The names come in at puberty. Tony knows this not because his parents have ever sat down and had a conversation with him about this, like a normal family might, but because he reads a lot and there's always a chapter on soulmates in the puberty books, right after the ones about all the body hair and how he can look forward to his voice cracking and having to change his sheets a lot. Plus, well, the other kids talk about it. And they might be wrong about a lot of things, but they happen to be right about this one.
Your soulmate. One name on your wrist, in their handwriting. Might be romantic, might not be. Probably alive, but might not be. It's not an exact science. The movies all say you feel different when you meet them, too, that you fall in love then and there, but Tony thinks that's just Hollywood. Or at least, that's the opinion he expresses aloud.
Tony is twelve and at boarding school when the name appears on his wrist, dark, in fancy cursive. One of the other boys sees it, laughs, calls him a fag, and Tony -- such a nice, quiet, bookish boy, the teachers all say -- snarls at him, low and vicious, and slams his head into the wall. In the ensuing fight, the other kid gets a messy, drippy nosebleed and Tony gets two black eyes by the time the teachers pull them apart.
He's sitting in the hallway, kicking the air, shirt stained with someone else's blood, and he's waiting for them to call Howard. He realizes that the odd, buoyant feeling in his chest is pride. He's defending his soulmate. So maybe he's queer, but so what? His soulmate will love him.
He looks down at his wrist, and he wonders if Steve Rogers, whoever he is, will be proud of him. He hopes so.
When he finally arrives, Howard beams at him.
Howard is actually pleased Tony was caught fighting, because that's the sort of thing men do. That's why Tony's been at boarding school for the past five years. He was weak. He was soft. He was a sissy. They're making a man of you, boy, he says. Glad to see the money wasn't wasted.
Then he sees the name on Tony's wrist, and, well--
Tony doesn't really like to remember the next part.
There are soulmate databases. Of course there are soulmate databases. How the hell would people ever find each other without them? Tony can only vaguely imagine how it worked before computers. He knows people used to travel a lot more.
Most people are in the soulmate databases, because why wouldn't you be?
Tony Stark isn't most people. Even setting aside the exact details of the name on his wrist, he's the heir to Stark Industries. A lot of people would be willing to fake their own wrists for a shot at his money. So he's not listed. Most celebrities aren't. Tony thinks that this is pretty ironic, given that you can see a whole lot of skin from a lot of celebrities, depending on your choice of magazines. You can see everything but the names on their wrists. Tony's fifteen now. He's deeply into irony. Irony and integrated circuit design.
The actual reason he's not listed is because Howard forbade it. No son of his is a queer, Howard had said, like insisting it could change the name on Tony's wrist or the feelings in Tony's heart. And, hell, Tony didn't even know if his soulmate would love him like that, but he'd nodded and bitten back all the words about how then maybe he didn't want to be his son. And his mother had sat there, looking like she was going to cry, but she'd let Howard stop him. Maybe she hadn't had a choice.
But Tony still looks. Quietly. Anonymously. Howard's never going to know.
And when he's twenty-one he'll be able to put his name in the databases. Howard won't be able to stop him then, not legally. He knows there will be fakes. There will be imposters. But somewhere deep in his ironic, cynical, atheist heart, he knows that he'll just know. He'll meet Steve Rogers, and he'll know. He imagines meeting him a hundred different ways. A thousand. Steve Rogers -- tall, short, fat, thin, black, white -- will be in line in front of him at the coffeeshop. Steve Rogers will be a fellow student in one of his classes, and they'll look at each other, and they'll smile, and they'll know.
And he'll be happy. They'll be happy.
He wonders what unconditional love is like.
By the time he's seventeen, he's tried every Stephen, Steven, and Steve Rogers in the database. In all the databases. In the entire phone book. In every record he can find of living people. He's as positive as he can be that there is no living Steve Rogers with Tony's name on his wrist.
Two options, then: Steve Rogers hasn't been born yet, or Steve Rogers is already dead.
Well, he can work on narrowing one of those options down.
