So this is my second (published) foray into the Avengers fandom. Pretty much it happened when I was in a Panda Express and randomly thought of the phrase "stark raving mad." After that, I just couldn't walk away without writing a crazy!Tony AU.
He can't scream anymore. Oh yes, Yinsen, this has been an important week, because he's still alive and he doesn't want to be. He's never going to drink water again. Or look at red juice. Or eat meat. Or smell cooking meat. Or…
Tony tries to take a deep breath and actually think. Then they put his head under again, there's water in his lungs and even if there wasn't water all over his face he'd be wet, just below his eyes. When they pull him out again he's heaving breaths and they don't hesitate to shove him at someone else. Probably the man with the knives—
The place next to his jawbone, just under his left ear, explodes with pain. Tony screams again (funny, he thought he couldn't). Apparently this is the man with the branding irons. It seems unnatural, that heat can hurt so much on a place that was just wet.
He's sobbing uncontrollably, and when the man releases him he collapses to the floor, not bothering to try to stand. They kick him, not hard enough to break his ribs because he still needs to be able to move, but it certainly bruises. He's still sobbing.
Then he starts to laugh.
He doesn't sleep for hours, just lies there with his eyes open. Yinsen continues to work, background noise that tells Tony it's okay, because Yinsen won't stop until their torturers come again.
A slight pause. "Tony, you need sleep," Yinsen reminds him gently, and goes back to work.
So eventually, he does drift off, but Tony still doesn't think his eyes close. He's smiling and he doesn't know why.
There's hallucinogens, too, sometime, but Tony has enough trouble remembering what's real and what's not that he ends up disregarding pretty much everything but Yinsen and pain.
He can't remember why he wants to get out; he just wants this to be over. Then he looks at Yinsen and thinks Gulmira. Yinsen has someone he needs to live for, even if Tony is the man who pretends to have everything when he really has nothing except pieces of his mind that he doesn't think quite fit together anymore.
So he builds the suit for Yinsen. Tony's only wearing it because, well, he's the one with the battery in his chest. (The first time he looks down at his arc reactor, pokes it, and laughs, Yinsen gives him a worried look Tony doesn't quite understand and says that they need to get out of here as soon as possible, which, yeah, duh?)
He keeps the little pieces of his shattered mind herded close together, for Yinsen.
When Yinsen coughs out that he has no family in Gulmira, lips red with blood, and breathes his last breath—
Something crucial inside Tony snaps.
He was supposed to die in the explosion of all the weapons. Then the armor started heating up and it started feeling like the brands and he just panicked, okay?
Will you just let him die now? (Living was the accident.)
He pries the makeshift brand off himself and walks. And walks. And walks.
He sees a helicopter, but he's not really sure it's there. It lands in front of him and people get out, all dressed up and hey, that'd be nice, he's only got a shredded tank top and his pants, now.
Maybe he lets out a whimper, he's not quite sure, and he falls to his knees. He's thinking something like ohmygodjustshootmepleasepleaseplease but none of it's coming out of his mouth. A man with dark skin comes forward and he's smiling, not like Yinsen with his lips but with his teeth like the men that hurt him.
Except Tony's gone all numb so he doesn't move.
"How was the fun-vee?" the man asks, voice rough with some kind of emotion but he doesn't have an accent like the men, so maybe he is okay. Except—Tony laughs, because fun-vee?
He doesn't remember.
The man drops to his knees and wraps Tony in his arms—what? what? Oh, right, it's a hug—and Tony connects a few shattered pieces.
Rhodey. It's Rhodey. He came.
So Tony lets the hug happen and doesn't scream when it presses against a brand on his back.
Tony doesn't let go of Rhodey the whole way home. The arc reactor apparently cuts into Rhodey's arm that Tony's strangling, because he gives Tony a look, pries him off a little bit, and asks what's in his chest.
He just laughs with his mouth still closed and shakes his head. Rhodey's unsure but lets it go. For now.
But Tony doesn't let go during the medical examination, either. The reactor is his.
(He doesn't growl, though. He thinks.)
Tony finds Pepper there, waiting for him. Somehow Rhodey got Tony into a suit and he's not sure how, but that's good. He leaves the wheelchair behind too. The brand on his foot hurts like hell when he steps on it but he's lived through hell, so he takes it.
Pepper's crying. "Tears of joy," she warns him, and something about job hunting. Tony smiles at her because for some reason he can't help but think he's supposed to.
She smiles, too, with her lips like Yinsen and not with her teeth. Oh, good.
He wants a cheeseburger. So he gets one. Happy really is happy, now, and he smiles with his lips too.
