It's Tony's fifth birthday party, he can build and disassemble a motor in ten minutes, and he has to tilt his head back to see the man's face.
Actually, he can't see it- he's wearing a mask.
"I'm so sorry," the man is saying, and his voice is strange; modified. "I don't know how I got here, I-"
"Tony? Tony, where-" Maria Stark stops and frowns at the masked man. "Who are you? Are you running entertainment?"
The man freezes.
The man finally focuses on his face. "...Tony?"
"Are you the new butler?" Tony asks. The man doesn't look like a butler. The butlers he has are normally in suits, and the man is dressed in a t-shirt and ragged jeans.
"I don't want a new butler," Tony decides. "I like Jarvis. Mom, is he the new butler? Why is he wearing a mask? Is he here for the party?"
"I'm not the new butler," The man splutters. "I- I have to go. I'm so sorry for intruding, uh, Mrs. Stark."
"It's perfectly fine," Maria says, smiling uncertainly. "Shall I get someone to show you the d-?"
Howard appears in the doorway. "Tony, what are you doing? I told you not to touch that."
Tony pouts. "But I can fix it-"
"Don't touch it," Howard barks. "Maria, what are you and Tony doing in here? There are cameramen outside."
Maria puts a hand on Tony's shoulder and starts to say, "I was talking to this man," and turns.
Tony has his first interview when he's six years, three months and three days old.
People laugh in unison and Tony laughs with them (he's practiced, he's smiling just like he's been taught, won't his parents be proud, except not).
The light hurt his eyes but he keeps grinning, keeps talking about machinery because he knows about it, it's how he lives, but people's eyes start to glaze over so he cracks a stupid joke and there it is, people are laughing again, and he's a fast learner (won't his parents be proud, except not).
He gets home (it is his home, he doesn't believe those stupid quotes about home is where the heart is, they're dumb and he's smart), and the driver smiles at him with and he smiles back: practiced, precise, plastic.
He smiles all the way to his room, glancing in reflective surfaces as he goes. He's getting better at it, he thinks. More believable.
He opens the door to his room-
"Who are you?"
The man blinks at him. Gapes. Blinks. Gapes some more.
"Tony," the man chokes. "You're- you're Tony."
"Yeah," Tony says. "Stark. Tony Stark."
Don't forget the last name. No-one just says Tony, it's always Tony Stark, golden boy, child prodigy, kid billionare. It's important.
"I remember you," Tony says. "You're still wearing the mask. And your voice is weird. Why is it like that?"
"I don't know," the man says. "I just- how old are you?"
"Six years, three months and three days," Tony says. "How old are you?"
"Thirty-one," the man says.
Tony looks up at him. He's tall. "What's your name?"
"St- I don't, uh. I don't think I can tell you," the man says. "I'm sorry."
Tony frowns. "Why can't you tell me? It's just your name. Everyone tells me their name. What's with the mask? Where did you go last time?"
"I can't tell you," The man says.
"I'm sorry, Tony," the man says. "I just can't."
"But-" Tony trails off as the man disappears.
Tony stares into nothingness for a few seconds, calculating the numbers.
He half-runs to the door, thinking of what he's going to tell someone, before he realizes he doesn't have anyone to tell.
Tony is fourteen, wasted off his face and swaying.
He belts out the next line in Thunderstruck, spins in a circle and manages not to fall over, which he takes as a pretty good accomplishment.
He hoists the bottle higher in the air and sloshes it around, whooping loudly so it echoes in the huge, empty rooms.
The housekeeper eyes him warily from the next room over.
"What?" Tony slurs. "Y'know, alcohol's really good. Reeeeally gooooood."
The housekeeper smiles tightly (Tony's used to those, you have no idea), and walks out.
"Like I was expecting anything different," Tony shouts after her, and throws his head back to down the rest of the bottle.
Tony's senses are kind of dulled at this point, which explains the lack of surprise at the sudden appearance of his so-called-imaginary friend from when he was a kid.
"Heeeey, mysterious masked man," Tony says, throwing his arms out. "Where the hell have you been for a decade?"
"Tony," The guy says, still with that stupid mask and that stupid modified voice.
Tony laughs, loose and sloppy. "Yeah, you say that a lot. Which brings us back to the whole 'where' question. You've sort of kept me waiting for a while."
"I don't like keeping you waiting," The guy says immediately, and, okay, what?
Tony shrugs it off. "So, where have you been?"
"I'm not sure," the guy says.
