Steve’s mark comes in when he turns five.
Anthony Edward Stark is neatly printed on his wrist, and he thumbs it with awe for a whole thirty seconds, before he’s running to his mother, screaming at the top of his lungs, which promptly start to burn after he pushes himself a little too far.
He’s forced to stop, hunch over and take very deep breaths before his legs turn to stone and he topples, but he just can’t seem to take his eyes off those letters on his skin.
Tony is born cold.
In fact, when the doctors pull him out of Maria, they think he’s dead, because no one, no baby could literally come out of the human body and be so chilled to the bone.
But Tony’s head lolls and he screams at the top of his lungs, which declares to the stunned room of doctors that Anthony Edward Stark is very much alive and very much unhappy.
Barely half an hour after he shows his mother his soulmark (and only because she made him eat his lunch first), Steve finds one of his charcoals and starts writing on his arm the way his mother told him to.
Deer Anthony my name is Steeve thank yu for being my solmate I can’t wayt to meet yu.
And he waits.
And he waits.
But no one answers.
Despondent, he runs back to his mother and shows her his arm, asking why his soulmate hasn’t replied.
Sarah Rogers kisses his little palm and says, “Stevie, maybe your soulmate’s just shy. I’m sure he’ll write back to you soon; just don’t give up.”
Steve nods and starts drawing again on his arm, hoping that, like his mother said, he’ll soon feel that tingle and the scribble crawling up his arm from his soulmate.
It doesn’t happen.
The cold never seems to leave Tony, even if he’s piled with thick, soft blankets, which are supposedly the best that money can buy. But he grows accustomed to it, sooner or later. After all, he has no choice.
Not to mention, Ana is always nice enough to make sure the fire is burning bright when he’s around. It’s even better when she wraps her arms around him and holds him close (it doesn’t make him less cold by any means, but there’s a different kind of warmth when she looks down at him with laughing hazel-green eyes). When she’s curled around him, he likes to prop his wrist on her knee and watch her trace the name on his wrist with a smooth nail, making him laugh.
He wonders if his soulmate will make him laugh too.
Jarvis joins them as much as he can, even if Tony’s father always keeps him busy, and when he’s there, Jarvis makes him his special hot chocolate, made from real chocolate, melted on the slow cooker with cinnamon, ground ginger and just a pinch of chilli powder, which makes him warm in his belly for a few minutes before the shivering returns, wracking Tony’s tiny body.
He can’t even go down to his father’s workshop anymore, because everything is just colder there, and his teeth start chattering and Tony just feels all hollow and brittle inside and it makes him want to cry.
His father doesn’t like it when he cries; he likes it even less when Tony’s in his workshop, because his face crosses with this odd look and he can’t take his eyes off Tony’s wrist and sometimes, when he’s drunk, he makes Tony sit with him just so he can hold his arm and stare at the Steven Grant Rogers inked across his pulse point.
Tony knows who Steven Grant Rogers is. Tony knows his soulmate is Captain America. Tony knows that Captain America died twenty-five years before he was born.
He knows this, because he listened behind the door while his parents had a loud, vicious fight and his father slurred it out.
Then, he wonders, does he only have this name because his father wanted to be the father of Captain America’s soulmate? Is he a real person, or just the manifestation of his father’s wants and hopes?
He decides, then and there, that he wants to be a real person.
What does it matter, when his soulmate is dead anyway?
By the time he’s ten, Steve is frustrated.
Every day, for five years, he’s written on his arm and he’s been given nothing in return.
It makes him bitter even more than any of his ailments do. Sure, his heart pounds in his chest in a way that hurts and his lungs are drowning in something thick and viscous and brutal and his throat closes up and his eyes water and his legs and arms feel like stone and his stomach burns right through to his back, like a million little shards of glass are rolling around in his intestines.
But this hurts worse.
Because now he feels defective.
Like his soulmate knows what he’s going to get with him and that’s why he’s giving him a wide birth.
It gets a little better one day, when he’s on the ground with blood streaming down his nose and his shirt front, and another boy barrels right into his bully, screaming at him to leave him alone, you jerkface.
This boy’s name is James Buchanan Barnes and Steve promptly blurts out that his name is stupid and he’s going to call him Bucky from now on.
Bucky’s okay with that, though.
Months later, Bucky shows him the name on his wrist.
Natalia Alianovna Romanova.
When Bucky confesses that he’s written to his soulmate and he’s never gotten anything back, that he’s never felt anything from her, Steve, much to his shame, starts crying.
However, while it feels good to know that he isn’t pathetic or some sort of freak, it doesn’t do much to soothe this gnawing ache that’s burst forth inside him, because it’s still his ache, no one else’s; it doesn’t help him at night when he has vicious nightmares of nothing in particular; it doesn’t help him when he curls himself in a corner of the ramshackle apartment in which he and his mother live and writes frantically on his arm, much to no avail.
He still feels like he’s losing at something the universe never even gave him a chance to win.
His father tries to find Tony’s soulmate.
He knows that his father justifies all the time away from home, his beautiful wife and his only son, by telling himself that he’s doing it for Tony in the end.
Whenever he leaves, he always puts his hands on Tony’s shoulders, kneels in front of him and says, I’m going to find him for both of us, Tony.
As the years passed, Tony began to realise that Howard was only really referring to himself.
And frankly, he’d rather have Howard here.
He goes off to boarding school when he’s seven, and while it hurts that he’s so easily displaced by his parents, he’s grateful that he no longer has to catch Howard’s failure when he comes back home with empty arms.
He thinks, if he waits one more time for a super soldier that will never come home, he might actually get physically sick to his stomach from the anger and resentment.
