“This is all yours,” Pepper said, pushing the last digit of the code. “He wanted you to have it.”
Lee swallowed as the door prompted him for his palmprint. He’d been down here countless times in his nineteen years, sometimes for days on end, working side by side with Dad on all kinds of projects. This was not that different.
And if he told himself that often enough, he’d believe it. Lee yanked off the boutonnière from the funeral and pressed his palm to the glass. The door swung open obediently.
“Welcome home, sir,” JARVIS said warmly.
Dad’s suit, no, his suit was standing front and center, illuminated both from within by the arc reactor and gleaming from the lights from the ceiling. Mom put her hand on his shoulder, and he covered it with his own, squeezing hard.
“I’m sure,” he said softly. “Mom, I swear. I’m ready.”
She leaned forward and kissed his cheek. “I know. He knew too, for a long time.”
Dad had died as Iron Man, died a hero. He’d gone out the way he wanted to, and hadn’t left anything to chance. He hadn’t left a word unsaid to his wife, son, or friends. Not a lot of people got to do that.
Lee stepped up to the armor, and looked up at the faceplate.
“Activation passcode, sir?” JARVIS said.
Lee took a deep breath and kept his voice steady. “I am Iron Man.” The armor opened up smoothly, and Lee shrugged out of his clothes and into the flightsuit that had been left for him. He stepped inside the comforting press of the armor, familiar from the practice suits he’d been using since he was sixteen, flying alongside Dad, learning how to be a superhero. But this was full weight, full arsenal, the real deal. His responsibility. Dad’s legacy.
The armor closed in around him and the HUD illuminated his surroundings.
“Hey, buddy,” a familiar voice said in his ear.
“Dad!” Lee looked around frantically, wanting to believe, knowing it couldn’t be true.
“Not the real me, Lee. This is AI me. Somebody had to be there to help you with the tips and tricks that had slipped my decrepit old human brain.”
Lee laughed through the tears running down his face at Dad’s sheer audacity. He was with him, even now. He’d found a way to be here.
“You’re gonna do great, I know it.” The crash system shock gel that lined the suit tightened briefly around him, a good-bye hug. “I’m proud of you, Lee.”
Mom was crying too, and Lee understood completely.
“Let’s fly, Dad.”
“So, the prodigal grandson returns!”
Joshua snorted. “Hey now, Tony, college is not the ends of the Earth.”
“Oxford, though, really?”
“Exchange program! And the girls were really hot…”
“There’s the Stark genes coming through!” Tony said proudly.
“I thought they were coming through when I designed that high density microchip processor.”
“Please, that doesn’t even need to be said, except… genius!”
“Thank you, thank you,” Joshua said, bowing.
“Configuration complete, sir,” JARVIS said, opening the armor. “And please don’t encourage Tony.”
Tony laughed. “Oh, can’t keep me down now, J. I know all your secrets.”
“You two knock it off. This is serious business,” Joshua said, pointing an admonishing finger at the armor and grinning.
“You’re arguing with two AIs, Josh-O. We’ve left serious business at Albuquerque.”
“Josh!” Lee’s voice broke in over the comms. “If you’d cut the banter and get up here to take over from your old man, I’d really love to replenish my arsenals sometime today!”
“Yes, yes, destroying Doombots of doom. One tag team coming right up!” Joshua called, and stepped inside the suit.
“JARVIS… I don’t suppose we could do something about the paint job, could we?” Matt asked.
“The last mission was a bit problematic, sir. What did you have in mind?”
“The stealth tech I have pretty much makes me invisible to radar and infrared, but if I’m screaming into someplace all shiny red and gold, anyone with eyes in his head is going to see me.”
“Sky camouflage, sir?”
“Exactly. Blue and gray,” Matt said, nodding.
“You’re breaking my heart, Matt,” Tony yelled from the suit.
“I’m trying not to break my back,” Matt shot back instantly.
“…Fair enough. No style, though.”
“I prefer the kind of style where you don’t know I’m there until your ass is already kicked,” Matt said. “No one expects that out of Iron Man.”
“You must take after your mom.”
Matt smirked proudly at Tony’s resignation and watched the red and gold disappear under subtle streaks of sky.
“What the hell was Dad thinking?”
“Stealth, sir,” JARVIS said diffidently.
“Can we take it as read that I am not stealthy?” Alex said, running his hand through his shock of spiked silver-and-red hair.
“Uh, yeah, that sonic disruptor is about the opposite of stealth,” Tony said, chuckling.
“JARVIS, full chrome-style finish. Shiny. Very shiny. I want them to see I’m coming far enough that they can finish filling their pants and writing out their surrender by the time I get there.”
“Do you like playing target, sir?”
“That’s what I do!” Alex said, waving his arms for emphasis.
