It’s difficult to love when you have the debilitating habit of hating yourself. Tony Stark is self-aware enough to understand this about himself, but he doesn’t have a single clue as to how to fix it.
All he knows is that he will die alone someday.
It’s a truth he’s known for a very long time, and he hasn’t been proven wrong so far. It’s been long enough that he doesn’t think he ever will be.
The first time he meets Scott Lang, he isn’t prepared for how handsome he is.
Maybe he’s not the strong-jawed, chiseled-out-of-marble type of handsome like Steve is, or rough-and-rugged like Bucky, but he’s handsome all the same. The kind of handsome that makes Tony feel good about the world for a moment, as if the world is a better place just because he's in it. Tony stares into Scott’s wide, surprised eyes and feels a smile crawl across his face before he can think about it.
When Scott’s mouth quirks up in a nervous smile of his own, Tony feels lost and found at the same time.
It’s terrifying, but he thinks he could get used to the feeling.
Tony doesn’t really know what to do about his crush (and it is a crush, despite how many times he ignores Bruce’s knowing looks and Sam’s smug smiles), so he figures he’ll just wing it. Let it run its course. He’ll get over Scott at some point.
This is routine. He knows the steps. He’d done it with Rhodey while they were both still at MIT, Pepper during her first two years as his PA, Bruce when he’d invited him to live with him after New York, and even Steve for a short while when the whole team had first come to stay at the Tower.
Tony has never been sure why he gets attached so quickly and so viciously; if maybe he’s incredibly fickle-hearted or just gets too easily bored with people, but either way, there must be something wrong with him. It’s been pointed out enough times by the people he’s seriously dated, so it’s not like he was making up the facts.
Tony falls easily. It happens. All he has to do to fix it is allow himself to shower Scott with attention and affection until the feeling goes away or Scott actively avoids him.
This is routine. He’ll get over him at some point.
Both Pepper and Rhodey don’t think Tony’s crush on Scott is going to go away anytime soon.
“You look at him differently, Tony,” she tells him gently from where she’s seated on the sofa chair across from him, nursing a cup of steaming Earl Gray. “Not to be cheesy, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen you look at anyone like you look at Scott.”
Tony rolls his eyes and doesn’t look up from where he’s absentmindedly sketching new armor ideas on his StarkPad. This is the enth time that Pepper and Rhodey have tried to broach the topic with Tony, and while he’d been able to evade them before, his luck has clearly run out. “Was that supposed to not be cheesy? Because it sounded cheesy. That was a lot of cheese,” Tony says, trying to sound casual despite the fact that he can feel his heart beginning to beat double-time and the tips of his ears burning up. “And I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t look at him different.”
Rhodey sighs from the other end of the couch and stretches his legs out to nudge Tony with a foot. Tony swings his own legs up over Rhodey’s and nudges back. “You kind of do, man,” Rhodey says. “You always look at him like you’ve never seen him before. Does the term 'lovestruck' ring any bells for you?”
Tony huffs and taps on the screen a little harder than necessary. “Yeah, okay, you two? Clearly don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s a tiny crush. It’s the same thing I had on the both of you, and maybe like the one I had on Bruce. It’ll go away, so chill out about it before you give me hives. Yeesh.”
Rhodey chuckles and sits up a little. “Hate to break it to you, Tones, but those weren’t crushes. Infatuation, possibly, but not actual crushes.”
“Uh, did you forget about all the blatant flirting? And the stalking? There was definitely stalking going on while we were both living on-campus,” Tony says defensively, hunching his shoulders.
“Tony, flirting is your default. It comes as automatically to you as breathing. It’s just the way you’ve conditioned yourself to interact with people because it’s what you think they expect of you,” Pepper says, and Tony wants this conversation to stop right now. He didn’t stop paying for therapists just to gain two more for free. “What you felt for me and Rhodey and Bruce—and even Steve, Jesus, don’t think we didn’t notice that—was you wanting to be friends, not wanting to be in a relationship. There's a difference.”
“Pretty sure you weren’t even actually attracted to any of us, either,” Rhodey adds fondly, and Tony looks up to frown at him. “Yes I was,” Tony says petulantly, restraining himself from giving into the urge to stick out his tongue. “You’re all attractive, ergo, I was attracted. How is this even up for debate? I’m taken with any and all lookers, remember?”
“Sure you are,” Rhodey and Pepper say at the same time. They give each other a look and laugh, and Tony is not amused at all with how they’re ganging up on him. He frowns some more at the both of them, but they ignore him. Pepper gestures with her mug as she continues.
