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May 29th, 1970

Howard sprinted down the corridor, almost knocking over a nurse on the way. He hadn't made it to the actual birth, but they'd called and said that the doctor had delivered the baby without complications, that it was healthy and strong. Howard could have cried at the news. He couldn't wait to see for himself, to hold his son in his arms for the first time.

Maria should be waking up right about now, ready to see him, ready to – Jesus Christ, to be a family and wasn't that something Howard never thought he'd say. He and Maria had been having a rough time lately and this was just the thing they needed to get them back on their feet. To finally feel that connection again.

When he found the right room Howard stormed right in, careful not to slam the door so he wouldn't upset the child. A doctor was already standing next to the hospital bed with his back to Howard, holding something – oh God, that was his baby – out to his wife. “– crucial in those first minutes, Mrs Stark. Would you please hold your son?”

Maria shied away, her hands tucked against her body. “I – I don't –“ she stammered and – Howard's smile dropped off his face when he saw her eyes. She looked terrified. “I can't –“

“What's going on here?” he demanded and the doctor turned, a tense smile on his face.

“Ah, congratulations, Mr Stark, it's a –“

“What the hell is that?”

The doctor flinched, but Howard didn't notice, his eyes glued to what little skin he could see through the flimsy white gown they had put on his son. “Mr Stark, please. He's not –“

Howard stepped forward, pulling the white fabric open despite the doctor's attempt to hold it closed, and sucked in a sharp breath.

“Mr Stark, he needs to be kept warm, his body isn't accustomed –“

“Shut up,” Howard said numbly, eyes darting quickly from mark to mark. Broken chain links pressed into the skin of its right upper arm. A cluster of craters like blisters on its left hip. The sharp tips of a vulture's feathers digging into its collarbones.

And worst of all, the thin lines emerging from the centre of its chest, spindly and long, making it look like cracked glass rather than skin.

“What the fuck is this?” Howard breathed and the doctor sighed heavily, his shoulders slumping. “What did you do to him?”

“Nothing,” the doctor said resignedly. “They're his soulmarks. It's perfectly normal for a child to be born with more than two.”

Howard's head snapped up to fix the doctor with a furious glare. “Soulmarks? Soulmarks? Are you fucking kidding me?”

The doctor bristled. “With all due respect, Sir, I have delivered many babies in my day and –“

“Yeah? Have any of them looked like that?” Howard yelled, pointing at the baby and wrinkling his nose in disgust. “They look terrible! Are there more? How many?”

“Just these four,” the doctor said curtly, cradling the newborn as he closed the cloth up again. “I can have a translator look into them if you –“

“I don't need a translator to know that they're shit!” Howard shouted, hands clenching into fists. He turned over to punch the wall, hissing at the pain. “Damn it!”

“Sir, you need to calm down,” the doctor said as Maria started to cry in the background, hiding her face in her hands. “Mrs Stark, please –“

“I don't want him,” she cried hysterically, shaking her head over and over. “I don't want him, I don't– Howard –“

“Goddammit, Maria, stop,” Howard yelled, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Fuck. What the fuck is happening?”

The doctor looked between the two, then down at the little boy in his arms. Despite the noise he was still sleeping peacefully, his tiny hands curled into the fabric of his gown. The doctor's heart twinged at the sight. It was always tragic to see a newborn branded with the failure of its closest confidants, but he'd never seen anything like this.

When he raised his head he found Mr Stark sitting on the hospital bed, holding his wife to his chest as she cried. He must have noticed him looking because he met the doctor's eyes with a lost look on his face. He looked devastated. “What do we do now?”

The doctor gave him a grim look, stepping forward to put the little boy down on his father's lap. Mr Stark held him awkwardly, a helpless expression on his face. The doctor sighed.

“Make the best of it.”

 

By the time Tony was four he had stopped asking questions about his marks. The answer was always the same, a curt “Go to your room” and then stifling silence. The avoidance of his parents wasn't worth asking the question.

But that didn't make him any less curious. He bugged Jarvis about it a lot, but the butler would only smile sadly and tell him that he'd find out in time. Tony knew the answer had to be bad because no one wanted to tell him and grownups always lied about the bad stuff. Unless Tony had been bad, then his dad would usually get pretty loud about it. He'd learned to keep his mouth shut in those moments too.

Tony was a very fast learner. Ever since Jarvis taught him how to read Tony had started sneaking into the library for new books about planes and robots. It was the one thing his dad seemed to actually care about and Tony loved the way his dad smiled at him when he found him studying. He always tried to get even better at it and Jarvis usually encouraged him.

But as he went scavenging for some entertainment today something else caught his eye. Before he'd really thought about it he'd snatched the book out of the shelf and pushed it under his shirt, sneaking back to his room. The book was so thick and heavy that he could barely carry it even with both arms. He was worried for a second that his clumsy stumbling down the corridor would alert someone but nobody came looking for him.

Back in his room he opened the book, giddy with excitement, and looked at all the pictures with wide eyes, so many of them, all different shapes and sizes. He slowly flipped through the first pages and realized that they were sorted alphabetically. Ants, apple trees, autumn leaves, airplanes, everything and more.

Tony pulled his shirt off and looked down at his own marks. Which one, which one –

“Tony?”

Tony startled, slamming the book shut and shoving it under his bed right before Jarvis opened the door.

“Hey, little man. Dinner's ready.” Jarvis frowned when he saw Tony's sheepishly innocent look. “What's going on? Where's your shirt?”

Tony winced, averting his eyes. “Um, I took it off. I was hot.”

Jarvis leaned against the door, crossing his arms. “Uh-huh? What were you up to?”

“Nothing,” Tony said quickly, giving Jarvis a wide grin before he pulled his shirt back on and bounced past him. “Come on, Jarvis, dinner!”

Tony couldn't sit still the whole meal, fidgeting so much that Howard eventually slammed his hand down on the table and shouted that Tony was being insufferable before he went back to his phone call. Tony's mother gave him a disapproving look and Tony shrunk under the table, mulishly picking at his food. As soon as he was dismissed he darted back to his room, closing the door and pulling out the book.

“Alright,” he breathed nervously, opening it to the letter C before he started to flip through the pages. Cards, caterpillars, chemicals – chains.

Tony almost whooped before he remembered that he had to keep quiet, scanning the page in silent awe. There were lots of them, some shaped like a ring or a cross, with big links and small links and knots and – there.

Tony traced the familiar pattern with one finger, the chain links that had a break in the middle, metal ends standing up in sharp spikes. He laughed quietly, looking down at the definition – and frowned. That was a big word.

Disappointment,” he read slowly, testing how the word felt in his mouth. He wasn't sure what that meant so he scanned the other various chains' meanings – Strength, Bravery, Loyalty – and shrugged. He didn't understand most of them but it didn't seem so bad. He'd look it up later.

Tony pulled down his shirt enough to see the wings on his collarbones, flipping the page to B for birds, but it didn't have anything like his marks, mostly birds in flight and stuff. He tried W for wings next and marveled at how many different ones there were. It took him a long time to find his, but as he flipped through the book his eyes got drawn to the bottom of a page –

Tony gasped, reeling back with wide eyes. He knew that word. That wasn't a good word.

“Tony?” The door to his room opened. “I thought I'd bring you some – oh.”

Tony startled, scrambling to hide the book, but it was too late. Jarvis looked at him in shock and Tony felt his cheeks grow hot under his gaze.

“I – I – I'm sorry, I –“ he stammered and Jarvis held up a hand, an unreadable look on his face.

“It's alright, Tony. I knew you were curious.” He sighed, his voice taking on that sad undertone that Tony hated. “What did you find?”

Tony hesitated before he turned the book so Jarvis could see, watching as Jarvis scanned the page and then sucked in a sharp breath.

“Ah. I see.”

Tony bit his lip. “That's bad, right? Really bad.”

Jarvis gently closed the book, hiding that ugly word from sight. “Look, Tony, I... I wish I had a better explanation for you, but you're right. It's bad.”

Tony swallowed heavily. “Am... Am I – bad, Jarvis?”

“No!” Jarvis said fiercely, reaching an arm out to Tony who gratefully leaned into the hug, clutching at Jarvis' shoulders. “Never think that. The marks don't make you bad, Tony. They don't define who you are.”

Tony sniffled softly. “Then what do they mean?”

Jarvis sighed, patting Tony on the back before he pulled away just far enough to look him in the eye. “Alright. I think it's high time I explained all of this to you.” He took a deep breath before he opened the first few buttons of his shirt, pulling it to the side to reveal a mark in the shape of a flower. Tony's eyes boggled.

“You have them, too?” Tony asked, voice full of wonder, and Jarvis gave him a sad smile.

“Yes, Tony. Everyone has them.”

“Even mom and dad?”

Jarvis winced almost unnoticeably before he nodded. “Yeah, them too.”

“Awesome!” Tony exclaimed, leaning closer to inspect the mark. “What does it mean? How many are there? Do you like them?”

“Slow down, Tony,” Jarvis chuckled, closing his shirt up again. “I only showed you this because you're very special to me, okay? You don't show these marks to people who aren't close to you. That's why your dad is always telling you to hide them.”

Tony hummed, bouncing on the floor. “Dad said they're a secret and that I can't ever tell anyone about them.”

“Right.” Jarvis cleared his throat. “And you know they all mean something. There are a lot of people who are trying to figure out what exactly they are and why we have them, but they're not really sure yet. Most people think we have them for a very specific purpose.”

“What's that?” Tony asked, completely entranced.

“To find our soulmates.”

Tony frowned. “Soulmates?”

“The people who shape our lives the most,” Jarvis explained. “It can be a friend, a lover, or just a person who has a big impact on your life. Most children are born with two marks, one for their mother and their father, because they are bound to be very important to them. Only a few people have more marks than that at birth.”

Tony self-consciously rubbed his right arm. He'd had four marks as long as he could remember. Was that –

“It's not a bad thing,” Jarvis quickly reassured him. “It just means you have important people waiting for you out there.” He smiled wistfully. “People say that if you're born with more than two marks you're destined for great things.”

Tony's brow furrowed. “Destined?”

“Don't worry, you'll find out soon enough. Besides, it's common for people to gain new marks as they grow older, when they meet one of their soulmates. You might have been born with four, but you'll probably get even more as you go through life.” Jarvis reached up to reveal his mark again with a fond smile. “I only got this one after I met you.”

Tony's eyes went wide. “Me?”

“Yes,” Jarvis said, absently tracing the leaves. “It's a broom flower. I have it because meeting you changed my life. A lot of people say that these marks tell you the thing that your soulmate will teach you the meaning of.”

“So I'll teach you something?” Tony said, boggling at that. Him! Teach Jarvis! “What is it?”

Jarvis smiled. “Humility.”

“Humeliddy?” Tony's nose wrinkled as he tried to sound out that new word. “What's that?”

Jarvis chuckled, reaching out to ruffle Tony's hair. “You'll understand when you're older.”

Tony frowned, disgruntled. “You always say that.”

“Because it's true,” Jarvis teased. Then his voice took on a more somber note. “So. You found out what your mark means, yes?”

Tony gulped. “Yeah. This one, too,” he said, gripping his right arm. “But I don't understand.”

Jarvis sighed, rubbing at his forehead. “Okay. I'm not sure how to explain it to you. I'm sorry.”

“What about the others?” Tony asked, grabbing at his chest and hip. “What do they mean?”

Jarvis let his hand fall back into his lap, silently looking at Tony long enough that Tony started to fidget.

“What? Are they bad, too?”

“Look, Tony,” Jarvis said haltingly. “There's something you need to understand. Those meanings that you find written in books aren't absolute. We still don't know if there's any truth to –“

“Yeah, but what are they saying about mine?” Tony asked impatiently, fiddling with his shirt. “Tell me!”

Jarvis hesitated for a moment before a resigned look took over his face. “Alright. Come here.”

Tony immediately crawled closer so he could sit – not in Jarvis' lap, he wasn't a baby, but right next to him so their thighs touched. Jarvis pointed at Tony's right arm, not touching the mark even though it was hidden under a layer of fabric.

“This one stands for Disappointment.”

“What does that mean?”

“It's a feeling,” Jarvis said, pausing for a moment before he continued. “It means someone is sad because they expected something that they didn't get.”

“Oh.” Tony thought about that for a second. “Like when I want to build stuff and dad says I'm not allowed?”

Jarvis got a weird look on his face at that. “Yes, exactly like that.”

Tony nodded slowly. “Okay.”

Jarvis took a deep breath before he pointed at Tony's collarbones. “You have the wings of a vulture here. They're an omen. Some people say they mean Death, but I think that's just an old wives tale. There are probably a lot of things they could mean.”

“Okay,” Tony said again, a little relieved that Jarvis thought they weren't that bad. “What about this one?”

Jarvis looked down at where Tony was pointing at his hip. “They're craters, like on –“

“Like the moon?” Tony interrupted excitedly, lifting his shirt to look at them. “Wow!”

“Not quite,” Jarvis said, a little amused, pointing at one of them. “They're shaped differently, see? These are the craters of a planet called Mars. It's –“

“Closest to earth,” Tony finished, grinning proudly. “I learned the planets!”

Jarvis smiled. “That's great, Tony.” He continued a little more somberly. “But a lot of planets have different meanings. Mars is the planet of war. That's what you call it when a lot of people get into a big fight.”

“I know what war is,” Tony said indignantly, puffing out his chest. “Dad talks about it all the time.”

Jarvis' nose wrinkled disapprovingly for a second before his face smoothed back out. “I know he does,” Jarvis said. He didn't sound very happy about it.

Tony frowned as he looked down at his mark. “So it means Fighting?”

Jarvis sighed. “Basically yes.” He pointed at the center of Tony's chest. “This one... well, it stands for – God, I don't know how to put this.”

“What?”

“It's –“ Jarvis stuttered before he finally got it out. “It means Pain.”

Tony's eyes widened as he put a hand over his chest. “Pain?”

“Yes.” Jarvis gave him a pitying look. “I'm sorry, Tony.”

Tony made a small noise as he pulled his knees to his chest. Jarvis rubbed his back soothingly, but it didn't make Tony feel better the way it usually did.

“I'm so sorry, I know it sounds bad, but –“ Jarvis paused, visibly grasping for words. “I mean, really, what do we know? It might turn out to be something simple. Like when you scrape your knee, that hurts a lot, doesn't it? But the pain always goes away.”

Tony sniffled, wiping at his eyes with both of his fists.

“I'm scared, Jarvis,” he admitted quietly and Jarvis pulled him closer so Tony could rest his head against Jarvis' chest. The steady heartbeat against his cheek was really soothing.

“I know,” Jarvis said quietly, running a hand through Tony's hair. “I wish you didn't have to be. I'd love to give you a better explanation, but I can't. I'm sorry.”

“Is that humiliddy? That you always say sorry?”

Jarvis let out a startled laugh before he caught himself, wrapping Tony tighter in his arms. “No, Tony. That's not what it means.”

Tony huffed. “But how can I teach you stuff? You're all grown up,” he whined, still a little tearful, and Jarvis smiled as he combed Tony's hair with his fingers.

“Don't worry, little man. You're already doing it.”

 

On his sixth birthday Tony celebrated alone with Jarvis in the mansion. Howard and Maria had sent him a gift from their business trip to Indonesia.

When Tony built his first circuit board the media praised him and called him a prodigy. As soon as the cameras were off Howard scowled at him and told him the frame work was shoddy.

He tried only once to get his mother to come to his parent-teacher conference. She didn't even look at him when she told Jarvis to take care of it.

Tony understood the concept of disappointment soon enough.

 

“Jarvis!” Tony yelled at the top of his lungs only seconds before he barreled straight into the man himself, pulling at his arm, his mouth already going a mile a minute. “Look! I slept and when I woke up I had it, right there, Jarvis, look! Look!”

“Slow down!” Jarvis laughed as he went to one knee. “What is it, little –“ he paused, eyes widening when Tony pulled his shirt down to expose his left shoulder. “Tony –“

“I saw it in the mirror,” Tony said proudly, a wide grin spread over his face. “It's yours! I know it is! What does it mean? Do you know?”

Jarvis felt a lump in his throat as he raised a shaky hand to trace the skin around Tony's new mark. It was a Celtic knot, one he hadn't seen before. It was beautiful.

“Jarvis?”

Jarvis looked up to find Tony squinting at him dubiously and gave him a small smile. “That's great, Tony. Let's find out what it means, hm?”

“Yes!” Tony exclaimed, right back to being excited as he pulled Jarvis along into the library. “Come on, come on!”

They sat down on the floor, the translation book spread out between them as Tony rapidly flipped through the pages. He groaned when he found the right section.

“There's so many! I'll never find mine!”

Jarvis clucked his tongue, pulling the book towards himself. “Giving up so soon, Tony? That's a shame. I guess I'll find out for myself then.”

“No!” Tony blurted out, grabbing the book with both hands. “I'll do it. Give it!”

Jarvis frowned at him. “What do we say?”

Tony looked up at him with wide, dewy eyes. “Please?”

Jarvis huffed out a laugh, letting go of the book to let Tony flip through it excitedly. “You're going to be a real heartbreaker some day, young man.”

Tony gave him a wide grin.

By the time they'd made it through most of the Celtic symbols Tony was nodding off against Jarvis's shoulder as the butler kept flipping through the pages. He stilled mid-turn, looking from the book to Tony's arm and back again. Yeah, that was definitely –

Oh.

Jarvis' breathing hitched and he felt tears well up in his eyes as a smile slowly spread across his face.

“Y' found it?” Tony mumbled groggily, rubbing sleep from his eyes. Jarvis smoothed Tony's hair down with gentle hands.

“Yes.”

“And? What is it?”

Jarvis wiped a hand over his eyes, clearing his throat before he looked down at Tony. “It stands for Trust, Tony.”

Tony's eyes went wide. He grabbed his new mark with white knuckles, his little hand shaking as his shoulders hitched. “I –“

Jarvis pulled him into a hug and Tony clung to him as he trembled in his arms, hiccuping every now and then when he couldn't quite swallow the sobs. They sat like that for a long time before Tony managed to calm down enough to speak.

“Jarvis?”

“Yes, Tony?”

Jarvis could feel Tony's shaky smile against the side of his neck. “That's good, right? Dad's gonna like it, right?”

Jarvis' heart squeezed painfully as he tightened his hold, trying not to cry. “Yeah, Tony. It's really good. You're incredible.”

Tony beamed and Jarvis reached up to softly wipe the tears off the little boy's face.

“You have a heart of gold, Tony,” he said quietly. “Never forget that.”

Tony frowned. “Not gold. Iron.” When Jarvis paused Tony elaborated, a proud little smile on his face. “Stark men are made of iron.”

It took a lot of effort for Jarvis to return that smile, smoothing Tony's hair back from his forehead. “Yeah. That too.”

 

As Tony grew older he tried not to think about his marks too much. It was hard to accept that his relationships would be dictated by pain and war and death, but what choice did he have. They wouldn't go away and Tony had learned to live with worse by now. Like the knowledge that his parents would never love him. The fact that his peers hated who he was, what he was. Genius billionaire at the age of eleven didn't go over so well at a school where even the youngest students were three years older than him.

But while he didn't like to think about his marks sometimes he still wondered. He'd seen enough naked bodies by now – he'd cracked the child protection safeguards on his computer when he was eight – to know that everyone, without fail, was born with a mark for each of their parents, no matter if they were around or not. Tony was bound to have them, too. Which ones though, that was a little tricky.

Well, that wasn't quite true. Tony would've bet his soul that the disappointment had to be for one of them, though which one he couldn't be sure. At this point Tony couldn't have possibly guessed who he was a bigger disappointment for. The other one remained a mystery though.

Then again it wouldn't be surprising if Howard just hadn't left a mark on Tony in the first place. God knew the man couldn't give less of a shit.

 

Tony startled when the door to his dorm banged open, caught wide eyed and shirtless as Rhodey stormed in without knocking.

“Get up, loser! You better be decent!”

Tony grabbed his discarded shirt and clutched it to his chest with white knuckles, trying and probably failing to put on a casual front. “For you always, pudding pop,” he said nervously, hoping that Rhodey couldn't hear the waver in his voice.

“Well that's a lie,” Rhodey said, raising an eyebrow. “You're late. We said we'd get dinner, remember?”

“No,” Tony admitted a bit too honestly and Rhodey sighed.

“Of course you don't. Why do I bother with you again?”

Tony chuckled tensely even as he held his shirt to his chest with clenched fists. Rhodey frowned.

“Come on, dude, what's the hold up? Throw on a shirt and let's go!”

Tony fidgeted for a moment, internally panicking. He couldn't ask Rhodey to turn around, that would be fucking weird, Tony wasn't some virgin pussy –

“Tony?” Rhodey asked and oh fuck he sounded concerned now, fucking shit, fuck –

Fuck it.

Tony raised his head defiantly, lowering the shirt to push his arms through the sleeves and pull it over his head. “Geez, old man. Don't get your panties in a twist.”

When he looked up Rhodey's eyes were still fixed on his chest, a weird expression on his face. Tony held his chin high, staring at Rhodey head on even as he screamed internally. Fuck, he'd known this would –

“Pizza or Chinese?”

Tony startled at the sudden question but Rhodey just nodded towards the door, a small smile on his face. “There's an all you can eat thing at the pizza place, but if you –“

“Pizza's fine,” Tony blurted out, his heart still racing even as he let out a shaky breath. He grinned at Rhodey when he walked past him, leading the way. “I'll treat you if you tell me how things went with your hot blonde. Was she good?”

“None of your business.”

“Everything you do is my business, honey bear.”

“Shut up.”

“You wish.”

Later, when they were stuffed full, lying in the same bed and staring at the ceiling, Rhodey asked quietly about the mark on his chest. Tony hesitated only for a moment before he spilled everything. Rhodey listened silently, not giving Tony any of the resentment or disgust he had feared. And when he was done Rhodey just nodded, turned off the lights and pulled Tony into a hug.

 

“We are gathered here today to pay our final respects to one of the most brilliant men in the world, taken from us years before his time. But even in the face of such tragedy the future has never looked brighter as we keep on marching forward –“

Not even a word about his mother. Typical.

Tony adjusted his tie, wishing for a desperate moment that it would just strangle him and get it over with. He'd never minded it before, the attention, reveled in it really. But right now he felt raw, like an exposed nerve. For the first time ever since he'd entered the public eye he wished he could just disappear into the crowd. Be nobody.

But life had never made things simple for him. He didn't expect it to start now.

“– and so it is a great honor for me to present you all with the future CEO of Stark Industries, Howard's son and sole heir, Mr Anthony Edward Stark.”

Tony left his nervousness behind as he stood, walking up to the podium with sure steps and pulling on a pair of Armani shades. He took comfort in the warm press of Obie's hand when he shook it before he stepped up to the mic, waving off all the shouts of “Mr Stark, Mr Stark”. Somewhere beneath the bravado it hurt to be called that when all these years Mr Stark had been –

Well. Not anymore.

“Shut up, I don't want to hear it,” he drawled confidently, leaning on the podium with the lazy nonchalance the public was used to from him. He flipped the glasses up, winking at a pretty blonde in the front with a filthy grin. “Except you. You can ask me anything you like.”

The crowd of reporters exploded and Tony put on his best plastic smirk. Showtime.

 

He watched the press conference later, noting all the little things that he hadn't been aware of in the moment. That little movement of his head as he donned the sunglasses. The winning smirk. That arrogant tilt to his shoulders.

It made him sick how clearly he could see the resemblance now.

Tony had thought for a long time that maybe it was the War that connected them, Tony's endless fight for his father's attention, and then the brutal shouting matches they'd gotten into. But now he realized the truth was much simpler than that.

Howard had built his legacy on death and destruction. And somewhere along the line he'd lost himself in it. It didn't excuse the way Howard had treated him all these years, not by a long shot. But there was a sick sort of comfort in knowing that Tony wasn't the only person in the family who'd felt dead inside.

 

On his next press release Tony flashed his collarbones to the public through a low cut shirt, head raised in defiance and a cocky smirk on his face. Let them see that he was dangerous. Let them hate him. Tony couldn't care less.

They started calling him the Merchant of Death. It had a nice ring to it.

 

“You're alive,” Yinsen said. “You're still here. It's okay. Breathe with me, Stark.”

