The Words first appeared when Tony turned nine. They weren't in any very obvious place. In fact, his could be easily hidden by wearing a shirt. The Words were laid over his chest, over his heart, and he could only read them a little more easily if he stood in front of a mirror. Of course, with his genius intellect, reading it upside down wasn't much of a chore either.
By then, despite his young age, he'd learnt all about The Words and the concept of soulmates that The Words seemed to suggest. He was an early bloomer, at least from all the information he'd read. The Words usually appeared when a child hit puberty around eleven years old and upwards. But he'd always been ahead of the class, so perhaps, this wasn't so surprising.
When he read them, locking himself in his bathroom to do so, he felt his young but already battered heart break a little more.
Yes, they were the last words he would ever hear from his soulmate directed towards him. Yes, he wouldn't know for certain who his soulmate was until then. Yes, he'd long thought the concept of soulmates in his world was more than a little screwy… but…
But surely, there were words far better to hear than what he had, weren't there?
It didn't take him long to decide to forget about this. It wasn't even like this was new. He'd grown up used to being left alone, to being abandoned and forgotten. It almost made sense that even his soulmate, the one person who was supposed to accept all of him, would also leave him right at the very end.
So Tony curled up in his bed, lying on his side to face the wall that bore his favorite Captain America poster.
He would be okay. He'd never quite thought soulmates were all that they were cracked up to be anyway. Besides, he had Cap to keep him company… and that was more tangible than any of this soulmate stuff.
Eventually, Jarvis found out about The Words. He'd only asked about them once, in his kindly way, if Young Master Anthony would like to talk about it?
When Tony had replied in the negative, Jarvis hadn't pressed. Instead, his dearest butler had proceeded to make his favorite blueberry pancakes for breakfast for a week straight.
Tony did hear, one night, when he was supposed to be asleep, Jarvis murmuring, "You'll find someone for you, Young Master," before a kiss was pressed to his forehead.
As the years passed, he barely thought about his words, having decided long ago to not dwell on them. That way only lay heartache. When he'd figured it out enough, he even created a synthetic skin to cover up the words. So it was only on the particularly bad nights, when he would recall them and it would just further the cycle of his self-deprecation.
He didn't like the bad nights. He also didn't like how he ended up going down Howard's route: down the bottle. But he had to admit, the old man was on to something: it was effective.
In MIT, Rhodey eventually found out about them. Living in as close quarters as they did, it was probably bound to happen sooner or later. He was ever so glad that it was Rhodey, and not someone else, who saw them.
"Whoever your soulmate is, they don't deserve you."
That was what Rhodey said as he held Tony in a tight, tight hug.
That was also the last they ever spoke of it.
There were reasons why Rhodey was his best friend, and would be, for the rest of his life.
When Afghanistan happened, Yinsen was, thankfully, the only other person to see his words. He had to have seen them, since he'd operated on him. Yinsen had never made a mention of it, but sometimes, Tony felt that Yinsen gave him particularly pitying looks whenever he thought Tony wasn't looking.
(He was also pretty sure his captors hadn't seen them, because he was sure they'd have used it taunt and torture him.)
The upside to having an electromagnet in his chest, and later the arc reactor, though, was that the words didn't quite appear again. He could see fragments of it, the odd tail of a letter peeking out from behind the circular object lodged in his chest. But the full sentences weren't visible.
If Tony was being honest, Afghanistan didn't just give him Iron Man. It also gave him freedom from those words.
Following his near-death experience via palladium poisoning, he thought that perhaps his life would finally become just a little bit more normal. For his definition of normal, anyway. But no, it turned out that that was not to be the case.
Aliens were real and they weren't all friendly. Plus, it seemed that Captain America could survive an ice nap that spanned seventy years. The part of him that was still a huge Captain America fanboy was doing a mad dance in jubilation at finally meeting his hero in the flesh. The rest of him, cynical and jaded him, didn't really think much of it, and predictably, they got on each other's nerves.
Because he was Tony Stark and he got onto everyone's nerves.
It was just kind of interesting how fast it escalated with one Steven Rogers, even if some of the blame lay with the dastardly scepter of mindfuckery.
At the end of the whole debacle though, he had to conclude that Rogers, that Steve was pretty much as good as the history books said. As good as Howard had always claimed him to be. He wouldn't quite call them friends yet, not so soon in the aftermath of the Chitauri. But he could envision them getting there.
If it made his heart flip, he attributed it to that tiny (so tiny, truly) part of him that was still a big fan of Cap.
After Killian and after deciding to get the arc reactor removed, Tony made up his mind to show Pepper the words. They may not be soulmates, or they may be (he didn't think so; the words didn't sound like Pepper)… But he decided that he would be honest with her.
Despite the decision being made, it still took a while for him to actually do it.
With the removal of the arc reactor, the words were finally back in all their glory on the skin over his heart. They were still, after all this time, surprisingly difficult to look at. It made it even more difficult to muster up the courage to let Pepper see them. When he finally did show it to her…
Well, there was a reason why Pepper was, hands down, the best.
(It was also exactly why he never really deserved to have her.)
If only it didn't go to shit so soon afterwards with the collapse of SHIELD and having to step up to gather back all the scattered Avengers. But if wishes were horses, or for it to be more suited to his tastes, AIs… well, there was no use crying over it now.
