Tony’s always been smart, always been quick and clever and so much faster.
He’s four when he realizes just how much faster than everyone else he really is.
Four is when the rest of the world finds out too.
So he’s four when he fills up the walls of his nursery with hastily scribbled words and diagrams and equations that he shouldn’t, couldn’t, know. Four when he spends two sleepless nights huddled in his room fitting a circuit board together with hands too small and clumsy to keep up with his quicksilver mind.
Four when a drunken Howard rails at him, smelling like expensive scotch and fine cigars. Tony can practically taste the jealousy and promised pain in the air around him as the man screams.
Terrified, Tony just curls himself down into the nearest corner and shakes, hands clamped down over his ears and the splintered halves of his circuit board pressed tight between his chest and his knees.
He’s four when Jarvis, who smells of fresh bread and lemon furniture polish and feels like home and comfort and love, pulls him away from the corner and rocks him through his sobs.
“How did you make this, young sir?” Jarvis asks him once Tony’s calm and Howard’s gone upstairs to pass out. “How did you know what to do?”
“I don’t know.” Tony whispers, throat sore and head aching from crying. “I dreamed about it and when I woke up … I knew.”
Jarvis frowns softly but doesn’t say anything else. Just smooths a hand over Tony’s forehead and soothes him to sleep.
“Why does he hate me?” Tony’s six when he sobs the question out, desperation and hurt twined through every word.
“Oh young sir,” Jarvis sighs softly, “he doesn’t hate you. The relationship between fathers and sons can be difficult. Just … give it time. One day, this too will pass.”
“It won’t.” Tony denies. “He hates me Jarvis. I can feel it. I know.”
“You mustn’t say such things young sir,” Jarvis shushes him, face creased in worry, “it isn’t safe.”
Tony doesn’t see Maria often. She flitters in and out of the manor like a butterfly, beautiful but constantly on the move, fluttering from one society gala to another charity auction to a different spa almost faster than he can blink.
She’s never cruel to him, never hits him or screams like Howard does, but Tony knows that she doesn’t love him either. Not really, not deeply and truly. Not like a mother should.
He can feel it in the air around her, her indifference towards him, can feel it like he can feel Howard’s jealously and rage.
He has Jarvis though.
Tony’s still too small and too young to truly realize how he’s been robbed, how he’s been cheated. Is too young to truly understand what all of this means and just how different he really is.
That knowledge will come eventually but by then it’ll be far too late.
By that time he’ll already be set on his path.
Tony realizes rather quickly that Jarvis was wrong.
It doesn’t pass.
Howard doesn’t get better.
He only gets worse.
And Tony, face bloody and body sore, knows with a grim sort of certainty that it’s only the beginning.
Friday is Tony’s favorite day of the week because that’s the day that Jarvis bakes for him.
Every week there’s cake or bread or some other kind of pastry cooling in the kitchen and they’ve each been made just for him.
Jarvis, stern but gentle Jarvis who Tony loves, always presents it to him with a flourish, makes it a production each and every week.
Tony always laughs, always grins and giggles joyfully no matter how bad his face/ribs/arms hurt.
Nothing else matters on those days because with each bite he takes he feels stronger, his aches and pains fade quicker, his bruises and broken bones even seem to heal faster.
Tony loves Fridays.
When he eats what Jarvis makes him on Fridays he’s not hungry for days afterwards even if Jarvis tries to make him eat anyways.
“At least a few mouthfuls young sir,” Jarvis almost begs him when Tony says he’s not hungry for the fifth day in the row. “You’ll take ill if you don’t eat.”
“I’ll be hungry again Friday Jarvis.” Tony laughs up at him because he knows it’s true. He’s always hungry on Fridays now. Besides nothing else ever tastes good to Tony except for the things Jarvis makes him on Fridays. “Can you make those tarts I like? The ones with the apples in the middle. They make me feel warm.”
“Of course,” Jarvis agrees. Tony doesn’t understand the slight flicker of fear he can feel in the air but he dismisses it when Jarvis smiles and ruffles his hair gently. “Anything you like young sir, anything at all.”
The cakes and pastries Jarvis makes on Fridays become actual meals.
Tony always eats.
Each bite tastes like love and devotion. Like home.
But, somewhere in the back of his mind, Tony never forgets the way that brief flicker of Jarvis’ fear had felt.
“Stop young sir.” Jarvis pulls the hacksaw out of his hands, drops it to the ground, and then cups Tony’s shoulders in his hands as he crouches down in front of him. “You must leave it on.”
“But it itches.” Tony’s scratching at the cast on his arm, the cast he knows he no longer needs because it’s Saturday now. He’d eaten the day before and his arm is fine now so he wants the cast off because it’s interfering with his work and it itches.
He doesn’t understand why Jarvis won’t let him cut it off.
“You’ve had it for two days young sir.” Jarvis reminds him. “It should not … normal people … there would be questions if you were suddenly without it.”
“But my arm’s fixed now Jarvis.” Tony whines. “You know it’s fixed. It’s Saturday and I’m always fixed after Fridays. You know that.”
“Anthony,” the use of his first name is jarring enough to get his undivided attention. “You must pretend. Please. For me.”
“Okay Jarvis.” Tony agrees because there’s a sort of desperation in Jarvis’ face that Tony’s never seen before. “For you.”
Tony doesn’t think much of it, not then. He’s always healed faster the more time he spends with Jarvis. Has always been stronger and smarter, better, on the days and weeks where Howard is gone and it’s just the two of them in the manor.
At that age, even with as smart as he is, Tony’s still naive in a lot of ways.
He thinks it’s normal, thinks it’s because Jarvis loves him.
In a way he’s not even wrong.
Aunt Peggy whirls into his life at nine and Tony is in awe of her.
