She has been jumping from earth to earth for too many years to count when she falls through a portal and emerges twenty feet above the grave of Edwin Jarvis on the other side. It's the first, but not the last time this will happen. She is a bit battered and one of her repulsor boots is malfunctioning.
It is late evening and the portal behind her is bright against the darkening sky. There is a boy, feral and not a day older than ten, screaming and writhing against an older, grey-haired gentleman. She sees the boy bite down on the hand of the older man, who strikes him across the face, his gold ring drawing blood. The blow is so strong it sends the boy stumbling backward, his side smacking against the gravestone. He clings to it for dear life as the repulsor in her functioning boot gives out and she falls from the sky, the golden light of the portal fading above her.
She crash lands between the boy and the old man.
Silence reigns as she picks herself up off the ground and looks down at the injured child. He is thin and gaunt, with dark hair and darker circles under his eyes and there are mottled purple bruises on his face and arms. His lip is split and blood is dribbling down his chin, and his tear-filled eyes are a blue she's only seen in one person before.
She turns to the man - who is in his late sixties and looks vaguely familiar - and something in her goes cold as ice when she realises that for the first time in her life, she's in front of her grandfather in person.
"Who the fuck are you?" Howard Stark snarls coldly.
"You stay the fuck away from him," she snarls right back, stepping in front of the boy - and she can't think, because if she thinks about who he is right now her mind is going to crack like an egg. "Come near this boy and I will break every bone in your body," her eyes burn with a fury hotter than freshly forming obsidian.
"That boy is my son, you stupid girl," the man growls, starting forward, but before he can get around her, she buries her fist in his face. It's a sick mirror to a video in a Hydra base in Siberia in another time and another world far, far away, but for once she does not care.
Howard falls on his arse, clutching his broken nose. "I warned you," she hisses, unholstering the gun at her hip and pointing it at his forehead. He scrambles back.
"How dare - do you know who I am?" he demands indignantly.
"You are one of the most despicable men I have ever known. You are a stain on the institution of parenthood and you will never, in a billion years be worthy of being the father of this child. You are filth," she advances on him and viciously kicks him in the groin, "and the time has come for you to answer for what you've done. Now leave. Or I will make you leave," she spits.
He sputters and threatens her with retribution and the cops and many, many, other things but she doesn't dignify him with an answer, instead opening her satchel and removing a first-aid kit with one hand while she keeps her gun trained on him with the other. Eventually, he retreats behind a grave with an angel statue as the marker.
She holsters the gun turns to the little boy and kneels down beside Jarvis's fresh grave. "Hello, Tony," she calls out quietly, and starts pouring antiseptic liquid onto a ball of cotton. "That looks like it hurts," she gestures at his face.
He shies away from her and her heart aches, her throat almost closing up as she murmurs, "It's okay, I'm not going to hurt you, I promise. Jarvis sent me," and she reaches out to him with her left hand in as slow and non-threatening a manner as she can, her palm facing upward.
The boy's eyes widen.
She stays with her hand held out to him for several minutes. Behind her, Howard makes a noise of disgust and grunts at his son to make his own way home. Little Tony's fingers release the gravestone and grab her outstretched hand tightly after they can no longer hear Howard's footsteps. She resists the urge to pull him into her arms, instead, sitting him down in front of her and dabbing gently at his split lip. He hisses, and she apologises over and over, but he doesn't push her away. She spreads soothing ointments over all the bruises she can see and binds up the ankle he sprained when Howard had knocked him down.
"Are you an angel?" he asks her eventually, "Did Jarvis really send you? Are you from heaven? What's your name?"
"I don't have a name," she tells him, and smooths a lock of hair away from his face, because she's earned a nickname over the past several decades travelling the multiverse, and it isn't one she's going to tell a little boy. "And I'm no angel," she denies, because there's no way she anything near as pure and good as one.
There is a scream building up in her throat that she's tamping down and unformed tears burning in her eyes. Looking at this battered child in front of her, she thinks, for the first time, that this is the world in which she's truly learned to hate Howard Stark.
This is the world in which she understands why her dad had always believed he was damaged goods and that he was incapable of being a good parent - because he was fathered by one. Tony Stark of Earth-199997 had steered clear of the subject of Howard Stark for as long as she had known him and for all of her suspicions, she had never truly known who he was. Earth-169196, as ANTIGONE later informs her, is the world in which she realises just what Edwin Jarvis means to her family.
