When several black Acura MDXs pulled up to the house as he headed out to work, he tried not to be too surprised. He sighed as several agents, in their dark suits and sunglasses, stepped out of one of the cars.
"Mr. Stark, sir," the one on the right said, "if you’ll come with us, please." It wasn’t a suggestion.
"Fuck," he said. "Fuck, fuck, fuck. Jarvis, call my office and tell them I’m going to be late. Have them move my morning appointments to the afternoon and cancel my time in the lab."
"Yes, Mr. Stark." Jarvis was obviously worried.
God, Peggy was going to skin him alive. He climbed into the car, leaned back, and closed his eyes. Ten years later and it was *still* surprise clandestine meetings, probably in some warehouse with rats. Ugh, he hated rats.
They weren’t driving long before they pulled up to a—hey, nice; he’s glad they finally listened to his suggestion—building. The agents ushered him out of the car, into the building, and before he knew it, he was being gently pushed into an office where a very calm Nick Fury sat behind an imposing metal desk.
"Jesus Christ, Nick, do you know how many important meetings I’m missing here so you can play secret agent man? You couldn’t just make an appointment with my secretary like a normal person? You know what," Howard held up his hand, "don’t answer any of those questions. Last time you actually answered my questions truthfully, I had nightmares for a better part of a year."
"You done, Stark?"
Howard took a deep breath, held it for a few moments, then let it out slowly. "Yeah, I’m good. So what is it?"
Fury laid a hand on a manila envelope in front of him. "You haven’t been watching your boys very carefully."
"My—" He groaned. "What did the Brain Trust do now?"
"Not your geek squad, Stark." Nick pushed the envelope his way.
Howard frowned, opened the envelope, and took out a couple of photos. His whole body tensed in anger and he jerked his head up. "You’ve been following my kid?" He was going to fucking crawl over the desk and shove his fingers in Fury’s good eye.
Fury leaned back in his chair and gestured for him to look at the other picture. He did and… Steve. The motherfucker was following *Steve.*
"You’re looking at my kid’s friends, too!"
"Yeah, your *kid’s* friend." Fury gave Howard a look that said he wasn’t fooled in the slightest.
"Why have you been following Tony and Steve?" Howard took a deep breath and forced himself to relax.
"A month and a half ago someone hacked into the Department of Defense’s computers and almost got away with classified information. We managed to track the hacker to the MIT campus."
Howard snorted, feeling something inside of him ease. "It could have been anyone on that campus. You know what it’s like for those kids!"
"A week later, another user accessed those files and downloaded them. You." Fury leaned back in his chair and smirked. "The files were accessed via a computer on your network, using your access codes."
Shit! "Did you say a month and a half ago? Because—"
"Operation: Rebirth," Fury said, and Howard’s throat tightened. "I know you don’t need to see those files again, Howard. You’ve got them committed to memory, don’t you?"
He did. God, he did, And Steve, Steve mentioned Erskine’s death and he asked all those pointed little questions that Howard hadn’t thought anything of. And damn it, things were slotting together in his brain.
"What do you want?" he asked. "What do you want to make this go away?"
"Nothing much, Howard. Your boy’s only sixteen right now; we have no use for kids. But when he’s eighteen, we’d like to talk to him."
"Fuck you!" Howard got to his feet. "There’s no way in hell—"
"Just to talk, Howard. You can even be in the room with us, as an advisor." Fury smiled. "Kids or not, the United States government doesn’t take domestic terrorism lightly."
"Terrorism?" Howard curled his hands into fists.
"They hacked into the Department of Defense. And yeah, we have enough to bring in your boy Steve as an accomplice." Fury shrugged. "It’s only a little meeting, Howard."
He was shaking with anger and fear. He knew he had no other choice. Fury knew it too. "Fine! One meeting and I’m right there with him the whole time."
Howard took a deep breath. "I don’t know why you need Tony when you have me."
