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Serious Trust

Chapter Text

Tony Stark blinked away the gray left in his vision from the neon flash of the camera.  His father’s hand was tight on his shoulder, wheeling him to face another reporter’s camera.  More stars in his vision, as he waved a hand in front of his eyes.  “God, Dad, seriously?  Can we just—”

“One more.  For the Times.  Try to look professional?”

Tony smiled at the white and gray blur that was his vision and heard the flashbulb go off again.

Before his vision could even clear, at least half a dozen people were clamoring up the stairs shouting for “Mr. Stark.”

God, he hoped they meant his father.

“Mr. Stark!  Mr. Stark—”

“—over here, Mr. Stark!”

“Mr. Stark, can we get a statement on—!”

“One at a time folks, one at a time,” Howard laughed, his arm still around Tony’s shoulders.  “This might not be his first press appearance, but he’s certainly not used to this much attention.”

The reporters all laughed politely. 

Tony forced a smile.

Howard pointed to a man in the front row, who asked, “how does it feel to be the youngest person to ever graduate from MIT summa cum laude?”

Tony half expected his father to respond, looked to him to see if that was, in fact, the case.  Howard just smiled at him.  Tony scratched under his chin as the reporters all shoved their mics at his face.

“Well, MIT doesn’t do Latin honors, so yeah… 3.98.  Feels good.”  He glanced at Howard.  “Wishes I’d have gotten a 4.0, though.”

The group of reporters laughed.  His father laugher.  Tony pretended to laugh.

It hadn’t been a joke.

“What will you do now?” another reporter asked without being called on.  “Are you going to work at your father’s company?”

“First I’m going on vacation,” he said.  “Taking in the european countryside.”

Everyone laughed again.

Again, it hadn’t been a joke.

“And after that?”

Tony could feel his father’s eyes burning a hole into the side of his head.  He knew what he wanted to say, could feel it hot on that back of his tongue.  One word and it would be all over the papers, frontlining for weeks.  “Stark Industries Heir Not To Join Father’s Company.”  Stock would drop, his father would yell, his mother would cry, Obie’d try to talk him out of it (which wouldn’t work) and he’d get cut off his monthly stipend from the company.  And he’d probably have to cancel that Eurotrip.

So he didn’t say it.

What he said instead was, “Not sure.  Haven’t made any official decisions yet, but—”

“Obviously, the company would be thrilled to have Tony onboard,” Howard interrupted.  “But…”  He smiled at him. “We recognize Tony’s worked very hard these last few years and… he’s going to need some time to consider before he takes us up on any offers we might have—”

“Word on the market is Obidiah Stane has had three contracts drafted so far,” another reporter shouted.  “Any word on why your son’s playing hard to get?”

“Is he considering working at another company?”

“Is it true the government is trying to recruit the Son of Stark to their Department of Defense to help deal with the Iraqi situation?”

Tony winced as another uninvited flashbulb went off.  He steadied himself against his father.  His father didn’t so much as blink at the sudden barrage.

“Alright, ladies and gentlemen, let’s just remember, rumors are rumors.  All I can say is that we’re in negotiations at this time, and things are looking very much in our favor.  Now…”  He slipped his arm around Tony again, steering him back toward the inner gardens.  “This is my son’s big night, how about we let him enjoy it, eh?”

Tony was only too eager to get away from the throng of vultures.  Seventeen years and he still couldn’t imagine that anyone would ever actually want to deal with the scumbags of the press.  He snatched up a flute of champagne from a passing waiter, who shrunk as he turned to him.  “Um… young Master Stark—”

Tony indicated his father using his little finger.  “Big night, Dad’s words, let me enjoy it.”  He put the champagne glass to his lips and drank in all in one, fast swallow.  He let out a sigh and replaced the empty flute on the tray.  “We got anything stronger in the back that Dad’s hiding?  Yes?  No?”

The waiter didn’t respond, just took off, but not before Tony grabbed a second flute.  He was going to need to be drunk if he expected to make it through this in one piece.  The reporters were still going on, fighting for attention from his father.

“Mr. Stark!”

“Mr. Stark!  Mr. St—!”

“One more question, then we’re calling it a night,” Howard teased.  “And I mean it this time.”  The group laughed.  “Alright, Cathy.”

The little blonde held her microphone up to her neon pink lips and said, “Mr. Stark, we’re approaching the forty-fifth anniversary of the untimely loss of one of our nation’s greatest, Captain America.  Rumor has it you’re overseeing the dedication of the wing of the museum in honor of him.  What can you tell us about your experiences with him, this… Captain America?”

This time the microphones lunged at Howard’s face, everyone clamoring for space.

Howard smiled, though the corners of his eyes creased with sadness.  “I was proud to have known the man behind the mask, Captain Rogers, and proud to have worked with him.  It’s only a shame that he was able to serve so short a period of time.  I remember—”

“Oh God, spare me,” Tony muttered under his breath.  It was the classic, “I Remember,” speech.  Tony’d heard it enough to have the whole mess memorized.  He was surprised the magazines hadn’t caught onto it yet.  Perhaps it was because the story changed time to time; more flowers, more explosions.  Sometimes they were in France, other times, in Germany.  One or twice in the UK, but everytime, it ended the same.

This time, the story was about how Captain America bravely crossed enemy lines—air-dropped by his father, of course (as if)—and freed the hundreds of soldiers behind the lines.

“But more than a hero, I remember the man.”

Tony sighed, mouthing along the words.  “I remember the man, soft-spoken, mild-tempered.  I remember the bravery of all our men and women.  Most of all, I remember America.  Bright, shining… and at her finest even in the face of—”

“Tony, what are you doing?”

Tony nearly dropped the flute as he turned.  “Mom, hey!  Happy Me-party.”  He kissed Maria Stark on the cheek, doubled back.  “You smell good, is that new?  That shade of pink is lovely, and may I say—”

“You’re drinking.”

“You sound surprised.”

“Disappointed,” she said, grabbing the glass from his hand and dumping it in the bush.  “What would your father say?”

Tony sighed.  “Oh, I don’t know.  Probably just keep going on about how I could have graduated with a 4.0, I don’t—”

“You know he means well.”

“Yeah, well…”  Tony shrugged.  “Sometimes I wish he’d just drop it.  Or, y’know… drop dead.”

“Tony!” Maria gasped.

“You didn’t hear him earlier tonight, Mom,” Tony snapped under his breath.  “I swear. To God.  He just kept going and going and going.  ‘If you just reversed the polarity like I told you, Tony.’  ‘We owe it to the American people to be the best we can, Tony.’  ‘Success in war is carrying a bigger stick, Tony, like the one up my ass, Tony.’”

“Tony,” Maria admonished, but she, too, was grinning.  She grabbed him by his jacket, smoothed it out and adjusted the flower tucked into his lapel.  “Now, no more fuss, alright?  I’ll tell your father the same.”

“I won’t start anything unless he starts something.”

“Tony.”

“Fine, fine, I’ll just…”  He shrugged.  “I’ll try to be good, happy?”

“Always,” she said, giving him a soft smile.  She leaned forward and gave him a kiss on his forehead.  She pulled back and laughed.  “Here…”  Pulling a handkerchief from her clutch, she wiped the pink off his forehead with her thumb, gave his cheek a pinch.  Her hand settled along his jawline and she smiled.  “We’re both so proud of you, Tony.  You know that, right?”

“I know,” Tony murmured, leaning into his mother’s touch.  “It would just…”  He took a deep breath.  “It would be nice to hear it a little more.  Y’know?”

“He’s trying.”  Maria looked over where Howard still had the reporters mesmerized with his tales from ‘back in the day.’  They laughed at all the right cues, and Howard—to his credit—was having the time of his life.  “You know what he says?”

“What?” Tony asked, not certain he cared to know.

“He says that you are the greatest thing he’s ever made.”

Tony snorted.  “Yeah, now you’re really yanking my chain, Ma.”

“I mean it, Tony.  He really believes that.  He just…”  Maria shook her head.  “Well, you know how he is.  Good with words when it comes to an audience, but…”  She smiled tiredly.  “He never apologizes.  Some men do, but your father?  It’s easier for him to fill up the bathroom with roses than it is for him to admit he was wrong about anything.”  She looked at Tony.  “You’re a little like that, too.”

“I’m as cold as ice?” he asked to the tune of the song by “Foreigner.”

His mother laughed.  “No, Tony.  I mean…”  She sighed.  “Tony, your father grew up in a very different age.  He grew up fighting.  And he raised you to be a fighter.  Trouble is, sometimes you both just… stand your ground, take the blows.  Ignoring what you should be doing.”

“And what should I be doing, Mom?” Tony asked.  It wasn’t a jab.  It wasn’t a joke.  It was quieter than than.  Desperate.  He looked at her, eyes wide and, for the first time that evening, young.  Only seventeen years old, and seeming to just start to remember that.  “What should I be doing because I don’t know anymore…”

Maria reached a hand out for his face again, rubbed a thumb along the lower-edge of his cheek bone.  “Oh, Tony… my beautiful baby boy…  Sometimes the strongest thing you can do is admit you’re not invincible.”

Tony felt something inside him snap, threaten to let loose everything he’d been holding in.  The pressure, the company offers, the arguments at 2AM about what he was going to do with the rest of his life.  His mouth opened, words at the back of his tongue, staining with a bitter aftertaste.  What came out instead, was an easy smile.  He tapped his mother’s nose and said, “no, no, haven’t you heard?  Obie’s got this new plan for an invincibility vitamin.  True story.”

Maria rolled her eyes, but was laughing all the same.  Tony smiled, too.  He loved hearing his mother laugh.  The light, easy melody of it.  It helped him to remember to let go of the tension that pulled his shoulders up to his jawline and just…

“Tony!  Maria!”

Howard was gesturing to them.  “Family photo, come on!”

Maria slipped her arm in Tony’s.  “Come on,” she smiled.  “It’s your big night after all.”

Tony smiled.  “Yeah… yeah, it is.”  So what if he had to share part of his night with Captain “No One Cares Anymore But Dad” America, and get hounded by the press?  Tonight wasn’t about them.  Tonight wasn’t about whether or not he’d made Dad proud, or whether or not he’d done right by “The Company.”  Tonight was about him.  And all things aside, he’d done a pretty damn good job.  The rest of the evening and the promise of Europe loomed in the near distance.

