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Under His Skin

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Howard Stark was born with a man's name etched into his skin. It's a bold, sloppy cursive, more a scrawl than a proper signature, but it is undeniably a man's name on the inside of his right ankle.

His mother wraps him in a blanket and promises the midwife she'll be well repaid for her discretion.

His father never sees it. Reginald Stark is a businessman, not a family man, and he is more interested in the hunting dogs and the stock market than he is in either his wife or a messy child. It is easy for his wife to lie to him, to tell him that their oldest child was born without a match.

It is harder to hide it from the nannies, but his mother feigns motherly instinct quite adeptly. Howard is her first born after all - she cannot stand to leave him in the care of virtual strangers! She coddles him, keeps him constantly at her side.

"You musn't pretend," she tells him sternly. It is one of the first things he ever remembers her saying to him. For the first few years of his life, it is the thing she says the most often. "You don't have a soulmate. It's just the way it is. Don't pretend otherwise."

If anyone notices that her mothering instinct takes a sharp decline when his brothers are born and promptly surrendered to the nannies, no one says anything about it.

The name on his ankle is constantly covered. Howard does not go to the beach. He does not go wading in the creek. It probably wouldn't have been allowed anyway. His studies are paramount and he has a great deal of work to do if he is to follow in his father's footsteps.

Howard grows up hating the name on his skin, hating the future it threatens him with, hating what it says about him. He is not the soulmate to any man, and he'd sooner spend his life alone.

****

When he is twenty, he has the name removed.

It isn't easy, or inexpensive. Most surgeons would refuse to desecrate a soulbond, even one as degenerate as his is destined to be. But anything can be had, for a price, and Howard Stark is willing to pay. If he has to go halfway across the country to have it carved off his leg, then so be it.

Howard is not the first man to be displeased by the name he finds on his skin. He won't be the last. And while society plays at respecting the sanctity of the soulbond, some things are too degenerate, too disgusting to accept. Men born with men's names are one of those things. Being born with multiple names. Having a new name come to you while your first soulmate still lives. And of course there is the constant shame of finding out your soulmate is not amongst your peers.

No, Howard is not the first.

The surgeon who cuts the blasphemous name out of his skin is skilled and obviously practiced. He accepts his payment in advance and takes Howard to a surgical room behind a hidden wall in his basement. Howard throws back a snifter of brandy and does not watch while the surgeon carefully carves away a jagged strip of skin; far more than is needed.

“It will look like an accident this way,” the surgeon's assistant had explained.

When Howard returns home that summer he explains the bandages away as the result of an automobile accident. No one thinks anything of it, though his mother closes her eyes briefly and fans herself.

The money was well-spent and the surgeon never heard from again.

As far as Howard is concerned, it never happened. He was, after all, born without a soulmate.

****

The war is immensely profitable, and Howard does not resent the time he spends away from his company. The weapons he is designing will fund his bankroll for a generation to come – longer if his lawyers are smart about the contracts, which they had damned well better be. And this project he has been working on, Project Rebirth, the super soldier initiative, is fascinating. Erskine is, if not an actual genius, then frustratingly intelligent and Howard is determined to have the truth of his so-called serum before this is out. The potential for profit is astonishing. They could redefine modern warfare. They could end war entirely if they could produce a better breed of soldier. Captain Phillips has not yet agreed to confiscate Erskine's research, but if the human testing goes well that will change.

And then Howard finds him. Steve.

His soulmate is a soldier. A poor, uneducated soldier with no family or breeding to speak of.

And then there are the names. There are two, which is disgrace heaped upon disgrace. One is a jagged black print on his soulmate's left shoulder. One is delicate cursive script at the small of his back. Neither of them is Howard's. He stands there as they take his... this weak man, this unaccomplished man that Howard had honestly never wanted to meet to the chamber for the experiment to begin. He's struck dumb, suddenly. Later he will blame it on anticipation of the project beginning.

