i'm lost in sadness, still trying to pick myself up
though the war ended, you cannot see a single thing
i am always alone
– Corruption Garden, English lyrics by кran
The times that Howard Stark was home, he spent most of it drinking if he wasn't already drunk. Maria got this tight, pained look on her face and her jaw would twitch as her mouth thinned; her eyes were distant and she'd wrap Tony up in her arms and take him out for ice cream.
Tony knew his father didn't love him. Howard spent months on end away – business, was his excuse. But Tony knew better.
“He loves you, Tony,” Maria told him every night as she tucked him into bed. “He does. He... Howard just doesn't know how to show it.”
And Tony wanted to believe his mother, because she had that haunted look in her eyes and the pain was raw in her voice and all he wanted to do was make that all go away. Tony wanted to see his mother smile.
“He's never here.”
Maria blinked slowly, swallowed heavily and nodded her head a few times. Her eyes were sparkling bright in the dim light of his bedside light. When she spoke, her voice was choked, “I know, sweetie, I know.”
“It's because of me, isn't it?” Tony was eight and he knew that his father looked at him with a frown and a deep furrow to his brow that Tony knew meant disapproval. “It's because of the name on my wrist.”
When he said that, Maria reached over with her shaking hands and gently smoothed her fingers over his wrist; over the name written there in that delicate flowing cursive that marked Tony as belonging to someone. That name had been there for as long as Tony could remember, probably longer.
“No, no that's not it,” Maria said. “It's... complicated. But it's not your fault; it's never been your fault, Tony. You should never think that way.”
“Tony.” Maria placed her index finger gently over Tony's lips. “I'll explain when you're older. It's complicated, but it's never been your fault. If nothing else, remember that.”
Tony didn't know what to say to that, so he just nodded. That seemed to be what he was supposed to do because Maria smiled – and it almost reached her eyes – and leaned in to kiss his forehead.
“Goodnight. Sleep well, my dear.”
She made sure that Tony was snugly tucked into bed and comfortable. Before she left, she looked back once more and smiled at him before flipping off the light and closing the door.
Even after she left, Tony lay there and stared at the ceiling.
He held up his arm and, even in the dark, he could still read the name written there on his wrist.
After a few moments of just staring at it, Tony rolled over and curled up and held his arm tightly to his chest with his wrist over his heart. Tony was shaking and he could feel the tears pricking at his eyes and he let them fall now that there was no one there to see them.
Even as he cried, Tony prayed. He prayed that his Steven would come and sweep him up in his arms and hold him and tell him that everything would be alright; that he loved him.
His dreams were always filled with thoughts of what Steven Rogers could be like. Tony hoped beyond anything that he would be like the heroes in the books that his mother read to him sometimes. Someone who would ride in on a white horse and sweep Tony up into his arms and carry him away from a father who didn't love him.
But, deep inside, Tony prayed that Steve Rogers would be like Captain America. Because the good Captain was brave and smart and handsome and, well, perfect. Tony admired him more than all of the heroes in his books and comics. One day, he hoped that he could be someone like that.
It wasn't the last time that Tony had a dream like that. But like all of his childish dreaming, he eventually stopped hoping and praying that the impossible would happen. Captain America was only a child's desperate dream. Not to mention that he was long dead.
But it wasn't the last night that Tony Stark cried himself to sleep.
Those were the only times where Tony saw his father cry.
Howard would sit and stare into the fire with empty eyes. He wouldn't move for hours. Sometimes Tony swore he saw his lips moving but words never came out. But there would always be tears trickling slowly down his cheeks.
“James wouldn't have wanted you to waste your life like this,” Maria said, her voice low and cold. “And he certainly wouldn't want you to neglect your son. What would he think of you if he could see you now?”
There never was any comeback to that. Howard's mouth twitched and there would be a vacant look in his eyes.
