Title: Quiet as the Grave
Author: Del Rion (delrion.mail (at) gmail.com)
Fandom: Iron Man (MCU)
Timeline: December 1991 – March 1992
Genre: Hurt/comfort, drama
Rating: T / FRT
Characters: Edwin Jarvis, James “Rhodey” Rhodes, Obadiah Stane, Tony Stark, Tony’s bots (DUM-E & U). Mentioned: Howard Stark.
Summary: Tony Stark’s parents died on December 17th, 1991. The world mourned their passing and waited to see what would happen to Stark Industries. When Tony took the reins of his father’s company just before his 22nd birthday, no one would have believed he had not said a word to anyone for the last two and half months.
Complete. Part of “Genius, AI & Bots” series.
Written for: My card on Hurt/Comfort Bingo’s (hc_bingo) round 4 (square: loss of voice)
Warnings: Selective mutism (possibly an incorrect diagnosis), language, off-screen character deaths (canon).
Disclaimer: Iron Man and Marvel Cinematic Universe, including characters and everything else, belong to Marvel, Marvel Studios, Jon Favreau and Paramount Pictures. In short: I own nothing; this is pure fiction created to entertain likeminded fans for no profit whatsoever.
Beta: Mythra (mythras_fire)
About Quiet as the Grave: I’m pretty sure Tony’s condition doesn’t fall under the classification of “selective mutism”, but that’s close enough.
An alternative look at how Tony handled the death of his parents – or didn’t, seeing as in this story he isn’t sure about much of anything.
(Also, how hard is it to write Obadiah Stane as a family friend and confidante when we know what’s going to happen, many years down the road from where this fic takes place? Hard, I tell you.)
Story and status: Below you see the writing process of the story. If there is no text after the title, then it is finished and checked. Possible updates shall be marked after the title.
Quiet as the Grave
The freshly dug earth smelled wet and almost foul. It had been raining earlier and the air felt uncomfortably cold although there was no snow on the ground. People were slowly gathering at the funeral site and Tony was aware of Jarvis moving a bit closer, holding an umbrella up to protect him from errant drops of water waiting to fall from the trees.
Beyond the funeral site the cemetery was too quiet. Tony knew a lot of safety measures had been taken so that the press and uninvited people would be kept away as family, friends, important members of Stark Industries and other notable names from various companies and the upper social class kept trailing in.
Obadiah arrived a moment later, shaking hands and acknowledging murmured condolences as if the earlier memorial service hadn’t been enough. Tony ignored it all, having done his part already, and focused on nailing his eyes on the caskets laid out in front of the Stark family plot.
Finally reaching the end of his subdued greetings, Obie settled at Tony’s side, resting a heavy hand on his shoulder. He didn’t say anything yet Tony guessed wheels were turning in his head, thinking ahead beyond the funeral…
Obie was always looking ahead and he had told Tony before the ceremony that he, too, should do so.
The military was present although Howard Stark had not battled a single day in the war. However, as the army’s weapons contractor and a man renowned for his many efforts to help the Allies in World War II, Tony supposed it was fitting he was sent to the grave with all the respect that was due.
Tony told himself he didn’t care.
As the burial service droned on, Tony’s attention slipped in and out of focus. Obie’s hand remained on his shoulder for a while before moving away – only to return when shots were fired and the caskets were lowered into the ground.
Then it was all over, Jarvis’ gentle voice prodding him to take his time.
Tony blinked and walked away.
Inside, he felt empty; like they had lowered him into the ground, too, which would have been his father’s last attempt to keep Tony from becoming his own man.
Much as he had wanted his independence, to move out from under the shadow of his father, Tony hadn’t envisioned getting it quite like this – and quite so soon.
Tony could hear Dummy rolling closer, which meant one of the tires was loose or the bot was moving something that was making the noise. As he looked up from his welding work, the bot was indeed dragging a mesh of wires behind him. It was amazing that Dummy was moving at all, stopping every now and then to try and extract the wires from his person – managing only to make an even bigger mess of the wires.
Opening his mouth, Tony was ready to snap at the bot, then stopped.