Tony was shaking too hard to hear him, sucking in desperate breaths of air that just didn't seem to come as his chest tore itself apart and it was dark, so dark –

“Look at me. Come on, Stark. Stark. Look at me.”

His eyes hurt with how hard he was squeezing them shut, his head throbbing angry red, so much pain oh God why didn't it stop

A slap to the face and he gasped, a huge breath of air suddenly finding its way into his lungs, making him choke.

“That's good, keep breathing, come on –“

Tony did, slowly becoming aware of the hands on his shoulders, grounding him. He opened his eyes, seeking out Yinsen's silhouette in the darkness.

“There you are. Okay. Just keep breathing, you'll get through this, Stark. You have to.”

They sat there for what felt like hours before Tony finally calmed down enough to sit up on his own. Yinsen fetched him a can filled with water and Tony gulped it down greedily.

“You can't go on like this,” Yinsen said, his expression grim. “It doesn't matter how valuable you are to them. At some point they'll get fed up with you and kill you.”

“I know,” Tony rasped, leaning heavily against a wooden box on the floor. “But I can't – you've seen what they're doing with my weapons, I – I can't.”

“I'm not telling you to build weapons.” There was something in Yinsen's eyes that froze the blood in Tony's veins as much as it set it to boil. “But you can't just keep enduring. Nobody's coming to save you, Stark. This is all you've got to work with. Think.”

It still took enormous effort to drag air back into his lungs and Tony had to close his eyes against the frustrated tears welling up. All of a sudden he could feel his hands shaking with rage, a mad sort of fury bubbling under his skin.

“You've made weapons all your life, Stark,” Yinsen said, staring so intensely at him that Tony felt like his entire soul was laid bare for the world to see. “It's time you learned how to use them.”

“I know how to shoot a gun,” Tony croaked weakly and Yinsen smiled. It wasn't a nice smile.

“Children can shoot guns. You need to have intent to use one.” Yinsen leaned closer, pulling Tony in with his eyes. “I know you're a fighter, Stark. So stop waiting for help. Help yourself.”

 

The arc reactor fit perfectly into the circle of cracked glass that split his skin. Tony almost wanted to laugh at the universe's twisted sense of humor.

“What does it mean?” Yinsen asked and Tony hummed, tapping the glowing sphere where his sternum used to be.

“Nothing that I don't deserve.”

 

Don't waste it, he said. Don't waste your life.

Tony raised a hand to Yinsen's face to brush a hand over his forehead. The crater marks on his left hip burned hot under the armor.

In the distance he could hear the clanging of metal, guns getting drawn and cocked. Tony stood, flipping his mask down to shield his face. He had nothing left to fear.

Yinsen had taught him to fight. Now Tony would wage war.

 

Hugging Rhodey came with a relief so overwhelming that he didn't even notice the burning until he saw himself in the mirror for the first time after Afghanistan. He could count his ribs and his skin was black and blue, but his attention was still drawn to the five lines on his right shin. The upper four curved down under an invisible force from above but the lowest line remained straight as an arrow, not bending to the pressure. He wasn't surprised when he found out that it meant Resilience.

He never showed Rhodey, but the warm hand on his shoulder the next time they saw each other was answer enough.

 

“What the hell, Tony,” Pepper screeched as she followed him out of the conference room. “You can't just drop something like that out of the blue! The board will –“

“Fuck them,” Tony said, cutting through the crowd of reporters and grabbing a random mic to speak into on the way. “You can quote me on that. I don't give a shit. It's my company.”

“Tony,” Pepper groaned and Tony chose to ignore her until he'd made it into the car. She climbed in after him and Happy all but slammed the door shut in his haste to get them out of there. He'd never seen Pepper so furious.

“After all the efforts you put into –“

“Children are dying,” Tony cut her off brusquely. “I saw a fucking thirteen year old pick up a missile and shoot it into a crowd of people. They're killing American soldiers with my weapons. How do you think that feels?”

Pepper gave him a sharp look. “Those weapons have always been killing people, Tony. What, you think the military bought them as decorations?”

Tony sighed heavily, rubbing his face. “No, of course not –“

“I thought you knew what you were getting into when you decided to take over your father's –“

“I never wanted this!” Tony shouted, looking up at her with pained eyes. “You don't know what it's like out there, Pep, you don't know –“

“People are killing each other. That's what war is,” she said harshly. Tony averted his eyes and she visibly softened. “Look, if we stop providing the weapons they'll just get them somewhere else. There's no way to stop a war through supply and demand.”

“You don't understand,” Tony said quietly. “All these people are dead because of me.”

“Tony.” Pepper put a hand on his arm. “Weapons don't kill people. People kill people.”

Tony took a deep breath, looking up at the car's ceiling. “When that grenade hit me the last thing I saw was my own damn name on the side of it. I don't want that to be my legacy.”

Pepper sighed, clearly sensing a losing argument as she ran a hand over her flawless hair. “Alright, Tony, just – sleep on it, okay? I'll try to hold off the board.”

Tony hummed, looking out the window at the passing city. Pepper wouldn't understand, she couldn't possibly know what it felt like to walk through the familiar streets of his home city and still feel sand between his toes. But that was okay. Tony didn't need anyone's approval.

He was the Merchant of Death. You could really only go up from there.

 

Tony's blood boiled hot in his veins as he dragged himself across the floor, gasping for air that wouldn't come as his limbs spasmed in pain. Betrayed by the closest thing he had to a father. He really should have seen it coming.

It was only fitting that the uncomfortable burn on the back of his neck turned out to be a single Judas flower, etched into his skin in angry red lines. Unlike his other marks it looked beautiful. Tony wanted to take a knife to it.

When everything was over and Tony sat in one of SHIELD's medical vans he got a glimpse of Obie's body as it was carted away from the scene. The fresh mark on the back of his hand couldn't have belonged to anyone but Tony himself. A gordian knot. Fucking hilarious.

It wasn't until he'd drunk himself into a state where he couldn't even stand that it seemed like a good idea to look up the meaning. A quick google search showed him a picture of the gordian knot with one word written underneath.

Potential.

Tony barely made it to the bathroom before he threw up the entire contents of his stomach.

 

The palladium turned his mangled chest into a tapestry, weaving in between the cracked skin that made up his mark, around and above the scar tissue that framed the reactor. It was weirdly beautiful.

Tony thought about his marks a lot now that he was running out of time. The way they so seamlessly accommodated all of the changes to his body. He had never believed in fate, always made his own destiny, but in a way it made sense. Being branded at birth.

Destined for greatness, Jarvis had said, but Tony had yet to see evidence of that. It seemed all he did was fuck things up beyond repair and then desperately scramble to fix them afterwards. If karma was real he had another thing coming.

The wings on his collarbones seemed like a mockery now. Maybe Tony had always been destined to die this way.

The thought was weirdly comforting.

 

Their first impressions couldn't have been worse if they tried. Honestly Bruce was the only one on the team Tony even remotely trusted and the guy turned into a giant green rage monster. Maybe that said more about Tony's judgement than the others'.

And Captain America. Dear fucking god.

Tony could've gladly gone his whole life without meeting the guy now that he knew he had such a righteous stick up his ass. It was only fitting that the good Captain hated Tony on sight.

Not that he'd expected anything different. Howard had always sung his praise and anyone worthy of Howard Stark's genuine respect had to be that same particular brand of asshole. Never mind the dumb hero worship Tony hadn't quite been able to shake until now despite how much he started to despise the whole concept of Captain America as he grew older. Well, he'd been quite thoroughly disillusioned now.

“Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?”

Seriously, Tony knew how easy it was to despise him, had learned not to let it faze him through years and years of experience. But this kind of open hostility from someone he'd looked up to as a child was still a bit hurtful.

Well, two could play at that game.

“Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.”

Rogers clearly needed a moment to process that and Tony reveled in the fact that he'd gotten one over Howard's precious hero when Rogers' face suddenly twisted.

“I know guys with none of that worth ten of you. I've seen the footage. The only thing you really fight for is yourself.”

Rogers had stuck his finger right where it hurt and Tony – well, he'd never been known for going down easy.

Afterwards when they'd escaped the influence of Loki's scepter Tony had felt bad for a lot of the things he said. His attempt to apologize by showing Rogers around SHIELD headquarters backfired quite spectacularly though.

“No, thank you,” Rogers said, his tone achingly stiff and polite. “I don't need a chaperone to find my way around, thank you very much.”

Which wasn't what Tony meant to imply, but to be honest he was too tired to deal with the prissy attitude the Captain was giving him so his mouth just did its thing. “Well, if you ever wanted to get around to my place, door's open.”

Again he didn't mean anything by it, not really, but Rogers' face shut off so fast that Tony almost winced at the sight. “I don't think I will. Good day, Mr Stark.”

He left without looking back, his spine ramrod straight. Tony could only watch him go and try not to think about what Howard would say if he could see him now.

Well fuck it then. He'd never expected to impress him anyway.

 

Waking up to the Hulk's roaring face was not a pleasant experience. Zero out of ten, would not recommend.

Tony groaned as he wiggled his limbs, trying to get a feel for reality. Did he pass out? He must have, for him to feel so much like shit. “Please tell me nobody kissed me.”

An amused huff to his right made him look up, right into Steve's smiling face and –

Tony's mouth went dry. He hadn't known Steve could smile like that, so open and carefree and wow he was fucking beautiful, Tony hadn't realized. Maybe he should rethink the kissing thing, that would be – Wait.

Shit.

 

It wasn't easy to go back to the day job after saving the world from an alien threat. Tony's PTSD had PTSD and while Pepper put on a brave face Tony knew that it was slowly chipping away at her. He felt more and more guilty the longer he didn't get better, when the nightmares didn't stop, when he couldn't just be there in the moment without thinking about the deep open space or the looming threat above –

He was almost glad the first time he got called out by SHIELD to go on a mission with Natasha.

“Steve will meet us there,” she said curtly, readying the jet. Tony raised an eyebrow.

Steve, huh?”

She gave him a calculating look before she smiled wryly. “He's a pretty nice guy once you get to know him.”

“I wouldn't know,” Tony said nonchalantly, trying not to be miffed by how well the team seemed to be getting along without him – and mentally punching himself for it a second later. None of his business. He was still mainly a consultant and he had Pepper and the company. Tony didn't have the time to play buddy buddy with the team.

“He reminds me of you, a bit.”

Tony gave Natasha an almost insulted look and she smirked cheekily.

“Stubborn, hard-working to a fault, emotionally constipated – any of that ring a bell?” Her smirk widened. “Though to be fair, he actually knows how to be a gentleman.”

Tony bristled even though he had to fight a smile. “I resent that.”

“Sure you do.” She started the engine. “I'm just saying, you might have more in common than you think. If you gave him a chance you'd probably get on swimmingly.”

“Like a house on fire,” Tony mumbled under his breath, dropping his suitcase to let the armor encase him. “Literally.”

“Well, I know that flaming passion is more up your alley, but –“

“Oh, shut up.”

They pulled off the mission without a hitch and as they were about to part ways Tony couldn't help but think back to what Natasha had said on the jet. Maybe he really had been too harsh on the guy. If Natasha was right he and the Captain might even be able to find some common ground.

He totally wasn't thinking about that moment of possible attraction after the battle of New York. Which was a fluke and probably just a side effect of his concussion. But still, it was never too late for a second first impression.

“Hey,” he called after Steve, making him turn back with a raised eyebrow.

“Yes?”

Tony put his hands in his pockets. “You wanna grab something to eat? There's a great sushi place a few blocks from here.”

The corners of Steve's mouth turned down almost imperceptibly and Tony was about to joke his way out of what was sure to be a rejection when Steve sighed heavily and asked “Sushi?” with a weariness like Tony had never heard from anyone before.

Tony blinked, only confused for a second before he was suddenly overcome with a feeling of pity. This guy might be over ninety years old, but he was still a young man at heart, displaced and all alone in a foreign world that had moved on around him while he was frozen in time. And Tony had done nothing to make his life easier even though it really wouldn't have been a hardship to help him adjust at least a little.

Well, no time like the present.

“It's a Japanese thing,” he said with a smile, shrugging nonchalantly. “If you like rice and fish you'll probably enjoy it. But we could always get burgers if you want.”

Steve hesitated, looking conflicted for a second before he took a deep breath and gave Tony a tentative smile. “Sushi sounds good. Thank you.”

Tony tried not to preen too obviously at having gotten his way, instead choosing to pat Steve on the back, leading the way. “Well, chop chop. New experiences to be had. By the way, if no one has introduced you to AC/DC yet I'll personally file a complaint to Fury. He doesn't have his priorities straight.”

 

When Tony finally gave himself a push and sent out the invitations he wasn't entirely convinced that it was a good idea. But then again he wasn't all too confident that any of them would show up.

Needless to say he was very surprised to walk into the kitchen a week later and find Agent Barton sitting in one of the chairs, munching on a bag of chips. Tony wrinkled his nose.

“Chips for breakfast? What are you, a broke college student?”

Barton shrugged, stuffing another handful into his mouth. “It's good. Haven't had those in weeks.”

Tony hummed, walking over to the coffee pot to pour himself a cup. “Undercover OP?”

“Got it in one.” Barton crumpled the bag into a ball and tossed it across the room, bouncing it off both corner walls before perfectly hitting the waste basket. Showoff. “I heard you have a room for me?”

Tony scoffed. “A room. Who do you think I am?” He pulled the right key card from his pocket – yes, he carried them with him, problem? – and tossed it at Barton. “Forty-second floor is yours. Forty's the gym and you know where the common rooms are. Make yourself at home. If you have any questions JARVIS can handle it. Say hello, J.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Mr Barton.”

Barton's head snapped up involuntarily, his eyes widening. “Whoa, what the hell?”

Tony chuckled. “That's JARVIS, my AI. He runs the house.”

Barton gave Tony an incredulous look. “He's not gonna go Skynet on me, is he?”

“If you don't give me incentive to do so I'm sure we'll get along just fine, Mr Barton,” JARVIS droned and Tony smiled into his coffee cup. His AI was the best.

Barton seemed stunned for a second before he barked out a laugh. “Mr Barton, egh. You can just call me Clint.”

“Certainly, Clint," JARVIS said easily. "Would you like me to show you to your rooms?”

“Hell yeah,” Clint said, giving Tony a huge grin. “Thanks, dude. This is way better than SHIELD issue.”

“I'm almost insulted that you made the comparison,” Tony sniffed and Clint laughed, clapping him on the shoulder.

“Let's get takeout later. I wanna try out that TV.”

“A man after my own heart,” Tony drawled and Clint winked at him before he walked to the elevators, already chatting with JARVIS. Somewhere in the depths of Tony's heart he felt lighter than he had in weeks.

One down, four to go.

 

They trickled in one by one, bringing more and more life into the tower. Used cups on the kitchen counter. A towel hanging over the back of a chair. Crumpled up blankets on the sofa. The little things kept piling up until Tony could barely remember what life had been like before the team moved in.

They had movie nights every Thursday, team dinners on Wednesday, sparring sessions a few times a week. Even Tony with his busy schedule felt like they were all slowly but surely becoming friends. Steve – and he could call him Steve now, finally – had taken to come keep him company in the workshop, quietly chatting with his bots or silently drawing in the corner. It took some getting used to but in the end Tony didn't really mind. He knew it was just as much of a comfort for Steve not to be alone as it was for him, if not more, and Tony would gladly provide that for him. He also resolutely ignored just how much he enjoyed those quiet moments of companionship. It didn't mean anything.

With the way things were going he'd almost expected a new mark or two to have shown up by now, but so far there was nothing. That was fine by him, not everyone had to be soulmates to get along. Just look at him and Pepper.

He'd caught glimpses though, of the others' marks. Natasha had a delicate band of flowers on her wrist, something Tony hadn't felt comfortable looking up yet. It seemed incredibly private even though he knew she could've easily hidden it if she didn't want anyone to know. She was discrete enough about her other marks.

Clint on the other hand walked around freely, often without a shirt, baring his marks to whoever was looking. Not that he had anything to be ashamed of, the standard intertwined ribbons of parental love across his left bicep and the mark of foresight in the shape of an owl on his chest. Tony had nearly laughed out loud the first time he'd seen the hawk eyes on his shoulder blades, proclaiming his wit. Whoever had taught him that should've really done a better job.

Thor didn't have any marks and it had freaked Tony out at first, but by now he was used to the sight of Thor's bare naked skin. Not that it was hard to look at. Quite the contrary. Tony had never been so glad to have installed cameras in the gym.

The only ones who were as secretive about their marks as himself were Bruce and Steve. Tony had asked Bruce once if the Hulk had changed anything and Bruce had only smiled sadly and shaken his head.

“I have his mark, too. Right here.” He'd pointed at his stomach and not elaborated further. Tony hadn't asked. Some things were meant to be private.

Steve was probably still caught up in the 1940s mindset where revealing your marks was considered improper. He never said anything about anyone else uncovering them though so it wasn't like it mattered. It was his choice and all.

But damn it if Tony wasn't curious.

 

Deep down he'd always known this day would come, but it still hurt to see Pepper go.

“I still love you, Tony,” she'd said through her tears. “But I can't do it. I can't sit here and watch as you – as you kill yourself with the whole Iron Man thing, I can't do it, Tony. I'm sorry.”

Tony had held her as she sobbed into his shoulder, watched her as she packed her bags and drove her to the airport. He sent her off, drove back home, went up to his penthouse and pulled out a bottle of gin.

He had some practice with drowning the guilt.

 

“Come on, up.”

Tony felt his head loll against someone's chest as he was lifted off the ground. The room was spinning around him and he gagged once, barely managing to keep it in.

“Jesus Christ, Tony. How many did you have?”

Tony giggled, holding up both hands with all fingers spread wide and the voice sighed.

“Alright. Let's get you to bed.”

He vaguely remembered being carried bridal style, someone taking his shoes off and tucking him under the sheets. Just as the man – and he knew it was Steve, he'd know that body anywhere – got up to leave Tony grabbed his arm, blinking blearily up at him.

“Y'r a good man, Rog'rs, “ he slurred with a bitter smile. “'m sorry f'r – f'r me.”

He wasn't sure if he got the point across – it made sense in his head – but he thought he felt a hand brushing over his for a moment before he drifted off.

“Go to sleep, Tony.”

 

He and Pepper stayed friends. First through tentative text messages ('Just checking in about that new contract, by the way, how are you?') and then stilted attempts at casual lunch outings. It was painfully awkward, but Tony knew that as much as he wanted to tear his hair out in frustration he couldn't let their friendship go. Pepper couldn't either. They'd always had that in common.

Tony wasn't surprised to wake up one day and find a new mark on his right thigh, a curved horn that ended in a sharp tip right in the crook of his hip. When he looked up the meaning he almost laughed out loud. Well, if being with Pepper all these years had taught him anything it was to grab onto the few good things in his life with white knuckles and not let go.

He showed it to Pepper years later when they were both drunk on wine watching Legally Blonde.

She snorted, a genuine smile lighting up her face as she said “If the universe thinks you needed me to learn how to be stubborn I call bullshit on the whole thing.”

 

It happened after an attack of slime spitting slugs. In a stroke of luck Tony's suit had actually held up against the acid but the rest of the team had stripped down for a decontamination shower as soon as they were back on the jet to avoid third-degree chemical burns.

Tony hadn't meant to look. But the glimpse of a maple leaf on Steve's chest still hit him like a ton of bricks.

He knew what it meant. And wasn't that a punch to the gut to know that Steve had found true love and inevitably lost it at such a young age. It was probably aunt Peggy's and, god, that thought hurt worse than anything.

Tony hadn't held much hope for the fledgling thing he'd thought Steve and he had been building between them. But it still hurt to know that he hadn't stood a chance to begin with.

 

“How come we've never seen your marks?”

Tony's head lolled lazily to the side to look at Clint with a raised eyebrow. “What?”

Clint rolled his eyes. “Dude, we've been living together for a year now and you still never take your shirt off.”

Tony shrugged. “What can I say. I'm a traditionalist.”

“If literally anyone else said that I'd believe it, but you? Mr McFuture?”

Tony was aware that everyone had stopped watching the movie to eavesdrop on their conversation by now so he did what he did best, leaning back against the couch in the perfect picture of relaxed amusement to hide the way his skin was buzzing with tension.

Tony snorted. “I do have values, you know?”

“I've always wondered about that,” Natasha said and Tony gave her a look. “Not your values, idiot. I meant your marks. SHIELD wasn't able to compile a comprehensive file on them.”

Tony toasted her with his coffee cup. “Ha! Suck it, Fury.”

“So no one knows?”

“Of course someone knows. Just not the kind of people that would blab to the public.”

Clint hummed. “But you do have more marks than –“ He gestured to his collarbones and Tony smirked.

“A lot more, Legolas.”

“How many? Four?” Tony said nothing. “Five? Six? More than six?”

“Eight,” Tony admitted and snickered when Clint actually looked surprised. “Lots of lessons learned, I'll tell you that.”

Tony could feel eyes boring into him but he stubbornly refused to look.

“And no one has ever seen them?” Clint asked doubtfully. “How'd that last through your playboy years?”

Tony snorted. “If you think leaving my shirt on during sex hinders me in any way you are sorely mistaken.”

“Absolutely no one needed to know that,” Bruce said, eyes still glued to the TV.

“Whatever. Fact is, I'm not showing you. And that's final.”

“Aww, come on,” Clint whined, but Steve cut him off.

“Stop it, Clint. If he doesn't want to he doesn't have to.”

Clint blew a raspberry. “Yes, mom.”

Tony turned back to the movie and pretended that he couldn't feel Steve's eyes on him for the rest of the evening.

 

“What the fuck were you thinking?”

Tony looked up from his hospital bed as Steve came stomping in, practically seething with rage. “Whoa! What the –“

“Do you even know what I –“ Steve cut himself off, huffing in frustration. “I thought you were dead, Tony! Dead! I didn't even hear about it until after the last mission and by then it was all over the news and you were –“

“Hey,” Tony said gently and Steve made a wounded noise, walking over to drop to his knees and wrap his arms around Tony in a fierce hug. Tony swore he stopped breathing for a second, unsure what to do with that, but before he could react Steve had already pulled back, giving him a stern look.

“Never again, you hear me? If you ever publicly taunt a terrorist again I will knock your fucking lights out. Understood?”

Tony almost snorted, but that would've been a bit insensitive in the face of Steve's genuine worry, so he just nodded.

Steve visibly relaxed. “Good.” Then he pulled up a chair and sat next to Tony's bed, staring at him with weird focus, like Tony was going to dissolve into nothing if he so much as blinked. Tony felt his shoulders draw up defensively.

“What?”

“How was the surgery?”

Tony let out a slow breath, tracing the bandages on his chest through his shirt. “Pretty good. No complications.”

Steve just kept looking at him with those calculating eyes. “And how do you feel?”

Tony shrugged. “Fine, I guess. I mean, it doesn't feel that different yet. Can't really feel anything with the painkillers.”

Steve nodded, lowering his head for a second before he stood, giving Tony a very gentle look. “Get some rest, Tony.”

“I will,” he said on reflex and swallowed drily at – at the fondness in Steve's eyes, Jesus, what – but it was gone as soon as it came and Steve left without another word, pulling the door silently shut behind him. Tony stared after him for a long time, trying to decide whether he had imagined it or not.

 

Bucky Barnes was alive.

Tony couldn't fucking believe it. But more than that he couldn't believe that he'd had to find out from a fucking data dump instead of his friends who – apparently – had been trying to find the guy for months.

“You do know I could help, right?” he stated rather than asked. “Get JARVIS in on it, do some big scale investi–“

“No.”

Tony closed his mouth with an audible click, careful not to let the hurt he felt at the prompt rejection show on his face. “Alright then. Still doesn't explain why you didn't tell me.”

Steve sighed heavily and he looked old all of a sudden, weary to the bone. “This – no offense, Tony, but this is something I have to do on my own.”

“You got Natasha in on it,” Tony said, still a little miffed by that. “And that bird guy.”

“Falcon,” Steve corrected absentmindedly. “Yeah, but they're only there because they won't let me go on my own.”

I don't want you to go alone either. Tony shook his head, leaning heavily against the doorframe. “So you really don't want my help? I could take a look –“

“No.” Steve looked up at him with a strained smile. “I appreciate it, really, Tony. But I don't want you to get involved.”

