Disclaimer: Not mine.
Author's Note: This story is based on Captain America: The First Avenger, Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and The Avengers. I found Tony's line in The Avengers ("That's the guy my dad never stopped talking about?") intriguing since in Iron Man 2 he complained that Howard was cold and distant. So this is my take on their relationship, and why Captain America apparently figured so prominently in Tony's childhood. I hope you enjoy it!
Howard Stark had never considered himself to be a family man. Families were for other men, men with time and patience, men who didn't have the U.S. government breathing down their necks, men who could sleep through the night because thousands of American soldiers weren't depending on them for protection from bombs and bullets and machetes and lethal gas.
So when the nurse handed him the tiny bundle that was his newborn son, Howard Stark felt nothing but a terrible, debilitating fear.
When the little limbs started moving, pressing against the swaddling blanket with the uncoordinated jerks of a dysfunctional pulley system, Howard tried to hand the infant back to the nurse.
"Howard," Maria softly chastised, in that tone that always stopped his hands as he began to pour the fourth whiskey of the evening. Never angry—disappointed, concerned, sorrowful.
Howard reluctantly laid the baby on his lap. It kept squirming, the small mouth opening and closing on the edge of the blanket, a pink hole sucking at the soft material.
Maria fell asleep while Howard studied this strange new creature they had somehow created, his hands hovering uncertainly over the tangle of arms and legs and too large head attached to the tiny body.
The nurse had said that the baby looked like him, but Howard couldn't see the resemblance. He couldn't imagine this little—thing—growing up, growing tall, looking like anything other than a pink, squirming, unformed ball of flesh and fragile bone. He didn't think in terms of flesh and bone. He thought in gears and propulsion and particles.
He didn't have a clue how to be a family man.
He wasn't prepared to be a family man. He was fifty-three, for Christ's sake! He'd be in his seventies by the time the—the baby got out of college. If he even lived that long. He'd never planned on having children; he'd never even planned on getting married, but he couldn't exist without Maria. And she'd been so happy when she told him she was pregnant, glowing and laughing and beautiful, and he'd swallowed his sudden terror and smiled with her.
He felt sorry for the baby.
The baby felt sorry for itself, too, opening its mouth in a mewling cry that set Howard's nerves on end. He patted the bundle uncertainly, softly shushing it, afraid of waking Maria. The labor had been long and painful for his slight wife—she needed her sleep.
He tried to explain this to the baby but it didn't listen, its crying getting louder as it squirmed harder than ever.
The nurses were out of sight and hearing, and he was afraid to pick it up. Maria was still sleeping—thankfully—but the baby was becoming more and more insistent about declaring its displeasure. Howard racked his brain, trying to recall details from his previous interactions with children. There weren't many; children were an enigma, only registering on his radar when they were walking and talking in his immediate vicinity. At first he couldn't even remember ever holding a baby before.
But, no, there had been one time during the Second World War, in an Austrian village that had been attacked by HYDRA forces. The 107th and the SSR had been cleaning up debris after the battle. Colonel Phillips had volunteered Howard for evacuating a schoolhouse that had been used as a makeshift bomb shelter. Someone had passed him an infant, much larger than the one on his lap now, but still not old enough to walk or talk. It had had hair, though, Howard remembered, blond curls peeking out from underneath a crocheted cap. The baby's diaper had started leaking and Captain Rogers had nearly died laughing at the look of panic and revulsion on Howard's face as the baby started to cry. Rogers had rescued him, scooping the baby up and changing it in a matter of seconds with a clean cloth and gentle, practiced motions, soothing its tears as he rocked it against his shoulder.
Children had adored Steve Rogers, Howard remembered. Even the ones who couldn't speak English and didn't know who Captain America was. They had flocked around him in every town, drawn to the super-soldier like bees to honey. Peggy Carter had once complained that a group of five-year-olds could get more words out of the reticent captain in ten minutes than she could coax out of him in a week.
His affinity for children was one of the many things Howard had admired about Rogers.
He'd almost asked Maria if they could name the baby Steve, but that smacked of memorializing the other man, and memorializing meant admitting that Rogers was dead. It had been over thirty years since Rogers was declared KIA, but Howard still had a team searching the North Atlantic.
Besides, Rogers would have been embarrassed if he knew Howard wanted to name a baby after him.
He tried to remember the exact way Rogers had held the Austrian baby. He gingerly slid his hands underneath the bundle in his lap, one hand cupping the head and neck, the other scooping up the bottom half—which wasn't leaking, as far as he could tell. Small mercies.
