Fifteen years ago
It always starts when they look into each other's eyes. Nobody can describe the feeling, even after they've felt it. After all, it only has to happen once, and then they'll know that they've found their soul-mate; the one person meant to complete them. Their other half. The more opposite they are, the better. What would the world be with only one Pole? North and South are meant to complement each other; so too are soul-mates.
Phil Coulson already knew this when he made eye contact with Tony Stark across the room. For some weird reason, 'Some Enchanted Evening' was being played by the orchestra that Stark Industries had hired for Tony's twenty-fifth birthday.
The spark of electric connection – really, there was no better way of describing it – had hit him the very moment their eyes met. Phil had to brace himself against the table behind him, gripping his glass to near-breaking point.
It seemed like everyone and his mother had been invited to the party; Phil was there on an undercover assignment as an assistant to a suspicious businessman who was looking to merge with Stark Industries.
Yeah, good luck with that, Phil thought.
He diverted his gaze, heart pounding unreasonably fast, to keep an eye on his employer. He was still leaning against the bar, flirting with a woman who was clearly not interested, no matter how many millions he had in the bank. Possibly billions. How much of that money was his… well, that was Phil's job to find out.
"You felt it, too, right?"
Phil nearly spilled his glass as he turned around, only to come face-to-face with the 'birthday boy'.
"Felt what?" he asked. Some of the wine had ended up on his hand. He pulled out his handkerchief to mop it up. Tony was faster, somehow obtaining a napkin from the table and wiping away the liquid.
"Sorry about that," he said. Chills ran up and down Phil's spine as their skin met, even in those gentle brushes. That was the next sign. The third sign was the virtual knock-out power of a soul-mate kiss. "Here. I'll get you another one."
"Not necessary," Phil said.
"You're not a big drinker, huh?" Tony asked, now smiling charmingly, even as he took away Phil's glass, and then went back to holding his hand. "Wish I had that kind of self-control. But, when you have to host big events like this…" He waved his arm to encompass the view that Phil had of hundreds of people. "I guess we all have our ways of coping with things. Am I right?"
"I guess you are," Phil said.
Tony studied him, still smiling. "Want to get out of here? I know some great places—"
"Are you trying to kick me out?"
"What?" His smile disappeared. "No! I meant that we'd be leaving together to… you know…" And he winked, leaning closer. His lips quirked up again. "I definitely felt something; and you reacted. So you felt it, too."
"Wow. You really are a genius."
"We're… we're soul-mates. I know it. You know it." Phil remained silent. "Why don't you say something?"
"I don't see that there's anything to say," Phil replied.
"But didn't you feel it?" Tony's voice was getting louder. Phil sighed.
"Yes, I felt it," he said.
He took his hand back, and crossed it over the other in front of him, taking up his usual working pose. "Mr. Stark, you seem to be under the impression that I want you as a soul-mate."
Tony stepped back, flinching. "Why wouldn't you? We're meant to be together."
"Many people find happiness with those who are not their soul-mates," Phil said. "You've proven that time and again over the last decade. Isn't this also the tenth anniversary of the time you made it into the tabloids?"
"Ouch," Tony said, and he laughed weakly. "Well, you know teenagers."
"And I've known many teenagers who've never slept around, certainly not as often as you do. You've never been with anyone more than once."
"Well, I've never been with my soul-mate before, which is different, so—"
"Your drunken behaviour and frequent dalliances are hardly desirable behaviour in a partner, even one supposedly decreed by Fate," Phil continued. "You may be handsome, intelligent, and rich; but I look for more important things in a partner. Loyalty, kindness…" He stopped, not just because he was running out of things to say to someone who was, in fact, his host; but also because said host was now looking away, disinterested. "I'm sorry, but… we just can't do this. I don't want—"
"I get it, and you're right," Tony said. He half-smiled. "It was nice meeting you anyway. I was wondering whether there was even someone out there… Well, as you said, there are lots of people. I don't need to be tied down to one person now." He swallowed. "Uh, see ya. Stick around as long as you want. I'll just be… I'll leave you alone."
