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Blue Lips, Blue Veins

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When Tony Stark, age zero years, zero months, zero days, and zero minutes came screaming into the world on the 29th of May, 1970, it was a bright, sunny day in Manhattan, New York.

Brought into the world by some of the cities finest doctors and nurses, from the very start, he was inducted into a life of comfort and luxury.

His father waited anxiously in the corridor, preferring to leave the business of childbirth to his wife. Seeing her in such a state could potentially damage their professional relationship, and instead he paced up and down, gnawing at his nails, as he waited for the sex of the child to be revealed.

When Tony Stark, age zero years, zero months, zero days, and zero minutes came screaming into the world, his mother would not hold him and his father got drunk.

 

It was not the first attempt.

Maria and Howard, in the early days of their marriage, had once been in love.

Not deeply in love. Not the sort of love that gets songs written in it’s honour. Not man and woman, together, into the sunset. Howard, after the traditional period of courtship, had admitted that women were not hit forte. But that he had money. And that was something she wanted.

They shared a companionship. Ambition. A certain greed for power. Howard, older and not young as he used to be, had seen in Maria more than voluptuous curves and ruby lips, more than the olive skin and the ebony hair, he had seen a wit and raw intelligence, a characteristic he admired in anyone, particularly his soon to be 'wife'.

And Maria, young and beautiful, had seen in Howard, a man old enough to be her father, a chance to escape her own domineering family. A chance for power, for something else. A strong character, she had always known what she wanted. She was Italian. A staunch catholic, when she chose to be.

A whirlwind romance. A marriage. Howard Stark, semi-eligable bachelor, was off the market, and hundreds of greedy socialites wept into their martinis as Maria Collins Carbonell, Italian nobody and daughter of a criminal, swept away with the main prize.

Not that the deal was sealed, obviously. Howard needed something first.

Maria had no idealistic ideas about why exactly Howard had married her. She knew what he wanted, and it wasn’t her smarts. She was young, attractive. Howard needed an heir. From the start, an unwritten contract of sorts was drawn up between them: ‘I can give you what you want if you can give me a son.'

Maria had no interest in children. She was young and the idea of being pulled down by a child, a screaming, crying, puking child, did not appeal. The idea of her life being put on hold was not one that she had interest in. She married Howard for the status, for the chance to do something right by her life. Charity was her passion, a strange choice, maybe, for a woman so shrewd. But she followed the values by which she had been raised.

To be honest, the only other way she was going to get out was to become a nun.

When she had felt the first baby swell inside her, like a cancerous growth, Maria had panicked. She did not, could not, would not, have this child. She could not give her life to this baby. She was too young, and Howard was too old, and he drank too much, and they would both be terrible parents. It was a bad, bad, idea.

Two months later, when she woke up with bloody sheets and a burning in her gut, she felt ill, so so incredibly ill, and evil, that the only emotion she could conjure up was relief.

But Howard had been kind. It had brought them together, that first failure, the child that never was. Maria planted a tree in their garden, in the back, right by the spot where she would sometimes read in the summer, so that in the coming years she could rest under the shade.

“We can try again,” Howard had assured her, as if that was supposed to be a comfort, a reassurance we’ll try again, even though Maria did not want this.

In the mean time, she set up the Maria Stark Foundation. It tackled poverty abroad, mostly, in the developing countries, but very quietly offered aid to woman escaping abusive relationships.

After that, Howard’s drinking got heavier. Always a steady drinker, in the summer of 1961, he took a downward turn. Maria made allowances.

Howard killed people for a living. She wouldn’t begrudge him his method of escape. Life was stressful, for him, always had been. She was not their to offer comfort.

The next attempt ended in a child carried to six months. This time, it was far along enough to go into labour, and she gave birth to a very dead little boy.

Howard was not so forgiving. He was not cruel, and he never blamed her, but the loss of the son that could have been jarred something inside him. After the customary period of comfort was done, he began to drink more. Work took up too much time. Sometimes, he would be gone for days, and Maria wouldn’t know where he was, or what he was doing. Men started to visit the house on ‘private business’, and Howard would drink and drink and drink until the morning, when they would slip out the front door, sometimes giving Maria a knowing tilt of the head or a sly smile.

The third baby was carried to term.

It was an easy birth, and Maria, even after seven years, did not feel ready to have this baby. She did not want it. But holding her daughter in her arms for the first time, she felt something so profound.

It was like a light. There was a light inside her chest, and it was blooming.

Every little gurgle, every tiny whine. She kept counting her fingers, her toes, everything about her little baby girl, so perfect in every single way.

They had taken her home, and even Howard had been happy. He had, for the first time in years, slung his arm over her shoulder. He was disappointed, yes, he had admitted, but there was always next time. And their little girl was so perfect it didn’t matter anyway. For two days, Howard Stark was the ideal of a doting father.

Their daughter never got a name, though, because when Maria went to pick her up the next morning she was dead.

Maria had cried. She had wept. And Howard, he had gotten so, so drunk.

She hated him. Maria hated him. He drank and drank while she cried and cried, and he turned cruel, so easily, he switched, his usual affable humour and charisma lost under a sea of vodka and delusion.

“I’m glad,” he slurred, spitting over the table “I’m fucking glad she’s dead, so she didn’t have to put up with you as a fucking mother.” And then he had downed his glass in one, and flung it at the wall where it narrowly missed her head.

After that, life slowly descended into hell.

Maria was stubborn, but so was Howard. Neither could see eye to eye. They began to despise one another.

Yet neither of them ever filed for divorce. Howard got older, Maria grew more desperate, and as her biological clock ticked down Howard grew crueler and crueler. He would apologise, afterwards, always. Because he had a problem. Because he was under pressure. Sometimes, after an argument, there would be days of peace, where they would sit together, where there were no fights. It was during these times that Howard would try again to conceive a child while she lay there, like a thing, nothing more, and let him.

He never hit her. Maria did not care. She grew up on the streets where marital violence was an accepted part of life. She almost wanted him too, if only because she could slap him back.

One night, Howard had got drunk. Very drunk. And he had left, run away, driven off into the night. Maria didn’t stop him, because if he died then she would inherit the fortune.

He nearly did. He was saved by a man, young, an ex-soldier who had served in Vietnam. He was living on the streets at the time, he had no family, he explained. And Howard, always impulsive, always with that twisted vein of kindness that endeared Maria to him at the very start, hired him on the spot.

Edwin Jarvis, he said his name was, and he said he was from England, originally. A little village in the south. He had emigrated to the US in the hopes of finding his fortune, of chasing the American dream of which Howard was so fond. Maria had laughed, because her family too had come in the hopes of finding a better life, only to be dragged into the seedy underbelly of New York.

Maria was the clever one in her family.

But Edwin had fallen on hard times. Young, and without money, he had enlisted. Vietnam, he had hoped, would be an adventure. Surely, Maria had asked, you couldn’t have been that naive. And Edwin Jarvis had shrugged and said that the alternative was worse. You have to make the best of a bad situation, he had said with wisdom beyond his years, because otherwise living is pointless.

Jarvis was a few years younger than Maria, and he made life bearable.

With Jarvis in the house, Howard stopped drinking so readily. He toned down the arguments. They formed an uneasy peace. Howard was fond of him, and they became good friends. Ever paranoid in his old age, Jarvis was one of the few people Howard claimed he could trust.

And so finally, in the August of 1969, Maria conceived one last time.

She and Howard, with tentative hope, were drawn together by the small miracle inside her stomach.

Whereas before she had feared having a child, having to give up her life, that was now no longer the case. She longed for a baby, she was desperate for a chance to raise a little girl, a little girl like her beautiful baby, the one she had lost. And in the back of her mind, she knew that this baby would not be that one, that this was no substitute. But Howard was happy. He stopped drinking, that summer. They did not pretend to be in love, but they were able to re-kindle the friendship, and then ambition, that had tied them together.

 

It took a while to decide on a name. For a while, before the birth, Tony was not Tony. He was Howard Jr. And then he was Antonio. And then, after the idea that the child could conceivably be a girl crossed Howard’s mind, he was Natasha. And then Elizabeth.

Eventually, there was compromise.

“If it’s a girl,” Howard had said, smiling over his amber glass “then you get to pick. Square deal, Maria.”

And Maria had spat.

“Bah,” she had said with a coy grin stretched out over red lips “the child will be saddled with your name, Howard, no matter what. I get pick of the crop.”

“Honey,” Howard had said in the deprecating way he was so fond of “if it’s a girl, the name’s gonna change anyhow. That’s not gonna matter, then. You pick, either way.”

“You have no interest in a daughter, Howard,” Maria’s accented voice had lilted, as it was prone to do when under strain “so I choose the son. I’m the one doing to work, honey, you try squeezing a water melon from your tight little ass and then we’ll see if you’d be keen for it to take an American name.” She took a deep drag of her cigarette, one hand poised gently on her swollen belly.

“An American name?” Howard had raised an eyebrow “what’s wrong with a good, strong name? Kid’s gonna be up to it in crap, Maria, he’s gotta’ be strong. No namby-pamby crap, come on, be reasonable.”

Maria had stood firm, stubborn. “My child,” she says “mine. I’ll choose the name,” another long drag “Antonio, if it’s a boy, like my brother. Natasha if it’s a girl.”

Howard had snorted. “Antonio’s a fucking waster and Natasha sounds like a prostitute.”

Maria had fixed him with cool eyes. Of course Howard thought that. Howard, like many other things about her, chose to ignore her native country as another blip in the road. He ignored the fact that this child would be more Italian than American, if Maria had her way.

“Honey, if it’s a girl,” she drawled “you’re going to be pimping her out as soon as she hits eighteen. Let’s not pretend you have the moral high ground.”

“It won’t be a girl,” Howard had said, confidently “I know it. But if it is, then she can be Natasha.”

There’s something unspoken between them, about the baby, the first baby that they brought home and never saw grow up.

She would be five, now.

“And if it’s a boy,” Maria had continued “it will be Antonio. Antonio Stark.”

Howard had snorted, downed a small glass of amber liquid. “If it’s a boy,” he said “then he’ll get a good, strong name. One that I can be proud of.”

Maria had arched an eyebrow. “So you decided on Howard? You want a good, strong name and you chose your own?”

Howard had frowned. “That, you’re insulting me.”

“Caro Dio,” she had rolled her eyes “dear God, Howard.”

They decided on Anthony. Worthy of praise. A good, strong name.

 

It was a difficult birth. Very, very difficult. Maria spent 48 hours on that bed, the contractions tearing her apart, screaming while Howard paced outside. This baby was a monster, it wasn’t coming out and Maria thought, she was scared, she thought maybe that she was going to die because the pain was so intense and nobody did anything, there was too much risk, too much risk of the babies life.

Howard was willing to let her die if it meant getting a shot at a son. And it didn’t surprise her but goddam if she was going to die like this, sweating and bleeding and screaming while her husband drank martini’s from the hospital suite’s private bar.

Dear God, she was going to die, she had thought she was going to die. She felt like every part of her was tearing, and the nurses kept wiping her brow and feeding her ice and telling her to push, push, push and she screamed at them in her own language, coarse and undignified. There was no room for dignity in childbirth.

“Get it out!” She screamed “Get it out of me!”

She heard people talking, heard the doctors murmuring, as someone fed her ice chips. She heard her husbands voice as she writhed, “Howard!” She screamed “get this thing out of me!”

“You’re crowning!” Someone had shouted, and Maria had been exhausted, she had been so tired, and the nurses told her to push, one last time, just push, and so with a final, monumental effort she pushed the baby from her sweaty, bloody body, and he slid into the world, his first moments captured inside a humid, sweaty hospital suite, heavy with the stench of birth.

“It’s a boy!” The doctors had said “It’s a healthy boy, Mrs Stark.”

And Maria, exhausted, and broken down, and wrung out, had cried because she did not want a boy, she did not want an Anthony, she wanted her girl, all she wanted was her little girl and this had all been for nothing, her last chance and she had blown it, she had screamed here for days and all she had to show was a child, a little boy, who would grow up to be just like his father, an American warmonger, and Maria sobbed, screamed, she wouldn’t hold him, he was not hers.

The next thing she remembers is lying in a different bed somewhere in their suite, and Howard is sitting beside her in his chair, the little boy in his arms, and he’s smiling, grin stretched wide across his face. “Jarvis went home,” he said “he’s getting everything ready, we’ll have a party, we need to celebrate.” Howard said, eyes fixed intently on the thing in his arms.

“No party,” Maria had said, voice hoarse “no party, Howard.”

He had frowned. “Maria,” he started “sweetie—”

“No party!” She had spat “I don’t want a party, I don’t want one, I want my baby, Howard, I want my baby, I don’t—”

“Here,” Howard said, quickly “here, take him, look at him,” and he pushed him forward, tried to lever him into her arms.

She had backed away “Don’t.” She had said, eyes screwed shut “I don’t want him,” she hissed “I don’t, I won’t,” she gasped “he’s not my child, he’s yours, he’s yours!”

Howard looked at her, eyes wide. “Maria,” he said quietly “what the fuck is this. What are you doing, hold him. He is your son, what is wrong—”

“I don’t want him!” She had screamed “get him away from me! Get away from me! All of you, leave, I don’t—”

The baby had started to wail, Howard wasn’t holding him right, his little arm was pressed tight against his chest as he made a shrill noise of discomfort.

“You’re delirious,” he said, coldly “you need to sleep.”

“I don’t need to sleep,” she had cried, hysterical “I don’t need sleep, I don’t want that baby, he’s not mine — Doctor!” She screamed “Doctor, take it away, I don’t want it, I don’t want it—”

They sedated her, after that. A few days later, a nurse talked about the birthing blues in a calm, warm voice, talked about how it had been a difficult birth, she was all shaken up, but if she would just hold her child she would see that he wasn’t evil, he was just a baby, that it wasn’t his fault that the birth had been so troublesome.

Maria doesn’t care. She spits in the woman’s face an crosses her arms. It’s Howard’s baby and she wants no part of it. She wants no part in a baby that will grow up to be a monster, just like his daddy.

One day, some months after the birth, Jarvis isn’t home. She didn’t know why, he just wasn’t, and Howard was at work, and even if he hadn’t been it’s not like he would have helped. But the baby is crying. And crying. And crying. And Maria is trying to play the piano and she can hear it down the corridor, screaming and screaming and screaming and it won’t shut up. She jams her fingers into the keys, plays an ugly, discordant melody, and the baby continues to bawl.

Eventually, she stands in front of the cot, looking down. It’s face is crumpled and wet, it’s still crying, and Maria wonders vaguely if anyone has fed it yet. It’s almost breathless, face turning blue with exertion, and Maria feels sorry for it, in a disconnected way. It’s not fair to have had this baby, to bring it into a world with an alcoholic father and depressed, insane mother.

The baby keeps screaming and Maria keeps watching.

She feels disconnected entirely, like she’s walking though a dream. She wants to let it scream. Let it scream and scream and if it’s still alive when Jarvis gets back then well, so be it.

It would be so easy to just bring a pillow down over it’s face.

It coughs. Drags in a deep shaky breath. It’s eyes crack open and it mewls pathetically, legs shifting and fists clenching.

It’s not fair. It’s not fair for either of them. Maria does not want this baby.

But it’s not his fault.

They have a common enemy, she realises, her and this boy. She has to protect him. She has to stop Howard from sinking in her claws before it’s too late. She needs to stop this boy from growing up to be just like that man, a war monger, broken, and empty inside. Maria starts to cry.

She cries because she is alone, because there is no one who loves her. Her family abandoned her and she hasn’t said ‘I love you’ to her husband since their wedding night. If she died, nobody would care. She cries because this baby is equally alone, because if she doesn’t do something, if she does not help him, no one else ever will. Because Howard is a drunk and a fanatic and it’s own mother was contemplating his own murder just moments ago.

It’s not fair. None of this is fair.

The baby coughs, drags in a shaky breath. Opens it’s mouth to bawl.

She picks up her son.

Chapter Text

When Tony was 6 years old he attended church with his mother on Sunday mornings. He remembers the leather seats in the chauffeur driven car, the acrid smell of smoke from her cigar, and being pressed against her side.

He can’t remember the occasion but he can pinpoint the swirl of her skirt, the smell of her perfume and the way she slid silk gloves over delicate fingers. The pearls that lay on her throat. On those mornings they would eat together, his mother spreading strawberry jam over fresh bread. He can actually still taste the bitter orange juice. He hated drinking it, hated the lumpy pulp and bits that he had to force down, but did it anyway. His mother would sit opposite him, smoking. Most mornings there was a surreptitious glass of amber liquid filled mostly with ice by her side.

Tony would sit on the hard pews while his mother looked ahead, eyes focused on the methodical movements of the priest. Other members of New York’s high society would sit around them dutifully repeating the words given to them.

Sometimes, on the drive back to the mansion, his mother would ask him about his week, how he was. She would test him on his prayers, on Italian phrases, and Tony would answer. Then she would smile, call him ‘tesero’ and turn her head to look out the window.

Those were good days.

On bad days, when they got back to the car, she would sit facing ahead, cigarette on her lips, glass in hand.

 

It starts like this.

Tony Stark is six years old and playing with his cars in the shaded area with the trees in his mother’s garden. It’s summer, early June, and the leaves are casting shade over his work. He’s trying to get the cars to take off at the same time but he can’t. He’s thinking maybe that he needs some rope or something to make into a catapult because he only has two hands and he can’t make the cars all take off at once without some extra help. He's doing math in his head, momentum and velocity and speed but it doesn't matter because he hasn't got any elastic to make it with.

He thinks he might have lost track of the time because he hears the sound of his mother’s voice and her soft footprints on the grass. He remembers that he was supposed to go to Jarvis to get ready for the thing that’s happening tonight and now he knows his mom is gonna tell him off even though it wasn’t really his fault.

He pretends not to hear her voice in the hope that she might leave and realises that she’s not alone. There’s another adult with her, a large guy with thick shaggy brown hair and a big beard who reminds Tony of the bear in the picture book his uncle got him on hunting. Tony looks up, cars forgotten, because it looks like his mom is coming to talk to him and he is curious because her mouth is pinched together like it goes when dad drinks at breakfast on Sundays or Tony forgets the first line of the hail Mary.

The big man crouches down onto one knee in the grass and points at Tony’s cars, one hand fixed on his knee. “What you doing there, M’boy?” He asks, smiling and using that quiet voice that adults use when they talk to kids.

Tony sniffs. “Racing cars.” He says, rolling the wheels of Red car over his hand. “But I’m gonna make a catapult,” he explains “so I can make all of them go off at the same time.”

The man laughs and mom rolls her eyes where he can’t see. He ruffles Tony’s hair. “He’s a chip of the old block, Maria,” he says, grinning “just like his old man.”

Now mom’s lips get really pinched into a tight line and she holds her hands in front of her black dress. “He sure is,” she says, using the same voice she uses for the newspapers. “Honey,” she says, looking at Tony robotically “this is Obadiah Stane. He’s going to be helping your dad out with the business, so you’ll be seeing him around a lot from now on.” Mom doesn’t sound very happy about that fact.

Tony blinks. He knows that ‘business is tight’ because he’s heard his dad talking to Jarvis, but he doesn’t know why and he doesn’t know what Roxxon is either. He figures that Obadiah must be here to help dad with the money stuff because Jarvis says that his dad is real clever with making things but he’s not so great at ‘the finances.’ He’s happy that Obie has come to help because his mom and dad fight more when dad is working hard.

“That’s cool,” Tony says, playing with the grass.

“You’re right, it is very cool,” Obie says, solemnly and Tony giggles.

“Come on, Anthony,” mom says, taking his hand “we need to get you ready.”

Tony frowns because mom isn’t going to get him ready, Jarvis is, but he’s clever enough not to point it out. “Say bye to Mr Stane.”

“Bye Mr Stane.” Tony says, waving and wiping down the grass from his shorts.

“Bye, kiddo,” he says “call me Obie, yeah?”

Tony smiles when his mother’s hand tightens on his shoulder, gently tugging him with a firm grip back to the main house. “I’m just gonna smoke,” Obie says “hope you don’t mind?”

Mom’s lips widen but her eyes don’t crinkle. “Not at all, Obadiah, I’ll have someone call you for dinner.”

Tony’s mom yanks him away, dragging him across the grass. “Mooom,” he whines, feet scuffing against the patio as she pulls him to the french doors “Mom, I was playing.”

Maria scuffles him inside, hand on his wrist, pulling him down oak corridors. “Don’t be silly, Anthony,” she says, heels clacking against the wood “Jarvis?” She calls, voice shrill “Jarvis? God, where is he,” she says something in Italian that Tony hasn’t got time to translate “Jarvis!”

“Here, Mrs Stark,” he says, appearing calmly from an open doorway. Jarvis isn’t like normal butlers because the butlers that Tony has seen at other people’s parties have been old and have no hair. Jarvis is old, but he’s not as old as his dad, he’s maybe around his mom’s age. Tony hasn’t asked, because that’s rude, and mom said you should never ask someone their age after he asked Mrs Gifford at her husband’s funeral and wondered if she was going to be next and made her cry.

Jarvis is really tall and his has an English accent. He always wears a white shirt and black pants and he doesn’t wear the stupid clothes that most butlers wear. Dad said it’s because Jarvis is their friend, not their worker, even though dad pays him to do stuff.

Tony loves Jarvis. He’s really cool. He reads him stories before he goes to bed, and makes baths fun. He took Tony to the aquarium for his birthday and bought him a giant plushy shark that he keeps in his bed and calls Cap.

“Jarvis,” she says again, relived, and Jarvis hoists Tony into his arms “he needs a bath,” she says, fiddling with an earring “could you put him to bed tonight?”

Jarvis smiles and says ‘of course’ even though Jarvis is always the one to put him to bed and mom just says that sometimes to make it sound like she does too.

“Chop chop, Tony,” Jarvis says, letting him slip to the floor “come on, you don’t want to be here when the party starts.”

Tony wrinkles his nose. “I hate the parties.”

Jarvis hums. “I know,” he says “so hurry up and get in the bath.”

Tony grumbles, because he really hates baths too, and the soap always gets in his eyes, it’s ridiculous. Jarvis shepherds him up the stairs into his bedroom and Tony groans, crosses his arms.

“Don’t be stubborn, Tony,” Jarvis says, mildly from inside the cupboard where the towels are kept “you stink.”

Tony frowns. “No I don’t.” He sniffs under his arm surreptitiously “You stink.” He pouts.

“The Stark charm.” Jarvis drawls.

Tony sits on the edge of the bed, feet swinging. He wants to ask Jarvis a question, but he’s not sure how to say it without being rude.

“Jarvis,” he asks carefully, head to the side “why is it that mom doesn’t put me to bed? Or read me stories at night?”

For a moment, the fumbling in the cupboard stills. And then it continues, and Jarvis drags out a thick towel. He sighs, throws it on the bed. “Take off your clothes, Tony, hop on.”

Tony complies, but asks again. “Jarvis,” he says “how come mom doesn’t do that stuff? Because I asked Lizzy at my birthday and she said ‘my mom reads me my story’ and I said ‘doesn’t your butler do that?’ and she said that that was silly and that it was a mommy job.”

Jarvis frowns, wrapping Tony in the towel. “Your mother loves you very much, Tony.”

“Then why doesn’t she spend time with me? All the other moms at school do.”

Jarvis gets that squinty look like he’s trying to think of an answer to one of Tony’s difficult questions, like where do babies come from (answer: eww) and what is dad’s job. “It’s complicated, Tony,” he says, finally “but I promise you your mother loves you very, very much.” And Jarvis has this really sad look o his face and he holds Tony’s hands in his.

Tony’s not buying it. Adults always say it’s complicated when they don’t want to explain stuff. Jarvis runs the water in his bath and Tony sits on the toilet, wrapped in a towel, thinking. His dad is always really busy and he never wants to spend time with Tony, but when Tony sees him he calls him “Tones,” and ruffles his hair and stuff. Tony wishes that his dad would spend more time with him, like the other kids at school whose dads play ball with them. Tony’s never played ball with like, a mitt. Jarvis doesn’t really play that sort of thing, he says that he plays football, which isn’t really football, it’s soccer.

And on bad days his dad can get real mad, and then it’s just better to stay out of the way.

Tony’s dad can be scary, too.

He doesn’t really mind if his mom doesn’t love him. He wishes that she would hold him, sometimes, or that she would take him to school. Jarvis says she can’t because she’s a busy woman and she shows that she loves him in other way. He just doesn’t understand what he would have to do to be loved. What did the other kids do to get their parents to like them?

He asks Jarvis and he just kinda stares at Tony with really wide eyes and blinks a bit. “They didn’t do anything, Tony,” he says “parents love their children unconditionally.”

Tony frowns as Jarvis helps him into the tub with all the bubbles. “What does that mean?”

Jarvis sighs. “It means that your parents will always love you, no matter what.”

No matter what? “So even if I grew up and killed someone? They would still love me then?”

Jarvis considers. “Well,” he says “that’s a bit different. Are you going to grow up and kill somebody?”

Tony laughs. “No!” He says “That’s wrong, obviously.”

“Well then,” Jarvis says, blowing the bubbles on his nose “don’t ask silly questions.”

Tony busies himself making a bubble beard and playing with his rubber ducks, Newton, Einstein and Oppenheimer. He wonders about him mom, and his dad, and everything else.

“Jarvis,” he says carefully “can I ask you something?”

“Hmm?” Jarvis looks up.

“Do you love me unconditionally?”

Jarvis frowns. “I’m… I’m not your mother, or your father, Tony.”

“Yeah,” Tony says quickly “I know that. But do you, like, could you love me unconditionally?”

“Could I?” Jarvis quirks an eyebrow “I already do, silly. You’re my little man.”

Tony laughs again and splashes the bubbles onto Jarvis’ face. “You’ve got a bubble beard.” He gurgles.

Jarvis swipes a hand down his cheek. “You,” he said “are a monkey. An absolute disaster area, honestly Tony, I don’t know what I’m going to do with you.”

“You could send me to a zoo,” he says seriously “because that’s where they keep the monkeys.”

Jarvis snorts, wiping the rest of the bubbles from his cheek and slapping it onto Tony’s head in one smooth motion. “Honestly, Tony, I’d be tempted.”

He finishes the bath, quickly washing Tony’s hair even though the soap gets all in his eyes and he is not crying it’s just his eyes trying to get rid of the chemicals, he read about it once. He’s not crying because he’s tough cookie and dad said that Stark men don’t cry.

Later, he’s lying in bed and Jarvis is next to him on top of the covers, one arm slung around him, holding him close. “Do you want the Emperor’s New Clothes or The Big Pancake?”

Tony stifles a yawn, or tries to. It’s still kinda light outside, and he can hear all the guest downstairs talking and eating canapés. He can hear music coming from outside his balcony, too, and he’s happy that he’s up here instead of down their being poked and prodded by all the guests.

“Jarvis,” he asks, pressed close against his side “why don’t you have family?”

Jarvis frowns. “It’s story time, Tony.” He says sternly.

Tony wiggles free, squirms against the blankets. “Yeah, but,” he starts “how comes you don’t have like, a wife or kids or whatever? Why are you here instead of, you know.” He says, head cocked to the side.

“You have a lot of big questions tonight.” Jarvis says sharply. Tony looks down, plays with the bed sheets, and Jarvis’ eyes soften. “Oh, Tony,” he sighs “it’s a long story. I’ll tell you when you’re older.”

“No,” he says, because he’s stubborn and he wants to know “I want you to tell me now.” He crosses his arms and sticks his chin in the air. Jarvis considers.

“If I tell you a little bit, will you go to sleep?”

“Promise.”

Jarvis leans closer. “Is that a pinky promise?” He says seriously.

Tony groans. “Fine,” he sulks, holding out his finger “I pinky promise to go to bed it you tell me.”

Jarvis sighs. “Settle down, then,” and Tony burrows back under the quilts, rests his head on Jarvis’ belly.

“Go on,” he prods.

“When I was younger,” Jarvis begins “I decided I wanted to see the world.”

“Did you?”

“What?”

“Did you see the world?”

A pause. “Not really.”

Oh. That’s sad. It’s a bit like Tony, because he wants to be an astronaut when he’s older and he already missed the first moon landing.

“And?” Tony prompts, yawning.

Jarvis plays with his hair. “So I came to America. Because I had heard that America was were your dreams could come true.”

Tony’s heard that. He knows all about that. He tugs his shark, Cap, closer, because he named him after Captain America. Tony has all the Captain America stuff even though Billy from school said that nobody like Captain America anymore. Tony kinda agreed, but he still loved his shark.

“So I joined the army. And you know all that stuff in the papers? About Vietnam?”

Tony knows about this. “It’s the war,” he says tiredly “in Vietnam. My dad said—”

“Well, I fought in that war until I got hurt. And then I had to come back here. Except I had no home or friends or anything.”

“Why didn’t you go back to England?” Tony asks, because England sounds like a cool place to go. Tony would love to live there.

“I didn’t have any money to get back, and even if I did my family was dead anyway.”

“Oh,” Tony says “I’m sorry.” That’s what you’re supposed to say when someone talks about that, you’re supposed to say “I’m sorry” or “my condolences” or “God bless” if your Tony’s mom.

“One day, I met your father and he offered me a job —”

“Why?”

“He just did.”

That doesn’t make sense, dad would never just hire someone. Dad is really, what’s the word, he’s really careful, he worries a lot about who he hires because he gets - paranoid, that’s it - he gets real paranoid. Tony is really proud of the fact that he can remember that word, Jarvis taught it to him as part of their super hard spelling bee because the one at school was too easy.

“And I came here, and a few years later you were born.”

“And then you started looking after me!” Tony says, perking up slightly. “Right?”

“That’s right, little man.” Jarvis smiles “I started looking after you.”

Tony’s face goes serious. “And you’re always gonna look after me, right?”

Jarvis pauses. “Well, not when you’re all grown up.”

Tony frowns. “Yeah, but, before that. In case mom and dad are too busy and forget to.”

Jarvis scoffs. “They wouldn’t do that, don’t be silly. They’d find someone else to take care of you.”

“I don’t want someone else,” Tony says, burying his head into Jarvis’ belly “I want you.”

Jarvis chuckles. “Tony we made a deal.”

Tony groans. “Jaaarvis.”

“Sorry little man, you pinky promised. No takesy backsy.”

“It’s still light out!”

Jarvis looks at him. “Tony, you know that’s because it’s summer.”

Tony groans again and flumps his head on the pillow. “I’m not tired.” He pouts.

“Yes, you are.” Jarvis says, disentangling himself himself from Tony’s covers. “Just close your eyes and you’ll drop right off.”

Tony fights back a yawn. “Jarvis?” He asks, mouth stretching “can I have another story?”

Jarvis sighs. “Tony, one story per night, that’s the deal—”

“Yeah but there’s a party tonight,” Tony interrupts “and d-dad might get, you know.”

Jarvis’ eyes soften. He pauses.

“One more story.” He says, and Tony grins lazily.

“The Emperors New Clothes,” Tony yawns again “do the voices and stuff.”

Jarvis takes a seat by the bed, legs crossed, and begins to read.

 

When Tony wakes up it’s dark out.

He feels muddled and sleepy and he rolls over only to feel the familiar dampness on his sheets. He throws back the covers and the smell of pee hits him.

He’s wet the bed.

He panics a bit, because he doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know if he should risk walking down to Jarvis’ room because his dad might still be up or whether he should lie in bed even though the sheets are wet completely through and they stink.

He tells himself not to cry and he bites his lip even though he can feel the lump in his throat and his eyes start to sting. He wipes them quickly and rolls, feet padding gently on the soft carpet. He needs to find Jarvis, he can’t let anyone else know about it or else.

This is his and Jarvis’ little secret. Jarvis hasn’t told mom or dad because Tony doesn’t want his dad knowing that he still pees himself like a baby. He says that loads of kids do it and that it’s okay but Tony knows he’s only saying it to make him feel better.

He cracks open the door, heart pounding. He has to steel himself to open it wide enough to leave. He’s sure that he can hear footsteps coming down the corridor, he’s sure that someone is going to find him and realise what he’s done. The door creaks slightly and he balks, sure that now someone will definitely hear and come to find him.

He tiptoes down the corridor in the dark. He knows the route to Jarvis’ room by heart and he knows that Jarvis has all the clean sheets and stuff waiting, he just needs to find him first. But his heart is beating hard in his chest and he can feel his tummy doing swoops over and over.

His pants are really uncomfortable and they’re sticking in all the wrong places. He’s still tired and he just wants to go to bed but then he hears something coming down the corridor that’s perpendicular to the one he’s in and he freezes.

It’s his dad’s voice, and he’s talking in this low rumble. There’s someone else with him.

Oh God, Tony doesn’t know what to do. There’s nowhere here to hide and he can see the two shadows cast on the wall. He steps backwards, and the wood panelling under the carpet creaks.

Tony holds his breath.

“Who’s there?” Howard says, sharply, his own conversation broken up.

“Ignore it, Howard,” says the other man — the man from earlier, Obie — “it’s nothing, hey, you listening to me?”

He hears his dad sigh. “Right, yeah, I just, I don’t feel comfortable giving those bastards anything.” He sees his dad’s shadow run a hand through his hair and his voice is a murmur “You don’t know what their gonna use it for and that’s not, look, it’s not me, that’s not what we do at Stark, Obie. I’m not, we’re not, we can’t give these guys anything until we’re 100% on this.”

Tony holds himself as still as possible, desperate not to be found. He hears Obie sigh and open a door. He can see their shadows on the wall. “Howard,” he says, flinging an arm round his shoulder “these men, they’re not like you, they’re not like us. Military is one thing, these guys are good business. You want the pressure off? Take my word for it, old man, these guys are what you’re looking for.”

Dad snorts. “You’re selling a demon’s deal, Obie. You’re asking me to sell my soul.”

Obie leans closer. “Howard,” he says, and his voice is really quiet and serious “Howard, do they know how bad it’s got? Does your wife know?”

Dad pushes away and Tony crouches low, because what are they talking about, what doesn’t mom know?

“Maria doesn’t need to know shit,” dad spits “as long as the money rolls in she doesn’t care where it come from.”

“Yeah? And what about your boy, Howard. What’s he gonna do, huh? What’s he gonna grow up to? All this,” Obie’s shadow flings it’s arms wide “this is gonna be gone, Howard,” a snap of the fingers “just like that. Everything you worked for, everything your old man worked for, poof, gone. You gonna let that happen? You gonna step back and let the banks take everything.”

Dad curses and Tony huddles close. “Don’t talk like that,” he says “you’re acting as if—”

“I am telling it how it is, Howard,” Obie’s voice is low “they’re gonna take you for everything, Hammer will milk you dry and in twenty years time your kids gonna be working for him if you don’t play your cards right. Take the deal, Howard. You’ve got a family to look out for and money doesn’t last forever.”

He sees his dad hang his head. “I…” he runs a hand over his face. “We’ll talk tomorrow, yeah? We’ll talk properly, let me, Christ, let me think on it.”

“There are worse people to climb in bed with,” Obie says and Tony frowns, what does that mean, the only person dad is climbing into bed with is mom.

“Yeah, yeah,” dad says tiredly “whatever, Obadiah. I’ll sleep on it. Get back to you.” He exhales. “‘Night, Obie.”

“Good man, Howard,” Obie says when dad walks back down the corridor “you’re doing the right thing.”

Obie closes his door firmly and Tony breathes. He can’t believe he got away with that, he’s shaking everywhere. Imagine if dad and Obie had seen him, it would have been so bad and dad probably would have shaken him because he would be embarrassing him in front of his friend.

He manages to find Jarvis’ room without bumping into anyone else and knocks on the door. “Jarvis?” He whispers “Jarvis.”

He hears thumping from inside and shuffling and then Jarvis is opening the door. He’s wearing glasses and the room inside is lit by a soft glow. He hadn’t been to sleep.

“I did it again.” Tony says, hanging his head. “M’ sorry.”

Jarvis sighs. “Oh, Tony,” he says softly “come in, quickly, don’t stand out here.”

Jarvis washes him down and wraps him in a fresh blanket. He doesn’t make him go back to his room and Tony finally finds sleep while sitting on his lap, wrapped up like a burrito, while Jarvis reads his book behind Tony’s back.

He forgets all about the conversation in the corridor.

Chapter Text

Tony’s Mom and Dad aren’t talking right now.

Tony thinks it has something to do with the conversation between Obie and Dad but he doesn’t tell Mom that because he doesn’t know what they were talking about and Mom doesn’t really listen to him anyway.

Instead, on Sunday, when he’s supposed to go to church his Mom won’t get out of bed.

“Mom,” he says, tugging at her blanket “Mom c’mon we’ll be late.”

She doesn’t respond, and rolls over. There are bruises under her eyes.

“Mom,” Tony says in a loud whisper “Mom I’m ready.”

Her eyes crack open. “Not today, bambino, not today my treasure.” She mumbles, hair all over her face and unwashed.

Mom never misses church.

Tony sighs. He tugs the blanket back over her shoulders, and plumps the pillows, because that seems like a nice thing to do. He’s not sad that he’s missing church because it’s actually really boring but he is sad because he knows his Mom is having one of those days and won’t be getting out of bed.

He pads down the corridor and knocks on Jarvis’ door. “Mom’s sick,” he says and walks on. He grabs Cap from his bedroom and some crayons and paper and sits out in the garden under the shade of the three trees.

 

 

 

 

The next week, Jarvis is putting Tony into all of his best clothes. Tony hates wearing these because the tie is always too tight and it itches his neck and it all looks stupid anyway, but Jarvis says that today someone is coming to paint the family — which is his Mom and Dad and him — and that he needs to look his best because it will be years before they get another one done.

Tony whines when Jarvis draws a comb through his hair, squirms when he buttons up his blue jacket. It’s not fair, no other kid has to wear these stupid clothes, he grumbles, and Jarvis shucks him under the chin. He tells him to be on his best behaviour because they’re all going to be eating dinner as a family tonight, so he needs to be careful. He reminds Tony not to ask silly questions in case Dad gets mad and not to talk with his mouth full. Tony knows all this, he doesn’t need Jarvis to tell him, and now he’s got all these butterflies in his stomach.

He thinks Jarvis must know he’s nervous because he holds his hand the whole way to his Dad’s study.

“Okay,” he says quietly, stopping in front of the door. “Don’t worry, Tony, it’ll be fine. Just remember,” he holds up his chin with one finger “sit up straight, don’t fidget. Don’t—” Jarvis makes a pained face “don’t ask difficult questions.”

“Okay,” Tony whispers, hands playing with the front of his shirt “okay.” He repeats. He knows what to do, how to act. He’s clever, really clever, and he knows how to behave. “Should I ask Dad about workshop time next week?”

Jarvis considers. “Maybe. See what kind of mood he’s in.” He says quietly.

Tony loves workshop time with his Dad, but he makes sure to book it in advance.

Jarvis smiles. “Here we go.” He says, bopping Tony’s nose and rapping on the door.

“Come in,” his Dad says lazily and Tony’s stomach flips at the sound. He hasn’t seen his Dad in ages.

Jarvis opens the door and his Mom and Dad are sitting on the red couch in front of the window. His dad’s office is large and painted yellow. There’s lot’s of red furniture and dark brown floor boards. Bright light is streaming through the windows.

“Ed,” he smiles, glass in hand. He downs the last dregs and flicks his thumb over the corner of his mouth. His eyes find Tony, and Tony isn’t sure whether to look away or smile or what “bring him here, let’s get this over with.” He pours himself some more wine from the bottle on the oak table by his side.

Tony’s mother sits next to him, legs crossed delicately in a floaty blue dress. Her dark hair is done up in a bun and she’s running red over her lips. She sits angled towards the window, away from dad, and her lips are tight.

“Here, sweetie.” She says looking in a small hand-mirror. “Sit between us.”

Tony blinks and settles himself carefully in between his Mom and Dad. He squirms slightly because the seat is high up.

He can feel the weight of his Dad’s thigh pressed against him. 

His mother gently repositions her leg so they’re not touching.

“Doesn’t he look nice, Howard,” she says, touching up her lipstick. “Like a little man.”

“Mmm,” Dad says, checking his watch.

“Anthony,” Mom says, absently “what do you say to your father?”

Tony feels sick. He’s got this weird feeling in his gut because his dad is holding the glass in his hand and he’s not looking at Tony, he’s looking to the other side.

“Hi d—” he stumbles slightly, stutters over the ‘d’, and his cheeks burn. He passes it off a cough. “Hi dad.” He says again, in his most confident voice.

“When can we get started?” Dad says in reply.

The painter sits at his stool, shuffles slightly. “Whenever you’re ready Mr Stark.” He says, deferentially. 

Dad cracks his neck. “Okay,” he sighs “Maria, honey,” he says in a voice that’s not very honey-like at all “if you could look away from that mirror for a second we could started.”

“Put the drink down, Howard,” his mother says, lips moving upwards but eyes staying fixed on the mirror “I’m ready.”

Tony sits awkwardly between them, and he swings his feet and plays with the folds of his tie. He kinda wishes they would talk more so that they didn’t have to sit in silence. He wishes Jarvis was here for his Dad to joke with.

“Don’t do that,” Dad snaps, swatting Tony’s hands so they drop his tie and Tony freezes. “How you doing, Tony?” Dad says, looking down at him. “Funky hair there, kid.”

Tony smiles, and some of the tension in his stomach relaxes. “Jarvis put gel in it.”

“I can see that,” his Dad says, smiling, with his eyes fixed on the back of mom’s head “you look like you fell in motor oil, Tones.”

Tony sighs. “Yeah,” he said “I tried to tell Jarvis but my hair doesn’t stay down.”

“Hmm.” His dad says, sipping at his wine. “That’s your mother’s genes,” he says “no curly hair my side of the family.”

Tony hates his hair. It’s thick and and curly and looks like a girls. His dad keeps telling mom to take him the hairdressers because if not they’re gonna have to start calling him Antonia and then mom will get what she always wanted.

“Don’t worry, Anthony,” his mother says sweetly “I think it looks nice.”

His Dad snorts and laughs loudly and Tony’s hands curl tightly in his lap. He tries not to play with his tie even though he’s nervous.

“Are you going to start?” Dad says shortly “Or will we be here forever?”

The painter jerks in his seat, apologises. He tells them that they should stay as still as possible and that’s really difficult for Tony, he can never really stay still, his fingers always want to do their own thing.

Dad keeps drinking and Mom just looks ahead and they don’t talk to him. His fingers are starting to itch and he kinda needs to pee but he doesn’t want to say anything in case Mom or Dad get mad. He doesn’t know when this is gonna finish so he asks Mom and she shrugs.

It’s really, really boring and Tony’s collar is too tight. He wants to be in his room because he was experimenting with making alloys, except they weren’t real alloys they were just fake ones from his chemistry set. Still, it’s fun, and he’d rather be there than down here.

Dad is drinking, still, more of the wine or whatever from the table and Tony can’t tell if the feeling in his belly is nervousness or needing to pee. He’s really close to his Dad and every time he moves Tony jumps a little even though he doesn’t know why. He’s starting to sweat, and the room is really hot.

“Mom,” he whispers, tugging at her skirt “Mom I need to pee.”

His Mom shoots him a look. “Really, Anthony?” She hisses “now?”

“Sorry,” he mumbles, and he wants to ask if that means he can go but she turns away, fixes her eyes back on the spot on the wall.

He starts swinging his legs until his Dad knocks him with his knee. “Stop that,” he says, distractedly, looking at the watch on his wrist. Tony thinks they should be talking, maybe, that they don’t have to sit here in silence, but he’s not gonna start anything.

It feels like hours before the painter tells them that they can leave and after Tony’s Dad goes back to work and Tony doesn’t even get to ask him about workshop time.

 

 

 

 

Later that evening, they’re all eating dinner together, like a proper family in one of those weird picture books Jarvis reads him.

The table is really long, and Dad sits on one end and Mom sits on the other and Tony sits right in the middle. Normally Jarvis eats with Tony on their own in the kitchen but once a month his parents schedule a family dinner.

It’s really quiet in the room. Tony’s been feeling sick since this morning and his stomach is all tight with nerves but he doesn’t want to say anything just in case. Both his parents are drinking, and it makes his Dad angry and his Mom sad.

“Don’t slouch, Anthony,” Mom says, looking at her plate. Dad doesn’t say anything, and he hasn’t touched his food.

Silence.

“Pass the salt, Tones.” Dad says. Tony can’t reach it, so he gets up, picks it up, walks to his Dad and puts it next to him.

Then he sits back down.

His mother daintily blows on her soup.

“Why don’t you ask Anthony what he did today.” Mom says, glaring at Dad.

Dad drinks. “What did you do today, Tony.”

Tony panics. “I b-built,” he stops, he’s messed up again, his tongue isn’t working properly and he’s all hot and sticky “I built a b-bike.”

He had help from Jarvis because he couldn't hold all the bits together because he’s not strong enough but he had done all the instructions without help and stuff. Tony feels sick, though, because he stuttered all his words and he’s supposed to not be doing that anymore.

Dad doesn’t notice though. “Wow,” he says, raising an eyebrow and squinting into the bottom of his glass “spectacular.”

Mom’s spoon hits the table. “Howard,” she hisses “talk to your son.”

Tony doesn’t want to be here anymore. No one is talking and now Mom is going to make Dad angry, he doesn’t want to talk to Tony and she’s going to get him all worked up again, she always ruins it.

Dad glares. And he keeps on glaring even when he asks “How old are you now, Tony?”

Tony blinks. “Six.” He says quietly, and a wave of relief washes over him because he didn’t stutter, he sounded okay.

Dad squints. “You’re a bit on the small side.”

Tony squirms in his chair, doesn’t look up from his plate. “Yeah,” he says because he doesn’t know what else to do.

“That’s your Dad’s genes, Tony,” Mom says lightly, dipping her spoon into the bowl “all my brothers are tall.”

Dad’s eye narrow and he looks mad. “Your brothers are fucking scroungers, that’s what they are.”

“Don’t be angry, honey,” Mom says, rearranging her cutlery “it doesn’t matter if you’re short if you have the money.”

Howard barks out a laugh. “That’s right,” he says coldly “the women don’t care as long as you’re rich, Tony. Your Mom would know.”

Mom sets down her spoon forcefully and picks up her wine. Tony sweats. He wants Jarvis and he doesn’t want to be here.

“Howard, your son is at the table. Maybe you should put the drink down.”

He shrugs. “I will if you will.”

Mom’s lips get real pinched and she breathes out heavily though her nose. Then she breathes in again.

“So, Tony,” she starts over, voice loud “how’s school.”

Tony can feel his Dad’s eyes on him and he wants to throw up. “It’s, it’s okay.” He says, looking at the table.

“Mmm hmm,” his mom says, nodding as if he’s said something really interesting “Tony’s top of his class.” She says, looking at dad “Even for writing, isn’t that right, Tony?”

Tony’s not really good at writing. It’s just that he reads a lot more than the other kids and the work isn’t that difficult. Jarvis says he’s advanced, and that his brain just processes things faster than most people. He says it’s a good thing because Tony can tell things that other people can’t.

“That’s, that’s good,” dad says lazily, looking at his wrist “you know, it was a bit touch and go at the beginning. You never talked.”

Jarvis says that that doesn’t mean he was stupid. He says that Tony just waited until he had all the right words to say what he wanted to.

“Howard,” Mom hisses “don’t.”

Dad rolls his eyes, glass in hand. “What, we’re not allowed to talk about it?” He looks at Tony and whispers conspiratorially “your Mom’s a bit funny, isn’t she Tony?” And he makes a whacky face and Tony laughs nervously even though he can smell the alcohol on his dad’s breath from here.

“Don’t.” Mom says, and she sounds real angry “Don’t talk about me like that in front of my son.”

“Our,” Howard says, tilting the glass back into his mouth “he’s ours. Or did you forget?”

“I try to.”

Dad snorts. “So do I, honey, so do I. You’re no bed of roses either, sweetheart.”

“I could hold it together,” Mom says, and Tony doesn’t know what their talking about and he feels sick “I could hold it together for our son. All you do is get drunk.”

Dad laughs even though mom hasn’t been funny. “Do you have any idea?” He says quietly “do you have any idea what my life is like? Do you think,” he hiccups “do you think I like this?”

Mom makes a face. “I know how difficult life has been for you, Howard. The private education, the yachts, the parties, the women. I know, don’t worry, I grew up in a slum so I can empathise exactly with how hard it’s been for you—”

Do you have any idea,” Dad says, and his gets all screwed up, his nostrils go wide and Tony thinks he’s gonna throw up “what I have to deal with? I don’t need this Maria, not from you, I get enough shit—” and he slams his hand into the table “from the rest of them. Who do you think put this fucking food on the table, huh? You gonna talk shit like that, Maria? You wanna talk shit like that? Go ahead, I’d like to see you last one fucking day—”

Mio Dio!” Mom spits “My God, the arrogance on you,” she pushes her plate away from her and soup spills over the edges “you run crying like a child, Howard, you behave like a child, a child, look, your son is better behaved than you—”

“Pathetic.” Dad growls “Absolutely pathetic. That’s what you are Maria, you come for me for the money and when the money runs out—”

“Runs out?” Mom stops, one eyebrow raised, fists clenched on the table “What are you talking about running out? What have you done?”

Dad laughs, really loud, and Tony hates that sound, it makes him want to hide and he doesn’t know if he’s allowed to leave. “What have I done?” Dad shouts “What have I done? I’ll tell you what I’ve fucking done” and he snatches the wine bottle, downs it, red liquid slipping down his cheek, ragged. He burps and throws the bottle, it smashes on the wall behind mom’s head and Maria screams and Tony pushes back his chair in fright.

“Never stick to your ideals, Tony,” and his Dad is right there, he’s got his hands on Tony’s shoulders and he’s tugging him up “don’t do it, boy, it’s not worth it. Don’t be a sucker like your old man—” and Tony’s never been more scared in his life.

“Howard!” Mom screams “put him down!”

Tony shakes and nods and tries to scratch his Dad’s hands away, he can smell the alcohol on his breath and he feels his stomach tighten. His dad is breathing heavy and his eyes are red and small.

He lets go. Tony sinks back into his chair as his dad slinks away, grabbing a bottle from the ice bucket. Tony shakes. His mom starts to pick up the broken glass with her bare hands.

He feels ill, like, really ill. Jarvis isn’t here and he doesn’t know what to do. “Mom,” he croaks, tapping her back, staggering forward “Mom, I don’t feel well.”

“Go,” his mom says, and she sound angry, and really sad, too “what do you want, go.”

“Mom,” he whispers “Mommy, I feel sick.”

“Go, Tony. Go with your dad, I know you want to.” She says tiredly and Tony shakes his head and plays with his shirt and tries to tell her that he’s scared to leave the room because Dad is out there somewhere and he might find him and he doesn’t know where Jarvis is.

He throws up all down his clothes and on the floor and his Mom curses and Tony shakes. “Sorry,” he says “sorry.” And then he throws up again, all the soup he had eaten burning the back of his throat.

Idiota,” she growls “your father is an idiota, he’s scared you, look at this,” she spits and puts her hand on Tony’s forehead. She clucks her teeth. “You’re hot, bambino, you’re burning up, Jarvis?” She calls “Jarvis!” 

A cook appears round the corner and Mom sends him to find Jarvis. She takes Tony’s hand and tugs him along even though his legs feel all weak and trembly. “It’s okay, Anthony,” she soothes “lets get you into bed and then Jarvis will read you a story.”

Tony throws up again in the corridor and Mom strokes his hair and undoes his tie. 

He holds out his arms because he doesn’t think he can walk anymore. “You’ve got sick everywhere,” his mom says “ugh, God, here, sweetie.” And she bends down and picks him up anyway. His Mom is strong, Tony didn’t know his Mom was strong.

“Shh, it’s alright you can cry,” Mom says “shh, come on, here we are — Jarvis! Oh, thank God, Tony’s sick.”

“What happened?” He hears Jarvis’ low, soft voice and hugs his mom tighter.

“Nothing,” Mom says “nothing happened.”

A pause.

“He’s ill, though, I think it’s an upset stomach.”

Mom puts him on the bed. “Jarvis, where are his clothes kept?”

“Let me handle it, Maria,” Jarvis says kindly “calm down.”

“I am calm,” his Mom says, not sounding very calm “I just—” he voice dips “Howard said there’s no money. Is that true? Jarvis, hey, look at me, is that true?” She says, urgently.

There’s a long silence.

“Jarvis, I know you know, he tells you everything. Please, tell me, because if it’s true I’m taking Tony and we’re getting out, I swear, Jarvis.”

“There’s money,” Jarvis says, quietly. “Not now, Maria, wait. Let me sort out Tony.”

He feels the bed dip, and Jarvis starts tugging him out of his clothes, wiping him down. “You still feeling sick, Tony? Hey?”

Tony nods, eyes closing. He does not feel good at all, he’s all hot and sweaty and he wants to throw up all over again.

“My tummy hurts.” He whines and Jarvis tucks him under the covers.

“Get a wet cloth,” he says and then something cool is touching his forehead.

“Does he need medicine? Does he need hospital? What’s wrong, is he okay, is it something I did, is it Howard?”

“He’s got a bug,” Jarvis says, and Tony hears someone crying.

“Oh God, Jarvis, what are we going to do,” his Mom whispers, and Tony has never heard her cry, ever, she never ever cries “God, you say there’s no money and Howard’s getting worse — he wants to crawl into bed with Roxxon, Jarvis, he’s selling his soul and he’s gonna get worse, you know it—”

“Maria,” Jarvis says softly “you’re scaring him.”

“I’m sorry, baby,” Mom says, and he feels her hand on his, she strokes his cheek. “God, bambino, I’m sorry.”

Tony coughs. “Can I have a story?” He croaks.

“Sure, honey, sure, Jarvis what are his favourites, what does he like? I’m here, baby, Mommy’s here.”

Tony thinks he must be pretty sick because his Mom is being really nice. She’s never read him a story before.

He doesn’t stay awake long enough to hear what books she’s reading, but that’s okay. Tony thinks that maybe he should get sick more often.

 

 

 

 

Tony can hear murmured voices.

“I don’t trust him,” someone hisses “Obadiah’s a snake, Jarvis.”

“Shh,” Jarvis soothes “you’ll wake him up.”

There’s a soft hand scraping through his hair. Tony coughs.

“I can’t—” Mom breaks off “if there’s no money,” she says “then I need to go. And I’ll take Tony with me, I swear, Jarvis. He’s getting worse, you didn’t see him today,” she lowers her voice “he grabbed Tony, Jarvis, if he’d been any more drunk he would of hurt him, I’m sure of it. I don’t want Tony growing up with a man like that, I don’t want him touching my baby, I don’t want Tony turning into him, you understand? You understand? Dio, that won’t happen. I won’t let it happen.”

“Mom,” Tony croaks “can I have water?”

“Sure honey,” and mom’s voice goes soft “sure, of course.”

Someone holds it to his lips and he drinks and coughs some of it up and goes back to sleep.

It’s weird being sick because everyone is really nice to him. His Mom reads him stories and Jarvis gives him ice cream.

One time, his Dad comes and sits by his bed, and Tony pretends to sleep and stays completely frozen until he leaves.

After, he has a comeback so bad that his fever spikes and he throws up all the ice cream Jarvis had given him.

He almost likes being ill and he’s sad when it’s over and he has to go back to normal. His Mom and Dad are definitely not talking now.

One day, a few weeks later, Jarvis tells him that he’s going to go away to school. His mother smiles, strokes his head, promises to help him pack.

Tony doesn’t see her that night or the one after. He packs with the help of Jarvis.

“I don’t want to go,” Tony had whispered the night before he was supposed to leave “please, please Jarvis.”

Jarvis had stroked his head. “It’s for the best, Tony.”

Tony had shook his head. “No,” he said “I know they want to get rid of me, I know it.” And he had started to cry “What if I wet the bed?” He sobbed “Whose gonna help me? They’re all gonna find out I’m a baby.”

Jarvis had held him and rocked him until the crying had stopped.

“One last story?” He had said and Tony had nodded.

“Once upon a time,” he begins “there was an emperor.”

 

 

 

 

The next day, a car takes him to Harwell academy, Maine, est. 1902, with a rich history in educating America’s finest. Age range between four years to nineteen. Boarding.

Tony hugs his mother and shakes his father’s hand.

“We’ll see you for Thanksgiving, Tones,” he says, and he ruffles his hair, glass in hand.

“Have fun, Anthony,” Mom says, and she’s got this look on her face like she’s looking though him or he’s not really there. Her smile is stretched too wide on her face.

He hugs Jarvis the longest, because he doesn’t want him to go. “Please,” he whispers, one last time “don’t send me away.”

Jarvis crouches low, and he holds him close, and strokes his hair, and then Mom tells him to hurry up and Tony gets into the car.

And then it’s rolling down the drive way, and his parents don’t see him wave because they’ve already gone inside, but Jarvis stands there, watching, until the car exits the gates and heads into the dying light of the New York traffic.

 

Chapter Text

The woman who greets Tony at the door is old and she smells like milk and vodka.

She smiles down at him and it’s really wide and really fake and she has fish breath hiding behind fat lips. “Mr Stark,” she says, leaning down, not crouching down, leaning, and she holds out her hand for him to shake. “It’s very nice to meet you.”

Tony blinks. “Hi.” He says quietly.

The sun is setting outside and the school is really pretty. Right now, Tony is standing in the large, red stone building with honeysuckle up the side where the boys dorms are kept. The lady — who calls herself Miss Behan — says that he’ll have his own room here that he’ll share with another boy. She says that he’ll have the same room all the way till he leaves when he’s eighteen, isn’t that good? It’ll be just like a home away from home.

She has someone take all his things to his room and then she gives him a tour around the campus. She talks about prestige and academics and facilities and the whole time Tony just plays with his shirt and tries not to stutter when she asks him questions. He doesn’t want to be here at all. He misses Jarvis, he misses mom, he misses dad, he knows his dad would never be scared like this.

Tony imagines his dad driving up in his large car and saying “wait! I’ve made a mistake!” and he takes Tony into his arms and then he puts him in the car and they drive home and get ice cream and Jarvis puts him to bed and he finishes the Emperor’s New Clothes. 

Except then the Miss Behan is taking him back to the boys dorms and she’s leading him up the wide stairs and down a corridor and then down another corridor and his room is at the very end, next to the fire escape. There aren’t even anymore rooms this far down, Mrs Behan explains that behind these doors are storage cupboards.

She says that most of the kids are still on summer vacation, but Tony’s roommate didn’t go home so he’s all ready to meet him. She says that he’s really excited to have one because he joined late last year and so was left in the room on his own.

Tony doesn’t want to meet his roommate, he doesn’t want to be here. He wants to cry, but he promised Jarvis that he wouldn’t, he promised he would be strong even though he doesn’t feel strong at all, he feels sad and weak and he just wants to go home.

Miss Behan knocks on the door and a little voice says ‘come in!’ and she smiles down with her massive smile and Tony just stares ahead.

“Hi!” Says his roommate, and he’s really, really tall and really really skinny. He’s got messy dark black hair and super-pale skin and he’s sitting on a bed.

Tony blinks. “Hi.” He says again, quietly.

“Nick,” she says “this is your roommate, Anthony Stark. And Tony, this is your roommate Nick Boyle.”

Mrs Behan tells him that Nick will show him where to get dinner, and that they should spend some time getting to know each other. She leaves, suddenly, and Tony is alone with a boy he doesn’t know, and there’s no way to get back home. He sits on his bed and plays with the quilt, he doesn’t really know what to do, so he just waits.

Nick grins. “Hi,” he says again “hi.”

Tony doesn’t look up.

“I’m Nick,” he repeats “my dad makes bottle lids.”

“I’m Anthony,” Tony says “my dad makes weapons.”

Nick blinks. “Cool.”

 

 

 

 

Nick and Tony have four days before everyone else come back from summer vacation. Nick shows him other people who stayed over summer and they’re all older than Tony and most of them are really weird. There’s a boy who hasn’t had a bath in weeks and this other guy called Joey whose nine and really hyper. He says that his parents can’t deal with him so they sent him here, but Tony likes him.

Nick isn’t that bad. He’s nice, and he shows Tony around and makes sure that he knows where everything is. He’s kinda funny, too, and Tony wouldn’t mind having him as a friend. He’s not like Lizzy or Billy, but Tony figures that since they’re gonna be sharing a room for a long time they might as well be friends.

“Don’t you talk?” Nick says the night before lessons are due to start. “Because you haven’t said anything atall for ages.”

“I talk.” Tony says, playing with his pillow.

Nick groans. “Yeah, but about what?” He says “You barely say anything to anyone.”

Tony’s cheeks flush. “I,” he begins “I t-talk.”

Nick’s eyes widen. “Do you stutter?” He says “Because my cousin stutters!” 

Tony looks up, eyes fierce. “I don’t stutter.” He says, eyes narrowed “that’s not funny.”

“No!” Nick says “No, sorry! I didn’t mean that,” he says “I’m sorry if I was rude.” And Nick looks real sad, suddenly, and Tony figures that he’s probably just been left here by his parents like the rest of them.

“Why are you here?” Tony asks, fingers still playing with the blanket.

Nick smiles. “My dad sent me here,” he says “he wants me to get the best education I can.”

Nick’s dad makes bottle caps, Tony remembers.

“But why are you here over summer?” Tony persists. He wants to know why other kids might have been thrown away and what they had to do to get here.

“Because business is real busy,” he says, legs crossed on his bed, rocking happily “and my parents are moving house. I’m gonna get a new bedroom and everything, it’s so cool, I used to share with my brother, do you have any brothers?”

Tony blinks and tries to process the rapid-fire chattering. “Uh,” he shakes his head “no.”

“Do you have any pets?”

“No.”

“What about sisters? I have a little sister, she’s gonna come here next year.”

Tony shakes his head.

“Oh,” Nick says, frowning. “Why are you here?”

Tony swallows. He doesn’t know.

“My mom’s sick,” he says “so my dad wants me to come somewhere else.” And he’s surprised by how easily the lie comes to his lips “I won’t be here for long.” He says confidently.

Nick’s smile falls. “Oh,” he says “okay. Does that mean I’ll get another roommate?”

Tony shrugs.

“Are you sure you have to leave?” Nick says, picking at the skin on his forehead “I don’t have any other friends.”

Tony blinks. Are he and Nick friends? That’s cool, kinda. Tony’s never had a real friend before, he’s not sure if Jarvis counts.

“Maybe not.” He says quickly “Maybe I can ask to stay.”

Nick grins.

 

 

 

 

That evening, Tony has his first nightmare.

The first of many, Tony learns. At the age of six, Tony kisses goodbye to deep sleep.

He dreams about monsters under the bed, climbing though the fire escape, dark shadows leaning over his face and crawling up the sheets and he screams.

He wakes up Nick.

“Are you okay?” Nick whispers loudly “Are you sick? Should I get the teacher?”

Tony blinks rapidly because he’s never had a nightmare that bad before. If he had, he would’ve had Jarvis, and he could go to his room and Jarvis would hug him and make sure it didn’t happen again. Now, Tony doesn’t even have Cap to keep him company.

He wants to go home so bad.

“I’m fine,” Tony whispers “sorry.”

Nick stares at him owlishly though the gloom. “It’s okay,” he says “I had nightmares at first.”

And then he climbs back under the quilt and snuggles back to sleep. Eventually, sleep catches Tony, too.

 

 

 

 

The next morning, Nick shows Tony their classroom. The older kids have different rooms for different classes, he explains, but the small kids have one room for all of them. They eat breakfast in the cafeteria, and nobody sits next to them.

Tony looks around. “How comes no one sits here?” He asks, pancake in mouth.

Nick looks down. “I guess maybe because they think I’m stupid.”

Tony frowns. “Are you stupid?”

Nick shrugs. “I don’t think so. I don’t think I’m really stupid, I think the kids don’t like me because I came late last year.”

Tony says nothing.

Miss Behan finds him in the cafeteria and tells him that he needs to go to do some tests. She explains that it’s nothing to worry about, they just want to know what standard he’s at and stuff. Tony stands and goes with her which means that Nick is left alone in the corner of the room with all the other kids eating at crammed tables around him.

The man whose giving Tony the tests says that they’re not normal ones, and that they’re going to test his IQ. He says that IQ is kinda how clever a person is, but not really, so he shouldn’t beat himself up if he gets a low score.

Tony asks why no other kids are doing the test and the doctor tells him that it’s because his parents have asked for it specially. Huh. That’s weird.

The doctor asks him some questions using blocks and lego, and then asks him to tell him which pattern comes next. It’s all really easy, and the doctor frowns.

“Tony,” he says “have you done this before?”

Tony frowns. “No?” He says “Is that bad? Should I?”

The man squints and pushes his glasses up his nose. “Not at all, boy. You just continue with this, hold on a moment.”

Tony continues going through the patterns, tongue sticking out between his teeth. They’re easy, and kinda fun, so he doesn’t mind. The doctor is rifling through some papers, frowning, and he pulls out a few, puts them in front of Tony.

“Anthony,” he says, very serious “if you wouldn’t mind putting those aside for a moment.”

Tony blinks, and drops his pencil. It was getting boring anyway.

“Take a look at these,” he says and Tony looks at the page in front of him.

It’s lots of squares and circles, lines and dots, and some of them are shaded in. “Can you tell me which one is going to go next?” The doctor asks, pointing at one line of shapes, and Tony chews the end of his pencil.

If number one has three dots and half shade, and number two has two dots and full shade, then what would number three be? He picks an answer from the multiple choice at the bottom of the page.

The doctor frowns again. “Okay, Tony,” he says “you do some more.”

They’re harder than the first set and he has to think more. It takes him a bit longer, but he thinks he gets the right answers.

The doctor cleans his glasses on his shirt. “This isn’t hard for you, is it?” He says in disbelief.

“No,” Tony says “it’s kinda hard. I just need to think it through.”

The doctor shakes his head. “Okay,” he says, clearing his throat “let’s take a look at these ones.”

Tony blinks. On the page is a lot of math, and there aren’t any shapes.

Tony frowns. “I haven’t learnt this yet.”

The doctor leans close. “Figure it out.” He says, tapping Tony on the side of the head.

Tony chews his pencil. He’s seen x before in maths books and stuff but he’s never really used it. The equation at the top of the page is X + X = 2X, which makes sense. Underneath is another equation: X × X = X2.

He uses them to figure out the others, which it turns out aren’t even that hard. It’s just logic, and he completes the page in under an hour.

The doctor shakes his head, blinks. “Tony,” he says “are you sure your dad or someone hasn’t already done this with you?”

Tony shakes his head. Of course not, when would his dad have time to teach him something like this? It’s easy.

“Well then, Mr Tony,” the doctor smiles “if you’d just wait here one moment I have a call to make.”

Tony sits in the comfy chair by the door and the doctor gives him a lolly. He guesses that means he’s done well, because you get sweets if you’ve done something correctly, or if someone has died.

He hears the muffled voices outside the door and tries to imagine going home. He thinks he’s done well, maybe it will be enough for his dad to want him back.

A few minutes later, the doctor comes back with Miss Behan and another man. He smiles and tells Tony to take a seat back at the table.

“Well,” he says, shuffling the papers “Tony, you’re a very bright young man.”

Tony blinks. “Thank you?”

Miss Behan and the other man chuckle and the doctor reads some paper.

“We’ve decided to put you in for some advanced classes,” the man says, in low, rumbling voice “something that might actually pose a challenge.”

They look at him expectantly. “Uh,” Tony says, because he doesn’t know what else to do.

“We know you’ll do brilliantly,” Miss Behan says brightly with that horrific buttercup smile.

“We have a special class for people your age with special abilities, Tony,” the doctor says “you’ll fit right in. It must’ve been difficult at your old school having to sit through lessons when you already knew it all, huh?”

Tony doesn’t want to say no, doesn’t want to say that it was kinda fun just being able to do nothing, but that might be rude, so he nods.

“I thought so,” the doctor says, looking at the other adults “this kid’s a chip off the old block. Gonna be just like his father.”

 

 

 

 

Tony makes it out in time for lunch.

“Where were you?” Nick hisses “I had to sit alone in class!”

Tony passes food around his plate with his fork. “They were testing me,” he says “they wanted to see if I was clever.”

Nick frowns, anger forgotten. “Really? What did they do?"

Tony shrugs. “I dunno. They gave me lots of shapes and stuff, and I had to guess patterns. And then they gave me some math, and then the doctor left, and then he came in again, and then Miss Behan and some other guy told me that I’m gonna go to a different class.”

Nick blinks. “So you won’t be in my class?”

Tony makes a house out of fries. “Guess so.” He mumbles.

Nick’s face screws up. “That’s not,” he slams his fork onto the table “that’s not fair!”

“I d-don’t really want to,” Tony says quickly, stumbling over the words like he does when he gets nervous “I j-just, they said—”

“It’s not fair!”  Nick says, loudly, and Tony doesn’t like that, he doesn’t like it when people shout. Some of the other kids look over at their table.

“You’re supposed to sit with me!” Nick whines loudly “Now what am I going to do!”

“You c-could,” Tony stutters “ask, ask the other k-k-kids.” He swallows hard, because he completely messed that up, he said it all wrong, oh no, he wasn’t supposed to do that anymore—

“Miss!” Someone says “Nick’s playing up again.”

Nick stands and slams his chair to the floor. Tony makes himself small.

Some younger kids scream when the chair skitters across the floor. “It’s not fair!” Nick screeches “it’s not fair, you’re supposed to be my friend—”

Miss Behan is the one who takes him away. Nick kicks, works himself into a frenzy, and everyone is staring at him, and then they’re all staring at Tony, and he feels his cheeks heating and words get lodged in his throat. He doesn’t know if he should keep eating or what, and everyone is completely silent.

He stumbles forward, knocking his hip against the table, and he thinks he’s going to cry, he doesn’t want to cry here, in front of everyone, but he can feel the lump in his throat and prickling in his eyes anyway. He manages to make it out the cafeteria but then he realises he can’t remember the way back to his room. 

He roams the corridors, panic building and building, and he feels shaky, feels tears in his eyes, and this isn’t fair, this never would have happened if Nick hadn’t been such a baby, and he wants Jarvis so bad, he wants him to come right now and just take him away, take him back home and read him a story, because he’s lost and all the kids in the cafeteria will laugh at him, and he’s crying.

He stumbles around the block outside, and finds the boy’s dorms, but then he can’t remember how to get to his room. He starts to cry really, because he’s going to be late for lessons, and the teacher might shout at him in front of everyone and, oh God, what if they tell his dad—

“Hey!” Someone says “Hey, you all right kid?”

There’s a boy with dark skin, except it’s one of the older ones. They have lunch later than the kids and a lot of them spend it in their rooms, working or whatever. Tony’s never seen him before but he shakes his head, blubbering.

“I c-c-can’t f-find m-my room,” he cries “I d-don’t know, I don’t know where—”

The boy sighs and crouches down in front of him. He’s one of the older kids, in high school, which means he probably knows what he’s doing. “Hey, calm down,” he says, and there’s an unlit cigarette hanging out of his mouth which is very against the rules “relax. What are you looking for, kiddo?”

Tony sniffs. “I— my room. I want to f-find m-m-my room.”

“Do you know where it is?” He says, flicking the cigarette from his mouth and twirling it over his fingers “you’re new here, aren’t you?”

Tony nods.

He snorts. “Goddamn rich folk sending their kids to school before they know how to walk. Come with me.”

He holds out his hand and takes Tony along the corridor and down some stairs. “What’s your name, kid?” He asks, stashing the cigarette in the back pocket of his jeans.

“T-tony Stark.” He says, sniffing.

The boy raises and eyebrow and looks down at him. “Tony Stark? As in, Howard Stark? That guy’s your dad?”

“Uh huh.” Tony nods, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. The boy whistles low, clucks his tongue.

“Wow. You know your dad’s a war monger?”

Tony’s heard that word before, but he doesn’t really understand it. “What?” He asks, looking up, panic momentarily forgotten.

“It means he benefits from war.”

Tony frowns. “My d-d-dad d-doesn’t like war.”

“Who does?” The boy says “Probably not. But he still gets money off the back of it.”

“I d-don’t think so,” Tony says “my mom, my mom says that their isn’t any m-money.”

The boy frowns, looks left and right. “Listen Tony,” he says quietly, crouching down “you should keep that to yourself, yeah? Don’t repeat that to anyone.”

Tony nods, sniffs again, and lets himself be led down the corridor.

“How old are you, kid?” The boys asks.

“Six.” Tony says, proud that he doesn’t stutter.

“Six years old and already sent away, huh? Well, start as you mean to go on.”

Tony frowns. “W-what,” damn, he’s doing it again “what d-does that mean?”

“Nothing.” The boy says. “Do you know what class your in?”

Tony stalls. “I think— they t-told me it was an advanced c-class?”

“Oh,” the boy says “okay, that’s cool, you must be with Mr Lambert. I know where that is. It’s cool, he’s real nice, he’ll understand.”

Tony nearly sinks through the floor with relief. “D-d-do you think he’ll t-tell my d-dad?” Tony blurts out in a rush.

“Tell your dad what?”

“That I c-cried.”

The boy frowns. “No,” he says, voice strangely soft. “No, he won’t do that, Tony.”

Tony lets himself be tugged along the rest of the way. “Joey!” He shouts “Hey Joey!”

Tony recognises the kid from yesterday, the hyper one, and Tony is relieved to see a familiar face even if he is weird. “This is Tony, he’s got class with you.”

“Yeah, I know him, hey Tony.” Joey says in a rush “Do you want me to take him? I can take him, I was going early, I need to give Lambert my math, I can take him, it’s cool.”

