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The life and woes of Mister Anthony Edward Stark, Inventor Extraordinare

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The first time his mother makes an unpleasant face when he mentions Dummy, he lets it slide. He thinks nothing of it; he doesn’t really think it has anything to do with Dummy at all. But then she does that again and again and he starts to get worried. He doesn’t want to say anything, because, well... Because he is seven and he’s not supposed to understand her faces. But then father comes to him and tells him to stop talking about his imaginary friends in the company, because he embarrasses the family. To say that Tony is lost would be complete understatement. He doesn’t have an imaginary friend, never had. It takes him a good part of the week and lots of eavesdropping to find out that they are talking about Dummy. Like Dummy isn’t real. Only he is. Tony knows that for sure, because he knows imagining things takes much less time and effort that building them. And he spent a lot of these two on building Dummy. The least they could do is to admit he is real.

Dummy is a machine Tony built recently. He’s not overly complicated. Just some pieces of metal plates nailed together with a rather simple tumbler based mechanism inside. Tony wanted to experiment with steam, but he’s a little unsure of how it would end. He’s still young, he doesn’t fancy loosing fingers or something more important. So he sticks to the basic mechanics for now. The robot isn’t capable of doing much, but it does pass Tony tools when he asks for them and sometimes moves and makes noises as if it understands him. A little like a puppy, but made from metal. He can’t have a real puppy, his mother is allergic. It doesn’t matter much that it usually mixes up the tools it gives to Tony and sometimes pushes his newest projects to the floor in some kind of robotic jealousy pique . He’s useful in putting out fires though. Like this one time when Tony made his first array into steam machinery and the hot gas exploded in his face. His fair took fire and Dummy was the one who doused him with a bucket of water. Really, his parents should be grateful that he has it, who knows what would happen to him otherwise.

So, instead of listening to his father, Tony starts to talk about Dummy more often and more insistently. Often telling stories about how he breaks things and doesn’t want to listen to Tony at all, even though Tony created him. At first, their guests think he’s being cute, then they start to get uncomfortable and then they start to speculate if Tony isn't maybe a little touched in the head. He takes a lot of offence to that. He is a brilliant genius and not a crazy person, thank you all very much. But he doesn’t fancy being visited by one of the creepy doctors, or worse, sent to even creepier Asylum when they would make him stupid, so he stops talking about Dummy. He stops talking at all really, because he doesn’t know what to talk about if he can’t talk about his creations. Literature is stupid, and politics and economics are boring, and he is going to hire someone to do the hard stuff around the estate for him, anyway. It's not like he can’t afford it. He doesn’t really understand why his father is so Hell-bent on doing everything by himself.

He stands awkwardly in the corner at parties, not talking to anyone and trying to melt into the wallpaper. And in his free time, he locks himself in the old garden shed-turned workshop and works on perfecting Dummy. He never does work out how to make him co-operate.

~*~

Then, at one of the parties that his mother loves so much, something changes, and for the better, if he could say so himself. Count Xavier brought his son with him for the first time. Tony isn't deaf, nor is he stupid, and it's easy to hear what people say about others when no one pays attention to you, so he knew all the rumours about the boy. Apparently, he was very sickly, and either had a lot of problems with his lungs or with his head. Old Lady Baron said that his mother even wanted to send him to an Asylum, which, Tony would know is awful on lots of levels, but his father intervened and didn't let her. Tony personally thought that it was good for the kid; at least he had one parent on his side. But then, this evening was the first when little Xavier attended anything social since he was a baby and Tony was curious.

He used his powers of invisibility to slink under the tables and crawl to the place where the Count was standing with his son dutifully next to him. And he pulled on the boy's pants. Nothing happened and he was just going to go back to his usual place and sulk for the rest of the evening when the Count moved. And the boy did not. Tony waited impatiently and after few minutes, a boy who couldn't really be much younger than Tony appeared under the table next to him.

“My name's Charles. And I don't think Dummy is imaginary. I think he's ingenious.”

And that's how Tony Stark met his best friend.

~*~

Charles is pretty much the best thing, person, person thingy that ever happened to Tony. He’s even better than Dummy ‘cause he doesn’t spray him with random liquids. The least problematic being water, the most chocolate pudding, and Tony still hasn’t worked out where the stupid robot got it from.

There’s this thing where he can apparently read people minds, but Tony not only thinks it’s hilarious, he’s sure it could be used for a lot of fun and useful purposes. If only Charles stopped being so proper and moral, that is. But even if his friend doesn’t want to see if Old Martha really is sleeping with her Spanish gardener, it’s still pretty neat power. They can hide much more effectively from their parents and, if need be, communicate across the few acres separating their estates.

Tony thinks he could get used to having a real friend. Charles is nice and he’s not afraid to show his affection, which usually ends in hugs or holding hands during walks. Tony’s never been big about the whole touching issue, but he has to admit that it’s kind of nice when it’s not forced and formal. Charles makes him think people aren’t as bad as he thought they are.

He knows they are though. There are some weird exceptions like Charles, but people pretty much are mean and greedy and always think only about themselves. He doesn’t understand how his friend can be so optimistic in the face of reality. He saw the bruises on the pale wrists and on his back when they were taking a swim in the lake. Charles says they are nothing. That he just fell down the stairs. As far as Tony can tell stairs don’t have fingers. But he keeps quiet, because that’s what Charles wants of him and besides he knows better than to involve himself in the family troubles of someone else. The threat of the Asylum still hangs heavy over both of their heads. So he keeps his mouth shut for a change and if he sticks to Charles’ side a little too much and visits him a little too often, no one’s the wiser. His parents are just glad to get him out of the way.

~*~

His parents decide that it’s time for him to meet more children, and by more children they mean future business associates. Tony not only understands, he mostly approves, there’s nothing better than to have work without doing much more than talk to people, but well, he’s not exactly a people person. He knows that at eight years old he should have gotten over his dislike of people and just accepted that they’re selfish, cruel creatures, but he hasn’t and now it’s come back to bite him in the ass.

At least he’ll have Charles with him, he muses, trying to wrench his pocket watch open. He had the great idea of transforming it into a self-defence device, one that would electrocute anyone who’d get too close. Not the best idea to have while planning to attend a kinder ball, but his inspiration doesn’t listen to any timelines and neither does he. He discovered it’s much easier to stand all these boring social functions if he has someone to spend time with, even if that someone usually makes disapproving faces when Tony tries things like electrocuting people. Despite the life he has, Charles is a big softie inside. It kind of makes Tony want to bundle him up in their warmest blankets and hide him from the world so he can stay so optimistic, always. Not that he needs it, Charles knows well how ugly the world is, he just chooses to stay smiling in the face of it all. Tony kind of admires him for it. Maybe he should try doing that too. The smiling thing, not the optimistic one; someone needs to stay aware of reality here.

Looking at the suit his mother has chosen for him to wear he decides that he might as well start now. At least his smile will be one pretty thing on him this evening.

~*~

It’s all very wrong right from the start. Tony was aware that his parents aren’t exactly nobles like Charles’ parents, just very rich merchants, but he’s never given it much thought. Maybe he should, judging by the looks all these kids and their grandparents are giving him. It’s like he’s something less than them and Tony fights to keep his smile fixed on his face. Stupid, prejudiced, arrogant-

“Tony!” – He turns, feeling his smile slipping into something more genuine and glances at Charles who is wearing fondly exasperated air about him. “You can’t think about them like that.”

He raises his eyebrow and leans more comfortably against the wall.

“And why not? They don’t know what I’m thinking.”

Charles scrunches up his nose, like always when he’s not sure whether to be displeased or amused by Tony’s antics and Tony grins wider, nudging him lightly with his shoulder. The shorter boy huffs and crosses his arms, but doesn’t try to hide the answering smile growing on his face.

“It’s still not nice.”

Tony answers him with a laugh and tries to coax Charles into telling him what these people really think, but his friend is his usual tight-lipped, highly moral self so he sighs and gives up, instead pulling them both to the sweets table.

He’s almost done with packing his little plate full of cakes and chocolate when he notices a red-headed girl in a pink lacy dress coming towards him with a stormy expression on her face. He looks around just to confirm that no, there’s no one else in her path. He looks towards Charles whose eyes widen and he opens his mouth, later Tony knows that it’s in warning, when the girl finally reaches him.

And without preamble kicks him in the shin. Hard.

He bends over, clutching at his legs and biting his lips on a series of expletives he learnt from the stable boys. Charles makes this worried sound in the back of his throat he always makes when Tony gets hurt and abandons his plate to rush to his friend’s side.

“What is wrong with you?”

That’s the first. Tony never heard Charles so angry. Maybe it’s because he’s usually hurt because of his own experiments and not because of other people. Little hypocrite, he doesn’t even listen when Tony tries to be worried about his bruises. A little glance up shows that the girl now has her arms crossed and is still glowering down at Tony, as if he killed her beloved puppy. He wishes he had time to finish his electro-watch.

“He made my brother loose the races on Sunday.”

Huh. Tony vaguely remembers Sunday. His parents took him to church like every other week and he spend some time being bored, listening to the old preacher talking about one thing or the other. After the official part there was always a picnic and for once his mother insisted strangely that they attend. So they went and they made nice with all the neighbours while Tony stood and tried to stop himself from doing something inappropriate. Charles often said that Tony’s biggest problem is that he has too many ideas at once that he needs to try out right this instant and it always ends up in disaster. Tony has no basis on which to disagree.

