier than to give in and talk about what he may or may not be feeling.

Steve’s eyes drop but only for a second, then he drags them back up and looks at Tony with what could be a challenge but feels more like openness.

“We are looking for Stane. That’s what we do,” he says firmly, looking like nothing is going to move him from this. Luckily, Tony does not want him to. “But if we find him, you will be the first to know.”

Tony’s shoulders slump before he has fully decided whether he trusts Steve to do as he says. He is tired of finding more enemies and obstacles around every corner. He is tired of constantly running, either to escape fate or to stay ahead at least a few feet.

The coffee draws him in. He picks it up, swallows half of it in one go. Then he reaches for the sandwich but does not eat it as much as he begins to methodically shred it.

“I don’t have time for this,” Tony says, even while he makes no move to get up and leave. He came. He is here. He does not know where else to go.

Steve leans forward. The movement is not threatening as much as it seems desperate in the same way that Tony feels but hopes he does not show.

“We have a truce,” Steve exclaims as if Tony has been arguing that fact, as if he has attempted to take that back. “I don’t want to push, but I worry about you. I don’t know how much of that is the bond, but even if it’s just that, it’s sending constant distress signals.”

They are both looking down at their arms. Of course, Tony is feeling the bond. With how much stress he is under it is just another thing that aches, but it is still different from the rest of his body. It is Steve’s pain layered over his own, similar but not quite enough to settle in completely.

“You don’t like me and you don’t trust me,” Steve continues before Tony can think of anything to say. “I get that, but I promise you I don’t want you any harm. If not for me, then stay for yourself. Take a break.”

Tony almost wants to ask Steve to say his words again, just to see whether he will still feel their echo pulsing under his skin. He almost wants to say his own to watch for Steve’s reaction. He does not.

A break sounds nice, although neither of them has time for it. Tony has meetings to get back to and another press conference to prepare for. The police officers coming to the tower have increasingly accusing questions they want to be answered. At night he is running the same algorithms over and over again in hopes of finding Obadiah.

He needs to sleep and he needs to think about the future. A dozen urgent projects are waiting for him in his workshop, ignoring the hundred ideas swimming in the back of his mind.

Tony wants a break, but more than that he wants this mess to be over. He remains where he is and pops one of the pieces of his sandwich into his mouth. That feels like an admission of defeat in itself but, across from him, Steve does not yet relax.

“And what do you suggest we talk about?” Tony asks, watching Steve’s eyes widen in surprise. “It’s not like we have much in common.”

An eagerness settles on Steve’s features that makes him look like an entirely different person. “We don’t know that. We don’t know anything about each other beyond –” he trails off, obviously uncomfortable with mentioning Obadiah, although his determination to make conversation does not vanish completely.

“Beyond my godfather’s weapons trading and subsequent wish to get rid of me,” Tony finishes for him, feeling a sigh crawling up his throat. He swallows it and looks down at his coffee.

He takes another bite of his sandwich, telling himself he has a decision to make. Deep down, however, he knows he has already made it when he came here, when he sat down, when he said his first words.

“If you start romanticizing mob life,” Tony says, “I’m out of here.” He sounds a little sullen, but he has decided to commit to this. He can always leave if it does not work out.

“I won’t,” Steve answers immediately, a smile taking over his face. “What do you know about art?”

 


 

Steve is an artist. Of all the things Tony has learned about his soulmate, this might be the one that has shaken him the most. It does not seem to fit the rest of the picture. Mob boss and criminal, leader and friend, stubborn and unable to take a no for an answer, loyal even where he is not wanted.

But painting? That takes patience and a love for details and the ability to look beneath the surface. Fleeing from that warehouse, Tony convinced himself that Steve is someone who destroys, no matter that he pretends to have good reasons. Creating something does not fit that image.

Yet, some part of Tony desperately wants to believe that this side of Steve exists. The soft smile, the passion, the feeling of accomplishment. Despite the lingering resentment, Tony wants his soulmate to be that. A painter. A lover of the arts. Harbouring some innocence at least.

In another world, Steve might have gotten along just fine with Pepper. The thought inexplicably hurts. The bond tries to convince him that is because of the lost chance, but Tony is convinced it is because these two sides of his life are not meant to touch. He does not want to imagine Pepper and Steve in the same room, talking about their favourite artists while Tony watches them with a smile. 

Next to Tony, Thor walks silently until they reach the car, vigilant as he always is when they are outside. Tony is glad for the opportunity to gather his thoughts, even while he knows it is futile to try. Every conversation with Steve leaves him less sure about what to do.

Only when the car doors are closed behind them and they are safely closed off from the rest of the world does Thor speak up.

“Are you all right?”

Tony expected a lot of things. Questions about his sanity for meeting with Steve despite having admitted just a few days earlier that he is somewhat afraid of him. Concerns about his safety. Advice to perhaps not meet with someone he does not want to have in his life.

Instead, Thor sounds honestly worried about his well-being. Perhaps that should not be surprising, considering he is Bruce’s soulmate, and Tony is sure Bruce would not spend his life with someone who does not care for other people.

“I am,” Tony answers, surprising himself with how much he means that. He is not any closer to solving this dilemma, but he can admit that he enjoyed this unexpected lunch meeting.

“Did he ask you to come or did you?” Thor asks. The sharpness of his gaze belies the off-handedness of his tone. He sounds protective like he barely managed to remain sitting in the background, even without knowing the extent of how Steve hurt Tony before.

Tony is undeniably glad that Thor let him do this anyway without any interruption. He is not quite sure what he is doing, cannot quite make sense of his feelings, but he needs to do this on his own. He will never be able to make a decision either way if people keep telling him what he should do, no matter whether they only want to protect him.

“He did. But he did not push me into anything. I was going to avoid him, but,” Tony says, amused despite himself when he does not even manage to sound firm about that. “It’s just – complicated.”

Thor knows that. He knows more about that than even Pepper and Rhodey. Still, he does not judge Tony for coming out here.

“He looked almost tenser than you did,” Thor says instead of asking more questions. He does not bother to hide that he feels some gratification at that.

Tony feels a wave of gratefulness that Thor does not make a big deal out of this despite knowing how hard this situation must be for both of them. For blatantly showing that he is on Tony’s side. It instantly puts him more at ease, which seems to be a special ability Thor has on him any time they talk.

“He might have been,” Tony admits. He was nervous too, of course. More than that, though, he was also strangely eager. Either to have Steve prove all the bad impressions Tony has of him true, or to do the opposite, to show that he is worthy of not being cut out of Tony’s life. He is not going to say that out loud, though, so he asks, mostly joking, “Would you have tackled him if he made any untoward move?”

Thor does not lift his eyes off the street. He does not smile either. Some of these days, he should get used to Thor taking this more seriously than someone who only recently stepped into Tony’s life should.

“Without hesitation,” Thor says and means it. A growl lies underneath the words that reminds Tony of the way Rhodey demanded to know where he can find the Avengers. It is still strange to have people step up to protect him without showing any doubts about it. “Did you expect him to do such a thing?”

Tony stares at the road. Steve has a habit of not knowing when to back off, of pursuing something that is already tainted. Perhaps he is simply trying to keep Tony safe after all, however, and not thinking about their possible life afterwards.

“I don’t know at all what to expect from him,” Tony says.

Steve always seems to turn around and do something hairbrained and unexpected. That started that very first day when he carried Tony back into the warehouse after the beating, suddenly deciding to believe in his innocence just because of their matching tattoos. For someone so convinced he knows what he is doing, he should not have trusted Tony’s word.

After that, of course, Steve’s refusal to comply was rather tiresome, stubbornly staying in Tony’s life despite having been thrown out of it. But even that came with more worry, more thoroughness than Tony would have thought.

Today, he did not think to find that Steve is just a regular human being. Beyond being the head of a mob, beyond being a vigilante, he also gets tired and desperate and passionate. He is lost, too.   

“When you were attacked that second time,” Thor asks after a minute of silence, “they protected you?”

That startles Tony out of the confusing but no unpleasant path his thoughts are following. If Thor is asking that now, it means that Bruce did not tell him. Tony is not used to people keeping their promises about not talking about every private thing they know about him.

“How do you even know about that?” Neither the kidnapping nor the car crash ever made it into the press and Tony never gave any details about that to Thor, beyond the fact that Obadiah already made an attempt on his life.

A small smile tugs at Thor’s lips as he glances at Tony. “Pepper is very protective where you are concerned.”

Of course. Both Pepper and Rhodey were very unimpressed with how lax he handled his own security. Seeing Happy walk around the tower with his arm still in a sling has not helped. And Tony is mostly all right with letting them fuss. He does not particularly want to end up in such a situation again, but his main goal is still to bring down Obadiah.

“Steve had Natasha following me. Without my knowledge or consent. But I guess I shouldn’t be ungrateful for that now,” he says quietly, studying the street outside with more attention than the early afternoon traffic warrants. “That’s why I hired you afterwards.”

Thor hums noncommittally, and when Tony looks at him, his expression is blank, not giving him any clue what Thor is thinking.

“What?” Tony questions, unable to deal with the sudden silence. “You don’t have anything more to say?”

Thor takes his time to answer. The tower is already within view and Tony thinks this will be it. He does not believe that Thor is going to have the key to this whole mess, but he is strangely easy to talk to and Tony wants an answer.

“I can’t solve that problem for you,” Thor finally says as he guides the car to the entrance of the tower’s underground parking lot. “I will stand by what Bruce and I told you. You can reject the bond or you can wait until you decide. It is your decision.” In a lighter tone, he adds, “But I can tackle him next time if you want, no matter whether he makes an untoward move.”

He sounds like he wants to. Considering how murderous he looked upon finding out that Steve is Tony’s soulmate, it is surprising that he did not do so already. All that does is make Tony even gladder to have Thor on his side, to have someone close by who thinks he is able to do this on his own.

Tony is caught between wanting to say there will not be a next time and to tell Thor that tackling Steve will not be necessary. He cannot know what will happen. For now, he decides to believe Thor’s trust in him and that he has a choice. That alone helps immensely.

Chapter Text

Steve comes back home smiling, feeling lighter than he has in days. They spent what feels like a small eternity actually talking with each other. No arguing, no conflicts, no discussion of violence. Tony allowed him to ramble on about art and, in turn, told some stories about his time at MIT – which was almost as wild as some of the newspapers said, although in mostly different ways.

Tony’s brilliance becomes apparent in everything he says when he does not actively monitor every word that passes over his lips. There is a nonchalant display of knowledge spread over dozens of topics, an eagerness to pursue new ideas, an endearing sort of single-mindedness when a problem is presented. All personal matters aside, there is no doubt that Stark Industries will rise out of this mess stronger than before. With Tony’s mind applied to it, there is no other possible outcome.

Steve is aware that he got lucky. This was an interlude. Tony must be tired of everything breaking, of being thrown from one bad thing into another, so he took a chance to have something nice for an afternoon and it worked. Steve has no illusion that they are magically friends now or that Tony trusts him all of a sudden. He still would not trade this meeting for anything.

As he walks towards his room, he comes across Bruce, who is holding a steaming mug but stops when he sets eyes on Steve.

“You held out surprisingly long out there,” he says dryly, but his eyes are worried. They are all wired to expect more problems these days. “I thought you’d go once around the block at the most.”

Steve has a decision to make. He knows that Bruce is on Tony’s side in this whole matter. He will have something to say about Steve all but ambushing Tony into a meeting, even if it turned out well. Steve is feeling so good at the moment that he does not want to sour that with discussions about his reasoning.

“What can I say, it’s nice outside,” Steve answers with honest cheer. “You were right, fresh air does wonders.”

Too much, he realizes even before Bruce frowns. A week ago, Steve might have been able to slip this past him, as distracted as Bruce was then. Whatever had been on his mind, though, has apparently been resolved because Bruce is as sharp as he usually is.

“You’re not smiling because of fresh air,” Bruce says slowly. He holds his mug steady with both hands and never looks away from Steve.

And Steve, who does not know when he became such a pushover when faced with his friends’ disapproval, feels his shoulders slumping. “No.”

Eyes slightly narrowed, Bruce asks, “What happened?”

It should not matter why Steve is happy. Bruce should just be glad that Steve is not running around the base like a trembling ball of worries for the first time in weeks. A simple smile should not make him suspicious.

Deflection will not work, but Steve finds himself trying nonetheless. “Why would –”

“Steve.”

His name cuts him off easily, even though Bruce’s voice does not contain much of a warning. All of them have things they keep to themselves and that has never been a problem. These days, everything appears to have an impact, however.

“I met Tony,” slips over Steve’s lips before he can stop himself. So much for keeping that a secret.

He is relieved, though. Even when Bruce’s face becomes more closed off and he knows he will have to defend his decision. He has never liked secrecy.

“You – Did you loiter outside the tower until you caught a glimpse of him?”

“No,” Steve protests with vehemence, even while wondering whether Bruce has reason to suspect that. He did go to the tower that one time. “I asked him to have lunch with me.”

That visibly surprises Bruce, although it is not quite clear what he thinks about it, whether this is a good thing or he worries. “And he came?”

Steve still cannot make sense of that himself. If asked, he would never have thought that Tony would willingly meet up with him, and on such short notice too. Yet there he was, coming into the café, looking like he expected things to devolve into another fight quickly but still willing to hear Steve out.

Despite those thoughts, Steve says, “You don’t have to sound so surprised.”

“Actually, I do,” Bruce counters without hesitation.

He is right, of course. Tony is made of miracles. Not the least of them is how he has not yet kicked Steve to the curb. To be fair, he tried, but it is different now. For one, Steve knows that, once Stane is caught, he will leave if Tony wants him to. He still desperately hopes there is a chance for them, but all he has done so far is violate Tony’s wishes. While Tony was the one hurt by them, it does not matter that Steve wishes for things too.

“I guess that’s fair,” Steve admits, feeling only slightly sheepish. “But it happened. We didn’t argue at all.”

His pressuring perseverance might have paid off now. Not, perhaps, in a way that they are friends, but it does not feel like they are enemies anymore either. Also, Steve will have a hard time getting Tony’s smile out of his memories again now.

Bruce looks at him for a long moment, not revealing what he is thinking. Then he gives a small nod of acknowledgement before asking, “But?”

“Nothing. I’m good. We’re –” Steve replies too quickly. He does not need to look at Bruce’s expression to know he sounds defensive. “Well, not good,” he corrects himself. “But we spent over an hour together, not talking about Stane or us.”

If not for Thor hovering in the background and never letting them out of sight, it could have been a normal meeting between friends. No bad history, no murderous godfathers. It was still more than Steve ever expected to get.

“What else would you have to talk about?” Bruce asks, but there is a smile hidden beneath the words, almost like he is glad they got together and did something normal for once.

“He told me about going to MIT,” Steve reports eagerly, unbelievably glad to finally have learned something directly from Tony that does not translate into tragedy. “I told him about my failed career as an artist.”

Even now, Steve is surprised at how easy it was to talk to Tony. Up until now, they have always been on opposing sides, arguing over how to handle Stane and themselves. When sat at one table, they are only two lost people, though, looking to get through this mess in one piece.

Despite remaining rather cautious around Steve, Tony is smart and has a sharp wit. Steve guesses talking to him will never get boring.

“I’m happy for you,” Bruce says with a small smile, sounding serious.

Steve believes him, but he still has to ask, “You are?” Nothing is that simple anymore.

“Of course, I am,” Bruce says without missing a beat, his voice firm enough that Steve is immediately breathing easier. “Whatever else might be happening, we’re friends.”

There are no words for Steve to express how glad he is to hear that. This job has shaken all of them to the core and everything Steve has built appears to hover right over an abyss, ready to tumble down. It is good to hear that, despite that, they are still invested in each other’s well-being.

“Thank you,” he says. Then a thought pierces his mind, carrying its own urgency. “Do you know where Bucky is? He needs to send a postcard to the tower.”

Asking Tony to let Bucky apologize had been ill-timed, but now that it happened, he needs to make sure that Bucky goes through with it. Giving Tony space might be important, but telling him that Bucky regrets what happened without following up on it will just do more damage. Tony deserves better than to be lied to, however inadvertently.

“I – no? I think he went out with Natasha,” Bruce says, looking like he is full of questions.

“All right, I’ll see whether they are already back.”

Steve sees Bruce’s nonplussed expression but does not stay to explain. This is important. He has given Tony and Bucky a promise, and now he is going to keep it.

Apart from Clint working in the office and Bruce, who has gone back to his lab, the base is empty. Steve should be glad that Bucky and Natasha are working on taking out Stane, but he cannot help but be disappointed too that he has to postpone this conversation. If possible, he would want that postcard on Tony’s desk by morning.

He can wait a few hours, though. Even if his impatience might make it impossible to sit still.

 


 

It is already dark outside when Steve goes looking for his friends again, having gotten lost in work. He did not manage to stay focused for very long, his mind drifting off back to his afternoon with Tony. As they often do, his hands started moving of their own volition, leaving small doodles in the margin of his notebook. Most of them look suspiciously like Tony. Steve hides them before he ventures out of his room. Not leaving Tony alone is one thing, but openly pining for him after one amicable conversation is another thing altogether.

He finds Bucky in the living room with Natasha and stops short when he sees them. Natasha is sitting on the table with her shirt off. A long slash runs over her side from her ribs to her hip. It is not bleeding, but Natasha glares at it like she can force it to close with her eyes alone.

Bucky is cutting butterfly stitches to close it, a deep frown on his face, looking ready to storm out and deal with whoever did this to Natasha – if she has not already done so herself.

Blood and wounds do not bother Steve the way it does other people. The life they live does not leave room for squeamishness. He hates to see his friends hurt, however, and instant protectiveness roars its head inside his chest.

“What happened?” Steve asks shortly, stepping fully into the room.

Natasha looks at him with a slightly bored expression, a warning in her eyes not to make a big thing out of this.

“She was careless,” Bucky replies, his voice nothing more than a growl. He does look up from the wound.

For just a moment, Natasha’s face turns fond. Then she shrugs, ignoring the way Bucky immediately slaps his hand on her shoulder to keep her still.

“Someone forgot they owed me,” she says without explaining anything. “We cleared that up.”

Steve is now close enough to get a better look at the wound. It is long but shallow. It should not even need stitches. This kind of wound is still tricky, especially since Natasha will not agree to bed rest. And if a knife was involved, there could be other injuries. The base is not exactly equipped enough if Natasha was stabbed.

“How bad is it?” Steve asks after he is done with his inspection. “Do you need Bruce?”

Natasha scoffs, barely flinching when Bucky pushes the edges of the wound closer together and holds it in places with butterfly stitches.

“If I needed Bruce, we wouldn’t have snuck past him on our way in.”

It is not so strange that Natasha likes to deal with this on her own. She trusts Bruce, and if he knew, she would let him handle it, but she rarely makes a fuss over her own injuries. And Bucky will take care of this to the best of his abilities. They do that for each other.

“Do you need my help?” Steve asks, even while he watches Bucky’s hands work with utmost care.

“I can handle this just fine,” Bucky growls. He shifts a little so he almost stands in front of Natasha. Steve does not take it personally. They have always been protective of each other and Natasha does not like letting people close when she is vulnerable. While they know that Steve is not a threat to them, it is not so surprising that they will not let him interfere.

In fact, Steve is glad that Bucky found someone else he would not hesitate to do anything for. Bucky and Steve have always been best friends, but after they came back from the war, it sometimes seemed like Steve was Bucky’s only focal point, the only person he clung to. They are lucky they found Natasha and that she decided to tag along.

“We didn’t learn anything new anyway,” Natasha adds, sounding dismissive as if it would have been all right to get hurt for actual information.

She is ruthless on all her missions, regarding their opponents and herself. Steve knows she was trained that way, and they now have a hard time convincing her that she is more important than information or even success.

It would not work to try to convince her otherwise again now, so Steve ignores her comment in favour of looking at Bucky.

“You know that’s not why I offered,” Steve says quietly, hearing the chiding in his tone. He does not like it when Bucky assumes they do not trust him to handle things on his own. Sometimes, the prosthesis gives Bucky troubles, even after all the years of wearing it. More than that, though, Bucky sometimes still fights to accept it as part of himself and jumps to conclusions about others seeing it as a something that holds him back.

Bucky stills for a moment to look up at Steve. His eyes are sharp but worried. “I guess.” That is not exactly the reassurance Steve was looking for, but he has no chance to say anything to it because Bucky turns back to the wound and asks, “What did you want anyway?”

Faced with wounded team members, the joy of Steve’s afternoon has faded somewhat. He shrugs. “It doesn’t matter. We’ll have time for that later.”

He did not give Tony a time frame for Bucky’s apology. It will be all right if they talk about it in the morning.

“I’ve got a scratch,” Natasha cuts in before Bucky can dismiss him. “Now is as good a time as any.”

She looks at each of them in turn, daring them to argue. Bucky does not hold her gaze for more than a second before he gets back to work. Most of the wound is now held together by butterfly stitches and he places the last one with as much care as he did the first.

Only when he straightens and reaches for the bandages, does Steve speak up again. “I wanted to ask Bucky if he would be all right with contacting Tony to apologize.”

Time slows for a minute, in which Buck and Natasha share a long-suffering glance. Then Bucky turns to glare at Steve, less indulgent than before.

“I told you we need to give him space,” Bucky says, sounding disappointed on the verge of being exasperated with Steve’s inability to listen.

Steve knows where he is coming from. Writing Tony earlier had been in direct violation of that plan. It worked out well, however. Tony needed a break as much as Steve did, and they talked as if there was no bad blood between them. It was good.

“And I told him that you regret what happened and want to tell him so,” Steve argues, not willing to let this turn into another discussion of everything he has done wrong. He is trying to make things better here. “What kind of message do we send if you don’t do that now?”

“I doubt it would be appreciated,” Bucky says. It is not so much the dismissal in his voice but that he still does not look up that irritates Steve the most. Natasha’s wound is important, of course, but it is not critical enough for Bucky to be unable to even glance at Steve while writing off his idea.

He is so tired of being in the wrong, of being told to stay in the corner and doing nothing. That is not who he is. Even when he could barely hold his own, Steve never stood back. And when he made mistakes, he made up for them. Waiting is not going to solve this.

“I had lunch with Tony today,” Steve says curtly, although he had not wanted to let them know about this right now, already imagining their disapproval. “I think what he needs is to see that we are all people, that we are all hurting, all wishing for something. I think he needs to regain some normalcy and to see that we can keep our word.”

Both Bucky and Natasha show themselves unimpressed by his little speech. Natasha’s face is blank, which usually means she has something to say about this but is holding it back.

Bucky has never been one to wait for a better opportunity when he could also pounce directly. “You mean that you can keep your word,” he says in an obvious accusation.

Steve takes a deep breath, battling the need to lash out. He has taken hits from everybody for weeks now, and he is done with that. He wants to fix things, not to let everything get worse. 

“No. I mean that Tony has been betrayed,” Steve counters as calmly as he can manage. “While we are not his godfather or even his friends, it would still be a betrayal if you are not going to apologize. This is not about Tony being my soulmate. This is about him deserving some honesty.”

Bucky stills for a moment but keeps his eyes on the wound as he wraps it up in a bandage. Natasha’s skin looks pale beneath his dark prosthesis, but she does not look discomforted when he brushes against her. They have come so far, trusting each other, allowing themselves to be vulnerable in each other’s company. Steve does not want to lose that because of a job gone terribly wrong.

“I take it your meeting went well then?” Natasha asks when it becomes obvious that Bucky is going to pretend his work needs his full attention right now to get out of replying.

Steve finds himself not wanting to tell them. The afternoon was really good, but they are going to find flaws. He wants to preserve the memory undamaged for a little while longer.

“It did, although that has nothing to do with this,” Steve says shortly, hoping they are not going to press for more. “We’ve all been questioning our choices lately and we’ve all made mistakes, but I won’t let you try to talk me into thinking I’m a bad person.”

He does not quite know where that came from, but he means it with every fibre of his being, so he stands tall when Bucky’s eyes shoot up, surprised but a little guilty too.

“That’s not –” he tries to argue, but Steve is done with that.

“Good,” Steve cuts him off. “Tony said he’d accept a postcard so you better practise your handwriting.”

With that, he storms off. He could go back to his room, but that would feel too much like hiding. So, for the second time that day, he picks up his jacket and leaves the base. While he is not going to bother Tony again, the fresh air alone had done wonders earlier, and he does need to clear his mind.

Steve does not know where his sudden anger comes from. He is grateful for his friends, and they have told him some much-needed truths over the past weeks, no matter how painful. But enough is enough. Steve is trying to be better. He has never had the intention of hurting anyone, but he is acknowledging that he did anyway. It is all right to question each other and what they are doing, but they are a team and a family, and that means seeing that they are all working on being better.

Bucky is mostly angry with himself. For hurting an innocent person. For believing it would make him feel better. For not being able to catch the real culprit as quickly as he would like. It is not all right to take all of that out on Steve, though.

He is done with that. The Avengers were founded for a reason. They never believed they would not make any mistakes. Steve still believes in helping people. More importantly, he still believes that he can help. He is going to prove that.

 


 

At some point, Tony will get used to people knocking on his office door. Probably. Of course, he hopes that this whole matter will be over before that and he can go back to being the reclusive genius who spends his days holed up in the workshop. Once the company is stable again, he should just make Pepper CEO. She is handling most of the work already and would do a much better job of it than he does.

As if summoned by his thoughts, Pepper comes into his office. In a rare show of restraint, Tony does not tell her what he has basically just decided. It would not be fair to just drop leadership of one of the most successful companies in the country into her lap just like that.

“I’ve got your mail,” Pepper says by way of greeting as she comes closer to his desk.

She is carrying a stack of envelopes, but her expression worries him. “I thought we have secretaries to distribute the mail.”

If Pepper is playing postwoman for him, there must be something bad in that stack, although he distinctly remembers having cancelled all bad news for the foreseeable future.

She stops directly in front of Tony’s desk but does not yet hand over the stack. “Someone sent you a postcard,” she says, a definite question lurking underneath.

Tony expected something more sinister. He somehow doubts that Obadiah will send him word from wherever he has hidden himself away. And cards do not make good letter bombs if this is supposed to be another attempt to take his life. Perhaps it is simply another threat. Deciding to not show any of his thoughts, he puts a smile on his face and takes it with humour.  

“A what?” he asks and makes a grabbing motion. “Is it from Rhodey? Are there naked women on it?”

He does not, for a moment, think that Rhodey would send him a postcard. Not unprompted. Not while Tony’s life is what it currently is. 

Pepper knows that, too, and still, she plays along. “Rhodey has more taste than that.”

That is such a blatant misconception that Tony has to laugh. “Than me you say? We should show you some pictures of our wild youth,” he says, grinning. His face hurts from how long it has been since he has been really amused. “That’d change your mind.”

“He loves you,” Pepper says after contemplating that for a moment. “That’s enough to corrupt even the most upstanding person.”

That is the truth. Before Rhodey decided to basically adopt Tony at MIT, he was a real stickler for the rules, determined to get through college with a clean track record and as many recommendations as he could gather. Although it did not take much to convince him to live a little. And after that first fire they set together in their dorm, all hope for Rhodey was lost. 

“J, please tell me you’ve got that on record,” Tony says excitedly. “I need to play it to Rhodey the next time we are going out for a weekend. Doing only things that any upstanding citizen would do, of course.”

“You are incorrigible,” Pepper says, but her smile is soft. Tony thinks he knows why. This is the first time they have laughed together since he was first kidnapped on Obadiah’s orders.

The thought sobers him up a bit. He is regaining some of his unflappability, but this is far from over. They will have to hold out a while longer.

“Now, give me my mail,” Tony says, holding out his hand again.

Pepper must have noticed the shift in his expression because she puts down the stack on his desk, the mysterious postcard right on top.

“Will that be all, Mr. Stark?” she asks, still smiling at him.

Tony is glad to see that, even if so much has changed over the past weeks, some things stay the same. “That will be all, Ms Potts.”

He watches her go and waits until she has closed the door behind her before he reaches out for the postcard. For now, his curiosity weighs out the dread that this could be more bad news.

The card must have been scanned, of course, before it landed up here. So it probably will not be a direct death threat or a helpfully obvious tip about Obadiah’s whereabouts.

It is a picture of the Washington Monument, which has Tony baffled. He knows a lot of people but only very few who would send him a postcard, much less so from within the States. Turning the card around, he does not recognize the handwriting either.

Words are not enough, but I am sorry. Underneath that is what seems to be a phone number. In case you need me to get S. to back off. B.

Barnes. Who else could it be? He remembers telling Steve that Barnes could send a postcard if he wanted to apologize, and now he apparently did.

Tony is not sure what to feel. For one, he never thought Barnes would do it. It was a throw-away comment to get Steve to back off. Perhaps he did not even believe that Barnes was sorry, although Tony can admit to himself that he believes it now.

This does not make anything right. Tony might not be in pain anymore, but the memory of the fear still sits in his bones. This was far from the first time Tony has been beaten up or kidnapped, and worse things have happened to him in the meantime, but that will not undo that night.

