Ian fished out the card from under his armor, tied there on a thin cord, dad had given it to him months ago, perhaps when he first realized that he was more than likely going to die. He had given Ian instructions for it, simple ones. He pressed his finger to his father's photograph, beardless and young looking. "Run program two."
Dad nodded, and closed his eyes, finally giving in to the need to rest. Ian pressed his fingers to dad's throat so he could feel the frantic heartbeat there, unslowed even in sleep. His other hand held his gun, resting casually on dad's thigh, pointed towards the only entrance to the cave that he could see.
"Alright you little script kiddy," the card said. Ian almost yelped when it talked. Dad hadn't said it would talk. "I don't know how you got ahold of that hardware, but you better hope that the guy you took it from is still breathing."
"I--" Ian looked down at his father, at the slow rise and fall of his oozing, bleeding chest. "He's still breathing for now."
"Is that a threat?" The voice in the card asked, voice even harder than it had been a moment ago.
"NO!" Ian shouted. "Dad told me to press the face on his card, say 'run program two' and then wait for help from whatever Avengers were around today. I pressed his face, I said 'run program two' and now I'm waiting. Are you going to help or should I start dragging my dad out of this cave myself?" If the card voice was going to be stupid with him, Ian was going to give as good as he got.
"Da--" The voice cut off, and Ian waited. "You're in some sort of secure bunker, shielded as hell. I don't have the latest and greatest tracking in that card - stupid oversight - I need you to get outside, as soon as possible. I'm mobilizing a team right now. Your da-- Steve, does he need medical attention?"
Medical attention. His father needed nothing but medical attention. "He has a hole in his chest as big as his head and he's infested with a brain Zola and he's bleeding."
"I am mobilizing a huge fucking medical response team. You need to get outside."
Ian scrambled to his feet; he could follow orders. There was nothing but the door, and Ian kicked it open, scrambling up stairs and stairs and more stairs. "Are you hurrying?" He asked the card. "Who are you? Are you an Avenger?"
"You have the distinct pleasure of the attention of Tony Stark, kid. You better not be yanking my chain," the card voice - Tony Stark - answered.
"You're Iron Man!" Ian knew Iron Man. Dad told him stories all the time. "I'm in a hallway now..." He ran down the hallway, jumped over a waist high fence thing, and then found more stairs to scramble up. "Your stairs are dumb." He saw light, bright and yellow-blue, not red-purple like home, and then there were rails... and all sorts of people walking around, humans! Pink and brown and yellow, every different color that dad had said people could be, but with only him and dad for years he'd wondered if dad was just teasing him. Some of them saw his gun - that made a lot of people scream and start to run away, which was fine by Ian - there were way too many people there.
"Gotcha," Tony said. "You're just around the corner."
Time seemed to go super-fast after that. A huge flying machine arrived, and loads of Avengers came out, led by Iron Man, with Avengers or other people that Ian didn't recognize on sight. They brought a bed though, one that floated, and Iron Man scrambled after him as he pointed and led the way down to dad, where he was still on the ground, breathing, heart beating.
"Dad?" Ian said, tapping the side of dad's face a few times before he snapped awake.
"Ian!" Dad grabbed his wrist and took a moment to come back to himself. "God, Tony... what day is it?"
Ian looked over his shoulder, where dad was looking. The Iron Man armor was open in the face, now, showing a man, not that old, with a dark beard just around his mouth with blue eyes. "July 17th."
"Year," dad choked out. "What year?"
"2012. Steve, you've been MIA for three weeks, tops."
The answer seemed to make dad relax, thankfully. After another few moments the others arrived and Tony took Ian's shoulder and started to tug him away, three people getting down next to dad and levering him onto the floating bed as they started to do all sorts of things to him, stabbing him in the arm with thin needles, examining his chest-- Tony had the back of his hand pressed to his mouth and looked like he was going to be sick. Soon, the floating bed was moving, this time with dad on it. Ian took a position, walking near dad's head.
"Dad, you're going to be fine. It's the Avengers, they'll help you."
"Ian--" Dad's voice was getting weaker, the people tried to put something over dad's face, but he brushed it aside. "Love you-- son--" They tried to put it over dad's face again and again he batted it away.
When they tried a third time, Ian grabbed the offending wrist. "Try it again and I'll break it."
"Ia..." The words were cut off with a cough, and Ian strained to listen, walk, and move, just as dad struggled to talk. "Love you more than anything. Always remember..."
Dad was... Ian could hear it, the way dad got when he thought he might die, when he thought the Zola would take over, when he thought he might hurt Ian, when he thought it was the end. Dad had that moment of contentment, the moment where he was ready to let go-- Ian hated that moment. "No. You pull through, you stand up. You'll be fine. Besides, you don't love me more than your silly discus."
He laughed, which only made blood go out of his mouth, and when the face cover came down a fourth time, dad lifted his hand to stop Ian's, not the cover. So Ian let the face cup fall, and it seemed to help dad's breathing a little bit, so Ian let it stay, scrambling to keep up with adult length legs as they carried dad into the flying machine and Ian did his best to stay out of the way as they ripped and cut apart the last of the shreds of his dad's uniform. When he finally pulled his eyes away, he saw that Iron Man had tugged the shield off of dad's back so he could lay out flat, and was currently holding it as if he had no idea what to do with it.
Ian reached out and tugged it away, hugging it to his chest. He knew dad had always spoken highly of Iron Man, but there was no way he was letting the shield out of his sight.
"Ian?" A soft voice, a woman's came from behind him. He glanced over to her. "We're going to give your dad a sedative. It's going to knock him out-- after that he'll be in surgery and-- you should take the moment to talk to him, say anything you need to say."
Ian wasn't dumb. The woman thought that dad might not live through the surgery thing. He'd heard that tone from medicine men and women and midwives to the Phrox over the years. Death was such a constant in Dimension Z it was impossible to avoid and Ian understood it too well. He moved so that dad could see him, blue eyes followed him and looked up at him, tired, but alert. "I love you. You're-- you're-- I could never have a better dad."
He saw dad's mouth quirk in a little baby smile, and then he reached a hand out, to the shield, and pressed it, not hard, but hard enough that it was clear he was pushing it away, to Ian.
"I'll take care of her 'til you're back on your feet," Ian promised.
The woman who'd spoken before did something, and Ian watched his dad's eyes close and his breathing even out to almost nothing. He looked dead. Ian was proud of himself for walking away four steps before he crumpled to the ground, clinging to his father's shield, and cried.
"Hey," Tony said, curling down next to him and putting a hand on his shoulder. "Your dad'll be getting the best medical attention in the tri-state area in a matter of seconds. I seriously had two trauma surgeons medevacced to the Tower. Don't worry." After that, he gave up on getting anything useful out of the kid and just tried to lend a little bit of strength. Steve had pretty much bequeathed the kid to them in his little 'run program two' that had contacted the Avengers mainframe. It had only been a short burst of ridiculous information: Steve had a son was the big one, and to take care of him.
Tony had thought the idea was so patently ridiculous that, until he'd actually seen Steve, the idea that he could have a son was preposterous; now that he saw how worn, beaten down, and aged Steve was, it was harder to dismiss. If Tony had been forced to imagine what a baby Steve would have looked like, he would have been blond of course, blue eyes, probably with broader shoulders, but Ian was dark haired with dark eyes, fairly tall for a pre-pubescent kid, and as far as Tony could tell, every inch was muscle.
"You're younger than I thought you'd be," Ian said, no longer crying, obviously moving beyond tears and into focusing on others - so much like Steve.
"While I'd normally pretend that meant you thought I was handsome and well preserved, I'm going to assume you're referring to Steve saying I should be pushing fifty or something at your age?" Tony didn't wait for an answer. "It's only been about two or three weeks out here. I need to get with S.H.I.E.L.D. and find out what they know about whatever happened, but... it's been how many years since your dad ended up wherever you were?"
"So... at least thirteen or so years for him, two or three weeks out here."
Ian looked down at his fingers for a moment, and Tony thought he might count it out or something, but instead he looked up to Tony again. "How can it be shorter on Earth than in Dimension Z?"
"Physics?" Tony shrugged. He could maybe come up with an idea from Reed or something, but it wasn't really necessary right now. "I'm an engineer. I observed a phenomenon and then I go with it. In this particular case, how it worked is far less important than that it worked. You're here, not much time has elapsed, and your dad's only been missing for a few weeks. Steve also seems to have gotten it into his head that I'd make a competent babysitter, but I'm not sure where that idea came from."
"I'm not a baby," Ian answered. "I can take care of myself."
It wasn't like Steve could have raised anything but a self-reliant firebrand. Tony left his hand on Ian's shoulder and jiggered him side to side a bit. "I know. I'm still pretty sure Steve'd like me to make sure you figured out... indoor plumbing."
Ian wouldn't leave Steve's side until he was well into surgery, and Tony had explained, very patiently, that the surgery was going to take hours at least. After that, Ian let himself be walked through a shower, and changing into some more Earthy clothes, and then being fed. He took to the feeding with gusto.
"So what do you usually eat?" Tony asked as Ian plowed his way through a few dozen grapes, some baby carrots, a grilled cheese sandwich, a huge glass of water, and some peanut butter.
"Burrow-squid," he answered. "Fried in sky eel fat, rock lizard... rock lizard eggs."
"You're making a kale smoothie sound appetizing, kid." Clearly they hadn't invented fiber wherever Steve had been. Tony wanted to eat a bran muffin just thinking about it. Tony itched to debrief the kid, to pick his brain, but he was so clearly focused on just eating, and Tony didn't want to remind the kid - or himself - of the fact that his father was in surgery, so Tony exercised a great deal of patience and just waited... and made himself a grilled cheese sandwich.
"Dad said you're the Avengers Chieftain?" Ian asked, mouth surprisingly free of food for a twelve year old in the middle of questions and eating. Manners; Tony shouldn't have been surprised.
"I guess that's as close a description as any. Steve... your dad and I, usually split the duties; Thor used to be more involved but he's pulled in a lot more directions lately. Your dad's better in the field, I like to think decades in charge of one of the largest tech companies in the United States counts for something in an organizational capacity." Tony settled back in beside the kid. He should probably call in someone who actually liked kids, maybe Bambi, she had a nephew once. So far, just treating the kid like a tiny adult had been working pretty well, though.
He'd been working up to some sort of debriefing question or three, when the elevator door off to the side of the common level opened and in walked his worst nightmare in heels, Sharon Carter, and Sam Wilson. He and Sam got along fairly well, but he and Sharon lived in a bit of a back-and-forth depending on the day of the week. "Heeeey, Carter, Sam."
"You should have called the second you had news," Carter said, only the breakfast bar keeping her from menacing him as she leaned forward, eyes hard.
Tony held up his hands in immediate surrender. He'd give her that he should have called. "We picked up a transmission from Steve's Avengers Card; we isolated it to an abandoned train station; we found Steve, bloody and nearly dead with a twelve year old kid; he's in surgery." There really wasn't much to report at this time, and to be honest he'd wanted to figure out what the hell was up with Ian before he called Steve's girlfriend.
"So your answer is to take the twelve year old and feed him cookies? Why isn't he in an interrogation room?"
Ian looked back towards Tony, eyes wide and confused. Tony gave him a little head shake, and then patted his shoulder. The last thing he needed was the kid going off, even if he'd been relieved of his gun. "You might want to sit down."
"I don't need your condescending attitude, Stark."
From their history, that was probably fair. "This is Ian. He's Steve's son."
The hard facade cracked for just a moment to show the hurt underneath, and Tony understood, he really did, but he also understood Carter, and he wasn't going to get anywhere by wrapping it up in paper and a bow.
"That was part of the reason I was going to wait to call. We don't know much, yet, and despite what some people might think, I'm not going to interrogate a friend's twelve year old kid after he put that kid under Avengers protection. And while we're playing the 'you should have called' game: you should have called the second Steve went MIA off mission parameters, so that we would know that there was a chance he'd come back as a bloodied pulp rather than pretending he was on mission and you knew his status." It was a low blow, but the S.H.I.E.L.D./Avengers custody arrangement of Steve had always been a bit awkward, especially after Steve had stepped down and Hill and Johnson had stepped back up on that front. He didn't think it was unreasonable that he be informed one of his Avengers, especially the co-chair of said Avengers, was missing.
Sam, thankfully, took the moment to intervene, standing between the two of them. "Let's... relax a bit. Ian?" Sam turned towards the kid, who was now looking up at Sam, watching and taking it all in. "You got any of that?"
"Somebody needs a nap," Ian answered, completely deadpan. "Don't you have less stupid things to be fighting over?"
Tony felt momentarily abashed. They did have more important things to be worrying about, damn mini-Steve. "Alright, alright. White flag. Ian, this is Sam Wilson."
"The Falcon." Ian smiled up at him. "Dad says you're an Avenger and a S.H.I.E.L.D. and a best friend."
Not bad. "And... Sharon Carter." Tony waited, expectantly.
Ian cocked his head to the side, before checking over his shoulder with Tony. "Dad's mate and a S.H.I.E.L.D." Ian's face said he had at least a little idea how complicated things must have been, his presence there as Steve's son, while Sharon was there as Steve's 'mate'. Tony also took a half-second to enjoy not being the one who'd put the slightly sour expression on Sharon's face. "You're very pretty."
Flattery got the kid nowhere, unfortunately, but Tony gave him points for trying. Sharon turned to Sam. "We should probably get a debrief."
Sam looked set to protest, but eventually nodded and actually looked at Ian when he asked: "Do you mind if we ask you a few questions about where you were?"
"Dimension Z," Ian answered, eyes pinballing between the adults. "That's what my home is called."
"Since I was one, I grew up in the Phrox Cavern. It was a sanctuary from the reach of Zola." Ian looked up. No one asked who Zola was, if anything they seemed to recognize the name immediately. That just meant they would think horrible things of his blood father, making Ian's decision to keep quiet on it even easier. "Before that... dad and I wandered the wastes. I was just a baby, and dad said that I couldn't remember it was a blessing. Which is dad-talk for it must have sucked pretty bad."
Behind him, Tony snorted, and when Ian checked he found that he was covering his mouth with his hand, trying not to smile. Sam was smiling openly, while Sharon did seem amused, but didn't say anything else.
"After we got there, dad defeated Zofjor in combat and claimed the title of Chieftain for himself." Ian didn't remember that part, but there were many of the older Phrox who would happily recount it for Ian as he grew older. "Dad taught me to fight, to hunt, how to use the shield, how to fight for what's right, and how to keep getting up. We... it's a lot of the same, hunting, learning, fighting, making clan politics. Do you want to know that?"
"Yes." Sharon answered. Tony shrugged.
Sam was the one who answered more firmly: "What sort of political structure do they have? Shield will want to know if they decide we need an alliance or their help against Zola."
Ian looked down at his hands. "Zola sent them all to the Fields of Forever."
Tony cleared his throat. "Please tell me that's an exceptionally badass name for some part of Dimension Z and not what I think it means."
"If you think it means that they were slaughtered by the thousands, then you'll be disappointed." Ian tried to keep himself from crying when he thought about it. Even after asking dad to turn back around, to take them home so he and Ian could stand against Zola and his Captains of Zolandia, it had still all been for nothing, only a few males and the women had survived, if that, and although they now lived in Zolandia, they would never be the people they once were and that Ian had loved. "Dad and I-- It--" He took a deep breath, wishing he couldn't feel tears on his cheeks, but they were hot and wet. He wiped them away with the back of his hand. "It was my home, and Zola killed them all in front of me."
His father, his blood father, not the man he called father every day of his life, had taken his home from him; he was nothing like Zola, and he had no intention of following in that father's footsteps; his real father was the man who'd raised him from the day he was born, an Avenger, a good man... and Ian wanted to be like him. A pair of hands touched his shoulders, Sam and Tony, with Sharon still keeping her distance. Ian understood, he knew he was allowing a lie to grow by not correcting it, but to admit that the man he called 'dad' was not his blood father, and saying those words out loud to these people, was too much.
"What happened after that?" Sam asked. He reminded Ian of dad, with the soothing way he could talk or ask questions sometimes. It was enough to help him force the tears back down.
"Zola captured me. He--" Zola had... done something to Ian's head, turned everything inside out and made him believe, even for a moment, that his father wasn't the good man he knew he was. Ian rubbed his forehead, trying to push away the ache there. "He tried to rip away what dad had taught me and make me like my sister."
"Whoa, wait what?" Tony squeezed his shoulder. "How--?"
Ian realized his mistake a moment later. 'Sister'... "She-- dad's not her dad." He didn't know if that would be enough. It wasn't a lie, it wasn't, the man Ian called dad was not Jet's father...
The room was silent for a long moment. "Dare I ask?"
Sam arched an eyebrow at Tony, but did turn back to Ian and took a deep breath. "Who's your sister's father?"
Tony didn't want to know.
Sam was the first to recover. "So... Zola and your mother were... mates?" Sam fumbled over the word, but it was definitely the one that Ian recognized.
"I don't think..." Ian took a deep breath, and then looked up at Sam. Tony saw the side of the boy's face where his jaw was set, mulish. "Zola said that he loved my mother, but... she didn't want his child and he... he made her have one anyway."
Oh wow. Tony was just... Sharon looked like she was really going to be ill now, and Sam didn't have anything to say to that, but Tony was more worried about Ian, about the way his face twisted and... yeah, Tony knew that face. That wasn't 'looked like he was going to vomit' - that was far more urgent. "Come on."
Tony actually physically dragged Ian after that, and Ian went. They didn't have far to go, thankfully, and Tony had the toilet seat up and Ian was either smart enough to figure out what it was for or too far gone to protest, because he was on his knees and vomiting up pretty much everything he'd eaten and then some.
He felt a twist of sympathy, and empathy, at that, and got down on his knees to rub the kid's back.
"Take it easy."
Ian retched again, so Tony went for just rubbing circles into the kid's back. Tony had spent far too many days like this, thankfully years ago, but he remembered how utterly miserable it was. Tony waited out a few more productive heaves, and then two that produced nothing more than spit.
