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Bitter Pills (Honey Sweet)

Chapter Text

“Here, son, drink up.”

Tony did his best to keep the surprised skepticism off his face as he tentatively accepted the glass of scotch from his father.

“You hate it when I drink.”

Howard also hated it when Tony was in his lab, and yet here they were. Howard had even been the one to invite him in, of all things, had called Tony at MIT and asked that he come home for the holidays a few days earlier than planned. It was downright weird, was what it was. Tony would almost be worried about his father’s health, if he wasn’t convinced Howard would manage to outlive them all by sheer stubbornness alone.

“Special occasions call for exceptions,” Howard said, leaning back against one of his many worktables and gesturing for Tony to have a seat in the desk chair before it. “You’ll be graduating this spring.”

Tony rolled his eyes as he took a big swig of his scotch, carefully not reacting to the way his father grimaced at the sight.

“It’s my third doctorate, Dad. It’s not exactly a big deal.”

“It is when it means you’ll be starting at Stark Industries in the summer. This is the start of a whole new chapter of your life, Tony. You’ll be eighteen by then and legally an adult. I know you may already feel like a grown up, but you’ll be going through a lot of changes in the next few years.”

Tony’s nose wrinkled.

“If this is some sort of delayed puberty talk, I’ve gotta tell you that you are severely late.”

Howard just chuckled.

“No, I just- I’ve tried to do my best to prepare you for the world out there, Tony. I’ve given you every tool I know how to, but there’s still so much for you to learn.” His eyes got a strange, far-off look to them. “I can’t believe how much you’ve grown.”

Tony shifted uncomfortably. His dad had never been one for talking about feelings and he wasn’t really sure how to react to it.

“I, uh, thanks.”

Howard cleared his throat, apparently feeling the awkwardness just as acutely as Tony. He picked up the decanter of scotch and poured another two fingers into Tony’s glass.

“The point is, you’re very important to me. I’m so proud of you, son. I may not say it much, but you constantly impress me. You’re the future, and I would do whatever it took to protect you.”

Then he threw back the scotch in his own cup and refilled that, too.

.

Tony grumbled discontentedly as he felt a pinch at his elbow. Not wanting to wake fully, he did his best to bat the annoying bug or whatever away. Another hand grabbed his own, though, and guided it back down to his side.

“Shhh, shhh, Tony,” his father’s voice soothed. “It’s alright. Just go back to sleep. Everything’s going to be just fine.”

Still riding the alcohol-fueled drowsiness from their earlier drinking, Tony did just that.

.

His parents were dead.

It felt surreal, like it couldn’t possibly be happening. Just that morning, he’d woken up on the couch with a horrendous hangover to the sound of his mom playing piano. He’d been in an irritable mood because of the pounding in his head and, of course, had ended up arguing with his dad before they’d left. He’d had no idea it would be the last time he ever saw them. He’d just been so annoyed. What was the point of his dad asking him to come home early for the holidays if they were just going to leave? Had the talk they’d had in Howard’s lab the night before really been so important? They hadn’t even really said anything.

Except for Howard actually putting into words the fact that he was proud of Tony. That’d been pretty stunning. And… Howard had said he wanted to protect Tony. Protect him from what?

Howard’s behavior had been uncharacteristic at best, what with the lab visit and the alcohol. Howard didn’t do that kind of stuff. He wasn’t affectionate, didn’t bend rules or make exceptions, didn’t go out of his way to interact with Tony unless he’d done something wrong. There was no reason for the way he’d acted last night.

…Unless, of course, he’d known it was the last night he would be alive.

Almost as soon as the idea crossed his mind, Tony tried to brush it aside. It was a ridiculous notion, fanciful at best and ludicrous at worst. It’d been an accident, nothing more. The car had just lost control and veered off the road. It happened, even with cars as impeccably maintained as the ones in Howard’s collection. If his dad had somehow known something was going to happen, surely he would have done something to stop it. He wouldn’t have just walked out the door with his wife in tow.

Tony had to choke back a sob at the thought of his mom – his beautiful, impossibly kind mom who had taught him how to play piano herself instead of just hiring a tutor like his dad wanted her to. She’d sung him lullabies and spoke to him in soft Italian, had always made a fuss over how handsome he looked every time he wore a suit. He’d give anything to have her back, anything at all. She couldn’t be gone. She just couldn’t.

But she was. And so was Howard.

They were both gone now. Tony would never be wrapped up in another of his mom’s warm, delicate hugs again, never feel the press of her lips to his forehead, leaving behind an imprint of her lipstick. He’d never get to prove himself to his dad, prove that he really was ready to step into his role as the heir of Stark Industries. Not even Howard’s words from the night before could counteract the years he’d been striving to achieve, to finally show that he was good enough. It was too late now, though.

Now, Tony would be nothing more than the Stark Orphan, the sole survivor of a tragedy that had stolen away America’s favorite socialite family. For the rest of his life, people would be bringing up this moment to him, he already knew. He would be hearing about it in interviews and at galas, in meetings with investors or business owners who had known his parents ‘so well.’ There would be no escaping it.

Had his parents had a chance to escape their fate?

No. It was an accident. There hadn’t been anything to escape from except a terrible set of circumstances that no one could have foreseen. End of story. Tony just couldn’t stop thinking of how his dad had acted the night before. He circled back to the thought again and again until he felt like he was going mad.

If something had happened, though – and it was a pretty big if – then whoever had set his parents up to be murdered had to have some damned powerful strings to pull. The Starks were too big of a name for a murder to be covered up by any old someone. The police had definitely seemed to think it was an accident, not that Tony believed the police were the be-all, end-all of investigative work. There was so much more out there than they would ever scratch the surface of, things that involved organizations like the CIA, KGB, or MI6.

People like Tony’s Aunt Peggy.

Tony was scrambling for the phone before he even fully realized what he was doing, grabbing the handset off the wall and nearly tripping himself on the cord in his hurry to punch in his aunt’s number. He didn’t care about the charges for an international call. He could afford them. After all, he was the sole heir to the entire Stark fortune, not to mention Howard’s shares of SI. The phone rang three times before he heard the click of the receiver being picked up on the other end.

“Hello?”

Tony sagged against the wall at the sound of Aunt Peggy’s crisp British accent, his knees going wobbly. A hitched sob escaped him as he slid to the ground, all the emotions rising up within him all over again.

“H-hey, Aunt P-Peggs,” he managed to stutter out wetly.

“Oh, Ducky… I’ve already made the arrangements for the flight. You caught me just as I was about to head out the door. I’ll be there soon. Are the Jarvises with you?”

Tony sniffed noisily and wiped at his eyes, desperately trying to stem the flow of tears.

“O-Obie showed up this morning. Jarvis i-is helping him get all the paperwork in order and I th-think Ana’s in the k-kitchen.”

Peggy gave a hum of understanding.

“She always did fall back on her cooking in times of need. Don’t tell me you’re holed up in your room, dear.” That was exactly where Tony was, actually, having told the others that he needed the time to himself. “Why don’t you go keep Ana company? You know how she needs someone to feed.”

It was kind of her, to phrase it as Tony helping Ana out instead of seeking comfort for himself, but Tony saw right through it. It didn’t matter, though. He had bigger things to worry about.

“Aunt Peggy?” Tony swallowed roughly several times, searching for the words. “I think my parents were murdered and… I think my dad knew it was gonna happen.”

Chapter Text

Hours later, Tony lay in bed, pillow atop his head instead of under it in an attempt to block everything out. Peggy had done her best to calm his fears and promised to detour by Washington D.C. on her way to the mansion and reach out to some of her old contacts to get more information on the accident, maybe ask someone to take another look into it. It was clear she didn’t expect to find anything but was still making the inquiries to ease Tony’s mind. He hoped it would work. As much as that nagging voice in the back of his head was sure he wasn’t wrong, a large part of Tony hoped he was. His parents dying in an accident was horrible, but at least it wasn’t murder.

In the meantime, though, Tony’s brain churned. He couldn’t shut his thoughts off enough to allow himself to rest. To make matters worse, it was like every creak of the floorboards or groaning of the mansion’s foundation settling had been magnified. It was just so loud, probably his consciousness grasping onto any little thing and using is as a distraction from his emotional turmoil. It was a survival thing, maybe, some sort of strange coping mechanism. Whatever it was, it meant Tony wasn’t sleeping anytime soon, that was for sure.

