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Cold Nose, Warm Heart

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(If you are reading this on any PAY site this is a STOLEN WORK, the author has NOT Given Permission for it to be here. If you're paying to read it, you're being cheated too because you can read it on Archiveofourown for FREE.)

The sky was a bad color, and Tony could feel the bones in his face telling him there was a big storm on the way. The others all knew it, too and were circling to make nests in the snow. He'd have to cuddle up in the middle of the pack because the furs he tied on himself weren't as warm as their natural fur. He hated doing that during a storm. He had to lie still and be cold and bored for so long. There was still time to look for some shelter. He stood as tall as he could and turned in a circle, three hundred and sixty degrees. He remembered degrees and numbers, they were good to think about when it was dark and there was nothing to do.

He saw something... it was a different white against the snow, a shape. Any shape was good, it'd cut the wind. He whined to draw the pack's attention and started off at the steady lope he'd learned to keep up with his friends. After a moment, the leader yelped in agreement and padded after him. Tony's height gave him the advantage in distance seeing, and they'd learned to respect that. They moved with quick efficiency over the hard-packed snow and reached the thing Tony had seen before the storm hit.

The shape was big and oddly regular. There was something strange under the snow. The pack sniffed around until the leader declared himself satisfied that it was safe by curling up close to the highest rise of the shape. Tony was curious, so he walked around the thing, letting the shape get put together in his mind, length and height and width. Something teased at him. It was familiar. It was...an airplane! Yes. He remembered... he remembered the bad men lying to him and taking him on a plane ride, 'just for fun'. He went because he was bored. Mamma had got Daddy to take him along while he looked for something he'd lost in the cold country, but Daddy ignored him.

The bad men ignored him, too, once they'd made him cry over the radio so Daddy could hear. Tony didn't want to cry, he knew that would be making trouble for Daddy; Daddy was busy doing much more important things than coddling Tony. Tony was a big boy, he should take care of himself and not need his nose wiped. But he fixed it. When they were saying bad things to Daddy, Tony got under the... he couldn't remember the words. He hadn't used words in so long; words upset the pack. He had got into the machine and he made it break. He'd thought they would just land and run away and he could call Daddy to come get him. But he broke it too good, and they fell.

He didn't remember much after that for a while. Crying and being cold and then the wolves came, sniffing nervously around the broken plane and the broken bad men. He'd thought they were big white dogs so he'd followed them, thinking they'd go home. At first they growled and snapped and ran away from him, but he kept following them until he couldn't walk any more, and then he sat down in the snow and cried some more.

And one of them came up to him and sniffed him all around. Then she licked his face and let him pull himself up by her shoulder fur.

Mamma wolf had died years ago, and so had all the other wolves he'd met that day, but the pack stayed, changing like he changed, but still the same. He was taller and stronger, and he'd learned how to kill things with his hands and teeth, and he had fur on his face now. Not a lot, but some. He liked it, it helped make him feel more like a wolf. Only he was a smart wolf. Smart wolves don't stay out in the storm when there's something they can get into and be warm. He thought about airplanes; they're hollow, and like metal caves. He dug around in the snow until he found a break in the metal big enough to squeeze into the plane. He looked around by the light coming in from the hole he'd made. There wasn't any wind or much of anything, really. This would do. He howled until the pack leader came into the plane, treading nervously. They didn't like people things. People shot at them, and put out meat that made them die. But there were no people here, just a place out of the wind.

After sniffing around and marking the doorway, the leader howled to bring in the others. The metal was uncomfortable to sleep on, but they curled up anyway and went to sleep to wait out the storm, Tony in the middle as usual, pillowed and pillow by his pack. He was quite pleased with himself.

***

After a while Tony woke up. He needed to pee. He went to the place the leader had marked and added his scent. He wasn't tired any longer, but the storm was still a muffled continuous growl outside so he couldn't go out. But it was a big plane; he could walk around. Maybe there would be mice. It wasn't likely, but you never could tell. Not much meat on a mouse, but enough of them would fill your belly.

He went toward the back of the plane, but didn't find anything good, just metal things tumbled across the floor. Big round metal... bullets? No, Tony thought back to designs he'd seen in Daddy's workroom; they were bombs. Bombs were made to hurt, so Tony didn't touch them. He didn't smell or hear any mice anyway. Maybe there would be something interesting in the front of the plane. He paused to look back at the bombs and wonder if Daddy had made them. It was funny to be thinking of him so much today. Daddy must have forgot Tony a long time ago. He was always too busy looking for the important thing he'd lost in the snow to look at Tony.

Tony passed the pack quietly on his way to the front. They were awake now, but didn't get up. They didn't like people things and wouldn't want to explore so he didn't invite them to come with him. Once the storm was over they'd leave and if there was anything interesting he only had this one chance to see it. All right, he admitted it to himself, he wasn't looking for mice. He wanted to look at the machine. He thought about machines a lot, made them in his head, made them do things, but this was the first real machine he'd seen since the bad men took him. Maybe there would be something small he could take with him to play with later.

The front of the plane was more broken than the back, and Tony had to be careful not to fall into holes. There was ice underfoot and over the walls. He got to the end of the plane where the front had broken and been open to the sky before the ice grew to cover the hole. Interesting. D...dials. And...levers? He was sorry it was broken, and quiet. He found a broken piece of metal and scraped around at random, until a bit of bright color caught his eye. Red. Red meant meat. Maybe there was meat frozen under the ice. He scraped the crusted snow away until he could see that the red was metal, with blue next to it and a white star inside the blue. It was pretty. He dug around the thing carefully. And stopped. There was a person under the ice, too.

This was the most interesting thing ever.

Tony dug and scraped until he had the body chipped clear of the ice and could look at it all over. The man was a soldier; Tony could tell because he had a uniform. Tony remembered soldiers. They were brave and important people, and Daddy made things for them. The man was very big, much bigger than Tony. And he was pretty. It was a shame he was dead. Tony couldn't ever be the leader of the pack because he didn't have a mate. He couldn't take a mate from the people who killed wolves; they were enemies, but this man's uniform said he wasn't an enemy. He had belonged to Daddy's pack. That's what uniforms were for, to tell you what pack of people you belong with. If this man wasn't dead, he would have made Tony a good mate.

Well, at least he could take the uniform. It would be big on him, but it would be nice to wear over his furs. He ran his hand over the stiff material. It might break if he took it off while it was frozen. He had a brilliant idea. He'd take the man back to the pack and they'd warm him up until Tony could get the uniform. He began pulling the man, which was hard at first, but got easier as the ice on his back smoothed out. Friction. Tony remembered friction. Friction was heat was thermodynamics was entropy was... Tony remembered things like that, he was careful to remember, at first because he was sure Daddy would find him and be disappointed if Tony had become stupid, and after that he remembered just because it was something he could keep and play with in his mind along with the numbers and the machines.

The pack didn't like him bringing in the man. And they were annoyed when he growled at them for trying to eat the man. People weren't for eating; eating people was bad. Even Tony knew better than that, and the leader agreed with him. They weren't that hungry yet, anyway. They'd killed big and eaten before the storm. Tony let them lick the ice from the man, but he watched to be sure they didn't tear the clothes. He went back to sleep next to the frozen man.

***

There were dreams. Steve floated along in them, uncaring. Distantly he knew they were dreams. Bucky wasn't laughing with him over a beer at the back of the 'speak' where they'd worked as lookouts when they were kids. Peggy wasn't dancing with him to a jazz band, so light in his arms, and him not clumsy at all. Howard wasn't spinning shields like a circus plate balancer. The Howling Commandoes weren't sitting with him atop Notre Dame Cathedral, laughing and telling crude jokes while he sketched Paris, laid out below them like a toy town, with tiny people waving French flags and cheering. He wasn't sitting on the stoop of his tenement in the winter with a puppy licking his face and whining at him. He was so cold. The puppy must be cold, too. That seemed important, somehow. He should take the puppy inside, where it was warm. Mrs. Donegan couldn't abide pets, but she was a good Christian woman, surely he could talk her into allowing the pup to warm up before he went looking for its home. It must belong to someone; it was friendly. Maybe too friendly. The pup was squirming in his lap now and it made him uncomfortable.

The warm tongue went across his lips and into his mouth. "Uh, no," Steve said as he recoiled instinctively, jolted up from the bland nothingness of the dream into a nightmare of cold and snarling and white fur in a dim cold room. He backed up, forcing unwilling muscles to move until his shoulders slammed into metal and that sensation was just too real to be in a dream. He was in an enclosed metal ... airplane... the Red Skull's airplane... but it was so cold, and there were white wolves all around, growling and snapping. And between him and the wolves there was a man dressed in a bulky and ragged assortment of hides and furs, crouched and growling and snarling back at the wolves.

"What?" he asked, completely confused. His mind was sluggish. He was so cold his fingers were like tough-skinned sausages and he couldn't even tell where his feet were. The man looked back over his shoulder at Steve. He was younger and thinner than Steve would have guessed, misled by the furs. His hair was dark and greasy, knotted into a rough club-shape going down his back to vanish into the furs. He had an unkempt sparse beard and enough dirt ground into his skin that Steve was uncertain of his race. "Who are you?"

One of the wolves took advantage of the young man's distraction to lunge at Steve. Before he could react the young man and the wolf were rolling over and over in a blur of fur and snarls. What was really horrible was that he couldn't tell which sounds were coming from the wolf. There was a shrill yelp and just as suddenly they were separated with the wolf backing away, tail and head both held low.

The young man straightened and put his shoulders back. He turned to look at the other wolves, one by one. One of the bigger ones growled before turning away. It walked toward a break in the fuselage that Steve hadn't noticed because it was full of snow. The wolf broke through the snow and disappeared outside, followed by all the other wolves. The young man took several steps after them.

"Where are you going?" Steve didn't want to be alone. He was confused and cold. The man stopped and turned back to him. He looked back and forth between Steve and the direction the wolves had gone several times and then he let out a soft huff and padded back to Steve. The man knelt next to him and gazed at him with large, dark eyes for a moment before lowering his eyelids and bowing his head. The man looked intelligent, and this close Steve could see he wasn't an eskimo or whatever you call the people who live in the arctic. People did live in the arctic, didn't they? He thought sluggishly, and he wasn't sure of anything. "Who are you?" Steve said slowly. Maybe the man didn't understand English.

The man whined. Actually whined. And then he buried his face against Steve's armpit and rubbed his nose there while making little soft growly noises. Steve almost tossed the man away before he realized this wasn't an attack. He patted awkwardly at the fur-covered back, finding lean muscle and prominent bone beneath. "You hit your head or something, mister?" He ran his hands carefully through the greasy hair, seeking bumps or soft spots. The man whined again, just like a dog enjoying being petted. "Do you speak English? Can you talk? At all? Sprechen sie Deutsch? Parlez vous Francais? Se habla Espanol? Parli Italiano?" Not that Steve was fluent in anything except Brooklynese, but he'd picked up enough during the war to make himself understood, sorta, most of the time. A smile and an offer to share food generally did more than any words to break the ice.

Speaking of food. He looked past the man, really taking in his surroundings. He'd crashed in the middle of nowhere. He had no idea where he was, but he was pretty sure he couldn't survive here for very long. He had to... Peggy! He had to get to the radio, call and tell them he was all right. He pushed at the man. "Let me up. I've got to see if the radio is still working."

Instead of moving away, the young man pounced on him and licked Steve's face. Steve grabbed the back of his neck and pulled him off. "What is WRONG with you?" he shouted, fear and frustration making him angry. Suddenly ashamed of himself, he released the man, who fell to his knees and then rolled over onto his back, whining and holding his head tilted back to expose his throat. "What are you doing?" Then something in the man's pose clicked, reminded him of the losing mutt in a street fight, overlaid by a dim memory of a library book he'd borrowed several times because he loved the drawings of the animals. The Jungle Book. Mowgli had been raised by wolves. "Huh. You think you're a wolf? That's... all right. Good boy," he said awkwardly. "I'll just go check on the radio. We'll... we'll get someone to come for us. It'll be all right." He looked around, trying to get his bearings. "Which way to the flight deck?"

The young man got to his feet and moved slowly towards Steve, glancing at him, and then away, and then back again. Steve sighed and patted him on the shoulder. "I'm not mad at you, boy. This isn't your fault. But I have to get back. They need me, don't you understand? They need me, and they must think I'm dead."

The wolf-boy tilted his head and looked confused, but he followed Steve who had figured out which way to go after a long moment of feeling really stupid. He'd run through this airplane only a few hours ago, of course he knew the way to the flight deck. When he got there he found his shield and frowned at the thick coating of ice on it, and really, everywhere. "Wow, that must have been some storm." He tried the radio, but what wasn't smashed was frozen solid and nothing happened, not even static. The wolf-boy watched him, head tilted curiously, and attempted to help, so Steve had to keep pushing him back away from the instruments. The only useful thing he found was a small compass swinging from a chain, probably a pilot's good luck charm. Steve took it and sighed. "I've got to find some people. Do you understand? You know, people? Like you and me?" Steve pointed at the wolf-boy and then at himself, which, as it turned out was a mistake because he wound up with an armful of affectionate wolf-boy, whining and licking and... rubbing against him. It was embarrassing. The only good part is that he discovered he was too cold to blush.

"Look, I'm glad you like me, and I think you're really a swell guy, but I'm not like you. I can't live here. You know?" He exaggerated a shiver. "I'll freeze, or I'll starve, or probably both." He managed to shake his way free, and went to search the plane for survival gear. There wasn't much. Finally he wrapped the tattered remnant of a silk parachute around himself and tied his shield onto his back. "Look, I'm going to go now. I can't stay here." He stepped out of the plane, blinking at the bright, sharp light after the dimness of blue light filtered through ice, and looked around. There was ice. There was snow. And... that was pretty much it. He started following the trail the wolves had broken in the snow for lack of anything better to do. At least the going was slightly easier that way.

***

Tony hadn't really expected to mate. It was the wrong time of year for that, anyway. He would have to court him first. He had made up his mind that this was his mate; he just had to keep trying until his mate knew it, too. He had hoped for a little more affection and encouragement, but he could be patient. He hadn't been bitten or growled at, not really. The barking wasn't all that serious, he could tell. The main problem was that his mate was loud and clumsy and not at all suited to survival. How did he get to be so big and not know how to walk on snow without wasting all his strength? And he would be cold. Tony hadn't considered all the problems of getting a mate to be responsible for, to start a new pack with. He'd have to hunt all by himself, and... his mate must eat an awful lot.

He scratched at his ear and sniffed the wind. No storms, that was good, but the storm had scattered the herds. And he really couldn't hunt enough on his own for the two of them. He did find a mouse run under the snow, but his mate didn't want any mice, and didn't seem happy when Tony ate them.

He really, really didn't like the idea, but sometimes, when things were especially bad, the pack had gone to the place where people dumped things they didn't want any more. There were open cans with food still in them, bones with some meat and marrow, all sorts of things you could eat if you were careful, and Tony had found clothes still perfectly good, maybe missing a few bits or with ugly marks on them, but still they layered well under his furs. It was dangerous. He'd almost been caught the last time. He looked sideways at his mate and decided to risk it.

His mate was slow. It would take a few days to get to the people place. It was lucky it was so warm. There were even places the snow was melting. It took a little tugging and growling, but eventually he convinced his mate to follow him. When the sun went down Tony had to show him how to dig a nest in the snow and even after he curled up on top of his mate and put his arms around him he could tell the big man was cold. He licked his mate's cheek for comfort. Well, it made him feel better even though his mate didn't seem to like it much. Tony tried to remember how people showed affection, but he couldn't remember Daddy and Mamma doing anything but shout at each other. Maybe people didn't like people? That was so wrong. He'd have to show his mate that he loved him and wanted him, and would do everything he could to make him happy. Tony was a good wolf, he knew what you needed to do to be happy. Hunt with the pack, care for your mate and the pack's cubs, chase off intruders in your territory, play when food was easy to get. It was all very sensible and the best way to live. Tony buried his nose under his mate's arm and dozed off, lightly, like a good wolf.

***

Steve slogged along in the snow, not wasting the energy to look where he was going. He didn't know how the kid was doing it but wolf-boy was leading him in a straight line, as near as he could tell by referring to the compass, so it seemed he had a definite destination in mind. He just hoped it wasn't to some gathering place of fat rats or something else that wolves would consider paradise. Which... he had no idea. He'd never even had a pet. He didn't have a whole lot of choice but to follow blindly. Wolf-boy couldn't, or wouldn't, talk, couldn't, or wouldn't, explain where they were going.

The more he saw of him, the more he realized just how young wolf-boy must be. As an artist Steve had studied faces and he wasn't fooled by a scruffy beard. Wolf-boy was old enough to hump against Steve's leg at every opportunity, but still not a grown man; probably in his late teens, early twenties at most. He wondered how long the kid had been living with wolves; long enough to have forgot how to talk, anyway. He should be thinking about survival, about the Howling Commandoes, about the war... but he was so cold and hungry, and the kid kept tugging at him, whining at him, even nipping at him when Steve sat down, just for a minute, you know snow's not really all that cold when you're used to it, he could just sit and rest for a while, gather his thoughts, make a plan, but the kid wouldn't let him stop not until it was too dark to see and even after they were lying in a hollow of snow, the kid kept waking him up with a warm tongue lick over his cheek.

***

His mate was slow, too slow. Tony tried everything he could think of but on the third day his mate just wouldn't get up. He tried dragging him, but even with that metal turtle shell on his mate's back to help slide him over the snow he was still too big and heavy. Tony howled in desperation, but if the pack heard him they didn't answer. They were so close to the food, they'd almost made it.

Tony padded around his mate and howled some more, but that was just venting his feelings. He knew what he had to do. When the people saw him, they always chased Tony, but he scared their dogs so they didn't try too hard to catch up with him. This time he'd go slow enough to make them think they could catch him, and then he'd lead them to his mate. They'd take him. Tony would lose him, but they would feed him and keep him warm. He knelt next to his mate and gave him a last lick across the nose, so he'd have Tony's scent with him. He took a moment to scent mark his mate with pee, too, just in case the pack came, so they'd know not to eat Tony's mate.

Then he turned his nose into the wind that already smelled faintly of the things people threw away, and started running.

***

Tony went straight towards the largest house, figuring that would have the most people in it. There were trees here and so they could build things of wood. It made him uneasy, the trees and the houses, so many places where things could hide, not like on the open flat land where he lived with his pack most of the time. He didn't have as good a sense of smell as the wolves, so he had to depend on his eyes more than they did.

One of the people's dogs rose from a nest of snow, and growled at him. Tony grinned and howled, shrill and mocking. It was chained up; they always were unless they were pulling sleds. He liked teasing them. The door of the house opened and a man stood there. He shouted at Tony and threw something at him. Tony dodged it easily. It smelled like meat, but he didn't trust it. He'd seen too many wolves die after they ate the meat that men left for them. He howled at the man and backed away, pretending to limp. He'd seen a summer bird do that, to trick him away from the nest. It was a good trick.

The man turned back into his house, calling to the rest of his pack... his people. Tony backed further away and howled again, even louder. All the dogs in the camp woke up then and howled back at him. People were shouting. It was going to be fun. Tony turned and ran away, limping and slow, but still faster than the heavy-footed people who treated snow as something to fight.

He got far enough ahead before they harnessed the dogs that he paused to pee on a tree that smelled of dog, just to make sure the dogs would be angry enough at him that they would forget they'd never caught him. He didn't want them to give up the chase.

***

Chapter Text

Steve woke up slowly. The first thing he was aware of was that his feet and hands burned like the dickens. The next was that wolf-boy was growling and people were talking, loud and fast, and not in English. He opened his eyes to a cabin of sorts, all rough wood surfaces with furnishings that looked handmade, but there were plenty of obviously manufactured items around, too, including a fancy lantern that burned much whiter than he was used to. "Where?"

