"I'll bring him back, dad," Tony said, clutching his Captain America action figure (fully poseable, with two complete outfits and a remote control command jeep – batteries not included) to his chest.
He had been sitting up since his nanny had put him to bed, but quickly crawled out of bed and tiptoed to his father's study when he first heard the door slam shut. Because the door had slammed, Tony had known that the expedition had ended like all the others. He'd tiptoed down the stairs anyway. He wanted to know how close his dad had come, and if there were any fights with polar bears. Tony could easily picture his father fending off a vicious polar bear. The bear would have cornered him and his team when they were away from their ship and he'd snarl and he'd growl and Howard wouldn't have been afraid. His team would have cowered, but not Dad. Dad would've raised his rifle and shot the bear right between the eyes. His Dad fought Nazis; he wasn't afraid of anything.
Tony would learn much later that his father was afraid of failing, and when his father did fail (not fail in the sense of some science experiment going wrong, because science rarely went right and when you were an inventor, you learned that successes were rare, even for geniuses; that was the beauty of the scientific method. Try fail, repeat until you get to the end) when he failed personally, when he didn't find the Captain, a black hole of despair opened up beneath him and the only way to keep from falling was to drink. Drink until you float: That was the Stark way.
Tony had peeked around the corner of the study's doorway: Jacket on the floor. Canvas backpack, unopened, thrown over in a chair. Maps on the desk. His father had been sat behind the desk slumped over on his elbows. There'd been amber in a glass, and then there wasn't, again and again until his father was sleeping.
Tony was six years old. He wore his Captain America pajamas to bed, slept with his Captain America action figure next to him, and clung to the dreams of one day meeting the man his father praised. "I'll bring him back," Tony repeated when his father's face had pressed against the work table's surface and began to snore softly.
Tony dragged himself back into bed and dreamt of polar bears.
In childhood, the loss of faith begins in the loss of belief in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, or any of those Once Upon a Time sort of characters. Normally, children realize these figures have been their parents all along or some kids at the lunch table spoil the surprise. Tony never stopped believing in any of those sorts of figures because he never developed a belief in them in the first place.
Belief was a hard word to find in the Stark household. His father believed a lot of things, but had faith in little more than the perseverance and ingenuity of the American entrepreneurial spirit in the hands of Science. His mother believed in God and Jesus and the Mother Mary and she swore on them enough for Tony to know that they were powerful figures. He never went to Communion, though. Nobody seemed to remember to sign him up for anything. That was okay though because Tony didn't need God. Tony had Captain America (hallowed be His name.)
But belief, like all things, fades with time and distance, and lack of faith. There is only so much needling a soul can take before the devil finally breaks them down; underneath it all we are all sinners. And so Tony Stark one day lost his faith in Captain America.
Tony replaced his dead boyhood idol with one of more flesh and blood and capability: himself. That was the one constant in his life, the one thing he could depend on as he grew older. From a young age, Tony had taken the accelerated path to genius, skipping grades like a country boy skips stones across a lake, and by the time he hit 9th grade at Philips living on his own was second nature. His mother buried herself in charity work. His dad's place was in the study, lab, or Arctic preparing for drinks, an Expo, or an expedition.
Tony dedicated himself to the future, not the past. He built his first engine when he was six. He knew circuitry backwards and forwards by the time he was seven. He built little machines to do specific, useless tasks. But he was building things. He was inventing, creating, giving life. He was all the father he needed.
When Tony was sixteen, he had this to say: "It's a lot of fun to create something new. I really wanted to win this one, so I did." For the fourth time in a row, the MIT Robot Design Award was his; he'd done it with an artificial intelligence imbibed with personality through alternative programming. It'd been easy.
"I've always known Tony was a bright lad," Howard was on record saying. Off record, Howard gave a single, cold, disapproving look; he'd wanted Tony to work on underwater surveillance. Three guesses as to why.
Tony didn't dismantle Dummy, even though every fiber of his being wanted to. He left the robot whole and took himself apart instead. He'd known how to pick the lock on his dad's liquor cabinet for years. There had never seemed any point to before. He didn't like the taste at first, but after a while, it didn't taste like anything at all.
