Cold. Why's it so cold? And dark? Wasn't the sun out when we were driving?
Dad? Are you there? My chest hurts, Dad, I think I need my inhaler. And my head hurts, too. Like I hit it on something really, really hard.
Dad? Where are you?
Where am I?
As Peter Stark's mind slowly inched back towards consciousness, the dry, freezing air smelling strongly of wood and burning metal assaulting his senses, the thought that it had all simply been a bad dream flitted briefly across his foggy mind. Another minor accident in the lab, perhaps, one of his chemistry experiments that had gone slightly wrong—not that any of his experiments ever went wrong, though. Peter was always very meticulous when he was running his experiments. After nearly singeing off his eyebrows a couple of times when was younger, Peter had learned to always be extra careful, even programming DUM-E with the parameters of each of his experiments so the bot could warn him if he tried to get ahead of himself.
So that couldn't be it.
But Dad had still accidents from time to time. It was par for the course being an innovative weapons designer, or so Dad always told him. And besides, that's what DUM-E was there for. Always ready with his fire extinguisher and broom, standing over them like a robotic guardian angel.
So cold! Why's it so cold in here? Aren't we in the desert?
Dad? Are you there?
"Ow!" Peter croaked a second later as a sharp pain in his head quickly yanked him back to reality. Someone was poking at the back of his head with something very sharp, like a needle, and Peter flinched, groaning as he attempt to raise his hand to try and swat the offensive object away.
"Do not move yet, young man," said a stern voice as a large hand wrapped around his arm, holding it in place against the hard metal cot where Peter was lying flat on his stomach. His head was tilted to the side, being held in place by a wadded up cloth that smelled faintly of chloroform. "I haven't yet finished stitching your head wound and I'd rather not use anymore of the chloroform. Your headache is going to be bad enough without it."
Um… okay. I'm definitely not in the lab.
"Ow! Hurts!" Peter moaned, the sound barely escaping past his parched throat, his head throbbing with every beat of his heart as if it were being hit with a hammer. "What're you doing to me?"
"I told you," replied the man. "I'm stitching your head wound closed. Try and remain still, please. It should be over soon."
"Uhh," Peter stammered, his tongue poking out to wet his dry lips as he blinked his eyes open, squinting against the harsh yellowish glow of a single bare overhead light bulb. The throbbing in his head instantly grew worse, his stomach churning less than a second later, and he quickly squeezed his eyes closed again as another soft groan rumbled up from his tight chest. "What—? What happ—, what's happened to me?"
"You took a few pieces of shrapnel to the back of your head," answered the man as the sharp end of his stitching needle again poked through Peter's skin, causing him to flinch. "You're very lucky that they did not penetrate any further, or you and I would not be having this conversation. It was all I could do to get the bleeding to slow down while I tended to your father."
A violent shiver raced down Peter's spine as he recalled the staccato spray of gunshots that tore through their military Humvee as if it'd been made out of tin foil, the panicked yelps of his father as he pushed Peter down into the wheel well of the vehicle, and the massive explosion that followed, launching them both out of the Humvee and onto the hard sandy ground of the Afghanistan desert.
"Shrapnel?" Peter asked, trying to clear his throat. "From the bombs?"
"Yes, shrapnel," answered the man. "And from Stark Industries bombs, no less. They are the best, after all." He let out a heavy sigh, resting his hand on Peter's shoulder for a moment. "Your father took the worst of it since he attempted to shield you from the blast, but he will survive. You Stark men are apparently quite difficult to kill."
"That's 'cause we're made of iron," Peter answered, almost without thinking. It was one of the first things Peter remembered his father telling him when he was small, something his father's father had always told him.
"Stark men are made of iron."
"Is that something that your father says?" the man asked, and Peter could have sworn he almost sounded amused.
"Uh… huh," Peter wheezed as the needle once again pierced his tender skin, his hands clenching into tight fists at his sides. He absolutely hated needles, and it was only due to the pounding in his head and the fact that his limbs felt like they'd been filled with sand that he was able to remain as still as he was.
"Well, then you are lucky," the man said, finally tying off the final stitch. Peter sucked in a sharp breath as the man poured a small of amount of what smelled like alcohol over the wound, carefully dabbing it dry with a cloth. "Iron is very difficult to destroy."
"Exactly." Peter inhaled as deep a breath as his tight lungs would allow, trying to psyche himself up to attempt to open his eyes again. "Where—? Where's my dad? And what happened to Colonel Rhodes and the rest of the soldiers that were with us?"
