Tony paused before exiting the elevator on the Avengers main floor in the Tower.
"Are you okay, Boss? It's not too late for me to pull an excuse from your file." implored FRIDAY, her tone wired to worry about her creator.
Rhodey had already left, knowing that Tony would not want him to see his hesitation. Tony loved the man more for it.
The reason for Tony's hesitation lay beyond those walls. No matter the heaping mounds of cash Tony threw at the therapeutic solutions, no matter the restitution and recognition of mistakes between the two, Tony Stark was completely and utterly terrified of James Buchannan Barnes.
Every moment spent in his presence elicited fear and panic within the billionaire (former) playboy philanthropist. The piercing screams from his terrified mother overwhelmed his senses, often rendering Tony incapable of thought, and the bewildered look of his father as he looked at the man he thought was his friend murder his wife and himself often plagued his nightmares. Tony's father, although a hard man, never showed a scared look in his presence. Tony had often been critiqued for showing too much emotion in the presence of others, and the amount of fear and protection his father had shown over his mother in his last final moments scared Tony shitless.
Since Team Captain America rejoined the new Avengers Tony had strung together, and they had all reunited into one happy family, Tony had avoided Bucky like the plague. Even though Tony consciously knew that Bucky had nothing to do with willingly murdering his parents, that didn't mean that Tony would accept him with open arms. Conversation between the two was always mediated by another Avenger present in the room, and never strayed from the basic information necessary for a mission. During missions, the team would put as much distance between the two as humanly possible without endangering the lives of innocent civilians.
The most awful aspect of the situation, in Tony's mind, was how Bucky tried to make up for it.
In the middle of the night, when Tony would wake up screaming alongside his mother in a montage of Tony's Worst Moments™, he would wind up in the communal kitchen that was shared between the Avengers (only because he and Pepper seem to inhale the coffee stashed in their private kitchen such that nothing remained at the end of each day). Stocked full with anything and everything the Avengers could ever wish for, including a large cache of Tony's favorite take-out menus, Tony often stayed the rest of the morning within the kitchen, sobering up from his nightmares with a hot cup of black coffee. And always, every single time Tony had a nightmare, a plate of Bucky Barnes' sinfully good chocolate chip cookies would be placed carefully in the middle of the kitchen table, a note with big block letters labeled TONY STARK on top of the plastic wrap.
Taking a deep breath, Tony applied his most convincing smile (the same one he used every time he had an interview with Tom Brokaw or Diane Sawyer following his rehab stints) and strut into the room like the multiple runway models he used to date.
The room was overflowing with superheroes and soulmates. The man of the hour, Steve Rogers was dressed in his workout clothes, sweat covering his body and causing his hair to stick to his forehead. His brilliant blue eyes were highlighted with excitement, but his stance was solid, arms crossed and brow furrowed. In his shadow, both Bucky Barnes and Sam Wilson stood stoically, equally as sweaty as Steve, although Sam was decidedly more exhausted. An aftereffect of working out with two genetically modified superheroes, Tony supposed.
The trio were muttering amongst themselves, and nearby the deadliest soulmates in the entire world were arguing over household chores. Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton were the exact opposites in every sense of the word. Barton had been sent to kill Natasha, but after the discovery of her true name, he brought her home and began to work on her like a home project. Eventually, Natasha gave in to his machinations and accepted that Clint loved her and would never let her go or abuse her like the Red Room. However, as a consequence, the pair were sickeningly affectionate with one another. The only fighting that occurs between the two happens as a result of household chores.
Tony heard their conversation as he walked into the room.
"Damn it, Nat. I was taking care of Nathaniel last night! You know, our son? Sorry if I left a mess in the changing room, but what am I supposed to do about it? Babies naturally cause messes!" said an exasperated Clint, his hair ruffled and eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep.
Natasha was as impeccably dressed as always, her allure emanating a sense of deadly sexiness that had previously lured Tony when she was still Natalie Rushman. In a clipped tone, she iterated "I've changed the traitor many times, Clint, and never once have I left as big a mess as you did last night."