It’s at boarding school where Tony meets Tiberius Stone for the first time.
Ty has no soulmate and Tony’s soulmate is dead (no matter what Howard says), so they’re a perfect match.
But in their fucked-up world, even a dead soulmate is better than no soulmate, so in the middle of an argument one night, Ty starts screaming at him how could a useless fucking waste of space like you get a fucking soulmate, Tony, let alone Captain fucking America and promptly pops him right in the mouth.
Honestly, Tony thinks the same thing.
That night, Tony packs up all of his things and pays one of the school drivers a shitload of money to take him back to Long Island, and he stands in front of his father, with a purpling bruise on his cheekbone, that he’s ready to go to MIT now.
The next day, he starts wearing a cuff on his right wrist.
Steve holds his mother’s hand in his own, the name on his wrist taunting him.
Sarah, every knowing of her son’s awful moods, especially when his soulmate came as the topic of conversation, gives his hand a weak squeeze.
“You’ll find him one day, Stevie,” she rasps.
Steve shakes his head. He’s eighteen now, no longer a victim to stupid, delusional fantasies about some boy who clearly couldn’t give a damn about him (and why would Anthony Edward Stark ever want some sick, weak little thing like him, anyway?).
Sometimes, he doubts his soulmate is even human, otherwise, why else would he not feel anything from him? No anger, no fear, no disgust, no joy, no surprise, no sadness, nothing.
“I don’t care anymore,” he says, lamely.
It’s a bold-faced lie and both of them know it.
Sarah’s smile is worn and mournful, her lips bloodless and thin (Steve doesn’t want to think about the fact that she already looks like a corpse). “Oh, Stevie, we both know that’s not true.” She grips at his hand. “You wouldn’t have his name on you if you weren’t meant to meet him.”
Steve smooths a hand across his mother’s forearm. “Ma, I… I really don’t want to talk about this right now.”
The last thing he needs is to spend these hours, his mother’s last hours, talking about someone who’ll just make him feel even more miserable.
Sarah Rogers is as shrewd, today, in this hospital bed, as she ever was, so she drops the subject, with just one last thing to say.
“I want you to promise me something, Steve,” she wheezes.
Steve’s brow furrows. “What is it, Ma?”
“I know you’re angry; I know you’re hurt, and I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, baby. But nothing is ever as it seems. When you meet him, don’t hold yourself back. Don’t be afraid. You’ll be surprised at what can happen.” She runs her thing over Steve’s thin, bony fingers. “Your Da and I… by the end of it all, it was bad. It really was. But I wouldn’t change any of it, at all. Not just because he gave me you, but because no one, not ever, has or could have loved me the way he did. I want that for you, all those good times. I want you to have all the good times.”
Four hours later, nurses walk in and cover his mother up with a white sheet.
Steve wonders if his soulmate feels just how hollow, dull, pointless the world just became when his mother’s eyes closed for the final time.
Steve supposes it doesn’t matter anymore.
It takes Tony two years, four months, twenty-seven days to tell James Rhodes exactly whose name is branded onto his wrist like he’s a cow for slaughter.
He waits, because if there’s a possibility that Rhodey could be kind, there’s also an equal and more damaging possibility he could be mean, and he could easily confirm every terrible, vicious thought Tony’s ever had about himself.
To this day, he hasn’t forgotten the words Ty spit out in anger; he’s held them close to his heart, nursed them like a child, because he knows, as much as it fucking destroys him, that it must be true.
To his credit, Rhodey only gapes at the name, a little blotched at the crowns of each letter, for a minute or two, before he shakes his head and says that blows, man.
Tony absolutely adores James Rhodes.
Rhodey has a name of his own: Carol Susan Jane Danvers.
“Have you met her yet?” Tony asks, curiously.
“Nah.” Rhodey shrugs, like it doesn’t mean anything to him (it must be nice, Tony thinks). “But I’m sure I’ll meet her soon enough. It’ll all come together.”
“Yeah,” Tony says, lamely.
Rhodey’s eyes widen. “Shit. Sorry, man, I didn’t think-”
“It’s fine.” Tony waves off.
It isn’t Rhodey’s fault he got a bad rap in the soulmate department.
“I’m really sorry, Tony,” Rhodey says, sincerely.
“Don’t be.” Tony smiles at him as best as he can. “I’ve known this since pretty much forever, or at least since I got the mark.”
Rhodey stares at him; it’s an incisive look that cuts right through his flesh, and Tony has the urge to turn away from him, right now, in case Rhodey will figure out just how raw he is on the inside, how worthless and lacking he feels, how much this fucking hurts.
Tony doesn’t want Rhodey to see this part of him; no one can see this part of him.
The Tony Stark that everyone knows, that everyone needs to know, doesn’t need or want a soulmate.
As far as the world is concerned, the person behind the name on Tony’s writs is inconsequential.
If only that were true, then his life would be different; hell, he’d be different.
Rhodey shakes his head and Tony finally deflates in relief.
“Come on,” he begins. “You promised that we could go to that frat party.”
Rhodey laughs. “Are you going to get drunk and dance on a table?”
It had taken him twelve failed attempts at twelve different parties to pry the red solo cup out of Tony’s hands, which he always managed to source from somewhere, until he finally decided to give up.
“Don’t tempt me,” Tony warns with a light smile.
He makes sure the black leather of the cuff is thoroughly covering his soulmark.
He has enough infamy here at MIT, without adding this to the mix.
He promises to himself that this is the last time, his last effort, his last chance, and he waits, sitting on top of that bare, cold cot in the medical examination room, as a nurse whispers something to the doctor who was just about to start examining him – he knows exactly what this doctor will find; he knows exactly why they deem him unfit for military service, but he doesn’t care.
