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Before Tony’s old enough to understand what the marks mean – before his mother has his Captain America pajamas changed out for plain grey, before he learns to make sandwiches for himself, before his first electrical burn – Howard ruffles his hair and tells him good manGood man – that’s the mark of empires.

 

W

 

There’s a logic to the symbols. 

 

Everyone knows the basics – you get the date on the back of your right calf when you’re born, on the back of your left calf when you die.  You get an emblem over your heart, that will match some poor schmuck out there who’s meant to spend the rest of their life with you.  The underside of your left wrist is your destined trade, the right your best skill.

 

It makes everything pretty easy, in the grand scheme of things.  You’ve got your life mapped out for you from the second you’re born, only – Tony has the alchemical symbol for creation on his right wrist, the Norse rune for war on his left.  From the second he was born he’s been a conquerer, destroyer, I am become death –

 

There are some marks that aren’t so easy.

 

Almost everyone has a few extra symbols littered across their body, down their spines or behind their ears or between their fingers or on the insides of their thighs.  Tony has six, and a messy scar from a third-degree burn.

 

W

 

He’s never really had a lot of hope – it was trained out of him at an early age.

 

But right now, he’s hoping.  He’s sixteen and he’s pressed between the kitchen counter and his best friend, his hands sunk deep in the warm, comfy depths of Rhodey’s MIT sweatshirt, the muffled sounds of a party winding down outside the room, and he’s never felt so safe, open lips accepting short kisses, and he’s smiling, and he’s hoping. 

 

It’s a small, painful spark in his chest, that this is something he could actually have, and then Rhodey reaches for the hem of his sweatshirt, gathers up his t-shirt with it, and it’s a kick-gut-lurch of anticipation, and –

 

W

 

“Throw it up on the big screen, Fry,” Tony says.  There’s a long beat of silence, so he prods, “Friday.”

 

He thinks he must have accidentally programmed her with double JARVIS’ stubbornness.  A slip of the hand, or a few hundred drunken lines of code, or something.  “Are you sure, boss?” Friday asks.  “It’s kinda – “

 

“Play the video,” Tony orders. 

 

He’s not in the tower in New York, or in the base in New Jersey.  He’s not in Malibu, either, or at the lodge in Denver.  No – he’s holed up in a bungalow on an island that no one knows he owns, that there’s no record of, the safest place in the world, because he’s a coward, and if there’s one thing he’s good at it’s hiding.

 

A gentle breeze breathes in off the beach, carrying the sound of lapping waves.  Tony’s barefoot and bare-chested, marks bared to the world for the first time in ages, and he pulls his legs up to his chest, knees protesting quietly, to watch.

 

Friday projects a double-size holo rendering the video in the air in front of him, just like he asked.

 

Steve appears, almost real, frozen for a moment while the video buffers.  He’s sitting, in a clean black sweater, and behind him, a modern window looks out over wild expanses of jungle, roiling for as far as the eye can see.  CNN’s logo hovers in the lower corner, stays still even as Steve finishes loading and jolts into motion with a smile.

 

I guess I just wanted to tell the world what really happened,” he says.  Tony knows he’s talking to a reporter, the reporter T’Challa bussed halfway around the world blindfolded to interview the rogue legends he’s housing.  “I mean, why I did what I did.  Why I still think what I did was the right thing.”

 

Tony’s already read the transcripts for this, but he’s not stupid enough to think seeing it won’t hurt more.

 

W

 

“I can’t, Tony,” Pepper says to him, after years

 

He should get off the bed, shouldn’t he.  He should get off the bed, and wrap his arms around her, smooth out the worried lines in her forehead, tell her everything is going to be okay.  Tell her she can leave him, that it’s okay – or tell her to stay, beg her to stay, because his skin feels cold without her and his –

 

His sweatpants are pulled down half over his hips, he’s still got one leg up like she’s leaning against it, his hair is mussed up and stuck in every direction, she’s just getting further away while she talks, in his shirt, eyes red, crying.