She kissed the tips of her fingers and pressed it to the gravestone. "Rest, my friend. You will live on in this child, for he is your son in every way that matters. Rest in peace. I am here," she murmurs, her voice thick with tears.
Tony clings to her and sniffles. "You fell from the stars. I saw you," he says, "if you don't have a name, I'm going to give you one. I'm going to call you Angel."
And she cries.
She carries Tony back to Stark Manor in her arms, refusing to let him use his sprained foot. He is breathing into her neck, eyes closed in fatigue and she can feel his heartbeat, vital and steady and alive. The maids and manservants don't bother stopping them from entering. She ignores this earth's Maria Stark, who asks her if she's been hired to replace Jarvis as she carries Tony to his room and cajoles him to sleep with a lullaby her grandmother used to sing to her own father:
la notte si avvicina:
la fiamma traballa,
la mucca è nella stalla.
La mucca e il vitello,
la pecora e l'agnello,
la chioccia coi pulcini,
la mamma coi bambini.
Ognuno ha la sua mamma
e tutti fan la nanna."
And as his eyes flutter closed, she kisses him on the forehead and covers him with a blanket covered in circular shields, biting her tongue in distaste because it was the only one she could find in the room.
Ten minutes later, she is standing across from Howard Stark in his office, and he is reeling from a single word: grandfather.
It is 1989 on Earth-169196 and this Tony was born exactly a decade after her own, in 1980 instead of 1970.
In five days of her arrival, she puts the fear of every god and every devil into Howard Stark. She forges a paper trail and gives herself the identity of his bastard daughter with the name his son has given her. Angelina Stark is created, backed with DNA evidence, which does irreparable damage to both his reputation and his marriage. New York high society is turned upside down by the vivacious young woman, and the press eats it up.
She holds the nine-year-old, alternate, blue-eyed version of her father close to her heart when he sobs his heart out for Jarvis.
She sends Maria Stark into hysterics by crushing her precious jewellery under her heel and ripping up documentation for her precious foundations, roaring at her that charity begins at home, you stupid, neglectful bitch, because this Maria hasn't stopped her husband beating her own son black and blue and knocking him down and breaking his bones for half a decade.
Howard tries to hit Tony three days after her arrival and she breaks both of the loathsome man's arms in her rage. She stops only when she takes two bullets from his bodyguards for that, and then gets right back up, staying on her feet as she digs them out of her flesh with her own fingernails. Howard's terror and Tony's awe are complete when the bullet wounds close in moments.
She meets Peggy Carter mere hours later with little Tony clinging to her blood-soaked waist and glaring at anyone who even looks at her, calling her his angel to anyone who will listen. Director Carter is understandably cautious of her at first, a caution which doesn't really go away, even when she proves she wants nothing more than for the child wrapped around her to no longer have to suffer.
She refuses to tell the Director everything about the future, but tells her the truth about her own identity and gives her enough information to give her a head-start against HYDRA. All it takes is one word: paperclip, and Carter is immediately very agreeable to cooperating with her. At the end of their brief acquaintance, she calls her Aunt Peggy just once, to try it out on her tongue. She hugs her great-godmother with every ounce of self-control she can muster, and the smell of Peggy's perfume puts a lump in her throat that doesn't go for several hours. Director Carter looks at her with a little confused affection and a lot of pity before she leaves, and that is that.
On her seventh day on Earth-169196, the Starkiller locks herself in the bathroom and cries because she doesn't have much time left here and she's terrified of leaving little Tony behind. She curses Amora for damning her to have no control over how long she can stay on each earth. She has so little time on this earth and it's not enough.
Nine days, nine hours, nine minutes, nine seconds.
She curses the fact that Asgard's sacred number is nine and not a thousand. In a couple of days, she will be gone, Tony will be alone and vulnerable to Howard's wrath. She racks her brains for what she can do to deter him from ever touching his son again. His broken arms will heal in mere weeks.
She takes Tony stargazing that night, and they teach each other the constellations: Aries, Orion, Leo, Aquila, Cygnus. He looks at her earnestly, and asks her what the stars are like, because she fell from them.