The voices stopped and wolf-boy howled. Steve winced and moved his hands to cover his ears, belatedly realizing they'd been resting in pots of water. The water felt hot, but he guessed that it wasn't really, since it wasn't steaming.

A man moved close and knelt on the wooden floor Steve was lying on, wrapped in blankets and furs. "You are very lucky," the man said in English. He looked a lot more like the kind of people Steve expected to be living here than wolf-boy did. "We thought you would lose at least a few fingers and toes, but look!" He took Steve's hand in his and turned it over. "All pink!" He beamed at Steve. "Can you sit up? There's coffee, and caribou stew."

"Yeah." Steve sat up and looked around at all the curious and friendly smiling faces packed into the not really very large cabin. His stomach made an embarrassing noise at the mention of food. Everyone laughed. And then wolf-boy howled again. Steve got to his feet and saw the wolf-boy lying on the floor, tied hand and foot and with a rope around his neck. "Hey!" he said, "you didn't have to do that to him!"

The man who seemed to be spokesman for the group said, "Yes, we did. He would have run off again." He tapped the side of his head. "We see him sometimes. He's not right."

"Yeah, I know. He thinks he's a wolf. But he's only a boy." Steve went over to the wolf-boy and stroked his hair. "I'm sorry, but maybe it's for the best. I couldn't stay with you. I've got to get back to the war."

"War?" the man asked. "You are in the Gulf war? How did you get so far away from the desert?" He gestured at Steve's clothing. "And why are you wearing an old Army uniform?" The look on the man's face made Steve think he was going to tap the side of his head and say that Steve wasn't right, either.

"I wasn't fighting in the desert. I was mostly in Germany. You know, the Nazis?" Steve was fairly sure these people weren't sympathizers, but they didn't seem to be Allies, either. He saw his shield, lying up against a wall, and considered grabbing it.

The man looked at his friends, and then back at Steve. "Nazis? Friend, maybe you need to warm up some more. That war was over before I was born."

"What?"

"It's 1990. Look for yourself." The man waved around the room. "I could show you my driver's license?"

Steve shook his head, denying what the man said. "It can't be. That's... forty-five years. I can't have been asleep for that long!" He shook his head again. "You must be mistaken." But he turned blindly and grabbed something from a shelf. A tin of Spam. Familiar, but... not. The label, the font, even the shape of the tin was wrong. He turned it over. 'Best by Jan 1993'. He was pretty sure even the army didn't think Spam would last fifty years. He dropped the can and picked up a worn and shabby paperback book, cover luridly graced by a half-dressed woman swooning in the arms of an over-muscled man with ridiculously long and shiny blond hair. 'Published in 1985'. He scrabbled at the shelves; wherever there were dates they were all wrong. He stopped finally when he noticed that his heavy breathing was the only sound in the room.

He straightened and turned back to face the others. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make such a mess." He sank to his knees amid the scattered goods. "I really... My name is Steve Rogers." He took a deep breath. "I think... something happened to me."

The man who'd spoken to him came forward and put a hand on Steve's shoulder. "It will be all right."

Steve shook his head, and when the wolf-boy howled again, he felt like howling along with him.

***

Tony had been stupid. He'd been worrying so much about his mate that he'd forgot how tricky people could be. They'd stopped chasing him once they saw his mate, and he'd come close to make sure they were going to take care of mate, not hurt him. While he was watching the people someone let the dogs loose, and before he could get away the dogs had their teeth in his furs and dragged him down, like the pack bringing down a caribou. He'd fought and howled, but the people tied him up and put him on the sled next to his mate and brought him back to their place.

He was so scared he couldn't think. The people were loud. They kept barking at him and poking at him, and making strange faces. He was so scared he'd peed himself, and the wet furs made him itch, and the things they tied him with prickled and bit at his skin, and it was too hot, and too many things and noise and everything moving and he couldn't watch for all the danger, because it was all around. He howled, too miserable to stand it.

The only good thing was that his mate woke up. Mate knew how to bark at the people and after a while he came over and sat next to Tony, pulling him up against his mate's side. Tony pressed against him as tightly as he could even though it was so hot. He panted after air. How did people stand it so hot in here? He couldn't even see his breath. Mate stroked his hair, and that helped a little.

***

Steve really felt sorry for the wolf-boy. If he was having a hard time dealing with being thrown out of his own world, what must it be like for the poor kid, who couldn't understand anything except that he was a prisoner?

One of the men had gone to make a phone call, or radio, or whatever, Steve hadn't been listening too closely. They were going to call some authorities. He knew he'd sound crazy, but if he stayed calm, they'd let him make at least one phone call before they locked him up. He needed to decide who to call. It wouldn't be much good trying to call the army; they'd follow rules and regulations and his situation didn't fit any rules or regulations. Maybe some of the people he knew would still be alive, but he couldn't just pick up a phone and ask the operator to get him Dugan, number unknown, address unknown, everything... unknown.

He thought of Howard. Howard's company was big and rich; it probably still would be around even if...god, Howard must be in his seventies... if he was still alive. The war was still going on when he crashed, maybe everyone he knew had died long ago. Even if they were all alive, he'd need help to figure out what to do, how to make a living in this new world. He couldn't bum off his old friends until he got on his feet, but Howard... or his company... could easily afford to lend him living expenses until he got a job. And maybe they could find someone to care for the wolf-boy. Steve didn't like the idea of turning him in to any authorities. The orphanage had been hard enough for Steve, and he could talk. Wolf-boy would probably wind up in some kind of institution, a prisoner for the rest of his life. It didn't seem fair; the wolf-boy had saved him. No, Steve wasn't going to abandon him, no matter how difficult it got.

The people brought him coffee and a bowl of stew. They brought the wolf-boy stew, too, but he wouldn't eat, even though Steve knew he hadn't had anything since the mice, days ago. He looked even more frightened when they tried to feed him, until Steve couldn't bear the whimpers and helpless looks of appeal the boy gave him. "Look," he said, "it's good. Yum, yum." He ate a spoonful of stew and made faces to show it was good, like he did back in the orphanage when he'd helped the nuns with some of the tiny ones. He loaded another spoonful of stew from his own bowl and offered it to the boy. After a moment wolf-boy opened his mouth and accepted the stew. Steve smiled and stroked his hair. "Good boy."

***

"I'm going to untie you now, but you have to stay with me. Don't try to run away." The boy had calmed down after he'd eaten, although he still jumped and snarled whenever anyone moved close to them. He took the rope from the boy's feet and rubbed the bony ankles soothingly. "Be good." Steve didn't really trust the way wolf-boy went still; there was something going on behind those bright eyes. He might not think the way normal people did, but he was thinking. Steve undid the bindings on the wrists and then took the loop of rope off wolf-boy's neck.

Wolf-boy knocked Steve onto his back and was across the room heading for the door in an instant, pushing people out of his way. Since he'd been expecting it, Steve caught him before he was halfway there and simply picked him up off his feet and held him against his struggles. The boy howled and growled and twisted like mad, but he didn't try to bite Steve. Finally Steve shifted his grip to the back of the boy's neck and shook him inside his furs. "Stop that! Be good!" The kid went limp suddenly, and just whimpered.

Steve felt bad, as if he'd just scolded a puppy. "It's all right, come on." He put the boy down and patted his shoulders. "There, see?"

***

Tony had eaten the food, because his mate gave it to him, but he didn't like it. It was too hot. There were things that weren't meat in it, too. He ate roots and green things and even berries sometimes, but they weren't as safe as meat. Sometimes they made him sick. People were stupid. They were too noisy and too hot and they smelled funny and they ate dangerous things. It wasn't safe here. He would get away the first chance he got, and come back for his mate later, once he had figured out a way to hunt enough on his own to keep him fed.

His mate let him loose, and Tony nearly got away. His mate stopped him. Tony fought, but his mate was too strong. He would be the leader of their pack, then, and Tony had to obey him. Maybe it would be all right. He knew how to bark at the people, maybe he was a pack leader among them, too? He didn't act like a stray wolf, skittering around at the edges of the territory, always afraid. He acted like he wasn't afraid of anything. When his mate let him go, Tony stayed next to him, pressed close against his side. After a few minutes the door opened and one of the men came in to bark at his mate. Tony understood some of it. A plane was coming to take them away. Tony shoved his head under his mate's arm and tried to calm himself. He hadn't minded getting in the big plane, because it was already on the ground, and not going anywhere, but this plane would go up in the air. Planes break and they fall and it hurts. He didn't want to go.

***

Steve had his hands full with wolf-boy. After the initial escape attempt he'd clung to Steve, trembling and panting. He'd growled at the man who told Steve there was a bush pilot who would come and take them to the nearest city and he'd howled whenever anyone else got close to them.

Finally Steve sat on a chair in a corner, so the young man could crouch beside him and maybe feel a little less exposed. He tried talking to him, but whether or not he was understood, all he got in reply were whines and soft growls. At least two hours went by like that before he heard the sound of an airplane engine.

"The plane will land on the lake. The ice is still strong," the man who'd done most of the talking to Steve said. "The lake isn't far. We can walk there in a few minutes." He took down a pair of snowshoes from the wall and offered them to Steve.

"Thanks." Steve took the snowshoes and put them on. He hadn't used them very often, but he had a fairly good idea of the principles. He looked at wolf-boy's shapelessly fur padded feet. He'd managed well enough without. "Come on... I wish you could tell me your name. Name. I'm Steve Rogers. Steve."

The wolf-boy tilted his head and looked at Steve, silently. Steve sighed. "All right, come on, kid." He followed their guide outside, but kept one hand locked in the young man's hair, just in case. He didn't fancy trying to run in snowshoes.

It was longer than a few minutes, but less than half an hour later they arrived at the lake. There was a small, light blue airplane parked on the ice, with the pilot sitting in the open doorway. "Hello, " she shouted when they were still so far off that Steve wasn't at first sure whether she was a woman or a small man. She hopped out onto the ice, grin bright in a dark brown face. Her parka was bright purple, with a rainbow running from one shoulder to the opposite hip. She had her hair dyed with stripes of purple matching the parka. "Wow, they weren't kidding about him, were they?"

"Um, yeah," Steve said, tightening his grip on the tangled hair. Wolf-boy had been dragging his feet more and more, and now he was trying to pull away. "He's kinda nervous, so maybe we could get started quick?"

"Sure," she said. She turned and opened a door in the rear of the plane. "Hop in. My name's Hanne. Hanne Hansen." She shrugged. "Parents with a sense of humor."

"Steve Rogers." Steve tugged on wolf-boy's hair. "Still don't know who he is."

"I can call ahead, have someone meet us at the field." Hanne got into the plane and picked up a microphone. "Police?"

Steve thought a moment. Howard had given him a business card once. It was a sort of joke. Howard had written a number on the back along with the note 'Come see me to discuss flying cars after the war'. Well, this was certainly after the war. He dug in his pocket and was surprised to find the rectangle of pasteboard still there. It was brittle and the ink a bit blurry, but still readable. "Um, no. Stark Industries? Is that still around? I've got a number. It's old, though."

"Well, we can try. Give me the number and I'll have a friend call it while we're en route. If it doesn't work, he can try to find another number for the company. What do you want him to say?"

"Just that Howard Stark told Steve Rogers to call if he needed anything, and I'd appreciate any assistance they could give me." Steve figured there wasn't much point telling her the details. It sounded crazy even to him. Steve gave her the card and then coaxed wolf-boy into following him into the airplane. Once there wolf-boy curled up on the floor, tucked into an impossibly tiny ball, and made small whimpering noises.

Hanne turned around to look at them and frowned, wrinkling up her nose. She didn't say anything about the kennel odor, with the strong hint of pee. "Keep him quiet, can you?"

"Think so," Steve said. He laid his hand on wolf-boy's neck, under the greasy hair, and stroked the skin. "We're ready."

Hanne started the plane and they ran across the ice, bumping a little before she took the plane up. The engine wasn't very noisy; it certainly wasn't noisy enough to cover wolf-boy's howls. Hanne shouted over him, "Is he going to do that the whole way?"

"I hope not!" Steve shouted back.

"I CAN'T CALL MY FRIEND LIKE THIS," she yelled.

Steve sighed, not that anyone could hear it. Then he leaned down and tapped sharply on wolf-boy's nose. Wolf-boy stopped howling, but Steve could see he was terrified. "Come on, come sit with me." He tugged until wolf-boy was sprawled over his lap in an uncomfortable heap of bony bits and matted filthy fur. It was only dirt, Steve had touched worse things during the war. As soon as the howling stopped he heard Hanne talking to someone over the radio. She wasn't speaking English or any language he was familiar with. Oddly enough, that made him nostalgic for New York. He hadn't been able to afford a cab very often, but whenever he did get one, the driver invariably cussed out traffic in a tongue foreign to him.

Hanne finished her conversation and said, without looking back, "He's going to place the call on his next shift break."

Steve refrained from asking questions about her friend. That would lead to her asking questions about him and... he wasn't at all sure what he'd say.

***

Wolf-boy cringed and whined and, frankly, stunk. Steve was beginning to suspect some of the stink was coming from Steve himself. The pilot cranked a window in the forward compartment open after a few minutes. Steve was embarrassed, but glad they were flying low and slow enough to make the ventilation possible.

"You've been very kind, Hanne," Steve said, raising his voice enough to be heard over the wind and the whines. He was patting and petting on automatic now, because every time he stopped for more than a few seconds the whines turned back into howls. "We can't pay you, not even for the gas. At least not right now, but if you give me a way to reach you, I'll repay you when I can."

Hanne shrugged without looking away from the controls. "What goes around, comes around. Maybe I've built up a bit of good karma for myself today." She laughed. "And I've got a great bar story out of it! That's worth a few gallons of gas by itself."

Steve wasn't quite sure what she meant, so he just decided to put her down as a charitable soul. "A bar story?"

"Sure! A real shaggy dog tale!"

"He's not a dog."

Hanne shrugged again. "He thinks he is. Close enough."

Steve shut his mouth. There really wasn't any arguing with that. And arguing with the person holding the controls was always a bad idea. He concentrated on his petting.

They flew on without attempting conversation for a while longer, then there was a crackling noise from the radio and Hanne put on her earphones. She listened for a while and then nodded and said something Steve couldn't understand before she took off the headphones and looked back at Steve. "It's your lucky day. Stark Industries is sending a Lear to meet us at the field."

"What?" Steve didn't know what or who a Lear was.

"Learjet. Fancy, got all the trimmings. It's Howard Stark's personal plane. I guess the head honcho got curious and wanted to meet you in person."

"Oh." Steve hadn't really expected Howard to come himself. He wondered where he was coming from, and how fast a Learjet was that it could meet them. Wolf-boy trembled more and shoved his nose into Steve's armpit again. He sighed. He wondered if fancy Learjets had washrooms.

***

The plane landed without breaking or killing Tony or anyone else. Once it stopped rolling along the ground his mate opened the door, and Tony bolted outside. He didn't get very far before he gave up the fight he'd been having with his stomach ever since eating the people food. He went to all fours and was busy getting rid of it. His mate came and rubbed his shoulders while he was being sick, which made him feel a little better.

Tony was sick, but he was still aware of his surroundings. Other people came up and encircled them. Tony finished being sick and got up, raising his shoulders and trying to make himself look as big as possible. They weren't smiling, and their barks were mean. They were pointing at his mate and ... they had guns, not long guns like the ones people shot wolves with, but little guns. Tony remembered the little guns. They were 'don't touch' and then a spanking when he touched anyway because they were shiny. And then Daddy showed him what a gun could do to a watermelon. Red red red like blood and meat all over. Tony growled and circled, trying to decide which person to attack first.

There was one person who didn't have a gun. He was a smaller man than the others, standing further back. He looked older, too. Pack leader. If Tony fought him, the rest of the pack would wait for the challenge to be settled. But Tony wasn't the leader of his pack. He pulled at his mate's sleeve to get his attention, to get him to stop barking at the men with guns, and look at the pack leader. His mate was strong, he could win easily.

***

Steve turned at the tug on his sleeve. Wolf-boy was trying to... "Oh. Howard." Howard had aged, but he'd kept his mustache and his sharp eyes.

"All right, who are you trying to kid?" Howard looked really angry. "Captain Rogers died in nineteen forty-five. What kind of scam is this? And who the hell is that?"

Wolf-boy was growling, crouched between Steve and Howard. Steve grabbed his long club of hair again. He didn't want the kid getting himself shot. "It's not a scam. If you don't want to help me, Howard, then forget I called. Forget about the flying cars, too. You botched them at the Expo, I bet you still haven't figured them out."

"Steve?" Howard fumbled a pair of glasses out of his pocket and put them on. "My God." He strode rapidly over to Steve while waving his hands at the other men. "Put away those guns!" One man was slow to react and Howard grabbed the gun from him.

***

Pack leader got a gun and turned towards Tony's mate. Not a challenge fight. Not with guns. Tony snarled and pulled free of his mate to jump at the older man, knocking him to the ground. There was a loud noise, a hot stinking sharp wind, and a caribou kicked him in the shoulder, knocking him off the man and onto his back. There weren't any caribou. He tried to get up but he couldn't. He was wet. Blood smell everywhere. And then his head hit on the hard ground and he felt himself going to sleep. Wrong... but....

***

"He attacked me! You saw!" Howard said, even as he tore off his coat and wadded it up to press against wolf-boy's shoulder. "It was an accident."

"I know,"Steve said. He turned to the nearest man. "Get a doctor, medic, someone who knows first aid! He's only a kid, Howard." Steve knelt next to wolf-boy to stroke the hair away from his face and feel for a pulse. "A mixed-up kid who's been living with wolves so long he's forgot he's a person."

Howard didn't say anything, but Steve could hear him breathing, loud and harsh. Then Howard pushed him away and gathered up the wolf-boy in his arms. "GET A GOD-DAMN DOCTOR! NOW!" Howard screamed. He was crying. "Oh, God, Tony, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."

"Huh," Steve said. He got up and stood over Howard, confused. "You know him?"

"He's my son. I lost him when I was looking for you."

"Oh." Steve decided this day couldn't get much stranger. He turned at the sound of a siren. An airport ambulance was approaching.

Hanne came running over to them and stood with Steve as Howard and his son were loaded into the ambulance. Steve hadn't wanted to get in the way. It wasn't a very big vehicle and two doctors were working over Tony the moment they got him inside it. They didn't start moving right away, and the doors were open, so Steve could see everything.

"What happened?" Hanne asked.

"It was an accident," one of the big men said. Steve guessed they were bodyguards. The man pulled a wallet out of his pocket. "It was an accident, right?"

Hanne looked insulted. "You want to pay me for my gas, that's fine, but you don't buy me." She took a card from her pocket and handed it to Steve. "If these jokers give you any trouble, call me. Call me anyway to let me know how your furry little friend does, all right?" She didn't wait for Steve's response before she started walking away. "Gotta get my Cub off the taxiway. Don't forget to call me, Steve!"

***

The ambulance doors shut and it began driving away. Steve started to go after it, but the big man put a hand on his chest stopping him. Steve held back from punching the guy. "What? I'm going after them."

"Yeah, I know. A car is coming." The man smiled and held out his hand, but Steve didn't see what he had to smile about. "I'm Obadiah Stane, Howard's right hand man. I practically run Stark Industries for him. And you're Steve Rogers. He talked a lot about you."

Steve held up his hands. "Sorry. I've got blood on my hands."

Obi shrugged. "Don't we all." A limousine pulled up next to them. Stane waved for Steve to get in. "Super soldier, eh? You know, we've got strong ties with the military, but we could always use another friendly face in uniform."

Steve got in and the car started off and soon caught up with the ambulance which was taking a service road leading away from the airport. "Is this the time to be talking business?"

"It's always the time to be talking business. Howard's upset, sure, but this is my job, making the business run on while Howard tends to...well, to be honest, he's little more than a figurehead these days. He tinkers in his lab, shows up at the occasional meeting or photo opportunity, but he doesn't care about the day to day aspect of running a multi-billion dollar armaments corporation. Stane... I mean, Stark Industries helps keep America safe. Don't you think that's more important than one man's tender feelings?"

