"Please remove your shirt and trousers," the doctor -- Reinstein? Erskine? -- said, looking at Steve from over the top of his glasses.
Steve hesitated, fingers at the top button of the shirt. He wanted to be in the Army, he wanted to be in this special project, he did, he did, but there was no way they were going to let him do anything, once they'd seen. It wasn't normal. And sure, he knew he was scrawny, but there was a difference between that and, well, his problem.
His throat was dry. "It's... it's my words."
They were the last words your soulmate said to you. They were how you knew who they were, come too late. They were life's joke, and even more of a joke for Steve.
"Come now," the doctor said, more kindly than before. "This is not my first examination. I have seen all sorts of words, in all sorts of places. No one will take note of it."
He unbuttoned his shirt.
Just above his heart, his skin said Steve! in a quick, hurried scrawl of block capitals.
"There," the doctor said, "see, that's nothing to be worried--"
Steve took his shirt off.
Hit him hard! circled his upper arm.
The inside of his wrist, on his other arm, had a wavering apology: To all of you, sorry for everything...
On his jutting collarbone was another message, harsh, angry, black and jagged: You're a sore loser, Captain America.
There were more words across his back, running down his spine. Many more of them. He couldn't read those so well. But he knew what they said, each one.
"Oh," the doctor said, very softly. His eyes had gone wide.
"Yeah," Steve said, wearily. "'Oh.'"
His mother had hugged him, when he asked about it. He'd been a child. She'd knelt down and whispered in his ear, "No, it'll be all right. I don't know why you have so many words, but it will be all right, my dear. I love you."
He'd tried to believe her.
There were only a few possibilities, because he was Tony Stark, he was brilliant, and it hadn't taken him long to figure out the only possibilities:
One: He would have a large number of soulmates, and they would all die before him.
Two: He would have one soulmate, and either he or they (or both) would die multiple times.
The second possibility was silly. It wouldn't happen. You couldn't just cheat death like that. You couldn't cheat soulbonds like that.
The first possibility was just depressing. It had to be the true one.
I'll find a way, his arm read, an optimistic statement, someone's last words to him, and he wanted to cry.
Tony yanked at his collar and pulled his shirt down until he could see the words on his shoulder: Was it worth it?
It better be, he thought. Whoever you are, all of you, I'm sorry we've got each other.
They were fighting Korvac, and Tony yelled "Hit him hard!" at Steve, and Steve just stiffened up like someone had walked over his grave, started saying something to Korvac, and yelled back to him "I'll find a way--"
And Tony had a few seconds to think oh God it's on my arm it's on my arm before Steve took an energy beam to the gut--
And then Tony died--
And then, well-- when he woke up he didn't quite know how he'd gotten where he was, and no one else did either. He had the vague feeling that something important had happened, that there was something he'd lost, something he was supposed to know.
Someone said something about Moondragon and memory erasure, and Tony figured that if anything important had happened he would never know now.
They died. They came back. They died some more.
Life in the Avengers, eh?
The last words were never anything unique, never anything that could have matched one person. Ten people probably said Iron Man to him -- he had that on his leg in a few places -- and Thanos or the Beyonder or whoever did their thing, and then they all died and were resurrected. It could have been any of them. It could have been none of them.
Funny thing about the Avengers: most of them had a hell of a lot of words.
Tony was pretty sure this wasn't how it was supposed to work.
Then there was that mess with his teenage self and Franklin Richards' dimension, and somehow he was gasping out his life in Steve's arms.
"To all of you," Tony whispered, "sorry for everything."
Steve's hands tightened on him when he spoke, Steve's eyes were wet with tears, and Tony thought it's him, isn't it and oh God but I have more words than this--
He had three sets of memories now, from all of the selves he had acquired in that debacle, and Steve was one of his soulmates. Maybe. The inside of his head was a confusing place, and that death felt more like a dream.
What did it mean, when you had more than one soulmate?
Did it mean anything?
It couldn't mean they were perfect. It couldn't mean nothing was destined to go wrong with them. They fought. God, they fought.
Maybe it meant nothing.
Steve didn't say anything to him, anyway. Maybe he was wrong.
"Steve!" he yelled, and the Hulkbuster had Steve in its hands, and Tony stopped his own heart--
His soulmate couldn't have been Steve, he thought, pacing his apartment the night the SHRA passed. They couldn't-- they couldn't be on opposite sides of this if they were. Steve couldn't possibly be on the wrong side of the fight. Not if they were soulmates.
They were only friends. At least, they had been friends once. So Steve wasn't his soulmate, but... it was hard to imagine how this could hurt worse.
It must not have been Steve, he thought, when Steve put an electron-scrambler in his palm. Your soulmate wouldn't hurt you. Would they?