With a noise of frustration, he ripped the pillow from over his face and tossed it off the bed. His vision swam as he blinked his eyes open. Even with just the dim moonlight coming through his window, he could pick out details from all around the room. It struck him as weird, but then he supposed he wasn’t normally up and around at this time of night anyway. The labs and his apartment at MIT were just darker, probably, and he’d gotten used to that during his time away. It wasn’t like he’d spent an extended amount of time here at the mansion since before boarding school started. Brushing the oddity from his mind, Tony climbed out of bed and headed for the door. There wasn’t any point in laying around if he wasn’t going to be able to sleep anyway.

He padded across the hardwood floors and oriental carpets as he made his way toward the kitchens. Ana had been baking up a storm all day and, even though consuming sugar probably wasn’t going to do anything to help him sleep, Tony couldn’t help the late-night craving of cookies and hot chocolate. It’d been his go-to comfort food as a child and he wasn’t sure he’d ever been in more need of comfort than at that moment.

The marble flooring of the foyer was chilly beneath his bare feet and Tony wiggled his toes at the discomfort as he paused in front of the large grandfather clock that stood beside the coat closet. It was earlier than he’d expected, still just shy of midnight. The stillness of the house made it feel empty and deserted, even with its occupants tucked away in their rooms. It gave the impression of a much later time than was reality. The clock was hand-carved from cherry wood with a light stain finish. Gold plating trimmed the edges of swirling designs and cherub wings, imbedded crystals twinkling even in the dim light. It was from Italy, made especially for his family by a man in the town where Tony’s mom had grown up. Howard had commissioned it for her on their third anniversary. His mom had loved that clock.

Tony had to tear himself away as the aching of his heart threatened to send him into another downward emotional spiral. His eyes burned from tears already shed and he knew he was dehydrated. He didn’t need to cry any more tonight. Giving the clock a brief skim with his fingertips, Tony passed it and ducked into another corridor.

He heard the voices before he was even halfway down the hall, keen eyes catching on the light peeking out through the creases around the closed door to the kitchen.

“-didn’t eat a thing, the poor dear,” came Ana’s voice. “He said he wasn’t hungry, but he needs his strength. He looked just exhausted when I went to get him for dinner.”

“He’s processing,” Jarvis soothed her, though his ever-calm tone was tinged by unmistakable worry of his own. “It’s a lot to take in for someone his age.”

“It’s a lot to take in for someone of any age. Losing his parents so suddenly…”

Tony winced. There was really only one person they could be talking about. He wondered if he could sneak away again without them noticing. Probably. He was surprised he could even hear them from so far away. It was probably only because of the quiet of it being so late at night.

“I know you’re worried about him,” Jarvis spoke again, oblivious to both Tony’s presence and his inner turmoil. “I am, too. So is Obadiah. We all lost friends last night, but Tony lost so much more than that. All we can do is be there for him, and each other, as best we can. I’m sure he’ll feel more up to a meal once he’s rested a bit. Perhaps you will be able to tempt him with breakfast.”

Ana sighed audibly and Tony felt a pang of guilt. He knew Ana took care of people by feeding them. His feet started moving again without any conscious decision on his part, but not away from the door. He knocked lightly with his knuckles before gently pushing the door open, eyes squinted against the near-blinding light in contrast to the unlit hallway.

“Ana? Jarvis? Are you still up?” he called, looking around the room as if he didn’t know full well they were and in the midst of talking about him.

Ana all but jumped toward him, taking his hand in both of hers and pulling him further inside to take a seat at the breakfast bar.

“Tony! What are you doing awake? It’s so late!”

He didn’t bother telling her it was practically early compared to how late he normally stayed up at MIT, especially when he and Rhodey were getting up to some project or another.

“I couldn’t sleep,” he confessed, settling into the stool and letting her fuss over him.

She made a sympathetic noise as she ran her fingers through his hair, combing out some of the mess he was sure his tossing and turning had caused.

“I can just imagine. Do you want some tea? I think we have some chamomile in the cupboard.”

“Actually,” he began, feeling a bit sheepish now that he was putting voice to his childish desire, “I was hoping to maybe make some hot chocolate?”

Her fingers paused for just a moment before a dazzling smile spread across her face.

“Just like when you were young,” she said fondly. “I think we can make that happen. Edwin, darling, would you-?”

He set the heavy cream down beside her and pressed a kiss to her cheek before giving Tony’s shoulder a squeeze and sliding past them to get to the cupboard.

“I’ll take care of the whipped cream and grab the tin of biscuits with chocolate chips you made this afternoon.”

The look she aimed after him couldn’t be described as anything other than absolutely adoring. It made Tony feel small and young, mesmerized by the couple as they danced around each other, preparing the late-night snack. His heart ached in his chest, reminding him sharply that his childhood was well and truly over. He was the only Stark left, which meant he would have to step up as the head of the family… even if that family only consisted of one.

.

The morning came far too soon, snapping at the heels of a late night spent in the kitchen with the Jarvises. Tony felt a bit guilty for keeping them up so late, especially after catching Ana yawning over the eggs in her skillet, but the way she beamed at him when loading up his plate soon swept that guilt away.  She was so genuinely pleased to have him out of his room and eating that it was hard to feel bad about any time spent with her. Jarvis himself, of course, appeared entirely unaffected by the short night as he poured coffee into the china cup set beside Tony’s plate. Obie, when he arrived, seemed just as pleased to see Tony out of his room.

“My boy!” he greeted boisterously, as was his way, pulling Tony into a nearly bone-crushing hug. “It’s good to see you. How are you feeling?”

Tony let himself sag into the hug, relishing the security of being completely enveloped by Obie’s broad form. He felt familiar and safe, solid evidence that not everything in Tony’s life had been ripped away from him with the death of his parents.

“It’s good to see you, too,” he said as he finally drew away and sat back in his chair, Obie following suit and thanking Ana as she served him a plate as well. “I’m sorry about yesterday, I just-“

“Not at all,” Obie cut him off. “You have nothing to be sorry for. Needing some time to yourself is perfectly understandable.”

Tony sent him as much of a smile as he could muster, impossibly grateful for the understanding.

“Now,” Obie continued, “I spoke to your Aunt Peggy this morning. She arrived safe and sound in Washington D.C., but it looks like some of those political vultures over there are all badgering for a piece of her. She’s going to take a couple of days to wave them off before she comes the rest of the way over, just to keep them from kicking up a fuss. She promised she would be here in time for the funeral.”

Ana made a disapproving noise as she slipped a few more strips of bacon onto Tony’s plate.

“She should tell them to wait. Honestly! The nerve of some people. Don’t they realize she has better places to be?”

Obie’s answering smile was all sympathy.

“You know how these politicians can be. It’s better if she takes care of them now rather than having them flock after her, trying to stay on her radar and distracting her while she’s here. It’s an unfortunate reality that the world doesn’t stop spinning just because of a tragedy. SI is the same way. The business still has to be seen to, now more than ever. There are a million decisions that need to be made. Without Howard, the rest of us are just trying to play catch up.”

He seemed to realize his words a moment later and reached out to lay a hand over Tony’s wrist.

“Not that it’s anything you need to be worried about. Your father left very clear instructions, just in case anything like this should happen. I’m more than capable of taking care of the company until you turn twenty-one and we can figure out what you want to do with it then. There’s no reason for you to have to deal with all of that right now.”

Tony felt caught in a whirlwind. There was so much going on, so many things to consider. How was he supposed to process any of it? He didn’t even know where to start. Obviously, Peggy hadn’t informed Obie about what she was really up to in Washington, probably because she didn’t think anything would actually come of it. How was Tony supposed to figure out anything to do with the future with the question of whether or not his parents had been murdered hanging over his head?

“…Thanks,” was all he managed in reply, though he really was grateful for Obie stepping in and taking care of things with Stark Industries. Tony couldn’t even begin to imagine having to try and juggle taking over the business with all of the rest of this hanging over his head.

Obie’s lips pulled downward in a thoughtful frown as he considered Tony.

“You know,” he began slowly, “there is something you could do to help us out, if you’d like. Only if you’re feeling up to it, of course. I’m just thinking it might be good for you to have something to do, to take your mind off of things.”

“That… That actually sounds really good. What is it?”

