Depending on who you ask, Anthony Edward Stark is either the Greatest Man of his Generation, or a human shaped bag of scum and greed.
Tony, as he prefers to be called, doesn't really see himself as either. No, Tony doesn't see himself as at either end of those scales,
Tony sees himself as a simple man.
Sure he may grandstand a lot, but that's all about controlling what story about him the papers will have slapped across them come morning.
No, Tony knows that he is fallible, that he is vulnerable, that he is human.
He is a surprisingly humble man; he makes the obscenely big gestures and has congratulations and thanks thrown at him, and he laps up every bit. Because when he does something small, honest and genuine, he shies away from even the kindest word. He doesn't know how to handle sincere praise. He wasn't taught how. He's a Stark though.
Stark's can fake their way through anything.
So Tony fakes his smiles for the cameras.
He fakes his promiscuity, drugs and alcohol.
He fakes his sorrow at his fathers funeral.
He fakes his inexperience in front of the Board.
He fakes his confidence to the world.
And nobody thinks to look, to actually look and see the cracks running all around his masks.
Nobody looks, because nobody wants to see.
If they see him breaking they may feel tempted to fix the problem, to make it better, but they can't do that; Tony Stark is at the top of his game, the top of the world, an Idol of no refute.
The only thing the world loves more, is watching an Idol fall.
Tony has fallen many times, just like everyone will eventually. The difference is Tony gets back up.
He pushes himself back to his feet, no matter the hurt and sadness that wells inside; one foot in front of the other until he has the momentum to run again; run from the faceless voices and hands trying to push him to the ground once more.
It's easier to stay on his feet when he's not alone; Rhodey at M.I.T. remains the reason Tony actually graduated, the reason Tony lived to see graduation. Happy as his chauffeur is the reason Tony was able to stand tall when the full weight of Stark Industries landed on his shoulders, threatening to crush him beneath the pressure. Pepper at SI will forever be the reason Tony didn't decide to just walk away years ago - From SI, from Public Eye, from Life.
In another lifetime, another world, he could have loved Pepper. Loved her as a woman, instead of the sister he never had.
Tony's not sure whether to be sad he can't love Pepper that way or grateful, because even after all the shitshow his life has been, she's still there at his side, helping run herd on all the chaos.
Tony has loved people in his life like that -Sunset, Tiberius- but never been loved in return. When the Avengers had come to live in the Tower and were exposed to him beyond battle, they all agreed on pretty much one thing.
"You're like a big cat; a lion or tiger or something. Something beautiful to look at, but deadly to go near, so who'd risk it?"
Story of his life really.
What the Avengers all forget to say though, is Tony is a creature of elegance and intellect; people are drawn to his presence, wishing silently for him to look at them and praise them - to see that they are doing well and acknowledge their struggles.
Tony doesn't see how Thor absolutely beams when Tony tells the Thunderer he's finally figured out how to control his strength on the more fragile items in the Tower.
Tony doesn't see how Bruce stands a little taller after Tony remarks on how much progress the Hulk's alter-ego has made in his projects.
Tony doesn't see how Hulk squirms in delight when Tony praises his behaviour post-battle.
Tony doesn't see how Natasha relaxes her shoulders when Tony thanks her for the pelmeni she made him after he fixes her widow's bites.
Tony doesn't see how Clint listens in interest when Tony talks about how the archer is brilliant at picking spots at the start of a battle but needs to find safer ones mid-way.
Tony doesn't see how Steve follows easily, completely, when Tony tells him how to take the lead.
Tony doesn't see it, because he doesn't know how to look, and everyone knows 'he has an ego, so don't bring it to his attention'.
Tony sees how they all leave him.
Tony just doesn't understand people; it's why he likes math and science so much, they make sense.
Actually Tony likes all learning. He doesn't necessarily plan to do anything with what he learns, but it keeps his brain occupied, stops it from spinning endlessly with all the facts that he sees at any given moment.
