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There's no hate, there's no love
Only dark skies that hang above
I call your name as I walk alone
Send a signal to guide me home
Light the night up, you're my dark star
And now you're falling away
“Dark On Me” – Starset

++

The world was one that was painted in colors, rainbow shades that danced along one’s skin—each child born in vibrant hues, vivid reflections of the effect that their soulmate would have upon their life. Most children were born with abstract images, shaded lines and hints of color here and there to highlight the designs that their soulmates would paint upon their lives. The more profound effect that a soulmate would have, the more colorful and distinct a person’s imagery would end up being.

Oftentimes, children were born with lines that hinted to flowers, geometric shapes that flowed along the outside of a thigh; perhaps one child would be born with misty mountains colored over a collarbone, tinted in twilight and the kiss of eventide. Another may have a field of poppies sketched in charcoal, blossoms bleeding true crimson as the petals danced their way down a forearm. It was rare, though, for a child to be born with technicolor imagery, for the scenery that reflected their mate’s soul to be any larger that a small portion of their body: it was rare enough, as it was, for a child’s Tattoo to take up any true amount of space upon their body.

When Tony was born, however:

His entire back was a riot of color, saturated and shaded with grays and blues and dusky purples, flashes of startling pink-tinged white, a kaleidoscope of oranges and reds and sienna browns. The Stark heir’s back was a starscape painted in minute details, stunningly recreated as he wore a nebula’s heart sprawled out and in technicolor upon his skin. The mark was both gorgeous and awe-inspiring, as well as terrifying in its implications: after all, what sort of soulmate would have such a profound, encompassing effect to mark their partner so thoroughly?

The thought made the Stark parents leery, Maria keeping her distance from her newborn baby, disliking the fact that she oftentimes had to hold him to feed him—constantly comparing her son’s soulmate mark with her own, grayscale and geometric design. For his own part, Howard was barely willing to even look at the baby, refusing to touch, to acknowledge his son’s presence except under duress. It was a habit both adopted and kept to throughout Tony’s childhood, and the boy accepted things as they were, quietly angry with a universe’s amount of starburst thoughts spinning through his mind.

(Later, years down the road, an astronomer that Tony would one day sleep with would make an offhand comment on how perfectly rendered his soulmate mark was in its reflection of the Carina Nebula’s Mystic Mountain. Two days later, an anonymous donation would be sent off to the Hubble Telescope and NASA both, tagged only with the request that the money be used to continue purchasing new tech needed for the exploration of deep space.)

++

Tony grew older, as children were wont to do: perhaps not necessarily wiser, not with the desperation to be acknowledged that grew muted as time went on. The years passed and neglect became a constant enough companion for him, a bridge that divided you from me, and the teen’s belief in soulmates and the effects of the marks upon one another began to wane—lessen until there was something less than a flicker of belief in their meaning. There was no one in the dark-eyed boy’s life that could easily claim to have made enough of an impact to warrant the mark that spread across Tony’s back, gleaming even in the low light of the hallways littering Stark mansion.

His back was painted in a riot of colors and yet most of Tony’s world was shaded in hues of gray, drab enough to leech color and enthusiasm both from his life: nothing changed, distance remained, and Tony played a role for the public at large even while his mark flickered beneath his skin, a secret from others who might try and take advantage of its presence.

Still, though:

There was no single person who came and touched him in such a way to make his mark burn, colder than the heart of space that lingered between the stars.

By the time that Tony turned thirty-five, there was nothing left to believe in: just an acknowledgement of fact that he was an outlier in what should have been, could have been and how it differed from reality. There was no soulmate out there for him and the mark that splashed its colors across his back stood as a testament instead in saying: I stand alone.

With the life that he had led—whispers and sidelong glances, Merchant of Death lingering far too long on people’s tongues—perhaps it was better, then, that Tony’s soulmate lingered in the shadows, nothing more than a figment of an overactive imagination, the last remnant from a childhood left alone more often than not. It was easier to disregard, to disbelieve, to acknowledge the fact that this was everything that he had and was—and that Tony was a whole, not meant to be a portion of a larger machine.

He kept his chin up and forged ahead, always careful to keep his torso clothed and away from prying eyes.

