The soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts.
- Marcus Aurelius
There's a country song playing on the radio, a soft orange sifting through the air. Jarvis' eyes dance wistfully as he sips his favourite tea. Its fragrant, slightly citrus scent wafts across the kitchen.
Tony's sitting on the chair, swinging his legs and drinking hot chocolate, the special one that Ana makes, rich and just this side of too sweet. She's humming vanilla plumes as she cooks, leaning into her husband ever so slightly as he joins in with his eloquent tenor that has the same clear reddish-brown glow as his tea, shaded with a touch of affection. Aunt Peggy is sitting in the corner, reading quietly, a soft smile on her face.
He knows better than to disturb her while reading.
The boy can't suppress his delighted squeak as Jarvis' favourite song comes on, that really long one, with the high robin's-egg-blue notes and the deep, intense mustard shades, all the colours of the rainbow coming out in swirls and shimmers in between and around them. The sun's beams set the floating colours alight, their iridescence flaring bright like the feathers of the birds that Ana showed him once. Tony watches them dance through the air until Jarvis blows them away with a pale coral sigh.
"What would you say to walking Watson, sir?"
Tony eagerly drains the rest of his drink, wiping away the dribble with the back of his hand as he nods.
"Can we go to the lake?" he asks breathlessly, jumping off the his seat and placing the mug into the sink, hugging Ana from behind as a thank you. She smiles, brushes a soft hand across his head, and then attacks him with a wet cloth, wiping away the delightful stickiness around his mouth despite his best attempts to ward her off.
Jarvis chuckles, puffs of reddish cotton wool.
Watson splashes happily in the clear shallows, his long red curls floating in the water along with the white splatters of the splashes he makes. Tony blinks, and the foamy blotches of sound disappear - Watson is standing still, tongue lolling as he pants, amber eyes bright and happy.
Jarvis is sitting cross-legged on a nearby boulder, glasses perched on the edge of his nose as he reads a novel, spikes of dandelion crumbling every time he turns a page. The title reads The Ministry of Fear.
"What's a 'ministry'?" Tony asks, squinting at the cover.
Jarvis smiles, his eyes glowing a vivid green in the bright light of the outdoors.
"It's a part of a government," he says, "Especially in Britain, which is where I come from."
Tony nods, processing the information tinted with that shade of umber
Watson emits a high-pitched, cloudy whine, and Tony turns around, patting his thighs in the universal 'come-hither' gesture for dogs. The setter bounds out of the water, shaking himself vigorously. Tony giggles as Jarvis wrinkles his nose, swiping a few droplets off the pages, hastily catching his glasses as they slip off his face.
Watson, however, throws himself on top of his owner, rubbing his wet fur across the boy's jumper.
Tony's giggles turn into squeals of protest, and he pouts as Jarvis attempts to hide his smile behind the book.
He meets them as he's walking down the corridor.
One of them is quite short, with dark hair and a pair of glasses sliding off the edge of his nose. He looks nervous, but his eyes are kind and sympathetic and...knowing as he looks at Tony. The other man is tall, in a military uniform. He's almost the opposite of his companion - tall, blond, but his face is achingly sad and so, so kind.
"Who are you?" Tony asks them.
The smaller man's eyes widen, as if he wasn't expecting that question, but the other man - he looks a bit like Captain America, know he thinks of it - smiles a bit awkwardly and crouches down. His blue eyes shutter as Tony flinches away on instinct, because how many times has Dad done that, shaking one of the robots or little things Tony made in his face?
"I'm Captain Stevens," the man rumbles softly, his voice a deep cerulean thrum, baritone and soothing, "And my friend here is Doctor Potts. You must be Tony."
The other man - Doctor Potts, was it? - winces just slightly, a wry smile making the corner of his mouths curl up. But the Captain is extending a large hand for him to shake, and Ton figures that it's only polite to shake it, even if these men are yet another example of the faceless, nameless people who wander this house.
His hand drowns in the warm and firm, yet surprisingly gentle grip of the man. The surprise must have shown on his face because the man smiles again, even sadder than before.