With just the right amount of liquor in his gut, the boy genius Tony Stark was at the peak of his performance. His sparkling intelligence, devilish good looks, witting charm, and liquor tolerance were at higher levels than anyone else's. Even drunk off his ass, he could annihilate anyone at chess. He got a degree from MIT without being quite sober for any of his exams. He was a chip off the ol' block, for sure; his dad barely invented anything without a hip flask attached to his lips anymore. It was as if all the problems in the world were solved by a bottle. (Captain America hadn't even been immune to the hooch. When some buddy of his fell off a train during a mission, Aunt Peggy'd said he'd tried to get drunk but couldn't. There was something Tony was better at than Steve "Perfect" Rogers. Score one for the big man.)
When Tony realized that he was better than Captain America at something, it was all over.
Every drink, every glass, every swirl of colored (or colorless; he wasn't fussy) liquid, was dedicated to an unspoken competition, the man whose shadow Tony could never escape, the man whose shoes he could never fill. But Tony could fill glasses. He could fill them with ice. He could fill them to the brim. He could even fill them too much and lick the excess off the counter. He'd make his father proud.
Eventually, Tony drank enough to forget about Steve Rogers. The drinks became about the burn of the alcohol down his throat, the swaying of the room, the blurring of his vision. They became out blacking out and waking up with a girl (or three) whose name(s) he never bothered to learn.
He drank to forget a lot of things. He drank to forget yesterday, today, and tomorrow. He drank to forget himself. It never worked; not for long. So he kept drinking. He kept drinking at parties, at night, in morning, on planes; he kept drinking on the floor, in the shower, when he was dying, when he was drunk. He drank a lot. Or a little. Or not enough.
No matter how much he drank, though, he never felt special. He never drank with that promise in mind anyway. He learnt at an early age that promises were words that people didn't keep.
Nearly two decades after his father's death, Tony listened to his father tell him:"I built this for you. And some day you'll realize that it represents a whole lot more than people's inventions; it represents my life's work. This is the key to the future. I'm limited by the technology of my time, but one day you'll figure this out. And when you do, you will change the world. What is, and always will be, my greatest creation... is you."
Tony wasn't sure if it was pride, love, or pain he was feeling. Perhaps it was a combination of all three. The saddest part was, he wasn't sure he hadn't been imagining the whole thing. His earlier conversation with Fury left a very different image of the man Tony'd called Dad in his mind. Perhaps he was just too eager to accept the man that Fury known over the man he'd grown to resent. Whatever emotional damage had been accrued, it was quickly cancelled out by the thrill of a new project. He hadn't built a particle accelerator in years, and hadn't synthesized a brand new element since ever. After that, Tony didn't have much time to think about dear old Dad.
When Tony'd held the specs for the Tesseract in his hand on the opposite coast almost a year later, he knew that his father was a complicated man. He stated at the cube in disbelief, recalling that he'd first seen it and how its power now residing in his chest. He inherited the power of the fNorse Gods. It was not a bad parting gift, but it still didn't make up for everything.
Tony had intercepted the information from SHIELD before Coulson hand-delivered the information, but there was still a part of Tony that hadn't believed it (hadn't wanted to believe it) until then. His dad was still taking him to school; he could accept that. What he couldn't accept was substitute teachers. Iron Man was better than Captain America. Tony never doubted this. He repeated it to himself repeatedly so as to drive the opinion into fact. The trouble was, Tony wasn't always Iron Man. Captain America was always Steve Rogers. The more Tony was around Star Spangled Perfect, the more Tony began to realize that fact.
He tried to hide his shrinking sense of self worth behind witty jabs and blueberries and it almost worked. Still, he wondered if it wouldn't have been easier if they'd left the Captain in the ice. He was positive that it would've been easier if Steve had been everything and nothing like his dad remembered.
Tony never had Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy, but he did come to the realization that sometimes, there were legends that actually lived up to their legends. Thor was mighty and thundering. Loki was cunning and annoying. And then there was Cap.
Maybe he had seen what his dad had after all.
