Chapter 1: Beginning
It happens in the middle of the night. They come to him in the garage, while he's working away at a new actuator for Dummy. Even after so long, he can remember the plans for it perfectly.
Jarvis- the human Jarvis, not the one he constructed later from memories and wishful thinking- breaks the news to him. And Tony doesn't know how to react. For the longest time he stares, dry-eyed, and thinks, with a kind of numb, awful regret, about all the work he's going to have to do now.
Tony sits the whole rest of the night, turning the bolt he was about to put in place over and over in his hands, so many thoughts in his head that they crowd each other out until it's just a chorus of voices, too loud and too fast to be heard.
At some point, he starts building again, but Tony can't really remember what he made, and it disappears over the next few days under the clutter of the workshop.
In the morning, Stane arrives. He's driven through the night to be there.
They hug, awkwardly, neither of them used to it but aware that this is a thing that should happen, and Tony buries his face- still dry- in the older man's shoulder.
"I don't know what I'm supposed to do."
It's not the first or last time in his life Tony feels ignorant, but it's the only time he confesses it. He feels dizzy, and nothing in his later life- not flying, not fighting, not throwing himself into danger time and again- will ever feel so sickening.
"You'll work it out, Tony." Stane hides the doubt in his voice well. "You're Howard's son, after all."
And it begins there: with that sudden feeling, traitorous and sharp, that Tony's not sure he wants to be Howard's son any more.
Chapter 2: Accusation
The first time Steve is spat at, it's like the world stops. The rest of the Avengers turn and look- even the Hulk, big green face twisting as he tries to work out why everyone's gone quiet- and Steve watches, as if in slow motion, the arc of the thing, falling short as he walks past.
Because it turns out that you can explain all you want about America-the-country and America-the-set-of ideals, but once you dress up in a flag, well, you start to be all that flag represents, for good or ill. Steve knew that once, and just occasionally the world likes to make sure he doesn't forget.
That's what he tells Tony, who sits opposite him later, not talking for once, just taking apart the toaster with a speed and precision that Steve should have expected but still surprises him.
"Bull." Tony replies, his eyes on the toaster's guts. "It hurts, deeply and personally, no matter how you try and dress it up and yeah, you do try." He frowns, holds up a piece to the light. "So you go out there and prove them wrong instead, because hey, screw you, I'm a super hero."
"But it doesn't matter what they think I am." Steve replies, returning a rogue screw to the table. "I know who I am, and that's enough."
"God, you're insufferable." Tony sighs, but grins as he says it. "And they say I'm the one with the ego."
And Steve smiles too, because the other thing is- there's only a few people whose opinions matter, in the end, and so far things are working out pretty good on that front.
Chapter 3: Restless
Tony's used to working alone. Howard showed him stuff when he was a kid, sure, because contrary to popular opinion he wasn't born with a wrench in his hand (it would have been mighty uncomfortable for Maria if he had) but he'd never really like working under his dad's eyes. It never felt companionable- more like a competition, or a test, and when he left for boarding school he got into the habit of building, designing, calculating alone.
It was easier, that way, when the under-the-skin, itching urge to create got at you at weird hours and you could sit up all night until your eyes refused to stay open and the morning saw something wonderful and new.
Working with Bruce is an adjustment on every level, a surprise and a sacrifice Tony's been waiting to make his whole life, but the best part is when Tony looks up in the middle of the night and sees Bruce come in, hair sticking up every which way and eyes blinking blearily behind his glasses.
Bruce nods, and makes a beeline for the screens. That's pretty much all Tony needs to say.
Chapter 4: Snowflake
It does not snow in Asgard. The winters are clear, and cold, but snow means something rather different for a world so recently at war with the Jotuns. When snow falls on Avengers Tower, dusting the roof with white, Thor simply stands and wonders at the sky, that this can happen and mean so little.
Steve finds him there, breath clouding in the cold air as he kicks at the settling snow.
"Thought they'd have this where you come from." He's had this mental image of women in metal bras and horned hats that he knows is uncharitable, but he can't help it. Steve is pretty sure Tony has the same one from the way he smirks at Thor when the big guy talks about Asgard.
"Not so peacefully." Thor holds out his hand and watches the flakes settle and melt. "Nor with such beauty."
Steve cranes his head back to watch the falling snow, and sees only a mountain, somewhere in Europe, and another kind of fall. He's always hated the cold.
"That's a nice way of looking at it." he manages, words to fill the silence rather than anything with actual meaning.
Thor looks out at the skyline. "Your world is remarkable, Steve Rogers. I am continually reminded of this."
"Uh, thanks?" Steve blinks as the snow gets thicker. "Look, don't stay out here too long, alright? We're in the rec room if you want to come down later. You stay out here, Clint and Tony might want to start a snowball fight and that's just gonna get out of hand real quick."