"Your father is resting comfortably," replied the man. "Or, as comfortably as he's able, given the circumstances. As for the rest, I'm afraid I have no idea. I've been here in this cave for quite some time." He paused for a moment as he gathered up his equipment. "Do you usually accompany your father on trips like this, young man?"
"Peter," answered Peter. "My name's Peter. And no, I don't. This trip… it was a last minute kinda thing. My dad didn't want to bring me here, but he didn't really have a choice."
"I see," the man said politely, crouching down to Peter's eye level. "Nice to meet you, Peter. My name is Yinsen."
"Uh huh," Peter murmured. Hot tears stung his eyes as he searched past Yinsen for his father, finding only the blurred edges of what looked like large wooden crates, the same kind of crates that Stark Industries used to ship its weapons out to the military. His glasses must've gotten lost in the explosion. "So, where's—? Where's my dad? I can't—, I can't see him. My glasses—"
"He's on your opposite side, Peter," answered Yinsen, placing a gentle hand on Peter's head, careful to avoid the freshly stitched wound. "How old are you, young man, if you don't mind my asking?"
Peter shook his head, as well as he could while lying practically flat on his face. "I'm eleven."
"I see. I have a son who is only a couple of years older than you," Yinsen continued. "Now, as I was saying, Mr. Stark is resting on your opposite side. His wounds were a bit more… severe than yours, and he was quite agitated when he was brought in, so he is still unconscious. But I don't want you turning your head just yet. You likely have a slight concussion in addition to the wound, so you'll just have to take my word for it right now. Okay?"
The tears Peter had been trying to hold back finally spilled over, tracking down his grimy face in salty rivulets. "How bad is he hurt? Is he gonna be all right?"
Yinsen raised his eyebrows, glancing across Peter's body over in Dad's direction. "Well, I guess that's up to him."
"War!" stated the tinny voice emanating from the television hanging on the light beige wall of the living room, the old black and white video displaying squadrons of marching German soldiers saluting their Fuhrer as they passed. "With the forces of darkness pressing in from the East and from the West, America heeds the call to fight for freedom! And at the front of the fight, shoulder to shoulder with our battling boys, is Captain America!
"A product of old-fashioned values and exciting new science, Captain America is the name that every enemy fears! Top secret new weapons are no match for our man. When tough times turn tougher, when hope's on the ropes, he's the man to knock the Axis powers on their axis. He's out there fighting for the land that we love, and he won't stop—"
With a heavy sigh, Steve Rogers clicked the PAUSE button on the hand device that operated the television, pausing the grainy, sepia-toned image on a picture of him in full uniform, riding on his motorcycle in front of a tank.
Nearly seventy years, Steve thought as he stared at the image, remembering clearly the exact date and time it was taken as if it had been only yesterday.
Which wasn't really all that far from the truth, as it turned out.
Setting down the hand device—what had Director Fury called it again? A remote control?—Steve glanced out the nearby window. The rising sun was glinting off of the clear, mirror-like surface of the nearby lake, throwing a soft orange glow around the living room of the cabin he'd been living in for the past week or so.
It was called a safe house according to Agent Coulson, one of Director Fury's men who had brought Steve to the cabin after he'd—accidentally—torn up a part of their SHIELD facility in New York City.
In Steve's defence, it might have been better if they had simply told him the truth from the beginning, rather than attempt the elaborate ruse that Steve had been able to see right through after only a couple of minutes. It hadn't taken all that long after Director Fury had caught back up with Steve, gaping in confusion at his surroundings in the middle of a busy New York street, for him to decide that perhaps the safe house was a better place for Steve to get used to this new time. Away from things that were too painfully familiar but still just different enough to be frightening.
The whole thing was still so disconcerting. Steve had driven the Red Skull's plane into the icy water of the Arctic knowing that it was the only way to protect the citizens of New York City from dying horrific deaths, and also knowing full well that he was going to die in the process.
But then, he didn't. Thanks to the super soldier serum, apparently all he did was go to sleep.
On the coffee table in front of him sat a stack of SHIELD files, given to him by Director Fury for his perusal when he was first dropped off at the cabin. There was a file for each member of his old squadron, the Howling Commandos, and Steve's throat tightened as he thumbed through them for probably the umpteenth time, each sight of the word DECEASED stamped underneath their names in red block letters piercing his heart like a sniper shot. They were all dead, with every last one of them dying from natural causes after what seemed like a long, fulfilling life.