"Call it, Cap," he said because Cap was the man with the plan. But Tony was the guy who'd just cut the wire, so he did a dirty tango with a nuclear missile and left her high and dry hundreds of lightyears away in Who Knows Where, Space. When he fell back to Earth, he wasn't thinking of being special or outshining or stealing someone's thunder. He did what needed to be done, what he alone could have done. The smile and wonderment on Steve's face after they'd won was worth the pain. (Surprised you, didn't I? Well maybe you surprised me, too.)
"Shawarma after," Tony said and they did.
Tony chose the seat as far away from Steve as possible because he felt like a bit of a jerk for assuming that Steve wasn't worth anything but he wasn't sorry enough to look him in eye so he guided a Hulk-weary Bruce to that seat and hoped that no one tried to talk about their feelings.
As it turned out, no one did any talking at all. It was just like dinner with the family.
A twenty-three year-old Tony Stark was much too old for action figures, but he was old enough to be a figure of his own. Months before the fiftieth anniversary of Captain America's plane crash, Tony was contacted by the publisher of the commemorative special and asked if he'd be interested in participating in a photoshoot; proceeds to charity, blah, blah, blah. Tony didn't listen to half of it. "Sure," he said when the guy stopped talking. "I've got some ideas."
He unlocked the cases carefully, unlike the last time he visited his father's Captain America shrine, and took what he wanted. Then he called up Rhodey and asked really nicely to borrow a command jeep circa 1943. "Just think of it as doing your country a service, papa bear," he answered when Rhodey asked it why he needed one and how come he didn't have one already. "Proceeds go to charity."
"I can't believe I let you put your bare ass on that piece of history," was Rhodey's first comment when he saw the photos.
"You wish your bare ass looked so good."
"You saying it doesn't?" Rhodey shook his head. "Don't answer that. Answer this: What possessed you to deface this poor soldier's goods?"
Tony had donned the WWII helmet Rogers wore when he stormed the HYDRA base and freed the POWs, and built a replica of the badge shield. That was all he wore.
With a self-satisfied grin, Tony answered, "The ladies went crazy for it."
"You disgust me sometimes."
"That is tasteful art right there, Rhodes."
He kept the helmet on because they asked him to. The scratching of their nails on the metal rang oddly in his ears, but it felt so good.
"You are not worthy enough to wield that shield, son." Rhodey's tone was still light, still resigned at Tony's brashness, but Tony snatched the photos back in anger regardless. "It's just a replica, don't worry. Your precious Rogers boy is untainted." He was glad the girls left nail marks on the helmet.
At forty-one, Tony might as well have still been that action figure. He was marketed and sold well enough:
Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you The New Tony Stark! This model comes with a brand new (and steady!) girlfriend, the charming and capable Virginia "Pepper" Potts, and a brand new Arc Reactor model; see the sleek chevron design, the pleasing neon blue color? Scratch and sniff! Tastes like coconut and metal! This model also comes with a new location. Switching coasts to the East, Tony Stark is now making his home in the Big Apple, building a new Tower (Tower not included) powered entirely by clean energy. This new model also comes with a new career path: consultant for super secret spy organization SHIELD!
But the new model of Tony Stark was just the old model with some new accessories. After the Chitauri invasion, he felt every one of his forty-one years, and from the sound of things, even Iron Man was not immune to being passé. Tony Stark and Iron Man were old news; Captain America? He was brand-y new, right out of the package, and despite the Avengers saving the day, it was Cap they all latched on to. There were Captain America t-shirts, Captain America tattoos, Captain America foam fingers! They wouldn't let him forget.
Pepper was soft and warm and she soothed the pain of outer space and the Fall, but she couldn't dispel the demons that came out after his most recent brush with death. For that, Tony needed an older friend, one who never cut compromises, never lied that he was good enough or better. Tony needed ice, crystal, and the cold bite of the morning after. He snuck out of bed during the night, nursed a tequila bottle until he heard the shower turn on, and then slunk away into his workshop to disappear for more than a little while.
Liquor was his second-oldest friend (Dummy being the first) and it always let him down.