He knows, somewhere deep in his bones, deeper than that mark that will always been a disappointment, a sign of his perceived unworthiness, that he’s supposed to do this.
There are men laying down their lives. I got no right to do any less than them.
Bucky hadn’t been impressed when he said that, but Bucky isn’t like him, for all that he feels just as hollow and mortified as Steve does when it comes to their soulmates; he doesn’t know what it’s like to be less; the dames have always liked Bucky, with his thick, dark hair, pleasing features and roguish grin.
If or when Steve were to meet this Anthony Edward Stark, the man’s more likely to turn away in disgust at having a soulmate in this skinny, wretched little death-reject that he is.
This war might be his only chance at something worth fighting for.
A strange look comes over the doctor’s face, and he narrows his eyes. “Wait here,” he instructs.
Steve frowns. “Is there a problem?”
The doctor makes a face of disdain. “Just wait here.”
He and the nurse storm out of the medical examination room, leaving Steve alone, with dread sinking into his stomach like a heavy weight.
His eyes track to the sign plastered across the wall behind him.
It is illegal to falsify your enlistment form.
“Fuck,” he exhales.
It’s better off if he leaves now.
He jumps off the cot and makes his way over to where his shoes were lying beside a chair, tying them as quickly as possible, because the last thing he needs is to spend the night, Bucky’s last night, in a jail cell.
An enlistment office MP bursts into the room and Steve stops in his track, looking up at him, worriedly, as the man just stares him down, unfathomably.
A much older man sweeps through the curtains, with a greying beard, thinning hair and wide, silver-rimmed glasses.
“Thank you,” he tells the MP in a heavily-accented voice, and the MP nods, ducking out through the curtains. The man looks at Steve. “So,” he drawls. “You want to go overseas. Kill some Nazis.”
Steve reels back. “Excuse me?”
The man smiles at him, kindly (Steve imagines that this is how his father would’ve smiled, had he not dissolved into a puddle of drink and died in the street).
“Dr Abraham Erskine,” he explains, walking over to him. “I represent the Strategic Scientific Reserve.”
“Steve Rogers,” Steve replies, promptly, sliding to his feet and shaking the man’s hand.
Erskine drops his file down onto the cot and proceeds to peruse through it.
Steve takes a deep breath, because the accent is niggling at him.
“Where are you from?”
“Queens,” Erskine says, quietly. “73rd Street and Utopia Parkway. Before that, Germany. This troubles you?” he asks, curiously, when he doesn’t hear anything from Steve’s end.
Steve immediately shakes his head. “No.”
“Where are you from, Mr Rogers?” Erskine hums. “Is it New Haven? Or Paramus? Five exams in five different cities.”
Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit.
“That might not be the right file,” Steve interjects.
“No, it’s not the exams I’m interested in. It’s the five tries. But you didn’t answer my question. Do you want to kill Nazis?” Erskine waits, expectantly.
Steve narrows his eyes. “Is this a test?” he demands.
To his credit, Erskine doesn’t even try to lie. “Yes,” he answers, simply.
Steve chews his lip. “I don’t wanna kill anyone,” he says, firmly. “I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.”
Erskine stares him down, but he must find something he likes, because he smiles.
“Well, there are already so many big men fighting this war. Maybe what we need now is the little guy, huh? I can offer you a chance.”
Erskine gestures for Steve to accompany him when he leaves the room, which he does.
“Only a chance,” he warns.
Steve doesn’t think twice.
“I’ll take it.”
Erskine smiles. “Good.” He pauses. “Tell me, Mr Rogers, do you have a soulmate?”
Not for the first time in his life, he’s grateful that he’s small enough, his wrists are thin enough that his shirt sleeves always cover the lettering.
“No,” he says, firmly.
There’s a furrow in Erskine’s brow. “Do you not have a name?”
“I don’t have a soulmate.” Steve lifts his chin up.
He doesn’t want the pity, the disgust, the confusion that those letters on his wrist will inevitably engender, because he’s had enough of that, from his mother, from his neighbours, from anyone else who connected the dots between the absence of his soulmate and the way he hushed up any talk about his soulmate.
Erskine, thankfully, concludes that this isn’t a topic to push with him. “So where is the little guy from, actually?”
Erskine stamps something onto Steve’s form and hands him back the file. “Congratulations, soldier.”
When Steve opens up his file, he sees 1A inked onto the first page.
It feels like vindication.
When he gets home that night, it’s silly and fantastical, but he writes what happens on his arm, praying that, this time, just once, he’ll get a reply.
He should’ve guessed, because he gets nothing.
He gets the call about his parents when he’s coming off a hangover and a three-day tech binge that results in a very silly, witless limited artificial intelligence that he aptly names DUM-E, who rolls around his dorm room mindlessly, his claw picking up random things he finds strewn across the floor, while his chassis knocks into everything in his path.
“Yeah?” he slurs into the phone.
Obadiah’s voice is low, rough, thick and somehow, it manages to bring him out of that haze.
“It’s your mum and dad, Tony.”
“What-” Tony manages to jack-knife upwards and clutches at his head as it bursts open with splitting pain. “What happened?” he grits out.
His mouth tastes disgusting and there’s too much light in the room and DUM-E rolling around is really not helping, but he tries his best to pay attention to what Obadiah is saying.
“There was a car accident, Tony. Your mum and dad… I’m so sorry, Tony; they’re gone.”
“Gone?” he mumbles. “Gone where?”
“Tony,” Obadiah says, gently. “Tony, they’re dead.”
That doesn’t make sense, because he just spoke to his mother a couple of hours ago.
That’s not possible.