She’s fun and strong and kind. She’s like Jarvis with the way she touches him, the way she smiles at him, the way she has stories that make him breathless with anticipation and giddy with the good kind of fear.
She loves him too. Tony can feel it like he can feel Howard’s hate and jealousy, like he can feel Maria’s indifference and the warm silverish light of Jarvis’ devotion.
Tony never feels stronger than on the days she comes to visit and he has her and Jarvis both by his side.
On those days he feels as if he could do anything.
Aunt Peggy gives him something else along the way too.
During her visits, during the long nights spent huddled together in his room or hers, she tells him about Steve Rogers, about Captain America and his Howling Commandos.
Through her stories Aunt Peggy teaches Tony about being strong, about when to compromise and when to plant himself like a tree and stand tall against all opposition.
She teaches him about fighting for what is right even when it’s hard.
Even when it hurts.
Tony listens with rapt attention, stares at the old, faded pictures of Steve she shows him, and falls just a little bit in love.
The arctic expeditions are the only thing Howard and Tony ever agree on and even then it’s only in a distant sort of way.
Howard is obsessed with finding Captain America, is obsessed with his legacy and SI and how Tony’s never going to be good enough.
Tony’s only ever been obsessed with two things: innovation and Steve.
MIT is hard.
The distance from Jarvis makes Tony feel sluggish and weak for days on end, only perking up when a care package arrives without fail every Friday.
He adjusts eventually though because adjusting, pushing forward, is what Tony does.
He passes the time in a whirlwind of classes and creation, of studying and learning and absorbing every piece of knowledge he can get his hands on.
Of the sweet bliss of innovation.
With every new thing he learns Tony feels a little bit stronger, a little bit more.
Sunset Bain is like a breath of fresh air. She’s sharp and sexy and smart. She talks with him, laughs with him, doesn’t treat him like he bought his way into MIT with anything other than his own intelligence.
She’s like no one Tony’s ever met before. He finds her newness fascinating to the point that he aches with the need to learn all that he can about her.
So when she pulls him into her bed Tony doesn’t even think twice before he follows her.
He revels in the way he feels when her undivided attention is turned on him when they fuck. In the way she touches him and the way she teaches him to touch her. He likes when she guides him, even how she laughs when he messes up or fumbles or comes too quickly.
He likes everything about her, about being with her.
He feels stronger after every time, can go longer without sleep or food or anything but the burning need to create. He also takes in unhealthy amounts of coffee because drinks don’t always hold the issues he has with food and he’s found that he likes the taste of coffee more than anything else.
He thinks it might be love, this feeling. It’s different from what he feels for Jarvis and Aunt Peggy, different from what he feels for the faded pictures of Steve that he’s squirreled away and hidden from Howard.
It’s different than anything else he’s ever felt so while he thinks it could be love, he isn’t entirely sure.
But still the feeling’s powerful, potent.
‘Love,’ Tony stubbornly thinks, ‘is the only thing it could be.’
And what’s better is the fact that he’s pretty sure Sunset feels the same, even if it is a bit different than what he’s used to. He can feel it on her, that powerful pulse of what can only be her love. He feels it each and every time they’re together.
That’s what makes it all the harder when she betrays him, when she takes the secrets he whispered to her at night and uses them against him, against Howard and SI.
That’s when Tony learns that one person’s greed can feel an awful lot like another’s love if one doesn’t pay close enough attention.
Afterwards, when the media storm’s died down a bit, Howard beats him until he can barely move. He calls him a fucking idiot, rails on and on about how he should have drowned Tony at birth like the worthless mutt he is.
Tony takes it all in silence, just curls every word down into the center of his chest and hoards them there.
That Friday he refuses to eat, refuses to heal. No matter how Jarvis fusses and frets Tony stays stubborn. He wants, needs, this pain. Wants to ride it out to its completion so that he can hold the memory of it close to his chest, a lesson well learned.
Tony’s a creature of hurt from that moment on, a snarling ball of rage and condescension that rips anyone who comes too close to him to shreds.
There’s only three people left in his entire world after that.
Jarvis with his care packages, Aunt Peggy with her letters, and the memory of Steve.
Then he meets Rhodey.
Rhodey with his broad shoulders and kind smile.
Rhodey who punches Tiberius Stone directly in the face and pulls him off of Tony in the upstairs bedroom of a frat house while Tony screams himself hoarse.
Rhodey who takes him back to his room and calms him down, who holds him as he pukes and tries to feed him in the morning all without wanting anything. Who asks him if he wants to press charges and doesn’t judge him when Tony says no.
Rhodey who’s friends with a few other students who mysteriously find out that Stone’s a predator and who spread the word across the rest of the campus.
Rhodey who becomes his very first friend.
Rhodey who, after just three months of tentative friendship, gives off tendrils of that same kind of devotion Jarvis does.
“You know I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen you eat.” Rhodey laughs at him as Tony breaks into the large care package Jarvis had overnighted him. It’s filled with breads and pies and a sealed container of that lasagna Jarvis makes that Tony adores.
“It’s Friday.” Tony grins at him around a breadstick as if that explains everything. To Tony it does.
“You are some kind of strange little brother.” Rhodey laughs but he takes the plate Tony holds out in his direction anyways.
“You don’t know the half of it honey bear.” Tony tells him with a laugh.
He really doesn’t.
The problem, as it turns out, is the fact that Rhodey’s smart.
He notices things.
He notices Tony.
They’re lying together on Tony’s bed, the room’s dark and the only sound is Tony’s voice as he rambles on about the dream he’d had the night before, the one that had told him what he needed to know to finish the matrix for his first AI.
That’s when Rhodey asks the question that changes everything between them.
“What are you?” Rhodey whispers.
Tony goes still.
“What?” Tony breathes the question out.