Thor laughs, and nods, and watches Steve trudge back inside. Contrary to what most people think, he doesn't control the weather, not really- but if he did, it would certainly snow more often.
Chapter 5: Haze
The pain is sharp, and sudden, and clouds her vision momentarily, but Natasha pushes it away. It is only pain, and it will pass.
Tony notices anyway, reacting more to the sudden bark of the gunshot, the thud of the bullet as it hits her flesh.
"Romanoff?" He spares a glance her way, and she can see her face reflected dimly in his helmet, pale with a splash of red, not quite her own.
"I'm fine." she snaps, half-believing it herself. Later, she will not remember the pain, only the frustration at getting hit. She's not used to looking out for both herself and a teammate- it clouds her thoughts, makes her slower than she should be, which, admittedly, is still faster than pretty much anyone else save, perhaps, for Rogers. Natasha doesn't want Tony to think she's not doing her job properly.
And caring about what Stark thinks is something that she thought she'd never find herself doing, so she stops that particular train of thought cold.
Tony shrugs, metal sliding over metal, and turns back to the fight, though she can tell by the way he cants his head slightly that he's calling for backup that neither of them need.
Better wrap things up quickly, then, before it arrives- Natasha extends her arm, pushes down the pain again, gripping her gun tightly, and picks her targets.
Through the haze of dust kicked up by Stark's rockets, she sees three of AIM's troopers drop, and spares herself a smile.
Chapter 6: flame
"The mark 1 had a flamethrower."
Tony looks up at Coulson, who is standing, hands folded, watching him work . He looks rather as if he might stand there forever.
"It did." Tony replies, returning his attention to the plans for the Mark VIII. There's a matte coating he wants to try, if he can get the compounds right.
"None of the rest do."
"Logistics." The plans orbit, blue light tracing a cage around the workshop. "Fuel transportation, that kind of thing." Tony waves a hand, and a flock of holographic particles follow it. "Flamethrowers aren't really my thing, anyway. Not enough style."
Coulson raises his eyebrows. "I should have realised. Forgive me."
Tony gives him a sideways look. Coulson couldn't know about the homemade flamethrower incident, could he? No photographs of a twelve year old, eyebrow-less Tony existed, but SHIELD was pretty spooky....
(It was the only time his father had run to him- the whump of heated air still lingering in his ears, and the strong stink of burning hair that smelled, weirdly, like triumph. It was the first properly destructive thing Tony had ever made)
He dismisses the thought. It's perfectly natural to be a little wary of fire. There didn't need to be any fancy reasons for it.
Chapter 7: Formal
History gets changed in the retelling to a more comfortable lie- though he refers to him later with casual ease, Tony never did call Howard 'dad' to his face.
Maria was 'mom', sure- those times, before boarding school, when he sought comfort in her skirls, the soft smell of her cigarettes, her hand on his head, ruffling his hair. The other held a glass, more often than not, the chink of ice against the rim a tinkling music as she listened to his fervent, eager plans for rockets and cars and spaceships that would fly to the moon and back, just to say they could. After boarding school and MIT she was 'ma'am', or Maria, but that was too short a time to really take hold.
(When he dreams of her, she is 'mom')
She was even 'mommy', once, far, far too back for anyone to remember (save Stane, who would push the memory of an accidental visit to the Stark playroom down and out of sight and bury it too deep to recall).
Howard, though, was always 'sir'. It didn't matter the setting- he's always fix Tony with that look, the one that pinned him to the floor and seemed to go right through him, cold and evaluating all at once, and ask him some question- math, higher and higher level, or a quiz on what he was doing at boarding school. It was only later that Tony realised that this was probably the only way Howard knew of to talk to his son. Engineer to engineer, it was fine- but parent to child? It was formal. Cold.
In public, with his friends, Tony could joke and call him 'the old man', 'dad', sometimes even 'Howard', like they were on equal terms or something (they never were, Howard made that quite clear). But when Tony and Howard talked, and they did talk, though it was never the conversation you'd expect for a father and son, it was always, always 'sir'.
(Howard called him 'Tony' exactly once. We each make our distances in words)
Chapter 8: Companion
TRIGGER WARNING for torture
It's Pepper's voice he hears, down at the bottom of that pit of black water.
They drag him out, retching, vomit dribbling down his chin and into his beard, the empty heave of his lungs like a burning drag in the gut, over and over 'til there's nothing left.
Raza kneels to his level, looks him in the eye.
"Make my Jericho."
Tony can only shake his head, mumbling something incoherent against the bile in his mouth, and Raza purses his lips, so much like a disappointed schoolmaster that Tony has to laugh at the weirdness of it, a sick burbling thing that starts somewhere under the hunk of metal in his chest and burns upwards like electricity, bursting in his brain. Like Tony Stark cares about disappointing this bald bastard.