Slinking away from the stranger, Tony acknowledged the truth. The soul-mates thing wasn't set in stone, no matter what anyone said. Many people went their whole lives without knowing who their other half was, and they were perfectly happy with whoever they found. And it's not like he'd ever really believed in One True Love. If he had, he would've waited. He was only twenty-five; it wasn't that long.
Damn it! He should've waited anyway. Throwing away his (underage) virginity on some fellow student, honing his skills in bed these past ten years, drinking and partying whenever he could come up with an excuse for it. These had lost him… what he really had wanted.
And the stranger was right. For a night in bed, Tony was the guy. He was – to use the vernacular – 'easy', even 'free-wheeling'. He knew how to have a good time, and give his partner an even better time. He could out-drink pretty much everyone he knew, and still drive without crashing into anything. But as a life partner? He had no idea how to do relationships, wasn't the family type, sure as hell wasn't the guy you took home to meet your parents.
His soul-mate – his soul-mate – was right about Tony, was right to reject him. He looked like a decent guy; he had to be, to be Tony's opposite. And let's be honest. Nobody should have someone like Tony Stark as their husband 'until death do you part'.
Even his One True… Love?
"…and then Brucey – okay, the Big Green – smashed him, like, ten times!" Tony sat back in the hospital chair, grinning.
"Yes," Steve Rogers (the actual Captain America) said, frowning at Tony. "I was getting to that part."
"But that was the epic finish," Tony protested. "And really, you should just read my report, Agent. It makes Frank Miller's books look dull."
Phil raised an eyebrow. He was still hooked up to some machines, but not as many as the first time the Avengers had visited. Now that he was allowed visitors, the first thing they did was tell him all about the battle in Manhattan. "You were saying, Captain?"
Steve sighed. "It's all in the reports."
"But read mine first," Tony said. "It's the best." He held himself back from winking. It wasn't as hard as he thought it'd be.
It felt like yesterday when the man lying in the hospital bed came up and introduced himself, rattling off Strategic Homeland Blah-blah-blah. Tony didn't even pay attention to that part; he was too busy staring at this… what was his name? Agent Coulson? Was Agent his first name? Who cared? Tony had found his soul-mate again!
And… and the pain of remembering his rejection was just as raw as it'd been every day since his twenty-fifth birthday. At least in Afghanistan, it didn't matter if he died; he didn't have a family to come home to. Just a few friends, one of whom betrayed him in the end.
That was also why he grabbed that nuclear missile, only more so. Phil was dead (they thought), so why worry about his own safety anymore? Not that he'd hoped for anything the last fifteen years. That boat had sailed. This bird had flown. All those trite analogies which didn't even scratch the surface on how he really felt about screwing up his chance at a happy life with… Anyway.
It wasn't fair that Pepper knew his real first name before Tony did; later that night, he'd told her the truth. She was already his cover; surely this show of monogamy would earn him points with 'Agent'?
But no. Phil really didn't like him; even threatened to electrocute him. He never mentioned their original meeting, never smiled at Tony. Never gave him any kind of hope. It just reminded Tony that he didn't deserve hope. He could try to be a better person; that was it.
It was great to see Pepper again; at least it was after she finished yelling at him about faking his death, crying as she described the memorial service they'd had for him and for the other fallen agents, and then filling him in on everything that had happened 'while he was sleeping'.
And then berating him.
"You know, you sure had an impact on him," she said. "Thinking you were dead… it hit Tony hard." Phil shifted under the covers, uncomfortable.
"It motived them," he said. "Except Banner. He came back because it was the right thing to do. I hope someone's told him; he needs to hear things like that."
"Tony's made him feel very much at home."
Phil's gut clenched. It must've been related to his injury. Or the bad hospital food. He couldn't wait to get back to work.
"Glad to hear it," he said.
"Tony's a good man."
"He is," Pepper said, leaning forward. "He's never gotten over how you made him feel. Your death… it nearly killed him."
"Impossible. We never even kissed, let alone bonded."
"I mean that he attempted suicide."
He froze, and then struggled to sit up.
"When he flew that bomb into space, he was only doing it because he thought you were—"
"Bomb? He flew a bomb into space?"
