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The Long Road Home

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Tony swayed on his feet. Or maybe the elevator was swaying. Either way, he moved gently side-to-side as the elevator hummed its way up to the Avengers sparkling new floor. He scrubbed his hands over his face, catching sight of his watch and blinking at it. 2:10. He was pretty sure that was 2:10 in the morning, but he’d already pushed the button and he was too tired to reroute the elevator, and it was a tower full of night owls anyway. Someone would be up. Or Tony might just sit on the couch in the common room for a while and pretend that it was okay for him to be there without the armor.

The elevator door swooshed open, immediately filling with the rich scent of a meat sauce, warm with herbs and a little sharp with tomatoes. He took a deep breath, unexpectedly transported back to Jarvis’ kitchen on spaghetti night, Jarvis singing merrily (off-key) as he chopped vegetables. The image was so sudden and so strong that he was startled to find Steve in the kitchen instead of his butler. Steve was mid-curse as the door opened, covered from hip to neck in a splash of hot tomato sauce. He reached down to grab the hem of his t-shirt and, maybe it was just because he was half-way to asleep on his feet, but the world did one of those fuzzy slow motion tricks as Steve pulled the shirt over his head. Tony stopped dead just outside of the elevator, staring motionless at Steve’s Mark.

The ding of the elevator doors sliding closed made Steve jump. He caught Tony’s reflection in the oven door and spun around. “Jesus, Mr. Stark, you – you startled me!” he squawked, holding the shirt up to cover his nipples.

Under normal circumstances, Tony would have been happy to just stare at Steve’s exposed – and really unfairly fantastic- ab muscles, but his eyes were glued to Steve’s right wrist. The Mark wasn’t visible anymore, but Tony couldn’t have mistaken that, could never pretend he hadn’t seen it. He felt himself moving across the living room as if in a dream, hesitating at the step into the kitchen.

“Mr….Stark?” Steve tried after an uncomfortable minute. “Are you alright?”

Tony jerked his eyes up to Steve’s face. He didn’t do tongue-tied, but he couldn’t make his voice work. His mouth opened and closed and no sound came out, or at least no sound that he could hear over the thunder of his own pulse. His stomach twisted strangely and his knees felt weak, his thighs tingling like he needed to run, or sit, or do anything but expect his legs to hold his weight.

Steve took a hesitant step toward him and Tony automatically stepped back until he hit the couch, his reaction freezing Steve in his tracks. He lifted his hands to show they were empty while Tony fumbled at his suit jacket, popping one of the buttons off in his haste. Steve gave him an uncertain look, eyes growing wider in concern as Tony struggled out of the arms of his jacket, let it fall to the floor, and reached for his left cuff. He stopped, abruptly wracked with doubt. He hadn’t slept in almost 72 hours, and it had been a long three days of fighting with this board and that board, all but begging for the final permits and signatures he needed to secure the Avenger’s future and ability to operate out in the open. He could have been hallucinating. It wouldn’t make sense that Steve, of all people, would have that Mark.

“Are you okay… Tony?” Steve asked softly, the kind of soft he used with frightened civilians who were two steps away from a breakdown.

Tony couldn’t make himself answer. Swallowing hard, he slid the cufflink out and dropped it into his pocket. Carefully not looking at Steve, he rolled the cuff back, pulled the band off his wrist, and turned his arm over to stare at his Mark – an icy, iridescent star with red tips cradled by four arches below, and the slash of a sword above. He stared down at it, his thumb pressing below it, squeezing until the Mark flushed with blood.

“Mr. Stark?”

Tony jerked back, startled. He hadn’t heard Steve move, but Steve was across the kitchen and around the island, his shirt back on, sauce splatters and all. Tony caught sight of Steve’s blue wristband on the counter by the sink, abandoned at some point while he’d cooked. Tony was sure he’d always been wearing it when they’d been together, but Tony didn’t spend a lot of time staring at people’s wrists. Usually they were in business mode when he saw Steve, and so Steve was in one uniform or another. So was Tony. Mr. Stark the benefactor, or Iron Man the teammate, either only called when there was trouble. He realized that they’d never touched skin-to-skin before. When they first met as Mr. Stark and Captain America, Steve had been in uniform with his gloves on when they shook hands. Iron Man isolated Tony from all touch.

