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Midas Touch

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Midas Touch

When Tony is seven, he realises he does not like being told the truth. At formal dinners people pull his cheeks and say, "Your father is so involved in your life. You should know how special that is," and his reaction is always a vague churning feeling in his belly that says maybe or um or why.

Howard Stark is a good man. Tony has drawn up neat lists to support this: his father is an inventor, an industrialist, and a personal friend of Captain America. He buys Tony expensive engineering equipment and expensive clothes and expensive books. He regularly calls up his school to check if Tony is at the top of his class (always) and if he is misbehaving (always). He is always talking about ways Tony can improve himself. No, that's wrong. You're too sensitive. You can't be this much of a fool if you're my son. This is useful – Tony needs to know what is wrong with him so he can fix it. It is one of the most basic tenets of success.

"Tony," says his father, "you know this is for your own good, right? You ought to understand, son; I wouldn't do this if you hadn't done anything wrong." (The leather belt looped around his fist is an old if unwelcome companion, soft with age and frayed around the edges. His father never wears it.)

Tony agrees with him. A boy had called him weird, which Tony didn't care about, and then called his mother weird, which Tony got furious at. The teachers had had to pry them apart, and it reflected badly on his family. No excuses – he will accept the consequences. He is the son of Howard Stark, and Stark men are made of iron. (He is not a man yet, but he is being forged in the fire. It is one of the first lessons he remembers his father teaching him.) He is glad his mother is not here; she does not like it when his father disciplines him, and Tony does not like it when his parents fight. So he won't tell her.

Afterwards, his father holds him on his lap while he sniffles into his shoulder. "It was for your own good, Tony," he repeats. "You can't keep blubbering like this; someday you gotta grow up." Tony cries harder and slings his arms around his father's neck. He is grateful his father is not drunk; his blows land harder then, and he offers no solace. Tony loves his father but dislikes the stench of alcohol on his breath, rancid and uncomfortably intimate.

It hurts worse the next day, and Jarvis catches him limping to the kitchen in the afternoon to raid the fridge and asks what's wrong, and Tony says Nothing, Jarvis, and Jarvis narrows his eyes, takes him to a bathroom, and tells him to pull down his pants. Tony sighs and relents, and pretends not to hear Jarvis sucking his teeth as he examines the bruises.

"These must sting."

"Not really."

"They're almost black."

"It's nothing." Stark men are made of iron. 

Jarvis' mouth is an angry curl, and Tony wonders what he has done. "Sorry," he mumbles. 

"You did nothing wrong, Anthony."

"I'm sorry."

Jarvis sighs. "I'll get some cream to ease the pain a bit."

Tony doesn't really know what he's done to deserve such nice people in his life, but he accepts Jarvis' help. He still can't sit down, so he stands at his desk and finishes his homework before making an excuse to not eat dinner at the table. Jarvis had fed him earlier anyway (powdered doughnuts and strawberries and milk – an unusual indulgence), and his mother will wonder why he cannot take a seat. 


***

He is nine when he receives a different sort of lesson.

His father wakes him up with a hand around his arm and pulls him to the kitchen, and Tony is too surprised and too tired to protest. A glance at the clock on the wall tells him it is past midnight. On the bar counter is a glass of what looks like whisky, and for the first time in years, Tony considers wiggling out of his father's grasp and running out of the room. He cannot bring himself to move.

His father's hand is heavy on his shoulder. "Drink it."

"I don't want to, Sir."

The glass is pushed towards him, and the ice in it clinks. "Drink it," he says, more firmly. "I can't have you acting like a little sissy all your life."

Tony opens his mouth to refuse again, but something in his father's eyes stops him. Tony knows his father is only acting as fathers are meant to, but he doesn't really like it, and he is not in a mood to choose between drinking and being flogged. Still, he is tired, and nervous, so he picks up the glass with both hands – it is cold and wet with condensation and almost slips from his fingers – and chugs it like he does his milk in the morning. His throat burns and his eyes blur with tears that he can't quite blink back. He sets down the glass and breathes hard, shuddering. There is a sharp and acrid taste in his mouth.

His father sits down beside him on a barstool. "That's how you do it," he says, sounding satisfied, almost proud. Tony’s mind is foggy but his belly does a pleased little flip. "Don't tell your mother, eh; this is between us. She wouldn't understand. This is manhood, Tony."