The words, just like Barnes writes, are a mere platitude. The rest, on the other hand, means something. Barnes does not ask for forgiveness, does not give any excuses or explanations. He makes an offer, though.

It does not say if you need help or if you need someone to get rid of your godfather or call me so I can keep apologizing. It is an offer for future assistance that apparently leaves it completely up to Tony whether he wants to accept it, and does not seem to come with a catch.

Tony is strangely touched by the gesture. He is not any readier to forgive Barnes, but he might not be as afraid of possibly meeting him again anymore.

That night, he takes the postcard with him to his workshop and props it up on his desk. A reminder that things can look up again, that he is not going to keep plummeting.

Chapter Text

Sticking to his notes during a press conference is all nice and good, but that is not enough to prevent further disasters if they allow questions from the audience after the actual statement is over. It does not matter how clever Tony twists his words or how vague he keeps his answers, someone will always get under his skin. And if it is not a single voice in the crowd, it is the thundering mass of them, full of comments and questions cutting enough to topple empires.

Tony endured his first interview when he was only four years old. He has learned to navigate them. That does not mean he will ever get used to them either.

This conference was supposed to be about the new directions they are taking Stark Industries. About their communication program with the plan to develop their own smartphone, and the vague idea of going into green energy.

They all soak that up happily, speculating about the continued stock crash or whether Tony, as the former wunderkind, can pull off another miracle. That is not why they are here, though, why they are watching him with gleaming eyes. They do not want feasible business plans or promises for new jobs. They are simply here for Tony’s personal tragedy.

“We are making advances in green energy because even as my father started this company, human lives have been important,” Tony says, keeping his tone firm and serious as if all of this is already a done deal. “Back then, weapons were needed, but today, we hope to walk into a brighter future together.”

He barely hears the smattering of applause, too busy searching for the trouble makers, the faces twisted with the anticipation of causing mayhem, while hoping to see him flinch.

“Mr. Stark,” a man close to the front is calling out. “What about the rumours that your CFO, Obadiah Stane, has been selling weapons to terrorists?”

It does not surprise Tony that the entire world knows about this business by now. There is no such thing as a quiet scandal, not with the FBI swarming his tower. Everybody has been looking at them closely ever since he announced the end of their weapons manufacturing.

“I cannot comment on a running investigation, and Mr. Stane is currently unavailable.” That earns him a few laughs, although there is no mistaking the hunger behind them. “I can assure you, however, that Stark Industries is doing everything in its power to make sure none of our products are given or remain in the hands of enemies of the state.”

Too late, he notices that is as good as an admission of guilt. He rolls with it, keeping his head high and his expression clear.

“Do you really want to pretend you had nothing to do with Stark Industries’ crooked deals?” a woman shouts. He knows her. Christine Everhart. Likes to hit where it hurts. She looks hungry in a way that tells Tony it does not matter what he answers her. She has her mind made up and he will always be the villain in it.

“I did not know and I still do not the extent of any such possible dealing,” Tony says anyway, looking her right in the eyes, cataloguing every frown and scoff. “I am sure that there is not just a single perpetrator, but I would have never abided with a scheme that goes so fundamentally against the company policy that my father instated when he founded Stark Industries.”

Howard, despite his many flaws, has been a patriot. Even if Tony’s entire world has been turned upside down, he is not going to believe anyone telling him his father knew about this and let it happen.

Everhart apparently wants to see him bleed for she leans forward, preparing for another question. “Mr. Stane is your godfather. Do you –”

“Let me stop you right there,” Tony cuts her off unapologetically. “If the allegations against Mr. Stane are proven to be true, he is not considered family anymore by me or anyone working with Stark Industries.”

That if, of course, is purely for the public’s benefit. Despite his own warring thoughts where it comes to Obadiah, Tony does not think of him as family anymore already. How could he, when everything Obadiah has ever done was lie to him?

The excited murmur of the crowd and the flashing of cameras in front of him suddenly become too much. He is used to this, he should be able to handle a press conference full of hurtful questions without losing any sleep over it. He cannot, however. Not today. Not with how badly he is sleeping. Not with Obadiah still on the run and Tony seeing him lurking in every shadow. 

“We are taking no further questions,” Tony says and takes an abrupt step backwards to underline his point.

He watches the group of reporters move like a hungry beast in front of him, rearing its head in disappointment at being denied its prey. Some of them will want to strike nonetheless, always out for blood.

Thor comes up next to him and escorts Tony off the stage, ignoring the cacophony of calls and questions behind them. He cannot make out any details but there is a recurring choir of How and Stane and accusations. He does not need to hear the exact wording for them to cut deep.

He is tired. These things used to be easier when he did not give a damn, when he flashed smiles and nodded all their outrageous questions away, not ashamed of his entire life being a scandal. That was when he was out drinking all night, being seen with new people hanging off his arm every day. That was when he did not have bigger things to worry about than his own amusement.

As soon as he is inside the car and the noise cuts off, Tony sighs in relief. A headache is building that he just knows he is not going to be able to avoid.

His phone buzzes, but Tony does not want to know who it is. Probably Pepper asking about why he has bowed out so quickly. She might be concerned about the company, but she worries about him too. Perhaps it is more bad news, though, and Tony could really do without that.

When it buzzes again, he pulls it out of his pocket and throws it carelessly on the seat next to him, staring resolutely in the other direction. Whatever it is, it can wait until he has gotten his breath back.

A moment later, Thor slides into the driver’s seat but turns around to Tony before he starts the engine.

“Are you all right?”

That is a question Tony has a definite answer to, but one he cannot possibly say out loud without ruining whatever composure he is still clinging to. A simple press conference should not hit him so hard. These people and their opinions mean nothing to him. Yet, their collective readiness to condemn him is like a festering wound he cannot top prodding.

It reminds him that he is not free of Obadiah, and perhaps never will be. He cannot simply cut out a part of his life just because it hurts. He cannot forget the years of trusting a man who was holding a knife behind his back all this time.

Instead of answering, Tony says, “I need a cheeseburger.”

He is not sure where that comes from, but his entire body reacts to the very thought of it. His stomach, which was until now occupied with fighting nausea, growls in sudden interest. Cheeseburgers remind him of college, of going out with Rhodey when they both needed a break from studying, of greasy fingers and happier days.

“We can order something in when we’re back at the tower,” Thor replies and Tony does not need to look up to know he is frowning.

“No,” he decides firmly, against all logic. “I don’t want to hide away in my penthouse while the police tear apart my company some floors down. I want to sit down on a sticky plastic bench in a rundown diner and eat an honest-to-god American cheeseburger.”

What he truly wants is to not be himself for a few hours. And slipping on sunglasses and tipping some lucky waiter an enormous amount of money so they will treat him like any other customer is the closest he can get to that at the moment.

“Since I am responsible for your safety, I must advise against that,” Thor says. He has still not started the car which Tony counts as a victory for some reason.  

“Since I’m your employer, I get veto power,” Tony counters, managing a light tone that he hopes does not convey how very desperate he is to not return to the tower right now.

Looking sternly at him through the back mirror is apparently not enough anymore, so Thor turns around and studies him for a long moment. Tony does not want to know what he sees. Make-up that does not cover his exhaustion from this close. The rough patches where he has bitten his lips bloody again and again over the past days.

Whatever it is, Thor gives in with a sigh. “As long as you don’t tell Pepper.”

It is an illusion that she will not find out, of course, but Tony simply nods happily. Nothing matters as long as he gets away for a few hours.

 


 

They choose a random diner, out of their way, with no prior connection to Tony. That is the compromise on which Thor allows them to stop. They do not make a Google search, they do not ask for directions. It is just a random stop on a random route. Nobody could know where they are. Nobody could have prepared for this. Despite Thor’s grumbling, they are going to be safe. Killing a man while he is eating a cheeseburger is most likely high treason, anyway.

Thor circles the block another time to make sure they were not followed before he parks the nondescript car, having refused to take any of Tony’s flashier ones.

When Tony opens the car door, he can almost smell the cheeseburger in the air already and feels the tension drain out of him in anticipation. They have not made a single step towards the door of the diner, when Thor perks up and then moves faster than Tony can react, pulling them both down to the ground.

That is when the first shot rings through the air.

Tony ducks behind the car, clinging to the arm Thor is holding before his chest for a moment. With his back pressed against the metal, he breathes, trying to dissuade whether his heart is racing too loudly or whether they are still getting shot at. Pieces of glass surround him that originate from the know broken car window right above him. If they had shot a moment earlier or aimed a little more carefully, Tony might already be dead.

How could they have known? Surely, Thor would have noticed if someone had come after them, which means they must have tracked Tony somehow.

Next to him, Thor moves to peer up over the car, which is followed by another gunshot. Tony flinches violently. He cannot believe his life has turned into this.

“We need to get out of here,” Tony hisses, his voice comically high. He feels panic settling in, grabbing for his heart with an icy hand, squeezing until his breath is shallow and too fast.

Thor shifts, turning his attention mostly on Tony for a second. “You need to stay low.” He looks so calm, Tony is profoundly glad to have someone that familiar close-by. At the same time, it does not help at all to see Thor handling this as if it happens every day, while he is losing his mind.

They need to alert someone, need to call the police. Tony reaches for his phone but finds his pockets empty. Of course, he left it in the car because he wanted to be unavailable for a few short hours. He wanted to avoid being alerted of any new emergencies. Fate must be laughing at him right now.

All is silent for a few precious seconds, in which Thor gets out his gun. The click when he releases the safety is almost as deafening as another shot. Mostly without looking where he is aiming at, Thor fires once himself, then chances another look. His expression, when he sits down again, is grim.

Tony’s brain, which is slowly regaining the ability to think instead of simply cowering, calculates the odds of Thor being able to keep whoever has been following them off with just the few bullets in that gun and no real vantage point. Their chances are not looking so good.

“Nothing is keeping them from closing in on us if they think we can’t defend us,” Tony says, trying to come up with a way they can get at least to the diner without being riddled with bullets on their way there. Although that would put civilians in danger, and Tony is not ready to add that to his conscience.

Thor does not pay him attention as he is trying to adjust the side mirror of the car to help him see what is going on. “And we can’t defend us if we don’t have cover.”

That is true to a certain point. One car, while being sturdy and at least bigger than Tony’s usual vehicle choices, will not keep them safe for long.

When his eyes fall on the way Thor’s fingers curl almost elegantly around his weapon, with nothing of the urgency Tony feels, he has an idea.

“Do you have another gun?” he blurts. Another magazine or two would be helpful too. He wonders whether there is a bodyguard protocol for being ambushed in a parking lot with an employer. If so, he would love to be clued in on it.

“What?” Thor abandons the mirror and looks at Tony, his gaze heavy but at the same time reassuring enough that Tony can take a deep breath and calm himself into thinking more rationally.

“Another gun,” he repeats with some urgency. “I used to make them, remember? I know how to use them too.”

Howard thought it would be a proper bonding experience to take his five-year-old son to the shooting range. While it did not help their relationship at all, it helped take Tony’s fear of the weapons they were building. He has shot at targets plenty of times. This is different, of course, but he will feel much safer with the means to defend himself.

“Have you ever shot at someone?” Thor asks. It does not sound like it is meant to discourage, just like he is carefully calculating whether the risk of getting another gun will be worth the benefit. 

It is questionable whether they will even see more than shadows shooting at them, so the chances of Tony actually hitting something are rather low.

“I’ll schedule my moral crisis for later,” Tony replies. His tone is just a little shaky.

Relief floods him when Thor nods. “It’s under the backseat. Stay where you are and take mine for the time being.”

Within nary a second, Thor hands his gun over to Tony, which weighs more than it has any right to, more than it ever did on the range, Scolding himself for his reaction, he tightens his grip around it, carefully angling it away from himself, ready to turn around and use it.

Meanwhile, Thor moves closer to Tony to be able to open the backdoor. Instead of just reaching in, it looks like he is about to climb into the car. Tony’s hand shoots out and holds him back, gripping the fabric of Thor’s shirt hard enough to turn his knuckles white.

“You can’t go into the car,” he says. It is a hiss more than a tempered argument- Even the few feet it would take Thor away from Tony and further within reach of the attackers are too much.

As if in answer, more shots ring out, making Tony flinch.

With a patience that does not fit their situation, Thor faces Tony. “I can’t hold them off on my own either.”

There is nothing Tony can say to that. It was his idea, but Thor has obviously come to the same conclusion that only one gun and no way to properly aim at whoever has come for them are far from ideal circumstances.

Tony nods tersely and watches as Thor slowly moves into the car while trying to not expose himself. He thinks about simply shooting over the car, but does not want to startle Thor or waste their precious bullets, so he stays quiet, waiting for some kind of resolution for this.

“Get my phone too,” he tells Thor in an urgent whisper as if their attackers are going to hear.

With his phone, he can call JARVIS who will send help and maybe find out more about who is pinning them down. If there is a camera nearby, he could even find out where they are. That would probably take too long, but Tony can dream of being helpful in any way while cowering against the side of his car, while waiting for Thor to emerge from it again.

It is taking too long. Looking at the gun in his hand, Tony attempts to calm his shaking fingers. Then he glances around the side of the car, too quickly to offer a good target. He does not see anything either, but another shot rips through the air. The bullet hits the pavement a few feet to Tony’s side but he knows how to take a warning. He stares at the hole it has left, unable to tear his eyes away.

Finally, Thor comes back out, clutching a gun and a full magazine in one hand and Tony’s phone in the other. He leaves the phone at Tony side before settling back against the car. He breathes more heavily than that manoeuvre warrants, especially since he still seems too calm. Only now does Tony notice that Thor moves strangely carefully like he has bruises. Beneath the suit jacket, he catches a hint of red.

“You’re bleeding,” Tony says, the words leaving his mouth before their meaning catches up with him.

Red means blood means Thor has been shot. He is going to have to watch a friend die right next to him before Obadiah’s men inevitably take him or kill him too.

“It’s nothing,” Thor says, although he does not quite manage to keep his tone even. “I’m not going to pass out on you.”

That does not help to calm Tony down at all. His mind turns from blank and frightened to racing and terrified. Thor is bleeding and there is nothing Tony can do. They are pinned down and exposed.

“You were shot,” Tony says, high-pitched and not even trying to stay calm. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Now that he has seen it, Tony cannot look away from the spot of read spreading over Thor’s side. Shifting, Thor tucks his jacket over it, but Tony does not think he will ever get that red out of his vision again.

“We’re a bit preoccupied at the moment if you hadn’t noticed,” Thor says, an urgency in his tone that finally reaches Tony.

No time to panic, Tony tells himself, even while his breathing turns shallow and his knuckles turn white around his phone and the gun. He needs to think of something. Something that will get them out of here and Thor into a hospital. Something that will end this.

He exhales, glances up at the splintered car windows as if he needs the reminder that this is real.

“All right,” Tony then says, much calmer than he feels. He turns to Thor, carefully keeping his eyes away from the wound. “Shoot at them. Don’t show yourself and you don’t need to be too accurate about it. I need a few moments.”

“What?”

Thor is not going to like this plan. Tony does not like it himself, but Thor’s wound does not leave them with many options. They definitely do not have the time to argue about it.

“Just do it,” Tony says and gets to work.

With practised movements, Tony takes his phone apart and gets out the sim card before putting it back together. He really should have invested in a portable panic button, but for now, this will have to do. Pulling off his left shoe, he hides the card inside his sock. It is far from a good hiding place but he does not have a fake tooth at hand or time to sew the card into his clothes.

He slides the phone over to Thor before looking up at him. This plan, he knows, is pure madness, but the occasional shot is not going to keep the bad guys from closing in much longer. The police might be right around the corner – someone has hopefully alerted them by now – but they do not have time. Thor is bleeding but alive for now. Tony wants to keep it that way.

“I need you to play dead,” Tony says, his voice a careful monotone. He keeps his eyes on his phone for a moment longer, unable to meet Thor’s gaze.  

“What are you talking about?” Thor asks, his incredulity mixed with just a hint of pain. That only reassures Tony that this has to be done.

Taking a deep breath, he elaborates. “I’m going to surrender and –”

“Like hell you will,” Thor cuts him off. The sharpness of his voice mollifies Tony somewhat, even if it does not actually make him reconsider. “This is what you hired me for. We won’t have to hold out for much longer.”

Tony refrains from asking how much longer Thor can hold out, Already, his mind is throwing numbers about gunshot wounds at him. Also, he does not think for a moment that their attackers do not know too that help must be on the way. They will hardly wait that long.

“I don’t think they want to kill me right here.” They could have thrown a small grenade or taken a higher calibre to shoot right through the car. Obadiah will not profit from a public execution and he has shown that he does not care for casualties. At least that is what Tony has to believe to get his legs to work.

“I have the chip, so JARVIS can track me. If you play dead, they should leave you alone. And then they’ll lead you right to Obadiah.”

As far as plans go, this has more holes than their car at the moment. Despite the risk, Tony needs to get Thor out of here. He does not care whether he hired Thor as his bodyguard, whether he should be the one that gets protected here. Thor is a friend, and he is Bruce’s soulmate, and he deserves better than to die for Obadiah’s stupid vendetta against Tony.

“You can’t –” Thor says, but Tony does not let him get any farther.

“Thank you, Thor.” Tony manages a smile, glad that this horrible situation at least gave him another friend. “Don’t let them shoot you again.”

Not wasting any more time, Tony holds up the hand with the gun, biting his lip as he waits for the inevitable bullet. Nothing happens, so he raises the other one and then, slowly, gets to his feet.

“Tony,” Thor hisses but stays down. “Stop this madness.”

“I surrender,” Tony calls out instead of answering. He does not have to put any effort in sounding shaken. He steps to the side, fully exposing himself. The hand with the gun trembles terribly as he puts it down on the ground for everyone watching to see.

For a long moment, nothing happens and Tony is sure he has miscalculated. They might line up the perfect shot to take him out at once. Then, someone moves out from behind a car on the other side of the street. They are masked and clad in dark clothes. It is not Obadiah.

“Tell your little friend to come out too,” the man calls, sounding cocky and cruel in a way that promises nothing good for Tony’s immediate future.

“He’s –” Tony looks to the side but aborts the movement halfway through. He feels Thor’s glare bearing into him, but Tony guesses he is going to follow the plan since he remains quiet. “He’s stopped moving.”

The man contemplates that for a moment before he nods. He has likely realized that they will be able to take Thor out no matter what.

“Come over here.”

Tony does. It might be the stupidest thing he has ever done but he is still not hearing any sirens and he feels like Obadiah is within reach for the first time in weeks. He just wants all of this to be over.

He walks. Small steps. He is barely able to feel the ground beneath his feet, but he sets one foot in front of the other towards the man who has a gun pointed at him.

Out of the corner of his eyes, he can see more movement now, more people coming out from behind cover. It looks like they really wanted to get him this time.

When Tony has almost reached his destination, he sees a sudden movement but by then it is too late to move out of the way. Something hits him in his upper arm. It was not a bullet, there is too little pain for that. Before he can reach up or take a step back, he feels his thoughts growing heavy and uncoordinated. Darkness wells up in front of his eyes. Then he is falling.  

Chapter Text

Steve is restless. His arm is burning, but it does that often enough that he barely pays it any mind but just scratches it absentmindedly while he is staring at his laptop. Tony is scheduled to hold another press conference today, so he guesses it is just nerves being transmitted through the bond.

To stand in front of a group of reporters who are being paid for writing stories that get the readers’ attention more than they have to be true has to be hard considering the emotional strain Tony is already under. It does not matter that he has been doing these things since he was young. Steve wonders how Tony stays calm and even charming in the face of strangers prying into his private affairs.

Time is dragging by relentlessly while Steve tries to work, unable to focus. His mind keeps spinning back towards Tony. Not even that is very unusual though. Ever since their meeting it has been even more difficult to stay rational about this entire matter. That had, for the first time, allowed him to see Tony as just another person. Not his target, not a victim, not his soulmate.

That might have been the point where Steve moved from pursuing a bond to wanting to know Tony better, just because. Since then he has been only more on edge, of course, because he can abide with Tony being danger even less than just his soulmate.

Which is why he needs to keep working on finding Stane. It should not be so hard to get him behind bars, no matter how much money he has and what kind of unsavoury contacts he has made over decades of making illegal deals with smugglers and terrorists.

Steve is distracted, though, unable to focus on his laptop. His hand keeps reaching for his arm, covering the words written there, words that hold more pain now than they ever should. He wonders whether he will ever get used to the burning urgency transmitted through the bond. Worse still, whether he can live with the absence of it should they go their separate ways.

It takes Bruce arriving out of breath and panicked in the office to make Steve realise that the bond is not just transmitting Tony’s stress but that something more sinister happened.

“Something is wrong,” Bruce says, barely a foot into the room. His eyes are wild, looking like he did when they first met him after weeks of chasing him. Contrary to back then, though, he is not filled with that quiet determination to not let them get to him. Instead, he seems unsteady, as if he is barely able to stay on his feet.

Tony, Steve thinks and gets up abruptly, his work forgotten. He is ready to start running immediately, even though he has no idea where. There can only be one reason for Bruce’s panic and Steve cannot bear to lose Tony while he sat around their base, ignoring Tony’s distress because it was just more of the same of what passed between them for weeks.

“What happened?” Steve asks, his voice barely more than a croak.

He feels more than sees Bucky coming up at his side. His presence should be reassuring. It has always been the two of them against the rest of the world. Now, though, Steve is not sure anything can calm him.

“I don’t know,” Bruce spats with little heat behind it. He is still staring wide-eyed ahead, seemingly lost for words.

“Did Tony call you?” Steve tries again with more urgency. He has to push down the urge to step forward and shake Bruce until he gets answers.

“No,” Bruce replies and meets Steve’s eyes. “I feel it.”

The words make no sense, but for the first time, Steve notices the way Bruce stands. Shoulders slumped, one arm curled around his body like he is in pain, like he needs to protect something sitting deep inside him.

“What do you mean you feel it?” Bucky asks, taking over when Steve does not know how to continue.

There is a small chance that Bruce is simply worried and snapped. Steve feels like he is only a few fruitless searches away from that himself. This entire business has been dragging on for too long. They have come close to their breaking point too often, doubting themselves and each other.

Steve knows that is not it, but he has not much else to cling to.

“Thor is in pain,” Bruce says in a tone that leaves no doubt he is telling the truth. “And he’s not picking up his phone.”

“How could you feel that?” Bucky demands, even while Steve is already spiralling.

The answer is obvious, even before Bruce opens his mouth. That does not mean it makes sense, but Steve does have time to ponder this new situation. If Thor is in danger, Tony is too. They should not be standing here, discussing technicalities.

“Thor’s my soulmate,” Bruce says shortly, leaving no room for questions. “We need to find him. And Tony.”

Bucky is growing restless next to Steve. Urgency lies in the air, but also tension at this new proof for a lack of trust between all of them. They do not have time for that. Thor is in pain and Tony is distressed more than usual. Now that it has been pointed out to Steve, he realises that the burning of the bond is not normal. It is not unwillingness or worry or exhaustion.

“I need to –” Steve says and trails off, getting his phone out of his pocket. Later, he might feel more about Bruce keeping that information from them. For now, the only thing that matters is reaching Tony, hearing his voice, finding out that he is not hurt.

Steve does not believe he will be so lucky, even though he feels like his sanity is depending on it, on Tony’s well-being.

He is turning away, not waiting for a reaction. In his back, he hears Bucky clear his throat. “I’ll get the others. Try calling Thor again.”

Retreating steps sound, but Steve does not look up. His hand is trembling slightly as he scrolls through his phone’s contacts, finding Tony’s number. He does not hesitate to press call, unable to breathe.

It goes straight to voicemail.

For a moment, time seems to stand still. Steve is unable to move, unable to make sense of Tony’s voice telling him to leave a message. If he did, perhaps Tony would call back, griping about how Steve should only call when there is something important to discuss. Far more likely is that Tony will not be able to call back at all.

As if someone has poured a bucket of ice water over his head, Steve comes back to life. His lungs burn as he takes a shuddering breath and his fingers are cold, but they are not trembling anymore.

He calls again, despite being sure it will not get him any other result. Hearing Tony’s voice again gives him some much-needed energy, though. He does not leave a message this time either.

When he looks up, Bruce is frowning, his phone pressed against his ear. He is still pale but some of the tension has bled out of his shoulders. He is talking, Steve realises. That could mean everything is all right. If Thor is able to take Bruce’s phone call, whatever danger he has been in must be over.

It has Steve turning back to his own phone, finger hovering over the screen to call Tony again. The arrival of the rest of the team keeps him from it.

Their expressions are grim, and the way Clint glares at Bruce tells him that Bucky must have told them about Thor being Bruce’s soulmate. Steve hopes Clint is not going to start another argument. They do not have time for moral discussions about what information they should and should not disclose to their friends.

He steps up to them and, upon Bucky’s asking glance, says, “Voicemail.” He does not have the strength to add anything else.

It is enough, either way. Determination settles over all of them, almost a palpable thing. The doubt of the past weeks falls off Steve. They might have argued with each other, but they are still a team when it counts.

As one, they wait for Bruce to end the call, to tell them what is happening, what they need to do next. The seconds drag on.

They listen to Bruce tell Thor how to get to their base. It should rankle Steve that Bruce just gives up their location, but all he really registers is the way Bruce’s fingers dig into his arm where his words must be, white-knuckled and with the kind of desperation none of them are used to seeing from Bruce.

When the phone call ends, everybody is silent for one blissful moment. Steve wants to know what happened. He needs to. At the same time, he is glad for the short reprieve. For these few seconds, his world is still bearable. He does not yet know what has caused Bruce’s panic. Thor and Tony are still all right.

Then Bruce opens his mouth and Steve’s world comes crashing down around him. “They took him.”

Ice spreads through Steve, circling around his throat until he is unable to breathe. Somehow, he manages to keep his head up. “Who?” He knows exactly who they are talking about because while Bruce’s face is still pinched, there is an undeniable note of relief in his tone. Thor must be all right then and not in immediate danger.

“Thor and Tony were cornered after the press conference,” Bruce explains in a clipped tone. The grip around his arm has not lessened. “Somebody shot at them. Too many people to take out. They took Tony with them.”

The worry that has been simmering inside Steve turns abruptly into rage. Thor was supposed to keep Tony safe. He followed Tony’s wishes and stopped having Natasha shadow him because he was convinced Thor would do a good enough job. And now Tony is gone and the way Steve’s arm burns could mean a dozen of different horrible things.

Concentrating on his anger is not enough to mask the nausea almost putting him on his knees right there. Tony is alive. That is what he clings to. Otherwise, the bond would surely be silent instead of being filled with agony. Tony has to be alive. That means they can yet get him out of there.

Distantly, he is aware that Natasha has taken over his job, asking Bruce about all the details he knows for them to plan their next step. It is tempting to let her do this, to withdraw into his mind and wait until someone puts a gun in his hand and points at where to shoot. Steve would certainly go crazy that way, though, so he takes a shaky breath and forces his eyes to focus on what is in front of him instead of on what might await him at the end of this day.

“Gear up,” he orders, his voice hoarse. Clint had been in the middle of saying something, but he falls silent immediately, for once willing to do exactly as he is told. “I want us to be ready to go the moment Thor gets here.”

“We don’t know where to go yet,” Bucky cautions. It is not a refusal but a reminder. Steve shrugs it off.

“We will.” Steve is not at all sure about that. What he does know is that they cannot afford to lose any time. All their careful searching over the past days has been futile. They are not any closer to finding Stane, but they are out of other options now.

Tony is gone and they need to find him. That is the only thing that matters.

 


 

When Thor arrives, his shirt is stained red and his face is that of a grieving man, gaunt and pale, but full of determination too.

Steve stares at the red and is convinced the blood is Tony’s, no matter that Thor moves like he is hurt and Bruce jumps forward with his medical bag at the ready.

“Is the bullet still inside you?” Bruce asks, his tone carefully neutral as if he has to work hard to keep the panic at bay.

He does not sound surprised to see the blood either, which means Thor must have told him over the phone and Bruce just kept it from them. Perhaps he thought they would not care, that Steve would not care as long as Tony is still gone.

And, to his utter shame, Steve briefly thinks that Thor deservers to have been shot.

He watches as Bruce has Thor sitting down on the kitchen table, laying out supplies. Blood has seeped into the shirt, covering most of Thor’s right side. It sticks to his skin when Bruce pulls it away. Beneath that, the wound looks almost innocent. A small hole, smeared with blood but otherwise unremarkable.

It becomes too much. This is hardly the first bullet wound Steve has seen and far from the worst. Thor is still walking and talking. He is alive. But the sight of the blood serves as a painful reminder that Tony might not be so lucky. The bond is still firing rapidly, drowning Steve in a cacophony of panic and pain. Tony is still alive, but they all know what Stane wants. After two failed attempts, he is not going to draw this matter out more than necessary.