It's harder to find dead people. Obituaries don't generally list soulmate names -- not of people who hadn't found theirs, anyway. Talk about tragic and tacky.
Tony is eighteen when it occurs to him to try military records. Soldiers have had to give their soulmate's name upon enlistment since at least World War I. And if his Steve Rogers was ever a soldier, he'll be in a database somewhere. It might be classified -- and if it is, that could explain why he hasn't been in any of the other databases -- but being Tony Stark of Stark Industries is worth something, and if he can come up with a lie that Howard will buy, he knows people who know people who can pull any file he wants.
Hell, if it's Vietnam or later, there's a good chance Steve Rogers might still be alive.
Excitement mounting, he heads to his computer and pulls up the National Archives, because he might as well start with the publicly-available stuff. No hits for Vietnam, but some of that might be classified; he can come back to it later. No hits for Korea.
He tries World War II, inputting Rogers, Steven -- his best guess for the full name -- and, in the soulmate field on the search form, Tony Stark. It might be Anthony, but he doubts it; the name on his wrist is a nickname, after all, so why shouldn't his soulmate have Tony on his wrist?
When he hits search he's not really expecting results. There haven't been any results so far. There haven't been any results for Tony's entire life so far.
The page refreshes.
You found 1 partial record out of 8,706,394 total records in this file.
Oh God. Oh, God, oh God, it's him.
ROGERS, STEVEN, the search results say. Residence: New York City, New York. Place of enlistment: New York City, New York. Date of enlistment year: 1940. Source of personnel: civil life. Year of birth: 1920. There's a serial number.
He clicks on the expanded record, and arrayed before him are the barest fragments of a life. Steven Rogers, Tony learns, was white, a citizen, completed four years of high school, and his civilian occupation is listed as artist. He was single, no dependents. He was a private in the Army of the United States. And there, at the bottom, coded in under "name of soulmate," are the words Tony Stark.
Okay, so Steve Rogers is very probably dead, but Steve Rogers went to war with Tony's name on his wrist. Maybe he wondered about Tony. Maybe he wondered what Tony was like, just like Tony has wondered about him. Maybe he wondered if Tony would ever love him. He was an artist; maybe he pictured Tony and drew him. He was from New York too, just like Tony. They might have met, if they hadn't been decades apart.
Tony can feel a tear run down his cheek, and he turns his hand over and rubs at the name on the inside of his wrist. His Steve.
He's come this far. It's better to know, right?
He has a name, rank, and serial number, not to be too cliche about it. He can find out what happened. If Steve made it home. If he's alive now.
He writes to the VA, to the Army, to the National Personnel Records Center. He files a FOIA request. And he waits. And he waits. He's lucky he's doing this from MIT, because this way Howard will never have to know.
And then the records start coming. Private Steven Rogers enlists in New York City and then pops up again at somewhere called Camp Lehigh, in Virginia. Private Steven Rogers is 6'2" and 120 pounds, and Tony's eyebrows go up at that, because Jesus Christ, that's skinny. Private Steven Rogers has a variety of medical conditions, any one of which Tony was pretty sure got you kicked out of the Army, but apparently not. And then... there are gaps. There are redacted, blacked-out files, pages all dark except for single words. There's nothing, nothing all the way through the end of the file. It doesn't say mustered out, or missing in action, or killed in action. There's just... nothing but censorship. Private Steven Rogers entered the Army in 1940 and never came out. It's like he just didn't exist after that.
There is one page, near the beginning, that Tony treasures. It's got to be a printout of a scan of a microfilm, something transferred through at least three different media, blurred with age. But it's a copy of Rogers' enlistment records, done in ink, the same information that had been on the website. It says Steven Rogers at the top, in the same hand that wrote the name on Tony's arm, and Tony traces the matching signature with shaky fingertips. There's an address. And there's Tony's name there, too, at the bottom. It's as close as they're ever going to be. It's as much as he's ever going to know him.
But it's real. Steve was real, his Steve. And that's worth something.
It doesn't mean Tony doesn't cry, though.