"You say that a lot, too," Tony says. "And 'sorry.' You say that. A lot. Hey, y'know I had you for an imaginary friend for a few years? Only friend I had, really. The other kids were dicks."
He tips the bottle up, and frowns when he remembers that there's nothing in it. He reaches over to the table, where there's a half-empty bottle. He uncorks it, and drinks soundlessly for a few seconds before pulling back to breathe.
The guy is looking at him, and okay, Tony's a bit taken back by that, he hasn't had that look aimed at him before.
"This isn't going to make you happy," the guy says, and Tony laughs because it's funny.
"It's gonna make me the next best thing."
Tony grins: practiced, precise, plastic (wouldn't his parents be proud).
A month later, the masked man teaches Tony to drive.
"Why do I have to learn to drive, I'm a billionaire, I can just pay people to dr-"
"-fuck, I'll pay for that-"
The man just starts laughing halfway through, full-bellied laughter that bends him in half, and even though it's modified and it sounds weird, pretty soon, Tony's laughing, too.
Tony turns 15, and graduates high school top of his class.
Everyone comes to his graduation party, and Tony spends it losing his virginity with a girl who's three years older than him and likes to be spanked.
He fucks her slowly, and she leaves when they're done.
He lies in his bed and tries to feel numb again.
Two years later, Tony is seventeen and there's a guy shoving him up against a wall, which would usually be a good thing, but there are three other guys that are punching him.
One guy sinks his fist into Tony's gut, another clips him across the cheek.
Tony spits blood at the guy holding him up. A tooth comes out with it. "I can sue you all, I hope you're aware."
"This is worth it," The guy growls at him. "Teaching you and all the other fags a lesson."
"Seriously?" Tony crows around a split lip. "Out of the long list of character defects to be pissed at me about, you choose the fact that I fuck guys? I'm not even gay, I've had sex with more women than all of you put togeth-"
He's promptly cut off by a fist to the flat of his chin.
His eyes are swelling shut, but he closes them anyway, pressing himself into the wall as much as he can.
He opens them.
Hello, familiar modified voice.
The guy is yanked off of him before getting a shot in the face. One guy yells to the others before running back up the alley.
Tony slumps down the wall until his ass hits the floor, watching dumbly as the masked man knocks out the two guys with skills that he really shouldn't have.
He turns to Tony, not even panting. "Shit. How bad is it?"
"How the fuck did you learn how to do that?" Tony mumbles, wincing when- okay, when anything touches anything, because everything hurts.
The guy is bending down, but not touching. "Tony, did they break anything?"
"You're blonde," Tony says.
The guy stops. "What?"
Tony reaches forwards. "There's some hair poking out of the mask. It suits you. I think. Considering I don't know what you look like."
If Tony wasn't half out of his mind with blood loss, he'd guess that the guy would be smiling under the mask.
And then the guy's gone, and Tony's alone, like always.
Age 18, Tony punches a mirror, half-regrets it, and uses tweezers to pick out the glass embedded in his knuckles.
No-one asks about the bandage.
Tony never really expects them to.
Nineteen, and he stands at his parent's funeral and doesn't know what expression to fake.
Don't, Tony thinks, but there he is, mask and all.
Tony squints. The light hurts like hell.
"What?" He snaps, and yes, that came out as harsh as he had intended.
The guy shifts uncomfortably, but he doesn't leave. "Tony, you should eat something."
Tony frowns. "Why the fuck do you care?"
He's not standing up straight. He has a bottle in his hand. His lips are cracked.
Lips, Tony thinks. I bet his lips are nice.
He thinks about saying that, he even opens his mouth to, but he's bitter and angry and Tony fucking Stark so instead he says, "Who the fuck are you?"
"You'll find out someday," The guy says, and Tony wants to scream at him, wants to punch him, wants to get his hands on him and kick him until there's blood, something to prove he's really there.
He's 23, and he wakes up with bandaged wrists.
The guy in the mask is sitting next to him.
"Tony," He says.
He still says that a lot.
Tony grins tightly and talks, talks bullshit about whatever, keeps talking and doesn't stop when the guy tries to cut in, keeps talking and grinning and it's like there's a tornado in his head.
"Name one person that would give a shit if I died," Tony says at some point, and, fuck, he's really not paying any attention to what he's saying.
"Me," The guy says, but Tony ignores it because he doesn't mean it, and barrels onwards.
This time he disappears- he, Tony- and winds up in his bedroom in the mansion.