Steve is moving forward before he knows what he is doing. “What did you do?” he snaps, distantly registering that whoever has been talking before him, falls abruptly silent. He has not been following the conversation, too caught up in his own racing thoughts. “You were supposed to protect Tony.”

He ignores Bruce’s warning glance and the way Natasha stands a little straighter as he keeps stalking towards Thor. All the anger inside of him needs to be pointed at something. Since they do not yet know where Tony was brought, Thor is the next best target.

Considering the grief clinging to Thor’s shoulders, he does not expect Thor to put up a fight. It is obvious he is in the wrong anyway, having failed miserably at the job he was given.

“Are you actually yelling at me right now?” Thor counters, not cowing but leaning forward as if he would not mind a fight. “After what you did?”

Steve reels back as if hit. What does Thor know about what happened between him and Tony? How dare he throw that in Steve’s face? He has no right to point fingers. Steve has been trying to make up for allowing Tony to get hurt. They are all regretting what happened. This is not about their history. This is about Tony missing and possibly being hurt all over again right at his moment, and that is not Steve’s fault but Thor’s.

He takes another step, eyes focused only on Thor, when Bruce step into his path. A hand lands on Steve’s chest, holding him back from walking forwards.

“Steve,” Bruce warns, voice full of impatience but also like he is eager to be pushed into snapping. “Back down.”

For all that Steve is certain he could take Bruce in a fight under normal circumstances, Bruce’s expression is murderous, ready to go through anyone who wants to lay a hand on Thor.

They are soulmates, Steve remembers, perhaps only just comprehending it completely. If he feels this unsettled and desperate at the mere thought of Tony being hurt, with their bond fresh and partially rejected, he cannot imagine how much worste it mucht be for Bruce right now. That does not lessen his anger, though.

“He let them take Tony,” Steve growls. He barely recognises his own voice. It is raw and already filled with the kind of grief that leaves him crippled. He is not sure how much of that emotion comes from the bond.  His body feels raw, like it is covered by a single wound, stretched and prodded to the point where it does not have a chance to stop bleeding.

“Tony had a plan,” Bruce says too forceful, almost like he had to convince himself to say that. Now that the words are out, though, he stands by them, daring Steve to argue.

Steve remembers distantly that the team was talking about that. About Thor and Tony being pinned down and Tony doing the most reckless manoeuvre he could have thought of. And Thor letting him.

“It was a shitty plan,” Steve all but yells. He stays rooted in place, even when Bruce lets his hand fall.

Bruce looks at him, hard and accusing in a way Steve feels entirely unwarranted in a moment like this.

“But it meant that Thor would get out alive,” Bruce says, much calmer than he looks.

He is probably right. If they were cornered by people who wanted Tony at all cost, they would have gone through Thor no matter how much of a fight he put up. Even so, it is a miracle that Thor is standing here with just a single bullet lodged in his abdomen.

It does not feel like a miracle, though. 

“I don’t give a –” Steve starts saying but does not get any farther.

“You never do, Steve, unless it directly relates to you.” Bruce interrupts him with such a furious fierceness that the fight is knocked out of him for a moment.

He meets Bruce’s stare, sees how serious Bruce is. Perhaps there is even some truth to it. Steve has always cared for his family. He has made a life out of standing up for other people, but he does not take any prisoner when it comes to the people he loves.

It would not help anybody if Thor had died protecting Tony. On the contrary, they might not even yet know what happened. Still, Steve feels that immediate, disgusting resentment that Thor had a chance to protect Tony and blew it.

“That’s not what I meant,” Steve says quietly. He is not quite ready to admit he was out of line, but the thought of Tony in danger has him sobering enough to realise this is neither the time nor place to heap the blame on anybody.

“It doesn’t matter what you meant,” Bruce replies with a sigh that belies his words. He looks so very tired for a moment that Steve feels hot shame coursing through him. “Let’s get Tony back.”

Thor holds up his phone, showing a map. He looks at Steve as if the past minutes did not happen, always one to shove his emotions to the side to get the job done. That is something Steve has never quite managed.

“We already have an idea of where to go,” Thor says with a grumbling eagerness to get going. “JARVIS will get back to us once he knows more, but we should get moving.”

Steve does not know who JARVIS is or why he should trust him with Tony’s safety, but Thor sounds like he does. If it means they will find Tony, Steve is willing to give this information the benefit of the doubt. Thor usually does his job well.

Nodding at each other, Thor makes to get to his feet, only to have Bruce whirling around to glare at him.

“You’re not coming,” Bruce snaps. He is rapidly losing patience with them over their antics. Steve’s arguing when they have more important things to deal with. Thor’s stubbornness over wanting to go out with a hole in his abdomen

Thor’s face softens into an expression so tender, Steve can barely bear to look at him. “Of course, I’m coming,” he says. It is not much of an argument if not for the seriousness in his eyes and the way he holds out his hand for Bruce to take.

I hear you, he seems to say, but you know I need to do this.

“You were shot,” Bruce counters, gesturing at the bloody shirt and the way Thor leans slightly to the side to favour the wound.

Not letting go of Bruce, Thor stands up. “And it’s barely bleeding anymore,” he says dismissively. “Steve was right about one thing, I let them take Tony despite being responsible for his safety. I will come with you to get him back.”

Bruce’s shoulders drop, signalling defeat. “Let me bandage you up in the car.”

The way they look at each other is almost too much for Steve to bear. The air is filled with as much tension as relief, with an eagerness to get going, to deal out some payback.

“I love you too,” Thor says, his voice filled with so much raw honesty that Steve fights the urge to cover his ears.

He might never have the chance to tell Tony the same. They might never have the chance to get to that point.

Then they are moving. Steve pushes his thoughts down, knowing he cannot afford to analyse the obvious tenderness between Bruce and Thor, how they move around each other, always certain that, if they reach out, there is someone there to catch them.

He is jealous, certainly, on an instinctual level that just longs to have the same connection to someone. That is a problem for another time, however, because that someone is currently in a lot of danger.

Steve is afraid of what he will find at the end of this road, but he still takes the first step without hesitation. He has many flaws. Being a coward is not one of them.

Chapter Text

Tony really needs to stop doing this. He comes to with a splitting headache, blinking against his blurred vision. Whatever they gave him to knock him out was potent, he can barely think coherently. He is sitting in a chair, hands and feet bound, body aching. He remembers being shot at and Thor being actually shot and fervently hopes that Thor is all right.

With some urgency, he looks down at himself and groans when he notices his feet are bare. They took his shoes and socks, and a stab of fear is ringing through him even before he remembers that he put the chip of his phone there. So much for giving JARVIS a chance to track him.

Dragging his eyes back up, he concentrates on his surroundings. It will not help him to despair over the fact that these guys were smarter than he hoped. Most plans do not survive enemy contact anyway.

It looks like he is in another warehouse or fabrication hall. He does not see much beyond that. Some crates are stacked on the side that sport Stark Industries’ logo. Tony can imagine what is in there. That, in turn, makes it likely that he has found Obadiah – or at least one of his hiding places. There are people here, too. Tony can hear their voices and the whirring of machinery. It sounds like they are packing up.

Tony should focus on getting out of here. With the chip gone, he cannot hope for a timely rescue but has to fend for himself, no matter that his thoughts are sluggish and he is already in pain, although it looks like he has not made an acquaintance with any of the kidnappers’ fists yet.

They have not used ropes but zip ties, and they are tight enough to hinder the blood flow into his limbs. The moment he checks how much leeway they give him, they cut into his skin. Getting out of these will be painful.

“Look who’s awake.”

Obadiah steps into Tony’s view so suddenly that he really worries about the aftereffect of the drug they gave him. He should have noticed his godfather coming towards him before he loomed over him with an entirely too smug expression.

But there he is, looking exactly like Tony remembers him, and at the same time not at all. He appears taller, his mass intimidating instead of comforting. He is wearing a suit, but it is dusty and does not hide the fact that he is armed. Worst of all are his eyes, cold and calculating, looking at Tony like he is a mere problem instead of family.

“I heard that towering baboon of a bodyguard of yours didn’t make it out of the parking lot,” Obadiah continues. His voice is booming enough that Tony has a hard time keeping the words apart over the pounding in his head.

It knocks the breath out of him. He fervently hopes this is just an attempt to upset him. If they sank another bullet or two in Thor to make sure he would not come after them, Tony has miscalculated grossly – and buried his hands in the blood of a friend.

“Cheeseburgers, really?” Obadiah asks, unconcerned that Tony is not answering him. That does not speak well for his life expectancy. “You are so predictable it is hardly even fun to go up against you.”

The reality of this hits Tony anew, somehow more inescapable than before. This is not a collection of data and forged signatures and shipments of weapons gone missing. This is his godfather, in the flesh, giving up all pretence, making a lie of Tony’s childhood and entire life.

“You won’t get away with this,” Tony croaks, his throat so dry that he can blame the pain of speaking on that instead of the sheer betrayal he feels. He should be used to that by now.

He imagines falling into this situation without knowing what Obadiah was up to and shudders. Afterwards, the trembling running through his body does not seem to stop. He is a wreck and that after only one dose of that tranquilizer.

“I thought you were better than to fall back on platitudes, boy,” Obadiah drawls, using the moniker with so much disgust in his voice that Tony almost thinks Howard is in the room with them. “It won’t be so hard to convince the police that you faked all the supposed evidence. With that AI of yours, you’ll be the villain before the day is out.”

If someone could pull that off, it is Obadiah. He has always been good at talking people into things they did not want to do. When Tony still thought he was exempt to that, he admired it.

He does not have enough people on his side to disprove it. Pepper and Rhodey’s testimony will unsurprisingly be in his favour. The only other people who knew about Obadiah’s smuggling are the Avengers and they can hardly come forward without endangering themselves. If Tony is dead at that point, there is no reason for them to do so.

And JARVIS, while being a marvel, could break Tony’s back. It is not common knowledge that he has let a learning AI loose on his servers and, subsequently, the internet. People are wary of that, and considering what JARVIS can do, they should be.

It might be a stretch but Tony is entirely convinced that Obadiah could spin this in his favour if Tony does not make it alive out of this place.

“And you think they won’t find it suspicious if I conveniently die?” he asks, trying to keep his voice steady. Judging on the grin on Obadiah’s face, he does not manage it.

“The sort of people buying weapons on the black market are not to be trifled with. You were a loose end for them, needed to be kept in check.” Obadiah shrugs as if the details bore him. Then, though, his smile becomes malicious around the edges. He leans forward and says, “And then your poor heart just gave out.”

With Obadiah coming into his space, Tony is caught between wanting to recoil and lashing out. The chair in his back and the zip ties around his wrists keep him from doing either. From this close, he sees the faint shadows under his godfather’s eyes, belying his nonchalance.

“My heart –” Tony asks bust trails off, wanting to curl around his chest.

His heart has been a source of grief since the day he was born. It should not surprise him that Obadiah would stoop low enough to use it against him.

“It’s a weak thing,” Obadiah scoffs, looking again just like Howard whenever he lamented that Starks are not born with dysfunctional hearts. “I don’t even mean that metaphorically. Nobody expected you to come out alive after all those surgeries. And then everybody was so impressed when you designed a new pacemaker for yourself as a teenager.”

He clicks his tongue, looking impatient when Tony does not have anything to say. But, even bound to the chair, Tony has a hard time staying upright. His heart has always been a sore matter. It was his father’s favourite example of why Tony was a disappointment, followed closely by his lacking intelligence.

The pacemaker was supposed to put an end to all that. He survived the surgeries, his body recovered. He could breathe and live and feel his heart beating as if he was a normal child. The following arrhythmia was not entirely unexpected but the pacemaker took care of that. It kept his heart safe.

“Turns out, it’s not as hard to manipulate as you hoped, especially for someone with the blueprints at hand.” Obadiah grins, showing too many teeth. Then he pulls his face into a facsimile of the benevolent mask he wore all throughout Tony’s life. “Your own tech is going to kill you, my boy.”

Tony would rather have a bullet in his brain. He would rather have Barnes and Barton beat him up again. But Obadiah knows this. He knows all of Tony’s issues and fears.

“Why are you doing this?” Tony asks. It comes out as nothing more than a whisper.

All thoughts of escape have vanished for the moment. The only things he is really aware of at the moment are his godfather’s face in front of him and the beating of his heart, rapid and tumbling without pause into a panic.

“You turned out to be more trouble than even your father. I’m tired of cleaning up your messes,” Obadiah says as he steps back, bringing enough distance between them that Tony feels like he can breathe easier again. “The company has been mine for so long, it’s time to make it official.”

Tony almost laughs. Without Obadiah nagging him, he might have never returned to take over the company. He would have been happy tinkering and living out his life without worries after MIT. He might have built something of his own and never intruded on Obadiah’s territory, happy to stay away from everything his father held dear.

“Why do it now?” Tony asks, wondering whether he can really stomach the answer. He has had enough heartbreak already. “You could have gotten rid of me easily after Dad died. You were the one who even brought me back into the fold.”

Obadiah seems to take the question seriously. “You’re not stupid,” he says, even while sounding dismissive about it. “I needed your brain. And you were so much easier to guide than your father.” Almost as an afterthought, he adds, “I waited far too long to get him out of the way.”

Everything stops for a moment. The distant noise of machines is drowned out by roaring in Tony’s ears. His heart misses a beat, and Tony can do nothing but stare at his godfather. He is sure he has misheard. It is impossible that Obadiah just insinuated that he had anything to do with Howard’s death.

“The accident –” Tony croaks but falls silent when he sees the unveiled derision on Obadiah’s face.

“Don’t be naïve, boy,” he snaps, sounding almost as if they are back in Tony’s childhood when he was too slow to learn a lesson. “Your father was a drunk, but he wouldn’t have crashed without a little help.”

A little help with what? Tony wants to ask, his mind already coming up with dozens of scenarios. He cannot bring himself to voice any of them or to demand clarification, caught in the memory of seeing his father’s bashed in head. His mother. Obadiah murdered his mother.

A fresh surge of fury courses through Tony at that. For the moment, he does not care about anything else Obadiah has done. The weapon dealing, the thousands of innocent people dead, the attempt to take Tony’s life. Obadiah took everything Tony had and twisted it. He took his ideas, his dreams of a different future, and he took his parents before Tony could ever find some semblance of peace with them.

“You are a monster,” Tony spits, shaking with rage. The zip ties dig into his skin as he struggles against them, leaving his wrists stinging.

“I think of myself as a businessman,” Obadiah replies nonchalantly, an utterly unholy smile on his lips. There is no sign of remorse on his face. “Now you, we had a good run together, if only you hadn’t started to waste your time on stupid humanitarian causes. Green energy? It’s a pity that you Starks always insist on letting sentimentality guide you.”

A lot of things can be said about Howard Stark. That he was sentimental is not one of them. And Tony does not think that caring for people is a weakness, although it doubtlessly put him in this situation.

“You can’t –”

“Oh, but I can,” Obadiah cuts him off, looking him down as if Tony has never been worth more than the dirt under his shoes. “No matter what you’re thinking of, I can get it done. You’ve been tinkering with the arc reactor and you had the right idea. That will power a whole new generation of weapons. Once I kick R&D back into shape.”

Beneath his pain, Tony realizes that Obadiah is delusional. He is smart, certainly, but things will not be as easy as he pictures them here. Stark Industries has been thrown into upheaval. The scandal about selling weapons to terrorists on top of closing the entire weapons manufacturing department will not leave much room to manoeuvre. Even if Obadiah manages to pin all of it on Tony, there is no easy way of turning back around.

That thought gives him a bit of satisfaction, even while he is still reeling, just one wrong word away from giving up.

“You are –” Tony starts, then corrects himself, tasting the pain of it. “You were family.”

If anything, Obadiah looks satisfied at that, proud even of having made a fool of everybody, of having swallowed Tony’s love and spat it out again mangled. “And I will make a show of being suitably grieved about your wrongdoings when the press asks about you.”

Tony can see it happening. He remembers the interviews after his parents’ death. He had never doubted that Obadiah was deeply shocked about what happened. They had cried together at times, when Tony had drunk enough to allow himself to feel sad about his loss.

“Was any of it real?” Tony hears himself asking and curses himself the moment the words are out. Does he really need to make this worse for him?

“What does it matter, boy? If you hadn’t stopped being useful, I would have kept feeding you lies.” Obadiah counters, still not a trace of sympathy found in his face. “Now, I’ll have to oversee my men. Perhaps I’ll send some of them over. If your smuggler friends decided to get rid of you, you should look the part, yes?”

With that, Obadiah turns around and leaves. Just like that, he walks away from Tony. From a lifetime of being family, friends. For a long moment, Tony can only stare, unable to comprehend what is happening, that Obadiah will actually just leave him here.

“No,” he then calls. “You can’t do that. Obie.” The words fall from his lips, incoherent, as he struggles to get free to no avail. There is no getting out of this, just like there is no getting away from the way his mind is collapsing in on itself, caved out by the way his grief is suddenly multiplied. “Don’t do that. Please.”

Obadiah stops and Tony almost thinks he has made an impression, but then there are just two more men appearing in his line of vision. He does not understand what Obadiah is telling them, but the expression on their faces when they are coming towards him is clear. They are here to shut him up.

Fear trickles down his back, icy compared to the hot anger he felt while listening to Obadiah shred his entire life in just a few moments. He remembers this part, remembers being helpless, unable to block any hits or to defend himself. He will just have to take it, their fists and kicks, their derision and uncaring violence.

The first blow hits him right in the stomach, knocking the breath out of him as he tries to curl up on himself. There is nowhere to go, no way to escape. He gasps as the pain spreads, climbing up through his ribcage as his broken ribs are rattled.

Tony closes his eyes and does not see the fist coming that connects with his jaw, throwing his head to the side. He tastes blood, swallows it instead of spitting it at his attackers like he wants to.

Just a few hits in and this is already worse than the beating he got from the Avengers. Even while he did not know the reason at the time, that had been personal. This, here, is just two strangers taking a man apart because they were ordered to do so.

Through the pain, Tony looks up, tries to see their faces to have something to concentrate on other than the feeling of getting smashed to pieces. He does not know them. The one to the right does not even look like he enjoys it, which makes it somehow worse.

Tony opens his mouth, wanting to say something without knowing what. He has nothing to offer them, no incentive to make them stop. This is how it feels to lose.

A loud noise reaches them from somewhere, but Tony does not look away from the two men laying into him. That is how he sees an actual arrow embed itself in the throat of the one to the right.

With a shriek, the man stumbles backward, hands reaching up to his throat. The sound soon turns into a gurgle and blood runs down from where his skin was pierced and over his hands, staining the collar of his shirt crimson. It is a horrifying sight and yet Tony cannot look away. He has never seen a person die before.

There is more noise, almost like gunshots and the other man falls too, clutching his abdomen, screaming until he falls very quiet.

Tony does not know what is happening. He cannot lift his eyes from the fallen men in front of him, cannot make sense of the arrow. He imagined being rescued. Thor would have come with the FBI as soon as JARVIS sent them the right coordinates. Somehow, he doubts that the FBI is working with bow and arrow.

When he finally drags up his eyes, the pain almost just an echo anymore, he sees chaos. People are running and shouting, bodies are on the floor, weapons are used freely.

A movement to his right startles him. He recognizes the masked man mostly because of the mop of dirty blond hair. Barton is nudging the men on the ground, pointing a knocked arrow at them until he is satisfied that they will not get up again.

Then he looks up and Tony recoils from him instinctively. Barton reaches up to lift his mask, just enough that Tony can see his face. There is an expression of regret there that Tony does not know what to do with.

“Do you need immediate help?” Barton asks, sounding concerned of all things.

Tony cannot answer. He is still in pain, but his own situation feels like nothing but an afterthought as he tries to make sense of what is happening. The Avengers came for him, obviously, so JARVIS must have found him before they destroyed the chip.

“I won’t touch you,” Barton promises when Tony remains silent. He does not come any closer, perhaps thinking that Tony would react unfavourably to that, although Barton does not seem so bad anymore at the moment. “I’ll send someone for you.”

With a last, critical glance, Barton puts his mask back in place and hurries off, his bow at the ready, and runs off, although he never vanishes back out of sight. He remains at a short distance to Tony and plants himself there like a guard, not letting anyone get close to Tony.  

For some reason, that even makes Tony feel safe. He should not trust Barton, too easily remembering the sneer on his face and the eager readiness for violence. Barton had been a stranger, though. No matter that he was hurting Tony to get revenge, he was just a man. Far more terrible evils lurk inside this warehouse. Tony’s memories of a childhood that turns out to be nothing more than a lie not the least of them.

Obadiah, Tony thinks. Somewhere in this sudden hell is his godfather. Tony surprises himself with how vehemently he wishes nobody has shot him yet. He remembers the weight of a gun in his hand from when he cowered behind his car next to Thor, afraid for both their lives. He remembers the recoil when he pulled the trigger. He is certain that, right now, nothing would be more satisfying than to sink a bullet in Obadiah’s body. Perhaps he would not choose somewhere fatal immediately. A bullet to the knee so he cannot run away. A bullet to the gut so he will bleed out slowly. And then a bullet to the throat so he cannot spew any more lies.

Tony is disgusted with himself for thinking that, even while a part of him is burning with the need to get this done. This day has made everything worse. Obadiah did not just make a ton of money by handing out weapons like candy. The personal betrayal runs much deeper than Tony thought. He cannot even begin to think about his parents. Not in this place.

He is still bound to the chair, still cannot move. For all that someone has come to his rescue, he is defenceless, rendered unable to do anything but to wait what else fate has in store for him.

Distantly, he realizes that Barton is leaving his post. That could mean that he is needed in the fight or that he is simply abandoning Tony. Just a moment later, though, someone else is running towards him, pulling off his mask as he comes closer, although Tony would not have needed that to recognize Steve. The words on his arm burn brighter than the pain sitting in his bones, heralding Steve’s arrival. For the first time since they met, Tony feels nothing but relief at seeing Steve. For once, there are no conflicted feelings, no wishing it was Thor or Bruce or anybody else coming for him.

He does not even flinch when he notices the knife in Steve’s hand. On an instinctual level, Tony knows that Steve is not going to harm him further. He is too tired to fight that just because of their history.

“Tony,” Steve breathes as soon as he is close enough for them to talk. “Are you all right? What did they do?” He does no wait for an answer but falls to his knees in front of Tony, frantic fingers searching for where Tony is bound. “I’ll cut you loose, all right? I’ve got you.”

The pressure around Tony’s wrists vanishes almost immediately and he slumps forward. The only reason he does not fall from the chair is that he reaches out, steadying himself against Steve. The movement hurts his shoulder sockets. It is a deep, pounding ache, only interrupted by the sharp stinging of his wrists. The skin is raw there, scratched and bleeding in places. Feeling is slowly returning to his fingers with pins and needles.

Instead of looking at his own blood, Tony concentrates on where his hands connect with Steve. He feels Steve’s muscles shifting, feels the tension that has nothing to do with the fight and everything with Tony.

Then Tony’s feet are free too and Steve helps him up to move him from the chair to the ground in front of the wall, making the motion appear more coordinated than Tony’s uncontrolled collapse would have allowed. It takes them away from the two unmoving bodies too. Tony wants to curl up, to close his eyes and fall asleep, knowing he is going to wake up in his own bed, with all of this having been nothing but a nightmare. Recently, he has gotten a lot of practice to reinforce the knowledge that is not going to happen, though.

Instead, Tony slowly stretches his legs, hoping to get them back in working order quickly. The problem is less the few kicks directed there than the numbness in his feet. He guesses Obadiah did not care whether his hands and feet where getting enough blood, considering that he should not have lived for much longer.

“What is happening?” Tony asks, once he feels he has his body under control again. Enough so to keep himself from passing out, at least. “What are you doing here?”

“We came as soon as we knew where to go,” Steve answers hoarsely. Where he was completely in control only moments ago, he now sounds vulnerable. “Did you think we wouldn’t?”

Tony is not sure that the Avengers coming here was even an option. He expected Thor and JARVIS to alert Coulson.

“What about the police?” he asks, although he could not care less about who is here, repercussions be damned. He is simply glad someone came at all.

“They are not here yet,” Steve says simply.

That causes a whole load of new problems, but Tony is in no condition to deal with them or even identify them specifically. He is alive, even if he is hurting. He has someone close who he somewhat trusts, even after realizing Obadiah’s betrayal runs deeper than he thought.

Tony hums, making it as noncommittal as possible, as he pulls his legs up and lays his arms on his knees, barely keeping himself from putting his head down and closing his eyes. He should probably be more concerned with whether they should move to get somewhere less out in the open, but Steve is at his side, back to murmuring sweet nonsense under his breath.

“Breathe, Tony. They’re not going to get you here. You’re safe. I’ve got you.”

That kind of reassurance does nothing for Tony, but it grounds him nonetheless. Another voice to help stave off the abyss in his mind. He breathes and he waits, leaning into Steve next to him to glean some warmth.

It occurs to him to ask for his shoes and the thought has laughter rising in his throat, Perhaps Steve would actually get up and find him something to wear, stumbling through what still sounds like chaos in the other parts of this place that are thankfully out of sight.

“Tony,” Steve asks immediately, glaring concern on his face. “What’s wrong?”

Unable to help himself, Tony starts giggling. It sounds more like hiccups or sobs, but he has a dozen inappropriate pictures in his head, ranging from Steve looting the bodies for shoes to taking off his own. The thought of Steve barefoot is what does him in. He laughs sharply. No matter how short-lived it is, it brings Tony back to the present – which is cold and painful, but Tony would take this over incoherent thoughts any day. He cannot afford to lose his mind.

The noise calms down at some point. Tony is not sure when the last shot rings through the space or when the shouting stops, but it does not take long then for people to arrive at their hiding spot. Bucky is the first, easily recognizable by his metal arm. He takes one long look at Tony and Steve, scanning for wounds or anything that needs immediate attention.

“The area is secure,” he then says, sounding more formal than Tony expected him to. Even now, with Obadiah’s men apparently dealt with, Tony is not afraid of being close to Barton or Barnes. Some things simply pale against the reality he is currently stuck in.

“I’ll be with you in a second,” Steve replies, neither sounding nor looking like he will be able to get up and leave Tony here on his own. Tony does not want him to either.

“We’ve got this,” Bucky says, clearly seeing the same thing.

Tony wonders for a moment whether he should ask about the body count. He does not know where they are or who these people were. The presence of the crates with the Stark Industries’ logo on them suggests they are in a sort of smuggling waypoint. The duration of the fight makes it unlikely that there were just a few guards stationed here.

Shuddering, Tony decides the two bodies right in front of him are enough to know about. Later, he will review this thoroughly. Now, with everything too close and too real, he cannot deal with any details.

The next person to appear is Thor and that fully raises Tony out of his numbness. Thor should not be here. He belongs in a hospital or, at the very least, into bed. He did not hand himself over to Obadiah’s men only to have Thor risk getting shot again. This was supposed to keep him safe.

“Thor, what are you doing here?” Tony asks, his own voice too loud inside his pounding head. “You were shot.”

His eyes drop down to Thor’s side. He has apparently changed the shirt because there is no more glaring red covering the fabric, although Tony still imagines seeing it there.

Even in a situation like this, Thor finds a smile for Tony. It is small and somewhat pained but also full of reassurance.

“I let them take you. Of course, I came to get you back,” Thor replies as he kneels down close to Tony, shielding him from seeing the bodies behind him.

Tony should feel crowded with Steve at his side and Thor in front of him, but Thor manages to make him feel safe even here. His voice is calm like they are sitting together in Tony’s office, eating lunch. Even so, Tony hears the regret in Thor’s tone, the guilt. He cannot let that stand.

“You didn’t let them do anything,” Tony argues, wondering whether Thor is stupidly loyal or stupidly careless. “I ordered you to stand down, and I had hoped you’d get medical attention instead of coming after me.”

He is not sure whether to be relieved that someone he trusts has come to his rescue instead of a faceless group of FBI agents. This has put Thor and the Avengers needlessly in danger, but it allows Tony to let his guard down just a bit. It also makes it so much more likely that he is going to fall apart.

Bruce is going to kill him for endangering his soulmate, Tony realizes suddenly. But as if Thor has read his thoughts, he says, “Bruce had a look and declared me fit enough.”

Next to Tony, Steve exhales loudly. Not quite a laugh but definitely an exclamation of doubt.

“Did you leave him any other choice?” Tony asks, glad to give his mind over to simpler things than thinking about what happens next.

Thor is upright and does not look like he is going to keel over. That makes it save to banter with him.

“What about you?” Thor counters instead of answering Tony’s question, which says enough, really. “Anything we need to take care of quickly?”

There is an entire list of things Tony would like to be taken care of. Obadiah is not even at the top of it. He wants to claw the doubts out of his own head, the thoughts that maybe he deserved this for having been blind so many years, for not realizing that his own godfather was lying to him.

That is not what Thor means, though. He is talking about actual wounds. Tony has a number of those too, but the bruises will not kill him.

