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beautiful stranger

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1934

Your soulmate’s name appeared on your wrist at age sixteen. 

Steve Rogers spent most of those years wondering if he’d make it to sixteen, between the relentless bouts of the flu and pneumonia, the asthma attacks and countless allergies, not to mention the frequent fights he found himself at the center of. 

Overall, his odds had never looked good. 

But he did make it to sixteen, miraculously, and on that day, the name Anthony Stark appeared on his wrist in careful serif font, as if by magic. He’d gone to bed, unmarked and untethered, and had woken up to a name, a guarantee, on his wrist. He touched it carefully, lovingly, like one wrong move might take it away again, leave him alone for good. Because while it was technically possible to fall in love with someone who was not your soulmate, it was unlikely, and more than that, it was considered wrong, distasteful, even, to do so, and Steve Rogers had already been considered wrong and distasteful for a good majority of his life.

Between his small stature, the slightly too-big, crooked nose, and the way he was constantly lagging just behind the rest of the boys his age, well, dames were never exactly lining up for a night on the town with him. Fellas, either. Now, though, Steve looked wistfully down at his wrist, the skin soft and pale and vulnerable, and, now, home to his soulmark. Now, Steve had Anthony Stark. He had possibilities . He had someone to love despite everything else, someone who might just love him back, just the way he was.

All he had to do was find him. 

1945

Steve had never really let himself consider the possibility of not finding his soulmate. He’d always believed that, eventually, the waiting would come to an end, and he’d sit down to see a film, or share a taxi, and the person beside him would turn toward him, lock their eyes together, and he would just know . At least, that’s how Steve always heard soulmate stories told. A chance meeting, an ineffable feeling that this person was theirs , followed, of course, by an introduction, a shy revelation of their soulmarks. 

He was fine with waiting, though. That moment, the moment when Steve Rogers finally met Anthony Stark, would be worth it, he knew.

Steve thought that maybe he’d find Anthony in the army. The odds were certainly better there, given that he was surrounded by men his age from all over the country, but Steve quickly found that hope fizzled out; no one had heard the name Anthony Stark before. Every time Steve asked after his soulmate, he was met with a face full of pity. It was disheartening, always being told no, being told some version of maybe someone else knows him, sorry. It made the joyful soulmate discoveries he witnessed around him every day all the more bittersweet to see. 

Steve did get close, once. He met a Howard Stark , and he’d been momentarily overjoyed. Maybe Anthony was his brother, or his cousin, a young uncle, even. But Howard hadn’t known Anthony Stark, either, and Steve had done his best not to let his face give away the grief that gripped him, sudden and strong, at the realization that he was once again at a dead end.

Lots of people didn’t find their soulmates until they were older, Steve reminded himself daily. He had time. He had plenty of time. And in the meantime, he would continue to look, to serve his country, to be the best man he could be. Whether that meant fudging his enlistment forms, agreeing to Erskine’s serum, or pulling on tights and tiny shorts and playing the part of dancing monkey every night for years, Steve would do whatever it took to make the world a better place, to end the war, to find Anthony Stark once and for all.

Steve held onto this belief until the moment the Valkyrie went into the water, radio crackling helplessly as his life, and his soulmate, fell further and further away from him.

Please , Steve prayed silently as the plane entered freefall. Please, don’t ever let him be lonely. Let him find someone else, without the shame and guilt of it. 

Please just let him be happy.

1986

Your soulmate’s name appeared on your wrist at age sixteen. 

Tony Stark spent most of those years convinced that the day would come and go, and his wrist would remain as bare as the day he was born. 

Too smart for his own good. Always underfoot. Much too clingy . Not as brilliant as Howard, not as kind as Maria. 

Tony knew he would never be enough, had known it his whole life. It was only fitting that someone like him wouldn’t have a soulmate. 

No one was more surprised than Tony to find the name Steven Rogers appear on his wrist in delicate cursive on his sixteenth birthday. A cosmic joke, of course, that Captain America , his father’s perfect and long dead obsession, the man on a pedestal so high Tony could only dream of reaching it, would be his soulmate. 

For years, Tony had thought that being left without a soulmark was the worst fate imaginable, but this was, without question, much worse. He tugged a crewneck NASA sweatshirt on over his t-shirt to cover his wrist, and went downstairs to confirm what his father had suspected all along. 

Tony Stark didn’t have a soulmate. 

2008

Tony was technically dead for nearly thirty seconds. 

The shrapnel entered his chest in the dry, Afghanistan desert, and knocked him out cold. When Tony woke up, he was in agony, attached to a car battery, and a man he’d never seen before was peering at him over thin, wire-framed glasses. 

“I thought you were dead,” the man said, matter of factly. “Your heart stopped.”

Tony gasped once at this. Somewhere in the back of his mind there were questions, but he couldn’t give voice to them just yet. He was alive, even if only just, thanks to the glowing blue circle in his chest, and the man with the kind eyes obscured by glasses. He shouldn’t be alive, Tony was sure of it, and there must be an explanation for it, some big picture reason that had yet to reveal itself to him.

Tony blinked, his vision darkening, and let sleep consume him once again. 

*

Tony’s reason for survival was revealed to him soon enough. Once he returned to New York, sent his company into complete upheaval, and convinced everyone he knew that he was even crazier than they’d originally thought, it became clear, obvious, even. Tony took everything that happened to him in Afghanistan and made it something better, something he could feel good, really good about, for the first time in his life. 