But why? Tony wanted to scream, maybe shake some sense into him, but in the end it was Steve's decision. And if he still didn't trust Tony after all these years...

Well. There wasn't much he could do about that, was there.

“Sure,” Tony said with a shrug, putting his hands in his pockets. “Just... be careful, okay?”

That must've been the wrong thing to say because Steve visibly bristled, his voice hard. “I know what it seems like, but he's still Bucky underneath. I'll handle it.”

Tony nodded, not really sure how to take that. “Alright then. See you at the compound.”

“Ah.” Tony paused on his way out at Steve's voice. “Sorry, Tony. I already got a place in DC. I won't be staying here.”

Tony had to bite down hard on the disappointment, instead choosing to shrug again, casually. “Great. One less mouth to feed. Tell Nat I said hi.”

“Will do,” Steve said and there was something in his voice that Tony couldn't place, but before he could figure it out Steve added “Give Pepper my best. I hope she's doing well.”

Well, that stung.

“Yep,” Tony said, giving Steve one last nod before he left, leaning against the corridor wall for a second to gather himself. He really wanted to be happy for Steve. His best friend was alive even if he was a brainwashed HYDRA assassin and possibly out to kill them all. This must be the best thing that had happened to Steve ever since he woke up from the ice. Tony should be glad that Steve had a chance at happiness again.

So why did it feel like he was losing him?

 

He was sure that Clint, that sneaky little bastard, was behind this. Who the fuck else would be so fucking cruel as to make him share a bed with Captain fucking America?

“It's sweet,” Steve said, twirling one of the little dolls between his fingers as he surveyed the room. “The way he handles his kids. I never thought he'd actually be a good father.”

Tony hummed, trying to ignore the underlying tension in the room. After Steve's little display with the log earlier – and that wouldn't make it straight into his spank bank later, no Sir – Tony was just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Steve clearly wasn't done yelling at him and Tony hated playing the waiting game, so he turned to Steve and spread his arms invitingly.

“Alright, out with it.”

Steve gave him a bewildered look. “What?”

“You want to yell at me,” Tony said, cocking his head. “I built a killer robot. I endangered the whole team, not to mention the public. People are going to die and it's my fault. Come on, let me have it.”

Steve huffed out a frustrated breath, visibly gritting his teeth. “I don't want to fight with you.”

“Oh yeah?” Tony asked, raising an eyebrow. “Correct me if I'm wrong but ripping firewood apart with your bare hands doesn't seem like it's just a new hobby that I didn't know about.”

He could've sworn that Steve flushed slightly underneath that impressive scowl. “You're actually proud of that, aren't you? Riling me up so much that I lose my cool.”

Tony shrugged. “It's entertaining.”

Steve's shoulders stiffened before he seemed to consciously relax, sighing heavily. “Stop trying to make me yell at you. I won't do it.”

“Why?” Tony snapped. “You've never held back before. Now I've actually done something horrible and you're, what, just gonna let it go? That's bullshit!”

“What do you want me to say, huh?” Steve shouted, finally reacting. “What's done is done. The only thing we can do now is fix it.”

“Yeah, I know,” Tony bit out. “But I also know you're furious because I put a killer robot on the loose so I'd rather get the lecture now when we're not making a scene in front of anyone else if you don't mind.”

“God, you're so –“ Steve cut himself off with a deep breath, struggling to keep his calm. He abruptly turned away and started arranging the sheets, obviously done with the conversation. “I'm tired. We should go to bed.”

“Just like that?” Tony asked provocatively. “You shouldn't go to bed on an angry stomach, Cap, it's not good for digestion.”

Steve completely ignored him and oh, Tony hated when people employed that tactic with him. He wasn't a fucking child.

“Okay, fine, I'll do the talking. Jump in if there's anything you'd like to add.” Tony raised his voice in a cheap imitation of Steve's. “Bad Ironman, building robots that try to kill everyone, that's not the American way, how could you –“

Steve slammed his hand down on the bed, effectively shutting Tony up.

“I'm not mad about Ultron,” Steve ground out and Tony gritted his teeth in anger. What a load of bullshit. “He wasn't supposed to turn out evil, I understand that. You had good intentions, Bruce too.” He looked at Tony and the disappointment in his eyes almost physically hurt. “I'm angry because you made all of those decisions alone. We're a team, Tony, we're supposed to work together! Why didn't you tell m– us what was going on? We had a right to know!”

Oh, that was unfair. That was so unfair.

“Like you told me about Barnes?” Tony asked icily. “Because that was a real show of trust. Warmed my heart really.”

Steve went very still. “What?”

“Oh come on, Rogers,” Tony snapped. “You knew he was alive way before the data dump and you didn't think to fucking tell me. I could've helped you find him! But no, you have to do it all on your own, no outside help required, and now that I've done the same thing I'm the bad guy? Fuck you!”

Steve shook his head silently, suddenly looking troubled. Tony narrowed his eyes at him.

“What? What's that look for?”

Steve seemed to hesitate for a moment. “I didn't mean to shut you out. It's just... Bucky is very important to me.” And you're not, Tony's brain chimed in but he squashed it down. He wasn't dealing with that shit right now. “And getting him back is – I just have to try. He's my best friend.”

Tony ignored the indignant part of him screaming that Steve had more than one friend right here too but he realized how unfair that would be. He had no idea what it was like to go through what Steve had been through and nothing could bring back what he'd lost.

Except Barnes had come back. Of course Steve needed him, Tony understood that. But... “I know. I just want you to know that there are people who care about you in this time too, Steve.”

Steve looked up at him, a vulnerable look on his face. “I... I do know that, Tony. Thank you.”

Tony nodded, feeling slightly off-balance under Steve's gaze. He cleared his throat. “Okay, so. That bed's kinda small, how are we –“

“I'll take the floor,” Steve immediately offered and Tony grimaced.

“Yeah, no. I won't inflict that on anyone. I'm sure we'll find a spare mattress or something.”

A small smile tugged at the corner of Steve's lips. “I served in world war two, I can handle sleeping on a carpet.”

“Yeah well this isn't the forties anymore so you don't have to,” Tony said, giving Steve a stern look. He started searching the drawers, crowing triumphantly when he found a stash of blankets. “Hell yeah. C'mon, Cap, make yourself useful and grab some of these. We're building a pillow fort.”

Steve raised an eyebrow even as he did what Tony said. “That's really not necessary. I can sleep on one of the blankets just fine.”

Tony clicked his tongue, dropping his loot on the floor, already mapping out the design in his head. “Hell no, when I'm done with this you'll thank me for sleeping on the floor instead of that boring ass bed. Trust me.”

He looked up and felt his heart lurch at the soft smile on Steve's face. Tony gulped, schooling his expression into something neutral when Steve's gaze met his. Steve's eyes crinkled at the corners and Tony felt something deep inside him coil tight with want.

“Okay, Tony. I trust you.”

 

They were doing the right thing.

Tony had to remind himself of that over and over every time he looked at Wanda, trapped under surveillance in the tower. At Ross' constant revisions of the Accords. At Steve, slipping further and further away from him.

And now Barnes, locked away in a metal cage.

They'd been right to bring him in, right to try and find a middle ground with Ross' demands. The Accords weren't perfect but at least they meant a step in the right direction, one they desperately needed. But it was hard to stand by that when Tony could clearly see how it was tearing the Avengers apart.

He didn't know how Steve could be so fucking blind to not realize what his actions meant on a grander scale. Barnes deserved a fair trial, yes, and psychological help, but he still had to be held accountable for his actions in court. There were probably mountains of evidence supporting the claim that Barnes had been brainwashed. If Tony went digging in the SHIELD data dump it would be a piece of cake to win his case and get him pardoned. But the trial still had to happen! Why couldn't Steve see that they were trying to do the same thing here?

Tony knew just how stubborn Steve could be when he felt like he was in the right. Which was pretty much always. So when Steve put down the pen – “I'd hate to break up the set.” – Tony knew there was no going back from this.

He just hoped that he'd be able to salvage what was left.

 

Tony rubbed at the craters on his hip, thinking back to darkness and caves. He'd always relied on his fighting spirit, Yinsen had taught him that. But this? He didn't know how to deal with this.

Tony had never believed in any god but right now he felt like praying for Steve to see reason, to just fucking stop, to value their friendship more than a fucking disagreement –

“Stand down!”

But Steve didn't. And while Tony might've been born with War in his blood, he never thought that it would make him turn on his friends.

Shows what he knew. Howard was probably laughing in hell.

 

Tony was bleeding, inside and out, his vision tilted at the edges and tinged in red and Steve –

Steve matched him blow for blow, not holding anything back because in the suit Tony was stronger than him and they both knew it. It would be so easy, just one shoulder missile, one charge of the unibeam, just one tiny movement of his thumb –

And then Steve was on the floor, shielding Barnes from Tony as if his life depended on it with a look in his eyes –

“He's my soulmate, Tony.” And the way he said it, so desperate, so full of – oh.

A maple leaf on his chest. True love found and lost and apparently found again. Tony didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

He never stood a fucking chance.

 

A small part of Tony had always wondered. About the mark on his chest. All of his other birth marks – the Disappointment from his mother, Death from his father, War from Yinsen – were accounted for. But not this one. And it was strange, wasn't it? How perfectly the arc reactor had fit into the middle of it.

For a while he'd actually thought it might have been Iron Man's, the same way the Hulk had left a mark on Bruce. A sign of what he'd had to endure to emerge from the ashes, a mark for all the pain he went through in that cave that made him who he was today.

But he'd never known true pain until Captain America slammed his shield into his chest.

The arc reactor shattered – that used to keep him alive, it used to – into a thousand pieces, but it didn't stop, sliced right through until it scraped its way into his chest, piercing the skin through broken glass.

The cut wasn't deep. It scarred anyway.

When Steve walked away, the love of his life under his arm, and didn't look back once, Tony's mark burned like fire.

He's my soulmate, Tony.

He wished he'd said, So am I.

 

Tony fled the hospital on the same day he was admitted, throwing himself headlong into fixing the Accords with furious determination. He was ruthless, hammering them into a shape he knew would suit his purpose and then kept going until he was convinced that everyone would approve. All of the Avengers. All of them.

He got his best lawyers working on getting them pardoned, met with T'Challa on the regular to discuss their status as refugees in Wakanda – it had taken him about an hour to find out where they went – and pushed the boundaries of alternative therapy with BARF.

Tony was sure that if he stopped to think about everything he was doing he'd go insane. That was the man who had lied to him for years that he was getting pardoned. That was the man who'd killed his parents who he was advocating for. But it had to be done. Tony knew that neither of them, and especially not the rest of the team, deserved to be stranded away from home without chance for parole. He knew this was the right thing to do.

But Siberia clung to him like a shadow, following him every hour of the day, lurking around corners to pull him back into despair. He still dreamed about it every night, the shield poised and ready, the desperate fury in Steve's eyes.

For a moment there Tony had been sure Steve would go for his neck.

Sometimes he wished he did.

 

Tony was so wrapped up in contracts and non-disclosure agreements that he almost didn't pick up the call when it came. “Yeah?”

“Sorry, boss, but I can't take his whining anymore,” Happy said over the line and he sounded harried. “The kid's been calling nonstop for two hours and he won't shut up.”

“The kid?” Tony asked with a frown before it hit him. “Spiderman?”

“That's the one,” Happy sighed. “He wants to talk to you, boss.”

“Patch him through,” Tony said absently, rifling through another stack of legalese. God, he hated bureaucracy.

“Mr Stark?” His phone suddenly chimed and Tony almost dropped his coffee mug. He'd forgotten that he still had that in his hand. “Mr Stark? Are you there?”

“Reading you loud and clear, kid,” Tony said. “What's up?”

“I just wanted to thank you again, Sir. When you – I mean, for the opportunity. I'm really grateful even though I – well, I'm just – I'm grateful. Thank you.”

“Um, sure,” Tony said, honestly stumped. The kid had been calling for two hours just to thank him? What the hell even for?

“I just thought –“ Oh god, he was still going. “You know, inviting me to be an Avenger and all, that's honestly so cool and I'd love to – I mean, in the future, if there's ever anything I can help with, like. I mean, you have my number and all. So, call me. Not that you have to, it's just. I'm here. As an option. Is what I'm trying to say. Yeah.”

Tony heard the sound of a palm hitting a face over the line and suddenly found himself smiling. It was a weird feeling. He hadn't smiled in – god, way too long, it seemed. “Sure thing, kid. I appreciate it.”

“Thank you, Mr Stark. I'm – well, I really am grateful. I hope you know that.” There was a small pause where Peter took a deep breath. “You know, people always say you shouldn't meet your heroes, but I'm so glad I did. It's really an honor to know you.”

Tony froze. “Uh. Thanks.”

“That was corny, wasn't it? Geez, I'm sorry, you probably hear that all the time, I swear I'm not secretly some crazy fanboy or anything –“

“It's fine,” Tony said numbly, internally screaming at the burning on his left wrist. He couldn't look at it while he was still holding the coffee mug but he knew exactly what he'd find there. “Thank you, Peter.”

“Alright,” Peter said, clearly relieved albeit still slightly mortified. “I'll let you go now, you're probably busy. Thanks for taking the time though, I really appreciate it.”

“No, thank you,” Tony said and he hoped he didn't sound as choked up as he felt. “I appreciate that you called me. Have a nice day.”

“You too, Mr Stark!” Peter chimed happily before he hung up and Tony ran a shaky hand over his face as he set down the coffee mug. He undid the cuff link, rolling up his sleeve until he could see –

He just stared. And stared. Stared some more.

A laugh bubbled up in his throat and before he knew it he was bent over his desk, trying to keep from crying as he looked at the familiar mark.

A broom flower. Humility.

“Well I'll be damned, Jarvis,” Tony said to the empty room with a wistful smile. “I think I finally know what it means.”

Tony never once made an effort to hide the mark. People probably wouldn't believe it if they looked up the meaning anyway.

 

Tony welcomed them back on his own, ignoring the icy resentment that hung in the air. He would've been hurt by their coldness if he hadn't already made his peace with the fact that the people he once called family would probably never trust him again. He'd always been good at letting things go.

(That was a lie. He never learned to let go of anything.)

“Your rooms are as you left them,” he said and turned to leave. “Do with them as you like. Clear the dust out, take a load off, whatever.”

He'd almost made it to the elevator when Steve's voice stopped him. “Wait!”

Tony turned back around, raising an eyebrow. Steve stared at him, an almost nervous expression on his face as the rest of the team silently cleared out of the room. Tony tried not to notice how they all kept a careful distance as they passed him. “What?”

“Listen, Tony,” Steve started and Tony could already tell he wouldn't like this. “I just wanted to say that –“

“Where's Wonderboy?”

Steve paused, a bewildered look on his face, and Tony waved a hand at the empty space next to Steve.

“Your boy toy. Mr Metallic. The Terminator.”

Steve's eyes clouded with anger for a second before he visibly reigned it in. For some reason it only agitated Tony more. “Bucky is in Wakanda.”

“Why?” Tony asked with a frown. “Last time I checked they'd thawed him out of the freezer.”

“I didn't know if you would –“ Steve took a deep breath as if to steady himself. “I didn't know if he'd be welcome here.”

“Are you fucking –“ Tony had to forcibly clamp down on the anger that rose in him. “Do you know how long it took to get his charges dropped? How many lawyers I had to consult? I made him an arm for fuck's sake,” he gritted out. “I helped break his conditioning. What the fuck else do you need?”

“It's not about what I need,” Steve said seriously. “Not even what he needs. I just wanted to know if you were –“

“Please,” Tony snorted. “Are we really doing this?”

“He killed your parents, Tony,” Steve said and Tony had to suppress a flinch at hearing him say it. God, why was he still not over that – “You have every right not to let him into your home.”

Tony had to laugh bitterly at that. “Home? The compound isn't home.”

Steve got a very strange look in his eyes at that. “It is to some.”

“Yeah? Like who?” Tony asked, waving a hand at the empty space. “You all couldn't have abandoned it faster if you tried.”

Steve sucked in a sharp breath. “That's not fair.”

“Yeah?” Tony said challengingly. “But it's the truth, isn't it?”

Steve looked at him for a long moment before he slowly started unbuttoning his shirt. Tony took a step back in surprise, eyeing him warily.

“What are you doing?”

“I wanted to wait to show you this, but.... I think you need to see it.” Steve shrugged his shirt off his right shoulder, exposing – Tony quickly looked away.

“What the fuck, Steve, you're not supposed to –“

“Just – Look, Tony.”

The slightly desperate tone in his voice made Tony turn back towards him. His eyes were immediately drawn to the mark – a right side up horseshoe – before they snapped back to Steve's face. “Why are you showing me this?”

He could see Steve swallow drily before he spoke, his voice carefully even. “Because it's yours, Tony.”

Tony's blood ran cold.

“It showed up when I got the call,” Steve continued, looking imploringly at Tony. “You weren't there, but I had this feeling that – Anyway, I looked it up and it's – it means Home, Tony.” Steve's eyes were suspiciously shiny as he gave Tony a tentative smile. “You brought me home. You brought all of us home. That's how I know.”

Oh. Oh really. Of all the fucking things –

“Tony?” Steve asked tentatively when Tony just kept staring at him wordlessly. “Are you –“

He was cut off by hysterical laughter. Tony bent at the waist under the force of it, barely managing to keep his gasps from turning into sobs as his body convulsed almost painfully. Just when he thought he'd learned his lesson he still allowed Steve to twist the knife even deeper. When would it be enough?

“Oh wow,” Tony gasped when he finally calmed down enough to right himself, wiping tears from his eyes. “That's priceless. I taught you what home means, huh? Jesus.” His face must've looked terrible because Steve actually took a step back when Tony met his eyes. He shook his head, turning to leave and lick his wounds in peace. “God. Just what I fucking needed.”

“Wait, Tony,” Steve called after him, stopping Tony in his tracks. “Do you – If I have yours, do you have mine, too?” Tony couldn't speak through the pain in his heart, but his silence seemed to be answer enough. “Please, I know you're not supposed to – to ask, but. Do you?”

“So what if I do?” Tony said coldly, turning back to glare at Steve. “What's it to you, huh? You show up here with your – with your fucking mark and suddenly it's alright? Goddammit, Steve, I did everything I possibly could, what more do you want from me?”

“Nothing, Tony, I – You don't have to do anything.” He sounded so sincere. It ground on Tony's nerves. “Just – please, Tony, if you could just tell me, that would be – I just want to move forward from this.”

Tony wanted to scream. “You don't know what you're asking.”

“I just want to know,” Steve said, a desperation to him that Tony had never seen before. “Please, Tony –“

“Fuck,” Tony cursed, tearing at his buttons with shaking fingers until he could pull his shirt open, exposing the mangled mess of scar tissue that made up his chest. Steve sucked in a sharp breath.

“What –“

“There. Now you know. I hope you're happy,” Tony gritted out, fingers digging into his scars. “I was born with this fucking shit on my chest and I never knew who it was for. Guess it was always meant to be this way. You were always meant to –“ Tony shook his head at himself, buttoning his shirt back up. “Whatever. Tell Barnes I said hi.”

“Tony –“ Steve's voice broke on his name and Tony couldn't fucking deal with this.

“Just –“ He took a deep breath and turned to leave. “Just bring him home.”

 

Barnes was a fucking ghost. Either that or Tony just so happened to never run into him by sheer stroke of luck. Though luck wasn't really necessary seeing as Tony very rarely even left his workshop. And he'd rather die than enter the common room again after the last time he'd run into Wanda. If looks could kill he'd be a very dead man.

He'd suggested moving back to New York only once, withering under Pepper's intense disapproval.

“You're part of this team,” she'd said sternly. “Hell, you're the reason they got pardoned. It's your house and they better fucking learn to respect that.” Needless to say she hadn't really warmed up to the rouges yet. To be honest Tony doubted she ever would again.

So suffice to say Tony was very surprised when he turned around to find Barnes standing in the doorway to his workshop. There might have been screaming involved, but Tony claimed plausible deniability.

“What the fuck?” he gasped, grabbing his chest with one hand. “I have a heart condition, you insensitive prick.”

Barnes shrunk against the doorway, averting his eyes. “Sorry, I, uh. Sorry.”

Tony straightened, looking Barnes up and down. He couldn't help the feeling of pity rising in him at the sight of what he had long since realized was a broken man. A victim. And even if he hadn't done an awful lot of soul searching since their fight it was startlingly clear that Barnes was a fucking wreck. He looked like he was one well-placed jab away from falling apart.

Tony sighed. What the hell.

“Come in,” he said, waving at Barnes when the soldier only stared at him. “What, you wanna grow cobwebs? Come in.”

Barnes gingerly stepped inside, looking around in a way that told Tony he was scanning the room for possible exits. Tony could relate.

“So what's eating you? I suppose you're not down here for my pleasant company.” When Barnes looked at him weirdly Tony sighed in exasperation. “Seriously, Robocop. I don't have all day.”

Barnes blinked once before he seemed to shake himself out of it. “It's my arm. I can't feel my fingers.”

“What?” Tony asked sharply, stepping closer to grab Barnes' metal hand and turn it this way and that. “Jesus, what did you do? Put it through a meat grinder?”

Barnes grimaced. “Punched a super soldier.”

Tony's eyes snapped up to find Barnes looking at him defiantly and couldn't quite suppress a startled laugh. “Right. Come over here.”

He pulled him by the wrist towards his medical chair in the back corner of the room, but one look at Barnes' terrified face made him redirect their path to one of his couches, pushing Barnes down with a firm grip on his shoulders. “Sit here. Don't move.”

Tony gathered all the necessary tools, pulling his rolling stool along with his foot and depositing all of it on the couch. When he looked up Barnes was staring at him with a – contemplating? Constipated? Tony couldn't really tell – look in his eyes. Tony raised an eyebrow.

“What?”

Barnes shook his head, giving Tony a small but genuine smile. Tony tried not to notice how much it transformed his face, just like in Howard's pictures – “Nothing.”

“Right,” Tony said doubtfully and got to work. “Now let's open this beauty up. Fair warning, if I find out that you messed up my wire framing I will be very, very pissed.”

 

Tony didn't know how it happened, but before long Barnes had become a regular guest in his workshop, often just brooding silently in the corner as Tony babbled mindlessly, but over time he came out of his shell more and more, making comments and sometimes even smiling a little. Tony had been wary at first but he meant it when he said he didn't blame Barnes for what happened – he never said it out loud, but it still had to count for something in his head – so it wasn't like it was bothering him. Much.

“I jus' don' know what his deal is,” he whined to Rhodey after a night of heavy drinking. They'd celebrated Rhodey finally getting out of therapy and were now singing karaoke. Or wailing in tone deaf. Whatever you wanted to call it. “He's jus' – there. All the time. Which makes no sense 'cause he fuckin' hates me.”

“Maybe he's there 'cause he doesn't,” Rhodey said in his infinite wisdom and Tony scoffed.

“Well he should,” he mumbled bitterly. Rhodey poked him in the side.

“Look, I'mma be honest, 'kay? I still hate what they did. I'll always hate what they did to ya. But you're miserable. Don' bullshit me, you are.” Rhodey clumsily pushed a hand into Tony's face to quiet his protests. “Shush, I'm talkin'. Anyway, I'm j'st saying, he – that Barnes guy, he ain' half bad. I mean, fuck Rogers, honestly, but Barnes ain't – he's kinda nice.”

“Aww, got a crush?” Tony teased, grinning to hide the way his stomach was twisting itself into knots. “You still a comic fan? Bucky was y'r favorite, right?”

Rhodey grumbled under his breath, taking a long sip from his beer.

“Aw tha's so sweet, honeybear. Hey, I can get you a signed poster if ya want –“

“Oh shut up,” Rhodey groaned good-naturedly, bumping Tony with his elbow. “Just give 'im a chance, man. He probably feels terrible.”

“Well good,” Tony said, wincing a second later. “Fuck, I don' – I'm tryin' to get over it, I swear.”

Rhodey put a hand on his shoulder and Tony had to avert his eyes at the sympathetic look he gave him. “Dude, take all the time you need. This whole thing's fucked up.”

Tony sighed. “Tell me 'bout it.”