After those arguments, Howard would collapse in on himself. He looked small and defeated, with his eyes dull and glassy. Then he'd wander off, bottle of whiskey in hand, to his lab. He wouldn't come out until days had passed. His mother never said anything about it, but there was a tortured look on her face whenever it happened.
Tony didn't know who James was. The only time that James came up in conversation was during those arguments and his mother was hitting below the belt. That much Tony did know.
Whoever James was, the mention of him made Howard's eyes glaze over and the tears come. He looked like one of those dolls that Maria collected and kept on the shelves. The ones made of porcelain and their vacant, staring eyes.
Maria never looked like she wanted to talk about it, so Tony didn't ask her. He found her crying several times but she always stopped when she realized he was there.
“Oh, Tony...” she'd croon. And then she'd reach out and take him into her arms and hold him just a little too tightly while she sniffled. “It'll all be alright, you'll see... you'll see...”
Tony never mentioned that it sounded more like she was trying to convince herself rather than him.
Maria was a little misty eyed, but she smiled and hugged him and kissed both of his cheeks.
“You'll behave, right? Oh Tony, please behave. I know that you're angry with Howard but please, don't act out because of that. And make sure that you eat. Please look after yourself – for me.”
“I will, mom. Don't worry; I'll make you proud.”
Tony set his mouth in that firm line that he'd picked up from his father. He was determined. He'd make it through school and after that... after that he wasn't sure but he'd figure it out when he made it to that point.
Maria smiled, really smiled, and ruffled his hair, “That's my son.”
She kissed his cheeks one more time before he left for school. She was smiling and waving at him as he slowly made his way towards his dormitory.
That was the last time that Tony saw his mother.
“I'm sorry, son,” he apologize, voice deep and grim. Tony liked that about Mr. Grayson; he always sounded serious. But it only made everything so much more real.
Tony couldn't remember all that much after that. It was all a blur and there were flashes from cameras and reporters shoving their recorders at him and asking him how it felt, how he felt, what it was like to lose his family.
Obadiah was there, handling the press in that calm and patient way that he always did. He placed a hand on Tony's shoulder – heavy, so heavy, and alone, I'm all alone – and gave him a sad smile and said, “Don't worry, we'll get through this.”
Tony wasn't so sure. The words didn't sound like words to him.
He tried to fix the image of his mother's smile in his mind, but all he could think of was the pained look on her face when she argued with his father. Tony remembered how she never looked happy – except when she saw him off to school that very first day.
That was how Tony wanted to remember her.
The name on his wrist was just another broken promise.
Sure, Tony had a name on his wrist, but he'd never met his Steven Rogers. He met a Steven Rogers in school but he had someone else's name on his wrist. He wasn't Tony's.
Tony was alone. He was surrounded by people but none of those people knew him. Tony supposed that there was some truth to the idea that he was in a sea of people but he was all alone.
The name on his wrist was a promise, he belonged to someone, but... that someone wasn't around. Maybe he just wasn't looking hard enough? Tony didn't have an answer. He'd just have to keep searching until he found him.
Tony Stark was thirteen when the media ran its first pity story on him. They didn't stop with just one.
But there were other news clippings too.
There were a handful of clippings related to the USO and Captain America.
Howard had a rather impressive collection of Captain America memorabilia and comics. Tony had gotten in the habit of stealing the comics whenever Howard wasn't looking – they'd been a great part of his childhood fantasies.
What Tony hadn't realized that Captain America was very much real. He wasn't just the propaganda show; he was a soldier and a hero.
And when Tony found a beaten old photograph of the Captain tucked away inside the back cover of one of the comics, he felt his heart flutter in his chest and his breathing hitch.
Smiling out of the photograph, helmet in his hands – and Tony would recognize his costume anywhere – was Captain America.
He was tall, with pale hair and a warm, kind face. His smile was bright an just a shade amused as he looked at the dark-haired man beside him. Tony could fill in the blanks; he could imagine bright blue eyes sparkling with life and the way his blond hair fell perfectly around his face... Tony wasn't sure how he knew all of that, but he did.