Clint's eyes rolled to the ceiling, "Nat, our son is not a traitor—"
"He is! He is a traitor! The entire goddamn pregnancy I dealt with terrible hormones and the weirdest cravings in the world because I wanted a girl! The best doctor in the world even specified that it was a girl. Imagine how surprised I was on the birthing bed when a boy popped out!" interjected Nat.
"-in any case, I'm sorry for leaving the mess. After the meeting, I'll go to our floor and clean it up myself. Deal?"
Natasha pouted, her perfect lip jutting out in an imitation of childishness, as though she wasn't able to hurt a fly, never mind every single person in that room with ease. Finally, she nodded, and the two lovebirds were reunited in a fantastic embrace. To Tony, that display of emotion was sickening.
Both groups were at the head of the living room, standing near the humongous television and blue-ray set up that the team congregated around for movie nights. Scattered throughout the room were leather couches and loveseats, each with a slight wear and tear after the amount of partying the group performed. On the other side of the room was the bar where Tony entertained Loki during the Battle of New York, stocked to the brim with the most exquisite alcohol a man could procure.
Sitting alone on a large leather sofa, Bruce Banner was diligently reading Ancient Indian Relaxation Techniques, his brow furrowed and his glasses falling precariously down his nose. His outfit consisted of dress pants and a purple button-down shirt, the arms rolled up to his elbows. Tony veered towards the good doctor, intent on pushing his buttons and generally being as annoying as possible.
Thor stood by the window, his eyes on the clouds blanketing the city. In his hand, three Poptarts stood at attention, steadily being massacred by Thor's grubby hands. His outfit was casual, a pair of jeans and a black t-shirt that emphasized his muscular body.
Rhodey sat at the bar, already nursing a drink. His crutches leaned against the countertop, and his fists clutched a glass filled with amber liquid.
Tony was just about to quip to Bruce when Steve called the meeting to order.
Naturally, Steve had to begin the conversation with a bombshell.
"I called the team together, not because of a new mission, but Bucky and I have news to share."
Confused looks were passed between the remaining team members bar Bucky. Finally, Clint spoke up, "What's up, man? You seem off today, so it must be something big."
The gears turning in his head, Tony interjected, "I got it! You're gonna start a family! Well, good for you, I always knew you two would make great parents. I'll be the drunk uncle that pays for he or she to go to college!"
Satisfied Tony smoked out the truth with his genius intellectual capabilities, it was a shock when Bucky spoke, "No, Tony. We're not going to start a family anytime soon. It's something that could affect the team."
Silence reigned across the room. The tension was so thick, Tony swore you could cut a knife through it. In the background, Thor was munching loudly on Poptarts, his Asgardian manners clearly not picking up on the importance of the situation. That, or he was just really hungry, Tony reckoned.
Steve took a deep breath, looked back at Bucky briefly, before shifting his gaze to the team. "Recently, Bucky and I returned from a mission in Iraq to drive out ISIS fragments. Upon our return to the Tower, we both noticed an addition to our bodies. We have another soul mark."
Shocked faces littered the room. Clint's jaw dropped, Bruce's eyes widened to impossible levels, and Rhodey dropped his glass cleanly onto the countertop. For the first time since Siberia, Tony could not think of a funny retort. He knew without a doubt that they were telling the truth. If it were about Bucky, Steve would lie in a heartbeat. With any other subject, Steve could no sooner lie then he could revert back to his scrawny younger self.
Of course, it was Thor who broke the tension. "Congratulations, my dear Captain! This new soul mate must indeed be something incredible to have gained two of the greatest warriors Midgard has to offer as mates!" bellowed the Asgardian Prince, coming forward to clasp the shoulders of Steve and Bucky. Both men buckled forward under the initial hit.
Tony was the one to bring up the obvious, "So, who are they?"