If Steve were his soulmate, he wouldn't have wanted to hunt him down. They would have compromised somehow. They would have.
Tony looked up into Steve's angry eyes, looked up to the shield that glinted deadly bright above him, and thought your soulmate wouldn't try to kill you.
Steve was on the other side of the energy barrier. In his cell. Tony'd put him there and he'd deserved it and there was no way out of this for them, nothing good in this. Steve had been yelling, ranting about him at freedom and powers and things that didn't matter because he was wrong, because he should have worked within the goddamn system--
"Tell me, Director Stark," Steve snarled. "Tell me, was it worth it?"
And Tony took a step back, like he'd been punched right through the armor, because he knew those words, because they were on his skin like the rest of them, and if he'd thought it was Steve before maybe it was all Steve, all of them, all of his words were for Steve--
He breathed shakily. The helmet made sure Steve never heard it.
"Well," he said. "You're a sore loser, Captain America."
He left before he could see Steve's face, knowing that Steve must have those words etched onto his skin.
So Steve was going to be locked up, and Tony was going to be a martyr for the cause. For Registration. He hadn't really thought he'd survive.
He wondered how it would happen. Would it be some of the anti-Registration forces? Another battle? He had a lot of enemies.
It wasn't like Tony was even going to stay dead. He had a few more words left. Not that that was a comfort. He would come back somehow, and Steve would hate him. He had seen Steve's face. There was no way back for them. He'd ruined everything. He'd made his own soulmate hate him.
But this was what he'd done. He had to live with it. Die for it. Whichever.
He could handle this.
It was worth it.
At Steve's arraignment, Tony discovered that he had been very, very wrong.
He had words left.
Steve was going to come back. He had to. It had always been Steve.
How long would it be? How could it even happen? It had been a year. Nobody stayed dead a whole year.
Maybe he'd missed the other words; maybe Steve had already said them. Maybe someone else had. Maybe this was it.
And then there was Osborn, and then there was nothing--
Steve pushed past Pepper and Maria. Tony, sitting at the desk, didn't even look up. The table was spread with newspapers; the computer was open to a news site with the headline CIVIL WAR: CAPTAIN AMERICA ASSASSINATED.
Tony looked up then, and there were tears on his cheeks. "Oh my God. I did this?"
"I wanted to tell you," Steve said, helplessly. "I came to tell you. You should have heard it from me first."
There was... a lot he should have told Tony.
Dimly, he was aware of the door behind him closing; they were alone. Then Tony was turning and somehow Tony was in his arms, shaking. "I did this," he repeated. "How the hell did I do this?"
"Shh," Steve said, and Tony was just there, sobbing.
"The worst part of it is," Tony whispered into his shoulder, "I thought you were my soulmate, I thought maybe you were, but you can't be, because I did this, because now I don't even know what you said-- what we said--"
"What if I said I knew?"
Steve knew where it was on him; he took the best guess he had, and he pulled the neck of Tony's shirt back, back to where Crossbones' bullet had gone through his own shoulder. On Tony the words read was it worth it?
Steve traced the line with two fingers.
"That one," he said, very quietly.
Tony's eyes were wide. They were soulmates, and now they both knew it. "Do I want to know the context?"
Steve shook his head. "You don't remember. I can't hold it against you."
Oh, part of him wanted to. He remembered the fight, he remembered the incandescent anger, burning within him, he remembered the desire above all to be right. If Tony knew, if Tony remembered what they had done, what Steve had done, would he still like him? Would he have turned to him for comfort?
"Maybe you should anyway," Tony said.
Steve rubbed again at Tony's words; Tony didn't move away.
"I used to think I was unlucky, having so many words," Steve said. "I thought I was a freak. I thought-- I thought everyone I loved would die. I didn't think it meant we got second chances. And we've been through a few of them now, clearly, and judging by what's still written on me we've got a few more. They're blessings, these chances. And I don't want them to happen because we fought. Because we argued. Because we hurt each other. We get to come back, we get to know we're soulmates, and I want to apologize, and I want to do this right."
"You knew," Tony said, still wide-eyed, uncertain. "You knew before now, that it was me."
"I suspected," Steve said. "But I don't know how it works, having as many words as I've got. And I didn't want to say, unless I knew. And then it happened again, and it was still you."
"Soulmates," Tony said, and his eyes fell shut, wretched. "We really get to find out when we're alive, and you-- you could do better."
"I like the soulmate I've got, actually."
He ran his fingers through Tony's hair; Tony tensed a little, but then relaxed into the caress.
"Yep," Steve said. "Love the one I've got."
"Well," Tony said, and there was a faint smile on his face. "If you're sure."