Peggy does not seem to have the same problem. Her name is written on Steve's back for everyone to see, but the man's name on Steve's shoulder doesn't cause her to so much as bat an eye. Erskine and Phillips have already made it clear that everything – everything – that is heard or seen during Project Rebirth is to be considered Top Secret, even the identity of the subject's soulmate. Well, now they fucking know why.

Then the project is successful, and the man who walks out of the chamber is... Steve. Everything Steve had the potential to be. Everything Steve wasn't just a few moments ago.

And suddenly years of careful planning begin to fall around his shoulders. This man is beautiful. He's intelligent. He's dedicated. Howard cannot help himself around the man. He knows he would eventually crack, that he would approach the man he was born to love and throw away everything he's fought his entire life to protect.

“My Jessie girl is waiting for me,” Dum Dum Dugan says one night when the Commandos have little more to do than drink and reminisce. Outside, winter has settled in with a vengeance and even the Germans seem to be hunkered down to wait it out. Steve has left them to their vices, spending the evening with Miss Carter, a fact that makes Howard unreasonably tense. “I don't know where, but she's out there.”

“Poor girl,” Bucky Barnes says mournfully. He's not as drunk as the others, but if the gleam in his eye is any indication, his inhibitions are well and truly gone. “Can you imagine going through life with 'Dum-Dum' emblazoned across your face?”

Dum-Dum's Jessie is printed in tiny, meticulous letters along the curve of his jaw. He scowls at Bucky while the men laugh. It occurs to Howard that he doesn't know what Dugan's proper name is, and he hopes for the poor girl's sake that it's better than Dum-Dum.

“Oh whatever,” Dugan scoffs. “I bet when your soulmate was born her poor mother wept for a month to see her daughter was forever bound to a man who'd call himself 'Bucky'.”

“Steve's mom never seemed to mind,” Barnes objected.

There's a brief flash of startled silence as the Commandos blink at their second-in-command. “Quite amusing, James,” Howard says finally, throwing back the last mouthful of scotch in his glass.

Barnes gives him an inscrutable look, oddly intense for a man halfway through a bottle of French moonshine. “Some things aren't a joke,” he says. There's an edge of defiance in his words that's not unfamiliar to Howard, though he usually hears it from Steve.

The silence passes with an amused snort as Gabe pours himself another glass. “Always said you two were in each other's pockets.”

And like that the moment is broken and the Commandos carry on with their drinking and their noise. “Amelia's mother didn't like the 'Izzy' much, though I suspect she thought it was short for Isabel,” Cohen says. “Mind, she wasn't wild about me when I finally turned up either so who can tell with some people.”

“Robbie's folks weren't too pleased,” Pinky says to his glass. He doesn't look at the rest of the Commandos as he speaks. “His brothers and sisters like me fine enough though, and that's enough for him.”

“I was kind of worried about Peggy,” Barnes admits. “You know, back then.”

“I reckon you got lucky with that one,” Dugan says. “She don't seem to mind it at all, does she?”

Howard takes another deep swallow of whatever rotgut Dugan pours into his glass, enjoying the way it burns his throat on the way down. No, Peggy did not seem to mind. She had not batted an eye at the name on Steve's shoulder, or at her soulmate violating direct orders and taking on the whole of Hydra to rescue his male lover. Soulmate. Spare, a cruel part of Howard sneers, and he drowns the whisper in drink.

It's a damned shame. Peggy Carter could have had quite a future ahead of her, but the shame of a shared soul like that... well. Howard hopes she hadn't planned to advance in the ranks. Maybe not such a shame though, considering her degenerate preferences. The three of them have shared a tent more than once since the 107th had been rescued and none of them have been overly discreet about their... closeness.

Howard despises them both for having what was meant to be his. He hates Steve for not having anything, not even a scar, on the inside of his right ankle.

Howard loathes himself more, on the rare occasions he lets himself think on it. On what might have been, if he had left his skin marked.

