Later, Tony would maintain that it wasn’t his fault. He was drunk and bored (lonely) and it just… happened.
Pepper would look at him and, in the driest tone that Tony had ever heard, remark that he was the only person in the history of the world who would stumble across their soulmate while drunk dialing a phone sex line.
It happened like this:
Happy escorted him home after a very long night of drinking, pretending to like some people, and trading carefully worded barbs with others, all in the name of getting money. Tony was exhausted both mentally and physically, but the alcohol had helped him to reach the stage where he was so tired he was horny instead. Unfortunately, Happy had decided to be a barrier in the way of anyone coming home with him, so it was that Tony ended up on the couch alone instead of on the bed with a beautiful woman.
He decided that deserved to be said out loud. “Life sucks.”
No one answered him. He pouted, pushing himself up a bit.
“JARVIS? I said life sucks.”
“Indeed, sir,” JARVIS replied, tone making it clear he was just humoring Tony. Honestly, the sass he put up with was astounding sometimes. “Shall I call Miss Potts so that you can complain to her?”
Tony contemplated that for exactly two seconds before shaking his head. In his current state, he was likely to end up hitting on Pepper. And that would not be good after their failed attempt at dating. He really couldn’t afford to make Pepper mad again anytime soon.
“No. Just – TV.”
JARVIS obediently switched the television on. Tony squinted at the bright screen. He wasn’t sure when he’d last watched television, but it had been a while. Weeks, maybe, if not months. He just didn’t have the time. He half-heartedly watched some show about a bunch of housewives. Some of them were hot. He wouldn’t have minded bringing them home. Except stupid Happy had stopped him.
“Stupid Happy,” he muttered, palming his crotch. The pressure felt nice, but he was tired of getting himself off. It just didn’t have the same impact. He briefly considered calling one of the high class escort services he used to be so fond of. Only problem was Pepper, who might actually murder him if the media got so much as a hint of it after all the work they’d done trying to turn Tony’s reputation around (with, admittedly, mixed results).
But – hang on.
Tony sat up, staring avidly at the television. It was so late, the racier commercials were on… including one for a phone sex hotline. His mouth watered as he stared at miles of gleaming skin; beautiful women and men were prancing around in bathing suits, giving the camera come hither smiles. Right before the commercial ended, the 1-900 number flashed across the bottom of the screen again.
“JARVIS, call that number. No! Wait, make sure my name doesn’t show up on the bill. Reroute through an alternate server,” Tony said, maybe a little too gleefully, unbuckling his belt. Pepper couldn’t get mad if no one physically showed up in the mansion, and at least he’d have a sexy voice in his ear to help get him off.
“Yes sir. Dialing.”
A moment later, the line clicked through to an automated system. Press 1 for women, 2 for men. Normally Tony would’ve gone for 1 in a heartbeat, but – but no one was here, and no one would know except for JARVIS. He swallowed shakily and had JARVIS press the 2. The resulting list of kinks was surprisingly detailed, and by the end of it his spinning head had forgotten what was at the beginning.
“Jus’ pick one,” Tony mumbled, sprawling backwards. “Somethin’ you know Daddy likes.”
JARVIS definitely sounded long-suffering when he said, “As you wish, sir. Line is connecting.”
Tony unzipped his pants, pushed his boxers down, and took his dick in hand. He was only half-hard, but hopefully whoever picked up would be willing to help out with that. The phone rang once, twice, three times before someone picked up.
"Hey there, what's your fantasy?" The voice was a little rough, deep, and husky. The kind of voice that made you stop and take notice.
Unfortunately, Tony was doing anything but. He bolted upright again, the rush of adrenaline and the burning on his chest sobering him up appallingly quickly, and fumbled for his tie. He threw it across the room and ripped open his shirt, inadvertently tearing off two buttons in the process. The mark on his chest, which had been a faded outline since it appeared when he was six years old, was filled in. He had to bite his lip against the sudden urge to start laughing, because once he started he knew he wouldn't be able to stop.
Soulmate. This guy - this phone sex operator was his soulmate.
"My name is Grant. You wanna tell me yours?"
For once in his life, Tony was speechless. He couldn't have said anything if his life depended on it.
"That's fine. I like a man who doesn't talk much. I can do more than enough talking for both of us," Grant purred.
