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Harbinger of Death, Creator of Worlds

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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. 

Chapter Text

He’s staring at the feathers when he asks JARVIS to replay footage of the night.

He sees himself frowning and whimpering in his sleep, his hands clutched on top of the arc reactor, and then his hands elongate, his nails darken and grow sharper, and Tony watches in horror as his hands turn themselves into claws. He can see light grey duvet creeping up his arms, growing thicker and thicker until the red and gold feathers grow, and fall off. His arms stay partly shifted for several hours, all the while shedding feathers. Then, seemingly out of the blue, he shifts back to fully human.

What the fuck is happening?

Shifting isn’t like breathing, you can’t do it unconsciously. If you die, you stay in the form you were in when you died, which makes it hard to find missing shifters, because they could be dead as an animal and no one would know. There are no cases of sleep-shifting, and only a few documented cases of shifters that are able to only shift partially. Usually it’s human or animal, not a weird in-between state. First of all, because that would mean having two different DNA’s at the same time in different parts of the body, but there is also the slight issue of pain. As Tony knows, intimately, it’s extremely painful to be in partial shift.

From the top of his head, he knows that some monks have trained themselves to resist that pain and shift certain body parts during meditation.

But nothing like what Tony is seeing on the screen.

Apparently, he shifts in his sleep, and it doesn’t even hurt enough to wake him up. How can he not have woken up? He knows, he knows it’s excruciating, so why is everything he thought he knew about shifting getting thrown out of the window?  

What the fuck did I turn into? I’m not… This isn’t normal. 

Those feathers, the shifting in his sleep, the mystery of what happened in Afghanistan—you know what happened in Afghanistan, Tony. You went on a rampage and murdered them—all point to the fact that he’s turned into something else, something monstrous. 

He can’t shift again. Not after what he did in that desert. 

He shudders when he thinks of what will happen if he shifts in his sleep while Pepper or Rhodey are in his house. He can’t let that happen. 

Talking about letting things happen, “JARVIS, why the fuck didn’t you wake me up or at least tell me about this?”

Several more screens pop up, dated from less than a week ago to up to a month ago, all showing the same shifting as what happened this night.

“I… What?”

—I monitored you closely every time it happened, sir, and since your overall readings showed you in better health after shifting, I felt it unnecessary to alert you.—

“Damn it, JARVIS, just because you don’t agree with how I deal with my shifted form doesn’t mean that you can just withhold information like that! This is dangerous! What if I shift entirely, huh, what then? I know it isn’t healthy for a shifter to avoid shifting for too long, but I can’t shift. What happened in Afghanistan can absolutely not happen again.”

Fuck. He’s shifting in his sleep, and has been doing for a month now. But why? And why does JARVIS say that his readings are better? Is he ill? Why does shifting help, then?

It doesn’t make any sense.

Tony sits up, the pain in his chest flaring briefly, and looks down at his hands. They’re completely normal, human hands.

“JARVIS, tell me next time this happens, or anything similar for that matter, and that’s an order.”

— ……Yes. Sir.—

Great. It’s not even 8:30 and he’s already pissed off his AI. Well, tough luck, because Tony is just as pissed.

 


 

After a range of tests, the diagnosis is clear: Tony is suffering from palladium poisoning.

And if he doesn’t do something about it, he’ll die. 

There’s a joke in there somewhere, about Tony dying because of his own creations. 

Tony doesn’t find it very funny. The thing that is keeping him alive is killing him, and it feels too much like a curse to be anything but tragic. 

It’s like Afghanistan all over again, he’s asking himself the same questions again: is this his fate? To bring about his own demise? Will he never be able to escape death? Is the raven symbolism still pursuing him, even after his shifted form changed into something different, other?

What’s the fucking point?

 


 

He tries all combinations of all known elements to replace the palladium, but nothing works. Nothing. It hits him then, that he can’t do anything. He can’t science his way out of this, there isn’t another option. The only thing he can do is choose how he dies. 

He doesn’t want to die.

Tony looks at the dark marks spreading from his arc reactor, takes a deep, hurting breath, and goes to the liquor cabinet. 

He drinks until he falls asleep on the cot in the workshop.

The next morning, Tony doesn’t know if the dizziness, migraine and burning eyes are from his hangover or from the poisoning. He wants to ask DUM-E for an aspirin, but is cut short when JARVIS puts up a video of the night. Tony can barely open his eyes but he sees very clearly that he shifted during the night, and what’s worse, he shifted more than last time. This time, he sees how both his arms and legs turn into dark legs and claws. There are the same red and gold feathers, but they look even duller than the ones he saw in his bed. 

JARVIS doesn’t have to say anything for Tony to know that drinking only makes it worse.

 


 

Tony knows he has a few months left to live, and he worries about his legacy. Maybe organising a Stark Expo would be beneficial for the continued welfare of SI? 

He gives the company to Pepper, donates his art collection to charity. He thinks about the Iron Man armour and Rhodey. He updates his will. He boxes with Happy, thinks about giving him his cars.

They’re in the ring again, when Pepper walks in with a red-haired woman. She’s...gorgeous, and she knows it. Her hips sway as she approaches Tony with papers to sign. It makes him think of the women he used to sleep with, before...before. It’s not something he can do anymore, with his arc reactor and the unconscious shifting, but he isn’t really interested in that anyways. There are better ways to spend the night, now. Tinkering with the suit or flying in it are way more satisfying than a roll in the hay, but he still can appreciate beauty when it stares him right in the face. 

The woman looks at him then, and suddenly Tony is overwhelmed with the need to shift. He feels it roiling in his gut, buzzing in his bones, a primal response to whatever his hindbrain sees in the woman. He averts his eyes and takes a deep breath, trying to stay in control. He doesn’t understand what’s happening, why his subconscious is pushing him to shift. There’s only the deep feeling of deception, of danger, that answers his confusion.

He looks her up, but there is nothing out of the ordinary about Natalie Rushman. 

He can’t look at her eyes without wanting to shift, so he tells Pepper he doesn’t need an assistant and retreats to Malibu.

 


 

Tony almost dies in Monaco, attacked by a madman with electric whips. The man cuts his car in half, endangers Pepper and Happy, but is ultimately bested by Tony when he gets the suit on. In an attempt to escape the police, the man shifts into a crow right as Tony shoot a repulsor beam at his chest to stop him. In his shifted form, he doesn’t survive the hit.

Tony can’t bring himself to feel bad about it. That man was dangerous, has attacked his friends, and managed to create an arc reactor. Tony crushes it, and when he’s back in Malibu, looks him up. Ivan Vanko, son of Anton Vanko, co-creator of the arc reactor, and close colleague of Howard until the latter realised Vanko was a russian spy. Howard had Vanko deported, but clearly the man had managed to steal blueprints when he moved back to Russia.

It doesn’t matter. 

 

Six is a thief.

 


 

He holes himself up in Malibu, working on various projects, upgrading the suit, avoiding Pepper and Rhodey. He tells them he needs a breather, that he’s taking a sabbatical. They’re suspicious, but he doesn’t let them enter his house, and after several weeks, they give up, mollified when he tells them he’ll call them in a month.

He’ll be dead in a month, but they don’t need to know that.

 


 

His absence doesn’t go unnoticed. The general consensus is that he suffers from an episode of PTSD, making him isolate himself and act like a hermit. Some gossip rags claim that he’s gone crazy, holing himself up in a bunker to avoid getting kidnapped again. They call him Stark raven mad. It isn’t the best moniker, if you ask Tony.

 


 

Tony spends his days in the workshop, adding the finishing touches to Rhodey’s suit, checking his steadily rising blood toxicity, trying to keep himself from vomiting. He doesn’t dare sleep more than thirty minutes at a time, because he shifts more and more as he gets sicker. He tastes metal in his mouth, has muscle cramps, starts forgetting things. One time the nerve pains get so bad that he can’t breathe anymore, and for a terrifying moment, he feels himself start to shift. He can’t stop it, just look at his body as it contracts and twists and leaves him a heaving mess on the floor, surrounded by feathers so dull they look grey, and the marks of the palladium creeping up his neck. 

 

He realises he might shift just before he dies.

 

He orders JARVIS to use all means necessary to keep him in the house, should he shift into whatever monster he’s become in Afghanistan. He trusts JARVIS to use lethal force if necessary.

JARVIS quietly accepts, something like despairing acceptance in his voice.  

 

Ten is for sorrow

 


 

Agent Coulson and even Fury try to come by, but he refuses to see them, entering lock-down mode in his mansion when the SHIELD agents become too nosy. 

Tony doesn’t want Fury to make another surprise visit in the middle of the night, thank you very much. He isn’t sure he would be able to stop himself from shifting. So he locks himself in, ignores JARVIS’s pleas to look for help, and only ventures out of the workshop when he gets a handful of boxes containing old stuff from his father. 

It’s mostly junk, but it rankles that Howard spent more time at SHIELD than with his own child. It hurts that Fury probably knew Howard better than Tony did.

It doesn’t matter, Tony’ll be dead in a week anyways.

He sends the suit to Rhodey without explanation and doesn’t answer Rhodey’s numerous calls.

 


 

In the end, Tony cheats death by a day. It’s thanks to Howard that Tony survives, and it’s ironic, really, that Tony’s bad luck killed Howard, but he saved his son’s life. 

The new arc reactor is like a condensed star in his chest, buzzing with energy and power and life and leaving a coconut taste on his tongue. Tony can almost feel it cleansing the palladium from his blood, and he opens his eyes on his trashed workshop and smiles.

 

He stops shifting in his sleep after that and decides he can safely come back to society again. When Pepper and Rhodey tell him that his sabbatical months were good for him, that he looks well-rested and calmer, he smiles without looking them in the eyes. 