++

Tony huddled close to the small fire that Raza allotted to him and Yinsen, the tiniest forge that he had ever worked with—but a welcome enough boon once the sun set outside and temperatures dropped even further in the cave. It seemed as if his entire world had shifted to the two extremes: shifting between fire and ice, caked in sweat and soot and blood, wondering sometimes—late at night with only the sounds of footsteps outside their cell to give away others’ presence—if this was nothing more than an extended nightmare, one that he was just waiting to awake from.

The engineer knew better, coughed water from his lungs as the magnet in his chest sparked in warning, but it was nice to pretend that anything else other than the reality he found himself in was possible, was the constant he was immersed in: it was a kinder thought and one that he clutched desperately at in the middle of the night when the rest of the world faded away to shades of twilight.

Tony huddled closer over the bowl of slop he had been given for dinner, scooting as close as he dared to the forge in the hopes that proximity to the fire would warm the food within and perhaps make it at least the smallest bit more palatable. He scooped some of the gruel onto the wooden spoon provided to them, chewing mechanically as his dark gaze stared into the fire, lost in thought and burying himself in the minute details of the blueprints scattered haphazardly behind them both.

“Mr. Stark…” Yinsen suddenly began, voice a low and murmuring counterpoint to the crackle of the flames between them. “I cannot help but find myself curious about your soulmate mark when I caught sight of it during your surgery. It’s not often mentioned in the media—“

Mahogany eyes flickered upwards to meet the doctor’s, and Yinsen’s words slowly stuttered to an abrupt halt at the dark emotions that lingered in the shadows of that carefully shuttered gaze. “No one really talks about it because I don’t believe in soulmates,” Tony answered in turn, tone curt and sharp enough to cut.

Yinsen fell silent at the conversation’s end, shifting just enough to wrap a hand around the opposite wrist, covering his pink-kissed songbird that was already slowly starting to fade away, noting more than the faintest of impressions to remember his wife—and the children she had given him—by.

“Then I feel very sorry for their loss,” the surgeon murmured.

++

New York City wasn’t the best place for stargazing, but Tony had long ago stopped looking towards the heavens for his answers. The light pollution canceled out the gleam from up above, leaving only the brightest of stars still visible from earth: everything else faded into smog-tinged brown-gray, a dirty canvas waiting to be painted on with the moon overseeing it all.

Tony took a sip of his scotch, letting the drink burn its way down as he tilted his head upwards and let the night wind run chilled fingers through his hair. The Stark Tower was only partially complete, but enough of it had finished to allow the billionaire to move into the penthouse just one floor below. The world was quieter up here, distant enough from the streets to muffle the sounds of traffic, of everyday people going through their everyday lives. There was a sense of solitude and peace, thin though it was, and Tony grasped it as tightly as he possibly could for as long as he could—knowing that it wouldn’t last, regardless.

The elevator doors slid open, nearly soundless, and Tony turned his head just enough to meet Agent Coulson’s carefully veiled gaze. “Mr. Stark, we need to talk,” the SHIELD agent began as he stepped out onto the tower’s roof.

Taking another sip of the amber liquid in his tumbler, the inventor called out “You have reached the life model decoy of Tony Stark, please leave a message.” before tilting his head back upwards to return his attention to the hazy sky above.

Coulson’s mouth tightened in clear irritation, and his steps did not falter as the agent continued to make his way across the open expanse, heading directly towards the billionaire who still pointedly ignored his presence. “This is urgent.”

Ignoring the sharp twinge that crawled up his spine, traveling along the highest peak of the sienna-shaded mount, Tony drained the rest of the tumbler and set the glass off to the side, punctuating the gesture with a sharply offered: “Then leave it urgently.”

++

Body aching from the fighting that the engineer had been involved in before, his mark a constant, throbbing pain that lingered throughout his body from the moment that Coulson had first appeared, the fraying strands of Tony’s temper finally snapped as he threw the scotch-filled glass tumbler at Loki’s feet: a shattered offering, sharp-edged and as dangerous as its owner.

“You're missing the point!” the inventor snapped, mahogany gaze flaring with exhaustion and fury both; a hand sliced through the air to punctuate Tony’s point even as he moved ever closer, meeting Loki’s blue-veined gaze in both challenge and contempt. The words that the Midgardian next tossed out were picked to hurt, aiming true to the god’s weak points: “There's no throne; there is no version of this where you come out on top.”

Something akin to despair twisted the magic user’s expression, turning it ugly and feral. A hand snapped out almost immediately after, pale fingers wrapping tight around Tony’s neck to drag the mortal close and in range of his dagger—wanting to hurt in turn the way that the shorter man’s words had slipped through the chinks in Loki’s armor.