"I--" Ian was looking down into the toilet bowl now, and Tony passed over some paper to wipe the kid's mouth off. "I think I ate too much."
Tony was pretty sure that had nothing to do with it. "Yeah." He helped Ian to his feet and flushed the toilet before scrounging around for some mouthwash. "Didn't like the food?"
"No it was... it was good... just maybe too much?"
Yeah, too much. "This is mouthwash. Don't drink it. It's for... swishing." Ian looked up at him, completely puzzled, so Tony resigned himself to the indignity of oral hygiene in public, taking a long swig of the wash and making great show of swishing, gargling, and then spitting the stuff down the sink. A few minutes later they were swished, rinsed off, and presentable.
Ian climbed back up on his stool and looked down at the table. "Could I have more carrots and peanut butter, please? I'm sorry for wasting food."
"S'cool, kid." Tony went to work on more carrots, some peanut butter, and more apples for dipping.
"Can we not talk about my mom and Zola?" He asked.
"Yeah," Sam said. "That's fine, Ian. Can you tell us how you got home?"
"Earth is not my home. Dimension Z is my home." Ian didn't seem upset, but obviously wanted that clarified. "Dad came and got me, broke Zola's body, and... then we got to Earth." Tony heard a lot getting brushed over there, but he wasn't going to pick at the kid now. Things were fucked up enough as it was. "Dad made a program in his card and it called the Avengers, then Tony brought the Avengers to help dad."
"The end." Tony gave Sam and Sharon both a look. He didn't want them picking at the kid's story more. Trying to collapse years of life, a life that included his mother having an unwanted child by a monster, was going to be impossible, and Tony still thought it was better to get things from the source. "I'll send you an update when Steve's out of surgery."
They didn't go, so Tony made his point clearer by standing up and ushering them out of the room, into the elevator, and then closing the door behind them, leaving the three of them suspended behind the closed metal door.
"I know I'm not exactly known for my delicacy," Tony said. "But I really wanted to get a better handle on this situation before I brought you in. I'd appreciate it if you would send me what you have on Steve's original insertion, what happened, how the pooch was screwed, that sort of thing. We're going to be putting together pieces even after we know Steve's story-- if we ever get to know Steve's story. He had a big-ass hole in his chest when we brought him in and it was still bleeding."
"I'll have Sam do it," Sharon looked up at Tony, defiant. "I'm on suspension."
"Lose Captain America for two weeks and you get a suspension. There's a major inquiry, Stark. A lot of people screwed a lot of intelligence to get this to happen. Here, now, knowing that Zola was on the other side, ready to catch Steve soon after he arrived? It makes it stink even more of a setup." Tony was pleasantly surprised by the intelligence sharing, but not by what was being said.
"I thought that should be cleaned up, Johnson ran Operation Eucritta." Clint had gone to Madripoor to try to root out a S.H.I.E.L.D. mole, and the op had been a success, so here was Tony wondering why they still had moles floating around the quincarrier.
Sam and Sharon exchanged a surprised look.
"What? You think I don't leave sniffers in my old stomping ground? Good luck finding them, though, even I don't remember where I put them." Tony shrugged. "What's Hill think?"
Sharon arched an eyebrow.
"I know she hates me, but she's got to have a working theory."
"She thinks there's a small team, at least, quietly subverting chunks of our intelligence," Sharon offered. "She doesn't think I'd sell out Steve... not intentionally." The moment of silence covered the awkward truth about that assumption. "But she's not ruling out that I've been subverted until they get more data."
"Alright, well... I'm going to get back to babysitting, make sure the kid doesn't try to murder the Merrill Lynch bull or something, that would be an Avengers PR nightmare." He punched the door open again, and walked back out, where Ian was carefully watching the door, waiting for him.
"It's your target age group, Stark."
He gave her a smirk and resisted the urge to do something more juvenile. Ian offered him an apple when he got back. "You done talking about me behind my back?" Ian asked.
"Hey, we were talking about your dad behind your back, mostly." He picked up the peanut butter bowl and grabbed a nice chunk before biting and chewing. Damn apples were delicious. "We think someone manipulated a lot of people to get your dad to Dimension Z. Do you know what a conspiracy is?"
Ian shook his head.
"It's a plan, probably put in place by Zola, or one of his allies, to put a lot of pieces into place so eventually your dad would get on that train at that time, and end up in Dimension Z. Zola obviously did something to him. You told me he was 'infested with a Zola brain'."
"Dad had a Zola growing inside of him. When it got too bad, he made me promise to kill him if he changed. I-- I got captured before he did and he-- he cut the Zola out of him, but he said there were pieces still inside. It was just quieter."
Now Tony thought he might be ill. Instead he dipped the other half of the apple in the peanut butter. "That's disturbing. Alright, you're a kid-- you're dad's sick, in the hospital, in surgery, and you can guilt trip me into absolutely anything you want. What are we doing?"
Ian picked up another piece of apple. "Right now I really want to hit something."
Tony couldn't say he was that surprised.
"Do you have a hunting party I can join?"
"Kid, let Uncle Tony introduce you to the peak of combat simulation perfection."
"This is a combat simulation room. Obviously it's been powered down to not cause major destruction, but it's good for trying out your moves." When Tony opened the door, Ian found there were a handful of people already present. He recognized some of them from earlier in the day when they'd taken dad into the plane, but others he didn't. "Really, guys?"
"Tell us you wouldn't take the opportunity to see what a kid trained from birth by Steve would do in combat," one of them said, a man, with blond hair and black clothing with a cut of purple through it. "Hey, kid."
"Ian, not kid." Ian sized him up a bit, lean, not built for strength the way dad or some of the others were. "And are you going to introduce yourself or just stand around gawking at me?"
The woman, with long dark hair, laughed. "He's onto you, Clint. Hi, Ian, I'm Jessica Drew, the knucklehead with no manners is Clint Barton."
Ian smiled up at her. "Spider-Woman and Hawkeye... the not a lady one." Ian tried to remember how dad had described it. "Hawkeye girl? Lady Hawkeye?"
"Just call her Hawkeye," Clint answered. "And look at you. I'm suddenly wondering how much you know about us. You've got us at a disadvantage."
"And that's to my advantage," Ian answered. He didn't know them well, not the way dad might, but he did know their stories and their exploits, and dad had never been reserved about discussing their tactical disadvantages.
"Well stated, young Ian Rogers," the other man in the room, blond, with longer hair and armor, the sort Ian and dad wore, not the sort Iron Man did. "I am Thor, of Asgard. I wished to see your progress as a young warrior."
"Let's do this, then," Ian said. "I guess you do something to make it go?"
"Yup." Tony went over to a bunch of switches and lights. "You'll be fighting robots, they don't have feelings, they can be hurt, damaged, or destroyed without killing someone. If we put you in the ring against another Avenger or someone else we would want you to keep from setting the phaser to kill." Ian frowned at the phrasing, he knew 'kill' but a phaser wasn't something he understood. "Never mind. You don't have to hold back. I'll start you off easy, but feel free to tear through as many robots as you see fit. If it gets to be too much, you say stop. None of that bullshit your father pulls, either, this is training, not a real battle."
He'd fought enough younger Phrox warriors to know how to pull his punches, he was glad that wouldn't be necessary. "Of course. I'm ready."
Tony ushered him out and into the middle of the room before retreating behind the door. Ian took a few moments to focus himself, to remind himself of what he was doing and why he was doing it. Just like dad, he took a great deal of comfort in practicing, in focusing his combat skills and training, not to cause destruction and violence, but simply because both he and dad were... physical. In some ways Ian liked it even more after finding out Zola was his father - this was one way he could say he was different, that he was not a monster content to think and observe and stand above things. He let himself listen and feel, the way dad had taught.
Seconds later a soft noise came from his side and the fight was on, slow and lumbering, and alone, a metal monster that was almost comical after facing down one of the Captains of Zolandia or even the bred-for-speed-and-ferocity mutates. Ian took his time, gun holstered, using the shield to keep any attacks from actually landing, keeping his weight away from the blows so they would glance or bounce off, testing each of the joints with an experimental kick. It didn't take him long to feel he had a good grasp of the enemy before he decided to end it with a quick slice at the backs of the knees, the chest, and then ripping off one of the arms for good measure.
He was pleasantly surprised when the fallen robot was replaced with three more, rather than one. It wasn't enough to make him feel overrun, but he kept his father's instructions in the back of his mind, focus on one, take it down, then turn to the next. He flung the shield at one, angling it just right so it would dig in and cut, rather than bounce, before he took a few steps to retrieve it, tugging it out from the metal skeleton before angling a ricochet off four walls and two robots, taking advantage of the staggering hit from behind to drive the spare arm up into one's chest before catching the shield and using it for cover as the last swung down at him.
Ian let himself fall into the rhythms of combat, dodging, weaving, taking down one enemy and moving through the next, wading into the piles of metallic corpses as he tore them apart, flung them aside, and moved onto the next. They were getting tougher, stronger, shiner, different metal for their armors, faster... Ian pushed himself faster, and harder, faster take-downs, feel the moves before they struck, anticipate-- move before them...
His first real misstep came with the sixth wave; he'd lost track of the fallen and stumbled over one, losing the shield and his footing, which meant he had to scramble away, around two attacks rather than blocking, kicking out a knee of an attacker but not hard enough to take him down, take a running leap off a wall to kick a second square in the face before he landed, rolled, had the shield back and positioned to take a hard hit that flung him across the room because he wasn't braced right for it.
"Ow." He had a few seconds to get back up; he'd managed to stagger most of his opponents, and he took them, stretching out his back and giving a long sigh. "That wasn't very sporting."
Time passed, the battle raged on, fistfuls of robots continued to come and Ian continued to take them down. He took more hits, and the hits hurt more, but he did finally get taken down, one strong whack to the back of the head and then a hand coming down, blocked by the shield but still forcing him back, and down. Three more hard hits and his arms were starting to get numb where they'd been pushed down into the floor, when the thing finally stopped, and stepped back, and retreated into the wall.
When he was finally back on his feet, metal claws were grabbing at the scrapped remains and pulling them away as well. "Oh, come on!" Ian yelled at the window that he knew Tony was behind. "I still had my gun."
"Practice, Ian," Tony's voice came from all around him. "Getting you pounded into the pavement wasn't the plan. Good work, though. Really... really good."
Tony came out of the back room, trailing the other three. Clint and Jessica looked... odd, their eyes wide and shocked, perhaps, although Ian didn't think there was anything particularly shocking. Thor just nodded to him when Ian caught his eye. "You are already a fine warrior."
"Thanks." His feet wobbled slightly under him. "Whoa... adrenalin crash."
"Food, shower, bed," Tony said. "In that order. Come on."
Ian didn't have it in him to protest when Tony brought him back to a different kitchen, this one in a room of warm reds with windows that went from floor to ceiling. Tony fed him in silence, and Ian didn't protest; Tony foisted him into a shower, which Ian also didn't protest, before he led Ian to a soft, white, pillow-y chair and laid Ian down before covering him in a pair of blankets.
"You cold?" Ian shook his head no. "You know how to get yourself water or the bathroom?" Ian nodded. "If you need anything, give a yell, the house usually knows how to find me." Ian gave a final nod, and with nothing else keeping him up, he felt his eyes close and in spite of the day, and all his worries, his drifted off into an easy sleep.
Distracting the kid had been an objective, but not the only one, Tony had also wanted his own distraction to pull him away from the fact that his friend had come back from god knows where - Dimension Z - looking like he'd gotten chewed up and spit out. He'd looked worse than Tony had ever seen him before, and that left him beyond nervous. And there was a potential mole at S.H.I.E.L.D., even after it had been dismantled and put back together.
And a kid.
Tony didn't hate children, really. He'd just made several tactical decisions years ago in order to lessen his chances of becoming a father. Before fairly recently, Tony would have rated himself somewhere between horrible and tragic when it came to attempting to care for a child. He barely managed to think of his friends in any consistent way on a good day. He could run teams, usually well enough, because he understood pushing around assets and abilities, but when it came time to legitimately care for someone else in the selfless way that young, unformed people required, Tony knew he would fall short. He could feed Ian, clothe him, and make sure he was tired enough not to think of his father lying in surgery, but that was where it ended.
Instead of auditing the code he was supposed to be working on, he pulled up the minimal data that Steve had sent, hours ago. Steve had gotten fairly handy with the Avengers card over the years, although the need to use the reprogrammable nature of it was minimal. He'd used it, ages ago, when they'd faced down Kang...
The information was fairly spartan: 10 plus years in another dimension, a son named Ian, some sort of viral infiltrate that was slowly taking over his mind. Steve had left the ability to send the message in the hands of his son, Ian, not his own, because Steve had expected to be mentally compromised. 'Above all else, if I die or my mind cannot be saved, please see to the well-being of my son. Everything I own, all my worldly possessions, are to be made available to him.'
"Damn it, Steve..." Tony whispered, again. Even reading it again, maybe for the third or fourth or fifth time, it still hit him that... this kid had become Steve's whole world in a blink of Tony's eye.
He and Steve had their ups and downs, many of them horrible, but Tony wasn't going to let him down on this one. Still, the kid was finally asleep, so Tony got down to the work he'd been ignoring in favor of another human being. It didn't last long, maybe two or three hours, when a soft whimper came from the couch. It was past midnight, and Tony had actually been considering sleep.
Sadly, the whimper was repeated, this time with his face scrunched up enough that Tony could see it across the room.
"Ian?" He didn't wake, just curled up in on himself more. Tony made the split-second decision to come over to where Ian was laying, and after another whine, Tony put a hand on Ian's shoulder and shook him gently. "Ian?"
The boy snapped awake, and Tony found himself on the receiving end of a hard shove and the kid scrambling backwards from him kicking sheets and groping for the absent shield, a few feet away propped against the coffee table. Ian came back to himself a few seconds later, and slumped. "I'm sorry."
"Hey, that's fine." Tony had often found himself startled awake by his own nightmares, no help required, back when he'd first gotten home from his captivity.
"Is dad--?" The quiver in his voice broke Tony's heart just a little.
"No change," Tony answered, which was, he supposed, a comfort. He'd checked less than an hour ago himself. Surgeon One had tagged out and made way for Surgeon Two, and as much as Tony desperately wanted a briefing, he more wanted the surgeon well rested if whatever horrible butchery the surgeons were being forced to perform needed to stretch into a second day, god forbid. "We'll know more tomorrow. Is the couch uncomfortable?"
Ian looked down at it. "I just... usually dad's right there. Dad's always... he's always right there."
High on the list of things that Tony was not equipped to deal with: kids with abandonment issues. "I-- look, I know I'm not your dad. Pretty much no one can ever be your dad, that's sort of his deal, but you can take you, the shield, and your blanket, and come crash with me... although in general you shouldn't be crawling into bed with strange older men or women, which is advice I really could have used, although not at your age..." Tony wasn't going to examine that too closely. "How's that?"
Ian just scooped up his shield and the blanket and followed after Tony; he clicked off the fire and led the way into the bedroom. He had a huge bed, he was fairly certain they could share. "Bathroom's through there, make yourself comfortable."
While Ian staked out a corner of the bed, wrapping himself up and actually tucking the shield under his pillow, Tony pulled up a screen and set it to simulate a moderate fire and then did his best to make it throw a bit of convection heat as well, within monitor tolerances. Tony went to the bathroom to strip down and change into sweats and a t-shirt, and since Ian hadn't figured out sheets really, Tony turned down the unoccupied side of the bed and crawled in, while Ian remained firmly atop the comforter and blankets.
He was only woken up twice more throughout the night, although he wasn't dumb enough to think that was the only time Ian's sleep was disturbed. Tony woke sometime around seven, with Ian zonked out and dead to the world, so Tony got to work from bed, making sure that the surgeon would be available to talk to them shortly, pinged Sharon, and waiting for the kid to actually wake up. Around eight, Ian finally woke, walking him through a morning routine and a quick scrub down before shoving another change of clothes at him, courtesy of Jarvis, fed him a peanut butter sandwich, and then accepted the fact that the news of dad wasn't going to be delayed any longer.
Tony finally (re)made the acquaintance of the doctor in charge of the surgery, and Sharon joined the two of them in one of the smaller areas to the side of the medical 'ward' in Avengers Tower, where they could talk in private. "I'm not sure a child--"
"I'm not--!" Tony silenced Ian with a firm hand on his shoulder, keeping the kid in his seat.
"Ian is Steve's son," Tony said, very firm. "What little Steve left by way of a Will and Testament made it clear that he's to be considered his next of kin, and that's the kid's father in there."
Doctor Stevenson cleared his throat. "I was more concerned for the... potentially upsetting nature of what will be discussed."
"Trust me when I say a carefully engaged in surgery, no matter how bloody, is going to be a picnic compared to what the kid's seen in his life."
The three of them listened, without much comment, as the doctor ran through the surgery. Steve had had the entirety of a techno-organic assembly removed from his chest. Steve's body had apparently been slowly... transformed into a more suitable host, the chest being reassembled, ribs basically re-appropriated, leaving a thin, but invasive housing there where 'the Zola' had sat. Ian did not seem the least bit surprised by this, Tony thought he was going to lose his breakfast and Sharon looked similar. The ribs were going to be a slow process - which on Steve meant like a week - and the rest seemed likely to re-settle back into its proper place over time. Banner had been tapped to work on eradicating any recurrence of the consciousness infection, and...
"Beyond that, his brainwaves don't match up with what has been recorded for him. I'm not certain if his mind is his own, partially his own, or been taken over by some aspect of the consciousness that we can't detect with medical science."
Ian, who had been sitting, mostly silent, hands on his knees, finally chose to speak. "When we arrived on Earth, dad was still dad. He said he loved me."
Tony put a hand back on Ian's shoulder, and was surprised when he earned a hug around the waist for his troubles. "He seemed... Steve-ish when he was talking."
