“Tony. Tony, are you listening to me?”
Tony snapped back to reality, Pepper’s hand waving in his face. “Huh? I’m sorry, what?”
Pepper looked frustrated, but didn’t say anything. Once upon a time, she would’ve given him a lecture or hit him over the head with a rolled up magazine. Nowadays she was more likely to give him a free pass.
Quit making excuses for me, Pep. You know I don’t deserve them.
“Tony, please, try to focus. I was just telling you that this does not look good. For you or for me.” She gestured to a newspaper with the headline, ‘Stark Industries Shark - Asleep on the Job,’ pasted above a picture of... Well, Tony asleep on the job. Since Pepper was in charge of SI, Tony didn’t have to attend many meetings - but this one had been important, and Tony had been up for 30 hours straight when he’d waltzed in the door, sans coffee, forgetting his sunglasses like an idiot.
“Yeah, I know. It doesn’t look good. But I don’t look good either, do I?” He rubbed a hand over his beard and sighed in frustration.
“You look fine, Tony.”
“If they’re always going to paint me the villain, I might as well go buy a cape, huh?”
Pepper studied him, and Tony got the uncomfortable feeling that she knew more than he wanted her to. “We’re not just talking about the media here, are we?”
“Huh? No, yes. Of course we are. Who else would we be talking about?”
“The Avengers, Tony.”
“What do you mean? The Avengers don't think of me like that.” Liar, his brain accused.
Tony picked at a hangnail and avoided Pepper’s gaze, because he knew the look she was giving him without seeing it: somewhere between smug, determined, and concerned. She had no right being any of those things.
“How has it been at the compound since everyone moved back in?”
Tony ground his teeth together and tried to look disinterested. “Oh it’s been fine. Peachy. Dandy. We’ve all been good little schoolchildren and nobody’s hit each other.”
“But it’s not normal, is it? It doesn’t feel like home like it used to.”
“Gee, Pep, I’d love to sit here and let you continue to psychoanalyze me, but if this meeting is over, can I go now?”
Pepper sighed and put her hands up in defeat.
“Okay, you win. Look, just please get some sleep before the next board meeting? Our stocks can’t take another hit like this, and I don’t want your reputation to suffer any more than it has. I want you portrayed in a good light, or not portrayed at all.”
“You got it,” Tony said, and he was up and out of the chair in a split second, faking a jaunty walk all the way to the door.
As soon as he was in the car headed back to the compound, tinted windows blocking out the sun and the prying eyes of the press, Tony let out the breath he’d been holding.
“I want you portrayed in a good light,” he repeated aloud to himself. “News flash, Pepper - there is no good light any more. I’m terrible all the time.”
He was glad he hadn’t given Pepper the chance to interrogate him, even if her concern was genuine. He didn’t want to talk. Talking made him upset. Which was why he’d perfected the art of aggressive defensiveness; push a person away enough times, and they would stop trying to break through. It was a coping mechanism leftover from Tony’s youth, courtesy of Howard Stark and his stellar parenting skills. And even though Tony was very much an adult and should’ve been able to handle his problems like a big boy, he hadn’t quite been able to kick the habit.
It was just as well. Tony didn’t need anyone else’s help handling his affairs. If he was going to go down in flames, he was going to do it all on his own. And he could guarantee that his performance would be spectacular.
How is it at the compound, Pepper? Tony thought to himself as he pulled up to the entrance to the parking garage. It’s full of people and it still feels empty. Psychoanalyze that.
Tony swiped his ID, and the hulking garage door barely made a sound as it rose. He pulled forward into his usual spot, then considered sitting in the car for a while longer. Glancing up at the security cameras, he decided that wasn’t the best idea. Tony didn’t like being spied on, even if they were by all rights his cameras. He tried not to slam the door too hard behind him.
The elevator dropped him at the third floor, and he ducked into the small grey “staff only” door, taking the maintenance hallway. Yes, it was technically off limits, but A) he was Tony Stark and people usually didn’t try to stop him from going places he wasn’t supposed to go, and B) the last time he hadn’t taken the maintenance hall, he’d had a panic attack and freaked out in front of about twenty new recruits. Tony had worked very hard never to repeat that particular traumatic experience.
The hallway dropped him out of a pair of double doors just a few yards from his office, which had been outfitted for use as a workshop/office combo. This door was fingerprint coded, and he could change the security access at will. He never did, though. Nobody was allowed in without announcing themselves except Rhodey, with zero exceptions.
Tony entered the workshop, closed the door behind him, and took a deep breath. This was the only place where he still felt safe. All of his bots were there, his suits, and FRIDAY, of course. She ran the whole facility, and Tony loved how much Fury hated that. This was as close to home as anything would ever be. Just him, alone, in his quiet space. With his robots.
Today was one of Tony’s good days, a day where for the most part, his brain was busy enough to jump from project to project without stopping to think about the things that usually bothered him. This was Tony’s M.O. - keep your mind busy, and you won’t be able to dwell on your demons. Or your nightmares.
Nightmares plagued him more frequently now than they ever had, and as a result, Tony didn’t do much sleeping. Every time he closed his eyes, his mind supplied vivid recreations of the fight in Siberia. Nope, aliens attacking Manhattan didn’t scare him any more, because he was too preoccupied with his friend’s betrayal, replaying the moment where he'd been sure Captain America was about to end his life.
Thanks to some very thorough revisions to the Sokovia Accords, the Avengers had come back to the compound, and despite last year’s ‘civil war,’ they were friendly enough to one another. But Tony still got the bitter taste of betrayal in his mouth whenever he saw them, and he couldn't wash it out no matter how hard he tried. Maybe that was his fault. Maybe he was holding onto his hurt feelings when he should've been trying to move on. Maybe if he’d fought the Accords in the first place, like Steve had, none of this would’ve happened. The world’s beacon of hope and goodness, the living embodiment of a moral compass, and I decided to oppose him. Tony wondered if that would be a lifelong regret.