Oh god. He had to hang up. Tony made frantic motions at the ceiling until JARVIS got the hint and ended the call. Only then did he groan out loud and bury his face in his hands. His soulmate. He'd practically given up on finding his soulmate given that he was well into his thirties and nothing had happened, whereas most people with soulmates met them in their teens, twenties at the latest.
"How is this my life?" he asked miserably.
Pepper was going to kill him.
Dummy woke him up the next morning. It was a rude awakening: when Tony just muttered something and patted at Dummy's arm, the little 'bot dumped a green smoothie on his head. Tony yelped, flailed around, and promptly fell off the couch. He laid there on the ground for a couple of minutes, blinking at the ceiling while his lower back throbbed, until Dummy chirped mournfully and dropped a towel on his head in apology.
"Thanks buddy," Tony rasped. He sat up, pulling the towel off his head. "JARVIS, did I -"
"Find your soulmate last night? You did, sir."
Shit. So much for hoping it was just a dream. "Let's not share that tidbit with Pepper, okay? She'll want to know how and who, and..." Tony shook his head, moping half-heartedly at the smoothie in his hair. Pepper would be mad at first, but eventually (once she got through concocting a much better story for the press) she would soften up and be happy for him. Soulmates were the ideal match: the person who was supposed to be by your side forever. And Tony couldn't imagine a single person on the planet who would want to be stuck with Tony Stark forever.
Thank whatever god was listening that he'd had the sense to keep his big mouth shut last night. At least his soulmate had been spared. He shuddered at the thought. The only thing worse than finding out that your soulmate was a pervert who'd called your phone sex line was finding out that said pervert was a playboy murderer.
It was fine, though. His soulmate - Grant, which was probably not the guy's real name, so it wasn't like Tony had anything to go on - had no idea. And since Tony wouldn't be calling back, Grant would go on to live in blissful ignorance and Tony - well, Tony had work to do. He grimaced, threw the towel aside and peeled himself off the floor to go take a shower.
For the first week, he studiously did not think of Grant. He didn't try to remember what Grant's voice sounded like, or wonder whether that was the way Grant always spoke or if he was playing it up for the purposes of his customer. He didn't spend hours trying to imagine what Grant looked like, or find himself at the website of the chat line seconds from hacking in. He definitely didn't repeatedly pick up the phone with an intent to call back, only to chicken out at the last minute because this was so not a good road to go down.
He didn't even make it a full eight days before he broke down and had JARVIS call back, rerouting the number through a secure server before transferring the call to his personal phone.
Again, he pressed the number for 2. Immediately, an automated voice asked if he had someone to request - he hadn't heard that last time, so JARVIS must have bypassed it. Tony licked his lips.
Guiltily, he whispered, "Grant."
The sound of the dial tone made his heart race.
"Grant here. How are you today?"
Fuck. That voice was even better than Tony remembered it. His eyes slipped shut on an exhale as every last drop of tension drained out of his body. It was like that moment when, after he'd spent well over eighty hours straight in the workshop and his body decided that it literally could not go any further, he fell into bed after a hot shower and a cheeseburger. It was bliss.
"Not a talker?" Grant asked when the silence dragged on just a touch too long. "Not a problem. We can do plenty of things without talking. I could describe what I'm wearing... or what I'm not wearing."
Tony's throat tightened. Yeah, he couldn't do this. He pulled the phone away from his ear and hung up, aforementioned feeling of bliss rapidly being taken over by the realization that he was just about the slimiest person on the planet. There was just something about calling the line and asking for his soulmate, when the poor guy had no idea, that was so... creepy. He threw his phone aside and stood up, resolving that he wouldn't call back.
Less than three days later, he left a meeting with the board and Pepper and went straight to his office. He left the lights off, locked the door, drew the curtains, and sat down on the floor where no one would see him. It was the best way of granting himself a little extra leeway before Pepper figured out that he hadn't actually left the building. His hands shook as he pulled his phone out of his pocket and dialed what was, by now, a very familiar number. Mostly because he'd forgotten how many times over the past three days that he'd dialed it without pressing the call button. Today he did, drumming his fingers on the floor impatiently as the lines clicked through.
"Good afternoon, stranger. How can I help you today?" Grant asked.