 


 

Two years later, Tony is enjoying one of the rare nights he spends with Pepper when Agent Coulson enters the tower and hands Tony a thick folder, claiming it’s about national security, and more importantly, about the Avengers. 

The Avengers. It’s the first time he hears the name, and honestly, he’s a bit offended when he sees that they created a secret boyband of superheroes and didn’t tell him about it. He needs to keep up to date with SHIELD’s secret stuff, damn it. 

The names on the team are all more or less familiar to him, and his eyebrows rises several times during his reading. First of all, Captain America is alive. It shouldn’t be possible, yet here he is, apparently right as rain after hibernating for 70 years in the ice. It’s kind of ironic when you know what his shifted form is: he was mistaken as a common cat before he got the serum, and surprised everyone, including himself, when he turned into a gigantic tiger-like feline just after getting doped up. It was only years later that someone understood that Steve Rogers was a Machairodus Kabir, or giant sabre-tooth tiger.

Has it always been Rogers’s fate to fall into that glacial ocean? Is his shifted form, an animal from the ice-age, the proof that he was destined to find himself frozen and woken up years behind his time?

Tony doesn’t really want to think about it, because that would mean that he can’t escape his own fate.

Then, Tony sees a familiar redhead, and bristles as he realises that Natashalie most likely was a plant or honeypot to get to Tony. He wonders if that is what his subconscious tried to warn him about. Or was it because she is a fox shifter, the animal representing cunning and deception? He wonders if she went into the spy business because she thought that she couldn’t escape her fate. Another one who is pursued by fate. First Rogers, then Romanoff.

Bruce Banner is familiar to Tony too, because his work on gamma radiation is the best there is, and Tony’s always had a science crush on the man. The man disappeared from Tony’s (and the majority of the world’s) radar a few years ago, after an experiment to create a serum that would allow non-shifters to shift went wrong. Tony reads that Dr. Banner can transform into an enormous green rage monster, and guesses he ended up with the Hulk when he tried the serum on himself. Tony isn’t sure if the Hulk counts as a shift or is a different creature altogether.

Tony’s listed as a possible addition, due to “incomplete assessment”. Tony reads that as: “the infiltration by agent Romanoff was unsuccessful, so we know jack shit about Stark and whether he’s suited to be part of the team even if he’s a raven.”

All in all, this is a very interesting document, and it gets even more interesting when he gets to the part about the Tesseract and an actual alien god

So Tony suits up and joins the team, even if he knows it can lead to disaster. He just hopes he won’t accidentally shift and turn everything into more of a mess than it already is.

 


 

When Tony meets Dr. Banner, he thinks that the man doesn’t look like much. But his eyes, his eyes barely hide a deep rage that burns inside the man. Bruce Banner is fire and destruction held back by force of will, and Tony sees an echo of himself in the man cursed with a monster inside his body.

It’s a terrible privilege indeed.

 


 

Things get out of hand when Cap and Tony discover the weapons that SHIELD were building because using alien powers is clearly a great idea, and they all start screaming at each other. 

Captain America isn’t impressed by Tony, telling him to stop pretending to be a hero, that he should know that it’s a lost cause since he’s a raven shifter. He’s seen all the videos, he says, and it’s clear that he thinks very little about Tony. 

Tony isn’t even surprised that the American icon despises him. After all, a hero wouldn’t be a raven shifter. No, a hero would be something majestic, like a sabre-toothed tiger for instance. Like Captain Righteous over there.

Tony makes a dig about Cap being nothing more than a newly defrosted prehistoric fossil, and the argument rapidly deteriorates from there.

 


 

Tony is standing behind the bar, posturing in front of a god, and wonders if he’s gone crazy. There’s something about Loki, though, that reminds Tony too much of himself. It’s like watching himself through a distorting mirror: the mirror image is not identical, but near enough to the original that he can still recognise himself.

Loki is surrounded by death, and there’s this air of finality around him that hints at a resignation, a bone-deep weariness, the acceptance of his fate, whatever it might be.

Tony wonders if Loki, too, hides a monster under his skin.

He taunts Loki, and only realises he miscalculated when the god snaps and prowls towards him, raising the sceptre menacingly.

Oh fuck. Please don’t turn me into your minion.

The tip of the spear hovers above his chest, but Loki reigns himself in at the last moment, teleporting across the room, face stricken for a second before it turns into an ugly sneer:

“Did you really think I would fall for that trap, shifter? Just because you hide your true form behind a pathetic mortal shell, doesn’t mean I can’t see through you.”

And with that, the god is gone, leaving a confused Tony behind.

Does Loki know about my true shifted form? Is that why he disappeared?

Is he afraid of me?

 


 

Tony doesn’t see Loki for the rest of the fight, almost as if the god is avoiding him. It all happens too fast for Tony to think about it, though, and he is busy fighting the urge to shift when he engages with the leviathans. His skin is crawling, he’s sweating, and he gnashes his teeth together to stop himself from giving himself up to the primal desire to shift.

He’s still fighting with his instincts when he carries off the nuke into space.

JARVIS asks him if he wants to call anyone, and Tony tells him no.

Two seconds later, Tony is millions of lightyears away, surrounded by unfamiliar constellations. Several stars glow brighter, and he counts them without meaning to.

 

Seven, a journey

 

Space is…

There’s nothing. A vast void, endless stars, dead silence. The only sign of life is the army of thousands of alien ships, coming for Earth, a promise of evisceration.

Tony watches as the nuke continues on its journey upwards, leaving Tony behind and exploding in the biggest ship, silent like a red flaming flower that engulfs all the Chitauri.

He watches as the flames draw nearer, and is hit by the overwhelming urge to join those flames. He yearns for the fire, but his suit is immobilised, his breath is stuttering, and he’s falling, and he’s crying, because he’s getting farther and farther away from the its warmth. His last thought before unconsciousness claims him is that he’s so cold.

 


 

He wakes up, still feeling cold, and is almost disappointed when he sees he’s back on Earth. He feels a slight tingling in his hands and feet and knows that he must have shifted partially while he almost died. None of the Avengers mention anything, though, so he supposes they didn’t notice.

 


 

Tony goes to a meeting with Fury to talk about the WSC and the fact that they ordered to nuke Manhattan, and somehow ends up agreeing to house the Avengers and being part of the team. He doesn’t know why Fury would want him on any team, seeing as he symbols the coming of war and brings death wherever he goes, but he thinks that Fury wants funding for the Avengers, and that is definitely something that Tony can do. There’s also the fact that Tony saved New York when he flew into the portal, and the public has latched on to that. Suddenly reporters say that he’s a saviour, and it’s so wrong to see that word next to his name. He doesn’t know what to think of that. He has stopped hoping that he could escape his fate, but he thinks that he might even the scales a bit if he joins the Avengers. They worked together well enough on the field, and it wouldn’t hurt to have powerful people around him.

If he shifts, they should be able to stop him, at least.

 


 

They move in, surprisingly enough. First Banner, then Rogers, and then the spies. Thor is off-world, most likely still dealing with the Loki problem. It’s awkward and stilted the first few days at the tower. Romanoff and Barton are very elusive at first, and Rogers is stoically silent. Banner is very guarded, and Tony is harsh and dismissive.

They don’t really manage to form a cohesive group in the few weeks before they get called by Fury again. 

It’s an investigation mission, about some kidnappings that have happened recently in New Jersey. What makes it different is that all the kidnapped were shifters with rare or interesting animal forms. Fury says there is a suspicion that this is an organised group that is kidnapping shifters and selling them, and he wants the team to investigate into the matter. Usually the FBI would do it, but Fury says there might be super-powered individuals at play, which would make the Avengers more suited. Tony suspects the latter is made up, and that this is Fury’s idea of bonding. 

He supposes the director has a point. What good will they do if, world ending events aside, they can’t even function as a team?

So he accepts the mission, along with everyone else except for Thor, who is still in Asgard, and Banner. Banner who, very likely, thinks that bringing the Hulk to an investigation isn’t such a good idea, and that human Bruce Banner will not be of very much help either.  

He isn’t wrong. But benching him wouldn’t be very good for group cohesion, now would it? So Tony tells him to be their eye in the sky and monitor them from the tower with JARVIS’ help. Being the guy in the chair, if you will. Banner accepts almost too easily, not quite successful in hiding the relief in his eyes. 

 

Tony, Rogers, Romanoff and Barton take a quinjet and leave for New Jersey. The flight is silent, punctuated by the steady snick of Romanoff sharpening her knives and Barton readying his arrows. Tony itches to take those weapons apart, to make them better, but he doesn’t say anything. He won’t force them to use weapons made by a messenger of death.

 

Their leads bring them to a supposedly abandoned warehouse, and Tony would laugh at the predictability of their enemies, if he wasn’t having the feeling that something is wrong. It feels…too easy.

They enter the warehouse cautiously, and at first glance, it seems empty save for four metal cages. Tony orders a scan of the building for life forms to make sure, and to his sudden dismay, a dozen show up almost immediately. He whirls around to warn the others, but stops dead when he sees the red dots on his teammates’ foreheads and chests.

It’s a trap. It’s a trap, and they fell for it. Hook, line and sinker.

“One move and you’re dead. Iron Man, that includes weapons system activating or deactivating.”

The voice rings out in the silence, and Tony curses himself for not scanning the warehouse before entering it. There’s nothing he can do now, though, save wait it out. In his ear, Banner is cursing too, frantically typing away, most likely to request backup from SHIELD.

Barton and Romanoff are stock still, Rogers is breathing heavily and clenching his hands, but he doesn’t move. Tony can only watch as a masked figure approaches him and fastens a device on his chest. It emits a high-pitched whine, and one second later, Tony’s suit is dead weight.

