1. Rhodey (he told)
Rhodey is the first person who ever sees the Arc Reactor(after Yinsen, but Tony is too broken in those first moments to even chance thinking the man’s name, so no-) kinda had no choice really, his shirt was pretty much gone by the time Rhodey pulled him into the only close-to-honest-to-god-hug they’ve ever exchanged.
Tony wouldn’t-shouldn’t really-remember much about what happens after that except he’s had nearly twenty years of practicing drunken memory recall, and as Y-no. As someone once said, he’s scarily good at it, so dehydration and concussion is so easy.
So, pressed in a heli-raptor surrounded by a smash of camouflage and sand that’s never looked so beautiful, shock blanket that’s a brighter colour than anything he’s seen in a quarter of a year and damn does that hurt his eyes-huddled against the floor, trying with everything he doesn’t have left not to press desperately into Rhodey’s side because-that’s not the way I role Tony-shivering in forty degree heat, Rhodey’s hand on his shoulder the only anchor he has anymore-don’t think about it, nope, so not thinking about that-through all that he somehow doesn’t forget to shield-oh the irony-his chest from potentially prying eyes-really people, yes, recently recovered kidnapped richest man alive but really? Somehow it never occurs to him to hide it from Rhodey.
On the plane home-no doctor thanks(don’t think about it, never think about it, not thinking about it)-he lets the blanket slip down further, his loose-shouldn’t be but is-fatigue shirt inadequately thin to hide much of anything, let along something that glows like a spot light in fog, lets Rhodey’s eyes fasten on the device, lets his engineering degree and 169 IQ points process the evidence before his eyes and draw his own conclusions.
Tony’s mouth opens slightly to start talking, a name forming on his lips, but sleep finally catches him before he can utter a sound, a warm hand pulling the blanket securely back up.
In the morning he thinks.
Then Rhodey tells Obie, and their lives go to hell.
2. Pepper(a moment slipped by)
Pepper is the only person after-not thinking about it, can’t think about it-, and before Bruce who ever touches the reactor.
Tony likes to think that he’s always been in love with Pepper, but years later they will both freely admit that they are the very epitome of the old and tired but so true maxime-is love really enough? Or maybe for them, should love be enough?
They go for it, whatever it is, and Pepper is there for so many nightmares and yelling and silences and swallowed sobs and he knows he’s no good for her but fuck if he isn’t going to try nobody ever accused him of being selfless now did they.
Tony opens his mouth to tell her that first day, her hands cupping his heart, forms the first letter, breaths out a sound, watches her face open up to him like a spring bloom, curious and open and waiting, and something breaks in him.
Something broken shatters and he’s back in that cave and he’s right there and he just can’t.
His heart rate shoots up in a cascade of beeps and Pepper starts to match is own panic and the moment is lost.
And keeps getting lost for two years.
And they give it a good shot, they really do, Pepper is so good and so amazing and Tony adores her and always will-
But there’s always that first moment, that first disconnect, and it haunts them right to the final moments, when Pepper looks at him with tears in her eyes and says “I love you Tony, but I can't-please, just talk to me. Please”
And Tony opens his mouth to deny, to fix and repair and try, the fragments of their relationship in shards of broken hearts and shouted accusations, but not that, not what she’s asking, he just can’t, won’t.
There are some parts of Tony that he just can’t share with her, this woman who’s held his heart. He can let her hold his heart, but he can’t give that heart to her. He just can’t. Some shattered piece of him, the piece that never really left a cold dank cavern in the Afghani mountains, whispers that perhaps that is because it was never his to give.
She deserves better than that. They both know that.
They both know that Rhodey's been asking Pepper to hang out lately, and that she's been accepting more and more. They both know that Tony is more than a bit in love with Bruce for all they've known each other all of a month.
They both know know they aren't what each other needs, not anymore.
Tony closes his mouth carefully, hitching the collar of his thick flannel shirt higher across his chest and nods jerkily. It's possibly the most adult and mature decision he's ever made, letting her go. Setting her free to be happy. Pepper’s quiet kiss on his cheek feels like a benediction, oddly tempered with bittersweet regret.
It never quite stops burning.
They aren't saying goodbye, not by any means. But they will both look back one day and wonder what might have been.
3. Fury(and Howard)
You are my greatest creation.
Tony knows Fury means well, he really does under all that black leather and swagger and seriously Tony hasn’t hero-worshipped anyone that hard since he was ten and wore Bucky Bear pajamas and he’s really good at hiding things like that so screw it, he totally drools a little internally over the cool factor Fury seems to exude out of every creaking swish of that ridiculous coat.