The other man, Doctor Potts, kneels down as well, leaning in just slightly into Captain Stevens, and he too, shakes Tony's hand.
"You're your own man, kid." he says, voice a rich red, eyes pained as he stands up again, "Remember that."
Tony frowns. All the others were comparing him to Dad, saying how great he'll be when he follows in Dad's footsteps.
But the Captain is smiling again, and Tony feels drawn to it, compelled to look at him, the man with that sad, sad smile.
"Don't be sad." Tony blurts and immediately backs away, because he shouldn't have said that-
The man shakes his head, but his face is a fraction lighter.
"I'm not sad, Tony," he murmurs, that ocean blue staining the air around his head like a halo, "Because I know that one day, you will be a hero."
They get up and leave, hurrying down the hall as Tony stands there, speechless.
"You can blow out the candles and make a wish!" Mama says, voice hushed and smoothed into a barely-there violet melody. She cards her fingers through his hair, delicately weaving through what she and Ana and Aunt Peggy tell him are proper curls, like the ones on those old pictures Mama shows him, the ones from where she comes from. Tony can never get enough of them, or the stories she tells him with each photo.
He looks at the candles, face scrunched up, trying to think of a wish.
I wish... that I could meet Captain America, he thinks, and takes a deep breath.
All five cherry red candles sputter out, and the room erupts into pumpkin orange cheers. Watson barks happily, but Jarvis quickly shushes him.
Mama gives him the knife to cut the cake as Aunt Peggy and Ana start to sing happy birthday, diamond and amethyst. Jarvis and Mama join in a beat later.
Tony pushes down on the knife, the blade sinking into the dough. Jam oozes out of the cut. He pulls the knife out, setting it aside for later inspection. He pokes a finger at the jam, scooping some up despite Jarvis' pointed glance, and shoves his finger in his mouth.
It's sticky, sweet, and very, very raspberry.
Tony devours two slices, gets jam everywhere, and is hauled off by Jarvis to wash his face and hands. By the time he comes back, it’s time to open the presents.
Tony makes an unashamed beeline for Jarvis' blocky present, wrapped in red with a gold bow. He sits down next to it, and begins to unwrap it. He undoes the bow, then takes it off, setting it aside. After that, he promptly rips the wrapping paper open, but carefully folds it and places it next to the ribbon. He examines the contents and tries not to squeal, because he's big, he's five, he oughtn’t make those sorts of noises anymore. However, the grin spreading across his face couldn’t be stifled if he tried.
It's a book on engineering, an immense encyclopaedia on the history of science, and a stack of Captain America comics.
He rams into Jarvis, who swings him up and lets out a surprised but pleased salmon oof. Jarvis sets him down after Tony starts wriggling, and smiles.
"I’m glad you liked it, Tony." he says, a pleased bubble of raspberry red, like the jam in the cake that Tony can still taste on his tongue, seeds stuck in between his teeth.
Tony’s brow furrows. Jarvis has never called him by his name before, always just sir. Something warm blossoms in his chest, and he buries his face in Jarvis’ shirt again.
Ana’s and Jarvis' collective present is The Lord of the Rings, with a note in Jarvis' spidery handwriting proclaiming For when you will understand it. There’s an equally spindly doodle of Watson on the back. Ana gives him The Chronicles of Narnia and the complete collection of Sherlock Holmes. Mama’s is a pendant of a lightning bolt that tinkles with gentle rings of rose-gold. There are some circuits and wires on behalf of Dad. Aunt Peggy's present is squishy, blue paper crinkling around the soft contents. He tears the star-patterned wrapping paper apart.
It's a teddy bear, with a shield and a tiny, star-spangled costume. Tony glances at the wrapping paper, suppressing a snicker. Peggy eyelids droop, barely for a second, but quickly her eyes twinkle cheekily at him. Aware of the conflicted expression on Peggy’s face just a moment earlier, Tony hugs the stuffed animal to his chest, grinning. Her eyes light up again, and his heart unclenches as he shuffles over to her for a hug that she gives him readily.