So he stood silently and didn’t try to do anything really. Really, he was being good like never before. And then he heard some lady behind him telling someone something very ugly about his mother and maybe he didn’t have to do what he did, but no matter what kind of a mother she is, Maria Stark is his flesh and blood and no one talks about Starks that way. So he slipped the little electronic mouse he made for Charles from his sleeve and let it go in the direction of the rude lady. She shrieked and backed from it with a high-pitched yell, and then, well, Tony couldn’t really see it all coming. Or maybe he could, these things seem to follow him. The lady bumped into the gentleman with the plate of sandwiches who in turn overturned the aforementioned plate onto another lady’s bodice and when she stood up to yell at him she pushed back her chair which pushed the railing and made one of the boys running races fall down and possibly scrape his knee.

He still didn’t deserve this kick. He opened his mouth to tell the pink girl just that when someone from behind him spoke first.

“’Tasha, give it a rest. It’s not a big deal.”

The pink girl pouted and both he and Charles turned to see the boy from the races. He was blond and tall and visibly older than them. No more than two years, but still. The boy crouched down to their level and grinned.

“My name’s Clint and that’s my sister Natasha. Sorry about her. The mouse you made is superb.”

And then he produced from his pocket the mechanical mouse that Tony lost in the chaos of the picnic and stood up to the table.

“Chocolate. Wonderful.”

The girl joined him, still shooting Tony poisonous glances. Tony for his part looked at the mouse in his hand and thrust it sheepishly at Charles.

“For you?”

He got an exasperated smile and Charles helped him to his feet. Then he got a hug and was pulled to the table where Natasha was poking jellies distrustfully and Clint was stuffing his face with chocolate cake. Maybe this whole meeting people thing wasn’t as hard as he thought it would be. Yes, his leg still kind of hurt but he didn’t have to make small talk or anything silly like that.

~*~

It quickly became obvious that Clint was not going to leave Tony alone. Despite the fact that the blond was more of an athletic guy and Tony hated anything that made him pant afterwards, they did have a lot to talk about. Tony loves Charles dearly, but he doesn’t like to complain about his parents or about the amount of work he’ll have to do when he’ll take over Xavier estate so Tony doesn’t have anyone to talk about these things with. Well, he didn’t before he met Clint. It doesn’t hurt that the boy looks at everything Tony makes with obvious fascination and a glint in his eyes that says he’s planning on how to use it to pull some pranks. That’s another thing Charles never wanted to do.

They don’t get in trouble often. Well, not more often than Tony did before meeting the Barton siblings.

Natasha is another matter entirely. She looks at Tony as if she wouldn’t want anything better than to shove him in the lake and hold him under the surface until he’s blue in the face. He has nightmares about it. Clint laughs and tells him it’s his sister’s normal expression. He then proceeds to warn Tony against anything that would piss her off which is not reassuring at all. Tony’s pretty sure that if he provoked her even slightly she would find such a way to hide his body that not even Charles with his telepathy would find him.

He actually finds himself enjoying spending time with these new acquaintances.

~*~

It’s one of the warmer spring days and they’re all spending it playing and laying in the grass behind Charles’ mansion when Cain finds them. Cain is the only son of Kurt Marko, who is a business associate of Count Xavier and Tony never really liked them both doesn’t really like either of them. They’re arrogant and greedy. He’s not allowed to speak about them like this, but no one can make him not think it. Charles said to him once, that no one can make him not think anything, because Tony’s brain works like a very fast machine that even Charles sometimes has problems navigating it. Tony tries not to be as proud of that as he is, but it’s a losing battle.

Cain is tall and burly and his jacket is stretched over his arms like it’s too small. Tony heard the maid in his house say that men wear tight jackets on purpose to show off their broad shoulders, but Tony doesn’t understand what’s so great about them. They’re just shoulders. And Cain’s shoulders are ugly.

The older boy comes over to them with an unsettling smile on his face and the first thing he does is push Charles out of his way hard enough the petite boy falls. Tony jumps up from his spot on the grass and he can hear Natasha’s quick yell when the Barton siblings join him. He can already see scrapes that will surely appear on his friend’s knees and palms and he can feel his blood boil. So that’s where all these bruises come from. He thinks he should maybe do something about Cain, but his first priority is checking if Charles’ alright. He crouches next to his friend and helps him to his feet, and then almost has an aneurysm when he sees blood seeping from Charles’ nose.

He presses his handkerchief hurriedly to the boy’s face and is vaguely aware of making some comforting noises, gathering the smaller boy in his arms. Clint falls next to them soon after with visibly bruised knuckles and Tony hopes it at least left a mark even if little Xavier would never want them to hurt anyone, even if that someone was hurting him. They sit in silence for a while before he realizes Natasha isn’t with them. Then there’s a howl of pain and they all turn to its direction. Cain is lying on the ground curled in on himself, Natasha standing over him not even breathing heavily with blood on her hands and on her shoe. Tony really hopes Charles isn’t observant enough to notice. Chances of that are slim, but it never hurts to hope.

It takes them a while after Cain is gone, having run back to the mansion with his tail between his legs, to regain some tranquillity back.

“Thank you.” Charles says in a quiet voice and all three of them start. “I don’t really condone violence, but thank you for defending me.” He looks so small and pathetic that Tony doesn’t even try to squash the urge to go to him and hug him again.

“We might not always save you from harm, Charlie, but you can be sure we’re going to avenge you.”

There is a gasp behind him and he turns only to see Natasha grinning like a madwoman she is and bouncing in place.

“That’s exactly what we’re going to be guys! We’re going to be Avengers!” Tony can swear he can hear the capital letter.

Clint smiles enthusiastically and joins in his sister’s excitement, apparently loving the idea very much. Him and Charles just look at each for a minute and then they both shrug simultaneously and join their friends.

Avengers. It doesn’t sound so bad.

This is the day when Tony finds out where Charles’ bruises come from and with the help of his team manages to stop them from appearing again. This is also the day when the team known for many years as Avengers is officially established.

 

~*~

When Tony hits the magical age of ten he has a group of friends, a robot, and he can build a steam engine with gardening tools. He’s especially proud of that last one. He asks his parents for a set of real tools for mechanics for his birthday and gets a horse. Again. He’s sure they don’t even listen to him anymore when he makes a request of any kind. At least his friends try. Every one of them brings him one of these tools, having no money to buy an actual set, but wanting to make him happy anyway. It’s the best day of his life.

The week after he goes through the worst one. Since he’s all grown up now, he apparently needs a private tutor who would give him lessons on everything he needs to do and watch over him when he plays so he won’t be doing anything stupid or dangerous. This means someone living in the mansion with them and Tony hates strange people going around his house. Someone who not only will torture him with economics but also will probably ensure he doesn’t spend any time in his workshop? This is a nightmare.

It doesn’t help that the first person his parents introduce to him is a stuffy old man, who thinks it’s still okay to sniff at his employers. Just for his information, it’s not. For three very long weeks, Tony is confined to the inside of the house, reading more than he ever did in his life and having random quizzes on history, politics and economy of the country. The worst thing is he can’t even talk to his friends anymore, since Mr. Smith thinks they pollute his mind. He’s the one polluting minds, thank you very much, and he’d gladly keep it that way. And there is this thing that every time he answers a question wrong or is found spacing out, he’s hit across his knuckles with a ruler.

Fortunately, the end of tyranny comes one day when Tony is feeling sickly and unhappy, because of the sheer fact that he’s sick. He’s a complete nightmare during classes and his teacher, fed up with his antics, pulls him over his knee, pulls Tony’s trousers down and spanks him hard. The maid catches them somewhere in the middle and runs out with a yell to tell on the man to Tony’s father. Howard would probably approve of such a method of discipline if it wasn’t very badly looked upon on in the high society he tries so hard to fit in to. Smith is fired on the spot and Tony cheerfully waves him from the second story window, ignoring the pain in his backside.

The next morning it appears that Tony wasn’t just being his difficult self and he’d caught something. He lies in bed with fever and coughs often, even if after a while it hurts his throat. He doesn’t go to breakfast and everyone thinks it’s because he’s getting a lay-in now that no one looks over his shoulder to make him do stuff. Around noon, the maid comes looking for him, a little worried that he would skip lunch as well, and upon seeing him, immediately drops the linen she’s carrying and hurries to check his temperature.

He’s not really sure what happens next, because apparently his brain doesn’t like to work in high temperatures. Tony makes a note to never go on holiday to Spain or anywhere else with the huge amount of sun. The doctor comes and coos and tuts over him, talking all the while with the maid wringing her hands worriedly next to his bed. Her name is Lea, he remembers now, she always gives him extra sausage when he asks for it and plays hide-and-seek with him on rainy days. He gave her a watch he made for Christmas and she cried and hugged him. He likes her a lot.

The doctor leaves and Lea sits next to him and hugs him lightly, arranging pillows so he would be more comfortable. He tries to smile at her, but he interrupts into a fit of coughing. She hums a nice, slow melody to him and he falls asleep feeling cared for.

When he wakes up there’s a man talking with Lea by the window and they both turn to him when he announces with a groan that he’s awake.

