When Tony gets his first Imprint, it’s like throwing up- an itch at the back of his throat, then the slow pinching haze behind his eyes; the stumble, and then the surge.
He’s six and isn’t experienced with throwing up yet, not like he’s going to be, with sweet tequila going up the same as it goes down- he’s had food poisoning, though, from the fancy restaurant with fancy tables and fancy wallpaper that Howard had made a face at, so that’s what he thinks back to when it happens.
He thinks back to the smoothness of the oysters and how they had lumped together in the shiny metal bowl that the maid was holding, slick with his own saliva and the carrots he had to go with them; but the itch, the surge, isn’t in his throat.
Instead it’s in his chest, like it’s just under the skin, like spiders playing with his ribs, and Tony turns off the tap with a shaky hand. He rinses his toothbrush and slots it back into the jar, swallowing what’s left of the toothpaste in his mouth. It turns into a thick paste as it goes down, so he has to try a few times before it does.
He reaches a hand down to pull up his shirt, holding it up in a dark bunch to his neck.
Blink and you miss it:
A blue he hasn’t seen even when he went to the museum last week, when Maria had been smiling more genuinely than usual (and Tony’s getting better at that, he’s getting better at telling when people are faking it; when he told her this her smile faltered) and Tony had had his head tipped back and the layered, papery blue of the ocean twisting is nothing compared to the electric blue in his chest.
Blink and you miss it- a clear-cut circle, not stretching when his chest comes in and out with his breath, taking up almost all of his chest as it flickers, flickers, and then fades.
He holds his breath until his head starts to swim, just in case it comes back.
It doesn’t, and Tony is halfway down the hall before realizing that the maid is gone for the night along with Jarvis, and his parents are already asleep by now, so he has no-one to tell until morning.
A few weeks later, he finds that his hand keeps coming up to the middle of his chest, curling there reflexively, so he clenches his fingers and makes himself stop.
A nudge from the universe, Steve’s mother calls them, and scoops back her hair- blonde, like his, and the same texture, just shorter- to show him the thorned rose, and the wisp of white on her shoulder when he asks about them.
He asks what both of them mean, and doesn’t notice her smile is sad when she says, it’s a long story, Stevie. I’ll tell you later, okay?
Okay, she grins, and makes him squeal when she kisses him hard and repeatedly on the nose. Come on, off to bed with you.
Three months after that, Steve’s mother pushes up her sleeve- it’s winter, it’s snowing and she’s shivering- to show him the wisp of white.
It’s a bird, she tells him, and there’s something clouding her expression; not loss but almost mirroring it.
Steve looks up at it, at the curves that could be eyes but could just be holes. What does it mean?
She tells him to go to school, and he gets to ask again three more times in the next year before he forgets why he even wanted to, because her hair keeps coming away when she puts her hand through it.
Tony has a birthday party when he’s thirteen, and no-one from school comes because Howard didn’t buy any alcohol for it, so Tony’s kind of expecting the empty house, anyway.
His parents at least have the decency to tell him they’re sorry they can’t be there for his birthday, and Tony doesn’t say much and doesn’t wave them off when they get on the plane.
He sits on the couch with his feet tucked up underneath him, and eyes the locked liquor cabinet for a few minutes as he does his homework (easy, too easy, everything’s easy to him except basic human fucking contact and he hates it, hates how he can run rings around professors with PHDs but can’t make one single friend in his boarding school).
Howard’s a hypocrite, anyway, he decides as he corrects a mistake the professor made, because he still remembers the slur in Howard’s voice, the vice-grip of his hand on Tony’s small shoulder.
Drink this, Howard had said, it’ll put some hair on your chest.
He remembers his mother, with the stiff lines near her mouth, saying, Howard, he’s only four-
But Howard had barked something back at her and Tony had taken the glass and downed it, wincing when it had burned all the way down, and had almost hacked up a lung coughing from it.
Howard had patted his back throughout his coughing, and every impact of Howard’s broad palm on his back only made him cough harder.
Tony feels it then, as he’s thinking back to the brunt of Howard’s hand and the heavy glass in his own- the itch, the stumble, then the surge, and he trips over his own feet running across the room to a mirror, yanking up his shirt as he goes.
