“Are we sure it was the Next Gen people? This attack isn’t their usual style.” Tony insists, the wind almost drowning out his words. The suit’s too badly damaged to waste power on noise canceling, even if the function still worked, which it doesn’t. He hears Coulson sigh, and lets himself grin in the safety of his helmet. Because he can, because he needs a distraction, he does a lazy barrel roll over the top of the quinjet, and hears Clint curse at him over the comms.
“I hate to say it Tony. But the chemical found in their bodies closely matches the samples I took last October. The affects are… a little different, but the base formula is definitely the same.” Bruce says, sounding distracted. Tony hears Clint snort, a harsh crackle of air across the comms.
“A little different? You’re going with a little different?” Clint asks, and Tony doesn’t have to be in the quinjet to know the archer is rolling his eyes. Natasha makes a soft noise of amusement, but says nothing, while Thor lets out his usual rolling laughter.
“I have to go with Clint on this on, unfortunately. Jelly bean, I would say that glowing eyes and blood is not a little different.” Tony says, doing another barrel roll. He keeps seeing Steve go down in the last mad rush, dozens of pairs of glowing eyes in the dark, all converging on the Captain. The new goons weren’t stronger than they were last October, or even faster, they were just fearless. Not a one flinched, or showed even a modicum of self-preservation. A few dozen faceless underlings should not have posed any sort of problem for the Avengers, a few dozen underlings should not have been able to catch and capture Captain Fucking America. But the battle was vicious and brutal in a way Tony hasn’t seen before. The feral grins on their faces were almost familiar, and their glowing eyes were wide with something like bloodlust. The enemy took risks, the enemy gave no quarter and something about it, something about the way they laughed and smiled while doing it sticks in the back of his head. A data point he doesn’t know what to do with yet. He needs more evidence before he can make a conclusion, but fuck there’s something there, he just knows it.
“Fair enough,” Bruce says, “but the point is, the formula itself isn’t that different. I can’t tell you exactly what it does without further testing, but I think-“ he trails off, sounding thoughtful.
“But?” Thor prompts, ever impatient. A voice that sounds suspiciously like Peppers sounds in his head, reminding him about the pot calling the kettle black. Tony, with the ease of long practice, ignores it.
“It’s a composite of several different chemicals. I don’t recognize most of them, but the ones I do all seems to be from that failed Hydra experiment last year.” Bruce says, his voice soft. There’s silence, someone gasps, and Tony has to quickly correct his course when he jerks reflexively. Hydra, cute little fanatics that they are, tried their hands at creating better battle minions. Specifically, creating a chemical compound to erase fear, erase compassion, erase anything that could stop a recruit from killing mercilessly and on command. The chemical worked, but when their monsters turned on them mid-fight with the Avengers (after a terrifyingly logical argument from Natasha) the cult scrapped the project.
“And we’re sure it’s not Hydra?” Clint asks, sounding hopeful. Old villains are always preferable to new, unknown ones.
“I don’t think so, at least not exclusively. The men from today seem to be treated with a mixture of the Hydra behavior modification chemical and the temporary enhancement of the Next Gen formula.” Bruce says, sounding tried. Out of any of them, Tony reflects, Bruce has the most reason to be wary of science that changes the human condition.
“Villain to villain cooperation, awesome.” Clint says.
“They could have just stolen the formula from Hydra. Their bases are as secure as storage facility.” Natasha says, sounding scornful.
“Any idea why they want Steve?” Clint asks, voice gruff with suppressed emotion.
“Why does any ever want to kidnap Steve?” Tony asks, voice sounding monotonous even to his own ears. The compound is still twenty minutes out, the tracking signal from Steve’s uniform comes through clearly, and the quinjet is silent. Since the armor is too heavy for the quinjet, Tony flies alongside and runs through a series of obsessive, only marginally helpful calculations. Was the original attack a diversion? Was capturing Steve the ultimate objective? Do they want what bad guys normally want from Steve, the serum?
“I’ve got confirmation. This was the Next Gen group we took out last October, apparently under new leadership.” Coulson says, matter of fact. Only two plus years of experience with the man lets Tony hear the strain in the normally unshakeable agent’s voice.
“You found the leaders?” Bruce says, his voice flat.
“Yes, we just got our hands on the lieutenant. He confirmed Steve’s location, we should be at the compound in roughly two minutes.” Coulson replies, and Tony can hear the faint tapping as the agent scrolls on his tablet. Tony keeps replaying glowing eyes and half-mad screams and he’s a fucking genius shouldn’t his thoughts be better controlled than this- wait ha. They’re fifteen miles out at quinjet speed when Tony sees a thick black plume of smoke rise into the air.
“I see smoke, I’m going go ahead and check it out.” Tony says, because he can learn, he knows the ‘warn your teammates” drill by now. He barely registers the faint chorus of acknowledgement as he diverts more power to the repulsors in his boots and angles towards the smoke. The compound, once he reaches it barely a minute later, is in shambles. He comes down in the middle of a courtyard and hovers a few feet above the sodden, churned up ground. He turns in a slow circle, arms out with palms extended. There’s silence. His heartbeat goes wild, and he’s has a sudden, horrible feeling, his stomach sinking as adrenaline leaves a bitter taste in the back of his mouth. He can barely make out the nearby buildings through fire and smoke, but he doesn’t see any movement. There’s no screams, no running footsteps, nothing on any of the radio frequencies.
“JARVIS, scan the buildings, tell me what’s going on.” Tony says, slowly drifting towards the nearest building. He can’t see more than a few feet in front of his face, it’s making him paranoid, and he grits his teeth to keep from babbling with nerves. He clears a cloud of smoke and-
“Fuck!” He hears himself shout, sounding strained even to his own ears. The door to the building is wide open, the bodies of black-clad men spilled out over the ground like forgotten toys. There’s dozens of them, splayed out in an sloppy inverted cone pattern leading from the door, as if they were fleeing something from inside the building when they were killed. Tony lands and walks cautiously over to the nearest body, hands still outstretched and ready to fire. The man’s neck has been snapped, clean and neat, the only marks are deep impressions of fingers.
“Sir.” JARVIS says, ever polite.
“What’s going on here buddy?” Tony says, walking towards the door in slow measured steps. He turns his mic up as loud as it can go, activates his motion sensing algorithm up and turns his head back and forth.
