Siberia is, unsurprisingly, bitterly cold.
He hadn’t felt it before, protected by the armor as he’d been. He’d been insulated from the weather and focused on more important things. He hadn’t bothered to give it more than a passing thought that didn’t revolve around wind speeds and visibility issues.
He’d been focused on getting answers, focused on helping, on protecting, on St- …
Well, he’d had other things on his mind.
Laying on his back, helmet gone, reactor dark and armor a dead weight, with the snow drifting in at him?
Now he feels it.
It’s the only thing he can feel at the moment, the only thing that really feels real.
So … Siberia is cold.
And Tony …
Tony’s fading, black closing in around the edges like clawed fingers reaching up to pull him down.
He doesn’t bother fighting it.
Doesn’t even try.
When the dark finally, blessedly, takes him …
Tony welcomes it like an old friend.
It’s one of the few he has left.
Tony Stark dies on the cold, snow strewn floor of a Siberian bunker.
Or at least, that’s what he wishes had happened.
What really happens is that Tony spends thirty six hours in an abandoned HYDRA base in Siberia before help comes, before Vision finally finds him.
He’s cold and he’s bleeding and he’s broken in more ways than one.
Tony leaves more than just blood and sweat and destruction behind him in that bunker.
In return Tony takes more than the pain of his body, the hurt in his heart, and the betrayal festering inside of him like an infection with him when he leaves.
The cold stays with him too.
Tony answers Ross’ questions about his whereabouts in short, clipped sentences. In half-truths and leading statements. He gives Ross enough to form a solid story but he doesn’t give him the whole truth. Doesn’t tell him or anyone else what really went down.
He takes his hurt and his newfound knowledge, or maybe it’s not new because betrayal tastes so familiar nowadays, and he curls it down into a ball at the center of his chest. Uses it to weld a coat of iron around his too weak heart.
It doesn’t make it any easier.
Doesn’t make any of it better.
Doesn’t make Tony feel any less tired.
Doesn’t make Tony any warmer deep down where it used to matter.
He doesn’t think anything ever will.
Tony would say he’s hollow inside now if he didn’t feel so goddamn heavy all of the time.
Tony would say he’s empty now but he knows he’s not.
He’s all filled up with ice instead.
Winter has made its home in Tony now, he’s arctic to the core.
It’s almost poetic in a sense.
Except for how it’s not.
He doesn’t give himself a day or two to rest and heal like Rhodey insists.
He doesn’t take time to, ‘properly process the events that have taken place’, like Vision suggests.
Tony has had decades of hurt and pain and betrayal. Has had years of longing for a place to call home only to always, constantly, have it ripped away. Has had an entire life time of never being good enough no matter how hard he tries.
And, goddamn him for a fool, does he always seem to try.
A measly handful of almost good years tainted now by snide comments, by distrust and lies of omission and fake smiles and goddamn yearning for yet another group of people who don’t want him is nothing.
Besides, now Tony’s had thirty six uninterrupted hours in an abandoned Siberian bunker to search and think, to rest and heal, to process.
He doesn’t need to waste more time on any of that. Can’t. Won’t.
Rhodey comes first once Tony’s back at the Compound, because of course he does.
Rhodey, his best friend, his brother, the one constant in his life despite their ups and downs.
Tony took his legs from him.
So now he has to give them back in the best way he knows how.
Tony calls Pepper only once in the first few days that follow.
She talks to him softly, gently. Tony hears Happy in the background and almost wants to smile.
He’s been good for her and her for him. Tony’s glad they bonded after that mess with Killian and AIM. Is glad that Happy and Pepper found each other even as he and Pepper drifted apart.
“Stark legal is at your services Tony.” Pepper tells him quietly but he knows her well enough to hear the thread of anger in her voice. Knows that, for once, it’s not directed towards him. “Just tell me what you want done.”
Vision stares at the hole in the floor of the Compound often. Sometimes for hours on end.
“What’re you looking for?” Tony can’t help but ask him one night after too long without sleep and too much coffee and the haunting sound of vibranium striking hard at a titanium-gold alloy ringing in his ears.
“Clarity.” Vision tells him softly.
Tony doesn’t say anything but he thinks he understands.
There’s a package for him.
There’s a phone.
There’s a letter.
There’s a call from Ross.