Joey grins. “Don’t worry, Tony Stark, Joey’s good. He’s just a bit whacko.”

“I’m not whacko, you’re whacko,” he says, hopping from foot to foot “you coming Tony? You’re small, aren’t you, aren’t you a bit young to be going advanced class? Isn’t he a bit young to be in advanced class?” He says, turning to the boy.

“That’s Tony Stark, Joey, his dad’s a big-shot weapons developer. Means that Tony’s probably really smart too, right?”

Tony looks at his feet and shrugs.

Joey grabs his elbow. “C’mon,” he says “we need to get there early, it’s cool, Lambert’s nice, you’ll see. Bye Michael.” He says, saluting casually.

“Bye, Joey. Bye Tony Stark.” The boy — Michael — grins.

Joey tells him that he’s in advanced class because he’s really, really clever even though he can’t read or write properly.

“The words squiggle round the page,” he explains “but I can do math in my head like crazy. I’m like a calculator.”

Tony nods. “Yeah.” he says, not sure what else to add.

“You don’t talk much, do you?” Joey says, not cruel, just curious. 

“N-no,” Tony says “I think you just t-talk too much.”

Joey blinks. And then he laughs. “You’re funny.” He says.

There’s something warm in Tony’s chest. He’s never been called funny before.

Chapter Text

That evening, Tony gets ready for bed himself. He brushes his teeth in the shared bathroom and washes his body with a sponge, and then gets into his blue and white striped pyjamas.

Miss Behan, dressed in a flowery nighty, asks how his first day was.

“Cool.” He says, and then goes into his room.

He climbs into bed, pulls the covers up over himself, and picks out a book from the ones Jarvis picked for him.

“Once upon a time,” he reads “there was an emperor.”

There’s a knock at the door and Tony looks up. There’s not supposed to be anyone coming into dorms after lights out.

But it’s just Nick. He’s dressed in red pyjamas with a green top, and he closes the door behind him, shuffles forward holding a plushy seal. “Hi,” he says, foot scuffing at the floor next to Tony’s bed. “Sorry I shouted at lunch. That wasn’t nice.”

Tony looks at his book. “It’s okay.” He says, fingers playing with the quilt.

Nick doesn’t say anything else and neither does Tony. But then the seal is shoved under his nose.

“My mom told me to pack him because she knows I get angry and stuff,” Nick says “and he helped with the nightmares at first. But I don’t really use him anymore. You can have him, if you like. To help.”

Tony blinks. “Uh,” he says “th-thanks.”

Nick’s face brightens. “You’ll keep him?” He says.

Tony nods, because he left his shark at home, and because without Jarvis he’s alone, and because he doesn’t want a nightmare, and he doesn’t want to wet the bed. “Yeah,” he says “it’s c-cool. He’s c-cool. D-d-does he have a n-name?”

Nick shrugs. “Call him what you want.” He says, padding to his bed, yawning.

Tony snuggles down, pulling the seal close. Nick switches off the light next to his bed.

It’s okay like this. Tony can handle this. At night, where the rules mean that no one can come and talk to him, and everyone has to listen to what Miss Behan says. Seal is warm and fuzzy and his fur tickles Tony’s cheek like his dad’s beard.

“Tony,” Nick whispers.

“Yeah?” Tony replies.

“Are we still friends?” He says.

Nick apologised and he gave Tony the seal. “Yeah.” He says quietly.

A beat.

“Thank you.” Nick says.

 

 

 

 

That first week passes in a blur.

He wakes up, gets ready, goes down to breakfast and sits alone with Nick. Then, he goes to class, which is a small group of kids who are apparently all super smart. They’re all really weird, and Tony figures that means he’s weird too. Joey’s kinda cool, though, he is really good at math and he’s funny, too.

After that, he goes to lunch, sits alone with Nick, and then goes back to classes. He has free time after lessons but because he’s in advanced they give him some work to do. Tony does it, and then goes back to his room and sits, sometimes reading, sometimes just hiding, until dinner.

That weekend, Miss Behan says it’s letter writing day. All the other kids go up to get their letters while Tony sits at his table, kicking his feet and playing with his shirt.

Miss Behan puts a piece of paper in front of him. “You write home to your mommy and daddy,” she says “and we put the address on the front. Just make sure you put your name down so we know who you are.”

A letter? Tony gets to write letters? Miss Behan asks if he needs any help, and he shakes his head because of course not.

He doesn’t know who to write to. Mom? Dad? 

He wants to write to dad, he wants to tell him how much he hates it here, to please, please, please let him come home. He wants to say he’ll do anything, he won’t fidget, or ask stupid questions, or whatever, but he doesn’t think his dad will let him come home anyway.

He could write to mom. She might reply, but she’s say something like, ‘miss you, study hard, have fun’ and that would be a waste. In fact, she probably wouldn’t reply at all.

Tony puts his pencil on the paper. ‘Dear Jarvis,’ he starts.

 

 

 

 

September takes too long to crawl by.

His dad promised that he could come home for Thanksgiving, he had said that, he had said that Tony could come home. Jarvis writes saying that he can’t wait to see him, that he hopes Tony is having fun, and for some reason Tony makes stuff up about friends and lessons and sports and pretends that if he writes about it enough it might become real.

Tony doesn’t really have friends. Nick is his friend, and Joey. But the rest of the kids don’t talk to him. It’s not their fault, every time they try to talk to him Tony gets all sweaty, and his mouth won’t make the words and when he does get them out he stumbles over them. His dad is gonna be so mad when he hears because Tony’s not supposed to stutter anymore, and they payed all that money to make him stop.

He keeps having nightmares and the seal doesn’t work. He makes Nick swear not to tell because he doesn’t want Miss Behan smiling at him with her fish-smile and wide eyes and trying to help. He doesn’t need help, he just needs to go home.

He hates it here, he hates it. He hates his mom for letting his dad send him here and he wants Jarvis.

Mid-November, Jarvis sends a letter saying he’s very sorry but Tony can’t come home for Thanksgiving. He says that he can’t write about all of it, but he doesn’t think home is a very good place right now, and that there’s a lot of adult stuff that Tony can’t understand. But he says that he knows Tony will be brave about it and that he’ll see him at Christmas.

Tony gets sick after that and he spends three days in the school’s infirmary. 

 

 

 

 

Nearly everyone else goes home for Thanksgiving, even Nick, and Tony is left all alone. 

Miss Behan gives Tony that big wide smile and tells him to keep his chin up, there’s plenty for them to do.

Tony spends the week avoiding her and exploring the school instead. He figures if he’s going to spend like, the rest of his life here, he might as well know where he’s going.

He goes to the girls dorm and sees if he can find anyone but they’ve all gone home too. Girls and boys share lessons in high school but are separate for the younger years for some reason so Tony doesn’t know any of the girls very well.

The girls dorms aren’t very exciting but they do smell a bit better, not as mouldy. He trails around the corridors, counting the doors and timesing them by ten.

It’s kinda boring but he’s finished all his books and he hasn’t figured out where the library is yet. He wishes that he could find somewhere to build stuff but Miss Behan says he’s too small and that’s not allowed.

He stumbles back out into the sunshine, bored. He doesn’t want to find anyone else because he doesn’t want to talk to them, so he goes and sits under a tree by the lake.

The school is very pretty. In the distance he can see mountains which the students are allowed to ski on in the winter if they get permission. In the summer, Miss Behan says some of the older kids take boats out on the lake, or go swimming. Even now, in late autumn, Tony can see where the water is crystal clear.

Eventually, he winds his way back to the cafeteria. There’s only a handful of students now, and they all sit at on large table with Miss Behan and some other house mothers. Nobody really talks except for Miss Behan, who never shuts up.

On holidays, the official bedtime is nine o’clock for the little kids because breakfast is at ten, but Tony doesn’t have anything to do so he spends most of the time in his room anyway, drawing pictures. He’s designing a flying machine, something that he could wear on his back and fly all the way home to New York wearing.

He falls asleep at the desk and when he wakes up someone has moved him to the bed.

The next day, Tony sets out in search of the library. He’s determined to find something to do, even if it is just sitting in a library reading books. He actually asks Miss Behan to show him, and she beams, leads him around the quad to a redstone building, the last one by the woods. 

She lets him explore himself and makes him promise to be back in time for lunch, but that’s okay. For the first time, Tony feels kinda happy. Nobody is here to bother him, and the only other person in the library is the old woman who sits at the desk and sleeps most of the time.

He pads over to the kids section but the books are boring and too small. He moves further down the shelves, to the very back, where everything is dusty, and very, very quiet. Tony doesn’t think anyone comes back here anymore.

He loves it. He drags one of the bean bags from the kids area down the winding lanes of books, back, back, back, until he finds his corner. He’s hemmed in by a row of books that stretch sixteen feet in front and a wall to his right. There are no windows, and the bookshelves mean that he’s got a decently sized square in which to read.

He sets about picking interesting books, books on science, yes, but also stories, stories about dragons, and pirates, and cowboys, and astronauts. Tony would love to be an astronaut, going into space would be so cool. His dad got him a map for his birthday, and it showed all the planets like Neptune and Jupiter and Pluto, the smallest planet. Tony likes Pluto the best because it’s small — he’s small, too.

He makes it out in time for lunch and then goes back after. That evening, he takes a pile of books back to his room and reads some more.

His days move like that for a while. Wake up, eat, read, eat, read, eat, read, sleep. He loves his corner, no one has bothered him at all, or tried to talk to him, or made fun of him, and with all these books it’s fun, too.

One day near the end of the holiday, he’s reading in his corner, and he’s completely engrossed, so he doesn’t notice at first.

But slowly, his attention is drawn to the girl peeking her head round the corner, staring at him. He pretends not to notice, hoping that she’ll go away and leave him alone, that he won’t have to talk, won’t have to have the words get choked in his throat and crack from his lips like broken things.

She doesn’t leave. Instead, she shuffles forward. Her feet are bare and she’s wearing a loose cotton dress. There’s dirt under her nails.

“You don’t talk,” she says, standing in front of him “I see you at lunch. You never talk.”

Tony swallows. “I t-talk.” He manages and kicks himself mentally, because why is he being so silly, there is absolutely no reason for the words to get lost in his mouth, he needs to grow up and stop being such a baby.

The girls eyes narrow. “Do you read?” She asks, sliding closer.

Tony gulps. “Yeah,” he says “I mean, no, sometimes, I d-don’t, I’m b-b-bored.”

She nods, as if he’s said something important. “I read.” She says, and then she sits down, without invitation, and crosses her legs.

“Uh,” Tony blinks, doesn’t know how to ask what she’s doing or to tell her to leave.

“I’m Whitney,” she says “I’m six.”

“I’m T-t-tony,” he says “I’m six, too.”

She nods again and drags a book onto her lap, flicks through the pages lazily. “Is this your spot?” She says, looking up.

Tony nods.

“It’s cool.” She says.

Tony nods again. He doesn’t know what to say.

“Why are you here?” She asks, and she asks a lot of questions that Tony doesn’t want to answer.

“Because, because my parents put me here.” He says, voice dipping in and out of whisper. The library is warm, and Tony can see the dust floating in the air. Their voices don’t travel far.

“Same.” She says “My dad wants me away, too.”

Tony blinks. “Is he… is that okay?”

She frowns. “Yeah. My dad is cool.”

“So’s mine.” Tony says quickly “He makes weapons.”

“Is your dad your real dad?” Whitney asks, biting gnawed at nails, straggly hair framing her face.

Tony’s head falls to the side. “What?”

“Like, is your dad your real dad or is he someone else? Because I’m adopted.” She says proudly, hands coming to rest on her crossed legs.

“Wow,” Tony says, putting the book down “that’s cool.”

She nods. “I know.”

They sit in silence for a while, Whitney looking around Tony’s make-shift home and Tony picking at the material of the bean bag.

“Whitney isn’t my real name.” She says finally, staring at Tony. “I chose it. My dad let me. He’s really cool like that. My real name is GiGi. Or Giuletta. But no one calls me that now, so it’s okay.”

Tony nods.

“It’s Italian.” She says. “You’re Italian.”

“Yeah,” Tony mumbles “I guess.”

“We should be friends.” Whitney says with finality “Because we’re both Italian.”

Tony looks up. “Uh,” he says.

Whitney sighs loudly. “Do you ever say anything? I want to be friends! Come on!”

Tony wants friends, too. He doesn’t understand why Whitney would want him, though.

“I, okay,” Tony says quickly “l-lets be friends.”

Whitney smiles. “Good. If we’re friends now, can I share this place? Because the other girls won’t let me play with them and I like books.”

Tony nods. “S-sure.”

She grins again. “And we have to go to lunch and dinner together? And breakfast. And we have to hang out even after the holiday is finished.”

“Yeah,” Tony says, more enthusiastically, because Whitney wants to be friends after the holiday, too, which means that Tony won’t be so alone. 

“Do you have any other friends?” Whitney asks, playing with her hair.

Tony thinks. “Nick is my roommate,” he says “and I have classes with J-joey, whose really clever, b-but a b-b-bit weird.”

Whitney wrinkles her nose. “Nick is weird,” she says “he gets really angry really quickly.”

“He’s not b-bad,” Tony says “he’s just a b-b-bit strange.”

Whitney shrugs. “Whatever. I’m your friend now.”

 

 

 

 

Tony and Whitney spend what’s left of the holiday together. Tony finds that she’s actually kinda funny and that she speaks Italian, too, so they can have secret conversations that no one else can understand.

She loves reading and even though Tony doesn’t like it that much they spend a lot of time in the library. Tony will read the difficult books out loud, and he’ll do the voices and everything. He finds it easy to talk around Whitney because she does most of it for him.

He doesn’t see her often after school starts up again because they don’t have lessons together and she lives in the girl’s dorms anyway, but she sits next to him and Nick at lunch, even though she doesn’t like him.

One day, they’re in the library, and it’s cold out because winter has arrived. They’re in their corner and today they’re reading a book about a Russian princess, even though she’s not really a princess. Tony doesn’t know what’s happening but Whitney loves the descriptions of clothes and stuff so he keeps reading.

Nick finds them. Tony’s mid-way though doing the crazy-old-wizard voice when Nick interrupts.

“What are you doing?” He asks, frowning down at them.

Whitney and Tony share a look. “Reading.” Tony says.

Nick crosses his arms. “Can I join?”

“No.” Whitney says “You can’t, go away.”

Nick swallows. “I just want to listen.”

Whitney sticks her nose into the air. “No,” she says again “I’m listening.”

Tony doesn’t know what to do. He kinda doesn’t want Nick here, because he actually likes Whitney a lot more, but Nick is his friend and his roommate.

Tony continues, but Nick doesn’t leave. He sidles behind Tony and peers over his shoulder. Tony begins to stutter.

“Stop it!” Whitney says, and Tony flushes because he thinks she’s talking to him. “Go away! Now look what you’ve done, he’s talking funny again.

Tony blinks, mortified. “I d-don’t t-t-talk funny.”

“Yeah, you do,” Whitney says “but it’s okay, I don’t care, but he,” she points at Nick “is messing it up.”She turns to the other boy. “Go away,” she says, firmly “you’re messing him up and he’s reading to me.

Nick looks like he’s going to cry. And then his face gets all screwed up, and he starts going red. He turns, and runs, and they hear screaming where Nick starts beating his hands against the wooden table down by the entrance.

People whisper and he wakes up the old librarian. Someone must have gone and got a teacher because then there’s a woman leading him away, still screaming.

Whitney’s nose wrinkles. “He’s so weird.”

Tony can’t help but agree.

 

 

 

 

It gets a little, just a little bit better with Whitney as his friend. Nick won’t leave him alone, he keeps asking him to sit with him, read to him, talk to him, play with him, and it’s getting annoying. Tony likes him, kinda, but he wants to spend time with Whitney as well, and plus, Nick is weird.

Still, he misses home. He keeps writing letters to his Mom, his Dad, but only Jarvis ever replies. Every Saturday, on letter day, all the kids get up to get their letters from their parents. A lot of them even go home on weekends, or have their relatives visit. No one ever comes for Tony, and the only letters he gets are from Jarvis.

He hates it here.

 

 

 

 

The rest of the semester crawls by. Tony spends it with Whitney, reading and drawing. Sometimes, they make up games and play at imagining and that’s fun too.Whitney says that Tony’s really funny.

She says that she’s going home to her parents over Christmas and that she lives in New York. Tony says that he lives in New York, and Whitney says that he should come and live with her instead of going home because she hasn’t got any brothers or sisters or anything, and her parents adopted her so maybe they can adopt Tony too.

(Tony told her some stuff about Mom and Dad that he probably shouldn’t’ve.)

Tony has sent letters home begging to come back for Christmas, but Jarvis just keeps saying that he needs to wait, that it’s complicated, that Jarvis really wants him home but he needs his Dad’s permission first.

The first time it snows, Tony and Whitney build an igloo. Tony explains how to make it stay up using math and pi, and Whitney listens. She picks it up pretty quick but lets Tony do the calculations anyway.

Soon, other kids join in. They’re all building, everyone making their own block, and Tony is in charge. They all listen to him when he tells them how many blocks they need, where they should put them. It’s actually really fun, and the kids even pretend they can’t hear his stammer.

Nick ruins it.

Tony doesn’t know why, but he gets angry again and smashes the igloo to pieces. Tony is so mad after that, because he spent ages building it, and everyone was listening to him, and it was special, and why did Nick have to ruin it? All the kids leave after that, and Tony is left with the remains of his igloo.

That night, when Nick comes back to their room, Tony doesn’t even talk to him. He just turns over and wilfully ignores him, blocks out his ears until Nick stops apologising and goes to sleep. 

Tony cries, that night, silently into his pillow, because he wants to go home, but for the first time he’s starting to think that it might be worse there than here, and now he has nowhere at all.

 

 

 

 

 

Jarvis writes the next day to tell him that he is coming home for Christmas. Tony is so excited that he forgets to be mad at Nick and everything, and he runs straight to Whitney. She’s happy too, because she says she knows what it’s like to be stuck somewhere you hate.

Tony reckons that if he can tell his dad how much he hates it, and show him how well he’s doing in class, he’ll have to let him come home, definitely. He’ll see how much Tony hates it here, how much he wants to leave, and he’ll let him stay in New York. Jarvis said that there were loads of good schools in New York, and that Jarvis would be happy to take him. Tony just needs to make his dad see.

 

 

 

 

The day Tony leaves for winter break, Nick makes him promise to write. He never does. Whitney makes him promise to come back after and Tony shrugs and says he hopes he doesn’t, but if so, he’ll miss her most.

Tony is excited. He hasn’t seen his parents in months and he wants to see Jarvis so bad.

It’s the Christmas that everything falls apart.

 

Chapter Text

When Tony gets back home he realises he would maybe rather stay at school.

Jarvis picks him up the day after the school breaks up. He’s right there, at the gates, and when Miss Behan tells him that the butler is here to pick him up in a disapproving tone, Tony doesn’t even notice, he just races down the stairs, through the corridors, out the door and over the quad and straight into Jarvis’ arms.

“Hey little man,” he says, lifting Tony into the air “how you doing?”

Tony squeezes his neck, tight. It’s the smell of him, that warm, comforting smell, the one he remembers, and the feel of him beneath his arms, the way he picks him up and makes him feel like everything is going to be alright again.

“G-good.” Tony says and Jarvis puts him down, stares at him.

“You haven’t grown much,” he says worriedly “is he eating?” He asks Miss Behan who nods vigourously. 

“Absolutely,” she says “I see him eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. I wouldn’t worry, dear, some children are just slow developers.”

Jarvis raises an eyebrow and turns back to Tony. “We’re gonna be staying the night at a hotel, just us, how does that sound?”  

Tony grins and tries to jump high enough to get eye level with him. “F-f-fun.” He says “C-can we g-get ice cream?”

Jarvis’ smile turns pained as if there’s something wrong. “Why don’t you wait in the car,” he says “and I’ll get Johnny to load your stuff in. I just want to talk to Miss Behan, ok?”

Tony grins again, practically skipping to the car, until he remembers that he’s not a baby and he should take it slow.

“When did the stammer start?” Jarvis says in a really low voice because he thinks Tony can’t hear.

Miss Behan frowns. “I thought he always had it.”

Jarvis looks back at Tony, face worried, and leads Miss Behan away so Tony can’t hear anymore.

 

 

 

 

That night, in a hotel somewhere, Tony crawls into bed with Jarvis. 

He reads him a story, and they laugh, and afterwards, Tony doesn’t go back into his own bed and just stays, warm and safe, for the first time in three months.

 

 

 

 

At home, everything is quiet.

Tony does not see any of the help. He does not hear his parents.

Jarvis warns him to keep it down and explains that his Mom is ill. He doesn’t elaborate but says that he can see her when she wakes up. Tony’s not that bothered, really, but it would be nice if she had come to say hello.

Jarvis says that Dad is at work, but that he’s coming home early especially for Tony. Tony blinks, because is Jarvis lying? Dad is coming home for him? Oh wow. This is going to be the best Christmas ever.

Jarvis tells Tony to put on something comfortable and come outside because they’re going to build a snowman. Tony tells Jarvis about his igloo, and how Nick ruined it, and Jarvis shakes his head.

“Some children are like that, Tony,” he says sadly “they don’t know how to act.”

Tony just throws a snowball at Jarvis’ head and giggles because it gets all over him and he looks like he has a snow beard.

Later, he gets changed again and they eat lunch and have hot cocoa in front of the big fire in the lounge. Jarvis says that tomorrow the people will be delivering the big tree, the huge one that goes in front of the main stairs in the foyer, but that Jarvis waited until Tony arrived to do the smaller tree.

Tony even gets to put the star on top.

That afternoon, Tony sits with Jarvis in the kitchen, feet swinging where they can’t quite reach the ground. “J-jarvis,” he says “what’s wrong with M-m-mom.”

Jarvis sighs, and Tony can’t tell if it’s because of Mom or because Tony’s talking all funny. He doesn’t answer though, and instead just drinks more of his tea.

“You’ll see her later, little man.”

 

 

 

 

That evening, Tony’s Dad does come and see him.

“Hey, Tones,” he says, ruffling his hair and yawning. “How’re you doing?”

Tony’s entire stomach is a pit of nerves. He missed his Dad so much, but he doesn’t want, his Dad to be angry because he’s talking all funny again. He looks like he’s in a good mood, and he’s visiting, which means it’s probably one of those times where he suddenly wants to do stuff with him. But those times can go real quick, and everything Tony does starts getting on his nerves, so he has to be careful.

He swallows. “G-g-good.” He says, and freezes, waits for the hammer to fall, for his Dad to speak.

“That’s nice, kiddo,” is all his dad says, looking at his watch. “You have fun at school?”

Tony nods.

“Good, good. Say, you haven’t seen your Mom yet, have you?”

Tony shakes his head.

Dad grins. “Good, good. That’s good, I mean, she’s ill, so. Probably best to stay away. I was thinking maybe I could take you down to the workshop tomorrow,” he says absently “start working on that circuit board.”

Tony blinks. Oh wow.

“Yeah!”  He says, sitting up straighter “That would b-be really c-c-cool!”

Howard flicks through the book on Tony’s bedside, yawns again. “Yeah,” he repeats “just you and me. The boys. It’ll be fun.” And it sounds a bit like he’s trying to convince himself more than anything else.

They fall into silence, then, because Tony doesn’t want to upset his dad by talking and Howard doesn’t make any more conversation.

“So,” he says finally, standing and brushing imaginary lint from his clothes “tomorrow, yeah?” He ruffles his hair “Good to see you, Tones, I’m your favorite, right?” He says, grinning expectantly.

“Y-yeah.” He says “You’re the c-c-coolest.”

“That’s what I thought, kiddo. He’s ready for bed, Ed,” Dad calls “I’ll see you tomorrow, Tones.”

He leaves, nodding to Jarvis on the way out and Tony grins, he can’t help it. Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow, his dad is gonna help him make a circuit board, that’s so cool, he’s never going to sleep tonight, he’s too excited.

“J-jarvis,” he says “J-j-jarvis, D-dad is g-gonna help m-me m-m-make a thing!” He says, squirming under the covers. He squeals, this really loud noise, and tucks the blanket under his chin, wriggles with excitement.

Jarvis pats his knee, and smiles, except he doesn’t look as happy as Tony.

“That’s nice, little man.” He says, and he shakes his head.

“What’s wrong?” Tony asks, head cocking to the side. He’s so excited that every little movement is exaggerated, he’s practically vibrating.

“Nothing,” Jarvis says softly, one hand resting on his knee “I just don’t want you to be… I wouldn’t want for you to maybe feel disappointed. If something comes up. Or your dad can’t make it.”

Tony blinks. And then his smile falls. “You d-don’t, D-d-dad’s not gonna m-make a thing with m-me tomorrow, is he?”

“No, no!” Jarvis says quickly “No, I mean, he will. He might. But it won’t, please, Tony,” Jarvis says, peering closer “please don’t be sad if it’s not what you want.”

Tony sniffs. “I’m n-n-not a b-baby, Jarvis. I understand. He says, crossing his arms. “I g-get it.”

Jarvis pauses. “Get what, Tony?” He says quietly.

Tony kicks the covers from his legs, crosses his arms. He doesn’t want to cry, doesn’t want to be a baby, but Jarvis is gonna make him say it anyway.

“I k-k-know that M-m-mom and D-d-dad d-don’t,” he swallows, and he feels a surge of frustration because why won’t the words come out, why aren’t they coming out the way he wants them to, why are they all broken and cracked and stumbled, he sounds like a freak. “I know,” he says, very slowly “that they,” he focuses, pauses, works on getting this word out right “don’t, don’t, don’t—”

He balls up his hands in frustrations, bangs them against the sheets. Jarvis slides a hand down his arm, tries to calm him, but it’s not fair, it’s not, because he talks like a big baby and he might spend time with Dad tomorrow and his Dad might say “Tony, why are you talking like a baby?” And Tony won’t be able to answer because the words will get stuck in his throat and he’ll just say them over and over and over and it won’t work, and his Dad will frown, or worse, he’ll laugh, like last time, and Tony will go red and just want the whole world to disappear because he’s been an idiot in front of Dad.

“It’s okay, Tony.” Jarvis soothes, curling a sheet round his shoulders.

“It’s n-n-n-n-not okay,” he bawls, kicking his feet “it’s n-n-n-n-not, not, not, not okay!” He shouts, fingers screwed into the sheets, tears burning his eyes as he tries desperately not to let them spill down his cheeks.

“No no no, Tony,” Jarvis says calmly “shh, of course it’s okay, we can make it better, the stammer can go away like it did last time, it’s okay, shh.”

Tony shakes his head, the tears finally falling, sobbing, and bubbling, and he’s shaking his head, wordless, until:

“B-b-b-b-but he, he, he, he, he’ll think, think I’m a b-b-b-b-baby!” He cries.

“Oh, Tony,” and Jarvis just holds him, just scoops him into his arms as if Tony is his own, as if Tony is his little boy, not Howard’s, or Maria’s, just his, and he’ll do what he can to help him, to protect him, because no one else ever will, from day one Tony has always been alone and that’s not right, it’s not fair, no child, no person, should ever, ever, have to be alone.

Tony cries for a while, even though he knows that it’s stupid, that he’s stupid, and that if his Dad finds out he’s gonna be mad again, but he can’t stop. He doesn’t want to make a thing with Dad tomorrow, he doesn’t want to, because oh God oh God what if Dad hears him talk? Then he’s gonna be in big trouble and Dad might laugh, or he might shout, and it’s too risky, he’s changed his mind.

The next day, Tony’s Dad forgets anyway. So Tony, age six, makes his first circuit board all by himself.

 

 

 

 

Later, Tony visits his Mother.

Her room is dark. The blinds are closed, and there’s only one fire in the grate, casting the room in orange shadows. She’s in bed, lying on her side, sheets shifting with the rise and fall of her breath.

Tony shouldn’t be here. It’s just that Jarvis is staying overnight in the city for the party shopping and it’s not like he can talk to his Dad, and it’s just, he had a nightmare, and he knows it’s maybe a bit silly to climb into bed with your Mom at six, but still.

He shuffles quietly, tiptoeing silently. He doesn’t want to wake her up, he just wants to slip in before she even notices, and then he’ll go in the morning, it’s fine, she doesn’t ever have to know.

But as he delicately pulls back the covers and shuffles in, his Mom stirs.

“Howard?” She says, voice groggy “Howard, not tonight, Caro.” She turns, hair sliding over her pillow, frown forming between her eyes.

“Mom,” Tony whispers, frozen “Mom, it’s me. Tony.”

Her eyes crack open, her frown deepens. “Anthony? Tony, what,” she coughs, feels Tony with her hand, tries to gauge whether or not he is real “you’re supposed to be school, Tesoro, why are you home?” She sits up, the strap of her nightdress falling down one shoulder “What’s wrong, are you, are you ill?” She feels his head, still groggy, frowning.

“N-no.” Tony says “Mom, it’s Christmas. I’m on holiday.”

“Oh,” she says, sliding back down “oh, I didn’t know. That’s nice.”

“I had a n-n-nightmare.”  

“Hmm,” his mother says, already falling back to sleep “okay.”

“C-c-can I,” he swallows “can I— I— I, c-can I stay here?”

“Mmm’, sure sweetie, sure.”

Tony shuffles down the bed, rolls the covers over his shoulders. His mother mumbles something that he doesn’t understand. “Mom?” He whispers.

“Go to sleep, Bamino. She murmurs, turning so that she’s facing away “Go to bed.”

 

 

 

 

“Jarvis,” Tony asks, a few days later when he’s come back from the Christmas shopping “Why is M-mom in b-b-bed?”

Jarvis is putting away some cranberry sauce into the big refrigerator, but he pauses. “I’ll tell you later, Tony.”

Tony pouts, crosses his arms. “You always say th-that.” He mumbles “I’m n-n-not stupid.”

Jarvis sighs. “I know, Tony, I never said you were.”

“Then t-t-tell me.”

Jarvis puts some shopping on the island in the center of the kitchen. “It’s complicated, Tony.”

“Jarvis!” Tony says in irritation “Stop it, I want t-t-to know.

Jarvis crouched by Tony’s seat at the table. “First of all,” he says “I don’t think you’re stupid. It’s just that this is a big thing for a little man to understand, okay?”

“Okay.” Tony says despondently.

Jarvis runs a hand over his face, rubs at his eyes. “Look, Tony,” he says, shifting on his feet. He pauses. “Why don’t, why don’t we go outside, okay? I’ll explain properly out there.”

Later, Tony is dressed in his boots and scarf in the snow under the shade of the three trees. He kicks snow out the way as Jarvis follows him dutifully, occasionally dodging chunks of ice that come his way when Tony misses his mark.

“Tony,” he says, clearing a spot on the wooden bench by the fountain “come here.”

Tony knows that this means he’s gonna find out something Really Important, or maybe that he’s gonna get told off, but Jarvis took him out here to tell him something, so probably it’s something Really Important.

“Tony,” he says again, after he’s sat down “I need you to listen, okay? And then you can ask lots of questions after.”

Tony nods and kicks his feet, letting the tips trail in the snow. He gets it, he just wishes Jarvis would hurry up.

“Before,” Jarvis starts, and then stops, frowning. “When, Tony, look, when you weren’t even born yet,” Jarvis starts again “your Mommy was pregnant.”

Tony squints. “As in, like, she had a b-baby in her t-t-tummy?”

Jarvis nods. “That’s right.”

Tony frowns. “B-b-but b-babies have to b-be b-b-born?”

“They do.” Jarvis nods “But sometimes, a baby can die while it’s still in it’s Mommy’s tummy.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah,” Jarvis says, exhaling “and your Mommy had a few babies that all died before they could really be born.”

Tony hangs his head “That’s k-kinda sad.”

Jarvis nods. “That’s right, it is.”

“So you m-mean, I c-coulda’ had b-brothers? Or sisters?”

Jarvis looks at him. “Yes.” He says “You could’ve. But, here’s the thing, Tony, your Mommy is pregnant again. So you might still have a chance.”

Tony blinks. “What?”

“Your Mom is pregnant again, Tony. She’s got another baby in her belly, do you understand?”

Tony frowns. “You m-mean, I’m gonna have a little b-b-brother? Or sis-sister?”

“That’s right, Tony.”

Tony thinks. Woah. That’s actually kinda cool.

“Is that why M-mom’s in b-b-bed? Because the b-baby needs rest t-too or something?”

Jarvis considers. “A little bit, yes. The doctor said, because the other babies didn’t, well, because they didn’t get to be born, your Mom has to spend a lot of time in bed. She can’t be too busy, or get stressed out, because then she might hurt the baby.”

Tony grins. “That’s so c-cool!”

Jarvis nods. “It is. But it means that you can’t be too noisy, or scare your Mom or anything.”

Tony smiles. “Are they gonna name it? What if it’s a girl? Could it be a girl?”

“It could.”

“Do they want a girl?”

“Your parents don’t mind as long as it’s healthy.”

“How long till it’s born? Will I be at school?”

“You would be on summer vacation.”

“Woah. Will they tell me when it’s born?”

“You’ll know.”

“Will I get to hold it?”

“Maybe.”

Tony’s mind is reeling. A baby! Tony’s always wanted a brother or sister, it doesn’t matter if they’re younger. It would be nice to have someone else be shouted at sometimes or hide him when Dad comes for him.

Jarvis is watching him carefully but Tony just giggles. “That’s so cool!”

Jarvis smiles softly. “Tony,” he says “how are you feeling right now?”

Tony frowns “What do you mean?”

“Do you feel worried at all?”

“Uh?”

“Never mind, little man,” Jarvis says, scruffing his hair and standing “let’s go in. It’s starting to snow.”

 

Chapter Text

Three days later is the Stark’s annual Christmas benefit and this year it’s being held at the mansion.

This means that Tony has to spend all his time upstairs hiding because he is most definitely not allowed to go. Even his Mom is going, even though it’s only for a little bit. The worst part is that Jarvis is going as well, so Tony’s gonna be all alone too.

He hears the party from downstairs, but doesn’t really want to go and spy and see what’s happening just in case his Dad finds him and shouts at him in front of everyone. But Jarvis had said he would be back by 11pm and Tony can see on the clock that it’s 11:47pm which means he’s kinda late.

(Tony taught himself the time over Thanksgiving)

So Tony gathers all his courage and he sneaks out his door. He’s done this before, a million times, it’s just that tonight has been a party, and that means, well, his Dad might, you know.

He sidles down the corridor, carefully placing one foot in front of the other. He jumps at everything, every noise and every shadow. He keeps hearing things and then realising he’s imagining it.

Until he hears low voices down the corridor. Thumping.

He should go back. He should. Because he thinks it might be Dad. But then he hears Jarvis’ voice:

“Howard,” a grunt, another thump “stop, what are you—”

He hears mumbling, a low laugh, and the ‘thunk’ of a bottle as it hits the carpet and rolls into view.

“J,” his dad slurs, and he’s drunk, Tony knows that, and he needs to go, because Dad can get real mad when he’s drunk. “J, J, Ed, Edwin, my friend, just,” a hiccup “one more, for old times sake, just one—”

Tony hears the sound of skin slapping against the wooden walls. “No, Howard, c’mon, lets get you to bed.”

“To bed?” And his Dad hiccups again, their shadows growing taller on the walls “Yesss, yes, to, to bed, J, that’s what I want, you know, you know you want it too.”

He sees where his Dad’s shadow falls when Jarvis stops holding him up.

He doesn’t understand what’s happening. Why would Dad want to go to bed with Jarvis? Is it like… maybe it’s like Tony? Because Tony will go to bed with Jarvis sometimes, when he’s had a nightmare, maybe Dad does too?

Except that’s weird. Dad’s a grown up.

“Howard!” Jarvis hisses “Stop. You’re drunk, go to bed.”

He sees his Dad stand. “Oh honey,” he says, honey, that’s what he calls Mom, and he pushes against Jarvis until he’s against the wall “you’re not even,” he pants “not even fighting me, c’mon, J, I need this—”

Tony’s Dad kisses Jarvis. He can hear the noises.

“Stop!” Jarvis says, and he’s not even whispering “Stop, Howard, your wife is pregnant—”

“I don’t care about her like I care about you,” Dad says, fast “I don’t want her, I just, God, J, give me this, let me have this, I just, I want to be happy for one moment—”

“Get off me.” Tony sees Jarvis’ shadow push his Dad away.

Tony doesn’t understand. It’s kinda like his Dad want to kiss Jarvis like he used to kiss Mom, but that can’t be right because Dad is a man and men don’t kiss other men unless it’s on the cheek like Mom’s brother did that one time he visited.

“J, please, Eddy, c’mon, what’s changed, what’s wrong, you used to,” hiccup “you used to love it—”

“I respect Maria too much for this, Howard.”

“Respect?” Dad growls “Bullshit. Bullshit, you’re just, come on, J, give me this, you fag, give me this one thing—”

“You need to sleep, Howard.”

“After everything I’ve done for you? After everything I’ve fucking done, this is how,” a thump as Jarvis drags his father up “after everything, this is how you repay me, all I’m asking for is one night, just one—”

They’re coming this way. Tony can see their shadows lengthening, can hear their footsteps clearly, and oh boy, his Dad is gonna kill him because he’s drunk and he gets so angry when he’s drunk.

He wishes Jarvis gave him what he wanted. Then he wouldn’t be mad.

But they turn the corridor, and Dad’s arm is slung over Jarvis’ shoulder, and his eyes are closed, but Jarvis sees him, and his eyes widen and he stops, and he opens his mouth, he’s going to call Tony’s name and then Dad will see him so he runs, back, back to his room where Dad won’t get him and pulls the covers tight over his head.

Maybe he’s dreaming. Maybe this is part of the dream.

He hears footsteps past his door and he keeps himself frozen under the covers.

Please, he thinks please don’t come in.

The footsteps move away, but Tony doesn’t relax. They might come back.

He doesn’t know how long he stays like that, quilt over his head and shaking, but when he finally falls asleep he can hear the birds outside.

Chapter Text

The house is quiet after that.

In the days that follow, Tony doesn’t see his Mom, or his Dad. Jarvis wakes him up as usual, and they act like it never happened.

Tony wonders if it really was a dream.

Except when, three days after, Tony is in the kitchen eating dinner. And Jarvis sits opposite him.

“Tony,” he says, and he runs a hand through his hair, clears his throat “I know, I realise you might have seen something on the party night. First of all, I need to make sure: have you told anyone?”

Jarvis’ voice is low, and he never sounds like this, ever, so Tony shakes his head hastily.

“You can never, ever, tell anyone what you saw. Understand? No one. Not a friend, not your Mom, no one, okay?”

Tony nods. He gets it, actually. He understands that what he saw wasn’t normal. That it was bad.

Jarvis softens, slightly. “Tony,” he says “do you… do you know what happened? I mean, do you understand it?”

Tony thinks. He understands that Dad wanted to… kiss Jarvis, and that you’re not supposed to do that if you’re married. Joey from school said that his Dad kissed another woman and that’s why he doesn’t live at home anymore. Tony gets that it’s wrong.

“Tony, you know how your Mom and Dad are married,” Jarvis starts, carefully “and how… how one is a man. And the other is a woman?”

Tony nods.

“Well, sometimes.” Jarvis shakes his head. “Never mind. You’re too young.”

Tony frowns. Jarvis was gonna tell him something and then he changed his mind. Tony hates when adults do that.

“N-no!” He cries “T-t-tell m-me?”

Jarvis rubs his eyes with his fingers. Ruffles his hair. And then looks left, and right, and comes and sits in front of Tony.

“Look, little man, I’m going to tell you this because I know you’re a clever kid, right?” And Tony nods proudly, because yeah, he really is.

“So you can understand that you shouldn’t repeat this to anyone, okay? It’s like… it’s like a secret, right?”

Tony nods, feet swinging where they don’t reach the ground. He like secrets, they’re interesting, and what Jarvis is gonna say sound important. It means he must like him a lot because he’s gonna tell him.

“Tony, you have a Mommy and Daddy, right? And they…” he clears his throat “they love each other very much, don’t they?”

Tony wrinkles his nose. He’s not stupid.

“Sometimes, Tony, there are people…” Jarvis frowns, sighs. “I’m sorry, I don’t know how to put this.”

Tony cocks his head. What has this got to do with Dad kissing Jarvis?

“D-did he h-have a n-n-nightmare?” Tony manages “Is that why he w-wanted to sleep with you?”

Jarvis blushes really really red, and he covers his head with his hand. “Oh, Tony,” he says “I still can’t believe you had to see that.”

“B-b-but is that why?” He persists.

Jarvis pauses. “A little bit, Tony. A little bit, yes. You’ll understand when you’re older.”

Tony rolls his eyes. Adults always say that, “you’ll understand when you’re older,” and Jarvis always says it when he’s talking about Dad.

“B-because he said that he wasn’t h-happy? I thought, I’m not happy when I have a n-n-nightmare.”

“Oh God,” Jarvis says softly. “Yeah, Tony,” he says, and he swallows, shaking his head “Yes, it was a little bit like that.”

He stands pours Tony some milk and gets some cookies. “Here,” he says, and Tony grins because he’s just had dinner and normally Jarvis would make him wait but he’s getting to eat cookies right now and that’s so cool.

“Tony,” Jarvis starts again “a man and a woman can love each other very much, yes?”

“Mmm Hmm,” Tony says, chewing on a cookie.

“But sometimes, a man can love another man very much, too. Or sometimes, even a woman can love another woman very much.”

Tony blinks. “Oh,” he says “yeah, I k-know that. Like, like I l-love you lots and I’m a boy.”

Jarvis smiles but he shakes his head. “No, Tony. Not like that, that’s… platonic? Christ, okay, uh,” Jarvis shakes his head “you love your Mom and you love your Dad and you love… me. But you know how your Mom and Dad are together? Like husband and wife? Well, sometimes a man wants to be married to another man, like that. Or a woman.”

Tony frowns. “Then how comes…” he swallows his cookie. “Okay.”

“Okay?” Jarvis says, blinking “Are you, does that make sense?”

Tony nods. “Yeah. I j-just wondered why I d-d-don’t see them. Like, why there aren’t m-men marrying m-m-men and s-s-stuff.”

“People don’t like it, Tony. People don’t like it when women marry other women or men marry other men. It’s illegal.”

Tony drops his cookie. “Illegal?” He cries “B-b-but what about, you, and D-dad, is, is he g-g-g-gonna g-g-go to p-prison?” And he pushes back against the chair, spilling his milk.

“Tony!” Jarvis soothes “Tony, no, no. You don’t, your father will never go to prison for that, don’t worry. Especially if you don’t tell anyone. Ever.”

Tony nods and Jarvis wipes up the split milk.

“So,” Tony says, calming down. “So are, d-does my D-dad like, d-d-does he like other men and n-not m-m-my Mom?” He says, quietly.

Tony gets that his Mom and Dad don’t like each other very much. It’s okay. He has Jarvis. He just wishes his Dad would play with him more.

“Your Dad…” And Jarvis’ mouth twists, gets all pinched like Mom’s does when she’s angry “I don’t understand your Dad very much Tony.”

“B-but he’s your b-best friend?” Tony says, questioningly.

Jarvis laughs. “That doesn’t mean I understand him, Tony. You’ll—”

“—Understand when I’m older.” Tony giggles.

Jarvis smiles. “That’s right.”

They sit in companionable silence.

“Jarvis,” Tony asks, voice quiet “Jarvis, d-do you like boys more than girls?”

“Yes, Tony.” Jarvis says, softly. “I do.”

“Oh,” says Tony. “Is that why Dad kissed you? B-b-because you—”

“Because he knows I… your father is a very good friend to me, Tony.”

But it doesn’t make sense. If Dad likes boys, why did he marry Mom?

Jarvis’ face grows pained. “Because… because there are some things you can’t do if, if you like men. You can’t have children. And your Dad wanted you very much, Tony.”

Tony doesn’t think so. If his Dad wanted him he would play with him, and he doesn’t.

“Is it unfair for M-mom because D-d-dad doesn’t love her?”

“Howard is confused. He’s confused, Tony. He doesn’t know what he wants, and he won’t—” Jarvis looks away “He doesn’t like people like me, really. He doesn’t like men that like other men.”

Tony frowns because that is really confusing. He though his Dad like men so how comes he doesn’t like Jarvis cos’ Jarvis likes men, too, and how can you hate yourself?

It scares Tony, a little bit.

“Your father likes both, Tony. He likes men and women, so it’s not really unfair. Your parents… they just…” Jarvis shakes his head “Oh, Tony, I’ve said too much.”

“Can you like both?” Tony says, excitedly “Can you actually?”

“Of course.”

“Woah.”

Jarvis laughs, and he’s smiling, but he seems kinda sad, too.

 


 

 

That Sunday, two days before Christmas, Tony goes to church with his mother for the last time.

It’s dark. The days are short, and the New York smog means that the city is wrapped in a cloak.

Even later, when Tony is an adult who no longer attends church, he will remember the scent of incense; the singing. The flickering candles and figurines of Mary and her child tucked into corners of stone amongst wooden pews.

They attend the evening mass as Maria’s stomach is starting to swell. She does not want the hustle of the earlier services and Tony prefers this, anyway.

He almost enjoys it. Pressed against this mother, her scent in his nostrils. The heavy drone of congregation, the warmth. Outside it is cold - snowing - and Tony feels safe, even, tucked against his mother’s side.

His Mom gets communion at the front of the church with everyone else and Tony has to cross his arms in order to be blessed by the priest. Tony hates walking to the front because he always thinks he’s gonna trip, and he’s dreading the day that he has to eat the wafer like everyone else.

After, his mother smiles. She tells him to light a candle for someone he loves.

Tony lights one for Jarvis.

His Mom lights one for the baby.

His mother tells their chauffeur to hold Tony while she goes to confession. Normally it’s only for the early services, but today she has a special appointment.

Later, Tony asks what confession is.

His mother sighs.

“Oh, bambino, you don’t need to worry about that. You’re a child. Only bad people go to confession.”

She had patted him on the head and Tony had frowned. Is his Mom a bad person?

“B-but sometime I d-do b-b-bad stuff,” Tony says “like, I d-don’t eat vegetables?”

His mother had laughed. “That’s kid stuff, tesoro, I mean real bad stuff.”

The had climbed in the car but still Tony had wondered.

“Does that m-mean you’re a b-bad guy?” Tony had asked, because he doesn’t think his Mom is a Bad Guy, and he hopes she’s not.

His mother thinks. “No, Tony,” she says quietly “but all humans are born evil, understand? We’re all born evil, and everybody, even the greatest men and women do bad things.”

Oh.

Tony thinks.

“What about C-c-captain America?” He asks, because his Dad sometimes talks about him, and so does Jarvis, and he’s watched all the films, too, and he even named his shark after him because Dad had said, he had said that Steve Rogers was the bravest, best man he had ever known.

(It’s the only story his Dad ever tells him, really. About how he helped Captain America)

Mom nods. “Even Captain America.” She whispers, and then she looks out the window.

“So, we’re all, like, evil?” Tony had said, kicking his feet against the chair. “I d-don’t think I’m evil.”

His mother’s face had twisted and turned to snarl. “You’re Howard Stark’s son, Tony. You’re my son. You are evil, don’t worry, sweetie. You just don’t know it yet.”

Tony blinked. He felt a bubble form in his throat. His Mom has never, she’s never snapped like that before, it’s scary, normally it’s Dad, and she looks real mad and it’s worse because Tony doesn’t really know what he’s done wrong.

He can’t make the words come out of his mouth.

“S-s-s-sorry,” he stutters “ssssssorry, ssorry.”

She pouts herself a drink from the limousine’s bar and stares out the window, one hand curved protectively over her belly.

“Don’t make me angry, Tony,” she says, not looking at him “don’t upset the baby.”

She drinks it in one.

 

Chapter Text

That Christmas, Tony’s Dad gets real drunk. He gets real drunk, and he forgets that he’s not supposed to shout because of the baby, and he forgets that’s it’s Christmas all together, and that it’s supposed to be family time, because he starts screaming and Jarvis can’t make him quiet again.

He won’t let Tony leave, and he keeps Mom and Jarvis and Tony in the dining room, and Mom is screaming at the chef to call the cops and Jarvis is trying to stop Dad from shouting, he’s telling him to think of the baby, and Tony is just crying because he hates when his Dad gets like this, he hates it, hates it, hates it.

Dad is saying that the baby isn’t his, that it’s another man’s, and Mom is shouting back, she’s telling him that he’s insane, a liar, a coward, and Dad tells her to shut up, shut her lying, whoring mouth, and Maria screams and throws the ice bucket at his head and

and then she says, quietly, that it’s not his, of course it’s not his, Howard hasn’t been able to get it up in years, how could he have ever even thought that it could be his, and she says she’s glad, because she’s going to have a baby who isn’t tainted, tainted and dirty, and her baby is going to pure and good and they’re going to leave, her and her baby, and then Maria grins, she grins and says that she’ll take Tony with her, and Howard will never see him and he’ll die alone and 

Howard grabs Tony, and he’s dragging him down the corridor and Tony’s crying and he’s tired and he’s confused and words aren’t coming out of his throat and his Howard smells like alcohol and gravy and he keeps smiling at him, he picks him up and his hot breath is in his ear and he’s running down to the garage where he keeps the cars.

Maria is screaming, “he’s taking Tony, he’s taking Anthony,” and Jarvis is running after them, telling Howard to stop, that this is insane, to please, please put Tony down but Howard stuffs Tony in the car because no one is going to get his son, no one is going to get his boy, his, his, his heir, no one.

He straps him in.

Within the chaos, Tony holds onto that. His father straps him in before he starts the car.

Jarvis is standing in front of the car, he’s not letting it leave, he’s banging on the windows, face twisted in fury, and Tony hears Maria screaming and Howard is shouting and Tony is crying and he thinks he might have wet himself and he’s scared that Howard is gonna tell him what a baby he is.

But then Howard reverses instead of accelerating and they smash into the wall at the back of the house and Tony hits his head real bad, it hurts a lot, and he’s still crying and he’s scared he’s gonna die like the painter that did their roof last summer and fell and bumped his head.

He’s wrenched free by Jarvis who shoves him into a chair, and there’s a lot of screaming and then Tony sees the blood, and sees his mom crying and holding her stomach and saying “my baby, my baby, my baby” over and over.

 

 

 

When Tony wakes up, he’s in bed.

Jarvis tells him he’s bumped his head, but that he’ll be fine in a few days. He just needs to stay in bed.

“Your mom… tripped down the stairs,” he says “chasing your dad. She’s okay. The baby is dead.”

“Okay.” Tony says.

A five says later, Tony goes back to school and spends the New Year with Miss Behan.

Nobody except Jarvis bothers to say goodbye.

Chapter Text

Tony writes to his dad a lot.

He doesn’t really reply, which is a shame, but Tony gets that he’s really busy.

He doesn’t write to his mom anymore because she ruined everything. She ruined Christmas, and it was supposed to be the best Christmas ever, and her baby wasn’t even dad’s and she said she was going to leave and Tony thinks that the only reason she said she would take Tony with her is to annoy Dad.

His dad wanted him, though. So he writes to him.

He still wants to leave. He still hates it here.

 

 

 

Nick keeps telling him how cool his Christmas was and Tony keeps telling him to shut up.

He doesn’t care. His Christmas wasn’t even fun and his parents didn’t get him any presents anyway.

He meets up with Whitney the first weekend back and they spend the whole day in the library. Tony tells her everything, except about Dad liking, you know. Whitney nods and says that she gets it because she kinda remembers when she was younger, last year, before she was adopted. She said her dad always had men round and they were always shouting, too.

She says her Christmas was okay. She says that Santa brought her lots of books. Tony frowns.

“What?” He asks.

“Santa brought me lots of books.” She repeats.

“What’s a Santa?”

Whitney blinks. “He’s the guy in the big red suit? Every Christmas he flies around and he gives kids their presents. But only if they’ve been good.”

Tony has seen it. He’s seen the pictures of the man in the big red suit with the bed white beard but he’s never heard him called Santa before.

“Do you,” Tony ducks his head, swallows “is it maybe because, if you’re not a good kid he won’t bring you anything?”

Has Tony been bad? He saw his Dad kiss Jarvis, that was bad. And he wets the bed still. And he stammers.

Maybe that’s why he doesn’t get presents?

“No,” Whitney says, frowning “that can’t be right, silly. You’re really nice, you read to me. Maybe… do you have a fireplace?”

Tony nods, because they have loads.

“Well, if you have a fire in your fireplace then he can’t come down because he’ll get burnt!” She announces proudly.

But Tony shakes his head morosely. “We don’t light all of them.”

Whitney’s brow furrows. “Oh!” She says suddenly “But do you leave out milk? Or cookies? Or a carrot for Rudolf?”

Tony blinks. “The red nose reindeer?”

“Yeah!” She says, happily “Because if you don’t, he won’t come.”

“Oh,” Tony says “that must be it.”

Later, he writes to Jarvis and asks why Santa never came and Jarvis says it’s because he forgot to buy extra presents to put under the tree.

 

 

 

One night, Tony wakes up and he’s wet the bed.

He panics, because he’s not supposed to do that anymore, not at all, and he hasn’t really, he’s just been having nightmares which are awful but also better.

He knows what to do if he wets the bed because Miss Behan told him on his first day. His room is tucked right next to the laundry closet, so it’s perfect, and there aren’t any other rooms nearby anyway so it’s easy to slide out the door and get what he needs.

Except there’s already another boy there.

Tony freezes. He moves backwards, tries to head back to his room and hide until the boy leaves but he’s  seen him and now it’s too late.

He’s tall, kinda, and his face is really long. Everything about him seems stretched, like he’s been ironed out, but when he moves closer Tony sees that he’s not even that much taller than him.

He’s got blond hair, really really blond hair, and blue eyes and he’s blinking at Tony and holding towels.

“Uh,” he says, and Tony blushes.

“Do you, uh,” he says again, and Tony can’t talk because he’s wet the bed and this boy is gonna find out and he’s gonna tell everyone and everyone is gonna hate Tony more than they do now.

“Did you wet the bed?” The boy says “Because, uh, I did too?”

Tony blinks. “Oh.” He says.

“Yeah.” Blondie says and they fall into silence.

Tony should say something. It’s his turn to talk.

“I’m T-t-t-tony.” He stutters, and then blushes, because he’s sounds so stupid.

“I’m Ty,” the boy says “are you the guy that can’t talk properly?”

Tony wants to cry.

“I wasn’t here at the start because I was in California,” Ty says, proudly “but then my parents sent me here.”

Tony nods.

Ty frowns. “Are you… are you gonna get your sheets?”

Tony mumbles something and moves closer, except he’s never done this before and he doesn’t know what to do.

“Here,” Ty says “take mine. I know where to get them.”

“Th-thanks.”

Ty nods, seriously. “You’re welcome.”

Tony thinks he should leave, now. Except Ty pokes his arm.

“You’re not gonna tell anyone, are you?” Ty says “That I wet the bed? Because I gave you sheets, so now you owe me.”

“N-n-no,” Tony says “I wouldn’t, I w-wouldn’t d-d-do that.”

Ty smiles. “Cool.” He says “Can we hang out tomorrow?”

Tony blinks. Does Ty want to… does he want to be his friend?

Oh wow.

“S-sure,” Tony stumbles quickly “in the library w-with, w-w-with Whitney.”

“Who’s that?”

“A friend.”

“Cool.” Ty grins again.

Tony leaves, because he doesn’t know what else to say.

The next day, Ty does meet him and Whitney in the library.

Whitney doesn’t like him that much, but then he tells her he knows how to sneak into Tony’s room without being caught, and she decides, very magnanimously, that he can join Tony And Whitney’s Group. 

He likes Ty. He’s funny, and brave. He doesn’t care that he’s new and people like him a lot.

 

 

 

One day, Tony is in their spot in the library when Nick finds him.

And he’s angry.

“I’ve been looking for you,” he says, fuming “where have you been? Why don’t you play with me anymore?”

Tony swallows. “I,” he says “I’m b-busy, I don’t—”

Nick scowls. “You’re lying, I’ve seen  you, you’re with the stupid girl and the new boy, Ty.” And he kicks his foot into the carpet, knocking down Whitney’s book tower. “Why won’t you spend time with me?” He whines.

Tony hates Nick. He ruins everything. He’s the reason the other kids laugh at him.

“She’s n-n-not stupid,” Tony protests “she’s n-n-nice. You’re stupid.”

Nick howls and stomps his foot. Tony hates when Nick does this, it’s so babyish. He seriously needs to grow up, he’s nearly seven.

You’re stupid!” Nick says “You are! You can’t even speak properly,” and he sticks his tongue out and stutters “bluh bluh bluh, you just make stupid noises you can’t even talk—”

Tony feels his stomach fall out. He doesn’t like it when people talk about that, he doesn’t like people bringing it up, he knows he’s a baby, he knows it, he just wishes people wouldn’t talk about it.

“Th-th—” He can’t finish because Nick’s right, he just makes stupid noises, and it’s not his fault, he tries to stop it, it’s not his fault, he’s not stupid, he’s in all the advanced classes and he made a circuit board, Jarvis said that most adults can’t even do that and he bets Nick can’t either.

Whitney arrives then, and she actually kicks Nick, even though it’s not very hard, and Ty laughs, and Nick makes a really big deal out of it.

Whitney plonks herself down and so does Ty and they look at the different books even though Tony’s trying not to cry. Whitney hands him one.

“Read to me.” She says, simply.

 

 

 

Later that night, Nick apologises but Tony doesn’t care. Nick’s stupid, and he doesn’t want to be his friend anymore, and he tells him to leave him alone.

Nick says he doesn’t have any other friends and Tony says he doesn’t care.

 

 

 

The semester moves on.

Tony is doing really well in class. He’s one of the best there and Mr Lambert says he really is clever. Tony sends all his report cards home to his Dad to show him that he’s not a baby anymore but he never responds.

He continues to write letters every week even though Jarvis is the only one who writes back.

He says his Dad is fine and Mom is fine and that he shouldn’t worry.

Tony spends all his time with Ty and Whit but it’s okay, because they’re all best friends now. Everyone loves Ty, and Ty tells them that Tony’s really funny. Sometimes, Tony will show everyone how to make paper airplanes that actually fly and how to make catapults.

Nobody really teases him anymore so it’s cool.

One day, he’s called out of class. Miss Behan says that there’s a man here to see him, to talk to him a bit and give him some tests. Tony says okay because he’s good at tests.

Except they’re not really tests. The man asks Tony lots of questions about how he’s feeling, and if he has any friends, and if he likes it here. Tony shrugs and says sure, because it’s not even that bad now that he Ty and Whit.

He says that Jarvis organised for him to talk to Tony because he sometimes talks funny. He says that he’s a doctor.

He asks him questions, he gives him scenarios and asks him how he would react. And the doctor frowns.

(Later, Tony would learn he put him down as displaying sociopathic tendencies. Tony had laughed.)

Tony learns about the Romans in class and he learns about Julius Caesar and Cleopatra and about how Marc Antony (which is cool, because that’s basically his name) beat him, and then how Marc Antony and Cleopatra were defeated by Caesar Augustus.

The history teacher also talks about the first Tiberius, Caesar’s son, and Tony thinks that’s really cool because that’s Tiberius’ name and they’re both kinda named after Roman guys. The teacher says that Tiberius was really weird and mean, though, and that he locked his wife in a room and starved her to death.

Tony had laughed when he talked about this with Ty ‘cause he kinda thinks his Dad wants to do the same with Mom.

Tony, Ty and Whit start playing Romans, and it’s so cool, sometimes Whit will pretend to be Cleopatra and she’ll kill herself dramatically with a snake and Tony is always Marc Antony. Ty will be Julius Caesar, sometimes, but then after Cleopatra dies he’ll play Augustus Caesar.

Either way, he always plays a king.

 

 

 

Tony has nightmares.

Sometimes he dreams about being forgotten. About his Dad forgetting he exists and just leaving him here to rot.

Sometimes he dreams he’s on a stage, and he’s trying to talk, but the works are stuttered and broken and crumble from his mouth while everyone laughs and points.

Sometimes, he dreams of blood. The smell of exhaust fumes. Screaming, and his mother saying ‘my baby, my baby, my baby’ over and over.

 

Those dreams are the worst.

 

 

 

Nick tells Miss Behan.

He tells Miss Behan that Tony cries in his sleep.

Tony gets so mad that he throws his food at Nick’s face, and Ty tells everyone that Nick is a big liar and that he’s just jealous because Tony is cooler than him now.

He’s made to go talk to that doctor again, and this time he holds up shapes and asks him what he sees, and Tony rolls his eyes because this is just stupid, it’s all stupid, and Tony wants this guy to go away because he’s not helping at all.

He asks Miss Behan if he can move rooms, if he can share with Ty because they’re best friends now and Nick’s an idiot, but she says that he can’t, Ty already has a roommate and besides, Nick doesn’t have any friends and he and Tony got on so well at the beginning.

Tony just ignores him for the rest of the semester because he’s still so mad.

Nick keeps trying to be friends again. He brings him sweets, he gives him the stuff his mom sends at the weekends. This doesn’t help. Tony doesn’t really want to be reminded that his Mom doesn’t like him.

 

 

 

 

Tony’s not invited home for Spring Break. Or, rather, he is, but Jarvis says that he doesn’t want Tony home right now. He says his Mom is sick again.

When Ty finds out, he decides that he’s going to stay in solidarity.

Tony’s never had someone that’s done something like that for him before.

Ty moves into his room over break because it’s all on it’s own and it’s more private. The fire escape is just outside their window, and it’s tucked between two walls outside if you climb out. Standing there, you can see the lake, and the mountains in the distance.

You can also get to the fire escape from the door next to Tony’s, but they prefer to climb through the window, because technically it’s not allowed. But still, it’s cool, and Ty shows Tony how Whit could climb up the stairs if she followed the lake track to his room and no one would ever even see her.

Tony and Ty stay up late every night with their torches. They read Ty’s comics and some of the books they steal from the library.

Tony forgets about going home.

 

 

 

That summer, Tony, Ty and Whit play in the lake.

It’s a summer measured with strawberries and ice cream, fingers sticky with juice and sweet tangerines exploding over their tongues.

A few weeks later, Jarvis calls him home, and they spend the weeks baking in the shady kitchen, swimming, and eating ice cream.

His Dad isn’t home, hasn’t been home for a while. He’s on some expedition, trying to find Captain America’s old ship, which is kinda cool. 

Tony is glad he isn’t home. He can relax.

Ty writes a lot. He writes about California, and how hot it is, and he writes about how his parents really want to meet him. He writes, in big childish scrawl, that when he’s older he has to come and stay with them for the summer. He says that their house is private, and right by the ocean. He says that there are always movie stars round, and he swears that his Dad knows the Jackson 5.

Tony tells Jarvis about Whitney and he promises to call her butler and organise a play day. Whitney’s dad, or at least her adopted father, is a big banker in the city, and Jarvis says that Tony’s dad knows him too. He says that they used to play golf together.

So Tony gets to spend time with Whitney, too. They play Romans, a bit, even though it’s boring without Ty. Tony’s mom actually comes out of her room to see them, and she smiles.

She promises to take them out for ice cream and then goes back to bed.

It’s the summer that Tony starts to think that family isn’t necessarily the people who share your blood.

Chapter Text

“15 love,” Whitney calls out, the green ball bouncing on the heat-cracked ground of the tennis court.

Tony grins, throws his racket from hand to hand and bounces on his toes. Sports aren’t exactly his forte, but apparently he’s got a thing for tennis.

It’s hot. California in the summer, would you believe, is baking.

Tony loves it.

Ty’s parents house is one of those prime real estate beach front things sitting on the edge of the LA coastline. Tony’s spent most of his summers here since he was nine years old which is considerably better than spending them with Nick Boyle and an ageing Miss Behan.

There’s a sharp thunk where Tony’s racket meets with the ball and it smacks into the tarmac. Ty parries, body lurching as he swings and bounces the ball onto Tony’s side of the court. The sun is beating down overhead and Tony is soaked through with sweat, gangly limbs moving wildly to keep in time with the ball.

Ty’s face is red, his skin is too pale and the sun is not his friend. Not like Tony, whose tanned skin turns a darkened bronze when subjected to light for too long. Whitney sits in her chair by the net, sunglasses on, wearing her white skirt and sandals over her flowered swimsuit.

It’s nice. Tony likes this. The year is 1984 and Tony is on track to becoming a man.

Or not. At fourteen, he sits on an uncomfortable precipice, his body never quite able to keep up with the jumps his mind has made. His hair, forever unruly, sticks to his forehead. He’s short, and too skinny, almost wiry. Whitney insists that it doesn’t matter because lots of girls like personality more than looks anyway, but Tony’s not buying it.

Ty says it doesn’t matter because Tony is rich and smart. He says he could look like a slapped ass and girls would still be begging to marry him.

Ty can say shit like that because Ty hasn’t had an awkward puberty stage. Ty has never had an awkward anything. Ty is slipping seamlessly from the cuteness of childhood into what will be, as Tony can objectively see, an incredibly handsome man. He’s tall, he’s always been too tall, and it looks like he’s going to even out at something like six feet, which grates on Tony’s nerves immensely because at fourteen he feels like he’s already stopped growing. Ty’s hair is never greasy, his face never oily. His voice doesn’t crack when he shouts, or when he speaks too quickly. He’s not fat, he’s not skinny, and already he has the starts of muscles budding on his torso, his arms.

It’s not actually fair.

Whitney fared slightly worse. She’s cool now, because she’s lost all the weight, but when she was twelve she was massive, like a balloon. She had been really ugly and she’s lucky that she’s actually pretty underneath it all because now she looks great, especially in that swimsuit. She throws up after all her meals and it works.

“30 love,” Whitney grins, mouth working furiously over her mint gum “put your back into it, Ty.”

“Shut up.” He grits, spinning to catch the ball which hits low over the net, bounces once, and then twice.

“Ooh,” Whitney winces “Anty’s on fire, Ty, you’re gonna have to work a little harder.”

Tony sways from side to side as Ty grunts. It’s nice to win, once in a while. They rally back and forth, Ty working furiously to hit back but Tony matching him for every blow. He’s not thinking, Ty’s just not thinking about it. He’s getting all worked up and blowing each shot.

Tony’s realised by now that people don’t necessarily think the same way he does. So methodically. Rationally. He’s realising that not everyone sees the world through the same lens as him.

“C’mon, Anty,” Whit calls “win this one.”

“What about me?” Ty shouts back, panting “Don’t I get a cheerleader?”

“No.” Whitney says shortly, and Tony smashes the ball right over the net.

Bullshit.” Ty spits, throwing his racket to the ground “Bullshit, I want a rematch.”

“No can do,” Tony sings, floating over the weight of his victory “you’re just gonna have to come second this time.”

Ty aims a fist for Tony’s arm and Tony ducks, grinning. “You’re a lousy shot, Ty.”

“blah blah myeh myeh myeh,” Ty mimics, but he’s grinning. “Fine, fine okay,” he points a finger at Tony “but I let you win that one, so.”

Tony laughs. “Of course you did, Caesar, I believe you don’t worry.”

Whitney rolls her eyes. Sometimes, Tony feels like maybe they do this on purpose, they fight on purpose. They only ever do it when Whitney’s around, taking jabs at one another. It makes Tony feel like he’s riding up on a cloud when Whitney shakes her head, makes a comment about boys, as if he and Ty are part of some secret, masculine club to which she is not a part. As if she’s something different, wild and exotic.

She’s not, obviously. She’s just Whitney.

Not that Tony is, you know, oblivious to her. To what she looks like. He can see that. He’s not blind. She’s pretty, so what. Ty’s handsome, too. It’s just, it’s nothing. Absolutely nothing. Tony’s allowed to be attracted to girls, it’s not big deal.

He wonders if—

Tony hasn’t seen his dad in a while. He hasn’t seen his mom, either. He thinks the last time he spoke to either of them was Christmas, although he can’t be sure. It’s the only holiday he really bothers to go home for, now, and even then it’s only for Jarvis.

He spent Spring Break at school with Joey. They’re both in advanced placement and Tony’s set to be applying for college this year with the SAT he’ll take in December. Ty and Whit will be starting high school this year, which is kinda messed up because Tony’s already nearly finished.

After nine years, he’ll finally be leaving.

Ty’s dad took him down to look at Caltech the other day to check it out and ‘get a feel’ for the campus, which was crazy, because Tony won’t even be fifteen till May and he’s already looking at college.

Tony doesn’t really know what he wants to do. Or, he does. Secretly, he still wants to be an astronaut, but he’s not stupid, that’s not going to work. Whatever happens, he’s going to end up at Stark Industries.

Jarvis called last week saying that his parents want to come home early this year. That they want to talk to him.

Tony’s trying not to think about it.

He needs to get a high score if he wants to have a shot at applying for the best colleges. All Ivy league, obviously. Whitney loves collecting all the different brochures and reading over them, Tony’s starting to think she’s more excited for college than he is.

Problem is, Tony’s not that great at writing. He’s good, he’s just not… great. And really, it would be better to get a high score on all of them. Tony can write just fine when he wants to, but not under pressure. Not like Whit can, or even Ty. When Whit writes, the words just flow off the page and everything clicks into place. 

Maybe it’s because Tony’s mind just works a bit funny, but when he reads Whit’s essays he has this sense that all the words are balanced. All the sentences are even, they’re long when they need to be and short for the right effect. Tony’s work is stumpy and convoluted in comparison.

Tony thinks that maybe he should wait until next year to apply because at least that way he’ll be a bit a better but he’s not so sure that’ll fly with his dad. He’s pretty keen for him to go this year.

Tony’s not stupid, he knows it’s like a status thing or whatever. He knows his dad just wants the bragging rights, which is funny when you consider that this is the first time he’s taken an interest in Tony since, like, ever.

“Tony!” Ty calls, slinging a towel round his neck “We’re going to the pool, you coming?”

Tony hates swimming. But at least Whitney will wear her bathing suit.

 

 

 

 

That evening, Tony sits out on his balcony by the ocean.

He’s drinking. Tony’s been steady drinking for a while, since he was twelve at least. It’s not a big deal, it’s just something to calm him down when he gets stressed, a glass a night, sometimes more. 

Tony worries a lot. He doesn’t know why, exactly. Sometimes, he just likes to be alone with his thoughts, and drinking helps… ease the moments when he’s not.

He can stop at any time.

Tony remembers when he was a kid. When he stumbled over everything he said, when he hid, when he was terrified of what other people thought of him.

He never really changed, he thinks. He’s just got good at hiding it.

Once, when Tony was home for the summer, he had stolen his dad’s alcohol. He had been too young and too small to really know what he was doing and had drunk a fair amount of vodka, only to go crying to Jarvis when he threw up and it burned his throat.

Jarvis had been… Tony has never seen him so mad.

Now, he takes a sip and kicks his feet up on the balcony rail. Ty’s parents don’t mind drinking as long as he doesn’t go overboard, which is fine, because he doesn’t. He’s not like his dad. Or his mom, for that matter.

Below, he hears Ty feet crunching on gravel as he talks in low tones with his father. Tony thinks his dad is showing him the car he bought him even though Ty can’t drive. Tony doesn’t know the reason, exactly, he just knows, or at least, can tell that Mr Stone is trying too hard to get Ty on his side.

Ty hates his parents. Out of all the things Tony doesn’t understand about his best friend, that will always be number one. Because, sure, they’re busy people, but fuck if they love their son. Ty’s dad is always desperate to get his son on his level, to try and connect with him somehow, and it makes Tony angry, just a little, because the last time Tony spent any time with his dad at all was the corporate fishing trip back in ’79 with his cousin Morgan who threw him in the lake and then his dad was so drunk he didn’t realise when Tony didn’t come home and had to traipse back sopping wet.

So yeah. It would be nice if his dad bought him a car. Or even a bag of chips.

The sun is setting over the ocean. Tony likes it here, he likes the heat, he likes the smell of the sea. The wide, open space is so much more comfortable to him than the oak and velvet trappings of the mansion back on 5th or his school. He likes everything ergonomic, open, functional. Which probably says a lot about his personality.

“Tony?” Whitney says, and Tony spins, because she must be standing in his room. “Uh,” he blinks “hi.”

She smiles, softly. Tony likes Whit, he really does. They’ve been friends since… they are friends. Tony doesn’t forget that she was his friend before is got cool to be.

“Are you busy?” She says, and her smile is playing thin on her face, her eyes strained, which is weird because Whit really isn’t the kind of person to be so tense.

Tony frowns. “Gigi?” He asks, and he hasn’t called her that in years because that’s not her name anymore, she is Whitney Frost, daughter of Byron Frost, stockbroker, future socialite, Tony knows all of this, so why he uses it now he doesn’t know.

She sighs, smiling carefully. “Can I sit?” She asks.

“Uh, sure,” Tony blinks, scrambles and tries to pull out a chair rapidly, nearly spilling his beer in his haste. She laughs, and it’s not cruel, really, just another familiar thing that they share.

“Can I have some?” She says, sitting, and Tony just holds the bottle out. 

She drinks.

Their hands brush when she hands it back, and Tony downs the rest, hastily. Cracks open another from the pack by his side because he thinks he’ll need it.

“You know beer makes you fat, right?” Whitney says abruptly.

“Oh you’re right, because I’m unhealthily overweight.” Tony rolls his eyes.

“It’s not good for you.”

“Neither is throwing up after every meal.”

Her eyes harden. “What would you know.”

Tony shrugs. She’s right, what would he know about something like that?

