Pretty much everything had gone to hell after the accident, really. Life had been good beforehand. His dad had been distant, sure, but his mother had been a warm light to wipe that all away. At least Howard had been supportive, in his own way. He hadn’t liked that Tony wanted to be a dancer, but he’d made damn sure Tony would be the absolute best once he figured out there was no persuading the young genius otherwise. He’d even been at that performance; the last one Tony had ever done. It was hard to keep dancing after a spinal injury, after all. Not to mention how all that metal in his chest really limited his lung capacity.
The driver in the other car had been drunk, the police told Tony when he woke up in the hospital. The bastard had walked away with barely a scratch but would be facing charges of vehicular homicide. The same accident that had left Tony in a wheelchair had killed his parents on impact. Orphaned at thirteen. At least Obie had been there to step in and take charge as his legal guardian. Tony couldn’t imagine what it would have been like to be the heir to the Stark legacy going into the foster care system.
Tony was in the hospital for months, working with the physical therapists there to make sure he didn’t lose too much muscle mass and trying to learn how to walk again. It didn’t go very well. By the time he was cleared for Obie to take him home, the doctor had made it pretty clear that Tony didn’t have much chance of dancing ever again. If Tony cried after the doctor had left the room, there was no one there to know.
Obie hired him a personal physical therapist who came by the mansion every other day. The exercises hurt, and sometimes Tony felt like he just wanted to give up completely, but Rumlow had little patience for that. He was abrasive, demeaning, and had no qualms about telling Tony that the reason his recovery was coming along so slowly was because Tony wouldn’t put the effort in. Tony didn’t know how much more effort he could possibly give. He always ended their sessions shaking and sweaty and had thrown up more than once. Obie waved it off as tough love in order to get results. He told Tony not to worry about it.
Tony was fourteen by the time he was able to go back to school. The time that had passed had counteracted most of the grades he’d skipped. His classmates would only be about a year or so older than himself. He should still be able to graduate by sixteen or seventeen but he’d lost a lot of time. Obie thought it was a good idea not to send him back to the same school. A different environment, he said, would be better for Tony starting over. It wasn’t a boarding school, either, because Obie wanted to keep Tony close and because he still needed his physical therapy. Obie wanted him to go to a school nearby, SHIELD Academy. There had been a whole spiel about it but Tony honestly didn’t even listen.
Everyone stared at him his first day, and the day after, and the day after that. Tony could feel their eyes on him, could hear the barest hints of their whispers behind his back. There were all sorts of rumors about why he was in a wheelchair, even though the story was in the news and they all knew who he was. He was in the science labs when he overheard someone talking about how he was the one driving the car that day, that he was the one who hit another car and killed his parents. He asked the teacher to go to the nurse’s office and didn’t return for the rest of the class.
Tony hated SHIELD by the end of his first month there. School used to be something he looked forward to. He’d always loved learning. Now he dreaded having to get up and go every single day, to face his classmates. His physical therapy sessions felt worse than ever, now that he had to do them at the end of a school day and then somehow manage to get his homework done afterwards. The constant exhaustion plagued him day in and day out and he was grateful that Obie at least let him drink all the coffee he wanted. Tony wasn’t sure how he would survive otherwise.
A month and a half into the school year, a boy about a year older than himself with dirty blond hair dropped into the seat across from him during lunch. Tony spent his lunch periods in the library getting through as much homework as possible and normally that meant he got left alone. This boy was grinning widely and wearing a t-shirt in the most hideous shade of purple that Tony had ever seen.
“So I hear you used to dance before you got two bum legs. Some sort of prodigy, right?”
They were in the principal’s office less than ten minutes later, Tony still seething and Clint with a bloody nose. Fury took one look at them and made an irritated noise.
“What’d you do now, Barton?”
“Nuffin’!” the dirty blond defended himself. “I wash tryna’ be nish!”
“Fuck you,” Tony snapped.
“Language. If you don’t like what he has to say, then why don’t you tell me your side of the story.”
Tony colored and looked away. Shame washed over him. There was no way he was going to admit to getting so upset just because Clint said to his face what everyone else said behind his back. So what if he was a cripple who’d ruined his entire life and career? It wasn’t like it wasn’t true. He wasn’t going to bitch and whine about being called out on it. The silence stretched until Fury heaved a sigh.