The baby's mewling momentarily stopped as he pressed it against his shoulder and slowly rocked in his seat. Then it started again with renewed gusto. "Shh, shhh, shh," he said desperately. He wanted the sound to be soothing, but it came out alarmingly sibilant instead.
He felt like a damn fool.
"Do you want to hear a story?" he tried instead. "Children like stories, right?"
The baby hiccupped uncertainly. But it stopped crying.
He felt a tiny fist curl around his jacket lapel. "All right. I'll take that as a yes. Your name is Anthony. Your mother wanted to name you Howard Anthony, like me and my father, but I wouldn't do that to you. Howie is a terrible nickname to grow up with. I wanted to name you Steve at first, after my friend…"
Tony was small for his age. Howard didn't realize it—hadn't had any other children to compare him to—until a Christmas function when Tony was six. Tony and the children of the visiting business associates had been shunted off to a backroom while the adults sparred with each other over champagne flutes and hors d'oeuvres.
Tony was small, but he had a big mouth. It had gotten him into trouble tonight, earning him a thorough beating from two other six-year-olds while Jarvis was busy collecting more chocolate milk and cookies from the kitchens.
Maria left the party to fuss over their son as the current nanny—what was her name? Clementine? Claudia? He couldn't remember—cleaned up Tony's split lip and bruised face. Howard didn't really understand why Maria was so concerned. The nanny was a certified nurse—one of the many qualifications Howard required when looking for Tony's latest keeper—and Jarvis would have told them if the boy's injuries were serious. Still, he went up to Tony's suite without protest when Maria came down and said Tony was upset and wanted his father.
The boy was sitting in the middle of his bed, crying and rubbing his bruised face. "It hurts, Daddy," he whined when Howard came in and sat next to him.
Howard pulled Tony's hands away from his face when the boy tugged on the bandaid over his right eye. "Crying won't make it hurt any less, Tony," he pointed out reasonably.
For some reason, that made the boy cry even harder.
Howard Stark really wasn't a family man.
"Jarvis said you started it," Howard said, holding onto Tony's hands so the boy couldn't squirm away.
Tony sniveled and hiccupped miserably. "I told Jimmy he was stupid. And then he h-hit me."
"And the other boy?"
The child shrugged. "I dunno, Daddy. Richie said they were best friends or something stupid like that and nobody called his best friend stupid. So I called him stupid, too. And then he kicked me." Howard was a little alarmed at the contempt in the six-year-old's voice as he said "best friend." Like it was the most asinine idea in the world. Maybe Tony needed to spend more time with children his own age.
"So you insulted them, and now you're crying because they hit you for insulting them?"
Tony glanced up at him from underneath his bangs. Howard noticed for the thousandth time that he had Maria's eyes, big and dark and betraying every emotion in his little body. "'S'not an insult when it's the truth," the little boy tried to reason.
Howard felt the corner of his mouth twitch upwards despite himself, but he clamped down on the urge to smile. "Stupid people don't like to be reminded that they're stupid, Tony. They tend to get angry. Let this be a lesson about learning when to hold your tongue."
Tony looked down, bottom lip trembling. "Still hurts, Daddy. And they were bigger'n me."
Howard already knew that. The two reprobates looked like miniature behemoths in comparison to Tony; he'd had a good view of them as their fathers dragged them out into the ballroom and spanked them in a time-honored ritual of public humiliation for having the audacity to hit Howard Stark's son.
Still, though—the boy needed to learn that every action had a reaction. "Stop crying, Tony," he ordered. "Put some iron in your backbone. There are always going to be people like Richie and Jimmy who hit people smaller and weaker than they are because they think they can get away with it."
Tony sniffed, swallowing the last of his tears. "Mommy says you stop bullies like them, Daddy."
For a moment, Howard was speechless. "What?"
"Mommy says you fight the bullies who try to hurt us. The bullies in Germany and Russia." The boy was looking up at him with something like admiration—adoration, even.
Oh, Maria, Howard thought hopelessly. He shouldn't be looking at me like that. "I try, Tony," he said finally.
Tony squirmed closer to him. "I tried, too, Daddy. But—but they were bigger'n me."
Howard sighed. "There's always going to be someone bigger than you. That's just something you have to learn to deal with." Tony looked at him and frowned in confusion. Howard pulled free from his clinging hands and knelt in front of the boy. "Tony, do you remember the stories I used to tell you when you were little?" he asked quietly. "Well, littler. The ones about Captain America?"
The boy eagerly threw his hands up in the air. "The Man with a Plan!" he exclaimed. "'Course I remember, Daddy."