He knows Fury’s trying to help-with the ulterior motive of trying to recruit him to save the world, but whatever-but trying to rehabilitate Howard was completely the wrong way to go about it.
All Tony feels when he finally hears the only praise or remotest sign of affection he’s ever gotten from his father is bitterness. And an overwhelming urge to scream “You didn’t create me dad! He did!”-don’t think about it, can’t think about it, won’t think about it.
Tony comes too surrounded by the remains of a projector smashed across his lab, the quiet voice of Agent super nanny filling his ears.
SHIELD saves his life, and Tony sort of wants in on the action, but Fury pulls a Howard and cuts him off with barely a lifeline and it’s on the tip of Tony’s tongue to throw Howard’s words back at Fury, but the man’s one good eye slides to Tony’s chest-something he hasn’t so much as glanced at even through the whole dying neck stabbing trioxide thing-and Tony’s suddenly just tired.
He gets drunk enough that night to completely trash what’s left of the lab, his blood mixing satisfyingly with shattered glass on the floor, the house eerily quiet. Tony slumps helplessly against his Dad’s old car-the one that Tony never told him could actually fly after Tony’s second spring break from MIT-and the name just slips out.
“Yinsen” It’s more a whimper than a plea, a disintegration and a prayer and a curse. It’s the first time he’s said the name outloud since the man died saving Tony. He repeats it louder and harder and louder again until he’s almost screaming it.
Not even Jarvis is there to hear it this time.
4. Bruce- He didn’t need to
If there was anyone in the world Tony would have pegged as the one he finally talks to, the one who finally learns even Yinsen’s name, it would be Bruce.
From the first moment he met the man, he knew-like that little redhead orphan in those books he totally hadn’t spent his entire thirteenth year obsessed with, he knew instantly when he’d finally met a kindred spirit. His kindred spirit.
He said Bruce spoke English. What he really meant was that Bruce spoke Tony.
He’s never met anyone else who even knows the alphabet for that.
Bruce is everything Tony’s ever not-imagined. Brilliant, smart, funny, gorgeous, snarky as hell, sly, compassionate to the point of ridiculousness…did he mention smokin’ hot??
Bruce should have been the one he told, just like Bruce was the one it took him twelve minutes to realize it had taken him 12 seconds to fall in love with.
But it wasn’t.
Bruce reminds Tony of Yinsen so much all the time it always hurts like rubbing vinegar in a raw burn-somehow, it’s the most comforting sensation Tony can remember feeling in, well, ever pretty much.
He’s known Bruce all of two days-long enough to shower and crash into the same narrow bunk in his lab-the first time the man sees him cry. Tony hasn’t cried in front of someone since. Well, he doesn’t think about that.
But there’s the whole sleep thing, and flying a nuke into space apparently set his night terrors filter one full open, because he wakes up sometime in the afternoon following the Battle of New York wrapped up in a tangle of sweaty terror and green tinged skin, and a soft litany of hoarse “It’s okay, I’ve got you, I’m here, You’re fine, Just Breathe, Follow my voice, I’m right here buddy, focus Tony, come on, come back” in a loop so smooth it barely seems to pause for breath-and how long has Bruce been trying to wake him?-and all Tony can think to say is “did I say anything?”
The panic is either clear in his voice or filters through onto his face-Tony kind of suspects it’s both-because Bruce rapidly shakes his head in a negative, breaking off his litany of reassurances, his face a placid mask of calm like one of those still pool lake things. He doesn’t let go though.
That all should have led to…something. But all that happens is Bruce carefully letting go of Tony after another long pause and heading towards the kitchen-how he knows the way it anyone’s guess-throwing a casual “Blueberry okay with you” over his shoulder that’s so much more a statement than a question leaving Tony pale and sweaty but somehow more bemused and intrigued than frightened or panicky anymore. Tony lets a hand settle convulsively over his heart-don’t think about it, can’t think about it, won’t think about it-and consciously lets out a breath.
He catches up to Bruce in the doorway-the man must be the slowest ambler in history because it’s all of ten feet from the bunk-throwing a deliberately casual arm over his quite possible soulmate’s shoulder, his voice filtering through the air before he fully designs the thought “You mean pancakes right Brucey Bear?”
Bruce’s laughter really does sound like a whole symphony to Tony’s tone deaf ear.
Full up on more pancakes than he cares to admit-which is actually more solid food than he’s consumed in roughly six months but who’s counting(actually Sir, it’s been seven months, three days, two hours-shut up Jarvis)-Tony finally gets a chance to show his newly christened Science Bro Candyland-aka Tony’s personal lab which he’s already ordered new decals for declaring it “Science Bros’ land of awesome”.