-It's forty-two steps to the common room from the elevator, traveling at an average of a half mile per hour, the turn to avoid Mjolnir takes 26 degrees to the right of current trajectory-
-The elastin elements of the fibres prove to be able to expand with the Hulk's sudden increase in body mass but shrinking back down to conform to Bruce is more difficult; maybe try an alloy fibre, one that could-
-Widow Bites falling to 12% battery life in one fight is unforgivable; Natasha charges them religiously so she's never caught out, but the amount of power drained by facing-
-Pepper's birthday is in three days, need to buy her a present for the actual day. No rabbits, or other giant things, jewellery or shoes would go over best, red for her hair, or try to match eyes-
-Thirty-seven new cracks in the plaster by the kitchen wall; Clint beat Thor at MarioKart again, most likely red shell defeat given depth of cracks-
-Steve has been sneaking extra helpings of treacle tart, even though he's been told to eat his fill at meals; prepare more food, so he stops rationing himself Depression style-
-Clint has been nesting on the bookcases again; shelves are 4cm further from wall then yesterday, install base support so shelves don't tip-
They still left though.
Tony doesn't mean to take note of everything, he just does; photographic memory. Sure his recall is pretty average on subjects he hasn't actively studied, but he can (and has) pulled tears from college and university students for knowing more about their chosen subject in a few hours than they know with years of study.
"When did you become an expert in thermonuclear astrophysics?"
But Tony likes learning for meaning. His Cara Madre taught him Italian because it meant something to her. He taught himself math, because it meant he could make sense of the numbers. He learned science, because it meant he understood more of the world.
Tony wants to learn T'Challa.
T'Challa, a man he met when a prince, and fought alongside as a king. A man who dons armour to fight for the protection of his people. A man who protected the Ex-Avengers, while working with Tony to fix the Accords. A man who taught Tony how to look at him without seeing all the extra information first.
Tony sees the way T'Challa smiles at the numerous feline nicknames Tony gives him, and it makes Tony smile too.
Tony sees the way T'Challa will subtly roll his eyes when they have to deal with Ross face-to-face, and Tony has to stifle a grin.
Tony sees the way T'Challa laughs when sharing stories about their school years, laughing so much he can't breathe.
Tony wants to learn T'Challa, wants to learn if T'Challa constantly sees the facts too, if T'Challa smiles at everyone like they are precious; if T'Challa feels for Tony, what Tony thinks he might feel for T'Challa.
He calls Shuri, asking if there would be any offence to him learning Wakandan (he doesn't think there'd be, but Wakanda has kept itself isolated so long, they may not want outsiders to butcher the language.) and if not, was there a book or something he could learn from.
Shuri seems delighted and sends him three books; a beginners book, a common phrases book, and a dictionary. She says she hopes to be able to greet him properly when she and T'Challa return to the states in a few days.
She's alone when Tony greets her with "Mholweni, Inkosazana. Ndiyathemba namhla ifumana kakuhle. Enkosi lonke uncedo ondinike lona."
Tony sees tears in her eyes before she hugs him close. "Ukuba uve amazwi abathe, kude nekhaya. Ngokwenene intsikelelo, Tony Stark."
Tony hugs her back, glad that he made her happy.
T'Challa joins them as the hug ends, jokingly asking his sister "Ngaba uzama ukufumana umntu Ndiyakuthanda kude kum dade?"
Shuri merely smiles smugly as T'Challa freezes at Tony's response.
"Asinto inkosazana endinomdla kuye, kodwa mna ndandiyitha- yaye sinombulelo ngenxa neemvakalelo zakho."
T'Challa gapes for a few precious moments, his calm and cool lost in the face of what he's heard, before he shores himself up.
"You did not tell me you were interested in learning Wakandan."
"It's a part of who you are Chesire, kwaye ndifuna ukufunda yonke into."
T'Challa's smile is a beautiful thing to behold, and Tony doesn't resist his smile in return.
The Wakandan king steps right up to Tony, loosely resting his hands on his waist.
"Kwaye mna ndikhangele kakhulu phambili ukwenza okufanayo kuwe. Kuba xa ndithi ke kuni, Andiyi ukukhulula. Uya kuba ngabam de Sehlosi uThixo umema ukuba amasimi akhe kwaye ke, ndiya kufumana kwakhona."
Tony merely smiles, a little smear of colour rising to his cheeks.
"I look forward to it T'Challa. Afterall, nothing has ever held my attention the way you do."