And then Tony gets a phone call.
"Yes?" Tony says, distractedly, still focused on the latest and greatest errors that the compiler is throwing at him.
The voice on the other end of the line is both extremely authoritative and entirely unfamiliar. "Am I speaking to Anthony Stark?"
"Yes," Tony says, more cautiously. "Who is this?"
"This is Colonel Nicholas Fury," the man says, and oh, shit, what did Tony do now?
He casts his mind back through recent events. He hasn't done anything that he can think of that would merit a phone call from a goddamn colonel. He hasn't done anything illegal recently, drinking excepted. Maybe there was a SI mix-up with the liaisons and he got the wrong number? That's got to be it.
"Sir," Tony says, because he's been in the room when Howard's been working on military contracts long enough to know that the Army guys like it a lot when you call them sir, "I think you've got the wrong person. Any Stark Industries business discussion goes to my father; I can get you his number--"
"No, no," Fury says. "I'm certain I have the right person. You see, I'm looking for the Anthony Stark who has been requesting the records of a World War II soldier named Steven Rogers."
What the hell is going on here? The top-secret shit was weird enough. Did they accidentally send him something he shouldn't have seen? They couldn't have. It was practically all redacted.
"I haven't done anything wrong," Tony says, and he means to sound confident, he means to sound brave, but he thinks mostly he sounds scared. His voice is thin, reedy, too high. "I mean," he adds, "they're publicly-available records. Anyone has a right to request and read them. Not that there's much there."
Tony starts to wonder what secret military prisons are really like, and if he's about to find out.
Fury makes a humming noise. "You haven't done anything wrong," he agrees, and Tony's stomach unclenches just the littlest bit before clenching again as Fury keeps talking. "But let's just say I'm... curious... about your sudden interest in Rogers."
Tony swallows hard. Time for the truth. He's never told anyone this.
"When I was twelve," Tony says, "the name Steve Rogers appeared on my wrist. I haven't been able to find him anywhere, until now. I was searching the military databases, and I got a match: Steven Rogers served in World War II and had Tony Stark listed as his soulmate. He's-- he's my soulmate. He's got to be. And I just--" the words catch in his throat-- "I wanted to know more about him."
There's a long silence, so long that Tony wonders if the call has disconnected. Then Fury mutters a low, heartfelt obscenity.
"Well," Fury says, sounding stunned. "That changes things." There's another pause. "How old are you, anyway?"
"Eighteen, sir," Tony says, bewildered.
"Jesus," Fury mutters. "Eighteen." Tony can sort of imagine this faceless stranger putting his head in his hands, in despair. "Okay. All right. Would you be willing to come to DC?"
"Washington, DC," Fury repeats. "We have... a few things that belong to you. And there's a conversation I'd like to have with you, but I'm only willing to have it face-to-face."
Well, that's not mysterious at all.
"Sure," Tony says. "I'm looking forward to it."
In the weeks leading up to the trip, Tony can think of almost nothing else. He's pretty sure he's figured out what it's going to be: this Colonel Fury is going to let him read Steve's unredacted record, or at least mostly unredacted. He's probably going to tell him a bit about whatever operation Steve was involved in that was so goddamn secret it's blacked out even now.
He flies commercial to DC. He takes a cab to the address Fury gave him. He signs in and goes through a metal detector. He doesn't see anyone who looks like he might be Colonel Nicholas Fury. There's just a uniformed woman; when Tony gives her his name she gives him forms to sign. Tony skims them. Declaration of Soulmate Status. He's making this official, he thinks, as he scrawls his signature. The woman compares the signature with a picture on her tablet that he's at the wrong angle to see, and she nods approvingly.
"Your wrist, please," she says.
And that's how Tony ends up having the US Army photograph and record his soulmate's name, after they've tested it for authenticity. God, if Howard knew, he'd be furious. That's why he's never going to find out.
"Everything is in order," she says. "This way, please, Mr. Stark."
The room she leads him to does not contain Colonel Nicholas Fury. There's a pair of chairs, a table, and a storage box sitting in the middle of the table. There's a reel-to-reel projector.