Tony sighed, realizing he’d lost focus again, just like he had with Pepper. He had been tinkering with a new bot, something small that he could mass produce to appease the SI stockholders, and his train of thought had carried him away. He squinted up at the clock.
Seven thirty. Six hours had gone by, and Tony had barely noticed. The Avengers would probably be gathering in the communal kitchen for dinner. That was an activity Tony was happy to skip. He didn’t need the food, and didn’t like the company, not any more. The social butterfly that had once thrived on other people’s attention had been replaced with some hollow shell of a person, a genius with no new ideas and a never-ending list of things to make up for.
Besides, they don’t really want to see you anyway, right?
Tony blinked a few times, shook his head, and returned to his work.
“I can guarantee you Tony,” Rhodey said through a yawn, “the best way to get them to warm back up to you is to lie to them about how you got them here and then hide from them. Definitely gonna be super effective.”
Tony rolled his eyes, scowling into the phone. He hadn’t been hiding. He just… wasn’t ready to be part of the group yet. And yes, maybe he could’ve been trying harder, but Rhodey didn’t need to rub it in.
“Not in the mood, Rhodey.”
“Well I wasn’t in the mood to be woken up at 3am, but here I am.” Tony was silent for a moment, trying not to feel stricken.
“You know I can’t sleep,” Tony mumbled.
“Yeah. Yeah, I know.” Rhodey let out a sigh. “You could try to do something nice for them. Maybe… I don’t know, make them something?”
Tony chewed on his lip and flipped through a few sketches he’d made of ideas for improved Avenger tech. “So upgrades? New gear they can use?”
“It’s worth a shot. Now can I go back to bed, please?”
“Fine,” Tony conceded. “You are such a baby.” He’s not the one who’s afraid of closing his eyes. “Go ahead, get your beauty sleep. I’ll text you in the morning.”
A pause. Tony knew the question before Rhodey asked it. “You gonna be okay?”
“Yeah. I’ll be fine.” It was his automatic response - and it was usually a lie, which Rhodey knew. But that was an argument they’d had too many times, and now no matter what he thought, his friend took him at his word.
Tony set the phone down on his desk and rubbed his forehead. He could feel a migraine coming on, but he wasn’t about to stop working, especially not when he’d come to an actual, tangible solution that might make the Avengers see him for more than just his shitty choices. Maybe, if this worked, he’d feel good enough to actually spend time with them again.
“Dum-E, put on a pot of coffee, will you?” The robot nodded, at least, as much as any arm-based robot could. Tony smiled fondly at the bot before sitting down at his desk and turning on the holo-projectors, ready to get to work.
It was early in the morning - he’d had half an hour of sleep and a whole pot of black coffee - when a knock on the door interrupted Tony’s concentration. Visitors to his workshop were so infrequent, he nearly jumped out of his skin at the sound.
“Come in,” he called.
The door swung open slowly, and Tony nearly did a double take as Bucky Barnes entered the room.
He hadn’t seen Bucky, at least not in person, since Siberia. Which was interesting, considering Bucky lived at the compound with him. He was in a separate wing, closer to Steve, and for whatever reason, their paths didn’t cross. Tony hadn’t been avoiding Bucky, but he had been avoiding Steve. Maybe that explained it.
Bucky had needed to unlearn his brainwashing triggers, which had meant some rigorous “re-conditioning” before he had any hope of being cleared to return to the United States. While all of Tony’s involvement in Bucky’s rehab had been remote, he’d had his hands in every part of that process, overseeing the entire operation, unwilling to stop until Bucky was solid. Project Liberate Bucky Barnes had been completed thanks to Tony’s money, Tony’s tech, and Tony’s almost constant supervision.
He’d done it for Steve. Steve, who he still hadn’t forgiven, Steve who had created this whole mess in the first place with his obsessive need to track down the Winter Soldier. Steve had chosen Bucky, had put him above everyone else. And if Captain America had made that choice, there must’ve been a reason for it, right?
So Tony had called T’Challa, because of course Steve was hiding out in Wakanda, and offered his services on one condition: he was to remain anonymous.
He’d done extensive research, flown in specialists, created a whole rehabilitation program, and funneled it all through the Wakandan king so it couldn’t be traced back to him. And when the rehab was finished, Tony had enough evidence to prove without a doubt that Bucky Barnes had been brainwashed; he was not responsible for anything he’d done while under Hydra’s influence.
None of it was his fault.
He’d had the whole court record sealed. There were things in that record he never wanted anyone to hear, because they meant he cared, cared so much, and people liked to take the things you cared about and use them to exploit you. He’d read the transcript and barely recognized himself. He’d been like a terrier, doggedly determined, unwilling to compromise, fighting harder than he’d ever fought in his entire life to get the Soldier cleared of all charges. To this day, he didn’t fully understand what had come over him.
Once Bucky had been pardoned, Tony had hacked through the Accords with a machete. The back-and-forth had been extensive, and most of it done on Tony’s private server so he could ensure the privacy of those records himself. When it had come time to speak on the case, he’d organized a Stark Industries fundraising gala in the same town for the day prior, just to discourage anyone from getting the idea that he’d gone out of his way to be there. And then he’d paid off the press - some really ridiculous amount of money - to keep his role at the summit limited to “participant” as opposed to “organizer” or “guy who harassed and browbeat a lot of people in order to make this happen.”
By the end, Tony had resented Steve more than anything else. I started all of this because for some messed-up reason, I needed to redeem myself in your eyes, he’d thought. You hid the truth from me and then blamed me for the fallout, let me believe it was all my fault. What kind of person does that?