"You don't know the full story?" He shook his head. "Oh."
Pepper had read the reports, and told him all about the battle. He had no idea just how big a part Tony had played; every time he'd interrupted Steve, he'd drawn attention to what someone else did. Phil didn't even know that the WSC had sent a nuke to Manhattan, let alone that Tony intercepted it and nearly sacrificed his life.
"He didn't tell me," he mumbled. "Pepper, he never told me. And he didn't let anyone else… I don't understand."
"Oh, Phil," she said, and she squeezed his arm. "You don't know the real Tony Stark. Everything you've used to base your judgement on his character… it just doesn't show what he's really like. He's generous; he donates a lot of money publicly, but he donates even more privately. In the little free time he has, he's been locating the remaining Stark Industries weapons and disabling them himself, without the armour. He's offered Bruce Banner a home – all of the Avengers, actually, but Bruce needs it most of all – and is doing a better job of integrating Steve into the twenty-first century than SHIELD has."
"I didn't know—"
"He doesn't seem like a caring person," she continued, talking over him. "But no matter how self-involved he is, he spends so much of his time and energy making people's lives easier, better. His job is to create tech to help others; it's no longer about making bombs. He once told me that his suit is the greatest protection ever created." She laughed softly. "I told him that a lot of women are attracted to superheroes in cool suits. He gave me this funny look – kind of hurt – and said that it was protection for other people."
Phil swallowed, and entwined his fingers in his lap. "You're lucky to have him, then."
"I'm a cover."
"We're not together; we've never been together. He hasn't… he hasn't spent the night with anyone since before Afghanistan. His drinking increased, yes; it's been increasing since he was twenty-five. But he's been trying to cut back. Once SHIELD came into his life, and seemed to be here to stay, he threw his energy into other things. And then Loki and the Chitauri happened, and he nearly died because he's a good man, and he figured that he had no reason to live when he could go out doing what he really wants to do.
"He's changed, Phil. For the better." She sighed, and sat back. "I just wish you could see it."
Twenty-five again. Twenty-five minutes passed. The first five, he thought about the gossip that the tabloids spread about Tony Stark, virtually since birth. The next fifteen were for each year since that damn party, each year spent working for SHIELD, never bothering with a relationship unless it was for a job.
The last five, he considered everything that he'd experienced since he met Tony again; everything he'd seen, from the inception (and confession) of Iron Man, to the party where Colonel Rhodes stole the armour and Tony nearly died of alcohol poisoning, when he was dying of a different kind of poisoning, right up to the hospital visit where he made sure that Phil never knew the extent of his heroism.
"I see it," he finally said. Pepper had been watching him, and nearly jumped when he spoke. "He is a good man. He's… I misjudged him. I never misjudge people. But I misjudged the one person I should've trusted above anyone else." He scrunched up the sheets in agitation. "What did I do?"
His chest heaved with angry breaths. "I was so stupid. All this time wasted." He rubbed a hand down his face. "Oh God. I hurt him, didn't I?"
"Yeah," she whispered. "You did."
He shook his head. "I have to say sorry. Will you bring him here? Please, Pepper. I want to…"
"Want to what?"
"I want him back."
"What about your cellist?"
"…You know how you're Stark's… Tony's cover?"
Pepper's eyebrows shot up. "The cellist is a cover?"
"The cellist isn't even real. You remember when you said that he'd never gotten over losing his soul-mate? I needed to make something up, so that he'd stop mourning his 'loss'."
Pepper banged her head softly against the wall behind her, over and over. "You idiot."
"I think we've established that I'm an idiot. So I've gotta ask: how do I win him back?"
Tony was wary. He didn't understand why Phil was asking him this.
"But you don't want me," he said. He wasn't used to feeling this vulnerable, and crossed his arms over his chest. "You said so."
"And I was wrong." Phil held out his hand. "Please forgive me, Tony. I—"
"I forgive you," Tony said. "But I can't accept you."
"I'm sorry, but every time I look at you… God, even when you were unconscious, every time I look at you I only remember your rejection. I understand why you did what you did, and I agree with you. Every word you said about me was true."
