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It Begins From Within

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It was a warm day, some might even say a beautiful day. The sun was bright and warm, the sky a deep and inviting blue, the clouds puffs of white, there was even a nice breeze coming through the trees. Yes, most would say it was a beautiful day, but not Tony. To Tony it was all too much, standing outside the gate with his father on his right gripping his shoulder so harshly that he was sure he would find the bruises later, perfectly shaped like his father’s hand. Howard Stark might not be an active battle mage anymore but he still held the strength of one, and he didn’t mind flexing it either. Howard rapped his knuckles across the door set inside the gate and waited. The academy knew they were coming, Howard had written days in advance.

When Tony stepped through the door, the first thing he noticed was just how loud the area was. There was the everyday things, people talking, laughing, yelling, but then there's the not so normal day things. Things like the sound of distant explosions, the ringing of sword on sword, live blades not blunts. Then there’s one sound that stands out amongst the rest, it's a constant ringing. There just below the surface of the other sounds. It’s comforting in a way that not many other things have been in his altogether short but long life. But before he could even come to enjoy the sound even more he’s being hauled by his shoulder by his father behind a tall bearded man that Tony recognizes. Obadiah Stane, a battle mage as well, friend of Howard's, and now an instructor at the battle mage academy it seems. Tony could see his father's machinations from a mile away. But did he really expect anything else from the man? Not really, just more par for the course of Howard trying to control his life, and Tony letting him just so he can hold out hope that one day he might hear the slightest praise from him.

They walked around the grounds of the academy for a while, showing Tony where everything was, introducing him to other instructors. And it seemed that while yes Obadiah- “Please call me Obie”- was an instructor, he wasn’t going to be handling the training of Tony’s group. Seemed Howard couldn’t control everything, and Tony was actually glad for it, while ‘Obie’ seemed nice enough, he didn’t want to have reports sent to Howard about how much progress he wasn’t making compared to his father. His instructor was a woman with blond hair, and brown eyes. A shade or two lighter than his own, she had a small faint scar running from the corner of her mouth down under her chin, It made her seem like she was always smirking. And maybe she was, Tony decided that he would hold his judgment on her until he could get to know her more. She had introduced herself as Carol Danvers-”But please call me Carol. If I hear Ms. Danvers I make no promises what might happen to you”- and she had showed them to his quarters. His things had arrived ahead of them to make things easier. Carol and Obie left them then to “give them a chance for farewells” as Carol had put it. What she didn’t know was this was Howard’s last chance for some time to berate Tony.

“Don’t disappoint me Anthony.” he said all the while his fingers grew even tighter on his shoulder. Then there was the sound of the door opening and a tall, handsome guy, skin the color like the expensive chocolates his mother would sometimes slip him when his father wasn’t looking. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt I was told that these would be my quarters. I’ll come back” It’s said in a rush while he’s backing out of the door but Howard just raises his hand “Stop, I was leaving,” he says to him before turning back to Tony “Remember what I said Anthony.” and with that Howard releases his shoulder and walks out the door.

Tony and new guy stand there for a moment or two, collectively staring at one another. Tony knows that look in his eyes though, it’s a look of recognition. Not for him though but the man who just walked out the door leaving bruises on his shoulder, the new guy doesn’t know that though. Tony takes a moment to allow himself a look over what is going to be, he assumes, the person that is going to be sharing this room with him. He’s definitely handsome, his eyes a bright brown, with full lips. New guy clears his throat and Tony realizes he was staring for longer than he thought and blushes slightly. “Hi, I’m James Rhodes” he says while bringing his arm up and while Tony knows it’s for a handshake he can’t help flinch back the smallest amount. But he recovers quickly, bringing his own hand up, “Tony” he says. It might sound rude but he knows that if you’re in the battle mage academy then you knew his father. Hell even if you weren’t in the academy you more than likely knew who his father was. James doesn’t comment on it though, “It’s a pleasure to meet you Tony.” and it sounds genuine, but Tony’s heard that before. But, Tony is the son of a noble, and even then Jarvis would have his hide if he was rude, so he puts on his best smile, “You too James.”.

