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It was impossible to miss something you never had. You could regret the lack, Tony supposed, but you could never really know what it felt like to have it, so you couldn’t exactly miss it. Maybe there was a blessing in that, the lack of knowledge. Like being born without an appendage. You missed the perceived ease that graced the lives of others, but you couldn’t miss the thing itself. You had no conception of a world where the phantom limb once made you whole.

He liked to think that, sometimes. Sometimes, it helped to think that. It wasn’t a lie, not exactly. It wasn’t truth, either, he could admit now. It was something in between. Grace, his mother would have said, and that might be the most apt description, because grace never came without pain or sacrifice, but that was what made it mean something.

Tony shrugged out of his tuxedo jacket and undid the small buttons at the cuffs of the crisply starched white shirt, then rolled up the sleeves, right hand rubbing over the titanium band that circled his left wrist. He caught his reflection in the three-paneled mirror above the bureau and ran light fingers up and down the center row of buttons, stopping briefly to tap on the hard plane of blue that shone through the white shirt.

Pain and sacrifice, he thought, sucking in a breath and feeling strangely grateful when it smelled lightly of sandalwood, something the maid thought he liked, and not the rank, vaguely stale air of a cave. Old air, he thought. He suspected his last breath would taste of old air, but that wasn’t something he shared with anyone. Certainly not today of all days.

Today was for celebrating, and he was happy for them, how could he not be? After all, what would it say about him if he weren’t , if a part of him hated them both a little, wanted to go back and change the past and take this away from them? What kind of person would he be if thought about that?

Well, it would probably say a lot, he thought viciously, scrubbing his face with his hand and turning away from the image in the mirror doing the same.

He wasn’t sure when he realized he was different. Wrong-different. When had his parents’ glances had gone from concerned to furtive to something that might have been pitying? If it had been pity, it had quickly become laced with something darker, maybe their own guilt slowly burning into penance, he couldn’t be sure. They’d done a damn good job making themselves unhappy, that much was certain, until his father spent more days trying to bury a ghost than raise a son.

He remembered always knowing not to talk about it. It wasn’t said explicitly, at least, not until much later, but he knew. He knew. Keep it hidden. Don’t tell. Don’t talk about, not ever, because if they know, if they know, it will be bad, wrong-bad, and they would know. They would know about him, and they would look at him the way his mother did, with her pinched face, sadness and horror and shame warring with guilt and usually losing. Winner gets a bottle of chardonnay, he thought, the memory, old as it was, still able to sting. She’d loved him, true, but she’d hated herself more, and that was something he could never forgive. He’d needed her, at least, to love him enough to lie to him.

He could still see the circus wallpaper border in the doctor’s office. It was an incredibly vivid memory, clear and precise, undimmed by the passing of decades. Some sort of line of demarcation, he supposed. There had been a blue train with a smiling face pulling grinning, brightly colored animals in puffy-barred cages behind it.  Sometimes, he could feel the sticky thin sheet of paper covering the faux leather exam table rubbing against the backs of his thighs while the doctor talked in low tones to his mother, patting her gently on the shoulder. Consoling, he knew now. He remembered the way the doctor had recoiled, drawing back and dropping Tony’s wrist as if it burned, before he regained some composure.

“It should be there by now, right? I mean, I know some children are late-bloomers, but…it should be there, shouldn’t it, Doctor?” his mother’s voice pressed, high and shrill and already sure that something was terribly wrong.

Afterwards, he’d asked if they could go to the circus. She had promised they would. He’d wanted a balloon, red, like the one the clown in the wallpaper was holding, and maybe some cotton candy. Jarvis had taken him, eventually, the first of many half-fulfilled promises that he didn’t realize at the time were each a step away from him. He’d gotten that and so much more, anything he wanted, in fact, all given at a careful distance. They’d given him everything they could, too much, really. He could see it now, the way they tried to fill something he didn’t know was empty until years later.

Tony walked to the dark-paneled bar and poured a dark, amber liquid into one of the glasses. He lifted the cubed tumbler and took a long swallow, relishing the familiar burn as the alcohol ran down his throat and soured into his stomach. He rubbed absently at the titanium band that circled around his wrist, covering the smooth, unblemished skin there where his soulmark would be.

Should be.