 

“Pep,” he says, pathetically.  “Babe, come on – you always knew – “

 

“I can’t, Tony,” she says.  She looks down, and her expression goes solemn.  “I – I think I met him.  And I can’t keep doing this, trying to make this work with you, not when I know there’s a man out there who’s going to treat me like I deserve, who’s going to love me unconditionally, not when I know you can’t – “

 

W

 

The double-headed eagle.  Empire, his father tells him, but he does some of his own research.  He finds No age shall destroy it, which makes no sense, and I shall hold myself erect and not blink, which does.

 

W

 

“I’m still getting used to all this instant media stuff,” Steve tells the reporter, bashfully.  “Infinite transparency, right? Well, I figure it’s the best way to get the word out.”  Tony watches him lead them through the halls of the Wakandan palace, shoulders stiff and uncomfortable like they always are when he’s being filmed. 

 

They turn into a room.  “I know a lot of people think I betrayed my country,” Steve says.  “Honestly, I don’t blame them.  I can see how it would look that way.”  Alone on an island in the middle of the ocean, Tony snorts.  “But I did it for a damn good reason.”  He turns to face the camera, at attention.  “That reason’s name is Bucky Barnes.”

 

The camera pans out, like the operator has been told what to do, which he probably has.  Next to him is a capsule, and inside, Bucky is in stasis, expression frozen in stoicism, subtle anger.  On his chest is –

 

You see,” Steve says, still painfully sincere, every inch the American myth, “Bucky’s my soulmate.”  He pulls down the collar of his shirt, and there it is.  The double-headed eagle.

 

Tony feels a sharp twinge of some emotion in his throat, and swallows it down.  “Turn it off, Fry.”

 

W

 

Tony’s back stateside six months later, when America welcomes back her heroes.  There’s a big to-do, soldiers lined up on the tarmac at Dulles, flags flying proud.  Bucky has been pardoned by the president himself, and he’s actually smiling as he steps off the plane, honest-to-god smiling, and Tony’s only ever touched him to hurt him but he knows it’s rare.

 

Friday streams it for him in his workshop in Malibu.  He gets a phonecall during coverage – Wanda, from the reconstruction site that is Avengers Tower, asking if Steve and Bucky can come back to stay.  He says yes, because there’s really nothing else to say, is there. 

 

This is what he gets for trying to do the right thing, he guesses.  Makes sense.  Whatever you do, if you’re going against Captain fucking America – you’re the bad guy.  He’s the bad guy, again.

 

W

 

Double-headed eagle, and he always figured that one was easy.  There would be two of them, one in the same.  And there are two of them, and they’re one in the same, and he’s branded, he belongs to them, but they don’t belong to him.

 

W

 

Tony and Yinsen run out of harmless things to talk about pretty fast.  It’s not like they’re living in a harmless environment, anyways – and Tony’s out of practice, but he’s got no problem opening up to the man who saved his life by wiring his heart to a magnet to a car battery, who doesn’t give a shit who he is outside this cave. 

 

“You’ve got quite the collection,” Yinsen says.  They’re huddled around the fire, stainless steel cups in their hands, sipping hot water that’s not quite tea, tastes like dirt.  “I noticed, on your left leg.”

 

Tony pulls up his pant leg, even though it leaves the skin exposed to the biting desert night.  “Yeah,” he says.  He tilts his calf, so he can see the stack of dates on the back, nearly to the joint.  “I guess this whole mark thing is kinda flawed after all, huh? It doesn’t actually know when you die, just when your heart stops.”

 

He hasn’t even thought to look at it in the past months.  There’s a new line of dates, three on the same day, and then spread further apart, six in total, all in March 2008.  “You have led an interesting life,” Yinsen says.

 

Tony smiles, “We all lead interesting lives.  I’ve just had some interesting deaths, too.”

 

W

 

Eventually, they need him, so he goes back.  He’s never been one for leaps of faith, but somehow it doesn’t even feel like one, to let them guard his back again, to trust them with that.  The team takes a few hits, they come out the other end a little worse for wear, but they do come out, and later, when they’re bruised and battered in the chaotic aftermath –

 

Natasha comes up to him.  She knocks on his faceplate, and he pulls it away, so she can lean forward and press a kiss to his oil-smeared forehead. “Antoshka,” she murmurs, so only he can hear.  “Some things are bigger than life and death.”