He smiled for the camera, let the press have their pictures.  He didn’t remember what he’d said as they turned to another camera, but it made his father laugh.  Deep, rolling, the sort of laugh he had when Tony was a young child.  Before circuit boards and algorithms, long nights with a soldering iron.  His mother’s laugh joined it, and Tony, unable to help himself, laughed, too, until he was lost in the laughter with them.

That was the picture that made the papers.  The Stark family, all smiles and laughter.  All love and life.

It would be the last picture the press would ever have of the three of them before the accident that took Maria and Howard Stark.  Then the laughter was different.  Then the real work began.

Chapter Text

“Captain Rogers?”

Steve hadn’t realized he’d fallen asleep until he was waking up.  The sun was warm.  So was the voice calling him.  He stretched, not yet lifting the arm draped over his eyes.  “Peggy?”

“I’m afraid not.”

There was a smirk in the voice.  Steve let his arm drop from his face, blinked at the sunlight pouring in from the window until his vision cleared.  There was a woman in a red top and a brown, leather jacket.  Her red hair was pulled into a braid that draped over one shoulder.  Her heart-shaped mouth was smiling, as were her blue eyes.  “Did you sleep well?” she asked.

Steve frowned, feeling awkward.  Something about a woman entering his home uninvited, let alone watching him sleep, made him very uncomfortable.  He couldn’t look her in the eye.  “Well enough.”

“Good.”  She walked until she was standing in front of him again, waited for him to look up at her.  “I’m Agent Romanov.”

Steve gave her a once-over.  She was carrying at least two firearms, though he suspected there was a third tucked in beside the blade in her boot.  Her stance matched almost every other ‘Agent’ who’d been in his apartment since he woke up a week ago.  Another S.H.I.E.L.D. agent.

He sighed, gathering the folder of papers he’d managed to scatter in his sleep.  “Tell Fury I’m not interested,” he muttered.  He grabbed a handful of pages and held them up.  “I’m still working my way through this mess.  I thought he said he was giving me a brief history to bring me up to speed.”

“I saw the original cut,” the Agent told him.  “Trust me, Captain.  This is brief.  And,” she added as he went around straightening up the apartment, “it isn’t a request this time.  It’s orders.”

“Orders?” Steve scoffed.  “I thought I wasn’t going to be given any until I was up to speed.”

She produced two tickets without Steve noticing she’d even reached for them.  She held them out to him, still not smiling.  Not really.  “Call it a favor then.”

Steve examined the tickets.  His eyes flicked up to the Agent’s, raising one, unimpressed eyebrow.  “You’re taking me to a museum?”

“No,” she said, folding her arms in front of her chest.  “I’m taking you to your wing of the museum.”

Steve blinked.  “My what?”

***

Steve had walked through the exhibit twice and he still couldn’t believe it.

There were pictures, old film reels, things that—in his mind—had happened not more than a year ago.  Here they were all hanging, faded relics of what everyone was calling a “Golden Age.”  Everything was red white and blue and yellow and cyan and magenta.  Pulp-style print-outs, short novella for kids, models, replicas and a few of the genuine articles; mostly guns.  All rusted over when just yesterday, Steve had been helping clean them.

At least the yesterday from seventy years ago.

Agent Romanov had kept her distance, but never lost him.  He was only aware of her in the far corner of his peripheral vision, and even then, she was unimportant.  It was only when he lingered over the displays near the end of the tour that she came to stand beside him.

She didn’t say a word as he traced the glass over each case, six total, dedicated to his comrades.  Each case was filled with things that belonged to each of the men who fought beside him; his men.  His team.  He lingered at one box which was largely empty.

“Did they ever find him?” Steve asked, then amended, “anything of his?”

Agent Romanov stared at him a long while, then shook her head.  “No.”

Steve nodded slowly, still tracing the letters of Bucky’s name on the little metal card on the pedestal in front of the case.  Steve rolled his shoulders back, giving the case one last pat before heading over to a display he’d just walked past before.  It was small, just a little notice and a few pictures behind a sheet of glass.  Steve found himself smiling.

He pointed at the photo in the case.  “Howard?  He put all this together?”

Agent Romanov smirked.  “Yeah.  He did.  As I understand it, he sort of carried a torch for you after you went missing.  Kept it going until the day he died.”

“This his family?” Steve asked, squinting at the three people in the photo.

“Yes,” Agent Romanov said.  “That’s his wife, Maria.  And his son—”

“Anthony Stark,” Steve read from the card next to the photo.

Agent Romanov smirked.  “Tony Stark.”

Steve chuckled.  “Well, good for Howard.  Where is he now?  I don’t suppose he’s around?”

Agent Romanov’s smile faded.  “No… no, he isn’t.  Howard and Maria were killed in a car accident while on vacation in Europe.  Years ago.  Before the museum even opened.”  She pointed at the few handwritten pages in the display case.  “Had a whole speech for you.  Never was able to deliver it.”

Steve looked at the case, this little piece of Howard in an entire wing that was filled to the brim with Steve Rogers and what they called the Second World War.  Somehow, it seemed very wrong.  “If he didn’t dedicate the wing, who did?”

“Tony.”

Steve stared at the picture, the skinny, dark-haired boy who looked too much like his father.  Howard was laughing.  So were they; the wife and son.  Steve took a deep breath and said, “I’d like to meet him.  Howard’s boy.”

Agent Romanov smirked.  “No you wouldn’t.”

Steve frowned at her.  “Excuse me?”

She kept smiling.  “Trust me on this one, Cap.  We done here?”

Steve nodded.  “Yeah.  Yeah, sure.”  He followed the Agent close behind, hurried his step until he was walking beside her.  “Hey, is it possible to get information about Howard?  His family, his son?  I got the dossiers on what happened to the guys, but…”  Steve stopped at Agent Romanov turned to look at him.  He gestured back towards the wing they’d just came from.  “After see that… knowing Howard did all that, I…”  He swallowed, stood a little straighter.  “Well, it would be nice to know things turned out for him.”

Agent Romanov’s head turned ever so slightly.  She examined him the same way a bird of prey might a moving blade of grass.  He wasn’t sure how to take it, so he returned the stare with equal intensity.  “It wasn’t all sunshine for him, Captain.  You sure you want a full dossier?”

“With all due respect, Ma’am, I haven’t made many requests thus far.  I figure this is on the short end as favors go.”

Agent Romanov stared at him for another few seconds.  It felt like an hour.  She started walking again, and for a while, Steve wondered if she was blowing him off.  Before he could ask, she had pulled out a device they called, “cell phones.”  They were like smaller personal radios that could communicate over much longer distances.

“Get me a copy of all the information we’ve got on Howard Stark and family,” Agent Romanov said into the device.  “Rogers wants some more light reading.”  She went quiet again, then responded.  “No, go ahead and compile Stark’s profile into the folder. … no, I know what my report said.  Go ahead and include it.  Should be interesting. … Thanks, I’ll let him know.”

Agent Romanov snapped the phone shut and looked back at Steve.  “An agent will be delivering full reports on Howard and Tony Stark to your apartment tomorrow morning.”

Steve blinked.  “Wow.  Uh, okay.  Thanks.”  Two men in suits walked up to Steve and Agent Romanov.  He looked at them, then back at her.

She smiled at him.  “Time for us to go our separate ways, Captain Rogers.  These two men will escort you back to your apartment, or anywhere else in the downtown area.”

Steve made a face.  “That… won’t be necessary.”

Agent Romanov gave a little shrug.  “That’s not up to you, I’m afraid.  Now if you gentlemen will excuse me, I’ve got something to take care of.  In Russia, as it were.”

Steve watched the Agent walk away, leaving him in the care of yet another pair of S.H.I.E.L.D.s men.

“Anywhere in particular you’d like to go, Sir?” one of them asked.

“Home, please,” Steve said, though it was more of a sigh.

The drive home was uneventful.  That might have been the problem.  All the backalleys of Brooklyn were largely unchanged, save that now, everything was taller.  And brighter.  And dirtier.

He wasn’t sure it was an improvement.

Once at home, the restlessness really started to sink in.  He sneaked out of the apartment, avoiding the suited men who insisted they escort him everywhere, and made his way to the gym.  He worked out until every muscle was a white-hot flame flickering under his skin, ran laps until everything blurred into one constant repetition of motion.

It didn’t help.

All he could think about was the men he left behind.  All gone or KIA.  There was Peggy, but S.H.I.E.L.D. claimed they had no information on her.  It was a lie, and he knew it.  But even if they told him where she was, then what?  He’d read the dossier.  She’d grown up, married, had three children.  Had a good, full life.  Who was he to show back up now?  And what could he possibly expect?

He stopped running, snatched up a towel he’d hung on one of the pegs on the wall, and walked back to the showers.  The water soothed his body, but did little for his troubled thoughts.

He’d just woke up and everyone he’d cared about was dead or out of reach.  Director Fury had visited him twice in the last week, encouraged him to get out, see the town.  Get to know the place.  The people.  He’d never been good at making friends in the first place.  He wasn’t sure how to even begin.

The man who accompanied Fury the second visit, an Agent Barton, commented that he should try internet dating sights, whatever that meant.  Whatever it was, Fury was not amused and told Barton to, quote, “shut the fuck up or get the hell out.”

Steve ran both hands through his hair, pushing the water from his face with a sigh.  These S.H.I.E.L.D. agents weren’t exactly the friendly type.  Even their smiles were like dual-edged blades.  But then, that was the point.  Either way, not exactly the type of people who’d let Steve into their lives.  No one left from his past, and the ones who were left were the ones he had no business seeing.

The thought of seeing Howard’s son kept pounding in his brain like a lifeline.  He kept telling himself not to get him hopes up, but…

The boy’s easy smile in the photograph.  If he was anything like his father… that might be a place to start.  That might be a friendship worth pursuing.  And as Howard’s son, he’d already know all about Steve.  All Steve would need to do would be to get to know him.  And honestly, how hard could that be?

Chapter Text

“What do you mean they want a statement?  What kind of statement—?”

“A few words, something nice, probably something about America.”

“Oh, yeah, sure, America,” Tony grumbled.  “Uh, let’s see.  How about, ‘hey, look America!’”  He gestured with both hands at the plans hanging in holographic form in front of him.  “‘I accidentally… clean energy.’”  He gave Pepper a smile, but she was already circling back around.