"Right now, I think what's important is being with Mr. Stark, as a friend. That's what I'm going to do. You sound as if you can take care of business just fine without anyone's help at all."

"That's right. I can." Stane lit up a cigar and leaned back, looking perfectly content.

Steve sat in silence until the car stopped at the hospital. The ambulance had already gone. Steve got out and looked back in the car at Stane. "Thanks for the lift, Mr. Stane. Are you coming in?"

"Eh, maybe in a little while. Have to go head off the news. Someone's bound to have let slip the word about the miraculous return of the prodigal son."

"What if Tony dies?" Steve asked.

"Small bore weapon. Looked like a clean through and through in the muscle," Stane said casually. "I'd be surprised if that killed him." He waved to the driver to go on, and Steve stepped quickly back out of the way.

He'd got the definite impression that Stane hoped he'd be surprised.

***

Chapter Text

Tony hurt in a fuzzy way and he felt as if he was floating even though he could feel something soft under him. He heard clicks and cheeps and beeps and buzzes, like it was summer and all the bugs were out at once. Everything smelled funny. His head felt light but big like a bubble. His throat felt so dry he was afraid to swallow. He tried to look around but his eyes were shut. Oh. He could fix that. It took a couple tries, but his eyes opened. He closed them right away because it was so bright.

"Tony?"

Tony opened his eyes again, startled. That was him, that was his name. He blinked back the tears the light brought. When he recognized the old pack leader from the air field he pulled his lips back and snarled. That... was a bad idea, it made him cough, and coughing made him start to sit up, and that pulled at things all over, but most of all it made his shoulder burn like fire. So he howled. It hurt, but he howled anyway, wanting his pack, wanting his mate, wanting to be away from this terrible place.

The pack leader started barking and other people came in, people all wearing the same kind of clothes, the clothes of the pack of this place, white and green to match the walls and too bright lights. They touched him and he fought and snarled as best he could, but he was sick and they pushed him down and did something that he felt run inside his arm, cold, like ice, like snow-melt. Snow-melt ran up along his shoulder, cooling the fire, which was good. But then they tied his hands down, and that was bad. He arched up as high as he could, until he saw the sun colored hair of his mate up high past the white and green pack. He howled desperately and felt tremendous relief when his mate pushed past the pack to lay his hand on Tony's cheek. Tony whimpered and moved his head enough to lick his mate's hand, begging for help.

***

Steve shook his head at the doctor. "Please, don't sedate him just yet. Give me a chance to calm him down. He doesn't understand."

"If he moves too much he'll tear the sutures." The doctor sighed when Howard nodded at Steve. "All right. But call if his condition changes."

"I will." Steve stroked Tony's cheek. They hadn't been able to clean him up thoroughly, but they'd cut his hair to a more human length, and removed all the filthy furs and old clothes he'd been wearing before they put him in a hospital gown. It made it more apparent how young and thin he was, and how many old scars he already bore. "Tony." The wide, frightened brown eyes went to Steve's face. "You know your name, that's good."

"Tony, look at me," Howard said. Tony did, but he snarled. "Tony, it's me," Howard said softly. "Your father. You remember, Daddy?"

Tony took a breath and coughed again. Howard poured water into a cup and put a straw in it, bringing it to him. Tony flinched. Howard winced and handed the water to Steve. He said bitterly, "He doesn't hate you, obviously. See if you can get him to drink."

Steve shook his head at Howard. "He doesn't hate you, Howard. He just doesn't know you." He offered Tony the straw. Tony didn't know what to do with it, so Steve raised the head of the bed and tipped the cup enough so Tony could get a few swallows. He blinked a few more times and then fell asleep again. Steve started taking off the restraints.

"What do you think you're doing?" Howard said very quietly.

"Tony thinks he's a wolf. I saw him with them. Tying him down is just going to frighten him, but he'll be quiet if I stay with him."

"Why? Why should he listen to you, Steve? How long have you known him?"

"A little over three days. He found me, Howard." Steve looked down at Tony. "He likes me, Howard."

"What do you mean, likes?"

Steve felt his cheeks warm. The hospital unfortunately was set at a normal temperature, and his blushing worked fine. "He's very confused."

"How confused?" Howard grabbed Steve's arm. "Steve, he's sixteen! Did you...have you taken advantage of my boy?" Howard looked ready to punch Steve, despite being half Steve's size, and almost three times Steve's physical age.

"No! God, no, Howard. He's a sweet, confused boy and... you know, at his age...you know what it was like. He's got a crush on me, but I'm not going to hurt him. I owe him my life. Once he understands who he is and who you are, then I'm sure he won't need me, but right now, he thinks I'm all he's got."

"Maybe he does remember me." Howard released Steve's arm and sank back in the bedside chair. "I was a rotten father, Steve. Everything was more important than Tony. The business, parties, promotions, god damn Expos, getting drunk." He looked up at Steve. "Searching for you."

Steve drew in a breath sharply. "What?"

"Maria... that's my wife, thank god, she's still my wife... Maria convinced me that Tony deserved some father-son time, and if I was determined to spend my holidays searching the arctic then I should take Tony along with me. Let him see me sober for a change. I took him. And... I palmed him off on other members of the expedition. He was a cute kid, eager to please, glad of any attention. Even from strangers." Howard got up and paced. Steve didn't say anything, just watched him. Finally Howard stopped, facing away from Steve and spoke again, "They kidnapped him. Called me from a small plane. I could hear him crying over the engines. I could hear him crying for his Daddy." Steve could see Howard's fists clench. "And then the radio went dead. And I couldn't find him. Looking for you, I lost my boy."

"Howard," Steve said quietly, "you couldn't have known that would happen."

"Maybe not that. But I knew I had a precious, unique, amazing little boy who adored me. And I took him for granted. Kept telling myself I was doing things to make him proud of me, that one day he'd understand how important the work was. And I'd give it to him, and he'd surpass me, make the Stark name go down in history." Howard turned to look at Steve. "Maria told me I'd murdered our son. And she was right. I fought back by telling her it was her fault for making me take him along when she knew I couldn't be trusted. We stayed together to tear at each other at first.

"I didn't care about the company any more. I let Obi do whatever he wanted with it. After a while Maria and I decided that we deserved each other, and we reconciled. I got off the booze, and spent more time with her than in the workshop. We... fell in love again. And then Theodora came along. She's eleven. Annette is nine. They're the delight of my old age, but every once in a while, Theodora will tilt her head the way Tony did, or Annette will laugh and sound for a moment like him. And I love them, but I hate myself for not being the father Tony needed, for failing him, for making him a blank space in the family album."

Steve said, "Well, you've got a second chance now. Tony's here and he needs his family."

Howard looked up at him. "Yes. But... the girls. I can't... I won't risk them. Can I trust Tony not to hurt them?"

Steve wanted to say, 'yes', but he wasn't entirely sure. "You can trust me to protect them. Let me go with you and Tony." He could see Howard considering, probably weighing options, trying to see the future. He'd once told Steve the future could be predicted-- but then, he hadn't predicted Tony's kidnapping, had he?

After a moment, Howard nodded. "All right, Steve. Thank you." He stood up. "I've got to call Maria, let her know what's happened. You'll stay with Tony?"

"Yes, of course. Don't worry, Howard."

Howard rolled his eyes, and Steve was reassured that Howard hadn't lost his resilience. "I'm not worried. Panicking, maybe. Yeah, I'll go with panic." Howard took one last look at Tony's sleeping face before he left the room.

Steve took over the bedside chair. "Give him a chance, Tony. Howard's really not a bad guy once you get to know him."

***

The next time Tony woke, he was feeling stronger. He still hurt all over, but he thought if he needed to, he could get up and run. His mate was asleep in a chair next to his bed, which was good. The old pack leader was sitting on the other side, watching him, which was bad. Tony curled his lip to show his teeth, but he didn't growl.

"Tony," the old pack leader said very quietly. He didn't move, so Tony stayed still, watching him warily. How did the pack leader know Tony's name? "Tony," the old man said again. He reached slowly into his pocket and took out something like a small box. It wasn't a gun or a knife or food, Tony noticed at once, so after a glance he ignored it.

And then the box began to sing.

"Ninna nanna, ninna oh

Questo bimbo a chi lo do?

Se lo do alla befana

Se lo tiene una settimana

Se lo do al lupo nero

Se lo tiene un anno intero

Se lo do a lupo bianco

Se lo tiene tanto tanto

Ninna oh ninna oh

A nessuno lo daro'!"

Tony sat up and tried to reach the box, ignoring the white hot pain that shot through his shoulder. "Mamma? Dove sei?" He knew she wasn't in the box, but if he could hear her through it, maybe she could hear him. "Mamma!"

His mate woke up and snatched the box from the old pack leader while barking something at him, and then he gave Tony the box. Tony turned it over and around and pushed at it until it opened and he saw that it was just a machine for catching sounds. It could be made better. He looked up at the old man who was still barking excitedly at Tony's mate. They seemed friendly so maybe they'd settled who was leader while Tony was asleep. "Mamma?" he demanded.

"Daddy," the old pack leader said. He patted at his chest and then pointed at Tony. "Tony. Tony's Daddy."

Tony looked at the old man closely. Maybe he was Tony's Daddy. But if he was, then he would be angry at Tony for getting into trouble. Tony lay back down and made the Mamma machine sing to him again. He didn't want to be shouted at. He hated that.


***

"So, at least he understands Italian," Howard said when Tony turned away from them, holding the mini-recorder against his chest. His voice was thick and Steve could see he was disappointed.

"I tried Italian on him when we first met, and he didn't react," Steve said.

"You aren't Maria. Tony always was a momma's boy. Spent more time with her, it was only natural." Howard wiped his eyes with a tissue. "Maria has a temper, but never showed it with Tony no matter how he acted up. I used to think she coddled him too much."

Steve remembered his own mother. "Love doesn't make boys weak."

"No. I suppose not." Howard blew his nose. "The doctors say Tony can leave tomorrow by air ambulance, if there are no complications."

Steve nodded. "Where are we going?"

"Maria and I talked about it. She thinks it'd be best if we move back into the old mansion on Fifth Avenue. Maybe Tony will remember it. She's got an army of staff there already, and she and the girls are en route from California." Howard smiled slightly. "The girls are terribly excited. They think the whole thing is romantic."

"Well, it sort of is, isn't it?"

Howard sighed, and stretched with an assortment of bone crackling noises. "I'm getting too old for all night vigils. Oh, I've got to check in with Obi before we go. He wants to make this a media event. I'm going to have to put my foot down on that."

Steve kept his mouth shut. It wasn't his place to say anything about Howard's business partner. So he was a cold fish. That wasn't a crime. "Yeah, I need to use a phone, too. The bush pilot who brought us here wanted to know what happened to Tony. She'll be glad to hear he's going to be all right." He dug Hanne's card out of her pocket. "Nice lady, wouldn't take a dime for her trouble."

Howard looked at the card. "I'll buy her a new plane."

***

He was moving. He was lying on his back and moving on something that rolled and creaked and bumped. Tony opened his eyes and blinked against the light. He was outside, back at the airfield; he could smell tar and oil and fuel. His mate's hand was patting at his chest, on the side that didn't hurt. His mate and Tony's Daddy were barking... talking. That was what it was called. People talked. If he tried, he could understand some of it. It could be important to understand, so he tried harder, instead of just ignoring the noise.

They were going to fly on another plane. Tony whimpered. The last plane had been all right, but maybe this one would break and fall? His mate stopped patting, and leaned over him, talking. "Tony," he said and followed that with a lot of soft sounds that Tony was too upset to turn into meanings. He howled in protest as the moving thing tilted and started moving up something with lots of rattling noises and more bumps.

Howling didn't do any good. He tried to remember people words. "Mamma?" He didn't know where she was, but he knew she wouldn't want him to be unhappy. Sometimes she and Daddy stopped shouting when Tony... when Tony... said the magic word? Magic words... "Pph..phhleas, no! No! No!" And they did stop, but only for a moment, and then he was inside the plane and it was close around him. "Noooo," he howled. They did something to make the rolling thing stay in place, and they tightened cloth over his legs and middle so he couldn't get off the thing. Howling didn't help, and he couldn't reach the cloth to tear it with his hands and teeth. He was so frightened and frustrated that he began crying. Wolves don't cry, and it had been so long since he'd done it that it hurt his nose and his throat, his jaw and his ears and his chest. His chest really hurt and that made him cry more.

The plane started and then his ears hurt more. His mate and Tony's Daddy petted him, but he couldn't stop crying. Tony's Daddy put the mamma-voice machine next to him and turned it on. Tony cried until he was too tired to cry any more and then he fell asleep listening to Mamma. She wouldn't have put him on a plane and tied him down. He wished she was here.

***

When Tony finally went silent, Steve edged away from the gurney and sat down in one of the nearby seats. The doctor Howard had hired for the trip had been monitoring Tony remotely, but now he stepped in front of Steve to take notes and visually check his patient's condition. He was very quiet, for which Steve was grateful; he didn't want to go through the last half hour again. It was going to be a long flight.

Howard had been watching from the foot of the gurney, wincing as Tony begged and cried. He sat next to Steve. "Well," he said shakily, "Tony's first word was 'no'. So... that's a good sign, isn't it? God, I hate seeing him so frightened."

Steve's ears were still ringing. "He doesn't like planes."

Howard nodded. "Yeah, well, once we're home, he never has to fly again, unless he wants." Howard sighed. "I was going to teach him how to fly when he was older. He would have loved it."

***

Steve felt really uncomfortable. Well, it was an uncomfortable situation any way you looked at it. Here he was in the future, sitting next to an older version of a man he'd got to know under wartime conditions which gave him sort of a cock-eyed insight. He knew how Howard would react if someone threw a bomb at them, but had no idea what he'd order at a lunch counter. And he sure didn't know how to act around the man who'd accidentally shot the son he didn't know, who thought he was a wolf, and who really, really liked Steve. And was way too young for Steve to even be thinking about. Which was a much bigger problem.

Just because Tony wasn't attracted to Captain America, or a legend, was no reason to consider it anything more than a really confused kid latching onto the first person he'd...umm... touched... in years.

And Steve had never thought of kids that way. Men, yeah, ok, Steve always liked looking at good-looking men as well as pretty women. They had all been out of his league, but looking was free, provided you didn't stare. He had a poor excuse for a body and he didn't blame beautiful people for not wanting to give him a second look. It wasn't as if he daydreamed about scrawny, sickly people, so why should anyone give him a tumble? He wasn't a hypocrite and he hadn't wanted a pity date, or friendly kisses, or even a sympathetic helping hand. His mother said he was a beautiful person on the inside, and Bucky sure was his friend, but until the Super Soldier Serum, he wasn't what anyone wanted under the sheets. Heck, he'd probably have had an asthma attack or heart attack or something if he'd tried.

So, ok, he knew what it was to be young and want and not get. That was why he'd be kind to Tony. He wasn't leading the kid on. As soon as Tony could be made to understand, Steve would explain how he liked him a lot, but... actually, he had no idea what he'd say.

At the moment, he should be thinking about how they were going to keep Tony and Howard's family safe. That was enough to be thinking about.

***

Chapter Text

It was still too warm when Tony woke up, but he wasn't on an airplane any more. There were smells he couldn't identify, but none of them were bad, and there were sounds that weren't animals or wind or water, but they weren't loud, or close. He turned onto his side and nothing stopped him. The mamma box was lying next to his head. He stroked his fingers over it lightly before he opened his eyes and cautiously looked around. He was in another people room, lying on a people bed, but there wasn't anyone else with him. There were chairs and shelves and a carpet and a window and other things he forgot the names for. He pushed back the cloth that covered him and got to his feet. His shoulder wasn't hurting much, but his head was still too big and soft and floaty, so he had to watch to be sure his feet went all the way to the ground.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement; there was another person! He turned and raised his lip prepared to growl before he realized it was...a thing; he knew the name of it... it was a mirror. Yes, and that was him in the mirror, like ice or puddles, but clearer. feralTony3b He walked over to the mirror, watching mirror Tony's feet go all careful and slow in the soft carpet. His hair was short. It barely reached his shoulders; maybe that was why his head felt so light. His beard was short, too. He could see his neck. That was strange. And his shirt and pants were light...well, it was warm so that wasn't a problem, but it still felt wrong. And they were so bright, shiny redberry red with little... gold, that was the word... gold marks on them. It was pretty, he had to admit that. He couldn't hunt in these clothes, but then, he couldn't hunt until his shoulder was better, anyway.

He went over to the window, and looked out. He was up high enough to look down at some small trees, and a place where there were plants laid out according to some plan, and stones laid down in paths. He could see a stone fountain and statues, and benches. The snow was thin, and dirty-looking, marked up by people walking through it. There probably wasn't much worth hunting here. He tried to remember where food came from when he lived with Mamma and Daddy, but all he could remember was that someone gave him food whenever he was hungry. Well, he'd been a cub, then, but now he was a hunter and responsible for his own food.

The window wouldn't open. He could break it, but that would make noise. And Daddy would shout at him if he broke things. Tony remembered that. There was a door that led into a little room with shiny walls, and... oh. It was a bathroom. Tony figured out how to get water, and how to use a cup. The water tasted strange, but not bad. He eyed the toilet warily. He remembered what it was for, but he also remembered getting in trouble for bad aim. It made sense, he guessed. After all the work people put into their homes they wouldn't want to leave them when they got smelly. Well, he didn't need to pee just yet.

He looked around the room, but only touched a few things. There were bright pictures on the walls. One picture made him stop and stare. It was his mate! He even had his shiny turtle shell in the picture. Tony smiled; that meant this was his den. He felt much better about the room now.

He tried the only other door, but it wouldn't open. Tony huffed in annoyance and tried the door handle again, rattling it.

"Hello?"

Tony stepped back from the door and then moved close again, curious. The voice was soft and little, not at all like Daddy shouts, or wolf-killer shouts, or even his mate's voice. He rattled the door handle to see if he could get the voice back again.

"Tony?" the voice sounded curious, and friendly. He was pretty sure that was what friendly sounded like. Maybe. If not, it sounded like it wasn't anyone big enough to hurt him, even with his shoulder not so good. He whined a little, just a little, because he was bored and hungry, and he wanted to know where his mate was.

"We shouldn't." That was another voice, just as little.

"Then go away. I've got the key and I'll get to talk to Tony first."

"But I've got the cake!"

Tony whined again as the sound of scuffling came through the door. Then there was a scraping noise and the door handle turned. Tony stepped back, warily, which was just as well as two small people pushed in and slammed the door shut behind him. One was a little taller than the other, but except for that, they looked a lot alike, with brown hair and eyes and skin lighter than the wolf-killers, but not as light as his mate's. He tilted his head and looked at them, curiously. People cubs?

"Happy Birthday, Tony!" the smaller one said. She was holding a white box that had greasy streaks, and actually... it smelled good.

He blinked at her. Her? Yes. These were girls. Girl cubs.

The bigger one swatted the little one. "It's not Tony's birthday, Nettie!"

"We only get Hummingbird cake from Magnolia bakery on birthdays, Teddy."

Tony was getting tired again, so he sat down on the carpet to watch the girl cubs fight. Cub fights are harmless.

"It's Tony Welcome Home Cake!" Teddy swatted Nettie again, and this time Nettie swatted back. The box fell while they tussled.

Tony picked up the box, and figured out how to open it. It smelled even better on the inside. He pushed his face in and started eating. It was sweet, but fatty, and a little like... he wasn't sure. It didn't taste like any bird he'd ever eaten, but it was good. He was about halfway through the contents of the box when he realized the girls were quiet. He looked up. They were looking at him open-mouthed and wide-eyed. Oh. Maybe they were hungry, too? He broke off a piece of the food and held it out.

The girls fell down giggling.