As he watches Bruce survey the space with an awe that is carefully tempered with enough insight to be incredibly sexy Tony wonders privately it one can get drunk on blueberries.
Not drunk enough apparently because the persistent ache in his chest that’s been nesting below his non-existent sternum since Big and Green roared his Arc back into functioning chooses that moment to ratchet up to a whole new circle of hell. Tony likes to think he has a pretty good poker face, but apparently Bruce is a ninja as well as frighteningly good doctor, because his vision is suddenly full of rumpled greying purple curls and sexy beyond all reason concerned bespeckled pools of chocolate and Tony really needs to stop waxing poetic here.
Bruce doesn’t touch him, doesn’t even seem to breath really, his eyes firmly focused on Tony’s and he begins to wonder exactly what he did say the night before, and Tony doesn’t know what possesses him because he’s known this man for all of two whole days nobodies touched him really since Pepper that one time with the wires and Obie so doesn’t count but really somehow does, and he’s Tony Stark and he hates to be handed things and it must be the blueberries-
And he’s totally reaching out to firmly grasp Bruce’s right hand, drawing it deliberately over the circle of light encircling his heart, not even a hint of a tremor in his voice as he breathlessly challenges. “Wanna see?”
And somehow that still sounds sexy even though his lips are turning blue here, and Bruce honest to god smirks even as the concern in his eyes plasters itself firmly across his entire body, hands moving to brace Tony and his legs begin to sway and this is so going to hurt but what the hell.
The kiss is certainly not the most graceful of Tony’s life, nor the longest, and it’s probably the only time he’s ended an amorous embrace by collapsing at his partner’s feet, but it’s still the single hottest kiss of his life. Spontaneous fainting and all.
Tony wakes up to beeping and it’s quiet and he’s lying on something cold and for a moment he thinks-not thinking about it, nope, not thinking about it.
But then Bruce is there and when did that have time to become so reassuring and the thought’s in his consciousness before he can stop it…
Yinsen would have loved him.
Tony pretends the tears are from the pain-which is rather breathtakingly spectacular but Tony’s perceptions are kind of wacked these days-, and somehow he doesn’t even flinch when Bruce wipes them away with infinite care.
5. Coulson (+team=family)
They’re in a cave. Of course they are. Tony just has luck like that it seems. They’re in a cave, and Bruce is unconscious, and the Arc Reactor is shorted out. Seriously, past tense on the shorted. It’s dead.
Seriously, they’ve been in this rather large-it’s more a cavern really-cave for five frikking minutes, and somehow he’s already good as dead. That’s got to be a record.
Tony’s an expert at dying quietly-mostly-and somehow they’re still all gathered around him and Bruce, who Tony’s pretty much laying on top of because if they can hurt him who knows what they can do to Bruce in this state and he can’t lose Bruce too-don’t think about it, not thinking about, will not think about it-and Steve is bleeding just plain old red across the floor and Natasha’s arm is pretty much well barely attached and Clint is so spaced he can’t see straight and Thor can’t lift Mjolnir-neither can anyone else, hence the reason he’s clutching it rather desperately with both hands-and they’re pretty much royally fucked. Not even so much as an AA battery in sight, much less a car.
Tony doesn’t really have time to process how pathetic it is that they’ve been defeated by a homegrown, human terrorist cell who’s only agenda is a rather ridiculous cap locks slogan on Facebook that reads-God never mentioned aliens!-and Tony doesn’t even know where to start about that from the fact technically only one of them actually is an alien, to the fact that whole slogan offers a loophole of plausible deniability you could drive a planet through, to the fact they’re still using shotguns!-or the hypocrisy of the fact they’ve supped those up with enough Hydra tech to literally knock out the Hulk.
This all flashes across his rapidly fading mind, taking a significant back burner to the fact Steve is crying into his hair-seriously, WTF??-or Natasha appears to be hugging him-what she can reach over Bruce anyway, must be the anoxia-all of which is nothing to the rather quiet thump that heralds their-fastest in the history of ever, it’s seriously been seven minutes here but by all means please hurry up-rescue.
The rock-honestly, it’s really a large stone-covering the entrance doesn’t so much implode as it quietly and rapidly disintegrates into dust before their eyes, revealing an immaculate, remarkably not dusty suit topped with a poker face that would put Daniel Craig to shame, not a remaining hair out of place, something that suspiciously resembles a paper clip held in one hand, no other sign of a weapon.
Understandably, their 25 guards fall over themselves satisfyingly literally in their haste to be the first to surrender.