Except for Bucky, the only Howling Commando to give his life in the service of his country. Had they ever even bothered to search for his body, or had they just left him where he fell, to be buried under sixty-plus years of snow and ice?
Steve would have to remember to ask Fury the next time he saw him.
Shoving the files away, Steve got up from the couch and headed for the small main bedroom, reaching for his running shoes. He'd already filled over half of an eighty page sketchbook with various drawings, so maybe another run would help clear his head a bit. Director Fury hadn't yet told Steve what they planned to do with him, but he had a strong feeling they weren't just going to keep him in some isolated cabin in the middle-of-nowhere Maryland for too much longer. He would surely go stir-crazy, even if there was an unlimited supply of sketchbooks and pencils and running shoes.
The sun was shining brightly overhead by the time Steve returned from his run, huffing and puffing and dripping with sweat. He headed immediately to the kitchen for a glass of water, the glass nearly slipping out of his hand as he heard the sound of a car door slamming shut, followed a few seconds later by a knock on the front door.
"Morning, Captain," said Director Fury as he stepped inside, followed by Agent Coulson and another man that Steve didn't recognise.
"Director," answered Steve, nodding at Coulson as he blotted his sweaty forehead and neck with a towel. As per his usual, Fury was dressed in black from head to toe, and Steve had to bite back the urge to ask the man if he owned any clothing in other colours when the third man opened his briefcase, silently pushing three more files into Steve's hand. Steve immediately flipped them open, his eyes going wide as they swept across the names and faces, one of whom Steve instantly recognised.
Howard Stark. Also deceased, according to the file. And the other two were apparently Howard's son… and grandson, based on their names and the familial resemblance to Howard. Did Howard actually end up settling down and getting married after all?
"There's something we need to discuss, Captain," said Fury, jerking his head towards the living room. "Why don't we all have a seat?"
"I know Howard Stark," Steve said as he folded his large frame onto the couch, gulping down another large sip of his water. "Or at least, I did know him."
"Yeah, that's correct," replied Fury. "Along with Dr. Erskine, he was the main person responsible for creating you. Howard was also one of the founding members of SHIELD, along with yet another person with whom you're familiar."
A lump formed in Steve's throat. "Peggy Carter," he said softly. Her file was sitting over on the table, right on top of Bucky's. But, unlike Bucky, she at least was still alive. According to the file, Peggy was now well over ninety years old and suffering from dementia, but at least she was still alive. The only link to his past.
"And this is Howard's son?" Steve asked, holding up the file marked Tony Stark.
"That's also correct," Fury answered. "And that boy there is Tony's son, his only living relative. He's actually the main reason why we're here."
"The boy?" Steve asked, his brow furrowing as he studied the boy's picture. He had the same dark hair as Howard and Tony, and the same shape to his brown eyes. But where there was a grave seriousness to both Howard and Tony's photos, with a deep, underlying sadness evident in Tony's eyes that struck Steve in particular, the picture of young Peter was one of pure, childlike innocence, something Steve hadn't seen in a long, long time.
"Why is the boy so important?" he repeated, looking pointedly at Fury. "It seems odd for SHIELD to be so interested in someone so young."
Fury leaned back against the back of his chair, crossing his legs as he quirked an eyebrow in Agent Coulson's direction, indicating for him to take over the conversation.
"As you probably already know, Captain, Howard Stark was involved in quite a few projects during World War II," Coulson began, his lips quirked into that smirky smile he always wore when he was around Steve, a product of his childhood Captain America hero-worship, according to Fury. "With several of those projects helping the United States to end the war. Once the war was over, he continued in his pursuits to invent new weapons technologies based on his studies of various artefacts recovered during the war."
"Artefacts?" interrupted Steve. There had been plenty of things on board the Red Skull's plane that could potentially wreak havoc if they were to fall into the wrong hands. "You don't mean things like the—"
"That's not really important right now, Captain," Fury cut in, shooting Coulson a harsh look. "Please continue, Agent Coulson."
Coulson cleared his throat, shooting Fury an apologetic look. "The short of it is, Captain, is that Howard Stark's company, Stark Industries, is worth billions of dollars and supplies a majority of the weapons to the United States military. Tony Stark, Howard's only son, is the current CEO of Stark Industries. Seven days ago, Tony and his son Peter were riding back to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in a military convoy following a new weapons demonstration, when they were attacked and kidnapped by a group of insurgents."
