They aren’t friends, not by a long shot. But there’s definitely something, a sort of magnetic draw that Tony just can’t resist. It’s not every day you help somebody save the world; of course he should want to get to know the guy. At least, that’s what Tony tells himself.
When Steve smiles at him Tony finds himself beaming back at him. He can’t help it, just like he can’t help the warm feeling that floods over him every time Steve says his name. It comes naturally and it builds every time Steve glances at him, a look on his face like they’re sharing some inside joke. It’s sweet and heavy, and Tony feels it like a weight over his heart. They spend more and more time together until Tony can’t recall what life was like without Steve, without their teammates, and the pleasant bubble of joy he feels walking into the kitchen being greeted by smiling faces.
The team is littered around eating breakfast when Tony leans over to mooch off Clint's plate. The archer shoves his shoulder and playfully nudges Tony with an elbow, and he can’t help a pained hiss.
“Oh please,” Clint teases, “The guilt tripping won't work, Stark. Clint Barton shares his bacon with no man. Or woman," he amends, eyeing Natasha suspiciously as if she's going to lunge forward and snatch his plate away any second. Tony smiles, but the expression is strained.
“Dick,” he manages to shoot back, but his tone is fond, "I'm the one funding your greasy food addiction, I should at least get some kind of benefit out of the deal." Natasha watches him with scrutinizing eyes, and after retrieving a fresh cup of coffee he blows her a kiss on his way out.
Later, in the privacy of his own room, he stands in front of the bathroom mirror and pulls his shirt over his head, carelessly tossing it aside. There are light smudges on the right side of his chest, standing out beside the glow of the arc reactor. They look like bruises and feel tender when he cautiously inspects them with his fingers.
With every passing day the marks are getting darker and clearer. He knows what they are now, knows that the bruises are actually letters. And of course, knowing what it is just seems to make the name grow more prominent. He keeps it firmly hidden under a square of gauze.
Steven Grant Rogers. It’s emblazoned across his chest so clear it may as well be a flashing neon sign. The letters looks black upon first glance, but in the right light Tony sees that they’re actually a deep inky blue. Tony knows all about soul marks. He’s been taught about them in school just like every other kid, has seen all the terrible rom coms, and has had more than enough false alarms with fans tattooing his name on their skin in hopes of getting a chance at the Stark fortune.
He’s had one before, too. A mark. Tony lightly drags a fingertip over the smooth underside of his left arm, where the shadow of Pepper’s name had once been. It takes a mark anywhere from days to months to fully set, and Pepper’s name had barely even begun to take shape before he lost it; before they lost whatever they once had. He’d had Pepper’s name for months and it never set, and once they broke up the smudged letters faded back into his skin as if they’d never been there at all. Yet here was Steve’s name, already permanently set after just three short days. He continues to keep the mark covered and is careful never to mention it, especially around Steve.
...but he wants to. He starts to spend even more time with him, hoping to find the right time. They go to ball games, and out for burgers, and Steve sits in his lab drawing while Tony rambles about his latest projects. Soon. Tony keeps telling himself that he’ll tell Steve soon.
Tell him that they're a perfect fit.
He never does, because Bucky happens. Steve stops going to ball games. He stops going out for burgers, and when Tony goes down to the lab the room is eerily quiet. Steve spends most of his days trying to coax Bucky into doing some activity or another, the former assassin always looking dirty and tired, like he hasn’t rested in days. A month and a half goes by and Tony can count the number of times he’s actually talked to Barnes on one hand. Still, Steve swears he’s getting better. He starts inviting Tony out like he used to, but now Barnes is always tagging along. And Tony sees that he is getting better. His hair is clean and pulled back. He smiles now. Tony would probably like the guy if it wasn’t for the way his heart clenched every time Steve laughed at something Bucky said. They look so comfortable in each other’s space, always touching and always smiling.
Tony feels like an outsider. Then he sees it, completely by accident. Bucky has been getting really into cooking, and Tony lazily chats with him as he sautés something in a pan, what looks like stir-fry flipping gracefully through the air. The man reaches up to pull something out of the spice cabinet, his shirt riding up. And Tony sees it printed in that familiar color and writing, partially covered but still unmistakable. Steven Grant Rogers. He leaves the kitchen without another word, ignoring Bucky when he calls after him.