It wasn’t like there was anything Tony could do about his parents until Peggy arrived with more information. If he didn’t have something to distract himself, he’d drive himself crazy obsessing over all the possibilities.

“I’m so bogged down with all the paperwork in Howard’s office that I haven’t even started on his lab here at the house,” Obie explained. “Would you be up for poking around in there? Looking for any projects he might have been working on for the company? You’re probably the only one capable of sorting through and understanding his notes anyway.”

Tony’s heart gave another painful squeeze at the thought of going into the mansion’s lab, the last place he’d seen his dad and managed to have a semi-friendly interaction. Still, it was something to do.

“Yeah, I, uh- I think I can manage that.”

Chapter Text

The lab was as silent as a tomb, lifeless, feeling almost as if it had been abandoned for years, rather than just the day and a half his dad had been gone. His workbench-come-desk was in complete disarray, as was typical, small mechanical bits and notes sitting out just waiting for Howard’s return so they could be finished. The vibrancy and life the lab held when Howard was present seemed to have evaporated, though. It was too still and too quiet, the air already tasting a bit stale as Tony breathed it in. He wondered if that was just his imagination or if his dad’s presence really had such a powerful impact on the place.

Tony trailed his fingertips lightly over a workbench, remembering all the times he’d snuck inside the lab as a child, trying to catch a glimpse of whatever his dad was working on. It’d been like a game, though it was one he always lost. He hadn’t been the stealthiest of children, he supposed, and his dad had always caught him quickly enough. At the time, he hadn’t understood why he’d get in so much trouble for sneaking in. Now, it was easy to sweep a gaze across the room and pick out a dozen ways a curious child could injure themself.

Had that been what fueled his dad’s strong reactions to his presence? Had he just been worried about Tony’s safety, rather than annoyed? Had he been trying to keep Tony out of harm’s way? He wished he could ask. He had so many questions.

With a sigh, Tony moved further into the room, poking and prodding at a few of the things he saw. There were definitely a few projects for SI in here, ones that his dad had deemed important enough to give them his personal attention. Tony supposed they’d be passed along to R&D now. Maybe Tony could give a few of them a whirl, though. He thought his dad might like that idea. He hadn’t been overly fond of Tony poking his nose into things, but he’d always been talking about the Stark Legacy and how Tony would one day be expected to take over the company.

He flipped through a pile of blueprints for prototypes Howard had been working on. There were notes scribbled all over them in his dad’s familiar scrawl, a mixture of corrections and ideas for how each design could be improved. Howard had always looked to the future. He wasn’t satisfied with what could be achieved with the currently available technology but was always striving towards what one day could be. Hell, this was the man who’d made some damn good attempts toward flying cars in the 1940’s. He probably would have achieved it, too, if he hadn’t become distracted by helping with the war efforts and all the military contracts that steered Stark Industries into the field of weaponry and armaments.

Tony abandoned the blueprints abruptly as his heart clenched. He just couldn’t look at them right now, at his dad’s handwriting. Eventually, he’d have to sort through them all, determine what was usable and could be passed on as it was and what he would need to translate from his dad’s shorthand into something R&D could understand. It could wait at least a little bit, though. Maybe he’d just get a layout of the room first, a good idea of what all was here. He could decide what order things needed to be gone through then.

Yeah, that was a good idea. He’d do that.

.

Peggy arrived the day of his parents’ funeral, pulling up the mansion’s drive amidst the flurry of activity brought along by the preparations. Obie and Jarvis were taking charge of everything that needed to be done, but there were still things that Tony had to be present for. He wouldn’t be speaking at the funeral, Obie having stepped up to take that responsibility, but he would still be a point of focus. He’d declined making any comments to the media, but he knew they would be pushing as close as they could despite the media ban, trying to get a shot to print on the front page of the paper.

Though they didn’t get much of a chance to talk past greetings and some murmured comforts, Peggy never left his side during the proceedings. The service itself took place in the Catholic church where Tony’s mother had spent her Sundays, organ music filling the air and stained glass overlooking the filled pews. The pastor’s voice rang out through the room, talking about lives well-lived – Howard’s dedication to his country and Maria’s works of charity. The room was awash with bouquets of flowers – white lilies, his mom’s favorite.

Tony’s hands clenched, his lips pressing into a thin line, as he fought the urge to just jump up and flee the room. He wanted no part of this, the proof of his parents’ deaths being waved in his face and unable to even grieve openly under the scrutiny of the public. They would take it as a sign of weakness, like scenting blood in the water. They’d question whether or not he had the strength to lead Stark Industries, even if he wasn’t set to take charge of it for several more years. Even if they weren’t vultures just waiting for an opportune moment, Tony wasn’t particularly keen on letting them in to take part in his grief. It wasn’t for them.

The anger helped keep the tears at bay.

Finally, finally, he and Peggy were able to talk that evening. It was easy enough to find an excuse for needing the privacy, Peggy just wanting the chance to talk to her godson. It seemed insane to think that her title of godmother might actually take on an entirely different meaning now. The particulars would still need to be talked over with the lawyer. Obie had suggested pushing for Tony to have an emancipated status, since he was only a few months shy of being eighteen anyway and it meant Peggy wouldn’t have to disrupt her schedule to be around for those months and act as his guardian. Those were things that could wait for later, though.

As they settled in with some tea that Ana had brewed up for them, a tradition for the two even though Tony wasn’t much of a tea drinker, Tony already knew what she was going to say. He was smart enough to have started MIT at fourteen and was well on his way to designing the world’s first truly learning artificial intelligence program. Of course, Tony realized what it meant that Peggy hadn’t already found a moment to allay his fears. Telling him she hadn’t found anything to suggest foul play didn’t require a private moment.

“Who was it?” he asked before she could say a word.

Red lips pressed into a thin line, a sure sign of Peggy’s displeasure with the situation.

“We don’t know yet,” she finally confessed, “at least not for sure. They were wearing a mask, so I have my contacts digging into their real identity. I’m so sorry, Ducky.”

Tony swayed a bit in his chair, eyes fluttering closed against the confirmation. He hadn’t expected it to change things, really. He’d already known the truth. It felt like his entire world had been thrown off balance, though. He could feel Peggy’s warm hand on his knee, grounding him, and he pulled himself together enough to be able to look up at her again.

”Do you at least know where they are? Are you tracking them? Can I help? You know I can do better than some government grunt.”

Peggy’s gaze flicked away for just a split moment, but it was enough to tell Tony once again what she was about to say. His fingers tightened reflexively around his cup

“I understand you feel like you need to be involved, Tony, but this kind of thing is way too dangerous for you. The kind of people who could pull this off are not the kind of people whose radar you want to be on. They didn’t come after you before, and I doubt they have plans to at this point, but I wouldn’t be comfortable putting you in the line of fire, even for tech support. Ducky-“

She was interrupted by the teacup in Tony’s hands shattering.

“Shit!”

Tony jumped up as hot tea soaked his hands and lap, only for Peggy to grab his wrist and yank him to the ground, pulling a pistol he hadn’t even known she had and covering him as she scanned the windows – most likely looking for a sniper shot. She’d concealed her worry and paranoia well, but there was no hiding an automatic reaction like that. Peggy was scared, and that wasn’t something Tony had ever expected from her. She’d always been rock solid. Whatever they had on the person or people who had killed his parents, it was more than she was telling him.

“Sorry, sorry!” he apologized automatically. “It was just me. I’m not sure what happened, must have been a weak point in the porcelain and I gripped it too tight.”

Peggy finished her scan of the windows and, upon finding no bullet holes, apparently decided to believe him. With a sigh of relief, her entire body relaxed. The smile she sent Tony’s way was exhausted and Tony was suddenly struck for the first time with the thought that his Aunt Peggy wasn’t exactly a young woman anymore. Shoots of grey colored her hair, softening the dark brown.

“You scared the bloody hell out of me, Ducky,” she said fondly, clearly making an attempt to cover up just how on edge she’d been. “You’d think the number of times Steve broke cups around base during the war would have left me permanently desensitized. He always had such trouble controlling his enhanced strength when he got worked up.”

“Sorry,” Tony apologized again, unsure what else to say.

Peggy cleared her throat and pulled herself to her feet, Tony scrambling after her.