"I have to return to them," she tells him quietly, "in a couple of days."
Tony regards her in shock. "Can I come with you? To the stars?" he asks earnestly, and his face falls when she tells him that no, he can't. His eyes go so sad it breaks her heart. "Of course you have to leave, everybody leaves. I'm going to be alone again. It's okay. I know angels can't stay on earth forever."
She hugs him tightly. "I'm never really going to be gone," she tells him quietly. She pressed her fingers right over his heart. "I'm always going to be right here, with Jarvis. I'm going to be in your heart, and no one will ever be able to take that from you. And if they try, you will have to fight back and fight hard. Can you promise me that?"
And he promises. The next day, she picks up her phone and speaks to ANTIGONE, her beloved AI and asks for a star. Her hand comes away from the phone with a metallic enneagram cradled in her palm. She takes it to Tony and pressed it into his. "This is my star," she tells him.
"Do I have to wish upon it?" he asks her and she nods. Tony fashions it into a pendant with his clever hands, hangs it on a black string and puts it around his neck.
"If Howard ever hurts you again, you break this star, make a wish, and I will come right back to you."
"I promise. I have one more thing for you," she says, and gives him a box the size of his fist.
"What is it?" he asks her as he opens it and takes out the USB drive, not knowing what it is since, after all, it is only 1989.
She pinches his cheek gently, "You don't have anything like this now, but in twenty years from this day, I want you to use it. You'll know how."
"I will?" he pouts skeptically.
"You will. But you must make me one more promise: in twenty years and not a day before. Promise me, Tony."
"I promise," he says, and she hopes to hell he keeps it.
"Thank you. Happy birthday in advance, Tony."
She visits Howard Stark one last time before she leaves and informs him of her impending departure without giving him the slightest hint that it isn't her choice.
"I will know," she concludes, "I will know if you lay a finger on him. I am an immortal, multiversal entity, so believe me, I will know if a hair on his perfect head is harmed. And if, when I return, you are responsible for his pain in any way, I will do far more and far worse than break your bones. I will rip you limb from limb and I will drench the world in your blood and I will do it with a smile," she declares, a bloodthirsty grin curving across her face.
Howard Stark shrinks back in his bed and his arms tremble in their casts.
"Remember that. Remember me, Howard," she warns him, and walks out the door without a backward glance.
She leaves at dawn on Tony's birthday. Director Carter is standing a few feet away from them in the gardens of Stark Manor, with weird devices taking readings of the energy around them, and also probably to make sure she doesn't kidnap Tony, who is clinging to her waist. Carter's protege, a young Nick Fury is standing next to his mentor.
She gives the man the evil eye, and he nods at her with a straight face. Angelina Stark, he mockingly calls her, and she snorts. It's not the worst name she's ever called herself by.
Tony is still clinging to her when the portal materialises, nine days, nine hours, nine minutes and nine seconds from the moment she appeared over Jarvis's grave. She gently breaks his grip, kneels down and takes his small, callused hands in hers. "Remember, Tony," she whispers, "Remember, wish upon a star. Remember me," and presses kisses to his forehead and cheeks, which have lost some of their gauntness and are now more rounded with baby fat as a result of her making sure he gets proper meals and cooking for him when the maids ignore him.
She lets go of his hands as she turns to Peggy. "Look after him," she orders, "he needs you. He needs his godmother."
And then she hugs him one last time and walks through the twisting tear in time and space, streams of salty water cutting down her face. She looks back as it begins to close behind her, and Carter is holding Tony's hand. She gives him one last watery smile, and the portal closes for good. The last thing she sees is Tony's face, wet with tears.
Once more unto the breach, she thinks, wipes her cheeks and turns to face the new world she has been thrust into.
Nine days, nine hours, nine minutes and nine seconds to go, and then the cycle will begin anew.
So. That happened.
Here's another story about the Starkiller's travels aside from the main fic, atheófovos thygatéra:
Stay tuned for part two of Earth 169196, I guess. Should be up in a couple of days. Or weeks. In the next two weeks, for sure.
Also, comments? I need to know if you guys like all the crazy shit I'm coming up with.
He remembers the girl from the stars who came to save him after Jarvis dies. He keeps the nine-pointed star around his neck, never taking it off. He takes the curious device his angel left him with every year two days before his birthday, and wonders.
