Title: We're Given and Denied
Series: At The Touch Of Your Hand
Pairings: Tony/Pepper, pre-Pepper/Tony/Steve, past-Steve/Peggy
Notes: Part one of a soulmate AU where people bond at first skin-to-skin contact
Summary: Steve never wanted a soulmate - he always figured he'd be dragging them down. Tony secretly didn't want anything more than to find his. Pepper, well, she just wanted to bond to someone who wanted to know her before they got sucked into being bonded. When Tony and Pepper bond, they realize they're incomplete, but there's no way to find their missing third - until Tony does, and then it all becomes a mess because, really, none of them know what to do now.
Steve thinks that the last thing in his mind should be Peggy, or Bucky, and they are, but it's not... They're not the focus, it's just conversations he's had. Even as he sinks to the floor of the Valkyrie, shield settling on his chest as he gives up on his last-ditch effort to escape, his mind is spinning, remembering. His lungs burn as freezing-cold water enters his lungs, and his thoughts stretch back, back...
“Was Da your soulmate, Ma? Does that make it harder, to be by yourself?”
“Oh, Stevie. Don't think about it, and don't worry. You'll find your special someone one day.”
“Don't want one.” Steve is only seven but he is sure of this much. He's sick all the time, the doctors say if he lives to be an adult it'll be a miracle, and he probably won't make it past thirty at the very latest. It would be mean to have a soulmate, and leave them behind the way Ma's been left behind.
“A lot of little boys say that, you'll change your mind.”
And later, with Bucky.
“How come you never let anyone touch you? I mean, there's me, 'cause I made you, but except when you get into fights, you never let anyone touch. You know if no one can touch you, then there's no way you're findin' your bonded.”
“I keep tellin' you, Buck, I don't want to. I mean, c'mon, look at me! Who'd want me anyway, and I'm just gonna die on 'em before either of us is old.”
“You shut up, Steve Rogers, you're gonna live to be a hundred and I'll make sure of it. And your bonded will too, when you find 'em.”
“I don't want one, Bucky.”
“Tough luck, punk, everyone's got one out there someplace.”
But Steve honestly hopes he doesn't. It isn't fair to them if he does, and anyway... He feels like he doesn't, like he was born with something missing – besides healthy lungs and heart and general everything, that is. So maybe he really doesn't want one, and maybe he doesn't want to admit that he doesn't have one, and doesn't want to let that hurt him.
And Peggy. Peggy, God, they're never going to get their dance. They're never going to get anything, and he just hopes she gets what she wants.
“Your men seem to think we're bonded, you know.”
“Yeah.” Steve rubs his neck. “Sorry about that. I – I mean, anyone would be lucky to be bonded to you, I just mean-”
“I understand, Steve. To be honest, I've never wanted a soulmate.”
“What? Really?” He'd thought he was the only one.
“I don't fancy letting anyone have that much of me. Dancing is one thing. Love... Even love is a nice dream, but bonding? Giving up that much independence? No. Not for me.”
“I've never wanted to bond either.” She is the first one who might understand, even if her reasons are different. “First, I was so weak, and now... Are they ever gonna let me give up the shield?”
“No. No, I doubt it.”
“Yeah. How could I drag someone into that who won't really be able to leave?”
“Well.” Peggy smiles at him, red lips and sparking brown eyes, and Steve thinks he might love her, wonders how bonding could possibly be more than this. His heart feels so full when he looks at her, like it might spill over, surely nothing could be stronger?
She smiles, and says, “Perhaps we can be happily unbound together, hmm? Depending on how dancing goes, of course.”
He hopes, dizzily, as everything goes black, that Peggy finds someone else to dance with who will give her what she wants. He prays that Bucky won't be too mad when he sees him on the other side, that Ma and Da are together again and Ma can smile without being sad. But his last thought, his very last, is to someone who might not even exist. Because deep down, some part of him regrets what will never be, the one thing he always said he never wanted.
If you are out there, I'm sorry.
~ ~ ~
Tony never admits that what he wants more than anything is to find his soulmate. It would be admitting a weakness, and Stark men may be many things but they are not weak. But they are lonely, or at least Tony is. All his life, he tells himself that someday, someone will be there and they won't leave. They won't be forever disinterested like his father, or like his mother, loving when he's small but growing more and more distant with time.
