Every child, without fail, is born with a mark, a swirl of color that takes the shape of a perfectly formed blossom nestled directly over their hearts and echoed on their right wrists.
Twin blooms etched into their skin by some kind of cosmic force.
Heart-flowers, they’re called, those first blossoms to be etched on a person’s skin, the ones gifted to them at the moment of birth no matter what. More flower-marks can follow in time, depending on a person’s life, but the heart-flower pair is always the first.
The thing is, no one knows what causes them. No one knows where they come from or why they show up. No one really remembers how their meanings were divined, just that they were. It doesn’t really matter though because even if there weren’t classes and books and studies done on the meanings people would still know.
Somehow people can always tell what the marks mean, what they stand for even, without being told.
It’s a universal language, a shared constant of sorts, and everyone knows that the heart-flower, beyond the other flower-marks a person might gain during their lives, is always the most important.
The heart-flower is the one that speaks the loudest, the one that represents just who a person is deep inside.
So when Anthony Stark is born with a large clump of yarrow flowers etched into his skin directly over his heart and mirrored on his right wrist, the petals red as blood and the centers little sunbursts of yellow, there’s a deathly kind of quiet in the delivery room.
No one, not even the Howard Stark, wants a child with war in his heart.
Unlike most people Tony’s heart-flower isn’t alone for long, his first flower-mark shows up by the time he’s a year old.
A sprig of tiny, delicate white walnut flowers etch their way onto the skin behind his right ear with a frigid kind of burn. A ball of crimson sycamore blossoms find their way onto the skin behind his left not ten seconds later.
His intellect and curiosity etching themselves in turns across his skin for the entire world to see.
Neither Howard with his grandeur filled ash blossom, nor Maria with the magnificent beauty of her calla flower, because they’ve never been Father and Mother, not for him, not for Tony, have much to do with him as he grows.
The most they do is shove a thick leather band at him to cover his wrist and make sure he knows just how much trouble he’ll be in if he lets anyone see his heart-flower.
It doesn’t take him long to realize that, to know with a deep kind of certainty, that they don’t particularly care for him.
By the time he’s four, his first circuit board in hand and a freshly slammed door in his face, Tony knows it for truth.
The freshly blossomed yew flower that burns its way onto his rib cage is proof of his sorrow.
He’s six when Howard shoves a tumbler of scotch into his hand and tells him to drink.
Tells him it’ll put hair on his chest.
Tells him it’ll make a man out of him.
Tony doesn’t want to be a man, he just wants to build, wants to create, wants to be Tony.
He drinks it anyway though because he’s also still desperate for Howard’s approval. For Howard’s anything.
The vibrant red hand flower that burns its way into existence underneath the sorrow of his yew blossom is a warning all on its own.
He builds his first engine at seven but it isn’t good enough for Howard.
Nothing ever is.
The small white syringa flower he finds later on that night nestled beside the yew and hand flowers is to be expected. Disappointed expectations are their own kind of pain after all.
Tony tells Howard he doesn’t want to build weapons one day. He tells him that he wants to make robots, wants to make planes and computers and a million other useful things.
He doesn’t want to hurt people. Instead he wants to be a hero, like Captain America and his Commandos.
Howard’s ring splits his lip and Tony tastes blood seconds later, thick and heavy in his mouth, bitter and biting on his tongue just like the scotch had been.
“You’ve got war in your heart boy,” Howard sneers, “don’t ever try and pretend to be anything but what you are.”
Tony feels the familiar burn of a flower mark being etched into his skin but he doesn’t look, doesn’t try and check to see what it is. Instead he keeps his eyes on Howard and his hands cupped around his bleeding mouth and nose.
He’s young but he’s smart and Tony knows better than to take his eyes off of a predator.
Later that night is when he finds it.
A Judas flower has burnt its way onto the skin beneath his right underarm and Tony isn’t even sure why.
You have to have faith in someone to be betrayed in the first place.
Citron flowers woven between cardamine and morning glory vines settle across the tops of his shoulders like a cape by the time he’s nine. A garland of sadness woven between paternal error and extinguished hopes for all the world to see. A testament to the fact that he’s a disappointment, that the war in his heart has eaten away at even the love his parents might have had for him otherwise.
