It only took one single click and everything fell into place.
The arc reactor blinked—once, twice—before it bathed the dark water in a bright turquoise light. Tony smiled down on the pipeline for a moment, satisfied with how smoothly things had developed this evening. He pushed himself upwards, firing up the boot thrusters. The new Iron Man suit cut seamlessly through the ocean, emerging right next to a little ferry, before making its way through the streets of Lower Manhattan.
“I’m just saying, you’ve never personally met anyone,” he said in the vague direction of Pepper’s face on the HUD. “You just know a guy, who has this friend, whose second cousin once mistook a light reflection for something else and that’s hardly evidence for—”
“Stop saying my name like that,” he said shortly. He cut around a street corner and flew past West Village. “You can light her up.”
Over the HUD, Pepper smiled at him. The lopsided kind of smile that meant she wasn’t taking him seriously and was only generously indulging his crazy. The next second, Stark Tower lit up in the distance.
“How does it look?” Pepper asked.
“Like Christmas, but with more… me. Anyway—I mean it. Someone suddenly decides it’s all fact rather than fiction, and bam, everyone is walking around, staring at complete strangers. Last week, the head of accounting—what’s her name—Doris?”
“Daphne—whom I’ve known since I was twenty-three, mind you—kept giving me glances for over five minutes straight. It was disturbing, Pepper.”
“That doesn’t mean it isn’t real. People write dissertations about it—scientific dissertations. Darwin alone wrote three books about it. You’re just… stuck on your one-man-vendetta against predestination, there’s a difference.”
Tony huffed as he directed the suit on 8th Avenue. “It’s not a vendetta—no, don’t give me that look, it’s not. I just don’t see why people are getting so crazy over this. I mean, okay: To keep things from getting creepy, I’m even assuming soulmates are within a few years of your age, okay? Let’s say… fifteen. With that restriction, most of us would have a pool of around half a billion potential matches… Your soulmate could be a paddy farmer in Sri Lanka for all you know.”
Pepper laughed quietly, gazing at him with her beautiful non-golden eyes. “Statistics say it’s mostly someone that fits your own personal preferences. Culturally, physically, emotionally…”
“You fit my personal preferences.”
A pause. Pepper’s mouth quirked upwards. “Whether you like it or not—soulmates are a thing, now,” she said, opening a bottle of Champagne and pouring them two glasses. “The people won’t stop believing just because you tell them to.”
Tony sighed and swiftly cut around the next corner, balancing out before racing up the street that would finally lead him home.
The myth of soulmates had been around for centuries—millennia, even. There were cave paintings, Sumerian stone tablets, medieval tapestries; the whole gig. But only three months ago, they’d given the myth a scientific name—PI, short for Physic Imprint—and named it a valid theory.
Soulbonds were something that was supposed to only happen once in lifetime, if at all, and it was that rarity that made them the subject of half the world’s romances and fairytales, as well as the universal obsession with golden eyes. Every movie, every book, every shitty rom-com—the golden flash of eyes was everywhere. It was the literal gold at the end of the rainbow, and now that a couple of scientists claimed to have found evidence for its validity, most people wet their pants at the mere thought of it.
Once a person’s eyes met another’s and they flashed golden, it was over.
If you asked him—the whole thing was just a big load of starry-eyed crap. Finding your soulmate was something that only rich people and celebrities could afford. If you had the money, you could play SoulMateRoulette, go on Find-Your-Soulmate-Cruises, or hire a Soulmate Agency. There were new television shows like ‘Bond Me Up’, and ‘Who’s Your Mate?’, and a giant market of soulmate jewellery and clothes. Suddenly, everyone wanted to work as a cashier or a police officer in Time Square, because of the eye contact potential. People were flocking to cities and public gathering places to find love. For three months, it had been like one giant soulmate sale out there and Tony hated everything about it.
Given the pressure and stress, most people faked it. Faked having had a soul mate encounter. They’d marry, hide their relationship problems, and struggle to present a happy face to their friends and families. The people, the real people—those who were happily married for decades—never even claimed to be soulmates. And after more than forty years, and a couple of amazing hook-ups with non-soulmates, whose eyes were perfectly brown, green, or blue, Tony was convinced it was all just some stupid-assed conspiracy; some nice fairy-tale to keep the John and Jane Does of this world hoping for better things to come.
Sure, as a child, Tony had loved the stories about soulmates, just like every other kid. The thought that there was this one person who’d be there for you, no matter what—someone Heaven and Hell couldn’t drive away, someone you would love and who would love you in return—who wouldn’t sink their teeth into that? It was the Happily Ever After everyone dreamed of, after all.
Now, though, he was simply annoyed. And angry. He didn’t need eyes flashing golden for him to find the right person. He had Pepper. He was lucky. They had their downtimes like everyone else, and didn’t see each other nearly as often as they should, but they would push through. They had loved each other way before they’d even kissed—on a platonic level, maybe, but loved nevertheless—and he didn’t need some romantic myth to know they would work out.
“I’m just saying,” he continued, while he approached the last mile to Stark Tower, “even if someone’s eyes flash golden, that doesn’t mean I have to listen to a hormonal prank telling me what to do. That’s stupid. There needs to be a choice.”
