The science behind imprinting is not well understood, but it is currently an active field of research. Historically, societies have correlated the imprinting phenomenon with finding one’s soulmate, but in this text we stress that imprinting and “soul bonding” are not synonymous. A “soul” is merely the chemical processes of the brain and there is no scientific basis for believing the soul is anything mystical or non-corporeal. Likewise, imprinting is merely a chemical process initiated by the brain, particularly the hippocampus, amygdala, and hypothalamus. The PNS (Peripheral Nervous System, [see section 3.4, box 3.4.12]) also plays a role in acute pain synchronization (APS), which will be discussed further on in the chapter.
[click to continue reading]
“It’s an illness,” Tony tells him and Steve doesn’t say anything, just closes the tab and opens a new one, and Tony leans over, sees him tap out ‘human imprinting’.
“I’m not the type to throw around insults,” Tony says (although he is, he very proudly is), “but you’re an idiot if you think otherwise. C’mon. You’re supposed to be a tactical genius, aren’t you? You have to realize me going down every time you take a hit is going to majorly screw up the team. Are you listening?”
Research on repressing or breaking an imprint is highly controversial; religious sects, (not limited to Christianity, but pertaining to most of the world’s major religions) maintain that attempting to break an imprint (or “soul bond”) is going against God’s divine plan.
“You’re not listening. Well, you should be because this affects us both. Hell, it affects the whole team. Isn’t that what you’re all about? Doing what’s best for the team?”
Government funding for this sort of research is thus limited due to pressure from the religious community. Coupled with the fact that imprinting is a relatively rare phenomenon, with an estimated 6.8% of the world population having the ability to imprint (Chen et al., 2003), most feel that any government grants afforded to furthering anti-imprint drug development is “a waste of taxpayer money”.
Although many companies advertise sure-fire ways to relieve imprint symptoms, dull the affects of APS, or break the imprint link altogether, all current anti-imprint drugs or “natural remedies” have proven ineffective.
Steve looks down on the tablet resting on his knees, and when he speaks, he speaks to his hands. “There isn’t a way to break it,” he says.
Tony watches him for a long, quiet moment and the silence hangs between them, heavy and dead.
Tony follows Steve's gaze to the tablet screen. “No. There isn’t.”
It was all Steve’s fault.
Well, no, it really wasn’t, but Tony adamantly maintains that it was.
(Although it would’ve happened anyway; all it takes is a touch. But it was Steve who had initiated the first skin-to-skin contact, Steve who just had to try and make amends, who had to reach for Tony’s hand to seal the deal on their tentative truce.)
“I was wrong,” Steve had said, and it'd clearly taken a lot of effort to admit that. Tony could admire that, at least—it takes guts to suck up that much pride (he would know). “And I’m sorry—I was out of line; you’re definitely not the man I pegged you for,” he continued, and he just looked so damn earnest; Tony had to put him out of his misery.
“Apology accepted,” he’d said, waving a hand. “I probably said some stuff I shouldn’t have, too—you’re not as bad as all that.”
And Steve had offered a hand, so Tony had grinned and taken it.
And that should’ve been it. The end of a chapter; Tony would’ve shook his hand, said goodbye, and driven off with Bruce to go blow shit up in his lab and then maybe have some epic just-saved-the-planet celebratory sex with Pepper.
That’s how it was supposed to go.
But when Steve shook his hand, it hurt. He felt his insides grow cold, felt his heart beat pick up, felt blood pound in his ears. His hand was hot all over, tingling where Steve held it and there was a spark there—a current of electricity that started in his palm spiked in his brain, making his breathing erratic and vision white.
When Steve had shaken his hand, Tony had thought he was going to die.
What did you do to me—“What the fuck was that,” he'd said, ripping his hand away, blinking away the bright spots in front of his eyes. He took a step back, bracing himself on the car. Something in his chest was clenching—painfully—and every inch of his skin seemed to be on pins and needles.
He could feel Bruce’s eyes flitting from him to Steve and—and Steve was just standing there, hand still outstretched, but his fingers were curling and something in his face was softening. Steve was looking at him, eyes guileless, lips parted, and Tony would swear he could feel the heat emanating from Steve’s face, even from that distance.
“Oh,” Steve said, the word dropping from his lips in a quiet exhale.
And wasn’t that just the mother of all underreactions. “Oh?” Tony asked, hand clenching against the car door. He had to consciously will himself not to place a hand on the arc reactor because it was whirring so fucking loud he was sure Steve could pick up on it. “What do you mean oh? What the hell did you just do?”
“I didn’t do anything,” Steve said, taking a step closer and Tony had no choice but to jerk back.
Because ridiculous situations required ridiculous reactions, when Bruce cautiously suggested that they might need to head on over to SHIELD medical, Tony fucking laughed.
When Steve took that step towards him, Tony’s skin prickled and he knew exactly what was happening.
“Oh, Rogers,” he said, squinting up at him, grinning almost manically. “I’ve known you for a day and this is the third time I’ve wanted to punch you in the face.”
And just like that, Steve’s expression closed off, his hand going back to rest at his side. Steve was glaring and—well, Tony supposed they were back to square one, except not really, because this time it involved a debilitating mental disorder—
“We should really go,” Bruce said. “If this is what I think it is, you two need to be tested.”
Steve set his jaw. “I’ll meet you there,” he said, walking away towards his bike, movements stiff, and when he was too far, Tony felt it, a twinge in his chest. An ache in his bones.
Tony stared after him.
“This is exactly what you think it is,” he told Bruce, sucking in a breath.
And that’s how Tony found himself in SHIELD’s oppressively clean med bay, with Steve tapping away on some inferior, non-SI tablet.
“I know there aren’t treatments,” Tony says, voice measuredly casual. “Well, I know they don’t work, I guess is what I’m trying to say, but between Bruce and I, we’d definitely be able to cook something up, right? It’s not really my area of expertise, but it could be, just give me a day or two and—oh, hey, so, what’s the verdict?”
A woman had walked in, her nametag reading ‘Dr. Sandhu’. Everything about her is meticulously ordered, not a hair out of place; it’s oddly comforting—it reminds him of Pepper.
“Your hormone levels have ventured outside the normal range, though not enough to be harmful,” she says, staring at her clipboard. “Your oxytocin and serotonin production is currently elevated, and prolactin levels have decreased, which is to be expected for imprinted pairs.” She ignores Tony but occasionally meets Steve’s eyes as she talks—probably figuring Steve’s the one who needs kid gloves (which, by the way, is hilarious—or as hilarious as anything could be in the hot, sizzling mess that was this whole situation).
She puts the clipboard on the bench, and, because she’s already proved herself as being quick and efficient, she immediately moves over to the heart monitor, and places electrodes over Tony’s chest, circumventing around the arc reactor as best she could. “I’m strapping you to an EKG.”
“Well, yeah. But I was just talking about possible treatments. Any ideas?”
She places the final electrodes on his pulse points and then moves to do the same to Steve. “The current field of anti-imprint research is mostly dead. Most see it as too romantic and beautiful of a concept to try to repress with drugs,” she says and goddamn how Steve seems to perk up at that, sit up straighter.
“Wait,” Steve says, sounding hesitant of all things, “how well understood is the whole bonding thing nowadays—I mean, I know you know a lot, but why does it happen?”
“It’s not a bond—” Tony begins, just as Dr. Sandhu says, “It’s a genetic abnormality; we’ve isolated many of the alleles involved in the phenomenon. They’re all quite rare, as you’d expect.”
“Cap doesn’t know what an allele is,” Tony says and Steve’s brows draw together and his mouth opens—maybe he’s going to protest—“And it doesn’t happen for a reason, if that’s what you’re trying to get at.”
“There are many books on the subject,” Dr. Sandhu says, speaking over him, looking to Steve. “And the internet is an invaluable resource.” She glances down at the tablet in Steve’s hands. “I’m glad you’re making good use of it.” She places the last electrodes on Steve’s wrists, pressing down firmly.
When Steve and Tony are both strapped into their individual EKGs, and the room is filled with an irritating, beeping staccato of their respective heartbeats, the doctor takes a step back and says, “Now touch each other.”
“I’m not sure what you—”
“Just shake hands,” she says, voice resigned and just on the wrong side of Long Suffering.
Steve looks at Tony and squares his shoulders, like he’s preparing himself for some sort of fight; Tony rolls his eyes, takes a step forward and grabs his hand.
And there it is, that spark again, but it doesn’t hurt this time around; it feels warm, like liquid fire emanating from their hands and diffusing throughout their bodies. By the sudden slump of Steve’s shoulders, he’s definitely feeling it, too.
Tony wants to let go immediately. But not as much as he wants a correct diagnosis (there’s always hope).
His heartbeat is steadying—and so is his breath—and he suddenly feels more alert than he has in days, awake and healthy (he honestly didn’t think it actually felt this way—thought it was all just romanticized bullshit stories about the imprint—).
The beeping on Steve’s machine increases, and Tony’s decreases, and they stand there for a full minute, staring at each other, hands clasped.
Sixty-three seconds tick by and the beeps are layered on top of the other, steady, like a single heartbeat. Steve and Tony jump apart as if scalded.
“Heart rate synchrony,” Dr. Sandhu says, scribbling on her clipboard. “We can infer from this that your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems operate in synch when you’re within a certain distance of each other. Twenty meters is usually the norm. Since it’s become rather obvious that you two have indeed imprinted, it’s possible you’ll also experience the same touch based stimuli, or APS. The stimuli needed for APS to occur is usually short-lived and extremely painful, so we do not test it for ethical reasons.”
Tony raises his had, leveling her with a look of supreme apathy. “I want out.”
Steve glares. “Listen to her, this is important.”
“It’s all stuff I already know,” Tony says, removing the electrodes with careless ease. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to find Bruce.”
“Stark, you can’t just leave,” Steve says, making a grab for his arm but Tony ducks out of the way and brushes past him.
“You shouldn’t stay away from him for a prolonged period of time,” Dr. Sandhu calls after him, and he can hear the smirk in her voice. “It isn’t healthy.”
Yeah, well, he’ll see about that.
Steve’s living in the tower.
Okay, they’re all living in the tower, all the Avengers, because Tony had to make it obvious that he’d never only invite Steve; he’d never admit that he felt lethargic, dull, pained without Steve being in the same building as him. He'd tried just living with it for a week—a week of SHIELD agents harassing him, a week of ignoring Steve’s calls—whoever gave the guy a phone was a dick—and denying him entry to the tower. A week of pretending that he wasn’t getting headaches that were getting worse with each passing hour.
But they were. And it'd pissed him off to no end.
It was Pepper who made him do it. Pepper, who didn’t seem to be angry or anything because she is wonderful and Tony really needs to do something nice for her one of these days. Flowers, breakfast in Paris, dinner in Italy, the whole shebang.
“It’s not fair to either of you,” she had said, days ago. She’d looked tired—sad—and Tony had glanced around her office, noticing the piles and piles of paperwork, the open filing cabinet, the blinking phone that indicated three calls on hold.
“You look bad. Which makes me feel like I’m not doing my job,” she continued, smiling. “Invite him.”
So he did. But, obviously, he invited the others first, to act as his buffer against Steve.
It isn’t so bad. The tower is huge, he hardly even sees them. Thor tends to fuck on over to Asgard (or New Mexico) whenever the opportunity presents itself and Barton-call-me-Clint and Natalie-cum-Natasha seem to disappear and reappear as they please.
Really. When Clint finally showed up at the tower, he just dropped in from the ceiling (the bastard probably slept like that, hanging from the chandelier).
All in all, it’s an okay set up. Steve’s living with them, so Tony isn’t constantly feeling like shit (self-induced Prolonged Contact Deprivation, Bruce had pointed out).
Speaking of Bruce, Tony had been unabashedly pestering him for the past week.
“It’s a genetic phenomenon—”
“See, there’s that word again. Everyone keeps saying ‘phenomenon’, which, frankly, is the most outrageous euphemism I’ve heard for a disease, like, ever.”
Bruce looks at him over his glasses, lips quirking up, and then looks down, shaking his head a little. “It’s a genetic disease unique to each, uh, sufferer. You’d probably have the same amount of luck as you’d have trying to cure cancer. Or cystic fibrosis. Or a whole slew of other things.”
“What you’re saying sounds an awful lot like ‘no’.”
“It is a no, Tony. There’s no cure. There’s hardly even any research going into a cure—people don’t want a cure.”
“Because people are stupid,” Tony says, pointing a pen at Bruce. “They watch all those soaps and read all those Harlequins that have imprinted couples that are so in love and happy and meant for each other. They’re brainwashed and stupid. We don’t even like each other, how in hell’s name are we supposed to—”
“You could just try,” Bruce says, crossing his arms, shrugging. “I mean, for both your sakes, you could try.”
“Try what? Being nice to him, is that what you’re trying to say here? What then? Even if we were best buddies, that’s not gonna make this go away, it’s not going to stop making me physically ill when I haven’t seen the guy in twenty four hours! And—fuck.” The last word is pained; he places his palms on his temples, pressing hard.
Bruce is giving him that look again, and Tony can take a hint.
When in the presence of your imprinted, you may experience:
• An increase or decrease in heartbeat (depending on your imprinted’s current pulse)
• An increase or decrease in appetite
• Shortness of breath
• A warming of the skin (quite often accompanied by a light blush)
• A feeling of euphoria (studies suggest the degree of your mood elevation depends on how well you know your imprinted on an emotional level [Ingrid and Stent, 2008; 2011; 2012]; please note these studies have been highly debated and criticized)
• In Type II expressions of the phenotype, close proximity to your imprinted may cause dilation of the pupils, erections (in males) and vaginal lubrication (in females) [click to read more on Type II arousal symptoms]
• In Type II expressions of the phenotype, both partners may experience APS, and in very rare cases, APS may leave physical lacerations on both parties [click here for more information on dealing with APS]
You will likely experience the symptoms of Prolonged Contact Deprivation if you and your imprinted are separated for a certain duration of time (usually between 24-72 hours).
“Look at you, being all studious. Though it hurts me that that’s not a Stark Tablet. Seriously, I feel ill.” And that isn’t a lie, not really.
Steve doesn’t look up, doesn’t move from his spot on the couch. “It’s all so clinical.”
Tony moves over to the side of the couch, squinting down at Steve, lips pursed. “What’d you expect?”
• Muscle cramps
• Blurred vision or a dulled sense of colour perception
• Extended PCD can lead to depression
Steve actually turns then, meets Tony’s eyes and it takes all of Tony’s self-control not to flinch, to not be cowed by that look. His eyes (and they looked so much bluer on his posters, on his action figures) move down, taking all of Tony in, and then flick back up.
“Not this,” he says simply, looking back to the screen.
[click here to read more on depression]
Tony bites back a growl. For a second there, he could’ve reached over and touched Steve—his face, his arm—just something because he sees the dark circles under Steve’s eyes, knows they match the ones on his own face. He can hear Steve exhale every time Tony inhales, and that his breathing is sharp, oddly spiked.
He knows that if he reaches over and just touches him, they’d both feel a lot better for it.
But instead he bites back the growl and doesn’t do anything else, just turns and heads down to his workshop, the image of his own haggard face reflected in Steve’s dull eyes nipping at his heels.
Tony’s working on a gauntlet that doesn’t really need working on but, hey, a distraction’s a distraction. If he can reduce the recharging time needed between each repulsor blast by even an eighth of a second, then he can say—with impunity—that he’s down here doing very important work and definitely not hiding.
Because he isn’t hiding.
He’s doing important work—and brooding. He’s hungry and tired and everything aches—and not in the good way, but more in an I-need-to-lie-down-for-a-century-or-two sort of way.
He puts down his tools, and tosses the gauntlet aside like it’s nothing. “My head hurts,” he says aloud, pressing his forehead into the workbench.
JARVIS projects a screen by Tony’s head; it’s a webpage, listing everything Tony’s feeling in neat little bullet points. It’s not as helpful as JARVIS probably thinks it is.
“That is to be expected, sir,” JARVIS says. “If I may make a suggestion?”
Tony speaks into the workbench. “Shoot.”
“If you were to initiate physical contact with Captain Rogers—”
“I know. Believe me, I know.” He sits up, rubbing a hand down his face. He knows he isn’t going about this logically; he should just give Steve a friendly (mostly friendly) punch in the arm and they’d both feel better for it. The throbbing behind his temples would dull into a sort of numbness, at least. Maybe.
But he still has the option of sitting in his workshop and ignoring that this is actually a thing, a very important, very cumbersome thing that’s going to affect him for the rest of his damn life. This is the type of thing that happens to Other People, the type of thing that happens in soap operas and movies—a thing that happens between people who actually care about each other; it certainly isn’t the type of thing that happens between two superheroes, each of whom have enough emotional baggage to fill this entire tower, including all the sublevels.
Plus, Captain America’s a dick.
Well, okay, not all the time, but he’s definitely a dick for looking so damn hopeful after they first shook hands, and for sitting in his room alone researching the evolutionary history and cultural appropriation of imprinting and all that nonsense for hours on end (Tony knows he does it, JARVIS has eyes everywhere). He hates that Steve obviously thought Tony was going to change, like he expected Tony to instantly like him a whole lot more after that touch. Did he really think they’d be best buddies? That their problems would just vanish and they’d proceed to spend endless nights watching romcoms, eating shitty takeout and cuddling on the couch?
Actually, that doesn’t sound so bad. Apart from the cuddling (he’d rather do that with Pepper).
He doesn’t realize he’d clicked the Rhodey icon on his phone until he hears Rhodey’s voice say, “Yeah?”
“JARVIS wants me to rub up on Captain America,” he tells him in lieu of a proper hello. He pauses. “And my head hurts.”
He hears Rhodey sigh and can just picture him pinching the bridge of his nose; it makes him smile, the first real smile he’s had all day. “I’m still mad at you, you know,” Rhodey says. “’Cause I had to first hear about this from Pepper. Too busy for me, Stark?”
“No, never,” Tony says. “You are my sun and my moon.”
“I better be,” Rhodey answers and there’s a moment’s pause after that, like he’s hesitating about what to say next. Tony had already dumped all his imprint-related grievances on him days ago, so Rhodey better not try and make this call anything other than light-hearted; he doesn’t need any more doom and gloom. He’s filled his quota for the year on that. “JARVIS is a pretty smart program,” Rhodey says eventually.
“I know. I made him.”
“So, if he says you should go rub up on Captain America, you should probably do it.”
“But I think I’ll end up rubbing him the wrong way.”
“Are we still talking about rubbing in a literal sense here?”
“Are you imagining me rubbing Captain America in a literal sense?”
And that’s all it takes. That’s all it takes for Tony’s mood to instantly lift; who needs some imprinted American war hero when he’s got his buddies? (Well, maybe he did need Cap, at least to fix his headache, the pain in his gums, in his teeth and bones).
And then Captain America himself appears at his doors and Tony says, “Talk to you later, Rhodes, there’s been a security breach.” Rhodey’s saying something as Tony disconnects; he’ll probably pay for that later, but. Priorities.
Steve stands with two large bags held in front of him like some sort of peace offering. “Ms. Potts gave me the security override code,” he says, and Tony mutters something like, Et tu, Brute?
Steve walks forward—his first step falters, but the rest are confident—and Tony can see the grease stains on the bottom of the bags now, can smell the contents. He feels himself start to salivate; he’s tired and achy and hungry and Steve’s here to alleviate one of those problems; if he’s here to make amends, this was a damn good way to start (here to make amends again; the two of them really had a knack for starting off on the wrong foot, over and over again. They’re a monster with ten pairs of feet.)
His headache persists but with each step closer, his aches seem to dissipate into nothing, and he wonders if Steve feels that too, or feels it as strongly. Nothing in Steve’s posture seems to indicate any sign of relief.
Steve places one of the bags on the workbench and says, “I know you’re hungry.”