Tony stops taking his shirt off unless he’s alone in his room with the door locked and always makes sure his cuff is tight and secure.
He’s not sure if it’s out of a need to hide his flower-marks or the bruises.
Neither are something he wants anyone else to see.
Jarvis is his only true solace, him and the fleeting figure of Aunt Peggy who whirls in and out of his life over the years.
Jarvis who’s heart-flower is a cress flower, a sign of stability in Tony’s rough world.
Aunt Peggy carries a clover flower and wears the dignity it foretells like a shield. But she always has a smile and a hug for Tony when she comes around. She always has time for him, has soft, caring hands and warm, safe arms.
The twin red chrysanthemums that blossom across his left pectoral at ten are a relief.
‘I love,’ they scream to the world, ‘I love, I love, I love.’
And he does, God he does.
He loves them both.
And it’s a relief because he almost wasn’t sure if love was something he could feel.
But he does.
He graduates high school and goes off to MIT, too young and too small in so many ways but far older in all the ones that really count.
Clematis flowers burn their way across the back of his neck at fourteen and Tony laughs and laughs and laughs because his mind is a lot of things but beautiful isn’t one of them.
Rhodey is though.
Rhodey with his cactus flower that screams of his endurance.
Rhodey who pulls him out of frat houses when he’s had too much to drink. Rhodey who stops dozens of hands from touching him when he’s too out of it to know better. Rhodey who keeps him fed and relatively in one piece.
Rhodey who ruffles his hair and laughs at his jokes and doesn’t ask anything from him except for Tony to eat and sleep and generally try and take care of himself.
Rhodey who asks him once what his heart-flower is because Tony refuses to take his shirt or his cuff off around him.
Rhodey who goes quiet and kind of sad when Tony pushes back his shirt sleeve and rips his cuff off only to throw it onto the ground between them like a gauntlet as he turns his exposed wrist over and shows him. Rhodey who pulls him close, who touches him without hurting him, who never looks at him different even after he finds out that Tony’s heart is filled with war.
Rhodey who takes him under his wing and makes those two red chrysanthemum blossoms become three.
There are scars on the palms of his hands beneath the flower-marks that’ve unfurled there.
Red balsam blooms across his right palm and burdock across his left.
Two different ways to convey the same message.
Touch me not.
Tony doesn’t like to be handed things anymore.
Howard made sure of that.
By the time Howard and Maria die, by the time Jarvis goes with them, Tony’s a tapestry of blossoms.
His entire right side is covered with blooms whose meanings he wishes he could erase. Yew and oleander mixing with helenium and Judas tree flowers until there’s barely any blank skin left from his shoulder to his waist on that side.
Sometimes he wonders if there’ll ever be anything else for him, if he’ll even have room for anything else, filled up half way as he is with sorrow and pain, with betrayal and tears.
Tony can’t help but wonder if there will ever be love for him. If he’ll ever find someone who’ll make the forget-me-nots of true love flow across his skin even as filled as his heart so obviously is with war.
He’s almost sure that he wouldn’t deserve it anyways so it doesn’t really matter in the end.
Tony builds DUM-E six days after the funeral.
He painstakingly etches a volkamenia flower onto DUM-E’s base with hands that shake.
‘May you be happy,’ is what the heart-flower means and it is Tony’s fondest wish for his new and undeniably quirky son.
At twenty-one the company is his.
At twenty-two a narcissus flower blossoms across the arc of his left hip and for the first time in his life Tony seriously considers trying to carve off one of his flower marks.
He remembers the narcissus that had swept across the entirety of Howard’s right forearm, a testament to his ego.
Tony doesn’t want to share a blossom with Howard even if the bastard is long dead.
U gets a patient galirum.
Butterfingers a fraxinella for his fiery nature.
And JARVIS, when he comes, gets a ragged robin flower coded into his sequences because he’s filled with wit.
By the time he’s twenty-five Tony’s biggest secret, besides his heart-flower, is the large cluster of sorrel flowers that takes up the entirety of his left thigh.
There are four large blossoms, one for each of his bots and JARVIS.
They’re his children and he loves them.
Tony has more flower-marks than any one person he’s ever met.
They spill out across his skin in swirls of colors and shapes, paint his past and his heart across his skin in a million, revealing ways.