 

He doesn’t understand, but then she climbs past him up the ramp into the quinjet, and there’s Steve, Steve, head hung and hands clasped behind his back, and Tony knows him, he’s died for this man, nearly been killed by this man, he doesn’t know how he didn’t see it before, now it’s the clearest thing in the world –

 

Everything comes back to Steve. 

 

W

 

Tony meets the new kid on the block, and he likes him.

 

Doctor Strange, he calls himself.  Tony prefers to call him weirdo, but then Strange shows him the whole dimension-hopping thing, and he gains a modicum of respect, and starts to call him Houdini instead.  It takes a few hours of intense panic, but eventually he understands that this is all some strange permutation of science, and it’s a relief.

 

Strange shows Tony his wrists – marked in clean black, just like everyone’s, the right with a pagan symbol for life and the right with the druid for magician.  “Magician and doctor are the same word in Anglo-Saxon,” Strange explains.  Tony’s too focused on the fucking teleporting windows in front of them to really hear him.

 

“The marks are our fault, actually,” Strange admits, and Tony does look up at that.  

 

“How old are you?” he asks, and Strange scowls.

 

“I’m no older than you, Stark,” he says.  “No, I mean – I had nothing to do with it, but the Ancient One did.  During the Han dynasty, a few practitioners got sloppy closing an inter-dimensional portal, and tore at the barrier between our world and that one.  The side effect of the mistake were the marks – they’re a sort of vestige of that other world.”

 

“Right,” Tony says.  He feels like he’s grasping all this much slower than he should be, even though he only met Strange by accident maybe four hours ago.  “So, in that dimension – people had their lives written on their skin.”

 

“Exactly,” Strange says, “and now we do, too.  One simple mistake two thousand years ago, and we are all of us cursed to be reduced to our base elements.”  Tony would have put it more like we are all fucked, but.

 

W

 

Not all of the symbols make sense when he’s a kid. 

 

There’s a lotus flower at the base of his spine, floating above the muddy waters of attachment and desire.  On the sole of his foot there’s a circle with a dot in it.  The engineering shorthand for a Ferrite bead, a device that chokes off sound, is on the back of his right elbow.  Behind one ear, there’s an infinity symbol, for math or stubbornness or something.

 

There’s a star on the inside of each of his knees.  On his left hip, there’s a scar.

 

W

 

The others forgive him, but it’s a process.  The one time in his life he tries to play by the rules, and this is what he gets.  Clint watching him warily over an omelet, Wanda moving to stand in front of Vision every time he walks in a room, and he knows it’s subconscious but how she could believe he would ever hurt what’s left of JARVIS –

 

Steve is still stiff and tense around him.  Tony remembers him happy, remembers him in a Star Wars t-shirt the morning after a marathon, remembers him smiling through a black eye that’s already fading away, remembers him easy and loose in Tony’s home, in their home, remembers talking strategy and baseball and nothing at all at two a.m.

 

Or maybe that wasn’t Steve happy.  Maybe that was Steve getting by with what he had, and maybe this is Steve happy now – unshaven and mussed and kissing Bucky good-morning and warm and inviting and farther away from Tony than he’s ever been, even when he was in the ice, even when Tony didn’t know he existed.

 

He bends over the suit with a blowtorch, the heat of the blue flame too-close in his face, and he thinks, maybe it would be easier.  If I had no one.  But then he remembers I already have no one.

 

W

 

He has Rhodey, and he’ll always have Rhodey.

 

Once upon a time, he wanted Rhodey to be the one.  He wanted to force it, but he was young and stupid and drunk most of the time, and he gets it now.  Rhodey was never his, because Rhodey doesn’t need to be his, doesn’t need destiny to make him come when Tony calls, to catch him when he falls.  Tony thinks that lack of obligation is infinitely better.

 

W

 

There’s more on his body than just the marks.  There’s the scar where the arc reactor used to be, raised and ugly.  There are a few thin white lines across his shoulders, from Howard’s belt.  There’s a tattoo, on his bicep.

 

W

 

Tony is beginning to think he would have betrayed America for Bucky, too.

 

Warming up to him is a slow process.  Just because Tony’s fated to live his life in fealty to the guy doesn’t mean he has to like replacing the mirror in his bathroom over and over again, after it’s shattered, doesn’t mean he has to like seeing his hands on Steve, Steve’s hands on him, seeing two lifetimes of devotion that will never overlap with his.

