When he’s born Tony’s wings are soft like all children’s are, covered in thick smoke grey down and as delicate as a whisper.
Speculation runs rampant as to what the new Stark heir’s soul will show itself as despite the fact that there’s still years left until such a thing will come to pass.
“Something fierce and strong,” Howard always boasts in those first few months and years, peacock wings spread wide and shameless. “He’s a Stark, after all.”
“Something swift and clever,” Maria always smiles softly when asked at this gala or that charity dinner, Italian sparrow wings held demurely against her back or tucked away out of sight.
Nestled away in the manor, Tony sleeps.
And quickly, far too quickly, he becomes.
“Madre,” Tony whispers, three years old and already so smart and so curious about everything. “Will I have wings like yours?”
“Maybe,” Maria smiles, soft and sweet as she pulls him closer, tucking his face into the hollow of her throat. “Or maybe you’ll have wings like your Padre. Or maybe you’ll have something different from both of us. Only time will tell but it doesn’t really matter, my sweet Antonio. You will always be my darling boy and no matter what shape your soul takes I will always love you.”
“Promise?” Tony sighs the question into the side of her neck as he reaches out to touch her golden brown and white feathers with small, careful hands.
“I promise, curore mio,” Maria presses a kiss against sweet, honey smelling curls, sweeps a hand lovingly over soft, smoky down. “Forever.”
It is, Tony will one day realize, the first time his mother ever lied to him.
Her love, her devotion and care and protection, had a limit. Her promise of forever, of always, was a lie.
Or, maybe, it wasn’t.
Maybe Maria was telling the truth that night. Maybe she really had loved him through everything that followed afterwards. Maybe she never really stopped caring.
Somehow, Tony will think one day when he’s older and in some ways wiser and when he finally knows just who and what he is down to his soul, that might almost be worse.
Tony’s four and his wings are big.
They’re still soft and downy, all smoke grey cloud soft fuzz not fit yet for full blown flying. His first molting won’t come until he’s somewhere between six and nine years old after all, after his soul has had time to blossom and grow and settle.
Howard seems almost proud of them, of how Tony is really more fluff and fuzz than boy, dwarfed by wings that already sport an intimidating span despite his age.
Sometimes, on the rare occasion he’s home, Howard will even take him outside to glide around the garden, his peacock wings spread wide and proud as Tony hops and claps and begs to go up just one more time.
Always one more time.
“Bet you’re gonna be a predator,” Howard always boasts as he grins, hair windswept and face flushed. “Gonna do your old man proud ain’t you boy?”
“Yes Padre,” Tony always answers, eyes golden bright and grin twice as blinding.
Tony makes his first circuit board a few days later.
And then ...
“Madre!” Tony skids across the polished marble floor as he careens across the foyer towards the sitting room that Maria always retires to after lunch on the days that she’s home.
“Master Anthony,” Jarvis scolds behind him, ever on his heels as Tony races through the manor, a fond sort of exasperation in his voice. “Please slow down.”
Tony just laughs, bright and delighted, and goes faster.
He hits the sitting room door with a thud, tumbling through it in a whirlwind of down and flapping wings and bright gleeful giggles.
“Such ruckus,” Maria calls, a book in hand and tea at her elbow from where she sits by the window. “What mischief are you getting up to today, hm, baby bird?”
“Look, look, look,” Tony chants as he skids to a halt just in front of her, hopping from foot to foot and wings fluttering in excitement.
He shoves the circuit board in her direction.
“Oh my,” Maria coos, eyes wide as she stares down at what he’s made. “Look at this! My little chick, not even molted and settled yet and already making things just like his Padre.”
Tony preens, wings spreading wide and thrilled above his head as he basks in her praise.
“I’m so proud of you, Antonio,” Maria laughs just a bit as she looks back up at him then. “Howard will be to-”
She stops, words cut off in an instance.
As Tony watches, the joy and pride in her expression begins to leech away.
“Antonio,” there’s something agonized, something horrified, in Maria’s face then. “No.”
“Madre?” Tony whispers as fear bubbles to life inside of him, wings drooping and automatically beginning to curl down and around him. “Madre, what’s wrong?”