He drinks until he doesn't care because Howard Stark is not going to make a fool of himself over any soldier, no matter how strong. To hell with the man for not being his in return. It only shows that Howard was right all long. He never had a soulmate.

And then Steve is gone, crashed into the Antarctic. Something sharp and cold and dead lodges itself in Howard's throat and he has to drink until he can face the others without the vast, yawning grief he feels showing in his eyes. He has no idea what he could be mourning. You cannot mourn what you never had.

And if he spends a small fortune on a yearly rescue expedition, well.

The man was a hero after all. It's the least he is due.

It really has nothing to do with Howard at all.

****

Maria has the name 'Marco' written in bold block letters on the inside of her left arm.

He was, she explains quite calmly, a childhood friend who died of the influenza a year or so ago. Had he lived they would have married, but now she is one-half, alone, and does not feel like another name will come to her in her lifetime.

Maybe one will, maybe one won't. It's not Howard's problem if it does. "I won't abide adultery," he tells her firmly. "If another name comes to you, you shall just have to bear it."

Maria is seventeen, beautiful, well-educated and demure. She's just smart enough that Howard doesn't find her boring. And her father is one of his most powerful business partners.

They are married within the year.

****

It is on their honeymoon that she asks about the scar on his leg.

They are in St. Lucia. They've done their duty to each other and the future generations, and are enjoying breakfast on the balcony of their suite. The local girl who brought the food up is pouring mimosas, the wind is calm, and Maria is smiling at him.

“What happened to your ankle?” she asks him as she accepts the chilled glass the island girl hands her. She sets it down beside her plate and he knows she won't drink more than a sip or two. Maria is not overfond of alcohol.

He is so surprised at the question that he fumbles his glass and champagne and citrus spill over the white table cloth and his lap. The girl makes a distressed sound and tries to mop it up with a cloth napkin, succeeding only in dripping it over his plate. Howard slaps at her hands. “Get away. Go find someone less clumsy to bring me a fresh breakfast.” She scurries away and he tosses his plate to the side, scowling at the droplets of orange juice that dot the tablecloth and drip down to the floor. “There will be ants,” he says sourly. “When that idiot girl returns, instruct her to clean this before we are swarmed.”

“Of course,” Maria says quietly. She slips out of her chair and kneels beside him, dabbing at his trousers with her clean napkin. “At least she didn't ruin these. Go and change, dear. When she returns I'll make sure a fresh breakfast is sent up.”

By the time he emerges from the bedroom, the mess on the balcony is gone, fresh drinks have been poured and there is a hot breakfast waiting for him on an immaculate white tablecloth. Maria is standing by the table, waiting for him to join her.

She does not ask about the scar again.

****

Their first child is born more than twenty years after Howard came back from the war. It's a boy. Howard names him Anthony and forbids Maria from calling him 'Antonio' where the nurses might hear. How she expects the boy to amount to anything with a name like that is beyond him. She settles on Tony, and that's respectable enough that Howard doesn't have the energy to argue with her.

The boy is healthy, if a bit early. On the small side, which the doctor seems to think he'll grow out of over time. He has a thick shock of dark brown hair, the same color as Maria's, and if his lungs are any indication, he'll be a strapping lad in no time at all.

Then the doctor hands him his son and Howard sees the name on his skin.

It's the same name. The same messy, bold scrawl.

Steve is branded into his son's flesh just above his heart, the letters crisp and the lines of black solid and unbroken.

Howard passes the child off to Maria without a word.

He never holds his son again.

****

“What the hell is this?” Bucky asks. He drags the leather-bound album out of the box with a disgusted sound – it's old and the leather is cracked. Dust is thick on the cover and cobwebs dangle from the corners. “Jesus, Stark, hire a fucking maid.”

“I don't generally make the maid clean the attic,” Tony says dryly. “But of course, that is a grievous oversight on my part. I'll get right on that.”