From afar, he saw Pepper coming to a stop in front of a holograph of the tower, looking up at the numbers there. “It is a choice, Tony. The PI doesn’t force you into anything. It just… makes you aware of one another. It’s an exclusive lifelong bond, and—”
“Did you just quote Wikipedia, ‘cause I know you’re better than—”
“And you’re supposed to feel the bond every day, every minute of the day. Can’t imagine anyone who’d have his mate near and just… ignore that.”
Tony set foot on the landing pat, and scowled at Pepper while the suit slowly disassembled around him. With large steps, he walked into their living room and pulled her in his arms. “I would,” he told her firmly.
The thought alone, that someone could just come along and make his whole life go haywire, left Tony with a sour taste in his mouth.
Pepper smiled at him and cupped his cheek with a hand. “I know,” she said, searching his gaze, as she leaned back. “If anyone is stubborn enough to do that, it’s you. I shouldn’t have brought it up. I know you hate the idea, and I didn’t want to argue. This is your big night.”
“Our big night,” he corrected. “And I don’t hate it, exactly. I just don’t see the appeal.”
“Oh Tony,” Pepper said in that voice, before she turned around to sip on her glass of Champagne.
* * *
The second Phil Coulson had stepped into the penthouse, Tony had known—immediately—that shit was about to hit the fan, big time.
Aliens. What the fuck.
After Pepper and Coulson had left the tower, Tony needed a couple of moments to let all of this sink in. He stared at the holographs of the team Fury had been putting together over the span of the last few months. He looked at Bruce Banner’s green alter ago, at a blonde guy with admittedly pretty amazing marksmanship skills, at Romanov’s now short curly red hair, and at Steve Rogers’ blue eyes. Rogers had been the one thing Tony hadn’t known about, the one piece in the puzzle that Fury had been able to keep hidden from him and it took a while to shake off the sheer disbelief.
They’d found Captain America.
They’d found Captain America.
Not some impostor—the real deal. The report made it sound so simple Tony couldn’t stifle a short, somewhat manic laugh. They’d simply thawed the guy out of the ice, and started heating the body until his heart started to beat again. Just like that.
While Tony flew over the Atlantic, JARVIS kept reading the reports to him, kept bombarding him with every key information about the Avengers, Loki, and the Tesseract and by the time he’d landed in Stuttgart, Tony was so pissed he was sure he would blast a beam at Fury, first chance he got.
He hadn’t dug into SHIELD’s files—out of sheer politeness, mind you—because Fury had made it very clear that he was their go-to-guy when it came to things they couldn’t control. For things they couldn’t understand. And yet, there was the Tesseract. The same Tesseract that had empowered every Hydra weapon in World War Two. The same Tesseract that was now somehow the object of interest for the God who sat at his feet.
“Mr. Stark,” Rogers said, and came to a halt next to him. He stared down at Loki, who slowly raised his hands in surrender, sporting an entirely too self-satisfied smile while doing so.
“Captain,” Tony answered with a nod in Rogers’ general direction.
After they hauled Loki into the Quinjet, things turned a little quieter. Well, aside for the heavy thunderstorm conjuring up in the sky. On the HUD, Tony skimmed through the last read-outs SHIELD had been able to make on the Tesseract. Rogers was leaning over the front seats, quietly talking to Romanov, before he moved around and eventually came to stand right next to him.
The uniform SHIELD had put the guy in was ridiculous. It looked like there was barely a thin layer of cloth protecting his freakishly muscled body. They made him wear tights, for God’s sake. Sure, his serum-enhanced physique and the stern gaze still gave him this grave look of authority, but Jesus—the uniform looked like a fan boy really had lost his shit while designing the monstrosity.
Tony kept stealing a few glances at the shield, though, ‘cause fuck it, huge Frisbee or not, that thing was fucking impressive as it was. It was the shield. The shield his father had created, and for all he knew, the only other vibranium on this planet, aside the little triangle in his chest cavity.
“Could you…” Rogers vaguely gestured at his helmet. “Can you take this off?”
Tony smirked and leaned forward so the eye slits were level with Rogers’ eyes. “Why? The whole robot thing a bit too much for you? Well, let’s see, they’d just built ‘Elektro the Moto-Man’ in your time, right? Would it make you feel a bit more comfortable if I blew up a few balloons for you?”
Something ticked in Rogers’ jaw, but otherwise, he stayed still, clearly unimpressed. He stared right at Iron Man’s eyes like he’d seen tons of sophisticated state-of-the-art armored battle suits in his life. “I just prefer talking to someone I can actually see, but I’m getting less interested by the second.”
Tony snorted despite himself. “Eye contact is clearly overrated.”
Rogers sighed, and started to unclasp his mask. “Humor me?”
“I have a feeling that’s harder than it sounds,” Tony murmured, but eventually gave in and pressed both index fingers into the two little slots at the helmet’s side to trigger the manual opening mechanism.
An impossibly long beat passed, as the helmet came loose and Tony took it off.
Rogers’ face was considering, and clearly more than a little curious, as he followed the movements of the various metal plates. Then, their eyes met. Met directly for the first time and something slammed into Tony hard. His lungs gasped for air, and his body shut down completely.
Not possible. Not fucking possible.
But it was there. God, was it ever there.
It was every cliché he’d ever heard about. Every sappy thing they wrote down in the magazines, every single thing he had always hated about the myth. It was as though he had experienced life without sight, and was suddenly bombarded by a storm of color. It was all-consuming, and rushing through his veins like molten lava, like his whole existence was suddenly filled with sunlight. A door opened, and a myriad of emotions stormed through his body: confusion, disbelief, loneliness, and so much fierce determination that it almost knocked Tony off his feet. And he understood then, understood that these emotions weren’t his.
