Bad Days

Made of Iron

The blank screen flickered on. Steve was even more hesitant to watch than he was before the first video, but now he was determined to sit through it all. If only to understand Tony better, Steve would endure the rapidly changing perspective he had for his old friend.

After all, Steve thought, Tony was the one who actually had to endure though all of this. Steve was damn sure he was going to watch everything, then start to repair all the hurt he’d caused by his absence.

The video flickered to show a small auditorium filled with people standing and cheering at a raised stage. Standing on the stage with a brilliant smile and bright eyes was Tony Stark. Steve smiled along with the child, his heart warming at the pure elation on young Tony’s face.

Steve had rarely seen the man look so happy, he thought. The young boy might actually be in danger of floating away, Steve chuckled, watching the bouncing youth.

“Which means,” a man announced, his voice magnified by a microphone. “That the first place medal goes to St. Mary’s own…” he paused, turning to Tony and smiling. “Anthony Stark!”

The cheers and applause drowned out the rest of the man’s speech, especially as the whooping and cheering of the woman holding the camera left Steve to cover his ears. Grinning, he heard Peggy Carter shout out, “That’s my Tony! Well done, baby boy!”

At the shout, Steve saw Tony, whose eyes were searching the audience, finally find Peggy in the crowd. Warm eyes sparkled brightly as the young man waved enthusiastically at the camera, his bouncing increasing as a bright gold medal was placed around his neck.

Steve had a silly grin on his face, the warmth pooling in his heart as he relished in the support and appreciation that young Tony was receiving.

After several moments of blinding happiness, the boy’s eyes began to wander from the camera, searching with a hopeful shine in his eyes to the left and right of the camera. Steve’s heart clenched when Tony’s eyes suddenly lost their shine and his little shoulder seemed to slump as his search ended.

The utterly defeated look in the child’s eyes cleared after just a moment – leaving Steve to wonder if it had even been there at all – and Tony was back to waving happily to the camera and smiling.

The camera stayed on Tony for several seconds before suddenly going black. The scene changed then to the sleek interior of a car, the camera focused on Tony, his bright medal hanging around his neck and hands enclosed around a small robot.

“So, young Mr. Stark – genius extraordinaire,” came Peggy’s crisply accented voice, “how does it feel to win first prize in New York’s Bi-Annual Techno-expo?”

Tony giggled and his hold on the robot increased for a moment. Steve’s grin widened at the sound, surprised that Tony could make such a cute noise.

The child’s grin softened a bit and he looked down at the robot. “Do you think Jarvis would be happy?” he asked, his voice quiet.

“Oh baby,” Peggy sighed, her hand coming into frame to stroke Tony’s hair. “Of course he would be. He would be honored to be remembered so.” Tony’s head came up again and he smiled brightly, his eyes slightly wet.

“Then it feels great,” he responded, his grin turning cheeky as he looked at the camera. He turned back to the robot and turned it to face him, his brow furrowing for a moment while he fiddled with some nobs.

With the robot’s back turned to the camera, the four Avengers’ eyes widened at the view. A circular shield covered the robot’s back, its red and white circles surrounding a white star, obviously hand-painted onto the metal.

“Is that?” Clint asked, grinning at the screen.

“Hush,” Natasha hissed, swatting the man. Bruce chuckled, turning to Steve with a small smile. Steve just gulped, pushing down the rising emotion as he gazed at a smaller replica of his shield.

Tony finally pressed something on the robot’s front and grinned. The robot’s head came up and his arms rose before saying, “How may I be of assistance,” in a stiff, robotic voice that held a slight British accent.

“What’s the weather report, Jarvis,” Tony asked, beaming at the robot.

“It is precisely 68 degrees Fahrenheit, sir,” the robot responded.

Steve stared open mouthed at the screen, realizing that he was looking at the first prototype of the current Jarvis.

“Hey!” Clint said, grinning and looking up at the ceiling. “Look, it’s baby Jarvis! You didn’t tell us you were so cute!”