"What are you going to call it?" she asks when he pulls away, a sly smile on her face, fiery orange sifting out from her lips.
He thinks for a bit, feeling the soft golden fur under his palm and against his neck.
"Captain…” he pauses, then feels the most wicked grin on his face. “Captain Abearica."
Peggy chuckles, a strong blood orange, but with a wisp of sad amethyst curling around it.
"Tony," Dad says, unable to keep the anxiety out of his voice, "This is Obadiah Stane. He's my new business partner; he’ll be living with us, for now."
The man is tall, with a grey, neatly trimmed beard. His eyes glitter coldly, contrary to the wide smile on his face.
He doesn’t have any hair, Tony realises absently. The man seems to be doing alright without it, all huge smiles and loud noises. He doesn’t know what Jarvis and Ana were so worried about, that stuffy day in the kitchen.
Besides, what sort of treatment - 'surgery', they'd called it - takes away hair?
The man - Obadiah, or Mr. Stane as he’ll probably be told to call him - crouches down.
"Hey there little man," he says, and Tony opens his mouth to protest, but closes it again as shards of yellow sink into him, "Tony, right? Call me Obie."
The boy nods, eyes flicking between the man - Obie - and the fragments of lemon yellow that pierce the air.
"You look like your father," Obie says, sounding faintly amused, scrutinising him, "but you've got your mother's...shall we say, presence."
Tony blinks, unable to contain his surprise.
No-one has ever compared him to Dad.
Obie’s laugh is a booming, acidic-looking-pineapple, sort of affair. Tony looks over to see his dad's mouth flatten dangerously.
Obie's nice. He lets Tony get away with stealing bits of scrap machinery from the workshop. Brings him odd little machines and electronic trinkets with a smile, ruffling his hair and saying in a deep mustard baritone "Use them a couple of times before you take them apart, would you, smart guy?". Got him pizza from New York when Dad took him to his first Expo, telling the flashing cameras and jostling reporters what a genius Tony was, you should see the engine he built last week, while Dad told Tony to smile, not answer any questions, not tell anyone anything.
Obie's there, tutting and frowning when Dad tells Tony that he's a disappointment of a son, good for nothing more than taking stuff apart, destroying all of Dad's work, stealing it and then ruining it.
He even apologises after he tries to take Tony away from Jarvis and Ana to meet his nephew, Ty.
Tony likes Ty, Ty and his peroxide-white mercury for a voice, Ty and his ability to keep up when Tony rambles about his ideas for machines, for all the ways they could rescue Captain America. Ty even makes the odd suggestion, sometimes, and sometimes Tony listens.
But he will never, ever, replace his family. Not his real family, not Jarvis, not Mama, not Ana, not Watson.
It's a nice day, Tony thinks vaguely.
The cars outside are a distant steel-blue thrum, metal glimmering under a wide azure sky.
Dad is off to try and find something. Captain America isn't a something, he's a someone Tony had said, and Obie had laughed, clapping him on the back.
"Already outwitting you, eh, old man?" he'd boomed, a tsunami of acid yellow, stinging, and Dad had grimaced, glaring at Tony.
They'd left, ignoring his pleas to be allowed to come with them.
Now, he's sitting with his face plastered to the window while Ty and Greg are whispering in the corner, and he knows they're talking about him.
He's younger than them, but seven isn't that much younger than ten. He's not a baby, he can hear them.
They're still whispering when Mr. Stone comes to get the three of them to go outside.
In the elevator, Greg makes faces at Tony's back, while Ty pretends to frown, but he's shaking with silent laughter. Mr. Stone is reading the newspaper, he doesn't notice. Well, Tony hopes he doesn't.
Tony pretends he can't see them in the ceiling mirrors.
"What did he say?" Dad hisses, rounding on Jarvis, who snaps his mouth shut with an audible click, eyes narrowing and glinting a dangerous green.
Tony makes a small sound of protest, because it's hardly Jarvis who should get yelled at; Dad whirls around, an awful, roiling cloud of purple and yellow and green and grey. Maybe having more than one colour, maybe it would be pretty, on another person, in another world, but the truth is that, right now, the oil-slick rainbow of colours dancing around his dad makes Tony feel sick to his stomach. The drink he's holding is sloshing, and there’s a dangerous look on his face. Tony doesn't back down. He hasn’t done anything wrong.