They were Rogers’.
The mask on the man’s face was still only halfway down, but he was looking at him in complete shock. With the beginnings of fear and horror that Tony could fully relate to. And with a thousand other things he couldn’t even begin to fathom, yet.
And his eyes… oh God, his eyes.
Tony felt like falling to his knees and weeping, as his world collapsed around him.
Because Steve Rogers’ eyes were shining gold.
* * *
No. No. No. No. No. No.
A long, controlled breath hissed through Tony’s lips. His soulmate. God, he’d never felt anything like this. Never. This was his mate. Instantly, his mind was screaming at him, demanding that he get over whatever doubts he had and embrace Rogers and never let go again.
Rogers seemed to think some of the same, seeing how his eyes had gone wide and how he didn’t even breathe anymore. “What—” he started, staring at Tony like he’d just realized Santa Claus didn’t exist. “No.”
Tony didn’t register how hard he was trembling until he felt a tentative hand on his arm. God, Rogers was close. Awfully close. He was also a man with eyes swimming in gold.
A man. His soulmate was a man.
“No,” Rogers repeated, still staring at Tony’s eyes in utter disbelief.
“You can say that again,” Tony breathed, a little relieved at Rogers’ reaction. At least the guy was freaking out, too.
Jesus, he wasn’t gay, or even bi, for that matter. Sure, there’d been a few stories strewn in the mags about him, but that was just people believing what they wanted to believe, and Tony was straight, for Heaven’s sake. He had never kissed a guy, and he’d never wanted to. He could objectively find a man handsome, sure, just like he appreciated a well-designed car or something, but he’d never felt anything more than that. He didn’t want any of this. This had to be a mistake, a giant horrible mistake and—
His mind sprung to a thousand essays on soulmates and sexual orientation. God, it was a thing, wasn’t it? If Darwin had been right, soulbonds gave a fuck about gender. Persons suddenly gave a fuck about gender. When they found their mate, they didn’t even care about it anymore. This would make him gay. He would turn gay because Steve Rogers’ eyes were shining gold.
God, Tony was barely aware he was even breathing anymore. There had to be some mistake.
Some seriously fucked up cosmic mistake.
As though sensing Tony’s thoughts, Rogers jerked his hand back like he’d been burned. “You can’t be my—”
“Don’t say it,” Tony hissed, glancing at Romanov, who cast them a curious glance. “I’m not. You’re not. We’re not.”
The guy looked honest-to-God brokenhearted. “But I—”
Whatever Rogers had wanted to say was interrupted as a thunderbolt hit the Quinjet. The rear hatch opened, and suddenly there was another tall blonde guy with a cape—a freaking red cape—who then proceeded to lift Loki right off his seat.
* * *
The whole thing seemed unreal. Loki, the Tesseract, Coulson’s death, the Chitauri, a giant fucking portal into outer space—Tony felt like he was in a bubble of noise, and now that things started to calm down again, now that New York was saved, and they were heading back to SHIELD’s headquarters, the only word in his mind clear enough to pick out was soulmate, soulmate, soulmate.
Throughout the battle, Rogers seemed to have all but forgotten about their little discovery in the Quinjet. He was in full Captain-mode, giving out orders to everyone, including Tony, like nothing had ever happened. The emotions he shared over the bond were levelheaded and very controlled, and he hadn’t looked at Tony once. Not directly. Occasionally, in very short bursts, Tony felt confusion and shock leak through the bond he now seemed to share with Rogers. Tony’s eyes felt drawn to him, then, though he resisted making eye contact. And whenever Tony was talking to someone else, he felt eyes boring into him from afar. Eyes that—for some cruel reason he still couldn’t understand—shone golden.
Afterwards, right after the initial debrief and check-up at SHIELD, Tony saw Rogers following him through the hallways. Hell, he felt Rogers following him. He was still in his battle-worn uniform, hair sweaty, skin full of dust and grime, cowl pushed back on his shoulders. He’d seen Rogers bleed, he’d seen the wound on his abdomen, and while there was a compression bandage around his lower torso, medical had otherwise declared him perfectly healthy.
Healthy, and obviously capable of trailing behind Tony like a Golden Retriever in pursuit.
The guy was keeping his distance for the moment, but he was still following him. He was probably waiting for an opening, and that meant he wanted to talk about this, and Tony didn’t know if he was ready for that.
“Stark,” Rogers called, as Tony rounded the last corner that would lead him to the exit, and gradually quickened his pace. Which basically meant he had caught up to Tony in a matter of seconds.
Tony sighed in defeat, and stopped in his tracks. Then, he quickly opened the door next to them. He stepped into what seemed to be another conference room, similar to the one he’d just left, and closed the door after Rogers stepped inside.
He made the mistake of actually looking at the guy, forgetting for a second what he would see there, before he averted his gaze and instead stared out of the large front windows. “Look, there’s really nothing to talk about.”
