It doesn’t seem much like it from what the outside might suggest, but Howard Stark’s legacy lives on at Stark Industries in more than just the name. Its California headquarters spans over six square miles, what with its laboratories and its wings dedicated solely to research and development, and that’s not even including the sectors like legal and the offices of those on the board of directors, but those are mostly located in New York, conveniently placed in a neat radius surrounding Stark Tower. This is all very much to Tony's genuine pleasure. No, really, he loves being surrounded by a group of old, white businessmen for half a mile in every direction. Loves it.
Anyway, the point is that Howard Stark might be twenty years gone, but he's still making his mark on his business. There's portraits of him in every lobby of every SI office across the globe, from California to New York, London to France, and hell, Tony’s even got a frame hanging outside the elevators of the tower, because that's what expected. Howard Stark always lives on. So it's not really a surprise for Tony when he gets a call from someone on the board, telling him that they've stumbled across some of Howard's old things during renovations on the old wings of the New York office. Except he ignores that call, so Tony doesn't actually find out until a week later, when Pepper shows up outside of his bedroom door, knocking for a solid ten minutes until he finally stumbles out in Star Wars boxers as he squints past the bright sunlight streaming in the windows.
“What?” He says, a little harsher than he intends. Pepper raises a perfectly shaped eyebrow and presses her lips into a thin line. Tony takes that as a very (un)subtle hint, and flashes her the best apologetic smile he can muster, “Sorry, Pep. Hi. How are you?”
If there's anything that Tony misses most about his relationship with Pepper, it's that spark that she has, that feistiness that is the whole reason she is one of the few people who can put up with Anthony Edward Stark. It’s unnaturally hot. She makes it work for her. Which is why Tony can't help but smile when she pushes past him into the bedroom, and stands next to his bed looking rather done.
“Do you understand the concept of voicemail?” Pepper says, and yeah, she really does deserve better than him. He resolves to make it up to her with some kind of shoe related expenditure, and opens his mouth to defend himself. Pepper cuts him off, “Or email? Please, Tony, thrill me, I really would love to hear the answer to this one.”
He steps closer to her and smiles with all his teeth, because a) he knows that she can’t resist his genuine smile, the one that only the people he loves sees, and b) he feels like pushing his luck. Tony grabs Pepper’s hands in his own and swings them a little from side to side.
“Pepper,” Tony says, as he strokes his thumb over the back of her hand, “Pep. Virginia—”
“Right, sorry, sorry,” he lets go of one of her hands and gestures wildly with his own, “Pepper, I have been unconditionally busy, this is the life of an engineer, I mean, have you seen my calendar? Horrid.”
Pepper raises her eyebrows and nods, wondering where she had gone wrong in her past that could possibly warrant the direction that her life has taken her in. She snatches her hand back from Tony and crosses her arms over her chest. Tony has always had this thing about him, this bullshit, carefree façade that is inherently Tony Stark. It’s hard not to love that about him. She tries.
“Right,” Pepper starts, in that calm, collected voice she has. She raises and eyebrow at Tony as she stares him down. He squirms a little under the gaze, “How could I forget your little bender in Las Vegas with Clint?”
“Not a bender,” Tony defends himself, holding a palm splayed in front of him, “Business deal.”
“Yes, I’m sure that’s what the CEO of the casino said, too, when you destroyed his hotel room. What I don’t understand is how you got the TV off the wall and into the bathtub. The pictures weren’t very clear.”
Tony grimaces and screws up his eyes, “You saw those?”
Despite herself, Pepper smiles at him softly and lets her hands drop to her sides, “The entire continent saw them, Tony. Perez Hilton got his hands on them.”
They have a brief moment where they stare at each other, Pepper’s eyes roaming Tony’s face, tracing the shadow that his nose casts above his lip. His hair is sticking up in every which way, wild and curly and starting to grey at the sides of his temples. She doesn’t mention it to him, mostly because Tony is incredibly vain and will be at the nearest drug store looking for hair dye as soon as she leaves. Instead, she steps forward and grabs his head in her hands. Pepper smooths down his unruly hair, her hand lingering just a little too long on his cheek.
Tony leans into her touch. He misses those delicate hands.
He wants to ask how he can make her life easier, but instead it just comes out a rather disinterested version of, “What could you possibly need from me at this ungodly hour?”
“It’s ten A.M.,” Pepper notes, as she reaches into her bag and pulls out her tablet, “You, Mr. Stark, have been neglecting any and all inboxes linked to your name. Did you know you have thirty-six missed voice messages?”
If there is one thing that Tony hates more than anything in the world, it is answering blathering, unimportant phone calls. Those are the kinds of things he likes to delegate to Pepper, or even sometimes Happy if he’s feeling particularly desperate. It had gotten so bad that at some point between ignoring insistent vibrations and leaving rather snarky voice messages on the answering machines of board members, Tony had programed his phone to ignore their calls entirely. It’s more of a fun game, now, trying to see which of them he can piss off most. Usually it’s Pepper, which is an unfortunate side effect, but she’s always mad at him, so it makes little difference in the long run.
He makes an uninterested hand gesture and pushes past her, headed in the direction of the kitchen. Tony knows she’ll follow him, because her tone of voice suggests he’s got work to do, and she won’t let him go that easily. He’s right, he notices with nothing short of a smile as he hears her heels click against the floor behind him. They take the stairs, Tony swinging along the bannister when he gets to the end, and in the kitchen, Pepper corners him up against one of the kitchen islands.
“Pepper, if you wanted to bend me over the table, you should have just asked,” Tony looks up at her through his eyelashes, and it’s a wonder the poor girl doesn’t slap him. Instead, she calls something up on her tablet and shows it to him, cradling the device in two hands.
It’s a picture of his father, black and white like most of them are. He’s standing in a big, open area, surrounded by wires and mechanical parts, sleek metal tables with stools that are set on wheels. Tony recognizes it as Howard’s workshop in the New York office right away, mostly because he spent more than enough time trying to destroy it as a child than he did doing normal things, like playing with toys or watching cartoons. Howard looks happy in the picture, Tony thinks. He’s certainly not a father – he is young, very young, with no wrinkles around his eyes or on his forehead. Howard wears an untucked dress shirt and a tie, and Tony wants to laugh, because his father always dressed like that – always so formal, the opposite of Tony’s cut off shirts or ratty, holey jeans. Something in his eyes makes Tony think that his father is looking at his mother, because Howard is smiling and his eyes look bright and nothing like the dark, deep brown he remembers.
Tony is adamant, to anyone who seems to think otherwise, that his father loved his mother. Maria was a constant for the both of them, he thinks. The one speck of light, the soft brightness in an otherwise fractured family – even towards the end, when Howard took her softness and drank her warmth, and they were both so unbearably rough and broken that Tony wasn’t even sure they were still alive.
