Larger than life.
They say that a lot, in the interviews and social media posts, when they talk about meeting Tony Stark. (Who’s ‘they’? Well, everybody, of course.) Shorter than they’d expected him to be, in person, but with a presence that makes him seem like... more. More than a regular celebrity, more than a man, more than a person - something big; something brilliant; something that’s already left a blazing mark on history.
He’s a genius, they say. He’s incredible; he’s a master of mechanics; he’s a titan of technology; he’s a god of innovation and invention. He’s the personification of the future, they say. He's the world’s knight in shining armor.
Tony Stark is going to take humanity to the stars and beyond, just you wait.
That is, when they’re not condemning him for being a murderer, a monster, a merchant of death, and a man who’ll build the tools of the next apocalypse by mistake. A complete and utter fuck-up of a human being who’s going to fly too close to the sun and take the whole fucking planet with him to burn.
Tony doesn’t know which one he believes - both, he thinks, although the former feels like fantasy and the latter feels like hell so also neither. Which mostly just makes him feel very, very human.
They seem to forget that - everybody, including Tony sometimes - that Tony Stark is a human being. Because he’s not just a regular human; he’s Iron Man. He’s a household name and figure - a small god - who made himself a suit of armor and simultaneously invincible. He can blast fire from his hands; he can fly; he can see almost everything at once; he can take a hit and keep on coming; he’s Iron Man.
There was an interview once upon a time, where they asked either Natasha or Clint what it was like being the only human Avengers. Usually Tony forgets interviews - they blend together in a haze of fake smiles and judgement and camera flashes - but he remembers this one.
The way Bruce had hunched further in on himself, not even surprised, only increasingly strained and weary and resigned.
The way Steve had frozen momentarily, stilled in his blandly friendly Captain America Smile, which had made Tony’s mind flicker briefly towards ice.
The way Thor had frowned ever-so-slightly, the way he did sometimes when he thought his Allspeak had missed a nuance or he’d misunderstood something again.
The way Clint had stared disbelievingly for a moment before chuckling awkwardly as Natasha, her face and persona as perfect as ever, had leaned forward to give a sardonic answer that elicited a few laughs.
But most of all, Tony remembers the way his stomach had dropped and his lungs had squeezed and his heart felt for a moment like the shrapnel had finally pierced it. That single moment of time-stopping thought, where he’d realized through a photogenic smile: ‘Oh, I’m not human.’
Of course he’s not human, he’s Tony Stark. He’s Iron Man.
So well-known and renowned a celebrity that he’s practically public property by this point. Bigger than his body; larger than life. A superhero. A superstar. A small god. If gods could be made from belief alone, Tony Stark really would be immortal... invincible... inhuman.
People forget. It’s understandable, really. Tony forgets too sometimes.
And then he’s reminded, so forcefully that he wonders if it’s some kind of fatal flaw - arrogance to the point of hubris - that he keeps forgetting. He wonders how he ever could have forgotten. Yeah, it’s probably that hubris at work.
There’s one moment in particular that stays with him. It’s not a big moment, or a lengthy one, but it stuck its claws into his memory and he hasn’t been able to get it out since. A small, intrusive thought.
When he first met Thor, and they’d gotten into that moronic grudge match that Tony partly hoped was at least slightly prompted by Loki, there’d been this moment when they’d clashed and... well... Tony hadn’t had much problem with going toe-to-toe with anyone before. In the armor, at full-strength, he was all but invincible. He could fly; he could toss impossible weights around; he hadn’t lost an arm-wrestling match since.
But Thor had met him and matched him; Tony’s armored arm was caught and held by a bare hand. Bare hand. Supposedly-unstoppable force met actually-immovable object and realized: oh, shit.
In Thor’s hand, Tony’s invincible armor had gone crunch.
Metal squished and wires sparked and Tony had watched it with a distant sort of anger and wonder and disbelief at being so easily ripped from the pedestal he’d been too happily put on. It was... humbling, to say the least. To watch his blood, sweat, and tears forged to metal just go... crunch.
Every once and awhile, Tony will look down at his wrist and imagine what might have happened if that had been muscle and flesh and bone.
Yeah, Tony felt human then.
Just like he’d felt very human when Loki had picked him up like a rag-doll and thrown him out a window effortlessly, and he’d been falling through the air with the memory of that cold, overpowering vice around his neck.
Just like he’d felt very human against the unending Chitauri army, being increasingly and increasingly driven towards one more hit away from being another limp, broken body on the shattered street.
Just like he’d felt very human falling through the portal, back to Earth from the endless expanse of space. So impossibly human, with all the weight of the unlikeliness and smallness of his existence. They say Space Is Big, but... you don’t understand until you see it, until you feel it. It’s just space... forever, cold and open, with little pinpricks of light among a blackness so deep that it feels like a backdrop rather than a... space.
And in front of it all had sat the oncoming legion of the Chitauri army, spilling from a ship that had made Manhattan look like a parking space - a hundred skyscrapers just hanging in the air. And watching the nuclear missile hit it had been... well, there’s nothing quite like a nuclear explosion to make something look small.