Too late now.
"I don't like him," Tony repeats, scrunching his nose as he remembers the sickeningly sweet man, with that look on his face that practically blared out to the whole world how important he thought he was, "'Cause he was pink. A, a really, really, bright pink. It hurt."
Dad snarls, sets the glass down. The drink inside splashes out a bit and he growls in frustration, a serrated blade of charcoal ripping out of his throat. Tony winces, like it struck him in the chest. Think of pretty alabaster Ana, sweet amber Jarvis, white-summer-cloud Watson, he urges himself, but all that comes to mind is that sick, oily rainbow, the colour of bruises on skin.
Meanwhile, his dad advances. Tony backs away, away from the cloud hanging dangerously around him, tendrils sneaking out. He doesn't like the bottles, the ones that are always empty by the end of the night. They make his dad like this, angry without good reason. Tony hasn't done anything wrong, maybe Dad doesn't like it when he-
Mama flutters in, her words lavender-soft.
"Howard- What are you doing?! Anthony-"
The man looming over him sneers, and the pain that flares across Tony's cheek sends him reeling. It’s a crimson slap that sends him spinning into the desk, the corner sliding like a knife past his eyes.
Maybe-real colour drips down, onto his hands, drops of wine from his body, his body, the bottle.
He can’t see anymore. It’s all red, his blood, the slap, his sobs, pulling him into a boiling sea of carmine, growing deeper and deeper by the second. What matter is a riptide in the open ocean? What matter is the depth when you’re drowning? What matter is the difference between a boy’s body and a bottle when one is so much easier to hit?
...My son is messed up, Maria, he's fucking crazy, he's hearing colours - what normal kid does that?
He doesn't understand. Colours are real. They're there, they've always been there. He’s just too stupid to see it, Tony thinks angrily, but stops himself. He could, if he wanted to. They’re obvious. Mama's lavender petals, Jarvis' soothing ripples of amber, Peggy's dark amethyst, Obie's burning yellow, Dad's-
That man with the thundercloud, the bruise, isn't Dad anymore.
It's this Howard, not Dad.
It's that stuff, that drink. The bottle. Tony looks down, at the wine sliding down his forearm. He wipes at it, fiercely trying to get it away, away from him. It just moves around until it coats his whole arm and his other hand. He stares at it, the way the light shines off it, how it slowly oozes out of the cut in his skin.
He remembers his mum telling him once, in stressed, clipped tones of mauve, when he asked what Dad drank all the time, that it was like wine. It was like wine, you know how silly grown-ups can get at dinners when they drink a lot of it? It’s like that, except a bit stronger. Just a bit stronger, you don’t have anything to worry about, mio cuore.
She had sounded awfully worried, her usually soothing italian spiky.
His blood splatters on the floor, and mixes with the liquid already there.
Tony picks himself up, on autopilot, unaware that he's moving until the glass is a solid weight in his hand.
He turns around.
Give me my Dad back! he hears someone scream. There’s a fresh surge of red, and the glass shatters on the floor. It’s not wine. He looks at his arms now, a thin layer of blood having dried already.
It’s not wine.
He's dimly aware of the arms around him, the scent of cinnamon and citrus and fresh linen, and he slumps, the struggle going out of him.
Jarvis bursts into the kitchen, eyes blazing. Ana doesn't look up from her task of dabbing at the cut on Tony's cheek with antiseptic, even as Jarvis drops heavily into the chair.
"You're going to boarding school." he says tensely, a hard terracotta edge to his tone.
"He's eight!" she cries, turning around, pressing a little too hard and making Tony wince, "And- all the other boys will be at least four years older! God knows what they'll do, he's smarter than them, and we-"
Ana breaks off. She sucks in a sharp breath, staring far too long at Tony’s face, making him squirm uncomfortably.
"Ana." Jarvis says, eyes dull, their usual vibrance gone.