He blinks, then makes a face at Pepper, “That sure is my dad.”
Pepper lifts a finger and points it in his general direction, “That is your dad’s old workshop.”
“You are right,” Tony says, and he slips out of Pepper’s rather intimidating stance in front of him. He pads over to the fridge, opens it, and rustles around in it. There’s leftover pizza (with pineapples, because fuck you and your weird aversion to fruit, Clint), and he grabs a slice and folds it in half. When he looks up, Pepper is standing with her arms crossed. The tablet is sitting on the kitchen island, “I’m not following. What does that have to do with me?”
“If you actually listened to your voicemails, you wouldn’t have that problem, and I wouldn’t be here, Tony.”
“Mm,” Tony mumbles over a mouthful of pizza, “Then I wouldn’t get to hear your sweet, sweet voice.”
“So funny,” Pepper says, offering a tight-lipped smile, “Really, I’m laughing. You didn’t listen to Mr. Jurecki’s message, I’m sure?”
Tony pauses, brow furrowed, and chews slowly. He takes a seat on the stool next to Pepper and leans on his elbow, “Tall? Balding, but not ready to admit it, the most horrifically tailored suit in America, possibly in the Milky Way?”
“That’s the one,” Pepper snatches the pizza out of his hand and considers it, “You didn’t listen to it?”
“I do not think, Pepper, that I have ever listened to a message from a board member in all of my years,” he says, narrowing his eyes at the pizza slice, “That is a fair assumption. Can I have that back?”
Pepper rolls her eyes, and Tony is sure that she’s wondering how she got stuck with such an insufferable man. He thinks for a minute that maybe she deserves a little more than just shoes. She takes a bite of the pizza, chews, and speaks again when she opens her mouth.
“They’re doing renovations on the New York offices,” Pepper starts, and there’s a sudden something to her tone that makes Tony’s heart rate pick up, just a little. He deals with it by raising his eyebrow, deflecting and absorbing.
“Pepper. I don’t follow.”
“Tony,” she says, and he can tell by her tone that she is nearing her final nerve, “Can you just close your mouth? For half a second?”
He complies with only minimal difficulties.
“They dug up the basement and found this,” She turns her tablet in Tony’s general direction.
So maybe this was not what he was expecting. Tony is a man who is generally very difficult to surprise. Life as an aggressive pessimist has prepared him for being let down constantly since he was a little kid; the last time he was shocked by something was probably Obie’s betrayal. Standing outside that party, one of Obadiah’s sleazy arms wrapped around his shoulder for the cameras, the hesitant ‘who do you think filed the injunction against you’ – it’s pretty likely that little spike in his blood pressure was the last time he was genuinely put off by something he wasn’t expecting.
This is another picture of Howard’s old workshop. It’s more run down in this one, looks a little darker and dustier, but the basics are the same. The old metal workbenches are still there, a little worse for wear, and even some of his dad’s old robotics materials are scattered over tabletops. Howard isn’t in this picture – this one is in color, and the tablet’s timestamp says 8:20 AM, Sunday, May 31st. Last week. Tony blinks at Pepper, and he understands what he’s looking at, but something about the situation doesn’t make sense.
“The contractor started tearing up the basement of one of the old wings, and they found the door to your dad’s old workshop,” Pepper’s voice is a little more soothing that it usually is, laced with a fair deal of concern that is probably triggered by the look Tony has plastered across his face, “It was all boarded up, which you asked them to do. I looked up the old work order. Anyway, they cracked it open, and they want you to go down and take a look.”
Tony lets the room fall into silence. He takes the tablet from Pepper’s hand and swipes through the pictures. The entranceway, cold and dark looking. Howard’s desk, a big oak number covered in loose papers and even an empty coffee mug that remains after all that time. A steel toolbox that is open and unorganized, with screwdrivers piled beside it on the workbench, or on the floor under the tables. Tony takes a shaky breath and tries to steady himself. These were things he had left behind.
“Tony, I know that this is probably really h—”
He looks up at her, “Why do they want me?”
Something inside of Pepper melts a little, gives way under his stare. She knows him too well. She knows too much. Tony loves her so much, standing there staring at her as if she has all of the answers he needs. Pepper knows that this place is not a place he ever wanted to see again.
“There’s blueprints down there, still, Tony. Schematics. Old pieces of everything thrown together as if they’re supposed to make something. They don’t want to destroy the next arc reactor. It’s more concern over what Howard left behind than anything,” she says all of this gently and steps forward to place a hand on his shoulder, “You don’t have to do it.”
He thinks about it, just for a couple seconds.
“Might as well,” Tony flashes her a grin that doesn’t reach his eyes, but Pepper lets him pretend, “Carmine’s after? 2:30? Best penne arrabiata in New York.”
“Right, 3:30 is better for me too,” Tony cuts her off swiftly and effectively, and starts to usher her out of the kitchen. He puts his hand on the small of her back, “Here’s an idea: you call for a table, and I will see you there. Order us a bottle of Dom Pérignon, you know, celebration and whatnot.”
“Celebration for what?” Pepper starts, eyebrows raised, unsure of whether or not she wants to know the answer.
“Getting me out of bed.”
Pepper smiles at him. Her eyes are full of concern, Tony can’t help but notice that, but her smile is warm. He’s not sure he has ever missed someone the way he misses Pepper Potts when she’s not around him, nagging at him to get to work or to attend Very Important Business Meetings or just to be better in general. His hand, still on the small of her back, squeezes her side.
“Will that be all, Mr. Stark?”
Breathing in through his nose, he nods, “That will be all, Ms. Potts.”
As it stands, Tony has been shoved into an elevator surrounded by sweaty workmen exactly two times in his life, now. Being squished in between two rather large men who evidently have spent more time in the gym than he has ever considered is wreaking havoc on his breathing and doing even less for his ego. On his right is a man wearing no shirt with muscles to rival Steve, which would be fine in any other context, but he’s standing in some strange sort of position that requires him to have his feet spread apart and his hands on his hips. On his left, well, that’s just another story, because this guy is just pouring sweat from god knows where, and Tony is trying to figure out whether or not it’s the smell or the actual visual of seeing a man look like he’s just taken a shower in his own bodily fluids that’s putting him off. Tony tries to close in on himself and get the elbows out from between his ribs.
“Hey, big guy, mind not standing elbows out?” He starts, and perhaps this is not his best idea, but he says it anyway, “Not exactly spacious in here.”
Elbows drops his arms down to his sides, but buddy on the left digs a bony shoulder down onto Tony’s collarbone and pushes, and Tony cringes. Yeah. Probably not the best time for him to be shooting his mouth off.
