“In life, love gnawed my skin
To this white bone…”
Tony is six years old when his mother takes him away, ushering him out of bed in the middle of the night, hushing him with a sweet smile and a promise of secrets Howard never needs to know about. With Tony wrapped up in her arms, still small enough to be carried against her hip, she tells Jarvis to let Howard know that they are going to visit her godmother in La Jolla. She has a black eye and is smiling the whole way out to the car.
It’s not far off of the truth , but Jarvis dips his head and ruffles Tony’s hair. He wishes them a safe trip, and then they’re on a flight to California.
His mother grew up on the sunny beaches there. Her mother had been an immigrant from Guadalajara; her father, a half Italian, half Irish kid, grew up during the Prohibition and made a name for himself by selling the best hooch on the western seaboard. He’d met Tony’s grandmother in a cantina by the beach while trying to figure out the secret to their tequila, and the rest was history.
They’d married, settled in Santa Barbara, and gave little Maria all of their love and hopes and dreams; she got her mother’s brown eyes, but after long days in the sun, it was impossible to miss the hints of red of her father’s hair.
The whole flight over, Maria whispers to him about rolling breaches, about food that burns, about trees bigger than the tallest of his father’s towers and older too. Tony listens, rapt, and he watches the sun chase them across the sky.
He’s always loved flying.
They touch down in the early hours of morning. Tony is tired in that lazy way that feels like being wrapped up in warm wool and he yawns into tiny fingers while clutching his mother’s hand with the other. Her dark hair is pleated back and her nice heels clip against the tarmac of the runway—a minuscule airport just outside of a small deployment station for the Naval Air Weapons Station—and Tony perks at the sight of a number of jets, pointing out the new AV-8B Harrier II with wide eyes as Maria smiles indulgently. She bundles him into the car that waits for them, and Tony falls asleep with his head in her lap.
He wakes in a field of orange and purple mariposa lilies. The mountains that are probably just hills are covered in them. Even at eight, Tony knows that he’ll probably never see anything like this again. His mother tells him it is a superbloom and that it is so rare that the world has not seen one the valley of death since she was six years old. He will probably not see it against until he is her age or older. He can see the hints of grey in her hair.
She plucks a lily that is so orange it is nearly red and tucks it behind his left ear, kisses his right cheek, and uses the shutter camera she has hanging around her neck to snap a picture of him surrounded by wildflowers.
They spend the day there. Tony collects sand from peaked dunes in a jar and holds it close the whole way home.
When they get there, his dad looks tired. There’s a glass of scotch in his hand and Tony beams and holds up the whole earth and maybe his heart too. Tentative fingers push his hair away from his forehead, rough from years of work, and his hand hovers at the flower still balanced carefully at Tony's ear before dropping his hand to his side.
“I brought this back for you,” Tony says, like it’s more than just a jar of dirt, and something unfamiliar unfurls in his little chest. “So it was like you were there with us.”
It feels like baby’s breath. He has never felt it before; he will feel it again.
Howard hesitates. Then he takes the jar and watches the sand shift. He’s shaking.
Suddenly Jarvis is there, scooping him up and asking him about his trip. Tony tells him, happily, but it does not stop him from catching sight of his mother placing a hand on his father’s arm to steady him—from what, Tony does not know—or the kiss she places to the corner of Howard’s mouth. Nor does it stop him from hearing the glass shatter as they round a corner out of the foyer or his father’s trembling voice:
“Never take my son from me again. Whatever it takes, I’ll give. Never take him again.”
Maria sighs, but it sounds like relief more than resignation. “Of course, Howard.”
It’s Christmas and Tony is drunk. He’s home for the holidays, MIT like a distant dream after five days back in the old homestead in Rochester, and his mother is throwing a party.
Obi has been slipping him drinks all night.
He’s out on the patio deck, white lights hanging overhead like stars, champagne flute in hand. He can see his breath; the lake is half frozen and he thinks he remembers Ana saying something about it snowing as he snuck out the back door and she shoved a scarf at him, but he can’t see a hint of it yet. Music pours out from their lavish home—old tunes and sweet croons—and Tony hums off-key as he slumps against the post and stares out blindly toward the frost tipped trees across the lake.
He wishes, more than anything, that he’d taken Rhodey’s invitation into his home for Christmas Eve. He thinks it would’ve been better, gorging himself on Roberta’s homemade meals, though Ana had made him his favorite cookies to celebrate his first successful semester. It is the party that he does not like, the way his mother seems to be progressively losing herself in a bottle. Aunt Peggy didn’t even make her usual Christmas visit. The thought makes something in his chest ache. The left side of his face twitches.
He turns away from the lake and finds his father.
Howard has gone completely grey. He frowns down at his two fingers of whatever scotch Obadiah had been pouring him all night; his bowtie is hanging loose and undone under his collar.
“What’s up, pops?” Tony asks him.
Howard looks up, one hand shoved into the pocket of his slacks. “Your, uh… Your mother has been coaxed to the stage again.”
Tony knows he means she’s had one champagne glass too many. “Let me guess: Baby, it’s Cold Outside ?”
Howard snorts. “Obi’s decided to accompany her.”
Nose wrinkling, Tony pads away from the edge of the deck. “He does a terrible Dean Martin. I’ll go intercede. What do you think? Nothing a little Santa Baby won’t fix.”
On his way by, Howard catches Tony’s arm. His grip is firm but not unyielding the way it’s been the other times Howard has put hands on him. Tony’s reaction is still the same; he goes very still and very quiet.
Howard takes one breath. Then another.
He knocks back his drink and then sets his glass aside on the oak railing. Turning to face him, Howard’s lips press thin. Tony hates that the expression makes him feel so small. That Howard always makes him feel like a hopeful child full of baby’s breath.
“Tony, I—” Howard’s mouth works, and something like horror pits itself low in Tony’s belly. “I just wanted to say that I’m—I’m happy you came home for Christmas. It always makes these things… look better.”
Relief uncurls, cold and whimpering, somewhere inside of him. It hurts, more than Tony can say, but the familiar copper tang of disappointment settles his mouth.
For a moment, Tony thought Howard might say something else. Something kinder. Tony wouldn’t know what to do with that.
“Sure, no problem, pops. You have the best booze anyway.”
Howard laughs then, head bobbing. He sobers a bit, hands on Tony’s shoulders. His fingers curl a little tighter; his lips purse. It starts to snow.
“Tony, I’m so pr—“
“Boys, come inside!” Maria calls from the back door, looking radiant in a dress of white silk, her dark curls pinned back, her smile bright. “You’ll catch your death. Anthony, darling, come play that lovely new piece you learned for our guests.”
Dropping his hands, Howard grimaces and gestures with his head. “Go on, then. Don’t make your mother wait.”
Tony hesitates. “Good talk, dad. Should get drunk and do it again sometime.”
He receives a dry look and a shove in the proper direction for his lip. “Maybe next Christmas.”
“Maybe,” Tony replies, gut twisting.
He unravels the scarf Ana gave him and tosses it toward his father. Howard catches it with one hand.
“Don’t freeze,” Tony tells him.
Inside is too warm. It burns Tony’s cheeks to a rosy pink. He laughs as Obi cajoles him toward the grand piano. His mother coos and praises and Tony puts on a show. His mother’s guests love it.
Halfway through a playful little number, Tony glances up to see Howard hovering with Jarvis and Ana next to him. They’re talking in hushed tones, like everyone is, but Jarvis claps loud and long when Tony stands to bow, and Howard lifts a freshly filled glass and smiles. Tony returns it.
There is never a next Christmas.
The day he loses them haunts him.
It follows him, a specter just out of sight, trailing after him for days and weeks and months and years.
The house is full of their ghosts. Tony feels like he is suffocating on their absence. Their shadows are everywhere.
He leaves that place. Orders that they clear it out of what is necessary and leave the rest.
He never goes back.
Tony does not love easy.
It consumes. Blossoms in his chest until his insides are full of lilies. He likes to think his bones are wrapped up in the blues and purples and reds of his love—it is not often that his heart erupts and overflows, but in the right conditions and at the right time, he blooms .
Stealing Rhodey’s sweatshirt is easy. Keeping it is hard.
Not because Tony does not fall fast and sweet for Rhodey’s grins or his eyebrows or that way he calls him Tones and holds him close even when Tony is pushing him away, but because Tony doubts himself. Doubts the pretty thing under his breastbone that has already felt so much loss.
Rhodey never lets him give that sweatshirt back.
When Ana passes, Jarvis is not far behind. Tony holds his hand all night.
There’s a bouquet of white chrysanthemums on the bedside table.
Tony thinks he can taste their sweetness at the back of his throat.
There has never been someone more dangerous to Tony’s person than himself. He cuts himself open, takes himself apart, to give give give .
It would be alright if he gave to people who returned in kind. If he didn’t ache so much. If he wasn’t this hungry, gaping maw of a boy who is barely a man. If what he offered of himself was treated well—little blossoms tucked behind little ears—and sweet. If he didn’t have such shitty luck.
“What the fuck , Ty?”
He’s naked—naturally—and tangled up with a woman—of course—in Tony’s bed— rude —looking as unruffled as ever. Tony wants to punch his perfect jawline. He does. The bruised knuckles are so worth it.
Spitting and hissing and sputtering, Ty cradles his face and tugs on pants. The woman watches, eyes wide, sheets pulled up to her collar.
“ Christ , Tony, what the hell?”
“You prick .”
“Don’t fucking pretend like you’re surprised .” Ty chuffs. “It was just fun .”
He stops when he sees Tony’s face. He laughs.
“Oh. Oh, Tony. How sweet.”
The door slams when Tony kicks him out, half dressed, heart half breaking the whole time. His bones feel so brittle.
The woman, some grad student, consoles him with tea from his own kitchen. She rubs slow circles into his back and calls him brave. Calls him strong.
He fucks her and never speaks to her or sees her again.
Harold Hogan has the most ridiculous smile that Tony’s ever seen. He’s clean shaven and big and just what Tony needs when he finally fills his dad’s shoes, at least one doctorate in hand and another two not far behind, and Rhodey is stationed across the country.
It is after the first year, all with Obi’s careful guidance, that Tony makes the move. He remembers spending time out here as a child, remembers loving the beaches and the sunshine and his mother’s sweet swaying songs about the gold southern coasts she grew up on. He needs the connection more than the change, but it helps him recreate his brand on the company his father built.
He chews his way through woman after woman, party after party, man after man, scandal after scandal. When the board members express their concerns, and despite Obi’s advice to tell them to shove it up their asses, Tony takes steps to ensure his safety.
Hogan is the first applicant he meets for the position. Tony thinks his big meaty paws and his haircut are as ridiculous as his smile. He can’t help but smile back.
There are never any other interviews.
Tony breathes life into coding—blue like sparks that he coaxes so carefully into flame. JARVIS takes a little while to boot up, self-learning systems already doubling on itself, until he’s the size of a house and so much more.
Next to him, Dumm-E and Butterfingers and U all hover, waiting for their newest sibling like the eager children Tony accidentally created. JARVIS will make an exceptional addition. He’ll be sure to keep them all in line. Tony included.
“Good evening, sir. Please forgive my delay. I was acquainting myself with your systems.”
Dumm-E whirs in delight.
“You’re all good, J.” Tony chokes. “It’s good to hear your voice.”
Something adjusts. There is a pause. Then, a softness.
“I am happy to hear your voice as well, sir.”
They call him the Merchant of Death.
Some liberal extremist claims he sold his soul to the devil, just like his father did, and that he’d long since replaced his heart with something more metal than one of his weapons.
Tony nurses the sparse blossoms in his ribcage with bourbon.
The second he sees her storming into his office, he’s done for. He’s never met a bad idea he couldn’t make worse, and Virginia Potts is bright and shiny and the worst idea he could ever possibly have because he doesn’t think any proper seedling could ever grow in his veins when his BAC practically lives at .12%.
Yet there she roots. There she blooms. Right in his veins.