He was being maudlin, he knew, though felt somewhat entitled at this point. He’d been the perfect gentleman all day. Hell, he’d even given a toast at the rehearsal dinner.

To the happy couple, he thought, hearing the edge of bitterness in the words as he raised the empty glass to the city skyline that glittered outside the window. The thing of it was, most of the time, he was genuinely thrilled for Pepper and Happy. They were perfect for each other. Of course they were. That was the point. Couldn’t have happened to two better people, and he loved them both. They were family, the best kind, the kind that you chose and chose you right back. It was easy to be happy for them. Hell, you could siphon off a bit of theirs and they’d never notice, too caught up in having found each other, won the universe’s great lottery and actually managed to meet.

Still, he could close his eyes and see Pepper’s face in that moment before she’d caught herself and shuttered her expression when he showed her his wrist. He’d wanted her to know, was all. Before they really committed to try something together. Unbonded couples were the norm, after all. Billions of people out there, so it wasn’t exactly a simple proposition to find that one person. He’d just felt that she should know before they went further. Honestly, a part of him had hoped she might find it reassuring, that he wasn’t going to one day find his soulmate and leave her. He hadn’t expected…well, he hadn’t expected to flash to red balloons. He’d gotten angry, and that hadn’t helped. She had been sorry, that much was clear, he just hadn’t been able to tell what she was sorry about, her reaction or the reason why. And that, really, had been the beginning of the end, Happy aside.

He hadn’t understood, of course he hadn’t, because it was the missing limb, the dark of blindness, the silence of deafness. The utter absence of knowledge of what it meant to have the certainty that Pepper and everyone else took as rote.  

For most of human history, soulmates had been the stuff of fairy tales anyway, drifting between legend and romanticized fantasy. Fuck, when you had a life expectancy of thirty or so years, it wasn’t like you could hold out for finding your soulmate. Matchmakers could supposedly help find someone compatible, or that was how they billed it anyway, until technology replaced the village witch throwing stones and chicken bones in the dirt and trading divination for your prized cow.

How many social rituals were built upon the idea of finding your soulmate?  Handshakes, kisses on the cheek, hell most cultures had adapted some greeting that allowed for touch. Just in case.   He'd been accused of everything from snobbery to germaphobia for his refusal to touch people, even to take things from them, but he had long ago tired of a polite ritual that left him unable to stop hoping all the while knowing each touch was going to end in disappointment.

Now it was all online, sophisticated search programs, registries, trans-national immigration agreements, the whole world seeming to have embraced the idea once science gave them permission to believe what everyone wanted to believe all along. That there was someone out there for you, your match, your mate, the one who would complete you, chosen by the universe.

Whether you called it God or nature or science, it was the one thing that outstripped human control, defied all attempts to replicate or quantify. A divine compact with a dark, empty world and the finite sureness of time.   Raised up from dust and returned to it, but each person got this one thing, this absolute, a promise, almost in recompense. It was comforting, he supposed. However cruel life may be, there was the chance, the possibility, however remote, of perfect happiness.  Maybe it was needed now more than ever, as fractured and disconnected as we were. As alone. In so many ways, more alone now than we had ever been. It was no surprise the idea had grown to almost cult-like status over the centuries.

So, he might have spent some time researching all this.

A footnote. In a journal article from the sixties. Not even a peer-reviewed journal, just something that aspired to it. That was all he had been able to find. Doctor Simon Brewster, PhD, speculated that there could be an occurrence when a mate dies in utero, before the mark forms in whatever part of the DNA controls it, but after the bond develops, though Doctor Brewster carefully noted that he could find no record of such a thing actually happening. Maybe no one wanted to know about it. Why would you? It wasn’t something that could be cured. There were no colored ribbons, no fundraisers, no pink vacuums or catchy bumper stickers. What would be the point?

There were records though, if you knew what to look for and where to look for it. You had to read between the lines. Mingi, the cursed children who brought bad luck to some tribes in Ethiopia. The lost ones, they were called by some of the indigenous Pacific Islanders. Changelings in Irish folk tales. Filipino stories told of Aswangs, who sicken and die quickly. Around the world, cultures seemed to have some lore about it, these children who were born wrong. It probably didn’t happen all that often, but it must have happened enough to scare people, to make them create these explanations for something they couldn’t control and couldn’t understand. To give them an excuse for why these children were shunned, hated even. Worse, sometimes.