His chest has grown but the Imprint hasn’t, as they never do, and there it is, there’s the blue he hasn’t been able to re-create, there’s the circle of something almost akin to light, and sometimes he had thought it was a dream.
It’s clearer this time; more definition to the lines running through it, more shine in the pigments, and it doesn’t shake on Tony’s exhale.
Flicker, flicker, flicker, and Tony blinks and it’s gone, and the lounge air is cold against his stomach.
Bruce’s first Imprint, age nine, is more like a punch, and he doesn’t notice it until his mother wipes away the blood from the literal punch, bending down to get ice for the swelling.
It’s just above his navel, dull and silver and taking up half of his stomach, and it only stays there for a few seconds as his mother’s mouth opens on a gasp.
Blink and you miss it, and it’s not for another decade and six more flickering incidents that Bruce realizes it’s a cage.
The first time Tony has sex, he’s nearly sixteen and the girl is nineteen, and she covers up whatever her Imprint is with a tiny clot of makeup.
He doesn’t ask- it’s not polite- and she doesn’t tell, but he wonders about it when they’re lying in bed afterwards and she’s pretending to sleep; one arm angled over her head so her eyes are covered.
It’s just below her left breast, and the smear of makeup is the length of a bullpoint pen whereas the tattoo seems slightly smaller.
It’s infinitely personal, he knows. It’s something that defines a life, that could shape everything about it, even, and he can hardly remember this girl’s name, but he wants to know so badly he thinks seriously about leaning forwards and wiping the remaining makeup off.
It could be the start of a name that’s still developing- he thinks he sees the slope of an ‘A’- though that’s unlikely. The only two ways to get names are if someone you’re closely connected to dies, and those usually show up within a few days of the person’s death, fast and painful and usually around their hands or wrists.
The other way is even more unlikely, and that’s if she has a soulmate- someone carved into you so intimately that it shows on your skin, that you’re going to end up with even if you both have to crawl through a river of shit to do it, and then some. Soulmate Imprints can show up over a night or over years, and there are only around about twenty documented cases every decade or so.
That, and what Tony thinks has got to be incredibly distracting, especially when you’re trying to concentrate- after two soulmates fall in love, when they touch hands, an animated tattoo of a red string threads its way over their fingers, winding over and through until they’re bound together.
It’s just a tattoo, of course, so they’re never actually bound together, but god. Imagine brushing hands with them in the supermarket as you’re both looking for whatever, and having that red slush start inking its way over your skin. Tony would get distracted by it every time they touched hands.
Tony squints in the dim light, trying to make out if those are letters where the makeup is thinning, and stills when the girl- Margret, Mary, Marcy, something starting with M- shifts in her feigned sleep, twisting her head away from him even further.
Tony’s eyes rake the makeup again, and he considers.
Then again, they usually show up around the person’s chest, so that could work. Theoretically, anyway.
And if she fucks some guy who isn’t written onto her, then so what? Maybe she hasn’t met the soulmate yet, and whoever he is, he can’t expect her to wait around.
And if there’s one thing Tony’s learned in his fifteen and a half years on this shithole of a planet, it’s that people don’t wait.
Steve knows the Imprints aren’t an actual, physical nudge like his mother said, but when he shows her the shadow-flicker on his hand, the ghost of an Imprint before it disappears, he feels something pushing at him.
Shove, shove, shove, and his mother is laughing like a song in her hospital gown and Bucky is raising his eyebrows and the Imprint is dissolving on his hip and he only gets a short look before it’s gone, because come on, no-one’s Imprint manifests completely this early and he was stupid to think he was that special.
He catches a sliver of blue and then nothing, and then the pushing sensation is gone, and Bucky asks, Did you guys get a good look at it?
Steve and his mother say, no, in unison, and Steve’s hand is cooling on his own hip, over his bare skin.
Later that week, after school, a grinning Bucky drags Steve into the changing rooms and twists his head sideways to show him the flickering Imprint on his neck of a finger on a trigger.
Both are bloody.
