Like everyone else, his sig doesn’t appear on his wrist until well after his tenth birthday. But when he wakes up on the morning of his sixth, he finds his mother perched on the side of his bed. Maria Stark’s hair is down around her shoulders, all soft dark curls the way Tony likes them best, and when she sees that he’s awake she smiles. She’s got his wrist in her lap, index finger lazily tracing a line that’s not there yet, and Tony pushes himself up onto one elbow and rubs at his eyes.
“Mommy? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I bought you a present.”
Just like that Tony remembers what day it is. “Will I be allowed to keep it?”
Her smile tightens a bit at the corners. “Yes, little one. This gift is special and your father and I have already talked about it.”
“What is it?”
By way of response she reaches into the pocket of her skirt and pulls out a band. It’s striped red, white and blue and about two inches thick, wide enough to hide even the largest scrawl. She slides it over his fingers and pushes it past the widest part of his hand until it pops down around his wrist, settling easily into place. Tony touches the material curiously, rubbing it between his fingers: not rubber or cloth, but with a peculiar synthetic feel he’s only felt one other time.
“Will I always have to wear it?”
“That’s your choice, Anthony.” And she only calls him that when she needs him to listen, so he does. “Your sig is special and you don’t have to share it with anyone if you don’t want to. It can be a very private thing. Some people even choose to ignore it. They never search for their sig for their own reasons, and there’s nothing wrong with that.” Her lips thin a little more.
Tony considers this seriously. “What if I want to find them?”
“Then by all means, little one, search far and wide until you find them.” She pushes him over a little bit and lays down beside him, their heads tucked together on the pillow. “Your sig is the one person in the world who will understand you at any given time, the best match for you. That kind of closeness can be hard to tolerate, having someone who knows you that well.”
He steals a glance at her band, the slender one of gold that’s a perfect match for his father’s. He’s not seen the sig on her wrist for a long time, not since the last time she rebuked his efforts at removing it, but he can remember seeing it when he was a baby. Howard Stark’s deliberately rough scratch is intimately familiar to him now, the dark letters etched into Maria’s pale skin like a shadow on pavement. It was comforting.
“Can it change?”
Maria stills. “Why would you – yes.” She exhales slowly, her eyes fluttering shut. “Yes, baby, it can change. You see, as you grow up you’re going to change. You won’t be the same person you are now, and things can happen to make you a completely different man. I’m not saying that will happen, but it might. The sig who compliments you when you’re thirteen years old might be different from the sig you find at thirty. Some people refuse to accept that possibility, though, and they cling to their first sig so it won’t change. It’ll only happen if you’re open to it.”
“Mommy?” The bitterness in her voice frightens him.
“The Starks have a history of being their own worst enemies, Anthony,” she says quietly, looking down at her band. “Don’t be like that, alright?”
“Yes, Mommy,” he says, even though he doesn’t really understand. She smiles, though, and kisses his cheek and tells him he’s a good boy anyway. He’s expecting to have to get up after that, even though he can tell that it’s still dark outside, but Maria makes no move to leave the warmth of the bed and he snuggles eagerly beneath her arm when she offers it to him.
Later, when she’s fallen asleep and her breathing is deep, he slides a finger under her band and peeks. He doesn’t recognize the unfamiliar sig written there.
His sig appears on a random Tuesday while he’s in a boring as hell class that’s supposed to be challenging, since it’s a fourth year university class. The professor is babbling away and Tony’s scribbling equations of his own making when a sudden burst of white-hot pain on the tender inner flesh of his wrist makes his hand jerk, leaving a thick line right in the middle of his equations. The kid next to him grunts in pain when Tony’s elbow impacts his ribs and rears back, nearly falling out of his chair.
“The fuck?” he says, loud enough to be heard over the professor. “Watch what you’re doing, kid!”
There are worse nicknames but none get to him like that one does, and Tony ignores him with pointed silence as he catches the red, white and blue band with his thumb and hitches it up. The sig on his wrist is delicate, the two words formed with the sort of precision that suggests the writer has practiced their signature multiple times until each letter is one smooth swoop. The ink is lighter, blue, but the name is still clearly legible and he commits it to memory in the span of few seconds it takes for the guy beside him to get annoyed at being ignored.
Pepper is probably a girl’s name, so at least he knows that much. That’s the thing about sigs, they don’t tell you anything else. He’d wondered, though, if his sig would be male or female. Same sex sigs usually turn into a platonic friendship closer than siblings, but he’d have been willing to take it to the next level. Not romantic, since he doesn’t do that shit, but not just friends. Not-platonic.