“I’ve only ever seen you eat on Fridays. You don’t get sick, you heal fast. Tony I’ve seen you damn near cut a finger off and have it be perfectly find the next day. You hardly sleep and you’re so goddamn smart.” Rhodey starts listing things off and Tony’s immediately uncomfortable.
“I’m a genius platypus, being a bit weird comes with the territory.” Tony pushes himself up off of the bed and cuts on the lamp. He doesn’t look back at the bed though, can’t. He doesn’t want to see Rhodey’s face right now.
All he can remember is the way that trickle of Jarvis’ fear had felt so long ago. Jarvis who loves him but is still, on some deep level, afraid of Tony and all of his differences.
“It’s more than that and you know it. You’re … Tones …,” Rhodey stops for a long moment like he’s trying to gather his thoughts. “There’s something about you. Something strange. I know you try to hide it but I know you. Honestly it’s easy to see once you start looking.”
“Rhodey, I …” Tony’s speechless for once because he doesn’t really know what to say. Only Jarvis has ever known about his differences as they call them. But not even Jarvis has ever asked him a question like this.
“Look,” Rhodey’s up off of the bed then and coming up beside him. “I just want to know. I won’t tell anyone and I won’t get pissed off or do anything else that’s running through that crazy head of yours. Just tell me. Are you human?”
Tony feels the answer well up in his throat, feels it press against the back of his teeth as soon as Rhodey asks the question.
“No.” Tony rasps the answer out and the pure truth of it threatens to blow him away. “No, I don’t think I am.”
He doesn’t know how he knows that. He’s never seriously considered the fact that he might be anything other than a human before. But, now that he’s been outright asked, the truth is right there in his face and completely undeniable.
He’s not human, he’s something else.
“What are you?” Rhodey practically whispers.
“I don’t know.” Even Tony can hear the confusion in his own voice, the bitterness. “I don’t fucking know.”
There’s a long, tense moment of silence.
“Do you hate me now?” Tony asks as he clenches his eyes closed. “Are you scared of me?”
“No Tones, I don’t hate you and I’m not scared of you, you little idiot.” Rhodey finally sighs.
“I’m not human.” Tony protests. “I don’t know what I am but you’re right. I’m a freak. I’d understand if you didn’t want to be around me anymore.”
“Don’t say that.” Tony can’t help the way he flinches just a bit when Rhodey snaps back at him. “You’re not a fucking freak.”
“Am too.” Tony mutters sullenly.
“I shouldn’t have asked but I just … I guess I just wanted to know.” Rhodey sighs and reaches out to wrap a large hand around the nape of Tony’s neck. Gently Rhodey pulls him closer until Tony’s tucked against the curve of his shoulder. “It doesn’t matter though. No matter what you are, you’ll always just be Tony to me. My best friend, my little brother. And that’s all I really care about.”
That question haunts Tony though.
That thought is always circling around the back of his mind.
‘What am I?’
Jarvis dying is like being gutted.
Tony knows the moment it happens.
He’s at the manor, alone and nursing a sprained wrist, when he feels that constant undercurrent of warmth and love that he associates with Jarvis go dark.
He feels it die, feels Jarvis die.
Tony collapses with a scream.
On the side table the phone begins to ring.
Rhodey finds him at the hospital only a few hours later despite the fact that Tony hasn’t called him. Despite the fact that the accident hasn’t even made the news yet.
“I felt it.” Rhodey whispers in his ear as he wraps Tony up in a tight hug. “I could feel you in pain and I had to find you. Something told me to come here. Something led me right to you.”
Tony just holds on tight, thankful as always for Rhodey’s strength, for his devotion.
The first Friday after the funeral is the hardest.
There’s no care package, no laughter, no gentle hum of familiar love and devotion.
There’s only Tony and the mansion, only Obie and the ghost of Howard’s cruelty.
He hates it.
Tony stops eating completely for months.
Instead he throws himself into his workshop. He finally builds his AI, names it DUM-E because it’s a spastic mess, and then wins the competition he enters his little idiot in.
Tony isn’t surprised.
He built DUM-E from the ground up. His hands had shaped each and every piece of him, had wired every single circuit and tightened every bolt.
Of course he won.
“You’ve got to eat Tones.” Rhodey begs a handful of months later when Tony’s finally begun to look wane and pale.
“I’m not hungry.” It’s a lie. It’s Friday again and Tony’s starving. He’s always starving on some level now. Hasn’t felt satisfied and full since the week before Jarvis died. He has cuts and bruises that haven’t healed and he’s exhausted but there’s no Jarvis and that means no care packages, no familiar comfort and healing, no rest.
“That’s bullshit and you fucking know it.” Rhodey’s nearly seething and Tony can practically taste his worry on the back of his tongue, thick and cloying like honey gone sour. “You’re sick, I can tell. You … you look real bad Tony. I’ve never seen you look like this.”
“I can’t eat.” Tony finally admits. “I just can’t. Jarvis always made all of my food and now … now nothing tastes good Rhodey. I just keep throwing it all back up. I don’t know what to do.”
Everything he’s tried to eat since the funeral has tasted like ash and he can’t keep any of it down. Eventually he’d stopped trying, had just fallen back on his energy reserves that he can feel are finally beginning to run dry.
Tony’s pretty sure he’s dying.
He’s, honestly, more than a little okay with the thought.
Rhodey goes quiet for a long moment and then he turns on his heel, grabs his wallet off of the counter, and storms out.
Tony watches him go in silence.
Rhodey comes back an hour later with an arm full of groceries.
Tony watches him, one part amused and one part mystified, as Rhodey curses his way through cooking what Tony thinks is chicken.
“It’s not going to work.” Tony tells him once Rhodey’s manhandled him into a chair at the small table. “I can’t eat anything but Jarvis’ food. Even when I was little I’d only eat things he made me.”
“Just try it.” Rhodey puts a plate down in front of him.
Tony’s taken aback by just how good the food smells once it’s been put down in front of him.