Tony realizes that of course Steve knows Tony’s hungry because Tony knows Steve’s hungry. He can feel Steve’s stomach rumbling, can feel it in the pit of his own stomach and he can’t be sure if that’s just fevered delusion or one of the many symptoms of his condition.
Steve stands there, looking so awkward that Tony takes pity on him, and nudges a stool over with his foot. Steve sits, and Tony begins rummaging through his bag.
“Burger King,” he says, taking out a double cheeseburger (which smells heavenly). “Should’ve figured you’d be a burger kind of guy. Have you ever tried Thai? Or Indian—maybe Malaysian? Or have you mostly spent your post-thaw life cooped up in your little corner of Brooklyn.” He talks to fill the silence, and doesn’t really expect an honest answer; he expects the two of them to quietly stuff their faces.
A beat. “I’ve had Italian.”
Tony turns to look at him, and talks around the fries in his mouth. “I sincerely hope you don’t mean pizza. Because that doesn’t count.”
The corners of Steve’s lips twitch up a little and why does Tony feel like he should be counting that as a victory? “No, actual Italian. You can’t live in New York all your life and not have actual Italian.”
Tony’s nodding and before he gets the chance to concede to Steve’s point—or maybe refute it (when he’s feeling this shitty, he usually doesn’t know what’ll come out of his mouth until it actually comes out of his mouth)—when Steve speaks again, and Tony can feel his skin prickle where Steve’s eyes land on him.
“You look bad,” Steve says.
“You’re no prize yourself.”
“I know what you mean,” he says, waving a hand. He does know, he knows how every single one of his atoms seem to be tugging him forward, demanding he stop his self-imposed suffering and do what needs to be done. He knows what Steve wants, can tell from the crease between his brows. “Are you suggesting we hug it out?”
He expects Steve to stutter and argue, maybe tell him to be serious but Steve must be able to read him (he has to be able to read him) and realize Tony is very much feeling the severity of the situation, because he actually says, “Well, yeah. That would probably be the smart thing to do. Maybe not a hug, but I think a pat on the head would suffice.”
Tony takes a large bite out of his burger and regards Steve shrewdly as he chews. He talks around his food. “Alright, okay, get over here and embrace your dear imprinted—I didn’t mean that literally, put your arms down, this isn’t a hug, just—yeah, okay. Yeah.”
Steve’s holding his hand, and Tony’s body warms, his heart picks up speed, and so does the reactor and it’s weird how it almost happens instantly. He feels better. His pains are numb and he’s warm and comfortable and something in his head tells him don’t move; he wants to listen to that voice, wants to sit here forever feeling damn good about the world.
He closes his eyes and doesn’t open them when Steve speaks. “I read about this—there’s supposed to be a, ah, increase in endorphins when we touch.” He sounds a little breathy, a little mellowed out. “I forgot how, exactly—”
“The anterior pituitary gland releases endorphins based on both the subconscious and conscious perception of touch stimuli from the person one has imprinted on,” JARVIS supplies. “Endorphins are neurotransmitters that work to dull the sensation of pain; they are also responsible to feelings of euphoria.”
Tony opens his eyes and sees Steve staring at the ceiling. “Thanks, yeah, that’s what I was—thanks, JARVIS,” Steve says. He pauses for a moment and Tony doesn’t know what to make of the expression he has; he isn’t familiar with it but he wants to be, but that’s the hormones talking. “What, exactly, is a neurotransmitter?”
Tony opens his mouth to say something but JARVIS beats him to it.
“They are chemical messengers that transmit signals from one neuron to another.”
“Oh,” he says, looking weirdly pleased. “And if I had any more questions—?”
“I would be more than happy to help, Captain Rogers.”
“He means happy in a figurative sense,” Tony says. “I haven’t decided if I want to give my creations emotional capabilities—do you think that would be cruel? Never mind,” Tony says when it looks like Steve’s actually about to answer. “Just—JARVIS is good for stuff—really good, great, even, so ask away. It’ll probably be easier than tapping away on that crappy tablet of yours. Didn’t I tell you this when you moved in?”
“No, actually, you hardly talked to me; Ms. Potts was kind enough to show me around. Though I didn’t know JARVIS did anything more than monitor security.” There’s an accusation in there, but Tony can't fathom why.
There’s a tapping sound, of heels on hardwood, so he turns.
Pepper’s at the doors and Tony’s torn—he now has an excuse to leave, say he and Pepper have business to attend to—but he doesn’t want to because his hand is still tingling where Steve’s holding it. It’s more than a feeling of being well, and letting go and getting up means he’ll go back to feeling normal.
Luckily, Steve decides for him and drops his hand. Tony stands.
(The warmth in his bones dissipates into nothing like it was never there at all).
“Gotta go,” he says. “Stay here if you want. Make good use of JARVIS; it’s not like I keep him around for his snark—he’s useful, too.”
“Why, thank you, sir,” JARVIS says and the sentence sounds—yep, drenched in snarkiness.
When he makes it over to Pepper, her eyebrow is raised and a corner of her mouth is quirked up. “Fury says you’ve been ignoring his calls. And that you haven’t scheduled another appointment with their doctor.”
“Fury says a lot of things,” Tony says, “and none of them are usually good.”
He turns around once before the workshop’s doors close, sees Steve perched on that stool, hands in his lap, posture slumped and eyes fixed on the ceiling.
“JARVIS, why do people—why does it feel cold when I haven’t experienced the ‘touch stimuli’ for a while?”
“A common symptom. Homeostasis maintains a nearly constant body temperature; however, you may experience PCD after you have not been in contact with your imprinted for an extended period of time, which causes the body to perform below peak efficiency. Heat dissipation—”
The doors close, and Pepper walks him towards the elevators.
“Well, at least he’s treating it as a learning experience,” he says and Pepper just rolls her eyes.
“You really should stop ignoring Fury.”
“I should. But I won’t.”
“I’m totally not playing this game,” he says, pointing a finger.
“What game?” Pepper asks as the elevator door slide shut and it beings its ascent. She leans forward to press a kiss against his cheek.
He frowns, but only for a second. He replaces it with a cheeky grin when Pepper meets his eyes again. “You call that a kiss?”
She does that raised eyebrow thing again, and leans forward again, pressing her lips against his.
Tony blinks dumbly while she moves back.
He reaches out, runs a hand down Pepper’s exposed arm, tracing his own movements with his eyes.
He can see his skin on her skin but—
“…Tony? What’s wrong?”
Good fucking question.
“I’m not—” he says, “I’m not sure if this is supposed to happen. Is this a thing? Like a symptom? Because I can’t—”
“Tony,” she says and the way she’s looking at him is going to break that thing behind his arc reactor, it is—
His hand’s on her arm but he barely feels it—it feels like nothing, numb and he suddenly doesn’t want to be there, wants to go back to the workshop and sit around asking JARVIS trivial questions because Steve is down there, so that’s where he should be, too.
“Is this normal?” he asks, voice strangled and Pepper doesn’t say anything, just looks at him with that expression he’s gotten far too used to, an expression he loathes.
Pepper breathes in harshly, placing her hand over Tony’s and Tony feels an instinctive need to pull his hand away.
So he does; he pulls away and tries to ignore the relaxing of his muscles, ignore the sudden feeling of doing right because there’s no way this is right.
He runs a hand over his face.
In 1959, Gilbert Rodriguez (1897-1981) and his colleague Matthew Alders (1901-1969) of the University of California became the first to diagnose and document a rare imprinting condition characterized by the numbing of dermal sensation when the patient is becoming intimate with someone other than their imprinted partner. They theorized that this trait was selected for, evolutionarily, to prevent imprinted partners from having offspring with anyone other than their imprinted (the offspring of imprinted partners tend to display higher fitness than offspring of non-imprinted or imprinted/non-imprinted pairs [Ivanov et al., 1938]). However, as R. Tyson (1989) pointed out, this theory fails to explain why this trait is also exhibited in same-sex imprinted couples.
“Acquired insensitivity to specific touch stimuli; pressure receptors in the skin are fully functional, but during periods of high stress, the brain will not process skin-to-skin stimuli from anyone other than the Captain, here. It’s a subconscious response that you—”
“I wasn’t under any high stress,” Tony grits out. “I was with Pepper, not at gunpoint.”
“You subconsciously interpreted the situation as dire,” the doctor continues, meeting his eyes. “Likely because you were attempting to become intimate with someone other than Captain Rogers.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Tony says, pointing a finger at her. He looks to Steve for—he doesn’t know, for support, probably—but Steve’s on that damned tablet again, and doesn’t he fucking care? Tony’s whole life is going to shit and there he, acting like this whole thing is just an interesting footnote in the giant, crowded mess that is the 21st century.
He must feel Tony’s eyes on him because he looks up. “It, uh—it says here that it’s a rare condition and that it’s believed to exist in order to prevent an imprinted person from having kids with someone who isn’t imprinted.”
Well, maybe he does care a little.
Although that sounds like even more bull, and Tony’s about to say so before Dr. Sandhu says, “As unpopular as it is, that’s the most prevalent theory.” She looks contrite. “Unfortunately, I cannot give you much insight as to why you’re displaying this symptom, or why you felt—” she looks to her clipboard, “—‘panicked’ while with your girlfriend, Mr. Stark, but I can explain the specific mechanisms of this reaction, if you’d like.”
Steve has a sort of poker face going on, and Tony can’t tell if he’s intrigued by this conversation or bored but it irks Tony that he doesn’t seem angry. Shouldn’t he be in tune with Tony’s emotions? Isn’t that how this works?
“I need you to tell me if there’s any way this can be fixed,” Tony says, looking away from Steve and to the doctor. “Obviously, money’s no object; if there’s any treatment or procedure I could go through to make this acquired insensitivity thing go away, I need to know now.”
She barely says, “There’s no proven method that will—” before Tony walks out the door, just like last time. There’s only so much he can listen to about how helpless he is over this before he just needs to leave altogether.
Steve follows him because of course he does.
“You two can still make it work,” he says from behind him.
Tony’s next step falters and he almost stumbles. He turns to face Steve, mouth set in a thin line. “You can’t be that naïve.”
Steve visibly fumbles for his next words and it’s clear he’s not being intentionally obtuse, that he’s offering his hollow words of comfort because he probably thinks it’s the right thing to do because what else can he do; but Steve doesn’t take the sentiment back, and instead plows on forward. “Well, if you really cared for her—”
Tony’s hackles rise. “If I really cared for her? You finish that sentence and I swear I’m going to shove an armoured fist down your throat, Rogers.”
Tony knows how tenuous the string between him and Pepper is, knows how easily they could slip back into the comfortable realm of friendship again (which isn’t a bad thing—of course it isn’t—but he loves her more than that, doesn’t he? He loves her for putting up with all his shit for so long; she deserves more than friendship if that’s what she wants, she deserves everything he has). He’s been trying so hard for her, for them, and now this living, breathing relic was telling him if he and Pepper fall apart after this, he doesn’t care for her.
He expects Steve to apologize, he really does.
“Then I don’t see the problem,” Steve says instead of ‘sorry’. “You care for her. Or, you say you do—so you can get around this issue. It’ll change some things, but—”
“Change some things!” Tony says, throwing up his hands. “It changes everything when my whole system freaks out because I’m not around you, when I can’t touch another person because my brain throws up a damn fucking wall at the very thought—this isn’t just a minor inconvenience!”
Steve frowns and Tony takes the moment of pause to duck into an empty conference room, hoping to have some time to wallow—hoping to feel the satisfaction of slamming the door shut. But Steve’s always just two steps behind.
“You’re acting like this is the worst thing in the world,” Steve says, slipping into the room before Tony can even reach for the door handle.
His voice holds an edge of accusation and the slightest hint of bafflement. Tony can barely manage to glare at him, suddenly feeling exhausted. Not physically, but mentally; for once his brain feels weary, dull, lethargic. He doesn’t want to be here and he doesn’t want to be near Steve even as half of him tells him he does.
“It’s not the worst thing that’s ever happened,” Tony says lowly, bracing his hands on the conference table, holding on tight. “You read my file—you know damn well this isn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened. But it’s in the top five.”
Steve’s fingers twitch at his sides and Tony takes a moment to appreciate that at least that damn tablet was finally out of his hands. Steve looks like he’s steeling himself for something before he says, “This is a gift.”
“Fuck you,” he says with as much vitriol as he can manage.
He knows he could’ve said a million more articulate things, knows he had seen this coming, had seen it from the quirk of Steve’s smile after they first shook hands, had seen it from Steve’s half-entranced, half-glossy-eyed eyes as he read and read and read all he could about their condition. But he probably just lost Pepper forever and living with this seems to be getting harder, not easier like it’s supposed to, so the universe will just have to excuse him and his lack of eloquence.
Steve looks—well, he looks angry, with that furrow between his brows and that hard clench of his jaw.
It pisses Tony off. They’re supposed to have some sort of ‘special connection’ now, weren’t they? Then why is this still so difficult?
“From what angle does this look like a gift to you?” he says.
Steve crosses his arms. “There are people who’d kill for this, for what we have.”
“What, exactly, do we have?” Tony says without missing a beat. “We’ve got an invisible ball and chain wrapped around us—we’ve got a life sentence—”
“And you’re not making it any easier!” Steve says, uncurling his arms from around himself. “It doesn’t have to be a—a punishment, Tony, it’s not supposed to be a life sentence. It’s just your attitude—”
“Yes, your attitude! If this had happened with anyone else but you, then I wouldn’t be having this problem—I wouldn’t be having shouting matches in SHIELD conference rooms about what I thought was supposed to be a good thing.” Steve’s voice goes low at the end and his fists clench.
“So this is all on me,” Tony says, voice even. “What about your inappropriately accepting attitude? Why do you see this as a gift, Steve?” He wants to go for the jugular, wants Steve to be as miserable and angry as him, wants Steve to feel as wronged by all of this as he does. “If there’s a time to be honest, it’s now. Is it because you’re so used to losing everyone that now that you’ve got someone who can’t possibly leave, life suddenly seems a lot more—”
There’s a metallic click and the door slowly inches open. A ruffled looking agent sticks her head in, her eyes flicking to Tony and then Steve.
“Sirs,” she begins, “I was told to inform you that we can hear you through the ventilation. This is not one of the soundproof rooms.”
Tony runs a hand over his face.
“It’s fine,” Steve says, not looking at her but instead focusing on a spot behind Tony; Tony hadn’t thought Captain America had it in him to be so rude. “We’re done.”
She ducks back out, and Tony swallows down all the things he still has left to say, all the words he’ll have to keep on eating if he ever hope to have even some sort of tentative truce between himself and Steve.
Steve leaves without a second glance and Tony groans into his fist.
He goes back to the tower to sulk and has no idea where Steve wanders off to. He’d think the guy would go to the gym, maybe destroy a few punching bags, work out that anger, that irritation Tony had felt bubbling just underneath his skin.
But Steve doesn’t return to the tower, and that’s fine with Tony. At least he can ruminate in peace.
And talk to Pepper.
He walks into her office with a bouquet of roses and a box of—not strawberries, blueberries, this time—and he first thing she says is, “Oh god, you got me a break up bouquet.”
Tony’s lips quirk up at the side; he can’t help it. “Not exactly. Why, were you expecting a break up bouquet?”
She shrugs, closing her laptop and easing her chair over, so that she’s right against the desk. She folds her hands together on the table and Tony very suddenly feels like a ne’er-do-well who just got sent to see Principal Potts.
“Am I in trouble?” he asks, placing the flowers and berries on the desk and collapsing onto the seat across from her.
“No,” she says and then pinches her lips together, seems to rethink those words. “Maybe. What did the doctor say?”
Tony folds a leaf from one of the roses between his hands, staring hard at the flowers, looking as casual as he can. He shrugs. “That I’m going to have adverse reactions to being overly intimate with you because nature wants me and Steve to have top-notch babies.” He glances up at her.
She sighs. “Where’s Steve?”
“I don't know. Is there a place he goes when he’s really, really mad?”
Pepper groans and raises her hands in a very clear I kind of want to violently shake you gesture. “What happened? For god’s sake, Tony, I thought you two had moved past all the stupid—”
“That was before he imprinted on me. Our camaraderie was remarkably brief.”
“You two need to talk,” she continues, ignoring him. “Really talk. I mean it, Tony. This can’t go on like this—it’s bad for both of you—for your emotional and physical well-being.”
“Yeah, okay, I get that, but see the thing is,” he says, leaning forward, “I really don’t want to talk about Steve right now.”
For a long moment, neither of them say anything, each fixing on something—Tony crushes more leaves under his hand, and Pepper taps her pen against her desk, looking at him, her shoulders slumped.
“Maybe it’s for the best,” she says.
“The hell it is,” Tony says, voice hollow.
“There’s nothing to be done about it. We weren’t really—we could go back. To what we were. So easily.”
“But we shouldn’t have to!” Tony says, pulling his chair forward. He hesitates for just a second before taking Pepper’s hands in his (and they’re warm and he can feel them he can, but the feeling doesn’t last). “It’s not fair—to you or to me, that this—this thing has to drive us apart. It’s not fair that it’ll drive me away from anyone but him, it’s not—”
“Things hardly ever seem to work out fairly,” she says with a tired sort of smile. She squeezes his hands. “But tell me honestly: do you, realistically, think we would’ve lasted anyway? Do you really think that maybe we let this thing between us happen mostly because it seemed like the thing to do?”
And that’s—that was a little out of left field, if Tony’s going to be honest with himself. “What?” He’s taken aback, wondering if she’s saying this to ease the blow, or if she really means it. “Yeah, we could’ve lasted! Weren’t you—you’re happy, right?”
“Yes. Don’t give me that look, I mean it, I am. With you—as a friend, as a boyfriend—really, I just need you just… here, with me. In some capacity.”
“Wow. Okay. Just let me process—okay.” He eyes her warily, brows furrowed. “So we could just go back to not having sex and that’s totally fine with you?”
She smiles, and it looks less tired this time. “Yes.”
“And—okay, why? I’m an expert at sex, so I don’t see why you’d—”
“You need to stop doing that.”
“I love you.”
She gives his hands one last tight squeeze before she gets up and hugs him, holds him tight and Tony’s relieved not to feel any panic, relieved to feel her bare arms against his. He supposes the doctor was right—that his adverse reaction before was linked to his subconscious but that doesn’t—that just makes it worse. His own brain is working against him if he even thinks something more-than-friendly about Pepper and that’s just…
“Love you, too.”
“This sucks,” he says into her hair. And damn it, he feels heat prickle just behind his eyes.
“At least you got me a break up bouquet.”
“It wasn’t supposed to be a break up bouquet,” he says mournfully. “This just—it sucks so hard, Pep.”
“It’s not even just—maybe I’ll never be able to be with anyone ever again, you know?”
“It’s probably tough for Steve, too, you know.”
“He can handle it. He’s Captain America.”
She eases out of the embrace and Tony holds her hand and asks, “Can we still cuddle on the couch and watch crappy romcoms?”
“Okay, Tony. But maybe without the romcoms.”
“What? I thought you liked those.”
She pulls back a little to frown at him. “I thought you did.”
“I love you,” he says again for lack of anything else to say.
“I know, Tony.” She moves them back into their comfortable embrace, raising a hand to rub at his scalp.
“He said if I really cared for you, I’d try harder to make this work,” he says, the words tumbling out of him before he has the chance to think them over. “Said I should be able to make this work.”
The hand in his hair stills and he can feel Pepper breathe in deeply. “It doesn’t matter what he thinks. We’re doing what’s best. We’re—we’re comfortable where we were, as best friends, as—as whatever we were. Right?” There’s a pleading tone in her voice and Tony can’t bring himself to make her feel worse.
So he says, “Yeah. We’ll be fine. I’ll just jerk off in the shower for the rest of my life whenever I want to have—”
“Oh, Tony, I don’t want to hear—”
“Or maybe build myself a sexy android. Technophilia isn’t illegal yet.”
“That’s because it isn’t even a thing yet.”