The guy beside him reaches over and jostles Tony's shoulder hard. “Hey! I said watch what you’re doing!”
“What’s going on back there?” says the professor, turning away from the board and squinting up at them. “Stark, are you causing trouble again?”
Because it’s always Tony’s fault, he just rolls his eyes and doesn’t bother to protest. “I have to go,” he says, and, ignoring the sputtering of the professor, he swings his bag over his shoulder and hurries up the steps to the door. He leaves the classroom behind, already pulling out his Starkphone. His heart is thudding and the band around his wrist, something he’s become so used to he barely notices, feels heavy and cumbersome for the first time in years.
Maria doesn’t answer the call, but that’s not surprising and it doesn’t make him worry either. He goes home, to the small and cramped apartment that Howard refuses to pay for even though his son is only sixteen, and gets back to work in the makeshift lab he created in the tiny bedroom. He’s working on a rough version of artificial intelligence that will laugh in the faces of everyone who told him that the technology wouldn’t be available for years, maybe never, because Tony Stark doesn’t wait, he creates.
The codes expand beneath his fingers, the physical parts combining together seamlessly, and he doesn’t notice that his phone has been ringing repeatedly until the idiot who lives above him starts fighting with his girlfriend again. They do this every night, but the combined sound of their voices and the furniture they’re slamming around is enough to jerk him out of his work. He becomes aware of several things all at once: pangs in his empty belly, cramps in his hands and neck, and his phone.
“About time, Mom,” he mutters, spinning to find his phone in the mess. The ringing helps him track it down and he frowns to see Obie’s name instead of Maria’s, answers it anyway while trying to remember whether or not he was supposed to be somewhere.
“Tony,” Obie says, and the half full cup of cold coffee slips from Tony’s fingers.
He never does get the chance to tell Maria Stark that his sig appeared.
Tony thinks about searching for her, for Pepper. Sigs can be born anywhere in the world, distance has nothing to do with it, but he’d be able to find her if he really wanted to. Even just by virtue of making a name for himself with SI, he’s improving the chance that she’ll come to him. Once or twice he nearly begins a search, but he always stops at the last minute. Usually he goes and finds some hot girl or guy or the bottom of a bottle to take his mind off of it.
Right now his sig is just a fantasy, and fantasies don’t leave.
Tony’s not actually the one who hires Virginia Potts. She just shows up in his lab one day with Obie, dressed in a moderately expensive suit and wearing a set of heels that makes her tower over him, clutching a tablet to her chest that no doubt contains a long list of places that he is supposed to be. Tony hardly spares her a glance, too preoccupied with ignoring Obie as he gives a long and detailed lecture on how it’s time to start being more responsible and why he can’t just keep living the billionaire-genius-playboy-philanthropist lifestyle no matter how much practice he’s had at it.
“And that is why I have hired Miss Potts,” Obie says, and in spite of himself Tony straightens up to listen. “I’m hoping that she’ll be the driving force you need to get more involved in Stark Industries.”
“Any more involved and you won’t know what to do with me,” says Tony, lobbing a new set of prints in Obie’s direction. Used to this, Obie catches it easily. His eyebrows go up when he realizes what he’s holding. It takes him a full 34 seconds to recover, Tony counts them.
“Be that as it may. I’ll leave you to it,” he says, making a quick retreat with the prints. Tony goes back to work. He gets exactly one minute of silence.
“You have an R&D meeting in exactly 49 minutes that’s important,” Virginia says.
“Mr. Stane asked me to make sure you were there. Apparently he mentioned something about the possibility of the board seeing you as unfit for ever taking over as CEO if you don’t begin showing up for meetings.” She pauses, and when it becomes clear that Tony has not magically become swayed by her comments, she adds, “He also said that the biggest part of my job would be corralling you around, and that if I wasn’t capable of it my presence here at the company would not be necessary.”
“Guess this isn’t going to work out for you then,” Tony mumbles around the screwdriver in his mouth.
Virginia doesn’t say anything for several seconds, though he knows she’s still there. Then – “The lights, please, JARVIS.”
The lights in the workshop go off.
He blinks into complete darkness. “What the –”
“Thank you JARVIS,” she says pleasantly.
“Traitor!” Tony squeaks, wheeling around to point an accusing screwdriver in her direction. “How did you do that?”
“Mr. Stane introduced me to JARVIS when we entered the building. We had a lovely conversation while I was waiting for Mr. Stane to finish a business call.”
