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White Rabbit

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Stuck underwater.

It’s a feeling he can’t quite shake off.

In the baths after: he practices, you see. Water on skin, sinking into it. Sink past the nose, the eyes, the hair—feel the heaviness of the water. Sink a little deeper each time and hope it will wash away the freezing sensation of drowning.

But the water sticks to you, and then you have to wash the water away too.

Everything seems too much and not enough after Afghanistan. Too much air to breathe, not enough to make Tony feel safe.

(And damn it, he still needs to stop thinking of it as Afghanistan. Obie made it clear that the torture is inconsequential. It’s the metal suit he built that matters. Don’t let the torturers have so much control over him, not when he’s made something so glorious. So why can’t he believe that, too?)

When Tony closes his eyes, sometimes his body feels like it’s still there, underwater. Under somebody else’s control.

Tony builds himself an armor. Keep others out, keep himself together, it’s an open and shut suit. If he’s honest, Iron Man is not just to protect other people. And he is honest about this, it’s not his fault nobody believes him. He never said he was a superhero.

(He wants to privatize world peace, they say. Make money. Be the billionaire playboy hero.)

Flying is easy—flying makes sense. It’s his choice to fly, his path to fall down. When Iron Man falls, he can at least see the ground, know that impact is coming.

But stuck underwater, you can swim as desperately as you can and still not know which way is up.

***

In the time after, he focuses on perfecting Iron Man.

He invents the tech to surgically take the shrapnel out of his chest first, of course.

He is the Merchant of Death, but he’s not very interested in selling something he doesn’t wish to buy. Death had never really been what he was after, he used to think that they were doing the right thing despite death, but it turned out that the name was quite apt.

So: Iron Man.

Build his way out, right. If there’s no path on the ground, he’ll just fucking fly.

Pepper’s lips are curved down and her brows are furrowed, and Tony feels sick because she’s been proud of everything else, why not of Iron Man?

“It’s wearing you down,” Pepper says. She sounds like she’s practiced these words in front of a mirror countless times. “You’ve roped Rhodey and JARVIS into it too.”

“Nuh uh, no ropes here, they’re happy to help Iron Man out,” Tony says. “Right JARVIS?”

“Affirmative, sir.”

Pepper, blessed be, never says anything like he created JARVIS so JARVIS must listen to him. But she does make a weird expression. Like she is hesitant about something.

“Even Dum-E is having fun helping me out,” Tony says. “Not that he can do much.” The little bot chirps happily and pokes a stray suit piece with a claw. Tony beams at Pepper.

Come on, Pepper. Smile, smile back.

Tony loves her, he really does. If she asked him now to put it all away, he’d do it. Blow the suits to pieces, fireworks, a celebration.

But she doesn’t smile back.

She makes a sad face and her words break Tony’s heart (what heart?) more than that.

“JARVIS is loyal. He’s helping you out because you’d have far more injuries if he didn’t.”

JARVIS pointedly does not refute that.

“I’m fine, though,” Tony points out. “I do have J. A few bruises ain’t a flesh wound.” He grins, waving his very present limbs. “Plus I’ve got you, Pep.”

“Yes, you do. But don’t forget about me.” Tony starts to protest but Pepper stops him. “I haven’t seen you outside your lab in a week, Tony.”

“Doesn’t mean I haven’t been,” Tony says. Pepper raises an eyebrow. “I went flying a few times. Fresh air is good for health, or something.”

“Tony,” Pepper says. She smiles finally, with exasperation, and Tony hates to see the dark circles under her eyes. “I’m glad you’re helping others. You’re doing great. But that high up, is there really enough oxygen for you to breathe?”

***

His life has always been wild, but after Iron Man comes Captain America, apparently.

“Steve Rogers,” Tony says, staring at the man standing before him. Tall, blond, the picture perfect soldier Tony always imagined, except he’s wearing a simple T-shirt and jacket and looks terribly modern with that hairstyle. “Steve Rogers! Unbelievable. Straight outta those retro comic books.”

Great, he somehow exudes goodness, even more than he does in the pictures.

There’s an excitement in his eyes, as though Steve Rogers is most pleased to meet Tony. And that’s weird, right. See, kids say they want to see Captain America. Only people with ulterior motives want to meet Tony Stark, with either a paycheck or a whip, it’s fifty-fifty.

Captain America has an ulterior motive, then?

“We all thought you were swimming with the fishes,” Tony says.

Steve shrugs. “I wasn’t swimming. Just frozen in ice. Sadly no fish for company.”

Tony peers at him. “Here I thought you’d be singing ‘let’s kill the Nazis’ in your patriotic suit. I can have JARVIS play the accompaniment if you want.”

Steve laughs at that. Not as loud as Tony imagined, not as cheerful. It’s just the laugh any person might have, except he actually sounds happy without Tony throwing money at him, would you look at that. He deserves a raise. Is SHIELD paying him? Does SHIELD own him?

“I wouldn’t want to subject JARVIS to me floundering around in an old-fashioned suit,” Steve says.

Tony hums, crossing his arms. He used to really want to meet Steve (he was a kid at some point, too, wasn’t he). At first as a fan, before he got tired of Howard talking about him.

Then, he just wanted to be able to get Captain America riled up and human so he could be able to say to Howard, see, not such a perfect soldier after all.

Tony looks at Steve.

Tony is probably still at that stage. More or less.

“JARVIS is an AI,” he says. “Much more than just a butler on the intercom.”

“And much more genuine than most humans I’ve met. I spoke with him on the elevator coming up,” Steve says cheerfully.

“Thank you, Captain Rogers,” JARVIS says pleasantly.

Tony arches an eyebrow.

Something in Steve falters for a moment, but the hope and friendliness in his expression do not seem artificial. “Mr. Stark. Can I call you Tony?”

Is he not good enough compared to Howard, that he can’t be called Mr. Stark? He supposes it makes sense. His dad always made it sound like he was irreplaceable in Steve’s life. Best of friends.

“Well,” Tony says, trying to think about more important things. Did they secretly have advanced technology in the forties? Have Tony’s kind of tech? AIs? No. Definitely not. Maybe he should check later. “Sure, Captain. All the better to discern me from my dad.”

Steve smiles. “Thanks, Tony.”

Tony smiles. Thousand watt, Times person of the year how many times now? Tony fucking Stark, and if Steve had a tail it’d be wagging happily, because Steve’s smile just brightens as he says his name.

He’s like a goddamn puppy, all golden and sweet and friendly to a stranger. Except Tony isn’t a stranger, is he, because Steve knew Howard, and Tony has no doubt SHIELD has given him information on Tony Stark.

Yeah, Tony doesn’t trust people, it’s not like he’s trying to be subtle about it.

Tony doesn’t like the idea of Steve liking him on first impressions. He’d rather Steve be here as a recon mission, sent by SHIELD. He can definitely imagine Fury sending him. Good soldiers follow orders.

Great men are not always good men. Tony resents the idea that Captain America could possibly be both. How’s he supposed to hate Steve Rogers now?

With purpose and intent, he concludes. Steve will learn, like everyone else does, that there are reasons people (including Tony) don’t like Tony. And he’s sure he can find reasons to not like Steve Rogers.

In retrospect, Tony finds it weird that Steve didn’t try to shake his hand.