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Climbing a Very Small Mountain

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Tony Stark never real thought about his height until he started college.  Prior to this period of time, stuck in high school with other pre-pubescent boys and girls, he never really stuck out.  He wasn’t the shortest, that was a title given to the freshmen just coming in, but he wasn’t towering over everyone like the gawky basketball players or extremely butch (possibly using steroids mixed in their PowerAde?) football players.  All in all, he was comfortable with his height and that was fine.

But then, stepping into the advanced circuitry class at MIT on the first day, knowing he’s dropping the class simply because he’s finished most of the homework assignments posted online in the past three hours, Tony is abruptly struck by how tiny he is. Well, not tiny, Anthony Edward Stark could never be classified as “tiny” in any manner, but something seemed off. As if all his fellow students have been injected with some sort of growth serum after freshman orientation and he hadn’t gotten the memo.

Even Galina, the lonely female in the electrical engineering department, was taller than him.

Granted, she was European, Tony knew this from very personal experience, but it still stings a little when he has to be the one to lean his head on her shoulder. The fond smile she shoots down at him every time he did this rubs the salt deeper into the open wound known as his pride.

He tried really hard to be disappointed when Galina had a sudden change of heart and switched majors to underwater basket weaving with a minor in interpretive dance.

Her parting comment of, “You are so cute, like a small, defenseless kitten stuck on its back“, coupled with a pat on the head informed Tony that he didn’t hide his Napoleon-complex well enough.

“Tony, you’re worrying too much about this.” His mother said in one of her rare calls between charity balls. “Height is nothing you can control. It’s in your genes. Look at your father. You’ll catch up soon.”

Tony wasn’t even close to Howard Stark’s six-foot frame, which bothered him much more than it really should, and he only reached his mother’s height of five-foot-nine on a good day when he was wearing dress shoes and she was in flats. If he was going to have a growth spurt, surely it would have happened before he turned eighteen?

In publicity photos he’s always placed between his parents, or standing slightly behind and to the side while they’re both sitting. The photographers and paparazzi say it’s so the photo will look more balanced. Tony knows what they’re really thinking when he is tugged into position, his mother placing an awkward, but comforting, hand at the small of his back.

Tony Stark is shorter than both his parents and he’s not getting taller anytime soon, so we might as well make the best of what we have. It was cute when he was nine. At nineteen it’s a little ridiculous and sad at the same time. Maybe something is stunting his growth?

He stops drinking coffee to make a point. He lasts twenty-two hours before he inhales an entire pot. Black; like his mood. Screw scientific research that might show a correlation between height and caffeine intake. It’s all bullshit.

Of course, his lack of height isn’t on his mind when his parents die. There is a sharp spike of pain he didn't think he'd have whenever he thinks that now he will never have the two taller people to bracket him when he goes into polite society. Another, much, much smaller part of him is a tiny bit happy that he can no longer be compared to his parents; be it their achievements or their height.

Tony decides drinking is a good way to avoid a lot of problems, his height being the least of them.

---

After a while the gap at his side is filled with a Ms. Pepper Potts, a super secretary angel sent from heaven who had somehow been cursed with the responsibility of making Tony seem responsible. She refuses to listen to his excuses (such as forgetting the keys to his car when everyone knew Happy chauffeured him everywhere), and had no hesitations against calling him at two in the morning because I-know-you’re-up-you-can’t-fool-me-you-don’t-sleep-and-you-need-to-sign-these-or-we-default-on-fifty-loans-and-lose-seven-patents.

Also, every Tuesday she brought in a new type of dessert from home. Tony called it bribery and surprise feeding. Pepper called it stress baking.

Either way, Tony stopped picking as many arguments due to the copious amount of calories suddenly being supplemented into his diet.

He couldn’t help but feel a little deceived, though, once he found out about Pepper’s illustrious love affair with high heels.

Instead of liking sensible heels, kitten heels, heels less than an inch in height, heels made for the elderly and infirm, Tony discovers that Pepper’s deviances leaned towards the skyscraper-in-height-heels. Heels that change her diminutive five-foot-four stature into a towering five-foot-eight, or even five-foot-nine if she was feeling particularly feisty that day.