He voices this thought to Obadiah, who clucks in sympathy.
“Oh, Tony. Their car… it crashed into a tree. They died on impact.”
“Oh,” Tony says, lamely, because nothing else forms on his tongue.
That’s when the grief hits him. It’s brutal and relentless and slices through flesh and bone and marrow and knocks him down ruthlessly. Something cracks wide open in him, reaching in and pulling to pieces parts of him. He goes bitter-cold, a different kind of cold than he normally is, and joy, of course, his fucking soulmate would come up now.
“Shit,” he rasps, his voice thick.
“Tony, I’m so sorry.”
“I-” Tony’s voice breaks off halfway, because he just loses the ability to speak.
“I think you should come back here, Tony. There are… there are arrangements to make.”
The next few days go by in a blur and suddenly, he’s standing in front of two black coffins being lowered into the dirt. There’s an emptiness in the space beside him, where his soulmate should be, but isn’t. He wraps a hand around the black cuff on his right wrist. It doesn’t do much; he still doesn’t feel anything, but it’s somehow comforting, just to keep running his thumbs over the letters he knows will always be there.
A thousand strangers surround him, staring at him like a piece of meat, and their eyes centre in on the black cuff that speaks more than anything else. They want to know where Tony Stark’s soulmate is; they want to know who they are; they want to know why they aren’t here, on this day that he puts his parents into the ground.
Moreover, they want to know if he is mateless.
It would suit him right, according to them, because people like Tony, born with a silver spoon, clever, fortunate and kind of a dick, don’t deserve a soulmate – it would be so beautiful to them and it makes him sick to his stomach.
But more than anything, Tony just wishes Steve Rogers was here, but he knows it wouldn’t have made much of a difference (because Ty was right and his parents are dead anyway).
When Steve climbs into the pod, he thinks this might be his last day on this earth.
While he’s waiting in his bunk, he writes one last message, hoping that he’s lucky one last time in his life and his soulmate will write him back, because he doesn’t want his soulmate to wake up and see some dense, black smear across his wrist instead of Steve’s name, no matter what Anthony might feel towards him.
But he doesn’t, and Steve’s running out of time.
Before Erskine and Agent Carter come for him, he kneels by his bed.
He doesn’t pray that he’ll come out of this experiment alive; that wouldn’t be fair; that would be foolish, because death was something that he had signed up for a very long time ago.
Instead, he prays for Anthony. He prays that wherever he is, he is safe and happy and loved, because that is all Steve has ever wanted for him; he prays that whatever life Anthony has with or without him, it’s beautiful.
When they lead him into the facility in which the experiment will be conducted, Erskine introduces him to his colleague, Howard Stark, whose name makes Steve startle in shock.
Howard, cheesy-grinned, thinks it’s because of his infamous expo and his equally infamous reputation and shakes his hand, vehemently, but really, Steve hasn’t quite moved on from Stark (later on, he’ll casually ask Howard if he has any relatives named Anthony and Howard will reply no, I don’t, actually, I don’t have any family left and Steve will feel like the last rope he’d been hanging to was just pulled from his grasp, leaving him to fall).
They close the pod around him and he’s staring into darkness, his heart pumping like a racehorse in his chest.
He almost doesn’t register the pain because the darkness is so cloying around him, but there it is.
God, it feels like he’s being peeled like a grape, like they’re rending the flesh from his bones, cracking him open down to his white meat and pulling his innards slowly until he becomes something empty, hollow, and they fill up with something else, something animal-like, something enduring.
Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God. He’s going to die here.
This was such a fucking mistake.
Anthony, Anthony, I’m so sorry, he wants to sob out, because it doesn’t matter how hurt he’s been, how foolish and sick and worthless he felt.
He’s just sorry he never got to meet this man who the universe made for him.
Just when the pain escalates, when it feels like he’s going to be turned into pulp, it all stops, and they open up the pod.
He falls out, ungracefully, and suddenly, he’s staring over the heads of most of the men of whom he couldn’t have looked into the eye, had he even wanted to. He looks down at a large palm, a palm that doesn’t (shouldn’t) belong to him, a good twice-as-big as his own, but it’s his. All of this – big hands, big arms, big legs, big feet, solid, defined stomach, it’s him.
It’s stupid and pathetic and heartbreaking, he knows, but his first thought as he realises this, is would Anthony like me now?
When Tony sees the shell, he’s almost certain that this will be the end of him.
It quite literally blows up in his face and he flies across the desert, finally hitting a patch of dirt and skidding until he finally stops.
Something inside him snaps upon landing; he thinks it must be one of his ribs.
It doesn’t matter, because the wet, syrupy feeling he’s getting from his chest is more distracting than any possible broken bones. He tears open his shirt, to reveal a sticky-crimson bulletproof vest.
Oh. Oh, shit.
He wonders, then, as he lies there, bleeding into the sand, if it hurt like this when Steve crashed his plane all those decades ago.
His last thought, before he gives into the pain and his eyes fall shut, is that I should’ve been there with him; he should’ve been here with me; we should’ve died together.
Oh, well, at least he’ll meet him now.
Bucky fell from the train and Steve didn’t-couldn’t save him.
He’s sitting here, in this bar, drinking from a bottle that doesn’t do a damn thing, at an empty table, staring at the seats that should be taken, but aren’t, and it feels like the universe is cackling at him.
Agent Carter comes to check on him, at some point, gives him some platitudes about death and choice and dignity and it doesn’t sit well with him, because he doesn’t really give a damn and Bucky should be here.
Anthony should be here.
He gave into the urge, as soon as he found a pen, after Bucky fell, and wrote and wrote and wrote, but as always, he received nothing in return.