Because it doesn't matter. None of this matters.
It never did: it's the end of the world, or at least the end of the world in every sense he considers important, and only now does Tony realise, far too late, that it's always been Pepper's voice at the bottom of the pit, whatever damn hole he's dug himself into.
Some genius. What good's the solution when it comes too late to help anyone?
Raza clicks his tongue, and Tony's moment in the light and air is up, and he's grabbed by the shoulders and hauled forward.
And it's the water again, and Pepper calling his name.
Chapter 9: Move (in)
They come in dribs and drabs, collecting after New York like filings, drawn to a magnet. It's not an exact comparison, but Tony's never been great with metaphors.
First, of course, it's Tony moving in- the house in Malibu, cool as it is, is an old model and wrecked every other day, and though he keeps restoring it (why not?) it's never really been home the way the penthouse feels. And it hasn't got that badass Loki-shaped indentation, the one Tony feels like bronzing, most days, even if he damn near breaks his ankle every time he goes to get himself a drink.
Then it's Bruce, bag slung over his shoulder, face apologetic (as per usual)- he needs a place to crash and Tony's more than happy to give it to him, seeing as he built a whole damn floor for the guy, one that's still got the plastic on it, so to speak, wrapped up in a big shiny bow like a Christmas gift.
Bruce never really got the gifts he wanted, but he's familiar with the concept second-hand.
Clint and Natasha follow, in their own ways. Clint leaves his stuff all over the place and eats all the damn cereal (and has the nerve to complain about Tony stealing the prizes, when any right-minded person knows you upend the box for it first). Natasha turns up in odd places, when you least expect her, perching on the backs of chairs like a bird, reading a random assortment of books and magazines culled from the Helicarrier rec room.
Thor lands on the roof one day, in the middle of one of the biggest thunderstorms Tony's ever seen. It's quite something, although he does manage to rip the door off its hinges when he comes in.
Tony's not normally one to worry about the cost of things, but it gets to be a habit and later, he'll look back and wish he'd nipped that one in the bud.
Steve is the last. He's travelled, all over America, mostly, though there was a detour to England and a flat in Kensington that smelled of flowers and dust, and a long conversation with an elderly woman who still smiles like she knows all the secrets in the world (and she probably does, by now).
He walks in on them eating pizza and arguing about the movie they're watching (except for Bruce, who is just watching the show) and coughs after the first fifteen minutes go by.
Tony looks up, and grins.
"I was wondering when you'd show up."
Chapter 10: Silver
Rhodey's known Tony Stark for nearly four decades now, and in all that time he's never known anybody who's been able to take anything from him he didn't want to give.
He thinks about it, flying back to the base- it's a long flight, even with the armor- and tracks back in his mind, all the connections firing. Maybe not as fast as Tony, but more meticulous.
The conversation, way back, just after Afghanistan (planning something big, why couldn't he just come out and say what he meant?)- the way he'd sounded in the fight. The way Tony had laid there and just watched him walk away.
And Rhodey feels like smacking himself in the forehead (he can't, of course, because that's where his flight stabilisers are) for missing something that big so badly.
The silver armour. Tony intended Rhodey to be his goddamn knight in shining armour- Oh, Rhodey's gonna kill him for that- and he cocked it up all the same.
"Tony Stark." Rhodey sighs, to no-one in particular, and though he doesn't curse the inflection makes the name sound like the dirtiest words he knows.
Chapter 11: Prepared
New York teaches Tony many things. The suit's capabilities for interstellar travel. How to be a team player. Where to get pretty good shawarma for five people plus extra for a guy with a Hulkover. This, though, is the most important- that one day, maybe soon but, god or fate or whatever it was that looked after this stuff willing, not too soon, he will leave people behind. In that moment, just before he blacked out and the sky turned around him, dizzying and vast, Tony learned the importance of preparation.
He sits down in his workshop, glass in hand, and keys in the sequence. The displays light up.
Dummy, disturbed by the movement, stirs- but nothing further triggers his sensors, so he goes back to dormancy. Tony pats the robot's claw absently, watching the lights on his console flicker and spread.
Eventually, it's ready.
Tony puts down his glass and stares into the blue point of light that denotes the camera. He shakes the memory of another film, another man staring at the camera, trying to think of what to say.
After a long moment, he takes a breath. Starts to speak.
"Pepper. If you're seeing this, it means something went wrong."
Chapter 12: Knowledge
Possibly looking forward to Iron Man 3! Forgive me for a little speculation.
He always figured there'd be nothing he wouldn't do for knowledge. When being the smartest kid in the class was all he had, Tony had promised himself that he'd never let that advantage slip away. Having Stabe lie to him for so long only confirmed it. Tony was always going to make sure he knew more than the other guy.