"There is some possibility that the underlying Zola consciousness has some lingering effects," Stevenson said. Ian grabbed into Tony's side so hard it hurt. "I recommend you employ a telepath before he's awoken from his coma, and my recommendation is that is not done until after his ribs are mended. The pain of regrowing them will be intense, and to compound that with whatever mental incursion he's suffering from would be a mistake."
"Thank you, doctor," Sharon added. She'd peppered the doctor with her own questions, throughout, as had Tony, but the three of them shook hands.
"Doctor?" Ian was standing at Tony's side now, and he held his own hand up even though Tony recognized the look of someone who had no idea what he was doing - handshakes: not a thing in Dimension Z - but Stevenson shook his hand nonetheless. "Thank you for saving my dad's life."
"Of course, Ian. He's unconscious, and needs to remain so, but I think he would like a visit?"
The four of them made their way to the post-surgery suite. Steve was hooked up to all sorts of machines, with a shell covering from just below his shoulders down to the bottom of his rib cage, clearly designed to both monitor the surgery area and keep it from receiving any accidental pressure. Steve looked like shit, but his beard and hair had now obviously been washed, trimmed, and looked slightly less tragic, he even looked a little better. Tony had remembered plainly seeing the years, the raw mileage on Steve when he'd gotten back, and if anything he looked a bit less worn, which was surprising. "He looks a bit-- better."
Sharon looked at him like she thought he was insane, but her mouth dropped open when the doctor nodded in agreement.
"Cellular regeneration, I'd say. He's been on fluids and blood product, followed by a nutritional drip, which seems to be doing wonders for his metabolism. The infection itself is toxic, and seems to have been interacting with the Super Soldier Serum." Stevenson went over to where Ian was standing, inches from the bed, looking down at his father. "You can touch him, give him a hug if you'd like, just above the shell we have over him."
With that prompting, Ian leaned down and gave Steve a kiss on the forehead. "Keep fighting, dad."
Tony felt his throat close up at that. Damn kid... damn Steve.
"Thanks for the heads up, Stark," Sharon said when they were out of the room.
"Looks like we should keep visitors minimal, but if you and Sam want to make a quick visit a day I'm sure it can be arranged." Tony shrugged and put his hands in his pockets. "Probably have a hell of a time keeping Carol out, either, but I don't think we want his hospital room turning into grand central."
"Agreed," the doctor said. "I'll be in for a followup on the surgical site tomorrow, but otherwise it's time for me to pass this off to someone else. A pleasure, Mr. Stark, even if I don't think the good Captain will be signing a release for me to publish a case study."
"Sorry, Doc. Avengers Tower is a bit like Vegas in that respect." Tony held out a hand, and they shook them again. It seemed to be some sort of social thing that Ian didn't understand, a hello or a good bye or a thank you. And then the doctor walked away.
"I'm sure he'll be better soon, Sharon," Ian said, as cheerful as he could manage. Dad always seemed to have that little bit in the back of his mind where he was sure something would turn out alright, and Ian tried to feel that right now, even though it was very hard.
Sharon looked down at him, after that, and she didn't look pleased at all. "I'm sure." She didn't say anything else though, not to him. Instead she turned back to Tony and held out a little thing, no bigger than a finger, for Tony. "And since we're playing nice, here's what Sam and I were able to piece together in the last two weeks. Hill probably has more but you two really do have the knack for rubbing each other the wrong way."
Tony took the stick-thing and nodded. "Keep you posted."
Sharon finally walked away, and Ian couldn't quite help but think that Sharon didn't really care for him. He frowned, scrubbing his fingers through his hair before turning back to Tony. "Do you think Sharon doesn't like me?"
"Uhh..." Tony looked down at him, before they started to head to another part of the Tower. Ian was slowly getting a feel for it, but it was still mostly a matter of following Tony to get one place or another. "Well... for her it's been two weeks, your dad leaves for a mission, he comes back, and there's a kid, her lov-- mate's kid, a kid that she maybe would have wanted to have one day, but not hers. I'm sure you dad spent his time moving on, thinking he might not make it home, and deciding that he needed to move forward before he started... with your mother. He's done it more than once - I've watched him do it - but for Carter it's been two weeks, not thirteen years."
"Phrox can have more than one mate if the male is high enough status," Ian said as Tony pushed one of the buttons on the transport box.
"Well, that's not usually an Earth thing without a preexisting understanding, which Sharon and your dad didn't have." The door slid closed and the box started to move.
"What's this transport box called? They're everywhere."
Ian then found himself sitting through a ten minute explanation of elevators ('transport boxes') and numbers (which Ian knew some, but didn't really know a lot of the symbols) and then which floors contained which things, and which were the most important (Tony's private floor, the common room kitchen, the training room, and the medical wing where dad was staying). He took it all in, memorized it. He wasn't slow at that, and there were too many important things that needed to go in right away that couldn't be labored over as he learned. Finally, the two of them ended up on a floor, one that Tony called his 'garage' even though Ian didn't know the term.
Tony sat him down in a corner, leaving him with stuff called 'paper' and 'pens' that seemed to be used for transportable walls, the way dad would paint on them, as Tony played with his view screens. "So here's the question, Ian: your dad, did he tell you a lot of what was going on, the things that you two were up against? Or did he do the thing where he handles stuff on his own without being 'a burden'."
The sound of the word on Tony's lips said exactly what he must have thought about it. Ian smiled. "He didn't tell me about the Zola until it was almost too late. Everything else--" Ian turned and looked at Tony. "Everything else, he told me." It was sort of a lie. Dad had never told him the truth about Zola being his father until a few days ago, Ian was still trying to think that through, and he wished he'd known sooner.
"Alright, then." Tony took the little finger-stick that Sharon had given him and stuck it into a machine. "I mentioned the conspiracy to get your dad into Zola's hands. Sharon thinks, and I agree, that there's something going down at Shield that is going to make things dangerous for you, and maybe for your dad, as well. Even just on the weight of you potentially having the Super Soldier Serum in your blood, people are going to be interested in you. You'd be the only other test-subject that didn't go a little bit messed up in the head for it."
Ian didn't think he had the Serum. Zola had wanted it for him and Jet, but Ian didn't think they'd had dad for long enough to make it happen. "I think..." Ian wondered if he could explain it to Tony without him guessing the truth. Jet had said that the two of them had been engineered by Zola, and that when he had grown before being born, Zola had made changes to him, similar changes to Jet, and Jet had all those omni-senses and her tachyon fu style... "I think Zola did some engineering with my mom."
"Yeah. I suspected." Tony frowned. "You think or you know?"
"Jet told me."
Tony turned back to the pictures on the screen for a few minutes. "Do you know if..." He shook his head again. "Look, I'm a scientist, I'm an engineer, and I need to know some things, but I know they're hard and not happy."
"I can take it." Ian thought he could. He knew he'd barfed when he'd been thinking about Zola and his mom, about the disgusting things that dad's Zola had said to him, cruel and crude comments about his mother and how she couldn't escape him and... he pushed down the vomit thoughts again. "If it's important, I can do it."
"Do you know if your dad and your mom... made you while Zola was still able to do experiments on your mother?"
Ian took a moment to decide that answering wouldn't reveal too much, hopefully. "Pretty sure." He knew the answer was yes. "Jet said." Dad hadn't gotten him until he was born, which meant there were months and months before he was born when Zola could have done anything he wanted.
"What you did yesterday in the training room," Tony continued, still looking at Ian. "It's not something a normal twelve year old boy could do, probably not even one with Super Soldier Serum and training from the world's number one Super Soldier, although your dad didn't get it until he was older. I think it's possible that Zola did more than a little tweaking of your genetic code to make you better."
Tony waited a few seconds, and Ian gave a little nod for him to continue.
"You don't look very surprised by this."
Ian didn't know he was supposed to be surprised. It made sense. Jet had said that they had been altered, 'hyper-evolved', gifted with 'omnisenses' and super speed and strength even without the Serum. They were supposed to be Zola's perfect children generals in his invasion of the Earth. "I-- dad said I grew up fast. He said I could start to talk and run when I was only one year old..."
Tony looked back at the screens, and Ian could tell that he was thinking something. It wasn't quite as obvious as when dad was considering things, his father's brow often crinkled when he was thinking very hard, but Tony placed a hand to his chin, rubbing for a moment, before turning back to Ian. "And all of that... are you alright with that?"
Ian shrugged. Just like everything else in his life, it was something to get used to. He hadn't quite gotten used to it yet, it was fresh in his mind, but he knew where he stood.
"You're so much like your father," Tony said, smiling. "I used to wonder what his kids would be like, if he ever got around to having one. Now I don't have to wonder."
Ian smiled up at Tony, because knowing that someone else saw his father - the father he wanted - in him made him feel as though things might be alright, and that he could push aside his blood father, never worrying about that darkness. "So, you asked the questions for a reason. What is it?"
"Can't put anything past you." Tony punched a few more buttons. "We've got an incomplete picture of who at Shield might have tried to grab your dad and send him to Zola, which means that everyone there, and you and your father, are in danger if we just let them be. So I'm considering methods of drawing them out."
Ian knew this, he was an expert at this. "Then we will pick a location well known to you, and I will present myself as bait. You can rally the Avengers and we will crush them."
Tony cocked his head to the side, and then smiled. "Alright, I like you, and I like that this was your go-to instinct, but... we don't live out in the middle of nowhere; the Avengers don't just get to set an ambush in the middle of New York City. But if you're up for it, we can definitely 'present you as bait', just not the way you're used to."
"If it will help my father, I would take any risk."
"You say that now..."
"Explain to me again why we are walking into an ambush armed only with clothing," Ian said. Oh yeah, patience stretched very thin.
"We aren't going out unarmed, you have a photonic shield generator, and I have the briefcase suit," Tony tapped the briefcase gently, and they'd already gone over the controls on the shield. It wasn't the same as Steve's, Tony knew, but it was collapsible "It's not an ambush in the traditional sense, either. I am very famous, it's a burden, I know, but all that means is that when I go outside lots of people take pictures of me, those pictures go on the internet, the internet goes to my computer, and my computer runs a real-time collation of all of those images and hunts down matches."
"So we are being ambushed by pictures?"
"And then those pictures... go... somewhere." Ian was, frankly, adorable, as his face crinkled and he tried to figure out technology and modern day Earth, and Tony had the urge to compare Ian to his father and those first few months, few years really, where Tony had gotten to lovingly break his friend in on the twenty-first century and all its joys.
"The internet, it's a series of tubes, or dump trucks... look, forget the metaphors. It's a real-time network of millions of computers and other technological nodes that link together to share information. That information, in this case, is the #starkspotting hashtag." Tony pulled up a screen, which showed all of the latest information from the various tags that Tony did, indeed, follow in real time or had his computers do for him. "Look, these are the pictures of me last week when I went out and bought a coffee. Look at the excellent coverage angles..." Tony pulled up a few dozen, which were basically all him, just from a variety of angles. "Now, all we're going to do is take an outing, go to a few different stores, buy you some clothes that fit - all things that you need to do anyway - but we're going to live a little, get out there, and if we find people following us, we'll shoot them over to Sam and Sharon and then they can do some heavy lifting to find our minions, and go from there. The issue is we don't even know who the players on the table are, so we need to isolate them."
Ian looked at the pictures, and even poked one with a finger, which was a step up from last time. "So... we are performing reconnaissance as bait?"
"I don't like playing bait and reconnaissance at the same time."
"Kid, you're the son of Captain America, your time as bait and in the limelight are only just beginning." Tony slung an arm over his shoulder and pulled Ian towards him. "Allow me to give you a few tips as a man who's been doing this for years."
"Because you're old?" Ian asked, and for a second Tony thought it was a completely guileless response, until he saw Ian smirking up at him.
"Because I've been doing the fame thing for most of my life." Tony scrubbed his fingers through Ian's hair. "Now, step one: be enigmatic, don't answer questions if someone shouts them, just smile and wave. Step two: we're trying to be seen, no shrinking violets allowed. Do you even know what a shrinking violet is?"
"Do they... I dunno, shrink?"
"Keep that up and they'll think you're mine, not Steve's." Tony pulled a pair of sunglasses out and shoved them onto the bridge of his nose. "I called us a car, and we'll hit up the mall. Anything else you want to do?"
Ian ran his fingers through his hair, and he seemed displeased with it despite it being a perfectly serviceable haircut. "Can I get a haircut... something... messier?"
"Sloppy, rolled out of bed, chique. I suppose we can do that." Tony tried not to feel a bit pleased that Ian was enamored with his hair enough to want to duplicate it. It didn't mean anything.
"And..." Ian looked over his shoulder, and then over the various detritus that was Tony's garage workshop. "Do we need to bring things to barter with? Pelts? Food?"
"We will be bringing AmEx," Tony held up the card, which he actually had in his back pocket. "It's just... a card that has money on it." And then, realizing that if the kid was asking after pelts and food as barter materials, he needed to clarify more. "You give people money, and they give you things."
"How do you get money?" Ian looked so painfully earnest as he asked, like he was learning science, or quantum physics, like the usage of money was of great importance. Tony didn't quite know how to deal with that.
Tony shrugged. "Lots of ways: have a rich dad, work for it, build a half-dozen successful companies before you blow them up to stop a multinational terrorist..."
He finally looked back over to where Ian was looking down at his hands, awkwardly. "How do I get money to get things?"
"Oh." Right. Tony probably should have realized that the kid who'd grown up Beyond Thunderdome would probably be pretty worried about how to acquire a sustained supply of goods. "You say: 'uncle Tony, can I have some pocket money?' and then I give you a few hundred dollars and then your dad complains that I'm spoiling you and then he makes you do chores, and then I co-opt you to stand around holding up things in the garage, also known as chores, and then I give you money."
Tony sighed, and even scrubbed his fingers through his hair before he punched the down button on his elevator.
"Your dad has money, and your dad gets paid to be at S.H.I.E.L.D. and he has an expense account as an Avenger, and the Avengers money is completely separate and apart from my companies and in income maintenance assets controlled by someone who is not me, and there's also the fact that you'd have to be stupid as hell to embezzle from the Avengers so..." This was far too complicated to explain in a way that would be of any used to Ian. "Your dad and you? That's not a thing you have to worry about. I know it seems strange, but the whole world is different from what you're used to. Things don't work the same way, we don't go on hunting parties, we don't trade pelts or food for clothing and armor, we all have jobs, the jobs give you money, and you use money to buy the things you need."
Jobs... How did someone explain jobs to a kid that had until the day before mostly subsisted on hunting and gathering?
"Right, but you don't need a job, your job is to go to school, where you learn things and meet people and have friends. Your dad's job is to have a job."
Ian hopped onto the elevator, and gave the number pad the once over before looking up at Tony.
"We're going to floor one."
Ian punched the one in response. "What if dad...? What if he...?" Ian had his eyes screwed shut, and Tony recognized the beginning of tears.
"That would suck, a lot, and I would make a very crappy parental role model, but one thing I've proven myself fairly adept at over my lifetime is providing money to people, courtesy of my brain and brilliance." Hell, Tony didn't want to think about a life without Steve. Tony was very glad that he didn't really remember what life was like without Steve. He couldn't even begin to imagine what it would be like for his kid. Hell, Tony hadn't even really cared much for his father and his death had still hit him like a ton of bricks. "The stuff, the food and clothing and shelter, that's in the bag, Ian. Steve would literally come back from... the Fields of Forever to kick my ass if I didn't make sure you were taken care of."
Ian nodded, and then sniffled, before wiping away tears on a sleeve. "I'd still miss him."
"Of course you would. We all would." Tony hugged Ian to his side again, before taking off his shades and putting them on Ian's face. "There you go, look cool and hide the manful tears. Let's go shopping."
"You know... dad didn't really explain... much," Ian said as Tony fluffed his hair and made little bits of hair fall to the side and made Ian's neck feel scratchy.
"Well, Earth is complicated, and your dad, more than anyone, probably understood that the world might be completely different twelve years after he left." Tony opened up the car door, and then Ian hopped in while Tony followed right after him and shut the door. "But that's why we're doing this, introduction to early twenty-first century Earth culture."
Earth culture was... eclectic. There were all sorts of items that Tony explained were to adorn their women, stores that sold only shoes, stores that sold only toys... but Tony led them from one clothing store to another, forcing Ian into clothes, trying them on and fitting them, or actually having a nice lady fit him while Tony sprawled in a chair and played with his phone.
"Ha!" Tony tilted his phone towards Ian, even though he couldn't even see the screen, and didn't know how to read many words. "Pepper just texted me and asked if I had anything to tell her."
"What would you tell her?" Ian asked, shucking yet another 'dress pants' and pulling on another that fit the exact same. "And what is a pepper?"
"Pepper is the CEO of my company. She makes me money and runs herd on my nerds." Tony poked a few more buttons on his phone and then looked back up at Ian. "She's just commenting on the fact that I'm running around town with an adorable brown haired boy that has a haircut just like mine and conspicuously spending money on you. Since you're not female, aged eighteen to twenty-five, and a red-head, she's clearly decided that you are my illegitimate son. Points for effort."
Ian smiled over at him, never quite understanding exactly what Tony was saying, but he was clearly enjoying himself as Chieftain of the Avengers with a telephone.
"I sent back, 'not mine, you'll never guess whose!' because I love taunting her just a bit."
"Is it wise to taunt the woman who makes you money?" Ian asked, trying yet another pair of pants. Tony made a gesture at the pair he'd just removed that went into some pile that was for keeping. Ian didn't understand it at all, but Tony was the Chieftain here.
"She wouldn't know what to do with herself if there wasn't the occasional infuriating behavior."
Ian looked down at the fourteenth pair of pants that he was now being asked to try. "I think I would rather kill a rampaging streamer monster with my bare hands in the middle of a day, stinking of eel lard, than try on another pair of pants."
Tony glanced over to Ian, and then back up to the woman who was helping with the fittings. "That's fair."
