“Did you know?” Tony asks.
It's all he needs to know.
Because Steve couldn’t have known. Couldn't have kept it from him. Not from Tony Stark, the extravagant man he was never impressed with; but from Tony Stark who’s Iron Man – his teammate, the Tony Stark who fought by Steve’s side as they had each other's backs – not from the person who placed his life in Steve’s large hands numerous times, knowing he could afford to take that risk, knowing it’d be kept safely, to the point Tony might someday forget to ask it back.
Steve Rogers – not Captain America – is the one who's been there when he fell back to Earth and pushed air into his lungs until the medical team arrived.
He couldn’t have known.
Tony asks the question, desperately wishing for just one word. One word to safeguard just one person, just this one, to stay in his life, even if only at the outskirts of his bubble. Just one among the rubble and broken bricks of Tony’s walls, his last lines of defense – because he knows a single line of protection is never enough – whose presence doesn’t leave Tony feeling bare and raw.
And maybe he shouldn’t– should have known better by now, that the only surprised life tosses his way are aliens and demi-gods and monsters, never the right people – but fuck it if Tony isn’t allowed to hope for one, without the universe collapsing upon itself.
Just this one.
Steve's lips look so red against the dirty-blue of his custom.
“No,” Steve answers, pained, and Tony’s heart should ache for him, for how Steve’s eyes reflect so much grief–
But it’s Steve’s next words that make him want to cry.
“No, Tony. I’m so sorry, I didn’t know.”
Tony’s stomach twists and turns, filling with knots and anger and so many emotions he doesn’t bother trying to sort through any of them, just tries to keep them in as he feels his nausea building up and up, like a house of cards that’s bound to collapse from the very first moment the first two cards are taking to lean on one another, forming a shaky base that was never meant to last.
“I’m not going anywhere”, Steve says, and a moment after, Tony is heaving his guts into the toilet.
It’s funny. No matter how rich you are, how costly the porcelain or the seat were – even if you have a glowing fish tank as your cistern and a golden seat studded with rubies to sit on when you take a crap – a toilet is a toilet, and it’s all the same shit.
“I know how to call that new system,” he tells Friday, and his mouth still tastes like puke, bitter; it’s somehow worse than the aftertaste of a hangover, underlined with the taste he used to have in his mouth when he bit back his tongue to keep from lashing at Howard (and to still end-up with a stinging cheek on a good day and a shiner on a bad one).
“Excellent, Boss. Should I rename the files?”
(The alcohol numbs his tongue, but the taste never quite goes away.)
“Blow the candles!”
The VCR-tape is sketchy; it’s been a considerable time since this birthday party have taken place. The picture jumps and skews at random times. There’s no reason to hold to it. The video file is stored in a private server (that JARVIS can no longer access at night when Tony’s desperate for any sort of distraction, any sort of pathetic comfort he can scrape from nostalgia and watered-down memories his brain paints brighter for him; Tony still calls out to JARVIS in those moments. Old habits die hard – old friends are much easier to kill).
“What for?” The child on the screen pouts, never one to follow after actions without merits or reasoning he found acceptable.
“Then you get to make a wish.” Tony’s lips mouth the words his mother says. She's wearing a beautiful wine-red dress, but it's her smile which Tony always loved most about her.
“The thing you want most.”
“Oh!” Tony perks up in his chair, grinning. That one’s easy. “The KX-“
His mom quickly places her palm on his lips so very gently as she kneels by his side. “Tony, you mustn’t tell what you’re wishing for."
"Why not?" He furrows his brow.
"It’s a secret. Okay?" She runs her fingers through his hair. Howard is away, signing another billion-worth contract with the military; but Tony's used to it.
(It was the last birthday Tony wished for his father to be there, next year.)
"No one can hear what you’re wishing for; if they did, it would never come true.” His mother smiles, and her eyes reflect an emotion Tony wouldn’t see until years after, when she’s gone.
“You should never tell.” Tony’s lips curl around the vowels. “Not anyone. Not even me.”
Tony was always good at playing pretend. He had such a long time to practice under daddy-dear and the piercing eyes of the many humanoid vultures circling around, which Howard called his associates (but never his friends).