“But think about it, alright? Not – I'm not sayin' do it for Barnes, it's just – you seem happier. Since he started comin' down to the 'shop.”

Tony let his head thump back against the couch, mulling over Rhodey's words. Was he happier? Did Barnes make him happy? How so? The soldier didn't really do much at all when he came to visit Tony, he just – he was just there. Well, sometimes he played with DUM-E or brought Tony food and on the good days he gave Tony this smile that made Tony feel a little weak in the knees sometimes and –

Oh.

“Rhodey?” His voice came out all croaky and weird and Rhodey turned to him in alarm.

“You okay, Tones?”

Tony made a choked noise, looking at Rhodey with wide eyes. “I think I'm in trouble.”

 

Things were bound to come to a head someday.

They were on a mission, just routine stuff, bad guy with a God complex trying to take over the world, yadda yadda yadda, when Tony suddenly picked up a foreign transmission.

“FRIDAY, what is that?”

“I think they're nuclear codes, boss. A launch is in progress.”

“What?” Tony snapped, turning towards the source of the signal as he hovered in the air. “Are you sure?”

“Positive.”

Tony didn't waste any time, pushing his thrusters to the max away from the battle and towards the nuke's location at supersonic speed.

“Iron Man! I said hold your position!”

“Sorry, Cap.” His teeth were rattling with the force at which he pushed the suit. “Something came up.”

“Goddammit, Tony, get back here!” He'd never heard Rhodey so angry. “We need you!”

“I'm trying to help,” Tony gritted out, checking his proximity warnings. He'd have to push the suit's speed limits to get there in time. Fuck. “Trust me, this is important. There's a nu–”

“Wanda! On your six!”

“On it!”

“Tony, I swear to God if you –“

His comm went dead, shorting out under the pressure. Tony mentally cursed, adding that to the never-ending list of things he still had to upgrade. He swerved, pushing his thrusters even harder until his ears popped as he crossed the sound barrier. It took him ten minutes of cursing and panic and almost throwing up twice to cross the Atlantic and find the launch site. He crashed through the window of its ground floor, staggering over to a wide-eyed man with a clipboard.

“Where –“ he wheezed but before he could finish the question FRIDAY had already put up a blueprint of the building, highlighting the right room. “Nevermind. Thanks, darling.”

Tony made it to the control room in record time, kicking in the door and charging up his repulsors with a metallic whine as he aimed them threateningly at a group of scientists. “Freeze!”

They all did, staring at him with shock and fear in their eyes. Tony couldn't really fault them for that. It wasn't everyday you saw an American superhero in some no man's land in Norway.

“We've – been over this – haven't we?” Tony panted, wheezing between words, every breath burning like fire in his lungs. “Except there's no – wormhole to justify it this time. Who the fuck gave the order?”

One of the scientists nervously looked at the others before he spoke. “The United States government, Sir.”

“Yeah, see, I find that a little hard to believe. Seeing as there's no nuclear-level threat and all.”

The scientist raised his arms in defeat, sweating profusely at Tony's aggressive tone. “We were only following orders.”

“Well in that case,” Tony said, lowering his arms and saluting him mockingly. “Congratulations, soldier. You almost became a mass murderer. If I get notified about a nuclear launch in the next two hours I will personally shove my fist up your ass. Now get moving, assholes.”

He led them out of the room and had just finished melting the lock on the door when FRIDAY alerted him to a call from Rhodey, the twelfth one since he went off the grid. Tony clucked his tongue, holding up a hand to the scientists. “Sorry, I have to take this. Don't wait up for me.”

He quickly left the building – through the door this time – still trying to catch his breath. Fuck, high speed flight was a bitch. “Patch him through, Fry.”

Tony hadn't even opened his mouth to say hello before Rhodey started yelling. “What the fuck, Tony? Where the fuck are you?”

“Norway.”

“Norw– Well what the fuck are you doing in Norway?”

“Saving your collective asses,” he said as he took off on the journey back home. “Someone ordered a nuclear strike. I convinced them to reconsider.”

For a long moment there was silence on Rhodey's end. Then – “Well fuck.”

“Dropping an awful lot of f-bombs there, sugarpie.”

“No, don't you fucking joke right now, Tony, this is –“

“Yeah, I know,” Tony sighed. “I'm looking into it now.”

“Alright. Just –“ Rhodey sighed heavily. “Come home soon, okay? Sam is... He's in critical condition.”

Tony's blood ran cold. “What?”

“Wanda got pinned down and Sam tried to protect her. One of the goons stabbed him in the chest. They're not sure if he's gonna make it.”

There was a strange ringing in Tony's ears, slowly getting louder. “I – How –“

“We need you here, Tones. Cap's freaking out and he won't listen to any of us. We still don't know who was behind this, we don't have time to stop and regroup.” Tony could hear how much it pained him to say it. Rhodey took a deep breath. “Just hurry back, okay?”

“I will,” Tony said numbly, cutting the connection.

Your fault, his conscience said and Tony didn't have the strength to disagree. He should've been there.

“Boss? I found the source of the launch order.”

Tony scanned the map FRIDAY threw on the HUD for him and frowned. “That's not government property.”

“No, boss. It seems to be an abandoned military faculty in Indiana.”

Tony shook his head, letting his worry take a backseat for now in favor of finishing his mission. “Alright, Fry. Let's make it there before they pack up and leave.”

 

It took three grueling hours before Tony made it to the hospital they'd put Sam in. What had looked like an abandoned site had actually turned out to be a very much active HYDRA base. Needless to say that base was now a smoking pile of scrap. Tony had even managed to find the guy who'd acquired the nuclear launch codes and brought him in to SHIELD. He sincerely hoped Natasha would be the one to do the questioning. That guy deserved to shit his pants.

By the time he arrived at the hospital Tony was barely able to stand on his feet without the suit's support. Rhodey had called him about an hour ago to tell him that they'd stabilized Sam and that while he'd be out of commission for a while the injury wasn't life-threatening. He could've collapsed from relief right then and there, but he needed to see for himself. Make sure Sam was alright.

He let the helmet retract back into the armor as he walked up to the waiting room where he'd been told the others were – yeah, there they were.

They must've heard him coming because Steve was already standing when he stepped through the door while the rest watched him wearily. Only Rhodey, Natasha and – inexplicably – Bucky were there and Tony immediately panicked.

“Where is everyone? Are they –“

“This ends now, Tony.”

Tony looked up at Steve, brow furrowing. “What are you – where are they?”

“They're fine, Tones,” Rhodey said tiredly, rubbing his face with his hands. “Doctor just wanted to do some check-ups. They'll be back soon.”

Tony's body almost went limp with relief. “Oh. Good, that's good.”

“I'm serious, Tony,” Steve said quietly and Tony turned back towards him. “You just took off, not a word of explanation, no warning, just – Up and left, in the middle of a battle. We were relying on your air support, do you understand that? Sam almost got killed because you didn't tell us what was going on.” Steve's voice was utterly calm, his face impassive, but his eyes... Tony had never seen him so angry. “I've tolerated this kind of behavior because I know you act in what you think is the best interest of the team. But after this? I won't stand for it anymore.”

Tony felt like ice crystals were forming in his veins. “What are you saying?”

“What I'm saying is,” Steve paused, his eyes hardening to steel. “If you don't start following orders you are off the team. Indefinitely.”

“Steve –“

“No,” Steve interjected, cutting Natasha off before she could protest. “This needs to be said. Tony, what you're doing is irresponsible and dangerous not just to yourself but to your teammates as well. As team leader I can't let you keep –“

“You're only team leader because he brought you back!” Rhodey butted in, sharp like a knife. “And now you're trying to kick him off? I told you he had to make that trip or we'd all be fucking dead! Where the hell do you get off –“

“You think I want to do this?” Steve shouted, finally showing some emotion behind his calm mask. “Of course I want him on the team! But he can't keep doing this!”

He is standing right here,” Tony gritted out, finally finding his voice. “And correct me if I'm wrong but I thought you wanted to leave the Avengers to me. Or was that revoked when all the rogues came back and you actually had an interest in the team again.”

For a moment Steve looked like he'd been slapped before his face twisted with anger. “I always wanted the team to stay together.”

Tony laughed viciously. “Oh yeah, I know. Just not as much as you wanted him,” he said, pointing at Bucky who visibly paled at being singled out like that. Tony refused to feel bad for him. “He was worth throwing it all away for, wasn't he?”

“Don't bring him into this,” Steve growled and Tony scoffed.

“You've made your choice, Rogers. The Avengers aren't yours anymore. And if you don't like the way I handle things why don't you fuck off and do your own thing. Seems to be your preferred method anyway.”

Steve's hands balled into fists as he took an aggressive step forward – and Tony just reacted, stumbling back, his hands raised defensively because he knew this, he knew how this – Oh no.

He was distantly aware of the pained noise ripping from his throat but it was like a thick mist started closing in over everything and he – fuck, there was no air, where did it go –

“Tony!”

He didn't even notice that he'd started to panic until there were hands on his shoulders, pushing him to the floor and forcing his head between his knees.

“It's okay, Tones, just breathe, just – stay back you fucking idiot, you'll make it worse! Come on, Tony, stay with me. Breathe!”

Tony's teeth were chattering. He was so cold and he couldn't feel his legs, god, he couldn't – fuck, the reactor, was it – was he still –

“Hey, easy, you're okay, just breathe with me, Tones, come on –”

Someone grabbed his hands to stop them from scrabbling over his chest, nails scratching against metal. Tony sucked in shaky breaths, his vision slowly clearing enough to see the floor where he was looking down between his knees and – huh.

He reached out to touch it and it wasn't ice, some sort of linoleum and – yeah, there had been a hospital, right? Hospital, the mission, Sam, Steve

“That's good, Tony. Keep breathing. Come on, let's get you up here, buddy. Can you take off the armor?”

Tony reacted automatically, letting it fall away to reveal his shaking body, all sweaty and gross from the flight.

“Jesus –“

“Fuck, he needs to see a doctor!”

“No! Just let him calm down, we can get him checked over later.”

As the world around him slowly came back into focus Tony realized three things. He was not in Siberia. The suit might've been holding him together a lot more than he thought because everything hurt now. And he'd just had a panic attack because of the one person he'd sworn never to show his weaknesses to again. Great.

Rhodey grabbed him under the arms, lifting him onto a chair. Tony couldn't hold back a groan at the spike of pain that lanced through him now that the suit wasn't supporting him anymore. Fuck, how many muscles had he pulled on that flight?

“Sorry, sorry. Okay, there we go. Nat, get a doctor out here, now –”

“I'm okay,” Tony said gruffly, gratefully accepting the water Rhodey all but shoved into his hands. “It's fine. I got it.”

“You're not fine,” Rhodey said gently, helping him take a long sip of the water. Tony felt embarrassed to need his help, but then again Rhodey had endured it when Tony fretted over him during his physical therapy, so Tony couldn't really complain. “What happened, Tones? You're bruised all over.”

Tony looked down at his body, seeing that every visible patch of skin – his hands, his shins, his collarbones – were mottled with angry red scrapes and bruises. He shrugged. “Didn't design the suit for comfort during high speed flight. I'll fix it when I get back to the compound.”

Rhodey touched a gentle hand to Tony's temple. It came away bloody. “Didn't get that from the flight.”

Tony sighed, letting his head fall back against the wall and closing his eyes. “It was HYDRA. The launch codes. I found the base and neutralized the threat.”

Rhodey sucked in a sharp breath and Tony could hear other people in the room do the same. He looked up unwittingly to see Bucky and Steve staring at him from the other side of the room. Bucky looked like he'd been punched in the face and Steve was white as a sheet, averting his eyes as soon as Tony sought out his gaze. He gritted his teeth. Just what he fucking needed.

“Mr Stark?” And there was the doctor, crouching next to him to shine a light into his eyes and feel around his head for injuries. “You have a mild concussion. Let's get you in a bed and we'll take care of the rest.”

Tony would've loved to protest but he was starting to feel a little woozy now that the adrenaline had worn off again so he didn't resist them when they loaded him onto a stretcher to carry him off to god knows where. Rhodey stayed with him, reminding him periodically to “Stay awake, Tones”, not that he needed it. He couldn't have slept if he wanted to.

And given the nightmares he knew were waiting for him he really wasn't looking forward to it anyway.

 

The doctor gave him the usual spiel, no avenging for a while, no work, strictly rest, blah blah blah. By the time the lecture was over Tony had already planned his escape in the next twelve hours and a diversion for Rhodey if he tried to stop him from being productive. It was almost sad that the doctors hadn't learned their lesson yet.

Tony had charmed his way into the good graces of one of the nurses so she'd give him his glasses – to protect him from the bright lights, ha – and he had FRIDAY up and running in seconds, printing out his early release papers via a wireless printer in the doctor's office. If he was really lucky a nurse would find them and just assume it was a done deal. A man could dream.

Tony looked up at a quiet knock on the door and stiffened when he saw Steve standing in the doorway, his shoulders hunched like he was trying to make himself smaller.

“Um, can I... Can I come in?”

Tony huffed, rolling his eyes. “You don't need my fucking permission. Just come in.”

Steve stepped forward, closing the door behind him. It instantly put Tony on edge and Steve seemed to notice because he didn't attempt to come any closer. His posture was really grinding on Tony's nerves, the way he practically projected 'nonthreatening' with the way he wasn't even looking directly at Tony. “How are you feeling?”

“About as good as you'd expect,” Tony deadpanned and Steve's shoulders hunched even further. “What do you want?”

Steve took a moment to gather himself before he spoke, finally looking at Tony. “I just wanted to talk about what happened out there.”

Tony snorted, crossing his arms to hide the shame he felt knowing that Steve had seen him at his weakest now. “It's pretty clear, isn't it? I'm sure you've seen someone have a panic attack before.” Steve winced and Tony sighed. “No use sugarcoating it. You set me off and I panicked. Not your fault.”

Steve gave him an incredulous look. “How is it not my fault?”

Tony shrugged. “Look, logically I know you wouldn't –“ He paused, rethought that. “Well, no, we both know that you would given the right circumstances, but I do realize that we're past the stage of beating each other senseless. I just need some time to convince my subconscious. It's a process. I'm working on it.”

Steve looked stricken and Tony had to avert his eyes. “You...” Steve choked on the word, swallowing heavily. “Tony, are you afraid of me?”

Tony sighed, shaking his head. “No, I'm... On a conscious level I'm not.”

“But subconsciously?”

Tony turned to glare at Steve. “What do you want me to say, huh? That I still have nightmares about you bashing in the reactor? That I start looking for a way out every time you enter a room? Yes, I'm scared of you. Does that really surprise you?”

Steve just looked at him wordlessly, the silence stretching out to an almost unbearable length before he walked over to one of the chairs and slumped down on it, putting his head in his hands. He was breathing heavily yet clearly trying to control it. Tony didn't know how to take that.

“What?” he asked challengingly. “You wanted to talk about it, didn't you? Like I said, it's my problem, not yours. And I am trying, okay? Just give me some time.” Steve made a wounded noise and Tony frowned. “You alright, Cap?”

“I didn't know how much I – I didn't know, Tony.”

Tony frowned. “Know about what?”

Steve breathed out shakily. “Your mark.”

Tony's hand automatically came up to his chest, covering it even through the layer of fabric. “What about it?” he asked coolly.

“I looked it up, after – after you showed me.” Steve swallowed heavily. “Tony, I'm so sorry.”

Tony could barely breathe with the way Steve was looking at him so he averted his eyes, clearing his throat. “It's – well, it's not okay, obviously, but um...” He shifted uncomfortably. “I don't really know what to say.”

Steve laughed humorlessly. “Yeah, me neither.”

Tony couldn't stand the awkward silence that fell over them. They used to be able to talk about anything and nothing, or just sit together without a need for conversation. This wasn't what he wanted. Fuck, why couldn't Steve just leave him alone and be done with it?

“If...” Tony jerked out of his thoughts at Steve's voice. The soldier cleared his throat but he still sounded like he was choking on his words when he spoke. “If having me here makes you uncomfortable or... or if you don't want me around, I can go.” He gave Tony a strained smile that was probably supposed to look reassuring. “I still got that place in Brooklyn, I can stay there for as long as –“

“No!” Tony snapped, a little too harshly because Steve flinched. He didn't give a shit. “I went through so much bullshit to bring you here, you're not going to run away now!”

“I'm not running away,” Steve said firmly. “I wouldn't quit the team. I just think... maybe you need some space. After what I did –“

“How is it you always know what I need?” Tony asked icily. “Not telling me about my parents because apparently I needed to be spared the hurt, now I need fucking space because you make me a little skittish? Fuck you!”

Steve breathed out heavily, folding his hands. “I'm sorry, I didn't –“

“How about you just stop assuming that you know shit about me, Rogers?” Tony spat, glaring fiercely at Steve. “Because to be honest you don't know me at all.”

Steve looked at him silently for a long moment, a complicated mix of emotions playing out on his face. “I do know you, Tony,” he finally said quietly.

Tony scowled. “Used to, maybe. Not anymore.”

Steve's shoulders slumped and he suddenly looked so defeated that Tony's heart twinged painfully despite his anger. “I guess not.” He slowly got to his feet, his head down like the weight of the world was pressing down on him. “I'm truly sorry, Tony. I hope you know that.” And with that he left.

Tony stared at the door for several minutes, trying to ignore the guilt that settled like lead in his stomach. It wasn't his fault that Steve was upset. He shouldn't even care that the soldier was hurting.

It still made him feel like shit.

 

He was hammering away at a sheet of titanium alloy when Barnes cornered him with a stern “I need to talk to you.”

Tony jumped about a foot in the air, dropping his hammer as he whipped around, hand raising instinctively as a gauntlet formed around his forearm. Bucky jerked back, raising his arms in defense.

“Wait, it's me!”

Tony blinked and slowly let his hand sink, the gauntlet retracting back into its nano chamber. Bucky followed the movement with wide eyes.

“Wow, that's – Where did that come from?“

“Nano bots,” Tony said, pointing at the bracelet on his arm. “I'm working on making the entire suit bleeding edge like that.” He gave Bucky a narrow eyed glare. “And how many times do I have to tell you to Not. Sneak. Up on me?”

“Sorry,” Bucky said, not very apologetic. Tony frowned.

“What do you want?”

“To talk.” Bucky looked at him with an inscrutable expression. “About Steve.”

Tony stiffened. “What about him?”

Bucky took a deep breath. “Okay, look. I know you're hurt. And you have every reason to be, believe me, I know. But Steve is fucking miserable and I know you are too so if you could just –“

“What?” Tony interrupted him sharply, feeling that familiar anger already bubbling under his skin. “So now it's my job to make him feel better about what he did?”

“No!” Bucky said and Tony could hear the frustration behind it. “Of course not! But he can't make it up to you if you don't even give him a chance to –“

“What if I don't want to?”

Bucky looked at him, stunned silent. Tony glared at him.

“Maybe he can't make it up to me. What then?” Tony asked frostily. “What if all I want is for Steve to leave me the fuck alone?”

Bucky kept staring at him silently, a deep frown on his face.

“You don't mean that,” he said eventually, sounding so sure of himself that Tony gritted his teeth in anger.

“So now you know what I think, too?” Tony ground out. “That's great. Fantastic. How about you take your sanctimonious bullshit and try it on someone who actually gives a shit?”

“Tony –“

“Don't 'Tony' me,” he snapped. “I'm done talking about this. I'm not going to play nice for his sake when he hasn't even apologized –“

“Well, it's not like you have either,” Bucky cut in and Tony saw red.

Don't even fucking start,” Tony growled. “He tried to kill me –“

You tried to kill me,” Bucky said harshly and Tony could see that his flesh hand was balled into a shaking fist. “And yet I never heard you apologize either.”

Tony sucked in a sharp breath. For a second he was lost for words but then the anger bubbling up in him took over. Bucky opened his mouth with a regretful look in his eyes, but Tony held up a hand.

“I built you that arm,” he said very quietly. “I let you into my workshop. If you really haven't figured out that I'm sorry without me actually spelling it out then I don't know what to tell you.”

Bucky gave him a wry smile. “I know that. I'm just saying, if it worked that well for us, why can't it work like that between you and Steve? You have to know that he's sorry, too, Tony.”

“And what has he done to earn my forgiveness?” Tony asked flatly and Bucky couldn't say anything to that even though he was visibly grasping for words. Tony shook his head. “Don't. It's not like I was trying all that hard either.”

“Or at all,” Bucky said and immediately seemed to regret it, his mouth snapping shut. Tony just smiled bitterly.

“Or at all,” he agreed.

“So... is that it?” Bucky asked after a short silence. “You're just going to give him up?”

Fucking hell, that was unfair.

'He's your soulmate', Tony wanted to scream but he knew Bucky probably didn't know about just how close Steve and Tony had been before Bucky had been found – or well, at least Tony had thought they were close back then. Besides, Bucky definitely didn't mean it like that. And from his point of view it probably was weird that Tony wasn't even trying to patch up his friendship with Steve when he'd managed to do it with a complete stranger like Bucky.

Tony took a steadying breath, trying to control the fury in his veins. It wouldn't be fair to take it out on Bucky. The soldier had no idea what kind of bear cave he was inadvertently poking in.

“I'm done here,” Tony said abruptly, waving at FRIDAY to save his progress as he walked towards the elevators. “You know where the door i–“

Tony gasped at the sudden grip of a metal hand around his arm, ungracefully jerking out of the hold in alarm. When Tony whipped around to glare at Bucky the soldier already had his hands up placatingly, looking at Tony with wide eyes.

“Sorry, I –“

“Do not,” Tony gritted out. “Sneak up on me!”

“I know, I know,” Bucky said quickly, sounding apologetic enough that Tony didn't immediately storm out. “I just – I wanted to –“

“Help your friend out, yeah, I know,” Tony said and he was suddenly very tired. “Look, I know you mean well but... me and Steve, that ship has sailed. We'll be professional in the field and that's that.”

Bucky looked like he wanted to protest but then his face hardened almost imperceptibly before he nodded, making his way out of the workshop. He paused at the door, turning back to give Tony an inscrutable look.

“It's not just about Steve,” he said firmly. “You're my friend too, Tony. I just want you both to be happy, that's all.”

With that he slunk off, leaving Tony with a suddenly pounding heart and the need to sit down. What the fuck was that supposed to mean?

The words 'You're my friend too' followed him all the way into his dreams, but when he woke up he couldn't remember if it was a nightmare or not.

For a lack of anything better to do but stare at the ceiling until he felt like it was closing in on him Tony made his way onto the roof. He had always loved to let the icy wind fill his lungs, chasing away the last vestiges of restless sleep. He must've been feeling particularly masochistic on this specific night because his thoughts kept drifting back to soulmates and maple leafs, metal arms and golden blond hair.

He wondered if Steve and Bucky were taking their time or if they'd fallen right back into their relationship. Not that they'd ever confirmed or denied either way but even in the field it was obvious, the bond they shared, the trust that ran deeper than blood. It should've given Tony some closure – see, that's what you were up against, you were doomed to fail from the start – but it just made him all the more miserable.

Tony could imagine them cuddling on the couch, cooking dinner together in the common rooms, their smiles big and bright and beautiful. It made him want to punch through the nearest wall but then again sometimes he needed that, to let the pain seep in and just let himself hurt. Which was pathetic, he knew, but Tony had never let go of anything easily. Especially nice things. And Steve and Bucky were a very, very nice thing. One Tony wanted more than anything but would never have.

Sleep didn't come easily after that.

 

“Is there a reason why you're blocking my door?” Tony asked, pointedly raising his eyebrow at Bucky who was sitting with his back against the entrance to Tony's workshop. “I'm gone for two hours and you start holding my bots hostage?”

Bucky shrugged, seemingly unbothered by Tony's slightly hostile tone. “No hostages. Unless it helps to convince you.”

“Convince me of what?” Tony asked suspiciously.

Bucky stood with exaggerated effort, patting his pants down obnoxiously. Tony had to resist the urge to tap his foot. Maybe he shouldn't have made so many elderly jokes.

“The Dodgers are in town,” Bucky said. “I have tickets but Steve got called out on a mission tonight so I guess you will have to do.”

“'Have to do'?” Tony sniffed. “Please, if you had to pay for my time like everyone else you couldn't even afford me.”

