When Tony is a kid, a ghost sings him lullabies. He’s two and a half the first time he hears it (two years, five months, and seventeen days, actually, but his dad says he sounds like a freak when he says that, and Tony doesn’t want to be a freak, so he learns to round numbers even though it’s wrong and imprecise and makes his head hurt).
The ghost’s voice is rough and quiet, nothing like how his mom sounds when she plays her piano. Tony loves listening to mama, but he likes the ghost’s voice too. She doesn’t always sing when Tony is falling asleep; sometimes she sings right after lunch, and Tony thinks that maybe the ghost thinks he’s still a baby that takes naps. He doesn’t anymore, because sometimes after lunch his dad will let Tony come into the workshop to watch him (but never, ever touch anything) and if Tony takes a nap he doesn’t get to.
Some days the ghost doesn’t sing at all, and it’s harder to fall asleep.
It’s one of those nights, when the ghost doesn’t sing at all, and even though Jarvis has read him two stories and he’s had a cup of warm milk and turned his pillow over to the cold side, Tony can’t sleep.
“It’s ‘cause the ghost isn’t singing,” he tells Jarvis in a confidential whisper as the butler adjusts Tony’s pile of pillows yet again. “She’s not singin’ me a lullaby.”
Jarvis frowns. “What ghost, young sir?”
“Y’know,” Tony waves a hand, “the ghost. She sings to me at bedtime.”
Jarvis’s expression clears, a smile now hovering at the corner of his mouth. “Ah. That is no ghost, Master Stark.”
Tony listens, rapt, as Jarvis explains that everyone in the world has someone meant especially for them, someone who will fit them in every way. “A soulmate,” Jarvis says, and Tony can’t restrain his gasp of awe.
“Music is magical, Master Stark.” Jarvis tucks the thick duvet in around Tony. “It’s how we can find our soulmates. It’s how I found Anna and how, someday, you will find your soulmate. Whenever they listen to music, you can hear an echo of that song. The ghost you hear must be your soulmate’s mother singing to them.”
“Wow.” Tony lies back and regards the glow-in-the-dark stars on his ceiling as he processes that. Then he turns back towards Jarvis, a frown troubling his young features. “Sometimes the ghost sounds sad. My soulmate’s mama is sad.” A distraught expression spreads over Tony’s face and he bolts upright, frantic. “Maybe my soulmate is sad! I don’t want them to be sad!”
“I’m sure they’re fine,” Jarvis quickly assures him. He captures Tony’s flailing hands in his own and squeezes them gently. Tony takes a deep breath and tries to calm himself. It doesn’t entirely work, and Jarvis frown-smiles at him. “How about we give them something nice to listen to, just in case?”
Tony slowly nods and lays back down. Jarvis settles more comfortably in his chair and clears his throat.
Jarvis isn’t as good at singing as mama is, but Tony doesn't think anyone is. Still, his voice is low and smooth and Tony is asleep in minutes.
“My soulmate is at the circus today,” Tony announces one spring afternoon. Tomorrow is his thirteenth birthday, and he’s in the kitchen helping Jarvis make cookies for the party tomorrow. He got to come home from boarding school last week, Howard is out of the house, Jarvis is pretending not to notice Tony sneaking bites of the batter, and cheerful circus music rings in Tony’s ears. It’s a good day.
“That’s wonderful!” Jarvis smiles at him. “Your soulmate doesn’t get to do fun things like the circus very often, do they?”
Tony shakes his head, now sporting a frown. Life hadn’t seemed to be going so great for his soulmate since that day five years ago when the ghost had stopped singing and Tony heard the mournful wail of a funeral dirge. He’d still been young enough to fling himself into Jarvis’s arms, breaking his (Howard’s) rule about crying for the first time in years in sympathy of his soulmate’s loss.
Soon after that, Tony was shipped off to boarding school. He had felt furious and betrayed to be abandoned so thoroughly, and although part of him wanted to comfort his soulmate with happy songs or calming melodies, he’d played rock music, too loud and too harsh, late at night when nightmares caught him and Jarvis wasn’t around to assure him it was just a dream. In return, his soulmate listened to classical music: Beethoven and Mozart and Tchaikovsky and, bizarrely, the occasional faint country song.
Tony thinks they might both be seeking refuge from their troubles in music.
The circus is good news. Everyone loves the circus! Tony’s only been once, because Howard thinks they’re a waste of time, but he remembers how much he’d loved it. Hopefully his soulmate has fun.
