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Master of My Fate (Captain of My Soul)

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There’s a soulmark on Tony’s back. It’s nestled between his shoulder blades, spanning the space between three vertebrae. Sometimes he thinks about the way it neatly severs his spine just below the neck.

Sometimes he thinks about what would happen if he just broke his back.

Crack.

Crack.

Crack.

Maybe broken bones would align the mark into something different. Something that wasn’t theirs (even though this wasn’t theirs. Not really. Not like he wanted it to be).

_______

As a child, Tony was markless (or at least that’s what he heard. Jarvis got twitchy when he mentioned it and...Tony didn’t want to know). He was completely blank. All smooth golden skin.

He grew up, though. Got freckles. Scars.

A mark.

Carved right into his skin in white hot bursts of pain, noises of betrayal ripped from his throat, tears of the same pouring from his eyes. Getting the mark hurt.

His father had told him to buck up. Maria had cried. Jarvis...

He hadn’t been there (hadn’t he? Some part of Tony, the one that had been so desperate to please Howard, laughed at him. The sound was childish).

Tony didn’t look at his mark too often (ever, really), but he’d memorized it on sight. When the mirror had been presented to him he had focused on the blood for awhile. But then...

There was a void where his skin had once been. Black as night ("Out of the night that covers me, black as the pit from pole to pole-") and perfectly circular.

A soulmark that defied interpretation. Like the universe had taken a look at him and shrugged. Or had simply been unable to define him ("I thank whatever gods may be, for my unconquerable soul-").

Howard had crowed with pride (and Maria had cried. She’d cried for so long, great heaving sobs of terror). Tony had simply stared in blank horror. Even back then, long before he’d understood its meaning, Tony’s soulmark had scared him.

Hadn’t suited him.

_______

When Tony got older, well...

He changed his mind.

The all consuming void DID suit him. The Merchant of Death’s trademark was obliteration. He left nothing behind (only ashes).

He’d never broadcast his soulmark, though. He’d taken to petting it sometimes. Pulling at the skin. Pinching it.

Rhodey said he only touched it (a secret Rhodey had never seen) when he felt guilty about something. Tony had smiled and, though it shamed him now, had told Rhodey the only thing he was guilty of was success.

Rhodey, marked in scarlet and gold chainmail (falling over his heart like a curtain, daring Tony to lift it, daring him to take a peek at something better than he could ever be). Rhodey, steadfast and patient even when Tony didn’t deserve it.

He’d only placed a hand on Tony’s back, nestled between his shoulder blades, spanning the length of three vertebrae.

_______

Crack.

Crack.

Crack.

Sometimes Tony dreamed of Rhodey breaking his back in that moment. On his worst days, he wonders if it would’ve saved them all a hell of a lot of trouble. He wonders if it would’ve been merciful.

But Rhodey had only ever touched his mark with the gentlest of hands.

(“Just returning the favour, Tones.” He'd said, Tony's cheek resting lightly on his chest)

_______

Pepper asked Tony if she could see it, once. A quick seal bandage kept it covered from prying eyes (even those of his partners). She couldn’t remove it even if she wanted to - only Tony knew how.

He told her no.

He wasn’t surprised when she left him. Everyone did.

_______

It wasn’t unusual to be markless. Folklore said that only the truly exceptional were marked. Reality...differed a bit.

Not as much as you’d think.

Everyone who was marked was marked for a reason. Soulmates were one of them - destined couples bore each other’s symbols. But the marks were more than that.

They were destiny. The kind that poisoned all of Tony’s worst (best) dreams.

Helen of Troy was marked with ships with red sails wrapped tight around her ankles. She thought that they meant her fate would come to her over the seas. That she would walk on water - be a thing of miracles. She’d believed it was something great, as destiny often is.

Her destiny killed countless people. The only version of her story that he believed was the one in which she died. Many marked people tended to. Sometimes that (death) was the only great thing people were meant for.

Juliet was marked with bleeding heart flowers trailing down her lips and throat. She didn’t match up with Romeo, but people thought it was romantic anyway. They said it represented her great love.