Years later Tony will realize she was depressed, she was slipping away from everyone, but as an adolescent all he knows is that his father only cares about what he can build and his mother no longer seems to care about anything. MIT is a fucking relief by the time he gets there. He falls into the partying lifestyle within a year, sex and alcohol but never drugs. He likes the parties because they're loud enough to drown out his thoughts, likes the sex and the drinking because it makes him less bored for a little while, but he doesn't trust drugs.
The no-strings sex and the burn of the alcohol let him forget his parents, when they're alive but so distant, when they're dead and even further beyond his reach. He's able to forget that he's so damn lonely, that his only real friend is going to leave him for the Air Force, that the only real parent he ever had was Jarvis. Jarvis who was great but he was a fucking butler. It wasn't supposed to be him who was the parent, though Tony would never wish him away. He just wishes... he could have had his parents too.
He builds Dummy in a drunken haze a month after his parents die, and he's ridiculously proud of the little guy. Even though he's useless, more than not, he's like a puppy. Tony can't help but love him, even if he pretends otherwise. He builds You and Butterfingers, and then JARVIS – he makes up what the acronym stands for on the spot, because there is no way in Hell he's admitting he named his AI after the late family butler. Yeah, no.
Stark men do not show weakness. They smile for the cameras and charm the people, and they make things to kill people. Tony knows what his weapons will do; he's never seen a reason to care. Us or them, and besides, SI makes other things too, advances in medical and agricultural tech. The weapons make the rest of it possible. It works, it all works, and if they call him 'Merchant of Death' he doesn't really care. He owns it, and fuck them all.
There are days he has the oddest flashes of determination to be someone – strange, because he is someone and he knows it. There are other days when he feels like someone is whispering an apology in his ear, and that makes even less sense. He ignores it, and keeps on going. Maybe it's his future bonded, he's heard that sometimes happens, but it can't help him find them, can it? So what fucking good is it? He's starting to think it's never going to happen.
Until a day when a woman forces her way into his office, and when security comes to drag her out, she shouts about pepper spray until she gets away, gets in and shows him he did the math wrong for one of his latest projects. He'd flipped two numbers and it would have completely fucked up everything. He calls her Pepper – because she'd lied about the pepper spray, he can already tell she's a horrible liar, but he admires her nerve – and has her immediately escorted to a new office. He needs someone who has the nerve and the smarts to keep up with him but not lie to him for a personal assistant, and Pepper Potts has all of that.
Even if she doesn't want him to call her Pepper at first. He tells her she'll get used to it, and she does. And then, a few months in, she hands him paperwork – she's the only one who can hand him things – and their fingers brush, and there's that click he's been waiting for all his life.
Only, and this has to be the universe flipping Tony Stark off, it's not complete. They're fucking triadic, with no possible way to find their third. They have each other, and the bond between them, but there's something missing, someone. It's both better and worse than having no one.
~ ~ ~
Ginny's not a believer in love at first sight, even when it comes to your soulmate. Her friends in high school and college talk about how the first thing they plan to do when they meet their soulmates is fall into bed with them and complete the bond. Ginny guesses that would be nice, but she herself doesn't quite see the appeal. Then again, she was raised on her parents' story. You can meet your bonded at any age, though usually it's not till you're older. Her parents met at summer camp, when they were twelve years old.
Much too young to do anything but hang out as much as opposite boys' and girls' sides will allow that summer, and make full use of the postal service and the phone lines when they're home. Her parents had a long-distance romance, and didn't even kiss until they were eighteen and at college together. She knows it's not typical, but Ginny thinks there's a lot to be said for the slow burn, for getting to know your soulmate before the bond is completed. So sometimes she thinks she feels flickers of fake confidence hiding very real and painful loneliness, sometimes she gets the feeling someone out there is apologizing to her for something, but even those little hints don't tell her who. She wants to know who before she knows anything else.
Which is why Pepper (because Ginny is Pepper now) is secretly relieved – well, in a manner of speaking – when she doesn't touch Tony until they've known each other for a few months. Relieved because he's not a stranger, not relieved because, well... She likes Tony, she honestly does, which is more than many might say. She's seen him in full Mr. Stark mode, flirting with women or playing the media so well they don't realize they're being played, she's seen him in work mode when he forgets to eat, sleep, or bathe unless prodded and even then it takes a lot of prodding, she's seen him talking to his bots like they're his kids (or maybe his pets, she's never sure) and snarking at his AI. In short, she's seen him in most ways she thinks it's possible to see Tony Stark, and...
