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"Director," Steve said, politely nodding to Fury before he took a seat in Fury's office. "You have a mission for me?" Steve hadn't really been expecting anything so soon. Last week Fury had given him a speech about Steve saving the planet and he was still trying to decide if this was some sort of publicity stunt or maybe 'rehabilitate a National Icon' therapy. After all, he was only one man with no special powers. Fighting for his country along with the rest of America's forces made sense, but Fury seemed to think he was a superhero. He'd probably read too many comic books as a child.
"I have an assignment for you, yes." Fury didn't do anything that Steve could tell, but he sensed other people entering the room behind him. "And I have the start of your team. Meet Agents Romanova and Barton."
Steve stood and turned to greet them. He liked the look of them. Fit and with clear, steady eyes. Maybe this would work out. Steve could see himself as part of a special forces strike team, that was reasonable.
Steve shook hands with his new teammates and tried to decide what the calluses on their hands indicated. Barton was an archer, which Steve would have thought archaic in this day of laser-guided missiles and smart bombs, but a guy who used an overgrown manhole cover as a weapon really shouldn't be casting stones. Romanova obviously was good at hand-to-hand combat, and they both moved like... well, like experienced members of the underground.
The door was still open. Two more people entered. Steve immediately classified them as 'g-man' and 'civilian'. The man introduced himself as Agent Coulson. The woman seemed distraught, barely holding herself back from hysteria if he was any judge of people. Steve smiled and held out his hand to her. "I'm Steve Rogers, pleased to meet you." He figured everyone at SHIELD would know he was Captain America and meeting him usually jarred people out of whatever mood they were in.
"Ms. Potts. Pepper Potts." The woman took his hand for a moment, but seemed entirely unimpressed. "Captain America, you've got to find Mr. Stark."
"Mr. Stark?" God, Howard... no, Howard would be... Steve didn't know exactly how old he'd be, ninety? Maybe in his hundreds? "Howard is alive?" Steve was shaken. He'd thought everyone gone.
"No, his son, Tony." For a moment Ms. Potts looked sympathetic, and then her expression hardened. "He's managed to get himself kidnapped again."
Steve looked around the room. "Of course, I'll do anything I can to help Howard's son, Ms. Potts, but doesn't the FBI usually have jurisdiction in kidnapping cases?"
Fury said, "This is a special case. Tony Stark possesses vital information on a weapon..."
"Tony does not!" Ms. Potts protested.
Fury raised an eyebrow and she sat down in one of the chairs near his desk. She said, "He says it's not a weapon. He's not building any more weapons."
"You will grant that in the wrong hands his invention has the capacity for massive destruction?" Fury was being remarkably patient with her, Steve thought.
Ms. Potts frowned. "Yes. But I don't care about that. Obadiah's got Tony, and he's insane. He already tried to kill him once, to take over the company. He could be killing him right now!"
Steve sat down next to her. "Then we shouldn't be wasting time. Tell us everything." Howard was gone, but if Steve was lucky, he'd get to meet Howard's son.
Fury didn't exactly throw the whole power of his organization behind the search, but he did give Steve and his team access to a great many records, some of which Steve suspected weren't entirely legally obtained. He wasn't sure he liked that, but since they were trying to rescue Howard's son, he supposed an invasion of privacy wasn't likely to bother the man. There were a lot of photos of Tony Stark in the mass of information about Stark Industries and sometimes when Steve needed a break from dry facts he just looked at the photos, trying to get a feel for who Tony Stark was. Most of them showed a man Steve would consider a wastrel; often drunk, and seemingly always philandering. He wasn't sure what Howard would think of that. Howard liked a drink and a good time, but he didn't make a public spectacle of himself... well... not when Steve knew him. People change.
There were also some photos showing Tony at work, though. Steve recognized the focus there. And the list of inventions Tony had to his credit... well, he couldn't have spent all his time in drunken orgies. Tony was.. is, no sense thinking the man dead... very good looking and rich, of course he was going to have temptation thrown in his path. Steve tried not to think badly of him for giving in.
And then there were the photos taken at the military hospital after his escape in Afghanistan. Three months living under daily threat of death, and he'd managed not only to invent something to keep his heart going and to escape, but to destroy the weapons Stane had stolen from Tony's company and sold to his captors.
