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i am seeing (as if by the light of a match)

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The next time his body tells him to stay in bed, Tony is going to mute Jarvis, roll over, and do exactly that.

He had just gotten back to the lab after having had to endure three painstaking hours of a board meeting Pepper had harassed him into attending. He was tired as hell, and it wasn't even the middle of the day yet. Pepper had to find a way to ban morning meetings somehow.

When this phone call was over, Tony was going to have Jarvis set up lock down for a day or two so he could finish everything else he needed to work on without being bothered. Fuck the company gala tomorrow—he had Stark tech product designs to draft, Avengers weapons and outfits to modify, and a ton of paperwork he had to read over and then sign. Not to mention all the damage he had to fix on Mark Forty-Five from the last battle the team fought.

He just had so much work to do. If it weren’t for the fact that Fury would be on his ass so fast about it, Tony would just hang up Agent Hill right now, politeness be damned.

“I’m sorry, who appeared on the deck of the Helicarrier? Hallucinogens aren’t things SHIELD agents of your level should be playing around with.”

Agent Hill sighed tiredly in his ear. “Howard Stark, Tony. I didn’t think you knew more than one.”

“I don’t,” Tony said flatly. He could already feel the beginnings of a tension headache clustering around his temples. “But I was hoping I heard you wrong.”

He leaned back and wheeled his chair around to grab an intimidating stack of files from the table behind him. Pepper had given him The Look until Tony had promised that he would finish everything by the end of the week in exchange for playing hooky from the board meeting he was supposed to be presenting at next week.

“And you’re calling me about this… why? I know most of you think that I don’t do anything when I’m not busy saving the world, but the Helicarrier you’re currently standing on didn’t exactly build itself. Just saying.”

Tony could easily see the agent rolling her eyes in the pause that followed, which, rude. It’s not like he’d asked a stupid question, because seriously? How did she expect him to react to a phone call that began with “Howard Stark appeared on the deck of the Helicarrier”? He was pretty sure he had every right to be taken aback, considering it was his father.

“The Director thought you might want to know,” Hill said, and hah, Tony was calling bullshit on that one.

“That’s funny,” Tony said as he opened the first folder and started scanning the cover page. “A real hoot, really, but seriously, why’d you call me about this? I’m sure the both of you know how much I really don’t care about my dad, so.”

There was a pause, then another sigh, before Hill gave up all pretense and cut straight to it. “He wants you and Dr. Banner to come over and find a way to fix it,” she said.

Yeah, no. That wasn’t going to happen. “Nice sentiment, sort of, but I’m gonna have to take a raincheck on that. You know how it is with us genuis-billionaires, Hill, always busy, busy, busy. Why don’t you contact Thor’s girl? She could probably lend a hand.” In fact, Tony thought Jane Foster would be able to figure out a solution much faster than him and Bruce put together. It’s not like they were the experts on space-time-travel and shit. Tony could barely even get his head around how the hell Thor was getting from earth to Asgard, and vice-versa.

He pinched at the skin between his eyebrows to ease the pain budding there. God, his headache was getting worse by the minute.

“Already tried contacting her,” Hill replied dryly. “Her assistant said that Thor had come in last week to pick Dr. Foster up for a trip to Asgard. Apparently, she won’t be back until Friday.”

Tony rolled his eyes. Of course she won’t be. It wouldn’t be his shitty luck if the only capable person Tony could pawn this problem off to wasn’t currently traipsing around in another world.

“Besides,” Hill continued, “this isn’t a request, it’s an order. Fury’s already having Dr. Banner flown in.”

“Oh, is he now?” Tony said mockingly as he crumpled up a piece of scratch paper he’d been sketching designs on and tossed it towards the bin. He watched as it bounced off the rim and hit the floor. Fucking ace. He was seriously tempted to just throw his hands up and call it a day at this point.

“Anyone else from our little Powerpuff group you’ve called for this powwow, then? Romanov, maybe? Barton? Or Cap! I’m sure my dad would love to see him. It’s not like he’d mentioned it my entire life growing up, or anything.”

Tony may or may not sound incredibly bitter right now, but eh, what’s he going to do about it?

“The Captain’s already on his way here, actually,” Hill said, and well, okay. Tony was only kidding, but that was actually nice of her to call Steve in for some support. God knows Tony kind of needed it right now. “We thought having a familiar face would help your father calm down. Maybe ease him into the situation better.”

And there went any feelings of relief. Like Tony was ever going to hold any sort of priority over Howard fucking Stark.

