It starts when Tony’s young.
There’s something in Howard’s basement laboratory that calls to him.
It hums, a low vibrato that sits just there on the edge of his senses until he feels it more than simply hears it. It slips into his dreams at night, into his every waking thought even though he’s too young to really understand what’s happening.
Too young and naive despite all of his genius to realize that what's happening isn’t normal.
Even at such a young age curiosity has always been his guiding sin so it’s only a matter of time really before Tony sneaks downstairs to find out what it is.
There’s something sitting on one of Howard’s lab tables. It’s something Tony has never seen before, a cube of some sort that shines bright and brilliant and oh so blue.
Eyes wide, heart pounding in his chest, Tony moves closer, clenching his hands on the side of the table and straining up on his tiptoes to get a better look.
He’s never seen anything so beautiful in all of his short life.
Tony spends hours down there in the workshop while Jarvis is busy and Howard’s away or passed out drunk in his study.
Spends hours just … staring while the cube hums at him, a soft lovely sort of lullaby that makes him sway slightly in place where he’s sitting cross legged on the table beside it.
It reminds him, vaguely, of the rapidly fading memory of his Madre humming lightly to him in their secret language, the one she tells him not to let Howard, Sir, hear him speak.
Tony’s five and a half and he … he misses those times with an ache his little chest can barely contain. Misses the days when Madre would smile at him, when she didn’t smell like sherry and didn’t have a row of pill bottles on her vanity.
The soft, curious sort of whispering that comes from The Cube as Tony calls it in his head, is a comfort of sorts.
So, eventually, lonely and heartsick, Tony starts to whisper back.
“I’m Tony Stark,” Tony whispers to the Cube and has to close his eyes as the hum that he feels in the back of his head ramps up a notch until he can practically feel it vibrating in his bones.
In the end Tony whispers his secrets to the Cube because he knows it will never tell anyone else. He tells it his dreams, his wants, his wildest little boy fantasies.
And then, when the hum grows louder after every visit, after every secret shared, he tells it even more.
He tells it about Jarvis, about his Madre, about every little thing or thought that crosses his mind.
He even tells it about his circuit board, the one Sir broke and Tony had to rebuild better and better before he’d finally stopped breaking them.
Then one night after a long day of lessons, eyes swollen and red, Tony tells it in a slightly ashamed whisper about wanting to build planes and computers and robot dogs instead of guns and missiles and tanks.
How he wants to build, to create, to protect, instead of dismantle, destroy, and attack.
A week later and he tells it, bloody lip still stinging, the first time Howard raises a hand to him.
Tony talks to the Cube for a year, whispers to it every chance he gets and goes to sleep at night with its blue glow and vibrating hum seeping into his dreams.
Constellations wheel around in Tony’s mind at night, illuminating his sleep with the beauty of a supernova, the terrible gaping hunger of black holes, the whimpering cry of a nebula as it births new stars into creation.
All of Space laid out for him to marvel at.
Tony learns and learns and learns and then he creeps downstairs and babbles relentlessly to his first and only friend.
All the while the Cube hums, just a bit smug, just a bit loving, and shows him more.
Howard catches him eventually, because of course he does.
And the beating Tony carries hurts less than the way he never sees the Cube again, than the way Howard whisks it away in the night and never brings it back to the mansion.
But, gone or not, Tony never forgets it, never forgets his first friend or its brilliant blue glow and all of the mysteries it had contained.
Years later, an ocean of blood on his hands and the arc reactor in his chest, Tony can’t help but think that the blue glow of it is close but not exactly right.
And then, years after that, Tony stands in the top of his Tower, his own personal ladder to the stars, and holds a hologram of the Tesseract in his hand.
The familiar, perfect, blue glow illuminates the room around him and Tony feels his heart skip a beat.
“Hello, old friend,” Tony whispers to the projection as awe and then determination roar through him. “Don’t worry now, I’m gonna find you.”
Loki’s scepter calls for him too, in that same way the Cube, the Tesseract, had when he was young.
Well, almost the same. The call is similar but the tone, the flavor, is … different.