In silence he moved over, snapped his fingers to get the bot’s attention, then worked for the next half an hour to get the bot free. Seeing as the wires were already past salvation, he cut most of them and tugged them free, then motioned Dummy over to a hydraulic lift that allowed him a better look beneath the bot.
You came to see what they were up to, picking up a specially designed flashlight to help Tony see better. Despite the bot’s good intentions, the incorrectly pointed light almost blinded Tony; he swatted at the bot, guided You to adjust his position then worked to remove the rest of the wire pieces and allow Dummy once again to roam free without fear of something getting damaged.
Lowering the lift, Tony let Dummy back down to the floor, watching the bot wheel away and arc its arm to better look at where the wires had been. A happy chirp soon followed. As if invigorated by his new-found freedom, Dummy rushed forward – only to run straight into a tool cabinet.
Tony cringed at the horrible crash that went on and on as more tools came loose from their spots and fell down. Dummy had the decency to drop his arm lower and lower in shame with each new impact.
After all this time Tony didn’t need to tell the bot to clean up the mess; Dummy got straight to it, You moving over to help straighten the cabinet, and Tony went back to his other project. He had long since forgotten what he had been doing but he supposed he could just finish what he thought he had been doing and then start over later.
The mess was almost completely cleaned when Jarvis arrived, a tray of coffee and sandwiches in his hands. The butler laid the load on a relatively free stretch of one of the tables and Tony could feel the weight of Jarvis’ gaze coming to rest on him. “You should eat, Mr. Stark,” Jarvis said the way he always did. “Take a break.”
Jarvis had never told Howard to take a break, but then, he had worked for Howard and looking after Tony had been just another entry in his job description. Tony wasn’t sure what was going to happen now that Howard was dead. Maybe Jarvis didn’t know, either.
Tony shrugged one shoulder and leaned a bit lower over his project.
“You will put your eye out like that,” Jarvis noted and brought over a pair of safety goggles.
Tony accepted them, slipped them over his eyes and went back to it.
Jarvis waited by his side for several long minutes. It was a somewhat familiar game that Tony had learned in the week since the funeral. Knowing he was going to lose, Tony finally put away the welding torch, lifted the goggles to his forehead and rolled his chair over to the tray, picking up a sandwich.
“People are getting concerned,” Jarvis finally said as if they had reached his limit.
By ‘people’ Jarvis most likely meant himself.
Tony didn’t answer – hadn’t answered anyone since the funeral. At first he hadn’t wanted to talk and now it was just… better that way. If he wanted something communicated badly enough, he wrote it down. It was harder with the bots whose visual comprehension clearly needed extra tweaking. Also, teaching a robot to read handwriting and follow the commands in it wasn’t as easy as one might imagine, but Tony was confident they would eventually get there. So far his repeated gestures had been enough. He was even suspecting the bots were starting to recognize his expressions and body language.
Jarvis waited for another minute then sighed and took his leave of the workshop.
Tony looked up after him, briefly, then finished eating the sandwich and took the cup of coffee back to the welding station, getting back to work.
He still couldn’t remember his original project and decided it hadn’t been that important.
“Tony,” Obie started with that exasperated look Tony had seen him giving Howard sometimes. “It’s been a month.”
Tony looked back down at his notes, dismissing Obie’s words.
Something crashed to the floor a moment later and he jumped, looking at where Obie had swept a table clean of the clutter on top of it. The bots looked at the mess but didn’t approach it for now, waiting for the older man to move away.
“You heard that, huh?” Obie pressed. “That’s the world, moving on. Enough of this!” he shouted.
Tony didn’t jump again.
“I get it that this is all sudden and tragic, but you and your father didn’t get along that well. I don’t know whether this is an act or if you’re mourning something you never got from him, but it doesn’t matter. I need to know whether you’re ready to take over for your father.”
Tony knew he was expected to answer – that if he didn’t, Obie might think he wasn’t up to the task, which wasn’t true at all.
While he hadn’t expected to be helming Stark Industries so soon, Tony had always been aware of the fact that his father wasn’t getting any younger and that eventually he would take over for the old man – with or without his blessing.
‘Without’ it was, seeing as no one could ever know what Howard had thought just before he died.