Ana closes her eyes for a second, hand hovering shakily over her chest. Tony reaches out to try to take her hand-
Aunt Peggy slams the door open, her harsh breaths as red as her lips, and Tony drops his hand in surprise, jerking away.
"He can't stay here." she almost shouts, eyes flashing.
Silence reigns, ringing loudly, in Tony's ears, a harsh, oppressing bank of nothing. The absence of noise is accented by an absence of motion, a mournful snapshot of the suddenly dark and dreary kitchen.
"We'll visit you," Jarvis says finally, the first time the adults in the room had addressed Tony. He looks at Jarvis, lines creasing his young forehead. Ana stoops over, to kiss it, but it doesn’t smooth out.
The robot wobbles unsteadily across the kitchen table, whirring gentle grey and warm whisky swirls Tony watches it, wide-eyed. It sparks a bit, topples, but Jarvis catches it, hand darting across the table. The ring on his little finger glints, the K insignia flashing in Tony's peripheral vision.
"Has it got a name?" he asks with a puff of auburn fractals, pushing the robot into Tony's outstretched palm.
Tony's mind flashes back to the film he had watched the other day, tucked in between Jarvis and Ana - Sherlock Holmes. The actor's voice was butterscotch and pineapple (and perhaps a hint of silver? That might have been the kettle’s whistle.)
"Sherlock," he blurts, "Uh, Holmes."
He glances over at Jarvis, who has a sort of half-smile, eyes soft.
"I believe Watson would like that." he murmurs, nodding at the setter curled up in the basket near the door.
Without thinking too much, he reaches out and catches Jarvis' hand in his own. It’s a childish gesture - one that Howard assures him he should be ashamed of. He knows Jarvis likes it. Jarvis wraps his own hand, still infuriatingly large, around Tony's, squeezing gently.
"Will you take Mr. Holmes to boarding school?" the man questions, and the words are that sad rusty shade again, one that Tony is becoming far too familiar with.
Jarvis’s fingers tighten, a spasm, as something twisted flashes across his face.
Tony gives him a stiff shrug, suppressing the shard of panic that lances through him.
Jarvis closes his eyes, briefly. Tony gets up sharply as a tear rolls down his cheek.
The butler stands up, wiping it away with the hand not holding Tony's, which he tries to tug away. Tony clings on stubbornly, even as he wraps his arms around Jarvis, holding on fiercely.
"Love you," he says bluntly, by way of consolation.
Jarvis presses a kiss to the crown of his head and exhales a shaky wisp of coral.
"And I you, my dear boy." he says, the words glowing a soft amber.
Tony closes his eyes, trying to ingrain the colour in his mind.
The dorm is freezing.
Figures, since it's about minus five degrees celcius outside and snowing. Copiously. And since there's no-one here except Tony, a cat, and a few janitors, the school is saving money on heating. Meaning that Tony's reduced to huddling under the blankets he stole off the other beds with a flashlight as he leafs through the comics Jarvis gave him for his birthday seven years ago.
He's got little notes stuck in everywhere, analysing every bit of each scene, idle doodles, thoughts.
Mostly, they are just ways they could find Captain America. Scanning, thermal sensors, things that could be possible in just a few years.
After all, there have been people in space, on the moon, feats of engineering so impressive that his head swims and Ty jokingly tells him that Tony's salivating, but there are people in space, the astronauts looking out at the world-
What if they could get a super powerful telescope to look for a body in the ice?
He reaches for the pen, doesn't find it, and spends the next minute searching for it, dislodging the carefully constructed tent from around him and onto him.
It becomes stifling very quickly as he thrashes to get the heavy folds of material off of him, the dense fabric suffocating-
A burst of frigid air hits his face and he flinches, panting mist and burgundy into the room.
He takes the opportunity to squint at the large, imposing clock on the far wall, it's ticks regular slashes of brown. Jarvis and Ana had promised to come and visit him, and were due at about five, their letter said. It had taken him far too long to decipher Jarvis' unusually messy handwriting. It was always like that, a bit like a scrawl, but that letter had looked like he'd done the whole 'take a spider, give it a bath in the inkwell, and then set it off running on the paper' thing.