‘Tony,’ the letter starts and it takes all he has in him not to scream.
Tony reads the entire thing through once, pauses to put Ross on hold, reads it a second time and then a third.
Snow blots out his vision for a long moment and all he can hear is the sound of ice crackling in his ears.
All he can feel is the painful crash of a shield breaking his entire world in two.
Vision finds him some hours later in the yard outside the Compound, a small fire blazing merrily at his feet.
“Sir, Tony,” Vision speaks up at his side, “what are you doing?”
“Infection,” Tony starts even as he keeps his eyes on the flames, “is a dangerous thing.”
“I am aware,” Vision’s eyes feel like a brand on the side of his face as he stares. “Wounds should be properly treated to prevent such a thing. Are you injured? Have your wounds reopened?”
“No. This is me, cauterizing a wound.” Tony tells him softly, intently. “It’ll be nothing but a scar now Viz. Just another to add to the collection.”
Tony’s pretty sure that they both know he’s lying.
But Vision doesn’t call him out on it and that, that right there’s a kindness all on its own.
Tony scans the phone, breaks it down to its basic components and examines every piece because that’s what he does.
And then he puts it back together in perfect working order.
Because that’s who he is.
He’s always been driven to fix the things that hurt him.
Maybe especially the things that hurt him.
Wakanda. Wakanda. Wakanda.
The name beats in his head like a refrain.
He could act.
He could hurt them like they’ve hurt him.
All it would take would be one phone call. One word in the right/wrong ear.
He won’t though.
He never could in the past.
It’s just one more thing that hasn’t changed about him after all.
Tony slides the phone across the countertop in Vision’s direction one morning a week or so later. Rhodey stares at it, brows furrowed, and Vision looks faintly bemused.
“Antiquated,” Vision hums even as he looks up at Tony. “May I ask why you’re giving this to me Sir?”
“St-Rogers sent it to me.” Tony holds up a hand to still Rhodey’s noise of outrage. “I burnt the letter that came with it but the phone’s got one number in it. One number in case push comes to a fiery end kind of shove. He said he’d, they’d, be here if we needed them. That all I had to do was call.”
“That son of a bitch.” Rhodey seethes from beside him.
“You’re a better man than I’ll ever be Vision,” Tony keeps going determinedly. “So you make the call if it comes down to it. You’ll know if the times right. I … I can’t trust myself to make that kind of decision.”
“You are a good man Tony.” Vision insists quietly and Tony has to smile at the way he can’t seem to choose which name to use for him, Sir or Tony. At least Mr. Stark is a thing of the past now.
“Oh baby boy no,” Tony chides with a rueful huff, “between the two of us, you’re the better man. Me? I’m just … bad code.”
For the first time in years, for the first time since right before Ultron if he really thinks about it, Tony’s thinking completely clearly about everything.
And he’s finally come to a conclusion.
Even after all this time, after Afghanistan and Obie, after the palladium and New York, after AIM and Sokovia, he’s still the same at the core.
Still the same dumb fucking kid who went back to Howard time after time, bloody and bruised and so stupidly hopeful.
The same little idiot who’d reached out and grabbed hot tools and cracked flasks and sharp metal whatever Howard shoved in his direction even though his hands were already riddled with scars. Always so hopeful that maybe this time it would matter, maybe this time it’d be different.
The same kid who’d learned not to dodge a backhand because the return swing always hurt so much worse some how.
The same boy who’d never been enough to get Maria to stay home on holidays and birthdays and weekends, please just this once choose me, no matter how hard he begged.
The same person who’s realized, in hurtful stops and starts along the way, that there must be something inherently flawed inside of him in a way he can’t fix.
There’s no other explanation for why it’s so hard for people to love him back. He’s the common denominator after all, the unchanged variable. The flaw must be with him.
So, ultimately, at the deepest heart of him, Tony’s finally realized that he’s the same man who’d sat with Yinsen beside that fire in that cave in Afghanistan.
Still the man who has everything and nothing.
Only now he’s been stripped down to brass tacks. Peeled out of his various armors and left exposed. Vulnerable.
Now he’s got nothing left but a few scattered, charred pieces of the time bomb he’d tried to fool himself into believing could finally be his family.
That, a heart coated in iron, and the ice that fills his bones.
But that’s okay.
Tony’s made miracles with less.
This is nothing.