Steve shared another look with Bucky before taking off his sweaty workout shirt and turning around. There, in a brilliant emerald ink, the name Harriet Lily Potter rested on Steve's other shoulder, parallel to the James Buchannan Barnes etching.
Immediately, Tony got to work. Once given a name, he would be able to find the girl within a few hours at most. "FRIDAY, do your thing. If you need help breaking into the mainframe of government servers, just ask."
FRIDAY readily answered, "Already on it, boss. Shall I put the results up on a hologram?"
Agreeing, Tony spread his hands open and a multitude of colors emerged from his palms, coalescing until materializing in Internet pages hanging in the middle of the room. Flinging his hand back, Tony catapulted the results onto an open wall so that the entire group could view the search.
Steve and Bucky stood in front of the wall, their eyes analyzing each piece of information brought up on the board.
"Harriet's not a common name anymore. It dropped in popularity dramatically at the start of the 20th century. That lowers the possibilities considerably, Capsicle," said Tony.
Natasha spoke for the first time, "Don't forget to put in the age restriction."
Bucky's brow furrowed, and looking over his shoulder he spoke, "Age restriction?"
"If you just got the marks now, it must mean your new soul mate had her fourteenth birthday the day you returned from your mission. Check for girls born on July 31st fourteen years ago, Tony," informed Natasha.
It seems that information did not occur to Captain America and the Winter Soldier. Tony, with all his tact, willfully ignored that fact, knowing if he had brought it up it might have angered the super-powered duo as an act of annoyance. Tony was glad it wasn't him who brought up the fact that their new soul mate was still just a child.
Clint swore when Natasha stated the obvious fact, muttering under his breath, "Damn, that's effed up. Your new soul mate's barely fourteen? That's almost as old as Lila. Effing shiz this sucks."
"Careful, Clint. Your daddy is showing. Soon you'll be saying H-E-double hockey stick." quipped Tony.
"He already does" Natasha inputted.
Bruce's voice finally returned when he added, "So what have we found, FRIDAY?"
"I have run the name Harriet Lily Potter through the United States government census. So far, only a thousand names have matched. However, no birthdays have aligned with the date of July 31st in the year 2000. Shall I expand the search to available census's in English speaking countries?" asked FRIDAY.
"Yes, please FRIDAY," said Tony.
The browser on the wall suddenly shifted, changing the screen to various government databases and dozens of birth certificates were projected onto the wall before rapidly disintegrating and being replaced. After a few minutes, with each member of the Avengers fixated on the wall, FRIDAY projected one final birth certificate.
"I believe I've found her, boss. A Harriet Lily Potter was born on the 31st of July in the year 2000 in London, England to a James Potter and Lily Potter." Informed Friday, projecting an image of the girl onto the wall and filling the space.
Steve was anxious the entire time of his workout. Revealing the truth to his teammates was fundamental in unifying the team the first time around, and it was what broke the team in Germany. He knew that he could not hide his and Bucky's new soul mark. Not only would it be visible during team practices, but the potential of a new soul mate that might be a target for HYDRA would certainly distract both Steve and Bucky to such an extent that it might endanger the lives of any one of his teammates.
Not to mention, Steve did not want to block his team out of his life. After the fighting in Germany and Siberia, he knew that the tensions between the group, although repaired, were not fully healed. Withholding a new soul mate might be enough to disintegrate those bonds, and Steve knew without a doubt in his body that he would not be able to do that to his team.
Staring at a picture of his new soul mate, Steve was glad he told the team about her. It helped finding her a million times easier than researching with Bucky alone would have been.
The first picture projected onto the wall was a photo of her mother holding the newborn Harriet in her arms, her husband smiling with his arms wrapped around them both. Taken in the hospital bed after giving birth, the mother was clearly utterly exhausted, her hair askew and her eyes bloodshot, tear tracks visible even in the grainy picture, but her brilliant smile showed the happiness of a young mother meeting her child for the first time, already loving them with all of her heart. The father, James, had the same smile plastered on his face, running from ear to ear, and his eyes were fixated on his new daughter with love and devotion.