Tony knew how to pretend he was someone else; that he was fine as he was, that he was happy. That he didn’t care he never got his Howard’s approval; that remembering his mother’s pained smile every time she tried to talk with him and he rebuffed her, telling her he’s busy (trying to get the attention of the wrong parent), doesn’t make him wish he could time-travel to bash his own head with a baseball bat until he’d see reason.
To pretend he’s interested in what other people have to say, when they are all bricks of predictable code he can never fiddle with and nothing they say could ever compare to Tony’s own inner dialogue, that he’s actually paying attention while he tries to entangle himself from one conversation only to be immediately grasped and dragged down into another.
To pretend nothing really matters to him, not even when Captain America looks him dead in the eye like Tony’s a nasty piece of trash that stuck under his shoe and all he wishes is to scrape him off.
“He’s my friend,” Steve says, pained, and Tony wants to reach out, but he can't, because he’s not sure he’d be able to withstand another burn.
“So was I,” Tony replies, and lets his nails dig into the flesh of his palms to keep himself from moving.
“You still are,” Steve says, and with a grim expression, smashes his shield against Bucky’s face.
Pepper wants him to see a therapist.
“I’m worried about you, Tony–“ She tells him, voice carrying across mountains and oceans to chime in his ear through the earpiece, like she’s sitting right there on his shoulder, trying to steer him to the right path when the wheel has been broken for years, now.
“Please, at least tell me you’d think about it?”
“I will, Pepper,” he pretends to be sincere – he even smiles, knowing it’d carry in his voice.
She doesn’t see through it, which tells him how far apart they really are.
Tony thinks of Obadiah and SHIELD and fully intends to takes his secrets to his grave, even when they impose a truly suffocating weight; no need to drag any more people down after him.
He’d been fooled once and twice and now thrice – as far as geniuses go, he makes a pretty shitty one.
(The bitterness on his tongue grows stronger.)
(He downs another shot.)
In the end, it’s all down to a choice.
Tony knows he can’t make the right choices – not for himself, definitely not for others.
Instead, he lets others decide.
Rhodey chooses his military career.
Pepper chooses to let him go.
Bruce chooses to keep running.
Clint chooses his family.
(If Tony could, he’d pick that, too.)
Natasha chooses Natasha.
Thor chooses Asgard.
(JARVIS never had a choice.)
But Steve – Steve chooses Tony.
Steve chooses him.
Chooses to sign the damn treaty. Chooses Tony’s side. Chooses to stand beside him, even when others speak against the accords – to listen, to compromise, to bend towards him instead of letting Tony break. To take the damn pen, to understand–
Chooses him over Bucky– because there was never a question about it, really; because Tony has been there for Steve, provided him with a place to call home when he had none but his small issued matchbox under Hydra, when all Bucky ever did was to try to smash his face apart.
Because Tony was a part of Steve’s life, and Bucky–
Bucky was just a dead man walking
(Tony knows why the zombies never win in those apocalyptic dystopian movies. It’s because the movies are selling what people want to buy – a brief fake illusion of happiness, an intermission between one painful breath and the other.)
(Because everyone knows no one would survive in a zombie apocalypse, as reality dictates it’s Death who drags the living down with him – never the other way around.)
Insomnia isn’t all that bad; in fact, it makes Tony incredibly creative.
Imagination has different ways to manifest in people. People liked to see creativity in bright happy colours, in art and literature and set it apart from those who are inclines towards numbers, angles and mathematics, when in truth they could be just as creative – because technology was always pushing at the human imagination – it just needed the blueprints to come out and play.
People give it other names, like ‘New Generation’ models or ‘scientific breakthroughs’, but Tony sees those for what they really are.
He’s not sure if it’s the genius in him, the hallucinations, the insane amount of caffeine pumping through his veins or if maybe he had finally snapped like everyone whispered behind his back as soon as he turned.
It doesn’t matter.
Tony doesn’t need a therapist.
He reads about everything he should know until his eyes are so dry blinking hurts and the eyelids grate against his retinas.
