Tony knows, when he’s beaten and bloody on the locker room floor watching Steve through the eye not crusted over with blood, that he will never love anyone as fiercely as he does Steve Rogers.
His defender stands above him, chest heaving with exertion, face so ferocious that if he was a dog Tony thinks he would probably be growling around this point. His would-be attackers stand in a fractured circle around the pair, hovering and unsure whether taking on all of Steve in his six foot glory. Steve throws a last punch at the ring leader and they scatter off as fast as they can.
“That was hot.” Tony blurts out amidst blood (and what he thinks is a tooth? Jesus) and Steve just looks down and grins so widely Tony can practically feel the warmth.
Later, when Steve is tending to every cut and bruise, chuckling at Tony’s grumblings and chiding him gently for not telling him to come sooner, Tony will stare at his friend and wonder how he will ever get over how fiercely and passionately he loves Steve.
Especially considering that Steve will never ever return those feelings. He can’t.
Tony had never thought he would hate the fact he was born with unmarred, unscarred skin. He used to wear it like a badge of honour. Look, he’d crow, I can choose to have whoever I want, I don’t have to be bound by some name of a soulmate on my skin!
Steve’s upper arm is less clear. The name James in cursive sprawling round his whole bicep. He hides it with tight t-shirts, not risking them riding up because Tony knows Steve watches his face crumple whenever he sees the offending name.
Sees the proof that Steve could never be his.
The first time they have sex, Tony refuses to have the lights on. He doesn’t think he can stand seeing the italics hugging Steve’s arm lit up by his table lamp.
Steve allows it, too rushed and lust-fuelled to think anything of it. He doesn’t need the light to embed himself in Tony so deep they are both shaking well before they reach their release.
Next time, when Steve reaches for the light and Tony stops him with quivering fingers, he turns and softens when he sees the fear in Tony’s eyes.
“It is just a name, you know.” He speaks quietly, soothing.
“It is not just a name,” Tony nearly barks. He’s too naked and too sober for this conversation, and he hates how whiny he sounds, “He’s your soulmate. He probably volunteers at a puppy shelter at the weekends and bench presses cars by the week days.”
Steve laughs, “He could bench press an entire house and I still wouldn’t care. I want you.” He says, dropping a kiss on the bridge of Tony’s nose.
And so they forget, for a little while.
Forget that this thing has a time-limit.
It is so fucking cliché, Tony thinks, when Steve presses a wristwatch that probably cost more than he could afford into Tony’s hand before Steve’s final high school football game and presses a kiss into Tony’s shoulder.
“I love you.” He whispers, breath hot in Tony’s ear, and Tony wants to scream at the unfairness of it all.
“It won’t matter.” Steve leans back and cradles Tony’s face in between his hands, “He won’t ever matter when there is you.”
Tony wishes so fucking hard that it was true.
They go to separate colleges. Tony accepts an early entrance into MIT, and pretends that Steve didn’t choose Boston College out of his numerous offers to simply be close to Tony.
They see each other on the weekends, Rhodey and Pepper adore Steve, Tony has a mountain of respect from Steve’s friends for managing to hold Thor’s homemade liquor. For a while it is perfect, this fucking golden time that Tony loves and hates in equal measure, because he knows that it is going to hurt like a motherfucker when he has to say goodbye.
It happens during a phone call and Tony is fucking blindsided.
“I met James.” Steve starts, and Tony’s stomach just bottoms out. He can’t speak past the drought in his throat, and he can feel bile rising to his mouth.
“He wants… I don’t…” Steve tries, and with every word Tony sinks further, “I won’t see him again. I promised you.”
Tony thinks that sounds a lot less like “I love you” and a lot more like “I’m stuck with you.”
“Don’t worry about it.” He tries to inject aloofness into his voice, but even he can hear it fall flat and break.
“Tony…” Steve begs, and Tony hangs up before he can hear anything else.
This is a good thing, it is better this way.