Yinsen joins the ghosts that Tony’s been carrying with him for twenty years. It’s his face and his words and his clever hands that stick the most and follow Tony around, rattling chains like he’s Scrooge and he needs saving.
It’s not necessarily wrong .
Tony doesn’t love him. He doesn’t grow any new carnations for him. But he loves the man Yinsen was before Tony’s ignorance ruined that. He loves the children he never met. He loves the ridiculous arguments Yinsen had with his wife on early Sunday mornings and just before dusk could touch them in their small home in Herat. He loves the poem Yinsen whispers to him about his childhood home, about the streets of Kabul, about the uncountable moons that shimmer on her roofs, and the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls . He loves the kind man who saves his life and tells him not to waste it despite the SI missile, Tony’s missile, that turned his home to rubble.
So Tony keeps him close. Carries that ghost in his chest, the silvery petals of lilies wilting slow, right next to his new arc reactor.
What hurts most is, like with Ty, he thought the feeling was mutual. Worse, Obi had been there for him since he was a boy. Since before he could invent.
Something dries up inside of him. The hot sting of betrayal is too much. Some vital part of Tony stops facing skyward, stops waiting for rainy season, and he wonders if he will ever feel that sweet unfurling of petals under his breastbone ever again.
In the end, Tony blames Obi. Blames Obi for tearing out his heart.
He thinks, ultimately, that is why he and Pepper don’t work out in the end.
He tries to uproot every single flower there is. He tries to claw them out of the earth, to burn them, to turn them to ashes. He curls in on himself, black spidering along his chest, blue baby’s breath ringing in his ears with JARVIS’s calm voice, and he tries to destroy everything in him before the rest of him follows.
It hurts too much, the idea of leaving them. It gnaws at his guts. It churns. It groans.
And then there’s his dad.
And, for a minute, everything is okay . He’s okay with the little white blossoms under his fingers, that still -- somehow, after nearly three decades-- unfurl in him every time Howard gives him an fraction of a fraction of an inch, because there’s a lot of things wrong about Howard Stark-- but this isn’t one of them.
So he settles into a new normal. Happy with what he has. Content, anyways, with the little fields of carnations and asters and chrysanthemums-- and, gods , baby’s breath; so much baby’s breath-- that are hiding just under the scorch of the earth he tried to raise in his blind fear. He lets them bloom and blossom in small batches and is happy with that.
With what he has. With what he never will.
When everything is said and done, Tony is not prepared to care so much . Doesn’t actually want to.
He wanted to stop loving things years ago.
The guilt still eats at him after, mouth full of lamb and tzatziki sauce, that great empty abyss in him yawning open. Demanding. He shudders and hides his face in a hand and chews, hoping to quell the hunger with food and not with people that will in turn chew him and spit him back out. He can barely swallow.
Someone touches him.
Tony looks up and almost laughs because of course it’s Steve. Steve who laid hands on him the same way his dad used to, who calls him useless the same way his dad used to, who calls him worthless and bristles when Tony bites back the same way his dad used to. It’s Steve who offers a tentative smile and squeezes Tony’s arm and oh, no .
“You good?” he asks.
A field of purple lilies fills his lungs. His eyes dart to Thor, to Bruce, to Nat, to Clint. Something orange blooms in his throat.
“Yeah,” he rasps. “You?”
“Be better after a night’s sleep.”
“Or twenty,” Clint chimes.
Tony laughs, reedy and ridiculous, but he’s nodding. “Not sure I’ll ever sleep again.”
Natasha lifts a bit at the admission because, of all the people at this table, she would know him best by now. “Space, huh?”
Tony grins, all teeth, but he’s grateful for her droll tone. “Not as cool as everyone’s making it out to be.”
It isn’t even a decision. There is no choice to it. His heart just decides for him. It makes such a movement, flipping over on itself, bleeding fresh sensation into parts of himself he thought he’d locked away from everyone but Pep and Rhodes and Happy and JARVIS and his ghosts (but here, now , that encompassing thing he’d always thought was a flower reaching for sunlight opens its jowls and Tony almost pukes at the gaping hole they’ve already left in his gut) that Tony presses a hand to his reactor and clears his throat past the taste of coconut.
It’s too much, this thing opening up in him, so he does the only logical thing he can. He invites them to live with him.
“You’ve got great hands,” Tony says, six months after Malibu and Pepper can’t keep being in love with him but still loves him more than enough—
He loves her for years. Aches for her smiles, her chiding, her lips pressed to his forehead. He’s ached for her since the moment she burst into his office, cursing about account margins.
Just because it doesn’t work, doesn’t mean he doesn’t love every inch of her with the entirety of his being.
-- to keep kissing his forehead when he needs it most, and Bruce blinks up from the chemical solution he’s playing with.
“Aesthetically, I mean.” Tony adds around a mouthful of granola and cherry yogurt. “Technically, too, I suppose. They look capable. Rough, but not too rough. Like you’d know when to be gentle and when to not.”
Nose scrunching, Tony frowns at his own running mouth. He stuffs it full with another large bite and swigs back some black tar Butterfingers kept insisting was coffee for good measure.
Bruce clicks a pen shut. “Thank you.”
“Yeah,” Tony bobs his head. “Sure. No problem.”
Bruce looks like he might be stifling a laugh, mouth thinning and twitching at the corners. He takes his glasses off and sort of squints.
Tony stuffs more granola in his mouth.
“You okay, Tony?”
It’s one of those days where Tony hasn’t slept enough. It’s a miracle that he’s eating. There’s flaxseed stuck between his back molars. That’s probably the only thing that keeps Tony’s mouth shut. He talks too much when he’s tired.
He gives an aborted jerk of his head; a nod. Bruce frowns and sets his glasses aside. He pads over, rounding the workbench, pausing where Tony’s perched. He reaches out.
Under his skin, something breathes in the heat of Bruce’s touch. He has to bite his cheek to keep himself steady.
“When was the last time you got any proper rest?” Bruce asks, his hands on either side of Tony’s face, eyes checking his eyes and Tony holds perfectly still despite the ache. “You need to relax.”
Tony’s brows shoot up. “You offering?”
“Yes, Dr. Banner?”
“Suspend Tony’s lab privileges until he gets some sleep,” he holds up a finger that Tony has to go cross eyed to see before Tony can even protest. “Unless it’s deemed an emergency.”
“Happily, Dr. Banner.”
“Kiss ass,” Tony spits, glare skyward. “Traitor!”
“Tony,” Bruce chides.
He loves that tone. Loves the competent way Bruce finishes checking him over, the detailed instruction he receives, the way his big hands linger at his jaw.
“Sleep,” he insists.
“Love you too, Brucie bear.”
Bruce leans in. Tony’s heart nearly stops.
A kiss at his temple. A stroke of his thumb at his cheek. Poppies tangle up behind Tony’s eyes, white as snow, sweet and sugary and soft. Tony closes his eyes and leans close.
Pulling back, Bruce is all salt and pepper hair, smile lines, and tentative touches. Tony startles out of his reverie. He jerks, heart too full of poppies, and slides off of the stool—extracting himself from his touch.
“Don’t blow anything up without me,” he says and then he’s gone.
It’s a Monday when Tony realizes there is a dangerous bouquet that’s taken root under his ribcage. That’s chewing through him so completely he might never be the same again. That’s left his bare bones empty and vulnerable to their twining vines.
It’s over the edge of a cup of coffee. Natasha made it for him, just the way he likes, a bit too sweet and sharpened with a touch of Basil Hayden’s. She smiles and sips her own. Her hair is a mess of beautiful red curls.
His kitchen table is full of people. Clint is wrinkling his nose at one of Bruce’s smoothies, perched on the counter, mouth full of bacon. Next to Bruce, Steve is idling a pencil between his fingers and sketching something in a notepad that Tony thinks Nat got him the week previous, drinking coffee and exchanging a sleepy smile with Thor over eggs. There is a chair across from Thor that is empty. Tony thinks it might be his.
Steve looks up and greets him with a smile. In his chest, Tony’s heart turns over. Thor waves a big hand; coaxing and gentle.
“Come, Tony.” He says. “Eat with us.”
It is so simple. Perhaps that is what ruins him.
Because there are purple asters and pink azaleas and vibrant mallow rooting their way through him. Jasmine and lavender and purple lilac choke him. He knows that these are tentative things, things that will wilt and die and leave him emptier than ever before without the proper care. He is so afraid of being empty.
“Sorry, big guy.” His smile is a brittle thing, like his bones, marrow consumed by his very own longing. “Things to build. Worlds to save.”
He does not miss their disappointment. It echoes his own.
He’s felt his place beside them has always been a tenuous thing. Easily breakable.
It is a sticky, messy desire. He wants in so many different ways. Yearns for Natasha’s secretive little smiles; her deft, delicate fingers the same way he yearns for Bruce’s meatier, knowing hands. That hungry empty abyss craves their touch, their words, the same way he craves Clint’s wicked eyes and mouth.
He’s greedy. Greedy and terrified.
Because when he dreams, it is Thor’s strength. Thor’s steadfastness. It is Steve’s gentle cajoling as much as it is his biting words. It is the way he puts his hands on him that is so different from before.
Tony is disgusted with himself. With his consuming love. With his saccharine desires.
What people don’t understand is that desire does not always accompany all things carnal. That is not to say that Tony has not had those dreams too, but it is to say that his desire for them is simple.
Tony has never been considered sweet or sentimental—though those that know the soft red petals of his heart know better—and yet he does yearn for it. To hold and be held. To love and be loved. To have the raw chasm in his chest echoed.
It is, of all people, Clint. Tony is trying to create a comm unit that doubles as a hearing aid so that Clint doesn’t just have to use his “good” ear, and U is hovering, camera-eye zooming in and out as Tony describes the cochlear circuit. He’s thinking Blutooth cellular aids, commercialized but allocated for at risk or high need minors with similar hearing issues, to create easier access to Stark tech and create ease to life; the fact that it’ll help his stocks will just be a bonus. Clint is sitting on the workbench next to his work area, watching him.
His fingers, rough and calloused from years of adept work, of agile movements, of precise archery, were laced loosely between his knees, his elbows resting on his thighs. He watches; quiet. His hands are like Tony’s: worn and sure.
“Why do you do this?” he eventually asks, over the slow wails of Howlin’ Wolf.
“Break your back makin’ stuff like this for people like us.”
Tony blinks up. “People like you?”
“You don’t mooch. I offered.”
“Why’d you do that?”
“I like you idiots.”
“When’d that happen?” Clint leans in a bit. “Before or after the homicidal brainwashing wore off?”
“Probably somewhere in between and a little after.”
Clint cants his head over. “You’re a good guy, Tony.”
“What makes you say that?”
“You’re a giver.” Clint smiles. “You give a lot of love.”
Tony falters so hard that sparks fly. His heart, tumultuous as it is, almost stands still. His chest aches.
Next to him, Clint has stopped moving. He’s watching with wide eyes now, like he’s just realized something, and Tony does not want him to realize anything. He signs something instead of saying it, and Tony knows he’s serious if that’s the way he’s decided to ask Tony do you love us ?
Tony jerks away.
If it had been anyone else, they would have let him run. Bruce and Thor would have given him space. Steve would have been too shocked. Natasha would have made a tactical retreat. But Clint is not any of these people. Clint is bullheaded and sharp tongued and determined; Tony loves all of those things about him except for right now .
Clint catches him and reels him back. He’s no super soldier, but he has training that Tony has never had. He catches Tony and holds him. Those hands grip at his wrist, clutch at his shirt front, and there is no escaping.
“You idiot,” Clint rasps and Tony is trembling. “You idiot, you think we don’t love you back.”
Tony’s ribs and lungs ache with bellflower, and he chokes out a—“ don’t ”—around all of that purple.
“We love you,” Clint says. “We love you.”
Tony does what he always does; he runs.
Pepper. Sweet, soft, simple Pepper.
He always gravitates back to her, back to Happy, back to Rhodey. His loves that fate of life or his own treacherous heart would never let him have.