Then he reads some more.
Tony doesn’t need anyone else but himself to give him closure.
Tony can fix it.
(It’s not a matter of choice – it’s just that no one else ever could fix Tony’s things for him.)
Other people would feel bad about this, but not Tony.
He doesn’t feel bad for watching a hologram projection of himself sitting with Steve in front of the television, bickering about the potential culprit during a CSI Miami marathon.
He doesn’t feel bad for watching Steve throw punch after punch after punch at Bucky’s face, until it’s broken and swollen and bleeding, long after Bucky stopped fighting back.
He doesn’t feel like a broken, hollow excuse for a person when Steve tells him he’s fixing himself a sandwich, and asks him if he’d like one, as well.
After all, those events, those temporary realities –aren’t much different from his own reality.
The one in which Obadiah lets him cry onto his outrageously expensive suit after his parents’ funeral, then attempts to assassinate him – first by proxy, then by his own hand. The same hand that pulled him into one fatherly hug after the other, finally snaking up his throat to press down when NASDAQ shows the time is right.
The one in which he and Rhodey swear to always be there for one another, then clap hands at the cadets’ graduation ceremony, Rhodey’s teeth glowing like the rest of him when he smiles in a moment framed in a picture Tony only pulls out when Rhodey visits him.
(The other three-hundred and sixty days of the year, it stays in the lower drawer in his desk.)
The one in which he finds the perfect woman, that makes him think the unthinkable– that children may be an option, one day– then asks him to discard a part of himself for it, leaving Tony like a modern-day Tantalus, with happiness hanging above his head, forever beyond his reach, standing in a pool full of promises that can never quench his thirst.
There’s just one different thing.
With B.A.R.F – with talent, with creativity, with time, with money – with those, Tony controls everything. There’s no surprise. There’s no back-stabbing.
“Earth to Tony,” Steve’s voice calls, “are you with me, Tony?”
“Sure,” he tells Steve, and Steve huffs an amused sound and cuts through non-existent bread.
Tony puts everything he has in making the prosthetics.
He doesn't sleep or eat because if he won’t, he’ll be able to fix it – he can’t help himself and keeps thinking he can fix this, this horrid betrayal on his part.
But Rhodes isn't a machine; Tony was wrong.
And isn't it ironic, Tony thinks, refilling another glass, that while he kept to his humanity, a man of iron, he named his best friend a machine meant for war?
What happens to machines during war time? They're used. The magazines, the very bullets, are emptied and discarded; the shells are strewn all over the battleground. They're left to rot and gather rust in no-man's land as they’re replaced with newer, better models.
He spends days with Rhodey, which turn into weeks – of a slow, agonizing therapy – the medical washed-up term for torture stemmed from necessary-evil.
Money goes flying at all directions at once as Tony storms through the hospital’s halls; he flies in experts from all over the world, for a second opinion, a third, a tenth – he funds one-hundred and seventeen relevant researches regarding spinal injuries, stem-cells and cell regeneration. He donates to the hospital to assure they’d treat Rhodey like a filthy-rich sultan and fulfill his every whim – so Rhodey would never have to wait too long in his bed before someone helps him to the bathroom when Tony’s not by his side.
Tony watches every painful step Rhodes takes, and realizes he can't fix this.
"It's not your fault," Rhodes tells him. "It's nobody's fault, Tony."
“I know,” Tony smiles, and pretends he believes him.
There are nights Tony wakes up soaked with sweat and buzzing with adrenaline, calling JARVIS hoarsely.
"You were having another nightmare, Boss," Friday's answers instead, feminine and grating. "Should I–"
"No, no, it's fine." He cuts her off; mostly, because he can't bear to hear her voice.
JARVIS was never there to begin with, but Tony’s room feels emptier than it has ever been.
He can’t bear looking at Vision.
It’s not Vision’s fault, Tony knows. He didn’t ask for any of it, no more than JARVIS did.
Logically, Tony knows that.
Illogically, the moment he sees Vision, he immediately retreats to his workshop, knowing Vision would keep his distance as he hesitatingly fumbles his way out of the dark into what’s proper and what’s not, an entirely blank sheet that’s best kept away from Tony entirely less he’d be sprayed all over with oil and grease.