Just like before, Tony immediately found himself relaxing. All of the tension that had built up during his (extremely aggravating) meeting dissipated. He licked his lips, and the sound must've translated over the phone, because Grant chuckled. And oh, what a sound that was, a quiet huff of genuine amusement. Enough to make Tony's heart skip a beat.
"Someone's eager. I guess that means you don't enjoy foreplay? Or maybe you'd like me to be the one who slows things down," Grant murmured, tone full of suggestiveness. "Maybe with a little rope?"
Fuck. It felt like every ounce of blood in his body rushed south at those words. Tony swallowed, his throat dry. At this point he would've sold his company to know what Grant looked like, but he didn't feel right about hacking into the system to find out. It would only take a couple of minutes, and then he would be able to close his eyes and put a face to that sinful voice - but that was a line he couldn't make himself cross.
"Or not," Grant said when the silence dragged on. "I can handle going fast. You a fan of -"
Tony hung up before he could hear what Grant was going to suggest.
"Hey, you. Wanna help me take my clothes off? Or maybe I could take your clothes off with my teeth."
"Let me rub myself off against you; I bet it would feel fantastic. No need to even take our clothes off."
"Maybe we could just sit. And masturbate. Watching each other across the bed."
Tony was going out of his mind, and Rhodey was laughing at him.
"I can't believe you're laughing at me," Tony whined.
"I'm sorry," Rhodey said, struggling to adopt a straight face. But he cracked immediately, bursting into laughter again.
Tony crossed his arms and sulked. It had been nearly a month since he'd first called the sex line, and he was now calling about once a day. He couldn't help it. Grant's voice was an addiction. Even if Tony never said a word, those precious few seconds where he was the sole focus of Grant's world made all the difference. Every time he hung up, he told himself this would be the time when he wouldn't call back. And every damn time, before 24 hours had gone by, Tony was calling back like a junkie who needed their next fix.
This soulmate thing had gotten old really quickly.
"Okay, okay, I really am sorry," Rhodey said, coughing and trying to hide a smile. "Tones, seriously. Just say something to the guy and put yourself out of your misery."
"Why not? Did you hack the system? Is he married or something like that?"
"No, I don't know anything about him," Tony said quietly. "But no one wants Tony Stark for a soulmate."
"Tony." Rhodey sat up and stared at him. Tony kept staring at the floor.
"It's the truth and you know it."
Rhodey sighed. "It's not the truth, and I swear that someday I will get that pounded through your head. Besides, you do realize what happens to people who are trapped in one-sided bonds, right? Even if this guy isn't interested, you still need him to officially reject the bond. You can't go on like this. What happens if he quits the sex line and the next time you call, he's not there?"
Tony winced. Once or twice, he'd called when Grant wasn't around and had to wait until the guy's next shift. That was unpleasant. The headache and clawing sensation in his chest had been pretty bad by that point. Fortunately, he'd now figured out when Grant worked: it was a pretty steady schedule of Monday - Thursday nights, Friday mornings, and Saturday days. Sunday seemed to be his day off, which meant that Tony called late on Saturdays and right after five on Monday night. It also meant that he was completely pathetic.
"Call him," Rhodey ordered, grabbing Tony's phone off the chair and thrusting it in his face. "Right now. Or so help me, I'll call up the line and tell this guy what's going on myself."
Rhodey just looked at him, one eyebrow raised.
"Fuck," Tony muttered, shoulders slumping, and dialed the number. It took far too little time to actually get Grant on the line; he felt nauseous with nerves.
"Grant here. What can I do for you today?"
Tony bit his lip and looked up at Rhodey with his best puppy eyes. Rhodey glared at him and pointed sternly to the phone.
"Hello?" Grant said again, tone shifting from sexy to annoyed. It had been happening more and more lately. He definitely recognized Tony.
He couldn't. Tony couldn't. He shook his head wildly. Rhodey's glare deepened. Tony looked at him pleadingly.
"Tell him," Rhodey mouthed.
"Okay, that's it," Grant said, and both of them jumped. "Look, asshole. You've been calling my line for the last month and then hanging up after I say a couple of things. I never hear anything but the kind of heavy breathing that is just about the creepiest thing ever. I get that this is some joke to you, that you think it's funny to monopolize my time with calls that are just long enough that I don't make any money, but this is my fucking job and I need the money. Now do not call me again, understand?"