Tony didn’t resent Bucky, though. Bucky had expanded his worldview, helped him realize his own faults, given him a concrete goal when the team had fractured and he hadn’t known where to start in putting the pieces back together. Tony had been shocked when he’d realized that somewhere along the line, he had forgiven Bucky, too.
I remember all of them.
In his dreams about Siberia, Tony heard those words over and over, so much so that now he felt haunted by them. Really, he and Bucky were the same: both fated to go through life trying to undo every wrong, never resting until they’d atoned for all their sins. Neither of them ever feeling worthy of what little love they were given. Are you as broken inside as I am? Tony wondered.
In keeping tabs on Bucky’s progress, Tony had also discovered some kind of… attraction? Which he had vowed never to talk about with anyone. He wasn’t sure if his displaced feelings for Steve were to blame - and let’s never talk about those either, yeah? - or if this was something entirely new. He was sure, given their complicated history, that having even the smallest crush on Bucky was absolutely ridiculous.
Well, being ridiculous never stopped you before.
Bucky didn’t know any of this. He didn’t know about the trial, about Tony’s role in his rehab, about Tony’s (insignificant) crush. So what reason did Bucky have to come see him?
“Hi,” Tony said, watching with interest as Bucky closed the door behind him, looking as though he felt very out of place.
“Is this… I’m not disturbing you, am I?”
“I’m already disturbed, you couldn’t possibly make it worse,” Tony joked. Bucky almost smiled, and Tony counted that as a win.
“You look tired, Stark.”
“Do I? Well, it’s exhausting being me,” Tony said, and this time Bucky let out a small huff of laughter, though his expression was largely unchanged. Tony grinned. “So let me guess. You’re here about the arm?” Tony pointed at the prosthetic, and Bucky shrugged.
“Kind of.” Tony was silent, hoping that Bucky would continue without prompting. “I also wanted to ask you about Steve.”
Tony frowned. He didn't want to see Steve, didn't want to talk about Steve, didn't want to hear about Steve. Steve, he was definitely still mad at. He tried not to seem irritated by the question. “What about him?”
“You don’t talk to him any more. Is that… ’cause of me?”
“What?” Tony considered Bucky carefully. “He didn't ask you to ask me this, did he?”
Bucky shook his head. “It's just been eatin’ at me. Not seein’ you... It's killin’ Steve, and I was worried it was my fault. Can't sleep at night for worryin’ about it.”
Shit. Tony didn’t want to be responsible for someone else losing sleep, too. “Bucky… No. It has nothing to do with you.”
“But it has to do with Siberia, right? And that’s to do with me.” He paused, running a hand through his hair. “D’you hate me as much as you hate Steve?”
Tony’s heart broke at the expression on Bucky’s face. Was he really that worried about what Tony thought of him?
“I don't hate Steve.” He caught Bucky’s gaze and held it. “I just don't trust him. And I don't hate you.”
“But… What I did…”
Tony stood up and leaned against the work table. “You defended yourself against a homicidal, emotional man wearing a battle suit who was trying to kill you. You didn't do anything wrong.”
“Your parents,” was all Bucky said in response.
Tony tensed, then took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He hated rehashing these arguments. He’d already had them so many times, with lawyers, with world leaders, with himself.
“You didn't know what you were doing. For any of it. Mind control is seriously fucked up, and you shouldn't be held responsible for anything you did while Hydra was pulling your strings.” He paused, considering his words. He might as well say it now, while they were on the subject. “I forgive you, you know.”
He said it casually, as if it wasn’t the moon and the sun and the sky wrapped into five words - but it was clearly more than that to Bucky. He looked like he'd been sucker punched. Blue eyes searched Tony’s, disbelieving.
“I. That's.” He struggled for words, and when he didn’t find any, he ran a hand through his hair again, looking lost. “D’you mean it?”
Tony fixed him with a determined stare.
“You bet I do."
Bucky licked his lips and took a tentative step toward Tony, holding out his prosthetic arm, palm up. Tony raised his eyebrows at him.
“You want me to fix it?”
“Yeah, but… Wanna touch it first?”
Tony blew out a breath. He had been dying to get his hands on that arm for ages, since before T’Challa’s team had even installed it. He stepped up to Bucky and placed a palm on the metal forearm. It felt cool and smooth, and also like it was writhing and breathing under him. Bucky closed his eyes.
This was as close to another person as Tony had been in a long time. The proximity almost made him nervous. He hadn't expected Bucky to just shove the arm at him, either, and he tried to ignore the butterflies in his stomach, surprised that his body responded to the prosthetic the same way it would have if he’d actually touched Bucky’s skin.
“How does it feel?” Tony asked softly, rubbing a gentle circle with his fingertips.
“Pressure, but not much sensation. Just enough to make me want more.” Bucky flexed his fingers lightly. “Nobody touches it, not even Steve.”
“That’s surprising.” What must it be like for an amputee to have a working prosthetic and no one willing to come near it? The thought was more than a little upsetting. Tony frowned again. “That doesn't help, does it?”
Bucky shook his head. “People are scared of it. Scared of me reactin’ badly.” He sighed when Tony increased the pressure, massaging the metal hand. “’S nice, what you're doin’. Don't stop.”
Tony felt a tug in the pit of his stomach. Those words out of Bucky's mouth were a very unexpected turn-on. He couldn’t help but smile when Bucky's eyes opened, glazed over in what looked like pleasure.
“You know, I will have to stop if you want me to work on it,” he teased, and he thought he saw the smallest hint of a blush on Bucky’s cheeks.
“Give you more sensation?” Tony guessed. “Yeah, I think so. Do you feel hot and cold?”