Apparently, the man’s name is Jarvis and he’s going to be Tony’s new tutor. Jarvis runs his hand through Tony’s hair and smiles softly and Tony has a vague idea that he’s going to be better than the previous one. When the illness passes, but Tony still feels too weak to get out of bed, Jarvis permits Charles and Natasha to visit him and it makes earns him a few points in Tony’s good books. From what Tasha says Clint and a few other people around the town are sick too and doctors are worried about an epidemic. She chatters a lot and gets him caught up on everything that’s happened in the neighbourhood since he was last out. Charles just sits curled into Tony’s side and doesn’t say anything, but Tony knows that it’s because the boy was worried and doesn’t want to tell. As if Tony didn’t know already.

It turns out Jarvis is a much better tutor. He still makes Tony learn all the boring stuff, but he doesn’t expect to get a correct answer every time he asks about something. He also comes with Tony to his workshop and takes interest in everything he’s built. Tony is a little proud and then even more proud when the man compliments all his plans for the future creations also.

They are going to be good friends. Tony can just feel it.

~*~

So the thing is, Tony isn’t all that well skilled in this people thing. Despite having friends and learning how to be polite and charming to old ladies that smelled weird, he still doesn’t understand how people work and he sincerely doubts he’s going to discover it any time soon. Charles keeps repeating to him that he can’t think of people like of machines, because they’re more complicated than that, but Charles doesn’t really know how complicated a single machine can be so Tony doesn’t entirely believe him. The point is, people are strange and their relations are even stranger and Tony is too uninterested to learn all this complexity. He’d rather spend some additional time in his workshop; maybe even build Clint a new bow or something. He’ll stick to superficial contact and the polite mask of the heir to the fortune adults seem to prefer anyway.

But he still knows that what is going on here is not normal. More, it’s not completely legal. Tony should know, Jarvis often makes him read law books to make him aware of what he can and can’t do. All it teaches Tony however is what things people can know he’s doing and what things he should keep to himself and his trusted friends. He doubts that telling Jarvis so would make the man happy with him so he stays silent and continues to read boring tomes.

Anyway, the thing is, this is illegal. What his father and Viscount Rogers are doing is absolutely forbidden and shouldn’t even be possible to orchestrate. It seems however, that with Stark’s money and Roger’s influence nothing is impossible. Tony tries not to feel bitter about it, especially since they’re ruining his future. Well, he’s not entirely sure if they’re ruining it, but he does have a feeling that they’re making it extremely difficult.

He looks at the little bundle of white and blue cloth serenely playing with blocks before him and tries not to frown too hard. He’s trying to practice his ‘game face’ as Clint tends to call it, the one that he needs to use on balls and social gatherings and that needs to be polite and smiling and not showing his trues emotions. It’s really hard right now. Steven, because that’s the name of the cloth bundle, is a quiet child. Tony isn’t sure how he acted when he was two, but he sincerely doubts that he was that calm and quiet. Steven is small for his age and really freaking skinny and Tony, no matter how much he wants to leave, can’t bring himself to go out of the room or even move too suddenly in fear that the boy would fall and break everything in his body. He can claim doing many things, but he’s not going to be responsible for a child’s death. He’s only thirteen, he’s too young to go to jail.

Not to mention that the boy is supposed to be his fiancé now. Right. Tony squints and looks closer at the silent child. Sure, his eyes are kind of pretty, blue like Charles’, although a little darker and Tony finds himself liking that shade, and his hair is golden and floppy, but he’s two for God’s sake. Tony knows that two year olds shouldn’t get engaged. There are problems of consent and what not.

Tony’s family is rich, but they’re only merchants and his father thought about the ways to get them higher on a social ladder for some time now. It’s one thing to pretend to be nobility and the other to actually be. Tony just didn’t know he would be a victim of this upgrade. Him and Steven. He looks at the boy and softly pushes the wooden block he couldn’t reach toward him and is momentarily blinded by the bright smile he’s thanked with. He doesn’t think little kids should have smiles like that, it’s unfair for the rest of the populace. He muses that it’s probably why Steven is still even alive, he just flashes this big, sunny smile at people and they fall over themselves to protect him from the smallest gust of wind. Tony tries to pretend he didn’t do that even before. He’s just naturally nice person, it’s not his fault.

He wonders why the Viscount is not only agreeing to this arrangement, but even pushes it forward actively. He heard rumours that Roger’s fortune is almost non-existent by now, but he knows there should never be much faith put into these stories. It seems however that this time they were spot on. He can’t think of any other reason why the tiny Steven would have to be promised to him. His father would finally get the title for his family and the Viscount can be sure that his son’s financial future will be steady. Tony doesn’t have much interest in his father’s trade, but he knows that he will be able to control it if the need comes. He’s a genius for a reason.

Steven topples forward and before Tony even registers moving he has arms around tiny boy, preventing the boy from falling. He moves closer, tucking the bundle into his side. It’s not that he likes the kid, it’s just that it’s safer this way. He sighs and wonders how much the smiling boy will hate the stupid arrangement. He can’t imagine he would be happy to learn his father sold him not long after his birth to some stranger. Tony doesn’t have any illusions about how he would be seen in this arrangement, even if he’s not exactly guilty of anything. He’s not guilty at all to be precise. He sighs and starts playing with the blocks with Steve, silently praying to God that he doesn’t exactly believe in that it would work out somehow.

He still doubts very much it will be the case.

~*~

He gets more proof of his inept social skills at the next fair in town. It’s just, he has troubles forgetting about Steven, a little bundle of joy who just got convicted to the lifetime with Tony. He knows it’s not the easiest life one can have. His parents don’t hesitate to repeat that to him often.

But knowing and getting kneed in the balls for that are two different things.

He doesn’t really expect it to be honest. The morning is an ordinary one, with Jarvis putting him in a nice clothes and making sure his hair isn’t too wild. Tony’s pretty sure that it’s always going to be somehow wild and nothing the old man will try is going to change this fact. And Jarvis does try. He tries a lot. It’s just that nothing works. One day, Tony is going to come up with some genius invention that will comb his hair into perfection so his tutor wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore. Tony really likes Jarvis. If he wasn’t too old to know that love doesn’t really exist, he would even say he loves the man.

Then they took their best coach and driven to town when they met with Count Xavier and his wife. Charles didn’t attend, because apparently he was sick. Tony made a note to employ Clint and Natasha into checking that little fact. It wouldn’t be the first time Charles is left to tend to himself in a mansion, because his mother can’t be bothered to look after him during some sort of social gathering. Or that they let Cain alone with him and Charles really is sick, only not natural sick and then Tony wants to know even more since they did promise the big oaf they would hurt him really hard if he even lay a finger on little Xavier again. Natasha is especially vicious with that little knife she always stashes in her dress somewhere. Tony doesn’t even want to wonder where she does keep it, he’s pretty sure she’d know he thought of it and would kick him in the shin again. Or something worse.

But back to the topic at hand, meaning Tony being socially awkward. He ditched his parents early on to some other stuffy people talking about coffee prices and city fashion or something other stupid topics and dragged Jarvis to the stall with caramel apples. He loved these things and it wasn’t often he had an occasion to have one. Only on fairs like that and they didn’t happen often. He held the red apple covered in a hot sauce almost reverently, unsure if he should bite into it first or maybe lick at the hot caramel and stubbornly ignored Jarvis’ fond chuckles. This was his treat for doing well in his lessons and he has to admit that if he was promised this every time he did good on a test, he would have the best grades in a history of grades.

And then he was jostled and his beautiful, tasty sweet fell down in the mud. He stood motionless looking at his feet when his prize was laying and he felt something stinging his eyes. That was completely unfair. He worked hard to get it and his father will not allow for another even if Tony promises to pay for it himself. It was one in a time treat and now it lays dirtied and inedible in the dirt at his feet and it’s not fair.

He swirls around with an angry expression and comes face to face with a little girl, maybe ten years old, with short brown hair and big blue eyes. She looks horrified and stammers apologies at him, but it doesn’t matter. Who cares if she feels bad about running into him, it doesn’t bring his apple back. He takes a deep breath, points his fingers at the girl’s chest and hisses some few unsavory words about her. He’s lucky Jarvis doesn’t have as good a hearing as he sometimes claims to have or he’d be surely punished. He’s also very happy at the moment that Charles isn’t there or the wasted apple wouldn’t be the only thing laying in the mud right now. His best friend hates it when Tony uses words he learnt from Clint.

The girl pales and then starts crying and Tony thinks that maybe it should make him feel worse than he does. But then some older girl, similar to the first one if it wasn’t for the long blond hair, runs over to them and seeing the younger one’s tears unceremoniously kicks tony in the crotch. And it hurts.

A lot.

He yells in pain and bends in half and then there’s Jarvis and some other adults who are the girls’ parents, Tony presumes, and a lot of arguments. Jarvis stands up for him even though he made the little one cry and Tony can feel something swelling in his chest. None of the adults have ever stood up for him before. In a show of childishness unheard of him, he hugs Jarvis across his middle and hides his face in the man’s side, trying very hard not to cry. There is sudden silence and then Jarvis is hugging him back and exchanges some silent words with other adults. The blond girl is tugging at Tony’s sleeve and he reluctantly turns his head to her.

“I’m sorry.” She says and Tony sniffles in confusion. That doesn’t happen often either. “My name is Carol and this is my little cousin Jan.” She gestures at the little girl who gives him a small smile despite him being intensely rude to him earlier. “Sorry for kicking you. I’m a little protective over her.” She smiles lightly and Tony can’t help but smile back. He knows how it feels to protect someone dear to him.

