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and even though the world is mad

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@IronMan:

How many people will realize just today that their lunchboxes were still in their bags during the summer holidays? * vomits and will never be able to look at a banana again *

 

Tony looked surprised as his cell phone lit up and indicated that someone had responded to his Tweet. Quickly, he looked up from his seat at the end of the large, pale blue painted classroom and checked to see if Mr. Han was still looking at the whiteboard, completing his panel.

The course of the Revolutionary War. Not that every American student has known this story by heart since kindergarten, no. They had to repeat it all the time. And Tony had to waste his time with it.

He could practically feel that Vincent Weis was staring at his phone, trying to decipher what was written on the display. Quickly, Tony put it further in front of himself, so that it should be impossible for the boy to read. He didn’t need Stones group of friends to know about his online life.

He unlocked his cell phone and smiled slightly when he read his friend's reply. Rhodey had posted a photo of his legs on the Californian beach and wrote under it, "Yes, I hope I didn’t forget mine. Oh, no, wait: I'm still on vacation #collegerocks"

Tony liked the tweet and sent two annoyed smileys back before he locked his phone again. When he thought about it, it was almost unbelievable: he had known Rhodey only for four years but he was still the best friend he had ever had in his life. Which was not difficult, according to the circumstances, but nevertheless: Rhodey studied in Colorado Springs, he‘d soon be in the second year and so lived most of the year 1,600 miles away from New York.

But neither the distance, nor the different time zones disturbed the two to talk to each other daily, or at least to write.

"Stark, are you listening?" The teacher asked, looking with trained eyes at the boy in the penultimate row.

"Yeah," Tony answered quickly. "I’m writing down notes," he lied, lifting the phone up. Mr. Han nodded - what else should he do? If laptops, mobile phones, and tablets were standard equipment at school, then as a student, it would not be difficult to use it.

"Too cool to listen, Stark?" Weis whispered next to him and Tony had to concentrate really hard not to choke because of the other's bad breath. How could a person stink like that in a school where all the students were among the richest five percent of Americans? He could easily buy some good perfume.

"Too dump so you have to listen to get the Revolutionary War, Weis?" Tony asked, throwing him his practiced ‚Bitch, Please' look.

"We all have money here, don’t act like a bitch," Vincent Weis tried to counter but didn’t seem to know the meaning of the word ‘dump’.

Tony sighed. He’s had learned early on that even in private schools, money was used as a means to an end for rich kids. He had always assumed that buying or losing friends was only normal in public schools, but in the first few weeks as a freshman, he had noticed that the circles in which the students had spread were just decided by who had how many million dollars more in their account.

As a Stark one did not fit into the scheme. His father was at least twice as rich as the next richest family in that school – the Stones - even though they lived in New York. And Ty Stone was an asshole, so from the very start on, he had been doomed to be the outsider. The one everybody knew and liked because he could spend a lot more money all the time, but no one stepped in when the cool kids beat him up in the hallway. And serious conversations didn’t just happen so it was clear to all students that the much younger Stark must have clearly bought his way into high school.

"Listen to Han, if you don’t understand," he answered, rolling his eyes. "Ass."

"What was that?" Weis asked. "You know, I can get Hammer to uninvite you from any future parties?"

"You know that I always book the locations?"

"Stark, Weis!", yelled Mr. Han. "Quiet. This is the second lesson of the year, do you want to get detention just now?"

"Sorry, Mr. H," Tony answered calmly. "Dumbo here forgot which parties were fighting. As an attentive student, I couldn‘t let him stand that way. I'm not a monster."

Mister Han nodded with raised eyebrows and Weis threw an angry look at Tony. "Dumbo?" he hissed.

"Did you see how your new haircut emphasizes your ears?"

Weis jumped up a bit, then swallowed his anger as Mr. Han turned around again and gave him a warning look.

"Hey, calm down. Dumbo is a nice movie, just relaxe. Surely there is another elephant in the school who‘d like that. Milena over there, look," grinned Tony. He knew that Weis was afraid of Milena. The girl was frightening indeed, and Tony could confirm that, even though he'd talked to her like three times in his life. Her parents were high-ranking in a political party, and she talked like that. She knew she had power and a certain intellect. And her best friend was Weis' ex-girlfriend, and Milena had made a drama when they broke up which clearly showed the downsides of the rich upper class. Weis nearly lost his entirety of friends because his reputation had been pulled through the mud. Several times, Tony had seen the boy eating alone, instead of with Stone, Hammer, and the rest of his people.

He had only been a bit malicious.

"Shut up or you'll feel it afterward," growled Weis.

"Oh, and not now, because you're scared of Mr. H.?" Tony laughed. He threw a paper ball through the classroom, which bounced off the wall next to the bin and then flowed in perfectly. The teacher gave him only a sour look but said nothing to Tony.

He grinned. It was easy to impress people when no teacher could hurt him. It was easy when his own father spent nearly a million dollars on the school's renovation.

Tony leaned back and opened the Twitter app again. Weis beside him grumbled sourly but didn’t bother Tony any further.

Tony looked up in surprise and bit his lip when he saw that @WinterSoldier had responded to his tweet. The young man didn’t follow him for a long time and didn’t even have 100 followers himself, but Tony liked to read his tweets. For several months now, Tony kept responding to his tweets and involved him in short conversations, but until now, the other man had never wrote a reply himself, but always liked and retweeted what Tony had written.

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to: @IronMan

wow, ur still going to school? i thought u were in college or something at least. how old r u haha

 

@TheWarMachine: Replying to: @IronMan @WinterSoldier

In truth, Tones is a 137-year-old monk, who lives in the caves of Cambodia and destroys the silence of the mountains by writing down scrolls of wisdom, drinking coffee, and listening to rock music. No joke.

 

"It's funny cause it's true," Tony quickly wrote as an answer and thought for a moment.

"Why did you think I was already in college?" Tony wrote another reply and waited a moment.

He didn’t know much about @WinterSoldier. He knew his nickname - Bucky - with which most people went, but he himself refused to use such a name for an adult person. He knew the man was only a few years older than him. The WinterSoldier had written during the summer that he and a friend went together to college, and he had also shared photos of his friends’ 18th birthday on July 4. Tony had not even followed him back then, but he found out later. So he was probably 18 as well and studied some kind of science in Boston, while said friend, who was rarely on Twitter - but when he was under the name @Cap_Am_42 - studied an art. Or they’ll start soon. Tony was not sure.

The WinterSoldier always posted very funny tweets, most of which were about his friend Steve. Often, he also tweeted puns that Tony often found grandiose. The man was capable of playing with the English language and he understood people. Also, he seemed interested in science - not only because of his major but he also often read and then liked the conversations between Tony and Bruce Banner on Twitter.

Actually, Tony was able to count everything he knew about the man on one hand. He didn’t like cooking or at least didn’t do it well. He was living or would be living soon in Boston. He had a best friend and was only a little older than Tony. He was smart enough to write interesting and funny thoughts and was probably a bit quiet or reserved, at least he was on the internet.

Nevertheless, Tony could not suppress his grin, because he finally wrote a reply himself. Tony had already begun to wonder if he was annoying the other man because he never started conversing, but today something seemed to have changed.

"Stark, I asked you something. Must I take the phone from you?" Mister Han asked, and Tony looked up innocently.

"No, leave it. My tablet is so deep down in my pocket. I‘d have to dig very deep, which could disturb you while trying to teach.”

A few students laughed and Tony could see that the new girl in the second row was slightly annoyed, rolling her eyes but unable to suppress a smile. Tony winked at her. He had forgotten her name, but since she'd probably be indoctrinated by Melina and co. in just a few days he’ll never have any reason to talk to her, so he didn’t really care. She looked cute, though.

 

@WinterSolider: Replying to: @IronMan @TheWarMachine

because ur always talking about the craziest things with @DrBanner. i’ll soon be studying bioinformatics, i should at least understand the basics of ur theories but i dont haha

 

Tony laughed for a moment when he read the answer.

 

@TheWarMachine: Replying to @IronMan @WinterSoldier @DrBanner

 I’m telling you: hes always brimming with wisdom (thats when he has his phases with Dr B here on twitter) but in the nect moment hes killing his brain cells with coffee or something or asking me how to get damn stains outta a shirt.

 

@EdwinJarvis: Replying to @IronMan @WinterSoldier @TheWarMachine @DrBanner

Anthony, you should be listening in class, not writing on the internet. I can see that!

 

@TheWarMachine: Replying to @IronMan @WinterSoldier @EdwinJarvis @DrBanner

Tony. Run.

 

He’s put a gif under his last Tweet with the famous “run”-melody written under it and Tony really had to pay attention not to burst out laughing.

 

@IronMan: Replying to @WinterSoldier @TheWarMachine @DrBanner

You should see what @DrBanner and I are usually talking about 😏  I’m 15 but everybody’s always saying you’re as old as you feel. And I feel perfectly mature and grown up and OH A PENGUIN!

 

@IronMan: Replying to @WinterSoldier @TheWarMachine @EdwinJarvis @DrBanner

I’m already running. Right into the Revolutionary War. For the twentieth time. @EdwinJarvis, I already know all of this stuff. Everybody knows this. Don’t need to listen. Im learning more here on Twitter. @DrBanner say something!

 

It took a few minutes before anyone answered and Tony stared out of the window dreamily. Twitter gave him the opportunity to really talk to someone. His eyes fell on the two girls in the row in front of him who were always talking and whispering. Tony wondered if - if he had such a friendship - he would actually be that much on Twitter.

He grinned a bit again as he thought on how the WinterSoldier was doing right now. He had asked only one simple question and was suddenly involved in a big conversation. He hoped they didn’t annoy him, because the man was really funny and he didn’t want to scare him away.

 

@black_widow: Replying to @WinterSoldier @EdwinJarvis @TheWarMachine @IronMan @DrBanner

im really reluctant to interfere in other’s conversations but listen to your teacher we want to see you here in boston soon dont let yourself get bad marks or something now

 

Still, Tony felt his heart beat faster when Natasha answered him. She was practically a legend on Twitter and he followed her since joining the platform. Back then, she had already have thousands of followers and now she had almost 100,000.

He could hardly believe that they often wrote to each other now, including WhatsApp, and got along very well. He had told her a few weeks ago that he would be studying in Cambridge next year where she and her boyfriend worked.

Tony answered her briefly, then actually focused on the last few minutes of class. When the bell rang, he was the first person to leave the large classroom and walk in the hallway to his locker. He greeted a few people he knew shallowly. Some he knew from classes last year but he didn’t really talk to them then. But a lot of students were on a party that last weekend. He’s had a great night in which he was actually treated kind of normally for once.

Nethertheless, he rested his head on his cool locker once he’s got there and tried to overcome that sudden tiredness. The loud hallway annoyed him, High School annoyed him. He checked for new messages on Twitter, and then picked out his French book for the next lesson. It was so clichéd to teach French at a school for the super-rich kid, Tony thought, yet he had chosen it. He could speak the language fluently, but a little more practice a week would always work well.

His new French teacher was a young woman from Canada who, unlike last year's Mrs. Abelle, had grown up with the language and was not constantly incorporating grammatical mistakes into her sentences. She was motivated, and Tony actually enjoyed following the lesson, which earned him a few glaring looks from Hammer, who was practically sitting next to him if it was not for the floor between them, but Tony didn’t care. Perhaps Hammer had come to his senses over the summer holidays - and if not: One more year of beating and getting his hair spilled in the toilet was okay with Tony. At least he could fight back here, unlike at home.

 

 


 

 

Tony noticed during lunch break that something should change in this year. He leaned against his locker and wrote a message to Rhodey, complaining that the math class was a lot simpler than he had assumed. He would get bored.

The corridor was mostly empty, only a few kids were standing around, and Tony didn’t really care. Only when he heard his name he looked up.

"Tony Stark?" An unknown female voice had called him. He looked up and grinned when he realized it was the new girl from his grade. The one who had sat in his history class this morning.

"That's me. Unfortunately, I don't have autograph cards with me today, but I can give you other memories," he grinned, probably confirming the new one in everything she'd already heard about him. Better as if something happens like with Jane. He put his phone into his pockets and grinned at the girl.

She only raised her eyebrows. "I wanted to tell you something from Hammer," she said instead and Tony rolled his eyes in annoyance.

"Can I screw up my ass what Hammer wanted you to tell me?"

He could see that he had puzzled the girl because her eyebrows shot up again. The red hair made the face look interesting. "Sorry, you're new. I just didn’t think you had anything to do with Hammer. Thought you weren’t from Nee York. What does good old Hammer want from me?"

"Why did you think I had nothing to do with Hammer?"

"Do you have anything to do with him?"

"Why shouldn’t I?" The girl asked and Tony gave up.

"Because he's an ass?"

She seemed surprised for a second, but then she smiled slightly. "Maybe I'm an ass, too."

Tony glanced at her face with the sparkling, snippy eyes and the crooked smile. "You have an ass. Hammer is an ass. Most who have aren’t," Tony said, getting ready for the slap. It didn't come.

"You're single?" The girl asked, barely holding back her smile.

"And ready to mingle."

She rolled her eyes. "I understand why."

Tony grinned. "It wasn't that bad."

"It was." She looked at him and Tony's grin widened.

"So, what did good old Hammer want me to do?" He brought back the original topic. He should not forget that the girl was apparently already part of the group of the A+ ass.

"He wanted me to tell you that y’all are meeting at his locker. Because apparently, your phone has no reception. But now that I'm hearing you talk I guess you don’t really belong together?"

Tony could not help but laugh. "We belong together just as much as two same-poled sides of neodymium magnets do.”

She raised her eyebrows.

"Not a physics fan by any chance?" Tony asked and she shook her head. "Doesn’t matter. He’s an ass. How exactly did it happen that you two know each other?"

"We don’t. He told me to tell you because you didn’t seem to know where they are. I‘ve got nothing to do anyway. And getting to know people is helpful on the first day at your lovely new school,” she explained.

Tony's eyes brightened. "You don’t know him?"

"Nope," she answered, shaking her head. "Virginia Potts," she introduced herself. "In fact, some people call me Pepper."

"Some people?"

"My brothers, my boyfriend and a few more."

"Here at the school?"

"None of them. My boyfriend’s still in L.A. but moves to New York next year. My brothers are both younger."

Tony nodded. "Sounds like a nice circle of people who call you that. Do you feel like enlarging it by one person?"

Pepper nodded, smiling.

"Tony Stark," Tony introduced himself. "But you obviously knew that already."

"It's hard to miss when you're warned in class at least five times per lesson, and when your name hovers high above the city."

Tony raised his eyebrows. She was in several classes of him?

"You didn’t notice me, right?" The girl - Pepper - asked and looked at him attentively.

"Sorry, I was busy."

"Busy looking out of the window?"

Tony sighed. "It's the first Monday after the holidays. It's a bit exhausting."

Pepper grinned at him.

That should be an interesting last year.

Chapter Text

"No!" answered Tony in frustration. "It's really not that bad.” He growled. “I don’t have to go to the nurse!"

He gratefully accepted the handkerchief Pepper handed him, though. Somebody was shushing from somewhere. The library was not meant to talk in loudly.

"Your nose has been bleeding for fifteen minutes straight; your eye is swelling and you’re moving as if you were 83 years old. Don’t tell me it's not that bad.” Pepper gave him a piercing look. "How long have they been doing that?"

"For the first time", Tony lied and knew that Pepper didn’t buy it from him. It was just the fourth day of school and Stone, Hammer and Co. were already bored with mere verbal attacks on Tony. Tony’s walk to the toilet had quickly evolved into a big fight. They had tugged him to the cabins and hit him hard. Tony, being smaller and weaker than them, had no chance but to try to protect himself as good as he could. He laid at the ground after they were finished until a sophomore kid went inside, saw Tony and quickly went out again.

Pepper then had walked into the men's bathroom just a couple of seconds after and helped him up. She was angry. Tony couldn’t help but think it was directed at him.

"Please, I can’t go to the nurse," he said weakly. His voice was hoarse.

"Why not? She can help you way better. And the assholes would get problems."

Tony snorted sarcastically. "Yeah, sure." His ribs hurt and he was tired.

"Water?"

"You’ve got coffee, too?"

Pepper looked at him intimidating and muttering, and Tony accepted the water Pepper handed him. It was cool and made his mouth feel less fussy.

For a couple of seconds, both sat quietly next to each other. Tony held his handkerchief at his nose and Pepper watched him closely. She wrote something into her notebook and then put her hand on Tony's shoulder. She sighed.

"They’ve been doing this for years now, there's really no point in telling anyone here. You can’t just punish the rich kids," he said after a moment, just relishing the heat on his shoulder. He had missed someone touching him.

"Your dad is richer and more influential. When we go to the principal, he would know and can do something."

Tony couldn’t help but laugh at this. He spat out some water. Again, someone told them to be quieter. "Oh yes, my dad would take all measures," he said sarcastically, trying to play down that his father wouldn’t just ignore it, but rather beat Tony again, so he would learn to deal with pain rather than cry like a baby.

His thoughts drifted away and Pepper said nothing. After a couple of seconds, her gaze was too much for him. He shook his head. "My dad can’t notice, okay? He’s a busy man."

"Your dad seems to be an asshole," Pepper answered dryly.

Tony's head shot up again. He stared at Pepper and wanted to be mad at her. She couldn’t just talk about his father like that!

"You don’t know him," he whispered back angrily. At least he wanted to be angry. But she was right, he was an asshole. Still, she shouldn’t talk about him that way. Only Rhodey was allowed to do so.

"You just said he probably wouldn’t do anything when he found out his son was beaten and bullied."

"That's different!" said Tony. He knew Pepper didn’t believe him. He had said too much, but now it was too late.

It’s strange, he thought, He only knew her for four days now and didn’t even have a big problem with her knowing or at least guessing that living as a Stark wasn’t as much fun as the media always portrayed it. He stared at her and studied her closely. He was already used to the blue eyes and the red hair. He could even identify that certain look when she raised her eyebrows slightly and the corners of her mouth just couldn’t stay down. The slight smile when she knew something he didn’t.

"Why are you grinning at me?"

"I'm not grinning at you!"

"Whatever," Pepper muttered, smiling slightly. She put her pen down again. "You still bleeding?"

"What? Oh," Tony mumbled, looking into the handkerchief. No new blood had accumulated. He shook his head in relief and stuffed his handkerchief into his pockets. "Thanks," he said.

"Nothing to thank for."

She looked at him as if it were the most normal thing in the world to help the little, young child being beaten by the big, the broad and the strong. Of course, Rhodey would help him and Jarvis, too. Tony wondered if the WinterSoldier would help him, as well. Natasha would have long since killed the boys if she knew. But these were all people from the internet. They weren’t really here, they were not directly affected. Their reputation did not depend on whom they were with and whom they were against.

Pepper’s did, though.

"You want to come to my house today?", she suddenly asked and looked at him again. His eyes widened and he looked up from the book he was staring at.

"To your place?"

"To my place."

Tony looked around to see if she could possibly mean someone else. She couldn’t seriously want a deeper friendship with him, could she? He had no time for such a thing. He had to work at home and write with Rhodey and find out about the WinterSoldier. And he was a loud and rude boy and -

"I can practically hear your train of thought."

"What?"

She rolled her eyes and smiled. "How long have you had no friends?"

Tony opened his mouth and started to protest sourly. "I have friends!", he shouted too loud and again someone said that they should be quiet. Someone groaned in annoyance.

"Oh?", Pepper asked, raising her eyebrow again. "Who is it? Stone? Or Hammer? Or maybe Mr. Fury?"

"I have friends here. And more outside of school."

"Those you always write with?"

"Yes," Tony said, not knowing what she was getting at. "Why do you think I have no friends?"

She groaned briefly. "I've never seen someone considering that long whether they want to go home with someone. While you’re obviously interested in talking to me."

Tony gave her an appraising look. "Maybe I don’t want to talk to you, but you always come to me in the breaks. You're practically hanging on to me since Monday."

"And you can’t reject me just as you do with your teachers, Weis, Stone, and the others because?"

Tony opened his mouth, but no intelligent answer left it. "Because," he stammered, "you are a girl?"

"So, you're sexist or what?"

"No!" Tony said, clasping his hands over his head. "Oh god, you are the worst."

Pepper grinned and patted him gently the shoulder, careful not to hit a wounded spot. "You like me."

"Ogh," murmured Tony, resting his head on the book. "You're okay," he murmured and for the first time, he actually heard himself saying such words.

"Sorry," a raspy voice tore him out of his thoughts. "The library is there for reading. I have warned you both several times now, but now you have to leave. The other students cannot concentrate."

Tony looked from the librarian to Pepper. He liked her but he had never been thrown out of the library.

"Stark, you’ve always been so quiet the last years. Are you the troublemaker, Ms. Potts?"

Pepper's eyes sparkled triumphantly. "So, you have friends here at the school, right? With whom you have always had nice quiet parties in the library for the past few years? ", she murmured to him and apologized to the elderly lady at the end of the long shelf. She got up and patted Tony on the shoulder once more.

"You don’t have to do homework before class and I'm done."

"What's that supposed to mean?" asked Tony.

Again, Pepper rolled her eyes as she stuffed her notebook into her pocket. "As if you've ever done homework. I can see how much love you give to school."

"It's an American high school. Nobody really has to invest much time. It's not that complicated."

"Said the fourteen-year-old senior."

"Fifteen."

"Whatever. Are you coming to my place today?"

Tony grinned and smiled at Pepper. She was great. He definitely had to tell Rhodey about her. So far, his best friend only knew that he had some contact with a new student. He absolutely had to tell him that he had found a friend in her. On the fourth day.

"Of course," he beamed.

 


 

 

Tony opened his mouth in amazement as he entered the large, bright hallway. He didn’t know that a few pictures and personal items could beautify something as simple as an entrance hall.

"You can put your shoes down here and hang the jacket over there," Pepper told him pointing to two large shelves. Several pairs of shoes stood there, and a few expensive jackets hung on the wardrobe. A leather jacket lay on the floor.

"My brother Phillip," she explained. "He always throws the jacket on the floor. Phillip!" she shouted into the long, bright hallway of the Manhattan apartment.

It took more than thirty seconds - too long! Tony thought - before a boy stuck his head out of a room at the end of the hallway. The apartment was not small - it was much larger than the average. If you were to build sensibly, three or four families could live there. But it was much smaller than Tony's home.

The boy - Phillip - came out of his room. He was maybe 13 years old and had curly hair the same color as Pepper.

"What?" he asked his sister in an annoyed voice.

"Your jacket," she replied, ignoring the gruff greeting.

Phillip rolled his eyes and trotted slowly toward her. He knocked while walking at another door with colorful pictures and finally stood in front of Tony and Pepper. He picked up the jacked demonstratively slow.

Pepper stood there all the time with her arms crossed, watching. When he was done, Pepper nodded to her brother. "Very nice," she said. And "Hey."

"Hi," her brother replied, previously the cool teenager, and hugged his sister. "Your new boyfriend?" he asked pointing to Tony. His voice jumped an octave higher and Tony could barely contain the laughter. Puberty was a fun thing.

Pepper rolled his eyes. "Ass. Happy is visiting in two weeks. Tony’s from school."

"Hey," he said to Tony and gave him a brofist. He grinned at Pepper and pulled his phone out of his sweatpants. "I wrote with Anna today. She's coming over this weekend!" he said, sounding so enthusiastic.

So young. He is so young.

"Pepper!", a much higher voice shouted and Tony looked up. A little boy came running out of the room with the colorful pictures. He was probably ten and ran to his sister to hug her.

"Phillip baked with me and Rose earlier, do you want to try?"

Finally, he let go of his sister and then seemed to notice that Tony was there. "Oh," he said. "Hello."

He looked a bit shy and Tony looked at Pepper. The boy, who had been so cheerful, had suddenly become so calm. Did I do something wrong? He has never been good with kids.

"Hi," he greeted back and held out his hand diplomatically, unsure what to do.

"I'm Luis," said the boy, glancing around between Pepper and Tony. He shook Tony’s hand weakly, which was strange, Tony thought. At age ten you should be able to shake someone’s hand correctly.

"Tony," he said nevertheless.

Luis looked at him and then walked to Pepper silently and pulled her down to him. He wanted to whisper, but Tony could hear exactly what he said: "He looks like Tony Stark."

Pepper looked up with an amused smile, knowing that the child’s whisper was very loud. Tony could see that Phillip's eyes were growing big. The boy put down his phone and Pepper nodded to Luis. "Well recognized."

"Wow," the little boy whispered, staring at Tony almost startled.

"Did your father really create his own element? I heard about this in school!"

Tony opened his mouth to correct the boy. It was not his father - it was his father and Obie and quite a few scientists. And Tony. And Tony, but Tony was never mentioned.

"A few others helped too, but yes," he finally said, unable to prevent a bit of frustration from creeping into his voice.

"Do you want something from the cake, too?", Luis asked, suddenly happy again.

"Gladly," Tony replied, smiling slightly.

Pepper patted Luis' red hair and gestured to Tony to follow him.

"There's a bathroom here," she said, pointing to a door at the beginning of the corridor. "And that’s the kitchen and living room. My room is at the very back. Luis, can you bring us the cake, please? "

The boy nodded enthusiastically, and Pepper led the way past several doors. Two were open and revealed a guest room and a sports room, others were locked. When Pepper opened her door, Tony didn’t expect much, but he was thrilled.

The tidy room had just that level of personal resources that made it look not cold but not overcrowded. The modern look was rounded off with warm colors. Next to the large bed, two bean bags looked invitingly to sit in them.

"Sit down," Pepper said. "You still need something for your eye?"

"It's okay, thanks."

Tony put his school back next to the door on the floor and then sat down carefully in the large seat cushion. Pepper threw herself into the one next to him. For a moment, both sat quietly next to each other, then there was a knock on the door and Luis stuck his head inside.

"Here's the cake!", he said and gave Pepper the board carefully. He continued to stare at Tony with wide eyes, waiting for both to taste.

"It's awesome," Pepper said, and Tony made a gesture of approval when they tried. Beaming, the little boy left the room. Tony wondered if he had ever baked cakes when he was little. Maybe he would have been happier. When Rhodey came to New York in October, they would have to try it.

"So," Pepper said, watching him expectantly. "What do you think about it?"

"About what?"

She chewed on her cake for a moment. "About having friends."

"I have friends!" Tony explained again, a bit louder than necessary. He knew Pepper probably wasn’t serious; she had that look again. "Just not at school."

"And not in New York City. Or New York for that matter. Or in the US?"

"You're exaggerating," complained Tony, throwing his head back.

"Tell me about them," demanded Pepper, looking at Tony. He stared back. So far, he had never told anyone about his private online life. Neither his dad knew about it nor anyone at school. Most of the guys from the internet didn’t even know he was Tony Stark. Not even Dr. Banner knew, and they had talked in real life once. Tony had been younger and didn’t have an online account back then.

He knew that once that secret was given away, he not only lost his privacy but also had to justify himself to all the people he wrote with. They all would be in the public eye and Tony was sure that most of them wouldn’t appreciate it. Neither Jarvis, who could get in trouble as a butler, nor Natasha, who wanted to live a quiet life with her boyfriend, and certainly not two Freshman students from Boston. He might lose them all - except Rhodey maybe.

And all that only if Pepper told somebody. All she had to do was write her own tweet or call a newspaper and it was all over. Tony looked at her wide-eyed.

On the other hand, she was the first to stay with him. After Jane, of course, but she had left eventually, too. He touched his chest.

She was the first one after Jane, who didn’t incite or judge him for his injuries, and she was the first one after Jane who had heard of his life at home, at least in parts. And next to Rhodey and Jarvis of course.

She was the first who volunteered to stay with him and didn’t leave. Not until now.

The memory of the cold wet walls and the storm whipping against the barred window overcame him, and for a moment he saw the face of the sixteen-year-old girl staring at him with wide eyes. Her red eyes that showed defiance and will in the beginning, until they were just cloudy.

"Tony?" Pepper asked, tearing him out of his thoughts.

"What?" he asked in alarm, hearing that his voice was much higher than usual.

Carefully, Pepper raised her hands and laid them slowly on Tony's forearm. "I didn’t mean to insult you or anything. I believe you to have friends."

"I, uh ..." stammered Tony before understanding what she was getting at. "Oh yeah. I have."

His eyes fell on his forearm, where the girl's hands were. Her fingers had different nail polish on them than on Monday, Tony noticed.

He wanted to say something else, but he didn’t know what. He liked Pepper, sure. A lot. She was fantastic, but he had only known her for four days.

And I'm already at her home. That must be a good sign.

"Are you watching any series or reading books or something?" asked Pepper, well aware that Tony wouldn’t answer her original question at the moment.

Tony looked at her. The topic had changed quickly. "I sometimes watch Modern Family. Or documentaries. Sometimes even operas. I don’t know. I think it’s exciting."

"Did you read books by Tom Clancy?"

"Yes," Tony said quickly, listening. "A lot, actually."

"Very good, "Pepper grinned. "Which one did you like best?"

Their talk about "The Hunt for Red October" changed into a profound discussion about which country was guilty for the Cold War to be that big and dangerous and finally about their favorite places in Europe they had been to.

Two years ago, Pepper had spent all her summer holidays in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Italy, and visited many smaller Eastern European countries. Tony told her that his mother was Italian and that they used to speak that language. He didn’t tell her about the last years of the famous Maria Stark and Pepper didn’t ask any further.

He found out that Pepper preferred the warm weather in L.A., rather than the temperate one in New York, and also that she was highly interested in economic structures. She found music from Eastern Europe and West Asia beautiful, but the African tribal music strange, if not uninteresting.

Tony told her about Cape Town and Pepper talked about a safari tour very long. Tony could scarcely believe that Pepper had been standing just several feet next to a giraffe, and Pepper was surprised that Tony had never done such a tour before. He didn’t tell her that he once asked his father to do a safari tour.

He talked about particulates in Shanghai and the green roofs of Tokyo and heard about diving between corals and dolphins. He wondered if he would ever have time for something like that.

He learned that Pepper's boyfriend already had a permanent New York study place for next year and that her parents worked in a large company and were rarely at home during weeks. Her former babysitter Rose became like a second mother and also got along great with her parents, who spent the weekend as well as they could with their children.

Jessica and Tommy Potts had taken their children to various US cities, traveled with them to cinemas, amusement parks or musicals, showing them countries on the other side of the world, and visited karaoke bars in the evening.

Tony told her about his mother's charity club and that he thought it was fantastic that she had worked for foreign children in need. He didn’t tell her about his distress.

Pepper once had a cat that died of old age three years ago. She was completely black and had light green eyes. Tony didn’t want to put the photo of Coffee out of his hands and instead told Pepper about Dum-E. He didn’t tell her about the day his bot was thrown against the wall and the damage he had taken from it.

Before they really knew it, it was 7 am, and Luis poked his head back into the room just when Pepper and Tony laughed at a story about Pepper's old neighbor Mr. Jean.

"I better head home," said Tony suddenly, as the young boy told them the time.

"You can eat here," offered Pepper, and Luis's eyes widened.

Tony glanced at his watch. It was late, his father could be at home at any moment. Tony had totally lost track of time during the day.

"Next time," he said, throwing his backpack over his shoulder.

"Are you all right?" Pepper asked worriedly, holding him by the arm. "You're a little pale all of a sudden?"

Tony nodded and slipped into his shoes at lightning speed. "Yeah, sure," he lied and could tell from Pepper's face that she didn’t quite believe him. "I forgot that I should have dinner with my father tonight, so I have to hurry."

Before he went out the door, he turned back to Pepper. "Thank you for allowing me to be here. It was great."

"Is it cool to have friends in real life?" Pepper asked with a wink and Tony's eyes went wide.

Were they really friends? He could not resist the grin and then nodded. "It's better than expected."

Pepper pulled him into an unexpected hug to say goodbye and for a moment, Tony stiffened before realizing that the big body on him wanted no harm. He quickly put his arms around Pepper. He realized that she was as tall as he was.

"See you tomorrow," she said, pulling away from him.

"See you tomorrow," he confirmed, thinking of home. He had not told her about home.

Chapter Text

He managed to get home faster than expected. Maybe it was the low traffic, or the time, or just that particular Thursday afternoon.

Whatever it was, it made Howard Stark arrive home early as well.

Tony knew it because of the light that illuminated the large entrance hall. The bright light got reflected off by the white walls with the stylish gray and red accents, leaving Tony, as usual, wondering how one could feel not at home at all in such a beautiful apartment. In the places where at Pepper’s home pictures of her, Phillip and Luis hung, there were blank gray and white walls. Opposite the front door hung the wedding photo of Howard and Maria.

Tony did not even try to put his backpack down, but quietly shoved his shoes into the shoe cabinet, that only obtained four other pairs of shoes. 'Howard work I', 'Howard work II', 'Howard free-time' (which was a funny idea) and 'Tony work I'.

That’s at least how he lovingly called these shoes.

He tried to get into his big room at the back corner of the big apartment as quietly as possible. When the sliding door quietly opened in front of him - and thus offered the view into the spacious room - he finally put his backpack on the side of the huge corner desk and pulled off his jeans while walking to his bed. The sweatpants laid right on the sloping king-sized bed at the left corner with the large picture windows. The traffic still seemed to be calm - Tony didn’t see a big traffic jam on the main road from his position at the very top of the big tower. Dum-E slowly drove to him from his charging station next to the en suite bathroom.

"Hey you," Tony greeted him gently, patting his head. Although the robot had not been able to perform much intellectual work since his accident, Tony knew that he could still feel. The little robot made a happy sound.

"Do you remember, Pepper? I told you about her," Tony asked the robot. He was sure that the little one couldn’t remember. "She's fantastic," he continued anyway. "I think we are friends. Now. I think she really likes me. Cool, huh?"

Again, Dum-E made happy noises.

"No, you're still my absolute favorite little thing, darling," Tony murmured, laying his back on the comfy bed. With his fingers, he pressed twice on the frame of his bed and the projection of the stars built on his ceiling. He liked the depiction of the night sky, especially because he never really saw stars in New York.

Tony breathed in, thinking about the day. He smiled. The day had started really shitty when Stone and Hammer thought they had to demonstrate their cowardice to Tony, but it had gotten him far worse in the past, so he guessed he was kind of lucky.

And the afternoon had been fantastic.

"Friday," he said, addressing the AI that was soon to revolutionize the media world. StarkIndustries had designed a previous version of Friday for the first StarkPhone that was to be released next year. Of course, Howard had not been satisfied, so that Tony had to improve it. He had done such a good job that in the end, the AI was so good that the development teams had to remove a lot of features because the file had become too big. And Tony even just sent the small file, not the fully improved version of Friday. 

Tony had installed the much more intelligent version in his room, though.

"Please remember me to bake something with Rhodey when he's here in October."

"Will do, boss."

"Don’t look like that, Dum-E," Tony said, smiling at his robot. "I think baking is something I really missed out. The boys both looked so happy. And no, you can’t help me there, sorry. You’d only drop the ... cakes. Friday, what do we need for baking? Sugar, flour, salt, water ...?"

"Sugar and flour definitely," confirmed Friday. "Otherwise baking soda, often eggs. It depends on the recipe."

"Oh god, I have no idea," Tony smiled, already looking forward to learn how to bake. Rhodey would certainly be able to teach him. Or Pepper, maybe.

For a few seconds, he just laid on the bed, watching the starry sky above him, enjoying the absolute quietness of the thick walls and windows. Then, without warning, his door was pushed open and Tony was startled.

"Anthony Stark!" the voice rumbled and even before his name was finished, Tony got up and quickly pulled a blanket over Dum-E.

"At your service," he said, standing already in the middle of the room, staring at his father, who stood wide and big in the doorway.

Howard Stark was an intelligent man who often couldn’t explain his brilliant thoughts. His ideas were still far ahead of his time, though technology often wandered in the direction of his mind. He had last been able to create an element that he had devised thirty years ago. Due to his limited resources and the frustration of losing his wife to drugs and finally the ubiquitous greed for money, also the spread of terror and just because of his very own demons, the glass of whiskey had become his constant companion.

The possibility of slowing down his thought processes so that is was possible to write them down and drown unpleasant tracks of thought at the same time meant that the big and expensive companies that sold alcohol of any kind earned a golden nose on the multi-billionaire.

Not only did Howard Stark run a business, but he also developed revolutionary ideas at home, raised his son alone, and championed for his wife's charity business. A glass of whiskey in the evening was justified.

That's how the press would describe him.

Tony knew better. He raised his hands defensively. "I lost track of time. Didn’t want to be late, sir," he said, still staring into his father's eyes.

"You're constantly on your damned cell phone, you can’t lose the fucking track of time," Howard growled, finally reaching Tony. The man was so much taller than Tony, who was far too small and childish for a fifteen-year-old. "What have you done?"

"I was with a friend," Tony spoke the truth. "For a school project," he lied.

"And you couldn’t finish this project at home, because?"

"We had to shoot and analyze photos of contrasts on the street and in our apartments. We took the pictures at her place, so we couldn’t disturb you, sir."

Tony swallowed, hoping Howard would buy his lie. He wouldn’t approve of his son just meeting someone like that. It was shame enough that he was still in high school.

"I pay damned five-digit sums for your school each year, and you waste your time there on aesthetics projects? What are you? A kindergarten gang?"