Days later, Tony found himself on the helicarrier, staring down a section of a wall of lockers. It was easy enough to figure what he was looking at. His fingers curled a little tighter around the hip flask in his hand and he frowned at the unremarkable metallic paneling. "What the hell did you see in the guy anyway, huh? You should've burned the damn cards. If you'd known – If you'd any sense! – you would've still been alive!" His voice escalated and the flask made a good blunt object with which to try and dent the pristine metal.
When he was fifteen, he smashed all the glass in the display cases in which his father kept his Captain America collection. He didn't dare harm one fiber on any of the paraphernalia – he was too much of a coward for that – but his dad had screamed so hard his words hurt. There was nearly a month between the last summer at Philips and Orientation at MIT. Maybe he should've gone to D&D camp again after all.
Tony made enough of a racket that Agent Hill was called and she carted him away. She called him a drunk bastard and cuffed him on the back of the head. She threatened a court ordered rehab. He laughed in her face – "You can't touch me, bitch, he said – and with a flourish of his hand he stumbled away. The Mark VII assembled around him, but if he'd walked right into the ocean, it wouldn't have made a lick of difference to him.
Pepper was in Hong Kong so she couldn't yell at him for stumbling home wrecked and spending his life in the workshop. When he finally made it back to the living space of his penthouse (only JARVIS knew or even cared how many hours later), he stood in the doorway and stared at his bed for twenty three and a half minutes. It looked too empty to even bother. He slept on the floor instead.
SHIELD kept calling. Fury left him colorful messages with all sorts of variations on the word "Motherfucker." It made Tony laugh.
It took him a few days to recreate the Great Pyramid of Giza to almost near perfect 1/100th scale, and only thirty two seconds to take a repulsor gauntlets to them and shatter them to pieces. He left the cleanup to Dummy and disappeared to the kitchen to fix himself some lunch. He and passed out with a hand in a bowl of pretzels and his head hanging over the top of the couch.
"I'm bored," he said forty-eight hours later, showered, dressed, and sober. "JARVIS, give me something to do."
JARVIS pulled up an urgent email from SHIELD regarding Captain Rogers. "What," Tony said when he read it. "Did the killer bees take a day off? Delete it. I'm not a fucking babysitter. Or a Hulksitter. Hey! Hulk! Where's Bruce, JARVIS. We should set up a play date."
"Master Bruce is in Hong Kong overseeing the R&D of the new Stark Industries building, sir, per your request."
Tony knew better than to interrupt men at important work. It was a lesson he'd learned when he was a kid. "Right, okay then. Let's pimp out Rhodey's ride then."
Rhodey's armor adjustments were scattered in 3-D projections and physical prototypes on the work surface in front of him. Tony was slumped over a workbench, eyes glazed, hand half-heartedly wrapped around a near-empty bottle of vodka. The bottle had been sitting there when he entered the shop and it seemed like such a shame to let it go to waste. He took a sip for every brilliant idea he had – which was every idea he had – and soon he was no good for anything but self loathing and sleep. He fought against the heaviness of his eyes, and kept a vigil despite his blurred vision.
In the darkness, he was half-aware of a moving, silent shadow. "I don't know what the hell this world is anymore, Stark," the shadow spoke, "but I sure know one thing: You aren't at all what I was expecting."
The shadow reached out and touched the slowly spinning projections of War Machine's shoulder guns. His arm was all wrong; it warped the soft light that reached it, reflected it back. With a tap, the projection zoomed out to full body view. Tony caught a glimpse of his proposed changes and winced.
"Friend of mine told me about you. Thought you could give me a hand. Or well. An arm." The man's laughter was familiar; it was just a as self-deprecating as Tony's. "You don't look like you could even help yourself right now, Stark, so don't be offended if I'm not all that impressed."
There were things that he should have worried about, like JARVIS, security clearance, and mortal peril, but Tony was fixated on the curved, sculpted metal of the guy's arm. "Fuck you," Tony said to his reflection that he found there, and then dropped his head back down on the bench's surface.