In a fit of fury, he threw the pen as hard as it could, and it left a dent in the wall.
At some point, he slips out of his chair and curls onto the ground.
Steve just wants Bucky back.
And he doesn’t think he wants a soulmate anymore.
When Obadiah wrenches the arc reactor from his chest with a sickening, metallic thwack, Tony thinks this is it, this is the end.
Obadiah turns his back on him and walks away, and it’s the greatest metaphor for his life, sitting here on this couch, in an empty house, while the last dregs of the people who were supposed to love him walk away, and if he dies, well, that will be a fitting ending.
He knows he’s dying. He can feel his arms and legs turn to stone, his heart hammering in his chest. He knows he’s supposed to be cold, but he’s always been cold, and he doesn’t know the difference anymore.
At least, the feeling behind dying is familiar.
But clearly the universe hates him, because he doesn’t die like he should (yet again). Instead, the paralysis wears off, mid-cardiac arrest, and he collapses to the ground.
He has a choice now.
He can curl up into a ball and just die here, like he should’ve so many times over, or he can fight for his life, fight for however many months he’s allowed.
He made a promise to fix his mistakes, and as much as it sounds appealing, dying isn’t fixing anything; dying is throwing in the towel; dying is admitting that he’s a coward.
He isn’t a fucking coward.
He looks down at his wrist.
Steve Rogers was no coward.
It’s not much, but it’s enough.
He isn’t being brave or stoic when he crashes into the ice, despite what anyone might think.
This isn’t some grand gesture of heroism, as he’s sure the comics will spin it.
He knows what’s in this plane; he knows that the Skull wanted people dead; that’s enough for Steve to do this.
Honestly, he’s utterly terrified because death isn’t an attracting prospect to anyone; death is always terrifying, no matter what some ingenuous, stupid soul might think.
The ice bursts through the glass, flooding the ship and sending him flying back, out of his chair. He tries to grab onto something, to gain some or any purchase, but to no avail.
At some point, he hits a wall and smacks back onto the ground.
He tries to open his mouth, take a desperate gulp of air, but the ice swallows him whole before he can even get his lungs to start working.
Time has no meaning in this bitter hell, and he doesn’t even know when he stops thinking, stops feeling, when his heart stops beating, but the awareness and what this means hits him like a blow to the head.
Anthony Edward Stark was never meant to be his.
The universe has been laughing at him this entire time, and he had been playing a game that he was always meant to lose.
God, he really is an idiot.
There’s a moment, when Tony tests his blood and 96% taunts him, that Tony thinks when he closes his eyes next, this will be it for him.
At the same time, he’s also very much aware of how much of a drama queen he sounds, because he’s thought that pretty much every time he’s been in a life-threatening situation since a bomb exploded in his face.
But, this time, he doesn’t see a way out of it.
This time, even with the care package from his father that SHIELD had not-so-kindly dropped off for him, he doesn’t think he can solve this.
He sits, curled up in the armchair in his workshop, in the midst of a chill that hasn’t left his bones since he was old enough to understand what cold meant, while the projector clicks noisily as the reel ends and the image of his father on the screens shutters away.
He looks down at the cuff on his wrist that he hadn’t taken off when he came back home from making peace with Pepper, and he flings it off, angrily, because there is nothing left to hide now; there is nothing left to protect inside him.
All those soft spots he had built armour around will die just as easily as the rest of him.
Someone – he imagines it’ll be Pepper and he regrets she’ll have to see him like that – will find him in his bed or on the floor the next morning, his skin ashen, his eyes closed, and his wrist will be right there.
All it would take is a quick snap and it would all be bared.
It’s better if it happens on his own terms.
Let them see who he is, who the universe made for him.
They’ll pity him or perhaps, they’ll find this warranted: the drunken, rich reprobate, the futility of his soulmark, and the dead national icon and war hero he should’ve had for a soulmate.
It’s pathetic, but if the universe is just, then this is exactly how his story was meant to go.
The only saving grace is that when he finally dies, he’ll see Steve.
Maybe they’ll get their chance once they’re both dead.
If he’s dead, Tony can’t help but think.
In thirty-five years of him having this soulmark, Steve’s name has never smudged as the laws of the universe dictate; there has never been a dark smear of ink across his wrist like his soulmark should’ve been, had he really died.
Tony had harboured hope in the first few years, when Howard had seemed so confident, so fucking sure that his old war buddy and (hopefully) future son-in-law was alive, but after the first decade passed, after Ty shattered his cheekbone, he had realised that his soulmark was just defective.
But if it isn’t, if Steve Rogers is still alive somewhere, then Tony is an even greater monster than he already was, and there’s no way he’s ever going to see Steve, because good, decent people like Captain America go to heaven, while warmongering, selfish, gullible idiots like Tony Stark burn in hell.
He raises his tumbler of whiskey to an empty room.
Good fucking riddance.
When Steve comes to, he’s lying on a soft cot in a barren, oatmeal-walled hospital room, to the sound of a gruff, excited voice on the radio beside the bed.
“Curve ball, high and outside for ball one. So the Dodgers are tied, 4-4. And the crowd well knows that with one swing of his bat, this fellow’s capable of making it a brand-new game again. Just an absolutely gorgeous day here at Ebbets Field. The Phillies have managed to tie up at 4-4. But the Dodgers have three men on. Pearson beaned Reiser in Philadelphia last month. Wouldn’t the youngster like a hit here to return the favour? Pete leans in. Here’s the pitch. Swung on. A line to the right. And it gets past Rizzo. Three runs will score. Reiser heads to third. Durocher’s going to wave him in. Here comes the relay, but they won’t get him.”