Tony nods and does his best not to throw up.

***

The file has a blank red cover. "I keep tellin' you this stuff, but it seems to go in one ear and out the other," his father says, handing it over. "I want you to read it. Memorise it, preferably. I know you can."

Tony blinks. He knows his father will grow angry if he asks what it is (ignorance is not tolerated in this house), so he opens it. His brow furrows. As he reads on, his heart speeds up and his lips part. He checks how many pages there are. Twenty. Twenty pages of what is essentially an essay on everything he does wrong, and what he can do right, and why it matters to Stark Industries. 18% self-absorbed, 36% insolent, 11% self-inattentive, 45% sensitive. There are charts and tables and bullet points. Colour coded.

"I made it for you," says his father, pushing his hands in his pockets. "It will be useful."

Tony nods, not understanding why he is shaken. His father is mentoring him, guiding him as the best fathers do. He says, "Thank you, Sir," and his voice comes out a bit wobbly. His father grimaces a bit; he does not like it when Tony is upset. Being upset is a sign of...what is the word? Emasculation. He needs to work on his vocabulary. (It is on one of the bullet points, too). 

When his father leaves, Tony sits down heavily at his desk. He reads the essay, then reads it again, taking slow, deep breaths, groping for gratitude in his heart. This file proves that his father still has expectations of him – still believes in him. He would not have made it if he thought Tony was beyond repair.

It's only ink on paper, he tells himself. Ink on paper.

Tony puts the file in his desk drawer. He never loses it. He reads it once a week to better himself, remind himself of his shortcomings. It becomes a ritual, and even after he stops reading it, he still mentally goes through the list almost daily. Years later, after his parents die, he does not lock it away, but keeps it along with his books on his shelf in his bedroom. It is so conspicuous that no one bothers to touch it. Or if they do, they do not mention it.

At times he feels like his legs have been kicked out from underneath him, like he has lost a crutch. His father's death leaves him uncertain and off-centre; there are times when he yearns for a sense of...validation. Of knowing that someone is invested in him. He tries to give the feeling the same scrutinising eye he gives his science projects, tries to think, Fascinating, in a tepid Mr. Spock impersonation. It does not work well; he has always been too emotional.

But he has a company to run, and weapons to build, and it does not afford him much time to mope, or to dwell on things that cannot be changed.


***

If someone asked Tony if he thought the Avengers were missing something, he would have laughed and wondered if they had a single working brain cell. They're a great team, with firepower, tactical geniuses, and science wizards. More importantly, they are greater than the sum of their parts, and Tony is honoured to fight alongside them. He’s proud. He’s happy. He could cartwheel around the mansion and not care what anyone thought. One time, he does, in his room, alone, and falls flat on his ass, and guffaws to himself.

Then they find Captain America, and Tony, after they ask the good man to kindly not murder them, cannot remember how he thought the Avengers were complete without him.

***

The initial embarrassment of having his childhood hero on his team has worn off, and Tony finds himself pleasantly relaxed when in Steve’s company. Tony takes him out to concerts and movies and plays and tries to help him adjust to the blaring sounds and dizzying sights of the new century. Steve accepts it all with placid equanimity and a string of bewildered but polite ‘thank yous’; he seems to think it is lucky he found the Avengers. Tony knows it is the opposite.

They're having Indian food for dinner because Tony cannot in good conscience allow Steve to go without it when he lives in this century. He's dragged Steve to a tiny hole-in-the-wall that isn't too popular because the food isn't Anglicised and more like something you would expect from a roadside dhaba on the way from Delhi to Chandigarh, but a favourite among first-generation Indian immigrants and homesick college students.

Steve is tucking in, obviously trying not to stuff his face, and Tony does not hide his satisfied smile. He likes it when Steve enjoys himself – he is aware of Steve's tendency towards self-deprivation, especially when it comes to food. The man had grown up during the Depression, and Tony had noticed he never asked for seconds even as he discreetly but hungrily eyed other people's unfinished plates. With his metabolism, it was small wonder. One night, when the Avengers had ordered in Thai, Tony had leaned over and whispered to him, “I’m not gonna go bankrupt because you swiped another piece of chicken, Cap.”

Steve had turned red, stuttered, and fled the room.

