Tony is four when he is first kidnapped.
He crouches in the dark for hours, clutching his teddy bear and wishing he had something other than flannel pajamas on because it's cold here in the dark– and more than anything, wishing that someone would come and get him home. He doesn't know why he's here, doesn't remember how he got there, but all he knows is that he desperately wants someone to save him.
He hopes it might be Daddy, except that Daddy's so busy all the time and Tony's not sure he's important enough to warrant being saved by him, taking away some of his precious time – but then he thinks that maybe it'll be Captain America that finds him, and somehow that fills him with hope. Because Captain America is a hero, Daddy's told him that enough times, and isn't that what heroes do? Rescue other people, even scared little boys who aren't worth anybody's time?
Later, he will be dropped off at a hospital, blindfolded and tied up, and the next morning he will wake to his parents arguing in the next room, Howard yelling that the money could have been spent on something so much more useful.
He's six, and it's his fourth kidnapping, when he realizes that no one will come for him.
The abductors don't want money this time, they want the plans to Howard's new arc reactor. And Tony knows that that is something Howard will never give. Not for anyone, and especially not for Tony. Money he can throw on his son's kidnappers, because he has plenty, though he scowls each time and makes it clear he thinks it's a waste. But his technology rates – has always rated – over both his fortune and his family.
The man throws the phone to the ground and rounds on Tony, his expression murderous.
Tony has never been this terrified in his life. Instead of slowing down like other people's, his brain throws itself into overdrive.
He throws himself across the floor, missing the man's swing, and lunges for the fork they gave him a couple of hours ago for his supper. He rolls onto his side and, with all the strength of his skinny arms, jams it into the plug socket.
He lets go of it not a moment too soon and launches himself out of the way as it fizzles and explodes, and every light goes dark. Panting, he lurches to his feet and runs out the door.
The corridors are semi-dark, and he flashes through them, grabbing at every door and hurtling on when they don't have what he's looking for. There are heavy footsteps behind him, running for him, but he doesn't dare turn around.
He skids to a halt as he catches a glimpse of a kitchen, and topples inside. Hastily he wrenches off all the stove buttons and, holding his breath, opens the gas all the way before tearing out of there.
He hits a staircase and immediately runs down the stairs – do the unexpected, don't let them dictate your movements – and within moments he's in the basement. There, it's there, and his fingers scrabble at the power controls, wrenching them down.
A hand grabs him around the neck and roughly pulls him back; Tony shrieks and struggles as best as he can. It's no use, he's being dragged away. Desperation kicks in and he bites at the hand – with a curse, he's dropped and he lunges at the control panel, jamming the levers back up as hard as he can, and dives to the ground.
The world around him explodes.
They find him among the wreckage, scrabbling to free himself. He's crawled between several slabs of cement, his hands bloodied, and wedged himself there so tight he can't move. He cries hysterically when they try to pry him out. None of them come close; instead, they sit and tell him that he has to be the one to work himself loose.
This time he actually stays in the hospital for several days. On the third one, when Howard comes round, he stares at Tony for a long time, and says, "Well, at least we didn't have to pay anything."
When he gets home, he takes down all of his Captain America posters, and throws his action figure into the bin.
There's no such thing as heroes.
The kidnapping when Tony is fourteen years old marks a turning point in both his kidnapping experiences and his life.
Unbeknownst to him, it's also the first time he meets Nick Fury.
He's fourteen, a MIT student, and gangly and awkward in a way only teenagers can be. He's also fucking exhausted, and running on entirely too many painkillers as he stands to attention before his father and his guest, his bandaged ribs protesting the rigid stance and his knees ready to give any moment, but he won't drop his gaze before Howard does.
"But what did they want?" Howard repeats, pacing up and down his study, and looking as though he's speaking to himself more than expecting Tony to answer. Well, it's not like he ever actually listens to what Tony has to say. "They never asked for anything, even before he got out."
The other man in the room keeps silent, his eyes tracking Howard, but Tony draws himself up to answer.
"They didn't want money," he says, his words thick and uneven because, wow, he must be on enough painkillers to open a small pharmacy. "They wanted… They wanted me to improve the design of your missile P42."
Howard stops dead in his tracks and stares at Tony.
The silence in the room is total, and Tony is acutely aware, even through his drugged haze, that the other man's eyes have snapped to him, but the man remains in the shadows, as he has since he first entered the room.
Howard's laughter breaks the silence, first a throaty chuckle which quickly evolves into full-blown laughter until he throws his head back and roars with it, echoing around the room. Both Tony and the man look at him like he's about to attack, but Howard, his shoulders shaking so hard he has to clench the back of a chair for support, doesn't notice.