"I - I'm sorry," Tony said, shocked and mortified, and hit the button to end the call. On autopilot, he deleted the number from his phone and then blocked it for good measure so that he wouldn't be able to call it again when he inevitably got drunk.
"Tony," Rhodey said quietly.
"There, I called him," Tony said with a lightness that he didn't feel, a familiar burning sensation making itself known right behind his eyes. "See? I told you. No one wants me for a soulmate."
To his credit, Rhodey didn't say a word about how it was all Tony's fault for waiting so long that he'd driven Grant over the edge. He just sat down beside Tony and wrapped an arm around his shoulders, letting Tony gulp and sniff and pretend like he wasn't crying. Later, after Tony had calmed down a little, they ordered pizza and drank way too much vodka. Tony had never been a weepy drunk, but that night he definitely was. The massive hangover he woke up with the next morning didn't really help matters.
He didn't call back.
Four days later, Tony returned home after an especially shitty day. His temper was frayed and he was taking it out on people who didn't deserve it, Pepper included. Worst of all, Pepper had passed the point of being angry in return and was now just flat-out worried about him. He couldn't bring himself to tell her what had happened and how he'd fucked it all up, which was why he'd slipped out early. She'd be mad that he'd skipped some meetings, but he just couldn't stomach anything else.
Which was why, of course, there were two guys loitering outside of the mansion when he got there. They weren't press, Tony could tell that much at a glance, which is why he didn't immediately call for security. Happy shut the car off and looked at him in the mirror. Tony made a sign for him to wait and climbed out, eyeing them both. Both men were tall, taller than him, and muscular, though one was noticeably missing an arm. The other was holding flowers.
Stalkers. Fantastic. He mentally upgraded their potential threat and watched warily as they both approached the car. Tony'd had his fair share of weird fans over the years; the ones who were openly crazy were always the worst.
"Is this him?" Missing arm asked.
Flowers nodded silently, staring at Tony.
"Look," Tony said, holding his hands up. "If you're here to - to yell at me, or scream, or... fuck, I don't know. The last weirdoes who showed up at my door tried to stab me with a knife. Can we please not today?"
"Someone tried to stab you?" Flowers said, and it was Tony's turn to stare.
He'd recognize that voice anywhere. Oh shit.
On the plus side, Grant was fucking gorgeous.
"You... how did you..." he stammered.
"He tracked your number," said Missing arm. "Not exactly rocket science."
Double shit. Those first couple of times Tony called, he'd been careful about getting JARVIS to block his number. But then he'd gotten sloppy. Stupid. He hadn't even thought about the possibility of Grant trying to find him. He backed up a couple of steps, and Happy, sensing the new tension in the air, opened the car door and got out.
"You okay, boss?" he asked, staring at the two men with a distinctly unhappy look. "Do I need to call security?"
"No!" Grant blurted out. "I - please. Just give me a chance to apologize."
"Apologize?" Tony repeated. "What the hell for?"
"I yelled at you. I'm sorry. I was having a bad day and your call pushed me over the edge. I had no idea that you were - I just thought you were some creepy asshole, honest. When I heard your voice, I felt terrible."
"Yet it still took me two hours to drag you here," Missing arm muttered. The comment clearly wasn't meant for Tony but he heard it anyway and winced. So it was like that, then. Exactly as he'd expected.
"I bet you felt terrible," he said, trying to keep his voice from shaking too badly. "Because you found out that Tony Stark was your soulmate, right? And who would want that?"
"What?" Grant said, blinking. "No, I - at first I thought you were ashamed to have a sex line worker as a soulmate and it pissed me off because I'm doing this to raise money for my mom's cancer treatments. But then, after thinking about it for a little while, I realized you kept calling back. You just never said anything. I mean, you're Tony Stark. And I can't - I mean, why didn't you say something?"
Tony stared at him for a few seconds. It was tempting to just walk away, let the bond reject and pretend it never happened, but Tony owed his soulmate this much. "Because I don't care that you work for a phone sex line. I have a lot of respect for those people. Do you know how many fuckers there are out there in the world? And you willingly talk to them? And it's for your mother? That is amazing, Grant. You are like... like an angel, and I am just a shitty, terrible person."