“No,” Tony says and does not sound as certain as he was trying to. “They – they just got started. At this point, I’m sure my ribs will never heal, but I’m all right.”

He is still not quite able to think clearly or to look around without his vision swimming. The tranquilizer was certainly potent. He does not mention that, though. It is not like they can do anything about that – and Tony is afraid that some of these symptoms come simply from the emotional shock of the situation. As long as he can blame the way his mind keeps slipping on the drugs, he can hold himself together.

“We’ll get you to a hospital,” Thor says, making it sound like a promise.

All that does is making immediate protest rise in Tony’s throat. “No,” he refuses. He has only bad memories of hospitals. Getting prepped for another surgery, waking up with only Jarvis at his side instead of his parents. Vague answers about his prognosis. “No, I just want to go home.”

“You should –” Steve starts but falls silent abruptly when Tony shakes his head.

“Bruce can look me over,” he argues, even while he thinks that is not necessary. “And JARVIS will make sure I’m all right once I’m back in the tower.”

He is not going to feel safe anywhere else. Even there it will be hard. The entire place is full of memories of Obadiah, of his own failings. Tony needs to familiarity, though, his own home without strangers bustling around him. He needs to be able to lock a door behind him and be reasonably sure that no one else is going to come in.

“Then we’ll get you home,” Thor says, his expression unbearably soft.

Not yet, however, Tony knows. They still have a warehouse full of bodies to deal with. His head is full enough to burst, wondering about repercussion and how they are going to tell the FBI what has happened here without offering up the Avengers on a silver plate. More important, though, is another unresolved matter.

“Where is my godfather?” Tony asks, surprised that his voice does not give out. He feels weak but strangely determined at the same time.

Thor looks at Steve, more in question than to confer whether it is actually a good idea to confront Tony with this right now – or so Tony hopes. Steve raises his hand to an earpiece that Tony is only now noticing.

“Get Stane over here.”

Ignoring the way his stomach is roiling, Tony concentrates on the earpiece. He is glad that Steve apparently was in communication with his team all along, or at least could listen in on them. Even if he thought Tony was in danger, it appears rather negligent to abandon the fight just to pat Tony’s back.

Then, reality come crashing in once more.

Chapter Text

Natasha brings Obadiah in. It looks comical how she manhandles his much bigger figure, but he looks like whatever fight he put up was beaten out of him rather quickly. Blood is running down his brow and chin, and his nose looks crooked. A grim kind of satisfaction spreads through Tony at the sight. It does not make his own wounds or broken heart hurt any less, but the vindictive part of him rises in triumph.

“He was trying to run, but he didn’t get far,” Natasha says as she shoves Obadiah the last few steps forward. Behind her, the rest of the Avengers come closer, not wanting to miss the spectacle. Bruce immediately walks towards Thor.

Tony watches Obadiah stumble and almost fall, unable to balance well with his hands bound behind his back. He looks miserable, even while the haughtiness is not yet gone from his features. Tony wonders what it would take for Obadiah to see that everything he has done was not, in some twisted way, his right.

Tony gets to his feet. Even bound and held back, he does not want Obadiah towering over him. It is time to stand up for himself, no matter that his legs are trembling, appearing ready to give out at one wrong word or move.

He stands. Obadiah’s betrayal has not broken him. That is the only thing that counts for now.

“You sick son of a bitch,” Steve yells. Tony has not noticed him getting up too. One minute he was still sitting where Tony left him, and now he is bearing down on Obadiah, his entire body taut with tension. “How could you do all this to your own family?”

Despite being outnumbered and thoroughly beaten, Obadiah looks up with that terrible arrogance on his face, that conviction that he is better than everybody else in this room.

“I don’t even know who you are, but I can assure you that it was the easiest thing in the world,” he says. Sneering at Tony, he adds, “The boy isn’t of much use.”

Just the way Obadiah’s eyes fall on him is like another fist to the stomach. Tony feels Steve’s rage. It is more than the muted echo spreading through their bond. It reverberates deep inside Tony’s core, howling alongside his grief and the abject terror of the realization of just how much he has been used.

“Shut up,” Steve barks. His hands fly forward to grab Obadiah’s shirt and, helped by a well-placed kick against the back of his leg, Steve puts Obadiah on his knees. Looming over him, he says, “You’re not going to hurt him ever again. You’ll –”

“No.” Tony is surprised to hear his own voice ring out so clearly through the room. More than that, he is surprised when Steve stops whatever he has planned to do immediately.

Tony can see the appeal of this scene. Obadiah on his knees in front of Tony, the Avengers spread out around them. The accused, jury, and judge all gathered together. He sees himself picking up a gun or perhaps leaving the gritty part to Steve. They could draw it out like Tony wanted earlier. They could make Obadiah plead. Or they could simply shut him up forever.

Glancing at Barnes’ grim face and the way Barton is still keeping his distance from Tony, he imagines turning Obadiah over to their mercy. Let them rough him up. Let them make true on that horrifying threat of cutting off someone’s arm.

Tony can see all of that happen and knows he would be satisfied. The part of him that was hurt so much by Obadiah’s betrayal would rise in victory. The two dead bodies already in the vicinity watch on, cold and uncaring, and Tony tries to picture Obadiah as one of them.

I’m going to do it, he wants to say, ready to step forward and put an end to this.

His eyes fall on Steve’s, dark with rage, full of hunger to make this right. Tony understands that rage, but he has felt it directed at himself too. Perhaps Obadiah deserves it, perhaps Tony would never regret letting this happen. Deep down, however, he knows he would.

“Tony?” Bruce asks quietly, and Tony looks up, glad to have someone calm to cling to, someone who will not urge him in any direction over the other. Of course, the peace cannot last.

“Look at that,” Obadiah drawls, his voice distorted by the sort of disgust Tony has never heard from him. “Will you never man up and make a decision for yourself?”

Instead of answering, Steve almost casually draws back his hand and hits Obadiah in the face so that his head jerks to the side and he coughs up more blood. It shuts him up, if only for a moment.

“So weak.” Obadiah grins, showing bloodstained teeth, eyes only on Tony as if Steve is barely a threat worth noticing. “That’s why your father hated you.”

Steve hits him again, this time on the other side of his face. Tony watches it happen and feels Steve’s anger rise higher, even while he himself calms down to an almost unnatural level.

This is it. He will have to make a decision. Could he live with himself after killing his godfather? Could he live with the consequences of letting him live?

Tony knows that gleam in Obadiah’s eyes. Even beyond the pain and the glitter of fear, the malice is almost palpable. No matter what happens, Obadiah will not go down easy. He knows too much, Tony realizes. He will be convicted, but he will do everything in his power to make Tony’s life a misery.

Around them, all of the Avengers but Steve are still masked. Their communication channels are probably encrypted, making it hard to find them. Obadiah still knows about them. He knows Steve’s face, he knows now that Tony is somehow connected to them. It is not much of a stretch, considering Steve’s protectiveness and the way they sat huddled together only moments before.

Tony looks at Thor. This is his decision to make, and perhaps he is weak for not wanting to make it alone and not knowing what he is looking for in Thor’s face. It is obvious that Thor is worried. He might believe in justice, but his soulmate’s life is on the line too.

The tension in the air rises almost unbearably, and Obadiah’s gaze on him weighs the heaviest.

Tony takes a step forward, surprisingly steady on his feet, considering he barely feels himself beyond that low thrumming anticipation of making a decision that will ruin his life either way.

“Give me a gun,” he says, quiet but firm. He did not know what he was going to say, but he is not surprised by this either.

Obadiah is a risk to all of them. There is no telling what kind of damage he could still do to them even from prison. The look in his eyes easily tells that he will haunt Tony for the rest of his life.

Steve turns around, looking at Tony with wide eyes. It is not so much surprise filling them as a sort of grief that Tony feels echoed inside himself. For once, he does not care if that is his own feeling or transmitted through the bond.

“Tony,” Steve says, unbearably gentle against the backdrop of their surroundings. “You don’t have to do this.”

Standing firm, Tony smiles. It feels hollow and helps him to remove himself more from the situation. “Of course, I do. This is my mess.”

Who else could he let this do? Barton and Barnes have already shown that they take revenge too seriously. Natasha is too impassionate and would likely just make another notch in her collection. Steve is almost vibrating with anger, some righteous need to protect Tony. Bruce is, no matter what his file says, not a killer. And Thor was hired to protect Tony, not to murder in his name.

Even ignoring all of that, this is not something Tony can delegate. Obadiah is his godfather. He has been betrayed and fooled for years on end. He has caused so much harm to the world by not realizing what is happening right in front of his eyes.

Killing Obadiah now, after the fight is over, is wrong. If this is still going to happen, it has to be Tony. 

“Listen to yourself, boy,” Obadiah sneers, cutting right through Tony’s thoughts. “You’ve never cleaned up any of your own messes before.”

He sounds disparaging, but there is the faintest hint of a tremble to his voice. It does not give Tony any satisfaction to know that his godfather is afraid during the last minutes before his death.

“Then it’s high time that I started,” Tony says, so much calmer than he feels. “Get up.”

He glances behind him, just short of holding out his hand for someone to put a gun in it. He will not take Thor’s. They are already far beyond doing any of this legally, but Tony is not going to put Obadiah’s death on Thor too if the police is going to match ballistics here.

Without further ado, Tony steps towards Steve and takes the gun that is hanging at Steve’s side. He does not ask for permission and Steve does not stop him.

Only when Tony does not immediately move back but stares at the weapon in his hand, does Steve say, “Tony.” It is quiet but filled with a tentative offer that Tony never even contemplates to take him up on.

He turns away and purposely misinterprets Steve’s words. “I’m not going to shoot him on his knees,” Tony says, and that almost makes it sound like a kindness, even though it does nothing against the nausea roiling in his stomach. “He is my godfather, and that means something to me, no matter what he made of it.”

Obadiah gets to his feet agonizingly slow, never once taking his eyes off Tony. Sweat glistens on his forehead but he shows no fear. Tony forces himself to look in his eyes. He is sure there is no right way to kill one’s godfather, but he is going to do it with as much decency as he can manage.

They stand across from each other. They are both bruised and bloody. They have both lost today. Tony has Steve at his side, and Thor and Bruce not far behind, backing him up, while Obadiah is flanked loosely by Natasha, Barton and Barnes.

Tony raises him arm without looking at anyone other than Obadiah. His hand is steady, holding the gun as if this is not the first time he has pointed a weapon at another human being. It weighs more than any other weapon he has ever held, pulling him down, filling him with the wish to curl up on the ground and close his eyes until all of this is over.

Instead, he remains upright and carefully checks whether the gun is loaded and the safety is off. If he only looks at his hands, he could almost pretend this is just another day at the range, testing a new product. His breathing is too heavy for that and the scent of blood in the air robs him from any illusions.

“Obie,” Tony says and trails off, unsure what to say even while he does not want to end it like this, without getting something, anything, back from his godfather.

“Do it, boy,” Obadiah hisses, almost impassionate if not for the hate echoing in his voice. “Kill me so I can come back and haunt you for the rest of your life.”

He will. Whether he dies today or not. Obadiah will always be another thing that was supposed to be good but went horribly wrong.

Tony looks at Obadiah, looks at him beyond the blooming bruises and the malice in his features. He looks and searches for a way they can solve this amicably. There is none, but he owes it to himself to be as certain about this as he can be. 

“I got over Howard, too,” Tony says, entirely calm.

All hesitation gone, he points the barrel of the gun right at Obadiah’s chest and, without leaving himself time for even another breath, pulls the trigger. Once, twice.

Then it is over. Just like that. Tony almost lets the gun fall as he watches Obadiah’s body crumble. It does not happen as clean or as easy as movies made him believe. Obadiah roars as he falls, arms straining as he tries to raise his bound hands to his chest. He gurgles and splutters and twitches. It is undignified and drawn-out. Each second lasts a life-time and yet Tony cannot look away. This is his doing. His fault.

When Obadiah is finally silent and unmoving on the ground, Tony’s lungs are screaming for air and he allows himself to breathe with a jerk. This is it. His godfather is dead. It is done. 

A hand lands on Tony’s shoulder that he shrugs off instinctively. “Tony,” someone calls. It could be Steve or Bruce or Thor, but Tony does not look up to find out.

Shaking, he sets one foot in front of the other, just walking away from his godfather’s body. He walks until he does not see Obadiah anymore. He walks, but there are still other bodies turning up, lying in between crates of his weapons and cars that were in the process of being loaded. He does not know where the door is, how to get out, so he walks until he does not have any body in his sight anymore and collapses against a wall, sliding down into an aching heap.

What has he done?

All the satisfaction promised earlier has directly given way to panic, a low-humming sort that sends his thoughts into overdrive. He killed his godfather. Worse, he did it to save himself and a group of vigilantes. He did it to help with his own pain. He did it to make sure that Obadiah would never betray him again.  

When Tony hears steps coming closer, he wants to tell whoever it is to go away. He does not need any coddling or somebody telling him that he has done the right thing. That cannot have been the right thing because he feels awful.

“Tony,” Bruce says, as gentle as he has been before. No judgement clouds his tone, no congratulations. “Are you bleeding anywhere?”

What a curious question. Blood had been pooling under Obadiah. Looking down at his arms, Tony sees his raw wrists and his hands spattered with blood. He cannot tell whether that is Obadiah’s or that of the two other men who died right in front of him. Everything is a mess.

“What’s going to happen now?” Tony asks instead of answering.

When he looks up, he sees Bruce kneeling next to him. Thor and Steve are in the background, looking uncertain whether to come closer. His question gets them moving, and again, he does not feel crowded. For all that Tony wanted to be alone only a minute ago, he is glad now to have the company, if only to have three more hearts beating nearby.

“We’re going to clean up whatever evidence we can that we were involved,” Bruce says quietly, sounding like this is just another normal night. “And then we’ll call in the police.”

Concentrating on the logistics helps. There is no time to wallow in misery.

“You should go help them, then.” Tony replies, looking at each of them in turn if only briefly before his gaze falls back on his hands. “I’m fine.”

Bruce snorts, although there is no amusement in the sound. “I’m not going to leave you alone.”

Tony gets the distinct feeling that they are not just talking about the clean-up. It dampens the relief he feels at Bruce’s presence. “You need to get out of here,” he insists, voice full of urgency.

Taking Obadiah out to assure all of their safety would be made redundant if Bruce stayed now and tipped off the police about a third involved party.

“I can be just a friend you called in after everything was already over,” Bruce counters stubbornly, although the way his shoulders tense tells Tony that he knows himself that is not a feasible explanation.

“And Thor just took care of all of these people by himself?” Tony asks. As if on cue, Thor steps forward to put a hand on Bruce’s shoulder, offering comfort. “That doesn't make sense, you all need to leave.”

Tony does not want them to go. Not even Steve. The ready violence with which Steve threw himself at Obadiah should have put Tony off. And yet he could feel exactly that all of that anger was on Tony’s behalf. The bond had been aglow with it. The worry, the fear of the past hours, the need to protect. Whatever other issues they have, right now Tony does not want Steve to go anywhere.

Bruce nods tersely as he gets to his feet. “I don’t like it.”

“That’s nice of you.” Looking up, Tony manages a weak smile. It is barely more than a twitching of his lips, but he knows the spirit of it has been received when Bruce’s frown eases a bit. “But I’m safe now, so it’s more important to keep you out of this. And tell Barton to gather up his arrows.”

Why someone who has been in the military and worked for a government agency would choose a bow and arrow as his weapon of choice is a conundrum he will have to solve at another time or perhaps never. Just because Barton came to his rescue does not mean that Tony wants anything more to do with him. His leniency only extends so much.

“He’s –” Bruce begins what is probably a somewhat rational explanation, but Tony shakes his head.

“I’m not asking,” he says. “I just really have no idea how to explain them.” Or how they are going to conceal the wounds that have obviously not been made by bullets. Perhaps they simply hope that no one is going to do an autopsy of all these people. And they probably have enough experience with things like this. Tony really does not want to know.

“I’m staying,” Steve speaks up just as Bruce is beginning to turn away to go and help his teammates. It brings them right back to ground zero.

Since cutting him loose, Steve has not stepped more than two feet away from Tony, hovering like he expects someone to jump at them from the shadows and attack them, although they cleared the entire area. Since Obadiah is now gone too, this is getting ridiculous. The only thing that could possibly do Tony in now, is the exhaustion pulling him under.

“Didn’t you listen just now?” Tony asks, the slightest hint of annoyance rising within him. He is so glad about that, about another emotion than grief, he almost forgets to frown at Steve.

“I did, but you’re right,” Steve argues and gestures at the mess around them. “Thor cannot have done this on his own. I’ve worked in security before we started the Avengers. I could have been in the area and he called me in.”

So much for keeping Steve and the Avengers as far away from the police as possible. “That’s just asking for trouble,” Tony says, wondering when his life has become so complicated and why nobody wants to listen to reason.

“I’m not going to leave,” Steve insists, making it clear he will not be swayed by any argument. An irritatingly big part of Tony is actually relieved by that.  

Thor steps up, standing very close to Bruce. “You can bring him home right now. Before the police arrives.” He looks pale, too pale to be standing here and argue over stupid ideas.

“Because that makes this whole thing less suspicious?” Tony snaps, although it comes out with much less heat than he aimed for.

He wants to go home, to leave this place and never look back. He definitely does not want to answer any questions about what happened or why his godfather is lying dead on the ground. The mere possibility of going home right now has Tony’s body aching with a new intensity, demanding him to give in.

“You’re wounded and in shock,” Thor says, making it instantly harder for Tony to remain sitting upright as if his body just needed to be reminded of its state. “It would be irresponsible of me to make you wait here although everything is already resolved.”

Tony is not wounded per se. He has some bruises that could have been worse if Barton had taken longer to get rid of the two men beating him up. He can move everything without issue. The worst thing is his head, still aching and mulled by whatever was in that tranquilizer dart. 

“Change of plan,” Tony says, despite knowing this is more wishful thinking than any feasible choice of action. “We’re all getting out of here. You’re shot. You actually need a hospital.”

Bruce frowns at Thor as if he had momentarily forgotten about Thor going already wounded into this fight. He still decides to be the voice of reason and says, “I don’t think we can cover this up.”

The mere thought has Tony wanting to laugh. He imagines them packing all the bodies into one of the trucks and then cleaning the entire place until it looks like nobody has ever been here.

“We won’t,” he counters, grasping for straws. “We’ll deliver Obadiah to the police on our way home and then we’ll have a long chat with Agent Coulson once we’ve all had a nap and a chance to come up with a good story.”

“Agent Coulson is already thinking there’s more to this than we told him,” Thor cautions as if he actually has to come up with arguments to prove Tony’s idea is not a feasible plan.

Even knowing he is beat, Tony nods sullenly. “Exactly.”

With a sigh, Bruce obviously decides that this is getting them nowhere. “Stop arguing. I will leave with the rest of the team. Steve stays with Thor and Tony.” Rubbing the bridge of his nose as if he, too, has a headache, he adds, “We’ll get his licensing up to date and fake some jobs as soon as we’re home, so he’s not just some crazy vet who turned up to shoot people. You three will wait for the police and wrap this up quickly because you’re both wounded and Tony is in shock in addition to that. We can build on that later, but we need to do this as correctly as possible.”

Nobody dares to argue with that, and Tony is just glad to leave the thinking to someone else. The longer he sits here, the more his energy drains out of him.

“All right,” Thor agrees, looking at Steve until he nods too. Then he turns back to Bruce. “Do you need help with the clean-up before you leave?”

Without further ado, Bruce puts his hands on Thor’s shoulder and pushes him down next to Tony. “You will stay here, Thor,” he orders, leaving no room for argument. “Give us five minutes then you can call the police.”

Everything happens very quickly after that. Tony remains seated where he is, not sure that his legs would carry him even if he tried. The Avengers clear out in no time at all. Barton vanishes out of the door with a handful of bloody arrows, which is a sight that Tony will likely never forget.

Then they are gone and Tony is left alone with Thor, who is favouring his side a little more obviously now that Bruce is not watching him anymore, and Steve, who has taken to pacing. All of them avoid looking at the mess of bodies around them. Tony is just glad that Obadiah is nowhere in sight.  

Tony is still not sure what to think of what happened, of his own decision to shoot Obadiah despite having too much blood on his hands already. He thought he was better than this, no matter that a part of him still thinks it was necessary. It will take time to deal with this and he is already afraid of being alone with his thoughts, worried what he will do when the regret hits.

The police arrive in a flurry of sirens and cautious swarming. For the second time this day, Tony has guns pointed at him and he does not like it any more than the first.

A gentle voice orders the officers to stand down and then Coulson comes towards them, looking like he has just stepped out of a meeting at the office. His suit is meticulous and the gun at his hip is nothing more than an afterthought.

“Gentlemen,” he greets, his eyes lingering on Steve.

Tony leaves the explaining to Thor. He is too tired to follow, his mind slowing down now that the adrenaline level is falling and does not stave off the effects of the tranquilizer anymore. Perhaps he got one too many hits against the head too. He will worry about that if the grogginess does not vanish after he has had a chance to lie down for a bit.

A medic appears out of nowhere and fusses over him, but Tony tells him to leave, weaving some incoherent lie about getting medical care at the tower. He does not need a stranger’s hands on him right now. He needs JARVIS and his bed and something to make him forget that his godfather is lying somewhere nearby, finally caught and too dead to put up a fight anymore.

Time passes. It could have been minutes or hours when Steve crouches down next to Tony.

“Can I touch you?” he asks very quietly as if he does not want to spook Tony.

Tony nods weakly, thinking that nothing could shock him now. Beyond the throbbing pain in his head and ribs, he feels numb, completely drained.

“I’m going to get you home now, Tony,” Steve says. He reaches out gently, snaking his arm around Tony to help him up.

Tony leans into him instinctively, shivering as he is met with the sudden warmth of another human being. Even in his battered state, he notices that the soul bond is silent, and he is glad for that. He would not stand a chance against it like this, but it is just him and Steve right now. Just them against the world.

“Thor?” Tony asks, realizing that he has not seen Thor since the police came in.

“On his way to the hospital,” Steve reassures him as he adjusts his grip to keep Tony upright. “I still think you should be going there too.”

“No,” Tony says, his own voice hurting his throat with how forceful it comes out. “I need to go home.”

“All right,” Steve backtracks quickly. “I’ll get you home. Do you mind if I carry you?”

Tony feels shaky enough that each step takes more energy than he can spare, but he will not be carried out of here like a damsel in distress. He is fine, just exhausted and not quite done with the aftereffects of whatever was in that dart. He can walk wherever he has to if his bed is waiting for him at the end.

Instead of answering, he starts walking, setting one shaking step in front of the other. He has no doubt that, without Steve, he would have already fallen down again.

“I’ve got you,” Steve murmurs, keeping up a litany of soothing platitudes.

For once, Tony does not mind. He is happy to have someone close, someone he can mostly trust. No matter what other problems they have, he knows Steve is going to keep him safe. They can deal with everything else later.  

Chapter Text

Tony falls asleep in the car – or he appears to be drifting in and out of consciousness, his head lolling to the side only for him to jerk up again moments later, looking around with wide eyes for a moment before going back under.

Steve has to force himself to keep his eyes on the road instead of looking over at Tony every other second to check whether he is still breathing. The bond does not help one bit. It is brimming with a kind of low-frequency urgency, almost overshadowed by the stressed racing of his heart. It feels like a warning, although the main part of the danger is supposed to be over. It puts him on edge.

The moment he is alone, Steve is sure he will freak out. He is barely holding himself together as it is. This is the first time he has been this afraid for someone since Bucky was taken prisoner, vanishing into the desert. A part of Steve thinks he does not have a right to feel that way, but he is beyond all common sense.

Ever since Bruce told them something was wrong, despite knowing very well that this could happen, especially since it is not the first time Stane tried, Steve felt like he was being undone, unravelling at the seams. If not for his friends and Thor, he would have stormed that warehouse without any plan at all, running in, guns blazing, in his single-minded quest to find Tony.

Now that Tony is sitting in the passenger seat, easily within touching-distance, Steve is hardly any calmer. This entire matter could have gone utterly wrong every step of the way and Steve cannot imagine what that would have done to him.

For the moment, it does not even matter that this is probably mostly the bond speaking. That bond he did not choose, that he and Tony have been fighting against with little to no success. This is what Steve is feeling. Unsettled and panicked at the thought of being unable to save this man he barely knows. He is not sure how he could have dealt with losing Tony, ignoring the fact that they never really had each other in the first place.

Tony rouses when they come close to the tower, just enough to point him at the entrance to the underground parking lot.

“It’ll open,” he says, almost a reassurance, even though Steve was not going to question the directions. He would not care to leave the car standing in the middle of the road if it allowed him to bring Tony upstairs more quickly.

The shutter does open the moment Steve turns towards it, before he even had a chance to push any button or talk to a nightguard. His worry rackets up another bit at the thought that Tony’s security has been this lax the entire time, but he pushes it down ruthlessly. The danger is over. Stane is not going to plan another hit on Tony.

A veritable light show starts when Steve pulls into the parking lot. It looks like someone is attempting to guide him, plunging most of the lot into darkness but leaving an easy-to-follow trail. Steve hesitates, but he sees a smile on Tony’s face as he glances over. It is small and dimmed by exhaustion, but it is sign enough that this is no foul play.

Steve follows the lights and is guided through another shutter into what appears to be a private part of the garage. He barely spares a glance at the glamorous cars but finds a parking spot close to the elevator and gets out before he can begin to doubt himself.

By the time he opens the passenger door, Tony has managed to get the security belt off him but has not moved beyond that, staring at his hands, which are still flecked with blood.

“Tony,” Steve says quietly, approaching as non-threateningly as he can. “Let me help you out of the car.”

Tony looks up and stares at Steve as if he can look right at his soul, leaving nothing hidden. At first, he does not move, and Steve fights against the heartbreak that causes. This is hardly the time to think about whatever is or is not between them. Getting Tony home is the only thing that matters right now. Everything else comes later.

The prospect of getting out of the car and walking clears Tony’s head a bit. He looks around, breathes, and appears rather secure on his own feet. When he does not let go of the arm Steve offered him, they walk together towards the elevator.

Steve thinks that he should have asked Bruce to do this, who had offered despite wanting to meet Thor at the hospital. Even Natasha might have been the better choice. There is already so much history between them that Steve feels like he is overstepping now. He wants to keep Tony safe, to bring him home, but it is hardly his place. If Tony were in better shape, he would undoubtedly tell Steve off for this. They have come so far now, though, that there is no more bowing out.  

The elevator door opens before Steve can press the button. Someone has to be watching them, and he cannot quite squash the suspicion he feels at that. This might be Tony’s tower and Tony does not seem surprised, but after what they have just been through, Steve is reluctant to lead Tony into the unknown.

“It’s all right,” Tony says, pulling Steve into the elevator as if he has not been leaning on Steve up until now. “It’s safe.”

Considering how recklessly Tony handed himself over to people he knew wanted him dead, they might have differing opinions about what might be safe. Steve does not argue, however, but simply moves slightly in front of Tony when the door closes behind him and the elevator starts moving, ready for whatever might expect them once they reach the penthouse.

Despite the height of the tower, their journey is over rather quickly. Steve wonders why he ever thought differently. Tony is a wunderkind when it comes to tech, after all.

Together, they stumble out of the elevator and, for the first time since getting Thor’s call, Steve does not know what to do. Everything has been so clear up to this point. Save Tony, get him home, make sure he is all right.

They saved Tony. His injuries seem limited to bruises and shock. He is home.

Steve feels like he does not have a right to be here, not with Tony clinging to his arm while he is still drifting in and out of awareness. Stane’s men tranquillized him, Thor reported, and Bruce said part of Tony’s current state is due to that, mixed in with general physical and mental exhaustion. He should not be left alone. And he will not be.

For all Steve knows, Ms Potts or Colonel Rhodes are already on their way. Bruce promised to send them here. Until then, though, it is only Steve and Tony.

“I’m sure you want a shower, but let me get you something to drink first,” Steve says and starts walking, even though he has no idea where to go. A couch or Tony’s bed would be ideal. He can find the kitchen once he has made sure that Tony is not going to fall over.

“This way,” Tony murmurs and nudges Steve down the hall.

The first thing Steve notices upon entering the living room is the view of New York. Windows spread the entirety of the wall, leaving a sea of lights blinking up at them through the darkness. It is beautiful. Under different circumstances, he could spend hours drinking in hat view.

For now, he escorts Tony to the couch and helps him settle down. Tony looks smaller this way, sinking into the cushions. Steve straightens to look for a blanket when Tony’s head shoots back up from the pillow.

“Stay, please,” Tony says, the word echoed by a sudden stab of near pain through the bond.

It leaves Steve reeling. He has longed to hear that word, to have Tony not rejecting him at every turn. Not like this, though. Not while in pain and still shaken from what happened this day, from the new barrage of truths about Obadiah Stane.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Steve promises, managing to keep his voice light. “I’ll just get you a glass of water.