“Good thing I get it for free then,” Bucky said with that charming grin that he'd started wearing more and more often these days and Tony's heart really wasn't built for these kinds of acrobatics. “Come on, watch the game with me.”

Tony hesitated for a moment but one look at Bucky's puppy eyes and he caved with a sigh. “You do know that I could get you into the VIP lounge every damn game for the rest of your life, right? Why'd you buy tickets?”

Bucky wrinkled his nose. “And sit up there with the posh, perfumed crowd? No thanks.” He looked Tony up and down. “No offense.”

Tony snorted. “Yeah no, I know what you mean. When's the game?”

“I'll pick you up at eight,” Bucky said cheerfully and Tony really didn't want to think about how much it sounded like a date because down that road lay madness and a whole lot of misery.

By now he'd learned not to invite heartbreak when he could avoid it.

 

“I don't think I've ever seen you outside of the workshop,” Bucky mused as they sat in the stands, munching on hot dogs and nachos.

Tony gave him a questioning look. “You've seen me plenty. In case you're not caught up yet, that big, red, metal suit? Has a gooey billionaire center.”

“Yeah, but that's work,” Bucky said, rolling his eyes and taking another bite. He was really demolishing those hot dogs. It reminded Tony of Steve but the thought made something in his chest ache profoundly so he pushed it down. “You're never around for the fun stuff.”

Tony wasn't aware of any 'fun stuff' happening in his house but he'd rather not dig too deep into that so he shrugged. “I have work.”

“You always have work,” Bucky said carelessly. “But you still make time to hang out in the workshop.”

“Hang out, huh?” Tony asked with a raised eyebrow. “Is that what we're doing?”

“Well, what would you call it?” Bucky asked challengingly and Tony didn't have an answer so he mulishly stuffed his mouth with nachos. Bucky sighed. “I just think we could spend time somewhere else too, is all.”

“What, why? Is it the technology? Twenty-first century still giving you the creeps?”

Bucky laughed and said something in return but Tony kind of spaced out as he suddenly realized that this whole conversation meant that Bucky apparently wanted to spend time with him. More than he already did, which, now that Tony thought about it, was a lot. What the hell.

“Tony?” Bucky asked and Tony met his concerned eyes with an easy grin.

“Sorry. What's the score anyway?”

Despite not really being into baseball Tony had a great time, mostly watching Bucky heckle the Yankees, much to the chagrin of everyone around them. The passive-aggressive huffing was hilarious.

“Oh boo,” Bucky groaned when the Yankees eventually won, slumping down in his seat. “What a fucking joke. The Dodgers were so much better back in –“ He abruptly snapped his mouth shut, glancing at Tony from the corner of his eye. Tony could already feel the shit eating grin on his face.

“Oh no, go on, tell us all about 'back in your day', grandpa.”

Bucky grumbled under his breath, crossing his arms. Tony's smirk only widened.

“Hey, we should get you some new tennis balls for the walker on the way back, really impress the ladies.”

“Oh shut up,” Bucky groaned but he was grinning too, punching Tony in the shoulder. It hit Tony then, that feeling of easy comradery, the way he really felt comfortable around Bucky –

Shit, they really were friends, weren't they?

He must've been silently staring at Bucky for too long because Bucky was getting that concerned look in his eyes again. Tony shook himself out of it, clapping Bucky on the shoulder as he stood.

“Come on. You can't watch a game and not have burgers after, that's just wrong. I know a great place on the –“

Bucky grabbed his arm just as Tony started to leave, holding him back. Tony gave him a confused look.

“I –“ Bucky licked his lip and Tony could suddenly see the nervous tension behind his eyes. “Just, can we – wait? A bit?”

Tony frowned, confused, before it suddenly came to him. A large group of people was shoving their way out some very small exits right now. And he faintly remembered one sleepless night where Bucky had mentioned that he still got anxious in larger crowds.

Stupid, Tony thought, more than a little frustrated. Why would Bucky put himself through that? Why – But it was obvious, wasn't it?

He wants to feel normal.

Tony swallowed heavily, sitting back down.

“Sure,” he agreed easily and Bucky gave him a grateful smile. Tony cleared his throat. “So, I'm working on this new alloy for your arm that's gonna give you about two percent better grip which doesn't sound like a lot but it'll change your whole life, trust me –“

He rambled on for minutes on end as the crowd slowly cleared out around them, casting the two of them furtive glances now and then. Thankfully nobody asked for a picture. When the crowd had thinned out to about half its size Bucky nodded, standing to leave the stadium with slightly tense shoulders. Tony acted on impulse, slinging an arm around them as they walked up the stairs, babbling all the while. He was still going when they sat down in the car but fell silent when Bucky suddenly grabbed his arm. Tony gave him a questioning look.

“Thanks for coming with me, Tony, I really appreciate it,” Bucky said in a low voice and Tony had to suppress a shiver, instead nodding with a small smile. There was a sudden tension between them that Tony didn't want to look at too closely so he started the car and backed out of the parking lot.

“Alright. There's this place I want to show you. Best burgers you've ever had in New York, guaranteed. You wanna go?”

Tony didn't look but he could feel Bucky's eyes on him and hear the smile in his voice when he answered. “I'm sure I'll love it. Thanks, Tony.”

 

Tony almost dropped his toothbrush when he looked into the mirror the next morning and saw unfamiliar lines on the left side of his ribcage. He leaned closer to inspect his new mark, another flower, a daffodil. It came in painlessly over night. When Friday showed him the meaning he laughed and laughed until he crumpled and started sobbing into his hands, sinking onto the bathroom floor, still shirtless. Maybe some part of him had always held on to the lingering guilt.

It felt good to let go of it now.

 

“Hey, do you have a minute?”

Bucky looked up, surprised confusion on his face. Tony fidgeted uncomfortably at Bucky's obvious shock even though he should've expected it. He'd never approached the soldier of his own accord before.

“Sure,” Bucky said mildly, putting down his book. “What's wrong?”

“Nothing's wrong, just –“ Tony took a deep breath, holding out his hand. “Come on. I need to show you something.”

Bucky frowned even as he let Tony pull him to his feet. His fingers twitched in Tony's when Tony didn't let go immediately, so he hurried to pull his hand away as he led them to a more private spot. It took a second before Bucky followed him and Tony startled when he felt him tentatively grab Tony's hand again. His heart was hammering in his chest and – Christ, this was fucking ridiculous. Tony was usually much smoother than this.

They kept awkwardly holding hands until Tony pulled Bucky into an empty guestroom, closing the door behind them. Bucky gave him a slightly concerned look.

“What's going on, Tony?”

“Nothing bad,” Tony quickly reassured him and watched as Bucky's shoulders lost some of their tension. Bucky seemed to always expect the worst out of any conversation. Tony could relate.

“Okay, so –“ Tony started but cut himself off. Bucky was looking at him expectantly now and fuck, he wasn't prepared for this, why hadn't he planned it better? “Um, I – well, I woke up this morning and I had a new mark. Must've come in last night.”

There. Like a bandaid. Bucky's eyes widened very subtly, something like anticipation and dread reflecting in them. Tony swallowed heavily. “It's yours.”

Bucky sucked in a sharp breath and that was definitely fear in his eyes now. He twitched towards Tony before he curled his hands into fists, looking down at Tony's body. “Can... Can I see?”

Tony breathed in shakily, raising his hands to unbutton the lower half of his shirt. He hadn't shown anyone his marks since Pepper if you didn't count that whole mess with Steve. He'd forgotten how fucking nerve-wracking it was. “I'm not – it's on my ribs, I don't want to –“

“That's fine,” Bucky said quickly, eyes fixed on Tony's fingers now. “I don't – you don't have to show me the rest of it, I just –“

“Okay,” Tony said, his voice trembling faintly before he cleared his throat and continued in a much steadier tone. “I have one on my hip too.”

“I won't look,” Bucky promised and it looked like he was barely breathing, his entire body still like a statue. Tony nodded, pulling his shirt up and open to expose the daffodil sitting right underneath his heart. Bucky seemed to be frozen, just staring at it for a long minute before he spoke up in a hushed voice.

“What does it mean?”

Tony waited until Bucky looked up so he could meet his eyes. Then he smiled, a little wobbly but more sincere than he had in months. “Forgiveness.”

Bucky gasped, stumbling back like Tony had physically hit him. “You –“

Tony nodded, startled when tears suddenly filled Bucky's eyes before the soldier dropped to his knees, grabbing Tony's waist and burying his face in his stomach.

“Thank you,” he sobbed and Tony could feel Bucky's tears leave wet tracks on his skin. “Thank you, I'm sorry, god, I'm so sorry, Tony –“

Tony was too shocked to react but Bucky didn't seem to notice, his shoulders trembling as he pressed his forehead into the flower mark, his breathing harsh and uneven. Bucky's hands were shaking on Tony's hips and Tony reflexively reached down to steady them, feeling some of the tension bleed out under his touch.

“Hey, it's okay,” he said and he almost didn't recognize his own voice. “I forgive you.” God, he'd said it, he'd actually – “Fuck, I forgive you,” Tony choked out, suddenly overwhelmed by the reality of what this meant, and he buried his hands in Bucky's hair to pull him closer, clutching at him almost desperately. “Fuck, Bucky. I'm so sorry –“

The longer they stayed there the calmer Tony felt, a heavy sort of exhaustion settling over them even after they'd stopped crying. The relief of getting all of that out in the open was heady and it was almost overwhelming how good it felt to leave the lingering tension that had hung over them ever since that first day Bucky had come to the workshop behind.

Tony took his time with opening his eyes and found Bucky now breathing calmly into the skin of his stomach, fingers still clutching at Tony's hips. His heart lurched when the sight fully registered and he couldn't resist running a hand through Bucky's hair, just to feel, just once –

Then Bucky smiled up at him and it suddenly hit Tony just how intimate their position was, Bucky on his knees before him. He swallowed heavily.

“God, we're pathetic,” he blurted out, wincing at his choice of words, but Bucky just chuckled with a twinkle in his eyes.

“Yeah, we are.”

Tony hummed agreeably and Bucky looked up at him, his eyes clearer than Tony had ever seen them and they seemed to pierce right through his soul, so much depth in that icy blue, so much –

Before he'd fully thought it through he'd leaned down to press a kiss to Bucky's forehead, wanting to go lower, kiss his eyelids, his cheeks, his mouth –

But Bucky gasped and the sound shocked Tony back to reality. He moved back immediately until Bucky's hands fell from his waist, already missing the feeling of Bucky's hair between his fingers. God, what were they doing? Bucky was with Steve, Tony rarely even touched Bucky aside from working on the arm –

“Yeah, so. That's that,” he said awkwardly, buttoning his shirt back up to avoid Bucky's eyes. “Looks like I've reached my quota for emotional drama for the month. Any more and I'll break out in hives.”

He heard rather than saw Bucky get to his feet, only looking up when he felt a hand on his shoulder. Tony couldn't place the look in Bucky's eyes, but his smile was still genuine.

“I'm glad you showed me, Tony. Thank you.”

Tony nodded jerkily, pushing past Bucky to get the hell out of the room. The atmosphere was stifling. “Sure. Come down to the shop tomorrow, I'm working on a fix for your grip strength.”

He left before Bucky could reply, hurrying to the elevators. His heart was pounding so hard he swore he could feel it against his ribcage.

“JARVIS,” he gasped. “Tell me –“

“It's Tuesday May 25th and you're at the Avengers compound, boss. Do you want me to call someone?”

FRIDAY. Tony closed his eyes, sliding down the elevator wall to sit on the floor as grief suddenly hit him like a punch in the gut. Fuck, he missed JARVIS –

“Keep breathing, boss. You're doing great. I've called –“

“Shut up,” Tony shouted, clutching his head in his hands. “Shut the fuck up! Don't talk to me!”

His breathing was coming much faster now, leaving him gasping for air that wouldn't come in the elevator as he tried to get a grip. He was shaking so hard he could hear his teeth rattling. His throat constricted until he felt lightheaded from the lack of oxygen and suddenly he was in space, the darkest black filling his vision and pain exploding behind his eyelids.

“Stop,” he moaned brokenly, ripping at his hair. “Please...”

He barely heard the elevator ding as it opened but suddenly there were hands on his shoulders, pushing his head between his knees.

“Oh shit. Fucking – Breathe, Stark.” The voice was familiar but it only made his anxiety spike more, spasming as his lungs contracted. “Fuck. Okay. We'll do a little breathing exercise, okay? One tap means in, two taps out.” He flinched when the hand tapped his shoulder, but obediently sucked in a stuttering breath. “Good. And out.” Two taps. He coughed, panicking as he tried to get the air back, but it wouldn't come – “Easy. You're doing great. Again. In.”

It was slow going but eventually Tony calmed down enough to recognize the hands on his shoulders. He tensed as he cleared his throat, shifting uncomfortably.

“What are you doing here,” he croaked and could practically feel Clint's grimace even though he couldn't raise his head to see it.

“Had an appointment with Steve. He never showed.”

Tony nodded, trying to pull himself together as he raised a weak hand to wipe his eyes, keeping his face down. “Was Barnes with him?”

“Was – what? I don't know.” Clint finally let go of Tony, standing up and stepping back to give him some room. Tony grabbed the hand rail, pulling himself up on shaky feet and chanced a look at Clint. His bow was slung over his shoulder – appointment his ass, that bastard never did seem to stay in retirement – and he was frowning in a way that almost made him look troubled. Fan-fucking-tastic.

But then again, if anyone on the team had to catch him at his weakest it was probably good that it was someone who already thought the worst of him. Tony leaned heavily on the rail, putting on his usual arrogant smirk as he waved a hand at Clint.

“Well, you know where the door is. Tell Laura I said hi.”

He stumbled out of the elevator, planning to take his private one straight down to the workshop when Clint suddenly grabbed his arm. Tony flinched back, raising his hands in defense and – Clint looked even more constipated now, shit. Tony forced himself to redirect his hands to his hips, trying to appear nonchalant which he failed at spectacularly if the look on Clint's face was anything to go by. “Sorry. Reflex.”

“Stark, are – are you okay?” Clint asked and he sounded so hesitant that it made Tony snort.

“I always am, Barton.” He gave Clint a stern look. “Steve won't hear about this. I'm not getting taken off the active roster because I got a little out of breath.”

Clint clearly wanted to protest but then his face hardened and he gave Tony a tense nod. Tony nodded back, turning to leave when Clint's voice made him stop.

“I know what you did.”

Great. Tony looked back, sighing tiredly. “What is it this time?”

Clint frowned and that almost looked like a pang of regret for a split second there, but he got his expression under control too quickly for Tony to be sure. “With the Accords. You're the one who put in all the clauses about protecting the enhanced. And you led the negotiations with the UN about our pardons.”

Tony raised an eyebrow. “So?”

Clint seemed stumped for a second before he visibly steeled himself. “You paid off Laura's mortgage too. She told me to thank you.”

Tony's lips twitched with a smile. “Sure. Tell her no problem.”

Clint nodded jerkily. Tony waited a moment longer before he deemed the conversation over and made his way out of the –

“Thank you.”

Tony whipped back around in surprise, seeing Clint's face flush slightly even though his eyes were filled with resolve.

“Thank you, Tony. For everything. I really appreciate it.”

Tony had to fight very hard not to let his mouth drop open. What the hell?

“Sure,” he said hesitantly and couldn't believe his eyes when Clint actually smiled. A crooked smile, but still.

“I had some ideas for the gym equipment,” Clint said, searching Tony's eyes with an intensity that made Tony want to fidget. “I'd like to talk to you about them if you don't mind.”

“You don't even live here,” Tony blurted and Clint looked a little sheepish as he hoisted the bow on his shoulder higher.

“Yeah, I, uh. That's what I wanted to meet with Cap about actually.”

Tony gave him a long, hard look before he allowed himself to smile tentatively. “Retirement never suited you anyway, birdbrain.”

Clint looked surprised for a second before he grinned, a lot more sincere than before. “Right back at you, tinman.”

Tony chuckled and waved as he walked to the other elevator. The weight in his chest seemed just a bit lighter now. He pressed the button to the workshop, leaning against the wall and looking up at the ceiling as he let the feeling wash over him.

“FRIDAY?” he asked quietly and there was a small pause before she answered.

“Yes, boss?”

Tony closed his eyes. “I'm sorry.”

He could've sworn her voice sounded soft when she replied. “No problem.”

 

Tony would like to say that he wasn't avoiding Bucky, but he was avoiding Bucky. Not to an extent that anyone would notice since he was still keeping up a professional face in the field, but still. He wasn't proud of it.

He brought his hammer down on a piece of metal, beating it into shape. Not for the first time he wished that everything could be as easy as that, envisioning a shape, planning the process, bringing it to life. But people didn't work like machines. There was never an easy fix for an emotional hurt like there was for a screw bent out of shape. And Tony was at a loss for what to do now that he found himself faced with a terrible problem.

It was one thing to still hold a torch for the man who had lied to him and dropped him like a sack of potatoes as soon as the chance arose. But it was a whole new level of fucked up to fall for his parents' murderer.

The worst thing was that neither of those things actually seemed to matter to him as much as they should. He'd forgiven Bucky, that much was clear, and the man really was innocent in the grand scheme of things. And even though he hated to admit it most of his resentment for Steve had mellowed over time, turning into an aching sadness rather than the burning anger that he'd felt before. It didn't make him feel any better about knowing that he'd read too much into Steve's presence in his life but that was just one of those things Tony would have to live with. Wouldn't be the first loss. Wouldn't be the last.

“Boss? Sergeant Barnes is at the door.”

He sighed heavily. Speak of the devil.

“Let him in, Fry,” he said wearily, putting the hammer down. Might as well face the music.

He didn't hear Bucky come in. All of the ex-assassins in the building had a knack for that which was scary as shit, but you couldn't really fault them for it. Besides, Tony could feel Bucky's presence behind him anyway.

“What do you want?” Tony asked brusquely. “I have a lot of work to do, so if you –“

“Step out with me.”

Tony turned to raise an eyebrow at Bucky. “What, right now? If you're hungry FRIDAY can order something –“

“Tony.” He cut himself off at the serious tone in Bucky's voice. Bucky's eyes were boring into his when he repeated it. “Step out with me.”

It still took a moment to click but when it did Tony's eyes widened almost comically.

“Wait, you – you don't mean –“

“A date?” Bucky clarified, his gaze still too intense for Tony to hold it. “I do. I want you to go out with me, Tony. If you want.” The last bit was added almost nonchalantly but Tony could see the muscles in Bucky's neck straining with tension, his entire body unnaturally still as he waited for Tony's answer. Tony was completely dumbfounded, not entirely sure he wasn't dreaming. He reached down to pinch himself, hissing at the pain as he met Bucky's eyes again.

“You and me? On a date?” he asked incredulously.

“Yes,” Bucky said firmly and Tony shook his head in disbelief.

“You don't –“

“I meant what I said,” Bucky cut in, a bit sharply, and Tony bit his tongue against a snappy retort. He still couldn't quite process what was happening but then Bucky's lips curled down just the slightest bit and his eyes wavered as if he was nervous, and it suddenly hit Tony that this was real, Bucky was –

Bucky was asking him out. Bucky was asking him out! For a second Tony felt like he was going to have a heart attack with how fast it started beating, completely overwhelmed with joy –

And then reality hit him like a sledgehammer.

“What about Steve?” he asked, completely devoid of emotion, and Bucky seemed taken aback for a moment before he averted his eyes, looking uncomfortable.

“Steve and me, we aren't... like that. Anymore.”

“What?” Tony asked, honestly baffled. “Why?”

“He just –“ Bucky huffed in frustration. “I can't – the way he looks at me, I can't – I know he wants me back the way I was before. But – that's not me anymore. And I can't live with being a constant disappointment, Tony, I just can't.”

“He loves you,” Tony choked out and Bucky grimaced, looking away.

“I know. He can't let me go.” Bucky sighed heavily. “But I can't do it. I tried.”

Tony's hands clenched into fists as anger rushed through him, blindingly hot. Before he knew it he had Bucky by the collar, pulling him down to eye level to punch him square in the face. Bucky stumbled back, more on reflex than because of the punch, looking at Tony with wide eyes.

“How dare you,” Tony gritted out, following Bucky to push him even further back. “How fucking dare you? After everything he did for you! Do you know how much he gave up to get to you? He went to war for fuck's sake!” Tony roared, feeling an ugly kind of satisfaction at the pain on Bucky's face. “I know what he has on his fucking chest. What mark did he give you, huh? Is this a fucking game to you? He loves you!”

“I know that!” Bucky shouted back, suddenly just as angry. “Fuck, you think I don't know that? You think I didn't – fuck!” He ripped at his jacket, fingers clenching around his metal arm. “I had his fucking mark, too! They always – god, when they wiped me I always knew something was not right with the arm, something missing and it – fuck, it killed me not to know. But then he came back and I remembered and it's gone! It's fucking gone, Tony! It was right here!” Bucky's fingers almost threatened to bend the metal with how hard he was gripping his forearm. “I used to look at it everyday when we were kids, when I enlisted, every fucking day! Do you even know –“ He choked on air, breathing coming quicker with the mounting panic. “When I – when I saw it was gone, I just – I couldn't do anything. And the look on his face, god, he was so fucking hurt.” Bucky squeezed his eyes shut, shoulders hitching. “He didn't want me to know but he's always been a shit liar and I can see how much it hurts him to look at me now. I can't – He shouldn't have to. I can't put him through that.”

Bucky took a painful sounding breath. “He's still waiting for me to become better, to remember it all so I can be 'myself' again. But I already remember it all! And it didn't change a thing! I'm not gonna get back to the way I was, ever. But Steve...” His breathing hitched and he hid his face in his metal hand. “He's too stubborn to let me go. And he's in pain every day for it. I... I'm not strong enough to keep up pretenses. It's better this way.”

Tony stared at him silently for a long time, feeling like every shaky breath Bucky took was pulled straight out of his own lungs, twisting his insides tighter and tighter. He'd been stabbed in the chest before and it hurt less than this.

“You still love him though,” Tony said eventually and Bucky looked at him with such desperation in his eyes that Tony wanted to cry.

“I love you,” Bucky said weakly and Tony had to close his eyes to keep from breaking down. God, this was so unfair.

“Your mark,” he said, his voice raw, cracking over the word. “It was a maple leaf, wasn't it.”

Bucky didn't reply but one look at his crumpling face was answer enough. Tony nodded, turning away to wipe discretely at his eyes. He felt Bucky's presence behind him, the warmth of his hand hovering over his shoulder, hesitant to touch.

“Tony...”

“I can't –“ Tony choked on the word, turning to look at Bucky and already feeling like shit for what he was about to do. “I can't do that to him, Bucky.” He took a deep breath, delivering the killing blow. “I loved him.”

Bucky jerked back, shocked and confused and so so hurt and Tony clenched his fists so hard he could feel his nails drawing blood.

“I won't get between you,” Tony said numbly, unable to look away from the pain on Bucky's face, so fragile and vulnerable and – fuck, why did it have to be this way? “He loves you and you love him and you're good together. Even now. I know it's hard to see that because you're not... well, right now. But please,” Tony begged and noticed how Bucky's eyes widened as it sunk in that Tony was serious. “Please give him a chance. He gave up everything for you. Everything.” Me. “And you're an amazing man, Bucky. You lived through so much pain and you suffered so much and still, after all that, you still find it in you to be kind and loving and good. He's just as lucky to have you as you are to have him.”

Tony wiped a hand over his face, almost choking on the tears he was refusing to cry. Instead he smiled, hoping it didn't look as empty as he felt. “I wish you could see how special you are. Not just to him. I'm really sorry that you don't, yet, but. I hope you will someday.”

Bucky didn't even attempt to conceal the heartbreak written all over his face and Tony wanted to look away but he couldn't. He'd brought this on himself.

After what felt like hours of the silence stretching between them until Tony wanted to scream Bucky nodded jerkily, just once, before he turned and marched straight out the door. Tony gave himself a moment to sink into the self-loathing he felt for making Bucky hurt like this but ultimately it was for the best. Bucky and Steve were soulmates. They'd figure it out.

Tony picked up the hammer to continue his work but after a moment's hesitation exchanged it for a screwdriver instead.

He was done breaking things for the day.

 

“We're watching Lord of the Rings.”