Grant opened his mouth to speak, but Tony kept right on talking. He had to get this out there.
"I never said anything because you were right. I'm a creepy asshole who found his soulmate by calling a sex line. Not to mention, I'm Tony Stark. I am no one's first choice for a soulmate, even if we'd met in some other way. I was trying to do you a favor, but I fucked up and I'm sorry. I'm sorry for speaking to you; I didn't mean to." He looked back and forth between the two shocked faces. His eyes were stinging again. This was so much harder in person.
"Boss," Happy said softly.
"I just - look, forget it, okay? Walk away and we'll pretend it never happened. I never intended to inflict myself on a soulmate and that hasn't changed now that I know how awesome you are. Clearly the universe fucked up when they decided we were a good match. Let's just agree to disagree." He turned away, blindly grabbing the keys out of Happy's hand, and flung himself into the car.
"Wait!" Grant yelled. "Tony, wait!"
That was the thing. Tony didn't want to wait. He peeled out of the driveway and left Happy to deal with escorting them both off his property.
One of the last people in the world that Tony wanted to see was standing behind his bar when Tony walked into the mansion. He stopped in the doorway and scowled, putting his hands on his hips. Clint just looked up, grinned, saluted, and threw back the shot he was holding. The black man standing opposite Clint copied him, then laughed when Clint choked and started coughing.
"Shut up, Sam," Clint said between coughs.
"Weak," Sam said, shaking his head. "You owe me twenty bucks."
"You both owe me three hundred dollars," Tony said flatly, crossing the distance between them and grabbing the bottle of whiskey away. It wasn't his most expensive bottle - those cost a lot more than three hundred - but it was up there in terms of price, and really he just felt like being a brat.
"Aw, come on. Who can you share with if not your friends?" Clint said.
"When I see my friends, I'll share."
"Harsh. Your words hurt, Tony."
"That's not all that's going to hurt if you're already drunk by the time Natasha gets here," Sam said.
Tony froze. "Wait, you invited Natasha over?"
"Technically," Clint said, "she invited herself.
"Pass me one of those shot glasses," Tony said despairingly. If Natasha was coming, that meant Pepper would inevitably show up. There was no way he'd be able to keep the truth from both of them. That meant, within the next two or three hours, every single one of his friends would know exactly how stupid he was.
Sam obligingly slid a glass across the bar, then stuck a hand out. "Sam Wilson."
"Tony Stark," Tony said. He poured himself a shot and shook Sam's hand with one hand while he threw the shot back with the other. It burned in the sweetest way and didn't do a damn thing to stop the pain in his chest.
He wasn't nearly as drunk as he wanted to be when Natasha arrived an hour later, particularly when he saw who was with her.
He might've made a run for it, but Clint chose that exact moment to sit down in his lap.
"What the fuck?" Tony hissed.
"You'll thank me later," Clint drawled, and across the room Missing arm's head shot up.
"Son of a bitch."
"Whoa," Clint said, his head turning around. He looked instantly, shockingly sober. "Dude."
"My soulmate just called me dude," Missing arm said, torn between wondering and amusement.
"I guess now I don't owe you for all those hours after all, since you found your soulmate because of me," said Grant.
"Steve, you will owe me for those hours I spent listening to you mope for the rest of your life."
Steve. Tony stared, fascinated, as a blush spread across Steve's face. He wanted to dump Clint on the floor and make a run for it, but he couldn't seem to move. His chest was so tight he could hardly breathe.
"Okay," Natasha said, clapping her hands. "I heard that there were some very stupid boys in the room, and I don't abide stupidity. So here's what's going to happen. Bucky and Clint will go outside and talk. Tony and Steve will stay here and talk. Sam and I are going upstairs to make out. Any questions?"
"No," Sam said instantly.
"But -" Tony started.
Natasha just looked at him.
He closed his mouth.
She smiled. "Wise choice."
Clint stood up, shoved his hands in his pockets, and wandered over to Bucky. Tony had never seen him look that shy in all the time they'd known each other. But all of that was forgotten when Steve walked over to him. Suddenly, Tony realized that he was free and he could've taken the chance to run. Now it was too late.