They're in the attic of a brownstone that Howard had inherited from his mother and it feels like a crypt. Dust covers everything in a thick gray blanket and there are signs that the caretakers haven't been entirely successful at keeping the rodents under control. Tony's going to have to call in a team of exterminators if he ever decides to sell the place. No one's lived there since before Tony's parents were killed two decades ago, and Tony suspects no one had been up there in even longer. He wouldn't be there himself except that apparently Howard had a safe deposit box that was never closed after his death – fucking lawyers, weren't they supposed to take care of all that? - and instead of just paying to have the box drilled like any sane human being, Steve convinced Tony to rummage around in his dead father's shit, possibly getting them all infected with the goddamn plague from all the mouse shit covering everything.

This is Tony's life now. This and supervillains.

“It's a photo album,” Steve says. He reaches for the album, unconcerned with the veritable army of spiders it would have taken to make that many cobwebs, and carefully sets it down on the floor in front of him.

Tony and Bucky exchange commiserating looks. They'll never get out of this fucking attic if Steve starts thumbing through every last bit of Stark family history that they find. Tony stands, clapping dust off his hands as he does. “Tell you guys what. There's no point in all three of us being eaten alive by dust mites. You two go back downstairs and I'll dig around a little more. I'm sure I can find the damned keys eventually. It might even go faster without you two underfoot,” he adds pointedly, but Steve isn't listening. Bucky and Tony exchange another look, this one more resigned.

Something itches on the back of Tony's neck when Bucky's eyes catch his. One day, he thinks, there might be a name there. He thinks he'd be okay with that.

“Oh look,” Steve says. “Tony are these your grandparents?” He slides the album a little closer to Tony.

The picture he's pointing to is old and yellowed with age. The well-dressed man and woman in the photo look vaguely like his father's parents, though damned if he could be sure. “Maybe. Looks like they could be anyway.” The man is dark haired and unsmiling. The woman has her hands folded in front of her. They aren't touching and don't even appear to like each other all that much. Probably Starks. If one of them had a glass of scotch in their hands, he'd know for sure. “Seriously, you guys can go-”

“Hey, is that you?” Bucky leans over the album and studies a picture of young boy. He's about five or six, and he is sitting in the grass next to what might be a picnic basket. He's barefoot and tousled, and he's smiling at someone off to the right.

“No, you jackass. How old do you think I am?” Tony plants his hands on his hips. “Color photography had been invented by the time I was born, thank you.”

Steve tapped a finger against the photo. “So this must be Howard?”

“Yeah. I'd say so.” Tony hates to admit it, but he can see why Bucky made the mistake. If he had any doubts as a child, being adopted was never one of them. He's obviously his father's son. “His hair is a little darker than mine though, see? And he had brown eyes.”

“Is that your mom's name?” Steve carefully ran his fingers over part of the photo, wiping away decades worth of dust. “I can almost make it out, but it's about the right length.”

“What? No. My dad never had a name.”

“He has one here,” Bucky said. “But that doesn't look like an 'M' to me. See that's-”

“Steve,” Steve says abruptly. “It says Steve.”

“Of course it is,” Tony says into the sudden, echoing silence.”Of fucking course.”

“Tony-”

“Fuck this. They can dynamite the damned thing open for all I care.” Tony spins on one heel and storms toward the staircase. He's not expecting the arm that catches him around the waist and drags him back against a broad chest, but he's not exactly surprised by it either.

“I never had his name,” Steve says. He wraps both arms around Tony's waist and buries his face against Tony's neck. “I was born with Bucky's and Peggy's. I was reborn with yours. I never had Howard's name. I swear to you.”

Bucky's metal hand is heavy but reassuring on his shoulder. “Steve's not an uncommon name,” he offers. “Could have been some other guy.”

“No.” Tony covers Steve's hands with his own. “No. He searched the Antarctic every year till he died. He left a trust in his will so the search would continue after he was dead. It was Steve.” He swallows around a sudden dryness in his throat. “Actually, that explains a few things.”