The circuit board hits the floor.
Tony goes sprawling a second later, the air knocked out of him from the force of Maria’s shove.
Maria’s hovering over him in the next blink, something terrible twisting its way across her face. She reaches out towards him, towards his sprawled out wings, and buries crimson colored nails in the sensitive undersides.
"I'll fix it," Maria tells him desperately, madly. "No one will know."
And then she rips something away from him.
Maria, eyes blown wide, tears streaming down her face, keeps ripping.
“Madre please,” Tony screams, begs, as he tries to get her to stop, tries to get out from underneath her, tries to get away from the pain. “Please, Madre, please stop. It hurts. It hurts. It hurts.”
“Antonio,” Maria moans raggedly, devastation on every inch of her. “No, no, no. Not you. Not my baby bird.”
But she doesn’t stop ripping at his wings.
She doesn’t stop hurting him.
Jarvis is there in the next second, hands wrapping around Maria’s wrists as he jerks her up and off of Tony, the osprey wings he normally keeps concealed during working hours out for once and spread wide.
“Master Anthony,” Jarvis pants, face grim as he grapples with a struggling, screaming, Maria. “Go to your room, young sir. Please.”
Tony, pain arching through every single inch of him, lays there on the floor, confused and frightened, unable to move.
Maria lunges towards him again, fighting Jarvis’ hold with an animal like ferocity.
Tony rolls over and tucks his aching wings as close to his back as he can get them. Then he pushes himself up onto his feet and runs.
He only stops once, pausing by the door to the sitting room to look back.
Maria, makeup running from her tears and her hair wild, clings to Jarvis and wails.
Clutched in her fists and littered on the floor around her are small gold and crimson feathers.
The sight of them makes Tony’s wings ache even worse.
“Go,” Jarvis calls again, “please Master Anthony, you must go.”
Tony turns and runs.
Jarvis finds Tony hours later when the screaming has finally stopped.
He’s pressed into the back corner of his closet, wings pulled tight to his back and hands clamped over his ears.
“Oh Master Anthony,” there’s something raw in Jarvis’ voice then, something aching.
Tony stays where he is, curled down in on himself.
Tony just rocks himself back and forth, back and forth, and tries to understand what he’d done wrong.
Tries to understand what he’d done to make his Madre hurt him so.
It takes Jarvis a while to coax Tony out of his closet, to herd him gently onto his bed.
It takes him even longer to get Tony to unfurl his wings.
“I won’t hurt you,” Jarvis coaxes him softly. “I swear it. But I need to see the damage.”
When Tony finally unfurls his wings just a bit Jarvis hisses at the raw, bloody patches of skin he unveils.
“It hurts,” Tony’s whisper is reed thin, his throat sore from all of his desperate crying.
“I’ll take care of you,” Jarvis promises. “I’ll make it feel better. And I am so, so sorry, Master Anthony. I’m so sorry.”
Exhausted, Tony leans against Jarvis’ side, presses his face into the rumbled dress shirt that smells of fresh bread and lemon furniture polish, and cries.
It’ll be years before Tony understands what, exactly, Jarvis had really been apologizing for that night.
Howard’s reaction is quieter, calmer.
Tony stands there in front of him, stands in front of the giant oak desk that he used to be allowed to sit on sometimes as Howard told him stories about the war. About Captain America and the Howling Commandos.
But now Tony’s stuck on the other side, watching in real time as the warmth bleeds out of his Padre’s eyes as he looks between the small pile of gold and crimson feather, the circuit board, and Tony himself.
Tony’s smart, everyone says so, but he doesn’t understand what’s happening.
He doesn’t understand what he did wrong. Doesn’t understand why his feathers are so bad even if they have started coming so much earlier than Madre had said they would.
He just … doesn’t understand.
“Goddamn it,” Howard hisses as he leans back in his desk chair, a glass of scotch in one hand and something a lot like rage dancing in his eyes.
When Howard abruptly surges forward and hurls the crystal tumbler at the wall Tony cries out, wings flaring and arms flying up to protect his face.