"Good?" says Tony.

Steve nods and swallows. "It's different to what I'm used to, but I really like it.” He sobers then, and Tony knows it is back to business. Steve wouldn't have a proper day off if you paid him for it; it is both maddening and endearing. “I'm not too happy with the way the team's been performing this month. Sure, we can't expect to win all the time, but having half our force hospitalised is unusual even for us. We've been all over the place.” His eyes are slits and his mouth is hard, and Tony is very, very glad that Steve is on their side. "I don't know if it's due to personal reasons or poor leadership or both, but either way, we'll have to deal with it."

“Agreed,” Tony says, steepling his fingers. “The Avengers need to come up with a way to pull themselves together. I'll brainstorm, too.”

Steve looks at him with what could be admiration, if Tony squints. "I didn't mean to imply that you needed to do anything for us – you already fund and house us. I was only bringing it up because it's been on my mind."

"Well, I'll talk to Iron Man anyway, and if you need some help, I'm at your disposal." Tony learned at an early age that if he said the words, he would follow through or get injured trying. Mostly, it worked.

"Oh, Tony," Steve says, and his eyes are soft and unbearably earnest, "you are so like your father."

Hearing it makes Tony feel dirty – which is irrational. His father had been a good man, a great one, even. Hell, SI wouldn’t exist without him. Tony ought to be flattered. He scoffs and gives a small smile. "Time will tell."

***

Pizza nights are fun, even if Tony spends over half of them as Iron Man and does not actually eat anything. Today, though, Iron Man is off on 'personal business', and Tony saunters down to join the party – which is code for the Avengers lounging on sofas and chilling out. He sits down opposite Hank at a coffee table and they start a new match of chess; neither is really concentrating – there’s just too much chatter in the background. Hank is still losing, though, so point for Tony's flimsy ego.

At some point the conversation turns to families, and Tony does not bother pitching in. Steve stays silent as well, giving little smiles and sombre looks where appropriate. He squirms a bit in his seat, his hands folded on his lap and his knees together.

“And you, Tony?” says Jan, and there is something both mocking and self-deprecating in her tone. She and Tony had moved in the same social circles for some years, and their conversations had been limited mostly to business or to superficial chats.  

Tony shrugs. “I had a happy childhood,” he says noncommittally. He never had a reason to complain. A big house, boarding school, MIT at fourteen – it was like something out of an indulgent children's novel. Truthfully, it makes him uncomfortable to talk about it; he is surrounded by people with unstable backgrounds, and throwing his privilege in their faces had never been a favourite pastime of his.

“Must have been cool to have Howard Stark as your dad, eh,” Hank puts in.

“Mm,” says Tony, and returns his attention to the chessboard.

***

That night, half-buried memories of Afghanistan flare up. Every time Tony closes his eyes, there are caves and grey shadows and too much water, Yinsen's voice a tinny background noise amid the shrill clank of metal. Tony would rather wander about than lie awake in bed, so he saunters up to the penthouse balcony, a bulky coat over his nightclothes and a scarf around his neck. New York hits him as soon as he opens the glass door, a net of lights strung across the skyline. The air is cold and crisp, and the stars are blotted out. Tony can see the clouds of his breath in front of him.

He is in the middle of a stretch and a yawn when he catches sight of another figure a few yards off and jumps. “Good God, man, warn a guy if you’re lurking on his balcony,” he says, trying to calm his heart. He stalks over to Steve and leans against the railing. “Can’t sleep?”

Steve is pale, and there are dark circles beneath his eyes. There is a slight droop to his shoulders that speaks of a long weariness. He shrugs, and does not look at Tony. “Nightmares.”

“I’m sorry.” Tony isn’t always good at talking about these things – and he may be Iron Man, but he cannot pretend to know what it’s like to fight in a war – so he changes the subject. “How’s Sharon?”

Steve’s face grows pinched. “It’s been…difficult lately.”

“How come?”

“I’ve told you before, Tony. I can’t be both Captain America and Steve Rogers. Not in the way she wants. That’s…reasonable.”

Tony understands, after a fashion. For all that he knows that Captain America is, fundamentally, Steve Rogers, he also knows that Steve Rogers does not always want to be Captain America. Even if he himself would rather be Iron Man than Tony Stark, who is...well, this isn't about him. “Does she want to break it off?” he asks.

