“You can love someone without seeing colors,” his mother tells him once. He's cradled in her arms, having asked her in a shy whisper what color his eyes are. It's the first time Tony catches on that his mother can't see the colors people talk about. “I love you, after all.”
“Enough to stay with me forever?” Tony says. That's what they say your soulmate does for you.
“Yes, my love,” she assures him. “I'd never want to leave my baby boy.”
Of course, just because someone wants to stay doesn't mean they will.
There's a prevailing theory on Captain America. Tony discovers it first when Jarvis gives him a book on the man, because as different as Tony is from his peers, having Captain America as his favorite hero is almost a matter of fact for any child who grows up in the post-War era. There's an entire chapter on the topic.
Those who met him when he was alive describe him as noble in a way that defies logic, possessing a charisma that was magnetic. A hero, in every sense of the word.
“Of course Cap could see colors,” one veteran is quoted. “No doubt in my mind, the way he acted. He was a very private man, though, and very respectful of others, so of course he wouldn't ever lord it over us of those who couldn't by discussing it.”
Of course, Tony assumes this means his soulmate was already alive when Cap was born. So do most other people. But there's no record of any loves of his life, not even in the classified records of him, an anonymous source purports.
So, when a scholar proposes that Cap may be one of those, those lightning strikes that come only every few thousand years, the people who could see the colors from birth without ever having a soulmate, it rings true in the heart of America. He joins the pantheon of those icons, alongside people like Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, and every incarnation of the Dalai Lama.
It's the most romantic thing Tony ever reads.
When he breaks free of his captors, he looks down at the armor that he and Yinsen – oh god oh god he's dead I failed him – made. The armor is one endless shade of grey to his eyes.
So is his world before him.
Endless grey isn't so bad with the Avengers.
Tony's learned by now, no matter how tides in public sentiment are turning against the idea, that maybe people can't really be loved or be heroes without knowing colors, but he thinks he's getting as close as he can.
He feels like something in him is changing, every day, building up to something indescribable.
That finally reaches the breaking point, when Captain America's eyes open, and his eyes are the first thing Tony really ever sees.
Steve's eyes are blue (and Tony still wonders, that it's Steve now, not Cap). The Iron Man armor isn't grey, it's a bright red and gold, and Tony congratulates himself retroactively for picking well, there.
He doesn't tell Steve about the colors. Steve may be his soulmate, but that doesn't mean Tony is his. Tony knows now that the color of blood is red, and that red is what covers his hands.
It's more evidence for the theory, because colors aren't the same revelation to Steve as they are to Tony. Tony knows this for certain when he catches a glimpse of one of Steve's art works, before jerking his gaze away. It's not even a good enough glance to see who it depicts, but enough to know that Steve understands how to use colors. The red and gold remain ingrained in his mind long after he sees them for the first time.
It's not just the colors. Steve is even more than the hero Tony idolized as a child, because he's not just Cap, he's Steve. Tony's books never prepared him for Steve's smile, or his love of music and fantasy and sci-fi, or the glint in his eyes on the battlefield. Just being around Steve makes Tony feel like he's still flying even when he's not in the armor.
Not that Steve would know that part, about the armor. That makes not telling much easier. Even so, sometimes Steve stares at him when he's still Tony Stark, intent and almost soulful, and Tony tries not to squirm and get lost in his eyes.
It's polite, to not include descriptors of colors when speaking to someone whose soulmate status you were unsure of, but over the months, Tony starts getting the impression that Steve's life before waking up was...unworthy, somehow, of being painted through with colors.
He dismisses the idea. Even people who see colors can be unhappy. Steve is lost, and unsure of his place in the new world, and maybe a bit haunted, and of course that will affect his recollections of his years in the past.
(And maybe Tony just wants Steve to have always seen the colors, to always know the wonder, even if it means Tony's not his real soulmate.)
But now that Tony's thought of it, he can't get the idea out of his head.
“I knew it had to be one of the Avengers,” Steve is telling him, “because you were all there when I woke up. But Jan and Hank have each other, and Thor must have someone too, nor can I imagine the colors thing is the same when you're a god. But, to be honest,” he whispers, “I know it's been you for a long time. Even if it's not, I don't think I'd care anymore, because it'll be you no matter what my eyes tell me.” He stares at him, and Tony can see that he's trembling a little.
