They weren't really sure how it all fell into place. It just did.
First came Tony, obviously, it was his house, his Family, his rules. But never had such an unhappy man risen to power. Normally the hierarchy was in order, the passing from father to son clean and untainted. Tony took the Throne of the Stark family with a pool of blood at his feet and a trail of skeletons behind him. At the age of Seventeen he had already ended the lives of fifteen men, all of whom had claimed to work for his family and who had betrayed them. No one had expected him to be clever or cunning. He'd been away at boarding school most of his life, they'd never known what kind of a man he would grow into. But the morning they found their boss, the late Joe Parlazzo who had taken power after Howard, shot dead in his bedroom and Tony seated by the window with a glass of wine and a cigar, it was apparent that the Stark Family line was very much alive. They never challenged him again. Stane did, almost had him too, but the coppers found him in the Hudson River with his heart cut out.
A lonely Mad man with power and nothing to lose.
That was the first piece of the puzzle.
The second arrived on a dark night when the New York Fog had settled firmly into it's usual place, the the dank streets were crawling with no names and no bodies and floozies looking for someone to take them home, dark eyes following silhouettes down the avenues. It was a night of chance, really, Tony had chanced upon the desire for a walk instead of a drink and a dance. It was chance that brought him down to the swampy docks with the graveyard of half built boats, the rotting wood making the air thick with it's stench. He'd been stepping down an empty boulevard when the next thing he knew the wet cobblestones were undertow and he was staring out at the faded, ghostly lights of Brooklyn.
It was pure chance that he heard the faint sound of someone crying.
Now Tony wasn't the kind of man who just stopped in his tracks when someone was shedding a few tears. He didn't usually stop to help a child who had fallen and scraped his knee, he was too busy for that. But what else was there to do at the docks that were meant to be deserted?
So he went exploring. Found a small man curled into a ball, face pressed into his knees, blood on his shirt and trousers, stained into the callouses on his hands, hair unkempt and whole body shaking with painful sobs. Tony wouldn't have been moved if it hadn't been for the pistol in his hand.
"Need a hand there?" He asked lightly, hoping not to scare the man. He didn't. The other man just looked up at him with bloodshot eyes, framed by dark circles and broken glasses.
"No, sir," He said in a tight voice.
"Sir? Well now we haven't even be introduced and you're calling me sir. I'm flattered." Tony sighed and leaned up against the wall next to him. "You planning on using that thing there?" He nodded to the pistol.
The man nodded.
"You make sure there were bullets in it?"
With a sigh the man opened the cartridge to show him, it was fully loaded and it closed back into place with a snap that echoed in the heavy silence.
"You're serious then."
"Enough with the sir," Tony said. "A dying man doesn't need to be polite. What happened then? Lose some money in the dens? Dame leave you for some chap? C'mon someone should know before you become a number on a copper's death sheet."
Tony didn't expect the man to reply. He wouldn't have. But with a shaking breathe, the man did. "I killed my wife."
And with that he lifted the pistol and wrapped his lips around the barrel.
"Don't do it like that."
He looked up at Tony, the gun slipping from his mouth. "Pardon?"
"You could still live if you do it that way. Put it at your temple. More likely to be fatal." Tony shrugged. "You aren't the only one to have a bad day."
The man stared. "You-"
"Yeah. Life's shit really, no way around it. Aim for the temple. And that way they can still see your pretty mug when they find you. Makes the funeral a bit easier."
"No one would come."
"I'll come, if it's any consolation," Tony offered.
"You don't even know me." The man said with a weak laugh, lowering the gun without realizing it.
An outstretched hand fell into his view. "Name's Tony."
"Bruce." His hands were warm and clammy, the skin rough against Tony's palm.
"There, now we know each other and you'll have someone at your funeral." Tony smiled. "Whenever you're ready."
They fell into silence again, Bruce lifting the gun slowly and pressing it to his temple, closing his eyes. He took a deep breath, then another, Tony standing beside him like a statue, watching the finger that sat lightly on the trigger.
