There were half a dozen numbers on the list. Steve called Howard from Jones' office to recite them, and by the time he'd ridden the elevator down and exited the building, the SHIELD agent who'd driven him and Natasha here was standing by the car, holding the door open. "We think we have the location. There's only one signal not originating in a parking facility in the city."
Steve got in. "That sounds like it. Where is it?"
"New Jersey." The agent shut the door and got into the front. He pulled away from the curb. "There's nothing on the map."
"So, it's either a secret hideout, or he ditched the car there and changed to one that hasn't got a tracker in it." Steve didn't want to assume anything. Missions went wrong when you were complacent.
"Yes, sir, that's Director Fury's feeling on the matter. We're returning to the Stark Mansion to plan the assault."
"Yes, I'm seventy, but I'm not senile or crippled," Howard said fiercely, leaning over the dining room table cleared of silver and expensive porcelain so it could bear the detailed terrain map of New Jersey, held down by pins dug into the lovingly polished wood. Jarvis had supplied the pins. "I lost my son once. Do you really think you can keep me from going after him? You're just lucky Maria agreed she's got to stay with the girls."
Fury didn't like it, Steve could see that. But he remembered how he felt when Bucky was lost. Even if the army hadn't written him off as a lost cause he would have gone. And Howard had piloted an unarmed plane into enemy territory for him without a moment's hesitation. "Sir, I believe Mr. Stark's knowledge of Stane may prove invaluable."
Fury scowled. "The FBI or the police wouldn't let you go along. I should have given them this lead."
Steve noticed the past tense. Fury wasn't saying no. He turned his head as he sensed someone entering the room. It was Natasha. She gave Steve an acknowledging glance. "My relief arrived to keep Mr. Jones and his guard company," she explained to him softly as Howard and Fury stuck more pins into the map. "Babysitting was never my strong point. I'll be accompanying the strike force."
Steve nodded. "Glad to have you, ma'am."
In the end it was decided to surround the tracker location and try to tempt Stane out. Natasha got all dolled up in shiny black shorts, with visible seam lines up the front, that fitted her like a girdle (Steve thought it was her underwear at first) and a bright pink sleeveless blouse that had spaghetti straps, see-through mesh on the sides and a flaring not quite skirt. She also had a red white and blue jacket with stars, stripes and USA boldly written across it. She made up her face and somehow her eyes were huge and green as new grass.
"Is it really believable that a woman would be training for the Olympics on a private road in the wilds of New Jersey?" Steve asked as they were loading her fancy bicycle in a helicopter. "I didn't even know there was an event for that."
"It's new," Natasha said as the red, white and blue bicycle was strapped down under her critical eye. "Two years ago, Women's Track Cycling was included."
"Still, even if he knew that, Stane would be suspicious." Steve got into the chopper. Howard was already seated next to the pilot, tapping his fingers impatiently on a briefcase he held in his lap. He wouldn't say what was in it.
Howard looked up. "Obi thinks of women as decorative accessories. No matter how suspicious he is, he won't see Agent Romanov as a threat."
Natasha got in and sat next to Steve. "That's how I read his profile. He'll want to know how I found him, whether there are any more like me at home, that sort of thing." She smiled. "It won't be a problem, Steve. I've played this game before."
"But you're not even armed."
"I'm not?" Natasha put on a set of headphones and gestured for Steve to do the same. "It's good that you think that. Very good."
Fury came out onto the lawn. He walked up to the helicopter and leaned in the open door. "The rest of the strike force will meet you en route. Get going," he said and waved to the pilot.
"You're not coming with us, sir?" Steve shouted over the sound of the engine warming up. It shouldn't have been a surprise. After all, how many generals went on missions back in the war? But he'd thought Fury was personally involved.
"Goin' to the circus." Fury strode off, leaving Steve wondering what he meant. He looked at Natasha; she shrugged.
To be on the safe side and avoid the remote chance that the sound of even distant helicopters would alarm Stane, the meet point was three miles from Stane's assumed coordinates. In addition to Natasha and the two pilots, Fury had assigned half a dozen agents, all wearing plain black fatigues. The plan was so basic it didn't deserve the name, but Steve went over it with them anyway. They were to stay undercover while Natasha attempted to infiltrate, and back her up if she was in trouble.
Natasha shook her head. "Only come in on my signal," she said. "Or if I'm out of commission. First priority is to recover the weapon. Secondary, the boy." Steve didn't protest. It made military sense. He didn't have to like it, though and he could see from Howard's glare that he wasn't alone in his opinion. Natasha concluded with, "Everything else is optional, including my survival."
"Do we need to bring Stane in alive?" One of the men asked.
"It would be preferable," Natasha said. "But it's not essential. We can dig into his records to find out anything we need to know about his past activities. Any questions?" She said it as a formality, Steve thought.
Howard said, "I'm not as fast as I used to be."
Oh, yeah. They were all on foot, except for Natasha's bicycle.
Natasha said, "You invited yourself to this party, Stark. How you get there is up to you." She got on her bicycle and began pedaling along a dirt path that went in the general direction they wanted. The SHIELD agents started after her at the steady pace of trained infantrymen.
Steve took his shield off his back. "I'll carry you. You don't weigh that much." He removed his belt and used it to tie his shield onto Howard's back. It wasn't as secure as he'd like, but it would do. "Give me your tie." Steve took the tie and made it into a loop through the briefcase handle which he slipped around his neck and knotted onto the briefcase handle. "I think we're good to go."
"Thanks." Howard climbed onto Steve's back.