He felt…betrayed. And no matter how amazing it was watching Pepper run in them without falling, often after him when he was trying to escape a multi-national board meeting, the heels remained to remind him of his own…short-comings. The pictures on the corporate website looked ridiculous, with the crest of Tony's hair having a passing fling with his secretary's eye level when she decided to wear her "important business" heels.

Then again, the heels were also the spark of salvation.

With a little research, and a couple hours in the lab, Tony has figured out a more subtle way of increasing his height than Pepper’s 6-inch, turquoise, python, Gucci heels. Those had been purchased as a small thank you for the carrot cake last Tuesday. It was really the cheesecake frosting that drove him to buy such an inconceivable pair of shoes, but Pepper adored them and that was all that mattered.

The next time Tony steps into public, posture ramrod perfect to maximize his small stature; he is wearing a new custom made pair of Armani loafers. Discrete, yet still screaming a five-figure price tag, no one at the event suspected they added a couple of inches to a certain billionaire playboy's height.

The two inches made all the difference in the world when he's finally able to smile down into Pepper's eyes instead of up.

---

The other gap in his life, a vacant spot to his left usually filled with an even more distant father, is occupied by his old friend Rhodey. An inch taller than Howard Stark, but a much bigger man overall, he helps Tony get through the important stuff: drinking large amounts of liquor, talking about ladies, and Iron Man.

He doesn't even mind the fact that, because Rhodey is six-foot-one, there is a five-inch difference in their heights. This turns into a steep six inches when Tony slouches a bit and Rhodey is standing at attention. When Rhodey hugs him, Tony is able to fit his head underneath the blocky chin if he leans forward just a tad. He feels completely safe for a moment, as if Rhodey has come to save him from Afghanistan again.

Tony loves Rhodey's hugs, even if they do remind him he's short. He's okay if it's Rhodey. He forces a hug every time Rhodey comes home from deployment.

Rhodey never mentions this because he is the best. It may also have to do with blackmail and Tony's strange habit of calling him 'honeybear' whenever he sees him, but Tony likes to believe Rhodey puts up with him because he's Rhodey and it's just what he does when faced with Tony.

Rhodey is the best.

Every once in a while he'll brings up the lifts, though, commenting on how Tony isn't that short and he shouldn't worry too much about it. Tony will then look up from his tinkering at the kitchen table, he liked to pretend to be a good host the first couple of hours when Rhodey visits, with a screwdriver or some other power tool clenched between his teeth. He'll shove it into his back pocket and spit out a couple of screws and nuts that were in his mouth onto the counter before stumbling into the living room, collapsing on the couch face first.

Rhodey will try to talk about the height-enhancing shoes and other topics that are out of bounds, such as his suicidal tendencies and never ending need for coffee. He is only able to safely even mention them after Tony has been working for over three days straight, hoping to trick Tony into giving them up along with other vices. It has become a signal for Tony to begin mumbling nonsense into the couch cushions and to try and squirm his way into Rhodey's lap for another hug or to convince him into handing over War Machine for unauthorized upgrades.

Rhodey takes it like a champ and has decided a long time ago that sometimes Tony just needs these little things to give him control. Lifts in his shoes. A new woman on his arm every night. Unending supplies of alcohol. Iron Man.

Of all these things, Tony loves it when he's Iron Man the best. He's five inches taller and can almost look Rhodey straight in the eye and pretend that he's half the man his friend is.

---

When Tony meets Captain America for the first time, he's prepared for the insults. Ready to field the questions about this futuristic time period. Knows the answer he should give when asked who he is. Anticipating the anger and rage that will be aimed towards him for sullying his father's name.

He stares up at blue eyes that burn ice cold like the prison Captain America had been trapped in. Tony hasn't felt this small since sixth grade when everyone started to grow and he didn't.

"No offense, but I don't play well with others." Tony's words come out flippant and ass-holey, a defense mechanism that rears its ugly head whenever someone is more than an inch taller than him. Pepper has gotten this attitude when she wears her power-woman heels.

"Big man in a suit armor. Take that away, what are you?"

"Uh, genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist?" Tony knows he is all these things, knows this is what he is, as well as he knows that Captain America will see each of these as a fatal flaw.

It hurts all the same even when he knows the outcome.

---

After the first couple of fights, things get easier. The team becomes more important than the issues between Captain America and Iron Man, and both decide to call a truce of sorts.

