The smell hit him as soon as he pushed the door open-grease and burnt hair and something vaguely sulphuric. Rhodey grimaced; at this rate, he’d have preferred the normal college dorm smells of sweat and semen.
The door creaked open fully, and he advanced with all manner of cautiousness-last time, Tony had whirled around mid-weld and singed his well-meaning eyebrow off. Because of course Tony Stark welded in his dorm room. Rhodey had helped him remove the fire alarm himself (mostly because the kid was a midget. And threatened to weld his bathroom door to the frame in his sleep).
Tony was, shockingly enough, not doing something manifestly hazardous this time. He was crouched on the far end of his mattress, rubbish and college boy paraphernalia radiating out from that point to the rest of the dumpster dive, like the epicentre of some critical disaster event. His face was obscured by a book nose downwards–eyes flittering out to Rhodey on his entrance and immediately darting back down.
“I’m surprised the written word still has something worthwhile to share with you.” Tony mostly tended to use books as…levels for his desk, maybe. Hammers. He’d once, over the gap of three weeks, borrowed over forty books from the library and constructed a ‘tome fort’ on the grounds. Which he then proceeded to set on fire.
Least to say, Rhodey was starting to gain a whole new appreciation for what money could do for you.
Tony grunted in response, but said nothing. Rhodey let out one of those little inaudible sighs that he was becoming scarily accustomed to, and proceeded to clear up some space for himself at the disaster site.
After he finally eked out a spot for his ass and plopped down, Rhodey raised his head to find a pair of dark eyes fixated on him already. Of course they zipped right back to the book when he caught them out, but what Tony didn’t know and Rhodey would never, ever tell him was that Tony’s entire face took on colour–which meant a pink forehead was still visible over the top of The Fundamentals of Stellar Astrophysics.
“Well?” Rhodey asked eloquently, grin stretching over his lips. That little goober.
“Crossword.” Tony said shortly. For all of the shit cluttered on his bed, Rhodey could not glimpse a pencil or pen or any manner of writing implement. Maybe Tony was like one of those geniuses–sorry, beg your pardon, genii–on TV who could play chess in their head, except with crosswords.
Except, of course, for the much likelier explanation. “Of course,” Rhodey agreed easily. “I’ve gone around hunting myself for the older editions of the Fundamental Astrophysics text book–apparently the crosswords in those are extra hard. Multisyllabic words and everything.”
Add to that the fact that Tony had never read anything ‘fundamental’ in his life. He’d probably stared at the alphabet in kindergarten with those big, wide eyes and jumped straight ahead to Dickens, the fucker.
“Word starts with T.” Tony said, and Rhodey would probably have drawled back something along the lines of you’d have to try harder than that to get me to scream your name if it were anyone else. But the kid didn’t need any more ideas. God, Tony had turned him into a buzzkill. “Clue is– ‘sense of companionship’.”
“Team?” Rhodey threw out for the hell of it–he wasn’t doing aerospace engineering at MIT because he was a lit whiz.
“Ends with R.” Tony said, all brisk and nonchalant like. Those eyes were still watching Rhodey over the top of the book.
“Tether.” Rhodey said, and smiled.
Tony twitched. “Doesn’t quite fit the clue. Keep trying.”
Tony twitched again. “That fits…nothing else. I think you were hotter with the ‘tether’. Maybe try…rhyming words?”
“Is that so?” Rhodey queried, trying in vain to keep his lips from curling up in amusement. “Leather. Feather, heather, nether, bellwether–”
“–T and R–”
“–tenner, temper, tenor, tremor.” Oh look. Maybe he was a lit whiz after all. “Crosswords are fun.”
The book had sagged in Tony’s grasp, enough that Rhodey could see the flared nostrils and furrowed mouth that accompanied that glare. “Rhodey.”
“No wait, I got this one.” Rhodey grinned again. “Tosser.”
“You aren’t nearly British enough to pull that off.” The book slid completely out of Tony’s hand, one end of the spine knocking against the mattress and catapulting straight onto the floor. Tony didn’t bother even looking to see where it had landed.
Rhodey mock squinted at the open pages lying three feet away from him. “I don’t see any crossword.”
“Shut up you asshole.” Tony groaned, and kneaded at the bridge of his nose. The slim band on his wrist inched slightly down, and Rhodey’s pilot-perfect eyesight could glimpse the beginnings of a T. “How did you know?”