"Can we talk?" Steve asked quietly.
Tony swallowed hard. His throat was too dry to speak. His chest throbbed. He settled for nodding. He barely noticed Natasha and Sam disappearing upstairs. Steve sat down beside him on the couch, leaving a scant few inches between their knees. It was at once too far and too close.
"I just wanted to say that I'm sorry."
"You're sorry?" Tony repeated.
Steve nodded. "For showing up at your door like that. Bucky was tired of listening to me talk about what an idiot I'd been. He was the one who dragged me there. I knew it was a bad idea, but I thought - I just wanted to see you in person and see if it was true. I shouldn't have come without warning you first. I should've called or something first."
"It's fine," Tony muttered, dropping his gaze.
"No, it's not. Look, Tony... all those things you said, about not being anyone's first choice for a soulmate -"
"I know. I know I'm not. You don't have to -"
" - it's ridiculous really, you're smart and sexy -"
"- pretend like you want me around -"
" - and I don't know why you'd be interested in someone who works for a sex line -"
" - because I don't mind if you just want to, like, meet undercover... wait, what?"
"What?" Steve said at the same time.
They stared at each other.
"You think I don't want you around?" Steve said, looking hurt.
"Well, I - that's..." Tony floundered. "I'm Tony Stark."
If anything, that only seemed to confuse Steve more.
"I made weapons, Steve. For years. Weapons that killed innocent people."
"I know." Steve tugged at a chain around his neck. Tony winced when he saw the dog tags.
"So then you know why no one would want to be associated with me. Especially my soul mate. After all, if you believe what the media says, I'm one hot woman away from cheating on you," Tony said, unable to keep the heavy sarcasm from his voice. Those days were long behind him, ever since he and Pepper had discovered Stane's betrayal, but the media would never believe it.
"I was in the army. After all the bullshit I've heard the American media come out with, I rarely believe a word they say. And I've learned not to judge someone purely on their reputation," Steve said steadily. "Not to mention, I've done some pretty shitty things too. And not just in the army. I am no angel, and I was fucking glad you spoke to me when you did. I'm glad you're Tony Stark. You might not have been my first choice for a soulmate, but that doesn't mean I'm not happy it was you.
"But if you don't want to get to know me, you don't have to. That's on you, though, not me."
For the third time that night, Tony was left speechless. Steve kept looking at him for about thirty seconds, obviously waiting for Tony to speak. When Tony said nothing, his face fell. He silently stood up.
"No!" Tony blurted out, grabbing at his hand.
Shocks ran up his arm. His fingers tingled. The pain in his chest seized, then ebbed. Steve stopped, looking down at him.
"I - um. Uh. Wow." Tony blinked and shook his head. Suddenly he could breathe again. "Look, I - I might have made some assumptions. Some mistaken assumptions. Before I met you. Based on what other people have said to me."
"Those other people were clearly stupid," Steve said, but he sat down again. Somehow, they were still holding hands.
"One of them did try to kill me," Tony admitted.
"Was this the same person who tried to stab you?"
"What?" Tony said. "Oh, no. That was someone else."
Steve raised an eyebrow. "You seem to have a lot of people trying to kill you."
"A fair amount, yeah."
"Maybe you need a bodyguard."
"I already have one," said Tony. He looked up at Steve through his eyelashes. "But... I don't have a boyfriend. Or girlfriend. Or any friends at all, really."
"Oh really," Steve said. He was clearly trying not to smile. "What about Clint and Natasha? Or Pepper? Or James Rhodes?"
Christ, it really was a conspiracy. Had everyone tried to talk Steve into coming here tonight? "They're all dead to me."
Steve chuckled. "That's harsh."
"I'm a harsh man," Tony said with a shrug.
"That's not how it seems from over here," Steve said softly. He squeezed Tony's hand. "Could we... start over? Maybe go on a couple of dates? Come up with a story of how we met that won't give my mother cardiac arrest?"
It was Tony's turn to laugh, though it was more disbelieving than anything. Could this really be happening? He'd met his soulmate and hadn't been left in the dust. Instead they were sitting here on the couch, smiling stupidly at each other, and Tony felt lighter than he had in a long time.
"Yeah," Tony said, and had to swallow. "I, uh, would like that a lot. Steve."