The elevator dings as it passes each floor, and Tony really could have taken the stairs, he isn’t so out of shape that going down six flights of stairs will kill him, but he’s made some poor choices in his life and this one just seems to be keeping the pattern going. Soon, it stops on the second basement level, the metal doors slide open, and Tony stumbles out, free from the overbearing stench of sweat and the limbs digging into him. He straightens his tie, flattens his suit, and breezes past all the workmen staring at him.
There are more men in suits standing outside the entrance to Howard’s old workshop. These are board members, Tony knows, because he’s see their faces in the paper or in frames along the walls of Stark Industries, and they all look so happy to see him, if the grim looks on their faces are any indication.
“Mr. Stark,” one of them says, and Tony does not know his name because why would he? Tony shakes the hand that the man is holding out and then shoves his hands into his pockets, rocking back and forth on his heels.
“Hey,” he says, rather unprofessionally (as if he actually gives a damn about professionalism), “So, uh, you found it, huh?”
The door is a little beat up. The frame itself is all cracked and split, from where the nails had been hammered in to secure the pieces of plywood in place, and now the broken pieces are pointed and splintering from places where it seems like the construction workers just couldn’t get it all off. Tony can’t help but remember the night that the plywood had gone up, how he had called maintenance as soon as he managed to roll out of bed, and how his hands had shaken as he gripped the phone in them. That had been two days after the car accident, and one day after the police had asked Tony to identify the bodies.
Stepping closer to the threshold of the room, he almost expects to see his father’s mangled body there, bloody and torn apart by twisted metal and broken glass. There isn’t anything there, but that doesn’t stop him from thinking about the way Howard and his mother had looked, splayed across the white sheets on the stainless steel tables in the morgue. Tony closes his eyes. Behind him, one of the board members speaks.
“You know,” the man says, and his voice comes across as a little annoyed, “Mr. Stark; with all due respect, it seems a little irresponsible to have kept this place boarded up for so long. Your father left behind a world in there, and—”
“Right, well, all due, I was just seventeen, and my parents were dead, so I think maybe we can cut adolescent Tony some slack,” Tony lets the words fall easily, but they feel like poison in his mouth and leave a bad taste at the back of his throat. He used to be more suave about this stuff, more cut and dry about his own bullshit, but now his hands are shaking and he wishes more than anything that he’d thought to bring Pepper along with him, “By the way, that suit is definitely not working for uh, for your shoulders, have you seen a tailor? I know a guy, I can set something—”
“Mr. Star, can we carry on?” This man is not the same one that Tony has been more or less insulting, but his voice sounds just as offended, and he’s about to grow a whole new set of wrinkles on his face if the furrow in his brow is any indication.
Tony drags in a deep breath, his lungs stretching with the force of it, “Right, yeah. Wow, okay. Okay, let’s go.”
The workshop is cold. Tony steps in, and the hair on the back of his neck stands up immediately. He crosses his arms and takes in the surroundings, the walls a cold concrete, just like he remembers, and the big oak desk in the back littered with all of Howard’s papers, journals, equations. Tony frowns, because it reminds him of himself, and he’s not quite sure he wants that.
Howard lived here, in this room. He lived in the mansion, too, but that was never his home. The mansion was a façade, a front under which he and Maria and their young son, their little boy lived. And they were happy, too, as far as the newspapers were concerned – but Howard spent most of his time in the workshop, regardless if it was the one in the basement of their home or the basement of his company.
Sometimes, in his own workshop, Tony gets brief swatches of memories that he doesn’t welcome, but endures nonetheless. He thinks of his childhood, of getting lost in this room, hiding under workbenches and desks and sneaking in without anyone knowing. It frightens him, then, when he looks around the room and realizes that he fashions his things in the same way as Howard – the same messy, uninterested organization scheme, the same cluttered workbenches and broken tools, the discarded boxes of robotics pressed up against the concrete walls. The way he spends hours, days, even weeks down there without any interaction whatsoever.
Tony’s wearing Nikes, which clash with his suit and squeak across the polished tile floor as he walks towards one of the stainless steel benches. It’s cluttered with papers, and he picks one up and reads the numbers scrawled across it. It’s algebra mostly, theoretical numbers that Tony scans into his mind, absorbing them with ease. There’s no writing on the page other than the equation, and Tony can only wonder what his father had in mind when writing it – there are some things about Howard that baffle Tony, some of his work that astounds him with both its quality and its complexity.
Behind him, the board members are standing in quiet awe, looking about, reaching out to touch things, and Tony can’t help but feel like this is wrong, like them being there, their presence is some sort of sacrilege. He spins around on a heel and holds up a hand, feeling all their eyes on him.
“Maybe don’t touch anything, okay?” He tries for polite, but it doesn’t go his way mostly, “Just, I don’t know what’s what, so hands off, alright?”
There’s a round of nodding among them, some understanding, others looking disgruntled but acquiescing nonetheless. Tony shuffles back towards his father’s desk and stands above it, looking down at the messy top and the leather swivel chair. He used to climb into that chair as a child when Howard wasn’t looking, legs dangling off the edge and kicking back and forth. It was fun, then, until his father found out. Then it wasn’t very fun anymore. Tony smiles and huffs out a little laugh that is less humor and more pain. The leather seat is cracked and faded.
Sitting down in front of the desk now, as a fully-grown man, Tony can’t help but feel out of place. His back molds to the shape of the chair, and his feet plant firmly on the ground, and leaning up against the desk he can see his father’s workspace, his papers and broken pens and pencils. There’s a coffee mug sitting on the desk. Tony picks it up gingerly, like he’s holding something sacred, and peers into it. Inside, caked on the bottom, is a ring of mold that’s grown over leftover coffee. It occurs to him that Howard left this behind – that this was one of the last things he drank before he died. Tony feels particularly melancholic about that, even if he doesn’t let on.
He puts the coffee mug down and sits there for a second, eyes flitting about from desk to men standing in front of him impatiently. Tony pulls on one of the desk drawers, and it sticks for a moment so much so that he thinks that maybe his father locked it, but finally it gives way and rolls open. Inside is the usual – papers, journals, scattered tools – but on the bottom of all this is a stack of photo paper and Polaroids that are yellowed with age and probably coffee spills. Tony digs them out and flips through them, biting the inside of his cheek.
His father poses with Steve in the first one, and Tony tries not to let that bother him. It’s an old picture, black and white, and the corners of it are folded and starting to fray, and he can’t help but notice that his father is young and happy, smiling with an arm around his greatest creation.