“No.” Bucky bit his lip as Tony's fingers ghosted up his shoulder. “Fuck. I'm like a touch-starved cat or somethin’.”
“I promise I'm not judging,” Tony murmured, trying to calm his racing heart. He ran his hand over Bucky's bicep and squeezed gently, which earned him both a shudder and a laugh. Tony decided to stop there before he got really carried away. “Okay, hot stuff. Wanna let me take a look?”
Bucky nodded. Tony cleared off some space on the work table and gestured for Bucky to sit; Bucky hopped up and held out his arm again. Tony grabbed the smallest screwdriver he could find and took hold of the prosthetic.
“All right. Rule one, tell me if it hurts. Rule two, tell me if you want me to stop.”
Bucky nodded again in acknowledgment. Tony looked up at him for a moment longer before returning his attention to the arm, finding the first compartment and opening it slowly.
“Phew. Okay. Let’s see what we’re working with.”
Bucky left a few hours later, having already made plans to visit again the following day, and for the first time in weeks, Tony felt… good. Like he’d actually been helpful for a change. He’d made a few small adjustments to the arm that had already improved Bucky’s range of motion, and he’d added some more precision to the ‘tendons’ in the fingers to give him better grip strength.
Tony rode the high of accomplishment for a few minutes, whistling to himself.
Reality dawned slowly. What’re you so happy about? You’ve still got a lot to make up for, Stark.
That was an understatement. Tony was buried under a mountain of debts, debts that kept accumulating at an impossible rate. No matter how much work he did, there would always be more work to be done, more to fix, more to solve. More to atone for. It was like Zeno’s dichotomy paradox. He could go half the distance to his goal, and then half the remainder, and then half that remainder - but no matter how many halves he traveled, he’d never make it to the end.
Trying and failing to shake the thoughts from his head, he forced himself to get back to work on his project. He’d finished working on Natasha’s knives before Bucky had arrived, which still left Sam, Wanda, and Clint. He pulled up his sketches and blueprints of the upgraded Falcon pack and broke out the soldering iron. While it was heating up, he moved the pack onto the work table and opened up the first compartment he planned to expand. He grabbed his goggles, although he usually didn’t put them on, and picked up the iron.
He stared at it for a long time. Longer than was strictly necessary, especially since he hadn’t actually soldered anything yet.
It’ll make you feel better.
He wasn’t sure where that voice had come from, if it was him or some internal manifestation of his guilt. But he knew it was right, even if the idea was insane. Physical pain was proven to bring temporary relief during moments of emotional distress. He blinked a few times, then decided to do the stupid thing and pressed the tip of the iron - which, by this point, had gotten up to its max of 800 degrees fahrenheit - onto the back of his hand.
He only left it on for a second or two, just long enough for him to truly register the heat before he pulled the iron away. He took a sharp breath through his nose, squinting against the pain. Tony waited for stinging to subside to a dull throb, then took stock, trying to see if he felt different, if anything had changed.
For the first time in a year, his brain was silent.
Except that wasn’t possible. His mind was the energizer bunny, going and going and going forever. The wheels never stopped turning. Sometimes it got to the point where Tony could swear his thoughts had thoughts. How the hell could it be quiet?
Stranger still, in the quiet, there were no feelings of inadequacy or guilt. The volley of verbal and mental abuse, directed at him by him, had disappeared.
Isn’t that something.
This wasn’t a healthy thing to do. Tony knew that. And even if self-harm was going to become his new thing, which he wasn’t saying it was, a soldering iron wasn’t going to work long-term. But for right now, the deep fog had lifted, and that was enough to make it worth it.
Tony pressed the iron into his hand again, and again, totaling five times and five small white burn marks. He grabbed a band-aid from his desk drawer.
Is this bad? Does this make me a fucked up person?
He covered the burns with the band-aid and resolved that it didn’t really matter in the end how fucked up it was. It just mattered that it worked.
This is why people do this. Pain drowns out all the other noise.
Tony had finished the Avenger Upgrades quicker than expected. It had really only taken him a week, and then an extra day to make sure everything was painted and polished. What took longer was deciding if this was really a good plan. He wanted to do something nice for his friends, something that they’d appreciate, but that wouldn’t make them feel indebted to him.
Are they still your friends though?
Of course they were. Things were tense, sure, and Tony hadn’t been the best at communicating or trying to connect. But this was him making a genuine effort. He didn’t have any illusions about being abjectly forgiven just because of a few new gadgets, but he hoped they would see that he was trying.
He hadn’t made Steve anything, and conveniently, Steve wouldn’t be back at the compound until later that afternoon. (He knew this because he kept tabs on Steve so he could avoid Steve, which had worked out fine so far.) When Tony entered the common room, it was just Sam, Wanda, Vision, Natasha, and Clint.
“Present time!” he said, pushing the cart full of Stark Tech in front of him. Clint didn’t react, but Sam paused the movie they were watching and glanced over, interested. Natasha quirked an eyebrow at him.
“Yep! Look, I’ve… I know that I still have a lot to make up for. And I know that it must’ve been hard being away for so long. So I figured everyone would have some fun with some new stuff.” Tony gestured to the cart, inviting them to take a look. “Vision, I didn’t make you anything because you can wield the hammer of Thor, so you’re kind of exempt.” The hint of a smile tugged at Vision’s lips, and he nodded in understanding.
“Sam, I upgraded the space in your pack and gave you some extra stuff, there’s a diagram there. Wanda, those gloves are just a prototype, so be a little careful? There are a few different settings, they should be able to make your powers stronger or weaker depending on what you want. Natasha, those are knives. Pretty self explanatory. And then Clint, that’s a new bow. Also self explanatory.”
Clint picked up the bow and pulled the string back experimentally.
