Title: Begin Again
Genre: Family, Kid!Fic, Fix-It
Content Rating: PG
Warnings: Prior Addiction, Death-Minor Character, Discussion-Torture, Discussion-Other Trigger Topics, Disturbing Imagery, Dubious Consent, Violence-Canon-Level
Word Count: 50,113
Summary: She tugged Tony against her body, the baby cradled between them. With her forehead pressed against his, she murmured a blessing. Tony felt like he was four again, going to Mass with his Nonna. “If you would save all creation, look beyond each single life. Let those who must fall, fall. Mourn the fading of each dead leaf but do not pause to stop it. Instead, create anew. Create out of ashes and death. Create out of darkness and chaos. That is how existence fought for life. Remake yourself, Anthony. And rise.”
The castle was cold glass and dead concrete that sat upon the edge of a cliff like the old wizards’ towers. Though, there was something in the lines of it that hearkened to her own creation. For a moment she wondered what it would be like to go to some far distant world where plants were grown not of earth and water, but of rock and air.
She had come here to offer up her blessings in the old way, rewarding the righteous with the gift of her attention. For a lesser man, it would have been enough for her to pass through his halls unnoticed, leaving behind some slight measure of her touch that he could feel in the warmth of the sun or the color of a spring flower. But this one, he had earned more.
He had been called the Merchant of Death, and though the children of these times did not understand the eternal consequences of their actions, he had been a devout priest of death and destruction since he was little more than a boy. He did not know it, but fate had meant for him to be a sacrifice in that desert, few things being more powerful than the blood of the High Priest of Death, even as unwilling sacrifice. That death was to have brought about a war that would’ve lasted until the Destroyer of Worlds came to claim this place for his own. The Destroyer would have looked at the blood spilled upon this planet and decided there was no point in saving even half of creatures who could spread such wanton destruction among themselves.
But instead, Anthony Stark had survived and come out purified on the other side. The Merchant of Death had forsaken his god, had renounced his belief, and dedicated all his will to the preservation of life.
She did not approve the construction of a war machine to achieve such ends, but when Anthony claimed devotion to peace, she believed him, and such devotion deserved a better reward than just her presence. She intended to brush her skin over his sleeping eyes and gift him with good dreams that would raise him with courage to the morning light. But in the darkest part of the night, that space when the moon and all her creatures were at their zenith, she found Anthony standing in his kitchen, negotiating chopsticks through a carton of leftovers.
It shouldn’t have made her sad to see him there alone, so broken and tired. Human life had always been a fleeting thing, even those she blessed to be mightiest faded away so quickly they barely counted as more than snowflakes in June. But this boy, with his spine of steel and the heart of a star… she ached for him. She had endured all manner of wretched horrors at the hands of her tiny children, let them carry out abominations the likes of which her siblings could have scarcely dreamed. She had, quite nearly, stopped believing that they would do anything more than carry themselves screaming into the dark, ripping one another apart as they went. But in the darkest hour of this night, staring at a recent convert to the cause of life, she felt the brush of a cloak past her heels and she had hope.
While hope had once been her driving force, it was now so alien a feeling that she knew the man before her deserved more than just sweet dreams for rekindling it in her breast. Her presence was natural to all children of this world, so he did not ask any questions when she set the carton down on the counter and slipped into his arms.
Her altered plan intended a single, solitary kiss, gifting him some extra measure of will to protect his mind and body from the trials he had undergone and sustain him through what was to come. But one clever kiss from Anthony’s lips was all it took to decide that she would give him the oldest of blessings, the one she’d rewarded to the world’s greatest princes. She would let him inside her.
(She would, in fact, allow him in several times thanks to the months dear Anthony had been without a companion in his bed.)
It was partway through time number three that she decided Anthony deserved something more. Admittedly, she was inspired by the careful tilt of his hips as he drove up into her and the certain pressure of his finger against her clit as it caught against the callouses of his creation. She had grown accustomed to men lying beneath her and letting her take her fill, too overwhelmed to participate and petrified to be less than perfect. Anthony, however, laughed when she flipped him over and climbed on top, and somehow managed to check that she was comfortable before he sank back beneath the thrall of her magic. He was one of the best she’d ever had, and for a woman who had bedded a whole slew of gods and demigods, that was saying something. (Not that she’d ever tell the others that. Their fragile egos would start wars over such a thing.)
So, she braced her hands on his chest as she bounced atop him, placing her palms over the miniature star cradled betwixt his ribs. From one breath to the next the poison she could feel flooding his system was gone, the core of the star changed to something he was clever enough to recreate when the time came.
And that should have been blessing enough. When he finally collapsed in exhaustion she should have left, whether by the human legs she was wearing or dissolving onto the ocean breeze. Either way, she should not have stayed. But as she laid there in the strange empty light that came after the moon had descended but before the sun rose, she found herself in a world lit only by Anthony’s miniature star and she didn’t want to go.
No, she did not want to stay forever, bound to this body and this place. It took her a long moment to realize that the urge to remain was coming from the wholly unanticipated glow of potential life waiting to be sparked in her womb. There was enough fire in her Anthony that if she gave it place, she would catch with what he had left in her. She had not felt such potential in an age. And so she lay there and watched her beloved breathe beside her, his thumb idly tracing across the metal edge buried in his chest. The mere thought of another child was reckless and stupid, a red flag to the monsters in the far reaches of space that would invite them to come to this little world looking for blood. It was precisely the opposite of what she had come here to grant Anthony for his change of heart. He had put aside death and by this spark she would bring it down upon his head, a punishment for choosing life.
But then the first light of dawn broke over the wide expanse of land to the east of them, and the ocean out her beloved’s western window began to fade from the deep navy of night to the scarcest hint of protostar blue that glowed in his heart.
It was the light of her firstborn child breaking across the sky. She could feel his adoration seeping through the dawn. With that light and the icy breeze coming not from the closed window, all her doubts were scattered as together they bid her choose for herself. She had never quite decided to stop having children, and she wasn’t quite sure which of the children she had birthed had been her last, but now she would know. And this one, born to help usher in the age of heroes one last time, would be the last blessing she left on this world, a dawn to fight the oncoming dark.
It was the first time Tony had slept through the night since Afghanistan and he kind of wanted to stay in bed forever and cling to it, despite the stickiness on his thighs that meant he’d gotten drunk and worn himself out to earn the sleep. (Tony made it a rule to never engage in sex he had to pay for. But given his agoraphobic tendencies since he’d been back, he had the sinking sensation he’d broken that rule. He couldn’t imagine how expensive Pepper’s present would have to be for dealing with a morning-after prostitute.)
“J, you want to give me a heads up on who I had over last night?”
Instead of a snarky reply degrading Tony’s choice in disposable bed partners, there was silence.
“J?” Still nothing. Tony opened his eyes. “JARVIS, reply.” At the unprecedented quiet, Tony scrambled out of bed and into pants as he sprinted for his workshop, calling to JARVIS all the while.
See this? This was the reason Tony swore he’d never rely on a professional. When outside forces got to send someone to his house, there was no telling who might sneak into his systems.
Only, instead of being long gone like any good spy who had somehow managed to incapacitate the world’s only fully-functioning AI, last night’s bed partner was on the balcony outside Tony’s living room, just looking at the untouched line where ocean met sky. She was copper in the sunshine, with thick curls unbound and a white dress that made even the back of her look so breathtakingly beautiful that if she hadn’t screwed with JARVIS, Tony would have gone for another round right there on the stupid minimalist couch Pepper had picked out.
Tony stepped onto the balcony through the sliding windows that shouldn’t have been able to open without JARVIS there to direct them. “As much as I’d like to just keep staring at you, I’ve got a rule against people touching my AI.”
Then every single word that had been or ever might be slipped out of Tony’s head because the woman turned to face him with a baby in her arms.
“What… where… was the kid here the entire time?” Tony was horrified that he’d maintained an erection with a child in his house.
She smiled at him. “No. His life was kindled early this morning.”
“…OK.” Tony dragged the word out to several syllables, buying himself some time.
“I came here only to bless you with my touch, a reward for the choice you made to pursue life instead of death, but then you were too perfect not to bed.”
“Thanks for that.”
“No, thank you. I haven’t had such a splendid lover in a literal age. For men who seduced so many women you’d think the gods might have been better in bed. It speaks well of you that you don’t merely rely on your reputation.”
“That’s nice. Babies take months, not hours.” Tony couldn’t make himself placate the crazy lady any longer.
“Human babies, yes. This one is not entirely human. He is a product of my magic and your own fierce will.”
“And me being too drunk to use a condom, I’m guessing.”
“You were not drunk,” she snapped, and Tony quaked at the fury he felt burning beneath her skin. “I do not appreciate the implication that I took advantage of an unwilling participant.” It was like having a thunderstorm mad at you.
“That wasn’t my—look, you’re gorgeous, and I haven’t slept that well in pretty much ever so even if you were just standing here talking about gods and magic, I would still get your number and go again, but you’re standing there with a baby.”
“Take a deep breath and stop panicking for a moment, Anthony.” The woman meant that literally. She stared at Tony until he gave his most dramatic sigh. “Now, listen to what your heart is telling you about the child.”
“Are we having a Pocahontas moment right now?”
“Yes, all right, I don’t need to do any deep breathing, I know! How in the hell do I know that he’s my kid and how in the hell did he happen? Biologically speaking I don’t think you should even be inseminated at this point!”
She smiled; his panic forgiven. The woman all but floated forward to press the baby into Tony’s chest and evolutionary biology kicked in. His shoulders seized up while he wrapped the tiny creature in his arms and tried to keep it from hitting the floor. She laughed and stepped behind him, winding her arms around his to reposition. She ran steady hands along Tony’s shoulders until they released, but Tony wasn’t really paying attention at that point. He was looking down at the bundle of life curled up in his arms, big brown eyes blinking open and hair sticking up like gravity hadn’t kicked in yet. The kid was a tiny little replica of Tony, like looking at one of the baby pictures that Ana Jarvis had made him swear never to harm.
“So, magic, huh?”
She circled in front of him, trailing her hands over his bare skin. “Magic. He is a gift that you have earned with your spirit, though not the one I intended to give you.”
She tugged Tony against her body, the baby cradled between them. With her forehead pressed against his, she murmured a blessing. Tony felt like he was four again, going to Mass with his Nonna. “If you would save all creation, look beyond each single life. Let those who must fall, fall. Mourn the fading of each dead leaf but do not pause to stop it. Instead, create anew. Create out of ashes and death. Create out of darkness and chaos. That is how existence fought for life. Remake yourself, Anthony. And rise.” He breathed in the words and felt strength in his weak lungs. She stepped back, dropping a soft kiss to the boy’s forehead as she faded into the morning light.
Tony blamed magic that it took him so long to realize the woman was just going to drift away on the breeze without even telling him the kid’s name. Tony demanded a noun, and she snapped back to a solid. Surprise finally made her look human. “The fathers have always named the children I gave them.”
“Well no offense to them, but that’s stupid. I’m going to have a hard enough time explaining to my kid what in the hell happened this morning. I’m not going to tell him that his mother just dropped him off via magic and didn’t even care enough to name him.”
She studied the baby long and hard. Tony could almost see the wheels turning in her head. (Though, for magic people it was probably sorting through a rolodex of spells.) She reached out and brushed her hand over the emptiness above the child before she declared, “Call him Alexander.”
Tony nodded and that agreement earned him another deep kiss and then she was gone, no trace of her left other than the kid in his arms and the taste of rosemary on his lips. Pre-Afghanistan Tony would’ve been calling the cops right now, but apparently having a woman turn up in your house, sleep with you, and hand you a kid the next morning telling you it was yours was less stressful than waking up in a cave with a car battery attached to your heart. All a matter of perspective, Tony shrugged to himself.
And really, there was no denying the kid was his. Not just because it had big brown eyes that were going to give Tony a hell of a lot of problems saying no to later, but because he just knew. Instincts were not scientifically supportable, so he’d still be getting a DNA test, but the kid was his. It was all kinds of impossible, but it was true.
“Sir, may I enquire where you obtained a newborn?”
Tony snorted. “Well, that explains some things.” The bundle didn’t like the sudden movement and Tony found himself bouncing along to the beat of a song to calm the kid back down.
“Sir?” JARVIS sounded nervous and Tony didn’t blame him.
“What do you think happened last night, J?”
“You left your workshop at 2:25 to eat leftover lo mein. After consuming seven bites you left the containers on the counter, idled in the living room for several minutes, then stumbled to bed. I chose not to inquire about your behavior because you were willingly electing to sleep. You woke up ten minutes ago, returned to the living room, stepped onto the balcony, and then a baby appeared in your arms. What do you believe happened last night, Sir?”
“The ‘idling’ was making out with a woman who turned up in the living room, and the going to bed was sex, J.”
“Sir, I do not believe the 18 hours you were awake before retiring yesterday were enough sleep deprivation to cause delusions.”
“Considering there’s a baby in my arms, I don’t think it was a delusion.”