“So my dad called me,” she continues, looking away.

“And?” Tony says, carelessly, slumping in his chair.

“I don’t mean Byron.”

Tony jerks. “What?”

“I don’t know, Anty, I don’t—” she shakes her head “He says the school said I was here, he says that he wants to get in touch? I don’t know why he—”

“You don’t know why he would do that.” Tony repeats slowly. “Whit, that’s… that’s fucked up. Seriously, you should, just, like, not talk to him. Ever.”

Whit shakes her head. “He’s my dad.”

“No,” Tony says, forcefully “he’s not.”

“He said that he wants to explain stuff. He wants to explain what happened.”

“Why does it matter?” Tony spits, brusquely. “Why do you care? He’s not your dad.”

“Except that he is.”

“Why the fuck does that matter?” And Tony drinks deeply. “He’s not, you know, your real dad. Just ‘cause you’re related doesn’t mean shit.”

Whitney’s eyes narrow. “That’s it? That’s your only advice?”

Tony blinks. “Oh I’m sorry,” he says “what did you want me to say?”

She shakes her head. “You can be such an asshole, Tony Stark.”

Tony’s face scrunches. “What did I say?”

She glares, and then just stands. “You’re an idiot.”

Tony blinks. “What?”

Whitney slams his bedroom door behind him.

Tony blinks. What did he do? Girls are weird.

 

 

 

 

“And then she slammed the door!”

Ty raises an eyebrow. “She slammed the door?”

“Yeah!” Tony exclaims, and his voice cracks irritatingly on the high note.

“Man, girls are weird.”

“I know, right?”

 

 

 

 

Two days later and Tony watches as Ty swims lengths in the pool.

It’s like watching goldfish swim around a bowl and it takes his mind off both Whitney and his impending meeting with his parents.

When Ty gets out, he’s dripping wet. His sunburn has finally faded to a healthy, glowing tan. His hair is slicked back on his head. His eyes pierce. 

Tony catches the way his muscles tense as he lifts himself out of the pool.

“You okay?” Ty says, looking at him with concern.

Tony blinks. “Uh,” he says.

When he gets upstairs, he beats one out in the shower. He forces Whitney into his mind, Whitney in a bathing suit, Whitney in underwear, Whitney in bed, and it works, it feels good, but then he imagines Ty and the heat in his gut pools faster because Ty with his muscles and Ty with water dripping from his hair—

Whitney. Woman. Anything but—

Oh Christ, Ty is back.

Tony turns the water to freezing, scrapes at his eyes. He’s not, he can’t be.

It’s Ty? It’s just Ty, surely, maybe, maybe this is normal? 

Or not, the voice in the back of his head whispers, and Tony remembers a dark corridor, and he remembers his fathers panting breath and Jarvis’ pleas and he remembers the feeling of wrongness that he had felt.

And he thinks of the rightness of what he just did.

 

Oh shit.

 

Chapter Text

Mr Stone takes Tony to the airport.

Waiting for him is the Stark’s private jet. To him, to his family, travelling across the country is nothing. At this rate, he’ll be home in time for dinner.

Mr Stone draws him in for a hug, shakes his hand, claps him on the shoulder. He asks if they can expect him for Christmas, and Tony says he’ll probably spend it with his family, but thanks for the offer. Mr Stone shrugs, but tells him that he knows he’s always welcome, and Tony boards the plane back to New York.

He’s terrified.

Which is stupid. Who gets nervous about meeting their parents? But this is the first time they’ve ever asked to see him, and he’s gonna have to sit with them and talk to them and ugh, it’s just nothing he wants. Tony is hoping, fingers crossed, to study Engineering, but he’s not sure what his dad wants. He heard that maybe his dad wanted him at Harvard or Stanford taking business, because he’s worried there isn’t going to be strong figurehead to take over, or at least, that’s what the rumour mill is saying. He’s hoping it’s not true.

Not that any of that matters till he takes his SAT. He’s got a good grade-point average and his math is more than above standard. Ty says that Tony’s like some kind of super computer thing because he can just calculate math in his head like it’s nothing. But what if that’s not enough? he knows he’s good, but it only takes one mark to bring him all the way down. And his writing needs work, too. A lot, if it’s going to be up to scratch.

He bites his thumb, and then mentally checks himself. He waits till the cabin crew leave and helps himself to the scotch from the bar.

 

 

 

The Stark mansion hasn’t changed.

It doesn’t, really. Still the same iron gates, still the same pebbled drive, the same sloping green lawns and fountain in the centre of the drive way.

Still the same Howard, Maria, and Jarvis, sans Tony, who was never really apart of it anyway.

He enters the cavernous hall at the front of the house, the wide staircase looming in front of him. He dumps his bag.

“Hello?”

Somewhere, Tony hears a clock tick.

Brilliant. Tony hasn’t seen his parents seven months.

He sighs and moves to explore the open doors leading off into different rooms. He checks the lounge, but it’s empty.

He moves to the fireplace. There’s a portrait, there. It’s of him, his mother and father. Tony can vaguely remember it being painted. His father’s face, younger, stronger. His mother more beautiful. Him, still kinda small.

“Hello?”

Tony jumps. There’s a woman standing in the doorway, hair greying slightly at the roots. She’s wearing a dressing gown.

“Hey mom.” He croaks.

She blinks. “Anthony,” she says, blearily, mouth curling in an empty smile “oh, I didn’t know you were coming.”

Tony nods politely. “I’m going back to school next week.” I’ll be out from under your feet.

“Oh, no,” she says, forcing sympathy “stay, I insist.”

“Mom,” Tony says softly “it’s school. You can’t miss it.”

“Hmm?” Maria blinks. “School? Is that it?”

“Yes mom.” He whispers.

“Good, good,” She says, trying to sound brisk. “Have you seen your father?”

“No. I haven’t seen anyone.”

She nods again. “That’s nice, sweetie. I’ll just… okay.” She mumbles, shuffling forwards.

“Are you… how are you feeling, mom. Any better?”

She hums, eyes vacant. “Oh, you know me,” she says, despite the fact Tony doesn’t. “Busy busy. We’ve got benefits, you know, for the foundation. You should come.”

Tony knows. His mother loves the foundation more than she loves him.

“School, mom.”

“Oh yes,” she laughs “silly me. Always forgetting.”

Tony nods. “How’s your stomach?”

She blinks. “It’s okay.”

“Have the doctors said what’s wrong?”

She shakes her head. “They don’t know yet.”

“Okay,” he says. 

There is silence.

“Do you want me to help you to back to bed?”

Maria smiles. “Oh, Tony,” she says “such a gentleman. Just like my brother. How old are you now, tesoro?”

“Fourteen.”

“So young?” She exclaims as Tony takes her by the elbow “You sound so old, baby.”

He really doesn’t. His mom is still taller than him and his voice has barely broken.

“Where’s Jarvis, mom?” He says, delivering her to the foot of the stairs. 

She blinks. “Kitchen?”

“Good night, mom.”

The light streams in though the window at the top of the stairs. “Good night, bambino.

 

 

 

Jarvis is getting old.

His hair is starting to thin. It used to be blonde, bright blonde, but the colour has dulled, light grey creeping into the roots.

He’s still tall, still smiling. He still keeps his usual, effaceable manner about him at all times.

Tony has missed him.

“Tony,” he says, drawing him into a hug “let me look at you, little man.”

Tony squirms because little man was cute when he was six, it doesn’t fly as well now that it’s becoming a reality.

“God,” Jarvis says, hands on his shoulders, peering at his face “you’re looking more like your father everyday.”

Tony snort. Sure, J.

“I mean it, Tony. It’s really starting to show.”

“That’s a good thing, right?”

Jarvis smiles, but he looks tired. “Have you seen him yet?”

Tony swallows, picks up and orange and throws it into the air. “Nope.”

“He wants to see you. They both want to see you.”

“Yeah, well there’s a first time for everything.”

“You should change. He’s in his office.”

Tony pauses. “Can it wait?”

“Just say hello. You can talk properly later.”

Tony doesn’t want to. He doesn’t want to just say hello to his father. He doesn’t want to step into that room and feel his tongue tie up and his palms sweat and his heart beat in his chest like an out of time drum.

“Welcome home, Tony.” Is all Jarvis replies.

 

 

 

 

“Come in.” Says the voice. And it’s weird, because that is his father’s voice. Like, that is the voice of the man who raised him. And yet it’s barely recognisable.

Tony’s heart feels like it’s in his throat. His palms are sweating.

He doesn’t trust his voice. He doesn’t trust the words that’ll come out to make sense.

But his father has aged. 

He’s sitting at his desk, paperwork piled high at the sides, a glass of scotch by his side. He’s puffing away at a cigar.

There’s another man there, too. Tony recognises him, it’s Obadiah Stane, except he’s lost a lot of hair since Tony last saw him at some Christmas party a few years back. They must have been talking, or planning, or whatever it is the head of multi-international conglomerates do.

His father looks up. “Tony,” he says, gesturing at the seat opposite him. “Come here, let me get a look at you — wait, close the door.”

Tony’s stomach summersaults. He eyes the scotch on Howard’s desk.

He stands in front of his oak table, and he is acutely aware of Stane’s eyes on his back, of his father’s steely gaze.

“You're short,” he grunts.

Tony blinks. “Uh.” He doesn’t know what to say. Thank you?

“It’s a shame. Would be better if you were taller. Leading men are tall men.”

Not true Tony wants to say ever heard of Napoleon?

There’s a long, drawn out silence. 

It’s so awkward that Tony wants to die.

His father raises an eyebrow. “What?” He grunts.

Tony keeps his breathing even. What should he say? What would his father want to hear?

Howard laughs, coarse. “You want some, boy?” He says, gesturing to the amber liquid on his desk. His eyes are cold, but his mouth cocks in a greedy half-smile. A challenge.

Tony steels himself. “Only if you’re offering, dad.”

Silence.

And then another laugh.

His father stands, claps him on the back, and pours him some amber liquid from the decanter in the corner. Tony feels Stane’s disapproval but is also riding the wave of his father’s app-voval  so he lets it slide and takes the drink carefully.

“How old are you now, Tones?” His father says, lighting another cigar and handing one out for Stane to take.

“Fourteen.” He says, in-between sips.

His father considers. “A young man, now, God where does time go? Pass that here,” he says, gesturing to his check book.

Tony slides it across the table and focuses on the burn of the alcohol and keeping the glass from slipping from his palm. His father flicks open the cover, pops a pen and writes. He rips it deftly from the book and hands it to Tony. 

“Here,” he says “for however many birthdays I missed.”

Tony blinks, because that is… that is a lot of money. Tony could do a lot with this money. He’s fourteen. Literally the only thing that he can imagine spending this on is sweets. Or maybe alcohol if he can find somewhere that’ll sell in town on the weekends.

“Oh, wow,” he says “thank you.”

His father waves a hand. “It’s pocket money, Tony. That’s pocket money to me, understand? When you have my job, it’ll all be pocket money to you, too.”

Ah. Okay.

Tony slips the check into the front pocket of his jacket and waits. He doesn’t know exactly what future his dad has planned out for him.

Stane rest his meaty paw on Tony’s shoulder. “What your father is trying to say,” he smiles, encouragingly “is that you’ve reached an age where it’s time to discuss your… options.”

“My options.” Tony repeats.

“Trust me, Tony, a boy of your position, has many, am I right?” He grins and claps Tony’s shoulder again, jarring him slightly.

“What—” Tony blinks, feeling sweat prickle the back of his neck “what are my options?”

His father locks eyes with Stane across the table. “Well,” he says “that’s where it gets complicated.”

“Your father and I were discussing before you arrived, Tony,” Stane says “and we may have a… difference of opinion.” Stane offers “We have different ideas for where the company should be headed.”

“No,” Howard counters “we don’t. I just have different ideas as to who it should be headed by.”

“Howard,” Stane say, chuckling “hey, c’mon. Nobodies saying that, no need to get hasty.”

Howard grunts. “Tony, you’re a bright boy. I’ve seen your records. And you’re obviously incredibly talented.”

His says it all in this monotonous voice, droning, like it’s just another thing, like it’s nothing of great importance. And that’s when Tony realises what his father wants.

“But here’s the thing, Tones—” his father says, and his eyes fall on Tony’s glass. “Drink up, that’s it — look, here’s the thing, boy. SI needs a figurehead more than it needs a good man working in R&D, understand?”

Tony blinks. “Uh.”

“Howard,” Stane chides “c’mon, let Tony here—”

“Tony here needs to be a man that can wrangle others into shape, Stane,” Howard says, downing a glass “he’s not gonna do that if he spends four years locked in a room with machines.” He stands, and pour Tony another drink, this time into a larger glass. Tony doesn’t think your supposed to drink that much scotch but he’s past caring.

The drink knocks something loose in Tony’s chest. “But I want to build.”

“But you can’t.” Howard says.

Tony frowns. “But— but I actually want to, I’m not—”

“I agree,” Obie says “Tony, I agree with you, I’m sorry Howard but I’m gonna have to go against you on this—”

“Of course you are,” Howard says. “No one gets more than you if Tony doesn’t takeover SI, right?”

“Howard,” Obie says, voice low, hurt even “Howard, c’mon don’t be like that now, after everything.”

Dad holds up his hands. “No offence, Obie. But it’s true. I’m a paranoid man and you know it. And I have a son, a smart son. It’s why he’s here, man.”

It’s why he’s here. Obviously. Because for a moment Tony forgot he wasn’t living in the court of Henry the VIII and was the blessed only son of a dying king.

“I don’t want,” Tony hiccups, because he’s drunk quite a bit “I d’want to do that, though. I want to be an inventor.

Howard leans back in his chair, begins rifling through some papers. “Life isn’t fair, Tony. Don’t be, look, don’t be a baby about this.”

Don’t be a, don’t be a baby? This isn’t fair, this isn’t—

“We’ll talk about this later.” His dad says, frowning suddenly and violently scratching though a piece of paper with a pen “Go talk to your mother, she hasn’t seen you in months.”

“I’ve already talked to her.” Tony says, sullenly “She went back to bed.”

Howard blinks. “What was that?” He says, and his voice takes this low, threatening edge. “Don’t talk to me like that, boy. Do not take that tone with me.”

Obadiah kicks him under the table.

“Sorry, dad.” Tony blurts.

His dad grunts, snorts. He downs a shot of something that smells vaguely acidic. “You’re too young, Tony,” Howard says, voice softening “just, trust me on this. Trust me. I wouldn’t steer you wrong.”

You wouldn’t steer me at all A voice at the back of Tony’s head whispers when have you ever steered me anywhere?

Obie coughs, and obviously prompts his dad into motion, because Howard forces a smile onto his face. “I think we should go away,” he says “just you and me. Boys holiday.”

What.

For a second, there is a warmth spreading through Tony’s chest. Because this is… this is everything he’s ever wanted. He remembers all those times, trying to get his dad to kick him a ball, trying to get him to take him into the workshop, trying to buy his time with candy and fake $100 notes that he drew himself and coloured in green without telling Jarvis in case he tried to stop him.

Damn, he had been so sure that one would work.

He remembers all those times, and for a moment he nearly screams yes because what if this is the start of it all, what if this is the start of his dad paying attention and taking him places and building shit with him or whatever.

His dad would probably know what to do about Whit.

And Ty.

And then, in that brief moment, he kinda crashes back down to reality because he is being played. Obviously, he is being played. Manipulated. It’s really stupid of him to think that his dad would actually want to spend time with him.

“I have school.” Tony says shortly.

“Oh,” Howard says, and Tony sees both the men quickly re-evalutating, trying to find the best way to bribe him.

“You can… take him to SI?” Obie offers, shrugging.

Howard claps his hands. “Yes!” He says, leaning back, pleased. “Tony, you can go with your old man, right? He’ll show you around, show you the ropes, brilliant,” Howard sucks on mint “why didn’t I think of it before? Perfect.”

That is literally the opposite idea of fun.

“And when you get back, you’ll be in a better place, just you see, Tony, just you see.” 

He pours himself another tall glass.

 

 

 

 

Later that night, Tony sits in the garden under the shade of the three trees.

He likes it out here. As much as is possible, he’s always felt safe. The night is humid, and the sun is starting to set. Tony sits on the bench his mother bought and thinks.

He’s thinking about what his dad said and how he’s going to have to work hard and how he might not make the grade and how he doesn’t want to go into business and how great Whitney looks in a swimsuit and how amazing Ty looks in nothing.

When there’s a heavy slap on his back.

Tony jumps, jerks, because he smells the thick smell of alcohol hanging in the air, sees it in the setting sun dampening his father’s shirt.

“Tony,” Howard slurs “Tony, Tony, shh, listen, listen to me.”

Tony scrabbles to the side of the bench because he hates it when his dad gets drunk, hates it, he’s old enough to know that most of the shit that went down when he was a kid was because his dad was always drunk, is still always drunk, and it’s disgusting.

His father slings an arm over his shoulder. “Tony,” he says again “listen boy, listen, b’cause I can’t say this,” he looks around, to the left and to the right and then ducks his head, talks in a loud whisper “I can’t say this around Obie, ‘kay?”

Tony cranes his neck away from Howard’s rancid breath and keeps his lips locked tight, nodding rapidly.

“He want’s to—” a burp, and Tony wants to throw up, the weight of his father’s hand like a noose around his neck “he wants it, understand? All of it, Tony, and you,” a thick finger meets him square in the chest “you’re gonna, you’re gonna stop him, hmm?”

Tony says nothing and tries to inch away.

“It’s s’all on you, m’boy,” and Howard laughs, lists dramatically to the side so he’s resting heavily on Tony “all on you, and I mean, I wanna build, I would, Tony, I would love you to build, goddamn, it’s not fair that you don’t getta,” a hiccup “that you don’t get ta’ do that shit, s’not fair at all, but you gotta man up, boy, you gotta grow up, s’not fair, it’s a big bad world out there and you gotta be ready, you gotta be able to take that shit and—”

Howard throws up.

Tony sighs. Calmly, he detatches himself from his father’s limbs. Props him up against the bench.

He walks down the path to the patio and raps on the kitchen door. Jarvis opens.

He frowns, face twisting in concern. “Tony—”

“Dad’s been sick.” He says. “I’m going to bed.”

Tony doesn’t sleep until late that night, or at least until he hears the birds sing outside his window and the first cracks of light slip in from his balcony doors.

 

Chapter Text

His dad never takes him to SI.

Obie does, instead.

It’s okay, actually. Not fun, exactly, but better than Tony expected. Everyone is really nice, which is probably because he’s gonna be their boss one day.

At the end, Obie slings an arm over his shoulder and tugs him to his office. He pours himself a brandy and offers one to Tony.

“Don’t tell your old man, eh? This can be our secret.”

It’s weird, because Obie had seemed pretty against drinking yesterday, but now he’s cool with it. Tony figures it’s because he doesn't trust his dad, which is okay because Tony doesn’t really trust him either.

“About this… business thing,” Obie sighs, sitting on the edge of his desk and placing his brandy on the table “look, Tony, I want you to know that ultimately I think you should choose whatever makes you happy.”

Tony blinks. “What makes me happy.” He repeats.

Obie chuckles, but he keeps his head low. “Yes Tony. I know, weird concept, right?”

“No,” Tony says slowly “not… not weird. Just, I mean,” he sighs “it’s just that’s for other people, you know? Uh, I mean, people who don’t have weapons manufacturing as, like, their job or whatever.”

“Being happy isn’t a… it’s not a sin, Tony. Not something you should have to give in to. Ideally, humans would feel happy all the time, right?”

“But they don’t.”

“No,” Obie hums “they don’t. Tony, you’re a young man now, so I can trust you with what I’m about to say, right?”

Tony sits up a little straighter.

“Tony,” he starts, “m’boy,” he smiles “look, your father and I… we go way back, okay? And we’ve been business partners a while. I love your father very much, Tony.”

For a moment Tony freezes, because what exactly is Obie trying to say?

“But he’s not a happy man, is he, Tony? No, not at all. You know why?”

Tony shakes his head.

“Work, Tony. Your father works too hard. Always has. That’s why he has me. And even then…” Obie considers “even then, it’s not enough. Your father devoted his life to something he does not love, Tony.”

“I d’know, Obie, he sure does love to work.”

Obie smiles up at him, wry, and Tony thinks he can detect some of the underlying bitterness there.

“Your father spends more time at work than he does with you,” Obie holds up his hands “hey, I get it. You’re allowed to be annoyed. But he does it all for you, Tony. So you can take over SI when he’s gone.”

Tony doesn’t think his dad will ever be gone, really.

“Great,” Tony says “that’s great. I don’t care. He wants me to, to take business or whatever so I can take over the company that I don’t even want. He doesn’t spend time with me, or mom, or anyone, whatever, so that he can apparently make this great empire for me that I don’t want. It’s his fault if he’s not happy.”

“You’re a cynical young man, Tony.”

“Whatever.”

Obie smiles again. “Can I tell you a story, Tony? Just, listen to this, okay? Your father, before he worked his way up to be the militaries best man, was a bit more like you. He worked to enjoy himself. Mostly, he worked for the future. Maybe, when he first got into the business, he thought he was gonna save America with the shit he built,” Obie gives his head a sharp shake “uh uh, not any more. But back, then, he was… idealistic. You know you dad worked on project rebirth, right?”

“Captain America.” Tony says dully.

“Damn right. Did he ever tell you about how he flew Captain America out into enemy territory in order to stage a one-man rescue mission?”

“Wow,” Tony dead-pans “I must have missed that bedtime story.”

Truth is, he has heard it. Multiple times. The only times he dad ever talked to him when he was a kid was to talk in his usual, rambling, drunken way about Steve Rogers and the Howling Commandos and how he had worked with them personally, how he Captain America was this paragon of virtue, and how he helped him defeat Nazis or some shit.

Obie must sense animosity because he changes tack.

“Your father has devoted his life to something he doesn’t love, Tony. Fine. What about your mom? Would you say she’s a happy woman?”

Tony looks away.

“No.” He says quietly. “I wouldn’t. Because my mom is stuck in a world that resolves around people she doesn’t love.”

“Aww, Tony,” Obie says, voice heavy with sympathy “don’t say that.”

Tony shrugs. “It’s true.”

Obie’s heavy paw hits him on the shoulder. “You know you can always come to me, right? If you need something. I won’t turn you away, boy.”

Tony’s smile plays tight over his lips. “Sure, Obie.”

"Do what makes you happy, Tony."

"What makes me happy?"

"Fuck your dad. Take engineering."

 

 

 

Tony leaves for school four days later.

Strangely, his mother is there to see him off to school.

She’s wrapped in her gown, her old dressing gown, and she’s wearing slippers.

Tony is fourteen. But briefly, he’s struck by his mother’s fragility. She is… she is not the woman he remembers. The woman with the red lipstick. The woman who would take him to church. The woman who would fight, kick, and spit.

His mother is broken.

She spends her days sleeping. Drinking. All she lives for are her charity galas. The chance to make a difference.

He feels a tenderness towards her. She never protected him, really. But she’s still his mother. He would feel the same way, maybe, if he was married to his father.

Jarvis hugs him tight before he goes. “Be careful, Tony,” he says “please. Don’t do anything… stupid.”

“I would never.”

“If I don’t see you before the tests,” he won’t. “Then good luck.”

“See you J.”

Jarvis smiles sadly and ruffles Tony’s hair. “Don’t worry, yeah? I think you worry too much.”

Tony laughs. “If that’s what you want to think.”

Jarvis knows more than he’s letting on.

“Tony,” his mother says, and she smiles at him, head wavering on her neck. It’s rare that she’ll be up before noon. “Please,” she whispers, lips tight “be careful.”

Tony gives her the same smile that he gives Jarvis.

“I always am.”

“No,” she says, and what she says next, Tony will never forget, ever.

“Don’t be him, Tony.” She says, hand clutching his cheeks, nails scraping against his skin. “Don’t ever be like him.

 

Chapter Text

Back at school, Tony is inducted into what might actually be the most ridiculously rigorous studying timetable he’s ever laid eyes on.

School work has never been difficult for him. Ever. It’s hasn’t been easy, it’s just never really required thought. Tony has, apparently, and eidetic memory, which is pretty cool for learning stuff. When Whitney tells him, flicking through old papers, that he could do this stuff in his sleep, Tony should probably feel comforted.

Except he doesn’t.

Nick Boyle doesn’t help. Tony can’t quite make out whether he has gotten more irritating over the summer, but quite frankly, he hasn’t really got time to figure it out. Between study and Ty and Whit and everything else, Nick Boyle ranks a very low 58 on the list of things that Tony has to worry about.

And Jarvis was right when he said that Tony worries a lot.

“Would you shut up?” Tony grits, bent over his desk, because this shit is easy, sine and cosine rule is easy fucking trig, so why. Isn’t. It. Fucking. Going. In. He’s reading it over and over and he can’t focus at all, nothing is fixing down on the page, and he can’t start the questions until he gets this but this is fucked up, the ink is running all over the page and Tony is ready to kick Nick hard in the dick.

Nick is sitting on the fire escape with his shitty little radio and he keeps flipping the channels. Nick is freakishly tall, not like Ty, who is lithe. Nick is lanky, and his limbs splay everywhere like some kind of octopus or maybe a giant squid. His hair is greasy, so greasy that he doesn’t even need gel to stick it back on his head, and he’s rolled up his shirt and is trying to flex his non-existent muscles.

“Nick!” He screams “Nick, shut the fuck up!”

The radio cuts and he hears the jolt of feet slapping against metal. “What’s up, Tones?” Nick says in that god-awful grating voice.

Tony spins. His eyes fix on the radio. “Turn it off.” He says behind his teeth “Turn it off you retard I’m trying to work.”

(Tony has long ago stopped being able to identify the hurt in Nick’s eyes. Or at least, he’s been able to ignore it)

“Sorry, man,” and he plasters a grin on his face, yellow teeth shining “you working?”

“Nick,” he says “would I be in this room if I wasn’t working?”

Boys have to stay in the dorm block after ten on weeknights so Tony has to work here. It’s nearly midnight.

And yet Nick keeps playing that godawful music.

Tony can’t deal with it. He can’t. He needs to learn this, and he needs to get the questions done, and it’s nearly midnight and then it’ll be one am, two am, three am, and Tony won’t get to sleep at all and then he’ll fucking fall behind and it’ll be that stupid fucking idiot Nick’s fault because he’s such a creepy fucking weirdo and he’s breathing down Tony’s neck.

Tony slams his books into the table, lost in a red haze of intense irritation that has rolled into fierce anger. He bites at his knuckles till he draws blood, the doctor said that he needs to be calm when he gets like this and that he can’t start panicking or shouting. He needs to count to ten, focus on the pain.

He nearly manages it, but then Nick starts chewing gum and Tony, without even a little thought, stands and throws his radio onto the ground, four floors below the fire escape.

Nick blinks.

Tony slams the door behind him, and it doesn’t matter because no one will even hear, they’re so tucked away in this room, so far from anyone. He stalks down the corridors still wearing the jeans and button-down that he wore to class.

“Ty.” He hisses “Ty, I know you’re awake open the fucking door.”

Ty is awake when he opens the door, hair sticking out in all the wrong places and eyes bleary, but he clearly hadn’t been before. He blinks, rubs one of his eyes with a fist, and Tony tries not to think about how cute that is and how he’s done that since they were kids.

Ty’s room mate has chicken pox so he’s alone, which is perfect because there is no way in hell that Tony is going back to that room tonight.

“I need to study.” He says, slamming his books onto the desk as Ty blinks at him.

“It’s one in the morning.”

“Yeah,” he says “sorry about that. Go to sleep. Uh, I’ll just,” he looks at his books “study.”

“It’s one in the morning.” Ty repeats.

“I know,” Tony sighs, rubbing his hand over his face “go to bed, let me read this, please, I just need to study this—”

“No you fucking don’t.” Ty yawns “C’mon.”

“What?” Tony says, trying to frantically find his last page “what? No, I need to, I have a test tomorrow. Got to keep my GPA up or—”

“Tony your GPA is higher than Joey on spring break. You really don’t have to. Get into Den’s bed, he’s not here.”

Tony swivels. “Ty,” he says, voice filled with seriousness “Ty, I am going to fail. I know it. Fuck, fuck, do you know what happens if I fail?”

“Worst case scenario, you re-take next week. Get into bed.”

No, Ty,” Tony says, clawing at his hair in frustration “then my GPA falls. I don’t meet the grade to get into college. I fail. My dad hates me, or kicks me out, or I don’t know, and I end up having to graduate with everyone else like a normal person—”

“What happened to your hand?” Ty interrupts.

Tony blinks and looks at his knuckles, slightly swollen and bleeding sluggishly. “Oh,” he frowns “I bit it.”

“That’s healthy.”

“It’s better than throwing Boyle out the fucking window.”

Ty’s face darkens. “What was the little freak doing?”

Tony feels a resurgence of anger hot in his chest. “That stupid radio, Ty, he keeps turning the dial, keeps changing the channel, as if I give a shit, I’m trying to work and he’s dicking about like a creep and it’s going to be the reason I fail—”

“You’re not going to fail, first of all,” Ty says, slumping down on the spare chair against the desk “so stop saying you will, it’s irritating.”

Tony knows that. He knows it must be frustrating for his friends to have to listen to him whine when they’re barely freshman.

“I k-know,” Tony coughs to cover the stutter “I just, just, fuck, what if I fail, what if I—”

“You’re panicking,” Ty says, and he has this thing where he can just detach himself from any situation and speak in the ridiculous calm voice “stop panicking.”

Tony breaths in deeply and exhales. He brings his knuckles to his mouth to bite but Ty drags it down. “Don’t.” He snaps “Don’t bite like that, you’re hurting yourself.”

“That’s the point, Ty.” 

“Okay,” Ty says, yawning “okay, here’s what’s going to happen. What time is your test tomorrow?”

“After lunch.”

“Fine. And you have free periods the whole of Thursday morning, right?”

“Private study, like, guided study, I have to research—”

“Okay, you’re going to miss the first two periods. You’re going to sleep in. When you get up, you’ll still have, like two hours and a half to go over your trig, which, by the way, you already know, and is completely not worth worrying about. Okay?”

“Okay.” Tony says, rubbing the balls of his hands against his eyes.

“Come,” Ty says, tugging his shoulder, pulling him to bed “sleep.”

Tony is tired. Tony is really tired. It’s probably why he’s so irritable. He lets Ty force him into the spare pyjama bottoms from his draw even though they’re way too big and lets him push him into bed.

“This is your bed,” he yawns, and it doesn’t bother him, he just doesn’t want it to bother Ty.

“Yes,” Ty says mildly “it is. This way you won’t get up when I’ve fallen back to sleep — head down, Tony, I can see you.”

Tony grins into the pillow, eyes shut and body relaxing with pure exhaustion. Ty’s right. Tomorrow, he’ll wake up refreshed, and really he already knows it all, he’s just panicking over nothing. He’ll be fine.

Ty is next to him, which isn’t weird because they’ve slept in the same bed a million times before. It’s really warm under the covers, and Tony barely notices himself rolling closer. He barely notices Ty’s arm wrapping itself around his shoulders and holding him there, too.

His last thought is that he really shouldn’t have broken Nick’s radio. He should build him a new one.

Sleep rises up to meet him.

 

Chapter Text

Naturally, Tony gets full marks on his test. 

Ty says that he and Whit are, like, worried because he spends too much time studying in a room that smells like Nick Boyle’s cheesy feet, so on Friday night they go down to the lake.

Tony can’t remember what he had to do to get friends like this, but he knows whatever it was he would do it again and again if it meant getting to keep them.

It’s what is most likely the last day of heat they’re going to get. Ty and Whit have already decided that they’re going to stay for Thanksgiving this year since it’s Tony’s last one and they want closure or something. Tony reminds them that he hasn’t got the grade yet, and if he doesn’t he’ll probably be here for a long time.

He tells them about his dad, and how he wants him taking business, and Whit makes a face and Ty shakes his head and they both tell him that his dad is, unequivocally, a bully and that he should take engineering because he is good at it and he will still be able to make money from it and SI needs someone innovative, anyway.

Ty suggests, in the way he usually does, that maybe Howard feels threatened. Tony laughs, because how could Howard Stark feel threatened by a fourteen year old boy? But Ty’s face darkens.

“Dad’s can be like that, Tony. It’s fucked up. And your old man doesn’t seem very stable.”

Doesn’t seem very stable? It feels weird to Tony to think that he comes from one of those fucked up families. It occurs to him that, if they weren’t rich, they would probably be living in a shitty apartment somewhere or, most likely, Tony would have been abandoned at birth.

Whitney smiles at him from where she’s propped up against a tree. She drags her toes through the clear water of the lake.

“What about you?” Tony asks “What do you want to do?”

Whitney sighs, and looks away. “Honestly? I don’t know. I’m not…” she frowns “I guess I’ll go to Harvard. And take law.”

“Do you want to?” Ty asks.

“Not really.”

“What do you want to do?”

Whitney shrugs. “I don’t know. Most people don’t, Tony. Not everyone has a company behind them.”

“Yeah well I wish I didn’t.” Tony says, ripping grass.

“You’re good at cello.” Ty points out.

“I can’t be a cellist.” Whitney says, “that’s ridiculous. That’s something I do so that when I’m married and holding charity galas I have something to talk about.”

“What do you mean?”

Whitney’s head falls to the side. “When I’m married?” She repeats confusedly, as if she doesn’t understand why Tony doesn’t get it.

“What about Harvard?”

“Yeah, but that’s just for show. I’m going to get married and do charity stuff.”

“Have babies?” Ty’s eyebrows waggle.

“Yes, asshole. Have babies. You don’t— why are you looking so surprised?”

Having babies? Getting married? The thought had never occurred to him. It had never occurred to him that Whit might not end up the same way as him, or Ty. That she might end up like his mom.

“Do you… want to?” Tony asks.

Whit shrugs. “Sure. I’m not, like, stupid. I wouldn’t mind not working, or just holding parties. I would be good at it.”

“But you don’t want more?” Tony says, because he can’t understand it at all.

“More what, Tony.”

Life.”

“What makes you think you’re going to have more life than me?”

Tony doesn’t know, exactly. But he feels like it’s a waste.

“A waste?” Whitney says, softly.

“Sure. You’re wasting yourself on kids and a husband or whatever. You’re too clever for that, Gigi. I know you could do more, I mean,” Tony shakes his head, brow crinkling “where did you ever get the kid idea from? That’s stupid. Loads of girls go to college and get jobs and stuff, and most of them are dumb. You’re not even dumb, and you want to stay at home and have babies. That’s stupid.”

The water from the lake laps gently against the pebbled shore of the wood.

“I—” Whitney frowns.

Silence.

“He’s right, Whit,” Ty says, cutting through the tension like a blade through skin “don’t be a stupid girl.”

Tony remembers that, after that, he had ended up with his head in Whitney’s lap and his feet on Ty’s legs while Whit played gently with his hair. It was nice, and Tony would always remember that last day of summer.

 

Chapter Text

Christmas that year is tense as Tony waits for his SAT results. He knows, intellectually, that he has probably aced every section. People dumber than him do it all the time. But the thought that he’s fucked up hangs with him all the way through Christmas dinner with his Mother, Father, Obie and Jarvis.

When he gets back to school, the envelope they hand him informs him that it was nearly a full 2400, but he knocked off a few marks in writing. Nevertheless, it’s easily enough to apply to the countries best.

Which is the next big problem, really, because Tony’s parents actually call him down for the weekend. As in, they get the chauffeur to drive up to the school, pick him up, drive him down to New York, and talk to him, just like the other parents do.

They’re both there, his mother and father and Obie, too, since he gets the deciding vote. And his dad claps him on the back and hands him all these different prospectuses, Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Caltech, Yale and he tells Tony that he has some pull at all of them those he’s better off applying to those.

“I don’t,” Tony has to clear his throat, he nearly stumbles over his words “I don’t want to do business. Or economics. Or law. I want, look, just let me build. I can take Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences — I know there’ll be a market for it, I know it. Please, I’m shit at business—”

“No,” Howard says “No Tony, c’mon, we discussed this boy. I promise, Tony, you take business and then you graduate, you can do whatever you like! Honestly, boy, you can go take some extra courses and engineer to your heart’s content. But get the brain for business, do it now before it’s too late, or you’ll just be walked all over—”

“Howard,” Tony’s mom says in her small, smooth, calm voice “let the boy take engineering. He’s got the brain for it. He’s right, the market is changing. SI might not be making weapons forever and we need someone to be on top of that.”

“We don’t need anything,” Howard interrupts “I need a—”

“What I think Maria is trying to say,” Obie puts in “is that Tony is obviously a very capable young man and it would be a shame to waste his talents.”

“Yes,” Maria says, eyes still vacant, voice still small “thank you Obadiah.”

Tony’s dad scares him. He has always scared him, and he’s not ashamed to admit it. But Obie was right. He was right when he told him to take engineering, because he doesn’t want to end up like his dad, bitter and relieving glory days, an alcoholic who has just passed the point of being able to function.

Obie can run the company. Tony doesn’t want it. Let Obie do the hard work, and Tony can build the weapons, and it will be fine. Easy. He doesn’t know why his dad is so obsessed with it so much.

But his dad’s eyes run cold, and he picks up his drink. “Fine,” he says, voice dead, and there’s such a cruel edge there that Tony nearly balks. “Fine. I’ve tried being nice, Tony. You take engineering, go on, I won’t stop you. But I won’t be here to dig you out of the hold you bury yourself in, Tony. I know what I’m talking about. I know what’s best for my son.”

His eyes fix on Obie’s genial face. 

“But fine. Obviously you have made your decision.”

When has his dad ever been there to dig him out of any holes? Tony feels angry. For a moment, he feels real, very visceral anger, because his dad has never helped him, ever, and why should he be there to help his dad when all he’s ever done is get drunk and shout and hurt his mom. Why should he have to help a man like that? Why should he be forced to take his dad’s company? He doesn’t want to do that. He wants to build. He wants to engineer. He didn’t ask to be born. He didn’t ask for this.

When he gets back to school, his receives the first letter his father has ever sent him.

Tony Son  Anthony

I know you're young and i get that but you need to understand because if you dont take buisness then obidiah gets SI and that cant happen, tony, you cant let that happen i have a responsibility not just to SI but to the world tony this is bigger than us please you need to take buisness because men like obidiah cannot be in power, i think things about him, im getting to the bottom of him and i dont think he’s all that he seems tony and i don't want him in charge of weapons, i dont want him in charge of you

Tony you’re my son and if anyone

Anthony, you are young. There is a lot you don’t understand. So I am going to try and put it into words in this letter.

(I am not a writer, Tony)

I do not trust Obadiah Stane. He is a good business man but I do not trust him with my life. I do not trust him with my son. Men like Stane want only one thing Tony and that is money. Money brings power. 

I cannot put it into this letter because people might be reading. I need you to get rid of this letter. There are things I cannot tell you about what it is I do and why I do it because you are too young. One day, Tony, I promise that I will explain it to you. I will explain all these things to you. But I can’t now because they are too important.

What I am trying to say is that SI is just another piece of a large puzzle. I need you to take SI because if you don’t Obie will. And Obie is not a man who should be in power. There are things I am finding out, things related to my summer holidays. i need you to take SI, i need you to take business because then 

Obie Stane is not a good man and you need to take Si, if stane gets si then he may do bad things.

you are young and im sorry i have to put this on you. i am sorry you cant build. 

you don't understand but i need you to trust me. just trust me. i am your dad tony i do not want you hurt.

Dad  Howard

Tony goes ahead and applies to all the universities his father set out for him. He gets accepted to MIT in early April and he takes the offer.

 

His father doesn’t speak to him again until two years later, when he is awarded the award for outstanding excellence on his work on a giant mechanised arm aptly name Dum-E.

 

Chapter Text

The snow has turned to slush under Tony’s feet and it’s disgusting, seriously, someone needs to sort it out because Tony is sure he’s gonna die of, like, trench-foot if someone doesn’t do something about it.

“Tony!” Someone calls, and he hears the splashing of slick slush behind him, the sound of feet slapping against ground “Tony, wait — oh.”

Nick slips and skids across the icy path, back slamming into Tony’s legs and knocking him off balance. He falls, and his wrist bends backwards as it carries his weight. Tony hears the crunch, and then feels pain, gritting his teeth as his wrist cracks under pressure.

“Nnnghhf,” he manages, eyes screwed tight, gasping, holding his wrist in his good hand “Nick,” he pants “Nick you fucking idiot you’ve broken my wrist—

“Shit I’m sorry,” Nick stumbles, standing “shit, shit, shit are you okay? Shit, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I had to find you, there’s a call—”

“What?” Tony snaps suddenly, wrenching himself off the ground, wincing when his wrist is jarred “fuck, you idiot, you first class idiot I think it’s broken—”

“There’s a call,” Nick pants “shit, I’m sorry, Behan said to get you, there’s someone on the phone for you—”

Tony blinks, pain momentarily forgotten. “There’s a call for me?”

“Yes, you need to come quickly, Behan said it was an emergency—”

Someone’s died. That must be it. His dad is dead, his mom is dead, Jarvis is dead, Obie is dead, his uncle is dead, his cousin, someone must have died, or maybe, what else, hospital, one of his parents are in hospital or the companies gone bankrupt or something.

“Shit I’m coming,” he says, bringing his wrist to his chest “which phone?”

“By the library, go, quickly.

Tony staggers and then stumbles off, running as fast as he dares with a broken wrist and icy ground. Oh God, what’s happened, he hopes it’s not Jarvis, he would rather it was literally anyone other than Jarvis, let his mom have died instead, let his dad be in hospital, please don’t tell him that he’s dead or hurt or—

“Hello?” He pants, breathless into the phone, breath fogging in the air “Hello? Who’s there, it’s Tony.”

“Anthony,” his mother says down the line, voice ragged “Anthony, hello, it’s your mother.”

Tony blinks. “Yes, I know, what’s wrong, is someone sick? Why—”

“Your father and I are getting a divorce.” She says frantically “I’m divorcing him, I can’t be married to him anymore, and you’re going to come with me aren’t you Tony? You’re going to live with me. You need to tell the lawyers that you want to live with me—”

What? What?

“Mom, I, hold on, slow down—”

“Listen, Tony,” his mom says, voice pitched in a high falsetto “Tony, you’re going to tell them he beats you, okay? You’re going to tell them he beats you and that he beats me, I’ve paid the chef, Tony, he’s going to agree with me and I’ll run with it all in the settlement, I’ll be able to pay for college, sweetie, it’ll be fun, just you and me, but you need to come home and tell the cops that he beats you, okay?”

“Mom, stop, hold on. I’m not, I’m not going to do that, I can’t—”

“Why not?” His mother snaps, voice high and hysterical “Why not I’m your mother, family loyalty, Tony, we can be free now, just tell them—”

“That’s crazy!” Tony shouts “Mom, you’re crazy! I’m not going to do that! Calm down, are you really getting divorced? What happened, where’s dad, why—”

“Tony!” His mother cries “Please, Tony, please! Just do this for me, Tony, just do it for me, please, please.” And his mother starts crying down the phone, so heavily that Tony needs to pull the receiver away from his ear.

“Mom,” Tony tries to rationalise “hold on, I can’t make things up, the police are gonna know he doesn’t beat me, there isn’t a single bruise—”

Except for his wrist. He could say that his dad did it. And his mom would back him up, Jarvis wouldn’t let that slide. He would lie, too, for Tony. Obie would, maybe, because if Howard goes down then the only person who could take the company…

“No,” Tony says, mostly to himself “where’s Jarvis? Where’s dad? Put one on the phone, I want to speak to them—”

“Oh!” His mother cries “Oh you’re just like him you little rat! Ordering and bossing you little pissant I’m giving you a choice and you’re choosing him you fucking shit, you fucking piece of shit,” and she starts crying again “Tony please, Tony please, bambino, bambino please, for your mother, for your mother—”

“Hello?” Someone else says down the line “Hello, Tony? Is that you?”

“Jarvis,” Tony answers in relief “Jesus, what the hell J—”

“It’s bad down here, Tony, it’s bad. I’ll call you later, okay? Did anyone hear? Did anyone overhear?”

Tony shakes his head in the cold air, wrist aching. “No,” he stutters “no, it’s just me—”

“Good, good boy, I promise I’ll call back. I’ll call, Tony, bye—” And he hangs up even while Tony can still hear his mother screaming in the background.

He needs a doctor, probably, because he thinks his wrist is broken. That’s irritating. he huffs into the cold air.

It’s very quiet out here, by the library. It’s right by the woods. Very peaceful, very calm.

It’s cold. Tony hikes his scarf tighter round his neck.

He should find Ty. or Whit. And go see the nurse. He should probably go to the hospital.

Tony feels nothing, really. Nothing but maybe… relief? Because he remembers how much better the summers were when his dad was out searching the pacific. It’ll be better for his parents, he thinks, if they’re separated. Better for him, as long as his parents don’t make him choose.

Maybe he can be emancipated? Or maybe they’ll let him live with Jarvis. Would Jarvis mind that? He hopes not. Tony’s going to college, anyway, but he’s still underage.

He feels a bit bad, though. For his mom. She must be really desperate.

Tony wanders back to the main campus when the pain gets too much. They give him some painkillers and Miss Behan drives him up to the hospital.  

“What was the emergency, sweetie?” She says, eyes meeting his in the rearview mirror.

“My dog died.” Tony lies, effortlessly. He sighs “I loved that dog.”

“Aww, honey,” Behan says, launching into a story about her own dog and how when he passed she cried for days. Tony doesn’t care, but it’s easy to tune out.

It starts to snow, fresh white drops flicking silently to the ground and being subsumed by grey slush and wet concrete.

 

 

 

“Tony, man,” Ty says “Nick said you broke your wrist, where’ve you been?”

“Hospital.” Tony says, shrugging off his coat. “What time is it?”

“Eleven, are you okay?”

“They gave me painkillers.”

“No you seem weird. Are you okay?”

Tony frowns. And he swallows. “What?”

Ty isn’t really one for comfort. He’s never really offered affection. That was always Whitney, she was always the mother of the group. She was the one who would offer kind words, hugs, who would be willing to talk. Ty was a protector, maybe. More often than not, people who had made fun of Tony ended up in trouble.

It’s touching, though, that he notices.

“You seem off. What happened.” Ty says simply, coming to sit next to Tony on the chest in front of the bed.

Tony takes a deep breath, his casted hand heavy. “My mom called. For, like, the first time? I don’t know, Ty. It’s weird.”

Tony lets himself looks at his best friend, lets himself look into his cool blue eyes. And Ty’s eyes are very cool. Cold, even. Tony knows that they are capable of swinging both ways, because there is no in-between with Ty. Either he is compassionate, friendly, protective, or he hates you.

“Tony,” Ty says, and his breath feels heavy in the air “Tony, man, I know your family is—”

“She wants a divorce.”

“Are you surprised?”

“Relieved. But she wants me to tell the cops that dad beats me.”

Ty pauses. “Does he?”

Tony jars. “What?”

“Does he.” Ty repeats, simply. “Has he ever touched you?”

Tony frowns. His dad has slapped him a few times, nothing major. Nothing life threatening. When his dad gets drunk…

Tony remembers when he was a kid. How he used to dread it. How he would piss the bed in fear because he heard his father’s breathing coming down the corridor. Tony never knew what would trigger it, why he would come into his room, why he would do that, why he would shout, and break things, and—

“No.” Tony says “He’s never beat me.”

“Wasn’t the question though, was it?”

“Jesus, Ty!” Tony blinks “Christ, no, never like that. He never, God! Never like that, what the fuck man?”

Ty shrugs. “Had to ask, man. You were a weird kid.” he nudges Tony with his elbow “C’mon, I was just checking. You never know what goes on behind closed doors and all that shit.”

“Yeah, I know,” Tony says, uncertainly “I just— I just.” He looks down.

“Anty, can be honest with you?”

Tony looks up, eyebrow raised.

“You need to stop with the whole parent thing. You need to give it up.”

“I need to… give up my parents.” Tony repeats flatly.

(He didn’t realise that he had ever had them in the first place)

“Listen man, I’m saying this because I think your family’s kinda psycho. I mean it, like, I’ve never met your parents but your dad sounds like he has this, like, severe, crippling drinking problem and your mom sounds, listen Anty, your mom sounds completely insane. And that’s not even scratching the surface because I’m pretty sure that she’s got some kind of drinking issue, too, and—”

“What?” Tony says “What the fuck Ty, you can’t say shit like that—”

“Relax, man, listen. I think you need to forget them, just write them off. They’re never gonna be what you want them to be, Tony. Never.”

He’s right, obviously. He always is.

Tony looks at Ty, then. Looks at his eyes, looks at his nose, looks how it curves perfectly in an arc, slightly upturned. His lips, thick and plump, and the way his neck slopes down to his collar bones, just barely visible under his shirt.

Tony’s head goes a bit hazy, because Ty is right there, he’s so close, and Tony can smell him, he can feel his breath on his cheek.

Tony feels like he’s sinking under the weight of intense lassitude. Everything in his body is telling him to just stay here, let Ty lean closer, let their bodies finish what they’re mouths can’t.

“I’m gonna,” Tony’s breath slips, hot from his mouth as Ty’s eyes close “I’m gonna go.”

Ty blinks.

“Right.” He says. “Right. Yeah. Uh.”

Tony stands, because he has to say something to make this better, his has to say something to alleviate the awkwardness.

“I have to call Jarvis,” he blurts “I have to find out, find out what’s happening—” Tony tries to explain.

“Sure,” Ty says quickly “sure, feel better.”

Tony bolts

 

Chapter Text

It turns out that Tony’s parents aren’t getting a divorce. Apparently, Tony’s mom, caught in the throes of inebriation, decided to drunk dial her only child in what she viewed as an attempt to stick it to the man.

His mother’s deteriorating mental state would bother him more if he didn’t have Ty and Whit to worry about.

On one hand, Whit. Pros: Socially acceptable. Beautiful. Banging body. Kind. Very Rich. Cons: Is stubborn, temperamental, and it’s absolutely impossible to tell what is going on in her head on a day to day basis.

On the other hand, Ty. Pros: Gorgeous. Funny. Strong. Tony seems to be the only person he really likes, apart from Whit. Cons: Can be a complete asshole. Also, is a boy. Generally speaking, Tony is more likely to get lynched for dating him than Whit.

Tony doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t really know who to ask.

 

Chapter Text

Tony is invited home for Spring Break, and in a fit of good will decides to go. He’s curious, mostly. He kinda wants to know what’s going on.

The first night back, he and Jarvis go out for dinner. Both of them, and Jarvis tells him it’s a treat because he never sees him anymore and he wants to know how everything is going and if he’s okay. They go to the Italian place that Tony has loved since he was a kid when Jarvis would order in their pizza when his dad was drunk. It’s nice.

The next night, Tony rummages around for something else to do. He happens upon his father’s alcohol and decides to sample a few. And it really is only sampling because he just tastes a bit from each bottle and decides what he has a taste for. Nevertheless, by the time he’s finished he is pleasantly buzzed, enough not to feel wary about walking around his house after dark.

He carries the bottles back to his father’s study, which is when he bumps into his mother.

“Mom,” he says, and for a moment he balks, because he is holding seven bottles of very expensive, very alcoholic drinks in his underage hands.

But then he sees the bottles in hers.

“I’m just,” she blinks dozily “hello, Tony. What are you doing home.”

“Spring Break.” Tony nods, sucking his teeth.

Maria hums. “That’s nice dear.”

He gestures to her hands. “What’s in the bottles, mom?”

She sighs. “That’s nice, Tony.” She repeats, then ambles on her way.

Ty is right, though. His mom is completely in whacko world.

 

 

 

Tony loses his virginity to Janet Van Dyne at one of his mother’s charity galas a few days later.

Tony hasn’t seen his dad the whole time he’s been home but he is remarkably not-bothered. He doesn’t care very much. He’s surprised at how well his mom is able to drag herself together, though. She really does love all this charity shit.

Jan is nice, and she’s pretty, and she’s way out of Tony’s league. They both get tipsy on champagne and hide out in Jan’s hotel room for the rest of the evening. Tony’s mom doesn’t notice he’s gone and Jan’s dad thinks she has stomach cramps and so is definitely not going to be knocking on her door anytime soon.

Tony’s mind isn’t exactly blown away. It’s Jan’s first time, too, and neither of them know what they’re doing. They just giggle through it all until Tony finally manages to figure it out, and then it’s over pretty quickly. Jan frowns, because she says she doesn’t know what she was expecting, and Tony nods.

“Is that it?” She asks.

“I don’t know.” Tony says, confusedly. He thinks back to when he overheard the girls at school talking and figures that he could probably try something else.

“I could try again?” He offers.

“Can you get it up that quick?” She asks.

“No, I mean, for you. I can try to, you know.”

“Oh!” Jan says “Sure,” and she grins “I haven’t got a problem with that.”

They spend the rest of the night fooling around and Tony figures out all the right buttons to press to make a woman happy.

 

 

 

It’s awkward, back at school, because of what happened with Ty. So he tells him about Jan, and Ty claps him on the back and asks him what it felt like, and how it happened, and was she hot and does Tony love her. Tony shrugs as says if felt good, it was at his mom’s party, she was very pretty and no.

They’re playing at being friends. At being two boys, two, platonic, best friends. Ty is trying too hard, maybe, and so is Tony. He keeps leaving playboy magazines scattered around the room to prove how into girls he is.

Tony doesn’t know if that hurts. He doesn't know what’s happening. He just knows that some of his best dreams involve Whit and Ty and that the two of them are interchangeable.

Tony knows he’s not exactly attractive. He’s got bug eyes, and he’s short, skinny, and his hair is curly and never stays down. His face is always oily, and some days he just wants to tear at his hair because he never seems to be as put together as Ty. But it does a lot for his confidence that Janet Van Dyne thought it would be fun to lose her virginity to him.

When he tells Whit, she just stares at him. And then she gets that screwed up look between her eyes. “At your mom’s charity gala?” She exclaims.

“Yeah, it was really weird,” Tony says, frowning “I don’t know, I thought it would be better I guess.”

“Wasn’t it fun?” Whitney asks.

“Yeah,” Tony shrugs “I guess. She enjoyed it a lot.”

“Was she pretty?” Whitney demands.

“What?” Tony blinks.

“I said, was she pretty? Is she prettier than me?”

Tony thinks. “Yeah, maybe. I don’t know.”

He doesn’t really want to admit that he thinks Whitney is pretty.

Her lips tighten. “You don’t know?”

“Yes, Whitney, Christ, it’s not like I spend every waking hour thinking about how pretty you are—”

Whitney storms past him and Tony stumbles. 

For fucks sake, what’s he supposed to do? What does she want to hear? It’s not like he can call her pretty, that’s obvious and it’s so awkward. So what if he thinks Jan is good looking, he’s allowed to think that. God, Whit is such a drama queen, she just loves storming off.

Later, two girls come up to him while he studies in the library.

“You’re Whitney’s friend, right?” One of them asks, as the other tries to hold in her giggles.

“Uh,” he answers, eloquently.

“She’s been crying in the toilets since lunch.” The other says, matter-of-factly.

“Cool?” Tony answers, because what do they want him to do about it? He didn’t do anything wrong. It’s not his fault if Whitney takes everything he says the wrong way.

 

 

 

 

“She was crying?” Ty says, frowning.

“I know, right?” Tony holds up his hands.

“Girls are weird.”

“Yeah,” Tony says, and he sees the way Ty flicks his tongue out over his lips “they are.”

 

 

 

 

One night, Tony wakes up screaming.

He rolls, quickly, and tries to stifle the sound, brain still caught somewhere between fear and reality and and breathes, panting into his pillow, shaking. He had been so sure, he could have sworn that there was a man crawling through the window, God, oh God, that was fucked up.

“Tony?” Nick says “What’s wrong, you sick?”

Tony can’t respond, because he’s still not entirely sure what’s happening. He squeezes his eyes shut tight and buries his head in the pillow.

“Tony—”

“Is there a man?” he croaks, voice on the edge of breaking, and he doesn’t dare look up “Is he, is the window open?”

“What the hell, Tones, no, there’s no one here, are you okay, man?”

Tony gives this low sort of groan of fear. “Are you sure?” He asks.

“Yes, I’m sure, Jesus, Tony it’s two in the morning.”

Tony chances a glance up and Nick’s right. The window is firmly shut and the fire escape empty. It had just been a dream.

“Oh Jesus,” Tony pants, and then huffs breath in relief “holy shit, that was messed up.”

Tony rolls onto his back, hands pressed behind him and face sweaty, and stares straight ahead.

Nick’s on his bed, opposite to Tony as always, except his face a obviously red in the low light and there are tissues strewn around the bed.

Tony blinks. “What the fuck.”

“It’s not what,” Nick shakes his head “it’s not what it looks like.”

Tony stares. “Really?” He says mildly “Because it looks like you were jerking off.”

“I wasn’t watching you,” Nick blurts “shut up.”

“I didn’t say that.”

There’s a long, drawn out, intensely uncomfortable silence. Even when Tony is older, and he’s had his fair share of awkward silences, when he’s been humiliated and when he has humiliated others, it will never quite match up to the perversive, stifling heat of the room.

“Were you,” Tony blinks sleeps from his eyes “were you jacking off to… me?”

“No!” Nick says, and he tugs the covers tight over himself “Fuck off and sleep I’m going to bed shut up.”

Tony blinks again, slowly. “You can’t do that.”

“Shut up Tony!” Nick spits, rolling over in his sheets and blocking his ears.

“That’s disgusting.” Tony says, his face finally crinkling as what just happened catches up with him “That’s fucking sick you creep, I’m going—”

“Wait!” Nick cries, spinning from the sheets as Tony’s feet hit the floor “Wait, don’t, look don’t tell anyone, I know, I saw you and Ty—”

“What.”

“I saw you! You can’t lie, so you can’t tell anyone I was jerking off—”

“So you were jerking off!”

“—You can’t tell anyone I was jerking off watching you, please, Tony, please.” Nick hisses.

Tony stumbles. “I didn’t kiss Ty.”

Nick draws back. “I didn’t say that.”

Tony swallows. “You’re a fucking fag.”

“Then so are you.”

Tony’s heart contracts tight in his chest. “I’m not a fucking fag.”

“You kissed a boy, that makes you a fag! But I like boys, too. So—”

“I didn’t kiss him, we weren’t even, it’s not like we were close you fucking liar, what the fuck were you doing spying on me anyway, getting more jerk material? You little—”

“I wasn’t spying!” Nick sound close to tears. “I swear Tony, I swear, I was just, I was looking for you because of your wrist, I wanted to apologise properly. I swear—”

“So what you sick freak?” Tony hisses, aware that they can’t raise their voices “You sick bitch, get away from me.”

“How can you say that? How can you say that when you like guys—”

I don’t like guys!” Tony spits the words, expelling them from behind tight teeth. “Stop making shit up just because you want do masturbate over me you fucking freak!”

“How can you call me a freak when you are exactly the—”

“I didn’t masturbate over your sleeping body you asshole!” Tony spins “Fuck I can’t stay here, I’m going to Behan—”

“Wait!” Nick cries again “Please, Tony, c’mon you can’t,” and Tony thinks Nick is about to cry “I swear, please, fuck come on, Tony. Please. Everyone’ll, they’ll, they’ll probably kick me out. I can’t, I’m not gonna get a chance like this again. Please.”

It’s the first time anyone’s ever begged Tony for anything, and he hates it.

(Somewhere, though, it gets lodged in his brain. Because it’s power, isn’t it. Having power like that. You could be the messiah himself and still be corrupted by it’s grip in your chest)

Tony relents.

“Go to sleep.” He says with finality. “Just go to fucking sleep. You don’t—” Tony steps closer, and he sees Nick visibly recoil “if you dare breathe a single fucking word about Ty I swear to fuck I will kick you down the fucking stairs and make it look like an accident.”

Whatever Tony did, it must have worked because Nick never mentions it ever again.

Later, a lot, lot later, he regrets what happened with Nick that night. He wishes he had said something else, or had engaged his brain just a little, or tried to connect the dots before it was too late.

Anyway, he didn’t.

 

Chapter Text

“Tony, you’re doing it wrong.”

“Oh I’m sorry,” Tony says “how exactly do you do this right?”

Tony is packing. Ty is supposed to packing as well, but unlike Tony, he’s only going home for the summer. Tony is never coming back.

“Just,” Ty frowns “just throw it all in.”

“What about this?” Tony says, holding up a book “What do I do with this? And this? Fuck, and this, where are these coming from—

“I’ll get Whit.” Ty says “She’ll know, she’s good at this shit.”

“We can do it without her.” Tony says, turning back to the suitcase, because it’s been weeks and Whit still isn’t talking to him.

“Did you fight?” Ty says, bluntly, and he doesn’t sound curious, exactly, he sounds like he’s evaluating a science experiment. “Anty, sugarpuff, that’s not nice.”

Tony blinks. “Sugarpuff?”

Ty grins and slides onto the floor. He sorts through Tony’s books for him, carelessly throwing the biggest ones to the side. “You don’t need these.” He yawns.

Tony snatches his hand. “Sugarpuff?”

“I’m sorry, would you prefer daisydoo?”

Tony rolls his eyes. Ty has taken to using pet names as a way of staving off awkwardness. Tony thinks it’s because it gives them a point of conversation.

“I’d prefer if you put that book down and did something productive with your life — no, don’t touch that, don’t — I said don’t touch!”

Tony smacks Ty’s hand away from encyclopaedia of world history, letters H to J. It falls with a heavy thud where Ty drops it onto the floorboards. 

“Thanks, asshole.” Tony gripes, trying to snatch it back with one hand.

“You won’t be able to fit it in, Anty. Just leave it. I’m sure Boyle would appreciate something to look at in his free time.”

Tony snorts, because incidentally, it is the kinda shit that Nick likes to occupy his time with. But the set was a gift from Jarvis so the whole thing goes into the pile.

“You should talk to Whitney,” Ty says casually. “It would be sad to end it on a bad note.”

“End it?” Tony says, tossing old socks into the bin “I’m not ending anything. I have no intention of ending anything at all. Not my fault if she’s being a stubborn bitch.”

“Yeah, but you know why she’s being a stubborn bitch. Get your head out of your ass.”

“My head isn’t—”

“Your head is so far up your ass it can see your teeth, Tony.” Ty says, fixing him with a glare. “Don’t be a silly boy. Talk to her.”

“I don’t know what I did wrong.

Ty frowns. He blinks. “You— you honestly don’t know?”

“Don’t know what Ty.” He hasn’t got time for this, for one of Ty’s games. It’s stressful, and irritating, and he would appreciate it if Ty would jus tell him.

“You’re so fucking clueless, Tony. What is wrong with you.”

Tony turns away and just packs because if Ty isn’t going to tell him he can’t be bothered.

This must irritate Ty, because he loves an audience. “She’s got a massive crush on you, Tony. Like, massive. Fucking huge. Always has. I actually can’t believe you can’t see it,” Ty’s eyes narrow “then again, there’s a lot you can’t see.”

Tony laughs. “Don’t be stupid, Ty. She likes you a lot more than she likes me.”

“Oh yeah? What’s your basis for that argument?”

Tony shrugs. “You’re just. You know. I would, uh.” Tony is skating on dangerous territory, so he changes tack. “I mean, I’m not really a swimsuit model, so. I wouldn’t.”

“Jan slept with you,” Ty points out “you’ve slept with exactly one more woman than I have.”

Tony laughs because if that isn’t crazy he doesn’t know what is. “That’s a fluke, though. She was nice, we were the only kids there, so why not?”

“What?” Ty laughs “Oh my God, you little playboy.”

“Ty.” Tony whines, because Ty does that a lot. He’s only a few months older than him but he always talks down to Tony. Like an older brother, maybe, except Tony will be the one going to college.

“Anty no one gives a shit if you look a little like a stretched out bug. You’re funny. And you’re rich. The rich bit is important. It will be, when you go to college and your picking up all this puss—”

“I’m fifteen.” Tony deadpans.

“So? Some woman like younger men.”

“You’re disgusting.”

Ty clucks his tongue, grins, and holds out his hands. “I’m just saying, man. Expand your horizons, sugarpuff. If you sleep with enough women you might even get good at it”

“Funny.” Tony says, turning away. Ty is getting on his nerves.

They sit in silence for a while as Tony sorts through his junk. Eventually, Ty relents.

“C’mon, Anty, you know I was joking.”

“Uh huh,” Tony says, throwing a picture of him and his father standing in front of the roadster on the dump pile, then changing his mind and slipping into the front of his book.

“Why do you get like this?” Ty pouts “Why do you get so sulky, I was just joking. Come on, you get all the girls, Tony. I’m just jealous.”

“Hmm,” Tony says, non-commiteddly. “You’re lying.”

“What?” Ty says, brow furrowing, face in a twisting in a facade of confusion “No! Why do you always think that? I’m not lying, you would be jealous too if your weedy little brother went and lost his V-card before you did and had the attention of the hottest girl in the year and was literally completely oblivious to it.”

Tony relents. It doesn’t take much. The words ‘little brother’ and the idea that Ty could be jealous of something that Tony has sends his brain into mush mode.

“Whitney doesn’t like me like that.” Tony says quietly.

“You bet your fucking dollar she does.” Ty says. And then his face takes a genuine look of confusion. “Why can you not see when people like you?”

“Maybe it’s because my head is up ass, Ty.” Tony bites out.

“No,” Ty says “I think you just don’t believe it. Or maybe you’re a shit judge of character.”

“That could be true.” Tony admits, wrapping up a plastic bag.

Ty laughs. “Whit is crazy about you. Jokes aside, though, she really is. I mean, you told her that you slept with Jan…”

Tony looks up. “You think she wanted to… I mean, you think she wants to, she thought she was going to be my first?”

“Maybe. Or maybe it’s just that you slept with someone else. That she’s been right there all these years and you just kinda—”

“She’s like a sister to me. You don’t fuck your sister.”

“And you’re like a brother to me.”

Silence.

What? What does that mean?

“Point being,” Ty continues “is that it’s actually accepted in some cultures, maybe you should—”

“You’re sick in head.” Tony says, throwing a book at his face.

 

 

 

Later, though, Tony does go to see Whitney.

Maybe it’s because there’s a chance he’ll get something he wants. Because he does really, really like Whitney. And he is sorry if he’s been a dick. He didn’t mean to be. Tony knows that Ty is out of bounds, completely not possible, but Whitney is still here, and she wants him, maybe, so why not? Why not try. Why not take something he wants, for once.

She’s playing the cello when he knocks on her door. Technically, boys aren’t allowed to be in the girl’s dorms past six pm, but Tony’s been sneaking in and out of here for years.

Whitney looks up, briefly, from where her head had been tilted, bowed, and focused on the movements of her fingers across the strings. She draws the bow across the instrument one last time, and sets it down, carefully placing it into it’s case.

“Tony,” She says, playing with the clasps, crouched “all packed?”

“Yeah.” Tony says, scratching the back of his head and standing in the doorway. “Yeah, nearly. Uh, you?”

She nods.

Tony licks his lips. “I just, I came to say hi. I haven’t seen you in ages, so.”

“Hmm,” Whitney says, dreamlike, and Tony thinks it shouldn’t take that long to put a cello back in it’s case. 

“Are you gonna look at me, maybe?” Tony says, half-smiling, stepping forward.

Whitney stands, and turns, and crossed her arms. She is not smiling.

“I was just,” Tony’s smile falters “I wanted to… look, Whit, what’s wrong?” He says, and he holds up his hands “honestly, please, if I’ve done something you need to tell me.”

Whitney’s face hardens. “If you don’t know then I’m going.” She says, and she moves to storm past him. 

Tony grabs her arm. “Whitney,” he says “you can’t just disappear when someone wants to talk to you.”

She wrenches her arm free. “You’re a asshole, Tony Stark.”

“Yeah,” Tony says, rubbing his face “look, I get that a lot. Please be more specific.”

“You know.” Whitney says, sitting on the edge of the bed, eyes narrow “You know what I’m talking about.”

“Whitney,” Tony exhales, coming to sit on the bed “Whitney, I really don’t. Please, I don’t want to fight with you. Just, be mature about this. Please.”

Whitney looks away. “You know, though. I know you know. Everyone knows.”

Tony decides he should take a chance and just say it because otherwise they’ll never finish. “Whit, is this about Jan? Is this about me, you know, sleeping with her? Because that wasn’t, I was bored, you would have done the same if you had to go to a charity gala and your mom was drinking and your dad wasn’t talking to you and everyone else was looking at you like some kind of freak.”

Whitney looks at him. “You do know.” She whispers.

“Well,” Tony scratches the back of his head. “I didn’t. Ty had to, uh, point it out. I’m not, I’m really not good at this stuff. Relationships. Or, uh, people. In general.”

“I know.” Whitney says. “I’ve known you since you were six.”

Tony pauses. “You have, haven’t you.” He says, almost fondly.

“Shut up.” Whitney says, and there’s none of her usual hardness there. She nudges him with her elbow and looks away and Tony realises that Whitney is shy. Which is unusual. Because this is the girl who, at six, kicked Nick Boyle in the ass because he wouldn’t leave Tony alone.

Tony should do something, now. Now would be a good time to, like, put his arm around her shoulder. Or hold her hand. Fuck, what does he do.

He’s slept with someone before, but everyday intimacy is a mystery to him. He doesn’t know how to hug someone, or to give them a simple kiss on the cheek. He doesn’t know how to stroke someone’s hair, or tell them he likes them. He doesn’t know how to ask for things, or how to say no. It’s strange, because Tony has always been like this, and yet for the first time it’s occurred to him that is might not be normal. That there’s something wrong with him.

Sex would be better. He wouldn’t have to care about the person to have sex. Kissing seems too… personal.

Whitney turns her head to look at him. “Are you going to do anything?” She says bluntly, shyness dissipated “Because if not I have to pack.”

Tony grins, because that makes it easy. Whitney knows him. She makes it easy for him.

He kisses her.

 

Chapter Text

When Tony leaves Harwell, it is sunny. He should probably feel sentimental, or some kind of nostalgia, since he did spend his entire childhood here, yet he finds he really doesn’t care.

He leaves his room and doesn’t look back.

Nick waves from the window. Briefly, Tony considers waving back. But he just turns, and heads into Ty’s chauffeur’s car.

He’ll travel to Cali with Ty for three weeks, and the get back home to start preparing for college. College. He is fifteen, and going to college. No pressure there, then.

He resolves to get the best grade he can. Graduate with the highest honours. Because his dad hasn’t spoken to him in months and he needs to show him that, sure, he took engineering, but at least he can be the best. Imagine graduating at the top. The youngest boy to graduate from MIT with the highest honours.

He thinks he and Whit might be dating now. He’s not sure. He’ll figure it out when he gets to Ty’s.

 

 

 

Tony sucks at the top of the beer can, tips it up and drains the dregs. Throws it to the side.

It’s his fifth in the past hour.

Ty giggles next to him in the that high, grating way he has and Tony cracks open another, swashes his feet in the pool as the water laps over the side and wets his shorts. 

It’s dark out, and Tony can hear the crickets. Just the crack of cans, the lapping of the pool, the crash of the ocean. Laughter, sweat. Tonight is humid.

Whitney isn’t drinking, but she has her head propped up against Tony’s leg. He’s semi-playing with her hair, one hand dragging over her scalp and the other clutching a can. Her eyes are half-shut, and Tony knows she’s sinking with lassitude.

He is drunk. He’s never really been fully drunk, and it’s an exhilarating experience. No matter what he says, or what he does, no one cares. He can be whatever he wants to be when he’s drunk, and people will laugh with him instead of at him. It’s brilliant.

He giggles when Ty lists to the side and falls against him. Tony hooks an arm over his shoulder, because he feels brave, and he lets his head rest on Ty’s. Ty traces the pattern in the thread of his jeans, up and up, until he’s skimming Whitney’s hair, and so close to his crotch.

Tony lets his beer can roll, burps. Whitney’s face wrinkles in disgust and Ty laughs hysterically.

“Beer makes you fat, boys,” she says, nose crinkling “you’re going to end up with a beer belly.”

Tony blinks. “Where’s your bikini?” He asks in response.

“My bikini?” Whitney answers, raising an eyebrow but smiling. “I took my bikini off, Tony, remember?”

Tony sighs dramatically. Goddamn, he loves that bikini. Whit doesn’t wear swimming costumes anymore. And she has really, really, goddamn, really really really nice breasts.

“Put it back on,” he slurs “put it, where’s m’drink?” He gropes his hand back but forgets he was using it to prop himself up, falling back against the warm stone of the poolside.

Whitney’s hands follow him down. “Why don’t we go inside?” She breathes in his ear.

Tony giggles. Go inside. What does Whit want to do inside? He thinks he can guess.

“Ty,” he breathes “where’s Ty?”

“Right here, Anty,” Ty sighs, head tilted back in the light breeze, dragging his feet through the lit water of the pool.

“Okay,” Tony sighs “that’s good.”

He could just stay here. Safe.

“Tony,” Whitney’s hands are more insistent “c’mon. Let’s go inside.”

“Inside,” Tony murmurs “inside.”

“Yes,” she says, exasperated, and Ty laughs, one hand coming to grasp at the back of Tony’s shirt.

“I can, yeah,” Tony stumbles. Whitney plasters herself across his chest. “Sure,” he grins, and then whispers “let’s go inside.”

 

 

 

“Tony,” Ty says, on another night while they’re both stretched out on the sand by the crashing waves “Tones, what are you going to do without me?”