He invented Iron Man, and threw himself into it head first. This was it, his chance to undo the wrongs he’d done for years, making money on war, on the pain and suffering of strangers in far-flung countries. He was determined to give his new life everything he had, every last hope, every last breath, if that was what it took.

He still thought about his soul mate —or, more accurately — his lack thereof. More frequently than he cared to admit, Tony found himself lost in thought in his lab, wondering about Steve Rogers. Why his name had ever appeared, when Steve had been dead, lost to the icy water for years by the time Tony turned sixteen. As far as Tony knew, and he had read a lot on the subject, your soulmark faded if your soulmate died. By this logic, Tony never should have received his. Or, at the very least, it should’ve faded in time. 

But it hadn’t. 

The press speculated about it, of course. His missing soulmate only fueled everyone’s belief that he was a playboy, that he was heartless, wining and dining men and women on some kind of quest to prove that he didn’t need anyone. That he was better off alone, as if that had been true of anyone, ever. 

Tony wore his soulmark like a shameful secret. It haunted him, a constant reminder of what he would never have. But still, he never stopped wondering, and, he supposed, a tiny fraction of him never quite stopped hoping. 

2012

Your soulmate’s name appeared on your wrist at age sixteen. 

Steve had worn Anthony Stark’s name on his wrist for seventy-eight years. 

Tony had worn Steven Rogers’ name on his for twenty-six. 

Lifetimes had come and gone. Both of them had technically died at least once during that time. 

Steve had woken up in a time completely unknown to him, his heart pounding in his chest and uncertainty flooding through him. It was a few minutes before he thought to look at his wrist. It’d been decades, and he’d been in water, but Steve’s heart thudded as he lifted his hand, just to check. 

Just to be sure it was really gone.

Anthony Stark . The fine, serif font was still there, just like it always had been. 

But… His soulmate was more than likely dead by now. Killed in the war, dead of old age or any of the millions of things could have befallen him. Either that or Anthony was alive and nearly one-hundred years old. This, for some reason, hit Steve hardest of all. All this, decades lost, dead then alive again, and he was still, more than ever, completely alone.

He was assigned a mission almost immediately. They were at war again, Steve was told, and he would be joining a new kind of army: The Avengers. Superheroes , Director Fury told him seriously. Steve could only nod. Why wouldn’t there be superheroes? He was alive in a brand new world, and aliens were invading it. The world had always needed something to believe in, and he supposed some things never changed. 

Maybe he needed something to believe in, too. 

“I’ll do it,” Steve promised Fury with an ease that surprised him. Because truly, what did he have to lose?

*

“There’s someone I think you should meet,” Natasha Romanoff told Steve on his first real day as part of the team. 

“Sure,” Steve said, agreeable as ever. He followed Natasha across the wide, noisy expanse of a ship, taking everything in slowly. Things had certainly come a long way in the years he’d been under water, but the way people spoke, the way they clearly relied on each other, those things had managed to stay relatively unchanged, and for that, Steve found he was thankful. 

Natasha came to a sudden stop and Steve looked up; he’d nearly crashed into her. 

“This is Tony Stark, resident genius, or so I’m told. He’ll be able to set you up with a suit that’s a little more, shall we say modern than what we found you in, Cap.” 

Tony Stark .

Resident genius. 

Steve felt his heart crash to a stop, then quicken dangerously, and he could hear the blood as it rushed through his ears. 

Tony Stark . Anthony Stark. His soulmate.

But it couldn’t be. It was impossible . Steve’s chest tightened, ready to be disappointed one last time. He steeled himself, though his heart never slowed, and something inside him screamed that it was different this time. 

The man called Tony turned around, and the equally stunned, wary look on his face told Steve everything he could have hoped to know. It hit him, suddenly, that it really was like the stories he’d always heard; the eye contact, the bone-deep certainty that his soulmate was right in front of him. 

Finally.

“Tony, this is…” Natasha started, oblivious to the emotional roller coaster charging forward beside her, only to be cut off by Tony’s voice, low and small and amazed

Steve Rogers.” Tony said. 

Steve felt his eyes burn hot with tears at the sound of his name on Anthony Stark’s lips after all this time, all the years of wondering and feeling so entirely alone

You found me ,” Steve whispered, not bothering to wipe the tears as they managed to escape him. By now, the rest of the team, relative strangers to Steve, had gathered and were watching in silence, mouths agape, as he and Tony stared at each other in awe. 

“Finally,” Tony murmured breathlessly. For the first time in twenty-six years, Tony rolled up his sleeve, turned his wrist, and revealed the delicate name that had appeared on his sixteenth birthday and tormented him every day since.

Steven Rogers. 

Steve reached out and traced his own name carefully, felt the rise and fall of Anthony — Tony’s —veins under his fingers, his pulse beating quickly but steadily beneath Steve’s touch. 

Alive, alive, alive. 

“I thought you were dead,” they said at the same time. Their eyes met again, and Steve couldn’t say who moved first, only that they were suddenly clinging onto each other, feeling every one of those missing years between them, as the rest of the world fell away. 

Your soulmate’s name appeared on your wrist at age sixteen; they had a lot of time to make up for.