"Oh, fuck," Tony says, right before the bomb goes off, and he wakes up to Steve saying Oh fuck in his ear.
"You got that right," he says, sitting up. Steve, who is standing a weird distance away considering he was just whispering in Tony’s ear, looks startled as he turns to him.
"What right?" he asks, and then the voice in Tony’s ear — no, in his head, oh shit, says, God, what if he’s concussed? Why won’t he pad his goddamn helmet?
The guy who set them up the bomb was ranting right before it detonated about how he would bring all of Manhattan together. Tony has a really bad feeling about this.
"Me too," Steve says aloud, and then looks confused.
Tony gives it a shot. I think we’re telepathically linked, he tries.
Steve stares at him, eyes wide.
Oh, FUCK, they think in unison.
Tony doesn’t know whether the guy who telepathy-bombed them intended for this level of chaos. Hulk stomped him right after the detonation and now he’s in a coma, so he can’t explain his goals.
The city, meanwhile, is a mess.
Every single person in Manhattan now has another voice in their head. And that is causing a lot of freaking out. SHIELD, too, is freaking out, because they have no idea how to handle this. The Avengers, to an extent, are freaking out; Tony and Steve are doing okay, but Bruce has some woman in his head who is yelling at him a lot about hiding from her, and the depth and breadth of Thor’s memories are unsettling Jane. Clint and Natasha and Phil are in a three-way bond which would probably be awesome if all three of them didn’t have super-dark pasts that now all three of them are aware of on a visceral level. Sam has some lady in his head he’s never met, which is justifiably wigging him out.
And it’s horrible for nearly everyone because the first thing you think about, of course, when you find out someone else is in your head, is: shit do they know about [insert horrible thing I have seen/done/thought here]?
The weirdest part about it is that, okay, Manhattan has a daytime population of about three million people. All of them now have a voice in their head. But there are also — well, later, the SHIELD numbers will show about 2.8 million people outside of Manhattan, all over the world, also had a voice in their head. The voice of someone in Manhattan.
Someone needs to figure out what happened and how to reverse it, on both the biological and the engineering sides, but someone also has to keep riots from breaking out in Manhattan, and make sure city services stay operational.
I should be out there with you, Tony thinks to Steve, as he works on what’s left of the bomb. He dragged it to a nearby garage and set up a makeshift workshop, but any damn engineer could do this, and the city needs Iron Man.
We’re doing fine, Tony, Steve says. He’s across town, helping mobilize the police, at least the officers that are managing to function with someone else in their head. He’s already had to break up a fight when one officer found out his wife was in another officer’s head.
His words are reassuring, but Tony can feel the undercurrent of longing, of wish-you-were-here, and also the resolute way in which Steve is ignoring that. They are both ignoring the immediate discovery that Steve has a schoolboy crush on Tony and the only reason Tony hasn’t jumped his bones in the last six months is that he was worried it would ruin one of the best friendships of his life.
I really need you to fix this, Steve adds. No pressure. I know you can do it.
Yeah thanks, no pressure, Tony replies. When this is over, can I buy you dinner?
Not right now, Steve sends, less stern than desperate.
"Tony," Bruce says over the speakerphone. He’s at a nearby hospital, having commandeered a lab to work on the biological aspect of this. Tony somewhat wishes he’d had Bruce in his head instead. Bruce sounds stressed.
"How you doing, big guy?" Tony asks.
"Well, Betty stopped yelling," Bruce says. "My head is killing me."
"From the yelling?"
"From the ignoring."
"Bruce, you gotta talk to her sometime. I mean, she’s in your head, now you’re just being a jackass about this."
"She knows," Bruce sighs. "And so do I."
"Okay, well, I’m not going to pile it on. What’ve you got?"
"Zip. We’re dealing with unusual parts of the brain lighting up. I’ve got four MRIs going, but I’m getting nowhere. It’s a totally new science. I am literally the leading expert in a branch of medicine that did not exist two hours ago."
"How can I help?"
"Keep working on the bomb, I guess. I just needed confirmation I’m not crazy."
"You’re a little crazy. You need to talk to her."
"I thought you weren’t going to pile it on?"
"Yeah, I lied," Tony says. A spark shoots out of the remains of the bomb, and he jerks back.
"Careful," says a voice. Tony glances to the side. Super-dramatically, a man about his age, with a streak of grey in his slick black hair, steps out from the shadows.
"If you are an alternate universe me, I really don’t have time to kill you right now," Tony says. The man smiles.
"My name is Stephen Strange," he replies. "I understand you’re the man to speak to about the voices in everyone’s heads."
"Yeah? Who’ve you got in yours?"
"No one," Strange replies serenely. "I was shielded. Who is in yours?"
"Captain America, for my sins," Tony says.
I heard that, Steve says, not without amusement.
"How very interesting," Strange observes. "You’re a lucky man, Mr. Stark."
"Yeah, doesn’t really feel that way right now," Tony says, gesturing at the chaos outside.