“Three months ago, you were in some gravity defying position on the bed and floor all at once, snoring. The wristband was hanging loose.” Rhodey snagged the fallen book off the floor, and eased it closed. Ran a hand along the back of the spine to straighten it, left it carefully at the foot of the bed.
When he looked up, Tony was staring at him again. Rhodey took his chances. “Why don’t you wear one that actually fits you?”
The strange vulnerability to that stare closed right off, Tony looking away. The words were muttered. “I’m gonna grow into it.”
Right, moving ahead. “Please tell me I’m the first person you’ve tried to con into becoming your soulmate.”
Tony kept staring at his mattress. Bet he was wishing he had a bedspread now to actually fidget with.
Rhodey sighed. Soon enough, this was going to become his staple. “Tony.”
“I asked Jarvis to read off my wrist once when I was six.” The words exited in a rush, falling over each other in their defensiveness. “Told him I was dyslexic.”
“Because of course you didn’t find out about the reading disorder you don’t have from reading.” The words were wry as they always were, but Rhodey could feel something ache in the centre of his chest. This moron hurt him in so many goddamn ways.
Tony crossed his arms over his chest, eyes still fixed on some obscure stain on his mattress. Rhodey relented. “Why are you trying to force this anyway? When it happens all by itself it’ll be…nice.”
Okay, he was trying his best, Tony really didn’t need to roll his eyes at him. But then his best friend straightened from his slumped position, hands beginning to wave wildly even as the words emerged in splutters. “Nice. Nice. Soulmarks don’t come with punctuation, Rhodey-bear, which is why I’ll have you know that what’ll end up happening is–I’ll probably stammer something along the lines of ‘being together’ and they’re going to repeat together, with a question mark and at least three exclamation points after, signalling disgust and scorn and disbeli–”
And, on cue. Sigh. “There’s no such punctuation mark.”
“–there is actually, it’s called an interrobang…now I wonder what that reminds me of–”
“For fuck’s sake, Tony.”
“Interrogations and shooting, Rhodey-doo, you’ve got a terribly dirty mind. Like shooting my load straight into–”
“You’ve got the most depressingly pessimistic outlook on your words out of anyone I’ve ever met.” Rhodey cut him off flatly before it got any worse. “And your word is practically made out of rainbows and puppies of togetherness. And I’m betting your soulmate will be exactly the same. Now just can it and wait it out for the love of your life like everyone else.”
“I don’t think they’re the love of our lives.” Tony tossed out casually, and Rhodey would have taken it in the same joking strain as everything else, except Tony only got especially nonchalant about things that mattered. Everything else was hyperintensive.
“Why’re you so bent on forcing a meeting, then?” Casual. Casual does it.
“Because they. They.” Tony talked like those were full sentences, blinking all the while. “They’re predetermined. Bound to you. So they stay. They have to stay.”
Rhodey found himself mirroring his best friend, blinking and blinking again, probably to stop the stinging at the back of his eyelids. “You could just tattoo my words on your other wrist, you know.”
“While I’m sure that, ‘clean the barf before you go’ would make even the most stone hearted non-believer cry, I’m aspiring to something classier.”
“I’m classy.” Rhodey pointed out balefully, and then, “You never cleaned the barf.” But Tony’s features were softer, like he’d gotten the message, and Rhodey pushed himself to his feet and waded through the mess to plop himself face down at Tony’s side.
He’d never say, together, to Tony, and he’d probably never say, I’ll stay, either. Because Tony would never believe him, and all that remained was to say nothing and demonstrate everything from here on till the end of their lives.
(When Rhodey finally found him, that pampered billionaire skin needed no tanning treatments–it was brown and leathery under the harsh beating of the sun. Sand caked the lines of his face, dark eyes wide with the delirium.
Rhodey held him to his chest, felt the bony shoulders under his palms, the desert heat quailing against the warmth under his hands. His voice was grit and stone, cracked with pain all the way through.
“Next time you ride with me, okay?”
Tony stared up at him, split lips flickering soundlessly. Rhodey bent closer.
“So…like.” It sounded like the words were being dug up from the bellows of the desert. “…together?”