It's half past four.
Tony sighs, and burrows under the blankets again.
Find a girl, start a family, be a good American citizen. Make weapons, protect our country.
Tony felt the bitter twist in his chest as he remembered those words, hating them so viciously that he wanted to write them down and then burn them. Write them down and then rip them to pieces. Write them down and then destroy them until he hurt, until everything shriveled up and died in the face of his hatred.
He dimly remembers Jarvis' words, spoken so long ago while the cut on his cheek burned with iodine and alcohol. Do not let his words get to you. You know those suits that astronauts wear? They are impenetrable, correct? Even space cannot get to them. Now, Master Anthony, you are wearing one of those suits, and they are designed to withstand the pull of nothingness, because space is a vacuum, and a vacuum is nothing, but it is dangerous. His words are nothing, and you can withstand them.
But Howard won.
He always won.
Stark men are made of iron, boy. Don't give in to emotions, or you'll be just another sensitive weakling, like you were. Don't give in to anyone, you hear me? Or you'll be food for the vultures. Don't think with your dick either, but I know you will.
The bottle of brandy stands untouched on his bedside table.
He's coughed up enough of the stuff to last him a life-time, after Howard pinned him down and made him drink it, forcing the burning liquid down his throat while he retched and spluttered.
Gays don't drink, Howard had sneered, that slick, oily rainbow crawling through the air like a predator, as he'd wrenched the pictures out of Tony's grasp and slapped him across the face with them, You're not one of those fairies, are you, eh, boy? This'll put some hair on your chest.
Then he'd seen who was in the pictures, and all hell had broken loose.
How dare you! Howard's voice had been painfully close to a shriek, and he had clutched the photographs to his chest as he backhanded Tony, eyes savage, How dare- you absolute-
The string of insults that had followed were so creative that Tony had laughed, burst into hysterics, shame burning through him, worse than his aching jaw, worse than the crude words that spilled from his sadly very sober father's lips.
He sees right through you, the voice in Tony's head jeers, Sees how useless you are, what a failure, that even your own father can't stand you.
But he's wrong, he thinks fiercely, I'm not gay. I like girls too.
It's confusing. He likes girls, but he likes boys. Both like that.
He doesn't get it. Being normal but being - that - at the same time.
The bottle is still sitting in front of him, taunting.
He gives in.
Picks up the glass.
Crushes it, pain lancing through his hand and up his arm and attacking his brain, the crunching noise a dull purple.
Takes the bottle in his unsteady right hand, his left bleeding everywhere.
Lifts it to his lips, the liquid sloshing ominously, muddy bubbles popping like viscous lava.
They burn like lava.
It's not there.
The one with all of Jarvis' letters, and Mama's necklace, and the books, and the comics, and the little doodles and scraps and photos.
He charges out of the room, already knowing deep down what has happened to it. It makes him sick, makes him feel violated, makes him feel like a part of him has been ripped away.
He's there, in the hallway, a glass in his hand. He's more rumpled than usual, soot in his white hair, dazed.
"What did you do to it?" Tony growls, marching up to him, the scent of heavy liquor and smoke invading his nostrils and making him want to retch, "WHAT DID YOU DO TO IT?!"
He doesn't care that he screamed, doesn't care that the whole house can hear, because all he can look at is his own father, as Howard's face changes from glazed to equal parts gleeful and disgusted as he immediately cottons on to what Tony's talking about.
"Burned it," he slurrs, toasting the air with the half-empty tumbler. It's only ten in the morning, and his voice is already the colour of bile, spreading out through the air, "Burned the whole, pathetic lot, boy. You gonna be a little sissy forever?"
Tony stalks back into his room, slams the door shut, shoves his dresser in front of it and screams himself hoarse into his pillow.
When the anger stops, the tears come. And when the tears abate, he's got nothing left.
Tony is half-way through a lesson of advanced physics and bored out of his mind when a short, balding man pokes his head in. It’s the headmaster.