“I’ve completed a scan of the complex, and it appears there is only one life source, seemingly human. One hundred fifty yards ahead, in your current direction. Current satellite footage shows no movement in the surrounding area.” JARVIS says, sounding as worried as he ever gets. Tony takes the final step into the building. He’s on the second floor of what looks like a manufacturing facility, the door opening up onto the thin lip of a catwalk that overlooks the machines below. The ground floor seems perfectly intact, the only sign something has happened being the scattered forms of more bodies, felled right next to their intact machines. The surrounding catwalk is littered with still more bodies dropped in uneven lines, each one apparently killed as quickly and efficiently as possible. The silence presses in on him from all sides, and he feels the hair on his arms stand straight up with gooseflesh. There are no shell casings on the floor, no blood on the walls. A few of the men have their guns in hand, their faces frozen in terror. But whatever, whoever, killed them did so with no fanfare and no fuss.
“I don’t know what happened, but something got here before us. Outside is a wreck, and JARVIS says there’s only one guy left alive within the compound. I’m going to go say hi.” Tony says, switching to the team comm. lines. He hears muffled curses from the men, Natasha swears darkly in Russian.
“If I told you to stay put and wait for us to arrive, which by the way, we will in less than two minutes, would you listen?” Natasha asks, her voice droll. Tony snorts, taking a cautious step over a downed man, the click of his boots suddenly loud in the vast warehouse.
“And who says you can’t teach an old assassin new tricks. When you get here, see if you can find the control room and hopefully find us some security footage, I want to know what the hell happened.” Tony says, light and casual. There’s a weighted pause from the other end, but Tony keeps walking, one careful step after the other, following the path helpfully supplied by JARVIS. He makes his way towards the stairs, the same feeling that something has gone terribly wrong screams loud in his head.
“Try not to get yourself killed.” Natasha says shortly. Tony snorts, but otherwise doesn’t respond, his mind already ticking through scenarios of what happened and discarding them at high speed. There’s a part of him that wants to fall apart, to give in to panic and run screaming Steve’s name through the halls. He ignores it and starts down the stairs, his heart beating loud in his ears. JARVIS leads him across the machine floor, and Tony stops by a long row of small, clear glass bottles. There are massive stacks of crates over to his right, and there’s a 98.864% chance they’re filled with whatever’s in those bottles. He hears the team touchdown and start to spread out through the comm but doesn’t do more than grunt his understanding. He takes a moment to analyze the little bottles, the back of his neck prickling with nerves, his body throwing an absolute shitfit at the idea of stopping and being so exposed. As he figured, the bottles contain the chemical mixture from before, the one the glowing eyed minions were injected with, and he almost gags at the thought of how much wild-eyed cannon fodder this much chemical could produce. He keeps walking, making himself walk not run, no matter how much his lizard-brain screams at him to get out of the open. He’s not far from the blinking dot JARIVS tells him is last person left alive in this hell hole, only a few yards, and yup, there’s a door set into the far wall.
He stands in front of the door, runs another scan, and kicks down the door. There’s a scream of terror, a man, and several bullets clang off his chestplate. The room looks like any normal office, desk chair, filing cabinet, terrified screaming man backed into the corner, firing a gun at him. Maybe not any normal office then. Tony takes a step into the room, palms up and ready to fire if need be. The man is shaking so much he can barely hold the gun upright so he figures the repulsors aren’t needed.
“Look, since I’m a nice guy if you put the gun down I won't kill you.” Tony says, the Iron Man modulated voice smoothing over any waiver his tone may or may not have had. The blank terror in the man’s eyes fades, and he stares at Tony with something that could be… hope?
“Oh thank god.” The man breaths, letting the gun drop to the floor.
“Oh thank god? Do you know who I am?” Tony asks, dead serious, for maybe the first time ever. The man nods, his face pale and sweaty.
“Yes, Tony Stark, Iron Man.” He says, his voice hoarse.
“Who were you afraid I’d be?” Tony asks, feeling another shiver of unease creep up his spine. The man swallows several times before he can speak, shaking all over.
“Steve Rogers.” He whispers, his eyes once more wide with terror. What the fuck. Bad guys might hate Steve, they might even fear him, but this guy- this looks as if Steve is the monster.
“We’re both Avengers, you do know that, right?” Tony asks, his mind leaping to a conclusion he doesn’t like. A facility full of baddies who specialize in chemical mind-control and some random guy is the only one left alive terrified of Steve-
“Yes, but you weren’t dosed with the Pax.” The man whispers.
“You guys gave Steve something? Pax?” Tony asks, his mind tracing back through the bodies, comparing the finger shaped bruises to Steve’s hands-
“Nathan wanted to prove to our higher ups that Pax works and he said who better to test it on than Captain America. So he gave Rogers a mega dose and-“ The man cuts himself off, looks down, takes a deep breath. Nathan Lansbury, Tony remembers, head of the Next Gen North American branch.
“What exactly does Pax do?” Tony asks, feeling sick.
“It- I don’t really know, I’m not a scientist-“ He starts.
“I said what does Pax do!” Tony yells, taking a threatening step forward before he can stop himself. The man shrinks back against the wall, makes a whimpering sound.
“It- they said it turns people into psychopaths. Or- gets rid of remorse, or empathy, it suppresses someone’s conscience.” The man says, eyes wide with fear. Tony thinks he may be sick. All those people. Steve’s been to war, he’s killed people, but they’ve been enemies and yes the Next Gen people were enemies, but they’re only minutes from Poughkeepsie and if Steve kills innocent people it will kill him, it will destroy him.
“Is it permanent?” Tony hears himself ask.
“No, the subjects have to be given weekly treatments or the affects wear off. I don’t know how long that would be for him.” The man says, clenching and unclenching his fists.
“Are you trying to tell me you idiots temporarily turned Steve Rogers into a killing machine and then lost him?” Tony asks, incredulous. JARVIS plays the satellite feed from the surrounding area on his heads-up display and he desperately searches for any sign of Steve. Oh god, they have to find him before he hurts innocent people. The man stares at him for a long moment, confused, before shaking his head slowly.