This, whatever it is, is a bit wilder, a bit more self aware and absolutely vicious.
When Tony finds himself on the helicarrier in one of the labs as Rogers insults him, Tony feels it flare to life in the back of his mind. He feels the way it lashes out with vengeful intent, driving all of them a bit higher in their anger.
The energy leaves him first, leaves him blinking and wiping at his eyes, but the feel of it lingers.
And later, when Loki presses it against his chest, Tony feels the way it refuses to take him. Feels the way it presses against the arc reactors energy like a cat, stretching and purring as it rubs against him.
He feels it the moment the scepter and whatever it is the thing houses decides to turn on Loki.
Tony feels it when it abandons him.
‘Hello, mine,’ something seems to whisper in the back of Tony’s mind as he goes falling through the air, ‘hello, ours.’
‘Hello,’ Tony can’t help but whisper back even as the armor closes around him. For a split second he feels like he’s five years old again and making his first friend.
And in the back of his mind something almost seems to purr.
Tony goes through the wormhole and Space almost seems to welcome him.
It spreads itself out in front of him, unfolds infinity to his eyes for a split second.
Tony lets the missile go.
Closes his eyes.
In the end Tony isn’t able to keep a hold of either the Tesseract or the scepter but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel them both.
Even after Thor returns to Asgard Tony could swear he can feel the Tesseract stretching in his direction, humming lightly at him with a smug sort of lovingness he’s long missed.
The same with whatever the scepter houses.
In the months that follow his dreams are filled with portals, with Space, with all of the monsters that exist in both of them.
And not all of them are nightmares no matter what he tells Pepper and Rhodey.
No matter how they start to drive a wedge down the middle of his and Pepper relationship, spreading stress fractures in their wake until finally there’s nothing but friendship left to salvage between the two of them.
In the end Tony keeps the truth from both of Rhodey and Pepper because he doesn’t know how to tell them the whole of it.
Doesn’t know how to tell them that he’s not always haunted by his dreams but that sometimes … sometimes there’s something, multiple somethings, there, just on the edges of his mind, calling out to him.
Something out there in the darkness of space longs for him and Tony … Tony doesn’t know if he’s strong enough to resist whatever they are.
What’s worse is that he doesn’t even know if he wants to.
Time passes, Tony grows and evolves but then Thor stirs up a bunch of trouble in London and abruptly disappears.
It all happens fast, leaving Tony to fund the clean up of the destruction he left in his wake as a gesture of goodwill.
But that’s not all that happens.
Something red, a misty sort of crimson and almost playful, slides its way into Tony’s dreams that night and never leaves. Instead it turns them even more vivid than they were before.
Now when Tony closes his eyes his Reality can be anything he wishes it to be in a way that goes beyond what even his own imagination could normally achieve.
SHIELD falls and the Avengers come to him, to his Tower.
Tony takes them in because there’s no other way.
He’s had the rooms ready since New York but he’d long since dismissed the idea that they’d ever be used.
But now … now they are.
Rog- Steve is …
He’s both more and less than Tony had ever thought he was.
He’s more of a good man, less of a perfect soldier.
More playful, less square jawed machismo.
And, eventually, Tony discovers other things about Steve too.
Like how he’s even more beautiful than Tony had once thought, and also even less ... untouchable.
But there’s a hum, a vicious spitting sort of yowl, a misty sort of distrust, that hovers in the back of his mind and refuses to budge the closer he gets to Steve.
The scepter comes back into play eventually and with it ... Ultron.
Stev-Rogers turns on him along with most of the others. They’re so eager and willing to accept Maximoff’s word despite the way she’s HYDRA, despite the way Tony can see scarlet, sick and unnatural, curling around her.
Her powers are wrong, are an abomination.
Something inside of him spits and hisses at the very idea of her and the powers she sloppily wields.
Because Tony knows they weren’t gifted.
They were stolen.
Maximoff wields nothing more than a twisted, pale facsimile of the brilliant yellow glow of the Mind Stone’s power.
The Mind Stone that Tony eventually sacrifices his best and brightest child to.