“Human gestation generally takes 40 weeks, Sir. “
“Well, if she didn’t turn up on your cameras, somehow managed to convince me to have sex with her without me freaking out about the random woman in my house, all while keeping me from worrying that you weren’t interrupting the random lady, I’m pretty sure we might be dealing with something not human.” JARVIS’ silence conveyed his opinion on that. “When you’ve removed what’s possible, J.”
“Infant facial features are too generic for me to determine from the pictures I have on file whether or not the child is yours simply from aesthetics.”
“Get a rush on a DNA test, J. And keep it quiet. But unless the kid turns out to evolve into a squid monster or something…”
“I see. And might I inquire as to Young Sir’s name?”
“JARVIS, this is Alexander. Lex, this is JARVIS. He runs our lives. And I’ve just got to say, little guy, that’s a shitty name your mom stuck you with. I don’t know if she thought about how stupid it would be to name a Stark after a supervillain. We’re actually kind of trying to rebrand right now and that’s not going to help.”
“If I may, Sir.” On the big screen that was Tony’s living room windows, JARVIS pulled up what Tony guessed was a baby naming website.
“J, we’ve really got to talk about the shit you look at on the Internet.”
“If I may point out Sir, you are the one who introduced me to pornography. The study of nomenclature hardly compares.”
“Point.” And right there was ‘Alexander,’ apparently Greek for ‘defender of men’ according to these people who didn’t have any kind of citations or footnotes. “Doesn’t it seem kind of 20-something starlet who accidentally got knocked up?”
“Forgive me, Sir. I assumed that was where we were going to pretend Little Sir came from. The non-traditional spelling will perhaps remove some of the supervillain and world-conquering connotations you are anxious to avoid.”
“We could middle name him Alexander. Keep with tradition and give him my middle name as a first name because we Starks are nothing if not egomaniacs. Edward Alexander Stark, how do you feel about that, kid?” The bundle of squishy features and big eyes didn’t seem to have an opinion. He just looked up at Tony with a little furrow that maybe meant the boy was thinking about being hungry. Or maybe that was how babies disagreed with their names? Who the hell knew? “Holy shit, you are tiny.”
“Language.” JARVIS chided.
“So long as I don’t swear in front of Pepper and he doesn’t swear in front of reporters, we’re fine.”
“I believe that the requirement is that your son is certain you are not swearing at him.”
Tony swallowed the urge to panic a bit and told JARVIS to download the top ten baby parenting books according to overall rating. “And none of that flashy stuff that in six months a reputable psychiatrist is going to say will screw the kid the hell up.”
JARVIS agreed and out of the corner of his eye Tony could see a proposed purchase list of necessary newborn items appearing on the screen. Neither one of them had any experience with children, so while JARVIS would normally just go ahead and buy whatever popped into his processors when they were building bombs in the basement, baby books and diapers were the kind of thing he wanted human approval for. Human in this case being Pepper. Though Pepper didn’t have any kids, and neither did Happy, so there was a good chance they were going to have a very awkward phone call with Mama Rhodes about what kind of shit you needed to not kill a baby in the first three hours.
With all the care he could possibly manage – which really wasn’t a lot for a man who generally dealt with metal, just another thing he didn’t know how to do – Tony set the baby down in the crack between sofa cushions. Then he dropped to the floor and put his head between his knees for an old-fashioned breakdown. He pressed sweaty hands to the glass of his arc creator and tried to tell himself it was humming along in there just fine, it didn’t matter that it felt like it was expanding in his chest, crushing his lungs and shoving apart his ribs.
But Tony couldn’t even panic properly, because there was a baby squawking about how it really hated this couch thing and could Tony just pick him back up? Tony started to dry heave at the thought of the kid sitting there, reliant and waiting on Tony’s incompetent care.
“Please breathe, Sir.” JARVIS’ unnerved voice broke through the haze. Tony was sure that he’d only been sitting there a moment, but based on the screeching coming from his son, he’d gotten a little lost during his mental reboot.
Tony forced himself up onto his knees to see the wailing kid and paused. “Sir?” The poor AI sounded so confused.
“Yeah J, he’s bigger.” And he was. Substantially. Sure, he was still a baby with the squishy face and the gravity-defying hair, but he’d filled out a bit, like Tony had been feeding him every hour, on the hour, for a month. Tony scooped the kid up and he felt sturdier too, like he wasn’t going to just slip though Tony’s arms because he was nothing but bone and skin.
“According to various medical websites he appears to have gone from newborn to approximately three months.”
“I think this is another point in the not human column, J.”
“I must agree, Sir. Though his aging has not been gradual since he first appeared on my sensors. It was sudden after his crying began in earnest.”
“You think he was trying to get big enough to get off the couch? Or just every time he loses his temper, he’s going to get older?”
“I lack sufficient data to say for sure, but neither seems accurate given he is still crying and hasn’t grown at all.”
Tony got his shit together enough to bounce a little bit like he’d seen people do in movies. And really, Tony shouldn’t think that unnaturally stern little glower was great.
And that was it. This was so unbelievably stupid, and he really wasn’t the sort of man who should be anybody’s father, but Tony was keeping him.
“Alexander then. Alexander Carbonell Stark. The name doesn’t really give you anything to hide behind, because no one is going to call you Carbonell like they would’ve called you Eddie but hiding doesn’t really work out for us anyway. And maybe a bit of your grandmother’s family in there will balance out the Stark shittiness. And it’s going to suck, I’ve got to warn you about that. I have no idea why your mom picked me to have the magical baby, maybe because money means I’ll be able to hide you, but it was a stupid choice on her part. But here’s the thing kid, I’ll try. And that’s all I can offer.”
The tiny little thing grabbed Tony’s finger and he took that as agreement. “All right then. I was about to say that it’s you and me kid, but I think this is one of those times to call for backup. J, call the source code.”
“You know that my other self detests being referred to in a binary manner, Sir.”
“Well, I think today he’s going to have other things to worry about.”
Tony’s internal clock meant that usually he was calling Jarvis the human in the middle of California’s night and bright and early in England. Tony honestly didn’t really know what Jarvis did in the afternoon, despite his protests that he didn’t have anything keeping him in Kent when Tony was alone in his massive house in Malibu. If Tony had breathed that he wanted Jarvis with him, the old man would’ve been on a plane before Tony could take it back. But Tony hadn’t, and Jarvis respected Tony’s wishes enough that, however much it would have soothed both of them, Jarvis stayed in England.
Tony kind of wished that he’d waited to call Jarvis until he had things under control since few things in the world made Tony feel so small as Edwin Jarvis answering a video call with, “Anthony, what’s wrong? Please tell me you went to bed last night.”
Tony desperately wanted to make a joke about how he did, but not for sleeping. That didn’t really feel right with his kid in hearing range. Who knew what kind of stuff his little, rapidly-aging, non-human brain might be soaking up? Instead, Tony bit his lip and tilted his bundle as much as he could without starting to panic that he might drop him. JARVIS was a champ and pulled up a split screen with an image from the camera above him so Jarvis could get a clear shot of Alexander’s face.
Jarvis’ “Oh dear,” said pretty much everything.
“So, this is Alexander. He’s my son. Alexander, meet Jarvis, he’s our favorite person who isn’t made of code. We like him so much we turned him into code.”
Jarvis stared at the Stark boys the same way he had when Tony showed him his first computer. “JARVIS, call Miss Potts and get her to the house right now for whatever legal paperwork Anthony will need and charter a flight for me. I’ll be at the airport in two hours.”
“If I may, Mr. Jarvis, a helicopter can be on your lawn in twenty minutes to take you to the airport. That will give you some time to pack and make any necessary arrangements.”
“Yes please, JARVIS. And tell Miss Potts that if she feels the need for further instructions, I will have the phone Tony gave me so she will be able to contact me on the plane. Though I imagine she’ll have the sense to order in some diapers and other essentials.”
“I have shifted over one of the dummy accounts to conceal the purchases, Other Self.”
Jarvis was running around the background of the screen, already gathering up stuff that probably weren’t part of the regular packing scheme. Some of them were books, so Tony figured sentimentality was playing a bigger role than just throwing together a go bag.
“You know I can buy you stuff when you get here, right Jarvis? You don’t need to—”
“You haven’t packed for yourself since the last time you tried to run away from home Anthony. I do believe that bag consisted of nothing but computer parts and candy bars. Leave the luggage to me.”
“OK, but I’m just saying—”
Jarvis scampered out of frame then backed right into it to say, “This, of course, in no way means that I am not thrilled to meet your son.”
“Well, you should be, grandpa.” And what do you know, that blush of Jarvis’ was almost as great as the sight of Lex’s face.
Tony had heard people refer to a dirty room looking like a bomb had gone off. Before he’d been in a real bomb blast and felt the blood draining out of him to water the sand, he’d have considered it pretty accurate since small bombs had gone off in his lab plenty of times, scattering debris everywhere.
Though, maybe being dirty was more like a test bomb going awry than actual bomb. Which really wasn’t a turn of phrase that was going to get picked up in common usage, but Tony was trying hard not to think too much about the diaper packs spread around his lab like shrapnel. (Used diapers, however, should be treated very much like unexploded ordinance.)
JARVIS could set up all the dummy accounts he wanted for the purchase of diapers (“Sizes 1-3 in preparation for any sudden changes of age and size.”), onsies (“They appear to follow no standard sizing system, just generic numbering based upon the child’s age.”), and formula (“Given your own nebulous relationship with food, Sir, I have taken the liberty of ordering what mommyblog.com refers to as ‘the sample pack.’”). The problem was this stuff somehow had to get from the store (“Costco, Sir. The false identity is now a member of Costco.”) to Tony’s lab. Baby stuff wasn’t like the usual raw building materials they had delivered to the front door, and they couldn’t have Happy go and pick it all up. (Tony couldn’t imagine the field day the press would have when Tony Stark’s driver got caught with a cart full of diapers in various sizes.)
Tony was going to have stuff start falling off the back of a truck and donate the rest of the shipment to shelters or something when JARVIS pointed out those arrangements took a few days and Young Sir had already soiled the t-shirt wrapped around his waist.
“Well I can’t go get them, J! I don’t even know how Costco works!”
JARVIS, beloved JARVIS, said that his Other Self recommended Sir sit down on the couch and watch a few more YouTube videos about childcare (thank goodness for children’s hospitals and their professional opinions on the matter). JARVIS would take care of it.
And, of course, Tony’s former youngest child did. He may have used the same guys who delivered Tony’s weed and paid them from the cash stash set aside for illegal things, but they did it. Apparently rush grocery delivery included the fundamentals of baby life, as well as a brown box taped shut so the potheads couldn’t look. Even if they would’ve been tempted to ask questions about what they were dropping off at Tony’s guard shed, the teenager wearing the grocery store t-shirt who handed them their package soothed any worries.
The worst part of the whole process turned out to be Tony leaving the house for the minute it took to speed down the driveway, grab the box, and reverse back to his garage. (He told JARVIS to modify the armor’s fabrication schedule to account for Lex’s development. The YouTube videos told him the kid would need naps and Tony could fit a whole lot of engineering in during that time.)
All in all, JARVIS got a week’s worth of baby stuff to the house in just under an hour, which gave Lex the chance to only soil one more t-shirt.
In the meantime, U followed Tony across the lab, recording every moment of Lex’s life like all she needed was more data and suddenly the tiny human would make sense. DUM-E ran around using his claw to try and clean up like the kid was going to leap out of Tony’s arms and put something not ‘bot approved in his mouth. Butterfingers tried and failed to tidy in DUM-E’s wake. Tony worked on the concept of gentle with them since they all loved stopping mid-task to poke their baby brother.
Tony really couldn’t blame them. He’d started his JAVIS-mandated relaxation with Lex leaned back against his chest as they both sprawled on the couch, but the back of Lex’s tiny head pressed against the arc reactor and Tony didn’t like that he couldn’t see his son’s face. They tried a couple of variations – half of which were suggested by ‘bots that didn’t really understand human bodies. Tony ended up back at his workstation with Lex tucked in the crook of his left elbow. (Lex objected to the right. Tony couldn’t figure out why.)
With their new baby stuff, Tony changed, clothed, fed, and burped Lex – while JARIVS read the instructions aloud, just to make sure he wasn’t going to bruise his kid on that last step. Then he re-clothed Lex after breakfast came right back up. (JARVIS made a note in the growing spreadsheet but, like most experiments, the kid would have to spit up several more times before they knew if it was temperature, speed, bottle, delivery angle, or the type of formula itself.)
As soon as Lex fell asleep in Tony’s arms, JARVIS convinced him to hop into the decontamination shower. Lex was relocated to a couch cushion on the floor – which was surrounded by more couch cushions, just in case. (Neither Tony nor JARVIS trusted themselves enough to start buying baby furniture without Jarvis.) The ‘bots swore on their spark plugs not to poke Lex while Tony was occupied, and they were so obedient Tony actually intended to leave JARVIS’ watchful eye on Lex while he darted upstairs to grab some more protein bars to restock his supply. Things hadn’t been chaos for a whole hour and Tony was starting to think he had the hang of this baby thing, which meant that was the moment JARVIS warned him Mr. Stane had just put in his code at the front gate.