For several long moments, Tony sat there and took in the entirety of Captain America. From the strong line of his jaw to the broad stretch of his shoulders. Even though the photograph cut off, Tony could tell that he was tall and, well, built.
Captain America was beautiful and perfect, captured in a moment of time. He was forever ageless. Tony knew he'd gone down during the War. He was dead. There was no point to dreaming.
Even though it was stupid, Tony carefully tucked the photograph into his pocket.
He was spitting out blood and nursing a probable concussion. Rhodey was in some of his classes and had been friendly towards him; Tony hadn't known what to do with that.
“You should stop picking fights with guys twice your size,” Rhodey said. He pulled Tony to his feet and slid an arm under Tony's shoulders to keep him upright when his legs refused to support him.
Tony's head was spinning and his vision was fading in and out of focus but he recognized Rhodey's voice. “Don't give me much of a choice.”
“Just gotta learn to say no.”
Tony passed out sometime after that, but when he woke up in the hospital hours later Rhodey was at his side.
He didn't leave.
She was a whirlwind of energy and Tony wasn't sure what to make of her at first, but eventually she grew on him – Tony liked to joke that Pepper was like a fine wine, better with age or a fungus in that she grew on you with time. But Pepper was good with people and good at finding things out; Tony didn't know how she did it. Pepper was like an information wizard... or something.
So, of course, she found out about the name on his wrist.
“And you have no idea who they are?”
Pepper just gave him a hard look, “Well, I don't think you're looking hard enough.”
Tony barked out a laugh and smiled, “I somehow doubt that they're just gonna pop into being. If they haven't heard of me...”
By that time, Tony was well aware that he was all over the press. They loved to run pity stories about how he was alone, how he was a Blank – Tony never saw fit to correct them on that matter, after all, it wasn't important since he had a name on his wrist and belong to someone. It just so happened that that someone was dead.
Fate must have really hated the Stark family, Tony thought. His parents had been Blanks and their marriage an unhappy one. The sight of his mother crying, of his father crying, the memories of being left alone and abandoned by a man who never loved him stayed with Tony.
Pepper, Tony was happy to know, had a name on her wrist and a man to go with it. That was how he met Happy.
Much to Tony's amusement, Happy was something of a dork. And he did kind of think that Tony was kind of amazing, which Tony thought was kind of funny. He wasn't used to people thinking of him as being any form of a good person. But Happy believed in him and so did Pepper and Rhodey; all of them believed that he would go on and do great things. Tony thought it was stupid.
Tony Stark, after all, was nothing more than damaged goods.
But that was okay, because for a few brief moments in time, Tony felt like he was wanted. That hole in his chest felt a little less empty and the edges weren't as jagged as he knew them to be.
It wasn't a perfect solution and it was very likely to blow up in his face, but Tony didn't care.
Anything was better than the burning ache of loneliness buried deep within his chest. If alcohol and sex made it a little less sharp, he'd indulge in it until he couldn't remember his own name.
He just wished that the comforting numbness would linger just a little bit longer.
It wasn't a good reputation. The press had a field day with it; he topped the gossip blogs which were always going on about what woman he was seen with and where, who he'd slept with. There were even blogs solely dedicated to who he had and hadn't slept with, Tony thought it was all rather impressive.
They all still believed that he was a Blank.
Tony was perfectly fine with that. He might as well have been. After all, his Steven Rogers was most likely dead no matter what the promise of his name on his wrist meant. Fate was just fucking with him.
When he'd taken the reigns of Stark Industries at twenty-one, he'd brought Pepper and Happy with him. Pepper had taken over the search for his Steven Rogers, using that strange knack of hers for finding people and information but she'd had no luck; every Steven Rogers she found had someone.
