In 1965, after twenty-five years of manufacturing weapons, Howard Stark successfully revolutionized romance. What started out as a vague dream to produce an heir to his empire, became a functioning system for determining a person's soul-mate; a simple silver plate with a screen, installed in the arm, counting down the days, hours and minutes until you met "the one". Within a year, 50% of Americans had one. It tore apart families as it built new ones. It aided the gay rights movement, but polarized generations. It caused conflict and gave hope.
Howard met Maria in 1967, and when their alarms chirped in unison, they both smiled.
By the time Tony was born three years later, the Stark Timer was in use around the world.
Tony had the implant on his seventeenth birthday. He was curious, but not excited. After over twenty years, the timer was no longer a revolutionary piece of technology, but a seemingly essential part of growing up. Some people resisted, teenagers especially were eager to prove they didn't care about things like soul mates. But most people who refused to get one when they were seventeen changed their minds after college, and by the time the population reached thirty, there was almost universal coverage. Tony of course, being heir to Stark Industries, didn't have the luxury of refusing one.
His mother held his hand, glowing with pride and happiness as the (smaller, sheer glass) plate was fixed into place.
Tony stared at the blank screen and tried not to be affected by it.
"Sweetheart," Maria soothed, rubbing his arm, "this is just what your father went through until I had mine implanted. He never lost hope and neither should you."
Tony wanted to say that he'd never had much hope anyway, that his mother would have been better off with someone else, even if Howard was her "soul mate". He wanted to say that people were trusting in a fantasy instead of working hard at relationships like people used to do.
He didn't say anything though. He just nodded his head, kissed his mother's cheek, and rolled down his shirtsleeve to hide the timer.
Steve had been frozen twenty years before the advent of timers. When he’d met Peggy he’d known right from the start that no other woman was going to make him feel the way she did. Peggy was the one for him and she cared about him whether he was sickly Steve Rogers or powerful Captain America. He had loved her, would have loved her forever given the chance.
Seventy years in the future, the timer had clearly decided otherwise.
“Howard wanted me to test it,” Peggy said, rubbing her hand across her timer self-consciously. “He thought – well we both thought - that it would be blank. And then..."
Steve smiled and took her hand. "I'm so happy for you." It wasn't a lie. Not really. Steve had been happy that Peggy had had a long and full life. She'd had a job she'd loved. She'd formed SHIELD. She'd been married and had children and grandchildren and he was glad.
"Maybe if you hadn't.. " Peggy began and then squeezed his hand. "Maybe it would have been you."
"Two soul mates?" Steve laughed and it was slightly forced but Peggy didn't mention it. "Does that happen?"
"Sometimes," Peggy told him. "Anything's possible."
Iron Man was everything Tony wasn’t. He could help people. He could change the world. He could do things that no one else could. And when he was flying, when he fighting, when he was helping, Tony felt more free than he ever had in his life.
“I know that it's confusing. It is one thing to question the official story, and another thing entirely to make wild accusations, or insinuate that I'm a superhero.”
“I never said you were a superhero,” Christine said casually. She looked excited, but Tony knew it wasn’t over him or even over the story. The timer on her arm was now under 10 minutes. At least he had some idea when the press conference was going to be over.
Behind him, Rhodey cleared his throat and Tony looked back down at his cards.
“The truth is…” he said and then did what he’d being doing to reporters his whole life.
Steve had heard about Iron Man often upon waking. He was always on the news, moving from crime scene to war zone, country to country, continent to continent. The more Steve heard about him the more eager he became to meet him, which seemed to make Fury less inclined to allow it to happen.
“I was starting to think we’d never meet,” Steve told him as they stood guard over Loki. “Something always seemed to get in the way.”
Iron Man was silent for a moment. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Captain. I wish it had been under better circumstances."
"Steve," Steve said. "Call me, Steve."
Steve hated the timers. There was something so clinical about them.
"You didn't need those things to fall on love in my day," he said to Iron Man as the two of them sat on the Stark Tower landing platform, looking down at the city. "You met someone and you fell in love..."
"Did you really just say "in my day"?" Iron Man asked, the modulated voice warm and teasing.
Steve nudged his shoulder with his own. "Shut up."
Iron Man laughed and nudged him back. "I know what you mean though. It's not exactly romantic."
"Do you have one?" Steve asked, and felt his heart beat a little faster as he waited for the answer.