This, they, were supposed to be everything.
And maybe they were. For him.
Even if the feeling wasn’t mutual, even if that bond only went one way where he’s concerned.
Yeah, maybe the problem was, as it always has been in the past, him all along.
Iron Man yes, Tony Stark … not recommended.
Sounds about right.
Sometimes, when it’s dark and quiet, Tony climbs up onto the roof of the Compound and stares up at the sky, at the stars and the death he knows they hold.
Sometimes he sits there and he can’t help but wonder.
What’s so wrong with him that so many of the things he loves never seem to love him back in equal measure?
Or at all.
Sometimes he’s not sure which hurts worst.
The difference or the absence.
Tony’s stands beside Vision as they both watch Rhodey grip the parallel bars tightly as he works with the newest iteration of the exoskeleton Tony made him. He’s gained a lot of his strength back and the muscles in his arms ripple more now than they did before, stand out in harsh definition.
Soon, Tony knows, the bars will be gone all together. Rhodey’s strong like that, determined.
At the moment he and Vision are here more for moral support than anything else.
Even if they might be two of the worst people/beings to provide that kind of thing.
There’s a long beat of silence between the two of them as they watch Rhodey before Tony finally looks up at Vision and says, “You should have left me there, in Siberia. I was ready.”
‘To die’, he doesn’t say the words, but he knows Vision hears them anyways.
The words have been itching at the back of Tony’s tongue since Vision had stepped through the wall of the base in Siberia and kneeled down at his side.
For a moment Vision just looks down at him and the expression on his face is young and sweet and wise and ancient all at the same time. Tony just stares back up at him, raw and unguarded and so goddamn cold.
Finally Vision just reaches up and runs his fingers through Tony’s hair, tactile in a way he never was before, like he needs the touch to ground him now.
Vision doesn’t speak though, just stands there, crowded against Tony’s side, his hand drifting from his hair to his shoulder and then away before he floats over to Rhodey’s side.
Tony’s stuck wondering if it’s because he agrees or if it’s because there’s simply nothing else to say.
They’re having dinner, the three of them, well Tony and Rhodey with Vision watching on with a soft expression on his face as they eat his rapidly improving cooking.
Tony’s just caught a fry Rhodey flicked at him in his mouth when Vision clears his throat meaningfully.
“What’s up Viz?” Rhodey’s the one who asks, soft and gentle in that way he’s only ever been with Tony himself before now.
Vision brings a hand up and Tony goes quiet, goes still, because in his hand is a familiar flip phone.
“I have considered the matter at great length. I have calculated and contemplated a great deal on the subject. It was unpleasant in a lot of ways but … necessary I think.” Vision announces and before Tony can ask anything else the phone crumbles to dust in Vision’s suddenly clenched hand.
Surprised Tony just stares at him silently, brow slightly furrowed.
“In conclusion I found the sentiment behind this offer to be … offensive.” Vision meets his gaze head on and the look in his eyes is heavier, darker in some ways, than usual. “If they, any of them, would have us rely on their aid in our time of need then why did they willfully leave to begin with? One does not abandon their family, abuse their family, and then offer comfort and aid. To do so is to wound in ways that do not heal.”
Tony feels oddly breathless.
“This is me,” Vision says slowly, deliberately, and his eyes never waver from Tony’s, never even blink, “cauterizing that wound. I will not allow infection to take from me the family that I still have left.”
The Spiderling is next.
Tony had already sent him a small gift weeks ago but there’s more he’s been working on that he wants the boy to have.
That kid, Peter, he’s the future.
He’s the future Tony’s been fighting for all along.
Him and all the others like him.
The hole in the Compound floor gets fixed.
Vision doesn’t stand and stare down into the ground searching for clarity any more.
Now he finds Tony on the nights Tony takes to the roof.
“What do you search for when you look at the stars?” Vision asks him softly.
“Hope,” Tony tells him. “Absolution. A million things I’ll never deserve.”
Sometimes Tony dreams about being back in Afghanistan.
Sometimes he dreams about water closing in over his head and boots in his ribs and the constant ache of pain and hunger and wounds only ever half healed.
Sometimes he dreams about Yinsen cutting him open and scooping bits of him out.
Over and over and over again.
Sometimes he dreams about having the reactor put in for the first time, seeing it glowing like a star in his mangled chest.