Obie waited then huffed, shifting and placing his hands on his hips – then shifted again and let out another frustrated sound. “You’re not a kid anymore, Tony. You don’t get to hide here with your robots and not talk to anyone. Go see a doctor, a shrink – a prostitute for all I care. I need an answer.”
“I think that is enough,” Jarvis’ voice interrupted. “Mr. Stark will give you his answer once he’s ready.” The butler walked into the shop with a cup of coffee for Tony and a glass of scotch for Obie.
Obie sighed again, grabbed the glass off the tray and tossed it back all at once, cringing at the burn. It was a waste of good stuff, even Tony knew that. “Make him talk,” Obie told Jarvis and sat the glass heavily back on the tray, which wobbled a bit in Jarvis’ hold. Tony rolled over quickly and reached out, steadying the tray in case Jarvis could not hold it.
With one last look at the workshop Obie stalked out, muttering under his breath.
Jarvis gave Tony a small smile and set the tray down. “You must understand that with your father gone the company needs reassurance.”
“I know this isn’t about the company,” Jarvis went on. “And I’m certain that once you’re ready, you’ll either talk to someone or leave this all behind and move on with your life.” He laid a gentle hand on Tony’s shoulder then turned to walk out, leaving Tony alone.
The bots rolled out, finally, to check the mess on the floor.
You picked up a picture frame, its glass now shattered. Tony hadn’t seen it for a while – it must have been lying beneath all the other clutter – and he reached out and took it from the bot, looking at the picture. A family portrait, taken around the time Tony first went to boarding school; practiced smiles, his father not obviously drunk for once…
He stared at the picture for a while longer then tossed the whole thing in the direction of the nearest waste container. It struck the side of the bin and fell to the floor, a few more shards of glass spreading out across the concrete surface. The bots looked at it but they weren’t dogs so neither one went after it.
Tony took the coffee Jarvis had left, going back to his notes, and by the time he was too tired to see straight and needed either more coffee – which Jarvis would try to keep from him – or rest. As he put his notebook down on the table that was once again taken over by a mess of tools, machine parts and other things of importance, he found that one of the bots had picked up the picture frame and placed it on top of everything else, the glass now completely gone.
He didn’t bother trying to throw it away a second time.
When Rhodey entered the workshop, Tony was more than a little surprised. However, judging from the look on his friend’s face, Tony knew exactly why Rhodey was here – and it had little to do with a genuine desire to see Tony.
“Hey, man,” Rhodey greeted and clapped his shoulder – then drew Tony into a hug as if deciding that was the best approach to the problem at hand. “I’m so sorry,” he went on, obviously meaning the death of Tony’s parents. When he pulled back, Rhodey gave Tony a long, searching look. “I know everything feels like a load of crap right now –”
Tony shook his head. It didn’t; that had never been the problem he had originally wrestled with – and now he had no recollection of what the real problem had been.
Rhodey frowned. “You need to start talking,” he ordered. “You’re not a kid.”
Tony rolled his eyes. That line hadn’t worked when Obie used it and it wouldn’t work now that Rhodey did, either.
“The silent treatment works a lot better when the person getting the cold shoulder knows what’s wrong,” Rhodey went on, settling himself down on an extra stool.
Tony reached for a paper pad and wrote: ‘Not the silent treatment.’
Rhodey reached out for it, read it, then frowned at Tony again. “Then what gives? Come on, it’s been what, two months? Is something wrong? I can’t believe Jarvis hasn’t taken you to see a doctor by now.”
Tony reached for the pad again. ‘Obie took me to a doctor.’ That had been a spectacularly bad day for everyone involved.
Rhodey pulled the pad back and read the words. His fingers tightened around the pad, ruining the edges of the papers. “And?”
Tony gestured for the pad but Rhodey didn’t give it to him.
“Talk to me,” Rhodey insisted – so Tony reached for another random piece of paper with some engine revision plans on it and wrote ‘selective mutism’.
Rhodey heaved a big sigh. “Let me guess: they can’t give you some medicine to make it better?”
Tony shook his head.
“Are you mad at me for something? At Jarvis? Because otherwise I don’t get it.”
Tony shook his head again.
“Why are you being like this?” Rhodey insisted. “Is it because of your parents? Are you scared of what will happen next? What?”