Tony flips the photo over and moves on, fanning the others out in front of him as his eyes gloss over each of them. There are some there of Howard and Anton Vanko, an air of commonality and comradery that he can’t be sure is genuine. His father’s eyes look wary here, deep in thought and in another world, and Tony is damned if he doesn’t get his mental distance from his dad. There are a few more pictures of the two of them, spread in amongst others of Howard’s inventions and work until suddenly they stop, and Vanko is gone. Makes sense.
There are no pictures of his mother, which doesn’t really surprise Tony. Howard is – was, he has to remind himself, even after all this time – not exactly a family man, not the type to cherish or take part in the ‘to have and to hold’ nonsense, even if at one point he did love his wife. There were wedding photos in the mansion, exquisitely photographed, staged, and Maria had looked so beautiful that when she had died, Tony had taken from the house one of the framed shots of her in her dress and had stashed it amongst all of the junk in his workshop.
He goes to collect the pictures into a stack, but one of them catches his eye. It’s a color photo that’s obviously from the late seventies, if the sepia tint is any indication. It features Tony and his father next to each other, and Tony is just a child, maybe eight years old, and Howard has an arm wrapped around Tony’s shoulders and he’s smiling, actually smiling, and for a second Tony can’t help but smile a little himself, because he’s got this picture sitting on his desk, too.
When he looks up, the group of suits are looking at him strangely, and yeah, maybe he’s been staring at this stack of pictures for a little too long. Tony sets them back in the drawer, but he takes the picture of him and his father and folds it in half, shoving it into the pocket of his suit jacket.
“Where to?” He asks the men, flashing them a gleaming smile. One of them points towards a table that is covered in blue paper that is rolled out flat against the surface. Blueprints. His kind of thing. He can do this.
Tony starts towards the desk, but is caught off guard by a shape in the corner of his eye. It’s a box, cardboard and banged up, and there’s some of Howard’s unreadable scrawl on the front in black marker. Tony holds up a finger in the direction of the board members to stop them. He grabs the box by the top flaps and peers down inside, standing up on the tips of his toes. Inside is a tangled mess of wires and robotics, things that no one else would understand, and he digs his hands in to sort through them until suddenly he freezes. Tony jerks away from the box as if he’s been hurt, and his hands fall to his sides. The board members watch him.
“Mr. Stark?” One of them asks, and Tony can feel the eyes on him. His face folds along the creases on his forehead and beside his eyes, and he squints as if he's confused, because he kind of is.
“Yeah,” Tony says, and for the first time in a long time he can tell that he’s gone pale, “I, uh, I—we’re going to have to do this another day, I have to—can we just reschedule this for some time next week, that would be fantastic—”
“Now, Mr. Stark, we’ve been waiting almost a week to have you come down here, and you seem to be taking this the least seriously out of all of us here at the Board, considering this belonged to your father. It is the opinion of not only me, but the rest of us, that your concern for the scientific advancements made by Howard is lack—”
Gathering the box in his hands, Tony spins on a heel, his clenched teeth and his twitching lips betraying him. When he opens his mouth, his jaw wobbles uncertainly, and it takes him a moment to decide whether he’s actually going to speak. When he does, he spits the words out as if they’re burning his mouth, sounds that are laced with poison.
“Get out,” Tony says, and it’s more of a hiss than anything. He squeezes the box in his arms, and they’re shaking now too, and he can feel his jaw muscles twisting and pulling with the effort of not shouting, “Get out. Come back tomorrow, or the day after that, I don’t give a fuck, just get out. Can you handle that?”
When they’re gone – and they are gone, because Tony makes sure of it – he takes tentative steps towards the door, the box still in his arms, and peeks around the corner. No one’s there, and it feels kind of childish for him to be doing this, but he skitters out into the hallway and out to the elevator, and soon he’s at his car with a cardboard box in the passenger seat, and he’s driving to the tower, his mind cloudy, like his head is full of water.
He doesn’t meet Pepper for lunch. She didn’t make the reservation.
Tony is distant at dinner. Admittedly, he’s not one to actively participate in dinner table talk unless it is expressly relevant to his interests, but tonight, Steve notices how far away the lights in his eyes are, how it takes him a while to focus on the question that Clint is asking him from across the room.
“Stark, my eyes are up here.” Clint says, and he’s got that smirk on his face that he reserves especially for when he’s trying to get under Tony’s skin.
They’re sitting in the rec room, a big open space near the communal kitchen with beanbag chairs and leather couches that are so soft that sometimes Bruce gets stuck and has to have Thor pull him out, which more often than not ends with broken everything. Between the seven of them, there’s about eleven separate Chinese food containers spread around the room, some empty and tipped over on the table, others clasped in the hands of hungry superheroes. Thor has a mouth full of fried rice, Natasha is picking through the remains of her chow mein, and Steve is using a fork to spear pieces of General Tao chicken, mostly because he hasn’t gotten the hang of chopsticks yet.
Tony’s balancing an untouched plate of sushi on his lap, unsure of whether he’s really not hungry or if he just can’t get his head out of the clouds long enough to focus on filling his stomach. Clint’s voice makes him blink back into the present and look around blindly. From his side of the couch, Steve watches Tony intently, concerned but silent.
“Hm?” Tony says, and it’s certainly a change from his usual witty retorts. He plays with a piece of sushi absently, his chopstick wedging its way between the seaweed and the rice, pushing the little pieces of crab out through the top.
Rhodey is there tonight, which is hardly out of character for him by now, and he turns to look at Tony with his eyebrows knitted together. Steve likes Rhodey, he really does. He’s a sliver of normalcy that Steve isn’t exactly privy to on a regular basis, and the shared life experience – the military, war, Tony – well, that just makes it easy to talk to him.
“Did you sleep last night?” Rhodey asks, giving Tony a suspicious glance, and no, Steve can’t really blame him, because Tony doesn’t sleep at night. Or ever.
Tony sets down the chopstick he’s holding almost delicately, but he doesn’t meet Rhodey’s eyes. He trains his gaze on the rice and crab on his plate, “I’ve been sleeping just fine, Mom.”
Another nice thing about having James Rhodes around – he knows Tony better than anyone else, and so when the response is lackluster and without a particularly high dose of sarcasm, concern colors Rhodey’s features.
Since his arrival back at the Tower that afternoon, Tony has been anything but himself. He had stalked off the elevator into the rec room, arms wrapped around a cardboard box, and had said nothing to anyone. Steve had been sitting on the couch, sketching, and Bruce had been watching some sort of sitcom to pass the time, and Clint had been asleep, and by the time Steve had looked up from his sketchbook to see what was causing Tony’s apparent distress, he was gone. It had taken thirty minutes and the promise of sushi to even begin to coax him out for dinner, and Steve had been worried – because Tony was distant, but never like this.