 

But Bucky comes down to the lab.  He knocks on the glass, with his human hand.  “Let him in, Fry,” Tony says.

 

“Gotcha, boss,” she answers, and the door unlocks and slides open.  Bucky’s wearing one of Steve’s t-shirts, and a pair of track pants, hair pulled back but not fully away from his face, and Tony thinks gorgeous. 

 

“As I remember, you Starks are pretty handy with a screwdriver,” Bucky says by way of greeting, stilted.  “My arm’s not quite workin’ right, I was hopin’ you could take a look at it.”

 

“Yeah, sure,” Tony waves him over.  “Hop up, take a seat.”  Bucky climbs up onto the work table, shrugs out of his hoodie, and Tony’s supposed to be looking at his arm, but instead his eyes are caught on the edge of the black mark on his chest, just barely peeking out from behind the collar of his t-shirt.  “What’s the problem?”

 

Bucky moves the arm, and it makes a faint grinding sound.  “It’s slow.  I think it’s rusty or somethin’.”

 

“Friday,” Tony says.  She scans the arm, and then sticks a 3D holo around it, so Tony can see the inner workings without actually taking Bucky’s arm apart.  “Nope, not rust,” he says.  “Looks like there are some easy-wear parts in here.  They must’ve replaced them whenever you were under.” 

 

He dashes the holo away with his hand, and looks back up at Bucky.  “I can replace the parts, or we can do a full overhaul.”  And he knows, logically, that he’s looking into the eyes of his parents’ killer, but it doesn’t feel like it, doesn’t feel like this guy could ever possibly be the same cold-blooded murderer who smashed Howard’s brains against the road.

 

Logically, he knows it isn’t.  It’s Bucky, not the brainwashed assassin who borrowed his face.

 

Bucky’s moving the arm around.  He reaches across and runs his thumb around the edges of the red star.  “Okay,” he says.  “I think it’s abou time for an overhaul.  New millennium, and all that jazz.”

 

W

 

Before Tony’s smart enough to figure out who Steve is to him – before he knows Bucky exists, before he makes the biggest mistake of his life, before he knows for absolute certain that he’s fucked up beyond all hope of redemption – Steve holds his hand in a hospital room and says don’t do that.  Don’t do that, Tony.  We fight as a team, die as a team.

 

W

 

A cave in Afghanistan, and Tony says, “I don’t want to die alone.  Not for real.”

 

Yinsen smiles, takes a sip of hot-dirt-tea-water.  “We all die alone, Tony.  We live together.”

 

W

 

Tony forgets about the double-headed eagle sometimes, but it’s the little things that make him remember.

 

Bucky stripping out of his shirt in a field hospital, because the whole world already knows his mark – unaware that he’s bearing Tony’s heart to the world with his.  Later, olding an icepack to Steve’s broken wrist on the couch and saying, “You gotta stop favorin’ your left side, dollface, you’re takin’ a beating out there.”

 

Steve saying back, “I can do this all day.”  Steve tucking Bucky’s hair behind his hair and looking at him like he’s the most amazing thing in the world, like he hung the moon, and the awful thing is Tony agrees, with both of them, but it still gets to him – Steve, pressing a kiss to Bucky’s metal palm and leading him to the bedroom.

 

Tony, lying awake alone.  Tony, floating above attachment and desire, but not really.

 

He wants them to be happy, always.  But sometimes, he wants to be happy, too.

 

W

 

He adds another date to his left calf, in the crease behind his knee.  7/7/17.  He’s fuzzy on what actually happened, but he remembers Bucky falling off the wing of a 747, remembers swerving to avoid a heat-seeking missile, remembers passing Bucky off to Vision, dropping into a dive to try and shake the thing while it was closing in.

 

He remembers panicked voices over comms, Steve’s and Bucky’s.

 

After that, all there is is waking up.  Everything hurts, and everything smells bright-white, like a hospital room.  The first thing he sees is Bucky, slumped in a chair against the far wall.  The first thing he feels is Steve’s hand in his, strong and steady even though the man himself is dozing against Tony’s hip.