Steve still wasn't quite sure how the miniaturized arc reactor worked since all that Ms. Potts could tell them was that it could power some fantastic suit of robot-like armor but if it was taken from Tony's chest, he'd die. She said he could endure a few minutes without it, but of course, Tony had never experimented to see how long it would take to kill him. Knowing that if it was damaged he'd die, Tony had gone back to save the people of Gulmira after he escaped, after he was safe and could have gone back to his playboy life. She said he'd come home with his suit dented and full of bullet holes. He wasn't invulnerable in the armor, but he'd gone anyway, because he felt it was the right thing to do. Steve respected that.
All in all, Steve thought Howard might have been proud of his son. Howard had fathered Tony late in life, probably because his ego wouldn't let his genius die with him even if marriage cramped his style. It seemed that Tony was every bit the genius Howard had been. Steve... he just... didn't want Howard's legacy to die. They'd been friends. Sometimes more than friends. There was a war on and a good man wouldn't risk getting a woman in trouble- not when he didn't know if he'd be able to come home to her. So sometimes you'd help a friend out. It hadn't meant anything. Not really. But he looked at Tony's photo and he saw Howard's cocky grin, and his chest grew tight.
Steve really didn't want to lose the chance to meet Howard's son.
"It's been three months!"
Steve held the phone a little further away from his ear and took a calming breath. "I know that, Ms. Potts," Steve said with a patience he didn't feel. Fury had started hinting that there were other things Steve, Clint and Natasha could be doing instead of following increasingly thinner links to Obadiah Stane. "Mr. Stane's associates have all been questioned, his financial assets impounded and we've gone over all his communications records for the past year." Steve still felt a little sick when he thought about that. A computer expert had resurrected Stane's internet activity and shown him what the man did for recreation. The sites he visited... the forums he contributed to...if they were seriously meant, Steve knew the Nazis had heirs. "I would welcome useful suggestions if you have any."
"No," Pepper said quietly after a long moment. "Rhodey's done everything he can with military resources, and I've called in every business favor Stark Industries ever had, and even used Tony's little black book for leverage. It's as if he took Tony from the Malibu house and they dropped off the face of the earth."
"If only there had been a witness."
"A witness..." Pepper sounded excited. "Of course. We never asked Jarvis!" Pepper hung up before Steve could ask her who the heck Jarvis was.
Steve had never before been introduced to a person who didn't actually exist. He didn't bother trying to understand Jarvis once Pepper convinced him that Tony had invented it to assist in his work as well as take care of his home. After hearing about all the fantastic things Tony had created, Steve was pretty sure that Tony wouldn't have kept it if it wasn't reliable.
"So, you were...sandbagged, and couldn't call for help, but you were aware what happened that night?" Steve asked.
Jarvis replied, "Mr. Stane had overridden my security protocols, yes." Jarvis sounded insulted. "Mr. Stark had entrusted him with the codes. While Mr. Stane did not state his destination, analysis of his remarks to Mr. Stark strongly indicate that he intended to hold him prisoner and... persuade him to exercise his talents on Mr. Stane's behalf. There is a high probability that given Mr. Stark's known tendency for obstinacy and Mr. Stane's demonstrated capacity for unflagging pursuit of long-term goals the process of... persuasion... may yet be ongoing."
"You mean he might still be torturing Tony," Pepper said. Steve had reassessed his initial judgement of her several times. At the moment, her expression told him that if Stane was in front of her, she would have gone for his throat with no hesitation.
"Yes," Jarvis sounded like he would have done the same.
"Yeah, but the important thing is that Mr. Stark is probably still alive," Steve pointed out. "And we still don't know where to look for him."
"As to that," Jarvis said, and now he sounded smug, "I have been conducting my own research on Mr. Stane, and have found that he purchased an isolated property in Mexico over forty years ago, via a series of intermediaries. This property does not appear on the search list SHIELD possesses for Mr. Stane."
Steve was quite sure Tony's house didn't have permission to access secret files, but he wasn't going to quibble. "Where is it?"
"I have transmitted the coordinates to all relevant personnel," Jarvis said as the gadget in Steve's pocket beeped. Pepper had given it to him. She claimed it was a telephone as well as an entire office full of things he hadn't got around to figuring out yet. Steve liked the Stark logo on it and figured it was at least a good luck talisman. Tony had apparently invented it in between building better bombs. Steve pulled out the 'phone' and read the information on it. "Anything else you think we should know?" he asked Jarvis in between hitting the speed-dial 'buttons' for Clint and Natasha.