He finally wipes tears from his eyes, one last chuckle escaping his throat. "They wanted you to improve one of my inventions? God, they must have been even stupider than they looked."
Something rises inside Tony, boiling and scalding, something that tears through his self-control, or what little he has left in his woozy state. His mouth is open before he realizes he's speaking.
"I could have."
It could almost be funny how fast all trace of humor just vanishes from Howard's face. It could be, except it's not. It's scary as hell, but the burning sensation is still coiling inside Tony's gut, and he carries on, like a train wreck, out of control now. The man is very still in the corner, and Tony refuses to look at him; it's Howard his words are directed at.
"It can be improved; there's a weakness with the stabilizing system. It wasn't calibrated correctly –"
The backhand sends him sprawling to the floor.
His ribs scream in protest, but Tony won't give him the satisfaction of knowing he hurts like hell. He gazes up at his father, and rises on one knee, refusing to look down. Howard's face is apoplectic with rage.
"Remember your place, Tony. Now get out of my sight."
Tony turns and leaves. It's kind of horrific really, but tonight has been a learning experience. As he closes the door, he knows he has learned two things.
One, he hates his father.
Two, it's all kinds of fucked up that when he realized that someone had, for the first time, kidnapped him because they want something from him, because they wanted his talents, he felt sort of elated.
Not all the abducting attempts are successful.
It's been three weeks since the funeral, and he's so drunk he thinks there may be more alcohol than blood in his system. He barely reacts as hands grab his arms and start dragging him across the floor.
And then there's a whir of wheels, and furious clicking, and shouting and curses of pain, and he's dropped to the floor. His head bangs painfully on the concrete and he moans and looks up.
His glorious new robot, DUM-E, is herding the men towards the door, his arm swinging madly. One of the men tries to break free but the arm comes around and sweeps him boldly off his feet and oh yeah, he did make him armoured steel, right? The man topples like a card house and the others grab him and run.
DUM-E lets out something that could only be described as a huff and rolls back to Tony.
He laughs and laughs, the powerful pincer threading through his hair with extraordinary gentleness, and he can't quite tell at which point the laughter turns to sobs. Because nobody's ever saved him, and when somebody finally does it's a fucked-up robot built on enough alcohol to drown a fish by a fucked-up teenager. Somewhere, someone is laughing at him (someone always has been).
No one comes to save from the Ten Rings.
Instead, he builds his own hero to save himself and his friend.
He walks out of Afghanistan with shrapnel in his heart and blood on his hands.
It takes a full two months and a half after the New York invasion, three weeks and two days after the rest of the Avengers hesitantly move in, before he is captured again.
It lasts two hours and thirty-four minutes and frankly, he's a little insulted, because if that's the best they can do and he still gets caught, well, he probably deserves it. He walks out of the van where they're holding him with nothing more than a split lip and a bruised cheek.
He swans into the meeting twenty minutes late, and there's a round of frowns to greet him. Bruce's, however, is directed at the bruise on his face.
"What happened to you?"
"I'm in an abusive relationship with my bots," Tony deadpans.
Blank looks all around, and wow, the vein on Fury's forehead is throbbing dangerously.
"Just kidding. A small malfunction as I upgraded Dummy. Knee-jerk reflex, or its robotic equivalent."
Steve rolls his eyes and the meeting carries on.
His team hasn't even noticed he was gone.
The next to try are a bit better, and they actually manage to hold Tony for over two days. He's actually amazed at their capacity to resist the impulse to strangle him during that time. He's the most aggravating captive he's ever met. He's not as impressed with the methods they use to try and make him shut up.
Tony limps out in a foul mood, which only clears slightly when he manages to call Jarvis to send him his suit. He flies back to the tower, and immediately makes a beeline for the kitchen, which contributes to a significant rise of his mood. He's exiting the room, munching on a cookie, when he bumps into the Avengers.
Actually, he bumps into Steve, quite literally as the man almost runs him over. He's dressed in his uniform and really, Tony must do something about that when he has the time, because he looks like he crawled out of a comic book, except that his cowl is down and he's disheveled and wide-eyed with panic, and he latches onto Tony like he's the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and coffee.
"What happened, Tony?" he asks, gripping his upper arm. "Where were you? Who took you? Is that blood on your face?"
"Whoa, personal space, baby," Tony starts to say as he drags his arm free and steps back, and only gets an armful of Thor for his trouble.