Howard couldn't help but smile at his enthusiasm. The expression felt strange on his face, as if it didn't quite belong there.
Well, it had been a long—decade.
"Yes, the Man with a Plan. He fought bullies, too. In fact, he was the best bully-fighter the world has ever seen. And you know what? He was a little guy, just like you."
Tony's eyes widened. "Just like me?" he breathed. "Little? Captain America?"
Howard fondly brushed a lock of his son's hair back so he could see Tony's eyes clearly. "When I first met Steve Rogers, he was barely taller than you—and he was already all grown up. But that didn't stop him from being a hero…"
Milton Academy's Head of School was extremely apologetic in the expulsion letter. Of course, their fine institution was honored—deeply honored—by the fact that Howard Stark entrusted them with his heir's education, but Anthony Stark had driven seven instructors into resigning (three were still in therapy trying to regain their shattered self-confidence), he broke curfew at least three times a week, and he'd been caught with prohibited substances on campus on numerous occasions. This latest incident—the drunken orgy with five senior girls—was the final straw for the Head of School. Anthony Stark would not be graduating from Milton Academy in two months.
Howard should have known that it was a bad idea to send his son to a co-ed school.
He also had to remind himself that he really shouldn't feel that tiny surge of pride at the thought of his skinny, gawky, fourteen-year-old son having the balls to dare the five most beautiful eighteen-year-old girls at Milton to go skinny-dipping with him in the lake. He really shouldn't…but one of the girls had won her state's teen beauty contest last year.
Tony was hiding right where Howard knew he would be, in the lab he had designed and built at age eight. The teenager ignored Howard as he sat on a stool by the bench, watching Tony fiddle with the robotic arm he called Dummy—the first thing he had built in this lab.
The day Tony had proudly shown off Dummy at dinner was the day that Howard had realized that his eight-year-old son was smarter than he could ever hope to be. It had been the proudest day of his life. It was also the day he had felt some of the weight lift from his shoulders, because he knew that in the future Tony would succeed where he had so often failed.
"Hello, Tony," he said quietly into his son's sullen silence. Tony didn't bother to answer; in fact, he barely even looked at him. Howard suppressed a sigh. "I suppose not graduating will make it hard for you to attend MIT in the fall," he commented. He meant it as a joke, but it had been so long since he had made one that his voice didn't cooperate, remaining in its usual stern, CEO tones.
Tony ducked his head behind Dummy. Howard still caught the flash of anger in his dark eyes, though. They didn't look like Maria's anymore; they looked like Howard's now, cold and shuttered. The change made him inexplicably sad.
Howard shifted uncomfortably, unconsciously folding and unfolding the academy's letter. He'd long harbored a vague hope that as Tony grew up and became more mature it would be easier to talk to him, but the opposite seemed to have happened. He missed the days when he could amuse his son with tales of Captain America or read him an article from the latest engineering journal. But now Tony more often than not was the author of the latest engineering articles and Howard had long ago run out of Captain America stories, repeating them so often that Tony probably knew them better than the periodic table—and that was really saying something.
It was this nostalgia that prompted his next words. "I'm flying to Greenland this weekend. There's a hydrologist from Holland who's come up with a new algorithm for tracking ocean currents. She says she can use it to trace the route of currents from as far back as the 1940s—"
Tony threw the wrench he had been using so that it slammed into the bench with a loud clatter, cutting Howard's words off. "Why? So you can waste even more time looking for some desiccated corpse? Hate to break it to you, Dad, but Captain America's been feeding the fishes for so long there's probably nothing left."
Tony still shared one trait with Maria: the ability to render Howard speechless in seconds.
A memory flashed into his mind. Tony, barely taller than his knee, tugging on his trouser leg and carrying a toy shield he had welded together himself from scrap wire and then painted with the star and stripes, demanding that Howard come with him now because they had to go rescue Captain America who was not dead but only sleeping in a glacier somewhere. They would rescue him and Tony would be his sidekick and Daddy would build weapons and shields for them so they could fight the bullies in Germany and Russia.
Howard had kept the shield Tony made. He'd stowed it away in an airtight case so that its bright paint would never fade.
Tony glanced up when Howard remained silent. Howard wondered if he looked as stunned as he felt. The teenager shrugged and turned away to grab a blow torch. "Whatever," he muttered.
Howard didn't know if he was referring to Milton Academy, to his trip to Greenland, or to the tension that had come to define their relationship.
Yes, that summed it up, all right.