He frees one of his hands and shakes hers, only a little smaller one, vigorously.

“I’m Tony. It’s a pleasure to meet you. You have some good characteristics of an Avenger.”

She gives him a puzzled look and Jan giggles behind her.

“I heard about it from Natasha” the little girl says and Tony looks at her in a new light. A friend of Natasha can’t be as innocent as she looks. “I’ll tell you all about it at home.”

They say goodbye soon after, having a small chat in the meantime and being polite to adults.

Jarvis buys him another apple with a promise not to tell father and Carol and Jan show up on the next Avengers meeting. Tony writes off the day as a complete success. Even if he walked funny for the rest of the day.

Chapter Text

Obadiah Stane is a man of considerable height and bulk. Tony thinks that if he met him somewhere else, like on the marketplace, he would even be scared of him a little. Tony isn’t scared of many things, but there’s just something unsettling in the man’s smile. He saw a lot of fake smiles in his fifteen year old life, but this one reminds him of Kurt Marko’s somehow. There’s some… malice, for the lack of better word, hiding behind it. It’s throwing him off. But father calls the man his friend and apparently Mister Stane is one of the main merchants doing business with father. Tony heard them laughing that if it wasn’t for Tony, they would probably write the whole estate down for this man.

It’s even more unsettling that the frozen smile and Tony tries to keep away, and not be alone with the man in the room from now on, but it proves to be nearly impossible. It’s as if Mister Stane, please call me Obi, is seeking him out on purpose. It kind of unnerves Tony. Unfortunately, Jarvis said that he cannot spend all his time hiding in the kitchens or his workshop or his parents are going to notice and ban him from entering either of the places. That is not a good thought to have.

Against his first instincts, Tony finds himself spending more and more time with the older man, and to his surprise it’s not unpleasant. He’s not really sure what he was afraid of, but Obi is really nice and even stands on his side sometimes, when he has a row with his parents. It’s like having a nice uncle that you can count on. Even more so than in Jarvis’ case, as Obi is from the same social circle as Howard and Martha, so they actually listen to him sometimes. Tony can’t believe he missed out on someone so great for all the years he didn’t know Obi.

Charles doesn’t actually share his opinion, but it’s not a surprise. Despite the outward appearances, his friend doesn’t really trust many people. He tends to respect privacy of mind of others, but he can’t help but skim over the surface thoughts, and these usually reflect the character of the person. Tony’s pretty sure that the word Charles used to describe Obi was sleazy. He remembers, because he couldn’t stop laughing for good five minutes after that. It’s just the sort of language that Charles doesn’t use. Or doesn’t unless trying to persuade Tony of something silly. There’s no way someone so nice like Obi could be anything else than Tony’s good uncle. It rankles a little that most of the Avengers share Charles’ opinion instead of his. After all, he’s the one who actually talks and meets with the man. The only one who stands on his side is Jan, who also had to meet Obi, as her family is doing business with him too. But, Tony muses, it’s nothing, they’ll all eventually see.

~*~

It’s two months after Tony’s sixteenth birthday that Jarvis falls sick. And not a little sick when he’s okay the next day or even two days after. No, he falls seriously sick, and even doctors aren’t sure how to help him. The old man is smiling, lying in his bed, telling Tony that it’s just the way of life. When you’re old, you fall sick and you die eventually, there’s nothing special about him. Only he doesn’t understand that there is something very special in his person, at least for Tony.

Jarvis is the first person who really took care of Tony. The Avengers are one thing, they’re old friends, but they’re not adults. Sometimes there’s just nothing they can do for each other, but be there. It was different with Jarvis. He was a friend, but more important, he was an adult and a protector. The first one Tony has ever had. It hurts that now he’s going to lose it. He can’t really focus on his studies and with help of Uncle Obi he managed to persuade his parents to give him some free time, so he can be there for Jarvis in his last moments of life. He doesn’t like to think of it like that. In his free moments, he goes to the workshop and tries to invent something that would help his old friend. It’s the only time technology ever disappointed him. No matter how many plans he draws, how many tumblers he connects, how many steam pipes he creates, it’s not enough to keep his oldest friend alive.

Jarvis dies in his sleep one night, while Tony is sitting in the armchair next to him, dozing off, exhausted with his work and crying. When he wakes up, the older man is already gone. At the memorial Charles tells him that at least he didn’t leave while feeling alone. Tony doesn’t understand how that is supposed to make him feel better. Maybe Jarvis wasn’t alone when he was dying, but he left his family while doing so.

He’s not proud of the period of time that follows his friend’s death. He starts to ignore any attempt of his friends to get to him and finds himself accepting Obi’s invitations to London more and more often. The city is a fun place, with lots of nooks and crannies that offer forgetting for just a small price. The alcohol in pubs and bars of the lower city isn’t of course as luxurious as the scotch or whisky he could have had at the mansion, but the thrill of doing something forbidden, something dangerous more than makes up for it. Somewhere along the line, Tony realizes that he’s doing things that Jarvis would disapprove of, but he doesn’t really know why. He’s just so angry for being left alone. Maybe it’s some kind of twisted revenge. Even if the old man isn’t going to be there to see it.

Not long after alcohol stops being enough. The buzz is nice and the fog on his memory after the night of drinking is very welcome, but after a while it doesn’t numb him as much as it did at the start. He doesn’t need Obi anymore to get to the city, so he starts looking for more thrills, something not only Jarvis would scoff at. Whores seem to be the obvious answer. A little gold and he’s free to explore the soft bodies, lets himself forget about everything between one moan of the girl and the other. When he dips between long legs to taste the woman’s flesh, he doesn’t think of anything, but of the present. It works for a while.

The notification of Count and Countess Xavier’s death comes one morning after one of the many trips to London and Tony isn’t in the mood for any of the bad news. It’s not like they were good people anyway. He thinks about going to Charles, checking if he’s okay, but he promised Jasmine he’d come back to the city, and besides, it’s not like the man has a shortage of friends, he doesn’t need Tony. And Tony doesn’t need any of them. So he writes a note, saying how sorry he is and confirming his attendance at the memorial and leaves the mansion. He hopes Charles will enjoy taking care of all his grounds and money, now that there’s no one forbidding him from spending it all on books and parties.

It’s Jasmine that takes his hand one evening and leads him to the shady pub at the outskirts of London. He’s pretty sure no one of his social standing should be there, but she assures him that it’s alright, as long as he’s with her, there’s nothing to worry about. He believes her. When he’s pushes into the middle of the fight ring and only the years of physical training with Natasha and Clint ensure that he ducks in time to avoid the meaty fist to the face, he curses the woman and all her ancestors too for good measure. The big guy who’s apparently a champion, is seemingly baffled at the lack of fresh blood on his knuckles and the pause gives Tony enough time to procure some kind of a plan. The escape is out of the question, the crowd wouldn’t let him. His only option is to fight. So he gives it all he has, all the moves Natasha taught him and tactical traps Carol came up with during their play time. All else is sheer luck.

He’s not sure how he ends up getting away with only scrapes knuckles and bruised ribs, but he does. He staggers to the closest pub and tries to drown himself in the copious amount of beer that tastes more like piss than anything else. He was wrong. He always needed them, he probably always will, and now he pushed them all away. He’s not going to stop coming to this place, it gives him the freedom and escape from thoughts plaguing him always like nothing ever did, but maybe he should finally start getting his life under some semblance of control. When, in the morning, the new housekeeper, Virginia Potts comes in the carriage to pick him up he doesn’t fight. He lets himself be manhandled into the seat and closes his eyes against the unforgiving glare of the sun. He’s ready to go back.

~*~

The first thing Tony notices when he comes through the door is smell. It permeates everything, curling together with the heavy clouds of smoke around the furniture and flying to the high ceiling. People are laying on various couches and pillows, sometimes on the floor with various expressions of despair and blankness. This place gives him chills, he wants to turn on his heel and get as far away from here as possible. Don’t take him wrong, he has his own little escapes, bars and pubs of the lower London, alcohol, whores and ring battles, but this… This is something else entirely. These people aren’t even alive anymore, their bodies just haven’t caught up with the knowledge yet.

He swallows hard and heaves at the taste it creates in his mouth. He needs to find Charles and he needs to find him soon. He just hopes it’s not too late for his friend. They were all a little neglectful lately of each other, everyone buried under their own problems, but he cannot believe he lost sight of his best friend so much that he let something like this happen. Especially in a wake of Xavier’s memorial. He remembers glancing at the solemn figure of Charles, standing next to the grave of his parents, wearing his best suit and not shedding a tear. He was swaying, his hair had been unkempt and his eyes were red-rimmed. Only now, with the knowledge he possesses, he knows what kind of signs these were. Back then he just wrote it all down as a grief. He’s been a really bad friend.

He sweeps one more curtain aside and steps into the next room, this one filled with women in different states of undress, clearly designed to give a pleasure of different kind to customers who wish for it. They all have sunken eyes and Tony cringes when he realizes that he actually can see their bones through their paper thin skin. He passes the room quickly, not even making eye-contact with women. He can’t save them all, or any of them really.

He’s in a corridor and the air gets heavier with every step he’s taking. He’s afraid that if he spends a little more time in this place, he’s going to get high on the damn opium himself. He fancied experimenting with the stuff once, but never in such circumstances. He can’t lose focus, he must find Charles. He knows what happen to people who overdose on the smelly smoke, they just get tossed behind the building and forgotten. He’s not going to let his best friend end like that.