"I'm learning to create designs. That's important for the company."

"I have the fucking best designers in the States working for me, I don’t need school kids with fucking photos!"

It had been stupid to say photos. Howard now stood directly in front of Tony and the boy could smell the glasses of whiskey - definitely more than one.

Tony swallowed. "I continued working on the design for the solar glasses. The energy absorbed is now 7% higher than in the first draft."

"7%?" Howard asked, his hand smashing on Tony's cheek. It didn’t hurt, he was used to it, but Tony wondered if Tommy and Jessica Potts had ever beaten their children. Rhodey's mother never did, and neither did Jane's parents. "I told you it should be increased by at least 12%. What the fuck are you doing with your time? And don’t you tell me that your school is too demanding for you. Should I let you get fucking homeschooled?"

Tony didn't dare touch his warm cheek. Maybe it hurt, but more psychic than physical.

"I'll keep working on it tonight," he said, dropping his eyes for a moment.

"Don’t you even have the guts to look me in the eyes?", his father was even louder and hit him again on the cheek. "Are you fucking weak?"

Tony didn’t say anything but tried to focus his eyes on his father again, which was difficult because the second punch was harder and brought tears to his eyes.

Tony didn’t want to cry; crying was the last thing he wanted to do at the moment, but with a certain amount of force, the human body gave in and tears for so far still unexplained reasons got pushed into the eye and revealed in the most unpleasant way which sensations overpowered that certain person. Tony couldn't stop his eyes from getting watery and finally expelling the salty water. But he also couldn’t move and so just stared at his suddenly resting father without rubbing his eyes.

His father was quiet for a moment, then he seemed to lose his temper. The vein on his temple became huge and the blush on his face clearer. The whiskey glass shook and the next hit against Tony's cheek did not really go against his cheek but landed too high on his still slightly swollen eye. It clapped loudly.

"Are you a fucking toddler?" his father exclaimed in anger. "Did I teach you to cry when something doesn't go the way you want it to? Are you blinded by reality? Didn’t your mother teach you shit?" He screamed and Tony's eyes widened. As big as it was possible, at least. The left eye was swelling again.

"My mother died because of you!", he yelled back and couldn’t stop the tears. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

"Your mother died because of herself, you little beast. She has died because of herself and because of you. And don’t you dare to blame me for her death ever again. You dirty, mendacious, spoiled kid!"

With each of the last words, he hit Tony's cheek and aimed in his anger more or less well. Not only Tony's eye would be swollen tomorrow, but his neck would also carry traces. In the end, he raised his arms to fight back.

"You said you’d stop beating!" He exclaimed, not knowing why he had ever believed his father.

"Obviously you softened too much during that time. If you take over this company," his father said and within seconds had become so quiet that Tony had to prick his ears. At least he didn’t hit anymore and was just looking dangerous and angry. "Then you have to expect setbacks. It won’t always go the way you want it to. You’ve got to expect the stock price to drop or your people to be dissatisfied. And all that will be like a hit into your little, stupid, worthless face. And then, when you start crying like a weak baby, you've lost your company faster than you can think."

Tony looked challengingly at his father. He didn’t want him to beat him, but it made sense. Everything his father said always made sense. Because he was just smarter, and more mature, and had experienced more things that Tony could dream of.

Just for a second, he thought of the cold room with the barred window. The soft crying from the corner farthest from the puddle of urine, water, and blood.

"Thanks," he said softly, not sure if it was for his father to stop beating or for preparing him for his life.

Howard put his hand on Tony's shoulder, and the boy just jerked a bit, almost imperceptibly. "Very well. One day, you'll learn how to run that company, and then maybe you’ll not completely ruin it. But I’ve got to get you there. Your mother is gone, so I have to take you there. Someday you'll thank me for trying to teach you as much as you can understand."

Something in Tony exclaimed that this was not right.

"You have to bring the glass to more than 112%, otherwise it's a sign that you can’t handle challenges. You have time until Monday."

The whiskey in his hand was almost calm as they both stared at each other. Only when Howard turned and left the room did something drop on the floor.

"And write the report in Spanish. Mr. Algazo is from Mexico, so it's easier for him."

Only when the frosted glass door closed softly, Tony sat down on his bed and wiped the tears from his eyes.

 


 

 

@TheWarMachine:

Can’t be the only one who gets nervous when @IronMan doesn’t post a thing for a whole day. You okay? You planning something? Can I be your vice dictator?

 

@IronMan: Replying to @WarMachine

You can 😏 But let me sleep first, I’m so fucking tired today. And homework doesn’t do it itself

 

@TheWarMachine: Replying to @IronMan

I can come and help you. So the whole world domination thing is working out faster.

 

@IronMan: Replying to @TheWarMachine

Oh yeah, you sure can totally come at my place if you know what I mean 😏

 

@archerclint: Replying to @TheWarMachine @IronMan

jesus, children are reading this. be a little discreet at least smh

 

@IronMan: Replying to @TheWarMachine @archerclint

Children? Sorry, but @TheWarMachine and I aren’t that far already

 

@TheWarMachine: Replying to @IronMan @archerclint

Tones, one day they are gnna believe all that shit we’re writing about.

 

@IronMan: Replying to @TheWarMachine @archerclint

Let them know the truth. If you’d really love me, you’d be okay with it. Are you ashamed of me? 😢

 

@TheWarMachine: Replying to @IronMan @archerclint

Never, my dear. But I also don’t want you to lose your chances with anybody here.

 

@archerclint: Replying to @TheWarMachine @IronMan

thats what all of em say. tony, im sorry but your love is totally one-sided

 

@IronMan: Replying to @TheWarMachine @archerclint

Are you not ashamed to revile me, Rhodes, when it is all owing to me that you, from being such a small account, have become so often retweeted, and from being unread, are now able to tweet again

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @IronMan @archerclint @TheWarMachine

i really dont wanna annoy any of you but did u just kinda quote this ancient roman politician?

 

@IronMan: Replying to @TheWarMachine @archerclint @WinterSoldier  

You’re not annoying. I love you a little bit for knowing that right now 

 

@TheWarMachine: Replying to @IronMan @archerclint @WinterSoldier

Alright, I have never been forgotten faster in my life.

 

@IronMan: Replying to @TheWarMachine @archerclint @WinterSoldier   

You reap what you sow. Come on, Winter, let’s go have a nice evening together

 

@archerclint: Replying to @TheWarMachine @IronMan @WinterSoldier

did you just call him winter? please, tell me you didnt call him winter. didnt you want to sleep or something? do it. and dont call him winter again thank you very much

 

@IronMan: Replying to @TheWarMachine @archerclint @WinterSoldier   

Well, if @WinterSoldier doesn’t tell us his real name, he has to be okay with getting other names

 

@TheWarMachine: Replying to @IronMan @archerclint @WinterSoldier

You could use his nickname, like everyone else does.

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @IronMan @archerclint @TheWarMachine

yeah, you could use my nickname        

 

@IronMan: Replying to @TheWarMachine @archerclint @WinterSoldier   

Sorry, but im not gonna call you Bucky. Nothing against you but this name really gives me a dull feeling on my tongue and my fingers are twitching when I have to write that

 

@TheWarMachine: Replying to @IronMan @archerclint @WinterSoldier

You’re using my nickname, too?         

 

@IronMan: Replying to @TheWarMachine @archerclint @WinterSoldier  

Yeah, but your nickname doesn’t sound like a nine-year-old kid going to the store the first time alone, honeybear. “Gibe me a couple of bucks. Buckys.”  Whatever. Nope.

 

@ArcherClint: Replying to @TheWarMachine @IronMan @WinterSoldier

i am so sorry for you rhodey that you have to deal with tony all the time. seems to be exhausting. bucky, you wanna help him here?

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @IronMan @archerclint @TheWarMachine

god. my nsme really isnt that great. james. but nobody really calls me that

 

@IronMan: Replying to @TheWarMachine @archerclint @WinterSoldier   

Wrong. Im calling you that. You are lucky that my other James has another name, so it won't be confusing. So, hey, James, what’s up? 😏

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @IronMan @archerclint @TheWarMachine

hey, wyd? 😏

 

@TheWarMachine: Replying to @IronMan @archerclint @WinterSoldier

Well, I pretty much like that name. It’s amazing, actually.

 

@archerclint: Replying to @TheWarMachine @IronMan @WinterSoldier

just let it be, youve lost tonys love earlier. you seeing how hes hanging around with bucky now?

 

@WinderSoldier: Replying to @IronMan @archerclint @TheWarMachine

its literally the second time that wer chatting

 

@archerclint: Replying to @TheWarMachine @IronMan @WinterSoldier

doesnt make anything better fot rhody tbh

 

@black_widow: Replying to @TheWarMachine @IronMan @WinterSoldier @archerclint

clint ur job was it to get our food from that restaurant. im hungry 

 

@IronMan: Replying to @archerclint @TheWarMachine @WinterSoldier @BlackWidow

Oh no the Widow has talked. Clint get yourself safe

 

@EdwinJarvis: Replying to @TheWarMachine @IronMan @WinterSoldier @archerclint @BlackWidow

This is not WhatsApp. Create a group chat but don’t destroy my timeline like that again. Ever.

 

@IronMan: Replying to @TheWarMachine @EdwinJarvis @WinterSoldier @archerclint @BlackWidow

Sorry

 

@TheWarMachine: Replying to @IronMan @EdwinJarvis @WinterSoldier @archerclint @BlackWidow

Sorry.

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @IronMan @EdwinJarvis @WarMachine @archerclint @BlackWidow

sorry

 

@archerclint: Replying to @IronMan @EdwinJarvis @TheWarMachine @WinterSoldier @BlackWidow

sorry. like, really.

 

@EdwinJarvis: Replying to @TheWarMachine @IronMan @WinterSoldier @archerclint @BlackWidow

Alright. Tony, you said earlier that you are tired. Now, get yourself to sleep. The rest can continue what they have been doing.

 

 


 

 

@WinterSoldier:

when waiting fot the furniture gets a lot funnier because twitter suddenly does its thing. so i guess it was okay that @cap_am_42 was „sick“ today, pff

 

 


 

 

In the end, Tony had worked all night. He couldn’t read an article by Bruce until the following Tuesday because he just didn’t find the time. He had canceled going to Pepper's house at the weekend. He explained his even more swollen eye by saying that he had probably been lying on the wrong side during the night.

He had really laughed about a tweet from the WinterSoldier on Saturday afternoon, in which the young man had written something about a subway experience.

Tony didn't see his father the whole weekend, but in the back of his mind, the man being celebrated by the press repeated that his own son was to blame for his wife's death.

Tony wondered if it was true. He was right somewhere, but at the same time, it was Howard who didn’t want or could pay.

Instead of thinking about that very depressing topic, he got back to work on his project.

In the end, Tony even managed to increase energy efficiency by 15.8%. The windows would be able to absorb sunlight to keep the rooms behind it cool while transmitting power to the system. While it was still not nearly as efficient as conventional energy systems, the beginning of phase II of the green revolution of StarkIndustries was laid.

He told Rhodey about Pepper and their meeting on Wednesday. The next Friday, he spent all afternoon with her and even ate dinner there because his dad would be in L.A. for the weekend, so that just Obie was at home who often allowed him to go outside.

He met Pepper's parents and was amazed that even rich parents could joke and remember that their son would give a concert with his school band, to which he was also invited.

He had asked Pepper if her parents would often remember their appointments and first got that questioning look again but then got told in a calm voice that their parents had almost fired an assistant because he'd been putting company meetings on Saturdays all the time at the time when Phillip and Pepper were still playing soccer and were always on the field on Saturdays.

Tony watched the conversations at the dining table with amazement. Phillip could even get up earlier because he had homework to do and Luis made a mess with the Nutella he was eating but nobody complained.

And even though it seemed to be a dream or something, Tony enjoyed this weekend more than he had most of his life. But in the end, he had to get back into his empty home and stare at his desktop whilst creating an even better version of that solar panel his father had given him to work on.

But that was okay. It had to be.

Chapter Text

It was Thursday, three weeks after school started when the stock prices of StarkIndustries plummeted.

Tony sat next to Vincent Weis in his history lesson when lots of cell phones in the classroom lit up and broadcasted the Breaking News. A terrorist in Europe had detonated a bomb in front of an important company site. At the same time, solar parks were the target of terrorists in several places worldwide. A total of seven innocent people died, that’s at least what the news said half an hour later when Tony walked out of the classroom next to Pepper and looked at his cell phone again.

By now it had become clear that said company building was SI's most important location in Europe, the large campus in Luxembourg. Tony kept staring at his phone, waiting for someone to tell him to go home, but nothing came. Students in the hall looked at him more intensely than usual, and even Pepper was pushed aside by several students who wanted to know Tony's insider information.

Pepper had to feel that Tony was uneasy and later spent the whole lunch break talking about unimportant things to distract Tony a bit. The school day was long, and Tony spent his last hour in the school lab with Pepper sitting next to him on the table. She didn’t have to be there but kept him company as he worked on his project. The whole lab was much fuller today than usual, but much quieter. Everyone tried to catch up with the conversation between Tony and Pepper. Tony wondered where the attention had been for the last few years when he was beaten and hit and shoved. Or on Tuesday between the sixth and seventh period. He still felt the big hematoma.

When the digital clock at the end of the expensive laboratory showed 04:00 p.m. Tony caught his breath nervously and looked at his cell phone again. Wall Street was closed, sales were over. It wasn’t even a big thing nowadays anymore but still – Tony had learned that those numbers at 4 pm were so much more important. Even before Tony really realized that there was actually a -4.8% for stocks of Stark Industries, the big door at the end of the lab opened and all the students looked there.

The two tall men in their suits scanned the room, found Tony, and ran to meet him. From a few meters away he could see that the bodyguards were from Stark Industries. Without saying a word, Tony understood what they wanted. Quickly he packed his things in his backpack, smiled briefly at Pepper and tried to ignore the curious and sensation greedy glances of his classmates. He swallowed. If his father made sure he was picked up from his school, it had to be really bad.

This last happened in 2008 when the stock market crashed and Stark Industries fell sharply on the international market. Tony felt sick as he thought about how that afternoon had ended.

The drive back to the tower was relatively quiet. A stark contrast to the crowd that gathered in front of the school building and in front of the tower to get a statement from Tony. Considering the fact that for the press Tony was still only the little boy who had to repeat his junior year, the media showed a lot of interest today.

His bodyguards battled Tony through the crowds and he did not comment on the situation just as he was trained. Only when the door closed behind him and Tony was alone in the quiet apartment, the tension dissolved from his shoulders and he breathed a sigh of relief.

He didn’t know what he could do. No one could direct global financial flows, much less a fifteen-year-old. He could do nothing against the attacks and he didn't have a public Internet account on any website to voice sympathy or any other comment of any kind.

He was powerless and imprisoned.

The last time his father had taken a 42-hour shift and had come back only the day after the next. His mother had made sure that the back then in 2008 very young Tony was getting to bed early and had been there the next morning at seven o'clock.

When Tony came to his room, he told Friday that she should put on the news. It was not as bad as 2008, nowhere near. The collapse should be repaired soon, especially if the company may postpone the announcement for the first StarkPhone at a date a bit earlier.

Probably in a few weeks, everything would be alright again and today there were no far-reaching problems for the company. But when his father was responsible for getting the boy out of school earlier, he had to be stressed.

Tony wrote to Rhodey and talked to him a bit while he continued working on his next design. Rhodey knew who he was and had followed the news. It was 3:30 in the morning ("I won’t have to go to school tomorrow anyway, so I really don’t need to sleep now, Rhodey!") when Tony heard that his father was coming home.

"Hey, sorry," he said, yawning. "I'm tired now, I'll go, sorry."

Rhodey was silent for a moment. "You were just wide awake. Did your dad come home?"

"Hm?"

"Did your father come home?"

"No, he won’t be here until the middle of the night, if at all," he lied.

"It's the middle of the night."

"Wow, it's really late," Tony looked, trying to keep his voice down, that Howard didn’t notice. "I really have to go."

"If something happens, tell me."

"What should happen?" He asked. Although Rhodey knew of his bad relationship with his father, he didn’t know that he was still beating him. Tony had assured him last year that it did not happen anymore. That should stay that way, Tony had often heard that young men of his age needed to be able to handle their own problems, otherwise, they are weak and unworthy of maintaining friendships. Rhodey wouldn’t leave him, but Tony didn’t want to risk anything.

"Just write if there's anything," Rhodey said, sounding somehow worried.

"I will," Tony said smiling. "See you tomorrow."

"Yeah, see you tomorrow. Good night."

Tony threw his phone on his bed and got up from his desk. He wiped his sweaty hands on his sweatpants and headed for his door. He knew Howard would want to see him anyway, he didn’t need to pretend to be asleep.

The door pushed quietly aside and Tony stepped out into the lighted hallway. Slowly he ran down the cold laminate and looked into each room before turning to the kitchen, where his father stood with his back to Tony. Clearly, the boy could see that there was great tension on the man's shoulders. For a moment, Tony was quiet, then he took a breath and began to speak softly.

"What else can I do?" He asked, hoping he had chosen the right words.

Howard was quiet, but his shoulders rose and fell faster as if calming down.

"20%," the older man then said and turned around. Tony could see deep lines in his face and dark circles under his eyes. The eyes that usually showed so much disgust for Tony were bloodshot. Somehow he felt sorry for him. "I expect an increase in efficiency of 20% on your glass panels, at least. This month, as early as possible. We have to go to the market now. Cheap alternatives for solar parks, no vulnerable targets, no bloody bombs that can endanger the whole company, all your livelihood, damn shit!"

In the end, Howard grew louder and screamed. He put the whiskey glass he had poured onto the kitchen island with a bang. It spilled over, but Howard didn’t seem to care. He wiped the whiskey on his shirt.

"Okay," Tony said, trying to make his voice sound as gentle as possible. As reassuring as possible. "20%. I'll start right away. 20% will be difficult, but if I improve the color scheme and replace the Vantablack with an even darker color I create myself, then more energy should be absorbed. If I make the windows even thicker and replace the wires –“

"I don’t care how you do it. 20%. As quickly as possible."

"Yes, Sir, sure. Sorry."

"Don’t apologize for explaining things, Goddamnit," Howard yelled. He confused Tony, but the boy didn’t say anything. "If my people could explain things, problems would’ve been solved a lot faster. Just remember who you explain to, Anthony!"

"Yeah, that's right." Sorry.

Tony started to leave, but Howard grumbled something unintelligible behind him.

"What?" Tony asked, turning around.

"It’s called Pardon! I asked you to explain what you did all day if you didn’t work on that improvement!"

Tony's eyes narrowed. "I worked on the car. The electric one. The design had two points that were not properly aerodynamically solved. And I also looked into our possibilities to build greener and more efficient batteries. I thought the glass went to SI and was done with me."

"You thought it was done?" Howard yelled. "With just an increase in efficiency of 16%? After such an attack?"

Tony's eyes went wide as Howard approached him. He knew his father had been looking for a reason to blame Tony. He had found it.

"You thought 16% would be enough? Am I running a cheap company or what? The best is sought, not a fucking stopover!"

"But you told me to take care of the car or search for use for the new element!"

"And you accept everything I say without taking the circumstances into consideration? What are you, a kindergartner?"

Tony could smell that his father had smoked, but apparently, the calming effect had disappeared. His father screamed and again, you could see the big vein throbbing on his forehead, and the red face that matched the red eyes.

"Who raised you to go through life like an obdurate idiot, ha? Your damn high school? Does the company now notice your weakness? Can’t you fucking think anymore, got that destroyed, too?"

Tony took a step back, feeling his heart throb faster. All his blood had left his head. Adrenaline shot through his veins, but his foot hit the chair behind him. He breathed faster as he realized that he could not move further back.

"Firstly, you destroy your and my reputation by having to repeat the fucking junior year like a moron and not be able to cope with hardships, then you kill your mother and now you stop thinking? The only thing that was halfway valuable with you was your intellect, Anthony, and now you throw it away and stop thinking?"

Blood rushed through Tony's ears and his eyes had grown so big. He had indeed damaged his reputation and that of his family by not being able to bring his psyche up to normal, but there wasn’t much time and it all had been just so cruel.

The image of the knife that had certainly caused the infection shot through his mind, and the cold, and the wind, and the feeling of death.

But he was not to blame for his mother's death, he was not. Not mainly. Rhodey had told him, and Rhodey was not a liar, right? On the other hand, why should his father lie, he never did. He kept saying that lying was for babies and he knew him longer and the situation better.

"You fucking freak, answer or have you unlearned that, too?"

 

The fist met Tony unexpectedly, he was still too much in his thoughts of cold, death and hate. The sudden force on his left shoulder made him fall back, but there was the glass table. Tony hissed as his hips met with the bone on the edge but could not straighten up because the second hit just kicked his chest and pushed all the air out of his lungs.

"My whole company, your future, loses five percent of its value and you play with damned cars?" Howard shouted again and somehow Tony remembered the building plans of the house, which showed the thick walls and floors and made clear that no sound would ever leave the apartment.

Tony fell off the table, on which he was lying halfway after the third hit hit him on the chest and the fourth on the eye. He didn’t even manage to put his hands over his face, so he first hit the tiled floor with his forehead, knowing that he was now a target for his father’s feet. He could not even scream and ask Howard to stop. He had understood that he was weak, long ago. He understood that Howard had to live out his anger and that a weak, already useless kid who just couldn’t do his job properly was the simplest and best goal.

Better he than people on the street, or Dum-E or Pepper or Rhodey or his mother, as sometimes before.

He couldn’t even answer and try to make things better. Nothing but a moan escaped his mouth as a foot was rammed into his stomach. He writhed and tried to protect his stomach. That was the human instinct in him. Of course, it was his instinct, because he could not think, he just couldn’t think straight.

Tony could barely hear what Howard was screaming. He could only hear that he did it, for minutes. That he was abusing and insulting Tony and his co-workers and the government, even though - the boy thought suddenly - it was only the terrorists who had to be blamed for the attack and thus the depreciation of value for StarkIndustries.

Tony didn’t know how long it took, but eventually, the kicks got weaker and weaker and Howard kept softening. Tony lay on the floor and cried without him wanting to do so, waiting for the next kick. When he opened his eyes slightly, he could see legs standing next to him and his breathing fastened up again. What if his father kicked in his face? That could break his bones. He was still lucky.

He moved as little as possible and wanted to ignore the throb in his body. He couldn’t even make out a spot where it hurt the least, but simply lay there, sniffing, wondering why his father did not insult him again. He deserved it. As a son, you had to provide an outlet for your parents, and if his job was to reassure the city's most powerful CEO, then he should do his job properly, and not cry and whine like a small child.

He still flinched when the legs moved suddenly, after a few minutes, and one hand rested on his aching shoulder. He hissed in pain as his father yanked him off the ground and stabilized, as everything turned around Tony and he threatened to fall again. Tony saw only blurry, but he could see the sweat on his father's face and the red color. With trembling hands, Tony ran over his mouth, wiping away some blood that was dripping from his nose.

His father looked at him wide-eyed. Tony did not say anything and could not quite place the emotions his father showed, just waiting for the next punch. That was his job today, he knew it. He tried to raise his head further and breathe more calmly. He looked at his father expectantly.

"Go clean yourself up and sleep," Howard said softly at some point, and Tony even thought his voice was shaking. "I’ll wipe that up. Tomorrow, you’ll start with your project. Go."

Tony didn’t move. His brain seemed to work so slowly. He didn’t know if he had understood correctly and tried to focus his eyes.

"Clean yourself up and go to bed," Howard repeated, and now Tony was sure he had understood correctly. He nodded quickly.

"Yes, Sir," he murmured, feeling great pain in his throat. Did he scream?

Slowly he stumbled backward out of the kitchen and kept his eyes on his father. Howard did not move but stared at his son, standing over the small puddle of blood and tears, and trembled with his hands if Tony saw it correctly. He couldn’t know, but when the boy ran out of the kitchen and clung to the wall in his walkway to his room, Howard turned around, drank his whole glass of whiskey all at once, and sat down on the floor for a few minutes. When his eyes lay long enough on the puddle his son had caused, he sobbed briefly before wiping it up with a handkerchief and refilling his glass.

Tony's walk to the bathroom took a long time, his balance did not play along. He hurt himself by the knee as he sank down in front of his toilet and vomited, losing tears again as he sat there spitting out all that was left in his stomach.

Just like a little baby.

Chapter Text

Of course, Tony didn’t chat with Rhodey and told him what had happened. After he woke up on Friday morning and made sure that the windows let the sunbeams into his room, Tony felt a long and painful throb in his upper body and eye. A glance at the clock revealed that school had begun twenty minutes ago. Groaning, Tony straightened up.

Slowly, he limped to the bathroom to take a real look at the extent of his misdemeanor yesterday. His entire torso was speckled blue and purple, and his upper arms barely looked better. His left eye was bloodshot and the outside deep red and swollen, under his nose hung some blood that he had not managed to clean in the night. Tony drank water to get the fussy feeling out of his mouth, tried to take a careful shower, and then texted Pepper, who had asked him if he would come to school today. He reassured Rhodey that he was fine, that he had only a few things to work for SI, and even tried to eat for breakfast but did not get anything down.

He worked all Friday and didn’t stop until the middle of the night to sleep for two hours. He never once opened Twitter and didn’t leave his room the whole weekend. Only once had Tony put a pizza in the oven - his father was not there; Howard didn’t want to smell the scent of frozen food - forget about it and then eat the half-burned pieces on Sunday. On Monday, his stomach had calmed down and the wounds were all much less visible, but nevertheless, Tony called in sick and stayed home until Wednesday to work on his project and to let the wounds heal.

On Thursday morning, Tony noticed that the other students had never been as attentive as this morning. When he was driven to the parking deck by car, there were more cars standing there than usual. Some students stood around in groups; Pupils who normally waited in the hallways or classrooms. Tony's driver parked between two Mercedes cars and stopped, waiting. His job was just to get Tony to school and then the car back to their garage, not worrying about how the young Stark fared.

Tony had covered his blue eye with make-up, but he couldn’t do anything about the limping. It was not much, but, if you were attentive, noticeable. He drummed his fingers on the raised, tinted window, hoping some students would leave. Instead, more and more came as if they were texting each other that Tony Stark went back to school.

He saw the junior boy who could certainly play in the NBA in two years. The mountain of muscles had run past him several times when Stone and Hammer couldn’t hold on to themselves. Now, the boy who was probably three years older than Tony was leaning against a Tesla and talking to two girls Tony didn’t know. He clearly watched out what Tony was doing.

Just before classes began, all the students were still standing seemingly random on the parking deck and Tony decided to just get out and go to class. He grabbed his backpack, swung it over his back, and marched through the groups of students to get into his school. He heard people whispering and turning to look at him.

"You cried enough now because the pocket money gets less, Stark?" someone shouted after him. Tony knew the voice. It was a friend of Hammer, but he didn’t know his name. Rolling his eyes, he continued to stomp towards the school building, forcing his way through several groups. Pepper always had chemistry in the first period, while Tony had English literature. Which meant she was at the other end of the school building. Even if she had heard that Tony was back at school, she would have little chance to go to him and then arrive on time for her own class. Tony bit the inside of his cheek when he saw that a large crowd had gathered in front of his locker.

He grabbed his bag tighter with his hand and then pushed his way through the crowd, pressed his thumb on the sensor of his locker and quickly searched for his book they were reading in class. 

"Uhh, Stark graces us again!", Wanda exclaimed from the crowd. It was stupid. Obviously, everybody knew that he was back. Why did she call out then? He knew that Wanda didn’t like him, but that she was apparently stupid enough not to understand something as simple as him being back was news to him.

Tony knew that many people at his school were not the smartest kind, but still, he was surprised. Some students laughed.

“Fuck off, Wanda. I wanna get to my locker," exclaimed an annoyed girl's voice. Tony turned around slightly. Milena pushed through the crowd with an unimpressed look. She had her locker only a few yards away from Tony. "Y’all have seen now that Stark’s back? Great. Go away then, or you'll wish you had."

Tony raised his eyebrows. The students became quieter. Milena had never stood by his side - no one had ever sided with him. Except of course the few people that did. 

"Are you kidding us, o'Clark?" said the familiar voice of Hammer. Tony turned back to his locker, hoping not to be seen by him.

"I don’t care if you have your fun or not. If Stark’s here or not. But I’ve no desire to constantly push through all of you fucks just to get to my Spanish book."

Ah, that's how it was. Tony laughed a bit about his own naivety.

"What the fuck are you laughin’ at, Stark?" Milena asked. She sounded so aggressive and annoyed.

Tony raised his hands placatingly. "Nothing. I'm just glad that other people than me think that the crowds here are a bit disabling as well."

"You're enjoying it, Stark, aren’t you?" Hammer called and pulled Tony by the collar. Tony could barely close his locker. With his free hand, he grabbed his neck to pull the sweater so that the air would not be cut off anymore.

"Right. I enjoy it so much, that's why I emphasize it all the time," Tony then replied rolling his eyes. "What the fuck."

"Why else did you take a week off? You wanted the big show."

"Oh, yes," Tony answered. He raised his hands in the air. "Hey, you all see me now? I'm back. Big performance. Great. Now I’ve had it. May I take care of Shakespeare now?"

Hammer dropped Tony on the floor just as a loud voice echoed down the hall.

"What's that all about?" a teacher asked that Tony didn’t know. He was still lying on the floor and slowly straightened up. He fell on the spot on his leg, which still hurt from before.

"Stark's book has fallen down. I wanted to pick it up," Hammer lied, and the teacher nodded vaguely after pushing through the crowds. 

"You all better get to your classes, now. You okay, Stark?"

"Yeah", Tony lied and the teacher looked at him intensely. Then he turned around, went away to teach kids whatever the fuck he would teach them. 

Hammer kicked the book and then ran off, like all the other students. A hand shot into Tony's field of vision and tried to help him up. When he looked up, he smiled tormented.

"Hey, Pepper. I just wanted to see if the floor was still as clean as usual. Even without me - the king - at school for a week."

"I see," she greeted, pulling him up. "You look tired."

"Had to work."

She nodded. "Milena texted to me that something was going on here."

"Was nothing special. Don’t you have chemistry in like two minutes?"

"Yes, but if I'm late, I have less chemistry. What would be great."

Tony laughed. "Oh. And I'll still get to be in my English class on time!” he shook his head in disappointment.

School was the work of the devil.

 


 

The next weekend Tony had to cancel hanging out with Pepper to work on the glass. When he took his first real break on Saturday, nine days after the terror attack, his thoughts circled.

His room was dark: the New York sky was cloudy and gray this weekend. It had just stopped raining, but the drops were still visible on the glass. Tony groaned and had to hold onto his chair for a moment as he got up and his circulatory system shut down.

He stood at his window and looked at the busy streets. Somewhere down there ran thousands of tourists who wanted to explore the city despite the weather. Somewhere down there were several young people walking around, wanting to visit their friends because their parents didn’t practically keep them incarcerated to work.

Tony looked at his cell phone when it signaled a notification. Clint had mentioned him in a tweet. It was a reply, and Tony quickly read the original tweet. His eyes widened when he first learned something about James.

 

@WinterSoldier

bye, new york city. again. this time fr until november. ive had 18 fantastic years here. c u again in like two months. from today on stevie and i r officially bostonians

 

He had posted a photo showing his outlook from the plane. Raindrops hung there at the window, too.

 

@ArcherClint: Replying to @WinterSoldier

did you live in the same city as your lover @IronMan and neither of you knew it?

 

Tony stared at his cell phone. Somewhere down there, Steve and James had been, dragging their way through the streets without him knowing. He decided to ignore the tweet and put his phone back in his pocket. He didn't know how to answer that. He felt the urge to ask James why he had never told him that. He could have met him! Not that he wanted to do that, obviously, he didn't really know the man, but he had had the chance. They could have talked about New York City stuff. 

He shook his head. He shouldn’t think so much about the man, but rather about the fact that he had lied to both Pepper and Rhodey several times by now and above all ignored them or just didn’t have the time to do something with them.

Pepper probably hung out with new friends from school. Tony had seen her talk to a group of girls whose names he didn’t even know. Rhodey's college classes just started a few weeks ago and their time together was limited. No more than twice had they chatted this week. And at school, Tony had had to work on his project during the breaks.

The last time Tony stood in front of the rain-shrouded window, staring at the street and thinking about himself and his life, he then sat on his bed desperately for half an hour. It had been in the summer. Rhodey had flown with friends from the army on his vacations to Hawaii and had little time to write with Tony because of the time difference. Jarvis's wife had had health problems due to the record summer in California and thus he had little time. Tony didn’t know Pepper at the time, didn’t often and intensively write with Natasha or Clint and especially not James.

He had felt alone. He had realized that he had had no good friends except Rhodey, and even he wouldn’t be there forever for the small, far too weak Tony who just couldn’t keep contact.

Tony put his head at the cold window glass. Rhodey would tell him quite something if he knew his thoughts. Tony stopped for a moment, then took his cell phone out of his pocket and opened WhatsApp.

'Can you talk?' he texted Rhodey, waiting barely ten seconds for an answer, then his cell phone rang.

"Who am I allowed to beat down?" Rhodey greeted him. His face appeared on the screen and Tony could see that the other had just been taking a shower.

He sat down on his bed. "Why would you beat someone? Can’t I just call you without anything happening?"

Rhodey walked across his room and sat on the bed. Behind him, Tony could see the posters of the football teams he supported. "That's exactly the point. Usually, you just call. So, what happened?"

Tony stared at his cell phone and realized that his eyes were getting bigger. He didn’t want to annoy Rhodey, actually, there was nothing really going on.

"How much have you slept today?" his friend asked.

Tony shook his head. Lying would bring nothing, anyway.

When his friend sighed, the younger man wondered if he was just too weak after all. His father often worked longer and did not call any other people and jumbled up their day plans.

"Okay, Tony, I'll tell you one thing: if your father gave you some shit to built – again – and that is why you're pulling all-nighters again and putting your whole health at risk, then I'll go to him personally and finally get his head pushed up his ass."

"And then end up in prison, that I'm alone and can die peacefully."

Rhodey rolled his eyes. "I’d make sure that nobody recognizes me." He grinned. "Besides, you have Pepper now. And Clint, and Jarvis, and Banner and Bucky - "

"James. Please, his name is James."

"Nobody calls him James."

"Yeah, but you all are just crazy."

"I think you just want to be something special for him."

Tony opened his mouth in alarm. "What? Ew, no. We texted each other like three times or something, Honey, please."

Rhodey laughed and lay down on his bed. He held the cell phone over his head. "I understand, Tones. Yeah, for sure."

Briefly, both were quiet, then Rhodey started to say something. Something to distract Tony, though he didn’t even know what was going on.

"Wait," Tony jumped in between. "Can I tell you something?"

"Always."

"You remember last week when the terror attack was, right?" Tony gasped and Rhodey nodded. "When I said I was tired. My father came home."

Slowly Rhodey nodded and Tony wondered if the other one felt lied to. He paused.

"He told me to keep improving the glass I told you about. I've been working on that for the past few days."

"OK. You know that you could’ve told me your dad came. I'm not judging you."

"You wanted to know if something happened."

Rhodey closed his eyes for a moment. "Did something happen?"

Tony bit his lips and glanced at his door. It was locked and his father was not at home, anyway. He was still scared. He swallowed hard and tried to ignore that his own father had hit him so hard that a large hematoma was still visible on his chest. He tried to ignore that his very own father had accused him of his mother's death.

His lips trembled.

"I swear to God if ever does something to you again, I'll-- "

"No," Tony exclaimed. The pain was clearly audible in his voice. "Please don’t. I really didn’t want to bother you. Sorry, I - "

"Tony!" Rhodey interrupted in a strong voice. "I don’t know what's going on in your head sometimes. I'm not. Annoyed. By. You."

He clearly emphasized the last four words. "Nothing will ever change anything between us just because your dad is the biggest asshole in the western world. Nothing will ever change between us because you need my help. Nothing will ever change between us because you just have to talk, to cry, to whatever. Nothing will ever change between us, okay, Tony?"

He didn’t answer, just kept biting his lips. He didn’t want to cry, but he felt that it was getting harder and harder. It was just so much.

"You are so incredibly important to me, and no matter what shit your dad told you, you're above it. No child should be punished in any way by their parents."

"He beat me again. Strongly. He said he would stop, but I still feel it," Tony said, wiping his eyes with one hand. His pulse rose as he realized that Rhodey could end the conversation and break contact at any moment. Instead, the other just sat up and glared into the camera angrily.

"Is he at home right now? I swear to god, if he's home right now, you'll go straight to Pepper."

Tony shook his head and felt how the first tears actually left his eyes. "He's not there, he - sorry, I … I don’t know why I'm just -"

"It's okay, Tony. Your dad is an ass, you’ve got to cry sometime, everything else would be scary."

Tony took a breath. "And he said again that it's my fault that my mom ..."

Rhodey's fist thumped on the nightstand beside his bed so hard that it clanked. "I'll kill this man when I see him. Tony, no. You are not! At Fault! With! Your! Mother’s! Death!"

Tony shook his head. "But only because of me she started -"

"No!" Rhodey interrupted, sounding so angry. Tony didn’t know who he was mad at. "Nothing has happened because of you. You are not to blame. Never."