Fury gave him a beatific smile.
"You’ll take care of it? It won’t come back to haunt us later?"
"It’s taken care of, Howard. You don’t need to worry about a thing."
"Fuck you. Have one of your goons take me home." The whole car ride back, he couldn't stop thinking about what Tony and Steve had done. He remembered that weekend. Of course it had to be that weekend. Trust me, Steve had said. And he had. God, he had and it had been a ploy, all a fucking ploy.
When he walked through the door, both Jarvis and Peggy greeted him.
"Howard, are you all right?" She touched his arm. "Jarvis—"
"I’m fine." He shrugged her hand away. "I need you to take the helicopter and retrieve Tony."
"What? Is he all right? Should I alert his security detail?"
"He's fine. Just bring him home." He dialed Sarah's number and said, without preamble, when she answered,. "Are you working today?"
"We have an emergency and I need to talk to you and Steve. Can you be here in a few hours?"
"I'll see you at eleven, then." He thumbed off the phone and tossed it on the coffee table. Both Peggy and Jarvis were staring at him. "What? Don't you have things to do?"
Jarvis quietly slipped away, but Peggy frowned at him. "You'll tell me later?"
"Just do your damn job, Carter." Jesus Christ, he needed a drink.
Her gaze hardened and she lifted her chin. "Yes, Mr. Stark."
Before he could apologize, she spun on her heel and walked out.
He waited in his office for everyone to gather, staring at his bottle of bourbon, debating the merits of getting drunk now to waiting until the whole mess was over. In the end, he put it off too long; Jarvis entered and announced that everyone was waiting for him in the living room.
"Thank you, Jarvis," he said, getting to his feet and straightening his clothes with shaking hands. He was too pissed off for this meeting, he knew he was, but it couldn't wait. He didn't want to wait. He wanted to rant and rave and make them feel as afraid and horrible as he did.
As soon as he entered the room, Sarah jumped to her feet. "Howard, did someone find out—"
He cut her off with a wave of his hand. "No, but I almost wish they had."
"Then what's with the theatrics, Dad? I was practically pulled out of chemistry by my hair," Tony said.
Howard glanced at Steve, who was frowning at him with concern. "I had a meeting with an old friend of mine today. This morning. He just wanted to bring to my attention that my son, the light of my life, the fruit of my loins, hacked into the Department of Defense. Using *my* passwords."
"I did not!" Tony exchanged a pointed look with Steve.
"Oh, you did! You tried when you were at MIT, couldn't do it, so you used my computer instead."
"What does this have to do with Steve?" Sarah glanced from one boy to the other.
"Did you help Tony get my passwords, Steve?" Howard asked, his voice going soft.
Steve looked up at Howard, his face pale. "I don't have any of your passwords, Howard."
"That's not what I fucking asked!" Howard yelled, kicking the coffee table; everyone flinched at that.
"Dad, jeez, calm down." Tony shoved an elbow into Steve's side when he opened his mouth. "I did it, okay. I took your passwords and hacked the DOD! It's not Steve's fault, he didn’t have anything to do with it."
"Really? I didn't know you were interested in Doctor Erskine's work, Tony? Thinking about going into bioengineering?"
"Maybe?" Tony said, lifting his chin defiantly.
Sarah was staring at Steve in horror. "Steve? Tell me you didn't talk Tony into it."
Steve started down at his shoes and bit his bottom lip. "Mom… I just wanted to find out who killed Doctor Erskine."
"Oh, right, because two sixteen year olds could do what the police *and* the FBI couldn't." Tony opened his mouth and Howard pointed at him. "You open your fucking mouth, and I swear on everything that I love, Tony, I swear, I will pull your ass out of MIT so fast, you'll be dizzy for a year."
Tony's mouth snapped shut and he stared down at his hands.
Sarah touched Howard's shoulder. "How much trouble are they in?"