Steve shrugs. “We had a fight about it. She was yelling. I kept quiet because I knew if I started too, it would be frightening. I know it’s not pleasant.”

Tony says nothing. There is something heavy in the air between them, and Tony does not want to crush whatever courage Steve is scraping together to talk.

Steve looks at his gloves. Tony had gifted them to him at the beginning of the winter. He speaks in a monotone that is somehow also sad. "I became angry." He flexes his fingers. "I thought about hitting her."

Tony stills. This is not something he ever thought he would hear from Steve. Steve is perfect. He's loyal, dedicated, disciplined, and principled. He's Captain America. The idea that Steve could struggle with not wanting to hurt anyone knocks Tony's sense of internal balance sideways.

"I didn't," says Steve, sounding wretched, while Tony is still reeling. "Of course I didn't. I didn’t even want to. But I still thought it." He looks at Tony, who tries to hold his tentative gaze. "That terrifies me."

Tony does not know what to say. He can deal with Steve being ridden with guilt for other things, like failing to save someone despite his best efforts, or enjoying himself once in a while, or holding himself responsible for things that are outside his control. For those instances, he has words, and they come easily: It's not your fault. You can't function without a break. You're the best man I know. Now, he feels things he wishes he did not have to feel around Steve: Shock. Disdain, that awful sort that borders on disgust. Fear, despite himself. 

Steve's breath hitches. "My father was a drunk."

Tony flinches.

"I still don't hate him," says Steve, sounding hurt and ashamed, possibly misinterpreting Tony. "My ma always said it didn't matter, he was my father, I needed to love him, and...I believed her. And by the time I didn't, I'd already internalised the idea." He draws another breath, shuddering slightly. "He beat her." 

"Steve," says Tony, and touches Steve's back. He hadn't known. Steve always seemed so well adjusted. He smiles at children and helps old ladies across the street and sits in churches, still and quiet, listening to the bells, when he needs some space. Tony knew Steve grew up poor, but he always assumed Steve came from a loving family, right out of a cheesy, clichéd advertisement: A responsible father who worked hard and wore an old but fitted suit and tie and played baseball with his son on weekends. A smiling mother in a bright frock wiping Steve’s face with her handkerchief.

"I was terrified he'd hit my ma," Steve carries on. "And he did. Tony," he says, a raw, pleading note to his voice, but does not finish his sentence. Tony knows Steve wants comfort, but he cannot give it to him now; he feels clammy and light-headed. "I'd look at him and think, I'm never going to be that guy. I'll never treat anyone like that." He passes a hand over his forehead, messing up his hair. "But something about him rubbed off on me, I think," he says, shutting his eyes, as if that will make the idea go away. 

Tony mind drifts to his own father, about his issues with the bottle, and it is selfish, because Steve is here, hating himself for a mere thought, and Tony should be offering him comfort, friendship, support. Instead, he wonders, swallowing, how much of his alcoholism was inherited, how much of it was learned. He wonders how much of it was just himself. 

Then he pushes aside those thoughts, because Steve's eyes are bright and his jaw tense, and thanks Steve for telling him. Now that Tony has had time to digest Steve's admissions, he realises that he has been entrusted with a vulnerability that Steve almost never shows, a soft underbelly unprotected by shield or mail. He feels a sudden, fierce loyalty to him that runs deeper than the starry-eyed admiration left over from his boyhood days, and says, because it is true, "Everyone thinks bad thoughts once in a while, but what matters is how you behave and what you actually say. I'm glad you controlled yourself. You’re not your father. Your father was a sack of shit."

"Pardon your French," says Steve, his lips twitching in a smile. He looks ready to sleep for another seventy years.

"I can always count on you to do the right thing."

"You hold me to such impossible standards," Steve says, and he sounds weary but also fond. A wayward lock of hair curls over his forehead, and Tony wants to tuck it back, his chest tight with irrepressible tenderness.

"They're not impossible for you," replies Tony, meaning every word. It is embarrassing how solemn he is. He makes a mental note to not allow his childish hero-worship to bleed into his tone in future, though he knows it will be difficult. He does have a room dedicated to him.

Steve smiles, not wide but bright, and the moonlight silvers his face. Tony can almost believe he is worthy of Steve's friendship.