“I could make it a thing,” he says and Pepper grins, pressing a numb-feeling kiss to his forehead.
They stay like that for a long, long time.
He had fallen asleep in his workshop—after pretty much inhaling a large quantity of booze—when a buzz wakes him.
He groans, reaching for his phone.
Bruce: I’m so sorry. I heard about the Acquired Insensitivity and the break up. I hope you’re not drinking yourself under the table.
He groans again, rubbing at his eyes.
You: What, you’re gone for a week and you think I’d go and get hammered? Please. I take better care of myself than that, I don’t need you to babysit me. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to sleep off something that definitely isn’t a hangover.
You: Who did you even hear about it from?
Figures. She somehow seems to know about anything and everything that went on in his life.
His phone buzzes again but he ignores it, and pushes himself into an upright position, barely managing to keep his balance on the stool.
Okay, so excessive drinking really wasn’t the best course of action; it was childish and silly, and the momentary numbness he found from it doesn’t make up for the headache he feels now, but he feels like he should cut himself some slack. It’s not everyday he breaks up with people he actually likes.
He needs to buy Pepper more flowers. And some other stuff, nothing too crazy, just maybe something like a small island (it’s the least she deserves, really).
He hops down from the stool, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dull light of the workshop, and then heads over to the elevators. He could use some food. Maybe some comfort food, like a whole cake.
And then something occurs to him.
“JARVIS,” he says, “did Steve ever make it back here?”
“Yes, sir. He arrived twenty-three minutes ago and retired to his floor.”
Tony glances at his watch; it’s a little after one in the morning. “Bring up the feed from his floor.”
There’s a pause and Tony gets the distinct impression that his own AI is judging him before a holographic screen appears before him, depicting Steve talking to… no one.
“He’s talking to me, sir,” JARVIS says, clearly cluing in to the fact that Tony’s mind might be a bit laggy in its current state.
“So, it’s happened before?” Steve says to the ceiling. He’s seated on the floor, leaning back against his bed.
“It’s an urban legend, Captain,” JARVIS says from the screen and hell if that isn’t a little trippy right now. “It holds no basis, and does not make scientific sense.”
“Right,” Steve says. “Could I get the story anyways?”
“The story originated in New England in 1967. A woman named Mary Daniels and a man named Arthur McTavish—both of whom are most likely fictional—imprinted on each other. They were able to break the bond, apparently. Mary travelled as far as she could from him, letting the symptoms of PCD set in.”
“You’re telling him fairytales?” Tony asks.
“It would appear that way, sir.”
“Arthur followed her, unable to cope with the symptoms. She had heard from a witch doctor that in order to break a bond, she herself must kill her imprinted.”
“Quite. It’s just a story, Captain Rogers. There are no known cases of someone breaking the bond, or attempting to murder their imprinted. Most believe any attempt would be doomed to failure, considering how most imprinted couples feel self-induced physical pain when attempting bodily harm to each other.”
“He had asked if there had ever been a case of an imprint breaking,” JARVIS tells him.
Tony frowns, knowing what this is about. It’s all rather sad at this point. “Yeah. Okay.”
No time like the present, he thinks, as he gets into the elevator and waits for the touchscreen to appear across the closed doors before tapping the icon for Steve’s floor.
“There are way better imprinting stories out there,” Tony says when he reaches Steve’s bedroom. He had heard Steve go silent as soon as the elevator stopped—damn super hearing—and Steve was already looking at the doorway before Tony even spoke. “There are more romantic types of stories; you’ll probably like those.”
Steve blinks at him slowly. “Leave.”
“If you’re just here looking for a fight—”
“Pepper thought it would be best if we broke up. So we did.”
Steve’s still mad, Tony can tell from the stiffness of his spine and the tautness of his shoulders, but when he says, “I’m sorry,” he sounds genuine.
Tony just walks over and takes a seat on the floor, next to Steve (and proceeds to not-so-subtly bask in the closeness).
Steve, naturally, is a little taken aback and he opens his mouth to—Tony doesn’t know, to argue, to tell him to leave again, to say they needed to have a serious talk—so before he can say a word, Tony says, “I’m probably going to end up building a sexy android. Not illegal yet.”
Steve’s mouth snaps shut and he turns away, staring straight ahead.
They sit in silence for a minute; Tony waits for Steve’s posture to relax minutely before saying, “If you want good imprinting stories, a pretty good film came out a few years back. It was funny. You like funny, right? Yeah, everyone likes funny. JARVIS, play Prognosis Positive, would you?”
“I’m really not in the mood—”
“This is me trying, Steve,” Tony interrupts and Steve’s shoulders finally slump (but Tony can’t tell if that means Steve’s feeling relieved or defeated).
The room’s TV comes on but Tony keeps his eyes on Steve.
Steve doesn’t say anything for a long moment and then finally breathes, “I just…” but doesn’t complete the thought. Instead, he gets up and walks around the bed, and lies down on it.
“Sleepy?” Tony says and Steve still says nothing.
Tony realizes it’s probably too soon for them to awkwardly try to be buddies—they’ve said too much to each other, they’re both angry and hurt and the worst parts of their personalities have been brought forward and maybe they need to apologize—again—or maybe they just shouldn’t ever be alone together, or…
He sighs, and settles himself in, determined not to leave.
He’ll enjoy the damn movie at least.
“Sir, there is an attack in progress on Main. SHIELD has confirmed it as a tech attack, and suspects Doom as the culprit.”
The tower’s alarms are blaring and Tony’s alone on the carpet in a room that’s not his—he panics for three seconds before it all comes back to him. Right. Movies with Cap. Or, more accurately, falling asleep on the floor while movies offered background noise.
“Ah, my head,” he groans, while struggling to push himself onto a seated position. Sleeping on the ground did no favours for his back.
“There is an attack in progress,” JARVIS repeats. “SHIELD has called for the Avengers, minus Sir and Captain Rogers. Dr. Banner is currently unavailable. Location: Los Angeles. Thor is currently unavailable. Location: As—”
“Okay, got it, I’m up,” Tony says, standing. He ignores how the room spins around him and tweaks his bracelet, waiting for his suit to arrive and assemble around him.
“Stark!” he hears and—there’s Steve, fully decked out in his uniform, shield at his side. “Get the suit, we need to get down to Main imm—”
“Yep, got it,” Tony says as the suit arrives, and begins fitting around him. “What kind of bots are we looking at here?”
“I don’t know, other than that there’s a lot of them.”
“Well, that’s just—”
“Cap, Stark,” a voice cuts in through their comms. “Fury has you both benched. You have orders to remain in the tower. Natasha and I will contain the bots.”
“Like hell,” Tony says the same time Steve says, “Agent Barton, please inform Fury that there’s no way in hell I’m sitting on the sidelines, especially when we’re already shorthanded. We’ll meet you two there.”
Tony feels weirdly proud of that fact that Steve’s knowingly disobeying orders, although he knows he has absolutely nothing to be proud of, considering he has no hand in this rebellious streak. But still.
“You are to remain in the tower until further notice,” Natasha says, her voice coming out a bit strangled—she’s probably already down there, giving those robots what-for.
“Not happening,” Steve says and then looks to Tony, and that’s all the permission Tony needs.
JARVIS lowers the wall-to-wall windows as Tony picks Steve up and flies the two of them out of there.
(Forget Fury. Pepper’s going to be pissed.)
“Damn it, guys,” Clint says over the comm. “Fury’s gonna have all our asses now.”
Tony rolls his eyes, tightening his hold on Steve, keeping him close to his side (and, really, this was a rather ill-thought out position to hold him in; bridal style would’ve been five times safer and seven times more fun. Next time).
“Put me down here,” Steve shouts over the rush of the wind going past them and Tony does, slowing down and getting low.
Tony can see Natasha now; she’s cornered a group of five robots that are all equipped with—Tony can’t even tell—lasers? Doom has no finesse.
“Doom lacks the imaginative spark needed for the truly evil.”
Clint grunts. “Yeah, well, I’d take him and his shitty robots over Loki any day.”
“Chatter!” Steve says and Tony grins, because finally, he’s back in the swing of things, and everything seems a little more to the norm now. He’s saving the world (Or, Manhattan at least) and that’s the only thing on his mind—no APS, no PCD, no other stupid acronyms.
“JARVIS, what are they shooting?”
“God fucking damn, are these actually lasers?” Clint snarls over the comm and okay, so Tony was right all along and Doom fucking sucks.
He gets twenty feet in the air and begins blasting the bots one by one, keeping an eye out for any civilians nearby. Seemed the spies had done a pretty good job clearing the place out.
“Motherfuck,” he says as a bot clips him; the laser leaves a charred groove in the armour.
“You alright, Stark?” Natasha asks and Tony grunts an affirmative.
He fucking hates lasers. Repulors were great, they're elegant, they work on magnetic principles Tony himself was the first to figure out. But lasers? Plain lazy.
He takes three bots down in one go, and just as his repulsors are charging up to take down some more, a burning pain shoots down his left flank.
He whirls around, repulsors ready and blasts two more bots just as something else hits him in the back; he does a 180 but can’t spot the attacker.
“JARVIS, what hit me?”
It doesn’t take very long for Tony to clue into what’s going on.
“Oh, for the love of—Cap?” He locks Steve’s coordinates and makes his way over to him, blasting any bots on the way and making a valiant effort to ignore the throbbing in his back and side.
“Yeah, Iron Man?” Steve says, his voice coming out strained.
“I just took down three by 36th and there’re another two on my tail—”
“Your personal status,” Tony says.
“Oh—what? I’m fine, they just nicked me. It’s not just the lasers—they pack a hell of a punch, too, with those retractable arms of theirs.”
Tony finally spots Steve a good thirty feet away; he’s hunched over just a little and favouring his right side but other than that, he seems to be handling himself well—no blood, no obviously broken bones.
Well, that was a false alarm. But—and this is a very big but—now Tony knows for a fact that not only does he have a life partner he’ll never be able to get rid of, he also has—
“Type II expression of the phenotype,” JARVIS says, managing to deduce exactly what he’s freaking out about in a way that would be downright creepy if Tony wasn’t used to it. “Type II is a common expression, and can even develop in imprinted couples that initially exhibit the Type I phenotype. APS, or Acute Pain Synchronization, is extremely—”
“I don’t need you reading Wikipedia out to me,” Tony says, quickly, adjusting his own weight towards his right side. “I got it.” He shoots back up into the sky, deciding Steve’s doing fine on his own.
“Stark—Nat? I need one of you here, there’s about a couple dozen of them trying to get into Coler Hospital—there are civilians inside.”
“On my way,” Tony tells him and heads off just as JARVIS says, “I believe it is advisable for you and Captain Rogers to remove yourselves from the vicinity. For your own safety.”
“Oh, not you too, JARVIS. I’ve handled worse.”
“You will be experiencing extended periods of pain without Captain Rogers’ super-healing abilities.”
And that’s where Tony thinks JARVIS might actually be wrong. The blows—the blows that actually hit Steve—were painful, sharp and aching, but the pain had already dulled to a sort of numbness. If he’s experiencing Steve’s pain, who’s to say he that pain won’t heal as it heals for Steve.
Clint’s got seven bots down and Tony makes quick work of the rest before they can even get within fifty feet of the hospital doors. He isn’t overly worried about injuring himself—if he gets hit, the suit will absorb most of the impact and Steve won’t feel a thing (unless he does something really crazy, that is, like getting in the way of a collapsing building, or having the reactor break or flying into a wormhole and finding himself in another corner of the universe—)
Oh, god, they’d really have to think this through.
(And, at all costs, Pepper can’t know. At least, not right away; she has so many things to worry about right now and Tony doesn’t want to add this to her plate.)
“You must report the fact that you’ve experienced APS to SHIELD.”
“Or, I could not,” he says, rising up to look for any remaining bots.
“Sir, hiding APS symptoms is highly illegal.”
“JARVIS, so help me, I’ll mute you.”
“It’s all clear here,” Steve says over the comm.
“Clear here,” Natasha says, and Clint chimes in with another, “Clear.”
“Alright, good job, team; take the rest of the day off,” Tony says, readying himself to shoot off to the tower before taking note of the jet making its way over.
He readies his thrusters, anyway and—“Stay put, Stark. We need to debrief,” Natasha says and there’s a part of him that’s still ready to make a run for it (she can’t put him in a headlock if he’s fifty feet up) but… He’s an adult and, by virtue of being an adult, he can handle a debriefing and he can handle lying about some imprinting symptoms. No big deal. Hopefully.
He eases back down to the ground and watches the jet land, watches Fury emerge and make a beeline for him and—and it just figures he’d chew him out before Steve.
He feels his skin prickle, feels a familiar warmth start emanating from his chest and spreading out through his limbs, so he turns his head and—yeah, there’s Steve, standing a good two feet behind him. This is good, though. Solidarity.
“What part of remain in the tower did you two have trouble with?” Fury says once he’s within three feet of them.
Steve steps forward so he’s standing next to him, and Tony can’t see his expression but he can totally picture it—the firm lock of his jaw, the eyebrows drawn together, the flared nostrils. Steve’s probably going to give a big righteous speech about doing his duty and being there for his teammates because that totally seems like the thing to do in this situation and maybe he’ll even—
“Sorry, director. Must’ve missed those orders.”
Tony looks to Steve and doesn’t see grim determination on his face, but instead… Steve looks like he’s kind of enjoying this, like he’s wondering just how much he can get away with and that’s—that’s kind of funny, actually.
Fury doesn’t seem to like that at all, however, and fixes his eye on Steve, head tilted down. “Then why did Barton tell me you heard my orders and said something along the lines of, ‘Like hell’, Captain?”
“Uh, that was me and Clint’s a snitch.”
“Oh, fuck off,” Clint says from somewhere behind him.
Fury ignores Tony—and Clint—and says, “You two do realize that not only were you putting yourselves at risk—”
“We fight robots and aliens and monsters on a daily basis—it’s kind of late to be worrying about safety—”
“—but you were also putting civilians—and your team—at risk. We don’t know whether or not you have—or will develop—APS, so it’s in everyone’s best interests that you—”
“You want us off the team?” Steve asks.
Fury inhales deeply, as if he’s trying to centre himself. Maybe he’s counting backwards from ten. “I didn’t say that.”
“Then what?” Tony asks. “You want us to stay in the tower, all locked up—how are we supposed to interpret that as anything other than ‘stay off the team’?”
“What I mean is that you should’ve gone through a few battle stimulations in our training facilities first so that we’d know what we’re up against. We have no clue whether or not you have APS—”
“I think your doctor said testing for APS was unethical,” Tony interrupts.
“Ethics can be ignored under special circumstances. Anything pertaining to superheroes counts as ‘special circumstances’.”
Tony’s glad for the faceplate because he’s scowling rather unattractively. Yeah, they could go through the training stimulations but he doubts he’d be able to hide an APS-related injury from a bunch of SHIELD agents and doctors behind a one-way mirror. And if they see Steve or himself falter even a little without receiving a physical blow—what then? Off the team. Or, at least, they’d have him doing grunt work—like recon. And Steve would be issuing orders from an off-base control room and it’ll just be a shitty situation for everyone.
Hill comes up beside Fury and folds her arms and looks remarkably intimidating. She levels Tony with a look that seems to say, ‘Just you try to lie’ and that’s a challenge if Tony’s ever seen one. “Luckily, we’re fine. No APS to speak of. Right, Cap?”
Steve glances at him—real fast, his eyes remain on him for barely a second—and then looks to Fury and Hill. “Right.”
Hill’s giving them both that veiled look and Fury rubs his forehead before saying, “Get your asses into the jet so we can get this debriefing over with.”
Stanton v. Novak
File No. 03-4233
Argued August 2, 1981—Decided January 23, 1982
Marshall Stanton is suing domestic partner Derek Novak for ‘failing to inform him of APS symptoms’, which has cost Stanton his job.
Special considerations: Marshall R. Stanton and Derek F. Novak imprinted on February 27, 1979.
Stanton, a professional boxer, says he was under the impression that he and Novak had the healthier and easier-to-handle imprinting symptoms of the Type I condition. During a live boxing match, a friend of the couple, Garcia Marquez, says she saw Novak recoil violently whenever Stanton received a blow on television. She went to the media, saying Stanton was forcing Novak to remain quiet about their obvious APS so that he may retain his career as a boxer.
As this is a form of domestic abuse particular to imprinted couples, Stanton lost his sponsors and was subsequently let go.
Stanton maintains that if Novak had simply informed him of his APS symptoms years ago, he could have retired with dignity, and would not have been ostracized by the sports community.
Stanton maintains that he himself did not feel any inexplicable pain since the imprinting, saying, “Derek doesn’t really do that much dangerous stuff—he doesn’t experience a lot of pain, anyway.” (recorded September 1st, 1981).
Novak argues that the onset of APS was sudden, and that he did indeed exhibit Type II-like symptoms before the live boxing match of July 20, 1981.
Notes: Stanton is also suing Marquez, Sports Central, and CNN, for slander.
“You are required by law to register your APS symptoms,” JARVIS says when he gets back to the tower, as if he needs the reminder.
The debriefing is brief—thank hell—and it was almost bearable except for the looks Steve kept shooting him, like he was trying to work something out and then he got this really determined expression, like he’d figured out whatever the hell he was trying to figure out.
Tony stares at his reflection. The suit’s off and he’s standing in his favourite black A-shirt and boxers. He lifts the shirt up; there’s a nasty looking, greenish yellow bruise running down the left side of his torso, and his left arm. It already looks a little faded, so there’s that, but it stings to the touch and there’s probably a similar looking bruise on his back.
He wants to do nothing for the rest of the day, just wallow. He has a box of 24 donuts that Rhodey had sent on rush delivery (Sorry I can’t be there in person but I got you some break up donuts. I’m really sorry, Tony. Call me whenever. –R); he wants to eat every single one of those donuts while sitting in a mound of blankets and pillows and watching some terrible comedy because it kind of feels like he has the emotional stability of a teenage girl right about now, so it’s only fitting that he act like it.
He picks up the box of donuts from the desk and sits down on his bed, placing the box on his lap. He picks out the most outrageously coloured, cream-stuffed donut he can find and proceeds to stuff his face. Pepper’s at a meeting. If she wasn’t, he’d probably have his face in her lap right now. Except, you know, in a forcibly platonic sort of way.
“Sir,” JARVIS says, and Tony seriously contemplates putting him on mute. “Captain Rogers is requesting entry.”
“Mghff,” Tony says around donut.
“He says he has Ms. Pott’s override codes.”
He swallows. “I really need to change those.”
“Stark,” Steve says, walking in with his stupid tablet. Why couldn’t he have imprinted on that thing instead.
He stops by the bed and Tony would feel a little ashamed about being in boxers and an A-shirt and stuffing his face but he feels the tingle where Steve’s eyes land and it’s not on the whole of him—Steve’s staring at a specific spot. His arm. “Tony,” he says. “I saw you bracing a hand on your back on the way over to HQ. And you were heavily favouring your right side, so…” He trails off, looking thoroughly putout. “You should’ve said something.”
Steve’s wearing a full-sleeved shirt (a ridiculously tight one, not that anyone in their right mind would mind), so Tony can’t tell but he’s sure if he could get that shirt off him, he’d find bruises that mirrored his own exactly.
He swallows another bite before answering. “And what, have us both benched permanently?”
“I just read—it’s illegal. After this one case—”
“Stanton and Novak, I know, everyone knows.”
“So you should’ve said something.”
Tony thinks about what would’ve happened if he had. If he had said something, Tony might just become an advisor instead of an active field agent.
“How about,” Tony begins, picking up a chocolate glazed, “we don’t tell anyone yet and—”
“Agent Hill talked to me after the debriefing,” Steve says, talking over him. “She said in the event of the sudden onset of APS, we would remain on field duty as long as we complete a mandatory SHIELD-issued training program. The program would make sure we learn to work well as a duo, make sure we’re in synch with our moves and ideas—because, really, we—and you especially—are a little too valuable to be let go just because things get a little more complicated. As long as we consent to fight with this handicap, we can.”