The man's metal fingers spun the War Machine in dizzying circles. "I'll be upstairs when you get back to whatever genius hero you're supposed to be." With soundless steps, the man left the workshop and Tony shut his eyes. "JARVIS?" he asked the darkness.
Did you let a stranger into the holy place? Did a robot just break in? Have I been drinking too much? "Scrap whatever the hell changes I made to the War Machine armor, please."
"And wake me up in two hours," he added as he dragged his feet over to the cot in the corner. Maybe if he slept properly, strange men with robot arms wouldn't mysteriously appear and critique his (admittedly bad) work.
Four hours later, Tony was rested, washed, and presentable. When he gathered up the courage to step into the living room, there was no one there. He thought about asking JARVIS, but decided against it. Tony was more than a little sure the metal armed guy was just a hallucination and he was too wary of those implications to ask JARVIS if the other man showed up on sensors.
Tony kept the incident to himself and began reworking Rhodey's arm in earnest. A week later, he'd built a new War Machine suit that was not gaudy or tacky in anyway (nor one ounce of red, white, or blue.) He was coming home from the test flight when something (or someone) jumped on his back. He set in on an immediate barrel roll, but the guy wouldn't shake.
"Thanks for the lift!" The freeloader shouted when Tony's ear would've been, and Tony recognized the voice immediately.
Tony's "Who the hell are you and what do you want?" got drowned out by the sound of an explosion. Needless to say, they were landing on the nearest rooftop ASAP.
"Who the hell are you and what do you want?" Tony asked when he got the chance. The War Machine armor was on full alert, guns trained on the guy, but whatever they hit him with they'd surely bounce off because "Is that Captain America's shield?"
The man rebalanced the shield in his grip. "What's the matter, Stark? Not good enough to wear your own armor?"
"War Machine, I know. You were working on it the other night, I remember. Listen, I've got some HYDRA goons to clean out. There are probably still some stragglers down there. You can join me, or I'll meet you back at your place in an hour."
"But that's Cap's shield!"
"Your choice, Stark!" The man jumped off the building, did some impressive gymnastics on a fire escape and starting running back towards the building that exploded.
It would put the new suit to test. And really, what better did Tony have to do?
"Your arm is upsetting," Tony told the guy after he'd witnessed the man take out five neo-nazis with his bare hands.
"Yeah," the guy said, swiping the glass of brandy Tony had been pouring himself and downing it. "Try waking up with it."
"So where's Cap?" (That was the important SHIELD business Fury was so intent on roping him into. It was also, by a great coincidence, the important SHIELD business Tony had been trying avoid, physically and mentally, for the last few weeks.)
"Right here," was Bucky's reply, thumb pointing to his chest.
"That's funny, Steve. Last time I checked you were a lot more handsome, what having both arms and all."
"You didn't ask where Steve was."
"Is there a difference?"
Bucky pointed a finger at the arc reactor. "Some of us aren't so attached to the things that define us." Tony wordlessly downs his drink and pours another. "I didn't mean your suit," Bucky qualified later. "I meant the Stark Reactor."
"Arc reactor," Tony automatically corrected him.
Tony looked at the man with the metal arm long and hard. He'd seen fighting like that only on Natasha. "Who the hell are you anyway, kid?" Tony really didn't like the answer.
"And, if it's all the same to you, Stark," the perfect James Buchanan Barnes said, "I could really use a new arm."
There was a guy worth ten of him sitting on his stool. "Just cut the damn wire," Tony mumbled under his breath as he disconnected Bucky's arm. "I don't even know what the hell that means."
"Neither do I, but I'd sure appreciate it if you were a bit gentler."
"What makes you so special?" Tony only felt brave enough to ask when he'd taken the metal arm away. Bucky had nowhere to run and nothing to punch with – nothing special anyway, and when Tony was the guy who's got the arm, he felt a heck of a lot safer, especially when he wasn't in the suit.
Bucky looked at him quizzically, so Tony nodded to the shield currently cozied up to Bucky's side. "Not that it's enchanted like Thor's hammer or anything, but. He wouldn't give it up that easily."
"Is this your way of asking if he's okay?"