Romeo hadn’t been marked with anything. The worst kind of scholar would say that Shakespeare meant for that to indicate Juliet’s love was enough for the both of them.

Tony thought it was just because Romeo’s death didn’t kickstart a damn thing.

_______

“Sir...”

JARVIS trails off, uncertainty revealing itself as a crackle (a millisecond blip) in his cultured English voice,

“You do not have a soulmark. You aren’t registered in any database.”

Tony waits to see if JARVIS will continue. It’s a habit he’s long since gotten into - leaving pauses in conversation to see how JARVIS will react to them (it’s how he trained his personality, once. Rhodey joked that Tony must’ve talked JARVIS’ ear off all the time. In reality, Tony gave him silences to fill).

The silence stretches on. The edge of Tony’s mouth quirks up (he’s always proud when JARVIS out-waits him, even when it’s annoying. It shows he has learned).

“You’re right.”

Tony replies before returning to his project. He wants to create a removable skin graft, but it has presented him with one too many technical challenges (biology was needlessly complicated. He wished he were an amoeba).

“Sir.”

JARVIS’ tone went disapproving, though fond amusement and concern came close behind it. Tony brushed his fingers through the air between himself and the closest camera (a mimicry of a caress).

“The black mark on your back-“

JARVIS started, then stopped. A rush of pride ran through Tony yet again (he loved when JARVIS did something so human - rushed to process something, came to an answer, then second guessed it).

“I’m right.”

JARVIS repeated, testing the words.

“You’re right.”

Tony confirmed.

That night, he found a pile of research papers in his servers. They ranged from methods of fading skin pigmentation with lasers to which adhesives best mimicked skin.

Tony brushed his fingers through the air (he loved JARVIS).

_______

Yinsen had touched Tony’s mark like it was something precious. As if it were something real.

“Your destiny doesn’t stop here, Tony.”

Yinsen told him. Tony had scoffed, back in the early days, and responded,

“It could. I’ve already made a black mark on history.”

Yinsen had looked at him so strangely, then. He hadn’t understood.

“This mark means great things.”

He had tried to convince Tony. It had burned. Hearing that had BURNED, just like his back all those years ago.

“Do you remember getting your soulmark, Yinsen?”

Tony had asked him instead of trying to explain to him his own thoughts on ‘great things’. Yinsen had blinked behind his scratched and filthy glasses.

“No.”

He had said, slow and careful (trying to understand),

“It came to me in my sleep. Like a dream.”

Tony...

He laughed.

“Don’t they all?”

He said,

“Don’t they all...”

_______

After Afghanistan, Rhodey saw the mark. His face had been full of questions (of admiration, hope, excitement), each and every one of which died a swift death when Tony flinched away from him.

Rhodey pressed a gentle hand to his back, tucked right between his shoulders, curling his fingers over Tony’s spine.

Tony’s back didn’t break, but his heart sure did.

(He pressed his face to red and gold chainmail and listened to Rhodey’s heart beat steady and true)

(“I wanted to say it’s not a bad thing.” Rhodey whispered, brushing his fingers down Tony’s back)

(“But I’m wrong, aren’t I?”)

(Tony didn’t answer. He didn’t have to. Rhodey had always been smart)

_______

Nobody else sees Tony’s soulmark. Pepper asks. Tony refuses.

There is no one after her. There is only Iron Man.

_______

A cold cream is pressed into the electrical burns running down Tony’s entire torso and neck. He can’t reach his back, but Rhodey has him covered.

“Is it...”

Tony doesn’t know how to finish the sentence (is it gone? Is it ok? Is it damaged?). Rhodey’s hands, numb and strange with the cream, press lightly between his shoulder blades.

“Nothing touched it.”

Rhodey reassured him. Tony’s gut twisted, turning over itself with a mixture of relief and dread.

Nothing ever touched his soulmark. Nothing but himself and Rhodey.

(He wished something else would, though)

(A touch less gentle)

(Something that would burn and burn and burn until the mark was the least of his worries)

_______

When he’s flying Iron Man, Tony is free. In the armour, it’s natural to be covered up. It’s normal to have his back pressed against a metaphorical (and physical) wall.