His eyes met Steve’s concerned gaze, and Tony slowly turned his wrist over and held it up. It was a strain not to close his eyes and wait out the reaction – or lack of reaction – but Tony forced his eyes to stay open, kept his gaze on Steve’s face. In the nightmare of this scenario, Steve said, um… nice Mark? Do you need help? And it turned out that Tony was hallucinating, or sleep walking, or not awake at all.

Steve’s expression cycled from concerned to confused to… shocked? Horrified? The color flushed out of his face and he lifted his hand slowly, fingers of his Marked hand reaching hesitantly for Tony’s. Tony went very still, his mind whited out with gibbering excitement and fright. He was going to touch his mate, or at least his mate was going to touch him. It most likely wouldn’t activate the bond until their Marks touched, but Steve was going to put his skin on Tony’s skin, and it was all he’d been half-anticipating and half-dreading his entire life. It took up a mantra in his head – touch me, touch me, touch me – and it was hard not to lunge forward and grab Steve by his arms, fold into him, sob against his chest.

Steve’s hand froze so close to his skin that Tony could feel his body heat, and then jerked back as if he’d been burned. He took a step back, turning his wrist over to stare at the matching Mark like his world was collapsing around his feet.

“If we don’t,” Steve said in a weird voice that sounded at once too soft and too close, “If we don’t touch, it won’t form the bond.” He looked up at Tony with bright eyes, flushed cheeks. He was quiet for several beats, swallowed hard, and added, “It will be like we never knew.”

Tony had read the phrase ‘like being punched in the gut.’ He’d been punched in the gut before and he knew what that felt like better than most people. It wasn’t at all like being punched in the gut, it was like being gutted, torn open from groin to sternum, like being drowned. Like coming back from being drowned, gasping and choking on the raw burn in his throat. He stood frozen for several seconds, locked in a staring contest with Steve fucking Rogers, who’d looked at his Mark and rejected him.

Maybe it wasn’t a surprise, shouldn’t have been a surprise. Tony nodded, or at least he felt his head moving, his shoulders relaxing, the air in his lungs trickling out. He pulled the black band back over his wrist and rolled his sleeve down, reattaching the cufflink automatically. Steve was still staring at his wrist, and Tony wanted to claw the Mark off, saw off his entire arm if it would just erase Steve even knowing about it. He’d never wanted time travel so badly in his life, and considering all the numerous mistakes he’d made and the nights he’d spent un-living them at the bottom of a bottle, that was saying something. Tony finally straightened to look at his…at Captain America. He seemed wrong, fragile, uncomfortable like he didn’t want to be in Tony’s space anymore, but he was too polite to step away. Of all the things Tony had ever been accused of, polite wasn’t on the list, so he didn’t hesitate to take a wide step back.

“T-…Mr. Stark, I hope this doesn’t –. We still need – …” Steve shifted restlessly, hiding his arm subtly behind his back, his eyebrows furrowed into a hard bunch over his nose. He wouldn’t meet Tony’s eyes, couldn’t get his gaze anywhere near Tony. What a fucking nightmare.

Always looking out for the team. Well. It wasn’t like Tony was new to being wanted for his money. “Don’t worry, Cap. The funding is already settled, the Avenger’s Initiative is safe.” He was proud of how even his voice stayed, that he didn’t stumble once, didn’t let the bitterness and disappointment show. It was what he’d come up to the Avenger’s floor to announce anyway, might as well get it out. He didn’t know what was more surprising – that Steve was awake, or that none of the other tortured souls on the floor were up with him.

“Oh. Of course,” Steve answered slowly, frowning. “But I meant Iron Man. I was just. I hope that you won’t stop him from…” He drew in a breath and straightened his shoulders resolutely, jaw going firm like he was posing for one of the old propaganda posters, eyes landing somewhere above Tony’s left ear. “You’re a good man, Mr. Stark, and I hope that you won’t let any conflict with me keep Iron Man out of the game. We really need him.”

Also not a surprise. Fuck, how did he get to this place? He thought back on that press conference and wished, not for the first – or last – time that he’d thrown those cards in the air and told them I am Iron Man, instead of playing the lie that Iron Man was his bodyguard. He couldn’t remember all the reasons the lie had made sense at the time. But then again, at least Steve being unaware that ‘Mr. Stark’ and Iron Man were one and the same meant that Iron Man wasn’t off the team. Tony wasn’t sure if that was a blessing or a curse.