“That’s nice,” he said. He repeated the motion a few more times, then set the bow down on the coffee table and crossed his arms over his chest, his gaze calculating. “You think it’s that easy, Stark?”
It felt like all the air had been sucked out of the room.
“Clint,” Natasha warned, but he shook his head and pressed on.
“You think you can just make us new toys and that’ll make up for everything?”
Tony felt adrenaline spike, and he swallowed, his face heating in embarrassment. “That wasn’t-”
“You can’t buy my forgiveness. You let them lock me up, you let them keep me from my family. No amount of fancy tech is going to make that better. There’s no way you could possibly make that up to me, to us, so you might as well not fucking try.”
Tony didn’t say a word. His jaw was locked up, his whole body rigid. Involuntarily, his right hand rubbed at the bandage covering his burns. He hadn’t been asking for forgiveness - just a chance to start rebuilding trust, to try to get back to the way things had been.
“Right. Of course. I’m the scum of the earth and I’m obviously trying to buy you off,” Tony said, when he was finally able to speak. “I couldn’t possibly be doing this as an act of good faith.” He shook his head. “You know what? Keep the stuff. You guys be the Avengers, and I’ll just keep upgrading your equipment. That’s all I’m good for, right?”
He didn’t give anyone the chance to argue before he turned and stalked out of the room.
“Tony. Tony! Wait up!”
Tony cringed. Shit. Wasn’t Steve not supposed to be back until later? He’d barely made it ten feet from the common room, and he was still bristling. He wasn’t up for a showdown with Captain America, too.
“What's up, Cap?” He feigned casual, but he felt the tension creeping into his face.
“What happened in there?”
“Don’t wanna talk about it, Capsicle,” Tony replied.
Steve followed him as he tried to move away. “You’re obviously upset.”
No shit, Sherlock.
“And you have really excellent observational skills. You should get a prize.” Steve didn’t look like he was going to take any kind of deflection for an answer. Tony sighed. “Look. I pissed everybody off again, so if it’s all the same to you, I’m going to go hide in my workshop and avoid all the people who hate me. Okay?”
Tony tried to maneuver away and Steve practically jumped in front of him, blocking his path and getting much too close for comfort.
“Tony, stop. Please, tell me about it. I want to listen.”
Steve looked earnest and sincere, and Tony didn’t know what to make of that.
Tony didn’t want to have this conversation, didn’t want to be talking to Steve at all, because he was already too keyed up. Anger flared in his chest, and he rounded on Steve, his voice low and dangerous.
“Because I have these memories, Steve, very vivid memories of you trying to kill me. And now you want to listen? Want me to tell you about my feelings? That doesn’t really compute.”
“Tony, I was never going to-”
“Then why the hell would you even for a second let me think you were?”
“I’m sorry!” Steve’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I know we haven’t talked about this, but I’m trying, I want to be there for you, because you’re right, that was a terrible thing for me to make you feel.” His face grew more serious. “I should've told you about your parents. I regret that choice every day.”
Nope. No way. I am not equipped to deal with this right now, Tony thought. It was all hitting too close to the things he'd worked so hard to bury and forget. He was ready to forgive Bucky, but he was nowhere near ready to forgive Steve.
“Boo fucking hoo!” Tony hissed. “I’m up to my eyeballs in regrets, Rogers. I know you're ‘Mister Moral,’ so maybe this is unfamiliar territory for you, but this is how normal people feel all the time. This is what it’s like to hate yourself and not be able to do a goddamn thing about it.”
“Tony.” The hurt on Steve’s face made Tony’s heart ache with sympathy. Damn it! Stop! You’re not supposed to care about him!
“Look. Just leave. Me. Alone. Okay? I’m fine. Really. Worrying about me is a complete waste of your time.”
Steve reached out to touch him, and immediately Tony recoiled, seeing red.
His palms are pressed flat against the shield, repulsors meeting the vibranium and scattering light. He and the Captain are evenly matched - and then suddenly, the fight changes. Steve is driving him back, and back, one step after another, until Tony is pressed against the wall. Steve throws punch after punch and Tony can’t see through the volley, his helmet tossed back and forth between fist and shield.
“You can’t beat him hand to hand!”
“Analyze his fight pattern,” Tony says on an exhale.
Tony sucks in a few frantic breaths as he waits for FRIDAY, lets Steve punch the daylights out of him, because the more he fights the more there is to analyze, right?
Tony grabs the shield and stops Steve dead. “Let’s kick his ass.”
Tony shoots off a repulsor blast that sends Steve spinning, relieving him of the shield. Tony follows, and Steve blocks him a few times before Tony lands three solid blows to Steve’s head. Steve falls to his hands and knees, coughing and spluttering. Tony shows no mercy, grabbing the back of his suit and flinging him into the cement pillars.
Tony tells him to stay down and turns to finish Bucky, his head on fire with rage, his heart dead and cold in his chest. And then Steve is up and saying he could do this all day, and damn it, Tony’s going to have to knock the bastard out if-
Bucky grabs Tony by the ankle. Tony kicks Bucky's head, hard, but it’s too late. He’s already let himself be distracted, and Steve has hauled him bodily upward. Tony tries to get away, sees the ceiling sail by for a brief instant before he comes crashing to the ground, and then Steve is on top of him, has him pinned, and he’s punching, and punching-
Shit. Steve has the shield. Tony tries to block, but Steve is relentless, bringing vibranium down on his faceplate again and again until the helmet cracks and splinters away.
And then there’s nothing between Tony and the shield, nothing except Steve. The bottom drops out from underneath him, and he throws up his arms as Steve raises the shield and drives it straight down-
“Tony. Tony, are you okay?”
Tony’s eyes flew open and he found himself on his hands and knees, gasping for air. His whole body was trembling, and he shook his head furiously, trying to clear the images that were still burned behind his eyes.