Rogers remained where he was and only leaned back against the doorframe. “I just don’t understand why. I was born over ninety years ago, how’s it possible that—”
“No why’s, no how’s,” Tony said with a somewhat shrill voice and whirled around, looking at Rogers without looking at him. “I have a girlfriend, did you know that? It’s a thing. Everyone knows about me and Pepper. She’s my person. We’ve been together for over half a year now, and I… don’t even know you. So whatever you thought would happen now—”
Rogers’ jaw ticked, and Tony felt anger rush through the bond, as his expression hardened. “What makes you think I would want this? You’re not exactly someone I’d imagined to be my—”
“Ah ah ah,” Tony said with a raised hand. Then he rubbed his temple. He would have nightmares about this. This was one giant nightmare. “I…” He sighed. “Sorry, I didn’t want to—I’m sure you’re a great guy, Rogers, I’m just… not interested. Really not. I love Pepper, and you’re clearly not interested either so… can we just please pretend this never happened?”
Rogers stopped short and frowned, then sighed with resignation and glanced down. “I would. I’m not sure that’s… possible. My ma, she used to tell me—”
Tony held up a hand. It took a few seconds, but he gathered the nerve to look back at Rogers, trying not to completely lose it at the sight of his golden eyes. He’d always somehow imagined it to just be a shimmer… but Rogers’ eyes were pure molten gold. “Hold on. Your parents were…” He gestured between them. “That?”
Rogers had the nerve to roll his eyes at him. “Yeah, that,” he said, like he thought Tony was ridiculous for not putting a name to it. A shadow fell over his eyes, then, and he cleared his throat, looking on the ground. “They were great together. Before he started to…” He trailed off, and shook his head. “Yeah, they were. Couldn’t stay apart for long.”
“Because they loved each other.”
Rogers hummed, considering him. “They did.”
“See?” Tony pointed out. “We don’t. I’m not even into guys, so this has to be a mistake. I’m not into you.”
Rogers glared at him. “I’m not stupid, Stark. And you were very clear the first time around.”
Was he put off? He actually seemed to be put off about this.
“What—are you…” He gestured at Rogers. “Into that?”
“What?” Rogers asked, frowning. “Men? I don’t… No, I haven’t exactly… it wasn’t really an option in my time, so… No. I think.”
Rogers glared at him. “How would I know? The only person I ever wanted was…” He stopped himself, and the expression on his face turned so inexplicably tormented, that Tony had to look away for a second. Rogers shook his head as if to clear it and took a deep breath. “A woman.”
“Great,” Tony exclaimed over the awkward silence. “We’re both not into dicks, then. So this,” he gestured between them, “is clearly just some weird error. False alarm. I’m sure stuff like that happens all the time.”
Rogers sighed heavily, a potent cocktail of emotions roaring through the bond. “Whatever makes you sleep at night,” he said after a moment, and shouldered his shield. “I’m gonna go.”
“Yeah, great. Do that.” Please just leave. “See you when I see you.”
Rogers cast him a last look, a last flash of golden eyes, before he nodded shortly and was out of the door a second later.
Tony expelled a deep, shuddering breath and slumped down heavily on one of the chairs.
It had been an error. It had to be.
* * *
Inviting Bruce to Stark Tower, before he could rush off to Malaysia or wherever he wanted to go hiding this time, had obviously been one of Tony’s brighter ideas. Not only did he now have someone around him who could actually understand what he was talking about on a daily basis—he also had an expert on the whole PI theory under his roof.
When Tony had walked out of SHIELD headquarters earlier, he could somehow still sense where Rogers was, even when he could not see him. It seemed once the bond had been acknowledged there was no way to ignore it any longer. It was a frightening talent. He’d known, theoretically, that soulmates were supposed to be able to sense their mate’s emotions, but now that he got a live show of the whole shtick, he was excessively weirded out by it. It was feeling without context, raw emotions without a story to them, and while Tony could piece together a vague idea of what Rogers was going through, he could never be sure.
After their little talk in the conference room, Rogers had walked back down the hallway, and wherever he was now, it had to be a private space, because Tony could immediately feel the tension pour out of Rogers’ body. And then, it felt like Rogers was simply staring out onto the city beneath him. Tony couldn’t quite put a name on the feeling that clearly expelled every other thought going through Rogers’ head. There was confusion, anger, hurt, disbelief, but there was something else, something raw and strong and…
Tony paused and forced a reign on his thoughts. He didn’t care what Rogers went through. And it wasn’t like he hadn’t his own burden to carry, and—
Numbness. Rogers felt numb.
And God, Tony could relate to that. He walked towards Bruce’s new lab without feeling his legs, without even registering the excited and thankful words every one of his employees was throwing at him on his way up.
He really felt himself losing it. Better to get to Bruce before his emotional state initiated a self-destruct sequence (a.k.a. alcohol) of probably very bad tidings. Better to do it now when he still felt somewhat attached to his surroundings. He had to face this at some point. He had to get this burden off his chest. He needed advice, and there was no where else to turn.
Everything was so irreversibly screwed up, and he didn’t know where to even begin fixing it. The only thing he knew was that Pepper would return to New York in only a couple of hours, and she would be happy and teary-eyed that he’d made it out alive, and he wasn’t ready for that. God, he wasn’t ready.
“Quick question,” Tony started, as he entered Bruce’s new lab. “Friendship imprints. That’s a thing, right?”
Bruce looked up from the holographic table in front of him, silent for a few seconds, before he raised both eyebrows. “Imprints? Why are you— Aren’t you the poster boy for all anti-PI-movements?”
“Yeah.” Tony sighed. “I just… you’re one of the lead scientist in that field, yeah? You believe in it?”