“Not until tomorrow night,” she said, waving a pen at him, “but that’s beside the point.”

“No, it is the point.  The statement, remember?”

Pepper rolled her eyes.  “A statement that doesn’t revolve around you would be nice.  For a change—”

“See,” Tony said, pointing a finger at her, “it’s that kind of attitude that is putting us back on production projections.” Without so much as a pause, he turned back to the nearest projection.  “What do you think, hey… look here, should the top two floors be R&D, or the top three?”

“Tony—”

“No, you’re right, what was I thinking?  Four it is.  I’ll have to rewire that room to account for the change, but now look—over here, I was thinking just a little something, maybe a landing pad—ooh!  An outdoor landing pad! Jarvis, be a dear, run us some numbers—”

Pepper was gripping the bridge of her nose.  “This… this isn’t about numbers, Tony—”

“Course it is, it’s always about numbers—”

“—No it’s about this Captain America—”

“Captain Who?  That’s what everyone will be saying.  Except Agent Frowny-Face.  Isn’t he, like, the guy’s biggest fan boy, or something?”

“Numbers estimated, Sir,” Jarvis chimed.

“Agent Coulson is an enthusiast,” Pepper said.

Jarvis continued to speak over the bickering. “Projections and possible schematics now being uploaded to screen eight.”

“And I bet he’s enthusiastically getting all his toys signed by Wonder Guy.”

“Captain America—”

“Ooh, that’s nice,” Tony said, pulling up one of the drafts for the landing pad.  “I like that, look at that, Pepper, what do you think—?”

“I think it’s fine, I think—”

“You know what, you’re right, I don’t like it.  Next!”

“Tony.”

“See, now that one’s not so bad.”

Tony.”

“Maybe if we flip it so it comes out the other side and just—”

“Tony!”

Tony stopped speaking, turning to face Pepper.  “Are you alright?  You sound a little stressed.”

“Do I?” she asked on the verge of hysterical.  “Tony, I’ve been asking you a question—”

“Yeah,” he said, wheeling her toward the nearest sofa.  “So you have—”

“—and you haven’t even been listening—”

“—no, I’ve been listening, just… avoiding—”

“—which is the problem!  Tony, the board is all over this, if there was a time to make a statement—”

“Which is what I’m trying to do!” Tony said, holding his hands out to his sides to indicate the whole of the space.  “I’m building a tower!  A big, beautiful, self-sustaining tower!  With my name on it! I mean, I thought if there was any way to send a message that would be it, and I thought you of all people would hmmprphg—?”

Pepper, now sitting on the sofa, had leaned forward just enough to press both her hands over Tony’s mouth.  Her eyes were wide and desperate.  “C-can you just…?  Can you not?  For five minutes, can you not just….?”  She took a deep breath and shrugged her shoulders to her ears.  “O-okay?  Just… sit here a-and listen to me and—!” she added as he lifted a finger, “not talk over me.  Or at me.  Or… at all?  Please?”

Tony held her gaze, not saying so much as a word as her hands dropped to her lap before rubbing the seat beside her.  He held up a finger.  “If I may—?”

“You may not,” Pepper said, her eyes going wide.  “Now sit.  Or…”  She swallowed.  “Or I’ll think of something to do.”

Tony shrugged, indicating that it was a fair threat, but said nothing.

Pepper took a deep breath, smoothing her skirt out over her knees as she gathered her thoughts.  She held his gaze for a long moment, then began.  “It’s been roughly a week since this… Captain America woke up, and don’t,” she said, holding up a finger, “make that face.”

“What face?”

“That face.”

“M’not making a face.”

“Yes you are, that’s the ‘I hate it’ face—”

“—I don’t make that face—”

“—you always make that face—”

“—no I think I’d remember if I—”

Pepper’s hand was on his mouth again.  “Stoppit.”

Tony pantomimed zipping his lips shut, mouthed ‘sorry,’ and gestured for her to continue.

“Tony,” she sighed.  “Sooner or later people are going to find out about him.  You know, that he’s awake and…”  She rubbed at her temples with one hand.  “Doing whatever it is S.H.I.E.L.D. is going to have him doing, and when that happens, and you know it will, the press is going to want a statement.” She held up a finger to Tony as he opened his mouth to speak.  “A statement about Captain AmericaNot about Tony Stark.  And given your father’s role on the project, I think that’s fair.”

“Wanna know what I think?”

“No.”

“Well, I think it’s dumb, because… one, I never worked on that project and two, if we’re being honest, I don’t really care, I mean…”  Tony shrugged and waved a hand toward the window nearest them.  “Superboy wakes up from the ice bath, then what?  We figure out what was in the magic bottle?  Pump twenty guys up with this so-called super-serum, and what?  Let them run around dispensing justice?”

“Because a serum is totally different from an iron suit—”

“Yeah, actually, it is.  It’s a lot different, because you’d need manufacturing, training, manuals, you can’t just pick up a suit and go; now, let’s consider the alternative—super-soldier injection—let’s say it works, right?  Well, great, now the government has two Captain Americas.  Oh, wait, what’s that?  Congress wants us to make more?  They want us to dish out a super-secret Koolaid to our guys during basic training?  Next thing you know, you’ve got thousands of guys hulking out and beating each other to shit out on the battlefield, and that’s assuming we got the serum right and there are no crazy side-effects.  But then you’ve got black market variants, mass production, people who should never be getting their hands on it ending up with cases of the stuff, there is literally no scenario where this ends well for anyone—”

“Well, the board disagrees—”

“Well, the board can eat me,” Tony said, standing.  “There, they want a statement?  That’s my statement.”

Pepper stood to follow him.  “Tony—”

“No, Pepper, just…”  Tony took her by both her shoulders.  “This isn’t my thing, okay?  None of this.  Never has been.  Captain America was Dad’s business, not mine.”

Pepper’s eyes narrowed and she leaned back.  She examined him a long moment, then murmured, almost to herself, “oh God.”

“What?”

“That’s what this is about, isn’t it?”

“What what is about, I don’t know what you’re—”

“Another Daddy-issue?”

“Another d—are you even serio—are you listening to yourself?” Tony snapped, as her phone began making an obnoxious pinging noise.  “I’m telling you five-hundred reasons why Captain America is a bad business plan, and all you can counter with is that it’s somehow about my father—?”

“And here we go,” she muttered as she opened up the email on her phone.  “Again.”

Tony leaned back, hand on his hips.  “Again?”

“Yes, again—”

“—what’s that supposed to mean, again—?”

“—it means this isn’t the first time you’ve gotten touchy about digging up old projects—”

“—no one wants to live in the past, Pepper—”

“—specifically projects tied to your father—”

“—that has nothing to do with it—”

“—it has everything to do with it—”

“—it’s like Ford said, if he asked his customers what they wanted—”

“—any time any of Howard’s old projects come back to light, you just—”

“—they would have asked him to breed faster horses—”

“—shut down, every time, without fail—”

“—yeah, there’s a reason the projects were scrapped—”

“—it’s called being stubborn—”

“—it’s called old data and bad math!  When’s the last time anything Dad came up with ever actually workeyyooow!”

Tony swatted away Pepper’s hand from where she was leaning her entire body-weight forward on the arc reactor that was beaming through center of Tony’s Led Zeppelin angel tanktop.

“Right there, Tony,” Pepper snapped.  “That’s the last thing your Dad made that worked.”

Tony looked down at his chest, then back at Pepper.  He held up a finger.  “Oh.  Oh, no no no, that doesn’t count—”

“Does so count—!”

“—it was a full revision—”

“—its virtually the same design—”

“When did this become about the arc reactor?  We’re making more—”

Pepper threw both her hands in the air.  “And now we’re talking about the tower again—”

“Yes!  The tower, green energy, self-sustaining, Pepper, listen—”

“No, you listen!” Pepper shouted.  She seemed to realize it only a moment too late that she had raised her voice in anger and pressed a hand to her face.  She shook her head, eyes closed as she struggled to focus.  “Tony,” she said, almost whispering.  “Just… the board wants a statement, alright?  Something nice, preferably short, about how you’re looking forward to meeting the man behind the legend, working with him—”

“Which,” Tony snapped, walking back toward the table where he’d emptied most of his tools onto, “I’m not.  A-and who even says I’m going to work with him?” Tony didn’t so much as glance at Pepper as she walked across the room, shoving the holographic interfacings that hung around the room out of her way went.  “I’ve been kicked off Fury’s cheerleading squad, remember?”

Pepper pressed a button on the wall summoning the elevator.  “Oh, yeah,” she snapped.  “Complete surprise, there, since you’re so good with people.”

“I couldn’t care less about people,” Tony muttered, “let alone what they think about me.”  He winced as soon as it left his mouth.  He looked up at Pepper as she stared him down.  The chime of the elevator broke the silence and their stare. 

Pepper shrugged.  “Of course you don’t,” she muttered to her shoes.  “Whatever was I thinking?”  She stepped inside the elevator, gave Tony one last look as she punched the number that would take her to the parking garage.  She didn’t look up until just before the doors started to close, raised her voice just enough to say, “you’ll have to meet him eventually, Tony.”

Tony watched the elevator doors shut with a ping, leaving him alone in the room with the holographics and Jarvis.

His lips pressed outwards in a pout and, almost to himself, he muttered, “yeah, well… you’ll… have to meet him.”  It sounded less like a counter-quip once he said it aloud.  He sighed.  “Jarvis?”

“Yes sir?”

“Let’s run some more projections on model number three.  Let me see a draft of that landing pad, but instead of coming straight out, let me see what it looks like curved around the edge of the balcony on that lower floor.”

“Of course, Sir.”

Tony lost himself to the work; the constant shuffle of movement and change, fine tuning each aspect until it was in sync with the whole.  His whole.  His design.  With luck, Stark Tower would be fully operational in two days time.

Not that he expected to hear from Pepper until then.  The more of these “aggressive talks” they had (Pepper, however, called them “arguments”), the less she’d come around in the days following said talks.

At first he hadn’t noticed she was gone.  Work on the tower kept him busy enough that when she would disappear for a day then return the next day with coffee and donuts from his favorite shop, he thought she was simply being…

Well… Pepper.

It never occurred to him that they might be apology donuts.  Not until the argument two weeks ago.  Pepper and he’d shouted themselves hoarse that night, and for the love of God, he couldn’t remember what for.  She didn’t talk to him for days after that.  It was actually Rhodey that asked if he was ever going to apologize.  Tony told him he didn’t have any idea what he’d done that warranted an apology, but after much deliberation, he figured he should do the right thing and apologize.