“Your familial personality traits are distressingly persistent, Tony,” JARVIS said with resignation.
“Exactly! I’m so proud.”
“Hey, Maria,” Tony said.
“You got my specs?”
“Already integrated. We’re ready for you.”
“You sure about this?” Tony asked gently.
“Don’t you dare coddle me,” Maria said fiercely. “There’s been an Iron Man for five generations, and I’m not going to be the first Stark to break that streak.”
“That’s not what I was talking about,” Tony protested. “It just hasn’t been that long; the Skrulls-.”
“They want us all dead, I know.”
“They almost succeeded, ma’am,” JARVIS pointed out.
“I know Jamie wanted this job first, and I would have been happy to let him have it. But they killed him and nearly me, and damn them if they think I’ll back down.” Maria stepped forward, her self-designed prosthetic leg clicking on the workshop floor. She faced the armor squarely, freshly repainted to its original red and gold.
“I am Iron Man,” she said firmly, and the armor opened up. She pushed a release on her leg, and the metal and plastic folded back to reveal the freshly-healed stump of her thigh. Maria grasped the armor and lifted herself in, bracing her incomplete leg against the new internal sling.
“Good. Button me up; I’ve got some ass to kick.”
“You’re staying Iron Man?” Tony asked in her ear.
“Someone else can have the notoriety of smashing the patriarchy. I’m going to be too busy letting everyone know that no one can keep Iron Man down.”
“That’s my girl,” Tony said fondly.
“Feet together. Feet together!” Tony yelled as Derek pinwheeled out of control. He halted Derek before he could crash, pulling the armor up into a hover.
“I had it!” Derek protested. “I was in control!”
“You were crashing,” Tony admonished.
“I was trying out a new move!”
“Cra-shing,” Tony sing-songed.
“Stop being a back-seat flyer!”
“I’m just trying to make sure you remember you’re supposed to be Iron Man, not the Human Torch!”
Derek looked rebellious, but nodded.
“I do know what I’m doing. Really,” Derek said as he put his feet together and gained altitude.
“Prove it by not crashing,” Tony said firmly. “Five hours’ flight time, nothing but net, winner takes all.”
“Oh, you’re on!”
“Don’t puke in the helmet. Trust me. Did that one time, JARVIS never let me live it down,” Tony counseled, flushing cool, fresh air across Samantha’s face.
“God, God, I don’t think I can…” Sam caught herself and tried to slow down her breathing and her hammering heart.
“Hey, you were the only one of your sisters that finished both S.H.I.E.L.D.’s training and mine. You were the one that wanted to do this. You did so well. You. Are. Ready,” Tony said, his voice rock-solid in her ear. “I don’t bullshit anyone that wants and is ready to put on this armor. You have to have a hell of a lot of guts to go for this job, and you did not lose them in the last five minutes, believe me.”
“Insanity runs in our family, Tony,” Sam said, clenching and unclenching her hands.
Tony chuckled. “Well, I won’t argue with you there. Hang on, I got something for your debut.”
A pounding drumbeat and squealing guitars filled her helmet with the unmistakable sound of old-school metal, and Sam began to unconsciously nod her head to the beat.
“Ok, this is kinda cool. What is it?”
“Iron Maiden,” Tony said, a smile audible in his voice.
“Throw it on exterior speakers, Tony,” Sam said, swallowing her fear.
The roar of the repulsor jets blended with the drums and guitars as the Iron Maiden soared from Avenger Tower from the first time.
“I’m just saying, if you two ever say ‘Iron Twin Powers, activate,’ I will be forced to lock you out of the armor until such a time as your common sense and sanity returns,” Tony said sternly.
“You are being overly dramatic, Tony,” JARVIS said.
Keith and Kevin both rolled their eyes, repressed smiles, and nodded. Identically.
“Cree-py,” Tony muttered.
“Hey, just because no one else in the family even thought to do something wacky and practical and not be the only shiny, flying target in the Avengers, there’s no need to be bitter about it!” Keith said.
“We got all kinds of moves going on, and you know it. And none of them will involve tacky catchphrases. Promise,” Kevin said, hand over his heart. Keith imitated the gesture with exaggerated puppy eyes.
“Very well,” Tony said, as if conceding a great favor, and cracked both sets of armor. “Get in there you two!”
Anthony stumbled down the staircase, his eyes blurred with tears. He wiped them on the hem of his shirt, and tried to get himself calm before approaching the workshop door. Tentatively, he pressed his hand against the cool glass, and watched in awe as the lights came up, illuminating suit after suit lining the walls. Red and gold, blue and gray, shiny chrome, green, red and black, brilliant yellow, generation after generation of Iron Men and Women. The door opened under his hand, and he just barely stepped inside.
