Tony is just over 17 years old when he starts hearing voices. Well, okay, it’s really just a voice, singular, but that doesn’t stop him from immediately freaking the fuck out.
His first thought is that the pressures of being a genius billionare teenage superhero philanthropist must have finally driven him over the border to Crazytown. His second is, geez, I thought insanity would be more interesting than this, because they’re mainly just random snippets of completely mundane things like where to buy milk and the best kind of laundry detergent.
He Googles ‘voices in my head’, wikiwalks into ‘auditory hallucinations’ and ‘schizophrenia’, and promptly descends into a black hole of hypochondria. Two weeks later, he’s holed up in his room and has almost convinced himself to never come out again when Pepper bursts in and demands to know ‘what the heck is wrong with you Tony, really, this is weird even for you and I was there for that thing with the pumpkin and the goats’.
So because Pepper is his best friend and deserves to know all his deepest darkest secrets, he confesses to her that he’s hearing some guy inside his head and he’s terrified he’s going insane. He’s mortally offended when she stares at him for about twenty seconds then starts laughing so hard she nearly falls over.
‘All those IQ points, and no brain space saved for pop culture,’ she says, once she’s regained the ability to form words again. Tony sulks in his chair, pointedly not looking at her.
‘Seriously, if you’d ever watched a rom com once in your life-‘
‘-you know I refuse to support the romance-industrial complex-‘
‘-you’d have realised what was happening,’ she finishes, looking serenely smug. ‘Although I guess you’re younger than usual, probably why your Googling didn’t turn up anything, but you always have to be precocious, don’t you?’
Tony stares at her.
‘You know what this is?’
‘Of course I do,’ Pepper says dismissively, tossing her hair. ‘You, my friend, have a soulmate.’
Pepper spends the rest of the evening explaining the concept to him in excruciating detail, since Tony apparently grew up in a romanceless wasteland (her words) and has no idea what the hell she’s talking about.
Soulmates are rare, maybe one in a thousand people, maybe less – no one’s really sure. Between the ages of eighteen to twenty, they start hearing another person’s voice in their head. And somewhere in the world, that person is hearing their voice too.
The rarity of soulmates means that often, they never meet. When they do, however, it’s the kind of thing mythologised in song and story – one touch and they love each other forever, for the rest of their lives, never to be parted.
Pepper’s starry eyed as she chatters on and on about how romantic the whole thing is, and how much she’d love to have a soulmate, and how lucky Tony is. Tony sits in silence, running the numbers in his head.
He thinks of the vast number of people in the city – in the world – who are English-speaking men of, at a guess, twenty to twenty five. He thinks of the number of people he will realistically meet in his lifetime. He calculates the (low, vanishingly low) odds of him ever meeting the person speaking in his head.
He thinks of living his whole life knowing there’s someone out there for him, who would love him just as he is, unconditionally, forever, and never meeting that person through a quirk of geography.
He thinks, Fuck that noise.
‘Thanks, Pep,’ he says, cutting her off mid-gush. ‘Appreciate the infodump. Listen, can you leave me alone for a bit?’
Pepper narrows her eyes at him. ‘What are you up to, Tony?’
He rubs his hands together gleefully, the spark of creation already gleaming in his eyes. ‘I’m going to try science.’
It takes him four months of coding and wrangling voice synthesisers and more caffeine than a human being should be able to consume, but at the end, he’s done it.
Tony’s new creation is essentially the bastard child of a voice search engine and a dating website. You upload a recording of your voice, saying a standardised sentence. The site then walks you through a series of audio clips and questions, identifying the gender, nationality, and rough age of the voice in your head. He’s even got it down to regional accents in some places.
It then finds the people who match your inner voice on the site and lets you hear their recordings. If you both think that you hear your match, you can set up a meeting.
He calls it JARVIS (Justified Analysis of Regional Variance In Syntax), sets it up online, and crossposts to every tech forum he can think of.
The site goes viral within the week. Tony makes the front page of every magazine in North America (Pepper frames the one calling him a ‘charming teenage cyber-cupid’, because she is evil). Within the first few months, more than three hundred people from all around the world have found their soulmates using JARVIS. Tony keeps a counter at the bottom of the webpage for when he needs a nice little ego boost.
(JARVIS is, unfortunately, also responsible for about a dozen divorces, from people who’d given up on ever meeting their mate and settled down with someone else. A prominent senator calls Tony an ‘enemy of the sanctity of marriage’ after his wife leaves him for the woman she found on JARVIS. Tony responds by sending him a bunch of flowers and a card saying ‘Condolences on your fourth divorce. The girls at the Melon Patch say hello.’)
The scientific community is in raptures. Tony has collected the most data ever aggregated on the soulmate phenomenon, and between the biochemists and the social scientists and the psychiatrists he figures they have enough to keep them happily arguing over what actually causes it for the good part of a decade.
The thing is, though… Tony is busily playing digital Cupid, which is all well and good, but he’s still no closer to finding his own match. He’s narrowed it down to male, American (with an occasional Brooklyn twang which suggests he was born there), probably Caucasian. Which, really, doesn’t narrow things down much at all in a city the size of New York.
The guy’s age is problematic, too – he sounds like he’s probably in his mid-twenties, but when Tony runs some of his occasional odd turns of phrase through JARVIS he keeps coming up with ‘Estimated date of birth: 1920’, which means either his soulmate is ninety (ew) or he’s some kind of vintage-loving hipster (possibly worse). Both of which would explain why the guy doesn’t seem to be on JARVIS yet.
