people like you must be the world's loneliest creatures
your silences, your own wilderness
where they all come with promises that they will be
the one that gets you to stay.
people who will melt / their bones down into currency
and will want to conquer you but / never claim.
you are the kind of person they chase
not because they actually want you
but to prove that they can catch you.
what they haven't learned / are all the times you've broken your own heart
on their behalf, those clumsy hunters
who never know the right sequence of words
to do the job properly.
- safia elhillo, "what you said to me instead". poem slightly altered to fit this storyline.
Sometimes Tony wonders if people can feel the black trail he leaves behind him, touting all his failures and mistakes. He imagines an oil spill, thick and murky, his hands and teeth and elbows slicked with it as if he's fallen into the mud. Wonders if that's the real reason why some of them throw nasty looks his way when he gets too close, why strangers he's never seen before sneer at him and objectify him with narrowed eyes. But then he remembers the reputation he's built for himself as slutty rich prick of the school and realizes - and how could he forget? - that no one likes Tony Stark. Sure, he's good for his open wallet and skill in bed, but past that it's just a load of anxiety, coping issues, and bad jokes that tend to rub people all wrong. Who wants a sixteen-year-old troublemaker with a no-filter mouth and a brain too quick for his own good? Not his parents, not his classmates, and definitely not SHIELD boarding school, which probably only accepted him because his IQ is off the charts and Howard was willing to pay anything to get rid of his only son.
It's been two and a half months since the start of the school year, now, and nothing has changed. Becky and Annika, who particularly like Tony's brand of sweet-talk, call him up on the weekends to stop by their dorms. And then there's Justin Hammer, who seems to alternate between trying to weasel out some cash and making fun of him. It doesn't bother Tony though...or at least he tells himself that. So what if he doesn't have any real friends? He's got Rhodey, who's a senior back at home, and Pepper - who's also from home and is his age - and they don't go to SHIELD but he doesn't really need people anyway. And besides, Becky and Annika and all their cute, slightly overly-giggly friends are fun to hang out with when he's got nothing else to do on Friday nights. It's a lot better than being home, that's for sure. He can't surround himself with people and beer and laughter in the achingly empty mansion everyone says they would've died to grow up in.
In fact, Tony's on his own right now on this bright Saturday morning in November. He's flat on his back in the rarely frequented SHIELD gardens, watching a flock of birds wing across a sky that's so blue it hurts to look at it, and feeling strangely separate from his body. Maybe it's the absence of clouds that's making the blue seem like it could swallow him right up, as if his skin and teeth and hair would just meld into the air like vapor.
Tony shuts his eyes against the sunbeams and feels an ant crawling over his bare ankle, and feels everything and anything and nothing at all -
"Holy shit, are you dead?"
Tony cracks one eye open to see a silhouette of a head hovering above him like Satan's come to pluck him off the earth and take him to hell. Except this person doesn't have devil horns, only sandy brown hair and a squint on his face as if he's never seen someone try to nap around campus before.
"Nope, not dead," the boy says cheerfully. He looks to be around Tony's age, and Tony feels the vague recognition of having spotted this face around the school before, but he's not present enough to care. "You're Tony Stark, right?"
Tony makes a face, still lying down on the grass. "What's it to you?"
"Nothing yet," the boy replies, his expression suddenly shifting to comically serious. "Haven't decided what I've thought about you yet. Except from other people."
"Great," Tony says, his mood worsening at the thought of what this guy could've heard. Slut, maybe. Or - from those who had actually gotten a taste of the great Tony Stark and could therefore appreciate him more - fantastic in bed. "Know-it-all" was also a descriptor that a rare few remembered to mention.
"So far you seem alright, just a little grumpy. Understandable; it's ridiculously hot for November." The other boy flashes a quick smile. "I'm Clint Barton."
"I'd say who I am, but you seem to already know me," Tony mumbles, flinging an arm over his eyes. Ah. So that's how he knows Clint - English class; sits in the back of the room, constantly chucking paper balls at some blond long-haired hunk. "What are you doing here, Barton?"
Clint frowns at him. "Just saying hi," he says. "And because Natasha's taken an interest in you, even though she left for some culture trip with the ballet club yesterday and won't be back till after break."
"I have no idea who that is." Tony sighs. "Did I sleep with her or something?"
Clint recoils before laughing loudly. "No. Natasha would never. No offense to you."
"Yeah," Tony mutters in reply. He's too tired for this conversation, and the sky seems to be tunneling in on him, like kaleidoscope circles that are rotating closer and closer to his face and giving him an itchy sense of nausea. When's the last time he properly slept? He'll have to check his rudimentary health monitor when he gets back to the dorm room.
"Hey, man, are you okay?" Clint's peering closer at him all of a sudden, and fuck, Tony seriously can't remember someone having ever asked him that.
He grunts in response, then flaps his hand. "Always. I've just been trying to take a nap."
Clint sees it for the dismissal it is and then nods seriously, head moving out of the sun again and returning to a black silhouette. "Alright. Take care, Stark."
Tony's too out of it to even grace Clint with a response. Weird kid, he thinks to himself as the sky warps and expands above him.