It is luck that he goes searching for one but finds two, a bottle of wine on the table between them; a Sonoman brand which is only topped by French ones, so Tony knows he’s interrupted something . He nearly backpedals at the sight, but Happy is there and guiding him to Pepper’s couch that Tony bought her when they broke up. Tony is shaking. Tony is drunk.
Happy is dressed to the nines. His cologne is spicy but subtle-- allspice , he thinks. Compassion , he knows. Tony wants to press his face against his chest and breathe deep. Wants to hide in him.
On the couch, he buries his face against his palms. He sucks in these helpless little breaths, trembling, and only settles when Happy places a gentle but big hand between his shoulder blades. It burns through the cotton of his shirt, and for a while it is the only thing Tony can perceive outside of himself.
Then Pepper is there. Pepper in her pretty blue silk dress and her sad smile, tipping his chin up, lips pressing to his brow as—finally—he sobs.
He reaches for her. He clings to her. He cries.
Happy holds him and Pepper cards her fingers through his hair and they don’t hush him like he expects. They let him cry and he is grateful. It is only when he is done that they coax him to bed, stripping him down, and laying him between them.
He sleeps. Longer and harder than he has in a while.
While he’s gone, everything goes to shit.
He spends his time overseas, on a military base with Rhodey in Bahrain, keeping War Machine in tiptop shape. He doesn’t want to admit he’s hiding, but that’s exactly what he’s doing. Hiding from everything. From the way his body gnaws at itself. From love he will not reach for.
He’s offered too much baby’s breath in his life. He will not offer more.
He does not regret hiding, but he does regret not being there for Steve and Nat when everything falls apart. By the time there’s a helicarrier falling out of the sky, it is too late for him to run back home to help. It is not too late for him and Rhodey to go back home and help with the cleanup.
There are strangers in his home when he arrives—bruised and beaten and looking very much like they’d been put away wet after a long, hard night. Or week. Or year.
In other words: “You all look like shit.”
Clint’s head jerks up when Tony walks in, hands slipping and Natasha hisses as he fumbles to wrap her arm with a fresh bandage. He looks like maybe he’s about to stammer out another love confession, and Tony doesn’t know if he can handle that, so he steamrolls right by the super secret spy twins and over to where Steve has straightened like he’s expecting a fight all while looking like he’d already had his ass handed to him. Twice.
“Wilson,” Tony greets, hand outstretched, and Sam shakes it with an expression of befuddlement that Tony instantly finds endearing. “I’ve heard good things—and by heard, I mean I scrounged up every classified file I could on your military history and spent the better part of an international flight Facebook stalking you. I like your style, but your gear needs an update.”
Sam blinks. “Um. Thank you.”
“Welcome to the team,” Tony says.
Steve completely deflates. He’s looking at Tony with those big eyes that Tony—secretly, privately—would never deny.
“Tony,” he breathes. “You don’t have to—“
“Where’s Barnes?” Tony asks.
Steve’s face goes pale before going red. It’s such a startling, fast transition that Tony doesn’t really know what to do with it—seeing guilt and then resignation.
There’s a story there, Tony knows. He doesn’t know what it is, but he knows it’s long and he probably won’t like it.
He doesn’t ask. There will be time for that later.
“Down in the medbay with Bruce.”
“Why aren’t you all down there too?”
Sam is the one that shrugs. “Didn’t want to crowd the guy. His issues probably got issues, y’know?”
Tony likes Sam already.
He doesn’t voice this. Instead, he hums.
“Well, it’s not every day you break out of seventy years’ worth of brainwashing because Captain America bat his baby blues at you,” Tony gives and then purposefully shoves his hands into his pockets in order to affect an air of casualness he doesn’t feel, especially when they all stare at him long and hard; he’s practically vibrating out of his skin in their company, hasn’t felt this overwhelmed in months, and he thinks he can catch the faintest hint of lavender in the air but knows it’s probably just a him thing. “I had a nice, long chat with Nic after I bullied Maria into digging him out of his shallow grave.”
“Jesus,” Clint laughs and shakes his head, his smile more fond than Tony can handle.
Worse, Natasha looks at Clint as he signs something, and then her eyes are only for Tony. He knows she knows the moment their gazes collide. He doesn’t know if she knows he’s been carrying a carnation in his heart for her since that night she helped him cover the dark circles under his eyes, the death curling through his veins, and gave him the only honest answer she offered the entire time she was Natalie Rushman. He doesn’t know if she knows and it makes something cold and quivering curl up in his gut.
Her eyes soften as he backs up a step. He cannot be here.
“So, the T-800 is down with Brucie?” He’s already moving toward the elevator. “Should probably go help. Dr. Banner is pants at cybernetic engineering.”
Steve is still too caught up in some awful mix of relief and guilt that Tony doesn’t understand and can’t care to right now with his poor trembling heart on the line, with Natasha and Clint watching his retreat, that he doesn’t even try to stop Tony from heading down to the labs. It only really seems to click after Tony’s already on the lift and the doors are sliding shut.
But by then, it’s too late.
It’s always too late.
When Tony was very little-- long before his mother had a need to scare Howard out of letting his temper get the better of him, long before his father took to ignoring Maria and Maria took to ignoring him because they couldn’t part, not really, but they weren’t happy together anymore, not really-- he helped Ana in the gardens. He doesn’t think he remembers doing it so much as he has memories of Jarvis telling him about it.
There are parts of it though, little moments, that his body remembers. Like the smell of earth. Like planting seedlings and burying his fingers in the dirt. Like the softness of green petals when they first began to blossom.
He remembers that.
And Ana’s smiles.
Barnes is a mess but Tony didn’t expect anything less.
He’s been a mess plenty of times, himself. Still is, most days. He can’t hold it against the guy.
Even still, sitting next to someone dead eyed and locked in their own head is unsettling. It makes Tony itch. Twitch. Ramble to fill the silence he hates so much.
Barnes doesn’t seem to mind if his consistent nonresponsiveness is anything to go by.
“The osseointegration would be impressive if it wasn’t so sloppily done,” Tony tells him as he zips through the schematics like a man with a plan and not one flying by the seat of his pants; Bruce is hovering, still running through the man’s vitals and taking more tests, though not drawing blood, because the big guy seems to shy away from anything particularly pointy. “Like, really. It’s good, probably for the times, but I can do so much better than this. I bet it hurts. Does it hurt? Phantom pains?”
Barnes blinks at him, head twitching just a fraction to the left, but otherwise says nothing.
“Yeah, I bet it does.” Tony grunts and settles into a stool he wheels over until he’s in Barnes’ space, between the vee of his legs, hands palm up like an offering. “I know what that’s like. Mines just more in the chest area than the arm area.”
Bruce falters where he’s going over Barnes’ blood pressure, eyes wide behind his glasses as he stares at Tony, but Tony is waiting for Barnes to do something . And, boy, Barnes doesn’t let him down.
He tentatively rests that big, bulking metal arm over Tony’s outstretched hands, jaw clenching tight like he expects the worst, but Tony just beams. He lets his fingers ghost over the plating, checks it for reactivity with slow touches, and Barnes watches him the whole time—a small pinch between his brows, a smaller frown on his mouth.
Tony talks JARVIS through it, cataloging any responses in the plating or in Bucky, mapping out the terrible metal mess of an excuse for a nervous system where some of the plates hiss back and open under his easy touch. At one point, he grabs one of his rags and starts the delicate process of cleaning and drying that mess before the swampy gunk of the Potomac can harm him any further than the shitty prosthesis can, not even noticing the way Barnes’ face has gone lax with his surprise at the steady care Tony is showing him.
Tony only ever stops when Barnes speaks, voice more worse for the wear, almost trembling in its raspy desperation. “Howard?”
For a moment, Tony doesn’t breathe. Doesn’t see.
Off to the side, Bruce is still hovering. He sets his clipboard down, movement so slow it's nearly glacial, and steps just that bit closer to Tony.
But Tony plasters on one of those smiles; one of those terrible fake smiles. “Sorry, buddy. Not quite.”
That seems to confuse Barnes more. His expression scrunches up, eyes blue-- so blue-- and searching Tony’s face for something. His arm stays heavy in Tony’s careful hold, a surprising sign of trust or horrifying sign of blind obedience, but his other comes up to his head. He presses the heel of his palm into his temple, pain warring with confusion, and Bruce steps up to Tony’s flank and rests a hand on Tony’s shoulder like he might try and pull him out of harm’s way.
Tony shrugs his hand off. He’s long since stopped examining and cleaning Barnes’ arm, but he doesn’t let it go or move away or show any sign of fear.
“You okay, there, pal?” Tony asks-- and god , he hates using that word his dad used to toss around at old war buddies, but he thinks it might be necessary here. With Barnes.
Barnes hisses, metal fingers slowly curling into a fist. “St-- Steve . Where’s Steve?”
“Captain Rogers is on his way down as we speak,” JARVIS replies.
Tony loves him a little bit more everyday.
“Hear that, pal? Stevie’s on his way.” Tony let’s his voice dip and lilt a little, ignores the way Bruce is goggling down at him like he’s another damn person, and recalls the god awful New York accent his dad had had before he needed to worry so much about his public image. “Can ya take a deep breath for me?”
Shakily, Barnes does. It’s a stuttering thing, chest rising and filling up beneath all of that strappy, ridiculous armor; Tony could totally make him something better. Will make him something better, when he’s got his head on straight again, and--
For the first time, Tony blanches.
Behind him, the medbay doors hiss open and Steve comes charging in. His eyes are wide, but even in the last few hours, he seems to have gained some of his rigor back. He stalls at the sight of them, jaw flexing, and Barnes looks up and goes rigid.
“Easy, pal.” Tony repeats, and now Steve is looking at him the same way Bruce had. “Take another deep breath for me.”
Finally, his hand drops from his head and he slumps again, expression much less closed off than it had been when Tony’s first rocked up to him. Tony finds relief in that; too much of it, he knows, and oh this is precarious. This is dangerous .
“Back with us, Sergeant Barnes?” Tony asks.
Barnes blinks over at him, nods stiff, human fingers flexing over the soft sheets of the medical bed he’s still sitting at the edge of. “I’m okay.”
“Well, at least you’re a little less monosyllabic.” Tony grunts, voice falling back to his usual cadence, and Steve has not stopped staring at him until just now-- crowding in, probably a bit too much, toward Barnes’ side. “How’s the arm? How’s the head?”
Barnes’ mouth works. Tony sits and waits, expectant and starting to shake, honestly. “They… are compromised.”
Tony’s lips purse at the same time that Bruce and Steve frown. “Do you mean they hurt? You’re in pain? How do you feel ?”
“I--” Barnes hesitates again and then lets out a heavy sigh when Steve rests a tentative hand at his flesh shoulder. “The Asset does not feel.”
“Buck,” Steve croaks.
“But,” Barnes hangs his head a little, hair in his face, and Tony gets the awful, terrible, no good urge to push it back and away. “I am more than just the Asset.”
“So how do you feel?” Bruce asks because he’d never been able to get a verbal response before, and his hand is back on Tony’s shoulder but for different reasons now.
“Foggy,” Barnes says. “Cloudy. Like… like my head is full of cotton. Hurts… every now and then. Throbs. It’s familiar. I… I think I’ve defected before.”
Steve seems to find some relief in that. His eyes stray down to Tony again, and there’s that guilt Tony still doesn’t understand, but he won’t ask. Not now.
“How’s the arm?” Tony asks.
“Numb,” Barnes frowns and meets his eyes, head canting over as his gaze looks over his features again, so much less dead but still not quite clear. “Hollow. Not real.”
“I can fix that,” Tony smiles.
Barnes blinks. “I know you. I know you .”
“Howard’s son,” Steve says. “Tony Stark.”
“Tony Stark,” Barnes repeats, gaze going distant. “Stark.”
“He should--” Bruce speaks up for the first time, clearing his throat. “He should probably get some rest, guys.”
Steve’s fingers curl tight of one of the straps of Barnes’ uniform and Tony feels something twist in him. “Can I-- I’d like to stay with him.”