"Captain Rogers had no will," the woman says, and Tony blinks because this is the first he's heard that Steve's rank was anything other than the lowest of privates. "His next-of-kin -- he insisted on listing a fellow soldier -- was declared missing in action during the same operation in which Captain Rogers was lost to us. He had no living family."
God. He-- he never made it home. Tony wonders, selfishly, if Steve thought of him, and then he hopes to God he didn't. He doesn't want to picture Steve dying alone, knowing he'd never meet his soulmate now.
"As his soulmate," she continues, "you have now inherited Captain Rogers' property and personal effects. Much of what remains is currently held by the Smithsonian, of course, and for the most part it's already on display, though of course as his soulmate you are more than welcome to make an appointment to see the rest of the holdings. You are in fact legally allowed to take any or all of it, although naturally we hope you will consider leaving it on loan to the Smithsonian."
She's joking, right? She has to be joking. Okay, maybe some of his gear is part of some World War II exhibit. That would make sense. Marginally.
The woman taps the box. "What we have here for you is his full file and his remaining effects. This is material that could not be publicly held, both because some of the operational details are still classified and because it would have established a connection between the captain's civilian and professional identities."
Nothing is making sense.
"I'm sorry," Tony says. "I-- what? I don't understand. What do you mean, professional identity?"
The woman tilts her head to the side. "Didn't the colonel tell you?" she asks, and Tony just stares blankly. "Steve Rogers was Captain America."
"What the fuck," Tony says.
Everyone knows all about Captain America. Hell, Tony knows all about Captain America. He was Tony's hero, when he was a kid. He was everyone's hero. Captain America had punched out Nazis, had foiled supervillains, had saved America countless times. He had undergone some kind of scientific treatment and become the first and only super-soldier, a man whose strength was peak human, whose wounds healed blindingly fast, who had almost unbelievable senses and reflexes. He was one of the first superheroes, fighting alongside the Invaders. He was goodness personified. He was liberty and justice.
And everyone knows what happened to him, too. Just before the war ended, he didn't make it back. A stolen plane. A tragic accident. Captain America and his sidekick Bucky Barnes, both lost to the ocean.
In all of the pictures, in all of the newsreels, Captain America is always in full uniform. The cowl is always pulled up over his head. Nothing ever shows his face. And certainly no one ever says his name.
Tony practically tears open the box. There are files -- unredacted ones -- and photographs, so many photographs. The topmost photo is an arm -- a thin, bony wrist -- a wrist that bears Tony's own name, in Tony's own familiar handwriting. There are film canisters, labeled with incomprehensible strings of letters and the words PROJECT REBIRTH. And at the bottom of the box, in an archival bag, there's an envelope.
The envelope says Tony Stark on it, in the same hand that wrote out Tony's own name on the enlistment form. A letter. His soulmate wrote him a letter.
"Has anyone," Tony begins, and then his voice deserts him and he has to try again. "Has anyone else read this letter?"
The woman shakes her head. "It's yours," she says, and she smiles a very little smile.
Tony clears his throat. His vision swims with tears. "I-- I'd like to be alone for a bit, please," he says.
"Of course," she says. "Let me know if you need assistance with the projector."
And then she's gone, and Tony's sitting at a table with everything left of his soulmate. His soulmate, who was Captain America. God. This can't be happening.
He doesn't go for the letter first. He knows it's going to be the best -- a letter his soulmate wrote for him -- and he wants to save it for last.
So he starts going through the files. Steven Rogers had been an orphan, barely scraping by and painting posters for the WPA, while trying to enlist several times and being turned down repeatedly. There are photos of him before Rebirth. Tony doesn't think he could have ever matched them to Captain America. Steve is barely older than Tony, and isn't that a weird thought? Steve is tall, skinny, scrawny, and he carries himself like he wants to pick a fight with the whole fucking world and he doesn't care if it flattens him back. Tony kind of admires that. And he's cute, too. Something in Tony thrills to see that. He could maybe do with a sandwich or two, though. Tony's staring at a photo of a man from 1940 and he wants to take him home and feed him a sandwich, and-- and--
He realizes he's staring at Steve's mouth in the photo, and he shakes his head and moves on.