“Lost? We didn’t lose him. Nathan injected Rogers with Pax, got him angry, made sure that he overheard Nathan’s plans to go into Poughkeepsie, and set the cell doors to open ten minutes later. Nathan wants the world, wants his bosses, to see what Pax is capable of.” The man says, sounding almost impressed. Tony doesn’t speak, his thoughts scattered.
“Where is Lansbury going?” Tony asks, fiercely grateful for the suits modulated voice. The man swallows, takes a deep breath.
“I think- he has a house Poughkeepsie? He’ll want to be there when Rogers is set loose, for posterity.” The man says, scornful. Tony doesn’t respond, and turns for the door.
“Guys, we have a problem. A huge problem.” Tony says, switching back to the team comms. There’s nothing but static on the line for several long seconds and Tony squeezes his eyes shut, grimaces.
“You found the security tapes.” Tony says, turning and walking back into the machine room. He closes the door behind him and pulls the doorknob off, ignoring the man’s shouted protests.
“Yes. Tony- Steve- he-“ Clint says, sounding heartbroken.
“Found a guy. He said Nathan Lansbury injected Steve with something called Pax, got him angry, and let him overhear that Nathan was going to Poughkeepsie. He let Steve escape on purpose.” Tony says, blasting off and heading for the outside door.
“We found the lab. Tony- from what I can tell, the affects should wear off in eight hours.” Bruce says through gritted teeth, obviously hanging on by a thread.
“We must stop him before he kills an innocent! Steven would be heartbroken!” Thor all but yells, sounding almost hulk levels of enraged. Join the party, Tony thinks, settling into something cold and furious himself.
“Any idea as to which direction he took off in?” Tony asks, hovering out in the courtyard again.
“The security cameras caught him heading West about fifteen minutes ago, on foot. It looks like Nathan disabled all the vehicles on the compound before he left.” Natasha answers, her voice perfectly without inflection.
“Have you called this in yet?” Tony asks, shooting upwards in the air before taking off at a Westerly heading.
“No, we have to try and handle this ourselves. We call SHIELD in as a last resort.” Natasha says, her voice brooking no argument.
“I hear you. I’ll let you know if I find him.” Tony says, as he puts more power into his boots, panic rising like a tide. If Steve hurts anyone- his mind stalls here, not willing to contemplate the toll it will take.
“Tony- if you find him be careful. He’s not your- friend right now.” Clint says, his voice soft. Any other time he would find Clint’s hesitation over what to call Tony and Steve’s relationship nigh hilarious. Tony doesn’t respond, concentrates on the forest racing by, searching for any sign of Steve.
”JARVIS, hack any and all security systems you can on the west side of town. Traffic cameras, anything. Run the facial recognition program for both Steve and Nathan Lansbury.” Tony says, running through non-lethal ways he can take Steve down, knowing that Steve won’t be holding back. There aren’t many. He sees city lights in the distance terrifyingly soon, a highway stretching out to the horizon from under the shadows of trees. At the edge of town, at the first traffic light, he sees a splash of red by the side of the road. He touches down as the light changes from yellow to red, blinking over a deserted road and deep shadows. In the ditch he finds the body of a man. Red plaid shirt, mid-fifties. The suits sensors tell him the body is still warm, only dead an hour or so. Tony kneels to get a closer look, feeling sick and broken apart. Please please please- he finds the same precise finger bruises around the man’s neck, same as the Next Gen men.
“Sir.” JARVIS says, his voice soft, mournful. Tony has a wild thought that Steve Rogers drives even AI’s to grief and smothers it ruthlessly. He doesn’t respond, his gauntleted hand outstretched over the man’s face. Here, this moment, this man, is where it all falls apart, he thinks. This intersection, this ditch, will burn the inside of Steve Rogers mind for the rest of his days. It will rend and tear and bow his shoulders like nothing else ever has or will. Tony finds it hard to breathe, all of a sudden, and his eyes blur with tears.
“Talk to me.” Tony croaks, after a long moment.
“His name was Thomas Whitmore, 52. Father of three, widowed. Mr. Rogers was, as of an hour ago, driving Whitmore’s 1992 Ford F150.” JARVIS says, each word careful and precise. As he speaks, footage from a traffic camera appears on the heads-up display. It’s an intersection, this intersection, and Tony almost doesn’t recognize Steve standing by the side of the road, his thumb outstretched in the traditional hitchhiking position. Steve’s dressed in unfamiliar black clothes, and his back is to the camera as a truck, Whitmore’s truck, slows to a stop. The hair on Tony’s arms stands up again, a feeling of deep unease settles over him, not unlike the sensation of being watched. Because there’s something… off about Steve’s posture. Something in the way he holds himself, something in the way he stalks over to the truck. Tony knows better, he does, because you can’t look at a person and see that there’s something wrong inside. There is no bearing of killers. But. He watches as Whitmore climbs out of his truck, posture open and relaxed. The traffic cameras quality is shit, but even with the grainy quality, Tony can see the exact moment Whitmore recognizes Steve. Steve stands by the side of the road, posture perfectly lose, and lets Whitmore take those last steps closer to him. If nothing else, Tony thinks, a little hysterical, it was quick. As soon as Whitmore is within range Steve lashes out, quick as a snake. Tony stares down at aftermath, at the lifeless corpse, a man who used to be a father, a man who pulled over to help a complete stranger and promises vengeance into the quiet of his mind.
“Do we have any idea where he’s heading?” Clint asks, voice strained. The team is once again in the quinjet, Tony flying along side, canvassing the area Steve might have passed through. Tony sighs, hearing the static feedback of it in his own comm. He scans the last security footage in his heads-up display, Steve ditching the car on the outskirts of town, before taking off on foot.
“The only man left alive swore he only knew Nathan was heading in to Poughkeepsie.” Natasha reminds him, clipped. Tony watches the flashes of security feeds, cell phone videos and satellite images as JARVIS searches for any sign of Steve. Without a physical computer to work with, he’s left to watch and do nothing.
“We can’t keep SHIELD in the dark forever.” Coulson says, exhausted, resigned. Tony bites through a vicious retort, closes his eyes, tells himself that Steve always has and always will be Coulson's idol. He wants Steve back and safe as much as the rest of the team. It doesn’t help, and it’s a reminder of how being an Avenger, being with Steve has… softened his sharper edges, for lack of a better phrase. He hurts just thinking about it.