His throat is raging, his head is pounding, his eyes are heavy and damp, and his limbs feel like stone, but he’s somehow able to turn his head, when he hears strange, mechanical sounds coming from outside the window.
That’s when he sees it.
There are thick, black scribbles covering the entirety of his right arm. He sees numbers and symbols and various letters traversing down from his bicep down to his wrist, where Anthony’s name is, thankfully, still there, albeit slightly rumpled in certain places.
He touches the markings with awe.
It hits him then: disbelief, concern and raw fear.
They’re not his emotions, as much as he could fool himself that they were.
Steve starts crying, quietly.
In twenty-two years, this is all he’s ever wanted.
He swipes his tears, angrily, ashamed at his lack of composure, because while this is everything he’s ever wanted, there were so many years that he needed this and it was like the universe was laughing at him.
Something warm, hopeful and gentle wraps itself around him. It isn’t coming from him, because he isn’t good at changing from sad to angry to calm so quickly; he stews on his emotions; he lingers on them until they become his focal point in reality, so this can only be coming from his soulmate.
Thank you, he thinks, even though no one will hear it but him.
Maybe he’ll get a chance to look him in the eye and say these words.
Something akin to courage unfurls inside him.
He can do this now.
A nurse walks into the room, briskly, and he turns his head, because he doesn’t understand what’s happening (all he remembers is the ice) and he just hopes he doesn’t look like a complete mess.
The nurse gives him a gentle smile. “Good morning.” She checks her watch. “Or should I say, afternoon?” she jokes.
Steve narrows his eyes. “Where am I?”
It’s nothing instinctual that makes him doubt her whole masquerade; his skin doesn’t crawl or anything; it’s the way her shirt drapes over her, completely flat, even though he can see the outline of her bra underneath.
As silly as it sounds, there’s a lack of a significant point where her breasts are.
He doesn’t usually spend his time ogling people, considering his non-existent record of experiences in that area, but he knows there’s a certain way that women look in the chest region, and this woman does not match that at all.
The nurse, unbeknownst to Steve’s inner mistrust, approaches him. “You’re in a recovery room in New York city,” she says, gently.
“The Dodgers take the lead, 8-4. Oh, Dodgers! Everyone is on their feet. What a game we have here today, folks. What a game indeed.”
That game… I know that game. I was there. I watched it.
Steve looks at her, suspiciously. “Where am I really?” he demands.
The nurse frowns. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“The game, it’s from May 1941,” he says, slowly. “I know, ‘cause I was there.” He slides onto his feet, and there’s a crack in the nurse’s mask. “Now, I’m gonna ask you again. Where am I?”
“Captain Rogers…” the nurse begins, worriedly.
“Who the hell are you?” Steve growls, his fists clenching.
Two soldiers in dark uniforms burst into the room, lunging for him, but it’s like second nature to throw them into the wall, haphazardly. The force with which he throws them cracks the plaster outwards, revealing the outside of some strange, dark facility.
He jumps out of the rift in the wall, landing on his bare feet. His feet slip when he sees a sepia portrait of the New York cityscape, propped up just behind the little room in which they were keeping in.
Clearly, this is no hospital.
It doesn’t take much to get his feet working, and he runs out as fast as he can, flinging himself through double doors and out into a large corridor, filled with sharply-dressed men and women, who seemed so stunned by his sudden presence.
But he has no intention of sticking around; God knows what they want with him.
“All agents, code 13! I repeat, all agents, code 13!”
A strange, female voice comes from somewhere in the ceiling and he can hear shouts from behind him, as those men and women start to rush after him. He mows down anyone who tries to get into the way, running and running and running until he finally reaches a set of doors, pushes his way through and ends up in the middle of a roaring street.
He bolts down the middle of the road, amidst the glaring lights, squealing tyres, ear-splitting horns and the sound of people screaming at a decibel they don’t need to, and his head starts to pound harder than it ever did inside that facility.
He ends up in a barricade of giant skyscrapers, taller than anything he should’ve been able to see, even in the centre of New York. Stark is written on one in the distance, and he wonders with a vicious pang if the building could belong his soulmate, but dismisses it immediately, because there’s no way in hell some poor kid from Brooklyn ends up soulmated to some rich swell from Manhattan.
There are all these leviathan-like billboards attached to each building, each playing some sort of film, all in colour, and there are so many people, and it’s raining, and everything is so loud and bright and consuming, he feels the need to fist his hands in his hair and start screaming until it all goes away.
Something like solace, comfort, support starts to unravel inside him and he clutches at that alien, far-flung feeling like a drowning man clutches at a straw.
He doesn’t even register the alarming number of black cars surrounding him, until he hears someone’s voice from right behind him.
“At ease, soldier!”
He turns around, only to find a dark-skinned man with an eyepatch calmly striding towards him.
“Look, I’m sorry about that little show back there, but… we thought it best to break it to you slowly,” he explains, steadily.
“Break what?” Steve demands.
The man takes a deep breath, before steeling himself to reveal some dark, terrible secret.
“You’ve been asleep, Cap,” he confesses. “For almost seventy years.”
Steve feels like the wind’s just been knocked out of him, and something crumples inside his chest, as he turns around to confirm what this man is saying.
He can’t be lying, as Steve looks around.
He’s never seen anything like this world before, and he couldn’t have even come up with it in his dreams, if he had wanted to.
His gaze tracks down to his bare arm; the scribbles are still there, crawling from his wrist all the way up to his shoulder, visible and incisive.
His vision blurs.
This man can’t be lying, because if this is just a dream, if this is some fucked-up wish fulfillment his mind came up with, it might be the end of him when he wakes up.