He also wants to completely avoid the press, which he also does. Mostly by pretending they're hallucinations, which he's more used to than is probably healthy. He's pretty sure they're actually real, though. He doesn't ask. For some reason he thinks that wouldn't be good.
When he gets home a disembodied voice greets him and he doesn't actually feel very crazy because of it. Disembodied voice is normal, here. "Alright, I'm good now," he tells Pepper, and locks her out of his workshop.
"JARVIS?" he asks the ceiling.
"I trust your travels were… enlightening?" the AI says, voice twisted with some heavy, mechanized emotion Tony probably should be able to recognize but doesn't.
Tony just laughs. And doesn't stop, not until he hyperventilates and throws up the cheeseburger he's eaten and whatever bile his body feels like it can spare. Then just breaths and listens to JARVIS give him a comprehensive scan of how well his body's still put together and finally falls asleep.
Doesn't wake up for thirty-six hours, but that's good, this time.
"I'm not making any more weapons," Tony says, and the press explodes.
Obie takes over, tries to sooth ruffled feathers. "Luckily, Stark Industries is not one man, so—"
Tony laughs, just a little, and grins with too many teeth. "Actually, I was using the royal We, except spelled with and I, and I'd very much like to see SI make cutting-edge technology without me backing R&D up."
He didn't even have to steal the microphone—everyone seems to hear him anyway. Whaddya know.
He's still Tony Stark, even if he feels like a puppet going through the motions because for some reason his head doesn't fit in his body anymore.
He laughs himself to sleep at night, touching his brands over and over just to see if they're real. Some nights his eyes are dry, some nights they're not.
"Sir, you are quite dehydrated," JARVIS tells him. Tony rolls his eyes, not bothering to roll his eyes at the ceiling. JARVIS has told him that already, but the headache really doesn't matter.
But JARVIS is smarter than most assume. This time, Pepper's in the room. She pulls a worried Pepper-face and gets him a glass of water that Tony can't look at, because—water.
When he doesn't take it she sets it on the table, because she knows he doesn't like to be handed things. He laughs. "It's not that, Pep. Ever heard of water boarding?"
Pepper pauses for a beat. As that registers, she pales, takes the glass, and retreats hastily.
But then she comes back, this time with what looks like a McDonald's soft drink, lid and white straw and all. She gives it to him and he takes it, bemused.
"That any better?" she questions, all professional again.
He takes a sip out of the straw and feels the wetness of water in his mouth, his throat, but it's not on his face and he can't even see it. Pepper is definitely the best PA he's ever had—he wants to keep her.
She changes his reactor and he really wants to keep her, because he doesn't think anything can truly faze her. (He wants to try, actually, but he smiles with too many teeth and pretends the thought never crossed his mind, because he refuses to be that broken.)
But when he manages to line up a couple of his broken pieces and squints just right, his head starts to make a little bit of sense. And it says she's safer without him.
"Tony Stark walked into that cave," he tells her, still smiling because that's just what he does, now. "I'm just the pieces that managed to claw their way back out. You're safer if you stay away from me."
Pepper stares at him for a long, long moment. He doesn't know what she sees in his eyes, in his smile, but it makes her swallow and dance back a step. Then she straightens and looks him in the eye—she's wearing those monster shoes that make their gazes level—and asks him, "Are you firing me?"
He hands her the resignation forms. "I'm giving you a way out."
She raises an eyebrow. "Someone has to run your company."
Well. Something like that? Deserves an outright cackle. So Tony obliges.
He cackles every time he almost kills himself testing the pieces of the suit. JARVIS, being the dear fully autonomous AI that only Tony knows he is, makes sure there's some precautions to ensure at least ninety percent survival odds.
Flying? He feels free, free from the little pieces he's left scattered over the globe, and it's just him and adrenaline and JARVIS who he's never trusted more.
The ice reminds him this suit isn't a brand.
The fall reminds him he's alive.
The reboot reminds him he can make it out again.
Pepper gives him a look that's a little horrified, with him or herself he's not quite sure. "I'm dancing with my boss."
Tony smiles with his lips. "Not like that."
Because, maybe, before? Sure. Now? Pepper can't pick up those pieces, and he's going to make sure a resignation form stays on her desk, as a reminder to both of them.
He's not that far gone.
Tony Stark has always been an extraordinary actor, so while Pepper needed a warning and a choice to get clear, he thinks Obie and Rhodey, operating at more of a distance, can just deal.
Until—"I locked you out of the company," Obie says. The man Tony used to trust smiles with his teeth.