The plates on his back are the sleekest, linking together seamlessly despite the need for complex articulation (they are the thickest, too. Nothing will ever break through). They are smooth. Unmarked.

He can’t give up the suit. In a way, it’s the closest he’s ever been to being himself.

_______

Being Iron Man, despite its difficulties, makes Tony HAPPY. It feels like his ‘something great’. It feels like something worthy of being marked, if only because he has died countless times.

It only gets better with Rhodey by his side.

(The chainmail on his chest was an exact match for the armour's paint job)

_______

Being Iron Man makes Tony happy. It gives him purpose.

It gives him Steve Rogers.

That’s almost enough for him to think being Iron Man was never worth it. It’s almost enough that he wishes...

He wishes the mark was for a great death. This life isn’t worth living.

_______

Steve hates him. It figures.

Tony can’t tear his eyes away from the void engraved onto Steve Rogers' chest, right over his heart. A perfectly round hole.

If Steve was a different man, it would look like he was heartless. But Tony knew who that mark matched, so it only looked like Steve’s heart had been ripped out.

Bucky Barnes had been dead for nearly a century.

So yeah, Steve hates Tony for staring. Tony thinks he’s lucky that that’s all Steve hates him for.

_______

“I’ve always wondered what it meant.”

Steve says, startling Tony out of his thoughts (and the inevitable wandering of his eyes to Steve’s well-muscled chest).

“What?”

Tony asks, already beginning to shrink back (edging away, hoping to escape. He hadn’t meant to approach Steve. He’d just looked so alone, sitting in a window alcove and staring down at the forever changed streets of the city beneath him). Steve doesn’t look at him, however Tony feels the weight of his regard (his misery) anyway.

“I always wondered what our mark,”

Steve says and Tony’s heart momentarily stops,

“Meant. Buck always said it was empty - something we had to fill. Said I had enough soul to fill it all on my own.”

Steve laughs, the sound choked with tears,

“My own little pocket of the universe.”

There’s an itch between Tony’s shoulder blades. He’s terrified of indulging it. Steve still isn’t looking, but Tony feels like if he does he’ll see everything (through the two layers of shirts and adhesive skin).

Steve buried his face in his hands.

“You see it too, don’t you?”

He asked,

“It is emptiness. But I’m never going to fill it again. All I have left of him is the cold - it’s the only thing that never goes away.”

Tony doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t know how to tell Steve that he’s never thought that without it being a lie. He doesn’t know how to say that Steve is DIFFERENT.

Steve has always been different (the exception to all of Howard’s rules).

He winds up saying nothing. Instead, he sits underneath the window alcove, back pressed securely to the wall. Tony listens to Steve try his best to cry silently and gently runs his fingers through the slowly warming air.

(He loves JARVIS)

(He hopes he never loves Steve)

_______

“Captain Rogers has arrived on your floor, Sir.”

JARVIS notified Tony as he was in the middle of prying off his suit jacket. Tony’s hands froze - the jacket was stiff and hot after a too-long night, but his shirt underneath was white.

He was wearing false skin that had never failed before, though he had never been sure how good a super soldier’s eyes were.

With shaking fingers, Tony buttons himself back into the jacket. Better safe than sorry (better hated for butting his head where it doesn’t belong than for-).

“Rogers.”

He called out, pasting a pleasant smile on his face,

“What brings you to my humble abode? Accommodations not good enough down below, so you’ve come to steal my space?”

It’s light, teasing, but Tony actually hates anybody being in the penthouse. It makes him feel like there’s nowhere he can be alone (safe). Clearly, Steve picks up on that (hunching in on himself apologetically).

Tony doesn’t apologize. He doesn’t know how to without giving Steve free reign to be up here. He doesn’t know how to explain why he doesn’t want that.

“I just wanted...”

Steve trails off, steels himself,

“Can I draw up here? The rest of the team...they’re...”

Tony inclined his head. He watches silently as Steve struggles to find the words.

“Boisterous. They want to talk.”