Fucking figures.

Hill cleared her throat. “He, ah, seems to be quite…”

Tony felt the beginnings of old, familiar anger beginning to surface at what she was trying to imply. “Quite what?” he asked harshly. “Angry? Red in the face? Drunk? Or is it all three? Because let me tell you, the word ‘ease’ and my father have never gone well together in any sentence, agent,” he snapped. At Hill’s silence, Tony deflated immediately. He smothered the fiery ball inside him, curling it up tighter and tossing it back to where he’d buried it under years and years of Not Talking About It.

“Sorry. I mean—I’m just saying that giving him platitudes and placebos aren’t going to work. They never have. He’s volatile, not stupid.”

Hill hummed. “Fury wants you to come in, anyway. We don’t exactly have a long list of geniuses to contact when things like this happen,” she said, sounding at least a little apologetic. Tony was pretty sure that any agent assigned to deal with him is given a brief about the kinds of landmines they had to avoid stepping on during conversation. His issues about his dad were probably the first on the page, bolded and underlined several times.

His dad, who Tony had been forced to speak nicely about at the funeral, but was apparently also sitting in a room on the Helicarrier that Tony designed. Howard would probably throw himself off the landing strip if anyone told him that little tidbit.

Fine,” Tony bit out, and he hated that this was getting him agitated. It’s been decades, goddamn it. He thought he was over all of this. He’d already made peace with it.

Hill disconnected with a click and Tony leaned forward to bury his face in his hands.

He really wished he hadn’t just hit his six-month sobriety streak.

 


 

 

“You’re kidding.”

Fury stared him down. “Do I look like I’m kidding, Stark?”

Tony glared back and crossed his arms. “Do you actually want me to answer that? Because I have like fourteen different jokes lined up, eight of which are related to your eyepatch.”

Fury narrowed his eye. “Stark—”

Tony waved a hand and cut him off. “Nope. No. I did not sign up for this. I came here to send that son of a—to send Howard Stark back to his own time. I’m not going in there because not only is it going to be a waste of fucking time, but also because I don’t want to.”

“I know Howard, Tony. He won’t react well to seeing me,” Fury said sternly.

“Oh, you know him do you? And you think he’ll react better to seeing me? Me, the one thing in his life that he actually regrets creating? Are you serious? I don’t know what the hell you’ve researched about my family, but if there’s one thing you should have picked up by now, it’s that blood might be thicker than water, but alcohol does a helluva good job at diluting both. Starks are always best served on the rocks, didn’t you know?”

His breathing was getting erratic. He could feel that tight ball of fury in his chest beginning to uncurl, and he fought to keep it in check. He tensed when a hand came down to give his shoulder a gentle squeeze, but he relaxed when he turned his head and found that Steve had made his way to stand behind him.

“Director,” Steve warned quietly, giving Fury a hard look.

Fury sighed and backed down. “I thought you watched the film reel he left you, Stark. Clearly, he thought better of who you were going to become if he’d bothered to leave a message.”

Tony couldn’t help the way his jaw clenched and his shoulders tensed up again, despite the reassuring hold of Steve’s hand.

“You mean the one where he called me his ‘greatest creation’? The same exact words that he always used to describe Cap whenever he wanted to drive home a point about my shortcomings as both his son and as a Stark? Hell, even as a person in general.” He jerked a thumb at Steve, and when he glanced at him, he got a frown in return. Tony gave him a wry smile and patted at the hand still on his shoulder.

“It’s a twisted compliment, Baywatch, not an insult, don’t worry.”

“No, that’s not why I—” Steve paused to gather his thoughts, eyebrows furrowing further. “I didn’t know that Howard would ever use me as some kind of idol to compare people to, especially not a child. That wasn’t fair to you.”

Tony was… he wasn’t really sure how to respond to that. He was used to people sympathizing with Howard, having had to be the parent of someone so ‘reckless and irresponsible’, if Tony had to quote a lot of geriatric businessmen who’d met him.

Dicks.

“Yeah, well. Shit happened and he wasn’t exactly the great guy you remember him being. Besides,” Tony turned back to Fury, “that message was addressed to a Stark heir that had inherited his company and continued his legacy. He spent his entire career designing, making, and selling weapons. You think he’ll welcome me with open arms if he finds out how I’d taken his baby and pointed it in a completely different direction to undo what he’d done? Because it’ll probably be the first thing he’ll ask me about.”