Knowledge is power isn't the Stark family motto (it's something else about honour or integrity or industry, some meaningless words cooked up by a grandfather Tony never knew), but it could well have been. A certain kind of knowledge- chemicals and gears, steel bolts and burning metal. And more, too- Equations, numbers and, lately, secrets.
And when that knowledge gets out of hand- when it's found by the wrong people, when they demand things from him he cannot, will not give- that's when it's the most powerful of all.There's nothing Tony won't do to stop that happening.
But as he sits on the edge of the bed, the vial of Extremis heavy and strangely cold in his hand, Tony wonders if this isn't a step too far, even for him.
Chapter 13: Denial
"We're not soldiers."
It's not that Tony doesn't like soldiers. He's been around the military since before he could walk, handed around during parties and, later, hiding on the bannisters at the mansion to see these strange, tall men in their uniforms, their colourful medals catching the light as they shook Howard's hand.
Like everything in Tony's life, it's a bit more complicated than just that.
"We're not soldiers." Howard had told him, once, speaking more to the plans spread out on the desk than to his son. "We're far more important than that."
Tony remembers crossing over the carpet and resting his chin on the desk, the cool wood on his skin as he scanned the designs.
"Soldiers are just the beginning. We make sure they're safe. We make the weapons- the hardware that ensures victory." His father had run a hand along the paper, following the curve of a casing, the elegant lines of circuitry and steel. "It begins with soldiers- but even the greatest soldier in the world isn't worth a damn unless you can give him something to fight with. Then, it doesn't matter who you are- Joe Smith from Nowhere, USA or Captain America himself- you can start to fight back."
"We're not soldiers." Tony spits at Steve, walking away from the gaping hole where Thor fell and Coulson died, the blood still bright on the ground.
The echo of his father finishes it for him, out in the hall where Steve can't hear.
"We're far more important than that."
Chapter 14: Wind
Some things get old. That's just the nature of the universe, right? Do a thing enough times and it gets played out. It's done. Even seeing Steve every day becomes less of a shock each time, less of a giddy, haha-it's-really-Captain-America thrill.
(Or at least it gets that way for Tony. Coulson never seems to get tired of seeing Cap, though Steve sure gets tired of seeing him)
That's why you update and upgrade. Why you keep to the cutting- no, the bleeding edge. Get the newer, faster car and the bigger, better toys. It's nothing to be ashamed of. Tony never really got the idea he should feel shame about it anyway. Wasn't he supposed to be an innovator?
Still, there's one thing that never gets old: one thing that gives him the same thrill of excitement every time. Tony feels the breeze on his face one last time, the gritty air of the city ruffling through his hair, then shuts the faceplate.
"Time to go."
He flexes his fingers in the suit, squares his shoulders and steps off the edge of the tower.
The ground rushes up, but the bootjets engage (a little drag, he's going to have to compensate for that in the next design- there's already a million tiny ways the suit could be better, faster, a hundred thousand ways it's old already) and the wind whistles past the helmet, loud and glorious in the onboard speakers.
Nope, Tony thinks, as he rockets up into the sky, bright and brilliant and free, this bit never, ever gets old.
Chapter 15: Order
There's a knack to getting Tony to do what you want.
"You've got a meeting at four o'clock" doesn't work too well- he doesn't register it unless she says the words right into his face, straightening his tie or taking some revolutionary electronic wonder (revolutionary and probably completely useless) out of his hand.
You have to talk over him. Cut through the background chatter that's just simply his brain spilling over into the real world, mouth running while something else processes in the background.
You've got to engage his interest.
"There's a meeting." Pepper says crisply, circling Tony, watching his head jerk up.
"Is there?" his eyes follow her: he wants Pepper to talk again. "We only had one last week. You think they'd-"
"They come around if you wait long enough." She reaches over and takes some of the toast from his plate: his eyes follower her, watching her eat it.
"I thought appointing you CEO meant I don't have to-"
"You're the public face, Tony-"
"But yours is so much prettier-"
"Tony." Pepper chews on the toast, one hand scrolling through her phone. "I've got to go. Four o'clock, okay? I want to see you there."
She meets Coulson outside, his eyebrows raised in surprise. "Did you just give Tony Stark an order?"
"It's a knack." Pepper finishes off the toast and brushes the crumbs from her mouth. Coulson whistles softly.
"We should get you to do some seminars."
Chapter 16: Thanks
The thing that surprises Tony the most is when people start giving him medals.
It's not that he hasn't won anything before. When he was a kid he collected science prizes like other people collect stamps, and later there were always those industry awards, the grand ceremonies where they did retrospectives that always started with his father, like he was just Howard 2.0.