“Well, then,” she began with a hint of awkwardness in her tone as she eyed his soaked lap, “I suppose I should let you go change into something a little less damp. Obadiah tells me you’ve been sorting through Howard’s lab. Tomorrow, after breakfast, may I accompany you down there? I need to see if he’s been keeping any information that might be helpful in his safe. I’ll spend the evening going through his office, but I think we both know where Howard preferred to keep anything of importance.”

She seemed to rally her mask throughout her speech, pulling her usual good cheer back on like a suit of armor. Tony knew her far too well to be fooled, though, especially after what he’d just seen.

“Sure,” he agreed, still feeling off kilter and unsteady. “I’ve already poked through most of it, but I can open it up again for you. Obie’s gonna take the SI stuff over to the R&D vault at some point, but we haven’t gotten around to it yet. The projects need to be reclassified first and all that. I’ll just, uh…”

He made a vague gesture towards the door and Peggy nodded, looking as if her mind was already elsewhere.

“Of course, dear, of course. Have a good night. I’ll be around if you need me.” She paused for a moment. “Oh, and Tony?”

“Yeah?” he asked, turning back just a bit to look at her.

“Let’s keep the fact that your parents’ accident wasn’t quite an accident between us, alright? Something like this can be very delicate and there’s no sense in upsetting everyone until we have more information.”

“Oh, sure. Yeah. That makes sense. Goodnight, Aunt Peggy.”

“Goodnight, Tony.”

Chapter Text

Tony paced his room like a tiger stuck in a cage. His mind wouldn’t stop churning, caught up on this new information, even though it wasn’t much of any information at all. Still, Aunt Peggy had confirmed that his parents had been killed, that the accident had been purposeful and planned. There was merit to his suspicions. And Tony understood, in a way, why she wouldn’t share anything else with him, why she didn’t want him involved. Whoever was behind his parents’ death was powerful. Tony got that. It didn’t make him any less determined to make them pay, though.

He glanced at the clock on his wall, its annoying ticking seeming louder than ever the past few days. It was well past midnight and quickly approaching the small hours of the morning. Surely his godmother would be done with looking through his dad’s office by now. At least it was late enough that she had likely put off any additional searching until tomorrow. Obie would be heading back to Stark Industries in the morning, so there was no need for her to worry about him asking questions about what she was looking for in there or why. The Jarvises were another matter, but Tony also knew that they and Peggy went way back, almost as far back as Jarvis went with his dad. She’d be less concerned about them.

All that to say, if Tony was going to do some poking around of his own, now was the time.

He crept from the room, wincing as every footfall seemed to make more noise than he would have liked. He’d been able to keep quiet once, he was pretty sure. He’d gotten much stealthier as he’d gotten older. Rhodey certainly seemed to think he appeared out of nowhere often enough. Tony had lost track of how many times his roommate and best friend had wigged out at his sudden appearances. Rhodey had called earlier in the day to check on him, actually. Now that Tony thought about it, he really needed to give him a call back. He’d have to remember to do that in the morning. If he didn’t, Rhodey was likely to show up at his front door with the whole Rhodes Clan in tow. Mama Rhodes might even be leading the charge.

Tony shoved the distracting thoughts aside as he headed down the back stairwell closest to his dad’s office. He trod close to the walls, so as to avoid the worst of the creaking wood. All of his senses felt heightened in the darkness, extra sensitive because of how on edge he was. It felt like that was his whole life lately; everything was too loud, too bright, too detailed. It was overwhelming, but Tony supposed it would fade in time, as he grieved. Knowing the truth about what actually happened to his parents and making the person responsible pay would certainly help. At least Tony hoped so.

His dad’s office was soundproof, but he saw the door was cracked as he turned onto the hall. A sliver of light spilled forth, along with noises. For a split second, Tony thought maybe Peggy was still up and listening to the radio to help keep herself awake at the late hour.

Then he heard the unmistakable sound of metal twisting and crumpling, the dull impact of a large object against another. He froze in the hallway, denying the realization of what he was hearing before his brain had even had time to make it.

“Maria? Maria!”

Tony’s heart thudded wildly at the sound of his dad’s voice. The recording was terrible quality, he could tell just from the garbled words, but it was still clear enough for Tony to hear the pain and fear in the words. He’d never heard his dad sound like that before, not even all those times something had exploded in the lab. His dad had been to war, had worked just behind the front lines with Captain America and the Howling Commandos. Stark men were made of iron and Howard Stark was the strongest of them all. He didn’t bend, didn’t break, and he didn’t get scared.

Except, apparently, he did.

Tony’s feet were suddenly moving again, footsteps muffled as he padded across the plush carpet of the hallway’s oriental runner. He crept closer to the door, laying a palm against the cool, solid wood and pushing it open a bit more on silent hinges. Peggy’s back was turned to him, seated in one of the chairs before his dad’s desk with a glass of amber liquid in one hand and staring at the television mounted in the wall cabinet off to the side. A grim scene played out upon the screen in grainy, muted detail.

Tony recognized his dad’s car immediately, despite the hood being crumpled and the windows either cracked or broken. Steam billowed out from under the hood and Tony knew the car was totaled just by looking at it. The entire engine block would have to be replaced, not to mention the damage to the frame itself. His brain catalogued the estimated work for repairs on autopilot as he numbly watched as his dad fumbled the driver’s side door open and all but fell out, still calling for his wife, for Tony’s mom. A figure dressed all in black leather entered the frame, stalking forward with gun in hand, and Tony couldn’t help his sharp gasp.

“Bloody hell!” Peggy cursed, dropping her glass and spinning to face the door, gun drawn.

The barrel pointed right between Tony’s eyes for all of a fraction of a second before his aunt was cursing again and fumbling for the remote to turn off the television. She didn’t make it in time to keep Tony from seeing the man in black haul his father up by his suit collar and start stuffing him back into the car.

“Tony!” Peggy scolded, suddenly right in front of him, hands cupping his cheeks. “You scared the living daylights out of me! What are you doing down here?”

Tony swallowed roughly, eyes still staring past her at the blank television screen, unable to tear them away.

“I-“ he managed to get out before his throat closed on the words, cutting them off completely.

What could he even say in a situation like this? What could he possibly say that would encompass how he was feeling? He was so numb, and yet he could feel the tumultuous currents of a raging storm just under the surface. Gale force winds beat against his soul, lightning striking his heart. He’d thought he understood what had happened to his parents, at least on some level, but seeing these moments just before the final act…

“I think I’m going to be sick,” he finally decided on, launching himself past his aunt and behind his dad’s desk to purge his stomach into the waste bin there. He knelt on the rug, an oriental to match the one in the hall, and retched again and again, though his stomach didn’t seem to want to actually bring anything up. His face felt hot, his eyes watering. He gasped for air in between the full-body clenches of his muscles trying to force out something that was emotional and not physical. Peggy knelt next to him, making a sympathetic noise as she passed him a few tissues to wipe his mouth with.

“Oh, Ducky… I hadn’t wanted you to have to see that…” she murmured, rubbing gentle circles on his back.

Tony’s mom used to do that, when he was young and sick, in bed with a fever. She would rub his back and sing quietly to him until he fell asleep and he’d always, always felt better when he woke up again, at least for a little while. The gesture was meant to be comforting, but Tony found himself blinking wetness from his eyes that had nothing to do with his retching.

“W-was that-? Who?” he stammered out, brain and emotions too scrambled to make much sense.

“Some of my contacts managed to find a camera covering the area and got ahold of the footage,” Peggy explained, blessedly understanding him. “We think whoever was behind the attack must not have known it was there. It was a stroke of luck, but it gives us something to work with, at least.”

She sounded off as she said it, though, as her lips were pulled down in a frown as Tony sat up to look at her. Something wasn’t right.

“Who was that man?” he asked shakily. She had said earlier that they were trying to find his real identity, but that meant they had to know something, right?

Her frown deepened.

“A ghost story.”

Which didn’t do much to answer his question, and Tony felt a flash of irritation. He stamped it down forcefully, trying to remind himself that snapping just because he couldn’t control himself would do little to help him. Aunt Peggy had never been one to tolerate other people taking their frustrations out on her.

“What do you mean?”

Peggy just gave him a long look before standing with a sigh. She held out a hand to help him to his feet and guided them back around the desk to the chairs on the other side.