"Oh, they’re lucky too, they just don’t know it yet. I can help you reverse the effects. If I may?" Strange rests a hand on the workbench and Tony figures, why not, so he steps aside.
"Do you know what the bomb was?" he asks, as Strange presses both hands to the bench. The parts laid out around them begin to glow, and then to hover.
Tony? Steve asks, because Tony’s frantic internal screaming is probably upsetting him.
If I die of strange glowing magical lights, you can have all my cars, Tony tells him.
"It’s a wide-spectrum magical broadcast bomb," Strange says.
"We have magic now?" Tony demands, voice rising an octave.
"Well, we’ve always had it,” Strange says. “And apparently some of us have badly misused it. Ah, here we are.”
The pieces are starting to coalesce, and Tony forgets to be really terrified in his fascination over how they’re coming together.
"He was, genuinely, trying to help. He’s just very terrible at helping," Strange continues. "Did you know that each person on this Earth has a soulmate?"
"Bullshit," Tony says automatically.
"Well, that’s a very simple way of putting it, so I don’t blame you for refuting the idea. The rules are complicated, and subject to influence. But in essence, we share a link with all other people, and there is one person for whom that link is strongest. A soulmate, give or take a few degrees of semantics."
Tony is having trouble breathing, but there’s a warm flood of affection and happiness from Steve. In fact that might be why he’s having trouble breathing, because Steve’s reaction to the information being relayed to him through Tony’s frantic thoughts is overwhelming. Tony is suddenly the one place another whole human being belongs and that’s so much pressure on someone who has, traditionally, fucked up relationships with other people.
It’s okay, Steve sends, like a thick blanket on a cold day. You won’t mess up with me. Because we’re soulmates.
Stuff it, Tony tries, but his heart’s not in it.
"Here you are," Strange says, offering him the newly-reassembled bomb. "You’ll need to plug it into the broadcast antenna on Stark Tower to get the proper spread, but this should dampen the links back down to normal level."
"Who are you?” Tony asks.
Strange grins. “You should come see me, sometime. After the honeymoon,” he adds, and presses a thick card into Tony’s palm.
Dr. Stephen Strange
Master of the Mystical Arts
Sliding Fee Scale & Validated Parking
Tony finds himself alone in the penthouse that evening, which in a city full of people who have suddenly found the person (or people) they’re meant to be with is a little sad.
Ten minutes after he set off the reverse-bomb, Rhodey landed on the balcony of Pepper’s office and now they’re on their way to France or some damn thing. Tony personally escorted Betty to Bruce, and there haven’t been any Hulk-related incidents since, so that probably went okay. Clint, Natasha, and Agent are curled up together in Natasha’s apartment, Thor and Jane are asleep at Jane’s place, and Sam’s off meeting his mystery lady, who sounds nice (Sam texted that she’s a Marine).
Steve, last Tony checked, was still pulling shifts with the police, because (unsurprisingly ) blanking out the voices did not solve everyone’s problems. Gonna be a lot of fighting and fucking in Manhattan tonight, he thinks, pleased that it stays in the privacy of his own head as he stands at one of the tall Stark Tower glass walls and looks out on the city.
It’s probably best Steve will be out late tonight, maybe into tomorrow morning. Tony doesn’t believe in soulmates and while he would have been okay with acknowledging that they’re attracted to each other, the weight of that burden (even if he doesn’t believe in it) is pretty heavy. Better to ignore that it ever happened.
Which is, of course, when Steve clears his throat from the doorway.
“I’m home,” he announces, unnecessarily.
Tony turns, leaning back against the wall. Steve is not merely home; Steve clearly came home, showered, shaved, and combed his hair. He smells like aftershave and toothpaste. He’s wearing nice clothes, clothes Tony talked him into getting tailored.
"I’d like to take you up on dinner," Steve says, fidgeting nervously.
"I don’t know if that was a smart offer to make," Tony answers.
"Are you rescinding?" Steve asks. "That’s rude."
"Steve, I just don’t — "
You do, you’re just scared, he hears in his head. Tony looks at him, wide-eyed. Steve steps forward, not quite meeting his eyes.
"I got a visit too. Strange said it might take longer to wear off on me, because of the Serum," Steve says aloud.
"So you’ve been reading my thoughts all afternoon."
"Yup," Steve says. He’s still moving forward and Tony has glass at his back, nowhere to go.
"That’s a dick move, Steve," he says.
"Probably. So is rescinding a dinner offer."
"Will you shut up about the dinner — " Tony starts, but Steve kisses him and it’s hot and sharp and fireworks go off in his head. He's pretty sure they're not even his fireworks.
And for just a second he has this impression of what could be: a lifetime with someone, the kind of utter trust that only comes with years of experience, the knowledge that whatever he does, whatever happens, at least one person will always be there at his back. Steve has already seen the inside of his head and if that didn’t run him off, literally nothing else will.
"Marry me," he blurts, when Steve leans away.
After dinner, Steve insists.