“Thank you, Agent Barton,” the AI responded smoothly, its tone slightly amused. Steve chuckled.

“Tony created an AI at…” he paused, looking back at the screen to gauge Tony’ age. “Ten?”

“Actually, Captain, Jarvis Mark I was not an artificially intelligent robot,” Jarvis explained. “Merely a robot capable of responding to several pre-programmed inquiries, such as weather, time, and date.”

“Still,” Bruce said, “it’s extremely impressive for a child.” Steve nodded fervently, recalling what he was doing as a ten year old.

His attention was drawn back to the video when the view of a large wooden front door appeared and Tony pushed it open to reveal a huge foyer decorated with expensive, elegant taste.

“Mamma,” young Tony called, looking around. The camera jostled as the sound of the front door closed and Peggy called out, “Maria?”

Steve watched as the duo made their way into a vast sitting room, the expensive décor giving the appearance of luxury, but stiffness -- a definitely lack of home and warmth in the perfectly prim and clean space. Definitely not Tony’s style at all, Steve noted, remembering the messy, cluttered space of Tony’s workshop, living room, and bedroom.

“Antony? Peggy?” a soft, accented voice called. The camera turned to show a beautiful woman with olive skin and slightly curly hair walk down the stairs. Steve recognized her from her wedding video – though several years had passed and elegant wrinkles lined the corner of her lips and eyes. “Che cos’é?” she asked, halting her progress to look down at her son. What is it?

Clint whistled appreciatively. “Dude, Tony’s mom was hot.” Natasha rolled her eyes. “And Italian,” Clint added. “Did you know Tony could speak Italian?” he asked Natasha, turning to the assassin. She just shrugged.

“Tony dear has something to show you,” Peggy informed the woman, her voice warm.

“Mamma, incontrare Jarvis!” Tony piped up, his voice giddy. Mommy, meet Jarvis. “Jarvis, tell Mamma what day it is.”

“Today is Friday, October 6,” Jarvis’ mechanical voice replied.

“Questo interessante, Antony,” Maria said, her voice light and disinterested, beginning to retreat back up the stairs, a large phone in her hand. Steve frowned at the woman. ‘That’s interesting’ didn’t come even close to an adequate response to Tony’s achievement in Steve’s humble opinion.

“Aspetta, mamma,” Tony called, stepping closer to the stairs. Wait, mommy.

“Sono occupato, Antony,” she called, waiving a hand softly, retreating up the stairs and pressing the phone to her ear. I’m busy, Anthony.

“Come on, Tony dear,” Peggy said quickly, her hand reaching out again to land on the child’s shoulder, steering him in the opposite direction. “Let’s see if we can’t upgrade Jarvis’ wiring.” Though Steve could tell she was trying to remain cool, there was a harsh, steely edge to her voice.

Tony’s slumped shoulders led the way through another small sitting room, and eventually into a large kitchen. “Jarvis,” Peggy called, “what time is it?”

“It is 6:45pm Eastern Standard Time,” the bot replied evenly. That perked up Tony slightly, as he grinned down at his creation, squeezing it lightly. Then, his eyes brightened even further and he looked up to the camera.

“Let’s show Dad!” he exclaimed, the former energy and excitement capturing the child again. “He just came back this morning, right Aunt Peggy?” The excitement was infectious, and Steve couldn’t help but grin at the bright eyes and hopeful smile.

“Tony,” Peggy said slowly, almost hesitantly. “Your father is likely to be tired.”

“Yeah, but he will want to see Jarvis!” Tony argued, beginning to bounce again. “I can show him my medal.” Steve’s stomach began to squirm as Peggy didn’t respond, nervous at Tony’s expense.

“Let’s go!” Tony said, turning around, leading Peggy and the camera out again. The camera bounced along with Peggy’s strides and the four Avengers got a glance into the famous Stark mansion in all its former grandeur. Finally, they stopped outside a large oak door and watched as Tony rapped his knuckles against it, calling out to his father.