Bruce gave him a crooked smile. “It’s not about belief. PIs are sufficiently measurable in the brainwaves, as I’m sure you are aware of. The facts—”
“It’s not a fact,” Tony ground out, and yeah, that was stupid, come to think of it. He knew it was a fact, he knew firsthand that it was a fact… He just, God, he still couldn’t believe this. “You know—whatever,” Tony said. “But there are different kinds of bonds, right? It doesn’t always have to be romantic?”
“That’s… still highly controversial.” Bruce shrugged. “The research is too new and PIs are generally too rare to really give a profound answer to that. Every bondpair I came across so far eventually developed a romantic investment. Is there a reason you’re asking or—”
“How do you know?”
Bruce raised an eyebrow at him. “What? That a person is your soulmate?”
“Oh you know. Believe me. The golden eyes, it doesn’t get much clearer than that. Aside from that…” He trailed off for a moment, and tabbed on a window on the holographic interface. He pushed it upwards, so that the image now floated in the air between them. There were several EEG and MRI scans, and Tony had seen those in the magazine before. The timing of the spikes between the two persons was almost identical. It was a correspondence between two brains that shouldn’t be possible, and yet, there it was. “And there’s the bond,” Bruce said, zooming in on one of the spikes. “It makes it possible to give the bondpartners insight into the mental state of the PI.” There was a longer pause, and Bruce squinted at him from the other side of the holograph. “What’s this about?”
“Nothing,” Tony said. “No reason. I’m just…” He sighed. “God, Bruce, I’m so confused.”
Rogers was his mate. There was no second-guessing that. After so many years of firmly believing that he didn’t belong to anyone, that this was a decision he could freely make, he now had a deep clarity etched into his body that this was the person who was meant to share his life with him.
A heavy sigh rushed through Tony’s lips. He had to ignore this. He had to try. Had to get to Pepper and just be as far away from Steve Rogers as possible.
“You look a little green,” Bruce said with another of his quirked smiles.
“No, I mean it. You look like you’re about to vomit any second.”
Tony put his face in both hands, fighting an upcoming headache. He walked over to one of the chairs and sat down heavily. “This is so messed up.”
Bruce sat down beside him. “All right. Who is it?”
“You found her? Your soulmate?”
Tony let out a breathless laugh. “Yeah. Something like that.”
Bruce nodded. There was an odd, almost reverent look of consideration in his eyes. “That’s tough, but I’m sure Pepper will understand.”
Tony looked up sharply, gesturing at Bruce’s face with his index finger. “What? I won’t leave Pepper. I love her. I choose to love her. That means a whole lot more than some destiny bullshit.”
Bruce leaned back, as he considered him. “I know where you’re coming from, but… the way I see it, it is a choice. A PI just makes you aware of the one person who fits your personal traits best. No matter how much it feels like life takes away that decision, it is you who develops in a certain way that makes it impossible not to surrender to your mate’s soul.”
“That doesn’t sound like much of a choice to me.”
Bruce petted his shoulder a little awkwardly. “You’ll come around to the idea.”
Anger and frustration pillowed on the verge of eruption. Instantly, he felt an answering surge of confusion from Rogers’ side of the bond. Tony felt it—and it only took that final push that really made him want to make someone feel marginally as bad as he did right now. However, he maintained control and inwardly counted to ten. Do not take it out on Bruce, he encouraged himself rationally.
Tony rubbed his temple and took a deep breath. “What if I don’t want to?”
Silence stretched over the laboratory for a moment. Bruce sighed. “You can live without your PI. A few people I met did, and there’s no indicator that it isn’t possible. The bond won’t force you to fall in love, Tony. It’s just… you’ll have to accept the fact that you have the chance of fulfillment, of happiness, right in front of you, and not act on it.”
“I love Pepper. I won’t just stop loving her. I can be happy with her, too.”
Bruce grimaced. Then, he exhaled a long, deep breath. “You can try.”
There was a heavy pause at that.
“You think there’s really no getting out of this, are you?”
A pause. There was something frighteningly neutral about the look on Bruce’s face. Something Tony couldn’t quite put his finger on. “I can’t imagine how someone could live with the constant reminder that this one person meets every one of your character traits in a way that would complement you and not… and not want to have that,” came the simple, soft-spoken rejoinder. He cleared his throat. “Or… Steve could die.”
A sudden wave of agony crashed over Tony, and he had to reach out to the counter to keep his balance before grief could send him to the ground. “No,” he gasped. “He can’t.” Then he blinked and stared up at Bruce in complete shock. “What the fuck,” he rasped. “I didn’t… I didn’t tell you who…”
Bruce shrugged with a little self-satisfied smile. “Just a shot in the dark. Sorry. I saw how you both kept looking at each other the whole day. It looked really intense, it just didn’t make sense until now.”
Tony groaned, before an involuntarily laugh crossed his lips. “I don’t fucking believe this. I’m not even gay.”
“A PI doesn’t care for gender. It solely cares for personality traits. You know that.”
“Well and my dick solely cares for women.”
“I’m sure your dick will come around.”
Tony groaned, face-planting on the desk in front of him. “Not helping, Bruce.”
He clasped his shoulder. “It got a little color on your face. Just breathe. It’ll be fine.”
“My soulmate is a male blonde All-American body builder, with a severely distressing 40s morality, a bad habit to actually do what Fury tells him, and—oh—he also hates my guts. Enlighten me, o’ Big Green, how is this ever going to be fine?”