Tony gives him a good long look and chuckles softly. Obie looks at him funny for it, but he can't see all the pieces and how the 'priorities' one was shattered so bad it's never going to go back together, especially not the way it was. He doesn't care about the company. He cares about Yinsen, who he tried so hard to keep the pieces together for.
"You were probably right to do it," Tony says, and smiles with all of his teeth. Holds it long enough for Obie to look distinctly uncomfortable, then turns abruptly away and slips into the public persona that's always been fake, so it's still not hard.
He hears the word Gulmira on the news and doesn't even have to think. He'll probably regret wrecking the TV later, but Pepper will just buy him a new one.
His grin is maniacal. Good thing the Iron Man is so scowly all the time. JARVIS kindly cuts out the speakers during the actual maniacal laughter part, because that's just bad publicity. Taking out a tank feels good, and the explosion doesn't even heat the armor. (He's very careful about designing cooling systems.)
Flying back, Rhodey calls him up.
He snickers. "Call your puppies off, Rhodey. I just got to blow up a tank, my quota's about filled for the day."
Rhodey pauses. "Stark," he says, and that's how Tony can tell he's angry, "are you drunk?"
He can't stop a smile. It's a good think Rhodey can't see him. "Nope, not since the fun-vee." (He remembers that now.) "I'm just a little, you know."
"Adrenaline junkie?" Rhodey says wryly, then: "Holy shit, are you in that suit?"
A laugh is the only reply.
"Tony, are you insane?"
"Stark raving mad," Tony singsongs, and smiles wider, just with his lips. He likes the sound of that. It's funny.
"You are definitely drunk," Rhodey growls. "Get out of there before someone gets blown up that shouldn't." And then he hangs up.
Tony shrugs. If Rhodey doesn't want the truth…
Pepper has to take a few deep breaths before she sets out to Stane's office, but go she does. Tony really likes her. He's going to keep her forever (as long as she lets him).
Obie steals his arc reactor. "It's a pity you had to involve Miss Potts. I would have preferred she lived."
Tony can't even talk but his breath is coming in breathy little huffs of laughter as Obie leaves. He doesn't think Obie realizes what kind of hornet's nest he's just lit on fire—because the thing about his pieces? Is that his priorities got irrevocably shattered, or maybe fixed.
Pepper is not going to die, and Tony will kill anyone who stands in his way.
Proof that Tony Stark has a heart is proof indeed, even if it's little pieces now, like the little pieces of shrapnel. He fights Obie, cackling pretty much the whole time and barely able to think through ObieI'mgoingtokillyou. This time, JARVIS doesn't cut the cackling.
"Did you really break so far?" Obie booms.
Oh yes, Tony shattered. And every sharp edge is going to cut into this monster like they cut into Tony's hands when he tries to scoot them back together, bloodstained and stinging palms.
"Pepper, do it!"
"But you'll die!"
Tony watches Iron Monger wrestle with the missiles. "I think I already did," he says quietly.
She does it.
He wasn't supposed to survive that time either, okay?
(Why is he still alive?)
Tony pauses in his total bullshitting of the press. Looks down at his note cards. Up at the suited Agent with a complacent lip-smile, the one who saved Pepper and is standing passively in the back of the room.
Smiles with his teeth, few enough to look sane but none the less a challenge. "I am Iron Man."
The room explodes and he feels—he feels—
Oh hey. He found another piece.
Blood toxicity rising. Tony shakes out his hand after pricking the finger and shakes his head, laughing quietly and maybe a touch hysterically. First his mind, now his body, everything's failing him—
But he has Pepper and JARVIS. They're not going to fail him.
Pepper is scolding him about wanting a Natalie Rushman. Tony shakes his head.
"She smiles with her teeth."
She blinks slowly.
"Obie smiled with his teeth," Tony explains, but when Pepper pales alarmingly he adds, "but so does Rhodey. Maybe it's okay."
Natalie's eyes are too wide, too, so he doesn't think it is, but he's not going to tell Pepper that. He'll just watch.
It's nice to not have to pretend to be sane around Pepper. So nice that he starts doing it in public too, which is fun so maybe he overdoes it a little. Natalie is watching him carefully, and when she thinks he's not watching her eyes aren't so wide, either. But it's Rhodey that confronts him.
"Are you insane?" he practically hisses.
Tony throws his head back and laughs. "Honey bear, I told you already. Stark raving mad." He giggles, then unbuttons his shirt so he can replace the arc reactor core. Rhodey seems ready to say something else, but gets sidetracked.
"What's with the high-tech crossword puzzle?" he asks warily.
He shrugs. "Palladium poisoning. I'm dying." He pulls out the arc reactor and mutters "beat still my heart" as he replaces the core.