"No," Iron Man said immediately. "No. I don't even know that I believe in soul mates."
Steve smiled slightly, ducking his head to hide his relief. "Want to play catch?"
With one last bump of their shoulders, Steve threw himself off the platform, whooping with excitement when Iron Man caught him a few seconds later.
In college Rhodey’s timer had been blank too, and Tony had felt a little less alone. Of course, Rhodey still believed in the idea of soul mates. He had every hope that one day his timer would flicker to life and it would only be a matter of time before he had a special someone to love him forever. Tony had been tempted to ask what made other people less special, but Rhodey had been slightly drunk and Tony wasn’t a complete jerk.
Five years later Rhodey’s timer blinked on with only three hours to wait.
“What?” Tony yelled down the phone. “Where the hell are you?”
“Work,” Rhodey said quietly, trying not to draw attention to himself. “I have new recruits this morning and timers are mandatory. She must have just got hers.”
“It might not be a she,” Tony reminded him, but he knew Rhodey wasn’t listening.
“I would have known anyway,” Rhodey told Tony once, years later, while Carol was leading Steve around the dance floor in what was supposed to be a foxtrot. She was almost doubled over with laughter as he counted the steps to himself. Rhodey beamed as he watched her. “How could it be anyone else?”
“Do you believe in love?” Steve asked Iron Man.
Tony cocked his head to the side and checked the information that Jarvis was feeding him.
“That’s an odd question, Captain.”
“Is it?” Steve shrugged. “You said you didn’t believe in soul mates. What about love?”
Tony watched him for a moment, glad of the privacy the suit afforded him. “Yes, I believe in love.”
Steve smiled and it was shy and slow and happy. Tony fell a little more.
“I think soul mates is too easy a concept. I think love - the best kind of love - has to be worked for, not taken for granted.”
Tony Stark was a consultant, weapons expert, technological genius, billionaire and owner of the timers that adorned everyone's arms. Steve wanted to hate him on sight.
Unfortunately for him Tony was also charming, witty, unexpectedly kind, and generous to a fault.
He also seemed to hate the timers as much as Steve did.
"Have you thought anymore about getting one, Captain?" Fury asked one day during a briefing. Iron Man was absent - out on another mission, somewhere in Europe - but Tony was there so he could feed back the relevant details.
"What?" Tony asked, his head coming up, out of his work for the first time during the meeting. "Rogers? You don't want a timer, do you?"
Steve shook his head. Fury and Hill both looked unimpressed.
"They're important pieces of equipment," Hill argued.
Tony scoffed. "It's a clock. Don't make it out to be more than it is."
"A clock which tells you when you've met your soul mate," Hill continued. "How is that not important?"
"It created a society of lazy people," Tony said, as he began to count his points off on his fingers. "Ruined the entertainment industry. Destroyed romance. And stigmatized anyone who doesn't have one." He gestured towards Steve, "Case in point. Don't do it, Rogers. Save yourself the trouble."
Steve pulled Tony aside afterwards and thanked him for his support.
"I don't understand though," he said. "You make the things don't you? Why make them if you hate them so much?"
"It's my father's invention. The majority of people in the world seem to like them. Unlike the weapons we used to make, these aren't actively killing people."
He pulled up his sleeve and showed Steve his timer, still firmly showing ----:--:--.
"Most people would say I'm just bitter."
"What does that mean?" Steve asked hesitantly.
"It means my soul mate hasn't got a timer. Forty-two years it's been like that. Maybe if I'd met them twenty years ago I wouldn't be as screwed up as I am."
Steve shook his head. "Soul mate doesn't equal happiness."
Tony smiled sadly. "Try telling the rest of the world that."
Natasha’s timer wasn’t like anyone else’s. Tony recognized it as the first upgrade he’d ever done himself after the death of his parents. Natasha would have been about ten years old. The thought of her having it implanted that young made Tony feel ill. That and the alcohol. And whatever it was Natasha had just jabbed into his neck a minute earlier.
Fury talked and Natasha glared and Tony rubbed his neck, his eyes falling instinctively to Natasha’s bare arm. The numbers were visible, but not counting down.
“What’s wrong with that?” Tony asked, talking over Fury’s complaints. “I can fix it if it’s broken.”
Natasha shook her head. “It’s not broken,” she said. “It does that sometimes.”
“Freezes?” Tony asked sceptically.