At first, there was nothing. The look in Bruce’s eyes could not be read.
“You’re lucky,” he started eventually, which prompted a loud snort from Tony. “No, you are—even if you don’t see it now. Finding your soulmate, and actually having the opportunity to be with him? That statistically happens about twenty times a year, Tony.”
Tony took a deep, shuddering breath. Rogers was his soulmate, there was no way to work around that. Steve Rogers, the guy who wore high-waisted grandpa trousers and who generally looked like carrying out an order was this close to giving him a happy time—that guy was his soulmate. The person who was meant to complement him. Complement him, how? What was there to think about that? For now, he would go with passive acceptance. There would be plenty of time for cursing fate later.
“Anyway, it does get easier,” Bruce said, shaking him out of his thoughts.
“What? Liking dicks?”
Bruce huffed a laugh. “Well, I wouldn’t know about that—No, having a bondmate. The bond is strongest when it’s first formed.” He pointed to the EEG scans. “Your minds use the exact same frequency right now, and I know it’s uncontrolled and overwhelming, but the emotions that are involuntarily exposed through the connection should subside considerably with time. The bond will always be there, but you will be able to control what you want to share with Steve.”
Tony sighed, and stared out of the large windows. There was a thick mist surrounding the skyscrapers and construction cranes all around the city.
“So… that means if I get through the first months, I’m gonna be able to shut him out?”
Bruce leaned back and looked at him strangely. “If you’ll want to, then yes. You should be able to mostly ignore him with time.”
Tony closed his eyes and couldn’t help the wave of relief hitting the bond’s edges. The whole thing might be inevitable, but it didn’t have to change anything. His feelings for Pepper were still the same. The bond hadn’t changed that. He could love Pepper and keep on loving her in spite of everything that had happened today.
Screw fate, he had a choice.
He could do this.
* * *
He couldn’t do this.
While Pepper was often away from home, hopping from one business trip to another, Tony felt Rogers every minute of the day. For weeks, he lay awake every night. He lay awake, and thought of Rogers. He felt him struggle to find sleep. Felt it, couldn’t sleep either, and spent hours just trying to block the guy from his head.
Whatever Bruce had said—for now, it only seemed to get worse. Even though Rogers was supposed to be on some motorcycle-tour through America, he felt his presence so strongly it slowly drove him crazy. He flinched whenever Rogers’ knuckles split on a punching bag, he was almost brought to tears when the despair of being stranded in this new world got too much for Rogers to bear it, and an involuntary smile rose to his lips, every time Rogers discovered something new—something he liked.
But God, the line refused to end there.
Whatever Rogers felt, he did, too. And that meant he also got horny whenever Rogers did. It didn’t even happen particularly often, but it did happen, and—well, Rogers was a guy in his twenties, so Tony could hardly begrudge him that. The problem was: It didn’t matter where he was, or what he did, or with whom he talked to—as soon as Rogers’ dick asked for some attention, Tony got a hard-on. It didn’t matter how often he told himself that it had nothing to do with him—his cock was rock hard in seconds, and eventually he would give in, stop whatever he’d been doing, run somewhere private, and jerk himself off.
It was good that Pepper wasn’t in Malibu all that often—that was… great, really—so any disaster that could’ve possibly resulted out of this hadn’t occurred so far.
That wasn’t the worst, though. The worst was: with Rogers, the arousal always seemed to come with an under layer of shame—and it was disturbing to feel that. Either the guy actually had a problem with giving himself some loving, or because he knew that Tony knew, and didn’t know how to deal with that.
The bond only seemed to strike at intervals—sometimes he wasn’t able to sense Rogers, even when he was actively looking. And sometimes, he couldn’t hide from him at all, and it took every ounce of concentration to effectively shut him out.
Still. There was nothing else for him. He had Pepper, and he was lucky to have her, and there was nothing else to be done other than wait until things got easier.
He ignored the inner voice that screamed a more logical solution: To just go to the guy and talk to him. Find a way through this together. However, just the thought of actually seeing Rogers and his golden eyes right now made him tremble with confusion and self-consciousness far more than his panic attacks about New York ever managed. After only a few months, Rogers knew more of him than anyone ever had. He couldn’t hide from him, and couldn’t hold back whenever his emotions got the better of him. Seeing Rogers, talking to him, would make this real—would make this more than just another person’s mind polluting his.
Rogers’ golden eyes had crawled under his skin and made themselves a home there. He was a nasty, incurable virus that was slowly consuming Tony whole. And in the light of that, perhaps it was wise that he stayed away. If Rogers showed up here now, Tony couldn’t tell what he would say to him.
Tony sighed and shifted around, until he was facing the empty side of the bed. Rogers was wide-awake—wherever he was right now. Awake, lonely, and lost in thought—which was kind of the status quo when it came to Rogers’ mind, these days. Anyway, he was awake, and that meant Tony wouldn’t be able to get any sleep, either.
He felt him thinking… felt the rush of faint, wordless thoughts. They trailed him wherever he went, followed him around every turn. They were thoughts without form—he knew there was meaning behind them, but couldn’t understand. There were no questions to answer, no words that were spoken. Just Rogers’ mind. Raw. Everywhere. All the time. Rogers never stopped thinking, his brain was a network of millions impulses that itched to find their destinations.