He's impossible. But she can't deny that the bond's happened, can't deny how right it feels... And, she can't deny that it's not right, not complete. They're triadic, she realizes, and she feels oddly lost now, because on the one hand she and Tony have a bond now but on the other hand now she can feel the empty space where a third person ought to be. Before she knew she didn't have a bonded, but she couldn't feel where they ought to be. It's kind of awful even though the bond with Tony is far from awful.
This actually keeps them from being anything more than friends for a few years; there's no one who can really tell them if cementing their part of the bond will make that empty part even worse or not, and as it turns out neither Tony nor Pepper really wants to do that. At first, he keeps up the playboy act and Pepper would be annoyed except he's faking it to keep suspicion off him. Then the rumors start that he and Pepper are bonded anyway, so by the time Afghanistan happens Tony's still known for causing scenes, for flirting with anyone who has a pulse, but not for actually doing more than flirting.
Pepper keeps herself sane when Afghanistan happens because she can sense Tony's still alive. She doesn't like how Obie keeps pressuring her about it, wanting to know if she and Tony are actually bonded and can she sense him, so she says nothing. And when Tony comes back, when she finds out about Iron Man...
“You quit. You're going to walk out. You can't do that.” Tony sounds confident, but she knows him, she knows he's wondering if she really could. Hell, so is she.
“You're going to kill yourself. I can't support that.”
She almost slaps him when he smiles at her. “So far so good. I don't support killing myself either.”
He shakes his head. “Pepper... I know what I have to do. I don't know if I can, but I know in my heart that it's right. And you do too. And... I can't do it without you.”
She stays. Of course she stays. All things considered, would she even have been able to stay away? They aren't whole, but they're even more broken apart.
She almost leaves again when Tony almost dies and he doesn't tell her, but instead, they finally end up sharing a bed, cementing their part of the bond. They need this, they need as much connection as they can after yet another near-disaster, and it's like everything else. It's better and worse, to be a more secure two-thirds of a whole, because the closer they become, the clearer that missing piece is. But they have each other, which is more than they had before.
~ ~ ~
Steve holds out his hand, and is of course expecting nothing but a brief handshake. But the second his palm touches Tony's, there it is; that click everyone knows can happen at first touch of skin on skin. It's there, but there's something... A missing piece, like...
Oh. Oh fuck. Not only is Steve bonded to Tony, they're two-thirds of a triadic bond. Steve isn't sure what he's projecting to Tony in that moment where they're handclasped and frozen by the sudden bonding – shock, he thinks, confusion, panic, because that is definitely what he's feeling. Because after all that's happened, Steve isn't sure how he feels and Tony isn't going to want –
Finally, they can pull away, blue eyes meeting brown for one long moment. Then Tony turns away, jumps into the driver's seat of his car and drives away with Dr. Banner. He says nothing, and Steve is left staring after him, alone once Barton and Romanoff leave. He thinks back to the moment of bonding; his head is clear enough now to pick out what Tony was projecting back at him. It... It doesn't seem to have been rejection, exactly. More like a non-verbal “Back up, not right now.” A... temporary rejection, maybe. And that makes sense, because that missing third... Steve could almost sense her too, in that moment, enough to know it's a woman. She and Tony have already bonded, he thinks. Tony probably wants to talk to her before doing anything. Steve understands that.
But Tony could have said something, anything, even just that they would discuss it later. And he didn't. Steve isn't sure what that means, but it can't be good, right? Steve's never wanted a soulmate, and he was far from impressed by Tony at first, yet the idea that it seems he may be an unwanted third in a triadic bond hurts. It's one more blow on top of all the others, one more thing that leaves him feeling cold. Like the ice he was trapped in for so long is still there under his skin, running through his veins instead of blood.
Steve takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. He can deal with this. He can. So he gets on his bike and he drives. And he just keeps going, because he was considering a road trip anyway, he has his wallet and the cell phone he's finally got the hang of tucked in his pockets, and really, what does it matter if he disappears for a while?
~ ~ ~
Pepper feels it, when it happens. She's going through her inbox; things have piled up, since she hasn't really been paying attention to it. After the awful way her heart twisted in her chest when Tony nearly died, work has been far from the most important thing since she got back to New York and confirmed for herself that Tony was all right. The closest she's gotten to any kind of work is helping him redesign the Tower.
But just now Tony's with the other Avengers, escorting Loki to a drop-off point. So she's catching up, in the middle of reading an e-mail from the Dubai office when the bond between her and Tony... twitches, for lack of a better word. Pepper's fingers slip on the touchscreen of her tablet, accidentally closing her browser window. Not that she notices, because Tony suddenly feels different in her mind. Complete, in a way he's never been and she still isn't.