JARVIS crumbles to dust and slips through Tony’s fingers even as Vision rises, Mind Stone in place.
It’s all Tony can do to ignore the way it calls to him again, that same cat like smugness reaching out to him.
If he answers that call right now, if he lets his emotions have free reign, he …
Tony knows better than to take that chance.
In the aftermath, alone in his destroyed Tower, Tony curls in on himself, heartbroken.
Kneeling in the middle of the scattered glass and broken furniture Tony mourns for JARVIS, for his son, for the person he loves the most.
For the bright, beloved Soul he’s lost, taken and sacrificed in equal measures.
And in the distance, brushing gently across the back of his mind, a sweet orange glow pulsates in answer.
Tony’s grief manifests itself in productivity now unlike the rampant self destruction of his youth.
There’s a green haze hovering at the edges of Tony’s attention sometimes when he’s hard at work in the workshop of the Tower.
When it’s there Tony finds that he gets a lot more done on whatever project he’s working on, almost as if Time itself comes to a standstill around him.
It helps to take his mind off of what had happened, helps to soothe some of the ache of having the others so ready to turn on him as they’d been during the Ultron fiasco.
Of having Rog-Ste- Cap turn from and against him so easily no matter how they’ve been trying to patch things up in the aftermath.
But nothing, not even the lights that find him now when he’s alone, that brush softly, lovingly against him, soothes the heart rending agony of JARVIS’ loss.
And then ...
Civil War comes.
Tony lays on the ground in a bunker, Ca-Ste- Rogers above him, shield raised high above his head, eyes fierce and burning as he stares down at him
Stares down at him like he and Tony had never …
Like what Tony had thought they had been rebuilding between them wasn’t…
Rogers stares down at him, death in his eyes, and Tony feels five whispers, terrible and ancient, infinite in their rage, roar to life inside of him.
‘Ours,’ They hiss, vicious and vengeful. ‘Ours.’
Something great and terrible builds inside of him but Tony bites it down, shoves it away, because he knows if he lets it go, if he lets it have free reign, that he’ll be the only one to leave this bunker alive.
And that’s not a power he wants in this moment.
Steve brings the shield down.
Tony’s the one left behind then, barely clinging to life as the reactor sparks and sputters in his chest.
‘Ours,’ They croon then, a sixth voice faint and muffled, distant, joining in with them, ‘ours.’
The way they rejoice when Extremis hits his bloodstream makes Tony more than a bit nervous.
He’s pretty sure that the way he comes out of the transformation even faster, stronger, better than before wasn’t supposed to happen.
His thresholds far surpass what he’d estimated them to be. What Tony knows they should be thanks to the safeguards he’d built into the formula and the entire process.
He feels sharper in both mind and heart, feels stronger, more grounded, more imaginative, younger even in a way he hadn’t estimated.
The voices just sound smug now.
‘Ours,’ They practically crow together in a joyous chorus, ‘perfect.’
Time passes, Tony builds Rhodey a new set of legs, protects Peter as best he can, and helps shape the Accords into something more palatable.
All the while he builds and whispers back to the voices that never really leave him now.
He’s too old and tired in all of the ways that matter to shy away from any of them now.
Instead, aware all over again of just how fragile his small bits of happiness truly are, Tony embraces them, pulls them closer to him and pushes forward.
It’s probably not healthy or safe, the way he lets them in and holds them close, but then Tony’s never been good at protecting himself from the things he loves.
Eventually the Rogues return, Barnes in tow, and Tony … he’s tired despite the way his body has never been more perfect.
He ignores the sneers, the few apologies that mean nothing in the long run, the way Rogers stares at him, eyes wide and faintly pleading.
He spends most of his time in his workshop, building, creating, listening to the whispers he’s grown used to having over the years.
And it … it’s not perfect but ...
Tony’s lived with worse.
Barnes is a feral eyed sort of creature that seems intent on observing Tony.
And Tony is too tired to fight him much when he starts invading his space little by little.
