Howard Stark wanted, pursued and sired an heir. A male heir. One he could leave his legacy to. One who was strong. Powerful. And above all, could command respect in the cutthroat business world. There would have been no room for feelings, for touch, for love in Tony’s upbringing.
Tony’s first intimate encounter wasn’t with a woman. Or a man. It was with the public. His first kiss wasn’t the soft brush of skin on skin. It was the searing heat of white hot flashbulbs blinding him. He learned quickly, and learned young, to hide what he felt. To subjugate emotion. To hold back.
On learning of Coulson’s death, Tony doesn’t speak. He doesn’t demand answers. He doesn’t so much as let out a silent gasp. He is completely and utterly still. Giving nothing away. Except for his breathing. His jaw is tight and his chest is inhaling rapidly and shallowly. His eyes are overly bright and he is blinking slowly but he will stubbornly refuse to let tears fall. Tony feels. He feels so very deeply and so very much but all those years of hiding his emotions from the public have made self-protection second nature to him now.
Fury knows this. He knows this man that he has watched grow from a child. Fury delivers the most heartfelt part of his speech right by Tony’s side. Cutting off Steve, shielding Tony from the line of sight of the room. Fury is talking to them both but he is speaking directly to Tony. He knows this boy, knows how he will react. Knows what he will need. And so he allows him to leave. Doesn’t call him back. Doesn’t follow.
Cap may be the one who leads the Avengers. The one who commands the team. But every family needs a heart and while Cap is the leader, Tony is it’s soul. The glue that holds them together. Fury knows this. He also knows what it costs the man at it’s center. He seen the baptism of fire and light that Tony was birthed into, grew up in and lives through daily. Fury sees what it costs him and so, while he will call this man onto the carpet when he has to. Will summon him the second he needs him. When he can, Fury will also give Tony the shadows and solitude that he needs.
Tony fell in love for the first time when he was three years old. He has a memory that he guards as viciously as a dragon over his gold. Vague and sepia toned he holds it close to his heart. In it he is safe and warm, held close in his mother’s arms as she dances around his nursery. Muted pastels of forest green and heavy cream blur into the colors of home as she spins them. The scratch of vinyl, the silver of his own childlike laughter. The dark of Maria’s eyes. Tony’s eyes. The rhythmic fall and the major lift of the high blue tinted notes of her voice as she holds her toddler close and sings to him the entreaty that he ‘be her baby’.
Music became the fairytale siren and Tony it’s ever faithful lover.
His fledgling love was cemented into a deep abiding adulation when, at nine, he first discovered that the heavy bass and manic guitar riff, married to perfection with the strangled vocalizing of 'highways and hell’, completely drowned out the sonic scream of the itch on his skin. Drowned out the constant sting of frenzied tension singing across his shoulders. Tension that living in the castle of dying dreams that was his home caused. And most importantly, his love buried in exquisite lyrical perfection the thrumming drumbeat of his father’s accusations and his mother’s answering cries.
Those guitars in both the Malibu house and the tower are not simply for show. Tony plays them. Some days he shreds and burns. Blurs the frets until his fingers bleed. On white nights. Nights where he can’t breathe let alone sleep, he can fall into a non verbal fugue. The rich, thick beat of the bass guitar creates an impenetrable, invisible fog around him. The notes his fingers draw from his chosen instrument become his only communication with the world.
Alone, as Iron Man, Tony mainlines anything and everything inside his armor. A solid wall of frenetic musical energy. The screech of guitar. The mournful wail of strings. All at decibels set to drown memory and reality. On a team, as an Avenger, Cap needs and asks for silence on the comms. By the time Tony returns from battle his every nerve is fire hot. A lit match. His heart rate elevated. A thready, jagged need coursing through him. His body shaking apart with the near euphoric desire for release. A soul deep need to scream and cry. Most days a steady stream of bone deep bass and mind numbing guitars screaming out as the 'thunder of guns’ will bring him back to baseline. But on days when the red of battle bleeds into the burnt orange dust of desert. Days when he hurts, when ribs ache and the armor isn’t the only crimson on Tony’s skin. When the echo of Steve’s voice demanding “Where is he?” and Fury’s answering hand on their Captain’s arm at Tony’s back as he disappears into his safe space, blend seamlessly into the baritone anger of Howard’s demands on his son’s mind and body. On those days Tony falls into ebony notes curled over ivory strings and covers himself in the safe blanket of 'a summer place’ from yesterday.