His head is swimming and he bumps into someone. He raises his eyes and there is a man, young, probably not older than Tony himself. His clothes are too big and his hair is too greasy, but he has a pair of intelligent brown eyes. The man studies him and helps him to the wall so he can support himself.

“You don’t look like you’re here for pleasure, my friend.”

Tony really wants to laugh at this, but he’s afraid of opening his mouth and actually inhaling any of this poisonous smoke without any filters. He coughs and hides his lips in a kerchief, speaking through it.

“I’m not. I’m looking for someone. Kind of short, pricy clothes, brown curls, blue eyes. Ring any bells?”

The man looks at him oddly and shrugs.

“Does your friend think he can read people’s minds? Because if so, I can take you to him.”

He’s so relieved he could weep with it. But instead he nods weakly and follows the man, Bruce he says his name is, to the little room at the very back of this ‘institution’ when Charles is laying, half conscious, on some kind of bed. Tony swallows back a sob and shakes his friend by the shoulders, trying to wake him up. Charles opens his eyes lazily and looks up as if he doesn’t recognize the figure leaning over him, and Tony wouldn’t be surprised if that was indeed a case. He doesn’t know how much opium his friend already smoked, but it was clearly enough to put him almost completely out of commission.

“Don’t worry, I wouldn’t let him die.” Bruce says. “I’m a doctor.”

As the man is a doctor Tony appeals to his higher morality and employs him to help get Charles out of this cursed place. Apparently there are door to outside just next to the little room and Tony curses himself for not knowing it. It would be much easier to come inside through here than walking all the way through the den. Bruce helps him readily and even tags along to the mansion to ensure that Charles won’t die somewhere along the way. Tony knows that he probably should send a message to everyone else that he found their lost team member and that they can stop looking in other dens, but he’s so worried it doesn’t occur to him before him and Bruce are already carrying semi-conscious Xavier up the stairs to one of Stark’s guest rooms. And then Pepper can take care of it.

The days that follow are like something taken straight to some kind of nightmare that Tony doesn’t remember having even as a kid. He’s so very afraid of losing Charles that he hardly eats or sleeps himself. His body is used to it, considering the crazy hours he sometimes puts in his workshops, but it doesn’t stop Miss Potts from berating him every time she catches him sitting on a chair outside Charles’ door. Bruce stayed. As an effect of Tony’s begging or the promise of steady employment, Tony doesn’t particularly care. What matters is that he is inside that room and tends to Charles during his withdrawal and nurses him slowly back to health.

Tony just hopes his parents won’t notice long enough that he won’t have to get Charles back to the Xavier Mansion. He doesn’t think his friend would take well to being alone again.

~*~

Tony doesn’t expect to meet any lawyers before his eighteenth birthday. His father was very careful into letting him know that until he’s at least mature in age, if not in mind, really as if Tony was some kind of an overgrown child, he’s not going to be lawful heir of the business. The mansion, the grounds, the fortune, sure, but not the actual source of all their riches. It’s not like he minded, he’s not really bouncing from enthusiasm in thinking he’d have to take care of it sooner than later. So, when Mr. Blackwood, the family’s lawyer, comes to him all two weeks before actual date, he’s more than perplexed. He can sniff something fishy going on from a mile long, but it’s not like he can just say that he’s not going to sign the papers. He’s going to get it all sooner than later and if his father has some weird reason to push it almost half a month, there must be some important reason. At least, he hopes there is.

The pageboy with the news about the accident of his parent’s carriage comes only three days later. He’s left standing frozen, shocked to the core, while around him maids erupt in hysterical sobs. One would think they cared so much about the mistress and mister. Just for this, Tony fires them all. It’s only a moment, before Pepper comes sweeping in and doing damage control. She’s a strong woman and maybe, Tony muses, in some kind of other world he would even be in love with her, maybe even married to her. She rehires everyone and before he can even utter a word of protest, she shepherds him into the study – his father’s study, only not anymore, because his father is dead – and pours him a glass of whisky. Bruce comes in after only few minutes and after sharing a look with Pepper, tries to engage Tony in some kind of scientific conversation.

He blinks, realizing what they are trying to do. They think he’s going to grieve. They think he’s going to miss people who never gave him an hour of their day if it didn’t suit their goals. He hasn’t even known that people all that well. His only worry now is that he has to take care of the business. God, he hates paperwork, he should relegate that to Pepper too. She can be his assistant or something. Only after he realizes that Bruce is repeating to him to breathe and Pepper is waving some kind of rug in front of his face, does he notices that he’s laughing. He also doubts the wetness on his face is from alcohol, but one can hope. Fuck, what the fuck is he going to do?

It seems to him after few weeks of getting into the rhythm of assuring everyone he’s okay and dealing with the boring side of merchant business, that it’s not as hard as he thought it would be. Pepper does help with paperwork, despairing over his handwriting and being completely unmoved by the explanations that it’s because he’s a genius used to scratching quick notes on the scrapes of paper. Bruce helps him in the workshop so he can still do his experiments, but doesn’t have to worry about something exploding when he has to leave it. The man is surprisingly invaluable addition to the household and in the recess of his brain, Tony thanks Charles for getting addicted to Opium, if only because he wouldn’t get the doctor if not for that. He doesn’t voice it, but his friend still kicks him in the shin after he thinks it too loudly in his presence. He guesses he kind of deserved that. The point is, he’s not as bad in this as he thought he would. Having friends all across the business world, doesn’t hurt either.

~*~

When Tony opens his eyes he doesn’t know where he is. Or any inclination of what time it could be or who is with him in the ruined house. Because he’s sure there is someone here. He can hear whispers behind the heavy wooden door and there are shadows hiding in the corner of the room he’s in that move. He’s not ashamed to say that he’s terrified. He’s never before been in a situation like this and it feels him with dread, knowing that someone just took him and have who knows what plans for him.

The flash of a camera blinds him for a moment and there’s a silky voice saying “Cela devrait être assez preuve, nous arriverons à notre rançon.”[1]

Ah. So that’s what it was about. Ransom. Only Tony doesn’t know who would pay a ransom for him seeing as he doesn’t have any family left. Unless you counted Avengers, but only handful of people knew about their little group. His engagement with young Viscount is a hidden thing also, so it can’t be that. Pepper and Obie both aren’t permitted to access family funds without his permission and he can’t give it while being kidnapped. Damn French and their faulty logic. There’s no one available to pay the ransom for him. He’s going to die.

Which reminds him about how he got here and he glances down onto his chest. His white shirt isn’t really white anymore and his chest is tightly bandaged. Even with it he can see crimson red seeping through. He swallows and realizes that he probably still has a piece of his engine in him. That is not good. If no one will take it out soon, he’s most assuredly going to die. He doesn’t expect these kidnappers to know that and he can feel something squeezing in his chest at the knowledge that he’s not going to leave that place. He could take it out himself, but he’s pretty sure they’re not going to untie him only because he asks nicely.

He hangs his head and refuses to give into the urge to cry. He can’t show such a blatant weakness right now. Even if his fate doesn’t look too bright right now. He recalls Charles’ sunny face and how he keeps saying that there is always hope in even the direst situation. Tony would like his friend to see any hope in this situation. But this is something he can work with. If he only lets himself hope than he’s not going to surrender to dark thoughts swirling around his head and maybe there will be some chance of him surviving. There has to be. He has a lot of things to do back home.

He faints from blood loss a little time after that, before he even have a chance to see his captors.

 

The next time he regains consciousness he’s laying on a wooden table and someone is leaning over him. He’s pretty sure he doesn’t know that someone.

“Hello, Tony. I’m Dr. Yinsen. I’m your co-prisoner and I just saved your life.”

It takes him few minutes, of which he’s not particularly proud, to get that the man is talking about a hole in his chest. He looks down and sure, his shirt is gone and the bandages look clean. The pain is mostly absent, but he thinks this is fault of some kind of anaesthesia. The man did say he’s a doctor so he probably knows how to knock someone out. Tony’s just glad he’s not dying from the blood loss and a scrap of metal in his chest.

He and Doctor quickly find their own little routine and it’s a small comfort for someone who doesn’t know if they’ll ever see sun again. But Tony thinks that it’s a small price to pay for living at all. His wound is slowly healing and he gives out a relieved breath when he realizes the metal wasn’t inside of him for long enough to cause poisoning or infection. He doesn’t think that even someone as talented and intelligent as Doctor Yinsen could do something about it without proper medical equipment.

He still cringes at the thought that the man took out the piece of engine from his chest using a fork and a butter knife. Who knows how dangerous a surgery like that can be. He tends to not think about it too hard, least he gets nauseous again. They can’t afford to waste food and water like this. They don’t get much food at all. Then, one day they get a visit from their captors.

The group of men is dressed in French army uniforms that seen the better days and Tony suspects that these are deserters from Napoleon’s army. They probably want some quick money so they can escape to America or somewhere else when they wouldn’t be prosecuted for running away from their duty. His theory is dissipated however when they speak.

“Nous voulons que vous nous construire des armes. Donc nous pouvons enfin gagner la guerre et ramener notre Napoléon Seigneur à sa place qui lui revient. “[2]

Damn. This is even worse. Tony doesn’t know how they found out about his talents in creating something stronger than is on the market, but he’s pretty sure that the answer he gave to the British military won’t fly with these guys. They probably don’t care that he doesn’t build weapons. He swallows and answers in French, thanking in his mind to every tutor he ever had that pushed him into learning stupid language.