Despite the lack of answer, Tony pushed open the door.

“This isn’t going to end well,” Clint guessed, frowning at the screen. Steve too had a foreboding feeling in his chest, but held his gaze to the television.

The large study was dark, only a small desk lamp illuminating the room and its sole occupant. Howard Stark sat back in his chair, his head in his hands.

“Dad?” Tony asked hesitantly, stepping into the room. “I made something,” he announced, gaining more courage and walking up to his father’s desk. Placing the robot down on the smooth wood, Tony took a deep breath and said, “Dad, this is Jarvis.”

Howard took his head from his hands to look at his son. There were dark circles under his eyes and his face was haggard, his beard untrimmed and displaying a general sense of weariness. His gaze flickered down to the robot and his brow rose.

“Jarvis?” he repeated, his voice empty of any emotion.

“At your service, sir,” the bot replied. That brought at least a flicker of emotion to the man’s face.

“What is this, Anthony?” he asked, looking to his son. “I have things to do.”

“I created him,” Tony explained, clasping his hands behind his back and grinning.

“Tony wont first place in this year’s Techno-Expo, Howard,” Peggy offered from behind the camera. “His design beat several experts and many advanced candidates.”

Howard scoffed, leaning back in his chair and observing the robot on his desk. “This thing won?” Tony’s shoulders drooped again. “What does it even do?”

“Jarvis can respond to several preprogrammed questions with real time answers and can preform automatic updates to his software by himself,” Tony rattled off quickly, his hands clasping and unclasping together behind his back. “I even coded him to have reoccurring sleeping habits!” he added, excitement bubbling up through his voice.

“What good is that?” Howard scoffed.

“I just thought…” Tony said, fumbling. “I thought he would be more human-like that way,” he explained, his voice almost pleading.

“That’s exactly right, dear,” Peggy said quickly. “Isn’t that right, Howard?” she added, lightly, but with a clear you-had-better-agree-with-me-or-so-help-me tone.

Howard gave the camera a weathered look and huffed lightly, but picked up the bot and examined him. “Hmm,” he hummed, observing the workmanship. Tony perked up at the soft sound, his shoulder straightening. The boy looked back toward the camera to grin widely at Peggy, hope and excitement warring for dominance on the young boy’s face.

The man turned the bot around and his face darkened as he observed the hand-painted shield. “What is this?” he hissed, glaring accusingly at the robot.

Tony frowned in confusion for a moment. “It’s Captain’s shield,” he said.

“I can see that,” Howard spat, glaring now at his son. “But I can’t imagine why it would be plastered on the back on such a ridiculous thing,” he continued.

Tony gaped at his father, his frown accompanied by quivering lips. “I wanted…I thought, well…” Tony stammered, a blush now creeping up his neck. The camera jostled around a moment before it was set on its side, the room turning 90 degrees and Peggy entering the frame, coming to stand next to Tony.

“Jarvis is going to be with me all the time,” Tony continued, wringing his hands together again. “And I wanted a little bit of the Captain too…” Tony’s voice faltered as the blush intensified before breaking eye contact with Howard.

Howard stood up quickly, pushing the chair back and startling the two -- Tony jumping a bit and Peggy’s shoulders tensing minutely, her hand flickering to her side.

“You think your pathetic little science experiment is good enough to wear the shield?” his voice boomed. “You had the audacity to cover that useless piece of junk with the symbol of Captain America – the greatest icon and hero America has ever seen?” Howard’s voice was edging on the side of hysterical now, his hands gesticulating vehemently as he raved.

Steve wanted to punch the man. So what if Tony painted his shield onto the robot? Such an advanced piece of technology was worthy of the shield, even more so knowing that Tony made it, Steve mused, glaring at the screen.

“You dare disgrace Steve’s image with this piece of junk?” Howard continued, his eyes wild and dilated.

“Howard Stark,” Peggy’s low voice warned, her grip tightening on Tony’ shoulder. “Calm down right now,” she commanded.