"My friend! You are returned to us!" The Norse God booms, and seriously, the flinch is as much from the volume as it is from his jostled sprained wrist.
"Um, air big guy?" he wheezes. "No, seriously, put me down, there's this little limitation to mortals called breathing –"
Thor drops him as though he's scalding hot, and Tony sways and grabs a wall to hold himself up as he catches his breath. Unfortunately, that's Captain's cue for taking up the interrogation session up.
"Are you seriously injured?" He doesn't wait for a response and takes Tony's head in his hands, violating his personal space, again, seriously, what is it with these people? "That looks like it needs stitches. Do you have any other -"
"Right, that's it, cut the crap," Tony straightens and moves around Steve, and oh, hey, rest of the team, sorry I didn't see you behind the two Big and Bulky! "Head wounds bleed like a bitch, Cap, or didn't they teach you that in med school? Oh, that's right, you didn't go. Which is why you're going to stay the fuck away from my amazing face and the blood that yes, is flowing down the side of it. And no, Brucie, I know you played fix-it in Calcutta and other backwater places, but you're not going near my gorgeous person either, that's hours old anyway, not much you can do there-"
"What do you mean it's hours old?" Steve exclaims at the same time as Natasha asks, "And what do you think you're doing?"
Tony pauses in his footsteps and looks at her blankly, because, hey, isn't it obvious?
"Well first of all, I'm eating, because I haven't had a bite since Tuesday – we are Friday, right? - and then I'm going down to the workshop."
He snags the cookie box back and saunters out. And realizes there's a host of Avengers following him down the stairs, Steve trying to catch his arm and slow him down.
"But what happened to you? No one knew where you were, everything was on maximum security alert, even Fury got involved, and then we caught you on camera walking in, we thought you'd been kidnapped –"
"All right, stop there, really, you can't go on lockdown every time I take off for a couple of days, I do that all the time, just ask Pepper, it drives her crazy, probably time to give her a rise by the way-"
"Wait, so you were on vacation?" Tony's not sure he's ever heard Bruce sound so outraged before.
"Well, no, technically, I was kidnapped," Tony drawls as he enters the workshop and inhales, ah, the sweet smell of motor oil and burning rubber. "Hey, baby bots, daddy's home!" DUM-E zooms across the workshop, chirping excitedly, and he gives him an absent-minded pat as he moves towards his workbench. "But you really can't stop everything every time I drop off grid, I do it often enough, I swear, you're just going to drive yourselves insane –"
Someone grips his shoulder and whirls him around. He's expecting Steve, but it's Clint, eyes wide and looking kind of freaked out.
"What do you mean technically kidnapped?"
"You know, people come out, knock you out, tie you up, make all sorts of demands, yadda yadda yadda," Tony shoots back, annoyed, and tugs himself free. He turns towards his workshop. "Jarvis, download data from file 24601B – what?" He snarls at yet another person who's trying to tug on his arm.
His team is staring at him, and wow, there is a truly epic level of non-communication going here, really he should call the Guinness Book, but again, it's Steve who takes point and derails him.
"What happened to you, Tony?" He says and looks so worried and earnest Tony almost feels bad for him. Almost, except that he's Tony, and he doesn't have the capacity to feel sorry for anyone. He thinks. Except Pepper. And maybe Rhodey. "I'm sorry, but I don't understand. Where were you?"
Tony gives a great sigh, and proceeds to explain in a way even time-travelling soldiers can understand.
"I got kidnapped. I broke free. I'm hungry and I've got work to do. End of the story. Can we move on now?"
He doesn't wait for an answer, but raises his hands and blue holograms fill the lab. File after file slides up and opens, and he's in motion at once, flicking them open and sending them to the side or drawing them closer, zooming in on images and scrolling past long lines of computer codes. He runs down a list of names, highlights two with his fingers and drags them into a new blank file. His fingers dance across the keyboard and he grins in satisfaction and turns to pick up the smoothie he knows DUM-E will have prepared.
And realizes his team is still there.
They're gazing somewhat open-mouthed around themselves, at the lab who has somehow turned into a sort of Milky Way, blue lights flickering on and out and zooming around to rearrange themselves, and he suddenly realizes that they've never been down here, not even Bruce, because when he wants to play with his lab-bro, they usually go to the squeaky new lab he's installed on the forty-second floor. Natasha is gazing around, her face lifted in something that he'd call wonder, except it's Natasha, illuminated in soft blue light, and beside her, Thor looks like someone has just gifted him with the universe in a box. Clint is reaching out warily, poking at a hologram, but his face breaks into a wide grin when the file spins on itself to face him and flips open. Steve, on his other side, has nearly dropped his shield, and looks around himself as if expecting anything to spontaneously burst into light and sound. Bruce's the only who seems more or less level, because he's already seen some of Tony's awesome displays, and he's ignoring the holograms, gazing right at Tony.