"Kidnapped?" Steve exclaimed. "For what purpose?"
"We assume to extort money from Stark Industries, or from the government," answered Coulson. "As I said, the company is worth billions—as is our government, for that matter—and Tony Stark would be a pretty valuable prize for any of the dozens of terrorist factions currently operating in the Middle East."
Steve scowled, once again glancing down at the picture of young Peter. What kind of a father would bring his young son into an active war zone? Steve couldn't even fathom how frightened he must be right now. "Is that all you're really worried about? The possibility of a ransom demand? This is a kid we're talking about here!"
"A kid who's the sole heir to a multi-billion-dollar company, Captain," Fury said in a low voice. He pursed his lips, tilting his head as his uncovered eye studied Steve with such an intensity that it seemed like he was almost challenging Steve to look away. But Steve held his gaze, unblinking. He was very much used to people trying to intimidate him.
"Look, Captain," Fury finally said. "Tony Stark has been a consultant for SHIELD for quite a few years now, and as a result, I feel like I've gotten to know him fairly well. And from what I know of him, there is no possible way he would voluntarily bring that boy of his on one of these trips unless he had no other choice. There is absolutely nothing more important in Tony's entire world than his son. Tony's so overprotective of him that he doesn't even allow him to be photographed by the media unless he prearranges it first, so for him to just randomly choose to bring Peter on such a potentially dangerous trip, well… that's just not like the Tony Stark that I know. It smells funny to me, Captain, and I don't like it when things smell funny. It gets me cranky, if you know what I mean."
There was a pause as Steve allowed Fury's words to sink in, trying to decipher the hidden meaning behind them. Surely someone of Tony Stark's means could afford a trustworthy caregiver for his son during his absences, couldn't he? And did that mean that the boy's mother was completely out of the picture?
"So what are you saying, Director?" Steve finally asked. "You think someone on the inside had something to do with this? Someone close to either the boy or to Tony?"
Fury quirked an eyebrow. "That's one possibility, Captain. Peter does have a nanny, a woman who's been in Tony Stark's employ since Peter was a baby. But she was called away at the very last minute for a sudden family emergency, and with Tony's personal assistant and head of security both out of town, Tony really had no choice but to take the boy with him. These aren't exactly the kinds of trips you can simply postpone because someone calls in sick."
"That does seem like too much to just be a coincidence," Steve agreed. "So you're thinking that the boy was the intended target, rather than Tony Stark himself?"
"Not necessarily," answered Fury. "Right now it seems likely that they were both the intended targets. Taking both of the Starks out at once would certainly serve the interests of many of these terrorist groups. The destabilisation caused by the sudden loss of the Stark Industries CEO and his heir would ripple throughout the entire U.S. military, giving the terrorists a temporary advantage. It is a very unstable area of the world, Captain, and these insurgents would jump on any opportunity to tip the odds in their favour."
That's an awful lot of power to give just one man, especially a civilian, Steve thought. And a lot of pressure.
Huffing out a sharp breath, Steve swiped the sweaty towel across his forehead, downing the rest of the water in his glass. "So… why are you telling me this?"
Fury jerked his head in Coulson's direction, who cleared his throat.
"Despite what the military are calling 'their best efforts'," Coulson began. "They have not managed to begin a proper search for Stark and the boy as of yet. We were hoping that you might be willing to pick up the slack, as it were."
"If they're so worried about destabilisation in the area, then why aren't they trying harder to find them?" Steve asked. "That seems counter-intuitive."
"It is, Captain," answered Fury. "But as I said, the power balance in that region is precarious. Any attempt at a search and rescue on the scale required to locate the Starks has so far been deemed too aggressive by the base commanders in the area."
"They're afraid it could possibly invite further attacks against them," said Steve.
"Likely, Captain," stated Fury. "Not possibly."
Steve glanced again down at the files, his eyes flicking back and forth between Tony and Peter's photos. "So, you want me to go in and find them? Is that what this is about?"
"You're one of the greatest military strategists to ever live," said Coulson. "Or, who's still living, as the case may be. And given your… extraordinary abilities, it's likely that you wouldn't require as much backup as a more… traditional soldier."
"So I'm expendable," Steve grumbled. "Is that it?"
"No, Captain," Fury said firmly. "You're just the right man for the job."