At the urging of the lead scientist, who'd seen something special in him, they'd accepted Steve for Rebirth. Tony skims through the technical details, which are annoyingly absent even in this file; the file explains that only the lead scientist had known everything, and he'd died minutes after the procedure. Steve had been meant to be the first super-soldier. Instead he'd been the only one.
There are post-Rebirth photos, to compare with the pre-Rebirth baseline. Tony nearly drops the entire file on the floor because, God, it's like softcore porn in here. Steve stands tall in the photo, wearing only very tight underwear, and Christ, would you look at those muscles. If he hadn't known it was real, he wouldn't have believed it could happen. But when Tony looks past all the muscles, he sees that Steve's face is the same. Steve looks a little less angry, but just as determined. Maybe a little overwhelmed. Tony doesn't blame him. Tony's probably looking about as overwhelmed, himself.
Maybe it's a good thing they couldn't have met. It's not like Captain America would ever have wanted him. Because what the hell can Tony offer Captain fucking America?
Then come photos of Steve in uniform, both Army-issue and in the Captain America suit, posing with and without the old triangular shield. The vibranium shield went down with him. But now that Tony's seen the full timeline of photos, he knows it's the same man; he won't be able to see a picture of Captain America and not see Steve's eyes, Steve's face under the cowl.
The rest of the file is all about Captain America's actual missions, with Bucky and with the Invaders; Tony, giant Cap fanboy that he is, was already familiar with most of them. But there are more photos clipped to the pages, candid shots. Steve with the cowl pulled back, laughing with Bucky. Steve and the Invaders in civilian gear, or as close as most of them got to it. Steve reading. Steve sketching in a notebook, a figure study, as the Human Torch and Toro pose back-to-back. Steve shaking hands with a square-jawed man who wears a sergeant's stripes on his sleeve. None of the Captain America books or exhibits can show this, because this is Steve Rogers, the man whose identity is still secret even decades later. This is who Steve was.
Tony tries to picture himself there. He can't really do it.
The last shot is Steve shirtless again, uniform shirt in his lap. It looks like he's sewing, repairing the uniform. And the angle is just right; he can see Steve's bare wrist as he holds the needle high. And Tony knows, he knows it says his name. He can see it, right there. God.
He fumbles in the box and comes up with one of the film canisters at random; after a few tries he has the film loaded and threaded through. Tony flips the switch and the projector wheezes to life, bright and flickery.
It's black and white, but there's crackling sound. Steve, before the serum, sits on an exam table. He's not in uniform, and even though Tony knows Steve was always tall he's a little hunched over. He's so alive, in motion, his eyes darting around the room, and for an instant Tony imagines Steve can see him.
"There is the matter of your wrist," a man says, off-screen, and Tony realizes he must have grabbed the middle of some interview even as his stomach starts sinking, because that's his name on Steve's wrist and they're going to say there's something wrong with it. There's something wrong with Tony. There's always something wrong with Tony.
"What about it?" Steve asks, and Tony wants to laugh, because somehow he never pictured Captain America as having the most stereotypical old-time New York accent. Whuddaboudit. It's kind of adorable.
Steve rubs at the name on his wrist, just like Tony does.
"Well," the man says. "Surely you are aware that 'Stark' is a surname of German origin? And that 'Tony,' perhaps, is a shortened form of the Italian name 'Antonio?'"
Tony waits for Steve to nod, to say that's all right, it's not like I care about him anyway.
But Steve lifts his head, and he smiles a smile that's all teeth, and he says, "Sir, I am aware that the lead scientist of this project is also of German origin. Am I meant to judge my soulmate by his name alone?"
"You're magnificent," Tony tells Steve. "You're magnificent and I could never deserve you."
It's not like Steve loved him, though, is it? Steve didn't even know him. Steve won't ever know him.