An EMP. They were expecting us, the bastards.

With the Iron Man suit out of commission, they make the Avengers kneel with their hands on their heads while they pry Tony out of his suit. It takes a good twenty minutes, but eventually they manage to pull him out of it. Someone drags him away from the suit, puts a gun under his jaw, and tells the rest of the Avengers that they can walk into the cages or watch Stark die. They comply, and soon enough they are all in their own cage. Rogers immediately attacks the bars of his, but they don’t give. Most likely adamantium-reinforced steel, then.

Tony doesn’t like that these people have access to adamantium and top-grade EMPs. There is something more at play here.

The same voice as before calls out: “You will make good prizes, Avengers. M, you know what to do.”

Tony’s blood runs cold when he hears the good prizes part. Are they going to be sold? Auctioned off? How would that even work? He’s sure SHIELD would have picked up on human trafficking. He doesn’t have time to try to work it out before one of the goons opens a suitcase that’s filled by vials and syringes. He can’t repress the shiver that runs through him, the memory of what happened last time he was injected still fresh on his mind.

Ohhhh no. Oh no. I don’t—I don’t want to be injected with anything, thank you very much.

They fill four syringes, and approach Barton. With more than five guns trained on him, he doesn’t move when they inject him with whatever drug they have. Tony tries to hope that it’s just an anaesthetic, but his meagre hopes are crushed when Clint grimaces, takes a step back, stumbles and falls against the bars of his cage. He blinks several times, croaks out: ”What did—” and shifts into a hawk.

A hawk? Really? I should have guessed.

Focus! He needs to focus. Did Barton shift to prevent whatever was happening to him, or was his shifting forced upon him? Is this liquid something akin to the drugs they made Tony take in Afghanistan?

Oh god please don’t be a force-shifting drug. Please don’t.

They inject Romanoff after that, and she reacts in much the same way as Barton, shifting into a fox and growling lowly at the goons as they walk towards Rogers, who has clearly understood what is happening, because he backs into the centre of the cage, intent on making it difficult for the villains.

Which leaves Tony with enough time to start panicking in earnest.

They can’t inject him. They can’t. He can’t shift, because then Afghanistan will happen all over again and this time there are teammates with him and he isn’t in a desert and—

Oh god what happens if civilians come to investigate—

I can’t shift. I need to convince them to leave me alone.

I can’t shift.

IT CANNOT HAPPEN.

 


 

Clint watches from his cage as Stark gets increasingly nervous, and doesn’t understand. Why is he so afraid of those goons?

They just got lucky, but they should know better than to underestimate the avengers like that. Just because they are in their animal forms doesn’t mean they can’t escape. It’ll be hard, sure, harder than if they were still human, but Stark will be of great help. Clint knows Stark can’t shift anymore, so the drug shouldn’t have an effect on him.

So why is he acting like that, curling himself into a ball in his cage, trying to put as much distance as possible between himself and their captors?

Clint has never seen Stark show his fear so explicitly.

There has to be something I’m missing.

The goons have finished injecting Rogers, who is now growling loudly at them, baring his impressive fangs. That leaves Stark as the only Avenger in human form.

As they approach the genius with the last syringe, he smiles at them, a pale imitation of his usual million-dollar grin.

“Hey now, we all know I can’t shift anymore, so why don’t you put this away and don’t waste it on me, yeah?”

“Orders are orders. Don’t make a fuss, Stark.”

Wow, so clearly those goons are more stupid than they look. They just simultaneously confirmed they aren’t the brains behind this operation, and that they are the type to shoot first and think later. Also: Stark has a point, hasn’t he?

“Come on, I can’t do anything, I don’t have my suit, I’m even in a cage! What good would it do to make me shift into a deformed raven? That would be suspicious, I tell you, especially with the arc reactor I have.” Stark’s voice is…trembling. What the hell is happening? Is Stark hurt? Did the EMP affect not only the suit, but Stark too?

Clint looks over at Natasha, who’s sniffing the air, ears attentive and eyes locked on Stark. She knows something is up too, but she hasn’t found the source of Stark’s distress yet. Shit.

“I don’t fucking care. Now give me your arm, or foxie gets a bullet in her leg.” The leader points his gun at Natasha, who bares her teeth at him. Rogers growls even louder, but from behind reinforced steel bars, there’s not much he can do.

Stark shoots a panicked look at Natasha but doesn’t move. It’s only when the goon actually aims at her and almost pulls the trigger that Stark folds:

“Don’t! Don’t shoot her! H—here, shoot me with that stuff if you want, but trust me when I say you really don’t want to inject me with this drug. It—It won’t end well for anyone involved. Please, can’t you just knock me out or something?”

And now Stark is breathing shallowly, eyes too wide, posture rigid, and Clint wants to shout at him and ask what the fuck is wrong, because Stark never begs, never negotiates with the enemy. If there’s one thing that Clint respects about the man, it’s that. He may be arrogant and too full of himself at times, but at least he’s got balls.

Stark shouldn’t be this terrified, much less be showing it. But that’s exactly what he’s doing, and he doesn’t seem to care, as focused as he is on the needle that’s slowly getting nearer his arm. Just when it seems like it’s going to pierce his skin, Stark jerks back, almost throwing himself into the bars on the other side of the cage. He aims a kick at the syringe, but the goon retracts his hand just in time, leaving Stark to kick the bars with a resounding sound. Clint shrieks to warn him from the woman creeping in from behind, but Stark reacts too late, dropping to the ground as she punches him in the temple. He’s barely conscious, muttering nononononopleaseno under his breath when they plunge the needle in his arm and inject the drug into his system.

 

For a moment, nothing happens.

 

Then Stark starts screaming, and his skin ripples. He’s on his side, curled into a ball, but Clint can see as he slowly starts shifting, and that is just wrong, it shouldn’t be possible. Stark can’t shift, has told them he couldn’t shift, yet something is happening. Feathers sprout from his skin, his hands turn into claws, and his face disappears behind an ink-black beak. Stark grows and grows and grows—and that’s another impossibility, because he should be shrinking into a raven, not growing like this, until he’s filling his cage, until the bars bend and crack, until there’s a black mass of feathers were there once was a man.

 

The screaming has stopped, and everything else has stopped along with it. They’re all frozen in place, looking up at the thing that is easily spanning eight meters in height, and more than twenty in length.

This sure as fuck isn’t a raven, Clint thinks hysterically.

Stark—is it even Stark anymore?—shifts around and rasps out a deep breath. Night-black feathers slide over one another and a head comes out from under a wing.

An electric blue eye stares right at Clint, and every instinct in his body screams at him to flee. There is nothing human in that gaze, only a cold and menacing glint that chills Clint to the bone. Stark is gone, and in his place, there is a merciless predator.

He knows that if he moves one muscle, he will die.

The monster is assessing him, and if it decides that Clint is in any way a threat, or a prey, then Clint is done for.

It seems like an eternity before the eye shifts over to Natasha, who is stock-still as well. She passes the test faster than Clint did, but she’s always been better at hiding her fear.

When the eye shifts to Rogers, things get complicated. He isn’t the type of guy (or animal) to let someone threaten him without consequence, and Clint can already see how he’s puffing up and readying himself for a fight, which is about the stupidest thing he can do when facing a dangerous giant bird.

One of the goons shouts something, and Clint mentally corrects himself: that is the stupidest thing to do, because the raven—let’s call it a raven— zeroes in on the men and women standing next to it, and when it lowers its head to get a better look, one of them steps back and another fires a shot at it.

That shot is what dooms them.

The sound echoes in the empty building and the raven answers with a hoarse, gurgling croak, spreading its wings until they brush the ceiling and the walls, signalling an impending massacre.

The undersides of its wings are streaked with red and gold, and Clint can’t help but think about the iron man suit, and wonder if Stark has chosen the exact same colours for his suit because he has seen them on himself. Or are the raven’s wings red and gold because iron man is red and gold? What came first?

There is a faint glow coming from the raven’s chest, and Clint realises it’s the arc reactor. Somehow, that reassures him, to know that at least the arc reactor doesn’t seem to be damaged, even if Stark is completely metamorphosed into something unrecognizable.

Bullets don’t seem to have any effect on the raven, who just tears the goons apart with its claws and beak. It never really lifts, too big to be able to fly in the hangar, but its talons rip flesh apart with deadly accuracy.

It’s over in less than a minute.

When the raven settles down again, not a single goon is still breathing, and the warehouse is deadly silent once more, air heavy with the smell of blood. Clint feels slightly nauseous, watching the blood dripping from the monstrous raven’s beak and claws, knowing what just happened.

He hopes the Avengers aren’t going to be next in line.

The raven turns back to Rogers then, and croaks again, a deafening sound. Clint doesn’t know if it’s a challenge or a question, because the raven is a wildcard right now, everything about it screaming dangerous and do not approach and run away. And of course, Cap does neither of those things, opting to growl proudly at the monstrous bird instead.

Which is apparently not the right thing to do, because it slashes the cage with its talons, cutting the bars neatly in half, and ripping into Rogers in the process. There’s a deep gash in his flank, blood already welling up, and Clint screeches in dismay when Rogers doesn’t get up from where he was flung out of the cage. The raven turns to look at Clint, and the cruel glint is back in its eyes, this time much more prominent, promising a painful death.

A visceral fear takes hold of Clint then, and he flies against the bars, trying against hope to get away from the monster before it tears him apart, because there is no doubt in his head that that’s exactly what the raven is going to do.

One bloody claw lifts and Clint thinks this is it. Killed by my own teammate.

But it never comes down. No, the raven’s attention is on Natasha now, Natasha who’s whining softly and showing her belly and wriggling on her back in an appeasing puppy-like gesture.