Howard doesn't touch him again. Maria keeps her distance for the most part, occasionally trying to teach him how to play the piano. It doesn't go very well. He doesn't like her very much and the one time she plays Stella-Stellina, he starts crying because he misses Angelina. His mother gets tired of him not long after and hires him an instructor who is kinder than her.
Tony would have wondered if he'd dreamed up his angel if not for the dozens of pictures of her and of them both together that he has hidden away, and the one that sits on his bedside table in a frame given to him by Aunt Peggy.
Aunt Peggy is a sudden but welcome addition to his life. She isn't around much, but when she is she gives him more affection than both of his parents have ever given him put together.
She tells him about her adventures with Jarvis, when they used to save the world together after Captain America died. At sixty-eight, Aunt Peggy single-handedly stops an attempted kidnapping when she and Tony are out for ice-cream, with an ice-cream scoop, a high-heeled shoe and her fists. He doesn't idolize the dead hero as much as he used to, not with his fierce godmother at his side.
He goes to MIT and meets James Rhodes. A couple of years after that his parents die in a car crash and he feels nothing. He stops looking at the thumb-sized present the girl known to the world as Angelina Stark had given him. He puts it away, along with the star pendant. Howard can't hurt him now.
He creates JARVIS. He graduates. He builds weapons. He goes to Afghanistan at twenty-seven. He gets blown up. Yinsen asks him if he has anyone and he says yes, he has a sister, an angel who fell from the stars to which she returned after she had saved him. He no longer has the star around his neck. She had told him to use it if Howard hurt him. Howard has not hurt him this time. He got himself into this mess. He has to get himself out of it.
He builds a suit of armour. He loses Yinsen. He goes home. He stops building weapons. He rebuilds the suit. He rebuilds his heart. He kills Obadiah Stane. At twenty-eight, he is a superhero. He is Iron Man.
The day after the opening of the Stark Expo, after the hearing, Tony realises that he is dying and gets drunk in his bedroom in Malibu. He smashes his glass against the wall and a framed picture falls to the ground. A girl looks back at him, with serious dark eyes and a pretty smile and a boy he recognises as his nine-year-old self is tucked under one arm.
Remember me, her words echo in his mind.
And he remembers. He hasn't thought about her in months, but now he fumbles around his room and finds a star hidden away; with it, a USB drive, and he laughs until he passes out, drunk of his arse.
The next morning, he wakes up, with the star and the drive still in his hand. He pukes his guts out and pours two mugs of coffee down his throat before plugging in the drive to his computer. It's too early, but he doubts he'll get his birthday or even to two days before it, so he doesn't feel a speck of guilt as he opens the first folder. That's a lie. He does feel slightly guilty.
For the first time in almost two decades, he hears her voice. There is a video, and she tells him a story, a story of truths, and she looks so frighteningly young - twenty-three, maybe, the same age as she was in his pictures of her.
She tells him a story of a multiverse, and a girl cursed to travel across it forever, never growing older. She tells him about her father, a man known as Anthony Edward Stark; how dearly she loved him and that he died. She tells him that she is not an angel, never was; she's just a selfish, selfish woman, and he is part of her selfishness. He is part of her desperation and her grief even though he deserves better.
She tells him that she has put everything that might be of use to him - information that can never be spoken, never fall into the hands of SHIELD - HYDRA, and his blood runs cold at that - on the USB drive. She gives him the cure to palladium poisoning, and the method of creating the new element for his arc reactor.
She confesses that she knew the car crash that killed his parents was coming, she knew about Obadiah, about Afghanistan, and she calls not telling him about them one of her greatest sins. She calls herself an atheist and tells him that gods aren't real, they're aliens, and then crosses herself and begs his forgiveness for not telling him the truth.
Ignosce mihi, Pater, she says, quia peccavi.
Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned, JARVIS translates.
She tells him about Vanko and Loki and Killian and Hansen and Malekith and Pierce and Ultron and Zemo. She tells him about the Winter Soldier and HYDRA and December 16th, 1991. She tells him about her godfather falling from the sky and how her father died at Captain America's hand, under Captain America's shield. And isn't that a cosmic joke, Captain America's alive and Tony's destiny is to be murdered by him.
