Afghanistan is like being on a stranded island with a bunch of pirates, and not the nice fun Disney sort either. The rest of the world feels at first very distant, then like another world entirely, too removed and far away to make any difference. And all around there's sand like waves, weirdly tantalising for all that they'd choke and drown him.
In Afghanistan Tony learns to scavenge and scrape and drudge along with mere scraps in ways he never has to before – and no matter how various novels expound in the, well, novelty of survival scenarios, there's nothing novel about it. The cave he and Yinsen work in wasn't empty before them and it won't stay empty afterwards. They work on ground splattered with rust and sleep in cots that smell like human filth. They walk in footsteps of past survivors – only Tony doubts they survived.
In Afghanistan Tony becomes a cannibal of his own work. It would make a good joke, he thinks, except for the life of him he can't think of a good punch line. Something about recycling maybe. Or desert island survivors.
Its almost enough to make him regret not chasing the other potential venues of his existence, but not quite. Mostly it just makes him regret the ones he did. In refusing to become a weapon he'd ended up producing enough of them to fill up the furthest corners of the earth. Its all very ironic. Just deserts maybe.
About year after his parents died, Tony considers being all metaphorical and shit, and getting rid of his mini bar.
Of course at that point there is nothing mini about his bar – as Vanity Fair put it. It's a true connoisseur's collection, several hundred thousands of dollars worth of exquisite, expensive spirits – some of it even worth their ludicrous price tags. He could open an actual bar with them – possibly two – and still have too many bottles left.
Pouring them all down the drain would take all week. It would probably be cathartic or something, like ripping off a band-aid. Symbol of acceptance and moving on, crap like that. It would also free up some space in his new mansion – he'd have whole new rooms below ground. The hell he'd do with them though, he has no clue.
He doesn't so anything about his expansive collection of alcohol in the end. There's appearances to keep after all – and who is he to deprive Vanity Fair their beautifully derisive innuendos?
In one of the articles, written woman who'd indulged in him for a night, they called his bed the "centrepiece of his opulently Spartan home". It has been all sorts of hilarious, the way the article had lingered on it, how luxuriously utilitarian it was, how it had been set just so in middle of otherwise empty bedroom, how rigid but soft the mattress was, how nice the covers were, how pleasant the high fibre count linens.
Its all about the sex of course, every line a thinly veiled innuendo, and Rhodey won't shut up about his "strong yet fluffy pillows" for months. And sure, it's funny. Especially considering that Tony only ever bothers to sleep on the damn thing when he has company.
"Tony Stark may sleep well on his ten thousand dollar bed..." his ass. Tony Stark sleeps mostly on his chair down in his workshop, or where ever he happens to be at when he wants a nap. Floor, desk, couch, occasionally the stairs, he's not particularly picky about it.
Comfortable bed becomes kind of frivolous when you get just as good sleep hanging upside down, he's found.
"J, I'm rattling in my skull," Tony complains while tinkering with a random bit of circuitry, trying to figure out something to do with himself. His head is almost aching – in the same way pleasure is almost pain. He's probably never going to get used to it. "Read me something, will you?"
"What are you in mood for, sir?"
Tony considers it for a moment, prodding the circuit board with a small screwdriver. Its shaking in his fingers. "Gimme something new."
"Very well, sir." JARVIS is quiet for a moment before speaking again. "Musical theory is the study of practices and possibilities of music. The term is used in three main ways in music, though all three are interrelated..."
Tony glances up and then relaxes as something in his head unwinds and the gnawing, expanding thirst stars to ebb.
One of these days they're going to run out of subjects to feed it. He's not looking forward to it.
Tony won't let it dictate his life. He has that much control over it and over himself – he won't become the thing stuff in his veins demands he should be.
He's nobody's fucking creation but his own.
The metabolism is bit of a mixed blessing. It's not just that he can't get drunk anymore and alcohol all but evaporates as he drinks it. It's the hunger. His engine is running at 150% efficiency or more and so his tank is constantly demanding more fuel. The hunger is almost ever-present.
At first it's kind of awesome. He can eat and eat and eat and never get fat. And it doesn't matter what he eats – nothing makes him sick. Its a deal lot of people would probably kill for, licence to stuff their faces constantly with no consequences.
And then he realises that it's not just that he can stuff his face constantly if he wants to. It's that he has to.