Tony never felt like he'd earned those, not really. Just throw them on the pile, move on to the next thing. These ceremonies, painfully earnest as they were, were different. They felt different.
He doesn't always turn up in his armour (he tries to make the suit as light as he can but it's still far heavier than most chairs or stages can manage, and any mishaps would be kind of embarrassing, for them as well as him) but he likes to show them bits of it- it's the Iron Man they're honouring, after all.
And he sits through the dinner and the speeches and shakes the hand of some nervous dignitary wheeled out for the occasion, and takes the award home with this weird feeling, all the way down in his stomach. Like he's proud, but he can't for the life of him imagine why.
He didn't start doing this for the recognition.
"You don't need to go to these, you know." Happy tells him, misreading the signals again in the car on the way back to the Tower. "I mean, they can just send you the award."
"I like hearing about how great I am." Tony replies, running on auto, staring out the window.
Chapter 17: Look
Tony Stark has the most awful table manners Pepper has ever seen.
Back home, her parents had been- not sticklers, exactly, but they'd had clear boundaries about what you did and didn't do at the table. You talked, but not with your mouth full, and elbows were kept off the table along with books, newspapers and magazines. You let the conversation grow- Pepper had enjoyed dinner parties as she got older, catching the ebb and flow of conversation, directing it expertly.
Tony, on the other hand, seems to think that it's perfectly acceptable to use dinner as an excuse for an hour-long lecture on his latest projects and, for his next trick, catch up on his reading at the same time. Pepper watches him as he scoops up the food on his plate one-handed, the fork barely supporting the weight of the potatoes piled on it, and shoves the entire thing in his mouth.
She never gets tired of looking at him. It's such a cliche, but then so much of romance is. You start out perfectly sane but in a few months you're building a tower together with his name on it and walking around his bedroom without shoes on. Pepper has made Happy promise to put her out of her misery if she ever starts writing 'Mrs Pepper Stark' in her diary, because by then she'll be too far gone to notice.
He must feel her eyes on him because he looks around, cheeks bulging, and winks.
It's a side of Tony that will never get to the magazines or the boardroom, or even the Avengers- its completely, utterly hers, and she loves it.
Chapter 18: Summer
Tony turns fifteen one unseasonably warm day at the beginning of summer, quite alone.
It's not as if he doesn't have friends. He likes to think he's reasonably popular at boarding school (as popular as anyone with a fake ID and the gumption to pass as twenty-one can be) and there's a few kids he knows through his parents that seem to tolerate him. He'd invited them, but term had ended and everyone had much better places to be than at a totally dry party at the Stark place.
Tony crosses over to the piano and plunks at it absently, feeling the low, flat note of the key under his hand rather than hearing it. Somewhere in the house, a maid starts to vacuum.
This is it, he thinks, looking around at the food wilting in the heat, the empty room. This is me, at fifteen, alone on my birthday. And- he looks up to the picture of his father and grandfather, staring down at him- it will probably be like this for the rest of my life.
What a loser.
It's kind of funny, in a really stupid way, and Tony decides to celebrate this realisation with a drink. Howard doesn't exactly keep his booze under lock and key and neither he nor Maria comment on the fact that these days when Tony returns from boarding school the levels seem to diminish more rapidly, it being a strict rule in the Stark household that if you're going to have an emotion you do it quietly where you can't bother anyone else.
After that drink, he decides to have another. And then one more. And that, pretty much, is that.
Chapter 19: Transformation
"Is there anything real about you?" he spits, his tone calculatedly flat, and she shoots back a look of pure hatred, the likes of which Hammer and his ilk could only aspire to. Tony feels a measure of satisfaction he later regrets. He's not a nice person. He really shouldn't let it show that often.
But it remains the most genuine emotion he provokes from Natasha for a while. All of the Avengers have multiple personas- Tony himself consciously adopts them, changing from public to private to whatever it is the Iron Man represents (he doesn't think too hard about that one, lest it lead some place psychological) in the blink of an eye. There's still identifying features, though, between the personas. Steve is still Steve, wether he's wearing spangly blue tights or the beige old man pants he seems to get specially made (there's surely no store that sells the things in his size any more). It's there in the way he stands, the cock of his head as he regards this strange new world he's awakened to. Thor is just Thor, constantly, as loudly as he can be. Clint seems to take care to be the same man in uniform as when he's out of it, and hell, even Bruce is still recognisably Bruce, even when he's all green and ragey.
(Bruce disagrees on that last point quite vehemently, but then he hasn't seen the Hulk from the outside the way Tony has, the disconcerting way that big green face mirrors Bruce's- just inverted, so all that repressed anger turns from a dry self-deprecation to roaring rage)
But Natasha? Tony doesn't know where he stands with her. She's very different from Rushman, so much so he sometimes finds himself thinking of them as different people. He can remember leaning in to her at his birthday, and his stomach clenches at the thought of it: she must have been drawing him in close, surely? Getting his measure? The transformation was so complete he can't tell.