When he looks up again Rhodey's staring at him with a look something akin to horror on his face. Tony blinks, then smiles (with just his lips, because now that he thinks about it, he likes Rhodey).
"I have Pepper and JARVIS," Tony says simply. "They won't let me do anything really homicidal."
"Besides the suit?" Rhodey asks pointedly.
Tony snorts. "JARVIS has full override on the suit, sugar, and he's not the Skynet type."
Rhodey gives him a long look. "What about the day one or both of them is gone for good?"
This time Tony doesn't try to hide the teeth in his smile. "Then someone deserves to die," he says matter-of-factly.
Rhodey leans his hands on the table. "Will you let me join them?" he asks Tony, oh-so-seriously, and Tony just kind of cocks his head and thinks for a minute.
Then shrugs. "Sure. Until I think you mess up and JARVIS or Pep agrees with me."
"I'm making you CEO," Tony says.
Pepper eyes him. "I already run your company."
"And now you'll get paid for it." He continues putting together different compounds: there has to be something that can replace palladium…
"Tony. What's going on?"
Insane, adrenaline junkie: no difference on a racetrack.
Until Vanko. Happy says, "Is he insane?" and Tony doesn't know which guy wearing an arc-reactor powered suit he's talking about.
(It well might be true about both.)
"Palladium on the chest," Vanko says, smirking slightly. "A terrible way to die."
Tony laughs slowly, hauntingly. "Oh, trust me, buddy," he says. "There are much worse ways." He's survived a couple.
He and Rhodey take out half the glass in the Malibu house and Rhodey steals the suit. JARVIS evidently agrees with him, not Tony, because Rhodey doesn't get locked in place.
Tony lies on the floor and laughs, because, yeah, apparently Rhodey gets to decide if he's being homicidal or not too. Not that anyone died, but—
Is suicidal an intervention-worthy thing too?
"Yes, sir," JARVIS says, sounding upset. "Suicide is positively out of the question."
Oops. Tony hadn't actually meant to say that out loud.
He's always wanted to eat a donut inside a bigger donut. He just didn't think he'd actually be in the bigger donut, but hey, whatever works, right?
Natalie Rushman is actually Natasha Romanov and she smiles with her lips, but Tony swears he can still see every one of her teeth.
"You are my greatest creation."
Tony laughs himself sick. "Sorry, dad, I guess you're not here to fix your creation back up. Sucks to be you, with a legacy like me."
It tastes like metal and… coconut. Not what he expected.
JARVIS isn't happy that he just shoved an untested metal in his chest, but Pepper's out there, and no one is allowed to hurt Pepper, not even (especially not) Tony.
They're on a roof and this, Tony thinks, is when he would kiss her. If all his little glass shards wouldn't start tearing her apart if he did.
"Get a roof," Rhodey says, even though they don't kiss, and when Pepper blushes Tony cackles and starts flirting with Rhodey instead. After all, he's not going to take Tony seriously.
Justin Hammer, the useless idiot, tries to pin blame on anyone but himself and even brings Pepper into it. Practically a fatal mistake. Tony steps forward; Pepper simply places a hand on his arm.
Well. For her he can stand down.
"…textbook narcissism—ah, there it is, apparently I'm clinically insane." Tony grins up at Fury. The man's face is flat. "Obviously you can't have an insane superhero on your boy band team so are we done here?"
"Iron man: yes. Wait, yes? I thought I was the crazy—oh. Tony Stark: not recommended. So you approve me, but you don't approve me. I, I like it. But still not on your boy band. Fine, I'll just go home and cry into a pillow or something. Ben and Jerry's, maybe? I'll ask Pepper."
Agent intervenes there. "Actually, we'd like to keep you on as a consultant."
Tony stares at him; tips his head to see if tilting this picture will make it make any more sense. Surprisingly, it does. He grins with his teeth. "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer?"
"We'd also like to have you speak to a professional to have your records updated by a certifiable psychiatrist."
Pepper picks up on the second ring. "What did you do this time?"
"They won't let me play with them. I'm a consultant, though. They want me diagnosed by a psychiatrist. What should I pretend to have?"
Pepper pauses. "Dissociative identity disorder?" she suggests. "I don't think even you could pull that off."
Coulson goes to Pepper, not Tony, with the diagnosis after three months and Pepper sighs and shakes her head sadly. "Phil," she says, "I know you're trying. But Tony's still a genius. And he seriously has never given any signs of having anything resembling DID."
To the public he is a highly eccentric billionaire and Iron Man.