Tony let him leave the fitting room and two suits were purchased and handed off to their driver. Tony then dragged him off in the direction of something called a 'food court' and then plied him with a pretzel, which was a delicious, chewy thing, covered in something called sugar, which was also tasty. "Are we done with clothing?"
"No, we are done with annoying clothing. Everything else you can buy by saying 'I like it, I want one'. You still need to get those tailored, too, but I assumed you were getting ready to shank me at this point." Tony picked up his own pretzel and then pointed down the way, where Ian went. "Don't worry about it. This is where you actually get to pick your sense of style, are you going to go for effortless comfort or sleek sophistication? Do you accessorize with pretentious name brand items or go more minimalistic?"
Ian just nodded, mutely, and Tony led them into a different store, this one filled with bright, loud colors, rather than the staid black-brown-grey of the 'suit store'. Unlike the last store, this store was all for clothing that would fit someone Ian's size, or perhaps just a bit bigger and smaller. There were no clothes for adults on display at all. Most of it contained items that Tony quickly identified as t-shirts, jeans, and sweaters; the other people in the store were... noisy however, with children that yelled and screamed in a manner completely unbecoming. They would have quickly been eaten the first time they left the Cavern. Tony didn't seem to care much for them either, if the slightly pinched way his face went was any measure.
It was much easier, though. Tony had some sort of size in his head, and Ian was able to pick up several pairs of pants, and shirts, without much trouble, and although Tony forced him to try on a few, it was quicker going, and they left with a far heftier stack of clothes, there were also socks, which in Ian's mind were the best clothing invented, since they didn't involve him wrapping his own feet in cloth before donning boots.
The last shop was shoes, in a store that similarly seemed to only sell to children, but Ian got two boots and three pairs of non-boot shoes after that. It went much faster, and with far less annoyance, just as promised.
"Can we go now?" Ian asked.
Tony checked his phone. "Nope, need more public air time. Hot chocolate?"
Ian was ready to leave the mall and try to find Avengers Tower again on his own... but he found himself persuaded by discovering what hot chocolate was. "I want more of this."
"You and everyone else, buddy." Tony sat down with his own cup, filled with coffee. "I think we should walk back to the Tower, rather than take the car. We can get a better cross section of people who might be following us if we meander. It's probably about... a mile, maybe two?"
Ian considered. He had just eaten, and drank, but if he had the opportunity to empty his bladder there would be no problems. "At my best walking pace, we can finish that in less than a quarter hour."
"Hey, forget 'best pace', meander. This is going to be your home. Get a feel for it, relax into it, learn to love the hot dog carts and the disgusting car smells." Tony took another sip of coffee. "I know it's sort of... weird. I remember my first days back home after Afghanistan, and I wasn't sure if I wanted a cheeseburger or to nap for a million years. Your dad did this, years ago, learning a whole new time, even if it was the same place. I know you can do it, too."
Ian wanted to be that strong, but there were so many people, pink and brown and yellow and all different colors and shapes and sizes, they didn't smell like the sand and dust of home, things were clean and yet dirty in different ways, and his father was still lying in bed, sick, and possibly not going to wake. Dad had always said that Earth would be his home, that he wanted Ian to be home with him... but Ian had always considered Dimension Z and the Phrox Cavern his home, a home that his blood father had stolen from him, and now he was in the home of his father, but without his father.
"I don't understand anything here," Ian said, voice soft, mumbling around the lip of his chocolate cup.
"Hey." Tony wrapped an arm around his shoulder, enough like dad to be comforting, but it still wasn't dad. "You weren't born knowing everything. You've figured out pants, that's more than a lot of people figure out. Just give it time. Your dad... he's going to get better, and he knows Dimension Z better than I ever could, he'll know how to fill in all the blanks."
Ian was certain of that, but his father still wasn't well, and wouldn't be for days at the earliest. "Thank you for helping me learn."
"Pretty sure I don't have a choice."
Ian thought Tony did have a choice, though. Dad hadn't even told Tony it was his job, or that dad had wanted him to do this. Ian would have spent time with Captain Marvel or Hawkeye or almost any other Avenger that dad had told him about, but Tony had taken it on himself, even though he didn't have to... it reminded him of dad, just a little bit. He didn't know the full story, but dad had taken him away from Zola because he thought that was what was best, and it had made Ian's life... so much better. "I think you did."
Tony didn't say anything, just nudged him with a shoulder and they headed out of the mall, and to freedom.
Meanwhile, Ian looked poised between hiding behind Tony and starting a riot. It was sort of awesome.
"Soooo... I'm just going to assume that none of you have anything better to do than track the #starkspotting hashtag, because you are all losers." Tony walked the rest of the way into the kitchen, where Jarvis handed over a cup of coffee to him without being asked and Tony sipped. "Correct me if I'm wrong."
"Daily Bugle." "TMZ" "Perez Hilton." Tony ignored the exact source of the variety of answers, but Spider-Man, Carol, Sam, and Bobby needed to get better news sources.
"I am disappointed in all of you," Tony said. But he did pat a chair at the breakfast bar so Ian would hop up on it.
He watched the room with a sort of wide-eyed curiosity that Tony couldn't help but appreciate. Just watching the kid sort of stoically try to figure out where he was, what was going on, and who all these people were was something of a wonder. The raw... Steve-ish-ness was something that Tony really did appreciate.
"So, the full word hasn't gone out, because I wanted to wait... but this'll have to do for a preliminary. Feel free to disperse this, Avengers Only, and I mean that, no gossip mongering, I swear to god. I know the papers are going to eat this up, and that's intentional on my part, but no tweeting." Tony set down his coffee on the counter, and looked across the room. "I know you saw the Avengers priority alert that we got Steve back in a pretty rough shape. Details were... sketchy when I put that out, and let's just say that the situation hasn't been clarified and we're going to need a few more medical specialists before he's declared out of the woods."
Tony waited for that to sink in before he put a hand on Ian's back.
"This is Ian. Why don't you go ahead and introduce yourself."
"Hi." Ian waved a hand awkwardly at the assembled crowd of Avengers. "I'm Ian... Ian Rogers, my dad's... um... Commander Steve Rogers. I grew up in another dimension called Dimension Z run by Emperor Zola. I've heard all sorts of stories about all of you and... um..." Ian glanced over to Tony, and Tony did his best to give a cheerful, encouraging nod. "It's nice to meet you."
The response was a stunned silence. Tony had expected about that much. "Um..." Carol glanced over to Tony. "Is he..." She turned back to Ian. "How old are you?"
"I don't think I look twelve weeks old," Ian shot back, arms crossed against his chest now.
Tony snorted. "Kid's got a bit of sass to him, but really I would expect nothing less. Sooo... that's something that's going to take some getting used to, and let me just say that Cap does, in fact, look like he's spent about thirteen years in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, which is why he's mostly staying locked in isolation while we get his situation under control. It's pretty touch and go, to be honest."
The news settled in over the assembled team, and Tony gave a nod to the few Avengers to make that nod in return.
"Ian would be the first to complain if I implied he needs a baby sitter, and he's pretty damn self-reliant for a twelve year old, but let's just say he makes Steve, just post waking up, look like a pillar of modern societal integration. Try not to overwhelm him."
Tony then took a step away, towards the kitchen and Jarvis, where the two of them met somewhere in the neighborhood of the refrigerator. Tony kept an half-eye on the proceedings, as Carol stepped up and gave Ian a pat on the shoulder, and then when it looked like he would take it, a hug. Tony took the opportunity to confer with Jarvis, and have his first adult conversation in almost a day. "Ian's a fan of hot chocolate, probably old school like his old man, but he liked Starbucks alright. He also likes peanut butter, and chicken, but isn't much of a fan of fiber. Still, I think that's important. Maybe... research what kids need to eat? I probably should have gotten a more heavy-duty nutritional profile..."
He pulled a monitor from thin air and got Holly to throw another analysis on top of the ones she was already performing on Ian.
"You seem rather keen on him, sir," Jarvis said, with that smile that said that he knew Tony better than himself and was always irritating, and more than a little comforting.
"Yeah, I guess I am." Ian was just so... Steveish, and Tony did care about Steve, probably too much.
"Has Agent Carter been made aware of the... ah... addition?"
Tony gave a little shrug that hopefully conveyed most of it. "Yeah, but she's been pretty incommunicado after that." Tony didn't think it was that unreasonable. Hell, a surprise kid was pretty much Tony's nightmare scenario, and even though he and Sharon had a relationship founded on the providing of sexy Stark Tech to S.H.I.E.L.D. in the form of uniforms and such, that didn't make them close. He really had no way of knowing how she felt about kids in general, much less Steve's surprise illegitimate one in particular.
"You seem to be doing a fair job so far."
"Don't jinx it." Tony sighed and rubbed his hands over his beard, scrubbing it before he raided the fridge for carrots and dip - an Ian favorite. "I'm just feeding him, exercising him, and putting him to bed."
Jarvis didn't protest beyond that, thankfully, which Tony was grateful for. After that, he deposited food at Ian's elbow and gave him a pat on the shoulder.
"I'm heading downstairs to the garage. Remember how to get there?" Ian nodded. "I've got you on the authorized visitors list, so no problems with that. Join me whenever you feel like, no rush. I'm just going to combing through some data. Have fun."
"Can I train in the training room?"
Man, Tony needed to adjust the kid's idea of 'fun'. "Only with adult supervision. Those three chuckleheads don't count as adult supervision." He pointed at Spider-Man, Bobby, and Sam. "Carol is adult supervision. Alright?"
"I'm good," Ian answered, grinning up at him.
"I know that. Cya later."
Tony headed down to the garage, and actually got a few projects up and running, more armor tweaks, and a few preliminaries on what might be a good Ian-armor. Something like a full on Iron Man would be totally out there, while something a bit more like Steve's might actually be too light... still, like father like son, it might be the best option.
He chewed his way through a couple of Resilient problems, and then a quick mockup of a scalesuit for Ian, and of course there was the matter of re-fabricating something for Steve, which Tony put top of the list on the assumption that Steve would never be so wasteful as to die on him and give up the use of a perfectly good new set of armor, and then he picked up a few programs for teaching early reading and writing on the StarkTablet, and then requisitioned the kid a tablet...
That was about the time Ian came down, having sweat up a storm and looking run down at best.
"You look like you went a few rounds with... a burrow-squid?" Tony offered.
"If I'd gone against a burrow-squid I would be slimier," Ian said, collapsing down on one of the available couches. "I went against Captain Marvel. She kicked my ass."
Tony nodded, and went back to poking buttons, before he turned back to Ian and frowned. "Am I supposed to be discouraging your use of salty language or something?"
"Dad does," Ian answered. "Not that it does any good when he swears so much."
"Well, he was a soldier for more than a few years." Tony picked up the StarkTablet that he'd had sent up from downstairs, and then joined Ian on the couch. "This is for you. You don't know much about computers, right?"
He got a head shake for his troubles.
"I like to pretend that this is a super intuitive user interface, but the truth is it's never been tested on someone who didn't at least vaguely grow up on tech soup." Tony set the tablet on Ian's lap. "Each of pictures goes to a different app, that's for 'application', or... game. Think of them as specialized electronic tools. These are the apps that you're going to be working with." Tony swiped his hand across the surface, and watched Ian's face light up, allowing for a minute or two of delighted swishing of screens back and forth. "This one will teach you some basis spelling for English words, math is here, this is some geography and crap which I'm sure is useful but I'm not sure if you want to tackle that yet, and this is an adorable game where you slash your finger across fruit and turn it into electronic juice goo. That is not a life skill, that's just for fun."
Ian tentatively poked the spelling app. Much to his chagrin, apparently Ian needed to type his name, which was pretty useless if the kid was still learning how to spell.
"Uh, it's asking for your name. Ian is spelled I-A-N." Tony poked the letters in turn. "We'll deal with the whole 'Rogers' part later. That's 'OK', spelled like it sounds, that and 'yes' are your big confirmation things." Tony watched as a level select style screen popped up. "English goes left to right, so... most things like levels or indicators read the same way." He prodded the first level. "Let's see if this is actually self explanatory."
'Let's learn some letters!'
Tony rolled his eyes, but tried not to let that show. "Just go with it," Tony said, standing up to grab a floating screen and pull it over to the couch. "Your vocabulary is good, but we need to get you up to date on spelling. I hacked together a little baby AI too, based it of P.E.P.P.E.R., kept it PG-13 rated. You'll be able to ask it any questions and that'll hook you up with maybe... stripped down wikipedia and google, I guess."
Ian nodded, the nod of a kid who was completely not listening to Tony anymore, so he didn't bother to pay attention to Ian either.
Tony... well he might be able to do this.
"What did the stick from Sharon say?" Ian asked.
"Ah..." Tony looked over and then pulled over his own tablet-thing, putting it on his lap. "Not as much as I'd hoped. Best they can tell, a lot of information has gone out, and they definitely added some information into the mix coming in. Based on Sharon's initial report, Shield got a tip about people disappearing into an old subway car. She and your dad got in, the guards separated him and... poof, your dad's gone down the subway for two weeks and comes back thirteen years later. We've got a lot of questions that only your father could answer after that."
Ian nodded, and then set aside Aimee, and leaned into Tony's side. "When is he going to wake up?"
"That-- we don't know, Ian. Doctor Banner is working on some things, and your dad's body seems to be repairing but it also..."
"The Zola is still in there," Ian whispered. He hugged his knees to his chest and pressed his face to them. "Dad said he whispered in his mind for years."
"Your dad is strong," Tony said, and he put an arm around Ian's shoulder so they were squeezed together. "He's strong enough to make it through this."
"I hurt him," Ian said. He confessed, eyes screwed closed. "Zola took me and... showed me how dad took in other boys, taught them to be killers, that I wasn't special and... I don't know, something went wrong in my head. Nothing was right, everything dad taught me went away and I almost killed him."
Tony's hand froze on Ian's shoulder, and Ian waited to be shoved away, to be told he was awful, but Tony just pulled him closer. "You snapped out of it?"
"Eventually... but a lot of that damage to him, that was me. I might kill my own father." His real father, the father he loved, the father who loved him even though Ian had betrayed him.
"You know how I have my suit?" Tony asked, and Ian nodded in response. "I had it taken over, more than once. People stole my control of it, while I was inside of it, and I killed people. I watched my body, and the suit I had built to protect people, be turned into a weapon and I couldn't even look away. No one here blames me for that, definitely not your father."
Tony put a hand on the back of his neck.
"I'll never forgive myself if he dies," Ian said.
"I-- I think I know how you feel," Tony said. "Knew... ah hell. I get it. But there's a lot more at work here, Ian. Your dad's been sick since you were a kid, it all adds up. The doctors said he'd been working on a concussion for days, and you didn't cut your father's chest open, he did."
What Tony was saying made sense, but Ian could feel it, he knew he'd hurt his father, maybe endangered his life even more. Dad would forgive him, but... Ian would never forgive himself, just like he couldn't forgive himself for not dying with his Phrox brothers and sisters instead of being taken to Zolandia and being treated like a pampered child. "I should have died instead."
"Hey, no." Tony pulled him in closer. "No. Look... I know your father. He wanted you here, didn't he?" Ian nodded. "He told you that?"
"He said he wanted me to have a normal life, on Earth, safe and away from all of the hardness of Dimension Z."
"And that stupid son of a-- a very nice lady, he would do anything to make that happen. You're here, you're in good hands - although I think a few people would debate my merits as 'good hands' - you're safe." Tony fluffed his fingers through the back of Ian's hair, still sticking up a bit in the back where Ian's head was bowed. "Your father would willingly give his life for that."
"I didn't ask him to," Ian protested. He wasn't worth it, he was just the son of a monster raised well enough to not be as messed up as Jet.
"That's what makes your dad your dad." Tony gave a gentle tug at the strands of hair at Ian's nape, wiggling his head a little bit. "Hey, look... um... your... uh... Uncle, Sam, he was a bit worried about you from what you said about your mom, and about how Dimension Z was. He spends a lot of time working with people who've had a rough time growing up, and he found a few counselors. Normally, when it comes to someone's kid, I'd wait to run it by Steve, but Bruce - Doctor Banner - he's only just started doing his analysis and he's concerned real progress might take weeks."
Ian realized what Tony wasn't saying a moment later. "You think dad isn't going to be awake for a while."
"Weeks, maybe longer." Tony squeezed his neck again, never taking his hand away, just leaving it there, a warm presence that helped Ian remember that things were different, things were going to be alright. "Your dad was pretty clear on his wishes, he wanted you taken care of and he left that duty to the Avengers, in whatever form we took. Sam thinks you should see a counselor and I'm not going to think about countermanding him."
"What's a counselor?" Ian asked, finally looking back up at Tony.
The man's face was softer than Ian had expected. Dad had told him about Iron Man, and the man under the armor, on more than one occasion. Pictures of the Avengers littered the walls of his home. So, Ian had expected more grey in his hair and more hard lines in Tony's face; they were there, but there was also warmth, like when he and dad sat around the fire.
"It's... it's someone who you talk about the things that are going on in your life, and the things that went on in your life, and they help you put them into place. Your life growing up was hard, and I'm sure Steve did everything in his power to lessen that, but it sounds like... things didn't always work out on that front."
Ian thought about all of the things that had happened in his life, especially the recent ones: finding out Zola was his father, his sister's death, the slaughter of the Phrox, him turning on his father and almost killing him... even for Ian, it felt like too much, even compared to the hard life he and dad had led. "I don't think it could ever be better," Ian whispered, hugging his knees close. "I haven't even..."
It was silly. Dad had explained how on Earth they believed different things, many different things. Tony wouldn't understand anything about Adix and the Fields of Forever. Every time a clansman had died, he and dad had stood watch over their bones, and burnt a taper and raised their closed eyes to the sun.
"Even what?" Tony prompted.