“Alright then. Detention for both of you until next Wednesday. It starts today after school. You can meet in Mr. Coulson’s office. I’ll call your…” he glanced Tony’s way, “guardians and let them know.”
Fuck. Well, Tony supposed he’d be needing to get his homework done before physical therapy for the next week. There’s no way he’d be able to do any of it afterwards with it being so late.
“But what about-“
“No, Barton,” Fury cut him off. “Maybe next time you won’t start fights with other students. I’ve been very understanding in the past but there is a limit to my patience. Do I make myself perfectly clear?”
“… Yesh, Shir.”
“Good. You can meet in Mr. Coulson’s office five minutes after the final bell. If you’re late, I’m adding an extra day for every minute.”
They spent detention that day in silence, trading glares back and forth as Tony tried to concentrate on his homework and Barton blew spitballs at various objects around the room with surprising accuracy. Tony kept waiting for one to hit him, but it never happened. Maybe Barton was just trying to lull him into a false sense of security or maybe he had something worse up his sleeve. Maybe Tony just wasn’t even worth that much effort to him.
Obie wasn’t happy about the detentions. It was the first time Tony had really been in trouble since the accident and he found himself suddenly terrified that Obie would decide he was too much trouble to deal with as his guardian scowled down at him. Tony fidgeted in his chair.
“I’m extremely disappointed,” Obie finally said. “Fighting in school? What were you thinking?”
“Your parents would have been horrified.”
It was like a kick to the ribs, like all the air had been knocked right out of him. It was hard not to cry that night and he hated Barton all the more for it. Who did that asshole think he was? How could he just walk up to somebody and say that kind of thing?
Their second detention went much like the first, with Tony feeling the exhaustion. Rumlow had pushed him extra hard the night before and with everything else… Tony could see how his hand was shaking ever so slightly and messing up his handwriting but he did his best to ignore it. He didn’t look at Barton, didn’t even bother to glare. Rumlow had promised Tony that he’d be feeling the next few sessions for days and Tony believed him. Sometimes, Rumlow got in moods like that. All Tony wanted to be able to do when he got back home was drag himself into bed and pass out. Friday passed much the same way, though Tony was a bit more relaxed with the weekend ahead of them. Saturday would be his safe haven in which he could do his homework without worry.
Obie had a surprise for him come Sunday. Apparently, Obie felt that getting into a fight meant that Tony had too much extra energy. He’d hired Rumlow for the entire day to work it out of the young genius. Tony had never cried during a session before, but he could feel the tears rolling down his cheeks as he dry-heaved into a bucket. Behind him, Rumlow grumbled about how he was still so weak. He was shaking badly on Monday from the workout and not being able to sleep, dark bags under his eyes. It was fifteen minutes into their detention when Barton finally broke the silence.
“Hey, uh, you okay?”
“No, I’m a fucking cripple. Wanna rub it in my face some more?”
Barton’s nose wrinkled.
“Dude. Chill. I was just asking if you were okay cause you look like shit. I guess you really are just that much of a dick.”
“I didn’t start it, asshole.”
“What, and I did?”
“Yes!” Tony exclaimed in disbelief. “I don’t even know you and you come up to me and think it’s funny to crack some fucking joke about my ‘two bum legs’ like I don’t know I’ve lost everything. You think it’s hilarious to bring up the dance career of someone who will never be able to dance again? No, fuck you. Like I don’t hear enough of that behind my back, you just had to go and throw it right in my face. So, yeah, I’d say you fucking started it.”
Barton gaped at him.
“What? No, I didn’t-Fuck.” He dropped his face into his hands. “I’m an idiot.”
“I can’t say I disagree.”
The next thing he knew Barton was out of his chair, across the room and dropping down onto the desk next to Tony.
“No, I mean, I’m sorry it came off that way. I run my mouth a lot, say all sorts of things. I didn’t mean it that way. I’m on the dance team here. We’ve heard a lot about what you used to do. Steve is obsessed with your old performances. I think he’s managed to track them all down on tape so he can watch them over and over again. We’d been hoping you could maybe come by sometime and give us some pointers. That’s why I was asking about your dancing.”
Tony bit his lip and looked down.
“I don’t think I’d be of much help. I told you, I can’t do any of that anymore.”