The you especially startles him for a second because he doesn’t know if that was Hill saying that (unlikely) or Steve (also unlikely) or Steve making it up that Hill said that (somewhat likely).
Also—he knew Hill was onto him. He could see it in her eyes.
If she wasn’t lying about this—which she probably wasn’t because it’s true, they’re too valuable to be cut loose when there were alternative methods available—then, well, he can handle some additional training.
“It’ll be like summer camp,” he says. “We can do trust exercises and learn how to communicate and learn to fight back-to-back.” Alright, so it isn’t all that much like summer camp. “Sounds fun. Donut?”
Steve doesn’t even acknowledge the donut (an almost inhuman feat—it’s a honey cruller) and instead looks at Tony’s bruises again. He looks unsure, maybe even a little nervous. “Hey, do you think…?”
Tony raises an eyebrow.
“I mean it hurts, right? Mine does. So, do you think it’ll feel better if we touch?”
Tony’s raised eyebrow remains firmly in place. He takes a bite of the cruller and then shrugs, putting his bruised arm forward in invitation. Worth a shot.
Steve’s oddly hesitant and slowly reaches over. He stalls a moment before touching his fingers so the worst, most colourful part of the bruise, trailing the tips of his fingers up and down, staring at his own movements intently.
Tony swears he sees the tips of Steve’s fingers redden a little, like they’re warming, and he definitely feels his own skin warming in response. His heartbeat begins to speed up because—because Steve’s heartbeat must just be higher and he’s matching it, and his mind feels calm for a second, thoughts of Pepper and SHIELD and SI and all his work still whirl around in his frontal lobe but they seem… inconsequential.
“Does that feel better?” Steve asks, voice soft.
And it, does, it feels like a salve. Even though the bruises don’t magically fade away, they numb, and they stop throbbing.
“Maybe put your whole palm down on it,” Tony manages to say.
So Steve does and it takes an embarrassing long time for Tony to say, “Okay, okay, that’s good.”
Steve leaves and all the bad things come back to nag at him again, but it almost seems bearable. His bruises don’t hurt and he’s still got nineteen donuts left.
Two days after they admit their crippling medical condition to SHIELD (Fury gave them that look but thankfully didn’t say anything), Tony wakes to find a couple of pamphlets on the ground that someone must’ve slid under his door.
They’re garishly coloured and have the air of something you’d find in a high school sex ed class.
So you have APS!
APS, or Acute Pain Synchronization, is a healthy, normal part of more than 1/5th of all imprints. So have no fear! Although APS might seem scary now, it is actually a beautiful thing to share with your beloved and there are many other imprinted couples that are experiencing the exact same feelings you may be having now.
Tony frowns and then turns to the other pamphlet.
Why do we have to experience each other’s pain? Is God punishing us?
There’s a post-it stuck to that one. Fury gave me these. He says you might find them helpful. –Steve
Tony stands there in his boxers, unshaven, messy haired, for a good minute simply staring at that post-it before it dawns on him. Like really dawns on him, like an epiphany, like angels singing down from above.
Captain America has a sense of humour.
He laughs, actually laughs, so that his eyes crinkle up and his cheeks hurt, just a little, and pins the pamphlets to his bulletin board before getting ready for the day.
Sometimes Tony just has to sit down for a moment and contemplate what, exactly, the universe wants from him.
He isn’t melodramatic enough to say that he’s the universe’s plaything, something it can amuse itself endlessly by toying around with—but he is melodramatic enough to say that everyone and everything that exists is out to get him.
Galaxies have a personal vendetta against him. The sun itself envies his glowing presence and wants to burn him away to cinders—the stars aligned themselves unfavourably on the day of his birth on purpose—
Okay, fine, maybe that’s pushing it.
“The only solace I can take from all this is the fact that the media hasn’t found out. Just, for a minute, clear your mind and imagine that. I’d probably lose investors—you know the imprinted stereotypes. We’re too lovesick and hormonal to make big, tough decisions.”
“No one actually believes that, Tony,” Rhodey says from the screen of Tony’s phone and Tony can’t help but roll his eyes.
“You poor, ignorant soul. Of course people believe that. Stupid people. And trust me when I tell you the world’s teeming with stupid people.”
Rhodey half-shrugs. “Well, what do you need investors for anyway; you’re Tony Stark.”
“You’re pandering to my ego and I appreciate that. Thanks, sugarplum.”
Rhodey is Tony’s go-to for any imprinted or general life-related tomfoolery because a) he’s Rhodey and b) unloading all this on Pepper after everything that’s happened just seems needlessly cruel. It’s great because Rhodey sends donuts and nods sympathetically and sometimes tells him to buck the fuck up and for a moment everything’s right with the universe again.
But just for a moment.
“How’s training?” Rhodey asks with absolutely zero finesse (although he seems to be aware and uncaring of his lack of subtlety in broaching the subject because he makes an exaggerated display of checking his fingernails).
Tony puffs out his cheeks and exhales, slumping in his seat. “You really want me to open that can of worms? Because once I get going, I won’t stop.”
“Believe me, I know.”
Tony narrows his eyes but continues anyway. “Well, we haven’t started yet, but it seems like a mixed bag right now. On the plus side, Cap and I no longer have to awkwardly seek each other out for some physical contact because the training’s gonna provide loads of contact. Intimate contact. Uncomfortably intimate contact. Like, if you were watching, you’d feel the need to leave the room—”
“And on the downside?” Rhodey asks, wisely interrupting before Tony gets really impassioned.
“I’ll have to be around him maybe six hours a week during off time. It’ll be fucking awkward. He’s all prickly.” Tony not-so-deep-down knows Steve’s tip-toeing around him because he doesn’t want to start another fight, and also maybe because he’s still mad at Tony for some of the things he said, even though they were said in the heat of the moment and Tony only sort-of-kind-of meant those things and it totally isn’t like Steve wasn’t a dick, too.
Although Steve doesn’t seem particularly angry. His body isn’t set stiff around Tony, his jaw doesn’t clench shut and his eyes don’t narrow. And the fact that Steve actually made a joke is still throwing him for a loop (an unpleasant, stomach-twisting kind of loop).
“I don’t fucking get the guy. Which is weird, right? The pamphlets say I should have a deep understanding of his ‘most hidden depths’.”
Tony waves a hand. “Steve gave me pamphlets. Or maybe Fury did. In either case, they’re useless.”
Rhodey frowns that frown of his when he isn’t sure whether or not Tony’s lying for the hell of it or being one hundred percent genuine and Tony’s head suddenly feels far too heavy, so he lowers it onto his workbench. “Thanks for the donuts, by the way,” Tony says. “They made me feel better for the short amount of time they were in my mouth.”
“You’re welcome. Now we just need to figure out how to make you feel better for longer than the few minutes it probably took for you to eat all those.”
“Well,” Tony mumbles into the bench, “maybe if Bruce invents a miracle cure and I can smooch Pepper on the face and Cap stops being goddamn weird, I’ll feel better. You know. Maybe.”
Rhodey straightens in his seat and breathes out heavily, looking as forlorn as Tony feels before saying, “I’m really sorry about Pepper.”
“Me too,” Tony says, sighing. “You know what the worst bit is? She seemed so resigned, like she was expecting it.” Pepper had seemed so tired, but so oddly accepting of it and he doesn’t know why but it’s probably because she’s got years of experience handling anything life (and Tony—mostly Tony) could throw at her.
If there’s any consolation in any of this, it’s that Pepper seems to be taking it in stride, and that they’re still friends, which is fantastic because if they were awkward with each other, if they side-stepped one another and couldn’t remain normal friends, Tony’s pretty sure his heart would crawl out from behind the reactor to go die at Pepper’s feet.
And that would fucking suck.
Rhodey makes a noise that’s probably the equivalent of a non-verbal ‘there there’ and Tony groans before casually flipping him off. “I think he’s really pissed off but he’s keeping it all under wraps,” Tony says, and if the non sequitur throws Rhodey off, he doesn’t show it.
“Yeah, I know. You mentioned he had ‘old-fashioned, out of place’ views on imprinting.”
Tony rakes his teeth over his lower lip, unsure of how much he wants to divulge. “Yeah. And I probably said some stupid shit. You know. During my moments of righteous indignation.”
Rhodey sits back in his seat, like he’s hunkering down for something truly unpleasant and he’s already got that look on his face—the pursed lips and narrowed eyes. He raises his eyebrows and juts his chin towards Tony, waiting; Tony has a sudden sense of foreboding and wonders whether he should use Happy as a personal sounding board from now on—Happy’s judgment face isn’t quite as disturbing as either Pepper or Rhodey’s.
He takes a deep breath, runs a hand through his hair. “Well, to be fair, he implied breaking up with Pepper means I don’t love her enough. Dick move, am I right?”
“So I might have told him he only wants this imprint so he can finally have someone who can’t leave him, but in my defense—”
“You goddamn ass.”
“What, you’re not even gonna hear my defense?”
“They didn’t even leave him, they died—”
“Are you forgetting what he said?”
“So, what, your rapport has devolved into elementary school style tit for tat?”
“Rhodey, you’re not making any sense. We never had a rapport.”
Rhodey looks fifty levels of unimpressed and a smidge disgusted if the curl of his lips is anything to go by. “You’re a real piece of work, Stark.”
He purses his lips. “So I’ve been told.”
“You know you need to apologize.”
“So does he.” He’s fully aware that that’s childish, but he’s behind closed doors and his brain-to-mouth filter seems to have been suffering catastrophic system failure as of late, so he won’t backtrack. It’s probably out-of-whack hormones screwing with his mind.
“For god’s sake, man.” Rhodey has his hands on the sides of his head like Tony’s making his brain hurt and Tony feels wickedly pleased by that reaction.
“I’ll apologize when he stops acting so damn skittish. And when he finally watches Prognosis Positive. It’s a good fucking movie.”
“Admit it’s a good movie,” he says and Rhodey’s mouth pinches shut; he seems to take it as a cue to step back, at least for the time being.
Honestly, he doesn’t feel guilty enough to apologize and, absurdly, he feels guilty for not feeling guilty, which is ridiculous. A hollow sorry isn’t going to change the fact that Tony’s an absolute disappointment of an imprint partner for a man who believes in some sort of ‘love bond’, and it’s not going to change the fact that Tony starts feeling hysterical whenever his subconscious thinks he’s cheating on Steve, or the fact that his bones and teeth and head ache when he hasn’t been around Steve long enough, or the fact that he has the feeling that if he were shot in the head, miles or feet or a breath away, Steve would probably drop dead.
If he thinks about these things for more than a goddamn minute, his heart begins to palpitate and he just sits there wondering if Steve can feel his panic
“Just when I think I’m getting a handle on this shit, I dwell on it for a second and I end up back at square one.”
Rhodey sighs and doesn’t say anything and Tony basks in the silence. He has to get to SHIELD in forty minutes.
But that’s still another blissful forty minutes away; what he needs for now is a distraction, so he pulls up the specs for the StarkPhone 7. “How does this look to you, Rhodes?”
He shows up at SHIELD fifteen minutes early because he likes flipping Fury’s expectations and also because he wants to get a good look at the training facility they’ve set up. He doesn’t doubt that he could get a similar—or rather, superior—facility up and running in the tower in a matter of days, and, frankly, the less things he has to do through SHIELD, the better.
That doctor from before is there, with three other overly excited-looking people in lab coats. She nods at him in greeting and the others kind of just stare at him with a sort of deer-in-headlights kind of look. Rookies. They gave him rookies.
He walks by the group without comment and pokes his head into the training room.
“Spiffy,” he says, taking a look around. It’s clean, it’s big, it’s got some crazy-looking weapons and bots lined up against the walls. Not bad. Not great, but not bad.
He spots Steve, Fury and Hill inside; Steve’s already decked out in all his stars and stripes and Tony feels like this whole fifteen minutes early was a complete waste when Captain America probably makes it a point to show up at least a half hour early solely to disparage him.
Or maybe because he literally never has anywhere else to be.
He finds himself making a beeline for Steve and he catches himself and instead swerves minutely to stand next to Hill, whose posture is as stiff and unyielding as ever.
He sets down his Iron Man case. “Good afternoon. I’m sure you’re all looking forward to this as—”
“Your doctors will give you guidelines as to what to do when you’re experiencing any imprint related symptoms,” Hill tells him, and Tony’s jaw snaps shut because there’s no way in hell he’d complain about the interruption with that look she’s giving him. “You will be coached on tag-team fighting by two experienced field agents,” she continues, “and I expect this matter to be taken seriously. The last thing we need is the two of you inadvertently taking each other down in fights constantly.”
“Well, even without special training, I don’t think we’d be quite that incompetent,” Tony says as Fury begins talking over him and he dearly hopes people don’t start making a habit of this shit.
“Your doctors will determine the threshold pain intensity needed for onset of APS,” Fury says, nodding towards the glass window, behind which the doctors now stand.
“So try not to get beaten beyond our threshold,” Tony says, voice flat, and he feels Steve’s eyes finally slide over to him and rest there.
“That would be ideal, yes,” Fury says, as if that were a completely reasonable thing to say, and—okay. Sure.
“Right,” he says, taking a step back.
“Agent Barton and Agent Romanoff already operate as a duo. We’ve contacted Thor and Dr. Banner; it’s prudent that all team members form tag teams,” Fury says and that makes sense. They don’t need to tip a villain off to the fact that he and Steve are spending so much time together because they can never be away from each other.
“I suppose we can just get started then?” He makes a point to look at Steve because he’s still trying—he’ll try as long as he needs to make this all less unbearable for him—and says, “You ready, Cap?”
Steve does a little half-smile that Tony could tell is false even if they didn’t have some sort of special bond and says, “As I’ll ever be.”
Tony’s actually starting to have a bit of fun with this.
It’s oddly comforting knowing that someone is always there, that someone constantly has his back; no matter what situation he finds himself in, no matter how many bots surround him or how many weapons are trained on him, knowing Steve’s just two steps behind him just—it just helps.
Plus, he’s gotten the chance to carry Steve around bridal style at one point and it was just as hilariously satisfying as he’d thought it would be.
“You’ve achieved heart rate synchrony,” JARVIS tells him and his HUD displays a beat of 110bpm as a training bot makes a swipe for him.
He dodges left just as another bot takes a swing at him and this time it connects, throwing him into the opposite wall. He hears Steve grunt and he’s back on his feet a second and says, “Check in.”
“I’m fine,” Steve says a little breathlessly.
“Detecting NRS-11 pain level of five. The minimum pain level required for onset of APS symptoms specific to you and Captain Rogers is five.”
So it probably won’t leave a bruise on Steve. Not that Steve would have a tough time handling some scrapes and bruises in the first place.
“To your right!” Tony says and Steve dodges.
Honestly, he thinks he’s got the hang of this buddy system-style fighting. It’s not too difficult to track Steve’s motions as he’s tracking his own, especially when he has JARVIS to help him out. It was a pain, no doubt, because he has to filter every decision he’s about to make or risk he’s willing to take through a barrier of ‘Will this fuck Steve up?’ and he’s honestly contemplating wearing some sort of WTFSU bracelet just to keep himself in check.
And he can tell Steve’s movements are overly cautious, wary, stilted and Steve’s been called on it multiple times, by Fury, by Hill, by some other agent or by Tony himself, and Steve listens, but every time he takes a hit, he reverts back to timorousness, more focused on dodging blows than landing them.
Thank hell for that shield of his, otherwise Tony thinks they’d be here forever.
“That’s the last of them,” Steve says, hefting his shield out from where it’s embedded into the metallic skull of a bot. The stimulation ends and Tony’s suit begins disassembling around him.
Tony claps his hands together. “Alright, I think we’ve got the hang of this. We can stop training sessions whenever you’re ready, Cap.”
Steve frowns, holding the shield in front of him, staring at one of the totalled bots. “I don’t know. I still think I’m a little stiff. You’re doing well, though.” Tony side-eyes him a little at that and Steve glances up to look at him. “I wish I had that kind of careless disregard for our personal safety.”
That’s probably the longest thing Steve’s said since their last battle and Tony almost balks at the fact that it’s an insult of all things—he’s not to blame about their ill rapport anymore, he’s trying, he’s washed his hands clean of this—it’s now clearly Steve who’s fucking this up for the both of them, for their whole team—
But then he gets a good look at Steve’s downturned face.
His lip is twitching at one corner and he’s doing an absolutely shitty job of looking stern (for once) and Tony reaches the baffling conclusion that Steve is ribbing him. Again.
Steve is tentatively extending the olive branch, or at least accepting the branch Tony had extended before.
Tony wants to jokingly say, ‘Are you screwing with me?’ and maybe tack on a ‘kid’ to the end of that sentence but instead he makes an ‘Uh,’ sound and says something about meeting Pepper for dinner and beats a hasty retreat.
This is what he’s aiming for—this is an improvement, this is good—but as soon as he saw that hint of a teasing smile on Steve’s face, something warm and hot unfurled in his chest and it wasn’t a feeling he was at all familiar with being associated with Steve, and, frankly, it wasn’t all that pleasant either. He’s not running away, he just needs time to regroup.
He goes to dinner with Pepper, and Happy and Bruce join in too, so it’s decidedly less awkward than it could have been.
The first thing Pepper says to him is, “You emailed me schematics for a sex bot.”
He laughs because yeah he did.
It’s good. Hell, it’s better than good because they talk about nonsense—they talk about things that aren’t eating at Tony’s mind, like the latest StarkTablet and celebrity gossip (celebrities besides themselves, that is), and dumb YouTube videos and whether or not the tower really needs another indoor pool (Tony doesn’t even like swimming, but he figures one of the others must).
So, when he gets back to his now empty penthouse, he’s feeling pretty good about things. He entertains the idea of actually going downstairs and finding Steve and maybe having something that can almost be classified as a heart-to-heart.
Yeah. That could work—Steve seems receptive and doesn’t seem to be harbouring any grudges as far as Tony can tell, so he’ll probably appreciate a little talking. They’re imprinted, for fuck’s sake, they can’t avoid each other forever.
He’s whistling when he enters the shower and cranks up the temperature high. The steady stream of water eases away the aches of today’s training sessions, and the residual pains of their last battle.
Fuck. He closes his eyes and leans back against the glass wall of the shower, face turned up towards the showerhead. He slumps—he feels relaxed. Calm, content.
In the back of his mind he wonders if Steve’s feeling the same way, wonders if he’s feeling this way because Steve is feeling this way, but he quickly pushes that thought away. He’s going to think about Steve later; right now he just wants a moment for himself, a moment where he’s his own damn person and not biologically tied down to anyone.
He keeps his eyes closed and allows his hand to drift down across his abdomen, towards his cock and fuck it feels like ages since he’s done this, since he’s palmed himself in his shower with no one else there with him.
He presses his thumb down on the head of his cock and groans, tilting his head back and letting it hit the cool, wet glass behind him.
He—he can’t imagine Pepper; that’s not an avenue that’s open for him anymore—so he rifles through his memories, trying to just pick and hold onto one person to think about.
He ends up imagining someone instead. Blonde—no, black hair, loose around her shoulders, and smooth skin. Generic features—it doesn’t matter, he just needs features dissimilar to Pepper’s in every way so that the fantasy doesn’t end up mutating into her.
He skirts his hand down, feather-light touches against his skin before he grips himself hard and begins working himself to hardness, hips lazily thrusting into his fist.
Right. Long, loose hair—but not as long as Pepper’s—he shortens it. Short, loose hair and a wicked smirk on full, pink lips. She’d place her hands on his chest, on either side of the arc reactor.
His mouth drops open a little and he runs his tongue over his lower lip, collecting warms water droplets. Yeah, she’s crawl over him and take him in hand and—and she’s blonde now, but her hair doesn’t have a reddish tinge, so it’s still okay—
He grunts, and thrusts forward harder now, fucking into his hand, his eyes rolling backwards under their lids. Fuck, it’s been far too long for him, when was the last time he did this for himself—?