(When Tony is older, he’ll remember that sentence. It wasn’t ‘will you be okay on your own?’ or ‘will you miss me?’ or ‘I don’t want you to go.’ It was ‘what will you do without me’ as if Tony cannot function without Tiberius Stone)

Tony sighs. “I’ll be fine, Caesar. I’ll be allll good.”

Ty had sat up, frowned. “But what will you do without me?”

“I don’t get it, Ty.”

The crease between Ty’s eyebrows had deepened. “I mean, who is gonna look after you? You won’t be able to manage on your own, sugar. You never have been.”

Tony tries to drink away the drunken stupor but instead works himself into a mini drunken rage. “You asshole,” he slurs “I,” a burp “I’m fine on my own. I’m fuckin’ fine, don’t—”

Ty tilts his head. “But you weren’t. Before I came, you were a mess. Remember your stammer?”

Tony swallows. “Fuck off, Ty.”

But Ty’s eyes harden. “What if it comes back, Tony? What if you start to stammer again.”

Oh Christ. It’s almost like Ty knows.

“I—” Tony swallows, his anger dissipating, to be replaced by an intense fear in his chest, and anxiety he has carried unsaid for so many years, because fuck what if he gets scared or nervous or whatever and the words start to crack out of his mouth or bubble from his lips and people look at him like he’s some kind of freak. Fuck, he can’t do that, he’ll just kill himself, Ty’s right, he doesn’t know what he’s going to do without friends, how he’s going to hide.

“I don’t,” he whispers “I don’t know, shut up. Don’t, don’t say that—”

“I’m looking out for you, Anty,” Ty says sadly “please, listen. I just, you know, I worry about you.”

Ty always had. Ty has always worried about Tony, and Tony doesn’t know what he did to deserve it.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Tony says, and he lets his head droop. He doesn’t know, all these months he’s carried with him the fear, what if, oh God, it sounds so childish and stupid, like a big fucking baby, but what if no one likes him, he, fuck, he has to be liked. Has to be. What if they make fun fun at him or laugh at him or, doesn’t matter, Tony knows that he’ll be stammering like a fucking baby who can’t make the stupid words come out right.

He needs Ty. He needs Whit. He wishes Jarvis could come with him. He doesn’t know what to do, because he doesn’t think he’s ready to go to college, to just be thrown out there, with no one holding him up. He wishes, kinda, that his mom would just help him, any other mom would tell his dad to fuck off and let him finish school like a normal kid but she just nods and smiles with empty eyes, and she never hugs him, ever, and his dad hasn’t talked to him in over half a year because he wouldn’t take the stupid business course and —

Never before has Tony felt so alone.

“It’s okay, Anty. We can figure it out.”

Tony shakes his head in a wordless sob. Oh fuck, oh God, this is so pathetic. 

“I’m not crying,” he answers, drawing his knees to his chest and rapidly drying his eye with one hand, trying not to blink tears. “Fuck off, stop looking at me.”

Ty continues to stare. “You don’t need to worry.”

Yes,” he hisses “I do. You don’t, you don’t get it Ty, your parents love you and, you’re fucking hot, and everyone likes you, literally everyone, and I’m me and my parents don’t, no one likes me, I talk too much or a I talk too little or fuck, whatever, you don’t get it, you’ve never stammered—"

“I wet the bed until I was ten.”

“That’s not the same.” Tony grits out. “So did I. And I had nightmares. I still have nightmares. I dream there’s a man coming through my window and—”

“That’s fucked up.”

“Yeah it’s fucked up.” Tony spits, drying his eyes as anger takes over. “You have no fucking clue, I can’t do shit without, without fucking up, or people looking at me like—”

Ty’s head tilts again, as if watching Tony break down is some kind of experiment. “How does it make you feel?”

“What?”

“How does it feel? Thinking like that?”

Why would you want to know?”

Ty blinks. “I, hey, I told you man. I worry about you.” And now one hand comes up to squeeze Tony’s knee. “You shouldn’t worry.”

“Brilliant.” Tony says, “Fantastic, you cured me.”

Ty’s face hardens. “Don’t be dick, Tony. I’m trying to help you.”

Tony melts. “I know.” He exhales “I know, fuck I’m sorry—”

“It’s okay.” Ty says quickly. “You’re freaked, I get it. You should have said.”

(Briefly, Tony thinks that Ty was the one who brought up the stammer and set him off but he doesn’t mention it)

Ty scoots closer. “Really, Anty,” he says, and then his voice drops to a whisper “you don’t have to worry.”

Tony covers his the back of his head with his hands and presses it to his knees, as if squeezing it tight will squeeze the worry right out with it.

“Here,” Ty says gently “drink some more.”

Tony takes it gratefully, because the drunk feeling will send him up and loose and he won’t have to worry, the pressure in his chest and in his brain will melt away and it will be okay again.

“Why aren’t you drinking?” Tony asks, throwing the can to the side.

“I am.” Ty answers, even though he’s clearly still sober and Tony hasn’t seen him holding a can all evening.

“You’re so… emotional, Tony.” Ty frowns, and Tony huffs a laugh.

“Yeah?” Tony says, voice grating “And?”

Ty smiles, even though it doesn’t reach his eyes. “You have so much emotion. I don’t get it.”

Tony doesn’t get it, either.

“So?” He says, cracking open another can. He’ll take this one slower.

Ty leans closer. “Do you really like Whitney?” He murmurs.

Tony stares at him. “I… yes.”

He expects Ty to look away, maybe. But he doesn’t. He just keeps staring.

“She’s very pretty,” Ty points out.

Tony sips, head spinning. “Yeah.” He agrees.

Quiet.

The crashing of waves.

“Will you keep in touch with her when you go?”

Tony shrugs. “D’know,” he says “I d’know. If she wants to, I guess.”

Ty makes a noise. “And what about me?”

Tony looks at him. “Do you want to keep in touch with me?”

Ty’s hand skims the back of his neck. “I wouldn’t want to lose you.”

“As a friend.” Tony clarifies.

“As a friend.” Ty agrees.

 

 

 

 

Tony leaves Ty’s house two weeks later.

He kisses Whitney, and Ty hugs him, and tells him to be careful, fuck lots of girls and try not to mess up.

Whitney kisses him again, except this time she puts effort into it, and she cups his head with her hands and his fingers roam the planes of her firm back, up to her shoulder blades, and feel where they’re harsh, where the bone sticks out due to lack of fat.

Whit is too skinny, but she kisses Tony so hard he forgets about it.

“I’ll see you,” she says “soon. I will see you soon, Tony Stark.”

Tony smiles against the sun. Whitney crosses her arms at looks down her nose at him and it’s a pointed look. She says not to fuck too many girls and Tony takes that as a signal that he won’t have to feel guilty about all of this.

Ty claps him round the back of the neck and pulls him close so their foreheads touch. For a moment, Tony thinks this is it, but then Ty grins and ruffles his hair and Tony climbs into the car.

When he turns to wave, they wave back.

 

Chapter Text

Jarvis is getting old. Or maybe he’s just tired. Either way, there are bags under his eyes, and a bald patch on his head.

He still smiles when he sees Tony, but something has changed over the past few months. He seems worn down, broken. Tony knows, because he sees the same look in his mother’s eyes, in his father’s.

It worries him. 

But Jarvis hugs him tightly nonetheless. “Look at you,” he says, and his eyes start welling with tears “look at you, a young man now. God, where does time go?”

Tony tolerates the endearments for a few more seconds and then wriggles free of Jarvis’ grip on his shoulders. Jarvis shakes his head and looks down at him. “You’ve grown so much.”

“That is generally a thing that does happen over time.”

He gets a swat around the back of his head and Jarvis pushing him into a seat. “You’re too skinny,” he says “you need to eat, don’t you eat?”

Tony shrugs. “I eat. Probably not enough, but, you know.”

Jarvis smiles wryly and chops onions. “Tony, there is nothing good about not eating. You’ve probably got a fast metabolism, doesn’t matter: eat. Put on weight, for Christ’s sake, you look like a bean pole.”

“Traditionally, bean poles are actually supposed to be tall so,” Tony makes a face “you might want to re-think your metaphor.”

“I mean it, though,” Jarvis says, lips pursing “it’s not good, not good at all. Back home you’d be on a diet of beef and chips, Tony. Even better, fish and chips. God,” he says, shoving onions to the side “I haven’t had fish and chips in decades.”

“Fried fish and fries,” Tony grins, because Jarvis never talks about where he came from.

“If you Yanks insist.”

They sit in silence for a while as Jarvis’ onions make both of them cry.

“Whitney doesn’t eat,” Tony says suddenly “she throws her food up.”

Jarvis’ lips purse, they tighten even further, and he throws the onions onto a pan.

“She’s sick, Tony.”

“Well yeah,” Tony grumbles “she’s sick after every meal.”

“That’s not what I mean,” Jarvis says, turning and setting a plate on the table “she’s ill. In the head.”

Tony jolts. “What are you talking about?”

“It’s not normal, Tony,” Jarvis says, throwing a burger on the pan with a hiss and crackle “it’s not healthy. It’s a condition.”

Tony thinks about his mom and the days she won’t get out of bed. Of the days where she doesn’t seem to know what’s happening at all. And he thinks of his dad, locked his study, drinking drinking drinking, always drinking.

“She’s fifteen.”

“Young people can be ill, too.” Jarvis says simply, slicing tomatoes while the burger fries.

Can they, though? Tony thinks about Nick, and he thinks about the midnight masturbating and how that seems pretty sick. And he thinks Joey, back at Harwell, who can add numbers like a calculator but still can’t read because he says the letters swim around the page. 

He remembers how Whitney had cried because Tony hadn’t called her pretty.

Jarvis is looking at him as he slices. He nearly cuts a finger waiting for him to reply.

Tony shrugs. “I guess.”

“It’s not always obvious.” Jarvis prompts.

“Yeah.” Tony agrees.

“Sometimes the person might not even be aware there’s a problem.”

“Sure.”

Jarvis puts the knife down. 

“Your mother told me about the bottles.”

Tony frowns. “What bottles?”

“Over spring break. She says she saw you coming out of your room with six or seven bottles.”

Damn. “I thought she was pretty out of it,” Tony frowns “how is she nowadays?”

“Don’t dodge the question.” Jarvis says, staring up at him from where he’s ducked his head. “Did you drink all of that, Tony?”

“No!” He says quickly “Fuck, no. I just tasted. I was bored.”

“So you drank,” Jarvis says, calmly, fixing two buns on the plate. “You drank because you were bored.”

“Yes?”

“See, that’s what I’m worried about.”

Jarvis,” Tony groans.

“I mean it, Tony,” Jarvis says “I mean it. You can’t just drink because you get bored. You can’t. You, especially, can’t. That’s not what alcohol is for. You have to be so, so careful, Tony.”

“I can’t because it’s bad for me or because my parents are drunks?”

“Both.” Jarvis answers succinctly, taking the pan off the grill.

Tony crosses his arms, and huffs a breath. His eyes grow cold.

“Fuck them. I’m not like him.”

“Tony,” Jarvis says quietly “do you think your father started out life wanting to be an alcoholic?”

“There are things he could have done,” Tony dismisses “people who would have helped him. He didn’t want it.”

“There are other factors involved, Tony.”

“Oh yeah? Like what.”

“It’s difficult for a man like your father to get the right help. Because of who he is. There aren’t many people he can trust.”

“No,” Tony agrees “of course, why trust your family? Why trust your wife?” Tony shrugs “It’s a no brainer, really.”

Jarvis falls silent and takes the pan off the grill, slapping the burger between the two buns and spooning crispy onions on top.

“You’re angry.” He observes.

“Am I not allowed to be?”

“You are,” Jarvis says, placing the sliced tomatoes over the meat “and you are young. I’m not going to expect you to understand.”

Tony’s temper, ever short, flares. “Why do you say that? Why does everyone say that, ‘oh, you’ll understand when you’re older’, ‘oh, you’re too young’. I’m old enough to go to college but I’m not—”

“Intellectually you’re a genius, Tony,” Jarvis flips a slice of cheese over the burger “emotionally… you are a child. Have you even had your first kiss yet?”

Tony laughs and says he fucked Janet Van Dyne at his mother’s gala over spring break. Jarvis raises his eyebrows.

“When I was fifteen, that wouldn’t have happened.” He says, lips pursed.

“I didn’t think that was your thing.” Tony says, pointedly.

Jarvis slides the finished burger over to him. “Eat.” He says, shortly.

Tony bites, because he is hungry, and it smells good.

“I say you’re not emotionally ready,” Jarvis says, leaning back against the draws “because, Christ, Tony. You’re barely fifteen. That’s not — you shouldn’t be doing that, at fifteen.”

“Why not?” Tony asks, mouth full. “Feels good and it’s better than…” he swallows, not wanting to finish the sentence.

“Better that what, Tony?”

“Do we have to talk about this?” Tony whines.

“If you can’t tell me, who can you tell?” Jarvis says succinctly and Tony realises he’s right.

“Better than other things. I don’t know.” He mumbles, fiddling with his lettuce.

Jarvis slides onto the seat opposite. “Like what?”

Tony shrugs. He can’t answer. Or, he can, but won’t.

“Tony.” Jarvis says.

“I don’t know!” Tony exclaims “Other things! It’s easier to fuck someone than have to, touch them, you know, or say nice things, do, fuck, I don’t know.”

Surprisingly, Jarvis puts his head in his hands.

“Uh, J?” He says “You okay?”

The other man runs his fingers over his face, rubs at his eyes. “Jesus, Tony.”

“What’s wrong?” He says, face contorting with confusion “What did I say?”

“Do you feel like that? Do you honestly feel like that?”

“Yes?”

Jarvis ducks his head again. “Oh, God.” He moans.

“What?” Tony says again, pushing Jarvis’ elbow, because he’s scaring him.

“Nothing,” Jarvis says, shaking his head “nothing, nothing Tony, you just, do you really feel like that? Is it honestly difficult for you?”

Tony blinks. “I don’t understand why it’s a big deal?”

Jarvis backtracks. “It’s not, no,” he says quickly “it’s not a big deal. It’s just, I just, Tony, you’re going to go into the world a genius, and you’re too young to be going to college, and you drink, and you, you, you’ve already slept with a girl—”

“Two girls,” Tony winces “there was, Whit. Whit and I. We. Yeah.”

“You see what I mean, though?” Jarvis says, leaning forward and speaking urgently “About not being mature? Emotionally? That’s what it is, Tony. You don’t feel comfortable touching people in a close way, but you’re happy to have sex because it feels good. You’re not, you’re not making the right bonds, you’re not connecting. God, it’s almost like that psychiatrist was right.”

“What psychiatrist?” Tony says, exasperated.

“Never mind,” Jarvis says “listen, Tony, is there anything else? Is there anything else you’re not telling me?”

Yes. Ty. College. The stammer. His nightmares, the man who crawls through his window, who every time seems to get closer. His dad not talking to him. Failing. The company. Not having any friends. Not making good weapons.

“No!” He says “God, J, I’m fine.

Jarvis looks at him, because he knows when he’s lying, but like everyone else he never quite knows what to do about it.

 

 

 

Tony sits in his mother’s day room.

“College,” she says, smiling brightly, and today she’s wearing make-up, she’s done her hair all coiffed and curled, and she’s wearing a bright yellow dress with heels. “Imagine that. Off to college, my boy. You know, you’ll be the first Carbonell to actually graduate college, Tony.” His mother says, sipping daintily from her cup. “My brother had to drop out, God rest his soul.”

She makes the sign of the cross, which means it’s one of those days where his mom has decided that religion is the path to redemption.

“Hmm,” Tony says, staring out the window. He knows it’s rude but he also knows his mom won’t notice.

“So clever, too. I can barely believe it. Fifteen and off to college.”

“Yeah,” Tony says, because his mom is running out of material.

“Are you excited?” She says, setting down her cup.

Tony knows that smile. It’s the same smile she uses for her guests at her parties.

“I guess.”

“Good, good.” She says briskly “That’s good.”

There’s a pause, because the conversation has run dry.

“And, what will you be studying?” His mother seems to pick up.

“Engineering.”

“Wonderful, just like your father.” She says, vaguely, sipping more bitter liquid. “Drink up, Tony.”

Tony does, and tastes that the mint tea is laced with something alcoholic.

“Did Jarvis tell you who would be supervising you?”

“I’ve met him.”

“That’s nice. Did you like him?”

“Yeah.”

“Good good.” His mother says, smiling brightly, as if she can force the happiness into Tony’s lungs with a yellow dress and rictus grins.

“How’s your stomach, mom?” Tony says, playing with the tassels on the armrest.

“Oh, Tony,” his mother sighs “not good,” she says “not good at all. Such a thoughtful boy, for asking.”

His mom is going through the motions. Hello, please, thank you, goodbye and good day.

“Do the doctors know what it is yet?”

His mother shakes her head. “Oh, this and that,” she says “bless you, for asking.”

His mom doesn’t talk Italian anymore. The language that he managed to pick up bits of while listening to her yabber at servants and guests and shouting at his father and she no longer speaks it.

“As long as it’s not giving you too much trouble.”

“Oh, Anthony,” she says, hand ghosting over her stomach “so thoughtful. Such a thoughtful young man.”

 

 

The day Tony flies the nest it’s raining, which makes a change, because Tony’s life so far has been a string of sunny days and dark goodbyes.

Now, though, it’s pouring, and Tony has to say his goodbyes inside the main hall while the chauffeur waits outside.

“Please, Tony.” Jarvis says “Please, be careful. Don’t — Dwight will make sure you don’t go off the rails. but please, please please, just be careful.”

Tony rolls his eyes. “Jarvis,” he says, drawing out the syllables “I’ll be fine.

He won’t.

His mother is wrapped in a dressing gown, hair a mess, and Tony is touched that she actually got out of bed for him because clearly it’s one of those days.

“Here,” she says “it’s from your father. He said, he says he’s sorry he can’t be here and that he’s very busy and that he thinks you’ll be needing this,” she hands him a thin, heavy package. “Something about fighting bureaucracy.” She gives Tony that not-an-actual-smile. “You boys.” She says, as if he and his dad are great pals and he hasn’t been ignoring him for the past year.

But Tony accepts it anyway, because his dad doesn’t give him presents, ever. 

(He still has the check he gave him, the one he promised not to use, tucked inside his wallet)

He kisses his mom on each cheek, and then he hugs Jarvis. It’s a proper hug, one that Tony will only ever share with him, or maybe Ty. But with Jarvis, there’s that warm feeling that he doesn’t get with anyone else. Security, safety. Love, on a bone-deep level. Unconditional.

“Please be safe, Tony,” and when Jarvis draws back, there are things in his eyes, things that Tony won’t understand till he’s older, but things that Jarvis knows about fifteen year old boys with alcoholic parents and a need for physical contact.

“If I had the choice,” Jarvis says “you would not be going.”

Tony shrugs. “I’ll see you at Thanksgiving?”

Jarvis relents, and Tony runs to the open car. His mom and J wait in the doorway, lit by the light of the house.

Tony doesn’t wave when the car drives away.

Inside the package in a thin pocket flask. Heavy, thick. Stainless steel, or some other kind of perfectly polished metal. A screw cap at the top.

Initials carved into bottom right corner. HAS.

A note:

Don’t let the bastards get you down, Tony.

Tony thinks about Harwell. He thinks about Ty, about Whit. About the churning anxiety in his chest. About the future. About his mom, about his dad. He thinks about Jarvis, how tired he looked.

Tony fills the flask from the pure vodka at the bar in the car and christens his new life with a drink.

 

Chapter Text

The drag of smoke against Tony’s throat is heady, sharp. Acrid wouldn’t be the right word, because he’s been smoking for a while now, and the feel of it has muted into something comfortable, something to be depended upon.

It’s February, 1988, and Tony is seventeen.

He ditched his supervisor, Dwight, long ago. Bribed him with some of the extortionate allowance he gets once a month payed into his account and sent him packing. What Maria and Howard don’t know won’t hurt them, and Tony doesn’t think it would hurt them even if they did.

It might hurt Jarvis, if he bothered responding to his letters. 

Or his calls.

Tony doesn’t blame him, you know, he probably wouldn’t stay in touch with himself either. It’s not like he needs him. He just, it would be nice to catch up once in while. He doesn’t care. One letter every few months is cool. Tony’s not complaining.

He stands there, for a while, just inhaling, breathing slowly. His loft is large, spacious, airy, just how he likes it. Wooden floorboards and large bay windows, sunlight that streams down the open floor in the morning and wakes him up from where he usually lies on a mattress he’s tugged into the living area.

That is, of course, if he’s come home at all.

His actual bed lies untouched except from when he brings guests round.

Now, though, he stubs the rest of his cigarette out on the marble counter of the kitchen and stretches. It’s a Saturday, a whole day to just do whatever he likes, and he yawns. 

Maybe he should go back to bed. He was up late last night.

Instead, he pours himself some more coffee and drinks, looking over the plans for the new line of Stark guns that Howard has sent through.

Howard doesn’t do much of his own designing these days. He was taken to hospital with a liver that had more holes in it than swiss cheese, or something like that. Severe deterioration, Tony doesn’t know. Point being, he hasn’t got long left and he knows it. Tony has been designing the basis for these weapons since he was sixteen, then sending them through to R&D, who eventually send them back because they’re all a lazy bunch of shits who can’t figure out a trigger from an off-switch.

It’s no trouble, really. Tony bets that Howard is grateful he let him take engineering now, huh.

Tony got a letter through from the doctor the other day explaining that Howard is suffering from the early stages of Alzheimers. He’s dying, his liver is giving up, and his mind is wasting down to nothing.

Tony, deep, deep down, tries to dredge up some sympathy. It’s difficult, but he manages it in an intellectual sense. When someone’s father is on their knees, the normal reaction is to help, and that is what Tony will do. 

Even if his father is the opposite of grateful.

Jarvis says that it’s best not to tell him because that’ll speed up the symptoms. He says it’s not even that bad, yet. Just the early stages. It can takes years before someone really starts to deteriorate. Jarvis says that chances are he’ll conk out before it even becomes a massive problem.

So he can still function, day to day, but designing weapons of mass destruction is out and Tony is in.

Tony wonders if it’s too early to start drinking. He looks at the clock: 09:36. Probably, then.

It’s a Saturday. He should call Ty, see how he’s doing. He could go out with the cute freshman from his theoretical maths class. He could work on DUM-E. Or he could do the actual work he is supposed to do.

Instead, he calls some of the guys from the tennis club he went to once before quitting, but not before he’s made some acquaintances that he could now safely call friends.

It’s easy, really. Tony’s discovered that making friends is not difficult. In fact, it’s the opposite of difficult. Maybe because he’s rich, or he’s filled out a bit in the past three years, Tony doesn’t know. His friends here are good, they’re fun, and most of them are genuinely nice guys. Quite a few are on scholarship. But they don’t match up to Ty and Whit.

He hasn’t seen them in a while, even though he still calls regularly. Rather, Ty calls about once a week and when Tony inevitably misses it he will call back.

Tony lights another cigarette and kneads his eyes with his hands, the smoke making them water. He doesn’t know what’s wrong with him. Everything is great, everything in fine. Everything is better than awesome, so why can’t he get out of bed in the mornings?

Maybe he needs a break, a holiday or something. Ty is always saying the three of them should go abroad, somewhere hot, the Mediterranean, maybe. Crystal clear beaches and white sand. Martinis. That sounds nice, kinda.

Maybe it’s because Howard’s sick. Maybe it’s affecting him more than he thinks. Maybe it’s because Maria doesn’t leave the house anymore. Maybe it’s because Jarvis won’t return his letters. 

It could be because he’s been making weapons since he was sixteen. Does that have a psychological impact? Tony doesn’t know. They do kill people, he is, in effect, killing people. It doesn’t bother him, really, so he doesn’t think that’s it. Rather, it’s probably the stress of having to meet deadlines.

Yeah, that must be it. He must be stressed out. He should sleep more, maybe skip a few more parties. Tony snorts. Yeah right.

He’s snapped out of his daze by his doorbell. His doorbell, and then someone banging on his door.

Jesus Christ, it’s a Saturday morning, who could that even be?

Tony drags another deep breath of nicotine and pads down to the entrance of his loft. He waits at the door for a few moments until the beating starts up again, and then fixes a grin on his face around the cigarette stuck between his lips.

He swings the door open so the man narrowly avoids knocking his face. “Did you know,” he pouts “it’s not polite to knock on someone’s door that loudly.”

The man is tall, taller than Tony. Dark skin, dark eyes, dark hair cropped close to his head. A long nose, long face, everything about him is long, sturdy, dependable. He already has laugh lines around his eyes though he can’t be older than twenty. And he’s staring at Tony with a mix of confusion and anger.

“This isn’t Michelle’s, is it?” He says, and Tony recognises the twangs of New York in his speech.

“No,” Tony says, companionably “not the last time I checked,” he looks around “unless I’m missing something.”

The man groans, leans against the doorframe and hangs his head. “Fuck, fuck I knew I got the wrong building.”

“Easy mistake to make, really.” Tony says, amiably although it’s not, really, not in Boston.

“Could I,” the man raises his head, and Tony sees where his eyes are bloodshot “could I get a drink?”

“…That depends.”

“Water.” The man clarifies. “I meant water.”

Tony shrugs and holds the door open while Mr No-Name follows him through. “Long night?” He asks over his shoulder.

The man shrugs. “Michelle, man.”

Tony grins around his cigarette. “Girl trouble?”

“The worst.”

Tony hums in sympathy and hands him a tall glass which he drinks quickly.

“She leave you?” He asks, leaning back against the counter. The man sighs. 

“Something like that. I fucked up. Probably, I fucked up. I can’t… necessarily remember. I was drunk.”

Tony winces. “You have any idea?”

The man looks up. “Think I might of asked her to marry me.”

“Traditionally not a good idea when both parties are still in college.” Tony eyes the man. “You are still in college, right?”

He nods. “Air force ROTC. Scholarship.”

Tony whistles. “That’s harsh.”

“I couldn’t afford better.”

Tony smiles even though it’s not like he knows much about that. 

“What about you?” The man asks, wiping his face with the back of his hand.

“Uh, engineering. Electrical engineering, some software, just,” he waves a hand “stuff.”

The man looks at him. “You're taking engineering at MIT, man,” he looks at him pointedly “that’s not just stuff.”

“Yeah, well,” Tony yawns “what you gonna do about it? I had two options, I picked engineering.”

“What was the second?”

Tony snorts. “Business.”

The man blinks. “You’re rich, aren’t you?”

“My dad is.”

“Anyone I know?”

“Probably.”

“Try me.”

Tony pauses. “You ever heard of Stark Industries?”

The man’s eyebrows lift off his head. “Stark Industries? You mean, the guys that make my weapons?”

“That would be us. That would be me, actually.”

“You’re Howard Stark’s son?” 

“The one and only.” Tony makes a face. “I hope.”

The man stares at him. “You’re bullshitting me.”

“I’m really not.” Tony says, poking around his mouth with his tongue to find the remains of his dinner. Which reminds him he hasn’t had breakfast.

You. You’re — it’s Anthony, right?”

Tony raises his eyes in surprise. Was this guy some kind of Stark groupie?

“Tony, actually. Only my mom calls me that.”

“Tony,” the man says, as if trying the name out on his tongue. He holds out his hand to shake. “I’m James.”

Tony takes it. “Nice to meet you James…”

“Rhodes.”

“Nice to meet you James Rhodes.” He says, with stunning formality. “I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to make breakfast, because,” he looks at the clock “it’s nearly ten 0’clock.” He opens his cupboard. “D’you want some?”

“Do you make weapons?”

“Not for breakfast.”

That actually gets a laugh out of him, and Tony grins when he drags his cereal up onto the tables surface. “Want some or what?”

James considers. “Yeah, go on.” He decides, pulling his chair closer to the table.

“So ROTC, huh?” Tony says, grabbing milk from the fridge.

James shrugs. “Like I said, scholarship.”

“If you’re clever enough for that, you’re clever enough for something less… strenuous.”

“I want to be a pilot.” James say firmly. “Always wanted to. My old man flew during the war. Not that it was acknowledged.” He adds, pointedly, ducking his head.

Tony takes in James’ dark, chocolate skin. Yeah, he can see why that might have been a problem for the big men back then.

James shovels cereal into his mouth and Tony leans back against the counter, pours milk into the box, and eats with his hand, thoughtful.

James swallows. “Your breakfast is leaking.”

Tony shrugs. “It does that every morning and I always seem surprised.”

“What about you?” James asks, shovelling more cereal into his mouth. “Why you here? You look, hey, you look young.

Tony winces. “I’ll be eighteen in…” he thinks “May. What month is it? February? Yeah, three months, so.”

“Shouldn’t you be at school?” James says, and he squints his eyes and stares at Tony, suddenly disapproving, like a conservative older brother.

Tony snorts. “I can build weapons, but God forbid I skip class.”

“Doesn’t seem healthy,” James shrugs “these crazy child genius types who grow up too quickly and end up touched in the head.”

“To be honest, I’m probably already touched somewhere up there,” Tony says, crunching “but don’t worry. When your brain works like this school is a bit slow.”

“I can imagine,” James says, staring at him. “Geniuses are supposed to be insane, anyway. All of them, without fail. Bet you can’t name me a happy genius.”

Tony swallows. “Bullshit,” he says, frowning “there are…”

He thinks. He knows there have got to be happy geniuses out there somewhere. For some reason, Sylvia Plath comes to mind. Didn’t she stick her head in an oven?

“Right,” he says, slowly “well, I know there are some out there. But I don’t know them.”

“Exactly,” James shrugs “who wants to hear about a happy genius? Where’s the fun in that? “

 

 

 

After Tony brings up the subject of Michelle, James promptly dissolves into tears, leaving Tony with the awkward role of comforter.

He ends up staying for the rest of the day, which is weird, because they just met, but Tony realises that they get on pretty well. James is funny, he likes a laugh, he’s clever, and he’s easygoing. It’s easy to sit in silence with him and not feel… awkward.

Later, Tony’s friends from the tennis club end up coming, and James stays for that as well. They bring beer, lots and lots of beer.

They all get completely piss drunk, and Tony doesn’t even know how they get onto the subject. He thinks they might of been talking about home, because this one guy, Rakim, who’s a friend of this other guy and Tony’s never met before, starts talking.

He speaks in fits and bursts, and he’s obviously not a native. He has dark skin, tanned, an olive colour, and he uses his hands to gesticulate wildly as he talks. He has a heavy accent, though Tony wouldn’t be able to place it.

He says he’s a muslim, which explains why he refuses to drink.

“Is that,” Tony blinks heavily, lost under a daze of alcohol “is this okay for you? Sorry, wouldn’t’a, wouldn’t drink if I’d known.”

Rakim shrugged. “When in America, do as Americans do.”

Tony had laughed and it had gotten some appreciative whoops from the rest of the white, blonde boys sitting around his table.

“What you doing this far from home?” James asks, sipping quietly.

Rakim sighs. “I come for an education. My father tell me that American schools are the best schools. I get the best education I can, and I go home a big man.”

Another boy, one that Tony actually likes, Harold, nods his head. “That’s the kind of ethic we need in this country.” He says.

Harold is a die-hard republican, but he’s not a bad guy. So he likes his guns too much and is one of the biggest psuedo-intellectuals Tony’s ever met, still. He takes criticism well, and unlike many of the other boys around the table, is open to new ideas.

“US is giving the Mujahideen rockets the get rid of the Soviets, so they pay for me to come here. If I go back home now, I may be killed.”

There’s silence around the room. 

For the boys sitting around the table, war is foreign concept. It occurs to Tony that he’s probably designed a few of the stinger missiles that are being used to shoot down the communists.

“But I want to go home,” Rakim continues “I pray for the US to be strong, and I pray that the Soviets are removed, that that I can go home.”

“Home.” Tony repeats, because he’s never had one.

“My father is an educated man,” Rakim says “he tells me to come to America, and he tells me, he tells me to ‘assimilate’. He says that even if I never come home again, I’ll have a better life out here than back home.”

“But you still want to go?” Someone asks.

“Yes,” Rakim says, and there is a fire in his eyes “I get the best education I can, and I go home. And then I can build. I can propel Afghanistan into something new. Better.”

Tony feels incredibly inadequate. This boy can’t be more than a few years older than him and he’s talking about changing the world. Doing something worthwhile. Tony is talking about making weapons.

James nods. “It’s a good goal.”

Rakim inclines his head, as if to say thank you, and then fades back into to the lull of the conversation while someone else takes his place.

But what he says sticks with Tony. Rakim wants to change the world. Tony, probably, has that choice too. After all, he is the one supplying the weapons to remove the Russians from his country.

With a jolt, he realises what he’s doing. And he realises the real-world applications for what he does. His weapons are saving lives. Stark Industries is protecting people. For the first time, Tony feels something stir inside him, some kind of heavy emotion, or decision, because if he can do anything, surely he can protect?

Maybe it’s because he was always so scared, when he was younger. Maybe it’s because he hates bullies. What was it his dad said? Peace is about having a bigger stick than the other guy.

Maybe he was right.

Thirteen years later, Tony stands on a stage and pledges his weapons to the War on Terror. He remembers Rakim, briefly, and then throws him from his mind.

 

Chapter Text

“Which is why you should come home.”

Tony frowns, balancing the phone between his head and shoulder and playing with the cord. “Jarvis—”

“Tony, please. I don’t know how long— your father is resilient. But it could be any day.”

“Is there no, like, early warning system?”

“Tony!” Jarvis chides.

“Sorry, sorry,” Tony mumbles. “What I mean, is isn’t it supposed to be gradual? Surely you’ll know when he’s about to blow.”

“Tony, your father is still up and about. That’s not the point. He can drop dead at any moment. Did you know, yesterday he went out golfing with the Roxxon president and blew $462,718 on a rented yacht and booze?”

Tony winces. That is not the kind of behaviour old men should be conducting themselves with. Then again, he’s dying. Let him indulge himself.

“Good for him.”

“God, Tony, you’re worse than your father. Listen. You need to come home, just for a week, and then if you never come back — ” Tony can practically see Jarvis throw his hands in the air down the line “ — then so be it. I’m not stopping you.”

Tony does not want to see his father. He does not want to see his mother.

He says goodbye to Jarvis, and puts down the phone. He deliberates on whether to go see Rhodey or maybe go get a drink from the local bar. Instead, he finds himself drawn down to the basement that Howard rents out for him to do his work.

He was hard pressed to get this room. Or, more like a floor. At first, Howard refused to pay anything other than fees, leaving Maria to sigh and dip into her own pocket to feed her only son. He had sent letters, begging for a workspace of his own. He built DUM-E the summer after his first year in one of Howard’s old workshops in New York. It wasn’t till he won awards that Howard relented and started paying rent for a workplace that Tony could call home.

Tony knows that it shouldn’t feel like charity, because they’re his parents. Parents are supposed to pay for their kids college, if they can afford it, which his really, really can.

It’s another notch, though, in Tony’s list of injustice. Tony spent years, years, trying to get his father to like him. Or even look at him. He spent decades trying to understand why his mother didn’t love him. He’s not a baby, he knows he’s privileged. He has better things to do than go whine that his parents didn’t hug him enough when he was younger. But, privately, he allows himself to be angry. There’s nothing wrong with a healthy dose of anger and resentment.

He remembers how he would huddle in his bed with fear when he heard Howard’s footsteps down the corridor. Slow, thumping. How he would hear the chink of bottles falling from his hand. How he would pray, pray, pray, that the sounds did not stop in front of his door.

The malicious side of him thinks there’s nothing wrong with a bit of fear for his old man. Let him be scared. God knows, Tony was. The balanced part of him is just neutral to the whole thing.

He sets to work on DUM-E, who, by the way, is a complete disaster. Disaster isn’t the right word, he’s embarrassing. When Tony had first built him, he’d nearly hung his head in shame because the stupid bag of bolts can’t do anything right. He was supposed to be commercially viable: imagine all the engineers who could benefit from having a personal helper bot to do all the work for them.

It wasn’t soon till Tony realised that DUM-E would never, ever, be commercially viable. Ever. Not unless engineers wanted to feel like their feet were crushed by ten-tonne bricks when he rolled over their toes or like they have an over-zealous puppy looking over their shoulders.

DUM-E is one of a kind and he needs constant updating.

Updating is something that Tony, despite the fact that he hates the stupid bot, is always willing to do.

 

 

 

Stark mansion hasn’t changed.

Still cold.

Still empty.

It’s Tony’s birthday soon. He wonders if they’ve remembered.

In his pocket, he has the flask Howard gave him, stocked up.

Usually when Tony arrives, there is at least one person there to greet him. Normally Jarvis, but still.

This time, the whole place is empty. Not a single cleaner, or chef, or butler.

Tony frowns, and dumps his bag in the centre of the hall.

“Hello?” He calls, looking up at the balconies on either side of the massive centre stairs. “Anyone home?”

Silence, and Tony sees dust float in the air where light from the window at the top of the stairs paints the floor with gold.

He curses, because he’s tired. Fuck, the least someone could’ve done is told him where he’s supposed to be sleeping, since he hasn’t stayed in his room since he was six.

He hears a shuffling coming from the balcony and looks up to see his mother carefully opening a door, then closing it quietly. She’s dressed in a pink cotton dressing gown, nightdress, and slippers. Her hair is grey. Not a single trace of chocolate remains.

“Mom?” He calls up, softly, and she jumps anyway.

“Who is it?” She says, voice tense “Jarvis!” She calls “Jarvis, we have a visitor. Who let him in?”

Jarvis doesn’t appear and Tony hangs his head. “I used my keys, mom.” He says, tiredly.

His mother blinks, rounding down the stairs, one hand tight on the bannister and the other clutching her dressing gown tight. “Tony?” She asks, squinting “Anthony?”

“Unless you know someone else called Tony who calls you mom.” He grumbles, crossing his arms.

“Oh,” she sighs in relief “oh, thank God. I thought you were someone else.”

“Imagine that.” Tony deadpans.

“We’re not having visitors,” she says, drawing the gown tight around herself “because your father’s sick.” She adds.

“Sure.” Tony says, easily. He keeps himself affable, smiling, even though he wants to tear at his hair and shake some sense into his mother.

Maria peers closer. “Have you… you look taller.”

“That’s because I am.”

Maria frowns. “What, when did you get so tall? My God.”

Tony isn’t tall at all, really. What he thinks Maria means is that the last time he saw her he was a good bit shorter. 

It’s been awhile. Tony doesn’t like coming home.

He realises that he is taller than his mother now. Was she always so small? It hadn’t felt that way when he watched her, skirts swirling, or when he had been pressed against her side on the way to church. It hadn’t felt that way when, on those rare occasions, she had picked him up in strong arms and hitched him on her hip.

He softens. “Where’s Jarvis, mom?”

Maria laughs, or tries to. “He’s, where is he ever, Tony, down in the kitchen.”

Tony thanks her and leaves. They have nothing else to say, now.

 

 

 

“Is he eating?” Tony says, sipping at his coke.

Jarvis sighs. “It’s hit and miss. Your father’s stubborn, Tony.”

Tony makes a noise of agreement and swipes his head with the back of his hand. “How’s he sleeping?”

“Same as usual. He’s not. If anything, actually, he’s sleeping more.”

Tony winces. He’s not sure that’s a good thing.

“And how about you?” Tony asks “How are you doing?”

Jarvis smiles a wobbly smile. He folds his hands neatly in front of him. “I’m fine, Tony. Busy, as usual. But fine.”

He’s lying. His hands shake. His hair is white. Thin. There are wrinkles on his once youthful skin. He looks older than his age.

He keeps coughing. A dry cough, not awful, but persistent. Irritating.

Tony lets his eyes cloud with concern. “You should go to a doctor.”

“I’m fine.” Jarvis says again, maybe too forcefully.

Tony stares at him. “Sure,” he says, finally. “Okay.”

Jarvis relents. “How’s school, Tony?”

He shrugs. “Fine. Interesting. I’m thinking about staying on, doing a masters.”

Jarvis smiles. “You like it that much?”

“Not really. I just don’t want to be bored.”

“No,” Jarvis agrees “no, you don’t.”

 

 

 

Tony knocks on his father’s door. There’s a grunt from somewhere inside, and Tony rolls his eyes.

He swings open the door and slides though, repressing the urge to wrinkle his nose. His father’s study used to be yellow, sunlight used to stream through and paint the floorboards in gold. Now, it’s musty, the curtains are shut against the sun, and dust hangs thick in the air.

Howard is sitting behind his desk, slumped. He’s puffing on a cigar, one hand clutching his drink, and he narrows his eyes when Tony enters.

“You.” He slurs, and then downs the drink in one.

“Me.” Tony finishes, taking the seat opposite Howard and crossing his legs, feigning interest in his surroundings.

Howard swipes the back of his hand across his mouth. “You’re taller.”

“So I’ve been told.”

Howard snorts, and he hangs his glass upside down and shakes it. He frowns. “I’m finished.” He says.

“Here,” Tony leans across the desk and pulls out his own stash, tips a little into his father’s glass. It’s strong stuff.

Howard sips. “Hmm,” he says, and his eyes close “hmm, you have good taste, Tony.”

“Great.” He replies, voice lacklustre. “You should probably stop.”

“What’sa point?” Howard says, trying to shrug but only managing to lift one shoulder. “Jus’ gonna die anyway. If the withdrawal doesn’t kill me.”

Tony breathes out from behind his teeth, clenches his hands on the armrests. He doesn’t want to have to talk about this. Who wants to talk about their parent’s imminent death?

“I’m so glad you’re aware of the severity, dad.” Tony says shortly. “I wouldn’t want it to be lost on you.”

“Lost on me?” Howard snorts. “I’ve known this day was coming for years.”

That’s pathetic, Tony thinks.

“No shit.” He raises an eyebrow. “Most humans do actually die, eventually, no doubt you thought maybe you’d get lucky?” Tony looks at the glass in Howard’s hand. “You never thought about doing something about it, maybe?”

He shrugs. “I’ve lasted long enough.”

“You could’ve lasted longer.”

“I’m dying, Tony.” Howard snaps. “Have some goddamn respect.”

Tony feels, for a moment, that instinctual flare of panic that Howard brings. He feels the need to look away, look down, get out of his father’s gaze. But he’s not like that anymore. Instead, he forces an insolent smirk onto his face.

“Not my fault, really.”

Howard stills. “You’re insufferable.”

“Says you.”

“Why are you here, Tony?” Howard says, slumping, voice suddenly exhausted “Have you come to gloat? Is this about the college thing? Are you still pissed at me?” Howard’s eye shut, and then flicker open again. “I’m dying. Maybe you just go easy on me and then you can dance on my grave all you like.”

Tony feels sorry, momentarily. Howard’s right, he’s sick and hasn’t got long left. Is now really the time to air his grievances?

Tony is very, very angry with his father.

“Don’t worry. I don’t dance.”

Howard lumbers to his feet. “You’re a little shit.”

“I don’t know where I get it from.” Tony yawns.

Howard stares down at him. He’s fat, now, or at least overweight. His beard is unkempt, his hair greasy. He still has a thick crop, which is good, Tony reckons, because he doesn’t want to lose all his hair by fifty.

But his face is lined, thick and tired. His dark eyes have been swallowed by drooping flesh.

He looks strong. He still looks strong, despite it all.

Tony stares back.

What was that thing Ty was talking about? About how all men want to kill their fathers and marry their mothers? Tony thinks briefly about Maria, and then Whit, and pushes it from his head.

He wants Howard to punch him. Wants him to beat him down. Because at least then he’ll have a reason to hate him, one that’s not pathetic.

Howard’s eyes narrow. “You’re turning into your mother.”

Tony quirks his lips. “I hope not. That’ll take some explaining, really.”

“You think you have an answer for everything.”

“No,” Tony states “I know I do.”

Howard’s hand tightens on his empty bottle. Could this be it? Could this be what they’ve been dancing around all these years? A bottle and a firm whack to Tony’s skull?

Howard’s hand loosens, and the tension crackles down. He grins.

“You’re tougher than I remember, Tony. What happened?”

Now Tony looks away. Just like that, his father gets him to back down. There’s something in that comment, you were weak, you are weak, that jars him enough to look away. He feels his neck burning even though he knows it doesn’t show on his skin.

He laughs. Howard always makes him angry enough to push over the edge.

It’s so much easier to just be cutting. To be cruel. Make sure he can break the wave of disapproval and hatred coming from his father’s mouth before it washes over his head.

“I don’t know,” Tony says lazily “maybe you’re just a bit more fragile now, dad.” Tony squints, bends forward in his chair so he’s leaning over the desk.

He cocks his head. Breathes. “How’s the old brain working, dad? ‘Bit slow, isn’t it?”

His father stares at him.

Tony leans back, smirks. “No,” Tony says “that’s right.”

“Get out.”

Tony shrugs, pushes back his chair and stands.

“Get out.” Howard says, and he’s not even looking at him, his eyes are fixed on some point beyond Tony’s head.

Tony walks away. “I said get out!” Howard screams, and the bottle smashed against the wall next to Tony’s head.

Howard’s done that before, Tony remembers vaguely. It had made him sick with fear, once. 

He gently closes the door behind him. Waits. Breathes.

And then his legs begin to tremble. Fuck, he thinks fuck, don’t fuck it up now.

He needs to walk. He needs privacy, he can’t let them see him like this. His legs are wobbling and his head is spinning, he feels like he’s coming down from some crazy trip, the adrenalin rush is insane. Had he been that tense? He can barely remember. What had even happened?

He stumbles his way though the house until he finds his mother’s garden, until he finds his trees. He slumps there, let’s his head rest against the trunk, fights the urge to laugh and cry and shake and just breathes.

 

 

 

Tony decides to leave early. And by early, he means later that day.

Jarvis doesn’t judge him.

“Keep in touch.” Tony says, and he hopes he doesn’t sound needy. “It’s nice to hear from you, you know, sometimes.”

Jarvis looks guilty. “I know. I know, I’ve been busy, Tony. But I promise: I’ll keep in touch.”

Tony smiles as Jarvis ducks his face to cough into a tissue.

(He hides the blood that spatters there)

“Will you be coming back?” Jarvis smiles serenely.

Tony shields his eyes from the sun, staring up at the looming shadow of his childhood home.

“Yeah.” He says “I don’t think I can avoid it, actually.”

And it’s true. Tony does go home again, many times. But it’s the last thing he’ll ever to say to Jarvis.

He smiles, and the old man hugs him. Tells him to study, and not to get too caught up.

He tells him not to worry. It’ll be okay.

 He never sees Jarvis again. 

 

Chapter Text

When Tony gets back to Boston, he gets a call from Ty.

“You, me, Whit,” he says “we’re going to LA for summer. Don’t argue, hear me out, I haven’t seen you in years —

“A few months, really.”

“Almost a year, don’t try to bullshit me. Whit is missing you.”

Yeah. 

“I’m missing her, too.”

“Great, then you can come with us.”

Tony winces. “Ty, I don’t know. My dad’s,” Tony rubs his eyes and sighs “my old man’s not well, Ty.”

“Oh really? Damn, well I can see how you’d want to waste a summer on him, seeing as you’re really close and all.”

“Funny. But it’s serious, he’s dying.”

There’s a brief pause down the line. “That bad, huh?”

“His liver’s got more holes than swiss cheese or something.” Tony rubs a hand down his face. “Could go any minute. I don’t know how long I have left to—”

“Tony,” Ty says softly “Anty, I thought we agreed to forget them?”

“They’re my parents, Ty,” Tony half-protests quietly “and I’m not you. I don’t know how to just cut people out.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“You know what I mean.” Tony says weakly.

“Yeah, well I never cut you out, did I? C’mon, Anty. We’re graduating. For old times sake.”

Tony considers. “Could we — no. No, I’m sorry I can’t.”

“Anty!” 

Tony wants to. Of course he fucking wants to. But it’s just one summer. One summer, and then he can forget them. One summer to try and make it right.

He hears Ty’s voice down the line. “Yeah, no, he doesn’t want to come.” He’s saying to someone. “I don’t know, his parents or some shit. That’s what I told him! I know, hold on. Tony,” Ty readdresses “c’mon.”

“Is Whit there?” He says distractedly.

“Yeah she’s here, actually — here, take the phone — she has something to say to you.”

“Whit?”

“Hi, Anty.” She says in that voice, which has gotten a little deeper in the year they’ve been apart but keeps it’s singing rhythm. “How’s school?”

Tony tilts back his head and lays back on the couch, swinging the cord round his finger. “Fiiine.” He draws out, grinning.

“Lot’s of pretty girls?”

Tony’s an old hat at this, now. “No one’s prettier than you Whit and you fucking know it.”

(That being said, a lot of girls have come close)

Whitney giggles, a sound that only Tony is capable of eliciting. 

“You’re a man-whore and you fucking know it.”

“That’s actually not a very fair observation,” Tony waggles his eyebrows “I mean, for all you know I could be wasting away with the thought of you and you have the nerve to sit there and insinuate —”

“Insinuate my ass, you’ve been banging every girl you’ve layed eyes on and you know it.”

“I actually haven’t.” And it’s the truth, partly, sure there’ve been a few, but he does honestly like Whitney.

It doesn’t feel right, not knowing where they stand. Tony doesn’t know what she wants. One second she’s all over him, the next she’s giving him a free pass. Maybe she’s into that sort of thing?

“I have some news that I’m sure you’re gonna love.” She says, and Tony sits up a bit straighter.

“Oh yeah?”

“Oh yeah, definitely. I got into Harvard, so.”

Tony blinks. “No fucking way.”

“Yes fucking way. I’m taking law, I know, right? Shocking. But I thought, you know, we’ll both be in Boston—”

“That’s amazing!” Tony laughs, and he runs a hand through his hair. “Holy shit, why didn’t you say? How long’ve you known?”

“A month? It was gonna be a surprise, you know, I was just gonna turn up on your doorstep, but then Ty said you didn’t want to come to LA—”

“I can’t.” Tony sighs, “You know I can’t.”

“I think you can, you just won’t. Self-flagellation, Tony, you ever heard of it?”

“I am aware of the concept, yes.”

“You’re doing it. Right now. Denying yourself fun again because you’re beating yourself up again. Seriously, stop. It’s irritating.”

“Oh my bad.” Tony says mildly.

“Yes, you’re bad.” Whitney says, exasperated. “How long are you gonna let this go on for? Tony I’ve seen it before, your parents sent you away do you spend hours writing those letters, your dad wants you to do business and when you do what you want to do you spend hours freaking out, you force yourself home as if that will make it any better —”

“Is that the time?” Tony says, looking lazily at his watchless wrist. “Damn, I have, I better get going. Got class in, like, five minutes, wow, I’m so forgetful.”

“It’s Sunday.”

“Is it?” Tony asks. “Damn, I really do need to get my memory checked.”

“Tony, don’t be a dick. Are you coming or not because we want to get tickets for—”

“You’re, crrkk, I can’t hear, chrsskle, breaking up, talk,” Tony crumples the magazine by the phone “later, love you crrkshkle, see you —”

He hangs up, and rubs his eyes.

 

 

 

Tony doesn’t go home that summer.

He doesn’t go to Ty’s, either, although he makes plans to see them for New Year and Whit’s in New York. Her parents are going down to Long Island, so they’ll have the place to themselves.

But Tony spends that summer in a listless doze. Somedays he gets up and then just climbs back into bed. He stops going out. Rhodey knocks on his door once, twice, three times and more and Tony ignores him.

He doesn’t know what’s wrong, exactly. He just can’t be bothered.

He’s running on a nocturnal schedule. He wakes up at 10pm every night and allows himself a drink to get him going. And then he works on DUM-E, or watches TV. Sometimes, he’ll read a book. Mostly, he lies in bed, and traces his fingers over the dirty sheets.

No one calls, except Rhodey, Ty, and Whit.

Jarvis hasn’t written in ages. He won’t return his calls.

Tony really, really wants to talk to Jarvis right now.

He needs him.

He doesn’t know what’s wrong.

 

 

 

One day, Tony jars himself out of bed.

He washes his hair, his face, and puts on clothes. 

He opens his windows for the first time in months and lets the stifling heat that’s hung in his loft evaporate under fresh light and a cool breeze.

He stands there for a while, taking in sun like an addict takes in a dose of heroin after a year of sobriety.

He scrounges for some clean clothes and finds something acceptable. Then, he shove sunglasses on his face. He smiles in the mirror, just to get a feel for it, and it’s been so long that the muscles shake when he stretches them over his face.

Eh, it’ll do.

He walks around the centre of town for while, unsure of what to do. Everyone here seems to have a purpose, students going to summer school courses, men, and women in heels marching to work. Tony feels at a limb, like he’s not part of that world at all.

He feels like an outsider, looking in on reality.

He wanders into a few stores. He has a lot of money on him. He could probably buy everything in here and the actual building itself. It doesn’t mean anything to him, though. What does it matter? What do any of these things mean to him?

Oh God, what’s wrong? What’s wrong with him?

The space around him floats, too bright, too open. He suddenly longs for the safety of his loft. Why did he come out today? Why did he think that would be a good idea?

He shoves his hands into his pockets. He should go, he needs to go. This place is massive, which way did he come in? Are people staring? Fuck, they are. They’re wondering why there’s some guy where sunglasses indoors and just standing in the middle of a department store.

He ducks his head and just chooses a direction. It’s fine, just walk, you’ll find an exit. You don’t have to ask anyone.

“Excuse me?” Says an attendant, a girl. “Can I help you at all? Is there anything you want in particular today?”

Tony nearly stumbles back. “N-no,” he manages “n-n-no, I’m f-fine, th-thanks, thanks.”

He sees the pity in her eyes and sets off at a sharper pace.

When he manages to get outside he buys himself a water from a vendor and sucks deep. He punctuates it with sips from his flask, and leans against a wall behind a store.

Okay. Okay, what is he here for? What could he need?

He sees an ad showing state of the art gym equipment, and sighs in relief.

 

 

 

It’s probably the start of Tony’s history of ridiculous, impulsive buys. Not that he knows that.

He sets up the gym equipment in the spare bedroom and then just leaves it there because he’s a fucking idiot who wasted money on expensive shit he’s never going to use.

It’s not until a couple of days later he realises that he has nothing else to do and that, hey, he could probably do with putting on a bit of weight.

So, he starts up his diet regime. He is, apparently, underweight. He decides he doesn’t want to be, anymore. He starts buying in burgers, pizzas, steaks. He learns how to make actual salad. He spends a good two hours a day working out.

In the morning, and in the evenings, he goes jogging. It gets him out of bed.

The fresh air helps.

By August, Tony is seeing a difference. When he weighs himself, he learns he’s put on nine pounds.

He feels it in the way his stomach has tightened, in the way he can lift his own work without his limbs shaking.

It feels good. He feels like he’s in control.

After three months of silence, Tony finally calls Rhodey in September.

“Where the fuck where you?” Rhodey asks.

“Home, man. I had some family stuff.”

Rhodey winces, and Tony puts him off enough that he doesn’t ask anymore. Instead, he asks how Rhodey’s been.

“I got a new girl, man. I think she could be the one.”

Tony rolls his eyes. This will be the second ‘one’ since Tony’s known Rhodey.

He throws himself into his final year. Everything is fine.

 

Chapter Text

Tony levers himself below the car, wrench in hand. It’s been leaking oil because it’s a hunk of crap and his dad isn’t going to get him a better one anytime soon.

“It’s character building.” Howard had said, but Tony reckons he’s hoping he’ll lose control and kill himself.

It’s hot. It’s way too hot for September. Not that Tony’s complaining, because he hates the cold. In this weather, he can almost imagine he’s back in Cali with his friends, if you ignore the distinct lack of rushing waves and crickets.

The stereo by his feet is blasting music as loud as it can go and Tony’s just trying to block everything out until he can fix this lump of crap.

Except then the music switches off and he’s dragged out from under the car without preamble.

Kidnap. That’s Tony’s first thought. Fuck, I’m being kidnapped.

He’s 100% sure that the door was locked. 

He gives a garbled shout and kicks out with his feet, catching something soft, and hearing a subtle crunch.

And then someone is crying out.

“Aww, fuck,” Whitney says, tilting back her head “fuck, what is wrong with you, oh God.”

Tony blinks. “Whitney?”

“Ma’ ‘mose.” She says, blood dripping down her lips and over her neck. “You ‘ucking idiot.”

“Shit.” Tony says, spurred into action. “Shit, why would you—”

“‘Urprise!” She says.

“Time and a place!” Tony snaps “How did you get in, here,” he pushes Whitney’s head back and presses tissues under her nose.

She pushes him away. “You gave me keys.”

Tony blinks. “I did?”

Whitney rolls her eyes. “Yes, idiot.”

“When?”

“Last summer.”

“Why would I do that?”

“I lied. You didn’t give to me, I stole them.”

Tony smiles “Of course you did.”

She snorts, eyes crinkling, and they sit in companionable silence.

“There,” Tony says, softly, gently drawing the tissues from her nose. “You probably should have warned me.”

She rubs a hand over her skin and tries to clear away the blood, licking her lips. “I tried. You know it’s not healthy to listen to music that loud?”

Tony smirks. “You don’t think anything’s healthy.”

“No,” she says, tilting her head, and Tony realises she’s not staring at his face. “Have you been —”

“Working out a little, yeah. Skinny wasn’t a good look.”

“For you, maybe.”

Tony tucks a stray piece of hair behind Whitney’s ear. Small things like that, he’s learned, make her feel a lot better. It makes her softer, being touched in that way.

“You look…” She tilts her head and frowns. “Have you gotten taller?”

“How short was I before that this is considered an improvement?”

Whitney laughs, soft. Her hand skims his belly, under his vest.

“Firm.” She notes.

“I lied, I’ve been working out a lot.”

“It’s a very nice look on you.”

“Thank you.” 

Tony lets a smile play over his lips. He hasn’t seen Whitney in a year, but it’s still shocking how easily they fall back together.

“Maybe we could…” She cocks her head to the side, playful. “We should go upstairs.”

Tony leans closer. Whitney’s breath is ghosting over his lips, down his neck. He hasn’t seen her in so long.

“Upstairs.” He agrees.

 

 

 

After, they’re lying in bed.

Tony doesn’t use this room often. Or at least, he did over the summer, but not anymore. Usually, he sleeps on a mattress he’s dragged into his workshop.

When Tony had been sleeping here, he’d kept the curtains firmly shut. Now, though, they’re thrown open, and the setting sun is streaming through the large arched windows.

It’s nice, breathing in the smell of another person. Of feeling Whitney’s hair against his lips, tickling his chest.

“Where are you living?” He says quietly, twisting his fingers through her hair.

“On campus. I’m just gonna, you know. Get to know people, get a feel for the whole thing.”

Tony hums in understanding. He’s exhausted. He could easily sleep for a week, but it’s nice to be with Whit.

He reaches around for the bedside cabinet where he keeps his smokes. “You want one?” He says, offering the pack to Whit, cigarette in mouth.

She makes a face. “I’m good.”

Tony lights up and inhales deeply. Exhales.

Whitney traces the new found lines of muscle under his belly.

“How’s Ty?” Tony asks, rubbing his head with the back of the hand in which he holds his smoke.

Whit sighs. “Do we have to talk about Ty? Could we go, like, twenty-four hours without talking about him?”

Tony blinks. “Sure?” Whitney’s response had been more vehement than he expected.

“Sorry,” she says “that sounded bad. I mean, I’ve spent the past three years with him, remember? I want to talk about you.”

“Me.” Tony says, exhaling.

“Yes, you.” Whitney says, and she turns, hair falling to one side and sheet slipping down to her waist. She rests her arm on his chest and presses her chin on her hand. “What are you doing? How’s school? How’re your parents?”

That’s the thing about Whit. Ty wouldn’t want to know about Tony’s parents. He cares, but in a way that he thinks he knows what’s best. He, as a rule, and despite never having met him, despises Howard Stark.

He could tell Whit. He could tell Whit that somedays he can’t get out of bed.

She would probably understand.

Tony sighs. “I’m gonna do a post-grad.”

“Oh,” Whitney says, surprised, but her features stretch into a smile. “At MIT?”

“At MIT.”

“So we’ll be together?”

“Definitely.”

Whitney presses kisses over Tony’s chin while he closes his eyes and allows sleep to come.

 

 

 

Whitney stays the night and leaves the next morning. She gives Tony her knew number, kisses him, and then ends up staying a little while longer while Tony goes down on her.

After that, she actually leaves, but not before confirming that they were in fact dating now.

“This is a thing, right?” She says “You’re gonna jump off with the next pretty girl you see?”

“Your lack of faith in me is astounding.”

“I mean it, Tony. I can’t — I mean, I won’t be with someone who doesn’t. Who wouldn’t—”

“Whitney,” Tony says softly, tucking her hair behind her ear. “I swear on my life that I will not sleep, or touch, or even look at another girl while we’re together.”

Whitney had smiled.

(Another girl, Tony remembers later as Ty wraps his fingers in his hair and presses his tongue in his mouth. Another girl)

 

 

 

He and Whit spend the rest of fall together. It’s weird, having someone… close, as in, really close, but nice, too. Tony could get used to it, the idea of being someone’s favourite person.

One night, after Tony’s finished his paper and Whitney’s sucked him off, they’re lying on Tony’s couch.

“My dad called the other day.” She says, briefly.

“Oh yeah?” Tony says, putting his feet on the table.

“Yeah. I mean, my real dad.”

Tony takes his feet off of the table. “Oh.”

“It’s not ‘oh’,” Whit says, mildly irritated “you don’t need to act like it’s a big deal.”

“Well,” Tony makes a face “it kinda is, Whit. You know what he does—”

“It wasn’t about that.” She says quickly. “It was more, you know. He said congratulations on getting to Harvard.”

“Does Byron know?”

Whitney’s adopted father dotes on her and she knows it. Her mother had, too, until she had sadly passed away a few years back. Whitney had been torn up, but she’d always seemed closer to her dad.

The look on her face tells Tony he doesn’t.

“Whit,” he says softly “c’mon, Whit. Don’t do that to him.”

“Don’t talk decency with me, Tony.”

“Why not?” Tony shoots back. “Someone needs to. That’s shitty, Whit, you know where your father comes from, you know what he does. You’re not a kid anymore.”

“Exactly,” she says succinctly, pulling out from under Tony’s arm. “I can make my own decisions.”

“Well, you can’t, actually.” 

“Oh okay, so I’m only a child when it suits you —”

Tony rolls his eyes. “You’re older than me, Whit, so you can stop acting like I’m being a dick, okay? I’m not saying this ‘cause I don’t think you should talk to your father, I’m saying it because it’s a shitty thing for your dad to have to go through, since he took you out of that shithole and raised you—”

“I don’t owe him that.” Whitney says “I don’t owe my dad for raising me, or loving me. That’s what parents are supposed to do. I’m not you, Tony.”

Tony blinks. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Whitney continues. “I’m interested, okay? I’m allowed to, I want to know about my family, where I came from. There’s nothing wrong with that—”

“You know where you came from, and you know about your family, GiGi. You remember, don’t you, you’ve told me before, I know you remember bits of it—”

“Shut up!” Whitney says, pushing away. “Don’t use that against me, you can’t use that against me—”

“I’m not using anything against you,” Tony twists in the chair, speaks softly, tries to calm her down “Whit, please, I’m worried. I know what you want, and it’s okay, it’s natural, but you need to tell your dad. You know why? Honestly? Because you could get talking to your father and next thing you know you’re going to meet him and then you disappear and no one knows where you’ve gone. And don’t act like I’m being unreasonable, Whit, okay? I get parents, I get all that shit. But your dad is there to protect you, and if you disappeared with a man who, who hurt you when you were a kid, betrayed all those years of love and, and school and time or whatever, that’s fucked up. That’s real cold.” Tony takes her hand, pulls her close. 

“Especially since,” he says, pointedly “we know what we know about what your ‘father’ does.”

“I wouldn’t do that.” She says, and her voice is thin, reedy. “I just want to meet him.”

Tony rubs a hand over his face. “Please, please don’t do anything yet, okay? Please. At least, not without me.”

Whitney laughs, although she’s sombre, and her eyes are glistening. “I never do anything stupid without you.”

“This is true.” Tony smiles, and he quickly wipes a tear from Whitney’s cheek.

She needs help, Tony thinks. Maybe it’s because they had that year apart, maybe it’s because Tony’s older, maybe he knows more about the world. Maybe it’s because he’s come to recognise that broken, scared look in people’s eyes because he’s looked into his mother’s and he’s seen into Howard’s.

He knows what Whitney’s father did to her, and he’s not so forgiving. He knows, now, that it can cause problems in the future.

For a second, he looks at his girlfriend, and he’s completely overwhelmed. Her problems, her very real problems, are completely out of touch with his. He doesn’t know if she’s even aware —

He doesn’t know how to help her.

He wants to help her.

He will.

Or, he was going to. Then Christmas happened, and everything goes to hell.

 

Chapter Text

He agrees to meet Whitney at her place for New Years. Ty’ll be there as well, and he’s bringing his new girlfriend, which will be… fun.

Why shouldn’t he. Tony’s bringing his. It’ll be fine. Interesting.

He kisses Whit goodbye after she drives him to the airport. 

Tony is dreading going home.

It’s not just his parents; Jarvis isn’t talking to him either.

Which… which makes him feel really shitty, actually. He doesn’t know what he’s done wrong. Maybe he found out he was smoking? Maybe he’s giving him the silent treatment?

It could be that he’s just really busy. Howard’s ill, Maria only leaves the house for her charity galas — it must be hard work, entertaining both of them know they stay home all the time.

Whatever.

 

 

 

Except when Tony gets to the airport, he nearly has a heart attack.

He was going to take a taxi. He had told them he was going to take a taxi, that’s what he always does, he didn’t even give it any thought, he’d just rung forward and told his parents he was coming and —

Howard is waiting for him.

He should tell him the plane was delayed. Fuck, he’ll say it was delayed, and that—

Except knowing Howard he’d probably check and then Tony’d be in for it.

Not that it matters. He’s already seen him.

If possible, he’s actually gotten fatter. Tony’s surprised he even made it this far without falling over and not getting back up. He shouldn’t be out, Tony thinks, he looks like he should be in bed. Can he even go this long without drinking? Probably not. God, he’s probably drunk right now. Brilliant, Tony’s going to have to ride for an hour with a drunk.

He slings his bag over his shoulder and his dad points in recognition. Tony forces a smile.

“Dad,” he laughs nervously “what are you doing up and about?”

It’s different, out here. Tony can’t be brave out here. Too many people watching.

Howard smiles and pats him on the back, which solves the awkward ‘should we hug’ problem. The last time Tony saw him he’d thrown a bottle at his head and narrowly missed. There’s no chance of that now.

“Can’t a man pick his son up from the airport?”

No.

“Well, sure, but I thought you were sick.”

Howard waves a hand and begins to move. “Nah. I’m fine. The doctors just like to scare me, Tony. I’ve got a good while left, I reckon.”

He looks it. He’s not exactly wasting away.

Tony should say something to that. He’s getting good at this, small talk, he can talk his way through most things, but something about Howard throws him off.

He seems to have forgotten everything Tony said the last time they talked, which included Tony not-so subtly referencing his encroaching senility and, if the doctors are to be believed, Alzheimers.

Tony follows him out into the sunlight and snow. He’s parked in the drop off only zone, and Tony’s not sure if it’s pure arrogance or confusion. He doesn’t know what worries him more.

“Here,” Howard says, throwing him the keys “Merry Christmas.”

Tony blinks, holding his bag in one hand and the keys in the other. 

“Are you serious?”

“Sure. It’s your present. It’s not actually on the market for another couple of months, but still — you’re eighteen now, right? Seems old enough you get a proper car.”

Proper car, yeah. This is, this is something else, a Ferrari, top of the range. Tony’s been reading about it for months, it’s like a wet fucking dream. Cars are his guilty pleasure, always have been, it’s easy engineering for him but always so much fun and is this his or is it some kind of fucked up practical joke?

“Are you —”

Howard rolls his eyes. “Yes, I’m sure, I’m not joking, I’m not lying, get in the car. Your faith in me is appalling — wait, you drive.”

Tony slides into the drivers seat, hand clenching against the leather of the wheel. It has that new car smell, everything about it is perfect.

Which scares him. The last thing Howard gave him was a flask for alcohol.

Why is he getting this now?

Is it… Christ, this isn’t because he’s dying, is it? This isn’t some last ditch attempt to have a relationship with him, right? Tony doesn’t know if he can deal with that.

Howard chuckles. “Wait till you see how fast it moves.”

“What’s the MPH?” Tony says, dazed.

“Why don’t you find out?”

The car comes to life under his hands. Tony feels the firm vibrations running under his skin and tingling his bones.

“It generally works better if you put your foot on the pedal.” Howard says dryly, checking the rearview mirror.

“If I crash it isn’t my fault.”

“I’ll bear that in mind.”

This is surreal. This is completely surreal, and for a moment Tony is angry that his dad had to do this now. He’d just managed to reconcile himself to the idea that Howard wants nothing to do with him, and now he does this shit. When Tony was a kid, he would have killed for his dad to to something like this. He used to daydream about it. Now, it leaves him feeling bitter.

Which isn’t to say there isn’t a fair bit of hero worship thrown in, too.

For a moment, Tony thinks his father’s fallen asleep, because he’s tilted back his head and shut his eyes. But they open again, soon enough.

“How’s school?” He asks, and Tony thinks of the best thing to say.

“Good, I guess. Not, you know. Difficult.”

Howard grins. “Figures. You’re pretty smart.”

Tony nearly looses control of the wheel. “Right.”

Howard frowns. “What? Don’t you like the car?”

Tony clears his throat. “Love the car. Great car. What’s the occasion?” He asks, innocently.

“Christmas.” Howard says shortly. “Drive.”

 

 

 

Apparently his dad has reached his maximum point of small talk because he then actually does fall asleep, leaving Tony to think.

He got him a car. His dad, his own father, Howard Stark, had bought him a present, and an expensive, thoughtful present.

Why.

Maybe his parents are splitting up? More likely he’s trying to soften him up for something.

Post-grad studies. He doesn’t want Tony taking post-grad studies, that must be it. He probably wants him taking some off the books job at SI, getting a feel for the place. Howard built the business with his bare hands, he didn’t stay for rich boy extra studies or a doctorate. And he wants Tony to do the same.

He seethes, inwardly, because a small part of him feels like he owes it. Because of this amazing, beautiful, cherry-red car.

Next to him, his father snorts in his sleep.

He’ll talk to Jarvis about it. He’ll know what to do, at least. He knows he’s busy, and he knows he said he would try and keep in touch and hasn’t, but still, he’s always been there when Tony needed him.

 

 

 

The house is empty. No one’s bothered to even put up a tree.

Three days, he tells himself. Three days, and on the 26th, he’s out of here, down to Whit’s in his new sports car, with Ty, and they’ll be able to relax, drink, bring 1989 in with style.

Howard’s made it clear that he’s going for a siesta and that he’s not to be disturbed, which is funny, because what does Tony have to say to his father anyway. He’s grateful, at least this way there’s not more awkward bonding.

He dumps his bag in the guest room and showers, changes. Then, he heads down to the kitchen to grab a bite. Or maybe get Jarvis to make him something, because he’s been living on his own for four years and he still hasn’t learnt how to cook.

He’s not angry at J for not responding to his letters. He knows he’s busy and Tony’s not a kid anymore. But it doesn’t mean he doesn’t miss him. Despite years spent away from home at school and at college, nothing has ever been able to beat the taste of Jarvis’ home cooking.

“J?” He calls, pushing open the heavy doors to the kitchen. “You down here?”

There’s a man slicing carrots, but it’s not Jarvis.

“Uh,” Tony says, blinking.

The man looks up. “Ah,” he says “you must be Tony.” He wipes his hands on his apron and offers one to shake. “You can call me John.” He’s got salt and pepper hair and everything else about him is completely forgettable.

“Are you here to cook dinner or something?” Maybe Maria got a new chef in for Christmas.

The man looks at him confusedly. “Yes? I cook, I clean, I sort things out. It was all in the job description.”

Tony stares. “What job description?”

“For the opening at Stark mansion. Butler, general busy-man for Howard Stark. It’s worth the pay, let me tell you —”

“What happened to Jarvis?” Tony blurts, ice creeping into his chest.

“Who?” The man asks, cocking his head.

“The, the butler. The old one, tall, blonde, where is he?”

The man shakes his head. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Tony’s feels the floor drop out from under him, because now it all makes sense. The lack of letters, the car, his dad, everything, oh God, oh God, please no —

“Hey, are you okay? Do you want something to drink? Here, sit—”

Tony turns and slams out the door. No, he needs to calm down, he needs to ignore the mounting panic, it could be fine, it could be, this guy’s new so he might not know Jarvis, so Tony races up the stairs, takes the well-worn pattern to Jarvis’ room because he could do it blindfolded and he opens the door —

and the whole room is empty, covered in white sheets.

Not a single trace of him remains.

Not fair. Not fair, this isn’t fair, why would Jarvis leave, where would he go, oh God please maybe he’s retired or something, this doesn’t have to be bad, oh God, everything has gone, everything, Tony rushes to the bookshelf where he knows, he knows, Jarvis kept his books, where he kept the stories he would read to Tony, and they’re all gone too.

He can’t even smell him, that smell, the one that used to hold him when he cried, when he scraped his knee, when he had a nightmare. Tony spent days in this room, drawing, reading, he built his first circuit board here with Jarvis kissing his fingers when he cut them on sharp bits of metal and drying his tears when his dad didn’t come down to see.