 

It’s dark outside, which means he’s been out for at least eight hours.  Someone moves in the door.  It’s Natasha, in yoga pants and a jacket, hair piled up in a bun.  “Stark,” she says.  It must not have been too bad – no Antoshka.  “You scared us back there.  You need to quit this habit of falling out of the sky.”

 

“But it’s so exhilirating,” Tony returns.

 

Natasha smiles.  Sometimes, Tony thinks she’s his friend.  There’s a long momet of silence, and she says, “You should tell them.”  At his blank look, she presses her hand over her heart, and – Tony has heard rumors, that her skin is blank, that she killed her other half, but he doesn’t believe them.  “They deserve to know, don’t you think?”

 

He’s not sure how she knows.  But he looks at the sleeping supersoldiers in his hospital room, thinks of going to bed safe and surrounded and waking up when it’s already light out, when the first pot of coffee is already cold, waking up to Steve’s bedhead and the body-warmed metal of Bucky’s prosthetic hand, waking up whole

 

“They’ve been together for ninety years, Nat,” he says.  “They’re practically married.  There’s no room for me.”

 

W

 

The double-headed eagle makes sense.  Yeah, it’s I shall hold myself erect and not blink, but it’s also an eagle, it’s Steve’s love for his country, it’s Bucky’s yearning for freedom, it’s both of them and it’s Tony, too.

 

W

 

While Tony’s broken leg is healing, they sit Bucky down for Star Wars. 

 

Tony has taken the modern education of these two dinosaurs on as a personal project, and while Steve’s improved greatly since he was thawed, Bucky hasn’t had much time yet to catch up, what with the fugitive lifestyle. 

 

They settle on the couch, and he tries to go for the armchair, but Bucky says, “There’s room over here, doll.”

 

W

 

There’s a logic to it all. 

 

Tony gets fucked over with regularity, because that’s the way it’s always been.  Mathematically, he tells himself, the good outcomes are the exception, not the rule.  Nothing that seems good stays good forever, your partner pulls your heart out of your chest, your girl leaves you after everything, your father comes looking for the flaw in your design.

 

Your soulmates go off and get married.

 

There’s a logic to it all, because logic is something you can use to pull yourself up off the bathroom floor, logic is cold and hard and tangible like the tiles, like the tumbler of bourbon in your hand, the one you’re using to quell the nausea, to stop the room from spinning, and you wish it were true – you wish your life were true, but it’s a lie in black ink.

 

W

 

Building drunk, welding drunk, he hasn’t slept in days but he can’t, not when he knows they’re seven floors up, in bed, enjoying the honeymoon, so he’s – hammering drunk, millimeters from his fingers, synthesizing materials drunk.

 

He blows something up, and blows himself back through a glass wall.  It’s loud, but no one comes running.

 

W

 

Picking the glass out of his skin sobers him up.  He wanders upstairs, bandaids on his hands and face and neck, his pants rolled up so he could swab his ankles with antiseptic.  There’s a fresh pot of coffee, and he drinks it black.

 

Friday tries to warn him with a, Boss, incoming,” but it’s too late.  There are footsteps in the living room, and then Steve and Bucky climb the steps to the kitchen.  Bucky’s got a shirt on, but Steve doesn’t, and Tony’s eyes catch on his mark, catch on the quickly-fading love bites that surround it. 

 

Steve’s smiling, almost like he can’t help it, a small, honest thing.  Tony doesn’t know why it still hurts – it shouldn’t, shouldn’t hurt more than the hundreds of tiny cuts in his skin, but.  But.

 

Hey – “ Steve says, as soon as he sees Tony.  “What happened to you?”

 

Tony takes a gulp of coffee, scalding.  “Got in a fight with an alleycat,” he says, dismissive.  “Nasty critter.”

 

Steve comes around the counter and picks up one of Tony’s hands, Bucky hot on his heels.  “What the – “ he mutters, and Tony has half a mind to yank his hand away, but he can’t, not when it’s Steve, and he didn’t have enough bandaids downstairs to really cover everything.  “Tony, what – “

 

“Minor accident,” Tony cuts him off, shortly.  “You know, kaboom.  Turns out my bulletproof glass wall is not quite explosion-propelled-billionaire proof.”  He does pull his hand away, then.  “The bots are cleaning it up, no worries.”