Tony reached for the bottle and held it up in front of him, swirling the remaining contents around in the bottom before bringing it to his mouth and swallowing the rest, squeezing his eyes shut as they watered where it burned a path down his thorat. He was thrilled for Pepper and Happy.  

Really. Just thrilled.

“How did you—“ Tony started, then stopped and cleared his throat where his mouth had gone dry. He shoved his hands in the pockets of his suit, staring out through the French doors over the garden where the guests were starting to fill the rows of white chairs. “How did you know?”

“Tony,” she said from behind him. He was making her sad. It was her wedding day, and he was upsetting her. He could see her reflection in the glass panes, a white silhouette clutching a colorful spray of some kind of flowers. His mother would have known their names, he thought out of nowhere. “Don’t do this to yourself.”

“Just—just tell me,” he heard himself say. He could feel his jaw tightening like a vice, but couldn’t make himself stop. He needed to hear it. Wanted to hear it with a manic sort of desperation, even though he knew, God-damn it all to hell, he knew that he shouldn’t be doing this. Not now. Probably not ever. It was her day, and he was—fuck, he didn’t know what he was doing, except that he was about to walk the closest thing he’d had to a chance down the aisle, and he needed to hear it. He could hear it from her. Maybe only from her. He had always wanted her happiness more than his own. He wasn’t sure why he had to know, except that he’d walked out of a cave into something more, and this should be enough, but it wasn’t, and he didn’t know why. It was more than most would ever have, and it was so close to enough that if he could just hear it, just know, maybe it could be enough.

She didn’t answer right away, as if giving him time to rethink it, to take it back. He should, he knew, but he couldn’t. It was sitting out there now, in the space between them, but it had been there long before this, he could see that now. She hadn’t known it, of course, and he hadn’t realized, but the question had always been between them, an invisible wall, and he’d been looking through it the whole time, distorting everything like one of those funhouse mirrors. The kind you might see at a circus.

“I—I just knew,” she finally began, her words coming out quickly, like it would be better if she could peel the bandage off before the pain could register. “When I touched him. I mean, we’d talked before. I’d seen him around SI, of course, and I always liked Happy, but…he took my briefcase that day as I was getting into the car, and we just—touched,” Pepper explained, an odd combination of happiness overlaid with sorrow in her voice. “I just knew. Everything was—it was more right than it had been the second before. I’m probably not—I don’t know how to say it.   It was,” she continued with a small sigh. He could see her shoulders slump a bit in the paned reflection, but the way she looked, her eyes gone distant and soft at the memory, her right hand wrapping a circle around her left wrist as if she could feel the mark there, it was enough to answer his question, he supposed. “It was like a burden that I didn’t know I was carrying was taken from me in a single heartbeat.   Everything was completely clear. This person would love me exactly as I am, no matter how I change or what happens to us---I can be entirely me, and this person—he will love me. Tony, it was—it was freedom. It was being utterly and completely free, because I will be loved, no matter what. That’s…that’s what it felt like.”

That was the thing. Everyone had someone. Maybe you didn’t find that person, but they were out there. No matter who you were or what you did, there was someone who would love you.   Sure, it didn’t mean eternal bliss, even if you found that person. Real life wasn’t a fucking storybook, and bad things happened to good people, and people were still selfish and cruel. Finding your soulmate wasn’t a cure for the human condition.

But it meant—well. Having a soulmark meant you were someone who could be loved. You had that. And as it turned out, just knowing that meant something to people. Maybe you wouldn’t be happy. There were no guarantees. But, everyone had the chance, and that mattered a whole fucking lot to people. Hell, murderers had soulmarks. Hilter, Stalin…Trump. They all had marks.

Everyone. Everyone had the chance to be loved, completely and inexorably, without pretense or fear. To be free.

Right. Ain’t life grand? Oh, maybe there were others like him, but they sure as hell didn’t talk about it. Not exactly a twelve-step program or Facebook group. Who the fuck in their right mind would admit this?