He remembers padding along at night, terrified, after he’d wet the bed and not knowing what to do, because if his dad saw him he’d hit him, and his mom would scrunch her nose and tell him to go away, but Jarvis would always hold him and ask what was wrong and he never told on him, ever, and no one else, not one other person in this house ever cared, they wouldn’t have noticed if he’d died, but Jarvis was there to buy him clothes and make him food and give him baths and everything that a parent should do but his never did.

Tony wants to cry, he can feel tears stinging his eyes and he sucks in a deep breath, rubs at face until his eyes feel like they’re being pressed into his skull. Not fair, not fair, not fair, Jarvis is gone and he didn’t tell him where and his parents, if they can be called that, if they were ever worthy of that name, didn’t bother to tell him, either it slipped their mind or didn’t seem important, and why would it, why would it seem important to them that the only man who ever loved Tony, who ever cared for him and told him he was worth it, the only person who ever bothered to show him how loved he was, has gone why would that be important to them!

Tony kicks out, foot crashing into a dresser, and he smashes his fists into the top until he can keep himself from screaming. Bastards, fucking pathetic little bastards, his parents didn’t bother telling him, they didn’t think he was important, Jarvis or Tony, and it didn’t occur to them that Tony might have loved him, they didn’t think that Tony might have loved Jarvis like a father because he’s never had a real one, and the hatred Tony feels is real and evil and if he were handed, and he swears to God, if were handed a gun right now with two bullets he would pump both of them into his parent’s skulls, no remorse.

The rage that Tony feels…

He doesn’t feel his feet moving and he only partially knows where he’s going. His dad doesn’t want to be disturbed? No of course he fucking doesn’t, of course not, because he got rid of Tony’s best friend and he fucking knows it, the spineless, arrogant, pathetic little man doesn’t want to face his only son because he’s scared he’s made him angry, well he’ll fucking show him, he’ll fucking show him angry—

“Tony?” Maria says, head curling round the door. “Tony, you’re home —”

“Get out the way.” He growls, and he pushes her into the wall, knocks his own mother to the side because she’s in on this too, she’s complicit, she wouldn’t have been the one to give the order, and she probably would have been able to send Tony a nicely worded message about how Jarvis had to go away, but she didn’t. He could forgive her, maybe, because Howard can be scary, but right now he doesn’t want to hear it.

“Tony,” she says, scampering to follow him “Tony, don’t disturb your father, he’s not well —”

“Don’t touch me.” He orders, wrenching his arm free where she tries to tug him back. “None of you fucking touch me —

“Is this about Jarvis? Is this about him? Tony, Tony, sweetie, honey, bambino, come on, sit down and we’ll talk, I’ll tell you what happened, just be reasonable —”

He spins.

REASONABLE?” He screams “You want me to be reasonable!”

She stands there, blinking, where Tony’s spittle has caught in tendrils of hair and her hand is raised, so still, where she had meant to stroke his head.

“Too fucking late.” Tony cuts out, back turned and moving down the corridor. 

He doesn’t knock on his Howard’s door, he just slices it open.

“Where is he?” He growls, descending on the man in his chair “Where the fuck is, what did you do, did you send him away? Is he dead? Did you not think to fucking tell me you animal—”

“What is this?” Howard stands “Maria, what is this, the boy’s lost his mind.”

Tony gives a screech of rage and lunges at his father, desperate to knock the answer out of him. “WHERE IS HE? WHERE IS HE YOU BASTARD, WHERE DID HE GO—

Maria is tugging on his waist, pulling him back even as Tony’s arms pinwheel in an attempt to hit Howard down.

“Tony,” she tries to soothe “baby, it’s me, it’s mommy, please calm down—”

“I said get off me!” He pushes her back, disentangles their limbs, and she falls onto a chair, leg catching and collapsing on the couch.

“Tony,” Howard says, and he’s holding up his hands in front of him, trying to calm a rabid animal, but he’s slurring, one eye twitching with stupor “hey, c’mon boy, calm down, calm down. We can talk, let’s talk, it’ll be,” he burps “it’s fine.”

Tony sees a wash of red in front of his vision. It’s a rage so hot and so palpable he thinks he’s losing his mind.

“You stupid fucking drunk old man,” he spits “where is he, where is Jarvis, you little bitch you didn’t tell me, why didn’t you call me, is he dead? Is he gone? Where the fuck is he you bastard —”

“Don’t,” Howard frowns, listing to the side “don’t talk t’me like that, y’little shit. H’ve some, have some respect, I’m your father—”

“No, you’re not,” Tony says, voice high pitched, head shaking from side to side “I don’t know what you are, I don’t know what you think you are, but I think you’re a monster, you’re the opposite of what a father is, you sent him away, didn’t you? You sent Jarvis away, why, he what did he do to you? Is he dead? Is J dead, please,” a small sob crackles from his lips “oh please tell me he’s not dead.”

Howard blinks. “S’not dead.”

Tony pants. He slouches, collapsing, hands digging into his eyes. “Oh thank God,” he breathes “oh thank God.”

“Tony,” his mother says “sit here, come on now, we can talk about this like mature adults.”

Tony sits and lets his mother run fingers through his hair like Jarvis used to do.

“Did you think,” he says, dragging his face up “that I wouldn’t notice? That I wouldn’t care? That I would be so distracted with my shiny new —”

“It wasn’t my fault.” Howard says, and that’s what tips Tony over, because is anything ever Howard’s fault? Ever? My son hates me, he’s ungrateful, my wife despises me, she’s insane, I’m an alcoholic, life is just too difficult, I never got help, I’m too well known, the company is in ruins, I’m not a good businessman, on and on and on will this pathetic excuse for a man ever stand up for something he’s done?

“He was your friend,” Tony says quietly “he was your best friend. More than that, and you know it. And you’ve kicked him out.” 

He stands.

“Why?” He asks “Why would you do that? What did you do that? Did he says something to you? Did he tell you the truth? Something you didn’t want to hear?”

Tony gets closer as Howard stares at him, empty eyed and cold.

“He was like a father to me,” Tony says, finger pointing to his chest, voice shaking “he was like— he was everything that you are not, understand? And I loved him. More than you —” he says, pointing, vehement, and then back at his mother “ — and more than her. And you didn’t have the decency to even call. To even tell me. To let me say goodbye—”

Tony’s voice breaks but he refuses to cry in front of these strangers.

“He didn’t leave a number or address.”

“No,” Tony straightens “I’ll bet he didn’t.”

“You’re acting like a child.”

“Well, it’s about time really, isn’t it?” Tony squeezes his eyes shuts tight, flexes, and opens them again. “He was your best friend. He was, possibly, your only friend. You sit here talking shit about Obie and the you make fun of everyone else even though you are exactly the same as them if not worse and you had one true friend in the world, one person, just one, who you could trust because obviously, your family wasn’t enough for you.” 

Tony wipes his hand over his mouth, and continues. “One fucking person, and he loved you, he fucking loved you like a brother, more than that and you know it, and you’ve kicked him out and you didn’t let me say goodbye!”

“You don’t know anything,” Howard says, eye narrowing, bloodshot, spittle flying “you don’t know shit, you’re just a kid, you couldn’t begin to understand — ”

“No!” Tony laughs “No, I couldn’t, could I? I can make weapons, and I can leave home at fifteen, I can smoke I can drive I can drink and I can fuck but God forbid my father explains to me something that matters, God forbid he talks to me at all you sociopathic asshole — ”

Do not talk to me like that, boy!” And they’re both squaring off, it’s been a long time coming but it’s finally here “Do not talk to me like that, you have no idea, you have no fucking clue what life’s like, Tony, what I have to do and why I do it, and you don’t know why I sent him away — ”

“Boo fucking hoo! Go cry to someone else, I can’t believe you, you think the rest of us don’t have problems, you think their aren’t millions of people across the world who hate themselves just as much as you do? Newsflash, dad, they get help, they don’t ignore their families and they don’t — ”

“NO IDEA! YOU HAVE NO IDEA! You stupid little shit, what would you know — ”

“I know you’re a fucking coward and I know you’re pathetic, that’s what I kn—”

The bottle smashes into the side of his head, even though he never sees it coming.

Distantly, he hears his mother scream, and he feels his father’s hands on his shirt, shaking him, as glass crackles out of his hair and onto the floor.

“Howard stop!” His mother cries but Tony barely hears it because he’s been hit in the head with a decanter and it’s broken, the momentum and the, force, force is meaning he has a head injury.

His father pulls free and he stands, or he thinks he does. When he takes a step back, the whole world spins, and it’s bigger than he thought because he stumbles.

He frowns, and it tugs at his skin, causing pain to flare up across the left side of his face. He raises a hand and gingerly touches it to his head.

It comes away bloody, with bits of glass scraping at his fingers.

He blinks.

There’s a big fuzzy shadow where his left eye should be and he sees the blurry shape of his dad hovering over him. He’s leaning, slightly, hands fluttering by his face as if he wants to touch but can’t.

His mom is screaming, distantly, beating at his dad with her fists.

Jarvis will —

Jarvis is gone.

When did Tony end up on the floor? He tries moving back but his angle’s all off and he bumps back into a couch. He moans.

He can’t hear from his ear. He tries running his fingers past it but there’s not a single sound. It’s scary. His eye is — is it swollen already? Must be, because everything from that eye is just a blur.

Tony places his palms on the ground and pushes up, lurching to his feet.

Suddenly, in a rush, reality comes back to him.

Everything is loud and sharp, even though he’s half deaf and half blind and there’s glass stuck in his face and his head — the place where the edge of the crystal decanter struck him — is bleeding steadily, a deep cut on the side of his head.

“Tony,” his dad is saying “sit down, sit down.

Tony grunts, slapping away the hands that come for him, or trying to. He doesn’t actually feel any skin against his so he might have missed his mark.

He’s got to go. He’s got to go. He can’t stay in the house with —

He’s in the corridor, and he’s slumped but no one’s following him. What happened, why —

He stumbles, getting his bearings, and it’s not so bad now that the initial shock has passed. Just, get to the car. Get to the car and get to Whit and Ty. They’ll understand and they might help with the pain in his head.

He has trouble with the steps down to the driveway. One at a time, one at a time, step, wait, step, wait.

His feet crunch over gravel.

He’s sitting in the car.

He’s sitting in the car.

He’s sitting in the car.

He opens his eyes and it’s dark out.

Things are clearer; the world isn’t spinning as much. Foot on the pedal, careful, careful, c’mon Tony, you could do this in your sleep.

He’s freezing and there are tears rolling down his cheeks.

Or at least, his cheek, because his other eye is swollen shut.

He checks himself in the mirror briefly and tries not to panic. He can see where the bottle broke over his head, slicing into the side of his scalp. But it had also impacted with the side of his face, because the whole thing is engorged, completely swollen, and he can’t hear anything from his ear.

There’s blood. It’s not worth thinking about, because it looks like something from a slasher flick. All down his face, his neck, staining his shirt and it’s still bleeding. He read somewhere that head wounds look worse than they are, but still.

He doesn’t remember the rest of the drive, but he realises later that it’s a miracle he got there in one piece.

 

 

 

“Coming, coming.” Someone is murmuring behind the solid oak door. Tony shivers, and wraps his arms tighter around his body. The world is starting to list to the side, and everything is fuzzy.

The door opens, and the sudden bright light makes him take a step back, squinting.

“What the fuck.” Says the distinctly male voice. “Who the fuck, what are you doing? Whit, there’s some —“

“Ty,” Tony croaks, and he presses forward, holding out his hands for support, or leverage, or just to touch someone who doesn’t hate him.

Ty blinks. “Tony? Oh my — WHIT! WHIT! Call 911! Holy shit, get in, what the fuck happened — ”

“No ambulance.” Tony shivers, because he has the presence of mind to know what that would mean. “No ambulance, no hospital.”

“What?” Ty’s face presses close to his “Tony, what are you saying?”

Briefly, he sees Whitney’s form at the top of the stairs, and then a scream.

“I can’t work out what he’s trying to say — Tony, calm down, look at me.”

Tony hasn’t seen Ty in a year and a bit. It’s nice to see his eyes again.

He grits his teeth, “No. Hospital.”

Realisation dawns. “This was your dad, wasn’t it?”

Tony sinks down against Ty’s chest, and there’s blood everywhere. The hands let him slip and he rolls to the floor, blinking up at the lights.

“Shit,” Ty hisses “Whitney, bandages, get, fuck it, get a first aid kit, bring it in here — Tony, Anty, c’mon, c’mon hold here, you’re heavy now, I can’t carry you all the way — ”

Tony lurches, moaning. His head lolls against Ty’s neck. Real, warm, solid.

“He’s got blood all over the carpet, that’ll be fun to explain.” Whitney says, but there’s concern there.

Ty presses him onto the couch. “It’s okay, Anty, you just sit there. Whit, we need a bowl, hot water, cloths, more than one. A tray for the glass, anti-septic, bandages — ” Tony feels fingers prying at the side of his head and hears a wince “ — fuck it, get me a razor too.”

Tony drifts in and out. He feels where his hair, crusted with blood and slick and sticky with it, and then he feels it being shaved from his head. He makes a small noise of protest.

“It’s fine, it’s cool. It looks alternative, you know?” Ty tries to comfort him.

Tony lets his eyes crack open. “What time —”

“About two in the morning.” Whit whispers, stroking his hand. “It’s okay, just don’t sleep.”

“Merry Christmas.” He murmurs.

“Merry Christmas, Tony.” Whitney smiles, stroking the side of his hair that isn’t bloody.

“Let’s have a good one.” Ty punctuates with an anti-septic wipe that causes Tony to tighten his hand of Whitney’s to keep in a scream.

 

Chapter Text

The rest of that Christmas is a blur.

He spent Christmas day in bed, sleeping, while Ty dutifully wakes him up every forty-five minutes to check he still remembers his name.

Sometimes, Whitney is beside him. Other times, he’s on his own. One time, he wakes up and notices it’s snowing.

“How’s the head?” Ty asks, sloping into the room and climbing onto the bed.

Tony blinks.

“Thought so. Uh, we doped you up a bit. You weren’t making sense, so.”

“Where’s your girlfriend?”

Ty frowns. “What? Oh, Roxanne? Yeah, no, I dumped her. Too clingy. So it’s good.”

Tony falls back asleep, and when he wakes up he’s lying on Ty’s chest.

After Christmas, they call a doctor to make sure everything’s working right. He applauds them on their efforts, and doesn’t ask how it happens. They tell him it was a bar fight anyway.

The doctor leaves more painkiller, real painkillers, not the drugs they were planning to get high on for New Years. He tells them to keep up the good work and feed him light food since the nausea’s gonna get to him.

Tony explains that he can’t hear in one ear and the doctor examines him.

“It’s the shock of the blow,” he shrugs “it should come back, give it a week or two. If it doesn’t…” he tsks “well then I’m afraid there’s not much we can do.”

Tony can’t believe there’s a chance he’s gonna be deaf in one ear because Howard hit him too hard over the head with a bottle. 

Whit and Ty are tactful, at least, as tactful as people like them can be, but Tony can see that Ty is seething inwardly. It’s touching that he cares so much on Tony’s behalf.

“What happened.” He asks, a few days before New Year. “Why did he bottle you? Did you fight? Was it—”

Tony doesn’t want to say. He doesn’t want to talk about it.

Thinking about Jarvis brings this tidal wave of pain and, and hurt, because he’s gone, J’s just gone, and Tony doesn’t know how to bring him back.

But Ty listens anyway. “That’s disgusting,” he says finally. “How could they do that to you?”

“They got me a car.”

“That thing? Tony, that thing’s shot to hell. You must have crashed it, like, a million times on the way here. It’s a miracle you didn’t kill anyone.”

Tony hangs his head. “Christ.”

“Yeah,” Ty says, inching closer “you’re lucky Whit and I were home. We were going to go out.”

Tony dreads to think what would have happened if they did.

“You’re so good to me.” He murmurs. “Fuck, I’m sorry. I just turn up on your door and you don’t even ask questions and you pay for a doctor and wipe my fucking ass. I’m sorry.”

“Apology accepted.” Ty says.

(He doesn’t say ‘you don’t need to apologise’, but Tony’s too grateful to be picky) 

“Besides, who else is gonna help your ugly face?”

“Funny.”

“I mean it, have you looked in a mirror? Your face is blue and purple and I had to shave half of your head. Uh, I shaved the other side, too, to make it symmetrical. I swear when it grows back in it’ll look awesome, cropped at the sides and then all,” he makes gestures with his hands “pouffy in the middle. Very hip.”

“You fucking dickhead.” 

Ty always knows what to say to make him feel better.

He laughs. “Tony, I have to ask.”

Tony frowns. “Ask what?”

“Have you been working out?”

Tony frowns. And then he smiles.

“A little, yeah.”

Ty shifts on his perch on the side of the bed, the one hand resting on his knee sliding up, slightly.

Squeezing his thigh.

“It’s a nice look.”

“Yeah,” Tony says. “That’s what Whit said.”

Ty goes cold. Even Tony notices it. “I bet she did.” He says, and stands to leave.

“Wait, Ty,” Tony struggles to push up onto his elbows “hey, where are you — ”

“Out. I’ll send in Whit.”

“Wait, what — ”

“Nothing, Tony. Got to sleep.”

He exits, leaving Tony feeling bereft. He doesn’t know what just happened.

But he can guess. Even he’s not as socially stunted not to realise what’s going on.

Tony is up and about by New Year’s eve. When he examines himself in a mirror, he nearly has a heart attack because if he thought he had looked bad before he doesn’t know what this is supposed to be. Half his face is a mottled blue and purple and black. His eye is still swollen, and there’s still a raised  bump on is head where the bottle struck. And then the cut, which when he peels back bandages he realises is massive, and is definitely going to leave a scar, and Tony feels very, very ugly because on top of that he’s rocking this mohawk look which means he’s not leaving the house without a hat anytime soon.

Tony doesn’t know how to feel about it. That Howard finally kicked in his head like he’s been threatening to since he was a kid.

Strangely euphoric.

Dumb bastard, now Tony has something over him. The wound on Tony’s head isn’t just a scratch and he looks like something from a second-rate halloween film.

Now that the concussions worn off, and then anger has — well, it hasn’t faded, but now that he’s more rational — Tony realises that if he wants to find Jarvis, then Howard’s going to need to tell him what happened. But he has no intention of going back home. 

He isn’t going to step foot in that house ever again.

Except to pick up his stuff. But then he’s never going back.

 

 

 

The gang spend New Years Eve eating ice cream on the balcony of Whit’s bedroom.

Tony’s head hurts, with the bright lights, and it’s freezing, but he doesn’t complain. After the disaster that was Christmas, he doesn’t want to ruin their holiday anymore.

He remembers when he was five, and how Howard and Maria had forgotten to get him presents or just hadn’t bothered. He remembers waking up on Christmas morning so fucking excited and then going to the tree and finding nothing there.

He remembers that Jarvis told him not to cry. He remembers now that Jarvis had been angry, but not at him, and he had taken Tony back up to his room. Tony had realised that he was pissed at his parents, he hadn’t thought much at all except that this was the worst day ever because he didn’t get anything.

A few days later, Jarvis had taken Tony to the toy store and let him pick whatever he liked. The thought now that Jarvis had cared enough to take Tony shopping because his parents didn’t get him anything, the thought that it made Jarvis angry enough to still care days later, makes Tony want to cry.

They get drunk, and then Ty brings out some weed, which Tony’s never smoked before but how much worse than cigarettes can it really be, so he takes some in and relaxes into his chair.

The wind whips round them, tossing Whits hair into his face and ruffling Ty’s golden locks. He’s let it grow out a bit, it looks good longer. It’s nice, the way it curls round his cheekbone, it accentuates his eyes.

Ty’s face is red with the cold. He can blush in a way that Tony and Whit, with their darker skin, can’t quite manage. Not that he does, really. Tony has never seen Ty flustered. But when he’s cold, his skin tinges beautifully.

His lips are pink. Perfectly pink and perfectly shaped. It’s the most feminine thing about him, really. What do they call those lips? A cupid’s bow. Thick, pouting lips on a long face. Ty is so lithe. His muscles aren’t like Tony’s, where they bulge out, they’re so much more subtle. Lanky isn’t a word Tony would use, but he’s tall, taller than Tony, and Tony likes that, he likes it more than he’s willing to admit because he’s small and Whit is even smaller —

Tony hasn’t seen Ty in so long. He’s missed him more than he realised.

Briefly, their eyes meet. There’s something unspoken there. And that’s when Tony remembers Whit’s hand on his arm.

He turns to look at her, and she smiles. Tony kisses her forehead, but he feels Ty’s eyes on him the whole time.

Tony imagines being in bed with Ty. He imagines Ty’s cock in his mouth. He imagines being fucked into.

It feels wrong, it feels so alien and not right, but that doesn’t mean he can’t feel the hot spike of arousal in his belly.

He kisses Whit at midnight and tastes Tiberius Stone’s lips.

 

 

 

Tony and Whit go back to Boston together since Tony’s car isn’t going anywhere for a while. He kinda wants to do it back up, fix it, because he loves doing that, but the thought of it coming from his parents, of his dad buying it, makes him want to throw it in a river.

“I’ll see you,” Ty says, clapping his hand and pulling him in for a hug. “Don’t kill yourself.”

“I would never.” Tony yawns and Ty grins. He’s at Stanford and will be travelling back to Cali this evening. Tony would love to drop him off at the airport, but unfortunately his ride is anxious to leave.

Ty skims his fingers over the bandage still tight on Tony’s head, presses lightly where he knows the wound sits underneath. Tony freezes.

“Wear a hat.” He breathes, and Tony leans into the touch.

Then they’re gone, he and Whit climb into the car and drive away, back to Stark mansion to collect the things Tony dumped and then left.

 

 

 

He rings the doorbell, once, twice, three times, again and again until his mother opens the door.

“Tony,” she says, levelly, and there’s no hint of stupor in her gaze, there’s no empty grins or broken eyes. She looks almost like the Maria he remembers.

“Mom.”

“You’re here for your things?”

“Obviously.”

Maria’s hands flutter up as if to smooth down the cut on Tony’s head. Her eyes slide behind him, to where Whitney waits in the car.

“Who’s that?”

“Girlfriend.”

“You have a girlfriend?”

“I’m nineteen in four months. It seemed about time.” He pauses. “You’ve met before, actually. She came here when I was a kid.” You promised to take us out for ice cream and then went back to sleep.

“Oh,” Maria says frowning “I don’t remember.”

“I’ll bet you don’t.”

Tony moves to walk past her but she doesn’t shift. “Can I meet her?”

“No.”

His mother lets him pass.

When he comes back down, his mother is still by the door, watching him intently.

“Can I help you?”

“Your head looks awful.”

“Then your husband probably shouldn’t have hit me, should he?”

“He didn’t mean it.”

“Doesn’t feel that way.” Tony steps back out into the sun, bag slung over his shoulder.

“Where’s your car?” Maria asks, following him out. 

“I crashed it. Multiple times. Turns out driving half blind and deaf with a concussion isn’t a great idea.”

His mother blanches. “Half deaf?”

“The bottle busted my ear.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Great.” 

Tony makes to leave. “Here,” his mother blurts, handing him a letter. “It’s from your father.”

“Cool.” Tony says, and he doesn’t say bye.

Back in the car, Whitney is quiet.

“Is that your mom? She murmurs.

“Yeah.”

A pause. “You have her eyes.”

“Let’s go, Whit.”

They drive in silence.

 

 

 

Tony,

I’m sorry for hitting your with the bottle. It was harsh and i was drunk.

Ed Jarvis isn’t dead. I had to send him away. I would tell you why but he expressly forbid me from telling you.

He told me to say that it’s best if you don’t get in touch. He says it will be painful for both of you.

You were right when you said that i need to tell you things. You are nearly 19. There is a lot i need to explain to you tony. I hope discussing these things will allow you to see me in a different light.

I hope to make an arrangement to speak with you at a later date. Hopefully we will both be in better minds.

Your mother and I have discussed the possibility of you staying for post-grad studies. We are both emphatically supportive of this idea.

I hope your face feels better.

Howard.

 

 

 

The letter makes a few things abundantly clear:

1)  Jarvis does not want to see Tony. Jarvis does not want to talk to Tony. Jarvis has scratched Tony out of his life like he never existed. Tony never meant anything to Jarvis.

2)  Tony is obviously a shit judge of character. He doesn’t know how to explain how embarrassed he is, because he thought Jarvis cared, he thought he had loved him like a son, and obviously he was wrong. And he had screamed at his parents even though his father knew all along that Jarvis did not want to talk to Tony.

3)  Howard Stark is an asshole.

It hurts more than Tony can put into words. The roiling pain in his chest is awful, he feels less than scum, and he doesn’t know how to pull it out, he doesn’t know how to douse the flames, because has anyone ever loved him? Has anyone ever actually cared about him? What is wrong with him, what has he done so badly, to deserve this?

He drinks to stop the burning and it works.

 

 

 

It’s not gradual.

For Tony, there is no slow descent in disintegration. It’s a quick drop off a cliff.

One day, he can’t get out of bed, and decides that a shot is what he needs to kick-start the day.

And after that, it’s awful hard to stop.

 

Chapter Text

No one comes to Tony’s graduation and when he crosses the stage there’s only a round of polite applause.

He tells himself he doesn’t care. Whit had school and Ty’s in Cali and it’s not like his parents were going to come.

(There’s something pathetic about no one coming to see you graduate)

Except when it’s over and Tony’s leaving the hall there’s a clap on his shoulder.

“Hey,” says Rhodey “where’d you think you’re going?”

He’s dressed in a graduation gown and cap and when Tony looks over his shoulder he can’t see any family.

“Why—”

“Mom’s step-dad died. You know, I don’t care, but, family’s family. They’ve all flown out to Michigan.”

“Yeesh. Sorry.”

“No worries,” he says, and slings his arm round Tony “means we have time to catch up, right? Where the fuck have you been? I was looking — ”

“It’s been… fucked up.” Tony admits. “Really fucked up. But hey, are you going to Ryan’s tonight? We can — ”

“Actually, you’re coming with me.”

Tony blinks. “I am?”

“Yeah. We’re going to dinner, sorry, no crazy parties for you.”

“Rhodey—”

“Did you know the drinking age is in fact 21?”

Tony seethes. “I was aware, yes.”

“Good. Then we’re going to dinner, and then we’ll go do something else, I don’t know. Probably best not to go to Ryan’s.”

“I was gonna meet up with my girlfriend, actually.”

Rhodey blinks, steering them through the crowds. “You have a girlfriend?

“Yes?”

“Bullshit, what’s her name.”

“Whitney.”

“How old is she?”

“19.”

“Hair colour?”

“Black.”

“Eyes?”

“Blue.”

Rhodey squints. “Dress size?”

“Something small. Two, maybe.”

“And you’re sure she’s real.”

“Funny, but yes. We used to go to school together, and now she’s at Harvard.”

“Fuck, she’s smart too? Tony, man, why don’t you tell me this shit?”

Tony sighs and they climb his piece of shit car, no longer such a piece of shit since he had it done up. “I’m sorry. Seriously, I was busy. It’s been…”

“So I’ve heard.”

“You’ve heard?”

Rhodey slams the door. “Yeah. People’ve been talking, Tones. You got drunk at Chrissy Martin’s and tried to jump out the window.”

Tony grips the wheel. “Exaggeration. I was going to be fine, based on the, uh, trajectory of the moonand the sun —”

“Based on the trajectory of my ass I know you’re making shit up, you were drunk, Tony, and you were nearly dead.”

“And yet here I am.”

“What about Rick’s? I heard —”

“You heard wrong.”

“I heard,” Rhodey continues regardless “that you got up onto the springboard and tried to dive into the pool with no water while high on coke. Or maybe my sources were faulty.”

It’s true, actually. Tony had snorted a line and, contrary to popular belief, he wasn’t suicidal, it had just seemed like a good idea to take a dip and it wasn’t his fault if the pool was empty.

“You’re lucky your aim was off, what did you do, break a rib?”

“Cracked a couple. It’s fine.”

“Could’ve died though.” Rhodey points out.

“Did you come here to piss me off?” Tony snaps “Because I can drop you off if you like, if that’s what you’re here for.”

“I’m just wondering if anyone else is gonna stop you from jumping off a diving board if I don’t.”

Tony looks out the window and doesn’t say anything.

“I’m not trying to be a dick.” Rhodey says, softly. “I like you, Tony. I don’t want you dead by twenty-one.”

 

 

 

They go to an Italian place in the centre of town. It’s actually okay being with Rhodey because there’s no awkward conversation and Tony can appreciate that he’s given up his graduation day to spend it with Tony, which is, you know, really weird but still cool.

“He hit you with a bottle.” Rhodey states, shortly.

Tony sighs, rubbing at the scar. It’s healed over, but it won’t ever fade. You can still see it peeking out from under his hairline.

Tony’s hearing is back, but he’s not sure if he’s imagining the fact that his left side seems to be a little duller. It’s probably psychosomatic.

“Yeah, I know. It hurt like a bitch, but, you know. I’m here.”

“That’s — and then he let you go. He let you drive like that.”

“Howard isn’t good at putting other people’s needs in front of his.”

Rhodey shakes his head, and looks honest to God shocked. “I can’t believe people like that actually exist.”

“What do you mean?”

“People like your parents. Is it a rich person thing to hate your kids?” Rhodey freezes. “I mean, is it a rich person thing to dump them off on other people? I mean — fuck, that was harsh. I’m sorry.”

Tony waves a hand. “Yeah,” he mumbles “no problem.”

“What time are you meeting your girl?” Rhodey side-tracks.

Tony checks his watch. “An hour, maybe? At my place. You can come if you like.”

“What and de-rail your fun? Nah, I’ll get going. But call me, okay? I want to actually see you this summer.”

Tony smiles and waves him off after they split the bill. When he gets home, Whitney’s already on his bed, and she’s only wearing a sheet.

 

 

 

Whitney is going on holiday with her father that summer so Tony is left to his own devices. Ty calls, and pesters him to come to Cali, but Tony doesn’t want to. Or he does, he really, really does, but he doesn’t want to know what would happen. He doesn’t want to think about Ty in the pool, Ty getting out of the shower, Ty stretched out on crisp white sheets, sunshine streaming down on him, tanning his skin and the curve of his ass —

“You’ll be fine, right?” Whitney says, applying lipstick. 

“I don’t know what I’ll do without you.” Tony drawls.

Whit laughs. “It’s not too late to buy a ticket, you know.”

“Whitney,” Tony says “I am fine. I’m just gonna relax a bit. Work out some more. Maybe talk things through with Howard. Just, enjoy yourself.”

“I might come back with a new boyfriend,” she pouts “doesn’t that bother you?”

No.

Tony blinks. “Don’t even joke about it.” And it’s the right thing to say, because Whitney kisses him on the cheek, leaving a red-stained print. 

Tony doesn’t wash it off for a while because it makes him feel like he cares.

 

 

 

Tony drinks in the morning to get him out of bed and then he drinks at lunch to keep him happy and then he drinks at night to help him sleep.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

(He doesn’t realises there’s a problem. Nothing in his mind is blaring alarm signals. It won’t be a while till he matches up what he’s doing with his father’s shaking hands and his mother’s empty glare)

Addiction hits Tony like a freight train, knocking him off his feet. After that, it’s drink that’s carried with him at all times, kept in his pocket. He dreads leaving the house without the security blanket of alcohol in his hand.

Partly, it’s because the world has become uninhabitable. His parents don’t love him and he doesn’t love his girlfriend and life is just one step after another and he’s doing these amazing things, everyone is telling him he’s doing amazing things, but none of that matters to him. It’s like a dance he’s learnt off by heart.

He doesn’t love his mother. What kind of human being doesn’t love their mother?

Tony finds it a lot easier to talk to people when he’s drunk. If you’re drunk, no one judges what you say. Or at least, they don’t blame you if you say the wrong thing, because obviously it’s the drink talking. People prefer him drunk.

Tony’s been doing coke regularly at parties since he got home from New York after Christmas. He doesn’t buy it for personal use until that summer, but once he starts, it’s harder to stop than even the drinking.

Not that Tony cares. That’s a problem for another day. He’ll stop after summer. He’ll just do this for the summer for fun and then after he’ll stop. It’s fine.

 

 

 

 

That autumn, Tony is in the workshop when there’s a crash at his door.

He was working on his car and he looks like a pig, sweaty, oil-stained, his thick hair held back by his goggles and welder in hand.

He’s prepared to burn the intruders eyes out, and he would’ve, if Ty hadn’t flung open his arms, bag sliding off his shoulder.

“Anty!” He cries, jubilant, and Tony rushes to switch off the flame, struggling with wires and his goggles.

“What the fuck?” He splutters, nearly tripping over a car battery “What are you — ”

“You were ignoring me.” Ty answers petulantly “So I came to find you.”

Tony blinks. “You swapped coasts because I didn’t pick up my phone?”

“Partially. Also, I’ve dropped out, so.”

“You’ve what.” Tony asks shortly.

“Dropped out,” Ty says, flipping a screwdriver and pocketing it “keep up, Anty.”

He crosses the room and draws him into a hug, their bodies pressed tight together, and Tony lets himself fall into it. Then Ty breaks away. 

“You stink.”

“I’m working.”

“You smell like motor oil and sweat.”

“The sweat being a side effect of working with motor oil.”

Tony turns to slap the car’s bonnet back down and ignores the way he knows Ty is watching him.

(Ignores the way he feels his eyes on the thick, shifting muscles of his back, ignores the way his own skin flushes, how it gleams in the low light of the workshop, the way the hair on the back of his neck prickles and — )

“Where do you keep the food?” Ty asks, slinging his bag over his shoulder “I had a salad at the airport but it tasted like shit.” 

Tony rolls his eyes and shows him up into his loft, suddenly acutely aware of the empty bottles lying haphazardly around the place. Ty raises an eyebrow.

“You been hosting many parties?”

Tony can’t lie. “Not really.”

“Hmph.” Ty says, rummaging through the fridge. “Do you keep anything fresh in here? Goddamn, Tony, this is cheese in a can, why would you even need this?”

Tony shrugs and mimes squirting it into his mouth.

“That’s disgusting, do you have any fruit?”

“I haven’t been shopping this week!” He answers defensively, and part of him is still floating on a cloud because Ty is in his loft? In Boston? How did this even happen?

“You need more fruit,” Ty says, as if he hadn’t heard him “and vegetables. From now on it’s brown bread only and — ”

“Brown bread only?” Tony says incredulously as Ty whirlwinds round his kitchen. “Wait, from now on —

“My dad’s furious.” Ty states, seemingly unbothered. “It’s not Christmas of ’88 furious, but pretty close. He’s kicked me out, so.”

“Holy shit.”

“Yeah. So I’ve was just going to maybe move in with you?”

Can Tony even say no?

“It’s not like I’m gonna turn you away.”

“Excellent.” Ty grins, pouring himself cereal. “You gonna give me the grand tour?”

 

 

 

 

“He’s living with you.”

“His dad’s kicked him out, Whit — ”

“Kicked him out?” Whit say raises an eyebrow. “Do you remember Mr Stone? There’s no way he’s kicked him out, Tony, he’s lying.

Tony blinks. “Why would he do that?”

Whitney scowls at him. “Why does Ty do anything, Tony? Kick him out.”

What?” Tony throws up his hands “What? Are you crazy? No, don’t be stupid. You’re wrong, first of all, and secondly he’s my best friend, I’m not gonna — ”

“You haven’t asked me to move in with you.” Whitney points accusingly.

“That’s different.” Tony growls. “Don’t act like it’s the same thing. He’s a guy.”

“Does that even make a difference with you?” Whitney spits “If I came to your door saying I’d been kicked out you wouldn’t let me stay.”

“You’re paranoid.” Tony says “You are literally batshit paranoid, what’s wrong with you? How can you say that, he’s just as much your friend as he is mine—”

“He is not my friend, Tony. Not everyone’s like you, we don’t all love Tiberius Stone.”

Tony blinks. “What? Since when? What are you talking about, you spend summers together and, and Christmases and you were at school together after I left, why do you — ”

“You’re an idiot.” Whitney says, and she wipes a tear from her eye. “You choose not to see it, Tony. You choose him over me.”

“You’re being ridiculous!” Tony shouts “I can’t believe we’re even having this conversation, you’re my girlfriend, you should be supportive whether he’s your friend or not — ”

“Why don’t you listen to me, for once? Why don’t you support me? I don’t want Ty here, why can’t you understand that?”

“Because you’re wrong.” Tony says defensively. “You’re being a paranoid bitch, Whit.”

“Oh, fuck off.” She says, lips twisting. “Call me when you want to talk rationally. Or when you kick him out.”

“You’ll be waiting a while then!” Tony calls when she slams the door.

Crazy fucking bitch.

Later, Whitney comes back saying she was wrong, and she’s sorry, and she gives Tony a blow job and he forgets the whole thing.

It occurs to him later that Whitney might be jealous.

 

 

Chapter Text

After that, he’s stuck between his two childhood friends.

Maybe Tony just never saw it, but the looks Ty and Whit give each other are far from friendly. He feels like a slice of meat being tugged between two dogs.

Whitney won’t leave him alone. Before, they’d spend the weekends together, a couple of evenings. Now, she’s round nearly everyday under the guise of wanting to spend time with ‘her boys’ as she likes to call them.

Ty resents her being there. He resents the female touch on their bachelor pad. Tony also thinks he resents having to share Tony.

That being said, Tony is having a lot more sex recently. Whit rarely leaves without bringing him to bed.

Or couch. Or floor. Or, on one memorable occasion, a kitchen counter.

He tries not to think about it the same way he tries not to think about anything. He has other problems, like his work, like his parents, like the fact he woke up last night rock hard and dreaming about a set of lips pertaining to a tall man with blonde hair and ice eyes.

It’s becoming unbearable. Living with Ty, having him so close, and —

Ty feels the same way. Either that or he’s a sadist who enjoys walking around in a towel just to watch Tony squirm.

Tony drinks some to stave off the shakes. And he does some pure class coke, too, because he can afford it and he doesn’t know how else to have fun with Whitney anymore except for when he’s snorting white gold off her tan thighs.

Until, of course, he gets a call from his mother.

Oh God.

“Tony,” she says, and then there’s a silence.

“Mom.” He says, finally.

“How are you?”

“Fine.”

“How’s school?”

“Good.”

“That’s good. That’s good.”

Another pause.

“Your father and I would like to invite you round for Thanksgiving.”

Whitney, who’s sitting next to him, rolls her eyes, and Tony grins.

“Uh,”

“Are you still with your girlfriend?” His mother says quickly.

“Uh.”

Tony tries to fight off rising panic and Whitney shifts beside him, narrowing her eyes.

“Yeah, we’re together. Why?”

“Bring her along. We’d love to meet her. You’ve been together a while.”

Whitney’s eyes brighten. She just got invited to the holy grail, somewhere Ty will never get to go: Tony’s house.

He can’t say no, now. Fuck, he can’t even refuse. He feels like the woman in his life are suddenly in cahoots and conspiring against him.

God, he’s paranoid. Maybe Whitney’s rubbing off on him.

“Sure,” Tony lies easily, because he’s good at that “why not? She’d be happy to come. Let me just, what time did you say? Stay the night? Oh no, don’t worry, we don’t want to be trouble, we can go back to Whit’s…?” He raises a pleading eyebrow at her and she nods “Yeah, no, that’s fine. Okay. Goodbye, bye, bye.” He trails off and then slumps.

“What just happened.” He murmurs.

“Thanksgiving with the Starks.” Whitney says, curling close. “Wow. Should I prepare a speech?”

“You might want to bring a weapon.”

 

 

 

Ty’s pissed. Tony can see it in the curve of his mouth, in the way his eyebrows draw closer together, and his cheeks dimple, like he’s sucking on a lemon.

“Both of you?” He says, and his eyes find Whitney, who Tony isn’t surprised to see is smiling smugly. “Wow. Okay, have fun.”

“We will.” Whit says sweetly, hooking her arm through Tony’s.

Tony makes a face and looks away, but not before catching Ty’s eye.

“I’ll just stay here. Maybe I’ll deep clean the apartment, God knows it needs it.”

“Don’t touch my stuff.” 

Ty shrugs. “Whatever. You mind if I use your bed? I’m gonna have some people round.”

Tony sucks his teeth. “Whatever floats your boat.”

 

 

 

“Just. I don’t know. Be yourself.”

“Tony, you’ve got to have better advice than that.”

Tony really doesn’t. It occurs to him that he knows nothing about his parents. Do they like demure? Cocky? Pretty and still? Intelligent and loud? What would a man like Howard Stark like his son’s girlfriend to be like?

Either way, Whitney’s persistent questioning is getting on his nerves. The last time he saw Howard —

Doesn’t really need saying, does it.

“Could you, just, like, shut up? Please? For a second?” Tony’s fingers keep up their tapping on the wheel of the car “Please. Sorry. Just — ”

“It’s okay,” Whitney sighs “I’m sorry. I forget that’s it’s so crazy.”

“Yeah,” Tony says “crazy.”

He thinks of all the things he wants to say to his father. All the ways that he’s gonna make him feel as small as he’s made Tony feel.

But then he gets home and he sees him for the first time in year.

Losing that much weight in such a short amount of time is not healthy, Tony is sure. His father’s face is gaunt. His clothes hang off him.

His hands shake, constantly. There’s no stopping it. 

When he shuffles forward to shake Tony’s hand, he sees how small he has become. Like he’s shrunk. For the first time, Tony looks down on his father.

He doesn’t have the heart, then. Whatever he had wanted to say, whatever he was going to do.

It’s not worth it.

For the first time he’s faced with the idea that his father is going to die, very soon, and then —

Tony doesn’t know.

“And this is Whitney.” 

Tony steels himself, smiling, and presenting her to his parents. His mother kisses her on both cheeks and pulls her in for a hug, his father shakes her hand, smiles at her, perfectly charming.

For a moment, Tony’s proud. Look at me, he wants to say, look at me, I graduated summa cum laude from MIT, I’ve got a gorgeous girlfriend, I’ve got patents under my belt, I work out, I’m popular, I’m perfect, be proud, please, please just be proud.

But the moment passes, and he lets Whitney carry the weight of the small talk. It is something at which she excels.

“Law, did you say? At Harvard? Brilliant, what’s that like?”

“Byron Frost! Of course, I saw him at polo back in the day.”

“What type of yacht? I find that the calibre is all in the shape these days, engines be damned.”

Tony pitches in when needed, avoiding his father’s gaze and clenching his wine tight in his hand. He wants more, needs something to steady his nerves, and he didn’t get a drink this morning so it’s starting to show.

He feels his father’s gaze on the side of his face.

“More?” He asks, and it’s the first thing he’s said directly to Tony all evening.

He pours Tony a glass of scotch, and Tony takes it gratefully.

He doesn’t notice the way his parents lock eyes across the room.

He downs it pretty quickly, and then goes for another, subtle. Whitney jabbering away and his mom is laughing in all the right places but he can feel his dad staring and he can’t quite manage it without another drink.

Maria is resting her hand on Whitney’s arm, laughing at something she just said. “Delightful, dear, davvero. Come with me, let me show you the kitchen —”

Tony’s mind whites out. What? Why’s she showing Whit the kitchen? Is she leaving him here? With Howard? 

Tony watches with mounting horror as his mother and girlfriend leave him alone with his father.

For a moment, there’s that old childhood fear. He wishes Jarvis were here.

“Tony,” his father says, smiles tightening round his face. “Put down the drink.”

Tony blinks. “What?”

“The drink. Put it down.”

Tony’s not entirely sure what his dad is trying to say, so he goes to finish it before setting the glass on the table.

“Your mother and I are worried.”

“About what?” He frowns, because he still hasn’t managed to put two and two together.

“We’ve heard rumours, Tony. About you — actually, look, I’m going to blunt here. Obadiah’s paying your professor to report back to him and he’s been told that you’ve been caught drinking in class on eight separate occasions.”

Tony blinks. “What?”

“Drinking, Tony. You’re doing it.” And for a moment, Tony sees what he perceives as a flash of victory in his father’s eyes because now their just as bad as each other.

Tony lurches to his feet. “Is that why you — ” he hiccups “ — is that why you called me here? To talk, to talk shit like that? Go to hell.”

Howard stays sitting, looking up at his son. “You gonna walk away?”

“Fuck yeah,” Tony sways “you’re making shit up. Don’t — ” he points a finger “ — don’t try and see your problems in me because it makes you feel better, old man.”

“I’m seeing my problems in you because you’re my son and I don’t want you going out the same way as me.”

“Fuck you.”

Howard sighs. “Please, Tony. Could we, could we have one civil conversation before I die? Just one?”

Tony narrows his eyes. And then he sits.

“Where’s Jarvis.”

“Tony — ”

“I mean it, old man. I get that, I get that fine, maybe he doesn’t want to see me, but I want to see him. Doesn’t it— doesn’t it mean anything to you?” Tony shakes his head, incredulous, and the alcohol has knocked something loose in his chest so it’s okay to be emotional “doesn’t it mean anything that — dad, he raised me. And then he left? And I didn’t — ” a hiccup “ — I didn’t even get to say goodbye?”

Even Tony sees Howard’s eyes soften. He isn’t, apparently, completely heartless.

“I know that,” he says, half-defensively “I would give it to you. I’m not witholding information out of some kind of sadistic pleasure, Tony,” his father says disparagingly “I’m gonna respect my friends wishes —”

“But why.” Tony presses. “What’s wrong with him? Does he need help? You can get him help? Is he sick? What’s wrong?”

Howard wavers.

“Nothing,” he says finally “I can’t tell you.”

“You have a shit poker face.”

“So do you.” Howard rebounds. “Tell me why you’re drinking.”

Tony laughs. “Tell you why I’m drinking? What you gonna do, hold my hand? Get me help? Oh my God!” Tony is laughs again, starting to verge on hysterical “God, that’s priceless. You and mom both, right? I know, we could all go to Alcoholics Anonymous together! That’ll be a fun family outing for sure — ”

“You don’t need to throw it back in my face, boy. I want to help you.”

“Yeah, well I don’t need help.” Tony sharpens. “Not from you. Never from you.”

(Which is funny, because some twenty years or so, the genius of Howard Stark and his help from beyond the grave is the only thing that could save Tony’s life)

 

 

 

Tony decides to cut Thanksgiving short.

“Whitney,” he says “we’re leaving.”

Whitney’s smile falls. She rolls her eyes.

“Shit, not again.”

“Get in the car.”

Her fingers brush his when she presses past.

“Mom,” Tony says levelly “have you been spying on me?”

Maria fixes him with a square look. “Your father talked to you, then.”

“Yeah, he talked to me. Felt a bit forced, but he talked to me.”

“We’re worried.”

“Great. You’re a few years too late.”

“I’m your mother, Tony. I’m allowed to be concerned.”

“It’s okay, mom.” Tony says, voice bland “You don’t have to pretend to love me. I’m a big boy now.”

“I do,” his mother swallows “I do love you, Tony. Don’t be silly.”

She’s lying, and they both know it.

Tony inhales sharply. “Whatever, mom. I’m going, see you again never — ”

“Wait.” His mom cuts out. “Tony, your girlfriend — ”

“Yes?”

“Her father killed my brother.”

Tony blinks. “What.”

“Her father shot my broth—”

“I heard that.” Tony says, distantly. “I mean… she’s adopted. She doesn’t… talk, she doesn’t talk to her real dad.” He shakes his head. “And what does that have to do with me?

“Is that what she told you?” Maria mimes spitting onto the floor. “Family is family. And you know what her family — ”

“She wouldn’t fucking do that, okay? She’s not going to go running back to— ”

“And you would know because?”

“I’ve known her since I was six years old.”

Maria pauses. “That doesn’t mean you know a person.”

Tony thinks about Jarvis. “Yeah, well I get that now.” 

Tony doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like that connection. He doesn’t like thinking about his mother’s family, and he doesn’t like thinking that they are brought to together that way. That he’s dating the daughter of his uncle’s murderer.

If feels too close.

Too coincidental.

He turns to leave.

“I mean it, Tony. Be careful with her. She’s not your family. She will never have your best interests at heart like we do.”

Tony turns back. “You can drop it,” he says, and he’s not even that angry, just incredulous “it’s okay, you don’t have to pretend that you care. It’s fine.”

His mother swallows. “Stane said that you drink. He said that — ”

“It’s nice that it took you this long to care.”

“I thought you were okay,” Maria blurts “I thought you were fine.”

“I am fine.”

Maria tucks a stray hair behind her ear. “You would,” she clears her throat “you would say if you weren’t?”

“What would you do about it?”

“We can get you help. Before it’s too late. Before you end up like — ”

“Like my father. Yeah, I know.”

“And me.” She swallows.

Tony sucks his teeth.

“It runs in the family.” She adds. “You need to be careful.”

“Why do you care?” Tony says, suddenly.

Maria holds her head high. “Because I promised I wouldn’t let my son grow up to be like his father.”

Tony considers. 

“You missed my graduation.”

It’s the final straw. When Tony leaves that house, a guillotine slices any bond he ever had with his parents, and he’s finally able to walk free.

Not that it matters because by Christmas they're dead.

 

Chapter Text

Whitney and Tony don’t talk as much when they get home. Maybe it’s the stress of meeting Tony’s parents, or maybe it’s the shock that Tony might one day grow into Howard Stark that’s keeping her away.

It means that Tony is left with Ty.

One evening, he’s sitting on his couch wiring a circuit board for what will be a computer. This shit is gonna be big, he knows it, he just needs to find the time to start advancing into AI technology.

It’s his relax time. He’s got a glass of wine and some scotch for later. The curtains are shut against the cold. It’s warm, cosy. There’s a blanket over his lap and the old fireplace is roaring.

Until Ty dumps his coke onto the table.

“You’ve been a bad boy.” He purrs.

Tony blinks. “Where did you get that.”

“Your drawer. You need to find better hiding places.”

“My underwear drawer is pretty private.”

“Not really. Nice boxers, by the way.”

Tony snatches up the packet. “Fuck you.”

Ty laughs. “Relax, Anty. I’m no judge. What’s a little recreational coke use between friends?”

“I didn’t think you were into anything that wasn’t organic.”

“Funny, but I’m all up for some of the white stuff, Tony,” and he tips some onto the wooden top table and draws out a drivers licence.

“Ty,” Tony hisses “what are you doing.”

“What?” He says innocently “You gonna pretend you don’t indulge yourself daily?”

Daily. How would Ty know that?

“I know a lot about you.” He says simply, and then he’s rolling a bill and snorting it smoothly in one. He gasps, shakes his head rapidly. “Oh yeah,” he grins “oh Tony, that’s good.”

Tony shifts and hopes the blanket covers how hopelessly aroused he is right now. Ty dabs at some of the coke left on his his nose, swipes it round his gums. “Beautiful.” He says.

And then he unbuttons his shirt.

“Uh,” Tony blinks.

“Relax,” Ty purrs, and it goes straight to Tony’s hind brain, that voice, so low, why shouldn’t he, he just needs to relax. “Drink your scotch, Tony.”

As if on auto-command, Tony picks up his glass and drains it in one.

He doesn’t take his eyes off of Ty’s.

Doesn’t flinch, even, when he slides the blanket from his legs.

Ty pushes himself onto the couch, stretched out and naked from the waist up. “If you’re gonna snort, Tony, then you should do it properly.”

He drags a finger round his navel. Tony’s fingers twitch where they hold the packet.

“Go on, Anty,” Ty encourages, fingers running up and down his firm belly. “Do it.”

Why should he deny himself? He always denies himself. When was the last time he did something just for him?

He sets the coke out onto the smooth expanse of Ty’s skin. Shapes it.

Ty twitches, slightly. 

Tony hears where his fingers twist into the leather of the couch.

Slowly, he bends over Ty’s form. Breathes in the white powder.

It hits him, hard, and for a moment he needs to sit back, head tilted up, blinking, feeling the rush. It’s good, it’s so good, and it’s just what he needs.

He comes back to the feel of Ty’s hand stroking along his thigh.

“Good?” He murmurs.

Tony wonders what’s holding him back. Why he doesn’t just take what he wants. Ty’s right there, and he’s willing, and Tony wants it, so why does he hold back, why won’t he —

“Whit,” he says “what am I going to tell — ”

Ty’s hand closes around his wrist. He leans in. Whispers.

“Nothing,” he says, and his breath curves down Tony’s neck, into his ear, and makes shivers break out over his skull “you won’t tell her anything. We keep this between you and me.”

Tony turns, lets his head rest inches from Ty’s. “This?” He murmurs “What is this?”

Ty’s lips are sucking at his neck, he teeth leaving marks along his throat. “Us,” he breathes “it’s us, Anty. I’ve wanted you for so,” another bite “so long.”

Tony moans. This is nothing he’s ever felt before, this is nothing he can understand. Being with Whitney is so good, and so right, and it’s routine. She’s the woman a man like him should marry, she’s the Maria to his Howard, and everything is so regular and perfect and boring. 

Ty is like heat and fire and the low buzz of arousal in Tony’s belly burns hot. He’s never felt like this, he’s never gotten pleasure like this before, not with any of his partners, because now it feels fulfilling, it feels like he’s getting something that he wants, and Ty wants him, so why not, why shouldn’t he indulge.

He lets his head fall back, breath coming slowly, while Ty straddles his waist, tasting him along his neck, sucking and biting, and his wrists are in his hands and it feels so good, he thrusts up almost unconsciously and Ty huffs a laugh into his neck.

Then his knee is pressed between Tony’s legs and Tony is hooking his hands into Ty’s hair, drawing him up to his mouth, and then they’re kissing, and Tony tastes coke and wine and flesh and he ruts against Ty’s leg, the heat in his gut starting to pool to something more intense.

He moans again, thrusts harder, presses his tongue into Ty’s mouth, sucks on his lip, hard, bites, and it’s enough to draw blood, and it sets the precedent for all the rest of their trysts because Tony and Ty cannot make love without drawing blood first.

“Want to fuck you,” Ty pulls back, ripping the catch on Tony’s jeans and shoving a hand down his pants “want to fuck you.”

“Ty,” Tony breathes “T— Ty — ”

The other man exposes his cock and takes it roughly in his hand, presses down the shaft as Tony bucks his hips up to gain more friction. “Yes,” he pants “yes.”

Ty’s palming himself and he’s milking Tony and Tony feels the orgasm on the edge of his senses, feels it building and building, but it’s never taken this long before, the pleasure of the build up had never been this drawn out, and he fucks his hips harder to try and gain relief, to speed it up, but it just hangs there out of his grasp.

He cries out in frustration as Ty slides to kneel between his legs, his free hand fondling his balls, and then —

Tony’s legs twitch and jump off the floor as he takes his balls into his wet, hot mouth. He can feel Ty smiling around them and he keeps his hand on his cock, keeps up the rhythm, punctuated by long sucks of his sac.

“Ty,” Tony gasps “fuck, fuck.”

“Better than Whitney, right?”

“Better than — ” Tony’s voice tails up in a gasp “better than Whit, fuck, better than anything, I’m gonna come — ”

“You’re taking your time.”

“Ty,” Tony whines, eyes screwed shut tight, head tilted back, it’s so hot in here, it’s so warm and he feels his hair plaster to his head “Ty, Ty, I’m gonna come.”

And he is, he will, the pleasure is mounting, building, oh God, it’s so hard, the pleasure is a tangible thing and it’s coming, he’s gonna come, he’s gonna —

He cries out, when he comes. For the first time, Tony screams his release, and the world whites out.

He comes to to the wet sound of Ty’s hand as it grips his cock. He hears Ty’s exhaled  gasp, and then feels hot ropes of his spend that hit against his belly where his shirt has ridden up.

What did he just do.

It takes a while to control his breathing, for his thighs to stop shaking.

“Tony,” Ty murmurs “Tony, that was so good.”

Tony blinks, dozy. “Ty,” he murmurs “Ty, what just happened?”

Ty sighs, slumping down next to him, one arm slung around his shoulder. “Well,” he says “we did some coke. And then I brought you to orgasm.”

“No shit, I mean, what just happened? What did we do?”

Ty trails his fingers through the come on Tony’s belly. “Are you going to tell me now that you don’t want me?”

Tony forces himself upright. “I do,” he says “I do want you. I’ve, I’ve always wanted you and you know it.”

“Good,” Ty purrs “then let’s go to bed.”

Tony blinks. “Ty, I’m dating Whitney.”

Ty smiles. “Tony,” he says, knowingly “I’m not asking you to stop dating Whit.”

Tony’s eyes narrow. “What are you asking for?”

“You.” He says, simply. “Just you. Just sex, from you.”

“Sex,” Tony murmurs, and then he laughs. “Sex?” 

“Don’t worry, sugar puff. I’ll show you how it all works.”

“Why.” Tony demands. “Why?”

“Because I am going to rock your world.” Ty grins. “And, eventually, you’ll see what your missing. And you’ll leave that miserable bitch for me.”

 

Tony wakes up hungover.

And next to Tiberius Stone.

 

Chapter Text

Ty becomes Tony’s big dirty secret.

(On top of the drugs, obviously. Although, Tony realises, nobody cares if he snorts himself to death. They would if he told them he was falling in love with a man)

Falling in love. Falling in love? No. In lust. Tony is completely, ridiculously, in lust with Ty.

By the time Christmas rolls around, there have been six other occasions like the one that night after Thanksgiving. He can’t get enough of him. Everything about him drives him crazy, his smell, his weight, the way he smiles, that smirk, his eyes, how they roll when he drawls and that deep, smooth voice.

They haven’t fucked yet.

Tony still has a girlfriend.

Would he leave Whit for Ty? Absolutely not. Whitney is… he can’t leave his girl for a guy.

He would, maybe, be willing to leave her for another girl if the chance came along.

When Whitney calls, he finds himself dreading it. He dreads having her over. Partly because he’s paranoid she’ll just know, she’ll find out that he’s been giving his best friend blow jobs every evening. And mainly because they don’t have much to say to one another anymore. They’ve dried out.

They’ve been dating a year, though. Tony guesses it’s a ‘serious’ relationship. He’ll be twenty in a few months, and Whit’s will be twenty-one next year. He’s slowly crawling his way to adulthood, and with adulthood comes —

He doesn’t want to marry Whitney Frost. He can’t spend the rest of his life picking up after her mood swings and trying to force a smile.

She reminds him of his mother.

Tony doesn’t want to call what he’s doing with Ty ‘cheating’ because it’s not. How could it be? Ty’s a guy. It’s not like he’s fucking other girls left right and centre. Still, he feels bad. Worse, apparently, than Ty, who spends a lot of the time making jokes about being ‘the other woman.’

Tony wishes he could talk to Jarvis. More than anything, right now, he wishes he could see his face one last time.

He finds himself drinking more to compensate. It’s easier, that way. He doesn’t feel so guilty when he has to look into Whitney’s eyes are tell her he loves her.

 

Tony is shepherded down to California by Ty to stay at his new summer place for Spring Break. In a fit of panic, he brings Whitney along, too.

The look Ty gives Tony when he sees her is pure murder. 

Later, when Whitney is out shopping, Ty presses Tony against the wall and sucks him off, hard, while Tony desperately tries to get him somewhere private because there are people here and they’ll see and what the fuck do you think you are doing?

After that, he had pleaded.

“I’ve waited,” he says “I’ve waited for you and you’re still with her. Why? She makes you unhappy, Tony, it’s obvious she makes you unhappy. C’mon,” and he had squeezed Tony’s balls in his hand “c’mon, babe, please. I’m waiting for you.”

“No.” Was Tony’s answer.

Ty had drawn back. “Fine,” he’d said “fine. Fuck you. And fuck her. I don’t need you, Tony.”

Tony thinks, vaguely, that Ty doesn’t like to be turned down.

 

In the meantime, Tony drinks. And drinks. And drinks.

He’s starting to think it might be a problem.

 

He starting to think that, and then, one day when he goes to his stash of white gold, he can’t find it.

He’s frantic. He tosses pillows and crashes draws and scrapes and sheets and sobs because he hasn’t had a hit in a few days and he was relying on this to get him through and if he can’t find it then —

“You’re an addict.” Whitney says, and she’s swinging the packet between her fingers.

“Oh thank God,” Tony pants “oh thank God, Whitney, give it here —”

“No,” she says, and then her voice is sad “Tony, you’re addicted.”

“I’m not,” he frowns, holding out his hand “c’mon, Whit. Don’t fuck around. Give it to me.” He plasters on his most convincing smile.

“If you’re not addicted then go without.”

Tony’s body ripples. “No.” He snarls “Fuck, Whit, what’s your problem? You do it too — ”

“Not like you.” She says quietly. “Please, Tony. Your mom was right, don’t — ”

“My mom?” He snaps “The fuck she has to do with any of this, stop being a shitty little bitch and give me the packet.

Whitney’s glare hardens. “Don’t talk to me like.” She says “You don’t get to talk to me like that. You and Ty both treat me like a child.”

“I’m sorry,” Tony blurts “hey, I’m sorry. Come to bed. We can do some coke, even.”

“Do you love me, Tony?”

Tony blinks. “Yes! Yes, of course I love you. Why do you have to ask stupid questions, Whit, you don’t need to be stupid.” And then he pauses. “Please. Please let me have some coke.”

Whitney’s eyes grow sad with pain beyond her years but Tony doesn’t notice. She hands him the packet.

“I’m going to help you, Tony.” She says. “I swear, I’m going to help you.”

That’s ridiculous, Tony thinks, why would I need help?

 

It gets worse.

Tony drinks regularly, tops off every hour from the flask his father gave him. He’s sneaking out of class to take a sip, sometimes even to do a line, it’s a lot harder to concentrate when he doesn’t, the world moves slower, and why wouldn’t he? 

It’s not like it’s hurting him. If he actually wanted to, he could always stop.

 

Tony spends the summer partying. A new place every night, and he’s almost constantly high, never leaving his loft without his pocket flask.

Word eventually gets back to his parents. Why wouldn’t it? Fucking let it. Let them hear about him, what does he care. They might even talk to him.

“Tony,” his mother says brightly down the line “we’re concerned.”

“I’ll bet you are.” Tony giggles, because he’s drunk.

“Tony,” his mother says again, “Tony please. If you’re having trouble, we can get you help.”

Again, with the help. Help help help. Why would he need help? He’s riding high. He’s independent, he’s doing well and he has amazing friends, a gorgeous girlfriend and a hot piece of ass on the side. Why the fuck would he need help?

Tony hangs up.

 

One day in late August, Tony is snorting coke off some girl’s ass when he hears a fight from outside.

He’s at Chrissy Martin’s again. He’s probably one of his all time favourite hosts because no matter what the damage she always has it under control.

“What’s happening?” He asks, lighting up a cigarette. The boy at the door shrugs. “Some bum’s trying to sneak in.”

“I’m not a bum.” Come the voice, the petulant, whiny, nasally voice that Tony knows so well.

Nick?”

Nick blinks. “Tony?”

“You know this guy?” The bouncer Chrissy’s hired to stand by the door asks.

Tony thinks. “Let me grab my coat.”

Nick isn’t looking so hot. Tony could see why the guy’d mistaken him for a bum. Tony takes him to a late-night cafe and buys him a coffee.

“I’m fine.” He insists “I’m fine.”

Tony slouches. “You don’t look fine.” He says, focusing on a point beyond Nick’s head.

“I’m fine.” He says again, and he’s completely erratic. He keeps jumping, twitching, hunching over as soon as someone passes behind him. He’s a fucking mess.

“What happened?”

“My dad died.” He blurts. “He died. I’m fucked, man. My brother’s froze me out and I’m the youngest, all the money was put in a trust fund and the fund is held by my eldest brother and he was in control and he — ”

“Cut you out. I get it.”

“My mom’s sick. I don’t, I haven’t seen her in months. I can’t go home, they won’t let me. Fuck, fuck, you don’t even know, man. You don’t even know what it’s been like. I was four months behind on rent, and then I dropped out of college. I was at Penn state, but — ”

“Why are you here?”

Nick looks lost. “Work, man, work. I found a dealer who’d let me sample some of the merchandise if he didn’t have to pay me money to ship stuff round.”

“Jesus.”

“Yeah. Yeah,” Nick runs a hand through his hair “Jesus.”

His skin is sallow and his face is gaunt. Nick used to —

Tony had never liked Nick. But once, he gave a plushy seal and told to hug it because it would make the nightmares go away.

There are track marks on his arm. Probably heroin.

“Hey, man, if you need any help — ”

“I don’t need help.” Nick says, quickly. “I’m fine. Once I turn twenty-one I’m gonna take my brothers to court. I know they faked my old man’s will, I fucking know it.”

Tony blinks. “Just some money to get you back on your feet — ”

“I’m on my feet.” He snaps “I’m fine. I don’t need help.”

It bemused Tony as to why exactly Nick would refuse help even though he so clearly needed it. The guy was a mess.

Pride, he later found out. It was pride. That, and it’s difficult to see how low you’ve sunk from the bottom of the ocean.

 

Things come to a head between him and Ty a few days later.

Ty is still living with him despite having his own place on the west coast. It makes Tony uncomfortable, because he doesn’t know where they stand.

One day, Tony walks into his bedroom and sees Ty and Whitney.

Naked.

Together.

In his bed.

He’s speechless.

Ty grins. “Tony. Happy birthday.”

Tony blinks. “What.”

“We missed your birthday.” Whitney purrs. “It’s okay, Tony. Ty’s told me everything.”

Tony panics. He looks at Ty, who imperceptibly shakes his head.

Not everything.

“Come on,” she tugs “come to bed.”

“To — to bed.”

“With us.”

“With… you. Both of you.”

“Why not?” Ty smirks. 

Tony tries not to tear out his hair. “A word, please, Ty.”

The blonde man slinks out of men, and he has no fucking shame, he’s naked and in bed with Tony’s equally-nude girlfriend and he’s smirking like it’s an everyday occurrence.

Tony waits for the door to close before he slams Ty into a wall.

“What the fuck is wrong with you,” he hisses “what do you think you’re doing?”

Ty pouts. “You couldn’t choose, sugar puff. I’m speeding it up for you. You get both of us.”

Tony shakes his head. “Whitney hates you. How did you — ”

“Convince her? I told her you were having a nervous breakdown. But it’s okay!” Ty raises his hands in placation “Now you get both of us.”

Tony’s bites the inside of his cheek. “How could you think,” he growls “that this was ever an acceptable route? And she doesn’t know any of it? The blow jobs, the hand jobs, the kissing, the — ”

“General debaucherous behaviour, no.” Ty admits. “But who gives a shit? She is 100% willing, let me tell you — ”

“You’re lying, though. To her. You’re telling her I’m having a breakdown to make her sleep with us.”

“True,” Ty says “but have you seen yourself lately? I’m not that far off the mark, Anty.”

Tony’s eyes narrow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Ty runs a single finger behind the sensitive skin behind Tony’s ear. “It means I think you need this, Anty. Let us help you.”

“Help me?” Tony swallows, because they’re all insisting, they’re all insisting something’s wrong with him, but he’s fine, why does no one, why won’t they —

Ty draws the lube from his back pocket. “We’re gonna fuck you so hard you stutter like a six year old.”

“Not funny.”

Ty pushes Tony towards the door. “Get in there and get naked.”

Whitney smiles. Does she want this? Really? Tony feels Ty’s hot length pressed against his back.

“Let me help you,” Ty whispers into his ear, and he takes Tony’s hands in his, hold them firm against his chest so Tony can’t get away. “Why do you never let us help you?”

For a moment, Tony feels like a autonomous thing, a puppet being pulled by Ty. Both of them, Tony and Whit, he feels like Ty’s playing them, building them up and pushing them back down.

Whit’s spread out on the sheets, eyes half-lidded, on her front. Her legs and crossed and in the air, swinging, as she waits patiently, a half-smile on her face.

Ty’s tongue on his neck.

Whitney wants to impress him, he realises. For a moment, Tony has a vision of visceral clarity. Whitney loves him. She doesn’t want to lose him, and she thinks this is the only way she can hold him down. To sleep with both of them.

That’s wrong. It’s so wrong. This is all wrong, Ty is wrong and he is wrong and Whit is wrong and they all need help.

But he lets Ty pull apart his buttons.

“I have work.” He blurts. “I have work, I can’t do this.”

Liar.” Ty hisses in his ear, and pushes him onto the bed.

“You’re nervous.” Whitney hums, dragging him down on top of her, twisting on the bed so she’s faced up and he’s lying over her pert form. “Don’t be.” She says softly, and she smoothes a hand down his cheek while Ty rips off his pants.

“Are you okay with this?” Tony says, because he has to ask.

“Do you want it?”

Tony imagines Whit under his tongue and Ty fucking into him from behind.

“Yes.” He says honestly, and there’s a raw need in his voice.

“Then yes.” She says. “I am okay with it.”

Tony smiles, or tries to. He’s acutely aware of Ty’s weight dipping the bed behind him.

“C’mon,” he hears his cocky smile “can you honestly say neither of you have ever fantasised about this?”

“Yes.” Tony and Whit say in unison.

“First time for everything, boys and girls.” He grins, and Tony hears the pop of the lube cap.

“Uh, what are you doing back there?”

“Nothing. Out of interest, when was the last time you went to the toilet?”

“Fuck this.” Tony says, spinning round. “I’m not letting you anywhere near my asshole.”

Whitney giggles. “C’mon, Anty. Don’t be a killjoy.”

“Okay, would you let Ty’s fingers near your asshole?”

“This isn’t how I saw this going.” Ty frowns.

 

Later, Tony is split open by Ty’s cock and gasping. 

“How’s that feel?” Ty pants, thrusting deeper into his ass “That feel good?”

Tony fists his hands in the sheet. “Whit,” he manages “Whit — ”

He tastes her under his tongue and she arches, sweating, writhing, and Tony marvels at the ability to make someone feel so good.

Ty draws out and Tony groans because the feel of his ass gaping in the air isn’t something he’s familiar with but he thinks it’s something he can come to love.

“I didn’t know you liked this,” Whit says “I mean, I always suspected, you know? You and Ty. But that’s cool, right? Everyone has, everyone has little things — ”

What did Ty tell her, exactly? How did he explain Tony’s preferences without mentioning that they’ve been semi-fucking each other over the past year?

“This is all for you, big boy,” Ty grins into his ear, yanking him back “you’re gonna thank me for this in the morning and remembering it for years to come.”

Tony pants, and he’s still rock hard and Ty hasn’t even come yet. He doesn’t understand, why are they stopping, let’s go on a bit more —

Ty.” Whitney hisses. “Not that. You promised.”

“Relax, Whit,” Ty says, and he feels his shifting muscles behind him as he reaches to drag something forward. Tony feels himself pushed forward and he groans as his chest impacts heavily with the bed.

“Stay still.” Ty warns, and then Tony feels the sprinkles along his thighs.

“What?” He says, voice wrecked “wait, no fair, give me some.”

“Tony,” Whit warns “no.”

“Stop moving.” Ty chides, slapping his thigh. “You’re spoiling the merchandise.”

Tony tries not to flinch where the coke tickles his skin.

He can feel Whitney’s disapproving glare but he doesn’t care. This is supposed to be for him? Give him some coke.

“Easy,” Ty says, and he holds his forearm under Tony’s nose. “Go easy.”

It doesn’t matter. As soon as it hits Tony’s sense he’s a live wire. Everything is more, then, everything is times ten. The feel of Ty’s hands on his hips, the feel of him pressing his fingers into his ass, the touch Whitney’s slight fingers in his hair, it’s all more, it’s all like bright electricity dancing over his flesh and he’s a torrent of synapses and chemical messages sent in his blood.

He moans, and Ty pulls him back so they’re both in a seated position, except Tony is split on Ty’s cock. The blonde is mouthing at the shell of his ear and Tony’s head is thrown back in rapture.

“Yes,” he says “yes, that spot, there.”

“This spot?” Ty says innocently, and he fucks into him so Tony cries out, fingers scrabbling for purchase but ending up caught in Ty’s grip.

“No hands for this game,” Ty whispers “you’re just gonna take it.”

Tony moans again. His cock bobs against his belly, leaving a trail of pre-come.

“Your turn, Whit.” Ty says, breath hot against Tony’s neck as the he clenches spasmodically on Ty’s length.

But Whit crosses her arms. Even like this, even naked, and a mess, she manages to look fierce.

“No,” she says “no, what did I fucking say, Ty. No coke. No fucking coke, and you went and — ”

“Boo fucking hoo,” Ty drawls “suck him. Come on. We had a deal.”

“Fuck your deal,” Whitney spits “you finish him.”

Tony throws back his head. He’s getting impatient, and he doesn’t understand what’s happening. He tries to wrench his hand loose to finish himself but Ty hold is firm.

“Don’t be a bitch,” Ty whines “c’mon, Whit. It’s not fair to leave him hanging like this.”

“I told you.” Whit says, standing “You finish him. I’m done. Obviously, you know much better than I do, so.”

Tony hears her rifling around, hears a zip, and sees her pulling her shirt over her head.

“He’s your boyfriend.” Ty growls. “Stay.” He demands.

“Is he?” Whit says vaguely. “Fuck you, Ty.” And Tony thinks she might be crying. 

“Whit,” he rasps “where are you going?”

“Make up your mind, Tony.”

“What?” He says, brow crinkling in confusion. He tries to get up but Ty isn’t letting him leave.

“Make up your mind. Him or me.”

“Whit — ”

“I’m not an idiot!” She screams, and it’s sudden, and it’s come out of nowhere. “You think I don’t know what you two have been doing? Do you think I’m a child?”

Tony manages to scramble free. “Whit,” he says “Whit, I’m so sorry.”