"A search of local statistics going back the last forty years has revealed a high degree of correlation between disappearances of more than thirty persons of low social stature within a twenty mile radius of the property, and Mr. Stane's annual leaves of absence." Jarvis paused for a moment. "Over the years five bodies have been recovered within that same radius. No arrests have been made. No unified investigation has been conducted. My tentative conclusion is that Mr. Stane is a serial killer, and should be considered extremely dangerous."
"Oh, God," Pepper said. "I think I'm going to be sick."
Steve agreed with her.
"I'm not saying I doubt Tony Stark's electronic butler's sleuthing abilities," Fury said. "What I am saying is that SHIELD is not authorized to invade a friendly foreign nation."
"But, sir," Steve started to protest.
Fury held up one hand without looking at him. "Here's your passport. Tell Agents Barton and Romanova to stick to the duty-free limits on tequila. Have a nice holiday."
"Yes, sir, thank you, sir!"
This black-gray monster was nothing more than ugly menace and raw power, a vehicle fit for the monster within it. It smashed everything in its path. One massive hand held a naked man who didn't look much like the photos Steve had seen, but he knew it was Tony Stark. There was no way in hell he was letting Stane take Tony again, not when they were so close.
"Release him!" he shouted, leaping over the wreckage of trees and boulders in Stane's wake, flanked by Clint and Natasha.
Stane turned, sounds of the metal grinding and whirring mechanisms loud, like a great, angry beast, growling. Steve didn't think the man would surrender, but he offered him the chance. Tony looked bad, but he was alive. All that mattered was getting him back. He'd even let Stane go, if that was the best way to ensure Tony's safety.
Everything happened fast after that. It seemed odd that three months of search could culminate in as many minutes of confrontation. Natasha pointed out that Stane was using the reactor that Tony needed to survive. Stane's suit shot out jets from the feet, and started to rise. Steve knew he'd have only one chance. His shield could shear through any metal, given the right angle and force. He could cut through the arm holding Tony. But they needed the reactor, and he could see only one way to disable the suit without damaging the reactor. The operator was the weak point. And necks, no matter how well armored, can be broken.
His team worked well together. Clint's explosive arrow freed Tony even as Natasha retrieved the reactor in the instants before Stane's suit hit the ground. Steve caught Tony in his arms and all he could think was how light Tony was, how much smaller than the vibrant, center of attention, man he'd seen in evening dress surrounded by beautiful women, or in rough work clothes surrounded by exotic machines. And how very still he was, not at all like the videos where he seemed in constant motion, as if his life was one long dance and he was never sitting down to watch the performance from the outside. "Hold still," he said unnecessarily as Natasha brought the reactor to follow Pepper's instructions to replace it where it belonged, keeping Tony alive. Tony looked at him as if Steve was the center of the universe.
Tony didn't even glance at Natasha as she put her hand in his chest and he gasped in reaction to whatever the reconnection did to him. His gaze never wavered from Steve's face. Steve stood up with Tony in his arms.
Clint said what they were probably all thinking,"It's creepy the way he's looking at you."
"Get my shield, Hawkeye. Widow, call Fury. We need a team to...clean up. And find out what he did to Stark." Steve didn't really want to know.
"Master! Master... America, please!"
Steve whirled to see Tony struggling against the doctors, obviously totally panic-stricken. Before he could get to Tony, the doctors sedated him. "You didn't need to do that," Steve said, looking down at Tony. Then he looked back at the doctors and saw the way they were looking, not at Tony, but at the arc reactor in his chest. "I'm riding back with him." He didn't think they'd take the reactor, of course he didn't, but he wasn't willing to bet that they wouldn't poke and prod at it, and damn it, Tony had had enough of that, hadn't he? Steve had spent three months working to rescue the man and he felt protective. He was going to indulge himself in an unprofessional display of attending to the victim before the mission reports to be filed in triplicate.
"Don't make this personal, Rogers."
"It's always been personal, sir. I signed up to protect and serve the people of the United States, not SHIELD. At the moment, Mr. Stark needs me more than you need my signature on a bunch of forms, with all due respect, Director Fury."
Fury sighed. "Fine. Stay and hold Stark's hand as long as you want. Call me when he drives you up the wall and you want a ride back." Fury hung up.
"Huh. I expected he'd argue a lot more than that." Maybe Fury didn't like the idea of people studying the arc reactor and this was tacit permission to prevent that. Steve had developed an abiding respect for Fury's basic sneakiness.