Tony’s in the middle of mapping out the connections to the transition lines and the power grid for the entire city, scratching the math onto his arm with a black marker, while he stares at the holographic schematics in front of him, when he’s hit with such gut-wrenching, bone-deep fear and exhaustion and grief that it becomes incredibly difficult to keep himself on his own two feet.
He keels forward, clutching at his stomach, and tears burn in his eyes as all those emotions claw into his throat, making breathing very difficult, even with the mangled state of his lungs and the arc reactor currently replacing most of his functioning chest cavity.
He wouldn’t be freaking out so much if he wasn’t very much aware that those emotions didn’t belong to him; they couldn’t belong to him, because there was no way that doing heavily-esoteric math would hardly warrant a panic attack’s version of an evil twin.
He’s alive. Fuck, he’s been alive this whole time.
The emotions strangle him until he finally manages to choke out an order to JARVIS to send the suit, which wraps around him like a safety blanket, and he jets out of an open window in the tower.
He honestly doesn’t know what propels him forward, because he’s always been quite dismissive of idiots who thought you could find your soulmate by just following the emotions you feel from them. Frankly, the only logical way was to write down a meeting time and place on your arm and wait for your soulmate to confirm the rendezvous and there, problem solved.
But there is something unexplainable about the way he pushes forward and ends up hovering over Times Square, where he sees a large commotion, a large number of black SUVs encircling a man in a white t-shirt and sweatpants, completely inappropriate for the pouring rain, and someone all-too-familiar.
Fury, you pirate bastard, I should’ve known you’d be behind this.
He lands with a loud bang, in the middle of Times Square, in between Fury and (he can’t believe he’s saying this) Captain America.
“Stark,” Fury grits out. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Well,” Tony drawls. “I live in the neighbourhood; I heard all the commotion, so I decided to come and see what was going on. Oh, and I wanted to steal your national icon.”
“Stark-” Fury begins.
“Nope, no deal,” Tony says, shortly.
He pads over to a stricken Steve, shuffling awkwardly on bare feet on damp gravel, and lifts off the helmet.
“Captain,” he begins, formally, before deflating. “Steve, my name is-”
“Anthony,” Steve interjects, roughly. “Anthony Edward Stark.”
“Tony,” Tony corrects, immediately. “Everyone calls me Tony. You should call me Tony.”
There’s a flicker of a smile that curves on Steve’s mouth (he has a very pretty mouth, Tony muses).
“Tony,” he concedes.
“Stark, we need to-” Fury interrupts.
“You don’t need to do anything, Fury,” Tony snaps, rounding on the other man. “I know you saw my name on his wrist, and I love how you didn’t tell me, but I’m not going to stand in the middle of Times Square and shout at you for being a shady son of a bitch. So, as a sign of my good nature, I’m going to steal my soulmate. That okay with you? Great.”
He holds his arms out towards Steve.
“Do you want to get out of here?” he asks, gently.
Steve swallows visibly. He eyes Fury, over Tony’s shoulder, and the agents surrounding them carefully, before nodding.
Tony grins, widely. He doesn’t think he’s ever smiled like that, and his smile broadens when Steve’s faith settles in his stomach like a solid weight.
After putting his helmet back on, he wraps both metal arms around Steve. “Hold on,” he mutters in Steve’s ear, and launches both of them into the sky.
Steve’s shout in his ear is swallowed up by the wind, as they hurtle through the clouds, and he stumbles out of Tony’s embrace when they finally land on the balcony of Stark Tower.
“Oh,” Steve exhales, staring up at Tony’s name in flashing lights, hovering over where they’re standing.
Has he already screwed this up?
“Is something wrong?” he asks, worriedly.
“No, it’s just…” Steve shakes his head. “I saw this building from the square and I saw Stark and I thought what if this was my soulmate’s building, but then it just sounded really stupid in my head, so I let it go.”
Tony licks his lips. “Why did you think it sounded stupid?” he wonders out loud.
“I mean, you’re clearly…” Steve waves a hand across the length of Tony. “And I’m…”
Tony tenses, because Steve is dangerously close to confirming exactly what Ty said and he’s dramatic enough to just topple off this balcony and fly away just to get out of the awkward situation.
Steve shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter. Mr Stark, it’s nice to meet you.”
He holds out his hand, which Tony shakes, bemused.
“I said you could call me Tony,” he reminds him.
Steve blinks. “Oh, right, of course. I apologise.” He shifts awkwardly on his bare feet, which Tony’s eyes are immediately drawn to.
“Fuck,” Tony curses. “We shouldn’t be standing out here. It’s too cold. Let’s get inside.”
Steve nods and follows Tony inside the tower, almost like he’s in an utter daze.
“JARVIS,” Tony calls out, stripping himself out of his armour, which his AI shuttles off to his workshop. “Mind turning up the heat?”
“As you wish, sir,” JARVIS replies, promptly.
And the sound of JARVIS’ light, accented voice, Steve jolts so sharply that Tony actually fears for his health. He doesn’t know what begs for the action, but he places his hand on Steve’s arm, his soulmarked arm, and thumbs the crease in his elbow, back and forth. Steve looks down at the touch with something akin to awe and wonder in his eyes.
“Steve,” Tony begins, softly. “Is everything okay?”
God, you’re such an idiot, Tony. The man literally travels seventy years into the future and you think he’s okay?
“There’s a voice, in your ceiling,” Steve says, roughly, looking up at where he approximates JARVIS’ voice would come from.
“Oh!” Tony exclaims. “Sorry, that’s JARVIS. He’s my AI, uh, artificial intelligence. Basically, he runs my house, my life, my company, pretty much, everything to do with me, he has a hand in.”