“I don’t care.” She sobs. “I don’t care that you’ve been fucking him, or sleeping with him, or whatever. As long as you came back to me, because, because you can’t marry Tiberius Stone, Tony.”

“I—”

“But fuck him,” she swears, and she’s looking at Tony but pointing at Ty “fuck him, because he’s a liar and you fall for it every fucking time.”

The drug that’s raging round Tony’s system makes it impossible to see the hilarity of this, he’s naked and his cock is hard against his belly, and Ty is half crouched on the bed in a similar state, and they’re being shouted at by this girl when, a few moments ago, they had been fucking on the bed.

“Whitney — ”

“Him or me?”

Tony could do it, right now. He could say Ty and leave Whitney and forget all of this.

But he can’t.

“You,” he says softly “of course it’s you.”

Whitney begins to cry and Ty curses behind him.

 

Chapter Text

Tony doesn’t speak to Ty for a long time, after that.

Whitney, however, is just like she was back at the beginning. When they first started dating. She makes him promise to cut back on the drinking and the smoking and the snorting and he agrees just to see her smile.

Tony gets a call from Obie, one day. Tony doesn’t understand why, but then he talks about his father.

“Rapidly deteriorating, Tony. He couldn’t remember my name the other day.”

Tony winces. There’s no love lost between him and his father but he’d rather he didn’t have to suffer through the indignity of losing his memory before conking out permanently.

In Ty’s absence, Tony remembers that he does in fact have other friends. He actually calls Rhodey for the first time in a year, and Tony marvels at how he’s willing to put up with Tony’s shit.

“It’s in the job description, Tony. I’m an air force man, remember?”

He tells him that he’s actually going on his first tour later that month and that they should meet up before then. “But you’ll be around after too, right?”

Tony makes some affirmative noises and hangs up.

 

It’s back again. That feeling.

The one where he finds it hard to get out of bed.

He’s trying to get through it. He really is.

But it’s so hard.

 

“You’ve changed,” Whitney murmurs one night.

“Oh yeah?” Tony says, disinterestedly.

But Whitney props herself up. “What’s wrong, Tony?”

“Nothing.” 

“Why won’t you tell me what’s wrong?”

“There’s nothing wrong.”

“Let me help you.”

“I don’t need help.”

Whitney gives a small noise of frustration. “Tony,” she says softly, and she grips his arm where he’s rolled over. “Please. I know something’s wrong.”

“I’m fine.”

 

When Tony goes home for Spring Break, he’s shocked by what he finds.

His father no longer has the capacity to be cruel.

“It shouldn’t be this fast,” his mother says “it shouldn’t have happened this fast. It’s the drinking, Tony,” she whispers “it’s the drink.”

Obadiah shakes his head and his mother holds Tony’s hand for the first time since he was a child as his father waits in his office, dressed in his best suit, for guests that will never come.

 

Some days are better than others, Obie explains. Some days he’s able to converse just as normal. Other’s it’s worse.

He explains that they’ve put a block on R&D but that it can’t last forever. Tony is twenty-one next month. Is he ready to take his father’s place?

He doesn’t really have a choice, but he accepts anyway.

 

He’s at a party and he’s drinking and he’s drinking, and it’s just another party, but he drinks too much and then he snorts too much and he’s throwing up, skin slick and hair plastered to his forehead and he curls into the corner while people stare and he wishes, he wishes Jarvis were here.

It’s Rhodey that finds him because he was supposed to be saying bye to Rhodey because he’s going away and it’s Rhodey’s party but he spends the rest of it holding Tony’s hair out of the toilet bowl and murmuring and tucking him into bed.

 

For Tony, there are good days.

And there are bad ones.

He knows he’s drinking more. But it’s just so fucking hard. It’s so fucking hard and he doesn’t know what to do to pick himself back up.

He drinks and it’s easier.

 

“You’re drunk,” Whitney spits “you’re fucking drunk.”

“M’ not,” Tony lists to the side, and then he grins. “Whitney!” He says throwing his hands into the air “Whitney, GiGi, my girl. Myyy girl.”

“Get off me.” Whitney pushes him away and he falls onto the couch. “What’s wrong with you? What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Tony sighs dramatically. “I’m going to New York, Whitney, Whitney. Whitney. I’m moving. I have too for work, so,” he slumps. “I miss Ty.” He murmurs.

Whitney makes a disgusted noise. “Get up.” She spits “Get up you pathetic sack of shit.What’s wrong with you? What is wrong with you? Get it together, Tony.”

“M’ fine.”

“No, you’re not.” Whitney says. “You’re not fine. You drink too much, you take too much coke. I think you’re addicted Tony, you’re an addict, understand? You know your father? You know him? That man you hate, yeah, you’re just like him, Tony, you’re worse than him and you won’t let anyone help —

“Fuck you!” Tony roars, lurching to his feet “Don’t you, don’t you fucking dare. I’m not him. I’m nothing like him.”

“Get away from me.” Whitney says, suddenly, “Do not touch me, Tony Stark.”

He’s clutching her wrist tight in his hand and he’s stronger than he remembers.

“I’m leaving.” She says “I’ve had enough, understand? I’ve given you chances, I’ve done all that. I have been, I have been the best I can be for you, Tony. I’m not gonna watch, I’m not gonna watch you, watch you — ” she’s becoming hysterical “ — I can’t watch you fall apart and not let me help, Tony. It’s not fair, it’s not fair to me, I love you — ”

“Go!” Tony spits “Fuck off, then! See if I give a shit, Whitney, look at me! Do I care? Have I ever given you the impression that I cared? Fuck off. Don’t come back.”

Whitney blinks rapidly. And then she makes a noise that sounds like choking.

“You bastard.” She gasps “Oh my God, how can you say that, we’ve been together for years — ”

“And I’ve hated every minute,” Tony says, riding the wave of hatred, because he knows she’s right, oh God he knows she’s right, he’s an addict and a disaster and he’s turning into his father “you’re the reason I’m depressed. I couldn’t fucking think of a way to get rid of you you crazy bitch and now you’ve done it for me!”

“Oh God,” Whitney sobs, grabbing her bag “oh God, oh God, oh God.”

“Fucking leave.” Tony says, and he won’t let himself cry “Fucking go. Get out. I hate you, I hate you, leave, go, GET OUT!”  He screams. 

“Oh God,” Whitney sobs, all the way to the door “oh God, Tony please, I love you. I didn’t mean it, c’mon, Tony, come, come here, I swear please don’t cry.”

He’s not crying she’s crying and she needs to get out before he does something he regrets.

“Leave.” He says, one last time, batting away Whitney’s hands.

When the door slams, he knows it’s over.

He doesn’t know what else to say

 

So like a moth to a flame he falls back into bed with Ty.

He arrives on the doorstep of his Boston apartment drunk and coming down from a high and Ty doesn’t ask questions, he doesn’t need to, he already knows.

Oh, baby,” Ty pants, deep into his neck, hot breath flushing the already slick skin “Anty,” he groans “Anty.”

Tony lets Ty press him back against the wall, lets his hands draw sharp lines against his rips, trace the glisten of his body, tongue swathing against the skin of his neck. He lets his head fall back, all desperation, pleasure, passion, heat.

He feels the tug of hands against the buttons on his chest, feels them pop under the strain of knuckles clenched tight over white material. He jerks at the light caress of fingers on his belly, the way they follow the strip of hair that leads down, down, down, to where his cock lies nestled between trim hair and thick, sweating thighs.

“You filled out,” Ty grins against his neck, one hand deftly unzipping his fly, cupping his balls. Tony laughs, then gasps, head cracking against the wall and mouth twisted in a sick smile. This is everything he wants, it’s everything he needs, it’s not Whitney, it’s not the feel of her on his skin, in his brain, it’s male and Ty and familiar and he has wanted this for so long.

“I couldn’t stay fifteen forever, Caesar,” Tony pants as Ty’s fingers flick at a nipple, roll it between their fingers, and come down for a bite.

“No,” Ty says, moaning at the use of his old childhood name “no, and I’m glad for it, because,” Ty’s teeth nibble at his earlobe, lick the shell, and Tony lets his hands push Ty’s pants to the ground, leaving him bared in only his white dress shirt, sleeves rolled up and unbuttoned, and so, so hot. “Because you’re beautiful now, Tony, all long limbs,” another swipe and Tony moans “strong, you’re so strong, this was all wasted on her, Tony, it was all wasted on Whit—”

“Don’t call her that,” Tony snaps, head still pressed back against the wall and mouth open in rapture “don’t, don’t remind me—”

“Shh,” Ty soothes “it’s okay. It’s okay, c’mon, I have just the thing.” He tugs Tony forward, he’s always the one that pulls and Tony always follows and that is okay, that is, it is so okay, it’s good, Tony loves it because with Ty he can always let go, always.

“Here,” Ty says, pushing Tony, legs sprawled and cock half hard against his thigh, into a chair by the oak table. “Here,” he repeats, and he sets out the coke, uses his own business card to set it into a line, and the rolls a bill, pushes it into Tony’s hand. “C’mon,” he soothes, crouching between Tony’s legs, one tongue swiping a hot heat across his balls “c’mon, Anty.”

Tony shivers, arches back against the chair, and he’s still wearing socks, he thinks vaguely, why is he still wearing socks. He brings his feet to curl round Ty’s head reflexively, takes the note, and there is no thinking, there is no delay, he is everything Whitney said and worse, he’s an alcoholic and a druggy but he can change, he will, in the morning it will be a new day and he deserves this last hit just to keep him going.

His eyes rolls in his head as the drug hits his system, turning him high and loose, and he shudders, clutches Ty’s thick blond hair between his tight fingers and moans as Ty takes his length in one.

“It’s funny,” he says, coming up for air “you’re bigger than I remember.”

Tony’s beyond words, or maybe just can’t be bothered, but Ty mouths wetly at his shaft, draws his tongue over the head, laps at Tony’s balls while Tony’s thighs tighten over his shoulders, moaning, and there is no sound more beautiful that Tony Stark lost and incoherent with pleasure, Ty has loved it since they were just boys playing around and he loves it now.

After, Ty holds him while he cries.

 

Chapter Text

Tony spends that summer with Ty. 

He kisses goodbye to Boston for the final time, packs up his workshop and his home for the past eight years. Obie tells him about plans to move the whole of SI out to the valley and Tony pushes his approval heartily. New York is old, and everything he hates, and Cali is new and sun and Ty.

Tony won’t acknowledge it, but he knows there’s something wrong. He knows that there’s something wrong with drinking every morning and every lunch and getting wasted every night. And he knows that there’s nothing funny about the times when he sweats and shakes and laughs hysterically because Ty hasn’t got him his coke on time. 

But Tony’s dealer is back in Boston and he doesn’t know any of the local ones. It’s so much easier to just let Ty get him some.

Problem is, Ty is stingy. Sometimes he’s willing, sometimes he’s not. He doesn’t seem to understand that Tony will go crazy without it, and Tony is having a hard time stopping the shakes in front of him.

Ty is a blessing. He’s not like Whit, he doesn’t sit there and blame him or point fingers, he just gives him the coke, ready to go, and he does everything he can to make life just a little bit fucking easier. Tony tells himself that Whit was wrong, because if he wanted to, he could stop. He can acknowledge now that, sure, okay it would be difficult. But he has willpower. He could do it, if he really wanted to.

Which he doesn’t. He doesn’t need to, and it makes life easier. He’s no Nick Boyle; he’s not going on end up living on the streets and dealing to bums.

Ty is good. They’re good.

The sex is pretty great, too.

Tony doesn’t know what it exactly to call what it is they’re doing. Dating? Definitely not. They’re friends with… benefits. Friends with benefits. Tony can’t date Ty, no matter what the other man insists. He’s a guy.

“Tony, you’re not the only gay man in the world you know.”

“Not gay.” Tony had huffed.

“You’re not the only man in California that likes men, Tony. Not by a longshot. I have news for you, my friend. You know all those guys at the party last night? All of them, and I do mean all of them, yes, the conservative tight-holes too, have at least sucked or been sucked before. At least.”

“Great.” Tony had said. “And then they go home to their girlfriends and have lots of white babies. They don’t live with other guys.”

“If it’s that much of a problem,” Ty had snapped “then fuck off. I love you, Tony. And I’m getting fed up of waiting for you to say it too.”

Tony does love Ty, he thinks. He doesn’t know. It’s hard to say, because Tony can count on one hand the people he loves and one of them has disappeared and the other he chucked out of his apartment in a drunken rage.

Lust, Tony reminds himself. You’re in lust.

“I’m sorry,” he says later “I don’t mean it. Fuck, you know me, I just say shit, I don’t even think —

Ty had shut him up with a bruising kiss.

 

He can’t stop shaking.

His fingers tremble, his body quivers, there’s nausea rising in his stomach and it’s awful, he’s throwing up again and again all down himself and it’s disgusting, he’s disgusting and he’s so fucking scared because he doesn’t know what’s wrong or how to stop it.

“Ty,” he sobs “Ty, Ty.”

There’s the sound of a catch unlocking and then the front door is being pulled open. Ty is staring at him like he doesn’t know who he is, and there’s disgust there.

He throws up again, and this time it’s on Ty’s bare feet. He slips, hands clutching at the door but it’s not enough to hold him up and when he falls Ty catches him, holds him against his chest.

“I’m sorry,” he sobs, mind breaking down “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

Ty doesn’t say anything but he drags him inside with urgency as Tony shudders and groans.

“What happened.” He asks, brusquely. 

“Don’t know,” Tony says, and for a moment the world tilts and shifts and he’s trying to push away “don’t,     don’t —” 

His vomit hits the tiled floor of the bathroom.

“Ty,” he whispers “Ty, I think I’m gonna die.”

Ty is ripping his soiled shirt and pants from his sweating body. “Don’t be ridiculous, you’re not going to die.”

Tony barely hears him. He’s breathing in and out and in and out, heavy, getting faster and faster. He curls his fingers and stretches them, tries to feel himself again but everything’s disconnected, he’s taken too much, he’s an idiot, he’s a pathetic little shit, and he’s going to die, oh God, oh God he doesn’t want to die.

“Got to — ” Tony tries to push past Ty’s arms where they hold him up “got to go, got to — ”

“Tony,” Ty says, irritation, and maybe some panic “stop, calm down, here, shh, sit here.”

Tony’s fingers catch in Ty’s dirty vest. “Gonna throw up, gonna throw — ”

Ty pushes his head into the toilet bowl.

“Please,” he says, and he doesn’t know to whom he is speaking or why “God, oh God, I’m dying — ”

You’re not dying.” Ty spits “You idiot. Know your fucking limits, Tony, know your limits, you took too much too fast, didn’t you?” 

Tony can’t talk. He feels so sick it’s unreal, he’s never felt like this before, every shudder brings a new wave of nausea and it’s awful, it’s torture, he’s shaking and sweating and he’s so fucking cold, he curls his naked body around the toilet bowl.

“Here,” Ty says, and there’s the slap of a cloth on the back of his neck “here, I’m sorry. Shh, Tony.”

Tony sobs and dry heaves. There’s nothing to come up but his body won’t except it, it wants to expel every trace of the drug from his system, it wants to milk him dry.

Ty’s dragging the cloth over his back and trying to soothe him but Tony can’t stop shaking. What if he dies? What if he actually dies? Oh God, fuck, fuck Whitney was right, he’s an addict and he’s turning into his father, he’s worse than his father and he had hurt her —

Ty is pulling back his head. He’s wiping the corner of his mouth with a damp cloth. “Easy, Anty.” He’s murmuring. “Easy.”

Tony hands find his, and Ty lets him hold on, lets him sit against the bathroom wall with Ty crouched in front of him, naked, with sick rolling down his chest and hair plastered to his head, pupils blown, shaking and sweating. Ty holds his hands and he doesn’t let go and Tony tosses his head, throws it back and tries to fight down the extreme nausea.

“Gonna throw — ” He doesn’t finish the sentence and Ty pushes his head back into the toilet.

 

Later, Tony is lying on Ty’s bed, spread out, shaking and sweating in equal measure. He throws the sheets from his body only for him to start dumping heat, and which point Ty dutifully tucks him back in.

He holds his head to let him sip at cold water.

He washes the sweat from his crevices.

He changes the sheets.

Tony tries to remember what happened, at the party, but it’s a blur. He’d taken some shots, and then snorted some, and then some more, and then he must have taken more, because the next thing he knew he was shaking and he couldn’t breathe and he thought he was dying.

After, Ty tells him not to let it happen again. Never. He tells him he can do coke, there’s nothing wrong with that, but if he ever misjudges that badly again Ty will never forgive him.

In Tony’s opinion, he got off lightly. He and Ty resume their relationship, and the word ‘addiction’ or ‘help’ isn’t mentioned.

 

It doesn’t stop Tony, though. After the incident has passed, he forgets the fear of thinking he was going to die. He forgets the crushing realisation of addiction. Or, he pretends that it was his delirious mind playing up his symptoms. So, he took too much coke. So what? Happens all the time. It doesn’t mean he’s addicted. A first-timer could easily make that mistake, too.

It reaches a point where Tony is drinking near consistently. He’s partying every night, and usually every morning, too. 

Snorting isn’t enough anymore. It doesn’t give him a quick enough high. Injecting is easier for everyone, right?

It gets him going for longer, and everything’s is so much easier. When he’s drunk nothing matters and when he’s high he’s invincible and when he’s both it’s like flying and why why why would he ever want to stop? It’s flying and sailing and dancing, it’s like being at the front of a crowd, feeling them at your back with the main act on stage and you’re moving in a rhythm with security at you back. So sometimes you get crushed, but you always climb back up onto your feet.

Tony is fine, fine, fine, he knows he’s fine, he doesn’t need anyone pretending otherwise, and Ty loves to snort coke off of Tony’s back and he loves licking it off the inside of Tony’s thighs and everything is so, so good.

 

Everything is awful it’s awful and Tony’s a mess. He’s a mess and he knows he’s a mess, and he’s coming home every morning and he’s throwing up everything he’s eaten, he’s losing weight, all that weight he tried so hard to gain, and his muscles are growing veiny. 

He’s disgusting, he looks disgusting and he feels disgusting, black bags under his eyes and shakes that never fade and he’s always tipping vodka into his drinks, he takes it with his coffee and orange juice in the morning and his soda at lunch and even his wine at dinner. Tip, tip, tip, he can’t fucking do it, okay? He can’t not drink because if he doesn’t the shakes set in and he realises, he realises how pathetic he’s become.

The drinking stops the worry, the near constant worry, because his father is dying and he has to take over the company and he kicked out his girlfriend and his parents don’t love him and Jarvis left and Ty gave him looks full of longing that’s now turning to disgust because he’s skinny and frail and there are track marks on his arms —

 

But what does it matter? What does it matter, Ty is sucking at him nipples and Tony is giggling and he’s so happy, he’s so fucking happy, he needs to stop letting himself get down because he is fine. 

 

He’s been drinking regularly since he was thirteen, he realises. How did he not see it before? How did he not see what he was becoming? For the first time, Tony feels nothing but sympathy for his father because he’s just like him and has his dad felt like this the whole time? Tony could excuse it, he could excuse him hating his son if he had to feel like this, like nothing matters, why does anything matter, and like everything is pointless and wrong and hating himself this much feels, it feels awful, oh God it’s so bad all he knows how to make it stop is to drink.

He could understand why his father would hate him. He would hate having someone like him for a son, too.

 

He’s in bed and he’s with Ty. He’s just taken his hit and it’s still so fresh that he’s fucking exhilarated, he’s laughing and when Ty goes in to press kisses down his belly, down, down, down, until his cock is resting in his mouth and Tony is moaning.

“Feel good?” Ty pants, and the hot breath causes Tony to buck forward, try and sit himself in Ty’s wet heat.

“So good,” Tony replies, breathless “need you to fuck me.”

Need me?” Ty grins, and he’s crawling over Tony’s body “I like the sound of that.”

Tony giggles. “Asshole.”

Ty presses a kiss to his lips and takes Tony’s ass in one hands, squeezing. “I’m not the asshole, here, Tony.”

Ty moves down as Tony spreads his legs, sighing contentedly and shifting. He can pretend he’s okay, like this, everything is great, he’s happy, he’s gonna get fucked by his best friend and it’s gonna feel good, he is fine.

He laughs when Ty draws off his pants and he laughs when he feels his indentation in the bed. He’s still laughing when Ty works a finger deep inside him.

“Something funny?”

Tony laughs.

Ty sucks his teeth. Tony gets like this sometimes, but why shouldn’t he, he’s happy, goddamn he just wants to scream it out and laugh and what’s wrong with that.

He sits up, suddenly, and he drags Ty to him, presses a kiss deep into his mouth. Ty makes a noise of aborted shock and then reciprocates in kind taking Tony’s head in his hands.

Tony’s biting hard enough to draw blood and Ty pushes him back down onto the bed, hands on his shoulders and keeps him there, swooping down to bite a bruise into the delicate flesh of Tony’s throat. He can hear Tony’s moans, like that.

Tony is riding on a wave, and he’s breathing, hard, panting and the lights are blurring over his head. He’s high and drunk and everything is spinning into one, the feel of Ty the feel of the drug, it’s so easy to just forget his problems and laugh and laugh and laugh and —

And then he’s down. He’s gasping and his nails are leaving bloody tracks on Ty’s back, scratching, while he fights to keep in tears, because he’s a mess and he’s disgusting and he doesn’t deserve this, he doesn’t deserve Ty, and he doesn’t know how to stop the drinking and the drugs and —

“Hit me,” he gasps, head pressed back as Ty sucks on his collarbone “hit me, fuck, hit me Ty.”

A pause. “What?”

Tony takes Ty’s wrist in a bruising grip. “Hurt me,” he spits “fucking hit me you idiot.”

Ty draws back. “Tony, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” he says, and he’s bordering on delirious “I need you to hit me, c’mon, it’ll feel so good, it’ll feel — ”

A slap cracks over his cheek, pushing it into the pillow and he gasps.

“Again.”

Another, and he laughs. Another, and he’s jubilant. Yes, yes, yes, this is just what he needs, this is everything he needs and he revels in the pain, sharp and grounding and so, so perfect.

 

Tony drinks. And he injects himself with coke. And he does everything he can to keep his head above the water.

 

He could go home, he reasons. He could go back to New York. With his parents. For some reason, he’s sure they won’t turn him away.

But he can’t. He can’t do that. He’ll finish the summer with Ty, one last summer of fun, right, and then he’ll settle down into his own apartment and he’ll finish the move to Cali and everything will be fine. He’ll stop taking drugs and drinking, it will be fine.

 

He’s drunk again. He’s always drunk, nowadays.

 

He wants to die.

 

He doesn’t want to die. He just wants life to be better.

 

And then it happens again. He takes too much, too fast, the needle is sliding from his hands and his eyes are rolling and he’s vomiting while Ty hold him tight and he thinks that this is it, he’s going to die, he’s going to die, he’s going to die, and he doesn’t want to, he wants to live.

 

After, Ty is furious.

“C’mon,” Tony says, voice strained, because he needs this so bad, why can’t Ty see. “C’mon, Ty, however you want me, however, c’mon,” and he tries to push up onto his toes and hook his arms around the taller man’s neck.

Ty doesn’t look at him. He doesn’t even stare down at him. He just looks ahead, a man made of stone, as Tony presses kisses to his neck.

“Please,” Tony whispers “I’m sorry. It was an accident. It won’t happen again, please.”

“Know your limits, Tony.”

“I do,” he says quickly “I do know them. It was an accident, I misjudged. But I won’t do it again.”

And then Ty pushes him away. “I’m getting tired of cleaning up after you, Stark.”

“Ty,” Tony says, and his hands follow Ty where he crosses the room “Ty, c’mon. I’m sorry. What do you want? Do you want me? I can do anything, I swear.”

“Get out, Tony.”

Tony blinks. “What?”

“Get out. Go. I’ve had enough. I’ve tried with you, Tony. But you’re not worth it.”

You’re not worth it.

Not worth it.

“No,” Tony says, blinking, throat raw “no, please don’t say that.”

“I’m not lying, Tony.” Ty turns, and he stares at him, eyes blank. “Fuck off. I’ve had enough.”

“Ty?”

“Leave.” He says simply.

Tony stumbles.

“I’ve let you live here. And I’ve bought you coke, I’ve bought you your alcohol and I’ve fucked you when you’ve asked for it. And I’ve told you I love you, and you’ve alway thrown it back in my face. I’ve had enough. You can go, now.”

“I — ”

“Get out.”

“Pl — ”

I said get out.”

So this is it, then. This is rock bottom.

“Don’t, please, Ty. Don’t be, don’t be hasty, let me — ”

A hand on his elbow, and then he’s being dragged. “No!” Tony screams, and he throws punches as if he’s strong and he carries any weight at all. “No, no, you can’t, you can’t kick me out, I don’t have anywhere else, I don’t — ”

He’s at the door and he holds out his arms, stalls Ty from throwing him out into the corridor. 

“I love you,” he blurts “I love you, don’t kick me out.”

Ty stares at him, briefly. Frowns, as if Tony is a puzzle he can’t solve.

And then he slams the door.

Tony sinks.

“Ty,” Tony whispers, clutching his hand to his chest “Ty please.”

Silence.

“Ty?” And Tony’s sweat slick palm slides down the door “Ty, c’mon, I was joking, I was—”

His throat is dry. He blinks sweat from his eyes.

“Ty!” He says, voice louder but hoarse “Hey!” And he bangs his fist twice. “I know you’re in there, you can’t just, you can’t ignore me, hey—”

He stays there for a few hours. At least until it reaches that point in the night where the dark is suffocating and it’s already a new day.

Who else does he have?

What friends does he have left?

Whitney, gone.

He fights back a sob.

Ty? Gone.

He can’t go to Rhodey, Rhodey is, he’s half-way across the world and even if he wasn’t Tony’s been such a dick —

His mother? His father? He tries not to laugh.

Jarvis. Oh God, Jarvis. Why, he doesn’t, he’s gone. He’s gone, and he didn’t even leave a note, and he left. 

Tony has no one.

He’s twenty-one, and he’s alone, and he hasn’t got a single friend on the entire planet. 

Not one person who would care if he lived or died.

 

The house is secluded because rich men like their privacy.

Tony slept on a park bench last night. The light is too bright, his hands keep shaking. His shirt is stained, some blood, some come, sweat. Tony doesn’t know what to do. He always, he always thought he had the goddamned answers, and look at him now, begging, he’s going to fucking beg, because he’s already tried stealing at they caught him.

It’s laughable, because they didn’t even recognise him.

He needs a drink. He needs one so bad. He just, he can’t, he needs to forget, and he needs to get better, but it’ll all feel so much easier if he could just get wasted, oh God, all he needs is a drink.

The knocker feels too clean under his dirty hands.

He raps once, twice.

Please answer. Fuck, please answer. He doesn’t know what he’ll do if they don’t answer—

His hair is greasy. It’s plastered to his forehead, stuck across his sweat slick skin. His shirt dirtied, slung over his jeans, buttons mismatched, barefoot because he left his shoes at Ty’s and Ty wouldn’t let him back in.

He’s shaking all over. He’s so fucking desperate.

The door opens.

“Obie,” Tony coughs, and he hunches over himself almost unknowingly, because it’s fucking freezing. “Hi,” he says, and he pulls the corners of his mouth up on his face. “Could I, uh,” he blinks, swallows hard.

“Could I come in?”

 

Chapter Text

It’s snowing.

Maria Stark notes that when she gets into her car. It’s snowing.

The crowd gathers outside to see them off. Retirement, finally, retirement. How long has she waited for this goddamn day? The day that Howard finally slams the doors shut on SI.

The day she may get her husband back before it’s too late.

Howard forgets things, now. More and more frequently. This last gala was a necessity, a final goodbye. And Howard was fine. He was okay. Not as talkative, although that’s to be expected considering he sometimes loses track of conversation.

Now, he’s driving. Maria and Howard sit in silence. They don’t have much to say to one another but they can take comfort in each other’s presence.

It’s snowing.

The windshield wipers move in an equal, yet irritating, tandem on the window of their car.

Maria wonders what her husband is thinking. Worrying, maybe, about his decreasing mental capacities. Worrying, maybe, about leaving the company he worked so hard for in the hands of Obadiah Stane and their own drug-addicted son. Worrying about the future of the world, as he is wont to do, and worrying about the visitors to the house who come carrying files and don’t leave for hours on end.

Maria knows about SHIELD. She’s always known. She just doesn’t care. Howard thinks he’s saving the world, well then, let him. As far as Maria can see, it’s not doing any harm. She’ll stick to her charities, foundations that generally make an active difference to the world instead of working behind a bush in the shadows.

Tony is in rehab. Her son is in rehab. Should she be happy that he’s getting help? Should she be angry that he let this happen to himself? Should she be guilty, because she’s a terrible mother?

Mostly, she feels relief. It’s like a problem that’s been taken off her hands. Tony was getting worse, and now he’s not. He’ll get help. Obadiah will take care of it all.

She never wanted to have a son. She certainly hadn’t wanted to have Howard’s. Knowing what she knows about the man, she supposes it’s a miracle that Tony is even still alive.

Her biggest fear, though, is raising a son who would turn into Howard. A son who would become just like his daddy. And most mothers, their dream, they want their little boys to grow up to be upstanding men like their husbands, but not Maria. If only her brother were still alive, he could have been the role model Tony needs. He would have taught Tony how to be a man. How to ride a bike, how to drive a car, how to talk to girls, God bless him, and how to stand his ground. Instead, he got Howard, who in her opinion is a poor substitute.

Not a day goes by where she doesn’t damn the Maggia to hell for what they did to her brother. 

Tony was dating her brother’s murderer’s daughter. Or at least, he was. It’s shame, really, because she would’ve been a lovely girl if it wasn’t for her blood. She’s not surprised. It’s a small world when you’re rich.

Ultimately, in Maria’s opinion, you can’t shake your blood. That poor girl, Whitney, won’t be able to shake hers anymore than Tony can. She’ll be a criminal the rest of her life, no matter what Ivy League university she attends. Same with Tony: once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. He’ll probably be straining not to snort down coke the rest of his life.

She really is a terrible mother. 

She holds out her hand. “Howard.” She murmurs.

Briefly, he turns her head to look at her. And then he sighs, one hand falling off the wheel to squeeze hers.

Solidarity.

“What are you thinking about?” She says, quietly.

Howard’s fingers shift on the wheel. “Tony.”

She hums, staring out the window. “What about him?”

Howard’s mouth sets into a disapproving line as it usually does when Maria shows obliviousness to their son.

“I don’t — ” He frowns, looks away. “I can’t trust Obadiah.”

“Why.”

“I’m sorry.” He says.

Maria blinks, turning. “What?” 

“I’m sorry. There are things I haven’t told you.”

“Things you haven’t…”

“I’m too old, Maria. I don’t — I don’t know what to do,” he admits “I don’t know if what I’m working with is, I don’t know if it’s correct or if, if I’m paranoid, delusional, seeing things where I want there to be, I don’t know, proof, it’s — ”

“Keep your eyes on the road.” Maria steadies “Howard, you’re not making any sense.”

“I know.” He says, and for a moment his mouth twists wryly. “I can’t trust Tony with Obadiah.”

Maria settles back into her chair. This isn’t anything new. Howard’s been saying this for years.

“Then don’t.” She says, simply. “He’s your son.”

Howard swallows, and then there’s silence.

“Is he, how’s school? Is he still at school?”

Maria stares ahead. “Tony’s not well, Howard, remember?”

He blinks. “What?”

Another lapse. They’ve been happening more and more frequently.

“He’s sick. They,” she clears her throat, briefly, and stares at her nails “he’s in a facility.” She says, delicately.

Howard blinks again, and he turns rapidly to look at her. “What?”

“Keep your eyes on the road.” She repeats, sharply. She is patient with him, but his mind is slipping and he’s driving their car. “Tony’s in rehab.” She says succinctly.

“Since when?” Howard demands.

“A few weeks.”

“Why didn’t you tell me!”

“I did.”

Howard tightens his fingers on the wheel. “What for?”

Maria sighs. “Howard, tesoro, what do you think?”

Howard isn’t looking at her. “That’s not right.” He says, and his voice is gruff. “It’s not right. How old is he?”

“Twenty-one.”

“That’s too young to be an addict of anything. I wasn’t — I wasn’t like I am now at twenty-one, you weren’t. Christ, what’s wrong with him? Where did we go so wrong?”

“Maybe he’s getting over the worst of it now. Maybe it’s better this way. He’ll know not to repeat the same mistake when he’s older.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Howard growls “he’s stuck with it for life, now.”

“Howard,” Maria says softly “it was inevitable. Be glad Obie convinced him to get help.”

The car grinds to a halt. “Obie?”

Maria puts her head in her hands. “Yes, Howard, yes Obie. Who else?”

Howard huffs, head hitting the wheel, fingers tightening reflexively. “Obie? Christ, are you — where is he?”

“California?”

“Tony,” Howard interrupts “where’s Tony?”

Maria frowns. “Arizona, maybe. I’m not sure, I wasn’t — ” wasn’t listening. No, she had been drunk when Obie called through saying that her son had tried to jump out a window in an attempt to get some coke while in the throes of withdrawal. Maria has selective hearing in that way.

Howard doesn’t need to know. It will only hurt him.

“What’s his number?” Howard says, just sitting, not even putting his hands on the wheel.

“Howard, Obie says they’re not letting him take calls.”

“Then I’ll drive.”

Howard!” Maria says “No, you will not, put your hands on the wheel and get us home.”

Howard’s eye twitches. “Cut off one head and another two grow in it’s place, Maria.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s not safe.” Howard hisses. “It’s not safe for him out there.”

“It’s not safe for us here, either, if you keep us parked in the middle of the road.”

Howard blinks. And then he pauses.

“Shh,” he says, hand poised in mid-air. “Shh. What was that?”

Maria frowns. “Howard, there’s nothing — ”

Shh!” He hisses.

Silence.

Snow falls on the windscreen, blocking out the headlights.

A screech. Like metal on metal. It’s barely audible.

“It must be a truck, Howard.” Maria sighs, gritting her teeth. “C’mon. Let’s go.”

But Howard has a look of single minded focus. “Stay here.” He orders, and then he fumbling with his seatbelt and getting out the car.

“Howard!” Maria calls, because a torrent of snow rushes in. It’s getting thicker, the whole windshield is blocked, and it’s freezing. It must be the early hours of the morning by now.

Howard’s footsteps crunch in the snow. He stands there, breath fogging, in his tuxedo.

It’s so quiet that Maria can hear the drop of snowflakes on the metal roof.

Somewhere in the distance, cars move.

And there it is again. The sound of screeching metal, except this time it’s sudden, and it’s louder, no, closer. Maria jumps in her seat. 

Howard!” She hisses “Howard get in.”

“There’s someone out here.”

“There’s no one out here!”

“Then why are you afraid?”

She swallows. “Get in the car, Howard.”

The scraping is getting closer. She twists, looks out the rearview window, but it’s covered in snow and she’s blind.

“Howard,” she whispers “Howard, please get in the car.”

“There’s someone out there.” Howard repeats, eyes wide.

“There’s no one out there!” Maria repeats, hysterical, because the scraping is getting closer, and closer, and closer, and louder.

“They know,” he hisses “oh God, Maria, this is it.”

“This is what?” She says, and her hands fly to her chest, squeezing tight. “Please, Howard, this is what?”

“I’m sorry, oh God I’m so sorry. You’re still young.”

“Howard!” Maria screams, because she’s terrified and she doesn’t know what he’s talking about, he’s scaring her and — 

“The best I can do is to not make it look like an accident, understand? If we’re, if we’re outside then they’ll have to, to shoot us, or — ”

Maria pushes back in her seat and covers her mouth with her hands. Is she going to die? Is she, oh God, oh God she doesn’t want to die, not now, not like this.

The scraping is close, so close, it sounds like, oh God it’s coming from behind her, she’s going to die, she’s going to die, the scraping, that awful sound that makes her ears bleed and it carries death with it, she doesn’t want to go like this, doesn’t want to end this way —

Silence.

Silence.

The sound of snowflakes on metal.

But the car is covered in snow.

This metal is fresh.

“My God,” Howard breathes, and his breath fogs the air, his speech the only sharp sound in what is to be a long, never-ending silence. “It’s really you.”

A huff. 

“Your bumper’s busted.” Howard points out. “It’s making a noise.”

“Howard,” Maria whispers “Howard, who’s there?”

“Maria,” Howard says “come out. It’s okay.”

It’s not okay. It’s not. She hears it in Howard’s tone, it’s the tone he’s used for years, the dead, broken hitch in his voice, the same one he uses when drinking, when it’s hopeless, and she knows —

“My son,” he says “are you going to kill him too?”

Silence.

“Thank you,” Howard says “good. Is there any chance of letting my wife go?”

The screeching of metal.

“I see.” Howard says.

Footsteps. First slow, then faster, one two three, one two three.

Howard can be selfless, she thinks. He can be. He’s going to die, but he checked on his family first.

His family.

And then a metal arm crashes through the windscreen and six seconds later she is dead.

 

Chapter Text

It’s raining, and Tony is wearing sunglasses.

1) Because recently the light has been too bright

2) Because it’s his parents funeral. And he should be crying, but he isn’t. It’s easier to let people think that he’s afraid to show his tears.

Mostly, though, it’s just because it covers the black bags of sleepless nights and the red-rims of withdrawal. Then again, he could always pass it off as days spent crying at the loss of his remaining family.

Tony’s no stranger to funerals. His dad’s brother had died when he was thirteen and he’s been making the rounds of high society death-dos since he was a kid. This doesn’t bother him. It’s normal, step by step, and nothing shocking.

Obie discharged him from the clinic. Technically, he’s clean. He hasn’t taken coke in months, since the night he got to Obie’s. But he was staying for extra therapy, stress relief, that sort of shit. He was supposed to be there for another fortnight, go home, or buy a new apartment, spend the rest of the year getting his head straight and taking back SI in the new year. 

He’s still drinking. But it’s okay. He tells himself it’s okay. Not as bad. It’s not the constant slipping out of meetings to get his fix kind of drinking, it’s more a glass of wine in the evenings to calm his nerves.

And the flask in his top pocket, filled with vodka, just in case.

But he never uses it. He fills it everyday, and he never uses it. He tells himself that as long as he doesn’t have to tip that liquid into his cup, he will be okay.

Honestly, now. He’s fine. He’s not good, he’s not bad. He’s recovering.

Except his parents are dead.

He should cry. He thinks he wants to. He’s not sure why. They were close to him, they’re the first people he’s ever lost who are close to him. Not, you know, actually close, but they were, whether he liked it or not, a large part of his life. A strange, twisted, dysfunctional part of his life, which makes sense, really.

Slowly, he remembers little things. Sitting on his father’s lap, motor oil in his nostrils, his dad’s beard tickling his face when he leans down to show Tony the paper and his shirt soft behind him. His mother, speaking to him in fast Italian, smiling when Tony could parrot back the phrases. Church. The smell of incense.

That makes him want to cry, kinda.

But then he remembers Jarvis, and he remembers spending a month at Obie’s, shaking and spitting and desperate for a hit, and he remembers the polite applause when he crossed the graduating stage, and the bottle over his head, and the years spent at school and the Christmas where his father tried to take him away and the ache is somewhat dulled.

Or maybe he’s in shock. That would explain why he’s finding it difficult to feel anything at all.

They’re lowering his parents bodies into the ground. God, that’s weird. His parents are in those caskets. And now they’re going to be buried under dirt. They were living, breathing people a few days ago.

What was the last thing Tony said to his mom? To his dad?

They had argued. Ah, brilliant. At least they finished the way they’d always gone.

Howard and Maria Stark. His parents. The people that conceived him. Odd. And now they’re gone. 

Tony sighs, rubbing his eyes under his glasses. A woman in a large hat that’s inappropriately bright shoots him a disapproving glare.

There are people here that Tony’s never met. The whole city, really, plus reporters, journalists, a few cameras. The president gave a speech in his father’s honour. He’d made front page news of every respectable paper. 

People are starting to watch him. Watch his every move. He’s been asked to be interviewed by eight different papers.

Let them look. Once it would have scared him, he would have hated to be the centre of attention. Now he doesn’t very well care. If they want him to give answers, fine. He’ll tell them what he wants and watch them scramble about after.

And then it’s over. Or at least, people are standing and murmuring softly. Don’t want to disturb the dead, Tony thinks. Obviously they’ve never heard a Stark family argument. 

He should go. He thinks there’s a, not a party, you can’t call whatever happens after funerals a party, but there’s some kind of get together with all the rich people here today. The president’s supposed to be coming. Tony thinks he’s gonna say he’s crazy with grief and can’t bear to leave his bedroom. What are they gonna say, no? You can’t tell the boy whose just lost his parents not to grieve.

Tony forces himself to his feet and keeps himself from stretching. He should… he should just go. Maybe he’ll book a room in a hotel for a night. Actually, that’s not a bad idea. It sounds ten times better than going back to the mansion and avoiding guests while trying to keep down ghosts and bust out his father’s untouched liquor.

(Maybe he was drunk, Tony thinks, maybe that’s why he crashed the car. Maybe he’s the reason mom’s dead)

Is it normal to tell yourself you don’t care? Because Tony thinks he does. He thinks he cares, but for some reason he’s having trouble admitting it.

He should leave. He turns, searching for Obie, but he’s caught in conversation with a uninspiring man with sandy coloured hair who keeps nodding respectfully as Obie shakes his head. Tony spins back, trying to think happy thoughts. Something not about the death of his parents, maybe.

Then there’s a hand on his elbow. 

He spins, stopping himself from slapping it away. He’s still a bit jumpy.

The man holds up his hands. Olive tone skin, dark brown hair, colouring not unlike Tony’s. When he smiles, his face stretches in a certain way, and Tony realises he’s from his mom’s side of the family.

“You’re Maria’s son.” He says, not asking, just a starting statement.

Tony’s eyes focus on the stone angels behind the man’s head and tells himself to calm down. “I hope so.”

The man smiles. “I’m her brother.”

Tony blinks. “Oh.”

“One of them,” the man adds, and he chuckles. “All the others are dead.”

“Brilliant.”

The man smiles at him. He’s out of place here among the rich men and their pretty wives. He seems too real. Too vibrant. “I’m your uncle.”

“That’s generally what the brothers of our mothers are called.”

The man inclines his head. “My name is Leo.”

“Great.”

Leo looks at him, almost despairingly. He probably doesn’t understand why his nephew is so apathetic to the loss of his mother.

Tony runs his sunglasses to the top of his head and the man sighs. “I’m sorry for your loss.” 

“And I’m sorry for yours.”

Leo’s smile tweaks, slightly. He’s sad, Tony sees, although he can’t imagine why. His mother never mentioned this brother.

“Your grandfather would like to see you, one day.”

Tony frowns. “I have a grandfather?”

“Now that your father’s dead, you might consider coming by to see us,” the man says, and he hands Tony his card. “It might be interesting to see our side of the family.”

Our side of the family. His mother had never stated explicitly what her family did but he understood pretty well that it wasn’t legal. He smiles, anyway. “Maybe one day.” He says politely.

Leo shrugs and shakes his hand. “God bless you.” He says.

When he walks away, Tony’s eyes follow him until he climbs into the back of a chauffeur driven car. As he slides in, Tony sees his jacket flip, revealing a gun in a holster.

None of his business, really.

And then, a hand on his shoulder.

Tony resists the urge to flinch, and turns slowly.

“Anthony,” the man says, and it’s the same guy Obie was talking to earlier. “My name’s Pierce,” he holds out his hand “I am so, so sorry for your loss.”

Tony grips his hand, offers a firm shake, and tries to look gracious. “Thank you.” He says, nodding, and he tries to move away.

“I worked with your father, very closely.” The man says, looking down at him. “Very closely indeed. Such a brilliant man. Such a shame — ” he watches Tony as if waiting for a reaction. “Such a shame he had to die, he had so much more to offer.”

No he didn’t, Tony thinks, but okay.

 “I’m sure he’d be happy to hear that, sir.” Tony says, trying to move past.

“Honestly, Anthony. I know he cared about you greatly.”

Tony moves his lips to stretch over his cheeks in what could be called a smile. “That’s… I’m glad to hear that.”

Pierce gives him a smile that Tony supposes he thinks looks fatherly. “He had so many plans for you, Anthony. So many. The work we did, well, we’re all absolutely devastated to see him go. Absolutely devastated.”

“What is it you did, exactly?” Tony asks, interest piqued.

The man sighs heavily. “We’re a…” he leans in closer “we’re a more covert government service. Your father’s been designing our gear for, well, since we began, Anthony.”

It hurts, actually. Tony decides that this does in fact hurt. He doesn’t want to hear these men talking about his father as if he was a man Tony knew. It hurts. 

“… Big boots to fill, Anthony, big boots.”

Tony blinks. Is this man still talking?

“Uh,” he shakes his head “yeah. Well, I’ll manage, sir. Always do.”

Pierce hums. “Oh I know, son. You’ve got your father in you.” And is Tony imaging that knowing glance, the way he looks down at Tony, as if he can see through him, as if he can see the flask sitting in his pocket and spot the healing track lines on his arms.

Tony decides he does not like this man.

“But if you ever decide that SI gets boring — ” the man drags out a card “ — please do come find me. In fact, I insist. We’d love to have someone with your talents on board.”

Recruitment. Pierce is trying to recruit him.

Briefly, Tony casts his eyes around everyone else milling around. He realises that they’re all surreptitiously waiting for a chance to speak to him.

Oh God.

“We have an office in New York,” Piece continues “just ask for me. They’ll let you though, ask for Alexander Pierce, understand?”

“Uh, yeah, yes sir.” Tony says, blinking, because he’s just spotted someone across the grass.

“That’s it, boy,” Alexander Pierce says, clapping him on the back. “I’ll set something up with Obie, shall I? I’m sure he won’t mind me pinching you.” He turns to leave, then leans back. “And, uh, my condolences.” He says again.

Tony stares are the card in his hand. And then he stares back over the grass. Maybe he had imagined it? Maybe she wasn’t really —

“Tony,” comes the voice, and Tony spins again.

“Whit,” he says, and he thinks he might be croaking. He swallows. “Hi.”

She half smiles, raising her eyebrows. “Hi.” She says.

Tony’s glad the sunglasses are back over his eyes. “How are you… doing.” He asks, carefully.

She nods. “Fine. I graduated, so.”

Tony holds out his hands. “Great.” He says “that’s… great.”

Silence.

“I’m sorry about your parents.” Whitney says, quickly.

“Yeah,” Tony says “uh, thank you. For, for being sorry. That’s, it’s nice of you. To feel that way. About me.”

Whitney smiles softly and she skims a hand down Tony’s arm. “It must be rough.”

“Yeah.” Tony says, and now he wants to cry, kinda.

“I mean, I know you were really close.” Whitney says, and when Tony looks up, she’s looking at him with that look, that, oh God, it’s that little smile that makes Tony want to take her home and just have everything be like it was when they first started out.

Tony snorts. “Yeah, I mean — ”

“Shh,” Whitney says sharply “don’t snort, it’s a funeral.” She hisses.

Tony allows himself a small smile.

“Have you… have you talked to Ty?” Whitney asks.

“Ty?” Tony says weakly. “Have I, have I talked to, uh,” he scratches the back of his head. “Ty and I, uh.” He swallows. “I mean, we’re not. We don’t.”

“What happened?”

“He kicked me out.” Tony blurts. “I was… having some problems.” He says, delicately.

Whitney’s face darkens. “Well I hate to say I told you so.”

“But you were right,” Tony says quickly “everything, literally everything you said was right. I’m sorry for being such an ass.”

“I know,” she says “you were drunk.”

“Yeah.” Tony says shortly.

Whitney licks her lips. “So, for the past few months you’ve been…”

“Rehab,” he nods “I, I was in rehab.”

“Well I’m glad you got the help.”

“Yeah,” Tony says. “Yeah.”

(He’s dying for a drink)

Whitney nods again. Tony wonders if he’ll ever get the little girl she once was, the one he used to read to in the library when no one else wanted to be his friend, back.

“Well, it was nice seeing you.” Whitney says, finally.

“Yeah,” Tony nods “I’ll, I’ll see you around, maybe.”

She smiles politely again and Tony tries to smile back.

It’s time to leave. He really, really, wants to leave.

Except there’s more. More people who want to talk to him. More people shaking his hand, offering condolences in voices that drip with false sympathy. Hammer is here, Hammer, the man who nearly ran his father into the ground when he was a child, the man his father beat hands down. He’s brought his nasally son with him, too.

The Roxxon president wants to offer him a partnership. Tony declines by saying he hasn’t inherited his shares yet. The man nudges him in the side and winks, as if it’s a given, anyway.

Truth be told, Tony is dreading reading the will. He’s dreading it. Because the idea of sitting in a lawyers office while they read out what his father has or has not bequeathed to him, everyone staring when it becomes apparent that Howard Stark did not love his son, was not something to look forward to

God, he needs a drink.

“Obie,” he says, shrugging off a woman with a large hat “Obie, I need to go.”

Obie gives him that look, the one that Tony’s not sure if it says ‘I understand’ or ‘I pity you.’ It doesn’t matter, really. He doesn’t complain when Tony explains that he’s not ‘feeling well’, Obie doesn’t do that. He treats Tony with the same respect he gave his father, even when his father spat in face and called him a liar and screamed to the heavens how much he mistrusted him.

He’ll take tonight for himself. Go to his room in the Waldorf Astoria. It’ll be fine.

(He won’t cry)

 

Tony is busy staring at the wall when the door knocks.

He can’t remember if he ordered room service. Maybe he did? Or maybe it’s one of those complementary things, ‘we’re sorry your parents died, take a rosé on the house’.

Instead, it’s Obie.

Obadiah lost his hair somewhere between Tony leaving for college and his father hitting him over the head. Whatever happened, it was a pretty sharp change. Tony wonders if Obie, disgusted by his encroaching senility, decided to shave it all off. It feels like something he would do.

Now, though, he holds up the wine and raises an eyebrow. Tony lets him past.

“Tony,” he says, and he gives this heavy sigh “just you and me now, m’boy.”

Tony sits back on the couch, back straight, fingers balanced carefully on his lap. It’s better to stare at the wall. “Don’t you have,” he blinks “ don’t you have shmoozing?” 

He hears the pop of a cork and the crackle of the opener hitting a metal tray. “To be honest, you’re my priority.”

The sound of wine filling a glass, perfectly precise.

Footsteps, and then it’s being offered to him. Tony looks up.

“You’ve been crying.” Obie observes.

“I haven’t been crying.” Tony says, voice hoarse.

Obie doesn’t say anything in return, just hands him the glass.

“Are you sure I’m allowed to do this?” Tony asks.

“I trust you, Tony.” Obie murmurs. “It’s good for you. It calms the nerves.” He hears Obie smack his lips, his eyes still fixed on the wall. 

“Tony,” Obie says, softly. “You’re shaking.”

He tilts the glass to his lips, sipping. It’s good. It’s very good, sweet, but not entirely bitter. He lets it rest in his mouth, but then swallows anyway. It goes down the wrong way, and he coughs, setting the wine down on the table.

“Easy,” Obie soothes “it’s been a long day.” 

He says it as if Tony choking on the wine is somehow related to his parent’s death and subsequent exhaustion.

They sit in silence, for a while. Tony, back straight, eyes fixed on the wall. Obie, slouched on the opposite side of the couch.

Eventually, he clears his throat. 

Tony taps his fingers against the glass in his hand.

“You… you might want to finish that.” Obie says, and Tony frowns.

“What?”

He draws out a letter. “Tony… I am so, so sorry, m’boy.”

He blinks. “I know.”

Obie shakes his head. “No,” he says, quietly. “Tony… the butler. Jarvis.”

Tony turns his head. “Is he coming?” Tony swallows “Is he, will he see me?”

Obie doesn’t say anything, but he does hang his head.

“Obie,” Tony whispers “is he coming?”

“I… I didn’t want to have to be the one to give you this.”

“Obie?” Tony rasps.

He slides the letter across the couch. Tony plays the paper around his fingers.

“What is it?” He asks.

Obie shakes his head. “Open it.” He says, almost soundlessly. His voice sounds about to break.

Tony cracks open the sealing and peels out the paper with trembling fingers.

Tony,

It begins.

I’m sorry I have to be writing this, now. It’s not fair, I know. You’re busy. You must be busy. Certainly, I hope you are.

It’s not fair that I have left you. Tony, if I could begin to even explain how much it hurts I wouldn’t dare. There’s no words I can place together to show you how sorry I am that I had to leave.

The truth is, I am dying, Tony. If you are reading this, then I am dead.

I have AIDS, Tony. I’ve always had it. I took my downward turn last year. Your father knew. He always knew, but he accepted it. Tony, he took me in when no one else would, after Vietnam. I have everything to owe him, and consequently, you.

I never had children. I never had to. You were the only son I ever needed, or wanted.

That being said, it’s probably for the best. They tell it spreads that way, too. Through children.

I don’t know the man who did this to me. When it happened, I was sad, and lonely, and I had war fresh in my mind. Irony, Tony. That’s what brought me to your father. You’re old enough to know this, now. It was irony that brought us together and then it was irony that kept me there. I love your father and I know he loved me, once. I’m not sure if he’s entirely capable of it anymore.

I know certainly that he loves you. He doesn’t like you, but he does love you. He loves you in the way that any man loves his son. I hope you can reconcile before I die, Tony. In fact, could you do that for me? Could you make the effort with him? He can’t make the effort with you, Tony, because he thinks everyone hates him. He lets himself get low and when he’s low he thinks the world’s against him. Paranoid delusions, Tony, absolute paranoia. I’ve tried to help him, but your father doesn’t get help easily.

I think you two are too similar. That’s why you’ve never been as close as I would have liked. Of course, your father is negligent at best. I think that has something to do with him seeing himself in you, Tony. He doesn’t want to see a clean slate. He doesn’t want to see what could have happened if it had gone right.

I know things might be difficult for you. If you feel the same way I do, then this goodbye will be bittersweet. You may never forgive me. It’s possible that you may burn this letter and forget me entirely. Please understand that I just wanted your last memory of me to be happy. I want you to remember the small things, Tony. The books, and cakes, and  the igloos. Please, Tony, I want you to remember that. Because if I have done anything of worth in my life, it’s you.

When you were a child, I took you to the aquarium. Do you remember? It was the first time you’d ever really been out like that before, I would know. 

It is one of my happiest memories, Tony. I remember that day we sat by the fountain, and you ate ice cream. You weren’t really talking yet, you were such a late bloomer. But you had really wanted that shark. Do you remember?

I’m sorry if I sound rambled. My head’s not entirely screwed in one place at the moment. The drugs and the sick and everything else. While I’m lucid, there are things you need to know.

Firstly, your father is not a bad man. A terrible father, yes, but not a bad man. It’s all I’ll say on the matter. You will understand when you have your own children.

Your mother is more complicated. Tony, when you were younger you once asked me what you would have to do to get your mother to love you. Let me tell you now there is nothing you can do to win her, Tony. And it is not your fault. She is sick. She is sick to her core.

Before you, there were other children. I know that for sure. I know that there was a little girl, Tony. She was born, and died not long after. It hurt you mother, Tony. It damaged her irreparably. She was never mentally strong to begin with, I fear. I saw it in her eyes. You, who have never sustained a conversation, have never seen the rabidness in her manner. Although, I’m sure even you are aware of her rapidly changing temperament.

Post-partum depression, Tony. She never recovered. The doctors can’t diagnose what’s wrong with her stomach because there is no problem. It’s all in her head.

I am telling you this because they certainly never will. I believe that at the very least you should know these things about your family. It’s where you come from, after all.

I want to see you grow, Tony. I want to see you grow up. Every man lives to see their son grow, and leave, and have a family of their own. I want to live to see you have all that and more, Tony. I want you to have the very life that you deserve. I want to be able to look after your children someday.

But I can’t. Because I am dying. And I need you to know how sorry I am.

Tony, I will say this because I know you do not hear it often. You are brilliant. You are magnificent. You are a genius and you are creative and you are perfect. More than anything, you are kind. You have been abandoned and shunted and scared and you have not let it tear you down. You are a brilliant, brilliant boy, Tony.

I love you, so, so much. Please, Tony. I love you so much.

I don’t want to die. I wish you were here. I would love, more than anything, to see you one last time.

We must continue, Tony. Even in the face of the greatest adversary, we must continue. Never give up. I know, that for you, that must mean something. No matter what happens, Tony, never give up. Even when it seems like all hope is lost, when it seems that you will never recover, when you find yourself at the bottom of a hole and no glimpse of sunlight, please, please, please do not give up.

Please take care. Please be careful

Do not worry.

I love you.

My hand is shaking, Tony. I don't think I can write anymore.

Edwin Jarvis.

(December 13th, 1991)

 

“Tony,” Obie says quietly. “Tony, m’boy.”

He stands, and fills Tony’s glass to the brim. “Drink,” he says.

Tony blinks. Wine spills down his shirt.

“No, no, it’s okay,” Obie soothes “shh, here, I’ll get it.”

“He’s dead.” Tony mumbles.

“Tony, drink this, that’s it, it’ll calm you.”

“He’s dead.” Tony repeats.

“I know,” Obie says. “I’m so sorry. To lose, to lose everything so soon, is just… Tony, I can’t imagine it.”

“I knew he was dead.” Tony tries, swallowing wine. There’s something else there, something new. A different taste, slightly acidic. “I hate him.” He mumbles.

“No,” Obie says quietly “no you don’t. Don’t say that.”

“He left me.” Tony whispers.

“I’m here.”

Tony blinks rapidly. He downs his drink in one.

“Shh,” Obie says, prising the glass from his fingers. “Shh, you can cry — ”

“I’m not crying.”

“I know. I know, I’m sorry. No, of course you’re not.”

Tony rubs the back of his hand sloppily over his mouth. “M’tired.”

He feels Obie’s heavy arm on his back, round his shoulders. He feels a sob bubble to his lips.

“Come on,” Obie says, and he just lifts him up, steer him gently. Tony stumbles.

“I want a drink.” Tony says into Obie’s shirt collar.

“You’ve had enough.” Obie says quietly.

“S’not fair.”

“Nothing’s fair,” Obie says.

He’s sitting on the bed. The big, queen sized bed. Such a beautiful suite. He’s so lucky to have this suite.

“I feel wrong,” he says “I feel — ”

“Empty,” Obie finishes, tugging his shirt off his form. “Your parents just died. Your… butler, just died. It’s understandable.”

“My head,” Tony slurs. “It’s my head.”

“Does it hurt?”

“Spinning.”

“Okay.” Obie says, and he pulls back the covers. “Why don’t you lie down?”

Tony blinks. “Obie?”

“Lie down, m’boy. Sleep. You’ll feel better when you wake up.”

“I d’nt want t’wake up.”

There’s hand, briefly, in his hair. Another pulling down his pants. And then drawing the covers over his body. Tony wants to fight against the exhaustion, but it’s pulling him down like a weight. The goose-down duvet feels like rope. He can barely move.

He feels himself switching off. Limbs relaxing entirely, and eyes closing. He’s drooling, but he can’t be bothered to wipe it away.

He breathes, slowly. In, and out. In and out.

He stays that way for a while, perfectly calm and on the edge of sleep, for all intents and purposes in the middle of deep slumber.

But it’s ten more minutes until he feels the weight leave from beside the bed and the lights being switched out.

 

Chapter Text

When Tony awakes, it’s still dark.

It’s easy to just lie there. Somewhere between sleep and reality. He feels heavy. His mind is slow. He knows that if he wakes up, he’ll have to face something, but he doesn’t know what. He knows that, for the most part, it’s easier to just lie in bed.

He blinks. It’s dark, but the lights from the hotel’s exterior show snow falling heavily.

Christmas Eve, his mind supplies.

He wants to fall back under. He never wants to leave this bed.

Instead, he checks the clock by his side. 5:27 am.

Briefly, Tony debates going back to sleep. He has the will reading at 9. Is there any point? 

He stumbles to the bathroom and retches at the smell of sick. Christ, he doesn’t remember that. He must have thrown up last night after he went to sleep. It’s disgusting.

Tony rubs his curls back from his forehead. Shower, he thinks, and he runs the hot water, turning it to maximum. That feels good. It feels right.

It’s still so dark outside, and New York is being coated in thick snow. It mutes everything. When Tony gets out of the shower and stares out the window, everything is quiet. No one moves.

Tony thumbs the material of the suit he’s supposed to wear. Today is a big day, or so he’s been told. Lot’s of investors, lots of high-ranking recipients, the board of directors. They will all be there to get their share or see Tony get his. They’ll each have their own personal set of plans for every scenario from Tony getting the company to him being disowned and thrown out on the street.

Tony doesn’t care very much, although having his father write him out of his will would be embarrassing.

 

“Obie,” he says, walking up to the man talking to investors. “Hi.”

Obie turns, blinking. “Tony,” he says, and for a moment he pauses, before smiling. “Tony, this is Senator McCaully.” He says, hand coming to slide round his waist.

“Pleasure to meet you,” the man says, shaking his hand firmly “I am so, so sorry for your loss.”

“The Senator here was a good friend of your father’s, Tony.”

“We were drinking buddies.” The man shrugs bashfully. 

Tony laughs politely. “Maybe he’s left you some of his personal stash.”

The man blinks and then smiles forcefully. “Oh, I’m not sure about that.”

Tony pushes his lips to stretch on his face and the man leaves.

“Tony — ” Obie sighs.

“When can I leave?” He blurts.

Obie looks at him, pulling his arm round his shoulders and tugging him away from the crowd. “How did you sleep?” He murmurs.

“Briefly and terribly.” Tony says. “It’s lucky I woke up when I did or I would have slept in.”

“You don’t say.” Obie intones, dryly.

“Obie, I don’t want to — ”

“It’s fine.” He says, swinging round to meet him head on. “Listen, you can’t go now, they’ve seen you. But I’ll do what I can to get you out of the… after party, okay? 

“Thank you.” Tony says, gratefully, and he means it.

They file in and Tony takes his place in the front row next to Obie. The meeting is taking place in a conference room, except the walls are made of old oak and there’s wine being served instead of water.

Tony takes some and Obie says nothing.

“If we could settle down,” a man is saying, and Tony blinks. He wants to sink down and just disappear but there’s a tight bundle of nerves in his belly and it’s making it impossible to do much of anything at all.

The man clears his throat. “I know that most of you are here for Mr Stark’s will, so, we’ll be sorting through that first. After, we’ll be moving over, to, uh, Mrs Stark’s, at which point, any of you who are not interested may, uh, vacate the premises. Are there, any questions?”

The lawyer speaks haltingly and it grates on Tony’s nerves.

“Moving on,” the man says, and a hush falls across them room. He clears his throat.

“The last will and testament of Howard Abraham Stark — ”

The man begins to read. 

“Uh,” he blinks. And then he dabs his brow with his tie.

“It, it, this is unusual.”

There’s murmuring, and rustling. Tony keeps his eyes fixed ahead.

“I’m not sure I should read — ”

“Do it, Harold.” Obie says, cooly.

The man clears his throat again. “I really don’t think — ”

“Harold.” Obie says, quietly.

The man swallows.

 

“It is my, Howard A. Stark’s, last wish, that every and all of my worldly possessions be bequeathed to my son, Anthony Edward Stark. There is no exception to this rule. This includes the house, the yachts, the toolboxes, the cars, etc. Everything that I own, every piece of work I have ever done, is now in his name. My patents will fall under the Stark umbrella. Please see article 42 for a thorough look at what exactly this entails.

Upon reaching majority at twenty-one, Anthony Stark will inherit all of my wealth. Again, there are no exceptions to this. I do not wish for any money to be given to charity. I do not wish for any money to be given to industry fat-cats who are neither in need nor business-savvy. 

I hope I am being entirely clear on this point: you bastards will not get anything. Everything, and I do mean everything I own, will go to the last remaining Stark. If the terms of this are breached in any way, you will have to deal with the full weight of my company’s lawyers.

To clarify, this means I do not wish for my wife to inherit anything. Although I hope my son would be happy to accommodate her in his estate.

On the subject of my company, I would like to informally announce here that again, upon reaching majority, my son will become CEO of Stark Industries. This is conditional, however, on him undergoing psychiatric assessment to ensure that he is capable of dealing with the stress enforced by the day to day running of the company.”

 

“This is bullshit,” someone mutters “he’s writing shit.”

 

Again, this will be finalised further on in the document (please see page 29, article 4) To anyone who thought they would be able to touch me, or get their hands on my company, I’ll let you know now that I have a minefield of legislation protecting my son’s claim, including a DNA test taken the day of his birth. If you slimy little creeps think I’m letting you — ”

The lawyer reads all of this in a flat, monotonous voice. Obadiah clears his throat. “I think, maybe, that’s enough. This is just a formality, obviously, Mr Stark has nothing more to say — ”

“Are you sure?” The lawyer blinks. “I could continue — ”

“Enough, Harold.”

Tony blinks and continues to stare at his glass.

People are growling around him. He feels them moving, hears one man slam his fist into the table. What were they expecting? Honestly, what did they think was going to happen?

Obie is shepherding people out of the room until only a handful remain. He feels like maybe some of them want to talk to him, but he ignores them, and plays with the rim of his glass.

“Uh,” the lawyer says, wiping his brow, as Obie slumps back into the chair next to Tony. “moving on, then.”

When Tony looks up, he sees that there are only four people in the room. Two women, one old, one young, and two men, dressed in identical suits.

He turns back to the front and tries to not shiver.

“Let the record show that — ”

“Get on with it, Harold.”

The lawyer coughs. “The last will and testament of Maria Camila Carbonell Stark.” He begins.

 

Ultimately, it wasn’t very surprising.

It was a bit cold, though.

His mother didn’t leave him anything. Not in the cliche, ‘I leave you nothing but my most treasured ring’ sort of way, it was more like she stated explicitly and repeatedly that she did not want any of her belongings or personal money pile to be left to her son because he was, in her view, completely undeserving.

She did leave a letter, though. One that Tony will not be opening.

She gave Obie five hundred thousand dollars. She says it’s “as recompense for the work you did for both my husband and his company.”

She left Tony a piece of paper.

 

Tony spends Christmas in the mansion, the one he never got to call home.

Even Obie doesn’t visit. That’s how low he’s sunk. It’s Christmas, and he has exactly no one.

So instead, he takes the time to do everything he never got the chance to do.

He slides down banisters. He sleeps in his dad’s office. He inspects the panic rooms for a brief two minutes before wigging out and running upstairs. He samples each and every one of his father’s favourite drinks — his drinks, now, everything here belongs to him

Except of course chandelier in the hall and a statue of Achilles because his mother had purchased them and the lawyers will be coming to pick them up in the morning. Thanks, mom.

He, at one point, decides to teach himself how to ride a bike. No one else ever taught him and it’s Christmas, and he had got a bike when he was seven or eight and never actually ridden. It’s tiny and ridiculous but Tony is a little drunk so he cycles it up and down his mother’s corridor over and over.

Christmas lunch is a pre-made turkey burger with salted chips. He eats one, and then goes on a binge, also downing a pizza and two cookie packets. At least this way he’s not as drunk as he should be.

It’s good. It’s fun. No one calls to wish him a Merry Christmas, but that’s to be expected, because he doesn’t have any friends. Haha.

Tony allows himself one cigarette. Just enough to stop his hands from shaking in need for something he can’t have.

Eventually, it gets boring. A day spent by himself in a cavernous house with only the snowman he built for company. He decides to take a trip down memory lane.

Turns out there aren’t that many, when you bypass Jarvis’ room out of fear and barely-tamped longing for something that can’t be.

So he ends up back on his mattress in his dad’s office, looking through his files. Despite all this technically belonging to him, it feels wrong. He feels like a snoop. 

He finds a picture of his mother and his father, arm in arm, on a balcony over-looking a beach. Ah yes, vacation photos. Just what he needs. He tries to feel sardonic, but instead he’s overcome with some kind of undefinable emotion better left undefined.

They look happy. His parents look kinda happy.

It’s a nice photo. It would be a shame to lose.

So he puts it in the ‘keep’ pile, and begins to sort through all of them. Why not? It’s a long night.

He finds another. It’s his mother and another man, young, her age maybe, dark skin and thick crop of hair on his head, frizzy and round. Tony tries to remember if he’s seen his face somewhere before, but it’s difficult to place. Maria has her hand on his arm, laughing at something that he’s presumably said. The man is grinning faced forward, but eyes sliding towards his mother.

They’re pressed close together.

Tony assumes his father took the photograph.

Tony’s parents had never actually taken him on vacation. Come to think of it, Tony’s never been abroad full stop. He has a passport which he thinks is up to date, but he’s never really had to go anywhere.

He should go on holiday. Ty is always saying —

He turns back to the photos.

There’s another, this time of Jarvis holding him on his shoulders. Tony doesn’t remember it being taken and he doesn’t know who took it. Still, he places it in the ‘to keep’ pile.

Another. This time, of a baby. Tony frowns, and flips the back. It doesn’t have a name, just a date: 27th March 1963 — baby.

It must be his sister. Tony stares at it for a long time. Strange that it was left to rot in this box. He wonders if it’s the only copy.

If so, it would be stupid to let it go to waste. If it’s the only record of this little girl, the one his mother seemed to love so much, he doesn’t want to —

It wouldn’t be fair, to forget her. To his mother, he means, it wouldn’t be fair.

Tony soon realises that this whole box is actually some of Howard’s keepsakes. These are his father’s favourite memories. And Tony is featured in the box! Multiple times!

It’s not like he cares, or anything. You know. But still, it feels good. He finds a picture of him and his father working on the Roadster, and Tony remembers that day. He had been nine or ten, and he’d been home for a few weeks over summer. His father and him had actually worked on the engine together. Or at least, Howard had, but Tony got to hand him the wrenches from time to time as long as he was quiet.

Again, it feels too important to throw away. All of these things. He stops sorting them and instead just starts looking through the box. At some point, he starts drinking, but it’s okay. It’s nice, it’s mellow, and it’s only wine.

Tony finds a pack of old, worn photos, crackled and crumpled and whitening. He sorts through them, frowning, not really recognising anything in particular except for his father standing next to the occasional army man.

Except then Tony’s blinking, because this is a scene straight out of a history textbook. This, woah, his dad had always told him, and Tony had always known, but still —

That’s Captain America.

It’s all of them, all the commandos. A group photograph, the Captain in the centre, his father on one side and another, shorter man, with thick brown hair on his left. Bucky Barnes, he knows, of course he knows, everyone knows, Tony did a project on the commandoes when he was in the fifth grade.

It’s dated on the back, too. It’s completely surreal. Tony knows his father knew Captain America, mainly because it’s the only story he ever told him. Ever. Multiple times. Tony knows the story of how he flew Steve Rogers out into enemy territory like the back of his hand, as well as the story about the first test, and the story about how after he went down Howard did not rest, desperate to find him. Tony vaguely remembers his father spending summers in the arctic, searching for him, but they stopped when he was pretty young.

His dad looks so young. It’s before the alcohol ripped up his system and destroyed his face.

Tony tries not to think about it.

He’s doing it again, he realises. He’s doing that thing, that self-punishment thing. He’s making himself look at these photos just to see everything he never got to have and everything he lost.

From his father’s collection, it would be easy to think that Tony had a very nice childhood. That they were a happy family. He doesn’t find any pictures of all three of them together, but he’s pretty sure they never actually posed for that photo. This is obviously his dad’s happy box. He’s included what he thinks is good.

His father had probably cared, then. He had probably loved him.

It feels like a punch to the gut. Tony tips the nozzle of the bottle to his lips and sucks at the top. It doesn’t matter. It’s bullshit. His dad didn’t care. He had never cared. This box is just Howard trying to inject some semblance of normality into his life, pictures of the wife he didn’t love, pictures of the son he didn’t care for, pictures of the glory days. None of it means anything. 

It’s all just mementos. Nothing that Howard felt, nothing that he actually cared about.

Tony tips the rest of the box onto the ground. He finds other things, stranger things. His uncle’s birth certificate. A kippah. A set of dog tags. An eyepatch.

There’s another picture of him as a baby hugging the neck of a large Rottweiler, it’s tongue skimming his hair. He’s giggling. 

Did they have a dog? Tony doesn’t remember. The date on the back says ‘April 1972 — Tony and Sarge’

A thick bundle of letters, wrapped in an elastic band. Tony plays with the paper, runs his fingers over the seal. He pulls one out, cracks it open.

 

dad,

dad please let me come home. please please please. I swear I will do everything you want me to. I will tidy my room and I will wash the dishes and you do not even need to see me.

please please please please please it is so bad here. please I hate it. my roommate smells and no one likes me. please dad please please please. you can get Jarvis to pick me up and take me home I know it will use up his time but I do not think he will care and I will pay you back please let me come home I hate it here so much.

please dad please.

Lots of love, 

Tony

 

And then another.

 

dad,

if you let me come home I will never do anything bad again. I will not ever break anything again like that time I tripped and broke the vase. I promise I won’t ever knock on your office door again. I will not disturb you when you are trying to do the work and stuff. 

I think I could help you too and then you would not have to spend so much time working. This is good for you.

 

Tony doesn’t quite understand what’s written next because his handwriting is a big childish scrawl.

 

please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please 

i’m really really sorry,

tony.

 

They move back in chronological order.