He wears long sleeves and pants most of the time because of that and a specially designed body paint when he goes out to party that makes his skin look blank and clean.
There are rumors that he doesn’t have a heart-flower because of that. Rumors that he’s soulless on top of everything else.
They’re obviously ridiculous though because he wears a cuff and he does have a few flower-marks that he doesn’t bother to hide, mainly the ones on his hands and behind his ears, the cluster of blooms on the back of his neck.
It doesn’t stop the whispers though.
But then nothing ever really does.
Pepper is beautiful with her purple columbine blossom and her matching resolve to win.
For a while Tony thinks he could love her, could have forget-me-nots spill out across what’s left of his skin for her.
But then he sees the way Happy with his hardy cranberry flower looks at her and he lets the thought go.
She’s too good for someone like him anyways.
Too good for a wreck of a man with war in his heart.
Afghanistan comes and with it all of the horror that Tony knows will haunt him for the rest of his life.
He feels the icy burn of new flower-marks being etched across the skin of his back every time they force his head beneath the water.
Yinsen with his dignified clove flower holds a mirror for him later so he can look and see what they are.
A small ocean of yellow carnations are spread across his skin.
They echo the ‘no’ he’s been screaming in his head ever since all of this started.
He isn’t surprised in the least when his grief over Yinsen is written out across his skin.
A single marigold burns into existence, fitting naturally into the tapestry of pain Howard had left him with.
Tony builds the suit from the ground up and by the time the Mark III is ready to go he has a burst of joyous yellow roses wrapped around each ankle.
Flying is like nothing he’s ever experience before in his life and he relishes every second of it.
In hindsight Tony should have known Obi-Stane was behind it all, should have at least suspected the man with the bilberry heart-flower.
Treachery was, after all, painted across his skin.
Hemlock flows around the reactor but the flowers do little to disguise the palladium that’s worming its way through his system.
All they do is announce the death he knows is coming.
Even when he makes the new element, even when the reactor stops poisoning him and Vanko is dead, the hemlock haunts him.
Because now he think he knows just what they mean.
This, the armor, the fighting, the violence.
It’s going to kill him.
Tony doesn’t care.
He’s still forget-me-not free so he has nothing to lose.
So … it’s worth it.
Forget-me-nots spill across Pepper and Happy’s hands and when they entwine their fingers they look like one entity, one continuous ocean of blue.
A tiny cranesbill blossom etches itself into the hollow of his left wrist but Tony just rubs the burn away and ignores the way his envy’s been splashed across his skin.
Loki comes and Tony’s called to help, called to join the group he’d been deemed unsuitable for.
He meets Steve and nothing goes like he wanted it to go, nothing goes like he’d hoped it would in some distant, soft part of his heart and his mind.
Steve’s words echo in his head because in that moment Tony could swear he hears Howard laughing in the background of his mind.
He doesn’t focus on that though. Can’t. There’s too much happening, too much to do. So instead he buckles under and ignores the way the cluster of fish geraniums on his rib gains another bloom.
He’s used to it by now though, has had disappointment and broken expectations etched onto his skin for as long as he can remember.
What’s one more in the scheme of things?
He goes through a worm hole.
The cypress flowers he finds scattered across his collarbone aren’t a surprise.
He did die after all, if only for a too short moment.
It’s strange afterwards, gathering his new team together and pulling them all to stay under one roof with him.
Strange but good.
It doesn’t take long for pear flowers to dot their way down his spine, a testament to his affection for this mismatched and raggedly little family he’s somehow found himself a part of.
There’s Bruce who swears he lost his heart-flower when he gained the Hulk but Tony knows better. Bruce’s skin might be clean now but the Hulk’s isn’t. The juniper blossom that spreads itself across his great chest is a testament to how he protects Bruce even if Bruce doesn’t see it that way.
Thor’s people don’t have heart-flowers at all, which is strange and vaguely unsettling, but they all move past it when he tells them of auras and how he sees them all crowned in robes of light.
Clint has a smattering of marks, nowhere near as many as Tony does but more than a handful. His heart-flower is a hawkweed blossom and the quick-sightedness it signifies suits him so well it’s almost ridiculous.