***

In the living room, they'd been discussing Tony for a long time, trying to figure out what they could do. Steve decided that the Starks would have made great interrogators, squeezing out information Steve didn't even realize he'd gathered over the few days since he'd met Tony. In a pause while Mrs. Stark poured a mineral water for her husband, Steve thought he heard a sound. Howard started talking again after only a few swallows. Steve waved his hand, trying to get Howard to shut up for a moment. Howard gave him an annoyed look, but Maria put her hand over Howard's mouth. Howard rolled his eyes, but then he kissed her hand. "Shh, Howard, our guest would like a chance to speak, too," she said.

"I thought I heard something from Tony's room."

"I didn't hear anything," Howard said. "It's on the third floor... oh, super soldier hearing, right." Howard took the elevator, while Steve and Maria hurried up the stairs.

"The door is open," Maria cried when they reached the landing. There was a high-pitched squeal, followed by a rumbling growl.

"Oh, no!" Steve raced past Maria and shoved the door the rest of the way open. He stopped dead. Maria slammed into his back and then jigged around him with barely a pause.

Tony rolled his eyes and growled again. He was lying on the carpet, scruffy beard smeared with icing and cake crumbs. The girls were sitting on his back, braiding his hair. Tony whined and looked toward Steve in appeal.

"Now, what do you young ladies think you're doing?" Maria said, running in to pick them off of Tony. "I told you not to bother your brother."

Steve admired her self-control. Her hands were shaking, and she was several shades paler than normal, but she spoke as briskly as if she hadn't been worried for a moment. Tony sat up awkwardly, favoring his bandaged shoulder, and shook himself, sending barrettes and ribbons flying. "Mamma?"

Steve didn't understand the rapid-fire Italian that followed, but he sure understood the tears in her eyes and Maria going to her knees to wrap her arms around Tony and cover his face with kisses. Tony closed his eyes and kept repeating, "Mamma." Steve stood there feeling very much in the way while the girls giggled next to him and looked up at him. The smaller one, Annette, he assumed, asked him, "Are you really super? Can you fly?"

Her sister poked her in the arm. "Don't be silly, Nettie. He hasn't got wings."

"He could have jets, Teddy!" The younger girl said. "Or, or, telly kinnie sass!"

"Sass you've already got." Steve turned at the voice to see that Howard had arrived. After a swift look at Tony and Maria, he gathered his daughters with an arm around each one's shoulders. "Go do your homework."

"Done!" the girls chorused.

"Then go help Jarvis polish the silver or something. We'll have a talk later about you disobeying... and stealing that cake." Howard lightened his scolding with a kiss to each girl's cheek. "Scoot. Your brother's not used to having a lot of people around him."

Theodora grabbed Annette's hand. "C'mon, we'll tell Jarvis about Tony. An' later maybe we can take him for a walk?"

"Your brother is not a dog!" Howard said.

"Course not," Annette replied as Theodora dragged her out of the room. "He's a woff!"

Howard sighed and turned to Steve. "Sorry about that."

"They're nice kids," Steve said. He gestured at Tony and Maria. Tony still had his eyes shut, and a blissful expression on his face while Maria rocked him back and forth and stroked his hair. "Aren't you going to join them?"

"I... Not just yet." Howard turned away, and then he stopped. "You'll stay, make sure... you know."

"All right." Steve watched as Howard walked away.

***

Tony's shoulder was beginning to hurt again, but he didn't care. Mamma was here, holding him in her arms like he'd wished for so many times, and he'd seen his mate before he closed his eyes, so he was happy. Daddy had been here, too, but he left, and that was good, that was fine, because Tony had got himself hurt and made messes and he remembered either Daddy walked away from him or shouted at him when Tony was bad. Walking away was better. When Tony was good, when he was perfect, then Daddy liked him, a little. Maybe. Mamma always liked him, even when he was very bad.

After a while Mamma pulled back slightly and laughed, touching his beard and talking to him about it, about how big he was, such a big boy, so beautiful. She talked so fast and sweet in their own special language. It wasn't cold and sharp like Daddy's. He looked past Mamma at his mate. His mate didn't look as if he knew what they were saying. He got up with Mamma's help and took her hand, pulling her over to his mate. "Mamma. Egli è mio bellissimo."

Mamma frowned at his mate. Tony wondered why. He reached out and took his mate's hand. "Mamma. Egli è mio bellissimo," he said more firmly; she should know that this beautiful one belonged to Tony. Mamma started talking in Daddy's language, and his mate answered her. They started talking louder and faster and weren't even looking at Tony. He let go of his mate because his shoulder was getting sore again. They were getting really excited. Mamma had a finger pressed into Tony's mate's chest, backing him up against the wall as she growled. Tony figured she was showing that she was high up in the pack- well, she'd had three cubs, only the highest rank got to be mammas and no one messed with them no matter how big and strong they were.

Tony was bored. And the door was open. So he went out and started exploring the big house. There were all sorts of smells and sounds, but he decided to stick to heading down until he could find a way outside. He now wanted to pee, and if he peed on one of the trees no one would know. Unless there were dogs. But he hadn't heard any dogs, just people. There were a few people in black and white clothes, but they didn't try to stop him. They were all busy doing people things, rubbing things with cloth, carrying things, moving things around. He didn't really see the point of any of it, but so long as they didn't bother him, he didn't care.

He went down one set of stairs, pausing to look out a window at the end of the steps. Still not on the ground; he'd have to find more steps going down. He walked away from the sharp smells of the stuff the black and white pack were rubbing on the wood everywhere. It was dusty at this end of the house and there was white cloth over the chairs and tables and there wasn't much light. He liked that, there were places to hide if he needed and... there was... there had been a special door. He remembered that now. It went down and it was a way of getting out of the house without anyone seeing you. Daddy had shown it to him and Mamma once. It was a good idea, like having more than one way out of a den, in case hunters were waiting outside.

The door took a bit of finding, because it looked like part of the wooden wall. It made noise like a mouse when he pushed on it and it opened. He hurried in and let it shut behind him. By a dim light somewhere down below he could see he was standing at the top of more steps, not fancy and shiny like the others, but dusty and plain smooth wood. He followed them down and stopped when he got to the bottom. There were two hallways, right angled to the foot of the stairs, and a big door set directly in front of him. He'd automatically kept track of his bearings as he walked, so he knew one hallway headed towards the trees and things he'd been able to see from his room. He took a couple steps in that direction, but then he stopped and turned to look at the door. This was a secret part of the house. The black and white pack weren't allowed down here, or they'd be rubbing smelly cloth all over the dusty wood. This was just for Daddy, and Mamma... and... Tony? Maybe. He could at least look and see what was on the other side of the door. He'd just look, and then he'd go outside and pee before he came back to his mate and Mamma.

He went to the door and turned the handle. Well, he tried. But it wouldn't move. He whined in frustration; now that he'd thought about it, he really wanted to see what was in the secret room. He patted the door. It felt like metal. He patted around it in the dimness, until he touched something on the wall near the door and it chirped at him. He jumped back, growling, but didn't run. Not yet. He wasn't afraid of a little chirp. The thing that chirped was lit up with a bright white light now, and he could see it was a box with numbers on it. Oh. Numbers. He liked numbers. He poked them and each number made a slightly different chirp up until the box made a sharp angry summer bee noise and the white blinked red before going back to white. He growled at it and poked it again. It did the same thing. Mean birdbee box.

He turned his back on it. He didn't need to see in the secret room. He didn't want to see in the secret room. It was probably just more chairs and tables and dust, not half as nice as the room he'd woke up in, in the soft bed with the Mamma box next to him. Oh. Wait. The birdbee box was singing. It wanted the right song, that was all. There were a lot of songs, though. Even if the song was only five numbers long (well, that was how many numbers it let him play before it buzzed at him, so maybe it waited until the song should be done to decide if it was right) that would be 10 times 10 times 10 times 10 times 10 different songs. One hundred thousand combinations times five button pushes... he'd definitely have to pee long before he finished. He shrugged and turned aside again... but... being here, in the dimness, it... he walked around trying to figure out what was going on in his mind. It was familiar, yes, he'd been down here before he knew that. But...oh. He had been smaller and he'd been hiding. He looked around. There was a space next to the stairs where the light didn't reach. He sat down and curled up small, closing his eyes and letting his body remember. He'd sat here quiet, pretending not to be anywhere, and he'd heard footsteps on the stairs, and he'd smelled the drink Daddy had when he got loud. He could almost smell it now, and hear Daddy breathing, slow and heavy, as he went over to the birdbee box and made it chirp. Yes! Tony remembered the song! He hopped up and pushed the numbers just right.

And the door opened.

Lights came on and things started making noises, slowly, like a bear waking up. Newly awakened bears are very dangerous. Tony stared into the room, but stayed outside until the noises settled down and nothing else happened. There was metal and glass and all sorts of shiny things everywhere. Colored lights and machines. They were partly covered by cloth, but the lights shone through.

So many machines. Tony held back a few more seconds, but then he just had to go in and see them. He got halfway to the nearest big one when he heard a rush of feet on the stairs and panicked. He couldn't get out, there was only the door by the stairs. He dove under the nearest cloth and pressed up close to the machine.

The footsteps came closer. "Tony?" It was Daddy. He sounded upset.

Tony shut his eyes and pretended he wasn't there.

"Tony?"

The cloth pulled back and Tony looked up at Daddy. He'd been bad, he knew it. And oh, now he really did need to pee. "Ho bisogno di fare pipì."

"What?" Daddy knelt next to him and touched him very gently. "Tony? Are you all right? I heard the alarm. How did you get in here?"

Daddy didn't sound angry. Tony pointed at the door.

"All right, it doesn't matter." Daddy put his arms around Tony, not like Mamma, fast and strong. He moved slowly until Tony was tight against him. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Tony." He was breathing funny. And then he started to cry.

Tony was confused. Why was Daddy crying? He whined and didn't know what to do. Daddy never cried. He knew that. Starks are made of iron. Crying makes iron rust. He sniffed Daddy's face. He didn't smell like the nasty drink, so he gave him a tentative lick. Tears are salty; they tasted surprisingly good. Daddy laughed and pulled back a little. He laid his hand gently against Tony's cheek.

"We're going to be all right, Tony."

Tony smiled, and relaxed. Which was a mistake he realized the moment he felt the warmth running down the leg of his pretty red and gold pants. "I...made pee," he said apologetically, finding the Daddy words.

Howard sighed. "We'll work on that."

***

Chapter Text

When Mrs. Stark paused to draw a breath, Steve glanced past her to see how Tony was being affected by... "Tony? Excuse me, ma'am," he said as he gently but firmly picked her up and moved her aside so he could look around the room. No Tony. "Tony?" Two strides in and he peered into the open bathroom door. "He's..." Steve turned, but Maria was already in the hallway, calling for Tony.

Steve wasn't really worried. What was the worst that could happen? Tony would wander around and get lost-- it was a really big house-- but it was only a house, not a war zone. Still, he might be frightened and he was injured and unless the servants spoke Italian he probably wouldn't understand them. Steve caught up with Maria. "Mrs. Stark, is there a house phone? Can you organize a search for Tony?"

"Yes. Yes, of course." Maria went to a small table and picked up an ornately scrolled object that matched the gilt frame of the landscape on the wall above it. Steve didn't recognize it as a telephone until she spoke into it. "Jarvis, please have the servants locate Tony. Don't make a fuss, just find him and make sure he's safe until Howard or I can get there." She nodded and then hung up the receiver. She turned to Steve. "Jarvis is very efficient, he will..." The phone rang and she picked it up. "Yes? Oh, Howard, thank heaven. Mr. Rogers and I will be down shortly." She put the phone back down and smiled at Steve. "Tony's in Howard's workshop." She laughed. "I should have known he'd find it. It was always his favorite place in the house."

Well, Steve guessed he could understand that. A boy likes to watch his father work, doesn't he? Steve's father didn't do anything; he'd been too sick, and too mean a cuss to care what Steve thought of him, but well, if he had Steve would have liked to. He followed Mrs. Stark down the hallway to a small elevator. It seemed strange, having an elevator in a home, but he didn't say anything about it; that would have been rude. "So, Tony liked to watch Howard?"

Maria laughed again. "Oh, watching! That wasn't enough for Tony. Howard let him have a corner with his own tools."

Steve frowned. "I thought you said he was three when he was... lost."

"He was," Maria said as the elevator came to a smooth stop and the doors opened on a dimly lit hallway. "This way," she said as she led Steve to a section of paneled wall that looked the same as the others. She pushed on the panel and it slid back, revealing a dimly lit landing. She glanced back at Steve. "This is a family secret."

Steve nodded. He was a little bit excited, even though he knew the house had been vacant for years, and Howard wouldn't have left anything important behind. It was just that he'd never been in a house with a secret passage. It was like something out of a mystery story. They went down a set of dusty stairs and over to a steel door. Mrs. Stark tapped on a keypad, and the door opened.

Tony and Howard were bending over some gadget. Tony was chattering away in rapid-fire Italian, with an occasional word in English thrown in. He was wearing a dustsheet tied into a makeshift toga over his pajama top, and his feet, and what Steve could see of his legs, were bare. Maria went to Tony and fussed over him, scolding him and pulling him away from Howard to push the toga aside so she could peer at the bandage on his shoulder. "This needs to be changed," she said finally in English. "Howard! What were you thinking!"

Howard grinned at her and laid his hand on Tony's good shoulder. "I was thinking that my boy was home. Maria, he understands. Not everything, no, of course not, but he wants to learn, and he can. It's still all in there."

"And what? You're going to bring in teachers and try to make up thirteen years in a day?" Maria wasn't shouting, but her voice was firm. She put her hands on her hips and got up into Howard's face. Howard let go of Tony.

"No, no, not a day... but Maria... you know I'm not getting any younger. I want Tony to be able to take care of himself, to be able to do what he was born to do."

Maria tugged at Howard's lapels and pulled him further away to start an intense, but quiet, conversation. Steve looked away to be polite, and met Tony's eyes.

Tony came up to Steve. He was playing with a fancy screwdriver, and grinning. He looked a lot like Howard in that moment- except that his eyes were Maria's. He rattled something off in Italian, then narrowed his eyes and said, "Huhh huullo."

"Hello, Tony," Steve said. The bandage on Tony's shoulder was spotted with blood and had dust and cobwebs and grease on it. Pretty much all of Tony was like that. "You need a bath." He wasn't sure that Tony would cooperate, and neither Maria nor Howard had the strength to safely handle him if he protested.

A thought occurred to him. "Do you know who I am?" Steve had introduced himself back in the hunter's cabin, and again to Hanne, but Tony probably hadn't been able to understand at that time.

Tony's grin brightened and he nodded. "Mine. Tony's."

Steve felt his face heat. "My name is Steve. I'm your friend, Tony."

Tony tilted his head to one side and seemed to be considering it. "Steeff Fren. Goo fren."

"Yeah, that's it, I'm Steve Rogers, your good friend." And then Tony got right up against Steve, rubbing his nose against Steve's chest. "Um..." Steve looked over at the Starks, who had stopped arguing and were looking at him and Tony. Steve raised his hands in a 'what can I do' gesture. "Mrs. Stark, I know this..."

Howard said, "Maria, that's Captain America. He's not going to hurt Tony."

Steve was glad Howard didn't show any signs of the suspicions he'd had before. "He saved my life, ma'am. He's a good kid, and I like him. I'd never hurt him. He trusts me and I won't betray that."

Maria nodded after a long, searching look at Steve's face. "All right." She looked Steve up and down once more and then she looked at Tony. "You're right, he does need a bath. You could help?"

"Yes, ma'am."

Howard smiled. "I'll just stay here."

Maria huffed and gave Howard a brief kiss. "Coward."

***

Mrs. Stark set the bathtub to filling with warm water. Tony knelt beside the tub, peering at it and poking his fingers into the tap, and unplugging and replugging it several times before he settled down to catch the falling water in his hands and drink. Steve said, "I could help Tony by myself, if you want."

Mrs. Stark rolled her eyes at Steve. "I am a married woman who has three children..." She stopped talking for a moment, and suddenly smiled. "I have three children. I have seen a naked man before."

"I'm sure you have. I mean, nothing wrong with it. My mother was a nurse; she saw lots of naked men." Steve realized he was babbling, and shut up, blushing.

"Americans. So fussy." Maria turned to Tony and started to unknot the dust cloth wrapped around him.

Steve gave up. Tony didn't seem to mind, it was true. He let Maria unbutton his pajama top and take it off. The bandage on his shoulder stuck to the wound despite her care and Tony whined and squirmed a little. Once Maria got the bandage completely off, Tony licked his own fingers and started to rub at it.

"No!" Maria scolded him sharply.

Tony huffed and let his hand drop as he stood up and backed away from the tub, which was almost full. There wasn't an ounce of surplus flesh on him, and his pale skin showed an assortment of scars- most of them were small, silvery patches, but a few were raised and lumpy.

Maria shut off the water. "Come, Tony." She gestured at the tub.

Tony's eyes went wide. Apparently he was just now remembering what a bath meant. He growled and turned for the door. Steve shut and locked the door and then stood in the doorway, blocking it. Tony looked around the room swiftly and then sat down on the floor at the farthest point from the tub and howled. Mrs. Stark went over to him cajoling in Italian and petting his hair and patting at him, but he just kept wailing.

"Ok, that's not going to work," Steve said. He wet and soaped a washcloth, handing it to Mrs. Stark before he got another one for himself. "I guess it's all pretty new and scary, huh, Tony?"

Tony's howls died down to whimpers. He didn't struggle, but he trembled all over the whole time, keeping his gaze locked on Steve in silent appeal.

"This is not good enough," Maria said at last, when it became obvious that the dirt of years wouldn't come off without being soaked.

"Well, we can't force him into the tub," Steve said reasonably. "He'd get hurt." And it would feel like betraying a trust.

Maria looked Steve up and down. He wasn't sure what she was looking at. Howard had borrowed some clothes for him from one of the gardeners, a plain green shirt and matching trousers. The white athletic shoes were tight, but good enough for walking around a house. Howard had sent for clothes to be delivered, but until they arrived, at least he was decent and not wearing a fifty year old uniform. "What?" he asked.

"Tony likes you. If you get in the tub, he will see it is nothing to fear."

"But..." Steve had to admit it was a sensible idea. He took off his shoes and socks and stepped into the tub, sitting down in the pleasantly warm water, which felt very strange seeping into his clothes. He swallowed hard as it reminded him for a moment of the crash, of the ocean pouring in while he was trapped. That was silly. This was clean warm water and he could get out of it any time he liked. "Tony," he said, and held out his arms. "Come on. It's fine. It feels good." And saying it helped a little. He'd convinced himself of harder things. He smiled and scooted back to the far side of the tub that was plenty big enough for several people to comfortably use at once. You couldn't quite swim in it, but even Steve could have stretched out to his full length and floated.

After several more minutes of coaxing by Mrs. Stark and Steve, Tony approached the tub and let them help him sit in it, cradled in Steve's arms. That lasted about three seconds before he started kicking and splashing to get out. "Tony! It's all right, I've got you," Steve said over Mrs. Stark's loud exclamations. She was very nearly as wet as he was. He politely didn't stare at her bosom even though her silk blouse... well, he didn't look, so he didn't know.

There was more thrashing, and more howling, but finally Tony settled down. He gave Steve a look of utter disgust. Mrs. Stark slapped her forehead! "Oh! I have forgot, no wonder! I will be right back." She got up, dripping water everywhere and left the bathroom door wide open as she went. Steve could hear her walking rapidly away. Tony whined and sulked. Steve sighed and tried to gently untangle his hair. The whining continued.

"Oh, but we want to help!" came a high-pitched voice from the hallway. Steve straightened in alarm. Tony's sisters!

"This is enough help," Mrs. Stark said as she entered Tony's suite. Steve caught a glimpse of the sisters trying to peer around her before she shut the door and locked it.

Steve was pretty sure he heard the door get kicked from the other side. He hoped the lock would hold; he had a feeling he could be covered in immature Starks at any moment. One was quite enough.