"But what if I didn’t -"

"Please just don’t say anything else. Tony, I can take the next flight to New York. I'll be there tomorrow."

"You have this important test on Wednesday!"

"It's just college."

"Yes, it's college! You're there because of a scholarship. They can kick you out if you skip classes."

"Tony, I only wouldn’t be there for a week, I-"

"No. Not because of me."

Rhodey looked at him intensely. "Yeah, Tony. You're my best friend, that's what I'm there for. To skip classes and be there for you when your fucking father isn’t."

Tony sniffed slightly. "Please stay at least for the test. You wanted to be here this weekend, anyway. If you must, come on Thursday or something, but please don’t skip anything important because of me."

Rhodey shook his head. "I don’t skip anything important, I really don’t."

"I won’t let you in if you're here before Thursday."

Rhodey closed his eyes. "Okay then. Then I’ll fly on Wednesday. And you better now explain to me why you've been waiting for a fucking week to tell me that your father has abused you with utmost mental and physical force."

 


 

@TheWarMachine: Replying to @WinterSoldier, @archerclint, @IronMan

Tony forgot his password but he told me to tell you, bucky (he of course said "James") that he can’t believe you kept your native city secret. He said you did that on purpose that you can’t meet "his incredibility" (his words not mine).

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @TheWarMachine, @archerclint, @IronMan

why would i tell him where i lived if i didnt hve any clue that he lived here too? maybe he was the secret jeeper. hes been longer on twitter than i am anyways

 

@WinterSolider: Replying to @TheWinterSoldier, @archerclint, @IronMan

and how tf does someone forget their twitter password. its like the most important oassword from all of them. also cant you like order a new one? don’t wanna lose the   great ironman account

 

@TheWarMachine: Replying to @WinterSoldier, @archerclint, @IronMan

Sounds like the beginning of a great love story. He'll order a new one tomorrow. His phone just died, tho, so that’s why he’s not here right now. Im sure you two would be having a great conversation right now.

 

@archerclint: Replying to @TheWarMachine @WinterSoldier @IronMan

cant take him serious if he forgets his twitter password. i mean what the fuck. are we that unimportant to him?

 

@TheWarMachine: Replying to @archerclint @WinterSoldier @IronMan

I guess he's just kinda out of his mind right now. I'm gonna tell him you all missed him, tho. He'll sure chat with you all tomorrow again, dont lose hopr!

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @TheWinterSoldier, @archerclint, @IronMan

yeah, cuz if we would, we'd lose everything!

 

Tony smiled when he read that conversation and James' last answer. But only because it's nice to know someone who can quote Disney movies, that's why. 

He kept telling that himself when he lay awake in his bed that night, thinking about Rhodey and Pepper and James and Twitter and his project and father. At 3 a.m., he gave up and continued working on the glass, knowing that sleep wouldn't come unless he'd make this right. 

  

Chapter Text

In the end, Rhodey could fly on Thursday. In Tony’s fourth lesson in school, he was barely able to sit still.

'I'll pick you up from the airport later, yeah?’

‘But I haven’t ordered a car, but the subway is something you need to experience in NY anyways’

'And thus we can go to this Shawarma restaurant on our way back’

'I don’t know it yet, but it’s supposed to be really good'

'YOU eat Shawarma, right?'

'God, I'm annoying, srory.'

'Wait'

‘Plase don’t tell me you don’t answer right now cause you're already on the plane'

'The flight starts later right?'

'God, what? Did I write down the wrong time?'

Next to him, Pepper grunted softly - the sound she made when she tried to suppress her laughter.

"What?" Tony whispered, venturing to look up from his cell phone for a moment.

"Your leg is wobbling more than I've ever seen. And you practically grin on your phone. I actually don't get why Mrs. Lloret hasn't collected it yet."

"I'm just excited, okay?. But he doesn’t write back."

"Rhodey, right? Your best friend from the internet?"

Tony nodded. He told Pepper a few days ago that he knew a lot of people from the internet. He hadn’t told her he was on Twitter, but he had talked about Rhodey's visit. And about Rhodey himself. He had raved about him the whole lunch break before Pepper had asked him if he was his boyfriend. Tony's eyes had grown big - you better don’t say something like that in a school for rich children. Many were tolerant and everything, but those who were not could easily destroy entire lives they made the wrong information public at the wrong time.

Tony's cell phone lit up and his attention immediately returned to it.

‘Just stay calm, Tones,' Rhodey had answered. ‘My flight didn’t go yet. And I didn’t answer because I was at the toilet. I'm allowed to do that, right?'

‘Shawarma sounds great btw’

'And my plane arrives at 5’

Tony answered quickly. 'Great. I'll wait for you'

‘I'm super excited’

'I'll leave you alone now'

'Otherwise Pepper won’t believe me that you indeed aren’t my boyfriend or something haha'

Rhodey responded with two kiss emojis and a "say hello to Pepper from me", which of course Tony did, even though the two didn’t know each other.

Grinning, Tony tried to focus on the lesson again, but his thoughts kept slipping to his best friend, who would make his terrible week so much better.

 


 

 

Tony was still working on an even better version of the glass while waiting for Rhodey at the airport. He had now raised the energy efficiency to 119.3% and was already very happy with it, but when his father would return from his business trip to L.A. next Wednesday, Tony wanted to show at least 120%.

Tony had put on his sunglasses and sat in a VIP lounge where no paparazzi would wait and disturb him. A child was playing loudly next to him though, and the parents did nothing about it, so Tony could hardly concentrate. Annoyed, he put away the tablet and rummaged his phone out of his pocket to open Twitter.

 

@IronMan:

Children at airports are the reason why there will never be world peace.

 

He read a couple of Tweets in his timeline but his eyes stopped at a tweet from James. He answered quickly, he didn’t have much to do anyway.

 

@WinterSoldier

study bioinformatics, they said. youll be able to change the world, they said. they didnt say that i would be on the edge to having a mental breakdown because of maths wtf.

 

@IronMan: Replying to @WinterSolider

What are you guys doing right now?

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @IronMan

group theroy and all the shit. i mean its okay, but uhh. its annoying af cuz  its so much. and now we started some shit with semidirect products, i mean what the fuck.

  

@IronMan: Replying to: @WinterSolider

If you want, I can help you. I'm too early at the airport anyway and a kid is just the definition of unpleasant volume. Since I can’t really focus on anything else I could help you if you want?

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @IronMan

its a bit depressing that u want to explain my college classes as a 15 year old even though u cant concentrate. ive been sitting in absolute silence for ages. but of course.

where are you flying to?

 

@IronMan: Replying to @WinterSoldier

No, I’m staying here. I'm waiting for Rhodey to arrive. He’ll stay here in New York until Sunday evening. Other people on Twitter never even hinted that they could live here and spend time with me

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to: @IronMan

yeah, other people on twitter have never even hinted that they live in ny, right, tony? pff ... its as much my fault as it is yours

 

Tony grinned at his cell phone. It is true. James had also been unable to know that Tony lived in New York. And Tony probably wouldn’t have the guts to meet James, anyways. Not only because they hadn’t texted as often at the time - god, this was the third or fourth time they had a real conversation - but also because Tony just couldn’t handle strangers well. If it wasn’t for his father, that is.

He wrote a direct message to James and explained in an understandable way the group theory, at least as well as he could in the half hour he had left, and via the Internet. Tony grinned when he realized again that James was an incredibly intelligent person. He kept laughing at little phrases the man put into his explanations. At the same time, James followed quickly and seemed grateful for the help. In the end, the student summed up everything Tony had said, just to make sure he understood it correctly. The younger one was very enthusiastic about him and almost forgot the time. A message from Rhodey that he had landed and was now just waiting for the luggage tore Tony from his conversation with James. He quickly said goodbye and jogged to the terminal where Rhodey was to arrive.

He felt his heart beat faster, he was so excited. He had to bite his lip and force himself not to scream out loud when he finally saw Rhodey walking slowly with the flow of people out the door and bounced a little too much before Rhodey finally was far enough for Tony to run towards him.

"Rhodey!" he shouted, hugging the other one. Immediately he felt that the older one put his strong hands on his back and tilted his head down to him.

"Hey, Tones," he said, and Tony could not help grinning. It was too long that he had last seen Rhodey in real life.

"That sounds really cheesy, but I really missed you," Tony muttered, hoping not to be unmanageable. His brain was currently doing things he didn’t want it to do.

Rhodey laughed and patted him on the back. "I missed you too, Tony."

Only then did they part from each other and Tony could really see his friend again. He looked a little tired, but much stronger and more muscular than at their last meeting. His hair was now cut very short and his upright gait clearly showed he was in the military.

"Shawarma?" Tony finally asked and still could not banish his grin from his face.

"Shawarma," Rhodey confirmed.

 


 

 

@WinterSoldier:

thanks, @IronMan, for ur help today. so, ill write all the numbers in a circle, kick out the odd numbers before coloring everything blue that can be divided by the searched number so that in the end it looks like a duck, right?

 

@IronMan: Replying to @WinterSoldier

Into exile, I must go. Failed, I have.

 

James answered with a gif showing Luke Skywalker screaming but Tony put his phone away the second Rhodey returned from the toilet.

 


 

 

Their very long stay at the sharwarma restaurant was interrupted when a spotty young man wearing a "Back to the Future"-T-shirt recognized Tony and asked for a picture. As a result, several other guests realised who Tony was and started to get pictures of the prodigy from StarkIndustries. Tony kept wondering what his life would be like if they knew what else he could do – not just build electric circuits at the age of four and finish high school at 16 and get small robots working. If they knew which products were actually made by him.

He probably wouldn’t be able to eat shawarma anymore.

So, Tony and Rhodey pushed out of the ever-crowding restaurant and jumped into the first taxi they could find. It was Thursday afternoon and the way home took a long time. Tony and Rhodey talked about college, high school, a music album Tony had shown to Rhodey recently and Shawarma.

Only when Tony closed the door behind him and pulled Rhodey into his room did he realize that his friend actually was in New York.

Howard was in L.A. and San Francisco until next week Wednesday. Obie was due to arrive at the weekend and watch out for Tony - a safety measure that Howard had established a couple of years ago. One should not leave the boy alone so long that it could end badly.

Obie knew Rhodey would be here but he didn’t mind, so Tony put down the large bag he'd taken from Rhodey next to his bed.

Dum-E came right up to him and made a pleasant sound when he recognized Rhodey.

"Hey, Dum-E, how are you? Haven’t seen you in a while," he said, patting the little robot’s head.

"He missed you," Tony said, throwing himself onto his bed. He lay on his stomach and watched Rhodey and Dum-E interact.

His friend smiled. "And he told you that?" Then he turned to Dum-E. "You can’t talk, right? I think Tony missed me, not you."

"He missed you too," Tony tried to defend himself, but Rhodey just laughed. He got up and threw himself next to Tony on the bed.

"Of course. I understand. Sure."

Tony shifted more to Rhodey, knowing that the other one was okay with him searching for contact. That's how they always did it. Tony gave a pleasant shiver as he felt the warmth of the other boy spreading over his whole body.

A body that did not hurt. That’s only Pepper and him. And especially him.

For a moment, Tony grinned at the ground in front of him, then Rhodey turned a little, careful not to push Tony away.

"So, tell me about this Pepper."

"Why?"

"Because for the first time, you didn’t flinch when I touched you. And because you look more rested. Even if that is still not rested enough. Only not as bad as usual."

"Thank you very much."

"No, I'm serious. Does she have anything to do with it?"

"You know that I don’t want something from her."

Rhodey rolled his eyes. "That's not what I meant. You don’t want anything from me, too, and yet I'm the highlight of your week."

"Now you overestimate yourself."

"Oh, come on, Tony, it’s me. Don’t even try to fool me."

Tony sighed. "Okay."

Rhodey smiled. "So, what is Pepper like?"

Tony turned on his back and enjoyed the heat on his other side of the body.

"She is great. I mean, she's funny and intelligent, and she helped me after - "

He broke off.

"After?"

Tony took a breath. Rhodey would find out anyway. "I told you about Stone and Hammer and people like them?"

He felt Rhodey stiffen slightly. "They still do it. Not so often, but sometimes, they beat and ... they still kick and everything."

"Those assholes," Rhodey snapped, sitting down a bit.

"No, please," said Tony. "Pepper saw it and didn’t condemn me. I don’t even know why I didn’t tell you about it, sorry."

Rhodey sighed beside him. "You know that I would never - never -" he emphasized the word vigorously, "condemn you for anything other people do to you. If you suddenly killed someone - and no, by that I don’t mean that your father once forced you to design weapons - then we would have to talk. "

"We’d just have to talk?"

"I’d need to know how to create your alibi so that it’s believable."

"You're crazy," laughed Tony.

"I think you sometimes don’t know how fantastic you actually are."

Tony turned away so Rhodey did not immediately realize how red he had become. He took a breath to answer his original question.

"So, Pepper and I - we just understand each other well. She’s just - I don’t know. At my wavelength? Not literally - no way. She gives a shit about physics, which is sad."

Tony chuckled at his own pun for a moment and then fell silent as Rhodey gave him that look – don’t ever make such a joke again.

"But she's funny and can talk to me well without it all getting weird. And - oh!", Tony remembered. "Friday had to remind me that we definitely have to bake something on the weekend, Rhodey, okay?"

"We have to bake something?"

"Yeah, I don’t know how or what, but we have to bake something!"

"How come?"

Tony shrugged. "I don’t know. I want to try it.” He mumbled the last words.

"You know what?" Rhodey asked, straightening up. "You should ask Pepper if she wants to join us. I feel like I should know her."

 


 

@IronMan

If two energetically identical photons hate each other, are they still on the same wavelength?

 

@archerclint: Replying to @IronMan

please, @TheWarMachine, can you assure me that @WinterSoldier is not to blame for this terrible joke because toyn had been dealing with physics because of him?

 

@DrBanner: Replying to @IronMan

Interesting thought. They could be shifted by Pi, though, then they would usually have the greatest possible distance to each other.

 

@IronMan: Replying to @DrBanner

But they still would meet practically infinitely often at y=0. That would be a  problem, don’t you agree?

 

@archerclint: Replying to @IronMan @DrBanner

that doesn’t really happen right now does it?

 

@TheWarMachine: Replying to @archerclint @IronMan @WinterSoldier @DrBanner

I cannot rule out your thesis.

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @archerclint @IronMan @TheWarMachine @DrBanner

to be fair the joke wasnt that bad

 

@TheWarMachine: Replying to @archerclint @IronMan @WinterSoldier @DrBanner

Oh God.

 

@archerclint: Replying to @TheWarMachine @IronMan @WinterSoldier @DrBanner

hey bucky, i think it’s really great that you are getting more involved in these conversations. i like this. but i might have to rethink that sinc you liked that joke.

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @archerclint @IronMan @TheWarMachine @DrBanner

nice, thank you for accepting my stupid comments

 

@IronMan: Replying to @archerclint @TheWarMachine @WinterSoldier @DrBanner

I don’t think your comments are stupid

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @archerclint @IronMan @TheWarMachine @DrBanner

then our humor seems to be on the same *wavelength*

 

@archerlint: Replying to @TheWarMachine @IronMan @WinterSoldier @DrBanner

oh god ima kill myself

 

@IronMan: Replying to @archerclint @TheWarMachine @WinterSoldier @DrBanner

Oh shut up Clint it was a great joke

 

@TheWarMachine: Replying to @archerclint @IronMan @WinterSoldier @DrBanner

Remember when Tony was all shy and didn’t tweet shit? And now Jarvis will write in a minute, I tell you that. Tony, really.

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @archerclint @IronMan @TheWarMachine @DrBanner

arent you in the same room or something?

 

@IronMan: Replying to @archerclint @TheWarMachine @WinterSoldier @DrBanner

Yes, but it's very tiring to move your lips so you can talk

 

@TheWarMachine: Replying to @archerclint @IronMan @WinterSoldier @DrBanner

Oh shut up you just want to chat with your friends from the internet.

 

@IronMan: Replying to @archerclint @TheWarMachine @WinterSoldier @DrBanner

What if I just don’t want to talk to you?

 

@TheWarMachine: Replying to @archerclint @IronMan @WinterSoldier @DrBanner

Then you wouldn’t be rinning so stupidly at your phone and throw the fucking pillow at me, what the fuck.

 

@IronMan: Replying to @archerclint @TheWarMachine @WinterSoldier @DrBanner

It’s love

 

@black_widow: Replying to @archerclint @IronMan @TheWarMachine @WinterSoldier @DrBanner

its a completely destroyed timeline

 

@DrBanner: Replying to @archerclint @IronMan @TheWarMachine @WinterSoldier @black_widow

I didn’t want to end up in this chat.

 

@EdwinJarvis: Replying to @archerclint @IronMan @TheWarMachine @WinterSoldier @DrBanner @black_widow

Finally. Someone who understands what I mean. Right? That's just too much.

 

@cap_am_42: Replying to @archerclint @IronMan @TheWarMachine @WinterSoldier @DrBanner @black_widow @EdwinJarvis

I think you're just the great bunch of people who still have respect and decency, and Buck and the others are just too young for that

 

@archerclint: Replying to @cap_am_42 @IronMan @TheWarMachine @WinterSoldier @DrBanner @black_widow @EdwinJarvis

@cap_am_42 did you just call @black_widow old?

 

@IronMan: Replying to @archerclint @cap_am_42 @TheWarMachine @WinterSoldier @DrBanner @black_widow @EdwinJarvis

Did you just imply that this statement doesn’t applies to Nat, but that J. and Bruce are old?

 

@archerclint: Replying to @cap_am_42 @IronMan @TheWarMachine @WinterSoldier @DrBanner @black_widow @EdwinJarvis

you read too much into that. @cap_am_42 aren’t you in bucky's age? aren’t you such a young boy too? can you even go partying legally?

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @archerclint @IronMan @TheWarMachine @cap_am_42 @DrBanner @black_widow @EdwinJarvis

stevie is such a young boy, at least physically. mentally hes 90 years old tho. dont look like that stevie. its ture

 

@IronMan: Replying to @archerclint @cap_am_42 @TheWarMachine @WinterSoldier @DrBanner @black_widow @EdwinJarvis

Are you living together?

 

@WinterSoldierReplying to @archerclint @cap_am_42 @IronMan @TheWarMachine @DrBanner @black_widow @EdwinJarvis

lessens the rent, so yes

 

@archerclint: Replying to @cap_am_42 @IronMan @TheWarMachine @WinterSoldier @DrBanner @black_widow @EdwinJarvis

jealous, tony?

 

@IronMan: Replying to @archerclint @cap_am_42 @TheWarMachine @WinterSoldier @DrBanner @black_widow @EdwinJarvis

Oh shut the fuck up. I'll talk to Rhodey again, because we have decency and not just squat on our cell phones. Have fun, I’ll have a life now - and Rhodey wants to persuade me to do something dangerous

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @archerclint @cap_am_42 @IronMan @TheWarMachine @DrBanner @black_widow @EdwinJarvis

have fun! what kind of dangerous?

 

@IronMan: Replying to @archerclint @cap_am_42 @TheWarMachine @WinterSoldier @DrBanner @black_widow @EdwinJarvis

Thanks 😊. I'll tell you soon

 

@archerclint: Replying to @cap_am_42 @IronMan @TheWarMachine @WinterSoldier @DrBanner @black_widow @EdwinJarvis

dangerous not in the sense of having sex without a condom, right? everything else is alright

 

@IronMan: Replying to @archerclint @cap_am_42 @TheWarMachine @WinterSoldier @DrBanner @black_widow @EdwinJarvis

Clint!

 

@EdwinJarvis: Replying to @archerclint @cap_am_42 @IronMan @TheWarMachine @WinterSoldier @DrBanner @black_widow

Francis, you might confuse certain people who should not be confused. Let Tony live in peace now, wouldn’t you? And don’t destroy my timeline any further. Thank you very much.

 

@archerclint: Replying to @cap_am_42 @IronMan @TheWarMachine @WinterSoldier @DrBanner @black_widow @EdwinJarvis

yes, sir. sorry, sir. 

Chapter Text

On Saturday, Tony walked nervously up and down the living room. Rhodey was sitting on the couch reading something on his phone and Obie was standing in the doorway to his guest room.

"Can you come here for a second, Tony?" he asked and the boy nodded. Rhodey looked up for a moment, looked at him with raised eyebrows, and made a brief mimic with his mouth as if he were vomiting. He'd told Tony often enough that he didn't like his uncle.

Tony instead liked him much more than his father. If Obie was there, it often meant his father was not there. Which meant that Tony was safe. He walked to him into the room and his uncle closed the door behind him quietly. He turned to face him, walked to Tony, and smiled as he always did, putting his hand on Tony's shoulder.

"Today’s the first time that you invite two guests. Why?"

"Because for the first time I have two friends in the same city?"

Obie smiled. "I won’t tell your father about it, but you know that you still have to work on the glass, right? I expect you to be able to show your dad useful results next week."

"I've already worked on it, even when Rhodey was here. I think it’ll be good."

"Good," Obie said, smiling. His eyes seemed to be looking right through Tony. He squeezed his shoulder a little tighter. "I'm not going to watch your company go down while I take care of you because you've met your ... friends."

He paused and gave Tony an appraising look. "I saw you sleeping in the same bed as Rhodey."

Tony's eyes grew big. "That's just because we wanted to sleep in the same room. We are not - "

Obie interrupted him by placing his second hand on his shoulder and fixing him firmly. "I know. I just want you to be careful. I don’t want you to get thoughts you shouldn’t have. I know that many young people often have phases like that and I certainly don’t want you to waste your future for that."

"I didn’t -"

"Maybe not with Rhodey, and maybe not with the next boy you see. Just be careful that you have no thoughts that I should tell Howard about. Just for your very own safety."

"But I can -"

"Tony, I understand when you're upset." Obie spoke softly. "But I'm only doing this for you. Your father and I - we both just want you to have a successful future. Remember when I told Howard about your toy car project when you were younger?"

"When I was five and he tore all plans apart right in front of me?"

Obie shook his head. "When he gave you a valuable lesson on time. You see, today you are not wasting your time mindless - not as much, at least, as most other teenagers do. You've learned because your dad and I have more experience and we know what's better for you. Okay?"

Tony shook his head.

"And it's better for you if you take care of yourself and stay on the right side of the shore, as they say. I haven't said anything to Howard yet, but I'm worried that the first person I find laying in your bed is a boy."

Tony nodded silently. He could not tell Obie that there were sides of Tony he could never change again – which were just like that. Have always been just like that. And would always stay just like that.

And probably would always remain secret.

"So," Obie said louder again and smiled. Suddenly, Tony found the smile no longer nice and constructive, but deceitful. "I won't tell Howard about your meeting with Rhodey and ... Pepper?"

"Pepper, yes."

"I won’t tell him about Rhodey and Pepper. I just want you to come up with the plans for the glass to me on Sunday night, so I know you have something for Howard on Thursday. And I want the house cleaned up tonight when Pepper leaves. And Rhodey sleeps on the floor today, or in the other guest room."

Tony nodded and waited for Obie to dismiss him.

"I'll go to the company for a meeting today. I'll be back at eight in the evening. Have fun, Tony."

"Thanks," he murmured and saw Obie turn to the door. He let Tony walk out first and then run after him, but straight to the front door. He said farewell to Rhodey and then walked out, leaving behind a silent Tony and a waiting Rhodey.

"What did he want?" Rhodey asked and Tony shook his head.

"I'm going to sleep on the floor tonight, you in my bed," Tony said, throwing himself on the couch next to Rhodey in frustration. "He's scared that I might be gay."

"Idiot," Rhodey said, rolling his eyes, and Tony could not stop the frustrated release of air. "I always told you that Obie's an ass, too."

"But not as bad as Howard."

"Still an ass."

"Hmm."

For a short time, both were quiet. Tony was in his own thoughts while Rhodey made sure to read as much from his expression as possible. Then, Rhodey put his hand on Tony’s shoulder.

"Tell me, why were you so nervous again?"

Tony's eyebrows shot up. Rhodey’s question immediately killed his train of thoughts but brought up what he was thinking about earlier. "Because you're gonna meet Pepper in a few minutes! And she’ll meet you! What if you don’t like each other? The whole day could be totally awkward. Or if you're suddenly like best friends and like each other more than me and then you’re doing things without me? Or what if we can’t bake for good? When something breaks or burns or something? In the kitchen? Or if you don’t like Pepper, but she likes you? Or the other way around? And what if you - "

"Oh, God, Tony," Rhodey laughed, interrupting his speech. "What if we all get along just fine and you worry too much?"

"Yeah, but what if I don’t?" Tony asked with a slight panic in his voice.

Ever since he had asked Pepper if she wanted to come home to see him today, he was nervous. His hands were sweating as he thought Pepper could be here at any moment. Rhodey sighed.

"You should tell me a lot more about how exactly those glasses you worked on last night worked," Rhodey tried to distract him. And Tony explained.

 


 

After a little more than fifteen minutes, he was torn from his lecture when the doorbell rang. His eyes went wide, and he froze. Rhodey grinned at him and jumped up from the sofa and ran to the door, which he opened immediately. Tony could barely react so quickly and was several feet away when he heard two people greet each other. He stopped and could only watch.

Rhodey grinned at a person Tony could not yet see - but who was definitely Pepper - and introduced himself by name.

"And you have to be Pepper?", he asked in the end and got a confirmation. "Come in. Tony’s as nervous as it gets."

"I'm not nervous!" Tony tried to defend himself, but Pepper laughed loudly when she saw him.

"Was he that pale all day?" she asked Rhodey. Tony gave him a "Don't tell her"-look, but Rhodey grinned at Pepper. "Since I got him out of school yesterday."

"Why did I agree to introduce you to each other?" Tony asked dramatically and finally walked over to Pepper to hug her for a moment.

"You can put your things there. That's the bathroom if you need it. You want something to drink?" he asked, pointing to the big door on the floor.

Pepper shook her head. "So, you're the mysterious Rhodey from a website Tony doesn’t want to give away.”

"Oh, I'm mysterious?"

"I just - okay, wow, Pepper. I just didn’t tell you exactly how I knew him."

"Are you ashamed, Tony?", asked Pepper, grinning.

Tony's mouth fell open. "What? No. I - I…"

"Don’t even try it. I get it," Rhodey said, still playing offended. Pepper watched the scene amused.

Tony stared at them stunned. "So, you are sure you two are meeting for the first time?"

"One hundred percent," both said - simultaneously.

Tony closed his eyes, hoping he would survive the day with them.

 


 

Three hours later, they had laughingly turned their workplace in the kitchen, where the muffins should be baked, into a food fight battlefield. Tony gasped between laughter as he tried to slide fallen-down flour onto his hands so he could throw it at Pepper, who was pulling some chocolate from her hair and touched Rhodey's face with her other eggs-clad hand. He, on the other hand, could only defend himself with a stir bar that still had some dough stuck to it, but laughed so hard that he was helplessly exposed to Pepper.

Rhodey and Pepper had made some stupid jokes about a television series that Tony didn’t watch and took this as an opportunity to take on the fight against the youngest boy. He had shouted to Rhodey that he had once promised to always stand by his side, arguing that both had fought before in food battles and could not ally against the only inexperienced of them while trying to get himself save from the fast-flying flour.

Rhodey had then directly attacked Pepper, who could fight back unexpectedly fast. And now they all lay on the ground and gasped for air.

Tony had put his head on Rhodey's stomach and Pepper had put hers on Tony's - the first time they really had that much physical contact. And Tony thought it was okay. He always thought only Rhodey could make this feel okay, fell good, but maybe Pepper was an exception as well.

"God, I need a shower," Rhodey muttered after a few minutes and Tony and Pepper started to giggle.

"Ditto," Pepper said at some point and Tony nodded.

"One of you can take my bathroom and the other one can shower in the bathroom in the hallway. I'll take my dad's bathroom. Oh. Pepper, you have any clothes to change into?"

"You don’t know how many things I'm constantly taking with me - just in case," Pepper explained, and Rhodey laughed.

"Bah," he cried suddenly, straightening up and thus throwing Tony and Pepper away. "I have egg in my fucking ear."

Tony and Pepper laughed loudly and helped each other off the floor. Rhodey ran to the sink in the kitchen, trying to put his head under the water. Tony and Pepper could not stop the laughter when Rhodey panicked for a towel, only to run quickly through the apartment and shout "I'll take Tony's bathroom!".

Tony and Pepper took that as a reason to both take a shower as well. Tony quickly found new clothes and walked down the long hall to his father's bathroom, which he was entering for the first time in years.

A cold shiver ran down his spine as he remembered that the entire glass front of the shower had once collapsed on top of him and the cold water had mixed with the broken glass and blood of the little boy.

Tony froze, staring at the shower. Then he took two deep breaths and pulled his dirty hoodie over his head. The big mirror on the opposite wall grinned at him and showed him all his blemishes. He wondered if, if Pepper knew of his scars, she would still be having a food fight with him and Rhodey. It didn’t look as bad as it did a few years ago, but his torso was still ugly. A constant reminder of his weakness, of his assertiveness. To his childishness.

Briefly, he sat down on the floor in front of the mirror, his pants still on. He saw the flour in his hair and on his eyelashes. He saw the remains of the eggs on his face. A drop of chocolate hung on his nose and more of it looked like a small trimmed beard. Tony smiled briefly as he thought that Rhodey might have actually tried to paint him a beard in the heat of the fight.

He always joked that he could imagine Tony rocking a goatee once he was older. At the moment, Tony had barely had a few stubbles on his chin.

Quickly, he stood up. Rhodey was always showering extremely fast. He could almost be finished. Tony was not allowed to waste more time. And he could still think about whether Pepper would accept him like that at another time. Quickly he jumped into the shower and cleaned himself up.

When he came out and got dressed again, he took a look at his cell phone for the first time that the day, and saw a new notification from Twitter, a few hours old.

 

@WinterSoldier

hey, @IronMan. @Cap_Am_42 and i r in nyc over thanksgiving. now that we r not keeping our hime cities secret: would u like to show us all the changes in the city in the last few months?

 

Tony's eyes grew big. James was asking him if he wanted to meet him? Tony's mouth had opened, and he didn't have the strength to close it. Instead, he stared at the cell phone in his hand, where a drop of water from his hair had landed.

The room suddenly felt very hot when he realized that he was actually asked to meet James. They had not chatted much since the day at the airport, but Tony was still completely baffled. He liked James - very much. But they didn’t know each other. And James could not possibly like Tony.

His hand shook slightly as he quickly opened his calendar and scrolled to November. His heart skipped a beat and his mouth closed as he saw that he was on a business trip with his father in Europe during the holidays. He remembered the conversation: In Europe, they didn’t celebrate this holiday so they could work there better. Take time, where you can take time, that’s the motto. And Howard said that Tony should come with him - as a mascot, maybe, or because Howard didn’t want him sitting around at home for a whole week.

 

@IronMan: Replying to @WinterSoldier @Cap_Am_42

Oh my god, Id love to meeet you so much. I've just found the best shawarma place in New York, and it's still very new. But unfortunately I'm not home for thanksgiving. Man, shit

 

James answered immediately.

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @IronMan @Cap_Am_42

oh no. id really like to meet u. where r u at the time? where is the shawarma place? or should we wait with that until we can finally meet ?

 

@IronMan: Replying to @WinterSoldier @Cap_Am_42

I’m in Europe. I mean, that's cool anf stuff. But I would have liked to meedt the real James and the real Captain America :( like in real life.

Do As you wish, I dont know when you will come back amd have a chance to eat taht delicious again

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @IronMan @Cap_Am_42

omg u r in europe? where exactly? i used to go to romania a couple of times with my parents back in the days and I was  once in italy and germamy. it was unbelievably cool, very different from america. love the continent

 

@IronMan: Replying to @WinterSoldier @Cap_Am_42

Yes, the culture is really different. I wast in Romania yet, only France, Germany, UK, Luxembourg, Belgium and so on. Ill be tehr this time too. I'm already looking forward to the waffles

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @IronMan @Cap_Am_42

pah, if u eat waffles, ill eat the shawarma in nyc. thats only fair

 

@IronMan: Replying to @WinterSoldier @Cap_Am_42

Pff, do that if you want to hurt me

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @IronMan @Cap_Am_42

i hurt *you*? ur practically running away from me :(

 

@IronMan: Replying to @WinterSoldier @Cap_Am_42

Waaait a second. I sense contradictions to the logic. Well, first of all: I *fly* away from you.

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @IronMan @Cap_Am_42

did u just write a dadjoke? oh god .. maybe its just fine that ur not there. otherwise, id probably feel the need to hit u very hard every once in a while

 

James meant it as a joke. Tony stared at his cell phone. He knew James meant it as a joke. But his grin was frozen. If he ever actually met the man - if he ever actually got in touch with him. In proper contact.

Would he beat him?

Tony stared at his cell phone and felt his chest tighten and make breathing difficult.

 

@IronMan: Replying to @WinterSoldier @Cap_Am_42

Oh God, please don’t! Oh maan, I'm so ashamed of the Joke, but sadly I'll have to end the conversation rifght now. Ive peoiple waiting for me sorry

 

He hoped it did not sound too abrupt. He swallowed and saw the farewell from James before finally getting dressed and leaving the bathroom. It had taken him far too long.

When he walked back out of his father's wing and passed by the kitchen - he did not know where Pepper and Rhodey were - he heard them talking softly to each other. He could not quite hear what it was about, but it seemed like a relaxed conversation. He stopped short of the kitchen and smiled inwardly. On the morning of the same day, he would have never thought that the two would understand each other so well.

He ran quickly into the kitchen and the two looked up. Tony stopped in shock as he saw both Pepper and Rhodey with mop and rag in their hands.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

"Cleaning up," Pepper answered with raised eyebrows. Her hair was tied up with a towel.

"But ..." Tony stammered. He thought he had to clean up by himself.

Before he could say anything else, Rhodey flipped him off with a rag, and he helped the two of them to clean up.

 


  

A few hours later, when they sat on Tony’s bed, eating muffins - Pepper had laid down and admired the stars on the ceiling. Rhodey even had to swear that Tony had actually developed that himself - Rhodey suddenly laughed.

He had read something on the phone while Tony was telling Pepper interesting stories about some star constellations. He just explained that the Milky Way symbolized the river between Vega and Altair - the fairy and the cowherd, or the stars of the Lyra and Aquila - when Rhodey laughed again.

"What's up?" Tony asked, looking at his friend, who was sitting at the end of the bed, looking up from his cell phone with a grin.

"Pepper and I wondered what took you so long when you were showering," he explained, and Pepper sat up straight.

"And?" Tony asked.

"If I had known that you used the time to flirt with Bucky, I probably would have locked you up in the bathroom."

"What?" Tony shouted.

"Bucky?" Pepper shouted.

"I didn’t flirt!"

"Who’s Bucky and how do you know that, Rhodes?"

"Rhodes? Since when do you call him Rhodes? I had to wait like half a year to be allowed to say that!"

"Don’t try to distract us here, Tony. Who’s Bucky?"

Tony shook his head. "First of all, his name is James. Nobody calls him Bucky."

"Everyone calls him Bucky, except for you."

"And secondly, I did not flirt with him!" Tony ignored Rhodey. His face had turned a little red. He had not flirted with James! It was a normal conversation!

"You know, Pepper," Rhodey said, sitting up straight. "Tony might not want to tell you how he knows me. But totally regardless of that, I'd just like to tell you that I spend a lot of time on Twitter."

Tony's eyes went wide when Rhodey said that. "You're an asshole."

"Why?"

"Because Pepper’s not stupid."

"Who said that?"

"She knows now that I'm on Twitter."

"So what?"

"So what?!" Tony asked loudly and Pepper raised her hands placatingly.

"Wow, why don’t you want me to know you're on Twitter?"

Tony stared at her. Because a few weeks ago he was not sure if she liked him or his money. Because a few weeks ago he was not sure if she would keep quiet about who he was. Because a few weeks ago he was not sure if she would reveal his secret to Stone, Hammer, and Co.

"Because," he stammered. He knew there was no reason not to tell Pepper. She was at his home. She knew Rhodey. She had even seen Dum-E and was completely fascinated by him.

"Tony, you tend to be unable to argue your strange views," Rhodey laughed, patting his shoulder playfully.

"Okay, yes. We know each other via Twitter," Tony admitted, looking closely at Pepper. She nodded.

"I kinda guessed." She grinned and looked at Rhodey. "So, who’s Bucky now?"

"James," Tony corrected, earning a bigger grin. "He's also on Twitter and I sometimes write with him. But I often write with Natasha and Bruce and with you, Rhodes, and I really do not know where that was flirting. Like, really."

Rhodey laughed. "Yes, but if you write with Natasha or Bruce or me, then you write with far fewer mistakes. Are you less nervous? And besides, you rarely invite one of the others to spend time with you or don’t refuse it right away."

Pepper's eyebrows shot up and Tony felt the need to defend himself. "Well, I invited you here!"

"Doesn’t count. I know you for a long time now."

"When we met for the first time, we had known each other for half a year."

"Yes, but that was a special situation."

'Sry my dad broke my phon and i bleed out ofj my neck for 40 mins nwo what should i do?''

Drunk and beaten severely. Different situation. Right.