“I’m scrambling the comm. lines, that should buy us some time.” Tony says, angling his wrists and feet to send himself higher over the jet.
“That will only buy us so much time. They’ll send in a team soon, and they’ll know something happened.” Bruce says, sounding distracted.
“Well I’m open to ideas.” Tony snaps, despite his best intentions. There’s a short pause, an almost contemplative silence from the comms.
“I might have an idea.” Coulson says.
“Whatever it might be, it must be done fast. We are running out of time to find Steven, we cannot let SHIELD find him first.” Thor says, his tone brooking no argument.
“They’re going to need to check him out either way…“ Clint hedges. Tony bites through another sharp retort, because out of any of them, Clint’s the one who understands what this is will be like for Steve and SHIELD.
“Yes, but there’s a vast world of difference between us bringing him in and SHIELD sending out a team to hunt him down and minimize the damage.” Natasha says, sounding almost regretful. With nothing to say to that, Tony sinks down into his head, sifting through data, making hypothesis, discarding them, running scenarios.
“SHEILD may have good intentions, but if they’re the ones to bring Steve in, it’s going to get… messy. And fast.” Bruce says, his tone perfectly level.
“And guys, something feels off about all this. I mean, you know, besides Steve being turned into an eight hour psychopath. Everything about this is flashy and loud and messy, all things Lansbury hates. Dude would wear white gloves and carry a cat if he thought he could get away with it.” Clint says, scornful.
“Yeah… he- he’s all about business. He has his idea of professionalism, and anything even resembling sentimentality or making judgments based on emotion is like nails on a chalkboard to him.” Coulson says, contemplative.
“For him this is business. He wants his superiors to see what Pax is capable of. The dead minions and destruction are considered acceptable loses.” Natasha points out, matter of fact. Clint and Thor, within seconds of each other, make wordless noises of displeasure and anger. Business, Tony thinks, this is all business-
“JARVIS, take another look at Nathan Lansbury’s financials. Find me all the places he likes to go to ground. Concentrate on any business endeavors as opposed to personal dwellings this time.” Tony says, on a hunch. Lansbury, seen in video clips and stolen records, is a man who likes to keep his hands clean. A man who would like to sit behind a pristine desk and give the orders, a man who likes everything in it’s place, separate and neat. And yeah, Tony thinks, dude would probably carry a cat around if he thought he could get away with it. Like Natasha said, Lansbury would consider Steve, this experiment, and the wild goose chase firmly in the work category. He wouldn’t go to one of his elegant town houses or McMansions. He would go to the office.
“Natasha, Coulson, can you get me more information on Lansbury’s non Next Gen business endeavors? I’ve got nothing so far from his personal life.” Tony says, flying in a lazy circle around the jet. He hears frantic typing from their side of the comms, mutterings in Russian and strangely enough, French. Tony takes his duties as an eccentric asshole of a billionaire very seriously. He drinks smoothies that taste like putrid grass because they’re the healthiest thing on the market, and he buys priceless works of art when he’s bored. But Coulson only curses in French, and damn if that doesn’t take the cake. In the privacy of his helmet, Tony smiles a little.
“He does like to keep his hands clean.” Natasha says, not really a question. Tony takes a moment to consider being unnerved that his thoughts and the Black Widows are so closely mirrored. He tables it for another time and angles himself downward, below the quinjet and heading towards a promising looking parking lot below. In the heads-up display, JARVIS has isolated security cameras from a Wal-Mart parking lot the next town over, particularly on a white sedan and the slumped figure behind the wheel.
“You got something?” Clint asks, distant and professional. Tony hisses through his teeth, thoughtful, as he shoots towards the ground.
“Maybe. I’ll let you know when I get there.” Tony says, unwilling to even speak the words aloud until he has proof.
“JARIVS, scramble the cameras in the area. I don’t want to make it any easier for SHIELD to track me.” Tony says as he touches down the in parking lot. He hears Bruce make a thoughtful sound of agreement, deeply entrenched in whatever tracking algorithm he’s worked up for Steve. Thankfully it’s deep night, and the parking lot is mostly deserted so his landing has nowhere near the fanfare it normally does. JARVIS leads him to a parked white sedan at the back of the lot. As Tony approaches, the click of his boots loud in the dark, he sees a woman slumped foreword against the steering column. Tony stops a few yards away, his heart beating fast.
“Switch to infrared” He whispers, and fuck it’s like he’s stepping in front of a freight train. Powerless in a way that makes him hyperaware of the scars around his reactor, and the heavy weight of it against his lungs. When the heads-up display changes, and the woman’s is outlined in softer blues than reds, he expels a breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding. JARVIS dispels the infrared as Tony slowly crosses to the car. He stops when he hears the scrape of his suit against the car door and stares down at the slumped body, shadowed in night and dim lamplight.
“Clarissa Monett, age 19.” JARVIS says, splashing a security feed onto the heads-up. Tony watches, feeling disconnected and muffled, as Steve approaches Clarissa. His body language is different here too, smooth, almost languid. He did something to make himself appear bigger, something in the way he moved that drew attention to the wide span of his shoulders, and flex of his muscles. It’s… seductive. Steve has never moved like that. It’s like seeing a stranger wear Steve’s body like a suit.
Clarissa flutters at him, her entire posture seeming open and receptive as she walks with Steve to a different car than the one she rests in now. Tony wonders, distantly, what Steve said to her. Anyone with half a sex drive and any attraction to men would be hard pressed to turn him down, but Steve’s inability to talk to women is a famed and majestic thing. Even though he’s fucking a man, dated women, saved the world, there’s something in Steve that still feels like the skinny punk who couldn’t get the time of day from most anyone. Well, at least he used to feel that way. But apparently, for the next few hours, that’s no longer the case.
As with Thomas, Steve makes quick work of her. Once her body hangs limp in Steve’s arms, he all but rips the door off this white sedan, takes her purse, and slings her into the seat. Probably to throw off anyone who found the body. Take the purse, take her ID, stuff her in a strangers car and it will seriously slow down the police, slow down SHIELD for a little while. Clever, really. Once Clarissa is settled in the car, Steve fishes her keys out of her purse and takes off in the blue SUV parked nearby.