Then he realized apologies were hard, and decided to call the florist instead.

It was that night Tony discovered makeup sex was as good, if not better, than angry sex.  He made a mental note and moved forward as usual.  A few weeks later, there was another argument, another long period where neither spoke to one another, and one or the other would eventually apologize and the cycle would continue; flowers, sex, fighting, silence, then back to flowers.  There was only one problem.

The flowers weren’t helping anymore.

He’d bought her twelve dozen roses and had them delivered to the corporate office, then asked the bitch—aka Miss Not-Actually-Natalie-Rushman-but-Natasha-Romanoff—how it went.

In not so many words, Natasha told him Pepper was largely… unimpressed by the display and asked the janitor to get them out of her office.  Tony asked if anything else had happened, to which Natasha had simply raised an eyebrow and said, “no, nothing.  But she did cry at her desk for an hour.”  Tony hoped she was just yanking his chain, but he knew that was likely all it was.  Hope

Truth was far more cruel.

Tony worked into the late hours of the morning, suited up and went about building the framework for the new landing strip.  By the time the sun was coming up, he’d finished wiring at least half of the pad to act as a suit disassembly line.  He gave a few last-minute directions to the construction manager, changed the color-scheme on levels three through eight (because he wasn’t really feeling the red anymore) and then went promptly back to the penthouse of his hotel, stripped down to nothing, and faceplanted into the bed with a groan.  He should have felt something; accomplishment, exhaustion, anything.  Instead, he just felt numb.

Too tired to care, he gave himself over to sleep.

Chapter Text

 

Steve couldn’t sleep.

He’d tried everything; listening to music, tossing and turning in silence.  Agent Barton had even suggested watching a television before bed, but all that was playing at this hour of night were comedies he didn’t understand with badly recorded canned laughter and awkward commercials with woman talking about phone services.  He wasn’t so naive that he didn’t know what it was these women were truly trying to sell.

And then, of course, he’d tried reading.

Agent Romanov’s promised dossiers on both Howard and Anthony Stark were delivered.  Delivered by Director Fury, no less.  He said he was glad Steve was showing an interest in… anything really, but that he still expected him to finish the reading on recent events.  Steve thanked him for the package and gave his word that he’d keep up on his other reading. 

After all, how much more could there be?

So, true to his word, Steve kept reading.  But the more he read, the less he understood.  Everyone said America’d won the war, that the allies came out on top and saved the world.  Steve couldn’t help but think that wasn’t entirely true.  The war had ended, and no sooner did the parties and bright lights fade than another war had already begun. 

The Cold War, the Indochina War, the Korean War, the Second Indochina War, the Bay of Pigs—and that wasn’t even twenty years in.  Each section featured a description of the events leading up to the war, America’s involvement, and the after math.  The descriptions, however, were far from brief and the more Steve read, the less he felt he understood.  He’d even caught himself turning pages only to stare at the text and realize he hadn’t read a word for pages by that point, so he’d have to turn back and try again.  And again.  And again and when he just couldn’t take anymore, he’d pick up Howard’s dossier.

He preferred it to reading about the seemingly endless circle of war and political maneuvering.  Even amid all the conflict and wars, Howard Stark had become something of a beacon.  He quickly became the leading manufacturer of arms and armor for the American government, and in the meantime, had been one of the founding memebers of the organization Steve now found himself in the care of.

As he flipped through the pages, Steve recognized many of the early designs Howard had made; evolved versions of the armored plating or weaponry Howard had first tested with Steve and the Howling Commando.  What was decades on paper felt like days to Steve.  It was surreal, like reading about a life half-lived, or watching a film out of focus.

Only it was his life.  They had just won the war.

The men were grinning like idiots, and Dum Dum’s head was tossed back in a mad bout of laughter.  Howard, himself, was off to one side looking slick and at-ease as always.  And on his arm, Peggy Carter uncharacteristically out of uniform and in a navy and white polka-dot dress.  Steve pushed a fleck of dust from Peggy’s face with his thumb and smiled.  It didn’t do her justice, not the dress nor the photo.  Steve pulled the paperclip off the picture, arguing that S.H.I.E.L.D. wouldn’t miss one little polaroid, and put it up on the fridge.

Ten minutes later, however, he felt guilty and put it back.

Every time the dossier would discuss the newest tech for the newest war, Steve would go back to the other reading.  He’d familiarize himself with the mechanics and politics of the war then go back to Howard’s file, always eager to see what Howard would come up with.  He was always the first to respond to the needs of the soldiers, and always eager to rethink what was and was not possible in whatever theatre of war America found herself in.

Steve couldn’t help but feel a bit proud.

Steve had read as far as the Gulf War in his other packet.  He went back to Howard’s dossier, reading the notes as usual when he felt his heart drop hard into his stomach.

There were pictures of a car, though it hardly looked like a car any longer.  Steve flipped anxiously through pages and they told him what, to some degree, he’d already known.  He read over the autopsy reports, the notes from the medical examiner, newspaper articles with hundreds of titles in bold.  One stood out at the forefront of the portfolio that featured a picture of Howard, smiling and sitting by something huge and important-looking and holding a wrench.  The headline read: “The Passing Of A Titan.” Later articles would mention died in the ICU a day after the accident, detailing her life and her love for both Howard and Anthony. There were a few afterwards on those gifts Howard had left the American people in his death; the Howard Stark Technological Scholarship featured at over a dozen of the finest universities in the county, the Howard Stark Memorial Wing in the Manhattan Trinity Hospital, and that was just the beginning of Howard’s legacy.

And of course, there was his son.  Tony.

Steve flipped through the pages, barely understanding what was happening, but knowing that whatever it was, it was important.  First circuit board at age four, three dozen international distinctions between that and his remarkably early graduation from MIT.  Only three weeks prior to his parent’s untimely death.  Steve let out a soft breath.  He knew what it was like to lose a parent, to throw yourself into the work just to keep the grief at bay.  He supposed, at the heart of it, that was what had driven him to the military.  It seemed only fitting to finish what his parents started; to do whatever he could to make them proud; to honor their memory even in death.

That was the first place he saw he and Stark differed.

The newpaper clippings spoke for themselves.  “Boy Genius Takes Stipend on Spending Spree.”  Nearly a quarter inch of the dossier was made up of equally repulsive headlines.  The boy had taken his chunk of the Stark fortune, and gone to town: drugs, parties, questionable women, questionable men, the whole nine yards.  If it could be smoked, injected, or had sex with, Stark would find it.

And it got worse.

Drug abuse turned to drug addition, parties turned to binging, and when the money was gone, so were the lovers and the crowds.  Stark could have—should have—died.  If it weren’t for the intervention of one, Obadiah Stane.  By the time Stark was twenty Stane, the then-CEO of Stark Industries, managed to track down the boy.  By that time, there was no strength left for resistance.  Stark went quietly into the hospitals and the rehabilitation clinics.  It wouldn’t be on his first trip, or his second or third, but eventually Stark got clean.  He came and took back the reigns for Howard’s company and, according to the dossier, ushered in a new age in smart-war technology.

Sales were at an all-time high and Stark Industries was the forefront of technology in virtually every field.  But that wasn’t to say Stark was strictly business.  Between the release of new technology and inventions, there were still the models, the drinking, the gambling.  The drugs hadn’t become an issue again, but S.H.I.E.L.D. had noted they weren’t entirely convinced they weren’t still a factor.

Steve read the dossier and war reports so far as the beginning of the War on Terror before he couldn’t stomach anymore and had to set both the reading and Stark’s documents aside.  Steve hadn’t realized until he put Stark’s dossier down that he was shaking with anger.  For all his accomplishments, Stark was a sorry excuse for a human being, and a disappointment to everything Howard was.

Steve needed to clear his mind.  He snuck down the fire escape again, went to the gym and set out his punching bags.  S.H.I.E.L.D. had made it quite clear that they didn’t appreciate the mass destruction of the bags, but Director Fury assured him it was no trouble and it would be taken care of.

So Steve turned off his brain and fell into the rhythm of the motion.  He swung until his limbs burned, felt each reverberation all the way up into his shoulders and back.  He kept his head down, eyes barely opened as he swung.  He’d come here to forget.  To tune out.  But all the while, his mind was a white-hot streak.

They told him the world had changed.  They said it was for the better.  They said he’d done the right thing that day, putting that bird into the water; said he’d saved hundreds of lives.

Saved them for what?  Because, thus far, Steve was seeing very little worth living for in this apparent future.

He thought about the Commando.  About Bucky.  About Howard.  About everyone who tried to make a difference and had ended up dead.  No one had lived long enough to see the American Dream turn sour.

And now, he was the only one left.  Out of time in a world full war and greed and hate.  And he wasn’t dying fast enough.

The thoughts came faster.  The commando running through the woods, Howard giving him the shield.  Peggy’s voice on the other end of the radio, telling him he wasn’t alone.

But he was.

Steve let out a shout, swung hard enough to send the weighted sandbag flying off the hook and across the room.  It rolled to a stop, sand pouring out of the seams as Steve stood, taking in deep breaths and letting them out as though that alone would clear his mind.  It wasn’t helping.

He pushed the hair from his eyes, reached for the next punching bag and hung it on the hook.  He wasted no time in starting in on it.

“Trouble sleeping?”

Steve stopped mid-swing, looking over to where Director Fury was standing in the doorway, dressed in a clean black suit, rather than the leather jacket he seemed so fond of.  It was hard to read his expression from across the room, but Steve could tell it wasn’t a social call.

Steve regarded him for half a moment more.  “Slept for seventy years, Sir,” he said, his tone short as he went back to swinging.  “Think I’ve had my fill.”

“Then you should be out.  Celebrating.  Seeing the world.”

Steve stopped the training, giving Fury a bare glance.  What he wanted to say was that he’d seen more than enough of it on paper.  Why should he even go to the trouble of getting up each morning?  And for that matter, why did they bother even waking him up in the first place?  Why couldn’t they have just left him on ice and…

That would be a breech in protocol.

Steve walked away from the bag, began unwrapping his hands.  He chose his next words carefully, measured his tone to level his voice.  “When I went under… the world was at war.”  He shook his head.  “I wake up, they say we won… they didn’t say what we lost.”  He tossed the first hand wrap into his duffle, not so much as looking at the S.H.I.E.L.D. Director.