“You,” Howard seethes as he plants his fists on the desktop and leans forward, “you little bastard. You goddamn cuckoo. You were supposed to be worth something. You were supposed to be my legacy. Instead you’re this.” Howard reaches down, grabs a fist full of gold and crimson feather, and throws them in Tony’s direction. “Instead you’re fucking worthless.”
Tony, arms curled around his head, wings bristling in fear, just sobs.
“What a waste,” Howard finally sighs as he throws himself back into his chair again and reaches out to grab the entire decanter of scotch. “What a goddamn waste.”
Madre doesn’t touch Tony anymore.
For a solid month after that day in the sitting room she can’t look at him without crying and Jarvis never, ever, leaves them alone together in the same room.
After that she’s just … gone.
She’s packed up in a whirlwind of bags and headed out the door to somewhere far and away without another word to Tony.
Off to some distant destination, somewhere Tony’s neither needed nor welcomed.
There are no more late afternoons spent by the piano. No more evenings reading by the fire or dancing together in the ballroom while Pavarotti belts out Nessun Dorma on the record player in the corner.
Tony still doesn’t know what he did.
He doesn’t know how to fix it, how to swear not to do it again.
If he just knew what he did, if he just knew why whatever it is was so bad, he’d promise to never do it again.
But he doesn’t.
So he can’t.
And in the years that follow she never really comes back.
Even when she’s whirling back in and out of the manor smelling like vermouth and cigarette smoke, she's never really there in any of the ways that matter.
Tony lost his Madre, lost his Padre, lost his entire world except for Jarvis, the day his first feathers grew in.
Tony’s feathers begin to grow in rapidly after that, smoke grey down slowly giving way to shining gold and burning crimson.
“Put them away,” Howard hisses, hand tight around Tony’s upper arm as he shakes him harshly. “Now, goddamn it. Put your fucking wings away.”
“I c-can’t,” Tony sobs, fear and confusion and hurt arcing through him like lightning. “I don’t know how.”
“Then learn you useless thing,” Howard spits as he tosses him to the ground. “There’s a photo shoot next week, boy. You’ve got five days. If I see even a hint of a feather from you …”
Cowering at Howard’s feet, arms wrapped around his head, Tony just sobs and sobs and sobs.
Jarvis helps him.
Because of course he does.
With gentle hands and soft whispers, Jarvis helps him learn to tuck his wings down and away, helps Tony learn how to hide his soul away where no one else can see it.
Tony hates it, hates having his wings gone, hates the smooth skin of his back when they’re not there.
Four days in and he can hold his wings in for six hours at a time.
He hates every single minute of it.
But it’s better than finding out what Pad -, what Sir would do to him otherwise.
By the time he’s five Tony’s wings have settled in full.
By the time he’s six Tony’s control only lapses when he’s sleeping.
Or when Sir is angry with him.
And when he’s back at the manor Sir is always angry.
Tony turns seven and he builds an engine.
Tony’s seven and he’s screaming.
His wings are out because Howard had made him bring them out despite always, always, telling Tony to hide them in the past.
His wings are out.
“See,” Howard sneers, blood on his hands and supple leather shoes grinding shed feathers into dust on the study floor. “This is all you’ll ever be good for, boy. This is all you’ll ever be.”
Howard kicks out a leg.
Tony tastes blood, feels it running thick and hot down the front of his face. It feels just like the blood on his back, running down to collect at the waistband of his pants. When he breathes a fine red mist spatters across the floor in front of him.
A thick leather sole slams against his temple, a pointed toe against his ribs.
Oh god, his wings.
And then …
Tony’s official register has him classified as a raven.
Uncommon enough to be deemed special, unique enough to be considered of note.
Known for intelligence, for wit.
A perfectly acceptable classification for the Stark heir.
It is a lie.
Tony knows exactly what he is now, has had Howard spitting it like a curse at him since the day his wings fully settled.
Has had the truth of what he is pressed down into his skin and his bones and his soul with Howard’s fist and feet and Maria’s absence.
Tony knows what he is but he still doesn’t understand.
Tony is seven years old and he doesn’t hate himself.
That comes later.