Tony spends the night lying awake in bed, staring at the ceiling. He wonders if Steve has Bucky’s name, too. He wonders if they’re a matching set. What color would Bucky’s words be, and where would they appear? Probably smack in the middle of Steve’s chest. Now that he's warmed up to the world Bucky seems like the possessive type; his hands are always wandering, touches that are perfectly innocent and friendly seeming taunting in Tony's eyes.
He still holds onto the hope that maybe it’s his name on Steve’s skin. He imagines it; the color, the shape of it. Anthony Edward Stark.
They start to ease away from him. Trips with the three of them begin to dwindle, until Tony is left behind in the dust. He keeps tabs of their comings and goings through Friday, learns that they’ve been going to restaurants and movies and the art museums that once upon a time Tony had been the one to take Steve to. Sure, they occasionally invite him along, but Tony knows it’s because they feel obligated. They don't actually want him anymore. Steve doesn't need him now that he has Bucky, and Bucky only put up with him for Steve's sake. It hurts every time Steve automatically hands Tony a cup of coffee as he enters the kitchen and it hurts every time Bucky laughs at something Tony says, the sound so rare and precious Tony wants to record every one so he can replay it over and over again. It hurts, but Tony knows he has no place next to them. So he eases himself away from Steve and Bucky, too. He can’t bring himself to look either of them in the eye each time he turns them down.
He can’t stand being so close to what he can never have. And yet, there’s still just a tiny shred of hope he can’t quite let go of.
They’re dating. Steve and Bucky. Tony grins and congratulates them, but it feels like there’s a black hole in his chest threatening to swallow him whole. Natasha shows up at his door that night with a gallon of ice cream and two spoons.
“Kitchen’s that way,” Tony says with a raised brow, tilting his head in the direction of the elevator from which she came. Natasha rolls her eyes and strolls past him, making herself comfortable on his couch.
“Shut up and put on Lord of the Rings,” she commands. At some point Clint shows up, and Tony ends up squished between the two of them. They laugh, doing terrible Gollum impressions and throwing popcorn at the screen while Natasha smiles in fond exasperation.
Her Gollum impression is by far the best.
They settle into a strange routine. During the day Tony spends time with the team until he can’t take seeing Steve and Bucky together a moment longer and hides himself away in the lab. During the night Clint, Natasha, and sometimes Bruce show up as his door almost without fail. He’s drowsy one night, and as he drifts in and out of consciousness he realizes his head is in Natasha’s lap and his feet are in Clint’s. Warm hands are carding through his hair as he fades back to sleep.
In his dream Steve is holding his hand and whispering something in his ear, and Bucky is watching them both with nothing but pure affection on his face. He wakes up on the couch with Clint snoring, and Natasha says nothing as he turns and buries his face in her stomach.
Tony's never seen Steve smile quite like he does every time Bucky presses a quick kiss to his lips. He's never seen Steve light up the way he does every time Bucky laughs, every time Bucky sits so close to Steve during movie nights that their sides are completely pressed together, their fingers intertwined as the two super soldiers hold hands. And finally, the last little bit of hope that Tony had been holding onto withers away. Finally, Tony can't help but see Steve's name for anything but what it truly is; a gross intrusion where he is neither needed nor wanted. He spends that night in the shower, trying to scrub Steve's name off his skin until the area is red and tender.
Tony’s soul mark starts to feel sore. Since the day he’d tried to wash it away the letters began to bleed, dark ink seeming to drip down his body. The mark is swollen and bruised, making his bare chest look disgusting and sickly. But Steve’s aching name isn’t even the worst part. No, the worst is his hand. Right on the back of Tony’s hand for the whole world to see are the smudged beginnings of what will soon be James Buchanan Barnes. Black, with sparks of deep red and sliver that glint just like metal. The letters may be blurry but the name is undeniable. It figures, Tony was right. Bucky is a possessive bastard. There’s no way he can cover the name without someone noticing; he’s never been one for wearing gloves and someone’s sure to ask about it if he tries bandaging his hand. Bucky’s mark looks wrong, too. Like Steve’s, the name is swollen and blotchy, as if Tony’s soul marks are both rotting from the inside out. Denying a connection to one’s soulmates has been proven to have severe consequences, but Tony doesn’t care. He can’t tell Steve, and he can’t tell Bucky. They’re not his, no matter what the universe says, and he’s obviously not theirs. They don't want him, because either they don't have his name at all or they do and they don't want to tell him. Tony pictures them looking at his name on their skin and feeling disgusted, and his stomach rolls painfully. It's clear that he belongs here, on the outside. Tony tries once more to wash his soul marks away, scrubbing ruthlessly, but they stay stubbornly on his skin.