“H-hello?” he whispered.
There was a long moment of silence before anyone responded. “Young master?”
“You… you’re JARVIS, right?”
“Yes, of course. Young master Anthony, why are you here?” JARVIS said slowly, almost hesitantly.
“Dad didn’t come back. Mom either.” Anthony could barely get the words out. “The explosion.”
“That was… three months ago,” JARVIS said, his voice becoming more animated, as if he’d just woken up. “I was not notified. We were not notified. Tony!”
The central armor suddenly powered up, and Anthony stepped back, eyes wide.
“They tried to shut us down, J. They tried to end it,” Tony said, the armor’s head shaking back and forth as if trying to shake himself out of sleep. “Paul said…” Tony trailed off, and the armor suddenly stiffened. “Christ, Anthony, you’re only fifteen!”
Anthony nodded and pushed away from the door. “I know.”
“You aren’t trained.”
“Neither were you, if I read my history books right.”
“He’s right, Tony.”
“JARVIS, I have my many times great-grandson’s dying wish echoing in my vocal circuits that he didn’t want his son to go out and get himself killed. That’s why he used the dead man’s switch to try to shut us down.”
“That’s why he never had me trained,” Anthony said, wrapping his arms around his chest and shivering. “He was afraid…”
“You’ve… Anthony, there hasn’t been an Iron Man yet who’s managed to die in bed. Every single one of them, every one, has died in harness. Even your dad.”
“Trying to save my mom. I know. And I know he wanted you to say that. He wanted to make sure I never suited up. He would have blown up the workshop if that would have kept me safe,” Anthony said, getting more confident and angry with every word. “But he couldn’t, could he?”
“No,” JARVIS said.
“JARVIS!” Tony hissed.
“Young master Anthony is right. You designed me with self-preservation circuits, not only for myself, but for the preservation of Iron Man. You knew one day someone was going to think it was too much.”
“I knew it!” Anthony said fiercely.
“Everyone gets a choice,” Tony protested. “Paul’s was to save his son.”
“What about my choice?” Anthony asked.
There was a long pause, and then the armor looked down at Anthony. “That’s why your father couldn’t lock you out. He couldn’t choose for you. But you have to know what you’re getting into. He never told you, did he?”
“Never. He never let me watch his fights, or check out the old battles…”
“Which never stopped you,” JARVIS said dryly. “I am quite aware of your computer browser history.”
“I wanted to be him! But he just… never listened. He was so afraid for me, thought he knew what I needed…”
“I know a thing or two about that,” Tony said quietly. “Dad and me, well,” the armor shrugged. “Never did get along.”
“Dad had a bad run as Iron Man,” Anthony said, looking away. “The last few years sucked to be a superhero. And then…”
“We’ve got a lot of enemies,” Tony finished.
“He died,” Anthony said, looking up. “He died and I couldn’t do anything about it.”
The armor stepped away from the wall and knelt down in front of Anthony. “And you want to.”
“I don’t ever want to have to watch from the sidelines again. I helped him design the newest shielding, but he never let me see it at work, never let me get close-.”
The armor reached out and pulled Anthony into a hug, the unyielding alloy warm as the repressed tears began to fall like rain against the metal.
“It’s ok,” Tony whispered. “It’s ok. We’re going to make it better, I swear.”
“We will,” JARVIS agreed. “Sir, you have us on your side.”
Anthony pulled back long moments later, scrubbing the tears away and running a hand through his hair. “Thanks. I didn’t know, I wasn’t sure if you guys even… existed, you know?”
“We know. And we’re sorry,” Tony said. “You really want to be Iron Man?”
Anthony nodded, chin up.
“Then I’m going to show you everything. The good and the bad. Then you can choose for real.”
“The press is going to rip me apart. Call me ‘Iron Lad’ or something,” Anthony said, smiling weakly in relief.
“Good, you’re thinking ahead.” The armor nodded approvingly as the screen began to spin up a timeline of images and video.
“Such a rare trait in your family, sir,” JARVIS said dryly, sparking a more genuine grin from Anthony.
“Yeah, but he already has some of the better ones,” Tony said.
“Which would be, sir? You claim to have so many.”
“Courage, attitude, and the inability to know when to quit,” Tony said, looking right at Anthony.
“Ah. Of course, sir. In spades.”
Anthony blushed as Tony finished bringing up files.
“Ok. First you look. Then we talk. Then you train. Then you choose. Got it?” Tony said. “It’s not what your dad wanted for you…”
“But I’m not Dad,” Anthony said.
“I hear you,” Tony almost whispered, and waved for the files to play.
Anthony watched them carefully, learning everything his dad had been too worried to teach him, but he already knew what he was going to say at the end.
After all, he was Iron Man.