***

Tony is almost paranoid that Steve knows he is Iron Man. The voice modulator takes care of the worst, but Tony cannot change his mannerisms and way of speaking; it would be beyond tiresome. There are times when he catches Steve glancing at him with a thoughtful expression (in the Iron Man suit and out), and panics before he tells himself that Steve has no solid evidence, and anyway the Avengers have sworn not to poke their noses into each other's personal business.

This fortunately means that Tony does not have to hold back questions he would feel bad for asking as Iron Man.

"Do you feel lonely at times? More than you did before?" Tony does not have to specify before the ice. They are sitting on the grass in Central Park, beneath a willow tree, and the afternoon sun beats down on them. Tony wonders why Steve humours him like this, why he willingly spends so much time with Tony when he surely prefers the company of the Avengers.

"Yes," breathes Steve, as if he has wanted to say it but has not been able to till now, and Tony's heart aches for him. "God, it's like...I have more now, in a way. I have more people to call friends. I have a relatively stable living situation. I don't have to skip meals or live off protein bars. And yet there are days – many days, who am I kidding? – on which I'd go back. Fight by Bucky's side again." He sighs. "Sometimes I think I'd even go back to my family."

Tony raises his eyebrows, but says nothing.

"I'm conflicted. It's paradoxical. I hated it, and yet, at times, I want to go back. I know I'd still hate it, but there was just...a level of familiarity that I don't have now."

Tony cannot relate to that. He wants his mother back, of course he does, but he can't help feeling relieved that he no longer lives in that claustrophobic house. It was not some horrific, violent situation like Steve's, and in all ways it was disgustingly privileged, but Tony still disliked it – he enjoys his life now so much more.

Tony almost says, You have me, and then decides against it. He is, to Steve, only the Avengers’ benefactor; who is he to disagree with Steve’s emotions? If the man feels displaced and unwelcome, Tony cannot well go up to him and say, Are we not enough?, even if some bitter, insecure part of him wants to. Next time he is in the suit, he will try harder to be warm to Steve. Tony Stark may get to ask prodding questions, but it is Iron Man who is Steve's friend, and clearly he has failed on that front.

"I want to see my Ma," Steve continues, staring ahead, and his voice is thick.

Tony wonders if Steve meant to say that; he is not usually so open about talking about his desires in such an intimate, personal way. He remembers his own mother and quickly slams a lid on that thought before he can become upset. At length he says, "There's nothing I – there's nothing we can do about sending you back. It's hard on you, waking up in a world where nothing is the same. But, for what it's worth, you can count on me. And the Avengers." It is a silly, inadequate little pep talk that would have had his father putting his face in his hands and sighing.

But Steve looks at him like Tony just handed him the moon. He claps his big, warm hand on Tony's shoulder and says, "I appreciate that, Tony. You've been a good friend, and I'm glad I've had you to support me."

It does not escape Tony that Steve said ‘you’ and not ‘the team’. He guesses it is Steve being a good leader, showing his appreciation for individuals and all that.

Steve opens his mouth like he is about to say something else, and then closes it and looks away, appearing young and confused. Tony wonders how many names Steve does not say anymore, how many of them just lie in his mouth, because those people no longer exist.

"Do you," he says tentatively, "want to talk about...Arnie?" He hopes he got the name right. Steve had mentioned it once, at four in the morning when he was sleep-deprived and had returned from a long run in the rain. He had slurred, Arnie'd have found this hilarious, and then collapsed on the sofa with his mud-caked shoes still on. Tony's first thought had been, Who the fuck is Arnie?, and then, That's gonna be expensive.

Steve's head whips to him, and his eyes are sharp in the winter light. Tony cannot tell if he is angry, or grateful, or dazed. "You would listen?" he asks, and it would hurt if Tony did not know Steve.

"Of course I would." Tony sits cross-legged and puts his elbows on his knees. Steve talks about...well, everything, in a scattered, dream-like sort of way. He starts with Arnie but moves on to Bucky, and Peggy, and the Howling Commandos. Tony says nothing till Steve finishes talking, when the sun has dipped low. At some point they had shifted positions and ended up with their backs to the tree, their shoulders brushing.

It is quiet now, and Steve looks to the sky and closes his eyes, and squeezes Tony's arm.