He gets up, straightens his tie and arranges his suit to hide the bandages.
Tony doesn't see him again until he turns 36.
"Hey," he says when he suddenly appears in his workshop. "Long time no see. Pass me that wrench, will you?"
The guy stares wordlessly for a second before complying.
Tony nods. "Thanks. Jarvis, log the-"
"Already done, sir," Jarvis cuts him off.
"Knew you were my favourite AI," Tony says. He glances to where the masked guy is standing, motionless.
"Well? Aren't you gonna say anything? I still don't know who the fuck you are yet."
For a moment, he doesn't respond. Then: "Are you okay?"
Tony actually stops working on the engine at that question.
Then the wall is back up and he's grinning across at him. "Always am. Hey, could you give me th-"
"Close your eyes," The guy says.
Tony raises his eyebrows. "Um, what?"
"Close your eyes," the guy repeats. "Please."
Tony snorts, but he closes them. "What, are there presents t-"
There are lips pressed against his mouth, and okay, that was unexpected, but they're still pushing softly and they're warm and nice and safe.
The pressure on his mouth stops, and the guy says, "Don't open your eyes yet."
Nothing happens for nine seconds, and when Tony opens his eyes, the guy is gone.
Tony's 41 and Yinsen is dead at his feet.
He's shooting missiles at the terrorists, and the suit is fucking heavy, he can barely walk in it, and there are people shooting at him.
Tony turns his head just enough to see the masked man shooting three guys in the chest.
The guy runs over to Tony, who says, "You couldn't have come three months sooner?"
"Sorry," the guy says, and, shit, Tony wasn't actually serious.
Tony hoists his arm higher. "Never mind. Let's just-"
The guy disappears.
Three months after Obie yanks the arc reactor out of his chest, he's at a gala that's supporting something he doesn't give a shit about, talking to Fury about how he doesn't want to join his boy band, or the 'Avengers,' whatever.
He doesn't have sex much anymore, and when he does, it's half-hearted fucks behind a building where he doesn't take his shirt off, quick and dirty.
A waiter taps him on the shoulder to get his attention away from Fury.
A week after meeting Captain America (who's a royal dick, if anyone cares,) he's sitting in the lounge of Stark Tower and thinking about how fucking familiar he seems, and not just from the posters.
Eight months after their first battle as The Avengers, Tony sits in the lounge, thinking about how screwed up his life has become.
Natasha, as if she can read his mind (he wouldn't put it past her) bats him on the back of his head as she passes. He pulls the finger at her back, and, without looking, she reciprocates.
Cap Steve yells at them from the kitchen to play nice, and Clint and Thor retaliate by an impromptu wrestling match that they are very, very careful not to include Bruce in.
Coulson walks in and surveys the room. He cocks an eyebrow at the wrestling Thor and Clint, sighs, and walks out.
Tony wouldn't have it any other way.
Three months after Tony turns 43, Steve kisses him, and everything falls into place.
Steve pulls back, and yes, there he is.
Tony is dazed, but he still manages: "Hey, have you ever time-travelled?"
Steve blinks. "Uh, what?"
"Never mind. Get back here." Tony drags him back in and doesn't let go.
Another three months and Dr. Doom (it's always fucking Dr. Doom, the fucking bastard)'s machine malfunctions.
"Hey," Tony says. "Put this on."
Steve frowns down at the mask Tony's holding. "Tony, what is-"
"Trust me," Tony says. "Also it has a built-in voice modifier, be careful when you p-"
Light explodes outwards and everything blacks out.
Tony wakes up (fuck) to a white ceiling (fuckfuckfuck).
He smacks his lips groggily. "Did I die?"
"Yep," A voice says from beside him. "I am God. Obey my every order."
"Fuck off, Clint," A female voice that is very definitely Natasha sighs.
Tony turns his head and is promptly mauled by lips. Again.
"Mmmph," Tony says. "Have a fun trip?"
Steve pulls back, eyes gleaming. "I was pretty much in your whole life and you never told me?"
Tony grins, and it's real, and Steve does that just by existing. "Yeah, well, you're a liar anyway."
Steve's still smiling. "About what?"
Tony rests his forehead against his. "You said you don't like to keep me waiting. I waited for a while."
"Sorry about that," Steve says against his mouth. "I was held up."
He kisses him, lightly, in a way that Tony never even found appealing until Steve.
Steve kisses him again, on the jaw. "But I'm here now."