The smooth talk didn't go over well. Tony curled his lip and wrenched a panel back a bit more forcefully than necessary. "No, it's my way of asking why you? Why are you back? Why are you playing at Captain America when the real one is out there somewhere doing . . . I don't even care. Other things." Tony buried himself in his work so that he didn't have to look Bucky in the eye. It was a move that both told Bucky that Tony still considered him an ally, and didn't maybe make Bucky want to punch Tony in the eye with his remaining arm. Bucky didn't answer, though. Not for a long time.
Tony lost himself in his work completely after a time, and by then it was just like being alone.
"Why me?" Bucky asked rhetorically days later. "You wanna know why me?" He was sitting on the outside landing with a bottle of something Tony didn't recognize. "Because I'm the only guy who's qualified."
Tony hadn't expected to be accosted on his way back from a test flight of the latest armor interface. He hadn't expected Bucky to be here at all. So when he was, when he was talking to him, Tony was taken aback long enough to pause. Bucky saw his opening and took it. He stood, approaching Tony like an enemy, which wasn't nice because enemies didn't make enemies new arms, but Tony stiffened, taking on a defensive stance.
Bucky was quietly seething when he murmured, "When you guys see the shield, you think of Cap. The war hero, the USO guy, whatever your history books told you. When I hold that shield, I ain't representing any of that. I'm the kid from Brooklyn, the little guy who just didn't know when to quit. I've been following that guy since I was kid, and I died for that man. I'm not so sure I'm worthy enough to be Captain America, but if Steve asks me to take her up, I take her up. He's too busy trying to figure out who the hell he is anymore to have that added responsibility, and I get that. War changes a guy. Waking up here," his emphasis on the last word expressed more than distaste. "That changes a guy, too."
Bucky wouldn't tell him how he got back or who found him, but he did tell Tony about being captured by HYDRA, building weapons for them, being taken into the backroom. Tony knew a bit of a thing or two about that. Tony also knew he'd been a bit of a jerk again. It was his default setting. They traded war stories, true horror stories, there on the roof and Tony felt like Bucky had seen beneath the armor. It was only fair, Tony thought as they lapse into silence. He'd seen Bucky without the arm. Battlescars were the easiest to show but the hardest to share.
Tony saw it as a sign of his growing maturity when he finally admitted "I drink because of my dad."
"Howard?" Bucky asked. And Tony nodded. "Never met him. Heard enough about him. The papers and Steve could barely shut up about him. It's shame he never got that car to fly."
"I thought if I could drink enough, he'd realize how special I was."
"He had charm."
"Maybe if I died he'd shut up about Cap for once."
"Steve's dad was like that."
"A lush. Then he went and did us all a favor and got himself killed in the war."
Tony winced and rubbed his chest. "You're not really what I thought you'd be."
Bucky dragged his lips over the rim of the empty bottle. He nodded for Tony to elaborate.
"I was expecting a 'why can't you be more like your dad' speech."
"What? Just because we crossed paths?"
"You're better when you're in the armor."
Tony snorted with derision. "Because I'm taller?"
"Because you don't have to look at people look at you in the eye."
Tony took a deep breath in through his nose and held the air in his lungs. He waited for the burn and then slowly released it through his mouth. There were a dozen different things he could say to Bucky and a infinite number of words he could use to say them. He opted for none of them. Tony brought his arm up and placed a friendly hand on Bucky's shoulder. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Bucky smiling. He squeezed gently and then stood.
"I thought you were dead," Tony said as a sort of apology.
"I thought you were taller," Bucky quickly returned. It was the wiseass smirk on his face that led Tony to believe that things were going to turn out okay.
He drank water with a wedge of lime and dipped the rim in salt just for kicks. Bucky had replaced all his colorless liquor with tonic water. He'd been sober for three weeks and only slipped once. Bucky'd gone public as Captain America in a suit designed and manufactured by Tony and SHIELD was not happy, but Tony knew that somewhere out there, Steve was watching them in action. Maybe Howard didn't create Tony. Maybe Howard didn't even create Steve. And maybe that meant that Tony could stop feeling so bitter. Maybe was a good word.