Many people talk about long-term pain as something you live with for so long that you forget you're even hurting. Tony Stark, holder of several (non-medical) doctorates, would like to posit that all of those people are lying bastards. Pain is something you get used to, not something you can forget.
Having said that, when Tony wakes up the night after his (unbelievable amazing perfect) date with Steve, it takes him a while to notice the lack of pain in his chest. Partially because he hasn't had any coffee, and partially because he's still a little high on last night's date.
Well. If he were prodded a little further, he might admit that it's really mostly the latter.
Whatever it is, Tony makes it all the way through his morning routine and three gulps into his second coffee before he realises the third reason why he feels so light and unburdened. There's no pain. No twinge of cardiac muscle, no burn around his sternum where the reactor meets bone, no sting in his heart just behind the reactor.
He's in the workshop in under a minute.
“JARVIS, scan me,” he barks. “The entire thoracic cavity, leave no lymph node unturned. And prep me a spare reactor.”
“At once, sir.”
Tony holds still and very determinedly keeps his breathing under control. His mind is racing. No pain ought to be good news, he reminds himself. No need to panic.
“No anomalies detected with the arc reactor,” reports JARVIS. “Cardiac and respiratory functions are within parameters. Shall I call Doctor Banner?”
Eh, what the hell. “Put him through.”
“Tony? Is something wrong?” Bruce's voice filters into the workshop, clear and concerned.
“Good morning, Brucie!” says Tony cheerily. “So, I may have a little issue here that could use some professional advice. Have you had breakfast?”
“I have, stop deflecting, what's the issue?”
“Oh good, I didn't want to interrupt. How was it, did you try Clint's new cereal? Also, I know it's dangerous when someone gets acute pains with seemingly no cause, but what about an acute lack of pain?”
Bruce says, “It's terrible—” and Tony's mysteriously pain-free heart stops, but then “—it tastes like dog food, he's banned from grocery shopping for a month. What do you mean, an acute lack of pain?”
“You know how I basically live in constant discomfort from having a superbattery embedded inches deep in my chest?” says Tony.
“Yes, Tony, because you rely on me for medical advice instead of going to an actual doctor like normal people do.”
“Well, it's not hurting right now.”
“Is it numb?”
Tony prods at his chest.
“Any problems with your breathing?”
“No, I made it here from the penthouse in like fifty seconds without getting winded, I'm excellent.” Never mind that he took the elevator.
There's a short silence, during which Tony tries his level best not to badger Bruce impatiently. No, really, he does.
“A minute, I'm looking at the scans JARVIS is putting up for me,” Bruce says, unhurried. “You look perfectly normal to me.”
“Huh.” So he's fine. Tony's not at risk of dying just a few weeks after he's started something amazing with the love of his life, that's good news. That's great news. Tony breathes out in relief.
Steve was the one who asked Tony out first, but Tony thinks he deserves at least some of the credit for pining so obviously and obnoxiously for months that the team (read: Natasha) finally got tired of laughing at him and decided to give Steve a nudge in the right direction. Well, to hear it, it was probably more like a shove than a nudge. A shove from the Hulk.
Tony doesn't take that personally. He knows about Steve's soulmate from before the ice. Steve was one of the few, but not rare, people who are born with a match, one half of a soul bond, in their future. Those who can feel their souls pull towards their intended match throughout their lives until they meet and acknowledge the bond. Steve was, but isn't, because he came out of his sub-zero sabbatical feeling nothing from the bond. He spent ages grieving over people from the past, including the soulmate he never got to meet.
But Steve's been much better recently, and he was a joy to see yesterday, bright and animated and happy. Tony's known for a while now that Steve's happiness means a lot to him, but still. What a sap he's turned into.
Why is Bruce still on the line?
“I said, there is one possible explanation for chest pains suddenly vanishing,” Bruce says. He sounds weirdly hesitant, which puts Tony's guard up immediately. “You know. If a matched soul stops pushing yours away—”
“Not possible,” says Tony. “I don't have a match. Never have.”
He can practically hear Bruce's curious, contemplative frown.
“How sure are you that those pains you've had were all from the reactor?”
Damn, Bruce is right. Still, “I've never felt the pull.”
“Yes, because your match wasn't ready. Hence the pain of a one-sided pull.”
“No, I mean I've never felt it even pre-arc reactor. You know, the many years of my life that I wasn't half-robot? You'll recall from my medical file that I wasn't born with it.” Tony doesn't mean to be snippy, he appreciates Bruce trying to help with this, but there's no way, there's absolutely no fucking way he has a match. “My chest started hurting when the reactor was in it, period.”
“Yes, except the reactor's still there and the pain isn't,” says Bruce. “I'm not drawing any conclusions, just suggesting an alternate hypothesis.”
Tony doesn't answer. He's too busy panicking, because he's just felt a tiny flash of sensation, a feeling of being under warm sunlight, that definitely didn't originate here in the workshop.
He has a soulmate. An intended person whose soul is a match for his. Someone who, by some trickery of the universe, is perfect for him. Someone who's finally, finally pulling back at Tony's soul and who feels like the best kind of morning sun.
How the fuck does one go about breaking soul bonds?
“I don't know if there's a way to break it when it's mutual,” says Bruce when Tony asks.
“It's not fucking mutual—”
“The bond is pulling at you, which kind of means it is. On some level, your soul is accepting theirs.” Bruce has the decency to sound apologetic. “Cases in which it's faded, the matched persons were both deeply unhappy for an extended period of time; a mutual unwillingness, if you will.”
“Meaning that if I'd been unwilling enough before this, it would've gone away?” Tony asks, frustrated.
“How was I supposed to reject someone I didn't even know existed? This system is flawed!” He's going to write an angry email to the universe. (More realistically, he'll get Pepper to do it.)