“Of course I won’t. He’s a free man, not my captive. In reality, he doesn’t listen to much of anything I say.” Which was true on more levels than he wanted to admit. He picked his coat up off the floor and put his arms carefully into the sleeves. He concentrated on it like his life depended on it, and it might have with how tight his chest felt, how hard his heart was beating under the reactor, how difficult it was to breathe. He had to do it very slowly and concentrate on making each breath even and sure, or he would break, and he would never live it down if he broke in front of Steve.

“Thank you,” Steve said haltingly.

Tony nodded, but he wasn’t sure what he was really being thanked for. Not making a scene? Not grabbing Steve’s wrist and forcing their Marks together? Not being a petty asshole who would withdraw his support of the world’s current best chance at a peace-keeping organization over a ‘personal conflict’ with his soulmate? He felt his head still moving, might have still been nodding but he wasn’t sure.

“Night, Cap.”

“Goodnight, Tony,” Steve said to his back. Tony didn’t turn around as he crossed the common area to the elevator, and he pushed himself immediately to one side as soon as he made it in so he didn’t have to watch the doors close on his mate’s face.

He started counting prime numbers, but he skipped impatiently to 8,101 and made it to 10,007 by the time the elevator opened on his private floor. He thought he would have just sank down in the entryway and not moved until morning, except Pepper was seated at his bar, looking pristine in a navy skirt suit and blush blouse, her jacket tossed over one chair, wearing the string of golden pearls with the ruby in the center that he’d gotten her for… a birthday? Christmas? Did he give her gifts on St. Patrick ’s Day? He might have, or it might not have been a gift-giving occasion at all, because he usually forgot those and Pepper just got something for herself from him. It was probably a random date in June when he realized that he couldn’t remember getting anything for Valentine’s Day and went over the top just in case. It must have been something that he picked out (or had Jarvis pick out), because she wouldn’t have gotten herself something in Iron Man colors.

“Miss Potts,” he greeted, plastering on a smile that felt like plaster, brittle and fragile. He’d forgotten that she was on Hong Kong time until next week. She turned in the barstool with a bright smile, but stopped whatever she’d been about to say. The smile drained off her face.

Setting her pen down, she slid off the stool. He realized that she was barefoot, her four-inch nude Louis Vuittons with the red accents tipped over under the bar. He’d always really liked her feet – he hadn’t realized he’d had a thing for feet until he saw her walking barefoot through his room for the first time. He probably only had a thing for her feet anyway. It wasn’t like he’d never seen anyone else barefoot in his private space. She approached him carefully with one hand held out. He only saw it through his peripheral vision, still watching her lovely feet, toenails painted in a neutral, soft pink.

“Are you dying?” she asked when she got to the steps. When he didn’t immediately answer, she continued with, “Is Rhodey dying? Are all the Avengers okay? Jarvis? The bots? Oh, god! It’s not Happy!” Tony’s eyes snapped up to her face and she covered her mouth with both hands, eyes immediately going moist.

“Everyone is fine,” Tony finally managed to blurt out before she went into Non-Business Related Panic Mode™. “Everything is fine, nothing is wrong.”

She let out an explosive breath of relief and put her hand on her chest like she could force her heart to slow down. “Don’t tell me nothing is wrong. I’ve learned how to interpret your various something is wrong faces, Tony,” she lectured, her voice a tiny sharp in retaliation for frightening her, but Tony wasn’t listening because his eyes were glued to her wrist. It was bare of its usual sparkling cuff, and she wore a simple white gold engagement ring instead. Pepper stopped when she caught his gaze and jerked her hand back guiltily.

“You and Happy finally ready to come out of hiding?” Tony asked through his plaster smile. He tried to give her a real one because she deserved it. They’d been together still when Happy had caught her arm to save her from a fall and, entirely accidentally, touched her Mark. Tony had wanted to give the two of them time to cement their bond before the spotlight dropped on them, so they’d let the wider world continue to believe that he and Pepper were still an item. The media loved to gush about how Pepper had tamed him, and it was alright, it was a good excuse to avoid the clubs and the bars, the noisy crowds that he’d once craved and now mostly just sounded like battle, like screaming.