“We’ve made some mistakes along the way,” Fury said, almost hearing the unspoken thoughts  in Steve’s voice.  It was only then Steve noticed the manila envelope in his hand.  “Some very recently.”

Steve eyed the envelope warily.  He began unwrapping his other hand.  “You here with the mission, Sir?”

“I am.”

“Trying to get me back in the world?”

Fury opened the envelope and held it out to Steve.  “Trying to save it.”

Steve stared at the picture a moment, impossibly colored and impossibly radiant.  It wasn’t an old picture.  It was a new one.  He took the folder from Director Fury, sunk to a seat on the bench.

They were wrong.  They’d all been wrong.  The war hadn’t been won.

It had just been post-poned.

***

“Y’know… I thought we were having a moment—”

“—I was having twelve-percent of a moment.”

Tony gave Pepper a look, but it was clear she wasn’t going to back down.  They couldn’t even celebrate Stark Towers without it turning into an argument.  Well, it wasn’t an argument yet, but Tony knew there was a fifty-percent chance the night would end in either an argument or really, really, great sex.

Up until now, he’d been pulling for the latter.

Now?  Now Agent Coulson (what the hell kind of a name was Phil, anyway?) had shown up, hacked his security, and handed one of those twenty-pound nightmares that S.H.I.E.L.D. used to transport information in.  Tony tried to convince them to call them, ‘brief cases.’  When Fury hadn’t laughed, Tony explained that it was funny because they often contained a mission briefing inside.  Fury had just rolled his eyes—sorry—eye, and ignored the suggestion.  Tony was fairly certain he lost his sense of humor around the same time as he’d lost his eye.

Even as Tony began setting the case up to communicate with the Stark Towers system, he could already tell this was big.  Something that was going to take far more time and effort than Tony wanted to put into it at this hour, especially now that he and Pepper had broken out the bubbly.  Chances of getting laid had gone from ‘looking good’ to ‘zero’ in 4.5 seconds flat.  Awesome.  Way to go, Phil.

Pepper must have seen the irritation on Tony’s face, because she tried to smooth things over.  Her voice lowered to a soothing whisper as she leaned into him.  “This seems serious, Phil seems… pretty shaken—”

“—how would you know thi—why is he Phil—?”

“—what is all this?”

"This is, uh..."  Tony put his fingers on the screen.  “This.”

With a gesture of his fingers, all the information from the case was displayed on individual screens all around the room.

And for a long while, neither of them spoke.

Video and audio footage played, marked dossiers were on display all around the room in addition to data feeds and energy reports.  A huge green monster tore a tank—and the soldiers inside it—in two and Tony couldn’t so much as look away.  When he did, the first thing he noticed, out of the corner of his eye, was Pepper’s expression.  Her eyes had gone wide and her skin, pale. 

He opened his mouth to speak when he saw what she was staring at.  The very topic of their last fight.  The Star-Spangle Man himself.

Fantastic.

Tony knew he should have said something.  Anything.  Instead, all he could do was stare at the screen.  He could feel the anxiety rising into his shoulders, settling into his lower back.  Whatever this was, it was beyond what he was prepared to deal with.

He’d almost forgotten Pepper was there until she spoke.  “I’m going to take the jet to D.C. tonight—”

“—tomorrow,” he said, never taking his eyes of the screens.

Pepper was shaking her head.  Her voice had gone softer still.  She wasn’t looking at him as her hand sought out his.  “You have homework… you have a lot of homew—”

“—well, what if I… didn’t?” Tony asked, turning to face her.

Pepper smirked at him.  “If you didn’t?”

“Yes.”

“You mean when you finished?”

He nodded.

The smirk turned to the telltale smile Tony had grown to love.  “Well… then…”

Pepper pulled him in with an arm around the back of his neck and whispered into his ear.  It was at that moment Tony spotted  Agent (he’d be damned if he called him Phil).  It was in everyone’s best interest for him to put on a show.

He barely needed to.  What Pepper was suggesting would have made him pull those faces regardless of whoever else was in the room.  When she pulled away, he cleared his throat, nodded.  “Square deal, flash saved.”

Without a word of warning, Pepper leaned forward, pressed her lips up against his and kissed him gently.  Tony wanted to grab hold of her, tell her not to go—beg her if need be—but before he could so much as speak, she was gone with a whisper of, “work hard,” before turning and walking toward the elevator.

Tony’s jaw went tight and he tried to roll the tension out of his shoulders.  He turned to say something to Pepper, ‘goodbye,’ or ‘be safe,’ but she’d already skipped up the stairs and was asking “Phiiiil” if he’d drop her off at LaGuardia.  He waved a hand in their direction and went back to work, pretending not to listen to the animated conversation about an apparent cellist who’d recently moved back to Portland.

That’s when it caught his eye.

He snatched up the three-dimensional rendering with a swipe of his hand, turned the glowing blue cube around to examine it.  The elevator doors hissed shut and the work began.

“Jarvis, you awake?”

“Always, sir,” came the level voice.  “What can I assist you with?”

Tony spun the cube on the tip of his finger.  “This.  I want whatever information you can find.  Expand the search beyond the ‘brief case,’ would you?”

“Yes, sir.”

Tony wandered through the ghostly blue pages, shimmering with information and footage.  Every dossier S.H.I.E.L.D. had on record, including his own.  He sighed and with a wave of his hand, minimized the browser.  He already knew exactly how little S.H.I.E.L.D. thought of him.  He just didn’t care anymore.

All the while, he kept toying with the little blue cube.  “What have you got for me, Jarvis?”

“Data outside the S.H.I.E.L.D. case is non-existent.”

Tony frowned.  “What, seriously?”

“All available data on screen three.”

“What is it?” Tony asked, tossing the cube over his shoulder.  With a soft hiss, it swung wide back to the primary screen and clicked back into place.

“According to reports, S.H.I.E.L.D. believes it to be an energy source.  It first came into their possession in 1942.”  The AI hesitated a moment before adding, “Your father recovered it during the initial search for a Captain Steve Rogers.  Its classified name is ‘Tessarect.’”

Tony began typing on the holoconsole nearest him.  “Another secret,” he muttered to himself.  “Thanks, Dad.”

“The report says that further testing on the object began a little over six months ago.  Limited progress has been made in the short time, however… it seems to have gone missing.”

Tony’s fingers didn’t stop typing, eyes darting all over the screen before him.  “Missing meaning… stolen, I take it.”

“That is correct, Sir.”

“S.H.I.E.L.D. have a lead yet?”

A screen appeared next to the one Tony was examining.  A tall, slender man with dark hair and piercing eyes.  Tony frowned at the screen.  “Who’s the beauty queen?”

“According to the file, his name is Loki.  And he is not of earth.”

“What, we talking aliens?”  When Jarvis didn’t answer, Tony sighed.  “Aliens, great.  Why am I not surprised.  Well, fortunately, he’s got a face, right?”  He began typing.  “Start downloading the bullet-points of this data-dump onto a tablet for me.  I want the Mark VI ready to go in ten min—where are we on the Mark VII?”

“Not completed.  Estimates show another three days before minimal trial runs can be performed.”

Tony pulled a face.  “Can’t we just… make it faster?”

“That is not possible, Sir.”

“Boo, you whore,” Tony muttered, grabbing a few of the screens and merging them to clear room for more information.  “Alright, here.  Open up a facial recognition scan.  Hack whatever we can and see if we can’t spot this guy.  Ping me when it’s ready.”

“The requested tablet is on your desk.  The data upload is complete.”

“Thanks, sweetheart,” Tony drawled, picking up the pad.  “You’re a gem.”

Tony walked over to the couch and flopped himself down, propping up his head on the armrest and beginning to skim through the various profiles S.H.I.E.L.D. had felt important to include in the case.

The first and largest of the files belonged to a Dr. Bruce Banner.  Tony had heard plenty about Banner’s work in gamma radiation, both in the lab and, of course, out on the streets.  There was still talk of the incident when he’d turned ten times his normal size, gone a remarkable shade of green, and took out half of Harlem in the process.  Tony wasn’t sure which of the two personalities he was more impressed with.

Then there was the shortest of the documents; a blonde guy who looked like the 80’s lovechild of Arnold Schwarzenagger and Eddie Van Halen if someone deflated his hair.  Identified only as “Thor,” there was virtually no data available, save a few notes from Agent Coulson.  Tony skimmed them; something about a hammer, demi-God, blah, blah, bored.   Skip.

Tony nearly chucked the tablet across the room when Agent Romanov’s profile came up.  Not only didn’t he trust the bitch within five blocks of Stark Tower, he still wasn’t quite done being mad at her.  Pepper liked to point out that she did, in some manner of speaking, save the company and last Summer’s Expo.  Tony liked to point out that it didn’t make her any less of a bitch.  Romanov’s file was compiled with information on another agent, Clint Barton, but considering if he had to look at her a second more, he was going to have to punch something and everything here was too valuable to punch, he skipped the document.

Then the final dossier.  The Captain.

There were photos, old and new, and the mug shot S.H.I.E.L.D. took of all of their agents.  The Captain looked less than thrilled to be there.  The footage in the dossier was compiled of old video clips from the propaganda shoots of the forties—all of which Tony had seen enough that he was fairly certain it was burned into the back of his skull—and new S.H.I.E.L.D training records.

Not even a month out of the ice, and the old man was running circles around over eighty-percent of the S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents.  And then, of course, there was the shield.  Tony had heard stories of this guy and his shield, how he’d throw it like a Roman Olympian, but he never actually put any stock in the stories.  Now, to see him work it like a pinball machine?  Ricochet the thing off three, four training dummies at a time?  It would have been comical if it weren’t the real deal.

Well, the chemically induced real deal.

The guy might have been built like a brick house, but it wasn’t him.  Not really.  Most of it, the muscles, the skill, the talent?  That had been the project.  Tony had read all of Dad’s old files on the project, the bits that were remembered.  So much of the process was nothing but blank spaces; blanks that could have only been filled by the lead scientist on the project.  However, as the story went, the lead scientist had been killed literally within minutes of the project’s success.  Dad hadn’t put much stock into replicating the project.  If had been done once, he used to say, it served no one to do it again.  If he had, however, tried to fill the blanks on the project notes, he certainly hadn’t confided in Tony.  Then again…

Tony looked to where the three-dimensional block still hovered above his desk. 