Rhodey stared right back at him, and this time the tears burned lava tracks down his cheeks. “Nice try, you son of a bitch.”)
Tony didn’t push it much, after that. With anyone. Rhodey had been fairly insistent after all, and kept yammering how it was in exchange for a ‘life debt’ he owed him.
(“But a life debt can only be repaid by saving the original saviour’s life. And you’ve been reading too much Harry Potter.”
“Star Wars.” Rhodey corrected him absently. “Wait, you’ve read Aftermath: Life Debt?”
“Looked it up on Wookiepedia.”
“It has two E’s.”
“I said it out loud, you idiot. How could you know?”
“A real Star Wars fan always knows.”)
But yeah, pushing. Tony didn’t do much of that anymore. Even though it literally went against every fibre of his being. Humans had found ways to foresee the weather and predict natural disasters and even control their upcoming bowel movements, for fuck’s sake. And when it came to something as integral as soulmates….it was, what? Nah, fuck that, leave it all to destiny?
Tony didn’t kid himself–he liked control. Every person in possession of sane mental faculties did. The reason the human race had evolved so rapidly was their desire and success in controlling the environment they were in. Yet apparently in this particular desire, he was all alone. Everyone was content to wait. No one wanted to make destiny happen.
So he waited and waited and did eventually grow into the wristband, wrists growing broad and taut with muscle. A time came when he actually outgrew it, and the metal pinched his skin; but he kept it on, because the sting was a reminder that he had in fact outgrown it, and he looked at the tiny H.S. embossed on the inner rim and gloried in petty happiness.
He waited a long time. Past the booze phase, past the charlatan phase, well into the Iron Man phase. Waited till the beautiful redhead with the killer high heels orbiting his circuit for the longest time finally got drawn in; the electron spiralling into the nucleus despite all physics laws.
They kissed on the rooftop, the ruins of the Stark Expo smoking in the background, Rhodey grumbling goodnaturedly all the while. Pepper’s hand rested on his shoulder, right on the gold-titanium of the suit without flinching–and Tony didn’t think about his soulmark at all.
He continued not thinking about it for the rest of the night to follow, up till the moment they were cosseted up in bed–Pepper’s chest pressing to his back, her bare arms wrapped his stomach, him idly tracing out the freckles on her hands by moonlight. “Does this mean we’re together now?”
Distracted musings. He didn’t mean anything by it. He wasn’t thinking about it at all.
Pepper didn’t repeat together, with a question mark and three exclamation points after–disgust and scorn and disbelief all wrapped up in one. Instead, she murmured into the shell of his ear, “Yes,” and breathed contentedly against his neck.
A flood of happiness, a prick of disappointment. Strange that they could coexist so. Tony closed his eyes and went to sleep.
He came awake with a startle, legs kicking out at imaginary assailants. Or you know, real ones. There was a shadow looming over him.
Blue eyes squinted at the wires trailing from his ears, a perfect mouth furrowed in distaste. “You’re going to go deaf.”
“Defective heart. Old…ow.” Tony attempted to straighten up from the extremely hard couch he’d fallen asleep on, vertebrae twinging in protest. “Old, practically arthritic back. I’m going for failed organ bingo.”
Steve continued to frown at him, a little uncharacteristically, as he’d been getting much better with jokes of late. He lowered a broad hand, and Tony reached out–assuming he’d be helped up by the effortless, magnanimous strength of Captain America.
Captain America did no such thing. In fact, he was being downright mean, swiping the earbud out of Tony’s right ear with a tug of his fingers.
“–hey, I can totally hear the lecture over the loud music–”
“Shh.” Steve popped the bud into his own ear, brows furrowing slightly. “This isn’t like the stuff you normally listen to.”
“It’s not always death defying screams and the sound of Hell raising itself.” Tony threw out lightly, but the song had already begun–
I don’t know you…but I want you. All the more for that.
Blue eyes found his again. “He sounds Irish.”
“He is.” Tony said. Words fall through me, and always fool me. And I can’t react.
The wire wasn’t too long, and he was still half-recumbent on the couch, which meant Steve was marginally bent over, head bowed, blond strands straying into his eyes and the wire running down his jaw. Tony inhaled, a strange tightness beginning to build at the base of his throat.