"You want me to do it?" he asked softly. "They can still bury you if I do."
Bruce's shoulders sagged. "I'm not particularly a god-fearing man."
"Supposed to be."
"They won't even bat an eye in your direction if you off yourself. And that ain't fair. I agreed to be at the funeral, might as well give me the chance." Tony held out his hand. "Let me."
"Then why haven't done it yet?"
"I... I'm thinking."
"There's nothing to think about. Either do it or don't or let me and I'll make it quick."
"Why are you even offering?"
"I don't like seeing a good man in pain."
Bruce laughed. "I'm not a good man."
"A decent man, then."
"Not even that."
"Well I'm a shitty man too, now give me the gun and let me do it."
"God won't forgive you."
"I hear God's on vacation in Paris." Tony waggled his fingers. "Gimmie."
With reluctance that made it seem his arm was weighed down, Bruce did as Tony asked and passed the silver gun to him. Tony took it, cleared his throat and pressed the barrel to Bruce's forehead. Bruce settled onto his knees and closed his eyes.
"Anything you want to say?" Tony asked.
"Thank you." Bruce whispered.
"Betty." Bruce's voice broke, the tears returning. "I'm sorry, Betty." Tony took a breath and Bruce steeled himself for the bullet.
It never came. Tony pulled the gun away, emptied the cartridge and tossed the whole thing into the water with a few fluid motions, Bruce only having a moment to register the clanking of metal before the act was done.
"You-" He stammered.
"Yeah, me. Get up. C'mon get up and stop groveling like a dog." Tony reached down and pulled Bruce to his feet.
"You said you would-"
"I lied. Men lie, I'm good at it." He grabbed Bruce by the shoulders. "Look at me." Bruce kept his eyes on the water, shocked. "Look at me before I hit you." His eyes flickered to Tony's face.
"You. Are. Not. Giving. Up." Tony stated, punctuating each word. "You hear me?"
"Guilt is eating you away inside, burning a fucking whole through your gut your heart ready to explode from all the stress, your head pounding with too many thoughts and too many fucking words and you can't seem to keep your hands from shaking and what other option do you have? Am I right?" Bruce stared at him. "You aren't the first person to feel it and you ain't the last. And I for one, am not gonna stand by and watch some brainless twat think he's doing himself a favor. You are doing no one a favor, not yourself, not the world, and certainly not your Betty."
He expected a fist, expected Bruce to be angry to come at him in a rage. The man looked from Tony to the water then back to Tony's face, holding a breath that made his whole frame shake.
"You aren't doing her memory any good by dying." Tony told him, giving his shoulders a squeeze.
That was when the second puzzle piece fell into place, Bruce caving, hands fisting in the back of Tony's coat, face buried in his shirt, letting out an inhuman, broken wail. After that it was a seamless dance, stitched together from the moment Tony brought Bruce home, to the moment Steve Rogers came into the picture, each stitch a caress, a whisper of support, a kiss, an embrace, something, anything to remind the other that someone was there and someone cared. Soft reminders in the night that if the other died, someone would be at their funeral, someone would miss them, someone needed them.
About a month in Tony made Bruce the Family Doctor, since Bruce had been properly trained and need something to do. He never spoke about his Betty, not until Tony got him wasted one night and they found themselves at her grave, setting together under an umbrella, Bruce telling her how much he had loved the smell of her hair, the light in her blue eyes, the smoothness of her skin, the laughter in her voice. Tony had listened, never uttering a word, as Bruce told him about the man who had broken into their apartment, who had tried to rob them and in the process had woken them and moved to attack Betty. Bruce had stepped in front of her and the next thing he claimed to remember was her laying dead in his arms, the man's body crumpled a few feet away, almost unrecognizable.
Tony never questioned him. Not once.