There was plenty Dad hadn’t told him.

Tony set the tablet down on the coffee table with a clatter and stood.  He walked to the main screen, covered in readings and information on the object.  This ‘Tessarect.’  “Jarvis,” he said, grabbing the blue cube out of the air.  “Purge the personnel data from the tablet and upload any information we’ve got on this thing.  Or anything like this thing.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“I mean it, do a net search on ion fusions, every type of radiation, if it’s anything like this thing, I want information on it.”  Tony set the cube back, noticing the screen at the front and center of the room; Captain America’s serious, somber expression stared down at him from the page.  It was like a ghost from all of Dad’s old pictures staring down at him in constant disapproval.  Tony made a face and flapped a hand at the screen.  “And… get rid of the pictures, they’re kind of freaking me out.”

“Upload complete, Sir.  Will there be anything else?”

“Phone in a pizza.”

“Sir, you have given me strict programming limitations in order to enforce your diet—”

Fuck my diet, I want a pizza.  Override two-two-three-five-nine.”

“Override accepted.  Do you have a preference on that pizza?”

“Extra cheese, extra sauce, extra meat, extra fast,” Tony said, walking back to coffee table and picking up the tablet.  “I am in serious need of thinking food.”

Chapter Text

Steve—ten dollars poorer and gawking like a private on his first shore leave abroad—was wandering the halls of the strange, floating fortress of S.H.I.E.L.D.  It felt strange; nothing like any of the other planes he’d ever been on, even after waking up.  Perhaps the largest part of the strangeness was that, more often than not, he’d forget he was flying.

The S.H.I.E.L.D. agents seemed more than content to give him free reign of the ship and Steve was more than content to continue exploring.  Anything to keep him away from the stifling tension that was the main deck; several dozen men and women all after the same thing: the Tesseract.  And then there was the matter of the man who’d taken it.

Loki.

Fury had given him the briefing, but Demi-gods? Aliens?   Steve wasn’t entirely certain what they were dealing with.  Or how much of it he was able to take in.  It wasn’t long ago he woke up in New York City nearly seventy years after what felt like falling asleep.  Regardless of the time slip, walks always helped clear his thoughts, so that’s what he decided to do.  Take a walk.

He’d walked almost the entire length of the airship, which had proven larger than he thought possible.  He’d walked it from bow to stern, stopped off at a few places in between.  For the most part the Agents seemed content to let him go where he liked.  Steve wasn’t entirely certain they understood that just because he was working with S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t mean he was one of them.  Not necessarily.  And most certainly not yet.

There were some places that required keys.  An agent described them as “plastic cards” that worked as Steve.  He tapped one on a panel that had caused the door to hiss open.  Steve wasn’t sure how that worked, but was more than content to not go breaking into anywhere.

Eventually, Steve began to realize the walk was not helping.  And since Fury had asked him to stay on the ready, going to the onboard gym and destroying half their punching bags in training probably wasn’t a good option.  That in mind, he doubled back toward the main deck, where Fury and his crew would still be working at their little boxes to find this Loki and the cube.

Steve was halfway down yet another darkened metal hallway when the grey walls turned to windows, blinds only half-drawn.  Inside was a lab of sorts, though they’d changed considerably over the last, well, seventy-ish years.  Inside, Steve recognized the man he’d met on deck earlier: a certain Dr. Bruce Banner.

Banner had been ill-at-ease since the moment Steve set eyes on him.  It was more than simple skittishness that had him wringing his hands, however.  Steve had been given the reports and had looked over the documents.  A lot of it was science-lingo he didn’t understand, but what it boiled down to was that Dr. Banner had something of a condition.

The agent on the jet with him had assured him that beyond the complications to Banner’s gamma-research, the man was, in fact, a genius.  Thus far, Steve already liked him.   He wasn’t bad with people, though he seemed a little unsure of himself.  Though that might happen when you took a man in seclusion for month and tossed him aboard a vessel with well-over five-thousand members on their staff.  Anxious was probably the best word to describe Dr. Banner.  But he didn't seem anxious anymore.

    He’d seemed to have settled nicely into the lab, already busy at work.  Or at least it looked like work.  Mostly it seemed to be strange pieces of glass with floating numbers and bar graphs and equations well over Steve’s head.  Steve gave a little knock on the door.  Gave it twice.  When the doctor didn’t respond, he let himself in.

    Steve stood at the door, waiting for the doctor to look up, notice him.  Banner said nothing.  He appeared to be lost in his work.  Steve kept quiet, watching as Banner moved from screen to screen, re-writing strings of numbers with his fingers and erasing information as needed.  Steve had been watching him for several minutes when Banner finally did a little double-take through the screen he was working on.  He blinked several times, something like a nervous twitch, and pulled the glasses from his face.  “Captain Rogers,” he said, pushing the screen aside.  “I-I didn’t realize you’d come in.”

    Steve felt guilty.  “Oh, sorry!  It’s… okay for me to be here, right?  You don’t mind?”

    Banner shook his head.  There was the twitch again.  “N-no, no, it’s…”  He shrugged and put his glasses back on.  “It’s fine.”  He went back to tapping on the glass screen, only looking at Steve in random glances.  The minutes dragged forward, Steve just examining the equipment that did God-only-knew-what, and wondering how in the heck things had gotten so crazy.  He’d thought Howard was a madman for doing the sort of things he had, but this?

    Banner looked up through the glass screen.  “You never answered my question,” he said.

    Steve looked back over his shoulder.  “Sorry?”

    “On the deck,” Banner said, still working on the graphs.  “I asked what you’d heard about me.”

    Steve shrugged.  “I gave you an answer.”

    “No,” Banner chuckled, tapping at the green portion of a screen and transferring it to the other screen with what looked like a glowing-pen.  “No, you gave me a distraction.”  He stopped his work long enough to look at Steve.  “Okay,” he said, pulling off his glasses, “I’ll be blunt.  What all did they tell you?”

    Steve shrugged.  “Does it matter?”

    Banner shifted, folded his arms across his chest.  “If they told you something wrong, then yeah.  It does.”

    Steve held the doctor’s gaze a long moment then shrugged.  “That’s fair,” he said, starting to pace again.  “Now, I’m not going to pretend I understand any of the science behind what happened to you, but…”  He shrugged.  “They say you tried to replicate Dr. Erskine’s project.  The one that…”  Steve’s words trailed off and he just gestured at himself.  He cleared his throat.  “They say you used radiation, or—”

    “Gamma radiation,” Banner said, nodded.  “Yeah, apparently that wasn’t the secret ingredient.”

    “And that’s what led to your…”  Steve hesitated, looking for the right word and settling for, “condition.”

    Banner nodded.  There was that twitch again as he rubbed his eyes with one hand.  “Alright, okay,” he mumbled.  “Um.  Captain—”

    “You can call me Steve,” Steve interrupted.  “It’s uh… it’s really not a problem.”

    Banner held his gaze.  “Okay… Steve.  I’m going to just… ramble a moment, okay?”

    Steve nodded.

    “Okay,” Banner mumbled.  “So… you’ve been briefed.  Agent Romanov has been briefed.  I’m going to guess everyone else has been briefed, so I’ve gotta ask…”  His throat worked and he shrugged.  “Why am I here?  Really, why have they brought me in, because I’ve got to say, I’m not buying it.”

    Steve frowned.  “You think they brought you in because… why?  Your condition?”

    “It’s not a condition, it’s…”  Banner’s hands went up around his head.  “It’s… complicated.  It’s like living with another guy in your head and…”  He cleared his throat.  “We don’t get along so good, him and me.”

    Steve gave a small smile.  “Well, I think you’re doing just fine.”

    “For now,” Banner muttered.  “I’m just…”  His face twitched again and he pinched the bridge of his nose.  “I just… don’t want to find out there’s more to this than just finding this Tessarect for them, y’know?”

    “Well, if there is,” Steve said with a one-shouldered shrug.  “I can promise you this: I’m not going to put up with it.  As far as I’m concerned, you coming out here is a huge step for S.H.I.E.L.D.  We finish this, and you have my word you can get dropped at whatever secure location you’d like, no questions asked.  It takes a lot of trust letting something like S.H.I.E.L.D. come and pluck you out of your comfort zone.  And that’s not a trust you want to break the first time you get it, and certainly not one I’m willing to let them break.  Not without a fight.”

    Banner chuckled.  “You saying you’d go to bat for me, Cap?”

    “Yeah,” Steve said, nodding.  “I would.”

    The doctor gave him a once over, still not trusting, but there was something more there.  Calculations and estimations, no doubt; running the numbers on how good the odds were to trust this guy at face-value.  Steve couldn’t tell what the final answer was, but Banner gave him a sharp nod.  Then he chuckled.  “You know that might not be a smart idea, right?”

    “It’s a chance I’m willing to take,” Steve said, lifting his chin.

    Banner considered this a moment, opened his mouth to speak when he was cut-off by the intercom panel on the wall.  It buzzed, and Fury’s voice rang into the lab.  “Captain Rogers, we’re going to need you on deck.”

    Steve frowned, pointing at the intercom.  “How did he know I was in h—?”

    “Cameras,” Banner chuckled.  “There’s, um… there’s four of them in this room alone.”  He began pointing them out, small shaded domes that hung from the ceiling.  “Good to know they trust us, yeah?”

    Steve frowned, pointing at the intercom.  “Can they… can they hear us?”

    Banner shrugged.  “Why?  Would you take what you said back?”

    Steve’s eyes narrowed.  “Absolutely not,” he snapped, hating himself for that tone in the same instant he used it, but Dr. Banner’s smile told him it wasn’t an unwelcome response.

    “Well,” Banner said.  “Better not keep them waiting.”

    “Thank you for your time, Dr. Banner.”

    “Not a problem,” Banner said as he started toward the door.  “Oh, and Steve?”

    Steve turned.

    Dr. Banner smiled at him, gave a shrug.  “It’s Bruce.”

    ***

    Tony awoke to a soft chirping sound coming from across the room.  He groaned and blinked his eyes open to find two data-tablets, three cans of beer and a half-uneaten slice of pizza all scattered on top of his chest.  He blinked again and realized he was lying on the couch.  He shut his eyes and groaned, rubbing his face with both hands.  He must have fallen asleep on the couch.  Again.  He eyed the pizza box on the floor warily, not wanting to check to see how much he’d actually eaten.  Let it go, Tony.  Just let it go…

    He opened the box and groaned aloud.  He’d eaten a whole pizza.  He remembered the half-eaten slice still in his hand and sighed.  Well, almost a whole pizza.