“Nothing is worthy of carrying the shield except Steven Rogers!” Howard shouted, hysteria woven in his tone.

At this, Peggy grasped both Tony’s shoulders and pushed the youth toward the door, whispering quietly in his ear.

“No,” Howard yelled, coming around the side of the desk and making his way toward the pair. Steve’s hand clenched into fists as the man moved. Beside him, Bruce mirrored his motions.

“No,” Howard repeated, taking hold of Tony. “The boy needs to learn some respect,” he hissed, succeeding in turning Tony around. “Nothing,” he hissed, lowering his head to glare at Tony in the eyes, “is worthy of Captain America. Especially some scrap metal created by a worthless excuse of a –“

In one smooth motion, Peggy Carter pulled Tony from Howard’s grip and punched the man square in the nose, a loud crack echoing through the study.

Steve gaped, Bruce gasped, and Clint gave a loud whoop! “Now, that’s my kind of woman!”

The humor disappeared quickly, however, as they turn their attention back to the television.

Howard Stark wiped away the blood trailing from his nose with a sneer. “Get out,” he said, voice low and dangerous. “And don’t come back.”

“You can’t kick me out, Stark,” Peggy hissed.

“I can and I will,” he retorted, moving to clamp a hand down on Tony’s shoulder. Steve felt his stomach clench as Tony flinched. “You will leave my house this instant,” Howard continued, squeezing Tony’s shoulder in silent threat. Peggy glared.

“She won’t leave,” Clint said, eyes wide. “She can’t leave Tony.”

Steve just watched as Peggy contemplated, her brow furrowed and her fists clenched.

“If you enjoy your home, current bank account, and your status as a free woman,” Howard hissed vehemently, “then I suggest you turn around this moment.”

“Aunt Peggy,” Tony whispered, his arm reaching out. The sound utterly broke Steve’s heart and he felt tears gather.

“If you know what’s good for you,” Howard sneered, tightening his hold further, causing Tony to flinch again, “you will leave this house right now.”

Peggy just stared, and Steve could see her brain working, trying to find a solution. Finally, Peggy closed her eyes and Steve knew.

Peggy Carter knelt down and kissed Tony lightly on the forehead, her eyes scrunched closed. “I love you, baby boy,” she whispered quietly. “And I’m so proud of you.” Opening her eyes, she gazed at Tony for a second longer before standing swiftly and walking out of the frame.

“No!” Clint yelled, standing and pulling at his hair. “What is she doing?”

Part of Steve agreed with Clint – how could Peggy leave when she was all Tony had? But another part – the part that knew how much damage a man like Howard Stark could do when pressed – knew she made the right choice.

Tony wrestled in his father’s grip, his voice calling out desperately, “Aunt Peggy!” before letting loose a soft sob. The child gasped, fear flashing in his eyes, and quickly wiped at his face, stiffening his shoulders and closing down his face.

“What was that?” Howard asked, his voice low and dangerous. Tony just held himself stiff under his father’s hands. “Were those tears?

Tony shook his head violently in denial. Howard spun the boy around, bending down to reach eye level, and brought both hands to the side of Tony’s neck – the boy flinching minutely. Steve ached at the sight.

“Stark men are made of iron.”

Steve actually growled at the screen as he watched Tony gulp, straighten his shoulders, and ground his jaw. The child was struggling to cover the tidal wave of emotion, but all the physical control did nothing to wipe away the utter misery swimming in the depths of Tony Stark’s eyes.

“But,” Tony whispered, his voice hoarse. “Aunt Peggy –“

“Quiet!” Howard shouted, giving Tony a quick shake. “That woman is never coming back!”

This cracked the fragile resistance Tony had created, shattering the carefully blank façade with a wave of tears. Tony tried to cut off the soft sob with a sharp inhale, but the tears kept coming and the child brought both hands up to cover his face.