***

Steve is moping, rubbing his fingers together and shaking his leg, and Tony can only bear it for so long before he asks if Steve needs anything.

“A mission?” says Steve hopefully. “A job?” He’d lost his position as an artist at yet another company when he kept disappearing due to Avengers’ business.

“Can’t help with that, but I do have a nice collection of sci-fi and fantasy novels in my room, and I know you’re a gigantic fucking nerd under those patriotic stars and stripes, so…”

Steve laughs. It is a wonderful, unfettered sound. Steve should laugh more often. Tony drags him to his room and gestures at the floor-to-ceiling oak bookshelves, rolling ladder and all. Steve looks satisfyingly impressed and intrigued, and Tony says, "The third shelf from the top should be your thing. I think you'll enjoy The Lord of the Rings, and The Once and Future King, if you're a slut for Arthurian literature like I am – "

His phone rings. He takes it out of his pocket and curses. It's Stane. “I gotta take this.” He waves his hand. “What’s mine is yours, take what you like, you don't even have to ask. Just don’t use my books as coasters or highlight in them, or I swear to God I will end you.”

He stays on the phone for about ten minutes, pacing about and not really looking at Steve. Stane tends to stress him out. Tony trusts the man, but he cannot for the life of him be comfortable around him. Eventually, after groaning about the stocks, he cuts the call and turns around, an apology on his tongue, to find Steve flipping through the file his father gave him, and freezes.

Steve is frowning. "Tony," he says carefully, like he is trying to decide whether or not to be angry, "what is this?"

"It's, uh," Tony stammers, feeling more panicked than he probably should. It is only a file. Only ink on paper. "My dad gave it to me."

"Why?" says Steve, holding the file gingerly with the tips of his fingers, like it is contaminated. "Who wrote it?"

"He did."

"What?" Steve's voice is faint and dazed. "Why would he...?"

"So I could be better," Tony says. "It was helpful. Really."

"I can't imagine. Howard was never so...I thought he was..."

"Hey, hey," Tony intervenes. He does not need Steve to play the hero. He does not need to be saved – there is nothing to save him from. "He was a good man. A bit of a hardass, sure, but still good."

"This," says Steve, holding the file up, "does not seem good."

"Steve, relax." Tony has no idea how this conversation became so heated, but it needs to stop. Steve is overreacting. "I don't know why you're so upset. You should know – you've talked about your dad."

"This isn't a competition, Tony!" Steve says, throwing the file on the table. "And why the hell do you have this in your bedroom? On your shelf? I'd have burned this thing the second I saw it."

"It's a reminder," Tony snaps, beginning to lose his own temper. "I was a handful as a kid, and heir to SI. I needed lessons, and some of them were harsh. That's all."

"What kind of lessons? Putting you down? Constantly criticizing you? Making a list of things that were supposedly wrong with you?" Steve sucks his teeth, and then blinks and goes still. "He didn't hit you, did he?"

"No," says Tony. "I mean, yeah, but it was discipline. He wasn't some violent loon taking out his anger on me."

Steve hisses and pinches the bridge of his nose, as if he is dealing with a frustrating child. "I always thought your self-deprecating jokes were a bit too vicious to be funny. Now I know why."

Tony grits his teeth. "You're overstepping your bounds, Rogers."

"Maybe." Steve shuts the file. "As a member of the Avengers. As a friend...I don’t think so." He looks at Tony, and instead of pity in his eyes, there is understanding. Tony finds it condescending anyway. "Tony, if he hit you..."

"No bones were broken, Cap."

"That is an abysmally low standard." Steve puts the file on the desk. "Please, Tony," he says, and sounds like he is pleading. "I understand if you don't want to talk about it. But if you do...I know what it's like to not be able to tell anyone."

Tony averts his gaze. He trusts Steve with his life, and yet is unwilling to disclose details of his family. It is only another way in which he is, perhaps, strange and incompetent. "I was a sissy. I needed to toughen up."

Steve looks at him steadily. "Would you treat your own child like that?"

Tony's head snaps up. "No!" he says, without thinking. "What, I – no! Jesus. I'm an asshole, but I'm not a fucking..."

Steve's face is grim.

Tony sags, suddenly exhausted. "I'm done here. I'm going to my workshop."