In the end, it’s Rhodey that brings it up, and Steve is more than a little grateful that this particular mistake is not his.
“How’d the thing with your dad’s workshop go today?” He asks gently, and Steve has no idea what Rhodey is talking about.
Tony freezes up a little, and he finally looks up, eyes a little narrow as he fixes them on the side of Rhodey’s face. He takes the plate off his lap and sets it on the arm of the couch.
“It was fine,” Tony says, and he speaks tentatively, and Steve can tell that perhaps this is not going to be the best topic of conversation for the night, “How did you know about that?”
“How could I not know about it?” Rhodey deposits a forkful of eggs noodles into his mouth and talks around them, “It’s all they’re talking about at Stark Industries.”
Tony nods, pursing his lips, “Pepper?”
“What happened?” Steve asks eventually, because this is a piece of information he has apparently not been privy to. The others look around and nod in agreement, six sets of eyes trained on Rhodey and Tony. The latter says nothing, and eventually Rhodey speaks, setting his take out box down on the coffee table.
“They found one of Howard’s old workshops in the basement of the New York office,” Rhodey says, as he looks between Tony’s face and the group, “Tony went down today to take a look around.”
Oh. Yeah. That explains it. Steve straightens up in his chair, because he knows Tony does not handle mentions of his father well, and that there is a very good chance that this is going to go downhill very quickly. From the floor, Clint props himself up on an elbow and looks up at Tony.
“Find anything cool?”
Tony shrugs, “Blueprints, mostly,” he says, and Steve knows he’s lying because he’s not making eye contact, and when he’s with people he loves, Tony is a terrible liar, “Old weapons technology, nothing that would be commercially viable today, but fun to look at, if you’re into that stuff.”
Thor booms out a laugh at that, which means that the room sort of shakes uncomfortably.
“Surely you should benefit from these displays of great intellect,” he exclaims, cradling a drink in his hand and watching Tony with something akin to admiration. Thor may not be up to date with Tony’s particular level of brain melting science, but the guy isn’t an idiot, and even he can appreciate Tony’s brain on some scale, “The archer tells me your father was of great importance during his time on Midgard. You may learn something from his work.”
“’The archer’”, Clint scoffs, shaking his head, “I kick your ass at bowling one time, and suddenly I’m ‘the archer’. Ridiculous.”
“Yeah, well,” Tony says, and he smiles at Clint’s irritation, but it’s weak, “Most of my dad’s tech is now obsolete, big guy. Like working with cave tools.”
The curiosity burning in the back of Steve’s mind gets to him before he can stop himself, and he fixes Tony with an interested look, “What about that box you came back with?”
Tony freezes. He’s been tense all night, tight muscles and stiff movements, and when he thinks no one is looking, shaky hands. Steve likes to think he knows Tony fairly well by now, knows what makes him tick and why he does the things he does, and to be fair, all of the above should have been reasons to not ask, but Steve can’t help but wonder why Tony is acting like this. He regrets asking when he sees the look on the engineer’s face.
“Box?” Natasha asks, and for the first time that night, she suddenly seems interested, “What box?”
“It’s nothing,” Tony interjects, swiftly shutting down the conversation before it’s even started, “Don’t worry about it.”
Clint rolls around on the floor until he can get himself up into a sitting position, and he flashes Tony a smile that features all of his teeth, “Whatcha trying to hide, Tone? Secret weapons? Broken robots from your childhood?”
“It’s nothing.” Tony says again, and the hands are going again, shaking, trembling, and maybe Steve should speak up and shut them down because Tony is clearly not doing well, but Clint is at it again before he can do anything.
“Careful there, Stark,” he says, and Steve knows he’s trying to be playful and friendly, but Tony is Tony and this can only end poorly, “People are gonna wonder why you’re being so defensive. Last thing you need is people thinking you’re broken.”
Tony jerks backwards, eyes trained on the floor, breathing heavy, and Clint has made a very bad choice. Tony is still sitting on the couch, but his spine is straight and his jaw is tense, and he’s looking around the room very obviously for the best exit. Beside him, Rhodey reaches out a hand and puts it on his shoulder.
“Hey, what’s the matter?” Rhodey asks. The room has gone silent – Bruce is sitting up straight, and even Clint has gotten to his knees on the floor, and suddenly the tension is so thick that Steve could cut it with a knife, “C’mon, T, what happened?”
He doesn’t say anything. Tony stands and moves with careful precision towards the elevator, walking stiffly and systematically, like a robot. Up, straight, right, and before he can get to the doors, Steve’s standing up behind him with no concern for the take out container on his lap, making as if to go grab him. Cold chicken pieces and noodles land on the hardwood and no one notices a thing.
“Tony!” Steve calls, but Tony doesn’t answer, despite the way Steve’s voice rings under the high ceilings, “To—”
Rhodey gets up and puts a hand on Steve’s shoulder and squeezes, “Just let him go. Something’s up.”
And yeah, clearly something is up, and Steve wants to be mad at Clint, mad at someone, mad because Tony is upset and he shouldn’t have to be, but Steve can’t bring himself to feel anything of the sort. Instead, he looks between Tony, getting in the elevator and pressing himself into the corner, and Rhodey, who is giving him the same helpless stare in return.
The rec room has gone silent. Bruce is wringing his hands together, and Thor is surveying the room with quiet eyes, looking for some sort of explanation. Clint blinks, looking around wildly on the floor.
“What just happened?”
When Steve joins Rhodey in the kitchen, the sun has set and the stars are out. The latter is leaning against the kitchen counter, looking out the window into the blackness and the blinking lights of New York. He’s cradling a mug of coffee between his hands, steam wafting from the contents, and Steve closes the door behind him quietly and steps in.
“Colonel Rhodes,” he addresses softly, and Rhodey turns to look. He gives Steve a smile.
“Captain,” he answers, and when it looks like Steve’s about to go in for the salute, Rhodey gives him a look, “Jim, by the way. Or Rhodey, but that’s mostly a Tony thing.”
Steve nods by way of understanding, takes another couple of steps into the kitchen and looks at the floor.
“What can I do for you?” Rhodey asks, and his tone suggests that perhaps he knows exactly where this discussion is going.
There’s a brief period of silence in which Steve tries to figure out if this was a good idea. Tony hasn’t been upstairs in hours, which in all fairness, Steve had been expecting, but the loss is still grating in the back of his head, in the pit of his stomach. There’s something about the situation this time, though, that’s particularly painful, and Steve can’t place it, but he’s damn sure it’s got something to do with the cardboard box. He meets Rhodey’s eyes.