"When a Phrox dies... their body is left to the sun, and to Adix, who guards the infinite of the Fields of Forever..." Ian looked back over at Tony feeling miserable. "Tens of thousands... I knew almost all of their names." He didn't know many of them as well as he would like, but he knew many of them, knew their mates and their children and their parents.
Tony didn't say anything for several moments, he seemed to be thinking, and Ian let him, because his own head was filled with images of the blood and the slaughter and the Captains of Zolandia dragging off the women in cages and as much as he wanted it to stop, it was also his burden.
"So what do you need to do?"
"Zola left their bodies in the sun." Ian knew his blood father had meant it as a disrespect, but the true disrespect was the bodies piled in the ground in a heap, never to be burned away in the sun. "I... I would light a taper and say a few words for them."
"Is the taper special?"
"It's made from the armor oil of a streamer monster and mixed with hard ground rock beetle shells to make them red as the sun, for Adix."
"Ah... red candles we can do, but they're made of bee spit and colored with... don't even know, might be beetles, red dye." Tony ruffled his hair again. "Do you need to do that? We can have a wake if that's what you need. I understand funerals."
"Dad said..." Ian looked down at his hands, bloody even if they looked clean, and then back up at Tony. "He said that humans don't worship Adix, that knowing her is for the Phrox, but he never taught me Earth customs."
"Well, your dad's Catholic, I'm... not, but I'm pretty sure if you wanted your Uncle Sam and maybe some of the Avengers could come. I can get candles, or Jarvis can. This is a thing I can make happen."
Ian tried to think of what it might be like, the Avengers there instead of dad and other Phrox, with the weight of the ceremonies falling on him. He would have to say something about each of them, however short... but it needed to be done. He was losing almost his entire family, and it was only right that he would say goodbye to them properly. "Can we? I think I would..." 'Like' seemed a poor word. "I think it needs to be done."
"Then we'll get it done, Ian."
It was one of those sorts of days that made not taking a drink a lot harder than usual.
He'd set Ian up in one of the many rooms that looked out onto the city - south facing, as Ian had asked to see the sun - with some candles and a few matches and a piece of red wood (at Ian's request) and the boy had gotten to work. The assembled Avengers (really just Thor, Tony, Sam, and Sharon with a few others filtering in and out only for a few minutes, mostly to gawk) serving more as an audience than active participants.
The entire thing was conducted in the Phrox language (helpfully called 'Phroxi' by Ian) and Thor provided a low, but near-constant, string of translations.
After an introductory invocation, it all became fairly rote: a name, a few words about them and how Ian knew them, and then a weird sort of benediction that didn't translate well for what were probably cultural reasons: 'for we never know when the sun will rise and burn away the night'. So Tony listened for what felt like hours - and probably had been - as Ian named the woman who made delicious pastries, the man who made Ian's fourth armor, the man who had taught Ian how to craft a knife from bone, the woman who had taken Ian and Steve in when they had first arrived at the Cavern.
Beside him, Thor tensed, and Tony sat up straighter, turning to his friend and frowning. "My sister, Jet Black Zola," Thor whispered, only just loud enough for all of them to hear. "Killed by my father in his rescue of me, who loved me as her brother despite our differences."
He found he wasn't the only one looking up, startled, Sam and Sharon also looked concerned. That... wasn't very Steve. Sure if he needed to kill someone as part of a mission, if there was nothing else that could be done, and they couldn't be captured, he was more than capable of killing, but...
"For we never know when the sun will rise and burn away the night." Ian leaned forward, licked his fingers, and then snuffed the candle (the sixth that Tony or Sam had replaced as Ian went through his farewells).
Tony finally gave into the urge to check the clock on his phone: almost six hours.
Ian was still kneeling, and at first Tony thought it was in some sort of silent prayer, but it soon became obvious that the kid was just crying. Tony stood, and walked over to where Ian was, and knelt down beside him, only to have two arms flung around him as he was practically tackled to the floor, a sobbing twelve year old in his arms.
Tony tried to think of Steve, what he would have said to comfort his son. Maybe Steve wouldn't have let his kid preside over an hours-long funeral in the first place. "You did great," Tony said. "Very... respectful."
Ian snorted. "You're a shitty comforter."
"Hey, I'm giving myself at least points for effort here." Tony pulled them both up, helping Ian to his feet as he hobbled, most of his weight falling on Tony again as legs must have protested from too much disuse. "So what do we do now?"
Ian shrugged. "It's not supposed to take that long. It's... it's done." After a few moments, Ian's stomach growled.
"That we can fix." Tony patted his back. "Come on, food. I bet Jarvis made something awesome for dinner."
The the other three joined Tony by Ian, Sharon still conspicuously farther away, but Tony really couldn't blame her.
"It is always difficult to bid goodbye to a warrior you have fought against, or one who gave you aide." Thor put a hand on Ian's shoulder as well. "But you have done well by them, young Ian Rogers, and although I do not know of your Adix personally, I believe she was well-treated by your words, as were your friends."
"Thank you," Ian answered, and then he looked over to Sam and Sharon. "Are you going to join us?"
Tony watched a complicated look pass between Sharon and Sam, but eventually they seemed to agree that dinner would be acceptable, and the five of them headed down to the common kitchen where Jarvis had, as expected, made fucking delicious stew, and bread.
"So, Ian," Sam looked up from where he was carefully spooning stew onto a slice of bread. "Did Tony talk to you about maybe seeing a counselor?"
"Uh huh." Ian seemed, if not better, at least a bit more chipper. Obviously no matter the pain the funeral had caused, it was something that had been weighing on Ian when it was undone. "Do I have to?"
"I think it's a good idea," Tony said.
Sam continued: "Your father saw a counselor after he came from the past. That, and getting back to work, was what helped him get back on his feet."
"Do I get to work?" Ian asked. "I have dad's shield. I'm a strong warrior, I can fight."
Tony felt something in his chest twist, and he looked over to where Ian was looking at him, eyes slightly watery, begging. Tony sighed, and glanced over to where Sam's face screamed that he thought it was a horrible idea. "There are training programs," Tony hedged, finally. "It's for younger would-be heroes who eventually end up on teams around the country if they are suitable. Your job, though, the job your dad would want you to have, is making sure you have as normal a life as possible, go to school, make friends, eat crappy food and make poor life decisions, be a teenager."
Sam gave him an approving nod, and had a set to his jaw that said he was both surprised and impressed by the answer.
"And go to counseling," Ian said, sounding morose. "Are you sure that's what dad wants?"
"You said it yourself, your father wanted you to make it home, to have a life away from Dimension Z. The message he left in his card said the same thing. He wanted the Avengers to look after you." Tony wasn't much for convincing people to do the right thing, but he'd heard that the responsibility of a parent was to make sure you kid did alright, or something, and in this case it was pretty clear the kid needed some serious help that Tony knew he wasn't prepared to give. "This is part of that."
Ian sighed, every inch the stereotypical teenager. "Alright, I'll go to a counselor... if you tell me more about you trying to find out what happened to dad. He's my dad, I deserve to know."
Tony couldn't deny that. He and Sharon and Sam hadn't exactly been meeting on the downlow, but they certainly hadn't been advertising to Ian that the were working and investigating more. Sharon glanced to Tony, face saying she'd rather sandpaper her nose off. Sam looked ambivalent. Tony debated the merits of caving on the issue versus saying 'I'm the grownup here' and just sticking the kid on the couch himself. "Fine. We'll run a brief after dinner."
He and Sharon and Sam headed to one of the smaller briefing rooms after dinner, Ian sitting, attentive, as they ran through the briefs. There still wasn't much. Tony showed the half-dozen faces that had pinged from his and Ian's trip out of the Tower and around parts of Manhattan. "These four are AIM."
Sam and Sharon nodded.
"What are they aiming at?"
"No, AIM. A. I. M. Advanced Idea Mechanics... they're basically a mixed scientific think-tank slash international terrorist organization. They invent bad things and then sell them semi-legally while doing other horrible things." Tony considered how much he should say. "We have to consider the reasons why any of the groups might be interested in you, or willing to work for Zola to get to Steve. AIM likes to play with biological crap, and they make an attempt to engineer the Serum every few years at least. If they know you're Steve's they might be interested in seeing if the Serum stuck to you upon conception."
"Did it?" Ian asked, and he looked wary for a second. Steve probably couldn't have checked, it wasn't as though he carried around SSS test kits for no reason.
"Yes," Tony answered. "We... ah... that is S.H.I.E.L.D. and a few agencies had always hypothesized that if your father had a child it would be enhanced but..."
Tony looked towards Sharon. He didn't remember the full story, not intimately, but he'd read his own reports - encrypted with his own codes - that he had written a few years ago when he was Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., he knew she had been pregnant with Steve's child, he knew she'd lost that child and the... product had been in the hands of Zola after that. He waited for Sharon to say more, to continue the briefing, because he wasn't going to drop that bombshell again.
Sharon didn't, though, just set her jaw, and made it clear that Tony should continue without that. "We have three who have minor criminal records, nothing that would suggest they'd hook up with Zola, though. And... well..." Tony brought up the last hit.
"She looks familiar," Sharon said, frowning.
"Melody Brooks," Tony shrugged. "She's former S.H.I.E.L.D., on the tech side, Masters in Computational Math and hacker wizardry. She used to have a nerd herd before she resigned to go to work making fabulous amounts of money as a contractor with an SCI and a tech brain."
"People leave S.H.I.E.L.D. all the time," Sam said. "Is there a reason she's more of interest than someone else."
"She's in my little black book."
Ian looked over at him, brow crinkled. "Is that a book where you keep super villains?"
Sam snorted, and buried his head in his hand before he started to laugh.
"It means she and I used to date." Tony belatedly remembered that Ian really did have a limited vocabulary on that front. "We were mates."
"Where Stark is concerned, they're occasionally one in the same," Sharon said, finally deciding to contribute in the form of making fun of his love-life, of course.
"You mate with super villains?" Ian asked, confused.
"Only... once... or twice..." He tried to decide where Maya Hansen fell on the scale, she did create a virus capable of causing an extinction-level event, and tried to kill him, but it really was with the best of intentions. "I'm pretty sure Mel wasn't a super villain. We broke up before I started dating Maya, she resigned soon after. My records say I wrote her a recommendation which no I don't do for everyone I sleep with thank you for the look, Carter."
Sharon held up her hands in mock surrender and Tony sighed. "But, I have no idea why she might have been following us. She still lives and works in New York, but we intentionally hit several different spots to try to isolate people who followed us from location to location. That also doesn't say anything about about people with no records or known terrorist inclinations."
"Maybe call her up?" Sam suggested. "Chat her up, take her out. You can at least rule her out as a potential suspect."
Of all of the things Tony really didn't much care to do, calling up a woman who he hadn't seen in years, and didn't even remember when he used to be with her, to try to find out if she wanted to kidnap his friend's kid, was probably high on the list. Still, he supposed they wouldn't expect it to be some great hardship, take her out, buy her a few drinks, take her home if she looked interested, and have a bit of post-coital pillow talk. Be Tony Stark.
Tony shrugged. "Fine. What else do we have?"
"S.H.I.E.L.D.'s releasing one of the minions from the original train station arrest," Sharon offered.
"And neither of you are on the team to tail him, because you're on suspension and Sam is..."
"On de facto suspension because they're concerned about Carter," Sam answered.
"Alright, tomorrow, then? Twin missions." Tony sighed and then looked down at Ian. "And you, Mister, are going to need a sitter, and there is no way in hell I'm letting Sam or Bobby anywhere near you."
"Can I play knife throwing with Natasha?"
Tony was trying to decide if that was bizarre or normal. "Sure."
"And hot chocolate."
"Now you're just trying to get one over on me. Don't think I don't know that tactic." Tony ruffled Ian's hair a bit, though. "Jarvis is a pushover, just pout at him."
The mystery of Sharon lingered. Ian wasn't used to something like this. Most all of the Phrox liked and cared for him, and the ones that didn't he would challenge to some sort of feat of strength or courage and even if he failed would at least prove his worth. He understood why Sharon didn't like him, at least a bit, but he couldn't get Tony to say more, and he couldn't fix the problem without revealing the secret that would destroy everything.
"Um, Uncle Sam?" Ian came up to the black man. Dad had told him about the Falcon many times, and he felt that he knew him, and Tony spoke highly of him. He seemed to be the best chance of getting to the bottom of how to handle the issue.
Sam glanced over at Tony, and arched an eyebrow. "Really, Stark?"
"What? Captain America's kid needs an Uncle Sam, and Cannonball was right out." Tony shrugged.
"Could I talk to you?" Ian asked, ignoring the bickering between Sam and Tony.
Sharon and Tony cleared out after that, leaving him and Sam in the briefing room. Ian hopped up on the table to make them closer to a height. "What's up?" Sam asked. He stood a few feet from Ian, relaxed, a comforting sort of smile on his face.
"I understand that Sharon does not like me," Ian said. "It makes sense, even though Phrox of high status can have several mates. But... is there anything I can do? I don't want Sharon to be mad at dad. He deserves a nice mate after... sacrificing so much for me."
Sam crossed his arms, and looked like he was thinking what to say. "I don't--" After a few moments he joined Ian, sitting next to him on the table. "We've got a saying, here on Earth: 'Time heals all wounds', and I think that's what you're going to have to go with. You get why she's upset, and I think Sharon-- I know Sharon understands that your dad was gone for a long time. I think she's more upset about other things."
"What other things?" Dad liked to say shit like that, where he hedged and talked around things. For the longest time, dad had said that he found Ian in 'a bad situation and got him out' when talking about how he'd come to live with dad. Apparently Sam talked the same way.
"It's personal, it's something Sharon should tell you herself."
"You want me to ask Sharon why she hates me? Sounds like a bang up plan, Chief." Ian gave Sam an unimpressed look.
Sam blinked, and then tilted his head back and laughed. "Oh... man..." After a moment, he wiped the beginning of a tear away from the corner of his eye. Sam sighed, though... "I guess... your dad would have told you, I think. If he thought you were old enough."
Would have. "Well, I suppose he would, when he wakes up, but he's not, and Doctor Banner is working on it but Tony said it could be weeks, so... I guess you should fulfill my dad's wishes in the meantime."
"Are you sure you're related to Steve?" Sam said.
His voice said it was a joke, but Ian blanched, looking up at Sam and trying to figure out if he knew, if he had guessed. "Dad is my dad."
"Right, sorry... you seemed to have sarcasm down pretty well." Sam turned and looked forward, showing Ian the side of his face, and his clenched jaw. "Your dad and Sharon, a couple years ago, they had a baby."
"Dad didn't say." Ian wondered what the baby would be like. Maybe dad hadn't wanted to talk about it, thinking about how he was missing his blood child growing up. He wondered if dad would abandon Ian now, because his real kid was here.
"He probably wouldn't have. Sharon... she got pregnant and... she lost the baby, a little girl, before she was even born." Sam rubbed his hands over his knees, thinking. "It's not just that your dad was with someone else. It's that he was with someone else, and had a baby. Sharon-- we didn't talk about it much, not until after she'd lost the baby, but she's never been very maternal. Your dad and her both always focused on work, and when it came to talking about kids, it was almost always on your dad's end. So... your dad shows up, with a surprise kid, not with Sharon... after she lost her own child. It's a lot for anyone to take in."
"I'm sorry she lost her baby," Ian said. "I... I know dad wanted me, but..." Ian didn't think his mother had wanted him. As much as Zola had talked about how his mother had wanted to name him Leopold, the chest Zola in dad had said that Zola hadn't given her any choice.
"Your mother?" Sam asked, guessing, or understanding, the way Ian's thoughts were going at least a little bit.
"I know mom didn't want babies with Zola," Ian said, finally. "She... she tried to run away from him and he stopped her. Zola... he taunted me with that." Sam didn't have to know that that meant Ian knew that his mother hadn't wanted him, that it didn't matter if maybe mom would have wanted a baby with dad, because he wasn't really dad's, not by blood.
"To be honest, I think that's part of what has Sharon wound up, too. When she was pregnant with your sister, Zola... did experiments on her. Tony said that Zola did the same to your mother."
Ian looked up at Sam, eyes wide, and he realized even more why he must have been so horrible to Sharon. Ian was... everything Sharon must hate. His father was a monster, and yet her mate loved and cared for that monster's son...
"I..." Ian covered his mouth, trying to fight down the twist of nausea. It took several seconds, but he fought it back and down. "I understand."
"I know it's hard," Sam said, and now he put an arm over Ian's shoulder. "Your dad's usually about facing problems and fears head on. I wouldn't really want to dump that on a kid your age, but... your father would think you deserved to know. But all of this is why you're going to see that counselor in two days. He specializes in kids like you."
"Kids who grew up in parallel dimensions for twelve years and then come to America and think it's really weird and grow up in a tower full of Avengers?" Ian asked, shoving away the sadness and replacing it with something light.
Sam smiled. "Kids who've grown up fighting, they sometimes have a hard time getting used to a world where every day isn't a battle for survival. You're settling in well, but... sometimes it takes a little while for things to sink in."
Ian nodded. More and more, Ian was realizing that he did think he needed to talk about things, but at the same time, he could imagine really telling anyone about Zola being his blood father. Maybe he cold talk around it, somehow. "Tony said he would be there."
"I will too, if you need."
"Yes." He definitely did.
Ian spent the next day bouncing between several of the Avengers. He started the day with Tony, who shoved him into a thin, yet flexible armor like dad's, before eventually sending him on his way. He then got to do some hand-to-hand training with Carol, and he ate his very first hot dog - which was delicious - before he finally set up in Tony's workshop with a piece of wood (called cherry) and a pencil so he could sketch out a picture and do some art later.
"Time to pack up, kiddo," Tony said, closing down a lot of the things he was working on. "I've got to get ready for Melody. In to the lion's den, so to speak..." Tony sighed and ran his fingers through his hair, while Ian put away his things. "How'd the armor hold up against Carol?"
"Captain Marvel hits hard," Ian complained, but he stretched, showing Tony the way the armor was fitted perfectly to his frame.