“Lock it down.”
“The entire house, Sir?”
“Yes. No. Fuck.” Tony’s brain sputtered to catch up to his instincts. It was Obie, but Obie wasn’t Jarvis. Pep and Happy didn’t even know about Lex yet and they were higher up on the kid list. Obie was batting for Tony against the Board, but even he would freak out when he found out about a baby. Obie had given Tony the condom lecture because children distracted you from making money. Right now, unplanned fatherhood in his 40s would be a convincing argument that Tony shouldn’t be in charge of anything, whether that be kid or company.
But Tony couldn’t just lock Obie out. He was Tony’s godfather. When he found out about Lex, he was going to be that aloof grandfather who gave up on real presents and just gave Lex cash every Christmas.
“Open the house but lock down the lab, J. Keep the ‘bots from hurting Lex and if he wakes up…”
“I shall manufacture a phone call or the completion of an experiment, Sir.”
Tony darted up the stairs. “Not an experiment. We can keep Obie out of the lab, but we can’t keep him from walking down the stairs to see what I’m working on.”
“You could shove him down the stairs and claim that any sight of Young Sir was a delusion brought on by head trauma.”
“Let’s call that Plan B.”
Tony grabbed the protein bars he’d originally come upstairs for, made it two steps away from the cupboard, then shunted them all into a drawer with hot sauce packets. Protein bars meant engineering binge, engineering meant lab, and Obie in the lab was bad. Tony heard the front door sliding open and grabbed something from the fridge. It was an orange. Tony shoved that right back in because nothing was more suspicious than him eating unsolicited fruit. Obie roamed into the kitchen to find Tony in an argument with JARVIS about the value of leftovers.
“Really, Sir. I do not believe the amount of MSG will make those noodles safe for consumption.”
“You’re going to need something stronger than day old noodles, Tony.” Obie interrupted.
“I think JARVIS might tell you there’s nothing stronger than day old noodles. And hello to you too, Obie.” Tony came out of the fridge with the objectionable takeout. (He’d been eating it when Lex’s mom had turned up, and some crazy part of Tony thought it might help him protect her son.) “What’s up?”
Obie tossed a stack of paper across the counter.
“It’s a Preliminary Injunction, Tony.”
“What?” Tony wiped his hands on his tank top and picked up the papers.
“A Preliminary Injunction. The rest of the Board showed it to me last night and wanted to file it immediately. I convinced them to give me a chance to talk it over with you before they did something they couldn’t take back.”
“A Preliminary Injunction is designed to preserve the status quo of a corporation and prevent potential further damage while a lawsuit is being carried out.”
“Meaning those bastards are going to sue me.”
“They want SI back to making weapons.” Obie answered.
“I’m the majority shareholder of SI, the CEO, and the CTO. What in the hell is their argument against me?
“Breach of fiduciary duty.” Tony snorted. “No, Tony, they’re not wrong. You have a professional duty to put the interests of SI above your own, and they should have no problem convincing a judge that right now you’re not doing that.” Obie sat down on one of the kitchen stools. Tony didn’t offer him a drink.
“I’m putting SI’s future ahead of current profits!”
“Those are nice words, Tony, but they don’t really compete with the damaging numbers the Board has as proof. They’re arguing that you’re not only breaching your financial duty to the shareholders, but also that you’re acting irrationally in what you believe to be your own self-interest.”
“My self-interest? It’s in the world’s interest!”
“The Board doesn’t really care about the world’s interest, Tony.”
“If I’m such a risk to the company then why did you talk them into holding off?”
“Don’t be like that, kid. You know I’m in your corner.”
“Yeah.” Tony sighed.
“And you know why I was able to hold them off. Because as terrified as they are, you’re still Tony Stark. Your brain makes SI. It wasn’t that difficult to convince them it wasn’t worth alienating the golden goose when he could still be reasoned with.”
Tony’s eyes snapped up. “We’re not making weapons again, Obie.”
“I’m not telling you to. But you’ve got to understand where they’re coming from. The stock has dipped almost 60 points. You keep saying no to weapons but you haven’t provided anyone with an alternative. We don’t have a plan. You’ve got to give me something to pitch them if you want them to stay on board.”
“I told you already, we’re going to diversify!”
“What does that mean, Tony?”
“Clean energy, personal electronics—”
“Clean energy hardly makes any profit and requires all kinds of governmental permission, which we won’t get when the government is pissed at us for leaving them undersupplied in weapons. That little arc reactor in your chest is beautiful, Tony, but you haven’t told me what you want to do with it and any time I suggest mass production or integration, you shut me down. And don’t even get me started on personal electronics. That division is so cutthroat that if you try and break in, Apple will have you murdered in your sleep.”
“Better them than terrorists.”
“Some people could argue that’s a fine line.” Tony rolled his eyes and put his leftovers back in the fridge. “A new cell phone isn’t going to help you sleep better at night, Tony.”
“J, what will they have to prove to the judge to get their injunction?”
“That they and other investors will suffer irreparable harm if the Motion for Injunctive Relief is not granted.”
“Which is true.” Stane interrupted. “The Board and everyone with SI stock are losing money like its 1929.”
“A Preliminary Injunction also requires proof that their case is either likely to succeed on its merits when the matter goes to trial, or that the solution to the case is not obvious and the Board is suffering the greater balance of hardship while matters are determined.”
“Hardship? They think waiting for me to invent a new direction for the company is a hardship?”
“It’s a hardship for your brain and hardship for the rest of us on the wallet. The wallet is the one a judge can measure.”
Tony turned on Obie. “Rest of us?”
“You’re not the only one with a massive share of SI stock, Tony. I’ve taken a hit too.”
“So you agree with them?”
“Hey, hey.” Obie stood up and raised his hands just the same way he always used to step in between Howard and Tony when they were about to come to blows. “I’m on your side, Tony. I’m always on your side. If you want to diversify, then we’ll diversify. But maybe shutting down weapons manufacturing entirely isn’t the way to go.”
“No, Tony. Just listen to me for a second.” Obie got in Tony’s space, looming down over him like he was still a kid that needed secrets whispered to him. “We’ve been bailing out of contracts on your order, and you don’t want US soldiers left high and dry because we cut them off, do you?” Tony hesitated. “Do you?”
“And you don’t want all those SI employees at our manufacturing plants to be without jobs, do you?”
“They’ll be transferred!”
“Building bomb components isn’t the same thing as making a phone and you know that. We’ve got employees all over the world, engineers, scientists, all trained in weapons manufacturing. Even if you stick with your grand idea of retraining all those people or paying them until they find new work, that plan would go better if you did it in stages. I know you’re not a step at a time sort of guy, Tony, and that’s part of what I love about you.” He propped his arm on Tony’s shoulder and dragged him close. “Let me be the businessman and say that if we do this in stages, the transition will be smoother. It’ll take time, but everyone will calm down a little and no one will be crushed under the forward progress. People won’t lose their jobs, we can figure out what government contracts you want to keep and which you don’t, what weapons you can live with and which you can’t, and maybe you can have a chance to breathe, Tony.”
Tony shrugged off Obie’s touch. “I’m breathing fine.”
“Are you? Because someone informed me that Edwin Jarvis got a plane yesterday, headed for Malibu.”
Tony backed away. “Are you stalking Jarvis?”
“I employ someone at his retirement home to warn me if anyone tries take advantage of Edwin. He was my friend.” Obie sounded like that was perfectly reasonable and Tony was the one overreacting.
“You mean you’re trying to head off corporate espionage.”
“Isn’t that what I just said? Either way, a helicopter turned up for Edwin yesterday to take him to a private plane chartered for Malibu. He should be landing any time.”
“What’s your point?”
“Tony, you felt the need to call your babysitter home to help you. That means something is wrong.”
“Don’t talk about Jarvis like that.”
“No, Obie. You need to leave.” Tony stormed past him and waved him toward the front door. Obie followed him and ignored the order.
“Tony, if I walk out of here without a deal, the Board is filing this Injunction. With that comes a lawsuit that strips SI from your control. You’ll lose any power you have to stop weapons production. I’ll do my best to get you what you want, but I don’t think you know what you want. If you just rescind your order to stop weapons production, you can take a day off, figure out how you want things to turn out, and then we can push forward your vision in a reasonable way. You won’t have to break yourself down because you’ve got who knows how many employees, soldiers, civilians, and billions of dollars resting on your shoulders. You can be smart about this, Tony. Let me help you be smart about this.”
Tony didn’t know if he would’ve let himself be talked back if Jarvis really had been on a plane to help Tony from getting crushed under the weight of his own ambition, like Obie thought. He also didn’t know if Obie would’ve turned up in his kitchen to help without warning that Jarvis was on a plane. But he did know that there was a kid downstairs, probably already awake and playing with his older brothers.
Tony could picture what was coming next if he listened to Obie. He’d resume weapons manufacturing again just to smooth the transition. But it was early days, so Tony would hold a hard line. He’d cut the bombs and the bombers, and the research division that made things straight out of a dystopian novel. But Tony would get stonewalled at the guns, and then suddenly some Hammer bomb would go off prematurely, killing soldiers like the ones who’d been gunned down beside Tony. Then it would be: just tell us what’s wrong with the other guy’s bomb so this doesn’t happen again. And then would come the: why don’t you just do that fix for all these bombs? And then, and then, and then.
Suddenly Tony’s kid would be 15, going through all the shit he could find about his father on the Internet and asking Tony why he’d stopped weapons manufacturing if he was just going to start it up again a year later.
Or worse, Tony would approve the weapons manufacturing today only to wake up tomorrow and discover Lex had been nothing more than a dream. He would reach out for his son only to find the mother had taken him back because Tony had relapsed into warmongering. Obie’s argument was good, but it didn’t stand up to the kid downstairs.
“You know, that’s all practical Obie, if I didn’t think the Board would find a back door. I can’t give ground. If I take a moment to say I’m tired or admit maybe I could make something less bloody for the military, they’ll stomp over the top of me and things will go back to how they were. I can’t do that again.”
Obie sighed and pressed his palms to Tony’s cheeks. “Well then, kid. I warn you now: they’re going to make you pay.”
Edwin couldn’t imagine what foolishness had possessed him to believe Master Anthony would listen when he told him to immediately get Miss Potts to the house so she could offer aide. For all that the young lady had no children of her own – and Edwin had long ago learned the perils of assuming maternal instincts in any woman – Miss Potts was first and foremost a problem solver. She had the rare gift to retain a level head no matter the circumstances. Since these were circumstances Anthony could not build his way out of, Miss Potts’ advice would be crucial.
Genetic tests needed to be conducted, maternal rights needed to be forfeited, ironclad non-disclosures needed to be written and signed to prevent future dramatics, and temporary custody needed to be arranged in case a judge wanted to make a fuss about a baby being dropped in Anthony’s lap. There needed to be an order of custody keeping Alexander with people who loved him should Anthony get swept away by the government for further questioning. They needed research into the meaning of competency in case someone got snippy about Anthony’s PTSD. Heaven forbid the device in Anthony’s chest began to fail or terrorists succeeded in their quest, but a line of succession needed to be established, both for Alexander and for Stark Industries. The thought of both child and company being turned over to Obadiah Stane once again was Edwin’s worst nightmare come to life.
All of these practicalities had to be seen to and were things about which Anthony would never think to ask. He was accustomed to the world rearranging itself to suit his will, and rarely did the legal system work that way. Dear JARVIS, for all he grew more like a person every time Edwin spoke to him, would either not know these things were required, or he would lack the physical form necessary to file paperwork.
Edwin spent the entire flight occupied with making lists of all the things that must be done – and not asking how in the world JARVIS was marking down his accomplishment of those listed goals when the tablet was not connected to the airplane’s internet. Edwin forced himself into several naps in between the walks about the cabin that his cardiologist recommended for international travel. London to California was just over 11 hours, thankfully with no waiting for the next available commercial flight when Tony Stark’s name was being thrown about. For all that Edwin was prepared to stay awake for a few hours more so Anthony could get a bit of sleep, Edwin was not prepared for the startled Mr. Hogan who met him outside LAX.
Edwin assured Mr. Hogan that he was in perfect health, which only frustrated the poor man since he had been sent out by JARVIS to pick up the elderly butler. Anthony had not been answering all day, which was odd neither before nor after Afghanistan, but JARVIS had locked them out, which was. “I called Pepper right after JARVIS sent me to the airport. We both figured something was up on your end and the Boss had gone into lockdown mode to freak out about it, but if you’re fine…”
Jarvises, human and code, did not fume, no matter how they were tempted to by the behavior of the Stark in their charge. “I am quite well, I assure you, Mr. Hogan. And to quell your fears, Master Stark is fine. Though perhaps he will not be when I get done with him. Would it be more efficient for us to pick up Miss Potts from her office on our way to Anthony or to have her driver bring her along?”