“I don’t think you ever mooned over my hair, or Bruce’s eyes. Not even Steve’s ass, Tony, and I've seen Natasha herself appreciating it a few times. You never mooned over Rhodey either. Especially not the way you’re doing it over Scott’s… everything,” she says, sounding incredibly amused. “We were the results of your strange, yet weirdly charming way of going about making friends. Scott Lang won’t be ending the same way because you like him differently. You like him as more than a friend.”
Tony taps away at his screen and pretends he can’t hear what they’re saying.
“He’d be good for you, Tony,” she says encouragingly after a while of silence. "I'm even thinking that he already is."
Tony is struck suddenly by the memory of the easy way Scott laughs, and something in his chest tightens. He has the urge to rub a hand over the reactor scars just to make sure a gaping hole hasn’t suddenly opened there.
“He’s too good for me,” Tony says quietly instead, selecting all the ideas he’d just drawn and swiping them into the trash aggressively. There was a growing weight in his chest, and it was making his fingers tremble and his voice shake.
Pepper and Rhodey glance at each other, at the tense way Tony was holding himself, and drop the subject.
They don't bring it up again for the rest of the night.
When Scott brings Cassie over to the Tower to introduce her to Tony, the weight in his chest tightens even more.
Tony has never thought he would ever be good with kids. In fact, he avoids them whenever he can get away with it, which is usually always. Harley has been the one and only exception so far, and that’s because Harley is a little shit and kind of reminds Tony of himself. Not to mention the fact that Tony had really needed any kind of help he could get at the time and therefore had no choice but to accept it from this little kid who was too smart for other kids his age, but not old enough to be taken seriously by adults.
Tony could relate. They had a connection, after all.
But Scott... Scott treats his daughter like the world begins and ends with her smile. Tony doesn’t remember ever seeing a happier kid than Cassie Lang. She’s all quick giggles and bubbling excitement, and her dad beams like nobody’s business whenever he’s around her.
Tony knows that every time Scott puts on his suit, he does it to fight, and he does it to fight for her. No one could ever doubt that there isn’t anything he wouldn’t do to keep his kid happy and safe. This is why Tony doesn’t understand how Scott can look at him with such admiration in his eyes when Tony could never even begin to compare to that kind of love.
And Tony knows he never will. He’s been compared to his father enough times to know that while he might be a selfish, arrogant, asshole, he will never voluntarily put any child through what he had to go through. The world didn't need another Howard Stark, and it certainly didn't need another Tony. So for once in his life, he did the world an actual favor and permanently removed the possibility of children a long time ago.
(Tony has never regretted his decision, but whenever he sees the way Scott smiles down at Cassie, he knows that if he could be a better a person, Scott Lang is the kind of father he would want to be. He wouldn't take his choice back, of course he wouldn’t, but the way Cassie’s eyes shine as Scott teaches her the names of the different kinds of screwdrivers makes him wonder sometimes.
He tries not to wonder for too long.)
Tony wakes up from a dream about Scott one day and feels like shit.
It’s already distant and fuzzy by the time he blinks himself into awareness, but even though he can’t remember what he’d done or what Scott had said, he remembers the wary look in Scott’s eyes, the disgusted expression on his face, as he ducked away from Tony’s touch and left without looking back. Tony’s chest aches when he sits up, and he feels like throwing up; he doesn’t get out of bed just so he doesn’t have to look at his reflection in the mirror.
The only thing Tony can think about as he curls up under the sheets is the inevitability of dying alone someday.
He's terrified, but after all he's done, he knows he probably deserves it.
Once he can find the energy to drag himself out of bed, he immediately hides away in his lab and has JARVIS initiate lockdown for the rest of the week while he tries to get himself together. They’ve done this before, so it’s old hat at this point. JARVIS will keep the world away from him for a little while.
Tony spends his time manually working on his armors so he can fall into an exhausted sleep every night.
He wishes these periods of sadness weren’t so familiar, but he always does when he finds himself in them. You’d think he’d be better at dealing with them considering how he’s had them for most of his life, but it is what it is. He'll get over it.
He finds himself avoiding Scott once he has JARVIS remove lockdown.
It's pathetic, and he knows it. It was only a dream. But every time he opens his mouth to have JARVIS call him, all he can see is the stiff way Scott had held himself as Tony reached out to swing an arm around his shoulders.
Tony tells himself that Scott is better off without his constant badgering anyway, and goes back to work.