By then it just... it takes the pleasure out of food, to have to consume up to ten thousand calories a day – more, if he does something more demanding. Sometimes it feels like it's all he's doing – just endlessly chewing on food that eventually starts tasting like cardboard.
In the end, he gives up bagels for his – almost lethally high content – protein shakes. Its just more energy efficient that way.
Tony goes on one almost obligatory cruise in the Arctic. His dad had been known for a lot of things – and the Annual Stark Expedition to the Arctic was almost a society event, it's been going for so long. Every year, like clock work, Howard Stark invited bunch of scientists and journalists and took them on a three week cruise to the arctic.
Tony doubts very much his dad had any actual hope of finding the famous Valkyrie, at the end. If the plane hadn't sank to the bottom of the ocean decades ago, then fifty years in the icy merry go of the polar ice would've ground it into pieces long ago. Finding the remains of Captain America would've taken a damn miracle.
He's probably been eaten by a polar bear by now anyway.
Tony honours the tradition once before selling his dad's old icebreaker and putting the whole thing in the past, where it belongs. He gets a lot of shit about it from repeat customers and the people who still think that Captain America might still be alive… and usable. Tony doesn't particularly care – it's not like he feels any particular need to find the mythical key to Project Rebirth.
Worse yet, the arctic freaks him out. It's beyond weird to be standing there in negative thirty degrees – and not feel cold at all.
A proper set of repulsors powered by an efficient enough arc reactor is more than enough to carry the meagre payload of suit + pilot into space. The only thing stopping Tony is the limited life support. One day though...
"I didn't know you played piano," Pepper comments while they watch the said piano being unwrapped by the delivery guys.
Tony shrugs. "I got bored the other day."
She gives him a look that says he's full of shit. Tony shrugs again and grins, revelling in it. She's getting used to him enough to call him out on his crap and yet she's still new enough not to be able to read him fully yet. He loves it when they're like that, all comfortable and confident they're getting a handle on him.
The moment they realise they never will kind of sucks though – and he's not looking forward to the day Pepper looks at him with suspicion and alarm and he has to remind her of the NDAs she'd signed.
"Wanna hear me play, Ms. Potts?" Tony asks, because they're not there yet, and she still thinks he's normal enough to be liked.
"I think I'd like that, Mr. Stark," Pepper smiles.
"You gotta give me some slack, though, I've never played on actual piano before."
Pepper laughs and shakes her head, and doesn't believe him, yet.
"With your... abilities, there is quite a bit you could've done," Yinsen says softly, looking at Tony's chest, the glow there – and he doesn't mean the actual reactor. "I'm wondering why you haven't."
Tony runs at the skin around the rector mount, scratching at the scabs there to make them bleed again. "It's not an ability," he says bitterly.
"I have seen it in action – it's extraordinary," Yinsen points out, very sincere.
"Doesn't make it an ability," Tony says and looks down. The bleeding stops the moment he stops scratching. Next morning he will need to make new cuts there, to keep the rate of healing within realistic parameters.
Yinsen watches him but doesn't say anything out loud, not while they're being watched. It's all in his face though, question and curiosity and censure, all wrapped in one.
Tony grits his teeth and refuses to say anything either.
"You should be dead, Stark," Yinsen bends finally. "There is a reason you aren't. Perhaps you should take it as a sign."
Tony snorts at that generic piece of mumbo jumbo and pretends it doesn't hit as hard as it does.
"Everything special about you came from a bottle."
"Don't suppose you can see Asgard from here," Tony says, peering up at the sky above the newly renamed Avengers Tower.
"Not with so much light diluting the dark," Thor agrees. "And even then it is far away from here."
"Yeah, I figured. You don't develop portal based travel if your neighbours are just a hop and a skip away," Tony snorts. "Which way is it, though?"
Thor peers up at the sky for a moment and then points. "Over yonder," he says. "Just under the sixth of your planets."
Tony looks up. "Yeah I can't see it," he says with bit of relief. "Love it when you talk old timey to me, though."
Thor smiles at him. "Do not feel discouraged – Asgard is far from here. Even your enchanted eyes cannot see that far."
Tony pauses at that. "I am getting palpations here, Thor, you're slaying me," he says in fit of nerves.
Thor says nothing, just smiles, knowing.