His fingers fumbled at his other ear. “Here, just–…just take the other one an–”
“Shh.” Steve said again. And games that never amount to more than they’re meant…will play themselves out.
The music swelled, a quiet crescendo of piano and strumming guitar, two roughened voices. Take this sinking boat and point it home. We’ve still got time. Steve’s eyes were clouded over, and distant. “Ma came over from Dublin in her childhood. Most of the people in the neighbourhood were immigrants.” Raise your hopeful voice, you had a choice…
“The tenement that Bucky and I used to live in, that is.” You’ve made it now.
“Touching.” Tony managed, but it was a rush of breath, and nothing could sound mocking over the ache of those two voices.
And then it was like the sky clearing, memory fading–Steve’s eyes snapping out of the fugue and watching him and no one else. His jaw worked, his lips pressing tight together. These words were going to matter and Tony didn’t know why, but he did.
“I was alone a lot growing up.” Steve said.
A building, building panic. A stutter of the heart, and Tony pushed out a fast, whip-sharp smile. “I have difficulty believing that.”
He sat up, the earbud jerking out of his ear. Steve reared back, face wiped of expression. Tony pushed his protesting knees to standing, feeling them totter and refusing to fall back down.
“Need to make a call to Pepper.” Tony watched Steve match his smile at that, small and polite and meaningless. “Nice talking to you, Cap.”
He turned and walked. Twisted his head for one last glimpse and regretted it–the sight of a lonely man clinging to heritage two generations ago for a sense of belonging. A tousled blonde mess of a head, eyes that couldn’t find home, and a wire dangling by the side of a tightened jaw, still beating out music.
Falling slowly, eyes that know me. And I can’t go back.
“But that up there? That’s the endgame. How’re we planning on beating that?”
He was this close, too. All he needed to do was ask Bruce, how did we create Ultron? and nod in an appropriately prompting fashion to hear the right answer. One word. One word. He’d waited forty-four years. He didn’t have to hear it right now. He could orchestrate it nicely later when his inventions weren’t blowing the world up.
But of course Captain America had to fuck that all up.
Tony lived a million thoughts in that moment. Forty-four years, idle dreams, poised on the edge of every conversation, barreling straight towards this ideal. Soul mate. A match for your soul. A religious concept if there ever was one, and now the predetermined match for his stood before him, jaw firmed up nobly and not a trace of fear in those eyes.
Forty-four years. And ninety for him, something terrified in his mind voiced–all of that, and yet in the two seconds that follow Steve Rogers’ entirely unassuring declaration, Tony watched on with a pounding heart and blood roaring in his ears and thoughts like this is highly inconvenient and take that back, I’m mad at you right now. He attempted to breathe in, failed, and tried again.
When the words came out, they were entirely inadequate. Resigned, despondent, defeated. Nothing you were supposed to be feeling when you realised who your soulmate was. “We’ll lose.”
Steve looked back at him, unwavering. He hadn’t the faintest idea of what had just happened.
But there were no question marks, no exclamation points. Scorn, disdain, disbelief. No smiling assurance of love.
Just one of everything a soulmate was supposed to be. “Then we’ll do that together too.”
That night, he dreamed.
Standing amidst the night, the world around him burning. The Chitauri serpent was heaving in the sky again, silver and glittering, baring its maw wide.
Standing in a field littered with his dead comrades. The Hulk crushed to the ground, Natasha with a porcelain white face and wide open eyes. Barton with blood running down his forearms, rigor mortis setting into the brittle fingers still clasping his bow, Thor with a cracked armour plate and hand inches away from a fallen hammer.
Tony kneeled beside him, and waited for the death throe, the recriminating words. Steve stayed still, eyes closed and lashes wispy in the lifeless dust. He found his fingers crawling through the dust, searching out a gloved hand. The leather creaked under his grip, and he felt for the catch at the wrist, heard the velcro crackle in the silence. Pulled the red leather off, finger by finger, grasped the cooling skin close to the heat of his own. Grasped it tight.
Just below, where his thumb stroked, he could glimpse a familiar jagged script.
So was I.
His brain’s way of reminding him what he’d glimpsed in a file years and years ago. Tony pressed his lips to the slant of the s, the deep flourish of the I.
Closed his eyes and willed himself awake.
(“Like the old man said. Together.”