He comes with a groan, hips twitching erratically and behind his eyelids he sees familiar blue, blue eyes and the woman doesn’t look like a woman anymore, she’s not, she’s—
“Fuck!” he gasps, slumping hard against the glass wall, his knees bending until he’s sitting under the hot spray of the showerhead.
His heart is hammering behind his reactor, like it’s determined to bust through his chest, and his mind is running a mile a minute and is bringing up old information, stuff he’d read years ago online or in some mag.
The vast majority of imprinted couples move on to have sexual relationships for a multitude of reasons. Heightened sensitivity to each other’s emotions, touch and physical presence can lead to the arousal symptoms mentioned in section 5.2. Some have described the sexual thoughts regarding their imprinted partners as ‘intrusive’—
He sits there on the tiled floor for several minutes, panting, mind whirring.
Okay. Okay, fine—no big deal. He’s not sure if this is a thing that’s going to happen every time he tries to jerk off. There’s a likely chance it was just a one-off because he just spent the whole damn afternoon with the guy, touching him, carrying him, grappling with him.
And he’d have to blind not to notice that Steve’s, well, aesthetically pleasing. It’s not like accidentally jerking off to him was a mighty burden.
But it did leave him breathless and feeling odd and just—uncomfortable. He feels itchy in his own skin.
He stays in the shower another twenty minutes; the water stays hot and it’s slowly able to work out the tension that’s settled in Tony’s muscles. He had a plan for today: he’s going to talk to Steve, go and find him wherever he is and just sit down because it feels like they can just sit down and talk at the moment. Steve seems open, receptive, and—not happy, but not angry, either, which is just as well.
But now he doesn’t even want to look at him because he’ll just think of how he looked in his mind when—
“No, fuck it,” he says out loud, as he braces his hands on the back of the glass and hoists himself up. He’s not going to hide out in his penthouse after something so minor—something that essentially boils down to a brainfart; he’s going to find Steve and just—hell, it doesn’t matter, he’ll figure it out as he goes along.
He leaves the shower and dresses in a hurry (sweatpants and an A-shirt because fuck it) and stands in the middle of his suite and says, “JARVIS, what’s Steve up to?”
One of his screens lights up and there’s Steve, perched on a stool in the main kitchen, hunched over… something. A book, it seems.
Something tugs at Tony’s chest and at his lips when he sees that stupid fucking tablet next to Steve, emitting its obnoxiously bright glow onto the dim surroundings. It’s playing something; he can see the YouTube logo and he can just barely make out what’s being said—
“Oh hell,” he says, when he places that voice. “Is he listening to Carl Sagan space poetry?”
“Based on his search history, Captain Rogers seems to have developed a keen interest in the astronomical sciences.”
Steve’s alone in the kitchen, idly listening to Pale Blue Dot and looking small for his size because he’s hunching over some damn book, and Tony isn’t quite able to decipher that tug in his chest, that unfurling of warmth in his gut.
But he is able to tell that the feeling is substantially better than the uncomfortable embarrassment he felt just now, just a few long minutes ago. If he can just focus on this image of Steve, and not the imagined Steve that invaded his fantasy, he thinks that he can do this, that he’ll do fine.
“Alright, JARVIS,” he says, clapping his hands once and then clasping them tight, “wish me luck.”
“All the best, sir.”
“You’re listening to Carl Sagan space poetry,” Tony says casually, making a beeline for the fridge and snagging a muffin.
Steve doesn’t even look up and Tony figures he probably felt Tony’s nearby presence even when he was in the elevator. “Yeah. I like him—sad I missed him.”
Tony can see what he’s been poring over now and it’s a sketchbook; he can make out the rough, skeletal form of some sort of building before Steve snaps the book shut, likely becoming aware of Tony’s scrutiny. Tony decides to do the nice thing and not try to snatch it out of his hands.
“I didn’t know you draw,” Tony says, seating himself on the stool beside Steve. It’s a lie—he knows everything there is to know about Captain America, and he supposes the Captain America of his old comics and the Steve Rogers who watches astronomy documentaries and cracks jokes and believes in love bonds must share some similarities.
Steve shrugs, looks down at the closed, black cover of the sketchbook. “Well, it’s something to pass the time.”
He’d known Steve draws but he’s not positive as to whether or not it’s anything more than a hobby, an idle pastime like Steve’s saying it is—but something about the graphite smudges on Steve’s fingertips and the way he’s gripping one pencil in his hand and has one tucked behind his ear, the way the sketchbook is dog-eared and worn makes Tony doubt that drawing, for Steve, is anything less than a passion.
“Liar,” Tony chides, swiveling the stool to face Steve.
Steve’s mouth pinches and Tony worries for a moment about whether that’s it, they’re done talking for tonight, no mas, but instead of leaving, Steve just presses pause on his tablet and says, “I wanted to be an artist. A professional artist.”
Tony takes a bite out of his muffin and chews before answering, mulling that little tidbit over in his head. Steve seated in front of an easel, paint splotches on his nose and cheeks and fingers. It’s an odd image but it’s a weirdly satisfying one. “Hm. What stopped you?”
“Ah.” If it were anyone else, Tony might’ve been tempted to say something like, ‘Well aren’t you a little ray of sunshine,’ but he keeps himself in check.
He focuses on the muffin.
There’s a long stretch of silence between them; Tony eats and Steve stares at his hands before he finally sits up straight and says, “I’m sorry.”
Tony chokes on a mouthful of blueberry muffin and Steve looks stricken and about ready to thump him on the back before Tony swallows it down and says, “Uh—that’s—okay?” God, that was out of the blue. He wishes that they could skip past the awkwardness and just be normal, just continue on the path they were headed for before they imprinted. “I mean, it’s fine. We’re fine.”
“We’re really not.”
“I’m sorry, and I mean that. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go and I took my disappointment out on you and I didn’t even—it’s just so different from what I’d imagined. Everything is, but this is…” He trails off, waving a hand as if he were physically trying to latch onto the words he couldn’t find. “I’ve been unfair,” is what he settles on.
Well, everything’s been a little unfair, Tony thinks. Unfair is losing Pepper, feeling Steve’s pain, feeling tired and hungry when Steve’s tired and hungry, feeling uncomfortable and ill, feeling like he has to jump through hoops to make this work. Unfair is that he’d wished, at one point, that Steve had remained frozen, deep, deep down in that ice so they—he, Tony—could’ve avoided all this.
Unfair is having to look Steve in the eye after, a mere half-hour ago, he’d closed his eyes and had felt—had imagined—Steve’s hand wrapped around his cock without even meaning to.
“It’s all pretty unfair,” he says, at the words are so thoroughly inadequate he almost wants to laugh.
“It’s just that—” Steve really looks like he’s debating whether or not he wants to talk at all, so Tony just raises his eyebrows, challenging, and Steve just wilts.
“It all seems so stupid now,” he says and looks so—so sad that Tony just wants to reach over and—and do something about it, but he’s sure these aren’t feelings he’d have without an imprint in the way, and definitely not feelings he’d act on in either case. “Fairytales and all sorts of nonsense,” Steve continues. “I’m not even sure what I was expecting. There weren’t as many imprinted couples around when I—when I was a kid. People sort of made it seem like some sort of dream, like being imprinted was the best thing that could ever happen to you. That it only happened to people who were meant to be, that it was something beautiful.” He ducks his head, rubbing the back of his neck. “It’s really not very beautiful at all, is it?” he says, and almost sounds sheepish.
Tony smiles; it’s tired and brittle, but genuine. “I guess not. There’s a lot more yelling than you’d think, huh?”
“And medical exams,” Steve adds.
“That’s probably the weirdest part.”
Tony grins and tosses Steve the remaining half of his muffin and Steve bites into it like that’s a completely normal thing to do. And hey, maybe it is. “I don’t know,” Tony says. “The realization that you actually thought you’d end up falling madly in love with me is pretty damn weird, too.”
Steve blinks at him and Tony feels something tugging at his chest again, something pleasant and fluttery and he somehow knows that he’s feeling what Steve’s feeling.
And then a split-second later, Steve actually rolls his eyes and says, “Nobody said madly in love.”
Tony feels giddy. “Really? If I check your sketchbook, am I gonna find any pages with hearts all over them? Or the words ‘Steven Stark’?”
“Oh, you’d love that, wouldn’t you.”
“Well, it’d keep me laughing for days, so yeah, probably.”
Steve snorts and Tony narrows his eyes as something extremely important occurs to him. “Hey…” he says, leaning forward. “Would this be a good time to ask if you’ll finally watch Prognosis Positive?”
Steve’s brows furrow but there’s a smile on his lips. “What?”
“It’s a movie.”
Steve fiddles with the muffin wrapper. “Uh. Okay?”
And that’s that.
Steve seats himself awkwardly—and offensively—far from Tony on the couch and Tony takes a moment to just frown at him because he isn’t sure if Steve left the gaping space between them because he genuinely accepts that Tony doesn’t want a ‘love bond’ and is thus not pushing the issue, or if Steve himself has totally given up on the idea that either of them could have anything more between them than grudging respect and stilted politeness.
(He shrugs it off. It doesn’t matter for now, not when he’s about to win some inching-towards-friendship points with a good movie.)
JARVIS obliges and Tony makes himself comfortable in his seat, letting his posture slacken.
He keeps glancing at Steve to make sure he’s laughing at the parts he’s supposed to be laughing at (which—okay, he’s not really laughing, but he’s kind-of-sort-of smiling and that’s something) and when he glances over for what is probably the tenth time, he’s a little startled to see Steve’s nose is tinged red, and that he’s blinking profusely and a tightness behind his own eyes and a clenching in his chest alerts him to the fact that, Wow, the TV made Captain America cry.
This is a thing that is happening. This is real life.
Apparently the sight of Ryan Gosling crying in HD surround sound was enough to make Steve Rogers glassy-eyed.
Who would’ve thought.
“I thought this was supposed to be a comedy,” Steve says, running a hand over his face.
“It is,” Tony says, as he fights down the urge to move closer and throw an arm around Steve’s shoulders, or pat his back, or hold him close— maybe he can pull the fake yawn trick (that wasn't around in the forties, was it?)
“She’s dying and he can feel it,” Steve says, waving a hand towards the screen, frowning at it like it’s personally slighted him.
“Well, yeah,” he agrees. “But they had some laughs along the way.”
“Are you serious?”
“When am I ever not?”
Steve apparently deigns not to dignify that with a response and goes back to watching the movie; he watches with such focus and interest that Tony feels strangely pleased, like he’s just won a little victory.
Steve gets hungry, so, naturally, Tony also gets hungry, and they end up polishing off two bags of chips and a bottle of pop before the end of the movie, and by the time the credits roll, Tony is finally able to say, “I’m sorry too, by the way.”
Steve doesn’t really turn to look at him and instead tilts his head to the side and Tony realizes that he’s essentially saying go on and goddamn it. “It’s been a rough few weeks—not that that’s an excuse, it’s just more like… I get that this is not what you expected. It’s just another way the modern world’s let you down. I’m not feeling too good about it either, but I get where you’re coming from, and I get that I was out of line, grossly out of line, and I know—and, really, I’ve always known, I was just too busy trying to create some miracle cure to see it, but… I know that the best thing to do at this point is to get along. Be friends. I mean, we’re only going to be spending the rest of our lives together—imprinting doesn’t really go away until one of us dies, right, so… yeah.”
That probably could’ve come out better.
Steve does some odd facial twitches as he tries to suppress a smile; what he’s smiling about, Tony has no idea, but he suddenly feels elated; it’s the same feeling he gets when he touches Steve, when Steve runs a hand over his battle bruises, when he thinks about Steve with even the slightest tinge of affection. It’s a feeling that makes him want to keep that smile, makes him want to smile back.
In the back of his mind, he knows what’s happening. Knows that his brain is flooding with dopamine, knows that his touch receptors have substantially lowered their threshold potentials, knows that his parasympathetic nervous system is doing its damndest to make him relaxed and malleable.
It’s all chemicals and electrical impulses but that’s what emotions are anyway, with or without an imprint, so he can’t even bring himself to care anymore. He wants to stay this way. Wants to be on good terms with Steve—he wants to stay happy.
He can’t believe he’d wished they’d left Steve in the ice.
“That was a very… old-fashioned take on imprinting,” Steve murmurs, nodding towards the TV as the credits finish up. “Very lovely. Romantic, even.”
“Yeah, I thought you’d appreciate that. There was none of the pain-in-the-ass medical stuff.” Tony puffs out his cheeks and exhales, shooting Steve a sideways glance. “They clearly didn’t do their research.”
“Clearly,” Steve says.
“At least they had the APS. But even that was romanticized.”
“And inaccurate. She winced when he got a paper cut.”
“I know; as much as this movie’s awesome—and it is—if there was ever a remake, I know exactly what they’d need to change. Hell, I should remake it. And cast myself.”
Steve turns towards him and narrows his eyes, looking Tony up and down. His lips twitch up as he says, “I think you’d be a little too old for the role.”
Tony squints at him and his mouth opens and closes a few times too many before he says, “You’ve just made yourself an enemy for life.”
“What a shame.”
“I’m serious, Rogers.”
“When are you ever not serious, Stark?”
Tony stumbles for a second and ends up pointing a finger at Steve. “You are mean and I refuse to continue this conversation.” He gets up and manages, for all intents and purposes, to look completely and thoroughly offended
“I’ll see you in doubles training tomorrow?” Steve says, a laugh in his voice.
Tony waves a hand.
That night, around one in the morning, he texts Steve various unflattering screenshots of a pitiful looking, teary-eyed Ryan Gosling. He’s unrepentant—proud, even—of his assholery sometimes.
(Steve doesn’t reply.)
It’s only days later that he receives his first text ever from Steve; he has it saved and is honestly contemplating printing and framing it because he can’t figure out if it’s genuine or a joke.
He reads the other texts—the usual stuff—
Clint: I made you and steve get married in the sims
Clint: you proposed in the bathroom because you have no class.
Pepper: I’ve attached next month’s schedule. First up, meeting with the Japanese investors on the 3rd, 1:00pm. DON’T FORGET. PLEASE. Okay, love you.
Natasha: Help me settle something: in a fight between the Human Torch and the Thing, who would emerge victorious?
Bruce: This is going to sound strange, but if Natasha texts you, can you please tell her ‘the Thing’? Thanks, Tony.
All of them gems.
And then there’s Steve’s, which honestly leaves him utterly, hopelessly baffled.
Steve: If you’re so smart, why haven’t you invented flying cars yet.
He can’t make heads or tails of it, and the worst part is that he doesn’t have an answer.
“Fuck it,” he says to himself, and decides maybe he needs to start spending even more time around Steve—not only so he’d feel better afterwards, but also because the guy’s actually pretty decent now that the stick seems to have dislodged from his ass.
Yeah. Something like that.
He’s heading off to his final training session with Steve and he’s so damn pleased about it being his last because one session was more than enough. What do they have to teach him that he couldn’t have figured out for himself? He has Steve’s vitals displayed on his HUD alongside his own and he thinks he’s developed a good read on Steve’s movements and tactical strategies. The can bounce off each other—they’re like a well-oiled machine.
Or maybe a clunky, stuttering machine—a machine you might have to get outside of and push to get started—but still. A machine.
And they’ve had a couple battles since training started and the public generally seems to like the tag-team fighting, although plenty were quick to point out the ‘unlikely partnerships’.
Although, Tony is becoming increasingly antsy. It isn’t all on the upswing—Steve’s apparent good mood has put him in a mostly good spirits, but he’s still trying to get a handle on some things. He can deal with the APS, he can deal with the mood swings, he can deal with his constantly shifting appetite. Prolonged Contact Deprivation isn’t even an issue anymore, now that they’ve both mostly gotten their heads out of their asses. He touches Steve passingly—a hand on the shoulder, a pat on the back, a brush of the hands.
But he still can’t be with anyone. A life of celibacy is not really something he’d ever imagined possible and although it’s not like he needs sex (he’s not fourteen, thank fuck), it’s not something he wants to go without.
Fuck. He can’t even touch himself without his mind bringing up images he’d rather not deal with. Intrusive thoughts, sometimes sexual in nature—common symptom of the Type II phenotype.
It isn’t like Steve Rogers spread on his bed, eyelashes clumped and wet and fluttering, breath short and cock hard is an unpleasant mental image, quite the opposite. But it’s fucking creepy that his fantasies have moved outside the realm of his control, and it’s even creepier that Steve doesn’t know.
Or maybe he does. Maybe Steve’s having the same problem. What does Steve see when he sinks down onto his bed and closes his eyes?
“Sir?” JARVIS says.
Tony sighs. He can’t even have a minute of quiet contemplation sometimes. “Yes, dear?”
“There’s a situation in Manhattan involving genetically modified beasts. SHIELD requests immediate intervention.”
Tony is halfway into the suit before JARVIS can finish the sentence, his mind already having moved on into battle mode, his previous concerns having been pushed into the back. “Stats.”
“Thirteen injured, one critically. No casualties as of yet. Captain Rogers is making his way to the launch pad.”
His faceplate fits into place as he says, “Gotcha,” and leaves through the window, flying up towards Steve.
Clint does a backflip off a building and shoots down three of the monsters without even looking in their direction, and Tony says, “Hey, Hawk, maybe you wanna stop showboating.”
“Wow.” Clint’s voice cuts through the comms and he sounds genuinely stunned. “Tony Stark just called me a showboater. I don’t know whether to be horrified or proud.”
“Iron Man, to your left,” Steve says and Tony blasts one of the things dead. They’re repulsive, looking like the mutant lovechild of a Pegomastax and a wooly mammoth, with horns big and sharp enough to cleave a man in half. They’re loud and their mouths are slobbering with acidic saliva. They’re so thoroughly nasty that Tony actually wants to commend the fuckers who made them. After he sets his repulsors on them.
The things tend to spit at people, which has so far lead to fourteen serious-looking acid burns; they also have the tendency to lower their heads and barrel towards civilians in an attempt to skewer them on their horns.
Luckily, the Avengers have been able to keep that to a minimum.
“There is a group of civilians trapped in the library,” Thor says. “The Hulk and I will attend to them.”
Most of the civilians who are boarded up in buildings seem to be doing fine, if the fact that they’re all crowded around the windows with their cameras and phones out is anything to go by.
(Sometimes Tony is equal parts endeared and annoyed by humanity as a whole.)
Tony blasts Steve’s shield and together, they take down six beasts in succession and Tony feels exhilarated. There’s no holding back here, not like he holds back in training; he’s releasing all his pent-up frustration, his rage, his irritation. He’s not helpless here like he’s now always feeling helpless to his own biology. He’s not helpless in his armour.
He’s at home in chaos, he’s comfortable in it. Entropy increases.
(The Second Law was always his favourite.)
And as long as he can blast these things to hell and protect every single civilian in the process, he’s comfortable in this chaos, too.
“Hennings building on 52nd and 3rd has lost structural integrity, stay clear,” Steve says, and Tony swoops in low towards his location—no more than five minutes of over two miles distance from each other at all times, those are the arbitrary guidelines they’d decided upon. “Civilians were in the basement; Widow and Hawkeye are moving them to safety.” There’s a pause where Steve catches his breath and his next words come out part confused and part indignant. “They were taking pictures of me.”
Tony cracks a smile, finally spotting Steve below him and blasting a beast charging towards the spangled hero. “Yeah, they’ll do that.”
“Their lives were in danger. And they were taking pictures.”
“Welcome to the twenty-first century, we hope you’re enjoying your stay.” He’d think Steve would be used to these things by now.
He hears Steve huff but he doesn’t comment.
“Don’t be mad,” Tony says.
“I could never stay mad at you.”
“Chatter,” Natasha says, and Steve responds, “That’s my line.”
“There are an estimated fourteen civilians barricaded in the Brooks Brothers Building on Madison. Six beasts are attempting to break down the walls.”