A week goes by and Tony has turned to avoiding social interactions whenever he can because he doesn't know how to answer questions about how he's feeling. Bruce drops by his lab to check in on him at some point, and only has to ask when Scott is coming over once before he realizes that it's a subject he needs to stay clear of.
Tony's grateful, he really is, but he can't deal with the looks of concern Bruce is giving him, so he feigns sickness and retreats back to his bedroom.
He drags the blanket over his head and leaves everyone else's calls and messages unanswered.
Another week passes before Tony realizes he's still not snapping out of his funk. He ignores JARVIS' increasing reminders about returning everyone's calls and goes back into lockdown.
He just needs more time, is all. Just a little more time.
Tony grabs a bottle and starts pouring himself a glass.
“Sir, Colonel Rhodes is requesting—”
“Sir, the Captain has been inquiring—”
“Tell him to shove it where the sun doesn’t shine, J, I’m busy.”
“Sir, Mr. Barnes says that he believes his arm may be in need of mai—”
“Mute,” Tony slurs out, waving weakly at the ceiling and knocking an empty bottle over in the process.
“Sir, Mr. Lang has left another message,” JARVIS intones quietly.
Tony pours himself another glass and doesn’t bother responding.
He doesn’t know what day it is anymore.
Rhodey groans awake at the shrill sound of his phone going off on the bedside table. He reaches an arm out and blindly grabs for it.
“‘llo?” he mumbles groggily, mushing his face back into his pillow and hoping that it isn’t the government calling him in. Wilson, Barton and Thor had brought him out drinking last night and he didn’t think he was completely sober yet.
“Good morning, Colonel, this is JARVIS speaking. I apologize for having woken you at this hour, but I believe sir is in need of assistance.”
Rhodey swears and rushes to get ready.
When Rhodey gets to the lab, the doors are open and Tony is lying on the floor next to a small puddle of vomit.
“Jesus, Tones,” Rhodey sighs, before bending down to wrap Tony’s arms around his neck and heaving him up on his back.
He gets him cleaned up and pours him into bed.
Pepper calls him.
“JARVIS told me. How bad was it this time?”
“Think 2003, but without the hospital trip for alcohol poisoning.”
“Oh, Tony,” she exhales worriedly, and Rhodey can only agree with her.
Tony wakes up incredibly disoriented and with the kind of hangover he hasn’t had in a long time.
“J?” he rasps out. “J?”
“Good evening, sir. You are currently in your bedroom in the Tower. Colonel Rhodes came and helped you into bed this morning.”
“Rh’dey w’s here?”
“He is currently having dinner in the kitchen with Ms. Potts.”
“‘kay,” Tony mumbles, feeling small. Now that he’s no longer blackout drunk, the empty feeling in his chest has returned. It’s threatening to swallow him whole.
He doesn’t want it to.
He goes back to sleep.
It takes several more days and JARVIS, Pepper and Rhodey’s constant mothering before Tony’s mood starts to lift.
It’s the first time he’s dropped so low since before the shit-show that was the Chitauri invasion, and Tony is worried that the team will look at him different. The thought keeps him in his lab, but he doesn’t tell JARVIS to go back on lockdown, so it’s still an improvement, considering.
Everyone drops in at some point or another over the next few days with varying levels of believable excuses, and they all leave once they’re satisfied that Tony is okay. No one gives a hint of their perspective on him having shifted even a little bit. Instead, they all make sure to touch Tony in some way, let him know without saying anything that they're there for him. Natasha even gives him a kiss on the cheek after dropping off her Widow Bites.
Steve is the last to drop by, and when he arrives, all he does is smile and hand Tony a calling card with a doctor's name and number printed on it. Steve tells him that the doctor works at SHIELD and that he visits her thrice a month, or more if he feels like he needs it. She also sees Bucky regularly, and, every once in a while, even Clint, who was the one who recommended her to Steve and Bucky in the first place.
While Tony still doubts he’ll have someone to settle down with, the thought of dying alone doesn’t seem so true anymore. Not when there's a small card lying on his desk proving him otherwise.
Tony’s life so far might have been a continuous train of clusterfucks, but he thinks he’s really struck out when it comes to the friends he’s made. That, and he’s still kicking, isn’t he?
So he has JARVIS schedule an appointment and begins working on upgrades for the team's weapons.
(He stubbornly refuses to think about Scott. The damage was done. He’d pushed him away.
Self-fulfilling prophecy, and all that.)
“This isn’t the way to the restaurant.”