"I have Yeller!" Mrs. Stark triumphantly waved a faded yellow rubber duck. She squeezed it and it emitted a squeak.

"Questo è il mio!" Tony said, reaching out for the toy. He ran his fingers all over it and examined it closely before he put in the water. It sank. Steve grabbed it before Tony could dive for it and handed it back to him. Tony licked Steve's hand and then made a face.

Steve laughed. Only a little, he couldn't help it. "You're not supposed to eat soap."

Tony shrugged and said something in Italian, grinning at Steve. He kept talking to the duck and apparently was trying to figure out why it couldn't float while Steve and Mrs. Stark got Tony clean. By the time they were done, Tony was frankly dozing, but he kept his grip on the duck through it all.

***

Tony woke up in his bed alone. The room was dim, but there was enough light for him to see that he was wearing red and white striped clothes, soft and thin like the red and gold ones had been. He smelled like soap, which was strange, but he guessed he'd get used to it. What he didn't think he'd get used to was being alone. The pack stayed together. He got out of bed and put Yeller on the table next to it while he went to the window to look out. There were lights out there, enough so he could make out the paths, and a large cat sitting on the stones. It was a very fat cat, which comforted him. The hunting must be better than he'd guessed. His shoulder didn't hurt much and he was hungry. The hummingbird meat had tasted good, but caribou or even mouse would be more filling.

He went to the door and found that the handle turned this time. He stepped outside and found himself looking at an older man who was sitting in a chair facing the door. Tony blinked and froze in place. The man was wearing black and white, so he belonged to the pack who Do Things, who had ignored him before, but this one met his eyes and smiled. Tony looked away; staring at pack members had got him bitten a few times when they were trying to change their status. He was new here, injured, and his pack status was uncertain. He wasn't ready to fight.

"Master Anthony," the man said, "do you remember me? My name is Jarvis."

Jarvis? Tony moved cautiously close enough to the man to sniff. His nose wasn't very good, but he thought... yes, the smell the man wore was familiar- wood and spice and herbs, all clean and... calm. Safe. He remembered. Jarvis was always safe and calm. When things were loud and frightening, Jarvis was warm and quiet. Jarvis helped when Tony made messes or broke things. Jarvis didn't shout. And...there was food. Jarvis gave him food. "Jhaar fiss. Hungee."

Jarvis's smile widened. "We can do something about that, Master Anthony." He held out his hand. Tony took it, knowing Jarvis wouldn't hurt him. Jarvis was a lot like Mamma Wolf.

"SSteeff?" Where was his mate? Tony wasn't worried; Mamma had accepted Steve into her pack. But if Steve was doing something interesting, Tony wanted to be doing it, too.

"I believe Captain Rogers and your father are discussing business."

Business. Business was boring. Business was papers you couldn't draw on, and boring conversations over the telephone, and people who sat around big tables and pushed paper back and forth. "Hungee," Tony said again. Maybe he could bring Steve some food later. Jarvis led the way downstairs. There were fewer of the black and white pack around, and the whole house smelled different, like fruit and beeswax. Jarvis's pack were den-carers, not hunters? He wondered what Jarvis's status was. The black and white pack seemed to belong to him, Tony thought he remembered that, but the territory belonged to Tony's Daddy. Jarvis obeyed Daddy and the other black and whites obeyed Jarvis. Steve was Tony's mate so they would probably go off and make a new pack after a while, but Tony's Daddy wasn't kicking them out now, so there was no hurry. Spring was a better time for finding new territory, so that was good.

Jarvis and Tony wound up in a big room that smelled like food. Black and white pack was in here, too, but they were mostly in white. The girl cubs, Teddy and Nettie, were sitting at a small table off to one side, eating.

"Hi Tony!" the girls said almost together.

'Hhh hi," Tony said. He liked the girl cubs. They were little and cute. And they shared their food with him, like litter-mates.

"Tony likes cake!" Nettie said and giggled.

Jarvis guided Tony to sit at the table. "Master Anthony's digestion is unaccustomed to rich foods, Miss Annette."

"He doesn't know how to use a fork, either," Teddy said. "I wish I could eat cake like that!"

"No, you do not," Jarvis said firmly. He brought a loaf of bread to the table and cut two slices before a bell rang. He hesitated, and then gave the knife to one of the black and white pack before going over to a panel on the wall where a small light was blinking. Tony regretted seeing the woman take the knife away, because he'd love to have that. How he could hunt!

"I am summoned," Jarvis said. He looked at the girl-cubs. "Do not give Master Anthony cake in my absence." He left the room.

Tony picked up the bread slices and ate them.

"Oh, you were supposed to make a sandwich first!" Nettie said. She held out an open jar full of something that looked like riverbank clay. It didn't smell like clay, though.

Teddy grinned and took the jar from Nettie. "Well, since he already ate the bread, he might as well have the peanut butter!" She stuck in a big spoon and got a large glob of the stuff out of the jar. She held it out to Tony. "It's good. See?" She peeled back the top slice of bread on her plate and he saw there was a layer of the clay-stuff on the bottom. She put the bread back on it, squashed it down and took a big bite. "MMMM, so good!"

Tony took the spoon, sniffed the food, and put the whole spoonful in his mouth. It tasted good. But it stuck in his mouth. "MMM?" Tony wriggled his tongue and tried to swallow it, but it was still there. He stuck his tongue out and tried to growl, but that came out wrong, too.

The girl cubs started laughing. Tony tried sticking his fingers in to get out the stuff, but all that did was get his fingers sticky. He shook his head and some of it flew out, and he pawed at his mouth and it was in his beard and getting up his nose. It was very confusing. Food that didn't want to be eaten?

Tony whined and stuck his tongue out again. Nettie ripped a piece of bread off her own sandwich and put it on his tongue. That helped, the bread caught some of the messy stuff. He stuck his tongue out again hopefully, and this time Teddy gave him some bread.

***

"I think you should have left it in the ocean," Steve said, looking at the unearthly blue glow of the Tesseract neatly placed on an immaculate blotter centered on a fine mahogany desk in Howard's study. He had his arms crossed in front of his chest defensively. That thing made his skin crawl, and not just because of its association with the Red Skull. Howard had brought it out of a safe to show it off, but Steve had no intention of touching it, standing well away from the desk. Howard's partner Obadiah was there, too, lounging in an overstuffed leather chair at his ease, puffing on a cigar and gazing at the Tesseract with eyes that reminded him even more of the Red Skull than the cube did.

"You have no idea what we could learn from studying this!" Howard said. "The world's more complicated than it used to be, more hungry for energy."

"For power, you mean."

"I'm not talking about taking over the world, Steve! I'm talking about providing clean, virtually limitless, power."

Obadiah rose from his chair with a grunt. "Eventually, sure, but that plant you've designed, Howard... the arc reactor technology isn't cost-effective. I keep telling you, we should be looking into the weaponry aspect." He turned to face Steve. "You've seen weapons based on this, haven't you, Steve?" He stretched out a meaty hand to lay on Steve's shoulder.

Steve batted his hand aside. "I've seen power misused, Mr. Stane."

Stane smiled and flicked cigar ash onto the carpet near Steve's shoes. "Stark Industries makes weapons. We've been doing it for a long time. The government trusts us; that record speaks for itself."

Howard cleared his throat. "No one's building any Tesseract weapons, Obi."

Obadiah shrugged. "It's your name on the letterhead, Howard."

"Don't be that way, Obi." Howard put the Tesseract in a metal box and locked it up in a safe beneath the carpet. "The company's doing fine, we don't need to do anything that risky. I'm going to continue studying the Tesseract and one day we'll be able to safely harness those energies, but until that day, the arc reactor offshoot shows real promise with a much higher margin of safety. Even if it was deliberately overloaded it would be a self-limiting event with no fallout."

Obadiah pursed his lips in disapproval, but as Howard was kneeling on the floor, only Steve saw his expression. By the time Howard rose to his feet, Obadiah was smiling genially and threw his arm around Howard's shoulders. "So, hey, lets talk about something more pleasant! Maria tells me Tony's pretty bright. That's great! I was talking to a specialist, you know there's specialists for everything. He said he'd be happy to take Tony to his clinic, and rehabilitate him."

Howard said quietly, "No. Tony stays with his family."

"But is it safe? I mean, you can't be here all the time. What about Maria and the children?" Obadiah's voice was soft and gentle. "And what about Tony? He needs..."

Steve was seriously considering saying something very rude when they were interrupted by a combination of Tony howling and the Stark daughters screaming. "Oh, hell," Howard said as he ran for the door. He sounded resigned rather than upset, so Steve relaxed slightly, but he and Obadiah followed him quickly down the hallway just in case it really was a problem.

Howard flung open a door to a room that Steve decided was what they called 'a music room' in the old mysteries. It had several pianos, some of rather odd shape, and a raised platform at one end of the room with seats and music stands, where he supposed a quartet could play to entertain the guests who'd be sitting in the pink and gray striped spindly-legged French provincial chairs scattered about the room or the matching settees. The carpet was pink and gray, too, some sort of floral pattern. Must have been hand-woven to fit the room. Steve took all this in at a glance, as his attention was taken up by Tony, head thrown back and howling along with the girls, who were screaming at a particularly ear-splitting pitch. Annette had a violin held in one hand, while Theodora held a clarinet.

"GIRLS!" Howard shouted. The screaming stopped, followed a moment later by the cessation of Tony's howling. Tony grinned, and the girls laughed. Howard sighed. "Once again, your brother is not a dog."

"We were only having fun," Nettie said. Her eyes went huge, and her lower lip stuck out. "Tony wanted to sing. Didn't you, Tony?" She tugged at his hand. "You know. SING."

Tony tilted his head and looked at her. He started another howl.

"That's enough of that," Obadiah said. He stepped up to Tony and put his hand over Tony's mouth. "Real people don't howl, Tony." He looked smug for about a second, and then Tony bit him. "HEY!" Obadiah pulled his hand back. Steve could see his muscle tense to hit Tony. He grabbed Stane's arm and held him, effortlessly.

"I'm sure you don't want to do that, Mr. Stane," he said, tightening his grip hard enough to bruise.

"Why don't you go into the kitchen and have someone look at that," Howard said. "Doesn't look like it broke the skin..."

Stane pulled away from Steve, and since he was heading away from Tony, Steve let him go. "Yeah," Stane said. He gave Tony a narrow-eyed glare. "Howard, you'd better keep him under control. If the boy attacks someone else they will lock him up, and it won't be as nice a place as a rehabilitation clinic." Then Stane strode from the room.

Tony growled. Nettie was still holding Tony's hand. She patted it. "I don't like him, either. His cigars stink."

Tony sneezed, which seemed to be agreement with Nettie's remark, and then he went over to Steve, dragging Nettie with him by the hand. "My Sssteeff," he told Nettie proudly. He patted Steve on the chest with his free hand. "Pretty."

Howard's cough was loud in the sudden silence. Steve could see he was trying not to laugh. "Men aren't pretty, Tony," Steve said gently.

Tony looked at Nettie. Nettie shrugged and then tugged on Tony's arm to bring him down closer. She whispered in his ear. He grinned and nodded before straightening. "Ssteeff not pretty. Ssteeff beau tee full."

Oh God, now everyone was laughing, even Tony. Tony's laugh was a series of huffs, but Steve gave him points for effort. He was just glad that Tony wasn't rubbing against him. Tony looked up at him and Steve had to admit the kid was awfully attractive when he smiled. Attractive. But a kid.

***

Chapter Text

Tony was trying really hard to understand people. They were confusing, but most of them were nice. Except the stinky big man. Tony wouldn't take meat from him; it'd be killer meat, he was sure of it. He didn't know why Daddy let stinky Obi stay in his territory. Tony growled at him whenever he saw him, and wouldn't let him near the girl cubs. Nettie and Teddy agreed with Tony. They called Obi, "Creepy." He was always trying to pat her on the head, Nettie said.

Steve still wouldn't mate with Tony, which was a minor frustration over the last few weeks. It would have been a larger one, but Daddy kept him busy learning things about machines, which he loved, and there were teachers for boring things like reading and writing. Reading wasn't so bad, but writing hurt his hands and it always turned out a mess. He didn't see the point of it anyway. Now that he was learning people speak he didn't need to write to tell people things, so he'd sneak off to play with the girl cubs in the estate grounds whenever he saw the writing tutor's car coming up the drive.

Which was how he found himself in his current predicament.

"Tony," Nettie called from the ground beneath the oak tree, one of the largest ones around the house. "Can you see it?"

"Yees," Tony managed to get out. He was crawling on his belly along a branch, and could just see the rainbow colored wing of Nettie's butterfly kite. The three of them had built it, and it had flown beautifully for half a minute before looping and diving into the tree. He squirmed further along the branch until his fingers got a grip on the kite. He wriggled it until it was loose and looked down at Nettie. "Cahsh." He dropped the kite. Nettie caught it and started examining it for damage. Tony started to turn around, until he realized that he couldn't do that. The branch had become too narrow. Well, he'd back up. OH, ow, branch stubs that had laid down when he went forward did NOT do that in reverse. "OWWW," he protested as one dug into his crotch.

Nettie looked up at him. "Come down, Tony."

Tony considered his options. He was up rather high. He hadn't realized, but he could look across to the mansion and see a corner of the third floor. He lay down on the branch and howled.

"Teddy," Nettie said in a serious tone, "I think Tony's stuck."

Teddy laid her own kite, a shiny round one painted to look like a goldfish, down on the grass and went to the trunk of the tree. She looked up. "Tony? Can't you get down?"

Tony kept howling. He could see them, but he was now afraid to move at all. He wrapped his arms and legs around the branch and pressed the side of his face against it, so he had a one-eyed view of the cubs.

"We could get a ladder from the gardener's shed," Teddy said. She didn't sound too sure of herself.

"The gardener's ladder is too short," Nettie said. "We could call the firemen. They get cats out of trees, don't they?" She giggled and said in unison with Teddy, "Your brother is not a cat."

"What's going on here?"

Tony lifted his head at the familiar voice. "Steeeeve! I'm sstuch!"

"How in Heaven's name... never mind." Steve sighed and came to stand underneath Tony. "Can you hold on while I find a ladder?"

"Mhhaybe." The branch made a loud creaking noise and dropped a few inches. "Noo!" Tony yelped and clung tighter to the branch. "Stttteve!"

"Right. Don't worry. Teddy, take Nettie back to the house. Tony, I want you to let go of the branch with your legs."

"Nooo!"

"You've got a good grip with your arms, it'll be ok. Tony!"

Steve was Tony's leader. He had to obey him when Steve snapped like that. Reluctantly Tony loosened his legs, shifting until he was turned sideways with his chest pressed against the branch and his legs dangling, kicking against leaves and thin twigs. The bark dug into his skin right through his shirt. "Ow," he complained. His arms and hands hurt too. He decided he really didn't like trees.

"Good, you're doing good, Tony. Now push back until you're just holding on by your hands."

Tony could see where this was going. "Nooo. I'll fall." His recently healed shoulder was already aching.

"I'll catch you."

At this angle Tony couldn't look down, but he remembered how far it was, and distance, acceleration, gravity, mass... the equation was simple. "Nooo, I'll hurt you."

"Tony! Do it now!"

Tony flinched and found himself sliding off the branch until he was at arms' length. That reduced the distance to the initial contact, but it still...

"Let go, Tony!"

Bark scraped his fingers, and he had time only for one yip of dismay before he slammed into Steve's arms, caught across his back and under his thighs. He threw his arms about Steve's neck and clung tightly, panting in relief. Steve was trembling, which surprised Tony, he didn't think anything would scare his mate. "Ssteeve? You're shake, all shake. Are you sick?"

"No. No, I'm fine, Tony. I just... I'm glad I was here to catch you."

Tony took advantage of his current position, and the lessons he'd learned from watching television, to kiss Steve on the cheek. "Mhy hhero," he said. Kissing was more complicated than licking, but not much more.

Steve rolled his eyes and set Tony down on his feet. "It's time for your writing lesson." He patted Tony on the back.

"Can't," Tony said. He held up his scratched hands and made his eyes wide. Teddy told him 'puppydog eyes' were a Stark secret weapon, and she and Nettie had him practice in front of a mirror. He thought he was pretty good at it. "Kiss an' make it bedda?"

Steve shook his head, but he was grinning. "Come on, I'll patch you up with iodine and bandages."

"Kisses are bedda."

"No, Tony." Steve put a hand in the middle of Tony's back and gave him a nudge in the direction of the house.

"You scare because I fall?" Tony said.

"You could have been hurt."

Tony thought about it as they walked. Steve had been very upset because of him, that was bad of Tony. "I fiss." Tony had thought of something while he was falling. Daddy's arc reactor, jet airplanes, and a dream he had about swimming in the air, like a fish instead of a bird, all fitted into it. Planes were scary because they fell, but if Tony was a plane he wouldn't fall. Birds and butterflies didn't fall, they were made to fly. Tony would make himself fly. "I fiss it! You see!" He started running. He wanted to get to the workshop and get started.

***

Since the serum, Steve tended not to get tired unless he'd, you know, run a few marathons while carrying a wounded comrade over his shoulder, done hand to hand combat with a battalion, or scaled a mountain, that sort of thing, but trying to keep Tony out of trouble was exhausting.

He was getting caught up on modern society himself and while he had the advantage of a basic human social education, his time gap was a lot longer than Tony's. So he was glad that Tony had got so involved in a project with Howard and the two of them had barely set foot outside of the workshop in three weeks. Really, he didn't miss Tony sneaking up on him for hugs, and kissing him whenever Steve's guard was down. It was good that Tony was developing other interests and becoming independent. Pretty soon he'd give up this 'mate' fixation and discover that he really liked girls. Or even boys, just someone who wasn't Steve. And Steve would be relieved. Really he would.

When his unexpected visitor arrived, Steve was in the library with half a dozen books and as many magazines spread out on a table in front of him, trying to get a representative selection of views on current affairs. Howard had a computer - to Steve a computer was a person who handled numbers, but Howard's machine used numbers to perform information storage, retrieval and manipulation, and was linked to other computers around the world. He supposed it was a good thing, if you were Howard Stark, but it was a lot faster to pull a book from Howard's well stocked library than to hunt around on GeoCities, wait for 'pages' to 'load' and hope you found useful information instead of someone's badly designed display of their hobbies. He didn't think this Internet thing was going to catch on; it was a real waste of time. But he did like the disks AOL kept sending in the mail, they had definite possibilities for artwork.

"Sir," Jarvis announced from the doorway, "You have a visitor, Director Fury of SHIELD. Shall I admit him?"

"Huh, yeah, ok." Howard had mentioned SHIELD as a quasi-military organization, counter-spy thing he'd co-founded with Fury. Steve felt a little guilty that he hadn't reported his return to the army yet, but he couldn't figure out a way to do that which wouldn't wind up with him locked up somewhere while wheels turned and ground exceedingly fine and exceedingly slowly, before someone who didn't know him decided his future. He was listed as 'Missing in Action- presumed dead' and really, his war was over, let him stay dead. He just wanted to start a new life somehow, pick up the pieces and just be Steve Rogers. "Sure, show him in, Jarvis, thanks." He stood up and turned to greet his guest.

"Captain Rogers, I'm Nick Fury." Fury was a big, bald, black man with an eye-patch, who was wearing a black leather coat. Steve thought he'd make a great subject for a dramatic portrait. He held out his hand. "Just call me Steve, please."

Fury shook hands with him. "Steve. Has Howard told you about SHIELD?"

"Well, he gave me the unclassified version. Sounds like an interesting organization." Steve gestured at the overstuffed leather chairs around the table. "I guess you're here to try to talk me into joining up?"

Fury took a seat. "You're fitted to do things most people can't. Our organization can really use you."

"The war I signed up for is over, Nick." Steve sat down across the table from Fury and pushed the books aside. "The world I signed up to fight for is gone, too."