Tony had thought Natasha would be the most difficult to deal with but she isn’t. Her red peony stands for devotion and when he sees the way she looks at Clint … well Tony finds that he isn’t that surprised at all.
Plus the matching strands of forget-me-nots they both have across their trigger fingers says a lot even if they both insist that love is for children.
In the end it’s Steve that gets to him the most, because of course it is. His black poplar flower suits him well, his courage written out across his skin. The swathes of marigolds that cover his biceps suits him far less.
The sight of his grief, his loss, makes Tony’s own stomach twist because he would take that pain from Steve if he could, would give him back his life and Bucky and all that he’s lost if it was possible.
But he can’t.
And hell, Steve probably wouldn’t accept it from him even if he could.
Six months in and Tony ignores the yellow acacia flower that blossoms across his right knee.
He doesn’t have time for a secret love.
A yellow tulip etches itself across the top of his right foot and Tony ignores that one too.
He already knew his love was hopeless because he knows that Steve will never love him back.
Steve’s got courage in his heart and grief on his arms and no interest in Tony beyond their slowly growing almost friendship and their flawless teamwork in the field.
No matter how his heart skips a beat when Steve smiles at him, no matter how Tony finds himself taking every opportunity he can find to spend time with him just for the chance that he’ll do it again. None of that matters.
Because Tony carries war in his heart and too much sorrow to ever share.
He knows better than to get his hopes up.
Forget-me-nots are not for him.
And they never will be.
Then, things change.
SHIELD falls and Steve limps back to the tower with a new friend under one arm and an old one under the other.
Sam Wilson has an osier blossom and the frankness it stands for fits him to the tee.
Bucky Barnes is the even bigger surprise even if Tony has to admit that his bluebell heart-flower is more than a bit ironic given the fact that it stands for constancy.
Still Tony takes them both in, gives them rooms in the Tower without a second thought. He wanders back down to his workshop after the introductions are done and pulls up a new folder for each of them in his project queue because they’re his now and that means he needs to make sure they’re outfitted.
The two new guys slot seamlessly into place in the Tower.
Sam gets on with Clint and Natasha like a house on fire and Tony’s never seen Steve as happy as he is when he’s with Bucky.
It hurts in an absent sort of way, the way that Steve smiles at Bucky, brighter and happier than anything Tony’s ever been able to draw out of him.
It doesn’t help that Tony can’t bring himself to hate Bucky either, can’t bring himself to dislike the guy at all. Once he’s shaken the majority of HYDRA’s programing he’s a spitfire, equal parts charming and sarcastic and right up Tony’s alley.
He seems to like Tony in turn too which is just as bad because now Bucky spends a good chunk of his free time in Tony’s workshop, playing with the bots or reading on the couch. With him comes Steve, sketchbook in hand and the smile that hasn’t left his mouth in weeks firmly in place.
They settle in like they’ve always been there and Tony just watches them out of the corner of his eye with something like disbelief and awe warring inside of him.
He’s not sure why they’re there, he just knows it’s going to hurt when they leave.
Three months later and the yellow acacia has another bloom as does the yellow tulip.
In this, as in all things, Tony’s apparently set on being outside of the norm.
Why else would he fall into a secret and hopeless love twice?
Especially with two people who so clearly love each other despite all the things that’ve passed around and between them.
There’s no room for Tony there, no room for him between the two of them.
Steve’s heart is filled with courage and Bucky’s with constancy.
There’s no room there for the war that Tony carries with him everywhere.
Thor’s back in Asgard and Sam’s out on a date but the rest of them are all settled down in the common floor’s living room when the questions Tony’s been subconsciously dreading the entire time finally get asked.
“You know we’ve all been together for a while now and I don’t think any of us have seen your heart-flower Tony.” Clint’s the one to bring it up because he’s never met a sensitive subject he didn’t like to tap dance on even by accident. “I mean we’ve seen some of your flower-marks, but you normally wear that cuff and sleeves and pants all of the time.”
“Why Birdbrain if I didn’t know better I’d think you were trying to get me to take my clothes off.” Tony tries to deflect because the last thing they need to see is what he carries on his skin.
“He’s right you know?” Steve chimes in with a small grin. “You’ve practically seen all of ours by now Tony. I don’t think we’ve even seen you in short sleeves yet.”