“Tony,” said the voice, and he looked up to see Steve crouched next to him.
“No,” he gasped, and crawled away, still shaking his head. Please, no. Not again.
Somehow he managed to back himself up into the wall and he huddled there, putting his arms in front of his face as if Steve and the shield were still hovering above him. He closed his eyes tight at the sound of Rhodey’s voice, trying to anchor himself in the present.
“How long’s he been like this?
“Maybe a minute. I’m sorry, I was just trying - I didn’t-”
“It’s okay, Steve. It’s just a flashback. It’s not your fault.” Rhodey knelt down next to Tony. “Tony? Tony. Hey, Tones, it’s okay. It’s me, I’m here.”
Tony lowered his arms and drew his knees up to his chest, still trying hard to hide his face. “Fuck,” was all he said, and the rest was lost between sobs and hyperventilation.
“I got this, Steve” Rhodey said. “I’ll call you and let you know he’s okay.”
Steve must’ve left, because when Tony had regained himself enough to look up, he and Rhodey were alone. Rhodey had lowered himself to the floor next to him, leaning against the wall.
“You okay, man?”
“Yeah,” Tony said, nodding and wiping his running nose on his sleeve. “Yeah, I’m back now.”
“Glad you gave me that pager.”
“FRIDAY’s suggestion,” Tony said weakly. “This way she doesn’t have to go all the way down my emergency contact list and hope someone picks up.” He scrubbed a few residual tears off his face with the back of his hand. “Plus, you predate all this shit. You have a sort of calming effect.”
Tony tried not to feel embarrassed about leaning his head against Rhodey’s shoulder. The two were silent, Tony finally managing to catch his breath.
“You scared the shit out of Steve,” Rhodey said, and Tony laughed.
“Serves him right, triggering me like that. Asshole.” Tony meant it as a joke, and so he kept laughing, because what else was there to do? He felt such profound relief, laughing and crying were the only things that made sense.
It was becoming increasingly apparent to Tony that he really didn’t know what was good for him.
He was waiting for Bucky, and to pass the time, he was replaying the footage of his flashback taken from the hallway camera. He probably shouldn’t have been doing it, but he couldn’t get over his own morbid fascination with everything he had wrong with him.
It didn’t look like anything, really. Steve tried to touch him, and he jerked back, and somewhere between the 10 and 20 second mark, he fell to his knees. He replayed it over and over, watching the trigger moment when Steve’s hand came toward him. It was such a simple gesture, with such a harsh and immediate consequence. Forget forgiveness. Would he ever be able to be around Steve at all without worrying about falling back through time?
Tony shut off the screen and picked up a light pen, twirling it in his hand. Still ten minutes until Bucky was supposed to show up. If there was one thing Tony was not good at, it was waiting.
Oh, come on. There are plenty of things you’re not good at. This is just one you have to do all the time.
It was something of a nightly ritual now, Tony helping Bucky with the arm. He would open the compartment and poke around, then he’d give the Soldier an arm massage, because it was a crime that he didn’t get that contact from anyone else. He wasn’t sure who had started it, and he didn’t really care, because it gave him complete access to the tech and to the man who possessed it, and he wasn’t about to complain about either of those things.
And so what if Tony flirted a little, and maybe got just a tiny bit attached?
Be serious. You’re flirting a lot.
Well. Maybe that was true, but Bucky flirted right back, which was more than Tony could’ve hoped for.
The prosthetic T’Challa’s team had constructed was a fine piece of machinery. But Tony, being Tony, always thought he could do better. He had already drawn up blueprints for a new arm, one that was beautiful and sophisticated and badass to match the man it belonged to, and he was itching to get started on it.
When seven-o'clock rolled around and he still hadn’t heard from Bucky, he pulled out his phone to send him a text.
Tony: Hey, did you get tired of me?
His phone vibrated less than a minute later.
Bucky: Sorry, something came up. I'll make it up to you.
Tony set the phone down, trying not to feel entirely blown off. He was self-aware enough to know that he was a lot to handle. “Only tolerable in small doses,” he’d read somewhere.
You shouldn’t be surprised. Everybody needs a break from you eventually.
Tony silenced the voice in his head by slamming his fist down on the table. He was fine. People had ditched him before, and he’d been fine. Being alone isn’t the end of the world, he thought, but as the room grew oppressively large around him, he wasn’t so sure that was true.
He wasn't eating. Tony remembered now because his stomach was clenching painfully. All he’d had was coffee for the past two days, and he was starving. That felt right, though. It matched everything else about him that was empty. He sat down on the ground and leaned against his desk, his head tipping backward. A few deep breaths, and the hunger would pass. It was just as well. Everything tasted like ash now, anyway.
Tony couldn’t honestly remember how long it had been like this. Probably since the day he’d called T’Challa and offered his help. At first it had just been compulsive self-denial: you can’t eat until you’ve drafted your opening remarks, until you’ve finished your research, until you’ve rewritten every last colon and comma and apostrophe in those Accords so that everyone can come home.
Those goals had been realistic. Lately, they’d become impossible. Until everyone forgives you. Until you forgive yourself. Until you make up for every bad thing you’ve ever caused.
He was fine. He was coasting in a dangerous place, but he was fine. He wasn't taking it too far - just far enough.
Sleep was different. It wasn’t that he didn’t need the rest. In fact, he’d be the first to admit that he was tired all the time. He didn’t sleep because he couldn’t.
His heart started to pound the way it did when he woke from a bad dream, and instinctively he reached up into his desk drawer and grabbed the burner phone Steve had sent him over a year ago. It was his lifeline, because at a time when everything had been falling apart, it had anchored him. It had been with him through everything, through the revisions of the Accords, through the trial, through the sea of red tape he’d encountered when trying to get the Avengers back to the U.S. He'd slept with it next to his pillow. He’d carried it around so often it had burned a metaphorical hole in his pocket. He'd thrown it angrily against the wall and had a panic attack when at first he hadn't been able to get it turned back on.