He keeps telling himself that as his phone lights up every other minute with Steve’s Caller ID flashing across the screen.
It is a photo of them, one Steve took without Tony’s knowledge, Steve’s grinning wide at the camera, and Tony is just staring at Steve’s profile like he can’t believe he exists.
The phone keeps ringing.
Rhodey finds him later, phone disintegrated into pieces against the counter top, tears stumbling down his face.
Rhodey and Pepper sleep on the couch that night, far enough that Tony doesn’t feel trapped but close enough that he knows they are there. His eyes hurt from where he has tried to blot out the visions of Steve and James together using the palms of his hands. He rubs them hard enough he can see stars against his eyelids, but even that won’t quiet his brain.
He slips into a fitful sleep, one that stops and starts with him waking in cold sweats.
Rhodey and Pepper leave early next morning at his request, with promises they will come back and drag him out for lunch later. Tony smiles, a broken and limp thing, and tries to summon the energy to nod along. He feels so unbelievably empty.
They’ve barely left the apartment when he gets a knock at the door, one that raises to pounding when he doesn’t answer straight away.
“Pepper did you leave something…” he starts.
It’s not Pepper at the door.
“I have been on the bike all night.” Steve says, and despite the fact his skin looks waxy, hair limpid and eyes sullen, Tony still loves how he looks in bike leathers.
Tony isn’t sure whether Steve being here is just a mirage. He wants to reach out and see if his hand passes through Steve’s chest like he is a ghost. But he doesn’t think he could bring himself to let go if it encounters firm flesh.
“I need to show you something.” Steve continues when it is clear Tony is going to stay mute. He strides past Tony into the apartment, spots the phone broken on the counter and his jaw locks.
“Is your soulmate outside on your idling bike?” Tony bites, voice cruel. He doesn’t need this. Doesn’t need Steve here rubbing his face in the fact that no one could want Tony back.
Steve just looks at him, the look of god you are a fucking idiot so familiar it steals Tony’s breath. He begins taking off his leather jacket, slowly, and when he winces as it catches on his arm Tony is there beside him, gut tightening in worry.
“What have you done?” He breathes, voice dropping when he sees the bandage encompassing Steve’s upper arm, “Steve what have you done?”
Steve unwinds the bandage slowly, carefully, and what is underneath nearly stops Tony’s heart.
Where James used to sit is now covered entirely in bold, upper case letters. The words are large, blocking out the memory of what used to sprawl across Steve’s arm.
The words now say Tony.
“I don’t…” Steve pants, like he’s run a mile, “I don’t give a fuck what fate thinks I want. Words on my skin before I am even born have nothing to do with who I am now. Who I love.”
Tony is still silent, his fingers having lifted by unbidden accord to trace the words spanning Steve’s bicep softly.
“Is it okay?” Steve is quiet now, his declaration having worn him out. Tony can do little else but grin, his mouth trembling.
“It is fucking perfect.” Tony can barely speak through tears, and he folds himself into Steve’s arms like he has never left.
Much much later, when Tony’s legs have decided to carry him once more (and he has decided that make-up sex is definitely worth fighting for), he stumbles out whilst Steve is still asleep and wanders down to the local tattoo parlour.
The girl at the counter hides the roll of her eyes when she hears what he wants, but he doesn’t care.
He comes home to the smell of pancakes and crispy bacon, to Steve humming as he swings round the kitchen in nothing but an apron that sends a new jolt of lust down Tony’s spine. Steve does another spin, and catches Tony staring with a smirk.
“Where have you been hidin’?” Steve’s Brooklyn drawl is always thick in lazy morning afters, and Tony loves the sound.
Almost as much as he loves how Steve’s face takes a turn for the wonder when he strips his shirt off to show the new piece of art in the middle of his chest.
Steve juts out between his pectorals, the skin a little angry and red still.
“By the way,” Tony speaks on a laugh, watching Steve’s face take a turn for adoration, “I love you too you idiot.”