It's only when he's stitching her up in the infirmary- after yet another stupid giant robot fight, hoping that the bravado and fast talking make up for the fact he's got really no idea what he's doing- his hands, thank God, steady as they ever were- that he sees something new. When Natasha Romanoff looks him square in the eye, all trace of anaesthetic gone, and states, coolly:
"I don't actually want to kill you."
The phrase floors him. He honestly thought she hated him. Who wouldn't? She hadn't exactly met him at his best. And when Tony meets her gaze, he sees something new: a tiny kernel, perhaps, of the person Natasha Romanoff really is.
For a moment he can't reply. He mutters something about things she'll regret, and then says perhaps the worst thing he could have chosen.
(he doesn't know, back then, about red rooms or men with metal arms, of winters spent running and the way your true self can sleep. He doesn't know what it's like to be unmade)
Tony calls her a 'SHIELD killbot' and Natasha shuts down again, back to Agent Romanoff. Clumsy. Too sharp. But Tony has a good memory, and just for a moment he's seen that transformation is possible, and it gives him just a shade of hope.
Chapter 20: Tremble
He thought his hands would tremble. They don't. The shield is beautiful: a perfect circle, balanced with a precision that, he knows from Howard's notes, almost sent his father crazy.
Tony flicks it with a fingernail, and hears the low, resonant hum of the vibranium, dampened and cut off before the sound can ring out properly. Coulson suppresses a wince, and Tony gives him a blankly innocent look. Or as innocent as his face can manage, anyway.
Nods, just once, because there's a time for quips and smartassery and this isn't really it.
"It's the real deal." he tilts it, sees his own face reflected in red and blue and silver. "It's him."
Chapter 21: Sunset
There's a house in Malibu with the walls cracked open. The sunset blazes through them, bright and brief and blood-red. Glass is scattered across the floor, a million brilliant, tiny fragments that catch the light, twinkle and fade.
Some paper, caught under the rubble, blows over in the rapidly-cooling air, triggering a response from the house's AI. The voice is blurred with age, the graphic interface jittery and slow.
"Good morning, Mister Stark."
The ghost of a clock projects onto the space where the windows used to be.
(he did not save the city. He flew and flew and still the bomb fell, and still the army kept coming, but by that point it didn't matter, and nothing ever mattered so terribly much ever again)
"The time is- the time is- the time is-"
The AI does not remember the time. There is no longer any way of telling.
In the end, the voice simply gives up, and the house returns to silence.
Chapter 22: Mad
Tony looks around from his latest project- some upgrades to the suit, nothing too heavy. Certainly nothing insane- insane would be, off the top of his head, maybe space capability (an ongoing project) or laser displays or something that shoots fireworks out of his ass.
Just, you know, hypothetically.
Bruce takes up the helmet and looks at it. "You don't have to do this, you know?"
He rubs a thumb over the coating- Tony can see his face crumple in that way that's so sad and lonely and so inexpressibly Bruce. "You could just… leave this suit off and be normal."
Tony sets down his tools and wipes his hands on his shirt. "Bruce, just a quick question for you- do I look normal?"
Bruce reflects on this and concedes that perhaps Tony is a touch eccentric.
"When I was.. twelve?" Tony digs back through his memories, "They tested me. Thought maybe I was some kind of high-functioning savant."
He gives Bruce a quick, tight smile. "Turned out I was just difficult. Then, after Afghanistan, I got the shrinks again. Obie's idea."
He looks away, swallows. "Didn't realise what they were looking for at the time, but everyone thought I might have PTSD. You know," he waves a hand, his gestures getting a little more manic. "from the bomb."
"Tony-" Bruce puts down the helmet. "I'm sorry, I didn't-"
Tony holds up his hand. "Aaat-ut. Not finished."
He takes a deep breath, like maybe being honest needs all this extra effort. Bruce waits, patiently- he gets it, now, but it looks like it might be good for Tony to talk this through. They're starting to get this rhythm. It's starting to look, from the outside, like friendship.
Tony looks Bruce in the eye.
"Of all the things I've done, the things I couldn't control, the, hah, the being difficult, as they put it- I think honestly the Iron Man is the sanest decision I've made in my whole life."
Chapter 23: Thousand
"You complete me!"
Pepper's reply is lost to the wind and Tony neatly catches his helmet and plummets three thousand feet or more.
It was never like this at the tech conferences. All the award ceremonies in the world couldn't compare to what he's doing now, no matter how many PowerPoints they put together about how great his dad was. Tony brings the Iron Man low over the crowd, practically buzzing the arena low enough that somewhere he's sure some air traffic control techs are having a collective heart attack.