Tony looks like he is going to refuse that, but finally, he nods and lets go of Steve’s hand.

Steve finds the kitchen without problems and gulps down a glass of water himself before filling one for Tony. He wonders whether he should find a towel to help wash off some of the blood from Tony’s skin before he can get that shower. With a start, Steve realizes he is stalling. For the first time in their acquaintance, Tony has not told him to leave, and yet Steve is looking for ways to stay away a bit longer.

This is not how it is supposed to happen, of course, not with Tony beaten up again and too exhausted to keep his distance, even though he made it very clear he does not want Steve close. Steve is not going to exploit Tony’s current state of mind and insert himself. He still has to make sure that Tony is all right.

With a small sight, Steve takes the glass and goes back to the living room, where he kneels down next to the couch and helps Tony drink. They are engulfed in silence, which should not bother Steve as much as it does. The less they talk, the less they can say things they might regret later.

Tony hums as he sinks back into the cushions, but when Steve makes to stand and sit in an armchair, Tony’s hand reaches out and grabs Steve. There is not nearly enough strength behind the movement that Steve could not have tugged himself free, and he probably should have. He is only human, though, and the thought of rejecting Tony is unbearable.

Carefully, Steve sits down on the edge of the couch, making sure to leave Tony enough room, while also making it clear that he is not going anywhere.

“Bruce said he was going to call Ms Potts,” Steve says. He needs Tony to know that someone is coming who he can trust more than Steve.

Tony stills as if he realizes for the first time that he is clinging to Steve and not one of his friends. A few seconds later, he gradually relaxes and does not yet let go of Steve.

“Thank you for coming,” he says quietly, although with a firmness that belies his sleepy state somewhat.

It helps to know that Tony is not completely out of it, Steve thinks. Otherwise, he really could not stay.

“Of course, we did,” he replies. Whether they would come for Tony was never a question. Not for him and not for the rest of the team either. Not a single one of them showed even a trace of doubt when the call came. Despite all their squabbles, Steve is undeniably glad to have such friends.

“T’was stupid,” Tony mutters, closing his eyes for a moment. “We gotta lie to the police now.”

Steve takes the opportunity to study Tony’s face. He has never had the chance to do that before without it being marred by frowns or caution, without Tony actively hiding from him. Tony is beautiful. Even exhausted and with blooming bruises, he is radiating a strength, a kind of noble endurance, that is drawing Steve in.

“That doesn’t matter as long as you are safe,” he says and means it.

The police could already be knocking on their door while Steve is hiding away here with Tony, but he knows his team can take care of itself. They all knew the stakes, they all have ways out. He needs to be here first.

“I told you to stay away,” Tony blurts, but it lacks any heat. It feels more like Tony is trying to give him an out, an opportunity to say he regrets what happened tonight because it might put them in trouble. His eyes weigh heavily on Steve.

“I’m sorry,” Steve says anyway. He is. If he could, he would change a lot but not that they followed Thor tonight to rescue Tony. “I –”

“No.” It is a half-hearted protest, but Steve falls silent immediately anyway, waiting for what Tony has to say. “I mean, why didn’t you? Why put your friends in danger for me?”

There is no easy answer to this. This is Steve’s job, in a way, but with Tony, it is also much more than that. He never had to coerce his team to do anything.

“It was never an option not to,” Steve finally settles on saying. “I know this situation is not ideal. Neither of us chose this bond, and I’m so sorry for how we met, but we are soulmates and –”

He trails off when Tony’s face closes off abruptly, the relaxed sleepiness replaced by something tightly-coiled.

“It’s the bond.” Tony sounds so rejected that Steve wants to gather him up in his arms. Instead, he lets go of Tony’s hand when Tony loosens his hold, appearing uncertain whether he still wants them to touch. Steve does not withdraw but leaves the decision up to Tony.

“Of course, it is,” Steve says, although it is far more complicated than that. “But it’s not the bond alone. You’re brilliant, Tony, and we wronged you, and that alone would be reason enough to help you now.”

Falling for people so quickly makes a mess of everything. Self-preservation is right out the window when one can only think of someone else anymore. Steve does not mind that as much as he probably should. He would give himself without hesitation for everybody on his team. He had loved Bucky within moments of meeting him and they are family to each other now in ways other people seldom reach.

Tony is a special case, though, because his brain and his heart wanted different things at first. The bond made him long someone he was not sure he could trust, and then his heart followed after even while he was still clinging to reasons why none of this is a good idea. Tony has a place to himself in a ranking of people that are most important to Steve, and that is not an involuntary thing anymore.

Steve has never had problems with big emotions. He never fought against them. Loving someone has always been easier than letting them go. He has just never before been in a situation where letting go was basically the only choice given to him. 

“I’m sorry,” Tony says very quietly. It is still enough to rip Steve out of his thoughts and settle him firmly back in the present.

“You have nothing to be sorry for,” Steve replies as firmly as he dares.

It has him reeling that Tony would want to apologize to him. Steve has been in the wrong for most of their acquaintance, while Tony just tried to get by without getting hurt too much in the process.

“You’re not hearing me,” Tony argues with just a hint of irritation in his tone, which mellows out as soon as he continues. “I’m sorry for what happened with my weapons. I’m sorry for putting your people in danger.” He pauses, evidently struggling to find the right words. “I’m not ready for this to be any more than it is now, but I am sorry for everything that happened.”

Steve would have launched into another apology, as he is likely to do for the rest of his life where Tony is concerned, when a quiet, automated voice speaks up.

“Colonel Rhodes is on his way up, sir.”

It startles him, making him think of intruders or other danger, but Tony perks up at that, propping himself up on the couch while looking towards the door with a small smile.

“You called Rhodey.”

“Ms Potts must have. We thought you shouldn’t be left alone and needed someone you can trust.” Not me, Steve thinks but leaves it unsaid.

He also squashes down the slight disappointment rising in him at his time with Tony being cut short. For the first time ever, they have been speaking somewhat amicably about their situation. It was full of apologies, yes, but without laying blame at each other’s feet.

Steve gets to his feet, grieving the way his hand slips easily out of Tony’s grasp. “If you don’t mind, I’m going to hide somewhere until I can sneak out,” he says with some regret. “Colonel Rhodes has a right to be mad at me, but I think you’ve had enough excitement for one day.” Meaning that Tony does not need to witness another murder today.

Looking away from the door, Tony focuses on Steve, appearing entirely more awake for the moment. “Thank you, Steve.”

His name in Tony’s voice feels like a caress when it is spoken like this, with warmth and honesty, void of accusation.

“I’d say any time, but we should not repeat this,” Steve counters with a small smile. “Take care of yourself, Tony.”

He thinks about adding that Tony should call if he needs anything, but he carefully swallows the words. This is not what helping Tony had been about. He did not want to increase his chances for a happily ever after. He just wanted to keep Tony safe.

Steve disappears down the hall and through a door to the right into what looks to be a guest bedroom. It is luxurious but impersonal. Steve’s room at the base could have fit into it thrice. All that does is remind Steve of how different he and Tony are, what different kind of lives they lead. He does not like where this train of thoughts is going, so he leans his head against the door and listens for what is happening outside. He does not want to miss his window to disappear.

Rhodes has a kind voice, even while it is full of a brimming worry. Steve notices that without being able to make out any words. He is not here to eavesdrop, so he quietly gets out of the room, certain that Rhodey will be distracted enough for a few minutes so that he can sneak out.

Despite his best intentions, Steve stops in the hall, peering through the door into the living room, wanting to see Tony’s best friend.

Rhodes looks softer than on the pictures they had of him while doing their research for the job to get Tony’s USB drive. He is tall and moves with the kind of precision fighters often possess. Without the military uniform and the severe face, he looks much gentler, though. Although that might be due to the fact that his arms are currently full of Tony clinging to him like there is no tomorrow.

They embrace the way people only do when they are entirely comfortable with each other, when there is no doubt that their friendship is genuine. They embrace like they know that this is the safest place in the world for them.

Steve cannot see Rhodes’ face, but Tony’s is pointed slightly in his direction. The exhaustion is still evident, but that does not take away from the brilliance of Tony’s smile. It is completely void of bitterness or sharp edges despite the day they had. Steve has never seen him smile like that, neither in person nor on TV. Yet, even tired and in pain, that is the first thing he does with Rhodes close.

Rooted in place, Steve cannot look away. This is a Tony he has not seen before, and a stupid, misplaced longing runs through him.

He finds that he is – jealous. The mere thought is ridiculous. He has no right and not even a good reason to envy Rhodes for his friendship with Tony. At the same time, he knows exactly why the sight of them hurts. Steve will never be able to have this with Tony. Even if they work something out, if Tony forgives him, if they decide to stay in each other’s lives. They are already ruined in ways that make something as pure as Rhodes and Tony’s friendship impossible. Steve ruined that for them.

Tony looks up and his eyes fall directly on Steve. He does not appear surprised, not even displeased. He keeps clinging to Rhodes when he mouths, “Go.”

It does not hurt, mostly because Steve knows that Tony is right. And, for once, Steve does exactly as he is told.

 


 

Back at the base, his team is still awake. They are sitting around the kitchen table, freshly showered, and nurse drinks while they are waiting for him. Bruce is absent and probably still with Thor. That is a problem they need to tackle at some point. It might not be their business who Bruce is in a relationship with, but keeping his involvement with Thor from them speaks of a lack of trust that Steve thought they have already overcome. Then again, the past weeks have shown how easily they can fall apart if pushed.

“How is he?” Natasha asks, her eyes piercing him as if she does not need him to speak to get her answers.

Steve walks straight past them to get himself a glass, but Clint thrusts a full one at him when he tries to pass. He takes it and downs it in one go, relishing the way the alcohol burns.

“As well as he can be,” he says, calmer than he feels. “Colonel Rhodes arrived shortly before I left.”

He gets to his chair and refills his glass from the bottle on the table before he sits down.

“And he let you live?” Bucky sounds incredulous and Steve cannot blame him for it.

From the way it looked, Rhodes’ first priority was to take care of Tony, but getting rid of Steve arguably is part of that. If his rank says anything about his abilities, he might have been able to take Steve out without ever letting go of Tony.

“I thought it wise not to make my presence known,” Steve answers, sounding more nonchalant than he feels. He is too tired to allow himself to think of his regrets. This night was already painful in so many ways.

Snorting without humour, Bucky asks, “And Tony let you do that?”

Steve does not want to talk about this. They have all survived the night, Tony is going to be all right, although the mental wounds will undoubtedly take a while to heal. His arm is aching just enough to not draw his attention but not leaving him any peace either.

“I’m here, aren’t I?” Steve all but snaps, clinging to his glass. Then he takes a deep breath. He does not want to argue with his friends either. “What about you? Everybody all right?”

They look tired but unhurt. Steve knows better than most that appearances can fool. 

“No injuries,” Natasha reports shortly. “Bruce called and said Thor is not going to have any lasting damage either despite running around most of the day with a hole inside him.”

Steve nods. Relief spreads through him at that. He likes Thor. More so, though, he knows that Tony would be devastated if anything more were to happen to Thor. Or any of them, probably.

He cannot get the sight of Tony pointing that gun at Stane out of his head. How steadily he held himself, how he barely even hesitated. It would not surprise him if the entire matter appeared to drag on for an eternity for Tony, but Steve watched him step up, raise a gun, and put two bullets in his godfather’s heart, all in between two breaths.

This is not a matter to be proud of, and Tony collapsed soon afterwards, but for all the crushing things that have happened to Tony over the past weeks, he stood tall and did what needed to be done when it mattered.

“So it’s over now?” Clint speaks up, balancing precariously on only two legs of his chair. Despite the nonchalance in his tone, he looks a bit rugged too. “Stane is dead, Stark is safe.”

“I guess so.” Steve should sound happier about that, but now that he delivered Tony safely to his home, he realizes just how final all of this feels.

There is no more reason for them to stay in contact, not if they keep ignoring the fact that they are soulmates. There are no more missions to coordinate, no more secrets to unveil. It truly is over.

Tony has to heal. Steve has to rebuild trust with his team and in himself too. They all have to deal with the doubts that rose over these weeks, the way they quarrelled with each other.

“Are we going home then?” Clint asks. It sounds pointed, somehow, like there is a question underneath the question, but one that no one wants to speak out loud.

The mere thought of leaving is jarring. Even if Tony does not want anything to do with Steve anymore, it feels wrong to simply return to DC and continue his life as if nothing happened. That is the only thing he can do, of course, if he does not want to go mad or do any more unforgiveable things, but he cannot just admit that.

“First, we’re going to wait and see how Thor is doing. Bruce is not going to go anywhere until he’s released. And then –” he trails off, having no idea what comes after that.

“All right,” Clint says and does not even sound snappish about it. “Now that that’s cleared up, I’ll go to bed.”

Steve is surprised. He expected another lecture about how he needs to leave Tony alone, about how they should not meddle in things that do not involve them. Instead, Clint gets up and Natasha follows shortly after him, nodding goodnight at them and putting her hand briefly on Steve’s shoulder as she passes him by.

They have not cleared up anything, and yet Steve feels like this is the closest they have come in ages to understanding each other.

Bucky remains where he is, playing with his glass without drinking from it. “Are you all right?”

Steve looks up at him, catalogues the slight frown and the bags under his eyes. Even between them, there are so many things left unsaid.

“Of course,” Steve replies, and manages to sound firm about it. “I’m glad it’s over.”

And he is. It would be madness not to be. With Stane out of the picture, Tony is safe, and that is all he wanted. Well, a big part of what he wanted, at least. Tony’s well-being matters more than anything else.

“I thought I’d feel more when Stane died,” Bucky says, quiet enough that Steve almost does not pay it much mind.

Then it hits him. This entire mess started with the wish for revenge, wrongly pushed on Tony. Stane was responsible, though. He sold those weapons, he made their lives unnecessarily hard during the war. He was the catalyst for so many of their personal losses.

Before Steve can find anything to say, Bucky continues. “But, in the end, it wasn’t him, yes?” He sounds almost even glad about that, as if he could not bear to hate another man for this. “He might have sold the weapons but he didn’t pull the trigger. It was stupid to hope this would change anything.”

Steve’s heart breaks for his best friend, then. He knows this feeling, this clinging to some scenario in the hopes of it healing any of those scars they carry. That is not how it works, though. They can certainly help each other, but healing comes from within. They could take out everybody who ever unlawfully held a Stark weapon, and it might be good to know that no other atrocities will be caused by them, but that does not erase what happened.

When Bucky was taken prisoner, Steve killed every man who hurt him, but it did not make Bucky any less damaged or less afraid. It did not soothe Steve’s anger or guilt. The real journey of getting over that began afterwards. And they have yet to complete it.

“But things have already changed,” Steve says, sounding urgent enough that Bucky looks up at him. “It was so bad when we first came back. You’re getting better with each day.”

Bucky nods but shakes his head right afterwards. “It feels like wading through neck-high mud at times. You never know when you’re managing a step forward because you’re so preoccupied with not choking on it,” he says, grimacing. “It does get better, but then you look down and see that there’s still mud everywhere and you feel like you’re right back where you started.”

Steve has been at Bucky’s side every step of the way, every freefall and ever painful climb. He has seen hopelessness on Bucky’s face before and this is not that. Being reminded of everything that happened might be painful, but Bucky is stronger now. He is on a good way.

“Perhaps you should take a break,” Steve suggests, thinking they could all do with a little distance to this. They should all re-evaluate what they want from life.

“What are you talking about?” Bucky asks, sounding upset all of a sudden. He is leaning slightly away from Steve as if he cannot believe Steve would doubt his capabilities. “This is the only thing that got me out of bed for so long.”

That was what had driven Steve the most to bring the Avengers to life. To give Bucky a cause he could get behind, something to believe in, a chance to do something good in the world.

“Yes, but perhaps it’s just holding you back now,” Steve explains, calmer than he feels. The last thing he wants is to make Bucky think he is rejecting him. “You are much better, but this always shows us how despicable people can be.” How despicable they themselves can be, too.

Bucky looks down at his glass and drinks before he answers. “Better us than someone who hasn’t seen all of this before.”

This is not supposed to be some kind of punishment. They were well suited for the task and felt like they could change things, if only one step at a time. The way Bucky talks, however, makes it sound like he has taken to it as some sort of atonement. Only Steve cannot even begin to fathom for what.

“I’m just saying –”

“I know what you’re saying. And I appreciate it,” Bucky cuts him off, tired more than angry. “Now, you look like you need a shower and then sleep for two days straight.”

Steve does not want to go, not when there is yet another thing hanging between them, another almost-misunderstanding. They are supposed to stick together no matter what, and he cannot let Bucky think this has changed. At the same time, he knows not to push. Bucky looks like he needs to think without Steve talking over him.

It is harder than it should reasonably be, but Steve nods. “I could.”

He knows that was the right decision instead of pushing further when Bucky’s frown lessens and the fingers around his glass relax, if only a fraction.

“Then go,” Bucky says. “We’ll wake you if something happens.”

Steve does not ask what might happen. It is over. Nothing more should be coming for them except for the usual dangers; the police finding out, or someone who is out for revenge. They all deserve a rest.

“You should sleep too,” Steve says quietly, unable to go without at least trying to make sure Bucky will be all right.

“I will.” Bucky smiles and it appears genuine enough to ease the worry sitting heavily inside Steve’s stomach. “Now go. And do try to stop thinking about what might happen next. We’re going to tackle that but not tonight.”

Steve is afraid he will not be able to tackle anything at all. He has always had his problems with endings, with letting go. Bucky has his back, though. Just like Tony has Rhodes to help him through this, Steve has his friends. Neither of them is alone. That has to be enough.

Chapter Text

Darkness meets Tony when he blinks awake, shooting upwards with a breathless yell on his lips. He was running, his heartbeat matches the pace. Something was following him. Something large and gruesome, calling Tony’s name like a curse, like judgement.

Sweat clings to his skin as he sits, afraid to look around, afraid to find the thing hunting him. He can still feel it coming closer, reaching for him.

Tony glances at the ceiling, which he deems safe, only to recoil as he recognizes Obadiah glaring down at him. He does not look like Tony remembers him. Blood-shot eyes, a sneer pulling at split lips. Two holes are in his chest, too bright to ignore, pointed at Tony with stinging accusation. The dripping of blood is deafening.

Tony knows that, if he looks down, he will find a gun in his hand, the barrel still hot to the touch. He killed Obadiah. He killed his godfather. Two bullets and the wish for peace did this to him, turned him into a murderer.

Obadiah looms closer and brings the scent of blood with him. Death clings to Tony’s shoulders now and all the clever reasons he had dissipate like they never existed at all. He tastes iron and is certain he will never get rid of it again.

“I’ve got you,” someone murmurs, far enough away for Tony to think he is not being haunted. “You’re home, Tony. It’s over.”

The voice sounds like Rhodey and then like Steve and Thor and Pepper all blended together. He wants to believe them, but Obadiah is right there, lurking in the shadow over Tony’s bed, looking down at him with a smile Tony knows not to trust anymore.

“You’re safe,” the voice says, and Tony turns towards it. He reaches out and warmth meets him, engulfing him almost like armour.

He blinks and when he focuses back on the dark ceiling, Obadiah is gone. His heart keeps racing, but his breathing calms and he feels himself sinking deeper back into sleep. He lets himself fall, held by the voice. Obadiah is dead. He is too tired to keep fighting.

 


 

Tony wakes up with Rhodey in his bed, already awake and reading something on his tablet, while fresh coffee is waiting for them on the nightstands.

“You can’t come running every time something shitty happens in my life,” Tony murmurs, not quite fully present. He guesses that substitutes as a thank you.

For good measure, he stretches and then curls himself against Rhodey’s side, indescribably glad to have someone who lets him close without seeing anything strange with it. Rhodey shifts and puts his arm out, pulling Tony closer in a sort of hug.

“You will see that I can,” Rhodey argues in the same calm voice he always uses when Tony is being irrational. “Although I think it’s high time that these things stopped happening.”

They have talked the night before. Tony probably said too much, his brain-to-mouth filter more non-existent than usual, thanks to the exhaustion and the aftereffects of being drugged. With anybody else, he would worry about that. Rhodey knows him, though. They have grown up together in a dorm room at MIT. They have talked through dozens of drunken nights. Tony trusts Rhodey, and he is gladder than ever that he can.

“How long can you stay?” Tony asks, despite being slightly afraid of the answer.

A big unknown is looming ahead of him. The future of the company and his personal life are undecided, just waiting for him to get on his feet and sort them out.

“As long as you need me to. I will definitely not disappear while you take a shower,” Rhodey replies dryly. His eyes are serious, showing that he knows exactly what Tony is thinking. “Pancakes all right?”

Pancakes from Rhodey are the ultimate comfort food. They are definitely worth getting up and testing how badly his body is aching this time. It is not too bad while he is lying down, but the bed is warm and his body is relaxed thanks to him feeling safe. As soon as he comes out from beneath the blanket that will change. It is nice to pretend for a moment longer, however.

“With chocolate, please,” Tony says, daring to smile. There, the first hint of pain as his lips are stretched, tugging at where they were split.

“I’ll drown them in it,” Rhodey promises and puts down his tablet to get to work. He knows that, if he does not move first, they will spend the entire day here.

Tony is not ashamed of showing weakness, but crawling out of bed when he does not know how terrible it will feel, testing his bruises and aching joints while Rhodey’s worried eyes follow his every moment is not going to happen. He has a little bit of pride left and that means he is going to let a hot shower loosen his tensed muscles enough that he will be able to move as close to natural as he can get.

Tony watches Rhodey walk out of the room and immediately feels the loss of him. Just a moment before, he was warm and strangely content despite what happened the day before. The weeks before, really. Now, it is as if a curtain has been lifted in the back of his mind, allowing all the bad things to spill forth.

Pain and Steve and Obadiah and his weapons in the wrong hands and mistakes and betrayal. The list is endless.

Biting his lip right over the cut, Tony makes himself focus and get out of bed. He is standing before he deigns to listen to the aching protest of his body. It could be worse, he decides. His ribs are screaming anew with every movement, and his head is still pounding slightly. Other than that, he just feels sore. Nothing that he does not have experienced a hundred times before. Obadiah’s goons did not have a lot of time to rough him up before they were interrupted.

With an abrupt movement, Tony turns towards the bathroom. He does not want to think about the blood spraying out from the sudden hole in the man’s neck or the gurgling sound he made when he fell. He does not want to think about the sounds of gunshots ringing through the air, or how terrifyingly familiar the weight of the weapon has felt in his hands. None of the targets he has shot at before has ever moved. None of them has been his godfather either.

Death has always been a part of Tony’s life but he was never that close to it, has never seen the panic in another person’s eyes while their life was leaving them.

Concentrating on his steps as if his brain has ever stopped racing just because he wanted it to, Tony walks to the bathroom, where he strips without looking at himself in the mirror before stepping into the shower.

He is afraid of what he would see. Last night must have left its traces. Perhaps he is as wild-eyed as he feels, perhaps the bruises on him are forming a distinct accusation. Perhaps he looks unchanged, and that might be the worst possibility after all.

The water is nice and warm as it runs over his skin, an impersonal touch but a gentle one. Without thinking, Tony turns the temperature up until it becomes almost scalding. This is not punishment, he tries to convince himself. This is just to cleanse him. A feeble attempt, really.

Only Rhodey and the promise of pancakes get him out of the shower at all. Again, he does not look at himself as he dresses, making sure to cover as much skin as possible without being too obvious about it.

Before he leaves his room, he plasters a smile of his face. Something small and harmless. Rhodey will know it is fake but he will not comment on it. They both know there are some things Tony will always cling to. When he cannot build his way out of a situation, he will at least appear like nothing is wrong. Clenched teeth are easily hidden and Tony is experienced in smiling through pain.

 


 

Pepper interrupts their prolonged breakfast not even an hour later. She was there the night before too, checking in on Tony before she went right back to saving his world. She kept the police off their back and probably already handled a press release to avoid the news getting out on their own.

Pepper knows. He has not told her but Rhodey did while he was pretending to be asleep. It is not so much that he could not bear watching her expression change but that he could not have told it a second time. One of these days, he will have to arrange himself with the fact that he murdered someone. He has to if he wants to go on with his life. Or, at least, if he wants to salvage what is left of it and shape it into something new.

All the family Tony has left is in this room now. Rhodey and Pepper. This is it.

It hurts. Tony is sure it will do so for a long time. Home does not quite feel so safe anymore, now that he has come back changed.

It is impossible for Tony to hide through all this, however, so he is not surprised when she appears in the door to the kitchen, looking as immaculate as always, even while Tony can see her fraying at the edges.

“Agent Coulson is here,” Pepper says. There is a hint of an offer in her tone like she is fully prepared to stall for him if he needs more time. They both know that would ultimately only make things harder on all of them.

So Tony nods and gets to his feet. “Have a pancake,” he all but orders, worrying about Pepper’s tendency to never take a break.

People always believe that, just because he is pampered and incapable of taking care of himself, he is also blind to other people’s needs. He is not, and if he has to personally push Pepper down in a seat and feed her the first piece of a pancake to convince her this is what she needs, he will do so.

“I can come with you,” Pepper offers quietly, not moving from her place in the door.

She looks sincere, and he knows she would take over for him. If anyone could handle Agent Coulson, who always seems to know too much, and get all of them out in one piece, it is Pepper.

“You’ve done enough already,” Tony says and smiles at her, gratefully. “And things will stay crazy for a while, so take a breather and eat Rhodey’s delicious pancakes.” When she does not move, he adds, trying for humour, “They’re the only reason I didn’t starve in college.”

Pepper’s expression does not relax at all. It was perhaps too soon to mention his possible demise, even if it has been some years since they were at MIT.

“They are also the only reason I could sometimes get him to eat an apple if I made sure they were sufficiently hidden inside them,” Rhodey says smugly, rightfully taking pride in getting Tony through his college years.

Everything was still so simple back then. Especially before his parents died. Before they were murdered. Immediately, Obadiah’s ghost is back, leaning over Tony’s shoulder to stare at him.

“This looks more like you were trying to drown yourself in chocolate,” Pepper comments dryly, nodding with slight disgust at the mess on Tony’s plate.

“Don’t judge. I was shot at yesterday.” Even while he says it jokingly, that sobers them all up again.

Tony was shot at yesterday and the matter is not over yet. Reminding his friends of that only serves in eradicating all the hard-won amusement. He should have just kept his mouth shut and left.

“What were you thinking?” Pepper asks, steel in her tone that stands in stark contrast to the way her eyes glisten with sudden wetness.

“About what?” Tony counters to buy himself some time.

He has been awake for nearly two hours now. It is remarkable that nobody breached this topic already, possibly the night before even. That does not make it easier to meet his friends’ stares and tell them that he would do the same thing all over again. That he would have acted even sooner had it been either of them out there in the parking lot with him instead of Thor.

“I’m not in the mood for games, Tony,” Pepper snaps. Her entire body is coiled as if in preparation for a hit. “Why would you do something so stupid as handing yourself over to people shooting at you?”

Put like that it does sound bad, but Tony still has the sound of gunshots in the ear and cannot erase the sight of blood on Thor’s shirt from his mind or the gaping fear of losing a friend out there. How could he make them understand that losing someone else would have been so much worse than whatever was going to happen to him? That is still true, even with Obadiah’s words weighing heavy on his mind and his hands dipped in red.

“Thor was hurt and nobody was coming,” Tony explains in a reasonable tone that seems to go right over Pepper’s head. “What else was I supposed to do?”

Pepper and Rhodey both look like they are utterly unconvinced by his reasoning.

“Anything but to go with someone who wanted you dead,” Pepper says, voice growing thinner with every word.

She is pale and on the verge of trembling as if she has seen his ghost the way he is followed by Obadiah’s. It is not so hard to understand where they are coming from. They are family and Tony could have easily died the day before. The mere thought of losing them leaves him nauseous. Thor has found his place in Tony’s heart too, though.

“I couldn’t have Thor’s death on my conscience,” Tony says, hoping that is enough to make them understand.

“It’s his job,” Pepper counters with a stubbornness usually reserved for difficult board members.

Tony is lost, standing in front of the breakfast table, defending his decisions. At least they picked the only one he is still certain he would make again. He is not sure he could bear them asking about Obadiah.

“Did you really just say that?” Tony asks, rolling back on the balls of his feet as if to bring more distance between him and her words.

Job or not, nobody deserves to die for another man’s feud.

“Yes,” Pepper answers, although she looks slightly uncomfortable about it. “I’m glad he’s alive, but what’s the use of hiring a bodyguard if you end up taking the fall for him?”

A smile pulls at Tony’s lips, fragile and lopsided, because she has put her head on the chopping block for him a dozen times, even if under less deadly circumstances. That was always more than her job required of her too.

“Perhaps the point was to protect a friend.”

Pepper winces slightly before she catches herself and says, almost warningly, “Tony.”

But this is enough. It is done and Tony would do it all over again. He is home and safe.