She nodded. "It's always done it. I'm not worried. I don't have long to wait."
When Natasha later recounts the tale of her first meeting with the Winter Soldier to Tony, she pulls up her sleeve and shows him her timer, now locked firmly at 0000:00:00.
"You think not having a soul mate is bad? Try having one that shot you."
Nick was yelling. Maria was yelling. Bruce was taking deep calming breaths. Clint was twirling an arrow in his fingers, so Tony thought Phil had probably told him the truth at some point. Natasha was ignoring everyone. Loudly. Steve was absent. That's how pissed Steve was.
"Can I just say," Tony interrupted, bringing everyone's attention back to him, "I think you're all over-reacting.”
Bruce made a noise that was 80% Hulk. Tony put up his hands.
"I know you're mad. I get that," he said. "But I’m the one who just lost his home and a few irreplaceable pieces of scientific equipment and, oh, all my beautiful cars.”
Clint's arrow embedded itself in the table top in front of Tony.
"Fine. You all argue about my unsuitability," he said as he stood made his way towards the door. "I saved the world a couple of times if that counts for anything. I had your backs."
He let the automatic door swoosh closed behind him and then sighed. He really needed to find Steve.
Luckily Steve was a creature of habit, which meant that he was probably in the gym, visualising Tony’s face on a punching bag.
“How angry are you on a scale of one to ten?” Tony asked from the doorway and Steve stopped throwing punches long enough to sigh meaningfully.
Tony whistled. “Wow. I was expecting maybe a seven. Eight at a push. I have done much worse things.”
“You lied to all of us.”
“Technically -” Tony began, walking over to Steve, who turned to face Tony so suddenly that he had to fall back a couple of steps.
“Don’t,” Steve snapped. “Just don’t. You lied to me.”
“Yes,” Tony sighed. “Yes, I did. That’s me, okay? I lie sometimes. I’m not like you, Steve. I’m not a hero. I’m just a guy with a suit who is trying to make amends.”
“Bullshit,” Steve snapped. “That’s bullshit. You’re Iron Man. You are a hero. You’re one of the best people I’ve ever known. You’re my best…” He stopped and looked down at his hands, started to unwrap the tape. “You’re my best friend, Tony. How could you lie to me?”
"I'm sorry,” Tony said honestly. “I just didn't know how to tell you the truth after a while. I never thought we'd be friends. And you liked Iron Man more than Tony Stark so..."
"That's not true," Steve argued. "You never let me get to know you as one person."
"Well then give me a chance to fix that," Tony said and held out his hand. "Hi, I'm Tony Stark. Genius. Billionaire. Iron Man."
Steve tried his hardest not to laugh, as he shook Tony's hand. "And an idiot. Don't forget idiot."
"As if you'd let me."
Sam’s timer had another ten years on the clock. Steve thought it must have been disheartening. Sam disagreed.
“It’s comforting,” he explained. “Knowing there’s someone out there in the world for me. Sure it’s a long time to wait, but the best things are worth waiting for, aren’t they?”
“I guess,” Steve said. “I don’t know that I’d be happy waiting that long.”
“You waited seventy years,” Sam laughed, but Steve shook his head.
“I wasn’t waiting. I was frozen in time.”
“Maybe the universe was waiting then,” Sam said with a shrug.
“For you to catch up.”
Tony wasn’t expecting Steve to return so soon after all hell broke loose in Washington.
He was alone in the penthouse, sorting through the information Natasha had leaked, filing and cross-referencing while Jarvis read out the best tweets and internet reactions.
“Sir, Captain Rogers is on his way up.”
Steve looked exhausted when he stepped off the elevator and Tony jumped up to catch his arm before he keeled over. “Easy there, big guy.”
“I’m fine,” Steve said, but it was mostly yawned, and he allowed Tony to manhandle him over to the sofas. “Are you okay?”
“You’re unbelievable,” Tony murmured, unable to resist stroking his hand through Steve’s hair. “Yes. I’m okay. I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“They tried to kill you,” Steve pointed out, earning a pointed look from Tony.
“Yeah and that’s the third group that’s tried to kill me this month. I didn’t see you getting all bent out of shape when it was Dr. Doom.”
Steve snorted. “Oh please. You could take him down with a cupcake.”
Tony couldn’t stop himself grinning at that. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
“I meant you as in anyone.”