His own heart pounds in his chest, and Tony imagines he can feel the poison spreading into his body, the fine dark lines spiderwebbing out across his skin, reminding him that this little stunt is going to cost him more than nausea and a lecture on no-fly zones from Rhodey.
It's not a helpful or comforting thought- luckily the roar of the crowd almost (not quite) drowns it out, and he brings the suit in to land, holding out his arms as a thousand people scream his name.
He bows his head and grins, just barely keeping on top of the kick he gets from the crowd, the people in his colours about to listen to his ideas, delirious on the spectacle of his show.
Tony holds up his hand, but lets them shriek just a little longer, drowned out in the thunder of his own name.
Not 'Tony Stark'- not now, and never again. They scream 'Iron Man'.
Chapter 24: Outside
"You could at least pretend you're having a good time." Steve says reproachfully as Tony surreptitiously checks his phone for the fifty-fifth time.
Tony puts his phone back into his pocket (still no signal), looks around and sighs. "I'm a big believer in honesty, Steve, and my honest opinion is that you have gotten us lost in the middle of a wasteland during one of your forced marches."
"It's not a wasteland." Steve corrects him. "It's a public park, and we're not lost."
Tony doesn't dignify this piece of fiction with an answer, and instead takes in the vista around them. It's pretty enough, if you like that kind of thing, but as far as Tony's concerned the great outdoors is something that happens to other people.
Steve looks at Tony and does that disappointed, aggravating head-shake of his, the one that makes Tony want to hit him, and then starts to walk away.
"This rugged woodsman act isn't fooling anyone." Tony calls after him. "I know you grew up in Brooklyn!"
He turns and notices that one of the geese from the nearby lake is watching him with beady eyes.
"What are you looking at?"
The goose advances, honking menacingly, and Tony decides that following Steve might be a good idea after all.
Chapter 25: Winter
The Avengers are for summer.
The smell of ruined concrete and ozone hangs better in warm air- the colours are brighter. Sunlight makes things cleaner, somehow. Bolder. In the summer, it's easy to stand with a team and be a super hero.
But summer ends, and winter brings change. Tony doesn't want to spend winter in New York. The renovations to Stark Tower drag, and the labs he wanted to share are empty. Natasha and Clint are gone, melted back into the shadow-world of SHIELD. Steve rode off on his motorbike to see this new world he just saved. Bruce is probably halfway across the globe by now, still trying to outrun his shadow.
Thor? Tony won't admit it, but he doesn't think too much about Thor, except when he brings up the scans he took of the Tesseract, the scans Nick Fury doesn't know he has.
Winter is for family. For Christmas with Pepper (Tony thinks of it with a lurch of excitement, then feels self-consciously childish), and War Machine designs with Rhodey, and beers with Happy.
It's for red and gold on armour and tinsel, and not a hint of blue or green or purple.
It's for hunkering down and thinking about what you learned, so that when spring arrives, it brings with it more change- and greater than anyone ever thought possible.
Chapter 26: Diamond
The first time Steve visits him at home, Tony's pretty sure his eyes are gonna fall out, the way he keeps staring. He tries to hide it, contenting himself with raising his eyebrows at the way JARVIS greets him and leaning over to look at Tony's shelf of engineering awards.
"I've never been in a rich guy's house before." Steve admits, before looking over and quirking his mouth in a smile. "Figured it'd be nicer."
He taps the table and manages to bring up the hologram with the stock report, frowning at it.
"More gold." Steve waves his hand through the hologram, watching the light play on his fingers. It's hypnotic, Tony decides, watching him play with tech. Kind of hot. "Diamond toilets, that kinda thing."
Tony raises his hands in a can-you-believe-this guy gesture, a mute appeal to JARVIS, who has wisely put himself on mute.
"Yeah, well I keep my diamond toilet in the other house."
"You've got other houses? Besides Stark Tower?"
It's adorable when his eyebrows rocket up like that, even if Tony suspects Steve is acting surprised to make him feel better.
He'll take what he can get.
Chapter 27: Letters
[SHIELD CLASSIFIED FILE #2837485]
I don't know how to talk to you. Isn't that stupid? I have, I've been told, one of the finest engineering minds in the country, and I can't talk to my own son. You're ten, right now, causing holy hell for your mother and everyone at that school of yours. I'm not as involved as I should be.
Truth be told, you scare the hell out of me.
I used to write letters like this to Steve. Before the ice, and after as well: one every month, on average, regular as anything. It's dumb, really, cause there's no way he's really alive after all these years. Peggy gave up hope long before I did, but then she was always the practical one. Still. It would be nice to talk to Steve about this. About you.