Steve finally settles on. Tony’s puzzled, however he won’t deny the man his art. He’s leaving anyway.

“Go on.”

He tells Steve,

“You can be king of this castle. My princess is in another one.”

He moves towards the elevator. He’s jerked to a startled stop by Steve’s hand closing around his bicep.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to imply you couldn’t talk-“

Steve was saying, a flush high on his cheeks,

“And you certainly don’t have to leave - it’s your apartment. I just-“

Tony clasped Steve’s hand. It was a casual gesture, especially after being grabbed, but Steve stared at Tony’s hand like he wasn’t sure it really existed. It was a bit unnerving.

“I was leaving anyway, big guy-“

Tony began to explain, however the crestfallen expression on Steve’s face wouldn’t let him continue. He was still weirdly focused on Tony’s hand (his own flexing underneath it, digging uncomfortably into Tony’s bicep).

“Hey,”

Tony called out to him,

“Are you ok?”

Tony slipped his hand away from Steve’s to cup his face instead. He was surprised to find himself supporting over two hundred pounds of muscle a second later as Steve sagged in his grip, pushing his face into Tony’s neck.

“Uh...”

Tony mumbled,

“This is ok. I guess. Uh...feeling a little bit touch-starved there, buddy?”

Steve didn’t respond. He just kept the maximum amount of skin contact between them possible (his chest coming uncomfortably close to Tony’s own. He didn’t want that mark over his own heart - over the reactor. Not now, not ever).

Awkwardly, Tony shuffled them both over to the couch and sat down heavily (Steve nearly knocking the wind out of him going down. The man was practically made from a stone). While he was struggling to silently cancel his meeting through JARVIS, Steve fell asleep.

Weird.

_______


Steve Rogers hated him. He hated Tony, but Tony was the one he had revealed his misery to, so he kept coming back when he needed comfort.

At least, that’s what Tony told himself the first time Steve wrapped an arm around his shoulder.

_______

“You did good today, Shellhead.”

Steve’s warm voice washes over Tony, leaving him stunned for a second.

“You too, Winghead.”

He finally musters after an awkward pause. He flies off immediately after, despite the fact that he knows it’s futile. Steve will come find him the moment he touches down at the tower. He’ll touch him to make sure Tony is alright - that STEVE is alright.

Then he’ll probably take a nap on Tony’s couch again, a hand pressed tight to the soulmark on his chest.

And Tony will run away like he always does.

(Not far, though)

(Never far enough)

_______

So maybe Steve Rogers likes Tony. It doesn’t mean anything. The man said it himself - he was empty.

Maybe everyone with the mark of the void would spend their lives trying to fill it. Maybe that’s all Tony was.

Filler.

_______

On his better days, on the foolish ones where Rhodey flew with him and kissed his cheeks, Tony thought about how the light of the arc reactor offset any darkness.

He thought about how well it would fit into the hole in his back.

The hole in Steve’s chest.

On his better days, Tony wonders what it’s like to let himself dream of something wonderful.

_______

“Is Rhodes yours?”

Steve asks, right around the point that he’s finally started opening up around everyone else. They’re at a private party - Avengers only. Rhodey’s chainmail is on full display and he’s proudly (drunkenly) proclaiming himself Tony’s knight in shining armour.

“No.”

Tony says, blowing Rhodey a kiss (watching him catch it, put it in his pocket),

“I don’t have a soulmark.”

_______

Steve shows up in Tony’s rooms that night. He goes to sleep on the couch, completely missing Rhodey conked out in Tony’s bed. They miss each other in the morning, too.

Tony doesn’t know why he’s so relieved.

_______

There’s always an arm around Tony’s shoulders nowadays. A chin balanced on his head. A hand tucked into his back pocket.

Steve is always touching.

Even though he has others to cuddle away the touch-starvation with.

_______

Shyly, Tony begins to touch back. He’s too stupid to do anything else. Too hopeful. A dumb dog on the sidewalk that follows people home for scraps.