Steve poured over the picture, paying attention to every single little detail of the birth of their new soul mate, knowing that Bucky was doing the same. It seemed that Harriet's parents truly loved each other, with Harriet born as a monument to that love. Steve's heart ached as a new hope blossomed in his chest. He wished that Harriet and he could have that same unconditional, irrevocable love that he saw in her parent's eyes.
A new picture filled the screen. It was a young Harriet, presumably from what accounts as elementary school in England. FRIDAY's voice filled the room as she spoke, "According to their death certificates, Lily and James Potter died a year after giving birth to Harriet in a house explosion on Halloween night 2001. Police reports indicate neighbors witnessed a man dressed in a dark cloak approach the house and heard screams within it before an explosion rocked the neighborhood. When officials reached the home, Harriet had been taken to her only living relatives; her mother's sister, Petunia, and her husband and son Vernon and Dudley."
Steve was heartbroken that his soul mate suffered such a devastating loss at the beginning of her life; he also felt guilty. It seemed like some kind of cosmic joke that every wonderful aspect of his life, like Bucky, the Avengers, even his brief flings with Peggy and Sharon were marred with tragedy. His soul mate must have been affected somehow by his bad decisions. It was karma for foiling with the secret of mankind, for developing superpowers willingly in order to enhance his abilities. An angry God out there was exacting his revenge on the people Steve loved the most, even those who hadn't entered his life yet.
He hoped she at least found a better life with her new family.
Sadly, he was soon disappointed.
However, as he was contemplating the information FRIDAY had spoken about, Natasha was bringing up a valid question.
"Did they catch the person who killed her parents, FRIDAY?" a smooth, clear-headed Natasha questioned.
"The police records indicate a negative on that front, Agent Romanoff. There are currently no leads, and the case is, as you say it, cold."
That was a surprise to Steve. Two young, beautiful parents brutally murdered in a relatively quiet village in England should have been a huge case for their police station. Neighbors would have pressed them to find and catch the killer, rightfully fearing for their own lives as well. From what Steve could see in the police report on the wall, there were no obvious problems with James and Lily's life, no clear motivations for their killing. Random attacks are always more frightening to the general public than planned, motivated killings. Something wasn't right here; Steve could feel it deep within his bones.
"I have more recent pictures for Ms. Potter. However, they stop at they appear to stop at the age of ten." Explained FRIDAY as she newer pictures of Steve's and Bucky's new soul mate flitted up on the screen, inundating the wall.
It seemed to Steve that every aspect of Harriet Potter drew him in. No matter the graduating school photos, brilliant green eyes captured Steve's heart and attention. Dark, raven curls seemed to grow increasingly longer as the years went by, choppy and twisted as though a permanent air current billowed her hair around her head. Pale skin, unblemished and luminescent in the picture, barely shown through ratty, large t-shirts that seemed to cover her entire frame. As the pictures reached a higher age, the child Harriet grew skinnier, her limbs as thin as bird's bone. A ticking sensation began to knock at the back of Steve's head. Something about this was not right. Something about it was familiar.
With a shock, Steve realized why this scrawny, beautiful girl-child was familiar. She was him, seventy years ago when most of his time was spent in back-alley fights with guys too big for his muscles and too small for his heart. Even in the grainy, near decade-old school pictures, the girl had that same determined glint within her emerald gaze, that same hunched figure with clenched fists in a medium between defense and attack, the same scrawny, pale frame.
Steve's musings were cut short by Bruce. "Did her family pull her out for homeschooling, FRIDAY?"
"According to the listed families for homeschooling children, the Dursleys did not register for such a method. Harriet Potter, for all intents and purposes, disappeared from the school record right before her eleventh birthday."