To those a bit more in the know he's officially cracked, but too powerful to boot out of the way, and he hasn't actually blown up anything that didn't try blowing him up first, so.
To a highly select group of people, he's still just Tony, even if he won't drink water if he can see it and will shoot first and ask questions later if his people are being hurt.
And then Agent comes by just after Stark Tower has been lit up.
Tony's not the only crazy person to worry about anymore.
Pepper leaves town. Leaves the country, actually—Tony isn't going to be able to think clearly (ha, you know, relatively clearly) without her safe.
(They both know exactly why Obie and Vanko had to die.)
Okay, so, Stuttgart, Germany: apparently aliens don't just like America. Tony tells JARVIS to hack the audio feeds for a grand entrance, and it must not be too much of a safety hazard for those actually flying the jet, because JARVIS does.
To the sound of Shoot to Thrill, Tony kicks godly ass.
"Your move, Reindeer Games," Tony says. He smiles at the words said with his suit's voice—he really likes the voice modulator.
Loki puts his hands up, and Tony can swear he sees a hidden smile. With teeth, lots of teeth, because within a minute Tony can tell that his own crazy could take some serious lessons from Loki's crazy. Not that Tony really thinks he needs it.
"Good move. Out of curiosity, Rudolph, what happened to the nose?"
Loki blinks once, slowly, obviously confused. And Captain America—Tony feels like giggling because wow did that ice do him well—shoots him a weird look. Tony doesn't even know if it's the timing or the joke itself that's confusing him; was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer around in the forties?
"Stark," Rogers says. It sounds a bit like an admonition and a bit like a wary introduction, and maybe a bit of something else.
"Capsicle," Tony returns. "America in the flesh, defrosted. Huh. Now I wish I hadn't burned those trading cards." Because he had, when JARVIS first alerted him that Rogers had been recovered (alive), and all the cards had gone up in wisps of smoke, carrying old ghosts of Howard's lectures on all the one hundred and one reasons Tony is not Captain America.
It earns him slightly raised eyebrows, and again Tony can only guess why. Because Tony burned the cards? Because he previously owned the cards? Because such cards even existed? Or maybe it was the popsicle references, though surely they had popsicles in the forties. Didn't they?
"Let's get 'em on board, gentlemen," Romanov says, apparently having wrested back the speaker systems.
Tony stares at Loki, at the teeth-smile he's only half-imagining, and wonders if he should tell them that this is what Loki wants.
They probably already know that, though.
"Hey. Don't touch my stuff."
The second god roars like some kind of charging bull and then charges Tony right up. Four hundred percent capacity—Tony grins like a maniac. Ooh, yeah, let's see what this baby can do now.
Not enough. Blondie just snarls at him and then Rogers hops down into the middle and breaks up the fight, making Tony pout. He totally would've won. He cheers almost immediately when Thor decides to put his hammer down on top of the shield and the resulting force creates a new clearing.
It's silent. Rogers takes a breath to say something and Tony cackles aloud, JARVIS not interrupting the sound. "Unstoppable force, meet the immovable object," he snickers. "Can we take the other one and go now?"
Once actually on the Helicarrier, Tony makes a beeline to the person he very much would like to meet.
"I'm also a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster," he says casually, and takes another sip of water from his straw, only to discover there isn't any there. He waves a random agent over and shoves the cup at her. "Don't push any of the bubbles in," he says.
Apparently that's not enough of an explanation. She stares blankly at the cup.
Coulson leans over, murmurs, "Hydrophobia. Fill it up in another room, bring it back," and the agent does as told.
Banner smiles with his lips—but he does it funny, like he's trying to make it look like he doesn't have teeth at all. And it kind of looks like he's trying not to laugh when he looks at Tony. That's new—usually it's that look that asks why such a psycho is around (Natasha), or the pitying one like they 'understand' his pain (Rogers).
"I understood that reference!" Rogers exclaims, and for a second Tony can see teeth in the usual lip-smile, happy.
"We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto," Tony drawls. "Keep up with the times."
Rogers deflates. Oops. God, Tony hates trying to do anything interpersonal these days. Pepper's so much better at it.
Romanov's staring at Tony, like she'd rather be anywhere but here. Or maybe she'd like him to disappear, and be replaced by a certain someone else.
Banner has got to be the best person since Pepper. Tony pushes, pokes, and generally inserts himself into the personal un-comfort zone of the man who could be the Hulk, and Banner just smiles with no teeth (like they've sunk into his gums) and yields. Not like giving up, but like allowing Tony in.
And then—"I wasn't joking when I said I could smell Loki's crazy."