They don't talk to each other when outside of uniform.

Steve knows it has something to do with the armor; it has to be since Tony is borderline amicable when he's in it, but he can't figure out why. It doesn't help that he always keeps the faceplate slammed down during missions or if there is a slim chance of talking with Steve, even though the whole world knows who Iron Man is and his connection to Tony Stark.

One morning Tony stumbles into the kitchen, splattered in grease and oil with his feet covered by a pair of disgusting socks. Without looking at Steve, as per usual, he shuffles over to the coffee maker and hits a couple buttons to start the machine brewing. Slumping against the cool granite, a sigh forced its way through his body.

The rest of the Avengers tumble in through the doorway the moment the smell of coffee fills the air, or in the case of Bruce Banner they quietly walk in with the morning paper and make a possibly dangerous decision to stand next to Tony. A few seconds later he brings up the subject of polycarbon-composites thermal spraying and what they might accomplish in the next five years with skeletal implants. Tony perks up enough to answer, which means he was no longer staring at the wall in front of him with a blank and creepy stare.

Steve is about to start on the subject of Tony getting more sleep, the truce of ignoring each other doesn't sit right with him when it looks like the other man is going to keel over from sleep exhaustion, when Clint lets out a snort.

"Shit, Stark, I thought our good doctor was the shortest guy on this team, but he's got at least an inch on you." Hawkeye took a bite from his uncooked pop-tart, ignoring the begging face and grabby hands Thor was making next to him, "What are you, five-eight?"

Natasha sends Clint an intense look across the table, trying to communicate something deep and meaningful that she probably learned while working for Tony, then follows it up with a swift kick. Steve doesn't understand until he turns and sees Tony standing rigidly upright under his own manpower before 8am. No longer lounging across the counter. Not flirtatiously looking over at his teammate while blowing a kiss. Not even cracking a superior smirk and a rude hand gesture.

Tony Stark is completely alert, even though he hasn't slept in what is most likely a couple days, and stares at Clint Barton with a face so bland that it actually hurts to look at it.

Without a word he walks out the kitchen and back into the basement.

He doesn't come back upstairs for another three days, clearly in a sleep exhaustion zombie state when he shuffles across the threshold. He's now wearing a pair of expensive looking shoes that make him stand straight and lifts his heels marginally.

Tony no longer walks around his own mansion barefoot.

---

There's the screech of metal buckling and a certain dampness on his skin that he knows is blood. He doesn't know if it's his or not, the last five or so minutes of the battle a blur in his memory, but he definitely knows the feeling of blood on his skin. He's an expert on that type of thing. Personal experience and whatnot.

His arm is yanked up abruptly, repulsor ripped off by someone who has to be Thor just because of the strength and lack of tact, and cold fingers are pressed against his wrist. He tries to say something but can only choke around the liquid that is, for some reason, in his mouth. Warm and sticky and tasting of copper.

Shit.

"Tony? Tony!" An explosion in the background and the ground shifts in protest, "We have to get the rest of the suit off. I can't tell what damage he has with it on." Tony hissed through his clenched teeth when he was moved into a new position, back pressed against something unyielding and hard as another section of Iron Man was removed haphazardly.

"He’s tiny without it. You know he's just going to get more injured out of spite." Clint supplies helpfully from the background, letting out an unmanly yelp when another explosion goes off a little too close for comfort. "It's the type of thing Stark does!"

The cold hand squeezes into the gap created by the working half of the faceplate, shoving against a non-responsive panel that is no longer moving, all energy resources from the arc reactor being used to force Tony to keep breathing around a punctured lung.

Clint sprints off with Natasha, chasing behind Hulk who was going on a blind rampage against the villain who shot the missile into Iron Man's path. They're hoping to get a piece of the action, but are mostly there to keep an eye on Hulk since he could potentially turn at any moment and start ripping out telephone posts.

Thor continues his efforts of tearing off huge chunks of metal, smaller pieces being tugged at and abandoned when they're too imbedded in skin and muscle to be trifled with. The pain has turned into a white throb, only spiking when Thor grabs at a piece of shrapnel that is a little too close to an artery for comfort. Tony flinches when he thinks about armor cleanup after this mission is finished.