It’s quite after that, the only sounds heard were their boots against the floor as they put things away. Clothes, armor, weapons, and for James it seems a few touches of home. “That’s a thick quilt you have there.” Tony doesn’t even remember giving his mouth the orders to say anything and yet he did, and he’s blushing again. Damnit. But, James just turns around and smiles a little “Yea, I run cold while I sleep so my mom made me this after she found out I had been extended an invitation to the academy.”. And, suddenly Tony wonders what it’s like to be loved that much. But he doesn’t say that, instead he plasters on what he hopes is a kind smile and says, “Well that was extremely kind of her.” James stares at him for a moment like he’s trying to solve a riddle and that makes Tony more uncomfortable than he thought possible. He looks over his side of the room and decides he’s done, he didn’t have much beyond the essentials anyway and decides that the room is much to small and much to stifling to be in anymore. He turns around to find James is still putting small things away, what appears to be books, and clears his throat. “I think I’m gonna go explore more of the grounds” and here he pauses and considers, “Would you like to come with me?” he finally asks. James seems a little surprised by the question and Tony really can’t blame him for that. He hadn’t been rude but he also hadn’t been exactly kind either. Jarvis would tell him he was being “Cold and distant Master Tony.”. James seems to consider for a moment before shaking his head with what appears to be a kind smile, “No, thank you, but I should finish unpacking. Later though?” and he sounds hopeful so Tony just nods before heading towards the door “I’ll save you a spot in the mess?” James says before he can walk out of the room and suddenly Tony is blushing again, he has got to get himself under control, he simply nods his head with a quite “Sure” and walks out.

Tony just wanders. He didn’t have a set place in mind when he left the room, he just needed out. He needed away from that stare that felt much to like having his armor stripped away. And if there’s one thing Tony knew it was that he needed that armor to keep himself safe from everyone around him. So of course he ran, well more like a tactical retreat is what he tells himself. As he’s walking he hears that sound again, that constant ringing, almost like a bell tolling. And, again Tony finds it so comforting, if he focuses on it it’s like it drowns everything else out, brings all the sounds to manageable background noise. His legs start in the direction of the sound without even really being told to. It takes a few minutes and a few twisting turns between buildings but he finally finds the source, the sign outside simply says ‘Blacksmith’. He just stands there for a moment, letting the sound wash over him, letting it seep into his very bones. Finally after a few moments of standing there, he walks into the shop and is met with a blistering heat and the sharp smell of metal in the air. He’s only just walked in and there’s already sweat on his brow, but there’s something about it that doesn’t bother him. He walks further in when suddenly there’s a voice, “I’ll be right with you!” it startles Tony but he keeps his composure and silently looks around the room. The walls are covered in varying styles of weapons, armor, and shields, all varying degrees of intricate. Tony notices a sword similar to his in length right beside him and decides to pick it up. To his surprise, though maybe it shouldn’t if this smith supplies the battle mages of the school, it’s perfectly balanced. Though it is slightly too big for his hand to comfortably hold, though that’s probably more to do with the fact that he’s still a child.

After a few moments a man with olive skin and a goatee walked out of the back, covered in sweat and soot. He looks up from the cloth he’s cleaning his hands with and stops for a moment, “You must be Howard’s son.” Tony realizes that it’s the first time anyone else has acknowledge who his father is after being left. And suddenly it’s like he knows how to interact with the world again. He puts on his best smile “What gave me away?” he asks in his best nonchalant voice. The man looks at him a moment, straightens his spectacles, and puts on his own smile though to his benefit it looks much more natural and much more genuine. “There have been talks of a boy coming to train here, well you’re all still boys but, one much younger than the usual academy student. And it was let slip that it would be the great Howard Stark's son. Now I hope you take no offense to this but you’re the youngest person I’ve had come in to my shop this year alone. Probably in all the years I’ve been here honestly.” and here he pauses and smiles a little bigger, “And plus you hold that sword like you’re ready to use it. I can’t think of too many children who could do that.”. And the way he says that, it almost sounds like concern. But why would this stranger be concerned? No one else is so why should he? Before Tony can reply he starts again, “Forgive me, I may have crossed a line. My name is Ho Yinsen. But please call me Yinsen, welcome to my shop. Here you will find everything you may need, and if you cannot find it then we can make it. What brings you in today?” and he sounds proud and sure. And again, Tony is left wondering what that feels like, but he pushes that away and instead says “Ah, well I heard this sound when we came in earlier and I followed it here. It sounded like a bell tolling and I guess I was just...curious.” And he knows he sounds so dumb and childish and he’s blushing again. He briefly wonders what it is about today that has him constantly blushing.