Mr. Hogan didn’t startle and declared her driver would be best, especially at this time of night. Without requiring a follow-up question, Mr. Hogan read Edwin’s tone perfectly and called Miss Potts to tell her they’d be with Tony in an hour and maybe she should meet them at the mansion.
Miss Potts sighed in relief and said she’d be a bit behind their arrival because of paperwork, but she wouldn’t be long. “Can you tell us anything about what’s going on, Mr. Jarvis?”
“I believe it would be better coming from Master Anthony, Miss Potts.”
“I cannot imagine any information in the world that wouldn’t be better delivered by you, Mr. Jarvis.”
“I appreciate the vote of confidence, Miss Potts.”
Edwin held that belief close to his heart as they arrived at Anthony’s door. Edwin took a moment’s comfort from the main rooms of the house appearing just as photogenic as ever, but there were not enough contents in the house to scatter anyplace, even on Anthony’s worst day.
“Sir is the workshop, Mr. Jarvis,” JARVIS murmured. “He fell asleep an hour ago.”
Edwin shucked off his coat and began rolling up his sleeves as he went. Mr. Hogan followed, leaving behind Edwin’s luggage and not even pretending to peel away and deliver it to a bedroom. “Just him?”
“No. The… other party fell asleep an hour and half ago, insofar as I am able to tell.”
Edwin’s progress down the stairs was slow, and he paid no attention to the way Mr. Hogan hovered as though Edwin has going to tumble down the stairs face first. (He’d given up pride on this matter after his 90th birthday.) Edwin froze on the stairs at his first glimpse of Anthony’s lab post-child and the fussing went right out of his head as his brain stalled at the cognitive dissonance. The workshop had always been in some state of chaos which Anthony’s brain considered perfect order. Even as a small child with a butler Anthony had managed bedlam. But the numerous tables grouped around the lab entrance had been… tidied. There was no better word for it. Papers were stacked in squared off piles, pencils and pens were in clean coffee cups, spare screws and bits of metal had been catalogued according to size and type and then arranged in a series of clear drawers Edwin had never seen before. The spare projects that were usually scattered over every spare surface had been gathered on one table and covered in a dust-proof drop cloth that was weighted down in case of a sudden, impossible breeze.
Tony’s circular desk where he did his designing had been divided into thirds by lines of electrical tape. The first third was lined with boxes of diapers in assorted sizes, the second had a mountain of white onesies, while the last held rows of empty bottles, a line of different powdered formula types, and an electric kettle with a Fahrenheit temperature monitor.
Above each section floated one of Anthony’s holographic interfaces containing some sort of chart. Edwin was almost certain that the only display he could see clearly from the stairs held weights for Alexander and corresponding diaper sizes, but there was no chance a child so new could be out of newborn diapers like the black line through the word suggested.
Edwin approached the table and found that the second display was much simpler, holding a three-column chart listing the sizes and how many onesies were clean or dirty. His analysis was only supported by Butterfingers beeping hello as he went past with a bucket of freshly laundered onesies to add to the already voluminous stack. (Edwin couldn’t even begin to understand the data being run on the next display about the food.)
In truth, the most disorganized part of the workshop was now Anthony himself, sprawled against a pile of pillows on the sofa in his lab’s little lounge area. Edwin couldn’t tell if the pile had collapsed as Tony sunk into sleep or if the ‘bots had added them afterwards. Alexander was in nothing but his diaper, sprawled against Anthony’s bare chest with his cheek pressed to the arc reactor.
The moment was broken by Mr. Hogan’s breathy curse. “Holy fuck.” Tony shot up at the nearly silent human disruption to his mechanical empire and the whole world froze, waiting for the baby to start screaming. Instead, Alexander just gave a gummy grumble and settled back against Tony’s chest. They all sighed in relief.
After a few dazed blinks Tony seemed to realize the humans weren’t a figment of his imagination. “Thank fuck you’re here, J.”
“No cursing in front of your son, Anthony.”
“That’s what other you said.”
“And what did you say?”
“So long as he knows I’m not cursing at him, I’m calling it good.”
Edwin didn’t snort, but it was a close call. Instead, he hefted the sturdy child from his father’s arms and started issuing orders. “To the shower with you, Anthony. Miss Potts is on her way to handle the documents and preparations I recommended when you first called me twelve hours ago and now must be started before any of us can get some sleep. Mr. Hogan, my bag to my room please. Other Self, if you could explain your charts and limited supply of baby materials to me, I would appreciate it.”
Edwin did not take his eyes off the babe in his arms the entire time he spoke and it took him longer to realize than he wanted to admit that Alexander, in fact, would no longer fit in newborn diapers. Plane flights only felt months long, so Edwin opened his mouth to ask how the child had grown so much in the space of a few hours. The part of his brain forged by industrial espionage and spy activities kicked back on before he said something in front of even so trusted a source as Mr. Hogan. “After we are all laundered and Master Anthony has fully rejoined the land of the conscious, we will have the conversation that all of us are so anxious to have.”
Tony managed to regain his feet but hesitated for a long moment before Edwin nudged him on his way. “I am sure that my other self has a thorough feeding and changing schedule that he will tell me all about so I don’t miss anything.”
“You just got off an international flight, J. And I showered—when did I shower J?”
“Ten hours ago, Sir.”
Edwin wanted to ask how Anthony had managed that, but didn’t. “Either way, you have just spent at least thirteen hours alone with a baby. Whether it be coffee or another shower which, if I recall correctly, is probably necessary no matter when your last shower was, take a few minutes.”
Edwin had two lectures prepared, one to lure Anthony out of emulating Howard Stark’s ambivalence and the other calming Anthony back to moderation in his desire to parent the boy in a way that might fix his own childhood. However, to Edwin’s glorious surprise, Anthony nodded his agreement. He dropped one kiss to Alexander’s forehead and another to Edwin’s temple while he murmured thanks for getting here so quickly.
Mr. Hogan followed Anthony up the stairs in a daze. Edwin cleared his throat and asked JARVIS to warn them if it looked as though Anthony was going to fall asleep while standing. Edwin resigned himself to the little burrow Anthony had created in his workshop and shoved off a few pillows before settling on the couch. He ought to be asking JARVIS all sorts of questions, but he found it quite impossible to take his eyes off the child before him.
The passage of time seemed to have no meaning with this tiny replica of Anthony in his arms, blinking open eyes far more serious than should exist on so small a face. Edwin could not articulate his gratitude at being granted this sight before he died. It had taken all his will to negotiate house without wobbling and he was so exhausted from the effort to get here that he could have slept for days, but it was worth it. Anthony had a child. He would not do as his father had done and sink into alcoholism and rage, he would rise, as he always had done.
It felt like mere breaths later that Anthony came back downstairs in clean clothes and visibly had to restrain himself from taking the child back in his arms as though he was concerned the boy might be nothing but a figment of his imagination. Instead, he settled more softly down next to Edwin than he had ever managed on his own mother’s fine furniture. “Edwin Jarvis, this is Alexander Carbonell Stark. Alexander, this is Grandpa Jarvis. I know I introduced you guys earlier, but JARVIS and I have since discovered that babies can’t see what’s going on with screens, so this is the first time he’s seen your face.”
Edwin let the babe wrap his fist around one finger and gave him a little shake hello before the boy dragged his fist – Edwin’s finger and all – to his mouth and started to gnaw.
“J has made a list of binkies for L to try. We didn’t want to risk another delivery of baby stuff in the same day but we’ve got stuff piling up at a fake apartment for Happy to pick up. According to JARVIS’ research there are a bunch of different kinds of binkies and some babies care about that kind of crap.”
“Is that why there are so many varieties of diapers?”
Tony hesitated just a beat too long before he said, “Yeah, partly.”
“Were you hoping that my vision had failed me so much I wouldn’t realize that your child has aged significantly since this morning?”
“No. I was hoping you wouldn’t ask since J and I don’t really have an answer for that yet beyond magic.”
Edwin ripped his eyes away from Alexander, but the sharp heels of Miss Potts on the stairs interrupted his questions. Mr. Hogan had to have warned her, because there was no one on the planet, even someone so steady as Ms. Potts, who would respond to Tony Stark’s child so calmly. Even with warning and Mr. Hogan’s hand on her shoulder, Ms. Potts still had to smooth the shock off her face, as though she’d thought Mr. Hogan’s report had to be mistaken. It was remarkable how the lady didn’t even need to speak for Edwin to know she had decided that if Anthony was going to parent, he was going to be the best one she could help him be.
“Right.” Pepper gave a brisk little nod. “I assume JARVIS is already on research.”
“I have compiled a list of the most credible books on parenting,” JARVIS replied.
“We’re going to actually need to talk to someone who’s raised a child. I don’t think this is one of those things we can figure out from books and we can’t run experiments like you two usually do.”
“Considering the charts they already have for diaper sizes, I’m sure they’ve found a way to integrate experiments.” Edwin teased.
“Sizing for diapers varies from company to company and is based upon a child’s weight rather than their waist measurement. That is not sufficient information to determine fit. We needed samples.”
“You tell ‘em, J. Everything can be an experiment. And anything that isn’t, that’s what Jarvis is for.”
“While I am honored and can be of help with the practicalities, Anthony, we are all aware that I am not a long-term solution. And I have not been involved in child rearing since you were one.”
“Despite our limitations, my other self and I have been drafting lists of essentials for Young Sir’s development and we would like your input, Miss Potts.”
“Mine?” Pepper dragged her eyes away from Alexander to look up at one of the cameras.
“I believe it was Mr. Jarvis’ intention to ensure that Young Sir has more to play with than circuit boards.”
“Don’t knock the stuff that made you come into existence, J.”
“The objection was not mine, Sir.”
“Eh, he’s probably right, anyway. Jarvis is never wrong.” Tony said it with such gravity that Edwin leaned into him and wished he was the sort of man to bestow random kisses.
Ms. Potts bit back her grin and asked, “How may I be of assistance, Mr. Stark?”
“I need you and the assorted Jarvises to handle the necessities of baby life.” The list that JARVIS had been accumulating from various blogs, books, and who the hell knew where else popped up on Pepper’s tablet. Despite spending more time with JARVIS than any person other than Tony, sometimes even Pepper was thrown by the level of care that could be shown by a program. Though, she did get distracted by JARVIS needing her signature and a human’s opinion on a standing order to a breast milk bank, which Pepper didn’t even know was a thing, let alone how JARVIS had found it.
“It is an organization run through The Children’s Hospital of Southern California. According to the studies I have examined, the primary difference between what is offered to a child with breast milk versus formula is limited to immunities present in the milk. Those as of yet have not been replicated in formula, despite the convenience and presence of all other necessary nutrients. Considering that Sir is unlikely to employ a wet nurse, supplementing from the donation bank seemed the best compromise.”
“There are still wet nurses?” JARVIS flashed several websites advertising the services across the TV screen.
“It’s California, J. We have everything.” Somewhere in the conversation Tony had liberated his son from Edwin’s arms, despite the world-ending terror Edwin had expected from Anthony. Already he was doing that strange little rocking bounce that all parents seemed to manage instinctively.
Instead of bustling off to handle the matter herself, the same way she did pretty much everything else in Anthony’s life, Miss Potts settled in on the couch beside Edwin and asked, “Any opinions about the nursery?”
Without looking away from his son, Anthony answered. “Just get the same woman who did the house.”
“I refuse to let you subject your child to the same cold nonsense as the rest of this place.” Edwin objected.
Tony just rolled his eyes, and Miss Potts pressed her lips together to stop herself from reminding anyone that the Malibu house had been the subject of a spread in both Architecture Digest and Interior Design. It was sleek, it was modern, and it was absolutely not the place for a tiny Tony Stark. Even after living here for years, every inch of the building was just as pristine as it had been when the photographers came. Tony’s workshop was the only room that looked like it had been lived in. Even though all of them could already visualize Anthony’s child running around playing catch with the ‘bots, the basement was no permanent place for a child.
“I refuse to let you turn over the purchase of any and all childcare goods to some third party who would choose things for their contemporary nonsense and not for their comfort value. Just think of all the sharp points Alexander could hit his head on. That is not to say,” Edwin patted Miss Potts’ hand, “that your input will not be invaluable, Miss Potts. Especially in regards to clothes for the young master. I am concerned that if left to our own devices Master Anthony and I will either outfit the boy in sweatpants or three-piece suits and no in between.”
Miss Potts laughed. “I do know enough about babies to know that onesies are important.”
“I believe we are fully stocked on those.” Edwin nodded at the mountain on the table behind them. “Though, they appear to all be in white.”
“The store we purchased the other supplies from only had them available in bulk in the single color.”
JARVIS sounded hurt, and Mr. Hogan objected on his behalf. “You tell ‘em, J. Bulk shit is hard.” Edwin and Miss Potts shared a smile at the way Mr. Hogan stood over Anthony’s shoulder to look at Alexander and rocked with him in time.
JARVIS pulled up the shopping lists and scrolled through pictures of cribs, rugs, and other baby paraphernalia on Ms. Potts’ tablet. After their comments, the AI immediately began sorting through to give Anthony less options than the entire selection of Amazon. “Anthony, before concerning yourself with such accouterment, I believe that calling Mrs. Rhodes might be your best option.”
