IEL was not the most prestigious school in the country or the most exclusive, at least in terms of how the wealthy white ruling class of America in past years judged such things. It was not well-known at Yale or Harvard or Princeton, though CalPoly and MIT and certain other schools which shared their values regarded it quite highly. Independent Education Labs was meant for extraordinary children who intended to literally build the future: the next Gates, the next Curie, the next —
Well, the next Stark, as the sturdy ten-year-old kicking his legs on an adult-sized chair in the Dean’s office proved.
IEL took children as young as eight, though it did not offer third-grade classes for them. It merely offered a personally tailored course called pre-high, where exceptional children could move towards high school at an accelerated pace while not being forced into the awkward situations that pre-pubescents thrust into a normal high school would experience.
IEL also took “troubled” students with high aptitudes, which was why fourteen-year-old John Sheppard was there, sitting in the chair next to Tony. He didn’t seem to mind IEL as much as he had his previous boarding schools, two of which he'd been thrown out of. IEL didn't bother to try breaking him, but rather let him take whatever classes he wanted and fly light aircraft in his spare time, kicking around until he turned eighteen. They didn’t bug him too much about his hair or his clothes or his teetering-on-the-verge-of-selective-mutism, either.
Seated next to pugnacious, noisy little Tony Stark, John looked like a narrow shadow of a boy, twice Tony’s height and with half his presence. John would be leaving in four years for the Air Force Academy; Tony, if all went well, would be leaving at the same time for MIT.
The Dean had been pleased when Tony sought out John in his third week at the school. Howard Stark had all but thrown the boy over the wall with a tuition check pinned to his chest, making it clear Tony was their problem, and while the child had a knack for making friends he also had an unerring instinct for setting off homicidal urges in the older students. John, slouching and glowering and punching his way out of anything he couldn’t simply walk away from, seemed like an ideal bodyguard.
But as far as the Dean could tell, John hadn’t had to defend Tony at all. Tony was a sweet charmer who could run fast, which meant he rarely reaped the trouble he sowed. John had simply taken to following the boy around, helping when he couldn’t reach a book in the library, listening to his endless prattle at lunch, occasionally comparing notes with him in classes they shared. The Dean had expected trouble from Tony’s mouth and John’s fists. Instead, for an entire semester, the two had rolled through the school like academic bulldozers, to the point where visiting parents thought it was cute that little Tony had followed his big brother John to IEL.
The Dean watched from the doorway as Tony took a slightly squashed caramel from his pocket and offered it to John. John, in return, took his handkerchief from his pocket and wiped soot off the end of Tony’s nose. The adoration in Tony’s face and the devotion in John’s almost made him forget why he was here.
"So," he said, entering his office, and Tony and John both looked up. "Gentlemen. I understand our squash court is no more."
"I can explain," Tony said. "See, traditionally, squash courts have been extremely important in the history of scientific experimen —- "
"I’m aware of Fermi, Tony, thank you," the Dean interrupted.
"But that’s my point, sir, as policy at Fermi’s research facility stated, academics being more important than sports, the courts he used for his experiments had already been decommissioned -- "
"Which they have not here," the Dean said firmly. "We were still using those squash courts, Tony."
"So were we, technically," Tony pointed out.
"For their intended purpose?"
"Well, where’s the imagination in that?" Tony asked. "Ask me to think outside the box, I think inside squash courts."
"Tony, do you remember our discussion about ready-fire-aim?" the Dean asked.
Tony looked sullen. “You mean the one where you told my uncle Obie about it and he keeps bringing it up every time we talk?”
"That’s the one. Out in the real world, when you have your own labs and funding, you will still answer to governing bodies that are not going to let you get away with this kind of thing. In the real world, Tony, you can go to prison for blowing up athletic facilities."
"But -- "
"Tony, we’ve been over this. No unauthorized experiments," the Dean insisted. "It’s as much to keep you from getting hurt as it is to keep IEL from being raided by the government for possession of nuclear weaponry."
"As if, nukes are so last season," Tony replied.
"I was there," John offered.
The Dean was always a little taken aback when John spoke; it wasn’t that it never happened, but it was rare, and unlike their other children with speech issues, John never seemed like he was struggling or shy. He just waited for the precise moment to speak, and then he spoke. And then he went back to being utterly, pervasively silent.
"He was safe," John added.
The Dean rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. "I’m sure he was, John, but we can’t allow you to set a precedent that other, less attentive friends may not be able to live up to. You are both extraordinary boys, but that is exactly why we can’t let you step too far out of line. Other boys and girls will want to follow you, and very few could. You have to at least show willing to follow regulations."
"It was a controlled blast," Tony said.
"Good, then you will recognize this as my own personal controlled blast. The two of you are on detention until the holiday break, confined to quarters outside of classes, and removed from all extracurriculars."
Tony sat up sharply. “You won’t tell the Sheppards, will you?”
John shot him a warning look.
"No. Nor your parents," the Dean replied. Both children looked relieved.
With different parents, perhaps he would have, but John’s parents wouldn’t care, and the weight of Howard Stark’s expectations already bent Tony’s small shoulders more than it should. The Dean was in favor of preparing children to face the world but protecting them from unnecessary harm, which occasionally included declawing their parents.
"You’re dismissed," he said, and Tony hopped off his chair. John followed him towards the door, but stopped in the doorway as Tony ran off down the hall.
"I wouldn’t let him get hurt," he said.
"I know, John," the Dean replied. "Not sure why, though. Of all the boys and girls here, why Tony Stark?"
John shrugged. “I like how much he talks. People with brains like Tony’s need people like me.”
The Dean smiled. “Just so. Run along, John. Don’t forget you’ve got a brain of your own, though.”
"Nosir," John said, and slouched off.