"Okay, right. But I always incorporate spelling mistakes."

A smile fell over Rhodey's face again. "Pepper, you don’t know his tweets. Do you believe that he’s always doing spelling mistakes?"

She raised her eyebrows further and seemed to have just been ripped from deep thought. "Honestly? Not at all."

"That’s what I thought. So, what else arguments do you want to use to try to eliminate mine and thereby fail miserably?"

"I didn’t flirt with him!" His body betrayed Tony by pumping more blood into his head. Tony was giving speeches to hundreds of people, why was he blushing now?

"Yeah, whatever," Rhodey muttered, wordlessly holding his phone in front of Pepper's nose.

"That’s Bucky?" she exclaimed enthusiastically.

"James!" Tony corrected, feeling his face turn redder. He didn’t help the situation at all.

“Man, his jawline is quite something!” exclaimed Pepper after looking at his profile picture for a couple of seconds. Tony nodded unwillingly. But actually, that was just a fact. Everybody would have nodded, there was no sense in denying that his jawline wasn’t very cute. The black and white filter made it even more extreme. Just looking at this picture as a neutral art fan, everybody had to nod.

Tony knew the picture quite well and knew for a fact that despite the photographer was standing several feet away and thus also showed the torso of the man (who wore a very cool looking leather jacket by the way) the jawline was something the observer would look at first. And that says something about that, doesn’t it? So it was natural that Tony nodded and Pepper shouldn’t grin like that because of that.

“So,” Pepper started, “you like guys, then?”

“She didn’t know?” asked Rhodey with big eyes.

“She never asked!” was Tony’s defense.

Pepper rolled her eyes. “Tony, you’re such a boy sometimes.”

“Thanks, I’ve noticed.”

Rhodey shook his head, grinning. “I had to listen to you gossiping about male singers and actors and fucking scientists for years now and your female friend, who most probably likes guys, too, didn’t have to? That would have made sense to tell her, Tony. It really would have.”

“To be honest, she could have asked. Or sensed. There's never been a good situation for me to tell her – to tell you, Pepper.”

“Well, remember when I jokingly asked you whether Rhodey was your boyfriend? That would’ve been a good situation.”

Tony nodded. “Fair enough.” They were silent for a moment. “It’s not that I wouldn’t have trusted you to know, Pepper. It’s just…” I shouldn’t do this anymore. It always makes everything worse. “Can you please tell nobody?”

He realised that Rhodey had shifted a bit more to him as if he knew why he didn’t like this topic. Well, he did know.

“Sure. But I’ve got to do something for a moment.” Pepper reached for her own cell phone and typed shortly thereafter. Barely half a minute later, while Rhodey looked at his phone and Tony examined the floor in front of him, thoughts still on placed where they shouldn’t be, Rhodey laughed.

"Pepper and salt?" he asked.

Pepper nodded. "That's me. So, you said he’s called @WinterSoldier," she murmured to herself. "How old is he? Max 20, right?"

"Oh god, Pepper," Tony muttered. "Why are you always so completely different from everyone else and suddenly, where Rhodes boldly lies in our faces and says something nonsensical, you're like ... such a girl."

Pepper raised her eyebrows. "What is ‘such a girl’?"

"Well, with you wanting to find out stuff. Although there is absolutely nothing going on."

Pepper rolled his eyes. "Yeah, sure. You’re still red in your face. I've never seen you blushing that hard."

"Yes, but I only do that because you two caused it. I have healthy blood circulation, you should congratulate me. Smaller risk of a stroke or something."

"Oh yeah, right," Rhodey laughed, tapping at his cell phone as well. "So, you’ve been on Twitter for two years?"

Pepper nodded. "But only sometimes. As you can tell from the number of followers I have. I'm not doing much on Twitter," she laughed.

"Uh," Tony said, reaching for his cell phone as well. "Now I’ve got to stop blaspheme about you online if you know my name on Twitter."

"Who says I know your account?"

"My notification says so. @Pepperandsalt follows you now. Let me just delete all the mean tweets about you."

Pepper rolled his eyes. "I can handle it when you lie about me on the internet so that you feel somehow accepted next to my incredible personality."

"Pff, lie. As if I would ever do something like that."

"What did you say again? Where do you know Rhodey from?” grinned Pepper. “From the Internet?"

"Not a lie," Tony replied, grinning back at her. She rolled her eyes.

"I'll remind you of this talk when you admit that you flirted with Bucky."

Tony stared at her. "Sorry, but we don’t live that long."

"Sure," Pepper muttered.

Tony threw up his arms. "You literally saw one picture of him and read one conversation. How can you judge?"

"Tones, I've known Pepper since this morning and I can assure you that she knows exactly what she's saying."

"Well, not this time," Tony replied and was a bit annoyed. They made something big that wasn’t big at all.

Rhodey realized that the topic was getting too much and slapped Tony on the shoulder. "Should we go to the park while the sun is still shining?"

Tony nodded and only fifteen minutes later, the three were on the way to the big park.

 

Chapter Text

The rest of the day flew by like nothing. The three talked about everything and nothing, Tony watched with pleasure that Rhodey and Pepper got along very well, and the topic ‘James’ was not addressed again.

As Rhodey and Pepper were arguing over whether Oreos had to be eaten with or without milk, Tony's mind wandered off.

Half a year ago, he would have never thought that he’d be sitting in a park with two friends at the same time. He had Rhodey and Jarvis, and a little bit Natasha. If Clint hadn’t joined Twitter in summer, it probably would have stayed that way.

He remembered that he was sitting in the park with his tablet and mobile phone in spring. He had tried to enjoy the sun shining on him and was completely lost in thought as he had watched several young people picnicking and playing volleyball. He had spent that evening sitting alone on his bed, looking at razorblades, only looking.

In his head, pictures of Jane and Loki had been bright and big and made any other thought disappear. Just sometimes thoughts of his mother and the big fight with his father would distract him. In his mind, the paparazzi had made images of his collapse and the then angry Tony had thrown the razors across the room. It ripped a fine crack in his computer screen.

It had taken a very long time before Tony realized that it had really only happened in his head. They were no paparazzi that had seen him cry. As he picked up the blades, he imagined someone crying and remembered the day Jane's mother called him.

He hadn’t slept that night and had chatted to Rhodey in the morning asking for help.

He had been weak.

And now. Was he weak again?

Rhodey was only here because he needed help. Again. Pepper was only here because Rhodey had asked him to invite her. Would he even succeed in maintaining social contacts on his own unless he was constantly reminded how to do that?

"Tony?" Rhodey asked, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder. Tony was so abruptly torn to his thoughts that he flinched and stared wide-eyed and heavily breathing at his friend. He raised his hands placatingly, then slowly backed away.

"Hey, I think it's getting late and cold. We should go home, shouldn’t we?"

Tony nodded in response but did not trust his voice.

Weak. Weak.

His panicked eyes searched for Pepper, who looked at him waiting and analyzing. She got up and patted Rhodey on the shoulder. Tony remained seated and could not understand what the two were talking about, and his thoughts circled and got faster and faster.

Brown eyes and profound conversations came to his mind. And the cold. The cold. While the sun was shining on him.

No, a tree had now cast a shadow over the spot where Tony was sitting. He looked up. Pepper and Rhodey were still talking softly, turned away from Tony, then they both looked at him.

Tony could not move, but Rhodey reached slowly and carefully for his arm with his hand. This time, Tony did not flinch, but only realized like in a trance that he got up. The world seemed to spin.

The thunder was louder than usual.

It did not rain. There was no thunder. It was only in his head. Was the air really so heavy or was that in his head as well?

Rhodey did not release his arm and somehow led him out of the park. Tony opened his mouth, gasping for air because it indeed was heavy. It wasn’t air meant to breath, he thought. Pepper walked on Rhodey's other side. Maybe because she wanted to give him space. Maybe because she was disappointed and disgusted by his escalating fear.

Pepper said something and hugged Rhodey before she stood directly in front of Tony. With distance. With distance.

Carefully, she moved toward him, giving him time to get away before hugging him for a moment. It was getting warmer again and the sun was shining on the street they were standing on.

Rhodey pulled on his arm and steered him into a taxi, which had stopped.

Tony shuddered when he finally sat down but found that Rhodey's hand was still on his arm. The other now was on his shoulder and fastened his seatbelt.

Couldn’t he even do that anymore?

Concentration was required.

Three point one. Four. One. Five. Nine. Two. Six.

Hydrogen. Helium. Lithium. Beryllium.

With his hand on his shoulder and Rhodey's constant mumbling beside him, things quickly got better. His breathing calmed and what his eyes saw made sense again.

Two. Seven. One. Eight. Two. Eight.

"You're getting better," he could hear Rhodey talking quietly to him. He knew it was related to his faster control over himself.

"God," he murmured, laying his head in his hands. "Why today?"

Rhodey pulled him close, knowing he needed contact. "Better in the park than at school. Thus, we come home faster. We're almost there."

Only when they were in the elevator and Tony realized that there was still the constant heat on his arm, he gently tore away from Rhodey.

"Obie," he explained to the boy, who looked puzzled. Tony seldom refused close contact.

He nodded and ran after the younger one, who, still trembling slightly, but far more the Master of himself, walked down the hall, passed the room where Obie was or was not.

As Tony sat down on his bed, his head had cleared so far that he put his hands in front of his eyes. "Sorry," he mumbled, feeling the older man's arms tighten around him.

"It’s okay."

Tony took two deep breaths. "I don’t understand how that could happen. Everything was fine and suddenly I have - I do not know. Suddenly there are pictures and sounds and the smell and - why? I should be over it." He mumbled the last words.

Rhodey shook his head. "If you were over it by now, you’d be a psychopath. It’s perfectly okay. You have been traumatized. You know that's normal. We all have told you. And it won’t go away in just a few years. It takes time."

"Yes, but such an anxiety thing out of nowhere? I'm fifteen, I’m not a kid anymore. That shouldn’t happen." Tony felt frustrated. He didn’t want to experience those things anymore. What happened happened. He needed to move on. It was over. His body shouldn’t betray him like that. Shouldn’t make him feel so weak.

"What do you think. Does the human brain care how many days it's been carried around by you? Age doesn’t matter if you witness a - if you become such a victim."

"But I don’t want to be a victim."

"And my grandmother didn’t want to be black, yet she wasn’t allowed to vote. We can’t choose those things. And you’re the last person that’s responsible to any of this."

"That's not true."

Rhodey sighed. "We’ve talked about this so often. You are not to blame."

Tony stayed quiet. He didn’t agree with Rhodey. He could have invited Jane and Loki to join him at home. He should have fought back. Should have protected Jane. Even or especially when it was over.

But Rhodey did not understand him.

He never understood him. Or didn’t want to understand him.

"What about Pepper?" Tony asked suddenly. "Do you think she still wants -"

"If you're asking me if I think Pepper wants to be friends with you, and you're serious, Tony, then I'll check all your certificates for your alleged giftedness. Of course, she wants that. She even offered to help. She told me she learned tricks from her kinda-like-mother because she's had panic attacks, too. She left because she thought you might need a completely familiar environment. Just me."

Tony exhaled calmly. "Thank you."

Rhodey squeezed his shoulder and Tony leaned into the hug. He felt better. It was good.

He had friends. Rhodey held him tightly and moved his fingers through his hair.

 


 

For a few minutes, no one moved. Then Tony started talking about how he intended to increase the efficiency of his glass until his father returned.

Rhodey listened and then threw a tablet to Tony and tapped something on his phone himself. Probably on Twitter. Tony worked in silence next to his best friend for about two hours, then suddenly turned on his side and looked at Rhodey.

"What do you think about Pepper?" he asked without apparent connection.

Rhodey put his phone next to him and smiled at Tony. "She’s great. She’s really, really cool. You actually got someone really good for you there."

"Good," said Tony. "Do you think we can do this more often? Just hang out? Just us? We can even take her with us when we go to the exhibition tomorrow. I’m sure, there are still cards to buy, even if they are more expensive. I’ll invite her. Not that I don’t just want to go there with you, but I think it can be even funnier if we’re three people."

"If Pepper is as excited about the history of space probes as I am, it'll be fun."

"Hey, you said it’d be okay for you if we went there together!" Tony defended himself. He didn’t want Rhodey to have a boring day. Was it a mistake to bring him home this weekend?

Rhodey laughed. "I even bought you the tickets. Of course, I’m okay with it. I just think that you know a lot more about all these things than I do. Or than Pepper does."

"Or the exhibitors."

"As always so charmingly humble."

Tony grinned.

"I’ll ask her," Rhodey said suddenly.

"You?" Tony asked in confusion. "Do you have her number?"

"Who do you think I've been chatting with for the past two hours? Spoiler alert: It’s not your flirt Bucky."

"He’s not my flirt. And why did you get her number?"

Rhodey rolled his eyes. "As I said: She’s great. I asked her for her number, she gave it to me."

"You got the number from Pepper, without consulting me first?"

Rhodey's eyes widened. "Do I always have to involve you in those things? You had to work!"

"But that's important!"

"You didn’t tell me when you found a friend at school."

Tony braced himself in indignation. "That was something completely different!"

"That's exactly the same thing," laughed Rhodey. "Only I told you the same day "

"Only because I asked."

"I also asked you if anything special happened on your first day at school."

Tony support me briefly. "Doesn’t matter. Completely different. Really."

"Yeah, really," Rhodey laughed. Then he became serious again. "Tell me, why didn’t you want Pepper to know you're on Twitter?"

Tony was silent for a moment. Rhodey probably knew how much he meant to him. But maybe he did not know the full extent on his life. Rhodey had always had friends next to Tony over the years. Rhodey had been Tony's only friend over all these years. Until Jarvis came and later Bruce, Natasha, Clint and finally James and Pepper.

Otherwise, he was always alone.

"Because you all are very important to me," Tony admitted. "And I was afraid that she ... I mean, I know she wouldn’t do it. The fear was only there from the beginning. I was afraid that she could tell the press. Or Hammer and the others. "

"And then your anonymity would have disappeared."

"And you would all feel pressured. From the press, who would rush on you. So much that you probably don’t want to do anything with me anymore. It was stupid. Pepper doesn’t do that."

"And we wouldn’t let you down," Rhodey explained. "I am convinced of that. I wouldn’t do it. And I'm sure Banner knows it anyway. And Natasha and Clint like you unbelievably. Clint behaves like your big brother when people target you on the internet. Haven’t noticed it yet?"

Tony thought about it and he actually remembered several events where someone had turned on him. It last had been a "@Ultron015" who defamed Tony as a Bot, then as a fake account ("You say you're a kid, but then you write these things with Banner. Do you want to make yourself better looking than you are? First, cite nice books and then make yourself younger. Idiot.”) and finally as a freak, when Tony reassured him that he was not older than he said, and in fact not only quoted books, but understood the scientific context behind what Howard and Tony Stark wrote together (Ha, great lie).

Clint had written a long text to Ultron about why Tony didn’t have to deal with him, that he actually understood much more about science ("probably even more than Tony and Howard Stark together" - Clint still didn’t know his real name) and lastly that, in Clint's words, Tony was incredibly emphatic and sympathetic. Tony still couldn’t tell where Clint got these obviously untrue facts about Tony from, or whether he actually perceived him as empathetic and sympathetic, and why he sacrificed his time to defame people up on the Internet for Tony.

Through his relationship with Natasha, he had many followers who, after posting his tweets, all set out on Ultron together. It had been a storm of replies and Tony had had to turn off his notifications that day.

"I was scared. It was stupid," Tony finally said, not looking at Rhodey. "I'm afraid I'm not so good with people."

"And here we are at the next lie. Oh god, Tony. You still have to learn so much."

"Yeah, cool. But how should I ever do that?"

Rhodey grinned at him. "Modern Family?"

The two eventually fell asleep on Tony's bed after a few hours. It was only when Obie opened the door in the night and made noises that Tony woke up and, after a scrutinizing look, laid down on the floor with two blankets and a pillow.

It was not comfortable, and besides, Tony's thoughts raced in silence around the day, so he spent his time on the phone, before he fell asleep again after an hour.

 


 

@WarMachine

"I can handle it when you lie about me on the internet so that you feel somehow accepted next to my incredible personality" - @Pepperandsalt to @IronMan and I think we've found a senior quote for you, Tones.

 

@archerclint: Replying to @TheWarMachine @Pepperandsalt @IronMan

waaait a second. whos @Pepperandsalt? why is she talking to you two, why dont i know her, why didnt you ask us to check on her before she came into your life?

 

@Pepperandsalt: Replying to @TheWarMachine @IronMan @archerclint

Am from Tony's school. Was previously inactive on Twitter. I learned today that the two know each other from here. Will now monitor what Tony’s doing. And Rhodey too. You are?

 

@archerclint: Replying to @TheWarMachine @Pepperandsalt @IronMan

clint. living in boston, have been dealing with tony for some time. didnt know that he also has people from his private life on twitter. so far, hes always left his school friends off the internet. at least as far as i know. so, hey pepper, welcome to twitter

 

@Pepperandsalt: Replying to @TheWarMachine @IronMan @archerclint

So, hey Clint. Must have taken a special place in Tony's heart then if he allows me here. Plus it's Rhodey's fault that I know his account. Maybe he really didn’t want me to be here.

 

@archerclint: Replying to @TheWarMachine @Pepperandsalt @IronMan @archerclint

nonsense. if even tondys "honeybear" rhodey allows you to do be here, then you must have passed a big test before. everything has its correctness.

 

@TheWarMachine: Replying to @Pepperandsalt @IronMan @archerclint

Yes, everything’s checked and looked at three times. But to all those people whose hopes are dwindling right now, I just want to make it clear that Pepper and Tony are not dating.

 

@black_widow: Replying to @TheWarMachine @Pepperandsalt @IronMan @archerclint

i told you clint that we are not the only ones who see it

 

@archerclint: Replying to @TheWarMachine @Pepperandsalt @IronMan @archerclint @black_widow

hey @Pepperandsalt: @black_widow likes to read chats silently and then suddenly write a single reply. like a spy or some shit. right out of the shadows. but don’t be afraid

 

@EdwinJarvis: Replying to @TheWarMachine @Pepperandsalt @IronMan @archerclint @black_widow

@archerclint I have now looked at the profile of @Pepperandsalt for three minutes. I can already assure you that she is not afraid of @black_widow. I think @TheWarMachine just created a monster by letting the two women meet.

 

@black_widow: Replying to @TheWarMachine @Pepperandsalt @IronMan @archerclint @EdwinJarvis

what the master says. i like pepper. already.

 

@TheWarMachine: Replying to @Pepperandsalt @IronMan @archerclint @black_widow @EdwinJarvis

Oh, God.

Chapter Text

It was amazing how quickly time passed in the following weeks.

Pepper came with them to the exhibition the following day and Tony was able to have fantastic conversations. Not with the exhibitors, but he happened to meet a professor for astrophysics who overheard him complaining about the inaccuracy of an explanation on a sign.

Although he’d never see the man in his life again, he had spent two fantastic hours talking to him about space probes, black holes, and Earth-like planets. Particularly fascinating were the professor’s views on the Voyager 1 mission – a space probe that just entered the interstellar medium as the first spacecraft ever a couple of years ago.

On Friday before Thanksgiving, when Tony got out of limousine with his father in front of JFK airport, he hoped for the first time in his life that his flight would be delayed. Which, of course, was a stupid thought, since they would fly with the private Stark-jet, but perhaps the reporters had so many questions that they would have to wait so long. Or maybe there would be problems on the runway. Anything.

But the chance of meeting James was really small, anyway.

‘So we actually missed each other by just a couple of hours’, he texted to the other one per direct message on Twitter.

‘its like were in a bad romance haha xD', James replied immediately. ‘man, thats really uncool. id really like to meet you, tony'

'Yeah, same here

I’d like to meet you not me tho'

‘got that haha,' James answered. 'still my mind came up with a picture of u standing completely narcissistic in front of the airport mirror mirror fascinated by urself'

'Who says I don’t do that all the time?' Tony had replied. His account balance said so. He had only seen an airport toilet twice in his life. And one time was in a movie. And that was enough, but James did not know that.

‘well if u do that constantly then we have a problem here

u know whats a problem too?’ he had written in a second message and then sent a picture of a battered burger. Tony could see his right hand forming a thumbs down.

Tony had laughingly sent a picture of the blueberries he was still eating in the limousine. His father was sitting in the front and did not notice.

‘Don’t know whats your problem’, Tony had answered. ,Did you know that when we’re in France, I’ll go to Le Castiglione? This is supposed to be one of the best burger shops in the world. And it has prestige, because its in france'

'uh, bon appetite. c'est très yummy i think. but do u know what ill eat then?

shawarma. your shawarma.'

'It's not like I own the shawarma place.  Le magasin n’est pas mon.'

‘k cool, that's pretty much everything i know in french. Baguette!' Bucky replied. Tony wondered if he had ever had such a light conversation before.

Yes, that was the answer, but still, he could not suppress his grin.

'Uh, c'est terrible! C'est une fichue catastrophe! Dois-je te tromper avec un balai que tu es raisonnable?'

'tony, i do not understand what ur saying. je ne compirs pas or something!’ he went offline for a couple of seconds before he sent another message. ‘okay, i just googled. u want to hit me with a broom? europe is no longer in the middle age or something'

‘That's not quite true’, answered Tony and added in a second message: ‘in 2018, France passed a law that prohibited the flogging of parents against their children. Two thousand. And. eighteen.'

‘Wtf’ James replied. ‘like really. wtf.

and how do u know that?'

‘You tend to know things when it concerns you,' Tony replied dryly, without much thought.

'oh shit. u wanna talk? i can search for somewhere quiet'

'Oh god, no. Sorry. that was meant as a joke. God, I didnt want to shock you. Sorry.' Tony could not stop smiling at his phone. Had James just wanted to leave his horrible burger to talk to him because he thought he was beaten at home? And had Tony actually lied to James again? That would eventually mess up everything. But it was still so nice with him.

'okay, okay nice. i alsready got really angry. cant understand why parents beat their children. other parents lose their children or die themselves. and then there are those who beat their children, their own kind of creation?

sorry, that makes me really angry'

‘I understand that,' Tony replied. 'Really isn’t that cool '

'happens too often unfortunatly'

'Yes, unfortunately'

'oh, sorry, tony. my flight just got announced and steve says we have to go now. ill text u later but maybe youll be on ur plane by then. c u!'

'See you, James!'

Tony had never left the limo with a real smile. But there were always first times.

 


 

During his time in Europe, he kept chatting with James and the others. But he had little time and the time difference complicated any conversation. He chatted rarely with the others, probably less than ever before.

He had heard - but was not sure - that Pepper had met James and Steve for a short time, more or less by accident. But he forgot to ask again. On Thanksgiving, Tony gave a presentation at a university in Switzerland and wowed his audience that he was able to give the presentation in French and German. Even though his German was a lot worse and more accented than his French, the thunderous applause after his speech on the future of nanotechnology in the energy transition was a clear sign that he had inspired the audience - in both languages. 

He ate with his father and four important businessmen working for StarkIndustries in Europe at a fancy restaurant that evening, celebrating Thanks Giving as much as they were able to do that far away from home. The media liked it, though, and thus Tony smiled while he listened the men talk about things he had nearly zero interest in. He smiled at the cameras that occasionally took pictures of them and tried to keep up with the conversation. After a while, one of the businessmen switched to talk to him in German, which made him even more tired at the end of the day. 

When he arrived back in New York, it was cold.

Only two weeks later it was snowing. It was the 13th of December and so the snow came unexpectedly early. Tony was standing by the window with Pepper during their lunch break in the library, admiring the snow. It had not snowed in New York for a long time, not so early in December at least. He shivered. He had not slept much at night - homework, a project from his father, a long chat with James in the evening, and, of course, the nightmares that plagued him ever more often. Tony thought it was because of the cold and wet weather.

He pulled his hoodie down a little and for the first time was very happy to be so small. Thus, he could get a lot easier big hoodies that kept you so much warmer.

"You sure that we want to go out there after school?" he asked Pepper again.

"Yeah, that’ll be fun. Come on, I'm from California. You too, by the way. You know what it’s like to see real snow for the first time."

"It's not your first time snow."

"That's right," Pepper admitted. "But still. Come on, Tony. We’ll go to my place afterward and you’ll spend the night there. That’ll be cool. Luis is very excited."

Tony rolled his eyes. "Alright, but I do it only for Luis. And I hope Phillip does not have one of his phases again."

"He'll be okay."

Pepper's brother had now really hit puberty. In addition to a huge growth spurt - the boy was now almost as tall as Tony! – this new phase of his life was especially noticeable when you walked past his room, which emitted an unpleasant scent. He didn’t always appear for supper and once, when Tony had stayed at Pepper’s for a night, he had been sure he had heard the boy masturbate. Which was not unusual, but Tony just didn’t want to listen to his best friend's little brother.

"Also, you've already put in so much work that you're allowed to be with me today."

That was true. Tony's dad was home for the weekend. Tony had never been away when his father was at home.

But after nearly three weeks without even the slightest blow from his father and a new improvement every Sunday from Tony - and each better than the expected improvement - Tony had taken all his courage on Monday and asked his father if he was allowed to stay at a friend’s home that weekend. They would do homework and his projects would not suffer.

His father had been furious to be interrupted with such unimportant news, but not as dislocated as expected. Tony had generally noticed that Howard had not hit him so hard since the last time, just before Rhodey arrived. Often there were only blue eyes or small hematomas on the chest, on the legs or arms, but no big attacks that Tony felt weeks later.

It had worked out, and after Tony had listened Howard yell at him for about ten minutes that he had not wasted his time when he was young like that, and that he was much better and smarter anyway, and Tony was often just a useless piece of meat that the media simply did not realize wasn’t that good, he reluctantly allowed him to leave. On the condition that his next project "will be as good as the last one". Until he was in his room, Tony had not noticed that his father had unwillingly complimented him.

 


 

After school, Tony stomped beside Pepper through the already squashed snow. His pants were wet and his breath created small, white clouds in front of his mouth.

Pepper had gloves on her hands, but Tony had forgotten his. He buried his hands in his pockets and put them even deeper into his hoodie. They walked past the park which was just minutes away from Pepper's house. She grinned at him and grabbed Tony by the arm before pulling him with her. They entered the park through a small gate, and for the first time in the day, Tony actually saw white snow, not grey. Children were running around playing, but Pepper pulled him into a relatively quiet corner. Tony felt the cold on his trouser leg creep up and looked around fascinated. Snow always managed to make the world look so different, so enchanted.

The first snowball hit him unexpectedly and directly on the shoulder. He opened his eyes and threw himself behind a tree to stoop and form one of his own. His hands burned with cold, but he straightened up, got a second snowball to his chest, then threw his own. He missed Pepper but was already about to build a new one.

Pepper's third ball hit him closely next to the large hematoma on his leg and Tony jerked briefly, but otherwise did not let the pain show. Fuck Hammer. Fuck Stone.

Instead, he straightened up and threw another snowball at Pepper, which hit her this time. Laughing, he ran to her and deftly threw her into the snow.

He grabbed the cold, white powder and spread it over her head. He had the feeling that Pepper did not fight with all her power, but he wasted no further thought on that. Finally, Pepper pushed Tony down from her and he got all the snow into his face.

They continued the battle for a few more minutes until both of them were shaking from the cold and completely wet and ended the fight.

Tony had never gone to Pepper’s home so fast and jumped into the shower.

And never was he so happy that Phillip was actually as tall as he was so that he could get warm and dry clothes.

 


 

 

At night, his brain managed to catch up with the events of the day.

There was a dead silence around him when Tony woke up panting and looking around in panic. At first, he could not place where he was. It was not the cold, wet room, and not his bed. It took him a moment before he realized he was not in the cabin or in the hospital, but at Pepper’s home.

What created his next problem. Tony was sweating and panting and tears were running down his face. He quickly reached for his pillow and pressed it in front of his face. He slept next to Pepper on her wide bed so he could not be too loud. She moved restlessly and rolled back and forth.

Tony's shoulders twitched as he sobbed.

Why couldn’t he be normal? Why did he have to have nightmares? Why was he weak?

The sobs were muffled by the pillow and Tony tried to get up to get into the bathroom at the end of the corridor without waking anyone. His body circulation did not play along though, and in the dark room he could see nothing except the sleet, which was easily seen through the window.

It was dark and rainy. Where was the thunder? Where was the puddle?

As Tony stood up, he almost fell forward against the wall. He dropped the pillow in his hand and tried to rest his hands against the wall, to protect his head but the pillow landed on the bedside table and pulled his phone down to the parquet floor.

His head hit the wall anyway and he couldn’t prevent a new, loud sobbing. Trembling, he leaned his hands against the cold stone wall and waited until his circulation had calmed down. Pepper behind him stopped moving.

Then he sobbed again and leaned down quickly to push the pillow back to his face, but it was not there anymore.

Instead, he heard a soft voice next to him announcing to touch him.

Tony's heart raced before he realized it was Pepper talking to him. Her hand dropped to his shoulder, slowly pulling him back onto the edge of the bed. Tony could not see anything. The stars in front of his eyes and the darkness made it difficult for him to notice, causing him to panic. He could be anywhere. Quietly he heard the sound of the rain outside the window.

He flinched as a dimmed light was getting brighter, but then realized it was Pepper lighting her lights slowly. Still, he was only fragmentarily aware of his surroundings. Something was wrong with his brain. He had been awake for several minutes and still could not figure out what he was doing and why. He felt completely disoriented.

Suddenly Pepper appeared in his field of vision, with grubby hair and tired eyes, which nevertheless somehow showed attention.

"Three," she said in such a gentle voice. "One. Four. One. Five."

She listed Pi. How did she know that Tony calmed himself down with Pi?

"Count in your head, Tony," she whispered and put her second hand on his shoulder, very carefully and so that Tony could see what she was doing. She did not want to hurt him, she wanted to help him.

"Nine. Two. Six," she said and stopped. "Three?"

Tony shook his head. "Five," he mumbled and his voice sounded so rough. He was startled by himself. His eyes were still wide with panic, but his head calmed down a bit. He saw the numbers, a structure that could not change. Not even in a thousand years. The five was always followed by the three and then again the five and then the eight. It went on and on. Nine, seven, nine. Three, two, three. His favorite place so far at the beginning of Pi, because two times in a row, a digit was framed by the two same digits.

He understood that. That always remained the same and nobody could change it. Ever.

"Breathe with me," said Pepper gently again. "I take your hand and put it on my chest, okay?"

Tony just nodded weakly and let himself be carried away. His hand was so much colder compared to Pepper's skin. Did she have a fever? Or was he so cold? Did she already regret wanting to help him like this? It had to be unpleasant.

"In," Pepper said, taking a deep breath. Tony tried to equal her, but he suddenly sobbed again. Pepper waited a moment. "And out."

Tony managed to exhale with her. Pepper repeated the procedure four times before Tony could breathe calmly by himself. She left his hand on her chest before Tony got uncomfortable and put them in his lap and clawed them.

"Sorry," he muttered somberly in a soft voice. She was still sitting in front of him, but she moved slowly to sit on the edge of the bed next to him. She always left one hand on his shoulder.

"No problem," she said calmly and sat down as close to Tony as possible. Their legs were touching and their arms. Tony was weak and tired, dropping his head against Pepper's shoulder for just a moment before startling.

She could not possibly want that.

"It's okay," she assured him as if reading thoughts.

Tony stared at the wall opposite him. Pepper wondered for sure what had made him so weak, why he woke up like a baby in the night and cried.

"My old babysitter - Rose - she was beaten by her parents when she grew up, almost daily. She had panic attacks, even years later," Pepper began to tell very quietly. "One night, when she woke up and cried, she told me everything. After that she felt better, she said. I love her, she's like a second mom, but you know that. You've already met her. Tony, I will never judge you for having a normal psyche. I do not know what's happening to you at home, but if that's your dad’s fault, then- "

"Not Howard's fault," Tony said suddenly. He swallowed. Somehow it was. Rhodey always said it was definitely Howard's fault. "Not his fault. It's not because of him."

Tony stared at the wall opposite him for a moment. When he told the story to Rhodey, he felt like shit. But not as miserable as before. He told the boy two weeks after he returned home. For two weeks he had just stared at the text messages that the other had sent him - hurt at first, then sour and panicky.

But telling was had happened had helped. And he could still run and leave Pepper's apartment if she did not want to see him afterward.

"You know that I spent a few months abroad when I was thirteen?", he said in a voice so quiet that it was barely audible.

Pepper nodded. "I’ve heard of that."

"That was a lie to cover up a crime."

"Okay?"

"A ... a rampage at our school. In March. My junior year when I was thirteen. It was definitely not the first in the US and only one student got killed.” He cleared his throat and waited for a moment. “That's one of the reasons why it has never been big on the news. Actually, it was falsely reported as a rampage."

Tony remembered his free period as a junior when suddenly loud shots echoed through the corridors. He had worked with Jane and Loki on his damned Spanish project, sitting in the library, with almost nobody else being there.

"I still need what you wrote down, Loki, then I'll put that in the presentation."

"I can help you too," Jane had said. "I have nothing to do today anyway. Thor and Loki are at this gala this afternoon. And we can continue working on the astronomy project."

"But that's not mandatory," Tony had answered. Nevertheless, he had smiled.

"It's interesting, though."

Loki had rolled his eyes. He knew that the two could talk about physics and astronomy for an eternity without even realizing that there was someone else in the room. One of the reasons why they still worked on their Spanish project three days before it was due.

Loki had been about to say something when the shots fell and the big door had been opened. The librarian stumbled into the room, holding her shoulder, and seemed about to say something to the three students, but a masked man stabbed her with a rifle pommel and she fell to one side.

Tony barely realised what happened during the next few seconds, only that the three of them jumped and that Loki threw himself in front of Tony and Tony in front of Jane. He was the smallest, but he had long since learned that Starks were made of iron. He wanted to pull Loki behind him, but another shot pervaded the room. The projectile was so fast that Loki had to feel the pain first, and heard the shot a little moment after that. He fell to the floor just in front of Tony and held his shoulder, screaming. It was bleeding tremendously.

“Actually, it was a targeted kidnapping”, Tony told Pepper. His voice was trembling but Pepper’s strong grip on his arm made him feel stronger. “Kidnapping, just at our school. The librarian died a few months later from heart disease. Jane and I couldn’t move. Loki was her boyfriend's brother and for me one of the few people who didn’t make fun of my height or my age. He understood me, he also understood that I was not at school because I was bought in there, but because I was simply at their intellectual level. He even spent some free time with me, even if he had other friends."

Tony paused and looked at Pepper. She made no move to interrupt him. She did not even look like she had ulterior motives, was bored or tired. She just listened attentively. "I don’t know why I'm telling this, sorry. That is not important."

"Maybe it's important. Maybe it's important that you tell everything once. From the very beginning."

Tony thought of the one and a half months in the cold, wet room. He would not tell everything, never again. He shuddered.

"I wanted to help Loki, and Jane too. But he yelled at us to run away. It was stupid. The library gives no place for a race and the man had logically seen us long ago. We didn’t know it was going to be kidnapping."

Behind the man more stormed into the library. Tony thought it was the police and the nightmare was over before it got really bad.

He had seldom been so wrong in his life.

Jane and Tony were not stupid. They knew that racing would give them a maximum of half a minute. In the worst case, the attacker would be threatened and shoot right away. So, they stared at him. Tony's hand pressed against the gaping and bleeding bullet wound below Loki's collarbone. The boy was trembling and whining, but Tony would not remember that. As the second and third shots fell, Tony felt the blood splash on his face before he understood what had happened.

He screamed and tried to run for the man, but then he himself felt the unbearable pain and stumbled to the floor. Jane yelled something, but something heavy landed on Tony's temple.

"It is still not clear how the people got out of school. Jane and I were unconscious. Nobody knows whether we got locked up in the small room a few hours or days later. Nobody knows anymore."

Tony swallowed and felt the unbearable pain come through him again. If had he immediately noticed that the people wanted him alive, he would have thrown him on top of Loki, then he would never have died. Then he would never have lost one of the only four friends he had at the time. Pepper's arm on his shoulder gave him a reassuring squeeze.

"The news covered that I went to that school, but the focus was on a senior. The son of the governor of New York. And my father had made sure that my disappearance did not attract attention. When it came out that Loki and I had occasionally spent time together, he was naturally asked by the press how I dealt with the attack. He had claimed that I was temporarily in Europe for security reasons. That I worked at StarkIndustries as an intern."

Pepper mumbled something that sounded like "ass," but Tony went on. He could not really stop himself.

"The room where Jane and I were was small, rectangular and had a barred window. Well. It wasn’t really a window. It was open. If we had been bigger, we probably would have been able to look out. We always thought we could escape through that window.

But we were both hurt. I because I got shot and because of the - well, they hit, kicked. And Jane, because ... "

Tony stopped.

His voice trembled and he wiped his hand over his eyes.

The storm stopped outside and the cold air whipped on Tony's bare skin, which was covered in blood and crust. He could barely see all the stains that had to be pictured. Still, he did not dare to go to the drier side of the room. The sniffing was still going on.

Tony cringed and wanted to scream. Why had he been so stupid?

He should now know enough not to do such mistakes. He had destroyed every last hope of getting out of the room alive.