They still aren’t fast enough to beat Tony too it, because two minutes of heart beat left or not he’s frigging fast when he wants to be, even dragging an unconscious nuclear physicist and tied down by an archer attached to his ankle, and that’s all the warning Agent gets before half the Avengers are welded to him like string monkeys, the others split seconds behind.
Tony’s vision is almost gone, slipping faster by the second, and he can’t make out what Phil says, but it doesn’t matter. Words float across his vision, echoing in his ears. Do you have a family Stark?
Tony’s arms slip as his visions finally greys out, and as he feels a myriad of hands reach out to steady him, as bitter tears cascade a torrent down his face because they aren’t the hands he wants so very desperately in that moment, they aren’t-don’t think about it, can’t think about it, won’t think about it.
Tony feels his mechanical heart stutter out just as his reply slips past traitorous lips-he only makes it half way, but the last thing he hears for a long time is the echo of his own “yes” reverberating through his heart, pumping stronger than blood.
And 1. Not wasting it
Tony’s been off bed rest for two days-longest two months of his life to date, thanks Brucie-allowed in his lab for all of twenty minutes when the Winter Soldier falls out of his ceiling. It's more of a gracefully coordinated tumble, but Tony still has an overwhelming urge to bang his head on the desk, but he has to settle for swaying precariously instead and suddenly there are strong arms around him and one of them is distinctly metal and who saw that one coming?
Tony being Tony, he doesn’t panic. And calling for help doesn’t even enter his sphere of multi-stream thinking.
Bucky-because that’s who’s holding him, has to be, hair’s too short for anything else-solves that problem for them by yelling loudly enough for Steve to temporarily deafen anyone within a mile.
And that shouldn’t have worked at all, but Jarvis is a sly sneak.
The gang must have been completing drills while Tony was layed up because it takes them precisely 24 seconds to assemble-in their pajamas and mostly unarmed but who’s counting-arrayed around Tony’s lab like a nativity scene, with Bucky and Tony serving as the center piece.
And there’s yelling and threats and tears and laughter and hugs and the whole nine yards but somehow Bucky is the one who places Tony carefully in bed and freaking Tucks Him In!, and it doesn’t take Tony’s genus level intellect to figure out that maybe they’ll all be okay now.
Don’t get Tony wrong, Bucky is so broken he makes the rest of them look like a poster for mental health. But somehow, he still manages to fix things nobody had even realized or dared to acknowledge were broken with terrifying efficiency.
He makes Clint finally kiss Coulson in front of the team. He convinces Natasha to sit beside Bruce for movie night that one time.
He asks Bruce to make Strawberry pancakes instead of blueberry one morning, and Bruce’s eyes suffuse with so much green anyone sane would flinch. None of them are so it’s not a problem.
The pancakes are inedible, but Bruce consumes ten in one sitting. Bucky has twenty.
He slips Fury a pass to the tower that Tony didn’t even realize existed until the man is standing in his kitchen in an apron making cookies. Seriously, Tony swears that’s weirder than Doom’s orange were-chipmunks.
The cookies are phenomenal though. And how Fury knew that cranberry carrot almond crush was Tony’s favourite is anyone’s guess. Even Tony didn’t remember that.
Bucky reminds Thor of Loki somehow, but that fixes something inside the God-and the weather around New York most of the time-without either of them really having to say a single word.
He convinces Tony to see a therapist, which turns out to be Bruce because apparently the man found time to acquire two new doctorates and three board certifications in between saving the world, but still.
Pepper considers giving him the Nobel Peace Prize for that one, which isn't quite so far fetched when one takes into account the frankly world changing and rather staggering efforts Tony-and-Bruce have poured into bio-medicine, clean energy, and nuclear clean up since Bucky fell into all their lives.
He makes Steve laugh.
And Tony may have gotten off on the wrong foot with Captain America-when he was like five-but he kind of adores that little guy from Brooklyn.
He makes Tony realize that Bruce is totally his Steve.
He makes them all better, in so many, many infinitesimally, world changingly small ways.
He makes them realize they’re a family.
Bucky stops by the lab every day, brings lunch. Tony even eats it sometimes. Bruce is there half the time, but he’s taken to drinking his afternoon tea with Natasha and Fury and wasn’t that an unusual friendship circle but Tony really isn’t one to judge, and he’s practically welded to the man the rest of the time, so really he can’t complain.
So, they’re sitting there, Tony tinkering with new wings for Sam while picking at pieces of cucumber and pickle and Bucky is systematically lining Tony’s screwdriver collection up by alphabetical order of colour.