Why did she vanish from the public school record? If British schools were anything like their American counterparts then there must be strict regulations in regards to the whereabouts of all minors. The British government wouldn't just forget to check up on a little girl barely out of grade school. Again, Steve's gut felt that something was not right.
"So we have a girl barely in her teens with no public records after her eleventh birthday. That doesn't sound fishy at all, guys." deadpanned Sam, rolling his eyes at the sheer undeniability that of course Steve's and Bucky's new soul mate would not have a normal life.
"Where did her relatives live, FRIDAY?" asked Tony.
"Number Four Privet Drive in the town of Surrey, England. Would you like to set the Quinjet up for takeoff, boss?" answered the AI, already allocating reservations and appointments on Tony's schedule to make room for this newfound mission.
Steve immediately deferred, "Tony, you don't have to do that. Bucky and I can go by ourselves to find her—"
"Listen, Cap, I don't want to hear any more of that 'I couldn't possibly make you do that' crap. I'd have hoped by now you would have realized that no one makes me do anything I don't want to do. Finding your new soul mate is something that I want to do. I'm assuming everyone else on the team does as well because this is the juiciest piece of news between the two of you since the two of you discovered the wonders of Snapchat. Now, get your star-spangled head out of your ass and take the goddamn help." said Tony, his voice solid and gaze headstrong. It was pointless to argue with him, Steve knew when he was this adamant. Vaguely, Steve remembered the same tone used when discussing the Accords. That didn't bode well for this mission.
Tony turned around without waiting for an answer. "So who's coming with to find this new soul mate for these old coots?"
Every single hand rose into the air, Clint waving his arms emphatically up and down in his excitement. Natasha's gaze was curious and a little wary. Steve knew that Harriet would have to prove herself to Natasha to gain her trust. The others were varying expressions, with Thor as excited as Clint and Bruce wanting to study the scientific implications of a soul mark arriving seventy years after the original bond had been established.
Tony clapped his hand excitedly, "Excellent! FRIDAY ready the Quinjet and notify the British government. I don't want another international incident on our hands just because we happened to show up in a country uninvited."
"To be fair, boss, you did call the Prime Minister of Italy a stronzo—" said FRIDAY
"How was I supposed to know what it meant? Mama used to use it around the house when talking about dear old Dad, so I naturally assumed it was a term of endearment." cried Tony.
Steve could hear Tony complaining as he walked to the elevator. The rest of the team followed afterward, although a second group had to be assembled simply due to the massive size of Thor's physique clogging up all the space in the tiny room.
It was as Steve, Clint, Natasha, and Bruce were about to enter the elevator that he stopped. Turning around, Steve noticed that Bucky was still fixated on the pictures of Harriet projected on the wall. It appeared to Steve that Bucky hadn't been paying attention to the conversation after it drifted away from their soulmate.
Steve saw that Bucky drew in the sight of their girl-child soul mate greedily, identifying each feature of her face down to the number of freckles dotting her nose to the delicate eyelashes curling upwards and skimming across the apples of her cheeks. Steve lifted his hand, indicating for the others to head up to the Quinjet. Natasha got the message first, her brow shifted forward in concern before pressing the button to close the elevator.
Steve made called out Bucky's name three times before attempting to break him from his trance. Anybody else but Bucky reaching forward to grip his shoulder would have made Bucky break their harm and lift them into the air. Steve always knew there was a chance Bucky wouldn't recognize him, but he took that chance gladly if it meant he could touch his best friend and show genuine human affection to the man who had been starved from it for decades.
Steve gripped Bucky's shoulder tightly, his t-shirt crumpling under the force of Steve's grip. "Bucky, its time to go."
Bucky didn't acknowledge Steve for a moment, his grey eyes fixating on Harriet for one final, burning gaze, before shifting to Steve's baby blues. In them, a fierce determination echoed, and the first real intense emotion Steve had seen since Bucky's return startled him for a moment that he almost missed Bucky's last statement before heading toward the elevator.
"Yeah, Stevie, let's go find our girl."