"What happened?", Pepper asked after a while when Tony had stopped. He stared at the wall.

"They raped Jane. Over and over again. But that day I couldn’t stand it anymore. Jane was mentally destroyed. I told them to... to take me."

A shiver ran down Tony's spine when he remembered thinking that he was going to die.

He'd never experienced homophobia on his own, but after that, he made sure that he’d never come out.

"You want to feel my cock in you, you damned bastard? Are you a fagot? No wonder your father isn't fucking paying for you."

That was the sentence that was the least bad. In hindsight, Tony was not sure whether he was beaten and kicked for ten minutes, or for an hour or ten hours. It has never been so bad. In the end, two men held him upright, dislocating his arm as he watched Jane being raped, worse than ever.

After that, she had collapsed and crawled to the dry side of the room. She didn’t look at Tony but screamed as he approached her to comfort the girl.

He shook his head. Emotions squeezed his throat. He’d never been the victim. That's why he was still alive. He had only been the reason why Jane and Loki had to suffer.

He had suffered the least, though he had been the cause of all the violence. He would never understand why everything was so unfair.

How people could go to church and pray to a god when it was so obvious that injustice always existed? And it was so cruel. So incredibly cruel.

"One of the people left us small materials every now and then. I could build some kind of a little bomb. We bombed our way out of the window and fled. Once, some of them were just a few yards away from our hiding place under that wet bush. We found a village and could call the police from there. We were in this damn house for one and a half months.” His voice broke and he felt the tears again. “And nobody had noticed us. One and a half months."

He tried to wipe the tears away, but he trembled too bad. He had dreamed of that. The cold, wet stone floor that had been his bed for so long. The beating, the kicking. The blame. Jane was rarely beaten, but what had been done to her was worse than anything Tony could ever have imagined.

Pepper took him in his arms. "What happened to Jane?", she whispered.  She knew he had no contact with any Jane.

Tony shook his head. "She was told if she aborted, she'd be a murderer. So many people told her that shit. She didn’t want to have anything to do with me, but Thor has told me twice."

Tony shook his head crying. How many lives had he destroyed? He could remember the anger in Thor's voice when he called him, just to know how Jane was doing.

"She took her life two months after we came back."

Jane’s mom had called him and Thor had phoned him a week later and told him what happened in three sentences. Since then they had no contact anymore. He returned to Norway with his family and lived there ever since.

Tony knew he was to blame for everything. There was never a nationwide search because Howard Stark said Tony was abroad. And no one that was not called Stark could financially survive such a big search party.

The police had searched for them, but only with pictures of Jane. And nobody worried about the unknown Jane Foster, the child of two academics. Everyone was worried about Tony Stark. The outcry was big when he had to repeat his junior year “because of his stay abroad - because he could not do his final exams”.

'Is the prodigy Tony Stark not as intelligent as you think?'

‘The Albert Einstein of the 21st century has been predicted to do great - now he repeats his junior year. Was everything just a big hoax?’

And while Tony Stark was only allowed to attend therapy online, the world wondered if their super-genius was not as smart as expected.

No one knew he could have gone to college at the age of eight, and probably graduated with top marks. Nobody knew that Maria Stark wanted to protect her son until that point. Nobody knew that Tony was not allowed to go to psychotherapy because the strength of the Starks was not allowed to be called into question. Nobody knew that Tony died inside.

 

It took the help of Rhodey, who secretly visited for several weeks, and Edwin Jarvis before Tony, for the first time in half a year, truly understood that he was not to blame for the deaths of two teenagers.

He still often believed that it should have hit him - he had been the target after all. He should be dead, not Jane and Loki. But he understood that he could not have done anything differently. In the situations he had been in, it had been right to act as he did.

The bleeding Loki - hand on the wound. Don’t cover the body with your own, that makes everything worse.

Repeated rape - offer yourself, give Jane a chance to recover. How could he have known that it made things worse?

Rhodey had done a lot of work bringing these questions into his head.

 

"I think it's the wetness and cold that makes me think of it so often right now," Tony said quietly at some point. "I'm sorry that I woke you. I wanted to be quiet. I can handle it myself. And. Oh. If you think differently of me now, then I can understand that. Then you just have to tell me and I'll go." He looked at his hands in his lap, didn’t dare to look up.

Pepper shook her head quickly.

"You are not going anywhere. You can always wake me up at night if you dream something like that. You can always ask for help."

She was quiet for a moment. "Who else knows the whole story?"

"Only you, my dad, Rhodey and me. Oh, and Thor, but I have no contact with him anymore."

"Natasha, Banner, Clint, Bucky don’t know?"

"They don’t even know that Hammer and the others are being dicks at school," smiled Tony bitterly. “I for sure didn’t tell them that.”

Pepper nodded his head. "Okay. Thank you for telling me. I won’t tell anyone else, I promise."

Tony believed her. “Thanks.”

Nearly two hours later, Tony fell asleep while hugging Pepper.

Chapter Text

After this conversation, everything changed between them. This invisible barrier, which had always been there, was gone.

Between Christmas and New Year's Eve, Pepper and Tony flew with Rhodey to California. Again, Tony missed James and Steve in New York, but they chatted a lot. They celebrated Christmas at the Jarvisses’ house. They even got to decorate the Christmas tree together – something Tony and Rhodey did for two years now. He still had to work a lot. The condition that he was allowed to fly away for ten whole days was that he improved two of StarkIndustries’ robots and one AI that was going to be built in in the third generation of Stark-Cars. His father even called at the 25th.

“Good morning,” Tony had said quietly, thinking that Howard found a reason to get him home.

“Anthony,” his father had answered.

Tony had made strange eyes at Rhodey and Pepper who were sitting across their big, shared bedroom at the king-sized bed.

Howard was quiet for a second, then he said: “Merry Christmas.”

Tony’s eyebrows shot up in surprise and he answered: “Merry Christmas to you, too, dad. Are you alright?”

“Yeah,” Howard had answered. Then he was quiet for another couple of seconds. Tony didn’t dare to say something. “So,” Howard finally continued, breaking that awkward pause, “how are your projects going?”

“Oh, great,” Tony had said, relieved that he had something to talk about. “I think I’ll have that first bot finished by tomorrow evening and the AI is not too bad already. That will just need improvements that’ll take a day or so.”

He imagined Howard nodding on the other end of the line. “Good,” he then said. “I expect it all to be perfect when you return. I’m not in New York on the 3rd, though,” he continued. That wasn’t unexpected. “There will be someone bringing you home from the airport.”

He seemed to consider saying something else, but then finished that call with a simple “Goodbye, Anthony,” to which Tony himself wasn’t even able to answer before that noise rang through his phone indicating that his father had ended the call.

“So, that was wierd”, he had said to his two friends, but wasn’t able to think more about it as Ana Jarvis walked in their room, telling them that they could come to help cooking lunch – Tony had told them about their first try of baking something and Ana had back then promised to teach them how to cook real good.

Overall, Tony spent much more time with Pepper than ever, feeling safer and more reserved in her presence. He had the feeling of being understood. She was after Rhodey and maybe Jarvis the third person who really understood him.

Tony didn’t know that this group of good friends would expand dramatically at the morning of the 11th of January. When he woke up on Saturday, he only had little to do. Pepper was on a birthday party with her family and his father wasn’t in New York. Only Obie was there, but he didn’t really bother Tony at all. The day before, he had even put a pizza in the oven for them to eat together (which was admittedly an awkward dinner, since neither of them really had much to talk about – Tony was pissed at Howard for being a dick at Wednesday and since Obie had supported him and tried to explain to Tony that fucking shoving your own kid that hard that his fucking occiput starts bleeding was a normal and totally acceptable form of parenting, he was pissed at Obie, too).

So, he opened Twitter and read through his timeline.

James had mentioned him under a video showing an elephant calf knocking over a woman, which was actually really cute. Tony retweeted that video and sent to James a quick ‘Thanks for showing me was the internet was meant to provide. This is totally better than any cat video!’

He read that Clint had indignantly responded to a tweet from the President by quoting.

 

@POTUS

Grief and prayers to the victims of the rampage yesterday in Indianapolis.

The eighth killing spree at an American school this year. That is NOT acceptable. We must talk about the equipment of the teachers! They need to be able to protect the students in an emergency.

 

@POTUS: Replying to @POTUS

The same applies to private individuals. The safety of immigrants, especially refugees, should be determined. How many perpetrators are from the Middle East?

 

@archerclint

excuse me wtf. how often do we have to show statistics that compare the united states with other countries where weapons are not that often sold? how many children still have to die before we get new gun laws? wtf.

 

@archerclint: Replying to @archerclint

and how many children still have to be separated from their parents in camps, and how many young people still have to die from our fucking bombs in syria before politicians open a fucking history book and start thinking. wtf.

 

Tony stared blankly at his cell phone. Then he pressed the president's profile and read his tweets carefully, twice.

Tony didn’t like him. Never did. He found him too unworldly and uneducated, but he didn’t hate him as much as other people did. He also didn’t follow him on Twitter, but when he read his Tweets, he often thought that his opinions were totally wrong.

He said that abortions were against religious foundations, that borders should be raised or international relations terminated by provocations. He did not think that was okay.

But this tweet let him falter. He could not seriously demand more weapons.

Without thinking much about it, Tony pressed the plus to write a tweet himself.

 

@IronMan

Hey, @POTUS. I know that you are not interested in my opinion. I am one of the children who cannot form their own opinion because they are still too young. You know what? Bullshit.

 

@IronMan: Replying to @IronMan

I have just read your tweets. You want to bring more weapons to schools? May I tell you something? It's a stupid idea.

I myself became a victim of armed violence at school. I cannot even get a driver's license, and I'll prove to you that you just didn’t think.

 

@IronMan: Replying to @IronMan

When I was 13, I had to watch a friend get shot and die. I have experienced the atrocious consequences of armed force. A friend of mine took her life at the age of 17 because she couldn’t deal with the violence she had experienced.

And she has not pulled the trigger, never. She just watched it happen.

 

@IronMan: Replying to @IronMan

So, what do you think happens when you pull the trigger yourself? Does it save you? No. It destroys life. Not only literally that of the person who is hit with the projectile. Also your own and those of the people who have to watch. Who are forced to watch.

 

@IronMan: Replying to @IronMan

Do you know what's a stupid idea? More weapons. We have to take them back now. We have to handle violence now.

 

@IronMan: Replying to @IronMan

And how can you leave your second tweet stand like this? How is it possible that one of the most powerful men in the world openly agitates against a group of people from a certain region?

Any violence that I experienced in my life came from white Americans.

 

@IronMan: Replying to @IronMan

I've been beaten by my father all my life. Since I can think. Several times I thought that I would die. He’s an American.

The guy who shot my friend was an American, born and raised in NYC.

 

@IronMan: Replying to @IronMan

The parents of my other friend were Americans. She had been raped and experienced heavy violence but also the psychological pressure from her parents that abortions would be murder drove her into committing suicide.

 

@IronMan: Replying to @IronMan

I have not even graduated high school and I can tell you that you are so wrong in so many ways.

But you are my president, you represent me as a citizen of this country. And I ask you to delete these tweets, remove these statements from the web & think before you talk & write

 

@IronMan: Replying to @IronMan

There are people out there who do not have the intellect to think and realize that your tweets were total mental diarrhea. People that want to see the teachers of their children armed without thinking about whose lives will be destroyed with even more weapons.

 

@IronMan: Replying to @IronMan

There are people who are now against Muslims because they cannot distinguish between religion and religious fanaticism. Who will be attacking innocents, physically and psychologically.

As a victim of bullying, I can promise you that it will lead to frustration, violence or mental illness.

 

@IronMan: Replying to @IronMan

In the name of all those who, like me, are survivors of terrible acts of violence - the only people who can say what happens when guns are pushed in front of you, when you think you will not come home that day, never again - I ask you:

 

@IronMan: Replying to @IronMan

Delete these tweets. Work on laws that will take the weapons from the people. Do not condemn groups of people, but end the lack of perspective of those who tend to be violent. Think before you speak.

 

When Tony finished his last tweet, his hands were trembling. He didn’t know why he wrote that. He was anonymous, yes. He was safe. And he was angry. So incredibly angry that someone who could not understand him wanted to destroy so many lives.

He closed his eyes for a moment, then saw that his phone was flooded by notifications. Someone with many followers had retweeted him and the thread had already become a self-runner.

'want to talk?' His cell phone flashed with a message from Natasha. 'you could have said something all the time. when can i come and beat your parents up?'

'It's okay, thanks,' Tony answered quickly. ‘I do not even know why I wrote that. Sorry, that I never said anything before.'

,is opkay. i get you. i never told you that as a child, i grew up in an orphanage where we were forcibly evicted.'

,I'm sorry'

,nothing to be sorry for. happened a long time ago. you need space?'

,Yeah, probably. Thank you so much.'

 


 

 

It took less than forty-five minutes for Rhodey to call him and spend four hours talking to him. Tony conscientiously ignored Twitter, knowing that the thread was read and shared across America and around the world.

 


 

 

,u want to talk now? the offer from november is still relevant '

,Hey james. sorry that I lied then'

,is alright. i can give u my number if u want so we can talk?'

‘Dont want to bother you. You sure have something to do right now'

'id like to fly to new york and meet anyone who has even looked at you the wrong way for a nice little chat. i am currently planning mostly illegal things. i really have nothing else to do.'

,okay'

 

Tony touched his hair. He was a little drained from the day. Pepper had just entered the conversation with Rhodey earlier, and in between Tony had a brief breakdown, wondering how he could be foolish enough to post such a thing.

If ever it came out that he was Tony Stark, he was finished. Pepper and Rhodey had tried to reassure him as best they could over the phone. At one point he just wanted to work, but eventually, he opened Twitter because he wanted to know if James had reacted in any way.

Bruce had written him a few small words via text message and said he could call anytime he needed help, and Jarvis knew it anyway.

When Natasha had written, he had been sure that Clint had sat there, too.

Only James had not written anything and that had made him panic.

Now he slowly typed the other's number into his cell phone and wrote "James" over it. He took a deep breath.

If James really meant it, they would talk for the first time. For the first time, Tony would hear the other ones’ voice. He was the only one on Twitter with whom he often chatted, whose voice he had never heard.

He trembled a little on the hand when he finally pressed the green button. He did not know why. He did not even know why he called. He was tired and drained and had already discussed everything with Rhodey and Pepper.

"Hey," he suddenly heard a gentle voice on the other end of the line.

Tony remained silent, his breath caught. Does my voice even sound deep? I'm still practically a child. Stupid thoughts, but they came.

"Tony?"

He cleared his throat. "Hey," he replied, only hoping that his voice did not sound as hollow and panicky as he felt.

His heart was pounding.

"Hey, is it really okay that we talk? We don’ have to, I understand that," James began, realizing that Tony could not answer.

"No, no," Tony said immediately and his voice finally came back to normal. He was red in the face. "Sorry."

"'s fine. You just sounded a bit ... I don' know."

"Wasn't prepared for the Brooklyn accent," Tony defended quickly, too fast. He talked too fast. Did he just insult James? He could not help the way he talked. Oh God.

The other one laughed. So warm and gentle. "It gets stronger when I'm nervous."

"Oh," Tony replied very intelligently. Why was James nervous? "Why are you nervous?"

"Oh, I'm talking to a Twitter star," the other laughed, and Tony thought he heard that James was not serious about that answer. Tony did not answer. But if he meant the answer seriously, and only called him now, because today he had received nearly 80,000 likes on his own Tweet? If he liked him only because of the notoriety? Tony's eyes grew big as he panicked again.

Had he imagined a friendship where there was none?

"No," James said suddenly, and Tony thought he heard him laugh again. "I actually just didn’t think that I could get your number that easily. Well, I mean, we have not been writing that long yet." James seemed a bit embarrassed. "Sorry if I talk a lot. You are unexpectedly silent."

Tony took a quick breath. "I'm sorry. I'm just a bit overwhelmed - no, not overwhelmed. I just didn’t think I’d be listening to your voice - I mean, to you. It was a busy day."

James confirmed with a simple sound.

"You sound older than 15," James suddenly realized. Tony thought he wanted to talk to him about the tweets. The statement hit him unexpectedly. "You're somehow more eloquent, and kind of surer than most of the other 15-year-olds I've talked to."

"Well, I'm almost 16," Tony replied, creating a brief laugh from James.

"Oh yeah, the difference between 15 and 16 is huge."

"At 16, I'm allowed to drive here, at least with company. And in many states, I can then legally have sex. So, please. And in some placed all over the world, I could buy some sorts of alcohol legally."

"That's important, of course," laughed James. "I understand. With 16, you are a big boy."

"You sound so sarcastic. Should I take that as an insult?"

"Oh God, please don’t. See it as a compliment. I said you sound a lot older. You don’t seem to be like all the other kids out there."

"Well, first of all," Tony said and laughed a little, "thanks. Second; you are barely older yourself, aren’t you?"

"I'm 18," James said and had so much pride in his voice. Tony was sure he was completely sarcastic again. "I am practically the king of the world. Everywhere else in the world I could buy almost any alcohol legally!"

"Wow, that's really awesome. Can I get an autograph? How can I send you fan mail?"

"Just to the city hall in Boston. They know me there. The White House also accepts the mail, only takes longer when they then send it to me."

"I see. Can I send out a royal brigade and send you gold and diamonds as gifts for your incredibility?"

"Oh, yeah, that’s always totally fine," James laughed, sounding so happy. Tony had blushed again, but he couldn’t remove the permanent grin from his face. He didn’t understand why. After all, he had almost identically stupid conversations with Rhodey almost every day and then he was not grinning like the A+ high school teenage movie girl.

It was certainly because James was someone completely new to talk with.

"Did you read Banner's article about the gamma-ray explosions in space?" James asked after a brief pause, Tony just grinning at the wall opposite him, hoping that James would say something because his brain seemed to stop working.

His eyes lit up. "Oh yes!" he said excitedly. "That was an incredibly interesting article! Although a little broken down, as far as the actual phenomenon, but incredibly well written!"

James made a chuckling sound. "I’m always fascinated by how easy everything is for you. Did you read the comments below?"

"No, why?"

James laughed again, so free, so happy.

"There was a flatearthler," he said laughingly and Tony grinned. "You wouldn’t believe his arguments."

Tony sat down more comfortably on his bed. He had, when he was eleven, finally read a discussion of the Flatearthlers and had become so angry that some of these people actually got through college, that he never wanted to read anything from a flatearthler again. But he was calmer than he had been the whole day, just because of listening to James. He did not even have to say much.

When he talked with Rhodey or Pepper, he always said the most. Now, he just listened to James. That had to be the reason why he was so relaxed all at once.

"Tell me."

"The best argument was, I think," said James and laughed already, "that some rivers can also flow to the north. But since water always flows downhill, that should not work. He said: educate yourself on gravity!”

James chuckled for a few seconds and Tony shook his head, grinning. "Oh my god."

“Yeah, right? And he also said that sentences like ‘Luke, I'm your father’ from Star Wars were never said. ‘No, I am your father’ would be correct. So, what if it was drummed into the collective memory of humanity that the world was a globe. And that only since the times of Columbus!"

"Total nonsense," Tony laughed. "Not only because it was long before Columbus that they knew that the earth is something like a sphere."

"And," James laughed, "his grandfather or someone was a boatman and never came back from an expedition to the Antarctic. Thus, it is clear that the US government has left him there so that he cannot spread the information that the earth is ending somewhere."

"Oh god," Tony laughed, feeling that anger again. That some people could trample science like that! It made him feel sick to the stomach!

"It was definitely fun to read the comments," James said again, and Tony's heart leaped a little as a certain laugh sounded. Because he just needed to laugh today, that's why.

"I talked to someone like that once," Tony admitted. "After that, I was afraid that my brain cells had died away."

"After having such discussions, one should consult a doctor within three days. That’s what we should be taught in school! That we need to see neurologists," James said, laughing. "He can then have reasonable discussions with you so that not everything dies up there."

"Oh no, my doctors are always so unreasonable!" Tony complained laughing. He had already completely repressed what had happened in the morning of the day. "They always say such stupid things like ‘Go to sleep earlier, you’ll feel healthier,’ or ‘Too much coffee will harm you, Mr. Stark,’ or ‘No, just a pizza for the whole weekend is not enough!’ I’m sure they all just bought their diploma. They couldn’t have achieved them the normal way when they say those stupid things!"

Tony laughed before he heard that James went completely silent.

"Hey, you all right?" he asked because the other suddenly didn’t say anything at all. "Did I say something wrong? Nothing against doctors, they're really - oh."

Tony's breath stopped immediately. All blood shot out of his head and swallowing was suddenly very hard. "Oh," he repeated, trying to press the red button on his display with his suddenly ice-cold fingers, but they were shaking so much.

"Sorry," James said suddenly. "Sorry, I was just a little ... uh, that was unexpected."

"God, I didn’t mean to say that. Sorry. I don’t know why I said that, that's not my name, that's the name of mine - forget it. Okay. Sorry. I hang up. It was really cool, though. Talking to you. Thank you. Thanks for the call, sorry."

Tony just muttered to himself and cursed his body for reacting so badly.

"No," James called, but Tony had finally hit the red button.

He stared at his cell phone and threw himself on his bed screaming a moment later. How could he be so stupid?

"Too much coffee will hurt you, Mr. Stark. Mr. Stark!" he exclaimed in frustration. So stupid!

Of course, James was shocked to hear on the phone that he had kept his identity secret throughout the past year. Of course. And perhaps he also felt an aversion against the rich. James didn’t have much, Tony knew that. He had messed it up!

He screamed again and thumped his bed with his fist, but it did not hurt. Of course not. After briefly pressing his hands to his eyes, he grabbed a pillow and yelled into it. He behaved like a small child, but he did not care at the moment. He messed up. He had betrayed him.

"Shit," he shouted and scrambled to his feet. 'Shit,' he wrote to Rhodey, ignoring Twitter's messages.

'I messed up’

It took less than eight seconds for Rhodey's picture to appear on his cell phone and Tony took the call in a deep breath.

"Do I need shovels and knives, or is it more about medical care?" Rhodey said immediately. Tony could see the other man was watching him closely, but Tony shook his head. He cleared his throat.

"I messed up," he said, throwing himself back on his bed. "Shit," he yelled.

"You want to tell me what exactly you did? Then I can decide what resources I need."

"You can’t do anything. I don’t even know why I called you. Fuck. I'm stupid, so stupid!"

Tony pressed a hand to his eye again. Rhodey groaned.

"Does it have anything to do with Bucky?" he asked and Tony stiffened.

"How do you…?"

"He's texting to me panicky that I should tell you to check your Twitter or WhatsApp."

Tony stayed lying. Checking his phone to hear how disrespectful it is to lie that long?

"What did you do?"

Tony shook his head. "I was stupid. We talked. I said that I'm Tony Stark. Shit!"

Rhodey sighed again. "And the conversation stopped immediately, I suppose? Since when do you even have his number?"

"Since today! That makes it even worse. I have his number for fifteen minutes and what am I doing? I tell him in the face that I lied for a whole fucking year!"

Tony could not stop his heart from beating faster and making him sick. He felt like crying.

"And did it occur to you that Bucky doesn’t think about you as bad as you imagine right now?"

"He suddenly went completely quiet and said that he had not expected that from me." Tony put the phone next to him and closed both eyes. He messed this thing up. The conversation was so great, James’ voice was so great, James was so great!

And he? Destroyed what might have been.

"And what if he was just shocked by the new information and actually didn’t expect the situation?"

"What?"

Tony could practically hear Rhodey rolling his eyes. "He's practically spamming me with messages. He says you misunderstood him. He definitely wants to keep talking to you. Why would he do that if he were deeply disappointed and shocked by you?"

"To tell me how shitty I am?"

"Tony," Rhodey moaned almost annoyed. "Do you actually think he would do that?"

The younger one did not answer. Instead, he took his hands from his eyes and stared at his ceiling, which was just showing the cloudy sky. He took a deep breath.

"It's so bad when I'm right, right, Tones?"

Again, Tony did not answer.

"Call him back now and text me how it went. Don’t dare not to do so! I’ll know that."

"Wait," Tony shouted, but Rhodey had already hung up.

With wide eyes, he looked at his cell phone, which only showed the lock screen. He had received more than twenty messages from James.

Tony stared at the screen and got nervous. Even if James did not hate him for his secrecy, he would now actually regard him as the weak child he was; the child who ran away from his problems, instead of facing confrontation.

Tony never ran away from unpleasant situations, never. Why was he doing this for the first time with James? Was he really so weak that he could not even handle the dislike of a slightly older boy?

"Fuck," he mumbled. His cell phone lit up and showed him the name "James". Tony closed his eyes and waited three seconds.

Then he took a deep breath and pressed the green button. He said nothing but stared at the display. It was quiet on the other end of the line.

"Tony?", someone then said and the deep voice fastened Tony’s breathing again. "Tony?"

"Sorry," he suddenly squeezed out. "I didn’t mean to lie. Only once I didn’t have the public following me discussing every word I say and - and I also didn’t just want to go, sorry. I don’t know why I did that. Oh God. How much do you wanna have?"

He had turned pale. At least he knew now why James had called him again. Tony’s hands were shaking and he was cold.

"What?" James asked.

"How much?"

"What do you mean, ‘How much’?"

"Doller, for fucks sake!" Tony yelled in frustration. "How much do you want, so you don’t tell anyone? I have just 10,000 that I could send quickly, after that I can - "

"What the fuck, Tony?" James shouted. "What do you think who I am? A venal idiot?"

Tony breathed in panic. Then he became calm. He had the underhand. "What is it you want? I can certainly get an internship at the Bio - "

"Tony, no!" James shouted again, but this time there was frustration in his voice. "The fuck do you think I want to have?"

Tony did not answer.

"Do you think I would tell anyone who you are? Especially after the tweets today?"

Tony sat frozen to a pillar on the soft, huge bed.

"Obviously, you don’t want anyone to know. What I can understand. I'm sorry if I shocked you or anything. But I'm not saying that to anymore. Did you seriously believe that?"

He sounded angry. "Sorry," Tony muttered. He did not know what to believe. His thoughts circled. He doesn’t want to sell the information?

James calmed down, he tried to say something but then quickly stopped himself. His breathing was faster than before, though. But he obviously tried to stop yelling. He was so angry.

I can play the game too, thought a little voice in Tony's head. There is no way he wants nothing for that information. It's too easy to sell. He is only human. He would even be dumb if he didn't do anything with his newly gained knowledge. Tony stared at his ceiling. No, he answered his other voice in his head. He is human, that's why he doesn't want to sell the information. And: There is no way I deserve that.

"Well, that was fun," Tony then said and continued to sit up. If you trust someone other than yourself, only you are to blame for failure, his father had once told him. Tony did not know what that meant then. Today, the sentence could be important.

"So," James said, calmer and with a much lower voice than just before, "we just talked about your doctors. A guy who lives a few blocks down the street studies medicine in his first semester and constantly diagnoses everyone with the strangest illnesses."

Tony could not quite understand what James wanted to achieve, but the young man just went on to talk about his classmates. It took Tony another ten minutes before he was willing to believe that James really didn’t want to harm him. After thirty minutes of listening to James rambling about college and his life, with him just occasionally saying something, he was grinningly lying on his bed, feeling comfortable and barely even forget about what was just about to destroy everything.

“Why don’t you want something?” he suddenly said.

“What?” James said, sounding confused. “I want a lot. I want to go back to Europe once, I want to have free health care, I want to see humanity going to Mars, I want – a lot, actually. What do you mean?”

Tony sighed. “I meant: Why didn’t you want my money? Why do you talk like nothing had happened?”

James was quiet for a moment. “Actually, I do talk like something has happened. I’m normally not that talkative. I’m more the quiet kind of guy. But I figured you needed something else to focus on today? I can talk less if you want.”

“No, no,” Tony quickly intervened. “That’s not what I meant. I’m fascinated by your story, actually. I meant, why didn’t you talk about… what happened?”

“What happened?” James asked. “You just told some of the worst parts of your life basically the whole world. Then I shocked you by making you think I’m only here for – for what? Fame? Money? Whatever you thought. For whatever reason.”

“Sorry.”

“No, 's fine. I just thought you’d trust me more, already. But, it’s okay, really. I wouldn’t trust strangers from the internet, neither, if I was as famous as you are.”

“No, I trust you!” Tony said quickly. “I just didn’t expect you to be okay with that. There aren't many people who are.”

James was quiet for a moment. “Who else knows? Rhodey and Pepper must know. I guess Natasha knows as well?”

“No, she and Clint don’t. At least, I didn’t tell them yet. Didn’t want to lose them.” He mumbled the last part.

James sighed. “Why do you think would they care? They love you. Like, I guess, many people do. From all I know you are one of the most – like, I mean, you are super nice and smart and stuff. They wouldn’t care.”

Tony shrugged. “Jarvis knows, that’s it. I didn’t even tell Banner, even though I met him when I was younger.”

“Okay,” said James. He sounded a bit bewildered by that. “I didn’t want money or some shit, because I’m your friend,” he then answered Tony’s second question. “Of course, I didn’t want anything. Is that was your friends at school or wherever do? Demanding money?”

“Remember that I wrote something about being bullied, James?”, Tony said and realised that James got quiet. “Yeah.” The 'I have no friends at school' was silent.

“Well, now that you know that I don’t want to take advantage of you, let’s go back to that girl from my maths class. Okay, so she was coming to classes late, like, always,” James started again after a brief silence between them.

Tony laid back down on his bed and listened to James’ story. Maybe, writing those Tweets wasn’t all that stupid.

Chapter Text

‘I need your help right now’ texted Tony in the group chat with Rhodey and Pepper at the end of January. ‘Bruce will be in New York for a science fair in February. I'm here as well. What should I do?'

'Meet him?'  Pepper answered immediately.

‘Yeah, but then he’ll know who I am!'

‘I'm pretty sure that a physics professor who has been chatting with one of the most intelligent and physics-minded teenagers who also is about the same age as Tony Stark and named Tony himself, who also lives in the same city as him, knows with whom he really chats.'

Tony stared at his cell phone. That could not be true.

'I think you've just brought new information to Tony, Pep.' Rhodey wrote, sending a few laughing emojis.

If Bruce knew, why had he never mentioned it? He could have invited him to give lectures or ask for help or equipment for the university. Bruce could not know.

'No, he doesn’t know who I am. He’s never written something that implies taht'

‘Yes. Of course he doesnt know, Tony. Believe it if you want.'

‘Just meet him. You both will have a lot of fun’

Tony stared blankly at his cell phone. The two had to be wrong. Then he opened the chat he had with Bruce. He stared at the question the scientist had asked him. Tony felt how he started to panic. He had chatted way more with Bruce in the last couple of weeks. Just after he sent those Tweets at the beginning of January, Bruce seemed to ask him more often questions or discuss thesis with him.

All of his friends from Twitter – he was now sure that they were friends – did more with him since then. He talked with James on the phone three times since then and he had a deep conversation with Clint about what comes after death. Natasha had made him swear that if his dad would ever hurt him again, he would call her.

But none of them knew who he was – none except for James, of course. Bruce didn’t know, he was sure of that. And if he met him and he’d find out just then? Tony cringed just thinking about a situation like that.

If Bruce knew who he was, their friendship could go either way. They could have even deeper conversations or Bruce could use his knowledge against him. What he wouldn’t do, told Tony himself.

His fingers trembled anyways when he put them on his keyboard.

‘Hey Bruce. Yes, I’m in NY at that time’ he wrote. He tried to add something but deleted what he was thinking, waiting for Bruce to answer.

‘Very nice. I look forward to meeting you.', Bruce had answered immediately.

‘Cool. But I have to tell you something now before it gets weird. Because you'll know it anyways when you see me’ Tony sent the message and felt he was getting even more nervous.

Bruce did not reply anything.

'I am Tony Stark.' Very pragmatic, Tony, so smooth, a sarcastic voice inside of his head said.

He waited nearly twenty seconds for an answer and was already nervous when suddenly a message came in again.

'And when will you tell me the weird news?'

Tony's eyebrows shot up. Rhodey and Pepper could not possibly have been right.

'You know who I am?'

'Rhodey just texted me that you didn’t know that I knew you were Tony Stark.'

'But I never told you!' Tony was confused. Confused as hell, as James would say now, sending him that meme that he created himself. Tony giggled when he thought of that but then concentrated on this conversation again.

‘But I am a physicist. And I chatted with a boy who has a bigger understanding of physics than all my students and, in many areas, more than me. And he's fifteen and is going to MIT next year. There are not many Tony “I-don’t-want-to-tell-you-my-surname-but-I-won’t-say-why”s in New York.'

'Why did you never say anything?'

'What should I have said?'

Tony was confused. ‘Something along the lines of "Can you send me equipment for my lectures?”’

'Do you think I’d do that?'

‘No. Of course not. I don’t know. I just didn’t think youd know. It’s really no problem for you? I seem to attract a lot of paparazzi sometimes'

‘Absolutely no problem. I'm looking forward to February.'

Tony was rarely so confused in his life.

 


 

@DrBanner

One puts years of blood, sweat, and tears into studying physics, gets several doctorates and still doesn’t understand teenagers in their thinking processes. It’s humiliating.

 

@H4rleyK33n3r: Replying to @DrBanner

Hey doc, i'm happy to help you learn about our thinking schematics. I'm just in the experimental age, sacrificing myself to spend a day with u. Or a week. Or month.

 

@SpiderParker: Replying to @DrBanner @H4rleyK33n3r

Oh, many mindsets of teens change when others are around. Only in order to be able to study people our age effectively, I would sacrifice myself to join the experimental group.

 

@H4rleyK33n3r: Replying to @DrBanner @SpiderParker

Oh fuck yeah. My favorite peter joins me. Cause of all the likes on my first tweet i feel famous enough to ask @IronMan; you are in our age as well, arent u? How aewsome would it be if you joined the experiment?

 

@SpiderParker: Replying to @DrBanner @H4rleyK33n3r @SpiderParker

Oh my god, sorry, Tony and Dr. Banner for Harley's behavior. I always tell him he shouldn’t be so overenthusiastic, but what can I say? Whenever I try to stop him from demanding rude things, he shoots me with a potatoe gun (!) the next time we meet.

  


 

On the second Friday of February Tony became nervous during school. His thoughts drifted away again and again. During first period, he had repeatedly received the disapproving looks of his English teacher, because he, unlike otherwise, could not answer after obviously not listening.

In his history class, he really didn’t care about the importance of the US army in Vietnam. It was clearly less important than the existence of black and white holes. When he derived the Maxwell equations in math instead of doing his algebra, just to make sure he had not forgotten them, his teacher became angry.

So far, he had always been able to rely on the fact that at least one student pursued his lessons, or at least understood what he did. With Tony's mental absence, he had to fight the unpleasant quietness after he asked a question.

"Mr. Stark! If you don't care about this class, why are you even attending? Put your phone away or I'll have to take it."

"'m sorry, Mr. Coulson. There's just something about this whole topic that is... I don't know. Irrelevant for me right now?"

The class laughed and his teacher looked startled. "How about you start working on your manners except for... what are you even doing there?"

"I'm only working on the most important equations of classical electromagnetism, just, you know. To actually get my brain occupied."

His teacher looked so pissed, Tony didn't know how he didn't get detention. But the class laughed and given that no one else answered Mr. Coulson's questions as well, he seemed to let go and take this defeat. He every so often looked at Tony during his class, hoping to find him paying attention so that he could actually continue teaching.

 

In their joint French lesson, Pepper rammed her elbow into Tony's side as he was called and did not respond.

He replied stammering and then went on to read the article on Artificial Intelligence and its already experienced dangers, but Pepper took his tablet from him.

"Hey," he complained. "I need that."

"You are unnecessarily stressed about this, Tony," Pepper said, rolling her eyes. "You read that all because Banner’s coming today, right?"

"Yes, and I don’t want to be the stupid one in the conversations because I preferred to talk about ‘The Intouchables’ instead of dealing with important issues."

"You don’t need that," Pepper assured and was asked by the teacher to be quiet. "You know all of that anyways. And even if you don’t, Banner will certainly not be angry with you just because you don’t know everything he knows at the age of fifteen." She emphasized the last word.

"You underestimate me, my dear Pepper."

"Uh, now it starts again."

"I'm just saying..."

"Stop stressing yourself."

"Hmm."

"When will you meet him?"

Tony looked at his watch. He had talked to his father yesterday and told him that he wanted to meet with a professor from Cambridge who was giving several lectures at the big New York Fair. In fact, his father had even listened to him attentively and allowed him to use the chauffeur service to pick Bruce up from the airport.

"I'll drive to the restaurant after school. It’s not worth it for me to go home between school and meeting him."

Pepper nodded and answered when her teacher asked her something.

 


 

When Tony saw that the cold February sun was mostly covered by clouds, he decided to wait inside the school building. His driver had texted him that he was delayed because of an accident in which he had to provide first aid, otherwise, he would have been there long ago. So instead of going out, Tony trudged back to his locker and tried to throw as many unnecessary things out of his backpack as possible so he would have as little weight as possible.

His eyes fell on his almost empty inside of the locker. Only the stupid sticker that Rhodey had given him for his fourteenth birthday hung there, and a signed autograph from NASA astronaut Chris Hardfield, whom Tony had met at an event a few years ago.