"You are also aware," the man off-screen continues, "about the regulations pertaining to men with male soulmates, are you not?"
Tony's stomach lurches and he doesn't want to hear this. He knows what Steve has to say, and Steve knows it too.
"I already told you," Steve says. "I will follow Army regulations, as is required."
He doesn't want to see Steve explain how it disgusts him, or whatever he has to say to pass. He already passed. It happened. Tony flips off the projector in mid-sentence, sickened.
He contemplates the letter, still in its bag. He doesn't want to know, but it's best to rip the Band-Aid off quickly, isn't it?
He tips the envelope out into his hand, opens it, and carefully pulls out folded, crackling paper.
If you're reading this, I didn't make it. I know that's a funny way to start a letter when we've never met, but right now that's probably the most important thing you know about me. If I meet you, if I'm so lucky as to be able to meet you, you won't get this letter. You'll get a different letter about the time we shared, about my favorite memories, about how much you meant to me. But I can't write that letter, so I'm writing this one. I've told Sgt. Fury to hang onto this for me and get it to the States; if you come looking for me with the Army, you'll be able to find it.
But you should know this most of all, Tony: I love you. I love you with all of my heart, with all of my soul, and every night I dream about you. I dream about meeting you. I've been waiting for you my whole life, and I know that if you're reading this, it won't be this life for us, but I believe there will be other chances. I know you must be amazing, and wonderful, and I want you to be happy. More than anything I want you to be happy.
I wonder sometimes what you must think of me. By now you must know that I'm Captain America. I wanted more than anything to serve my country, to protect the world. I had to lie to get in. I lied so many times trying to enlist, and when they chose me, I had to keep lying. I had to tell them that I was sure my feelings for you weren't romantic. But they were, and they are, and they've always been. I am sorry, and I am ashamed, and I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me. If there were any way they would have let me tell the truth about you, I would have done it. You can tell people about me, if you want, if -- God willing -- we've won the war and we're not living under Hitler. Please tell people. I want them to know I loved you. You'd be braver than I was. I'm sure you're brave. How could you not be?
It's a cold night, and I wish you were here. Not in the damned war -- I'd never wish this on anyone -- but I wish you were here next to me. I want to hold you so badly that my hands hurt with wanting it. I want to kiss you. I want to draw you. I want to whisper every secret I've ever had, and I want to tell rotten jokes just to see you smile. I bet you have a gorgeous smile. I've decided this.
But if you're reading this, I'll never know you, and I've made my peace with that. Whatever happened to me, my death meant something. I died for what I believed in. I died for my country. I suppose you'll know what it was, what happened to me. But whatever happened, I was always thinking of you. I always loved you, Tony, and I always will. Whoever you are, whatever you've done, you're my soulmate, and I love you. I want you to remember that.
A teardrop lands on the corner of the last page, staining the paper.
And then the doorknob rattles, and a man in uniform steps inside. He's middle-aged, maybe, with a familiar-looking jawline. His hair is graying at the temples and he has an eyepatch.
"Tony Stark?" he asks. "I'm Nick Fury." He pauses and stares at Tony. "Is this a bad time?"
Tony sniffles wetly. "No, I'm great," he says, because if he's going to get his emotions everywhere he might as well shove them on everyone. "Have a seat."
Fury sits, then he nods at the papers in front of Tony. "You read the letter."
"I read the letter," Tony agrees. His voice quavers. "He-- he loved me."
And Fury looks at him like he actually understands. "Yeah," he says, softly. "He really, really did. Couldn't fucking tell anyone, because God forbid that Captain America be gay, but he did. Talked our ears off about what he was going to do when he finally met you."
He says it like he was there. But he can't have been.
"There's a Sergeant Fury in the letter," Tony says, "and there's a guy in the photos who looks like you -- your father? Your grandfather?"
"All me, kid," Fury says. "I just look real good for my age."
