Toni'd always wanted a soulmate. Hell, she'd even settle for a soulmark, just to feel normal.
Well. Not that Starks were ever truly normal.
No, her father had ingrained that in her from the moment she was born, and going decades without a rendezvous writing itself across her skin had only reinforced that, over and over again. It seemed like every other person who'd reached thirty-eight had had at least one soulmark appear, even if they'd let the opportunity pass them by to meet their soulmate.
Starks were made of iron.
And iron didn't have soulmarks. Her father and mother hadn't had soulmarks, and even if they'd had them at one point, duty and dynasty was more important than mystical or divine meddling.
So no, it had been expected of her to never succumb to any soulmarks she might gain—but they weren't around anymore, were they? She could give in to the mystical if she so chose.
If a soulmark ever appeared.
And she'd checked.
Oh, yes, she'd checked every day. But there was always the chance the mark had appeared for a brief window of opportunity, and she'd missed it, not making it to the correct place on the right date or time simply because she'd been busy.
Hell, the mark could have appeared while she was in Afghanistan, as there had been no easy way of looking herself over every day.
Plus, well, she'd been a tad bit preoccupied.
A new soulmark, a new chance, a new rendezvous could still appear, but she was well into her thirties now, and her chances were looking slimmer and slimmer as the days went by that she'd be able to enjoy herself with a soulmate.
She hadn't let it stop her, though, and she had enjoyed herself plenty, and hell, she had the most beautiful woman in her life right now, Pepper Potts, even if they weren't soulmates.
She'd had her.
Right. She kept forgetting about that.
Toni'd been the one to find Pep's soulmark, her rendezvous, and she'd been the one to help her dress, to push her out the door, and wish her luck and happiness and love.
Because Pepper deserved it.
But damn if it didn't hurt, losing her in that way. It had only been a week, and the woman was still firmly planted in her life as CEO and official Toni Wrangler. It hurt not to be able to touch her, to look at her, like she used to.
Shaking her head at her internal musings, Toni threw herself back into her creation, and her thoughts became focused on the task at hand once again.
It was Rhodey who found it first.
Toni had been slouching over her work table, scrolling through her holo display and reading over some test results, when Rhodey entered the lab.
"Hey JARVIS, kill the music, will you?" Rhodey asked as he walked in.
JARVIS did as he asked, the traitor.
"Hey!" Toni shot up, glaring at her best friend. "I was listening to that!" She swiveled her chair around, releasing nervous energy as she did. It was the only thing that helped to still her mind, at least sometimes, when she was interrupted mid-thought. Toni clenched her eyes shut, breathed in, and then out, centering herself with the steady hum that was reverberating subtly through her body from the arc reactor.
"What gives?" she finally asked, opening her eyes and taking in the man in front of her. He was dressed down, in dark jeans and a blue button-up, so obviously it wasn't an official visit.
Rhodey raised an eyebrow at his friend, and Toni raised one right back at him, and then finally she grinned, getting up and hugging the tall man. "It's been a while," she said as she stepped back.
"Since after you nearly died, you mean?" Rhodey asked dryly, rhetorically. "It wasn't even that long ago. And you still haven't groveled enough for that, Tones. I mean, come on, who even does that?"
Toni mock-pouted at him. "I'll build you a new suit!" She turned around, pulling her holo display towards her as she went. "I mean, it's only been two weeks since I got a new heart, cut me some slack, boo bear!"
She barely registered the gasp that Rhodey let out, already hopping onto a train of thought that swiftly began to carry her away. But she couldn't miss a large hand settling onto her shoulder, gripping her, and pulling her away from her work once again.
Toni yelped as the back of her t-shirt was pulled down, and then, before she could say or do anything, Rhodey exclaimed, "You have a soulmark, Tones. A soulmark!"
"What!" Toni was off like one of her suits, running towards the bathroom and turning on the lights as she twisted around, trying desperately to see the words written there.
But she couldn't.
They were at the nape of her neck and she could only see a hint of the black print—holy shit it was finally happening, she'd waited so long, and now she was going to meet somebody who would accept every part of her, damaged goods and all, brains and all, faults and all, and she didn't care that that may be naïve of her. She didn't care, and the mark was out of sight, and she wanted to see, and luck of all luck she didn't have a second mirror. "JARVIS, can you tell—"
"I've got you, Tones—calm down, geez," Rhodey said gently, attempting to settle her as he strode swiftly towards her. Rhodey had been privy to every thought Toni had had about soulmarks over the years. The times she'd laughed at the idea, the times she'd tried to figure out how they worked, the times that she'd thrown herself into a deep, dark hole at the thought that she'd be markless and bondless forever, and Rhodey and Pepper had been her only ways out.
He knew what this meant to Toni. He wouldn't have lied to her about it. Never about something like this. Actually, never, period. End of story. Toni could trust Rhodey with her life and more.
Rhodey would never lie to her.
Even though he had a soulmark, heralding a rendezvous a few months down the road that he planned to be there for, he'd always be her Rhodey, too. They may not have ever been a thing, but their connection… it was deeper than what many of the soulmates she met had.
She stilled, waiting for Rhodey to come over. And then, finally, the man set his warm fingers against her neck and shoulders, and tugged the shirt down and—
Toni had never heard anything like what she was now hearing in Rhodey's tone. It was equal parts reverent, shocked, and disbelieving.