“He’ll take it as a blessing once he finds out exactly how much Stark Industries has grown since you stopped weapons production,” Fury said, but Tony shook his head with a bitter laugh.

“He’ll take it like a slap to the goddamn face,” he retorted. “And if there’s another thing I know about the old man, it’s that he really hates it when I fight back.”

He could have probably worded that phrase better, but fuck it. He felt too frustrated to care about what he may or may not have implied about his relationship with Howard. But judging from the way that Steve had stiffened, clearly someone cared.

Tony couldn’t help but feel a bit of vindictive satisfaction at the tense way Steve’s jaw was set. If only Howard knew that the Captain America he’d used to bully Tony’s insecurities into existence actually disapproved of the heavy-handed, physical way he handled certain familial relations.

And apparently, Fury had also just lost his patience playing nice.

“Look, I get that you don’t want to be here right now, but the longer we spend with our heads up our asses talking in circles, the longer your father stays in this time. I want him out as much as you do, but we can’t do that until we know how he got here, and we can’t find out how he got here because he’s refusing to cooperate.” His tone brooked no argument. “Go in there, rile him up, and when things go south, you can leave so we can send someone else in. If we’re lucky, he’ll be more willing to deal with someone else by then.”

Tony had to hand it to him, it made sense. But it didn’t mean he had to fucking like it.

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to, Tony,” Steve said with a sharp look at Fury, who huffed in annoyance. He met Tony’s eyes, and Tony felt all the anger sweep right out of him at the look of concern he found there.

At this point, Tony just wanted to get it over with so that they could both just go home.

“What the hell,” Tony exhaled, rubbing a hand over his face in resignation, “it’s not like I can’t expect whatever he’s going to say, anyway. The faster we find the root of the problem, the faster we can send him—” He paused. What if fixing the situation also meant sending Howard back to fucking up Tony’s childhood? Maybe he could actually stop that from happening by keeping his dad here.

Or maybe he couldn’t. Maybe it wouldn’t make a goddamn difference. Maybe Tony would still end up screwing himself over and over again, anyway, because being a fuck-up was just all him, not Howard’s influence on him.

His throat tightened. Half a year of careful sobriety was going down the drain tonight.

“—back,” he finished quietly. He ignored the worried look Steve sent his way and left to go see a face he thought he’d never have to deal with again.

 


 

 

Well, at least Tony had prepared himself for the worst. And Fury did say to rile him up.

“You what?”

Howard Stark was exactly how Tony remembered him being, from the redness of his eyes and pristine suits, right down to the angry snarl of his mouth and the way he smelled like he’d taken an extensive bubble bath in his priceless liquor collection.

Tony snorted and shrugged, trying to keep his cool as his heart hammered away behind his ribcage. Come on, Tony. He created and owned a flying suit of armor that was outfitted with enough weapons to level a Hydra base. Howard wasn’t something to be afraid of anymore.

“I renewed the Stark legacy,” Tony repeated, slowly this time, like he was talking to a child, which only infuriated Howard more. He suppressed a flinch when his father slammed his hands on the table as he stood up. “SI’s all about clean-energy now, along with hundreds of other products dominating their respective markets. The company’s even more of a corporate giant than it was when you had been—”

Okay, that he had not expected, though considering how Howard used to react to his smart mouth, he probably should have. Tony actually forgot how fast his dad was when it came to his fists. It didn’t even register that he’d been punched until after his head had snapped violently to the side.

He’d forgotten exactly how strong Howard was, too. Jesus Christ, that fucking hurt.

Tony had been so caught off-guard that he hadn’t even moved to react before Howard was lunging across the table, fisting the front of Tony’s shirt in one large hand to drag him forward as he raised the other to deliver one, two, nope, three more hits in quick succession.

He’d drawn his fist back to deliver another blow, but before he could hit, Tony caught his fist in a tight grip. He stood up and bared his teeth, feeling a cut on his bottom lip sting with the stretch. Howard jerked his hand back, but Tony only held on tighter.

“Fucking try me,” he growled, because he wasn’t a goddamn kid who didn’t have a chance of defending himself against this man anymore. He wrenched Howard’s other hand from his shirt roughly. “You wanna go a round? See which of one us will walk out of here with broken bones this time, you fucker?”

And Tony wasn’t bluffing either. He was a goddamned Avenger. He trained and sparred with Captain fucking America, two of SHIELD’s best agents and an actual demigod, and he could hold his own against them.

He was also fucking livid.

The door opened and two agents rushed in just as Tony gave Howard a shove hard enough that the man stumbled over his chair and fell to the floor. He shrugged off the agents’ hands and smoothed out his shirt.