Tony cocks his head. "Really? Cool. Is it quantifiable?"
"I can smell yours, too." Tony smiles at that. "You're not quite the crazy you pretend to be," Banner says. "Why?"
For a moment Tony just stares. No one's ever noticed. Probably because he won't even let the shrinks try and pin him down. "You know what they say about madmen," Tony says at last. "You don't fight one because they won't stop, not even if revenge isn't worth their time anymore. They can't be stopped. And if they do stop you, when you're laughing instead of screaming, they guess that you can't be hurt anymore."
"Can you?" Banner asks, quietly.
"Can you?" Tony retorts. Then holds out a bag. "Blueberry?"
Banner takes a handful. "You still are crazy, though. Completely."
Tony nods. "Mmhmm."
"A madman in a suit of armor. Take that away and what are you?" Rogers challenges.
"Stark naked," Tony says. He doesn't even have to think, it just comes—he loves his nonexistent brain-to-mouth filter. He hears Banner choke on what Tony thinks is a laugh, or maybe the teeth that aren't in his smile.
Rogers scowls in disgust. "Why are you even here?"
Tony smiled with his teeth. "Because I'm mad. A mad genius. And I like Earth. So I'm going to do something about it. And you want the crazy person on your team, Rogers, trust me, because otherwise I'm…" Tony pauses, cocks his head, still smiling. "Not."
Tony can see Fury in his peripheral, and from the grave look on the man's face, Tony has his fears and reasons pinned to the letter.
Thor has the most adorable lip-smile, when he's trundling around the Helicarrier, following Agent like a confused puppy dog. But the instant he's fighting, his teeth some out again, vicious and happy and glorying in the blood.
Loki is always smiling, always with his teeth, like if he closes his lips the teeth will cut them open. Tony understands that—it's like the pieces of his mind, but worse, because Loki's crazy is taken to godly proportions.
Barton doesn't really smile, but Tony catches the merest glimpse of him as he tries to fix the rotors and the flying monkey agent has the barest trace of a grin on his face, lip-smile style. It's strange—Tony's never seen someone fighting with anything but a teeth-smile, besides Rogers and Agent, who don't really smile at all when they fight.
Another arrow is loosed from his bow and Tony realizes Barton's teeth are the ones he shoots.
"Well, that was disastrous," Tony says, popping up his faceplate as he strolls into a room. It wasn't that bad; Banner will survive the fall, and he'll come to help when they're ready for him.
There's a morose air to the room, though—Romanov is standing at Barton's shoulder, the archer seated, and Rogers turns abruptly to Tony as he enters the room, pain etched into his face.
"How you make light of this situation?" Rogers growls. Tony blinks. Sure, people died, but it's not like—
Barton's shoulders are hunched over a set of bloodstained cards.
"Those are Agent's," Tony says distantly. Barton looks up at him, jaw tight.
Iron Man's faceplate slams down. Fire is rushing through Tony's veins, pulsing to the beat of a name: Yinsen. "Who wants to come kill Loki with me?"
"New York isn't really practical, though, why—"
"Loki is insane and attention seeking, Gramps, and who else on this team has that psychological profile? Trust me. He's going to New York."
And, well, Tony isn't wrong.
Tony lists off all the people Loki's pissed off that he really shouldn't have and ends with his bracelets on and a drink in hand. He stops in front of Loki and grins with all his teeth. He's sure Loki, of all people, gets that message.
"And you know what they say about us madmen, Loki," he says softly. "You don't want to fight one."
Loki grins with even more teeth: "Then that's too bad they'll be fighting you, too, now…"
Tony says something about performance issues—Loki glares.
"Where is your heart?" he snaps.
"I don't need one."
Pepper's proof that Tony Stark has a heart—isn't enough anymore.
Tony's blood is singing and he's never felt more alive. Then there's a nuke coming into New York, and he has a choice. The armor is probably the only thing in the world fast enough to outrun a nuclear bomb, so as far as dying is concerned it's him and everyone else or not him, but everyone else.
Or him, and not everyone else.
"Stark. You know that's a one-way trip."
But now Tony's rocketing upwards like a backwards shooting star, carrying a wish on his back for Earth. All his pieces have fallen to the cement, far below, all except for two: the piece that says people don't have to die.
And the piece that says he wasn't supposed to survive.
"It always is, Captain," Tony whispers.
"Sir. Shall I call Miss Potts?" JARVIS wonders.
Tony stares at Pepper's face in the HUD. "No," he says. She doesn't need him. She never has.
He comes awake with a jolt and can't see where he is for a long moment. Then he sees Hulk, grinning with his teeth, and lets out a startled laugh. "Please tell me nobody kissed me."