“Je suis désolé, Messieurs, mais je crains aucun de mes travaux comprend la construction d'armes. Il n'est pas mon domaine de spécialisation. “[3]

He gets a riffle to the chest for his trouble and falls to the floor with a breathless shout. He’s pretty sure the arsehole who hit him just opened his damn wound.

“Nous avons vous un médecin afin que vous ne mourrez pas. Maintenant vous nous construire armes. Ou vous allez mourir. C'est votre choix. ” [4]

When they put it like that, there’s not much choice really. Tony wishes that someone would finally find him.

 

He spends the first day laying on his table, which he adapted as his bed, giving older man the couch as a place to sleep. He needs the wound on his chest to stop bleeding again if he wants to do anything and he needs to think about his situation. There is no way he can build these people some super weapons. For one, he has no idea how to build a weapon and maybe he could figure it out if he tried, he doesn’t want to. His best friend almost cries at the sight of a hunting rifle. He probably would get into weapon industry when he was younger and spend too much time with Clint, but only a thought of Charles’ face if he contributed to the death of anyone was enough to stop him from that.

He can’t start now. Especially since it would contribute to French killing his countrymen. But then his other choices are death, being found by someone or somehow getting away. The first is absolutely unthinkable and he crosses it out just after thinking about it for the first time. The second is possible, but seeing as no one found him yet despite his group of friends having telepath and some scary people in their midst, not very probable. That leaves him the last option.

He needs to escape somehow. The question is only “How?”

 

The answer is presented to him by the good Doctor the next morning. At least he thinks it’s morning. It’s hard to tell when there are no windows in the room. Yinsen tells him that their captors probably never seen a weapon build so Tony has basically freedom for doing whatever he wants. That means he’s free to make something that instead of contributing to the war will get them back home and out of trouble. At least out of this trouble.

Soldiers bring them all kinds of old weapons and scraped metal and Tony even gets a toolbox. He misses his special tools from his workshops, but he supposes he can work with the basics. Even if it was a long time since he has last time. He draws plans and then redraws them and then throws them away entirely. And then his eyes fall on the rusty gauntlet, probably a part of some old suit of armour, and suddenly the idea strikes him.

He needs a lot of help and he’s beyond grateful for the help the Doctor provides him. The project is coming slowly and especially insides require a lot of delicate work. He builds a little steam engine that will work as a heart of the project and makes a note in the corner of his brain to research various liquids when he gets out of here. Maybe he’ll be able to find something that would sustain it for longer periods of time than water can. He needs also quite a mass of tumblers and by the end of the week both his and Doctor’s hands are full of little burns from making them.

Before they finally finish they barricade the door and assemble something that if one was generous enough could be called armour. When the soldier on duty fails to open the door to deliver their daily meal, it starts. The alarm sounds and Tony curses, having been hoping for a little more time. It won’t be long before they force the door open and if their project isn’t ready, then they’re just going to die. Possibly leaving one of the greatest weapons seen in hands of Frenchmen. With Tony’s corpse inside, but still. He just needs a few more minutes for the water to starts boiling. Just a few more minutes.

He recalls that he should have expected that the door wouldn’t last long, considering it age, but he wished it’d be strong enough to take more than two hits of whatever their captors tried to open it with. After the first time, Doctor shoots him a look and picks up one of the old guns they got to build the better weapon with. Tony’s blood runs cold, but before he can even voice his protest, the old wood breaks and the men load their rifles, ready to shoot at them. Before they can do that Yinsen opens fire on them and they clearly didn’t expect any counter-fight as they duck quickly into closest rooms. The Doctor foolishly ran out shooting blindly and yelling, and Tony cursed, wishing the water to boil faster.

Then it’s finally ready and he suddenly can move, but it’s not before he hears the sound of the rifle going off and the body hitting the floor. He closed his eyes tight and counts to ten, hoping somewhat silly that he’s not going to see his saviour’s body crumpled in the corridor. He runs out of the door and shoots at everyone he can see, quickly clearing off the area. Yinsen is lying at the corner of the next corridor, blood seeping from his chest and Tony falls to his knees with something that he refuses to admit is a sob. He raises the face plate of the armour and rolls the Doctor onto his back. He’s already dead and Tony tries not to think about the man’s family waiting for him in London.

Getting out of the house after that is easier than a walk in the park. He needs to ditch the falling apart armour somewhere near the riverbank, but from there it’s a short walk to the closest town. Before he can make the journey though, he’s apprehended by Clint on horseback and he doesn’t even try to stop himself from making a Knight in a Shining Armour joke. Even though it’s not as funny as when it was in his head. Barton just shakes his head at him and helps him to get on the horse. And if his friend is squeezing him maybe a little too tight, none of them mentions it.

He spends a week in bed, plagued by fever. His wound got infected during his escape and the fact he hasn’t eaten solid meal in days probably didn’t help any. He thanks the heavens for he doesn’t know which time for Bruce’s presence in his home. At least they don’t have to explain anything to some nosy professionals. It’s only after he’s finally on his own feet again and almost all his friends don’t hover all that much that he gets to see the outfall of what happened to him. He says almost, because he doesn’t think anything in the world could make Charles not hover for at least few months now. Pepper isn’t any better, she’s just being more subtle.

He reads the article in the newspaper talking about the den of Frenchmen soldiers found on the outskirts of London and of poor Doctor Yinsen who apparently was their captive. Not a word about Tony. He’s pretty sure that’s due to Jan’s influence on press only. The part that really gets him though is the passage that says of Doctor’s wife and two children who died only a year before from scarlet fever. He can suddenly understand Yinsen’s actions a little more, but it doesn’t diminish a pain of losing a friend like him.

It’s only when the first of the month passes without Obadiah’s presence checking if Tony filled the books that he thinks to ask about the man. Charles gets red in the face and looks as if he’s a mini steam machine, which would be funny if he didn’t look like he was going to overheat at any minute. Pepper is suddenly more vicious about opening chestnuts than she was just a minute ago and Bruce gets as stiff in the spine as he did when Tony made a joke about his temper problems. Clint stretches and says that the guy was behind the whole kidnapping and Natasha pauses polishing her gun just to give him a scary smirk and cock the pistol at him. He’s really, really happy that he’s on the good side of these people.

~*~

He gets the letter about the Viscount’s demise on the eve of the Summer Solstice. He remembers it vividly as he was in the middle of arguing with Pepper about the danger of making a bonfire in the gardens. Of course there was a strong possibility of something catching on fire, but it’s not like no one will look after it, and they deserved the fun after the stress of the last months. She was unmoved, and countered with an argument that once they all got enough whisky in them, they will think igniting the rose bushes is the best idea ever. He doesn’t really have a come back to that so he’s insanely grateful for the presence of the messenger. Of course, until he actually hears the news.

The Viscountess is requesting his presence at the Roger’s Manor as not only some kind of buffer when she finally breaks the awful news to her only son, but also so they can look into the marriage agreement and see if there’s a possibility of breaking it. Tony would feel offended, if he wasn’t on the woman’s side on the issue, seeing as he’s not only a complete stranger to the now eleven boy, but also much older than him man. He kind of feels like a complete pervert every time he remembers about his future nuptials. Maybe the feeling will pass when Steven will actually resemble a man and not a tiny, little boy.

He muses that breaking the news of his engagement to the little guy, together with the information about his father’s death might seem a little cruel, but he can’t help but think that it might be good too. Having two issues to focus on, Steven won’t have a time to think about any of them closer than is needed. So he packs a bag and bullies Charles into accompanying him, his friend having nothing to do lately but mope around his estate. They should find him some permanent company soon or he’s going to bore himself to death. Tony’s not even sure if it’s possible, but he supposes that if someone would be able to achieve it, it would be Charles.

 

They arrive in the evening and are informed by the very impersonal maid that the lady is awaiting them in the foyer. The Viscountess looks haggard, and Tony muses, that this is must be how someone grieving after the loved one looks like. He’s never actually seen this kind of grief before. He wonders if one of his parents lived through the accident four years ago, they would look like that. Probably not. Their bags are taken to the guest’s quarters on the second floor and they are invited to accompany her to the study. They share a drink and Tony voices his genuine condolences over Vicount’s death. He might have signed a deal that makes Tony’s life a little difficult, but he was good and honest man. He just wanted to ensure that his family would be safe no matter what.

He supposes really, that now that the Viscount is death, it falls to him to really take care of this family. As a betrothed of a Roger’s heir and the oldest man in the line. No one asks it of him though, and he won’t offer. The Viscountess reminds him a little of Pepper, in that she is a confident woman. An offer like that wouldn’t probably be accepted warmly. She can take care of everyone for now.

The problem is, no matter how hard they look, there is nothing that would free either Steven or Tony from the agreement drawn by their fathers. They spend long hours slouched over papers and law books, but conclusions are always the same. Either they marry or Steven is going to lose his estate and all his family’s belongings. There is nothing about what Tony might lose and if he was a lesser man, he would just break the deal, not looking at the good of Viscountess and her young son. But he isn’t, at least that’s what Charles whispers insistently into his brain, so he doesn’t even think about it for too long.