Before he can really form an apology, or any other excuse for that matter, Yinsen is looking at him again much more closely this time. Tony really wishes people would stop doing that, especially today, he isn’t some puzzle to be solved. “Tell me Master Stark-” and here Tony has to stop Yinsen, no matter if it is rude. He is not and never wishes to be called ‘Master Stark’ by anyone. “Please, if I am to call you Yinsen then call me Tony, or even Stark. I don’t really care but please never call me ‘Master Stark’ that’s my father. Not me.”. And maybe he’d be blushing again if it weren’t for the fact that he’s had this exact conversation with the staff, he refuses to call them servants like his parents, at the mansion. And again, Yinsen is watching him closely, but Tony refuses to back down from this stare, in this he is resolute. They stare each other down for what feels like hours but was really only a few seconds before Yinsen finally nods slowly, a small smile on his face. “Apologies Tony, now what is it I can help you with today?” and here he sounds much more interested in his answer this time around. Tony pauses for a moment, looks down at the sword he’s still holding, and then looks at all the others and everything else adoring the walls and floor. Finally he looks back to Yinsen, “You made all of this?” and there’s genuine curiosity in his voice. Yinsen nods, “Well myself and my apprentices and the other masters in the shop. You see while I own the shop, I am more adept at making weapons, the sword you’re holding is one I made, While the others are better at armor or shields.” and here Tony comes to some conclusion he wasn’t really looking for, but it gives him a thrill all the same. He looks back down at the sword one last time before looking back up at yinsen, a spark in his eyes and a fierce smile on his lips, “Teach me.” and with a note Tony realizes it isn’t a request but a command. But he can’t find it in himself to care. He needs this, needs this like a fish needs water. He doesn’t know how he knows that, he just does. And Yinsen seems to see that same thing for he smiles back maybe a little kinder but sharp as well, “It will not be easy, I’ll treat you with no favoritism or anything like that. I’ll expect you here when you aren’t training. No complaints.”. Tony smiles wider, “That sounds perfect.” and he means it, all he wants is to feel like a normal person, and if this is the chance he gets for that then he’ll take it and hold on to it with all his strength. Yinsen nods once more “Good, training doesn’t begin for new recruits until 2 days from now. I expect to see you in here pre-dawn each day. We’ll work out hours for you with your instructor once training begins.”. Tony nods once, strong and resolute, and puts the sword back on the wall where it was and turns back to Yinsen, “It’s been a pleasure Master Yinsen. I look forward to learning and working with you.” and Yinsen notes with fondness that Tony actually looks a boy his age, and not the jaded man that walked in. It’s a good look, one that Yinsen hopes to see more.

When Tony walked back outside it was later than he had expected. The sun was past its noon height, creeping towards late afternoon. He hadn’t realized how long he’d been walking around or speaking to Master Yinsen. Though it was still too early to head to the mess for dinner, so instead, he decided to head back to his quarters to get his sword. He figured he could get in some practice before eating dinner. As he was walking back he heard a familiar voice, “Why wasn’t I assigned to Anthony’s training class? I specifically requested it.”. That was Obie, and he sounded rather angry, Tony moved his back against the wall of the closest building and stayed out of sight. “You can damn well make all the request you want to Stane. And so can Howard for that matter. But I’m the one that decides who’s in charge of training and I decided that Danvers would do a much better job with this group than anyone else. Now if you have a problem with that then I suggest you suck it up. You’re only here because the king himself requested for it on your behalf. If it had been left up to me I wouldn’t have you within 100 meters of my students. Do I make myself perfectly clear Instructor?” And suddenly Tony has gone back in time when he was maybe 5 or 6 and being held and hugged by a woman that his mother had told him to call ‘Aunt Peggy’. He had only seen her a handful of times after that. And then he hadn’t seen her again after his 10th birthday. His mother would never tell him why that was either. Now he thought he had an idea as to why. ‘Aunt’ Peggy Carter was the head of the battle mage academy for the kingdom. Tony took a deep breath, took a few quite steps backwards, squared his shoulders, and put on his best board expression and walked forward. Couldn’t have them thinking he had been listening in. He started forward again, looking at the ground as he went to appear as if lost in thought. When he rounded the corner He saw them there just outside the door of a building he had passed earlier on his way to Yinsens shop. Tony pauses and here he really doesn’t have to hide his surprise. Despite hearing her voice and knowing it was her is very different from actually seeing her. She’s older now, has more gray than auburn in her hair, more wrinkles around her eyes and mouth, and now she and Tony are the same height. “Aunt Peggy?” he sounds like he’s 5 years old again, meeting her for the first time in his memory, with his mother in the garden outside the mansion. She looks up from the heated conversation and stares at him. She backs away from Obie, who might have the advantage of height and weight but still seemed to cower from the woman, and walks directly towards him, an unreadable expression on her face. And, for a moment, Tony thinks he’s in trouble, thinks he’s done something wrong and prepares for the onslaught, verbal or physical. But it doesn’t come instead he’s being pulled into a fiercely tight hug. He wondered absently how long it’d been since he had been hugged like this. He couldn’t even remember, his mother had stopped hugging him after Howard had told her that it would “Make the boy soft”. And while Jarvis had always been a great source of comfort for him, he had never really hugged Tony. He had patted his head or his back sure, but never hugged him. And he didn’t think Howard knew the meaning of physical affection. He hesitated a moment but hugged her back just as tightly burying his face into her shoulder, taking a deep breath in, remembering the smell of a woman that had made him feel safe. And he suddenly remembered the last time he had been hugged. It was by this very woman on his tenth birthday. That was the last hug he had had in the past four years. There was a heat building behind his eyes that he hadn’t felt in months. Not since his father had punched him in the stomach for getting his footwork wrong in his new sword play.