“Sure you did.”
“Seriously, Tony. I was worried about you.”
“I know,” Tony said. “But I’m fine. We’re all fine.”
“I need to find Bucky,” Steve said, and he yawned again.
“We will,” Tony assured him. “You should go sleep.”
Steve nodded slightly, sitting up straighter. “Wait,” he said, catching Tony’s hand. “Wait. There’s something I need to do first.”
Tony nodded and waited. Steve seemed to gather himself up and then tugged Tony closer.
“Tell me if you don’t want this,” Steve murmured and Tony didn’t even have time to ask what it was before Steve was kissing him.
Tony melted against him, wrapping his arms around Steve’s shoulders and shifting closer until he was straddling Steve’s lap.
“Are you sure about this?” Steve asked, panting slightly.
Tony kissed him softly, three gentle pecks, brushing his tongue over Steve’s bottom lip. “I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life.”
Steve surged forward and caught Tony’s mouth with his own again, and Tony felt him relax beneath him.
Asgardians don't have timers. Thor thinks the whole thing is blasphemous to the concept of love.
"What happens if you don't fall in love with your soul mate? What happens if it's not romantic love? What happens if you fall in love with someone else? What happens...?"
"Yeah, I don't think dad really thought that much about it," Tony interrupted, tossing another Milk Dud into his mouth. "I'm not sure how he managed to turn love into an equation, but if anyone could it would be him."
"Jane's timer is wrong," Thor said. "The man who was chosen for her was unworthy."
Tony nodded. He couldn't argue. He didn't want to argue. Jane was smart enough to ignore the timer in her arm. Tony wished he could do the same.
“I want to take it out,” Tony said one day as he lay with Steve on the sofa, legs entwined.
“Take what out?” Steve asked, still preoccupied with playing with Tony’s fingers. He loved those hands. Loved how strong they were. Loved how they did intricate, delicate work. Loved how fast and sure and elegant they were.
“Steve? Do you think I should?”
Steve’s eyes found Tony’s and he pressed an apologetic kiss to the corner of Tony’s mouth.
Tony smirked, as though he knew exactly what Steve had been thinking about.
“The timer. I want to remove it.”
“Can you do that?” Steve asked with a frown. He’d never heard of anyone having a timer removed.
“You can,” Tony told him. “You just can’t get it put back. Once it’s gone it’s gone forever.”
Steve’s heart beat a little faster, hope and excitement shooting through him. He tried not to let it show.
“Is it dangerous?”
Tony shook his head. “No. Not dangerous. Not painful. No more than having the thing installed anyway.”
Steve shifted slightly and laid his hand over the timer in Tony’s arm that was always covered, yet always present between them.
“If that’s what you want, Tony,” he said, “that’s what you should do.”
“How did you know your wife was the one?” Tony had asked Yinsen one day, gently prodding his bare and timer-less forearm with a wrench.
“The same way everyone knows, Stark,” Yinsen had replied with a smile that said Tony may be a genius, but he was still an idiot. “You feel it in your heart, when it’s the right person.”
“I don’t have one,” Tony had said, tapping his own timer. “It’s blank. Nearly forty years of waiting and nothing.”
“Well that depends on what you’re waiting for. There is no real algorithm for love. People fear being alone. They fear being wrong.” Yinsen had lifted the chest plate and attached it to the rest of the suit. Then he’d rested his hand over Tony’s timer. “This is a crutch. It’s a fantasy. When you meet the right person, you’ll know. Have faith in yourself, not a machine.”
“Are you sure about this?” Steve asked, watching Tony gather what he needed on his workbench. “You don’t have to do it. I could get a timer.”
Tony shook his head. “And what if-?”
“No,” Steve interrupted. “No. There’s no what if. It’s you, Tony. You’re the one.”
Finally, Tony looked up and into Steve’s eyes.
“Yes,” he said firmly. “I am. And you’re the one for me, Steve. And I don’t need a clock to tell me that. I don’t need the universe, deciding that. I decided. The day I met you I decided.”
“The day you met me,” Steve repeated with a smile. “The day you met me, huh?”
“Try not to let it go to your head.”
Steve laughed and caught Tony’s hand in his own. “The universe brought me to you. I think as far as destiny goes, we’ve got it covered.”
“It’s not going to be easy,” Tony told him.
Steve smiled and kissed Tony’s hand. “The best things never are.”