“Here. Sit,” she instructed gently, depositing Tony in one and then resettling in the other, picking up her tipped over glass along the way and patting at the puddle of scotch with a few more tissues.

He sat, fidgeting with his fingers as Peggy watched on. Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime, she spoke.

“I have always kept you out of my professional life as best I could. The sort of things I get involved with can be very dangerous. I know you’re aware that I do much more than just politicking and administrative tasks, that my work has always involved the more secretive side of the government. I am… deeply ingrained into the intelligence community… and so was your father.”

Tony’s eyebrows shot toward his hairline. He hadn’t been expecting that. He knew his father had contacts there, obviously – he was the owner of the world’s foremost weapon’s manufacturer – but Peggy was implying something so much more than just that.

“Do you know that man? In the video?” he asked, voice trembling.

Part of him didn’t want to know the answer.

“Only by reputation,” Peggy said, glancing at the empty glass on the sideboard as if wishing it still had alcohol in it. “He is known throughout our circles as the Winter Soldier, and many do not believe he exists at all. He is… very good at what he does.”

“And what, exactly, is it that he does?”

As if Tony didn’t already know.

“He kills people, prominent figures. He pulls off jobs no one would have even thought possible if he hadn’t done them. He gets in and out of places without ever being seen. There have been rumors that he’s enhanced in some way, can walk straight through solid walls or turn invisible. I’ll admit, I never believed any of it. I never believed he existed at all.” She paused, running perfectly manicured fingers through her hair. She looked tired. “Your father, though. Howard thought there was more to the stories, thought there was truth in them. I brushed it off as him being his usual, paranoid self.”

She gave a short laugh and it was a broken sound.

“I’m so sorry, Ducky. Maybe if I had believed him-“

“This isn’t your fault,” Tony cut her off, still trying to wrestle with all of this newly revealed information but sure of at least one thing. “The Winter Soldier was the one to kill my parents. This rests on his head. No one else’s.”

Peggy gave him a sad smile, reaching across the space between them to take his hand.

“Howard was so proud of you,” she confided. “I know he could be absolutely piss poor at communicating anything to do with emotions, but he loved you more than anything in this world. I hope you can see that. And I- I’ve put a team together, to try and track the Winter Soldier down, but, Ducky- I don’t have high hopes.”

He jerked away, stunned.

“What?”

Peggy didn’t just look tired, he realized, she looked defeated. His aunt was a fighter, had never met an obstacle she couldn’t overcome, and it shook Tony to the core to see the way her shoulders slumped now. It wasn’t right. None of this was right. His gaze snapped to the glimmer decorating her eyelashes, tears threatening to spill over.

“The Winter Soldier has been around for decades, Ducky, without the best of the best in the intelligence community even knowing he existed. No one knows where he is or how to find him. We will try, and I will hunt this man until the day I die for what he did to your parents, but…”

She didn’t have to finish the sentence.

“Then let me help you!” Tony demanded, leaning forward. “You know what I can do. I could- I could design a search algorithm! Or dad was starting to play around with facial recognition software. It’s in the early stages and he was years off from anything usable, but I could have a look at that. Or tracking devices or-“

“Tony,” Peggy cut him off, and he fell silent, looking at her with pleading eyes as she cupped his cheeks. “I can’t let you help. It’s too dangerous.”

“The Winter Soldier killed my parents! I have a right to-“

“It’s too dangerous. He already got to Howard, possibly because he didn’t like being looked into. I let that happen by not believing the Soldier was a real threat. I’m not making that same mistake again. If there’s anything Howard would have asked of me with his passing, it would be to keep you safe. I don’t intend to let him down a second time.”

Tony choked on a sob.

“He was my dad,” he tried, sounding pitiful even to his own ears. “They were my parents.”

Peggy pulled him in close, tucking his face into her shoulder as he clung to her and sobbed.

“I know, Ducky, and they were my friends. I’ll do everything I can, I promise.”

Chapter Text

Tony couldn’t find the motivation to get out of bed the next morning. He expected to feel exhausted from his late night, but his eyes didn’t feel dry and none of his muscles were heavy and aching. Instead he just felt numb. Still under the covers, he stared blankly at the wall of his bedroom, back turned to the windows and the light spilling in through them. He didn’t feel like getting up. There didn’t seem to be any point.

The man who’d killed his parents was going to get away with it.

If Peggy didn’t feel like she could catch the guy, especially enough to admit such a thing to Tony, that meant the likelihood of her finding him was pretty damn low. She’d always been a pragmatist, never placating Tony with the white lies most adults told children. She’d always been honest with him. He wasn’t sure whether or not to be grateful for that now. Maybe it would have been kinder to give him false hope. Then again, it’d just be cruel to drag things out for months and years when she knew the outcome already.

And she wouldn’t even let him help. That still stung. He felt useless and stupid. How was it that they knew exactly who had killed his parents and they still couldn’t do anything about it? They had video and the guy was going to walk away like nothing happened. What was even the point? Tony had thought he’d feel better knowing what had really happened to his parents, but he’d been wrong. This wasn’t better. This was so much worse.

Maybe he should’ve just let it go, not called Peggy and asked questions, pushed for answers. Maybe he would have been able to one day convince himself that it really had been just an accident. Maybe he could have lived the rest of his life in blissful ignorance.

But Tony knew that wasn’t true. He never would’ve been able to live without answers. He still couldn’t. If Peggy wasn’t going to let him help, he’d just have to do it himself.

Getting out of bed felt like it took a monumental effort, but it was easier now that he had a goal. Throwing on some random jeans and a t-shirt, Tony swung by the kitchen to grab some food and keep Ana from worrying and then headed down to his dad’s lab. Peggy had said Howard was looking into the Winter Soldier, that doing so could have been what got him killed. If that was true, then it meant that he’d found something that the Winter Soldier didn’t want him to find, maybe even his real identity or some way to find him. Whatever it was, it wasn’t going to be in his dad’s office. It was going to be in his lab, and Tony intended to find it.

.

Tony found it.

It took him nearly a week of systematically checking every inch of his dad’s lab, but he finally found it, a second, hidden safe. He’d had to move one of the work benches – far lighter and easier to handle than he’d been expecting – and lift a few of the floor tiles to do it, too. His dad had clearly been very keen on no one finding whatever he had hidden away here. Now Tony just had to get inside it.

He could use a blowtorch and open the safe with force, but he wouldn’t put it past his dad to have put at least some sort of protective measures in place either to prevent that or to destroy whatever was inside before it could be accessed. Besides, it would be pretty tough to hide a whole, mutilated safe from anyone if they came looking. If Peggy found out what he was doing, she’d put a stop to it. Tony had no doubts about that. Tony would have to figure this one out, was all.

The safe had a keypad on the front, one of the standard twelve button numeric ones: zero to nine with a pound and an asterisk. There was no way of knowing how long the code was supposed to be, though, much less what it actually was. The possibilities were endless. His dad wouldn’t go through all the trouble of hiding a second safe like this and then use something obvious like a birthdate or an anniversary, either. There was a very good chance that it was just a random string of numbers that his dad memorized.

Tony worried his bottom lip between his teeth as he thought it over. Some of the keys looked more worn than others, which was usually an indicator of a starting point, but it could just as easily mean that those keys were used multiple times in the sequence. Plus, if the passcode was changed on a regular basis, then there was no telling which of those keys were actually being used in the current one. There had to be something, though. He hadn’t come this far only to give up now. Maybe he could design a mechanism that would try all the possibilities until it got the right one and the safe unlocked. It would be a much more tempting option if Tony could be sure his dad hadn’t rigged the thing to blow if too many wrong combinations were plugged into it.

The frustration of it all made Tony want to scream. It wouldn’t even wake anyone if he did, considering that the lab was fully soundproofed, just like his dad’s office. His mom had insisted on it, given that engineering wasn’t exactly a quiet hobby – especially not the way his dad did it.

Tony shoved himself to his feet, pacing the lab as he mulled over the possibilities. If it really was a random string of numbers, there was no hope of Tony being able to figure it out in just a few tries. There was just no way. His dad may not have been known for his sentimental nature, but sentiment was all Tony had to work with. He frowned as he passed his dad’s other, more obvious safe that was mounted in the wall.

The combination for that one was the exact longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates for the church where he and Tony’s mom got married. Now that he thought about it, the combination for the vault at Stark Industries was the coordinates for the building where his dad had first set up shop, long before Obie entered the picture. It was entirely possible that the combination for the safe in the floor was also a set of coordinates. The question became: coordinates for what?