“Nothing, really, just—”
Rhodey smiles again, and he sets his mug down on the counter and turns towards him, “Tony is fine. Or he will be, at least. Give him a little time.”
Normally, Steve figures he would be a little thrown off by this apparent mind reading, but he also realizes that he’s a little more expressive than most people, and a little bit worse at hiding it than all of his friends. It’s probably what makes him such an easy read.
“I haven’t—he hasn’t ever stormed out like that before,” Steve says, trying to make sense of the anxiety curling in his belly, “Tony’s not—I mean, is he okay? Did something happen at Howard’s workshop?”
The problem lies in the fact that Steve does not know Tony the way he would like to. It’s been six, almost seven months since New York – everyone is settling in nicely in the Tower, bonding and having movie nights and eating the same salty but delicious takeout week after week. There are traditions, now, cultures, norms, and conventions that they all expect of each other, and it’s nice, Steve thinks, to have something of a family. And then there’s Tony, who is so kind-hearted and brave and strong behind that steel wall of defense mechanisms – and all Steve knows is that he’s rich, he’s famous, and he’s the smartest man he’s ever met, even smarter than Howard.
So it’s less surprising and more annoying for him to realize that he maybe doesn’t know Tony the same way that he knows Bruce, or that he doesn’t understand the justification of Tony’s actions the same way he understands American military decisions. Tony is an enigma, a mystery. Storming out of the living room after dealing with his past just tells Steve that there’s more to this situation than he would like there to be.
Rhodey takes in a breath, a long, rattling sound, and closes his eyes. When he opens them again, there’s a pain in there that Steve can’t help but notice. He wonders, briefly, why.
“What do you know about Tony’s dad, Steve?”
And Steve wants to answer that he knows everything, that he understands the apparent animosity that Tony has towards his father, but instead, he half-shrugs and tells Rhodey what he can remember.
“He was a good man. He served his country well,” Steve says, and he can picture Howard now, his wit, the lights in his eyes as he absorbed any and all science in his path, the blatant charisma that he exuded, the kind of obnoxious ego that people loved. Like father, like son, he figures, “I didn’t really get as much time to bond with him, I guess, but I admired him. Felt bad to hear about what happened.”
Rhodey grins, “Right. So you lived what the public heard, then. Which I can guarantee you is not what Tony lived.”
Okay, Steve thinks, father-son relations can be strained. People differ in ideas. Things change, people stop seeing eye to eye, family stops talking. None of those concepts are new to him, they’re just talked about more, now.
“So something at the workshop made him think of his dad, then? And Clint…?”
“I don’t know about the workshop, so much, but I’ll bet you anything it’s got something to do with what’s in that box,” Rhodey picks up the mug of coffee again and takes another sip, “Can’t imagine what Clint said helped much, either.”
Last thing you need is people thinking you’re broken.
“He was joking,” Steve reasons, even though something inside him tells him that it doesn’t matter, “Tony isn’t—Tony’s not broken.”
Rhodey tenses all over, raises his eyebrows a little, “You sure about that, Captain?”
And – surprise – he’s not.
“Colonel—” Steve starts, but he manages to correct himself before he carries on, “Jim, I mean. What…”
Steve finds he can’t finish the sentence, but Rhodey understands.
“Howard didn’t—he just, he didn’t—” he stops for a minute to collect his thoughts, takes another sip of coffee, and moves around the room. Rhodey moves with a particular stiffness, and clinical ‘hop’ to his step that Steve knows from being in the military, “Tony did not have an easy childhood. No one was around, you get that? The public image is that Howard was a good man, he served his country, he contributed so much to science and to the world and it is a travesty that he is no longer with us, and maybe that’s true, maybe he was a good man, but he was a poor father. And Tony needed someone, and he had no one.”
Steve can stomach that – Howard was never a family man. It didn’t take Stark genius to see the way he looked at women, the way he devoured them with his eyes, or his reckless behaviour and those moments of obsession, where he would become so engrossed in something that he could function in no other way. Not exactly an ideal environment to raise a child. Steve can’t help but wonder if that’s why Tony is so much like his father.
“I met Tony when he was fourteen, and I used to watch him drink himself into oblivion every other night. At fourteen!” Rhodey says, and his voice shakes with the effort of not shouting, “And it’s not my place to tell you the things that Tony went through, either, that’s his, that’s his call, but Howard never loved him.”
Rhodey holds up a hand to silence him, “Tony is my best friend. He is exhausting in every way, his attitude is offensive and inappropriate and all that other corporate bullshit, but I love him, yeah? We all love Tony. And how could you not, right?”
Steve keeps quiet, because a lot of things make sense, now, the hush-hush attitude of Tony towards his dad, the reaction to visiting the workshop – that makes sense to him now, and it hurts how much he wants to go back and find out what happened.
“He has calloused hands,” Rhodey says, and Steve’s brow furrows in confusion, because what in the world could calloused hands have to do with anything? “You’ve seen them, right? Rough fingertips, hard palms. Tony told me once back in college that when was a kid, his dad would bring him down in the workshop and get him to help out, which in theory is fine, but he would make him hold these things, these pieces of metal, and they were hot, Steve. Hot metal in a little boy’s hands. And you know what Howard said to him? To justify that?”
“Stark men are made of iron,” Rhodey spits the words from his mouth viciously, nostrils flaring, eyes wide and hard and stern.
It takes Steve a couple moments to digest that particular piece of information, and then he feels sick to his stomach, reeling about how things like that could happen to people like Tony. Revulsion curls deep in his chest, a mix of sadness and anger and just plain confusion, and he wants to go back in time, back to the war, and grab Howard by his shirt collar. He wants to scream at him, to ask him why he did this, what he was trying to prove by hurting his son, why.
And instead, all he can muster is a half-silent, “God.”
“Yeah,” Rhodey agrees, and he drinks up the rest of his coffee, holding it with shaky hands, “Tony’s got his fair share of cracks. He’s pretty damn broken, actually. And I’ll be damned if he didn’t find something at that workshop that made some of those cracks a little bigger.”
They sit there in silence for a couple seconds, mostly because Steve is having a hard time trying to organize his thoughts, but also because it just feels right to be quiet, to be reverent, to think about Tony and the way that he is with this kind of silent respect.
Finally, he needs to ask, “Do I go to him? Can I—can I help him?”
Rhodey shrugs, “That’s your call. But don’t push him. Sometimes glass shatters.”
Steve resolves to bandage the wounds and stop the bleeding. It’s an ominous send off, but he’ll take it.
Tony is in the workshop, hunched over a particularly small piece of robotic technology when Steve jogs down the stairs. He’s been in there for a little over fourteen hours, tinkering, taking apart and putting back together, the cardboard box sat beside him gently, and all of this means that it’s early in the morning, six or so, and Tony hasn’t slept.