“Be right back, Cap, save my seat,” Tony says as he whizzes past; he sees Steve give him a laconic salute before he’s just a blur in the distance.
He gets low, aiming to do a ricochet shot to take down two at once before they total the damn building when one of them swings its head and sends him crashing onto the pavement.
Over the comm, he hears Steve bite back a groan. “Iron Man, are you alright?”
Tony gets up before the thing can crush him under its feet like a tin can and allows his repulsors to charge to full power. “Peachy,” Tony grunts, licking blood off his lips.
A moment’s pause. “I taste blood,” Steve says. “Are you sure you’re fine?”
The blast gets the monster in the gut and it rears back its head and screeches, before charging at Tony. All Tony has to do it fly slightly higher.
“We’ve determined the beasts were created by New Age Biogenetics; one of the culprits is now in SHIELD custody,” JARVIS says, just as Steve says, “Iron Man, do you copy?”
“I’m fine, Cap. Promise.” He raises his gauntlet and shoots and blaster dart, hoping that it would be more effective.
The dart imbeds itself into the thing’s chest, and the blast is enough to take it down. One down, five to go.
“Hey! Over here!” he says and three of them turn from their task of knocking down the building and focus on him. He fires.
“Sir, you have 2.5 miles from Captain Rogers for a period of six minutes.”
Tony fires again. “He’s not going to spontaneously combust without me at his back, JARVIS.”
“Iron Man!” Thor says as he lands down next to them. If the earth quaking is any indication, the Hulk isn’t too far behind. “The men of the New Age Biogenetics group have released flying creatures. I will finish these beasts; you are needed in the sky.”
Tony glances up. Jesus fuck—what are those? Hyenas? Crossed with some sort of giant bats?
“What is the reasoning behind crossing those two animals, I genuinely want to know,” Tony says as he takes off into the air. “They’re a functional disaster, just look at them.”
“Well, I can’t see them from down here,” Steve says, “but I’m sure there’ll be plenty of pictures afterwards.”
The flying things are easier to kill than the stampeding things, but damn do they gain altitude fast, and Tony finds himself having to fly higher and higher.
“Iron Man? I could use a little help.”
“What?” Tony says, dodging a beast.
He hears Steve grunt and then hears the clang of his shield as it makes contact with something. “I’m pretty outnumbered here, how far off are you? I could get the Hulk—”
Steve cuts himself off with a yell, and then a hitching, gasping sound.
On the streets, Captain America chokes on blood as he’s impaled clean through by the horn of a mutant beast, pinned to a brick wall, and fifty feet in the air, a gaping wound opens in Tony Stark’s abdomen.
Iron Man falls out of the sky.
Welcome, Ms. Potts
Search command: APS fatal
[Woman claims husband died due to APS related complications…]
[APS-related deaths on the rise? What you need to know]
[APS is known to be fatal, although…]
APS is known to be fatal, although APS-related fatalities are exceedingly rare. The last reported incident was in 2009, in Beijing, China. Chen Huang was killed in a traffic accident; lacerations identical to Chen Huang’s appeared on the body of his wife, Chen Meixiu. She died en route to hospital. 
This phenomenon has mystified scientists for decades. Although there has been light shed on pain synchronization itself in the recent past, especially by Dr. Madeline Gaustis, who won the 2009 Nobel Prize for her groundbreaking discovery of the Ap gene family . [Ap genes], commonly known as ‘soulmate genes’ are only known to be expressed in imprinted couples, and their mechanisms are becoming more and more widely understood . Ap genes are generally considered to be responsible for the appearance of APS-induced physical lacerations on imprinted couples .
Ap genes are a group of related genes that control the
Alert: Breaking News. StarkSearch Alert Keyword(s): Captain America, Iron Man. [view alert]
CAUGHT ON CAMERA: IRON MAN’S ‘MYSTERIOUS’ INJURY
Two videos are shown above, both taken within the same timeframe of 1:36-1:39pm, Saturday April 20th. Warning: these videos contain extremely violent imagery and are not suitable for anyone under the age of 18. Videos courtesy of Felix Herrera and Lindsay Davis.
Both Iron Man aka Tony Stark and Captain America are seen to sustain serious injuries; we do not know the extent of the damage as of yet, and we can only hope the damage is not life-threatening. What’s especially notable about this incident is that Iron Man appears to fall without being attacked; additionally, he falls the exact moment Cap is so brutally injured.
There’s one obvious answer, eyewitnesses say, and it seems almost too fantastical to believe: have Captain America and Iron Man imprinted?
“It’s definitely an imprint,” one eyewitness says. “When they were hauling Stark off, they had to remove the armour and he had the same wounds as Cap on his stomach. No way that’s a coincidence.”
“Plus, this explains why they do paired fighting now,” another eyewitness says. “What’s the longest you’ve seen the Captain away from Iron Man recently? Five minutes?”
“If I didn’t see it for myself, I wouldn’t believe it,” another witness tells us. “It’s crazy—who would’ve thought, right? I can’t get over it, I still can’t believe it, they’re both like in constant danger and now they’ve got to look out for each other. This—this is stupid, but it’s almost romantic.”
Romantic indeed. And it is understandable why the Avengers wanted to keep this bonded pair under wraps: safety concerns for the two heroes have skyrocketed now that villains know that if they hurt one, they hurt the other.
More on this story as it develops. For now, we must hope that Iron Man and the Captain don’t become another statistic of imprint-related deaths.
Tony last remembers feeling unbearable pain. On a scale of one to ten, it was probably a nine point five.
He drifts in and out of consciousness, occasionally hearing the chatter of what he assumes are doctors and nurses. He feels the annoyingly familiar feel of feeding tubes and hears the equally familiar sound of an IV drip.
Sometime later, he opens his eyes and feels nothing.
Literally nothing. He can’t feel his toes and for a moment wonders if he’s paralyzed.
“Tony? We need a doctor!”
He makes some sort of guttural keening noise, which he’s pretty sure was supposed to come out as, “Hey, Pep” and that’s when he hears the door and sees several faces peering down at him.
They check his pulse, they ask him questions (which he replies to monotonously), they adjust his many tubes and they change his bandages and check his stitches. It’s all pretty thorough; he really has to hand it to SHIELD on that one. He slumps down with a sigh when they finally leave him be. Although, he’s still a little woozy on what exactly is going on.
“You’re trending on Twitter again,” he hears Pepper say from beside him and he can barely turn his head to look at her. “‘IronCap’. They… everyone knows, Tony.”
“Ugh,” Tony responds.
“To their credit, SHIELD tried pretty valiantly to try and cover this up. But there were a lot of witnesses.” There’s a moments pause before she sighs and says, “You really had us scared there for a while. You were in the ICU for hours. Fortunately for you—and all of us—Steve’s accelerated healing seems to be working for you, at least where imprint-related issues are concerned.”
Tony manages to meet her eyes as he takes all of that in. Right. He’d been—stabbed? No, Steve had been stabbed.
God, that was an experience he never wanted to repeat. The only consolation is that at least now he’s doped up and numb.
“I can’t feel my toes,” he says in lieu of something meaningful because making light of harsh situations usually feels like the thing to do. He doesn’t handle gravitas all that well.
Pepper’s smile is tired. “Well, they did pump a lot of drugs into you. God, you—you were flatlining for a while—and unconscious for two days.” This time, Tony hears the exasperation in her voice—exasperation he knows all too well; Tony really needs to cut out all the nearly dying business.
But the fact that she’s not yelling at him for being crazy is a good sign; maybe it’s a sign that she’s getting used to all these near-death shenanigans.
Once again cheated death. They don’t call him ‘invincible’ for nothing.
He attempts to sit up and is met with Pepper’s firm hand on his chest. She levels him with a long, hard glare and Tony withers under it, slumping back down. He settles on just moving his limbs around as he lies there, bringing some feeling back to them.
He takes a second to assess the situation and says, “My stocks are done for, aren’t they.”
“We don’t know that.”
“People know about the imprint. They’ll think I’m—”
“No one in their right mind would think Tony Stark is incompetent,” she says, raising an eyebrow.
“I’m incompetent with things concerning Steve.” He doesn’t even realize the truth of that statement until the words leave his mouth; he is useless around Steve. They have no idea what to do with each other, how to deal with it. There’s no manual—okay, that’s a lie, there are a tonne of manuals, but no specific geared-towards-Tony-Stark manual on how to deal with imprinting on someone he barely knows. There’s no step-by-step guide to dealing with Steve.
He supposes they’ve moved past barely knowing each other. He knows that Steve likes tech, that he might have adopted Carl Sagan as his personal hero, that he doesn’t care much for sushi, that dumb movies can make him sad, that he draws—
He peers to his left, at the curtain pulled across the other side of the room. He knows Steve’s behind it, can feel that familiar tug, but he also knows that he’s not awake just yet. “How’s Cap?”
Pepper smiles. “Same as you. I think you two are always going to be in the same state.”
Right. If someone asks, ‘How’re you, Tony?’ they get an instant bonus answer to, ‘And how’s Steve?’ They’ll seek each other out when they’re lonely because they’ll only be lonely when the other’s lonely; they’ll eat together because they get hungry together; they’ll sleep together—or get sleepy together—because they’ll be flooded with melatonin based on each other’s circadian rhythms.
He’s beginning to get a feel for his limbs again and that might mean Steve’s waking up. “Help me up, Pep. Let’s go check up on our dear Captain.”
Pepper only hesitates for a second before standing, moving to help Tony off the bed. “Are you sure you should be—?”
“Yeah, absolutely positive. It’ll be good for me, get the blood circulating. Here, just—ow, wait—yeah, just grab my… yeah, alright, we’re good.” Tony heaves himself off the bed, with Pepper’s arms securely around his waist and shoulders.
They make their way over to the other side of the room and when Pepper pulls the curtain aside, Tony’s breath catches in his throat.
Steve’s on his bed, eyes closed, breathing steady and, honestly, he doesn’t look too worse for wear. There’s some light bruising on his face and arms, and most of his torso is covered in reddish-brown-tinged bandages, but other than that, he looks as fit as ever, strong and capable, ready to take on the world—all he has to do is open his eyes. He looks beautiful, even, splayed under the stilted sunlight filtering in from the blinds. His hair catches with it, as do the tips of his eyelashes, which Tony has the absurd urge to touch.
Except Tony can’t help but fixate on his chest, which is crisscrossed with faint scar tissue.
Familiar scar tissue.
Tony’s heart is beating far too fast.
“Yeah,” Pepper breaths, voice oddly soft, “your imprint specialist was pretty perturbed about not being aware of those. They must be recent—and they seem to be fading.”
Tony nods, not taking his eyes off the scars. Pepper’s right—they’re significantly lighter than the one’s on Tony’s own chest and for a brief moment, he thinks about how unfair that is, that his own scars don’t fade. Nothing can touch Steve, thanks to the serum. Anything that marks him or mars him or pains him fades eventually.
(Well. Except the imprint.)
But, god, the sight of those blemishes on otherwise flawless skin does something to him, something that makes his heart pound in a way he’s pretty sure it shouldn’t. It’s like that perfectly engineered body’s been spoiled, all thanks to Tony and, oddly enough, the thought doesn’t fill him with sadness or annoyance or even guilt—he doesn’t want to dwell too closely on why, but the sight his scars being shared is exhilarating. It fills him with a strange sort of possessive glee, and something primal in him feels like it’s awakening. It’s his animal side, the dormant lizard part of the human brain, suppressed through millions of years of evolution—that side of him that’s been brought out by the imprint.
He wants nothing more than to fucking touch.
His mouth goes dry and he licks his suddenly chapped lips. He’s read about this, these arousal symptoms and he’s not sure if—if he’d be feeling this way anyway or if...
He reaches out and weakly jostles Steve.
“Tony!” Pepper whispers harshly. “He was stabbed clean through by a monster, let the man sleep!”
Tony continues to jostle and generally hassle him until Steve grunts and furrows his brow. When his eyes start to flutter, Tony looks to Pepper pleadingly.
She huffs; Tony knows she’s immune to all forms of puppy-dog eyes, but she seems not to want to start an argument with an invalid. Or a nearly-invalid. She shakes her head. “Alright, do what you want. I have paparazzi to deal with.” She gives his shoulder a squeeze and helps him settle down on the edge of Steve’s bed.
As the door shuts behind her, Steve opens his eyes and stares at the ceiling impassively.
“Sorry,” Tony croaks.
Steve slowly turns his head to look at him; his brow furrows.
“About not getting to you in time,” Tony clarifies. He’s still staring at Steve’s chest as he lets himself lull himself to calmness by listening to the sound of his own voice (it’s a tried and true method). “And also for not having an excuse about the flying cars—there is no reason why I haven’t tried making them. I mean, I don’t really know if it’s ‘for the good of mankind’, because if anything, traffic accidents would get worse if there are just no gridlines to follow, but I can definitely figure out the ‘how’ if not the ‘why’.”
The furrow between Steve’s eyebrows deepens.
“Uh. Are you cognizant?”
Steve’s face relaxes and his lips part minutely. “Might be… weird,” he says and Tony has to strain to hear him, “but would you… on my stomach?”
Right—anesthesia doesn’t work on Steve; he’s still in a lot of pain. Tony reaches out to gently place his palm on the bandages on Steve’s stomach; the instant he makes contact, Steve sinks into the bed, head tilted back, breath escaping him in a sigh. Tony can feel tense muscles relaxing under him, can feel warm blood flowing as blood vessels begin to dilate.
And this is what he wanted, this ability to touch, and a traitorous voice in the back of his head is saying the logical next step would be to taste and maybe Steve has his own traitor-voice in him, because Steve’s breath hitches funnily and his back arches almost imperceptivity towards Tony’s hand. Tony’s own breath is starting to become erratic, shallow, but he’s got a will of iron, and isn’t about to maul a man in a hospital bed.
Steve shifts over, graciously making room for Tony on the bed, and though it seems like an open invitation (everything seems like an open invitation right now), Tony decides not to read too much into it, and instead leans down onto the bed to lie down next to Steve. He keeps his hand firmly pressed down on Steve’s (rock hard) abs.
“Sorry.” He’s not sure why he says it again.
“About the flying cars,” Steve breathes, and it’s not really a question.
Tony nods. “And the shitty doubles playing. But, yeah, mostly about the cars. I’ll make you one.”
Steve turns his head towards him and smiles and the scant inches between them suddenly feel a lot smaller. “Liar.”
“Well, unless I forget. Or if I snap out of my drug-induced fogginess and realize it’s a stupid idea. It might be a stupid idea.”
“Can’t have a future without flying cars,” Steve argues.
Tony nods, conceding to the point, and doesn’t comment further on that vein of conversation. Steve is fully turned towards him now and his scars are in full view. Does he even realize? Tony wants to—he’s not sure what he wants to do, but probably something along the lines of scraping his nails down them, or caressing them or fucking licking them.
“You’ve got scarring,” he says, and he wishes he didn’t sound so breathless.
Steve closes his eyes and his smile fades away and he better not be falling asleep on him. But an instant later, he murmurs, “Supersoldier. Can’t get scars.”
“The marks on your chest, Steve. Don’t play dumb—it’s unbecoming.”
Steve snorts softly. “They come and go. The marks, I mean. Sometimes, when I…”
Tony waits for him to continue but he doesn’t. “Do they hurt?” The arc reactor doesn’t hurt him, aside from the occasional twinge of discomfort. But that’s not even close to the type of pain needed for Steve to get sympathy pains.
“No,” Steve says, confirming his suspicions. Steve’s eyes are open again and they’re bright. One of them must have moved because Tony’s close enough now that he can see the sweat collected under Steve’s hairline and feel Steve’s exhalations against his face. His lips are parted and his eyes are half-lidded and Tony wonders what the hell is going on in his head right now. His own nerves are on fire.
He swallows thickly and tries to get his voice under control. He can’t stop himself from staring at the wide expanse of scarred-over skin before him, however. “I didn’t read anything about sharing scars. I’ve never even heard of it before.”
“I have,” Steve says. “Bucky used to… used to say it happened to a friend of his. But I haven’t read any… scientific backing on it…”
Steve’s breathing heavily now; he’s fighting himself like Tony’s fighting himself because succumbing would make them weak and if there’s one thing neither of them are allowed to be, it’s weak.
Steve opens his mouth and Tony misses his words—he’s to fixated on the movement of his lips, on the whirring or the arc reactor in his ears, on the pumping of his heart and the fact that Steve’s marks (arc reactor scars, holy shit) are fading, the skin knitting itself back to its former perfection, just like the skin under Tony’s damp palm. Tony wonders why he doesn’t have any of Steve’s scars before remembering all of Steve’s scars were done away with during Project: Rebirth.
We match, he thinks.
He wonders what those scars would look like in the dark, illuminated solely by the light of the arc reactor. He also wonders if Steve can sometimes taste the metallic tang of the palladium poisoning. Do Steve’s veins turn ashy-grey just at the thought?
He rubs a hand over his face and shakes his head. “Sorry, I kind of… completely missed what you just said.”
Steve’s smile morphs into a lazy sort of smirk. “I said I like you, Tony Stark.”
Uh. Alright. It’s obvious he must’ve said far more than that by the length of time Tony had zoned out for, but he rolls with it. “I like you, too?”
And Tony thinks fuck it and gets a moment to enjoy Steve’s eyes widening as he moves closer—just as the door opens and two doctors walk in, followed by some especially frantic looking nurses.
Tony jumps back and bites back an honest-to-god snarl.
It’s another two days before either of them have enough energy to move about without assistance. They remain in the same room and don’t leave each other’s side unless absolutely necessary (when Steve moves to go to the bathroom, every minute sets Tony’s teeth on edge). Their specialist—the SHIELD-assigned Dr. Sandhu—tells him that staying close to each other will hasten the healing process and Tony doesn’t doubt her for a second. He knows well enough by now that being around Steve just feels fucking good.
He’s decided to keep to his own bed because there’s still that incessant itch under his skin. He has bloodied half-moons on his palms because he can’t stop clenching his fists. If he doesn’t keep his hands clenched and hidden, he’s going to do something stupid.
“And I ducked out of there as soon as I was able. I felt bad, of course, since Bucky seemed to be really excited about the whole thing—he knew a gal who met her husband at an imprinting party, you know? He was all for it, thought that just maybe the odds weren’t so astronomical.”
“But you ducked out on him.”
“Well, yeah,” Steve says, rubbing the back of his neck, looking all levels of guilty. “I figured, what if someone actually did imprint on me? They’d be stuck with a sickly twig for the rest of their life. They’d… resent me. So, yeah, I skipped out.”
Tony swallows a wave of both contrition and irritation. He can’t deny he resents being imprinted on, but he knows, logically—has always known—that he can’t exactly blame Steve for something deep-wired into his genetic code. He can’t blame anyone for a CAGGTA where there should’ve been a CTGGTA. Although, he definitely did try to throw blame around.
Steve’s smiling in a sad, distant sort of way, caught up in memories like he so often is, dithering on the line of the past and the present, not sure which way to look, not sure which side is more appealing (or just less heartbreaking).
“But now you’re big and strong. You’re Captain America. If I hadn’t gone and imprinted on you, would you still be up for imprint parties? To try and find your ‘soulmate’?”
Steve’s mouth pinches and his eyes narrow as he thinks about that. “Maybe. I’m not sure. Imprinting isn’t the same as it—well, it’s not what we used to think it was. Back in the day.” He gets that far-off, secretive sort of smile he gets whenever he says ‘back in the day’. “But maybe. It’s a little weird and maybe I’m just being pessimistic but the Earth has seven billion people on it now but it feels lonelier than it’s ever been. It’s nice to have someone around.”
“It’s nice to have someone constantly around? I’d never have pegged you for the clingy type, Cap.”
Steve shrugs, smiling crookedly.