It’s incredibly risky, because the raven could interpret it as an easy prey and rip her apart before she got up on her paws again.

Clint watches in paralysed fear as the raven turns fully to Natasha, appraising her gesture.

After an agonizingly long moment, the raven croaks softly and the cruel glint in its eye is gone. The raven accepts the gesture of submission, and suddenly Natasha is not someone to be eliminated anymore, but an inoffensive friendly.

Clint hastens to copy her, standing on the ground and lowering his head, keeping his feathers smooth. He doesn’t look at the raven and feels its gaze on him almost like a physical weight, crushing him down until he’s almost lying on his front.

The same soft croak, and the weight is gone.

Clint breathes out, daring to look up again when he hears the raven shift away towards Rogers.

Rogers, who is barely conscious, and who could die if he doesn’t do the right thing.

Oh god, I hope he saw and understood what Nat and I just did, Clint thinks. Please, for once in your life, accept defeat, Cap.

Rogers lies on his side, still too weak to stand up, even if the deep gash in his flank is slowly healing and knitting itself together. He doesn’t move when the raven approaches, but his eyes follow the head of the bird as it slowly descends to get a closer look at him. An ink-black beak nudges him in the side, and retreats when he lets out a whimper despite himself.

The head cocks to one side, and the electric gaze fixes on Rogers’ eyes, daring him to try something.

After a tense ten seconds, Cap whines again, breaks eye-contact to look down, and slowly turns over to present his belly. Clint can see that it hurts him to move at all, but they all know that the raven will only be merciful if total submission is shown.

It seems to do the trick, because the raven croaks that same soft croak and rises to full height again. It ruffles its feathers, gurgles a little bit, then casually starts growing even bigger.

Clint doesn’t believe it. Can the raven control its size at will? Is that even supposed to be possible? No, who is he kidding, it’s absolutely not supposed to be possible. Everyone knows shifters only have one size. But then again, everyone knows that your shifted form doesn’t change into a freaking monster after you get forced to shift, so who is Clint to say anything? Clearly, Stark’s shifted form doesn’t give a fuck about what’s possible or not.

The raven grows and grows, until the warehouse’s roof gives, breaking apart with a deafening creaking sound and sending debris all around and on the cages, and Clint is suddenly very happy that he has some protection from the beams and chunks of concrete that rain down around him.

When the dust settles, the raven is nowhere to be seen, the only proof that it even had been there a single bloody print on the ground.

 

Shit, Clint thinks. We need to get Stark back.

Chapter Text

Tony wakes up cold and alone. He doesn’t know where he is, and for a blissful moment he doesn’t remember why. Then reality comes crashing back down, and he can’t breathe.

—Oh god I shifted and now I’m alone in this field and I’m naked and there’s blood all over me oh my god I killed them I killed them I killed them—

He’s dizzied by the lack of oxygen and cold and he thinks he’s crying, but he can’t stop because the worst has happened and he couldn’t fucking stop it and there is nothing left now. Nothing left to hope for. He can’t remember what he did, and it makes it even worse because he’s coming up with all the worst-case scenarios and he knows reality won’t be pretty but at least he’ll know. At least he’ll know.

He puts his head between his knees, trying to breathe.

He can feel the restless beast under his skin shifting, rising closer to the surface as he loses control over his body. He needs to breathe. He has to breathe.

One shuddering breath, then another. There’s wetness on his face. It’s not just water.

He tries to wipe it off, but he most likely makes a bigger mess of it.

Under the overwhelming tang of metal and death, he thinks he can distinguish individual smells. He almost doesn’t dare searching for familiar smells, but he needs to know. He can’t smell a hawk or a fox, but one of his feet reeks of Rogers. He throws up when he recognises the smell.

He finds himself praying to a god he doesn’t believe in —please please please—  that Rogers is still alive.

 

.

 

There’s no way he hasn’t been spotted. If he flew all the way to this backwards field from the warehouse, someone is bound to have seen him. Not to mention satellite imagery. With the hawklike way SHIELD is watching over every square meter of the US, he gives it less than an hour before someone comes to investigate. Or put him down. If he…if he really… if Rogers is gone, he knows Fury will show no mercy.

So he doesn’t move from his spot.

He stares at the sky, so clear it makes him think of that day in Afghanistan. He’d been trying to fly away before the shrapnel hit, he remembers. If he had shifted then, he would have died in the explosion. Instead, he’s alive, but at what cost?

He’s not cold anymore. He can feel the shift lurking closer to the surface, making his skin heat. He feels feverish. He curls up into a ball, closes his eyes, and waits.

 


 

Clint has honestly forgotten everything about Banner until he hears the man’s tinny voice through one of their comms. He’s frantically trying to reach them, shouting that reinforcements and medics are on the way. Clint caws a bit, hoping Banner will understand he’s fine. The doctor lets out a relieved sigh, asking Clint to confirm the others are fine too. One caw for yes, two for no.

It’s a crude system, but it works.  One caw for Rogers, one for Nat. Three for Tony, because he has absolutely no idea about how the genius is faring. The questions Banner asks then are too complex to answer: “Is he conscious?” No idea. “What do you mean, three caws? Is that maybe?” Two caws. “Does it mean maybe?” One caw. “What do you mean, Stark is maybe conscious?” “Can’t you check?” Two caws.  “Um… What about the enemy? Did you…” One caw. “They’re subdued?” Big screech. “So why can’t you check? Is he inaccessible?” One caw.

And that is when Clint gets tired of the guessing game and caws in Morse code: “Tony is gone. Find him. Find big bird.” Excuse him, he’s not that great at Morse. But Banner seems to understand him and tells him SHIELD personnel will arrive in less than ten minutes.

All the while, Natasha has been checking up on Steve. He’s healing, already able to stand on his own four legs. Then they check on the downed would-be kidnappers. It’s a formality, of course, because they know they’re all dead. Clint doesn’t look too closely at the vivid gouges in the bodies, and he’s very grateful that he can’t smell anything in this form. He imagines it must be reeking of blood, and by the way both Rogers and Natasha are wrinkling their snouts, something worse. He gets his answer when Natasha pauses by a body, and a closer look shows him the upper half is partially burned. Ugh. He hates the smell of charred bodies.

What is worse than any smell, though, is that this means the raven monster Stark turned into was either burning hot or could control and heighten its body temperature at will, which makes an already dangerous being even more lethal. It could burn things, for god’s sake!

Clint really hopes that Stark is getting back to his human form as soon as possible. He doesn’t want to think about the rampage that the raven could be going on right now.

He hopes the raven can turn back into Stark, because if not… SHIELD won’t hesitate. Even a superhero billionaire can’t go scot-free if he turns into a rampaging monster. Banner had almost been killed for being the Hulk, and Stark would likely get killed.

 


 

Approximately forty minutes after Tony came back to himself, he hears the tell-tale roaring of several quinjets. It only takes a minute before three quinjets land in a wide circle around him. He doesn’t move, just watches placidly as SHIELD-agents in heavy protective gear swarm around and trap him neatly between them. It’s understandable, of course. He wonders what they’re thinking. Are they waiting for the moment he’ll transform, try to fly his way out of there? He’s under no illusion that the quinjets aren’t ready to fly and take chase at a moment’s notice.

Are they afraid of him? Disgusted by him? Maybe they aren’t even surprised. Maybe they hate him, if Rogers didn’t make it. Maybe they’re just waiting for the kill order. They must have something strong enough to down the Hulk. A sleeping agent? Something to paralyse him?

He should have done something with the sonic taser. Obadiah had used it successfully on him, after all. That should be enough to keep him still long enough to kill him.

Taking out his arc reactor should work.

A figure steps closer, and he’s surprised to see it’s Director Fury himself. The man stops at a safe distance, megaphone in hand:

“Stark, are you in control?”

He needs to shout to be heard, and it’s almost too much effort, but he answers:

“As much as I can be.”

It’s not a lie. He can’t really control when he shifts, but he can try to prevent it.

“We’re taking you into custody until a threat assessment has been made. I know you understand why we’re doing this, so don’t make this harder than it needs to be. Lie down, facing the ground, hands on your head.”

He almost wants to protest, to tell them they should just kill him already, before he shifts again, but he doesn’t really want to die, so he complies, and doesn’t move as a group runs towards him and cuffs him. They wrap a jacket around his waist, and he’s grateful for that, at least.

He doesn’t say a word as they push him towards the biggest quinjet. Fury has an unreadable look on his face, and he can’t see any of the Avengers. His steps falter, the familiar fear and guilt coming up again—What if I killed all of them without even spilling their blood? I wouldn’t be able to smell them then, would I? God, why aren’t they telling me what happened I NEED TO KNOW—but he’s strapped into a chair and sedated before he can ask anyone anything.

 


 

It takes hours before Steve can walk without feeling as if his skin is going to rip itself open again and leave him to bleed out on the floor. He’s surprised the wound closed so fast, to be honest, because the pain had been so bright, so burning when Stark (or whatever he’s turned into, anyway) slashed him, that he’d been convinced it had cut right through him.

Luckily for him, that wasn’t the case. He doubts even he could heal from being torn in two.

SHIELD came for them, letting them fly to the Helicarrier while they dealt with the mangled remains of the enemies. He almost feels sorry for them, killed in such a way. It’s a waste, unnecessary destruction. But it means that the Avengers got out, and Steve can appreciate that. Agents Barton and Romanoff were quiet during the whole flight back, huddled close together, providing each other warmth and comfort. Steve had to cram himself awkwardly in a corner, too tired to stay upright. Everyone kept their distance from him. He can’t blame them, he knows he makes an imposing figure in his shifted form, but he can’t help the jealousy that rises up in him when he thinks back to how close the superspies were to each other.