Clint finds his Imprint- probably the only Imprint he’ll ever get, he’s not expecting much- in mid-May, when he’s laying out on one of the elephant’s tents on a lukewarm afternoon and his act is coming up in a few hours; the signs have already been taken down.
He looks down and there it is: no sudden pain, no tremble, it’s just there, nestling under his wrist.
A knife in mid-motion, arcing forwards, and Clint knows it can’t mean anything good.
Tony’s parents die and Jarvis is in the front seat when their car crashes and Tony gets the phone call and can’t find anything to do with his hands except for grip the bottle tighter.
He spends the rest of that night dodging Rhodey’s calls and thinking about taking a baseball bat to the thing he’s in the middle of making, which happens to be a low-grade AI to help around the workshop, but can’t bring himself to raise the bat.
He feels the sudden pulse of itch, stumble, surge, and nearly doesn’t care, and again, trips over his own feet getting to a mirror, having to go up the stairs to do it because for some reason he doesn’t keep mirrors in his workshop.
For a few seconds he thinks it’s there to stay, and he holds his breath, holds it as it flickers and seems to settle against his ribs, like it fits.
Then he lets his breath out and it’s gone, his chest bare again; a light being blown out.
A week later, around his index finger on his right hand, Edwin Jarvis appears in small cursive, and Tony starts wearing a ring to cover it.
Natasha- who isn’t Natasha, who isn’t even Natalie, isn’t anything, is just a pair of hands welding a gun- gets her second Imprint just after she is sent out on her eleventh mission from her father.
She doesn’t know how old she is, so she doesn’t count by that. Instead she counts in missions and meetups and in how many men’s eyes she’s watched as they blink for the last time.
Her first Imprint had been last year and she hadn’t even been the one to notice it: an American man she had slept with before she had killed him had pointed it out, and later, after disposing of the dental floss she had used to strangle him, she had looked over her shoulder in a mirror and had seen the bow and arrow inked underneath her left shoulderblade.
But her second Imprint happens when she’s washing her hands after slicing open someone’s throat- she didn’t know her name, only knew her target’s photograph, and the water is dirty but it does the job.
The water’s stopped running red but her hands haven’t, and Natasha-Not-Natasha scrubs harder and takes a bar of soap, running it over her knuckles.
The red stain on her hands flickers, and she stills.
She watches, heart in her throat, and the red seems to shudder for a second before it cuts out completely and the only red on her hands is from scrubbing too hard.
Erisken says, “Not a perfect soldier, but a good man,” and Steve feels the telltale pull at his hipbone.
When he’s alone again, he hitches up his shirt, letting it sag through his fingers, and air comes out of his mouth in a cloud of condensation.
“Oh,” Steve says, and doesn’t really know why, because there’s a smear of colours, wide over his skinny hip- red, the deep, dark kind he got when he was coughing up blood in the hospital when he was twelve. Then white, coupled with a dull blue, and then there’s a different kind of blue altogether- a scalding, nearly burning kind of blue, almost electric.
It’s the kind of blue he’s always imagined lighting to be, followed by thunder hazy in his mouth, and it’s all messy and smudged and Steve had no clue what any of it means, except that it looks like it’s there to stay.
The night afterwards, when Erisken isn’t around to say anything anymore, when Steve’s hip isn’t so skinny against the tattoo which seems to only take up about half of the space as it did last time, Steve looks down at it and runs the pads his fingers over it, like maybe it’ll disappear again if he stops being so hyper-aware of it.
Years go by and by this point Tony’s so experienced at faking it that he doesn’t even have to try anymore, and he hires an assistant and doesn’t fire her and keeps on not firing her until it’s been a decade and he’s stupidly attached and he knows it.
He does the same with his driver, who drags him out of things when he needs to be and wears suits below his pay grade and doesn’t give up on Tony even when he shoves.
Rhodey is there when he gets some free time and can be bothered putting up with him, and Tony creates his group of friends with paychecks and too-loud laughter and he’s pathetically lonely and they all know not to mention it.
He drinks when he thinks about the Imprint and the lack of it, and he drinks whenever he’s designing something or making something or thinking about what the weather is going to be tomorrow or stock markets or how much he hates going to galas.