Tony turned towards Clint leaning in the door, back to his schematics, back to Clint. He raised an eyebrow. “We are in fact not watching Lord of the Rings. Did you hit your head?”

“The team,” Clint clarified, nodding towards the stairs. “Movie night. Just like old times.”

Tony turned away to hide his grimace at the pang in his heart. “Great. Have fun.”

He started tinkering with some scraps on the table just to occupy his hands when Clint suddenly grabbed his arm, dragging him away. “Hey! What –“

“The whole team, Tony. You're coming.”

“Like hell I am!” Tony snapped, smacking Clint's hand away. Or, well, he tried to, but Clint unceremoniously twisted his arm behind his back, pushing him along like a prisoner. “What the fuck, Barton?”

“You're done hiding away down here. I'm sick of everyone moping around like idiots and you brooding in your cave. So we're going to damn well sit our asses down and watch a fucking movie even if it kills us.”

Tony tried to twist out of Clint's grip but the archer was still annoyingly stronger than him. “What the fuck did you do in your downtime, bench press your stroller?”

“Hefted three kids,” Clint said, shuffling them into the elevator and somehow pushing the button without ever losing his grip on Tony. Tony struggled harder. “Stop that. I know you're not really trying.” Clint tapped his finger against Tony's wristband and Tony tensed. “You're never unarmed these days. It's kind of disconcerting.”

“Other people would call it cautious,” Tony gritted out. “What with getting kidnapped in my own house and all.”

“And yet here I am, repulsor scorch-free,” Clint said, clearly unconcerned for his safety when only a few weeks ago he wouldn't have even turned his back to Tony. What the hell was wrong with him?

“Might still make it happen,” Tony ground out but then the elevator door opened and Clint unceremoniously shoved him into the hallway. Finally free from his grip Tony tried to duck into the other elevator and got locked in a chokehold for his troubles. He could hear muted laughter and sounds of conversation from behind the wall and it brought a sinking feeling to his stomach. Fuck, he couldn't do this.

“You really want me to march you in there like a prisoner?” Clint asked in a low voice and Tony stopped struggling, standing up straight when Clint let him go to fix his clothes. He rubbed his wrist which was slightly red from the tight grip, glaring at Clint who shrugged but did look slightly apologetic. Tony huffed, waiting for Clint to start walking so he could follow him, less than eager to be the first one to step into the living room where the quiet murmurs from before had fallen silent. So they'd all heard that scuffle. Great.

Tony didn't know what to expect when he stepped through the door but he wasn't prepared for the sight of the whole team gathered on and around the couch, bowls of snacks, pizza and sodas strewn around. He also wasn't prepared for the sight to punch him in the gut like it did or the nausea that came with being in the same room as most of those people.

“Holy fuck, you actually did it,” Rhodey said, looking at Clint with begrudging respect. Clint shrugged, plopping down on the couch and grabbing a bowl of chips that he immediately started shoveling into his mouth.

“Gotta give the right incentive.”

“Yeah, kidnapping's had a pretty good success rate,” Tony grumbled under his breath as he surveyed the room. He really didn't want to look but he couldn't help the way his eyes were drawn to the love seat on the right where Bucky was perched in Steve's lap, looking at Tony like a deer in the headlights. So they'd figured their shit out. Great.

Tony averted his eyes with a sinking feeling in his stomach. This was exactly what he'd wanted. He would've loved to force a smile but found that he couldn't quite manage it.

“It's good to see you, Tony,” Natasha said and he narrowed his eyes at her. She seemed unfazed by his suspicion, giving him a pleasant smile. “No one's seen you in a few days. We were wondering if you'd finally managed to blow yourself up.”

“FRIDAY would've notified you,” Tony said, firmly ignoring the entire right side of the room. Just to be safe. “As fun as it would be to make DUM-E scrape me off the walls that would be a legal nightmare.”

Nobody laughed. Tony shuffled his feet, unsure of where to go from here and questioning his entire life's choices when Rhodey sighed and waved him over.

“Come on. Take a seat.”

Tony slowly made his way over to Rhodey who looked about as eager as Tony to be here. Which was to say, not very.

“How'd they rope you into this?” he asked quietly as soon as he was seated, thankfully to the far left of the room where he could comfortably ignore everything and everyone.

Rhodey gave him a look. “I thought this might be good for team bonding. We've tried everything else.”

“Huh.” Tony hadn't even known there were team exercises going on. “Well good for you then.”

Rhodey must've heard the bitterness beneath his blasé tone because he gave Tony a sharp look. “No. You said you were done. You said that.”

“Thought I'd been reinstated, what with the missions and all. Guess I missed the part where I had to sign a contract to be on my own team again,” Tony said nonchalantly, consciously relaxing back into the couch cushions to give the illusion of comfort. He had a feeling he was fooling no one but as long as no one called him out on it he'd take plausible deniability. “But that's fine. I wouldn't have shown up anyway.”

Rhodey frowned, about to open his mouth when a soda can was suddenly thrust directly under Tony's nose. Tony flinched back, tensing even further when he realized that it was Wanda holding it out, her eyes lowered.

“For you,” she said awkwardly, waving the can in Tony's face. “Clint said you liked the diet coke.”

Tony looked over at Clint, completely baffled, but Clint was busy scrolling through the movie menu to presumably find the film Tony had seen already selected on the screen when he came in. Tony was almost offended by Clint's assumption that he wouldn't notice but then again maybe Clint was just being an asshole and rubbing it in Tony's face.

He looked back at Wanda, taking the can before this whole thing could get even more awkward.

“Thank you,” he said and she nodded stiffly, walking back to her seat with hasty steps. Tony turned to Rhodey, hissing under his breath. “What the fuck was that?”

Rhodey just stared at him, apparently studying his reaction and when Tony looked around the room he could practically feel the conscious effort of everyone to not look like they were watching him. Tony's brow furrowed as his grip tightened on the coke can.

“Okay, what is this?” he asked the room at large, in no mood for mind games. “What are you doing?”

Nobody answered except Natasha who was looking at him with a face that gave away nothing. “Just a movie and dinner. Nothing else.”

“Really?” Tony asked dubiously. “Because this feels an awful lot like a conspiracy and if you're planning on buttering me up for something you can just tell me right now and get it over w–“

“Dammit, Tony, just watch the movie,” Rhodey cut him off brusquely, pulling him back into his seat. Tony gave him a betrayed look.

“What's going on?” he hissed but Rhodey was steadfastly looking at the screen.

“Watch the damn movie.”

Tony sank back into the couch, trying very hard not to look as tense as he felt. He couldn't concentrate on the movie at all, constantly tracking everyone's movements around him, ready for an attack. It was ridiculous and he knew that the others could probably tell he was doing it but he couldn't quite bring himself to stop.

“Your anxiety is making me anxious,” Rhodey muttered to him somewhere during Gandalf's battle with the balrog. “No one is going to hurt you.”

“I'm not –“ Tony ground out, bristling at the insinuation that he was afraid, that wasn't even –

A piece of popcorn hit him square in the nose. He winced, covering his face as he whipped around to face the culprit. Clint gave him a disgruntled look.

“Shut up, you're ruining the movie,” he drawled and Tony was very tempted to throw his coke at him.

“You've seen it like eight times, you dick,” he snapped and Clint smirked.

“And you can quote the Two Towers word for word, nerd.”

Tony scoffed. “You're just jealous because your gollum impression is the worst thing I've ever –“

“Boys,” Natasha said but she was smiling. “Settle down.”

Tony leaned back in his seat, aggressively munching on a handful of popcorn. He could feel eyes on him from all directions and it was making him twitchy until Rhodey poked him in the side, stage whispering into the room. “Your gollum is even worse than his.”

“Oh shut up.”

After the movie they all gathered around the table and Steve handed out some re-heated pasta dishes someone must've prepared earlier. Tony sat squished in between Rhodey and Sam – who thankfully got the hint that Tony wasn't up for conversation after only two attempts – and tried not to bump elbows with anyone. It was the single most awkward evening of Tony's life.

It also made him feel better than he had in weeks. And if Clint found himself with a new set of detonating arrows a day later then that was between them and them only.

 

Things started happening around the tower. Seemingly random things. A cup of coffee magically appearing on Tony's desk even though he'd revoked all access codes. A pat on the shoulder after a successful mission. Waking up on the workshop couch snuggling into a blanket he didn't remember putting there.

It was really throwing him off his game.

He was always waiting for the other shoe to drop, some huge request that would cost him millions of dollars, an ambush about some sort of big-scale mission, but nothing ever happened. Apparently the team had just randomly decided to suddenly play nice with him and the change was so drastic that it left Tony reeling in its wake.

He'd asked Vision about it at some point, figuring that the android would give him a straight answer, but Vision just looked at him with almost pitying eyes and said “They don't mean you any harm, Tony.” Which was cryptic as all hell and did nothing to put him at ease.

It was Rhodey who finally gave him a bump over the head and an exasperated frown. “Just let them do this, Tony. They're trying to make it up to you.”

Tony still highly doubted the absence of an ulterior motive but he tried to at least stop actively avoiding their kind gestures. Soon he found himself cautiously returning them, having breakfast with Natasha, sparring with Clint, even answering Wanda's tentative smiles with one of his own. A few weeks later as he was playing Mario Kart with Clint – something they'd turned into a friendly competition over who would clean the quinjet later – the archer actually opened his mouth and said the words.

“Hey man, about what happened at the raft? I'm really sorry I said that about you. You didn't deserve it.”

Tony was startled so badly that he drove his car straight off the track, just in time for Clint to overtake him and win the game. Clint laughed, clapping him on the shoulder and Tony could feel his chest swell with warmth.

“Thank you,” he said hoarsely, clearing his throat. “I'm sorry, too.”

Clint nodded before he went to the kitchen to fetch them both a beer, giving Tony a moment to compose himself. And that was that.

After that it was like Clint's apology had been the starting shot for the other Avengers to do it, too. Natasha apologized very casually after wiping the floor with him in one of their training sessions and repeated it more sincerely when Tony painted her nails later. Wanda cornered him in the kitchen, offering to teach him how to cook that Bograč beef stew Tony loved so much. Sam sat him down for a somewhat serious talk that ended with a firm handshake and a promise to see the next Knicks game together. He'd also clearly made up with Rhodey because those two were thick as thieves these days which admittedly made Tony slightly jealous until Rhodey rolled his eyes and brought him along on their weekly bar rounds. Tony was almost upset that he hadn't gotten to know Sam earlier. The guy was hilarious.

The only ones who never sought him out were Steve and Bucky who Tony was pretty sure were avoiding him like the plague. And while it made something in Tony coil tight with a distant sort of hurt it didn't really surprise him either. It wasn't like he'd expected miracles.

 

“Almost there!” Tony shouted, speeding out of the forest and into the open air. “Not close enough to scan yet. Sam, can you –“

“I see it,” Sam replied, suddenly swerving left. Tony followed him, pulling up Redwing's feed on the HUD. “Confirmation on Redwing's coordinates?”

“We're reading you,” Clint said, his voice tight. “It'll take us thirty minutes to get there. What's your position?”

“Coming up on the train tracks,” Tony said, pushing his thrusters to pull ahead of Sam. “Five minutes max.”

“Make it three. We have two confirmed explosions on the tracks ahead,” Steve said, his voice clipped. “If that last bomb goes off before the train hits the bridge they'll put it straight in the water.”

“Got it,” Tony said curtly, tuning into his private comm link with Sam. “I'll pull ahead and try to diffuse the bridge bomb. If I can't do it in time you'll have to find a way to stop the train.”

“Sounds easy enough,” Sam said but he sounded doubtful. “You think hitting the breaks will do it?”

“I'm guessing someone rigged the controls,” Tony said. “Or hijacked the train.”

“Let's hope for the latter,” Sam said and Tony privately agreed. People were easier to disarm than bombs. At least in most cases.

“I'm twenty minutes out,” Rhodey suddenly chimed in. “How much time do we have?”

Tony looked at the timer counting down on the HUD, putting them at sixteen minutes, twenty-three seconds. “Not enough.”

“Iron Man, Falcon, what's your ETA?”

“Three... two... one,” Tony said, pulling up parallel to the tracks. “Reached the train. Nothing unusual from the outside. I'll pull ahead and diffuse the bomb.”

“Hurry!”

“Don't have to tell me that,” he said tensely, speeding along the tracks. “Sam, you're gonna have to go in.”

“Roger that,” Sam said and Tony pushed his thrusters to the max, making it to the bridge in just under a minute.

He looped around the structure to its underside, cursing when he saw the damage already done by the previous detonations. “Shit. I don't know if the bridge's gonna hold even if I disarm the bomb, Cap.”

“Try anyway,” Steve snapped and Tony got to work, flying over to the one yet unharmed support beam and – oh, shit.

“Jesus Christ,” he breathed, taking in the amount of dynamite attached to the beam, wrapping around and around like deadly tinsel on a Christmas tree. “That's enough TNT to blow up the entire bridge. I don't know if I can get rid of it in time.”

“Just – try!” Steve ground out and Tony could hear how frustrated he was that the quinjet couldn't get them there fast enough to help.

Tony retracted his gauntlets, rifling through the dynamite to find the detonators. It was incredibly slow going, clipping each wire one by one, and by the time he'd gotten half of the rigs disarmed he could see the train on FRIDAY's proximity sensors. Three minutes.

“I won't make it,” he gritted out. “It's too much. I'll have to get it off the bridge.”

“Do it,” Steve barked and Tony started snipping off the wires that held it to the bridge as fast as he could. “Falcon. What's the situation?”

“Only passengers, no hijackers,” Sam said. He sounded out of breath. “I can't find a mechanism anywhere. It's gotta be underneath the train.”

Steve cursed and Tony grimaced.

“Did you check everywhere?” Clint asked tensely.

“Of course I did!” Sam snapped back. “There's nothing! I can't stop this train.”

“Got it,” Tony said, snapping the last of the wires that held the dynamite to the pillar. “I'll have to – shit!”

“What is it?” Steve demanded.

Tony looked at the construct for a second longer before he started pulling the entire bomb rig down the pillar. “It's not gonna come off without blowing. I'm moving it down to the water.”

“The train's coming, Stark!”

“I know it is!” he snapped, shoving the dynamite down with jerky motions. Two minutes. “Just trust me!”

“Falcon, get out of there. Try to evacuate as many people as you can.”

“Roger!”

Tony got the bomb about halfway down the pillar before he heard the train in the distance. He gritted his teeth and flew back up to the tracks.

“Sam! I need you to tell everyone in there to hold on to something!”

“What? What are you planning?”

“Just – trust me!”

“Iron Man!” Steve snapped. “Get the fuck out of there! You too, Falcon!”

Tony switched to private comms. “Trust me, Sam. Stay on the train.”

Sam clearly hesitated before he said “Okay, Tony. What's gonna happen?”

“We'll get that train across, no matter what. Just make sure no one tries to jump off before that happens.”

“Okay,” Sam said dubiously. “I really hope you know what you're doing.”

“You and me both,” Tony said. Thirty seconds. “Get ready.”

Tony flew down to the bridge's underside, grabbing the rigged pillar on the side where he'd diffused most of the bombs. He braced all four of his limbs for a firm hold, digging his fingers into the metal.

“Incoming,” Sam shouted and Tony glared at the numbers on the HUD. Four... three... two...

The entire bridge rocked as the bomb went off, pieces of jagged metal flying everywhere. Tony gritted his teeth when the shockwave hit the suit, almost dislodging him from the pillar, but he held tight. One large piece of rebar hit him straight in the side and he shouted in pain, not checking to see if it went through.

“Fuck!” he heard Sam scream as the middle of the bridge started to collapse. But just as Tony had hoped the tracks were still intact. They could still do this.

“Hold on!” he shouted, gripping the pillar tight and pushing all of the suit's energy into his thrusters. The bridge wobbled and groaned under the strain as he pushed it up to level it, but it held, barely.

He felt it when the train crashed onto the bridge, upping the pressure to an almost unbearable amount. Tony screamed, his entire body straining against it, every muscle drawn tight.

Several people were shouting at him over the comms but he barely heard it, biting down on his lip until it bled.

“Hold on!” Sam yelled on the private comms and Tony tried to only concentrate on him. “Almost there! You can do it, Tony!”

His arms felt like they were ripping apart as warnings flashed over the HUD.

“Structural integrity at thirty percent,” FRIDAY said and she sounded alarmed. “Decreasing rapidly. It won't hold, boss.”

“It will have to,” Tony ground out. “Redirect all power to the thrusters.”

FRIDAY obeyed and the bridge very slowly righted itself, stopping that awful noise of the train's sides grinding against the tracks.

The pressure abruptly eased off as the train passed the mid point where Tony was holding up the central pillar, allowing him to take a wheezing breath.

“Almost there,” Sam shouted and his voice was filled with relief. “We'll –“

The last pillar blew up right underneath the train, sending the back half of it into free fall.

“No!” Tony screamed, letting go of the middle pillar to shoot toward the break in the tracks where the train was already tilting off the rails. “Sam!”

“Fuck!” Sam cursed, already in the air, pushing at the side of the train to hold it up but it was pointless, the bridge was falling apart right between the pillars, leaving a gaping hole that the train was already sliding into. They'd never make it.

“What's happening?” Steve screamed in his ear but Tony ignored him, a burning fury in his veins. He didn't come all this way to fucking let these people die!

“Keep it on track!” he shouted at Sam before he dove underneath, right into the falling debris. His back hit the train's underside and he shouted as he pushed up, leveling it as best he could, the back half still hanging in the air. “Fucking push, Wilson!”

“I'm trying!” Sam shouted back and Tony whimpered when the train righted itself again, falling heavily onto his shoulders. Fuck, it hurt.

“Tony!” That was Bucky's voice and he sounded really upset but Tony couldn't reply, straining to get the train going again and –

“Sam!” he shouted and could've cried with joy when the train started moving forward again. Tony moved with it, guiding it back onto the tracks, his entire body feeling like his muscles were tearing apart. There was probably some truth to that.

“It reached land!” Sam said and he sounded both incredulous and like he wanted to start sobbing with joy. “You did it, Tony!”

“Hell yeah I did,” Tony slurred, suddenly feeling the exhaustion hit him with a vengeance. “Fuck me, I never wanna see another train ever again.”

Sam laughed and Tony could hear the sound of cheering over his comm link. “Everyone's okay. We did it, Cap.”

“Jesus Christ,” Steve said and the relief was heady in his voice. “Good job, Falcon. Iron Man, we'll have a long fucking talk about acceptable risk when we get there.”

Tony snorted. “Sure thing, Cap.”

“But you saved them all,” Steve added and his voice was suddenly very soft. “You did the impossible and you saved them all. Thank you.”

Tony's breathing hitched. His heart started pounding as he tried to swallow around the lump in his throat. Jesus Christ, it really didn't matter what kind of history they had, Steve could still affect him like this with just a few words. Hovering under a broken bridge with a trashed suit and bruises all over his body seemed like an odd time to have an epiphany but the realization hit Tony like a bolt of lightning.

I love him, Tony thought and it should've scared him, made him angry, but instead he felt weirdly at peace with it. All the problems and doubts and pain could come later but for now Tony was here, exhausted to the bone, every inch of him hurting, and desperately in love. And it felt great.

He was so caught up in the moment that he didn't notice the groan of metal above him until it was too late.

“Tony!” Sam shouted in panic and Tony's head snapped up just in time to see the metal beam come down on him with the force of a small truck. He dropped like a stone, flailing his arms as the HUD blared in warning.

Armor integrity: Fourteen percent.

“Tony!” he heard someone shout over the comms right before he hit the water with a crash that almost knocked him out cold. He tried to engage the thrusters but he only made it halfway to the surface before they shorted out completely, all of the suit's mechanics powering down. The HUD went dark.

“FRIDAY?” Tony asked, trying not to panic as he tested the suit's controls. Nothing. “FRIDAY! Fuck, don't do this to me!”

He flinched when he felt water sloshing around his ribs and looked down in horror to see a long gash in the armor. So the rebar did pierce it. Damn it all to hell.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck –“ he panicked as water slowly filled the suit, creeping down his body in ice cold rivulets to gather in his boots. By the time the suit hit the bottom of the river the water reached up to his hips and the level was still climbing steadily. Tony's breath was coming in short gasps, the air turning stale around him as he used up the remaining oxygen way too fast.

“No,” he moaned pitifully when his chest suddenly constricted, his heart hammering against his ribcage. “No, fuck, not now –“

It was no use. He could feel his breathing get faster and faster with the mounting panic until his throat closed up completely and he couldn't breathe, but he had to, he needed air

He needed air but hands were pushing his head underwater and it licked at his throat, climbing higher and higher but he wouldn't build anything, people were dying, Tony would not

“Stop!” Tony screamed hoarsely. “I won't build your weapons! Stop it!”

Water was licking at his ears and now his mouth was underwater and fear gripped Tony's heart like never before. Fuck, he was going to die here in a fucking cave in Afghanistan and he hadn't even told Steve yet –

Steve? Wasn't it Pepper?

Tony tilted his head up and gasped for breath, a sudden ringing in his ears. Right, Pepper had left. But what did that – why did she –

He blinked into the darkness inside of his helmet, slowly calming down as rationality kicked in. The bridge. He'd gotten hit and was now at the bottom of the river. The suit was dead. Almost all of the air was gone.

But Sam had seen him go down. The rest of the team was coming. He still had time.

The rest of the air escaped in a flurry of bubbles and Tony closed his eyes against the river water, holding his breath. It didn't take long before his lungs started burning to the point where his eyes watered with the tears he was probably crying even though he couldn't tell for sure in the water.

The team's coming, he thought desperately. They're coming. They know where I am. They won't let me die.

The pressure in his lungs hurt worse than anything he'd ever felt before but he stubbornly kept his mouth shut, feeling his pulse hammering in his throat. He was shaking all over and it was so cold, colder than Siberia. The water seemed to seep under his skin, freezing him down to the bone until his bones ached just as much as his lungs.

He tried to hold out but his head was swimming dangerously, his temples pulsing in pain, and he couldn't do it –

Tony breathed in. His body reflexively tried to cough the water back up but there was no air left to expel it so he ended up choking uselessly as his lungs slowly turned to ice. It was the worst thing he'd ever felt.

He opened his eyes but all he could see was black and just for a second the cold ebbed away and he felt warm, almost peaceful.

And then nothing.

 

The first thing he felt was his throat ripping open as bile burned its way up.

“Shit! Over here –“

Someone turned him and he flopped into their hold, his body convulsing as he threw up the entire contents of his stomach, water running out through his nose and ears and there was no air, he couldn't breathe –

“–uck, I thought we'd –“

“– choking, what do we –“

“– stable!”

Tony tried to wheeze in a breath but his lungs were still contracting, trying to get the water out and it hurt so bad. His head felt like a balloon about to pop.

“Hey, hey, easy. Breathe, Tony.”

He was trying to, dammit! Tony choked on even more water but finally managed to drag some air into his lungs. That first breath felt like getting stabbed in the chest and it was better than any orgasm he'd ever had. Sweet, sweet, precious air, he'd never take it for granted again.

He threw up two more times to the point where he was wondering where in his body he could've possibly stored this much water. It felt worse every time, his abused throat screaming in pain, but eventually his coughs died down to rattling breaths and while it still hurt like a bitch it was infinitely better than his stomach turning itself inside out.

“Okay, I think he's done. Flip him over.”

The same hands rolled him gently onto his back and Tony winced at the direct sunlight. Someone put a hand over his eyes and he sighed gratefully. It sounded more like a dying rattle though.

Fuck, he was alive, wasn't he? What a fucking trip.

He was vaguely aware of hands holding his, more hands on his shoulders, his legs, fucking everywhere, and for a moment he panicked until he realized that it was the team. They'd come for him.

Tony sobbed drily, just once, and it was the worst sound he'd ever heard, but it was also amazing. He was alive!

“You with us, Tones?” Rhodey. God, it felt just like surviving Afghanistan all over again.

Tony nodded and the hand over his eyes slowly pulled away. He had to blink a couple of times to clear the blurry filter that had fallen over them but after a couple tries he could make out the shapes of his teammates, all gathered around him with various expressions of fear and relief on their faces. Tony snorted. The sound seemed to shock them all out of their stupor.