“Of course, Steve.” Bruce bobs his head. “Tony?”
But Tony is already carefully sealing any open plates back up, already carefully setting Barnes’ arm back down, and pushing to his feet. He’s talking to JARVIS and waving a hand, logging everything he’ll need to start work on a better prosthesis. He doesn’t hear Steve call to him, say thank you, or see the way Barnes watches him go with that same pinched expression, but honestly it’s all Tony can do to keep walking forward.
Once he’s in the elevator, he presses his hands to his eyes and digs in until he sees light behind his lids. This isn’t good. This is bad.
There is hawthorn already unfurling in his heart.
“ Fuck .”
The world has never been kind in the way they have portrayed Tony Stark. There was, at one time, a period where they ran nothing but idolatries-- pieces that proclaimed him beautiful, brilliant, beyond his years.
Even those had a sharp edge to them.
When Tony first when to MIT, he was still young. Impressionable. Already brittle and wounded from years under his own father’s scorn. Wild and unpredictable, except in his study, and so hungry for attention.
The first party he got trashed in, Tony realized just how dangerous the media was, even back then with such limited access to the web that didn’t quite exist yet. His young, pretty face was plastered everywhere the next day. The articles were disparaging when they weren’t oversexualizing a sixteen year old in leather pants at a party he was way too young to be at.
It only got worse from there.
He grew up in the harsh, unforgiving spotlight of being a celebrity. People called him greedy, arrogant, brilliant, eccentric. They called him beautiful, charming, dangerous, reckless.
Somewhere along the way, Tony began to believe it.
Greed is something Tony is infinitely familiar with. He’s always considered himself a bit greedy. Perhaps not in the traditional definition of the word, but it is something that was perhaps passed to him through his father or his mother or probably both.
He is greedy, he knows. For power, for money, for attention. He has never denied himself much of anything. Though, perhaps, not for the reasons people might think.
He covets and desires and takes. It is what he is. It is that gaping maw within him. That thing that threatens to consume him every moment of every day. It is greed. He hungers. He wants. He takes.
It’s what he does.
But he won’t take this. Not ever this.
It’s… actually embarrassingly easy to avoid people who he lives with and works with on a regular basis.
He’s not sure if it’s because he’s very good at what he’s doing; JARVIS is very good at keeping Tony shielded from the others as long as he has proof that Tony isn’t decaying away in one of his workshops. Or if it’s because the two who would be best at seeking him out where he doesn’t want them-- spies -- are also dancing around him, waiting for him to come to his senses or something, and come see them.
Point is: Tony takes to ghosting through his own halls, his own home away from home, except when Rhodey is around. Keeps his distance as Barnes slowly starts getting his feet under himself, Steve and Bruce at his aide; watches as Clint and Natasha begin working to rebuild something in the mess that is SHIELD after HYDRA; sees Sam try and find where it is that he’s going to fit in this weird little family. It’s only with Rhodey at his side, a buffer between him and his desires, that he feels safe enough to wander out.
It’s during breakfast that it happens. Tony is sitting on the counter’s edge, sipping coffee, watching as Steve hovers around where Barnes is sat at the table, like a hen minding a chick, and he hides his amusement in his mug, even when Rhodey snorts at his side.
He and Sam are working together to serve up enough food for the lot of them. They work well together, touches simple and easy when they need something, the nonverbal communication of a well-oiled machine. Two soldiers, side by side, reading one another with such ease that Tony aches. It is a lovely thing to see, so early in the morning, the groggy haze of sleep still clinging to Tony’s mind.
He’s so distracted by it and by Steve’s incessant worrying over Barnes’ impassivity, that he doesn’t notice Natasha until it is too late. By then, she’s already got a hand on his thigh and her lips pressed to his cheek, body warm pressed into his side and smelling of jasmine as she greets him a good morning.
Tony chokes on his coffee, catching sight of where Clint is watching him with crossed arms and narrowed eyes, and heat sears through Tony so harshly that he jerks and spills all over himself. “ Shit .”
“Careful, Tony.” Natasha chides, offering up one of the cloth dishtowels to him. “Don’t want you burnt.”
He meets her eyes and sneers, something bitter catching in the back of his throat, and Clint is still watching-- but so is Steve and Barnes and Rhodey and Sam. He takes a breath. He can see that she’s waiting for something; proof, maybe, but of what, Tony isn’t certain.
“Stop,” he tells her and snatches the towel away to pat at the dark stain in his jeans, sliding off of the counter top. “Both of you.”
Steve is the one that frowns, his hand on Barnes’ metal shoulder, but Barnes is glancing between them all as if he is puzzling something out. “What’s going on, Tony? Nat?”
“What are you so afraid of?” Natasha’s lips purse instead of replying, but doesn’t reach for him.
Tony’s gaze darts to Clint and back. “That’s enough . I don’t know what you think you know, or what he’s told you, but you’re wrong .”
Face crumbling, Natasha does reach for him, but Tony flinches back. “Oh, Antoshka . But we’re not.”
He’s trembling as he pulls away because he knows that. He wants and it’s shaken him to the core.
He only steadies when he feels Rhodey’s hand on his shoulder, his weight at his side, the heat of him a support and a balm all the same. Blindly, he reaches back and clutches at the cotton of Rhodey’s shirt. Rhodey’s hand shifts, sliding down to rest at Tony’s lower back, and Tony let’s out a short breath.
“I don’t believe this is a conversation you should be having right now,” Rhodey says and Tony could kiss every inch of his face if he wasn’t so busy not taking his gaze off of Natasha’s big eyes.
“It involves all of us,” Natasha argues, feet planting shoulders’ width apart, like she expects a fight.
But then Clint is there, tugging at one of her bouncy red curls. “He’s right. This isn’t the right way to do things.”
“All he does is avoid us,” Natasha hisses. “How else are we supposed to--”
“ Nat ,” Clint chides. “Not now.”
Taking a breath, Natasha gives a reluctant nod of her head and then turns her eyes back to Tony. She steps forward, and when Tony doesn’t shy away again, she touches the tips of her fingers to her lips and then his.
Stunned, Tony blinks down at her.
“We would like to discuss this,” Natasha says. “Please, come find us when you’re ready.”
They leave and in the wake of their departure, Tony is still frozen until Sam clears his throat to catch Rhodey’s attention. “Bacon’s burning, man.”
Tony jerks into motion, moving to dump the rest of his coffee into the sink. He ignores Rhodey’s call and Steve’s concerned questions and Barnes’ seeking eyes as he retreats.
He’s half tempted to run again, but he’s nowhere to run to. Pepper is not his anymore, and he is happy that she has found home with Happy. And Rhodey seems to have rooted himself in with Tony’s other misfits-- despite the snark he throws down at Steve every chance he gets, much to Steve’s very confused face-- so Tony would feel guilty if he tried to untangle his oldest friend from his newest friends. He and Sam get on like a room on fire; which Tony finds hilarious, especially considering the catty interactions Barnes and Sam have had, leaving Steve a flustered mess in the middle.
Tony gets a twisted satisfaction seeing his best friend get along better with Steve’s new friend than Steve’s best friend.
But he’s still playing with the idea of running off, maybe to pay a visit to some old acquaintances, to work some tension out of his neck and back, when the God of Thunder touches back down with not-so-great news. The poor guy looks kind of heart broken, all things considered, landing on Tony’s retrofitter with heavy feet and heavier shoulders. The storm that bellows around him echoes the sentiment, and Tony opens his doors without a second thought, ushering Thor in and sitting him down with a smile and a cup of whatever tea Bruce had stashed in Tony’s penthouse.
Thor takes it with a grateful nod and watches the steam rise for a long time before Tony can get a proper word out of him. “Forgive me, my friend. Asgard is in ruin, my Lady Jane’s fancy has left me for another more suited to her Midgardian brilliance, and my brother lay dead in another realm. It… has been a long week, as you would say.”
The charming, meek little grin Thor offers then makes Tony sit down hard on the coffee table across from him, returning it with a little smile of his own. “That’s rough, buddy.”
“Yes,” Thor bobs his head, throat working. “My mother was nearly lost to us as well, but-- It was one of the last acts of heroism my brother made, saving her. I’m quite proud.”
“You should be. Guy was hell in a pair of slick leather knee highs. Even without all the S&M gear, I’m sure he was pretty intimidating. Certainly scared the bajeezus outta me.”
“You remind me of him sometimes,” Thor says. “Even frightened of him, you sharpened your words and met him as an equal on the precipice of battle. Such wit in the face of danger. Though, you have not shown yourself to be nearly as underhanded as he.”
“That’s a good thing, right?”
Thor hums. “Yes. Though, Loki’s cunning ways saved us more than once.”
“Maybe I’ll endeavor to be more sly, then.” Tony offers, leaning forward so that his elbows rest on his knees. “Increase our victory to defeat ratio.”
Eyes narrowing, Thor regards him a moment and then reaches out to place a hand on Tony’s shoulder, squeezing. “You are a good friend, Anthony. I do not know any other who could make this loss feel so kind; the others were not very fond of my brother.”
“Hey, I’ve got eyes.” Tony shrugs. “I can appreciate how hot your brother was and not feel bad about it.”
Thor’s head falls back when he laughs, nearly spilling his mug of tea in his lap, and Tony feels as though a bouquet of yellow tulips as taken root right in his chest. “I am almost glad then, my friend, that he is not here to hear you say it. I fear he would have taken such admiration as invitation, and it would have been impossible to woo you away from such a brilliant mind as his.”
Tony’s brows fly up; he’s really not sure which statement he should start dissecting first, but the first words out of his mouth are: “Woo me?”
“Yes, well,” Thor actually looks a bit flustered now, roguish features highlighted in a warm pink. “Lady Sif has always told me I have a type and my Lady Jane has followed her heart elsewhere. It would only be logical to pursue someone worthy of the effort.”
Tony jerks back suddenly, as if burned, lips pursed. There’s something bitter in his mouth and there are tulips spreading wide beneath his ribs.
“And the other Avengers aren’t worthy?” he teases, but Thor’s eyes are on him now, and Tony remembers that his man is much older than he appears.
Thor hums again, regarding Tony for a second that seems to extend beyond the limits of itself, before setting his cup onto the table by Tony’s hip and gathering Tony’s hands in his own. His gaze is earnest and soft as it is unyielding and old.
“They may be worthy,” Thor says. “But they are not you.”
Tony’s throat works. “That’s a damn good line, big guy. Cheesy, but good.”
“It is working, is it not?” Thor asks, brow up, looking eager and young.
And instead of pulling away like every part of himself is screaming to do-- remembering the way his heart had pounded when Clint and Natasha had looked upon him and known , remembering that if he takes this, he will not stop-- he’ll take an inch, he’ll take a mile, he’ll take a million miles-- until they are all his, until all of them could ruin what’s left of his heart with a single look -- he doesn’t.
“Yeah,” he says instead, watching Thor’s features brighten considerably. “Yeah, maybe a little.”
He doesn’t say that Thor doesn’t have to try; Tony already loves him.
“So,” he huffs, arms crossed, and the part of himself that isn’t quivering in horror at the idea of the conversation he’s about to attempt to have takes a great deal of joy out of the way Clint flails back in the precariously tipped kitchen chair. “You wanted to talk. So talk.”
Natasha does not stop where she is mincing garlic. “That implies that you are ready to hear it.”
“I’m not. Never gonna be. But I want it out of the way. We’re gonna be busy for the next few months, tracking down Thor’s brother’s Glowstick of Destiny and we’re gonna have to work together. I’d rather it not be awkward.”
Clint purses his lips, having since righted himself to twist around and frown up at where Tony is hovering in the door ready to bolt. “It won’t be awkward, Tony. We want the same thing you want.”
“I highly doubt that,” Tony snorts.
“Sit,” Natasha orders, setting the knife down on the counter a little too hard, softened only by her pleading. “Please.”
“Coffee?” Clint springs to his feet.
He hates that they all know the promise of coffee will keep him still for at least a couple of minutes while it brews. He sighs and steps into the room, taking the farthest seat at the shared kitchen table Natasha and Clint have connecting their two suits.