Getting into the workshop is another problem. Tony likes to lock people out when he’s feeling particularly distressed, and Steve has had his fair share of experience being on the other side of the glass. He tries his codes, then the override codes, and when neither work, he starts pounding on the glass with a fist.
“Tony!” Steve calls, pressing his forehead against the glass. He can see Tony sitting there, hands working nimbly, making quick work of circuitry and tangled wires. The engineer doesn’t turn around, doesn’t acknowledge Steve’s presence, just sits there and carries on with his work like nothing’s happening.
He knocks on the glass door a few more times and is about ready to go upstairs and find something to smash his way in with when Tony speaks, words muffled by the walls, and the door clicks. Right. JARVIS. Tentatively, he pulls the door open and steps inside. The workshop is silent, which is a change, because Tony’s usually either blaring a nice combination of screaming vocals and wailing guitars, or the Billboard Top 100, loud enough to make Steve’s ears ring whenever he enters and whenever he leaves.
“Tony?” He asks quietly, walking across the floor in slow footsteps, “Are you—Is everything okay?”
Tony doesn’t answer at first, but when he finally does, Steve is standing beside him and he doesn’t look up from his work. Now that he’s up close, Steve can see the things in Tony’s hands, how his fingers move over wire and plastic, stripping the two from each other almost violently.
“What can I do for you, Cap?” Tony asks, and his voice is strangely even, not at all what Steve was expecting. He doesn’t look at him. Dummy rolls around, clipping the side of one of the worktables on his way, and Tony does nothing but blink and reach for a wire stripper.
“You’ve been down here for a while,” Steve starts, and the muscles in Tony’s jaw bunch up, almost subtlety, “We’re worried about you. I’m worried about you.”
In the months, almost a year that Steve has known Tony, he has learned three things about him. One – he does not, one hundred percent, handle other people’s concern for him very well at all.
“Well, here I am, safe and sound,” he starts, rather tired sounding, almost annoyed, and Steve wonders if he’s broaching uncharted waters, “Honestly, Cap, you’re wasting your time if you’re all spending your worry on me. There are better things to worry about. Like my dad’s blueprints.”
Steve flinches, because Tony sounds a little betrayed, and that’s not a sound he ever wants to hear the engineer make ever again. He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath.
“That’s not—we don’t care about that, Tony, we’re all worried about you. You just left. Of course you’re worth being worried about, why would you—why would you say that?”
“Right,” Tony nods, and the chuckle he lets out is dry and bitter, “Heard that before.”
It hits him like a blow to the stomach to hear that, and he bites his lip to stop thinking about what people must have done to make Tony feel that way, what his father must have done to make him think that he wasn’t worth having someone’s attention, someone’s concern. His eyebrows pull together and Steve tries to reach out to put a hand on Tony’s shoulder, but Tony jerks away from the touch.
“What happened, Tony?” he asks softly, trying his best not to sound pressing, judging, or condescending. Tony deserves better, “What happened at Howard’s workshop?”
“I can take care of myself,” Tony answers sharply, and this whole time he has not looked up at Steve once, “I don’t need you to worry about me. I can—look, it’s fine.”
Two – Tony is stubborn as hell. From jumping out of the Quinjet with no plan of attack to pushing away help because he doesn’t need it, Tony is through and through one of the most exhausting people Steve has ever met, and Steve is not sure if this is a product of his past or if it is just the way Tony is. Point is, Tony likes to do things by himself. He doesn’t like help, and he can get nasty, too, when he’s enforcing that particular rule.
It’s a good thing Steve doesn’t really give a shit. He doesn’t want to press, doesn’t want to give Tony more ‘cracks’, in Rhodey’s terms, but if he doesn’t ask, he’ll never know.
“What’s in the box, Tony?” Steve asks, and he asks it quietly, like he’s asking for a secret, for a whisper, and Tony miss the piece of wire he’s holding. The wire stripper leaves a scratch on his hand. Blood bubbles to the surface, Tony wipes it on his jeans, and then he looks up at him.
Tony looks exhausted, and he has every right to be because he’s been down there a whole day, and Steve is almost entirely sure that the engineer hasn’t slept, and the dark circles under his eyes are just evidence in Steve’s favour. The purple spots are stark contrasts against his skin, which is pale in the halogen lights, and his eyes are red around the rims like he’s been crying, and—
“Oh, Tony.” Steve whispers, and he’ll be damned if that doesn’t get a look from Tony of absolute helplessness. He reaches out again, but he stops halfway, afraid to touch him.
“It’s nothing,” Tony says again, firmly, like he’s trying to make Steve believe it, “There’s—don’t worry about the box, stop asking about it, it’s just stuff. It’s not important.”
“It’s important to you,” Steve answers, and he says it so earnestly, so genuinely that Tony looks pained for a split second.
Three – underneath that cocky, bullshit everything that Tony puts on, beneath the Iron Man armour, when he’s alone, working on his cars or doing math or reading books about complex scientific theories – Tony is the most vulnerable out of all of them.
Which isn’t to say that he’s weak, either, because he’s not. He’s just as strong as the rest of them, he really is, but Tony is—Steve knows that he feels things more than he lets on, that when Clint makes a joke about his past, or when someone brings up his weapons manufacturing, or his lack of a stable relationship – or his dad, for Christ’s sake – it makes him ache. Tony is just a very, very talented actor, and Steve can respect that, mostly.
But he knows. He can see it, mostly in Tony’s eyes, because they tell more about him than anything else that the engineer could do, but in other things, like the way his hands shake as he reaches for the cardboard box, and how his jaw tightens when he pulls the flaps back and tilts the opening toward Steve.
It’s just robotics. Wires and metal, and both exactly what Steve was expecting and exactly the opposite. He reaches in and feels the metal and plastic against his skin, and it is dusty and soothing and not what he would have imagined, and when he looks back up at Tony, he has his lips pressed together into a thin line.
“What is it?” Steve asks, pulling his hands back and clasping them in front of him, almost politely. Tony shrugs.
“It’s just parts,” Tony says, and Steve knows this is a lie because as much as he doesn’t know Tony the way he’d like to, he also knows that he is a terrible, horrible liar. Tony knows he’s caught by the look on Steve’s face, and continues, “Look, it’s a really long story. You don’t want to hear it.”
Steve shakes his head, “I want to hear it.”
“Steve,” Tony starts, and Steve cuts him off by finally putting that hand on his shoulder. It silences him.
“I don’t care how long it is. You were really upset earlier,” Steve assures him, “I want to know why.”