Happy went along with it; he didn't say anything about the name on Tony's wrist, but he was always there with a kind word and a shoulder of support when it was needed. He wordlessly drove women home after a one-night stand, picked Tony up from random places in town without a complaint and always with a smile. Happy never said anything, but Tony knew he was just a little worried.
Then there was Pepper. Pepper who cleaned up all of Tony's messes with a roll of her eyes and a sharp retort on her tongue. But always there when he was low with words of encouragement and support.
Rhodey was there too. But he was busy with his duties in the military most of the time and wasn't always there to pull Tony back from the edge.
But all of them tried to keep Tony together. He wasn't sure what he'd done to deserve friends like them; he would do anything for them but he had problems understanding why they'd do the same for him. He didn't deserve it.
Pepper looked up from the paperwork she was sorting through when Tony stumbled in, drunk as always, one night. She sighed and set it aside and stood up, catching him under the shoulder as he stumbled.
“You really should have called,” Pepper grumbled as the two of them awkwardly made their way down the hall to Tony's bedroom. “You're a mess.”
“Yes, because smelling of cheap perfume and alcohol with vomit down your front is the perfect picture of 'fine.'”
Pepper unceremoniously dumped Tony on his bed, ignoring his slurred protests as she quickly and efficiently stripped him of his jacket, tie, and shoes. She tossed those aside before pulling off his shirt and tucking him under the covers.
“I'm not telling you a bed time story,” she quipped when Tony opened his mouth.
Everything was blurring around the edges and the words tumbled out without much thought to the consequences.
“D'you think... that he'd... want me?”
Pepper stopped what she was doing and looked at Tony, face unreadable for a few seconds before it broke into one of those warm Pepper-smiles that Tony knew so well.
“You're a wonderful person, Tony. I'm sure that he'd see past all of those walls you've built up. You just need to wait. He'll come eventually. We'll find him.”
She sounded so sure and determined that Tony couldn't help but believe her, even if he wouldn't remember what she said when he woke up.
When he went to Afghanistan for a weapons demonstration of the Jericho missile, he took it with him. He kept it carefully tucked behind his Kevlar vest.
He hadn't expected everything to go to hell.
Waking up strapped to a car battery powering an electromagnet embedded in his chest that was keeping him alive wasn't what Tony had signed up for. He hadn't expected that. Peeling back the bandages and tugging at his shirt revealed a large number of incisions and cuts where the shrapnel had pierced his flesh. Most of the cuts weren't serious, but there were a few that looked deeper than others and were neatly stitched up.
“You're lucky I was here,” Yinsen told him.
“Thanks.” Tony wasn't sure why he'd bothered to save his life, but the men with the guns who sometimes shouted at them from outside the metal doors probably had something to do with that.
Tony had fully expected that he was going to die. He'd almost been looking forward to it. If he died, he'd get to see him.
He felt a little cheated.
“Oh, I did manage to save this for you,” Yinsen interrupted his dark thoughts.
He held out the framed picture of Captain America and Tony took it from him, weighing it in his hands for a few minutes.
The edges of the frame were stained with blood and part of one edge was damaged. The back of the frame had shrapnel embedded in it but it hadn't managed to pierce through. Somehow, miraculously, the photo had survived without any harm having some to it.
Yinsen nodded at it, “Your lover?”
Tony snorted, hands tightening their grip, “Something like that.”
He tucked the picture carefully away in his shirt next to the electromagnet embedded in his chest. It felt warm against his skin and Tony drew strength from that.
Conversation after that died a quick death when their captors made their appearance, dragging Tony off to make their demands (tough luck, there, Stark Industries wouldn't pay up – probably). They used their guns to both intimidate Tony and to hit him about when he didn't co-operate or move quick enough for them.
Eventually, they dumped him back in the cell with Yinsen. Tony stumbled and only managed to catch himself on the edge of a table, hands holding the car battery that power the electromagnet keeping him alive. His cuts from the shrapnel burned and he was quite certain that he'd torn open a couple of them from the rough treatment.