He clutched the phone in his fist, then pressed the heel of his hand into the center of his chest. It was an old gesture, a force of habit from when a foreign energy source had kept shrapnel from his heart. Sometimes he had strange moments where he forgot the arc reactor was gone, forgot about the angry streaks of scar tissue in its place. It seemed like an ugly metaphor for Tony himself. The pieces that had made him him were gone. He was incomplete, and yet somehow he still survived. As dangerous as it had been, he missed it, missed the warmth and the comfortable blue glow. Without it, there was no more light in the dark.
The suit still has an arc reactor, though.
“Hey FRIDAY? Send up mark 100, will you?” Tony said as he stood up.
“On it, Boss.”
A flight around the city would help clear his head. When he couldn’t stand being Tony Stark any more, at least he could still become the Iron Man.
“Come on, baby,” he said as the suit pieced together around him. “Let's go for a ride.”
Tony wasn’t planning on doing any vigilante business. This was strictly quality flying time, and technically speaking he wasn’t allowed to do anything vigilante-like without specific permission anyway, per the Accords that he himself had revised. There were exceptions, loopholes he’d written in, but that was only if someone was in clear and immediate danger, etcetera, etcetera. (Plus, as Peter liked to point out, being a vigilante in New York City was his thing, and Tony didn’t want to take that away from him unless he really got himself into trouble.) So Tony avoided flying too low, sticking near the tops of the skyscrapers, just to keep himself from being tempted. New York was beautiful at night, and Tony had forgotten how much he enjoyed this view.
He found himself flying out of downtown and into the industrial district, which was a lot darker and a lot quieter. Tony had made some improvements to the suit that he hadn’t yet experimented with, and while he didn’t mind civilians getting a glimpse of the Iron Man every once in a while, he didn’t want any potentially-failed tests making it into the papers the following morning. He was booting up his upgraded flight systems when something caught his eye.
“Hey FRIDAY. You got any explanation for why somebody would be using an emergency flare in an alley?”
“Perhaps as some kind of marker, Boss?”
What kind of group marks their secret meeting place with a fucking flare?
“Let's go check it out.”
Tony lowered the suit down a block away. Realizing that the Iron Man would probably stick out like a sore thumb, he decided to power down. He could always call the suit again if he needed backup.
“Sorry, FRIDAY,” he murmured as the mark 100 disassembled. “Gonna run this one solo.”
Tony rounded the corner and saw the flare on the dark pavement, positioned in front of a fairly nondescript metal door. At the sound of someone approaching, he pressed himself against the wall, breathing silently through his nose. He watched from the shadows as a man glanced around, pushed the door open, and disappeared inside. Tony crept forward slowly, not making a sound as he followed.
The door opened onto a flight of stairs. Tony stood and waited until he heard the sound of footsteps die down, then followed, treading carefully on the old wood to make as little noise as possible. He descended into the dark, down two, three, four flights, until the stairs ended at what looked like it had once been a wine cellar. Clearly it hadn’t been stocked in a long time. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling, and some of the boards overhead were loose or missing. The whole place felt damp. He couldn’t hear or see anything at first, the room was so deep. Tony stepped down onto the cement floor, his breath coming out in a white puff of mist.
Old, cold, dark, and damp. What the heck kind of group would be using this place?
Finally after the first dozen feet there were lamps, and he could see figures in the back corner of the room. What are they doing? Is this some kind of cult? He squinted and took another step closer.
It was group of men circled around what looked like an old-fashioned fist fight.
You’ve gotta be kidding me.
“Oh my god. This is Fight Club. Is that what you guys are doing? Fight Club?”
Up until then, Tony had been silent - no one had noticed him come in. Several heads turned at the sound of his voice.
“Whoa, hey, hold up,” somebody said, and the fighting in the center stopped. That same somebody, a short, stocky blonde, stepped up to Tony.
“Who the hell are you?”
“You didn’t answer my question,” Tony said. “Is this a fight club?”
“What’s it to you?”
“Well I mean, if it is, you’re not exactly being subtle, are you? You left an emergency flare outside, people are gonna get curious and wander down here.”
“That what you did?” the blonde asked, and Tony shrugged.
“That’s my prerogative.” He scanned the men who had now gathered around to listen to their conversation. No shirts, no shoes, and several looked just a little beat up. One man’s nose was bleeding, and he wiped at it with the back of his hand. “This really is a fight club, isn’t it? I was hoping you were some kind of terrorist group or something. I gotta say, this is a bit of a disappointment.”
“Are you gonna tell us who you are, or am I gonna have to forcibly remove you?”
“Liam. That’s Tony Stark,” one of the other men said.
The blonde’s eyebrows rose, and he rubbed his hands together, grinning open-mouthed. “Tony Stark. T-Bone. The Iron Man.” He circled around Tony, and if Tony hadn’t had the suit as backup, that would’ve been a pretty effective tactic. “What’s the CEO of Stark Industries doin’ in a place like this?”
“Former. Former CEO,” Tony corrected.
“Once a corporate drone, always a corporate drone,” Liam shot back, spitting at Tony’s feet.
Okay, so these guys disapprove of The Man. Probably anti-corporation and anti-government, too, Tony thought.
Liam circled one more time, then stopped directly in front of him, taking a step into his personal space. “Okay, former CEO.” He looked Tony up and down appraisingly. “They say you’re a genius. That true?”
“Might want to have me take an IQ test, just to be safe,” Tony replied, earning him a scowl.
“Don’t be cute.”