Howard slid off the stool, grateful when his arthritic knees didn't buckle. "I'll…deal with this," he said vaguely, waving the expulsion letter in the air. "I don't want your education to be delayed unnecessarily." He'd always pushed Tony in terms of his academic career, fighting with the school board to get approval for his son to skip the unnecessary middle school years. He knew Tony could handle the more advanced work. He had complete faith in his son. He'd pushed Tony into, through, and out of high school in two and a half years.
But every action had a reaction. He'd apparently pushed himself out of Tony's life.
Howard paused in the doorway, looking back at Tony's hunched figure. "Tony," he began softly. Then he stopped and walked away.
I'm sorry. The words weren't enough.
He didn't know what was.
He had failed his son. He didn't know when, exactly, but it was only to be expected.
Howard Stark had never been a family man.
It took a five minute call and a generous donation to the academy to reverse the expulsion. It was obvious that the Head of School was merely fishing for more money from the famous Stark dynasty.
The next call took much longer, but international calls always did. He cancelled his flight to Greenland and recalled the search team he had been funding for forty years.
He had failed someone who depended on him. Again.
It was time to admit it.
Howard hated seeing Maria cringe at the barbed comments Tony kept throwing at him during the limo ride to the airport.
His son was seventeen and had just graduated from MIT with the highest honors. Howard had never been more proud.
Or more lost.
He had tried to congratulate Tony, to tell him how goddamned proud he was of his only son, but Tony had waved him off, saying tartly, "I know, I know—you're disappointed I'm not the valedictorian."
Howard hadn't known what to say. That he didn't give a damn about that? That he knew the only reason Tony wasn't valedictorian was because of a technicality that—because he had earned his degree in only two years—rendered him ineligible? That he'd nearly begun to cry for the first time since he was a child when he watched Tony get his diploma?
Howard didn't even know where to begin. So he made the ride to the airport in silence, refusing to rise to Tony's veiled insults. He didn't want to fight with his son. Not today.
When they arrived at the private jet that would take Howard and Maria to D.C., Tony kissed his mother good-bye and refused to look at his father.
"Howard," Maria whispered as she passed him, in the tone he had come to know so well. So much sorrow contained in that one word, his name.
He had warned her, when she asked him to marry her, that he wasn't a family man.
But he had to try. For her. But mostly for Tony.
"You've grown up so much," he said awkwardly, looking at Tony from across the roof of the limo. His brilliant, handsome son who could charm women and electrons into doing exactly what he wanted at the drop of his hat. "Do you remember when you were little and I would tell you bedtime stories?"
His son shifted impatiently. "About World War II. Very cheerful stuff. Great material for a toddler. It's no wonder I have issues."
"And Captain America," Howard added softly, noticing how Tony's jaw clenched. "You used to love those stories."
"Yeah, well, I was young and stupid."
Howard ran a finger through the road dust on the roof of the vehicle, absently tracing a circle over and over again. "Steve Rogers was the best man I had ever met. I wanted you to know about him so that he could be a role model for you—"
Tony wrenched the limo door open with enough force to send the vehicle rocking. Howard's finger cut through the circle like a knife. "And we both know how well that's worked out."
"Come on, Dad. We both know I'm no Steve Rogers. And I never will be." There was so much bitterness in those words that Howard flinched as if Tony had struck him. His son slid into the limo and slammed the door shut without waiting for Howard's response.
Howard stared at the window, unable to see his son through the tinted glass. "I never wanted you to be Steve Rogers, Tony. I wanted you to take him for a role model instead of me," he said quietly to the black glass. The words were meaningless—the limo was soundproof—but he said them anyway. He should have said them a long time ago. "He was the best of us, and you deserved the best. You deserve the best. Better than me by far." The drinking. The black depressions that would swallow him for weeks on end. Failure after failure after failure. Oh, Tony.
Howard walked away. Again.
It was fitting, in a cruel way, that his life would end like this. In a plane plummeting to the unforgiving earth. He was grateful for the weight of the aircraft and the speed of its descent. Death would be instantaneous. At least Maria wouldn't suffer; she was already unconscious.
Howard had failed again, and the people he cared about would be hurt again. He had been too slow, too stupid again. Too slow to reach the radio in time to lead Rogers to a safe landing. Too stupid to recognize Obadiah Stane's betrayal. Rogers had died, and now Maria would die, too.
And Tony would be left to face the bullies of the world alone.
Howard wept in those last few seconds. He wondered if Tony would ever find the toy shield he had kept, if his son would ever understand the one certainty in Howard's uncertain life.
That Tony Stark had grown up to be the best man he had ever known.