Steve picks up the file again. Instead of putting it back on the shelf, he turns it horizontal and, before Tony can protest, rips it right in half, and then again, and again. He drops it to the floor, squares of paper fluttering about.

Tony gapes. "Steve!"

"That had to be done."

"You..." Tony is livid, shaking. Never mind what was in that file, whether it was the product of a deranged alcoholic or loving father; it was Tony's and Steve had no right. He tells him so, his voice rising to a shout. "Why are you like this, Steve? You're always acting like you're judge, jury and executioner! This is my fucking house, and you don't get to come in here and destroy my stuff!"

Steve shakes his head, looking disgusted. "Your father," he says slowly, "was a manipulative bastard, and I'm sorry I ever thought he was a decent man. Maybe he was once. I don't know. But the fact that you're standing here defending him is utterly disturbing."

"Get out, Steve," Tony snarls, standing aside and gesturing at the door. "Just get the fuck out."

Steve sucks in a breath. He looks ready to argue, or to fight. But then he bows his head slightly, presses his lips together, and walks quietly outside.

Tony turns around and looks at the paper strewn all over the floor. He sits on the floor on his knees because his legs feel wobbly, and stays that way for a long time. Then he begins to gather up the shredded paper, sucking his lower lip, hating Steve, and part of him says, Throw it away, and another really doesn't want to, so he puts it in an opaque zip-lock bag and places it back on his shelf.

***

It is another night without sleep, and Tony pads down to one of the common areas, the one used to entertain business partners and family friends.

He was furious with Steve for a week, not speaking to him outside of Avengers business, even as Iron Man, and then the anger melted away and he was just tired. He has grown used to his conversations with Steve, to their easy banter and scathing honesty. Steve is one of the realest things that have ever happened to him (dear God, the man is earnest, even if he is infuriating), and to go without him now is…difficult.

It is the sound of sloshing liquid that alerts him to what he is doing. Numbly, he stares at the glass, then at the bottle, and sets them down, his hands trembling. For a second, he wants one, he wants one so badly, and hisses and screws his eyes shut. No. He is not going back there. He will not do that to himself.

He throws the whisky from the glass into the sink, puts the bottle back in the cabinet, and begins to heat some milk and melt a slab of chocolate. When it is done he pulls a stray blanket from one of the couches and wraps it around his shoulders, and it is better then. It strikes him that he has not enjoyed solitude in a long time. He loves his team, loud and boisterous as they are, but he also loves the silence, the steam curling from the mug, the warmth of wool over his skin. Sighing, he sinks further into the couch and sets the mug against his lips, allowing the heat to seep into his stiff, chilled fingers.

In the morning he wakes to find himself still on the couch, the empty mug in his loosened hands. He groans a bit at the crick in his neck, but otherwise, feels more well rested than he has in months. “JARVIS, time?”

“It is 0800, Sir.”

A little over five hours of sleep, then. “Any meetings today?”

“None, Sir. I believe you asked Ms. Potts to clear this Sunday.”

Sometimes Tony appreciates his own foresight. He is in no mood to deal with people. “Thanks, J.”

Tony puts on some music and makes himself breakfast, and eats while re-reading one of his battered old Star Trek novels. He is not even wearing his contacts, just his spectacles, which are in need of cleaning. It is horrifically indulgent, this whole morning, and makes him feel guilty – he is unused to taking time for himself. Then he shakes his head and tells himself to cut it out. He is allowed to be content.

Later, in the afternoon, something niggles at Tony’s brain, and he sighs because he knows he will have to talk to Steve at some point. Today has, if nothing else, calmed him down; he feels centred. Tony is unwilling to see his father as a bad man, or even a bad parent – it evokes a visceral flight reaction in him and he blanks out. But he can see Steve’s point, as well; if Tony would not behave the way Howard had, he can concede that there was something wrong. He does not wish to examine this ‘something’ closely, but he needs to communicate with Steve.

Deciding that now is as good a time as any, he asks JARVIS for Steve’s location. Apparently, he is in the gym, demolishing his third punching bag. Tony begins to clear the plates, a little knot of unease growing in his belly.

By the time he gets to the gym, his hands are sweating. He watches as Steve hangs up another punching bag and says from the door, “Can we talk?”

Steve pauses, panting, and then nods, swabbing his face with a towel. “Let me shower first.”