They both putter around the kitchen for a minute. Tony watches as Natasha puts something to simmer and as Clint pours him a fresh cup of coffee. They move seamlessly around one another, barely having to touch to know where the other is or where the other is going. It’s nice to watch, a bit like going to the Bolshoi or the Kennedy Center, but this is free and elegant in a more intimate way.
Eventually, Tony looks away. Begins to feel like he’s intruding.
It’s only when Clint sets the mug down in front of him, pale with milk and smelling just the right kind of sweet, that Tony looks up again. Clint’s smile is small and almost tentative; Natasha is still lingering in the kitchen, watching them. When Tony takes the coffee, it is with trembling fingers. When he signs his thank you , it is too.
Clint beams. He takes the seat closest to Tony despite the empty table and drags it even closer. His hands move, and Tony is careful to watch them.
Thank you for coming to see us.
Breathing deep, Tony nods and practically inhales half of his cup, baby’s breath quaking in his lungs. Clint keeps signing.
Thank you for coming back .
“I live here,” Tony tries to say.
Clint shakes his head. Thank you for coming back to us.
And while Tony hadn’t necessarily been calm coming here to see them, to face the drum song that was always an inevitability, the moment his treacherous heart blossomed for them, he is suddenly blind in his panic.
They are too sweet, too kind, even in this. Even in rejection.
“So,” he sets his mug down too hard, too harshly, and Clint winces. “Let’s get this over with. Awkward team dynamics aside, I’m not one to let my greed get in the way of a good thing. Nat knows that.”
Natasha’s lips purse, and she stops whatever it is that she’s doing to keep her hands busy in order to round the island and migrate closer. “No. You’re more likely to give up on a good thing before you get the chance to have it.”
Tony frowns. His pulse roars in his ears.
“You’re more likely to gut yourself with guilt before you let yourself get hurt.” Natasha pauses, hand coming to rest on Clint’s shoulder and his fingers cover hers. “Again.”
Tony swallows and offers up a sharp grin. “I have a feeling we aren’t here to talk about the same thing.”
Natasha shakes her head, red waves bobbing. “You’re right. You’re talking about rejection.”
“I thought you’d just let me down easy. Let me save face--”
“You’re mistaken. We don’t want to reject you anymore than you want to reject us.”
His mouth goes dry. Like he’s been walking in the Afghan sun for days with no relief.
Eyes narrowing, Natasha tilts her head. “You’d deny yourself this, even when it’s offered?”
“It’s complicated,” Tony croaks. “I’m too greedy.”
Humming, Natasha nods. “It’s not just us.”
“We know,” Clint says. “Wouldn’t’ve run off like you did if it’d been simple.”
“You can’t--” Tony tries in vain to wet his lips. “You can’t possibly be okay with this.”
“You’d be surprised.”
“ They can’t possibly be okay with this.”
“And if they’re not?” Natasha asks.
Tony’s eyes fall to his coffee, half empty and growing colder by the second.
Across from him, Clint makes a small sound. “You’d want more. You’d want it all. You’re afraid of opening the door.”
Somehow, Tony feels infinitely smaller. “I’m greedy.”
“You’re human,” Natasha corrects and finally moves from Clint’s side to take Tony’s face between her hands. “You’ve been hurt and you’re afraid and you love us. All of us.”
Yes , he wants to say; instead: “I don’t deserve any of you. I’d ruin you.”
Natasha’s smile is a brilliant thing. She looks years younger and she leans down to press that smile to Tony’s skin. She kisses his forehead, then his temple.
It’s like the sun itself. Jasmine chokes him.
“I’ll consume you,” he protests because he is all consuming; there’s barely any of himself left to gnaw through, and he fears that sickness will bleed into everything he cares for.
When Natasha pulls back, it’s Clint that looks devious and wicked with intent. Natasha’s hands are so soft, cupping his cheeks.
“Consume us then.”
For a very long time, Tony thought love came with a price tag.
With his father, it was inventions and hopeless hope. It was vying for his attentions and affections with things ; things to impress him, to make him proud, like it was a proper substitute for what a child needed. With his mother, it was time and obedience. Don’t cause a scene this time, Tony. Don’t give me another reason to drink, Tony .
At first, with Obi, he thought it was freely given. It wasn’t until after his death that he knew it was weapons and the money he could bring him under the table, without even knowing there were grasping hands down there grabbing for his ankles.
Even Ty needed to be bought. At first, Tony’s name had been enough. Until it wasn’t.
Then came Rhodey.
He’s not quite sure where he stands anymore, with Natasha and Clint and even Thor. He knows he’d revealed the cards he’d kept so close to his chest for so long-- some of them, at least-- and he feels the changes rumbling beneath his feet as all three of them begin touching him where all eyes can see.
And they do see.
Bruce watches, as Clint delivers Tony coffee to the lab with a friendly hand on his shoulder, on the back, in his hair, expression inscrutable as ever, like Tony is a formula he can’t figure. Steve looks on, Sam at his side, as Thor sweeps Tony into morning embraces and smacks overly affectionate kisses to his cheek and lingers with his lips against the rough edges of Tony’s knuckles like he can’t bare to see him go when he goes, puzzled and quiet except when Tony is finally gone. Bucky observes, as Natasha slips her hand up under the hem of Tony’s shirt when she stands next to him, when she presses close to correct his form on the mats during sparring sessions, when she brushes the flour away from his face after another failed attempt at midnight baking, silent and impassive as ever.
It’s Rhodey that brings it up, when a hand overlaps his against the small of Tony’s back, and he lifts a brow in Clint’s direction as they come to a stop in the hall. “Excuse me?”
“How long have you two been dancing around each other?” Clint asks.
Rhodey’s other brow flies up. “ Excuse me ?”
Clint’s eyes narrow, glancing between him and Tony. “Since, what, MIT?”
“ Clint ,” Tony hisses, the line of his shoulders drawing tight, but Rhodey draws to his full height at his side, fingers curling into the cotton of Tony’s shirt.
“I’m a patient man,” Rhodey says and Tony stares up at him with wide eyes. “I searched for him for three months when the Ten Rings took him. Long after they said he was dead.”
Tony’s breath catches and there is ambrosia and amaryllis winding along his bird bones. “Rhodey--”
Rhodey smiles down at him, soft and easy. “What? You didn’t really think I’d stuck around your pain in the ass for no reason, did you? You know this, Tones. I don’t give out my sweatshirts to just anyone.”
And Tony chokes on all of the forget-me-nots he’s carried within himself since disappearing into the desert and being found.
He reaches up, blind and sweet, and pulls Rhodey down down down until their foreheads touch. Rhodey laughs, petting over the mess of Tony’s hair while Clint’s hand smooths up his back.
“It’s not just you,” Clint says when they pulls apart enough for words to fit between them.
“Tony loves too much for that,” Rhodey smiles, like he’s known all along, and maybe he has. “I’ve shared him before. I’ve shared him my whole life.”
Tony burns, suddenly, in shame and embarrassment and want. He clutches at Rhodey’s shirt.
“You can,” Rhodey assures, taking Tony’s jaw in a hand. “I would never ask anything else of you. I would never want to.”
“I didn’t know.”
“You didn’t need to,” Rhodey says. “I’m happy. At your side. Nowhere else.”
Tony presses his face against Rhodey’s chest, his oldest friend, the only one who never pulled the flowers in his chest out by the root.
“So,” Clint drolls. “Wanna join the Avengers?”
Rhodey snorts and Tony feels the rumble of it against his forehead and smiles. “Like I wasn’t a de facto member already?”
Tony Stark has never been wooed. To be honest, he’s never wanted to be.
He remembers watching his parents, remembers the odds and ends they went to in order to stay together, remembers being a pawn in that. He thinks of the times she’d steal him away, hide him for days and weeks at a time at her side, across the world from Howard. Of the times Howard would show up with bouquets of roses and daffodils and presents with outrageous price tags.
He remembers his mother, petting his hair after Jarvis has finished tucking him in, smiling and humming and asking: darling, darling, when you grow up, will you buy me a house of gold? When your father turns to stone, will you take care of me ?
He never wanted that. Never wanted the vitriol and pain that came with wanting someone so much that you’d sacrifice everyone and everything else for them.
Thor leaves for a week to Asgard and returns with gifts of gold. He delivers them to Tony with a smile.
It is nice, Tony thinks, especially knowing how redundant and useless gold is on Asgard. Thor just thinks Tony likes the color, likes the texture, and knows that Tony will melt it all down to make new suits of gold-titanium alloy. He brings him a tool; a means to meet the end. It’s beautiful is what it is.
But then Clint starts getting ideas. Starts bringing things back from missions, delivering them to Tony with his morning coffee, small trinkets from his not-so-secret assignments he still gets from Fury sometimes.
“For you,” he says with a smile and a scrub of his hand through Tony’s hair before pacing off, whistling off-key.
And Natasha, not one to be outdone by her stupid partner, folds small origami figurines out of napkins and briefings and leaves them for Tony to find.
If this is wooing, Tony never wants it to stop.
He wants it to stop the second Barnes sits down in front of him with a mess of wildflowers. Tony’s throat clicks when he swallows, Barnes’ shiny new arm a constant reminder of affection Tony didn’t think he should’ve given if it means this.
“What?” he asks, dumb, eyes wide.
Tony hates Clint.
“A thank you,” Barnes adds, almost hasty, face burning. “For all you’ve done since--”
“You don’t need to thank me, Buckaroo.” Tony says. “That thing was a menace to society.”
Barnes’ laugh is so dry it burns Tony’s ears. “You’ve no idea.”
“I’ve some idea.”
Barnes lifts a brow. “It’s a thank you. Let me thank you.”
“Alright. You’re welcome.”
Barnes shifts, uneasy in his seat, almost looking like he always feels too big for his own skin. “I’ve… seen them. What they’re doing.”
Sitting back, Tony regards the flowers and then the man across from them. “And?”
“And,” Barnes frowns. “I’d like to know you. The way they do.”
“-- you don’t know what you’re asking.”
“I do. I’ve seen it. How you tried to… not. Want it. Want them. Want all of them.” Bucky swallows thick, some dark hair escaping the perpetual manbun he’s been rocking these days since getting head screwed on decently right. “Want all of us.”
The tips of Tony’s ears burn.
“You think it’s wrong, but--”
“Gonna stop you right there, Romeo. There’s nothing going on between anyone. There’s… potential.” Tony admits, face burning now too. “But I haven’t-- I’m not going to--”
“Because it’d be wrong.”
“But you want it.”
Tony hisses out a breath between his teeth. “Yes.”
“And they want you.”
“They think that.” Tony nods and then shrugs. “Maybe they do.”
“Maybe I do.”
“Maybe you don’t know what you want.”
Bucky’s mouth presses into a thin line. “Can I try?”
“I’d like to try. To do what they are. To give you what you want.”
“To seduce me?” Tony’s brows fly up.
Bucky laughs, smile going charming and lopsided and he glances down only to peer back up through dark lashes and jesus Tony is so screwed. “Maybe.”
Cheeks puffing out, Tony blows out a heavy breath but nods. “Sure, Casanova. Give it hell.”
The first time Tony met Ty, he was seventeen and stupid and drunk at a gala.
Ty’d cornered him in the hall outside of the dance hall, pressed into his space, and Tony hadn’t the wherewithal to feel claustrophobic. He’d just felt small buds of baby’s breath in his chest and hadn’t thought much of it.
The world hadn’t poisoned the soil of his heart yet.
It’s a morning after a long binge and Tony is craving orange juice. He’s digging around the fridge for it when there’s a heat at his back, then a touch, and when he turns it is Bucky standing there.
He casts a wide eyed look over a broad shoulder, to the breakfast table where Natasha is looking on with interest and Clint is snickering around a mouthful of waffle and syrup. Thor has leaned back in his chair, chewing and watching, and Rhodey is nowhere to be seen. Bruce’s cup of tea has stopped halfway between the table and his mouth.