Tony stares at her suspiciously. She returns the look with a calm one, as though used to and even expecting the scrutiny. JARVIS doesn’t warm up to anyone that quickly. He’s purposely programmed to be wary of everyone who enters the house, introduced by Obie or not. “JARVIS?”
“It has been 43 hours since you last slept, sir, and longer still since the last time you consumed anything other than coffee or pizza,” says JARVIS. If it’s possible for an A.I. to sound guilty, he definitely does. “Miss Potts agreed that if I helped her to get you to your meeting on time, she would see to it that you had something more substantial to eat and then went to bed afterwards.”
“That’s not… you can’t…” he stutters, outraged.
She ignores him, slinking her way closer until she can reach out and take the screwdriver from his hand. “Your meeting is at noon sharp. That means you have exactly twenty minutes to take a shower and get dressed in a suit. Wear your grey one with the red shirt, it makes you look more alert. I’ll be waiting for you in the car. If you’re prompt, there will also be a box of fresh doughnuts for you to eat while you browse through the files. It’s not much better than coffee, but it will do for the time being.”
Disregarding the majority of her spiel, he focuses on the important part: “… Doughnuts from Antonio’s?”
For a moment they glare at each other, at an impasse, before Tony’s stomach lets out an embarrassingly loud growl. Virginia cracks a smile, her blue eyes twinkling, and in spite of himself he can’t help thinking that she’s pretty. If she let her hair down a little and smiled more, she might even be beautiful. He looks away fast and gets up, familiar pain throbbing at the movement of stiff muscles.
“Twenty minutes?” he says, because without lights he can’t do the work anyway.
“That’s right. Will that be all, Mr. Stark?”
“Yes, Miss Potts.”
It ends up being a coincidence, Tony finding out about her name. He’s wandering through SI (actually avoiding the woman in question, truth be known), thumbs jabbing at his phone, when he hears a couple of interns chatting. Workplace gossip is nothing new, but the name ‘Potts’ catches his attention. Against all odds Virginia lasted through her first week, then her first month, then her first year. She regularly conspires with JARVIS against him and has Tony wrapped around her little finger (or maybe it’s the other way around, though she’ll never admit it) and the two of them just work.
So to hear that she’s known around the company as Pepper Potts is pretty fucking terrifying.
He leaves the building immediately, retreating home – all the way home, back to cute girls and sun-warmed beaches and the white stripe of flesh that neatly frames his sig, covered now by a plain metal band not unlike the one Maria used to wear. He has never shared the sig with anyone, not even Obie, but now there is someone who knows. She knows.
Why hasn’t she said anything?
He cracks open a bottle of whiskey and takes his problems to the bottom, and that’s where she finds him several days later: sprawled on the couch with a couple of empty liquor bottles and the tablet balanced precariously on his knees. She stands in the doorway for a couple of long minutes, and he blearily wonders if this will be the thing that drives Pepper Potts away.
“So you know,” she says quietly.
Damn his habit of speaking his thoughts out loud for JARVIS to record. Tony scowls at her and sits up, or tries to. The tablet goes flying and she catches it neatly, tucking it under her arm like that’s what she meant to do all along.
“I’m not leaving, Tony. It took me a long time to find a position that I like, one that doesn’t end with me being treated as nothing more than a pretty face.” She steps closer and sits down on the couch beside him, then holds her wrist out. Like him she wears a band, though the one adorning her arm is silver and delicate and feminine. She starts to pull the band up.
“Don’t.” He doesn’t want to see, already knows what he’ll see.
“You need to see.” The band snaps off and there it is.
His stomach flips and nausea tightens his throat, but he swallows hard and manages to keep from throwing up all over her thousand dollar suit. “Why didn’t you mention it?”
“Why should I? I wanted to get this job on my own merit, not because of something that happens to be on my arm instead of someone else’s.” Virginia – Pepper – tips her chin up, determined, as she puts the band back on. “No one knows except for my family, my parents. I haven’t planned on telling anyone, either. I’m not here to – to do anything other than what I’ve been doing, Mr. Stark. I want to be your PA, I want to be good at my job, and that’s all. It just so happens that I work for you instead of someone else.”
Tony eyes her, but there’s nothing in her face to indicate she’s lying. “You can call me Tony.”
She tilts her head. “I like to be called Pepper.”
“Pep,” he decides, christening her and ignoring her frown, because the name Pepper sits heavy on his tongue and refuses to come out properly. She shoots him an exasperated look but doesn’t complain, instead choosing to kick her shoes off and let her hair down from her bun. She curls up beside him and steals his bottle of whiskey.