Leery of throwing up again but willing to humor Rhodey, Tony picks up his fork and takes a tiny bite.
It tastes like love, like devotion and warmth and home.
Tony can’t eat fast enough.
When he’s practically licked the plate clean he looks up to see Rhodey staring down at his arms with what looks like awe. Tony follows his gaze only to realize that the nasty gash he’d had on his forearm is now gone. There’s only new pink skin left in its wake.
“Well,” Rhodey grins, “how do you like that?”
“What in the hell just happened?” Tony’s mystified even as his mind whirls.
“You said you didn’t eat unless Jarvis cooked for you right?” Rhodey waits for his nod. “I figured it was worth a try. Whatever you are … whatever this thing with you is, I think it means you’ve got restricts, got rules of some kind that Jarvis was exempt to. I’m … I’m not Jarvis but I wasn’t about to sit around and watch you starve to death or whatever it was you were doing so I wanted to try. Wanted to see if it would work. I’ve told you this before Tony, you’re my best friend, my little brother. I’ll do whatever it takes to help you. I’m always going to have your back.”
As soon as Rhodey gets the words out Tony sucks in a sharp breath because he feels as if he’s been gut punched.
Those tendrils of devotion he’s been feeling from Rhodey for months now, those little strands that had pulled Rhodey all the way to his side when Tony had needed him the most, have changed.
Where before they’d been soft, gossamer like strands of emotion, they’re now one binding silver chord.
“Did you feel that?” Rhodey asks him, voice shaky. When Tony looks up at him he’s shocked to realize that Rhodey’s crying.
“Yeah.” Tony rasps out only to realize that he’s crying too.
“It’s like …” Rhodey’s eyes go distant like he’s thinking hard on something he can barely remember. “I think I can feel you.”
Tony nods because he can feel him too, a warm silver glow just south of his heart, like a string tied around one of his ribs is being gently plucked.
“I think we’re connected now.” Tony tells him because he knows it’s the truth.
“I already knew that.” Rhodey grins at him even as he takes Tony’s plate and turns back to the stove to fill it up again. “I told you, your skinny ass is stuck with me.”
It takes some getting used to, being connected with Rhodey. It’s different than the bond he’d had with Jarvis, similar but still deeper in a way that Tony can hardly believe.
It makes things strange for a bit before they smooth out all of the kinks.
Rhodey practically moves into his place with him, spends nights on Tony’s large couch or sleeping with him in his bed. They gravitate around each other more than they used to and it only fuels the rumors that they’re dating.
Rhodey laughs them off just like Tony does and the both of them resolutely don’t care about the gossip on campus. They love each other even if they aren’t in love with each other and that’s all that matters for either one of them.
Instead they laugh and play and study together, always able to find one another no matter how far away from each other they are. They’re irrevocably drawn to each other by that silver chord that connects them now and for all that it’s strange it’s a comfort as well.
For both of them.
Rhodey starts bringing him coffee without complaining that Tony’s going to overdose and only bothers him with food on Fridays. Tony meets Rhodey outside his classes with lunch from different restaurants around the city and sits with him while he eats. He makes an effort to be safer in the lab so Rhodey won’t worry so much and Rhodey spends time with him playing with DUM-E and humoring Tony’s impassioned science based rants.
They’re good together, the two of them. They still play and bicker and roughhouse like always. They treat each other like one part brother, one part best friend, and one part other half and it works.
It’s good like few things in Tony’s life have ever been.
He loves Rhodey like he still loves Jarvis, like how he loves Aunt Peggy and the memory of Steve.
And, bit by bit, basking in Rhodey’s affection, in his open love and devotion, Tony grows strong again until he’s better than ever before even if Jarvis’ absence aches like the loss of a limb.
Time passes and Tony graduates.
Then he graduates again.
And then again.
Everyone looks at him with a mixture of awe and jealously.
Everyone but Rhodey, who screams and cheers when his name is called, and Aunt Peggy who cries each time he walks across the stage.
Eventually they hit a few snags.
Rhodey ships out and they both wonder how Tony’s going to eat now with Rhodey half way around the world. Tony’s stronger now than he’s ever been, can go longer and longer without food if Rhodey’s around, but he’s always at his best if he eats at least one meal on Fridays.
Rhodey takes it as a personal mission that he alone can solve. He tries to teach Tony how to cook but it doesn’t work. Anything beyond microwaving leftovers is out of his skill range. Most of it burns for no apparent reason and the few edible bits he produces taste like ash anyways.
So, instead, Rhodey cooks enough casseroles, stews, and soups to last at least a year and stores them in the large freezer he makes Tony buy. Then they go about the painstaking process of teaching DUM-E how to make smoothies that’re packed with calories and proteins.
If a little bit of motor oil or antifreeze makes it in there from time to time Tony can’t really tell. They all taste the same and he never gets sick or shows signs of poisoning so it doesn’t really matter.
In the end it’s not the best solution. The smoothies don’t taste as good or give him as much energy as an actual meal cooked by Rhodey, but they’re edible enough. Between those and Tony’s reheating skills they’ll keep him from wasting away again should push come to shove.
Every time Rhodey has leave he comes back and cooks up a storm without fail. He refills the freezer and then cooks fresh meals for Tony every Friday night they’re together.
Tony kisses him on the forehead every time he leaves, presses his lips there like a wish for his safety, like a benediction.
Rhodey always laughs, hugs him back, and goes.
And he always, always, comes back.
In the free time left to him after MIT Tony builds U and then Butterfingers to keep DUM-E company and he feels his strength grow when each of them come online.
“You’re like some kind of little robot god,” Rhodey laughs at him when the bots circle his table in the workshop and build little pyramids out of his coffee and smoothie cups. “The Zeus of the mechanical masses.”
“Not Zeus,” Tony mutters absently as he watches his children play with a small smile. “That guy was a dick. I’m something new.”