Following the pattern of the combinations Tony already knew, it would have to be a place of significance in his dad’s life. Tony doubted he’d use something else from his marriage or SI, but maybe something about his parents? Where had they lived? Was it the house his dad had grown up in or had they moved? Both Stark grandparents had already passed away by the time Tony was born and, while he certainly knew of them, Tony didn’t know much about them. He could probably do some digging to figure out more. It was a solid option, at least. Maybe. Or he could be entirely wrong. Howard hadn’t exactly spent a lot of time talking about his parents. Mostly, he’d talk about his time in the war.

Tony froze mid-pace.

Of course.

He scurried across the lab and back to the safe. He should have thought of it in the first place! His dad still spent every summer out on a ship with whatever was the latest gadgets he’d thought up to scan the ocean floors for Captain America. He was obsessed with finding and recovering the body of his old war buddy. There was an entire trophy room upstairs dedicated to memorabilia and artifacts from Captain Rogers’s past. Tony was pretty sure the sum total of the guy’s life was packed away in some storage facility somewhere. Of course his dad would set the code to have something to do with Cap.

Tony crouched next to the safe and plugged the coordinates in with shaking fingers, murmuring pleas under his breath. This had to work. It had to. He substituted out the degree markers for asterisks, just like they were in the other combinations and prayed this one was in the same format. Biting his lower lip, he held his breath as he plugged in the last of what he really, really hoped was the code: the coordinates for where Captain America had supposedly crashed into the ocean.

The safe gave a cheerful-sounding beep as the lock audibly disengaged.

Tony gave a whoop of joy as he pulled the door open, grinning madly. He’d done it. He’d actually done it! Hopefully there’d be something inside he could use.

Chapter Text

His dad had been involved in things Tony never could have imagined. The safe Tony had found beneath the floor contained a locked briefcase he still didn’t know the contents of, various floppy disks he would have to plug into a computer to view the data on, and about fifteen notebooks. Simply due to the ease of access, Tony decided to start with the notebooks.

They were filled with Howard’s handwriting, notes and sketched out designs, jotted down ideas and test results. He’d always been a staunch supporter that “It’s not science unless you write it down.” He’d been old-school, too, however much that might seem at odds with a man whose entire life was built around driving society further and further into the future. He preferred to keep his notes written down, rather than typed up. Tony was pretty sure at least part of that was because he didn’t trust a secretary’s presence enough to want one around to do his notetaking for him. There were other, similar notebooks stashed around Howard’s lab and office, though Tony’s guess was that they didn’t contain anything as highly classified as these.

He flipped through each of them briefly, just to see if there were any dates to order them by, before stuffing them and floppy disks into a bag to carry back to his room. The briefcase, he left in the safe before closing it back up and recovering it with the floor tiles and workbench. It was probably safest where he’d found it, but no one would think twice about Tony having the other items in his possession. Once he had everything situated back into place, Tony took the rest of his haul back upstairs, stepping lightly to make sure he didn’t wake Aunt Peggy or the Jarvises.

He dumped the bag on his bed as soon as the door was closed behind him and grabbed the notebook he’d found the earliest date in to start with. That was how he found out about SHIELD, some super-secret government organization that his dad was somehow mixed up in. At first, Tony had thought maybe they were just another client, a contractor his dad had designed for, but the more he read, the more it became clear that there was more too it than that. Howard had left notes about different agents, about policies he wanted to see enacted or abolished. It quickly became apparent that however Howard was involved with SHIELD, he held a position of power.

Mentions of Director Carter told him that Howard wasn’t the only one.

It seemed impossible – insane, even – that there had been this whole hidden aspect to his father and aunt’s lives. Had his mom known? Had she been somehow involved, too? What hadn’t Tony known about her? Maybe he shouldn’t have been so surprised. After all, his parents had been murdered by what was apparently some sort of international assassin. That wasn’t the sort of thing that happened to normal people. Not that the Starks could ever be considered normal people. Aunt Peggy was at least somewhat more expected. He’d known she was involving in intelligence work, he’d just thought it was for an organization most people actually knew existed.

Tony sighed. He was giving himself a headache turning everything over and over again in his head.

He tried his best to distract himself by instead paying attention to concepts Howard had written about. It was fascinating stuff. Tony knew all about the various military contracts that SI held and the technology being developed there, but none of it held a candle to the kind of things written down in the notebooks. Howard had been theorizing on stealth technology that could hide entire aircraft from the naked eye and masks to replicate another person’s appearance without extensive prosthetics. He’d written about aircraft carriers that would be able to fly. Tony didn’t think the technology to be able to realistically invent that sort of thing even existed yet. Then again, being able to invent the impossible was one of the cornerstones of Stark Industries’ founding.

Howard had been part of the Manhattan Project, inventing the world’s first atom bomb. He was constantly pushing the envelope, developing new creations no one had even thought of before. It was one of the aspects of his dad that Tony had always pushed himself to live up to someday. His ideas had just never seemed impactful enough, forward reaching enough. It was part of the reason why Tony had been so set on creating a truly learning AI for his doctoral project. He’d thought maybe, somehow, that might be enough to at least get him close to his dad’s level.

He snorted with derision at his own foolishness. He hadn’t even come close.

The more he read, the further away Tony felt, the rift between himself and his dad widening into an impassible gorge. A canyon separated his potential from Howard’s reality and it was terrifying to think of. How was Tony going to be able to carry on the legacy of SI if he didn’t even have the imagination to keep up with his dad? He’d have to do better. There was no other choice. He’d have to be better.

The early light of morning was just beginning to filter through Tony’s curtains when he found the first mention of the Winter Soldier in his dad’s notes. It was partway through the third notebook, and seeing the name written out in his dad’s handwriting had Tony’s pulse spiking. There weren’t any further notes around it, just the name with a question mark following it. It’d been circled, one of Howard’s classic techniques of noting something he wanted to be sure he came back to. Breathing quickly, Tony started flipping through the pages faster, skimming over the information instead of letting himself really absorb it. His eyes flickered across the notes, searching for the next mention.

He found it some twenty pages later.

  1. S. was written at the top of the page, followed by rows of numbers on each line below it. Some of the number stings had been crossed out, but not all of them. What could they mean? Tony’s first thought was that it was some kind of code, but it seemed odd that Howard would code just a few lines of information in an entire notebook of beyond top secret notes. They all had the same exact amount of numbers per line, too. Case or report numbers, then? Were they the key to some sort of filing system? Perhaps for SHIELD? If they were, there was no way for Tony to access them to find out.

A few more pages later produced something even more useful. Again, W. S. was at the top, but this time the list consisted of dates and locations. They had to be significant somehow. Tony would just have to figure out why.

.

He arrived to breakfast late, mostly because he’d gotten caught up in searching through the rest of Howard’s next few notebooks. After working through the entire night, Tony was a little surprised that he wasn’t even the least bit tired. It was probably adrenaline, though, the excitement of finding some sort of clue buoying him. He’d probably crash later, but there was no time for that now. He gave a tight-lipped smile to Aunt Peggy and the Jarvises as he joined them at the kitchen table. Now that Uncle Obie had gone back to his own home, breakfasts were much more casual. The older couple and Aunt Peggy had been friends for too many years to stand on ceremony, and Tony didn’t see any reason to object to dining alongside the people who’d changed his diapers more often than anyone else.

Ana heaped his plate full of food as she bid him good morning.

“Mr. Stane called just a little while ago,” she informed him. “He was hoping to schedule a time for you and your aunt to meet with the judge to get you official as an emancipated youth.”

Tony risked a glance across the table toward Aunt Peggy and then away again before he could even catch a glimpse of her expression. Their relationship had been strained since that night in Howard’s office. They shared the same secret, but she’d also turned away his help. Even if Tony understood her reasoning for it, it still felt like a betrayal. He knew Ana and Jarvis had noticed, too. It was probably impossible not to.

“Oh, yeah… Uh, of course. Whatever works for the judge, I guess. I don’t exactly have a schedule I need to be keeping to.”

He still had another week before the start of the new school semester, and he could manage to miss a bit of it. None of his professors would hold it against him, given the circumstances, and the administration would be too concerned with keeping the Stark money flowing in to raise any protest. Seeing Rhodey again would be a big plus, though. Tony missed his best friend.

