One for bad news,
Two for mirth.
Three is a wedding,
Four is a birth.
Five is for riches,
Six is a thief.
Seven, a journey,
Eight is for grief.
Nine is a secret,
Ten is for sorrow.
Eleven is for love,
Twelve - joy for tomorrow.
- old English rhyme used to interpret omens by the number of ravens, crows, or rooks seen in a flock
Tony’s always had a complicated relationship with his shifted form. Which, considering the general consensus on shifters is that your shift is the window to your soul, insinuates some uncomfortable things about how Tony views himself, but he chooses not to dwell on that for too long.
It’s just that, well, his animal is not the most loved animal there is. There are all kinds of animal shifters, ranging from the most mundane animals to extinct species and even supernatural animals. Plenty of people have super cute shifts, like dogs or cats or bunnies or whatever, some have cool or intimidating shifts, like lions or griffins, and then there are the people unfortunate enough to have something gross or scary. Those people usually don’t shift that much. Tony met a girl once that was a cockroach shifter. Needless to say, he has never seen her shift. Ever.
Suddenly being a shifter isn’t that cool anymore, is it?
Tony’s animal is not gross or anything, it’s just that the connotations his animal has are not the best. Because Tony is a raven shifter.
Raven, the animal that most people associate with bad luck, ill omens, and death. At least in the western part of the world, which is where he lives.
When Tony was a child, he never thought much of the symbolism associated to ravens. To be honest, he was too in awe of being able to fly to think of much else.
Flying is still the best thing Tony knows. When he flew for the first time in his life, when he was around three and wanted to explore the forest on the other side of the tall gate of the Stark Mansion, he almost broke several bones in his body. After that, his mother taught him to fly, and they spent many afternoons roaming the skies. She was a blackbird, all soft brown feathers and melodious singing when she had one of her good days. Tony loved when his mother sang. He thinks that Howard loved that too. He would always drink less when Maria shifted and sang.
Howard wasn’t a shifter. Just like for 63,89 % of the world population, epigenetics had made it so that the alleles linked to shifting never expressed themselves for Howard. He was happy for Tony when he shifted for the first time, into a small and ugly ball of featherless wrinkled skin, about two months after his birth. Not that Tony remembers it, but Jarvis used to tell him how Howard smiled one of his rare smiles when Maria announced joyfully that Tony was a bird shifter too. They were the only shifters in the mansion, so they spent quite some time together, talking about it and flying. As the saying goes, birds of a feather flock together. For Tony and his mother, that was more literal than not.
Two for mirth
Tony’s best memories of his childhood are from flying with his mother. The feeling of absolute freedom, of having the world at your feet, that anything is possible. The feeling of the wind passing through his feathers, of the air currents carrying him further than his legs could take him, of being in tune with his environment in a way that he never can achieve in his human form. He remembers as clear as the day of yesterday how he engaged in complicated aerial manoeuvres and danced in the air with his mother.
When he became older, she shifted less and less, staying in her room and whistling softly to herself instead of flying. Tony never understood why she stopped shifting, but he knows now that depression can take many shapes and forms. He never asked her, and now he will never know.
Tony took to shifting and flying alone. He made friends with other ravens, cawing and playing with other youngsters. The sounds they made were a far cry from blackbirds’ songs, but he didn’t really mind.
When he was in boarding school, Tony sometimes shifted when he wanted to escape the stifling walls of the Academy, flying away and being free for a few hours at least.
Tony’s first day at MIT, he walks into a corridor where two mean-looking boys are insulting a black guy, apparently angry at him for getting into MIT with a grant. They're puffing themselves up, calling him a bootlicker and a stupid wannabe soldier and Tony doesn't really know what's going on, but he can't just ignore what's happening, so he puts himself between the guy and the bullies, aware of his smaller stature and younger age, but determined to stop them. They sneer at him, laughing in his face when he tells them to back off, and, even worse, start getting aggressive. They both shift then, even if it is against regulations to shift indoors, into a hyena and a wolf. Tony doesn’t have a choice but to shift as well, taking to the air and preparing himself to at least claw their eyes out or something, when they both cringe and turn tail, running away in panic.