They spend most of their time talking, and when their mouths finally go dry, Tony does some work over his StarkPhone and Steve does whatever he does with his tablet, which was the first thing Natasha brought them when the others had visited (Tony’s going to have that thing hurled into the sun one day; he has the technology). Tony also remembers to call Rhodey with the obligatory message of ‘Still alive so you can’t have my stuff’.
When SHIELD finally decides they’re fit to leave the med bay, Pepper gives them a run-down of what’s been happening in the outside world, which both Steve and Tony had been zealously avoiding.
“After it was announced that you’d both make a full recovery, a lot of people decided to get angry. They think it’s unethical to have you fight. And they think it’s an unnecessary risk because—”
“They think our thinking abilities are impaired. They think we have tunnel vision, where the only thing we see is each other.” Tony had fucking called that one.
“Yes,” Pepper confirms. “But some media outlets are viewing this favourably. They see it as a love story. They’re just—I don’t know, weirdly excited about the thought of the two of you together.” She looks faintly amused by that. “But these people are the minority. A large minority, but still the minority. Your job is to assuage everyone else’s fears of the two of you being suddenly inept.”
“I suppose getting stabbed and consequently going out of commission didn’t help ease their fears,” Steve says with a heaving sigh.
“Well, yes, but I know neither of you are incompetent. You just need to prove it. Again.” There’s a glint in her eyes Tony doesn’t really like. “Also, it’d help if you’d show up at the podium holding hands.”
“No,” Tony says.
“What?” Steve asks.
“Just a little bit of fan fodder—”
She rolls her eyes but she’s smiling despite herself. Tony’s still feeling an odd, impossible mixture of exhaustion and restlessness, but seeing her look so relieved and at ease and plain happy recently, is doing wonders for his mood.
And later, Steve walks to the podium at Avengers Tower in a handsomely tailored suit; he’s a little hunched over and Tony can tell he’s just itching to bring his arm up to cover his stomach. His jaw is set in a way that indicates he’s pained, and Tony wants to say that they can put this off, that they can step up in front of the lights and cameras and microphones tomorrow, but Steve starts speaking.
“There’ve been rumours that Mr. Stark and I have imprinted on each other,” he says, voice as clear and commanding as it is on the battlefield. It’s like he can switch it on and off like a mental switch, that the joking, artsy Steve steps back and let’s the leader, the soldier step up to the plate.
There’s a dramatic pause before he unleashes the truth and then come the gasps (and cheers), and a thousand cameras flash in Tony’s face. He smiles down at them charmingly, moving to rest a hand on the small of Steve’s back; Steve throws him a look but doesn’t move away.
Then the questions come in a colossal wave. “We understand your concerns,” Tony says, speaking over them. “You might be thinking: well, hell, if baddy-of-the-week takes one of us down, the other is sure to follow.” The crowd looks mostly apprehensive but in agreement with that statement, some of them nodding along. “Yeah, well, it’s always been that way. This changes nothing—if they mess with one of us, they mess with all of us. We’re a package deal, folks.”
Some people started giddily clapping at that, but most didn’t look satisfied, and additional questions are asked. Steve’s looking at him funny.
“How did this happen? What was going through your minds?”
“How long have you been imprinted?”
“Do you really think it’s safe to be out on the field?”
“Are you romantically involved?”
“SHIELD has yet to release a statement,” Pepper mutters from beside him. He didn’t even notice her walk up. “So, you’re going to be filling in the gaps for everyone.”
Tony groans gutturally as Steve shuffles closer to him and puts on his 40’s-showboy smile. “You up for this, Tony?”
Tony whips out his own tabloid smile. “’Course, darling.”
When they get back into the tower, Steve requests some time alone and Tony follows him because Tony isn’t a man to deny himself what he wants.
It might be a problem, because for days now, he hasn’t been able to focus on anything other than the fact that he wants.
Steve doesn’t seem to be annoyed by the fact that Tony’s followed him. He stands and waits. His stance is open, and his gaze level.
“Have they faded?” Tony asks, leaning against a desk.
Steve doesn’t pretend to misunderstand. “Yeah. Well—sort of. Not completely. They kind of… flare up when you’re around.” His shoulders are hunched in such a way that he actually manages to look small. “Or when I think about you for too long.” He sounds embarrassed but continues to meet Tony’s eyes levelly.
Tony cocks his head to the side, frantically chewing on the inside of his cheek; he’s tense and Steve is too, and now is not the time to be thinking about this, not when they’ve barely recovered from an injury, not when the whole world is hounding them for information, not when he’s feeling so fucking raw, like an open wound, like he needs to get his hands on Steve—all over Steve—so it’ll finally scab over.
He takes a step closer and sees Steve swallow, stares at the movement of the skin of his throat. “You don’t have to,” Steve says. “You shouldn’t—it doesn’t matter what anyone says, we don’t need to be anything more than what we are right now. You can’t force yourself to—”
He cuts himself off when Tony tugs on his shirt and his chest is heaving as he presses himself back against the wall. Tony feels a cold sweat break out over the back of his neck as he says, “I want to see them again.” He’s been wanting to trail his fingers down them since the first time he saw them.
Steve puts a hand up, right against his arc reactor and Tony barely refrains from lunging forward. “We don’t have to,” Steve says, breathless. “We don’t have to, Tony—”
Tony grabs the back of Steve’s neck and pulls him down, smashing his lips against Steve’s. His pulse is pumping wildly in his ears and he doesn’t move any further, just keeps his lips firmly pressed against Steve’s.
It’s one of those rare instances where Tony Stark has no idea what he’s doing.
There are several seconds where nothing happens, and Tony is about to pull away when Steve moans, deep in his throat and opens his mouth, licking at Tony’s lips.
He tells himself that this is his choice, that he wants this, of course he wants this, because Steve’s skin is electric and Tony’s already half hard and he can honestly say he’s never tasted anything better than Steve’s mouth.
Tony groans and presses up against him until they’re chest to chest, until there’s barely an atom’s width between them. He opens his mouth to let Steve’s tongue in and—and he’s never felt anywhere near this good. For the first few weeks after the imprint, the world was dull at the edges, grey and cold, and Tony had felt washed out, and tired, like the chemicals in his blood and lungs suddenly didn’t mesh, like they were once again poisoning him. He’d felt toxic again.
But now—now he just feels right, with Steve’s hands on his back and chest, with Steve licking at his lips.
“Oh,” Steve says, turning his face; Tony isn’t deterred and begins leaving open-mouthed kisses along Steve’s jawline. “I’ve thought about this,” Steve pants, “So often, I thought about this, oh god, Tony, I’m so sorry—”
He captures Steve’s lips again, effectively shutting him up.
He’s fully hard now and so is Steve—he can feel Steve’s cock pressed up against his through the fabric of their suits and Tony didn’t know it was supposed to feel this fantastic. They’ve barely done anything and his eyes are already rolling back and he’s fairly certain he’s about five seconds away from mindlessly thrusting against Steve’s thigh.
He doesn’t understand this. For a man who understands nearly everything, this is a mystery to him—this sharing of scars, this Acute Pain Synchronization, this Prolonged Contact Deprivation, this Specific Insensitivity. He can read a million academic journals on the subject and know the mechanisms for each physiological process—he can learn everything there is to learn about imprinting, but none of it makes as much sense as this feeling he’s experiencing right now—
He can’t believe he’d been denying himself this.
“I want this,” he says, breathing the words into Steve’s mouth. “I know, I know, it’s all so—just, please, for fuck’s sake, please tell me you want this, too.”
Steve looks like he’s being torn apart. He’s sweat-damp and panting and his fingers are clenched tight on Tony’s shoulders—but his eyes are squeezed shut, and his eyelashes are wet. “You don’t—you wouldn’t if it wasn’t for—god, Tony, it’s just the imprint—”
“Fuck the goddamn imprint,” he growls, as he bites down on where Steve’s neck meets his shoulder.
“It’s just your body—”
“I am my body.” This is his fucking choice because he’s just decided it is.
He manages to work his hand up Steve’s shirt and Steve just groans, his hands moving to Tony’s back and pulling him up into another kiss. The sheer amount of desperation behind the kiss sends Tony’s head spinning—teeth clack, lips are bit, and it feels like even the residual air is being sucked clean out of his lungs.
Tony gasps when they part for air. His hand has travelled further up—it’s resting against Steve’s chest, and he can feel the concave ridges of scar tissues.
He presses his nails down into them hard and Steve fucking moans against his throat, the vibrations travelling all they way down to his cock.
Tony cants his hips up, pressing up hard against Steve. Steve, for his part, is starting to move against him, making fluttery little abortive movements. His hips are twitching.
Tony is also having a hard time restraining himself from moving too much; he has never so badly in his life wanted something to fuck into.
But this is good, this friction, this grind, these wet, gasping breaths. Steve smells like Irish Spring and sweat and he feels solid and hard and hot. Tony is mouthing at his neck when he breaks away to say, “Tell me, Steve. Tell me whether or not you want this too.”
“Ah… I just…” His eyes are still shut—Tony can feel his eyelashes fluttering against his skin.
Tony shifts the hand under Steve’s shirt so that his thumb brushes against a maddeningly pert nipple. “If you want this to end, we can end it,” he grunts. “If you want this, I need you to tell me, Steve.”
Tony forces himself into near-stillness as he waits for Steve to say those words, and he hopes to hell he’ll actually say them. Tension is coiled up tight in the pit of his stomach and his cock and he can’t help but trembling. If he doesn’t get to keep his hands and mouth on Steve, he thinks he might cry.
He just needs the words. I want this.
“I want you,” Steve says, voice strained.
Tony lowers both hands to Steve’s hips and rocks forward roughly, and Steve tilts his head back against the wall. The sound he makes is obscene.
“That’s it,” Tony says as Steve thrusts his own hips forward. Even through the layers of cloth, Steve’s cock feels wonderful, hard and hot against Tony’s abdomen. Steve’s hands are digging into his back and holding him close, Tony’s sure the arc reactor is digging into Steve’s sternum.
There’s no grace to it. They thrust and grind against each other erratically, their movements jittery and uncontrolled. Tony can’t bring himself to give a fuck because his skin is tingling, like there are sparks burning under it, and every time he touches Steve, the intensity of those sparks increase tenfold. Their clothes are a nuisance—they’re in the way—but neither of them have the wherewithal to do anything about them.
Fuck, fuck, fuck, he thinks as he finds some semblance of rhythm as he ground his hips against Steve’s. He’s already so close, seconds away from coming in his pants like a teenager.
He’s out of breath and hot all over and three stuttering thrusts, he’s coming against Steve’s hipbone. He groans, still weakly canting his hip forward.
Steve inhales sharply as he comes too, seconds later.
They stay slumped against the wall for a few breathless minutes before Tony tilts his head up to meet Steve’s mouth again.
(Because it seems like the thing to do.)
And because Tony can’t let anything that could be classified as a Nice Moment simply lie, he says, “I wonder if the imprint makes it so we even come in sync.”
The look on Steve’s face can only be described as pure, unadulterated awe.
“I need you to be serious for a few minutes as I divulge what I’m about to divulge. I’m well aware of your tendency towards inappropriateness in grave situations, so I can do little more than beg for a little courteousness in this matter.”
“Tony, what the hell do you want?” Rhodey asks.
Tony puffs out his cheeks and exhales, glaring at his phone. There’s no point in beating around the bush, and the only reason he’s being hesitant in the first place is because he has the feeling Rhodey might, possibly, laugh at him.
Coolly, he says, “I had sex with Steve.”
When no reply comes for several moments, he feels the need to elaborate. “Well, it was more like dry humping.”
“That’s what he said.”
There’s a very long pause after that where Rhodey doesn’t do anything but stare at him; he opens his mouth and then promptly snaps it shut, and then opens it again. “You had sex with Captain America.”
“It was really more like dry humping. Try and keep up, Rhodes, I can’t afford to waste time.”
“When did you have sex with him?” Rhodey asks, talking over him.
Tony shrugs. “Half an hour ago? Then we sort of just parted ways and went to shower. In separate bathrooms, mind you.”
On his phone screen, Rhodey straightens in his seat, just the slightest bit, and cranes his neck to look over Tony’s shoulder.
“He’s not here, he’s still showering. The man takes long showers—something about a constant supply of hot, running water being the most beautiful thing about the twenty-first century—there might have been a manly tear in his eye when he said it.”
Rhodey slumps back in his seat. “This is just so…”
“If you think about it, it was actually pretty inevitable.” He should’ve known that from the day he’d shook Steve’s hand. Or maybe he had always known—it was just that he hadn’t been happy about it.
“I can’t believe the tabloids got something right,” Rhodey mutters, mostly to himself. He then looks up and asks, “Have you read some of the stuff they’re saying now? Your face is everywhere. More so than usual.”
“I’m sure it is, but getting back to the issue at hand—”
“‘Has Tony Stark Settled Down for Good?’” Rhodey reads aloud from something. “‘What Does This Mean for Novak’s Law?’, ‘Superheroes in Love!’”
“Alright, it’s all very funny. I’m sure I’ll burst out laughing later, when the comedy of the situation really hits me. But, right now, I’d like to talk about—”
“The fact you had sex with Steve.”
Tony points at his phone screen, lips quirked and eyebrows raised. “Good man. I knew you were paying attention.”
Rhodey frowns. “Does Pepper know?”
“No, you’re the first.”
Rhodey preens at that; he’d probably deny it but he totally does, and Tony decides not to tell him he’d tried Pepper first and had gotten voicemail. “So… what, do you want me to play therapist here?”
“Hey, if you’re not up for the job, I can always go talk to Bruce. He’s a great listener. Like you wouldn’t believe—I can hold him in rapt attention for hours.”
Rhodey looks thoroughly unimpressed and instead of humouring Tony’s wiles, instead asks, “How’re you feeling?”
Good question. It’s the most obvious question, true, but still a good one, because it requires serious contemplation. Tony purses his lips, staring off at the far wall. He feels… well, he can recall how he felt while he was touching Steve—in vivid detail—but how does he feel now?
He supposes he feels… loose. Open. A little emptied out—in a good way, like many of his worries dissipated into nothing.
“I… Well, good. I feel good. You know, relaxed, content. Like all my worries have exploded out through my dick.”
Rhodey groans. “Have you ever wished you could unhear something?”
Tony winks, and then barrels forward. “Okay, so now you know. I need you to tell me what to do next.”
“What do you want to do next?”
“Continue having sex with Steve. I’m a weak man, Rhodey. A weak, weak man.”
“No you’re not,” Rhodey says, waving a lazy hand. “But if you want to… be with Steve, I see no reason to not go for it, if he’s into that.”
“But… that’s what they want me to do—and by they, I mean everyone. I can’t have myself doing what’s expected. I worked hard for my disrepute.”
“Tony, are you serious.”
Tony frowns. “I’m always serious.”
One of Rhodey’s eyebrows twitch.
“Pepper, what I’m about to divulge to you is—”
“What is it, Tony?”
Turns out Pepper had already known. She said Natasha had told her, and Tony is now one hundred percent certain Natasha’s gone and bugged the tower. Probably just to show she can.
“And so what I’m asking is—”
“Tony, stop overcomplicating this,” Pepper says, looking both amused and exasperated.
“But it feels weird because you—”
“I need you to stop worrying about me. I’m happy. You being with Steve isn’t going to send me into a depression.” The last part is accompanied by and eye roll and Tony suddenly wishes she were here with him instead of off in some conference in Toronto. “As soon as I heard about the imprint, I knew. Of course I knew, this is—” She breaks off and frowns, as if she’s trying to settle her thoughts together. Tony’s holding his breath because he isn’t sure if he even wants to hear what she’s about to say next. “I’m not going to pretend as if I know what an imprint is like, but you must be noticing by now that there’s nothing like being with your—with Steve.”
He opens his mouth to protest; he feels obligated to protest because he feels guilty about how much better Steve’s touch feels, even if it is because of his heightened sensitivity to Steve, because of how he feels what Steve feels—because the eerie quantum entanglement between every particle of their respective bodies; that’s what they all said, wasn’t it—molecules belonging to each partner of the imprinted pair likely become entangled indefinitely such that they share the same spin, momentum and polarization—
He and Steve have a quasi-telepathic bond between their atoms where information travels faster than light, where they know exactly what the other feels faster than light from the sun can hit their retinas.
With a bond as ludicrously far-reaching as that, it isn’t hard to believe Pepper’s happy about breaking it off. That happiness probably isn’t even for Steve, but more because she doesn’t need to be saddled with this—illness—disease—condition—as much as Tony doesn’t. Didn’t.
So maybe he should just take it at face value when she says, “Tony, I’m fine—if this is something that’ll make you happy, I’m happy. You don’t need to—” She closes her mouth and twists her lips. She gets that look in her eye when she’s fed up with Tony—or herself—and decides to change tact (or, as the case may be, decides to simply cut any and all bullshit).
“I love you,” she says, apropos to nothing.
Tony nods. “Okay.”
“You’re my friend.”
“Best friend. So, if you’re—I don’t know, trying to ask for my blessing, or something just as ridiculous, you have it.” Something wicked crosses her face. “Just like I’d have your blessing if I decided to ask out the new IT guy with the with the practically painted-on shirts.”
“Well, yeah, obviously you’d—” He cuts himself off and narrows his eyes at her, but she raises an eyebrow and has this half-smile on her face so—so he smiles back.
Steve’s lying face down on the communal living room’s communal couch and Tony lingers at the doorway for a moment.
This might be awkward. They’d just… rubbed up against each other and are now on the uncomfortable path towards talking about their feelings, and Tony vaguely wishes they could skip that and just… let it all come naturally, just sink into whatever they were supposed to sink into.
Steve turns his head when Tony pushes himself off the doorframe and begins making his way over to him. He sits down and places a hand on the small of Steve’s back—he’s not sure why, but he knows that it feels nice and that Steve won’t object. He feels a little chilled, a little empty in every part of his body not in contact with Steve’s, like all his body heat has gone and become concentrated in the had that’s touching Steve. He wonders how long it’ll take for him to become habituated to changes like these.
Steve melts into the touch and closes his eyes.
So far so good.
“I… may be a little presumptuous in saying this,” Tony begins, “but I think we might be in like.”
Steve doesn’t say anything, but shifts onto his back to look him in the eye, and Tony’s hand drifts to his navel.
“Stop thinking,” Tony says when he sees how deep the furrow between Steve’s brows is.
Steve blinks up at him blearily. “Isn’t that usually what everyone’s telling you?”
“I’m taking their advice. Seriously, stop thinking—you’re giving me contact symptoms, I swear. I can feel a headache coming on.”
“This… this probably never would’ve happened without the imprint,” Steve says, and Tony’s taken aback by how young he sounds. He knows Steve’s young, younger than all of them, but it’s easy to forget when he thinks of how Steve’s been hardened by war and the Depression and poverty and loss.
But, he supposes, he really hasn’t been all that hardened.
“Yeah, probably,” he says. “No getting around it, there’s a lot of what-ifs involved here. But the point is, I guess: who the fuck cares what we might have be doing when—when this feels good.”
“Feels good,” Steve repeats slowly.
“Well, yeah. You like kissing me?”
“Well—sure, but that’s not—”
“Did you like sex?”
“That’s not really—”
“And how often do you think of me,” he continues, lowering his voice. “You said the scars show up then. What do you think about? What do you think when you see them?”
“Tony,” Steve says, attempting to get up. He’s looking less loose and malleable now, and his voice is tinged with irritation, “what do you want?”
For whatever reason, the question takes him by surprise. But he’s quick to answer. “I want to make the best of a bad situation.”
Steve’s face goes shuttered.
“I mean—fuck. Let me start over, ignore that. I want to try. I like you, you like me. We’re bonded for life. Seems like the next logical step, right? This is what you wanted, wasn’t it—a proper imprinted relationship?” He doesn’t mean to sound so condescending, but hears the haughtiness in his voice anyway.