They’re good for a long time, and if he thought they worked before it's nothing compared to now. But then Afghanistan happens, and it seems to be one set of circumstances after another: Obie’s betrayal, the dip in stock when the public finds out about Iron Man, the subsequent fight with the government over his suit, Justin and his idiot friends, the palladium poisoning. Pepper gives him hell about that, as though he’d set out to deliberately poison himself. For once it’s not his fault and she still gets mad; she gets even more pissed when he points that out before covering her face with her hands and bursting into tears. It’s not the first time he’s ever seen Pepper cry and it does not bode well.
“I’m sorry,” he says quickly, too quickly, fumbling to make her stop. “Should I buy you strawberries? Or no, wait, you can’t –”
Pepper’s shoulders start to shake, and when she drops her hands she’s laughing instead. “You’re crazy,” she says, but she’s looking at him the way she looked at him when they stood on the rooftop and he kissed her for the first time. It’s a look that makes his insides warm and shivery, and this time it has nothing to do with poisons or toxins.
“Crazy in a good way,” Tony says, perhaps not as confidently as he’d like given the way she smiles tearfully.
“In the best way,” she agrees, carefully setting her hand on top of his hair. The feel of her nails scratching lightly at the nape of his neck gives him the chills, but the expression on her face is still too searching for his liking. “Tony, is this going to be a thing now? You scaring me half to death?”
Lying to Pepper never goes over well and Tony knows that, she knows him better than anyone else and that includes Rhodey, but he does it anyway. He looks her in the eyes and tells her that it won't become a thing, and he doesn't think she believes him but she smiles anyway and kisses him again after murmuring something about how relieved she is that he's still in one piece. She tastes like coffee and vanilla and he licks his lips, his hand finding a home on the curve of her behind, and he thinks to himself that maybe this is a promise he might actually manage to keep.
Loki changes that. Well actually Captain America being found and resuscitated changes that, though Tony doesn’t realize it at the time. He won’t put two and two together until much later, when Coulson will make a seemingly casual comment about the actual day and time that Steve woke up and Tony puts it together with that weird burning on his wrist that one afternoon while he’s working at the armor. At the time it doesn’t even merit lifting his head long enough to check and see if he’s burned himself, and soon the pain is swept away in sparks and oil and improvements.
Later, JARVIS will confirm it.
Still, though, Tony likes to put the blame on Loki and the Chitauri and the bomb that he flies through a hole in the sky not expecting to come back. Tony doesn't remember hitting the ground: the last thing he remembers is flying through the portal and then waking up on the ground surrounded by Captain America, Thor and Hulk. His whole body aches fiercely but the light in Cap’s blue eyes when he sees Tony jerk awake makes it all worthwhile.
In the confusion, the utter pandemonium that is New York City trying to recuperate from the invasion, checking his sig doesn't occur to him. He's got better things to do, and anyway he knows what it says.
He thinks he knows what it says, but he's wrong.
Pepper corners him about three weeks after the attack. They've both been working overtime trying to fix things, to do whatever they can to help the city recuperate from the seemingly insurmountable damage. She looks tired and worn and she doesn't kiss him the way she usually does, keeping the distance between them small but noticeable. He raises an eyebrow and rubs the towel briskly over his face after what could probably be termed the shortest shower in history, seriously his hair is barely damp.
"What's up, peppy pie," he says lightly.
She rolls her eyes at him. "I think it would be a smart move for Stark Industries to donate some money to the city of New York. Not just you, but the company as well."
"Do whatever you want. I trust your judgment." He grabs the nearest shirt and yanks it on, not caring that the front of it is streaked with grease and splattered with small coffee stains from when Dummy startled him and he dropped his mug. "Sorry, Pep, but I've got to go. There's a construction crew trying to evacuate the remains of the station down on -"
There's a quiet inflection in her voice that makes him wince, and he can see it coming. It's not you, it's me, when really it is you but she's just too nice to admit it. He can admit, if only to himself, that he has wondered when Pepper will throw in the towel. The woman's a fucking saint, a goddess among mere mortals, and she's done an admirable job of putting up with his bullshit on multiple levels over the past several years. She's put up with a lot, too much, and now she's finally reached her limit. He tries, but can't bring himself, to be surprised that she's choosing now to end it when she's got a decent excuse. The truth will sting deep, it always does, that Tony is just too much for one person to handle.
"If you're looking for a heart to heart -"
"I need to tell you this, Tony, it's important -"
"Cap is going to have my ass if I'm late, Pep -"
"Have you checked your sig lately?"
"And Fury said if we started fighting again he was gonna - wait, what?"
Pepper closes her eyes briefly. "Your sig, Tony. Have you looked at it in the past couple of days?"