"And if your dad gets upset with me for giving you that, just remind him that I could have bought you a Porsche."
"What's a Porsche?" He tucked his work under his arm and went out of the room with Tony.
"It's a very fast car, that you can lust over and your father will be worried, because you're his baby and he doesn't want you driving around in an expensive car picking up women... or men, you know, whatever." Tony shrugged, and the two of them headed up.
"Do you think Melody is dangerous?" Ian asked, as they made it to the common floor where Tony looked set to deposit him.
"Look, no matter what Sharon and Sam say, I haven't dated a super villain in years."
That didn't make Ian feel any better when Tony left the Tower dressed in a neat suit, while Sharon and Sam left looking set for battle. Tony didn't even bring the briefcase that held one of his backup Iron Man suits.
Ian had spent every moment since he left worried that Tony was going to get jumped by horrible villains and left broken and beaten while he couldn't reach the Avengers.
He tried not to let it get to him, he tried to relax, tried to not imagine all of the horrible things that his father had told him happened to the Avengers happening to Tony.
Jarvis fed him a nice meal - cow steak and a baked potato with a salad - and Ian tried to focus on his Aimee lessons, and not think about horrible things happening to Tony, but instead he just gave up on it and went to Tony's room. He supposed it was also his; Tony had set him up with a bedroom off to the side, but he still preferred the fire in the main room.
He had Aimee read to him from a book while curled up next to the fire. Clint had told him to read Harry Potter, and he'd said it was a true story, which had Jarvis making an exceptionally serious face at Clint and then he'd hastily admitted that it wasn't true at all.
It was about a kid with dead parents and a lot of crappy stuff happened to him. Ian didn't know if he liked it. It was something to do, though, and it kept him from fretting constantly, even if he did ask Aimee if there had been any awful news about Tony every chapter or so.
Late, sometime around 11, the door opened and Ian glanced up from the couch where Tony was scrambling against the door, pressed there by a woman who was... smaller than him, but clearly had the upper hand. It wasn't any sort of hand to hand Ian recognized, but she had her hands on his chest, grabbing his shirt and pushing Tony hard against the door.
Ian wasn't quite certain what was going on, but if the groan that forced out of Tony was any indication, things were not going well. "HEY!" He shouted, scrambling over the back of the couch and falling into a fighting stance.
The woman startled, and pulled away from Tony, eyes wide. And a moment later she was embarrassed, with a light dusting of pink spreading over her cheeks.
Tony scrambled away from the door, head moving quickly between the woman and Ian. "Oh, for the love of..." Tony pressed the heel of his hand into his forehead, and then rubbed it into his eye.
That was the moment that Ian realized he had... misjudged the circumstance quite a bit. Apparently Tony's mission was some sort of mating thing, Tony was not under attack, that was... well... Ian blushed. "You're fine... I... I should go..."
He picked up Aimee and started to walk to the door, only to have Tony reach out before he got there and put a hand on his shoulder. "Hey, you alright?"
Tony seemed slightly off, just a bit, but when his focus was finally all on Ian he was focused. Ian felt silly for being concerned now, though... Tony had just been away with a girl.
"I was just worried since you were out without the suitcase," Ian admitted. It sounded really dumb now that he said it, like he thought Tony couldn't take care of himself even though he was an adult and ran the Avengers.
"Ah." Tony looked over his shoulder, towards the girl, and then back to Ian. He watched Tony's brow crinkle, and his eyes close for a moment. Ian thought he might be silently weighing something over, or making a decision. "Let me just... We'll spend some time, alright? Go on, sit on the couch."
Ian frowned. He hugged Aimee to his chest and walked slowly back to the couch, half an ear on Tony's conversation with the girl.
"Mel, I'm sorry, it's just... Ian's still sort of finding his feet here and--"
"I thought you said he wasn't yours," Mel said, with a certain amount of accusation that Ian didn't understand.
"Well, that doesn't mean he's not my responsibility at the moment." Tony put a hand on her shoulder, and ran it up and down the top of her arm. Ian could see the soft smile there, and he felt bad again. Tony seemed to like her, and be happy with her, and Ian had ruined that.
Mel didn't answer for a moment, but she finally did smile. "You know, it's sweet. You really would make an excellent father, Tony." And then she leaned in and kissed his cheek. "Keep in touch."
"Yeah." The girl left, and Tony closed the door behind her, before falling back against the door and covering his face in his hands. After a second he scrubbed them there, before he looked over to Ian and let out a long sigh.
"I can go," Ian offered, sitting up on the back of the couch and looking over it. "You can call her back and mate? It's ok. I'm not sad. I was just worried because you said it was a mission and you didn't take your armor."
"Nah," Tony said, yanking at the tie around his neck to loosen it before he started to work on the buttons and headed to his room. "I suddenly remember why I broke up with Mel in the first place."
"Did you forget?" Ian said. He had to yell because of the distance, but he was pretty sure Tony heard.
Ian went into the kitchen and levered up onto the counter to pull down two glasses. Tony would want some water, or a fuzzy water, or something. Ian was still skeptical about making coffee, and Tony didn't usually drink it at night anyway. When he came back, two full glasses in hand, Tony was back in the living room, on the couch, dressed in more relaxed clothes.
"See..." Tony took the offered glass and then frowned. "She's interested in marriage, kids, settling down, that sort of thing."
"But you do want a mate?"
"Sure, but for a lot of women - probably men too, but less men need to make the argument - mating, getting married, settling down, that means... giving up everything else. If I were still CEO of Stark Resilient, and that was all I did, run a company that made billions in the tech industry, that would be fine, wife, babies - not that I really think I'd be much as a father - but I'm also Iron Man, also an Avenger."
Ian nodded, not quite seeing the point, but obviously Tony had one, he had clearly thought about this a lot. Sometimes when Ian asked questions, Tony had to think about it for a long time, but instead he'd had the thoughts on the tip of his tongue.
"For a lot of people, being married means giving up the superheroing. Hell, Luke and Jessica stepped down a lot after Dani was born, and they're both superheroes. They don't want the person they love, the person they're mated with, running around risking their life on a near-daily basis." Tony finally took a sip of the water and then put it on the table. "There are probably people who wouldn't make me chose, but Mel was not one of them. It was a problem for us years ago, and I was out in the field less then. Of course, I don't realize this until I get to the date and she's wondering if the call was because I was stepping down on the Avengers and I don't even remember the damn relationship."
He still didn't quite understand, but Tony had obviously thought that was a good explanation. "In the Cavern, there wasn't such a thing as a mate who wasn't risking his life. Some of the males were fishers instead of hunters, but that was because they were older or infirm and couldn't hunt anymore."
"Here it's only one in tens of thousands that risk their lives the way the Avengers do, less than that, probably." Tony draped an arm over Ian's shoulder and wiggled down into the cushions, and Ian scooted over to join him. "And, between you, me, and Aimee... I wasn't that into her. I was mostly talking her home because we were trying to get information out of her."
"So you didn't find anything because I interrupted?" Ian asked, feeling even worse.
"I don't think there was anything to find." Tony ruffled his hair. "Don't worry about it. Now, why don't you wash up and I'll read you a chapter of something and we can wait until Sharon and Sam get back?"
He couldn't scream, he couldn't let himself show that weakness to Zola, not to that disgusting man.
His eyes flew open, and he found he was screaming, his nails digging into Tony's arms as the man held him down. "Ian! Ian!"
A slow breath in brought him clarity, the room smelled of sleep and blankets, and a whiff of Tony's cologne and metal that permeated every corner of the Tower that Tony called his own. A moment later he realized Tony was bleeding from where Ian had scratched him, and he let go. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry Tony, I didn't mean..."
"Shhhhhh." Tony pulled him in for a hug, and Ian wrapped his arms around Tony without a second thought. "It's alright. I've got you."
Ian hiccuped into his shoulder. "I'm sorry."
"Still alright," Tony said.
"There was so much blood," Ian whispered. "And I thought Zola had killed dad, and he murdered Sabul right in front of me..."
Tony clung even harder, and Ian didn't even realize his fingers were dug into Tony's back for several seconds, and then he let go, pushing himself away and wiping away tears with the back of his hand. "It's been almost a week," Ian said, looking down at his hands to find his nails were tipped with little bits of blood. "I should be over it."
"No." Tony leaned back, sitting. Ian realized they were on Tony's bed, and he could see where he'd been, sheets and blanket tangled up, and where Tony had been, on the other side of the bed. "Look, people died. It's ok to not be alright with it. It's important that you're not alright with that. A week, shit, Ian. Come here."
Ian found himself tugged up, so the two of them were seated with the wall to their backs. Tony even picked up a corner of the sheet and used it to wipe away the blood under Ian's fingernails.
"I know you... grew up in a place that almost no one here could even imagine, but it's alright to be horrified about what Zola did to your family."
Tony couldn't know the sort of horror his words put in Ian's stomach. Zola, his family, his blood, had murdered the only family he had truly known. During the battle at the Cavern, he'd truly thought that his father was dead and Zola had killed him. "The Phrox took me and dad in, they were brave and kind. They died for their homes, and me and dad... I hate Zola for what he did... but..."
Ian glanced up at Tony, and saw confused blue eyes looking down at him. "But?"
"Dad... when we were fighting, he saved Jet, my sister, and she was nice to me, because we were brother and sister." Ian looked down at his hands, no longer bloody, but Tony's sheets had little streaks of blood on them now. "It makes me wonder if Jet was bad because of her blood, if something like that is in me too."
Tony thought for a moment, and then he pinched a bit of Ian's hair in his fingers and ran in there, almost experimentally. "No. There's no such thing as bad blood, not like that. You know Jessica, Spider-Woman, her dad and mom worked for HYDRA, the bad guys your dad fought during the War, but she saves the world with us now. You don't need to worry about that."
"Because dad's my dad?" Ian asked, feeling morose.
"Because you were raised by the best man I know," Tony said, and he gave Ian's hair a final little tweak, before he pulled his hand away. "Genetics isn't fate. Now, I'm going to rinse off. Are you going to be alright for a few minutes?"
Ian nodded. "Then breakfast?"
"Yeah. Then counseling."
Right... Ian sighed.
They didn't have to wait long, at least. Sam had gotten them an early morning appointment and Tony wouldn't even have to miss the morning meetings with Resilient in Oklahoma (no matter how much he sort of wished he could have).
"Ian?" A young man, maybe late twenties, early thirties, black, and fairly good looking, stood in the doorway.
Ian glanced up, and gave the counselor a small smile.
"I'm Mike. Sam's told me a lot about you."
"It's nice to meet you."
Introductions were made, and after a brief back and forth, Tony and Sam joined Ian in the fairly innocuous room in back where Ian carefully sat down and folded his hands in his lap.
"So, today we're just going to get to know each other a little better, and talk about what you hope to accomplish. Do you know why you're here?"
Ian glanced over to Tony, and then Sam - they were flanking him on the couch - and then back to Mike. "Because I grew up in Dimension Z, and Dimension Z is different from Earth with different rules, so I need to get used to Earth."
Mike nodded. "Well, I specialize in children who grow up in environments where they are forced to fight, who later leave and come somewhere, like America."
Ian cocked his head just slightly to one side, very reminiscent of Steve, before he nodded. "I had to fight. There were always mutate patrols, and we had to eat."
"Your circumstances are... unusual, but there are similarities to other children I've worked with."
Ian looked down at his hands. "So... what do I do?"
"Why don't you start by telling me a bit about yourself, where you're from... just anything that comes to mind."
Tony tried to pay attention, he really did, but there was only so many times he could sit through the same rundown. It was similar to what he'd gotten with Sam before, the time in the wilderness that Ian didn't remember, being raise among the Phrox, living, learning, growing up, hunting, fighting...
But Tony's mind was distracted, mostly by Ian's hair. He knew it was an odd thing to be distracted by now, but early that morning something had clicked in a sleep-hazed fog that hadn't in the cold light of day. Although Ian never called Steve anything but his father, he was never comforted by the idea that he was not bad because of that. The idea that he didn't share the same genetics with Jet or Zola didn't comfort him... which brought a tantalizing conclusion.
Ian had the Super Soldier Serum, though, the test for that was quick, and conclusive. They had run other tests, of course, nutrition, others, and nothing particularly interesting had cropped up. Tony hadn't bothered to think about any sort of genetic testing, the kid showed up and Steve had called him 'son', end of story...
But now he was wondering if it wasn't. And Zola... he was fucked in the head, but would he really take so much joy in breaking Steve's son, or was it something else?
He was certain something back in the lab could confirm it, there were a few ways, even without running a full genetic screening.
"Have you gotten to know anyone here?" Mike asked.
Tony finally got pulled out of his thoughts, and saw where Ian was looking over at Mike. "I met Tony, and Uncle Sam, Clint... and I have Aimee."
"My StarkPad has a lady in it, she answers my questions."
Yup, the therapist now thought he was delusional. "It's an adaptive AI, I designed it to learn and teach."
"Any friends your own age?" Mike asked, clearly getting to the heart of his issue.
"Um... Tony says we're having the Young Avengers over to the Mansion for a bar-b-que this weekend? It's... um..." Ian glanced over at Tony and made the universal face of 'help, what do I say?'
"An impromptu team building exercise." Really it was just a blatant excuse to get Ian around some kids who were even close to his own age, even if they were older teens, Ian had a certain sort of maturity that came from having a horrible upbringing in a post-apocalyptic waste.
Tony found himself on the receiving end of a tightly squeezed hand, Ian clinging for dear life, and Tony immediately recognized the signs of an impending... whatever you would call it, panic attack, freak out... the remnants of the last one still stung his shoulders and his back.
"Hey," Tony said, and he reached out, a hand on Ian's opposite shoulder.
Fingers dug into his neatly tailored suit jacket, crumpling it, as Ian took a few moments to hide his face there, Tony's fingers went up to massage the back of his neck. "I should have..."
Tony knew how that sentence ended 'I should have saved them' 'I should have died fighting', and he knew how much that sentence hurt. When Tony glanced over, Mike was watching, carefully. He knew, Tony and Sam had both reiterated, before setting up the meet, what had happened to Ian, but he also knew that Mike wanted to hear it from Ian.
A deep, shuddering breath, and a soft push was the cue Tony needed to let go and return to rubbing slow circles over the kid's back. Tony listened as Ian, once again, carefully explained what must have been the most terrifying thing in a string of terrifying things in the young kid's life.
Turning around to help his family, gunning through dozens - if not hundreds - of the enemy, going hand to hand with a gamma irradiated clone of his father, and then watching as Zola appeared to murder his father before his eyes, being forced to watch through Zola's slaughter of every man left standing, the kidnapping of the women and children for experiments. It made Tony nauseous every time, and if Tony's supposition was correct... he understood why it might make Ian feel worse than he already did.
Ian got cried out somewhere in the middle, Tony noticed, the tears no longer falling, just dry streaks down his cheeks, and the hiccuping sobs had turned into stuttering breaths. Towards the end, after explaining him snapping back out from Zola's brainwashing, he finally closed his eyes.
"I could really use a drink."
Tony gaped, and his mind screamed 'NO!' very loudly, before he realized-- "Water! Shit, um... yeah..." He was also trying to ignore the part of his brain that was telling him he needed a drink, not of the water variety.
Sam took up the charge of helping Ian to his feet, and showing him the way to the water cooler and the bathroom, and Tony found himself in a slightly familiar place: a therapists couch with his head in his hands, taking his own deep breaths.
"Are you alright, Mr. Stark?" Mike asked, not unkindly.
"You're getting paid for the kid, not me," Tony answered, too harshly, before he raked his own fingers through his hair and looked over to where Mike was obviously not taking the outburst personally.
He checked over his shoulder, the door was closed, Ian would probably be hiding for a few more minutes at least. "It's just... Steve's always been my rudder, and now I'm supposed to help guide his kid, if only for a few weeks? I am messed up, ask anyone, and he's leaning on me?"
"You lead the Avengers," Mike reminded him. "And... to be more personal, alcoholics help other alcoholics through their recovery all the time."
Tony closed his eyes for a moment, he was currently sober long enough that he didn't need to cling to the chip for dear life, but he had his 18 month coin in his sock drawer. Mike wasn't wrong, Henry had been a great help when Tony had finally decided to get sober. "He wakes up at night, screaming, almost every night. I remember that from just after I got home from Afghanistan."
He hadn't had anyone then, no girlfriend... no one. He couldn't have trusted them with his secret, and to be fair he hadn't quite known what to do with himself when he couldn't take someone home and connect like that, if only for a few hours...
"I'm going to want to continue with him, as often as possible. Narrative therapy and journaling are the best we have for these sorts of kids."
"He can't write," Tony said, almost a whisper. "I mean, he's just learning his alphabet. He obviously has a great vocabulary, Steve didn't skimp on that, and he's actually bilingual, English and Phroxi, but... I could set up Aimee to do that, if it's best to be private."
"That will help." Mike looked over at him. "Ian's very lucky to have the sort of support network the Avengers can offer."
Tony knew that having the sort of money to throw at this - tutors, counselors, anything Ian needed - was going to help, but that didn't help when Ian was crying at two in the morning and Tony was feeling so damn helpless... Honestly, Tony just wanted Steve to wake up.
Ian finally came back, face washed of the worst of the tears and redness, two small paper cups of water in both hands. Wordlessly, he sat down next to Tony and offered one.
Tony took it, and then a little sip. "Thanks, buddy."
Thankfully for Tony and Ian's sanity, it seemed they were done for the day. Mike explained a bit of what he hoped for the future, and Tony and Sam walked a fairly subdued Ian down to the car before all sliding into the back seat.
"Well that sucked," Ian said, finally giving voice to what must have been a lot of distress. "I have to do that again next week?"
Sam sighed in exasperation at Tony, and rolled his eyes. "I know it's painful now, Ian, but as time goes on... it's going to help you put things into place. I know you probably don't like it, or want to, but your dad spent a lot of time in therapy when he first came here, too."