Rhodey stares at him for the longest time but Tony can’t really decipher the look in his eyes.
Tony takes the company at twenty-one and suddenly he’s in the spotlight.
He’s always been in the media, hasn’t had a choice either way for his entire life. He’s been in tabloids and newspapers since he was a baby, since the great Howard Stark’s heir was first born.
But this, this is different.
Before it had been about Howard. Now the attention is focused solely on Tony.
Tony gets lost in it for a long while, gets lost in the parties and the booze and the sex.
He gets a reputation for his drinking but it doesn’t really worry him. Alcohol doesn’t affect him like that, doesn’t do to him as it had done to Howard, but it does have a surprisingly pleasant burn when it goes down.
Sex is the same. It’s fulfilling in a hollow sort of way, a boost of energy that feels artificial but still pleasant enough. It also reminds him of Sunset for a long time and he finds himself trying to chase that original high he’d had with her only to come up empty.
He finally figures it out after a while. Finally figures out that the more pleasure he gives his partners the better he’ll feel afterwards. His playboy reputation grows fast and hard.
In the midst of that is when he learns he can stretch himself even further than he used to be able to. He doesn’t have to eat as often as he used to with all of the new attention he receives.
Positive and negative attention alike works now too, unlike when he’d been young and Howard’s jealousy and rage had been like poison, when only Jarvis and Aunt Peggy’s love had kept him satisfied and healthy. Now all of it is nothing more than fuel, some of a higher grade than others of course, but Tony uses every bit of it all the same.
He takes that energy, wraps it around him, and then throws himself headfirst into SI and his workshop, and goes and goes and goes.
He parties and drinks and fucks until he’s filled to overflowing. Then he retreats into his workshop for a month or two and only comes out when he’s invented something new, when he’s realized another dream.
Innovation is, as always, his topmost obsession.
Once he goes almost six months without eating anything at all, feeding off of the parties and the sex and the attention. It drives Rhodey crazy but when Tony doesn’t get sick again, doesn’t go pale and wane after three months, after four and then five, Rhodey leaves him to his experiment. He’s half way around the world after all and he can’t make Tony eat through the phone or the computer screen.
Tony’s hated and worshiped in turn for the weapons he builds, for the parties he throws, for the money he spends and for the death he crafts from his brilliant mind.
People love to hate him and hate to love him and all of it feeds Tony like nothing he’s ever felt before.
It’s as intoxicating as it is toxic but Tony can’t stop.
The simple truth is this: He’s lonely without Rhodey.
The bots keep him company of course but it’s not the same. They’re simple for all that they’re learning bots and while he loves them and they’re devotion to him shimmers between them like little gossamer strands it’s a bond that Tony knows will never deepen. There will be no silver bond between him and them, no glowing chord like the one that connects him to Rhodey.
This, the parties and the awards, the glitz and the glamour, it still doesn’t fill the hole inside of him. It doesn’t touch on that aching sort of loneliness that yawns inside of him, that feeling of isolation that only Rhodey can really make fade for a while. It feeds him but it doesn’t make him happy.
Sometimes Tony’s not sure if anything ever will.
But it does let him pretend for a while.
From his loneliness his fourth son is born.
Sweet, snarky JARVIS who seems to spring from his mind fully formed like the Athena of legend.
JARVIS whose first words are “I am with you, Sir” and the sound of them makes Tony cry as another silver chord shimmers into existence.
Happy comes eventually and Pepper follows not too long afterwards.
Tony welcomes them into his life and is surprised at how well they fit, but he’s still careful with how he acts, careful with what he does.
Rhodey had accepted him as he was and Tony’s not so sure if he’ll get that lucky again in this life time.
One plus though, is the fact that Happy can cook and Pepper’s willing to make him smoothies occasionally.
A year in and Tony can eat whatever they make him without tasting ash in his mouth even if he doesn’t really need to all that often. Tony thinks it’s because their bonds are strong and solid even if they glow a light, vibrant blue instead of a shimmering silver like Rhodey and JARVIS. All in all they help to ease the ache a bit even if it never really goes away.
Ultimately though Rhodey’s pleased.
Tony knows Rhodey worries about what Tony would do if something ever happened to him. Knows that he worries about how Tony would cope if he doesn’t come home even if he can go longer and longer without food now. Worries about what would happen if the bond between them was broken.
Rhodey worries that his death would sink Tony further down into despair than Jarvis’ had and this time there’d be no one there to pull him out again.
Tony’s equally determined that he’ll never find out.
And then, Afghanistan happens and everything changes.
Tony wakes to pain.
He wakes to hands in his chest taking pieces of him away, wakes to himself being cut open and disassembled.
But when he screams, and god does he scream, it’s not from the agony, not from the violation, but from the way he can no longer feel his bonds.
Can no longer feel Rhodey or JARVIS.
When the darkness takes him Tony welcomes it with open arms.
He’s in Afghanistan for three months.
Three months of hell, of torture, of that aching, gnawing hunger that Tony had almost forgotten existed.
Three months of grief and fear because he can’t feel his bonds, can’t feel JARVIS or Rhodey and he doesn’t know why, doesn’t know what that means.
Three months of constant sickness as he forces himself to eat food that tastes like ash in his mouth because he can’t let them know he’s something other than human.
Three months of rage, rising and building inside of him until it feels as if it’ll rip him open.
And then, Yinsen dies for him, and it does.
Tony is reborn in an Afghani desert. He crawls his way up out of the sand like he’s emerging from the womb. He staggers through the desert and clings to the last of his energy reserves with ragged, desperate nails.
He will not die here. This will not be the thing that kills him. Not now. Not when he finally knows what he needs to do. Not when he finally knows his destiny.
Determination rails through him as the world seems to shift and intention crystalizes in his chest.