"Stark," a female voice called to him and Tony threw the door closed before turning around.

"What?" he asked. Wanda Maximoff stood at the end of the hall; her arms crossed. She had been the only one who really hated Tony before he was put back in their grade.

"Didn’t think I would see you here," she replied. Tony noticed that her accent had subsided significantly since they last talked.

"Aha," Tony replied, staring at her. "Let other people do the thinking then, Maximoff."

Wanda kept going to Tony, standing right in front of him. Of course, she was the same size as him, of course. Tony cursed his height.

"Careful," Wanda hissed. "What are you still doing here?"

"Using my locker?" Tony replied staring at her with cold eyes. He did not know why she hated him, he had never done anything to her. But since his first day at this school, she attacked him verbally.

"Oh, poor Tony-baby doesn’t have anyone with him to carry his stuff?" she asked hypocritically. Tony's eyes narrowed.

"What's wrong with you? What do you want?” he asked. She had not bothered him for a long time, he thought they would now mutually ignore each other.

"Oh, Wanda, got a new boyfriend?" another voice called from the end of the corridor. Tony slowly turned to face the source of it but knew who it was before he saw the person.

"Shut the fuck up, Hammer," Wanda snapped. “I should ask you that question!”

"Wow, I think you totally misunderstood me, Wanda," the boy said, and Tony could see more of the football players stepping into the corridor behind him.

Wanda laughed hysterically. "How am I supposed to misunderstand you if I catch you with fucking Milena making out?"

Tony's eyebrows shot up. That was certainly not a conversation intended for him to overhear. He grabbed his backpack a little tighter and was about to move away slowly, but Hammer's voice rang through the floor. "Stay there, Stark. Wanda wasn’t finished with you yet."

"How do you know, Justin?" she hissed angrily. "How do you know when people are done with others? Because you seem to have missed that point with me."

The football players laughed; Tony could hear Stone making his stupid noises. "Shut up," Hammer shouted at the others, walking closer to Wanda.

"We practiced for a scene in the next school play."

"You're not taking fucking drama classes!" Wanda shouted, building herself up in front of Hammer. Tony stood there, pressed against his locker and hoped that the others would forget him. He was sure: that was not a conversation he should hear. Presumably, everyone at the school - except him, of course - knew that Maximoff and Hammer had dated. If it came out that he had cheated on her, there would for sure be far-reaching consequences. He certainly should not know that yet.

"But Milena is," he said, putting his hands gently on her arms.

"Don’t fucking touch me again," Wanda screamed and again, the football players laughed behind Hammer. Tony didn’t know whether they laughed at Justin or Wanda or anything else equally as stupid.

"I didn’t want it, okay, sweetheart? I stopped right after that."

"I'm not your sweetheart and I'll stop with you now, too!" Wanda yelled and pushed Hammer away with an enormous force so that the boy stumbled backward and fell to the ground. The football players laughed again, and Tony could not resist giggling as well. It felt good seeing him on the ground. Wanda walked down the empty hallway with a raised middle finger and Hammer scrambled to his feet.

"Fuck you," he yelled after her. "And stop fucking laughing, Stark."

Tony's eyes grew big. Hammer had heard it.

"I'm not laughing," he lied. At least I do not laugh anymore. His face was probably as white as snow.

"Don’t fucking lie to me," Hammer shouted, pushing Tony to the floor with both hands. The younger man quickly scrambled to his feet again and stood firm.

"Sorry, but I'm not a couples’ counselor," Tony commented. He would make things worse.

He definitely made everything worse, he knew that only two seconds later when Hammer's fist hit his face so hard that the white and orange corridor suddenly blurred into a big black spot.

Like a black hole, Tony thought, but at that moment a fist pressed against his jaw so hard that he finally lost his footing and fell to the bright ground. He groaned.

"Oh, does that make you want to moan, Stark?" Hammer shouted.

Tony knew that the boy was more aggressive than usual.

"Is it my cock or the pain that’s turning you on?"

"Sorry, I missed the part with you having a penis," Tony hissed back, hearing the football players laugh. A strong hand grabbed him by the collar of his hoodie and pulled him onto his weak legs.

"Ty, hold him," came the harsh command from Hammer. He was violently put into the harsh hands of the other boy.

"Cody and Max, you watch the other floors. This will not be interrupted today."

"Someone is waiting for me," Tony tried to defend himself. Maybe they would stop if they knew that anytime someone could look for Tony.

"Then your boyfriend will probably wait a little longer. And all that because of your stupid comments, Stark."

"Bullshit," he murmured, but at that moment the next fist hit his stomach and Tony groaned in pain. After that everything was very fast. He tried to fend off the hits he could still see with his weak hands, but Hammer was too fast and too strong for him to have any chance.

After the boy hit his face twice more, Tony felt as if he were on the verge of unconsciousness.

"Stop it," said a voice that sounded suspiciously like Stone's. Was he protecting him now? Because they were friends in childhood? That made no sense.

"You’re fucking killing him, stop it, Justin!", shouted the other and, oh, that made sense. Not even someone like Stone would like to be involved in murder.

"I'll tell you when I stop and when Stark can die, what the fuck," Hammer shouted, continuing to beat Tony. He barely felt where the fists hit him, the pain was everywhere.

"What the fuck," Ty called next to him, just letting go of Tony. He had no strength at all in his legs and fell like a rag to the ground, banging his head on the ground, which previously white, was now speckled red. He just kept lying, listening to the sounds that he could still perceive.

It sounded like a fight in which the names “Stark”, “Hammer” and “Justin” were repeatedly shouted.

Then suddenly, there was one last kick against his stomach, but from the red shoes, not the white ones Justin was wearing.

So it was Ty? It made no sense. Then it was a bit quieter.

"I won’t fucking stop. Stark deserves it!" Hammer shouted, Tony believed.

"Okay," someone else shouted angrily. "But let him the fuck live. Otherwise, we all will have huge problems."

"Stark doesn’t die, dude," Hammer shouted, and again Tony could slowly open his eyes. The blood from his forehead was still dripping but not directly into his eye. Farther and farther away was the group of footballers, two people holding someone who could only be Hammer from both sides.

"Dude, he's not even getting up," Ty shouted back. And, "Get the fuck out of here, Stark," as he turned around.

"Yeah," Tony mumbled, trying to rest his hands on the floor so that they supported his body long enough that he did not fall on his nose. "Fuck," he muttered. A sudden pain ran through his body and he bent slightly, but he could sit on his shins, his hands in his own blood.

Slowly, he breathed in and out, trying to gain as much power as possible. He sat there like that and waited nearly five minutes before he dared to sit up slowly and pull himself up by the locker beside him. Only when the world stopped spinning did he reach for his school books and texted a message on his cell phone to his driver.

‘dont wrry. take yr time. meed a scecond'

Limping and cursing, he fought his way slowly into the bathroom, at least to get most of the blood out of his face.

"Fuck," he mumbled. He did not have time to go home again if he did not want to keep Bruce waiting. From his backpack, he rummaged for plasters, which he always had with him, in case of an emergency. Carefully, he stuck one on a torn spot on his forehead. But he wouldn’t be able to cover up his cheek which was already turning green. Next to his eye, a hematoma already indicated itself.

Of course, that had to happen today, of course, he thought bitterly. Groaning, he sat down on the floor and searched in the backpack for the make-up, with which he wanted to cover at least some of the injuries. When he was done, he stood directly in front of the door to make sure nobody would come in, pulling his hoodie over his head and examining his stomach. He was only able to discover only one open wound, which elicited a relieved breath of relief. Carefully, he cleaned it out and put a plaster over it. Rarely has he been gladder to have bought this thick, black hoodie, which hardly showed any blood spots.

Although his chest felt like fire and looked anything but healthy he would survive. Shortly he cooled his wounds with a wet cloth and then pulled the sweater over his head again. He took three deep breaths and felt the pain in his chest, but then he looked one last time in the mirror and stomped out of the bathroom again, to his driver, who would never ask him what had happened to his face.

He may be a nice person but he operated on a highly professional basis; he did not talk or interact with Tony in any way when it was not about the next route to go.

The boy took a bit longer to get out of the building than usual, but it was not the worst day. After a few minutes, Tony could almost walk normally again and only the wounds on his face showed to outsiders that something had happened that should not have happened.

He would tell Bruce he was riding a bicycle. Everybody in New York drove as if they never passed any license test. Thus, cyclists were involved in accidents and carried corresponding wounds again and again.

As expected, the divider was up, and as Tony trudged slowly out of the school building with his head tilted, his driver got into the car just after Tony sat down in the back and answered the question "To the pizzeria?" with a simple "yes". His voice was a little hoarse, but Tony grabbed a water and thus ended this problem.

'Traffic jam, I might be ten minutes late', Tony texted Bruce quickly and immediately got an answer that it was okay. Bruce had landed in New York that morning and certainly had the first meetings already behind him. Their dinner was a nice change, he once said to Tony.

It took almost half an hour through the heavy traffic in the city center before the black Audi stopped in front of the Italian restaurant and Tony's driver told him that they had arrived.

"Thanks," Tony answered shortly, casting one last look in the mirror in front of him. He looked okay. Bruce might believe his bike story.

Nevertheless, he put on his colored sunglasses to at least get a little more protection from the watching eyes of strangers and then got out of the car. He left his backpack in it. Nervously, he tugged at his hoodie. For the first time, he would meet Bruce when they really knew each other.

Tony had been small the last time they met, maybe eight, and he had read articles from him over and over again, but had never worked hard with the doctor, or had written or discussed his essays. Bruce might even be a friend today. He definitely needed that. 

Chapter Text

 Quiet, pleasant Italian music was playing in the restaurant. Tony understood that the singer was singing about a woman who had probably moved away and who he would never see again. But the singer was hardly audible, as the guests talked and laughingly drowned him. A waiter greeted Tony in Italian and then asked him in English if he had reserved a seat.

"Si, abbiamo prenotato sul Banner del nome," Tony replied in Italian. Yes, we have booked on the name Banner. The waiter smiled happily at him and Tony realized how he had missed speaking his second native language. It just went off his tongue very easily.

The waiter asked him in Italian if he was learning the language at school as he led him through the restaurant to a little filled corner. Tony replied that his mother was Italian, and the man asked him enthusiastically where she was from. He quickly showed him a photo on the wall showing his home before he pointed to a table.

"Questo è il tuo tavolo," he said and said goodbye to Tony. This is your table.

The table was in the corner, right at the window in front of the small outdoor terrace, which was probably covered with plants in summer. A man was already sitting there on the room side and typing something on his cell phone.

Tony stepped closer and took another deep breath.

"Oh my God," he said, pretending to be totally excited. "Is this the famous Dr. Bruce Banner on his phone? Just like that, without doing an experiment or something?"

Bruce looked up, first confused, then laughed. "I’m not only on the phone, I’m even on Twitter!" he played along, trying to look shocked.

"Oh my god," Tony was acting completely shocked. Only then did Bruce put his cell phone on the table and got up. For a moment, both stood indecisively together, then Bruce pulled Tony into a short hug and then motioned for him to sit down in front of him.

"Everything alright with you?" he asked, pointing slightly worried at Tony's face. His eyes narrowed a bit and Tony remembered that Bruce also had medical knowledge.

"Oh, yes," the boy lied and took a close look at Bruce. He looked a bit older than on the camera pictures, which were always seen on the internet. People always looked older in real life, and Tony did not mind seeing the man's slight wrinkles and little bit of gray hair. "Stupid bike accident. It’s just like that in New York," Tony said. "Well, I hope you haven’t been waiting too long?"

Bruce shook his head. He did not seem to believe Tony completely, but played along, leaving his face alone. His fingers twitched, though, and he couldn’t hide that he stared too long at Tony’s face. "I came in ten minutes ago and just ordered a little something to drink."

Tony nodded. "It’s a nice restaurant."

"Yes, I often come here when I’m in New York. Good service and fantastic food."

Tony grinned. "Sounds very good."

Bruce seemed to take a close look at Tony. "You look older on photos in magazines and stuff."

"You look younger."

Bruce laughed. "Touché."

"There’s nothing a little bit of make-up and Photoshop can’t change, right?" Tony said dramatically.

"Oh yes, fantastic technology nowadays."

The waiter from earlier came and asked Tony if he would like to order something to drink and put another card on the table. Tony ordered, again in Italian, a coke.

"You speak Italian?" Bruce asked in surprise as the man left.

"Yeah, my mom’s from Milan."

"Fantastic! I didn’t know that. Aren’t you multilingual then?"

"Yes, I speak a few more languages.” He felt somewhat uneasy about this conversation. “Do you speak another language?”

Bruce laughed. "I used to work as a doctor in India for a year. That was some kind of an experience. And of course, I then learned how to speak Hindu. And I was supposed to give a speech in French a few years ago. You don’t want to know how that went, though," he laughed.

"Oh, the French people. They’re never satisfied with anything that doesn’t sound like it’s your first language."

Bruce shook his head. "Well, the reviews for your talk in French at that time in Switzerland say something different."

"That doesn’t count."

"Why not?"

"Because my unbelievable intellect is simply incomparable," said Tony, playfully conceited, hoping that Bruce understood he was not serious.

"Oh yeah," Bruce laughed. "And your self-assessment isn’t, either, obviously."

"No," Tony laughed. "It's unbelievable, really."

The waiter brought Tony his Coke and asked Bruce if he wanted anything else. Tony had noticed that the man had not ordered alcohol, which made him a lot more sympathetic in his eyes.

"And are you feeling ready for tomorrow?" Tony asked, referring to Bruce's lectures.

"Always," he replied. "You're at the fair tomorrow, right? I thought that maybe we could have a discussion together. I was invited to one, and I don’t think anybody refuses to have Tony Stark with them."

"Gladly," Tony said immediately. Otherwise, he would answer only a few questions at the science fair and hear from people that his father did a good job. He gladly took every opportunity to show that he could do more than carry a surname.

"What’s it about?"

"Especially about quantum chromodynamics. Unexplained processes, why we should do more research on what solutions could bring. We will also discuss solutions, ideas. Do you know things about that?"

"Sure!", Tony exclaimed with complete enthusiasm.

"Michael Cates’s there, too, and will join the panel."

Tony's eyes grew big. The physicist was currently the holder of the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge University, one of the most prestigious academic posts in the world.

"Wow," Tony said, unable to stop sounding like the little kid he actually was. Bruce smiled, but it did not seem to bother him. Still, Tony tried to come down a bit.

"There is also another discussion about black holes. He will be there too. It's also in the memory of Hawking."

That made sense. Stephen Hawking had exactly that position that now Cates has until a few years ago. This was one of the biggest science fairs since he died in March, last year.

"Did you ever meet him?" Tony asked. "Hawking, I mean?"

Bruce nodded slightly. "It wasn’t a long conversation, and it was many years ago, but I once had a student who knew someone who knew someone, right? And so, we suddenly had Hawking on campus, who gave a few lectures and talked to physicists and students."

Tony nodded enthusiastically. The astrophysicist was one of his great heroes and role models. So much had been put in his way, especially with his disease, and yet he had become one of the most famous and best researchers in the world.

"Did you ever meet him?" Bruce asked, but Tony had to shake his head.

"My father saw him several times, but I was never allowed to come along. Once he was at home, but then I was told to go to sleep,” he said bitterly.

Bruce looked torn to say something. Finally, he decided to, lowered his voice and came closer to Tony.

"Listen," he said, just loud enough that only Tony could hear that. "If your father did that with his face, then I can try -"

Tony shook his head quickly. "Wasn’t him."

Bruce sighed. "Tony," he began, but Tony interrupted him.

"It’s okay. Can’t we just forget what I wrote last month? It was stupid. "

"It was the truth," Bruce said softly, but firmly.

"Yes, stupid, as I said. It was a bike accident.”

For a brief moment, Bruce was so quiet that Tony thought the conversation was done.

"My dad killed my mum," Bruce said quietly.

"Shit," Tony muttered, feeling stunned. My dad too. Or was that me? Or someone else?

"It happened long ago, it's okay," Bruce replied very quietly. "What I want to say is that parents are not always good. You know that, and I know that. And you don’t have to be ashamed of that, you're the last one who can do something about it. But I can help if you need help, okay?"

"Yes, but my father didn’t do that. I swear," Tony replied.

Bruce stared into his eyes. "Are there any more people doing this to you?"

Tony shook his head. He felt his chest rise and fall faster and he became more restless. "Can we talk about something else, please?" he asked. "Do you think that one should count the written knowledge as a part of our evolution?" he quickly asked without thinking too much about it.

Bruce raised his eyebrows. For him, the topic did not seem to have ended yet. Then he sighed and nodded. "That's what Hawking wrote in his last book, right?"

Tony nodded. "Because it's true somehow."

"It took two and a half billion years to get from unicellular to the multi-celled animals," explained Bruce the train of thought. "Then less than another billion years to get to the first fishes and later mammals. One hundred million years to get from the first mammals to the first human beings. And just 10,000 years later, we fly in space because we can pass on knowledge so that we can do more than just act like our instincts say."

"Exactly."

"An interesting question. Yeah, I think so. I also believe that accelerated evolution through genetic manipulation is also part of our natural evolution. And that will increase drastically during the next years."

"I read that once in a book." Tony’s eyes began to shine again. Even though, Bruce still looked like he wanted to nurse Tony and make sure he’s okay, he seemed to have accepted that Tony didn’t want to talk about what happened. It was stupid, anyways. He could have just been quiet when Stone attacked, so it was kind of his fault that he looked like he looked at this point. Bruce shouldn’t have to bother about that.

"It’s in several, even," Bruce confirmed. "Because of our development, also because of the written information we can pass on, we can nowadays manipulate our genes."

"This will allow us to fight against climate change, diseases and plagues."

"Well, the genetically manipulated, strong person will win against nature. Survival of the fittest. Pretty selfish, but that's the way it is with us."

"And in the end, we're going to perish because of a nuclear war."

"Not if every human being is altered by genetic engineering that high gamma radiation no longer kills, but only causes small injuries or nothing at all."

Tony leaned back a bit. "Then we prevailed and killed everyone else."

"That's the way it is. That's the way people are."

"People are shit," Tony said slowly, and Bruce laughed.

"People are shit," he confirmed.

Boy was he right, Tony thought and absentmindedly touched his black eye.

 


 

They stayed in the restaurant for another three hours. While Tony ate a pizza and Bruce spaghetti, they talked about the theory of evolution and came then to talk about artificial intelligence. Tony told Bruce that he had developed Friday - an even stronger form of AI than the one that was presented at the Stark Expo a few weeks ago in the new StarkPhone.

Bruce was intrigued by the way the code worked, and Tony's eyes sparkled for almost half an hour over Friday's texture. Together, they discussed the question of whether such strong AI should be used in robots, or whether the threat of a hostile takeover was too great.

An artificial intelligence was smarter than humans: it had to recognize how mankind abuses the planet and other species. An AI implemented in some kind of a body would allow for a large movement in space, because you wouldn’t need to pack oxygen and nutriments. A very powerful AI could reproduce itself, though, and possibly even create weapons and then want to destroy humans in the well-being of the robot and nature.

At the same time, it would hardly be possible to keep such technology away from robots for long, Tony argued. Even Dum-E was controlled by an AI and learned from Friday. If she wanted to, she could surely get Dum-E to transfer his code to hers, that she would be trapped in his body. It wouldn’t be a long way until she could rebuild herself.

That intelligent beings would find ways to harm people, Tony explained. Bruce agreed and they fell into a pleasant silence before the doctor suggested using security barriers in AI, much like putting fences next to motorways so that wild animals could not run over.

Their conversation turned on the topic for a long time before somehow, they discussed the universe and addressed Tony's favourite topic. He did not want to show it because it was a small-minded, childish idea to be an astronaut - to fly - and there were far more important areas than space exploration. But Tony was so interested in everything that was going on over his head, and Bruce seemed to notice that, so they talked about the ISS, black holes, and possible Mars missions for a long time afterwards.

"I once discussed it with Elon Musk," Bruce said as he walked out next to Tony. "I think he would take you right away if you told him you want to fly to Mars."

"You too," Tony said, trying not to be that happy just because someone said Elon Musk could do something that would never happen anyway.

"I think I'm too old for that," Bruce laughed.

"Alright, those few gray hairs," Tony replied, earning a light, very gentle punch on his upper arm.

"I'm not that old."

"If you say so," laughed Tony. "My driver can take you to your hotel if you like," he offered Bruce. "Then you don’t have to wait for a taxi."

"If that's not a big detour, that would be great," Bruce thanked. Tony motioned for him to get into the Audi and sat next to him.

Only after Bruce said goodbye to Tony and they had arranged to go to the science fair together the next day, Tony let out a sigh of relief and smiled out the window. The day had been great.

 


 

 

@DrBanner Retweeted: @sciencefairnewyork

As of today, we can announce: Tomorrow, Tony Stark, son of Stark Industries’ CEO Howard Stark, will take part in our round table II. Here is a short profile of the fifteen-year-old. Tickets are still available.

 


 

 

@WinterSoldier

oh, how much i would like to be at the fair in new yoek tomorrow. there are just so many cool people and the topics are so exciting, why do i have to live in massasuchtes?

 


 

 

@IronMan

When a shitty day suddenly gets so incredibly nice :O

It's like eating blueberries and you get ten perfect ones in a row.

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @IronMan

what is it with u and blueberries? i feel like ur in a relationshiop with them, as often as u tweet bout them

 

@IronMan: Replying to @wintersoldier

if it was legal, I would have married blueberries long ago. But that's where the state of New York gets in the way. So sad.

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @IronMan @WinterSoldier

what do u think of raspberries?

 

@IronMan: Replying to @WinterSoldier

They’re delicious, but nothings as good as blueberries

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @IronMan

wired but ok. if u yay so

 

@IronMan: Replying to @WinterSoldier

Waaaait a sec, you don’t like blueberries? You could quote fucking Roman senators and thus quickly reached the top of the coolness scale, but you don’t like blueberries?

 

He put a gif of a completely shocked woman on this tweet.

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @IronMan

well i mean i dont hate them. ill gladly eat em. but id be happier with raspberries or strawberries or something. strawberries on nutella. thats the shit. fr tho

 

@IronMan: Replying to @WinterSoldier

Omg I need to try blueberries on Nutella

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @IronMan

but as if that's as cool as it would be with strawberries. blueberries are just ... blue idk, but not so cool?

 

@IronMan: Replying to @WinterSoldier

* block noise * how could you do this to me? You were the Chosen One! It was said that you would balance Twitter with your quotes and not crash into the dark. You were my brother, James. I loved you!

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @IronMan

ahhhhhhh * bursts into flames *

 

@IronMan: Replying to @WinterSoldier

* goes away super sad and crying *

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @IronMan

* wakes up in a scary chair a little later and asks a question *

 

@IronMan: Replying to @WinterSoldier

* creepily watches a woman giving birth through the glass *

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @IronMan @WinterSoldier

* screams*

 

@TheWarMachine: Replying to @IronMan @WinterSoldier

What the fucking fuck is going on?

 

@archerClint: Replying to @IronMan @WinterSoldier @TheWarMachine

let them be, they have a phase

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @IronMan @TheWarMachine @archerclint

omg

 

@IronMan: Replying to @WinterSoldier @TheWarMachine @archerclint

Right, james? Right? Just omg

 

@Cap_am_42: Replying to @IronMan @WinterSoldier @TheWarMachine @archerclint

I understood that reference.

 

@archerClint: Replying to @IronMan @WinterSoldier @TheWarMachine @Cap_am_42

me too, but wtf

 

@TheWarMachine: Replying to @IronMan @WinterSoldier @archerclint @Cap_am_42

Oh, wow, that took a long time until I got it .. Star Wars nerds, no joke.

 

@Ironman: Replying to @WinterSoldier @TheWarMachine @archerclint @Cap_am_42

Okay, the blueberry crime from James was nothing against this. You didn’t immediately understand a Star Wars allusion? Come on, James, we’re going. I do not want to do talk to those “people”

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @IronMan @TheWarMachine @archerclint @Cap_am_42

where to go? where are we secure?

 

@IronMan: Replying to @WinterSoldier @TheWarMachine @archerclint @Cap_am_42

Security? Where we’re going, we don’t need security!

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @IronMan @TheWarMachine @archerclint @Cap_am_42

ur just a god in that, tony. So, back to the new york city center?

 

@archerclint: Replying to @IronMan @WinterSoldier @TheWarMachine @Cap_am_42

wtf you are such nerds. back to the future must have been an ancient film for your entire lifes!

 

@black_widow: Replying to @IronMan @WinterSoldier @TheWarMachine @archerclint @Cap_am_42

let them be, theyre kids, at least they still know real art

 

@IronMan: Replying to @WinterSoldier @TheWarMachine @archerclint @Cap_am_42 @black_widow

First of all: when the movie came out you were probably not even born and secondly we are both not that young

 

@archerclint: Replying to @IronMan @WinterSoldier @TheWarMachine @Cap_am_42 @black_widow

yeah sure

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @IronMan @TheWarMachine @archerclint @Cap_am_42 @black_widow

bruh lets skurt with our squad to that lit house with the woke baes to discuss 420 important topics

 

@archerclint: Replying to @IronMan @WinterSoldier @TheWarMachine @Cap_am_42 @black_widow

is it sad that i had to google two words?

 

@black_widow: Replying to @IronMan @WinterSoldier @TheWarMachine @archerclint @Cap_am_42

dont do drugs kids

 

@IronMan: Replying to @WinterSoldier @TheWarMachine @archerclint @Cap_am_42 @black_widow

lit idea bruh. Do they all have  heard of our fire conversation? Finna finding out. Lowkey very interested if they understand us tho. u have a oc?

 

@DrBanner: Replying to @IronMan @WinterSoldier @TheWarMachine @archerclint @Cap_am_42 @black_widow

You study physics for years and then you cannot even keep up with conversations. That's harrowing.

 

@Cap_am_42: Replying to @IronMan @WinterSoldier @TheWarMachine @archerclint @Cap_am_42 @black_widow @DrBanner

Feel you. Only that I did not study physics. But belong to that generation. Completely crazy.

 


 

 

Tony couldn't help but grin when he went to bed that evening. 

When he woke up that next Saturday, he said goodbye to his father that only glanced at him absentmindedly and didn't respond and let himself be driven to the compound on which the fair was about to be. 

He participated in the panel and was stunned by all the smart people he met. A girl burst into crying when she met him on his way through the halls and told him, that he was the reason she was going to study physics at the age of 17, even though everybody told her she couldn't do that. He talked to her for about ten minutes and then got to talk with Michael Cates in private. 

On other panels, he watched he even learned new things and couldn't stop smiling when he saw Bruce giving a presentation on gramma radiation and genetic manipulation. 

When the fair was over on Sunday evening and he brought Bruce to the airport, he still smiled and was sure he was about to miss the physicist.  

"It was so nice to actually use my mind, oh my god, you don't know how good this weekend was."

Bruce laughed and hugged Tony. "I'm glad you liked it. We can always discuss things when you need to. I mean, school should probably be hard enough to occupy your mind, but -"

He stopped when Tony burst out laughing. "Alright, maybe not", he committed. 

"Yeah, absolutely not. I hate it there. Pepper's alright, but I hate it there."

"It's just one more year, Tony, and then there's a little chance that I'm gonna be one of your professors."

Tony grinned at him. "This would be the most awesome thing that has ever happened in my life. Oh my god, I could be roommates with James and you would be teaching me."

Bruce grinned. "What would happen to Bucky's current roommate, Steve?"

Tony's face began to turn red. "Oh yeah, right. He would be there, too. We three would be roommates. Oh, and Natasha und Clint could become our neighbors!" Tony just realized what all could happen when he finally moved to Cambridge. 

Bruce laughed and he realized that he probably sounded like a 6-year-old kid. "I mean, not that that would be realistic, but just theoretically speaking", he said, quieter. 

"We'll see, alright?", Bruce asked. "It will be fun. And please, Tony, if you ever hurt yourself - and I even if it's just a bike accident - don't be shy. I can really help you, alright?"

Tony looked into the other one's eyes, that were full of worry and nodded slightly. "Alright", he said. "I can't promise, Bruce. You know that. But maybe, if it ever gets too much, I can..."

"You call when you call. You text when you text. It's alright. You just need to know that I am there to help if you need."

Tony nodded again. "Thank you."

"Thank you for spending such a wonderful weekend with me, Tony."

He grinned again. "It was awesome."

"See you, Tony!", Bruce said as his flight was announced. He still had to get through the security check. 

"Have a good day!"

Tony waited there until Bruce got to the very beginning of the security line and went through the checks so that he couldn't see him anymore. 

 

 

Chapter Text

@WinterSoldier:

even though it is depressing that stevie is as broad as he is there is nothing better than having a walking parasol with u. for free

 

@IronMan: Replying to @WinterSoldier

I bet my Rhodeybear is broader than Steve

 

Tony smiled leaning against his locker. He bit his lip lightly, waiting for a response of the other boy. 

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @IronMan

doubt it. steves an animal. an animal imma tell u that. search for "broad shoulders" in the dictionary and ull find a pic of stevie

 

Tony narrowed his eyes when he read James' response. He didn't expect him to be that protecting of his friend. If Tony wouldn't be such a dork himself, he might even be sure that Steve was James' new boyfriend and he just needed to let the world know how proud he is about that whole thing. But that was ridiculous. James would have made something like that clear in another way. Plus, there was no way that Tony was the only person on this planet that wrote thinks like that about their best friend. That's probably the reason, Tony thought, why I like him so much. Because his humor is just like mine. He is pretty much like the less messed up part of me. 

His phone buzzed when someone he didn't know liked all of his Tweets in that thread. He typed a response in his phone, still leaning against his locker. 

 

@IronMan: Replying to @WinterSoldier

Uhh, then you’ll have to take a closer look again. It’s my rhodey, my sun, my stars, my sky and protector, my honeybear

 

@archerclint: Replying to @IronMan @WinterSoldier 

whats the deal with the youth of today? where are the good old dick measuring contests of my time? why is it about other mens shoulders?

 

@IronMan: Replying to @WinterSoldier @archerclint

Oh my god, be a little tolerant, will you? We live in the 21st century. Things change 🙄

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @IronMan @archerclint

yes, be tolerant, tony, things change. ur rhodey doesnt have the broadest breast anymore. stvie grow a lot in the last couple of years

 

@IronMan: Replying to @WinterSoldier @archerclint

You don’t know that. You've never met Mr broad shoulder as he's called by the Guinness book of recor4ds. 

Oh, and for all the users who already wrote the first hate comments against Clint: He took sarcasm in high school as an AP course, later studied a semester abroad humor in Ironyestan. Stay relaxed. 

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @IronMan @archerclint

oh no... did it start again already? why does nobody understand humor anymore?

 

@archerclint: Replying to @IronMan @WinterSoldier 

oh yes the shitstorm already started. im not a fucking homophobe because i said its weird that these two dorks act strange around each other... i dont know, bucky, tell me. it's always the twenty-year-olds who dont understand me. what's wrong with your generation?

 

@IronMan: Replying to @WinterSoldier @archerclint

Too few drugs

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @IronMan @archerclint

too many drugs.

 

@archerclint: Replying to @IronMan @WinterSoldier 

i see a certain contradiction in your argumentation structure

 

@IronMan: Replying to @WinterSoldier @archerclint

Look, this happens when you constantly believe in Fakenews. You only spread lies stories today, James. First your absurd scenario with Steve and now you tell us we all consume too many drugs. Someone give me the pot!

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @IronMan @archerclint

u tell me something about fakenews but dont even know how many girls want me to tutor them so that they have the chance to see Steve when he comes out of the shower because of his bare chest

 

Tony felt like his stomach dropped a bit when he read how strongly James still kind of protected Steve, as if his chest and shoulders were his personal issue. If Tony didn’t know it any better he would even think they were dating.

On the other hand: writing things like that was exactly what Tony did with Rhodey as well. So there was nothing to worry about, Tony told himself.

And even if they were dating – what is totally ridiculous – it would be no problem at all.

 

@archerclint: Replying to @IronMan @WinterSoldier 

wtf

 

Tony wanted to reply something, but a loud yell made him quickly lock his cell phone and put it away.

"Tony, what the fuck?" Pepper yelled at him in the hallway. Some students turned around and looked at him.

"Whatever you heard, it's probably exaggerated or completely misunderstood," Tony replied, raising his hands placatingly.

"Hammer invites me to a party, and tells me that because you've booked the location, you'll be there, too?"

"Oh, for fuck's sake," Tony muttered. "If it makes it any better; I always told him not to invite you."

"If it - if it makes it any better, what the hell, Tony?" Pepper shouted and more and more students formed a semicircle around the two. You won’t get a fight here, dumbasses.

"I knew the explanations might be hard to understand, so -"

"Explanations? Plural? Tony, the hell is going on with you?"

"Okay, for explaining that it would be awesome if half of the school wouldn’t listen. So reduce the volume a bit?"

"Tony, what are you trying to explain here? I've been watching for months how Hammer and the others beat the shit out of you. Or did I just think that?"

Pepper’s voice had become quiet in the end, but she had come so close to Tony that she seemed scarier than before. He looked right and left and wished the screaming Pepper back. For a few weeks now, Pepper wore high heels on a regular basis, so he was often smaller than her.

"Come," Tony said, pulling her arm. She pulled away and Tony looked at her with big eyes. It ached, seeing her pull away. Maybe he should have told her sooner. He turned around, unsure of what to do.

"Where to?", Pepper but asked and Tony relaxed a bit. She would at least listen to his explanation.

"Our conference room, of course. What else?” he said sarcastically.

"Conference room?"

Tony let out a breath. "The next free classroom, my God."

"Stop your fucking sarcasm when I'm so close to hitting you."

"Sorry."

"I will not answer that."

Silently Tony pushed his way through the masses of students who were all about to talk about the same story and pushed open two classroom doors before finding a free and empty room. He closed the door behind Pepper and leaned against the door. She stood waiting in the room with her arms crossed. With one leg she sat down on the teacher's desk.

"So, do you want to explain to me here in your high-security room why you don’t seem to be bullied after all, even though you told me so for the last couple of months?”

 Tony went pale. "Oh fuck," he said.

"Oh fuck? Is that what you think? You came in here just recently with a fucking blue eye! Banner - with whom I've never chatted before - told me to fucking look out for you." She stopped a moment. "And now explain why you fucking book a party location for people that did that to you."

"No, oh shit. I think you got it completely wrong."

"How am I - Tony, how the hell am I supposed to misunderstand this?"

Not only did she sound angry, but she also sounded hurt. Tony had never seen her so angry. He swallowed.

"I have nothing to do with them," he finally said and Pepper threw her hands in the air.

"Sure, and I have nothing to do with Happy!"

"I knew you didn’t have a boyfriend!" he exclaimed triumphantly, hoping, he could turn the subject of talking around.

Pepper stared at him angrily. "I explained that with the humor in situations like these, Tony."

"But you’re allowed to be sarcastic, or what?" he shouted, angry now as well, because Pepper just wouldn't listen to him.

"Yes, of course," she yelled back. "Because I didn’t tell you fake stories about bullying since nine months ago, because ... what? What was the reason behind it?"

"I really have nothing to do with them - let me finish," Tony said, before Pepper could scream again. Did she really think so bad of him?

That hit him like a blow, but he tried not to show it.

"And that with ... ugh, if you want to call it bullying, okay. I definitely did not come up with the bullying, what the fuck do you think of me?"

He could not banish the frustration and disappointment from his voice. "I just often book the locations for the parties, especially lately. Why do you think they hit me less in the last few months?"

Pepper said nothing and looked at him angrily. He knew that if you just looked closely enough, you would still see his scar from when Hammer and his friends hit him on the hallway.

"I am booking places because they force me to. Conversely, I am allowed to go to the parties and they are more friendly to me. Because they always invite people and are accordingly considered the hosts. Nobody needs to know that it is me who throws his money out and does all the illegal stuff."

"What the fuck, Tony?" Pepper shouted. Tony just twitched a bit. He raised his hands defensively. 

"Woah, I thought explaining this to you would make you less angry."

"Less angry if you just tell me that you've had yourself blackmailed for at least a year? What if someone told someone else? That you - how often? - throw parties, illegally. You all are underage."

"For three years. But I didn’t do it for Hammer and Stone in the beginning," Tony said. He did not know why. Of course, Pepper would furiously move and stand up and walk to Tony and raise her hand and - no, she wouldn’t hit him. Just stand there, turn around and throw her hands in the air. "What the fuck, Tony?" she yelled again.

"Sorry."

"Sorry?", she laughed. "It takes more than a sorry. And you didn’t see it necessary to tell me? Or - wait, you said Hammer shouldn’t invite me?"

"So, that we don’t have to have this exact conversation, yes."

"You lied to me for a year because you're afraid of talking?"

"Well, to be honest, you're a bit scary," Tony admitted, swallowing. "And I wanted to tell you, but then I didn’t find the right opportunity and then I thought it would be weird to just say it sometime in the middle of the school year. We knew each other too long at that point."

"Tony, you're so fucked up, really," Pepper muttered softly, but Tony could understand her. He stayed silent for a moment. 

"Okay, I realize I messed up, but you do not have to look like I've just spoiled you the end of Game of Thrones."