She tells him that she's not going to tell him what to do with all the information: the schematics and the video footage and the pages and pages of formulae and medical advancements all stored on this drive.
Become a supervillain, for all I care, she says. Just live. Live for me. Live for him. But most of all, live for yourself. Live a long, long and happy life. Do what you love. Be with the people you love. Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind. She chuckles at the end, as if she's quoting someone. You don't owe this world a goddamn thing. You don't owe them if they're going to spit on you, call you morally inferior for all the sacrifices I know you'll make and stab you in the back when you ask for loyalty in return for the loyalty you give them.
There are terabytes upon terabytes stored on the USB drive, so much to read, so much to watch and discover, but he begins with saving his own life, staying in isolation until he no longer has a chest full of palladium. Then he fires Natalie Rushman and sends her to Fury with a message: leave him and his alone or he'll come after them, his relationship with former Director Carter will not stay his hand if they force it.
He defeats Vanko at the Grand Prix in Monaco. He turns twenty-nine and gives Rhodey the War Machine armour. Together, they destroy Vanko and Hammer at the Stark Expo. He and Pepper give it a go. It doesn't work out, they part as friends and then he realises that maybe Pepper should be CEO, she'd be better at it than he is and he needs time to work on fixing the cracks in the world before it has a chance to break.
He tracks down Hansen, kills Killian personally (who the hell holds a grudge against an obnoxious drunk teenager running his mouth on New Year's Eve? WHO??) and wipes out every trace of AIM.
He has Thaddeus Ross, Alexander Pierce, Gideon Malick, Wolfgang von Strucker and basically all of HYDRA's leadership he knows he can get away with, the ones not as well known to the general public quietly assassinated in the next six months.
The mercenary he hires to do it is an indestructible lunatic in tight red and black spandex with a fantastic ass, but he gets the job done just fine. Tony throws enough money at him to last him a lifetime in luxury and then some, along with a business card for if (when) he wants to get into the superhero business.
He finds the Winter Soldiers in Siberia and rescues Barnes from cryostasis. He kills all the HYDRA scientists and the other Winter Soldiers and uploads JARVIS to take care of any and all surveillance footage before burning down the HYDRA base on his way out.
James Buchanan Barnes is a conundrum. He is fragile and bulletproof at the same time and he is so very, very quiet it scares Tony, who has no idea what to do with a former WWII sergeant turned brainwashed assassin. For lack of any other ideas, Tony keeps him in his house in Malibu and stitches up bullet wounds from Siberia that are already healing and puts him in the softest, comfiest bed he can find.
The soldier is tired, exhausted and drained of so much life it seems he doesn't have much left to go on living. He spends most of his time in bed, all of it, if Tony is honest. Tony takes it upon himself to feed him until he stops looking half-starved to death, starting with light, bland food like soup and broth, then, in a few days, he moves to more substantial meals like grilled cheese sandwiches. He checks and changes Barnes' bandages every twelve hours until the cuts and bullet holes close up.
He worries when Barnes spends two hours showering, only to realise that after being frozen for more than two-third of his life, the soldier relishes the feel of hot water when JARVIS tells him that no, Sergeant Barnes isn't drowning himself, he's just standing under the shower. Tony mentally slaps himself for imagining what that would look like because this is a brainwashed, tortured prisoner of war, and he deserves better than being leered at or fantasised about.
Aside from eating, sleeping and showering, Barnes doesn't do much. He doesn't do anything unless he's told to. Most of the time, Barnes moves like an automaton, like a mindless drone, sitting quietly at the table during meals or standing at attention when Tony enters a room as if expecting orders from him, orders which Tony never gives him.
Instead, Tony takes to reading him Tolkien in between inventing binges and working on the armour. He listens quietly, not saying a word, but over time, his thoughts begin showing on his face, surprise or excitement or delight at the story.
When Tony asks him if he wants to watch the movies, Barnes murmurs his assent in so low a voice Tony has to strain his ears to hear him. Tony feels like throwing a party because it's the first time Barnes has spoken in the short weeks since his arrival. It's the first time Barnes actually makes a decision for himself that isn't about a bare necessity of life.