"Um, why are you still here?" He tries not to sound confused, he really does, but he doesn't get it. Shouldn't they have left, at this point?
The Avengers jump guiltily to a one – except Natasha, but one day Tony swears he will get her, because she's going to give him a heart attack, he knows it, he has a heart condition and she never makes a fucking noise – and seem to remember that, oh yeah, Tony's here, and he's been kidnapped, and for some reason, that sends them into a flurry of activity all over again.
"You have to get to medical, Tony, and then debrief so we can catch these guys –"
"Uh, what exactly do you think I've been doing here, Cap?" Tony gestures at the air, where two photographs have just appeared, and line after line of data, everything from their date of birth to their last shopping list is materializing on either side. "Been there, done that and moving on." He gestures for another file, and a map of New York comes into view. "Jarvis, last coordinates of the suit?"
A fat red "x" appears on the map and Tony uploads the file onto an email he entitles "Assholes waiting for you to arrest them".
"Right then, now it's Fury's problem, he can handle the cleanup. In case they missed the explosion."
"Explosion?" Steve squeaks, and Jarvis obligingly draws up security feed of a building exploding in flames in the background as Tony walks out, and yeah, he does look kind of badass. "Perfect! And now moving on to the important things." He swivels around in his chair and comes face to face with the Captain America Face TM, with Steve gripping his armrests, and heaves a great sigh.
"Seriously, Cap, you need to let this go, it's not the first time it has happened and I'm pretty sure it won't be the last."
"But why?" Thor's eyebrows are scrunched up and he kind of looks as if he's trying to unravel the mysteries of the universe. Tony takes pity on him.
"Well, let's see," and he drags up a finger, and ouch, that was his sprained wrist. "Overall, the whole philanthropist thing doesn't give me too much trouble, though there was that one guy who didn't like it when I stopped building weapons. Playboy, okay, that might have gotten me in a couple of situations best forgotten. Moving on. Billionaire, you might think that after the first twenty attempts they'd get that Stark Industries has a no ransom paying policy, but hey, I guess we're not dealing with Einsteins here. And genius, well, you can guess what they want me to build, and the last attempt got me this - " he taps the arc reactor "So we all know why that doesn't work out."
He lowers the four fingers and Thor looks crestfallen, and Steve looks like someone just kicked his puppy, and Bruce is fidgeting with the hem of his shirt and looking down, and Clint's hologram is crushed in his hand and Natasha looks pissed – well that's her default look anyway, but she looks more pissed than usual.
"None of that people, sulking is not allowed in here, unless it's me, in that case it is, because the whole goddamn tower belongs to me so I can do what I want, suck it, no really, take the frowny faces out of here, this is no big shit, I got away from abducting assholes at six, I can do it thirty years and a dozen of engineering degrees later."
"You got kidnapped at six?"
And there it is again, the Unhappy Steve face, like someone just told him Santa Claus doesn't exist.
"Yes, I did. I also got out, which is the important point. Can you stop freaking out now?"
"How'd you get out?" It's Clint this time, and he's looking at Tony calculatingly.
"When I was six, I jammed a fork in an electric socket, found a kitchen and let the gas out, and then turned the power back on. This time, I stole one of their watches and rigged it to explode. Dragged the guys out, tied them up, and then I blew up a car against the base of the building. Explosions. Gotta love them. Best way to deal with the evidence."
He turns back to his workshop, and all the images blink out of existence. He drags up the schematics for his most recent Stark Industries project, and proceeds to ignore the background noise.
This abduction may be worse than the Afghanistan incident. Or at least as bad.
On the plus side? He doesn't get shrapnel in his chest this time.
On the minus side? They don't want him to build weapons this time so he's kept locked up at all times.
Oh, and since apparently they don't trust him, he gets drugged to the gills too, this time.
Which explains why, when they drag him out of the cell after who knows how long, he can't answer their questions. Hell, he can't even manage his usual wisecracks, because he doesn't even understand them – his brain is foggy and their words come out as a jumble.
Their response to their own stupidity in drugging him so bad he can't even answer their questions is apparently to plunge his head into a tub of freezing water.
He gasps and jerks, the shock jolting some awareness back into him, and chokes and inhales a sizable quantity of water before he's hauled out by the neck of his shirt. He doesn't even have the time to inhale before they force his head back under.