“Are you my soulmate, Iron Man?”
Tony nods, and a smile of utter relief shines back at him. He – he can't do this. Steve's smile dims a bit as Tony makes no sign of moving.
“I've never shown you my face for a reason. It's better this way, Cap,” Tony says, and it's a wonder he can still speak.
Steve's staring at him, stunned, not quite understanding yet. Tony thinks of how he never wants Steve to be unhappy, and reevaluating that lie. But it's still true, he thinks, because it'll only be a matter of time before Tony'll ruin things between them. There's a lifetime's worth of wrongs to change before Tony will ever be worthy of Steve.
“But we're soulmates,” Steve whispers, voice on an edge of a tremor, and Tony's world crumbles.
If Tony's world crumbles by breaking Steve's heart, then it shatters when he's discussing his weekly meeting schedule and suddenly Pepper's hair isn't bright ginger anymore.
His world still feels like it's only getting pieced back together, each shard slowly getting fitted back into place in an imperfect orientation, while he waits by Steve's bedside in the hospital.
Finally, Steve's eyes open, and it's not an intense elation like the first time they met, but an overwhelming fear, and the even more powerful relief.
“A black and white world isn't really interesting anymore,” Tony says. “Don't do this.”
Steve doesn't look away from him, but neither does he respond.
The Molecule Man ruins it for Tony. Iron Man was the only shield he had left between him and Steve after Steve nearly died, and even that was about to topple.
“Shellhead.” Steve's voice is low, his hands on the wall by Tony's head, his body only inches away. Tony, always so careful with how his fantasies with Steve play out in his mind, has that self-control stretched to its limits with the reality right in front of him.
He really needs to say no, and just how bad an idea this is. He really, really wants Steve to touch him.
“Oh, fuck it.” Tony kisses him.
They're lying in bed together, and Steve is doing that thing where his gaze lingers over Tony, not with heat, or even with appreciation, but like there's nothing else even comprehensible to do instead.
“Your smile is white,” Steve says, his hand tracing Tony's bare side.
“I would hope so. You love me enough to tell me if I have spinach in my teeth, right?” It thrills Tony, still, to say words like love me and be so assured of it.
Of course, Steve always responds to those moments in the exact way that make Tony happiest, by which he smiles, dazzling. “That's just the short of it, Shellhead. But that's not what I meant.”
“I could see white, before,” Steve says. “Oh, I knew that people who saw colors always thought white, black, and grey were valid colors too. But nothing I ever read made me think they thought they were the most beautiful, not after seeing what else the world had to offer.”
Steve puts his hand on the side of Tony's face, a caress that makes Tony's eyelids droop. Steve's thumb tugs at the corner of Tony's lips.
“They were all wrong.”
Time spent with Steve alone, just the two of them, exploring the world and its colors and each other, is more valuable than anything else Tony could offer. He doesn't want to ruin those moments together, is what he tells himself. When dangerous things happen that involve Iron Man, or Stark technology, that's his reason for not telling his soulmate. It doesn't end well, but it doesn't end like in Tony's nightmares, where Steve finally understands how exactly the world had condemned him to being bonded with Tony, and rejects his fate.
After all, Steve always accepts him back.
Eventually, the bill regulating superhuman activity that Tony's called in to discuss can no longer be kept from Steve.
“Its name is the SHRA.” Tony finishes off his explanation. “Super Human Registration Act.”
Steve's expression is wiped blank, and like being struck on the side of the head, Tony realizes his eyes have never looked like they do at this moment. He stares, and he realizes it's because he's never seen Steve's eyes when they're not a stunning blue.
They're grey, now.
Tony doesn't lose his colors again, even at the end. Steve's shield is raised over his head, and his eyes are a shocking, bright blue.
“What are you waiting for? Finish it.”
Oh thank god, Tony thinks as he watches the shield waver, as Steve positions it to bring it down, because at least he will see the colors to the end. Because even if he's not Steve's soulmate any longer, Steve will remain his.
Then it's over, but not in the way Tony had braced himself for. He doesn't know if it's any better of an outcome, watching in incomprehension as Steve is handcuffed and led away.
It's not any better of an outcome. It's not an outcome at all. The world keeps moving, like it doesn't realize that things didn't finish properly, that it needs to go back and redo its ending.
The white star in the middle of the shield, splattered with black blood, stares back at Tony. It's the only thing Tony can see, through the tears.