“No, I don’t want to hear it,” he says, glancing back at Rhodey too, to make sure they know he is done with the topic from both of them. “Maybe we could have held out longer. Maybe they wouldn’t have overrun us and Thor wouldn’t have bled out.” Maybe Obadiah would not have planned to program Tony’s pacemaker to kill them. Maybe there was a way to resolve all of this without bloodshed and Tony just did not see it. Still does not. “It doesn’t matter because it happened, and I’m fine, and Obie is – he’s not a problem anymore.”

Tony looks down at his hands, biting his lip against the pain of saying his godfather’s name. He wonders how long he will have to carry that, how long until this betrayal has become just another part of life instead of weighing him down to the point where he is not sure he can keep breathing.

“It’s the principle –” Pepper tries to argue, but Tony’s head whips up as he cuts her off.

“It’s not,” he says. This is the only thing he is certain about at the moment. “Unless you know someone else who wants me dead, this isn’t going to happen again. So could you please stop yelling?”

Pepper’s face softens, even if the worry in her eyes does not dissipate. Later, he might appreciate her single-minded care for his well-being, when his own guilt has alleviated a bit.

“For the record,” Rhodey says from the side, happy to draw some of the fire to give Pepper more breathing space. “I totally agree with her.”

Tony nods, even as he sighs. “Of course, you do.” He turns to smile at Rhodey, glad that no other argument is forthcoming. “And I appreciate that you let me have my pancakes first before berating me.”

He is not angry with them for wanting him safe, but despite what most people think of him, Tony is not just out to save his own hide. His friends are all he has. It is sometimes hard to forget that he is all Pepper has, too, and that Rhodey makes no distinction between his blood family and Tony. 

Straightening, he walks over to the door, not without gesturing pointedly at the table to get Pepper moving. She knows he would not mind having her with him and would likely feel much calmer, but this is his fight. At least he got some breakfast into him before he has to face the cavalry.

Nobody says anything more before he leaves. At the door, he pauses and puts a hand on Pepper’s shoulder. She leans into the touch and offers him a watery smile. They will be all right.

 


 

Thor waits for him outside the elevator doors, wearing a suit and looking like the day before never happened. Tony’s eyes immediately fall to Thor’s side, almost expecting fresh blood to stain his shirt.

“Shouldn’t you be in the hospital?” Tony asks, wondering whether he has slept for more than one day or whether Thor is even more careless with his own health than Tony.

“Probably. I’m fine, though.” When Tony just looks at him in disbelief and refuses to move, Thor adds, “I had surgery to get the bullet out. It didn’t hit any major organs. I didn’t have internal bleeding. They told me I was lucky, gave me some pills, and didn’t protest too much when I checked myself out.”

Tony’s scepticism only increases at that. Surgery means Thor should at the very least still be under observation. “Which means you basically slipped out when no one was looking,” he concludes. He has been there before, after all. He has spent altogether too much time in a hospital because of his heart to ever needlessly prolong any stay there. “What is Bruce saying to that?”

Thor’s mouth tips downward for a moment, utterly unamused with Tony bringing up Bruce. “He knows me,” he says with a shrug. “He made me promise to stay in bed and do everything else he says.”

Like Rhodey and Pepper, Bruce is probably aware that no amount of threatening or reasoning will keep them in bed if there are still important things to do. Faced with someone this stubborn himself, Tony at least feels sympathy regarding his friends’ burden for the first time.

“Then what are you doing here?” he asks, deciding he has to at least try to talk some sense into Thor. “You should be in bed. I know I want to be and I wasn’t shot yesterday.”

Thor looks like he has several counterarguments depicting that Tony, while not having been hit by a bullet, had his own ordeal to go through the night before. Then, though, he simply shrugs. “Agent Coulson wants to talk to both of us.”

“Screw him,” Tony blurts, even though he is immediately relieved not to have to face Coulson on his own. That leaves them with fewer chances to contradict each other. “I can handle this. You have already done more than I ever could have expected from you. And no,” he adds when he sees Thor opening his mouth, “this is not part of the job.”

Not that Thor really feels like an employee anymore anyway, never did really. They immediately skipped that grey zone of being uncomfortable around each other, and Tony is glad for that.

“I’m here now,” Thor says. “No use in turning back.”

A better person would have argued, but Tony just nods. “Bruce is going to murder both of us for this,” he says, too cheerfully by far.

“I think Bruce is still happy that we both survived this,” Thor argues with a smile, “so there will be a little maiming at the most.”

“Right, perfect. Just what I need to spice up my post-apocalyptic morning.” They should get going, but Tony hesitates, mindful of them being right out in the open. “Now, do we have a plan?”

There are so many things they cannot say and Tony has a feeling that lying to Agent Coulson is not a particularly smart idea. The least they should do is know what the other will say.

Thor shifts easily back to business, immediately growing more serious. “Just what we decided on yesterday. I called in Steve when they took you and we overwhelmed the kidnappers. We didn’t want to shoot Stane but he got into the crossfire.” He grimaces slightly, obviously aware of the glaring holes in their story. “The fewer details we offer, the better. You’re still in shock and I’m on pain medication. That might help us later if Coulson comes back.”

He says if like it is a definite when, and Tony fears he is right about that.

“It will help that neither of us is in their right mind at the moment?” Tony asks, only half-joking.

“I have no doubt that your brain is more than up to the job,” Thor reassures him easily. “And I haven’t yet taken my pills, so I’m all here with you.”

That, at least, distracts Tony a bit from the problem at hand. He has never been shot in the abdomen, but he imagines it hurts. He has taken something to dull the pain of his ribs when they were first broken and even then every movement hurt. He is not sure whether he should admire or chastise Thor.

“Do you have them with you? Because I’m going to make you swallow them while I watch,” Tony says firmly. The moment Coulson is done with them, he will send Thor home. “I’m not going to explain to Bruce why I let you get shot and then let you die because you couldn’t be bothered to take your medication.”

Thor’s expression softens. “Pain isn’t going to kill me.”

“Then it won’t be a problem to take the pills,” Tony counters immediately, knowing Thor’s side of this too well to let himself be lulled in.

Humming somewhat noncommittally, Thor slowly starts to move. “Perhaps we shouldn’t let Agent Coulson wait any longer.”

Tony nods, smoothing his face into something more serious without having his expression look pained. Bantering with Thor felt so easy right now. Too easy, considering everything that happened. He does not want to think about Stane, does not want to go through the day before with an agent who knows too much and is probably ready to throw himself at any irregularity.

They are almost at the meeting room when Tony reaches out and holds Thor back for a moment. “Thank you,” he says, voice thick. “For last night. And everything else.”

He knows Thor is not just going to accept it even before he opens his mouth.

“That’s my job,” Thor says, although not as lightly as he could have. He is not refusing Tony’s gratitude.

“Protecting me was,” Tony argues. This is important to him. “Not coming after me with a group of vigilantes on your heels.”

For a moment, it looks like Thor is going to protest again, but then he inclines his head. “You’re welcome. But, if there ever is a next time, you let me do my job right before it comes to involving the Avengers.”

“Let’s go,” Tony says instead of promising something he knows he would not be able to keep. Then he starts moving before his legs decide to give out under him. This is going to be another long day.

 


 

Agent Coulson is waiting for them in one of the smaller meeting rooms, nursing his coffee like he does not have a care in the world. He gets up when Tony and Thor filter in, smiling that noncommittal smile of his.

“Mr. Stark, Mr. Odinson, good morning,” Coulson greets, sounding like he has done every other time they have met, almost as if nothing has changed. “How are you doing?”

The question has Tony wanting to laugh, although Coulson appears serious. How are they doing? Fantastic. Better than ever. He is one godfather short now and Thor is one hole in his body richer. Normal Tuesday evening, really.

“As I am sure you are aware, Mr. Odinson was shot yesterday. We’d be grateful if we could keep this short. He should not be walking around at all,” Tony replies, managing to quell his impatience. He does not want to have this conversation at all, but the waiting is definitely the worst part.

“Of course,” Coulson says. Nothing changes in his expression. “This is mostly a formality.”

That is a surprise. “A formality that couldn’t wait?” Tony questions, fully expecting that this is simply Coulson’s way of putting them at ease before he starts interrogating them.

It is certainly the old We just want to talk shtick the police love to pull.

Coulson cocks his head to the side, looking at Tony with something like amusement in his eyes. “Some people at the office are suspecting foul play. I thought it in your best interest to deal with that quickly.”

Tony is not sure whether that is a threat. Coulson’s face is calm in a calculated way, merely hinting at the intellect laying underneath. No matter what it is, Tony is tired of waiting.

“All right, let's get this over with.”

They sit down, Tony and Thor on one side of the table with Coulson facing them. Tony keeps his back straight despite his aching ribs, readying himself for whatever – possibly true – accusations Coulson is going to throw at them.  

Depending on how this conversation goes, they are going to be in a wholly different world of trouble, one equally impossible to deal with as a traitorous godfather but perhaps a little less deadly. Tony wishes he would have had JARVIS go through whatever data the FBI collected on this case, just so he would know what to expect.

Coulson takes his time rearranging the files in front of him without actually opening them. They will probably not like what is in them. Then he looks up, directing his attention on Thor, first.

“Mr. Odinson, instead of alerting us after Mr. Stark was kidnapped, you went after him on your own with Mr. Rogers, is that correct?”

What little relief Tony had at not being singled out first vanishes immediately. Coulson seems to not be wasting any time before going for the throat.

“We did not have time,” Thor answers calmly, taking over seamlessly. He does not appear surprised that they are not going to cover the events of the actual kidnapping first. Perhaps they already put that to protocol the night before.

It sounds wrong to hear Steve’s name spoken so casually by a federal agent. Tony wishes Steve would have left with the others the night before. They would still have to lie then, but not like this. They would not have to actively spin the story in a way that leaves the Avengers out of it. If the FBI were starting to look into Steve, they would surely find irregularities. They would find his friends. Tony cannot load that onto his conscience on top of everything else.

“We also did not know who to trust,” Tony adds, keeping his growing desperation out of his voice. Instead, it comes out just a tad accusatory.

Coulson turns to him with surprise on his face. “Pardon me?”

Tony is not entirely certain that it is the best idea to go on the attack, but he has already made the first step and it is better than showing any vulnerability for the FBI to exploit.

“I’m sorry, Agent Coulson, but finding out that my godfather betrayed me in such a fashion has made it very difficult to trust anyone,” Tony explains, his voice tight. “I thought it suspicious that he could simply vanish without a trace and the entirety of your bureau could not find him. I’m not saying I had a concrete suspicion that you or any of your employees were on his side, but I am glad that Mr. Odinson did not take any chances.”

That is not even a complete lie. Tony did not suspect the FBI to actively collude with Obadiah, but he definitely did not trust them either. Still does not. It is not their job to be on his side but to find out what happened.

“Going after you with just one person as backup appears to be taking chances to me,” Coulson replies, not showing what he thinks of Tony’s accusation. That, in itself, could be a bad sign. “Then again, they are both very skilled, right?”

That is a tricky question, and one that sounds like it has only wrong answers.

“We are both certified bodyguards,” Thor takes over, still appearing unfazed, not at all rattled by what Tony thinks Coulson is implying. “We met while we were still in the military and kept in touch over the years. I trust him to have my back.”

Tony’s heart goes out to Thor at that moment. It is not Thor’s job to lie for him. He cannot help being curious too, however, because while he was undeniably glad to have been rescued by friends, he has not yet asked why Thor thought to call in the Avengers instead of going the official way.

“As someone experienced in such things, he surely must have wondered why you were going in on your own,” Coulson says, merely implying a question.

“He trusts me too,” Thor answers without hesitation. “We decided to prioritize stealth and a quick response over waiting for your backup. If Mr. Stark had not been taken right in front of my eyes, which betrayed a certain urgency of Mr. Stane’s to get rid of him, we would have naturally relied on you.”

Despite the situation, Tony is impressed that Thor manages to remain completely untouched by Coulson’s questions, almost as if they actually had time to think all of their decisions through and calling in the Avengers was the sensible option. Some of Tony’s worry dissipates, only to come back with a vengeance when Coulson smiles.

“There is a lot you aren’t telling me, right?” Coulson asks, mostly rhetorical. “It is a shame that we won’t be able to interrogate Mr. Stane.”

The words hit Tony like a punch to the gut. Obadiah is dead. Really, irrevocably dead. And at Tony’s hand. He has not even begun to process that, and he dreads the moment he is left alone with his thoughts.

“You’ll excuse me if I don’t think that taking out a direct threat to Mr. Stark’s life is something I would consider a shame,” Thor replies, still calm but with steel in his voice. “But you are right, under different circumstances, finding out the extent of Stane’s treason would have been important. Although I suspect it would have been a trying endeavour to find the truth amongst the lies he told every day.”

For one, horrible moment, Tony is glad that Obadiah cannot spin any more lies or try to tear him down. He feels ashamed right afterwards, although the deed is already done.

“Did Mr. Stane reveal anything to you, while you were in his presence, Mr. Stark?” Coulson asks, not showing what he thinks of Thor’s answer.

He killed my parents, lies on Tony’s tongue, but he manages to swallow it. Nothing good could come from revealing that, nothing but more questions and an ongoing investigation. Another scandal heaped upon the ones the company is not yet done surviving.

Obadiah is dead, Tony is clinging to that truth. Nothing would change if he told Coulson about the other atrocities Obadiah has committed. His parents have been dead for years. His mother, at the very least, deserves to rest in peace.

“I don’t think he told me anything new,” Tony says, allowing some of his exhaustion to show on his face. “He was going on about how he would pin the weapons dealing on me. How he would turn right back to making weapons, too. He was convinced he could go right back to his old life once I was out of the way.”

Which is ridiculous, considering that Tony is at a loss how he is going to go on, and he has arguably been in the right this entire time.

“So he attempted to kill you?” Coulson asks, sounding impassionate even while his expression has softened somewhat.

“Yes,” Tony says, his voice flat. He somehow manages to hold Coulson’s gaze. “He had two of his men rough me up, but he wanted to manipulate my pacemaker into causing me a heart attack.”

It is not a secret that Tony has a pacemaker. When he had first spent so much time in hospitals as a child, the press loved to run stories about the youngest Stark’s fragile heart. Nowadays, people always seem surprised that his heart is still giving him problems when it comes up. Tony does not mind everyone forgetting about it. He has enough baggage without it.

“But he did not manage to manipulate your pacemaker before Mr. Odinson and Mr. Rogers appeared at the scene.”

Since Tony is still sitting here with them, the question is moot and Agent Coulson seems to realize this because he does not seem to expect an answer. He is looking down at the file he brought, and Tony just knows he is not going to like what is coming next. The entire conversation has been rather civil up to this point instead of accusatory as they expected.

“Just one more thing,” Coulson says and it is suddenly him who sounds slightly hesitant. “Mr. Odinson, did you or Mr. Rogers have a bow on you at the time of the attack?”

It is a good thing that Coulson’s attention is completely on Thor because Tony is sure his expression slipped into one of pure horror for a moment.

“A bow?” Thor echoes, full of confusion. He must have expected the question, otherwise, he could not have remained that calm.

“Perhaps a crossbow,” Coulson amends amicably as if he does not have them by their throats. “Some of the wounds, while somewhat masked, seemed to have been made by arrows instead of bullets. Or so the autopsy report tells me.”

Of course, they would do autopsies. Of course, they would realize that an arrowhead looks distinctly different from a bullet. Of course, their entire house of cards is coming down around them.

“I can’t say that I know anyone capable of shooting with a bow and arrow,” Thor says, still remarkably unfazed, no hint of panic in his voice or posture.

Tony, on the other hand, feels hot and cold at the same time, going very still in his seat. He knew that Barton and his bloody arrows would put them into trouble. How could they have been so stupid to bring such an antiquated weapon to a fight? Did they expect that would not raise questions? The Avengers might be used to making any suspicious dead bodies they caused disappear, but that was never an option here.

Coulson studies them for a long moment, giving no hint what he is thinking, although that is obvious from Tony’s point of view. He is gathering the holes in their story and spins them together into a noose to hang them with.

Yesterday, when that bullet hit Obadiah, Tony thought this could be over now. They could go back to something resembling a normal life. He could rebuild his company and avoid dealing with his emotional baggage until he could sleep again at night without problems. This was supposed to be the end of it. Now, though, they are in a whole new world of trouble. 

Coulson taps the files in front of him almost absentmindedly before he nods to himself. “Do you know a group going by the name of Avengers?”

If possible, Tony becomes even tenser while still clinging to a normal expression, no matter that he is sure he does not succeed. He wonders whether he is so out of it that he said some of his thoughts out loud, but Coulson sounds simply curious, not yet condemning. More so, he seems to have come here with that question weighing him down, and all the others have just been a distraction.

“Is that another terrorist cell my godfather has been selling weapons to?” Tony counters, his voice too flat to sound natural. He has to at least try to salvage this, though.

Coulson’s lips twitch, although Tony cannot tell whether it is with amusement or displeasure. “I realize that you are trying to protect members of –”

“I’m not trying to protect anyone,” Tony interrupts quickly. He is aware that he is not making himself appear less suspicious, but he needs to stop Coulson from saying something out loud that he will never be able to hide from. “What my godfather did was terrible and I’m not trying to shirk responsibility. We are working on getting all my weapons out of the hands they were wrongfully given to.”

If he is going to stick to his godfather’s crimes, stubbornly ignoring that his own innocence is being questioned, this might all go away.

“I know some of their work,” Coulson says steadily, never looking away from Tony.

“Of my weapons?” Tony asks, even while he is painfully aware that this is not what Coulson is talking about.

Leaning back in his chair, Coulson appears utterly comfortable with himself and where this conversation is going. “I have never met any of the Avengers in person, but I know Hawkeye and Black Widow.” This time, there is no doubt that he is smiling. “We have an agreement of sorts.”

Tony gives up. He glances helplessly at Thor, who is staring right ahead with an unreadable expression. There is no getting out of this. Coulson knows what he does and he is not going to let it drop. The only question is where that leaves them.

“Why are you telling us this?” Tony asks, wondering whether agents have already been sent out to look for the Avengers. Perhaps someone is waiting right outside the door to take Tony himself in. He has been withholding information about criminals, after all, and helped them too.

“The next time you see Hawkeye, please tell him to stick to weapons a normal person would use,” Coulson says, a sigh hiding right beneath the words, belying his nonchalance. “It’s going to take a lot of paperwork to make this go away.”

Thor startles, and Tony is glad that he is not the only one not knowing what is happening here.

“I don’t understand,” he says, putting in some effort to keep his voice steady. “If you know of – a hypothetical group of people working outside of the law –”

He trails off, really looking at Coulson for a moment. The agent’s shoulders are straight, hiding a tension that, up until now, seemed just a formality. This is risky for all of them, Tony realizes.

“I’m not going to prosecute them,” Coulson says in a measured tone while still sounding urgent. “Not as long as we are all sticking to some principles and they have yet to disappoint me in that way.”

Tony wonders whether Coulson knows about his first meeting with the Avengers and whether that would change his opinions about letting them run free. Although he guesses he should not assume the world turns only around him. So what if he was hurt? Everybody else seems to think the Avengers are otherwise doing a good job. Mistakes are common, and this one, at least, did not end in the worst possible way.

“You have made some loyal friends,” Coulson continues when neither Tony nor Thor says anything.

A short bout of laughter tumbles over Tony’s lips, barely amused. “I don’t know about that.”

Friends is such a deceptive term. For a short while, they had a common enemy. Some amount of guilt perhaps helped in making them decide to aid him. Other than that, they are at most fleeting adversaries. And whatever loyalty is between them is built on necessity.

“I believe you don’t see the world in just black and white, Mr. Stark,” Coulson says softly, as if he knows about the struggles Tony has gone through over the past weeks. “From what I know of them, they are good people. And they have come promptly to your rescue.”

People keep saying that. That the Avengers are good. That they only want to help.

“How do you know they are good if you have never met them personally?” Tony shoots back, getting tired with being told who is or is not good for him.

He wishes Thor would come to his rescue, would say anything or direct the conversation back to safer topics. At the same time, he understands why Thor does not. If the FBI knows about the Avengers, Thor needs to find out everything he can to protect Bruce. So he sits as calmly as if that man before them does not have his soulmate’s fate in his hands, and listens, almost like he has nothing more than a passing interest in the discussion.

“I have come across Black Widow during one of the first cases I’ve ever worked,” Coulson says, appearing almost amused, which leaves Tony at a loss. He cannot imagine anyone disturbing Natasha’s work could get away with it and then speak about the incident fondly.

“And she took them down before you could?” Tony guesses, having an idea of how efficient Natasha is.

To his surprise, Coulson shakes his head, still with that small smile. “No. The man is in jail despite Widow’s efforts otherwise.” He shrugs, making the entire matter appear less miraculous than it is. “We earned each other’s respect back then and we’ve started to occasionally work together.”

Tony does not even attempt to hide how incredulous he finds this, but Coulson simply cocks his head to the side as if to say what can you do? All he knows is that this is their silver lining. If Coulson knows about the Avengers and truly does not want to bring them in, they might be in the clear. The official investigation still has to be wrapped up, but they might not be entirely alone in having to keep some things quiet.

“But you don’t know the rest of them,” Tony states more than asks, needing to find out how much Coulson knows.

Next to him, Thor leans slightly forward. Not enough to attract attention, but showing his interest.

“Well, I know of Hawkeye through a similar matter as Black Widow, and I assume Mr. Rogers is part of the group,” Coulson replies evenly, offering his information like a hand for them to shake. “And I’ve kept an eye on them generally. I’m not going to look the other way if they start swaying from their path. But I trust them for now.”

Unable to help himself, Tony looks at Thor. It is not hard to see the relief swimming in Thor’s eyes, even if the rest of his expression shows only polite interest. This is better than they could have hoped for. Their story has enormous holes. If they do not have to come up with plausible answers for them because Coulson can fill them himself, that is an ideal outcome.

If they can trust Coulson. Tony needs to talk to Steve to confirm Coulson’s side of the story. For now, though, it seems like they do not have any other choice than to go with it.

“I am going to give Hawkeye your message,” Tony says, all but admitting that he is in contact with an illegal group of vigilantes.

All Coulson does at that is smile. “Thank you,” he says and, rather abruptly gets to his feet. “Well, we’re going to wrap this up and then you can have your tower back. Call me if you need anything.”

Tony stares, unable to believe that this is it, that they are going to get away with their lies and their secrets and all Coulson is going to do is smile at them and reassure them that everything is all right.

“Thank you, Agent Coulson,” Tony hears himself saying as his body takes over where his mind is trying to catch up.

He stands up, registering that Thor does the same next to him, looking slightly baffled as well.

“You’re welcome, Mr. Stark,” Coulson says as they shake hands. “Do take care of yourself.”

They watch him leave, his back straight and his steps unhurried, almost as if this was an entirely normal conversation. Silence shrouds them until Coulson has vanished out of sight and even then they take a moment to just breathe.

“That was real, yes?” Tony asks, turning around to face Thor, desperate to find out that he is not the only one disturbed by what happened. “I did not just imagine an FBI agent telling us he knows about the Avengers and will keep quiet about it.”

Incredulity is pouring from his voice and Thor’s expression mirrors that. What a pair they make, utterly floored by things not being incredibly difficult for once.

“It seems so,” Thor answers quietly, still staring at the door. “I will have to call Bruce.”

Of course. They not only have to believe Coulson, but they also have to tell the Avengers. Possibly before they do something rash to cover up their own actions.

“Great. You can do so from your bed,” Tony decrees, remembering that Thor is hurt. He made a promise earlier to send Thor right back to resting and he is going to stick to that. Much quieter, he adds, “And then I guess I’ll call Steve too.”

He is not sure what to feel about that. His memories from the evening before are blurred, but he remembers Steve’s kindness, remembers feeling safe. And instead of crowding Tony or insisting on taking care of him himself, Steve had called Rhodey.

“You don’t have to,” Thor interrupts his thoughts, looking at him with knowing eyes. “I can explain everything to them.”

It is tempting, but Tony shakes his head. “That’s kind of you, but you’re not here to clean up any more of my messes,” he says, managing to sound firmer about his decision than he feels. “I think I need to talk to Steve anyway, to see where we’re going.”

“You should take your time, however much you need,” Thor says, and Tony is glad for his calming presence.

“I will,” Tony promises. That is all he can give for now.

With a nod, Thor seems ready to leave. Now that Coulson is gone, he looks tired, and more like a person who has been in a fight the night before.

“Call if you need me,” Thor says, ever dutiful, making Tony wonder how he deserves to have someone like Thor thrown into his life. People like that are rare.

“Funny, I was just going to say the same,” Tony replies and even manages a smile. “I’ll make sure you’ll get regular meals.”

“I can –”

“I know you can,” Tony cuts him off gently. “But you got shot while protecting me. Now let me do my part.”

Looking somewhat less reluctant, Thor smiles back at Tony and makes his way out of the room, hopefully to be sensible and get some rest. Tony thinks he should probably do the same.

Chapter Text

Bruce returns to the base much sooner than expected. Perhaps he felt it was unsafe to be out in the open with the police and FBI sniffing around, but his expression is pinched in a certain way that means someone has done something stupid and he could not keep them from it.

He comes in right when they are having breakfast and does not look pleased with seeing them all gathered. They have questions, of course, and while Steve understands that Bruce might want to avoid answering them for a while longer, they are going to insist on it anyway.

“How is Thor?” Steve asks by way of greeting. No matter what else they need to discuss, that is the most important thing. That, and how Tony is doing, but he is not sure he would get a favourable answer to that, so he swallows it down. Even asking about Thor is a gamble, considering how terrible he behaved.

“Back on his feet,” Bruce replies, displeasure ringing in his tone. Unwise medical decisions always irritate him. That this is about his soulmate only makes things worse.

“So, when were you going to tell us you had a soulmate?” Clint speaks up. His voice is already confrontational.

Steve understands where he is coming from. The Avengers are their family. None of them has much beyond that. Lately, it has felt like they are falling apart and finding out that two of their members have people outside of this circle who could draw them away is only increasing the feeling of losing control.

Still, Clint could try to sound less angry about it – which, of course, is a hopeless endeavour. Out of all of them, Clint is probably the most emotional, the most likely to lose his cool.

Bruce gets himself a mug and fills it with coffee but never makes a move to sit down. He looks like he ponders the question – not how to answer it but how to shut Clint down quickly.  “Never, probably,” he then says, a warning in his voice to get them to back off. “Because it is none of your business.”

“Oh, you don’t think it is?” Clint counters immediately, drawing out the words to the point where they become an obvious accusation. “Because we all know Thor, more or less. We’ve worked with him before. And then Steve recommended him as Stark’s bodyguard, which could have easily led to him being forced to testify against us if Stark decided to –”

“Tony has never given any sign that he would report you to the police,” Bruce cuts in, almost sounding like he would not be that kind in Tony’s position.

Clint reels back as if slapped. “It’s already you and not we anymore?” He sounds hurt of all things, causing Bruce’s features to soften for a moment.

“Is that what you take away from this?” he asks, shaking his head. “Tony won’t give us up, and Thor wouldn’t help him with it if he did.”

Clint pulls a grimace, ugly and accusing. “Why, we wouldn’t know because you kept your soulmate from us.”

“Does Tony know?” Natasha pipes up, sounding strangely neutral compared to Clint’s bristling.

“Yes,” Bruce answers firmly and without hesitation, as if there has never been any question whether Tony could know this secret while he kept it from his teammates. 

That only serves to enrage Clint even more, and even Steve feels a stab of something at being kept out of the loop for years while Tony has been informed almost immediately.

“I don’t owe you anything,” Bruce says icily before any of them can raise another argument. His entire body is so still that he looks ready to throw himself at them. “Least of all Thor’s name.”

Steve is not sure when they decided to let Clint lead this conversation since Clint has a habit of taking things too far, always trying to get the worst over and done with. By now, Steve does not think it would do them any good to interrupt. Clint is afraid of things changing to the point where he is sent drifting through a world he does not recognize. If nothing else, Steve understands that fear. 

“If not for us,” Clint intones slowly, “you’d be nothing but a smear in Ross’ basement right now.”

Bruce’s expression shifts from annoyed to utterly blank. His eyes, however, are burning. If not for moments like these, where Bruce is unmoving but ready to cut them all down where they stand, Steve would never believe that Bruce could be capable of what Ross accuses him of.

Blowing up an entire building, a few unlucky co-workers included just because he did not like the research they were doing or his chances of getting out? The soft, mild-mannered Bruce they usually deal with does not seem the type for such drastic measures. They have all seen a different side of him, though. His very short fuse, his tendency to go overboard once he has decided to act, his utter ruthlessness at times – he hides it well, but Bruce is as much of a fighter as all of them.

“And I’ve made that up to you over the years, a dozen times over,” Bruce says, daring them to argue.

He has. Many things have come out of Bruce’s lab that have made their lives easier. More than that, of course, Bruce himself is invaluable, always willing to apply his mind to an argument or to ignore the fact he is not a medical doctor and patch them up whenever they needed.