"Let me talk! Just… I guess I was spoilt enough to expect my soul-mate to be ecstatic when they met me. It reminded me of what my dad said once; he said that I was the pretty face of SI, but that brains and money were the only things which would get me any friends. I remembered that when I went to bed that night. It was probably a bad idea to be alone. But I would've just been thinking about you." He sighed, and looked away. "I don't like being reminded of the bad aspects of my character, and that's all I think of when I'm with you. So I can't do this."
Phil held out his hand again. "Dinner. That's all I'm asking." Tony shook his head. "Drinks?" He snorted, and another shake. "Coffee, at least?" Again. "Tony, please. We can start again—"
"Haven't you been listening?" Tony jumped to his feet, and Phil let his hand fall again. "I don't want to be with you anymore. It kills me just to hear you talk. To… to be in the same room as you."
"Tony, I don't know what to do to make it up to you. Just tell me—"
"You don't have to make anything up to me," Tony said, and he walked towards the door. He paused, and turned back to Phil. "There's really nothing to forgive anyway. Like I said, you were right. I agreed with you. Just… please let it go."
He disappeared before Phil could say anything else. Any more stupid entreaties or explanations. It was too late for that. He wouldn't give in. A fire was still hot, no matter how many times you touched it, and he'd had enough of being burned. His mother's death. His father's neglect. Afghanistan. Obie's betrayal. Losing the soul-mate who was never even his in the first place, and was never actually lost.
Of course he'd cover any medical expenses; Phil was part of the team in some way, or would be after he recovered. And Pepper would insist on it. But that was it. Those doors were all closed, reinforced with locks Tony made from his anger and hurt and the idiotic tears he'd shed the night of his twenty-fifth birthday. Every unkind word was another 'KEEP OUT' sign.
He walked out of the hospital and climbed into his car, all without registering the outside world. It was only when Happy asked where he wanted to go that Tony snapped out of it.
"The tower," he said. He couldn't say 'home'.
It would be a lie.
It was always a lie.
Let it be said that Phillip J Coulson is not a quitter. He sent emails, text messages, even flowers and chocolates. He called, tried to keep Tony back after debriefings in the weeks that followed; weeks that turned into months. Months of no replies, of returned gifts, of blatant ignoring or dismissal. What was worse was the look that Tony got each time their eyes met.
No swooping, charged moment.
No shivers when they touched.
(No touching at all.)
"Tony—" Tony tried to close the door, but Phil stopped it. "Please. I'll do anything. Just let me talk to you."
"Go away, Agent Coulson."
Phil bit back the hurt, and pressed on. "I want to be with you. I've wanted to be with you ever since we met again. Since the Avengers Initiative. Maybe even before."
"You should've thought of that when…" Tony stopped. He shook his head. "Leave."
"But I love you!"
"I don't care!" He breathed in and out heavily. "I don't care. It's as simple as that. I've had enough time to get on with a life without you. It'd be great if you let me keep doing that."
"You're not the only one affected by this," Phil said. Tony scowled at him; he was close to losing control. It was visible in the tightening of his mouth, the trembling in his shoulders. "I know you don't love me back, but—"
"You see, that's the thing," Tony said. He was still holding onto the door. "I did."
Phil couldn't move, and Tony used the opportunity to slam the door shut. The agent pressed against it, a token movement. He would never force entry on his soul-mate's home; the last thing Tony needed was that kind of violence, no matter how gentle Phil would have been with him. Gentle kisses. Gentle touches. Gentle everything.
But his heart broke as he leaned his head on the wood, hands either side. There'd be nothing like that. There never had been; now there never would be. There would be no happiness, no one waiting for him when he got home, no love. Not now that he was in love with his soul-mate, too many years too late.
Tony got on well with his fellow Avengers, even the Black Widow. Sometimes, Phil got to see Tony laughing with them over a joke, or a movie, or a shared story. He stopped when he saw Phil.
"What's up, boss?" Clint called across the room. Tony stopped laughing, right on cue. He didn't even turn around to look, even though he knew that Phil was in the room with them.