“I found another body.” Tony says, voice dull even to his own ears. JARVIS shows him snatches of Steve and his stolen car with patched together security feeds. As of half an hour ago, he’s heading further east, outside of town.
“Do we call it in?” Clint asks, cautious.
“No, not yet. We need to find Steve first, and the last thing we need is the local police getting involved. Once SHIELD gets to the Next Gen, whether we call them or not, we’ll call it in.” Coulson says, overly loud, and with the sort of conviction in his voice that makes Tony think he doesn’t know who he needs to convince, himself or the team.
“It’s not right.” Thor says, stubborn to the end.
“Of course it’s not right! None of this is right! But the more people find out, the less our chances of finding Steve are.” Tony says, taking one last long look at the body that was formerly Clarissa Monett. He blasts off, setting a course to rendezvous with the quinjet.
“Aye, I see the wisdom in that. I simply- Steven will not come out of this well, and it makes me forget myself.” Thor says with a sigh. Tony forgets, sometimes, that Thor is old. Old in a way Tony cannot begin to fathom. With experiences and history far beyond what Tony, even in his Merchant of Death years, could ever match.
“Sir.” JARVIS says, his voice filled with something like excitement. Tony grins, proud in a strange juxtaposition to his grim mission. JARIVS has always had the capabilities to expression emotion, always had control over his own voice and pitch and a million other things he could use to exert his personality. But it’s only been recently, after Iron Man and the Avengers and Tony getting into the hero business, that JARVIS really utilized those capabilities. Tony feels like a proud parent, he really does. Or at least, what he thinks a proud parent would feel like.
“Talk to me.” Tony says, doing a barrel roll for the hell of it. He’s not far from the quinjet, and he sends himself in a loop around it, waving to Clint in the pilot’s seat.
“I’ve found a shell company owned by Mr. Lansbury. Lenore and Marcus Investments. It’s a hedge fund company, used to launder the dirty money from Next Gen. There is an office in Ellenville and it is likely that that is Mr. Rogers final destination.” JARIVS says, smug.
“He’s heading in that direction, huh?” Tony says, mostly to himself.
“Indeed sir. Mr. Rogers is not taking a direct route to the company, but his course does seem to be taking him in its general direction. Most likely to throw off anyone who may be following him.” JARVIS says, displaying several clips of Steve and his stolen car.
“Guys, JARVIS found something. Lansbury has a shell company, Lenore and Marcus Investments, over in Ellenville. Steve is heading that direction, so why don’t you see if you can get there first, and I’ll stay on him.” Tony says, fooling exactly no one. In his defense, he is the best choice to follow Steve, as the only one with the tech know how and experience to follow Steve in real time. If the thought of Steve left alone to cut a swath of destruction through some defenseless town makes it hard to breathe, then being the one to follow him is a damn good bonus.
The trail goes cold just inside Ellenville’s city limits. Tony flies in circles over an unassuming parking lot and Steve’s abandoned car. The security footage is roughly teenage sextape quality, so all Tony can make out is the pixilated blur of Steve’s massive shoulders as he takes off on foot. They’re less than 30 blocks away from Lenore and Marcus Investments and Steve Rogers is the wind.
Natasha finds the next body as she canvases the area around Lenore and Marcus.
“I’ve found another body. Male, mid-twenties. He’s been stripped of his clothes. Best bet, he’s a guard in Lansbury’s company.” Natasha says, her voice flat and empty, even through the comms.
“I’ll come to you and have JARVIS confirm the identity.” Tony says, voice thin.
The body turns out to be Joshua Karpinski, 25, and is in fact a night security guard at Lenore and Marcus. It takes about fifteen minutes for the team to quietly infiltrate the building. Clint and Natasha slip in through a fire escape and window, respectively, opening a hatch on the roof for Tony and Thor. Thor stays in the upper stairwell, out of sight of security while Tony makes a break for the control room. By the time he makes it to the control room, sneaking as much as he can while wearing a red and gold suit of armor, there’s no one in sight. Tony stops just outside the door, his heartbeat loud and fast. There’s that feeling again, the sensation of falling over a cliff, of being watched, of his body throwing a fit because it knows something is wrong on the other side of this door. Tony reaches out, careful, careful, and opens the door.
It swings open soundlessly, revealing an impressive array of computer screens, monitoring equipment, and dead security guards. There are six bodies, all in all, stacked neatly by the far wall. Tony steps into the room and closes the door behind him. The computer screens are all dark, the room silent and void of the working hum of machinery. Tony ignores the bodies, because he has to, he can’t let himself get lost in his own grief and fear for Steve. Steve, when he comes back to himself- Tony can’t comprehend the affect this will have on him. Tony’s mind, vast and intricate and broken as it is, can’t come up with the words to express his grief, can’t think of a thing he can say that will help Steve understand it wasn’t his fault. Tony isn’t thinking about it, he isn’t.
He walks to wall of screens and keyboards, only to find that the computers attached have been destroyed. Each one broken into tiny parts and placed in neat piles of plastic beside the terminal. So Steve knows he’s being followed then, and closely. Tony reaches out and knocks over the closest pile of computer scrap, trying to figure out Steve’s next move. If he’s waiting for Lansbury, then the most likely place is his office. If he’s trying to find more information about Lansbury, find his home or resting place, the likely choice is still his office.
“Steve is definitely in the building. I’ve got six dead security guards in the control room and the computers have all been destroyed. I can probably hack the backup server, but the system here is fried and I won’t be able to access the cameras.” Tony says, standing up. He hears a quiet exhale of breathe, Bruce waiting impatient in the quinjet.
“He’ll be in Lansbury’s office.” Natasha says, quiet.
“I’ve been running scenarios- and I don’t know how we’d take him out without causing serious damage to everyone involved. We don’t exactly deal in capture or no-kill takedowns.” Tony says, the words feeling as thick as ash in his mouth.
“I have to agree. If we try and take Steve down, it’s going to get ugly.” Bruce says, sounding distant and distracted. There’s a long pause where everyone sorts out their thoughts, makes plans, discards them.
“We don’t take him on at all.” Clint says, toneless. Tony's mind goes blank.
“We wait for the affects to wear off. We run interference if Lansbury does show up.” Natasha picks up where Clint leaves off, her voice as expressionless as the archers. Tony hears Thor make a wordless sound of distress, but the god says nothing.