However:

Magic flared, searingly bright, the moment that the god’s fingers brushed over Tony’s skin; Loki jerked away almost immediately, crying out in pain as he went temporarily blind and half of his body seized in reaction to that barest of touches. The red and gold armor that had covered the left side of his body from the moment of his birth—branching downwards from the base of his throat to the tips of his toes—suddenly began to gleam with a metallic edge, and the lines that formed the outline to all of the various pieces lit up with the steady glow of arc reactor blue.

Buried within the crevasses of Loki’s mind, the Other gave an agonized scream as the alien was abruptly ripped away, roots burning clean and strongly with the abrupt flare of connection and recognition and magic.

A gaze that had been fogged over with glacial blue cleared and focused, and Loki stared at his soulmate with eyes that were a mossy green in color: dagger-sharp with intellect and wit, sparking neon with power enough to match the blue that now traced the edges of an armor design that mirrored Tony’s newest Iron Man suit perfectly.

Two sides of the same coin, finally found each other and made whole: soulmates.

++

The cold never left Tony’s bones, lingering in his marrow days—weeks—after he was brought back from Siberia. The Accords and Avengers were both to the wind, one being reassessed and rewritten and the second… well, it had been easy enough to reverse hack the phone that was mailed to him—simplistic to the point that Tony would have been able to accomplish such a feat even in his sleep. The end result, however, was a glaring obvious locale for the others, hidden away from the rest of the world in a country that had no extradition policy.

And if Tony was honest with himself—if with no one else—he was… tired. Weary in the worst sort of way, even with the knowledge that his mission wasn’t yet done and there was still much to do. The world moved ever forward, a constantly shifting atmosphere: so, too, was the incoming threat from space that Tony knew lingered within the spaces between the stars, encroaching closer no matter the fact that no one else seemed willing to listen to his cries of warning.

So here he was now, with a fractured team, an empty home, and a pale attempt at an apology that appeared as a letter and obsolete technology—a flip phone that should have stayed buried back in 1980.

The engineer sighed quietly and leaned back in his chair, tired enough that he began to drift away to sleep where he was—all thoughts of sleep abruptly leaving him behind as light glittered from behind his closed eyelids, there-and-gone again in the brief moment that it flared within the workshop. It was more than enough to have Tony shooting out of his seat, watch gauntlet already set and powered up for a repulsor blast—ignoring, too, just how quickly the dark-eyed man’s heart pounded away in his chest.

No attack came, however.

Instead, perched innocently on the edge of Tony’s work desk, sat a golden apple, gleaming underneath the few lights that FRIDAY had running in the shop. With one god on his team and another as his soulmate, the genius inventor had dived headfirst into the myths and legends that surrounded them both. So Tony already had a very strong inkling as to what this was: one of Iðunn‘s apples.

Perhaps under other circumstances, Tony might have hesitated before reaching out; but things were as they were, little enough chance at changing—or improving—any time soon, and the engineer was tired: tired of fixing problems that others didn’t take a second glance at, tired of always somehow being the one who came up short. Tired of the hypocrisy, of the ones that were supposed to be the foundation for a new family, one that he’d never truly had before, shifting enough to slide their knife just a little bit deeper in his back. With a best friend who may never fly again and a pseudo son who was left floundering in his friends’ wake, staring sightlessly at the crater in the Compound’s floor… Tony was smart enough to realize just how fractured his life had become.

There had been a sundering here and the engineer couldn’t gather enough interest to actually care at putting the pieces back where they had once upon a time ago belonged.

So Tony picked up the golden apple and bit deeply into the flesh, the bite crisp beneath the force of his teeth; a multitude of flavors immediately flooded his mouth, fresh as springtime breeze and as warm as a summer’s ray of sunshine, tart as the juice first stung his tongue.

A pair of lips settled against the bend of Tony’s throat, pressing possessively to the pulse that steadily beat there: and finally--finally--the engineer closed his eyes, taking another bite of the apple as he leaned back against the solid weight of Loki’s chest, allowing himself the brief moment of rest.

(And both of their soulmate marks sparked and grew larger still, spreading even farther over skin as the colors found within became more saturated and vibrant with a kaleidoscope of hues and shades.)

“Welcome home,” Loki whispered.

::fin::