Steve moves one of his hands to rest over Tony's heart, where his own name is etched into Tony's skin. Where Tony's name lives on his own body. “You- did he-”

“You know, when I was born he took one look at your name and refused to hold me any more.” Tony turns his head to nose at Steve's cheek, to take some of the sting out of his words because he knows Steve will feel bad about it. “He never – he acted like it wasn't there. Like I was born alone. My whole life. I thought it was because it was a man's name.” He turns in Steve's hold so he can lean against his soulmate's chest. “But it was because it was yours. Fuck, he loved you.”

Steve is frowning a little and his hands are running up and down Tony's back as if trying to calm a spooked animal. “We knew each other for almost two years. He never said anything, never did anything-”

“I asked Mom once. She said he was born without a name.” Tony doesn't look over Steve's shoulder at the photo album lying open and temporarily forgotten on the floor. “I- he had a scar. A big one. On his leg. He said he was in an accident when he was young.”

“He cut your name off,” Bucky mutters under his breath. It's not unheard of, even these days, for someone to try to hide the will of their heart, especially if it goes against social conventions. It's not as common as it was, though you still hear the occasional story. Mostly children, scared of being different. Sometimes parents take the name away from their child, even though there are laws against it. Tony thinks how easily a wealthy man like Howard could have arranged to have Steve's name ripped away from Tony's heart and it leaves him shaken. That Howard could have cut away Steve – that anyone could have been lucky enough to have Steve's name and just thrown it away...

“I never knew your old man was a fucking coward,” Bucky says.

“That explains it then.” Steve presses his cheek to Tony's hair. “How could I ever be soulmates with someone who was ashamed of me? No wonder I never had his name.”

“I'm not like him,” Tony says. He can feel Steve's heartbeat against his chest, feel Steve's breath against his hair. If for even a second Steve had been with him and wanting Howard, he thinks it would kill him. “I'm not.”

Steve holds him tighter. Bucky grips the back of Tony's neck with his hand and Tony's skin itches under Bucky's touch. “Don't be an even bigger idiot,” he says, shaking Tony slightly. He doesn't have Tony's name on his skin (Steve's name is gone along with the arm that he lost in the war) but Tony trusts him the same way he'd trust Steve.

Tony laughs a little. “Sometimes, it's like I'm just a placeholder for him. Everything in the universe conspired to make me his carbon copy. Same face, same voice, same shitty morals. Same fucking soulmate even.”

Bucky presses a kiss to the back of his head and they stand there for a long while.

“You're not him,” Steve says after a time has passed. Tony knows that the two of them are exchanging looks over his head but he can't quite bring himself to mind. He's already tired of the sick fear that Howard's name lingers under Steve's skin. “You're braver. You're smarter. You're kinder.”

“He knew it too,” Bucky says, always willing to be the blunt one. “Be real, you know he was an ass because he didn't like being outdone by his own kid. Yeah, you've got some stuff in common – my old man and I were the same way. But I knew Howard Stark and while I'd peg you for his kid every fucking time, I'd never mistake you for him.” He leans in close until he's pressed up against Tony's back, his mouth against Tony's ear. “He cared more about his social standing and his reputation than he did his fucking soulmate. Would you ever cut Steve out of your skin? If the board asked you to? If the press revealed that he has three names? If the family priest lectured you about finding a nice girl and having a baby?”

Tony shakes his head, but Bucky doesn't wait. “There's another reason why you two are so different, you know.”

“Yeah?” Tony closes his eyes. Concentrates on the arms around him, the cool metal hand holding the back of his neck. “What's that?”

Steve's breath is warm against Tony's mouth, as if breathing the words into Tony's lungs will help him believe. “If he was more like you, I would have loved him back,” Steve says.

Tony closes his eyes, takes a deep breath and believes.