 

But Steve is still looking at him with those eyes, and Bucky is staring down at Tony’s rolled-up pants for some reason.  The coffee is starting to kick in, so Tony has more energy to babble on, “It’s just how science works, guys.  Gotta blow shit up to figure out how not to blow shit up – “

 

“Tony,” Bucky says.  He crouches, and Tony stiffens, watches him.  Bucky hooks his fingers under the cuff of Tony’s pants, and pulls them up carefully, away from the his left calf.  “What’s all this?”

 

Fuck.  That’s what three days without sleep will do to your mental processes, leaving that in the open.  “You know what they are,” he says, because Bucky may be from the 1940s but he’s not from before marks existed.  “Death dates.”

 

Bucky makes a small noise in the back of his throat.  “How many are there?” he asks. 

 

Tony steps away from him, even as Steve steps forward, closer to him.  “Don’t know,” he says, and there’s that noise again.  “Stopped counting somewhere around 2008.  The car battery wasn’t super reliable.” 

 

W

 

Tony tilts his face up into the shower spray, and thinks of gold wedding bands.  His hand shakes.

 

He hears Howard.  You’ve got death on your skin, boy. 

 

W

 

There are days he thinks he should have kept Iron Man a secret. 

 

He’s not just a hero, he’s a debate.  His chosen trade is war, for fuck’s sake, and he knows no matter what he does that mark will never change, will never turn into peace.  The media used to call him irresponsible, a war dog, a playboy, womanizer, but now they call him a danger, a liability, the bad seed

 

He’s the bad guy, and the bad guy doesn’t get the happy ending.  The bad guy gets kidnapped in Bolivia.

 

The weak link, they call him.  They’re surprised when he’s silent, through the waterboarding.  They switch to electricity, and he screams for that, screams himself ragged, but doesn’t say anything.

 

Tony had a business trip.  The rest of the team is in Asgard, but Tony had a business trip, so he didn’t go.  Nine days in, he makes his escape.  It’s sloppy – he pulls a the barb out of one of the wires, burns his fingers to shit, picks the lock while the guards are asleep, pulls himself up out of the basement window into the jungle. 

 

The underbrush tears at his legs, the noises of a thousand different animals singing in the jungle around him, and he hasn’t eaten in more than a week, he can see his ribs, his muscles are liquid, but he runs, and then he hears people running after him, and then he crashes to the ground and pulls himself up and they’re closing –

 

Suddenly, there’s a portal in front of him, one of Strange’s.  He falls through it, and hits a cold tile floor.

 

W

 

He makes it through a cup of coffee, a shot of vodka, and a cheeseburger.  Then he passes out on the couch.

 

Pepper and Happy will come by when they hear he’s back, Tony thinks.  He dozes off with his face in the pillow, midday light bright outside, and when he starts to blink awake, it’s dark, and the TV is on.  There’s a hand on his back, and one in his hair, and he feels oddly safe and surrounded. 

 

Tony drifts, not quite awake.  The crisp, businesslike voice of the news anchor is foggy in his ears.  “It’s been ten days since Tony Stark’s plane went down in the Bolivian rainforest, and we have word now from Stark Industries CEO – “

 

“Turn it off, Fry,” he mumbles.  The room goes silent. 

 

The hand on his back tightens, pulling his shirt into a fist.  “Tony,” says Steve, a rumble.

 

Tony sits up, and both their hands fall away.  Bucky’s watching him steadily, like he understands, like he actually sees and he doesn’t want to look away, so Tony stands up.  His legs are still shaky, but he’s not going to admit that, just like he’s not going to admit that he feels cold without them.  “One of the least organized kidnappings I’ve seen,” he says.

 

“Who were they?” Steve asks, that glint of steely bloodlust in his voice that means someone threatened his team.

 

“No one,” Tony says.  “Just some jungle rebels, minor leagues.  Wanted me to build them a couple of Jerichos.  Guess they didn’t get the memo they were off the market.”  He’s backing towards the door, off to go hide.

 

“Tony,” Bucky growls, and his tone stops Tony short, because it sounds dangerous.  He meets Bucky’s eyes, and his gut lurches, in anticipation or fear or what.  “Come to bed.”