“Maybe I should take a page out of Barton's book. Build Pepper a farm, hope nobody blows it up.”
“You found him, didn’t you. You found your mark.”
“Pep, that’s no reason to – we don’t have to end this, I love y – ”
“That’s not why I’m ending this Tony.”
“We need to be put in check.”)
His soulmate was a stubborn dickhead.
He’d always known this, retrospectively. Even thought it to be oddly fitting, symmetry and what not, usually when him and Steve were bantering over comms and disagreeing on petty things. Enjoying the clash.
That was of course, before Bucharest lay in shambles and Steve started running his one-man-against-the-government vendettas. Was he being wilfully blind or just doing it all to spite Tony? Did he really, actually believe that having a will would automatically force a way?
(See, that was the thing. There was a way, and Tony wasn’t even going to be arrogant enough to say that it was the right way–just the best one possible under the circumstances. They’d course correct, they’d remedy, they’d do whatever possible in the future to soothe Steve’s injured principles if only he stopped being such a moron now).
“If I see a situation pointed south, I can't ignore it. Sometimes I wish I could.” That would be a resounding no to stopping being a moron then.
Tony was running ragged, and armouring himself in Armani, head fit to implode with the panicked litany that he really couldn’t afford a panic attack right now. But all of the arguing wasn’t working.
He exhaled, and let the armour fall. “No you don’t.”
There was a small smile upturning the corner of Steve’s lips, almost hopeful. “No I don’t.”
He could just say it now, couldn’t he? Just come out with it. Yes, it wouldn’t make much sense in the context of the conversation, but what about this situation did? Two people, bound by an unbreakable thread, standing on opposite sides.
He’d say the three words, and Steve’s jaw would drop for an indeterminable moment, eyes widening. His lips would flicker, smile broadening into a grin before the ‘violation’ would strike him like lightning, forehead creasing in the process. He’d firm his jaw in that manly sulk and say it wasn’t fair, and say that this wasn’t how it was supposed to be and that Tony wasn’t supposed to know and all thoughts of the Accords would be far, far away. And Tony would coax him out of it, that stiff frame eventually relaxing and Tony would run his hands over those shoulders and squeeze the tension out.
And Steve would shiver, eyes still darkened with righteous anger, and Tony would stroke down and down those hands till he reached that damnable wrist with that damnable band and push it to the side with his teeth. Lick over the slant of the s and place a kiss over the deep flourish of the I. Raise his head, watch through his eyelashes as Steve gazed down back at him, whispering “Narcissist,” with a curl to his mouth and inextricable fondness in his eyes.
“Sometimes I want to punch you in your perfect teeth.” Oops, maybe a little of his lustful thoughts (adoring affectionate adoring) snuck into his words there. And then sneaking went to hell and goddamn feelings projected themselves full force. “But I don’t want to see you gone.”
“We need you, Cap.” Tony said, and those weren’t the words he was supposed to be saying at all. Not according to Steve’s wrist...but that was the beautiful thing about ‘supposed to’. The beautiful thing about destiny–and yeah, this meant he was actually coming around to the bullshit concept. It would happen. Fate had decreed it, had practically written it down on their hands. Nothing Steve or Tony could do would deny it. Nothing at all.
Tony wasn’t going to push it–and wouldn’t Rhodey be so proud? But it was going to happen, and happen the right way. He just needed to solve this pain-in-the-ass issue of the Accords first.
It wasn’t momentous. It wasn’t anything at all.
He burned with shame, to think that he still had hope, in the moments after. Expected those eyes to widen, the large frame to freeze still, the shield to clatter down on the ground like a benediction. His anger had been far and away at that instant, drawn and torn away in tatters, desperation mostly holding on. Maybe the repulsors would even have powered down.
Whatever happened, he hadn’t expected Steve to keep on hitting.
He almost wished it had been deliberate. For the words to fall at that, critical instant. It would have shown him to be diabolical. It would have shown him to be better than this. Not so weak. Not so foolhardy.
Truth is, when it did happen, he didn’t think at all.
“He’s my friend.”
The words wrenched out, small and quiet and useless. “So was I.”
He thought a lot, in the aftermath. Couldn’t stop thinking, even if he tried. The harsh breaths, the sparks flying off the shield and speckling to the ground, the footsteps fading under his ear pressed to the damp stone. He remembered it all so vividly.