Tony is in the middle of fucking his Literature TA (she only likes him because he’s rich, and Tony knows it, but it’s a good a way to lose his virginity as any) when the soft strains of Stravinsky drift through the room. Suddenly he’s eight years old again, listening to his soulmate mourn and unable to do anything about it.
Tony feels sick. He rolls off the girl (Sarah? Stephanie?), ignoring her squawk of indignation as he takes deep breaths and suppresses the urge to vomit.
How can he have sex with some random girl when his soulmate is out there, lonely and suffering?
It’s illogical, Tony knows. Only 32% of the population actually finds their soulmates. It’s perfectly acceptable, even encouraged, to pursue other relationships. Why deny yourself love and happiness, waiting for someone you might never meet?
Tony knows the math, memorized the statistics seven years ago when he’d been worried that he’d never be able to find and comfort his soulmate, but although Tony loves math, loves the way that numbers make sense the way that people don’t, no one has ever accused him of being logical. He’s simply unable to bring himself to have sex with anyone else. He’s not “saving” himself for his soulmate, doesn’t believe in that bullshit, but somehow it just feels wrong.
Still, there’s certain advantages to a playboy reputation, including warding off anyone that might be foolish enough to try to pursue a long-term relationship with him. Tony makes out with drunk boys and girls at parties (he’s not picky, and it’s a great “fuck you” to his old man) and lets the paparazzi see. Then he pours their drunk assess into his bed and lets them sleep it off while he works on his latest AI project. They always assume they were just too drunk to remember the sex (as if Tony would ever sleep with someone who wasn’t sober enough to consent!) Some of his “conquests” sell their stories to the gossip rags, elaborate tales of Tony’s sexual prowess and his extensive collection of sex toys. None of it is true, of course, but Tony figures the stories are always good for a laugh.
He confides in Jarvis and his best friend Rhodey, but the general population soon believes him to be a sex demon. Tony can’t bring himself to care.
Then Jarvis and his parents die.
Obie comes over with a bottle of Talisker and his condolences, and Tony gets wasted and doesn’t ask if Howard was driving drunk, why he was driving at all. He doesn’t think he could handle the answer.
He helps carry Jarvis’s casket, red-eyed beneath his sunglasses. He sits on the first pew and listens to the organ and wonders if his soulmate cries for him, too.
Tony’s accepting his second doctorate when something very strange happens.
He doesn’t care that much about the ceremony, the fifth one in as many years. Education is just one of the many ways he procrastinates in taking over Stark Industries since his twenty first birthday a few months ago.
Tony’s not paying attention, bored with the procession and the speeches and the drama of it all. Then, overlaid over the constant repetition of Pomp and Circumstance, he hears circus music.
This in itself is not especially odd. The music has been a near daily occurrence, and Tony had come to the conclusion that his soulmate had joined the circus after their mother’s death. It seems an odd choice for someone who adored Russian ballets, but Tony isn’t going to judge.
It had grown annoying for a while, especially after the car accident, but Tony’s grown used to it by now. He tunes it out and goes back to trying to decide once and for all if Professor Jameson is wearing a toupee. His money’s on “yes.”
Then, over the processional music and the cheery circus organ, Tony hears the swell of music from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. He frowns, more than a little puzzled. He knows his soulmate is a little eccentric, but attempting to listen to a symphony in a (presumably) crowded carnival tent is a new level of odd.
Tony almost misses his name being called, too caught up in puzzling over this new mystery. By the end of the ceremony he has a headache and a theory.
A bit of research confirms it. There are several thousand recorded cases of people with two or even more soulmates. Tony appears to be one of them.
“Great,” he sighs aloud. Dummy beeps curiously, and Tony grimaces at him. “I’ve got to find two of ‘em.”
He doesn’t find them, though. There’s a surprisingly large amount of circuses in America, and his other soulmate’s taste for all kinds of international music doesn’t let Tony narrow down their location even to the US. He remembers how the ghost always sang near his own bedtime, though, which gives Tony hope that they’re in a time zone close by.
The thing is, Tony probably could have found them. He has the money and the resources to seek them out. But he doesn’t.
Instead, he loses himself in alcohol and partying and, for a few years in the 90’s, drugs. He never fucks anyone, for whatever that’s worth, but only scotch can numb the burn of guilt in his chest. He blasts ACDC and Black Sabbath through the speakers in his workshop and doesn’t let himself think about his soulmates.
Tony used to wonder, when he was younger. What gender where they? What was their favorite color? Would they like robots as much as he does?
Now, though, he knows better than to torture himself with such figments of the imagination. His soulmates deserve better than a fucked-up alcoholic who designs death for a living.