She stared at him in silence.

"Not that I couldn’t. I know someone who knows someone, you know?"

"Tony, just shut your damn mouth for a minute, okay?" Pepper said and Tony nodded. 

"Okay." She looked at him. "Sorry. For saying okay. Even though I am supposed to be quiet – doesn’t matter. I'm not saying anything, sorry."

Pepper sat at the teacher's desk, just staring at Tony. Rarely had he felt so small and helpless, as there, leaning against the door and practically scanned. His head recited Pepper's thoughts. She had seriously believed that he had lied to her for a year, that he had betrayed her!

She knew she was the only person in New York he liked, she knew it! Did she know it?

Tony did not move a muscle, while Pepper alternately stared at him for over two minutes, then ran around furiously again. His thoughts were racing.

He was not even often at these parties. Often, he was not even invited, but this week Hammer and Stone felt ready to bring him back. He knew from the beginning of the school year that he should have initiated Pepper.

"Why did you never say it?"

"How should I say that?" Tony replied, glad that she sounded a bit calmer again. "Hey Pepper, well, I have something to tell you: The whole parties that you're not invited to because you're hanging out with me: I book ‘em, but I can’t attend most of them because I'm being blackmailed and my head goes straight into the nearest toilet when I say something. Have a nice weekend!"

"Something. My God. How should I know that you don’t have any more crucial secrets?"

"Do I look like I want to experience the angry Pepper twice?"

"Tony!"

"Sorry." He would like to look on the floor, but he did not want to show that weakness. He did not know how he faced Pepper now. "Can you please just tell nobody of the Twitter account? Or anything else I told you?"

"Why would I ever tell someone something like that?" Pepper exclaimed in horror.

Tony raised his hands defensively again. "I don’t know. Because you're mad or something?"

"And that would be a reason to pass on personal information, because?"

"Because," Tony said, sounding pretty sure with his voice. "Because it's easy to hurt me like that?"

"Tony, what the fuck is going on with you today?" Pepper shouted again. Tony winced at the sudden volume.

"Hey, easy, that's not what it meant," he said but did not know how she had understood it.

"Why would I want to hurt you?", Pepper looked pissed off. "I'd like to turn your head around and just make you disappear to Tim Bukto, but why would I want to hurt you? Tony, what the fuck? You are my best friend!"

"I thought Rhodey is your best friend."

"You know for sure that this idiot will not end up at number one as long as you still haunt my life. What the hell, Tony?"

"Sorry," Tony said, not really understanding what happened.

Pepper groaned and glared at Tony for another minute. It was an unpleasant silence, as far as Tony could tell, but he did not dare to interrupt Pepper's thought process.

Finally, she sighed again. "Okay."

"Okay?"

"Okay," Pepper confirmed. "I'm so incredibly mad at you and you'll get to feel that in the coming weeks."

"Okay?" Tony asked slowly. He wondered how Pepper still wanted to get to her "okay" after that statement. He looked at her in resignation.

"But - and even if I cannot endorse your secrecy and don’t understand how you got blackmailed for three fucking years - I'll try to forget the topic for today. It's okay."

"So you're coming to the party on Friday?"

"I will not go to a party where Hammer and Stone are, sorry. But no."

"Please, Pep," Tony said. He made his - as Pepper called it - puppy eyes. "Now that you know, it would be so much easier for me to come with you. Parties are okay, but just not fun if you don’t like anyone there."

"Just don’t go there?"

Tony rolled his eyes. "Yes, because it would be so good for me to reject an invitation from Stone and Hammer. They would be happy. Please, Pepper!"

"I'm in Philadelphia with my parents this weekend. I'm sorry. But you can just pretend to be ill."

Tony sighed and pushed the door open behind him. "Yes," he mumbled. "I can think about that."

Pepper patted his shoulder encouragingly and walked down the hall beside him. She greeted a girl who was in her history class and talked to her. Tony did not even know her name and only half-listened to the conversation. When the girl started talking about what a Hannah is supposed to have done, Tony got off completely. His thoughts drifted away and he wondered if James ever didn’t want to go to parties in his high school days.

 


 

 

He came to the following conclusion: If James didn’t want to go to parties, he probably just canceled. And when the word spread that he canceled, the party then most probably just didn’t take place at all, because he was probably the popular kid, just like Hammer and Stone, just in cool and nice and funny and actually smart. 

This thought didn’t help him on Friday.

After his music class, Wanda intercepted him in the corridor.

"Stark!" she called. "You are going to the party today, right?"

Tony turned and waited for her to stand in front of him. "Are you going, too?"

"Of course," she laughed. "Half of our grade is there."

"Okay," Tony said in surprise. Since when does she talk to me? "You're friends with Hammer and Stone again?"

She rolled her eyes. "Are you?"

Tony stared at her. Wanda had never talked seriously with him. She had never liked him before, but as far as he knew she had not been hanging with Hammer and Stone since the last incident which he tragically witnessed. "Of course, I'm hanging out with Justin and Ty. Just wanted to know if you're coming?"

"Justin and Ty?"

"Their first name?" she said incredulously.

"Yeah, I know," Tony said, rolling his eyes. "I just didn’t know you were back on the first name basis."

"So what?" She eyed him suspiciously. 

"Nothing. It’s okay. So, what is it? I really should go home."

"I just wanted to ask you if you needed a ride? You still don’t have a driver's license and the place is relatively far away from your home."

"How do you know where I live?" Tony asked with raised eyebrows. A strange feeling came over him and he looked around. There were still dozens of students around the two of them, who were finally going home after their last lesson. Wanda had never talked to Tony when she did not have to. And now she definitely did not have to.

"You hear a lot of stuff," Wanda said, rolling her eyes, but smiling. "So?"

You hear a lot of stuff?! Tony did not really know how to handle it. Actually, he thought, he could let himself be driven by his drivers, then at least he would have a quiet ride.

Stone turned off the corner and headed straight for the two of them. "Wanda!" He called and Tony turned in his direction. "Are you flirting with the rich kids again?"

She rolled her eyes. "I offered Stark to ride with me and we are all the rich kids, too." At least she is honest.

Stone eyed them and then patted Tony on the shoulder. "I'll see you later, Stark?"

"Sure," he answered. "You have to have a good party again."

"Not so arrogant all at once, Stark."

"Not arrogant, just honest," he replied. Stone grinned at him and put his hand on Wanda's shoulder as well. "See you later!"

Eyebrows raised, the girl followed him as Tony tried to sort that interaction in his mind. Never had Stone appeared so friendly to him.

"Tony? So? What do you think?”

No. You don’t like me, you have regularly put me up in the cafeteria or made your brother throw my things on the floor. And then berate me.

He felt her piercing eyes on him and looked down the hall, where Hammer and some of the football team players laughed together.

"Uh, sure. Would be nice. Thank you. When?"

"I'll be at yours at eight."

"Sure," Tony said, nodding. "Thank you. See you later!"

"See you!"

She was still smiling as Tony walked out of the main building. His curly forehead and thoughtful gait testified that he had just been in the strangest few minutes of his life.

Something was wrong and he did not know what.

 


 

 

Rhodey finally texted him back shortly before eight.

Wanda, as in "The annoying sophoomore twin Wanda"?'

‘Yes, except that she is now a senior too. I really don’t know why she picks me up'

'Oh, Bucky would be so jealous’

'My god, rhodes. James has nothing to do with that, and I don’t want anything from him.'

‘but from Wanda?’

Tony rolled his eyes. 'No, I dont want anything from her neither. And she doesn’t want anything from me. I don’t know what that was today. I just want to go to this stupid party '

'That's stupid because your bullies are there?'

‘wtf

how quickly does Pepper text you in average?'

'pretty fast, I would say. But she has explained it to me. She was pretty angry. Its kinda understandable. Im angry too’

'sorry, wanda just texted me she's here. I have to go'

'Take care of yourself. text me if something goes wrong'

Tony looked up and got up from his bed. One last look in the mirror was enough for him to reach for his backpack and make his way out of the house.

 


 

 

The ride was unexpectedly easy. Wanda talked about things from some classmates Tony knew by name if anything. He answered in short sentences. His brain was still trying to figure out why Wanda treated him so differently all the sudden.

"How come you go to the party today?" Wanda suddenly asked, just a few blocks from the location.

"How come that I was suddenly invited is probably the better question. I think Hammer and Stone wanted to have a decent party again."

"Listen," Wanda said, suddenly sounding very serious. "I know you don’t get along well with the two of them."

Tony laughed.

"But they are good people. Give them a chance. I think they also want to give you a chance. Or your friendship."

Friendship. Ha.

"I can understand that," Tony said and laughed. "After all, nobody can always resist me." He winked at her and she smiled at him. He knew he did not know much about people, but the smile did not reach her eyes.

"So," he said suddenly, fiddling with his hoodie. "How come you changed your mind?"

"Changed my mind?"

"About me. A few years ago, you tried to throw my food off the table on a daily basis."

"Yes, a few years ago."

And just a couple weeks ago you were kinda a dick as well, just before Hammer arrived.

"I thought Hammer cheated on you. Why are you going to his party?"

Wanda stiffened a bit but continued as normal. "That has been clarified. That's nothing you worry about. This whole thing isn't your problem, you get that, right?"

"Oh," Tony said softly. "Okay." Somehow, he'd hoped he could have someone else at school besides Pepper, who really hated Hammer.

Wanda glanced at him. "I'm not single if you want to know that."

"Oh god, no," Tony laughed. "I don’t want anything from you."

Wanda narrowed his eyes, then finally nodded her head. "All right."

"I didn’t… I didn’t mean to make it sound mean, you know," Tony said, trying to sound less confused than he was. Her reaction had been unexpectedly brief.

"Hmm," Wanda nodded. "We're almost there."

The rest of the journey was spent in silence. When it was too uncomfortable for him, he pulled out his cell phone. He was more confused than he had often been lately.

 

Chapter Text

@WinterSoldier

hey @cap_am_42 stop behaving like my mother 🙄

that would be illegal 😏

 

@archerclint: Replying to @WinterSoldier

so many questions

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @archerclint

if u understand what I mean 😏

 

@archerclint: Replying to @WinterSoldier

thats whats making me anxious. btw cute how you started writing like tony with all the emojis and everything

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @archerclint

i rly hope steve wont see ur comment. he wouldnt be shutting up if he did

 

@archerclint: Replying to @WinterSoldier

if i didnt know it any better i would be reading something weird in your answer

 

@WinterSoldier: Replying to @archerclint

😏 😏

 


 

'I'm at this party and no one is here I like. Help me please,' Tony texted, as he sat down on the toilet lid, just about fourty minutes after he got out of Wanda’s car. He had just opened Twitter and read that conversation between Clint and James that somehow made him feel uncomfortable and weird. But he then felt the strong need to text James - who was (and he analyzed that Twitter conversation very carefully) totally not dating Steve, because that would be just nothing James would hide from him, and also, Steve can't be his type. 'But otherwise I'm fine. Thanks, why’

'just so,' James replied. 'we havent texted in forever. thought i can check if uve got time to chat a bit’

'Oh, for you always😏 😏'

Tony grinned as he replied, being already happier. He had just walked through the masses of students to get himself his first – and then second and third - drink but has already seen Ty Stone and Vincent Weis who grinned at him diabolically. He had been ignored by one girl and asked for money by another (a friend of one junior girl, he guessed, who was probably told who he was since she didn’t seem like she could even acknowledge the President of the United States and for sure not Tony. But she had started the conversation with “Oh, Tony Stark. I’m the biggest fan of your father’s company. My dad has a lot of guns. Do you have any chance to maybe give me 800 Dollars? I really need that one… book” – Tony had no idea how she thought that would work) and had no intention to going back there before getting cheered up. And only because Pepper was probably busy and Rhodey had most certainly something to do, also Natasha and all the other people he knew were probably busy on a Friday evening, he answered James. Just because everybody else was busy.

'arent u too young for parties?', James replied and Tony was torn from his thoughts.

'As if you'll wait with drinking alcohol until you're 21'

'no, but i wasnt fifteen'

'sure, james, sure'

Tony laughed for himself.

‘seriously. im not kidding. at age 15 i always had to take care of stevie '

'the captain america steve?'

'oh yes, that's mine'

That's mine? What’s that supposed to mean?, Tony wondered. He swallowed.

'Why did you have to take care of him, isn’t he as old as you are?'

'just a little younger. but he was stubborn and short and was involved in brawls constantly’

'Doesn’t sound that smart'

A bitter smile crossed Tony as he thought that he was small and stubborn as well and always involved in some kind of brawls. He wondered if James would take care of him, too, if he would be here?

'no not really. but then he grew a lot and suddenly we both were invited to parties too. so yes, then our illegal life started. even if stevie never really wanted toi go to parties'

'And you made him consume drugs illegally? How dare you?'

Tony added that gif of a shocked woman. He smiled at his phone. He heard the bass of the music coming through the walls and someone shouting outside the bathroom, but he still looked at his phone.

'only alcohol, nothing more’

'”Alcohol is a drug!”' He added that Spongebob meme and smiled when James replied with some laughing emojis.

'you sound like steves mother.'

'Maybe I am Steve's mom 😏 😏', answered Tony. He knew that many mothers took care that their children did not use drugs. In movies and series, he had seen just how mothers could freak out if their children were caught with marijuana or harder drugs. He wondered if Steve and James were sitting around the dinner table with their four parents, playing cards and then suddenly talking about drug abstinence.

He could imagine James' shadow – he still hadn’t seem more of the boy than the shady silhouette of his profile pictures - staring annoyed at the table and muttering "Yes, sir," every few seconds, only that, just after that, he and Steve would be lying on the big bed, in one of their rooms with pictures of some New York sports team everywhere. They’d smoke weed, they’d be laughing and worried that their parents would come into the room at any moment.

‘u still there?' Tony's cell phone vibrated and displayed the new message.

'Sorry, spaced out'

'i noticed that. u already that drunk?'

'No, not yet, just tired and little motivated for the shit here'

'why r u going to a party u dont wanna attend?'

'Because I cant just say I wont come.'

‘i wont come’

‘?'

'i wanted to try how hard it can be to say ‘i wont come’. was quite easy actually. try it. its ony three words its nott too hard '

'Did you just make a dad joke without you being a dad?'

Tony laughed at his cell phone. James’ humour was sometimes quite something, other times, like this, it was just stupid. But a funny kind of stupid.

Or maybe it was just the alcohol in his blood. He grinned anyway and waited for a reply.

'maybe i am a daddyy 😏 😏 '

'Ooookay, James, cool?'

He furrowed his eyebrows. He didn’t expect James to answer that. It was a joke by him, though, Tony told himself that.

'sorry, had little sleep the last few days. steve kept me awake, if you know what I mean 😏 😏 '

Tony frowned. His stomach suddenly felt so heavy. That was too much. James wrote things like that fairly often in the last couple of days. What was he trying to achieve? Tony swallowed again. He knew it.

Tony already knew what James was trying to do.

The last couple of days were just all little steps closer to telling him that Steve and James were dating, right? Tony took a sip of his vodka and banana juice mixture and didn’t even make any facial expression.

'Sorry, not really,' he answered quickly, feeling his hand starting to sweat. 'sorry, I have to go, people otherwise will think I have stomach problems or some shit’

'u all right, tony?'

'Yes everythings fine. Have fun with Steve, we'll write soon probably!'

Tony put his cell phone away and leaned his head against the cold stone wall behind him.

It was not as if he had any hopes with James, of course not, but probably it wouldn’t be easy for anyone to find out that a person with whom you're good friends has been in a relationship with someone for quite some time perhaps. And never told you. Presumably, his reaction was normal.

Still, he threw the door a little louder than necessary and muzzled into the crowded dance floor. His thoughts were racing and his eyes looking for the table with the alcohol. He felt his lips shiver but then grabbed some random girl’s cup and took another sip.

"A round of shots!" he yelled as he finally arrived at the table with the drinks. "Who wants some?"

He was cheered at and Tony grabbed some little shot glasses. He filled twelve shots for students he did not know or had only seen in his classes or in the hallway. He himself filled the vodka almost to the brim.

"On more alcohol!" he shouted, and the other people cheered. Even Justin Hammer drank and grinned drunkenly. The vodka went down his throat and burned, but he did not curl up like the boy who was perhaps only a year older than him and who gripped his stomach suspiciously. Tony took a step back and Hammer shouted something like "Tony is fifteen and drunk his shot way better than you, Adam, pussy!"

"On Tony!" someone else shouted immediately afterward and held out the shot glass to refill. Tony did as he was told and filled their glasses for himself and seven other students who drank together this second round.

Not only the alcohol but the laughing people – people laughing with him, not at him - made for a warm feeling in Tony's chest. A girl who sat in his math class, Hannah or Anna or something like that, leaned on Tony's shoulder.

"You're so shot, it’s nice," she mumbled drunkenly, and Tony smiled sheepishly, but Hammer had stepped next to him and patted him on the other shoulder.

"Do the girls say that often when you’re in bed with them?"

"Oh no, it’s really hard to confuse me with your dad!" Tony called back and people laughed loudly at his comeback. Even Hammer grinned after he looked puzzled for a second.

“They always say quite the opposite of that, you know?” Always is a good joke, Tony, congrats on that.

He had had sex already, of course. And it had always felt good, but Tony knew he was doing it wrong. Not that he or his partners didn’t feel satisfied after that, but. The simple fact that he only had sex when he was invited to parties like this showed that feelings had never been involved before. Tony knew it was wrong, but he also knew that it felt good - not fantastic, but good - relieving the pressure of your body like this.

He still pushed away from Anna. "On the girls!" Hammer called and held out another shot glass to Tony.

Tony's cell phone vibrated in his pocket and just for a second, he wanted to get it out to see who had texted him. But then he thought, it was probably only James telling him something cool that Steve did. He didn’t need to play the person who always had to listen to someone else’s relationship. Especially not when he didn’t even really know the persons as he did with James. "On the girls," he answered instead, drowning the strong alcohol.

It was burning, but it felt very good.

 


 

About two hours later, Tony was drunk enough not to wonder why everything was so different at parties. Why on parties Hammer and Stone and Milena and fucking Wanda just seemed normal, seemed to be friendly, even nice.

Nearly two hours after Tony arrived and drank excessively - Milena had even come to him in between telling him to stop drinking (“It’s just too much for your little body. No offense”) - Tony found himself sitting on a couch in the lobby of the building right next to Wanda. She herself sat next to Luke from his English class and two completely unknown girls next to him. The couch was probably made for a maximum of four people, so they were really crowded. His vision was a bit blurry and his brain processed information very slowly.

He did not really know what the other teenagers were all talking about and just listened. He felt even drunker than he did in a long time.

"Justin!", said Wanda at that moment and Tony stiffened. The situation had been pleasant and now Hammer came again. Even though he was nice to him that day, Tony still couldn’t get himself to relax next to that boy. He swallowed but didn’t do anything else since the alcohol really suppressed his range of movements he was willing to do.

Wanda got up beside Tony and he realized too slowly that Hammer took that as an invitation to sit there, squeezed between Tony and Luke. Wanda sat on his lap before Tony felt like it was all just too tight and got up. Hammer had leaned his head back and seemed at least as drunk as Tony.

"Stark," he mumbled. "Didn’t want you to go away!"

"Is all right," Tony answered, his pronunciation not as clear as normally. "It just got so tight there."

"Hey, Stark thinks I have broad shoulders!", Hammer shouted and Luke laughed beside him.

A girl from his music class sat in a chair across the couch and put her hand next to her thigh. It definitely wouldn’t be a comfortable place for Tony to sit. "You can sit down with me,” she said anyways.

"Nah, it's okay," he called, louder than necessary, but the alcohol had drained him of power over his voice.

"We can also go out if you have to walk for a minute," she offered. "It’s probably nice to walk at the river, and there are plenty of benches to sit down."

Tony wondered what her name was but shook his head. "It's okay, I just lean against the wall here, it's fine," he said and braced himself. He swayed more than he liked.

Fuck James and Steve. It was not their fault. I simply had not been drinking in forever. And also, I certainly didn’t drink so much because of them – what was I even thinking?

"Is Tony Stark refusing an obvious flirt from fucking Lupita Sophie?" Hammer laughed loudly and Tony shook his head. A hand on his shoulder pulled him back to the sofas, where the person put him on a place that might have belonged to them before. It was not until Tony looked up that he realized in the faint light that it was Ty Stone.

Wanda laughed. "So, either Tony and all we know about him was nothing more than lies or he has someone else. It’s not Potts. And I’m sure all the stories about you being a ladies man aren’t just lies. Come on, Tony, tell us!"

Since when am I Tony for you?

But he was too drunk to ask that and just shook his head. He had no one. And he was not mad that James was in a relationship. That he was in a relationship he has never told him about, that’s what he meant with that. Obviously.

Presumably, the older boy was lying in bed with Steve, cuddling in the broad arms and wide chest that James had written about again and again.

In hindsight, it had been obvious, right?

As often as James wrote about Steve, as much as Tony knew about Steve, without ever having started a deep conversation with him.

But it doesn’t bother me, Tony told himself. Doesn’t bother me at all.

"He definitely has someone. Is she going to our school? "Wanda laughed. Ty breathed out next to him and Tony did not know why the conversation suddenly turned on him. He shook his head.

"Oh, look, Stark’s suddenly so shy. Is he now the little kid he never wants to be?" Hammer laughed again. It bothered Tony. He was not a kid. And he had no one, but what should the others think of him, if that was the case. How could Tony Stark have no one? Have no one with whom he could fall asleep in the evening and at best even wake up with in the morning?

"Boston," he lied. It’s not a lie, said a voice in his head. You didn’t lie about Boston. But that was stupid. His drunken brain had simply thrown out the next-best city that was not New York City, just so he would never have to show this non-existent partner. And because he often thought of Boston because of the MIT in Cambridge that was just the first city in his mind.

"Oh, a tragic long-distance relationship," one of the girls laughed on the couch. Tony had seen her walking with Wanda a few times. He thought she was the girlfriend of a football player, so probably in the group around Hammer.

"You should take her to the Skywalk Observatory. If she wasn’t there yet. Very romantic, I think," said another girl, whom Tony did not know.

What the fuck is happening?

"Oh my God!" shouted Wanda, far too hypocritical. "Do you know the Boston Chocolate Tours? You have to do that!", she called and kissed Hammer's mouth.

Tony felt a bitter sensation go through his stomach. He did not have anyone in Boston to do this tour with. James had someone, but he did not. The feeling was probably alcohol because it should not bother him. That had never bothered him. It also will never bother me. Why should it?

Ty patted him too hard on the shoulder and leaned forward. "What's her name, Stark?" he asked and the other students in the area repeated the question. Like in those weird movies when someone is on drugs.

Well, I technically am on drugs, Tony thought, realizing that it wasn’t normal for a face to spin as much as Stone’s face did.

"Who will take on the name Stark and put an heir into the world? Who?" a boy a little further in the room asked dramatically. Tony did not understand how so many students could pursue this conversation.

He stared at Stone and then at Hammer, who was watching Tony with a red cup in his hand.

The next morning, Tony would say that this thought came up because he was so drunk but at that moment he just wanted to say "James" even though he knew that the other was a) in a relationship, and b) only one person from the Internet that Tony obviously didn’t know very well.

"Jane," he murmured anyways, not drunk enough to forget that officially admitting he also liked boys was one of the worst things he could do these days.

Hammer laughed and Ty rolled his eyes before throwing himself against the wall.

"Like the dead girl?" Luke said and, next to him, Wanda acted as if she was shocked by him.

"She’s not dead!" Tony tried to defend himself. Why was Jane the first female name that came to mind? I could have said Natasha. Or just some random girl's name, there were enough of them after all. Why Jane? Tony stared at them, wide-eyed.

Hammer leaned forward and patted Tony on the knee before offering him his cup with alcohol. "You don’t have to tell us the real name, it just would have been less creepy if you hadn’t picked a dead girl’s name."

"How are you talking about Jane, what the fuck?"

Wanda got up from and kneeled exactly in front of Tony. "Oh, are you still sad about your girlfriend?" she asked smugly. "Even though it's been almost two years?"

Tony stared at her. Vincent had come into the room and communicated something by eye contact with Stone because in the next moment he grabbed a boy and a girl, who made out in the corner at the room and led them back into the dance room. Two other teenagers also got up and left the room.

Tony followed the action with a growing pulse. He might be drunk, but he sensed something was going awry.

"Haven’t you been the one who said back then that I should deal with the fact that my parents died because of you, Stark?"

Tony shook his head, completely confused and slightly panicked. "I said you should not blame me. StarkIndustries has not been producing weapons for sixteen years, I had nothing to do with that!"

He pressed himself further into the chair and suddenly felt very uncomfortable. The alcohol blurred what he saw.

"Just as innocent as when you told my girlfriend today that she was unattractive?" Hammer asked, standing right in front of Tony.

"What?" he exclaimed. He did not know what he meant.

"Wanda told me about your drive here," Hammer explained, suddenly very quiet. He seemed so sober all the sudden. "And also, that you told her you don’t find her attractive."

"I never -" Tony broke off. Hammer would not believe him. His eyes sought Wanda’s, who simply grinned at him; evil, diabolical. Tony’s mouth was dry, and he felt like he wanted to puke.

When he looked around, he only saw the jocks and some of the girls that were dating them: only friends of Hammer and Stone. The music was quiet because of the closed door.

Ty suddenly grabbed his arm and dragged him up. Tony wanted to fight back but knew it was pointless. He was way too drunk to do anything. He could smell the alcohol in Stone’s breath but could only push slightly to fight back.

"Wait," he called. "That's not how I meant it!", but Stone had already thrown him onto the cold tiled floor, where tumbled down with his arms first. A sharp pain shot through his whole body but was quickly drowned by the alcohol.

"What the fuck!" he shouted, getting to his feet as fast he could. "I haven’t done anything!"

The boys were all way bigger than him and formed a circle around him. His eyes were big and filled with fear. He swallowed again, feeling his pulse going way too fast.

"You called my girlfriend ugly, Stark!" Hammer shouted. Someone left to Tony pushed him down again, but this time, Tony couldn’t use his arms to protect his body. His head came down right after his back and the pain made him see only black for a second. Hammer started kicking Tony several times in the stomach and Tony could only groan and try to protect himself as good as he could before Hammer stopped.

"This is my party," Tony tried to defend himself. He put a lot of effort in not vomiting right there. There was blood coming from somewhere, but Tony couldn’t feel from where.

Hammer stepped on his hand and Tony screamed in pain. "This is only your money, not your fucking party, Stark."

"Get the fuck off of me or I'll call the police!"

Tears were in Tony's eyes. The pain shot through his body like arrows and he felt like his hand was burning. He had never threatened with calling the police, but most of the time he was not as drunk as he was at the moment. By now, the adrenaline was rushing through his body and clearing his senses, but it didn’t help too much.

"And then you get arrested because you've booked a party as a minor?" Hammer replied with a grin. A foot kicked Tony in the back - probably Stones.

Vincent Weis grinned at Tony. Just as he was about to stand again, Luke hit him, and he fell again. Hammer and the others laughed.

"What the fuck!" Tony shouted and just wanted to go home. How shitty could a day possibly be?

"Anything like that ever again and you wish you had never talked to Wanda in the first place!" Hammer shouted after him as Stone pulled him up and threw right in front of the door. Tony landed hard on the ground and tried to attack back, but Hammer hit him once again and Tony just stayed on the ground.

“I never said she’s unattractive!” The fear in his voice must have been easy to hear. I am too drunk for this shit.

“Yeah, you did, Stark”, grinned Wanda. Tony looked at her with big eyes.

“Why would you…?” he started but Wanda only grinned. She hated him. She had never not hated him. Had this been the plan all along?

Tony saw Hammer stepping closer to hit him again, but he pulled his hand in front of his face. “Please, she’s a pretty girl.”

“You want her, Stark?”, Hammer said and sounded awfully evil.

“What? No. I just… what? I just think she’s an attractive girl. And I can tell something like that. I never wanted to hurt her feeling or whatever. What the fuck?”, he shouted and was able to protect himself from getting Hammer’s knee into his stomach. The other boy didn’t even try to kick him again. I must already look awful, then, he thought.

“All right, you can tell that? And can you tell me if I’m attractive, too?”

“What?”, Tony said, perplex, and stared at Hammer. He must have looked like a little kid, sitting on the floor with Hammer standing right above him. “I don’t… You’re a man, I don’t know.”

He tried his best but Hammer grinned. As if he knew.

“So, you don’t think men are attractive?”

“What? No… I just… I don’t want to…” Tony had no idea where this was going.

“You don’t want to talk about men’s attractiveness. So, you’re a homophobe, Stark?”

“What?”, he shouted. Someone of the boys behind Hammer grinned. “That’s not what I said!”

“But what you meant, right?”

Tony couldn’t answer as he felt the puke coming up his stomach. He felt how he started sweating. This conversation wasn’t going well. Absolutely not.

“I didn’t mean to…,” Tony said, stuttering and still trying to suppress the need to vomit. The boys in his vision were all just spinning around. Being drunk apparently really didn’t get better when you fell on the ground and were beaten several times.

At least I can’t feel the pain that much. It was a surprisingly logical thought that occurred him.

“Shut it, Stark. As I see it, you are either a homophobe or gay and try to hide it.”

Tony looked at him. He somehow knew that that statement didn’t make any sense at all, but he didn’t say it. Hammer looked at him. He bent down and his face was just a couple of inches in front of his. It was still spinning, and Tony did his best to focus on the older boy’s eyes.

“So. What is it?”

“I’m not… I’m not a…,” Tony stuttered. He hissed when he felt a strong hand grabbing his neck. Someone lifted him up a little bit straighter and didn’t care about how they hurt him. Hammer still grinned. “I’m not gay,” Tony said.

It’s not a lie. I’m not gay. And Howard can’t find out. He just can’t.

For some reason, Tony smiled to himself. A couple of months ago, he had realized that when he was drunk, he talked more to himself in his head. It was weird but kind of amusing to him.

He didn’t get what he had done to change anything in the situation, but the hand in his neck grabbed him even stronger and someone else took his arm, getting him up to his feed.

“Thanks, Stark,” Hammer grinned. “It’s nice talking to you.”

What?, Tony wondered. What happened?

But before he could even think about asking the other boy, he was pushed through the door and landed painfully on the cold hallway floor. The boy who grabbed him and pushed him kicked him one last time before walking back into the room.

Tony groaned in pain and stayed laying there until his bleeding nose made him turn to the side so that the blood could escape. He closed his eyes only for a second just to feel like the world spinned even harder.

It took him a couple of minutes before he was able to check if he still had his cell phone and key and then exhaled in relief. At least he was able to get into his home again. His jacket and backpack were still inside but there was no way he could walk in there.

Somehow amazing that I can still think a little logically at least.

He scrambled to his feet and the world spinned a little more than it should. Only then did he realize that two students were standing close together against the wall, looking at him startled. Presumably, Tony had interrupted them while making out.

Cursing, he got up and told them to mind their own fucking business, before he ripped a half-empty bottle of vodka from the boy’s hand.

With one hand pressed on his ribs, he pushed open the door to a side street, shivering due to the unexpected cold. Cursing, he walked to the left, away from the main street, trudging through the cool night air.

He felt tears coming into his eyes and his lip started shivering again. He tried to bite his teeth together to stop himself from crying but then the tears just escaped and he sobbed quietly.

He quickly put the bottle of vodka to his mouth and stumbled through the little ally. Just before he reached the end to get into a park, he vomited right underneath a window. It took about seven minutes before someone approached him, asking if he was okay.

Tony only dared to take a quick look to his right before he vomited again, and then laughed hysterically. “Do I fucking look like I’m alright?”

He hated that one could easily hear that he still cried.

“It’s alright boy”, he stranger said. He sounded like he was at least 50 and when Tony could finally take and actual look he realised it must be a homeless person. “You live here somewhere?”

Tony laughed. “I fucking live nowhere near here and I don’t fucking want to go back, ever again.”

The man stayed quiet for a second. “Why?”

“Cause then I could fucking charge my phone and see a lot of bullshit. And I would have to go back to school, and fuck!”, he cried, slowly sitting down next to his puke, putting his hands on his eyes. He cried for a minute or two, the stranger didn’t say anything.

“Look, I’m not good with people. But is this your first night out? There’s a place where a lot of children like you go. Also some elderly people but we aren’t as much wanted. It’s like fifteen minutes from here.”

“No, I’m not fucking homeless. I need to go back to this shithole of a home”, he still cried when he said that. Fuck the alcohol. Fuck this whole shit.

“Alright, alright”, the man said quietly. He opened his jacket and gave it to Tony. “You need it?”

Tony looked at the man with big eyes. He had deep circles under his eyes, he could see that even though it was dark. His hair was grey and some places on his head were bald already. There were wrinkles everywhere and one ear was missing – it looked like it had once frozen off.

“What the fuck, no,” Tony yelled. “I don’t need your fucking jacket!”

He bent to the side and vomited again.

“Okay, okay”, the man said. “Hey, you’ve got water?”, he yelled into the other direction and someone came, limping, up to Tony. An other man pushed Tony into a more up straight position and gave him a bottle of water. The bottle looked like one of these a kid would get on their first day of school. It had princesses on it.

“Thanks. Sorry. I’m sorry,” Tony said, feeling bad for yelling at the other man.

“It’s alright. Everything’s gonna be alright.”

But Tony only shook his head and felt his eyes burning again. He sobbed again and mumbled: “No, no it’s not.”

“Just drink your water, boy, alright?”, the other man with a heavy accent told him. He reminded Tony strongly on a more homeless version of Morgan Freeman, even his voice sounded similar.

“He’s got a boyfriend!”, Tony mumbled and cried. “He’s got a fucking boyfriend.”

“He?”, the first man said, sounding confused.

“James’s got a fucking boyfriend, what the fuck? But I’m funnier than Steve, and smarter and I could be better for him!”

The second man didn’t move for a second, then he sighed and patted him on the shoulder. “Come on, man, you’re injured. You’re probably confused. Let’s get you somewhere warmer.”

“I’m not fucking confused! And I’m not a – I’m not.”

“Alright.” The man with the water bottle got up. “Brandon, come on, help me with him. Oh, no, you don’t have to, he’s light as a feather. What did you do, boy?”

Tony stumbled the first steps but then finally felt like he could walk alone. “I need to get home, he’s gonna be pissed.”

“Your old man?”

“He’s not there. Obie.”

“I don’t know who Obie is, boy.”

“Uncle,” Tony muttered.

“Alright. You’ve got money with you?” Tony’s eyes widened. “To call yourself a taxi. We don’t want nothing from you. It’s alright, don’t panic.”

They’ve stopped on a corner and Tony searched for his wallet. “Shit”, he said, panicking. “I forgot it. Shit.”

“Where?”

“Inside. But I can’t go back. Shit.”

“It’s alright. You can ask your friends tomorrow if they can give it back to you. You’ve got a friend still in there, right?”

Tony only snorted. “I can walk, it’s alright. I can sober up whilst walking.”

“Boy you can’t walk like that through the city. You’ll get yourself run over by a car.”

Tony shook his head. He vomited again, but this time, nothing really got out anymore.

“Shit”, the first man said. “I’m gonna bring him home.”

Tony tried to say no, but the world spinned a lot for him.

He started crying again when the three of them had walked about ten feet.

 


 

It took him a surprisingly long time to get to the last middle class block he knew before his actual home. He had mostly just listened to the two strangers talk with each other, only once had asked them to stay quiet about James.

The men had assured him that and continued talking.

After Tony had said that he was at home, he thanked them again and waited then in the entrance of the building for about twenty minutes before finally walking back to his actual home.

When he arrived at his home at about four in the morning, he was still incredibly drunk. His brain was like honey and thoughts about James and Steve with matching clothing or “I love my boyfriend”-Shirts came up in his mind.

When he lay down in his bed – not really caring about getting his clothes off his body – his stupid brain told him to open the messenger.

He had received some news from James about the evening he spent with Steve, but it did not make much sense to him. Some said that yes, he would have fun with Steve that evening, in others though, he complained that Steve was only ranting about a girl all the time.

Tony kind of understood that. No one could like their boyfriend suddenly talking about a girl all the time.

‘s alrhjt,’ Tony wrote and could not help that his words were barely more than meaningless combinations of individual letters. ‘he wonr leeve u’

'Stve love you more than ths gil probyby’

'Sry for the splling’

'u should go to chocolate tour w/ steve,' he wrote. ,And go to the boston Skywalk observasry'

,ive been told is rmantic so it mght help’

Tony wondered how stupid he must sound to James, but at the moment he did not care much. He also wanted to write something else, but he probably fell asleep on the spot.

 


 

The next morning, Tony had a hangover for the first time in ages. He was very happy that Howard was not there and Obie was watching over Tony again over the weekend - he always let him sleep a bit longer. A glance at the clock revealed that it was nearly eleven o'clock. Definitely too early for him, but clearly too late for Howard – even Obie should soon be restless if Tony did not come out. Still in his street clothes, Tony scraped to his bathroom and tore off the clothes that smelled like alcohol and puke. In his closet, he searched for the headache pills, which he took with a little water, and only three minutes later he was under a warm, then cold, then warm shower.