 

Tony opens his mouth to say no, and stops.  He wants to, he wants to go with them, god does he want to.  But he knows that’s not what Bucky means, he doesn’t mean him and Steve pressing Tony down into the mattress and sucking him senesless, he doesn’t mean you’re ours, he means go to bed.  Go to bed, Tony.  You need your rest.

 

“No,” he says, after that long minute.  “I’ve had worse, okay.”  He turns away.  “I’m gonna go – work.”

 

W

 

You wish it were true, we live together.  But we live alone and we die alone.

 

You’ve died alone twenty-three times.  You’ve lived alone forty-one years.

 

W

 

When you’re a kid, you think about what your soulmate will be like.  You dream it will be Captain America, even after your mother takes your Captain America pajamas away.  You dream of vivid technicolor and taking on the world side by side, you dream they’ll be a great warrior, someone who can take you away from the world, past it.

 

Your father tells you love is a sham.  Science, though.  Science is real.

 

W

 

You’re seventeen, and Obie’s standing harbinger-doom outside your dorm when you get home.  You’re eighteen, and Obie’s grinning while you sign the papers, saying the empire’s yours now, kid. 

 

You’re twenty, twenty-five, twenty-seven, thirty, sleeping your way through Los Angeles, New York, London, Tokyo, not because you’re trying to find someone but because you’re trying very hard not to.

 

You’re thirty-six.  Yinsen is sleeping a few feet away, and you’re biting down on a strap of leather, holding a blowtorch under the metal head of a mallet, shirts pulled away from your hip, flashes of destruction behind your wet stinging eyes and your name on all of it, your name on death and death’s name on you, and you want it off.

 

You’re thirty-eight, staring down your childhood hero, hearing you’re not the one to make the sacrafice play, feeling nothing but radiating waves of disdain, and you don’t have a lot of hope but if not even he can find a vantage point to love you from, what does that make you.  What does that make you.

 

W

 

Steve brings a slightly burnt grilled cheese down to the lab.  “Sorry,” he says.  “I’m still getting used to the electric stove.”

 

Ever since Pepper left, no one really bugs Tony to eat.  But in the same day, Bucky brings him a bowl of rice pilaf with beef, much more expertly-prepared than Steve’s grilled cheese, and says, “Don’t think we don’t notice you getting thinner, doll.”  He sets the bowl down.  “I remember eating this in Kazakhstan.  It was good.”

 

W

 

What ends it all is a stupid mistake. 

 

Friday’s voice almost sounds tired.  Tony doesn’t blame her – the sun’s starting to come up outside, for the second time since he started this find the infinity stone marathon.  “The problem’s on the roof, boss.  One of the transformers in the high-altitude gamma sensor shorted, it’s gonna take a manual fix.”

 

Tony grabs a screwdriver, a blowtorch, and an extra fuse.  “Where’s the break, Fry?”

 

“Second block, third circuit,” Friday answers.  “There’s a drizzle starting up.”

 

“We’re waterproof,” Tony quips.  Friday starts to say something about a raincoat, but he’s already in the elevator.  He walks through the spacious living room, goes out a keypad-locked door that leads to a staircase, climbs the staircase through the secondary-backup security tower, and pushes out the hatch onto the roof.

 

There’s a blurred bleed of pale grey light on the horizon, and a warm, steady rain falling from the sky.  The transformer is an easy fix, but by the time Tony is done, his shirt is soaked through, hair plastered down to his scalp. 

 

He doesn’t think about it.  He just drops back inside, descends the stairs, and pushes through the door into the living room.  But – there’s a fizzing sound, like something cooking, and when he rounds the corner out of the hall, Bucky is at the stove, eggs in a pan, Steve bent over the morning paper at the counter. 

 

They hear him – of course they hear him, they’re fucking supersoldiers – they hear him, and they look up, and freeze. 

 

Tony gives them a lopsided smile, and says, “Morning, guys.  Crack of dawn, huh?”

 

Neither of them so much as move, the eggs still sizzling in the pan.  Steve puts the paper down, slowly, and Bucky reaches over to turn off the stove, and Tony’s lethargic but he’s still a genius, and he follows their gazes, and – oh.