He was the first to pull away if only slightly, he looked up from her shoulder and saw Obie standing there still, glaring at them both before his eyes locked onto Tony’s and it seemed the glare had now shifted to him and him alone. He started to tense and pull away further from Peggy. She looked up then, saw where he was looking and turned around fully, all the while keeping an arm around Tony’s back, hand landing just below his ribs. “Instructor Stane you are dismissed.” while it sounded friendly Tony could hear the underlying command and the anger behind it. He wondered why she sounded angry. Obie seem startled as well before he could get his face back under control. He straightened his back and shoulders, put on a pleasant smile that even Tony could tell was fake. He nodded towards Peggy, “Ma’am”, and walked towards what tony remembered were the instructor quarters. “Bloody bastard” it was said so quietly Tony wasn’t sure he had heard it at all, but when he looked down he saw aunt Peggy looked livid. It wasn’t a face he had really seen from her before, he had just opened his mouth to comment when suddenly there were hands on his shoulders squeezing tightly and he couldn’t help the hiss of pain that escaped him as pressure was applied to what were surely large and ugly bruises. And suddenly the hands were gone “Anthony what’s wrong?” And there was genuine concern in that voice. A voice he was sure he could trust, but still his father's voice was louder, “You’re so weak!” so Tony just smiled and shook his head “There’s nothing wrong Aunt Peggy.”. She looked at him for a moment before looping her arm around his, “Come with me.” it wasn’t a request. They walked in silence for a few moments before Tony couldn’t take it anymore. “Aunt Peggy where are we going?” and without missing a beat, she replies, “Hush child. Children are meant to be seen not heard.” and he had heard that so many times while she visited that he can’t even suppress the laugh that follows it, and he really doesn’t want to either.

She looks up at him with what can only be called a fond smile on her face, “Oh Anthony my darling, I have missed your laugh. I have missed you.” and suddenly that burning is back behind his eyes. He clears his throat, twice, before he can get words passed the lump in his throat, “I’ve missed you too Aunt Peggy. And if you don’t mind, could you call me Tony please? I’ve been going by that since I turned 11.”. And here she looks a little sad, but she smiles all the same, “Of course my dear. I’ll call you anything you wish, just tell me.” and he wonders why everyone can’t be that easy, but instead of asking he smiles wide, “So if I wanted you to call me the best battle mage you’d ever seen?” and he’s laughing by the time he finishes. “Oh we’ll just have to see about that one!” and she’s laughing too, and it’s better, It’s better than the tense silence that had been following them since their embrace.

It only takes a moment after that for them to seemingly reach their destination. A rather large building at what he supposes is the head of the academy grounds. It’s built in the same style as all the rest, chiseled stone with glass windows and wooden doors, but unlike the rest this one is two stories high. “This is the administrative office that not only serves the academy, but all battle mages in the kingdom. That’s why it’s two stories instead of one like the other buildings.” And he looks down at her again, “You did always seem able to read my mind and I’m just remembering how creepy that was.” but he says it smiling. She smiles back at him brightly before giving his arm a tug, they walked through the large double doors. Several people stopped what they were doing and looked up giving a salute, their right fist over their heart, with a clear “Arch Mage” from all of them. Tony looked down at her then, saw her give them a nod in return and heard everyone resume what they were doing. As he was about to ask about it she was pulling him towards the stairs in the center of the room. As they continued to walk, each person stopped whatever they were doing and gave the same salute and greeting. It was a little overwhelming if he was being honest with himself, he was used to the attention, being the son of a high ranking noble, and one of the smartest men, and battle mage made sure of that. But this felt different, this attention held a note of respect that he had never felt before.