This is what a team should be like, he thinks.

This is what it was like with the Howling Commandos.

They would flock together after a battle, tend to each other’s wounds. Sometimes one or several of them would shift and lie next to each other, reassuring each other without words.

Steve hasn’t had anyone touch him in a friendly way since the ice, much less while in his shifted form.

He misses it, the companionship and easy camaraderie. It had almost felt like that, with the banter on the communication lines during the fight against the aliens, but the team had never consolidated after it was over. He thinks that with some work, the Avengers could be something good, maybe they could grow closer to each other. If the incident with Stark won’t derail it all.

 

He doesn’t know what to think of what happened. He hasn’t been able to talk about it, of course, since he’s still in his shifted form. He can feel the effects of the drug abating, and he thinks that in another hour or so, he should be able to shift back. If Banner and the other scientists don’t come up with an antidote earlier, of course. But for the moment, he can only replay everything that happened in his mind. He’s only sure of two things: Stark knew what would happen when they injected him, and when he shifted, he lost control completely.

Steve can still feel the weight of the gaze on him. It was completely devoid of any sliver of humanity. There was no recognition, none of the spark that always seemed to glint in Stark’s eyes. If Steve didn’t know better, he’d think Stark had been taken over.

But he does know better, because he heard that Stark has been apprehended, and is awaiting interrogation somewhere in the belly of the Helicarrier. Which means that he is back to his human form.

Steve doesn’t like that Stark is being treated like a criminal. He didn’t choose to shift. But there’s no denying he’s extremely dangerous. It’s eerily similar to the Hulk situation Steve read about when they briefed him on the Avengers project.

SHIELD is a little bit too eager to imprison human beings for Steve’s tastes.

For all he knows, maybe that’s just how the world works these days. Maybe in the 70 years that he was frozen, humanity just stopped caring about human rights in favour of safety and control.

He misses his old life.

 

He doesn’t get the chance to wallow in his self-pity for too long, because that’s when Banner enters with a syringe and a plastic bag. “This should negate the effects of the drug. There are clothes for you in the bag, Fury wants us all in his office in ten.”

Shifting back feels good. He feels less like an anomaly. Of course, being a supersoldier is not exactly inconspicuous, but at least people talk to him that way, and the only ones who avoid him are his enemies. He savours the feeling of having opposable thumbs and normal teeth for a while, then puts clothes on and walks to the Director’s office.

The rest of the team is present already, and they start as soon as he closes the door behind him. Fury’s poker face looks angrier than usual and he turns towards Romanoff first.

“I’m assuming none of you knew of Stark’s little secret? Because if you did, you kept vital information from me, which I don’t need to say is absolutely inadmissible.”

“We didn’t know, sir.” Steve’s firm denial is met with nodding. Romanoff looks almost embarrassed not to have found out, and Steve can understand. He’d be pretty annoyed if he were a spy, too. In fact, he’s already annoyed. Stark shouldn’t have kept such crucial information secret. The team should have been informed and would have acted accordingly. Instead, Stark panicked, then attacked Steve, and he knows the team only avoided utter destruction thanks to Romanoff’s quick thinking.

Steve doesn’t like the fact that he could easily have been dead right next to the goons, killed by his own team-mate on their second mission ever.

Which is not exactly how things are supposed to be.

 

They need to talk with Stark.

 


 

He wakes up, still cuffed, lying on the floor of a cylindrical room.

No, not a room. This is the Hulk-cage Loki was imprisoned in when he was in the Helicarrier. They put you in the strongest cell they have.

Good. He is dangerous.

He sits up, once again very aware of his state of undress, squinting in the lights. Somewhere deep inside, he can feel the fire curling around and getting hotter. He doesn’t like to be restrained, much less contained. He forcefully represses the fire.

There are silhouettes, barely discernible in the shadows around his cell, and he can’t smell or hear anything either through the thick glass.

Huh. Since when do you use smell to detect someone?

Since he’s a monster, apparently.

Focus.

One of the silhouettes walks into the light and he recognises Romanoff. She seems fine, which is such a relief Tony actually lets out a sigh. He’s almost too afraid to ask about the others, but she must see the question in his eyes, because she tells him: “We’re fine. You hurt Cap, but he’s mostly healed. Do you remember anything?”

He’s so relieved to hear the news that the team is okay that he doesn’t realise she asked him a question until she starts talking again:

“You shifted, then killed the enemy when they attacked you. You hurt Rogers when he didn’t show submission fast enough, but after we showed express submissive behaviour, you flew away. From satellite imagery, you flew in a straight line until you were around 100 km from the warehouse. Then you landed and shifted back.”

It’s a perfunctory recap, but it’s enough to let the last of his tension disappear. Well. The last of the additional tension.

Thank god I didn’t go on a killing spree. Thank GOD.

But what happens now?

He stands up, staring past her at the rest of the silhouettes.

“Trust me, I’m very happy that I didn’t mindlessly murder my own team, but what happens now?”

He doesn’t want to play any mind games. He’s too tired for that. If they want him dead, let them tell him already.

Another silhouette walks forwards. It’s the Director himself, leather coat billowing dramatically behind him. The scowl on his face completes the look.

“Now, Stark, you’re going to tell us what the hell happened out there, and then we’ll see if we let you out of there or not.”

Something in him revolts at having to lay out his secrets at the feet of the spy, not knowing who else might be listening in. He can’t tell this to the world. It needs to be a secret. His reputation and standing would take a blow he would never be able to recover from. He can already see the headlines before him: “From raven to monster: Stark’s morbid fate”; “Stark: the proof you can’t escape your destiny”; “From Merchant of Death to murderous beast”. It would be devastating. He can’t—he can’t let the news become public knowledge.

“I’d like to know who exactly I’m telling this.”

One by one, the remaining silhouettes walk forward. Rogers, Barton, Banner, and… Rhodey.

Why is he here? I… what?

It throws Tony for a loop. Why would Rhodey need to be present? Or did he get wind of the news that Tony has been apprehended? How many people know that Tony is currently imprisoned in the Helicarrier? If Rhodey knows, does Pepper too?

Oh god, I’ve lied to them for years—

“Tony! Are you—are you alright?” Rhodey’s standing right on the other side of the glass, peering intently into his eyes, concern and anger warring on his face.

“I came as fast as I can. Now just tell us so that we can figure this out. Okay? I made sure Fury disabled cameras and mics. Nothing will leak out, I promise. Just let me, us, help you. Alright Tones?”

And that is exactly why Tony would die, would kill for Rhodey. He’d kiss him if he could. He doesn’t care if this is just a ploy to make him feel better, some spy manipulation game to make him more compliant, because it works, goddammit. It works, and he needs this, and if he can’t quite convince himself that Rhodey won’t turn his back on him after getting all the details, it doesn’t matter, because at least he came to see Tony.

And Tony really needed a friendly face.

Ok. Fury doesn’t want this to be known either. You and JARVIS can delete any hidden recordings later.

He tries to smile to his rhodeybear, but judging by the worried expression of said bear, he doesn’t quite manage it.

Tony looks past him, to Rogers, who’s standing a bit stiffly but seems alright. He knew from Romanoff’s little speech that he was okay, but it’s still a relief to see him standing on his own. He doesn’t know exactly what he did, but he must have hurt him pretty bad if he bled that much.

You’re stalling, Tony. Get on with it.

So Tony does. He tells them about his shift in Afghanistan, about the fear of shifting again. He tells them he never shifted because he couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t kill everyone on sight. He gives them his theory: the arc reactor changed something in him, and that something translated in him shifting into a raven-like monster when he was forced to. He doesn’t tell them that the shift rises to the surface whenever death is looming too close. He doesn’t tell them about the fear, about the disgust, about the isolation to keep other people safe. He doesn’t tell them about his darkest thoughts about himself, fate, and Death.

Rhodey knows there is something more. And of course he does, he’s known Tony for almost three decades, and he knows better than anyone how Tony feels about being a raven. Worse than a raven, now.

Banner has something like understanding in his eyes.

The others school their faces into emotionless masks, apart from Rogers, who looks stricken.

The silence lasts a while.

Banner is the first to speak up.

“Am I correct in assuming this is something close to the Hulk predicament? You have some control, don’t you? Because the only times you’ve shifted were when you were forced to.”

He’s sharp. I see what you’re doing here, Banner. Putting my shifted form on the same level as the Hulk could save me or doom us both.

“That would be correct, Dr.Banner. I have managed to keep myself from shifting in other situations.”

Now that the cards are on the table, he’s almost curious to see what will happen. If they keep him in this cage, they wouldn’t have any reason not to imprison Banner too. But they know trying to subdue the Hulk is nigh impossible. Which means they’re going to have to let Tony go. But Fury won’t let that happen without a failsafe. He’s got power over Tony, now. And it’s too good of a blackmail opportunity to let go. So what will Fury’s terms be?

Romanoff seems to have come to the same conclusion as Tony, because she shoots Fury a quick glance. He just stares right at Tony, likely trying to make him squirm in place. The image of a sparrow trying to stare down an eagle pops up in Tony’s mind, and he can’t resist a slight smirk. He hasn’t tested how much exactly he can withstand in his new shifted form, but his guess is that he’s a lot more difficult to kill now that he’s half-monster. Fury can posture all he wants, but in the end, it’s just posturing.

Show him, the part he keeps deep inside of him whispers. Show him how powerful you are, how powerful you have become.

He ignores it.

“You’re going to agree to routine SHIELD tests and check-ups regarding your condition. You’re to keep living in the tower with the other Avengers. You’re going to train and master your shifted form. Another incident like that, and I will authorize my agents to use any means necessary to stop you. Are we clear?”