"Not gone, just changed. You've changed, too, but inside, you know you still want to make a difference." Fury leaned forward, all intensity and sincerity. "I'm offering you the chance to do just that."

"I'm one man; the best I can be, yeah, but I'm not making a bigger difference in the world than any other guy who tries his best. You lookin' for a patriotic poster boy? I'm done being the performing monkey." Steve waved at the books and articles. "Everything's different these days; I don't know which side has the moral high ground or even if there is a moral high ground."

"So, you've been thinking about it."

"Yeah. It's too soon for me to make any decisions. I thought I'd be an artist when I was a kid, draw editorial cartoons, maybe. The war... honestly, Nick, I figured I'd do my bit, try not to get killed along the way and if I was lucky, I'd land a decent job when I came home. Getting frozen for fifty years kinda threw a monkey wrench in all my plans."

"I can understand that." Fury nodded. "And then there's Howard's boy to consider."

"Yeah, Tony." Steve shut a couple books and stacked them neatly. "He saved my life. I'm not leaving him while he needs me. That'll be a while, but he's learning fast."

"Howard said. There might be a place for him at SHIELD, too."

"Tony?" Steve looked at Fury in astonishment. "Look, he's bright, but he's never going to be normal."

"No." Fury pushed to his feet. "But he might be extraordinary. I'll see myself out, Captain."

Steve didn't bother correcting Fury. He gazed after the man, wondering if Fury was maybe just a little nuts. Spies generally were a bit cracked.

***

Tony was in a bad mood. He'd blown up a little, totally unimportant, part of the workshop, and been exiled from it until the blisters on his hands healed. Steve was in the gym, punching things, and while he didn't mind if Tony watched, it was hard to watch him beating on things without getting all excited. Daddy had explained that it was natural for young men to get excited, but you should take care of it where other people couldn't see you. People were strange. So Tony was in the playroom with Teddy and Nettie, trying to find something to do.

"Woff good," Tony insisted. "Pigss food."

Nettie looked thoughtfully down at the two pig puppets on her hands. "But it's supposed to have a happy ending."

"Woff eats pigs and he's happy." Tony loved bacon and ham and sausage. He was sure pigs were made to be eaten.

"MUNCH MUNCH MUNCH," Teddy said as the wolf puppet on her right hand pretended to eat the pig on her left. Nettie giggled and made her pigs try to escape, but they were eaten, too. Teddy's wolf did a victory dance. "And now I'm going back to the zoo for a nap," she made the wolf say.

"Ssoo?" Tony tried to pick up a chess piece, but the bandages made him clumsy, and he dropped the king. He huffed in frustration.

"It's where the animals live," Nettie said. "Oh!" she sat up and tossed the puppets aside. "We could go to the zoo!"

"Are there wolffs?" Tony was interested. They wouldn't be his pack, but he'd still like to see familiar faces.

"Sure!" Nettie said. She scrambled to her feet and ran out of the room. "Jarvis will take us!"

Teddy put the puppets back in the puppet theater. "I don't know if there are wolves. We've never been to the Central Park Zoo."

Well, at least they'd leave the estate; that would be not-boring. Tony went to get his shoes.

***

Tony enjoyed the car ride once it stopped making him feel sick. The trick was looking outside at the city and the people, which was all very interesting. Jarvis explained some of the things Tony saw when the car was stopped behind other cars, which happened quite often. It would have been faster to walk, except that Nettie's legs were short. And there were a lot of people, all kinds of people. Tony hadn't realized there were so many people in the world. No wonder the hunting was so poor on the estate. (Tony had discovered that the reason the cat that lived in the garden was so fat was that he belonged to the cook.)

Jarvis drove the car into an underground car den. Tony watched him pay for the use of the territory. People were just as protective of what they owned as wolves, but you could usually trade money for permission to use their things. Daddy had lots of money and he was teaching Tony how important it was. Not having money was like being a bad hunter. Tony was going to learn how to get a lot of money so he could support his mate. Steve deserved all the good things. Tony could see now why Steve kept putting off mating with him. Tony had to prove himself first as a money-hunter. He could do that.

They walked as a pack, Tony holding hands with Nettie and Teddy and Jarvis leading the hunt. There was so much to see and hear and smell! When they reached the zoo, Jarvis paid for territory visiting rights again, and then they were inside. Tony was especially impressed by the snow leopards.

He didn't see any wolves, but afterward they went across the street to look at the petting zoo. Tony was also impressed by the pigs. When they returned home he asked Howard how much a pig cost, but Howard thought he meant an ingot of pig iron. They got into a discussion about steel making and Tony learned the basics of iron work. Starks are made of iron, so that seemed good to know.

***

"Tooooony," Nettie drew his name out into a long whine, the better to annoy over the intercom to the workshop. Neither of the girls knew the code to get in, so he could work without distraction- except when Nettie got bored after school. "Come out an' play! Jarvis set up the trampoline on the lawn!"

Tony was tempted. The trampoline would be almost like flying. But no, he'd lost several days while waiting for his hands to heal, and he was impatient. There were SO many things in his mind, waiting to be created. "Inna minn," he said. "Tesshing!" He tightened the straps on the flight guidance device in the palm of his hand, and checked that the connections to the mini arc reactor he'd rigged up to a salvaged parachute harness were secure. He set his feet and gave the controls a nudge. WHOOOOMPPHHH! "YIIIIPE," he said as the force blasted a table clear of gadgets in front of him, knocked him off his feet and threw him across the room, landing on his butt on the floor. "Wooooooo," he howled in delight once the initial shock faded.

"TONY!" Nettie sounded upset. "I'm calling JARVIS!" Tony scrambled to his feet and ran to open the door. "Shhhhhh! No, don', I'm good." He picked her up and mock nibbled on her neck. "Good 'spermen!"

Nettie wrinkled her nose. "Blowing up stuff? No fair! I wanna watch!"

"Not blowin up stuff." Tony thought about it. "Mayyyybe. Maybe later." Mamma and Daddy were away for a conference somewhere in the Catskills, which Tony had been concerned about until Daddy explained that 'kills' meant something like a small river, and that there were no snow leopards there. He could blow up something small in the garden.

***

Tony made sure that Jarvis was busy telling the black and white pack what to do before he and the girl-cubs went out into the garden. There was going to be a party in a week, and Tony was going to have to be dressed up, brushed up, and not growl or whine at anyone. He thought it would help prove he would be a good mate for Steve, so he did his best with the lessons Mamma and Jarvis gave him, but it was soooo boring. He just had to have some fun before then.

"What are we going to blow up?" Teddy asked when they were far enough away from the house to feel safe from interception. "It's the wrong time of year for watermelons."

Tony had decided on that. "Khithe eatin' tree!"

Nettie looked at Tony and then back at the huge old oak. "Did you make nitro?" she asked dubiously, and edged away from him.

"Course not," Teddy said, loyally. "Tony's not stupid. Nitro's too unstable. C-4?"

"Not nitro or C-4! 'S new!" Tony unzipped his jacket to reveal the mini arc reactor. He had it hooked up to the palm RTs as before. He lifted his hands to show the glowing disks.

"Lasers?" Teddy asked, dubiously. "How do you focus?"

"Not lashersh. Arc reactor," Tony was careful to pronounce that correctly. He spread his legs and braced himself as he aimed at the top of the tree. With luck he'd get the branch that had trapped him. "S' kick a little."

Teddy and Nettie got behind him and put their hands on his back. "Go!" Teddy yelled.

The tree was far away, so Tony set both RTs at full power and triggered them. The world was lit up by an intersecting pair of blue-white beams, Tony was torn out of his sisters' grasp and flung a dozen feet back. He discovered that grass was much softer to land on than the cement of the workshop floor. "Wooo hooo!" he yelled and then sat up to check that the cubs were all right. They were sitting on the ground staring in awe at the oak, which had been cut cleanly across the trunk. There was a loud scraping, crunching, noise and the top of the tree tilted, groaned, and then crashed to the ground with a loud thump that made the ground shake.

"Um." Tony hadn't expected that. He thought it'd just be a branch that he could blame on the wind. He scratched his beard and hoped no one had really liked that tree. Before he could gather his wits and run for it, people had come out of the house to stare at the tree and to talk really fast and loud. Tony got to his feet and edged away. He was still a little dazzled by the light, and all the noise of the people distracted him, so he yelped in surprise when a hand gripped his elbow, hard. He looked up. Obadiah was standing there, not saying anything, just looking at him. Tony tried to jerk his arm free.

"No," Obi said softly. "I think we need to have a talk, my boy. Where did you get that little toy of Howard's?"

"Mine," Tony snapped, and tried again to pull away. "I made it."

"Oh, then you'll be blamed. That was a valuable tree, one of a kind."

"Was jus' a tree!" Tony didn't shout for help. Steve would hear and come and see Tony as helpless as a cub. NOT good mate material.

"Your grandfather planted it. Howard will be angry at you."

Tony stopped struggling, suddenly frightened. Daddy hadn't been angry at him for breaking things... but he had told him to be careful... and... the girl cubs could have been hurt. He hadn't been careful. And he knew Daddy loved them. He hadn't ever lost Nettie or Teddy. Would he send Tony away? Would he tell Steve that Tony was no good?

Obi released Tony's arm. "Go to the garage." He handed Tony a set of car keys. "Open the trunk of the black limo, and hide there. I'll take you somewhere safe and I'll talk Howard down when he gets back from the conference. If he sees you, he'll say things he can't take back."

Numbly Tony took the keys. He didn't know what to do. Obi pushed him in the direction of the garage. "Go on, boy!"

Obi was a pack leader. Tony found himself running. It was easier to obey than to try to think of a way out of the mess he'd made.

***

Steve was with Fury in the upstairs library, discussing some of the lesser secret aspects of SHIELD, when they heard a strange, not quite electrical, whine followed by a rustling crash that Steve knew well from running through a forest while it was being shelled. Of course, Tony and his father shared a tendency to make things that went bang, so it was probably nothing to worry about. Steve told himself this as he went down the stairs, hitting only every sixth riser, with Fury not far behind.

The mansion was big, and even as fast as Steve was, he had to slow down when he went through the corridors before exiting through the nearest French doors which were flung wide open. He scanned the area swiftly and relaxed when he realized no one appeared to be injured, although a massive oak had been sheared across. He had no idea what could have done that, but whatever it was, it appeared to have been a one-time event. Freak lightning from a clear sky? He saw Jarvis kneeling with an arm around each of the Stark daughters, who were animatedly talking to him with much gesturing. Those girls were live wires, but he didn't think either of them capable of blasting oak trees in half.

"Where's the boy?" Fury asked.

Steve's blood ran cold as he realized Tony, Tony who was insatiably curious, was nowhere in sight. "TONY!" he shouted and ran towards the only possible place of concealment, the downed tree. The same tree he'd once rescued Tony from. Tony would be childish enough to take revenge on a tree, but surely he wouldn't be stupid enough to stand under it at the time!

"Captain Rogers!" Jarvis called out, but Steve wasn't stopping for him, or for anyone. He reached the tree and began hauling broken branches aside. "TONY!"

Jarvis came up behind him. "Captain Rogers, Master Anthony is safe."

Steve paused and turned to face Jarvis. The girls were behind the butler, clinging to his coattails. Teddy said, "He was with us, way back there." Nettie nodded; her eyes wide.

Steve drew a breath of relief, but then he straightened up again. "Then where is he?"

Fury had followed Steve. He gazed at the tree, knelt and touched the edge where the trunk had been severed. "And what has he got?"

"It's an arc reactor," Nettie said helpfully. "Like the big one Daddy made. Only..." she held up her hands, with her fingertips touching. "Little."

Teddy nodded. "He was wearing it, and he had, you know, focuses? on his hands. He shot the tree."

"Holy Mother of God," Steve said, thinking of Tony reverting to a panicked wolf and running away with the equivalent of an inexhaustible missile at his fingertips. Howard had shown him the arc reactor, and extolled its virtues, while bemoaning the fact that he hadn't been able to make it practical. Well, Tony's demonstration sure looked practical. "We've got to find him before someone gets hurt."

"Did anyone see Master Anthony leave the garden?" Jarvis asked. On getting a general round of negative head shakes he divided the servants up to search different areas of the house and grounds. "Miss Annette, Miss Theodora, you shall remain with me," he said firmly as he led them back into the house.

"You know him better than I do, Captain," Fury said. "What do you think he'd do?"

Steve had actually thought that Tony would come to him. Maybe his crush was wearing off, but if so, it picked a lousy time for it. Barring that... "He doesn't know the city and he likes familiar things when he's upset. If he's not in his room, probably he's hiding in the workshop." Steve ran back into the house, brushing past the servants. Fury followed Steve, grumbling under his breath. It was something impolite, and Steve had the fleeting thought that he was glad the girls weren't close enough to hear it.

Up the stairs, past maids opening closets and peering into chests, past doormen and gardeners calling Tony's name, up the next flight of steps to the family's bedrooms, and the suite they'd given Steve next to Tony's. "Tony?" Steve glanced in the room, took a moment to bend down and look beneath the bed, and then on to the bathroom and even the walk-in closet. "Not here."

"The workshop, then," Fury said. They clattered back down the stairs. The searchers were leaving doors open everywhere. Steve assumed that was on Jarvis's orders so they wouldn't waste time on an already cleared room. It made the mansion look strange, as if it wasn't the same place he'd seen every day for months.

Fury led the way down the probably not all that secret passage to the workshop. "Door's closed," he said tersely. "I don't have the combination, do you?"

"No." Steve hadn't thought of that. He pressed the intercom button on the wall. "Tony? This is Steve. Are you in there? It's all right, no one's mad at you." He released the button and waited. After a minute, he tried again. "Tony? Come out, please." He looked at Fury. "Maybe he's not in there."

"And maybe he is and he either can't or won't answer." Fury scowled. "I'm calling Howard for the combination." He turned and headed back up the stairs at a run.

Steve wanted to say 'wait a few minutes, maybe we'll find Tony somewhere else', but he wasn't sure whether he was motivated entirely by not wanting Tony's parents to be unnecessarily worried or whether he was feeling guilty for failing to keep Tony safe, so he held his tongue.

***

Fury called Howard's mobile telephone from the study with the door shut. "He's gonna have to change the combination, but there's no sense lettin' the world know it until then," Fury told Steve to explain why he bypassed the telephones in the hallways and rooms where the search was continuing.

Steve nodded. "I should go out and help..."

Fury looked up from the phone and fixed Steve with his one-eyed stare, pinning him like a bug on a collector's board. "You should stay here. They're gonna want to talk to you."

"Yes, sir." Steve fell into parade rest and wished he had his shield with him, for something to do with his hands. Fury held the phone to his ear for a long time without speaking, or his expression changing. Finally he hung up, and dialed again. "Not picking up. Either the reception in the mountain's no good, or he's left it in the car."

Steve nodded. While Howard's car phone was a marvel of compactness when compared to the wireless field telephones he'd used during the war, it still was far too bulky to carry in your pocket. "So who are you calling now?"

"My people." Fury grunted. "Gonna send a chopper to pick up the Starks."

"If Tony's in the workshop, I'm sure he's fine." Steve was not letting himself think on all the dangers in the shop. Tony knew how to use everything in there safely. Mostly. Except when he was excited and careless. "And he'll be all right if he's in the house, but what if he was so frightened he left the grounds? I should go check outside." Fury looked at him, and Steve could tell that he knew this was only an excuse not to be standing around helpless.

"All right, you do that, but you'd better be back before the Starks return. I'm not gonna tell Howard I lost you, too."

"Yes, sir." Steve headed out of the room before Fury could change his mind. It wasn't as if Fury could stop him, but he might come up with a good, logical reason for staying put. As Steve went down the stairs he saw Jarvis standing in the main entrance room, directing the search. Tony's sisters were sitting huddled on chairs against the wall beneath a portrait of a scowling Stark forbear. He paused when he reached Jarvis. "I'm going to ask around outside." He smiled at the girls. "Don't worry, we'll find him." Nettie looked like she was about to cry, so Steve hurried outside. Most of the estate was surrounded by high walls, and while he wouldn't be surprised if Tony could scale them, it made sense that he'd go out the quickest way, either by the small service road, or the pedestrian entrance, both of which were on this side of the house, not far apart.

When he reached the public sidewalk, Steve turned around, looking for... he didn't know what, he wasn't Sherlock Holmes. There were people all around, but this was New York; most of them were focused on their own affairs and moving swiftly. The only stationary person he saw was across the street, a probably unlicensed vendor standing behind a fold-up suitcase stand displaying souvenirs, maps, postcards and small brightly colored umbrellas. He darted across the street, ignoring the blaring of horns and the near miss of a taxi. "Hey," he called out, seeing the man hastily flipping his merchandise back into the suitcase and lifting it so its fragile telescoping legs dangled. "No, wait, buddy! Don't run. I just need to ask you a question!"

The man hesitated, looking wary. "What?"

"Have you seen a young man leaving the Stark Mansion in the last... oh, fifteen minutes or so?" It couldn't have been much longer than that since Steve had heard the tree fall. "I'm looking after him. He doesn't know the city."

"Oh. No. I've been here half an hour and you're the first person to come out of there. I saw a big black Caddy leave a while back, though."

"He doesn't drive." Steve frowned and looked up and down the street. "Thanks." He'd go around the block, asking anyone he could find, just to be sure Tony hadn't climbed the wall at some other point. He'd bet that Tony was in the workshop, huddled under a table. Sure, he was fine, and after he'd given them all a big scare he'd be all big, sad eyes until they forgave him. Steve never could stay mad at Tony no matter what crazy things he did.

***

Steve returned to the house after circling the block and canvassing the immediate neighborhoods to no avail. He found the search entering the second stage- where you look where you've already looked. Jarvis met his eyes and gave him a faint headshake, which Steve took to mean that he was allowing this futility in order to distract the Stark sisters, who were now sharing one chair, and holding onto each other. He could see they'd both been crying.

Fury was still in the study on the telephone. "No. No, damn it, Howard, you are not piloting the chopper. Yes, I know you're perfectly capable, but you're not in a mood to be careful, right now." There was a pause. "Yes. I understand. We're doing everything we can at our end. No. The police are already notified. I've got to go. Get your ass in the chopper and let my man drive your car back here. Yeah, I hear Maria." Fury actually winced. "You know SHIELD isn't your personal... ok, fine. Gotta go. Talking is just slowing me down. Right. Bye." He hung up the phone and turned to Steve. "He's not in the workshop. We've combed the rest of the estate twice over. He's not here."

"What can we do now?"

"He's been reported to the police as a missing minor with developmental issues. Jarvis has given them several photos. There isn't much more we can do now, but wait."

"I never was much good at that," Steve said.

"Yeah, it's a lot easier to go punch something. I've sent for some special agents, and if Tony doesn't show up soon, Howard's going to bombard the airwaves with public appeal. Someone's bound to see him."

"Yeah, sure." Steve didn't mention all the hazards of city life that Tony wasn't equipped to handle. He didn't even know what a crosswalk was, or why dark alleys were unsafe, or God, he'd be attracted to the El and maybe he'd wander into the subway, or fall on the tracks at Grand Central. Fury put his hand on Steve's shoulder and squeezed, breaking into his morbid thoughts. "The boy survived with a pack of wolves in the wilderness. He'll be fine."

"Sure." But the wolves had taught Tony what was dangerous, and looked out for him. Tony was alone. And people could be a lot meaner than wolves when they found someone weak. Steve had been beaten up in enough alleys to know that. "I'll just go sit with the girls for a while." They were probably feeling guilty, too.

***

The chopper had barely settled to the ground when the door was flung open and Howard emerged, crouching to avoid the still whirling blades. Maria came after him, along with a red-headed woman wearing black. Howard put his arm around Maria and kept her low until the chopper took off a few seconds later. Steve and Fury had gone out on the lawn to meet them, along with Jarvis and the girls.

"Any news?" Howard shouted over the helicopter noise. Maria ran to the girls and put her arms around them. The red-headed woman followed Howard and stopped next to him when he reached Steve and Fury.