"And you could tell me," Tony says, "but then you'd have to--"
"Now you're getting it," Fury says, and the frightening thing is that Tony can't actually tell whether he's joking. "I served with Cap. Me and the Howling Commandos. Sometimes we were paired up with the Invaders, or just Cap and Bucky, but I met him. More than a few times."
"What was he like?"
Fury's sigh is contemplative. "I knew you were gonna ask me, and for two weeks I've been trying to think of an answer, and I can't. He was-- he was the best man I've ever known. The best man any of us have ever known. There's never going to be another man like him. If you asked him, he'd probably tell you he wasn't anything special, but that's what all the best men say, you know? He was-- he was just so goddamn good, and it was an honor to know him." He half-smiles. "He would have liked you."
"You don't even know me."
"I Googled you." Fury raises an eyebrow. "I read your papers. I did a damn background check. You're a genius, Stark. He'd like you. He always liked smart fellas. Guys who could stand up to him, who weren't afraid to stand up to Captain America, but who still respected him. You'd have gotten along. You're soulmates. Don't be an idiot."
Tony snorts. "Okay, okay. I won't." He thinks about what Fury said. "He had plans for me?"
"Cap was a romantic," Fury says. "We all used to give him hell for it, because he wouldn't just admit he wanted. Uh." He coughs. "Anyhow, he was real sweet on you. He'd talk about how he'd get back to New York, how he'd run into you, invite you out for dinner and a show. We'd hear about whatever new films there were, and he'd ask us all if we thought you'd like that one, like any of us could have an opinion on what film you'd like. Namor threw a goddamn fish at his head once and he still didn't shut up."
Tony laughs. "Never heard about that one in the history books."
"Yeah, well," Fury says. "You wouldn't have."
"No," Tony agrees. "I guess I wouldn't have."
His soulmate is in the history books. His soulmate is Captain America. What the fuck is his life?
Fury sits back and surveys the mess of papers on the table. "Can I ask what of this you're taking? I assume my aide told you that everything of Steve's is yours. Everything in this box is definitely yours. But everything else of his is yours too. Steve would have wanted you to have his things. The Smithsonian also wants to continue to have them, and they've asked me to pass that request along, but you're free to honor that or not, as you wish."
Honestly, what Tony wants most of all is something physical. Something of Steve's. Something he touched, or held, or wore. Something Tony can touch, and think that once his soulmate touched it. Dog tags would have been ideal, but Steve's tags are with Steve's body, and Steve's body is lost forever at the bottom of the Atlantic. He can't have that.
Tony holds up the letter. "Can I have this?"
"Kid," Fury says, "I've been holding onto that since 1941; does it look like I wanna keep your mail? You'd damn well better take it."
Tony laughs. "And a picture?" he asks, a little hesitantly. "Can I have a picture?"
"I will make you a goddamn photo album," Fury says, and that's how Tony takes a flash drive of digitized versions of all the pictures, all the files, and all the films home with him.
The Smithsonian can keep Captain America. Tony's got Steve Rogers.
He knows Steve wanted him to be brave. Steve wanted him to tell people about him. About them.
But Tony can't tell Howard. He can't. If he tells Howard it will be tainted. He won't be happy for him that Captain America was his soulmate.
He tells Jarvis. He thinks that kind of counts.
When he goes home for Christmas that year, he tells his mother, and she smiles and hugs him and tells him she loves him, and that she's proud of him, and that she wishes she could have met Steve, too.
It's one of Tony's best memories of his mother.
When Tony's twenty, his parents die.
The less said about that, the better.
When Tony's twenty-one, he steps on a landmine. It's all his fault, really.
He doesn't remember a lot of it, which is probably good because what he does remember is an unending cycle of waking up and passing out as Yinsen simultaneously tries to hold him down and pry shrapnel out of his chest.
He remembers being sort of deliriously concerned that he's going to die a virgin, a thought that is really fucking funny because Steve's dead and he doesn't know what he's waiting for because you can't wait for your soulmate if your soulmate's a dead man. But he knows that no one he's ever dated has loved him as much as the guy who wrote that letter.