There’s a brief moment where Tony has to take that in, has to process the fact that someone wants to listen to him, wants to know about his life, about this little box. Steve can see the gears turning in his head. Eventually, he nods and drops the box back on the workbench, and he looks a little shaky, too.
“It’s a robot,” Tony says, “Or at least, it was. It was supposed to be. When I was six or seven, my dad called my downstairs, to his workshop, and it looked a little like this actually, but that’s not the point. Anyway, he called me down, and I used to be really scared to go down there because Dad was—Dad wasn’t exactly nice, right, but he called me down and there was a box, like this one. And this stuff was in it. And he told me that we were going to build a robot together.”
“You were six?”
Tony fixes him with a raised eyebrow, “I was very smart. Anyway. We built this thing together, and it was really stupid, I think it was supposed to vacuum shit up, it was pointless, but we built it, and uh, it didn’t work really all that well, but we laughed about it. And then it ended up here.”
“Short story.” Steve notes, a little bit of playfulness in his tone, and Tony rolls his eyes, “All that in the living room over a box of metal?”
Tony shrugs, “Just memories. I’ve been, uh, I’ve been trying to get it to work again. Just to see what it would have been like.”
“Right,” Steve nods, like he understands how robots work and would like to help immediately, “How is it going?”
“It’s not,” Tony says, and he huffs out a laugh, “Yeah, we’re—we’re not doing too well over here.”
Steve still has his hand on Tony’s shoulder, and he squeezes the muscles beside his neck between his thumb and forefinger, hoping that it’ll reassure him. He smiles.
“You know,” Steve says, “Doesn’t have to work. You could just enjoy the memory, right? Doesn’t have to be perfect.”
And this is apparently the wrong thing to say, because Tony freezes right up again, just like in the living room, and he turns away from Steve, knocking the hand off of his shoulder in the process. He grabs a screwdriver to stop his hands from shaking, and makes himself busy.
“Tony?” Steve starts, and he’s properly taken aback at this sudden 360 that’s taken place, because sometimes Tony’s emotions are so polar opposite that he can’t even start to understand it, “Whoa, Tony, what’s the matter? What did I say?”
Tony wheels around on him, sudden, jerky movements that are so uncharacteristically Tony that Steve almost double takes to make sure this is the same person. Tony’s eyes are red and watery, and Steve is terrified for a moment that he’s made this poor man cry, but there are no tracks on his cheeks, and Tony is biting his lips and tensing his jaw to make sure that it stays that way.
“You don’t understand,” Tony says, shaky and breathless, and the anger underlying the words is, frankly, scary, “You don’t understand, because he loved you. He talked about you all the time, like you were the second coming of Christ, like you were his best friend. He never shut up, and I was so bitter, because he loved you, and it was so easy for him to love you, but I had to work for it.”
“I was special, I was so smart and I did so well, and it wasn’t enough because he loved you. And then one day, he brings me down to the workshop and asks me to help him build a robot, and he smiles at me and holds my hands when they’re not strong enough to hold the big tools, and when we’re done, even though it’s royally fucked up and broken, he hugs me. He hugged me, and my father hugged me exactly three times in my entire life. So I’m sorry, Steve, that I’m trying to fix this piece of shit—this stupid thing—I just want that day back. It didn’t even work. Why did we make it if it wasn’t going to work?”
Steve’s chest pulls, an ache he hasn’t felt in a long, long time. He wants to touch Tony, to pull him into his arms and tell him that this isn’t how he’s supposed to feel, that Howard did this to him, and—he wants to hurt Howard for doing this, for playing with this beautiful man’s head—he just feels so guilty.
“You deserved better than that.” Steve says thickly, telling himself that this isn’t his fault. It isn’t his fault, “Tony, you deserved—your dad—”
Tony helps him out here, supplying the words with a watery smile, “My dad didn’t love me. He didn’t, he didn’t have the capacity. To love me. It’s fine.”
“Howard—he wasn’t the man I thought he was Tony, you deserved better. I’m—”
“My father was a good man,” Tony assures him, holding out his hands, splaying them palms down as if to stop Steve from making any more comments, “Dad did a lot of good things. For his friends, for you, sometimes even my mom. He just couldn’t love me. Doesn’t mean he wasn’t a good man.”
And of course, Tony would feel that way, despite it all. Steve isn’t sure what he was expecting, when he gets right down to it. He had imagined Tony would be bitter, would curse his father’s name, curse Steve’s name for being so important, and the reality—the blatant acceptance of not being loved—is something that makes Steve’s hands tremble and his chest hurt.
“Your father chose not to love you,” Steve insists, wondering how they got here, how this managed to happen. Dummy and You and Butterfingers, they’re off the in the corner, and they’re chirping and whirring and Steve wants to know if they understand what’s wrong here, what’s wrong with their Tony, “Rhodey told me about your hands. Does that make him a good man?”
Tears drip over the edge of Tony’s lids – just one or two, not the dam burst that either of them were expecting, frankly. Steve watches him reach into the front of his jeans, the first pocket, and pull out a folded piece of paper. Tony grabs Steve’s hand and pushes the sheet into his palm roughly.
He unfolds it, and his chest twinges again. It’s the photo of Tony and his dad, worn and old and bent at the edges, and he can see the smile on Howard’s face and the arm tightened around his son, and it all looks so real and so normal that Steve can hardly believe that Howard was anything other than a good father. A good man.
When he looks up, Tony is swiping madly at his eyes with the heels of his hands, because he hates crying, absolutely hates it, so much in fact that he can’t remember the last time he cried in front of another person. He stops them for a little bit, a few brief seconds, and Steve puts the picture on the workbench and pulls Tony into a hug, because he needs it. They both do.
Tony smells like sandalwood and motor oil, a nice smell, a different smell, and Steve can feel Tony’s body tense up at first, assessing the situation, and then he’s hugging back, clinging to Steve like a lost child would their parent. He hazards to press his lips to Tony’s hair, gently, calmly, and Tony isn’t crying anymore, but he’s still shaking.
“Why didn’t he love me?” Steve hears, whispered into his neck, and it kills him that this is Iron Man, this is the shit-talking, egotistic billionaire Anthony Edward Stark, wrapped in his arms like the contact is all that’s keeping him together.
Steve doesn’t have an answer for him, but he pulls away and grabs Tony’s shoulders, looks him in the eyes.
“You deserve better.” He reminds him.
It takes a little while, but eventually he gets Tony into the elevator and up towards the kitchen, because even Tony needs food every now and again. They spend the rest of the day in the living room, away from the robot in the workshop, the cardboard box, and it’s a nice change. It’s peaceful. It’s real.
It’s a temporary fix, like bubble gum on a fish tank, but Steve thinks it just might hold.