"Nothing," Phil said. "Just checking in." He glanced at Tony. "Everything good here?"
"We're gonna watch Who Framed Roger Rabbit? tonight. Join us?"
Tony's shoulders tensed.
"I've got a meeting with Miss Potts," Phil said. "That comes with a lot of paperwork. Thanks for the offer, but not this time." He watched the tension bleed out, and steadfastly kept his expression bland, even though he just wanted to sit in a corner and listen to sad music. (And cry.) Being rejected by someone at school or in a bar was one thing. Being rejected by your soul-mate was absolutely crushing.
For the first time, Agent Coulson knew exactly what it felt like to be in Tony Stark's shoes.
Six months after Phil was released from hospital – just after Tony's forty-first birthday – he ran into the agent while wandering the corridors of SHIELD. Okay, so he wasn't actually wandering; Tony Stark never just wandered. But he did feel listless. Some of the loneliness was gone, now that he was surrounded by friends. Yeah. They said that they were his friends, and they lived with him most of the time. Bruce was his science soul-mate; that's what Tony called him anyway. It took away some of the sting.
That sting came back when he saw Phil again. At least the agent's blush told him that it really was just an accident, meeting like this. That didn't make it hurt any less.
He couldn't pinpoint the exact moment he'd fallen in love with Phil Coulson. The most accurate would probably be when they first saw each other, before his proverbial heart was torn from his chest and stomped to pieces on the ground. That was the real reason he had no heart. So he shouldn't have continued to feel this way. He should've have still been in love with—
But countless dreams of an unnamed stranger haunted him every time he slept alone. Every drink he took reminded him of the wine he'd wiped away. And then hearing about how he'd 'died'…
Then Tony realised that they were standing, staring at each other, and he forced away the memories in favour of walking around the agent.
Or trying to.
Phil never touched him; Tony stopped of his own accord, looking more closely at the circular tie-pin.
"What's that?" he asked, poking it. Phil straightened the tie, his hand brushing against Tony's, and they both inhaled sharply.
"It's nothing," he said. "I'll just be—"
"It's not nothing," Tony said, and he grabbed Phil's arm and pulled him back, looking him right in the eye. "I know that. It's a piece of the first arc reactor I made for my chest. You're… you're wearing it as a tie-pin."
"It's not exactly fashionable, but I saw an ad for a jeweller who specialises in obscure requests, and you destroyed the prototype after you made an actual replacement."
"But why a piece of my arc reactor?" When Phil didn't speak, Tony shook him. "Tell me!"
Oh God. Those were tears, weren't they? He'd stake JARVIS's life on it. They were quickly blinked away; but he'd already seen the moisture, seen the lower lip quiver.
"I can't have your real heart," Phil whispered shakily. "This is the best I can do. When I see it, I remember the worst mistake I've ever made. A mistake so bad that I can't take it back. And I really wish I could, Tony. Not just for me; for both of us. I'd give anything to go back in time and…" He looked down. "Let me go, and I'll get out of your hair."
He pulled himself free; Tony was too shocked to stop him. He could barely breathe.
Phil had already made a huge mistake, and he was now walking away. Tony wasn't going to let the same thing happen again.
"I lied," he said. Phil stopped mid-step. "In the hospital. When I see you… the first thing I remember is the moment I recognised my soul-mate for the first time. I remember approaching you, never taking my eyes away. Damn it, I still feel the first time I touched you, without even concentrating."
Phil flinched when Tony reached out; but he came easily when Tony pulled him close. Stroked his cheeks. Cradled his head. Finally – finally – met his lips.
The third sign. A brain-melting kiss.
It was chaste, of course; anything more intense for the first time, and SHIELD agents would have to scrape them both off the floor. It was just enough to convince them that they really, really needed to find a bedroom. And a celebrant. Tomorrow.
They'd waited sixteen years.
They weren't going to wait any longer.
Another prompt filled! I actually adore the idea of this pairing, but I didn't know whether I could do it justice. I hope the OP likes it. *Wide-eyed* Please like it!
Erm, yes. Hey! A story that's not Capsicoul. I'm so proud of myself.