Those pupils had flickered, he was sure of it. The blue of his eyes widening. Steve was afraid, maybe. Maybe the shock in that moment was too large to comprehend, maybe Steve had just pushed ahead irrespective of the voices screaming in his head. Like the screams ringing in the cavernous depths of Tony’s mind, except when they left his cracked lips, touched the cold Siberian air– they morphed, no please how could y– turning to my father made that shield.
His brows had pulled together–Steve was angry. He was angry at Tony for attacking his best friend…and wouldn’t Tony be the same if anyone dared touch Rhodey? Even if Rhodey had never throttled Steve’s Ma, felt her fluttering life quenched under his senseless fingers. Even if Rhodey was lying still in bed now, doctors tossing about words like paralysed and shouldn’t fly again, and every member of Captain America’s precious team now ran fugitive and free. Despite all those things–maybe Steve was angry at his soulmate. That was fair. Tony could understand that. Anger faded, he’d heard that somewhere. Even as his eyes scoped over the Avengers are yours, maybe more so than mine for the nineteenth time–and he felt the anger congeal in his gut, cold and implacable.
Weren’t his lips downturned? Steve regretted it. Regretted the hits even as the shield swung, regretted the crunch of glass under vibranium’s keen edge, regretted the living hum of the body under his turned paralysed and still. He had to regret it. Tony had an utterly unsatisfactory letter in his drawer, torn to bits and pieced together again, a scrap of paper that had to indicate some modicum of regret...even if it felt like a declaration that Steve would have done nothing differently. Tony couldn’t be the only one with the gnawing expanse in his chest, the insurmountable mountain of what ifs. It wouldn’t be fair.
Maybe Steve didn’t believe in soulmates. Maybe he hadn’t heard the words right, and Tony needed to say them again. Maybe this was all a really big, fucking joke. He’d walk into the office at the Facility and this time, Steve would be waiting. Surprise.
Maybe Tony had been too optimistic about his words from the beginning.
Disbelief and scorn and disgust–he’d take them all. Any reaction, any emotion. Anything over the possibility…the fact. That when the words fled his lips, one second stretching into eternity, waiting for the world to move…Steve didn’t pause at all. No widening of the eyes, no angered brows, no regretful downturn of the lips. The most important moment of Tony Stark’s life passed Steve Rogers by without a thought.
This was the sort of thing irony laughed at. Trust him to defy his own destiny.
It was easier than to think–know–that this had been Tony’s destiny all along.
Rhodey’s recovery had been steady, of late. Physical rehab was progressing without too many setbacks, and he attended his appointments with the shrink diligently. Whether he actually talked during those hours…Tony didn’t know. Rhodey didn’t talk about his issues to him.
Regardless, without any means of gauging mental stability, this was as fine a time as any to have this conversation. “You don’t have to do this, anymore.”
Rhodey raised his face from the Dickens novella he’d been poring over, and raised a brow to match. His limbs were well extended, his back supported by the chair, his spine as straight as possible. The chair was placed at a location of optimum light. It illuminated his haggard face, but his eyes were guileless. “Do what?”
“I know ever since we had that conversation in college you’ve been….” Tony started, and trailed off in frustration. Rhodey was being uncharacteristically unhelpful here. “…waiting. Or something. For me to finally…you know.”
“Something.” Rhodey’s face was impassive.
“Well, your shift is done now. Baton handed over, your part of the relay race completed.” Tony paused for breath. “So shoo.”
A beat. Two.
“Well for fuck’s sake.” Rhodey was doing this deliberately but Tony was exploding anyway and he hated this. “I’ve found him. He left. You can go now.”
Then, like the most gigantic asshole that had ever lived, and Tony had met his fair share in his time-Rhodey raised his chin, sniffed, and turned back to his book, ass wriggling to settle back in the chair in the most pointed manner imaginable.
It was a half paralysed ass, so the effort was commendable and Tony could feel the thickness of impending tears in his throat.
The light glinted off the metal band encircling Rhodey’s wrist, and hey, Tony had been through some shit. He was matured and everything. He could overcome the possessive jealousy over his best friend and ask.
“Who’s your soulmate anyway?”
Rhodey smiled, light and almost mischievous. “Never had one. Best thing that ever happened to me.”