"No, why would I?" That's been the last thing on his mind. He glances automatically at the metal band. Some people take them off after they meet their sig, bearing their flesh as a badge of pride. Tony thinks that's a monumentally stupid idea. It's bad enough that the whole world is already aware of how much Pepper Potts means to him. Speculation runs wild and everyone wants to know if their sigs match; confirming that is the case means that Pepper will become even more of a target than she already is.
And of course, it would also open Pepper up to being the butt of numerous rumors about how she really earned her job as the CEO of Stark Industries. There's nothing Pepper prides herself more on than the attention and respect she gives her job, and that kind of press would damage her in some way - and then Tony would have to buy some companies and ruin some lives and maybe even get out the repulsors, and in the end it's easier to just keep their sigs covered and let the world wonder.
So no, he hasn't looked at it. Not since the morning after he and Pepper first went to bed together and he woke up first. He glanced at his sig then just to make sure it still said Pepper Potts, that this hadn't been some incredible dream, and he'd only had time for a glimpse before Pepper was laughing and pinning him down and climbing on top of him.
"I think you should."
His heart skips a beat and it has nothing to do with the arc reactor and everything to do with the look on her face, the way she's biting her lip. He remembers, then, that quiet morning in bed with Maria Stark when she told him how sigs could change, and he doesn't want to think about what that means. He can't think about it, not now when the clock is ticking down and he has about five minutes to haul ass downtown or Fury is going to follow through on his threat.
"I have to go," he says, avoiding her eyes, and leaves the room in a hurry.
Though Tony does not extend an invitation for them to move in, one by one the other Avengers just sort of appear in the tower following the battle. Well, to be fair he forces Bruce to move in, and Steve asks because he has a condition that keeps him from being anything but excessively polite, but everyone else is just there one morning when he surfaces for coffee. Pepper smirks at him from where she's sitting beside Natasha and Tony blinks at her fuzzily, the edges of his vision gone grey from exhaustion, and decides not to ask.
Captain America's sig was not Peggy Carter, the way most people expect. It was Bucky Barnes, his brother in everything but blood. Tony knows this better than anyone; he'd been subjected to several of Howard's rants growing up that the captain might have had a better chance of survival had his wrist not gone blank after Barnes died. It's rare for there to be no sig, but it does happen particularly after trauma and death. Howard had called it a waste and Tony just remembered all over again about people who weren't willing to accept change and said nothing.
Natasha doesn’t have a sig. She wears a plain metal band around her wrist when she leaves the Tower to keep people from asking question, but sometimes she’ll leave it off when she’s relaxed and the tell-tale ink is missing from her flesh. The first time she catches him looking, Tony decides never to ask. The split second look of sorrow and wistfulness in her eyes speaks volumes.
Bruce’s sig reads Betty Ross in tiny, cramped writing, which surprises no one considering that Bruce is still head over heels for her, but that disappears when he transforms into the Hulk.
Thor is from Asgard and they don’t have this “intriguing Midgardian custom”. He’s fascinated by the concept of sigs and doesn’t seem to mind that Jane’s sig reads Darcy Lewis and vice versa, since apparently sigs don’t include aliens for some odd reason.
Clint has a sig and it says Phillip Coulson, and there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind which Phillip Coulson that refers to. That’s actually how they figure out Coulson’s still alive: Tony finds Clint sprawled on the couch one morning, drunk off his ass in a way that the man never is, close to tears and ranting about how his sig keeps giving him false hope. After rounding up Bruce and Natasha to take care of him, Tony starts a thorough search of SHIELD’s surveillance footage. It takes several days of methodical searching by JARVIS, but eventually he finds what he’s looking for.
Coulson’s sig, and Tony has verified this with his own eyes (it was just to make sure the man was really Agent Phillip Coulson, not just for curiosity’s sake thank you very much), does say Clint Barton. And their relationship, as soon as Coulson finishes ripping into Fury and returns to the Tower, is very much not-platonic.
Pepper’s sig does not say Anthony Stark, that’s all he knows. They try to keep it together at first, but she stops sleeping in his bed and kisses become fewer and far between until they’ve fallen into something resembling their old routine, and then finally a couple of months after the invasion Pepper comes to him and confesses that she just can’t do it anymore. The Avengers have only been called to assemble a handful of times, and each time she worries Iron Man won’t be coming back. It’s bittersweet, the realization that Pepper’s acceptance of Iron Man and Tony Stark being one and the same is the thing that ultimately breaks them apart.
Tony doesn’t know what his sig says. What’s the point?