“It’s been almost a year,” Pepper said finally, looking down at the ring, her features softening. “It’s time, really.” She looked back up at him when Tony nodded in understanding. He was already planning the break up – had been planning it since the day he watched two of his best friends Bond right on his office floor. He would arrange a party, one of the big affairs. He didn’t think he could bring himself to drink (no, he could, but he knew if he did he would never give it up again), but he had enough experience being drunk to pull off the act. He would find some (tall, blond, muscular) man to fuck in the bathroom and arrange to get caught. It should be enough to shield Pepper and Happy from the worst of the spotlight, and he could really use someone to fuck right about now. Win-win.

“Tony!”

He jerked away from his plans. “Yes, dear?”

“I don’t know what you’re planning, but stop it. We’ve already talked about it, and you’re going to let us come out in our own way. I mean it,” she added firmly when Tony only made a noise that most people took for agreement. It had never worked on her so he should probably stop trying. He held his hands up in surrender and started altering the plans. Maybe he could release some big new product, something that would overshadow the inevitable backbiters who liked to gossip and make spectacles. He barely even flinched when she put a hand around his shoulder – the left hand, without the sparkling, wide bracelet she’d picked out for herself on their anniversary – and he didn’t even fight her as she led him to the couch.

“Tell me what’s wrong,” Pepper urged gently.

“I told you that nothing’s wrong.” Tony used to be so good at affecting confused innocence. Not that Pepper had ever believed him, but he usually at least got a smile for effort. He must have lost some skills somewhere along the way that he needed to brush up on. He would have lots of time to himself to work on it, at least.

“Tony…” she drew in a breath and let it out. “If you don’t want to tell me, that’s fine. Just as long as it’s not about your health, or the health of one our friends, or the future of our company, then I won’t press you. But you can tell me,” she added gently.

He opened his mouth to tell her, again, that he was fine. What came out was, “I met my soulmate today.”

Pepper blinked. Her lips parted and her mouth slowly dropped open. “Tony! That’s – ”

“He doesn’t want me,” Tony interrupted before she could get to the gushing part, the excited part, wanting to know all about him, and who he was, and where he was, and why Tony wasn’t locked up in a cabin in the Alps with strict orders not to be disturbed for a month. His mouth felt like ash, tasted like curdled milk, like the words had died between his teeth and rotted.

She stopped, her elated expression falling into confusion, and then grief. “Oh, Tony…” she whispered, obviously at a loss for what to say, and what did anyone say to something like that? A rejected soul bond was… well, not unheard of, but not common unless bad TV plots were taken into consideration.

“It’s fine,” Tony said by rote. “I shouldn’t have even met him in the first place, it was a fluke, a one in a trillion chance.”

“Who is it?” she asked, shifting into righteous avenger mode. She would have made an excellent Avenger, but he couldn’t get her to touch a suit. He had one for her, just in case. Pink and gold, and beautiful just like her.

Tony waved her away. “I’m not telling you.” He made his voice firm and she looked like she wanted to protest, but didn’t. He didn’t need to tell her not to tell anyone, and he didn’t need to tell her not to push. The set of her jaw said that her apparent telepathy didn’t mean she was going to let it go, but Tony didn’t think her suspicion would ever fall to Captain America. Who would think someone like Steve would carry a Mark that matched someone like Tony? He shouldn’t have told her at all, but he’d promised after the palladium poisoning incident that he wouldn’t keep secrets from her, and he’d stuck to it as best as he could.

They sat in awkward silence for a moment, Tony just enjoying how close she was. They’d been… really, they’d been bad together. They made great friends, and they worked together like a perfectly engineered machine, but they never should have been anything else. She twisted the ring on her finger, making it catch the light.

“Tony, we don’t have to –”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course you do.” He leaned over and kissed her cheek. “I’m happy for you. Did you set a date?”

“Next week. We were going to try to get it out of the way as fast as we can.”

And just before the end of the quarter, Tony noticed, but didn’t say. He couldn’t have asked for a better CEO, but sometimes he wished that she’d do things just for herself and her own happiness once in a while. “We’ll throw you a party here at the tower,” Tony announced. Holding up his hands, he reassured her, “Something small, low-key. Just you and two or three hundred of your closet friends.”