Ian nodded, and looked out the window as Manhattan went by outside. "I just want dad to wake up..."
Tony reached out and ruffled his hair. "We all do. Doctor Banner is working on it, he says some antigens are showing promise, but that it's not going to be his impossible invention for the week."
When they got home, Sam took Ian and they headed up to spend some time with Steve while Tony pulled up the blood work that he and Don had had done on Ian.
Blah blah normal, blah blah low vitamins, blah blah nutrition. Tony skimmed it all, before finally landing on a piece of information that he hadn't really thought much of before. Blood type: O-.
It wasn't like that was unusual, well O- wasn't exactly the most common blood type by any means, but Steve, Steve, his blood type was A+. That wasn't unusual, AO could yield an O for the kid, but Steve's blood was AA not AO. Tony knew this because there was a single paper that was done some time back in the 70s that hypothesized that the AA was responsible for the Serum success.
So there it was: O. There was no way Steve was Ian's biological father. Steve might even have known... hell, Ian had said it himself: Zola had been whispering in his mind for twelve years. What the hell did Tony think he said, if not taunt Steve that the kid wasn't his?
Ian knew. Zola might have dropped the news on the kid himself when he'd captured him... dark hair, dark eyes, looked almost nothing like Steve... it was easy to say that maybe Ian took after his mother, but...
Tony mulled over the information. Had Steve kidnapped Ian? Even the name had obviously come from Steve, named after his grandfather... Had Steve done it out of some love for Ian's mother? Had they been together at all, or not? Why would Steve have done that?
Tony sighed. Why did Steve do anything? Because he believed it was right. Raising a kid, himself, out in the wilderness, was a better life than what Zola would have given him...
"Damn it, Steve..."
Suddenly Tony was very glad that whatever had happened had taken place far away from the Avenger's jurisdiction.
No matter what Ian knew, it was clear that he wanted Steve to be his father - who wouldn't - but he was the genetically engineered child of a biofanatic. It was a wonder the kid couldn't shoot lasers from his eyeballs.
He tried to psych himself up a little bit... Ian was still counting on him, and Steve was still counting on him, and he couldn't afford something like knowing the kid wasn't biologically Steve's get in the way of taking care of the kid. Steve had managed it for twelve years.
"Hey, Tony?" Ian poked his head in, apparently summoned by thought. "I... um... wanna get a pizza?"
"Yeah." It was out of his mouth before he'd even thought better of it, he wanted pizza, and the kid wanted pizza. "Are we dragging along anyone else?"
Ian shrugged. "Uncle Sam left."
"Let me shut this down." He tucked away all of the materials he'd been working on, and he hoped that no one else would realize. To be fair, it wasn't an unusual configuration... and very few people even knew Steve shouldn't have been able to have a kid with no A allele. "So what's with the sudden desire for starchy cheese and tomato sauce?"
"Do I need a reason?" Ian shot back.
Tony smiled, no, he supposed he didn't. "Well, come on. You and Sam have a good talk?"
Ian hmmed. "Just stuff about dad... it's... weird."
"I've known dad my whole life, and you and Sam and everyone have known dad for so long... but it's like we know two separate people sometimes."
Tony knew what Ian meant. "But you also know the same Steve. All those things he taught you? That's all Steve. You're a lot like him."
Ian looked up, startled, and Tony saw the beginnings of tears again, and he wished he didn't know, so he didn't feel so manipulative when he said something he honestly believed.
"You want to do the right thing, you want to fight for the little guy, for your friends and family. You care a hell of a lot, for everyone, and that's something about your dad that's always made me proud to call him my friend." Tony put a hand square on Ian's back, and they headed into one of the elevators. Ian jammed the first floor button.
"Dad says I'm hot-headed and brash..."
Somehow Tony doubted that had been a criticism from Steve, but it had obviously taken on that tone since then. "Well, we're never exactly like our fathers, sometimes we're very different."
Tony was never going out for pizza again, ever. They were actually in a reasonable pizza restaurant, you know, one that let him have crazy spinach pizza if he wanted, but it was hard to avoid the fact that almost everyone was staring at them. Ian took it in stride; apparently assuming it was normal, but although Tony tried to appear casual, it was difficult to enjoy the pizza with his hackles up.
"Pizza doesn't really strike me as the post-apocalyptic wasteland refugee's meal of choice," Tony said, as Ian slowly worked his way through a personal Hawaiian pizza.
Ian looked down at the pizza, and poked the crust a little bit, before he scooted closer to Tony on the bench. Tony accepted the plaintive cry for physical touch for what it was, and draped an arm over his shoulder, no doubt added more grist to the rumor mill. "It's just... Earth. We didn't farm grains, we kept no mammals for dairy, no meats were as good as the ham, and I have never had a fruit, especially not a piney apple."
"Pineapple," Tony corrected, involuntarily.
"Eggs, fishes, steaks, even the chicken, all taste like home. Pizza is Earth."
Tony remembered how much he'd clung to familiar foods, familiar places, just after getting back from Afghanistan, but for Ian it came with a rejection of where he was from that Tony worried about. He didn't even know if he should be, though. "Welcome to Earth."
"Dad said he wanted me to see Earth as my home, even though I am from another place. I-- I always got mad when he said it before." Ian closed his eyes, maybe pushing down memories of a hard, painful fight. "Dad raised me on Avenger stories but..."
Ian didn't continue.
"But?" Tony prompted.
"It's still not family, not home."
"Hey, I'm a little offended here, kiddo," Tony said, and he ruffled Ian's hair as well, trying to make it clear he was joking. "Sam, me, Carol, a lot of other Avengers, we all love your dad, we love his kid, and I know we're not the people who raised you - to be honest you're probably better off for that - but if you think any of us don't think that you're home, you're wrong. I know you miss it, I know you'll never forget where you came from, you can hold onto that forever, but we also care about you here."
That was, of course, when Tony remembered, yet again, the working theory that Ian knew that Steve was not his father. Declarations that they loved Steve's kid wouldn't exactly help. He was just at a loss as to how to get to that without it being horribly fake.
"And that Tower, you know, the huge one with my name on it? That's your home for as long as you want it, no matter what." Tony frowned for a second. "Your father asked the Avengers to look after you. I've... failed your father more than once or twice, but on this I absolutely won't, because he asked."
Ian looked thoughtful, and then he nodded. "Alright. I... can you have two homes?"
"I have seven."
"I'll try to remember that."
They finally finished up, and Ian seemed a little more settled. The two of them exited, and Tony eyed the few blocks to the Tower before giving it a nod and cocking his head. Ian was too used to traveling long distances on foot to enjoy a few blocks in a cab.
"You know, you're doing well, no matter what it feels like. You've been here a week. Give yourself a break."
Tony walked down the street, arm looped over Ian's shoulder. Ian, as always took in the sights, things were always new and exciting to him. A few moments in, Ian tensed. "Something's..."
The attack came out of nowhere, Tony felt it only as a hard kick to his spine, toppling him immediately and sending shooting agony up his back. He barely caught himself on his hands rather than planting face first into the pavement. He rolled in time to see two other people, one with an arm around Ian, knife at his throat, the other menacing the smattering of pedestrians with a gun.
It was Midtown in the middle of the day; Tony's first question was how the hell they thought they were getting out-- until the hum of an engine came into hearing. Great. His suit was almost two feet away, and guns trained on him meant he doubted he'd be into it before a gun went off.
"Thanks for taking care of the little genetic wonder, Stark," the one with a knife at Ian's throat said.
"A.I.M?" Tony asked, still considering the wisdom of getting to his feet just yet, rolling to his knees at least.
In the distance, the whine got louder, and Tony watched in horror as a flying car - S.H.I.E.L.D. colors - came around the corner.
"Shit," Tony cussed, scanning the approaching car.
"Language," Ian sing-songed.
Which only antagonized the grunt with a knife to Ian's throat. "Shut up yo--"
Ian twitched his hand, so fast Tony didn't even see it, and the photon shield he kept on his wrist was on a moment later, blocking knife from throat, edge of the shield just skating against Ian's chin. Foot connected with instep, elbow with gut, and Ian's captor was down a moment later.
A moment later, before either Ian or Tony could react, the one who'd been menacing the crowd had a knife out and had it buried way too deep into the kid's stomach. He tugged the knife out and ran up a car, standing in traffic, and then levered up onto the S.H.I.E.L.D. car.
"Shit, shit." Tony only had a moment to respond, hands against Ian's stomach wound. "Steve is going to kill me, I'm going to kill me..."
"They're getting away!" Ian complained.
"You're bleeding!" Tony answered, pretty confused how Ian even had it in him to complain.
Rather than succumb to the fact that he'd just been run through with a knife, Ian shoved Tony away and flung the shield away, not even wincing as he did. It bounced hard off a stone building face, and Ian ran away, taking the same running jump onto a car.
The car had gained both speed and height, and Tony had no idea what the hell Ian was thinking, until the kid's foot caught the oncoming shield, using it for another boost, and landed, hard, on the back of the car. Tony didn't think that was physically possible.
Son of his best friend on a flying car with horrible people who want to kidnap-slash-kill him. Tony was in the suit in record time, careening after them. "Avengers: we've got a S.H.I.E.L.D. flying car fleeing the scene of a stabbing. One guy down at the scene, Ian and I are in pursuit of the other two."
Clint was the one who answered the call. "Why are you letting Ian pursue?"
"He didn't exactly ask for permission! He just fucking did a jump off a photon shield in midair."
"Damn, kid's got style."
"WHILE STABBED IN THE STOMACH!" Tony yelled at Clint, not happy at all. The car was still making a get away, but mostly in the sense of it still flying away, it was losing both speed and altitude... and passengers, as one of the flunkies got shoved out of the car and landed with a bang on another car.
Tony didn't pause to make sure he wasn't dead.
The car continued to lose altitude, and Tony barely got under it in time to cushion most of the fall before setting it, as gently as he could.
"I could have landed it," Ian said as he climbed out of the car, hand, finally, clutching his stomach and looking like he was actually feeling pain. "If... it had had handles instead of a wheel... and the buttons were in the right place."
"You are so, so grounded."
"Yup, on the ground."
"Grounded means you can't do fun things because you scared the crap out of me!" Tony grabbed Ian and tugged him in, hands around his back. "Do not do that. Shit."
The benefit of the attack taking place only blocks from the Tower was that medical was there in an instant, Ian put on a stretcher even as he grinned, and Tony was still freaking the hell out as he put Clint in charge of arrest and cleanup and took a ride back to the Tower with Ian, holding his hand the entire way.
Don took over as soon as they were back at the Tower, and Tony found himself staring at the wall, and down at his bloody hands from where he'd been holding his hand against Ian's stomach.
He turned around to see Sam running up to him, looking as panicked as Tony felt.
"Is he alright? I saw the attack on the news."
"No, sure! Everyone's fine." Tony was almost shouting at Sam. "Steve's son got stabbed, while he was out to lunch with me. He's in surgery."
Sam put an arm over Tony's shoulder, and looked down at his hands. "Did that happen after he jumped into the car?"
"No, that happened before he did a flying leap off of a moving shield." Tony shrugged out of Sam's arm, if only so he could start washing his hands clean. "That kid..."
Tony shook his head..
"He's had the Serum since birth. Steve could survive that, easy, without even breaking a sweat, but..." That kid was not Steve. That kid was a tiny person that Tony had been made responsible for and he was...
Tony's head shot up. Ian was standing in the doorway of the surgery, not wearing his bloody shirt, instead with a small bandage slapped over his stomach, the white of it not even slightly colored with blood.
"See, just a scratch."
"Oh my god." Tony was bent down, arms around Ian in an instant. "Do not ever do that again, you are so grounded."
Don came out a few moments later, looking equal parts pleased and grim. "It would have been a lot worse, but the knife itself didn't do much damage. Add the healing effects of the Serum, and he was pretty much as good as new before we even got him into surgery."
Tony let out a deep sigh, and ruffled Ian's hair. "You should've told me that you have a crazy healing factor."
"He's alright?" Clint asked, coming into the waiting area as well.
"Man, it's just a scratch." Ian prodded his side, not even being careful about it.
"Well he's his father's son." Clint came up to where Tony was clinging to Ian. "We rounded them up, one currently with S.H.I.E.L.D., two A.I.M., not the strangest bedfellows but troubling."
"Current S.H.I.E.L.D.?" Tony said. That wasn't good at all. "Get on the horn with Maria, I want her here. I want answers. One of her operatives stabbed Steve's son, after they swore up and down they'd cleaned things up."
Clint gave him a brief nod, and then left, a casual hair-ruffle for Ian.
"And you, mister." Tony looked down at Ian. "What the hell were you thinking?"
"I didn't want him to get away," Ian said, giving the wound another rub. "I knew I could hop up, and I thought I could drive it-- dad taught me on speeders."
Tony couldn't say anything to that, but he couldn't quite help but feel... so frustrated at Ian, so like Steve, so completely sure he'd done the right thing... and so completely needlessly risking his life.
"I have to take care of this. Sam?"
Sam seemed to catch the undercurrent of the moment, and Ian, even, had started to grow more worried.
"Tony?" Ian asked, voice soft, and damn it, it was just like Steve. Tony couldn't stay mad at Steve and he certainly couldn't stay mad at Ian, it was probably the adorable brown eyes.
Tony scrubbed his hands through his hair, and then looked down at Ian, and then mussed his hair again. "I know why you did what you did, but... your father will kill me if I get you hurt. We have Avengers for a reason. They could take on a little hover car. We're a team, it's not just you and your dad anymore."
Ian seemed to get it, at least, which was good, because Tony wasn't sure he could deal with an argument with the kid right now, but he did look far less likely to run off thinking he should do it again.
"You did well. I'm not even sure your dad could do that thing with the shield."
"Mixed messages," Sam coughed out, not even bothering to obscure it much.
"But that's why you train, for when you're older. Now I have to go yell at Maria, so... take it easy."
Ian leaned up and gave him a tight hug. "I'm sorry. I'm just used to..." Tony felt wet tears against the collar of his shirt. "If a mutate patrol got away..."
"If they got away, we'd find them; if you got kidnapped, we'd find you; if you bled out or got your throat slit... there's not a lot any of us could do." Tony gave Ian a soft pat on the back, and he finally let go. "Alright?"
Tony didn't know how he was going to go into a confrontation with Maria, but he took a deep breath, gave Sam a nod, and headed the hell out of that room.
"He's mad at himself." Sam put a hand on his shoulder and started to steer him away. "He took it on himself to protect you, he feels like he owes your dad that, and then you get hurt? He's upset."
"Let's get you a shirt." He and Sam headed to the elevator. "Tony's a pretty complicated person sometimes, but this is easy: he pretty much promised your dad he'd look after you. He and your dad disagree, sometimes a lot, but on something like this... you'd have to kill him to keep him from doing that for your dad."
"I'm not a baby though," Ian answered, punching the elevator button and taking it up to Tony's room. "Tony doesn't have to look out for me. I made the decision, it was my call."
"When you're eighteen you get to make that argument legally, but good luck with all the Avengers looking out for you."
Together they got off of the elevator and Ian palmed open Tony's room before taking Sam to the small bedroom that Tony had set aside for his clothes and possessions before tugging out a small shirt with a white star on it. A dad shirt. "Eighteen is forever. Can't I be an Avenger before then?"
"Maybe if you got a higher level degree or something, but I don't see Tony budging on this, your dad either." The two of them headed out, and then down, Ian wanted to punch something. "Somehow I don't think he dragged you through hell and back so that you could sign up to fight the second you were old enough."
Ian tried to imagine the years waiting to get to do what he was good at. He tried to imagine sitting through school when the world might be in danger. He tried to imagine sitting through school when dad might be in danger.
"Look." Sam leaned against the wall of the exercise room they were in now. "I know... where you're from, things are different. They were different, but here... it's our job to take care of you. Your dad, when he came to the future, he felt lost because it was peace time, no one needed him to be the sort of soldier he'd been during the war. Yeah, he joined the Avengers, he kept being a soldier, but he got a girlfriend, he started drawing professionally... you're going to have to figure that out, and your dad, when he wakes up, is going to help with that."
Ian punched the hell out of a punching bag for an hour while Sam helped. It didn't stop his worries, it didn't quiet his concerns. He didn't know how he was supposed to fit in this strange world, he felt lost... and he felt the sting of disappointment at Tony's anger, even if it was out of his concern.
He finally washed, and then found Tony hiding in his garage where he was working on something.
"You," Tony said almost as soon as he walked in the room. "Armor, whenever you're out, all the time, no arguments."
"Yeah, because I'm totally going to argue about wearing awesome armor under my clothes."
He took the armor off of the bench and held it out to Ian, and Ian took it before he ran his hands over every inch of it. It was gorgeous.
"I'm sorry I worried you."
Tony didn't say anything for a moment, before he put an arm out and Ian accepted the offered hug. Tony let out a sigh. "I know you grew up somewhere entirely different, where the rules and the world were different... but just remember you've got a lot of adults to take care of you, and one or two who would have some serious explaining to do to your dad if you got hurt or worse."
"Dad says I'm impulsive." It was always said gently, but sometimes it was just easy to see where the Zola was in him, where he was wrong and broken.
"You are, but sometimes impulsive is the right call. Today... well it was good to learn what the mooks know." Tony ruffled his hair again.
"So what did they know?"
"They don't know much about who hired them, but they are getting information from some other inside source in SHIELD. I had a very loud chat with Maria about just that." Tony stood, and gestured Ian to follow, so he did. Mostly they just ended up on the couch, though. "We know they wanted to kidnap you, although clearly they weren't very smart about it. They-- wanted to do tests on your blood, though, hence the stabbing, apparently."
"What sort of tests?" Ian asked, curious now.
"Well... it sounded like they wanted to do DNA analysis. The news that you have the Serum in your blood was major news with all the biofanatics. You're only the second test subject that's survived longer than a few months without the psychological issues. Other than your dad, people who got treated with the Serum tend to be a bit crazy. Whoever they're working for wants to find the common links to identify people who could be Serumed up."