“It’s my company now, asshole,” Tony said coldly, because out of all the things he could ever say, he knew his ownership of the company would be what would hurt his father’s ego the most. “And I’m doing more with it than you ever will. It won’t be your name people will be remembering alongside Stark Industries once I'm finished with it. It’ll be mine.

He stood back as the agents scrambled forward to help Howard up. “I wouldn’t bother,” he told the two, and they looked up at him in confusion. “With how red his eyes are, he’s drunk enough that he’s just going to end up back on the floor. Leave him there. He can pick himself up.”

Then Tony walked out because fuck if he was going to let his father see him cry. Howard Stark never got that satisfaction right before he died, and he wasn’t going to get it now. Never again.

 


 

“Sir, Captain Rogers is at the door. He’s requesting to see you.”

Tony sighed tiredly and waved away the new armor specs he’d been working on. He watched as it spun across the room and into a corner. Steve was bound to talk to him at some point. “It’s fine, Jarv, let him in,” he said, taking a sip from his glass.

He heard the quiet hiss of air as the glass doors to the lab slid open, then the sound of Steve’s shoes against the floor.

“Tony?”

He set his elbows on the table, holding the glass up as he slowly leaned the injured side of his face against the cold surface. “Present and accounted for, handsome. What can I do for you?”

Tony felt a hand rest on his shoulder, squeezing for a moment as Steve sat himself down next to him.

“What happened? Maria told me that you’d left as soon as you’d finished your conversation with Howard. By the time Fury sent me in, he was unconscious on the floor.” Tony gave him a sidelong glance in time to see the slight look of disappointment and disgust that flashed across his face. “He smelled like he’d been drinking heavily. Did you two fight?”

“You could say that,” Tony said. He smiled wryly, exhaling as he lifted his head to face Steve fully. “But in my defense, he started it.”

Tony watched as Steve’s expression went from slightly worried to furious concern like a switch had been flipped, his sharp eyes darting over Howard’s handiwork. He gave Tony a questioning look, and at Tony’s nod, he reached a hand out to cradle the injured side of Tony’s face with a warm palm. Tony winced as a thumb brushed gently over the deepest impression of the Stark crest that Howard’s heavy-set gold ring had cut into his skin with the first punch. Tony had always hated that ring. He’d made sure it got melted down the moment Howard’s possessions had landed in his lap after he died.

“I thought we taught you how to duck a hit,” Steve murmured as he carefully prodded at the bruises that were beginning to blossom angrily across the side of Tony’s face, checking over some of the cuts that had bled sluggishly on the way back to the headquarters. Tony’s lips quirked into a small smirk as he shrugged.

“Don’t really have an excuse for that. Asshole caught me by surprise. It’s been so long that I didn’t actually think he was going to take a swing at me, especially now that we’re the same size. I always thought he only picked battles when it was guaranteed he’d win, but I guess he wasn’t as smart of a drunkard as I always thought he was. He used to seem it when I was a kid, though,” Tony said. “Then again, he used to seem like a lot of things back then. He’s not as menacing anymore, now that I can actually hit back.”

Tony noticed the way Steve’s glance slid over to the drink in his hand, his mouth turning down into a disapproving frown. He slid it towards Steve without a word, watching as the amber liquid sloshed dangerously close to the rim, the ice cubes tinkling against the sides.

“Back down to zero again, I know. Sorry. I really thought I had a hand on it this time, but I guess my Stark side’s still much stronger than the Carbonell.”

Steve huffed a breath. “It’s not you I’m mad at, Tony, so don’t apologize. None of this is your fault. I should have fought Fury more on this. You shouldn't have felt obligated to go in,” Steve said as he scooted forward and placed his other palm against the uninjured side of Tony’s face to keep him still. Tony frowned in confusion at why his head was being held in place, then realized why when Steve took the glass to press against the bruises gently and Tony couldn’t jerk away. “I should deck them both. You worked damn hard to stay sober for those six months,” he added over Tony’s quiet hiss of pain.

“I just don’t get it,” Steve said after a moment, a troubled look on his face. “Howard volunteered to fly me over enemy lines to rescue Bucky and his unit even though it wasn’t sanctioned. He was the one who gave me my shield. What happened to him?”

Tony closed his eyes, the exhaustion that he’d been keeping at bay suddenly crashing into him as he felt the ice slowly numb the biting pain into dull, steady throbs. “War,” he said simply, too tired to be witty or sarcastic. “You.”

