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These are the Things that Make Us

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Falling doesn’t hurt until you hit the sky

Virginia Potts starts in Chicago, breathing in smoke and dust and ground locked dreams. Her hair is a halo burning up under the fluorescent lights and her father says it’s a family thing even though his hair is as blond as the snow in the air.

The power goes out from medical bills that took too much money. Winter’s already there and her brother starts coughing and doesn’t stop. She’s desperate, so she pulls on the heat baked in her bones to make a fire on her fingertips and that’s gets him to smile. The power stays off and her brother dies later, anyways, but that’s a car on a rainy night and between eight and eleven they’re never cold.

(She’s never been able to get cold, fire always burning in her bloodstream, but now she can make people feel it)

She sells cigarettes and sex and alcohol nights and makes her way through school until it doesn’t matter, because her mother walked away with her brother, and her father slips and slips and slips and slips until he’s nothing but a burned out husk holding a heartbeat. Chicago gets left behind with its dreams and she pulls new ones from gasoline and crowded buses, these one’s born on asphalt that stretches into a forever. They’re smaller than the ones that lit Chicago’s streets but what does that matter?

Smaller is better than dead.

It’s a party and past midnight, where she burns fingers that have ears that can’t hear no and meets a boy who's drunk, and high, so high. He’s wearing sunglasses and it’s a smoky room, half the lights burned out. For a reason, he asks her if she smokes and the answer is no, she hates the taste (other people say they don’t like having to carry a lighter but its not like she’s ever needed one). That makes him laugh for no reason at all.

They leave together; Virginia’s 18 and he’s something younger, she thinks, so she doesn’t do anything but give him a couch to fall to pieces on. Its something like hurt to watch him sleep and try to not think how addicted he is (she sold everything under the sun and that’s a thing that happens, living needs money, but she’s only tasted the product once and that was enough).

Somehow, he keeps the glasses on.

When she lights her candles in the morning, it’s a shock to find he’s awake and that he doesn’t care. They leave San Francisco together (can’t say why, looking back) and New York’s on fire with flames brighter than her heart. It’s love at first sight.

They both hit the wrong side of the law, but Pepper’s been there before so it doesn’t give her anything more than a twinge and this time she’s got dreams that fit the city. This isn’t Chicago with its rusty ceilings and she follows the glass and the steel to the sky.

Somewhere, she found wings that fit.

Maybe she just got around to building her own.

Her life is drinking on roofs, close enough to brush a hand to the embers in the sky, selling again everything but sex because she’s allowed to choose now, and a family with heat that never goes out, who will never walk away. Selling lasts until she gets noticed, than she’s moved to offices with expensive clothes and plastic smiles, everyone’s a liar and there’s a thrill, buried brightly under her skin.

He turns into her little shadow, and there’s whispers with no foundation about her, and him, and them that makes her want to laugh. Instead, he’s the one who hunts them down like a good, gleaming wolf, and he spills the gasoline like a gift. Pepper throws the spark.

She’s still climbing, high, and higher, and she watches the Boss every time he’s turned around.

29 shouldn’t be old enough but now New York’s got a throne just the right size and she’s Queen to a mob of monsters. He smiles from the corner, flames dancing in his glasses from her cigarette that she’s smoking just to say remember that?- and it’s a good thing to remember.

Circuits can burn if you twist them right

Anthony Stark is born quiet but than it’s only a minute before he starts to never, ever stop. He can talk with his hands long before he can make a word; hands and eyes and ears and nose, he loves them all but his hands let him spill some of the universe out of his brain.

Let him talk before he could speak and they let him build, twisting wires, shaping iron and taming the fire of a torch. They’re how he touches the world and how he shapes it (he learns, though, to keep his hands to himself, people-parents- don’t like it when you go to hold them down). Circuitry traces under his fingers, electricity chained to wire, fire, smoke, burn scars and metal cuts and he works in the shadow of his father until he warrants his own space (6 and he’s been begging since he was 5).

Anthony realizes at four he’s a genius (brilliant, wonderful, intelligent, better than you).

Tony realizes at seven its not enough (inadequate, less than, insufficient, laughable).

Howard (furious, miserable, bitter, Daddy-Dad-Father-Howard, disappointed) doesn’t want him because he can’t hear the metal and he can’t understand. Why is that important? I’m your son, he wants to scream, metal does whatever I want it to, why does it need to talk too? Math already does.

(and the math is so much more than anything else can be)

The words drown somewhere in the brandy of his father’s glass.

At eight, two weeks after seven, he is missing, lacking, wanting, deficient, and he stops caring.

(The numbers get louder and bigger and he’s always seen them, his vision has always been variables, overlaid with the Laws, and graph lines, and the computers are so slow, they can’t keep up, so he builds them better and there’s pressure building in his head, everything gets brighter, everything getting closer.

The world scrambles into snow.)
Eleven and his mother screams when she looks him in the eyes, passes out cold. That hurts, because she was the only one he thought he could tell, but he turns it off and screams for help. She wakes up, thinks it was all a dream. Laughs later when she tells him at bedtime instead of a story, apologizes with a smile for scaring him. He doesn’t correct her, though something dies when he buries his eyes in her shoulder so she can’t see it when he turns back on.

Sunglasses become his new thing, to hide his eyes and the numbers buried inside. Mother disapproves, says you have such lovely eyes, baby, don’t hide them. Howard doesn’t notice and the paparazzi adore it, him trying so hard to be so grown up.

Howard leaves the company. New York for Malibu as headlines scream and Maria shouts. He thinks it has something to do with the metal he never learned to hear but he likes his numbers better so he doesn’t ever ask.