Tony is also freaking out, which is a strange reaction for someone who's wanted to find their third all this time. Hell, he's talked about some kind of tracking device, and even tried to build it – it went nowhere, but the point is that he tried.
His reaction is enough of a warning that she isn't surprised when Tony comes back alone. Disappointed, because she'd like to meet their third too, but not surprised.
“Rogers, Pep. It's fucking Captain America.” He drops down onto the couch next to her, and Pepper says nothing because she doesn't have to. She knows about how Howard's obession with finding the lost Captain was one more thing keeping him from his family. More relevant yet, Tony's told her about how both he and Captain Rogers tore into each other on the Helicarrier.
Although really the bond helps makes sense of that. She can still remember the quick synergy between her and Tony even before they actually bonded. No wonder Rogers landed the blows he had – Pepper suspects Tony's jabs found their mark too, whether he knows it or not.
“So what happened when you bonded?” she asks finally.
“Nothing. I just got in the car and gave Bruce a ride to the airport.”
Oh no. “You didn't say anything? Did he?” Pepper has a feeling this isn't going to end well, somehow. Tony looks over at her, scowling.
“I was a little bit busy dealing with bonding to Captain America, Pepper! And, no, he didn't say anything either. Actually...” He stops, looking suddenly thoughtful – and worried. “I think he might have been more freaked than I was. Shit, that's probably not good.”
“I'm sure we'll work it out,” Pepper says bracingly. “It was always going to be tricky, whenever we found our third. It's the downside to being three instead of two. Do you know how to get in touch with him?”
“No,” Tony admits. “Shouldn't be too hard to find out, though. I'll drop by his place once I have the address, he and I can hash out our problems, and then you get to meet him.” It's typical Tony; once he knows what he's going to do, he sets it all up and will make it happen out of sheer stubbornness. Sometimes that trait is frustrating, but this time, she just hopes it works.
~ ~ ~
Steve's phone goes off inside the Philadelphia Art Museum, which is awkward because he doesn't want to answer it when he's standing inside a moved and reconstructed Indian temple. At least he has it on vibrate. He actually doesn't want to answer at all, but that would just be rude. He has the little... it's not quite a pin, because it has a foldover flap of the same thin, bendy metal as the rest of it to attach rather than a needle, but whatever it's actually called, with the griffin on it, he has one attached to his collar. It means he can get back in, so he slips out of the temple and back through to the entrance.
Sitting on the steps, he has to actually concentrate on his phone to find the missed call page – he's found that the technology is easier to adapt to than things like pop culture or slang differences, but it's still not always easy. Especially with the tiny keypad on a cell phone. When he gets to it, the number isn't familiar, though that means nothing really; he has a general number for SHIELD and that's it, after all. It's a New York area code, that much he knows, having been given the rundown on area codes now being part of phone numbers and all that.
He hits the little green phone button and listens to the other line ringing, free hand twisted in his dog tag chain. Three rings, and then the voice on the other end, someone he wasn't expecting and yet, all things considered he can't say he's surprised.
“Cap, where the hell are you?” Tony actually sounds... annoyed? Concerned? Both? Steve isn't sure but he doesn't like the phrasing, the implication that not being where Tony expects him to be is somehow wrong. They might be bonded but he isn't Tony Stark's for the bidding. And he never will be at anyone's beck and call like that, he refuses to be.
I never want to give up my independence, Peggy had said. Steve pushes the thought away.
“I'm in Philadelphia,” he says. “Why?”
“What? 'Why'? Did you not notice that we're bonded, Cap?”
“Did you not notice that isn't my name?” Steve snaps, because if they're bonded Tony can damn well use his name. He's tired of it; the only person he can think of who knows that he's Captain America and yet has still addressed him by his first name is Dr. Banner. 'Rogers' isn't so bad, but it's still wearing to either answer to his last name or a variant on his code name all the time.
“OK, Steve, we're bonded, you're going to bond to Pepper the first time you guys touch. We're both in Manhattan, why are you in Philadelphia?” Tony's voice is all exaggerated patience and Steve's jaw clenches.
“First of all, I was thinkin' 'bout a road trip long before I even met you, fly boy, and I didn't see any damn reason not to take it, 'specially with you drivin' off in that breezer without a word.” Steve doesn't even notice his slide back into his natural accent, Brooklyn with a lilt of his mother's Dublin under it, until after he's spoken, voice rough with both the accent and the memory of how it felt to be left just standing there.