“We don’t have much time. SHEILD just touched down at the Next Gen compound. It won’t take long for them to follow the same trail we did.” Coulson says, tension thick in every syllable.
“The affects should wear off in a little over an hour, but I don’t know what shape Steve will be in once that happens. Pax leaving his system will mostly likely be an unstable event, affecting his emotional state even after his- conscience returns.” Bruce says, the sound of furious typing almost drowning out his words.
“We’re not going to have enough time.” Tony says, the words barely making it out past the knot of terror in his throat.
“I can provide a distraction, I believe.” Thor rumbles.
“What are you thinking?” Coulson asks.
“I shall fly to the compound and offer my assistance to SHIELD. I have no understanding of Midgard technology, but Tony assures me he will have the comms working again shortly. In the meantime I shall direct them along our search path.” Thor says, so innocent friendly that sugar wouldn’t melt in his mouth. There’s a pause, before Clint bursts into laughter, followed shortly by Tony.
“Remind me never to play poker with you.” Bruce says, wry, once the laughter has died down.
“I’ll help direct you once you make contact with SHIELD.” Coulson says, the air quotes an almost visible thing.
“I’ll go to the floor below Lansbury’s office and check to see if Steve’s up there.” Tony says, walking out of the control room.
“Clint and I will take positions on the stairwells to either side of the floor, let us know when you have confirmation.” Natasha says, using the habitual Royal We to include Clint in her battle plan. Tony hears Thor walking fast, the echo of his footsteps loud in the comm, before the whoosh of take off and flight. JARVIS leads him several floors up, and into a deserted bull pen of cubicles.
“You are directly below Mr. Lansburys office.” JARVIS says, switching the heads-up to infrared. Sure enough, a warm body paces back and forth in the floor above. Tony lets out a rush of air when JARVIS matched Steve’s specs to the man above him, and there’s a childish wave of disappointment. As if somehow this was all one big misunderstanding, as if he would find a complete stranger. Tony forces the thought down and settles in to wait. JARVIS puts a countdown clock in the bottom right of the heads-up display, time sliding fast towards Steve Rogers's eventual return.
Thor seems to be having a great time leading SHIELD on a merry chase of their own asses. Tony keeps the god’s comm line open, listening with a horrified fascination as Thor cheerfully ignores any and all attempts on the part of SHIELD to get answers out of him. Prince, Tony thinks, never had to answer to anyone but himself and his daddy dearest for thousands of years. He keeps an eye on Steve’s heat signature at all times, watches at he paces back and forth like a caged animal. Ten minutes till and Thor has managed to lead SHIELD in entirely the wrong direction. Stopping every few minutes to either ask questions about Midgardian culture (who are these Kardashians you speak of-) or tell a long winded story about an ancient battle (Ah, the Battle of Fire’s End, a glorious fight indeed-). Tony has a thought, a little hysterical, that if he brought Thor into the boardroom with him, just once, he would never have a problem with investors again.
The pacing figure of Steve suddenly stops, mid-stride. He falls to his knees, the infrared figure of his hand coming up to clutch at his head. Oh god, this is it, Steve is coming back to a world of dead innocents and blood on his hands.
“Something’s happening guys. Steve just fell to his knees and looks like he’s freaking out.” Tony hears himself say, voice high and tremulous.
“I don’t know how long it will take for the affect to fully wear off.” Bruce warns. All Tony can see are precise, finger shaped bruises, he remembers Steve smiling, flushed with sun and bruising kisses and thinks, god, I might never see it again. The figure of Steve staggers to his feet, twisting from side to side, hands clawing at his face. Tony is halfway down the hall before his mind catches up with his body, and forcing himself still feels like wrenching the arc reactor out of his chest.
“He’s screaming.” Clint says in a small voice. Tony grits his teeth, clenches his eyes shut and forces himself to say nothing at all.
Steve stops moving, falls to the floor. Tony tells himself, fuck it, and all but sprints for the stairs. He can hear the soft footsteps of Clint and Natasha in his ears, and when he makes it to Lansbury’s floor, they’re waiting for him. The stairwell opens out into the main waiting area, the soft chairs and landscape paintings on the wall seem almost vulgar in their surreality as the sounds of Steve’s agonized screaming cuts through the air. The sounds comes from an open door, several feet down the hall and Tony’s taken two long steps before his head catches up again. Natasha and Clint come up beside him, their faces grim.
“JARVIS disengage the armor.” Tony says, his voice admirably steady. The armor folds back in seconds, opening enough for Tony to step out of it. He makes himself meet their eyes. He doesn’t know what his expression says, but theirs give nothing away, for which he’s unspeakably grateful.
“We don’t know how he’s going to react.” Natasha says, frowning in concern. Tony shakes his head, clenching his hands into fists to stop them from shaking.
“I have to Nat, I have to. Please don’t try and stop me.” Tony begs, well aware that out of his armor there would be no attempt to stop him. Natasha narrows her eyes in thought, and Tony can almost see the calculations running through her head. Idly, he wonders if this is what people see when they look him in the eyes.
“I’m coming with.” Clint says, raising his chin defiantly. Tony bites through a stupid, possessive, childish, urge to deny Clint. Natasha looks back and forth between them, uncertainty and fear written in delicate lines around her eyes and mouth. The sounds coming from Lansbury’s office change, no longer screams to much as desperate, wrenching sobs.
“You call the second it goes south.” Natasha orders, stepping out of the way. Tony takes off at a sprint, Clint at his heels and they come to the doorway in seconds. Up close Tony can hear in excruciating detail what Steve sounds like when he’s gasping for breath around heartbroken tears, trying to choke each one back.
Tony takes a deep breath, and steps into the office. Steve is collapsed in the middle of the room, bent over his folded knees, hands tearing at his face as he forces himself quiet with gritted teeth. His expression is something twisting furiously between anger, hatred, and the desperate struggle to choke both back. Tony may stop breathing. He takes a few steps further into the room, Clint staying by the door. At the sound, Steve’s head pops up, his eyes wide to whites. Tony goes still, watching Steve recognize him. Steve staggers to his feet and backs away from Tony, his arms outstretched as if to ward off danger, fear of the like Tony has never seen carved into his face.