"Peter!" Tony Stark called, his voice barely louder than a raspy whisper as he pulled frantically on his son's hand, trying to keep Peter from drifting off yet again. Yinsen had said he was concerned that Peter might be developing an infection in his head wound in addition to his concussion, so going to sleep was not a good idea at the moment. "You can't go to sleep again, buddy, okay? Not yet!"
"Mmm," moaned Peter, his eyes already at half-mast, his rapid, shallow breaths sounding like they were being sucked through a straw. He was shivering violently, his skinny body covered in both he and Tony's blankets. Yinsen said his fever was spiking again, which would only make his lung problems worse. "So 'ired, Dad. Wanna sleep!"
"I know you do, buddy," Tony said, his throat thick with unshed tears. As scared as he was, he was absolutely not going to give these assholes the advantage of seeing him cry. Not yet, at least. "I know you do. But Yinsen's trying to get you some more medicine first. Once he comes back and you take the medicine, then you can go to sleep. Okay, buddy? But you gotta stay with me until then, okay?" Please buddy, stay with me! And damn these fucking people who won't even give us another blanket!
"Mmm," came the muffled reply from the trembling form on the cot. "Don' feel good, Dad. My chest hurts, and my head hurts, and I'm so cold!"
"I know, buddy. And I wish I could help you. I wish I could make all of this just go away," croaked Tony, cursing his inability to offer any proper comfort to his son. Peter was always extra clingy when he was sick, and Tony always indulged him with as many hugs and cuddles and bowls of chicken soup as he wanted. Tony couldn't remember the last time he himself had been sick, but poor Peter apparently hadn't inherited his propensity to repel germs. And even with all of the advances Stark Industries had made with their medical technology over the years, Tony still couldn't seem to find a way to help Peter breathe any better.
But as it was, Tony could barely sit up without assistance at the moment, and it wouldn't do Peter any good at all if he were to pass out again from the horrific pain in his chest and torso, a pain so intense that he could barely breathe, shooting throughout his body with every spoken word.
"You just gotta hold on a little longer, okay bud?" Tony continued, squeezing Peter's hand. "Yinsen should be back soon."
"Uh huh," Peter murmured. "I'll try."
"That's right," said Tony. "That's my boy." He glanced down at his chest, his upper lip curling in disgust at the sight of the thick wire extending out from the center, tethering the car battery sitting on the floor next to his cot to the electromagnet Yinsen had implanted into his sternum.
The electromagnet that was keeping the imbedded pieces of Christmas tree-shaped shrapnel from entering his atrial septum, and killing him.
The walking dead, Yinsen had called this type of wound. Said he'd seen plenty of it in his village, some place called Gulmira. And when Tony had asked how in the hell these people had gotten ahold of so many of his company's weapons, Yinsen had only smiled sadly and shaken his head.
"These are your loyal customers, Stark," he'd said, not without a hint of irony. "They are called the Ten Rings."
This is all my fucking fault. All of it. I should've just canceled the trip, to hell with the goddamn Board of Directors and Obie's overactive paranoia.
This is all my fault.
The loud scrape of metal against metal startled Tony from his black as pitch thoughts, and he turned to see Yinsen shoved through the door to the prison, his hands raised in the air and a rifle—a Stark Industries rifle, no less—poking him in the back, held by a dark-haired, broad-shouldered man with a salt-and-pepper beard and a mean-as-hell gleam in his eyes. Peter's fingers automatically tightened around Tony's, pulling a choked sob from his chest as the man and Yinsen stopped at Peter's bedside.
"He says if you wish for medicine for the boy," Yinsen said, translating the man's Arabic words. "You must then agree to their terms."
Gritting his teeth, Tony gave Peter's hand what he hoped was a reassuring squeeze and then gripped the edge of his cot, managing to turn himself onto his side as a massive wave of pain crashed through his body. He narrowed his eyes at the man holding the rifle, proudly, as if it were his most prized possession.
"How did you get ahold of my guns?" Tony asked, with all the intensity he could muster. "Where'd all these weapons come from?"
The man immediately began speaking in rapid Arabic, a language that Tony didn't understand, finally indicating for Yinsen to translate.
"This is Abu Bakar," Yinsen began. "And he says, welcome Tony Stark, the greatest mass murderer in the history of America. He is very honoured to meet you."
"Can't say I feel the same," Tony replied quietly.