In other words: Control yourself, or I won’t hesitate to get you killed. Oh, and, we’re going to experiment on you in the name of “science”.

He’s tempted to say no, just to see what happens.

He doesn’t.

 


 

After he’s been poked and prodded by SHIELD scientists for the better part of a day, Rhodey whisks him away to Malibu, where they meet the very agitated Pepper and Happy. The ensuing conversation is painful for all parts. It’s heart-breaking to see the surprise and betrayal on their faces. He is more honest with them than with the Avengers, however. He tells them he wanted to keep them safe. From himself goes unsaid. He admits that his “sabbatical” was related to his shifting problem and accidentally lets it slip that he was dying at the time, which launches them into a whole different kind of outrage.

It takes hours, but after trying to explain himself and telling them as much as he can, they’re a bit mollified. They’re not happy about Fury’s terms, but Tony can always try to make a different deal. For now, he’s free, and that’s most important.

Tony leaves the place with a heart lighter than it has been in years.

 


 

The atmosphere is still very stilted at the tower. No one is quite sure where they stand. Their last mission was a disaster, and they’re all unsure as to how they’re going to continue.

Their tiptoeing around each other lasts until Fury sends them an email threatening to lock them up in a room until they start talking to each other. Tony doesn’t like the fact that Fury knows what’s happening in his tower. He suspects the spies are reporting back to him, but he makes JARVIS make a bug-sweep anyways.

So Tony walks into Banner’s lab and starts an argument about gamma radiation and its characteristics in space. They argue, and rope in JARVIS to make calculations and simulations, and what started as a purely theoretical problem evolves into something else entirely. They spend the whole night experimenting and talking and at one point they realise they both can’t remember why bremsstrahlung is relevant to the discussion, so they decide to call it a night. When Tony stumbles into bed, it’s 3 am.

It starts with a talk with Banner (“please call me Bruce.” “Then call me Tony. I hate it when people call me Dr. Stark anyways. Sounds too German.”) and it evolves into a weekly meetup to research and experiment together. Or, playtime, as Tony dubbed it.

Bruce is as sharp as Tony expected, and even smarter. He’s a genius, no contest about it, and Tony revels in being able to speak with someone on the same wavelength as him. There is a quiet aura around him, that stays even when he’s engrossed in his latest invention.

There’s the Hulk, too. They haven’t talked about any of that yet, but it’s comforting to know that he isn’t the only one with something monstrous inside of him. It’s visible in each of Bruce’s movements, the quiet and calm that is too measured to be anything but forced.

The fire inside of Tony calms, just a little, when he’s with Bruce. He thinks that might be trust.

 


 

He’s killing all of them. Ripping them into shreds, burning their flesh. Pepper, Happy, Rhodey, all fall before him, pleading with him to stop even as his claws sink into their skin. He turns to the Avengers next, intent on making them disappear too. They’re between him and the flames, and he longs to be a part of them. He longs for the bright fire he saw in space. The captain tries to stop him with ice, but he burns through it and the star on the chest melts away, revealing human skin and blood and bones and the man’s screaming and trying to escape but it’s too late—

Tony wakes up breathing hard and feeling hot all over. His hands are trembling. There is a dark feather on his pillow. He gets up and walks around, trying to forget the nightmare. He wanders around the common floors, not sure of what he’s doing there, but he won’t be sleeping again tonight. He walks and walks, and finds himself in the kitchen, where Bruce is sitting, sipping tea and staring unseeingly through the window. He nods at Tony when he sees him, and Tony nods back, makes a cup of coffee, and sits next to him. They don’t talk for a long while.

In the end, it’s Bruce that breaks the silence.

“I dream of it, of killing everyone and not realising what I’ve done until I wake up. Every time the Hulk gets out, I think: ‘this is it. This is the time you won’t be able to control yourself. This is the time you’ll wake up to see they’re all dead. And you will have done nothing to stop it.’… I don’t understand how or why I’m on this team of—of superheroes when I’m just a loose cannon, a tragedy waiting to happen. And you. You never doubted me, nor the Hulk, for a moment. When we fought together in the streets, minutes after I’d almost killed Romanoff and battled Thor, you welcomed me with open arms. And I know that they were all afraid of me, the humans on the team. But they thought I was more of an asset than a liability, and they accepted me as a part of the team. They fought with the Hulk, and he fought with them. But you, you understood me better than the others. You weren’t afraid, because you have your own Hulk. And knowing how dangerous, how unpredictable, that makes us, you still decided to trust me. You’re the only one I know who has ever had anything positive to say about him. And the Hulk likes you too. He wouldn’t have saved you otherwise.”

Tony can’t speak through the sudden dryness of his throat.

“I know how you feel about yourself, because it’s very close to what I feel. I won’t tell you to stop feeling the way you do, because that would only make me a hypocrite. But if there are people that genuinely like you, people who want you to be in their lives, why would you cut yourself off? You told me maybe I’m still alive for a reason. So what’s your reason? Why didn’t you die in Afghanistan?”

Bruce is still looking out of the window, still as quiet and measured, but the rage that simmers underneath his skin is stronger now. Tony can feel it, can feel his own fire rise to meet it.

“We’re both monsters. But that doesn’t mean we have to be killers.”

Their eyes lock, and Tony knows he isn’t imagining the green tinge in Bruce’s irises. He thinks his own eyes must be filled by darkness, but is surprised when he gets a glimpse of his reflection. His eyes aren’t black or darker than usual. No, they’re an electric blue, almost glowing in the dim light. It scares him more than he’d like to admit.

“Do you remember anything? When you hulk out?” He can’t help but blurt out.

“I didn’t, in the beginning. Now I remember all of it. I’m even present while he’s awake. I can see what happens. Maybe someday we’ll be able to communicate, that would be great. But it’s hard, it’s like being a passenger in your own body, or like there is a second consciousness that is so different from yourself you want to shrink back from it and turn away. But you—I—can’t. He’s part of me. It took me a while to admit it, much less accept. Now I try to talk to him. It takes time. Meditating helps a lot, actually. I think it would do you some good too.”

 

Three is a wedding

 

Bruce knows Tony all too well already, it’s frightening.

(it isn’t, not really. Tony is just grateful to have made a friend he won’t be able to hurt.)

 


 

He knows the spies and Rogers have been spending time together, mainly during workouts and sparring. And if they can connect while punching each other, good for them. Tony doesn’t want that, he can train on his own or with a personal trainer, thank you very much. But the Avengers need a real team cohesion, so Tony approaches Barton one day while he’s practising archery. It feels safest. There is still the occasional surge of anger when he thinks of Romanoff, and how she almost infiltrated his company, and he isn’t really on the best of terms with Rogers. Between their disastrous first conversation on the Helicarrier and the fact that Tony almost killed him, they aren’t really talking. Which Tony knows he’ll need to change, but he doesn’t want to do it just yet. So he approaches Barton, with whom he has no grievance.

“So. A Hawk, huh?”

Barton huffs, still shooting arrow after arrow and hitting bullseye in every target.

“Believe it or not, I was 9 and needed to come up with a cool stage-name in the circus I had joined. So, of course, I decided that my codename was going to be Hawkeye. Not my fault it stuck. Also, it’s pretty accurate.”

Huh.

“Are you telling me your eyesight is that good? Is that why you never miss?”

“A magician never reveals his secrets.” And is that a grin? That Barton guy is not half-bad, actually.

“Oh, I see. Speaking of magic, want to see a cool trick?” Tony pushes a button in a panel on the wall, and the targets get swapped for moving ones instead. It had taken Tony quite some time to get the algorithms right, but the end result is pretty great. Barton is suitably impressed, at least. He turns towards Tony, abandoning his shooting.

“That wasn’t an option three days ago.”

“A lot can change in three days.”

Barton looks at him, his gaze piercing, and Tony understands what it feels like to be watched by a bird of prey.

“I guess you would know.”

This is straying into dangerous territory.

“Sure. My brain moves so fast that even I have trouble keeping up with it sometimes. Anyways, my time is limited, important stuff to do, gotta go.”

Great, Tony. That will surely convince him you’re not the asshole everyone thinks you are.

It’s only when he’s back in his workshop that he asks himself why he cares what Barton thinks of him.

What happened to keeping everyone at arm’s length?

 


 

They’re in the lab, working on genetically modified apples and how to make them able to grow in extreme weather conditions, when Tony asks something that has been on his mind for quite some time.

“What kind of animal were you hoping to shift into?”

It’s a brutal question, tactless and out of the blue. But Tony knows (hopes) that Bruce won’t take it the wrong way.

He hums, finishing his line of coding before glancing at Tony.

“My theory was that I’d turn into the animal that matched me the most personality-wise. I didn’t really know what to expect, although I think I wanted it to be a dog. Maybe a Pitbull? I tried to avoid hoping for a specific animal, as I thought I wouldn’t have the choice. In the end, it’s a bit of a moot point, since I didn’t shift into an animal at all.

Or maybe the Hulk is my shift. Could be I really am that ugly inside.”

This is something that Tony admires in Bruce. He can be so vulnerable, so open to Tony, for seemingly no reason at all. He just decided to trust Tony. And Tony tries to be worthy of that trust. For every piece Bruce shows him, Tony gives a bit of himself in return.

“If I could choose, I don’t know if I would want to be a shifter. It’s—It’s like a cage around me, of expectations and stereotypes that people have of me, just because of the damn animal I turn into. And the worst is that I can’t be sure they aren’t right. I look around myself, and I see death, and destruction, and war, everything that a raven stands for. And I try to make it better, to act like a hero, but I’m even more monstrous than before, and I—I—I feel like I can’t escape it.”