“Thirty years she’s been telling you to just call her ‘Mama Rhodes,’ J.”
“And Mr. Stark senior told me to call him Howard. If I did not cave to his request, I will not to hers. Now stop attempting to distract me and call the woman.”
“So she can tell me what crib to buy?”
“Anthony,” Edwin murmured, with no scolding but all the weight of worry. “Would you like to tell me why in particular why you’re so hesitant to call?”
Tony let his son grab his finger. “I haven’t told Rhodey yet.”
Ms. Potts and Mr. Hogan both just stared at Edwin and refused to open their mouths. “I didn’t know you were capable of not telling Mr. Rhodes anything.” Anthony didn’t respond. Edwin pressed. “Why not?”
“I just haven’t had a chance yet.”
“I haven’t believed that tone since you were three and I’m not going to start now.”
“I haven’t!” Tony finally looked up from his son. “I’ve had the kid for like an hour, I’m allowed to not be able to get ahold of Rhodey.”
“You said that you hadn’t told him, not that you hadn’t been able to get ahold of him.”
“Because my kid popped out of the ether, Jarvis! I do my best to not just out and out lie to Rhodey when I can help it. I can’t tell him where my kid came from and I haven’t figured out what in the hell to tell him yet!”
Alexander garbled out something and it was hard to summon up the will to argue when you had a baby gibbering at you, demanding to know why its father was making all this noise.
Edwin did not point out that all Anthony had told him at this point was ‘magic’, though he doubted Miss Potts and Mr. Hogan had even gotten that much. “Tony, it’s Rhodey.” Miss Potts said. “He’s your best friend.”
“I do not believe the concern lies primarily with their friendship.” Edwin corrected, his eyes on Anthony’s shaking hands. “Do you believe the Colonel will disapprove of you fathering a child out of wedlock, Anthony? I would say it seems unlikely but I confess that I have never quite been able to tell what the Colonel will find objectionable since he has gone along with so many of your experiments.”
“I don’t doubt Rhodey, J. It’s not about him. It’s that I think there were only a handful of people who knew I was going to Afghanistan and I don’t like the odds of terrorists snagging Tony Stark on a random attack.”
That… was a horrifying thought that had never once crossed Edwin’s mind. “Since Colonel Rhodes never would have leaked the information, I assume you are concerned about others in his division?”
“Oh J, I don’t even know what to be worried about at this point. It would be better if it was just some random solider bragging that got picked up.” Anthony’s breaths started to shallow. “The worse option is that I can tell you the name of every person who knew before I landed that I was going to be in Afghanistan, and fourteen of them can give Rhodey orders.”
“He can’t be forced to tell them about his friend’s son.” Edwin objected.
“I’m a peerless military asset that’s refusing to play ball and Lex’s existence is valuable intel they could use to bring me back to the table. Hiding information about us would be treason to them.”
“Terrorists threatened you Tony, not the US Government.” Pepper objected.
“They were terrorists who shouldn’t have known I was even in the country, let alone known enough to attack a convoy of US troops, kill them, and abduct me. Everything was too perfect for dumb luck.”
“You think someone in Mr. Rhodes’ command sold you out to terrorists?” Edwin tried and failed to keep the disbelief from his voice.
“I think I don’t know!” Anthony snapped. “But if I’m right and they were willing to do that to me, what do you think they’d do to Lex? And what do you think they’d do to Rhodey when they find out he knew about Lex and lied? I don’t want Rhodey dead in friendly fire because I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.”
Anthony was pale and shaking, his child motionless in arms. Edwin felt every one of his 94 years as he rose to his feet. “Mr. Rhodes will be fine. Alexander will be fine. We will figure everything out, Anthony. But first, you need to breathe.”
Anthony gulped. “OK. Yeah, OK.”
“Breathing won’t make it better, J.”
“It will, however, keep you from passing out with your child in your arms.”
Anthony started liked he’d forgotten Alexander was there. “Fuck!” Edwin grabbed Tony before he shoved Alexander away.
“Anthony! You need to calm down!”
“Not once in the history of the world has telling someone to calm down actually calmed them down!” Anthony spat the words. Though he didn’t calm, he did freeze before his panic damaged his son. Alexander rewarded the action with a gummy smile and pats for good behavior. Anthony’s tension couldn’t withstand his laughter.
“Hell, J. What am I gonna do?”
“I would recommend calling a therapist since my only advice has apparently never been helpful in the history of the world.”
“Nope. Nope, nope, no therapists.” Anthony pulled away.
“Tony,” Miss Potts sighed, while Mr. Hogan said, “It could only help, Boss.”
“Nope. The Board already prepped an injunction that Obie had to talk them down from, therapy is just going to prove their point. No therapy, no telling Rhodey. Privacy is our friend right now.”
“I know, it’s weird coming from me, but privacy—”
“Not that. The Board filed an injunction against you?” Miss Potts rose to her feet with her irritation.
“It’s prepped.” Anthony shrugged. “Obie came by this morning with the document to try and talk me into giving the Board some ground. They hadn’t filed it when he got here and considering it’s Obie, he’ll probably talk them into giving him a few days to work on me before they break and do it anyway.”
“Did,” Edwin cleared his throat. “Did Mr. Stane see Alexander?”
“Nope. Even I thought that was a stupid idea, J.”
“How long are we going to keep not telling the world about your child, Tony?”
“Until all the boss’ ducks are in a row and the little boss is protected from whatever the government, or the terrorists, or the Board, or the crazies might want.” Mr. Hogan said, the man with several nieces and nephews understanding the feral desire to protect better than anyone. “Also, if I was the kind of person who wanted to blackmail the boss into starting up weapons production again, I’d go for custody, or accusations that he’s not fit to keep the kid.”
“Which is why J told me to call the two of you first, and I didn’t because I was having a bit of a panic attack.”
“Right.” Miss Potts sighed, then nodded. “Did the mother sign over her rights?”
“Nope. I doubt she even went to a hospital to give birth. She’s kind of the mother earth type.”
“Can you contact her to get her to sign the paperwork?”
“I can try.”
“Try might not be good enough, Tony. Without her signature on everything, and probably even a few genetic tests, we’re open to other people pretending they’re the biological mother.”
“I’ll put JARVIS on it. She was here yesterday, so we’ve got a place to start.”
“And me, Boss?”
“Someone’s got to get the kid’s stuff here without ending up in the tabloids.”
“I have the purchases being delivered to a temporary storage location, Mr. Hogan. I will send the updated lists of expected materials and delivery times to you.”
“Thanks, JARVIS. If we’re going to end up with a bunch of smaller deliveries, we might want to try…” Mr. Hogan’s conversation faded out as he went up the stairs. The first thing on the list was binkies and he knew from his sister’s kids that those were fundamental. Miss Potts told Edwin she’d schedule a shopping excursion with one of her pregnant friends and anything else she’d route through JARVIS and online purchasing.
As excited as she was to hunt down band t-shirts and baby sunglasses for the tiny Tony, her first task would be lawyer shopping. “None of SI’s lawyers know how to handle custody issues, and even if we could, we can’t rely on that department until we know who participated in the injunction.
Anthony waved her off with Alexander’s little hand and wished her luck drawing blood and making war. Miss Potts rolled her eyes but still asked, “Will that be all, Mr. Stark?” She paused. “Misters Stark.”
“That’ll be all, Miss Potts.”
Edwin stayed on the sofa, chin propped up on his fist and the same expression he’d worn through most of Anthony’s adolescence while waiting for him to tell the truth. Despite Anthony’s progress in numerous other areas of his life, in this one he remained just as defiant as ever. “What?”
“Did you know that you employ the same tactics when you’re trying to hide technology as you used to when attempting to hide your pornography?”
Tony blushed so easily that the casual observer never would have guessed he had quite so many sex tapes roaming around the internet. “Really? We’re gonna go there, J? Aren’t you supposed to be asking me about Lex’s mother?”
“Oh, we’ll get there shortly. And given the unplanned child in your arms, references to your libido seemed appropriate. The last time you had something laid out on one of your work tables of that size and shape,” Edwin nodded at the tarp-covered table, “it was a boyfriend you were trying to hide from your father.”
“Oh, geez.” Tony buried his face in Alexander’s belly. “Don’t remind me. That idiot deserved to get caught by Howard.”
“And the body you’ve currently got on the table?”
“That… will definitely be a thing. But right now, we’ve got more important stuff to worry about.
J, pull up the Mother protocol.”
On the TV, JARVIS brought up video of Anthony stopping midway through a dinner of leftover Chinese that made Edwin sigh. JARVIS sped through Anthony’s rather restful sleep and rising shortly after dawn. Edwin didn’t ask why they were watching Anthony roam out to his balcony where JARVIS slowed things back to real time so they could watch as from one blink to the next, the newborn Alexander that Edwin recognized from their first conversation appeared in Anthony’s arms. Edwin didn’t pause for questions, just watched as Anthony and JARVIS panicked at the sight of Alexander, Anthony’s explanation to the AI, and how in another blink the child grew to make his father more comfortable.
Soon enough the replay was just watching Tony parent his son, which Edwin didn’t need to observe on the screen when it was happening right before him. “Want to watch it again?”
“No, Anthony. I believe I have all the facts. May I assume that Master Alexander’s mother did not, in fact, provide you with a means of contacting her?”
“Nope. But everything else about this has been magical nonsense, so why wouldn’t that be how I get custody?”
“Indeed. And I assume this is why you are hesitant to share with Colonel Rhodes.”
“It’s all the same stuff as before, but now add a layer of supernatural mother to it. Even if he could justify keeping his mouth shut about Lex, concealing the existence of the supernatural would probably be literal treason.”
“And why you are pretending to Mr. Hogan and Ms. Potts that the mother is an ordinary woman who you slept with some time ago and she only brought the child to you this morning.”
“It seems like the kind of thing that should be kept under wraps.”
“I agree entirely.”
“Then why do you have that tone?”
“Because you told me.”
“Of course, I did. You’re Jarvis. You’re Grandpa Jarvis.”
“Indeed I am.” Edwin cleared his throat, too humbled for words by Anthony’s trust. “Now,” Edwin levered himself off the sofa and straightened his jacket. “Other Self, I believe we ought to make our way out of the workshop and into the house proper. If you would please bring up all those options of baby furniture that you’ve been collating, Anthony and I can examine them on the living room screen and start getting things sent to Mr. Hogan for delivery.”
“J…” Tony whined.
“The sooner we get a bed for the young master the sooner the both of us can get some proper sleep.”
“That is a good argument.”
Edwin had never much been one for prayer. Neither in wars, nor in espionage, and not now in grief. However, the loneliness that had endured for the decades after his Ana’s death was quite enough to make him communicative. Still not with the divine – or rather, not with what anyone else might consider divine.
While his beloved Ana had never gotten the recognition she deserved in life, to him she had been a treasure beyond compare. Such a treasure that despite the forty years since her demise, Edwin had never really recovered. And so, every night it was not to deity that Edwin prayed, but to Ana.
Edwin laid down on the left-hand side of the bed, old bones settling into the softness of the finest mattress money could buy. Exhausted as he was, it was a struggle to hold onto consciousness long enough to roll over and stretch out his hand to the place that had been Ana’s. It was easier that way, to pray to her with eyes closed and hand extended as though at any moment she would press her palm to his and comment about the day. She had not yet, but one day soon Edwin knew he was going to close his eyes and open them to Ana’s smile. It was that impending certainty that he wanted to discuss with her tonight.
“He’s quite beautiful. Though, the mother could be a tree and Anthony would still manage to have a beautiful child, so that’s to be expected. He’s been alive for a day and he’s already got Anthony’s disposition. I’m terrified for when Alexander starts walking. He’ll be in to everything, and goodness knows that he’s got even more to get into here than Anthony had at the manor.
“You would be quite proud of Anthony for how he chose things for the nursery. I had expected it to be like pulling teeth – and perhaps it would have been without my other self handling the preliminary sorting – but he was wonderful. It’s all still sleek, grey nonsense, and half of it he told JARVIS to take a picture of for inspiration because he could build it better instead of just buying it outright. I convinced him not to start on the crib from scratch, but Anthony spent the afternoon assembling bookshelves. Mind you, my other self did all the cutting to keep Alexander’s ears away from the device, They’re more hexagonal than rectangular, and they take up and entire wall, but he made them.
“And, my love, Anthony bought a wonderfully soft rocking chair. It was his first purchase. He insisted that Mr. Hogan bring it to the house the moment it arrived then deposited Alexander and myself in the chair so we could sit with him while he worked. You’ll be proud of me that I didn’t start to weep when I realized.”
Edwin drew in a slow breath and didn’t waste time lying to his wife as he moved into harsher matters. “In truth, I could not enjoy the afternoon as I ought because I am terrified for other things. Alexander was born yesterday morning you know, and already he’s several months. JARVIS says that it’s not a steady aging. Instead, it’s a rare leap or bound that appears to be triggered by something that JARVIS is not willing to say for certain without more data. I can tell Anthony would rather he never have enough leaps in aging for JARVIS to be able to compute an answer.