He drinks when he’s at parties and when he’s driving and when he’s bothering Rhodey without even trying and whenever his father’s face comes up on the TV. He drinks when Pepper tells him not to drink and kind of hates the fact that he can’t seem to stop, which he then drowns with enough alcohol that Pepper is looking down at him eight hours later with a tight expression, and Tony doesn’t have to hear her say it to realize he’s landed himself in the hospital again.
When he gets out of the hospital, he heads for a bar.
Basically, Tony does his best not to feel anything for a long time, and after a while he gets pretty good at it.
Steve finds Bucky half-delirious and half-conscious and probably half-alive, and the rest of it is a haze until they manage to find themselves hauling each other outside, back where everyone else is standing.
Steve’s coughing, doubling over to hack out the rest of the dirt that’s lodged itself behind the soft, spongey spot at the back of his throat, and Bucky’s doing the same: hitting the dirt with his knees and his palms, coughing so hard Steve swears his ribs rattle.
When they’re stopped for a night to sleep, Steve hesitates for a moment before he nudges Bucky with his elbow.
“You know, you haven’t said next to a word since we got outta there.”
Bucky just looks at him for a few seconds, and Steve recognizes that look a lot better now he’s been in the field- the look with bombs behind his irises.
“Yeah,” Bucky says eventually.
Steve’s the one to notice the Imprint on his back, which he catches as Bucky’s pulling off one of his outer shirts when they’re walking again.
It takes Bucky shouting at him to get Steve to tell him what it is, and when Steve tells him, Bucky doesn’t say anything until noon the next day.
It’s small, about the size of a ten cent piece. A dirty needle, with fluid dripping out the end of it, and Steve watches the big, fat droplets on the verge of spilling for a long time.
Over the years, Natasha’s-and she is Natasha now, has been for a while- hands flicker worryingly and undeniably red every time she kills someone. Which is more often that she’d like to think about, and after she kills her father- he deserved it, he was manipulating her like he’s been doing for years, never loved her anyway, was just using her for his own devices, you did the right thing- they stay red for three days; shaking for almost all 72 hours of that.
She doesn’t let herself think about the bow and arrow, because she’s never been good with them. Sure, she can hit a target, but she much prefers knives and they’re faster, anyway.
When Clint Barton shows up with a quiver slung over his shoulder and a string pulled back and pointed in the vicinity of her neck, she very nearly laughs.
Peggy Carter is beautiful, kisses with her mouth open and has an Imprint of an army hat on her collarbone that she shows to Steve one morning before he’s about to go on a mission.
She tells him that when she showed it to the men she wanted to get recruited by, they just laughed and said it meant she was going to get with a guy who was in the army.
Steve blushes at that, almost as red as her lipstick. Says, “Uh, that’s, uh,” and clears his throat, cursing the serum for not giving him the superhuman strength to not make an idiot of himself every time he’s in front of a pretty girl, and tries to ignore the sounds of Bucky muffling his laughter behind his back.
Peggy’s laugh reminds him of his mother’s every single time it happens.
Tony’s Imprint finally settles just before he’s about to get on a plane to Afghanistan, and he barley has time to admire the thing in the mirror before Rhodey’s shouting at him to get his ass over here or they’re leaving without him.
They don’t, of course, because Tony’s a very charming and likeable man and it’s his damn plane, and they’re only three hours later landing than they said they would be.
Rhodey starts to apologize to the guy but Tony just flicks him a grin and strides past him, because he hires people to do the bullshitting for him.
He gets the presentation done, no problem, diva-s his way through the rest of it and swipes a drink and is halfway through it when the Humvee in front of him is shot to shit.
Then his mind is a mess of swearing and half-formed calculations and Rhodey’s yelling, Tony, get down, get out of the way, move, now, and the gun that Tony grabs is jammed.
He throws it down and looks for another one, and Rhodey outright screams at him, and Tony looks up just in time to see his best friend get narrowly missed by a shell.