Tony introduces Barnes to Star Wars and Disney movies, Black Sabbath and ACDC. When Barnes tell him he doesn't like being called Barnes, the word Handsome slips out because Tony flirts like he breathes and he doesn't know how else to shake the soldier out of his bleakness and fear that he's going to be trapped back in a metal chair with electricity burning through his veins and his brains turned to mush.
Almost three months pass before Barnes is comfortable enough to talk to him on a regular basis. To allow Tony to take a look at his arm, or to read quietly in a corner of Tony's workshop as the engineer shapes metal like a child shapes clay. But he does, and eventually they settle into a quiet sort of camaraderie.
Well. That came out sooner than expected.
Part 3 will take a while, though. Maybe two weeks. Definitely in February, though.
I'm still waiting for criticism, guys, because I do not know what the fuck I'm doing. Seeing zero comments is making me nervous.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy it.
Chapter 3: The Tale of of Earth 169196 - Part 3
Over time, the Winter Soldier remembers bits and pieces of his past, and asks Tony to start calling him James. And when Tony smiles at him with gentleness and pride in his eyes, James feels his heart skip a beat.
But he remembers killing this beautiful, brilliant man's parents, so he never speaks the words out loud. He feels the guilt gnawing at him as the genius inventor builds him a new arm, a better arm, an arm that doesn't hurt as much as his previous one did. An arm that is disguised with synthetic skin that makes him feel well, not normal per say, but at least less abnormal when he looks at himself in the mirror.
He likes the house Tony lets him live in. It's beautiful and bright and the smell of the Pacific Ocean tickles his nose pleasantly. The windows are bulletproof but at the same time comprise entire walls and let in so much light, James thinks he'd forgotten what sunlight really feels like when he wakes up to it for the first time. He thinks the only thing more beautiful than the sunset is Tony, whose eyes shine radiantly like sea glass when the rays of the sun hit them.
There is a large portrait of a girl on the wall behind the grand piano and Tony obviously loves her with the way he touches her pretty face when he thinks no-one is paying attention.
She's painted to look like an angel and her wings are made of stars. She has dark chin-length hair, tanned skin and large, intelligent brown eyes, and Tony loves her, even though she is nowhere to be found. James wonders who she is, where she is, but he does not think he has the right to ask Tony those questions.
So James keeps his feelings for Tony locked away, buried deep in his heart, and says nothing. Tony has done enough, no, is doing enough for him. He hardly has the right to ask for more than he's willing to give freely.
Over the next year, Tony drags out everything that HYDRA stuffed into his head. He takes away the effects of the trigger words and gives him back his freedom and his will to live. His memories are slow to return, if they do at all, and the most he gets are flashes of gunfire and death and a boy with golden hair and blue eyes with a hint of green in them. He knows who the boy is, looks him up on the internet, but his memories don't fit together, don't work together like trying to shove jigsaw pieces that don't match into eachother.
Not until Tony sneaks him in to see Peggy Carter, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, but is still cognizant enough to recognise James Buchanan Barnes. She apologises for having failed him, as a friend and as a superior officer, and James holds her hand and weeps. She calls Tony ducky and other such affectionate nicknames, and asks him to look out for James.
When Tony says that he would have done so even if she hadn't asked, James feel his guilt closing up his throat and can't bring himself to thank Tony or even look him in the eye.
Tony gives him an identity, as James Inverno. He creates an entire life lived in the United States, giving James a passport, a social security number, a college degree in linguistics (the best choice with how many languages he knows), a driver's licence, a bank account, even a goddamn library card. Tony hires him as his personal assistant (Happy is, has been and always will be his long suffering but dearest bodyguard and Head of Security at Stark Industries and one of his oldest friends).
Tony puts James in Salvatore Ferragamo and Zegna, in suits that cling to the shape of his body and the arcs of his muscles. He doesn't recognize himself when he looks in the mirror. Throw in an expensive haircut and he looks - and how his head aches when he says it out loud - like a million bucks.
James starts going to galas and fundraisers and hospital visits with Tony, and he's introduced as my new PA, the one Pepper tried to hire was a mole from some shadowy government organisation and was sent to spy on me. Pretty redhead, obvious honeypot, calls herself Natalie Rushman, though I highly doubt that's her real name.
James speaks more languages than him, although with French, Italian, Japanese, Russian and several Middle Eastern languages under his belt, Tony is nothing to sneeze at. But he doesn't know Mandarin or German, which James does, fluently, along with many others. He becomes Tony's interpreter at business meetings when Pepper is busy, and together, they're a deadly combination.