Tony!” she complained, but she was smiling. She turned to kiss his temple just as the elevator door pinged open.

“Trying to steal my girl?” Happy asked as the doors opened, wide face split in a bright grin.

“You stole her from me first,” Tony said, and he mostly managed to keep his tone right. “Besides, she kissed me. I’m the innocent party here.” He untangled himself from Pepper’s arms and stood, holding a hand out to his friend and head of security. “Congratulations, again.”

Happy enfolded his hand in a warm grip and reached out to pull him into a hug. “We appreciate everything you’ve done, Boss.”

“I’m just happy you kids are finally getting out on your own. I’ve been waiting to turn your room in a pop art gallery.”

Behind him, Pepper snorted indelicately and Happy exchanged a glance with her. “We’ll be out of your hair soon,” he promised, letting Tony go and holding a hand out for Pepper. She let him tug her off the couch, but stopped at Tony’s side and reached out to hold onto his arm. He could tell she wanted to give him some of her usual reassurance and comfort, and he wanted it, but he didn’t want her to have to lie to Happy later when he asked why, so he just nodded at her.

“Thank you, Miss Potts.”

She hesitated, but replied, “Goodnight, Mr. Stark.”

“Night, Boss,” Happy added, and tugged her into his chest to pull her to their room.

Tony watched them go. He’d gotten used to having them in his suite, even if their differing schedules meant that they rarely bumped into each other. It would be quiet without them. Maybe he would break his own rule about Dum-E leaving the workshop and bring him upstairs. Just to build the pop art gallery. He felt like he was obligated to now that he’d said he would. It would be a good project, something that could conceivably keep him busy and out of the Avenger’s common room for weeks, maybe months. Really, if he wanted to make sure he had the best art, it would need to be months.

He didn’t realize his eyes were leaking until he tried to take a breath and it got caught in the sticky mucous at the back of his throat. He brought his wrist up to wipe the tracks of moisture away, but all it did was draw attention to the thin boarder of red and gold around his wristband. He let his arm drop to his side and retreated from the living room, just in case Happy or Pepper ventured back out.

Howard had given him his first wristband when he was five. Black with the Stark Industries logo at one edge. Tony had thought it was a present, but he’d become increasingly aware of Howard’s strange reaction to his Mark every time the wristband came off. The reactions grew stranger as Tony got older, Howard deeper into the bottle, deeper into his depression. Sometimes he would call Tony into his study, gesture for him to take the band off, and just stare at the Mark between swallows of scotch. As a teenager, Tony had thought he was just jealous. Howard had remained Unmarked to the day he died.

It made more sense now. Captain America’s Mark was never made public knowledge, just that he’d had one, and that he’d never found his mate. Seeing Cap’s mark on Tony’s wrist must have driven Howard mad. He would have recognized it, would have known that Steve was still alive, must have just been waiting for the day that Tony’s Mark turned to a scar. Every time he saw the Mark on Tony’s wrist, still vibrant and pulsing with life, it would have been a taunt, a reminder of his failure.

Tony wasn’t sure if it would have been crueler to just tell him what the Mark meant, but he indulged in a brief surge of renewed anger at his father, at Howard’s inability to communicate. My greatest creation was you. Bullshit. Tony dropped into his seat at his workstation and just stared at the tabletop. He was tempted to find the nearest bottle of liquor and a glass of ice cubes, but he would have to go up to the Avengers’ floor to get it, and that wasn’t a trip he was taking again any time soon. He ripped off the wristband instead and glared at his mark, still bright, the colors shifting just slightly in the light, enough to give the illusion of movement, of life

“Forty-two years,” he told it in an undertone. “Forty-two years waiting for someone I can’t have.” He put the band back on and resolutely turned his attention to the latest project, upgrades to the Avengers’ quinjet. He closed it as soon as it opened and brought up the newest StarkPhone specs instead. If he put his mind to it, he could make the next big leap in smartphone technology viable for a press release in a week. He’d have to work day and night, but it would be enough to give Pepper and Happy some cover. It wasn’t like he was going to be sleeping for the next few days anyway.