"Bruuuce," Tony hisses, nudging the elbow of his only geek-out buddy here at SHIELD High.
"Yes, Tony?" Bruce looks a little worn, which isn't surprising considering he's holding the attention of a very bored Tony Stark.
"I'm boored." Tony lets out a loud groan, causing not only half the class to glance at the two but the teacher as well.
"Stark, Banner," Dr. Reed Richards says in disapproval. "Anything you'd like to share with the class?"
"Nope, no, not at all," Tony bursts out quickly, drawing a few laughs from his classmates. Richards just gives him a look, like uh huh, but then decides to just continue on with his lessons. Bruce and Tony are his best students after all, if not the best in the whole school, so he can't exactly be too displeased.
"Tony," Bruce whispers, and yup, there's the expected note of exasperation people's voices tend to have when speaking to Tony. "You can't just do that."
"But this lesson is so ages ago," Tony moans, but quietly enough that no one else but his seatmate can hear. "I mean, really, the Carnot Cycle? Thermodynamics is middle school material, Brucie, and you know it."
Bruce doesn't respond this time, but now there's a faint smile tugging at the corners of his mouth that makes Tony feel wonderfully accomplished. Bruce is probably the only one who really gets this side of him, the part that consists of his intelligence and terrible social skills when it comes to the dreaded "feelings". This is the only class besides math Tony enjoys, because at least he's got his science buddy.
As the bell rings, signaling the end of AP Physics and therefore the start of lunch, Tony nudges Bruce and flashes him a grin before they part ways. He sees Bruce sitting at a table a bit of a ways from his in the cafeteria all the time, but they don't run in similar circles outside of their lessons. In fact, Tony thinks now as he surreptitiously glances over from his own seat in the cafeteria, Barton's one of the kids at Bruce's table.
"Stark," one of his so-called buddies says from the seat across, smirking at him. "You alive in there? Kinda looks like you're spaced." Ty Stone points a finger at his head then mimes hitting a blunt, his grey eyes locked in on Tony's. Tiberius Stone is yet another rich guy (but less intelligent in Tony's opinion), but his bark's much worse than his bite. Unlike in other schools, SHIELD bullies actually tend to leave him alone. And Stone, for all his subtle remarks, knows enough to go bug other poor souls instead.
As Becky joins them at the table, Tony shoots Ty a look before slinging his arm around her. "Hey," he says, his expression softening into something a little more real.
"Hey Tones," she chirps back. Yeah, Becky, definitely not a bad girl. Sometimes he wants to ask her what she's doing, hanging out with him - this crowd - but that's too personal for the easy, sometimes sexual relationship they have.
"So, who were you busy staring at, huh?" Ty says. He turns around, scanning the cafeteria. "Oh, I know, him." He points at Wade Wilson, whose face is riddled with scarring. Ty's smile widens slowly like liquid silver, sharp and cold, across his face. "You ogling that ass, huh, Tony?"
"Shut up, Ty," Tony mutters. He prays to god Wilson doesn't turn and look at Ty's still-extended finger, because Wade's honestly a nice guy. Face is a little out-of-the-ordinary but who knows what happened to him. In any case, Tony likes to think he understands at least a little because he's got his own set of thick scars on his chest, even though it's not so obvious through his shirt.
Ty finally puts down his arm; Wilson hasn't even glanced over at them once. Tony breathes a sigh of relief even though those grey eyes are still watching him gleefully.
After a moment Ty decides Tony's not fun enough and starts up a more flirtatious conversation with Brunn, whose - despite her excessive partying - presence at this table full of douchebags is also very questionable. Eh, Tony shrugs to himself. At least here, she's got an ally in him, even if she doesn't know it. Ty Stone's definitely tame compared to some people he's met, even though his pushy persona's big enough that it's easy to forget.
He finishes the rest of his meal just flirting with Becky and trying to make her laugh, twirling her hair around his fingers in the casual way he knows is cute. Yeah, all in all, not a bad day, he thinks to himself as the bell rings once more to signal the last few periods of the day. Becky kisses him on the cheek as he waves goodbye and walks away.
To be honest, even after lunch Tony's day is going pretty well, and he almost suspects he might be lucky enough to get to his dorm and crawl into bed without anything happening to him today. This is what he treasures here, at boarding school - how there is no yelling when he gets home (Tony you fucking piece of shit, you worthless useless piece of shit, what the fuck are you good for? Nothing), and no creepy Obadiah (Tony, my boy... leave the business to the businessmen) and no pills and no bare echoing off the wall when he tries to talk and no sharp bolts of fear when he sees the empty tumblers all collected on the table. He has a chance to be fine here, he does, and okay so it's not as great as he wanted but it's enough.
Sometimes Tony finds himself wishing he'd been born better, someone kinder and stronger and more loved. They always say you'll find friends and family in the people you treat right after all, so maybe he's been living wrong all along. But still - is it, well, is it too much to hope that this day will go picture perfect, the way many days don't?
Apparently so, because just half an hour after the end of school, Tony breaks James Barnes's prosthetic arm in a moment of blurry misguided justice. And everything goes to shit.