They die in a car crash and Anthony Stark (dead since seven) disappears from everywhere even as the headlines speculate about his future. Tony can be found where ever it isn’t Malibu. He gets high and sex is better than remembering and the alcohol’s better than the sex (no way he’s even legal in this state, not drinking, drugs or sex) and no one thinks to ask his name. Drugs are the best because they explode behind his eyelids and take him straight out of the world, straight out of the blood and bone that pins him down. He can’t have sex without the drugs because he can’t turn the numbers off otherwise, and they always insist on looking him in the eye.

It’s pathetic (pitiful, wretched, disgusting, broken) he knows it but, fuck, he’s always been a disappointment, why stop now?

(He’s still a genius but that doesn’t matter to him anymore).

The world’s pouring in and drowning him.

A redhead and a couch and 75% chance of sex but she doesn’t make a move so somehow he got the equation wrong. Spins the variables but nothing fits. Instead he asks her if she’s ever been to New York. Time will let him get it right, he thinks, so that the numbers match what she does.

(That takes three years and it feels a little like a piece of him snapped when she finally falls into line, because there was a hope she wouldn’t have)

There’s a mob in New York, I knew your father, and he smiles when they ask him to.

He kills the old Boss who was like a Howard who cared, but now Tony knows he hadn’t really, and that’s life, isn’t it.

He refuses the mob because what would he do with it? Screw it over, burn the homes, break the banks, he can’t anything. Ruin’s the only thing he could ever make to last.

He looks to his Queen instead (there’s an equation for her, finally, but that’s a little okay because he hasn’t run a number yet that has her leaving

-but there’s a lot of numbers in the world-

and he’ll stay as long as she takes him), smiles, and he’s always been a little bit ridiculous.

“The King is dead. Long live the Queen!”

He grins when she lights the cigarette.

Dreams seen in the report of a gun.

James Rhodes sees his first face in in the tail end of Philadelphia and grins toothlessly into the lens of a video camera.

His farther dies in an ambush in a country he doesn’t know and can’t pronounce with 4 year-old lips; two months later, he gets a sister and loses her and they never tell him why mom never comes home. He figures that out for himself but that’s years into the horizon, so he just begs his Nana to bring her back.

The first time he’s shot it’s a month and a day past a birthday with eight burning candles, and James jumps in front of a bullet that came from a gun pointed at his cousin.

He breaks her leg from jumping on her, the bullet goes through his chest and the hospital smells clean and terrifying, looks distorted through the mask of drugs they told him would help. His uncle needs a second job and Nana pulls from her savings because he needed two surgeries and every time he tries to apologize, his cousin says thank-you from her wheelchair, gives him the falcon she guards like a second heart and Nana just runs a hand through his hair with proud fingertips.

The second time he doesn’t notice until after he finds a smashed bullet caught in the folds of his father’s old bomber jacket, and a hole over his heart but no blood and no pain. He tests it with his aunt’s revolver and the butcher knives of his grandmother’s kitchen and jumps in front of a car.

When a bully pulls a knife, James isn’t scared and he holds the guy until his cousin stabs him for breaking her fingers and months of hell.

That gets the both of them in trouble so they leave for a different grandmother they’ve never really met in New York, New York. It’s a different place, not really for him and the words of his Nana are in his head (“make something of yourself boy”, “We’ve placed our lives in you two”) so he works hard in school and finds he likes the math and the science and something about airplane wings make his heart flutter.

His cousin gets angry because his Aunt was her Mother (he’s angry too because Nana was his mother but he’s older and he’s had practice) and she sent them away, tells him over and over that they need to go back but the only answer he can really say is no. She pulls perfects in school but never shows up to class or truancy hearings and the school gives up on her and she doesn’t come home for days and James can’t bring himself to yell at her, because she’s the only piece of Philly left.

It like he’s eight again, except New York, and a corner instead of an ice cream shop, and he knows he can’t be hurt this time. When its over, the guy is bloody on the ground and James on top of him with a hole in his jacket, the thug’s choking and than she picks up the gun and shoots the other one. He doesn’t see her to stop her, and maybe he wouldn’t have anyway.

No hospital this time but a police station and he graduates in two weeks and deploys in a year.

When they let them go, its only been two hours, but there’s a guy in sunglasses who grins like a shark and blinding like the sun, who invites them to a walk on a chilly, biting afternoon. It takes one minute for him to ask and James almost runs but she’s here and he might have a gun or a knife or something worse so he stays.

He’s offered a job. She’s offered protection and demands to know why its not a job and James knows somewhere in his gut that its because she’s normal (she knows about him but she hates that she’s normal).

No pressure, says the man with shark teeth, calls him Rhodey like they’ve known each other forever, and walks away.

A tour is sand and grit and pain and sweat but the planes get him over into the air and its exhilarating, he’s in free fall without dropping and someone pulls strings to get him in the air more than he should but whenever he asks no one has answers. He thinks of sunglasses but throws himself into velocity, and air pressure, and flies like it’s the only thing in the world (which it is).

He calls home to find his cousin’s in a private school they can’t afford and that he’s never heard of. The bookstore going out business down the street isn’t going out of business anymore and his grandmothers got a new friend by the name Anthony, who’s such a dear but she worries about his eyes.

Shark, James thinks.

On leave in New York, exhaling the sand from his lungs, Shark (Anthony) is waiting on his grandmother’s porch with a glass of lemonade rum and he starts a “I like your grand-“ and James picks him off the ground, vision whiting out and turning red and says-shouts-whispers “stay the fuck away from my family” because his Nana’s in the kitchen and the window’s open.

Another tour and a another tour and sand in his throat, another lemonade rum and Rhodey says yes.