Tony doesn’t like the look Rhodey slants at him. Or the smirk currently resting on his face.
“Oh, I know.”
Tony’s mouth drops open in betrayal. He didn’t.
Rhodey pats at his thigh consolingly and Tony slaps his traitorous fingers away. Done in by his own best friend. How could he.
“It’s for your own good, man,” Rhodey says, and Tony knocks his head against the window with a groan.
He doesn’t hear the snick of handcuffs because of it.
“Why do you even own a pair of these? Have you actually been kinky this whole time and secretly withholding your deviant sexual misadventures from me and Pep?”
Rhodey doesn’t even bother responding as he pulls the car to a stop. He drags Tony out of the passenger seat, dumps him on the doorstep, and plays ding-dong-ditch as Tony gestures violently at him until he drives away.
The solid feeling of the door behind his back disappears, and Tony looks up to find Scott looking down at him in confusion.
“Um, hi,” Tony says, lifting his arms to wave a cuffed hand.
Sitting beside Scott on the couch as he picks the lock on the handcuffs, Tony suddenly feels incredibly conscious of the bags under his eyes and the dishevelled mess of clothes that he’d thrown on for the day. Not that he could do anything about it now.
Tony watches Scott work, taking in the small furrow between his brows and the look of concentration on his face that always appears when he’s focused on something, which. Huh. Tony hadn’t even known that this was something he knew, but apparently, somewhere between the denial and the adamant belief that he was going to get over him, Scott Lang has become someone comfortably familiar.
He finds that despite everything he’s told himself, Tony doesn’t want that familiarity to go away.
“I’m sorry for the... radio silence. This past month,” Tony begins shakily. “I’ve been—”
Scott cuts him off just as the handcuffs click open and Tony startles. “I know.”
“What?” Tony asks, because what?
Scott places the cuffs on the coffee table and smiles at Tony, the corners of his eyes creasing in a way that makes Tony want to lean over and kiss them.
“Pepper said you weren’t feeling so well and that you just needed some time and space. It’s okay, Tony. I get it,” Scott tells him, an earnest expression on his face. “She also said that you can be about as thick as a brick wall when it comes to emotions, so I was wondering if, um,” Scott looks up at the ceiling as he stumbles over his words. “If you were free tonight? I mean, Rhodey said you would be, but you know. I figured I should still… ask.”
He rubs the back of his neck and smiles at Tony sheepishly.
“I—what?” Tony repeats, feeling dumb, but incredibly confused. There was a hopeful feeling in his chest he was trying to smother. “But I’m not—you deserve better, Scott. Don’t—”
“If I deserve better, then that means I deserve you,” Scott says seriously. “You’re a good man, Tony. You’re just—you’re a really good guy, okay? You’re smart, and you’re funny, and you’ve got this really big heart, and I don’t think you hear it enough because even though you act like an asshole, you make these really mean comments about yourself sometimes that I think are supposed to sound like jokes but they actually don’t, and it makes me want to spend fore—a long time just telling you how great you are. Because you are. Great, I mean.”
Tony’s eyes are stinging. His hands are shaking. He doesn’t know what to think, what to say.
“And,” Scott says after a pause to catch his breath, “I really would, if you’d let me. Because aside from being a really great guy, I also kind of, um, like you. As more than a friend, I mean. Like a lot. Like a giant, metric-ton kind of a lot. And Cassie likes you too, which is a feat, because she’s incredibly picky with who she likes.”
Scott beams when Tony looks up to meet his eyes.
“But we can stay friends if you don’t like me back,” Scott adds hastily. “I just figured you should know. You keep saying that you’re doomed to die single, but you’re way too much of a catch for that to happen.”
Tony wants to say something, but he feels like if he opens his mouth something stupid might come out. Like a sob, because he is this close to crying. Scott laughs nervously and rubs at the back of his neck again, dropping against the back of the couch with a huff. “Was that, uh, was that too much? That was probably too much, god, I’m so sorry. I’m terrible at this.”
Tony bursts out laughing and shakes his head, rubbing at his eyes with one hand as he does the same.
“No, no, that was—thank you,” Tony says, turning his head and quirking his lips up. “Thank you.”
Scott scoots over until Tony’s side is a line of warmth from where their shoulders down to their thighs touch.
“Sure thing,” Scott says. He goes quiet for a moment before hesitantly adding: “But, um, about that date…”
Tony laughs and says yes.
Tony doesn’t think he’s ever been so relieved to be proven wrong about something.