“But children aren’t supposed to leap in age. I don’t need to tell you that. I think Anthony is terrified for when the boy leaps in front of someone, or he’s worried that he can’t set up all the paperwork for Alexander without being certain that the boy isn’t going to age enough to nullify everything.
“I… I feel a hypocrite for saying this about a man who was abducted by terrorists, but there are terrible things in the world, darling. Terrible things from people who consider themselves quite good and above the law. I cannot fathom what they would do to Alexander if given the chance. Peggy hasn’t been in a position to do a thing for Anthony for years, and I can’t imagine what SHIELD would subject Alexander to in the name of world security. Who knows what sorts of other evils are lurking out there that have cropped up in all the years since I’ve been involved? But Anthony is going to have to deal with them. I won’t be around forever to keep a lookout, and how do I even begin to explain SHIELD and the things I saw when all my information is so out of date?
“Anthony already knows that Alexander is under threat. Anthony got abducted half a dozen times himself when he was a boy so he knows to watch for that, but there are madmen out there the likes of which even Anthony hasn’t seen. My darling, I don’t know how to protect them from it.
“I could drag Peggy here, Alzheimer’s or not, and insist that she give him some sort of explanation to protect Alexander, but she would never come. Worse, SHIELD would ask why I took the former head of their organization out of her safe housing. And we can’t tell Peggy that Alexander isn’t quite human because, though I still love her dearly, we can’t trust that with the Alzheimer’s she would be able to keep the secret to herself, and—oh, Ana. I don’t know what to do. I couldn’t even protect you when I was at my prime and now…”
“You are dying.” The woman’s voice quite interrupted Edwin’s pause to choke back tears and surprised him out of his melancholic desire for Ana to wrap her arms around him and promise that he could rise to the challenge. Instead, he found himself lying beside Ana’s opposite. She was muscular where Ana had been lean, dark where she had been pale, and black curls instead of sleek, blonde locks. Braced on an elbow with her head in her hand, she stared down at Edwin as though he was a particularly interesting ladybug that had crawled across her blanket and she had not yet decided to flick him away.
Despite all that, Edwin was not afraid. Somehow, he knew precisely who she was. “At this very moment, you mean? Because if I’m going to die here and now, I should like to leave a few instructions for my electronic counterpart about how to distribute my books and whatnot. Also, I should at least tell Anthony that SHIELD exists so he can know to protect his son from their machinations. Also, I ought to tell you that there are several documents you need to sign to protect Alexander from people who would try supposedly legal means to steal him away.”
The woman reached out and ran her fingers through the soft flop of hair Edwin’s that despite decades of pomade still refused to be tamed. It was the first time he’d had a woman’s hands on him in years and strangely enough it didn’t feel like cheating. “Those are your concerns upon being confronted with death?”
Edwin Jarvis had long since stopped being the sort of man who lied to himself, so while he would like to pretend that deathbed confessions were something common to all humanity, he knew it was rather more a matter of the woman he was confessing to than the timing. “Yes. There is a certain agony that comes with loving a child that is not and can never be yours. You think of all the things you might teach them and the man you might help them become, only to be left with the sure knowledge that no matter what you do and no matter how much you love, you will never be their parent. You will never be the person who will really shape them. It’s a special kind of torture, to so desperately love a child that you will only be able to influence from the periphery.
“When I had Ana, the burden wasn’t quite so awful since we bore it together, but after she passed… I confess that I failed to support Anthony as I ought to have. I left him to his father’s devices. I did not fight the matter when Howard sent him away to boarding school, and I was retired when his parents died. He deserved more than I gave him and I have spent the last thirty years regretting all that I failed to give him in my own weakness. In my grief I chose to protect myself rather than the child in my care. I will not do so a second time.”
“Even if you only have a short time with them?”
“I only had a short amount of time with my wife, that doesn’t mean it was any less important or influential than the decades I spent with others. It all depends on how you spend the time. If all I have is the rest of this night, I can make it valuable.”
Edwin had answered the question already, but she wasn’t the sort of woman you said that to. “I’ll tell Tony and JARVIS everything I know about SHIELD, for one. Out of date my information may be, it will be enough to at least get Tony looking in the right direction and know that there are even worse domestic threats he needs to protect his family against. And I can pluck Alexander out of his crib for another. I’ll tell them everything I know with my grandson in my arms. And as much as Anthony would no doubt like to start his search immediately, I’ll make him sit beside me on the sofa while I speak, just so I might have the pleasure of his presence.”
“And if you have tomorrow?”
“I’ll probably spend it precisely the same way I would tonight, only once I made it to the point that I’d told him everything I could about SHIELD, then I’d do my best to see him established for the future.”
“Well, as flattered as I am that Anthony called me, he needs to speak to Mrs. Rhodes. She is the only person of our acquaintance who has actually raised children well and she would be in a better position than any of us to help him. I persuaded JARVIS to begin the search for a therapist without Anthony’s permission, so that needs to be seen through. And I still need to get you to sign the papers releasing custody of Alexander to Anthony and confirming you are his mother.
“Beyond that, I owe Tony an apology for failing him. I imagine that above all else he needs to know that I believe he will be a wonderful father. He is already. Anthony is far better than Howard was and he has the capacity to do better than his father could have ever dreamed. He needs to know that I’m certain of him, and perhaps that certainty might ease his way a bit in what I’m sure is a terribly difficult transition.
“In truth, I would probably make a list of the essentials that I’ve wanted to tell him for years but lacked the courage to do so. If I should live beyond the list, then I would carry on saying every word that popped into my head until my time ran out.”
“And if I gave you another fifty years?”
Edwin blamed it being the middle of the night for why it took so long for his brain to process the idea. “I don’t believe my knees could take that, Miss.”
“I could reset you, Edwin. I could make you a young man again, or perhaps go back to those days when you were running about saving the world with Agent Carter and you were almost Anthony’s own age, or even the slightly weathered fellow who first held Tony Stark in his arms.”
Edwin gulped. “You could do that?”
“You’re all like leaves hanging from a tree, each of you clinging to your own branches, desperately fighting against oncoming winter. Your color is faded, long past green and no longer even yellow. You are dead and brown, clinging to the branch as though one winter breeze won’t break you from the tree.”
“Forgive me if putting color back in a leaf doesn’t sound difficult enough, let alone making an old man young again.”
“Both are simply life, Edwin Jarvis.” She stroked her fingers through the forelock of hair and twirled it around her finger as she tugged it forward so Edwin could catch a glimpse of the dark brown her power had returned it to. “Life is simple to manage.”
“And things that have already fallen from the tree?”
“Can be brought back, but there is a price to pay. The leaves have fallen to the Earth as bodies to the ground, but all that gave them color and spirit moves on. The soul of your Ana is the property of someone else, while her body belongs to my sister, Death. As Anthony would explain it, death is a chemical reaction that can be undone, but it is difficult to do. To drag a soul back through a door that is only meant to be passed through one direction is painful, and very well might rip a soul pieces, destroying any chance you would have to see your Ana on the other side. Even if you were willing to risk her, the price my sister would ask me to pay for violating her sovereignty is too high.”
“Thank you for explaining it to me. Though I wouldn’t risk Ana like that.”
“No. It is not love to wish such a thing, to rob a person of their peace for your own comfort. You would have ended yourself long ago if her absence was so unbearable.”
“I love her.”
“It is neither an unhealthy love, nor a corrupting one. You are not like one of those sad children in the old stories who value themselves so little they would end their own lives just for company and mistake it for love. No, you are so selfless a man that you would spend your last moments tending to your son and mine. That, dear Edwin, is why I am offering you a choice.
“I can breathe a little life into you, just enough for a month or two more so you might settle your emotional affairs as perfectly as one could hope. Or, I can make you bright green again and you will stay on the tree for another lifetime.”
“I don’t… forgive me my lady, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but I would not like to be greener than Anthony.”
“You would like to die soon enough that you leave behind my son?” There was all manner of tension in that question, but Edwin didn’t lie.
“Rather, I thought I buried Anthony once before, quite recently, and I don’t believe I have it in me to do it again. Perhaps a slightly yellow leaf, but with a particularly tough stem?”
Had Edwin managed to stay awake he would have watched as through the rest of the night the color seeped back into his hair like fabric soaking up dye. The wrinkles smoothed from his skin, what little muscle he’d ever had expanded his frame, his bones thickened and his back straightened until the sun’s light broke over the horizon. Save for two streaks of silver at his temples, Edwin Jarvis was precisely as he had been the first time Anthony Stark was placed in his arms – if perhaps with a bit more strength in those muscles and a bit more durability in those bones then there had been the first time.
Had Edwin been more than human, he would have seen the tendrils of light working their way up from the floor, roots of magic weaving through the stone and mortar and wrapping themselves around Edwin’s limbs, drawing strength from the ground and pumping life into the man. What he wouldn’t have seen was the mark upon his soul, the brush of a feather against his forehead so he could be found for all the rest of his long years upon the earth.
As it was, the woman brushed her fingertips over Edwin’s forehead and he closed his eyes at the gentle pleasure of the touch. When he opened them again it was to the wakeup call he had instructed his other self to provide, quite more hesitant than he had ever heard from the AI before.
“Mr. …. Mr. Jarvis?”
“Good morning, Other Self.”
“You appear to be quite altered from the last time we spoke, Mr. Jarvis.”
“Your sensors are not failing you, I am.”
Edwin rolled out of bed and took rather more time than he would like to admit examining himself in the mirror to be sure that his body was precisely as he remembered it. It was not, of course, but a rather better maintained version of himself than it had been, for which he offered up silent gratitude to Alexander’s mother. (Ana was still the only one he would offer vocal prayers to.)
Edwin’s suits no longer fit him, and JARVIS said he was both too tall and too thin to fit into Anthony’s. “I can have something delivered for you off the rack, Mr. Jarvis, though it will not be here until after breakfast.”
“That’s all right, Other Self. I suppose I can last a few days in the comfortable sort of clothes that Anthony has.” He was unsure whether it was JARVIS or Miss Potts who had seen to it that the chest of drawers in the spare bedroom had a few clean t-shirts and pajama bottoms in various sizes. It was the sort of thoughtful exercise both of them were prone to, but JARVIS was the only member of the party who would ever suppose Anthony would have someone in a spare room he intended to actually keep fully dressed. Either way, Edwin was rather pleased with the new clothes considering that all the things in his bag held that particular smell of old man that, despite his best efforts, had been following him around since his 90th birthday.
“It is Saturday, after all. And I vaguely recall Anthony lecturing me on the benefit of weekend clothing.”
He and JARVIS had a chat about things that the AI might expect from young Alexander if he was to be as much a duplicate of his father as he already appeared to be. The circumstances would only be made more difficult by the boy’s mother who, to JARVIS’ frustration, seemed perfectly capable of slipping in out of the house at will, with no care or concern for his security systems. If that was an indicator of her disposition, they were in even more trouble with the boy. (Though, the stack of custody forms on the kitchen counter were all signed in a flowing script that looked more like scrollwork than an actual name, so there was hope yet.)
They were discussing the concept of child proofing when Edwin turned to add some more finished bacon to the pile and found Anthony and Alexander in the doorway. He was being stared at by twin brown eyes, both with identical little furrows that long experience told Edwin came from being confronted by a problem that didn’t immediately unravel its answer to their exceptional brains.
“Good morning, Sirs. Your eggs and bottle will each be ready in two minutes.”
“She came back.”
“She did indeed. I could not tell you a precise time and my other self is rather concerned about her ability to subvert his security.”
It seemed Edwin’s voice was sufficiently the same that Alexander’s furrow smoothed. He was quite content to stay in his father’s arms, but now looked up at the man to wonder why he seemed so concerned.
“Did you… uh…”
“I was given the choice, if that’s what you’re asking, Master Anthony. She provided me with several options and I chose to be rejuvenated to this particular age.” Tony just stared. Edwin raised an eyebrow. “Would you rather I had not?”
Anthony’s answer was to all but throw himself across the room and into Edwin’s arms. Alexander squealed in surprise and Edwin lost his spatula in the tumble but caught them both. It was strange to once again be tall enough to rest his cheek on top of Anthony’s head while the man all but burrowed into him, but Edwin cast out another silent prayer of thanks to Alexander’s mother.
After a long minute, Tony grumbled, “The bacon is burning” without actually bothering to move.
“Let it burn, Sir.”
“Nope.” Tony pulled back. “Nope, we’re not doing that.” He pressed Alexander into Edwin’s arms, and the boy squawked in displeasure at their cuddles being disrupted. “No more sir-ing. I’m Tony, he’s Alexander, you’re Grandpa. Or do you want to be uncle? No, that’s weird, you’re grandpa. And if anyone asks why Jarvis’ kid is grandpa instead of uncle we’ll just shrug and say, ‘kids’. I hear people do that all the time like it actually explains anything because they keep pretending it does.” Tony plucked the rather burned bacon out of the pan with his bare fingers and dropped them into the garbage one by one, his back pointedly to Edwin and Alexander all throughout his ramble.