“Sorry,” Bucky says, but he’s smiling in a way that says he’s anything but, and jonquils bud up under Tony’s skin as desire yawns in his belly. “Just wanted the milk.”
He pins Tony in, there, against the fridge-- so cold at his back while his front is like standing right at the edge of a blazing fire-- reaching in over Tony’s head with strong arms that could break Tony in half with the right motivation. It shouldn’t be as hot as it is.
“You good?” Bucky asks, and it’s the concerned furrow of his brow that makes Tony weak.
Bucky’s face relaxes then, and he dips down, the scruff of his jaw dragging against Tony’s cheek. Tony reaches for his hips on reflex.
He wants to swallow this man whole.
A soft, pleased sound escapes Bucky. He jerks back, to look down at Tony, and there’s that charming grin again.
“You’ve got a little…” he reaches up with cool fingers to Tony’s forehead and instead drags his fingers into Tony’s hair, and Tony goes hazy. “Look at you, doll. You’re a mess.”
“Kiss him!” Clint crows, almost breaking the moment, but Thor’s hearty laughter follows.
Bucky’s mouth is so tentative, so sweet, against the corner of Tony’s lips.
“Am I interrupting something?”
Tony jerks back so hard he hits his head against the rack in the fridge, jostling its insides, and Bucky reels away so that Tony can see Steve’s blustered, angry expression. Tony shrinks away further, hands flying off of Bucky, like he’s been burned. Something wilts in him.
“Stevie,” Bucky greets with that lopsided grin of his. “Mornin’.”
“I need to go,” Tony says.
He ducks Bucky’s arms, ducks Steve’s stare, and retreats. Not fast enough to miss the apple Natasha hurls at Steve or the loud, irritated what ? that follows.
Bruce finds him buried deep in the guts of a car in the subbasement of his subbasement. He sets a cup down on a workbench, pushes his glasses up his nose, and waits.
Eventually, the quiet is too much.
“It’s nothing,” Tony tells him.
Bruce crosses his arms.
“It’s really nothing,” Tony lies.
“Didn’t look like nothing,” Bruce says. “Want to talk about it?”
“Alright, I’ll talk.” Bruce bobs his head. “They’re seducing you. Trying to convince you of something. My question is: what?”
“A wild superhero orgy?”
Bruce shoves his glasses up in order to pinch the bridge between his brows. “I feel if it were as simple as that, it would have already happened.”
Tony’s smile is a withering one. “You’ve obviously never handled the complex logistics of sleeping with multiple partners at once.”
If it’s Tony’s belligerence or the idea that Tony has been party to multiple sexual partners at once that makes Bruce’s face heat up is unclear. Either way, he shifts on his feet, shuffles closer, and then pauses like he’s thought better of it.
“Just the implication provides enough evidence for the hypothesis,” Bruce says, setting his glasses aside and crossing his arms again; Tony’s not sure what to make of that. “So the theory still stands: if it were that easy, they wouldn’t have to try so hard.”
“Is that slut shaming I hear, Dr. Banner?” Tony places a great deal of emphasis on the word as he stands, snatching up a rag to clean his hands, smile a bit more cruel-- he’s suffered enough guilt and doubt today, thank you. “Because, believe me, that’s barely the half of it.”
Bruce’s eyes go wide, his hands splaying out between them. “Tony, no . I didn’t mean it like--”
“I mean, I could always point you in the direction of a few of my sextapes. Or were you hoping for a more practical demonstration of how easy I am?” Tony slinks forward, eyes narrowed now, very aware of the picture he makes in his jeans and his ratty old shirt-- it’s been the cover of a few magazines before-- and that unbearable empty ache in him is unfathomable and unfillable, not for all the poppies in the world. “Or maybe you just want a list to help with that theory of yours. Empirical data. Alphabetical or chronological?”
“ Tony --”
“Neither? Scale of one-to-ten, then.” Tony’s grin is a vicious thing, and some part of him knows this isn’t fair, but the rest of him is too busy shaking because he knew this would all end in ruin and it hasn’t even really begun . “I think I was nineteen, maybe twenty, in the height of my drug fueled haze, and I took a tablet of X for the first time at some idiot’s afterparty-- already coked up, mind you-- and I swear this couple strung me out for hours before they finally let me--”
Bruce’s hands are on him then. One tangling into the cotton of Tony’s shirt and wrenching him around to press him back against the edge of the work bench, Bruce’s glasses clattering to the floor. The other covers Tony’s mouth, Bruce’s palm clammy against his lips, and despite the vague green of his irises and the sudden lurch into Tony’s space, Bruce is nothing but gentle . Gentle and trembling with the effort to remain so.
It’s daisies and clover all over again.
“Enough,” Bruce says-- pleads, really. “That isn’t-- I wasn’t trying to say that you-- not that .”
Tony moves to speak. To ask then what ? but Bruce presses a bit harder.
“I’m worried, Tony. Not about if you’ve decided to sleep with the rest of the team or decided not to sleep with the rest of the team, but about you .” Bruce’s eyes are burning now, and Tony is infinitely grateful for the table at his back. “They’re trying to convince you of something and I don’t know what , but you’re obviously reluctant to take them up on it.”
He pauses to take a breath. He seems too big, too big for this room and his own skin, and Tony wants to reach up and smooth the furrow of his brow away.
“If they’re pressuring you to do something you don’t want , I need to know.” Bruce adds, almost a threat, though it is certainly not directed at Tony. “If they hurt you , I need to know .”
At first, all Tony has for him is a wide eyed look, brow inching upward and upward. But then, as Bruce’s words settle, that guilt pits itself in him. Yawning and empty and blacker than black. His hands shift from clutching blindly at the edge of the table to Bruce’s sides, fisting into the soft material of his button up.
Bruce’s expression twists terribly, darkening and then lightening in smooth transition, realization dawning over his arched brows and wide eyes. His hand shifts away from Tony’s mouth-- when Tony licks his lips he can still taste the salt there-- and then curves along his jaw.
Tony hates how much he doesn’t hate this man’s hands.
“ Do you want it?” Bruce asks, frown pinching his mouth.
Tony’s eyes fall shut and that’s answer enough.
“Oh,” Bruce breathes, some sound catching in his chest, hand shifting to catch Tony’s chin between his thumb and his fingers. “Oh, Tony .”
“I’m not going to,” Tony blurts out, suddenly frantic with needing to assure Bruce-- to assure himself-- that they can try all they like but he won’t . “I’m not going to, even though yes, fuck yes, do I want that. All of it. All of you, I do, but I shouldn’t and I can’t --”
“Can I kiss you?”
Tony blinks. “What?”
Wetting his lips, Bruce shuffles closer, and if Tony didn’t know any better he’d be calling on JARVIS to check on his heart and the flutter of it under his ribcage. “You think you can’t have this, right? You can’t have all of us? Any of us?”
Tony’s throat works.
“Let me prove you wrong,” Bruce’s thumb presses just so, angling Tony’s head a bit back, though he doesn’t have to move him far now that he’s standing at his full height against Tony, the both of them practically head to head. “Can I kiss you?”
“No,” Tony shakes. “No, because if you do I won’t ever want to stop. I won’t want to let you go, Bruce.”
Bruce’s expression crumbles. “I won’t go anywhere, Tony. None of us are going anywhere . Not without you .”
“You can’t-- You don’t know that, Bruce. You don’t know what you’re--”
“Is this what they’re doing? Trying to convince you that you are absolutely worth it, trying to show you they can be there for you, trying to prove they think you’re worth whatever risk it is you think you can’t take?” Bruce holds him steady, in place, eyes searching his face.
Tony’s hands shift, moving to his chest as if to press Bruce back, but he never does. “I feel like the only sane one in a madhouse, here, Bruce. This can’t-- You all can’t keep-- Everything will get fucked up. I know it. I’ll fuck it up. And we’re bigger than-- than this . We have more important things to worry about than my feelings .”
“Tony,” Bruce says, voice pitching so low it sends a rush of heat shuddering through him. “I don’t care if the world is falling apart around us. What you feel? It matters. To me, at the very least.”
There is a long, quiet pause. Tony hunts for something, something to ground him as his ribs vine in lilies and ivy, gaze roaming over Bruce’s eyes, brows, nose, lips-- and he must find that something because he fists his hands into Bruce’s shirt again and gives one sharp pull.
“Please,” Tony whispers; begs . “Please, don’t make me regret this.”
“Never,” Bruce promises, blindly and ignorantly, unable to make such a promise that is so vast. “Tony, before you, I was only ever the monster under the man. I know better now, and a lot of that has to do with you, and I-- if I had known, if I’d had any hint that you wanted something like this, that you’ve been hiding it from all of us, I would have spoken up a lot sooner.”
Tony closes his eyes, lets Bruce rest their foreheads together, fingers flexing in Bruce’s shirt.
“I wouldn’t have let you live in fear like that.”
Tony clears his throat, but his voice is still rough when he speaks. “You said you wanted to kiss me.”
Bruce cants his head over, chin jutting out just a bit in order to dip and catch Tony’s mouth with his own. He’s still got hold of Tony’s jaw, fingers sliding deft along the strong line of it, fingers curling around to Tony’s nape as his thumb digs in at the joint just before his ear. He works it in a slow circle, lips just as coaxing, easing the tension away with his careful touch. Tony groans, long and low, mouth going soft and parting open for him as Bruce’s arm drapes heavy at this waist.
He’s so warm, so steady, and Tony sags against him. Inside his chest, there are a thousand budding flowers soaking in that heat. He hasn’t let this happen before, not with any of them. The closest call had been Bucky that morning.
He doesn’t remember the last time he’d been kissed like this. Like he was worth everything.
That’s a lie.
He’s never been kissed like this.
He’s waxed poetic about Bruce’s hands before, but when one rucks up under his shirt to get at Tony’s skin beneath it and the other sinks into the mess of Tony’s hair, Tony might just be considering writing an entire epic about those hands. About the way fingers splay over his scalp and guide his head back. About the slide of a warm palm up his spine, settling somewhere against his ribs below his shoulder blades as Bruce eases a leg between Tony’s thighs. About the slow circle of his thumb against the knot of tension in Tony’s upper back.
Tony moans, filthy and appreciative, lids heavy and eyes dazed and hands everywhere. He pulls at Bruce’s hip, his shoulder, his waist, his hair. Bruce doesn’t seem to mind if the way he presses into each touch is any indication, and Tony is drunk on him already. On the feeling of his hands, gentle but promising on his skin. On the hazy press of his lips against his, of his tongue warm and welcome in his mouth. On the sounds that echo Tony’s own need.
The elevator doesn’t ding to indicate its arrival and neither does JARVIS warn them when they are no longer alone, Rhodey stepping out, looking about .5 seconds away from kicking someone’s ass. “Alright, who’s ass am I about to-- oh.”
Tony jerks, the table behind him groaning against the concrete, but Bruce keeps a steady hold on him despite the burn of his face. He can feel the insistent press of something at his hip, and while Tony’s ears and the back of his neck go red when he realizes he’s in a similarly needy state, he can’t help the wicked smile that wrinkles the corners of his eyes.
“I hope you’re as happy to see me as Dr. Banner is, platypus.” Tony waggles his brows. “Because I gotta say, I am very much impressed right now.”
Bruce groans and hides his face against Tony’s collar.
Rhodey crosses his arms, looking unflappable as ever. “Oh, I get it. It’s all approachable distance and arms length until your ‘science bro’ gets involved. You just like him better than the rest of us.”
“What can I say? He’s got a beautiful mind.”
Rhodey snorts, but his expression softens at the sight of unbridled joy on Tony’s face, nerves only present in his eyes and his hands. “What did he do? Big SAT prep terms you could finally understand?”
Tony shrugs. “He speaks my language. Maybe?”
Brows pinching, Rhodey shuffles close and pats Bruce on the shoulder before pushing a big hand through Tony’s hair. “Still not sure, Tones?”
“Still very not sure.”
Rhodey nods. “What can we do?”