Ian tugged his feet up onto the couch and held his knees close. "So... they want to find the parts that dad and I have in common?"
"Kids have about half their genetic material from each parent. It's always been hypothesized that if Steve had a kid, he or she would be the best hope of a repeat performance on the Serum." Tony wasn't looking at him, just looking off into the distance.
Ian wondered how bad it would be if Tony knew... if he would still protect him. Sam said that Tony cared about his dad and would look after him because of that, but... Ian didn't know if that would be true if he wasn't dad's son. "What if there's nothing the same?"
Tony glanced at him for just a second before he looked quickly away. "No commonalities would mean... everyone shares a certain amount of genetic code just by being human."
"I..." Ian looked down at his toes. "Can I tell you a secret?"
"Sure." Tony glanced over at him. "I kept the secret that I was Iron Man for years."
"You won't get mad?" It was a risk, of course, Tony probably was right to be a bit mad about Ian getting stabbed, even if it hadn't hurt at all and he was fine. He just... Tony was the only one who was taking care of him. Maybe it was a bad idea.
It was probably super stupid, really, that stupid counselor today and talking. What if Tony hated him after that? It did weigh on him though, the weight of Zola, of him being Ian's father. Dad knew, and dad... dad loved him anyway, but from what everyone had said over the last days it was obvious that dad was a little bit too nice. People talked about dad and his choices and what he did like they were the most perfect thing, something that everyone else could reach for and never get.
Dad had never talked about doing the right thing like it was a burden, but here, now, with the weight of his secret on his chest, he knew that there might be a pretty bad end if Tony wasn't alright with it.
"I-- I can't promise that, Ian, but I'll try."
That might be the best offer he got. "Um-- do you hate Zola?"
A weird sort of expression went over Tony's face, pinched, and confused, and stern. "I haven't run afoul of him nearly as much as your dad or Sharon or Sam have, no."
"He's a bad guy, though," Ian said, just checking, because... well because.
"He is," Tony agreed.
"All the time in Dimension Z, we were always fighting against Zola, his mutates-- all the Phrox hated Zola. He was awful, he did all these experiments, if a Phrox got captured Zola would---" Ian felt a rising lump of bile in his throat, and he swallowed it down.
"It's alright, Ian. You aren't there anymore."
It was what Tony always said when Ian woke up in the middle of the night, scared and screaming, smell of burnt corpses in his nose, but... "But... dad, he had a Zola in him." Ian put a hand over his chest, were the Zola had sat in dad's chest. "I... I have a Zola in me," Ian whispered. "I can't cut it out."
Tony didn't say anything, he just put a hand out and touched Ian's neck where his head was bowed.
"He's my real dad. He said my name was supposed to be Leopold. He made my mom have me..." He started to cry, eyes screwed shut, but he just needed someone to understand. If dad were awake, surely he'd do it, but he couldn't right now, he might never wake up.
"Hey." Tony hugged him close. Ian clung to him, face buried in Tony's chest, chest RT hard against his forehead. "Shhhhh...." Tony continued to hold him. "I-- I already guessed."
Ian pushed Tony away, looking up at him, eyes watery and making Tony appear fuzzy. "How? Did I do something bad?"
"No!" Tony sighed and ruffled his hair. "No, just... your hair, it's brown, and you always seemed conflicted when I said you were like your father. I ran a quick test to check. That told me you weren't Steve's, the rest was a safe guess. There's nothing bad or evil about you, beyond a little bit of pre-teen... whatever it is pre-teens do, I usually don't get within a hundred yards of them for my own sanity. You are like your father though. You're like Steve."
"He's not my dad, though."
"Sure he is. He wanted you, you want him. There are loads of people who grow up with people different from their blood parents. Hell, if you want to hear about a really complicated parentage, just ask Billy Kaplan."
"I sometimes think-- he doesn't really want me-- Zola said he wanted--" Bait. Ian couldn't even get the words out to explain how much Zola had confused him when he'd said dad had trained kids before to fight.
"Look, whatever he said, it's not true." Tony sighed.
"You don't know," he protested.
"Ian, it's right there in your name. Ian. You're named after your great-grandfather, Steve's mom's dad. He didn't name you John or Mike or Ted, or even Tony although it's a great name, he named you after family. You're Steve's son." Tony shook his head. "Come on. I think this needs peanut butter and possibly Natalie Portman."
"I liked her when she was Mathilda," Ian agreed. "I didn't know I was named after family."
"Well, you were. So none of this crap about Steve not being your real dad."
They watched the Star Wars, even though Tony said the movie was dumb and there were better Star Wars. Ian didn't care, Natalie Portman was awesome and peanut butter was yummy.
Ian ended up asleep somewhere in the middle of movie two, and for the first time in days he didn't wake up screaming in the middle of the night.
Banner continued to work the problem of the infiltrate, and Tony even called in a telepath (Ian apparently knew them as 'mindwalkers') and read that Steve was probably mostly there, but people weren't ready to take that chance, especially when Bruce said that the Zola was getting stronger.
Ian... well... even though Tony knew the truth, it was more and more impossible to see anything but 'Steve Jr.' when he looked at Ian. The kid loved his shield, loved the uniform, loved training, loved being self-righteous...
Loved charging into a fight in the middle of Manhattan even though they'd had it under control, thank you very much, and yes a twelve year old wielding Steve's shield and obviously close with Tony caused some waves.
"No, seriously," Tony said as he ushered Ian back onto the quinjet to get him back to the Tower. "Pretty sure your father would kill me if I got you shipped off to Camp Hammond or the Jean Grey school, so just... no field time. Registration might be repealed, but people still take a pretty dim view to random kids running around punching people with shields."
Ian huffed. "I can read. I can math. I should go to a heroes training program instead."
"Being able to add fractions and read Harry Potter doesn't equal a rigorous education, to say nothing of you needing to learn a few scientific concepts like gravity being a constant attraction not a fluctuation." Tony tugged back the kid's hood as soon as they were in the quinjet and ruffled his hair. "Don't think I didn't notice you skimping on your introductory science homework either."
The tutor Tony had hired two weeks ago was excellent, and on pretty much everything but the sciences Ian was excellent, and working very hard to get up to grade level, but he seemed completely willing to shirk his sciencely duties.
"I don't want to do science." Ian sulked, arms crossed over his chest and his ridiculous navy blue costume (colored to match Steve's old The Captain costume).
"Science is bad," Ian answered, continuing to sulk while the rest of the Avengers who'd been taken out for the mission filed back in.
Tony didn't touch that with a ten foot pole until they were both debriefed and Tony was back in plain clothes and Ian was in his lab, alone with him. "I get it, growing up around the product of Zola's experiments would turn anyone off of the glory and wonder of the universe... but..." Tony settled in, leaning back against his chair while Ian continued to stand, arms crossed. "I'm not really a scientist, more an engineer, but Reed, Pym, Banner, T'Challa... they're scientists, and some of them haven't accidentally done dubious things to themselves or others in the name of science."
Okay... 'one', that was sort of like 'some'.
"And yes, I guess I'm a scientist too, and we won't get into all of the horrible things I've done to myself, but... science can be done correctly, it can be done with pure intentions, it can solve the world's problems. And your dad doesn't just smack things with a shield, you know. He deals with politics, he used to run S.H.I.E.L.D.--- really I'm thinking Steve should enroll you at the Future Foundation if Reed's alright with that."
Ian huffed again. "I-- I have a Zola in me, though." He put a hand to his chest, and squeezed there. "It's... every time I think a bad thing, every time I'm mad... I see Jet, I see Zola... I can't talk to Mike about it, because he doesn't know I'm a blood Zola, he just says that dad's my dad and thinks that'll help, but it doesn't..."
"Steve is your dad."
Ian opened his mouth to protest, and Tony put a hand over his mouth. "Shush. You have your father's stupid, annoying, perfect voice in your head too; I have it too." It was the part of him that rebelled the loudest when Tony was doing something stupid, usually mixed with Rhodey, Pepper, probably some Maria, his father... yeah there were a lot of voices there. "Sure, yes, there's a Zola inside of you, but there's also Steve, Ian Rogers, not Leopold Zola. Steve... I don't even need to ask him, he took you because he thought it was the right thing, because he wanted you to have a life, to not fall into the life you'd have as Zola's kid."
Ian looked to be considering it, and he looked down at his hands before he glanced back up at Tony, eyes wet. "Rogers."
"And don't you forget it." Tony stood, and gave Ian a playful nudge with his arm, and Ian responded in kind. "More science, less running around with your dad's shield calling yourself Captain Z, alright?"
Ian drew in a breath, puffing up his chest, and then forced and over-elaborate sigh. "Who made you the boss of me?"
Tony laughed. "Oh, man, I cannot wait to watch Steve deal with your teen years. Your dad made the Avengers the boss of you, now go do something productive, I have a lot of work to get done."
Ian left, and showered, and changed - at least that's what Tony gathered when he came back and gathered up a sketch pad, a few wooden boards, and some of his wood burning gear... and his science homework. Tony ended up spending way more time explaining some basic chemistry fundamentals than he really thought he should given that he paid someone to teach Ian things, but it was probably worth it.
They ate, they slept, Tony continued to wonder if it was weird that he kept a kid in his bed until said kid woke up crying over the bloodbath his son-of-a-bitch father had forced him to watch, this time so bad that he vomited over the tile floor of Tony's bathroom before he managed to make it to the toilet for further vomit.
No, not weird, just sort of sad, especially as Ian scrubbed himself off in the shower while Tony used assorted towels and bathroom cleaners to take care of the mess.
"I thought I was getting better," Ian said, voice hiccupy enough to say he was crying.
"Some days are bad days, Ian."
A glass of water and a hiccupy recollection of the death of a close friend later, Ian curled up tight against the shield and finally seemed to drop back off to sleep.
He was gone in the morning, not unusual, but Tony made a point of tracking him down before he got to work. Ian was up on the landing pad, A.I.M.E.E. in his lap, leaned up against one of the walls, head tilted back, eyes closed.
"Way too early for that," Tony said as he sat down next to Ian for a moment.
"In Z... the sun means death. If you're caught out for too long, you'll die of thirst."
Tony nodded, even though Ian couldn't see him.
"Most Earth cultures worship the sun, think it gives life and food."
"I think that's the weirdest part."
"The weirdest part is different cultural norms about the day, not cars and reality TV?"
"Well... those things didn't exist at all. The twin suns and the stars are all different... I'd hate to live on Tattooine."
"You are my favorite little nerd. I'm so glad I stole you for the Force instead of Tolkien."
Ian smirked, still looking up at the sun, eyes closed. "I like the Hobbit, too."
They were silent for a minute, before Tony cleared his throat. "So here's the thing: Doctor Banner had a breakthrough about three days ago. He did some tests, and some more tests... your dad got the all clear from a mindwalker just a half hour ago."
"He's still under. We figured you might like to be there, and... you're really the only familiar thing he has in this world right now. To him, we're all strangers he hasn't seen in over a decade." Tony didn't pretend that didn't hurt. Steve was... well he adored Steve, and the idea of them all but starting over didn't appeal at all. "So, what do you say we bail on lessons and go wake up your dad?"
Ian was on his feet in a flash, before a flicker crossed over his face, not sad, just...
"Whatever's going on in that head of yours, stop it." Tony started to lever himself up, and Ian helped him up the rest of the way. "He's your dad. He's going to want to see you."
"What if he--" Ian flapped his hands a bit, not saying the 'what if' out loud.
"Pretty sure it's going to be fine. Now come on, it's a new day, sun's up, your dad's going to be awake, you get to skip out on math today."
"Science?" Ian asked, hopefully.
"Math." Tony ushered Ian off of the roof and towards the door downstairs.
"I can't wait until you're not the boss of me."
"What are you going to do if Steve agrees with me?" Tony asked, nudging him with his elbow.
Ian, of course, proved that he was really getting the hang of this '21st century Earth' thing by blowing a raspberry as the elevator door closed and they headed downstairs.
"Why is he...?"
"He's been known to jump up and start punching when he gets woken up suddenly," Sharon said. She was standing in the corner, arms crossed over her chest, mouth pinched in a hard line. Uncle Sam was standing next to her, but he looked more relaxed.
"Oh." Ian looked over to dad again, and took a few steps forward, waiting a couple feet from the bed.
He hadn't seen dad in a day or two, but now that he was here, he was thinking about... the future, about dad after he woke up. Dad had always said that he wanted to get Ian home, to Earth, so that he could have a normal life, and maybe he did have a normal life now, but...
Ian glanced over his shoulder at Sharon, trying not to stare, before he went back to looking at dad. The sinking sensation in his stomach said that dad might love Sharon more, that if dad had to choose...
He squeezed his eyes shut, and hid them in his elbow for a moment, until Tony came up behind him and put a hand on each shoulder. "Stop that," he whispered.
Doctor Blake was puttering around, doing medical things, loading up syringes and checking all sorts of machines, before he finally patted the bed besides one of dad's hands.
"Ian, if you could sit over here. I think it's for the best if you're the first person he sees waking up. He was only conscious for a few minutes on Earth, and we don't know how much he remembers." He waited. "Stay out of reach until we're certain he's aware of where he is."
Ian nodded, and climbed up on the bed, and then patted dad's hand before he made sure that he couldn't reach and grab it if he startled. After a few seconds, he leaned in and kissed dad on the forehead as well.
He glanced around the room again, Tony looked tense, Sam and Sharon looked tenser, Doctor Blake looked relaxed, though, so Ian tried to decide if he was faking better or if he was sure it would work.
"He should start coming out from under shortly," Dr. Blake said. "We'll be right here."
Ian nodded, and watched Dr. Blake flip a few things and punch a few buttons, before finally injecting something into the tube. That, Ian assumed, was the cue to dad starting to wake up. He knew dad didn't stay down for much, even a crack to the head couldn't keep him down for long, so he waited, and watched.
Dad's face was still relaxed, sleepy, breath slow and even, like always, but Ian watched him for distress or signs of waking. He waited for a few moments, watching. A minute or so later, a momentary hitch of breath came, and Ian saw dad's eyes flick under his lids, almost unnoticeable.
They continued to rove, eyes still shut, maybe trying to take in the sounds.
"Dad?" Ian said, softly. "Dad, it's Ian."
Dad's chest rose slightly, and then fell, a soft sigh. "[Are we among friends?]"
Hearing Phroxi after almost a month without was odd on his ears, but he understood the meaning just a moment later.
"What is he-?" Tony asked.
"Probably checking for duress," Sharon answered.
Ian turned around to look at them. "What's duress?"
"[Checking-- not forcing you to-- say--]"
"Oh." Ian turned back around to dad and grabbed his hand squeezing it. "[It's fine. Tony's nice and the Avengers are nice and I went shopping and had a haircut and the food is good. It's good, just like you always promised.]" The words tumbled out so fast he wasn't sure if dad caught them all, but it didn't matter. "It's good."
Dad blinked open his eyes, slowly, saw Ian, gave him a quick once-over, and then his eyes and head scanned the room. Ian scanned as well, looking where dad looked. He took in everyone. Ian watched his eyes go from Tony, in the corner, across to Sharon and Sam, and then finally to Dr. Blake.
He sobbed. Ian didn't even recognize it right away, he'd never heard dad-- a moment later he scrambled for the arm cuffs, even though Tony and Dr. Blake argued for a moment, Ian didn't care, he grabbed them and he yanked them off, and dad sat up and grabbed Ian around the shoulders and just cried.
"Shhh--" Ian hugged dad, and brushed his fingers down the nape of his neck. "It's alright. It's Earth, it's alright. We're safe. It's Avengers Tower and everyone's nice. Except for Hawkeye, he's a jerk."
Dad laughed, a quick little bark, before he went back to hugging.
"No, he said that Harry Potter was real and then Jarvis had to glower at him and he said it was all fake." Ian snuggled into dad's shoulder. "Aimee read me a bunch of it."
Ian kept babbling, he explained Aimee, and how peanut butter was wonderful, and how his hair was a nice length now, and how Tony made him do science, which was stupid, and somewhere in the middle it ended up being half Phroxi and half English between as he just kept babbling and forgot a few words and dad kept squeezing him until all of the words - and all his breath - was gone.
"I need air."
Dad let go, finally, and now he held him at arm's length, looking him over, up and down.
"[I--]" He looked down at his hands. "[I told them... I told them you're my dad.]"
Dad's face softened, and he had a warm little smile that reminded him of stories around the campfire back home. "[Because you are.]" And then he pulled Ian in and gave him a soft, scratchy kiss. "I--" He cleared his throat, and looked over to Dr. Blake. "I assume you wanted to look me over."
Dr. Blake didn't answer for a moment, but then he nodded. "We wanted to make you comfortable while you adjusted to time and place."
Ian glanced to Tony. "You and Ian were in Z for about two weeks, Earth time. Don kept you under for about four and a half weeks while Banner worked on some sort of Zola interferon to deal with the consciousness infection. You're clean, mindwalkers and Blake cleared you."
"Two months..." Dad closed his eyes, and leaned in, and Ian hugged his head close. "And you..." Dad looked up at him. "You're alright?"
"Yeah. Uncle Sam made me go to a counselor. It's not fun." Ian caught Dr. Blake out of the corner of his eye, frowning a bit. "I think Dr. Blake wants to make sure you're healthy."
A nod, and a final squeeze of his shoulder signaled that he was allowed to go, but before he did he put a hand on dad's and looked him in the eyes. "And you-- are you alright?"
Dad didn't answer right away, and Ian didn't miss the quick sweep of the room with his eyes, falling on all of the people there again. "Yeah-- yes, son, I will be."
That was good enough for Ian. One final kiss on his temple and he slid off the bed, lost for a moment, before he made his way back to Tony's side, wiping back a few tears.
Tony leaned over, whispering softly. "See? Son."
He and dad were going to get better, and Ian wanted to learn the rest of Earth together with his dad.