He nearly flinched as Peggy lay a perfectly manicured hand on his wrist.

“I’m more than happy to be your guardian if you want me to, Tony. You know I’ll always be here for you. Things being what they are, though,” she didn’t have to specify what things, “I may have to do some traveling in the coming months. It shouldn’t cause a problem either way. We’ll do whatever you feel most comfortable with.”

Her tone was soothing, meant to be comforting, but all Tony could think about was the fact that her traveling would be to chase after his parents’ killer and he wouldn’t be allowed to go, too.

“Thanks,” he said, mouth working on autopilot and the words coming out as easily as they ever did in front of a nosey reporter. “I’ll be fine, I think. I’ll have school to focus on, anyway.”

He still wouldn’t look at her. He didn’t want to see the worry in her eyes, or the pinched expression she wore every time she knew he was lying but didn’t want to call him on it. All of the excitement he’d felt earlier over his lead on the Winter Soldier had withered away. He was suddenly desperate the flee to table. The smell of the eggs on his plate turned his stomach.

Aunt Peggy’s hand patted his wrist once more before retreating.

“Alright, then. I’ll give Obadiah a call back and set up the time, then.”

Tony just nodded numbly and picked at his food until he could find an excuse to flee.

Chapter Text

Tony spent the rest of the day closed up in his room reading Howard’s notebooks, accepting the lunch Ana brought for him and joining the others for dinner only to keep them from worrying to the point of prying. He started taking his own notes on the things he read, marking down all of the information he found on the Winter Soldier in one place. The majority of the intelligence community might not have thought the Winter Soldier was real but, as Aunt Peggy had said, but his dad certainly believed he was. Howard had been trying to track the assassin down.

Based on the places and times the Winter Soldier had supposedly appeared, Howard had been trying to extrapolate when and where he might appear in the future. Doing so would require an incredibly complex set of calculations. Tony’s dad had done a lot of research and had access to data that Tony couldn’t even begin to hope to get his hands on. He knew the dates and places that were noted, but he had no idea why those dates and places made his dad think the Winter Soldier had been there.

The locations were spread all over the world, so it wasn’t like acquiring local newspapers and scouring them for clues was a realistic option, especially when Tony couldn’t even be sure there’d be anything in the newspapers for him to pick up on anyway. The only way he was going to have any hope of following his dad’s line of thinking would be to get his hands on the SHIELD files his dad had been working off of. Like Aunt Peggy would ever let that happen.

Tony let himself flop back on his bed, arms thrown wide and letting out a heavy sigh. His boombox blared from the corner of the room, filling it with the sound of Black Sabbath. Normally, listening to this favorite bands was enough to break Tony out of even his worst moods, but it wasn’t doing much for him right now. All he could think of was how his mom had always frowned whenever she heard any rock music, much less metal. His dad had absolutely hated the entire genre. He’d proclaimed it ‘discordant noise’ and forbid it within his hearing.

They hadn’t understood the way the bands had been calling out the patriarchy, calling out the government and politicians. Tony had learned more about the world through the music he listened to than he ever had in boarding school. It was real and visceral, and he loved it. He identified with it. He’d tried to explain it to his parents more than once, but conversations between him and his dad never seemed to go the way he intended.

Forcing the thought aside, doing his best to purposely allow himself a moment of respite, Tony tried to let himself sink into the narrative of the song currently playing. It was a bout a man who had been transported momentarily into the future and witnessed the apocalypse but had been unable to speak about it once he returned to the past. In the end, his efforts to prevent the apocalypse were what caused it. It was a deep, powerful story and Tony appreciated it more than ever now that he knew exactly what it was like to see something terrible and not be able to say or do anything about it because his aunt didn’t want his to be involved.

He sat up suddenly.

What if Aunt Peggy didn’t know it was him?

.

By the time Tony was back at MIT, only a week after the new semester officially started, the courts had declared him an emancipated youth. Rhodey had greeted him at the door to the townhouse they shared with open arms, wrapping him up in a tight hug and apologizing for not having visited him for the funeral – never mind that Tony had been the one to tell him not to. Tony had dropped his bags in his room and managed to quell his antsy feelings long enough to make it through dinner and Rhodey’s attempts to poke and prod at his feelings before begging off to retreat to his workshop.

He'd had a decent setup at the house, and access to his dad’s workshop, but it wasn’t personalized and optimized like his workshop was here. DUM-E, his helper bot, started beeping up a storm as soon as he was released from his charging station and Tony was torn between the affection for the ridiculous little guy and exasperation at yet another delay.

“Okay, okay!” he finally cried, shooing the bot off. “I’m glad I’m back, too, now let me get some work done!”

Settling in behind his desk, he began the arduous task of getting his computer started. He’d streamlined the process of much as possible, but it still took several minutes and a veritable cacophony of noise for it to get going. He clacked away at the keyboard, navigating through the sluggish system – one day he was really going to have to work on creating a better processor unit – to load up the program he needed.

“Rise and shine, baby boy,” Tony cooed irreverently as he booted up the program.

The computer screen flickered, the fan whirring loudly and the components groaning. A moment passed, then two, and Tony frowned before a voice finally came out of the speakers.

“Good morning, Sir,” the cultured British accent greeted him. There was another long pause, “How may I be of assistance?”

Tony grinned broadly.

“JARVIS, I’m so glad you asked.”

JARVIS was his doctoral project, named and stylized after the real Jarvis. He was a learning AI or would be once Tony was finished with him. There was still a long way to go. For now, he was still limited in his capabilities, but he would be perfect for what Tony needed. The British accent, too, was stylized after the real Jarvis, but it wasn’t his voice exactly. Tony had wanted to see how realistic he could make a computer-generated voice, since that technology was still so abysmally lacking. JARVIS’s own, unique accent and intonations had been the result. He still sounded a bit like someone speaking on the other end of a bad telephone connection, but it was world’s better than anything else on the market. Even better, Aunt Peggy hadn’t heard him before.

“So, how do you feel about violating a few laws and helping me fool an international spy organization?”

“Apologies, Sir,” came JARVIS’s stilted reply. “As my learning protocols have not been fully developed, I am currently unable to feel anything. I have no programming in place to determine emotional range.”

Tony rolled his eyes, bringing up a new window and beginning to type away.

“Just a matter of time, buddy, just a matter of time… And we’ve got a lot to get done.”

.

The phone rang once… twice… three times. Tony bit his lip, worried for a moment that there wouldn’t be an answer. He had contingency plans for that, of course, but that didn’t stop the feeling of anxiety rising in his chest. Then there was a click and a brief pause.

“Hello?”

Tony’s fingers flew over the keyboard.

“Director Carter,” JARVIS greeted mildly. “Might I have a moment of your time?”

“Who is this?”

The question was short, clipped. Tony’s aunt wasn’t in any mood for messing around. That was understandable, though, Tony had called her line at SHIELD after locating it in one of Howard’s notebooks. It was a number she would never expect Tony to have.

“Someone with mutual interests,” Tony typed and JARVIS read out. “It’s come to my attention that you and I may have a similar goal. You don’t know me, but I’m familiar with both your position and your work. As evidenced by me being able to contact you this way, I’m an individual of great technological prowess and my specialty is finding information no one else can find. I believe this is a skill you could find benefit in at the current time.”

He could almost imagine Aunt Peggy’s stony expression, her eyes narrowing into a glare.

“Oh?”

She wanted more information and wasn’t going to give up anything until she got it. That was fine, Tony didn’t mind showing his cards.

“You see, we have a common enemy, you and I. I’ve been tracking the Winter Soldier for some time but have hit a stumbling block in my progress. I understand you are investigating him in connection with the deaths of Howard and Maria Stark. I’d like to help.”

“Any why would you think that?”

“As I said before, my specialty is finding information that no one else can.”

Aunt Peggy made a noncommittal noise, her skepticism coming through loud and clear even without words.

If what you say is true, why would you be interested in helping? What exactly is in it for you? What stumbling blocks are you wanting out of your way?”

Tony’s heart pounded in his chest.