“But you loved it! You don’t just leave behind something that you love. At least this way you could still be involved or something, right? Just come by a practice and see what you think, okay? We all go out for burgers after and you’ll be on me. No better way to apologize for being an ass than a burger and fries, right?”
It was tempting, even though Barton was a bastard and it was probably all some sick joke. Tony hadn’t been in a dance studio since the accident and just the thought of a hardwood floor and a wall of mirrors filled him with longing. Add to that a free burger? And other dancers? He wasn’t forgiving Barton, not by a long shot, but just the thought of it…
“I can’t,” he said instead, his chest aching with the loss. “Obie doesn’t like me staying after school for things. It disrupts the driver’s schedule and he’s pissed enough about all these detentions.”
“Then what about after the detentions? How about you come on Thursday and then one of us can drive you home? I mean, we mostly all ride with Mrs. Rogers anyway. There’s totally room for one more. She’s got a van and everything so your chair can fit and you don’t have to worry about it.”
“I have physical therapy that day.”
Clint managed a rather spectacular pout.
“Come on, man. Work with me here! Friday? Please? Nat is gonna have my balls on a platter as it is for insulting you on accident so at least give me something to beg mercy with!”
Tony pressed his lips together. He wanted it. He really, really did. He’d still have physical therapy on Saturday but at least he’d have Sunday to rest and get his homework done. It would be doable, maybe.
“I’ll ask,” he said cautiously, if only because he didn’t want to get his own hopes up.
Barton fist pumped.
“Yes! It’ll be great! You won’t regret it, I promise!”
Coulson only raised an eyebrow when he came to get them and found them still chatting away at the end of their detention that day. Tony didn’t get all his homework done, but he could manage a little bit more of it before crashing at home. He could make it happen.
“A dance club?”
Obie looked skeptical, but he hadn’t said no yet. Tony felt like that could only be a good sign. He’d waited till dinner to bring it up, but that was mostly because he wanted to be able to nap first.
“Yeah. And I’ll have a ride home and everything so you won’t have to worry about rescheduling the driver.”
Obie frowned and seemed to consider him for a long moment before his face softened.
“This isn’t going to change the doctor’s diagnosis, Tony. You understand that, right?”
Tony clenched his fists around his utensils. Obie didn’t mean to be hurtful. He was just trying to help and look out for Tony.
“I know. They just want me to give them some pointers, that’s all. I probably won’t even go back.”
“Alright. Text me and keep me updated, alright? I’ll be in the office so I might not respond but I want you to keep in touch.”
“I will. Promise.”
Clint, as Tony learned was his first name, was actually pretty hilarious once Tony didn’t completely hate him anymore. He met Tony comeback for comeback and it was a glorious thing. He was pretty passionate about dancing, too, which didn’t hurt. He loved his team, and by the time their next detention came to an end Tony felt like he could have picked any member of the Avengers out of a lineup. It was good, the first really good day Tony had had since starting at SHIELD, maybe even the first since the accident. It lasted all the way up until his physical therapy session that afternoon. He was pretty much dead for their final detention and it didn’t escape Clint’s notice.
“Dude. You look like shit. You okay?”
Tony managed to scrounge up a smile for him from where he was slumped over his open notebook and text.
“Just tired. Rumlow pushed me pretty hard yesterday.”
“My physical therapist.”
“I’m pretty sure physical therapy isn’t supposed to leave you this wiped out, man.”
Tony couldn’t look at him.
“I’m just a lot weaker than I used to be, that’s all. I lost a lot of muscle mass in the hospital. Plus, the accident messed up my chest a bit, too. I’ve got lower lung capacity.”
“You look like you’ve got plenty of muscle mass to me. I mean, seriously, those biceps!”
He reached out to squeeze Tony’s arms and the genius couldn’t help but laugh. Clint was ridiculous. He was really looking forward to meeting the others.
“Oh my God, you’re Tony Stark. Tony Stark is in our studio.”
The tiny blond looked like he was torn between vibrating out of his skin and fainting outright. Tony couldn’t help but grin.
“You must be Steve.”
“Oh, my God, Tony Stark just said my name.”
A snort drew Tony’s attention to the side and he nearly choked on his tongue. The long-haired brunette was gorgeous in his black leotard and the position he was in, stretching alongside an equally stunning redheaded female, put all of his best… assets on display.