Abu reached into the pocket of his jacket, producing a folded photograph that he handed to Yinsen, still rattling off words that Tony couldn't decipher. Arabic had never been on his list of languages to master.
"He says, you will build for him the Jericho missile that you were demonstrating for the soldiers," said Yinsen. "Once they have a fully operational missile, they will set you and your son free."
Bullshit! Tony thought, barely able to keep from speaking the word out loud. "No, he won't," he said instead as he looked over at the shivering body of his son. "He'll either force me to build them something else or he'll kill us." Clenching his jaw, Tony slowly pushed himself up to a sitting position, looking Abu straight in the eye. "I'm not doing a goddamn thing for you until you get my son some medicine for his fever."
Tony watched Abu closely as Yinsen translated his words, the terrorist's eyes widening such that they looked as though they might pop out of his round head by the time Yinsen was finished. He shouted something in Arabic over his shoulder, roughly shoving Yinsen out of the way with the butt of his rifle as three other men rushed inside and grabbed ahold of Peter, yanking him right off his cot and dragging him towards the door.
"Dad!" Peter yelped, desperately reaching for Tony as he disappeared through the open doorway, his raspy cries tearing Tony's heart into tiny little pieces. "Daddy, where're they taking me? Daddy? Help me!"
"What the hell are you doing?" Tony screamed, the force nearly knocking his weakened body backwards. He lunged forward, attempting to reach for Abu but only managing to land face first on the freezing rock of the cave floor, the resulting pain nearly knocking the wind out of him as the terrorist smiled manically and backed out of the room.
"He says they will give the boy his medicine and then they will bring him back," Yinsen was saying as he dug his hands underneath Tony's shoulders, trying to help him back up. But Tony could barely hear him over the echo of Peter's frantic cries reverberating around in his head.
"What're they gonna do to him?" Tony shrieked as he shoved Yinsen's hands away, panting as he forced himself back into a sitting position, leaning against his cot. "Are they gonna kill him? He's only a boy, how could you let them take him? He wasn't even supposed to be here!"
He wasn't even supposed to be here. How could I let them take him?
'Cause I'm a helpless, worthless piece of shit, that's how.
"They will not kill the boy if they think they can use him to force you to do their bidding, Stark!" Yinsen yelled into Tony's ear as the metal door to their prison slammed closed with a thundering clang. "I don't know who you think you're dealing with, but these people are not just another one of your company's Board of Directors that you can bully around. These are the Ten Rings! Their leader is known across the world only as the Mandarin, and they are hell-bent on destroying not only the West, but any attempt at global world peace. They are an organisation bent on creating chaos, and they will stop at nothing to achieve their ends!"
A choked sob forced its way from Tony's throat. "Then what're they gonna do to my son? He—, he's got lung issues, he needs an inhaler to help him breathe even on a good day, and the fever's only making it worse!"
Yinsen let out a heavy sigh as he carefully placed Tony back onto his cot, rearranging the thick wire that had gotten itself wrapped around Tony's neck. "This is a very well-equipped camp, Stark. It is quite possible they will simply give him the medicine he requires, and then bring him back."
Tony sucked in a shaky breath, letting it out slowly as he cupped his hand over the electromagnet keeping him alive. "And then what?"
"And then they will punish you for your insubordination and ask their question again," answered Yinsen. "And I suspect they'll expect a more positive response."
"They want me to build them a weapon."
"And as soon as I'm done, they'll kill us both," Tony whispered, a fresh wave of panic threatening to drown him. "There's absolutely nothing to gain by agreeing to their demands except maybe a bit of time."
Yinsen was quiet for a moment. "Well," he finally said. "Then this is a very important time for you, isn't it."
As the SHIELD aircraft—something Director Fury had called a Quinjet—touched down at Edwards Air Force Base, Steve felt the same quickening of his pulse that he'd always felt whenever he was about to embark on one of his HYDRA raids during the war. Fury had given Steve some informational materials on the Ten Rings—the terrorist organization that Fury suspected had organised the Starks' kidnapping—to go over while they were airborne, and Steve had been relieved to discover that his desire to fight back against any and all bullies hadn't wavered in the slightest in the nearly seventy years he'd been under. In fact, as he glanced once again at the photographs of Tony and Peter Stark, his resolve seemed to be even stronger than ever. It wasn't only the fact that he finally felt like he was doing something useful, there was something more to it than that.