Bruce is a member of their team, part of their family. Clint does not mean to argue that, Steve is sure, but he has a habit of not being able to stop once he started down a road.

“It’s still –” Clint tries to say, but before Steve can open his mouth to put an end to this, Bruce himself snaps.

“Tell me why I would trust any of you with my soulmate when you are all so stunted in that regard yourself?” Bruce asks, his voice dangerously low as he leans forward, eyeing them all in turn to make sure they know he is not excluding anyone from that. “That’s just asking for disaster.”

“We’re not stunted,” Clint all but yells. “None of us has even met their soulmates.”

Bruce’s expression shifts to something coldly amused. “Steve has, and he’s bodged that up in every way possible, even ignoring the fact that he let you beat up Tony,” he says, too calmly to not make it land like a blow. “And then, of course, there are Bucky and Natasha, who are too blind to even realize that they are soulmates.”

Silence falls, as complete as it is disbelieving. Bruce looks equal parts satisfied and like he regrets letting that slip. Even while Steve’s mind is still reeling with the words, he knows that it has just become impossible that this morning will end on anything but a sour note.

“What did you just say?” Bucky speaks up, quiet and dazed as if he is not quite sure how he got to be part of this conversation so suddenly.

Next to him, Natasha stares at Bruce with a look that would have sent lesser men running. It does not escape Steve that she leans slightly away from Bucky. It is probably not a conscious thing but gives some weight to Bruce’s words.

Bucky and Natasha, though. Steve cannot fathom why Bruce would say something like that. They are friends. Close friends. Family. They trust each other the way they all trust here, like he and Bucky do, or he and Sam. That is like saying that Clint and Natasha are soulmates just because they are so close.

“Don’t look at me like that, Bucky,” Bruce says shortly, apparently deciding not to take his words back. This is as good a way as anything to distract everyone from himself and Thor. “What’s the first thing Natasha ever said to you?”

Steve gears up to protest because Bucky has been through enough and the last thing he needs is for someone to wreck his friendship with Natasha, considering how hard it is for him to let people close.

“I don’t see what that has to do with anything,” Natasha intercedes, beating Steve to it. She sounds strangely forceful for an illogical argument about whether or not she and Bucky are soulmates.

Bucky, however, does not lift his eyes off Bruce. “Don’t get shot,” he says, sounding slightly out of it like he is picturing the scene before he returns to the present with a jerk. “A lot of people have told me that.”

That is certainly true. Steve cannot even quite remember when they met Natasha and Clint for the first time. It was on some mission when Steve and Bucky where still doing their own thing after the war, when Steve was desperately trying to convince Bucky that life still has meaning.

In a way, Natasha simply appeared in their lives at some point, inserting herself seamlessly and bringing Clint with her. Steve could not pinpoint a distinct moment when they turned from strangers to allies to friends.

“And you can name every one of these people?” Bruce asks before waving his hand to signal he does not actually want an answer. “Look, this isn’t about the words, and I’m not volunteering as your therapist because I really don’t want to get involved, but you should perhaps look a little closer to home before you blame other people for how they deal with the topic of soulmates.”

With that, Bruce turns away from them. He is too calm. His steps, when he goes towards the door, are too measured. Inside, he is angry. Angry at them prying into his personal business. Perhaps even angry about their alleged incapability to deal with their own emotional baggage first before blaming others for theirs.

“Don’t walk away,” Bucky calls, sounding slightly panicked at being left with this new piece of information, no matter how convinced he might be that it is wrong. “We’re not –”

Bruce whirls around again and cuts Bucky off. “Natasha was awfully quick to trust you, right?” he asks. That was strange, Steve has to admit that. He himself felt like Natasha was walking circles around them for ages, never trusting anything Steve told her without checking for herself. “And you let her in despite being in a place where you pushed everybody away, even Steve. You work together on an instinctual level. You hover.” Bruce looks just a wrong word away from throwing his arms up in the air in frustration. “Look, I don’t have proof, and even if I had, this is your mess. Just stop pointing fingers.”

He leaves and nobody stops him, reeling with what was clearly just meant to be a distraction. Surely, Bucky and Natasha would know if they were soulmates. Even with Bucky’s arm missing and Natasha’s words burned away, the bond would settle.

Steve might feel the bond most clearly in his arm, a constant pulsing and burning, but there is an ache sitting right in his core too. Without the arm, there is still that.

He turns towards Bucky, searching for something to say, but Bucky gets up and walks towards the door without another word.

“Bucky,” Steve tries. Bucky should not be alone with this.

“Leave it,” Bucky says, never even looking back.

And Steve does. He realizes that, no matter whether Bruce was right, he is not fit to talk to anybody about soulmates. Not with how much of a trainwreck his own bond is. Not with how little he is adjusting to it.

“Nat,” he says, but she shuts him up with a glare and follows Bucky out of the room.

Steve nurses the small hope that they might get together and talk this through. Whether or not Bruce is right, this is going to hang between them, and they have enough issues as it is.

With a sigh, he buries his face in his hands, pressing against his eyelids until he sees nothing but swirling colours in the darkness.

“When did we turn into such a mess?” Clint asks, sounding so dejected all of a sudden that one might think he never almost shouted at Bruce for keeping secrets.

Steve looks up, ignoring the way his vision is still blurry, and glares at Clint. “You didn’t help, attacking Bruce like that.”

Not bothering to deny that, Clint shrugs, although he appears slightly uncomfortable at least. “He kept vital information from us,” he says sullenly, likely knowing that does not absolve him from behaving abysmally.

Steve takes a deep breath and swallows his first, angry response. It would not do them any good to keep arguing. Cautiously, he says, “That’s not what you care about.”

Chances are high that Clint is going to shut him down. He might get up too and leave Steve behind with the remnants of their half-eaten breakfast. They are not successful as a group because they are practised in talking about feelings but because they act.

To his surprise, Clint looks at him, his lips pursed with displeasure, and says, “You know what? No, it isn’t. Because Bruce finding his soulmate at least did not tear us all apart.” That is an obvious dig against Steve and the mistakes he made with Tony, but it lacks any sharpness. For once, Clint is simply speaking his mind without turning it into an attack. “But what do you think will happen now? Thor and Stark seem to get along quite well, and Bruce would just love to get out of here, right? And you’ll still try to make things work with Stark, which won’t happen if we all return to DC to stay out of his way.”

Clint is afraid, Steve realizes with an abrupt, acute ache. For the past weeks, Steve has been mourning the fact that they all seem to turn on each other to a degree, that they are chipping away at what the Avengers are supposed to be. And Clint feels exactly the same. They have come to a turning point, and while they cannot quite say what is going to happen, things will change.

It is cold comfort to know that Steve is not the only one struggling with this. At least he knows why Clint is always angry these days. They all react differently to fear and grief. Considering how Bucky has been after they returned home from the war, Steve is no stranger to people lashing out blindly.

“And Stark’s not going to want me around, not even half the city away,” Clint adds, almost a challenge as if he wants Steve to rise to it so he can fight a little while longer. Everything is better than to deal with the emotions simmering beneath that.

“Can you blame him for that?” Steve asks calmly, showing nothing but mild interest. He is too busy thinking about whether Clint might be on to something, whether it is possible that Bruce will stay behind – whether he still has a chance to do the same, to make this work.

“No,” Clint admits. “But –” He trails off, almost like he was only arguing for the sake of it without actually having a point to prove. Clint usually knows when he has gone too far, he just seldom admits it.

Despite his own fears and constantly feeling insecure, Steve says, “We’re not going to dissolve the Avengers.”

No matter what else happens, the Avengers are his family. They have done a lot of good over the years. This group has helped them heal. He cannot just walk away from that. Not on the off-chance that his soulmate might want to see him again.

“It damn well feels like we’re already in the process of it,” Clint mutters, avoiding to look at Steve. A half-eaten pancake is still lying on his plate, which he stares at but does not touch. They have all lost their appetites.

“And you’re not helping,” Steve says. He might have a lot of sympathy for Clint feeling like they are losing something good here, but Clint is not handling any of this in the right way. The constant arguing and lashing out does only more harm.

Clint smiles, although it is a mangled thing, lacking all of his usual confidence. “Better get it over with than to drag it out needlessly, right?”

He looks so lost for a moment that Steve wants to reach out to anchor him in the present, but then Clint nods to himself and wipes the uncertainty from his face. Pushing away from the table, he gets to his feet.

“Clint –” Steve starts, not wanting to leave things like this. More so, he does not want to be left behind by all of them this morning.

“No, Steve,” Clint refuses. “I’ll go find Nat.”

Steve should probably find Bucky too, even though he has nothing to offer than to listen and to be sympathetic. As far as he knows, there is no way to find out whether Bruce is right and they are soulmates. Now that this is standing between them, they have to make a decision themselves.

He almost laughs at that thought. He is not actually good at making decisions himself.

“Perhaps you should let them talk,” he suggests, despite doubting that Bucky and Natasha will allow themselves to even be in the same room together for the next time, much less actually talk.

“They are not going to talk,” Clint echoes Steve’s thoughts with a scoff. “Neither of them. Not just like that. Bucky’s going to hole up in his room, and Natasha is going to beat the shit out of some punching bags.” He shrugs. “Might as well give her a moving target.”

Steve nods, resigning himself to doing damage control too. He watches Clint leave but then speaks up again. “I’m sorry, Clint.” This is long overdue. They have all made mistakes, and instead of arguing with each other, they should seek to make things better.

“For what?” Clint asks, sounding somewhat suspicious.

“For how things went down,” Steve answers, still wishing he could go back and change all that happened these past weeks. Not just with Tony but the entire team too. “For not sticking together as much as we should.”

Rooted in place, Clint looks at him for a long moment. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry too.”

Then he is gone, leaving Steve with the remnants of their breakfast, feeling tired and nauseous, knocked once again off track. He wonders whether that will ever stop. Or, if it does not, whether he will ever get used to it.

 


 

Tony holds his phone in his hands, trying to work up the courage to call Steve. It should not be hard. They have business to discuss. Yet, he cannot get his fingers to move to initiate the call.

The night before, he had been holding Steve’s hand, clinging to it while he was drifting in and out of thoughts. It felt natural at that moment. Steve had come to his rescue and brought him home. There had not been a single doubt in his mind that Steve was safe, and Tony really did not want to be left alone.

Now he has that memory inside his head. Steve’s skin against his, Steve’s warmth close enough for Tony to curl up in, Steve’s reassuring presence.

In a way, Tony feels betrayed by his own senses. Steve did protect him, and he might have his best interests at heart, but that does not erase their history. As soon as Tony was vulnerable, though, he latched onto Steve without any thoughts about the possible consequences. Like wanting to do it again. Like wondering why he should keep fighting their connection now that they have obviously come to a consensus.

Tony is not going to hide, he just does not know whether he can already handle talking to Steve again. For once, the fault lies entirely with him, too. Steve handled the night before more than correctly. He had indulged Tony without indulging himself, kept offering comfort without pushing for more. Also, he had never once mentioned a possible future for the both of them.

With a sigh, Tony puts down his phone. It is ridiculous to make this so hard on himself, but everything is still out of control. Obadiah is gone, but not in a way that leaves Tony any peace. Nobody is trying to kill him anymore, but Tony has never felt any less safe inside his own skin. His soulmate appears to be a decent person after all, but Tony found it easier to talk to him when he was hating his guts.

“Do you want me to call Mr. Rogers for you, sir?” JARVIS speaks up, refraining from making a comment about Tony’s indecision, even though his opinion about it appears clear.

“No?” Tony asks more than says, although it would have the advantage of him not being able to disconnect the call the moment the dial tone fills his ear. He is not sure when he turned into a coward.

With something like a sigh, JARVIS ignores his wish. “Calling Mr. Rogers right now.”

“J,” Tony warns, but then the dial tone sounds and Tony cannot do anything about it. Before he can prepare himself, the call connects.

“Tony.” Steve’s voice is warm if a little breathless. “How are you?”

Tony wonders whether Steve is as nervous as he is. Which, considering their history, is a pretty stupid thing to be. They have already crossed over into the territory of everything being wrong between them. What else could happen?

“I’m fine,” Tony replies and almost asks the same of Steve. This is not a courtesy call, however. “I just had a long conversation with Agent Coulson from the FBI.”

Silence answers him, too abrupt to be natural. It has Tony regretting that he did not ask about Steve’s well-being first. About the team. By constantly pushing Steve away, he might just make things unnecessarily harder on himself.

“Is everything all right?” Steve then says. He sounds like someone has already slipped a noose over his head and the rope is beginning to cut off his air. “Did he find out something that he shouldn’t?”

“Stay calm,” Tony counters immediately surprising himself with it. He does not like the distress in Steve’s voice. In his experience, nothing good comes from putting the Avengers into an emotionally stressful situation. “Please don’t murder a federal agent without listening to me first.”

Perhaps he should have eased Steve into this conversation a bit. They owe each other some consideration at this point. It is unfair to simply throw Steve into this, almost accusingly at that, after they have worked together on taking down Obadiah.

“We were not going to –” Steve protests unsurprisingly, but Tony cuts him off.

“I know.” Kind of, at least. Steve’s We don’t kill policy has some serious holes, considering they came in guns blazing when Tony was in danger. Not that he is exactly mad about that. “Just tell Barton to stop shooting arrows at people.”

Tony is not sure how to feel about Barton. He still does not want to be left alone in a room with him, but what happened last night in that warehouse has put a different spin on his relationship with all the people present. Barton did not show any hesitation when he came to Tony’s rescue. He killed the two men and kept his distance from Tony, looking vaguely regretful but otherwise kept his head up. None of the old hate was noticeable between them, and Tony is just so tired of everything being painful.

“Did that come up in the police report?” Steve asks, sounding somewhat distracted as if he is already thinking about how to solve the problem.

Irritation flickers in Tony’s chest. “Of course, it came up,” he snaps, wondering how the Avengers ever managed to operate for the past years if they have always been this careless. “Have you considered that it will rouse suspicion when a crime scene is full of corpses that were riddled with arrows? You might have taken them all out, but the wounds look distinctly different from bullet wounds.”

Even now, Tony cannot wrap his head around the fact that Barton showed up with an actual bow – or that he wielded it so effectively. When he closes his eyes, he can still see the arrow hit the man’s throat, the blood spraying out of the wound, the life fading.

Tony used to think of weapons as elegant things. To him, they consisted of formulas and sleek edges, of continually more promising performance reports. For years, he managed to ignore the uglier sides of it. The death counts. The mess the lovingly calculated force behind them makes of a human body. The pain and shock he could so clearly see in people’s eyes the night before.

He has given a large part of his life over to destruction and murder, and never even thought to doubt his way because that was what Starks did. He remembers the dreams he had when he went to MIT, studying mechanical and robotic engineering, and how quickly he let go of these dreams when his father, unsurprisingly, protested all of them. 

Steve’s voice brings Tony back to the present, out of his unflattering thoughts about the person he had allowed himself to become. “I’ll have to –”

“You don’t have to do anything,” Tony interrupts him quickly, afraid that Steve will hang up without hearing him out and go off to do something unadvised.

For now, the situation is under control even if Tony does not exactly know why. It should make him suspicious that Coulson offered such an easy solution to their problem because he knows that things are never as simple as they seem, and people much less so. He does not want anything else to go wrong, though. It is high time he got a break.

“What did you do?” Steve asks, a hint of wariness in his tone. “You don’t have to clean up our messes.”

A laugh bursts over Tony’s lips. As far as he is concerned, the Avengers are a single, giant mess, revealing more cracks from each new angle.

“And I wouldn’t know where to start,” Tony replies honestly but, for once, does not mean it accusingly. “So, I didn’t. Tell Natasha that Coulson says hi.”

It should be more satisfying that Tony was right about the fact that something was off with Coulson, that he knows more than he should. On the other hand, it does not exactly inspire a lot of trust to know that their law enforcement willingly works together with vigilantes.

“The FBI knows about us?” Steve asks, a frown audible in his voice.

A note of panic is underlying the words, but Tony cannot savour it. He might have, a few weeks ago, when the Avengers were nothing but a threat, another facet of the enemy that was rising all around Tony. Now, however, Tony has the urge to reassure Steve.

“For years,” Tony says, not bothering to hide his own disbelief about that. “He’s not going to give you trouble.”

Not, at least, in a way that ends up with the Avengers behind bars. That does not mean there will not be any repercussions, any later demands.

“Why?” Steve asks, sounding not at all convinced, and Tony cannot blame him for that. This is about the safety of his team, his family, so he cannot just accept Tony’s word.

“I’m just the messenger,” Tony replies, just short of throwing his arms into the air. He is undeniably glad that Coulson’s interest appears mostly directed at the Avengers instead of himself. “You should ask Natasha and Barton about that.”

Steve does not speak for a long moment, almost as if he is gearing up to protest that notion, but Tony does not ask. He thinks it is wise not to ingratiate himself too much in the team’s business.

“Thank you for telling me,” Steve finally says, vaguely regretful, before falling silent again.

This is it, Tony realizes. This could be their goodbye. Obadiah is dead, Tony is safe, the mission is over. They could make a cut here and go their separate ways. Steve does not want this, Tony knows, clinging to the bond more desperately than he probably should. The thing is, Tony does not want to either. It has not been a conscious decision but crept up on him over the past weeks. He is not even sure when he went from fearing Steve to being furious with him to being strangely accepting of his continued presence.

Their situation is still far from ideal and nothing is well between them, but it does not deserve an abrupt end either.  

“Thank you for last night,” Tony says and bites his lip right afterwards. That was not supposed to come out like this, leaving him vulnerable while almost holding a challenge at the same time. “You didn’t have to bring me home.”

What he means is Steve did not have to hold his hands and listen to his ramblings. He did not have to sneak around his home to avoid Rhodey’s wrath. He did not have to care for Tony after Tony told him to leave just about every time they talked before.

“Any time,” Steve says, his tone gentle, a promise in itself. He hesitates briefly before adding, “Tony, don’t – don’t do that again.”

Everybody seems to be of the opinion they know better what Tony is allowed to do with his own life. Tony doubts Steve is going to have any new arguments.

“What?” Tony counters, considerably less amused than he was with Pepper. “Trust the wrong person and get almost killed by them?”

He can feel Steve flinching in response. It is as if all the muscles in Tony’s arm tense for a short moment before the sensation turns into an ache that continually echoes between them.

“Give yourself up,” Steve corrects him quietly, chewing on the words like he still cannot believe the danger is over. “I was so afraid, and the bond – it felt like my arm was burning. I thought –”

“This isn’t about you,” Tony says sharply, cutting Steve off. Anger coils inside him, spreading like a wildfire. He thought they were beyond that, beyond Steve caring about nothing but his own wishes.

“No,” Steve says, decisive enough that Tony actually stops pushing himself further down this rabbit hole. “This is about you almost dying. And even if we’re – even if nothing’s ever going to happen between us, I don’t think I could bear it.”

A sort of raw honesty accompanies the words that has Tony momentarily breathless, erasing his readiness to fight as if it never rose in him.

“Noted,” Tony says and bites his lip. This is not the time to question what this means for them. Then again, perhaps there is no better time than now, when they are both unsettled and touched by grief.

“Tony,” Steve says, almost a question. More than that, a plea.

Tony sighs, slumping back into his chair. “I’m not going to make any promises,” he says. Life is unpredictable as it is and Tony has enough guilt weighing him down. “I hope I’m all out of people wanting to kill me, but if I’m not, I’m always going to look out for my friends.”

If anyone should understand that, it is Steve. He is loyal to the point of becoming blind to everything else. Somehow, illogically, Tony has become part of the people Steve is loyal to.

“Could you tell Thor I’m sorry for yelling at him?” Steve then says, showing his willingness to let one topic rest only by opening another can of worms.

Thor has not mentioned getting yelled at by Steve, but Tony can imagine what that was about. Beyond his loyalty, Steve has the uncanny talent to throw away any goodwill he gathered moments after receiving it.

“You should tell him yourself,” Tony counters, knowing he will not mediate other people’s relationships while he is still busy deciding whether to fix his own. A small part of him also knows he would side with Thor in this argument and he does not want another thing pitching him against Steve. They have enough baggage already.

Steve is quiet for a long moment as if he already knows his next words will be unwelcome again. He says them anyway. “He doesn’t pick up his phone.”

Tony buries his face in his hand, putting pressure against his burning eyes. How has this become his life?

“Then you should perhaps take a clue,” he says, too tired to make it an accusation. “Sometimes people don’t want to talk to you, especially if you don’t leave them alone.”

He is not sure whether that still applies to him. In a way, he is fortunate Steve did not leave him alone. The FBI would have come and gotten him out of that warehouse. They would have taken Obadiah into custody and Tony would not have his blood on his hands now. But.

Without the Avengers, it would have taken Tony longer to find out Obadiah was behind the weapons trading. He might have died before he ever knew. And Steve did not just come to his rescue, but he brought him home, making him feel safe after the worst night of his life.

“I’m sorry,” Steve says, and Tony thinks they all are. “I’m just tired of things breaking and being unable to fix them.”

That is a feeling Tony knows only too well. He does not want to argue. That is not going to do anything but hurt them more.

Tony waits for Steve to keep talking. For some offer to help or a request to meet again. Questions about what is going to happen to them. Instead, Steve seemingly leaves the decision up to Tony.

That is a hard thing to accept. For weeks now, Tony had only been able to react to what was happening around him. Every decision he made was somewhat forced, his interactions with Steve included.

Up until now, Tony’s wishes were clear. He wanted to be left alone, to be safe from the soulmate that hurt him. Things have changed. The Avengers came to his rescue. Steve makes him feel safe.

It would be wrong to end things now, Tony reasons with himself, unsure whether there even is a part of him that needs convincing. He likes to think his brain is wired to tackle all problems in a rational way, but he gets always hung up on emotions.  

“Are you going back to DC?” The question falls from Tony’s lips too hurriedly, a desperate note clinging to the words. This is just short of Tony asking Are you leaving me?

“Not yet,” Steve answers, although he sounds unsure about it, like he knows what he has to do but cannot yet commit to it. “We’re waiting for Bruce to decide what he will do, and he doesn’t want to leave Thor while he is still walking around with stitches in his abdomen. And we’ll have to clean out the base, make sure the rats won’t take over while we’re away.”

That sounds like Steve is searching for excuses to stay. How long could it possibly take to get the base ready for their absence? What would keep them from letting Bruce wrap up his business and following them when he is done? Tony decides to interpret that as Steve not wanting to go at all.

“Good,” Tony hears himself saying but does not mind it very much. In fact, he is not even surprised at his own relief. They have to make a decision regarding their future now or this is always going to stand between them. 

“Good?” Steve echoes, a sliver of hope in his tone.

Tony is not sure how to answer without giving any concessions. He is not ready for that, and he doubts that Steve is, either.

“I thought – I have a lot to deal with still, with the company and –” Getting over his godfather’s actions. Tony cannot bear to say it out loud, though, not without remembering Obadiah’s end at the same time. “I thought I would call so we could talk sometime.”

He expects Steve to protest, to say he is not going to sit around, waiting for a call that might very well never come. Tony is not sure whether he wants him to, on some level, to be pushed into a decision instead of having to make it consciously.

Instead, Steve says, “I would like that.” His tone is so soft that Tony almost does not manage to reconcile it with the man he first met. The night before, though, Steve was exactly that. Gentle and safe, turning Tony’s emotions upside-down again.

“All right,” Tony says, not knowing how to continue. He did not think this would be so awkward. Arguing has always been easy, almost enough so that he is not sure how to stop. “Take care until then.”

He does not want to hang up and, judging on the burning in his arm, Tony thinks Steve does not either.

Nonetheless, Steve says, “You too, Tony.”

When the call disconnects, Tony closes his eyes. He feels out of breath as if he has done something more strenuous than having a phone call where both parties swallowed most of what they actually wanted to get off their chests.

This has not brought him any closer to making a decision about his soulmate. The bond is suspiciously quiet too. The day before, there was no escaping Steve’s feelings, the horrible mess of fear and worry and anger, the protectiveness. Even now, Tony is not sure how much of that had come from him, or whether Steve had really felt all of that at the prospect of losing Tony.

He wants to see Steve again, to find out whether he would feel that warmth again, like being wrapped into a safe cocoon, just from being close to Steve. He just does not want to have to decide whether it is all right for him to feel that way.

Getting to his feet, Tony swallows a groan at the pain flashing through his various bruises.

“J,” he asks, looking for a distraction. “Where is Rhodey?”

“He is currently in the kitchen preparing lunch,” JARVIS answers. If not for the innocence of the exchange, Tony would swear there is a trace of sympathy in his AI’s voice. “He has asked for your presence before you, and I will quote him here, hide away in your workshop instead of dealing with your emotions like an adult.”

Tony laughs. Rhodey knows him too well. The thought of burying himself in some project is overwhelmingly enticing. Numbers and the way his hands are able to shape things have always made more sense than people. This is not something he can run from, however. Perhaps he can spare them all some grief by not even trying to do so.

“Tell Rhodey I’m on my way.”

Chapter Text

It smells fantastic in the kitchen, throwing Tony back immediately to their college days, Back then, Rhodey’s cooking skills had still been unrefined, but they spent a number of holidays and summer breaks at the Rhodes’ home and it had seemed to be Rhodey’s mother’s single mission in life to fatten her two boys up. And to teach Tony that he is loved. She has had partial success in both those things, but since then Rhodey has taken seamlessly over.

Tony walks up to the counter to glean at what Rhodey is making. A pan is sizzling on the stove with an ungodly amount of garlic, just as they like it. Next to that sits a plate with neatly cut vegetables that Tony is sure cannot have come out of his kitchen.

Before he can say anything, Rhodey turns to look at him, eyes travelling over Tony’s form as if he thinks Tony managed to get himself injured again in the few hours they were apart this morning. Tony knows how he looks. The suit jacket he put on to appear at least somewhat collected for his meeting with Coulson does not hide the bags under his eyes or the fact that he walks with his shoulders slumped, almost bowed as if something is pulling him down to the ground.

That something is Obadiah, of course, and has been for weeks. Ironically enough, Tony thinks he might have preferred dealing with the mental toll of the betrayal alone, instead of adding its inglorious end to the mix. He cannot get the way Obadiah crumpled to the ground out of his head. How he kept sneering until the pain took over. How that last look in his eyes resembled hatred more than anything else.

“Are you ready to talk yet?” Rhodey’s voice interrupts his thoughts, cutting right through them and catapulting Tony back to the present.

He is in his kitchen with his best friend. Food is on the stove. Nobody is out to kill him anymore. He is safe. It is over. Obadiah is dead.

Tony killed Obadiah. 

“About?” Tony asks, not bothering to make his tone innocent. This is straight-up denial and they both know it.

Rhodey’s expression does not change much, but Tony is practised in seeing the small signs of disappointment.

“Don’t do that, Tones,” Rhodey says, his voice unbearably calm. “Tell me if you need time, but don’t pretend nothing happened.”

Tony could run. That is what he usually does when things become uncomfortable, when he does not want to answer questions. JARVIS could put the workshop on lockdown and keep everybody out until Tony feels more collected – or until they stop trying.

Instead, Tony sits down on the counter, feet dangling, and stares at the pan. Rhodey must take that as sign enough that Tony is willing to talk because he turns back to the food, cutting with precise strokes, completely in control.

“It’s –” Tony shrugs. Fine. Over. Complicated. A myriad of entirely inaccurate words. “I’m not sure what to say.”

That, at least, is the truth. He is barely able to think about it in an even remotely coherent fashion without landing back in that warehouse, his mind running away from him but the gun steady in his hands.

“Stane is dead,” Rhodey says, echoing the constant choir in the back of Tony’s head. “How about you start with that?”

Heartrate picking up, Tony does not meet Rhodey’s eyes. “I already told you –”

He stops talking when Rhodey huffs. “I don’t exactly consider your feverish rambling from last night telling me anything.” Despite the words, Rhodey’s voice is gentle, as if he could ease Tony into this conversation. “Do you even remember what you said?”

Tony remembers surprisingly much of the night before, mostly in flashes but it is there. Steve brought him home, helped him lie down, and kept his distance while making sure Tony felt protected. He stayed when Tony asked him to. He made sure someone called Rhodey.

After that, things get more blurred. Rhodey had put him into the bathtub when he could not stand long enough for a shower. There was tea, and a mostly one-sided conversation full of mindless, soothing things.

Tony has talked too, in random bursts of information that can probably all be boiled down to two facts: He does not understand why this has happened. And it hurts.

Even now, it is hard to put into words. Years of Tony’s life turned into a lie that he happily believed as long as he was handed what he considered freedom to do as he pleased.  

“Obie killed my parents and now he wanted the company for himself,” Tony says, not reacting when Rhodey winces.

Since he does not look very surprised, this is one of the things he must have let slip the night before. It is the most pressing thing, too, because they already knew that Obadiah wanted Tony dead. They just were not aware that this was not the first time he decided to remove his problems in a permanent manner.