Head tilted up and to the side, Tony expects to be staring up at the sky or a destroyed building when he finally manages to get one eye open. He finds himself looking up into the concerned eyes of Captain America, clear blue searching his exposed face with a smile and frown battling for dominance. The smile wins when he notices Tony staring blankly at him.

He wasn't leaning against a piece of debris like he thought. He was sprawled between Captain America's legs, head tilted back against a mail-clad shoulder and arms draped over a steadier pair wrapped around his midsection. He could feel Steve take a deep breath against his back after Tony blinked slowly, stripped as he was down to his skintight black under armor.

Tony waits for something to go off in his head. To start calculating the difference in height between his head and Steve's. To feel the usual building of denial and frustration at his lack of height.

When nothing happens, Tony's fine with that.

---

"Is he okay?"

Steve jerked his head up from examining the too clean hospital floor and catches the searching gaze of the woman he assumes is Pepper Potts. He can only base his hypothesis off the numerous tales he hears Tony spin about her (they have to be fictional, nobody is that perfect), the blurry photos that show up in the newspaper whenever a scandal with Tony is published, and the tiny pixelated picture that shows up most of the time when Tony's overly-complex phone begins to ring obnoxiously. He wasn't expecting her to come to NY from LA, and in less than two hours after the accident had been aired un-tactfully on most major news stations.

This meant she must have already been en route, which makes the arrival ill-timed and leaves a sour taste in Steve’s mouth.

Her red hair is professionally pulled back into a simple ponytail, slim body clad in a tailored suit, and makeup flawless. The only thing out of place is the small indent between her waxed eyebrows and the slightly hollow look of someone who knows exactly how close a loved one came to dying.

"Captain? Is Tony okay?" She refused to look through the window that showed a view of the private room, eyes locked on the man who was the Avengers leader and was supposed to make sure Tony didn't do stupid things like this anymore.

He can't stop thinking of how small Tony was when he was pulled from the armor, passed out and limp to be loaded onto a private helicopter to be transported. Can't stop thinking of how Tony looks even smaller, if possible, swathed in white on the hospital bed after a successful, and slightly panicked, emergency surgery.

Steve gave a quiet nod; tongue plastered to the roof of his mouth, and stood up to walk the woman into the room. He didn't think Tony was comfortable working with tall people, and Pepper Potts was one of them being only a couple inches shorter than Steve. Maybe he only had a problem with his height when it was a man who was taller?

Her voice came out as a soft whisper, "Oh, Tony, you promised…" Tears shimmered, but don’t fall, in the low-grade institutional lighting when her eyes have finished their path tracing, and cataloging, everything wrong with her employer.

"Hey, Pep." Tony winced at the grating sound of his voice and against the ripple of pain that travels through his body, which causes some of the monitors to beep shrilly only to quiet after he takes a couple of quick, shallow breaths.

Instead of rushing to his side and checking if he really is okay, as Steve expected because even he has to tap down on the sudden urge to do it himself, he watches as Pepper drops her purse on the ground and slides her hand down the back of her legs to slip her heels off. Without them she is tiny, so much shorter than a few minutes beforehand, and only after they're off does she cross the remaining distance between herself and the bed in her stocking feet.

"Tony."

"You took off your heels." He mumbled, a fresh dose of pain medication making his eyes droop and a small smile twitch from beneath his goatee. "You love your heels."

"Yeah, I felt like lowering myself to your level for once." She jokes flatly with a watery smile. She sat in the hard plastic chair; hand clasping Tony's that is hooked up to an IV-drip and other tubes keeping him alive. Pepper began a soft, monologue of things she's been doing at the other branch of Stark Industries, what the doctors told her when she walked in, a new recipe she found that she wants to try out, idle gossip about the different departments in the company, the puppy one of her neighbors bought last week.

Little things that distract her mind but still allow her to rub an idle thumb against Tony's wrist to make sure his pulse is beating slow and steady.

Unable to do anything to help ease the pain choking the room, Steve suddenly feels like he is only good at few things in his life besides fighting. Smiling for the cameras at a publicity shoot while being surrounded by cancan dancers. Yelling desperately and reaching out a hand for a comrade falling to their death from a crashing plane. Helping create a team where some members are more concerned about preventing injury to their leader, while ignoring the dangers they put themselves in.

The only person left standing, towering over the other two occupants in the room, has never been faced with such a problem that left him feeling so small and helpless.