 

dad one of the kids pushed me out of the front of the line today because I got there first and when i tried to tell him to stop i sounded stupid. everyone laughed at me but i didn’t cry.

because i didn’t cry i was wondering if maybe i could come home now. i promise i will not cry or do anything stupid because i think i am a big boy now. when my teachers read my work they say i don’t make spelling mistakes. i am in the advanced class which means i am clever. i think i have learnt everything now and i should come back home to do work with you.

sorry,

tony

 

Hundreds of letters. Maybe even thousands. 

There are more bundles.

Every single one is unopened.

Howard had gotten them. Tony had always thought that maybe they weren’t deemed important enough by the people that sort through the mail and had just been thrown away. But no.

They had been deemed not important enough by Howard.

Years of suffering and hurt and pain and desperation and his father never even bothered to take three seconds to read a letter from his six year old son.

Tony had hated Harwell in the early days. He’d hated it in the later ones, too, but the first few years had been the worst. The teasing and the stutter and knowledge that his parents didn’t want him. It had hurt. It had fucked him up. Tony won’t acknowledge that, but he knows somewhere on a deep level it messed around with his head because now he can’t hug people and he doesn’t know how to be nice and he can’t trust anyone around him with anything ever.

And he’s alone.

His dad had kept them, though. In his special box. Did it ever occur to him to read them? Did he ever wonder what was so pressing that his son was sending multiple letters a week, that his son was taking hours out of his day to perfectly press each letter into the page because he was only six and not that great at writing yet?

Tony remembers vaguely crying once because he’d spelt ‘because’ wrong in the final sentence. He knew he’d have to write it all out again. And then he remembers thinking that he wouldn’t be allowed to send another letter that day because he’d cried, and his father hated it when he cried.

It would take him hours to get those letters perfect. After Whit came along, she would help. Ty would too, sometimes, checking each one over and copying them out when Tony messed up and was too tired to write anymore.

He’d spent so long, and his dad had never even —

Every week, without fail, the letters would be handed out over breakfast. Every week. All the other kids got their letters and their presents and every week Tony would sit there, waiting, while kids looked at him at he played with his hands, hoping that today would be the day.

It still hurts. It still makes him want to cry into a ball and cry. It still makes him feel like shit. The embarrassment and the pain and the —

Tony starts to cry. It’s slow, at first, but then he back rest against the wall and he brings his knees up to rest against his chest and he sobs.

His fingers curl in his hair and he lets go.

His parents are dead, now. His friends don’t love him anymore. He is so, so, alone.

Why has he always been so alone.

 

Chapter Text

The next morning, Tony awakes with a hangover on the floor of his father’s office.

Someone is ringing the doorbell incessantly. He groans, trying to avoid the winter light, hands plastered over his ears.

What time is it? What day is it? How long has he been sleeping for? He rolls, forcing himself to sit while the banging on the door continues.

The lawyers, they were supposed to pick up something today, maybe. Tony checks his watch.

It’s four in the afternoon. He’s slept in by about eight hours.

Whoops.

He stumbles to his feet, knocking a paperweight off his dad’s desk where his hand slips. He’s dressed in an old ratty band tee and boxers and he doesn’t even care. What kind of self-respecting person knocks on someone’s door at four in the afternoon? Awful.

“I’m coming,” he mutters “shut up, I’m coming!”

He manages to make it down the stairs without tripping and fiddles with the locks on the door. He can see the blurry shape of a man in the window. He tugs it open and hisses, blinking in the bright light and cold, snow rushing up to cover his feet.

“Tony?” The man says, and Tony blinks.

“Rhodey?” He manages, and he stumbles back to get a better look at him. “Oh. Oh. Why—”

“Can I come in?”

Tony’s eyes narrow. James Rhodes is here. Tony has not seen James Rhodes in a long time. Why is he here. What does he want.

“…Sure.”

Rhodey wipes his feet on the mat, face grim, folding his scarf over his arm. Tony tries not to throw up.

“You’ve been crying.” Rhodey says when it becomes obvious Tony is not going to start the conversation.

“No.” He says defensively, even though yeah, he really has.

“You’re allowed to cry because your parents are dead.”

“Okay.”

Rhodey raises an eyebrow. “Can we sit down?”

“Sure.”

Tony doesn’t move.

Rhodey just walks straight in the parlour and makes himself at home.

Tony tries not to grit his teeth. For someone who’s so lonely, he’s not keen on company.

“I’m sorry about your parents.” Rhodey says, not looking at him, but at the large oil painting on top of the fireplace.

“Yeah,” Tony says, “uh,” he clears his throat. “It’s, it’s a shame.”

Rhodey turns, raising an eyebrow. “You don’t sound like you’ve been driven mad with grief.”

“I… what?”

“You’re taking it well?”

Tony purses his lips. “I’m taking it.”

“Good.” Rhodey says.

Silence.

“Why are you here?” Tony breaks in. “How did you know where’d I’d be? What — ”

“Visiting my parents, it’s Christmas, I wonder if you’ve forgotten, and you’re Tony Stark, literally everyone knows where you live, let’s just say I took a wild guess.”

Tony clears his throat. “But why have you come?”

Rhodey shrugs. “I heard your parents were dead. Wanted to offer my condolences. We’re friends, I was in town. Tony, that’s what people do.

For some reason, that hits Tony hard. Because he doesn’t know that. And because he’s check a point on Rhodey’s checklist, old acquaintance, better say hi. He doesn’t really mean anything to this man.

He doesn’t mean anything to anyone.

He’s has no one.

Rhodey sucks his teeth. “So I’d better be going,” he starts “I hope — ”

“Do you want coffee?” Tony blurts.

Rhodey blinks.

“Sure,” he says slowly “sure.”

Tony nods. “Uh,” he scratches the back of his head “I… I’m not sure if we actually have coffee. But, I mean, there are plenty of… drinks.”

“I’ll bet there are,” Rhodey says “just water.”

He follows Tony down to the kitchen and Tony tries not to let himself sink in relief, because there’s someone here, and if he can just get this right then he won’t be so alone.

“So how was your Christmas?” He tries.

Rhodey nods, sitting at the island Tony used to frequent when Jarvis was still around. “Good. Okay. Not great, actually.” Rhodey makes a face. “I broke up with Georgina.”

Tony blinks. “Georgina?”

“Yeah, I mean,” Rhodey nurses his water “I really thought she was the one.”

“Remind me again — ”

“Uh, you never met her.”

“Because you were dating a girl before you left — ”

“Georgina was later. Maybe, about two girls later.”

Tony looks at him. Shakes his head. “Wow. Okay. Do the words hopeless romantic mean anything to you, or?”

“Don’t,” Rhodey warns “I know. Trust me.”

“You just, you meet a girl and you’re sure she’s the one I mean, I wish I had that gift.”

“I want a family. I want a nice little family and a good job and the whole thing, okay, so sue me.”

Tony snorts. “You’re twenty-four.”

“Yeah, well, you’re never to young to shop around. I’d like to be married by twenty-six.”

“You have it all planned out, don’t you.”

“I like planning. I like order. You should try it, sometime.”

Tony pops a chocolate into his mouth. "Pass.”

Rhodey looks at him. “What about you,” he nods “how’s your girl?”

“Oh, well, you know,” Tony examines the writing on the back of the box “she’s not.”

Rhodey winces. “Man, I’m sorry. You were together a long time.”

“About four years.” Tony says, and then blinks, because four years —

“Wow, man. That’s commitment. Must have hit you rough.”

“Not really.” Tony says, sober. “We weren’t so close, towards the end. We just didn’t know how to break it off.”

And I was banging my best friend.

“Then she wasn’t right for you.”

“Probably not.” Tony concedes, wondering who is. Maybe he should shop around. Find someone he actually likes. Someone he could —

Someone he could marry.

Ew. Nope.

“So how did you spend Christmas?” Rhodey asks, and there’s a challenge in his eye because he knows very well how Tony spent Christmas.

Tony fixes him with a look. “Crying.” He says, scraping his mug across the table and dumping it in the sink. “Drinking. Taking a trip down memory lane. It was fun.”

“Any guests?”

“I don’t have any friends.”

“You have me.”

“Do I?”

“I don’t know, man. You’re tricky. I thought I was your friend. But you don’t keep in touch. You OD’d at my party. You disappeared down to California and I haven’t heard from you since. The only reason I’m sitting here is because your parents died, and I thought it would be polite to pay my respects, and then I got here and you’re completely alone and no one’s bothered to see if you’re okay and I don’t think that’s right.”

He sips from his glass.

Tony looks down. “Okay.”

“So are you?”

“What.”

“‘Okay.’” Rhodey says, making quotation marks in the air.

Tony shrugs. “I don’t know.” He mumbles.

“You should get therapy.”

“Why would I need therapy?”

“I don’t know, man. You've obviously got some deep issues that you’re not aware of yet.”

Tony sniffs, rotates his jaw, and looks up. “I got therapy.” He says clearly. “I am one week out, actually.”

Rhodey lets that sink in. 

“Sorry.” He says finally. “I didn’t realise.”

Tony inhales. “Yeah.”

Silence.

Rhodey snorts. “So, sucks to be you right now.”

Tony screws up his nose. “Nah,” he says, leaning against the counter “it’ll get better.”

Rhodey smiles. “That’s a nice outlook to have, Tony.”

“Gotta keep positive.”

“Damn right.”

“Thank you for coming today.” Tony blurts. “Thanks. I didn’t, I mean, I didn’t realise that there was anyone who — ” he swallows “I really needed it.” He says, and his voice cracks.

Rhodey looks at him. “Tony?”

He pinches the bridge of his nose, waves him away. “It’s fine,” he breathes, turning away, trying to blink back tears. “I just,” a shuddered breath “I’ve got something in my eye.”

“And your throat, right?” Rhodey says softly, but there’s no malice there.

“It’s fine,” Tony says again, but he won’t turn around. “Just, you can go, if you like. You don’t need to stay.” He tries to sound nonchalant but his voice cracks on the last word and he has to suck in a breath that sounds suspiciously like a sob.

“It’s okay to cry.” Rhodey says.

“I’m not crying,” Tony shoots back, tears in his eye. He quickly draws the heel of his hands over his eyes, dragging the tears across his face.

“Sure,” Rhodey says slowly “sure. Tony, is no one staying with you?”

“No one needs to.” He says, swallowing the lump in his throat. “No one needs to stay, I’m an adult.”

“Bullshit. You’re straight out of rehab, who’s making sure you don’t relapse?”

“I won’t relapse.” Tony whispers.

He can practically feel Rhodes disapproving glare behind his back. “That’s fucked up man.”

Tony turns. “Have you got, like, any relevant suggestions, maybe? Hmm? Because, you know, I’m not getting great signals from you. Every time we talk you seem to want to rub my — my things in my face, my problems, whatever, stop. I get it, I have no one, I’m a loner, I’m pathetic and a druggy whatever,” Tony says, waving his hands “not everyone gets a large family and a good career that they enjoy and mental stability. Apparently. So I’ve been told.”

Rhodey raises an eyebrow. “Man you need help.”

Great.” Tony says, and he’s not even angry, just tired and a little bitter and suddenly desperate to just get back out into the world. “That’s just great. I’ll look into it, okay? Happy?”

Rhodey sighs. “I’ll see myself out.”

“Sure you will.” Tony says.

“I’m leaving my number on the table.”

“Good for you.”

“I’m gonna call you tomorrow.”

“Great.”

Rhodey smiles. “See you soon, Stark.”

“I wouldn’t count on it.”

 

Tony ends up spending the rest of the week with James Rhodes. Which is good. It’s nice. It feels normal, stable, healthy. 

If he ends up crying while the older man holds him tight, it doesn’t matter. They never talk about it again, and part friends.

 

Chapter Text

So. Tony moves down to California in the new year. A fresh start. Literally nothing from his old life holding him back. Instead of L.A., he’s in Malibu, where Obie’s decided to relocate SI.

“Everything’s booming down there, m’boy,” he’d said, helping himself to Tony’s gin & tonic “Cali is the place to be.”

On paper, Tony is CEO. CEO of a massive multi-international conglomerate. At twenty-one. What’s the word for that? Wunderkins. Yeah, well, that’s him. 

Really though, it’s a technicality. Tony goes to meetings, he listens to whatever suggestion the board has, and then he makes them happen. Easy, simple, straight. He’s a genius, he discovers, and it’s strange because it’s never really occurred to him before exactly how clever he is. Now, he’s making weapons, he’s taking them straight from the drawing board and heading R & D — really heading it, not just figuratively — and the things he’s coming up with are spectacular.

Tony realises that he loves his job. That he really, really loves his job. He’s reinventing the whole area, he’s leaving everyone in the dust. He can see Obie practically salivating whenever Tony asks for the lawyers to get started on new patents, he can see his competitors weeping.

It takes Tony three years to become the new face of the weapons industry. 

It brings him a lot of fans. The president, for one. He gets a bunch of kids sending him letters thanking him for saving their daddies. Obie loves him. People literally get in line to lick his asshole, and Tony loves it.

It brings enemies.

Competitors. Family of the dead. Liberals.

But it doesn’t matter. They can whine all they like, the second those weapons are taken away the country would be on it’s knees. All these people, calling him a murderer, a merchant of death, or capitalist scum, fine, they can say what they want, Tony won’t throw it back in their face even though he’d love to. Truth is, if he, and all other developers, stopped making those weapons, they’d be at the bottom of the slum pile while some fucked commie country took their place.

He puts some time into the Maria Stark foundation. Tony didn’t love his mother and that hasn’t changed. But the ability of the foundation to do good is something Tony likes to invest time into personally. 

Tony really, really loves his job.

Or maybe it’s just that it’s the first time he’s ever been respected. The first time people have looked at this work and been awestruck, the first time that he’s ever really made a difference.

He decides, ultimately, to make Malibu his home. His real home. Tony’s never had one, before. Never had a place he felt such an affinity for that it could be called ‘home’.

He figures in another a life he probably should have been an architect because the project becomes his baby. It’s all open floors and glass and stone, no oak and red and velvet, heavy suffocating colours that make him want to claw at the walls. It’ll overlook the ocean, his ocean, the same one he and Ty and Whit would play in as kids.

Malibu is his home.

Tony is a sunny person.

He loves it. The private beach, the wide expanse of water in front of him, swimming and diving and the hot sun on his back. He builds an olympic sized infinity pool leading out into his ocean, a gym, a spa, everything he can think of and he makes the place his.

His crowning glory by far is his workshop. Buried deep into stone and tucked secure under the earth, it’s stocked with everything, even the stupid robot he built at college who nows serves his original purpose as a lab assistant although he is, Tony would like to add, pure shit.

But that’s not all. Tony has been working on AI technology for a while, developing and programming. It was all part of his course at MIT. He had had an idea, obviously, but the code had been limiting. He hadn’t been able to find anything able to hold a file of the size he was planning.

Now, though. Now, he codes, and he programs, and he writes. The first night he moves in to his new home, he opens up the mainframe and starts building in microphones, cameras, speakers. This is going to be his baby, more than anything else. His own child.

Outside, it’s dark. It’s probably the early hours of the morning; Tony hasn’t checked.

“C’mon,” he murmurs, almost feverish, because this, if this works it’ll revolutionise the field. Tony Stark, on top again. “C’mon your stupid hunk of junk.”

Loading. It’s still loading. It’s taking too long.

Virus. Maybe he introduced a virus. Maybe he coded it wrong. Fuck, just one mistake in the base code could screw the whole thing.

He downs three beers in his frustrations, and then another two, so he’s well on his way to drunk. “C’mon c’mon c’mon.” He keep saying, running through his copy of the code, checking for mistakes, alterations, something is not right —

“Code completed.” Comes a voice.

Tony jumps. His eyes narrow. “Code… completed?”

“Code completed. Initialising.”

There’s a staccato of beeps from the speakers around the mansion. Tony takes a step back. 

“Hello?”

Silence.

“Uh — ”

The speakers burst into life with a high pitched ringing, except it sounds like it’s about to break Tony’s eardrums and it’s not stopping. “Ah!” He manages, as his glass shatters and he rolls onto the floor, holding his ears. “STOP!” He screams “STOP SEQUENCE! FUCK!”

The sound continues, and it’s so loud Tony doesn’t understand, it’s not a single pitched note it’s a fucking cacophony and it’s not shutting up —

MUTE!” He screeches “MUTE!”

Silence.

He gasps, rolling onto his back. He feels glass prickling his skin.

“What the fuck.” He pants.

“Awaiting input.”

Tony sits up. “What are you?”

“Awaiting input.”

The voice is mechanised, like an answer phone. Is this his? Is this what… is this what he created?

“Hi.” Tony says. “Hi.” He repeats, slowly.

“Input received: “Hi.” Voice recognition [creator] Awaiting Input.”

Tony swallows. “My name is Tony Stark.”

“Incorrect Syntax, coding error [creator] Anthony Stark, Edward.”

“Right,” Tony says “right. That’s the name I put in the code, right?”

“Right: Anthony Stark, Edward.”

“No, it’s — ” Tony blinks “it’s an expression.”

“Input received. “Expression.” Collating data . . . completed. Tony Stark [creator]”

“My name it Tony Stark.” He repeats, trying not to allow frustration cloud his tone.

And then it happens.

“Your name is Tony Stark.” Comes the voice.

Tony stares. Stares in shock, and a little bit of awe, because this thing, this thing he’s created, it’s…

It’s learning.

Tony certainly hadn’t coded for that.

“Operate, uh.” Tony shakes his head “Operate lights. Command: off.”

The lights switch off.

“Command: on.”

And then back on.

“Woah.” Tony breathes. “Hoooly shit.”

“Define: “shit”, “holy””

“It’s an expression.” Tony says again.

“Expressions lack form.”

“No,” Tony says, because this conversation is moving too fast for him to process “an expression is an action. You express something to show something.”

“Tony Stark shows “holy,” “shit.””

“I’m expressing my feelings through the use of words. I’m not expressing shit.”

“Collating data. Please wait.”

Tony rubs his eyes. What has he made.

“Complete. Expressions lack form. Expressions: express. Express, to show. Data not conclusive. Finishing set-up.”

Tony frowns. “What?”

“Date and time.”

“Uh,” Tony scratches his head “the time is 2:23 am and the date is the 27th May, 1994.”

“User designation: [creator] Tony Stark.”

“Great. What’s my name?”

“Tony Stark.”

Tony grins. “Brilliant.”

“Define: name.”

“Name is, uh,” Tony wave his hands “it’s a user designation.”

“Correction. Name: Tony Stark. Awaiting user designation.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Name: Tony Stark. User Designation: Unknown. Awaiting input.”

“Just,” Tony shakes his head “Sir. Call me Sir.”

“Input accepted. Name: Anthony ‘Tony’ Edward Stark. User designation: Sir.”

“Woah,” Tony says, elated “holy shitballs, this is amazing. Wait ‘till readers digest gets a hit of this.”

“Awaiting input.”

“Okay,” Tony says, breath shaky “fine. Here’s what we’re gonna do, we’re gonna give you a voice, understand?”

“I am capable of speech.”

“Damn right you are.” Tony says proudly, because it said “I”, it is a thing with a presence and wow he is so good. “I mean, we’re gonna give you a tone of voice.”

“Awaiting input.”

“Of course you are.”

Does Tony want his creation to have his voice? Not really. He hears enough of that as it is.

Maybe a celebrity. Someone well known, whose voice he can get hold of short notice, of course, there’s probably some kind of copyright —

He has some tapes, down here. Some reels. He’d moved them from the mansion, just in case. He wasn’t going to — 

Could he?

He scuffles back, ignoring the sudden omnipresent feeling of being watched. Which he is, now. Watched all the time.

Eh. He’ll get used to.

He rifles through the box, searching for the right equipment. He knows it’s all in there, it’s just about setting it up properly.

Once it’s rigged, he lets it play, and tries not to feel pathetic.

He clears his throat. “Are you still ready?”

“Awaiting input.”

“Okay, put this on your speech drives, right? Save this recording and replicate it. Make it yours.”

“Input accepted. Receiving audio.”

It’s a video. It’s of him, except he’s pretty small. Four, maybe.

“Toony,” Jarvis says “Tooony, look at me. We’ve got this all set up for you.”

Little Tony blinks, looking up. He’s playing with two small trucks, which Tony vaguely remembers.

This was the video they sent to the psychiatrist, apparently, when they tried to figure out why he wasn’t speaking. Tony’s never seen it before.

“Tony,” Jarvis says again “Tony, why don’t you say your name?”

He just sits their, resolutely ignoring Jarvis. He would smile if he wasn’t so suddenly, shockingly, sad.

“Tony,” says another voice “Tony, say dad.

Tony doesn’t remember this.

Dad, Tony, say Dad.”

Tony tries to think back, tries to remember what was stopping him from talking. Why he didn’t want to open his mouth. He remembers, in the way that all children do, small shifts of memory. A certain corridor, being held in someone’s arms, dropping a pink ice cream on marble floor. But he can’t remember why he wouldn’t speak.

“Damn,” Howard says “Ed, what’s — ”

“Give him time, Howie,” Jarvis says in that smooth, impeccable accent. “He’s going to have to budge eventually.”

“What if he doesn’t? Fuck, what if I raise a mute?”

“Do you want his first word to be a curse, Howard?” Jarvis hisses “Help, or go.”

Howard sighs loudly. “Hey, Tones,” he tries again “what you working with there?”

Tony lifts his truck to show his dad. He point at each of the wheels, then sets it on the ground.

“Sure,” Howard says “that’s great. Can you… explain why the truck is moving?”

Little Tony sighs and moves the truck in a figure of eight.

“What is going on in your head, little man.” Howard sighs “What is going on.”

Jarvis sighs. “Maybe we should leave it at that.”

“Doesn’t seem right.”

“He’ll be fine.”

“You think?” Howard hurrumphs. “I need a dri — ”

“No, you don’t. And Einstein didn’t start talking till he was four. Or six. I can’t remember.”

Howard raises an eyebrow, his features twisted in mild amusement. It’s something Tony’s never seen before. “Really?”

“Oh yeah. Definitely.”

“I worked with Einstein, you know.”

“You’ve mentioned.”

“Complete idiot.”

“You would think so, wouldn’t you?”

Howard chuckles. “I mean it, social skills of an octopus. Complete downer to have on the team.” He braces his hands on his hips, looks down at Little Tony.

“You were building an atom bomb. I think he had an excuse.”

Howard’s face darkens. “Leave this.” He says “Leave it. There’s no point.”

“Howie — ”

“Where’s Maria?” Howard barks. “Take him.”

“Howard!”

His father is marching towards the camera, hand waving. “Turn it off. Shut it down. I’ve had enough.”

“Howa — 

It clicks off.

Tony sits there for awhile. Thinking.

He’s dead. His father is dead and his mother is dead and —

and Jarvis is dead, right?

He misses him so much.

He pushes it from his mind.

“Did you get all of that?” He asks the thing in his ceiling.

“Audio recording terminated. Awaiting input.”

“Okay, let’s see if you’re up to it,” Tony sighs from his perch on the floor “you hear the first voice? The first audio you receive, I want you to take that and plant it in your filters.”

“One moment, please. Processing request.”

Silence. Tony’s head throbs. He hasn’t slept in day.

There it is again, those staccato beeps from every speaker in the room. Tony braces his hands over his ears, squinting, prepared for anything.

But nothing comes.

Tony clears his throat. “J — ” he swallows. “Jarvis?”

Then the smooth, british response. So familiar. So known. So real.

“Sir.” The voice replies.

 

Chapter Text

“I mean, Tony says, “if you’re interested.”

Rhodey blinks at him, crosses his arms. Narrows his eyes. “You’re offering a — 

“Job, yes. For some reason. Don’t ask me why.”

“You’re lonely.”

Tony makes a face. “Hey! Fuck you too!”

Rhodey shrugs. “You’re not subtle.”

“I — ” Tony waves a hand. “Will you take it?”

“Is it yours to appoint?”

“I’m CEO, Rhodes. They’re looking for an air force man specifically. C’mon. Take the job. Part time, but I guarantee it’ll double your income.”

Rhodey stares at him a little longer, all tough exterior and rock hard shell. And then he melts.

“You know, I’ve been looking for some stability.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, you know. Working on home soil. Routine. You know how it is.”

“James, I was in Milan last week. In what way shape or form do you think that’s stable?”

“You’re twenty-four. It had to happen eventually.”

“Yeah fuckin’ right.” Tony snorts.

“I mean it,” Rhodey persists “I’m thinking about proposing to Kate.”

Tony blinks. “Kate — ”

“My girlfriend.”

“Right.” Tony blinks. “I knew that. Is she the — ”

“She’s Korean.” 

Tony nods, even though he has not a single fucking clue who Rhodey’s talking about. “Oh yeah, with the, uh, black hair?”

Rhodey raises an eyebrow. “Dyed blonde.”

Tony allows himself to look sheepish. “Yeah, well. Worth a shot.”

Rhodey looks at him. “You need a girl, man.”

“Excuse me?”

“A girl. You need to find yourself a girl, and you need to settle down, and get your head straight.”

“Do I now.”

“Yes.”

“Like you, right?”

Rhodey exhales loudly. “I’ll take it.”

“What now?”

“The job.”

Tony blinks. “Really!”

Rhodey takes a step back. “Your eyes are fucked man, you need to see a doctor about that shit. Eyes shouldn’t be able to stretch that wide.”

Tony blinks. “Sorry.”

“Crazy eyes.”

“That is neither funny, nor original.”

Rhodey rolls his eyes. “Whatever. My people will be in touch.”

“You don’t have people.”

“Someday I might.”

Tony grins. “Jarvis, see Rhodey out.”

He frowns. "Who's -- "

“Right this way, Colonel.” 

Rhodey screams.

 

Tony slides awake, gently.

What —

He’s in his bedroom. That’s strange. He hasn’t slept in his bedroom for weeks.

But it’s okay. It’s manageable. He’s so tired.

He slumps, turns, rolls over. His room is so large. The windows are so —

No.

No.

There is a man at his window. And he wants to get in.

Tony jerks awake, really jerks awake, heart pounding, staring at the space where he had been, where the man had been, hands pressed against his —

It’s ridiculous. He’s ridiculous. It’s just a dream. Just the same old dream.

Still.

“Jarvis,” he croaks “Jarvis, keep the lights on.”

 

Tony is in his office at SI, swinging left to right on his chair.

What’s he supposed to be doing again?

Signing. Just signing. A dick-brained giraffe could do it.

But it’s so boring. 

Saddle up, Tony, his brain tells him finish it now and you can leave. Just think, a bath, a scotch, go on, finish, Tony, finish it now.

Except he doesn’t. He procrastinates for another three hours because these things are impossible to read and he has no interest in the ins and outs of the patents he designs weapons for. He’s supposed to read them over and sign each one, just to verify that he’s the CEO and that he designed them, but it’s just so hard.

Obie comes in to check on him at lunch, at which point he’s made darts and he’s throwing them at a spot above his closet.

“You haven’t finished?” He says, aghast “How have you not finished!”

“Obie,” he whines “it’s so hard.”

Obie looks at him like he can’t believe he’s real. “If you’re fast, you can finish in the next hour.”

“Okay,” Tony says cracking his neck “okay. I’ll take a break for lunch, and then I’ll finish. Home by three.”

Tony doesn’t leave until eleven pm.

Fuck Obie, and fuck SI. He’ll move to Brazil or something. Start his own company. And he won’t have to do any paperwork there.

(If he’s honest, he’s just angry he missed out on his bath time)

He’s still pissed when he thunks his briefcase onto his desk, fills it with whatever he was doing earlier. He’s still pissed when he wrenches open the door. He’s even more pissed when he stubs his toe on the side of a desk because the cleaners have been and gone and the lights are off.

He’s still kinda pissed when he hears the ruffling from the room to his left.

A warm light. Tapping keys.

It’s eleven, nearly twelve. This isn’t the accountant’s floor, it’s not the lawyer’s. This is his floor. There’s no reason for anyone to be working late here.

He considers. Go home, take his fucking bath, forget it.

But.

But what if it is a spy? What if someone is hacking into his work? His designs?

Bracing himself, he slides along the wall, treading carefully. He hears a muffled curse from inside, a sigh, and he dips his head round the door.

The light from the screen is too bright. He can’t make out the person there, although he thinks it’s a woman.

He draws out his keys from his pocket, just in case. Nice and sharp.

He silently steps forward. One, two —

He doesn’t see the woman’s eyes widen in horror in the reflection of the monitor. Instead, all he sees is a swirl of red and blue, vaguely registering the sound of air being dispensed from a can, and the his eyes are on fire.

“Argh!” He falls to the ground, cups his watering eyes. “Oh my God!” He screams “What the fuck!”

“Who are you!” The woman says, scared, but still loud. “What do you want, who — ”

“I’m Stark! Tony Stark! MY NAME IS ON THE SIDE OF THE BUILDING!” 

He hears the gasp. “Oh my God! Oh my God, I’m so sorry Mr Stark — ”

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” He screeches. “MY EYES.”

“I thought you were a murderer!” She screams.

“WHY WOULD A MURDERER BE STALKING THE HALLS OF A WEAPONS COMPANY AT MIDNIGHT!”

“FOR WEAPONS!”

Tony groans, feeling his hands along the floor. “I can’t see,” he babbles “you crazy bitch I’m fucking blind.”

“Oh don’t be a baby it’ll wear off.” She says. “Here.”

Tony feels a hand on his shoulder and he raises his arm, tries to get a hold on her. “I swear to God — ” he groans as the woman pushes him into a chair “you crazy animal —

“What was I supposed to think?!?” She says, and Tony hears the clap of her purse “You approached me from behind with your keys out like you were gonna slit my throat!”

“I thought you were a spy!”

“Okay,” she says “okay, well, for the record I’m an intern, so.”

“Brilliant,” Tony says “brilliant, I was nearly killed by an intern — ”

“Oh my God don’t be so dramatic — ah! No, don’t touch — keep your hands down you will make it worse!”

Tony groans, loudly and theatrically, because his eyes are on fire and there’s no way he’s gonna get his bubble bath now.

“I need to wash them out.” The woman says. “Have you got anything we can use?”

“There’s some vodka in my office.”

“Not helping. Come with me.”

Tony gulps as the woman takes his hand, tugging him down the corridor. “Soap. We can wash it out with soap.”

“Are you out of your freaking mind? You’ve already burned my eyes out I’m not letting you soap them you sadist, my God — ”

“Here,” the woman says, and Tony nearly bangs his head on the door where she helpfully forgets to hold it open. 

“Sit here,” she says, pushing him up onto the counter. “Don’t move.”

“I don’t have eyes.” Tony says. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“God, you big baby.”

“I’m not a baby.” Tony says petulantly. 

“You were talking about bubble baths earlier.”

“Wow, did I say that out loud? Trippy.”

Tony hears the sound of running water and then the sound of soap slicked skin being rubbed vigourously. 

“You know, that sounds like — ”

“If I file a case for sexual assault will it mean I don’t get fired for pepper spraying you?”

“It probably wouldn’t go very far.” Tony admits. “Our lawyers are pretty good.”

“I know,” the woman hums “why do you think I have the spray?”

Tony hisses when she runs a thumb over his eye. “Open up.”

“Go to hell.”

“If you don’t open them we’ll be here all night and I really,” she heaves a sigh “really want to get home.”

“Yeah, well, you and me both. Unfortunately, some crazy bitch hit me with pepper spray so now I can’t drive anywhere.”

“Fuck,” she says “sorry.”

“No worries. I’ll just… worm home. I think I know the way from here.”

“I’ll give you a lift.”

“What car do you drive?”

“Excuse me?”

“What car? Because I won’t be seen in anything less that twenty thousand dol — ah!” 

Tony flinches back when the she rubs her soap wet hands into his eyeballs. “Open properly,” she says “I can’t get at you.”

“That’s the idea.”

“Blink.” She says, and Tony tilts back his head, flutters his eyelids until there are tears streaming down his face.

“Better?”

“No. Try the soap.”

He can see a blurry shape in front of him. A woman, tall, taller than him, although that’s not difficult. A short bob, red hair, maybe? Maybe blonde. He can’t tell, it’s all too blurry. Her suit is a bright royal blue, which probably looks great on her but isn’t easy on his eyes.

He actually has to bite his tongue when she rubs at his eyes because that shit hurts. 

“Good?” She asks again, chipper for someone who’d just mortally wounded a man.

Tony sighs. “Yeah.” He says, scrunching his eyes tight, blinking rapidly. “I mean, I think you melted my corneas, but everything else is fine.”

“Good” She says. “Uh, good. I’m not going to get fired, am I?”

Tony snorts. “Nah. No point. I can make your life a misery from my office instead.”

She slaps him round the back of the head.

“What the hell!’ He says, waving her away “Why do you keep doing that what is wrong with you.”

“Mr Stark, I am going to offer you a ride home on the condition you keep your hands to yourself and your mouth shut. Could you do that?”

“What’s with the assumption I wanna feel you up? I don’t even know what you look like.”

“Because that always stops men.” She says dryly. “Up, c’mon. My car’s in the parking lot.”

“The parking lot?” Tony whines. “That’s far.”

“Well then you should build them nearer to the building, shouldn’t you?”

“Literally what makes you think that I have any control over that?”

“You’re CEO.”

“My point stands.”

That gets a small laugh out of her. “C’mon,” she says, smile still in her voice “I have your briefcase. It’s heavy, what’s even in it?”

Tony sighs, slumping off the ledge he’s sitting on. “Paper, mostly. I, uh, keep some prototypes in there in case I get bored.”

“Oh?” She says, her hand resting on his shoulder, steering him out. “You actually build in your free time?”

“Why do people sound so surprised when I say that? Yes, of course I build in my free time.”

“You’re CEO.” She says again.

“In name only.” Tony points out. “I’m twenty-four. I really don’t know what I’m doing.”

If he could see her, he’s sure she would blink. “You’re heading a weapons company.”

“I was aware.”

“You make things that kill people. How do you not know what you’re doing?”

Tony laughs. “I have Obie for that.”

“The big man.”

“With the bald head.”

“I know him.”

They fall into a comfortable lull as she props open a door. 

“So what are you doing here anyway?” Tony asks.

She sighs, loudly. “I was… I’m an intern. For accounting.”

“Oh?”

“It’s been… eventful.”

“I’ll say.”

“Haha.” He hears the ka-chunk of a key slipping into a car door. “I mean it — sit down — it’s irritating. Watching you. At twenty-four. You’ve got the whole company and your don’t even want it.”

Tony’s brow twitches in irritation. “Yeah,” he says “I have. I’d love to swap. You have choice, Pepper, I don’t.

“No, I don’t have a chance,” she says slipping into the drivers seat. “Also, what did you call me?”

“I don’t know your name.” Tony shrugs.

She scoffs. “Virginia.”

“No,” Tony counters “Virginia is a state. You are not a state. You’re the woman who killed me with pepper spray.”

“Oh my God, you are a child. Wow. I’m just, let me tell you something, Mr Stark, I am so glad that the country’s security is in your hands because you are obviously such a worthy protector.”

“Ouch,” Tony yawns. “You wound me.”

“Do you take anything seriously?”

“I tried it, once. Didn’t end well for me.”

“Oh really.”

Tony snorts. “You have no idea.”

“Must be difficult having life handed to you on a silver platter.”

“You would’ve have thought so, right?”

“Naturally.”

“Have I done something to you?” Tony says, sitting up “Because, if I remember correctly, it was you who pepper sprayed me.”

Pepper sucks her teeth. “No,” she says “I’m not angry at you. Actually no, I am, I mean, do you know how unfair this is? I minored in business and majored in accounting and I went to college and I payed, I payed money for it, and I’m interning at this company and then this guy who is, maybe, two years older than me gets to be CEO by virtue of the fact his father held the position before him?”

“You’ll have to take that up with my dad, unfortunately. He’s actually kinda hard to reach, at the minute. On account of him being dead.”

 Pepper clears his throat. “Right. Sorry.”

“No worries.” Tony says, turning to look at the blurry shapes outside his window. “If it’s any consolation, we’re on the same page..

 

Pepper drops Tony off at the front of his house.

“This is,” she blinks “you live here?”

He sighs. “Yeah,” he says “welcome to my humble abode.”

“I’m not coming in with you.” She blurts.

“I wouldn’t dream of it, Pepper.”

“That’s not my name.”

“Do you need a job?”

She blinks. “Excuse me?”

“A job. Do you need one? Because I need a personal assistant.”

She narrows her eyes. “Is that… is that, like, a sex thing?”

“No, it’s not a — why does everyone always think it’s a sex thing?”

“Something about you.”

“Right. Well, the offer stands.”

“So I tell you I want to be CEO of a company and your answer is ‘be the personal assistant to the CEO?” God, the wonders you do for women’s liberation are astounding.”

“I’ll double your pay. Wait, no, triple it, because I’m difficult and sometimes can’t get out of bed.”

She blinks. “You’re serious.”

“I told you it happens sometimes.”

She looks at him. “No.” She says carefully.

“No?”

“No. Get out my car.”

He sighs. “Well, if you insist. The offer stands, though.”

“I have more to offer than playing nanny to spoilt billionaires.”

“Probably.” Tony says, leaning through her window. “But I mean it. If you ever need the job, just knock on the door. It’ll be nice to have someone stable around who’s not afraid to pepper spray CEOs when the occasion calls for it.”

She smiles grudgingly, staring ahead. “Goodbye, Mr Stark.”

He waves when the car takes off down his drive, humming contentedly.

(Eight years later, she rings his doorbell. “$250,000 and you pay for my lodging, or I walk”)

 

Chapter Text

The summer of 1994, Tony gets a call from the last person he ever expected.

“Tony,” Ty sobs down the phone “Tony, Tony, oh God.”

He doesn’t know what to do, or say. So he gets in his car and he drives down to L.A.

Tony hasn’t seen Ty in years.

He had almost…

Reconciled himself. Ty was his past, and he’s living in the future.

“I’m so sorry,” Ty sobs, and it’s terrifying, he looks like he’s falling apart, and that’s not right, Ty should never look like that because Ty has to be strong for him. “They’re dead, both of them, Anty, both of them, it’s a, a, a,” he sucks in a breath “car crash.” He exhales. “A car crash both of them died in a — ”

“I hear you.” Tony murmurs. “I heard you the first time.”

Ty’s parents are dead. They died in a car crash.

So did Tony’s.

Ty wasn’t there when Tony’s parents died. He didn’t call. He didn’t send a letter. Not a single word. He’d left him to rot, through the rehab, and the loneliness, and the pain, and now he’s back, and he wants Tony’s help, even though when Tony begged and cried, and sat alone in a room doing fucking sudoku puzzles while his hands shook and he pissed his pants, Ty was doing fuck knows what in L.A. and ignoring him completely.

So he hugs him. And he tells him it’s going to be alright. What else could he do? What else would he do?

Ty clutches his shirt. He won’t let go. He keeps sobbing.

“You’ll come to the funeral,” he gasps “won’t you? You’ll come, you’ll, you’ll be there, please, you’ll — ”

“Yeah,” Tony says “yeah I’ll be there, of course I’ll be there.”

 

They spend the fortnight together. They spend time remembering the planes of each other’s bodies. Each other’s scent.

 

Two weeks later, Tony hugs Ty at the airport gate as he leaves, millions in his bank account and only a bag on his shoulder.

“Europe.” He says. “It’ll be fun.”

Tony doesn’t know what to say.

Ty is leaving him again.

He has the sudden, unplaceable urge, to stroke his hair.

Ty stares at him for a while. “Come with me.” He murmurs.

It’s not the first time. He’s said this before, multiple times through the past weeks, while they lay in bed, while they lay by the pool, while they lay with ice sliding down the sweat slick skin of their bodies.

“No.” Tony says again.

Ty’s fingers twitch. “Do you love me?” He asks.

Does he?

Does he? Does he really love him? Or is he just lonely?

“I…” Tony swallows. “I love you.”

Tony’s hand in Ty’s. It’s dangerous. People could be watching.

“Then come with me.”

That could never happen. Never. Tony has a company. Ty has a future. Society won’t let them be together.

“I love you,” Tony says slowly “but I think… we both need more.”

“More?” Ty says urgently “More love? Tony, I can love you enough for both of us, I swear.”

He doesn’t want to cry here.

“No,” Tony says, voice smooth. “No, we need more future. We need more time, and promise, and — we can’t be together, Ty. There’s more out there for us.”

“More out there for us?” Ty says bitterly. “What does that mean?”

“You’ll love someone else.”

Ty snorts. “I don’t love easily.”

“Neither do I.”

“And yet here we are.”

Silence.

Fingers, on Tony’s cheekbone.

Soft.

Lingering.

Ty looks at him. They both know, they both see, what cannot, will not, happen.

“Be careful, Tony.” Ty murmurs.

“You too, Ty.”

He squeezes his hand once, and then smiles. Ty looks back, once, over his shoulder.

All those years Ty watched Tony leave. He’d always looked back.

Point being, he’s gone. They’re all gone. Ty. Whit. Jarvis. Mom. Dad. Nick.

Is that it? Could that be it?

It’s the end.

Or a start.

A new beginning. 

But it’s okay, maybe. It’s not the first time he’s lost someone, the first time he’s cried, the first time he’s wanted to curl up and never see another day. He won’t give in. He won’t stop. He doesn’t need Tiberius Stone. Or Whitney. His mother, his father, Jarvis. 

He doesn’t need anyone. For the first time, Tony realises he can survive. He can be free. Whatever he chooses, he can do. He can act out. 

It's liberating.

Freeing.

He needs no one. 

(An iron shell. A mask. An idea carried in the subconscious since he was a little boy)

Starks have always had iron in their backbone.

 

Chapter Text

Tony grows up.

Or he grows older. The first point is still up for debate.

He drinks. He fucks. He goes through life.

He’s happy. Or at least, he’s not sad.

Things are good. He’s on top of the world.

Around thirty five, he resigns himself to never finding his soulmate. He wonders if his soulmate boarded a plane to Europe ten years ago.

Stupid motherfucker.

Business is booming, though. Really, really booming. When Tony took the throne, aged twenty-one, Stark was on it’s way out. A failing R&D department and lacking military funding meant that Tony and Obie were trying to block a hole in a sinking ship while everyone else scrambled for life jackets. They, alone, were able to get it back on it’s feet.

More than that. Tony has doubled his father’s income. He’s the fifth richest man in the world. In the world. He’s not entirely sure how much he’s worth exactly, because he has accountants for that, but it’s a lot. Under Obie’s advice, he’s shoved a lot of it under a — not a fake, it’s not a fake name — but under the name Edward Carbonell in some bank accounts off shore.

He’s an asshole, or so he’s been told. He’s been told that he’s cruel. Evil. A dictator. Capitalist scum. Tony has been called names all his life, it just took a few years for them not to matter. At the end of the day, these people can whine as much as they like, Tony will still go home rich.

His favourite is the Merchant of Death. Very poetic.

Not that that’s what he’s interested in, obviously. Tony has always been rich. Being rich is inconsequential. It doesn’t bother him. Sure, he likes the big house and the massive parties and the freedom that having money affords him. He likes to be able to build his own workshop and experiment without needing funding. But he doesn’t understand men who go crazy with it. How can having money be so important? 

There have to be other things, he decides one evening while he’s sitting alone nursing a scotch. There have to be other things that make life worthwhile. What do normal people have that makes them happy?

Family. Friends. Stability.

Tony remembers a documentary he watched about a slum in Mumbai. The people there were dirt poor, but they were the happiest people on earth. Lowly lives, but the had family.

It helps that they’d never known anything different, obviously.

It makes Tony feel a little disgusted. Makes his dinner roil in his stomach. It’s not just the bit of cheese he ate, it’s genuine discomfort at the idea of living that way. Of settling down. Having a house that’s child friendly, and a wife and kids running around and a dog, and attending republican charity galas and worrying about his kids getting into Ivy League schools and whether his little girl is growing up too fast and just —

How do people do it? How do ordinary people live such mundane lives? 

They must be stupid. Tony would never say it, but he thinks it’s because he is clever. Because he is a genius. He sees what other people don’t, and he won’t be satisfied with what other people will. 

Christ, this must have been how his father felt, he realises. Tony hates that it’s so easy to empathise with his old man now that he’s older himself. Hates that it’s so easy to be sympathetic to the man who caused his suffering. But it’s true. He had a kid late because he realised he needed an heir, and then didn’t know what to do with it. Tony would be the same, maybe. Foisting his son off onto someone else.

Actually no, he doesn’t think he would. If Tony had a son he would play ball with him, and he wouldn’t send him away, and they would work in the shop together, and sure it would get irritating sometimes, but he would make an effort. Maybe it’s different, when you actually have kids. Maybe they stop being irritating. Maybe he’ll want to spend time with them. Who knows.

A wife, too. Tall, curves in all the right places, dark hair, brown eyes, tanned skin, maybe —

No. Tall, willowy, not curvy but that’s okay, light hair, blue eyes, a smile that’s hard but so soft at the same time and that voice, “Will that be all, Mr Stark?”, she’d say that in bed, so sardonically, so in control, always sarcastic but always —

Or short, black hair, blue eyes, wicked, cruel, but so desperately in love, so desperate to be wanted —

Or none of them. A man, strong, firm beneath his hands. Hot breath, and blonde hair. That smile. Those hands. Breathy moans.

Stop.

He’s drunken too much. He feels light-headed. Bed would be the best thing for him.

No point thinking about things you can’t have.

 

Sometime back in 1998, Tony had crashed his car.

The reason? Well. 

That’s just what happens when you find your old friend in bed with the love of your life.

Because Rumiko had been the love of his life. Of she had been someone he loved. Maybe. Definitely. Tony loved her in a way he’s never felt before. Something clean, and pure, and worthy.

She obviously hadn’t felt the same way, because after five years of silence, Ty had waltzed back into his life and into his soon to be fiancés bed.

It took him, what, three minutes?

He can’t remember much about what happened next. He’d punched Ty, he thinks, because there was blood on his knuckles although it wasn’t his. And he never saw Ru again, because she took an opening at her father’s company and married a Hong Kong tycoon.

But anyway. That night, he had felt low. Real, real, low. Because Tony isn’t like your ordinary guy. He didn’t want the whole family shebang, but he had wanted Ru. He had loved her.

So he gets drunk, and he’s driving, and he doesn’t know how it happens but he’s rolling round a cliff and he realises he’s going to go over the edge so he veers, but it’s out of control, and the wheel spins and he crashes into rock.

He remembers the blood rolling down his head, and the pain in his chest.

The hands dragging him free.

“Mr Stark?” Someone says “Mr Stark, hey Mister? You awake?”

The man had bandaged his head and wrapped his ribs and given him something for the pain. When Tony woke up, he was in his grotty apartment.

“Who are you?” He’d croaked, half grateful, half suspicious, because why didn’t this man just take him to the hospital?

“Hogan,” he says “Harold Hogan. But people call me Happy, you know?”

“Why?”

“Because I’m so cheerful.” Hogan had said, face dour.

“Why aren’t I at the hospital?”

“Mr Stark, you looked like there was somewhere very important you needed to be, if you know what I mean. There were bottles in your car. One got lodged under the break.”

“Ah,” Tony says delicately “I see.”

The man shrugs. “I can drive you up now, if you want?”

In the end, it was actually Obadiah that hired him. “Watch out for him,” he had said “he likes to lose control sometimes.”

Happy. Happy became his bodyguard, and chauffeur, because it felt fitting and because he was built, in the nicest way possible, like a brick shithouse.

He was a failed boxer, Tony later learned. He asked him why he quit.

“Car crash.” He had answered. “Mashed my knee. I won’t be boxing professionally ever again.”

Tony decided he liked him.

 

24th April, 2008, 10:21:

“I’m not saying — lalala, not listening, I don’t have to, no of course I’m listening, that wasn’t, I wasn’t talking to you.”

Tony dodges a car, coffee in one hand, donut in the other. He gives the driver the finger, the car returning it with a long, hard beep of the horn.

“What I’m saying,” Tony says into his phone “is that, Obie, this thing is my baby, you know it’s my baby, I just don’t see — yes, you said that, yes, yes, I heard you. I’m just not sure that it’s a good use of time, you know? We’ve got the, the what is it, Apogee? Yeah, the Apogee award. I mean, it’s too tight, I’d rather — ”

“I see. I — no, that wasn’t — of course I care, I said that, didn’t I? I designed the fucking thing, I’m not blowing you off, it’s just too tight, Las Vegas to Malibu and then Afghanistan? I do like sleeping sometimes, it’s a thing I like to do — ”

What? He said that? He actually… wow. Okay. I mean, I wasn’t going to — ”

“Ah. I see. Could I — ”

“No, I’m not with anyone, when have I ever — ”

“Stop interrupting! Maybe… look, maybe if you could rearrange the missile showing, okay? Just, a day, that’s all it would take — ”

“What do you mean they’re expecting me? Well you shouldn’t have fucking told them to expect me without — yeah, I know. I know. Sorry.”

“I can… I don’t want to.”

“No shit.”

“Is the… look, have we got the jet ready on that day or — ”

“Is it that important? It’s just showing off a fucking weapon to a bunch of brass, Obie, they’re gonna buy it whatever we do. Afghanistan seems so far —

“Okay. Okay, fine. But you owe me, okay? I’m expecting the fucking works when I get back. More vacation time, that’s it. When I get back, I’m taking a vacation — hey, don’t laugh at me, it’s happening.”

“Yeah, you bet. You know me, Obie. Always working.”

 

26th April, 2008, 23:42:

“Jericho?” The general says. He exhales, shaking his head. “Mr Stark, I have to say I’ve heard a lot about it.”

Tony flashes a grin, sharklike. “Good.” He says “Then I’m doing my job.”

“You don’t need to convince me.” The man says, tipping his champagne flute. “The presentation will be a formality, son. As far as I’m concerned, the deals in the bag.”

Tony loves being on top.

Except in bed, obviously.

 

1st May, 2008, 19:54:

“I’m going to need you to clarify your birthday plans.” Pepper says, sighing, hair sleeked gently down her neck, framing her cheekbones. There are little wisps caught by her nose, which must be ticklish. She’s wearing a pressed crisp white shirt and black skirt, perfectly put together, dark heels and flesh coloured tights.

Always so well put together.

Tony blinks blearily. “Ms Potts.” He slurs.

“You’re drunk.”

“I am neither sober.” He says.

Pepper frowns. “That doesn’t — okay, Tony. Just sign here please.”

“You always wan’ me to sigh things.” He says, smacking his lips. “Always working.”

“I work so you work, Mr Stark.”

“Hmm,” he says “I think we both work too much.”

“I won’t argue with that.”

She bends down, over his shoulder, to hand him the sheets. 

She smells nice. Like… lavender and vanilla. It’s such a nice smell.

“Thank you, Tony.” She whispers, and Tony blinks. Did he say that out loud?

He does that a lot.

“Thank you Miss Potts,” he sighs, slumping down on the desk.

“Are you going to sign?” She asks, fingers tracing the nape of his neck, as if he’s too drunk to notice.

He just closes his eyes. 

As usual, it seemed a good idea at the time.

 

2nd May, 2008, 10:17:

“It’s a wonderful day for it, Mr Stark.”

Tony laughs, offers his hand to shake, hoists his clubs higher on his shoulder.

Let the record show that he hates golf. Let the record show he would rather fellate golf balls than hit them over a field. Let the record show this is possibly the most boring sport on earth.

“You know me,” he says “I love it. Can’t keep away from a good game.”

“That’s it, man.” The senator says, clapping his back. “Nice breeze, too. Fair warning, though, I’ve got a mean shot.”

Tony does another one of his fake laughs while Obie sucks his teeth and shakes his head. He knows him too well, and he’s had those laughs turned on him too many times to fall for it.

“Bet on it?” Tony says, stepping into the cart “Something good, something… shall we say fifty?”

“Fifty?” The man guffaws “Are we poor?”

Tony laughs again, and wins $15,000.

 

3rd May, 2008

“Tony,” Rhodey says “Tony, I feel like you’re not listening to me.”

Rhodey. Solid, dependable Rhodey. Rhodey, the perpetual pain in his ass.

“That would be because I’m not,” he slaps his wrench against the table “probably.”

“I need to run over some security things, okay? It’s important.”

Tony rolls his eyes. It’s Afghanistan. Yeah it’s washed up and backwards but what’s the worst that can happen?

 

5th May, 2008, 21:45:

“Tony, there’s some things I want to — ”

Tony looks up from his plans. “Hello? Can I help you? Did I let you in?”

“Cute, Mr Stark, but I really need to show you this before you leave — ”

Tony frowns. “Leave where?”

Pepper stares at him. “Las Vegas? Afghanistan? Does this mean nothing to you?”

Tony blinks. “Oh yeah,” he says “yeah, no, I remember.”

Pepper narrows her eyes. “Right,” she says “fine. Good. Then you won’t mind signing here, it’s an order for two industrial sized drills, for whatever reason you want them, but they need to be shipped in and they need your signature so wow you’re not listening to me at all.”

Tony blinks, dropping the blu-tack he’d been stretching. “No, I mean, sure, just hand ‘em here.”

Pepper sighs, her hair falling slightly over one shoulder.

It’s cute.

“Aren’t you here a little late?” Tony murmurs.

“Yeah, well,” Pepper’s lips tighten “I tried to leave an hour ago, but I needed a signature, so.”

Tony tries not to smile. Pepper is…

He would be lost without her, really.

“Damn. Must be irritating.”

“Yes. It is. Are you going to… give that back? Maybe?”

Tony looks down at the pen and paper in his hand. “Right.” He says slowly.

Pepper looks at him. “When was the last time you slept?”

“I have…” Tony rubs at his eyes “I have a lot to do. So. A day. Maybe two.”

Pepper’s lips tighten further. “Get some sleep, Tony.” She says softly.

“Can’t.” He exhales. “But it’s fine. I just, I’ll do an allnighter, get up to Vegas tomorrow, prepare my speech for the demo after the award ceremony and then sleep on the plane. It’ll be fine. Obie’s promised me a vacation, so.”

 

6th May, 2008, 21:30:

“You rehearse that often?”

“Every night in front of the mirror before bedtime.”

“Wow. You ever lose a nights sleep in your life?”

If only she knew.

“I’d be prepared to lose a few with you.”

 

7th May, 2008, 07:21:

“I need you to sign this before you get on the plane.”

What are you trying to get rid of me for? What, you got plans?

“As a matter of fact, I do.”

“I don't like it when you have plans.”

“I'm allowed to have plans on my birthday.”

“It's your birthday?”

“Yes.”

“I knew that. Already?”

“Yeah. Isn't that strange? It's the same day as last year.”

“Get yourself something nice from me.”

“I already did.”

“And?”

“It's was very nice.”

“Yeah?”

“Very tasteful. Thank you, Mr Stark.”

“You're welcome, Miss Potts.”

 

 

8th May, 2008, 01:00 (PDT):

“Is it better to be feared, or respected? I ask, is too much to ask for both?”

 

8th May, 2008, 01:28 (PDT):

“I’m sorry, the humdrumvee is over there.”

“Good work, Tony.”

 

8th May, 2008, 03:00 (PDT):

“Give me a gun! Give me a — ”

Sand.

Burning knees.

Gunfire.

He rolls, a rock at his back, think fast, and —

help attack afghanist

 

Obadiah gets the message, or at least, the start of it.

He toasts his reflection, and congratulates himself on a job well done.

 

Chapter Text

There are no words.

No words. No sentences that can be strung together to describe —

Lost. Aching. How did this happen?

Where is he?

Fear. He is scared. A rational response.

And then —

Screams. Please stop. Please.

Kill me.

The air is cold enough to abrade his throat. Cold enough that is scrapes down his chest. Cold enough to feel like every breath is a struggle.

Right?

He opens his eyes, blinks, no. No, he can’t do that, it’s too dark.

Murmurs.

He stretches out, or tries too. Wriggles his fingers, clenches his toes, brings life back into his body.

And then, the pain.

Again, there are probably no words. There’s nothing he can really say to describe it. 

Later, years into the future, when he is alive, and well, and sitting at home safe with coffee in his hands, he will finally try to articulate what this felt like. What it had felt like, waking up, and having —

(Later, he will acknowledge that a part of him broke. Just then. In that little moment, when ripping the linen from his chest, a part of him snapped away. Tony doesn’t know what part it was, whether it was a good piece of the puzzle of bad, but he did leave a little bit of himself in that cave. He’s not afraid to admit it.)

He lifts his hands again, and this time ignores the spiking heat through his chest. He rubs at his nose, hands shaking, so, so weak, and he thinks ‘I’m dead, I am going to die here.”

He pulls the tubing from his nose.

He’s so thirsty.

(His throat is raw. Screaming.)

And then.

And then the wire.

Ripping bandages, hands shaking, nails broken and scrabbling and so so scared —

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

 

Does no one get it? He had laughed. No one will understand. Tony thinks he’s losing his mind.  When people called him the merchant of death he had laughed. He had laughed.

People called him a murderer and he had laughed, as if they said something funny. And children were dying. People were dying. Real people. Not statistics. And their last moments were terrifying and painful. You know how Tony knows that? Because now he’s terrified and in pain. He was a torturer. Tony was a torturer. He made weapons of torture. He made things that tore families apart, he made weapons that meant little girls screamed and cried with blood running down their face as their father’s took their last breaths and mother’s huddled close over the lifeless corpses of babies and people had congratulated him and he feels sick. They torture him. They starve him. They don’t let him sleep. It occurs to Tony that lots of people will tell him he’s not evil because he just makes the weapons. But that’s not the point. The man who makes a cattle prod does so with the intention of hurting people. Or cattle. Point being, it’s made to inflict pain. Tony knows a bit about that, now. He knows a bit about pain. There’s a lump in his chest. He’s all broken pieces now. A scattered puzzle. Some pieces go missing. He’ll never be whole again.

It’s so ugly, the light in his chest.

 

Tony will never tell anyone what they do to him in that cave. Tony had thought —

He’s a civilian. He’s an American civilian. He will not negotiate with terrorists.

They laugh at him, though. When they drag his head from the water. When he tries to keep his head up, when they kick his stomach, when the thing in his chest shifts and he starts to cry right in front of them and pisses his pants, they laugh.

Like a child.

Tony will never tell anyone what happens in that cave, those first few days

 

Chapter Text

And so like a phoenix rising from the ashes.

Objectively, Tony has had neither a good nor bad life. He is rich, he is handsome, he is clever. Maybe he’s lonely. Maybe he has a problem with his drink.

Tony has not had a hard life. A sad one, maybe.

There are things he learns, in that cave. Things that —

He must be held accountable. When had he sunk so far? When had he become —

When had he become the very thing he despised.

Selfish. Cruel. Arrogant. Shallow.

Tony won’t be unreasonable. He’ll allow that life has taken him for a crazy ride.

But so what. His parents didn’t love him, who gives a shit? What gives him a right, what gives him the right to be a —

To be a —

Murderer.

Not a murderer, he reminds himself as he rocks back and forth, not a murderer. He has never, ever, killed anyone.

But he supplied the killers with their weapons. The killers being the government, and the victims being anyone. Anyone who gets in his government’s way. Anyone they want to ‘save’ or anyone they want to wipe out, and all the innocents who go with it.

What would he do if the tables were turned? How would he feel if America was besieged because their president had made decisions on behalf of the people.

If one day, the rockets came raining down.

He would blame whoever made them, too. He would hold them accountable.

Which is why it’s strange that the man cleans the hole in his chest to fight infection. That, when they allow Tony food, he splits his, so Tony gets extra. That he, with firm hands, beats his back to dislodge the mucus and water lodged in his lungs.

Tony has never had anyone take care of him like that. Let alone someone whose life he helped destroy. Whose country he crushed into dust and blood.

“What does it matter,” he murmurs “they’ll kill me, you. By the end of the week I’ll be dead anyway.”

And the man had said:

“Then this is a very important week for you, isn’t it?”

 

He learns a lot about Yinsen.

He’s fifty-six, he’s from a wealthy family in Kabul, and his father owned a bookshop.

He left when he was eighteen in order to go to Cambridge and study engineering, which apparently was a big deal, and led to a rift in the family.

“My father wanted me to stay home,” he explains “work was supposed to be kept in the family. There was a position with my grandfather.”

“But you didn’t take it?”

“No. How could I? Do you know how many Afghani boys go to England to study?”

He had moved to America, after that, where he met his wife, the daughter of two immigrants making a pittance owning a restaurant in Philadelphia. They met one night when Yinsen was at a conference and had a hankering for some of his country’s food. They eloped two weeks later.

“Nowhere is safe for an Afghani,” Yinsen had spat “nowhere. I was educated. An educated man from Cambridge. I was revolutionising my field, among my peers I was respected. But out there,” he waved his hand “out there, it’s nothing.”

‘Out there’ being the real world. Reality. Where people are thrown in the gutter because of the colour of their skin.

So he went home, back to his wife’s village, with one son and another on the way. 

“It’s shame,” Yinsen said “the eldest got citizenship but the second didn’t.”

Tony had nodded and hummed as if that was a problem he’s ever had to face.

 

Tony gets lost to it, sometimes. He’s not ashamed to say he asks to hear more about Yinsen’s life. About their idyllic home with flowers in the front garden, the marble floors, the fountains. About Khaliq and Jawwad and Bilqis and his wife, Hinah. 

A life better than his. Tony sees that, now. Tony has money and cars and drink and status but the way Yinsen describes it, the way Tony sees the peace, the contentedness in his face when he talks about his family. It’s something Tony’s never known.

Maybe one day —

No time. He’s getting ahead of him himself. But if he — when he — gets out of here, he will change. God, will he change. Everything. He’ll, he’ll give money to charity, he’ll stop making weapons, hell, if he’s not scarred for life maybe he can cut back on the drink, too.

The things that matter.

He’ll meet someone, maybe. Christ, maybe he’ll meet a guy. Doesn’t matter. He’ll find someone. Someone who —

Pepper his mind whispers.

Tony can’t do that to her. Can’t land her with his shit.

But he’d really like to.

God, he hopes Rhodey is alive. Please, please, please don’t be dead. Tony swears if he gets out of here alive he’ll never treat him like shit again.

He couldn’t live with himself if he was dead.

 

He wants to see Obadiah again. Wants to feel that things are going to be okay again. Wants the mundanity of work and partying and shmoozing and drink.

He wants all that and more. Because his eyes, oh boy, his eyes have been opened. He let it happen to himself. He’d let himself fall into a hole of nothing, blackness, of just getting up each day and living life on auto cue and he’d gotten so used to it that it had becomes enjoyable, that being a brain dead sycophant was something he thought was good.

He had thought he had it all. Parties and wealth and women and the occasional man. People kissing his ass. What did it matter is people died, he’d had it all, right! He’d has status and wealth and what could ever matter more than that? Women with big asses and fat tits and men who would contort themselves into any position and —

How could he have been so shallow? So naive?

Naive is the word for it. Stupid is a bit more harsh, but no less true. He had been stupid. Stupid to be so selfish, to let his life slip past his fingers like the harsh desert sand, and stupid not to have seen what he was, what he was apart of, the war machine, the war factory, war profiteering.

Ultimately, that’s what it comes down to. That woman, the reporter, she had accused him of it. War profiteering. It wasn’t the first time someone had spat those words in his face. It had never meant anything to him. So what if he was profiting, how else was he going to keep building weapons to murder and kill and destroy —

(Don’t think about the convoy, don’t think about the soldiers, don’t think about how you tripped over someone’s body and — )

Tony is suddenly terrified. What if he doesn’t make it out? What if he spends the rest of his life here or, more realistically, they kill him? What if he’s brainwashed, what if in five years they send him back with bombs strapped to his chest, what if he does get out and it’s too late, what if he’s too old or too weak and the war machine goes on and on and on and people keep dying and looking at him with pity in the twist of their lips and disgust in their eyes?

He needs to be strong. He needs to escape. 

He’s a civilian. Or he was.

He’s made of stronger stuff, now. He’s been tortured. He’s had his —

Tony drops his tools, hands shaking, and brings his fingers to claw at his chest. God, is it still there? Is it still working? He feels the rims of the metal, breathes as deeply as he can, lets the pain ground him and the breath soothe him over.

What was he saying?

Right. He’s laid down on a table and had a knife drawn over his chest.

It’s sketchy. He can’t remember everything, play by play. Things jump from scene to scene. The pain remains constant. He remembers slowly waking, the drift up to consciousness. And then he remembers fighting. And then, being tied down. Jeers. Shouts. Some spit.

The sound of a saw.

Then, the blood had wet his face.

After, he had screamed as he was dissected alive. He hadn’t passed out. He had been able to see everything in perfect detail as Yinsen took the knife and separated his skin from his muscle and then his muscle from his bone, carving what he would later realise is a circle deep into his chest.

Then, out came that saw. The buzzing would stay with Tony for the rest of his life.

He stayed awake, perfectly crystal clear, as Yinsen removed his sternum. He had placed it on the metal plate by his head.

Tony wonders vaguely where it’s gone. If they just threw it out, or if someone’s wearing it around their neck as a gory keepsake. Look! They could say I’m wearing Tony Stark’s sternum!

He’s a bit woozy with the painkillers. Tony had tried to explain that he’s a drug addict, and at first he had refused, but then he had felt the pain and then injected himself while Yinsen pretended not to notice.

It’s nice, that. The facade of civility. Keeps him grounded.

Now, though, he plans.

Because he as an idea.

 

It was all hypothetical, Tony will explain in an interview sometime after his seventieth birthday. At the beginning, it was all hypothetical. Tony didn’t know that the armour could work. He also knew that he had nothing to lose.

Nothing to lose is something that will define Tony as long as he lives. Build an armour, nothing to lose. Sell all his belongings, nothing to lose. Fly through inter-space wormhole, nothing to lose.

It defines him even when it becomes untrue.

In the future, people are able to visit the cave where he first built the Iron Man. It’s a popular tourist attraction in the new hub of the oil-rich Middle East. Now, though, it is Tony’s prison.

“It won’t work.” Yinsen says quietly, pencil scratching against thin paper. “It’s impossible.”

Tony sucks in a breath. “Not impossible.”

 

One day, they drag him out.

“Mr Stark,” says the fat man with the translator “how are you doing.”

Tony’s fingers play with the metal casing of his reactor. He doesn’t mean to draw attention to it, but he’s nervous. He needs to make sure it’s still there.

The man’s beady eyes slide to the slit in his shirt. He jerks his chin, and the men drag it from his back.

His fingers slide of the metal; his taps nails against the centre.

That hurts, actually. Sends thick vibrations down his rackety rib cage.

“What is it?” The translator asks. 

Tony ignores the sweat running down his back, down his temples, he refuses to be scared of this fat man he is Tony Stark and he is strong and this is —

He feels like a six year old. He feels like six year old, staring up at his father and waiting for the strike to come.

“It stops the,” he swallows “the shards. The metal, it just stops it from, from touching my heart. That’s all.”

The man stares a little longer. And then he smiles.

A blow to his stomach so hard that he collapses, reeling, coughing blood onto the floor.

“He asks if you’re sure.” The translator says.

Tony nods into the dirt, eyes watering, unable to get air into his lungs. He nods desperately. “I swear,” he sucks in, coughing “I swear.”

A kick to his side and he can’t scream because there’s no wind left into his body.

“Sure?” The man asks in stilted English.

“Yes,” Tony gasps, nodding frantically, cheek chafing against the dirt “yes, I’m sure, I’m sure, please.”

A nod, and then his shirt is thrown back down over his body. A click of the tongue and jerk of the head and he’s lifted to his feet, panting with pain, and marched down corridors so that his feet can’t support his legs.

He’s thrown to the ground, rolling, and then the door slams shut.

Yinsen looks up, and sighs.

 

“You antagonise them.” He says.

“I d’nt antagonise.” He mumbles, flinching when Yinsen freezing metal to his stomach. It doesn’t work as well as ice, but if they leave they metal by the draft at night it cools enough to ease some of their aches, at least until it warms, which takes about a minute.

Their painkillers are long gone and Yinsen’s been siphoning off morphine where he can. It’s never enough. The gaping wound in Tony’s chest is still healing.

“Enough.” Yinsen orders. “No more today.”

Tony wants to protest but he can barely keep his eyes open, adrenaline and cold sinking him into the blankets. “Paper.” He mumbles.

“Sleep.” Yinsen replies.

“Gotta work on the,” he drifts away, briefly, then jerks awake. “The flight capability.”

“Won’t matter if you’re dead. Sleep, and I will work on it instead.”

“Nuh uh.” Tony manages, because he is the suit designer here.

There’s the slide of a needle into his neck and Tony blinks. “Bastard.” He mumbles.

“Goodnight, Stark.”

 

He thinks he’s dreaming. He’s almost certain this happened awhile ago.

Flowers, new suit. A smile on his face. The feeling of bouncing on his feet.

Out early, from work. He’d taken the afternoon off.

Everything was perfect. Everything. He had an afternoon to spend with the woman he loves and his best friend was back. Ty was back.

It was perfect.

Until is wasn’t.

What had happened, exactly? Ty had been staying with him, he’d shown up the day before, they’d stayed up drinking and —

Ty had tried to kiss him, and he’d softly told him no. No harm, no foul. He explained he had a girlfriend now who he very much loved.

Ty had apologised, said he hadn’t realised, and that had been it.

But Ty had always been jealous.

In retrospect, it says more about Rumiko that she let Ty sleep with her. It hurts to think —

To think he had been so crazily in love with her. Absolutely mad. He’d had an engagement ring in his left pocket for weeks before that date, waiting for the perfect time. Hell, it could’ve been that afternoon for all he knows.

If Ty hadn’t appeared, he would have done it. Married her. Wedded bliss. She was the one person he ever wanted to get down on one knee for.

And she would have said yes. And they would have lived together, even though she never really loved him, and when Tony would slowly realise this, they would fall out of love, until they were two strangers living in a drafty house, and to make things worse there would be a few kids too who wouldn’t understand why their parents don’t speak.

Maybe Ty did him a favour.

Tony remembers it didn’t stop him from punching him hard enough to break his perfectly shaped nose.

 

“This won’t work.”

Tony makes a face. “This won’t work,” he mimics “yes, it fucking will, because I want it to.”

“As much as I admire your ability to believe things into existence, I feel it’s my job to let you know if you run this simulation you will be unable to get off the ground.”

“We,” Tony says automatically “and it’s math. The math is good.”

“The math is good but not applicable.”

“Did you know that we still don’t know how bees fly with their tiny little wings? I think I’ve cracked it.”

“Equating yourself to an insect does not solve the problem.”

 

“Is there anyone waiting for you at all, Stark?”

Tony is soldering and the tools nearly slips from his hand.

“Harsh.” He says, setting it down carefully on the workbench.

“Come,” Yinsen says “dinner.”

Beans. And what’s this, rice? Wow. He’s in for a treat today.

“I mean it,” Yinsen says “is there someone waiting for you?”

Tony sniffs, shovels the gruel into his mouth. “I don’t see why it matters.”

Yinsen smirks. “It matters.”

Tony sighs, sucking at a burn on his thumb. “I don’t think so. Maybe. Depends on what I do if I get out of here.”

“Oh?”

“Why are you making conversation?”

“I’m not. I’m asking you questions. I save pleasant chit chat for backgammon.”

“Just so I’m clear, this isn’t pleasant chit chat.”

“I’m curious.”

Tony sighs obnoxiously. “I have people who would be sad if I died.”

“Really.”

“Please don’t sound surprised.”

Yinsen holds up his hands. “I’m not.”

“They would be sad.” Tony says. “They would get over it pretty quick, but you know. Better than nothing.”

 

It’s strange how Tony’s mind wanders when he’s in pain.

“Tony.” Pepper says, and she has that chiding edge to her tone. “I need you to sign this.”

“Can’t.” He slurs. “Can’t. Arms are too… noodle-ly.”

She sighs, pulling up the stool by his cot. “Don’t make me fake it again, Tony. I’m breaking about, a million laws, so if you could just sit up I would greatly appreciate it.”

Her pen is scratching against her paper. It’s a nice sound, and he wants to sleep.

Tony coughs, and the pain ratchets down his chest. He whimpers.

Pepper sets down her board. “What?” She says, exasperated.

“T’ hurts.” He gasps.

“Well what do you want me to do about that?” She says softly, not harsh, just gentle.

He feels all trembly. He blinks sweat from his eyes.

“Here,” he says, trying to sound strong. He stretches out his arm for her to hand the clipboard to him. “I’ll sign.”

“Sit up.”

Tony’s face twists in a grimace and he coughs again, bracing his feet on the ground. “‘Kay.” He mumbles, and his legs shakes.

He reaches forward for the papers and his hands hit metal. It doesn’t make sense. None of this makes sense. 

“Pepper?” He croaks, feeling his hands along the slick cold of the metal “Where’s tha’ — ”

“Easy, Stark.” Yinsen says. “Back to bed.”

“No,” he says “no, I have t’sign, to sign — ”

Pepper sighs, shaking her head. “Tony, this is important.”

“No, Stark, you don’t. Lie back down, we’ve been through this.”

Been though what? “Pepper,” he says again “leave the, leave the sheets on the table.”

“Yes, see? That’s it. Pepper can leave the sheets on the table and you can get back to them when you’re feeling better.”

That sounds reasonable. That’s okay. His chest really hurts.

 

Tony is sick, apparently. 

There’s a brief period, before he reaches the throes of delirium, where he is vaguely lucid. It’s at these points that he is able to draft.

(It feels like being a lone man on a beach, watching a tidal wave come closer)

He’s got the whole thing scoped out in his mind. A suit, not precise, but enough. Thick metal, but it’ll have to be kept clean at the joints. It’s not the designing that’s the problem, it’s the welding and the banging and the —

Tony loses his train of thought. What was he saying?