“He told me – everything was a lie, you know.” Tony’s lips turn into a bitter caricature of a smile. “Encouraging me to build, helping me out when Dad got mad, letting me grieve after they died. It was all part of some scheme to make more money. He did not care about me one bit. He – Dad said they were best friends and it was all a lie.”

Rhodey stops cutting for a moment to look at him, a sigh on his lips that Tony does not want to hear.

“It’s just impossible to wrap my head around,” he continues quickly, unwilling to linger on this. “I mean, you and Pep always tell me I’m terrible with people. That I always choose to trust the wrong ones and push away the ones who are good. But how could I have been so blind?”

A multitude of examples come to mind. Ty Stone and Sunset Bain being the most prominent of them. Rhodey had warned him away from them. If he had trusted his best friend more, he might have avoided those heartbreaks. Nobody knew to suspect Obadiah, although that does not help him at all to cope with the aftermath. 

“We never meant it that way, Tones,” Rhodey says quietly, his eyes turning sad. “We all fell for it. Stane – he did not fool you because you are naïve. He’s –”

Tony knows what Rhodey is going to say and he does not want to hear it, so he cuts Rhodey off, his voice a wounded monotone.

“I killed him.”

The knife clatters loudly on the counter as Rhodey stares at him. “What?” He looks like he has understood perfectly well what Tony said but wishes he did not.

Last night, Rhodey had reacted with unconcealed satisfaction at hearing about Obadiah’s death. Now, his expression is dampened by shock.

Unable to stand the scrutiny, Tony looks down at his lap. Rhodey will not judge him, but he still feels the recoil almost ripping the gun out of his hands after the first shot. That would have been enough to keep Obadiah down, and yet he steadied the gun and fired again.

All of the reasons and justifications have fallen away since then, leaving him to feel like nothing more than a murderer.

“He tried to run and we had to decide what to do with him,” Tony explains in a flat tone, flailing to keep calm. “Rhodey, I – I could see it in his eyes that he would never leave me alone. It does not matter that they would have locked him up. He would have somehow managed to make me miserable even from prison.”

He wanted to be left alone, but now he is not so sure anymore it was worth the price. Tired and hurting, with a mind eager to replay all the bad memories from the night before, it is like he has lost a part of his soul without any hope of making up for it.

“So you,” Rhodey beings but trails off. It is not clear whether he does not know what to ask or is simply not sure whether he should. He has by now completely abandoned the food.

The silence between them is, for a moment, only interrupted by the sizzling of the pan.

“I took a gun and shot him. Twice. I –” Tony takes a deep breath, surprised that his lungs allow it despite the weight on his chest. “I watched him die.”

Every long second of it. Every shuddering gasp, every new drop of blood, every twitch, every glare. Tony watched and did nothing. He merely waited until it was over and wished he was anywhere but there.

Obadiah might have betrayed him, but this was a betrayal in return. Not so much the bullets themselves because that night demanded that only one of them would leave the warehouse alive. But Tony pulled the trigger. He asked to do it himself and he did it. Coming back from that is impossible.

Rhodey is saying something, although Tony cannot hear a single word over the rushing in his ears. He sees Rhodey’s mouth moving, his lips turned down in sympathy. It must be something soothing, some kind of promise that Tony will be all right, that he only did what had to be done.

“How do you do it?” Tony asks, talking right over Rhodey. “Kill people?”

He has been wondering that since he was first kidnapped by the Avengers, really. That ready violence between people does not make sense to him. Where does the thrill of hurting or killing strangers come from? They are all human. They are all the same. And yet something primeval allows them to draw each other’s blood. 

“It’s not –” Rhodey starts, but Tony knows his best friend’s expression when he wants to shower him in platitudes.

“I swear I’ll throw you out if you’ll tell me it’s not easy,” Tony counters, rousing himself a bit from his stupor. “Obie deserved it but I can’t get his face out of my head.”

That is what he tells himself, that Obadiah deserved to die. He cannot even believe that, however, much less that he should be allowed to regain some inner peace.

Rhodey picks the knife back up and, without any semblance of a plan, throws everything he has cut into the pan at once, too thrown to stick to whatever recipe he chose.

“I am still seeing the face of the first person I ever killed,” he then says, dragging his eyes back to Tony with some reluctance. To Tony’s surprise, there is shame lingering in Rhodey’s face. “I still sometimes wake up from him asking me why in my dreams. I didn’t even know him. He was just some unlucky sod on the other side of a battlefield. You’re not supposed to shrug this off, no matter whether Stane deserved it or not.”

The thing is, Tony remembers Rhodey coming home on leave after that happened. He never told Tony about the nightmares, about how hard it is. It makes him feel like a bad friend. Like an egocentric, selfish man-child who does not like to take responsibility for anything ever. He should have known about Rhodey’s struggle. Perhaps Rhodey knew that there are no good answers to the questions simmering inside Tony now.

“So what?” Tony asks, still thrown but needing to make some sense of this. “I shouldn’t have done it? Is that what you’re telling me?”

The thought of Obadiah being alive hurts more than reality. He could just now be sitting in a holding cell, planning Tony’s further downfall, or talking in excruciating detail about all the things Tony did over the years that were hushed up. Drunken misadventures, bringing dozens of people into his bed, seemingly not caring for anyone but himself. Between that and the dutiful COO of Stark Industries, who would the police believe?

“I wish I could have been there to do it for you,” Rhodey says, and the sincerity in his voice breaks Tony’s heart further. “But I understand why you had to do it yourself.”

Tony thought it would help. That it would be a mercy. Just another pair of lies.

“It doesn’t feel like it’s over,” Tony admits, wishing Rhodey would give him reassurances, no matter how empty they would be.

“No, I can imagine,” Rhodey says instead. Then, however, he reaches out and puts his hand on top of Tony’s where they lie clenched in his lap. “But I’m proud of you.”

Immediate warmth floods through Tony, but he stamps down on the feeling, trying to expel it from his chest.

“What’s there to be proud of?” he asks, tasting bitterness on his tongue.

Somehow, Rhodey finds the strength to smile. “You’re stronger than you think.”

If this is strength, Tony is not sure he wants it. Someone has to take responsibility for his life and, more often than not, he left that job to others, and this is the reason why. He is feeling brittle, like one wrong word or touch will be enough to shatter him.

“Thank you,” Tony says quietly. Nothing is resolved. He is still raw, but Rhodey’s presence always helps.

“One day I’ll manage to make you believe that I’m not going anywhere,” Rhodey replies, his tone too serious to match the lightness of his smile.

Tony knows what he is saying. He is still working on not doubting it.

 


 

They have just finished their lunch, having turned to easier topics so that they could finish cooking and manage to keep the food down, when JARVIS speaks up.

“Sir, Dr Banner has entered the tower and asks to come up.”

Tony’s mind immediately jumps to new possible problems. Perhaps Thor’s state worsened since they saw each other this morning. Perhaps Coulson lied and brought in the Avengers anyway. Perhaps some more of Obadiah’s men have surfaced to give them more trouble.

“Let him in, J,” Tony says, his mouth dry. He swallows and he tries to convince his shoulders to straighten and his head to stay up to meet whatever is coming head-on.

“Dr Banner?” Rhodey asks. He, too, looks affected, although that might just be because he would prefer to wrap Tony up in a blanket and not let anyone ask something of him for the next seven years.

“He’s a friend,” Tony replies immediately. Whatever else happens, he does not need Rhodey and Bruce to argue. “He’s also the Dr Banner whose papers we’ve been gushing over, so don’t embarrass me.”

Rhodey’s lips twitch, even while his eyes remain serious. He is undoubtedly trying to figure out how Bruce fits into this. How, between all the bad things of the past few weeks, Tony made a new friend.

“Are you telling me you had an actual scientific celebrity in your home before and didn’t invite me?” he asks as he gets up to clear their plates from the table.

Tony takes overly much care as he gathers their cutlery and glasses to avoid looking at Rhodey. He cannot help the small grin, though. “You’re here now, right?”

Huffing, Rhodey replies, “We’re going to talk about that.”

That feels almost normal, the banter between them, the easy way Rhodey lets Tony be himself. If not for Bruce and his likely bad news coming closer, Tony might have even relaxed a little.

They just manage to clean the kitchen enough to let a guest in it before the door opens and Bruce comes in. He looks tired but not like he is in a hurry. His supplies bag is slung over his shoulder.

“Tony,” he greets with a smile that appears unstrained. “And you must be Colonel Rhodes.”

He does not get the change to offer his hand because Rhodey crosses his arms in front of him and asks, “Who are you?”

Tony rolls his eyes, mostly for Bruce’s benefit. Rhodey has a habit of mistrusting everybody Tony meets. He would prefer they skip that here since Bruce has proven himself to be an ally.

“I told you he’s a friend,” Tony says, a warning in his tone that he knows will be ignored. It should be more annoying, but even after years of friendship, Rhodey’s protectiveness soothes him.

“And I’d like to hear it from himself,” Rhodey rebuffs him before turning towards Bruce with a grim expression. “Are you with that mob?”

They have not yet talked about that. Only in fragments the night before.

Bruce takes the glare in stride and nods. “I am, although I’m not here as one of them,” he says as if that could restore Rhodey’s favour. “Now, if you would excuse me. I promise I’ll let you yell at me later.” Completely ignoring Rhodey’s flabbergasted expression, he puts his bag down on the kitchen table and says to Tony. “Did you have anyone look you over?”

“I’m fine,” Tony says before he even fully realizes that Bruce has come here to make sure he is all right. That last night did not leave him with more injuries he refuses to have looked at in a hospital. The thought makes his throat constrict. Although, for once, in a good way.

“We took a while to get to you,” Bruce says. He knows Tony well enough by now to not believe him about his health. “And you were bleeding when we arrived.”

Tony has catalogued his injuries in the shower this morning. Split lip, a cut over his eyebrow, sore ribs, and a multitude of bruises. That is it. It could have been much worse.

“Truly, Bruce,” Tony insists, even though Bruce and Rhodey are now looking at him with obvious doubt. “I’m fine.”

They do not believe him. Tony probably would not either. He has seen his face in the mirror this morning. He knows he takes every movement with exaggerated care, at least when nobody is watching him.

Compared to the weeks before he is fine, however. Nobody is trying to kill him anymore, he can concentrate on the future. If hie ignores the emotional toll of last night, he is doing well. He is free.

“What are your ribs doing?” Bruce asks, skipping the pretence completely.

Tony just barely keeps himself rolling his eyes. “I guess I refractured them again.” That happens when people keep kicking him in the ribcage. By now, he has almost gotten used to being constantly in pain with every breath he takes.

“You guess?” Rhodey pipes in, sharing a look with Bruce as if they have always known each other, always banded together over Tony’s inability to take care of himself.

A small part of Tony feels flattered. Bruce should not be here. He has a soulmate to care for and the Avengers to go back to. Since Obadiah is dead, he does not need to look in on Tony. It would probably be safer for all of them to keep their distance lest Coulson changes his mind about covering up for them. And yet Bruce is here.

“I appreciate your concern, but I’ve been worse,” Tony says. Bruce is too kind to just leave if Tony does not give him an out. “They didn’t torture me. It was just a couple slaps to remind me of who’s in charge. The worst thing was Obie’s monologuing.”

He keeps his tone light but cannot quite hide how the mere memory makes him wince. His mother’s face keeps flashing in front of his eyes, the way she used to smile. how she never gave up on mediating between Tony and his father.

“Take off your shirt.”

Tony is already halfway through nodding his head when the words register. He expected Bruce to accept his rejection of medical care and leave. Or possibly to ask more questions about what transpired between Obadiah and him the night before. People never just stay for his sake, Rhodey being the glorious exception. Even Pepper and Happy had been on his payroll before becoming his friends.

“What?” Tony asks, raising his hands in front of him as if he has to bodily keep Bruce from tearing his shirt off. “No.”

Identical glares meet him from both Rhodey and Bruce. He does not want to show them the new mess of bruises on his chest, even though Rhodey must have noticed them the night before and Bruce has seen him in a worse condition already. This time, it feels more like a personal failure than a violation done to him.

If he keeps the bruises on his skin tucked away and breathes shallowly enough to avoid his ribs hurting, he can almost feel like everything that happened is long behind him. There is no hiding from the scars inside his mind, of course, so perhaps his reluctance is moot anyway.

“I’ll make it quick, but I am going to have a look at you,” Bruce counters, unimpressed by Tony’s refusal. “I can’t believe you’re this stubborn. You were kidnapped.”

Tony knew what he was getting into. Theoretically. Bruce can do nothing for his broken ribs. The bones will heal and so will Tony’s heart. It just needs time.

“And I’m –”

“Lose the shirt, Tones,” Rhodey cuts in, not stern enough to mask the worry on his face. They are all just trying to look out for each other.

“You’re supposed to be on my side,” Tony mutters and lowers his hands, clenching his fingers around the hem of his shirt without lifting it.

“I am,” Rhodey answers solemnly, not moving even an inch. “And I like this one.”

With great reluctance, Tony takes off his shirt. He does not meet his friends’ eyes as he leans back against the table, preferring to look down at himself. Several big patches of skin are discoloured. Vibrant blues and violet, misshapen or vaguely reminiscent of fists. The pain increases immediately, just from looking at the bruises as if all his brain needed was a confirmation that they are still there.

Next to him, Rhodey stares intently for several long seconds before turning away. He is clenching his hands, muttering curses under his breath. Perhaps he regrets not having been there the night before as Tony is glad that he was not. It would have been impossibly harder to keep himself together with his best friend there.

Bruce’s face does not show what he is thinking, although his jaw twitches with distinct displeasure. He reaches out and palpates each of the bruises. The touch stings but Tony remains where he is, knowing Bruce does this as carefully as possible.

“Despite knowing I’ll be ignored, I’ll tell you now that you should take it easy for the next weeks,” Bruce says as he turns to get the tape out of his bag.

“I’ll make sure he does,” Rhodey says, still sounding like he wants to go out and deal some damage of his own to the people who did this to Tony.

Wisely, Tony keeps his mouth shut. He has no time to rest. Now more than ever, he needs to be present in his company, needs to build and pave the way for the future. If pressed, he can tell them that he will have DUM-E do all the heavy lifting for him in the workshop, but Rhodey knows better than to expect him to stay in bed.

Thankfully, there are no open wounds to clean or stitch up, so Bruce is done very quickly, applying the tape as if he rarely does anything else. It has Tony wondering how often he needs to patch up the Avengers this way. Tony did not register much of the fighting in the warehouse but the entire thing seemed rather headless, swarming in without much of a plan other than attack. That might be Tony’s preferred mode of action, but as professionals, they should surely do things differently.

When Bruce is packing his things back up, he looks up at Tony, lips dipping down for a moment as if he already regrets what is going to say. “I guess you’re not seeking help for your mental health either?”

Tony’s first instinct is to ask What for? He knows. Of course, he knows. He has been kidnapped twice in mere weeks, and has almost been killed three times. His godfather betrayed him. His parents were murdered. He can see how that could warrant seeking help. He is fine, though. Exhausted and still somewhat in shock but fine. 

“Don’t tell me you’re offering to do that too,” Tony asks lightly without outright rejecting the idea. He would never hear the end of that. Already, he is afraid that Rhodey will pick it up later.

“Hardly.” Bruce snorts, although he does not sound very amused. His expression is pinched but clears again quickly. “I would just recommend it.”

Bed rest and therapy. Other people might have the luxury of taking care of themselves first, but Tony has found that a few hours – or days – in the workshop do the same job. The art of creation is the most potent medicine he knows.

“It’s over now,” he says dismissively.

Bruce’s eyes linger on Tony’s torso, running over the bruises and the accurate lines of tape. Suddenly self-conscious, Tony reaches for his shirt and pulls it back on.

“Is it?” Bruce asks, no trace of pity in his voice. “Did you sleep tonight?”

“Yes.” Well, he passed out when the exhaustion finally pulled him under. Nobody has to know he woke up mere hours later because he dreamt of Obadiah looming over him. Rhodey might have noticed but did not comment on it.

Bruce does not believe him. To be fair, the bags under Tony’s eyes do not exactly back his answer. With a sigh, Bruce turns towards Rhodey. “Is that something you can talk sense into him about?”

“I will certainly try,” Rhodey promises without missing a beat. It sounds vaguely like a threat.

Straightening, Tony glares at them. “Could you please not conspire against me?”

To himself, he can admit that he is glad for it. Considering the way Rhodey had raged against the Avengers, it is a small miracle that he is now standing in the same room with Bruce and has an entirely amicable conversation with him. Tony has no illusions that the rest of the team would get the same treatment, but this is important to him. 

Rhodey smiles at him, something predatory in the line of his lips. “That depends on how well you take care of yourself.”

Which means Rhodey will talk JARVIS into throwing Tony out of the workshop at a sensible time, and they will force him to eat three meals a day and limit his coffee intake – all for his own good, of course.

Already feeling the future lack of coffee, Tony pushes himself away from the table to get himself another cup. They are welcome to stop him – and Bruce does, although not with medical advice.

“Thank you, Tony,” he says suddenly, his voice firm. That stops Tony right in his tracks. He has done nothing that warrants gratitude from Bruce. On the contrary, considering he got Thor shot. “I’m not saying it was smart what you did or that you should ever do it again, but thank you for getting Thor out of there.”

Oh. Bruce is thanking him for giving himself up. Which Rhodey and Pepper yelled at him for. And Thor. And Steve too. Compared to that, Bruce’s words should not weigh more, but Tony’s chest fills with unexpected warmth.

Still, Tony is aware of Rhodey in his back, and of how most people think he should not be so lax with his own safety.

“It’s not as if he went to the hospital as he was supposed to,” Tony says, attempting to wave the entire matter off.

“I already yelled at him for that,” Bruce says, his eyes narrowed. That conversation apparently went very well.

“So it’s my turn now?” Tony quips and starts walking to the coffee machine again. He just knows that Rhodey and Bruce are sharing a glance behind his back, but he does not mind. Things worked out well. 

Bruce sighs. The sound is practised, long-suffering. “If I thought for a second that you wouldn’t happily sacrifice yourself the next time the opportunity arises, I might try.

It takes effort not to laugh at that. Howard tried for years to cure Tony of his undesirable character traits and had never any success. His friends will not either, especially not if it is about something that ultimately benefits them.

Once the coffee machine is running, Tony opens the cupboard and turns around, gesturing vaguely in question whether he should get out cups for them too. Rhodey nods with the quiet resignation of someone knowing they will need all the energy they can get to survive Tony’s madness. In turn, Bruce hesitates but declines.

“What are you even doing here, Bruce?” Tony blurts, then immediately scolds himself for it. Bruce looks like he wants to leave but, at the same time, like he is not sure where to go. “I just mean, I thought you wouldn’t leave Thor’s side.”

Tony does not want Bruce to think he is not welcome here. To hide the blood shooting into his cheeks, Tony hides his face in the cupboard as he gets out two cups and arranges them neatly next to the coffee machine.

“He sent me back to the base when Coulson wanted to talk to you two,” Bruce replies, nothing offended in his tone. Quietly, he adds, “He worries.”

Coulson could still be a danger to all of them, especially the Avengers. This story about having worked with Natasha and Barton before sounds too convenient, leaving them with the sudden possibility for a happy ending that none of them could imagine before. There has to be a catch.

“And you didn’t go?” Tony asks instead of opening that can of worms.

He glances over his shoulder and blinks when he finds Bruce’s normally amiable expression twisted into something annoyed. “Oh, I did go,” he bites out, his displeasure tangible in the air. “But my team continues to be full of idiots who take offence to anyone having a private life, so we yelled a bit at each other before I came back here.”

Tony hides a sigh of relief at not being the reason for Bruce’s anger. It also makes him wonder how the Avengers have managed to stay together for years if they are so prone to bickering amongst each other.

“I’m sorry,” Tony says and turns to pour the coffee to escape Bruce’s reaction.

“What for?” Bruce asks, already sounding gentler again. “It’s not your fault.”

In a way, though, it is. He has had no hand in Thor becoming a bodyguard or in Stane deciding to get rid of him in the first place, but Tony is still the axis this entire mess revolves around.

“Without me, they wouldn’t have found out about Thor,” Tony offers. He does not know Bruce’s reasons for keeping his soulmate secret, but it is out now.

He uses the coffee as an excuse to keep his eyes down as he carries the two cups over to the table. Rhodey and Bruce are still standing, making the entire scene look as if they are all ready to run at a moment’s notice.

“I’m not angry about them finding out but about how they handled it,” Bruce says firmly. He does not elaborate, but Tony has an inkling how that conversation went.

“Do you want water, at least?” Tony asks Bruce, unwilling to get deeper into the topic of the Avengers dealing with emotional matters. He could not offer an objective opinion anyway.

“I shouldn’t even be here,” Bruce says but trails off, perhaps wondering where else he could go while arguing with his friends.

To Tony, the solution to that is obvious. He does not blurt it out like he almost wants to do, but sits down and pointedly gestures at them to follow suit. There is no reason they cannot have this conversation in a civilized manner.

Rhodey is the first to sit, while Bruce appears conflicted. He must worry about Thor. Finally, he caves and sinks into a chair.

“You’re welcome to stay here, you know?” Tony says. He should perhaps not blurt that out like that, but he is not sure he will get another chance.

This interlude with the Avengers is over. Luckily, of course, because that means he is not in any particular danger anymore to get beaten up again by Barton or Barnes. It means his name is cleared and nobody is attempting to kill him anymore. It means he can distance himself from their little mob and get on with his life.

Regret has no room here. Tony likes Bruce, and he feels safe with Thor. Wanting them to stay close does not mean he is betraying himself or forget his treatment at the hands of the Avengers. He will not allow Steve close without reservations.

Bruce smiles at him, little more than a slight twitch of his lips. “Thor said as much. Thank you, Tony.”

That sounds like a rejection. Not as if Bruce does not want to stay but like he thinks Tony is simply offering him a hiding place for a few days. Tony wants him to stay for good, though. Thor too.

He has learned anew how important it is to surround himself with people he can trust, who are good at heart. If Bruce accepts to stay, Tony could offer him a better life. They could work together. With both their minds applied to a project, they could change the future.

“I mean long-term,” Tony corrects quickly, wondering whether he is out of place. They do not know each other that well, after all. “I don’t presume to tell you what to do with your life, but you’re brilliant and a friend. I could have a lab ready for you in no time. You could – stop running.”

Tony bites his lips and looks down at his coffee. He feels Bruce eyes on him. Worse than that is Rhodey’s staring. All Rhodey knows is that Bruce is part of the Avengers. Whether he patched Tony up or not, he is still the enemy. Bruce might very well think the same about Tony.

“I –” Bruce trails off. He does not look offended but almost embarrassed. “I appreciate the offer, but it’s not as easy as that.”

That is not a no, Tony realizes with relief. Bruce is not refusing outright and his reluctance might not have anything to do with Tony at all. No matter that they have spent little time together, Tony knows that Bruce has no qualms to speak his mind. He would not hesitate to tell Tony no if he really does not want to stay here. Which leaves one more, glaring option.

“Because of Ross,” Tony states calmly, fighting to not sound too excited.

He throws a guilty glance at Rhodey who perks up at that, connecting Tony’s manner to the topic at hand.

“General Ross?” Rhodey asks, always able to read Tony – and Tony would not care about Rhodey’s presence if they were talking about a Ross he does not know. Involving Rhodey could make things much easier but also more complicated.

“Nasty business,” Tony replies with forced cheer. There is no going back now anyway. “I hope you don’t like him because I have half a mind of making sure he’ll never set foot on a military base ever again.”

Rhodey has questions, but Bruce looks positively green around the nose, so Tony twitches his head just so that Rhodey notices. They can talk about this in more detail later – Tony would not go against a general of the US military without Rhodey anyway.

“Nobody likes Ross,” Rhodey says, drawing out the words in a way that tells Tony they will have a long conversation about this and why Tony is talking about taking on another powerful person after just escaping the machinations of Stane.

“Great,” Tony says with a careless grin that has to be grating on his two much more sensible friends. “Do you have some dirt on him?”

Rhodey looks at him, rather unimpressed. “That depends –” he starts but cuts himself off when Bruce clears his throat uncomfortably, looking at them like he regrets ever having sat down.

“You don’t have to do this,” Bruce says, his expression closed off. A note of hope is clearly audible in his tone, however, which is certainly involuntary, considering the way Bruce ducks his head the moment the words are over his lips.

Tony looks at Bruce for a long minute, taking in the tension in his shoulders and the way he is hiding his hands under the table where they are surely clenched. He wants Bruce to know that he sees him, that he knows this will not be easy. Stopping to run never is, especially not when it is all one has done for years.

“I know,” Tony says, aiming to sound confident without being dismissive about it. “But you also helped me when you didn’t have to. And I like you.” He shrugs, trying to take the weight out of the words. “It’s just an idea, but I’d like you to think about it.”

Some of the tension drains out of Bruce’s posture, and while he does not appear surprised, he is not entirely convinced this is a good idea. Which is good, Tony supposes, because he is not either. Liking Bruce is one thing, but going to war against Ross for him is another. They have been through an ordeal together, though, and that is a first good step to trusting each other.

“I’ll need to see where Thor is going,” Bruce says after a moment of silence. As far as answers go, this is neither acceptance nor refusal. Of course, he will have to talk this through with his soulmate.

“I will talk to him too,” Tony says before he knows what he is doing. He does not want to put pressure on Bruce. If they do not accept his offer, that is just proof that he might have been wrong to make it in the first place, so he should not dig himself any deeper than he already is.

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Rhodey moving as if he has to say something to that, but Tony does not look at him, intent on catching Bruce’s reaction. And Bruce leans back in his seat. Tony is smart enough to not read that as a sign of sudden acquiescence, but it is a start.

“Why?” Bruce asks, carefully neutral.

The why, for once, is comically simple. “Because I’ve just been shown that the number of people I can trust is even smaller than I thought,” Tony says, his mouth turned up in an estimate of a wry smile. “And platypus here tells me that I have a habit of pushing people away the moment I risk being vulnerable with them. I think it’s time to change that.”

He is not really ready to change that, of course, but he is willing to make an exception. Bruce has proven himself trustworthy several times, and Thor is steadfast in ways that stabilise Tony.

Bruce smiles, looking wistful for a moment. “You’re a good person, Tony, you know that?” he says, nothing but honesty in his voice. And Tony barely knows what to do with that.

Being a good person never really featured in the plans other people and he himself had for him. He is supposed to be brilliant and innovative, to generate jobs and a lot of money. He has to be good at things. Building, leading the company, socialising. He has no idea how to be good just for the sake of it.

“Nope,” he replies with fake cheer. “But I’m working on it.”

Bruce opens his mouth as if to argue, and Tony just knows that Rhodey will have to say something about it. They both stay silent, though, until Bruce nods.

“All right,” he says, not showing either way whether he thinks about accepting Tony’s offer. That is all right, they have time as long as Bruce and the Avengers do not disappear without a word. “I’ll go and try to wrangle Thor back into bed. I suggest you get some more rest too. If you’re feeling dizzy or are in pain, call me.”

JARVIS is here to keep an eye on Tony, but he appreciates the offer. Even if he knows he is not going to call for Bruce when he is feeling unwell. Thor needs Bruce more and he has done enough to them.

“You should get some sleep too,” Tony says instead of making any promises. The past weeks have been long for all of them.

“Look at that,” Rhodey drawls to the side. “We’re all being adults and taking care of each other. Miracles do happen.”

He looks at them appraisingly and makes his words sound a bit like a threat. In a way it is. After wrangling the mess Tony was at MIT, he knows exactly how to push Tony into compliance to take care of himself. He has never stopped guiding Tony’s hand when necessary.

“Ignore him,” Tony says, shooting a glare of his own in Rhodey’s direction. “He thinks he’s funny.”

Once again, Tony is beyond glad that Rhodey is here, that he has someone at his side whose motives he never has to doubt anymore.

Bruce looks at them, his expression warm. “Well, I see you’re in good hands,” he says and, without further ado, gets to his feet.

It does not feel like a goodbye, but Tony still fears he will never see Bruce again if he lets him just go now. Still, it is not his place to cling to either Bruce or Thor. Heaping his expectations on others does not end well, as Obadiah has shown.

“Thank you, Bruce,” Tony says, trying to convey everything he feels in these few words.

And Bruce smiles, softening further. “Any time.”

The answer is the same as Steve’s has been and it appears just as honest. Tony has never doubted Bruce, of course, but it makes him feel better about Steve. He hopes there will not be a next time, but it is good to know that he has people around who will have his back.

They watch Bruce go, his back straight and his steps light. He has barely disappeared out the door when Rhodey says, “Just because I like him doesn’t mean the rest of that mob is off the hook.”  

Unable to help himself, Tony laughs. It is not particularly funny, and he does not feel either that the situation with the Avengers is resolved, but life goes on. And Tony does not have to walk that road alone.