He dives behind a rock, skinning his knees through his suit, his fingers already flying on his phone keyboard, and- and-
And there’s a blast, and Rhodey’s still screaming in his ear but it’s faraway, and he breaks the buttons on his shirt and the blood is ruining it, anyway, and there’s even blood through his bulletproof vest and blood on his fingers, blood in his mouth, blood in his eyes as he squints up at the sun.
When they start to carve at him, he screams, and they don’t use anaesthetic and there are hands in his chest and there are even more hands holding him down, and Tony screams and screams and they just keep holding him down.
They slice his chest into valleys, into brackets, into a swollen mess and no-one could ever tell there was anything else other than metal and a gaping hole that’s not a hole anymore, it’s a car battery and Tony is gasping without breath and there’s a man in the corner telling him to smile for the camera, which he’s been doing a lot goddamn longer than everyone thinks.
Peggy Carter is beautiful and wears her hair up when she feels like it and she’s crying; trying to keep her voice steady as Steve makes date plans that are never going to happen.
There’s something about this, something gut-churning about how they both know none of this is ever going to come to a pass but still they keep on holding up the conversation, like that’s going to slow down the water that comes at Steve like a left hook to the face.
Steve breathes, and breathes, and he’s breathing in water and his mother never let him swim anyway in case he got sick again because he got sick so often without this helping it along and there’s salt in his eyelashes and blinding him and pressing down and Peggy’s voice is in his right ear even though the connection has snapped out and Bucky’s screaming in his left one the last scream as he fell from the train and Steve wasn’t able to catch him in time and he even loses the scream he loses every voice he’s ever heard and there’s something pulling on his hip and it’s pulling and it’s pulling and just as he’s about to pass out it yanks-
Tony fixes himself from the ground-up and then goes and tears it all down again, because he didn’t like what he was working with in the first place.
He eases up on the drinking and then throws himself back into it again when he figures out that the dark lines easing out from the arc reactor aren’t new Imprints developing.
He hires a new assistant after he makes Pepper CEO, and she’s a redhead but nothing what Tony needs, even with that slick press of her smile that he knows could charm the royal shit out of any congressman to cross her path.
He works until he’s wobbling on his feet and it’s nothing new, and he saves his own life, saves the city once, twice, three times, and Pepper yells at him and Rhodey yells at him and Happy yells at him one time which Tony is still surprised about.
So Tony starts again, with the most basic building blocks he can find.
Then again, the whole thing’s a mess to start off with, and there isn’t much you can do with this much rubble.
The Avengers happen and it’s an accident, they all know that much.
The mistake that saved the world, Maria tells them later, and they clean themselves up and don’t rest afterwards.
They go their separate ways and it’s only temporary, they know that, too, because every one of them had pulled back the collars of their shirts to show the newly-inked letters that make the word Avenger, that had all shown up on everyone in the past week. Even Thor, who doesn’t know how it had happened, since it’s not a thing that happens to people in his dimension.
Fury raises his eyebrows when they show him, but when he turns away they think they catch a glimpse of his lips curling upwards.
Tony’s grip is firm when Steve shakes his hand before Steve gets on his motorcycle and Tony gets in his car with Bruce, and something in Steve pulls and pulls and pulls.
When Tony is forty-two, he realizes his hand keeps coming up to the middle of his chest, curling there reflexively.
He doesn’t bother to stop himself.
Less than a year later, they all find their way back to each other.
It’s been a tough year, and probably a bad one although none of them can really specify it- Bucky coming back, and Steve still has to pinch himself daily to make sure he’s awake, and Natasha still looks guilty sometimes when he catches her at the wrong moment.
When Tony comes, his movements are stiff and they’ve all seen the footage of Tony’s suits coming alive and killing thousands, causing so much property damage that Steve’s surprised if even Stark Industries can cover it, and this coupled with Pepper breaking up with him is obviously weighing on Tony even though he tries to wave it off.
He says, “I’m fine,” and Clint says, “Yeah, and I’m a chipmunk.”
Thor looks at them both funny, and Clint says, “Not really,” and apparently that’s all it takes for Tony to burst out laughing, his eyes creasing with it, and he looks tired enough to fall asleep where he stands.