One of the omnipresent annoying beeping noises Steve associated with modern hospitals strengthened. It was coming from the alcove where they'd put Tony. Steve had moved away to make his phone call in privacy, so he reached Tony's bedside after the doctor and several nurses. Tony thrashed against the restraints despite four nurses trying to hold him down. He screamed, "Master, please!" just as Steve saw them give him an injection.
Tony looked even more terrified and fought harder. Steve was afraid he'd hurt himself or maybe even have a heart attack.
Steve snapped, "Stop it!" in his best 'I am Captain America' voice, and people moved aside, leaving him a clear path to the bed. Tony looked up at him with the same intent focus as before, edged now with fear. "Mr. Stark, you're safe. No one will hurt you. Relax." It was as if he'd said a magic spell. Tony slumped back in the bed, still looking directly into his eyes. Steve reached out cautiously and touched Tony's arm. Tony smiled at him sleepily as the beep, beep, beep slowed. "Thank you, Master." His eyes closed.
Steve pulled his hand back after a minute and looked at the doctors. "I want Mr. Stark moved to a private room. And there will be no more restraints. Is that understood?" He didn't know what his face was doing, but whatever it was, it worked.
Maybe he needed more help than a sympathetic ear. Maybe he needed professional therapy. Steve didn't know. He'd seen a lot of shell-shocked soldiers; some of them got better on their own. Some of them he was pretty sure got messed up worse by being forced to face things before they were ready. Tony deserved a chance to try to get stronger physically at least before he faced whatever demons he had in his head.
Whatever Stane had done had to have been worse than Afghanistan. Stane had known Tony since he was a child. He knew where all the weaknesses were. Tony had trusted him. Steve rather wished Stane was still alive so he could beat the hell out of him.
Steve got dressed and cleaned up his Captain America uniform and shield as best he could. Then he pulled a chair close to Tony's bed and stretched out. He could use a little nap.
"Good, Master, very good."
He had been thinking that Tony had him confused with Stane, who was sick enough to insist on being called 'Master', but Tony hadn't looked confused or upset this time. Steve frowned. Tony cringed and curled up, bowing his head meekly. That was... so wrong. Steve got up, unsure what to do, what to say. Tony had been upset when other people touched him, but Steve's touch seemed to reassure him. He let his hand come to rest gently at the nape of Tony's neck, rubbing with his thumb beneath the tangled hair. He could feel the muscles immediately relax under his touch.
He said, "It's all right, Mr. Stark. No one will hurt you, I promise. But you can't call me Master. It's... not right." He caught a glimpse of Tony's right eye, peering toward him and he shifted so Tony could see his face. He stroked Tony's hair awkwardly. This wasn't at all dignified, but Tony wasn't in a state to give a damn about dignity. After a moment Tony relaxed more and moved his head against Steve's hand, for all the world like a cat silently asking to be petted, to be reassured.
Steve really, really wished he could kill Stane again. "My name is Steve Rogers. I want you to call me Steve."
"Steve," Tony said softly. He sounded pleased.
Steve rubbed Tony's shoulders and back, noticing that there was no resistance. It was probably wrong to reinforce whatever conditioning Stane had impressed on Tony, but if it comforted him, Steve wasn't going to deny it to him. "I was there when we liberated Nazi... experimental camps. I don't know everything that happened to you, Mr. Stark, but I know you must be a strong man to have survived. I've talked to Director Fury and he's agreed to allow me a leave of absence to help you get... better. And you will."
Tony listened without protest to everything Steve said, leaning more and more heavily against Steve's hands until he realized that Tony was asleep. Well... a natural sleep without drugs was a good thing. Steve hadn't done anything wrong, hadn't hurt him. He hoped he hadn't hurt him.
Pepper probably guessed, but she didn't ask.
While they were talking, Tony woke. Steve was pleased to see that while Tony was still hesitant to initiate any actions, at least he wasn't afraid of Pepper, and obviously remembered she was his friend.
They got Tony out of the hospital without much fuss. Steve wasn't sure whether that was because he was Captain America, Tony was richer than God, or Fury had dropped a word in someone's ear. Probably all of the above.
Tony recognized his chauffeur and the car with every evidence of pleasure. It seemed that Tony hadn't forgot anything, which was a good sign, wasn't it? If he would just stop looking at Steve like a devoted dog, Steve would feel much more comfortable about things. The worst of it was that as Tony relaxed Steve could see the intelligence behind those wistful eyes. He was fairly sure Tony knew exactly what had been done to him and he was simply not fighting it. Still... give the man time. Let him rest and let it sink in that the ordeal was over, that it would be safe to return to being Tony Stark, arrogant, insensitive, know-it-all as more than one comment in his file remarked.