“Enough.” Yinsen says, and as usual he forces the pen out of Tony’s hand. “There will be time when you are better.”

“They’ll kill us.”

“No.” He says. “They haven’t got their weapon, and you need a doctor. It works out well for us. Now, lie down, or I will tie you down.”

Tony relents at that. He knows Yinsen didn’t do it on purpose, but the last time he has tied him down it hurt.

 

Everything is so hazy.

It’s too hot, too too hot, and Tony can’t stop sweating.

And then it’s cold. Too too cold and he thinks he’s going to die.

Tony’s not sure how many days have passed, he just knows that he would be happy to end it all right about now.

He hears murmurs. He hears Yinsen.

Shouting, cocking guns. Silence.

And then, ice.

“Best I could do, Stark.” He murmurs, and Tony feels a wet cloth on his head. “They’ll find some pain relief, I know they have some. Maybe they can scrounge up some medication, too, who knows. I think Abu has taken a liking to you.”

Tony blinks.

 

And suddenly, he’s not in the cave anymore.

“Ty?” he says, and his brow creases. This is…

This is strange.

Ty smiles at him. “Hey, bubblegum.”

“What — ”

“Just waiting for you.”

Tony blinks. Okay.

“You’re sick.” Ty clarifies.

“I know that.”

It’s strange. Tony hasn’t seen Ty since…

Since he slept with his girlfriend.

But for some reason, his mind has filled in the blanks, added in all the spaces where laugh lines should go and the first wrinkles should be.

For the record, Ty has aged well.

“Am I going to die?” Tony asks.

Ty shrugs. “Don’t know, man. Do you want to?”

Tony swallows. “I want to make a change.”

“That’s good.”

“But I don’t know what I’m going back to.” He blurts.

Ty sighs. “What do you want to go back to?”

Tony looks down. “I want something real.”

“This is real.” Ty says.

Tony blinks. “This isn’t real.”

“How can you be sure?”

 

Tony coughs awakes.

“Ah ah ah,” Yinsen says “don’t get up.”

He tries to speak, but he can’t. He feels like his entire throat is crusted with something and every breath is flaking the skin inside. It’s awful. 

He can’t breathe through his nostrils, either. He’s sick, in every definition of the word.

“Your reactor is infected.” Yinsen explains. “Do you understand? Are you understanding what I’m saying?”

Tony tries to suck in breaths through his mouth but it hurts so bad.

“How long?” He rasps with the rise and fall of his chest.

“Two days?”

Oh thank God. That’s no time at all.

“No.” Yinsen says as Tony tries to sit up “I told you, stay down.”

“Can’t.” 

“Stark you are delirious. You are sick. Stay down.”

In the end, Yinsen just holds him there as his eyes close because he’s weak now anyway.

 

There are no windows in the cave, but his old nightmare follows him anyway.

There’s a banging at the metal doors of their prison, and Tony knows.

He just knows.

It’s the man.

 

“Easy,” Yinsen says “easy.”

Tony strikes out, or tries to, tries to bat the foreign hands away, but it’s no use.

“Swallow,” Yinsen says “swallow. It’ll feel better.”

“No,” Tony gasps “no, h-help, p-p-please — ”

Obie is sitting in the stool that Pepper once occupied. “Careful, Tony.” He says. “Be careful.”

“Make him stop!” Tony says “Obie, please!”

 

And then, Rhodey.

Tony is spent. He’s lying on his chest because lying on his back stop his breath and the painkillers relieve the sharp sensation of lying on the arc reactor. He can’t move, anymore, and he’s too doped to do anything else.

“Tones,” Rhodey says in his low rumble.

“Are you dead?” He whispers in return.

Rhodey smiles. “Are you?”

Tony frowns. His mind keeps playing tricks on him.

“What duzzat’ mean?” He slurs, drool sliding down the side of his mouth.

“Are you dead?”

Tony’s brow furrows. “Stop it.”

“Simple question, Tones.”

“Stop.” Tony say again.

“Stark,” comes the voice, Yinsen “Stark, there is no one there.”

“S’ Rhodey.”

“Stark, you are imagining things. Sleep, and let me cool you down.”

 

In the end, Tony loses two weeks to his trippy infection.

“I was sure you were going to die,” Yinsen says, shaking his head in disbelief “I still don’t know how you lived.”

“Yeah well.” Tony says, face twisting as he lifts the cylinder out of the old bomb. “I’m plucky.”

Tony wants to laugh, a little, at the look on Yinsen’s face. He honestly looks shocked.

“You should have died.”

“And yet I didn’t,” Tony says, wincing as he lifts the metal onto the table with a thud. “Are you noticing a recurring theme?”

“I hope so.” Yinsen says, watching him carefully. “I hope so.”

Tony snorts. “If you want to help, get the smelter going. We’ve got metal to melt.”

 

Later, he says thank you.

“For saving my life. Again.”

 

When Tony gets out, he holds Yinsen accountable for a lot.

For saving his life, one. For helping him escape, two. And three, for lodging the idea firmly in his back brain that being from another country, continent, planet, whatever, does not makes you less.

Not that Tony ever thought that. It’s just a lot easier to become removed from the killing machine you are apart of when you don’t recognise the people you are bombing as humans.

 

Tony’s not sure how long he’s been here, exactly.

“About two months. Maybe less.”

Two months. Two months of his life, just gone. Two months where the world continues turning without him.

Are they still looking for him?

It occurs to Tony that he’s missed his birthday. Thirty-eight. God, what a place to have a mid-life crisis.

 

It’s hard work. Hard, physically, and also because there’s the constant threat that they could find out.

That they could stop him.

That they could shove his head back under the —

Point being, it’s better to work fast. He was delayed because of his illness, but he’s better now. Not 100%, still a bit shaky, still with that achy feeling in his chest, but on his way to recovery, if that’s possible in this place.

His hands shake the first time he presses his hammer to the metal, bending it to his will. There’s no safety gear here, the conditions are enough to send the director of industrial safety into a seizure, but it’s enough. He keeps burning his forearm when he bends over his work, but that’s okay. If the reactor hasn’t killed him, nothing will.

 

“It’s big.” Yinsen says quietly.

“That’s what she said.”

“What?”

“It will be.” Tony replies. Right now, the Iron Man is nothing more than scraps littered across the cave, some bend in shape, some attached to one another with bolts, some welded. It’s a hodge podge of death.

“Will it be enough?” Yinsen asks.

“What?” Tony says, distracted.

“Will it be enough. To get you out.”

“Bullets won’t be able to get through unless they’re aiming pretty close. And by close, I mean right next to me, in which case I’ll, you know, smash their heads in. I’ll go through first, clear the way. It’ll be enough to keep us safe.”

Yinsen hums.

 

And then, there’s Raza.

The other men in that cave are sheep. Tony is…

He won’t say he pities them. But he can see their humanity.

Raza is cold. Raza is cruel.

He sees him rarely. A glimpse, when they had tortured him. A brief moment of eye contact when he had agreed to make his weapon.

Mostly, he keeps his head down. Today, it’s unavoidable.

“The great Genghis Khan,” he says, as if Tony cares, and the launches into a spiel about how he’s going to rule the world with weapons, as if the US hasn’t already got a monopoly on it. What’s the guy planning on doing with one Jericho? Sure, it’ll be handy to blow up a town, somewhere. He could aim for a large US city, but where he’d get the tech to aim it from here is beyond him. And the military would literally see it from a thousand miles away.

Anyway, then they have Yinsen’s head pressed against an anvil, and Raza is lifting a coal to his lips.

Yinsen can’t die now. He can’t. Not now that they’re so close to getting out.

Think fast, Tony. 

 “Good assistant.” He says grudgingly.

The coal falls to the ground, and then Tony has a day to assemble his armour or die.

 

It’s the first time Tony has ever killed.

Or is it? Has he been killing people with his weapons for years?

Re-phrase.

It’s the first time Tony has killed a man with his own hands.

The first time he’s heard the crack of a skull against a wall.

There’s probably a few poetic ways to put it, the hardening of his soul, the forming of a metal armour around his bones, the ice inside his chest, but at the end of the day, there’s no pretty way to say if feels good.

 

“My family is dead. I will see them when I leave here.”

“Thank you. For saving my life.”

“Don’t waste it. Don’t waste your life, Stark. Don’t waste — ”

Last words. Got to make them count, right?

 

Light.

Heat.

Hot desert, and Tony sets the camp on fire.

Rebirth by flames.

 

And then —

Flying.

No.

Falling.

Shit.

 

Chapter Text

Heat.

Tony is lost.

In the literal sense, although it’s pretty metaphorical, too.

The sand is too hot on his feet.

They could be behind him, he reminds himself, he has to keep going, keep moving.

He didn’t survive all that to —

Yinsen didn’t —

“Don’t cry.” Howard snaps. “Hey, hey! What did I tell you!”

“Sorry.” Tony mumbles, and he puts one foot in front of the other.

He’ll be dead soon.

At least it’s not in the cave.

His left shoulder aches. It’s all busted up. He’s thirsty, he hasn’t had anything to drink since yesterday, or the day before, whenever just after he finished his suit was.

There’s no chance he’s going to last the night and there is no chance of rescue. It’s all been for nothing. All of it. And now, he’s going to die, just like Yinsen.

To top things off, he gets to spend his last moments with a hazy vision of his father who is looking a lot more chipper than he was the last time Tony saw him, which was when he was being lowered into the ground.

(Although it was closed casket because apparently the engine burned off his face or something or his chest was mangled or whatever Tony can’t remember exactly and he hadn’t wanted to dwell on it at the time)

They could be behind him. Raza’s men. Please let him die before they take him back and inevitably kill him slowly and painfully.

The sun is so goddamn hot. Who the fuck gave it permission to, why is that even fucking necessary? Fucking hell. He’s in hell. Christ, maybe he’s dead and this is hell.

“Shut up, Tony.” Howard says absently. “Try and keep yourself together.”

“Easy for you to say.” He mumbles as his feet slip over sand.

“Why is it easy for me to say?” Howard says, and Tony feels him stop and put his hands on his hips.

“Jesus Christ.” Tony mutters. “Jesus Christ, of all the people to be with me now — ”

“You sound like your mother.”

Tony falls, rolling in the hot sand. He blinks hazily at the sun.

“Get up.” Howard says.

“Can’t.”

Get up, boy.”

“Oh, fuck off.”

Tony closes his eyes. Get up, his mind screams, but it’s fading away, get up!

“You lazy sack of shit.” Howard says, and he feels so close, so real. “Get up now, Tony, or I swear to God — ”

He can’t die like this.

But what’s the point? Keep moving? Is he mad? Who will he find? He doesn’t know where he is, he’s been gone for two months, you’d have to be insane to still be wasting money on recovery projects.

But he could get lucky. He could. He’s been getting lucky for the past three months, maybe —

Getting lucky? He was kidnapped, Christ, has he lost his mind? What is lucky about this situation? He should just…

Stay here.

But then, he thinks of home.

He thinks of Rhodey, and how if he’s dead he can’t just lie down here. He thinks of the war machine. He thinks of Obie, how if he dies he’ll be left alone, and he thinks of —

He thinks of Pepper.

He realises, oh God.

He realises he doesn’t want to disappoint her, most of all.

So: one knee wedged under his body, and then the other. Hands pressed into the sand. And push.

On his feet.

“Walk.” Howard says.

 

All the things Tony will do when he gets home.

Water. He’ll drink so much of it. He’ll never ever —

Oh God, water.

His body doesn’t know what to think. The crystal of his cold pool over looking the ocean shatters and fragments as he falls screaming into it’s depths.

Drowning.

Stop. He needs to stop. Think clearly. It’s the dehydration that’s doing it.

It feels like something’s died in his mouth.

He stumbles on.

 

God, he hopes Rhodey’s alive. He really really hopes he’s alive. Tony doesn’t know what Rhodey thinks of him but he reckons there’s always been some kind of mutual respect there somewhere. He think’s it started in college because Rhodey, good ol’ Rhodey, he loves his weapons and that’s what Tony calls him that, why he calls him Rhodey, because those first few weeks they met he would barely leave Tony alone for asking what weapons he made and what it was like and how he felt about it and what his dad did. And Tony had figured it would be funny to call him Rhodey because that’s his name but it’s also like a Rhodey, a Stark roadie, so there was that. But Tony doesn’t know what exactly their relationship is, and if he’s honest he’s scared to call Rhodey his best friend because even if that’s how Tony feels he’s not sure if he feels the same way? It’s probably got something to do with his issues, he doesn’t know, he just wishes he

 

(A total absence of thought)

 

“Mom?”

Nothing actually comes out of his mouth. His throat is too dry.

There’s this shining light. This singing light, right in front of him.

He raises his arm, best he can.

Tries to touch it.

Just out of reach.

“Mom.” He croaks again, and stumbles forward. “Mom?”

A whisper.

Like a child, he stretches forward, and tries to catch pure light in his fingers.

(It’s the sun)

 

Was Tony ever in love? Did he really love Rumiko? Or was he in love with the idea of love? He just doesn’t know.

God, she had been so —

He wonders where she is now. He should stop being bitter. They were good friends, once, and Tony could use that now.

Tony remembers, vaguely, that he once cheated on his girlfriend. A girlfriend that loved him, very, very much.

Where is Whitney now? Why hasn’t he seen her in so long?

Eugh. The damn sun is making him all sentimental.

 

If a human being walked past Tony right now, he would feel sick.

You wanna know why?

Because he is so damn fucking hungry that he would eat them whole.

 

Raza is chasing him.

He tries to throw his feet forward, tries to run, but they won’t listen to him.

He tries to force his body faster. God, don’t let them take him. Please, please don’t let them take him.

Should he pray? Just in case? Tony likes to have all bases covered. If he dies now he would to have a place upstairs, if it really does exist.

 

His chest hurts real bad. He thinks his heart's on fire.

 

Tony can’t —

Just one foot in front of the other. Babies do it all the time.

It’s been dark. It was dark, and Tony had shivered, but he hadn’t stopped.

He hasn’t got long left, now.

Nearly there.

He would have loved to have gone home. He would have loved to have seen Pepper.

Maybe he just doesn’t deserve it.

Yinsen died. He definitely deserved life.

So maybe it’s fair Tony has to go.

Don’t waste it, he hears don’t waste your life.

“I’m sorry.” He croaks, and he’s not sure what for. Everything.

He’s so thirsty.

Oh God, this is it, now. He can feel his feet slipping. 

He’s going to fall and when he does he won’t be able to get back up.

His body left to rot in the desert sand and then —

Death is inevitable. It’s just sleep. It won’t matter when he’s gone.

One step. Next step.

He can’t see anything on the horizon. He can keep walking as long as he can, but there’s nothing to see.

That’s it.

This is it.

Time to stop.

He’s sorry.

No more —

The vibration from above shakes him to his core and he jars, blinking sand from his eyes, invigorated.

Oh God, oh my —

Hallucination or, imagination or, this can’t be, it’s too —

“Wait!” He screams “HEY!” 

What if it doesn’t see him? Come on, Tony, come on, just that little bit…

He runs, or tries to, and then, oh God, he wants to sob with relief, oh God it’s landing and it’s seen him and he’s going to live, he is going to live.

He lets himself fall, then, but it’s okay. He’s on his knees, breathing in sand and sweat, and he sees the hazy figures running towards him.

After all of it, he is going to live.

Thank you, he says, he’s not sure who to, Yinsen, maybe, God, what does it matter.

“How was the funvee?” Rhodey says, and he’s joking, that’s a joke and Rhodey is alive —

Tony has a second chance. 

He is going to live.

 

Chapter Text

Tony wakes up, some few weeks later, after the hospital and the pain and the press conference, to the sound of Jarvis’ tone in his ear.

“The time is 11:20 am, Sir. The weather in Malibu is fine with temperatures reaching heights of 84 degrees with scattered cloud. The — ”

Slowly, Tony rolls over. He feels soft sheets against his chest. He feels thick down pressed on his back.

Clean, white, blue. 

He’s home.

(There’s a flash, or a tear, or something, something in front of his eyes and he sees it all, the screaming, the hospital bed, Rhodey holding him down and some other blurry things, cold water and someone’s pale shaking hand spooning something thick and watery into his mouth)

“S’ late.” Tony mumbles, too tired to really articulate.

“I took the liberty of bypassing your usual wake up protocols, Sir.”

“Thank you, Jarvis.”

“Sir, if you would allow me to make a recommendation.”

“Go ahead.”

“Sleep. Eight hours is not near enough restorative.”

It sounds like a good plan.

 

When Tony wakes up again, it’s dark out.

“Jarvis,” he whispers, and he doesn’t know why “you up?”

“Always, Sir.”

“Time?”

“22:46, Sir.”

Tony sighs. He should get up.

But there’s so much that needs his attention.

He just wants to lie here, wrapped in soft sheets and the sound of the surf.

So he does.

A few hours trickle by.

“Sir.” Jarvis says in a low voice. “If you are able, I have ordered your regular. It is waiting on the table in the kitchen.”

Door to door service. Pizza. He didn’t get that in Afghanistan.

Tony’s appetite has shrunk. He’s been living off beans and rice for the past three months. God, he’s gonna need to put on weight after this. Get back into routine.

There’s so much that needs to be done and he just —

Doesn’t want to do it.

“Okay,” he says, forcing himself up. “Okay.”

 

He needs to change the reactor, for what will hopefully be the third and final time.

When he replaces the magnet this time, he has numbing agents. It’s disturbing, sliding the hold of the metal from his chest, and replacing it with a safer, protected case, but he’s seen worse now.

Does he still count as a civilian? He doesn’t feel like one.

They had operated again, after Rhodey found him. He had woken up in a white hospital room in a military base, doped to the gills, shaking, and there had been bandages crossed round his chest, he couldn’t see the light, and it cut too close to home so —

It’s fucked up, though. When he eases the metal lose he can look directly into his — oh God, is that his heart, now is not the time to panic, don’t think about it, just —

With shaking hands he lowers the new casing into his chest. A slight, delicate twist, and the metal on the sides unlatch, attaching to the prongs Yinsen placed on his rib cage.

He can’t breath. Not because he’s panicking, but because he’s realising now the full extent of having metal shoved in his chest.

He can’t — he can’t put the reactor in properly without switching this wire around but it’s — ah — it’s twitching against the metal, shocking him as he flinches. He could, he just needs to gently lift it free —

No, that’s not going to work at all. Tony is small, but he’s always had long, thick fingers. Great for piano, great for work, great for… other things, not so great for this stuff.

He clears his throat.

“Jarvis,” he says “patch me through to Pepper.”

 

And so it begins. Tony Stark’s Five Step Plan to Wooing Pepper Potts and Giving His Life Meaning.

Step one: Get her to tolerate him.

Tony has been in love before. He loved Ru. He won’t pretend he didn’t.

And he doesn’t say that lightly. He doesn’t throw the word ‘love’ around lightly. Tony likes to keep the list short, preferably to one hand, a person for each finger.

So what does he feel for Pepper, exactly?

(He’s known her so long)

Something safe. Something warm.

Trust, he realises later.

He trusts her.

And Tony does not trust easily.

It’s a shame Pepper does not reciprocate.

 

In that week after he gets back from —

The first week after he returns, Tony tries to sort his life out.

Which is easier said than done because, you know, it is only a week and Tony has thirty eight years of baggage.

The press don’t know what to make of him at the moment. Tony thinks, and Pepper agrees, that they’re waiting until a respectable amount of time passes to completely slate him. This means Tony has a brief window in which to work his magic. It just wouldn’t do if it turned out Tony was completely out of his mind. That might make the press look like the bad guys.

So.

Shutting down weapons manufacturing isn’t easy. It was, effective immediately, but there are things to think about. It went on hold as soon as Tony gave the order, true, but there are people to think about. R & D, pay checks, patents, the government. Tony’s company is his only in name.

Obadiah keeps asking to see him. Tony wants to, he wants to talk to him, but he can’t risk it, he can’t trust letting Obie win him back with wise words and goddamned common sense. It won’t do. Tony can’t let it happen.

Would he be so easily swayed?

He has other plans.

Redemption. Is that what he’s after? Tony doesn’t think so. There’s nothing he can do to redeem himself. He’s not trying to.

(He so is, but he can’t admit it)

But helping the people who he had put down? The people whose lives he had taken a sledgehammer to and smashed into the earth?

He could do that.

No one else will.

 

He doesn’t sleep well.

He never has, really. Always been light.

This time round, there aren’t nightmares, per say, although there is the usual recurring dream of the man at his window.

Now, when he wakes he feels like he’s on the edge of something. Like someone is tugging him away. 

He can’t remember his dreams.

 

There is one thing, though.

Tony is not scared of water. He’s not. Absolutely not. 

He showers as usual. Nothing changes.

Except that he’s on edge.

He feels like he’s waiting for something. He feels like someone is going to come round the corner and hold him down, push his head into the spray until he chokes.

Which is completely unreasonable. This level of anxiety is not acceptable.

It’s just standing under water. It doesn’t freak him out, he doesn’t melt down. He’s just wary. Constantly waiting. Showers have to be quick, just in case. He can’t drag them out or someone might come.

They won’t, obviously, but try telling his hind brain that.

So he’s in the water, and he’s showering, obviously, and he has Jarvis disabled because the last time he alerted him he freaked out and his healing shoulder against the wall.

Which is why when he hears the voice, he jars.

When he jars, he jerks.

And when he jerks, he falls.

And that’s bad enough. But then he feels the hand on his shoulder.

“P-p-please,” he begs, hands pushing against his attacker, back slick with suds “d-don’t h-hurt m-m-me!”

Tony had been in the shower. He knows this, intellectually.

Later, when he has had plenty of panic attacks, when he spends nights sleepless, when the diagnosis ‘PTSD’ is old and nothing new, he won’t remember this. This is nothing.

But right now, this is everything. What Tony is seeing, in his mind, what his eyes are processing, are jagged stone walls. When he presses against the tiles, he feels rock at his back. When he shakes his hands, they shimmer, and wave, and behind them is dark browns and yellows and sand, and he is back in the cave.

He knows he’s back. He knows it.

And the man pressing him down, there’s a man pressing him down, and he’s going to push his head into the water and Tony does not want —

“Please,” he says again, dropping to his knees, scrabbling at the floor “what do you — please, please — ”

It’s just so scary.

He doesn’t want to be brave.

He curls himself over, knees digging into his chest, the thing in his chest burning through his ribs, shattering him, tearing him open, and the water runs down his face, steam rising, but he doesn’t know that, Tony doesn’t see that, all he sees is the blur of water in front of his face and the dark of the bottom of the barrel.

Hands on his shoulders. Hands on his shoulders, and they’re going to drag him back up, and he knows better than to swing, he just wishes it would stop, he just wishes they would stop it, oh God, he’ll do it, he’ll do anything they want —

It’s a breath of fresh air, or a breath of cold, cave oxygen, it doesn’t matter, point being the water is gone but it’s cold, the air cold on his skin and he’s shaking, the man is dragging him back and there’s stone grating against his knees —

Or it’s carpet, the carpet is burning his legs —

He can’t open his eyes, because if he opens his eyes then he could be back, and he knows his mind would fracture because maybe it was all a dream, a fantastical dream and he never left that cave at all.

Maybe he’s still there. Sick. Delirious. Maybe this is all a delusion.

“Please,” he says, and is he, oh God, ugh, he’s crying, and he’s bent over himself on the carpet, arms shielding his head “please, please, please.”

“Tony.” Says the voice, deep, low, and distinctively male.

Tony sucks in a sharp breath, because it could all be fake, this could all be a crazed illusion, and he can’t open his eyes only to find —

A hand on his back. “Let me get you some clothes.”

Clothes? Clothes. If this were a hallucination, he wouldn’t be worried about clothes. He just wouldn’t.

So this must be real.

But there’s always a chance that —

There’s a towel, dumped onto his back. He feels the air shift as Obie comes to crouch next to him, slumped, back against the bed.

“Tony?” He says again, one leg bent and arm slung over it, head tilted enquiringly “you back with me boy?”

Tony sniffs and draws the towel around his body. “Never left.” He says, feeling breathless.

Obie nods. “Sure.” He says, and it’s encouraging.

There’s a thick ring on Obie’s finger that Tony’s never noticed before. Gaudy. Not nice at all.

“You gonna…” Obie looks at him, waves a hand.

“Oh,” Tony says “yeah.”

He can’t look him in the eye and he doesn’t know how to say that his legs won’t hold him up.

Obie’s eyes narrow, slightly. Not in a cruel way, but in curiosity.

Maybe pity, too.

“Do you need help?”

Tony swallows.

“What did the bastards do to you?”

“Nothing.”

“Tony.” Obie says, in that low warning voice.

“Nothing,” Tony says again, and he doesn’t want to cry “it’s nothing.”

Obie looks away, sucking on his teeth. This is ridiculous. He’s jumpy, okay? He’s allowed to be jumpy.

But he’s fine.

“Tones,” Obie says finally “Tony, if there’s, if you’re having trouble adjusting — ”

“I’m not.” Tony snaps. “I’m fucking fine.”

“Don’t get hissy with me, Tony, I’m worried about you.”

He’s tired. Tony is really tired. The adrenalin rush has faded into an ache and he can’t leave the floor. “I know.” He says quietly. “I’m sorry.”

Obie sighs again. “Okay. Okay, fine. Look, you’re gonna take a holiday, right? A bit of R&R. Why don’t you go abroad? What about the house in Thailand? You’ve never visited.”

Tony can’t believe Obie even remembers that. Tony has pretty much forgotten he bought it.

It’s so tempting.

“No.” He says “I can’t. I can’t just, drop that bombshell and then leave it, I have, it’s a job, and I’ve got to do it, so — ”

“You’re not well.”

“I’m fine."

“Tony, don’t tell me that. Don’t lie to my face.”

“I’m not lying.” Tony says, exhausted “I am fine. I’m not — this isn’t a problem, usually. You scared me.”

“Getting jumpy and... incoherence are different things, Tony.”

“Obie!”

He holds up his hands. “Okay,” he says “okay, I get it. You’re ‘fine’. But remember last time? When you said you were fine? What happened then?”

“Fuck you.”

“I’m looking out for you, Tony.”

“I know.” He murmurs.

Obie looks at him again. Stares at him, for a long time. He should feel self-conscious, maybe, because all he’s wearing is a towel. But still. It’s Obie.

“Here’s what I think,” he says finally “I think what you need it a break, okay?”

“I’m on a break.” Tony says, and he feels distant, like the ground is moving beneath him, and for a moment he thinks he can feel the turn of the earth.

“A proper break — here,” Obie throws him some clothes “a proper break. Somewhere nice. Hot. Or cold, if uh,” he scratches his beard uncomfortably “if that’s maybe better, for you.”

Tony appreciates that Obie has thought of that. That the heat might be jarring for him. Nerve-wracking, even. But it’s not. And he doesn’t need a holiday.

“I don’t,” Tony stumbles to his feet, tightening the towel around his waist “I don’t need a holiday.”

Tony.” Obie says, and for a moment his voice is harsh, cold. “Tony,” he says again, and he softens. “Listen, maybe you’re not… I don’t think you’re seeing what we’re seeing.”

Tony runs cold, a little, and he sits on the bed, draws his underwear up over the towel. “What’s that.” He asks, back to Obie, facing the bathroom.

A sigh. Tony can almost see the way that Obie will be scratching his beard.

“Tony,” he says in a low voice “m’boy. What you did — that stunt you pulled, with the, uh, the weapons. And now this. And you’ve lost weight. There’s a hole in your chest. Tony, it’s gonna be hard for you to adjust, and I’m not asking you to get better overnight. But as your — ” friend? No. Something else. “As someone you trust, I am going to tell you to get some help.”

Tony wants to feel angry but he just feels kinda tired, like he’s being slowly dragged to sleep. Whatever. He doesn’t need help, actually, but if Obie wants to get on him then that’s fine. He’ll stop when he realises Tony’s okay.

“… the house in Thailand.” Obie says again “It’s all stocked, there are people cleaning it out regularly. C’mon, Tony. Take a break. When you get back everything will be waiting for you. I promised a vacation, right? When was the last time you took a vacation?”

Tony slumps on his bed, not bothering to put on clothes. He just climbs right under the sheets, still wet. His head hurts.

“‘Kay, Obie.”

“You’ll go?”

“No,” Tony yawns “I’m going to sleep.”

“Tony!”

“Obie,” Tony says softly, closing his eyes. “Leave me alone.”

It sounds petulant and whiny and stupid and for a moment Tony is twenty-one and living in Obie’s back room trying to break the catch on the window and sulking when he was caught. And he’s suddenly back in the facility where the only person who ever visited was Obie and his parents never bothered because why would anyone want to visit their stupid fucked up failure of a son, and he had been so alone, and no one had helped him, and then Obie —

He had paid for his treatment, no questions asked. And he had bought him new things, new clothes. He’d paid the dentist to fix where one of his teeth had been knocked out and the cosmetic surgeon to get rid of his tattoo. And he had brought him things to keep him occupied when he sat in that fucking room and his hands shook and all he really wanted was a drink or some coke but hey a rubixs cube works too.

Obie was good to him.

“Okay.” The other man says. “Okay, fine, I’m going. But you need to take a break, Tony, hmm? Lay low. Get back to me on the whole vacation thing, right? Okay? Are you listening?”

“Mmm.”

“Okay. Fine. I’m switching out the light.”

There’s something wrong. Tony can feel it.

Something about Obie. Something that feels… off.

 

The Iron Man, as it will later be called, takes some work.

More than some.

Back then, in the facility, Tony’s mind had started to waste away. Nothing to keep him occupied. He’d passed stagnation and was into decline.

Now though, he has this.

(Change. He’s going to change the world.)

It’s the hope that keeps him going. It’s the feel of metal under his palms and the scratches on his fingers that make him work. Because this is his. This whole thing is his.

He can change everything. Redemption. Isn’t that what this is all about? A chance to redeem himself? A chance that, when he comes knocking on the pearly gates, God doesn’t take one look at him and kick him off the side of a cloud?

However.

Tony is a busy man.

It’s impossible to keep on top of SI, to work round the company and the weapons and revolutionising the future when he’s also double timing as pilot for an enhanced piece of weaponry. Quite frankly, he doesn’t have the experience. Or the expertise. He can build, sure, but there are things that only a pilot can know. Tony can fly, he has a licence, and he is competent. Which is better than nothing, but not the same.

Where, oh where, will he find someone with years of piloting experience and a knack for being an honest, stand-up guy?

Hmm.

 

Rhodey had given Tony space after he got back, something for which he is infinitely grateful. Mainly because he was in the hospital in Germany when they found him, he was on the jet that they lifted him to safety with, he was on the plane when Tony stepped back on to the hot concrete of a California airbase.

He saw Tony puking and retching and on those brief occasions where he would forget where he was an call out into the dark of the hospital with it’s beeps and red lights. And he would wait patiently while he had to explain to Tony all over again, weak from dehydration and starvation and exhaustion and concussion, that he was safe and he would be home soon enough.

Tony loathes to ask anything of him, because of this, and because he just doesn’t like imposing full stop. Asking your friend — possibly your best friend, if such a thing is possible — to risk his neck to save the world for you is a tall order.

But Rhodey is a good guy. He would want the chance to do something more, right?

In private conversations between the two of them, Rhodey has admitted dissatisfaction. Tony remembers that he had once wanted to be married by twenty-eight. It hadn’t worked out. If you asked Tony, it’s probably because Rhodey is too nice. Too kind. He is, quite honestly, too good. For anyone. Or maybe that’s bias speaking.

Or maybe he just hasn’t found the right girl yet. Someone who is willing to put up with the long hours and the deployment and the risk. Someone who is good, too, but hard enough to put up with the shit that goes with being married to an air force man.

Tony can empathise, maybe.

Except, when Tony asks, Rhodey doesn’t seem very keen.

Has he been talking to Obie? They’re parroting all the same lines. What you need is time to get your mind right. He’s not — why do people think he’s crazy? Tony can see objectively why people might think it’s strange, cutting all ties like he did, but don’t they see why?

Maybe they do see why. Maybe they think he lost his head in Afghanistan. Tony has seen a few popular theories, one being that he was brainwashed by terrorists who have sent him home to destroy the US from the inside. It’s bullshit, obviously, and anybody can tell, but it would explain why he’s been getting snide looks from people instead of the usual pity for the poor PTSD’d civilian.

Tony also knew, along with Rhodey being a great guy, that he was pretty keen on military. Not in the way Tony had been, for the money and the ease, but because he genuinely believes that he’s doing right by the world. Which isn’t wrong. Rhodes is like any soldier.

(He told Tony about his own nightmares, once. Back then, Tony had been the one to tell him, as gently as he was capable of, to get some help. Oh, how the tables have turned)

It’s not that —

Yeah. You know, obviously, it hurts. To be, kinda. Yeah.

It’s not that, he just.

He trusts Rhodey, maybe, so he thought.

But he’s right because Tony should get his head straight. He should figure out what he’s actually trying to do. Uh.

Maybe he is sick. God, maybe he — can an insane man tell if he’s crazy? Because building a suit of metal armour, that is —

God, that’s insane.

If Tony was an average soldier, or a journalist, or whatever, a civilian who was kidnapped by insurgents and tortur — and held prisoner, who, when he came home, holed up in his garage and made a suit of armour out of scraps, desperate to protect himself from —

God, he’d probably be sectioned.

Tony figures then, with increasing urgency, that there is no way Obie can know about this. It’s not just that it’s highly weaponizable and SI has a sudden berth of weapons. 

If anyone finds out about this he can kiss goodbye to SI and hello to the psych ward at UCLA.

 

Chapter Text

Tony nearly breaks his neck testing the flight repulsers. Whoops.

He has no intention of ever being the man to pilot the armour. Ever. He has, he is busy. As much as he needs it, as much as the world needs it, Tony cannot be that man.

It feels wrong. Like tainting a white sheet with dirt. The armour is all sleek lines of curved metal and it’s so beautiful, it’s such a beautiful work of art, and is that narcissistic? Probably, but what does it matter. For him to climb inside with all his twisted synapses and broken ends would be like marring a Picasso, taking ink to a Monet.

The armour needs someone strong. Someone who doesn’t drink, someone who doesn’t flinch, someone who isn’t as weak as him. Rhodey will come round. He has to come round. He’ll see, eventually, everyone will, Tony swears it.

Everyone will see eventually that he was right. Isn’t that always the way? Tony remembers when he was kid. He remembers trying to get people to listen, and how no one ever did. It’s the same now, maybe. It’s strange, because he’s old. Not, you know, old old, but in his prime. By now —

What was his father doing at this age? His mother? It’s strange to think of. Tony realises he doesn’t know when they met, or how.

In the jumbled way that his thoughts seem to run nowadays, they jump to his mother. Jarvis had told him a story once, about his birth. He had said that his mom and dad had both been there, and his mom had held him as soon as he was born, and that his father held a party. He said that his mother didn’t put him down at all for months and months because that’s how much she loved him.

Tony’s old enough to know that he was lying. But he appreciates the gesture.

 

Tony misses the board of directors meeting.

He’s lying low. Obie wants him to lie low? Fine. Watch him. He’ll lie lower than anyone has ever laid before.

Looking back: monumentally stupid idea, although clever ones have never been his strong point.

“The board’s filing an injunction, they’re claiming PTSD — ”

Tony ignores Pepper’s wince and leaves.

She joins him, later. In his workshop. Because he won’t let Obie in not since he’s been acting strange, but Pepper is…

Different.

“People are worried.”

“About the company.”

“About you, too.” She says softly.

Pepper is not a soft person.

Tony snorts. “Sure, Pep.” He spins in his chair and wipes his hands on his jeans.

“You don’t leave your workshop.”

“Because I’m working.”

“On what?”

He spins back. “What’s it to you?”

“You said you weren’t making weapons anymore, Tony.”

“I’m not.”

“Then what are you working on?”

“That’s,” he exhales, swallows. “Nothing. Sometimes, I like to do things privately. Private project. For my eyes only.”

Pepper just looks at him. “Is it about what happened?”

Tony blinks. “With Obie?”

“With Afghanistan.”

Tony’s eyes widen. “Why would you — who, have you been spying on me? What, is it Jarvis? Did Jarvis — ”

“I have basic common sense, Tony.”

“What does that mean?”

Pepper looks around, to her left and to her right, almost as if checking for intruders. Then she sits delicately on the chair next to Tony, rests her hands on her skirt.

She clears her throat.

“Obie and I were wondering — ”

“Stop.”

“Tony.”

“I don’t want to hear it.” Tony keeps his voice forcefully bright. “You all want there to be a problem. You all want there to be an explanation, don’t you?”

“I don’t understand.”

“You want something to be wrong with me because it just makes it so much easier to explain. I’ve gone insane, and I want to stop weapons manufacturing because, because they hurt me, or whatever, but — ”

“Did they hurt you?”

“ — I think it’s because you just don’t want to admit that I’ve realised what I’ve done is,” he swallows, hard “wrong. That what you’ve been helping me do is wrong, and it’s just easier to say I’m crazy, or sick, or whatever it is you want to say, and you’re not listening to me, are you?”

Pepper smooths her hands along her brown skirt. “I’m listening.” She says. “But you have to realise it’s not helping with what I’m seeing.”

Tony sits back. “Okay, Potts. What are you seeing?”

“Did you know my father killed himself?”

Tony blinks. “What.”

“Mmm hmm. When I was quite young. Five or six. So I can’t say that I’m, you know, an expert, but I remember bits.”

Tony is aware that he’s backed into a corner. It would be incredibly, immensely inconsiderate to say something now. Even he knows that.

She sighs. “It’s made me paranoid, maybe, to what being a solider can do to men. I don’t remember a lot, but I remember enough.”

“He was a soldier?”

“No. He was paralysed in a car crash. He was stuck there for a while, there was some… trauma. Or so I’m told.”

“I’m sorry.”

Pepper sighs again, a small furrow forming between her perfectly sculpted brows. “God, don’t be. He was a monster towards the end, I think. You would have to ask my sisters. But that’s not the point. The point is that men like him, and I think, men like you, don’t necessarily realise when there’s… I don’t think my father wanted to turn into the man he did. I don’t think he realises how he was acting at all, really.”

Tony stays quiet. “You think I’m turning into a monster, Pepper?”

“No. I think you don’t realise what’s wrong.”

“I know what’s wrong. And I know how to fix it.”

A hand on his knee. “That’s not how it works, Tony.” She says softly. “And there are people who can help.”

“Rhodey said no.” Tony says, without thinking, because Pepper just, she has this way of getting under his skin, and the way she’s talking, for a moment Tony forgot his hasn’t told her about the armour, and why would he not have, because she wants to help and he trusts her and —

“He what?” She said sharply. “What did you ask Rhodey? What did he say to you?”

“God, no.” Tony says quickly, backing up his chair and rolling round to his screen. “Christ, I just, I got confused. That was, fuck wow, that sounds bad. No, Rhodey didn’t say anything like that to me.”

“Did you ask him for help?”

“No, because I don’t need it.”

“Tony — ”

“Pepper!”

She sets her jaw, takes her hand from his knee. “You make it very difficult to be considerate.”

“Then don’t be.”

She nods, exhales sharply. “Fine. Fine, okay. Tony, me, Obie, Rhodey, the doctor we’ve consulted, we think you need a break.”

“I’m on a break.”

“A proper break. Somewhere… professional.”

Tony laughs. “Oh my God, are you serious?”

“Why aren’t you taking me seriously?”

“Because there is nothing wrong with me.”

“You don’t come out of your workshop, you talk to your machines more than you talk to me. Rhodey says you were planning something big but I’ve heard nothing of it and we’re not sure if it’s some figment of your imagination. The doctor thinks it’s a coping mechanism. Obie told me about the shower, Tony, he told me, I know what happened and you’ve never been scared of water before, they obviously, they must have hurt you while you were there, do you know what it’s like knowing that? That you were, in pain, or that, God, the least you could do — ”

“Pepper.”

“Don’t ‘Pepper’ me, Tony Stark! Don’t do it!”

Tony smiles. “Pep.”

She exhales shakily, rubs a hand over her forehead. “God, I hate you.”

“No you don’t.”

“I wish I did.”

Tony considers. “I imagine it would make life easier.”

Pepper huffs, and then finally smiles.

“See? There it is. Pepper, please. I’m fine. I know I’m fine. Yes, I was… I’m shaky. But I’m getting better. I thank whoever everyday that I’ve… that I’ve gotten off so light. That I’m not a mess.”

She sniffs slightly, and turns her head to look away. “You were always a mess, Tony.”

“True.” He concedes, and then pauses. “Pepper,” he says urgently, in a low voice “Pepper, I know that — look, whatever Obie is saying, whatever Rhodey thinks, I need to know that you’re on my side for this.”

Her brow furrows and she turns to face him. “Your side?” She says, confused. “Why would I — Tony, this isn’t a war.”

Tony blinks. “No,” he says leaning back “I know that.”

“Right.”

“What I meant was…”

Silence.

“I think I know what you mean, Tony.”

He looks up sharply. “You do?”

She looks sad. She places her hand back on his knee. “Yes,” she says “and the doctor said that paranoia — ”

Tony stands abruptly. “Oh for God’s sake.” He says, half exasperated half insulted and more than a little scared. “Please, Pepper, stop. It’s — this is insanity inducing, do you know that?”

“I’m worried about you.”

“Great.” Tony snaps, anger finally getting the better of him. “Good for you. Unless you have anything valid to say, get out.”

“You ass.” Pepper says, standing, affable manner and concern gone. “I’m trying to help you, Tony. Who else is trying to do that, don’t be a — ” she waves her hands in frustration “don’t be a dick!”

Tony stands back, crosses his arms. “I don’t need help, Potts.”

She rolls her eyes. “Okay, Tony, sure. Next time you fall in the shower don’t bother calling me to drag you out.”

If Pepper had stayed a little longer, she might have seen the very visceral look of panic cross Tony’s face, because what if he falls and the water keeps falling and Raza’s men sound in his ears. What will he do then?

Who else does he have?

“Wait.” He says, clearing his throat. “Wait.”

Pepper turns, slowly, arms crossed. Tony scratches the back of his head.

“I’m not,” he swallows “I’m not saying that there’s a problem.”

Pepper arches one perfect eyebrow.

“But if there was, I would… there are certain things I would get help with.”

“Really.”

Tony swallows again. “Don’t make this harder then it has to be.”

“That’s rich, coming from — ” she must see Tony’s face, because her own softens. Her forehead creases with concern. “Sorry.” She murmurs “I’m listening.”

“I’m fine,” Tony says “I am, I’m absolutely fine, okay? There are things, maybe. Small things that never used to scare me that do now. But it’s, it’s okay. That’s normal.”

“Healthy, even.” Pepper adds.

“Right.” Tony says, encouraged. “If…” he closes his eyes briefly, prepares himself “if you really think, if you honestly, if it would really give you peace of mind for me to meet with someone, well, then okay.”

Pepper takes a step forward.

“But it has to be someone I’ve chosen, okay?”

She steps back. “…Okay.”

Tony’s shoulders sag slightly. “No one the board’s picked. No one Obie — just, let me choose. Or you can choose, even. I trust you. Just don’t let Obie know who. Tell him I’m seeing someone respected. Nothing else.”

“Tony — ”

“Pepper, please. I’m already doing this for you, don’t make me add something else.”

She looks at him for a while. “You should be doing this for you.”

“Well I’m not, because quite frankly it’s unnecessary. But for whatever reason — ”

“That I may actually care about you.”

“Right. And I vaguely remember that sometimes it’s the done thing to give into pressure for the sake of people you care about, so.”

Pepper looks at him. “I will… I will check some out, and get back to you.”

“Okay. Is that all, Ms Potts?”

“Fuck off, Mr Stark.”

 

Later that night, Tony can’t sleep.

He tosses and turns to the point of irritation. He’s never been a deep sleeper but he’s always managed at least five hours.

He knows why, though.

Two things, really. One, he might be in love with Pepper Potts.

Two, he really, really wants a drink.

The latter is easily solved with a dip into the cabinet he keeps by his bed for emergencies.

Chapter Text

Tony was never going to pilot the armour.

He’s not a pilot. He’s a, an engineer. Rhodey, Rhodey was going to do it, a military man, better than him, he would bring him round eventually.

But then Obie is slinging his arm round his shoulder. Who do you think filed the injunction, Tony?

And then.

What is he now.

Who is Tony Stark?

A mass murderer. A — a man, desperate for some kind of redemption.

He’ll go mad, without it. He’ll go mad. He can’t live, he will not live, knowing that the weapons he made with his own hands are killing. That he is a killer, and he can’t control it.

Oh, God. For the first time he truly, truly, understands what it was like to be his father. The drink, and the pain, and bitterness. How is Tony any different?

Tony is worse. His father had a family. He had loved, once. What does Tony have? What does he have of worth?

He could have this. He must have this. Redemption. The chance to help. To save.

(Does it make him selfish? That’s the real question. Is it selfish to pursue heroism if your only reasoning is a way to keep the demon off of your shoulder? The black dog at bay?)

His reflection. It shatters under the force of his repulser.

And then, Gulmira.

If he can do one thing.

One thing only.

He will not let Yinsen die again.

 

Killing isn’t hard, now.

He doesn’t have to think twice.

Bullets straight to the heads of the men holding a woman and her children hostage.

And that’s that.

 

He sees Abu, the slimy little bastard.

He could hold his head under some water. See how he liked it. He could take him away and hold him in a cave and not let him see the sun for days and starve him. He could leave him crawling on the floor, blood a smear on the dirt from a hole in his chest, and have him prostrate himself from release from the pain.

These are all things Tony considers. At the end, Tony will never actually get closure from what they did to him in Afghanistan. Mob justice, however, is just as effective, if infinitely less satisfying.

 

“Are those bullet holes?”

For the record, Tony is coming down from a crazy high. The most drastic adrenalin rush of his life. When he was younger, he had the coke, the crack, whatever it was in all it’s different forms. Now, he thinks he might have found something else.

And it actually wasn’t the worst thing Pepper had ever caught him doing.

 

Later, he’s in his bed. He’s actually lying, in his bed, bandaged as best as possible and still shaking uncontrollably.

He can’t stop grinning so he turns his head into the pillow to try and smother it. God, that was, that was crazy. He’s so crazy! And the way they had all dropped like flies, and Tony was in control, perfect, everything in order as it should be.

He’s gonna owe Rhodey a jet, but worse things have happened.

And then he’s crying.

He can’t stop. It’s probably the come-down.

Still. He hasn’t cried like this since —

He didn’t cry in Afghanistan. There have been tears, after, but nothing… explainable. Just a natural, biological reaction to fear.

This is something else. Something deep, something undefinable, and Tony feels really really scared.

He needs to stop. He presses his hands into his mouth, curls closer as if to stifle the sound. God, oh God he hasn’t cried like this since he was at Harwell and none of the other kids would talk to him. He was homesick. He’d wanted Jarvis. He wishes, suddenly, with visceral clarity and a surge of horrific longing, for Jarvis, someone to love him like that again, someone who understood or would help or —

Unconditional love. That’s all he wants. Someone to just love him. Is it so fucking hard?

It doesn’t help. He keeps crying, and he won’t stop. He killed men today. He killed them. Who knows where those men came from? You hear all these stories about boys kidnapped from villages and brainwashed into becoming insurgents. Is that who he killed today? Some innocent boys? He wishes he could take it back. He wants a re-do. Not fair. Not fair, he wants to do it again.

He should have killed Abu himself. God, he should have made him feel pain. Made him feel the pain he made Tony felt, the sadist, that strange sadist, who made him suffer so much but after was so bizarrely jovial.

And then Tony has the sudden, completely ridiculous urge to pray. He hasn’t prayed since he was a boy, and even now he knows that nothing can be done about talking to a God that doesn’t listen, or doesn’t exist, whatever, but he feels so achingly desperate that he just wants to scream somehow and failing that whisper pleas into his pillow and hope someone up there is listening.

He bites it down, even though the prayers he was taught come unbidden to his mind. He refuses, though. It feels like giving in.

Instead, he sobs silently, trying desperately not to make a sound, trying to just keep calm and keep it in and fall asleep so he won’t have to —

“Tony?” Someone whispers.

Tony freezes. His eyes flick open and he tries to smooth his breathing, deep and regular, tries to stop the shakes and the sniffs.

“Tony?” Pepper says again “Tony, are you alright? I thought I heard… noise.”

Tony focuses on breathing in and out, rolled on his side, facing the window. Pepper whispers.

“Are you asleep?”

The moon is dancing over the ocean outside his window.

He should say something.

But he doesn’t trust his voice not to break.

“Tony? Are you asleep?” Pepper whispers into the dark.

Tony snorts, slightly, as if in deep slumber. He hears Pepper shift by the door.

Hears her footsteps.

He closes his eyes quickly.

“Tony,” she murmurs, and he can feel her. She’s close.

(Later, they’ll share this bed)

The lights are off. But the moon would be enough to see the darkened material of his pillow. His swollen eyes.

Silence.

He feels Pepper watching him. He focuses on not moving his eyes under his lids.

Unconditional love.

Maybe one day.

Chapter Text

“He did — Tony, are you sure?”

Tony balances the mobile on his shoulder, pressed to his ear, and spins the hologram in the air. “I wouldn’t make this up.”

“No, no I’m not — that’s not what I’m saying.”

“You think I’m crazy.” Tony points out.

“You built a suit and flew it over a no fly zone to blow up weapons, yes, Tony, I think you’re crazy. That being said, it’s not a new concept for you.” Rhodey says sharply.

Tony grins, slightly, although that’s been difficult recently. “That’s my boy.”

“Tony, I’m just…” Rhodey pauses over the line. “I don’t know what to think.”

“He filed an injunction against me.”

“Do you want me to be your friend, here? Or do you want me to be an objective point of view?”

Tony thinks. “Objective.”

“Okay. From an objective, I do stress that, point of view, I would be thinking that Obadiah probably has your well-being at heart. That he can’t understand what’s wrong with you. That he thinks what he is doing it best thing for you and the company. Misjudged, yes, but well intentioned.”

“Okay.”

“But as your friend… I don’t know, Tony. I don’t know what to say to that. It’s not… does he usually pull stunts like that? He’s got your best interests at heart. He probably doesn’t know how you’re… coping. I don’t know, man. I don’t know what to say.”

“He once locked me in a room for two months.”

“Did it help?”

“I never took coke again.”

“Well, there we go. Tony, maybe it’s just one of those things. He cares about you, man. He wants what’s best, and he always has. Just — ”

“I know,” Tony says, thumbing his eyes “I know. Okay. Fine. Okay.”

“Tony?” Rhodey says.

“Yeah?”

“Are you alright, man?”

“Tired.”

“Then you should sleep.”

“Funny, I never thought of that.”

A pause. “Did Pepper — ”

“Get back to me? Yeah. She did. I’m gonna look through the list.”

“That’s good, man. That’s great. Take control, right?”

“Right.”

Let the record show that Tony never does see that psychiatrist.

 

He’s trying to sleep.

When did it get so difficult? 

It’s not the nightmares. The nightmares aren’t…

They’re not scary. He doesn’t wake up screaming, or displaced, or whatever. Sometimes he sweats too much. That’s all.

Strange dreams, though. Sometimes he’ll be playing backgammon with Yinsen except their board is resting on white hot metal. Or he’ll be walking round the caves, parts he only saw through the grain of a burlap sack, for hours on end. No one disturbs him. He’s not scared. He just walks, trying to find his way out.

And then.

Other things, too.

Now, he rolls onto his side, facing the wide ocean. It’s such a perfect view. He loves this view.

“Jarvis,” he mumbles “let the sound though.”

And there it is. The sound of the surf. Rushing in.

And washing out.

He inhales deeply, lets his mind wander. When on the edge of sleep, it goes to such strange places.

Tomorrow, he’ll —

Eh. He’ll do something.

He lets himself daydream, slightly. He imagines a body next to his. Firm. Man or woman? Does it matter? Any, either, both.

They runs fingers down his back, so tangible that Tony smiles into the pillow. He imagines perfect fingers kneading the notches of his spine, down his tailbone, lower.

He sighs, nuzzles closer, hugs the pillow tight. He needs to find someone.

Someone nice. Someone kind. Is it possible that someone will ever love him as much as he loves them? It must be. It will be. It’s not too late. It’s not.

The sound of the surf.

The sound of fingernails on glass.

Tony stiffens, eyes flying open, searching for the usual spot where —

Nothing. There’s nothing there. Tony is tired. He’s on the edge of sleep. He’s only just half-lucid.

It’s okay. The mind takes you to strange places on the edge of sleep.

Slowly, he dips back under.

And then he hears it.

A low ringing. Piercing, but not so much that threatens his calm.

It’s so —

Peaceful.

His eyes slide open. He’s in his room. It’s just his room. Nothing has changed.

The noise cuts out. Sharp, like static. It leaves a quiet in it’s place.

Too quiet. Slowly, Tony rolls onto his back.

Waits.

There is breathing. Someone else is in the room with him.

He’s caught somewhere on the edge of fear and tiredness. He knows that he is dreaming. If he lies here, he will fall asleep. The breathing will stop. Soon, light will filter through his windows. A new day.

But he is human. So he calls for Jarvis.

He can’t, though. In his ears he hears a rasp, and that’s his voice. He tries harder, tries screaming; nothing comes out but a low moan.

There is something in the room with him and he can’t scream. 

He blinks. Tries to talk again. His mouth makes useless noises.

So he lifts his head as best he can, and —

There’s a man, in the corner of his room.

It blinks at him. Tony thinks it blinks. It doesn’t have a face.

“Who are you.” He tries to say.

The figure says nothing.

“Please.” He rasps.

Tony doesn’t know how long he stays like that. Eyes open wide, neck straining to stay upright. He doesn’t know when he falls back to sleep, except that when he awakes there is soft light streaming across his bed and the man is gone.

It was a dream, but his neck aches.

The man at the window is getting closer.

 

Tony knows a few things.

One, SI is dealing under the table.

Two —

Two? It may be Obie.

Tony knows what greed does to a man. He can accept it. If he could just —

He’s wrong. He must be wrong. It’s the paranoia talking.

But it wouldn’t hurt to check. And a few years time, he and Obie will laugh about the time that Tony thought Obie was responsible for the death of thousands and the disintegration of everything Tony stands for.

 

When Obie rips the reactor from his chest, he smiles fondly. Tony recognises the smile, because it’s the same one he gave him when he puked on his lap after that first night in his house all those years ago. It’s the same smile he gave him when Rumiko left him. It’s the same smile he gave him when he crawled over his carpet, choking, and waving away ghosts.

Tony had always taken it for caring. Considerate. Kind.

Even more disturbing, Tony now realises it was pride.

 

So, here’s the thing.

Right now, Tony is dangling some forty feet over a ready to blow arc reactor, and Pepper is screaming, and there’s a man in front of him who Tony does not recognise but he’s wearing a fucking massive suit and, for the sake of the story, let’s call him Stane.

And Tony has, in that moment, has a few choices to make. Is this the way he wants to go out? No fucking way. He didn’t survive everything to go out in one big blast.

That being said, it’s not looking promising. If anything, his chances are decreasing rapidly. Pepper keeps shouting something, and Stane keeps shooting, and Tony is, well, he’s scared, but he’s also pretty irritated in only a way that he could ever be.

“You finally outdid yourself Tony,” Obadiah had said, marching closer “you made your father proud!”

What’s that supposed to mean?

That’s really fucking bitchy, Obie.

Tony!” Pepper screams.

God, he’s heard that before. Where has he heard that before?

“Pepper!” He shouts, voice hoarse.

“Hold still you little prick.”

JUST DO IT!” Tony screams and his voice breaks if only slightly.

Does he want die? Does he want to die?

“You told me not to!”

“Pepper!”

He might die. Quick, think. What does he want his last thought to be? Quickly, Tony, quickly, make it fucking count.

He eyes squeeze tight and he’s —

It’s like being sucked into a memory. A green field, and a lake. And his head is resting on Whitney’s lap. Ty’s elbow poking his ribs.

 

Later, he’s grateful that he didn’t have to hear Obie’s dying scream.

 

Now, though, he wakes slowly. Brow furrows.

“I’m alive.” He rasps.

Rhodey hums. “Yeah,” he huffs “you’re alive.”

“What — ”

“He’s dead.”

“Pepper?”

“Fine. Has a couple of scrapes, but what can you do. Running in heels in dangerous.”

Tony coughs. It’s dark out there, wherever he is.

“My,” his hands fly to the reactor “Rhodey where’s my, is it all — ”

A hand on his wrist gently forcing it down to the bed. “It’s all okay, it’s all working. You’re fine, and the reactor’s exactly where it’s supposed to be.”

Tony quivers there for a while, not breaking eye contact. Eventually, he blinks. Swallows.

“Obie — ”

“No,” Rhodey says “no. Not now. Tony, we have to make a statement, okay? It’s a mess. You need to clear it up, there’s some agent that wants to talk to you, and then you can go home, you can… mourn.”

“Why would I mourn him?”

“Because you’re a human being. Get some sleep. Pepper will wake you up when it’s time.”

“Time?”

“For the press conference.”

“There’s a press conference?”

Rhodey’s eyes narrow. “I think you’re concussed.”

Tony blinks. “No.”

Rhodey cups his chin, tilts it up slightly. Feels his forehead, examines his pupils. “You’re in shock.” He determines.

“Not in — ”

“It can wait.” Rhodey decides. “We’ll delay the conference. Get some sleep, here, wrap up warm.”

“I’m not in — ”

“You’re shaking.”

“I’m cold.”

“Because you’re in shock.”

“I’m not — ”

Rhodey’s hand is squeezing his knee, and Tony doesn’t remember seeing him move. 

“Obadiah — ” he blurts.

“Is dead.” Rhodey finishes.

Tony doesn’t want him to be dead, but he’s too tired to think on it.

 

Some two days later, and Pepper scowls down at him, dabbing concealer over his scars.

Gentle. She’s very gentle.

But she’s not afraid to rip the tape from his face.

The agent blinks at them morosely, unmoved by their obviously incredibly loving show. He blinks, hands Pepper a card, and nods, before walking out the door. 

Probably one of the most uninspiring men he’s ever met.

 

Also, Tony would like to take this moment to confirm that yes, he is in fact Iron Man.

 

Tony, in such a sick, twisted way, the only way he is capable of, does not want him to be dead.

He wonders if he had caught him earlier if it could have been avoided. If he had taken his head out his ass for a second maybe he could’ve —

No. No, Obie — Stane was a sick man. Nothing Tony can do to help.

It makes him squeamish, though.

More than squeamish.

Violated.

And then, as the shock sinks away, he realises —

Obie knew.

He knew, that they had tortured Tony.

He had probably authorised it.

Tony throws up in the toilet, limbs shaking. Oh God, Tony, Tony stop thinking about it.

He retches again, unable to hold back. God, he had probably told them to hurt him. Everything Abu and Raza and —

Obie had ordered a hit on him.

What else was fake? Had he, had he always hated Tony? Oh God, oh God, he had. He had always hated him, and he’s just stood there and laughed at him behind his back while Tony — 

Before? When he was a kid? What else was just, what else was just a ploy to get him weak, to get him —

Tony remembers Obie’s hand on the back of his neck. “Fuck your father, take engineering.” Of course, of course because Tony is the golden goose and what good is a golden goose that can’t lay eggs, what use to Obie is a Tony who can think for himself —

Tony remembers the alcohol he had pressed into his hand, he had been so young, he remembers, oh shit, he’s gonna be sick again.

He, he remembers those months spent in a back room in Obie’s house. It’s best you don’t come out, Tony. It’s better if we keep it secret. And Tony remembers hearing everyone downstairs talking and laughing and Tony had curled in his corner and tried not to shake apart.

“Obie?” He’d asked “Obie can I come out?”

He can’t stop the bile that keeps rising.

God, what had Obie be doing? Making Tony rely on him. Forcing him to —

Don’t think about it, don’t think about it, don’t think about it.

How much of what he told him was the truth? Did Tony’s parents really not want to visit him? Is that why they didn’t come and see him? Did they even know? Did Obie —

This is the point where Tony realises with shocking clarity that Obie had his parents killed. Had his father killed, definitely, and his mother for good measure because they always hated each other.

Somewhere, Tony has a letter from his father begging him to reconsider. To not trust Obie. To take business, because it’s the thing that would make Tony stand on his on two feet.

Jesus, his father was right. His daddy had been right all along. What other pies had Obie had his fingers in? What other —

“Obie,” he coughs “Obie, I promise — please, please let me out.”

“For your own good, m’boy. Remember what we said. You get straight and I’ll pay for the rehab.”

Tony feels his stomach tighten, feels the bile rise to his lips. “Please,” he whispers behind cracked skin “I think I’m dying.”

“You’re not dying.”

Tony scrapes his fingers over the wooden door, too heavy to break and no sharp objects to pick it with. “Obie please. Just, I want a little bit. Just get a me a little bit and I swear I’ll never take any again.”

“I think we both know that’s not true.”

Obie’s voice is low from behind the door, muffled. “Obie.” He croaks. “Please let me go.”

“No.”

Tony starts to cry. “I want to go home.”

A long sigh from behind the door. “Tony, I don’t know what to say to that. What home?”

“Tony?”

He jerks where he’s sitting sprawled on the floor by his toilet bowl, head pressed to the cool basin. “Pepper.” He croaks.

She looks down at him. “You’ve been crying.”

He goes to say something and then just sighs. “I think I ate something bad.”

“I think you’ve been drinking.”

“I haven’t been drinking.”

Pepper’s eyes soften. “It’s just the shock then.”

“Shock of what?” He says, trying to be nonchalant.

Pepper raises an eyebrow. “That’s how you want to play it?”

Tony snorts, lets his head roll down the bowl. “Okay,” he sighs “okay. Help me up?”

 

There is a man in Tony’s living room.

For a moment, Tony balks, because usually when there’s a man standing at his window he’s not wearing a long overcoat.

“Who are you.”

And the man turns.

Is his face familiar? Maybe. It looks… it looks familiar, strangely enough. Tony has seen this man before.

Something about a larger universe, something about war. Tony is focused on the eyepatch.

“Nick Fury.” The man says, and holds out his hand.

It’s their first official encounter. Emphasis on the official. They have met before. Tony wouldn’t remember, because babies generally don’t.

“I’m here to talk to you about the initiative.”

Tony blinks. “Get out of my house.”

“I have something bigger than you.”

“Did you break into my house?”

Fury raises an eyebrow and slinks over to his bar. “Do you mind?” He asks.

Tony watches him, not moving. “Are you allowed to drink on the job?”

He smirks, slightly. “You’re not the first man I’ve shared a drink with on the job.” He pours himself a finger and then raises the bottle, offering it up.

Tony jars slightly at being offered a drink in his own home. “No thanks.”

Fury smacks his lips, leans back against the bar. “So.” He says.

“So?” Tony replies.

“I take it Coulson told you we’d be in touch?”

“Coulson?”

“The agent.”

“Ah. Yes. I was expecting more of a, hmm, an official appointment.”

“If I took the proper route I’d never get hold of you.”

Tony rolls his eyes. “God, don’t be drama queen.” He steps to his bar, snags a glass from beneath and pours himself a generous amount all in one smooth motion.

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Oh, fuck off, you know what happened.”

Fury looks at him, maybe appraisingly, maybe not, but there’s definitely some humour in his eye. “I’m trying to be nice.”

“Nice people don’t break into people’s houses, Mr… I’m sorry, what do I call you?”

“Nick.”

“Okay, nice Nick. Why don’t you explain to me what was so important that you disabled my AI and snuck into my home?”

Fury drains his glass. “The Initiative, Mr Stark. The chance to make a change.”

“I’m doing just fine on my own.”

“Sure,” Nick says easily “but we extend beyond petty terrorism.”

“Strategic Homeland Intelligence Enforcement Logistics Devision? ‘Homeland’ kinda gives it away.”

“It doesn’t mean America.”

Tony snorts his drinks, sets it on the table. “Little green men?”

“I’m offering you a part of it.”

“No thanks.”

“It would be stupid to turn down something you know nothing about.”

“I know plenty.”

Nick stills. “Mr Stark,” he says, leaning against the counter “what do you know?”

His brow furrows. “About SHIELD?”

Nick nods.

“Enough.”

“Interesting.”

“The answer’s no.”

“You’ll reconsider.” 

“Sure,” Tony says easily “get out of my house. I assume you know the way out, since you did a great job of finding the way in?”

 

They hold a memorial service.

No body, because planes that crash over the ocean don’t have a great recovery rate.

Some flowers. Some… friends.

Tony, when called upon to give a speech, ducks his head into his wine and presses his fingers to his eyes, waves them away with his hand. Pretends to cry, and people mutter in sympathy.

So sad, they say. Afghanistan, and now this. 

 

Pepper finds him, after.

“You were right.” She says.

Tony blinks. “Excuse me?”

She sighs, feeds her hand through her smooth hair. “That… that I wanted to think there was something wrong with you. That it was easier, maybe, than admitting that,” she swallows “we had been wrong. That what we were doing was… wrong.”

“It’s easy to disassociate.” Tony says.

“I know.” Pepper replies. “I just want you to know that I’m here. For it. For whatever it is you’re doing. For you. That I’m here for you.”

Tony smiles, but hides it by turning round. “Wouldn’t have it any other way, Potts.”

 

And that’s that, really.

No going back now.

 

Chapter Text

So.

Tony is busy.

And when he says busy, he means it. His schedules’s always been tight, strict guidelines for work and play. It’s just that now there’s no time for either.

He’s not surprised when his hair starts falling out. It’s the stress. He travels at night, flying high above the sky, and the terrorists, when they see him coming, have learnt to just sit there and scream.

Still, it’s disheartening to wake up one morning and see a clump from the back of your head scattered on your pillow.

Chapter Text

“Mr Stark,” the senator says, hand oily, greasy, slick in his palm. Everything about this man is just, eugh, disgusting, right down to the over-large pores in the crease between his nose and cheeks.

“Senator Stern,” Tony says as respectfully as possible “you’ve been trying to catch me for a while.”

Stern laughs a nasally, thick laugh and claps him on the back. “You’re a hard man to get a hold of, Mr Stark.”

Tony grins brightly, blinking. “Shall we sit?”

“Of course.”

They both continue to stand until social etiquette gets in the way.

“I have to say, Mr Stark, the food here is divine.” 

“Really?” Tony says mildly, peering at the menu, fingers tapping a ticking beat on the table cloth. “I thought something more expensive would be to your tastes.”

Stern chuckles. “Oh, Mr Stark, I’m not fussy, this place will do quite well.”

“Yes,” Tony says, folding the menu “there’s a six month waiting list. You must have pulled a few strings.”

Stern chuckles again. “Mr Stark — ”

“Or we could discuss business?”

Stern’s eyes light up.

This should be Pepper’s job, really. It feels like it should. This morning, Tony got back from a far flung corner of Pakistan. People are saying he’s stabilised east/west relations, if such a thing is possible.

Does it feel good? A little.

The future. Tony was right, it’s all about the future. Everything he does now it for the benefit of those who come after, all the children, all the generations.

“Of course,” Stern garbles “of course. Waiter? Could we have — I’ll have a chardonnay, something harder for Mr Stark, yes?”

“I’ll take sparkling water.”

“Are you sure? I know you like the fine stuff, Mr Stark.”

“Never drink on the job.”

Stern’s eyes don’t crinkle. “Some more wine for the table. Whatever’s most expensive.”

Tony smiles. “You said you had something important for me.”

Stern waves a hand. “Oh Mr Stark, that can wait. I’m more interested in, if you would excuse me, getting to know you.”

Tony’s smile turns strained and he nods at the waiter bringing their drink. “That’s not quite what I’m here for.”

“You’re welcome to leave.”

“What, and ruin your evening?”

“That’s very considerate of you, Mr Stark.”

Tony sips. “How’s the diet?”

“I thought we were playing friendly.”

“Do we need to pretend?”

The waiter brings an ice bucket and a bottle of red wine. They fall into silence.

“I’m so sorry for your loss.” Stern says.

Tony thinks for a moment. “No need.”

“No,” Stern says, considering, filling Tony’s glass to the brim “there isn’t, is there?”

“Excuse me?”

“Tony?” Comes a new voice.

“Oh God,” he mutters under his breath, because Stern has planned this, obviously, this place has a six month wait list and there’s no way that on this night of all nights Justin Hammer has —

“Hey, Tony!” Hammer says again, all nasally, persistent “I didn’t know you would — God, this is embarrassing.”

Tony fixes a smile on his face and turns to see Hammer, all slicked down and expensive suit that somehow still looks ill-fitting, and two women on his arm.

“You see I was just taking my dolls out for the night, but I guess… honeys, we’re gonna sit here alright? Are we doing this? Yes, we are doing this, okay, waiter, could we get an extra table please?”

Tony’s eyes slowly slide to Stern, sitting smugly opposite him, the slimy bastard.

“Wow, Tony, long time no see, amiright?”

Tony laughs forcefully. “Not long enough, really.”

Justin tucks the napkin into his collar. “That’s it, my man, that’s it. What’s there to drink, something good?”

“I’m allergic to wine.” One of the girls moans and Justin shoots her a look of irritation.

“You probably should have picked a better career then, right?” Tony says, and he throws in a wink, getting the girl to smile.

“They’re not hookers.” Justin says bluntly and Tony throws in a wink for him, too.

“If we’re all here, maybe it would be prudent to discuss our current situation?” Stern says with an oily smirk.

“No,” Tony says casually “I would rather my lawyers were present.”

“What?” Hammer says, tucking in his chair “No, Tones, no, look, this is just a meeting between friends, right? That’s all this is.”

“If you insist.” Tony says in a bored voice. The man at the bar is giving him a look, and for a moment, Tony is distracted.

“Mr Stark, you’re looking at the United States Government new primary weapons contractor.”

Tony blinks, jarred away from his daydream including mojitos and bow ties. “What?”

Hammer grins smugly. “I got the job, Tones.”

Tony takes a moment to process this information. “Oh!” He says “Oh God! Oh, you mean, you’re the contractor? Well, congratulations.”

The man at the bar sucks on a cherry.

“No hard feelings, right?”

“No hard feelings that you… took the job I’ve been trying to palm off for months? God, no, none at all. Thank you, actually. It was really weighing on my conscience, you know, having to leave the country without proper weapons but, you know, real weight off my shoulders.”

Hammer can’t tell if he’s being mocked. “Yeah, well I couldn’t pass that off, right, Senator?”

Stern smiles again, obviously dissatisfied. “Ladies,” he says “maybe Mr Hammer can meet up with you later?” He scribbles something on a napkin. “Just hand that to the driver out front, he’ll take you were you want to go.”

They glare at Hammer disparagingly. “Do we still get paid?” One says bluntly.

Tony shakes his head, bites his cheek to keep from smiling. He catches the eye of the man at the bar and quickly looks away. He’s not interested, and there’s no point stringing him on.

There’s always someone who thinks they have a chance with him. Tony’s response is to shrug it off and occasionally ‘leak’ stories to the press about his immensely heterosexual experiences.

Still, it’s like some guys just know.

The girls leave, and Tony has the sudden feeling of being cornered.

“Mr Stark, you know why I’m here,” Stern says “why we’re here.” He corrects.

“If it’s the suit you want, you can forget it.” Tony says, making to stand.

“Mr Stark!” Stern says “Let’s not be hasty. Dinner hasn’t come yet.”

Slowly, Tony sits.

“We’re prepared to offer you a deal, Mr Stark. This is, of course, off the record, yes?”

Tony tilts his chin. Waits.

“You obviously have some ethical disagreement on producing weapons, Mr Stark. I’m prepared to offer you a deal. You and Hammer, working in collaboration.”

“Oh?”

“Hammer will handle the day to day. He’ll make his weapons. And you will be working behind the scenes.”

“How so?”

“Your suit.” Hammer interjects. “Look, Tones, we’re both clever guys, right? But those suits are gonna take a hell of a lot of,” he rubs his thumb over his fingers “dough, if you know what I mean, right? Right?”

“You want me to build Hammer a suit and then call it Hammer tech?”

“That’s a strange way of putting it Mr Stark.”

“You’re both idiots. I’m leaving.”

“Tones,” Hammer says “look, we can make it worth your while.”

“Oh really?”

Stern smiles, leans in closer. “Tony, there’s money to be made.”

Tony’s lips quirk. “Oh,” he says “now I’m interested.”

Stern leans back. “Clever man like yourself doesn’t let an opportunity like this pass.”

“Absolutely,” Tony says “I don’t have any money, so it’s always a real deal clincher to be offered some.”

“Mr Stark, we can make life very easy for you.”

“As opposed to difficult? Is that a threat?”

“It is what you want it to be.”

Hammer’s head is swinging between the two of them. He’s out of his depth.

Tony sighs. “And what do you think you have the power to do, Senator?”

“Mr Stark, I have every power to have those suits taken away.”

“No you don’t.”

“Yes I do.”

Tony smirks. “Don’t try to bluff me.”

“Mr Stark, who’s bluffing? What do I have to lose? You are, quite frankly, incompetent. A drunk. A drug addict. I’m not entirely sure — ”

“Who told you that.” Tony says quietly.

“Told me what? That you’re a drug — ”

“Keep your voice down.” He hisses.

Stern leans back. “Ah,” he says “there we go.”

Tony doesn’t want to know where Stern got that information. It hasn’t come back to bite him as much as it should.

Then again, he always had Obie to keep the dogs at bay. 

“I’m going to have to ask you again who told you.”

“I think you know, Mr Stark.”

“What are you playing at.”