“Jesus Christ,” Rhodey sighed and Tony looked up with him, feeling the strain in his eyeballs as they rolled. They must be bloodshot as hell. “You gotta stop scaring me like that, man. You were dead for five minutes.”

Wow. That was a new personal record.

“If Bucky hadn't found you when he did –“ Rhodey shuddered and Tony was horrified to see tears in his eyes. “God, you're lucky you're too stubborn to die, you son of a bitch.”

Tony reached out a shaky hand and Rhodey grabbed it immediately, bringing it to his chest. Tony made a displeased noise, weakly pulling it further up, and Rhodey frowned but assisted the motion, guiding Tony's hand up to his face until –

“Boop,” Tony rasped almost intelligibly, bopping Rhodey on the nose. Rhodey blinked, once, twice, before he started laughing so hard it sounded like sobs, lowering his head.

“Oh my god, I fucking hate you,” he gasped in between bouts of laughter and let Tony's hand drop to wrap him up in a bone-crushing hug. “You piece of shit.”

Tony really wanted to hug him back but his arms felt like limp noodles so he settled for a weak grin.

A quiet noise right behind Tony made him look up, straight at – Steve? Tony was confused for a second before he realized that with the way they were positioned – Jesus, was he lying in Steve's lap?

He recoiled in horror when he got a closer look at Steve's face and saw the way it was twisted in absolute agony, his hair wet and tears running freely down his cheeks.

“Steve?” he garbled out, his voice still sounding worse than sandpaper and Steve looked gutted, his chest hitching in a quiet sob. Tony couldn't make sense of it.

Before he knew what was going on Steve had taken Rhodey's place, gathering him in his arms as if he was something fragile, all careful and gentle. His uneven breaths felt hot against the wet skin of Tony's neck and he desperately tried to understand what was happening.

“I thought I lost you,” Steve suddenly whimpered, gripping Tony tighter, and Tony thought he'd throw up again from the emotional whiplash. It only got worse when a second face showed up over Steve's shoulder, pale and drawn but almost frighteningly blank. Bucky looked like he'd just walked through hell and back. What the fuck was going on?

Steve let him go slowly, wiping his eyes and resolutely not looking at Tony now that the moment was over. Bucky had no such compulsion, staring at Tony like he expected him to blink out of existence at any moment. It made Tony's skin crawl anxiously.

Tony wanted to scream and demand an explanation but his head was suddenly caught in a different grip and he looked up to find Sam's face hovering right above his. He looked very pissed.

“Next time a bridge collapses on top of you you get the fuck out of the way. Understand?”

Tony nodded sheepishly, wincing when the movement pulled his sore throat tight. Sam nodded back, apparently satisfied, before stroking a feather-light hand through Tony's hair. Before Tony could fully process it the moment was over and Rhodey took his place again.

“Alright. Let's get you to the Compound. And no skipping medical this time.”

 

They all kept touching him on the ride home, tightening the blankets around him, handing him tea, checking his temperature... And while Tony felt pretty bad for scaring them like that he was still a bit weirded out by the coddling. However, as much as hated being treated like a liability he couldn't deny that it felt kind of good to be cared for like this. If he'd had any doubts whether or not they'd accepted him back into their ranks those were thoroughly erased now.

Rhodey accompanied him to the SHIELD medics, if by 'accompany' you meant staying glued to Tony's side like a leech and glaring at anyone who tried to get him to step aside. Tony was simultaneously touched and amused.

“I know they like their needles,” Tony rasped with a smile. “But I'm pretty sure no one's going to kill me if you go to the bathroom for five minutes, honey bear.”

“Shut up.”

Tony was beyond drained by the time they were done, and for once he wanted nothing more than to fall into bed and sleep for an entire day. Rhodey led him back to his penthouse and Tony barely managed to stay awake long enough to take off his shoes before he succumbed to sleep.

He dreamed of Rhodey falling.

 

Tony was reasonably cranky when he went to the kitchen to get himself something to eat only a few hours later. His throat was still sore beyond belief but he was already sick of the ice chips, as much as they helped. He remembered that Vision had promised to make him some soup earlier and while Vision's cooking was still hit or miss most of the time Tony would take whatever he could right now.

He almost brained himself on the doorway when he bumped into Steve on the way in.

“Oh!” Steve said and his eyes went wide. “Tony! How's – how are you?”

Tony shrugged. “Fine. Tired,” he said gruffly.

“Oh, okay, that's – good.” God, this was awkward. Neither of them seemed to know what to say after that so Tony wordlessly stepped around Steve, grabbing one of the soup containers from the fridge. Before he could retreat to the workshop though Steve grabbed his arm, looking at him imploringly.

“Can I – A word? Please?”

Tony was honestly too tired to argue so he nodded, allowing Steve to lead him over to the couch. They sat down and Steve was looking at him so intently that it made Tony uncomfortable.

“Are you okay to talk? With the –“ Steve gestured at his throat, uncharacteristically hesitant, and Tony rolled his eyes.

“It's fine. What do you want?”

Steve seemed to steel himself before he spoke. “I want to apologize. For everything that happened since Ultron. I should've told you about your parents but I was scared of your reaction which I realize is incredibly unfair. I'm sorry for lying to you.” He gave Tony an inscrutable look. “I'm not sorry for trying to save Bucky, but it's been brought to my attention that you were planning to get him pardoned even before Leipzig. So I want to apologize for not giving you the benefit of the doubt and for not trying to talk it out before I did what I did. I should've been honest with you.”

Steve smiled humorlessly. “There's a lot of things I should've done and more than anything I'm sorry that I'm the reason you have that mark on your chest. You shouldn't have to live with that because of the mistakes I made. I can't put into words how sorry I am for that.”

That was... not what Tony expected. He had to just take a moment to let the reality of Steve apologizing wash over him before he realized that it... made him feel nothing. Tony gave Steve a long look, trying to find a way to phrase what he wanted to say.

“I don't know if it's good to hear you say that,” he finally admitted. “I was kinda waiting for an apology, but now – it doesn't really...”

He trailed off, not knowing what to say, and something in Steve's face just – shut down.

“I know,” Steve said numbly, running a hand through his hair. “I should have apologized earlier, this is – I don't know what I was thinking.” He gave Tony a painful looking smile. “I truly am sorry though. And I'm beyond grateful that you went through all that trouble for me even when I didn't deserve your help. I hope we can continue to work together as we have the past few months.” Steve stood up. “Thanks for listening –“

“Sit your ass down, Rogers. We're not done here,” Tony snapped without thinking and Steve sat down fast, his eyes wide. Tony sighed, rubbing a hand across his eyes. “Sorry. I meant – give me a second to think about this, okay?”

Steve nodded and Tony took a moment to get his thoughts in order.

This was it. Tony's chance to get all that lingering hurt and resentment out in the open. Granted, Tony had always imagined it in a shouting match that escalated too quickly or maybe a 'hey, you're not dead, I'm not dead' sort of talk, but this... He'd have to think about this.

He would've loved to yell at Steve, had envisioned all the ways he could tear into the soldier and rip him apart into tiny pieces until he felt every inch of the pain Tony had. But now that the opportunity presented itself and Steve was looking at him with a fragile sort of hope that he couldn't fully hide behind his stoic expression Tony just couldn't do it. It would probably be best to just gracefully accept the apology, agree to keep working together and live as they had these past months, but... Something in him hesitated to take the easy way out. It wouldn't be fair to either of them to pretend like seeing Steve didn't make his heart ache with longing and regret and while he'd rather carve out his own kidney than admit it he knew that Steve deserved to know Tony's reasons for avoiding him all this time. He didn't want to lie anymore.

Dishonesty was what got them into this mess in the first place. And Tony had done much harder things with a lot less favorable odds. He could do this.

With one last goodbye to his sanity Tony grabbed his chest right over where the arc reactor used to sit and cleared his throat. “Do you know why this is the mark you gave me?”

Steve's face twisted and his voice sounded numb when he answered. “I can take a wild guess.”

“It's because when you slammed your shield into the reactor it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt before,” Tony said and Steve flinched, drawing a shaky breath. Tony didn't stop though. This needed to be said. “Worse than the Ten Rings. Worse than Obie or Killian or any of them. And it's not because of what you did or didn't do.” Tony sighed heavily, rubbing a hand over his face. “It's because I was in love with you.”

There. He said it.

Steve's head whipped up so fast it probably hurt. “What?”

“You heard me,” Tony said, trying not to let his nervousness show. “I thought you were going to kill me. You chose to destroy our friendship to save your soulmate. And while I get why you did it now that I can look at it rationally, I wasn't really in the right mindset to think it over in that moment. So yeah, it hurt. A lot.”

Steve sucked in a sharp breath. “You – you loved me?”

Tony nodded, internally screaming. Fuck, Steve looked absolutely devastated. This was going even worse than he'd thought it would.

“I was,” he admitted, not quite managing to keep the hurt out of his voice. He'd made his bed, might as well lie in it.

“Why didn't you say anything?” Steve suddenly demanded, almost desperately. “I would've –“ He trailed off, unable to finish whatever sentence he had planned to say. Tony chuckled humorlessly.

“Why do you think?” he asked bitterly, pointing at Steve's chest before tapping his own, right where he knew Steve's mark was. “I know I'm a catch but true love isn't something I measure up to.” Steve seemed to be lost for words so Tony went on. “Besides, I didn't realize I was actually in love with you until recently. Don't get me wrong, I knew I was attracted to you, but –“ He sighed, feeling the fatigue pulling at his bones. “It wouldn't have hurt that much if it was just that. So, there.”

Steve didn't say anything for a very long time but Tony couldn't move away. He'd said his piece, now he'd just have to accept whatever response Steve would give him. Even if Steve wanted him off the team, even if he'd move out and take Bucky with him, Tony no longer had to hide this. And if Steve never wanted to work through this then so be it. Tony could live with that.

The thought made him want to rip his own heart out but he'd find a way to deal with it. That's what he did.

“I –“ Steve said and swallowed heavily. “Bucky told me. That he – that he loves you.”

Tony froze. What –

“And I'm sorry,” Steve continued and he sounded miserable. “He was – when we were young he was all I had. And when I lost him, I – I wasn't right. For a very long time.” He gave Tony a wry smile. “But you know that already.”

Tony nodded automatically, trying to get back on track of the conversation. Why were they talking about Bucky now? And why had Bucky told Steve about his awkward confession? What the hell was going on?

“But you,” Steve said and now he was looking at Tony with an expression that hurt something deep inside Tony. “You pulled me out of my slump. Made me like the future despite how fast and loud and confusing it is – because you are fast and loud and confusing. And I never thought I would, but I loved that about you.” Steve took a deep breath. “I still do.”

Tony brain ground to a screeching halt. Steve couldn't mean –

“So I get why Bucky fell for you. I – well, I've been thinking a lot about everything that happened over the past few years, and. There was something there, wasn't there? Between us?” Steve looked at him and he must've found what he was looking for in Tony's eyes because he continued. “I'm sorry. I didn't know you felt that way. If I had – I mean, I can't say for sure that it would've changed anything. But, for what it's worth,” Steve gave Tony a look that was both wistful and sad. “I would have loved to give us a chance. If I had known.”

Tony couldn't move. He was completely frozen in time because this was a nightmare, it had to be –

“Tony?” Steve asked gently, eyes full of concern, and Tony just couldn't –

“I love Bucky, too,” he blurted and Steve was visibly taken aback by the sudden exclamation. “When he asked me – the only reason I said no was because of you.”

Steve's eyes hardened. “I see.” He took a deep breath, running a hand over his face. “Okay. I, um. I'm sorry. That I – Jesus.” Steve put his head in his hands. “I swore to myself that I wouldn't hurt you again after I saw your mark, but I just keep doing it, don't I?” His voice was full of self-loathing when he chuckled humorlessly. “Goddammit. What a fucking mess.”

“No, you don't understand,” Tony said and even he could hear the desperation in his voice. “I blew him off because I couldn't do that to you. You guys belong together and I – I love you both too much to mess that up.”

Steve went very still but Tony couldn't stop rambling now that he'd started. “I know, it's fucked up and I won't try anything, I swear. I just – fuck, this was such a bad idea, I never should've told you – “

“You love me?” Steve asked very quietly and Tony's mouth snapped shut. “After all of this you still – you love me?”

Steve looked so vulnerable right then, his eyes wide in hopeful disbelief, arms wrapped around his own body almost protectively, and the sight broke something in Tony. He nodded. “Yes.”

Steve made a choked sound before his arms abruptly jerked towards Tony, aborting the motion halfway through. Tony sat perfectly still, just watching as Steve seemed to hash out some internal conflict.

“Can I –“ Steve huffed in frustration. “Goddammit. I used to able to just talk to you, why is this so hard?”

“Might have to do with almost killing me,” Tony said unthinkingly and grimaced when Steve winced. “Sorry, that was uncalled for.”

“No, it's true,” Steve said before he looked up at Tony, an almost desperate edge in his eyes. “You know I wouldn't – I never would've actually done it, Tony, I –“

“I know, hey, I know,” Tony said soothingly even though that was a white lie. He'd been very convinced in the moment. “It's okay. We've talked about it. It's over.”

Steve gave him a doubtful look. “That sounds a little too easy.”

Damn, couldn't slip anything past him. Tony sighed. “Okay, fine. It's still a work in progress.”

“Maybe we could make progress in a different direction too,” Steve said and he suddenly sounded very hesitant. “If you want to. And if Bucky wants to, of course, I can't decide this over his head.”

Tony could've sworn his heart skipped a beat. “Decide what?”

Steve glanced at him for a moment before he averted his eyes, getting a little red in the face. “I'd like to try salvaging our friendship, Tony. I've missed you so badly, you have no idea.”

Tony swallowed drily. “Yeah, me too.”

Steve nodded and took a deep breath, his cheeks turning even redder. “And if Bucky is okay with it which I'm pretty sure he is, I would also like to take you out on a date. With Bucky. The three of us.”

Tony's brain shorted out. “What?”

“A date with me and Bucky,” Steve repeated, a bit sheepishly. “I think – gosh, I know this isn't really the done thing these days, but I really think we –“

“Hold on,” Tony said. “FRIDAY, confirm this for me. Am I hallucinating or did Captain America just ask me for a threesome?”

Before FRIDAY could grace that with a response Steve's brow wrinkled disapprovingly. “It wouldn't be about sex, Tony. Well, hopefully that would come later.” And his face could still turn redder, fascinating. “But I love you and I know that Bucky loves you and maybe we could...” He trailed off, his face on fire, and Tony took pity on him even as his heart was beating out of his ribcage.

“Polyamory,” Tony said. “That's the term you're looking for. Multiple partners in an equal relationship.”

Steve pondered that for a moment before he nodded. Tony ran a hand through his hair, feeling like he was about to crawl out of his skin with all that nervous energy coursing through him. There was excitement, sure, a deep sense of longing for that thing Steve was dangling right in front of his face. But there was also fear. And Tony was trying to decide whether or not to take the leap.

He looked at Steve and just stopped for a minute. In all these months he'd never really dared to keep his eyes on Steve for too long, first because it made him angry to see him, then sad, and then just really fucking heartsick. But now that Steve was looking at him head on, so very brave even in the face of possible rejection because he thought Tony was worth it

Well, there wasn't really a choice now, was there.

“Okay,” he croaked and the smile that lit up Steve's face was brilliant, warming him right down to his bones.

“Okay,” Steve repeated quietly and they just basked in the moment for a second, staring at each other as a whole world of possibilities opened up before them. Then Steve looked down at Tony's lips and Tony's brain filled with white noise.

“Bucky,” he blurted out, digging his fingers into the couch to keep him from doing something he'd regret. “We gotta talk to Bucky first.”

Steve nodded even though his eyes were still fixed on Tony's mouth. “Okay.” Then he looked up and flushed a little when he realized that Tony had noticed. “Yeah, um. I'll tell him about it. And if he wants to we can sit down together and talk about the rest.”

Tony nodded. “Deal.”

Steve smiled and Tony was struck with how much he'd missed that sight. God, they'd wasted so much time. Steve seemed to be thinking along the same lines because his smile dimmed slightly and Tony just couldn't let that happen.

“So, regardless of anything else. Do you want to get destroyed at Mario Kart?”

Steve paused for a second at the abrupt subject change before he chuckled. “I've gotten better since last time, you know? I might even stand a chance.”

Tony scoffed. “I'll believe that when I see it.”

“Then I can't wait,” Steve teased and Tony's chest squeezed tight with happiness. He had no idea how the hell they'd gotten to this point when only an hour ago they hadn't even been able to stay in the same room for too long, but he sure as hell didn't care.

“Well, prepare to be annihilated,” Tony said, standing to get them some beers. “And I'm warning you, if you play dirty I will revoke all your gym privileges. No dumbbells for cheaters.”

He could hear the smile in Steve's voice when the soldier called after him. “Bring some chips, too.”

They started playing and for a moment it was almost like the last year never happened as they seamlessly fell back into the good-natured ribbing. But there was a new tension there that wasn't only due to their history but the mutual awareness of the other's feelings for them. It crackled like electricity in the air and as much as it was frustrating it excited Tony to no end. At one point, when Steve was laughing at a stupid thing Tony had said, his head thrown back and eyes closed, Tony found himself wishing this moment would never end.

And if he let Steve win once or twice just to see him smile, nobody would have to know.

 

Talking to Bucky turned out to be unnecessary. Barely even half an hour after he'd parted ways with Steve FRIDAY alerted Tony of a visitor in the workshop. He was just polishing the armor's chest plate and still in such a good mood that he enthusiastically turned to greet the person, but before he even fully realized that it was Bucky the soldier had swept him off his feet and pulled him into a kiss.

Tony couldn't respond for a second, all of his synapses firing at once, but when Bucky's tongue slid along his lips he snapped into action, giving back as good as he got. He lost himself in the feeling of Bucky's lips, his teeth, his tongue for what felt like hours. It was rough and entirely too much for a first kiss. Tony loved it.

When Bucky finally set him down they were both panting hard and Tony was pretty sure that was not a gun in Bucky's pocket.

“Step out with me,” Bucky said gruffly and Tony laughed until his sides hurt.

 

It would be unfair to call their first date a complete fucking disaster. But it was a complete fucking disaster.

Through no fault of their own, mind you. Though to be fair they didn't exactly get the chance to fuck it up for themselves before aliens started invading New York. Again.

“One fucking night,” Bucky growled over the comms. “You'd think New York could manage not to get blown up for one fucking night.”

“Cock blocked by aliens, that's a new one,” Tony drawled as he smashed his fist into an alien's skull. “Get that crossed off my bucket list.”

“At least someone is staying positive,” Clint chimed in.

“Chatter,” Steve reminded them and he sounded even more irritated than usual which was amazing in and of itself. “Let's wrap this up quickly and go back home.”

“Go back to bed, you mean,” Clint teased and Tony grinned.

“Don't worry, we'll put you to sleep before we get up to anything,” he said and continued in his best baby voice. “Itty wittle baby Clint, you want your plushy?”

Clint snorted. “Thanks, mommy. I feel so loved.”

“Hey, if anything I'm daddy,” Tony protested. “Steve is mommy.”

“And what does that make me?” Bucky asked, amused, at the same time that Steve said “Hey!”

“You can be papa,” Tony conceded. “Or mama if that's more your speed.”

“Aaand this has officially turned creepy,” Clint said with an audible grimace in his voice.

Tony chuckled, firing repulsor blasts into the last pack of aliens. They scattered like rabbits, running straight into the arms of the other Avengers. Or their fists rather. “You started it.”

“Widow, get the quinjet ready,” Steve said sternly. “The rest of you concentrate. We're not done yet.”

“As good as,” Clint said and Tony saw two of the aliens drop with arrows notched in their throats. “Five of 'em left. Anyone want the honors?”

“Step back,” Tony said, charging up his repulsors. As soon as the team was cleared he struck down the remaining aliens with one fell swoop. The dropped like potato sacks, hopefully unconscious rather than dead. SHIELD would want them for questioning.

“Looks like our work here is done,” Clint said cheekily. “Ready for pick up, Captain.”

Tony landed on the street next to Steve just as the soldier replied. “Alright, good job everyone. Widow, ETA on the quinjet?”

“Three minutes.”

Tony took off the helmet, shaking out his sweaty hair. He grinned at Steve who was kind of shamelessly watching him. “Hey, how do you feel about a private ride? I mean, we could take the quinjet, but –“

“I'd love that,” Steve blurted out, a hint of red on his cheeks. Tony's grin widened.

“Great. Just wait til Bucky gets here, then we can –“

“One step ahead of ya,” Bucky drawled as he stepped up to them, running a hand through his sweaty hair and suddenly Tony understood Steve's impulse to ogle. “Where're we going?”

Tony nodded his head in the direction of the restaurant they'd abandoned in a rush. “My car's still there. Let's get some pizza to go and take a walk somewhere.”

Bucky smiled. “Sounds great.”

They took the long way back through a nearby park, getting hot dogs on the way. It was comfortable, a lot more comfortable than Tony would've expected to feel, but that pleasant tiredness after a battle really helped with the nervousness. This was much better than trying to make stilted conversation in a restaurant.

By the time they made it back to the tower it was late and Tony had started to shiver in the cold night air so he was very glad when they finally made it home. Then again Bucky had put his arm around him for the entire walk home to keep him warm so it wasn't all that bad. They ended the night on a cozy note, sitting on the couch with a glass of wine each and just talking about everything and nothing. It was perfect.

“So, how are we going to do this?” Tony eventually asked and he kind of wanted to pat himself on the shoulder. Look at him, actually communicating about feelings and shit. Pepper would be proud.

“What do you mean?” Bucky asked, a tiny frown on his face.

“Well,” Tony said, waving his hand between them. “This thing. With us. Like, is it okay for me to stay over in your room? Are there rules, like, can I only meet up with you when it's all three of us, or –“

“Tony,” Steve said sternly, taking Tony's hand in his to squeeze it gently. “We're – how did you put it? Equal partners. If you want to go on a date with just one of us you can do that. I mean, ideally we'd just be together all the time but life doesn't work that way, so. I'm not gonna be upset if you take Bucky out for a night when I'm not there.”

“Seconded,” Bucky quipped, raising his hand like a dork. “Please do take me out. That big hunk of muscle never wants to go dancing with me.”

Steve gave him a disgruntled look. “Will you ever not complain about that?”

“Nope,” Bucky said, popping the 'p'. Tony was torn between watching them like a tennis match and actually contributing to the conversation. “Anyway, I deserve to be taken out. Let's get on with that.”

Tony snorted. “I knew you were just in it for the money.”

Bucky shrugged. “What can I say? You've hooked me on cashmere socks. I can't go back.”

“Ah!” Tony gasped exaggeratedly, putting a hand to his chest. “And here I was, wondering who all those Mahogany bills were from!”

Bucky shrugged, unrepentant. “Blame Clint. He sent me the links.”

“After you begged him for them you mean,” Tony grumbled and Bucky chuckled, leaning over to press a kiss to Tony's lips.

“You can't prove shit,” Bucky murmured against his lips and they were both smiling when they separated. Tony looked up to meet Steve's eyes and – oh.

He froze as it suddenly hit him that while this whole kissing thing had naturally become a part of his and Bucky's routine, he hadn't even gotten the chance to try anything with Steve yet. Who was apparently having that exact same realization right now by the looks of things.

“What –“ Bucky asked, probably feeling the sudden tension in the room, and snorted as he looked between them. “Wait, seriously? What's wrong with you guys? Kiss already!”

“Buck!” Steve admonished, flushing red, and Bucky rolled his eyes.

“What? Don't tell me you don't want to because I distinctly remember you telling me about Tony's lips in great detail while I was sucking your –“

Okay!” Steve shouted over him, his face now bright red as his eyes darted towards Tony and quickly away, and Tony really needed a minute to process that because holy shit Steve and Bucky had talked about him in the bedroom. That was – yeah. Jesus.

Bucky looked at Tony like he knew exactly what was going through his mind and nodded his head towards Steve. “Come on, Tony. Give the old man some love.”

“Bucky,” Steve groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Time and a place. We talked about this.”

“Aw, you want it to be special?” Tony teased, finally finding his footing in the face of Steve's growing embarrassment. “Don't worry, sweetheart, I'll make sure to say some sappy words before we do it.”