Tony sat the bottle back on the bar with a loud thump, the sound echoing through the darkened room too loudly in the quiet. You needed quiet for this, he thought. Noise somehow made this whole thing all the more pathetic. He’d mentally agreed when he placed Pepper’s hand in Happy’s, the two of them beaming at each other, to give himself this night, one night. Hell, not even—fuck, what time was it? Not even a night. A few hours. Then he would go back to reminding himself that he was Tony Stark and none of this had ever mattered. It hadn’t stopped him from getting out of that cave, and it hadn’t stopped him from becoming Iron Man.

He couldn’t let this matter.

But, he could have a night. He could give himself that.

Tony walked over and sat down heavily on the crackled leather sofa. He bent over and reached across the sofa for the tablet, swiping it on, then rubbing a hand over his eyes at the glow and letting his head lean back against the cushion pillowing his neck. He finally looked back at the screen, idly thumbing through the company emails, most of which he would ignore.

He checked his personal email, finding one from Pepper, too casual to be anything other than her checking up on him. “Jarvis, send the Potts-Hogan suite at the St. Regis something that says ‘Tony is eating and sleeping appropriately and completely not engaging in self-destructive behavior,’” Tony called out.

“The usual fruit basket and shoes then,” JARVIS responded.

“Sounds good,” Tony mumbled. There was one other email in his inbox, this one from an unknown sender with a large document attached. “J, scan this other email for me, would you?”

“I’m not detecting any viruses, Sir.   I am also unable to determine the sender without more analysis. The attachment appears to be some type of scientific report by a Doctor Erik Selvig,” JARVIS supplied after a moment.

“Huh. Well, let’s see what the good doctor has to say,” Tony muttered, opening the attachment. Thermonuclear astrophysics? Bit hefty for late night reading, but at least somewhat interesting, he mused. He managed to make it as far as quantum tunneling effect before switching off the tablet, blinking as his eyes tried to adjust to the sudden darkness. He reached up and jerked off his bowtie, undoing the buttons of his dress shirt and untucking it from his waist before pushing himself up and shrugging it off, letting it fall to the floor. He toed off his shoes, then kicked off his pants, padding to the bed in his boxers and socks.

He wasn’t sure how long he lay there, staring at the ceiling until the big dark blob dancing in front of his eyes coalesced into bits and pieces he could pick out in the dim, blue glow of the reactor. He never should have asked Pepper to tell him that.

You can’t miss what you never had, he’d spent years assuring himself. It was the uncertainty, the damn, fucking unknown, that drove you crazy. He’d built it up in his head because it was the one thing he couldn’t have. It was the not knowing that was worse. Wasn’t that what everyone said? Better to know you had cancer than wonder if you did. At least he knew. He had that. He fucking knew. He had all the certainty in the world. No one would look at him the way Happy looked at Pepper, no one was sitting out there wondering about him, hoping for him.

No one was waiting for him.

Certainty was supposed to be comforting. He’d just lay here and wait for the comfort to arrive. Any minute now, he thought with a bitter huff of a laugh.

He was well aware that he needed to stop this. One night of being a maudlin ass could quickly turn into a week-long bender if he wasn’t careful. Wouldn’t be the first time. Fuck it all, you didn’t need a damn soulmate to be happy. That had always been true. He thought maybe you needed to know you had a chance to find one though. That maybe just the certainty that you could be loved, maybe that would be enough. But, he didn’t know if that was true or not. He would never know if that was true. And there’s the fucking uncertainty, he thought, feeling the tension leak out of him as he gave in. He’d known he was going to end up here tonight. There had never really been any other way this night ended, pathetic though it might be.   He knew himself too well at this point.

“Jarvis,” he said heavily, voice thick and slurry with lost sleep and too much alcohol.

“Of course, Sir. One moment,” JARVIS responded softly, a hint of something like acceptance in his voice.

Tony blinked at the sudden brightness, though the sharp, staccato sounds were oddly comforting, familiar enough by this point, he supposed. He rolled over to his side, watching the grainy black and white projection play on the bedroom wall. Maybe you never outgrew the comforts of childhood, though it might be less embarrassing to carry around a patched-up lovey of some kind instead of this.   On the screen, Cap was waving a hand over his shoulder to signal the Commandos forward into battle. Tony could feel his limbs going heavy and soft, eyes pricking as exhaustion overtook him as he watched Cap’s image flicker across the wall.

Something about these old reels had always been soothing.