Tony’s reaching for another piece of spiced onion when he suddenly realizes the meditative clinking has stopped. He meets Bucky’s gaze, and follows it back to where his shirt has been pulled sideways by his reach. The Arc Reactor glows blindingly even under the lab’s rather bright purple lights-Bruce’s idea, really.
Tony’s never actually tried to hide the Reactor from Bucky specifically, but he does his level best to never draw attention to it most times, doesn’t matter who he’s around, and really he should just adjust his shirt and pretend nothing happened. Bucky certainly won’t bring it up.
Except Tony’s been there. Been there for Bucky’s waking nightmares and Steve’s systematic destruction of alternate Hydra cells and indestructible punching bags. Been there for the times Bucky’s panicked so far he’s literally attempted to rip his arm off. Flesh and metal alike.
Been there for the time he begged Bruce to just take the thing off, and then screamed continuously for an hour when anyone so much as looked at it the wrong way.
And he knows a thing or two about being awake for something as horrific and life changing as becoming part cyborg.
And somehow impossibly Tony understands, in a way no one else ever can he desperately hopes because he wouldn’t wish that on anyone. And Bucky understands too, except-
Except Tony knows with unshakeable certainty the man who did this too him was trying to help him. To save him. That he cared, probably more than anyone Tony’s ever met. That he cared about Tony in the end. That he made him the man he is today. That he created him, forged him, saved him. That he made him better. That he loved him.
And Tony can’t imagine not having that, and the look in Bucky’s eyes is so freaking sympathetic and haunted and angry and painful and fuck it-five years and change, this is the very least he owes the man who gave his life for him.
Don't waste it.
“His name was Yinsen.” The name comes out broken, raw, agonized, keening. Tony isn’t sure who flinches harder, him or Bucky.
Bucky’s gaze rips from Tony’s chest to his face, questions flitting in, unvoiced forever it Tony so chooses and Tony feels a surge of something he hasn’t felt quite like that for over five years. There’s pain in there, he knows that one. And gratitude. And hope. And something that might just be love.
Tony shucks his shirt off without a second thought, stepping firmly into Bucky’s personal space, grasping his left hand and carefully tracing the metal fingers against the metal of his heart with a distinctive clink. Holding Bucky’s hand steady, he begins talking.
“There was a weapons demonstration and I decided to be cool and ride in the Funvee. We were ambushed and it was really noisy and I was stupid and left the car…”
Tony can’t stop thinking about it after that. Can’t stop thinking about hi-Yinsen. He’s almost okay with that.
0. He didn’t have to
In the end, however ironic or inappropriate it is, Tony isn’t captivated by the figure in the photograph. He isn’t blown away by the enormity of what his Team, his Family has done, what they have proved. No, in typical Tony Stark fashion he misses all that, cause he’s busy.
As excuses go though, this one turns out to be pretty darn good in the end.
In the midst of not-reacting, Tony tears the picture from Bruce so swiftly the Hulk is a little intimidated, blowing it up holographically in such quick succession that Jarvis almost seems to read his mind. It’s breathtaking and incomprehensible and so Tony that the team plus four barely bats an eyelash. They’re a little disappointed perhaps, but they’ve never tried to change Tony. They’ll never know how much he loves them for that.
But as much as they are not batting an eyelash, none of them are prepared for what happens next. And none of them can prevent the physical jaw dropping which follows, as Tony whirls towards them and blinds them, a smile the like of which none of them have ever seen, not even Bruce. Because, for the first time in a great many years, Tony Stark is smiling like the sun, and it’s actually genuine. And he’s sharing it with them. It’s unlikely that anyone has ever been so touched in the history of New York, or so Clint verbalizes.
Over Tony’s shoulder, magnified to the point of blurring but still so clear, larger than his head, but somehow completely missed by the Family that is forming in its shadow, is the cause of that smile.
The picture is scuffed up, tattered and torn, spiderweb cracks and pixels distorting across the holo projection floating up from the common room’s floor. The man in it is slight and bespeckled, a morose expression across his face, clothes dusty and worn. A scar traces its way up his neck. The only thing seemingly remarkable about the image is the fact it’s the only photograph in known existence of this individual. None of that is the cause of the smile however.
No, that honour goes to a small tourist advertisement in the top left corner, stuck to a tacky billboard behind the man’s left shoulder, advertising suspect sounding rooms at “super low rates”. It’s so trivial it’s laughable, but for one small detail.
There’s a date at the bottom. It’s blurry and hard to make out, but there really is no mistaking the last two digits, the blurry edges of a one blending into the twisted remains of the loop of a two.
The last time Tony Stark has the opportunity to tell someone about Yinsen, he doesn’t have to even try.
He simply smiles away half a decade of heartbreak, and lets Yinsen introduce himself.