SHIELD only bothers them once after James surfaces and they are taught to keep their distance when the Black Widow breaks into his Malibu mansion and attacks James and Tony has one of his armours launch her into the Pacific ocean.
What? She can swim just fine, and if she can't, she really shouldn't be a SHIELD agent. Or any agent, he tells an irate yet slightly amused Phil Coulson, who is sent to smooth things over.
James can tell that Tony likes Coulson, admires him, even, for his dedication and faith in his cause, but Iron Man point blank refuses to become an Avenger, stating that he doesn't intend for there to be a need for the world to be avenged.
Tony points Fury in the direction of John Garrett, Jasper Sitwell, Brock Rumlow and Grant Ward, in the direction of Senator Stern, who wanted to get his slimy hands all over Tony's precious armour, and tells him to mind his own fucking business.
Time passes, and James is in awe as Tony builds a tower in New York that will run on clean energy. They return to Malibu a month before Tony's thirty-second birthday and he prepares his armours and Jarvis uplink for transportation to his workshop in Stark Tower.
While the bots and JARVIS are loading the armours onto the jet, Tony sits at the piano in front of the portrait of the girl James has never asked him about, and looks at her longingly.
He plays a melody and sings along in Italian and James translates in his head:
"Oh Star, little star
The night is at hand:
The flame teeters,
The cow is at the stable.
The cow and her calf,
The sheep and her lamb,
The hen and her chicks,
The mother and her babies,
Each one has a mother
and they all sleep."
And he looks at James with summer-sky-blue eyes - with eyes that look like blue flames, and James wants to fall to his knees before him and worship every part of his body, lay kisses to his collarbones and throat and feel Tony's legs wrapped around his waist when he takes him to bed. It's a frightening thought, a kind of thought that has made him throw up before now because he remembers some of the things HYDRA did to him.
But when he thinks about being with Tony, it feels... Pure. It feels like what he imagines flying would feel like. But he doesn't want to sully this extraordinary man with the red in his ledger.
Instead, he asks Tony who the girl in the portrait is. The genius inventor smiles and says, I was wondering when you'd ask me about her, and then he tells James about his guardian angel from across the stars and time and space.
The daughter who isn't his and the sister she made herself to screw with Howard, and the star around his neck that he wears even though he'll never use it now that Howard is dead and gone and can no longer hurt him, can no longer bruise his limbs and break his bones. And then he thanks James for killing his father for him and wonders out loud how damned he is for thinking this way.
James goes still.
Tony takes one look at him, gets up from the piano and throws his arms around him before he can run for it. I know, he says, I've always known, and I don't blame you. I know it wasn't you, I know it was the Winter Soldier.
I am the Winter Soldier, James replies, and Tony says, Maybe, but you are also James, and brushes a lock of the supersoldier's hair out of his face. There is a moment between them, a moment that lasts for an eternity, they are drowning in eachother's eyes, and then JARVIS interrupts them to let Tony know that the Starkjet has been loaded and that they're ready to fly to Stark Tower.
Tony immediately lets him go and steps away, a light flush on his cheeks. He says that they need to get going if they want to get the Tower online on schedule. He looks at the portrait of Angelina Stark, kisses his fingers and then presses them to her cheek.
"I'll be back for you when I've defeated the Chitauri. I'll be back for you, and the bots," he promises.
They head down to the workshop one last time and Tony bids Butterfingers, DUM-E and U a fond farewell, petting them affectionately.
Ten minutes later they're on the Starkjet and flying to New York City.
Chapter 4: The Tale of Earth - 169196 Part 4
James Rhodes knows what people think of him. He's very well aware of the fact that the public think that he is where he is in life because he's Tony Stark's best friend.
On very, very, rare occasions, it stings. He knows that people look at him and see the face of tokenism, as a Lieutenant Colonel in the military, as one of Tony's few close friends. The one black guy, they say, and it grates. It grates that he's reduced to his race in any conversation, and not his abilities, his perseverance, his integrity.
But over time, he comes to realise that he doesn't have to care about what the public thinks. They're an ugly entity, and they don't deserve a moment of his consideration. His protection, yes, because he swore an oath to protect and serve, but his acknowledgement that they're entitled to an opinion on his oldest and dearest friend? Certainly not.