 

The morning wakes fresh and crisp, the summer sun shining joyfully from behind the clouds. The sunrays reflect on the surface of the little lake in the back of the garden that Tony can see from his window; the dew glittering gold on the white of the roses petals. It’s quite beautiful, if one was to like admiring nature. Tony is more for technology and metal, but he wonders if he couldn’t invite Carol one day to this mansion. She would have loved to see the gardens, maybe even paint something. She liked doing that. He wonders also, if Steven is more alike to his friend or him. The answer presents itself to him as early as during breakfast, which they take on the patio, as to take use of the fresh air.

He’s busy pulling faces at Charles when they hear laughter coming from the gardens. A glance outside the window tells him that it’s Steven, playing and running around like a child ought to do. He wonders if it’s cruel to withhold the information of his father’s death from him, but that is what Viscountess wants and he’s in no position to argue. He might be the boy’s theoretical fiancé, which thank you, he’s not going to think about, makes him feel like a pervert, but he has little to no say about anything concerning him. Tony is pretty okay with that, no chance of him influencing the kid in any bad way.

Even after all these years, Steven was still too tiny. Smaller than average boy his age, skinny like hell, Tony wonders really how it that he’s even still alive. From what he’s heard from various maids around the house the kid is very sickly, often going down with fever. They had a pretty close episode when Tony was busy with the Obadiah issue, Steven almost falling over the brink, but somehow he always comes back. Tony would like to say he’s the same, but it would be such a lie that he’s ashamed even to think of it. He knows he’s damaged goods. Very damaged, he thinks rubbing over a place when the scar from the engine piece is striking contrast to the rest of his chest. Charles shoots him a look, but he ignores it in favour of observing the blond running below them, clearly enjoying outdoors. He looks happy and that in turn makes Tony happy. No matter how much the kid is going through, he’s still enjoying his childhood and that is important.

What catches his eye after a while is a man, following Steven pretty closely. Tall, with broad shoulders and dark blond hair styled in an impeccable way. If he had to guess, it would be the boy’s tutor or perhaps a tutor, but the questioning look at their hostess, provides him with another explanation. The man is a German doctor, the private one, hired specifically to keep an eye on Steven and take care of him if need presents itself. It’s a noble cause and a noble profession, so the man must be less cool than he looks like from the distance. Tony can just feel Charles itching to check it personally, preferably without using his special gift. He wishes his friend all the good luck and cleans his hands from the case. He’s not going to take an outfall of that, if it won’t be good.

It’s required of him to be present when the Viscountess breaks both news to her son and he goes there with a heavy heart. He suspects that both he and Charles will have to leave soon after so he asks one of the maids to arrange for their bags to be taken down. He leaves his friend outside on the patio, while following the solemn women and glancing back at the laughing boy. Steven joins them only after a while, still flushed and smiling after his play outside and Tony can almost hear his heart breaking for the boy. This is not going to be pleasant for any of them.

Sure enough, none of the news goes well with the young aristocrat and Tony is made to leave the room, letting the mother and the son comfort each other. He would like to explain to the boy that he didn’t have anything to do with drawing that marriage contract and if he could, he would cancel it, but he doesn’t think that it would make the situation any more bearable. After all, no matter what they want, they can’t really undo it. All that is left is to suffer their fate with dignity. The sight that greets him in the foyer compels him to express himself in a long groan.

Both Charles and Steven’s doctor are standing, facing off, looking at each other as if enchanted and Tony thinks, shit, now they’re going to stay longer, because Charles went and fell in love on the first glance or something. He sighs to himself, picks his suitcase and grumpily comes back to his room. When he emerges few hours later for dinner, they’re already deep into conversation about this or the other, Charles pushing his hair absentmindedly back and gesturing widely with his hands. Tony tries not to find it as adorable as it is, but as always with Charles, the fight is futile. He’s at least comforted by the thought that this time he’s not the only one to think so judging by the blond man’s face.

He scans the room for Steven and spots him sitting on the side with the military book, completely engrossed in his lecture. Thank God, he’s too frail to ever join the army or Tony can just bet he would be on his way already. It’s enough that Viscountess lost one of her boys to the war. He takes a wine glass the serving girl passes him and looks her over, more from the habit than any interest. She’s pretty, but nothing special that would catch his eye. London has much more attractive women, even if they call themselves harlots.

He sits next to Mrs. Rogers, giving her a smile and starting a conversation about the latest fashion in the city. He doesn’t mind it, but she says she finds it completely absurd, especially men’s one. He gives her a genuine chuckle and then spends time before dinner on idle chatter, trying to forget the disastrous conversation earlier in the day. Tony dreads the reading of the Viscount’s will. He has a bad feeling no one will really like what’s in it. He’s of course right and he retires to the bed that night, followed by accusing glances of the staff of the manor. He doesn’t blame them, but really, they could tone it down at least a little.

Charles comes to him in the middle of the night, not even bothering to be quiet, putting faith in his gift to keep him unnoticed. Tony really would mind if he wasn’t dying for the report about tall and broody by now. They huddle in his bed together, like they used to when they were much younger and inexperienced in life and Charles tells him about Erik who is Steven’s doctor and a foreigner and is so smart and knows so many languages and military strategy and Tony should absolutely talk to him, because they would like each other so much and so on. Really, Tony has to hide his face in the pillow to keep himself from laughing outright at Charles’ enthusiasm and visible infatuation. Maybe at least one of them will have a happy love life. Not that he doesn’t think he’d be happy with Steven, it’s just that he doesn’t really need a partner and the boy is just a kid. He’ll probably find a girl to fall in love with and then he’ll hate Tony for keeping him from marrying her. But Tony doesn’t think about it much.

He notices when Charles goes quiet and turns to him fully, eyebrows questioningly raised. He doesn’t get an answer, but he does get a hug, which he figures is as good or even better, really, Tony shouldn’t let Xavier spoil him with physical affection so much, but he can’t really help it. He hides his face in his friend’s neck and let’s himself realize what the death of Viscount means. God, he’s responsible for this family now, he’s not good at responsible, just ask Pepper, or Charles or anyone. Tony likes to gamble and drink and spend his time in a clubs of questionable reputations in London and he doesn’t know how to take care of someone.

It seems it doesn’t matter to anyone and he’ll just need to learn.

Chapter Text

He visits the Rogers’ Mansion again when he turns 25. He doesn’t have to do that of course, no one is making him, but he figures it’s only a decent thing to do, to visit one’s fiancé from time to time. And by time to time, he means once in a few years, of course. Well, Charles actually seems to be in disagreement with him on this one, repeating often that maybe if he just spent some more time with Steven, they’re life together wouldn’t looks as disastrous. But really, the boy is still a little too young for Tony to treat him like an equal, and he has a feeling that anything less would only antagonize the young Rogers to him. So he stays away.

Quite correctly, he thinks, sitting at the quiet dinner table, chatting nonsense with Viscountess and feeling a glare of two pair of eyes on him. One from Steven, because the boy still didn’t warmed up to him, the other from Erik for not taking Charles along. At least the latter one he can understand, Charles always makes everything better somehow.

He has a long conversation with Steven’s mother this evening; about responsibilities and about the future. The both agreed that the distance is the best answer to their problem, and Tony promised to keep away for as long as it would be required of him, only keeping a correspondence with his young fiancé. Some contact is needed, as it would be easier to know each other at least a little when they will be finally pushed together. The letters will be also easier on both of them, Tony wouldn’t have to suffer through the unfriendly stares from everyone at the mansion, and Steven would have a chance to actually know the man he’s going to marry without being reminded about the fact too closely.

The plan seems to be working and Steven’s letters change from clearly hostile to carefully friendly and finally to warm regard. Tony’s not sure how he managed to make the younger man like him even a little, but when he asks that of Charles one evening he only gets some weird smile and a tight hug. Not that he’s complaining, but that doesn’t clear anything for him. He’ll just have to accept it for what it is.

He doesn’t notice how often he speaks of his young fiancé until Bruce makes an off-hand comment about it when they’re working in the workshop one day. It’s a surprise to realize that he actually likes the boy, and just maybe isn’t as devastated about the whole marriage deal as he was just a year ago. He blinks for a minute at his doctor friend and twirls him around with a laugh, taking off the metal gauntlets he was working on and running out of the shed. That is very good news.

~*~

This idyllic harmony continues for few years and Tony finds himself liking the young man more and more. Unlike his previous assumptions, Steven isn’t an immature, spoiled brat, but a genuinely kind and intelligent person. His love of war and of idea of protecting his country is something Tony could do without, but everyone has their quirks; he can imagine that his fiancé isn’t fond of his technical rants in their correspondence either.

They see each other for Christmas every year, the Viscountess insisting of spending the holiday together as a sign of solidarity and because they’re apparently family now. Charles and Erik usually sneak out on the first day and no one sees them up until the point when they have to leave back to the Stark Mansion, but Tony’s not really worried about it. He’s friend is a responsible adult and if he wants to spend some time with who looks for Tony as The One for Charles, then who should stop him. Besides, it’s not as if Tony doesn’t enjoy spending solitary time with what it seems are his new relations. Viscountess is an intelligent, passionate woman, and her son took after her in that.

That’s why he’s surprised when he sees the carriage with Roger’s crest one sunny day from the window in his workshop. It’s actually Bruce who points it out to him and mentions in that monotone tone of his that maybe he should change before seeing who came. Tony blinks down at the stains on his britches and torn shirt and has to actually admit that maybe good doctor is right this time. He thanks his friend for good work and goes in the house trough the back door, looking around for anyone who shouldn’t see him in a state he’s in. Like a mysterious guest. Or Virginia who would probably have his head if she found out he destroyed another pair of trousers. That woman can be scary when she’s angry.