The reactor pulses, shines a blinding bright blue, and then fades back down to a subtle glow.
Tony screams, loud and joyous, when his bonds snap back into place.
Hours later Rhodey comes for him. Face ragged, eyes red rimmed and cheeks gaunt, Rhodey comes for him.
“I found you. I finally found you,” Rhodey whispers, face tear streaked. “I couldn’t feel you anymore but I didn’t stop looking Tony. Not even for a minute. I never stopped and I never will. Never goddamnit, never.”
And when he wraps Tony in his arms the chord between them sings.
After the press conference, after everything is said and done and Obie’s finally left him alone, the first thing Tony does is go home.
“It is good to see you Sir,” there’s something a lot like relief in JARVIS’ voice.
“I love you too J,” Tony tells him and their bond hums softly in agreement.
The first thing Rhodey does when he makes it to the mansion is cook.
He cooks and cooks and then he cooks a bit more.
Tony pretends like he doesn’t see the way Rhodey has to stop and wipe his face every once in a while. Pretends he doesn’t see his shoulders shake or notice the way Rhodey keeps finding excuses to touch him, the way he traces his fingers lightly over cuts and scrapes that still haven’t healed.
Instead, Tony just reaches back, squeezes his hand or his shoulder in silent comfort and care. And then, after Rhodey fills the table up with food, Tony tugs him down into the chair beside him.
Tony’s not the only one who looks like he could use a good meal.
“Be safe,” Tony tells Rhodey when it’s time for him to leave again. Tony’s healed already except for the reactor, has soaked up Rhodey and JARVIS’ love and devotion alongside Pepper and Happy’s joy at his return and the bots enthusiasm. He’ll be spending the next few days hiding away in the mansion until his clear skin can realistically be attributed to artfully applied makeup or wide lensed sunglasses.
He feels different, somehow, than he had before Afghanistan. He brushes it off though because he’s home and healed and after a bit Rhodey looks better too.
But when he tugs Rhodey down to his level so he can press that customary kiss to his forehead Tony could swear that, for a brief second, Rhodey glows.
Once he’s alone in the mansion with only the bots and JARVIS Tony thinks about taking out the reactor.
The device isn’t perfect for all that it’s a marvel, he knows that it isn’t. Tony thinks that maybe, whatever this is that makes him this way might just be able to heal the damage. He’s healed broken bones and burns and cuts with ease before in the past. Had healed a lot of bad things when he’d been small and helpless under Howard’s thumb.
Now, grown and even stronger than before, he thinks that the shrapnel, the missing bones and flesh and muscle, might all be things he could heal as well.
But he can’t bring himself to do it.
The reactor is more than just a device in his chest, more than just a stop gap measure he’d put into place during a time where he’d known he was too weak to heal.
It’s penance for his misdeeds.
It’s a reminded, a symbol, of who and what he can never let himself become again, of who and what he is now.
The reactor stays.
Tony knows it’s the right decision.
The armor is like nothing he’s ever built.
He works on it in every spare moment he has. In his exceedingly rare sleeping hours he dreams about it too, dreams of it like he’s dreamed about all of his greatest innovations.
From his mind and his heart he crafts it, molds it lovingly, devoutly. No detail is too small, no issue considered unimportant.
Then, from his own two hands, Tony births it into being.
And then he takes it and cuts a bloody swath through all who would use his weapons to blaspheme.
Obie rips the reactor from his chest, a betrayal that Tony should have seen coming but hadn’t.
Tony’s heart shouts out a denial that he feels ripple down his bonds as something that’s almost a piece of him is taken away.
It doesn’t surprise him in the least when Rhodey shows up not too long after.
Stane dies and Tony feels nothing.
He will not mourn a deceitful usurper.
The reactor, as it turns out, is poison.
It starts to eat away at him after a while, begins to sap his strength no matter how much time he spends with Rhodey or Pepper and Happy, no matter how much he talks with JARVIS and the bots, no matter how much he eats.
It’s killing him and nothing he does seems to fix it.
Vanko comes with his whips and his anger.
He comes with his comments on bleeding gods.
Something in Tony goes still, goes quiet.
‘Oh,’ Tony thinks with no slight amount of amusement and bitterness before he forcefully puts the thought from his mind, ‘of course.’
Natalie Rushman equal parts terrifies and entrances Tony.
She’s like nothing he’s ever seen before.
There’s an energy to her that he’s never felt in another person. A presence that’s undeniable even if he can’t quite place it.
Being around her is like standing in the middle of a constantly flickering shadow, like having two feet firmly in the darkness with the light just out of reach ahead of you.
War Machine is his gift to Rhodey. A symbol of his own love and returned devotion.
It will protect his closest friend, his brother in all but blood, long after he is gone.
In hindsight, finding out that Natalie is really Natasha and that she’s a spy isn’t actually all that big of a surprise.
There’s something special about her, something different, and Tony can practically taste her burgeoning potential on his tongue.
Finally, standing on the edge of the abyss, staring into the end of all things, Tony drags an entirely new element into being.
One of his greatest innovations yet.
Now, with all of the pieces crafted and assembled by his own two hands, the reactor hums and pulses in his chest like a captured star.
A bit of the galaxy nestled in his sternum.
It is perfect now and Tony knows it’ll be his symbol, his emblem in truth.
For the first time in a long time he feels whole.
The loneliness though, the longing for something he cannot name, that’s done nothing but grow stronger.
Vanko tries to take Rhodey from him.
When he dies it feels almost like divine retribution.
“You know,” Rhodey tells him over beers and homemade pizza, “I don’t think you’ve aged a day since Afghanistan. I mean look at you. Not a grey hair in sight.”
Tony stops, goes still.
“Don’t hate,” he finally manages to say. “No need to be jealous just because I’m aging like fine wine and your ass is aging like milk.”