So, Rogers might be a righteous asshole, but his mind was… sort of beautiful.
The shrill sound of his cellphone echoed through the vacant room, startling Tony out of his reverie.
“It’s Miss Potts for you, sir,” JARVIS supplied helpfully.
Tony rose apologetically and quickly scurried to the other side of the room. While he missed Pepper deeply, he mostly wished she would leave him in peace when he was like this—exposed and vulnerable, and confused as fuck.
He answered the phone on the sixth ring. When Pepper’s face appeared, her hair was tied in a perfect bun, her skin as radiant as ever, and yet—she looked bone tired.
“Miracles do happen,” Tony said with a faux-gasp. “Are we actually talking? Is this a phone-call?”
Pepper rolled her eyes at him with a smirk on her lips. “I’m sorry. The meeting was endless.”
“Thought so. Why are you even calling on the phone?”
“JARVIS told me you muted the line in your room, but I figured you’d be awake still, so…”
Tony looked to the side and cringed. He’d been awake all right. “Deal’s safe?”
Pepper bit her lip as she opened her bun and let her auburn hair cascade over her shoulders. “You really need to ask?”
“Atta girl,” Tony said with a proud voice. He was pacing, now, but more to keep moving than out of anxiety. “So it worked out with… how’d you put it? ‘Charmingly ignorant personal association’?”
There was a pause. Then Pepper cleared her throat and dropped something that sounded like a pen. “Swanson was actually quite nice.”
“Was he now,” Tony replied conversationally, and arched an eyebrow at her.
Pepper’s lips quirked upwards. “Nice and not my type. How was your day?”
I wanked to the feeling of another man wanking.
“Lots of work in the shop. Yours?”
Pepper shrugged. “Busy but fun.”
A crooked smile played on his face as he replied, “Yeah. Busy. I noticed.”
Pepper plopped herself down on the bed of her hotel room. He could see her rolling her eyes at the ground, while she pulled off her high heels, but otherwise, she didn’t answer.
More silence. Silence in a phone call. Not good. When things threatened to grow uncomfortable, Tony sighed loudly and threw himself back on the bed, too, holding the phone up so his face was still visible in the phone’s camera. “This used to be easier.”
Pepper smiled at him, and nodded. “I’ve never been away that long before. I’m sorry, this is taking much longer than I thought it would.”
“Have you missed me?”
“Of course I’ve missed you,” she replied gently, her voice dropping a few degrees. “I’ll be home in two weeks,” she assured him. “I just need to grab a few hours of sleep. I have an early meeting tomorrow.”
Tony nodded in understanding. “Of course. Don’t feel bad about it, I was about to go in the shop, anyway. Just… don’t be a stranger.”
Pepper’s eyes softened. “Never.” There was a pause, and Pepper cocked her head, considering him. She looked at him as though she couldn’t figure him out. But this wasn’t anger. This wasn’t coldness. This was something different.
This was heartache.
“Tony, are you all right?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” he asked slowly. “I’m peachy. Working, eating, sleeping, I’m good.”
Silence filled the room.
“Good,” Pepper said, then, attempting and failing to conceal her disappointment. She flashed him a little smile, which he answered in kind. She looked to the side, then, turning off the light on her nightstand. “Good night, Tony.”
As quickly as it had come, the hum of Pepper’s voice had faded and the room fell still. He was left with silence once more.
Tony stared at himself in the dark phone display for several long seconds. He didn’t look good, he looked drawn and exhausted. Of course Pepper was worried.
Tony sighed. The guilt over not telling her stretched his every nerve, and it was intolerable at times. Whenever he was alone, in the shop, or walking through their empty house, studying the clean, shiny walls—all he could do was count the seconds as he remembered Rogers’ eyes. And every time he was thinking of Pepper, he was confronted horribly with how she would react if she found out about it.
To be fair, he’d wanted to tell her, after New York. After the dramatics of the palladium poisoning, he’d promised to never again keep life-changing events a secret. Finding your soulmate probably fell under that category—still, after they’d arrived back in Malibu, he hadn’t found it in him to burden her with this. He’d opened his mouth, just on the verge of telling her—but Pepper had been so terrified to lose him after the Battle of New York, that he just couldn’t do that to her, to put that weight on her shoulders, too.
Aside from Bruce, only Rhodey knew. And Rhodey only knew because he’d found out himself. He had had the honor of first-handedly witnessing one particularly bad roller coaster of emotions that he and Rogers pushed at each other over the bond, and at the end of it all, Tony had almost dissolved into tears and —there really had been no option but telling him the truth.
A wave of annoyance surged through the bond, and Tony rolled his eyes. Rogers always hated it when he was guilt tripping over not telling Pepper.
Stuff it. My choice, he thought, even though he knew Rogers couldn’t exactly read his mind. Thanks heaven for small favors.
He moved around, sat up and started to pull on some sweatpants, before he made his way down to the workshop.
It didn’t have to mean anything. Nothing would change. This soulmate thing would not be life changing—that was the point. He just had to be patient, until things got easier. He had to accept this as a part of his life. After all, he had no one to blame for this. Not Rogers, not himself.
It was a prank, a universal prank, and he needed to learn to work around it.
* * *
No matter how hard the bond was pushing him, he forced himself to ignore Rogers' whereabouts, and refrained from looking up his location via SHIELD’s systems. Still, he knew from a sense of homecoming that tickled over the bond that Rogers had returned to New York a few weeks ago. He also knew that he now went on missions for SHIELD—mostly with Barton and Romanov. He was a good leader, it seemed—capable, headstrong, and confident.