He encounters his lovely housekeeper near his bedroom and gets even more worried when in her agitation she doesn’t even scold him for ruining his clothes, only ushers him inside and starts preparing another set. He cleans himself a little in the basin on the table and changes in a clean attire, allowing Virginia tie a cravat around his neck and push him into an uncomfortable jacket. It’s one of his best so when he finally steps in the office he’s suitably anxious and awaiting some minor disaster to befall him.

What greets him however is the turned back of his young fiancé, and he almost relaxes, relieved, after all Steven’s visit cannot mean anything that bad, were it not for the unusual tenseness of the shockingly broad shoulders that he notices. His offers to sit and then another for a drink are both met with stony silence and he’s not as socially inept as to not recognize this for the disconcert it is. He fidgets nervous, not quite able to lose the habit still and waits for the young aristocrat to speak.

He fills the time with observing the young man, who, he is surprised to see, is not as young as Tony tends to think of him. Long gone are the days of gangly limbs and little boys. The man, because he is one, who is standing before him now is a tall and well-built gentleman, with perfect stance and mannerism that Tony himself could never quite learn, to Jarvis’ agitation. The blond locks are still in place, but instead of awkward short cut, they’re pulled back into a loose ponytail falling on the tanned neck. Tony is stunned in the realization that somehow, when he wasn’t looking, his little fiancé changed from a lanky boy into a handsome man.

He’s still reeling with that sudden recognition when he’s finally put in focus of the pair of steel blue eyes. Steven is glaring at him, which in itself is unusual, Tony thought him too polite to ever show his anger in such a blatant way. He’s aware that for some reason he’s found himself in the middle of the man’s irritation, but he’s not sure what he did to cause this. He quickly scans mentally the last few letters they exchanged in vain hope of finding the reason, but he draws blank. There was nothing unusual in Steven’s messages so either it’s a very recent something or it was too personal to put on paper. Tony really hopes it’s the former, he doesn’t do personal very well.

It doesn’t take long for Steven to start talking and it’s apparent from the very start how out of depth Tony is. He knew there was some resentment in the younger man for that arranged marriage of their but he never would have thought that it runs so deep and so bitter. He shouldn’t be surprised though, he realize, if there is not one thing Steven loves more than anything it’s freedom and this is so much opposite of what liberty should be. He guesses also that he should have been expecting to be put in the position of the guilty party seeing as he’s the only one that can really be actively blamed. What else would the young man could do? Yell at the graves?

It’s after some time and a lot of yelling that Tony is able to understand the core of the issue. And that core is a girl. A young heir to the Count title, Peggy Carter, who stole Tony’s young fiancé’s heart quite easily. It’s not like he didn’t know it could happen, but actually being faced with the fact that someone who he has to marry is in love with someone else, brings a pain to his chest that he didn’t quite expect.

“What do you expect me to do?” He finally asks exasperated, moving to the liquor cabinet and pouring himself some scotch. “It’s not like I can break up that agreement. More so,” He continues after taking a rich mouthful of gold alcohol. “I don’t want to.”

“And why not?” Steven asks, his hands curled white-knuckled on the edge of the chair he’s standing behind.

Tony sighs and sits on the edge of his desk, turning to the younger man with a sombre face. “I understand that you’re upset and I understand why. Finding love only to know you’re not able to do anything about it must be painful. But I can’t just break the agreement our father’s drawn.” Steven is ready to intercept so he raises his hand, commanding silently attention and the younger man focuses on him again, this time listening more intently. “If I do, you’ll lose your title and I’ll lose my fortune. While you might not care right now about your future I do. I also care about the future of dozens of people my company is employing and who would have to lose their jobs just because we break one little agreement.”

“So you’re ready to sacrifice both of our happiness because of your supposed altruism? Is that it?” Steven snarls, clearly not calmed even slightly. Tony winces at the tony and tries to not let it get to him too much. He thought they were making process when it comes to that happiness while being together thing, but clearly he was wrong.

“You can say that, yes.” He says calmly, not looking at the younger man. “If you want to have so many lives on your conscience, be my guest, but don’t ask me to do that.”

His only answer is the sound of the door slamming shut and the heavy steps walking away from his office. It seems that the friendliness is over now. He really hopes Steven isn’t going to break the agreement after all. He can understand that the man doesn’t want to spend his life with Tony, but endangering lives of many, many people working for Stark Industries would be as cruel as it is thoughtless. Tony hopes he knows Steven enough to sleep calmly knowing that it won’t happen.

He’s partially right, it doesn’t happen, Steven leaves the agreement as it is. What Tony didn’t think about was how the young man would react to the knowledge that he can never free himself from that promise without dire consequences. The news of Steven’s enlistment to the army leaving for France arrived for him during dinner time one afternoon after a painfully fruitless day. He’s not sure how can he even still breathe knowing that someone so dear to him is right now travelling to meet his death.

~*~

Surprisingly, their correspondence picks up after few months of Tony worrying and building weirder things each day to Virginia’s utter dismal. The battered letter comes one day in the evening post and even Tony who brings it to him looks unsure about wherever he should give it to Tony or just throw it in the fire. It’s not much, but it’s a gesture of friendship; an apology and a question of wherever they can start again. Tony sends an answer back that they don’t have to start anything, because nothing has been finished. The letters starts coming three times a month from then on.

 

“Dearest Tony,” Steven writes in one of his messages.

“I am sad to inform you about the death of my beloved watch. I know you have put a lot of work into it and it have served me well. I will not get rid of it like James (I wrote to you about him so you should know who) suggested, but will carry it with me as a charm. It did save my life today after all. Oh. That is how it met its end, I am sorry for not clarifying it sooner. I was being shot at and if it was not for that watch, I would have a rather unattractive hole made in me. So thank you, for looking over me even when you are away.”

 

“My dear Steven,” Says one of Tony’s replies.

“I do not like the way in which you and the rest of your division seem to wave your lives in Death’s face. I beg of you to be more careful with your safety, if not for yours than for my sake. Every news from the front I hear bring the breathless fear with it that this will be time I learn of your demise. Do not lose your spirit, my dearest. I have survived French while knowing nothing of warfare. You are the best I have ever known of, it would be unseemly if you fell where I have not. I have every faith that you will come back to me sound and whole, do not disappoint me. After all, what a shame for me would it be if I were to be left at the altar in that fashion.”

 

It took Tony two years of correspondence and one too many teasing jibes of Charles to realize that somewhere along the line, they stopped sounding like friends and started to behave like real fiancés. How did he manage to fall in love with the man he scarcely got to see will be forever a mystery to him.

~*~

Tony is sitting alone on a bench behind the house and looking at the expanse of his orchard. He knows he’s wealthy, but he never stopped to think what does it really mean. He doesn’t have to be afraid of not being able to afford a doctor for example. He tightens up his coat and blinks quickly to get rid of the tears forming in his eyes. His crying won’t bring Viscountess back to life, and he’s not sure if he is even allowed to mourn her in that way. He’s not her son. Even if he is engaged to him. He doesn’t think the woman cared for him much actually. The whole marriage idea was the doing of his and Steve’s late fathers and although Tony doesn’t remember his mother even voicing any negative opinions about it. That is not to say that Steven’s didn’t. And who can blame her. Wealth is not everything. Although it could save her. If she only sent for him, Tony would have arrived at the mansion in a day’s time, together with Bruce who as far as he’s concerned is better than any doctor they could ever really find. But she didn’t. Because she had too much pride.

He swallows back a sniffle and bends over himself. He really should stop being so miserable. It’s not like someone close to him died. It’s just that he cannot imagine what the news has done to Steve. His Steve, who even in his darkest hours at the front always took the time to answer Tony’s letters and was infinitely patient even when Tony was especially obnoxious. He can do that, even in letters, it’s a talent. One that no one else but his poor fiancé would tolerate. He hopes there will be someone for Steven when he receives the news, maybe even Peggy. The man wanted to marry her, Tony wonders if he still does. Maybe there is some way of freeing him from the stupid marriage agreement so he can. He, if no one else, deserves some happiness in his life. Tony would know, he went and fell in love with the man after all.

Suddenly there are arms around him and a forehead pressed into his shoulder. A glance to the side reveals golden tresses, a little longer than Tony remembers, but unmistakably Steve’s. He sucks in a surprised breath and turns around, almost falling from the bench in his haste to reassure himself that he’s not seeing things. But there he is. In a battered uniform, with longish hair and tired eyes, but it’s Steven. He looks more adult than Tony has ever seen him. He supposes that’s what the war does to everyone.

He hastens to get up and round the offensive piece of furniture, but before he can even utter a single word of surprise he has Steven all around him. He’s not really sure who’s holding who, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Steve is back and he’s alive and safe, the war didn’t consume him like Pepper pessimistically prophesized. Tony pushes his nose under Steve’s chin and muses that Erik will be glad to see his friend back. And maybe Tony is a little glad too. Or maybe a lot, but it’s not like he’s going to tell that to anyone. Well, maybe to Steve, if he’ll earn it. But that’s for later. For now, Tony lets himself be held and holds in return, seeking comfort and giving it in turn. They both deserve it.