"Nothing," Fury said, but his gaze slid over to Maria and then back to Howard in a silent signal. Steve could see the instant Howard realized it. His expression went from worried to a forced calm in an instant. He nodded and went to his wife. The helicopter was now far enough away that he could speak in a normal tone of voice. "We'll find him. Why don't you take the girls into the kitchen, and get Jarvis to start them making up sandwiches? Fury and I are going to organize the search."

Maria's back stiffened, and Steve thought she was going to protest being relegated to the kitchen, but Nettie tugged on her dress at that moment. "It's my fault, Mamma, I asked Tony to blow something up. It was just for fun." She burst into tears. Maria picked her up. "No, no, it's not your fault, bambina. Come on, we'll go help Jarvis." Teddy followed Maria and Jarvis into the house.

Howard turned to Fury the instant the doors shut behind her. "What is it?"

"The agent assigned to bring your car back discovered that the brake lines had been cut. He was barely able to avoid driving off a cliff. He just reported in a few minutes ago."

Howard went absolutely still for a moment. "It had to have been done after we arrived at the energy conference." He shook his head. "Someone tried to murder me and Maria. All right, we'll deal with that later." He took a deep breath. "Do you think that ties in with Tony's disappearance? I thought he'd just run off."

Steve shook his head. "So did we, until Fury's man reported the attempt on your life. Then I remembered there'd been one car reported leaving the estate soon after Tony vanished. A black Cadillac limousine."

Howard's face went gray, and he staggered, reaching out to grasp Fury's arm. "Obi. Jesus Christ." He shook himself. "He took Tony?"

"It looks that way." Steve swallowed. "We searched the garage, and there was no blood, no sign that Tony was hurt. Fury thinks... that he wants the arc reactor."

"What? We've just built one. Obi thinks it's a publicity stunt. Why... this doesn't make sense. God, I need a drink." Howard closed his eyes a moment. "APBs out on Obi's car?"

"Yes, the police are treating it as a kidnapping now," Fury told him. "FBI's in on it. So are my people."

"Why?" Howard opened his eyes and looked at Fury, "Don't get me wrong, I'll take all the help I can get, but SHIELD's not meant for this. I didn't think you could get it past the Council."

"Didn't ask them." Fury grunted. "But they would have said 'yes'. Your son turned your publicity stunt three story high generator into a fist-sized weapon. Small enough to conceal on a person. Powerful enough to do that." Fury pointed at the remains of the oak tree. "Yeah. The Council would have said yes to finding Tony and his new toy no matter what it cost."

Howard's eyes went cold and hard. "Obi's smart and he's ruthless. Good qualities in a business partner, or so I thought." He started for the house, moving swiftly. For once Fury was following someone else. "S.I.s got people, too," Howard said. "We'll check out the energy conference. Snatching Tony may have been a spur of the moment bonus that he couldn't resist, but getting control of S.I. had to have been his original plan. Someone at the conference must have been in on it. Find them. Put the screws to them. Get whatever they know about Obi."

The woman who'd followed Howard out of the helicopter touched Steve's arm when he would have gone in with them. "A moment, Captain Rogers."

"Yes?"

"I'm Agent Romanov, of SHIELD. Fury tells me you have abilities that might be useful, but I need to know. How dirty are you willing to get your hands?"

"Stane kidnapped Tony. There isn't much I wouldn't do."

She nodded. "Fury thought so." She handed Steve a bulky package that he somehow hadn't noticed she was carrying. "A new uniform. I think it's flashy, but maybe shock value will be useful. When we find Stane, we want him off guard, underestimating the opposition. We don't want him desperate. Not with a hostage in his hands."

Steve nodded, and held onto the bundle.

She looked at him for a long moment and then nodded. "We'll spar. I want to see what you can do." She turned and headed for the house.

***

Chapter Text

Tony had felt sick riding in the trunk, but he hadn't been in it very long before the car stopped and Obadiah opened the trunk. Tony sat up and looked around. They were in a small underground car place. It wasn't very brightly lit, but the blue glow of the arc reactor showed clearly. "Give me that," Obi said. "You're too conspicuous."

Tony growled. "S mine!"

"It's gonna get you caught! You stick out like a sore thumb."

Tony scowled, but he had to admit the odd one out in the herd was usually the one the pack attacked. Different is vulnerable. Tony was already too different. He unbuckled the harness, and wound the wires attaching the palm units around the reactor until it was a tidy bundle. "Don' mess with," he warned. "'s coded. Blowths up if you take it apart." Daddy had told him it was important to make sure no one could steal your stuff and get away with it. He grinned smugly at Obadiah's expression.

"Your mistrust wounds me, my boy." Obadiah gingerly placed the arc and the palm units into a small black leather satchel and zipped it up. He pursed his lips and stared at Tony for a few seconds before he smiled. "Well, come on." He gestured toward the small gray car parked beside the limousine. "This time you get to ride in the back seat."

Tony scrambled out of the trunk and stretched his legs. "Whhhere we goin'?"

"I have a little place I go when I want to get away from the hubbub of the city. You know, for peace and quiet." Obadiah put his hand on Tony's shoulder and patted him. "I know we got off to an awkward start, but I'm sure we can become great friends."

Tony wasn't at all sure about that, but he just wanted to stay away until everyone forgot about the tree. "Daddy likes you," he said, trying to be polite, without lying, which was really difficult.

"Yes, yes he does." Obadiah smiled at Tony, and brushed his hair back from his forehead. Tony managed not to growl or flinch. "You're a lot like your old man, Tony."

***

The new car had dark windows. Tony could barely see anything outside, and looking at things inside the car made him feel sick again. When he complained, Obadiah told him to try lying down and sleeping. Tony resisted that for a while, but finally curled up and dozed off. A few times he thought he heard voices, but they were soft and he didn't wake up all the way, so maybe he was only dreaming. He whined a little in his sleep, because he was cold. He wished he was curled up on the couch next to Steve watching a nature program on the TV. Steve was so warm.

The car slowed down a few times, and even stopped, but whenever the lack of motion woke him and Tony asked if they were there yet, Obadiah said no, so finally Tony stopped asking and settled down to play with numbers in his mind. He had underestimated how much force was in the arc reactor and how efficiently the palm units could utilize it. If it could excite air enough to create a pseudo jet force that kicked him across the lawn, then he definitely could have a free flight mechanism with unlimited range. He could go visit the wolves! He could navigate by the stars easily enough once he got past the dull skies of the city. Not that he wanted to stay with them, now that he had Steve, and Mamma and Teddy and Nettie and Jarvis and Daddy. Daddy probably wouldn't be too angry about the tree. It was an accident. Almost. And no one got hurt. He probably shouldn't have run away.

The car slowed and slowed and tilted and slowed and stopped. Then he heard the engine turn off and the front door open. Tony sat up, yawning. "OObi," he said around a yawn. "Let's go back now."

"Oh, no, it's too soon," Obadiah said. He grabbed Tony by the arm and pulled, dragging him out into a dark and dirty cement place, like an underground car place, but it was only large enough for a few cars, and there were no signs. He twisted around and saw the ramp they must have come down. Metal doors moved, closing it off, and making everything darker as it cut off the last of the afternoon sunlight from outside.

"HHey!" Tony protested and squirmed, but Obadiah was a lot bigger and stronger than him, so it did no good. "Let go! I wan' go home!"

"You are home."

Tony kicked and howled, but it didn't do any good.

"You know, I wasn't going to bother with you. This is all your own fault," Obadiah said calmly as he dragged Tony through a small door at the end of the car park and into a gray cement hall. He hit a switch and a few lights came on overhead, but there wasn't much to see. "I only wanted the company. Howard was wrecking it with all that hippy-dippy, 'let's cut down on the warmongering Obi, let's make peace, not war', foolishness. War is where the money is, Tony, where it's always been." He snorted. "Clean energy, yeah, jump through government hoops for twenty years and you might break even. Roxxon Oil didn't like your dad's ideas. They thought he should keep his nose out of their business.

"I agreed with them, but you know, it wasn't my name on the letterhead, what could I do? So they said, 'you scratch our back, we'll scratch yours'. All they wanted was a non-competition clause in the energy field, and in return... well, they sent a mechanic to play with your father's car." Obadiah dragged Tony up by the back of his neck and smiled brightly. "Your dad's a good driver, but he's not a young man. Hasn't got the reflexes to take a car around those hairpin mountain curves with no brakes. It's a pity your mother went with him. I always liked Maria."

Tony stared at Obadiah.

"Oh, yes. They're dead. Both of them. And no one will ever find you. So you'd better learn to be a good doggie."

When Obadiah released him and pushed him in the chest, Tony fell back on his butt, and before he could get to his feet a door slammed in his face. A small window opened in the door and Obadiah peered in at him. "I was going to leave you alone, really. But then you had to go and show off. It's a nice little gadget, and you're going to show me how to make more of them. You have to, because I gave up the company for you, Tony and I've got to have something to show for all my years' work." The window shut. Tony howled and threw himself against the door. There was nothing on his side, not hinges or a handle or anything except the closed window. He threw himself against the door until he couldn't stand any longer. Then he slid down with his back to it, and stared around the room. It was just barely wide enough in either direction to lie down, and there was a light in the ceiling far overhead. There was nothing else. Even the smallest cage at the zoo was better than this. He put his arms around his knees and shuddered. He wasn't crying for Mamma and Daddy. Wolves don't cry.

***

Tony had no idea how long he was in the walled in cage because the light never changed and there were no sounds. It was long enough that he had to pee and out of spite he tried to aim it under the door so it would puddle and smell bad out where Obi was. Long enough that not-crying made him very thirsty. But not long enough to decide what to do. If he didn't do what Obi wanted, he'd die. If he did do what Obi wanted he'd probably still die, but it would be a little later. Maybe. What if he pretended to try to do what Obi wanted? Obi really thought he was stupid, so he could make mistakes. He had to live. Nettie and Teddy wouldn't have a pack if he died. Steve and Jarvis would take care of them, but it wasn't the same. He missed them. They were his. He loved them. He howled softly, all he could do with his throat so dry. It didn't exactly make him feel better, but it reminded him that he was a wolf, and a Stark. He was a wolf made of iron. He wouldn't die easily. And if he did nothing else, he'd kill Obi before he died.

Since there was nothing else to do once he'd decided on a general plan, he curled up and slept.

***

The door slammed open. Tony had barely time to open his eyes when Obi strode in and ordered, "Get up." He didn't wait to see if Tony would obey; immediately following his words with a swift kick to the ribs. Tony grunted in pain, playing it up. Nothing was broken, it wasn't much more than a friendly tussle with a wolf. Of course, of course, Obi thought he could be Tony's leader by being a mean wolf. Wolves don't get other wolves to do their killing. Obi wasn't a wolf, he was just a very bad man. And Tony wasn't just a wolf. He was a Stark, he was a smart wolf. He whined and cringed away from Obi.

"I said, 'get up'." The foot came again and Tony curled up around it, going with the blow so it didn't really do much. He put his arms over his head and cowered, whining. He heard Obi shift. He tensed and waited for another kick. Instead Obi crouched next to him and patted him on the shoulder. "Tony, Tony, Tony. And here Howard said you were so bright. Get. Up." There was a sudden, shocking pain in Tony's left ear, and he came to his feet, howling. He patted at his ear. There was a little blood, and something hard was stuck in the small wound. Touching it hurt.

"A little present so you know who you belong to, Tony." Obi grabbed Tony by the hair and dragged him out of the cement cage and along the corridor and into a room set up like a normal room. There was comfortable-looking furniture, soft carpet, everything except windows, but since it was underground that was a foolish thing to expect. In place of windows there were paintings and mirrors. Obi let go of Tony when he was in front of one of the mirrors. Tony tilted his head to better see the thing hanging from his ear. It was a metal tag. There was something written on it, but he couldn't read it. Steve had metal tags. He told Tony they were called 'dog tags' but they were really not for dogs. His pack gave them to him, so if he was killed, they could take the tags to let the others know he was gone. Tony wasn't Obi's. Putting a tag on him didn't make him Obi's. He growled. He shouldn't have, he knew he shouldn't have. He was trying to make Obi think of him as a helpless, frightened, cub.

Obi's hand came up, slapping him hard right across the ear. Tony staggered from the sudden red-hot spike of pain and went for Obi, biting and clawing. It was stupid, he knew it was, but he hated Obi so much he didn't care. He tasted blood and heard Obi shout, then he lost his grip and he was lying face down on the carpet, with Obi's weight pinning him down. "Stupid son of a bitch," Obi said, and then he put his hands around Tony's throat and squeezed. Tony thrashed, he could still breathe but everything was going away, so fast.

***

Tony coughed and rolled over. He was still on the carpet, but nothing was holding him down. His neck was sore. He reached up to touch it and his hand hit metal, links like a necklace, but bigger and shaped with blunt pieces that touched and irritated his neck. He tugged at it, but that only drove the links at the back of his neck in deeper.

"Don't do that," Obi said. The necklace tightened, digging in all the way around. Tony yelped and tried to pull at it, but he couldn't get a finger under. "Stop that," Obi said calmly. Tony twisted until he could see Obi, sitting in a comfortable chair and smoking one of his smelly cigars. He was holding a length of chain. He tugged on it and the necklace tightened even more. "Do you want me to choke you out again? This way hurts more. Do you like pain?" He sounded mildly curious.

Tony dropped his hands from the necklace and stopped struggling. He was trapped; the only thing to do was wait, and not waste his strength. After a moment, Obi nodded and came over to Tony. He knelt and did something that loosened the necklace back to how it had been, just touching his skin. It still hurt, but it felt less like his head was being slowly cut off. "I can do this all day," Obi said around puffs on his cigar. "Of course, if I have to choke you out, I'll move up to the shock collar. You think the prong collar is bad? You really won't like the shock." Tony just lay there, catching his breath and watching Obi. Finally Obi sighed and got to his feet. "Get up."

It took a couple tries, but Tony got to his feet and stood there, watching Obi warily. Obi wasn't a wolf, he was an overgrown, overfed cat, one that didn't need to kill quickly, but could take its time playing with the stupid, stupid mouse it had caught. But sometimes when the cook's lazy cat thought the mouse was too weak to run he got careless, and the mouse escaped. Tony didn't like thinking of himself as a mouse, but better a live mouse than a dead wolf.

"That's better." Obi stretched out one hand and ruffled Tony's hair. "We're beginning to understand each other, aren't we, puppy?" The urge to bite that hand was so strong that Tony trembled with it. He saw Obi move the hand holding the chain, and he moved with it to keep the collar from tightening. "See? I knew you could learn. You just needed a little incentive." Obi gazed thoughtfully at Tony. "You know, when the idiots I hired to kidnap you years ago fouled up, at first I was annoyed."

Tony stiffened, but he still didn't say anything.

"Yeah." Obi casually walked over to a table, with Tony following. He ground out his cigar in an ashtray, and poured himself a glass of whiskey. "That was me, too. Howard was wasting S.I. resources on the search for a corpse. If he was going to throw money away, why not throw it in my direction? I was going to split the ransom with those goons." Obi had a swallow of whiskey. "Well, by split, I mean, I was going to get the money, they'd get to test one of S.I.s prototypes. I didn't want any loose ends. They were supposed to give you back, so I could do it again in a few years. Would have been a nice little bonus to look forward to whenever Howard annoyed me.

"But as it turned out, while I didn't get the money, it got Howard out of my hair, which was better in the long run. S.I. was mine. Howard made a pretty figurehead, him and his photogenic wife, and their heart-rending tragic story. Life-changing, you know? And then the adorable daughters..." Obi looked thoughtful again. "Heiresses. It wouldn't do me any good to kill them since their inheritance is out of my reach. I wasn't subtle when I took you. So, I forfeited S.I. for your toy." He tapped Tony on the temple. "And then I thought, sure, I could kill you and take it. Bound to be someone who could work around your little booby trap, but if that's what you could produce when you were playing, why, with a little proper discipline, the sky's the limit."

He pointed at a chair, drawn up to the table. Tony glanced at it, and noticed there was a plate of food and a glass of water set before it. "Sit, Tony."

Tony was hungry and thirsty, yes, but he didn't want anything from Obi. It probably wouldn't be death-meat, but Obi was tricky. Tricky as a pig with a pot of boiling water inside the chimney. He didn't move.

"You know, while it wouldn't do me any good to kill your sisters, I might do it for fun. I could bring you a souvenir? Which would you prefer, a lock of hair, or a few teeth?" Obi spoke so calmly, so casually, that it took a few seconds for the meaning to sink in. He couldn't. Jarvis and Steve wouldn't let him near Nettie and Teddy. But...Obi was very tricky, and very cruel. It wasn't worth risking it. Tony sat where he was told, and waited. He could be patient. He'd hated lying still during storms, with the snow piling around, soft and heavy and threatening silent death. He'd hated it, but he'd learned to endure, when there was no better choice.

"Eat your dinner, Tony. Enjoy it. I can be very good to you, you'll see. All you have to do is make things that go bang. After a while, you'll learn to appreciate the favor I've done you. Howard was going to shove you out on display next week, introduce you to society, drag you into all the fuss and bother of being an independent person. It'll be so much easier for you to be my pet. You won't have to feel out of place, never know what to say or do. I'll take care of you."

Tony looked down at the plate. It was all things he liked. Obi had learned about Tony, probably just because he was a sneak and watched everyone to learn how to get them to do what he wanted. Tony started eating without paying attention to what it tasted like. He chewed as loud as he could, trying to drown out the sound of Obi's soft, gloating voice. He couldn't stop feeling the collar lying against his neck, or Obi's heavy hand rhythmically stroking his hair.

***

Sparring helped Steve focus. Agent Romanov was an exceptional fighter, fast, fearless, agile, and much stronger than seemed possible for someone her size and build. He wondered if she'd been enhanced the way he was. Howard said they hadn't got the serum to work again, but Howard might not have known. He wouldn't ask, but he couldn't help wondering. "Let's call it a draw," he said the last time she flipped him to the floor, using her thighs as leverage. Which... he still couldn't figure out how she did that, but it was getting embarrassing.

"Sure," she said. She was breathing slightly more heavily than before they started, and had a faint sheen of perspiration on her face. She unlocked her legs and stood up, shaking her head and shifting her shoulders before visibly relaxing. She smiled at Steve. "For someone with no real training, you're quite good. Thanks for the workout." She picked up a towel and blotted her face. Her eye makeup hadn't even run.

Steve got up and got a towel of his own. "Always a pleasure to assist a lady." Romanov gave him an amused look. Oh, innuendo. People did seem to think everything was about sex these days. He smiled at her. "You know what I mean." He threw the towel over his shoulders. "And thank you for the uniform." It fit suspiciously well. He didn't ask how Fury had got his measurements. He didn't think he'd like the answer. He'd never been keen on spies' methods. The ends never justified the means.

"Agent Romanov."

Steve looked up to see Fury standing in the doorway. "We have the mechanic."

Romanov went still, the faint smile on her face vanishing as if wiped clean. "Do you need me to talk to him, sir?" And no, that didn't sound like 'talk' at all. Steve clenched his jaw. Even to save Tony... Romanov's eyes flickered to him and he remembered her question. Yeah, he'd pay for it later, but he'd get his hands as dirty as necessary.

"No," Fury told her. "He was eager to turn once he discovered his own car had been booby-trapped with a timer. He didn't take kindly to Stane's retirement package. He's on Roxxon Oil's payroll, listed as an accountant. They gave him Stane's number and he met Stane once at a small midtown hotel. He doesn't know much of use, but he's leverage to get Roxxon to talk." He glanced at Steve. "I'd like to do this the nice way- it's faster."

Romanov nodded. "Captain America can play good guy."

"Works," Fury said. "There's a car in front." He turned and strode out of the room.

"What?" Steve asked.

"Get your shield, put your hood up." Romanov smiled. "I think you've just joined the team, so you can call me Natasha." Natasha headed out of the room, and turned toward the front of the house. Fury was nowhere in sight.