    So much for the diet.

    “Jarvis,” he snapped at the open air.

    “Good to have you back, Sir.”

    Tony glared at the ceiling.  It was one thing to be proud of creating a self-aware and learning AI protocol; it was somewhat diminished when one realized one was actually rubbing off on one’s creation.  Tony half-rolled off the couch, half-stood to begin picking up the mess.  “Next time I say order a pizza, don’t let me.”

    “Noted, Sir.”

    “I mean it,” Tony said, tossing the cans into the box and taking the box over to the garbage chute.  “No more overrides.  Don’t give into me like I’m some sort of junkie, okay, if I’m desperate enough, I’ll get my own damn pizza and for the love of GOD what is that noise?!” 

    He tossed the pizza box down the chute with a little more force than necessary before snapping, “Jarvis, today is the day I just start pulling things apart to see what wires make computers feel pain, what is that noise?”

    A projected screen popped up in the middle of the room.  “It would appear your tracking protocol has a match ranking at approximately at seventy-six percent match.  You had requested to be ‘pinged’ when the protocol was completed.”

    “Okay, cool,” Tony mumbled, still shaking off the sleep.  He slammed his fingers into the dismissable key on the screen with a little—okay, a lot—more force than necessary.  “So where’s the Disney Prince?”

    The screen flashed to the image of a map, one blinking dot at the center.  “Stuttgart, Germany.”

    Tony frowned at the stats still playing on the right side of the screen.  “Seventy-eight percent match?  What, is he looking to get caught?  Fire up the Mark VI.  He wants to flash his mug in public, he’s just asking to get his ass dragged in.”  He smirked.  “Let’s see how Fury likes me now.  Oh, hey!  And if we’re packing up, why not load in those healthy freeze-dried whatevers.”

    “The blueberries, Sir?”

    “In flight snack and/or detox.  Don’t question me, just do it.”  He sighed, beginning to type on the console.  “Unless it’s pizza.”

    ***

    Steve felt the hard metal strike the top of his helmet, press hard.  “Kneel.”

    He’d had it up to there and then some with this guy.  Still reeling from the blow he’d just taken a moment earlier, he reached up and shoved it away.  “Not today,” he snapped, aiming a roundhouse kick directly at Loki’s head.  The blow struck, but his follow up jab to the chest was caught.  Literally caught by the man and he grabbed Steve and tossed him across the plaza.

    The man was strong, Steve would give him that.  But that just met the battle wasn’t about force, it was about endurance.

    But he’d be a liar if he didn’t say he was already sore.

    He blinked off the shock as something loud starting pounding in his ears.  At first he wondered if he’d hit his head harder than he thought, then realized the sound was getting louder.   A brash, obnoxious wailing of noise and loud…

    Music?

    It was coming from the PA system on the quinjet.  And blasting from Steve’s headset.

    “Hey, Agent Romanov,” a voice that should not have been on their secure connection said.  “Miss me?”

    Steve rolled onto his back, frowning at a sound that wasn’t the quinjet.  Something was blasting from the sky and in one bright burst, Loki was flying across the plaza, back clashing against the steps as he cried out.  And, louder than the music or the explosion, something landed in the plaza.  The noise radiated through the ground, into Steve’s teeth as he looked up to see the very machine that had been in the dossiers he’d been reading for weeks: the Iron Man suit.

    This was Tony Stark.

    A dozen or more gadgets popped out of the machine as Steve stumbled to his feet, head still reeling from the mess of noise still playing on his headset.  The suit aimed both hands at Loki, the glowing palms ready to fire more at him.  “Make a move, Reindeer-Games.”

    Steve picked up his shield and hurried to stand just a step behind the Iron Man suit.  Mentally, he’d already prepared himself for round two.  He’d been pounding on this guy for a good five minutes already, and Loki hadn’t even broken a sweat.  There was no chance he was going to roll over and give up just because Stark showed up and…

    Loki put his hands up and with a ripple in the air around him, the armor and weaponry vanished into thin air.

    Iron Man suit twisted and disappeared into the suit again.  “Nice move,” the man in the suit said.  You could hear the smirk in his voice.

    Steve kept himself from glaring.

    He gave the suit a once over.  To read the specs on the machine was one matter, to see it in action was something else entirely.  But that wasn’t it.  Not really.  He’d been told that Stark didn’t qualify.  He’d been told Stark wouldn’t be able to be a part of any team put together by S.H.I.E.L.D.

    So why was he here?

    Steve gave a sharp nod.  “Mr. Stark.”

    The head in the suit barely turned to look at him.  There was only a moment of hesitation before a short, muttered response.  “Captain.”

    ***

    This was weird.

    It was weird, wasn’t it?  Yeah, it was.  This was definitely weird.  Tony couldn’t help but stare.  It was like seeing someone step off the old black-and-white screen and into reality.  Like if he’d suddenly tripped over Cary Grant, not a day older than he was in “North by Northwest,” the real-deal, in the flesh.  Only difference was Tony liked Cary Grant.  This?  This was an unwelcome surprise.

    It was again, for lack of a better word, weird.

    The voice behind him stepped up to the man sitting on the steps, grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him to his feet.  “Get up.”  He held Loki tightly by one arm as he gave Tony—or rather the suit—a once-over.  “Wasn’t expecting you to come,” he said.

    Oh, so they were going to do the talking thing?  Great.  Captain America wanted to make small talk.

    Looked like Pepper would get her wish after all.

    “Looks like it’s a good thing I did,” Tony said.

    There was a moment where it looked like the good Captain’s ego would work its way to his mouth, where he’d say, “I had it under control.”  Tony almost hoped it would.  Instead, it happened just as it would in the old propaganda comics.  Captain America just gave Tony a nod and murmured a soft, and—goddamnit—genuine, “thank you.”

    Tony was going to be sick.  He wasn’t working with a Super-Soldier, he was working with a boy scout.  He never thought he’d be so grateful to hear the voice that at any other moment would set his blood boiling.

    “Stark.”

    Tony turned to see Agent Romanov, out of the quinjet and walking in the direction of their party of three.  He pressed a few buttons and the helmet folded back from his face.  He smiled at her, sickly sweet and utterly insincere.  “Agent Spiteful Bitch.  Glad you could make it.”

    She gave him a look and went to grabbing Loki’s wrists and slapping restraining cuffs on them.

    “You know, I gotta admit,” Tony said, lowering his voice and keeping by Natasha’s side although she looked ready to gut him on a whim.  “I was expecting a little more ‘super’ from this trumped up ‘super soldier.’”

    “He had it under control,” she snapped.

    And there it was.  Tony smirked.  “Not from where I was standing.”  He wouldn’t admit it, but it felt nice to say it aloud.

    “Sorry?” Steve asked.  It wasn’t malicious, just a curious question posed to no one in particular.

    “We’ll take it from here,” Natasha said to Tony, nodding at Steve to head back toward the jet.

    “Maybe they didn’t keep you posted,” Tony said.  “Coulson brought me in.”

    She sighed through her teeth, virtually dragging Loki behind her toward the quinjet.  “I heard.  I was just hopeful.”

    “Well, hopeful this.  I’m in, aaaand I’m going to be joining you kids and the plus-one senior discount in case the-ox-man-cometh decides to go on a rampage.”  He smirked again.  “You could say I’m the ace in your sleeve, considering.”

    Natasha rolled her eyes and muttered something in Russian.

    He smiled at her.  “Aw, I missed you, too, Agent Life-Ruiner.”

    She gave him a look.   “Just get in the jet and try to keep your mouth shut.”

    Tony chuckled, turning to see the good ol’ Captain walking up the platform into the jet.  He couldn’t help but stare at the ridiculous suit, and in staring at the ridiculous suit, he realized the man himself looked ridiculous.  Like one of those marble statues made by Greeks.  It was absolutely…

    “Something the matter?” the Captain asked, breaking Tony’s train of thought.

    Tony shrugged.  “Nothing just… thought they might have updated the chorus girl look.”

    The Captain looked down at his chest, then back up at Tony who had already disappeared onto the jet.

    Natasha sighed as she flipped the switches to activate the engines.  It was going to be a long flight.

    Chapter Text

    “These were in Phil Coulson’s jacket.”  Fury looked up at the Captain.  “I guess he never did get you to sign them.”

    He flung the handful of trading cards across the table, scattering them and sending blood splattering on the glass tabletop.  Tony turned his chair away from Fury and the Captain, feeling his stomach turn.  It wasn’t that one thing had gone wrong; everything had gone wrong.  More than wrong.  Wrong meant there was a right to be had somewhere along the way.  Tony wasn’t sure that was the case anymore.

    Fury continued to speak, but it was all white noise to Tony.  He felt numb from his ankles up.  He knew what it was.  It was the psychological shock of loss compiled with the sudden drop of adrenaline after an unexpected battle added upon by a pizza that had never really settled into his stomach.  He could make a chart and graph out the chemical cocktail swimming through his bloodstream to explain away why he was feeling the way he was.  It was nothing new.  Nothing special.  Nothing that any other human hadn’t ever felt before.

    That didn’t make him feel any better.

    “There was an idea.  Stark knows this.”

    Tony didn’t turn toward Fury’s voice, didn’t so much as look at him or Hill or the Captain.  Just lifted his head.

    “Called the Avenger Initiative.  The idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people.  See if they could become something more.  See if they could work together when we needed them to, to fight the battles we never could.”

    How’d that work out for you? Tony wanted to ask.  He didn’t.  He was too tired.  Too sore and sick and sick of this stupid helicarrier and the end of the world.  The huge ship felt too small.  Suffocating.  It was a small box.  A prison cell.  A cave in a mountainside where men put guns to your heads and told you exactly what they wanted you to do and what would happen if you didn’t follow their instructions to the letter.

    “Following’s not really my style,” he’d told the Captain when they were in the lab. 

    Steve Rogers had given him a smug sneer and a once over and confirmed everything Tony had ever guessed about Captain America—he was a perfect, chemically-engineered asshole“And you’re all about style, aren’t you?” he quipped.