It was almost as though Steve felt protective of the Starks, something he hadn't felt this strongly since Bucky had slipped from his fingers from the side of that HYDRA train. He couldn't seem to stop staring at Tony Stark's picture, at the intense pain masked deep inside his no-nonsense expression, as if he was trying to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. Howard hadn't ever been like that, at least not when Steve had known him. Steve couldn't remember ever seeing Howard's smirky facade waver for even a second. Not even when he was flying Steve into an active war zone.
Exiting the Quinjet, Fury led Steve into the visitor's reception area where he would be meeting up with the rest of the rescue team. His Stars and Stripes uniform, already cleaned and repaired from its time in the ice, felt strangely out of place amongst the muted blues and greys of the various soldiers milling about, to say nothing about the hi-tech aircraft just sitting on display near the entrance to the building itself.
"Captain Rogers," Fury said as they were greeted by a slender black man wearing the stripes of a Lt. Colonel. "This is Colonel Rhodes. He's the military liaison to Stark Industries and a close personal friend of Mr. Stark's. He'll be accompanying you on this mission."
Steve immediately stood at attention, snapping his heels together and offering a salute. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Colonel."
"As you were, Captain," Rhodes said casually as he returned the salute, raising an eyebrow as he glanced at Fury. "And this mission of ours is strictly off the books, as it were, so you're gonna have to drop the formality. Understand?"
"Yes, sir," answered Steve, even though he really didn't. Military missions did not tend to go well if the proper chain of command wasn't followed, and the military hierarchy clearly stated that a Lt. Colonel outranked a Captain, so—
"Rhodes," said Rhodes, interrupting Steve's stream of consciousness. "Or Rhodey, that's what Tony calls me most of the time. And I know what you're thinking, but it doesn't apply here. This is not an officially sanctioned Air Force mission, Captain. We're just two friends out searching for another friend and his son. Is that clear?"
"Not—, not exactly, sir," Steve stammered. "But I'm sure I'll figure it out by the time we get there." Or at least I hope so.
"Good," Rhodes replied. "Now, unless you're itching to get targeted by every single enemy sniper in Afghanistan as soon as we land, we had better find you something more appropriate to wear."
The mention of snipers reminded Steve of Bucky, and he forcefully pushed the thought away, burying it deep in the recesses of his mind. He couldn't afford to dwell on the past right now with two people's lives at stake.
"Thank you, sir," Steve answered.
"Not sir," said Rhodes. "Rhodes."
"Rhodes. Thank you, Rhodes."
Not thirty minutes later, dressed in a brand-new set of what Rhodes called desert fatigues and his vibranium shield coated with something to dull down the colours, Steve and Rhodes boarded a troop transport plane heading for Afghanistan. Almost before he even sat down Steve could feel the not-so-subtle stares aimed his way from the other soldiers. Some were merely polite curiosity—a couple even with the same hero-worship looks that Agent Coulson often wore—while others were a bit more challenging, not too far off from how things had been when he'd first joined the Army, before the serum.
He supposed he would have to get used to it all over again.
"So," he said to Rhodes, practically shouting to be heard over the roar of the plane's engines. He'd definitely forgotten how loud the planes were. "How long have you known the Starks?"
"I've known Tony since he was fifteen," answered Rhodes. "We met at MIT our freshman year."
Freshman year? "Tony Stark went to college when he was fifteen?" Steve asked, incredulous.
"Yep," replied Rhodes. "Tony's smart, like damn smart. Graduated with two Master's degrees in less time than it takes most people to get a bachelor's. Guy couldn't even legally drink at his own graduation party. Not that that stopped him, though."
"That's… impressive," remarked Steve. "I guess the high intelligence runs in the family then?"
"Hmm?" Rhodes asked. "Oh, yeah. Peter's smarter than hell too, Tony's always bragging about this or that that he's done that I can barely understand. The two of them are pretty much in a league of their own."
"Actually, I meant Howard," Steve said. "I knew Howard, and I could barely understand the stuff he would talk about too. It was like he spoke a different language."
Rhodes shot him a strange look. "Oh, yeah. Well, you might wanna keep that to yourself when you first meet Tony. Actually, you might wanna keep it to yourself period."
"Come again?" asked Steve.
"I wouldn't mention Howard in front of Tony," Rhodes added. "Tony gets pretty upset whenever anyone talks about his old man around him."
"I can imagine," Steve replied. "It must have been hard on Tony when Howard died."