Yinsen helped him back to his feet and over to the cot in the corner. Tony lay down, feeling more exhausted then he'd ever felt before his life.
“You should rest,” Yinsen said. “They'll want more from you later, I'm sure.”
He was so tired that all Tony managed to do was nod his head and then he was dropping off into unconsciousness.
Captain America's picture was like a brand against the bare skin of his chest. It burned and his entire being felt heavy, like he'd strapped a pair of leaden weights to himself. What was he supposed to do?
“There's nothing I can do. They're gonna kill me anyway...”
And he would see him. If there was anything after death, then maybe he'd get to see him.
“So this is it? The last moments of the great Tony Stark? What about him?” Yinsen jabbed his finger at where Tony had tucked Captain America's picture. “You're just going to let them kill you. What would he think of you?”
Captain America would have fought, would have planned a way out of this already. He wouldn't just give up. What these people were doing wasn't right and he wouldn't have stood for it; he would stand up and fight back, he wouldn't take this lying down.
Could he face him when he died having done nothing to try and change the wrongs he'd wrought on the world?
Tony shrugged, “Always does what's right. Beyond that? I don't know; I've never met him.”
“I see.” Yinsen paused and then gestured at Tony's wrist when he next spoke, “We met once before, you know, at a conference. I had thought you were a Blank.”
“Yeah, well, it's not like I'm going to go around bragging about the fact that I've got a name on my wrist and it, more than likely, belongs to a man who's been dead for nearly seventy years.” Tony snorted, “I've always thought my family was cursed.”
Yinsen smiled wryly, “Well, you seem to have a knack for attempting the impossible. I don't see why he would be any different.”
“What about you?” Tony asked. “Got someone waiting for you?”
“I have a wife and children. I'll see them again when I leave this place.”
Tony Stark was still alive while better, braver men lay in their graves. Those men were dead. Dead because of him.
What right did Tony Stark have to love? To live?
The only reason he kept pressing forward was because he had to do better; he owed it to their memories. If he could do better, if he could right the wrongs he'd done, then maybe, one day, he'd be able to face them with a clear conscience.
And maybe he'd be worthy of the name on his wrist.
“No one. There is no gala or press conference for this, Pepper. Just the next mission.” Tony flicked aside a hologram of potential upgrades for the armour. “I'm going to find my weapons and I'm going to destroy them. That's all there is to it.”
Pepper's mouth tightened into a thin line, “You've changed, Tony. I don't know if it's for the better or not.”
And with that, she turned on her heel and walked out of the garage, flipping her phone out to call Happy for a ride down to Stark Industries corporate offices. There was purpose in her step as she walked up the stairs and Tony couldn't help but admire that.
Tony couldn't help but wonder how he'd gotten so lucky to be surrounded by people who were so, well good. He didn't deserve their friendship or their concern. He'd felt that way before but now... now it was just so much worse.
What he owed them was to make the world a better place for them to live in. If he got a little banged up along the way, then that was fine; it wasn't like there would be anyone left to mourn him.
The name on his wrist was a promise that would never be kept. He was alone and he always would be.
Tony shrugged and winced. His shoulder was still rather tender from his fight with Obadiah and he still looked like he'd been in a bar fight the night before; his cheek was bruised and there were several cuts to his face, hands, and arms. Pepper had been dabbing make-up on them to make them look a little less prominent.
“Really? And how's that mouthful of a department name going for you? What was it? Strategic something or other?”
Coulson's lips twitched in amusement, “You can just call us SHIELD.”
Then he was being ushered out by Pepper with Rhodey and Happy close behind him and he was greeted by reporters all talking at once and that charming reporter who he remembered wrote for Vanity Fair was there and she seemed almost vindictive as she poked at his alibi.
Of course, Tony blew all of Coulson's careful preparation to hell with one simple declaration as he tossed the cards aside.
“I am Iron Man.”