He thinks at one point he asks Yinsen if Steve's okay. Yinsen says yes. He says Steve's okay, he says they're all going to be okay, and that's when Tony knows Yinsen's a liar.
Tony keeps two pictures of Steve in his wallet. Not any with the uniform, not any that would identify him as Captain America, because the Army still wants to keep that a secret. They're both pictures of Steve shirtless, because never let it be said that Tony is entirely unmoved by Steve's appearance. One is pre-serum and one isn't. It's Tony's own statement: I would have loved you no matter what.
He likes to look at the pictures and ask himself, what would Steve do?
In this particular situation he's not exactly sure that the answer would be build a flying suit of armor and fly to safety, but well, Steve wasn't an engineer.
Tony's sure he would have approved if he'd known about it.
Tony makes it out alive. Yinsen doesn't.
Tony's not really having the best year.
And the world's kind of going insane and there's this crazy Norse god and, well, Tony has a flying suit of armor and he knows exactly what Steve would do. Steve would be a fucking superhero.
"The Avengers!" Jan Van Dyne says, and Tony raises his fist in the air, with the rest of them.
Here goes nothing.
So he opens his home to the Avengers, and he's Iron Man, and he's Tony Stark, and he thinks maybe he could be happy like this. He'll never find his soulmate, but that's okay. His life doesn't need to be about that. He has a team. He loves them. He can take care of them. He can keep them alive. They can save the world.
He's pretty sure Steve would have loved that.
It will be enough.
Two months later, Hulk's off the team and the team's in a submarine and there's a body in the water. A body in an iceberg.
Giant-Man grows and reaches out, hauling the body on board, and when Tony sees it he thinks his heart might stop for good. He might die in the suit. The team won't notice until he actually keels over.
The uniform is a tattered red, white and blue. His vibranium shield is lying on his chest. The cowl has been pulled back, and it's Steve's face, God, it's Steve's face, a face Tony has memorized from all those pictures and films, a face he's traced the lines of on paper a thousand times. But now he's pale and still. If Tony could touch him he'd be cold and stiff.
Tony can't quite remember how to breathe and his heart is pounding so hard it might actually burst and he's pretty sure he's crying, and if he's not careful the tears will short out half the damn transistors in the suit--
Tony stands there, stunned, as Jan realizes aloud that this is Captain America, as she announces it to the rest of the team.
At least they can bring his body home. Fury will be glad to know that, Tony thinks. At least they can finally bury him.
"Listen!" Jan says, intently, hovering over Steve. "He isn't dead! He's breathing!"
Oh, God, Tony thinks. Oh, God, Oh God, it's a miracle. It's a miracle and what the hell has he ever done in his life to deserve this, oh, please, please, let Steve be all right, he'll do anything, he'll give up anything for him--
Steve's eyes open and it's the best thing Tony has ever seen in his life.
He's confused at first. He wants to know where he is. Who they are.
Tony can't speak. There are no words, because Steve's alive, because Steve can't be alive but here he is, right here--
"You've been asleep a long time, Captain," Jan says, and thank God, at least someone can still talk. "We're the Avengers. I'm Wasp, and this is Giant-Man, Thor, and Iron Man."
"No," Tony says. "No, wait."
The team's staring at him.
He only gets one shot at this, one first meeting, and he's going to do it right.
He jams the helmet release and wrenches the helmet off, followed by the gauntlets.
Jan's eyes go wide. "Tony?" she says, uncertainly. "You're--"
"Tony?" Steve repeats, and his eyes are brimming with fragile hope, and Tony knows exactly what Steve wants, and it's true. It's all true. They can have this.
It feels just like the movies all promised. It feels better than the movies. Mine, something within Tony says, something deep and contented. Mine, mine, mine. And I am yours.
"I'm Tony Stark," Tony says, and he's scared, but he can't stop smiling. "And you're Steve Rogers, and I have been waiting for you for a very long time."
And then Steve looks at him, smiles bright and joyful, the most beautiful smile in the world, and Steve's in his arms and kissing him, and they're together, they're here, they're finally here.