At the sight of his son’s tears, Howard lost all semblance of control. The four Avengers watched in open-mouthed horror as the man pushed away from Tony and began tearing up his office – sliding files and papers off the desk with force, backhanding the two containers of pens, and chucking the cord phone against the wall.

“ABSOLUTELY WORTHLESS…WEAK…PATHETIC EXCUSE FOR A STARK…” The man couldn’t form whole sentences, instead he just threw insults at his son, who still stood near the door, tears running down his face.

Howard kept a steady stream of words, but Steve could only focus on the child now huddled into himself, his hands still covering his face. It struck him then that he’d seen that posture on the man once before.

Fury had just thrown Phil’s bloodied trading cards on the table and Tony had walked out, snarky words thrown over his shoulder as he made a quick exit. But as Steve followed him, prepared to chastise the man for his insensitivity, he had caught the sight of the him down a deserted hall. Tony Stark had folded in on himself, shoulders coming forward and hands covering his face as he leaned again the wall of the empty corridor.

The parallel sent Steve spiraling down further into grief and…god the guilt. It ate away at him more than the dark depression and loss of his friends ever did. What have I done? he repeated, the words forming a mantra in his mind as he watched young Tony Stark huddle by the door to his father’s office.

“ – and this thing.” Howard’s vicious tone brought Steve from his self-deprecating thoughts. He looked up to see Howard grab the robot from Tony’s grasp, the boy letting out a small sob as he lurched forward in protest.

Pathetic,” Howard spat, tearing off one of the bot’s metallic arms. Tony whimpered. The sound brought pain for Steve, the corners of his eyes prickling. He blinked.

The man took apart Tony’s robot piece by piece, throwing the bits down onto the floor at Tony’s feet. The boy just stood, dejected and morose, his shoulder slumped and eyes brimming with tears.

Finally, Howard tore off the shield attached to the back. Tony stepped forward, reaching out and whimpering a soft, “Jarvis.”

“If you want to be useful,” Howard spat the last word, his face contorting with a fierce mixture of rage and pain. “Make something great. Make something worthwhile. Making something to find Steve. Then maybe you can come in here expecting praise.”

Tony reached out slowly, hesitantly, and took the shield from his father’s hands before cradling it to his chest. The image blurred, confusing Steve for a moment, before he realized his tears had eclipsed his vision. Blinking, his vision cleared as warm tears flowed down his cheeks, and he wiped them away with the back of his hand.

“I promise,” Tony said, his voice soft and desperate. “I’ll help find the Captain, Dad.” Bruce choked back a quiet sob, his shoulders shaking. Steve moved his hand – fighting the heaviness that had snaked its way into each of his limbs – and rested it on the doctor’s shoulder, rubbing soft circles to calm him.

Stop crying,” Howard hissed, stepping closer to Tony, his eyes wild and manic. Bruce hiccupped and returned his gaze to the television. Steve’s hand on his friend’s back clenched as Howard moved his hands to Tony’s shoulders, giving them a solid shake.

“What have I told you?” he asked, his voice low. Tony sniffed, screwing up his face in concentration as he tried to stem the flow of tears. Howard gave his another shake, repeating his question. Tony let out a shuttering gasp as another tear escaped his eyes and flinched just before…

Natasha let loose a string of Russian slurs as Tony was slapped. Clint stood from the couch, pacing quickly with restless energy. Bruce buried his head in his hands, rocking back and forth.

Steve fought back a sob of his own, stifling the sound with the back of his hand as the screen blurred from his tears.

“Stark men,” Tony said, his voice thick, “are made of iron.”

“Good,” Howard said, his voice gruff. “Now get out.” Howard turned away from Tony and moved to his desk. The boy just clutched the shield tighter, looking down at the scraps of his robot.

“GET OUT!” Howard repeated, slamming his hands on the desk. Tony jumped back, shoulders hunching and hands bringing up the shield. The automatic response absolutely broke Steve’s resolve. Bowing his head, he covered his face as silent tears escaped as he mourned for the child that would become his friend. Mourned for his friend who became a monster.