It’s only when Tony hears a deep huff behind him that he realises they fled because of the guy. And with good reason: he’s a shifter too, and a grizzly, nothing less. He’s very intimidating, especially when Tony gets a closer look at his claws. They’re bigger than the palm of his hand!
They shift back promptly, and the guy looks at Tony with an expression that suggests that Tony is a dumbass but cute for trying to fight off the bullies. Tony resents that, because he could totally have bested those guys, but James, as he introduces himself, outright laughs at that. He also tells Tony that he doesn't need a white savior to come to his rescue, which makes Tony cringe a little, because that was exactly what he was doing, even if it wasn't intentional. He apologises, embarrassed, and they part ways, only to run into each other two corridors further down the building.
Turns out, they’re roommates.
It’s the start of a beautiful friendship.
They’re inseparable, be it in human or animal form. They are the best at pranking, using materials too heavy for a normal human, putting things in spaces too high to reach. The incident of spring 1989 goes into the annals. All in all, it’s awesome.
The world learns Tony is a raven shifter on the night of his twentieth birthday. It goes like this: Tony drinks one, two, fifteen glasses too many, and decides that shifting and flying a lap around his party is the best idea ever. So he strips, shifts, almost brains himself against one of the windows, generally flies into stuff, then crashes on his bed. He wakes up the next morning, completely naked and with no recollection of how he got there. He only gets to hear what he did from some army friends of Rhodey, because Rhodey himself was at least as plastered as Tony during the party and is still not talking in more than one-syllable words when Tony finds him.
It’s not like him being a shifter is a secret, but now everyone knows. Howard is not happy when he hears it, saying things like “Think about the image of Stark Industries” and “stupid fucking idiot”. That’s about when Tony hangs up.
He understands what his father means when he sees the first articles analysing him in light of his shifted form, associating bad luck and death with the name of Tony Stark for the first time. It isn’t the last time that those kinds of associations will be made, not by far.
When he gets the news about his parents’ crash, he shifts and flies away. He stays a raven for days, trying to drown his sorrow by flying as far away as he can. Every time he hears a blackbird, he flies further away. One day, after having flied mindlessly around New York, he settles on a bench in Central Park, where his mother used to sit and read. Two hours later, Jarvis is there. He looks at Tony, sighs, and cradles him in his arms, enveloping Tony and holding him close. They stay there, in silence, for a very long time.
After, Tony comes home and mourns in his human form. The Jarvis’s mourn with him, trying to shield him from the worst of the media frenzy happening outside of the mansion, desperate to get a glimpse of the orphaned heir to Stark Industries.
The funeral is quiet, and Tony finds himself looking at the ravens perched on a tree nearby.
Eight is for grief
Tony makes the mistake of reading the newspaper and throws up when he reads the insinuations that they should have seen it coming, with a son that is a raven shifter.
He doesn’t know what to do with that, because a small part of him believes there may be a truth to it. He has read everything about how symbolism associated to animals is linked to shifters’ behaviours. He knows that there is a clear correlation between your shifted form and your personality. No one knows if the personality induces the shifted form, or if it’s the opposite. But there is a connection, undeniably.
Is he part of the reason that his parents died? Did he bring bad luck upon them?
Tony doesn’t know what to believe, but he shifts less after that, and tries to spend less time with the people he loves. He doesn’t want to hurt them.
After Tony takes over the company, he is Tony Stark, playboy billionaire and raven shifter. He gets called many names, from The Da Vinci of Our Time, to Merchant of Death, to Harbinger of Death. His weapons sell incredibly well, because people assume he knows everything there is to know about death and war.
He embraces his image, dresses in dark colours, often seen in raven black suits with blood red ties, never without his sunglasses.
He laughs when people accuse him of being too superficial, too debauched, and tells them that the raven is associated with the Devil, and that at least he has a hell of a good time.
He tells himself he is proud of what he does, that at least he turns the death and destruction that follows him into something lucrative.
Five is for riches
He tells himself he is happy with who he is.