“White boy please.” Rhodey scoffs and shoves lightly at his shoulder. “I’m as solid as I was at twenty-five. I’m running rings around those grunts at the base. They all hate me.”
“Well you are extremely hate-able.” Tony tells him with a shrug even as his mind whirls. “Can’t say that I blame them too much for that. Honestly I think it’s your face sugar cube. It’s kind of awful.”
Tony only laughs when Rhodey tackles him and they wrestle around the living room like they used to when they were in MIT.
Later on, after Rhodey’s passed out on the couch in front of the TV, Tony slips away towards the nearest bathroom.
Leaning over the sink he looks at himself in the mirror for the first time since Afghanistan, since the months where the reactor was killing him.
For the first time in almost longer than he can remember Tony really and truly looks.
It only takes him a few seconds to realize that Rhodey’s right.
There’s no grey hairs to be found, not even the few he’d taken to brushing back into the depth of his hair. His goatee is fuller, his eyes are brighter than he remembers, even his lips are a healthier shade of pink, are plush and almost sensual looking. The laugh lines that normally crinkle the skin around his eyes are still there but they’re not as deep.
His skin itself is a flushed bronze and almost seems to glow just a bit in the light of the bathroom.
If anything, Tony thinks, he almost looks younger.
‘Oh God,’ Tony can’t help but think, ‘what am I?’
New York comes.
And with it comes the return of Natasha Romanov and the appearance of Bruce Banner.
Bruce Banner who is different too.
Instead of a flickering shadow Bruce reminds Tony of the sea. Bruce who feels like the ocean with his deep, dark waters that hide the war raging right beneath the surface.
Tony feels a kinship with him, a sort of anticipation he can’t explain whenever they’re close.
But there’s something else that captures Tony’s attention and refuses to let it go.
Because, in the middle of everything that’s happening, there’s also Steve.
Steve who’s young and beautiful and so achingly raw that it makes Tony want to weep.
Steve who, Tony can feel, is also different. Different in a way that goes far beyond Project Rebirth.
He’s different like Tony is different, like Natasha and Bruce are different too.
Steve whose presence is like standing in the middle of a sunbeam, who makes Tony feel light and warm and so achingly alive even while they’re ripping at each other as Loki’s scepter twists their anger and worry into outright vicious fury.
Steve who Tony has loved, in one way or another, for almost his entire life.
And, finally, there’s Thor.
Thor who is undeniably alien, who feels like thunderstorms and smells like ozone, who tickles Tony’s senses in a way that’s almost uncomfortable but not quite.
Thor who looks at each of them with something like surprise and confusion on his face.
Thor who hovers at Tony’s side and goes to speak but shakes his head and keeps his mouth closed instead.
Thor who seems to always be watching him.
“Such young and foolish gods you are to dare to challenge one such as I,” Loki sneers as he holds Tony by the throat. “The mortals know not what you are and I will make it so that they never do. I will wipe your taint from existence before your Pantheon can grow beyond the mere shadow of a whisper that it already is. Just as Asgard did to your gods of old.”
‘Oh,’ Tony thinks again as he falls through the air, as the armor closes around him, ‘of course.’
Barton is like a whisper on the edges of Tony’s senses. Like the breezy summer wind that could easily become a tornado, like a hawk poised to dive or a hunting cat coiled to pounce.
He’s different too even if the hearing aids are a surprise.
But Tony has the reactor so, honestly, it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise.
Tony goes through a worm hole.
For a too short minute Tony sleeps.
T o n y d r e a m s.
And when he gasps back awake and stares up into Steve’s too blue eyes Tony wants to cry.
Because finally, after all these years, Tony knows just what he is.
“I did not think Midgard had gods of their own anymore.” Thor tells him lowly once they’re alone. The others have all shuffled off to bed after Tony had bullied them all to the Tower for some much deserved rest. Even Loki’s resting after a fashion, trapped as he is beneath Mjolnir on a couch in the room Thor has already claimed as his own.
“We’re young still.” Tony replies and it feels right, feels like truth. He knows what he is now, what he’s always been, what he’ll always be. He knows what the others are too. Or, at least, what they will be.
It’s almost too ridiculous to believe.
Except for how he knows it’s true.
“Aye.” Thor agrees. “Tis the truth though your existence is still a surprise. Tis also clear that you, Anthony, are the oldest despite the Captain’s past and the Widow’s age. Only you have fully awakened to yourself and only you amongst your Pantheon have already gathered Priests. And yet you are still young, hardly more than a babe.”
“Priests?” Tony’s pretty sure he already knows what Thor’s going to say but he has to ask anyways. He needs to hear the words. And he doesn’t even want to touch the babe comment at the moment.
“Indeed.” Thor nods with a faint smile. “Your silver bonds glow rather brilliantly when one truly looks. You should be proud for it is a sign of much strength and devotion. It is good that you have found two so dedicated to you.”
‘Rhodey,’ Tony thinks with a rush of warmth, ‘JARVIS.’
“Does it hurt them?” Tony feels dread well up at the very thought of hurting Rhodey or JARVIS in any way. “Being bound to me?”
“Nay Anthony.” Thor frowns, brows furrowed and eyes narrowed. “To be a Priest is to be blessed by the chosen god. As they show their devotion to you, you in turn gift them with both protections and blessings in your name. Did your forbearers not teach to you your duties when you awakened?”
“No.” Tony rasps as he sinks down onto the couch and buries his face in his hands. “No I wasn’t taught anything. There was no one to teach me anything. I was born like this Thor.” Tony sits up enough to wave a hand through the air around him. “My parents were human and I was just always … different. I didn’t even know why. Not until now.”
“A True-born god.” Thor sounds genuinely impressed. “Your strength is and will be great indeed my friend.”