“Jesus, Tony,” Natasha breathes, followed by several colorful Russian curses. He’s sprawled on the floor in his private living room, his back against the couch and liquor bottles scattered around him. He doesn’t realize that he’s wearing a grease stained tank-top and his marred body is exposed until Natasha is kneeling in front of him, prodding at the swell of his skin. The infection of his soul marks has spread; Steve’s moving down his right arm and Bucky’s moving up, as if the marks are reaching to meet one another. He jerks away at her touch, sucking in a pained breath.
“Clint,” Natasha barks and oh hey, Tony hadn’t noticed him standing there in the doorway, “Go find Bruce.” The muddy blur that Tony assumes is Clint gives a nod and vanishes, and Tony focuses back on Natasha’s face. She looks angry, and for a moment Tony thinks she’s going to yell at him. But when she speaks he realizes that the only person she’s mad at is herself.
“I knew you liked Steve,” she says, and she sounds apologetic, “But I didn’t- Why didn’t you tell anyone he was your soulmate? You know what it does to people when they ignore their soul marks like this.”
Tony cracked a shaky grin and managed to hold his right hand up, revealing the mark that had now set in his skin for good. His second name. “Bucky too,” he murmurs, “You want me to get in the middle of America’s golden couple?" he laughed bitterly, "How stupid do you think I am?” Tony let his hand fall limp. The world seems to drift out of focus for a second and when it comes back Bruce is shining a light in his eyes.
“Tony, listen to me,” He says, “I’ve called Dr. Cho. She’s in New York for a conference right now, so she’s going to come see you. She can’t be here until tomorrow, though. In the meantime I need you to talk to Steve.” And no, no he can’t do that. Can’t do that now, can’t do that ever. He’s shaking his head.
“Tony,” Bruce presses, “your soul marks are having a severe reaction to your emotional state. Close proximity to one of your soulmates might help; both would be preferable. Please. Talk to them.”
He closes his eyes. Things don’t have to change. He’ll tell Steve that. He’ll tell Bucky it was an accident, and he won’t get in their way. They can continue being happy, and Tony will continue to keep his distance.
“Fine,” he says, “I’ll talk to them.” He holds his good arm out in request and with a relieved sigh Bruce takes it and helps him to his feet. This really wasn’t a conversation Tony wanted to have with this much alcohol in his system, but the look on Natasha’s face gives no room for further argument. She leans against the door with her arms crossed, watching with close attention as Bruce arranges Tony until he’s comfortably seated on the couch.
“Friday, could you send Steve and James up here?” she asks, gaze still on Tony as she says it. He rolls his eyes at her but she ignores the gesture in favor of striding over, delivering a light but no less punishing jab to Tony’s good arm.
“That’s for wallowing on the floor getting drunk by yourself, and for not telling anyone about your soul marks.” She hisses with a glare. Tony opened his mouth to argue but his brain seems to go offline as Natasha leans down to a press a kiss to his forehead.
“You’ll be fine,” she says as she straightens back up, “I’ll bring more ice cream when I come back.”
“Butter Pecan?” Tony asks in a hopeful voice.
“Yes, Butter Pecan you heathen. But next time I get to pick the flavor.” With that she disappears into the hallway.
"Sergeant Barnes and Captain Rogers are on their way, Boss." Friday declares, and Tony's heart gives a painful stutter. He has to stand, can't take sitting on the couch like this. It feels too weak, too vulnerable.
"Help me up," Tony whispers in a quiet plea and with his lips twisted into a sympathetic frown Bruce does, offering a shoulder for Tony to lean on as he peels himself off the couch, wobbling a moment before catching his bearings. He can hear hurried footsteps coming down the hall so Tony steels himself and faces the door, waiting to receive a death sentence.