"No," Rogers says, because he still hasn't learned when Tony's questions are hypothetical. But his face is so relieved that Tony lets it slide. "You, Stark, are one crazy son of a gun."
"Stark raving mad," Tony singsongs. "Although, for the record, Capsicle, feel free to kiss me awake next time." He winks and enjoys the spectacle of Rogers blushing and being uncertain if he should punch Tony, laugh, or ignore him.
He chooses the last, which Tony is secretly grateful for, and they all go for shwarma, in varying states of utterly exhausted while Tony has this weird energy like a warm fuzzy has burrowed its way into his arc reactor. Because, well, he wasn't supposed to survive this time either, wasn't supposed to defy the rules of a one-way trip, he was supposed to die.
But this time, as he looks around the table, he thinks maybe, just this once, it's okay he didn't.
And whaddya know, there's another piece.
Pepper runs on four inch heels to practically strangle him in a hug when she comes home. "I didn't think you were coming back," she says shakily.
He didn't either, but he doesn't say so. Just hugs her for much longer than is probably socially acceptable and breaths in the scent of strawberry-scented shampoo (it's their joke). He doesn't want to let her go again, but he does. He always does, and tells himself he always will.
Bruce (it's Bruce now, not Banner anymore, that makes Tony unspeakably happy) gives him the eye. "So, you and Potts?"
Tony shakes his head. "No." He doesn't explain. Hasn't even tried to make Pepper understand, so he won't attempt with Bruce.
But then, Bruce doesn't need him to explain. He just gives a little melancholy lip-smile and nods.
Tony remembers tales of a certain Dr. Ross. Yes, Bruce understands, more than anyone, why people like them can't let anyone get close enough to be burned.
Because that will burn away whatever human is left of them, too.
Bruce stays in his Tower. After about three weeks with nothing blowing up Tony wants more, so he invites the whole boy band—plus Natasha, because they probably do need some womanly influences in their lives.
He cackles aloud at the thought of Natasha being a womanly influence and Bruce barely spares him a glance. They're probably getting to know each other a little too well.
It takes some convincing to get everyone there, some more than others.
Barton is practically chomping at the bit to get out of SHIELD headquarters, likely from the funny looks all the agents shoot at him, like he's going to go all evil again because they stepped wrong. Tony could tell him that he'll get used to those looks, eventually, but JARVIS thought that wouldn't exactly help, so Tony kept his mouth shut. (Most people probably don't need an AI to tell them how to be functionally human. Most people didn't spend their sanity on surviving a cave for three months.)
Romanov comes mostly for Barton, Tony thinks. Either way, she's scary and Tony likes that. Maybe, if she showed any signs of actually being interested, Tony would let something happen there. She's the kind of woman that makes Tony think that no matter how close she is when he combusts into flames, she wouldn't be so much as singed. Maybe she knows that too, and that's why she lets herself be dragged into the Tower.
Rogers gives in after Tony stalks him around the neighborhood for two weeks and brings the paparazzi down on them. It's a dirty trick, but Tony can't help but pay Rogers back for all the pitying looks. Just because he's broken doesn't mean he needs to be fixed (or even that he can be).
Thor is the easiest. He comes down to Earth again a few months later and says Loki has been rightfully imprisoned and will not be released in any of their lifetimes. Then Tony wraps an arm around his shoulder and tells him there's a room for him at the Tower that's stocked with coffee and Pop-tarts. That's really all it takes there.
But there's someone missing, Tony thinks.
Tony finds the missing someone in SHIELD's medical bay. For almost fifteen minutes he just stares at the security footage, watching that body breathe, not entirely sure he's not just delusional, and then he finally mans up enough to ask JARVIS if he's imagining Agent lying peacefully and very much alive.
Something dangerous glints in Tony's eye. He is so done being lied to and for this, someone's head is going to roll.
Fury looks at his phone and ignores a call. Less than five seconds later there's a text that opens itself to be displayed on the screen:
You want to pick up.
The phone rings again, same number, and Fury answers with a throb of foreboding. "Stark."
Stark—doesn't actually answer. But every light in the Helicarrier goes out and suddenly they're plummeting down through the sky. There's a split second of heart-stopping terror before everyone starts running around like ants, trying to figure out whatever went wrong but there's not going to be time—
The fall slows and stops, the lights still off but the engines on again. No one knows what's happening. Hall lights flicker on and computer monitors are restored exactly to what they were. All the agents are now high on adrenaline and there is absolutely no one to fight, except maybe the crazy-ass bastard on the other end of Fury's line that's probably to blame.