“I guess the popular two-bit psychologist bullshit theory of your shifted form being your “true self” isn’t really the thing we want to hear, is it?”

Heh. The embodiment of death and ill omens and a mindless green rage monster? Not really what they want to be.

“You can say that, Tony. I prefer the theory that our shifted form is an aspect of our personality, that it reflects a part of us, instead of our whole being. It’s a more nuanced approach. I had some time to explore that when I was in hiding. It’s interesting to see how the same animal can have vastly different imagery tied to it, depending on the culture. Or even within the same culture. Did you know that in the Tlingit culture, there are two distinct raven characters? One is the trickster, selfish and sly. The other is a creator. He’s said to be responsible for bringing the world into being and is sometimes considered to be the individual who brought light to the darkness. In Haida mythology, the raven is seen as the trickster and the creator, the provider of mankind.”

By the way Bruce is so carefully casual about it, Tony knows that he hasn’t picked that particular example by accident. But even then, it makes him feel better. Of course, he knew there were other mythologies and meanings associated to ravens than death and destruction, but he’s never really bothered to read further. He wishes he had, now.

“Thanks, Bruce.” And that’s the end of the conversation.

 

Bruce’s words make him think of Yinsen, who told him to choose the meaning of his shifted form.

 


 

One month after Tony’s shifting, he’s once again wandering around the tower, fleeing from his mind, when he stumbles across Barton, reclining on the sofa, watching a second-rate action movie. His eyes are a little too vacant, his frame a little too tense, but Tony doesn’t bring it up. There is only one reason they are both awake at this hour, after all. Instead, he sits down next to him, and watches the movie with him.

One and a half movie later, Romanoff slides in, silent as a shadow, and perches herself on the armrest next to Barton.

Slowly but surely, the night creeps by, with Rogers and Bruce joining them in the early morning hours.

Around 7 o’clock, it strikes Tony that this is the first time the whole team (sans Thor) has spent time together outside of missions.

They should do this more often, watching movies in companionable silence. Preferably when they aren’t still haunted by their nightmares.

“We should do this again,” Tony surprises himself by saying, ”What do you say, weekly movie night ?”

The quiet murmurs of agreement are almost as surprised as he feels.

Next week, they find themselves in front of the television again, this time at a more human time, with popcorn and snacks.

The week after that, they’re still all there, and the week after, and the one after that too.

 

Four is a birth.

 


 

Romanoff is running alongisde Tony, her evening dress not hindering her movements in the slightest, and Tony is jealous, already planning to design a combat-fit tux when they get out of this disaster of a gala. It’s a hostage situation, with the villains of the week barricading themselves with the panicked upper echelon of society that attended the charity event. Tony and Romanoff were supposed to be the face of the Avengers, supposed to schmooze and get people to donate for a good cause. Instead, they’re running for their lives, trying to dodge the bullets flying over their heads.

They manage to slip into an empty room, barricading themselves with an armchair and scouting the room for anything that could be used as a weapon.

There are two rapiers crossed over the extravagant fireplace. Tony doesn’t think, he just jumps forward and takes one of them, not even surprised when Romanoff takes the other.

She quirks an eyebrow at him, taking in his fencing stance.

He huffs a reply: “I was a rich kid with a competitive streak, what did you expect?”

She shrugs, fair enough.

 

Between Romanoff’s incredible skills and Tony’s quick fighting style, they defeat the three villains that thought barging in through the door would be a good idea. The remains of the door are a good shield against bullets, and Tony realises they’re fighting like knights against goons with firearms and winning.

Tony almost wishes his old teacher could see him now, disregarding etiquette blatantly, hitting his adversaries in the face and legs, even slicing instead of only thrusting.

Although he supposes the teacher would only have eyes for Romanoff, who is combining frightening ninja techniques with more classical fencing moves. She kills and incapacitates in a gracious dance, moving to a beat heard only by herself. Tony thinks he recognises ballet moves, mixed with several martial arts and other techniques he’s never seen before.

She’s stunning.

.

After what feels like hours, reinforcements have arrived, and Tony can finally remove his aching feet from his narrow shoes. He watches Romanoff as she takes off her heels, wincing slightly at the bloody ankles and toes.

“Why didn’t you take these off earlier? It can’t have been easy, fighting in them.”

“I know how to fight in heels. Besides, these heels are special.” She shows him then, the tiny needles jutting out. It’s a paralyzing substance, Tony realises. Brilliant.

“That’s amazing. But SHIELD could give you shoes that are more comfortable, couldn’t they? No, no, forget it, just let me take a look at those. I’ll design some better shoes for you, I’m sure Pepper would appreciate them as well.”

Her sharp intake of breath makes him realise what he just said.

I offered to build her better equipment.

It doesn’t feel him with the same guilt as the other times he wanted to create and build stuff for the Avengers. They’ve seen him at his worst, and yet he’s still part of them. Surely that means that they’ll accept to use things he built.

Besides, ravens are also considered as creators. And what is Tony if not someone who creates, who invents, who builds and makes?

 


 

They’re sitting in a bar somewhere downtown, just Clint and Tony, drinking beer and talking about nothing and anything. It’s been a slow week, and they both needed to do something, to get out of the tower for a while, so they decided going out and drinking would have to do.

It’s not bad, actually. And after a few beers, their tongues have loosened enough to broach a subject Tony usually doesn’t talk about. Namely, flying. He supposes it’s inevitable they talked about it, since they’re both bird shifters. And flying is one thing almost all bird shifters agree on: it’s amazing.

“Do you miss it? Flying?” Clint asks him, toying with a napkin.

“Very much.” Tony finds himself answering truthfully.

“I know, you’re going to say I can still fly in the armour, but you know nothing can compare to flying on your own, having the wind in your feathers, feeling the strain in your muscles. Even the view is different. I’m—I’m closer to everything when I’m a bird, there isn’t a metal suit cutting me off from the sky.”

“Yeah. I used to fly all the time when I was a kid. Still do, now, but less. It’s actually mandatory for us SHIELD agents to shift at least an hour a week, something about maximum performance and mental stability, which, well. I could use. I usually drive off to the nearest forest and fly around. Sometimes with other agents, sometimes alone. You could come with us, if you want. I know you can’t…you know, but maybe you’d like some company flying in the suit.”

It’s a very kind offer. Maybe Tony will even take him up on it. But not this month. Or the next. It’s still too painful, after all these years, to see other bird shifters. He can’t help but see everything he’s missing, everything he’s lost.

 


 

Tony can’t believe it. Somehow, somehow, he managed to get stuck in an elevator with Captain America of all people. In the Helicarrier no less! He’d complain about sub-par SHIELD facilities, but something tells him this particular situation isn’t an accident. He’s seen the looks Natasha and Clint shot Rogers and himself when they walked out of the meeting.

He shouldn’t have mentioned his tentative intention of talking things out with Rogers to Clint.

SHIELD support tells them they’re terribly sorry, but that the malfunction can’t be fixed remotely, that they need a team of experts, that it could take up to two hours, sorry, we’ll do our best, toodeloo!

 

After fifteen minutes of awkward silence, Tony tells himself to quit being ridiculous, and swallows his pride.

“You know, it occurred to me that I never really apologised for what I said on the Helicarrier. I don’t think you’re…outdated, or a fossil, or anything. On the contrary. When I was a child, I was obsessed with palaeontology, so imagine how elated I was when I learned you were a Machairodus Kabir. I couldn’t believe it. Captain America, a prehistoric feline? It was a dream come true.”

Rogers has a look of surprise on his face, and is that…sheepiness?

“I’m sorry for what I said, too. It was very rude of me to insinuate you weren’t a hero just because you were born a raven shifter. If anything, you proved me wrong when you flew the nuke into the portal.”

Tony stamps down the urge to smile giddily.

“It’s all water under the bridge. Plus, the Loki staff influenced us. Now that I think of it, we haven’t had a real first meeting, have we? Allow me to introduce myself: Tony Stark, genius billionaire and part-time superhero. Please call me Tony.”

He holds out his hand with a smile, a clear peace-offering. Rogers takes it.

“Steve Rogers, a boy from Brooklyn, occasionally Captain America. Pleased to meet you. And please call me Steve, Tony.”

Something inside Tony loosens at that. This is good. They might even become friends.

“While we’re at it, I’m also, uh, very sorry for hurting you when I…shifted.”

“I don’t hold it against you. You were scared, and stressed, and saw me as a threat. Besides, you didn’t attack us after that.”

Tony stares at Steve.

He can’t mean that, can he?

Steve stares back at him, brows furrowing.

“I mean, when it happened, I was confused and hurt, but then I realised I had been aggressive towards you, and you just reacted. You told us yourself you weren’t in control, which means we should see your shifted form as a wild animal. In your case, a predator. Of course you would attack someone showing hostility. It’s just like the Hulk. If you look closely at the fights between the Hulk and the military, you see how he only attacks them after they’ve started firing. And he’s never hurt civilians intentionally. You just need to learn to be more in control, and this kind of situation won’t have to happen again.”

When he says it like that, it seems so simple. Tony wants to believe him.

He wants to—he doesn’t want to repress his shift.

 

.

 

Two hours later, they’re still talking, and Tony realises Steve and him may have more things in common than he originally thought.

“When I knew you were alive, after almost seventy years in the ice, I immediately thought of your shifted form. Seems fitting, that an animal from the ice-age survives such a thing and joins us. I think you’re the only known shifter with a prehistoric shift.”

Tony knows it, actually. He’s scoured every single registry. Steve being a sabre-tooth isn’t just a lucky coincidence, Tony is sure of it.

