The moments in his life where Tony has felt truly content are few and far between, as if happiness, intent on giving him a wide berth, occasionally slips up and he stumbles onto it by accident before it eludes him once more.
If he lets himself, he can recall being four, holding his first circuit board and basking in his father's then proud gaze, or those peaceful mornings where he had sat next to his mother on the sofa, curled into her side, feeling her breathe and never once imagining that one day she would stop. More recent are the memories of flying as Iron Man for the first time, soaring higher and higher to the symphony of AC/DC and his own unfettered laughter, and of Pepper's arms around him, relief swimming in her wet eyes when he told her he was no longer dying from palladium poisoning.
Those moments, as close to joy as they had brought him, feel like mere shadows in the wake of what blindsides him when he flippantly takes Captain America's hand. The greeting at the tip of his tongue fizzles away. His thoughts fade like dying whispers.
Sometime later, Pepper will ask him what Bonding felt like and he won't be able to explain. Tony isn't a poet unless it comes to his creations, the majority of his speeches are as convoluted as he is and so, the right words will escape him. The most he'll manage to tell her after several glasses of whiskey is how something inside of him has shifted, maybe vanishing away or maybe fixing itself, but whatever it is, Tony knows on some level that he is, like after Afghanistan all over again, an irrevocably changed man.
In that instance, he feels his chest tighten and his skin tingle. He is falling or maybe defying gravity or breaking apart or becoming whole for the first time ever. He is burning and it doesn't hurt, this fierce fire, this cool fire makes his blood sing with the serene hum of Zen gardens. He is an unstable atom spilling out energy erratically and he is the vibranium in his arc reactor that keeps him alive, solid, strong, unyielding. He is, he is, he is -
but then his eyes open - when did he close them? - and everything is churning inside of him and all Tony can think is, shit, no, fuckfuckfuck, no fucking way. (It is, first and foremost, a clear indication that there's something wrong with him, if that's all he can think in the middle of what should be the greatest moment in his life.)
He inhales sharply like it's his first breath in days, pulling his hand away, ignoring how Rogers' fingers try to follow.
"Tony," Rogers whispers, sounding breathless. It's so terribly intimate, so full of wonder, that it belongs not in the stale air of a SHIELD briefing room but in the darkness of a bedroom, beneath silky sheets. Tony finds himself jerking backwards. He deals in machines and numbers and sex that means little more than physical gratification; the way Rogers is looking at him right now is alien, undeserving, and he doesn't understand it.
He hisses out like a cornered animal, "no, no, I don't think so, Captain, you're not getting anything from me," and watches some of the joy in Rogers' face seep out. Vaguely, Tony notices Romanoff again, standing behind Rogers as if his barely stirring shadow, a tiny frown on her face instead of that coolly appraising expression she favours. Tony hurriedly puts on his sunglasses, clinging to what little protection it offers him, too shaken to care that he's hiding and exposing himself in one move. The meeting hasn't even begun yet, but it's time to leave, he decides, time to have a drink or three or until he loses consciousness. "I think," he says, slowly, warningly, "it's best if we all just pretend nothing happened here."
Rogers stares at him, wide-eyed, and Tony makes himself look away first just to prove that he can and that he can do it easily. It feels like a sharp sting, like ripping off the plaster from a wound. He makes sure to glance around, so that everyone knows he's not talking solely to the good Captain.
Bonding doesn't have to change anything. Tony Stark doesn't adhere to those rules anymore. (The terrible truth, of course, is that he can't, really, being the broken, miserable thing that he is.)
"Stark," Fury begins, always with that heavy gravity to his voice.
"This didn't happen," Tony repeats, barely stifling a shout. They all know that, the first chance he gets, he is going to hack into SHIELD's system and get rid of the camera footage.
Tony shakes his head and briskly heads for the door, grappling for a confidence he doesn't feel. He is unflappable, he tells himself because he's good at lying to himself, he is Tony Stark and he is unflappable even when an impossibility becomes reality. Coulson takes a step forward to intercept. Tony doesn't know what Coulson sees on his face (doesn't want to know even more) but whatever it is, it makes the agent rethink his intentions.
Tony says, "I have things to do. Lots of things. Absolute shitload. Don't know when I'll be free again, sorry, bye," and disappears without looking back, a man on the run.