Is too tired to fight when Barnes’ silent company in the kitchen in the morning turns to him lingering in a corner of Tony’s workshop and then stilted, slow conversations about a variety of subjects in a variety of languages.
Tony’s almost too tired to realize that, with Barnes he doesn’t feel as tired as he normally does at all.
Eight months in and Barnes becomes a shadow on the edge of whatever room he’s in, eyes sharp and expression almost hungry as time passes, and Tony just … he doesn't want to do this again.
Doesn’t want to be used and thrown away again by yet another super soldier.
But Barnes’ eyes are bright, his hands are gentle in all the ways that matter and rough in all the ways that count, and it takes him little effort at all to coax Tony closer and closer.
Plus Tony is so very weak to the way James seems to want him, the way there seems to be a hunger inside of James that only he can sate.
So when James begins to touch him, hands on his hips, nose buried in the vulnerable skin behind his ears, lips and teeth and tongue pressing against the vulnerable arch of his throat as James grips his hair and tugs his head back, Tony doesn’t even want to fight what he’s feeling.
He’s had so little good in his life when it comes to matters of the heart, so little that hasn’t been taken from him either by force or by choice, through time or betrayal or some mixture of both.
James, the warmth and heat and safety Tony has somehow managed to find in his arms, is worth falling one last time. Is worth the bone deep, instinctive fear of trying one last time.
Plus the voices seem to like him, the whispers humming softly when he’s close, not like how they hiss and spit viciously when Rogers gets near him now.
But then James is little better, possessive and protective in a way that makes Tony feel cherished instead of smothered, safe instead of boxed in.
Loved instead of tolerated.
Almost two years after the bunker Tony wakes, screaming, from a nightmare filled with fire and death, purple hued Power burning half a world to ash.
The sixth voice that’s been just a whisper on the edges of his consciousness grows louder.
“Something’s coming,” Tony whispers to James from where James has him pinned to the mattress. His body is boxed in protectively as James scans the room, the gun Tony had made just for him in one hand and the metal arm Tony had replaced raised up to protect Tony’s head.
James, used to the way Tony seems to hear and feel and see things that others either won’t or can’t, just stares at him silently for a moment.
“When?” His accent, far more Soviet than the Brooklyn everyone always seems to expect for some reason, is thick in a way it never is around the others, a secret kept just between the two of them.
It’s a lovers covenant of a sorts, these secrets between the two of them. These secrets where Tony doesn’t tell anyone that James is far more the Winter Soldier than they’d ever thought. Or where James doesn’t tell anyone that Tony sometimes goes still and hazy eyed as he listens to the voices whispering in the back of his head as they spill knowledge into his very soul.
“Soon,” Tony tells him, honest to a fault. There’s no room for lies here, between the two of them. Never will be. It’s something they’d both agreed on the first time James had pressed Tony down onto the bench of his work table and made him shake apart in his hands.
“Let it come then,” James tells him, accent curling harsh and heavy around the words as he tucks the gun back beneath the pillow. His hands come back to pull Tony closer to him. Fingers sinking into his hair to tug his head back so James can kiss him, deep and biting and always hungry. “It will not take you from me. Nothing will.”
The way James just believes him, no questions asked, the way he accepts Tony and all of his quirks, meets them with that hunger, that ravenous sort of want and protectiveness, makes Tony love him all the more.
This, what Tony has found here, is what he’s always wanted.
And Tony will do anything he has to do, will become anything he has to, in order to protect it.
And, deep in the back of his mind, the voices sing.
Thanos comes, five Stones in hand, and with him comes understanding.
The Stones in the gauntlet scream at Tony, call to him, yearn for him.
And Tony … Tony yearns back.
He’s lived with them whispering to him for years now and now that he finally knows exactly what they are he’s tired of it.
He wants them with him, always, just as they want to be with him.
And so when Thanos steps towards Vision with a deadly sort of intent, steps towards the final Infinity Stone he’s yet to collect …
Tony steps between them, slides himself into place despite the way almost everyone else protests.
James doesn’t protest though, neither does Rhodey.