He traces patterns on the underside of Steve’s wrist, idly kissing the back of his hand (listening carefully to the way that Steve’s breath catches, stutters, sighs right out of him in pleasure). He plays with strands of golden blond hair when Steve lectures him, tweaks Steve’s ears, tickles his sides.

Under the attention, Steve seems to...glow. His happiness is frightening.

No one else is afraid, so Tony hides it. He smiles, he laughs, and he keeps touching even when he wants to scream.

_______

“Sir.”

JARVIS calls out to him at 3am. Tony has been laying in bed, gazing sightlessly at the dark expanse of his ceiling.

“What is it, JARVIS?”

Tony asks. His fingers trace a circle in the shadows (his back itches. He hasn’t touched it in days - he keeps his hands in his pockets or on Steve’s skin).

“Your mark...”

JARVIS trails off,

“I do not understand why it matches Captain Rogers’.”

JARVIS is toeing the line between tentative and frustrated curiosity. Ever since he was born, JARVIS had always hated mysteries (that he couldn’t solve).

“It was always meant to.”

Tony responds. He shifts, places his fist against his back, popping his spine. Each crack sounds unnaturally loud in the quiet of his room.

“It was destined.”

JARVIS concludes (something stubborn in his tone. Something hopeful. It reminds Tony of Rhodey’s “I wanted to say it wasn't a bad thing.”).

“You could say that.”

Tony tells him.

He lays awake for hours afterwards, fist crushed against his back until it’s numb (until it feels like a stranger’s hand).

_______

Charcoal scratches against paper as Steve’s hand skims along Tony’s spine (he’s laying on the floor, breathing as easy as he can with the reactor pressed to the carpet). As his fingers pass through the valley between Tony’s shoulders, Tony manfully resists a shudder. He holds perfectly (unnaturally) still.

Steve’s hand returns, his palm pressing firmly down Tony’s spine (the warmth of it nothing in comparison to the heat in Steve’s eyes). The heel of it grinds into every dip in Tony’s neck, slow and questioning - a conversation in motion. Tony rolls over before it can touch the darkest place on his body.

He makes his excuses and leaves. Steve finishes drawing him anyway - Tony can see part of the paper from JARVIS’ cameras.

He can see the smear of shadow Steve has placed high on his back.

_______

“He loves you.”

Natasha says. Tony freezes, hand resting lightly on the toaster (he’d changed out some wiring, put in a program so it could toast messages into bread - it was for a prank, though he couldn’t remember who exactly he was pranking).

“He has a hole in his heart.”

Tony responds,

“And he’s looking to fill it.”

Doubt flickers through Natasha’s eyes - nearly invisible (this was the most she could stand for him to see. As honest as she could be, a bright red hand printed wide and heavy across her throat). Tony thinks she understands what he means.

Maybe she understands everything he means (he’d seen Yelana before the Avengers had lost her again. A Black Widow with a bloody handprint on her face. Somebody who could never hide forever but was determined to anyway - hopeless. Natasha said their prints didn’t match. She was right...Yelana’s mark came from slightly smaller hands, ones that Natasha Romanov kept perfectly maintained).

_______

The Winter Soldier loses his mask and Steve loses his blinders (or whatever idiocy convinced him that anybody but James Barnes could be his for life). He can see more than just Tony now.

In fact, it’s like Tony isn’t even there.

Natasha can’t look Tony in the eye anymore. Her hands clench, but sometimes Tony sees them caress her throat regretfully.

He’s sorry to be another lesson to her.

He’s sorry that sometimes a mark is just for great death, not a great life.

_______

Fighting Barnes is paralyzing. Tony has never been more scared in his life, because Steve isn’t at his back this time. Nobody is - each time Steve falters, they have to pick him up.

Only Tony ignores him.

Only Tony can’t give this - Barnes - up.

Only Tony is willing to kill him if he has to (there’s a void on his back, an opening that shows how death pours in and fills his chest to the brim. Sometimes he thinks the reactor, bright and blue and beautiful, is the only thing keeping that blackness at bay).

Tony alone can’t stop the Winter Soldier, though. He’s confused, but his training holds strong - he’s vicious and efficient and STRONG.