Their's was a slow and easy dance, a waltz if you will, never pushing or pulling or forcing the other to take a step before they were ready. Bruce would fret over Tony and Tony ate it up, letting him tend to his minor wounds, letting him scold him and tell him to be safe. He loved hearing Bruce say he worried for Tony, made Tony feel wanted. Neither of them were really sure when sleeping in the same bed for comfort became sharing kisses and love between the sheets, it was just the next step in the waltz.
One lonely mad man became two lonely mad men, with nothing to hold onto but each other's flimsy existences.
Then Bruce brought home a wounded bird.
That too was an act of Chance. Bruce had been walking home alone, the sun setting on the winter night. He'd taken a wrong turn, found himself in the wrong alley with the wrong kind of scum and no pistol or knife. He'd been on Suicide watch the night before, which meant no weapons of any kind in his room or on his person, Tony's rules and he wouldn't break Tony's rules.
The Bird, as Tony called him then, had intervened and sent the scum running with their tails between their legs. But not without a knife wound to his abdomen. Bruce had carried him twenty blocks before happening on some of Tony's boys with a car. When they arrived on Tony's doorstep, covered in blood and panicked, Tony didn't question him. He merely helped Bruce carry the man upstairs and waited for his orders.
The Bird's name was Clint and he was a circus boy with more scars than any boy of nineteen should have. They melted into his tattoos, the thins lines tracing along his back and chest, curving down his sides and biting into his arms. They made Bruce cry for him, his fingers running along each scar as he stitched him up, adding yet another to his collection. When he awoke he didn't panic or shout or fight against Bruce's warm hand on his shoulder. He simply stared at the ceiling in silence.
Tony and Bruce had figured that Clint would just wander out when he was ready. He was a stray, strays kept to the street. But he never seemed to leave. He inhabited the sick room for a month until Tony offered him his own proper room next to Bruce's. Clint accepted with a silent thanks. He never spoke a single word in the first six months he was with them. He ate meals with them, spent idle time with the, followed Tony on a few raids, all the while silent.
His first words were, "Don't hit me."
The three of them were having coffee after dinner. Clint had done his best to make Tony his drink, but his foot had caught on the carpet and the cup and spilled down Tony's trousers before shattering on the floor. Tony had sworn in pain, jumping up for a towel, Bruce grabbing one from the tray. They stopped when they saw Clint shrinking away, head bowed, begging, "Don't hit me. I'm sorry. Don't hit me. I'll fix it."
Tony cleaned up the shattered cup himself as Bruce pulled Clint into a chair, arms around him, shushing him, telling him it was alright, rubbing his thumbs into the tight muscles in Clint's neck to calm him. They had never asked about the scars, it wasn't their business. But once Clint's silence was broken with a whimper, each one had a story. The scar trailing down his left thigh was one of the first, from when he'd missed his shot in the circus show, the head marksman dragging an arrowhead across his skin as a reminder of his failure. The Scar on his neck, just under his jaw, was from Barney, his brother, who had tried to steal from the circus. Barney had escaped, leaving Clint with a lasting memory of him. Most of the scars were punishment for failure, Arrows that never quite hit their mark, food not prepared properly, steps missed in a fencing match, times he had spoken out of turn.
He had been broken, trained, and rebuilt as a machine.
Bruce had cried for him that night, once he had snuck off to his room and Bruce was wrapped tightly in Tony's arms. Once Bruce had finally fallen asleep, Tony crept from the room and over to where Clint lay sleeping next door, waking him only long enough to lift him out of bed and carry him back to Tony's room and placing him in bed besides Bruce.
And that was how they stayed, wrapped around each other, a three-man waltz, lives stitched together with blood and loneliness and despair. They were inseparable, perfectly distraught and mad as hell. But they were together. It didn't matter whether Bruce made love to Clint or they both slept in Tony's bed or Tony brought home a floozie or they all slept separately. So long as in the morning, they would wake to find each other still breathing, hearts still beating, then all was well.