"Mr. Stark," he says softly, a slithering grey cloud, and worry slams into Tony at his tone, not the usual you've just royally fucked up by making something explode and/or punched someone in the face and I will now proceed to gleefully punish you because I really hate your sorry ass but I am so sorry for your loss, now bye bye, "There's someone here to see you."
Tony scrambles out of his seat, throwing his things into his satchel. He barely keeps himself from running for the door, but still almost collides with the headmaster.
They walk quickly - Tony almost trips over his own feet trying to keep up - towards one of the offices, unease slowly crawling its way up Tony's throat.
The door squeaks open, and Jarvis doesn’t even turn around, face gaunt and hopeless-looking.
"It's Ana." he says, hoarse, ragged citrine, "She's - she’s gone, Tony."
The world crumbles.
Jarvis and Howard are talking in low tones to the Director of MIT, their colours muted by the wall into vague monochrome shapes as he waits in the corridor.
They don't show any signs of letting up anytime soon, so Tony gets up, pacing up and down the five metre stretch of wall, kicking a discarded catalogue out of the way, and avoiding the stray students running past.
He gives up with a frustrated growl, flopping back down onto the chair, knee bouncing up and down, and he can't get it to stop.
He growls, forcibly pushing it still, then crossing his legs, the movement jerky, uncoordinated, his edginess seeping out of him and permeating the atmosphere, thinning it out until he can't breathe.
His foot starts to wriggle, rubbing dirt into the jeans covering his thigh.
"You okay man?"
The burst of green startles him, making him jump and glare at the owner of the offending voice.
The kid reels back when he sees Tony's face.
"-Hey, aren't you Tony Stark? You okay? You're like fifteen though, what are you doing here?"
"Which of those questions would you like me to answer?" Tony snaps, sliding off the chair and drawing himself up to his full but admittedly unimpressive height. He's a good three inches shorter than the student.
The kid shrugs, but his eyes are sharp as he narrows them at Tony.
"Okay, platypus," Tony starts angrily, feeling a vicious thrill of satisfaction as the student gapes at him in offense, "Yes, I'm Tony Stark, yes, I am okay, yes, I'm fifteen, and I'm here because I'm waiting for Daddy dearest to finish bullying your Director into submission so he can ship me off to here. Got a problem? And who the fuck are you anyway?"
The kid glares at him.
"No," he drawls, "I don't have a problem, I was just asking if you were okay. You're the same colour as the wall, by the way." he nods at the white-washed wall behind Tony, "So just saying. And I'm James Rhodes, not platypus."
They stare at each other for a few seconds, then burst out laughing, red and green mingling in starbursts, like fireworks.
Once they start, they can't stop, and they laugh until Tony's wheezing and clutching his sides, borderline hysterical from nerves and the weird cocktail of resentment and hope brewing in his chest. Rhodes is crying, keeled over, teeth flashing white, and as soon as they make eye contact they start off again-
I wish Ana could see this. Hey, Ana, I'm bonding! Get the fuck out of your grave!
Tony's tears turn into something else. He is definitely hysterical now.
They calm down after what seems like an eternity, still giggling faintly.
"Why," Rhodes starts, hiccuping and wiping his eyes, "The hell am I a platypus?"
"Your hat," he says, pointing at the floppy, knitted abomination sitting atop Rhodes' hair, "Compared to your clothes, compared to your shoes. Seriously, your fashion sense puts a platypus to shame."
Rhodes stares at him.
"I really don't see the connection, but okay." he says slowly, a wave of careful verdure, "And since I'm only right here to be, quote unquote, "some prodigy's handler" I guess...Welcome to MIT, Mr. Stark."
Tony gapes at him, because he's been accepted into MIT, holy shit-
"Thank you very much, Mr. Platypus," he says faintly, and Rhodes rolls his eyes, "And you are officially dismissed as my handler. I'm a big boy."
"No you're not."
"Age is just a number!" Tony squawks indignantly.
"I was thinking more about your height."
Blue used to be my favourite colour.
Now I ain't got no choice.
It's all he can think about.
The single, charred necklace, stained red.