Jarvis teaches him to fly.
He takes Tony out into the gardens after the sun’s gone down and the stars are shining overhead.
In the soft glow of the moon when there’s no one in the manor awake to see, Jarvis unfurls his bold osprey wings, leads Tony out onto cool, dew covered grass, and gives him the sky.
It’s more precious than anything Tony’s ever been given before.
He loves it.
Loves the wind in his feathers. Loves the stars in his eyes and the sky reaching out to welcome him.
He loves Jar-
Tony thinks about warm, golden brown and white feathers. Thinks about Pavarotti boldly belting out ‘in your cold room/look at the stars that tremble/of love and hope’ in a voice Tony still hears in his dreams as Mad- Mari- as Ma’am spun him round and round in circles.
He thinks about Sir’s big calloused palm ruffling his hair absently. Thinks about rare, stolen afternoons holding tight to those hands and being lifted into the air. Thinks about war stories and the once comforting scent of fine cigars and finer brandy.
That was love, Tony thinks, something soft and aching and scared welling up inside of him. Those were all things he had once, were all things that he’d loved.
Then Tony thinks about what had come after. Thinks about the screaming and the crying. Thinks about gold and crimson feathers scattered on the floor, clutched tightly in painful fists, piled high on a big oak desk. Thinks about the sitting room he still can’t step foot into without shaking and about scotch scented rage and the taste of blood.
Tony looks at Jarvis and he thinks …
Tony looks away.
Holds his silence.
Jarvis has never hurt him.
At least not yet.
It’s safer this way.
“This is all you’ll ever be good for, boy,” Howard spits at him, a familiar refrain of hate and pain. “Might as well get used to it now.”
Tony swallows down blood, breathes out pain, comforts himself with the fact that it’s all … temporary.
Only a moment in time.
No matter how bad it hurts now, it won’t hurt later.
Not for Tony.
Fire will steal it all away.
Temporary doesn’t make it any less real.
Temporary still hurts.
Tony’s wings grow bigger.
His feathers gleam like gold and blood, like fire and sunlight.
Tony knows what he is now.
He knows why his wingspan still hasn’t stabilized, knows why his feathers fall like lace, dragging across the ground like ribbons no matter how high up he arches his wings.
There’s a gala the summer before Tony’s due to head off to MIT. A big military ball with a special guest of honor.
Tony, all of twelve and dressed in a new perfectly tailored tux, runs his thumb over the gilded invitation and feels his breath catch in his throat.
‘Guest of Honor: The Last American War Phoenix.'
Something inside of Tony curls up a little bit, goes wounded and cold.
There’s no name on the invitation, just the title.
Like that’s the only thing that matters.
Maybe Howard was right all along.
Tony sticks to the edges of the gala.
He is, after all, there to be seen and not heard
The prodigy child of the great Howard Stark. The shy little raven who never shows his wings and never plays or talks or dances with the other children.
A show bird only there to be trotted out when necessary.
“These things are boring, aren’t they little bird?” An unfamiliar voice, smooth and warm, breaks into Tony’s thoughts, scattering the schematics he’s been building in his mind to the wind.
No one talks to him at these things, not really. Beyond the necessary pleasantries they all stopped years ago when they realized Tony wouldn’t talk back.
When Tony turns towards the speaker his heart abruptly starts to pound.
Because there, standing just behind him, a jacket so heavy with medals there’s almost no fabric to be seen and two gold and bright red wings flaring up behind him with feathers that still drag the floor, is a man.
And even without the wings Tony would know who this is because some quiet part of Tony, some small hidden piece, is chiming out in welcome at his presence.
The Last American War Phoenix.
The phoenix looks young, looks twenty-two and all smooth skin and thick black hair, but Tony knows he’s not, knows he’s older, far far older, than he looks.
Time doesn’t touch a phoenix once they reach maturity, not like it does the rest of the world, not for a very very long time, not unless they want it to, not unless they let it.
But when Tony looks up into eyes that, for a split second, flare a bright and brilliant gold before they settle back down into a vibrant green, he also knows that’s not the entire truth.