“I need access to some of your classified files,” he admitted, though JARVIS’s steady tones hid his nervousness. His fingers trembled as he typed, fumbling over the keys but still managing. “Nothing that should compromise your agency. I don’t expect your trust. I’m just looking for some confirmations of the Winter Soldier’s activities. In return, and as a direct result of these confirmations, I should be able to furnish you with an approximation of the Soldier’s home base or, at the very least, a projection of where and when he’s likely to strike again.”

There was a moment of silence from the other end of the line, and Tony chewed his lip as he waited.

Finally, Aunt Peggy spoke again.

“Who are you?”

It was reluctant and irritated, but it brought a huge grin to Tony’s face. He knew that tone. However much she hated it, he had her. It felt like victory as he typed.

“I am Iron Man.”

Chapter Text

Time passed quickly and yet, at the same time, Tony felt as if he were struggling through molasses. Attending his classes just felt like a waste of time, to be perfectly honest. They were a distraction at best a hindrance from his true goal at worst. Luckily, the death of his parents was all the excuse he needed for any distracted behavior. Most of his classmates fell into one of two categories – either they kept their distance while staring and whispering or they went out of their way to interact with him, being overly nice until they found a moment to ask an invasive question. Tony didn’t have the patience for any of them.

Rhodey was the only one who genuinely cared about how Tony was doing. Well, maybe not the only one, but the only one didn’t grate on Tony’s nerves by doing so. Rhodey never hid his concern or shied away from telling Tony exactly what he thought, but he also never handled Tony with kid’s gloves and respected it when Tony made a decision on the matter. Instead of standing off to the side and quietly disapproval of Tony working himself into the ground, he left out easy to eat snacks in Tony’s workshop and tucked a blanket around him when he fell asleep on the couch.

And Tony was working himself into the ground. He had to keep up enough with his classes to keep anyone from getting too suspicious. If he completely fell out and started failing classes, Aunt Peggy, Uncle Obie, and the Jarvises would know something was going on. More accurately, Rhodey would know Tony was spiraling into a tailspin and call them in as backup. Or he’d get concerned enough to mention it to his mother and Mama Rhodes would show up to storm their townhouse. While Rhodey respected Tony’s decisions, the rest of them most certainly would not – not if they thought he was endangering himself or his future.

So, Tony had to keep up with his MIT coursework all the while he was unofficially working with SHIELD. Aunt Peggy had agreed to share information with Iron Man, but only what she reviewed from his requests and decided she felt comfortable with. While Tony wasn’t able to access the content of the files Howard had made note of, Peggy was willing to share dates, locations, and rough times. In some cases, she was even willing to give Tony an idea of what event had taken place – such as the assassination of a political figure or certain documents or items stolen.

From that information, Tony was able to dig deeper and find out even more. He paired the information up with what he was able to find in Howard’s scribblings and the picture began to form. Since his workshop was in a windowless basement, Tony began throwing all of his findings up on one wall, much like he would when he needed to visualize a complicated project. Sometimes he just needed to work with things on a larger scale. One day, he would build something that would allow him to manipulate and render images on this scale in a purely electronic format, but there were higher priorities at the moment.

In truth, Tony was only catching about three hours of sleep every couple of nights – and then usually just a quick nap on the couch or collapsed over his desk. He ate what Rhodey left out for him, but found his stomach rumbling for more within half an hour of any meal. He took to ordering food to the townhouse in bulk – whole stacks of pizza or hoards of Chinese or Indian take-out – and just devouring it throughout the day, hiding the evidence.

For all that he was oblivious when it came to certain things, Tony was a far cry from stupid or blind. Whatever was happening, it wasn’t normal. It was very, very not normal and he didn’t understand it. So little sleep should be leaving him exhausted and while he could feel the lack of sleep, it was nowhere near what it should be. Tony was well used to work binges, was familiar with the symptoms of pushing his body as far as it could go in order to meet a goal, but this was unprecedented.

Something was wrong, and Tony didn’t know what.

Any other time, Tony would have been running tests, looking for answers any and everywhere he could think of. Now, though, he pushed it aside as best he could in favor of his hunt for the Winter Soldier. He had his theories, to be certain – the was no way to fully quell his racing mind – but he kept his focus elsewhere.

In conjunction with the information from SHIELD and his dad’s journals, Tony also parsed through the information that’d been on the floppy disks that’d also been in the safe. The briefcase, which he’d only dared open once he was back at the townhouse and away from the mansion, had held four vials of a blue liquid which seemed almost to glow faintly. There was an empty spot where a fifth vial had once sat, but there were no clues as to what the vials actually contained. Tony hoped the disks would be able to tell him. He didn’t know if it was relevant to his search, but he wasn’t about to take any chances and ignore it.

The floppies didn’t offer much in the way of clarification, unfortunately. Mostly, there were more detailed schematics and plans for some of the more high-security projects mentioned in his dad’s notes. At some point, Tony would be very interested in doing through them in more detail, in pouring over the things his dad came up with that defied convention and current limitations. But, again, that had to wait. Everything had to wait.

With the floppies glanced through and out of the way, there was only one thing from his dad’s hidden safe left for Tony to explore. He’d retrieved the briefcase before he’d left the mansion to return to school but had yet to manage opening it yet. His curiosity ate him up, especially as the notebooks and other data continued to leave him empty-handed. The trouble was getting around the lock.

Once again, Tony was caught in the conundrum of not being able to get past the lock in a legitimate way and being too worried about destroying the contents inside to try anything else. The locking mechanism was large and high-tech, encircling the case. It wasn’t like Tony could just pop the thing and be done with it. Worse yet, it wasn’t even a combination that he could try to figure out. The damn thing had a fingerprint scanner.

Totally not cool.

Obviously, the case had been coded for his dad’s finger. That was a given, but Howard wasn’t exactly around anymore to offer that access. So, the question became whether or not it was coded for anyone else’s finger as well. Of course, what was inside the case probably determined who else had access – if they even had access in the first place. If it was an SI project, then Uncle Obie would probably be the best choice as a second. If it was SHIELD related, then maybe Aunt Peggy or even someone else Tony didn’t even know about yet.

The fact that most of the other things in the hidden safe had to do with SHIELD lent more toward the second option, but there was no real guarantee. Even then, it didn’t exactly solve Tony’s dilemma. After all, he couldn’t just hand the briefcase off to SHIELD. He’d never see it again. Worse, he’d have to explain how he got it – either as himself or as Iron Man. Neither were exactly great options.

Seriously, everything about this situation sucked and Tony was just walking himself around and around in circles, winding himself into tighter knots instead of getting any closer to a solution. For all his genius, he just wasn’t equipped to figure this one out. He was going to have to call in reinforcements – and there was only one person Tony could trust with this sort of thing.

“I hate everything,” he moaned into the comforter of Rhodey’s bed, which he was lying face down on.

Rhodey’s typing didn’t even pause from where he was working on a paper while leaning back against the headboard.

“Did you destroy the coffee maker again? I’m not going out to get a new one this time. You’re going to have to walk to the store and get it yourself.”

Tony took a break from attempting to smother himself if only so he could properly glare at his best friend.

“Why don’t you love me?” he accused.

“Of course I love you, dude. I just don’t have any sympathy for you complaining about problems you bring on yourself.”

Tony pouted and flopped over onto his back.

“This one isn’t my fault,” he defended. “This time I get to blame dear old dad.”

The clacking of keys paused.

“Yeah?”

The question was careful, prodding for more but not jumping to any conclusions. Rhodey was attentive and waiting for Tony to tell him what this was all about. Fuck, but he loved his friend.

“I found something, in dad’s lab, a briefcase” he admitted. He’d already decided there wasn’t any reason to tell Rhodey everything. “I think it might be some super top-secret files for SI or something, but it’s locked with a fingerprint scanner and I can’t get in.”

Rhodey rolled his eyes and went back to typing.

“One of these days, your inability to say no to your curious side is going to get you into serious trouble,” he accused.

Tony just beamed at him. It wasn’t like Rhodey wasn’t right there beside him most of the time when he got up to ridiculous shenanigans.

“Well, you know how much I like trouble.”

Rhodey scoffed.

“Sure, sure. Have you, I don’t know, tried dowsing it with water to short circuit the scanner? If the whole lock is electric, it might take care of your whole problem.”

Tony could have kissed him.

“Honey bear, you are a genius!” he cried, shooting off of the bed and out of the room to race back to his lab, not paying any mind to the grumbled reply.

Rhodey was the best.