He doesn’t make friends, tries to avoid getting too involved in anyone’s life. He doesn’t want something bad to happen. The Jarvis’s are dead, but Rhodey still clings to him, refusing to let Tony go. Tony doesn’t try to hard to keep Rhodey away, because he’s selfish and wants something good in his existence.
Tony meets Pepper, a lovely woman, fiery and deadly quick-thinking. She’s a cheetah shifter, all long lines and delicate elegance. He thinks he could love her, but keeps her at arm’s length anyway. She doesn’t take his bullshit, though, and before he knows it, she befriends Rhodey and stays in his life.
A few years later, Tony meets an ex-boxer, Harold Hogan, who becomes his chauffeur, who becomes Happy, and a friend.
His friends are all people he pays, but he tells himself they would still be his friends even if he wouldn’t pay them. He almost believes himself.
Tony’s a playboy, doesn’t follow the rules, and is a lone player.
He’s never met another raven shifter.
One for bad news
The Humvee in front of them explodes, and the world erupts into fire.
He tries to help, tries to fire the weapon he finds next to a still warm body—don’t think about how she smiled at your bad joke less than a minute ago—, but it jams, and Tony can only watch as they die, those young men and women, in the blink of an eye. He tries to get to Rhodey, maybe he should fly away, get some distance between the raining hellfire.
A missile with his name on it explodes and pierces his chest before he gets the chance to shift. He loses consciousness while alternating between watching the sky and the rapidly expanding dark stain on his chest.
When he wakes up, he’s in agony, something cutting into him, making him scream for eternal minutes before darkness blissfully envelops him.
There’s a hole in his chest. He would laugh about the absurdity of it all, but it’s too terrifying and real to be funny. He has a fucking hole in his chest, and is wired to a fucking car battery, and he has one week left to live.
Tony supposes he finally got what was coming for him. Ironic, to die of your own creation. But then again, it was symbolic. He was a carrier of misfortune, after all. Why would it not be his own misfortune?
Tony refuses to build more death and gets punished for it. When the waterboarding and beatings don’t prove to be enough to change his mind, they make him drink a repulsive concoction. It’s a drug that induces shifting. Tony spends the next hour writhing on the floor, delirious with pain. The metal in his chest prevents him from shifting completely, because it simply is too big for his bird form. He’s stuck in an endless cycle of shifting from human to bird then back to human when the metal stops his transformation. What should take mere seconds is drawn out and excruciating, feeling his bones rearrange themselves, his organs shifting and the shrapnel tearing through his moving flesh.
When the effect of the drug abates, he’s crying silently on the floor, his voice lost from all the screaming. He agrees to build the Jericho the next morning.
Yinsen is a calm man, who doesn’t have any reservations telling Tony what he thinks of his lifestyle. He’s kind and caring, and fierce in his belief that Tony can be more than a man shrouded by Death. He says ravens are complex and multi-faceted animals and that Tony should choose another meaning for his shifted form.
Tony chooses to create instead of destroying everything he touches.
He creates the arc reactor and draws plans for a suit of armour. He will get them both out of there, save at least one life after all the destruction he’s caused.
Yinsen doesn’t stick to the plan and sacrifices himself for Tony. He urges him not to waste his life and his next breath is his last. Tony stays paralysed next to him, stuck in a loop of I couldn’t save him he died it’s because of me, which is why he doesn’t realise Rhaza isn’t dead before the man stabs Tony’s neck with a needle.
It burns his veins, the force-shifting drug, and Tony’s last thought before he succumbs to the pain is that Yinsen died all for nothing.
Tony wakes up in the middle of the desert, naked and alone.
There is no trace of the terrorists nor of his armour. Only a ragged coat and a single feather.
It’s red and gold, about the size of his hand, and he doesn’t know where it comes from.
There’s only one explanation as to why he’s not still in the caves, but it’s so outlandish, that Tony rejects it instantly. He wraps himself in the coat, clutches the feather in his hand, and wanders under the sun until Rhodey finds him.
The military has questions, about his captivity, about his arc reactor, about his escape. He can’t give them as many answers as they want, and it frustrates everyone, including himself.