Because, looking at this man whose name Tony doesn’t even know, only one word comes to mind to describe what he sees.
Despite his youthful looks, despite the smooth skin and vibrant wings, despite it all, the man just looks … tired.
Tony looks at him and just knows that it’s true.
For a long moment they just stand there and stare at each other, like recognizing like without Tony ever unfurling his wings.
“God,” the war phoenix finally huffs out after a bit, something that looks almost like grief sliding across his face. “God, you’re so young.”
“I’m twelve,” Tony whispers back, but he suddenly feels so much younger.
If anything that just makes the expression on the man’s face worse.
“How many people know?” the phoenix nods toward Tony’s back, to where his wings are hidden.
Tony doesn't even pretend to misunderstand.
“Three,” Tony answers. Howard, Maria, Jarvis. Those are the only people who know what he is. Howard had beaten absolute control of his wings manifesting into him long before they’d completely settled after all.
“Three too many then,” the phoenix hums. “Keep it secret, kid. Keep those wings hidden. Don’t let anyone else know, you hear me?”
Tony nods, agrees, feels something in his chest crack itself wide open.
“I was eight when my wings settled,” the phoenix murmurs softly, an old and aching sort of grief in his eyes. “The government came for me when I was fifteen, offered too much money for my parents to turn down no matter how much I begged. They told me it was time for me to do my duty, told me it’d be an honor for me to serve. Told me it was what I was made for.”
“Dying,” Tony whispers softly, a familiar and much hated refrain. A secret shared. “It’s all we’ll ever be good for. And I know we come back but it hurts. It always hurts. I don’t like burning.”
The phoenix’s face crumples just a bit, tears shimmering in his eyes before he blinks them away.
“I know it does kid, I know,” his voice wavers, goes watery before he clears his throat roughly. “And I wish to God that was something you didn’t already know too. But they’ll make you fight, kid. They’ll make you hurt and die and burn for their causes over and over again if they get you. They'll make you a soldier until your soul finally gives out.”
“I don’t want to be a soldier,” Tony tells him softly. “I … I don’t want to hurt anyone. I don’t want to have to burn. I wanna be a mechanic. I just … I just want to make things.”
“I wanted to be a teacher,” the phoenix tells him in turn, something far away in his eyes. “I wanted to get married, have some kids, get a dog. But … they never let me go. And now … now I’m the last one left. So do me a favor, kid, make sure it stays that way, okay? Don’t you ever let them get you. Not like they got me, not like they got all the others. If they come for you then you run, little bird. You run. You fly far, far away, and you hide and you never let them get you.”
Here is the truth:
Phoenixes used to be considered a blessing.
The rarest wing type, the most unique expression of their collective biology.
Phoenixes were born protectors, men and women blessed with long life, with healing, with the ability to shield and fight and die for a people, a place, a cause over and over and over again for as long as their souls could bare the strain.
But then things changed.
Jealousy ran rampant, questions started being asked.
Why should we fight when they can? Why should we die when they don’t stay dead? Why do they get to have all of this but we don’t?
Some countries handled it differently.
Some still revered phoenixes when they appeared. Some hunted them down and locked them away or pressed them into military service. Some did things that fell somewhere in between. Some did things far more extreme.
There were ... experiments.
Phoenixes stopped being a blessing. Instead they were tools, they were soldiers, they were lab rats and canon fodder and creatures only good for dying.
Phoenix numbers, already so low, began to dwindle faster and faster, fewer and fewer being born worldwide in some strange ripple effect, like the universe itself just … knew.
An entire people, connected but adrift, related and yet not, hunted almost to extinction.
Tony never does get that phoenix’s name.
He never forgets the man, never forgets the only other phoenix he’s ever seen, but he doesn’t know his name.
Not until he’s fourteen and the news breaks on campus at MIT.
A Nation In Mourning: Saying Goodbye To The Last American War Phoenix.
Tony locks himself inside of his dorm for an entire week with all of the booze he could get his hands on.
Because he knows the truth.
The phoenix he met was old but he wasn’t that old, was nowhere near old enough to face his last burning.
Not unless he wanted to.
Not unless he willed it to happen.