They stop in front of a door at the end of the hallway at the top of the stairs, and here Aunt Peggy finally lets go of his arm and pulls a small key out from around her neck that’s attached to a string. “Worried someone would steal it?” he asks with heavy sarcasm, but the look she levels him with tells him that yes indeed that is a worry she has. Here he has the decency to look sheepish and she just gently pats his arm and continues to unlock the door. At first he thought it was just the one lock but she appeared to have a complex system that he would have to study more closely to fully understand. He even felt her use some of her own magic for something. What Tony wasn’t sure, but he felt it. Finally after a few more moments she opens the door and motions for him to come in, “Please take a seat, I’ll be just a moment.” she gestured towards a chair in front of a large wooden desk set in front of large windows that overlooked the whole academy. Tony takes a seat in the plush leather chair and looks out the windows, it’s actually nice up here. He’s always liked it up high, always climbed the trees when he went to the gardens with mother. Suddenly there’s knife in shirt cutting at the shoulder. Before he can even begin to form a proper defense against it an energy builds in the center of his chest and is released with such force that it sends the knife, and he assumes the attacker away. In the next instant he’s on his feet in a defensive position. He doesn’t have any weapons, he’ll have to make do with his fists, that’s when a voice comes through the haze, “Battle mage Stark, stand down!”. He knows that voice, “Aunt Peggy?” he comes out of his trance and finally takes stock of what’s happening. There are papers floating all over the room, the chair he was sitting in is knocked over, near it is the knife he assumes was being used to cut his shirt, and near the door is Aunt Peggy. She’s on the ground, arms supporting her up behind her back, she looks mildly dazed and confused. “Shit, Aunt Peggy are you ok?” he rushes over to her side, kneeling down beside her, hands hovering worried that he might hurt her more than she might already be. She laughs at that and finally sits up right, “Just don’t sit there, help your poor aunt won’t you?” so he stands and offers her his hand, as she stands she continues, “And don’t worry it’ll take more than something like that to hurt me. Though I will admit I didn’t expect, well, whatever that was.”. And Tony finally comes out of the haze fully and puts the pieces together.

“You attacked me.” it's said flatly. No emotion behind it, and when he does say it, she flinches like it hurts more than whatever just happened. “My dear it’s not that simple.” to Tony it is just that simple. Just like everyone else in his life he thought he could trust, he’s attacked. She nods her head at his shoulder where she had cut his shirt, he notices now that it’s cut from his collar down to the top of the seam of the shoulder, “I knew that you would never tell me about this and this was the only way I could see for myself what was wrong.”. He looks past the shirt and sees the bruise there, in the perfect shape of Howard’s hand, just like he knew it would be. He lifts his hand to cover it but she can still see it, it’s much larger than his own hand. “This is nothing, definitely not something worth attacking me over.” And she flinches again at the lack of emotion in his voice. Shouldn’t he be the one flinching when she speaks? “Tony, I promise you, my intentions were to not harm you. I did this because I needed to know what, or rather who, did.”. And she’s looking at him with pleading eyes, eyes that are begging him to understand, and on some small level he does. But it still doesn’t erase the ever present alarm bell in his head now. “What does it matter who did it? Huh? Why do you care? I know for a fact that when you visited I had bruises visible! So why should this one bruise matter!” he doesn’t know when he started yelling but he is and he hates it, yelling has always reminded him of Howard and he doesn’t want to be like him. Never wants to be like him. He closes his eyes and takes a few deep breaths trying to calm down. “Tony I’m going to walk closer to you alright?” she sounds like she’s speaking to a cornered animal, maybe he is. He hesitates a moment and nods, keeps his eyes closed and his breaths long and drawn out, trying to calm his heart from its pounding against his ribs. When she next speaks she’s directly in front of him, “Tony, I’m going to touch your face with both my hands. Is that alright?” he nods more frantically this time. He can’t get his heart to slow down, his breath is coming much quicker than he wants. He finally feels two, strong calloused hands cradle his face, and it’s gentle, so gentle that finally the heat that had been building behind his eyes breaks free and he gasps a sob. He’s tugged into a tight embrace as he finally breaks down.