There’s a darkness rolling and heaving like the sea in his gaze. It’s replacing the black mark that used to cover his left palm (the size and shape of one of Tony’s repulsers.).

Tony lets Barnes close in on him, charging up and getting ready to cleave through metal, to disable even if it allows Barnes to kick his ass-

But he was mistaken in thinking no one was at his back. Natasha lunged, pulling away the Soldier’s attention in a desperate move that made Tony want to scream (Natasha had never been taught to do that. Natasha had never been taught how to look at him with pity, with the need to protect. Obedience to that teaching was supposed to keep her SAFE).

Blood blossomed on her chest. Tony did scream, then. His thoughts raced at the same rate as his heart.

(A red hand marked all along Natasha’s throat in a stranglehold)

(It restrained her. Held her back. Her destiny was to die by it or to disobey on her way to a great destiny)

(To say words that she had never been allowed. To never work in another’s service again)

(She was still in service - still with SHIELD. It wasn’t her time. The bullet had passed through her chest and not her throat. It wasn’t her time)

(It wasn’t time)

The repulser in Tony’s palm whined. He could hear Steve screaming at him distantly. He could see Natasha’s lips moving, a sardonic smile on her face (a great death. “I don’t even deserve that.” A laugh. “I was supposed to die like a dog.” No. No-). He can feel Barnes’ footfalls shake the ground as he made his way over to Tony’s suit.

The world went red. For a second, Tony thought it was with anger - his ears were ringing loudly with it. But then the red condensed into alerts; JARVIS trying every available avenue to get his attention.

[PALM PRESSURE CRITICAL]

[ENERGY DISSIPATION MEASURES IN FULL EFFECT]

[ENERGY REDISTRIBUTION: FAILED]

[TARGET: ???]

Barnes was right there. He could carve a hole in his palm, give him the shock of a lifetime, make him remember SOMETHING. Steve had shaken Barnes. Tony knew that.

He could also fire right into Barnes’ chest. He wasn’t protecting himself - he was a man on a mission (a gun, aimed and cocked).

[PALM INTEGRITY: 90% AND FALLING]

[TARGET: ???]

Steve rushed out, standing with his back to Barnes, facing Tony with a desperate expression on his face and a shield in hand. Barnes still had a gun. It was pressed to Steve’s back (right between the shoulder blades).

He could fire into the ground, but at this range it would injure Nat (shrapnel slitting her red throat) and Barnes. He could fire straight up and risk civilian casualties. The armour lining his arms wasn’t capable of absorbing much more kinetic energy. The armour on his chest and head was too thin.

[PALM INTEGRITY: 80%]

[WARNING]

Barnes moved, completely ignoring Steve. He strides forward, expressionless, gun raised to fire despite knowing it will do no damage to the Iron Man armour.

JARVIS has targeted Barnes’ hand, which had gotten too close to Tony’s face for comfort between one second and the next (he felt his legs move a step back without his conscious effort - JARVIS jerking him harshly out of range).

Tony lifted his own hand. He could see the crosshairs JARVIS set up blinking at him. Red on red on red on (a red hand pressed against Natasha’s throat. A collar. A leash. It wasn’t time. A red star on Barnes’ arm. A red stain on Steve’s side, the red of his eyes when he had spent days crying over living in a new century)-

He pressed it tight to his own back, tucked dangerously between the thick sliding plates of his shoulder blades, resting just over three knobs of his spine. Barnes froze, confusion sliding over his frozen features, horror melting into his eyes.

“N-“

Barnes croaked, metal hand extended (fingers still curled around his handgun).

[TARGET: LOCKED]

[BACK PLATES: LOCKED]

[COMMAND: FIRE]

_______

“I was in the surgery theatre when they treated the fractures in your shoulders. Had to make sure no one took photos.”

Natasha’s voice was thin. Barely a wisp of silk on the wind. It seemed to spool out of her lungs and into the distance without disappearing.

Tony kept his eyes closed, preferring that mental image over the reality he was sure to be faced with.

“You have whiplash and a concussion. None of the skin on your back was burned.”