“No- stay back.” Steve whispers, brokenly. Tony stares, unable to do anything, think anything. There are years of work and love and effort and blood and comradery between them, but now Tony stands three feet away, across a vast gulf of incomprehension and has no idea what to do.
“Steve, you’re not to blame.” Tony hears himself say, plaintive. Steve jerks his head back and forth, his teeth gritted and bared, his eyes wild.
“I killed them! I murdered innocent people!” Steve roars, taking an aggressive step forward. Tony tenses, despite himself, and Steve stops dead, all emotion bleeding from his face. Steve retreats, pressing his back against the wall.
“It wasn’t you. That chemical fucked with your brain, it took away your reasoning-“ Tony starts, sounding weak even to his own ears. Steve hisses through his teeth, face distorted with grief.
“My thoughts were clear! I made those choices! It was me- my thoughts! It was easy-“
“It was like every trouble you ever had disappeared. There was only one objective and it was accomplishing your goal, and it was easy.” Clint says, voice devoid of all emotion. Steve stares over Tony’s shoulder, at Clint, his expression so open- heartbroken- like he’s just found out that nothing will ever be alright in the world, ever again. Tony feels like a voyeur just looking at him.
“That’s different Clint. Loki- controlled you, he made you-“
“Loki gave me one command, and that was to obey and help achieve his goal. Every action I took, I planned myself. I knew what I was doing, I knew the consequences, and it didn’t even occur to me to care.” Clint says, sounding closer this time. Steve says nothing, his posture tense, trapped.
“Loki didn’t order me to do those things. But he took away anything in me that would have made me want to say no, he cut out my conscience, and replaced it with a black hole.” Clint says, stepping up beside Tony. Tony keeps himself still, makes no move, because suddenly he’s the intruder. Steve may be his- center- but Clint and Steve are the ones that share this.
“It’s not the same-“ Steve protests, weak. He’s breathing hard, his eyes over bright with suppressed emotion.
“Am I a murderer?” Clint barrels on, breathing hard himself, expression almost sick with regret and self-loathing. The question should have been a prompt, a trap for Steve, but there’s enough uptick on the end, enough uncertainty, that makes Tony think Clint actually needs to know. Steve shakes his head, hands clenching and unclenching.
“I’m not safe Clint. I can’t be trusted.” Steve says, pleading. There’s a bigger statement there, a bigger question. Tony hears Bruce gasp over the comms, like he’s come to an ugly conclusion.
“Bruce said once Pax wore off you’d be you again, be safe again.” Clint says, sounding sure and calm. Tony looks back and forth between them, unable to speak for fear of ruining this tenuous peace.
“I’m not safe Clint! Please, you have to- protect them from me!” Steve says, hoarse and desperate. And in between one second and the next, Tony gets it. Steve’s asking them- asking Clint to kill him.
“No! Steve it wasn’t you! You’re safe! Fuck-“ Tony starts, half-shouting with fear. Clint cuts him off, stepping well into Steve’s space and staring up at him with a furious expression.
“Don’t you fucking dare. Don’t- fuck you Rogers- just fuck you! If I didn’t get that option, then neither do you!” Clint snarls, baring his teeth. Steve stares down at him in shock, his expression the closest thing to normal Tony’s seen since he stepped into the office.
“Remember that Pax is still in his system guys. He may not be a killing machine anymore, but it’s probably still playing merry hell with his emotions and self control.” Bruce says, gentle. The reminder helps, and Tony takes a deep breath to calm himself. It seems to help Clint as well, because he takes a few careful steps backwards, body language perfectly non-threatening.
“Steve- you- none of us blame you. You- all we wanted was for you to come out of this safe.” Tony says, pleading. Steve stares first at Clint, then Tony.
“Tony-“ Steve croaks. And that’s it, Tony can’t help it, he crosses the room and stops inches from Steve, staring up into startled blue eyes.
“We care about you no matter what-“ Tony starts, only to be cut off by Natasha’s rude snort over the comm.
“Way to cop out, Stark.” She taunts, and he knows what she’s doing, but she’s right, damnit.
“I- care about you- no matter what. I don’t blame you, not at all. You’re still Steve Rogers, and the best man I’ve ever known. This- what they did to you- changes nothing.” Tony manages, feeling what might be a blush climb his face. It’s probably a spontaneous chemical burn, because Tony Stark does not fucking blush. He hears various snorts of amusement at his articulateness from the comms, and resolves to make their lives a living hell for a few weeks. Steve stares down at him, his expression full of fear, of hope.
“He recognized me.” Steve says, dead eyed. Recognized him? Of course Lansbury reco- Whitmore- oh god.
“He recognized me. He asked if I would sign something for his kids.” Steve continues, staring down at Tony, challengingly. Tony raises his hand to grip Steve’s face and hold it still, staring into the blue of his eyes.
“It’s not your fault. Those people’s lives are on Nathan Lansbury’s head. You were his tool, and he took away your ability to make a choice.” Tony says, fierce. Steve meets his eyes, bewildered. Tony knows a thing or two about guilt, about self hatred, and he knows this is a wound that will never go away. But he also know how even the smallest gesture can help, sometimes. Carefully, he levers himself onto his toes and pressed a light, fleeting kiss against Steve’s lips before retreating.
“We’re going to take the fucker down.” Tony promises, taking a step back. The last thing Steve needs is people in his space, pressing on him and making him feel trapped. There’s going to be plenty of that when SHEILD gets here anyway.
“I promise we’re going to destroy this guy. He’s never going to do this to anyone, ever again.” Clint says, the promise of blood and vengeance clear in his voice. Steve swallows, takes a deep breath.
“That sounds fair.” Steve says, lifting his chin, eyes filled with a matching wrath.
“We’ll avenge you.” Tony says, because honestly, why not. Steve rolls his eyes, almost smiling. No one says anything for long, soft moments, and Tony passes the time watching emotions drift across Steve’s face. It’s anger, mostly, despair, fear, sometimes hope. Steve’s posture slowly relaxes, tension falling from his shoulders, the lines around his eyes and mouth easing. Several minutes later, he takes a tentative step towards Tony, fists clenched with uncertainty. Tony freezes, eyes wide, before he makes himself relax. He tries to smile, makes himself stay still, not wanting to spook Steve. Out of the corner of his eyes, he sees Clint all but mirror his tension and relaxation. Steve takes another step forward, stopping close enough that Tony could reach out and touch him. Steve takes a deep, shuddery breath.