So, wings hidden and heart broken for a man he met once but loved on a level he can’t explain, Tony drinks and drinks and then he drinks some more.
He drinks until he burns.
Tony’s fifteen when he meets James Rhodes.
Rhodes is handsome and smart, he’s quick to laugh and perfectly content to talk airplane designs with Tony for half the night.
He’s good in a way that Tony’s just never seen before.
Rhodes, James, Jim, Rhodey has the wings of an osprey, wide and strong and, above all else, safe.
Just like the only other bastion of security Tony has ever known in his life.
Six months in and Tony thinks he loves him, loves him like starlight on his wings and wind in his feathers. He thinks this is as close as he’s ever been to family besides Jarvis since he was four years old and listening to Pavarotti declare ‘When the light shines/And my kiss will melt/The silence that makes you mine'.
Tony thinks that he’s found someone he’d willingly burn for.
He’d go down in flames and soot, would let the cosmic fire that lives inside of him eat his bones to ash, for Rhodey.
Easy as breathing.
Tony doesn’t say anything though.
Doesn’t breath so much as a whisper of a thought in Rhodey’s direction.
He keeps his wings hidden and his love tucked beneath his tongue.
He knows better than to freely give either of them.
But that doesn’t make it any less true.
Tony turns sixteen.
Howard and Maria die.
Tony doesn’t cry at the funeral.
Instead he stares down at the graves and the first thing he thinks is:
‘Just one now. Only one person knows me for what I am.'
His second thought is for Maria and it goes like this:
‘I’m sorry you couldn’t love a son made for dying. I’m sorry you cried the first time you saw my feathers. I’m sorry I broke whatever was left of your heart.’
His third is for Howard:
‘It’s your turn to burn now, you miserable old bastard.’
For two years Tony lives without burning.
He gets scars.
His hands have calluses.
When Tony’s eighteen he puts Edwin Jarvis in the ground.
Two days after the funeral, left alone in an empty manor with Rhodey shipped off somewhere overseas, Tony puts a gun in his mouth.
He loves Rhodey, he does, he truly does, but Jarvis was …
Tony doesn’t want to live without him.
He wakes up six hours later, skin smooth, hair perfect, not a scratch on him.
Scars gone, calluses erased, heart beating and fire burning there just beneath his skin.
Guess he didn’t really mean it enough then.
Maybe next time.
Tony is nineteen and he’s standing in front of Rhodey, heart and soul and wings bared, chin tilted up in defiance.
No one else knows what he is at the core.
Jarvis had taken his secret to the grave and Tony just …
The war phoenix, the man whose name Tony still can’t think without hurting, had told him to keep it secret.
And Rhodey with his osprey wings and his big safe hands and his smile like summer breezes is in the Air Force.
He’s the last person Tony should be giving this part of himself to.
And yet …
“Oh little brother,” there’s something soft and sweet and more than a bit sad on Rhodey’s face then as he strides across the room and right up into Tony’s space.
Rhodey reaches out and pulls him into his arms, osprey wings arching forward to try their best to hem in as much of Tony’s huge, sprawling wings as possible.
Pressed against Rhodey’s chest, face buried in the croak of his neck, Tony just breathes.
“All I ever want you to be, the only duty I ever want you to worry about, is whatever makes you happy, Tones,” Rhodey tells him later, states it like a fact, like a truth of the universe.
Irrefutable. Unchangeable. A foundation one could build an entire existence upon.
‘This,’ Tony thinks for the hundred millionth time since he was fifteen, ‘this is worth burning for.’
By the time Tony’s twenty-one he has the company in the palm of his hand, the world at his feet, and JARVIS in his ear.
It’s not enough.
Tony’s not sure, exactly, if anything ever will be.
Is not sure if there will ever be anything or anyone for him that will fill the wounded, aching hole that lives inside of him. The place Maria and Howard had ripped open inside of him and left to fester.
But Tony has callouses again, has starburst shaped burns on his knuckles and thin white lines on the backs of his hands.
Tony has stories on his skin again, has a body not yet washed clean by flame.
And, well, that’s worth more than he can really say.