Steve's eyes hardened and suddenly he was right in Tony's space, grabbing Tony by the neck and – hesitating. His eyes sought out Tony's and Tony felt his throat go dry, but he still managed a small nod that made Steve lean down and softly press their lips together.

For a second it was awkward, the angle just slightly wrong, but then Steve pulled him closer, tilting his head just a little bit and – oh yeah.

Tony pressed even closer until he and Steve were chest to chest and Steve's mouth was so soft and pliant beneath his that it didn't take much to turn their chaste kiss into having his tongue in Steve's mouth. He explored lazily until Steve did something truly wicked with his tongue that made him moan – and then there were hands in his hair and he fell back against the couch with four hundred pounds of super soldier pressing him into the cushions and – hell yes, that was more like it.

Steve was plundering his mouth for all it was worth and Tony felt completely overpowered in that way so few men ever managed to make good for him, but Steve still gave him the room he needed to enjoy himself, let him push back now and then, keep some of the control.

He felt kind of bad for all the virgin jokes he'd made when they first met because clearly Steve was nothing of the sort.

Then Steve's thigh was suddenly between his and Tony had to stop before this got out of hand. He pulled back, panting heavily, and Steve was faring no better, his eyes boring into Tony's with a heat that made Tony's insides twist with arousal.

“Damn,” Bucky suddenly breathed and Tony tore his eyes away from Steve's to look over. He gulped at how dark Bucky's eyes were. “If I had known this was a dinner and a show kind of deal I would've brought more cash.”

“You couldn't afford me,” Tony quipped breathlessly and Bucky grinned wolfishly at him.

“Guess I'll have to make it worth your while some other way then.”

And then he was suddenly there, mouth on Tony's and his hands freely roaming over Tony's chest. Tony groaned heartily, wrapping his arms around Bucky's neck.

He startled only a little when he felt a second pair of arms wrap around him from behind but when he caught up he all but melted into Steve's touch, feeling deliciously trapped in between the two super soldiers.

“Bedroom?” Bucky mumbled against Tony's mouth and Tony nodded frantically, feeling Steve's lips against his neck. They awkwardly maneuvered their way up a flight of stairs to Bucky and Steve's floor and Tony ended up getting carried more than he actually walked.

“Wait,” he said right as Bucky was about to guide him into the bedroom. “Just – My shirt needs to stay on. I'm not –“ ready, he wanted to say but that sounded pathetic so he bit his lip. They seemed to catch his meaning anyway.

“Whatever you're comfortable with,” Steve said firmly and Tony instantly relaxed.

Bucky smirked at him. “We don't need you to be naked to make you feel good anyway,” he said and Tony raised an eyebrow.

“Oh yeah?” Tony asked cheekily, kicking off his shoes before he strutted into the bedroom, giving them a challenging look over his shoulder. “Bring it, grandpa.”

 

It took barely even a week for them to settle into a routine. Tony would spend some nights in their bedroom, other nights they came up to the penthouse, and sometimes Tony still spent the entire night in the workshop. Those nights were becoming more and more rare however as Steve seemed to have made it his personal mission to make sure Tony always got enough sleep and ate a healthy diet. Tony hadn't felt so well-rested in months.

It wasn't all smooth sailing though. He and Steve still fought a lot and Bucky had his manic episodes, but they always managed to find their way back to each other. With all three of them in the same bed they very rarely had a night that wasn't interrupted by one of them having a nightmare. In the beginning they all dealt with it differently but by now it usually ended with one of them making three cups of tea while the other two sat huddled on the couch and watched mindless midnight TV for an hour or so before they went back to bed.

So Tony wasn't surprised to be roused from sleep by the sound of muffled sobs. It still wasn't a great feeling though.

“Bucky?” he mumbled sleepily, feeling across the bed and frowning when it was empty. “You there?”

The sobbing stopped and Bucky said tearfully “Yeah.”

Tony opened his bleary eyes to find Bucky's silhouette against the bit of moonlight that shone through the blinds, sitting on the edge of the bed and clutching his chest with white knuckles. Tony immediately sat up in alarm. “Are you –“

He fell silent when Bucky looked at him, his face streaked with tears. Tony reached out hesitantly and Bucky didn't flinch away, so Tony took the chance and pulled him into a sideways hug. Physical comfort was always hit or miss with Bucky after a nightmare. He'd learned that the hard way.

“You wanna talk about it?” Tony asked quietly and Bucky snorted even as his breathing hitched with barely suppressed sobs.

“It's not –“ He huffed in frustration, pulling away from Tony. “Just – look.”

Bucky pointed at his chest with a trembling hand and Tony did a double take at the new mark on Bucky's collarbone, a circular shape with a small moon inside it.

“Holy shit,” Tony breathed, reaching out on instinct but waiting for Bucky's nod to actually touch it. “When'd you get that?”

“Came in last night,” Bucky said roughly and his voice was thick with tears. “I just looked up the meaning.”

Tony's stomach dropped. What could be so bad that it made Bucky cry like this? He almost didn't want to know, but –

“What is it?”

Bucky wiped his cheeks with a swift motion though it did nothing to make him look more composed. The soldier was clearly a wreck and the sight tore at Tony's heartstrings. “It means Acceptance.”

“Huh?” Tony asked, slightly stumped by that and Bucky elaborated.

Self-Acceptance.” Bucky swallowed. “Self-Love.”

Tony almost couldn't believe it. He had to be smiling like an idiot but he couldn't help it, tightly wrapping Bucky up in his arms.

“That's amazing, Bucky, I'm so proud of you –“

“It's yours, Tony,” Bucky said and Tony's world ground to a standstill. “I can feel it.” Bucky covered Tony's hand on his mark with his own, smiling at him, and he was so beautiful that Tony almost couldn't look at him. “It's yours.”

“Oh my god,” Tony breathed, feeling tears well up in his own eyes. “Oh my god, Bucky.”

Bucky laughed tearfully, burying his face in Tony's shoulder. “Yeah, I know.”

 

Bucky didn't have many marks. Love and Independence from his mother and father. Protectiveness that belonged to his sister. And now his mark of Acceptance from Tony. He was beautiful and strong and his marks were a direct representation of all the things that made him so.

He'd offered up the meanings without any prompting from Tony and it had made him feel weird for about half a second before he realized that Bucky was proud of his marks, felt comfortable enough in his own skin to let Tony share in his history. It still baffled Tony, that easy show of trust that Tony had always struggled to express. He felt beyond humbled by it.

Tony loved to trail kisses over the tiny moon on his collarbone, feeling Bucky's steady heartbeat under his palm. Sometimes it was enough to lull him to sleep, other times – like today – it made him curious, wanting to know more about the man.

Like the origin of that tiny mark at the base of his spine.

“What does it mean?” Tony asked when he finally felt brave enough to, lightly tracing his fingers over it. Bucky shuddered, stilling his hand and pulling it around to press a kiss to its knuckles. Even before he answered Tony knew what it was going to be.

“I got it from them.” Bucky didn't need to specify who he meant. “It's kind of redundant now, but. I like to think of it as the Winter Soldier's mark. It doesn't affect me much anymore.”

Tony hummed, intertwining their fingers. Bucky took a deep breath before he pulled Tony into a hug. Tony couldn't see his face when he spoke again. “It means Obedience.”

Fuck. Tony made a small noise and Bucky stroked a hand over his back as though Tony was the one who needed comfort.

“Sometimes I think I would've gotten more,” Bucky admitted quietly. “But they wiped me after each mission. So maybe the universe thought it would be pointless to leave marks when I couldn't remember what they taught me anyway.”

Tony's heart sunk. “That's horrible.”

“I can't say I'm happy about it,” Bucky said, grabbing Tony tighter. “But I'm still glad that they didn't leave more marks on me. I don't want them there.”

“Yeah,” Tony said quietly, thinking of Death and Betrayal and Pain. “I get that.”

 

It was a very intimate thing to reveal your marks to someone. And even though Tony liked to defy all traditions and old-fashioned ideas he'd always held that in high regard. Partly because his own marks were pretty hard to look at even if you didn't know the meaning but also because he really valued what little privacy he could manage to pry away from the public eye.

Jarvis had told him once, about what lovers did with each other. That humans connected with their bodies, not just their minds sometimes and that it was perfectly natural. He'd also talked about this, the intimacy of sharing your marks' meanings with your partner. Of getting to know their past, present and future. The only person Tony had ever made it to that point with before was Pepper and even she hadn't been quite able to hide her horror at the mess on Tony's chest.

But with Steve and Bucky there was no expectation. They were entirely comfortable revealing their marks to Tony even when Tony didn't return the favor. At first Tony had felt like he was cheating them somehow, but after being thoroughly – passionately – reassured that it was okay enough times, he felt pretty comfortable to start this conversation.

Bucky was out with Sam so he and Steve had gone off to bed together, making out lazily with the TV playing something off Tony's netflix queue in the background. It was that sort of comfortable atmosphere that had always made Tony feel bold, so he ran his hands under Steve's shirt to make him take it off. Steve complied easily, leaning in to kiss Tony again, but Tony put a hand on his chest to hold him back. Steve frowned for a second before he seemed to catch on, his eyes softening as he leaned back against the headboard to let Tony explore his body at will.

Tony ran his hand over the first mark on Steve's chest, delicately tracing the intertwined ribbons with his fingers. He'd seen a lot of those on his former bed partners. It was one of the most common marks, but it still brought a lump to his throat every time.

“My mother's,” Steve said unnecessarily, a tiny smile on his face. “I wish you could've met her. She would've loved you.”

Tony hummed and stroked a finger across the slightly raised skin of Steve's shoulder. “And this one?”

“My father's,” Steve said, reaching up to link his fingers with Tony's. His smile had turned wistful. “Though to be fair he was the first of many it could've been for so I'm not sure if it's really his.”

“What does it mean?”

“Loss.”

Tony could say nothing to that.

“This one?”

“Erskine's,” Steve said, bringing his hand up to link his fingers with Tony's over what looked almost like an infinity loop on his hip. “It means Purpose.”

Tony put his head down on Steve's chest, closing his eyes with a small smile. “It suits you.”

“I have one more,” Steve said, running his hand up and down Tony's back. “On my shoulder blade. I found it after the ice.”

Tony hummed. “Peggy's?”

“Yeah,” Steve said somberly. Tony pressed a kiss to Steve's chest, trying to soothe the pain in his voice. “It's a handprint. She told me she had one too when I visited her.”

“What does it mean?”

Steve's arms tightened a fraction around him. “Regret.”

Tony hummed in understanding, leaning up to give him a soft kiss. “I'm sorry.”

“It is what it is,” Steve said, reaching up to hold Tony's head in his hands with a tender smile. “And it's not all bad. It's why I got to meet you.”

Tony snorted. “Sap.”

“It's true.” Steve pulled him closer for another kiss. “I'm really glad you're here with me, Tony.”

Tony swallowed around the sudden lump in his throat, laying down on Steve's chest and tucking his head under his chin. “Me too, Steve.”

 

They were both very understanding about his hesitance when it came to showing off his own marks. Steve especially was always quick to reassure him that they'd wait, that it would be okay even if he never showed them his marks, and then proceeded to distract Tony from the topic with something or another. Usually kisses. And anything involving Steve's or Bucky's mouth was a-okay in Tony's book.

But it was starting to make Tony self-conscious, to be the only one with a shirt on when they shared the bed, to shy away when their hands wandered too close to the hem or the collar. It was just... how would he possibly cope if they were disgusted by them? Or worse, if they pitied him? Tony had tried not to get in too deep too fast but he already couldn't picture his life without his two soulmates at his side and if it all fell apart now he wasn't sure he could take it.

It was irrational and he knew it but some part of him would probably always wait to be abandoned by them. And wow, that was depressing. When had Tony become such a drama queen?

Anyway, with the way things were going the big reveal would only get more and more daunting as time went on. And every time Bucky or Steve told him that they didn't care, that they wouldn't love him any less, Tony could feel his resolve chipping away.

So yeah, today had been a long time coming. But Tony was still nervous as hell.

“Tony? You alright in there?”

Tony took a shaky breath, looking at himself in the mirror. He was completely naked and right now he felt like it wasn't only his body on display but all of his insecurities and doubts. Bucky and Steve were in the adjoined bedroom, waiting for him, and the anxiety he felt right now was almost enough to put his shirt back on and say fuck it. Go for one more stress free night. Cuddle up to his super soldiers and forget all about his marks.

“Hey, doll, did you drown in the tub or something? Steve says his ass is getting cold.”

“I didn't say that, you ass.”

Your ass.”

“Shut up.”

Oh what the hell. Tony turned and made his way to the door in two big strides, pushing it open determinedly. He walked up to the bed, plopping down between his soulmates without fanfare and spread out on his back. Both of the super soldiers were completely still and Tony took a deep breath before he chanced a look at Bucky.

Bucky's eyes were fixed on his collarbones, slowly drawing further down, side to side, scanning all of his marks with laser focus. He drew in a shaky breath when his eyes met Tony's again.

“Thank you,” he said hoarsely.

Tony squirmed uncomfortably. “What for?”

Bucky grabbed his hand, pressing a kiss to the back of it, his eyes still boring into Tony's before they slid back down his body like he couldn't look away. “For letting us see. You're beautiful.”

Tony swallowed around the lump in his throat, startling when Steve grabbed his other hand, running a finger over his wrist.

“What –“ Steve cleared his throat before he touched his fingertips, feather light, to the skin of his right bicep. “What does this one mean?”

Tony chuckled roughly. “Going right for the kill there, Cap.” He sighed heavily, squeezing both of their hands in his. “It's my mother's. It means Disappointment.”

Both of their grips tightened and Tony gave them a crooked smile. “Yeah. The universe really set me up for failure with that one. Child born with that on them, any parent would be disappointed.”

“Tony –“ Steve choked out but Tony waved him off brusquely.

“Don't. Just keep going. I want to get through this.”

Steve made a small noise as he drew Tony into his arms, burying his face into Tony's hair. “No. We're not rushing anything.” Tony wanted to protest but Bucky kissed him silent, wrapping his arms around both of them from the other side. All that bare skin against his. It was a bit overwhelming.

“I'm with Stevie. We'll take our time with you just like you took your times with us,” Bucky said firmly and Tony felt his stomach sink.

“I don't –“ he cut himself off but they seemed to understand anyway because Bucky started stroking his hair in the way that always calmed Tony down and – embarrassingly – almost brought tears to his eyes in that moment. Bucky leaned back just far enough to give him a soft, albeit slightly sad smile.

“This doesn't have to be a bad thing, Tony. Even if the lessons you learned were... painful, or hard, they still made you who you are today. And I love you. No matter what.”

Tony's breathing hitched and Steve leaned down to press a soft kiss to his neck that made Tony shiver.

“We want to know you better,” Steve said quietly, stroking the chain links on Tony's bicep with such affection that it twisted Tony's stomach into knots. “The good and the bad, Tony.”

Tony swallowed. “What if there's more bad than good?”

Steve kissed his shoulder. “Then we'll accept it for what it is. We love you, Tony. That won't change.”

Tony drew a couple of shaky breaths before he nodded slightly. Bucky immediately slid his hand around to his collarbones, tracing the sharp wings there.

“Death,” Tony blurted out before he could ask, his fingers tightening where he was gripping at Bucky's flesh hand. “My dad's. I think it's because he was dead long before you killed him.”

Bucky flinched at the word 'kill' and Tony ran a soothing hand through his hair. Steve grabbed it mid-motion and turned it over, exposing the mark on his wrist.

“Humility,” Steve said with a soft smile. “I already looked it up, I'm sorry.”

“Don't be,” Tony said, waving him off. “I didn't hide it for a reason.”

“Who's it from?” Bucky asked and Tony snorted.

“You know him. Real tough guy in a red suit, shoots webs from his fingers?”

“Spiderman?” Steve asked with a frown. “The kid?”

“Yeah,” Tony said with a quiet smile. “The kid.” He traced the broom flower with loving fingers. “My caretaker had the same mark. He got it from me back when I was a child.”

Bucky smiled at that. “Wow, what are the odds?”

“I'm kind of glad,” Tony admitted. “That I have it. I feel like if the universe decided that I deserve the same mark as one of the best men I've ever known then maybe I'll manage to do right by Peter. He deserves to have someone looking out for him.”

“I'm sure you're a great mentor,” Bucky said without a single shred of doubt and Tony kissed his shoulder with a smile.

“Thank you.”

“This one?” Steve asked quietly, tracing the flower on Tony's rib cage. Tony smiled at Bucky.

“You didn't tell him?”

Bucky shrugged. “Didn't seem right. It's your mark, you know?”

“That's Bucky's?” Steve asked and he sounded a bit breathless as he ran his fingers over the flower petals. “It's beautiful.”

“Yeah, it is,” Tony agreed, his voice soft. “It means forgiveness.”

Steve's head snapped up and his eyes suddenly filled with tears even as a smile lit up his face. “That's – oh my god, Tony –“

Bucky grabbed Steve's hand, running his thumb over it with a grin that was just as wide. “Yeah, I know.”

Tony gave Bucky a smile before he turned to Steve, getting a bit more serious. “It's Bucky's, yeah. But... it's yours too. Kind of.”

Steve's grin wobbled and Tony pressed a kiss to it before it could completely disappear. “You deserve a fresh start, too. And I forgive you, Steve.”

Now Steve really was crying and Tony gathered him up in his arms, feeling like a huge weight just got lifted off his chest. He felt Bucky's presence like a soothing balm on his other side as Steve sobbed into his shoulder, finally getting out all that lingering hurt that had still hung over them like a dark cloud.

“God,” Steve hiccuped, clutching Tony like a lifeline. “I never thought – god, Tony, I love you so much. Thank you.”

Tony rubbed Steve's back as he slowly calmed down and before long the hitching breaths died down to quiet breathing. They lay there, just basking in the moment for a couple minutes until Bucky brushed his fingers along the back of Tony's neck.

“You have one here, too,” he murmured. “I never noticed.”

Tony sighed, reaching back to intertwine his fingers with Bucky's. “Yeah. I don't like to showcase that one.”

Steve tensed ever so slightly in his arms before he asked. “What is it?”

“It's a Judas flower,” Tony answered before Bucky could. “Pretty fitting actually. Means Betrayal.”

The mood didn't plummet the same way it had before but Bucky definitely sounded somber when he spoke. “Who gave it to you?”

Tony hummed. “Obadiah Stane. Something like a mentor for me after dad died. He helped me run the company, and by help I mean he made deals with terrorists under the table. That stunt in Afghanistan, that was him. I didn't find out about that until he ripped the arc reactor out of my chest and left me to die.” Tony ran a hand over his neck. “That's when I got this. I'm just glad it's in a spot where I don't have to see it that much.”

Bucky had gone stiff as a board against his back. “Is he –“

“Dead,” Tony said brusquely. “I made sure of it.”

They lay in silence for a moment as Bucky and Steve processed that story.

“This one?” Steve asked eventually, sitting up to brush a hand over Tony's shin. Tony chuckled.

“Yeah, that's Rhodey's. It means Resilience. I got it after he found me in Afghanistan.” Tony smiled softly. “He never stopped looking for me.”

Bucky kissed the top of his head and Tony could feel his lips curve into a smile. “He's a great friend. I'm glad you have him.”

“Yeah,” Tony agreed quietly, running a hand over the horn on his right thigh. “This one's Pepper's. Stubbornness.”

Bucky chuckled. “No explanation needed.”

Tony rolled his eyes, punching him in the shoulder. “You're one to talk.”

“I think we all do alright on that front,” Steve deadpanned and Bucky laughed quietly.

“Point,” Tony agreed with a smile. It dulled a little when Bucky ran his fingers over the middle of his chest, tracing one of the cracked glass lines.

“Stevie told me about these,” he said quietly, leaning forward to press a kiss to the scar tissue. “I'm sorry. You probably didn't want me to know.”

“No, uh. It's fine,” Tony said around the lump in his throat. “You were there when I realized... I mean, in Siberia.”

Bucky let out a breath, pressing his forehead against Tony's sternum. “Yeah.”

Steve ran his thumb over the edge of the scar that slashed right through the others and Tony couldn't look at him, afraid of what the look on his face might be.

“I thought a lot about what you said,” Steve said softly. “When you... that you were in love with me then.” He grabbed Tony's chin to make him meet his eyes. Tony's breath caught in his throat. “It tears me apart. I know it's not – this isn't about me. But it killed me to fight you, Tony. To –“ He choked. “You thought I'd –“

Bucky gripped the back of Steve's neck and Steve breathed out shakily, leaning into the touch even as he kept looking at Tony. “I'm so sorry. I know it's not enough but it's all I got. And I'm so grateful that you found it in you to forgive me but I know I don't deserve it. Not yet.”

“Steve –“ Tony said but Steve ran his thumb over Tony's bottom lip, tracking the motion intently with his eyes.

“I'll make it up to you, Tony,” he said and his tone almost made it sound like a prayer. “I swear to god, I'll spend the rest of my life trying to make up for the pain I caused you.”

“You're here,” Tony said, grabbing Steve's hand and pressing a kiss to his palm. “You came back and you love me. There's not much else I could ask for.”

Steve leaned down to kiss him properly, so carefully soft that Tony practically melted into the sheets, humming happily when Bucky ran a hand through his hair before trailing it down to Tony's shoulder, tracing the mark there.

Tony reluctantly ended the kiss to look at it, smiling softly at the memory.

“This one belongs to Jarvis. The real one.”

“Human Jarvis?” Steve asked, brow furrowing slightly. Tony nodded.

“My caretaker. He was with me when I was a child. Practically raised me.”

Bucky hummed. “What does it mean?”

“Trust,” Tony said with a smile, running his own fingers over the mark. “First time I thought I might actually be okay. Despite the other marks.” He looked down at his chest. “I was born with four. My parents', Yinsen's and yours, Steve.”

“How old were you?” Bucky asked, still focused on the Celtic knot. “When you got this one.”

“Around seven I think,” Tony said as if he couldn't remember the exact date and time the mark came in. He'd been ecstatic. Good times.

Steve made a small noise, nuzzling into Tony's shoulder. “I'm sorry it was so hard for you. The marks.”

Tony shifted on the bed, a little uncomfortable. “Don't be. It's not your fault.”

Steve nodded, clearly unconvinced, but before Tony could reassure him he'd moved on to the last one, covering the craters on his hip with his palm. “So these are the other ones you were born with? Yinsen's?”

“Yeah,” Tony said, feeling his heart twist at the name. “He was with me in Afghanistan. Saved my life.” He took a deep breath. “He died when I escaped. Failed to tell me that he'd known he would the entire time he was helping me.” Tony ran his fingers over the back of Steve's hand where he was still absently stroking the mark. “They're mars craters. Translation says they mean War but Yinsen didn't teach me that. He taught me to keep fighting even when I couldn't.”

Bucky laid his hand on top of both of theirs. “He sounds like a great man.”

Tony swallowed heavily. “Yeah, he was. Jarvis was, too. Pepper and Rhodey are the only reason I'm still alive to be honest. And you guys.” He looked at Steve and Bucky in turn, squeezing their hands. “I'm glad it's you. There's no one I'd rather have as a soulmate.”

They both looked a little choked up as they wrapped him in their arms, surrounding him completely. Tony closed his eyes, enjoying the warmth and comfort. He felt drained but in a good way. Like he'd finally pulled out a persistent thorn in his side and now the pain had finally gotten the chance to fade away.

“I'm glad it's you, too,” Steve said quietly. “Both of you.”

“Same,” Bucky said gruffly, shuffling even closer. “Now shut up, I want to sleep.”

Tony chuckled when Steve rolled his eyes. “Yes, your highness.”

“Don't say that unless you're on your knees,” Bucky drawled and Tony choked on air, coughing as Steve patted his back.

“You okay?” Bucky asked and Tony could practically hear the shit eating grin in his voice. He flipped him off without looking. “Aw, don't be like that, doll. I wanna hear all about your dirty – ow!”

“Sleep,” Steve repeated firmly but he was smiling underneath that exaggerated frown of disapproval. Tony could hear it in his voice.

He still had no idea what on earth he could have possibly done to deserve this. But whatever it was, he'd take it and hold on to it with white knuckles.

You're destined for great things, Jarvis had said. And with Bucky in his arms and Steve's heart beating against his back Tony was inclined to agree.