Sometimes Tony dreams about Afghanistan and it’s not even a nightmare anymore.
Because at least then he knew why everything was happening.
At least then he understood all of the hurt.
“I searched for clarity,” Vision tells him softly. “I stared down into that hole and willed myself to understand without bias, without reservations.”
“Did it work?” Tony asks even as he keeps his eyes on the stars overhead.
“No.” Vision’s hand comes down on his shoulder then, and the feel of it is comforting. “But I found something better I believe.”
Sometimes Tony thinks about Steve. Steve, not Rogers. Although Tony’s not really sure there’s a difference anymore. Isn’t sure if anything he’d thought had been between them was ever real.
He still thinks about it though. About what they’d could have, had almost, had together.
It had been there, shimmering between them, that tension, that yearning that Tony had been so sure wasn’t one sided.
There are days when Tony can still almost taste it, the burgeoning possibilities of what they could have been lingering on his tongue, spicy and sharp.
The flavor always sours though, always turns coppery and sick in his mouth like a sickening mix of blood and dirty snow.
It’s not hate, what Tony feels for him now, but it keeps close company with it.
That’s a lie.
Tony doesn’t hate Steve. Doesn’t hate any of them. Doesn't even come close.
He only wishes he could.
Wishes that, for once, he could hate someone as much as he’s always hated himself.
As much as everyone else, with the few rare exceptions, have always seemed to hate him.
At the very least he wishes he could just stop caring altogether.
In this he would take the absence over the difference anyday.
Sometimes Tony dreams about Siberia.
About the snow and the cold. About the smugness in Zemo’s voice. About the way Steve’s jaw tightened when he lied.
About the pain and fear on Barnes’ face.
About the rage on Steve’s as he brought the shield down.
About the quiet afterwards.
Sometimes Tony dreams about how death had been right there, reaching out to him with cold and welcoming arms.
With promises of peace and quiet and an end to everything.
An end to him.
And Tony … god Tony had been so close, so fucking close, he could taste it, sharp and cold on his tongue but so damn welcoming.
He’d been ready to lay there, to just close his eyes and let the cold take him.
But in this, as with so many other things, Tony so rarely gets what he wants.
“You should have left me there.” Tony rasps. He’d woke, screaming, to the sight of Vision siting on the edge of his bed. Rhodey, who’d rolled into his room a few hours before wide eyed and panting from a nightmare of his own, reaches for him blindly from where he’s sleeping on what’s becoming his side of the bed with a small sound of distress.
“I find that I was too selfish to do so, Sir.” Vision tells him softly as he curls one large hand around Tony’s ankle and the other around one of Rhodey’s even though he can’t feel it. “I find myself thankful that I did not.”
The echo of JARVIS in his voice will never not be painful but Tony bites it down like he always does.
He won’t punish Vision for being who he is instead of the ghost Tony sometimes hears when he speaks.
He won’t punish Vision like Howard used to punish him.
“Sleep Tony,” Vision urges him. “I will watch over you both. Be at ease for there are no more wounds here. Only scars. They cannot hurt us now.”
Tony settles back down, forces himself to breathe deeply.
They both know it’s a lie.
All they do is hurt nowadays, the three of them.
All they do is ache.
Some, most, days Tony wishes he’d died in Afghanistan.
God why hadn’t he died in Afghanistan?
The cave would have been kinder than the cold.
Tony sets his sights in a new direction, this one much more cautious, much more careful.
‘Collateral’, he thinks to himself, ‘must be kept to a minimum.’
The thing that so many people don't seem to understand is the fact that Tony is Iron Man.
The suit and he are one in a way no one, not even Rhodey, will ever understand.
It’s been true since the moment Yinsen strapped him into the Mark I and then ran willingly to his death.
Tony is Iron Man.
Howard had always said that ‘Stark men are made of iron’ and Tony has hated and embraced that phrase in equal measures over the years.
But here’s the thing…
When a star gets old enough, when its fuel is starting to run out and it's running out of the lighter elements, that’s when a star starts producing iron at its core.
And that? An overproduction of iron and the inability to compensate for the energy it absorbs?
In the end that’s what causes black holes.
Iron is a star killer.
And Tony’s burned so very brightly for so very long that he’s almost out of fuel.
Not yet though.
He's got enough left in him for one final push.
Once more unto the breach.