“Well excuse me for wanting to tell Pepper I found our third before I sprang her on you.”
“And you couldn't've said that? Or, y'know, anythin'? At all? Didja just have to leave?”
There's silence on the other end of the line, a silence that stretches on way, way too long. Steve lets out a harsh breath. “I see. Well, that's good to know.” Distantly, he notes that he's not only dropped the accent as easily as it came back, he's gone right to his most flat, emotionless Cap voice. He goes to press the little red phone button that will end the call, but –
“I was in shock, all right? And you, you weren't much better, I felt it, so don't start with me, all right?”
“You started with me,” Steve says, thinking about you might have missed a few things, doing time as a Capsicle.
“Excuse me? Who exactly said 'I know guys with none of that worth ten of you' among other things?”
“And who was the one who made a joke out of the worst thing that's ever happened to me less than an hour after meetin' me?” Fair enough, he'll admit he turned out to be wrong when that made him assume Tony was a bit of a bully like the ones he used to mouth off to, but that doesn't change the fact that at the time, that's how Tony had seemed. Steve had been going off what little observation he had.
There's a sound like Tony about to say something else, but then there's a click and the line goes... a bit echoey, for lack of a better word. “That's enough, both of you.” The voice is female and unfamiliar, but something... Maybe it's the distant echo of the bond between her and Tony that he senses through his bond to Tony, but Steve knows it's Pepper Potts before she tells him so a moment later.
“Steve,” she says after the introductions are cleared up. “Did you leave because you bonded to Tony?” Her voice is quiet, neutral, and he wonders what's under that.
“Not exactly, no,” he says, offering the truth because it's all he's got. “I left to clear my head; been plannin' it for a while. Bonding's... just one more reason to need to need it.” He's consciously trying to get back to the generic accent the USO people drilled into him now; it's more difficult than it usually is. “It can keep, if... If I really need to be... If you even want...” Christ in Heaven, he had not meant to let that slip.
“Well, it would be nice to get to know you, and while we could keep in touch by phone that wouldn't exactly be the same.” Pepper's suggestion is both strange and extremely sensible – most people don't talk about 'getting to know' their soulmates, they talk about consummating the bond. Steve's sure of one thing; he's not quite ready for that just yet. But... He's also not quite ready to go back to New York just yet.
“Give me a month,” he says. “Just a month, and then, then I'll be back in New York. I need it.” If they're going to get to know each other, then he's going to have to be honest. And he really does need this time, he's not sure he can put words to how much.
“See, when I need to clear my head I just lock myself in my workshop,” Tony says, and he sounds vaguely exasperated but mostly... amused, or something. “But hey, if you like riding around on your bike, go right ahead. One month?”
Steve hears Pepper mutter something about the nerve of Tony setting deadlines, but it's not quite clear. He nods, and then remembers they can't see it. “One month.”
He hangs up after that, and goes back inside, back to the Indian temple he'd been in before. There's... something oddly comforting about the stone temple with its strange, elephant-headed god. Maybe because it's traveled further to be here than Steve has in his first life or this strange, unasked-for second one, maybe because it's far, far older than him, or maybe because it's as unfamiliar at first sight to pretty much every guest, not just him. It's something just as strange to them as him, unlike everything in the outside world.
Maybe. Steve shakes off the thought, and even later, when he's sketching the Ganesha temple sitting outside on the steps again, wondering idly if Ganesha is made up or another alien like Thor and Loki, he tries not to think just why he liked it so much. He also doesn't try to think about how, when he sets his pencil down to rest his hand, he automatically rubs the fingers of his left hand over his charcoal-marked palm. He'd shaken hands with Tony using his right hand.
But he isn't thinking about it, because he still isn't sure how he feels about it all. Everything about his second life is something he didn't ask for, something he either never wanted or never considered. The truth is, he has no idea what to do with that fact. Though he does remember, in that last moment before everything fell into darkness and delirium dreams proved lies by the icy chill that never faded, that brief moment of regret.
He'd never wanted to bond, had always felt like he'd drag a soulmate down. How could that be anything but more true now, when he is in a world he doesn't even belong in? When he's bonded to a man who is, if anything, beyond this time, and will be bonded to a woman he can't say anything about yet because he's never met her?
Well. He's just going to have to find out, isn't he?