In helping to clean up SHIELD's mess, it meant that he'd had to go back on his word to Pepper about Iron Man. After having had a taste of using the armor for herself, she had been more understanding about his need to have the Iron Man armor, about how much he enjoyed the thrill and freedom the armor gave him.
But ultimately, Pepper was still not comfortable with wondering day in, day out about whether he would come back alive or not. He didn't blame her, and they were still friends, though things were just that shade of awkward right now. In time, he knew they would recover their original dynamic, and even if they were no longer a couple, he knew that he could never survive that having her in his life in some way.
That was more than he could say about whoever his soulmate was.
In the end, clarity came to him in the direst of moments.
Such as when he was being pummelled to the ground by two supersoldiers.
It was strange, but interesting. Apparently, such was the way his mind (his life) worked.
It dawned on him, that perhaps, somehow, he should've seen this coming. Because while he and Steve had become friends over the course of two major save-the-world-from-supervillains battles, this friendship was still new.
It especially paled in comparison to a friendship that spanned an entire lifetime, a friendship solidified in the back alleys of Brooklyn back during the Great Depression, a friendship forged in the fires of battling HYDRA in World War II, and especially, a friendship that survived over seventy years of brainwashing on one party's part.
Tony Stark never sought to replace one James Buchanan Barnes as Steven Roger's best friend. But it still hurt all the same, but peculiarly, a lot more than he'd expected, when they ended up on opposing sides.
He'd fully expected objections from Steve. But he had hoped that perhaps they could talk it out and come to some form of compromise that would satisfy them both as well as the world leaders. He had also been fully prepared to help Barnes out with whatever trial the world governments wanted to put him through – that's what his team of lawyers at SI were paid to do anyway.
He didn't expect betrayal (yet again) from a person he trusted. And the pain of this betrayal only served to make him realize how much he actually trusted Steve… so much more than he'd even consciously realized. Until now.
"I'm sorry Tony," Steve was saying. "You know I wouldn't do this if I had any other choice… But he's my friend."
There was a sudden sharp searing pain that lanced through him, originating from his heart, and for a split second, he didn't understand what was happening. Neither Barnes nor Steve had physically hit him at that moment, right?
Then Steve's words finally, finally registered, and a part of his world righted itself in recognition as the connection was made, even as the other parts crumbled around him.
He barely heard himself murmur, "So was I."
Then everything just became white noise as he lost himself in his head, his body going on autopilot to put up a bit of a fight against his soulmate and his soulmate's best friend.
Of all people to end up being soulmates with… Steve Rogers, Captain America, was not someone he had thought was a possible option for him. But it did also make horrible, painful sense now.
How Steve turning against him felt so much worse than it should have. Why his greatest fear chiefly involved Steve dying and blaming him for not doing more. How he could never pull away from Captain America even after growing up and knowing he could never live up to Howard's expectations because Howard was looking for a Captain America, and how Tony was not Captain America and could never be… And though he grew out of his fanboy phase… That wasn't really true. He'd just learnt how to hide it all better.
Steve Rogers was his soulmate, and while platonic soulmates were entirely possible… Now, Tony knew without a doubt, that this wasn't the case for him. What a time to make such a realization… but Tony never claimed to have impeccable timing. He was probably a master of having the worst sense of timing and tact.
Tony didn't think it was ever possible, but now, he wished the arc reactor was back in his chest. If only to hide the words from the world (from Steve) when he died.
He was going to die. He was going to die really soon. The question now was how… or perhaps the better question was who?
Would he die by Barnes' hands? Or would the Fates be so cruel as to make Steve his killer?
Or perhaps, in this, he could choose. Yes, yes, he would choose. Because if he had to die, it was going to be on his own terms.
When he next focused on his surroundings, he realized that FRIDAY was all but screeching at him in worry. He was probably only alive because of muscle memory and FRIDAY having the bare minimum access to armor controls to allow him to defend himself.
A part of him realized that it was only possible for him to do what he was about to do because it was no longer JARVIS running the suit. All of his AIs since he first created JARVIS started out at the same basic level as JARVIS… but JARVIS had been active longer, so much longer, and had almost gained a life of his own even before the Mind Gem happened. JARVIS would've long since tried to pull something that he hadn't specifically been instructed on, way before things had gotten to this point.
But FRIDAY, bless her electronic heart, was not JARVIS. JARVIS didn't exist anymore.
There were red warning lights blinking on the HUD, but he switched FRIDAY's interface off with a subvocalized command. Steve and Barnes had been steadily chipping away at the armor with their, frankly, masterful interplay using Steve's shield. It was pretty amazing that two men, enhanced but still men nonetheless, could do so much damage to the world's most high tech suit of armor.
There was one particular weak spot that was blaring in red… and yes, that would do. That would do nicely.
He made his choice.
Later, Steve Rogers would feel a sudden sense of absolute wrongness just before a searing pain shot up his left arm. At that moment, a piece of the Iron Man armor would peel away, just a little too conveniently but that would remain unknown until much later.
Later, vibranium wielded by a metal arm would crush ribs and rend flesh.
(Much later, he would read the report that stated that the cause of death was broken ribs that had pierced through lungs to puncture the heart.)
Later, when the armor lay unmoving, when Tony lay unmoving, he would realize that something had gone horribly, terribly awry.
Later, he would read The Words inscribed over Tony's heart and feel his own break.
You know I wouldn't do this if I had any other choice… But he's my friend.