Bruce sighs. “Presumably, most people don't have an arc reactor to assume as the root of their inexplicable chest pains.”
Tony opens his mouth to say something very scathing, he's sure, but JARVIS interrupts.
“My apologies, sir, but you have an incoming call from Captain Rogers.”
Oh God, it's Steve. Tony is about eighty percent on the way to a full freakout.
“You should talk to him about it,” Bruce says with some sympathy. “I'll see you at dinner.”
He hangs up on Tony, leaving the incoming call from Steve still ringing through the workshop speakers.
Tony wants nothing more than to hear Steve's voice. He just knows it'll make him feel better, more secure in the knowledge that he hasn't actually betrayed Steve somehow. But he can't talk to Steve now, not when he's in a crisis trying to figure out how to break the soul bond he didn't know he had. He rejects the call, then sends out a quick text telling Steve he's in the middle of a board meeting and that he'll be done in a couple of hours.
He feels guilty for the lie immediately. Tony winces; is this what cheating feels like? But he's not cheating, is the irony of it — he's doing the opposite of cheating. He's trying to break his bond to a stranger because the one he loves is Steve, and no mystical hoo-hah is going to dictate his happiness for him, so there.
He spends the next three hours buried in what feels like every paper ever written on the soul bond phenomenon, plus a few trashy articles online about people who were resistant to the idea at first but then fell for their matches anyway. What is wrong with these people? Don't they have any determination?
Tony's about to open yet another Elsevier link just as Steve finds him.
“Hey, Tony. Natasha said—” Steve stops short at the twenty-odd holographic displays around Tony, all showing articles with titles varying on the theme of breaking a soul bond. His happy smile instantly vanishes.
“I can explain,” says Tony immediately, and God damn it, that sounds just like something a guy caught cheating would say. Fuck you, brain.
The look on Steve's face is utterly crushed. Tony feels his own heart aching sharply at the sight, and he rushes forward to grab Steve around the waist.
“I was going to tell you,” he says in a rush, desperately willing Steve to listen, “Steve. I swear, I had no idea about any of this — this bond stuff, that I even had one. I just needed to wrap my head around it first, and then I was going to tell you. I didn't want to tell you before I'd broken the damn bond because I know you, you think bonds are sacred or whatever, and you'd leave me so that I could go find my match and be happy while the universe shits cosmic rainbows over our bonded heads. But I'm not going to let that happen, because I'm happy with you, okay? Not some fated somebody.”
Tony grips the back of Steve's shirt a little harder for emphasis. “I love you, and I don't care who else has suddenly decided that they're ready to bond with me. I'm taken.”
His ranting and raving seems to be working, because Steve's face goes from heartbroken to confused, then downright luminous as Tony is speaking. By the end of it, he's got his own arms around Tony, blue eyes bright and sparkly again.
Tony feels himself relax. They're going to be fine. Steve understands; they're going to be fine. Tony tries to ask Steve why he'd come down to the workshop in the first place, but then Steve leans down and kisses him, so of course Tony opens his mouth obligingly. Steve slants in further, runs his thumbs along Tony's jaw, curls his tongue around Tony's, and oh, that's really nice. Better than it usually is, even. Almost as though—
Tony breaks the kiss and stares at Steve, who has the stupidest, most punch-drunk happy look on his face that Tony has ever seen on a human being. Tony suspects his own face might be the same, but he's too busy being shocked to control himself.
“Explain,” he demands, voice just a tiny bit rough.
Steve beams at him. “We're soulmates.”
“Yeah, I got that from the crazy zingy bond-kiss thing,” Tony huffs. “Explain further, wise guy.”
Steve gives a tiny shrug. Tony is still squished between his arms, so the movement jostles him a little. “I don't know, Tony. I just figured it out this morning myself.”
“I felt a pull.” Steve gives him a quick kiss that still manages to weaken his knees. “Wasn't hard to figure it out from there, really.”
“But I've never felt anything before today!” says Tony, aware that he's toeing the line between acceptable outrage and whining. “Where were you my whole… life…” His voice trails off, and okay, he feels like an idiot. “Oh.”
“Yes, ‘Oh.’ I was kind of nearly-dead for a while,” Steve says. His tone is a mix of wry and apologetic. “I'm sorry it took this long, though. You thought it was the reactor hurting your heart, didn't you? That's why you didn't know you had a match.”
Tony plonks his face smack in the middle of Steve's chest. Besides the comfort of warm pecs, there's the added advantage of hiding the sappy expression he just knows is on his traitorous face. He nods mutely into Steve's cleavage. Steve presses his lips to the top of Tony's head. They stand there for several long moments, still surrounded by glowing displays on soul bond studies.
“I was so happy when I realised,” says Steve softly, breath ruffling Tony's hair, “that we managed to find and love each other without being led by the pull.” He runs a hand through the hair on the back of Tony's head. “Were you really going to break your bond if it was with someone else?”
“You know me,” mumbles Tony, still not lifting his head. “Don't like being told what to do.”
He likes the feeling of the laughter that reverberates through Steve's chest.
“That's arguably situational.”
“Maybe,” says Tony. He tilts his face out a fraction. “J, get rid of these papers, would you? Trash them from my reading history, too.”
The workshop looks a lot darker without the screens. Steve tightens his arms around Tony.
“Not going to do research into how bonds work?” Steve asks teasingly. Tony leans back and grins up at him.
“Oh, I definitely am,” says Tony. “But that's the kind of experimentation better suited to a different setting, don't you think?”
Steve raises a questioning eyebrow.
“See, I distinctly recall reading some allegations that soul bonds make for great sex. If that kiss earlier was anything to go by…” Gleefully, Tony watches Steve's eyes widen.
They make it to the penthouse in a record-breaking forty seconds.