“Shame too,” Bucky quips in his direction, that smirk Tony’s grown to equal parts love and hate tugging at his lips, “I bet you got a real fine set of marks beneath all that silk Stark.”
“Careful Barnes or you might make me blush.” Tony kicks back in his chair, legs spread wide and deliberately nonchalant.
“SHIELD never was able to get a full accounting of your marks.” Natasha puts forth. “Used to drive Fury crazy that he couldn’t find a single person to confirm your heart-flower.”
“Ah the joys of SI’s standard water proof body paint.” Tony raises his glass in her direction. “Foiling spies and paparazzi since its inception.”
“But you do have other flower-marks besides the ones we’ve seen don’t you Tony?” It’s Bruce who asks the question.
“Sure do.” Tony answers him automatically because he’s always had a soft spot for Bruce.
“How many?” Steve cuts in.
“A lot.” Is all Tony says.
“Five?” Clint asks, brows arching when Tony shakes his head no. “Ten? Fifteen? Twenty? Fucking more than twenty?”
“Way more than that Katniss.” Tony finally admits because everyone is staring at him in surprise and interest and while he’s used to that he’s also not particularly enjoying it at the moment. “And no I’m not gonna strip down and show you so don’t even bother asking.”
“You suck Tony.” Clint’s practically pouting.
“Not for you I don’t.” Tony grins.
There’s some grumbling but eventually everyone turns back towards the movie. Everyone but Bucky and Steve.
Tony can feel their eyes on him for the rest of the night.
Two months later he steps into the kitchen for coffee and stares in something like horror at the sight of forget-me-nots spilling out over both of Steve’s hands as well as Bucky’s real one until there’s not a single spot of clear skin left to be seen.
Tony turns on his heel and goes back down to his workshop, coffee forgotten.
“Lock it down JARVIS,” he rasps.
“Of course Sir.”
Tony dry heaves over his workshop sink as mourning bride flowers burst into existence across his left ribs.
They suit him perfectly because his … affection for Bucky and Steve both is indeed an unfortunate attachment to which he has lost all.
Tony doesn’t come out for days after that. He ignores the way the team comes down one after the other and knocks on his door. He ignores the way Bucky and Steve both show up over and over again, frowns on their faces and food in hand.
Instead he just works, buries himself in upgrades and SI projects and does his best not to feel, not to think. He wields his blow torch until the sparks sting and JARVIS is practically yelling at him to put it down. Then he just picks up a hammer and beats uselessly at some scrap steel he has laying around.
Anything to keep him occupied.
Anything to keep him from remembering.
Anything to take his mind off of the fact that he’s finally, officially, lost the both of them even if he never really had them to begin with.
It doesn’t work.
He’s covered in grease and oil and God knows what else when he finally drags himself out of the lab and up to his floor and the shower JARVIS already had running for him.
He stumbles into his bathroom bleary eyed and exhausted and barely remembers to strip before he steps beneath the spray.
He scrubs absently at the oil that soaked through his shirt and onto his arms and chest and hands before he realizes that not all of it is coming off.
Until he realizes that what’s been left behind is blue.
Standing naked and clean in front of his mirror Tony stares at his body with a rapidly growing sense of horror mixed with desperation.
He’s covered in them.
The left side of his chest and down his ribs, across his back and down both of his arms. The blue flowers spread across every spare inch of skin they can find, twining amongst the other flower-marks that cover him. They come down and cover the backs of both his hands in a way he’ll never be able to hide unless he wears gloves all of the time or breaks his body paint back out again.
The only open spaces left are the blank spots on his right hip and the space high on his ribs on the left side of his chest, right below the mourning bride flowers.
Tony bites down on the inside of his cheek until he tastes blood because this … this is fucking cruel.
He finally has forget-me-nots and they’re worthless.
He finally has true love’s mark and there’s nothing he can do about them because there’s no room for him between Bucky and Steve.
Tony slides down until he’s sitting on the cold bathroom floor, buries his face in his hands, and cries.
He pulls himself back together of course.
Because, above all else, that’s what he does.
He pulls out his paint and makes sure he’s covered half way up to his elbows before he snaps his cuff back in place and then goes to get dressed.
He’s Tony Stark after all.
He has war in his heart and in his blood and bones and he can’t, won’t, let this break him.