Steve was pulled from his morose thoughts by a harsh gasping. Looking up to the screen, Steve saw that Tony had managed to leave and Howard Stark had fallen back into his desk chair, his hands coming up to his face, and choked sobs escaping his mouth.

The defeated pose lasted only seconds before the man lifted his head and began shuffling the papers around his desk. His face held a mad panic, fury, grief, and exhaustion. Hands finally fell on a thick file and the man promptly buried himself in a report, muttering under his breath frantically. “…haven’t searched the whole area…could still be under thicker sheets…artic wind speed up to 43 kilometers per hour…snow pack 50 meters…”

The video feed went dark after several more seconds of technical and mathematic rambling.

“There is nothing of interest past this point, Captain,” Jarvis’ smooth voice informed them, making Steve jump slightly. “The tape continues for six minutes and forty-two second until the battery dies.”

No one responded. Steve and Bruce both jump as the sound of the coffee maker is heard from the kitchen. Both men whip their heads around, thinking that the genius had come up from his workshop.

“I have taken the liberty of providing warm sustenance, Captain and Doctor Banner,” Jarvis explained quickly, before either could leave their places on the couch. “My scanners indicate such would be welcome, given you current states.”

Steve chuckled – the sound coming out more like a sob – and thanked the AI softly. Natasha moved to the kitchen, coming back with several mugs, and handed them out to Bruce, Steve, and Clint before curling up on the couch, nursing her own mug.

Faced with the silence from his teammates and the glaring guilt, Steve focused on the mug in his hands, blowing on the dark liquid. He didn’t really like coffee, but needed to do something, even if it was just drink.

Taking a quick sip, he paused. Not coffee.

“Correct, Captain,” Jarvis replied, causing Steve to jump, not realizing he’d voiced his musings aloud. “Sir keeps hot chocolate for those less inclined to his preferred choice of caffeinated relief.” Steve smiled weekly down at his mug at Jarvis’ response, warmed both by the chocolate and by the thought that Tony went out of his way to accommodate his preferences.

Whatever glimmer of happiness he felt fell away quickly as guilt suffused through his chest. An entire year of living, eating, training, and saving the world with Tony Stark, and how much did he really know the man?

The words Steve had yelled at Tony were griping his heart, great vines tearing and ripping at him. ‘You got to be part of the family I wanted’ – the words tasted bitter even as they played through his head. And so utterly wrong. Steve had been so very, extraordinarily, completely, downright wrong. Tony didn’t have any semblance of a family.

And Steve knew who’s fault that was.

“All because of me,” he breathed, fighting back a sob as he covered his face again.

“Steve,” Natasha chided, resting a hand softly on his head. “This was Howard Stark’s doing, not yours.” She smoothed his hair back in a surprising gesture of affection, petting his hair gently.

“I’m an awful, terrible, horrible human being,” he huffed into his hands. “All those things I said to him –“

“You couldn’t have known,” she assured him softly. “He didn’t want us to know.”

The silence in the room continued, broken only by Clint’s soft footfalls on the carpet as the man continued his pacing, and by Bruce’s deep breathing as he attempted to control his emotions.

Steve continued to wallow in his despair – the older hurts he had been nursing earlier in the day, the pain of losing his past, was nothing to losing a friend in the present. There wasn’t any way, Steve mused miserably, that Tony would speak to him after this.

“Captain,” Jarvis called, his tone soft and hedging on contrite. “There is one more video I am to show you.” Bruce groaned.

Steve didn’t think he could handle any more. He mentally chastised himself – if Tony was forced to suffer through this, then Steve wanted to know all the wrongs the youth had suffered. He would watch and learn, then work his hardest to make up for them.

Clint returned to the couch next to Bruce, who sat up to watch the screen with growing apprehension. Steve squared his shoulders and took a deep breath, preparing for the worst. Natasha stayed on the arm of the couch, moving her hand from Steve’s head to his shoulders, standing guard as best she could.


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