He opened his eyes to find Steve staring at him, guilt written all over his face. Tony rolled his eyes. God , this beautiful, sensitive man. He didn’t know if he’d done something particularly wonderful in a past life, or if this was something he was going to end up paying for in the next one, to deserve Steve Rogers’ love and care and concern.

“I’m not blaming you, Steve, stop looking at me like that,” Tony said. “Dad was an inventor. A creator, like me. We end up placing a lot of… value on the things we work on, especially when they pay off big-time. I mean, I think I’d feel like shit myself if JARVIS or any of the bot-kids were destroyed and I had no way of rebuilding them again. I guess dad felt the same.” Tony huffed. “He was still a fucking dick, though. I’m not defending him. I’m just saying I sort of get it.”

Steve shook his head. “But you wouldn’t let it… let it consume you,” he said, a note of something fierce in his voice despite it being so soft. “You would never have let that turn you into a man capable of beating his own son.”

Tony wished he could agree, but there was a reason why he’d made sure a long time ago that he would never be able to have kids. The fact that he couldn’t even stay sober for more than half a year was already telling about the kind of father Tony could be, and it didn’t look good. “I don’t know,” Tony said after a pause. “I’ve thought about it for a long time, but even now, I can’t be sure. The only thing I am sure of is that it’s something I’m not willing to risk. I’m not going to put a kid through what I went through if I can help it.”

“I’ve seen you interact with Harley, Tony. You’d be a great dad,” Steve said, and Tony shrugged and looked away from the gentle look in Steve’s eyes. He didn’t want to get into this now, and thankfully, Steve took the hint and dropped it, staying quiet.

“He just… he really hated me, okay? My mom always told me that Howard was just really bad at expressing himself, but I know that he did. I could see it in the way he looked at me. Even as a kid, I understood that fathers didn’t usually look at their kids with so much… contempt in their eyes,” Tony said, letting his eyes fall shut again. “It took me most of my life to understand that Howard didn’t hate me because I was a disappointment or that I wasn’t good enough, even if that’s what he’d always told me. He hated me because he was intimidated. He had to earn his genius. Work hard for it. I inherited mine just by being born. And I don’t think he could ever forgive that.”

He heard Steve exhale quietly. “There wasn’t anything to forgive. You were just—God, Tony, you were just a kid. It wasn’t your fault.”

Tony smiled. Typical Steve, always trying to curb Tony’s self-loathing whenever he thought he could get away with it. He was like a man on a mission when it came to making Tony feel better about himself. It was endearingly ridiculous.

“I know that now,” Tony said. “I never said it made any sense.”

He opened his eyes when he felt the pressure of the glass against his face ease up, watching as Steve tilted his head back and downed everything in one swallow, before placing it back on the desk. “What?” Steve said defensively at Tony’s arched eyebrow. “If I’d thrown it away, you would have just complained about it going to waste.”

Tony chuckled. “You know me so well.”

“I would hope so.” Steve brushed a hand through Tony’s hair before he stood up, bending down to place a kiss on Tony’s forehead before straightening up again. “I’ll be back. I’m just going to go get you the first-aid kit from the bathroom and some proper ice for that,” Steve said. “And then maybe we can get Clint to make us lunch.”

“If he says no, can we order chinese and watch reality TV shows instead?” Tony waggled his eyebrows and Steve’s face scrunched up in mock-distaste, before smoothing back out into a fond smile.

“I’m going to go ahead and veto the reality TV before you get any funny ideas, but sure, sounds like a date. Oh, and can you call Bruce?” Tony raised his eyebrows at the sheepish look on Steve’s face. “I may have left him by himself with Fury and the rest of SHIELD on the Helicarrier when I came here, but he was the one who told me that I had to go check up on you because he saw you storm out.”

Tony shook his head. “Poor Bruce, I hope he hasn’t smacked any nosy agents with his tablet yet. I’ll call him.” Tony waved his hands to shoo Steve away. “Now begone! Go fetch me my ice, peasant.”

Steve laughed. “Sir, yes, sir,” he said as he leaned down to give him a quick peck, then left to do as he was told. Tony watched him go with a smile on his face, before he swivelled back to face the screen projected in front of him. He took a deep breath.

Today had been complete and utter shit, but at least tonight was looking up. Going steady with Captain America—who knew he’d ever end up here?

He snapped his fingers. “JARVIS, ring up Anger Management, let’s see how he’s doing.

“Certainly, sir.”