Logically, Tony knows that Captain America – Captain America! Because, clearly, someone thought that if they were going to fuck over Tony Stark, they might as well do it big – isn't the problem. The problem, and this is perfectly obvious and grows only more obvious the more Tony drinks, is Tony himself. When he relays this to JARVIS, JARVIS replies with, "I believe that others may find your definition of 'logic' skewed, sir," which Tony takes to mean that he's better off ignoring JARVIS for the time being.
Normally, when faced with a quandary, Tony will disappear into his workshop and steadily work out an answer over numerous cups of coffee and looping playlists. There is no such thing as a problem without a solution – he's always known this but he only truly learnt what it means in a cave across the world – except there's nothing normal about this situation. He can't solve himself though God knows there have been attempts, his own included. (He also can't help the little kick he gets from thinking of himself as an impossible equation; he'd be the bane of academics everywhere.)
Once a problem is solved, it is eradicated. It exists no longer. Obie - still Obie even after everything - must have decided that it works just as well the other way: kill the problem and therefore solve it. Tony knows well the frustration of a seemingly unsolvable problem, so a tiny part of him commiserates with the disappointment Obie must have felt when Tony returned from Afghanistan alive and what that says about the issues Tony has, well, the less said, the better.
The urge to submit is discreetly placed within his makeup but like so many of the rules that society tries to enforce, Tony, for the most part, ignores it. The lifestyle he advocates where he does what or who he wants when he wants demands that he, at times, stifle that deep instinct. His orientation doesn't rule him, this is what he tells the world and the world, for the most part, listens, dutifully churning out photograph after photograph of Tony's wide selection of lovers be they Doms, subs, or switches. He makes it seem easy; discarding orientation is brushing lint off his favourite suit, but anyone who has ever pretended to be something they are not can understand how arduous it truly is. That part of him that hissed and writhed for attention every time Tony suppressed it found glorious freedom with Obie. But that was then. Tony has learned from his mistakes now.
"Tony, I know," Pepper's voice message had said when he returned to the penthouse a few hours ago. Coulson most likely called her the moment Tony fled from that briefing room. "And it'll be okay. Don't worry. I'll see you in a few days and then we'll talk."
He should feel awful. He wants to feel awful for not telling his girlfriend that he is Bonded to someone else, but all he can feel is the shakiness of his limbs persisting despite his best efforts to control it and he doesn't want Pepper to see him fighting against himself like this. From experience he knows it's a sad thing, a pitiful thing, to watch a machine break down. People are even worse. There's no one there to simply switch them off when they begin that shameful descent, sputtering and stalling.
That night, he passes out from drinking too much and it tips him into a hazy dream, where the clearest things are blue eyes and sun-kissed hair. When he wakes up, gasping and with a headache familiar enough to be an old friend, Tony decides to cut down on the alcohol and to stay awake until he's so thoroughly exhausted that he won't have the energy to even dream. (He nurses the hope that Rogers hasn't dreamt of him too, the last thing he wants is to be another man's nightmare.)
For most of his life, Tony has placed Bonding in the realm of myths, alongside Daedalus and Icarus, Ragnarök, virtuous men, and a Howard Stark who could pay attention to his son once in a while. He may have let himself dream once, a long time ago, a time before Obie, but dreams are just as intangible and unreachable as myths so it was all just foolishness really.
Now though, he's reading everything he can find on the subject: essays, personal accounts, studies, and theories. He learns how rare it is (recordings in America began in the late eighteenth century, only two thousand Bondings have been confirmed since then in a country populated by millions), how long it takes for the Bond to stabilise (roughly a month), and finds a list of common reactions (it's the 'hyperawareness of one another's presence' that makes Tony rub at his chest, where the acute sensitivity to Rogers' absence has left a vacuum). He searches desperately but nothing tells him how to dissolve a Bond.
Pepper is nothing if not a woman of her word, so inevitably, four days later, they are both sitting on the couch, Tony fiddling with an empty glass. He doesn't want to drink in case he can't stop and he wants to remember this conversation, every word, every expression, every movement. Even so, he's already launched into a spiel, commenting on Pepper's hair, Dummy's latest accident, his next idea for an invention, the weather in Tahiti (how he knows that, Tony's not quite sure), and he is so hopelessly lost in his own words that Pepper has to put a hand over his mouth to quiet him.