"Natasha. Joined what team? SHIELD?"

Natasha looked over her shoulder. "Well, not quite. I'll be in the car. Remember, you're the good guy. I'm the bad guy."

Steve shook his head, and then ran upstairs for the shield. He had an idea where this was going. He didn't like it one bit. But he liked even less Tony being held prisoner by someone who'd murder his own men.

***

Steve considered smiling at the receptionist, but 'good guy' didn't mean pushover. "I'm sure you don't mean to be obstructionist, ma'am," he said. "Could you please check your president's schedule once again? It's really important that we speak with him."

"We don't have time for this nonsense." Natasha stepped in front of Steve to pick up a piece of paper from the desk and a pen. She scribbled something down, folded the paper in half and pushed it at the woman. "If Hugh Jones doesn't respond to that note in the next couple of minutes, we'll deliver the message in person."

The secretary looked back and forth between them. "Just a moment, please." She picked up a phone and muttered a few words. Less than a minute later a young man in a jumpsuit with the Roxxon logo embroidered on a pocket came to the desk. Before he could say anything, she handed him an access card. "Take the private elevator at the end of the hall to the penthouse, Jimmy."

Natasha deftly intercepted the card. "On second thought, Jimmy, don't bother. We'll save you the trouble." She started off towards the elevator the secretary had indicated.

Steve hesitated a moment. "Ma'am, you can go ahead and inform Mr. Jones we're coming. If he cooperates there will be no trouble." He followed Natasha. Once they were inside the elevator he said, "This isn't what I signed on for."

"Flexibility is a valuable skill, Captain."

"And what did you write on that note?"

"The sack's full of nails." After a pause she added, "It's the punch line to a Russian joke."

"Oh."

***

Roxxon's president was sitting at his desk behind a wall of bodyguards when they arrived. Steve got the general impression that Natasha was amused. "Sir," Steve called out, hoping that the good guy approach would work. "There's no need to be alarmed. We've come to discuss a delicate matter with..."

One of the big, beefy men drew a gun while the other two lunged at Steve. Steve used his shield to knock out one, and punched the other, so he didn't have a clear view of Natasha's actions, but when he lifted his head, her man was out cold, and she was standing on the desk, with one foot pressing Jones' right hand down flat to the surface.

"How dare you!" Jones' snapped. "I'm the president..."

Steve was tired of being good guy. He threw his shield at an ugly, but expensive-looking, statue which shattered. Loudly. He caught the shield. "I'm sorry about that. I'll pay for the damages of course. Mr. Stark said he'd reimburse all expenses."

Jones' glance slid to the side and his mouth shut.

"Yeah. He's alive, and so is his wife. Right now they're not interested in looking into an accident that never happened. Stane's got their son." Steve stepped closer to the desk. Natasha kept grinding the man's hand down to the wood. "Obadiah Stane. You know the name. We need to find him. If we find him in time, we'll be grateful to you. If we don't..."

"What, are you threatening me?" The man was frightened, but furious.

"No," Natasha said. "Of course not. Captain America never threatens." She pressed her foot down even harder.

"I'm the president..."

"I met President Roosevelt," Steve said easily. "You know, he said, 'When you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck to crush him'." He paused for a moment and then said, "All we want is Stane's location."

Jones looked directly into Steve's eyes and nodded. "That. That I can do. Stane's greedy. When I offered him a courtesy card for free gas, he took it."

"So," Natasha said, unimpressed, "what, you have a record of the dates and stations he uses? What good is that?"

"No! No, well, of course, that, too, but he got the special service. Every one of his cars has a tracker in the gas tank. I can give you the locator frequencies for all of them. I don't know which one he's using now, but..."

Natasha tilted her head and considered a moment. "Truth." She moved her foot and leaped down from the desk. "Give the Captain the frequencies. Mr. Jones, I will be staying here until the Stark boy is recovered, in case you have any further information to add. I'm sure you understand."

Jones gave her an ugly look, and cradled his right hand against his chest. "Yes."

***

Chapter Text

There were half a dozen numbers on the list. Steve called Howard from Jones' office to recite them, and by the time he'd ridden the elevator down and exited the building, the SHIELD agent who'd driven him and Natasha here was standing by the car, holding the door open. "We think we have the location. There's only one signal not originating in a parking facility in the city."

Steve got in. "That sounds like it. Where is it?"

"New Jersey." The agent shut the door and got into the front. He pulled away from the curb. "There's nothing on the map."

"So, it's either a secret hideout, or he ditched the car there and changed to one that hasn't got a tracker in it." Steve didn't want to assume anything. Missions went wrong when you were complacent.

"Yes, sir, that's Director Fury's feeling on the matter. We're returning to the Stark Mansion to plan the assault."

***

"Yes, I'm seventy, but I'm not senile or crippled," Howard said fiercely, leaning over the dining room table cleared of silver and expensive porcelain so it could bear the detailed terrain map of New Jersey, held down by pins dug into the lovingly polished wood. Jarvis had supplied the pins. "I lost my son once. Do you really think you can keep me from going after him? You're just lucky Maria agreed she's got to stay with the girls."

Fury didn't like it, Steve could see that. But he remembered how he felt when Bucky was lost. Even if the army hadn't written him off as a lost cause he would have gone. And Howard had piloted an unarmed plane into enemy territory for him without a moment's hesitation. "Sir, I believe Mr. Stark's knowledge of Stane may prove invaluable."

Fury scowled. "The FBI or the police wouldn't let you go along. I should have given them this lead."

Steve noticed the past tense. Fury wasn't saying no. He turned his head as he sensed someone entering the room. It was Natasha. She gave Steve an acknowledging glance. "My relief arrived to keep Mr. Jones and his guard company," she explained to him softly as Howard and Fury stuck more pins into the map. "Babysitting was never my strong point. I'll be accompanying the strike force."

Steve nodded. "Glad to have you, ma'am."

***

In the end it was decided to surround the tracker location and try to tempt Stane out. Natasha got all dolled up in shiny black shorts, with visible seam lines up the front, that fitted her like a girdle (Steve thought it was her underwear at first) and a bright pink sleeveless blouse that had spaghetti straps, see-through mesh on the sides and a flaring not quite skirt. She also had a red white and blue jacket with stars, stripes and USA boldly written across it. She made up her face and somehow her eyes were huge and green as new grass.

"Is it really believable that a woman would be training for the Olympics on a private road in the wilds of New Jersey?" Steve asked as they were loading her fancy bicycle in a helicopter. "I didn't even know there was an event for that."

"It's new," Natasha said as the red, white and blue bicycle was strapped down under her critical eye. "Two years ago, Women's Track Cycling was included."

"Still, even if he knew that, Stane would be suspicious." Steve got into the chopper. Howard was already seated next to the pilot, tapping his fingers impatiently on a briefcase he held in his lap. He wouldn't say what was in it.

Howard looked up. "Obi thinks of women as decorative accessories. No matter how suspicious he is, he won't see Agent Romanov as a threat."

Natasha got in and sat next to Steve. "That's how I read his profile. He'll want to know how I found him, whether there are any more like me at home, that sort of thing." She smiled. "It won't be a problem, Steve. I've played this game before."

"But you're not even armed."

"I'm not?" Natasha put on a set of headphones and gestured for Steve to do the same. "It's good that you think that. Very good."

Fury came out onto the lawn. He walked up to the helicopter and leaned in the open door. "The rest of the strike force will meet you en route. Get going," he said and waved to the pilot.

"You're not coming with us, sir?" Steve shouted over the sound of the engine warming up. It shouldn't have been a surprise. After all, how many generals went on missions back in the war? But he'd thought Fury was personally involved.

"Goin' to the circus." Fury strode off, leaving Steve wondering what he meant. He looked at Natasha; she shrugged.

***

To be on the safe side and avoid the remote chance that the sound of even distant helicopters would alarm Stane, the meet point was three miles from Stane's assumed coordinates. In addition to Natasha and the two pilots, Fury had assigned half a dozen agents, all wearing plain black fatigues. The plan was so basic it didn't deserve the name, but Steve went over it with them anyway. They were to stay undercover while Natasha attempted to infiltrate, and back her up if she was in trouble.

Natasha shook her head. "Only come in on my signal," she said. "Or if I'm out of commission. First priority is to recover the weapon. Secondary, the boy." Steve didn't protest. It made military sense. He didn't have to like it, though and he could see from Howard's glare that he wasn't alone in his opinion. Natasha concluded with, "Everything else is optional, including my survival."

"Do we need to bring Stane in alive?" One of the men asked.

"It would be preferable," Natasha said. "But it's not essential. We can dig into his records to find out anything we need to know about his past activities. Any questions?" She said it as a formality, Steve thought.

Howard said, "I'm not as fast as I used to be."

Oh, yeah. They were all on foot, except for Natasha's bicycle.

Natasha said, "You invited yourself to this party, Stark. How you get there is up to you." She got on her bicycle and began pedaling along a dirt path that went in the general direction they wanted. The SHIELD agents started after her at the steady pace of trained infantrymen.

Steve took his shield off his back. "I'll carry you. You don't weigh that much." He removed his belt and used it to tie his shield onto Howard's back. It wasn't as secure as he'd like, but it would do. "Give me your tie." Steve took the tie and made it into a loop through the briefcase handle which he slipped around his neck and knotted onto the briefcase handle. "I think we're good to go."

"Thanks." Howard climbed onto Steve's back.

"Put your arms around my neck and grab one of your wrists," Steve said. As soon as Howard had done that, Steve got his arms under Howard's knees and locked his hands together. He shifted and nodded in approval. "Tell me if you need a break." Then he started running. He caught up with the others in a few moments and pressed past to keep pace with Natasha on the bicycle. Natasha gave Steve an eye roll, but otherwise ignored him.

"You've done this before?" Howard asked.

"Yeah. The saddleback carry's in the Army manual." Steve didn't like to think how often he'd carried a wounded comrade like this. "You're not carrying a sixty pound pack, and neither am I, so this is cake."

"Cake, he says," Howard muttered. "How long can you keep going?"

"Long as it takes." Steve settled into his rhythm. It felt good to be with a team, even a temporary one made of strangers. It felt good to be doing something with a clearly defined purpose. Maybe Fury was right, and he should join SHIELD. Maybe.

***

Obi wasn't so easily fooled as Tony had hoped. He took one look at the preliminary diagram for the palm units and snorted. "Transistors? You must take me for an idiot, Tony." He snatched up the dangling chain he'd left attached to the prong collar and gave it a swift yank. Tony fell from the chair, scrambling to release the tension, but Obi kept backing up, forcing him to scurry along on his hands and knees, not letting up long enough for Tony to get to his feet. "That's hurtful, boy. And insulting. You need to learn respect for your master."

Obi stopped when he got to the middle of another unfinished cement room similar to the one Tony had seen before. This one had a few frightening differences. There was a chain running through a heavy ring set in the center of the ceiling; one end had a hook, and was hanging about waist high, the other was attached to a crank set in the wall. Directly under the hanging chain the cement sloped to a metal grate. The cement for a yard around the drain was discolored with rusty brown stains. "No!" Tony shouted. He tried to fight but Obi casually backhanded him so hard Tony was dizzy. He shook off the effect a few seconds later, but Obi had already hooked Tony's chain to the larger one and cranked it up so high he was standing on the balls of his feet, and scrabbling with his hands for the chain above his head. He couldn't get enough slack to get free, but taking some of his weight on his arms helped.

"There, now. Since this is your first lesson, I'm being lenient." Obi came up to Tony and put his hand on Tony's chest. "It can be much, much worse." He pushed gently on Tony's chest. Tony staggered back a step, hastily catching himself. Obi made a little humming noise. "A little pain concentrates the mind wonderfully, I've found." He unbuttoned Tony's shirt and examined his chest, tracing his fingers lightly over the faded scars picked up during his years with the wolves. Tony growled, hating the soft, sticky feeling; it was like having a bloated spider walk on him.

Obi smiled. "Oh, that's just asking for it." He patted Tony's stomach. "You think I won't really damage you. Don't count on it." He turned away and went to a shelf Tony hadn't noticed because it was the same dull gray as the walls. He picked up something long and brown, tapering like a snake, but with a loop at the end. "This is rather appropriate, don't you think? It's a dog whip. Meant just for the sound of it, I'm told. They told me when I purchased it that it would be cruel to actually hit the animal I was training. Still... pain is such a time-saver." Before he finished speaking he swung the whip, hitting Tony across the ribs.

The pain wasn't that bad, but the force of it made him dance on his toes trying to keep from strangling. He hated that his arms and legs were free, but even when Obi came up to fondle the bruises, he couldn't fight back. It was worse than when the people had tied him up in the cabin. He continued to growl whenever he could catch a breath, but it seemed to amuse Obi as he continued the beating. Tony's arms and legs were on fire from the unnatural stress, but he couldn't relax a moment. Obi kept hitting at random and Tony had to stay alert to avoid being choked out again. He was reasonably sure Obi wouldn't let him actually die -not yet, not yet, the cat wasn't bored with the mouse-, but he hated the thought of being unable even to see what Obi would do to him.

He was half-choked and dizzy, so for a moment he thought that loud buzzing noise was in his head, but Obi dropped the whip and looked away from Tony. "Huh. Seems we have a visitor. You know, just when you get into the swing of things, there's always an interruption." He went over to the crank and released the chain. Tony's legs folded up under him, letting him hit the floor hard. He reached up and tore at the collar, loosening it so he could breathe deeply. While he was occupied with that, Obi took something else from the shelf and came over to him. "I'll get rid of them and be right back. Don't want to lose my place." He kicked Tony onto his belly and tied his hands and feet together. "Comfy?" He rolled Tony onto his side and touched his mouth. "Breathing ok?" Tony snapped at him. Obi pulled his hand back just in time. "Yeah, you're fine." He shoved a piece of cloth into Tony's mouth and tied another cloth around his head, holding it in place. He got up and looked down at Tony for a minute. "Maybe a visitor is a good thing. I can demonstrate on them what happens to people, and puppies, who annoy me." Obi walked out of the room but he left the door open.

Tony wriggled around and tested the ropes. There wasn't any give in them, but he could caterpillar his way across the floor. It was slow and moderately painful as the cement grated his skin raw, and it was probably useless, but lying here sure wasn't doing any good. He paused to catch his breath every few seconds, lifting his head and listening. The buzzing stopped. Tony estimated Obi's stride, speed of an average pace, assuming direct course to...where... not the way they'd come in, with the car... well, so much for figuring out when Obi would reach the door, when he didn't even know where the door was, if there was a door. He laid his head down, and concentrated on calming himself, then resumed inching to the door. Once he reached it and got into the carpeted hallway moving was less painful.

He could see footprints in the thick plush, not yet risen, which told him which way Obi had gone. He kept on, wriggling, listening intently every time he had to pause for breath. He chewed at the cloth in his mouth, and growled softly. He was too angry to be scared, and he worked at staying angry. He reached the end of the hallway and squirmed around the corner before he stopped again. This time he could hear the murmur of Obi's voice, deep-toned and smooth. There were pauses, but he couldn't hear the other person. Obi would lie and they would go away. Tony took a deep breath and howled as loud as he could despite the stuff in his mouth.

Obi's voice rose, and there was a scuffle, and then the unmistakable sound of his own palm units firing. Tony struggled to pull himself up against the wall. He heard a rapid beat of footsteps, muffled by carpet, and then Obi appeared. His jacket was torn and the blue glow of Tony's arc reactor showed through the shirt. His hands were lit with the palm units. "Stupid, stupid boy!" He did something that released the rope holding Tony's feet and dragged Tony up by one arm. "You've been nothing but trouble all your life." He pulled Tony in front of himself. "I'd kill you now if I didn't need a shield."

Tony dragged his feet and did his best to slow Obi. He got another slap in the face for that. There was more noise and voices. He recognized Steve's and tried to shout a warning. Steve was strong, but the palm units... Steve wasn't an oak tree.

And then they were standing in a room that had one wall blasted open, letting in sunshine and a view of trees and dirt. Tony didn't see a body, so he hoped that Obi had missed. The palm units had been measured and calibrated for his hands, not for Obi's meaty paws. He heard Steve, this time clearly enough to make out the words. He couldn't see him, which was smart. Stay away, stay safe. Tony remembered hunters leaving a rabbit as bait. Smart wolves don't take bait.

"Give yourself up, Stane," Steve shouted. "Right now, you're in a lot of trouble, but you can get a good lawyer and be out in a few years."

"Oh, yeah, sure," Obi said. He dragged Tony closer to the hole in the wall. "I have a better idea. How about you let me go, or I blow Tony's head clean off?"

"Adding murder to your list of crimes isn't really a good idea, Obi. I thought you were smarter than that." Daddy! Tony's eyes widened at the voice and he howled and kicked. "Tony!" Daddy shouted, "I'm all right and so's your mother. We're going to get you."

Obi made a noise deep in his chest, a very creditable growl. "Over Tony's dead body! Jesus! What is it with you Starks, don't you know when to lie down and die?" He lifted his right hand and blew away more of the wall. Tony slammed an elbow into Obi's midriff and fell to the floor, hitting his sore head one more time. He looked up to see Obi aiming a palm unit at his face. "Goodbye, you little son of a bitch." The palm unit whined. Tony stared directly into Obi's eyes.

"No!" Steve and Daddy shouted at the same time. Tony heard a lot of banging noise, and a sort of humming whir. Obi's head fell off and the rest of his body went in the other direction. Tony blinked. Steve's shield was lying on the floor, with blood on it. Obi was lying on the floor in several pieces, with more blood. The arc reactor was still glowing. He looked the other way. People were running toward him. Steve had on beautiful red, white and blue clothes. Daddy had an equally beautiful gun which looked like it was laser-guided and he really wanted to see the specs on it. There was a red-haired woman, and a bunch of men in black uniforms. He didn't know who to look at first, but then Steve got to him and held him tight, and kissed him on the cheek, and he smiled behind the cloth.

***

"Tony's sleeping now," Steve said. He carefully shut the door to Tony's suite. The doctor's examination had showed there wasn't any serious injury, but he was suffering from mild concussion and assorted bruises as well as emotional shock. "You'll have to come back and see him later," he told Nettie and Teddy.

"That's all right," Nettie said. "We wanted to talk to you."

"You did?" Well, yes, they probably wanted to thank him. "You know, I wasn't the only one there. Your father was very brave."

Teddy frowned. "Of course he is, Starks are made of iron. Except for their hearts. Mamma says Starks have hearts like tiramisu. You know."

"Oh. Yeah?" Tony liked that dessert, and it was served quite often. Soft and sweet. "Well, his heart is fine, the doctor says he just needs to rest."

Teddy straightened and looked stern. "You kissed Tony."

Steve felt himself blush. "Well, it was... you know, I was just glad he was all right."

Nettie and Teddy both stared at him. "Tony says he's going to marry you."

Steve's cheeks went even hotter. "Girls... you know... Tony doesn't understand these things. Men can't marry other men. It's the law. And anyway, Tony's too young to marry anyone." And WHY did he add that. He wanted to bite his tongue.

Teddy frowned. "That's a stupid law." She sighed. "I guess I have to become a lawyer."

Nettie bit her lip. "I could be President? But maybe a senator would be more fun."

"Girls, the law isn't going to change just so Tony can marry me!"

Teddy looked at Steve as if he was stupid. "Well, of course not. Other men must want to marry men, too. My Ken doll always looks happier with his friend Alan than Barbie." She grabbed Nettie's hand and began pulling her down the hallway. "We'll go ask Jarvis how to change the law. He knows things."

Nettie said, "You just wait and see."

Over her shoulder Teddy called back, "And don't break Tony's heart before we do!"

Steve shook his head and sat back down on his chair to wait for Tony to wake up. He chuckled. Him marrying Tony? Absurd. Really. Tony was cute, but... no, never happen. Not in a million years.

Maybe.

You know... the girls were Starks.