“I don’t think--” Tony cuts himself off with a sigh, and both men are looking at him now. “I don’t think it’s something you can do. Special little snowflake that I am, I think it’s… well, I think it’s one of those things , you know?”
Bruce hums, nodding and smoothing Tony’s hair away from his forehead. At his side, Rhodey leans a hip against the table and curves a hand over the back of Tony’s neck.
He’s tangled up in them. Tangled up in poppies and zinnias, forget-me-nots a sweetness in the back of his mouth. Baby’s breath right at his fingertips where he’s petting at Bruce’s hip, where he’s pulling Rhodey closer by the wrist.
“I, uh…” Tony grins, a bit bashful, and Rhodey’s eyes narrow at the look. “I definitely wouldn’t be against more kissing. More kissing might help.”
Rhodey’s head tips back and he laughs, long and low and loud.
The first time Tony had kissed Rhodey, he’d been sixteen and drunk. Rhodey had let him down easy, held him when Tony’d been embarrassed and dejected, and pressed sweet kisses to his forehead, his nose, his burning cheeks until Tony had finally given up and gone lax against him.
He’d woken up the next morning with a splitting headache and vowed to never try something that stupid again.
All the later kisses were always something playful. Never earnest. Never like that first time when Rhodey had looked at the drunk sixteen year old in his lap and told him, kindly, no .
The kiss Rhodey presses to Tony’s mouth when he’s finally fessed up, finally given an inch in this whole push-pull of want and fear, is sweeter than any he could’ve imagined. It tastes like every time Rhodey has ever called him Tones and a bit like Rhodey’s chiding relief. His hand is big at the small of Tony’s back, and Tony’s is a vice around Rhodey’s wrist. It is chaste and tentative, but ineffably warm.
Tony thinks he’s the only sane one in a madhouse and he never wants the madness to stop.
“So,” Tony picks at the frayed tear at his knee, tugging at the white thread, engine grease black under his nails. “I had a talk with my therapist--”
Bruce sighs heavily, burying his face in a hand where he’s settled next to him.
“-- and I think we’ve come to the conclusion that I should, you know, stop.”
On the couch across from him, Bruce, and Rhodey, Thor sits between Natasha and Clint. Bucky is suspiciously absent and Tony has a feeling it has to do with a man whose name rhymes with Steve Rogers.
Or something like that.
Thor practically jerks in his seat when Tony finishes, looking concerned where Tony looks awkward and like he wants to be anywhere but right there talking about all of this emotional baggage. “Stop?” he asks.
“Swimming in the great river called de’Nile.”
“About time,” Clint seems to deflate in on himself.
Natasha hums her agreement, eyes for Tony and Tony alone.
Thor frowns. “I am confused. What does our courting have to do with you swimming in a river?”
“It’s a metaphor, buddy.” Tony replies.
“Ah,” Thor nods but his frown perseveres. “I am still at a lost as to your meaning.”
“Tony’s decided, after some careful discussion--”
Clint’s sharp eyes dart between Bruce and Tony. “Is that what you’re calling it?”
“-- that he would like to pursue what we’re all offering.” Rhodey finishes with a scowl in Clint’s general direction. “That means communication is going to be important between all of us.”
His gaze falls on Tony, who groans and slumps back against the couch. “Kill me now.”
“Still love me?”
Tony’s face burns. “Yeah, whatever.”
“See?” Rhodey grins. “Communication.”
“I think we’re all in agreement that communication and patience are going to be important,” Natasha says, offering Tony a sympathetic look, smile a bare twitch on her mouth. “But I think we’ve all shown we can do just that.”
Thor nods his agreement. “I have waited a millenia and shall wait a millenia more.”
The flush on Tony’s face spreads now, down to his neck and his chest. But there’s something else, aside from the desire, and he recalls his ire from earlier, down in the subbasement labs, and it bubbles up like tar in his chest.
He knows he’s on somewhat safe ground with Bruce and Rhodey-- knows Rhodey would never be in this for a chance on the Tony-mobile because he’s had plenty of those chances before; knows Bruce has admitted to wanting to keep Tony safe, promised to, but that sentiment does not exactly extend to the rest of them.
As much as he trusts them to have his back on the field, he is not sure how much he can trust them with a heart full of seedlings.
“Tones?” Rhodey drapes an arm over his shoulders.
“I’m fine,” Tony flashes him a smile, but Rhodey’s lips purse at the sight. “Really.”
Bruce clears his throat. “If this isn’t something you want-- if you’re unsure or if you have doubts, you should tell us. From… From what I can tell, your doubts are unfounded, at least in us, but your fear is valid. We won’t push you.”
Clint moves, as if to protest, but is instantly quieted by the look Bruce directs his way.
Carefully, Bruce takes one of Tony’s hands. “I believe we’re all in agreement when I say that we want this. That we want you . But that doesn’t mean you have to give it to us.”
Throat working, Tony’s gaze darts from face to face to face. Natasha nods her head, hands clasped in front of her, and Tony feels the unease in his chest loosen somewhat.
“I do,” Tony rasps after a moment. “Want this. I just-- It won’t be easy.”
Natasha smiles. “Nothing ever is with you.”
“I think we should talk.”
Nothing good ever comes of that. Tony lets his head droop, but he doesn’t turn to face Steve where he’s lingering in the doorway.
“I think maybe you misinterpreted what happened yesterday.” Steve continues. “I wasn’t-- It wasn’t you I was upset with.”
Tony blinks at that and twists around. “Did you scold , Barnes?”
Palming the back of his head, Steve shuffles a bit. “I-- Maybe? I just, uh… he was kinda a charmer, back in the day, and I didn’t-- Well. He set me straight.”
Tony gets really caught up in unpacking all of that. He isn’t sure if he should be flattered that Steve was worried about Bucky breaking his heart or something, or if he should be mortified by the understanding and heat that is on Steve’s face.
“Are you sure this is something you’re interested in?” Steve asks, and the tips of his ears may be pink, but there’s a wanting in his eyes that Tony cannot handle because it echoes his own. “ All of us?”
Tony swallows down daffodils. “Does it bother you?”
“No,” Steve’s voice is low; rough. Fuck . “No, actually. Quite the opposite.”
There’s so much space between them. Neither of them move.
Steve’s gaze rolls down over Tony in his sleep pants, his cotton shirt, his bare feet. Tony has never felt more on display and he’s posed nude for Playboy .
“You’d look beautiful. With any of them.” Steve finally says and Tony’s mouth goes dry. “With all of them.”
Throat working, Tony takes a tentative step forward. “With all of you .”
And suddenly there is no distance far enough that they would not cross for each other. Steve has him in his arms, has his hands on him, and he breathes jasmine into his mouth and lungs.
Clinging to him, Tony groans. He clutches at Steve’s shoulders, lets Steve crowd in close, lets his head lull back when Steve presses open mouthed kisses along his jaw. There’s a pull, low in his stomach, and he whines when Steve tugs his hips in closer.
“Jesus,” Steve breathes against his skin. “ Jesus, Tony.”
“ Steve --”
“Wait,” Steve’s hands stop, big along his ribs where they’ve rucked up under Tony’s shirt, voice wavering. “Wait, Tony-- We can’t.”
Tony jerks back; stung. “What--?”
“No,” Steve’s nostrils flare and his pupils are blown, but there’s something just beneath the surface of want: guilt. “It’s not-- You’re perfect . I want this, all of it. We all do. But-- Tony, I need you to sit down and I -- I need to tell you something.”
Tony’s life has always seemed to run in cycles.
A magazine once compared his time in Afghanistan and his resurgence into a new self as poetic. A phoenix rising from his own ashes. Tony’d thought it rather apt at the time. He’s always known his fall from the top would hurt; it’d happened so many times before.
Really, it was only a matter of time.
Things only go so good so long before they fall to pieces.
When Steve has finished, Tony is shaking. Steve’s looking at him with those big blue eyes, already asking for forgiveness for keeping it secret so long, and Tony thought he’d never deny those eyes anything-- right up until now.
“How long?” he asks.
“Since SHIELD fell.”
Tony jerks to his feet, chair screeching on the floor behind him. Steve stares up at him, hands spread and out, ready but unmoving.
“A year .”
It’s not a question.
“Who else knows?” Tony hates that his voice breaks. “Does Buck-- Does Barnes know?”
“I don’t--” Steve wets his lips and blinks a few times. “I don’t know. The programming-- Everything under HYDRA is fuzzy. Sometimes he-- Tony, I don’t know .”
Sucking in a breath, Tony bobs his head. His throat works. He feels like he’s choking.
Inside of him is a wildfire.
There is no stopping it-- the raise of the earth in his chest. The heavy thud of his breaking heart. The slow wilting. He wants it all to stop.
No more tulips or lilacs or goddamn baby’s breath. He wants none of it left in him. He wants this dark fear to stop consuming the hope that had rooted in him. He wants there to be no hope in him at all; he’d stop hurting, then.
He wants his dad’s hand on his shoulder, the baby’s breath under his skin, and the words that never got to be said.
The elevator doors slide open right as his panic attack brings him to his knees. He sees Rhodey and Natasha and Sam covered in sweat. Distantly, he hears their yelling.
He hides his face in shame.
It is warm hands that bring him to. Sam is knelt before him, pressing a cube of ice to his lips, and Tony opens.
The cool is biting enough to bring him back into his body.
Between where he’s been propped against the edge of the couch and Steve, Rhodey stands with his arms crossed. Natasha, just at Steve’s flank, is torn between worry and guilt.
“There you are,” Sam says and pushes Tony’s hair away from his face, smile kind and soft.
Rhodey stops glaring long enough to look at him. “Back with us, Tones?”
Tony’s nose wrinkles. “You all stink.”
A relieved smile spread over Rhodey’s mouth. “Yeah, didn’t have much time to shower when J alerted me.”
Tony works the ice cube on his tongue over until it starts to numb his right cheek. It’s grounding when everything in him is unraveling.
How does he do this? How does he decide this? How can he--?
His eyes narrow on where Natasha has laid a hand on Steve’s shoulder, on the way her gaze darts between Tony and the flex of Steve’s jaw, and his voice is cold cold cold when he speaks. Not like the ice in his mouth is cold; like the cool kiss of a marble countertop is cold; like the impersonal, distant cold of a palm pressed flat to a wall.
He’s emptying himself out as he speaks, he knows it.
“You knew,” he accuses.
Natasha blinks at him, lips twitching, and nods.
Her eyes widen a fraction. “Tony, no--”
“ Don’t . You tell him everything. You can’t tell me you didn’t tell him this.”
“I didn’t tell him.”
“But he knew. Knows.”
Rhodey clears his throat. “What, exactly, does everyone seem to know?”
“They lied,” Tony says, toneless, tired. “They all lied.”
Steve steps forward, stopping only when Sam shoots him a warning look, fingers still pressed to Tony’s erratic pulse. “We didn’t-- Tony, I just… I was just trying to figure out how to say it. I didn’t-- I wasn’t lying. That’s why I--”
“Not telling me is still a lie . And you brought him here , into my home --”
Rhodey’s hands curl into tight fists at his sides. “What the fuck is going on?”
“It wasn’t him,” Steve says, helpless and pleading. “Tony, you know it wasn’t him.”
“I-- fuck ,” Tony buries his face in his hands, takes one breath and then another. “I know. I know that. I don’t-- fuck .”
Sam rubs a tentative hand in a slow circle against his back. “Let’s get you outta here before you have another attack, man. From what I understand, you’ve got a bad heart.”
Rhodey and Sam share a look, nonverbal communication faster than a blink, and Tony lets Sam help him to his feet and lets him guide him toward the elevator. The doors don’t close fast enough for Tony to miss the sound of Rhodey’s voice, calling the remaining Avengers in the room to strict attention, but he’s almost sad he misses the involuntary reaction it earns from Natasha and Steve both.
At his side, Sam is steady and firm. He rides up with him to his suite, stays with him as Tony stumbles in and toward his bedroom, and waits until Tony is sat on the edge of his own bed before pulling back.