“It’s strange. I always thought I was a cat, and when I got the serum, and turned into this beast, I was so surprised. I never really thought of why, but when I knew I was going to—to crash into the ice, I thought of that too. Thought it’d be a fitting end. In the end, I didn’t die. But I could just as well have ended up like one of those mammoths they’ve found in Siberia. Did you know about that? I read it in the papers about a week after waking up, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Couldn’t stop thinking about meanings behind shifters. Couldn’t stop thinking about fate.”

A silence.

“I’ve had my fair share of thinking of fate. Before and after Afghanistan. It always seemed to pursue me, to force me into a mould I didn’t want. When I came back from Afghanistan, turned into this—this new thing, I thought a lot about it. About what it meant. Why my shifted form changed, while it shouldn’t have been possible. But it happened to you, too. Do you think you really were a common cat before the serum? Or that you’ve always been a sabre-tooth tiger, just not fully developed yet?”

And what would that mean for Tony? Has he always been a monstrosity, just waiting for the right moment to reveal itself?

 

.

 

Four hours in, and they’re still in the elevator. They’re still chatting away, about their childhood, comparing times, comparing their lives.

“I’ve always loved Greek mythology. I could spend hours, when I was lying in bed with a cold or some other sickness, reading all about their gods and their myths. My mother always asked all our neighbours if they had any book on ancient Greece lying around. I must have read dozens of them, over and over again.”

He eyes Tony, then.

“Each god has their sacred animals, and I used to regret not being an owl, because Athena was my favourite amongst the Greek deity. No god had a cat as sacred animal, of course. None have a saber-tooth tiger either. But there is a god with a raven. Apollo, the god of prophecy. I felt it fitting, when I first saw you.”

Tony hears the hidden meaning. It is kind of fitting, in its own twisted way. Steve, the man out of time, is a prehistoric animal. Tony, followed by death and destruction, but self-proclaimed futurist, is a prophetic bird.

 


 

Three months after the shifting incident, Tony wakes up to a raging thunderstorm. He’s barely out of his bed, half-heartedly asking JARVIS about how the tower’s lightning rods are holding up, when Thor appears on his landing pad in a flash of colourful light.

Half an hour later, the team is gathered, listening to Thor clamouring about his brother’s imprisonment, the time he spent on Asgard, his “lovely lady Jane”, and how happy he is to be a part of this team of fine warriors and mighty mortals.

 

Tony smiles along and realises this was what the team needed to be complete.

 


 

“How are things with the Hulk?”

“It’s good, Tony. We talk, sometimes. He really liked petting the tigers from the zoo.”

“Do you… do you have any, uh, tips for communicating with your other self?”

“Why don’t you join me on my next meditation and yoga session?”

“Sure! Sure. Yeah. Thanks.”

 


 

Tony is standing in a field, far removed from any kind of civilisation, the Avengers standing in a circle around him, armoured up and ready. There are SHIELD quinjets hovering just out of sight, but Tony doesn’t mind. He isn’t doing this for SHIELD.

 

For the first time since he became something else, he reaches inside of him, reaches until he feels the fire, and lets it take over. He resolutely doesn’t think of anything as the shift rises to the surface, enveloping him in darkness.

He has to trust his team.


The shift is much smoother than last time, and Natasha is grateful for that. Tony doesn’t scream, doesn’t contort himself in pain. Instead, he looks up, and grows smoothly until he’s the same ink-black beast as the last time they saw him like that.

There is a moment of tension as Tony ruffles his feathers, flaps his wings in three powerful strokes, then settles.

He’s as impressive as last time, but she can’t feel the same cruelty emanating from him. Instead, he seems content, almost at peace. She lets herself hope that maybe Tony is conscious, but when an electric eye settles on her, she knows he’s not in control. But he’s calm, at least.

She looks down anyways, not wanting to risk showing hostility.

The same process happens with each Avenger in turn. Tony looks at them curiously, croaking softly, no sign of hostility, and the Avengers make sure they show deference. Thor in particular strikes Natasha’s attention. He gets down on one knee and mutters something, to quiet to hear, but raven-Tony seems to hear it and even acknowledge it, if that is indeed why he gurgles.

Thor knows something more. She makes a mental note to ask him about this later.

When they’re done with the greeting, they start following courses of action they had decided on beforehand. Talking to Tony, watching closely for any type of reaction, training around him, even touching him. Assessing how much they can do before he feels threatened or irritated.

He’s surprisingly serene, all things considered. He doesn’t seem bothered when they spar around him, they can even touch him briefly. Petting his feathers is okay, but putting anything on his back ends with him shrugging everything off. The area around his arc-reactor is off-limits too, as Clint discovered when he tried to get a closer look and found himself pinned under a very sharp claw during a few tense seconds.

The most important is that there is no ill-intent, which is comforting.

Natasha knows Fury will be happy.

She’s happy too, but for different reasons. She’s grown fond of Tony, and she knows it’ll be an immense relief for him.

Now to the next part.

They haven’t really been able to communicate in words with Tony, but they hope that if they shift, they can use other languages.

One by one, they shift, Thor retreating to a distance. Tony watches intently and turns towards Steve first, looming closer. Steve doesn’t move. Natasha has half a mind to tell him to show his belly but stops when she sees that Tony lowers his head to the ground, feathers smooth.

He’s showing signs of submission. This is very good. He’s trusting Steve!

Steve recognises it as well, because he inclines his own head, and Tony crows happily.

The same dance happens with Natasha and Clint.

With the Hulk, it’s different. They stare into each other’s eyes for a long while, then Tony crows and the Hulk grunts. As if on cue, Tony grows and grows and grows until he’s 40 meters high, then he jumps in the air with a powerful thrust and flies a lazy circle in the air. She can’t help but notice that the red and gold feathers of last time are nowhere to be seen. On the contrary, Tony is so dark that he could be mistaken for a gigantic shadow. It’s breath-taking, watching such an immense being flying around. Tony flies towards one of the quinjets, almost hovering while he examines it. Natasha is glad she’s not in it. She would feel very small, faced with a being the size of Tony. When he’s done with his examination, he flies back to the Hulk, then decreases in size until he’s roughly the same height as the Hulk.

So our theory was correct. He can decrease in size as well. How small can he become? And how tall?

Tony starts to pick at the Hulk’s shoulder then, hopping around the Hulk and crowing softly. The Hulk bats his beak away, then roars and jumps into the air. Tony follows him.

It takes longer than Natasha would like to admit for her to realise that they are playing.

 


 

“Friend Tony, what brings you to my chamber at this late hour?”

“I’ve been getting back memories from when I shifted with the team, and when I looked at you, you said something, something Nordic?”

“I called you eldfågel, yes. Bird of fire, I believe is the literal translation.”

“…”

“You are a truly unique individual, Tony Stark. It’s remarkable that during all my years being alive, a being such as yourself would manifest now. I am honoured to be a part of your team, and I must thank you for going easy on my brother during the Battle of the Chitauri.”

“…Going easy? Thor, what do you mean by going easy—”

Did I tell you about my father, Odin? He’s got two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, that serve as his eyes and ears. They fly over the lands of Midgard and bring back information to the all-father. Do you know the translation for Huginn and Muninn? It means thought and memory.”

“Thor, would you please—”

“You do not seem to have all your memories, nor your thoughts, Tony. I will let you find out in time.”

“What—”

“You’re a raven and an eldfågel. Fascinating things will happen in this lifetime, I’m sure of that. Now, I’m going to see my fair lady Jane. ‘Til we meet again, brother in arms!”

“Thor, wait!..... Damn it.”

 


 

It has been months since Tony first shifted into his beast raven form (Clint tried to dub it “Bulk”, for Bird Hulk, but stopped very quickly when Tony and Bruce glared at him), and he’s made slow but steady progress, with the help of Bruce and the other Avengers. He’s been lucid and conscious a couple of times now, but never during the whole time he was shifted. This time, Tony hopes it’ll be different.

He’s in the penthouse, Rhodey and Pepper already shifted, waiting for him to shift. He takes a deep breath, and lets the fire consume him.

The world warps before him, taking on a blue tinge, details sharper and smells muted. He can feel the slight breeze coming from the open window, caressing his feathers. He is warm, and calm, and a bit too big for what they had in mind. So he concentrates, and slowly shrinks until he’s a little bit bigger than Rhodey, who is huffing and grunting excitedly. Pepper is more cautious, pacing around the kitchen, her tail flicking back and forth.

Tony crows, in the short four-note melody he used to sing when he was in MIT, just to annoy Rhodey. It comes out an octave too low, but it’s worth seeing Rhodey roar in approvement.

He did it.

He’s in control of his shift.

He knows his control isn’t absolute, and they haven’t been in combat situation yet, and he hasn’t managed to control his body temperature, but he’s conscious. He knows what he’s doing, he understands what is happening, and he controls his actions.

It’s better than he could ever have dreamed.

He lowers himself to the floor, letting his wings spread a little over the wood. Soon enough, Pepper slides under one of them, curling into a small ball of warmth next to his chest. Rhodey lays down under the other, and Tony revels in the feeling of having them close to him, warm and safe and happy.

 

Eleven is for love

 


 

Tony is the size of a human, but he’s got wings, and he’s soaring through the night sky. Next to him, a familiar falcon is keeping up, occasionally diving down in a free-fall. He crows loudly into the night, the answering screech resounding in the silence.

They fly, and play, and dance in the sky, and Tony feels the wind on his feathers and the sky in his bones, and he dares to feel joy.

He thinks of his mother, of his father, of Jarvis, of Yinsen, of all the people that were in his life but aren’t anymore, and he knows they’re alright.

He thinks of Bruce, of Clint, of Natasha, of Steve, of Thor, his fellow Avengers, reliable and caring and courageous and kind.

He thinks he can create a better future with them by his side.

No, he knows.

 

Twelve - joy for tomorrow.