“That’s like asking me not to breathe,” Tony countered, and suddenly a fist connected with his jaw. He blinked and stepped back, the pain rattling through his skull.
“C’mon, genius. Don’t tell me you didn’t see that coming,” Liam said. He crossed his arms and looked at Tony expectantly. “Doesn’t really matter how you got here. Only matters that you follow the rules. You do know the rules, don’tcha?”
The rules. Right, there were rules to fight club. Holy shit, is this really happening? People actually do this? Tony thought. But… was there any harm in playing along? Something had made him come down here. Might as well let this play out and see what happened.
Okay, rule one, don’t talk about fight club, rule two, don’t talk about fight club…
“Rule eight. Right?”
“You got it.”
He glanced at the burn marks on his left hand. You were looking for a long-term solution, Stark. This could be it.
“Yeah. Okay.” He toed off his shoes and unzipped his hoodie. “I'm in.”
The eighth and final rule: if this is your first night at fight club, you have to fight.
Tony enjoyed fighting. He liked the quick thinking and the adrenaline rush, liked when he could outsmart someone with his body as well as his brain. He had sparred with almost everyone on the team at least once, and he’d done so many combat missions as Iron Man that he’d lost count. That was different, though. In this fight, he only had himself. No repulsors, no targeting systems, no FRIDAY. Just Tony Stark.
That almost made it more exciting.
He and Liam stood in the center of the circle, facing off. Natasha would’ve said this was the most important part of the fight, where you learn if your opponent is right or left handed, where you check out their form, see if they have any habits or tells before they attack. Tony had never been that good, but he did see the first punch coming a mile away. It flew at his face, and Tony brought his arm up, blocking the blow from underneath.
Another punch - Tony jumped out of the way. His reactions were a little too much, but he couldn’t help it. He was so used to hauling the suit around with him, he didn’t know quite how to move when it was just his own body. He needed to relax.
Calm down, Stark, don’t over-correct.
Liam’s fist came at him again. Distracted knocking the blow away from his head, Tony entirely missed the punch to his gut. Shit. The breath blew out of him and he stumbled backward. He narrowly avoided the kick to his knee, staggering off balance, then threw an elbow into Liam’s throat.
Bad move. Liam grabbed his forearm and used it to spin Tony around, gripping below his shoulders hard enough to bruise before pulling him into a headlock. Tony tried to move and found himself solidly trapped, choking. Damn it, he was not going to tap out. He dropped to his knees and kicked Liam’s legs out - or tried to. It wasn’t entirely successful, but it got Liam to relax his grip long enough for Tony to break away.
Liam was still finding his footing when Tony plowed straight into him, knocking them both to the ground. He scrabbled to his feet.
Stay down. Final warning, his mind supplied, and he shook his head. Now was really not the time.
I could do this all day.
Fuck! Tony felt like he was phasing in and out of reality. He saw Liam getting up out of the corner of his eye and threw a blind punch that somehow connected with the side of Liam's face. And then Liam started to pummel him, and all Tony could do was block, and block, until his arms were tired and he was seeing double.
You can’t beat him hand to hand!
“No!” Tony shouted, blinking through the fog and charging forward. Now he was the one throwing punches, hitting Liam’s face over and over with his left hand until Liam was on the ground and Tony’s knuckles were raw and stained, and he wasn’t sure if that was Liam’s blood or his own.
Liam tapped out, and Tony jumped up and backed away, stunned.
“Shit,” he said, realizing that he’d probably fought harder than he’d meant to. “I’m sorry.”
Was he, though? That had felt… Good. The word you’re looking for is good.
All the points of pain, his ribs, his knuckles, his jaw, his arms, they burned away his feelings of guilt and rejection, cut through the overwhelming emotional load and eviscerated it. Every worry, every nagging thought was gone. He felt only pain, pain and a truckload of adrenaline surging through his veins.
“Don’t apologize,” Liam said, hauling himself to his feet and dabbing at the blood on his face. His teeth were coated in red when he smiled. “Not bad for a first fight, new guy.”
Fight club. I still can’t believe it was a fucking fight club, Tony thought, chuckling to himself and then wincing at the pain in his diaphragm. He sank slowly into his chair, clutching an ice pack and groaning as his body finally relaxed.
Everything ached. His stomach was bruised, and he had deep purple marks on his biceps where Liam had grabbed and held on. His face, thankfully, was untouched except for the spot on his jaw where he’d taken that first punch. He supposed he had Steve to thank for that. Tony had gotten extremely good at blocking anything aimed at his head.
Tony pressed the ice against his jaw with his right hand and glanced down at his left. It was still raw, his knuckles swollen and bleeding. He flexed his fingers and cringed, because shit that hurt. But they moved fine, so they weren’t broken.
He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, his mind comfortably blank. He sighed in relief. This felt just a little bit less fucked up than burning himself, because it didn’t really count as self-harm, right? Not when somebody else was doing the punching.
That’s a pretty fine line you’re riding there, Stark.
He silenced the thought. This wasn’t just an excuse to get himself beat up.
You sure about that?
Well, okay, maybe it was. But he was dealing blows as well as taking them, and he could use the sparring practice. He could justify this to himself, and if he could keep the marks on his face to a minimum, there was nothing that said he couldn’t keep it up and still keep it a secret.
Tony woke up five hours later, slumped in his chair, ice still clutched in his hand. When had he fallen asleep?
He yawned and stretched against the soreness that had settled into his muscles. He should probably have Bruce take a look at his hand. He could explain that away easily enough, and he would have a hell of a time wrapping it himself. He stood up and set the ice on the table, then froze with a sudden realization: he’d slept through the night and hadn’t had a single dream.
Doesn’t matter how fucked up it is, Tony thought. Just matters that it works.