“And… he’s in the ceiling?” Steve asks, haltingly.
“No, he’s… like a computer program, I guess would be the most apt description for him. He has cameras and sensors and speakers all around the place, which let him interact with me – or, I suppose, us.” Tony pauses, wondering if he said too much. “J, maybe you should introduce yourself.”
“Of course, sir. Good afternoon, Captain Rogers. I am JARVIS, Mr Stark’s artificial intelligence. It is lovely to finally make your acquaintance.”
“Uh, hi, JARVIS. You can just call me Steve; I don’t-I doubt I’m a Captain anymore,” Steve stumbles.
“No can do, Steve,” Tony chimes in. “JARVIS is as pig-headed as they come. I’ve been trying to get him to call me Tony for like twenty years.”
“I am, after all, made in your image, sir,” JARVIS says, dryly.
Steve smiles a little at the affectionate little exchange between the two and clears his throat. “So, does everyone in the future have, uh, artificial intelligences?” he asks, curiously.
“Nope, just me,” Tony says, cheerfully. “I’m very special.”
Tony watches as all the lines in Steve’s face soften.
“I can see that,” Steve says, quietly.
There’s a slightly awkward, somewhat content pause between them at that point until Steve starts speaking again.
“I didn’t… I didn’t feel anything from you,” Steve confesses. “Not… not ever. Not until I woke up in that facility. I-I just didn’t feel anything. I would write and write, but I’d get nothing back, so I just assumed that I had, well, a defective soulmark.”
Steve flinches slightly when he finishes.
Tony inhales, as the feeling of Steve’s shame and grief and self-doubt grip at his ribs.
“I thought you were dead,” Tony blurts out. “I mean, your name, my mark, it was a little blotchy when I first got it, but it wasn’t completely smudged over like it should’ve been, even though they declared you dead back in 1945. I just thought… I thought if you were alive, I would’ve known something. I would’ve felt something. And then I didn’t hear from you for so long, so I gave up.” His laugh comes out raw. “I thought my mark was defective.”
Steve boldly places his hand on Tony’s cheek. “It’s not your fault,” he says, solemnly.
Tony shakes his head, fervently. “I gave up. I should’ve pushed to find you. I would’ve come had I known,” he insists. “I just thought…”
“The last thing I remember is crashing into the ice,” Steve tells him. “I was certain that I was going to die. If you thought I was dead, then you were just being smart. I can’t-no, I won’t blame you for that.”
“Steve, I-” Tony breaks off midway and shakes his head. “Shit, you just jump-skipped seventy years into the future and I’m sitting here and whinging about my pathetic life,” he scoffs. “We should be talking about… how are you?”
Steve gives him such a sad, puppy-dog smile that Tony’s heart physically hurts.
“It hasn’t hit me yet,” Steve says, honestly. “I think I’m still in shock, and meeting you…” He reaches forward to thread their hands together. “Well, I’m still stuck on that. I don’t want to be unstuck yet.”
Holy shit, Tony’s soulmate is one smooth operator.
Tony barely resists the urge to blush, because he hasn’t blushed since he was a teenager and he isn’t about to start now, no matter how artless and kind and genuine and utterly beautiful Steve Rogers is.
Tony clears his throat. “Are you hungry?” he asks, roughly, his voice changing pitch halfway.
Steve’s lips twitch. “I could eat,” he offers.
“Great!” Tony claps his hands together. “Best part of 2010, I swear, the sheer amount of food you can buy. Not to mention, all the cuisines.” He falters. “Unless, maybe, we should probably start you off slow and then work you into everything the culinary universe has to offer today.”
“I trust you.” Steve shrugs.
The warmth that ripples through Tony’s body is all his own, and it’s clear that Tony has already started to feel something for Steve Rogers.
The soft look in his soulmate’s eyes tells Tony that Steve is just as doomed as he is.
Theirs isn’t a fairytale, by any means: they don’t meet, fall in love, get married, have copious number of babies and live happily ever after.
For one, Tony’s still Iron Man and Steve, as much as he wants to deny it, is still Captain America.
Second, they have sex within days of meeting in Times Square, and it’s kind of a mistake, because it makes the next couple of weeks incredibly awkward, sets them back a long way, until Steve plucks up the courage to ask Tony out on a date – they go to Coney Island, which is an odd choice for a date, in Tony’s opinion, but by the time night comes around, Tony’s face is flushed and he’s beaming and there’s a spring in his step that hasn’t been there since he was five-years-old.
Third, since Tony is still Iron Man and Steve is still Captain America, there are responsibilities.
Loki, for one, is a clusterfuck of epic proportions that results in Steve and Tony screaming out every horrible thing they’ve ever thought about each other, and Steve watching as his soulmate climbs into a wormhole through space, with a nuke strapped to his back, and every minute that Tony just doesn’t fall back through, it’s one more minute that he thinks that God loves playing these elaborate jokes on him.
There’s HYDRA and Bucky and Ultron and Zemo and Thanos, a veritable smorgasbord of villains out to turn them into monsters or pull them apart like cotton candy or put them into the soft, damp ground so they won’t be a problem anymore.
However, when the dust settles, when all the monsters are dead and buried, and they’re left to their own devices, Steve and Tony are still there. Every morning, they eat breakfast together and every night, they go to bed together. They go running and shopping and they cook and they find new corners of the world to explore and they eat out at restaurants and they go dancing and they have parties and they watch TV together and argue over whether they’re Team Kenya or Team Phaedra (they both agree, with the disaster that was season 9, that they’re team Kenya now).
So, in the end, like a wise woman in a hospital bed once said, all those years they didn’t have each other, couldn’t have each other, don’t matter.
They have all the good times.