Dressed in nothing, he walked to his room, looking for new, comfortable clothes. He had not drunk so much in forever. He had even been sure that he had overcome this phase of his life. He could not even remember what - Oh, thought Tony. Oh.

He quickly ran to his bed while pulling the hoodie over his head and opened the messenger. He had several missed messages from James. His pulse was rising again. Right. He had been disappointed that James was in a relationship - and had not told him, of course. And he had texted to him where he was supposed to go with Steve, because the places were so romantic. Oh God.

'haha,' James had answered him at nine this morning. ,wasn’t that much of a shitty party yesterday, right?'

,oh yes, steve will definitely be happy to do a romantic chocolate tour with me. i should definitely try that one’

Tony cursed his humor for reading sarcasm into such messages. That was just not okay. James was actually thinking about something as serious as his relationship. Not everybody is a sarcastic, lonely looser, like I am.

'Sorry for yesterday', he answered quickly and wanted to put his phone away as far as possible, but James had already opened the message and answered immediately. Why? Tony wondered. Didn’t he have a boyfriend to take care of?

And why am I so upset about that? Tony wondered, even though a part of him knew the answer already.

,its fine. r u  alright?' James asked in one message.

'Yes,' Tony lied. ,Just have to do some homework. See you’

 

Chapter Text

After the discovery about James on the party’s evening, Tony felt more exhausted than often before. He blocked his credit card on Saturday morning, but 960 Doller had already been booked off. He would never again see the 300 Doller in cash that was in his wallet, either. He was barely on Twitter all weekend, until Sunday evening when he reopened the app.

He interacted a little with Clint and Natasha, chatted with Bruce and the two teenagers - Peter and Harley - whom he barely knew, but who always seemed very intelligent and interested in engineering. He amused his followers but tried to pay as little as possible attention to James' account.

It had to annoy Steve that he was constantly writing with James: In retrospect, he had noticed that one indeed could interpret their conversations as flirting - which, of course, had never been real, as Tony now knew for sure.

When Tony met Pepper in the hallway on Monday morning, he grinned at her, head hold up high.

"What the fuck," she said, pulling him into an empty classroom, even though they did not have much time left before they had to attend classes. "You told me last week that things have improved a lot."

"I walked in my door," Tony lied. He had a huge bulge on his forehead - not to mention all the hematomas on his back and stomach, but Pepper could not see them.

"And the bruises on your neck are coming because you went backwards against the door afterward?"

"You have to be equally injured at the front and back. You know: Perfectly balanced, as all things should be."

Pepper just shook his head. "What did they do?"

"Who now?" Tony asked. "The manufacturer of the door? A really solid frosted glass that lets surprisingly little noise escape from my room, but at the same time hurts really bad when you run against it."

"Shut it," Pepper said, sounding angry. "I don’t believe you. Not a word."

"Man, that’s a pity," Tony answered, still staring at her. "I was just really blatantly drunk on Friday, things like that happen."

The bell rang. "Oh, now that we're talking about it, I have to talk to Hammer again."

"Because?"

"Because I forgot my wallet and he probably has it."

"How can you ...", Pepper stopped dead and probably wanted to say something else, but Tony reached with his hand for his backpack, pulled it on the shoulder and left the room with his head held up high.

He ignored Pepper on his way out. In the history lesson that they had together, he greeted the girl and told her an uninteresting story from his English class, but then joined with unusual attention the inflammatory discussion about the Manhattan Project and how bombing a country with nuclear weapons influenced the story of the United States - and the world, indeed. And what would have happened if there had never been a bombing.

 


 

 

He got his wallet back on Tuesday at lunchtime - both without money, as well as without ID- and credit card. The same day, he worked on getting new cards and used that work as an excuse to not go on Twitter. His notifications in his messenger were jamming, but Tony did not want to think about it yet.

Hammer had grinned at him when he gave Tony his wallet back and Tony did not understand why. But it did not matter. Pepper must have started to believe him that he had run into a door and, on Tuesday, behaved all normal and friendly again to Tony. During lunch, she talked a long time about her weekend trip to Philadelphia and Tony just listened intently.

 


 

 

Only a very, very boring English lesson on Wednesday morning made him realize just how much he might have liked James: very much. He would not go so far as to say he had a crush on him but if he would have kept writing with him like that and if James did not have a boyfriend, he thought, it could have turned out like that. Maybe. In the far future.

But if he just stopped talking with him – what kind of was his plan at this point - then of course not. And contrary to the constant claims of his friends, he had not found anything special about James yet, so on that Wednesday morning, he decided that everything was alright now and that he just had to get some distance from James. Of course, mostly to not worry Steve.

The first week of March came and went without anyone noticing. James wrote him replies under his Tweets twice. Tony only liked both answers but only shortly replied to one. He responded to James' reply to his tweet about Tony's first ice cream of the year just with a 'hahaha definitely'.

What else should he do if James commented under his picture in which Tony, like a toddler, had photographed his ice cream in such a way that the shadow looked like his penis that he ‘would like to lick it too, that looks delicious 😏

No chances.

When James interfered in conversations with Clint or Rhodey, Tony waited for someone else to answer first.

It was not until the very end of the first week of March that Tony received a question mark from Clint in their private messenger chat.

'You all right?'  Tony replied immediately, not knowing what Clint meant.

‘wanted to ask you the same question. everythings ok with you?'

'Sure', Tony replied. 'Why?'

Clint did not answer for a minute, then wrote that he had noticed that Tony was not responding to James' tweets anymore, at least not like before. 'everything cool between you two or what happened. what did i not notice?'

'Yeah, everything’s cool,' Tony had answered and lied. What else should he do? Obviously, he had no problem with James, why should he? He just wanted to avoid him so Steve would not get nervous. And since neither James nor Steve had once written publicly that they were dating, they apparently did not want to reveal that yet. Tony was not allowed to tell anyone else. Besides, Clint would misunderstand him anyway. Rhodey had often indicated that he and Pepper were not the only ones who saw something between Tony and James that was not there, and obviously should not be.

God, Steve must hate me for that, if indeed several people think there’s something going on between James and me.

'good,' Clint had answered. And then in the next message: 'because i think hes doing you really good. youve really opened up when you two were chatting with each other in public threads and im sure it must be even more awesome in your private chats'

'Yeah, it's just a bit stressful these days,' lied Tony. Put salt into the wound, Clint, alright, just do it. And: Which wound? There was nothing.

His thoughts would kill him someday.

'I'll be back soon with fantastic movie quotes for which you are all too uncool to understand or really funny flat jokes for which your humor is simply not created'

But James’ is. And it was good and funny, and he was doing really well. Damned Steve.

Tony sighed. But there was nothing. Nothing. It was almost pathetic how he tried to convince himself that he was sure it could not be.

It was funny, somehow: He only realized that maybe he had really liked James when he had already missed any chances.

Well, you only need the light when it's burning low.

“This fucking song.”

Tony stared at his cell phone, which indicated that Clint was typing something and left the chat, typed 'James' and clicked on his profile picture. Last week they had chatted for the last time. James had asked him whether he believed that Anna and Elsa's parents actually knew Tarzan. A movie theory that Tony could talk about for hours if he wanted, because he thought it was very cool.

He had just answered. 'Would be funny, really, but I have no idea if that works. Sorry, can’t chat that long today’

James had apologized for disturbing and has not written ever since. The three previous conversations had also been initiated by the other and had been stopped by Tony after a more or less long time.

He shook his head. He knew from an earlier conversation that James, who was laughing at his profile picture - unlike his profile picture on Twitter - and seemed so happy, had laughed because of something Steve had done behind the camera. Tony swallowed.

‘well i kinda miss the quotes a bit', Clint texted him suddenly and Tony was rarely ever that happy about such a distraction. ‘even if im not such a nerd like you two are it was funny to see you so living the moment right?’

'if theres anything you need to talk about just text me', Clint had added in a second message. ‘i always have time to talk and natasha too. and we also keep quiet if you dont want someone else to know whats going on'

'Yes, thank you,'  Tony wrote back. ‘If there’s something I need to talk about, I write. But everythings fine. Everything's fine between James and me too, dont worry.'

He had put his cell phone down and looked at the star projection above him.

That night, Tony found little sleep and in the following, it only got worse.

 


 

 

Tony hid in the bathroom, just two days after this conversation. He had just stuffed his stuff from the calculus class into his pocket before he realized that Ty Stone was looking at him suspiciously.

Tony had narrowed his eyes and looked at his watch before he said goodbye to Pepper and fled to the toilet. There were too many signs that something was wrong. Ever since the party, which went so terribly wrong, the others had not really bothered him, just made stupid comments or jostled him. But they glanced more frequently at him.

Tony had noticed that Hammer himself had come to school with blue eyes or covered injuries more often recently. Every now and then, this had happened over the last years as well, but it was just more frequently these weeks.

And for a 6 ft 3 tall boy, pumped full of testosterone, that was a problem since his coping mechanism was not likely to be the same as Tony's. No nights of working through with too loud music, but bullying, beating, and other problems; mostly for Tony.

"Okay, I'm tired of playing hide and seek," Hammer's voice came through the thin wooden wall. Tony closed his eyes and breathed even quieter through his nose.

„You shittin‘ in there?“, asked Hammer, sounding awfully evil.

“Nah, his feet are up. He’s hiding”, said another boy; Vincent.

“Well, come out, then, Tony, we wanna talk.”

Tony stayed quiet, hoping that Pepper was off in the library or somewhere, far away from the boy's bathroom so that she wouldn’t see whatever was going to happen. 

Ty Stone’s head shot over the top of the bathroom stall; he grinned at Tony. “Got you”, he said, sounding as if he was talking to a child who played hide and seek.

Tony looked up at the boy with big eyes, mildly shocked, but then Stone grinned at him and told him to open the door or they would brake it. “We won anyway,” he added.

Tony swallowed and opened the door, taking a look at the three boys; some more were probably out in the hallway, patrolling and making sure nobody interrupted them.

There was no way this was going to end up well for Tony. Might as well have my fun with it, he thought, not really knowing what he could turn into fun for him.

“Well, seeing that Weis here had to lie down on the fucking bathroom floor, I guess, that he didn’t win either,” he said, straightening up and grabbing his backpack just a little tighter. “What do you want?”

“Wow, Tony, you’re always so aggressive.”

“Yeah, it’s the ADD, you know? Normally, my high brain activity stops it from going wild, but when you’re all in the same room, the IQ of everyone drops and suddenly, it kicks in. Sometimes means that I’m getting too much information about everything, that stresses me out, really.”

“What the fuck?” Stone said and Tony wasn’t sure whether the boy didn’t understand him or just didn’t believe him.

He just stared at Stone, then Hammer, then Stone. Then Hammer, who moved a bit.

“So you’re all in with playing the cool dude again, Stark?”

“Not playing. Being. There’s a difference, but how would you know, right?”

Oh yeah, this is fun. Until I’m gonna get the shit beaten out of me.

Hammer was standing just right before him, just inches away from his face. He whispered when he continued talking. “As you might have noticed, Stark, I’m not having a great time right now, alright? Unless you enjoy getting kicked until you fucking die I would highly recommend you to shut the fuck up.”

“Wow, there’s a choice for me this time?” Tony said, not really convinced. Well, this is new.

He saw that Hammer’s hand trembled. And he also saw that while his back was nearly pressed against the bathroom’s stall door, Stone and Weis were just to his left and right, there was no way of getting out of this. “So what is it you wanna talk about?”

“You. And me.”

Tony opened his eyes. “Wow. Didn’t expect that. Don’t you have a girlfriend? Also, not interested in men, sorry,” he lied. Hammer didn’t even blink when he stared him in the eye, but then started grinning.

“You know you annoyed me since my very first year here, Stark?”

“Yeah, kinda got that.”

“You know why?”

Tony didn’t take his eyes away from the other boy’s eyes, he wasn’t going to give him that win. “Jealousy maybe? Maybe some kind of complex? Maybe your father’s got mad that you had to repeat second grade while I didn’t even attend it and jumped right into third?”

When he said ‘Father’ Hammer flinched a bit but Tony didn’t act as if he saw that. Wow, didn’t expect to have something in common with you, buddy. From this near, Tony was able to see the dark blue and purple under the older boy’s eyes.

“You know that your company also did weapons back then, right?”

“Oh no, I forget,” Tony said, sarcastically. “You know, genius mind, tend to receive too much information. Small things like the origin of all your money, your job and future just… float away.”

He saw how Hammer was getting angry, but Tony couldn’t stop himself. The older one closed his eyes for a second and tried to calm himself.

“So your father destroyed the hell of a good deal for us back then, right?” he continued nevertheless. “And this is really still doing shit to our company. Because your fucking father made fun of us in the courtroom. And why did he do that? To give his fucking precious son a good working company without us doing better things.”

“Four things about that,” Tony said, holding his hand in the air. “A: You really bringing stuff from like 2000 in this conversation? B: Remember that they were in the courtroom also kinda because of your dad? C: Dad certainly didn’t do that for his at this point non-existing child. D: Don't get me wrong but i highly doubt that you'd do better stuff than we'd do.  So what do you wanna say, I don’t really get the point.”

Hammer was squeezing his jaw at this point, moving and obviously trying hard not to slap Tony.

“I want you to give me the plans about what you’re gonna do with that fancy new element your father discovered.”

“Wow,” Tony said, blowing out the air of his cheeks. “And how am I supposed to do that?”

“You bring me the plans this week and you’ll be fine.”

Tony held up his hand defensively. “And do you want to have the ones lying in the paper bin or the ones that are going to be shredded?”

“Don’t fuck with me, Stark.”

“As I said, not interested.”

He saw how Ty was clenching his jaw and how Weis was looking at his two bosses to see when they were going to start beating the shit out of him.

“You must have plans for that.”

“And why would I know them? I can’t even legally drive a car, why would daddy allow me getting the news about his fancy element?”

Hammer grabbed his shoulders harshly and pressed Tony against the stall door behind him. It hurt, but Tony tried not to show his pain. “I fucking heard you telling Pepper that you worked on this whole thing. You know about the details. And your fucking brain must be working on a usage. I want to know what to do with this whole thing. And how to stabilize it."

Tony swallowed. At this point, nobody really knew that Tony had significantly helped Howard with working and discovering this new element. At the beginning of the last year they told the press it was Howard himself and nobody had even thought that the small boy who just had to redo his junior year had something to do with this at all.

It would have been nice if the world knew what he was able to do, but when they didn’t he wanted at least to try to get out of this situation with that.

“Oh, I lied.”

“Oh, you didn’t.”

“That’s right, I didn’t. So, why would you think I would give you information about something that’s going to change not just SI but the world significantly so that your company can benefit?”

Tony kind of got nervous but didn’t show that. His eyes still didn’t move away from Hammer’s. The older boy had at this point started to look elsewhere several times.

A person whose head is bowed and whose eyes are heavy cannot look at the light.

“Because I have information.”

“About?”

“You.”

“Me?”

Hammer grinned now.

“So…,” Tony started, thinking about which information could have possibly been getting to Hammer. He can’t know my Twitter account. There’s no way. It’s way too normal what I write there. He can't know 

The only persons in this world who know I’m not straight are Rhodes and Jarvis. So he can’t know that, too. Pepper suspects something but she wouldn’t talk.

Everybody already knows I’m going to parties and stuff. What does he know?

“What kind of information? The kind of information I don’t even know? Or the kind the press would like to hear? Or is it… oh, is it that I had varicella when I was eight? My mom really tried to keep that out of the press, but I think a lot of people knew anyway.”

“No,” Hammer said in a loud voice that made Tony actually shut up. “It’s the kind of information that says you’re a homophobe.”

“That I’m a what?” Tony stared at Hammer. Well, at least he doesn’t suspect now that I’m pan. “Well, you know that information have to be like… you know, real?”

“I’ve got proof.”

Tony’s eyes narrowed. “How do you have proof over something that’s obviously a lie?”

Hammer just grinned. “You know, Stark? I’ve read a comment somewhere that said that, if you’d have social media and all that stuff, you’d probably be one of the most influential teenagers of our time. Like you’d be up there with Kiernan Shipka, Greta Thunberg, Billie Eilish, and all those people.”

“Okay, thanks, I guess?”

“Man, it would be a shame if the world would know about you being a homophobe. There’d be a shitstorm. They’d go after you like nothing. They’d probably even boycott your dad’s company.”

Tony’s hands started to sweat. Well, he’s not wrong about the influence thing. But. “They can’t know something’s that wrong.”

“People knew the world was the center of the universe before they were proven wrong.”

“Yeah, but I could prove them wrong by saying I’m not a homophobe and you made it up to destroy my life.”

Hammer still grinned. “See, and this is where it’s getting funny. You know this thing about me ruling this school?”

Tony gestured wildly and pointed to the three boys circling him. “Can hardly miss it.”

“Every student here has heard the same thing as me.”

“I can pay them more than you can. They all will have heard that you made this up.”

“Nobody here really needs the money.”

Tony’s eyes narrowed again. “Well, you took my wallet. You let me pay for a lot of things for not needing my money.”

“Yeah, that’s a joke,” Hammer said. Tony asked himself if Stone and Weis felt stupid, just standing there and saying nothing as if they were some king’s vassals.

“I see. Very funny, I laugh all the time.”

Hammer clenched his jaw again. “I said shut it.”

“Yeah and then you made me talk.”

That was too much. Hammer slapped him on his face and Tony flinched hardly. He already made himself ready to punch back but Hammer shouted “Stop it” and so he did.

Tony stared at him and Hammer stared back. Then he grinned again, speaking very quietly that time.

“As I said, I’ve got a lot of people supporting my side of the story when I want them to.”

“Alright.”

“And I’ve got proof from when you said it.”

Tony went pale, this time for real. “What? I never said that.”

Hammer grinned. “Yeah, but you also didn’t deny it. Do you remember that nice party last weekend? Or were you too drunk?”

Tony nodded slightly.

“Yeah, we’ve had someone recording it when we asked you if you were either a homophobe or gay. And you told us you weren’t gay, so there’s that.”

“But,” Tony started, feeling slightly panicking. “But that doesn’t make any sense. It’s like asking whether I like currants or gooseberries and I tell you I hate the latter. Doesn’t mean I like currants. That’s stupid.”

“Yeah, but as if the media would care about stories making sense these days.”

Tony stared at Hammer. This time, he held eye contact to see if the other one was joking, not to win a stupid staring contest.

“So what do you want?”

“I already told you. I want you to give me the information about what you do with that new element.”

“Yeah, but I can’t!” Tony really panicked by now. He knew his chances. He definitely couldn’t tell Hammer about Badassium – Oh fuck I’ve gotta find a better name for it – his father would kill him. But he also couldn’t let the world think that he’s a homophobe. Hammer was right, that would do great damage as well, probably even in the long run.

“Yeah alright,” Tony said, while a lot of numbers and ideas were running through his mind. “Okay, I’m gonna see what I can do,” he said. He didn’t look him in the eye anymore.

“I want to have the information next Monday, at least.”

Tony nodded. “Alright. Are we finished here, now?”

Hammer grinned. “Of course. Have a nice day, Tony.”

“Fuck you, Hammer,” Tony answered and showed him his middle finger.

Hammer only laughed but showed Weis to let him walk out the bathroom.

Tony had been right, there were actually some other jocks standing in front of the boy, shoving kids away that wanted to use the bathroom.

Tony slowly breathed out some air and went to the cafeteria, hoping to find Pepper there.

 

Chapter Text

 “So, this might sound really bad, but I really, really need your help with something, Pep,” Tony said immediately after finding Pepper in the cafeteria. She was sitting with three girls and two other boys, some of which were actually very nice to Tony. “And it’s kinda something secret, so…”

He made gestures to ask Pepper to follow him, but the one guy – Rajit, he thought – got up. “We were just about to go, it’s alright. See you then, Pep.”

“Thanks,” Tony said, as the other teenagers also got up. And: “Since when does someone else can call you ‘Pep’? I thought, that way my name.”

“Yeah, since you’ve been fucking with my trust and I needed some other friends at school so that I wouldn’t explode.”

“Oh,” Tony said. “So basically since week two at this wonderful, brilliant, fantastic and absolutely not life-ruining high school?”

Pepper’s eyebrows shot up. “Okay, you wanna tell me what happened?”

Tony sat down next to her, but so that he could still look her in the eyes easily. “So I’ve kinda betrayed your trust again, I guess?”

Pepper didn’t say anything, which was not necessarily a good sign.

“Do you remember when I told you my bulge and the wound on my neck were from when I walked against a door? Please let me finish, I know you didn’t trust me, I’m sorry, I really am,” Tony said quickly, trying to make his voice louder than Pepper’s. She was about to yell at him, but he knew that they probably shouldn’t get the whole fucking school listening.

“So I kinda got severely beaten by Hammer and all his fuckers, which is, I know, kinda something I should have expected and also too much, I know, and I should go talk to someone or whatever, but please listen to what comes next?”

His fingers were drumming some piece of music on the table and his eyes were everywhere but on Pepper’s.

“But what they also did was… well. Can I… Can I ask you something?”

Pepper just made a sound that sounded suspiciously like You won’t listen to my answers, anyways, but sure, go ahead but just as a single sound.

“So you know that I like girls, right?” he asked and saw the confusion in Pepper’s eyes. “Don’t worry, I know you’ve got a boyfriend, I don’t think I would be somehow even remotely good enough to be with you, I want nothing from you, don’t panic.”

“I didn’t.”

“Okay, but I kinda do.”

Pepper smiled and couldn’t suppress laughing a bit. “I see.”

“So,” Tony said. “So what do you think of like… LGTBQ+ people?”

Pepper put her hand over her mouth to hide her laughing, but it didn’t work. She quickly took a tissue from her pocket to dry the tears that were already starting to form in her eyes from laughing.

“Pep, this is serious,” Tony said and sounded suspiciously like a small kid that didn’t realize why everybody laughed after asking their grandma when she was about to die.

“Alright,” Pepper said, calming down and looking Tony in the eyes. “So what would I think of them? I once met that gay dude that really annoyed the hell out of me, because he just wouldn’t shut up about that other boy – who was later about to be my boyfriend, Happy.”

Tony listened and waited for Pepper to continue. “Let’s see. Otherwise, they mostly have two legs, two arms, two eyes. Some have less, some have more. Some are Christians, some atheists, some Jews, some Muslims. Some are black, some white. I don’t know what you want me to say.”

“I… wow, Pepper, can you please take me seriously? This might be a turning point in my life. Our action in the next dozens of hours decides whether or not I’m going to live under a bridge or not.”

Pepper looked skeptical but then nodded. “Alright. I’m not a homophobe or something like that. Not even remotely. They live their lives, I live my life, some live their lives with me, others don’t. I’m straight, I’m pretty sure you aren’t.”

Pepper talked so casually that Tony nearly missed what she just said. “Alright, Pep. Okay, what I want to say is… Wait, what? How are you sure I’m… I mean, I never said anything about-“

“I’m sorry, did I just destroy your big dramatic reveal about your sexuality?”

“What? No. Please, speak a bit quieter, alright?”

“Is it Bi or Pan? Or something else?”

Tony’s mount went dry. How could she know?

“I guess Pan.”

“What?”

“Am I right?”

“How do you knew?”

“Am I?”

Tony nodded. “Yeah, but…”

Pepper squeezed her eyes. “Why did you think did I tell you you totally flirted with Bucky when I found out about your Twitter account?”

“I thought it kinda was meant as a joke because Rhodey always said it and he knew.”

“And you think I’m blind?”

Tony shook his head. “I just thought I was able to hide it.” He swallowed.

“You’re good at hiding it. I’m just better at seeing it.”

Tony was quiet for a second and didn’t know what to say. His thoughts were spinning. He honestly didn’t expect it to go all that way. He actually didn’t even really plan on outing himself, that just happened. And maybe a part of him already knew that Pepper knew. Alright, she couldn’t have told him he was flirting with James (even though he totally wasn’t) when she didn’t believe he was at least bi.

“That was, by the way, the strangest outing I’ve ever witnessed,” Pepper said. “Also I thought that you knew I know. Why did you wait like seven months before you outed yourself? What did you expect me to do? Doesn’t matter. I guess that wasn’t your big problem?”

“Oh yeah, right. No. Yeah. No, it wasn’t. Well, kinda, but not really.”

“So?” Pepper waited for him to continue.

“So,” Tony said and tried to sound not as lost as he was right now. “I might have kinda said something that might look for some people like I’m a homophobe and that was recorded.”

The last couple of words, he said so quickly that it sounded like one word.

“You what?” Pepper exclaimed, looking shocked.

“Well, I’m not,” Tony defended himself.

“Yeah, I know.”

“But I was asked whether I was gay or a homophobe – and I swear I didn’t know they were recording that – and I also was drunk and I know my dad can’t know I’m not straight – yeah, he’s that kinda man, too, I know. It’s a lot, but let me finish, all right? So I said I wasn’t gay, which is also technically true since I’m not gay, I’m pan, but they obviously don’t know that and now they’ve threatened me to publish that tape when I don’t give them something I definitely can’t give them.”

“Fuck,” Pepper said. “I guess ‘they’ is Hammer and Stone?”

Tony nodded and looked at the ground.

“And you need to give them what?”

“Information about how Badassium is going to be used.”

“Badassium – your dad’s and your element?”

“Yeah. But first of all: we don’t really have a lot of ways to use it since it’s really unstable and secondly even if we had something – and I’m just saying if because I’m really involved in that whole thing right now and I’ve just got vague ideas how to stabilize it and what we could use this for – I couldn’t give that information to Hammer. Howard would kill me. Hell, I would kill me. HammerTech is useless and they’d destroy the hell of a lot things.”

“Alright,” Pepper said. “So you’ve got the hell of a problem. I guess Hammer has a lot of people in this school that will tell the press that everything happens exactly as he said?”

“How do you… yeah, he has.”

“So I need to get some people on our side, saying what actually happened – that you got beaten and misquoted.”

“Yeah, minus the beaten, how does that look?”

“Would give you sympathy points.”

“Would make me look weak.”

Pepper closed her eyes. “You’ve got a strange way of seeing the world, Stark.”

“Thanks, that’s the genius mind.”

“Get it. So they must say you’ve got misquoted, Hammer hates you and admitted on lying?”

“Something along those lines. When we just got enough people to say he lied then they’ll probably believe us.”

“So we’re calculating with them publishing the story?”

Tony nodded. “I guess so.”

“Alright.”

The bell rang, lunch break was over. Pepper stayed seated, though, and stared in the air.

“You need a Twitter account. And Instagram, Youtube, Reddit, everything.”

“You know I already am on Twitter? That’s the thing with, you know, James and all these people.”

Pepper rolled her eyes. “A Tony Stark Account, of course. Cute, by the way, that you said “James and all these people” instead of “Rhodey and all these people”, since he’s your best friend and stuff and James is totally not your crush.”

“That’s not… I meant Rhodey. That’s weak, Pep, that’s weak.”

Pepper grinned. “You’re gonna work on that Social Media and you’re gonna follow people like Ellen DeGeneres and all. And you’re gonna do a lot to show you’re not a homophobe. But not too much, you can’t cross that certain line. I’m gonna work on getting people to support our side of the story. Alright?”

Tony nodded. “Pepper,” he then said and got up. “You’re the best. Seriously, you’re absolutely the best.”

 


 

At least I’ve got a real reason to ignore James for a couple of more days, he thought when he came home that day. All the way home he was thinking about what to do. He’d already created his new Instagram and Twitter profile, texted the SI-media center that they’ll announce his profiles and posted his first picture and tweeted his first Tweet.

He was actually quite lucky. When his driver drove past a really crowed street and had to stop because of a red traffic light, Tony shot a selfie with two women kissing in the background. It wasn’t like violating privacy rights or something but a nice start of showing the world that no, he wasn’t a homophobe.

He hadn’t even texted Rhodey yet but took out his cellphone once he was in his room to call Jarvis.

“Hey buddy,” he said happily when the older man answered after three rings.

“Good evening, Tony,” Jarvis said and Tony just grinned. He had missed the accent; in recent months he didn’t really have a lot of time to call his oldest friend, so they mostly just chatted or talked very shortly.

“How are you?”

Jarvis huffed. “Very well, thanks. Ana has some trouble these days, but the doctors are doing quite a great job so far.”

Tony felt his heart race. “What does she have? Why didn’t you tell me?”

Again, Jarvis just laughed. “It’s just a little dizziness and all these things. Just old people stuff, really.”

Tony pressed his finger on a display so that the call was played on his speakers in the room so that he could put his phone away. He lied down on his bed. “You’re not old, Jarv,” he said, more trying to convince himself than Jarvis.

The older man laughed again before he said: “Do you remember when I was still working for your father and you asked me when I was going to die since I was so old?”

Tony didn’t. But he also must have been five or younger: that was the time Jarvis stopped working for them and Howard got a new butler.

“I’m certainly not younger, now,” Jarvis said. Tony could hear Ana saying something in the background.

“Is she at home right now?” he asked, knowing that Jarvis would understand who he meant.

“I’ll put you on the loudspeaker,” he answered.

Tony grinned when he heard Ana greeting him. She didn’t have an accent.

“’s nice talking to you again,” he said, sincerely.

Jarvis made an approving noise. “It was quite a long time now, wasn’t it, Tony?”

“School must be hard. It’s his last year, Edwin, the boy must work very hard.”

“I don’t think it’s the school for what he must work hard, my dear,” Jarvis answered her and Tony nodded.

“So, what is it, why are you calling?”

Tony swallowed. “Nothing, really. Nothing. Just… calling, you know? Checking in?”

“Are you alright?”

Tony felt his heart feeling so warm. They both always made him feel loved and cared for. “Yeah, I’m gonna be.”

“What is it? What is wrong?” Jarvis’ voice was concerned, but Tony couldn’t quite answer.

He was thinking about all the things that weren’t right.

Hammer wasn’t right. The whole media spectacle, that was going to happen wasn’t right. Him working so much on various projects for his father wasn’t right. Also, it was nearly the end of March, which wasn’t right, either.

James being with Steve wasn’t right.

“So, you know, James, right, Jarv?” he said very quietly.

“Yes, of course, I know him. What is it?”

Tony stared at his ceiling. He had put on the stars, even though it was still daylight out there. He didn’t plan on telling anyone what he found out. He didn’t even tell Rhodey, and Rhodey knew everything.

“So, he’s Steves boyfriend. And I kinda… I kinda… I don’t know,” he mumbled.

“Oh no,” he heard Ana breath out. How does she know him? “Oh dear.”

He heard them move but didn’t say anything. “And you don’t want him to be with Steve?” Jarvis finally asked.

Tony shook his head. “No,” he whispered. “I don’t.”

They were quiet for a moment. “Look, Tony,” Jarvis said then. “I don’t know. Maybe you mistook something he said? I can’t imagine them dating each other.”

But Tony, again, shook his head. “No, he was pretty clear.” Which he technically wasn’t, but there is no way I want him to really confirm what I already know.

“Maybe they will be splitting up. It’s common in your age to break up.”

“You and Ana were about our age when you came together. And look at you.”

Again, Ana sighed. “Oh, my Tony. This was different. It was a different time. And we are different people.”

Tony shook his head again. He felt like he wasn’t doing anything else these days. He felt tears burning in his eyes and he put his hands on his stomach. “James’s nearly as good as you two are. And I guess Steve must be as much of a good person as well. I guess… I guess I didn’t even have chances, anyway. James must be, like, helping people all the time. I don’t. I have money and everything but don’t donate it. I guess… Yeah, I guess it’s kinda my fault.”

“Tony, don’t say that,” Jarvis interrupted him. Tony started sobbing, just very quietly. He felt like he was talking to a father. Not his father, but a father. A dad.

With his hands, he dried his tears; he wasn’t going to cry about someone he never had chances with. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I actually just remembered that I really wanted to ask you something.”

He knew that Jarvis and Ana still wanted to say something, to comfort him and do all the nice stuff that nice people do. But he had to work on getting his life together, he had to work on saving his company and his reputation. He shouldn’t even care about James. Never again.

The two elder people were quiet. “Do you still have contact with your old neighbors? The ones that lived next to you until I was like eleven or something? With the dogs and cats and Peter, I think, wrote poems?”

“Oh, you mean Peter and Harry Quirrl?” Ana asked, knowing people she cared for. “They moved to New York almost five years ago.”

“Yeah, I know,” Tony said. “Do you think you can give me one of their numbers? I’d kinda like to meet them.”

He heard that Ana was going away, probably to search their old, black book with all the phone numbers she needed. “Why do you want to meet them, Tony? Is everything alright?”

“Well, not really. But I guess, you’re either going to hear from it, anyway, or you won’t. And you can’t really help me with this one and I really, really, really don’t want you to worry about me. So I’m not gonna tell you, okay? Please don’t worry. Just get Ana fully healthy again?”

Jarvis sighed. “Alright. Rhodey knows about your problem, right? He can help you?”

Tony shook his head one more time. “No, not yet. But I guess I have to tell him. Oh man, he’s gonna kill me. Oh, I mean, it’s not that much of a big problem, don’t worry. I really just want to meet Peter and Harry. They also married, right? Right when it got legal?”

“Yeah, we were at their wedding. It was beautiful. I wish you would have been there, but it was just two years ago. You couldn’t have wanted…,” Jarvis said.

“No, I wouldn’t have wanted to go there.” Jane and Loki happened two years ago.

“I got their phone numbers. They live in Queens, I think. Let me give you their number,” Ana said and told him the numbers.

After that, they continued talking a bit about the Jarvisses’ live. Tony told them about the progress Dum-E made, also told them in detail about Friday and her functions. They listened and asked questions and Tony was more than happy to answer them.

After nearly an hour, they ended the call, since Howard came into Tony’s room, asking him if he made any progress with working on the new element’s stabilization – which was now, apparently, Tony’s main quest – and why the hell did you get social media? Do you have a team supporting you, checking if what you post will harm the company?

He told him he had and also, that he was able to manage that and then sat down at his table, calculating some ideas he had for the element. Nothing really worked out, but at least he knew now that these way’s didn’t work – so at least it was like pruning the possibilities of stabilization.

 


 

 

He told Rhodey in the night.

His best friend was sitting in one of his colleges’ main area, but still had to leave the building, so shouting at Tony wouldn’t bother the other students as much.

“Why the fuck do you go to Hammer’s parties alone?”

“Well, they were acting so nice these days, I thought that… I don’t know.”

“Especially when they act so nice, Tony. Didn’t you think that they were planning on doing something?”

Tony breathed out loudly. “Well, I did, but I also had other problems in my head and alcohol seemed like a good way of getting them out.”

“And what other problems are important enough that they might ruin you?”

Tony stayed quiet. James. Fucking James. Well, not ‘fucking James’, since that was obviously never about to happen, but ‘Fucking James!’. Fuck, I definitely had a crush.

Only miss the sun when it starts to snow.

“I don’t know. But now I am in this situation and I just kinda thought I should tell you.”

“Yeah, for sure you should,” Rhodey exclaimed, still angry. “So, how can I help you?”

“I don’t know,” Tony admitted. “I really don’t.”

“What do you do?”

“I’ve created social media accounts. Like, public ones. I think, SI already announced it, so I’ve already got roughly half a million follower on Instagram and like 700.000 on Twitter. Also, I’m gonna meet a gay couple I know from back when I was a kid in public on Saturday. I ask them to help me for an English project. I have to turn it in at the end of the year, but I can work on this, now. It’s about poetry that changes during time. I think –“

“Well, that’s good,” Rhodey interrupted him. Tony didn’t really realize he was giving unnecessary information.

“Also, Pepper talks to a lot of kids at school, that they will support my side of the story if it comes out. Well, when it comes out.”

Rhodey breathed heavily. “Man, this is fucked up.”

“Yeah, I can tell.”

Both were quiet for a second, then: “And do you wanna tell me what your whole deal about ignoring Bucky?”

“I don’t ignore him.”

“You sure do. You are less on Twitter since ever, you only answer when Clint or I write first, you don’t even gush about your funny conversations with James anymore.”

“I never did!” Tony tried to defend himself.

“Yeah, sure. So what is it?”

“Well, I’m kinda occupied with saving my future right now. It’s a coincidence that I kind of ignore James, really.”

Rhodey, again, was quiet. He was even more quiet when he asked the next question. “And how are you, because of… you know. The 21st.”

“Yeah, okay.”

“Okay?”

“They are coming back. Nightmares and shit. But I’m okay. It will go away.”

Rhodey made a sound, that sounded almost sad. “I’m sorry that I can’t be in New York this year.”

“Yeah, it’s okay, really. It’s still more than ten days away, it’s gonna be alright. Pep’s here and also I’m fine with it. Okay? I’m fine and I can deal with it and the nightmares are probably just because of that really stupid horror movie James told me to watch. It was kinda creepy, you know?”

Rhodey didn’t seem to believe him but didn’t say anything about that. “You know you can always call me. About anything. I can keep quiet. Alright?”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Okay.”

They were quiet for about a while, everybody chasing his own thoughts.

“I think I’ve gotta go,” Tony said after a minute or two.

“Alright. I see what I can do to help you. Call me when you need me.”

“Yeah, I will.”

“Thanks.”

“Love you, bud.”

“Yeah, love you too, Tony.”

Tony nodded but stayed seated at his bed for about ten minutes after Rhodey ended the call.