So Tony hangs around Williamsburg chatting to every guy wearing a fedora, every weekend for, like, a month. At the end of which he’s still no closer to finding his soulmate and seriously questioning whether he wants a boyfriend who talks incessantly about vinyl and wears more plaid than a lumberjack.
Shortly after that, Fury calls him in.
‘If this is about the thing with the pumpkin and the helicopter, that was totally not my fault,’ Tony begins the moment the door has closed behind him, because he’s always held that the best defence is a good offence. ‘The bit with the goats, yeah, ok, I did kind of goad them into a teeny bit of a frenzy, but that was only because Clint said he needed the distraction-‘
‘Not what I called you here for, Stark,’ says Fury, lifting an eyebrow ‘although rest assured, we’ll be revisiting the pumpkin incident later.’
Tony subsides into mutinous glaring.
‘I brought you here because I want you to meet someone.’ Fury continues. ‘Captain?’
The door behind Fury opens and a tall, muscular blond man in a SHIELD uniform walks through. Tony is mildly distracted by ogling his arms when the man sticks out a hand and says ‘Steve Rogers, nice to meet you, Mr Stark,’ and Tony’s head snaps up in shock, because he knows that voice.
‘You asshole,’ he says to Fury. ‘How long have you known?’
‘Known what, Stark?’ Fury says, face bland, and Tony wants to punch him.
‘Don’t play dumb, why else would you have called me in here? Just to meet some new SHIELD grunt? Bullshit. You knew. You must have known. There’s no other reason you’d need Iron Man to meet-‘
‘To meet Captain America,’ Fury says sharply, cutting through Tony’s ranting.
Tony literally feels his brain grind to a halt.
He looks at the blond man – Steve – properly for the first time.
‘He looks pretty good for a World War 2 vet,’ he says slowly, ‘especially one who’s been, y’know, dead and frozen for seventy years. What gives, Fury? Last I heard Captain America was enjoying life as a meat popsicle.’
‘Science division worked out how to revive him about a year ago,’ Fury says, still side-eyeing Tony. ‘We didn’t want to traumatise him until he’d become acclimatised to the future, so until now his survival has been strictly classified. However, given some people's predisposition for flashy and explosive heroics-’
‘-we thought he might work well with you as a stabilising influence.’ Fury finishes.
‘Oh,’ is all Tony can say, because it’s all falling into place, now; a year ago, that was about when he started hearing Steve’s voice. The Brooklyn accent. The outdated slang.
Tony feels happiness welling up in his chest, light and bubbling, and it spills over into a torrent of laughter as he looks at Steve, who is staring at him with a look of startled recognition in his eyes.
He walks over to take Steve’s still outstretched hand, and it’s like closing a circuit. It feels like fireworks going off beneath his skin, sparking along his nerve endings - an overwhelming feeling of rightness and belonging, of happiness, of love. He can feel his mouth curving in an absolutely massive shit-eating grin, and Steve’s lips are quirking up into a smile, as well.
‘Hi, I’m Tony Stark,’ he says. ‘Sorry about the little meltdown earlier, I swear I’m not usually this melodramatic.’
Steve laughs, deep and rich and bright. ‘Now that’s a lie if ever I heard one. Literally the first thing I ever heard you say was Rhodey, if you don’t let me put rollerskates on my armor I swear I will die of regret, and then you’ll be sorry.’
‘Hey, first off, they are Electro Static Energy Racers, okay, and secondly, they are totally cool, just wait till you see them,’ Tony says indignantly.
‘I pictured it as someone in a full knight’s suit of armor with wheels strapped to their feet,’ Steve says, grinning. ‘I spent most of my life thinking my soulmate was some kind of crazy person.’
Behind them, Fury chokes and goes purple in the face.
‘And meanwhile you, Captain Understatement, were being as boring as humanly possible,’ Tony says. ‘Seriously, World War Two superhero, nemesis of HYDRA, SHIELD agent, and all I got were little gems like I should remember to stop by the bodega for eggs after work? Were you trying to make it harder for me to find you?’
Fury is making throttling motions and sounds very much like he’s having some kind of stroke. The little part of Tony’s brain not currently occupied with Steve Steve my soulmate Steve gleefully files the memory of Fury mouthing strangled obscenities away for future hilarity.
‘Not like you didn’t manage it in the end,’ Steve says, looking down at Tony fondly.
‘I built a search engine for you,’ Tony says grumpily. ‘I literally looked all over the world and the whole time you were right here being hidden away by Cyclops McDemoman over there.’
‘Here I am,’ Steve agrees, still smiling. ‘Here we both are. How about we go get something to eat? Get to know each other a little.’
‘We are not finished on the subject of your hiding away in SHIELD while I scoured the globe for you,’ Tony says sternly, ‘but food sounds good. Food sounds pretty much perfect, actually. Thanks, Fury, later!’ Tony calls, waving his free hand in a goodbye as they walk out the door. His other hand is still wrapped firmly in Steve’s, who doesn’t seem inclined to let go any time soon.
Tony thinks he’s perfectly okay with that.
‘Okay, so, food, how do you feel about shawarma? But first, we’re stopping by my place so I can show you the suit and make you acknowledge the awesomeness of rollerskates,’ he says, and basks in the sound of Steve’s laughter, both inside his head and out.