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it should follow, you know this (like the panels of a comic strip)

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Four, and he builds a circuit board while no one’s looking, bounces off the walls and hangs from the chandelier, clings to his mother’s leg, steals Obie’s watch. He doesn’t look too hard at his father and his father doesn’t look too hard at him, but everyone knows Tony Stark, Howard’s boy, a terror on two legs and a toy car he built himself. He learns the word prodigy too soon, the way it sits on his tongue, the way it beats out a pattern against the thin-dry lips of every nanny that slips in and out of the mansion and Tony can take care of himself, can’t he, can work the stove and rewire the thermostat before he learns to read.

 

He’s adorable except for how he isn’t, except for how he tries for cute and pushes past it to exhausting (his mother’s hands, his father’s eyes, and Obie sighs and looks away--)

 

Eleven, and he moves too loud or talks too much, there’s math he shouldn’t know scrawled on the cover of his spiral notebook, twined in the scrape of his fork on the dinner plate. Everyone knows Tony Stark, lunatic, shithead, baby, and someone should’ve known better than to send a kid his age to high school. But no one ever looks too hard, do they, and Tony’s small and fast and smart and everyone says it’s better in college so he hides in places no one looks, folds his body into the scaffolding of the bleachers, tells the maid he blacked his own stupid eye.

 

No one ever teaches him the rules, never even tries, he’s always above them or under them or beyond them (and he wouldn’t have listened anyway, so why should anybody bother--)

 

Fifteen, and he learns to drink too much, sick over a railing of a dorm room that isn’t his, and someone must take him home, must put him to bed, because everyone knows Tony Stark, golden boy, golden ticket. He wakes up reeking of beer and stale cigarettes, pressed against his own walls, covered with design sketches and proof sets like always, one busted-old poster of Black Sabbath in the back corner, and goes to breakfast with his hair flat and wilting, sunglasses over his eyes. He feels like parts of him have been left unrendered, loose ends brushing together and it’s awful, it throbs up in his chest and Tony is a lot of things but he’s not good at being less, but when he catches his reflection against the glass of the nearest window, he looks like someone else.

 

His father dies and Obie’s hand tightens on his shoulder and he should feel something (he’s sure he will, he just can’t yet, not yet, almost—)

 

Twenty one, and everybody knows Tony Stark, inheritor, billionaire, falling into his lap like he’s Midas by mistake and he’s got so much to prove that he can’t prove anything, smiles on the magazine covers and builds what Obie tells him to, mostly. It’s all warmth that’s cold in the right light and Tony’s not built himself enough sharp edges yet, burns his lips on a joint and his fingers on a carburetor and his heart’s been flaming out for years already, sparking strange colors like he’s doused it in something, and maybe he has, he probably has, that sure sounds like him.

 

He builds himself machines to talk to, and that’s the truth (no, really, that’s the truth).

 

Thirty, and Pepper’s so young, so eager, it’s all “Yes, Mr. Stark,” and “No, Mr. Stark” and “Will that be all, Mr. Stark,” and it’d be easy, a hand on her back, a compliment or four, a wine and dine that’s mostly wine, it’s not like he ever holds onto assistants anyway. Wouldn’t even ping the radar, because everyone knows Tony Stark, party boy, playboy, only she’s not like that, doesn’t push for pieces of him, picks them up instead and leaves them strewn across his worktable with little post-it notes, instructions. A week turns into three turns into six turns into twelve and he doesn’t fuck her, forgets he ever wanted to, because she’s just Pepper and she’s better to talk to then a machine and she keeps trying to teach him the rules, not succeeding but trying, at least, and he can appreciate the effort.

 

“You always like this?” says James Rhodes, and Tony smiles over his sunglasses, doesn’t answer (and if a little it’s because he doesn’t understand the question, well, okay, fine, these things happen--)

 

Thirty-six, and really there’ve only ever been three people—Rhodey by accident, Pepper by necessity, and Obie, bigger than his father, warmer, standing so close that there’s never really any air. Everybody knows Tony Stark, genius, inventor, and somehow they’re always photographed together, the two of them, Tony and Obie, and there’s something not-quite-right but it’s not quite wrong either, needs better lighting, or worse. He shifts on the balls of his feet when Obie smiles, doesn’t know why, can’t put a finger on it, but then again he’s drunk and he’s never got the hang of people anyway, and he trusts his father’s judgment, whatever it might say about him.

 

If he’s honest, he’d trade it, do the cave a second time (but he’s not honest, is he, just brilliant, always, and he can’t help that it’s not lost on him, the literal heart from his literal chest--)

 

Forty, and he loves too much, not enough, everything and nothing, courts death with the slowing breath in his lungs, with the poisoned blood in his ears and everyone, everyone knows Tony Stark, but no one does, and he likes it that way, that’s what he wants, he’s always wanted it, of course he has, and if no one taps on Iron Man’s mask and says, come on out, Tony, we miss you, we need you, that’s good, that’s perfect, why would they, they’re right.

 

He has one shot, doesn’t he, to be someone else (and he says, “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” because of course he does, what choice does he have—)

 

Forty-one and he wants, desperately, achingly, in the suit and out of it, saves lives and days and stops breaking hearts because he can’t help it, because he’s been there, now, because everybody knows Tony Stark, difficult, asshole, except maybe Tony Stark himself. He’s two people, three on days when it suits him, pours eccentricity into coffee cups and spins it all out across his workshop table and Steve, light hair catching sunlight and little wings on the side of his head and yeah, Tony’s brilliant, he’s always been brilliant and it’s useless, isn’t it, always.

 

“I trust you,” Steve says, and Tony’s not sure if it’s to him or Iron Man (but that’s hope tightening in his chest, feather soft, wings on the side of a helmet, and isn’t that just—)

 

Forty-two and he’s tired, bone-deep, skin-thick, and everything works and nothing does and who cares if everyone knows Tony Stark or not, because everyone knows Iron Man, knows the Avengers, and half the time it’s clean-up and no dares be a critic, so everyone is. His workshop’s cut raw, strangled, too much time and too little space and Tony builds circuit boards in his dreams, runs for the bleachers, four years old and fifteen and standing at his father’s funeral in the tattered rags of someone else’s expectations and he wakes up gasping, sweatsoaked, to Jarvis letting the light in through the windows, Steve’s hands on his shoulders and he breathes in once, twice, three times—

 

“Morning,” Steve says, and Tony doesn’t speak, shouldn’t, can’t, but Steve hears him, doesn’t he, somehow (and Tony doesn't know the rules, still, not ever, but hey, as it turns out, he can build them).