He'd have loved you. Nothing really to do with you, you're actually kind of a brat- sorry, by the way. I'm hoping you'll grow out of it.
He just loved kids in general. Had a way with them- maybe it was all those babies he had to kiss when he was touring the country. He can talk to them. Me? I just look at you and draw a big old blank. I don't have anything to say to a kid. Not even you. So I thought I'd set things down now, and when you're older I'll look over this and we'll talk it through, man to man. Hopefully you'll understand when you have kids of your own.
What we're going to talk about, Anthony, is who you are. My father told me once that the people of the past were just as smart as we are today. They simply didn't have the technology to match the pace of their thoughts. And I believe that to be true. All my business, all the government contracts and the weapons, the bombs and bullets, everything- it's to build up for you.
One day, Anthony, you're going to change the world.
[REDACTED: MESSAGE ENDS HERE]
Chapter 28: Promise
"It’s really good not to have to run for once."
Bruce stares at the glass in his hand, and Tony wonders what he sees.
"You shouldn’t have to run." It's not a promise Tony is one hundred per cent sure he can keep, but it's something he knows now he'd give his blood, sweat and tears to make true.
You see, there's this way Bruce's face crumples that's like a punch in the gut. Tony hasn't seen it often. He's glad, honestly. It says far too much about Banner for comfort.
('You can't kill me. I've tried')
The worst thing about that face- the thing that hurts, every time he sees it, is how easily it fits on Bruce's body. He turns into this ghost of himself, and Tony can barely look at him- how his whole body seems heavier, his movements dulled and understated, screaming 'don't look at me'.
Tony would give pretty much anything not to see that ever again.
He looks over and feels a little thrill at Bruce's smile. I did that.
"Banner, I swear to you, as long as you’re here you will never have to think about running."
Chapter 29: Simple
Tony decided Rhodey was his friend about halfway into his first semester at MIT. It was pretty much as simple as that. Rhodey didn't have much say in the matter- he wasn't even really sure what to make of Tony at first: this kid, way younger than everyone else, building robots and all kinds of crap in his dorm room, for crying out loud, like a genius in a cartoon.
A lot of Tony's life seems to come out of a cartoon.
Rhodey doesn't sleep for the three months Tony's missing. Okay, that's an exaggeration. He does sleep, but he feels guilty as hell about it. Pepper and Happy make things worse somehow by not blaming him, when it's clearly his fault. As if Rhodey didn't know that things get real complicated around Tony Stark, real quick. He spends so much time looking at aerial photographs and maps and dossiers that the words 'Tony Stark' seem to be tattooed in every squiggle of his brain, which is so like the bastard that Rhodey wonders sometimes if he's done this deliberately.
Things get very complicated indeed when a seemingly empty stretch of desert explodes and Rhodey somehow knows, just knows, that this disaster has Tony's fingerprints all over it.
He's the only guy, after all, who would consider constructing a robot suit (of all the stupid, cartoonish things) a perfectly legitimate escape plan.
Finding Tony half-dead in the desert doesn't make Rhodey feel vindicated. There's just this overwhelming sense of relief and, under it all, a deep and bone-weary tiredness.
But at least things get simple again, because Rhodey looks down at this bearded asshole who put him through three months of absolute hell, and decides that yeah, he wants to be Tony's friend.
Chapter 30: Future
This is the best time. Just before the press conference. Tony can practically taste the energy- real live superheroes! In New York! And now they want to talk!
Yeah, sure, maybe Fury had looked like his eyepatch was going to burst into flames when Tony had sort of accidentally on purpose leaked the story to Christine Everhart, but even he had to admit that the public were hungry for news. The crowds outside right now in home-made Avengers gear are practically frothing at the mouth. (Tony is particularly taken with the one kid who'd drawn on a sharpie goatee)
"This isn't gonna work." Cap mutters, shifting from one foot to the other. He's twitching with his shield, and Tony caught him taping cue cards on the back earlier. He hadn't been able to stop laughing for a good two minutes.
"It will be like a royal address!" Thor assures Steve, clapping one huge hand on his back. Bruce, who understandably is not being identified to the public at large, laughs and tries to hide it with a cough.
Clint doesn't bother to hide his laughter at all, and even Natasha smirks. SHIELD agents get a free pass too, apparently.
Tony diplomatically ignores them and walks out to the podium and a host of flashing bulbs. Until very recently, when he'd thought of the future, he'd thought of the Iron Man suit, or the arc reactor (the big one, the one he's going to make available to everyone one day). In the last few days, though, he's thought more in terms of the team. Of the world that came so close to disaster, and how fragile everything suddenly seems.
"Ladies and gentlemen."
Tony's stood at the doorway of something like this before: a moment where the future opens up, wide and bright, and all you need to do is say the right words.
"Let me show you the future."