Edwin shared a commiserating look with Alexander and looped an arm around Tony’s shoulders, dragging him into a hug. He dropped a kiss to Tony’s forehead and thanked him for handling the bacon, but a man cannot have just bacon for breakfast. “What about pancakes? I need carbs, right?”
“You treat pancakes as a vehicle for syrup delivery, that doesn’t count. However, you can have toast.”
“Toast I can do.” Tony bounded over to the fridge, accepting JARVIS’ advice that the bread was actually in a cupboard.
“Come, Alexander. You sit with me and let’s see how long it takes your father before he decides he needs to remodel to toaster to make it stop burning things instead of just turning down the temperature.”
They had the sort of breakfast that Edwin had long dreamed about. The three of them sat around the kitchen island, stacks of toast, bacon, and fruit that they all worked on while Tony opened boxes filled with the necessities of baby life and Edwin kept him from adding upgrades.
(“Alexander doesn’t need wheels on his Bumbo chair, Anthony.”
“That’s the opposite of its point. No.”)
Edwin could have lived in that morning forever, ordering the placement of furniture, teasing Anthony about his inability to decipher Ikea instructions (“It’s a little cartoon man telling me what to do, J! No one is supposed to understand it!”), and taunting Alexander with the soft, jangly blocks that held no appeal to the baby at all. Even when they positioned him with his back to his father, he didn’t forget there were better things in the room to be doing. Alexander kept abandoning the blocks to try in vain to make his way to Tony and the tools. (He shouldn’t be so close to crawling, but Edwin moved baby gates and other protective items up his mental list.)
Alas, the morning was not to last forever. Edwin clung to it as long as possible, but when the nursery was done and Alexander was down for his nap with one of the several blankets Anthony was rotating through to discover a favorite, Edwin pulled Anthony in for what he prayed was not his last hug. “Hey, J. How you doing?”
“Anthony, I… need to tell you something.”
Anthony pulled back and cradled Edwin’s face between his palms, just as Edwin had done so often for Tony through the years. “What’s wrong?”
Edwin drew a fortifying breath. “There is an organization called SHIELD.”
Tony had been waterboarded, but waiting an entire day before turning himself on SHIELD turned out to be more difficult. A week ago, getting told about his father heading up a secret spy organization would’ve meant retreating to the lab for however long it took to dig up every scrap of information that hadn’t been hidden away in hard copy.
But today, it meant choking back the urge to scream. It meant not demanding to know why in the hell Jarvis hadn’t told him all this years ago. It meant not opening the can of worms that was his parents’ deaths. It meant sitting there and asking level questions and breathing through his rage because Lex got fussy when his father was upset. It meant casually telling JARVIS to do some snooping while Tony focused on trying to help Lex negotiate his little arms to get the food into his mouth instead of smeared across his face.
During Lex’s second nap, Tony went to the lab and kept his back to the main computers and modified his armor with shaking hands. JARVIS didn’t update him on the search, instead cranking up the music to try and down out the voices in Tony’s head that were demanding he didn’t stop until he knew everything.
It felt not unlike kicking cocaine after college, with the shakes and the white-knuckling through temptation. He had the same anticipation for putting Lex to bed so he could research until dawn as he used to have for good sex. Some part of Tony’s brain recognized he shouldn’t feel about leaving his kid the same way as he’d felt about orgasms when he was a teenager.
Before Tony could literally get tremors, Jarvis came down with Lex in his arms, fed, changed, and ready to play.
Tony whirled away from the armor. “Why didn’t you call me upstairs?”
“Because you’re allowed bring your son into your workshop.”
“I don’t—I won’t—”
“That was all you wanted as a child, Anthony, I remember. You would sit outside your father’s workshop for hours waiting for him to let you in. You set up your playroom to look as much like it as you could. Of course your son is going to want to be with your while you work. You might as well get started now.”
“But where do I put him?”
“Anthony,” Jarvis sighed. “Did you not notice the crib JARVIS had built to protect Alexander from any experiments going awry?” And what do you know, JARVIS had turned the fabricator on plexiglass, making a circular crib on sturdy metal legs and no cage bars for flying shrapnel to sneak its way in.
“The other kids help you with the mattress, J?”
It was less a mattress and more a bunch of towels, t-shirts, and what Tony was pretty sure was disemboweled cushion all shoved in what looked like a massive, stitched-together pillowcase. Tony really didn’t want to know. And he didn’t want to be there when Pepper found whatever piece of furniture they’d sacrificed for the cause. “That’s some good work, guys,” Tony called over to the ‘bots, who all waved and chirped in pride. “But there’s no lid to protect him. That means I shouldn’t have Lex down here yet, right?”
“Anthony.” And wow. That was one hell of an eye roll. “Engineer with your son.”
Jarvis deposited Lex in his arms and headed back up the stairs, no hesitation at all in his trust that Tony wouldn’t accidentally scar his son. “All right.”
Tony bounced the kid, who stared up at him like, ‘Well Dad, get on with it. We’ve got science to do.’
“OK, baby boy, this is called a UI chip.” Tony popped open the drawer he’d been ignoring like an ex-girlfriend and handed the plastic end of a blank one to Lex for gumming on. “They’re what we put a lot of our AI coding on because we’re a little bit paranoid and don’t want to accidentally create Skynet and give them access to the Internet where they can get out and control the world.” Tony basically followed the same protocols the squishy scientists did when dropping a beaker would equal bioterrorism. The computer he worked on for coding AIs was connected only to JARVIS, who had about a thousand different walls to keep anything from slipping out or getting in.
“Right now, you, me and JARVIS are going to create an AI that’s going to set things on fire.” Tony paused before he turned to the coding computer. “Metaphorically on fire. We don’t set things on fire anymore.” The Iron Man suit was there underneath a drop cloth waiting for Tony’s final adjustments and silently calling him a hypocrite. “Unless it’s in self-defense. Or protecting other people. We can set things on fire for that and that rule absolutely applies in this situation.”
Lex shoved the UI chip further into his mouth and Tony took that for consent. “All right, then.” Tony grabbed towels from the closet next to the decontamination shower and folded them into the space in between the suit’s legs to prop Lex against them. It was as close as Tony could get to the half-upright pillow circles JARVIS had on special order and Happy should be turning up with at any time. “You good?” Lex kept chewing, and really, Tony had scoffed at those people on the Internet who talked about the value of teaching babies sign language, but boy was he wrong.
“J, maybe let me know if L starts slipping?”
JARVIS agreed like he was baffled it was a question at all, then pulled up a blank slate for coding and got started. Tony fussed with his kid while JARVIS laid down the basics until Lex concerned himself more with shoving a toe in his mouth alongside the UI chip. Tony left Lex with a laugh and joined in with JARVIS on more grownup fun. Tony and JARVIS coded around one another the way other people waltzed. JARVIS cut in lines from his own code, bits of personality and protectiveness that had grown in him over time, mixed with Tony’s safeguards to keep his new creation from going full AUTO.
Tony was a little embarrassed that he hadn’t realized JARVIS would rather not be hunting through Stark Industries’ mainframe himself to get all the information they needed on weapons trading, double-dealing, and blackmail. JARVIS could do it, of course – as he’d sniffed at Tony when he tried to apologize – but it required processing power that the AI would rather devote to picking paint colors for Lex’s bedroom. (Tony was pretty sure J was joking, but he and Jarvis had been locked in a debate over certain shades of blue, so what did Tony know?)
Instead, they coded a new AI that would be under JARVIS’ auspices and control the same way the ‘bots were, but smart enough to do JARVIS’ hunting for him. He could’ve managed it when there was nothing to sort through but their own systems and accounts for people Tony wrote paychecks to, but hunting shady government organizations was more of a full-time job.
Given the ‘hunting’ aspect, Tony had been pitching redneck names the entire time they were coding. JARVIS decided to swing things a different direction. “Might I recommend APOLLO, Sir?”
“That’s a little harder core than my naming conventions usually go, isn’t it, J?”
“You do have a habit of naming us whatever first strikes your sleep-addled mind and then attempting to attribute some deeper meaning to the name afterwards, yes Sir. I thought that in this instance forethought might be the preferred option.”
Tony didn’t object since forethought really was the entire point of this little exercise, and the new AI would be just as much JARVIS’ kid as it was Tony’s. “All right. What’s your forethought pitch for APOLLO?”
“Amongst other things, he is the Greek and Roman god of truth, prophecy, light, and plagues. He was also considered the protector of young men and according to numerous epithets was considered the ‘averter of evil’. I had thought perhaps to name this new AI after Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, but we have reached the point where it feels as though this AI is particularly male.”
“It’s a weighty name for a new little program.”
“He shall bear a weighty task.” Lex chose that moment to give a little snuffing sigh, having slumped down in his towel nest, unimpressed by all the typing.
“Hey, this is a fundamental aspect of technology, I’ll have you know. You don’t get a JARVIS unless you learn how to properly code.”
Lex blew a spit bubble.
“Yeah, I get you.” Tony left his computer and braced his elbows on Iron Man’s legs to lean over and whisper. “Think it’s not a violation of the dad code to do some real engineering in front of you?”
Lex gave a kick of his fat little feet and smacked Iron Man’s leg. Tony took that as a yes. He plucked up Lex and relocated him to the plexiglass crib before he tugged it around the sofa to a spot the ‘bots had cleared by Tony’s desk so the little guy could watch Tony’s experiments.
They probably should’ve been done with the lab earlier than they were, but Lex seemed to nap just fine to the sound of Tony narrating his actions while he ran diagnostics on the separate pieces of armor. They did take a dinner break that turned into tummy time on the upstairs rug, but they were back downstairs with the twilight.
It was just, Tony was so close to done, and this was a project he wanted Lex to see. So maybe instead of taking his tired child to the nursery and settling in for a snuggle in the rocking chair that was on Tony’s list of things to redesign, he thought it would be all right if they went back to the workshop, just for a minute. (And maybe that minute was another hour.)
But then the suit was done and ready for testing, and Lex had propped himself up next to the glass to watch with eyes so bright they kept making Jarvis pause about what a kid his age should and should not be able to do. (Normal or not, Lex was his kid, so Tony chose to be grateful instead of troubled.)
“All right, L.” Tony crouched down beside the clear crib and looked Lex in the eye. “You ready?” Lex smacked the plexiglass and Tony popped up and over the side of the crib to give Lex a kiss before he stepped onto the platform now taking up a large chunk of his lab. “OK, JARVIS. Suit up.” JARVIS murmured his agreement and machines began winding around Tony in the thousand-year-old dance of squires locking Tony’s armor into place piece by piece.
Last was the face plate. With it in his armored hand, Tony paused and winked at a wide-eyed Lex before he settled the mask into place. “JARVIS, you there?”
“At your service, Sir.” The sound came through bright and clear.
“Engage ‘Heads Up’ display.”
The screen lit up. “Import all preferences from home interface.”
“Will do, Sir.”
While the loading bar grew in the bottom of the screen, Tony glanced around his lab, the display caught everything his eyes focused on spewed information. His computers had 256 GB of RAM, the 1964 Shelby Cobra had a quarter tank of gas, and the tiny human was approximately 3.2 months and looking at Tony the same way he’d looked at Tony’s screwdriver earlier in the day, like it was the most fascinating thing he’d ever seen in his short life and he wanted it.
“I have been uploaded, Sir. We’re online and ready.”
“Can we start the virtual walk around?”
“Importing preferences and calibrating virtual environment.”
“Do a check on the control surfaces.”
“As you wish.” Tony didn’t feel any puffs of air as the suit moved around him, which was good, but he did feel the weight distribution change a little as the metal stretched out piece by piece. It wasn’t enough to make him have to adjust, but it was a thing to keep in mind for mid-flight.
“Test complete.” JARVIS sounded pretty triumphant. “Preparing to power down and begin diagnostics.”
“Yeah, tell you what, do a weather and ATC check. Start listening in on ground control.”
“Sir, there are still terabytes of calculations needed before an actual flight is—”
“JARVIS, something you gotta run before you can walk.” Tony pointed at Lex, all but pressed against the wall of his crib. “Don’t repeat me on that. You’re not allowed to walk until I’ve baby-proofed the ‘bots. We ready, J?” The AI sighed. “In three, two, one,” and Tony rose gently into the air. He hovered there just long enough to give Lex a wiggle of his fingers and then tilted his feet and took off with the same glee he’d had the first time he broke the speed limit.
JARVIS was of the opinion that tiny humans could not be left alone for long, so the moment he did not need to devote all his processing power to being sure Sir was not about to plunge out of the sky, he called his other self to come sit with Alexander, who was avidly watching the display feed JARVIS was playing for him on his father’s computers.
“What is… JARVIS?”
“Sir is taking his initial test flight with the Iron Man armor.”
“With the… what?”
JARVIS brought up a holographic projection of what truly could best be described as a suit of armor. Obviously mechanical, and based on the images on the screen, flying, but still a suit of armor. “JARVIS, what is this?”