“I’m gonna get you a glass of water, and you’re gonna drink it.” Sam states, crouched in front of him. “Then, you’re gonna try and get some rest. Whatever is going on, it can wait until tomorrow, okay? They can all wait until tomorrow.”
Tony laughs, though it’s a bit bitter and a bit broken and it tastes like ash. “Sure thing, Sam I Am. Thanks.”
“No problem, Tony.” Sam stands, hesitates, and then leans down to press a kiss to the top of Tony’s head. “Get some rest.”
Tony ran away from home exactly seventeen times before he was sent away to MIT. Most of the time, he wasn’t really running, just taking a break. Every time, his father tracked him down and brought him back, sometimes kicking and screaming.
He didn’t understand it then, at the ripe old age of four, of seven, of fourteen, that Howard had been worried for him. That Howard had scoured the earth for him; that he’d do it again. He hadn’t known.
He wishes he’d known.
“It’s okay, you know.” Bruce tells him, voice low and hushed in the blue light swirling from the projectors overhead. “To run. I’ve run plenty. I’d know.”
Tony presses his lips thin. There’s so little left in him. His love aches in his bones, rattles in him, and he cannot think of the betrayal he feels-- even if Steve told him, even if he confessed before things could go too far for all of them -- because it will ruin him completely if he does.
He doesn’t tell Bruce that if he runs now, he won’t ever stop. He won’t ever come back. He doesn’t tell him he wouldn’t because he thinks no one will come after him.
“We would wait,” Bruce whispers and kisses his temple. “We would always wait for you.”
Rhodey helps him pack a bag. He doesn’t say anything, but he’s rigid with anger-- on behalf of Tony-- and that touches him in a way that he didn’t realize was possible. That someone is angry for his hurt. But Rhodey has always taken Tony’s pain and turned it over onto his own shoulders. Rhodey has always been there, a constant, the foundation of his very garden. He hopes it will be solid enough to last this.
They all see him off in one form or another. Pepper knows that Tony will be absent-- the vacation he never took after Afghanistan. The entire Tower is filled with sad faces, with sagging shoulders, and Tony feels guilty and then feels angry that he feels guilty at all.
He needs this. This space.
He can’t face some of them. He knows it’s selfish, knows it’s cruel, but he needs to ghost out of their reach before he folds into their sway. Before any more of them take root in his mangled heart.
It’s Thor that holds him longest, tightest, burying his face into Tony’s hair and breathing him in. Hand cradling the back of Tony’s head.
“You have lightning in your heart,” he says. “But even a storm must have a calm. I will await your return.”
It isn’t until he’s down at the car that he sees Bucky. Bucky, looking more broken and miserable than Tony has seen him since he arrived. His hands are fisted at his sides, his mouth pressed into a flat line, his eyes big and begging. Tony’s hands freeze on the car door.
His pulse pounds suddenly and rapidly in his ears. He stares at Bucky and tries to see his parents’ murderer in him, but all he sees is the guy who likes man-buns a little too much, likes blueberry pancakes even more, and thrills anytime they watch a scifi flick during movie night.
“It’s not you,” Tony croaks eventually, probably the first words he’s said in the days leading up to this, this Pangeacle separation. “I’m not mad at you. Promise.”
“I wanted--” Bucky makes an aborted movement forward. “More than anything, I just wanted to make you smile.”
Something deep in Tony aches. Cracks open. Unwinds.
“I need time,” Tony finally says, breathe a rattle in his ribcage. “I just need-- It’s a lot to process.”
“I should’ve-- I should’ve said something, but I wasn’t-- sometimes I remember things that aren’t--”
“I’m not mad at you ,” Tony insists again.
"But you’re mad.”
“I--” Tony shakes his head. “I don’t know what I am, right now.”
Bucky’s smile is small and tentative. “That makes two of us.”
Tony returns the look for as long as he can bear, but then curls his fingers tight around the handle of the car door. “I have to go. I have to-- I can’t stay. Not right now.”
Bucky nods. “More than you know, doll. Come back to us in one piece.”
Tony snorts. “Let me guess… you’ll be waiting?”
“For a pretty fella like you?” Bucky tucks his hands into his pockets. “You bet.”
Tony doesn’t really know where he’s going when he starts to go. But he finds his hands at ten and two on the steering wheel, heading north.
It seems only right, to go back to where he’d last had them, knowing that the last goodbye had never been what it seemed.
The estate is just as he’d left it, meticulously groomed and otherwise untouched. There’s furniture and clothes and other things he never packed away or donated or burned in a trash fire, and the house smells musty when he opens the door.
The first thing he does is go up to his mother’s room, to her closet, and he presses his face into her dresses and tries to remember what she smelled like. Tries to remember the way her skin changed her perfume. Tries to remember what her fingers felt like in his hair. She was never the best mom, but she was his.
He falls asleep, fitfully, his face pressed into the silk of an old robe. His eyes are wet when he wakes, and he wonders if things had been different, if they’d been given more time, if they would’ve found a middle ground where Tony didn’t always feel like they were digging into the soil of his heart and turning over any buds that might blossom. If he would’ve blamed his dad for that night for so long.
He spends the rest of the day sorting through his mother’s jewels, finding the pearls she loved and the broach she always hated. When he spots it, sees it, the blue stones a mockery of petals, he laughs out into the quiet of the house and tucks it into his pocket.
It is on the fifth day that he ventures into his father’s study. He sits in Howard’s chair, behind Howard’s desk, and spins slow, head tilted back. His fingers drum against the armrests. It still smells a bit like cigar smoke. He thinks he remembers brandy staining the carpet.
He digs through the desk, finds a set of pens he discards with far too little care, and an old pocket watch that must’ve stopped ticking years before. He snorts when he finds a latch to release a small, private compartment, and rolls his eyes when it clicks open. His father had always been a paranoid asshole.
He expects to find plans or documents within-- or, hell, for it to be empty, picked through by lawyers or maybe Obi.
Instead, there are newspaper clippings. Magazine articles. All with his name on it, with his face in the pictures, with notes and notes and notes scribbled into the margins.
Instead, he finds a jar of sand he thinks he remembers shattering four decades previous and a picture of Tony, surrounded by a field of orange and red, a flower tucked behind his ear.
Tony folds in half and sobs. Folds in half and smiles. Folds in half and embraces the baby’s breath in his chest.
One of the lessons Howard taught him at a very young age was to never do anything by halves. That and always be the smartest person in the room, but Tony generally was, so that wasn’t exactly a hardship.
He spends a month away from the Tower, talking only to Rhodey and sometimes to Sam when he was feeling particularly loose around the edges.
But when the call to action comes in, level 5, red and blaring on his phone, Tony doesn’t hesitate. He shows up halfway through, suit shiny and silver and red, repulsors firing off without hesitation, falling seamlessly into formation with the rest of the Avengers and saving Clint’s ass from a nasty fall.
Clint beams. “Tony! You’re back!”
“Don’t get too excited, Hero of Hyrule.” Tony drolls. “We’ve still got ass to kick. Particularly annoying ass at that.”
“Doom,” Clint nods sagely, wind whipping around them. “He doesn’t make the best product, but he does make a lot.”
“Quality over quantity, I always say.”
Clint snorts. “You’ve got, like, seven boyfriends and a terrifying Russian girlfriend, dude.”
Then, he shrugs. “Like I said: quality over quantity.”
Clint laughs as he’s dropped off on his feet, down at Steve’s six.
“Nice to have you back, Iron Man.” Steve nods.
Tony lands, servos whirring and clicking the whole way. “Nice to be back, Cap.”
When they finish kicking Victor’s ass-- and, really, you’d think the guy would focus on bigger, better things than being a general menace when he has a country to run-- they all head back to the Tower. They’re waiting for Tony when he strips out of the armor on the platform outside of his suite, hovering and sweaty and uncertain.
“You have returned to us!” Thor beams, all sunflowers and tulips.
Tony blinks, gaze darting over each of their faces, pausing on Rhodey long enough for the man to shrug and cross his arms and then lingering on Bruce.
“I told you we’d wait.”
Tony hadn’t realized that them waiting for him was better than them chasing him. Hadn’t realized it was exactly what he needed; knowing that they would be there when he came back.
Not until right now.
Tony slumps a little, offers a weary smile, and spreads his arms. “Alright. Come on, then. Butter me up, sugarmuffins.”
Clint whoops and swoops in faster before anyone else, catching Tony around the neck and reeling him down into a messy kiss that Tony has to stumble into to keep himself from falling. He ends up laughing against Clint’s lips, giving him more teeth than mouth, but Clint doesn’t really seem to mind.
As soon as Clint has pulled back, Thor is there, tugging him close by the hip and kissing his brow so gently that Tony feels a shock zip down along his nerves. “It is good to have you back, Anthony.”
“Good to be back, buddy.”
Rhodey saddles up next to them with Bruce at his side, both of them squeezing in to smack sloppy kisses to Tony’s cheeks, even as he wrinkles his nose. Rhodey scrubs a hand through Tony’s hair, muttering something about how he’s let it get too long, but Bruce’s protests echo Thor’s as they argue in rebuttal.
The ones that hover and wait, uncertain, are the ones Tony has been most trepidatious about. Natasha is hovering closest to the elevator doors, Bucky not far behind her, and Steve hasn’t looked up from the ground since Tony stepped out of the armor. Sam thankfully shoves Bucky forward first, and the man comes stumbling, scrubbing a hand over the back of his head.
“So, uh… seven boyfriends, huh?” he asks, blue blue eyes drifting between Clint and Tony.
“Yep,” Tony bobs his head. “Apparently, I’m irresistible. I’d be careful, though. One of them has a mean left hook. Like solid steel.”
All the air whooshes right out of Bucky and he pads closer, taking the space Thor leaves for him, reaching forward and taking the back of Tony’s neck in hand in order to press their foreheads together.
“Oh, livid.” Tony smiles. “But better.”
Finally, Steve looks up and Tony meets his stare head on. There’s a punch of longing, low in his gut, and Steve’s face crumbles just looking at him. Tony takes a breath and nods. Steve steps forward, once, then stops.
He spreads his hands, big and open, and looks up at where Tony is entangled with the people that might be his lovers sometime soon, helpless and hopeful. Tony bites the inside of his cheek.
“I’ve got trust issues,” Tony blurts, and Sam stifles a laugh as the others blink at him. “Big, giant, terrible trust issues and I’ve burned more bridges than I’ve built. I don’t wanna burn these ones. So, uh… yeah. Let’s-- Can we not? Can we make, like, a super dumb super pact to not pull shit like this anymore? Because, I don’t know if you guys are aware of this or not, but my heart is in terrible condition.”
This time, Bruce laughs.
Steve swallows thick, looks over his shoulder at where Natasha is staring up at Tony with wide, wonderful eyes, and nods. “Yeah,” he croaks. “Yes. We’d like that.”
“Okay,” Tony nods again, feeling a little ridiculous standing there in nothing but his undersuit. “Okay. Awesome.”
Sam blows him a kiss.
“I wanna show you guys something,” Tony mumbles, hours later, curled up between Thor and Rhodey, Natasha’s head resting back on his knee. “Can I show you guys something?”
“I thought this sort of thing only happened every hundred years,” Natasha murmurs, standing at Tony’s side in the afternoon light, her full mouth twitching as they watch Clint chase Rhodey across the field, as they watch Thor teach Bucky how to plait delicate blossoms into his hair, as Sam and Steve lean against one another in hushed conversation.
“Global warming,” Bruce says as he sidles up between them, hand hovering before resting at the small of Tony’s back. “It’s beautiful.”
“Yeah,” Tony nods, staring out at the field full of lilies, smile crooked and soft at the edges. “It is.”
Natasha smiles and bends down, plucking up a flower and reaches up to tuck it behind Tony's ear.
Deep in his chest, beyond the abyss that’s been filled twice over with lilac and daffodil and-- of course-- baby's breath, orange petals unfurl, one right after the other.
“What love did then, love does now:
Gnaws me through.”
- Dialogue Between Ghost and Priest || S. Plath