Somewhere along the way Tony had probably known why. He didn’t anymore. The doctor had said therapy might help but because Tony hadn’t suffered from any form of social phobia before, the man had been a bit bemused about why he wasn’t talking to anyone right now.
Rhodey kept looking at him, expecting an answer. He gave up eventually and sighed again, looking around the workshop. His eyes landed on the bots, who were cleaning the floor on the other side of the room. “Do you talk to them?” he asked and looked at Tony.
Tony shook his head.
“Why not?” Rhodey asked. “They’re not… people. They’re not even alive.”
Tony’s eyes narrowed in anger.
Rhodey had known him long enough to not start fighting about it: he raised both his hands in surrender. “You know what I mean,” he retracted his opinion although not enough for Tony’s liking. “Have you thought about how scary this must be for them? I remember when you built them and said they’ll be learning from everything you do, so not talking can’t be good for them.”
It was a low blow and Rhodey had to know it.
Tony flipped him off and stole back the pad, starting to doodle and completely ignoring his friend until Rhodey gave up and left.
The workshop felt a little dead after he was gone, making Tony halt and think it over, but then You knocked over the bucket of industrial grade soap water and Tony had to go find something more effective than a mop to clean up the mess.
Not so dead after all…
Jarvis came in and laid out a suit bag on an empty work station. “They will be expecting you at two,” the man said, placing a pair of shoes on the floor. He then straightened and looked at Tony, his hesitation almost palpable. “Today is important. The board is expecting a decision on whether you’re taking your rightful place at the head of the company or not.” Another pause followed, shorter this time. “They will want an answer, Tony. A real answer.”
The fact that Jarvis used his first name was a sign that Tony needed to listen and listen good. He nodded, signaling that he understood, then heard Jarvis leave.
Tony glanced towards the bag, knowing the suit inside was clean and pressed and he would slip in like it was sewn on. As he continued to watch it and reflect on the meeting looming ahead of him, the bots rolled out and regarded the bag. Dummy reached out to touch it and Tony gestured fast to tell the bot not to do that; he didn’t need some kind of accident to happen and ruin the suit. There were other suits, for sure, but Jarvis had selected this one for a reason.
Deciding that he had to start working towards it, he got up and went to shower in the workshop’s bathroom. He shaved, carefully dried his hair, then put on clean underwear and padded out to the workshop, the air cool on his bare skin. You grabbed the suit bag for him before he could reach it and carried it over, managing not to roll over the tall load. Tony took it quickly, smiled, then retreated back to the bathroom to put on the suit.
He pulled on socks, shirt, vest and pants, everything fitting perfectly. The tie was smooth and cool in his fingers as he knotted it perfectly, then slid on the jacket. The transformation from an oily, messy engineer to a future CEO was complete – save for the shoes.
Cringing, Tony looked out to the workshop, then snapped his fingers and pointed at the shoes which he could just see on the floor by the workbench. The bots rolled over, looking where Tony was pointing, then swerved back out.
Dummy picked up an electric cord from the floor and Tony shook his head sharply; the bot dropped it.
You found an empty can of oil from beneath the workbench and presented it to Tony, who again shook his head and pointed towards the shoes.
The bots found several things in the vicinity of the shoes, from a crumbled paper to a loupe and a spark plug, then finally Dummy seized one of the shoes and Tony gave the bot a thumbs up before hurriedly motioned towards himself. Dummy moved slowly, as if protecting a precious cargo, and behind him You picked up the other shoe and followed Dummy’s lead.
Tony accepted the shoes from the bots, giving each of them a pat on the arm. The bots watched as he carefully slid his feet into the shoes, fastened the laces and then stood up, spreading his arms to display himself. The bots chirped and Tony straightened his jacket, just slightly, then let the air out of his lungs.
“Maybe I’ll make dad proud today,” he said, voice a little hoarse from not being used for two and half months.
The bots cocked their arms and let out questioning beeps.
Tony gave them a small smile. “It’s not like he can tell me otherwise,” he decided and stepped out of the bathroom. On his way out he slowed down to straighten the banged up, glassless picture frame on one of his desks. Just like that family in the picture, the last few months were history – and only Tony himself could decide what happened from here on out.