They find the caves quickly, alerted by a giant column of smoke. They show Tony pictures of the base, and he still doesn’t know how he escaped. The base, or rather its remains, is completely burnt down. The few bodies that didn’t char are completely disfigured by deep gouges, some even torn in half. The general consensus is that some kind of bear or particularly violent leopard attacked the camp at the same time as Tony escaped. They diagnose Tony with temporary amnesia and fly him back to America.
In the plane, he has a private conversation with Rhodey, who asks about more details. Tony doesn’t give him much more than what he told the officials, but he lets slip that the terrorists had to persuade him rather thoroughly before he falsely agreed to their plans. Then Tony tells about the suit of armour and the last thing he remembers before blacking out. Rhodey speculates that the drug must not have worked properly, and that Tony blew up the base and walked away before collapsing form the heat, only to wake up later with no memory due to the drug.
Tony doesn’t say anything, letting Rhodey draw his own conclusions, and keeps the feather hidden.
Nine is a secret
When he walks off the plane, Pepper and Happy are waiting for him, and Tony smiles for the second time since Rhodey found him. (The first time is when Rhodey hugs him)
He thinks that if they stayed for three months without him, they must like him at least a little.
Obie hugs him, and asks about the arc reactor, and tells him to lay low for a bit.
After shutting down the weapons manufacturing, Tony does exactly that, and builds his second suit of armour. He never got to fly his first suit, after all.
Flying in a suit is simultaneously similar to flying as a bird, yet so different. He can’t feel the wind anymore, needs to learn to fly without wings and a tail, but the feeling of immense freedom is the same. Flying in the suit is amazing, and it almost makes up for the fact that he will never be able to shift again.
Tony almost dies from the icing problem, and when he designs the Mark III, he takes the feather out of its drawer and looks at it while telling JARVIS to make the armour red and gold. It seems fitting, somehow.
He saves the citizens of Gulmira and doesn’t hate himself for the first time in years. He thinks that he may be able to change the tide of death that he created.
Obie was the one who tried to have him killed, only failing because of his greed, but Tony is not fast enough to prevent him from using the damn sonic taser. He lies there like a sack of potatoes while Obie mocks him and calls him the golden goose. Fucking ironic, since he’s a raven, and there’s nothing golden about him at all. He’s black as death, darker than the night. Obie twists the arc reactor out of Tony’s body, and he feels the familiar pull of the shift threatening to happen. He doesn’t shift, but he manages to get to the spare reactor before his heart stops.
The fight is a blur, he almost dies again, and then Obie dies for real. He’s numb when he sees his mentor and godfather tumble into the arc reactor. He thinks about ravens, and how they bring death with them. Would Obie have died if Tony hadn’t been a raven? He tells himself it doesn’t matter.
Tony decides he doesn’t want to hide and tells the world he’s Iron Man.
Speculations go crazy. Reactions vary from enthusiastic support to outright hostility. He gets questions about the reactor in his chest that he doesn’t bother to hide anymore, and it’s soon common knowledge that he can’t shift anymore. Indeed, machines like pace-makers or prosthetics don’t shift with the human. That doesn’t stop avid journalists from continuing to connect his new, improved self with ravens. They ask why his armour isn’t black. They ask how he possibly could be a hero when his animal represents death. A fanatic Christian sect is convinced that he is the devil incarnate, now with an all-powerful suit of armour. They ask if he made the suit just to be able to fly again. (Partly, yes.) They ask what he’s going to do now that he doesn’t sell weapons anymore. He doesn’t really know, because he has told himself his whole life that he was nothing but a destroyer, and now he suddenly finds himself with the urge to create, to give life instead of taking it.
One day, he finds himself almost hoping for a future where he makes a difference for the better.
Two months after coming back from Afghanistan, Tony wakes up with an aching chest. It’s not the first time it has happened, but it’s the first time it hurts that much.
He realises something is seriously wrong when he opens his eyes: at least a dozen red and gold feathers litter the bed, all missing the healthy shine of the one he keeps hidden in the workshop.
Tony is shifting in his sleep (Complete shift? Partial shift? Unacceptable, he can’t shift, he’s too dangerous) and losing feathers, and he doesn’t know why.