He can’t stop himself from listening, though. Literally can’t; earplugs don’t work for music that’s just in his head, and blasting music only serves him to give a migraine when three songs layer over each other.
The circus music disappears a few weeks after his 24th birthday, and Tony can’t stop himself from feeling grateful. He can’t imagine that life in a circus, however fun it seemed to his fourteen-year-old self, would be very fulfilling for his soulmate.
There’s a few more funerals (too many), four graduations, and a constant, complex, and frequently irritating combination of classical and country music. Tony doesn’t let himself mark down the dates when “Happy Birthday” is sung and certainly doesn’t let himself play “Happy Birthday” back to them.
“They’re better off without me,” he mumbles one morning, somewhere between hungover and still drunk from the party the night before. There’s three empty bottles of spray cheese on the floor of the workshop next to him, and he has a vague recollection of an unfortunate incident involving them and the son of an oil tycoon. His PR guy is going to kill him.
“Who, sir?” Tony jolts at the sound of JARVIS’s voice, still not used to the sound of his father figure resurrected.
He has to swallow back a lump in his throat before he can answer his new AI. “No one, J. Don’t worry about it.”
In Afghanistan, Tony wakes to blinding pain in his chest and someone singing softly in Hindi. HIs classical soulmate has been traveling a lot recently, and Tony can only hope that he’s alright.
Then he has to focus on himself again because oh god, there are hands in his chest and Tony screams and takes a moment to be grateful that his soulmates can’t hear.
He has reason to appreciate that screaming doesn’t count as music many times over the next few weeks. A few of the guards play American pop music on a beat up speaker as they torture him. Tony wonders, near delirious with pain and terror, if the sound goes muffled when they shove him underwater for his soulmates, too.
Yinsen asks him if he has any family and Tony taps along with Bach on his knee and shakes his head.
Things change after Afghanistan. Obie dies, Tony almost dies, Pepper gets the promotion she deserves, a Norse god falls out of the sky in New Mexico, Captain America is defrosted. It’s a crazy few years.
One morning Tony wakes up and realizes he’s a mostly-virgin quickly approaching the wrong side of forty whose closest friends, while fantastic, mainly interact with him in a work environment and number only three. His main hobby is wearing a metal suit and getting shot at, and he ignores his soulmate’s music.
It’s pathetic. He tells the bots as much, and Butterfingers trills sympathetically. Dummy makes him coffee, which is unfortunately seasoned with motor oil and therefore toxic, but Tony appreciates the thought anyways.
“Right.” He claps his hands and stands from the cot he’d collapsed on the night before (pathetic). “Let’s find me soulmates.”
He supplies JARVIS with their birthdays (of course he memorized them), which gives them a good start. Still, it leaves Tony with thousands of possible candidates, especially since Tony can’t be sure when they were born (though he really hopes it’s within ten years of himself).
Tony spends a half-hour scrolling through the lists and manages to eliminate a few hundred, but he soon realizes how futile an approach that is.
Time for Plan B.
Tony waits until he hears music again - a lilting Iranian melody and Garth Brook’s drawl - before nodding at the ceiling. “Hit it, J.”
The song opens in the middle of the verse, overly bright and not at all Tony’s style.
“You could travel the wo-orld, but nothing comes close to the golden coast-”
“Cut it, J.” For a moment, silence rings - from his soulmates as well as himself. Tony swallows thickly. “Try again.”
Red Hot Chili Peppers, now. “Stuck in Californication, stuck in Californica-”
He hears something over the wail, and Tony immediately silences the music. There’s the soft strum of a guitar - his country soulmate, then - followed by a timeless classic: “Hey there Delilah, what’s it like in New York City-”
The music stops abruptly, and Tony has to sit down before he falls down. A response. His soulmate is in New York City. He can’t suppress a delighted and only slightly manic laugh.
They can communicate after that, kind of. Tony learns that his circus soulmate is male (though the vast number of songs about trucks, beer, and sex had made him suspect as much) and a big fan of coffee. Once, they spend an entire morning once playing “Taylor, the Latte Boy” back and forth at each other.
Their classical soulmate is much more reserved. Whereas Circus Boy jumps full into their strange little conversations, they chip in rarely. Tony manages to garner his gender - male, and wouldn’t that infuriate Howard, his son having two, male soulmates? - but his only other clues are the ever changing languages of his music. His classical music is a constant, though, and on his worst nights, when Tony wakes up in a cold sweat, dreaming of filthy water in his mouth and a hand around his heart, an orchestra comforts him from half a world away.
Tony knows he doesn’t deserve them, doesn’t deserve the happiness they bring him, but he can’t convince himself to stop listening.