“I’d only wanted that because I didn’t know what imprinting was,” Steve says, defensive. “I thought it was—I was ignorant. I didn’t know it was about genes and quantum states and pheromones—”
“But does that change the fact that it might not be such a shitty idea to give this a try?” Tony asks, making a vague gesture towards Steve and then himself.
“I want to try,” Steve says, suddenly, shuffling closer on the couch. He looks—desperate, a little tired, a little on edge and a lot conflicted. “I want this—hell, since you first touched my hand and I knew, but you had this look on your face like the world had just gone and collapsed and now you’re…”
Tony waits impatiently for him to continue and Steve finally says, “I don’t want to… feel like this is something we just have to do. Because we can’t ever have anyone else.”
Tony had been expecting that to come up at some point. He gets that it’s a… concern for Steve, and, hell, it might’ve been a concern for himself. But right now, looking at the facts and looking at his options… It’s still a pain in the ass, this ‘bond’, but it doesn’t have to be as much of a burden as it could be. It’s Steve. He likes Steve. He likes his graphite-smudged fingers and stupid 40’s hairstyle and even stupider plaid shirts, his dry jokes and that stubborn set to his jaw he often gets. He likes how Steve’s a little addicted to YouTube and a lot addicted to reading anything he can get his hands on, and that he’s willing to give Tony’s music a try even though it, more often than not, makes him frown like someone’s gone and insulted his mother.
This situation is a grey area, though. Maybe they’re both being pressured into it by biology. Can’t fight how you’re hardwired. But it hasn’t stripped them of their free will and—well…
He moves closer, practically into Steve’s lap, placing a hand on Steve’s waist to keep him in place (not that Steve couldn’t dislodge himself with the slightest effort, but he’ll enjoy the illusion of control while he has it).
“Steve,” he says, “I like you, we’ve established this. Because hanging out with you feels fucking good, regardless of the imprint.”
When Steve says nothing, he takes it as his cue to continue. “I’m done fighting. I want this—I’ve said it before, I want this. I want to try.” Where’s the harm? He’s never heard of an imprinted couple breaking up, there’s a good chance things will go very right.
Steve is looking down at his lap, and other than the tight clench of his jaw, his face is perfectly blank. Tony absently moves his hand up and down over Steve’s waist. He smells like soap and flowery shampoo and Tony wants to bury his nose in the crook of his neck.
“…Do you want to watch a movie?” Steve asks eventually.
He remembers, vaguely, having once thought something about never wanting to get to the point where he and Steve are cuddling on the couch while watching movies, and his face scrunches up as he’s hit by the odd sense of having betrayed himself.
But then Steve hesitantly leans in to nuzzle him and Tony almost bursts out laughing because really?
They end up watching Harry Potter, of all things, and Tony doesn’t even remember drifting off.
It’s like, once he has a taste, he can’t get enough. An addict that keeps coming back for more and he swears Contact Deprivation is setting in sooner and sooner because he can’t even get through a board meeting without wondering where the hell Steve is.
And Steve—Steve’s taken to roughhousing with Thor—he can’t even call it sparring, because it’s roughhousing. The two of them find great, inexplicable joy in sneaking up on and tackling each other and anytime Thor has the upper hand, Tony kind of wants to get into the suit and even the odds.
“Protective instincts towards your mate, heightened by the imprint,” Bruce had said and Tony had thrown a pen at him (granted, he’d thrown it quite feebly, but it was the intent behind the action that counted).
“One: don’t ever say ‘mate’ again—seriously, you make it sound so animalistic—and two: stop smiling like that, it’s creeping everyone out. Look at DUM-E, you’re scaring him.”
Another issue—if it can even be considered an issue—is that neither of them can keep their fucking hands to themselves. If he had any shame at all, he’d probably feel embarrassed about the fact that nearly everyone in the tower has seen them sucking face on practically every available surface—and there are a lot of available surfaces.
He feels energetic, like he’s shed ten years off himself.
Which is good, because he needs that energy to deal with the hoards of paparazzi that keep a constant vigil outside the tower.
“They just want to know if you’re fucking,” Clint remarks idly, staring down through the window at the gathered masses like some sort of god admiring his kingdom, with his arms crossed and chin tilted up. “Just tell them and problem solved.”
Except no, he’d rather not do that. Just because he has no shame, doesn’t mean Steve doesn’t as well.
Besides, they weren’t fucking. Not really. Not yet. After their initial frenzied attempt at sex, they’d slowed their pace considerably. He’s discovered Steve really, really likes kissing, and will often seek him out just for a short make out session.
Steve has a fascination with Tony’s wrinkles, which is mildly upsetting because Tony doesn’t even like admitting he has wrinkles. But they’re always the first things Steve kisses—he likes placing pecks on Tony’s crow’s feet and laugh lines, on essentially any crease on his face. He likes tracing over them with his lips and fingers, just like Tony likes tracing over Steve’s half-faded scars. It's a little weird.
“Captain Rogers! Captain Rogers, you still haven’t confirmed whether or not—”
“Mr. Stark, are the allegations of you trying to formulate a cure for the imprint true?”
“Mr. Stark, what of your CEO, Ms. Potts? Are the rumours of—”
“Floor it, Happy.”
“I’d rather not run anyone over today, boss.”
“If you don’t floor it, you’re fired.”
(Happy doesn’t floor it.)
So, Tony comes up with a brilliant, ridiculous ploy that will answer at least half the questions being thrown at them: a little bit of good old fashioned PDA.
After defeating this month’s villain (she wasn’t even a real sorceress), Tony swoops down on Steve, lifts his faceplate and kisses him firmly on the mouth.
There are cheers, there are gasps. He’s pretty sure someone cries.
Except, under his cowl, Steve rolls his eyes, which isn’t at all romantic and completely unwarranted.
Rhodey and Clint send him the same fucking link.
Steve and Tony’s KISS
ironcap96 – 11 videos
Uploaded May 12, 2013
It’s true! As you can tell from the video, Captain America and Iron Man are totally in LOVE! There go all the suspicions that these two heroes were joined in a PLATONIC imprinted partnership. It’s now totally safe to say that these two very clearly fit the imprinted ideal. Anyone who was there (like me!) will tell you that they only had eyes for each other and that their kiss was electrifying. With their lives in constant danger, the Captain and Iron Man have still decided to serve on the field, regardless of the APS symptoms they’d shown a few weeks earlier. REAL HEROES! Also: SUBSCRIBE!!
Cap looks a little dazed (+517)
00:42 DID HE ROLL HIS EYES????? (+328)
All Comments (displaying 25 of 12,354)
Tony doesn’t know how they should classify themselves—‘boyfriends’ comes to mind, but it leaves a nasty taste on his tongue. It just seems a little inadequate to describe the guy whose whole existence is tangled with his.
But what he does know is that they are definitely dating because when Steve says, “Let’s go out,” he has a quirk to his lips that seems to say, please take this seriously. “Let’s go out” as in let’s go out and do normal people things like eat in restaurants and go to museums and plays and art shows.
Tony’s not sure about going out, solely because of the followers they seem to amass whenever they step foot outside the tower. Contrary to everything he’d been expecting, people have really taken to—well, what the media’s interpreted as a love affair for the ages, and what Tony knows to be two somewhat unstable men tentatively dipping their toes in the sea of Maybe This is Mutual Attraction. Two men getting a feel for things, trying to see if it’ll work.
His stocks have actually risen; people are under the impression Captain America would be a good influence on him (they’re wrong, but it’s not like Tony feels any pressing desire to tell them that).
So they try for normality and go to an art show. Tony wants to be miserable about it, but Steve’s enthusiasm is contagious. There’s an exhibit on modern art, which Pepper had assured him is lovely but Steve is frowning at nearly every piece like he’s missed some crucial piece of information he needs for all of this to make sense.
Tony doesn’t much care for any of it, but Steve seems to have taken an interest in the metal sculptures (in contrast, the minimalistic paintings seem to have deeply offended him, especially after Tony had taken out his phone and had started listing off their sale prices).
A group of teens is following them with their cameras, but that’s okay. Tony can put on a show, if that’s what they’re after (and, from experience, he’s pretty damn sure that that’s what they’re after).
“Take your hand off my ass,” Steve says, still staring at the sculpture in front of him and not bothering to look at Tony.
“Shh,” Tony says. “They’re looking. Quick, kiss me like Greta Friedman.”
Steve pecks him on the cheek instead and turns back to the sculpture, and somewhere in the background, the teens are awwwing.
Tony’s face is tingling where Steve kissed him and now he’s just feeling restless. It’s a familiar feeling, this anxious buzzing in his bones. It’s like his life no longer has any inertia, there isn’t any invisible weight he has to lift from his mind or body to start gaining momentum; it’s like energy is supplied to him at all times and he feels up and ready for anything instantaneously. Maybe Steve feels like this all the time—or maybe it’s just due to prolonged contact.
His body and mind are working at their peaks when he’s standing next to Steve. He’s better, stronger, faster. I like my body when it’s with your body and all that.
He leans up to brush his lips against Steve’s ear. “The effort you’re putting into trying to figure out what that sculpture is supposed to be is admirable, I’ll give you that, but I don’t think most modern art is really to your taste just yet. Maybe we should just head back.”
Steve swallows audibly and Tony barely begins his internal self-congratulatory cheers before Steve shoots him a sly smile and says, “There’re two more exhibits to see.”
Tony frowns, taking in the light blush on Steve’s face and the fact that his own heartbeat is picking up a bit, which means Steve’s must be too. “Not going home right now would be maladaptive,” he says.
Steve shrugs. “Yeah, well, I really want to see those sculptures they made from old tech. Since we’re already here, we might as well see all there is to see.”
“Rogers, don’t try to fuck with me—you’re bad at it,” Tony says, pulling him towards an exit.
Happy makes them behave in the car, but as soon as they get back to the tower—well, it’s like magnetism, or a collision, a hard, fast, accelerated collision except neither of them break into a million pieces afterwards (or maybe they do, Tony doesn’t really have the wherewithal to dwell on it for too long at this point).
Steve’s lips are soft and wet and warm, just like his tongue, and when they gracelessly fall onto Tony’s bed, he thinks that he wants to give Steve the fantasy he’d grown up with. Steve, who’s been disillusioned more times than he could count, who took this illness in stride, who hoped it would mean something. Imprints don’t just happen to anyone, they’re specific, so maybe he’s thinking that there might be something about what the two of them are doing right now that the universe just wants. Set up from the start, a biological predisposition to meet, and talk, and watch stupid movies and go to stupid art shows—spurred on by the same instincts that drive them to talk and eat and sleep and fuck.
He wonders if Steve thought this is what it’d feel like, but he can’t really bring himself to ask. His hands are shaky and his head spins.
“Off,” he says, tugging on Steve’s shirt. Their coats had been long lost, probably in the elevators. “Fuck, JARVIS, close the blinds, would you?”
The opacity of the windows increases, blocking out all the city light, leaving the two of them bathed solely in the dull blue of the arc reactor.
Steve’s shirt is gone and he manages to get his own off, impatiently pulling at his tie before Steve gently removes it for him, a smirk tugging at his lips. “Can’t have you strangling yourself. You’ll take me down with you.”
“Probably,” he mutters, moving to straddle Steve’s thighs. With Steve’s chest bare, the scars—his scars—are once again in full view, and he takes a mental snapshot of it because it’s glorious. They glow blue under the light, and suddenly, these (ugly, debilitating) scars are the most gorgeous things he’s ever seen.
He bends down, once again planting his lips on Steve—on anything he could reach, his jaw, his throat, his lips. He rocks his hips, feeling Steve’s cock twitch and hearing what sounds like a half-gasp, half-sigh.
“Tell me,” Tony says, brushing his lips Steve’s temple. Steve’s breaths are hot and wet against his neck, and it takes immense effort just to string together his next words. “Tell me what you thought would happen when we imprinted.” He remembers how Steve had looked, that light, astonished smile, those wide eyes. Bright and happy.
And then closed off and angry, just like Tony had been.
“Oh, Tony, let’s not—” he cuts himself off with a strangled groan as Tony cups Steve through his pants, palming him, pressing lightly and then harder. He ignores the almost painful tightness of his own pants and occupies himself by nipping at Steve’s ear until he speaks again. “I just—you know. I told you—just—it was something life-changing… important…” He’s panting heavily now and rocking his hips up, slow, shallow thrusts against Tony’s hand. “It wasn’t… god… god, Tony, don’t you dare laugh,” he says, the words coming out in a breathless huff. He’s smiling. “I thought it meant we were going to fall in love.”
Tony laughs—not because he the notion is ridiculous, but because he remembers how recently it was ridiculous. Absurd. Preposterous.
“Hey, you asked,” Steve says, voice laced with embarrassment and the slightest hint of—of Tony’s not sure what, but there’s a sort of guilelessness there to him.
“Because I wanted to know. I’m glad I know.” He moves, staring at Steve’s scars through half-lidded eyes, tracing them with his fingernails. He moves the hand down, letting it graze over his abs, his navel. He unbuttons Steve’s pants singlehandedly (one of his many skills) and pushes inside.
Steve gasps and suddenly he’s set into motion, moving to undo Tony’s own fly and tugging his pants down and off his hips. Tony hisses as the fabric momentarily snags on his cock, but a second later he groans, pressing himself against Steve.
Steve looks unfocused, and Tony’s own vision blurs around the edges. Everything is just so tightly coiled up in him, concentrated and heavy—he feels ready to explode.
He crawls over Steve, who whimpers at the loss of pressure on his dick, and fumbles with the nightstand drawer. When he finds what he needs, he sits back and takes in the sight before him.
Steve’s a vision—it sounds stupid to say—hell, it sounds stupid in his own head, but he is. His hair is in damp disarray, his skin is glistening, his—Tony’s—their scars are coiling and bright and intricate. His whole body is flushed, his lips swollen and red, and Tony thinks Steve might have the prettiest cock he’s ever seen, smooth and straining, the tip beading with precome.
“So fucking pretty,” Tony says as he places his lips over those scars he’s become so obsessed with. It’s probably narcissistic, he thinks, but no one’s ever claimed Tony Stark is humble.
“You too, oh god, Tony, you too—everything about you,” Steve babbles as Tony’s lips move to suck on a pink nipple.
Steve’s own hands have moved to grip Tony’s ass and he begins to—to push, to move Tony’s hips, to have him thrusting against Steve.
“Oh—fuck—hold on, let me just…” He flicks the cap open on the tube he’d retrieved and coats his hand with a truly generous amount of lube. He lines his cock against Steve’s and—and grips them both with his slicked hand, barely managing to close his fingers around the girth.
Steve’s been reduced to mindlessly chanting his name, which does wonders for his already impressive ego.
His strokes are languid, relaxed and Steve begins arching up, fucking into Tony’s fist, mouth hanging open, head tilted back and it’s amazing Tony hasn’t come already.
“I wish you could see how you look,” Tony grunts, moving his hand faster, gripping tighter, to the point that his hold is almost painful. “Oh, baby, tell me this is what you thought about. Tell me this is what you wanted the very—fuck—the very instant I imprinted on you.”
Steve’s hands are roaming up his back (Tony’s going to have such beautiful scratches) and one of his legs have come up to wrap around Tony’s waist, keeping him close. He comes with a shudder, a quake that rocks his whole body, and an instant later, Tony comes too.
They’re left panting against each other. When Tony rolls off, Steve holds him close and when Steve begins to trace the scarring around the arc reactor with a look on his face that can only be called affectionate, Tony doesn’t feel as uncomfortable as he thinks he should be feeling.
“I…” Steve says. “The first thing I thought after imprinting was not sex.”
Tony grins. “Sure,” he mumbles against the nape of his neck.
“The tabloids say we’re in love.”
“Madly in love.”
Steve glances up at him from his sketchbook with narrowed eyes. He’s sitting on the ground drawing Howard Stark’s prototype hovercar for reasons unknown (but probably just because he likes fucking with Tony. Now that he’s not under the influence of heavy drugs, flying cars are definitely a stupid idea).
“‘Tony Stark says he’s madly in love’,” Clint says as he types something out into his phone, and Tony’s convinced he’s running some sort of secret Avengers fanblog.
“I was talking about Steve,” Tony amends. “He’s the one who’s madly in love. I’m just the charismatic billionaire here to sweep him off his feet and—eventually—drop him like a ton of bricks.”
“That does make a better story,” Clint concedes as Steve says, “Stop saying bad things about Tony on the internet, Clint.”
“Sure thing, Cap,” Clint says, walking away and it’s pretty obvious he’s just offering meaningless platitudes.
But Steve’s smiling at him and damn it, Tony doesn’t know why, but something in him catches on that smile, becomes fixed on it. He wants to keep that smile, so he does the next best thing and kisses it.
They’ve fallen into something here. It’s kind of nice.
They go about their lives. They fight villains. Save the world. Tony makes Steve a custom StarkTablet (which he loves; so much for Pepper saying he’s bad with gifts).
They get used to it. When one falls, so does the other. When one gets up, so does the other.
They talk and eat and sleep and fuck. There’s a biological imperative at work here. Their respective cells are a little bit in love with each other, it seems. It’s a funny thought.
The Selfless Genes
In recent years, Ap genes—the genes many believe are solely responsible for the imprinting condition—have been touted as something dangerous, quiet monsters hiding in our DNA. There are many who still cling to the notion of imprinting as something fantastical and romantic, but if you were to distance yourself from the embracing, impassioned imprinted couples of the media and ask anyone who has actually imprinted what their feelings on the issue are, they would most likely describe it as one of the hardest experiences of their lives, at least initially.
With genome sequencing becoming increasingly popular, people are visiting genetic counsellors by the thousands to see if they express these Ap genes. Some of them are delighted upon discovering they do. Others see it as a warning, an omen, something undesirable and frightening.
Some call imprinting the selfish sickness; it’s selfish for your body to force reactions out of another’s body, to make someone else suffer with you, to keep someone with you forever.
But an important aspect of the imprint is simple human empathy. Our imprinted is hurt and our bodies inflict the same hurt onto themselves. Our imprinted is crying and our minds are overcome with sorrow. Our imprinted is laughing, and soon we are on the ground with them, laughing until our sides ache, until we are breathless and tired. How extraordinary it is that our bodies would do something maladaptive, something harmful to themselves solely so we can more genuinely lend our support and love to another human being. And although we have not yet grasped why we can only imprint with certain individuals, there must be a reason. Something that our current science is unable to see.
Is this view romanticizing a debilitating, life-altering disease? Perhaps it is. Perhaps it is inappropriate to use words like ‘love’ and ‘understanding’ to describe something so all-consuming and so potentially painful, both mentally and physically. Is anything worth that?
It’s up for the imprinted partners themselves to judge. Whether this bond is beautiful or ugly, a natural occurrence or an abnormal defect is really a matter of perspective, and it always has been.
Regardless of anyone’s take on the subject, the Ap gene family are a group of selfless genes, and that can be said with impunity. They allow the body to suffer as another body suffers for no obvious reason other than to allow pain and happiness, euphoria and sadness, grief and ecstasy, to be shared.
If nothing else, imprinting makes caring for one another come easily.
“Sounds like a load of bull.”
“Stop reading over my shoulder, Tony.”
“Steve you know that’s a load of bull. And I can’t sleep with that light.”
“Right, so my tablet light is too much for the guy habituated to sleeping with arc reactor glow?”
“Yes, exactly, I’m glad you understand.”
Steve’s looking at him with that half-affectionate, half-bemused look he gets and Tony has another one of those little realizations ha’s been having lately: they get to keep each other.
He snatches the tablet out of Steve’s hands and refrains from tossing it to the other side of the room because he doesn’t believe in damaging perfectly good StarkTech. “Well, since we’re both up…”
Steve snorts and pulls him down by the neck.
And. Well. It’s not an entirely bad deal. Tony thinks he might—just maybe, nothing’s definitive here—but he might be getting what all the fuss is about.
He smirks down at Steve, who’s grinning up at him crookedly.
Yeah. No guarantees but—maybe.