 

His t-shirt is white.  His t-shirt is white, and fucking soaked through

 

W

 

Months later, he’ll tell them:

 

It made sense that I was born to be alone.  I’m the bad guy, I’m no good.

 

He won’t ever say:

 

There are these two nightmares that I have over and over.  In the first one, I’m drifting down through space, and the portal closes.  I don’t make it in time.  Sometimes it feels like it goes on for hours, while I asphyxiate.  In the second one, we’re all there, somewhere awful, and we’re all dead.  I think the second one is scarier. 

 

W

 

The fabric is transparent, clinging to his skin. 

 

He doesn’t know what to say, but he has to say something, because the silence is worse, so he says, “Fuck.”  There’s a clatter – it’s Bucky, moving the pan off the stove before the eggs burn.  “Okay,” he says.  “Just listen – “

 

“You’re not talkin’ your way outta this one,” Bucky says.  Tony swallows.  He doesn’t look at Steve, doesn’t want to see that disdain back again, feel that same gutting disappointment – just keep shis eyes on Bucky as he eases towards him across the kitchen, in pajama pants and comfy and – stop.  Stop.  “You’ve got our mark, Tony.”

 

Bucky’s in his airspace, too close for Tony to trust himself.  He hears Steve’s chair scrape back, hears him ask, “Why didn’t you tell us?” He sounds hurt, and already, two seconds out the gate, Tony’s fucked this all up.  

 

“Why would I ever do that?” Tony returns, waspish.  “What good would come out of – yes, hi, my two happily-married friends, I know you’ve been in epic love since before I was born, but – “

 

Bucky’s metal fingers skim along his jaw, into his hair.  “Doll,” he rumbles, “I don’t think you’re gettin’ it.”  He drags his thumb across Tony’s cheek, through rainwater, at the same time Tony feels a hand on his waist, big and warm.  “Me and Stevie, we’ve been unfinished for ninety years, and you’re the missin’ piece.”

 

Tony’s about to say bullshit, but then Steve’s lips are on his neck, he feels more than hears Steve say, “Tony,” broken, and he’s a solid mass at Tony’s back but he doesn’t know whether to lean back or forward, into Bucky – Bucky, who’s smiling as he kisses Tony, swallowing Tony’s whimper, both of them pressed against him –

 

W

 

He’s got stars on the insides of his knees, and Bucky and Steve have each got a star on the left, and a geometric shape that looks an awful lot like an arc reactor on the right.  Steve doesn’t have any death dates, but Bucky has a handful, one from the forties and one from the fifties and two from the eighties.

 

Steve sucks gentle kisses up his side, moves to his elbow.  “What’s this one?” his lips move against Tony’s skin. 

 

“Silence.”  And as Bucky extracts his foot from the sheets to look at the sole, “No clue about that one.”

 

Steve rolls over onto the bed, so he can pull Tony back against him.  He brushes his fingers over Tony’s bicep, while Bucky starts making his way up Tony’s legs, tantalizingly slow.  “What’s about this?”

 

“That one’s a tattoo,” he says.  “Molecular structure of iron.”  Bucky’s sucking a bruise into one of the stars, and Tony lets his legs fall open, still boneless after everything.  “I wanted to have something on my skin that I chose.”

 

Everything is hazy, but Tony fights to keep his eyes open, because he’s pretty sure the second he lets the motion of Steve’s breathing at his back lull him to sleep, he’s going to wake up alone on the couch in the lab. 

 

Bucky reaches his hip, and slows.  “Is this a burn scar?”

 

“Yeah,” Tony says.  “There used to be death there, but I got rid of it.”  He regrets it as soon as he says it, expects Steve to shove him away and Bucky to recoil, these two eagles, but Steve’s arms only tighten around him and Bucky only presses a tender kiss to the warped skin and the sky only keeps lightening, turning sunrise-orange outside.

 

W

 

Truth and honor, Steve says it means, but that’s not Tony.  Maybe it’s not Bucky, either.

 

No age shall destroy it, that one makes sense.  Ninety years, and they’re still twenty-five. 

 

I shall hold myself erect and not blink, and that’s – yeah.  That’s the one.