“Thor, buddy, I’ve fumbled my way through this my entire life, scared half out of my mind and confused most of the time.” Tony tells him, straightforward and honest because this isn’t the time for masks or lies or half-truths. “I’ve got no idea what half of the shit you’re talking about means.”
“To be a True-born god is to be a beginning.” Thor’s voice has the tone of a story teller and Tony feels young again, feels like he had sitting at Aunt Peggy’s knee listening to stories about Steve. “To be True-born is to be given form from the very essence of the realm itself.”
“Wait, wait.” Tony holds up a hand in protest. “I just told you I had parents big boy, shitty parents yeah, but I’m pretty sure someone would have noticed if I’d just appeared one day.”
“Your mortal parents may have provided the flesh of your form but the realm itself crafted you. The heart of you Anthony, the soul, was crafted by powers beyond even our ken.” Thor corrects him gently. “Even on Asgard there are not many of your kind left, only the oldest could claim the title of True-born. Those of us born now are born of other gods themselves or awakened through other means.”
“And the others?” Tony asks because focusing on the others feels like the better path to go down at the moment. “If being True-born or whatever is rare then what about the others? What are they if they’re not True-born?”
“Some, like you, are born into true godhood, others achieve it, and for others still it can be gifted under the right circumstances. Or so this is how the stories of Asgard claim it to be.” There’s an almost wistful smile on Thor’s face then before he wipes it away. “But for all there is an awakening, a moment where you become as you were meant to be. My brother and I, we looked forward to our awakenings as children, to the day we would become true gods. I awakened during a hunt with Sif and the Warriors Three and it was a feeling like no other.” Thor frowns. “Did you not feel it the moment you truly awoke? It would have been a moment of realization, something you could not mistake for anything else.”
Tony thinks of Afghanistan. Thinks of three months of bondless hell, of Yinsen and the burning rage and determination that had seen him through to the other side.
He thinks about being reborn from the desert sands, thinks of purpose crystalizing in the heart of him as he set himself forward onto a new path.
He thinks of the sheer joy and victory of feeling his bonds snap back into place.
That’s what it was he knows now. Afghanistan was his awakening, his three month long, torturous awakening.
“Yeah,” Tony tells him with a slow nod, “I think I did.”
“Tis good then that you know.” Thor grins, wide and brash and handsome. “The others will need your guidance as they adjust. It will be difficult for them, learning to be as they were meant to be. In Asgard our parents nurture us as we grow but that is not the only way. For your Pantheon much will be different I imagine. The ways of Asgard and Midgard differ greatly in many cases.”
“Did you know I’ve never even met anyone else like me until now?” Tony tells him as he bites down a half hysterical laugh as all of it slowly begins to sink in. “I’ve been alone with this until now. Not knowing what I was, thinking I was some kind of freak. And now, now you’re telling me that there’s a whole Pantheon waking up around me, that there’s five of us instead of just me. Six if we count you.”
“I am not of your Pantheon Man of Iron.” Thor denies with surprising seriousness. “I would call you friend and shield-brother, just as I would the others, but to be a part of your Pantheon? That is not a title I may claim.”
“We need you though,” Tony turns to him, desperation rising in his chest. “You said they’d need my guidance but I’m shit at guiding people Thor. You should stay.”
“I must return Loki to Asgard my friend and I have duties there as well as questions I would ask of the All-Father.” Thor reaches out and pulls Tony close to his side, tucks him beneath the weight of one massive arm. “I will return though, once I am free again and as long as I have your blessing. My Lady Jane resides here and I have found new friends as well. For now rest easy Anthony with the knowledge that you have done well for one so young and so alone and I would not leave you to flounder in the darkness.”
“Loki,” Tony starts, stops, then powers through. “Loki said that Asgard … that Asgard killed the old Pantheons. That your people killed the old gods of Midgard.”
“Aye,” sadness is apparent in Thor’s voice then. “The father of my father courted war much as I did in my youth. Only, as king, all of Asgard courted it with him. I was not yet born but the tales are still whispered even now of how he slaughtered the Pantheons in great battles and took Midgard for his own until his death. Father held no care for your realm, not even for the worshippers it granted Asgard. Eventually he let Midgard be, let the people forget. But he did not attempt to correct the mistakes of his own father. Instead he let Midgard sit, godless and unprotected in the guise of not interfering. I see it now for the shame that it was but finally the damage will be undone. A new age of gods has come to Midgard and you are its harbinger.”
“But what do we do?” Tony still feels lost, still feels adrift even with his newfound knowledge.
“You do as you have always done Anthony. You protect this world and the people in it.” The arm Thor has around his shoulders squeezes him gently, comfortingly. “Your world is changing, your Pantheon has finally begun to come together and soon the others will awaken. You must be patient and soon all will be as it should.”
“The others, I don’t think they know. I don’t think they have any idea.” Tony huffs out a frustrated sigh because he still feels like he’s going to panic, like he’s going to come out of his skin. There’s no way in hell they’re going to believe him. “What do I do? How do I tell them about all of this?”
“Give them time, let them find their own ways towards their awakenings. To each god there is a burden to be borne, a path to be found. You cannot take that from them my friend. Belief will come with knowledge that not even they will be able to deny.” Thor tells him calmly. “All you can do is offer support and comfort and know that soon you will no longer be alone. As a True-born god and the eldest you are the head of your Pantheon. It is to you the others shall look.”
“Wow,” Tony mutters, “they’re really getting the short end of the stick with this if they’re gonna be looking to me for support.”
“Nonsense. You will do well my friend. And then, together, you shall fight to protect Midgard and rest easy knowing that I, and through me Asgard, will stand by your side in your times of need.” Thor hugs him again, lets him go, and then turns enough so that he can take Tony by the shoulders and shake him lightly. “Rejoice Anthony, Man of Iron, for you are a god and through you great works shall be done and your realm protected. Long may you reign my friend, long may your Pantheon flourish.”