Tony has long winded strategy for avoiding hospitals. It involves, among other things, lot extra curricular studies, a fake identity with very real paper work, more medical equipment than any private individual should own, and having JARVIS equipped with X-ray capabilities, among other things. In short, he had a private doctor who didn't exist on speed dial, and he self medicated with extreme prejudice.
"I'm fine – my doc is already on the way," Tony grits out through clenched teeth.
"Tony, you've been shot," Natasha says flatly. "You need to go to the hospital."
"Nah, it's fine – armour too the brunt of it."
"You weren't wearing the armour!"
"Body armour, under clothes," Tony grunts and waves a dismissive hand. "Probably still left hell of a bruise, but I'll be fine."
Sometimes it works – this time it doesn't. Tony stalls for as long as he can, though, and by the time they make it to the medical, the wound has closed up enough to earn him a derisive look from the SHIELD medic, and suspicious one from Natasha. A near miss they dub it, and so does he.
Digging a bullet out of your own guts is a bitch though.
As he gets older, Tony wonders what might've happened had he gone the other route.
Short answer is that HYDRA would've kidnapped him in a heartbeat and if he hadn't been dissected, he would've been brainwashed like Barnes to work for them, probably in similar capacity. Which would be been a damned shame, but that's neither here nor there.
Had he managed to avoid dissection by HYDRA, he then would've had to avoid dissection by the government and just about everyone and everything in between. Assuming he'd managed that, well, then there was the political patriotic shit show to consider, that terrible biochemical ancestry he would've had to live up to. Even now, with the genuine article around, the very idea makes him feel sick.
Tony Stark; the Second Captain America. No, no, million times no.
Still as he gets old and nostalgic and a bit sappy in his desperate attempt avoiding getting jaded, he imagines a perfect world. One where young Tony Stark could've gone up to right and just doctors, where his blood would have been studied for benefit of all, where medicines would've been developed to help the sickest. Its a bittersweet fantasy.
Especially since after Steve appeared, the most anyone had done with his serum was to try and beat it – with varyingly disastrous results.
"No, nope, I refuse, that's just not right," Tony says, covering his face with his arm.
"When you think about it, though," Clint says gleefully. "Fire breathing, scaly glowy skin… and they even stole your princess."
"Call Pepper that to her face, I dare you."
"Actually by that analogy, isn't Pepper also a dragon?" Steve asks thoughtfully. "She's got fire breathing now too, doesn't she?"
Tony closes his eyes, pained.
"That could be her call sign," Clint points out with snap of his fingers.
"Pepper sits on a mountain of wealth with thousands of minions at her beck and call and you think you can get her to play a knight?" Natasha asks, amused.
"Queen Dragon," Clint decides. "It's perfect."
"Pepper might actually slay you, just so you know," Tony sighs.
"Yeah. Dragons are like that."
Rhodey is the first one to figure it out. Tony is still not sure what, precisely, gave him away. Did he bump into something that he shouldn't have been able to move, did he break something he shouldn't have been able to break? It might've been the alcohol, how quickly his tolerance build up from impressive into actually impossible. Or maybe the muscles that refused to unbuild themselves no matter how much he avoided exercise.
"Tony," Rhodey just said one day. "I don't know what's going on with you but I know it's something weird and I've want you to know I'm here for you, no matter what."
Tony lied, of course, he lied through his teeth like lying liar who lies. Rhodey didn't buy any of it, just waited him out patiently until he ran out of steam, until Tony could only stare at him helplessly, trying to spontaneously develop mind control to make him believe. Sadly, it didn't work.
"Come on, show me," Rhodey urged him, with a disarming mixture of understanding and eagerness and support which makes Rhodey a worst sort of enabler.
Tony bench pressed a car for his entertainment, and the brightness of Rhodey's grin made the terror curling in his gut almost worth it.
Sometimes he thinks maybe nothing gave him away. Rhodey just knew. Rhodey always just knows.
Pepper's office is now always at near freezing temperatures and yet it always feels a bit hot around her. She puts off warmth like a furnace, exhaling heat haze with every breath. She wears sunglasses indoors now – and she doesn't go out much, anymore.
"I need you to attend the gala," she says wearily. "Someone from Stark Industries needs to attend and you haven't gone out in non-Avengers related capacity in too long."
"I'll go if you'll be my plus one," Tony says promptly.
She just looks at him.
Ten years he's been waiting for the moment when she gets too scared to get near him. It doesn't happen how he expected it to, but still... he had not been looking forward to it.