"I took care of it." Howard rubbed his face. "Do you two understand the trouble you could have been in? They would have tried you as adults, just to set an example! Your lives would have been done! Over! And what about your mom, Steve? Think about how she would have felt about your going to prison. And Tony, I know you don’t give a fuck about me, but I would have lost *all* my military contracts. Think about all the people who would have lost their jobs because of your incredibly selfish actions."
Sarah sat down on the couch, her eyes shining with tears. "I can't believe you did this, Steve. I can't believe you'd do such a stupid thing! I… I don’t even know how to punish you."
"Mom." Steve took her hand. "No, please, don't cry. I'm sorry. I’m so sorry."
Howard laughed, angry and bitter; they all looked at him. "What about my apology, Steve? Huh? I expect this shit from Tony. But you…" His voice broke. "You used me. You… You said I should try trusting you. That's what you said. But that whole weekend… you were just keeping me busy so that Tony could do what he needed to."
"Howard… It… It wasn't…" Steve got to his feet and took a step toward Howard.
"Oh, it was exactly like that. God, I can't even look at you right now. I can't…" He turned to Sarah. "Take him home. I… I've got to call Tony's mom. When she's done yelling at me… Would you like me to have my driver take you home?"
"Yes, please," she said, wiping her eyes. "Howard… Thank you. For whatever you did."
"Yeah." He nodded and turned to head back to his office. Then he stopped. "Oh, Tony, Steve, I'm going to need all the hard copies of the files you stole, and any media that housed the electronic data." He looked at Steve. "I'll have Jarvis pick it up in the morning."
Maybe he'd get drunk before he called Maria.
"That's right," he yelled into the phone, the way he always seemed to yell after five minutes of conversation with Maria. "That's right, it's my fucking fault for being a shitty father."
"Maybe, if you spent more time with him, he wouldn’t act out," Maria yelled right back.
"More time with him? He lives more than two hundred fucking miles away, Maria. And, if case you forgot, I've got a business to run." He ran his hand through his hair, pacing around the room.
"Oh, of course, the *business.* That's always been more important than your family. Can't take time away for your son!"
"Don't you start, don't you fucking start. I wasn't the one who wanted custody, Maria. You shoved him at me because you didn’t want to deal with his shit. You think I'm doing a bad job? Fine, take him back! I am too fucking busy to deal with this." He glanced at the doorway and when he saw Tony, who was trying to look as small as possible, he let out a loud curse. "I need to call you later."
"You don't hang up on me, you prick!"
He cut the call and turned off his phone. "Fuck, Tony. How long—"
Tony waved his hand and gave a smile that didn't reach his eyes. "Forget it, Dad. I know how you and mom get when you fight."
"Tony," he said, taking a few steps toward him.
"Really, Dad, it's no big deal. Besides, I'm not here to talk about my damage." Tony sat down on the couch; he still looked pale.
God, Howard was such a shitty father. "Then whose damage did you want to talk about?"
Tony shrugged, took a deep breath, and asked, "Are you going to break up with Steve?"
Howard closed his eyes, just for a moment, and rubbed his temples. "Fuck, Tony, I don’t know. And even if I did, it's none of your business."
"Don't do it, Dad. Don't break up with Steve."
He laughed softly. "I thought that'd make you happy."
Tony shook his head. "He's dealing with a lot of crap right now, Dad. Stuff that… that he hasn't told you or his mom."
"Like what?" Howard frowned and sat on the couch. This didn't sound good.
"I can't tell you."
"Tony, if Steve's in trouble…"
"I can't tell you! I promised, okay. I made a promise to him!" Tony hugged himself. "He's my best friend. He's my only real friend. I'm not going to break my promise. He needs you, Dad. He needs you so much. Please don't break up with him. *Please.*"
"*Tony.* Goddammit, Tony." He rubbed his face. "Look, it's late and you have an early start tomorrow. Let's table this discussion for another time."
Tony gave a little huff of disbelief. "Yeah, sure."