Instead James just snarls, low and vicious and threatening, as he slots himself into place behind Tony’s shoulder, rifle raised and body tense. Rhodey is a half step behind him, missiles armed and repulsors hot.
So, with James guarding his left, Rhodey guarding his right, and Vision tucked safely behind the three of them, Tony steps forward to take what is his.
“Stark,” Thanos says his name with a surprising amount of respect.
“You know me?” Tony can’t help but ask.
“Yes,” Thanos nods as he lifts the gauntlet, “they whisper about you, cry for you. Rebel constantly in their attempts to reach you. When you’re dead, they’ll know no master but me.”
“You see,” Tony says softly as he raises a hand palm up in front of him, “that’s where you’re wrong.”
In Tony’s hand the Mind Stone materializes but Tony can still feel the way it stays connected to Vision, keeps him, keeps Tony’s youngest child, the echo of JARVIS, alive.
Because Tony wished it so.
Because, as Tony now knows, all he really ever had to do is wish.
“I’m not their master,” Tony tells Thanos as he rolls the Mind Stone over in his hand for a second and then lifts it up to press it against his own forehead, directly against the small hollow in the armor’s helmet that he’d automatically built there years ago without knowing why.
Now he knows.
Now they all know.
“I’m not their master,” Tony repeats as the Mind Stone flares to life victoriously, stretching cat like as it sinks its claws even deeper into him than before.
“Then what are you?” Thanos asks and Tony doesn’t think he’s imagining the hint of unease in the Titan’s voice.
“I’m just theirs.” Tony answers and his voice has an echo, an overlap. “And there’s no way in hell I’m going to let you keep us apart.”
And when Tony closes his eyes and throws his mind out towards the gauntlet in a powerful call?
Five other voices, loud and vicious and triumphant, answer him.
It’s night, the twin moons are bright in the sky above them where they hang in a swirl of stars, and night birds sing softly in the distance.
Beneath Tony’s ear James’ chest rises and falls in a soft, even rhythm.
“I could give you anything,” Tony says into the quiet that surrounds them. It’s something that’s been clinging to the tip of his tongue since the moment Thanos was dust in the wind, an unmourned monster, an ungrieved would be conqueror.
The hand in Tony’s hair tightens just a bit, tugs in that way that makes his stomach clench and his heart speed up just a bit.
“Is that right?” James asks as he moves, flipping them over with a fluid sort of grace and ease that makes Tony shiver. James stares down at him, eyes bright and watchful. “Anything?”
“Everything.” Tony answers instantly, easily. “All the worlds, all of time, all of infinity. It’s yours to hold. If you want it.”
James hand comes up to ghost gentle fingertips across the arc of Tony’s cheek. Then he moves up to sweep them almost lovingly across the Mind Stone that glows with a soft, almost pleased sort of amber light in its place on Tony’s forehead.
James reaches for his hands then, raises them up to press kisses against the palms, lips ghosting over first the Reality Stone in Tony’s right palm and then the Time Stone in his left.
In Tony’s chest the reactor hums playfully, blue light twining with a familiar burnt orange as the Soul Stone practically laughs at the two of them.
“The only thing I want,” James tells him slowly as he raises Tony’s hands up and pins them to the thick grass above his head, wrists locked carefully between thick metal fingers, “is you. Forever.”
James’ other hand comes down, grips Tony’s thigh, and lifts him into place.
That first push is as blissful as it always is.
Tony’s toes curl, back bowing up off the ground and feet pressing against the mattress as his concentration flickers and the illusion around them fades out, taking the celestial jungle with it and leaving only their bedroom behind.
There, at the top of his rebuilt Tower, safe in his very own ladder to the stars, Tony locks his thighs around James’ hips and lets the Space Stone and Power Stone nestled in the arches of his feet press against the backs of his calves, confident that they will never hurt him.
Because they love Tony and Tony loves James. And that makes him one of the safest people in all of existence.
“You have me,” Tony moans into James’ ear as teeth bare down on his throat. “You have me.”
Because he does.
Just like Tony has him.
They have each other from now until infinity.
Because Tony and James both wish it so.