Dust motes dancing in sunlight. Soft chestnut hair rubbing against an infant’s cheek and the only blue light touching his body, the sapphire of his mother’s necklace clutched in small, grasping fingers.
Music is Tony’s soporific. His equalizer. Take it from him, take away his oldest and deepest love and you kill a part of his soul.
It doesn’t matter how many names the press gives him. How many accusations they fling his way. How many times the title ‘Merchant of Death’ follows his given name in the text of an interview. How many mother’s spit on him because he didn’t make it to that town, on that day, to stop that particular villain because no-one, no-one hates Anthony Stark as much as he loathes himself.
The seed of that thought was planted deep and early. Tony grew up being told he was 'worthless’ and 'not good enough’. That he wasn’t and never would be 'made of iron’. That he was nothing more than a means to an end, a 'creation’ not a child and certainly not a man.
Roots that invasive can never be broken. You can scorch the earth and that particular seed will always fight back and flourish. Tony was destined from birth to doubt himself, to know he would never be what anyone wanted him to be, to always be a disappointment.
If Howard stark and Obadiah Stane did nothing else for Tony, they taught him that lesson well and no amount of name calling in the the face of public opinion will ever be able to compete with that kind of deep and abiding self loathing.
He wakes up in a totally alien environment. In what must be excruciating pain, with no way to relieve it and with no-one to hold his hand and talk him down through his fear. He has less than five minutes to acclimatize before his head is shoved into cold, filthy water and he is held down while hooked up to an electrical current.
Then after being forced to concede to build a weapon, he undergoes a second surgery to implant the device he built to save his life, with presumably no more anesthetic than the first time. Then on top of all that he has to detox in a fucking cave while trying to build a machine covertly to aid his escape.
This is why Tony is a hero. Not because he wears a shiny suit that blows up the bad guys but because when you back him into a corner and scream low odds at him, he can and will come out on top.
Tony Stark has always had a depressive tendency. He can veer into suicidal territory incredibly quickly, usually in the name of the greater good but either way the path is laid in his personality.
He would never have felt as alone and close to giving up as when he knew he was dying from the palladium poisoning. To have survived the kidnapping. To have fought his way out what must have been an incredibly strong trigger on his depression in that cave. To have emerged literally a new man with a new purpose, a new vision on life only to have it snatched from his grasp must have been soul crushing.
In moments of extremes people naturally turn to family. Tony has no blood family left. No mother to love him, tell him him she is there. To hold him close, stroke his hair, let him bury his face in her shoulder and wipe his tears away.And even if she were still alive, his father would never allow it. Tony was raised by his father to never show weakness. To stand up as a man and push through. It. would go against everything in his nature to ask for help here.
No matter how much he wants to curl up into someone’s arms, if only for just a moment, he has no frame of reference to ask for any comfort. So, he pushes down natural tendencies, sublimates emotional needs and turns to the one person he knows he can rely on, the one person who has never pushed him away, who has always come through for …..himself.
“… never told me he loved me, never even told me he liked me… You’re talking about a man whose happiest day of his life was shipping me off to boarding school.”
Tony so desperately wants to believe when Fury tells him he is wrong about his father. His eyes never leave Nick’s face. There is absolute naked want on his face. He doesn’t blink. He swallows convulsively. But in the end the years of constant negative reinforcement are just too much. No matter how much he wants to believe that Howard loved him, that his father wanted him as a son, Tony just can’t do it. Learning your father wanted you and maybe loved you at forty just doesn’t make the hurt any less. If anything it makes the conflict, confusion and rejection worse.
Just one more byline in Tony’s journal of nightmares and shadowed dreams.
Tony is brilliant, a certified genius. He knows without a shadow of a doubt that he’s dying. Even without the mural of scarring etching itself in an ever deepening tattoo into his chest, he can feel the blood in his veins turning thick and black. His heart pounding as it works overtime to clear the toxicity from his body. There is no known cure for it. There is no known disease like it.
But he says nothing. Has been trained since birth to keep it inside. Besides, who would he tell? Who will mourn him? His parents have been cold and in the ground for years and showed him little to no affection in life, why would he expect any in death? His small circle of friends may grieve but he knows it will pass quickly. So he does what he can to provide for them. Pepper gets the company, Rhodey gets the suit. And he continues playing up the loud, partying image. Distract, suppress and mislead.
Tony watches the world pass him by as he prepares to leave. Moving loudly through it while he can and screaming in silent panic on the inside. Not letting anyone know that he would maybe like someone to hold his hand, to tell him he will be okay. Because who would ever believe that Tony Stark, that Iron Man, is scared?