Steve was wrong. White is the ugliest color.
The only color in the months after that is when that man comes to him at Steve's grave, and shows Tony a world where he and Steve still smile at each other. It's so bright, and for the first time, Tony hates the colors, despises them even more than he hates the SHRA, even more than he hates himself.
Tony doesn't really measure time, after that. He remembers a fleeting thought, back when he thought an endless expanse of grey didn't seem so bad.
It's not even that. It's that it doesn't even feel real.
When Tony wakes up, his head feels foggy, even worse than the usual painkillers. He grunts and turns his head. His eyes are drawn to, like they've been made to do, Steve's eyes. Steve doesn't look happy.
Ah, well, back to normal, then. Steve never gets happy when I'm hospitalized.
The first realization that something is wrong is that Tony had thought things were back to normal. When have they not been?
The next is when Steve bursts into tears – he never does that, especially since this isn't that uncommon an occurrence – and next when he starts explaining, then yelling about hard drives and brain deletes.
All Tony knows, because there's no part of him that wants to reflect deeper on the topic, is that he is so, so glad he doesn't remember.
He's not quite sure if Steve feels the same.
The first time Tony's colors dim (the first time Tony remembers his colors dimming) is when T'Challa explains to them about the incursions. There's alarm written all over Steve's face, but after looking to Tony, stands up and explains his plan for the Infinity Gauntlet.
Standing ready to act at the next incursion, seeing how the incursion looks, Tony wishes he couldn't recognize this shade of red.
Too much happens next, too many things are lost, but the fact of the matter remains: every incursion afterwards is grey.
Tony can't see the gold in his armor, any more. He can't see the blue, red, and yellow of Carol's outfit, although he can see her eyes. Rhodey and Pepper remain themselves, but their clothes are shades of black and grey and white.
Steve doesn't change, though. He can see Steve's blond hair where he can't see Clint's, Steve's blue eyes but not the sea. (At least it's the sea Tony loses, and not the sky.)
That's what tips Tony over.
He didn't want to cry when he did this, but he can't stop himself. “No more of this.”
“Of,” Steve looks between them. “Of us?”
Steve doesn't respond for a moment. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” Tony lies. “It’s me, I – look around you, Steve, what color is my shirt?”
“Are you breaking up with me because of a superstition?” Yes, be angry at him, Tony thinks, even if not for the right reasons.
“I love you, you idiot.” How can Steve not know that by now? “But we can’t, we –”
Steve opens his mouth. Tony thinks he might want to tell him he loves him back. He shifts, and Tony wonders if he wants to hug him.
Don't touch me, Tony thinks, desperate. He doesn't know if he can keep this up if Steve offers comfort.
Luckily, Steve doesn't.
Steve breaks into Tony's lab in the middle of the night.
That doesn't surprise Tony. He's been expecting it.
What he doesn't expect is that Steve's colors are even brighter than before.
The warnings on the armor are loud, but they don't arrest his attention like they did before. It's because the flashing signs blend in, aren't as grabbing when they're not bright red. It's not so hard to ignore them, especially when the battlefield is so loud that it's just another piece of noise to add to the cacophony.
“What’s wrong?” Steve asks, kneeling next to him, a brief moment of reprieve from the fighting.
Tony can't believe Steve is asking that. “What isn't?”
Steve fumbles for the faceplate release, and Tony thinks no. He shouldn't see –
His eyes are wide and blue as he searches Tony's face.
“You shot my targeting system.” It hurts to talk, but at least it's better to pretend that Steve isn't seeing what he's seeing, that Tony isn't who he is.
“Carol has it,” Steve responds. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” Better to pretend that this isn't the outcome that Tony had warned himself against, so, so long ago when the whole world still retained its colors.
Steve leans over him, presses his forehead against Tony’s and closes his eyes.
“I need you,” he whispers.
“You really don’t.”
“I’ve always loved you,” Steve says.
Tony laughs, but his hand gropes for Steve's. His hand catches onto – something – and he squeezes.
“Tony,” Steve says. “Tony, I – ”
Tony wants Steve to open his eyes. He wants to see, at the end, the first thing he saw at the beginning. But it's too much to demand anything from Steve, anymore.
There's one last echo, a memory of blue behind Tony's eyes to cling to, until he can't anymore.