December 16th, 1991.
121691 121691 1216911261691121691121691-
He wants to scream.
He has screamed. Cried himself hoarse. Drowned in so much expensive whiskey that he can't think straight, can only see those frigid blue numbers swirling round and round and round like a carousel. Reality has long since shattered and put itself back together, but it's all wrong, shifted imperceptibly, wrong on a base level that he doesn't understand, like he's looking in a mirror and the reflection has a life of its own.
It should have been him.
Edwin Jarvis, who'd lost so much but kept on giving. Jarvis, who was just a butler but so much more than that. Jarvis, cat-like but a dog person to the core. Jarvis, who drank tea whatever the weather and sang along to the radio. Jarvis, who quoted Shakespeare to prove a point.
Be great in act as you have been in thought, he had said, King John, Act Five, Scene One.
Well then, Tony realises, feeling his face twist, Time to shine.
The river looks dangerous.
The ice has cracked, he realises. Or maybe it just hasn't frozen yet.
He's already drowning. The cars behind him are a creeping fog of steel-blue. The river is swimming - he snorts at the macabre pun - in front of his eyes, too close but too far.
Now is not the time for paradoxes.
But then again, isn't everything one big paradox? One big hypocritical lie?
Life is cromulent.
Trying to make peace with chaos and war.
Trying to make a better person with harsh words.
Creating life for it to die.
Loving someone only for it to fade.
Being kind just to be selfish.
In the end, it all boils down to you.
How you see everything. How you interpret it. How your brain interprets it.
If he closes his eyes, technically nothing exists. He can't understand the photons that are bouncing off everything and back into his eyes, so they're not there.
If you don't exist, then nothing exists.
Except not at all.
There's a word for it, he remembers Jarvis saying: sonder. The realisation that every life is as complex as your own.
Every person is a little universe that forms a big one.
Everything links together. One big jigsaw. You spend all your life picking up the pieces and not even realising it, just some people fit them together, make links, see the bigger picture that's really just a tiny part of an infinite one.
The human brain is a miracle, he thinks, staring out at the water, it's like every person has a little office, their own little oblivion, in a way. Their brain. You get little parcels of information and you file it away, into little sections. The way you picture the world outside depends on how you file these packets, how you interpret them, what they contain.
He likes that.
But stars and suns and moons and planets and eventually these universes die.
Stars aren't yellow.
Well, technically, they can be almost any colour, even red white and blue-
He giggles faintly. Maybe Captain America will be in this ice, and will save him.
But stars aren't five-pointed and coloured in with a nice bright yellow by massive celestial babies-
That's not an elegant pre-suicide thought, he admonishes himself, Here lies Tony Stark, or what's left of him, and his last thought was about massive babies crawling through the Milky Way and colouring the stars in yellow.
They are blue, when you see them in the sky.
Blue like the sky. Blue like the ocean. Blue like blue roses. Blue like the eyes in Aunt Peggy's stories. Blue like all things deep and mysterious and unattainable.
Blue like the river beneath him. Blue like the ice. Blue like the screech of cars behind him as he vaults over the railings.
It's always been blue.
Because he's drowning in it.
It's like a heartbeat.
A simple heartbeat.
Tony opens his eyes.
He tries to move, but he can't, he's drowning.
Is this hell?
Just white walls, blue water.
He manages to turn his head, and there he is, Rhodey, with wet hair and a puffy face.
The pain slams into him, and he can't breathe, can't think, can't see anything.
But that's not it.
Something is wrong, the foundations that he's built his world on have shattered.
Something is missing, a massive support, the base, the thing that his world revolves around, the centre stone, whatever you call it. It's missing, and everything is crumbling around him.
He shifts, and the bed creaks hideously.
Rhodey jerks awake, inhaling sharply.
Rhodey with his soft green aura.
"You're awake," he says softly.
It's not Rhodey.
It can't be.
He's got no green anymore.
Then it hits him.
That's what's missing.
The beeping is just plain noise.
But how is that possible? Is this what life is to everyone else? Devoid of that core bond?
White walls, blue water.