"Um, not exactly," Rhodes said as he tipped his head back against his seat, closing his eyes. "Tony couldn't stand Howard."
"He couldn't stand his own father?" Steve asked. Having lost his own father before he was even born, Steve just couldn't comprehend that possibility of not loving your own parent. Plus, from what everyone had said it seemed like Tony Stark absolutely adored his own son, so Steve had just assumed…
Rhodes shrugged. "'Cause Howard was an asshole, according to Tony. I only met him a couple of times, so I can't say I had a strong personal opinion of him either way. But from what Tony's told me they never had all that great of a relationship. So… yeah. Just don't mention the fact that you knew his dad right off the bat, okay? He's gonna be cranky enough as it is when we find him."
"Um… sure," answered Steve. Why wasn't that information in the file? "No problem."
"Good," Rhodes said. "Now if you don't mind, we got a fifteen-hour flight ahead of us, so I'm gonna try and catch some sleep. It's been a little hard to come by lately, if you know what I mean."
"Yes, I do," Steve whispered, his mind already drifting back to the photo of Tony Stark. Was his strained relationship with his father the reason why he looked so sad? Or was there more to it than that?
"How fucking long are they gonna keep my boy!" Tony shrieked as yet another shockwave of pain shot through his body. Damn his pathetic weak self! He was Tony Stark, dammit! He was supposed to be untouchable. He was supposed to be made of iron.
He was supposed to protect Peter.
And he'd failed.
"I don't know, Stark," Yinsen said in a flat, detached tone of voice that only made Tony's rage deepen. He was so angry and frightened that he could barely see straight, much less able to form any coherent thought process on how the hell he was going to get them out of this goddamn place.
Rhodey's gotta be looking for us, Tony thought. He's just gotta. Burning hot tears stung his eyes as he realized that he and Peter probably could have avoided this entire mess if Tony had just agreed to ride in Rhodey's vehicle back from the weapons demonstration, as Rhodey had tried to insist.
Curse me and my fucking arrogance!
A loud clang on the thick metal door startled Tony from his morbid thoughts, and he pushed himself up on his cot just as two men burst into the room, dragging a semi-conscious Peter between them.
"Peter!" Tony yelped, holding out his hand towards his son and trying to ignore the intense pain in his torso. "Pete? Are you okay? What did they do to you?"
But Peter only moaned in reply as the men tossed him onto his cot as if he were nothing more than a rag doll, then turned and left without a single word. Tony winced as the door slammed shut again, dropping to his knees in front of his son and brushing the sweaty curls off his forehead.
"Pete? It's me, buddy. What did those bastards do to you? Did they give you something?"
"Mmm," Peter mumbled, so softly that Tony could barely hear him. While he was no longer shivering, his round cheeks were flushed and his lungs were rattling with every single shallow inhale and exhale. Whatever they had done to him hadn't seemed to help him all that much.
"There's an injection mark here, Stark," Yinsen said, pointing to a needle prick in the crook of Peter's left elbow. "And his fever seems to have broken. They might have just given him an antibiotic."
"Might have?" Tony snapped. "But we have no way of knowing, do we? He can barely breathe, goddamnit! He's not gonna last too much longer like this!"
"They will not allow him to die if they can still use him to force your hand, Stark!" Yinsen shot back. "You need to remember that!"
"I am not building those assholes a Jericho missile!" Tony hissed. "I refuse! They'll just kill us all as soon as they have it!"
"Well, then I suggest you come up with an alternative plan," replied Yinsen. "And quickly."
Tony huffed out a sharp breath, his fingers combing through Peter's damp hair as he pressed a quick kiss to Peter's clammy forehead. "It's gonna be all right, Pete," he whispered. "I promise it's gonna be all right. I'm gonna figure something out, okay? So you just gotta hold on for me. Can you do that for me, buddy?"
Peter instinctively turned his head, his cheek resting against Tony's palm as he let out a soft, "Uh huh."
"That's my boy," Tony murmured, his mind already racing with possibilities. Yinsen had told him that the weapons casings littering their prison had been stripped of any and all explosives, but that didn't mean there wasn't still something useful there. It would definitely be a challenge to make it appear that he was building the Jericho missile when in fact he'd be building something else, but when it came down to it, there really was little that Tony Stark enjoyed more than a challenge.
They want me to build a weapon? he thought, still stroking Peter's hair. Then I'll build a weapon that they'll never forget!