Bruce gets his own workshop right next to Tony’s, and for the first few months, apart from Clint and Natasha, they’re the closest two out of everyone else. They’re still guarded around each other sometimes- of course they are, put six adults with raging trust issues- not to mention a triad of other issues- together, and it’s not going to be the easiest thing in the world.
And Tony’s more withdrawn after what happened- Bruce catches him staring into space sometimes, or at the news, with an expression that’s something like guilt and another thing that Bruce is all too familiar with.
Sometimes, Bruce thinks that’s one of the reasons why they’re two of the closest people here: they’re both well-versed at being monsters; Bruce’s is just more prominent.
They don’t heal, not completely.
There are still wounds that are never going to skin over; cuts that are never going to get stitched up completely, even after the years they've all been together. But they patch each other up as best they can, and the word Avenger is always there over their breastbones when they need it, and sometimes one of them goes off for a while, but they always come back.
Sometimes they go off in pairs; in threes, in fours, but most of the time they find themselves strewn around the lounge, an arm over someone else’s leg or their head resting on someone’s knee.
A year or so passes like that, punctuated by near-misses with bullets and they all skim death more than once, and the Hulk has to dig Tony out of three- count ‘em, three- collapsed buildings on three separate occasions.
Ironically, they’re all starting to get less reckless. Which is kind of thrown to the wind after Coulson comes back, and Steve doesn’t surprise anyone except a few rookie SHIELD agents when he punches Fury in the nose.
At this point, Coulson has a lot to catch up on, and it’s almost another two years until Tony realizes that Coulson’s the one who ‘accidentally’ doesn’t file the field reports that involve Tony being mindlessly stupid.
Pepper and Happy get together and Tony’s happy for them, he really is- that, and he noticed Happy’s Imprint of something that looked suspiciously like Pepper’s freckles a few years ago, so it’s not exactly a surprise for him.
It is a surprise, though, when Steve brushes his hand as he’s handing the coffee to him and a thin red line starts twining over their thumbs, which are pressed together over the tin.
They both watch for a few seconds, because neither of them are morning people and they’ve both been awake for less than ten minutes, and the string is up to their wrists before Tony finally jolts into gear, swearing loudly, and dropping the coffee tin.
It slips through Steve’s fingers, because he’s kind of not paying attention to his grip at the moment, and coffee grounds scatter across the kitchen files.
For a long ten seconds, they both stare at each other wordlessly, Tony’s mouth gaping open and Steve’s doing pretty much the same thing, and eventually Tony manages to croak, “S-some of that went under the fridge.”
“The fridge,” Tony repeats. He waves his hand towards it before snapping it back, like somehow their hands are going to gravitate towards each other and start doing that thing again. “The, uh, coffee. Some of it went under the-”
“Fridge,” Steve nods. “Someone should clean that up.”
Tony says, “Yeah,” and he sounds like he’s been dragging his throat through the sand, and neither of them move for another ten seconds.
Steve says, “You love me,” and Tony says, “What, no, maybe, what,” in a shrill voice that makes him sound more than slightly insane.
Steve repeats it, a disbelieving smile slowly toasting his face, and Tony’s own face is burning.
“Yeah, well. You love me, otherwise the- soulmate- thing- wouldn’t have worked.”
“I think I can live with that,” Steve says, and Tony doesn’t know how some people think Steve isn’t funny, he is, it’s just dry as fuck and Tony half wants to laugh and half wants to cry, because oh my fucking god.
The names manifest later that night, when they’re lying with their hands entwined, watching the red string make its way up their fingers.
Anthony Stark, just where Steve’s neck ends, small and neat and looping sideways. Tony touches it with his fingertips; slides them sideways across it and smiles in a way that sets Steve alight.
Steven Rogers, curving in tiny writing around one side of the arc reactor, barley taking up an inch of the circumference.
It’s only when Steve fits his palm over the arc reactor that he realizes that most of the name is over the blunt edge of a shrapnel shard they couldn’t remove. It ties a knot in Steve’s stomach; makes him want to kiss him hard enough to make it better.
He can’t, of course, but kissing always Tony makes him think he can.