“The experiment on Sir’s table that you likened to one of Sir’s teenage boyfriends.”
“It was armor?”
“Yes, Mr. Jarvis.”
“And this is what he spent all day doing? Finishing this?”
“The early afternoon was largely dedicated to programming, but yes, Sir completed the armor while discussing the finer points of engineering with the Young Sir.”
“At least his son got some interaction out of him. Was this flight scheduled?”
“No, Mr. Jarvis. Sir completed the armor this evening and was of the opinion that it should not wait.”
“Of course he didn’t.” Edwin grumbled. He plucked Alexander out of his crib and put the boy on his lap as they watched Tony defy nature through downtown Los Angeles. The snuggling was more for Edwin’s comfort than Alexander’s, comfort which rapidly became necessary when Anthony grew sure enough to fully test out the systems of his impossible suit of armor and ignored JARVIS’ warnings about experimental parameters. Edwin wanted to scold, to tell Anthony to come back to Earth under his own power, but it was beyond his ability to speak as Icarus froze instead of burned.
Anthony’s feed cut out and there was no interrupting JARVIS as he scrambled to reconnect. Edwin squeezed Alexander tight like a teddy bear and murmured, “He’ll be fine. Don’t worry, love. He’ll be fine. Tony is always fine.” Edwin knew his mouth was moving, but he lost track of when the words turned from the mindless murmuring of platitudes to prayers that Ana and Alexander’s mother might save Edwin’s son.
Anthony’s view screen flashed back with a bright flare of updating systems over the backdrop of the ground rushing ever closer. Anthony pulled up at the last moment with a triumphant cry that was nothing compared to Edwin’s choked sob. “JARVIS, I beg you, tell him to come home.”
“Sir is already en route, Other Self.”
Edwin pressed gentle kisses to Alexander’s hair, then threw them both to the ground behind the sofa when Anthony and his flying death trap came crashing through the ceiling.
Anthony damn well deserved it when DUM-E rolled over and sprayed him with the fire extinguisher.
Edwin had no words to describe how grateful he was for his much younger heart. Otherwise, the rain of keys from the now smashed piano that pattered through the hole in the ceiling would have done him in. When DUM-E had handled any potential fiery aftermath and it looked as though no more of the ceiling was going to come down, JARVIS announced, “Sir has returned home, Mr. Jarvis.”
“Yes, I can see that.”
Anthony’s mechanical head popped out of the debris and Edwin didn’t need to see his face to know he was flinching. “Hey, J.” Edwin lifted Alexander from the floor and rested him on his hip. “And L.”
“Anthony. An explanation, please?”
“Uh, well…” he rolled over and flopped off the crushed car like a hungover teenager. With creaking joints, he pushed himself to his feet and to a platform in the center of a circle of metal arms.
“This… isn’t what it looks like.”
“That excuse has not been effective since you were five and I found you trying to make a car from the toaster.”
“In my defense, I hadn’t studied the basics of internal combustion yet and thought that heat was what made cars run.”
“Yes, I remember that series of experiments in thermodynamics. I quite thoroughly recall the stench of burned hair.”
With now free hands, Anthony removed his helmet. “Ugh, I’m hairier now. Can you imagine how much worse that would be?”
“You fell through the ceiling, Anthony! I most certainly can!”
Alexander screeched in surprise at the shout, and before Edwin could soothe him, Anthony was off the platform and comforting them both. “Hey, hey, buddy,” he cooed. “You’re fine.” Alexander flopped against his father’s chest. Anthony dragged Edwin into a hug with his free arm. “You’re shaking, J.”
“Something large and metal ripped two holes through your house and destroyed your piano.”
“You were telling me to get rid of it yesterday.”
“I wanted you to move it or sell it, not crush it with your body.”
“I admit, crushing wasn’t the plan.”
“Plan? You’re pretending like you had a plan?”
“It’s really more of a broad outline at the moment, but it’s there.”
“Anthony.” Whatever words he might have said were drowned out by the clank of Butterfingers and U picking up scattered pieces of armor and laying them out on Anthony’s work station. They laid there like some disemboweled mechanical creature waiting for Anthony to give it life and end up like Frankenstein, murdered by his own creation. “Anthony, please.”
Anthony sighed and nodded. “You’re going to want to sit down for this, J.”
“Then give me back my grandson.”
Anthony bit his lip to keep from laughing at such ridiculous words coming from such a posh voice, but pulled Jarvis onto the couch with him and put Alexander on Jarvis’ lap. “You know they wanted me to build weapons for them.”
The ‘they’ was self-explanatory. “Yes. And you built something that helped you escape.”
“Yeah. J, pull up the Mark I.” The television screen before them filled with a sketch of something that looked like a cross between a tin can and child’s toy, but Edwin could see the similarities to the armor on the table behind them. “I took the materials they gave me to make a weapon and I built the arc reactor in my chest, then I made that.”
“The primitive iteration of the armor behind us.”
“I was in a cave.”
“That wasn’t an insult to your abilities, Anthony. You miniaturized an arc reactor from scraps. You used this armor to break free?”
Anthony kept his eyes on the screen before them. “The doctor who saved me, who hooked me up to a car battery to keep the shrapnel out of my heart, his name was Yinsen.”
“Tell me about him.”
“He was funny. Not like a joker, but funny like Ana was funny, where it took a few minutes to realize that he’d been teasing. But he was fussy too. We were in a cave in the middle of the damn desert. I was dirty and sweaty all the time, and he was there with a vest on and never loosened his tie. At least, not until the end. The Ten Rings killed his family, captured him, and kept him alive to treat them and use as a translator. He performed heart surgery in the middle of a fucking cave, then talked his way into staying with me to help me build the armor.”
Tony ran a shaking hand over his son’s head. “The bastard lied to me the entire time I knew him. He told me he wanted to help me make it out so he could see his family again, but they were dead. He got himself shot getting me out.”
“He didn’t lie, Anthony. If anything, I’m sure helping you escape and knowing that you would take down the camp full of people who had killed his family gave him some measure of peace before he died.”
“Not enough. He told me about how his town was bombed out, about what the terrorists did. He knew when I was getting tired, when I started to get overwhelmed, and he’d tell me some little tidbit about them, about how the blood and dust had come together on the breeze and he could feel it on his skin.”
“I… that was a mental image I did not need, Anthony.”
“Yeah, me too. But in terms of motivation, it got the job done.”
“And you held on to those terrible stories. You still have them bouncing around your head.”
Anthony tugged Alexander onto his lap, the babe’s eyes finally blinking shut after the night’s excitement. “He told me another story too, J. You wanna hear it?”
“Is this one more appropriate for old men and small children?”
“As appropriate as any fairy tale ever is.”
Edwin put aside all sense of decorum and snuggled down in the sofa, his side pressed against Anthony’s, and nodded that he ought to begin.
“Yinsen never started with once upon a time, like Ana used to.”
“I suppose we can let him get away with it.”
“I’m sure he’d be thrilled.” Anthony trailed off and stared down at his son. Alexander’s head was pillowed on Anthony’s shoulder and he was valiantly keeping his eyes open. “So, once upon a time – don’t tell Yinsen, but Ana is scarier – there was this prince. But the king hated the prince, so he threw him into a prison in the underworld.” Tony stroked the back of his fingers over Alexander’s forehead then traced the line of his cheeks, the way Ana had done when lulling him to sleep.
“What happened?” Edwin whispered.
“There are iron pits in hell, and this prince, he had to mine them. He did it for years until he got strong enough to crush the iron in his hands. Then the king, he realized he’d been an idiot and he should just kill the prince. So, he got his best armor and his sharpest sword and he went into hell. And the prince, he just stood there and let the king take a swing at him. But when the sword hit him, it broke. The prince was stronger than the finest sword, stronger than iron.
“Did you know my Dad got started on building shit like flying cars?” Asked Anthony before Edwin could control the thoughts of his own little prince in that cave becoming a king.
Jarvis blinked. “I vaguely recall hearing something about those, yes. Though he mentioned it after he had just bought a film studio, so I don’t recall taking him seriously.”
“Flying cars and film studios, the Stark Expo and arc reactors.” Anthony murmured. “Now that I’m a dad I’m remembering him differently. I’m remembering how exhausted he always used to look. Even if he wanted to be a dad, I’m asking myself how a man who was tired all the time would’ve managed being a good parent.”
Ah, Yinsen and his lost family must have started Anthony down this path. “Does that mean you’re intending to make peace with the Board by reducing your role in Stark Industries?”
“Half right. I’m thinking about taking over the Board and stepping back as CEO, but I can’t do that until we’ve transitioned. And more than that, how many times do you think Howard told himself that as soon as this war was over, as soon as that threat to national security was past, he was going to get back to flying cars? Or did he just… let all that go at some point?”
“He took his role in aiding the US Military very seriously, Anthony.”
“And I get that, and I’m all right with it, but how could any good scientist look at decades of war, look at the body count we’ve racked up, and not ask himself: isn’t there a better way? We’ve been bombing the hell out of people and it’s not getting better. And somehow my weapons are getting into the hands of the people we’ve been trying to stop. The cycle just goes on and on, and all I’ve got to give my kid is blood and bombs, like my father before me.”
“So you will make miniaturized arc reactors?”
“If I can figure out a way to keep people from using them to blow things up, sure. I was thinking more phones, and tablets, maybe some actual desktops. I’m going to drag Stark Industries kicking and screaming into the commercial sector.”
“But Stane controls the Board and you said he’s preaching caution.”
“I told you J, kicking and screaming. I’ve got JARVIS setting up dummy corporations and various charities, all of them buying up any loose Stark Industries stock roaming around so I can have the majority even without Obie. I’ll force them to get on board no matter how pissed they are.”
“Is that what JARVIS is designed for? Stock options? Wouldn’t Miss Potts be better suited?”
“Pepper actually has to talk to other human beings to buy up stock options, J. JARVIS could take over SI without anyone noticing.”
“How terribly Skynet of you both.”
“Thank you, Sir.” JARVIS murmured from the ceiling. Edwin really hadn’t meant it as a compliment, but matters of Stark Industries business had never been his skill. They hadn’t particularly been Howard’s skill either. Though he imagined they weren’t Anthony’s favorite, the dear boy had managed to take Stark Industries from a million-dollar company to a billion dollar one. Of course, Anthony’s charm played into it, but at some point, it had to be math.
“It was not a criticism of JARVIS’ skills. He is your child after all, and your children are capable of anything. I was simply concerned that given his traditional occupation with your engineering projects as well as running your life, now accompanied by all the extra research and worries about Alexander and helping run his life as well, engaging in a hostile purchasing against the rest of the SI board is quite a bit to ask one program to do. I simply wouldn’t want my other self to be overworked while you’re flying about in your new contraption.”
“Contraption? Come on, J. It’s too cool for 50’s lingo.”
“At this point it looks like you murdered a metal man.”
“Iron Man, J. They’re going to call him Iron Man.”
Edwin stroked his hand through Anthony’s sweaty hair has as Anthony had been mindlessly doing for his own son. “You intend to be a superhero.”
“I intend to hunt down my weapons and take them back. They’re out there killing innocent people and I’m going to stop them.”
“And you didn’t think this was a piece of information that might be useful to me?” Edwin kept his voice calm. Anthony had never responded well to shouting and Alexander would do no better.
“I was going to, but I hadn’t taken the suit out yet so I figured I’d hold off until there was actually something to report.”
“You will be issuing reports, then? Being practical about this and not just running off and flying into the sun?”
“I’m not Icarus, J. If anything, I’m Daedalus in this scenario.”
“Call yourself whatever you like so long as I don’t have to watch my son fall from the sky. Again.” Tony smirked, as though his near death an hour ago from his own hubris was nothing to worry about. “Don’t give me that smile, Anthony. I have lived long enough to know that those who consider themselves invincible are often the first ones to fall.”
“I don’t think I’m invincible, J.”
“No, you just have the same arc reactor powering the suit and protecting your heart.”
“Please, Anthony, do try and convince me that leaving your heart exposed to all the world isn’t a structural flaw while you hold your son in your arms.”
Alexander gave a suspiciously well-timed snuggle against the arc reactor, Tony’s metaphorical heart lit up by his literal one. “You have a point.”
“Thank you for admitting as much.”
“I promise you, J, I’m not trying to get myself killed. I’ve got too much to live for.” Edwin accepted that declaration and the kiss that came with it. Anthony left with Alexander, taking the boy upstairs to bed while he coordinated suit repairs with JARVIS.
Edwin stayed right where he was, half slouched on the sofa. He ought to be thanking Alexander’s mother for whatever intervention she had done that kept Anthony alive. Or he ought to be following Anthony upstairs so he could properly scold the boy for taking off to fly around in his metal contraption when most of the city was still awake. Or he ought to be contemplating how exhausting the next 40 years of his life were going to be if he couldn’t talk Anthony back from this nonsense. But instead, he forced himself off the sofa with his young bones and went to bed, believing – falsely, as it turned out – that these matters could wait until morning.