All as he looked at her soulmark.
It couldn't be that bad, right? All a soulmark could be was a string of numbers and words. How could that have garnered a response like that?
"Let me see!" Toni demanded, thrilled but also terrified—and the only reason she let that show was because it was Rhodey here with her.
But… was she ready? Was she ready to have someone so intrinsically tied to her life?
It scared her, but yes. She'd always dreamed of being given the opportunity at a connection such as this.
Rhodey took out his phone and snapped a picture of the nape of Toni's neck, and then held it up for his friend to see.
The only thoughts that rushed through her mind as she stared, and stared, and stared at the letters and numbers were 'Holy shit indeed,' and 'I'm so glad I'm not holding the phone right now or else I would've dropped it.'
Because right there, plain as day—and she knew that Rhodey would never fuck with her on this—was the following:
November 10 th , 1944. 11:28pm. Ravenna, Italy.
Toni couldn't gather a single coherent thought anymore. She simply continued to stare, and stare, and then her hands began to shake at her sides. She gripped the fabric of her sweatpants in both hands, clenching with her fingers as her heart pounded in her ears.
Rhodey pulled the phone away, and that seemed to kick start her brain—at least somewhat.
"Is that—?" she asked, incapable of completing her sentence. She just… couldn't find the words.
And that was scary. She always had the right words.
"Yeah," Rhodey replied, knowing exactly what she meant. "Yeah, that's real, Tones." He sounded just as shaken as she did.
That was scary, too. Rhodey was always calm. Well. Calmer.
"But how is it still there?" Toni asked again, her voice cracking on the last word. She caught her own eyes in the mirror, and Toni wasn't quite sure what they showed. She didn't even know what she was feeling on the inside, never mind being able to read the physical manifestation of those feelings.
"I don't know, Tones. I don't know."
And he didn't. But neither did Toni.
She was barely aware of her best friend leaving the bathroom, let alone the lab entirely, as she descended further into her thoughts, pondering what exactly was going on.
A soulmark. Finally.
But it was in the past. Before she'd even been born.
How was that even possible?
It was a wonder that the mark had appeared and remained, even—all other marks, when the time came and went without a rendezvous occurring, would disappear, leaving the skin blank for another mark to appear for a different person sometime in the future.
And yet hers was still there.
Long past the time indicated.
What was she going to do?
There was no question about it—Toni Stark had to build herself a way back into the past if she was ever going to meet her soulmate. If she wanted to. She could just leave it be, pretend it didn't exist, move on with—
Fuck it. Who was she kidding?
Of course she wanted to meet her soulmate. Never mind whatever fucked up joke the universe was playing on her, giving her a rendezvous that was not only in the past, but also in the middle of the bloodiest war in history, in fucking Italy of all places. Where Howard fucking Stark was bound to be running around—she knew because the damn man had made her sit down with his collection from the war at least once a year, every year like clockwork, and listen to his retellings of running around like a lost puppy after the Howling Commandos in the "good ole days".
As if war was something good.
It was like some sort of cosmic joke, making fun of Toni as if the universe or whoever the hell was out there hadn't made Toni suffer enough already. And she shouldn't be taking the bait—she really shouldn't.
But she couldn't stop herself.
Always impulsive, even after Afghanistan, Toni knew she wouldn't be able to leave this alone.
And she was strong. She'd built the Iron Man suit; had built it after three months of torture and pain. She was keeping herself alive artificially, with a new element of all things.
Of course she could do this.
She had no idea where to even begin, but if anyone could figure something like this out… it would be her. Right?
She rolled her eyes. No, she wasn't arrogant at all.
Not one bit. She could handle this all by herself.
She was Toni fucking Stark, after all.
And she handled it.
She handled it right through the research. She handled it right through gathering different components and materials. She handled it through contacting multiple theorists and specialists and researchers, harassing them until they shared as much of their work as they were willing to fork over for monetary donations and with non-disclosure agreements. She handled it through Pep yelling at her for forty minutes straight for not telling her the wonderful news sooner—and then she handled it again for twice as long when Pep found out what her words said and what exactly she planned to do about. She handled it as she and JARVIS locked themselves in the lab for over sixty-eight hours—Pep and Rhodey forcing her to eat by unceremoniously dumping food on her work table before leaving just as quietly—and only had the barest of data to show for it when she stumbled to the lab's couch to sleep.
She handled it all the way through receiving a package addressed to her and having JARVIS scan it for dangerous materials—no sense blowing herself up before she could figure all this out.
And she handled it right up until she opened the box, and blue and green light erupted from within, blinding her and whiting out the noise around her until all she could hear was a high pitched whine, and a rushing noise that grew louder and louder until it stopped.
And then she was aware that there were people surrounding her, shouting at her, but she couldn't see, she still couldn't see, and couldn't make head nor tail of what was being yelled at her. Some words came through but they were muted, and they didn't make any sense, like her hearing was muffled and her brain muddled and—
Her vision and hearing came back all of a sudden, as if slotting into place, and she was able to see and hear—
And with a gasp, Toni dropped to her knees, hands up in the air, and stared in shock as she took in the men surrounding her, every last one of them holding a gun, and every last one of those pointed at her.