"That was a warning," Stark says pleasantly. "Lie to me again and it won't stop. You'll just keep falling. I expect Agent Phillip Coulson in my penthouse on Saturday at noon so we can have a nice little chat. In person."
"You almost killed every man on this ship," Fury snarled. "You don't get to make demands."
"I'm the madman," Stark tells him, almost cheerfully, before his voice drops into a register more obviously threatening. "You don't get to negotiate, Dread Pirate Roberts. Yay or nay? I can always let you fall again."
Fury has a moment of vertigo when he wonders why he ever let this batshit man on his ship, then remembers the nuke and the fact that he was, actually, so irrevocably screwed at the time that it was the best option and it worked.
Loki screwed them all over in more ways than one, Fury thinks. The Avenger Initiative should never have been green-lighted, especially with Stark on it.
"Understood," he says, and hangs up.
Barton does his sniper-freeze thing when he sees Tony chatting with Coulson and Romanov looks like she's going to kill someone.
Tony smiles. "So, Fury lies like a lying liar."
That—shouldn't explain as much as it does.
Pepper seems to be the authority on Tony's unique brand of… altered mentality, so when she comes by Steve has a question for her.
"Tony said I smile with my lips? Is that significant or anything?"
Pepper's eyes widen. "Oh! I forgot, you don't know about that bit." So she explains that smiles are how Tony measures threats. Natasha almost always smiles with her teeth, which means that she's almost always ready to kill someone if she has to. Steve, though, smiles with his lips unless he's actually fighting someone, which implies Tony thinks of him as something of a very strong teddy bear.
"He also does it consciously with his own smiles," Pepper says. "If he smiles with his lips, he's trying not to be threatening, or he's just joking, or he doesn't really want to smile but there's nothing to be defensive about, either. He smiles with his teeth when he's talking to someone he doesn't like or doesn't trust—you've probably noticed he does that to Director Fury. He smiles with his teeth while he's fighting, as well, or if he's making a threat he fully intends to make good on if he has to."
They start noticing after that. Apparently there is a method to Tony's madness, much of the time.
It's only a matter of time before someone realizes JARVIS doesn't, as a matter of fact, necessarily take all his orders from Tony and is quite capable of making up his own. There's a few uncomfortable moments there as everyone wonders exactly how safe Stark Tower actually is.
But Tony actually tries to explain, because he likes the Avengers and doesn't want to have to hurt them because they try to take JARVIS from him.
Barton, at least, gets a kick out of the fact that JARVIS is pretty much keeping Tony from going Skynet, rather than the other way around.
And no one mentions the chill they get when Tony makes it clear that JARVIS is his—and they all know what happens to those who try to hurt what's his.
Fury calls in the Avengers for a supernatural terrorist attack; it's the usual, and they're all ready to go, but Fury is… hesitating.
"Sir?" Captain says (it's Steve now, actually, but when they fight he's 'Captain' again).
"Stark," Fury says finally, "they have Miss Potts."
The team freezes as Iron Man's faceplate slams down; Tony's on the warpath.
"What do you want us to do?" Captain asks Tony, because there's no way Iron Man's taking orders when one of his is in danger.
"Stay out of my way."
They do. Staring at the wreckage of what used to be the terrorist's headquarters, they're glad they did.
Tony is standing to the side, arms wrapped around a dirty and scared but (mercifully for everyone in the crossfire) unharmed. He's so gentle with her, even in his armor, that it's hard to believe he just decimated an area of about four square miles in under two hours.
He's utterly pacified, acts like nothing happened when they return to the Tower, and no one mentions it. Even Tony, who knows what they're avoiding. Because the scariest part about Tony is how self-aware he is when he's calm. And how little he cares when he's not.
Three years after the Initiative somehow saved Earth, they're all in a heated discussion while Coulson carefully keeps score to the side. Tony and Steve are butting heads, Steve making a face like he's trying not to scowl or smile because neither are really appropriate, while Tony is grinning like Christmas came early.
Then he stops, mid-sentence, and looks around at all of them. When he starts laughing, no one says anything; they still don't know what triggers these things half the time, but Tony tends to share when he's done.
"You've all been promoted," he snickers, after he's done with the all-out cackling.
Natasha raises an eyebrow, but it's Clint who speaks: "To what? We're already superheroes."
Tony spreads his arms and smiles, teeth showing but somehow it looks more like a lip smile—or maybe the threat here just isn't directed at them. "You're mine."
So the Avengers are his, too, and all his pieces are fractured and cracked and so sharp he cuts himself when he looks at them, but—
He thinks most of them are actually there now.