She tells him. He hears an echo of Rhodey’s voice from years ago (none of his back was burned. It never was).

“I kept them out, Tony.”

She intertwined their fingers, pressed Tony’s hand to her throat. He spread his fingers accommodatingly - he’d long since memorized her mark.

“This wasn’t your great death.”

She says. He opens his eyes, meeting hers head-on.

“It never is.”

He confesses, fingers stroking her mark. There’s something bitter in the way she swallows and nods, saying,

“It never is. Not when you expect it.”

She doesn’t say what they’re both thinking. Not quite. Not really.

(It never is)

(Not when you want it to be)

(Not when YOU get to choose)

_______

The next time Tony wakes up, it’s to blaring alarms. He knows without asking that Barnes has escaped whatever captivity they had managed to get him into.

He knows because Barnes’ metal palm is pressed against his spine.

“You’re dangerous.”

Barnes says, sounding a bit rapturous in the creepiest of ways. His voice is rusty, reminding Tony of the old scrapyard him and Rhodey used to hit, way back when Howard cut him off in his second year. His people skills are apparently rusty, too.

“Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to talk to strangers?”

Tony rasps out, attempting to roll over. Barnes' hand pressed him flat to the hospital bed. The reactor crushes his lungs.

“A hole here,”

Barnes fingers tighten, pinching Tony’s skin unpleasantly, making every panic receptor in his brain light up nice and bright,

“Would have killed you. You fired, though.”

Tony growls, bending an arm behind his back to scrabble at Barnes’ unyielding fingers.

“You’re dangerous.”

Barnes repeats. His tone is exactly like JARVIS’ when he thinks he’s figured something out. Steely confidence and a certain kind of satisfaction.

...

Speaking of JARVIS, he was suspiciously silent. Tony brushed his fingers through the air once before Barnes snatched them, pressing them to his back.

Tony heard the quiet snick of guns cocking from the ceiling. Barnes inhaled sharply, but his tone was pleased when he murmured,

“Dangerous.”

It took hours after he disappeared for Tony to finally fall back asleep.

_______

The tower was empty of everyone but Natasha when Tony woke up. They’d gone after Barnes, of course.

“Tell me about Yelana.”

Tony demanded, collapsing onto the sofa next to her (gazing at their reflections in the black TV screen).

“I was supposed to kill her.”

Natasha whispered,

“My hands wrapped around her throat. She pushed on my face...”

_______

The others checked in regularly. Steve stayed gone, though. Tony tried not to let it sting - was even a little successful when Rhodey came back (heart beating too fast under his chainmail, worry coursing through him despite seeing Tony alive).

He managed to do alright for a few months. Managed to make it through dreams of his back burning, blood dripping, Yinsen’s confused face (“It came to me in my sleep, like a dream”). He made sure to eat and drink and avoid disturbing either of his shoulders (Rhodey laying adhesive for him every day, hands careful and painfully gentle).

And then Barnes ghosted into his room. Pinned Rhodey to the bed with one hand, caressed Tony’s back with the other. Used neither to do a damn thing about the knife Tony had to his throat.

Barnes looked pleased.

“You won’t let me kill him.”

Barnes observed, palm moving in a circle that had bile rising in Tony’s throat,

“You’re dangerous. I can stay if you're here.”

“No offense.”

Tony responded, pushing the knife in deep enough to draw blood,

“But I’m not inclined to let you stay while you’re touching me like you’re a Catholic priest and I’m an innocent altar boy. Try making a better second impression, Barnes.”

Rhodey reached over, yanking Tony out of Barnes’ grip despite being pinned by the chest. He snarled, putting his own hand over Tony’s spine in a move that was probably too revealing (Tony couldn’t help but think that Barnes’ fascination said too much had been revealed already).

Barnes smirked, then seemingly melted into the darkness.

By the time Tony got out of bed, scrambled into one of Rhodey’s old hoodies, and tore downstairs, Barnes was already locked in the Hulk room. He looked smug. Tony sighed and pressed his forehead to the glass as Barnes watched.

“JARVIS...”

Tony said,

“Call Steve.”