Still, he's proud of his rank because he worked hard for it. He gave his life to his country with the ROTC, and he's never regretted it.
He's proud of being Tony's best friend, because Tony is worth every ounce of loyalty from him. He remembers Tony at fourteen, utterly lost at MIT, his parents three years dead. He remembers Tony throughout his teenage years, remembers holding him together when Tony was failing at keeping himself fed. He remembers Obadiah Stane as the friendly mentor who would drop in on Tony once a month, but for the rest of the time was distant as the stars.
He remembers feeding Tony and making sure he had groceries in his fridge and running hot water, because Tony was a little kid, holy mother of God, who sends a kid to college on his own at fourteen? When Jim turned 18, his mother was terrified of Jim leaving. Even to MIT on a scholarship, but she realised that it was his best chance and let him go.
They are is Stark Tower together, and Tony has just successfully installed the arc reactor that will power it. Pepper and Happy are with them, there's champagne being poured into gorgeous crystal glasses, and Tony's straightening the framed photographs hanging on the wall.
Jim never used to think of his best friend as nostalgic, but when he looks at the pictures, he can't help but think that it's the one word that does truly define Tony. Edwin Jarvis smiles at them, as do Director Margaret Carter and Tony's half-sister whom nobody's seen in two decades. There are pictures of him and Tony from their MIT days, one of them sitting under their favourite tree on campus, books in hand, pencils behind their ears.
There's one of Carter and a teenaged Tony at a shooting range, there's one of Jarvis holding a newborn Tony swaddled in blankets, there's one of Angelina Stark giving him a piggy-back ride. There's one of Tony and Pepper dancing, one of Tony with an arm around Happy's shoulders, one of Tony and him in his military uniform right after he'd gotten into the airforce. There's one of Angelina and Tony sitting on swings next to each other, laughing.
When Jim sees those pictures of Tony with everyone he's ever truly cared about, he looks so happy with them it's breathtaking.
The only thing that seems out of place amidst the celebrations is Tony's personal assistant of about a year. James Inverno sits at a desk, working on a laptop and occasionally taking phone calls from one important person who needs to speak to Tony Stark right now, please, and fielding them with elegant efficiency.
Jim's honestly surprised Tony had a PA who lasted this long that isn't Pepper. But Inverno is professional, swift and firm, which are all the hallmarks of a good PA (cough Pepper cough).
Eventually, the celebrations are interrupted by a SHIELD agent breaking into the penthouse. Before anyone can blink, Inverno has a gun pointed at the unwelcome newcomer's head.
That's new, Jim thinks.
"At ease, Inverno, I'm not a threat," the SHIELD agent says.
"Let me guess," Tony says, "Project Pegasus just took a turn for the fucked up. Why am I not surprised? I guess this is the part where I say I told you so because you idiots never listen to me, do you? I told you to shut it down, didn't I?"
"Stark - "
"Leave the folder on the counter and get out. I'll deal with you morons tomorrow." Tony snaps.
The agent opens his mouth to protest, but with a single glare from Tony, he backs off. The door to the elevator opens behind him.
Once the agent is gone, Tony turns to them all. "I want each and every one of you on a plane out of New York in the next two hours."
Inverno holsters his gun and curtly says, "No."
"That wasn't a request, James." Tony says.
Inverno tilts his chin upwards rather defiantly. "I don't leave you. Ever. No matter what. You can't make me leave you now."
Jim has to admire the man's loyalty.
"Don't make me fire you, James." Tony threatens.
Inverno's face goes the colour of chalk. "You really mean that, this time, don't you?" he asks softly.
"I do." Tony says and turns to Happy. "I'm putting you in charge, Hap. Get all three of them and yourself to Malibu, stat. Pepper, I want you and James to pre-pone that retreat for every Stark employee in New York City as well as their families. All-expenses paid, pick a hotel in California, I don't care which one. Get them out of Manhattan by tomorrow evening. Rhodey," he turns to Jim. "Get the military on stand by. If this is what I think it is, we're going to need them."
With that short speech, he sweeps the folder left by the SHIELD agent into his arms and sails into his bedroom, shutting the door behind him.