Friday's voice, so very different from JARVIS’ snarky haughty tone, scolds him once an hour, telling him to eat, to drink, to rest– and he pretends it’s not pathetic he replaced Pepper with an AI.
“Happy birthday, Boss!” Friday’s voice says in his ear.
“Yeah, just peachy,” he snorts back, looking at the coffee table. There's a chocolate muffin with three candles shoved haphazardly into it; the paper around it is soggy. He bought it at the cafeteria as an afterthought; it stayed on his desk most of the day, untouched, until he packed his things up and headed back to his place.
Now he's sitting in his impeccable living room, and the muffin sits on the limited-edition coffee table he bought for a ridiculous amount of money he can’t even remember.
“Aren’t you going to blow the candles?”
“I’m good,” Tony pours himself another shot, and watches the candles until they burn out.
The first time Tony sees Steve, he immediately hates him. It’s irrational, but it’s also impossible for Tony not to.
He hates him because he’s every much the perfect paragon his dad always prattled on about, with all the admiration and love he never cared to spare to his own son; he hates him because the first thing he unwittingly wishes for Steve’s approval – Captain America’s approval – his childhood hero –and Steve looks at him and sees him for how he really is and throws it straight back into his face, rubbing salt into the cracks he splinters into Tony.
He’s the personification of all the traits Tony would never have – honesty, amiability, faith. He wants to punch him in the face – to tell him to wake up, because his brain is still frozen – that Steve can’t afford to stay that way, not if he wants to survive.
(But more than he hates Steve, Tony hates himself – because Steve is right, and they both know it.)
The Avengers initiative is his chance.
His chance to group together other bunch of fuck-ups around him, where his eccentric behavior would be dimmed and negated by other extremes. To make himself a place where no one wants Tony’s money or influence; where honesty in not just a virtue, it’s a given – a place where anger manifests as a huge hulking monster and worthiness can be measured and weighed like a pound of sugar on copper scales.
(Where he could eat breakfast with someone, and have them snag some of the food on his plate, rather than make relevant news article pop on the screen.)
He takes the consultant position.
“Did you know?” Tony asks, and it takes every ounce of strength and every tiny silver of faith in his heart to ask; he stands, brain overloaded with countering chemicals, both flooded with contradictions and yet filled with static.
He looks into Steve’s face and knows what he’s going to say before he opens his mouth.
He knows Steve, so he knows what’s coming.
But before Steve speaks, he still desperately, utterly wishes he’s wrong.
Reality stops and before things are irrevocably changed, there are those moments he can cling too and have his hope shine through, after he picks the dashed pieces from the floor.
Natasha’s laughter is her most charming quality; it’s wonderful, melodious and free. Tony only ever heard it twice in his life, so it makes an excellent present to be able and hear it for the third time, ever the charm. Sometimes, he wishes he could tell her that without her taking it the wrong way (until then, he keeps his mouth shut). Thor is at the dining table, not too far from him, leaning over Coulson who’s probably showing him silly Youtube videos which Thor greatly (and loudly) enjoys. Clint rounds everyone up to the living room with the promise of cake. Tony had seen much better cakes – cakes from which a piece would cost like an average monthly salary. At that moment those cakes are all but forgotten; Clint brings to the table his favorite – a plain white cake with raisins, decorated with red and yellow frosting wishing Tony a happy forty-sixth birthday in a messy scrawl. When Clint sets the table, Tony notices two small burns on his right hand.
"Blow the candles, Tony," Bruce says; he looks better, relaxed, eyes not constantly avoiding Tony’s own and leg not constantly bouncing in agitation.
"What did you wish for?" Steve asks, smiling with his perfect little teeth and his kind clear blue eyes.
"I shouldn't be telling you," Tony smiles back. "But I've always been good at ruining every good thing in my life, so what's another one, really?" He pours a shot down his burning throat, which is why the next words are so difficult.
"I wish you'd pick me."
But that was never going to happen, so Tony makes believe.