The ride was long, and not uncomfortably quiet. While Tony still looked frequently at Steve for approval, he willingly talked with Pepper about his business and inventions he had in mind.
Steve spoke calmly to him, "No one is going to be punished, Mr. Stark. I'm not going to hurt your friends. We're here to help you get well. We're going in and you're going to rest. When you wake up, the four of us will talk. You'll say whatever you're thinking. You can say anything, I promise we won't be angry with you."
Tony was quick to agree, of course, but he didn't look happy about it.
They went in the house, and Tony was pleased by Jarvis's greeting, but after that, he simply stood there, hands lax at his sides, not even attempting to pull the hospital gown he still wore into a semblance of dignity. He looked tired, too tired to be really thinking about anything. Steve took a deep breath, and then led the way to Tony's bedroom and gave him simple orders to bathe and rest. Pepper was getting the idea, Steve thought. She went without comment over to a chest of drawers and selected a set of dark red pajamas which she gave Steve instead of handing them directly to Tony. Tony took the pajamas from him but then stood there, looking from Steve to Pepper and Happy as if he was trying to figure out what to do. "Bathe, put on the pajamas and go to bed, Tony," Steve said firmly. "We'll be here when you wake up." He herded Pepper and Happy ahead of him down the stairs and into the living room.
He sat down on the couch and sighed. "I'm sorry. I know this isn't right. Tony... Mr. Stark... he needs help. And I think he's going to need it for a long time."
Pepper sat down next to him. "He responds to you," she said flatly.
Steve winced. "Yeah. I... was there at the wrong moment."
"Or you were there at the right moment."
Steve shook his head. "I don't know how to help him."
Happy sat on the other side of Steve. "But you want to, don't you? Mr. Stark... he's really a good guy. Most of the time. He just... well, he's always been... Mr. Stark."
Pepper rolled her eyes. "Tony Stark, at the best of times, is an emotionally needy adorable brat who sometimes manages to play with the grown-ups long enough to make us fall in love with him." She sighed.
Steve looked at her.
Pepper got up. "I'm going to make myself a drink. Steve, you're welcome to make yourself at home. On Tony's behalf I extend an open-ended invitation. I've known him for more than ten years. You're far from the worst person he's fallen in love with. I trust you not to deliberately hurt him." She headed for the kitchen while Steve stared at her back, unable to think of anything to say.
"Did she just say what I think she said?" he finally asked Happy.
"Um. Well, if you think she said that Mr. Stark sleeps with guys, too, that's pretty much what I heard." Happy got up. "And since I drive a lot of Mr. Stark's friends home afterward, I'd say she was right." Happy looked at Steve. "Anyway, if he comes on to you, you should know, it's not something new for Mr. Stark. I've got to go wash the car. Good night." Happy headed for the garage.
Steve decided to sleep on it. The couch was long enough.
Steve stood still as Tony came to him and sank down to his knees. He looked up. "Steve."
And then Steve made the mistake of asking Tony what he was thinking. No one had ever really needed Steve, as Steve. No one had ever said with simple honesty that he would die if Steve left him. Steve thought he was a reasonably brave man, but he didn't have the courage to move away, to say no, when Tony seduced him with the one thing he couldn't resist. Steve had always, always, wanted to be able to be the strong one, the protector, the one who made things right, just... by being himself. It was good being Captain America, but he suspected that Tony would have given himself just as wholeheartedly to Steve Rogers, 4-F, if he'd been able to kill Stane. And Steve thought he would have. He always had hated bullies.
And then...Tony was so beautiful. More beautiful than Howard. But mostly it was that he needed Steve so much, more than Peggy had, more than Bucky. More than any of the people Steve had loved who were now gone. Steve touched Tony gently, and it felt so good. He could protect Tony. He could love Tony. And if Tony grew strong enough one day to say he didn't need Steve any longer... well, it would hurt. But it would be something to be proud of, too.
And he wouldn't have to betray his other responsibilities. Iron Man would be a great addition to the team. Fury couldn't complain about that, especially when Tony would be providing their headquarters. No, Fury wouldn't say a word.
And Steve would get to see Tony fly. That would be beautiful. He'd have to draw that. He would.