“Deep breaths, Stevie. Passing out in front of your idol is not a good way to make a first impression.”
“Shut up, Bucky!”
Steve’s face colored brilliantly and Clint laughed from where he was wheeling Tony along.
“It’s fine,” Tony assured Steve, instead. “Clint told me you were a fan. I’m flattered.”
“You’re amazing! Of course I’m a fan. I mean, the way you could move…”
It was a struggle to keep the grin on his face at the reminder that he couldn’t move like that anymore, that he would never move like that again. He managed it, though.
“Honestly, I’m looking forward to seeing the way you move.”
If anything, that only seemed to set him off more and Tony could see Steve’s bony chest heaving beneath the thin fabric of his leotard. He hoped the skinniness was more a natural thing and wasn’t Steve starving himself. He sounded like a good guy, from everything Clint had said, but Tony had seen it before. It could destroy a person as surely as any car accident.
Clint parked Tony in what he assured the genius was a good spot before heading over and joining the others. Bucky ambled over while Clint did his stretches and chatted with the redhead and another, mousy brunet. Tony was guessing they were Natasha and Bruce. Mr. ‘please call me T’Challa’ Udaku, who supervised the dance club, was across the room talking to several of the other students.
“Hey,” Bucky greeted with a sly grin. “Glad to see you could make it. Steve has told us all about you so he’s not exactly your only fan around here. Thanks for being willing to come, despite Clint being himself.”
“He seemed pretty upset after. He didn’t mean it the way I took it.”
Bucky’s grin only grew.
“Yeah, like I said, Clint being himself. You gave him one hell of a good hit, though. Very impressive. I’m a little jealous. You have no idea how many times I’ve wanted to punch Clint.”
Tony chuckled. Damn, gorgeous and funny. He was so screwed.
“I think I can probably imagine.”
Mr. T’Challa came over briefly to chat, he’d be Tony’s science teacher for the second half of the year when he hit a new grade level, and stayed with Tony while the team went through their routine. It was pretty obviously unfinished, but that was okay. Tony understood the process. You learn the dance a step at a time and refine and master along the way.
They were nowhere near the level of the dancers Tony had worked with before but, amazingly enough, they certainly had the foundations for it. Steve paused to glance his way at the end of the first run through but Tony just waved him on to continue with their practice. He was intrigued. Beside him, Mr. T’Challa smiled as he watched the students.
“Dance is a large part of the culture in the country I come from. As a child, I danced all the time. I was afraid that I would miss that connection when I came to America, but I have found that the passion for dance is very much alive here as well.”
“Dancing is all about language,” Tony agreed. “It’s another language of communication through the movement of the body. It’s a way of spanning the globe without a single spoken word.”
Mr. T’Challa hummed as Steve paused the group to adjust some of the movements.
“Your own passion is clear. Will you give it up?”
Tony frowned, but it was getting easier the longer he was here and the longer he watched the dancers moving. Being in a studio, even a basic one like this, had always soothed him.
“I don’t have a choice. If I’m lucky, I’ll one day be able to walk with braces. I’ll never dance again.”
Mr. T’Challa looked surprised.
“There is more to dancing than just the dancers, Mr. Stark. It is your choice, of course, but I have heard much of your love and dedication to the craft. The dancing world would suffer to lose you, I should think.”
Tony’s lips thinned, but he said nothing for a long time.
“There’s a lot of classical influence here.”
“Indeed. Natasha used to do ballroom dance and she often helps Steve in designing the choreography. It is not an area either of them is very skilled at, though they do well for their experience and knowledge. A lot of the routines are adapted from ones that already exist.” The glance Mr. T’Challa sent Tony was accompanied by a smile. “Several of them have been yours.”
This, at least, brought Tony a little twinge of amusement.
“He has good taste, at least.”
“I have certainly found that to be true in most things. Steve Rogers is an exceptional young man. I have absolute faith that he will be able to achieve anything he sets his mind to.”
“Not everything in life is so easily overcome.”
Tony hadn’t meant to sound bitter but the bite in his words was unmistakable. Mr. T’Challa kindly pretended not to notice.
“Perhaps,” he allowed, “or perhaps those things that are not so easily overcome simply need to be taken on from another angle. I have found much in life can be changed through the matter of perspective.”