The last thing Tony had seen as he’d fallen through the portal had been the fire as the Chitauri’s center, a ship as large as a city, was torn apart, ripped to pieces by brilliant blinding light, and left to drift and die in the enormous and endless nothingness.
Before Tony had opened his eyes, he’d wanted to say so many things that he didn’t have any words for. Did you see that? Do you even understand? We’re a miracle within a miracle dancing on the head of a pin; we’re so barely possible that we shouldn’t be. How are we here? How do we still exist? Do you even understand? How very, very small we are? How astoundingly fleeting?
I can’t even begin to.
Sometimes Tony feels like a god. Sometimes he feels like a monster. And sometimes he feels like an ordinary guy (and oh, these are the best days), where he can dabble and joke and laugh and tinker, where he can laugh with Rhodey and act like a fellow hero, and feel like he’s making something good. Something that can be at least the vision of the superhero small god that people don’t know they want and need... something with the kindness he lost a long time ago if he ever had it, the good intentions with the good judgement that he definitely never had, the selflessness that he can’t afford because he’ll have nothing left then... Something good like he could never be. Someone good.
“J.A.R.V.I.S., buddy, you up?”
And then sometimes he feels so human (and oh, oh, oh, these are the worst days by far) that it physically hurts. Painfully aware of the metal in his chest and the pump of blood in his wrists and the beating of his practically patchwork heart. He feels... so tired and vulnerable and not enough; so short and quick and soon to stop; so stupidly small.
All he’d need is just one... crunch.
So much for “larger than life”.
He’s Tony Stark, though. He’s Iron Man. He’s impossible, invincible, indestructible, and unstoppable. The world’s own knight in shining armor, one of... what, about six people...? Standing between the world and the endless alien armies just a tear in the sky away. He has too many expectations on him, always has, but he can’t fail a single one. He's not allowed to be stepped on like an ant under alien boot.
Except... it’s a lie to say that the alien armies are just a tear in the sky away, because Space is Space. The next end of the world could come from any direction, at any time, and there’s nothing standing in its way to their tiny marble. Do you even understand? The world is tiny and small and completely unprotected.
Their pale blue dot is a speck of dust in a black room, only even smaller. It’s the biggest thing Tony’s ever known and it’s still so stupidly small. So incredibly vulnerable and fragile. Hanging there in the open black. Everything in the history of humankind, every single human being who’s ever existed, everyone he’s ever known and who could ever be... all it needs is just one little crunch.
There are so many things that Tony can’t do. He can’t say 'I love you' to his mother or ‘fuck you’ to his father or ‘I miss you so much that I can’t even feel it anymore’ to them both. He can’t undo Obie’s greed; he can’t bring back Yinsen or Maya Hansen; he can’t make Happy happy. He can’t undo all the things he said to Steve; he can’t redo his first meetings with Clint or Thor; he can’t break through Natasha’s shells. He can't ever be half the hero that Rhodey is, really, no matter how big he pretends to be.
He can’t fix Bruce's green problem or even make that beaten-down hunch to Bruce’s shoulders go away because with every one step forward Tony gets the man to take, the world manages to get Bruce to take two steps back.
He can’t fix Pepper.
Instead, all he can do is pour everything he has into helping her. Everything and anything. He’ll help her calm down from nightmares - from several feet away because she’s terrified she’ll burn him - because it’s not like he’s sleeping anyway. He’ll use a controlled suit to hold her shaking hands and assure her that she’s perfect and wonderful and okay and fine and in control - she’s Pepper. He’ll openly hate that he can’t touch her sometimes and silently hate that sometimes he’s glad not to, because she’s melted part of the suit and he’s glad that wasn’t him because his weary bones can’t take anymore, but now she’s crying again and scared of herself and her own body and there’s nothing he can do about that.
But there are things he can do for her... for the world.
And so he’ll do them.
And silently regret so very much and so very badly that he didn't manage to stop everything before. He was so blind and he's still so blind. Pepper was hurt because of his blindness, and she's just one of a very long line of enemies and strangers and loved ones.
He could have done something against everything that's gone wrong, probably, if he wasn't so fucking blind. He knows it.
But... Tony's only human. He can't see everything; he can't be everything at once. There are some fights that he won't win even if he actually manages to see them coming for once. Doesn't stop him from regretting his mistakes so, so much, but it's true. Tony deserves... no, not deserves, needs a break, so he can go home - so they can all go home.
Before, he felt weak and scared and vulnerable... and built himself a suit of armor. He - only being human - needed a hero, so he built one and became it.
Before, he needed a friend, something good and kind and with all of humanity’s potential but not its bruised mortality, and he built that too.
He’s no superhero or small god, he’s just a very small speck on another small speck drifting unprotected and tiny in a dark and empty yet crowded space. And he’s tired now, too tired to keep fighting this fight that will never, never end, so... he’ll build something else.
Something larger than life. Something more than a man, something more than one person could ever hope to be. Something big; something brilliant; something built to stand and last and protect their small blue dot.
He’s the mechanic, that’s what he does.
Tony sees a suit of armor around the world.