“For the first time- I don’t know what to do.” Steve says, voice strained. He grits his teeth and squeezes his eyes shut as if in pain, lets out a hissed breath. Tony says nothing, and doesn’t move. Over the comms he hears murmured conversation, as if something has happened. Steve relaxes with a visible effort, and when he opens his eyes again they’re full of such rage.
“Tony, Lansbury just entered the building! He’s heading your way now!” Coulson all but yells, excited, angry. Tony brings his hands up to scrub at his eyes in frustration.
“Where’s SHIELD?” Natasha asks, all business.
“A few minutes behind, they sent a 2nd team.” Coulson replies. Steve narrows his eyes, looking back and forth between Clint and Tony, obviously aware something has happened.
“We need to have him in custody when they arrive and- get Steve ready.” Natasha says, almost regretful. Tony makes a sound of distress, but bites through it within seconds.
“She right.” Clint says, lips pinched with distaste.
“What happened?” Steve snarls, flexing his fists again. Tony looks at him, considers.
“Lansbury is in the building and SHIELD is only a few minutes out. We need to have him in custody when they get here-“ Tony can’t finish the rest, grits his teeth around another wordless sound of distress.
“-And we need to have you ready to be taken into custody when they get here. I’ll stay with you the whole way, but Steve, they have to take you.” Clint says, shrugging helplessly. Steve nods, eyes over bright above a grimace.
“I understand. I need to know what happened to me, and if it’s permanent, so until then I’m a risk.” Steve says, in full Captain America voice. Over the comms, Tony hears Bruce mutter darkly with indignation at the very idea his calculations weren’t correct.
“Do you feel like you again?” Tony says, yawning behind his hand. Steve pauses, eyes titled upwards in thought. He starts to speak, yawns, then nods.
“Ah- I think so. Mostly. Still a little… shaky. But I feel like me, and my conscience seems to be back.” Steve says, voice going ragged at the end. Tony nods in understanding, making a note to tell SHIELD about that mimic yawn when they arrive.
“He’s in the elevator guys, he’ll be on your floor in t-minus 15 seconds.” Coulson says, familiar and unflappable.
“He’s in an elevator now, come on.” Tony says to Steve, jerking his head at the door. Steve doesn’t hesitate before stepping forward, letting Clint and Tony lead the way out of the office. Once they hit the hall, Clint takes off at a run, Steve and Tony hot on his heels. The elevators are on the opposite side of the floor than the stair Tony entered by, but they arrive just as the up arrow over the elevator door lights up. Natasha and Clint take positions by either side of the door, gun and bow drawn respectively, while Steve and Tony take center stage. The elevator dings open and Nathan Lansbury steps out onto the floor. Dictionary definition of a WASP, late fifties, his expression barely twitching at the sight of two angry assassins pointing guns at his face. Tony has to grit his teeth to keep from speaking, and he sees Steve tense out of the corner of his eye.
“I see you’ve found me.” Lansbury drawls with a smirk, raising one eyebrow in amusement.
“It wasn’t exactly hard.” Steve says, voice flat. Lansbury’s smirk goes sour and he shoots Steve a disgusted expression.
“I had hoped you would go for the Townhouse.” Lansbury says frostily.
“Yeah, life’s real hard for you.” Clint says, fingers tightening on his bow string. Lansbury shoots the archer a worried glance, before smoothing out his expression into one of vague superiority. Lansbury turns back to Steve, ignoring Clint.
“I see the Pax wore off. How are you feeling? Any ill affects?” Lansbury says with saccharine sweetness, eyebrows pinched in a faux expression of concern. Steve crosses the distance between them in a heartbeat, and Tony doesn’t even see him strike it’s so fast. One moment Steve is beside him, tense enough to shatter, the next he’s standing over the prone from of Nathan Lansbury, one bloody fists still raised to strike again. Steve’s heaving for breath, head titled so that Tony can’t see his expression. Blood trickles out of Lansbury’s nose as Clint and Natasha take several steps back, their weapons not quite pointed at Steve. When Steve makes no further moves, Tony approaches him, slow.
When Tony draws even with Steve, and it takes him a moment to figure out what he’s seeing. It’s not anger. It’s- consideration. Steve stares down dispassionately, his eyebrows pulled together in thought, not moving an inch. Steve’s eyes never leave Lansbury, jaw clenched with deep, turbulent emotion. He’s deciding whether or not he’s going to kill Lansbury, Tony realizes, his thoughts seeming to come at a distance. Steve’s deciding if he wants to kills this man in cold blood.
“SHEILD just touched down on the roof, time’s up.” Coulson says, distracted. A feeling of relief so strong it’s almost euphoria runs through Tony, and shit he’s grateful for SHIELD, what the fuck, but he’ll take any diversion he can find at this point.
“Steve, SHEILD just landed on the roof, we’re out of time.” Tony says, quiet. He see’s Steve’s eyes dart in his direction before returning to Lansbury. Tony holds his breath, wishes he had someone or something to pray to. Steve lowers his hand, takes several deliberate steps back, breathes deeply. Clint and Natasha are on Lansbury in seconds, cuffing him, checking his pulse, before propping him up against the wall. Tony walks over to Steve, and as soon as he’s close, Steve reaches out to reel him closer. Steve’s hands grip his hips hard enough to bruise, his body wracked with hairline tremors. Tony curls his hands in the familiar blond hair and tells himself it was a good thing Steve didn’t kill Lansbury.
“I’ll hack SHIELD as soon as they get you settled, I’ll make sure you’re not alone.” Tony murmurs, leaning his head against Steve’s. Steve nods, saying nothing.
“Incoming, East stairwell.” Coulson says, soft. Steve must hear because he tenses reflexively, before straightening to his full height. He squares his jaw, and it’s so familiar, it’s almost enough to smooth out the grief written heavy on Steve’s face. Tony slips his hand through Steve’s squeezes hard, and they turn to face the incoming SHIELD agents. Tony thought, hours ago, that this is the night where it all falls apart. He was right, he knows, but it doesn’t mean they can’t put it back together, eventually.