"'m soey," he says into her palm, repeating it more clearly when she takes her hand away.
Pepper only smiles sadly. "So am I. But not quite as much as you, I think."
Her admission pricks him. "What is that supposed to mean? We're dating. We're together. You're meant to be angry. Why aren't you angry?"
Pepper takes the glass from his hand, setting it on the table. She curls her long fingers delicately around both of his hands. They feel cool against his sweaty palm and he holds on tight. When she speaks, it's with a yearning that he has never really heard before with her. "For all we like to think we've found our soul mate, Bonding hardly ever happens these days. How I could ever be angry that you get to have something so wonderful?"
"But I don't want this. I want you, Pep, I love you," Tony insists, because it's the truth. As two subs, theirs is not the typical relationship and they'll never fit together neatly in all the ways a Dom and sub do, but there is love between them. It isn't the torrid passion or heady excitement of a Yeats poem but it is stability, constancy, a refuge where Tony can breathe a little lighter.
"And I love you, Tony, I always will. I'm flattered that you would choose me over the man you're Bonded to, but we both know that this could never be anything...more than what it is now." He doesn't want to hear it, but she's going to say it anyway. They've talked about this only once before, back when their friendship first became something more, and they've both known that one day, they would have to talk about it again. Selfishly, Tony has been hoping that that day would never come around. "We're safe options for each other. We can't hurt each other as much as a Dom could. But now there's something better for you."
"There is no one better than you. You're the best, you always have been. Pepper, why can't you see that?"
"You can't ignore this," she points out, ever the voice of reason.
"I can and I will."
"That's like cutting off your nose to spite your face, Tony. I thought you were meant to be clever. And it's not just you that we have to think about. What about Captain Rogers?" There are very few secrets he can keep from her (very few he'd want to). Despite Fury's stressing, the retrieval of Captain America isn't one of them.
"What about Rogers?" Tony sneers. He'd prefer mountains and rivers to separate him from Rogers but mountains and rivers aren't viable right now, so he'll settle for what meagre distance surnames allow him. It's petty and childish but that has never stopped him before.
"Agent Coulson said he's unhappy and confused. He doesn't understand why you left so suddenly. Tony, you have to go back. He wants to talk to you."
"I can't go back. I can't talk to him. I can't do this, Pepper, I can't," and he's holding her hands too tight now, possibly hurting her, but he can't make himself let go. He'll be lost if he lets go. Pepper is safe, Pepper is honest. She is the shadow that is too loyal to abandon anyone and she is one of the few reasons why his smiles, the honest ones he rarely uses, have warmth in them (the others are Rhodey and Happy). He loves her and she loves him and why isn't that enough?
Pepper frowns, concerned. She gets one hand free and touches his forehead, his cheeks, feeling out an illness. She touches and then her eyes harden, as if the fear on his face is Braille and she has read the truth with her fingertips. "Tony, this isn't just about the Bonding, is it? There's something else."
"It is," Tony murmurs hoarsely.
"Tony. Is this - is this about Stane?"
Only Pepper, Rhodey, and Happy know that Obie was more than a mentor and a family friend, but the whole story is a mystery even to them. That is a secret he will never share, a darkness that only he will suffer from. Pepper is untainted, undamaged, unlike Tony whose scars still run red even if only he can see how it gushes. He wants to keep it that way, so he gives her a half-hearted smile and says nothing. Let her make of that what she will.
"He was never right for you," Pepper says vehemently, so beautifully fierce like fire flaring bright that it's no wonder Tony adores her.
"It doesn't matter what he was or wasn't. Point is, I'm not taking any risks."
"I don't know him, but I'd like to think the man who's Captain America would never betray you like Stane did and try to kill you."
"That's the thing. You don't know him. There is no one left alive who knows him. I'm not taking any chances."
"No, Pepper," Tony says brokenly, slumping forward to rest his forehead against her shoulder. She smells like vanilla, like comfort, as always. It eases his frantic grip on her hands, makes it easier for him to say the words his pride – battered as it is – would never let him say in front of anyone else. "Pepper, don't leave me."
She wraps her arms around him, presses a kiss into his hair, and lets that be her answer for now.