    Tony had quipped right back at him, but it wasn’t an answer.  It couldn’t have been.  His answer was too complicated.  Or maybe it was just simple enough to be hard to understand.  He’d stopped following a long time ago.  Following led to nothing but trouble.  Try to follow in your father’s footsteps and everyone tells you that you dishonor his memory.  Try to follow a set career path, end up watching your weapons kill off men, women, children, soldiers, civilians, and told that it’s just good business sense before your business partner stabs you in the back.  Follow along behind Fury?  Watch the pooch get royally screwed, see dozens of young soldiers die—again—and end up being asked to give more to a big, faceless organization that had done nothing to deserve warranting such a request.  If you followed someone, they’ll always ask for more.  Even when you have nothing left to give.  It was true when Obie stabbed him in the back.  It was true in Amsterdam when someone wanted you to follow them for ‘just one more drink.’  It was true in Afghanistan when you had to pick up the car battery that kept your heart beating and follow someone around a hellhole of a desert camp.  It was true now, no matter what the words coming out of Fury’s mouth were.

    “Phil Coulson died still believing in that idea.”  Tony could hear Fury’s voice directed at him as he quietly added, “in heroes.”

    Tony was out of his seat without a word, every muscle in his body tight.  He wanted to scream. He wanted to throw punches and tell Fury exactly what he thought of his little speech, how sick he was of people preaching at him, telling him how the world worked.  He knew how it worked.  The world was small, and bloody, and unfair, and getting this “Special Needs” Team together wasn’t going to change the fact that they were royally screwed and it was Fury’s fault.

    He wanted to say those things.  He didn’t.  He just walked from the room, body aching with the tightness in his shoulders and back, hearing Fury mutter behind him, “Well… it’s an old-fashioned notion.”

    ***

    Tony went promptly to the restroom where he threw up the pizza, beer, blueberries, and whatever else he’d eaten in the last twenty-four hours that was still in his stomach.  And even after that, his body kept twisting and retching air until his whole torso pulsed and ached.

     He hadn’t thrown up like this since his birthday a matter of months ago.  Or the Stark Expo opening night months before that.  Or the time he’d hooked up with that reporter from Vogue and—okay, maybe it was more often than he wanted to admit, but it wasn’t anything like this.  It never had been.

    He rinsed his mouth out in the sink, splashed cold water on his face and neck and gripped onto the sink.  It was that moment he realized his hands were shaking.  They’d been shaking since the battle ended.  He’d chalked it up to the adrenaline crash, but his body should have leveled out by now.  He looked at his face; pale, wide-eyed.  He shuddered, letting it shake through his body before examining himself again.  It hadn’t helped.  He wasn’t sure why he’d expected it to.

    He exited the restroom and a S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent asked him if he was alright.  Tony asked him to kindly fuck off and walked away.  He wandered the halls, not looking at the agents as they passed by, carrying bodies and helping their wounded toward the med-bay.  Someone said his name, and he turned.  Tony recognized him as one of the faceless agents from his manor just after his birthday.  He’d been one of the men accompanying Coulson when…

    Tony swallowed it down, shoved it back to the dark corners where he’d never see it and asked how he could help.  Together they carried another agent toward the med-bay; female, blonde, an arrow jutting out of the space between her shoulder and neck, brown eyes gone dilated and whole body shaking from the blood loss.  She was going into shock.  They carried her to the med bay, got her on a table while the medical team promised to be right there.

    Meanwhile, the girl on the table regained enough consciousness to start talking.  The agent that had brought Tony was holding her hand, telling her everything would be okay, screaming for a medic.  Someone else screamed back that they were spread thin, that it would be a few minutes.  Without thinking, Tony volunteered to find someone.

    It was a poor choice, in hindsight.  The whole medical bay was filled with screaming and smell of blood and scorched flesh.  The neon lights were too bright above his head, like desert sun and the room was spinning and for a moment, he could swear he heard gunfire.  He could swear he was back in Afghanistan, covered in blood as machine fire tore through the armored cars and Tony felt his body folding in on itself, felt his stomach turn and his knees were going to give out and, oh God, he was going to be sick, so help him, he—

    He shoved it down, pounded it back into the shadowy corners of his mind along with Afghanistan, Amsterdam, Obadiah, Venko…

    Phil Coulson.

    He needed to get out of this place.

    ***

    Tony didn’t run.  He walked.  Shuffled through the halls past the agents trying to figure out a) what had happened and b) what was going to happen now.  Sometimes they looked up from their readouts and clipboards to stare at him, as though he had any more answers than they did.  Tony just stared at his feet and kept walking.

    He walked past a secure holding cell with a man tied down to a table.  He heard the two agents standing guard talking, projecting numbers on how many were dead and dying because Barton had been compromised.  He’d recognized the name.  No matter where she’d been, every time Agent Romanov had been near a computer, she’d had a tracking program up looking for a “Barton, Clint.”

    Suddenly he understood Fury’s comment about ‘flying monkeys’

    “Stark.”

    Tony turned, nodded at the woman in combat leathers.  “Romanov.”

    She gave him a once over.  “No snarky nickname?” she asked, face as always an unreadable mask.

    She turned her head, but said nothing more.  She nodded toward the cell.  “Sorry, Stark, I’m a bit busy.”

    Tony’s throat worked.  “Agent Romanov?”

    She turned in the doorway of the cell, eyes gone overbright.  “Stark?”

    He nodded.  “Glad you found him.”

    For a moment, it looked like the mask would crack.  Like she might say something too intimate or too personal and betray every bit of what Tony was convinced she was.  Instead, she gave him a small smile, whispered, “thank you,” and disappeared into the cell.  She ran a hand over the man’s face, not wincing as his body arched and his eyes went wild and searched the room like a rabid thing, shaking his head and twitching, struggling at his bonds.  Tony watched her slip into the chair at the man’s bedside, the mask of calm never cracking.  Never so much as flaking.  Her voice level, she said, “Clint… you’re going to be alright.”

    Tony swallowed and started away.  He wished he could believe that.

    ***

    Somehow, he made his way to the prison cell.  Or where the prison cell had been.  The release had been triggered and the cage had been dropped.  The cage that never should have been built in the first place.  The cage that couldn’t even hold their prisoner.

    Loki was gone.  Thor was gone.  Bruce was gone in every sense of the word.  Natasha was taking care of their recently rescued POW, and judging from the chair they had him in, he was gone, too.  Cap, maybe he could pull it together, but Tony?  Even if he’d never say it out loud, he was gone, too.

    He was back in Afghanistan, watching young soldiers torn apart and bleeding out in the sand, watching Yenzin cough up blood.  He was back in the S.H.I.E.L.D. med bay listening to that girl scream while they try to pull the arrowhead out of her, only to realize the head was shaped like a five-prong hook and the more they pried, the more they tore her up.

    This was why, given the option, he’d always pick to cut the wire.  This was why he’d put on the suit day after day.  Soldiers died when no one else was there to take a stand.  And Tony had watched enough of them die for a lifetime.

    Tony stared at the bloodstain on the wall no one had bothered to clean up yet.  They were too busy patching up their wounded and tending to the dead to concern themselves with it yet.  It struck Tony strangely, the realization that the blood on the wall was the same that now splattered Fury’s glass table on the deck, that smeared over the vintage trading cards Fury’d given to the Captain.  That was all over Loki’s hands.

    He shoved down the surge of ‘what ifs’ and ‘if we’d only justs’ and realized he was running out of space to shove things into.  It was going to break open.  Maybe not now, but…

    He didn’t  move as he heard the steps across the walkway.  He knew who it was.  Who it had to be.

    “Was he married?”

    It was almost as though Steve Rogers had heard his thoughts.  “No,” Tony responded.  “There was a, uh… cellist… I think.”

    There was a pause, an inability to find the words and finally a settling for, “I’m sorry. …he seemed like a good man.”

    Tony felt that corner of emotion start to leak, floating up like black oil to the surface.  He scoffed, looked at Rogers.  “He was an idiot.”

    “Why?” Rogers asked.  “For believing?”

    “For taking on Loki alone,” Tony said, pushing back from the walkway.

    “He was doing his job.”

    Tony scoffed, snapped, “he was out of his league.”  He walked toward the exit.  “He should have waited.  He should have…”

    Steve Rogers started toward him.  “Sometimes there isn’t a way out, Tony.”

    Right,” Tony snorted.  “I’ve heard that before.”  And then I fought my way out of a terrorist camp using a bucket of scraps.  Piss off.  He walked right past the Captain and toward the doorway.

    Steve Rogers eyes followed him and he spoke, voice soft.  Comforting.  “Is this your first time losing a soldier—?”

    Tony rounded on him, eyes wide and shaking with rage, barely able to keep himself from swinging at the man.  “We are not. soldiers.”

    The other man held his gaze, calm as ever, not speaking.  Not accusing or arguing, just… staring at Tony.

    God, he couldn’t stand it.

    Tony’s eyes went to the bloodstain again, hands still clenched to shaking fists.  Slowly, dragging his gaze back to Rogers, he said, “I’m not marching to Fury’s fife.”

    “Neither am I,” Rogers said with an easy shrug.  “He’s got the same blood on his hands that Loki does.  But right now, we gotta put that behind us and get this done.”  Tony’s eyes drifted—a final time—to the bloodstain as Rogers continued.  “Now Loki needs a powersource, if we can put together a list of—”

    “He made it personal,” Tony murmured, looking up at the other man.

    Roger’s expression softened.  His voice went from giving orders to level, calm, consolation.  “That’s not the point—”

    “That is the point.  That’s Loki’s point.  He hit us all right where we live, why?”

    Steve Rogers considered a moment, answered, “to tear us apart—”

    “Yeah, divide and conquer is great but… he knows he has to take us out to win, right?  That’s what he wants.  He wants to beat us, he wants to be seen doing it.”  Tony shook a finger at Steve.  “He wants an audience.”

    Rogers nodded.  “Right… I caught his act in Stuttgart.”

    “Yeah,” Tony murmured, nodding.  “That’s just previews, this is opening night, and Loki?  He’s a full-tilt diva!  H-he wants… flowers, he wants parades, he wants a…”  Tony gestured.  “Monument built to the skies with his name plastered on it and…”

    Tony stared as Captain America raised a single, well-groomed eyebrow at him without saying a word.  He didn’t need to.

    Tony blinked.  “Son of a bitch.”