Five minutes later they sit down on one of the creaky benches, stiff and unsure. This is the most awkward Tony has ever felt around Steve. They start speaking at the same time, and Steve rubs his neck the way he does when he is embarrassed. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry. Whether I had a point or not, what I did was thoughtless.” Steve averts his eyes. “I kept talking over you, too. I shouldn’t have done that.”

Tony nods. “I accept that. And…you were right, I think. I’m still trying to come to terms with it. I spent my life thinking it was normal, so…yeah. Just mentally adjusting.”

Steve puts a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry to bring this up again, and you don’t have to answer. But...did he hit you?”

Tony picks at his trousers. “What do you consider ‘hitting’?” He is curious. What counts as abuse? A slap on the wrist? Yelling? Does the frequency matter more than the amount of force used? Until now he has only ever blocked such thoughts, and avoided conversations about the topic.

Steve purses his lips, and something dark flits in his eyes, and is gone. "I'd say if he struck your knuckles with a ruler and they were bruised or bleeding, something’s wrong. We can start there.”

“I did get bruises, yeah.”

“Ruler?”

“Belt.”

“Did you bleed?”

“Sometimes.”

Steve’s hand tightens on his shoulder. “How often?”

“I don’t know…once a month? Twice? It’s hazy, maybe I’m misremembering.” He takes a breath. All the words are coming out now, spilling like sand. “It wasn’t…the worst of it. I didn’t like it, but the pain went away. It was more like…I was never enough for him? I know, it sounds so stupid and wishy-washy, but that’s what affected me more. If he talked to me, it was mostly to tell me something I was doing was wrong, or just to order me to be quiet or something.”

“Sounds like an asshole.”

“Pardon your French,” says Tony, and they both smile, pale, watery things that dissipate some of the tension. He takes another breath. “He made me drink, too.”

Steve’s brow furrows, like he cannot register what Tony is saying.

“When I was a kid, he would give me glasses of alcohol and make me drink them in front of him. Thought it would toughen me up.”

Steve’s face is white.

“The first time, I was nine. Next time was a few months after. It became more common after that, but there was little consistency as to the frequency. Sometimes it was once a month, others two, three times a week.” He looks at the wall ahead. “I didn't like boarding school, but it became a relief to go there. I felt bad for not wanting to see my father, but…” He shrugs. “Anyway, I went to MIT at fourteen, and then no one had to force me to drink.” He gives an ironic smile.

Steve just sits there, stock still, his eyes on Tony’s hands but glazed, like he isn’t actually looking. The silence weighs heavily on them. It makes Tony uneasy, not being able to tell what Steve is thinking. At length Tony shifts, says, “I can’t…think of him as a bad father. Never could. I always wanted his approval so badly. I didn’t like him, but I did love him.” He scrubs a hand over his face. “It’s like I knew him too intimately and not at all.” This is so much more open than he has ever been. Will Steve be off-put? Will he think Tony is whiny and weak? He massages his shoulder, weary of the tautness there.

Steve says, quietly but with firmness, "I understand. I'm here."

***

Later, they walk together to Tony's room. Tony takes out the bag with the ripped-up file, opens it and looks at it for a long time. He runs his fingers through the paper. "Even now, I want to keep it." He looks at Steve, who is wearing a guarded expression. "But I've decided I'm not going to. I'm going to need your help."

"Anything."

Tony glances at the fireplace, and wordlessly they go to it. He feels foolish for asking Steve to stay with him; he just needs Steve to be there, anchor him so he does not run. He almost asks Steve to get rid of the file for him, but then steels himself. This should be done by his own hand. He picks up a matchbox from the mantlepiece and strikes a match.

Opening the bag, he takes a fistful of the paper, and throws it in the fire. The squares burn up without a sound, turning to ash amid the logs, and everything about this is strange and misshapen. That something so loud in his head could be so quiet now. That he could hold onto this for so long and get rid of it so quickly. It seems at once silly, blasphemous, and powerful. He casts the next batch in.

"How d'you feel?" asks Steve, after it is all gone.

The bag in Tony's hand does not seem to weigh anything. Hell, he doesn't seem to weigh anything. "Lost," he replies, and rubs his arm, though the heat from the fire is strong. His toes curl. "Scared, a bit. But...not in a bad way."

Steve nods. "That's all right," he says.

-end-