Tony coughed smoke from his lungs through a thick gag, keeping his eyes closed. They were sore from the florescent camera flashed, and the burlap obscured all light, so there wasn't any point to opening them anyway.

He focused on everything he could read with his other senses.

His shoulders hurt.

His chest was on fire.

Something was buzzing, like an overloaded generator, and there was a steady drip of water from the corner. It was cold and slightly humid.

The only breaths in the room were his own.

Footsteps sounded from outside, voices and orders and the stomping of boots. Until they faded away, and only a few sleepy steps remained.

Tony leaned as far as he could, resting his head against the wall and willing his muscles to go limp.

Day one.

He let his forehead hit his desk, and left it there.

It smelled like cheap disinfectant and sweat, the surface tacky and cold against his skin. He pulled his hood over his head and put his arms on top of it.

When it came to making people leave him alone, Tony couldn't have cared less about subtlety.

Against all odds, he was in class early; possibly the first time he'd been early since elementary school. The only other person in the room was Mr. Logan. And Tony knew that Logan wouldn't try to approach and/or talk to and/or console him.

He appreciated that.

"Gotta go pick up copies," Logan grunted, vaguely in his direction. "Don't trash anything while I'm gone, Stark."

Tony tapped his finger against the desk to show he'd heard.

As 7:30 approached, other students began to file in, chattering to each other and catching up about what they'd done over the break. It had been... What, a week for them? Two? Christmas had been a distant blip on his radar. Tony tuned them out, pushing his arms tighter to his head.

A ring of empty desks formed around him in the back of the room, at least one on each side. Tony peeked out to see that the next closest person was Susan Storm, three desks away. She was texting and so much as didn't look up at him.


The bell rang, high and loud, and Tony left his head down for role call. Mr. Logan said his name and moved on.

"Today we're going to be working with the divergence theorem," Logan said, marker squeaking on the whiteboard. "Can anyone define that?"

There was silence, and then breathless voice answered. "The sum of all sources minus the sum of all sinks gives the net flow out of a region."

"That's right, Parker. Sit down and I won't mark you tardy."

Tony could hear Peter's obnoxious grin. "Thanks, Logan."

The squelching of wet sneakers stopped feet away, and Parker's bag dropped to the floor with a thud. He reached out and squeezed Tony's shoulder. "Hey, Tony."

Tony ignored him.

He also ignored most of the lecture, tuning in just enough that he'd be able to go over the book and spit it back out for an exam later. Multiple choice tests were easy anyway.

"Problems seven to twenty are due tomorrow. Get out."

Tony was the first out of the room, keeping his shoulders squared and his expression blank. Nobody tried to talk to him, and by some small miracle Parker headed the other way.

"Good morning, Mr. Stark," Professor Xavier said gently, when Tony walked in. Tony gave a stiff nod.

Professor Xavier creeped him out. He always seemed to know exactly what everybody was thinking.

"How are you feeling?" The teacher asked, rolling his wheelchair over to where Tony sat. Once again in the back of the room; he gave himself an A+ for consistency so far.

"Fine," Tony said.

"I heard about-"

"Fine." Tony gave him a stony look. "Great. Fan-tastic. I'm going to read until class starts."

An English nerd couldn't get mad at him for reading, right?

Professor Xavier sighed, and nodded. "Very well. If you need-"

"No thanks."

Without so much as a reprimand for Tony's tone, the man returned to the front of the room and greeted kids as they entered. Tony pretended to be engrossed in War of the Worlds.

As before, Tony found himself alone on the back row, with a thick buffer between him and anyone else. If some of the other students had been more or less reluctant to associate with him before, all of them were downright unwilling now. And it suited him just fine.

Professor Xavier launched into a spiel on Pride and Prejudice-yes, Mr. Storm, it was required reading-and the pages they'd need to finish by tomorrow. (No, Mr. Barton, Sparknotes was not allowed.)

Tony doodled schematics in the blank pages at the back of his book.

He only dimly registered anything anyone else said.


Xavier paused in his explication of Mrs. Bennett's character. "Yes, Miss Gray?"

"Where's Hank?"

"Mr. McCoy? Why, I don't know. He may be ill. Or perhaps still on vacation. It is only the first day back. I expect he'll return later this week."

"Yeah... Okay."

"As I was saying..."

Tony made it through third period the same way he did the first two, and when lunch rolled around he shouldered his backpack and bought a small coffee and a bag of chips.

Sipping lightly, he left the commons and slipped through closing doors to the back of the school.

No food or drink allowed, the sign on the tech labs said.

Tony pushed inside and set his coffee down on the edge of a counter.

It was quiet, the clamor of other students muted by several meters of empty halls. All Tony could hear was the hum of machinery and the buzzing of circuits. He sat down and exhaled properly for the first time in hours.

Light clacking came from across the room. Bruce Banner was typing at one of the computers, glasses balanced haphazardly on his nose. He glanced up and gave Tony a small wave, pushing messy curls off his forehead. Tony hesitated, returned the wave, and Bruce worked unobtrusively.

Ah, the beauties of tactful people.

Just because Tony wasn't one, didn't mean he couldn't appreciate them.

He plugged his data drive in and brought up a sim, adjusting the proportions with one hand while picking up chips with the other. Focus.

The door banged open.

"That's not allowed-" A teacher started, reaching for his food. Then she saw his face and stopped, pulling her hand back. "Lunch ends in twenty minutes, Mr. Stark."


She left as quickly as she'd come.

Tony stared at the swinging door for a moment, his jaw tight, and considered dumping the coffee across the keyboard.

But then he wouldn't have any coffee, and it didn't make sense to punish innocent technology for... other things.

He looked back up at the screen.

"There you are..." Tony set to work repairing a bug, finishing the last of his chips. Even eating that much made his stomach start to churn. He ignored it, resting his chin on his hand. His fingers traced absently over the healing scar along his jaw, as he adjusted the joints of the arm piece and lost himself in the details.

The bell rang out.

Tony flinched, stumbling backward off his seat with wild eyes.

"Hey, you alright?" Banner scurried over, bending to look at him. "Hello?"

For several rapid heartbeats, he was somewhere else entirely, the world far away. Then Banner's face came into focus, and Tony nodded quickly.

"I-Yeah, perfect." His breathing was ragged as he rubbed his face, pushing himself up without taking Banner's offered assistance. He shoved his hands into his pockets to hide their shaking. "...Thanks."

Banner gave a nod, and a worried look. "Any time."

Tony threw his trash away, retrieved his data, and fled like he was being chased.

This really, really sucked.

Fourth period ended and Tony pushed out through the front doors of the school. It was chilly, his breath fogging up and his shoes slipping over frosted cement.

He checked twice to make sure his hoodie was zipped to his neck, adjusting the thick, dark fabric carefully.

His backpack dug into his shoulders as he took the stairs two at a time, hurrying around the corner and down the block to where a nondescript black car waited for him.

He slid into the back seat, leaning his head back and closing his eyes.

Day one.