In and out, in and out, and he's going numb, and sound is doing that weird thing where it goes muted and then not, but somehow he seems to have managed to get some air at least, because he's still alive and it's still going on and he's lost count –
His head breaks the water and he hears a crash, and he thinks people come into the room, except he can't see clearly because water is dripping everywhere, into his face and eyes, but he hears shouting and swearing.
Whoever is holding him up by the neck lets go of him, and that's a really bad idea because he falls back face first into the water.
He really wants his body to move, to at least lift his head, but he's so numb he can't move a muscle, and everything goes black.
He wakes up – sort of- to someone crushing his chest and Clint shouting at him.
"-I swear to God, Stark, you're nowhere near pretty enough for me to kiss, so you better wake up now!"
He rolls onto his side and vomits what feels like the entire Atlantic Ocean.
"Oh, thank God. That's good, we're good, buddy," says someone, and Clint sounds so goddamned relieved Tony sort of wants to cry. He can't stop coughing, and with every heave more water spews out of him. There are hands on his back, rubbing soothing circles, and other ones cutting through the ropes around his wrists, and wow, look at that, he's not in the water anymore, he's on the ground and there seems to be a lot going on but really he doesn't care, all he wants is air.
He's pulled onto his back once his breathing eases out a little, and his arms flop like dead fish, he ought to feel insulted by that, but he just can't muster the energy to care. Someone touches his face, palming his cheek and rubbing a thumb across his cheekbone, and he half-opens his eyes to see Steve's blue gaze.
"You with us, Tony?"
He wants to say yes, he really does, because even if that's not the strictest truth, Tony Stark never admits to a weakness. But his throat doesn't want to obey. It refuses to even utter a sound, and there's panic creeping into Steve's face.
"He's drugged, Captain," and that sounds a lot like Natasha would, he thinks, if she ever were worried. His eyes close of their own volition.
"Tony!" Her voice is sharp. "You can't sleep! I think they overdosed you, you can't sleep yet! Just hold on for a few minutes –"
He slips away in the roaring chaos.
He opens his eyes – slowly – to surroundings of fuzzy white, and Thor.
For a few minutes, that's all he registers – white walls, which must mean he's in medical again, and Thor's low, rumbling voice. When he finally manages to turn his head, he sees that Thor is holding a cell phone with the utmost delicacy, and speaking into it.
The movement catches Thor's eye, and a grin so wide it breaks the barriers of physics appears.
"I shall call you back, Jane! Our shield brother has woken!"
He snaps the phone shut and Tony winces because, ow, he's pretty sure it's broken. But Thor bounds to the door, throws it open, and bellows "HE IS WOKEN!" and then kneels next to Tony's bed with such a hangdog expression that Tony pretty much has to forgive him instantly.
"We have sorely missed you, Tony Stark." He says, taking hold of Tony's hand.
"What –" Tony begins, and the door bangs against the wall, and this time he knows it's broken.
Thor is pushed aside, and there is Steve, holding Tony's face and looking at him like he's going to cry. And then it's Bruce, his hands running over the bandages he didn't know he had and asking him what's the Fibonacci sequence, and is that the best he can come up with?
"One, one, two, three, five, eight, thirteen, twenty-one, thirty-four what the fuck guys?" He looks around his room and they're all there, grinning like they've been relieved of the weight of the world on their shoulders, even Natasha, and that is a scary thought, but somehow he doesn't think he's even able to feel scared with Thor still holding onto to his hand and Bruce's steady hands measuring his heartbeat and oh.
"You miss my awesome?" is what he means to say, but instead what comes out is, "You came." And yes, it does sound as pathetic as it did inside his head, but they all pretend not to notice, because they're awesome like that.
"Yes." Steve's own hand is gentle on his shoulder. "No explosions this time, sorry." He even manages to sound apologetic.
Tony chokes on a laugh that's half a sob, and resolutely holds back the tears, because goddamit, these guys. His eyes find Clint, perched on top of a chair with a smile that light up the entire room.
"So," he says," drawing himself up, and ouch, that was his ribs. "Not pretty enough to kiss."
Clint laughs, and suddenly there are smiles breaking out all over again, and chairs are moved closer to his bed, and he doesn't protest when Natasha grabs his other hand.
"Face it, Stark, you're nowhere near as handsome as this," Clint waggles his eyebrows and gestures down at himself.
Tony laughs, and half-closes his eyes, because he's never felt so safe.
Heroes do exist, and someone did come for him.