Tony also knew that Rogers had started to go out on dates and apparently enjoyed himself. Which, hey, was good for him. He got excited in the evenings, and while he still carried around the burden of loss, he seemed… happy. Or happier, at least. He laughed a lot, and he was easy-going, as well as easily charmed by whatever that woman—or women—talked to him about.
And Tony sure as hell didn’t get jealous when, one evening, Rogers’ excited mind suddenly fell very still at what Tony supposed was his first kiss with the lady. He felt him surrendering after a couple of stunned seconds, and Tony really tried to keep his mind as blank as possible, so he wouldn’t disturb him.
“Tony,” Rhodey said, his voice deceptively calm. When Tony looked up, he was pointedly staring down at his hand, eyebrows raised, and—Oh. He’d broken the glass of beer, the liquid and shards were spilling all over the wooden table. The people that sat at the tables around them already started to take photos with their smartphones.
Tony sighed, and grabbed for a couple of napkins. “Sorry,” he said. The biker bar was eerily quiet around them, and it took a few seconds until the conversations continued.
“Let me guess,” Rhodey said. “Rogers?”
Tony shrugged. “It’s distracting.”
“And you still haven’t talked to Pepper.”
“Nope, can’t say that I have,” he said, his tone cold but moderate. “Not since she left for Tokyo, anyway.”
“That was a week ago. Did you know Pepper’s been calling me asking if I know anything? I don’t know what to tell her, Tones. You need to talk to her.”
Tony sighed, not quite meeting Rhodey’s eyes. “She’s busy. She literally has several hundred things on her plate. I don’t want to bother her, that’s all.”
There was a pause. Rhodey arched a brow coolly, obviously determined to remain reasonable. “Since when does Tony Stark care if he bothers someone?”
Tony cleared his throat, looking around him, before he leaned closer. “I’m never sure if I’m interrupting something. And she’s barely got a few minutes to spare each day, so I—”
“Are you fucking kidding me? Shit like that never kept you. Ask her to make the time. This is important, Tony. She deserves to know about Steve.”
Tony sighed heavily. “That’s none of your—”
“What, business? Oh don’t give me that bullshit. You’re just trying to chicken out of this, man. You avoid talking to her because you don’t want to face the truth.”
Tony’s eyes widened with blazes of unkempt fury that he’d tried so hard to repress. A fire burning with a low enough glow to remain unnoticed until the final sparks started to lighten up. “And what would that be?”
Rhodey sighed. “It’s hypocrisy, what you’re doing. You tell me you want to stay with her, no matter what happens between you and Rogers, but you don’t act on it. You owe that woman the truth.”
Tony scowled. “I have to deal with this myself before I talk to her, that’s all. This bond crap just needs some time before it wears down. And… this isn’t something you can very well discuss over a fucking phone call. I’m dealing, okay? I’m doing what I have to do.”
“No. You’re doing what you want to do,” Rhodey said with a sad expression. “This will hurt her no matter what, Tones, and prolonging it will hurt far more than a clean cut will.”
Tony held up a hand, blinking when he felt a wave of frustration through the bond—probably because Tony had mucked up Rogers’ first-kiss-happiness. And what a damn shame that was. The moment was fleeting, though, as Rogers tried to block him then, and mostly succeeded. “I won’t cut anything. Why is everyone so fucking sure that this is going to end badly?”
The defeat waving across Rhodey’s features certainly had a sobering ring to it. “It’s… not just the soulmate thing with Rogers, and I know you don’t want to hear that—but Tony—how often exactly have you talked to Pepper over the past couple of weeks? And you don’t even seem to be bothered by it.” His arms crossed and he leaned back in his chair with a perked brow, studying him a bit too close for comfort.
“So what. You think we wouldn’t have worked out anyway? That what you’re saying?”
“What I’m saying is…” Rhodey started carefully, “that maybe you’re both too busy for a relationship with each other. The two of you were always great together, and I know you love her, Tones, and I know she loves you, but maybe it was wrong to try taking your friendship and turning it into—”
He leapt to his feet at that. The conversations around them died immediately, and Tony took a quick look around the bar, before he stalked towards the exit with undisguised rage, nearly running over two small kids as he went. He didn’t even try to hide his emotions from the bond and it was both irritating and commendable when Rogers didn’t respond.
He heard Rhodey follow him, and there was a hand on his shoulder before he reached the Iron Man suit he’d parked in front of the biker bar. “I won’t leave her,” he grit out over his shoulder. “I just have to push through this until the damn bond is weak enough to ignore it.”
“Right. Keep me updated how that works out for you.”
Tony felt himself trembling, and—it bothered him to show weakness like this, but on the other hand, he was well aware of his emotional limitations. After subjecting himself to this horror of Rogers’ emotional hijacks, his resolve had worn down. Every day his resolve was breaking a little more, and Tony hated breaking.
Rhodey squeezed his shoulder gently. “It’ll get better, Tones.”
“’Cause it can’t get worse, right?”
The answering silence was not inspiring.
Tony sighed, turning around slowly. The crowd behind them was giving them funny looks again. “All right,” he breathed out. “Let’s just go back to my place. And then you’ll tell me what is really going on with this Mandarin guy. The whole country’s up in a scare.”