“Are you sure you’re a science teacher and not psychology? I think you may be in the wrong department.”
Mr. T’Challa chuckled.
“I am a high school teacher, Mr. Stark. A firm grasp of psychological principles may be the only way I make it through my job.”
“Right, well, how about you stick to analyzing the dancers and not me? Would that work for you?”
Mr. T’Challa gave a nod in his direction.
“I look forward to hearing what feedback you’ll be able to provide the team with.”
They watched the rest of the practice in silence except for Tony’s occasional questions. When Steve finally wrapped it up fifteen minutes before their usual end time, the entire team gathered in front of Tony.
It would have been impossible not to hear the hope in Steve’s voice.
“What is this routine for, exactly? You’re hitting a lot of technical points for just a school production.”
Steve beamed, but it was Clint who answered.
“It’s for NDTC. They’re in February but Steve and Nat spent all summer designing the new routine and we had a boot camp before the start of school to begin learning it.”
One of Tony’s eyebrows rose.
“The National Dance Team Competition? In Disney?”
“Just the high school division, obviously,” Steve rushed to assure. “I know you competed with the All-Stars but we’re nowhere near that level an-“
“You’re nowhere near the high school division, either, not with recycled routines Frankensteined together from other dances. If you want a competition to go to just for shits and giggles, then there are cheaper and easier ways to do it.”
Steve looked hurt for all of a split second before his face shut down with total determination.
“We aim to win.”
“Then you’re going to need a routine that’s original and will catch the judges’ attention. You guys have skill, even if it’s not really refined yet. There’s a real shot but not if you shut yourselves down before you get there. You wanted my advice so here it is. Not all routines were created equal. I get that this is the one you’ve been practicing and that you put a lot of effort into it but it’s still just cobbled together. You have time to learn a new routine and get it down before the competition. Cookie cutter will get you nowhere.”
The blonde’s expression shifted to looked trapped.
“But-I don’t-It took all summer just to figure out this one!”
A hand fell to Steve’s shoulder, squeezing gently. Bucky grinned at him before turning back to Tony.
“Shouldn’t be a problem. You were always bragging about how Tony choreographed all his own routines, right? So we’ve got all weekend. If we buckle down. We can make it happen.” Tony hadn’t been expecting it, but Bucky had some killer puppy dog eyes. He turned them on full force. “You’ll help, right? You’re the best and there’s no way we could do it without you. We’ve never been able to go to a serious competition before and if we blow this shot then Fury will never allow us to go to another one.”
“I have physical therapy on Saturday,” Tony protested, because this was not what he had signed up for.
Bucky just rolled his eyes and held out his hand.
“Gimme your cell.” Tony reluctantly passed it over and Bucky immediately started typing away. “I’m putting my number as well as Steve’s in here. We’re dropping you off tonight anyway so we’ll know where you live. Just text us when physical therapy is over with and we’ll get Steve’s mom to bring us to pick you up.” He gave a sheepish little smile. “Finally got my license two weeks ago but I really don’t think Mrs. Rogers’ll be much interested in lending me her van.”
Steve gave an inelegant snort and jammed Bucky in the side with one boney elbow.
“No way are you getting behind the wheel of mom’s van. It’s the only car we got.”
“Whatever punk,” Bucky said, shoving Steve playfully before turning back to Tony. “So you’ll do it? We can learn anything you throw our way and Steve and I started this team. We can fill you in on anything Clint’s big mouth hasn’t already.”
Clint’s cry of outrage went largely ignored, Bucky holding the cell phone back out to Tony. The young genius could only stare at it dumbly, hesitating. There was a lot of promise implied with taking that phone and the last thing Tony needed was more responsibility on top of all the things he already had to take care of. On the other hand, being part of anything that had to do with dancing again… He took the phone.
“I’ll have to talk to Obie. He worries about me straining myself too much. I don’t know if he’ll like it.”
Mr. T’Challa reached out to grasp Tony’s shoulder much like Bucky had just done to Steve.
“Allow me to call your guardian, Mr. Stark. Perhaps the voice of a teacher could help?”
Clint whooped excitedly and high-fived the silver-haired boy beside him. Tony was pretty sure the older boy was named Fiero or Pierre or something. It was some weird name.
“Yes! We are gonna kick so much ass! This totally calls for burgers!”