"Pepper," Tony says quickly, trying to stave it off. "You know I'm not –"
"Take someone who isn't an Avenger," she says briskly and looks away. "Try and remind people that Stark Industries does more than pay the bills for superheroes."
Tony stares at her helplessly. "I'm sorry," he says, because it seems like a thing to say. "This is my fault."
"It's not your fault."
"Yes, it is. If I hadn't brushed Killian off when he was just an annoying twerp – if I hadn't –"
"It's not your fault!" Pepper snaps and the words come out with smoke. She inhales slowly and calms down. "It's nobody's fault," she sighs and shakes her head. "Just go to the party, Tony, please."
Worst thing about Pepper's office is that it feels cold, too.
Steve Rogers is a... conundrum, in more ways than one. He's a reminder and imitation, a reflection in a fun house mirror. A goal Tony doesn't want anything to do with. He's what Tony should be and yet they're nothing alike.
Steve keeps getting stronger, keeps pushing his limits. He beats sand bags into submission, lifts weights until they weigh nothing to him – keeps building up muscle until he grows out of his shirts and has to get new ones. He starts lifting cars and trucks instead. It's ridiculous.
Tony knows why he does it too. He can almost imagine it, the restless energy and the constant, nagging knowledge of, I can go faster, I can be stronger, that comes with knowing your limits are flexible. And of course, the tantalising gratification that comes with flexing said limits, reaching out beyond them.
Watching Steve's shoulders grow wider, Tony yearns a little. He could've been like Steve, but he refused – he doesn't spar with the Avengers, he doesn't learn hand to hand, he doesn't lift weights. But he knows what it is like. When he actually has to do something physical – like pound a piece of hot metal in a hammer in a fucking cave in Afghanistan... it feels good. It's like stretching out stiff muscles, all the time. It's almost sexual, how good it can feel.
Yinsen had found the whole thing fascinating, which had made it very non-sexy at the time, though. Not that it had been all that sexy anyway, what with cave and terrorists under foot all the time. Still, Tony had put in five pounds of muscle in that cave – and hasn't been able to get rid of them since.
Its been steadily getting worse after – stomping around in couple hundred pounds of metal has that effect, but he limits it as much as he can. It gets embarrassing, having to make new suits because suddenly his ass is too big for the old ones.
Steve, though, Steve isn't holding back at all. He must've put at least forty pounds of muscle since waking up in the future and Tony's mouth waters a little, thinking what it must've felt like.
It makes him wonder – and fear – what his brain might look like these days.
"Nice cat suit," Natasha comments, eying him.
"Meow," Tony answers. "Also it's not a cat suit – it's extremely advanced haptic suit for controlling the Iron Man."
"Well, I did figure that out from all the circuitry," Natasha comments, motioning at his chest and then giving him an appreciative once over. "Have you been working out? I thought you hated working out."
Tony coughs. "I do. It takes more muscle than I'd like to pilot the suit," he admits. Especially with how often he gets targeted with anti power armour weaponry and then has to carry the suit, rather than the opposite. "This will make this a bit easier," he says and then throws a lazy punch.
Behind him, the Iron Man mimics his movements exactly.
"You can remote control it?" Natasha asks with surprise. "That could be handy."
"Psh, I've always able to do that. I can move the armour with my mind," Tony says and waves his fingers mysteriously by his temples. "I got mental mind powers."
Behind him the armour mimics the move again, down to the last finger waggle.
"Sure you do," Natasha snorts and shakes, her head. "Why haven't you used it before though? Remote controlling the Iron Man could have a lot of applications."
"It has its limitations, and there hasn't really been an opportunity," Tony admits, resting his gloved hands on his hips and looking at the armour. "And nothing beats the real thing."
"There's five more super soldiers like him –" Steve says, already rearing for a fight.
Tony straightens up with a snap. "What do you mean, five more?" he demands as the bottom of his stomach falls. "How?"
Steve stops at that, glancing at Barnes and then at Falcon. Barnes scowls and Falcon shakes his head – and Steve turns back to Tony. "Someone made more of the serum," he says, very carefully. "HYDRA got their hands on it back in the nineties. The guy who attacked the UN, he's after them."
Tony stares at them, then at Barnes, and connects the dots.
"Well," he says, warring between resignation and rage. "Damn."