"Put your arms around my neck and grab one of your wrists," Steve said. As soon as Howard had done that, Steve got his arms under Howard's knees and locked his hands together. He shifted and nodded in approval. "Tell me if you need a break." Then he started running. He caught up with the others in a few moments and pressed past to keep pace with Natasha on the bicycle. Natasha gave Steve an eye roll, but otherwise ignored him.
"You've done this before?" Howard asked.
"Yeah. The saddleback carry's in the Army manual." Steve didn't like to think how often he'd carried a wounded comrade like this. "You're not carrying a sixty pound pack, and neither am I, so this is cake."
"Cake, he says," Howard muttered. "How long can you keep going?"
"Long as it takes." Steve settled into his rhythm. It felt good to be with a team, even a temporary one made of strangers. It felt good to be doing something with a clearly defined purpose. Maybe Fury was right, and he should join SHIELD. Maybe.
Obi wasn't so easily fooled as Tony had hoped. He took one look at the preliminary diagram for the palm units and snorted. "Transistors? You must take me for an idiot, Tony." He snatched up the dangling chain he'd left attached to the prong collar and gave it a swift yank. Tony fell from the chair, scrambling to release the tension, but Obi kept backing up, forcing him to scurry along on his hands and knees, not letting up long enough for Tony to get to his feet. "That's hurtful, boy. And insulting. You need to learn respect for your master."
Obi stopped when he got to the middle of another unfinished cement room similar to the one Tony had seen before. This one had a few frightening differences. There was a chain running through a heavy ring set in the center of the ceiling; one end had a hook, and was hanging about waist high, the other was attached to a crank set in the wall. Directly under the hanging chain the cement sloped to a metal grate. The cement for a yard around the drain was discolored with rusty brown stains. "No!" Tony shouted. He tried to fight but Obi casually backhanded him so hard Tony was dizzy. He shook off the effect a few seconds later, but Obi had already hooked Tony's chain to the larger one and cranked it up so high he was standing on the balls of his feet, and scrabbling with his hands for the chain above his head. He couldn't get enough slack to get free, but taking some of his weight on his arms helped.
"There, now. Since this is your first lesson, I'm being lenient." Obi came up to Tony and put his hand on Tony's chest. "It can be much, much worse." He pushed gently on Tony's chest. Tony staggered back a step, hastily catching himself. Obi made a little humming noise. "A little pain concentrates the mind wonderfully, I've found." He unbuttoned Tony's shirt and examined his chest, tracing his fingers lightly over the faded scars picked up during his years with the wolves. Tony growled, hating the soft, sticky feeling; it was like having a bloated spider walk on him.
Obi smiled. "Oh, that's just asking for it." He patted Tony's stomach. "You think I won't really damage you. Don't count on it." He turned away and went to a shelf Tony hadn't noticed because it was the same dull gray as the walls. He picked up something long and brown, tapering like a snake, but with a loop at the end. "This is rather appropriate, don't you think? It's a dog whip. Meant just for the sound of it, I'm told. They told me when I purchased it that it would be cruel to actually hit the animal I was training. Still... pain is such a time-saver." Before he finished speaking he swung the whip, hitting Tony across the ribs.
The pain wasn't that bad, but the force of it made him dance on his toes trying to keep from strangling. He hated that his arms and legs were free, but even when Obi came up to fondle the bruises, he couldn't fight back. It was worse than when the people had tied him up in the cabin. He continued to growl whenever he could catch a breath, but it seemed to amuse Obi as he continued the beating. Tony's arms and legs were on fire from the unnatural stress, but he couldn't relax a moment. Obi kept hitting at random and Tony had to stay alert to avoid being choked out again. He was reasonably sure Obi wouldn't let him actually die -not yet, not yet, the cat wasn't bored with the mouse-, but he hated the thought of being unable even to see what Obi would do to him.
He was half-choked and dizzy, so for a moment he thought that loud buzzing noise was in his head, but Obi dropped the whip and looked away from Tony. "Huh. Seems we have a visitor. You know, just when you get into the swing of things, there's always an interruption." He went over to the crank and released the chain. Tony's legs folded up under him, letting him hit the floor hard. He reached up and tore at the collar, loosening it so he could breathe deeply. While he was occupied with that, Obi took something else from the shelf and came over to him. "I'll get rid of them and be right back. Don't want to lose my place." He kicked Tony onto his belly and tied his hands and feet together. "Comfy?" He rolled Tony onto his side and touched his mouth. "Breathing ok?" Tony snapped at him. Obi pulled his hand back just in time. "Yeah, you're fine." He shoved a piece of cloth into Tony's mouth and tied another cloth around his head, holding it in place. He got up and looked down at Tony for a minute. "Maybe a visitor is a good thing. I can demonstrate on them what happens to people, and puppies, who annoy me." Obi walked out of the room but he left the door open.
Tony wriggled around and tested the ropes. There wasn't any give in them, but he could caterpillar his way across the floor. It was slow and moderately painful as the cement grated his skin raw, and it was probably useless, but lying here sure wasn't doing any good. He paused to catch his breath every few seconds, lifting his head and listening. The buzzing stopped. Tony estimated Obi's stride, speed of an average pace, assuming direct course to...where... not the way they'd come in, with the car... well, so much for figuring out when Obi would reach the door, when he didn't even know where the door was, if there was a door. He laid his head down, and concentrated on calming himself, then resumed inching to the door. Once he reached it and got into the carpeted hallway moving was less painful.
He could see footprints in the thick plush, not yet risen, which told him which way Obi had gone. He kept on, wriggling, listening intently every time he had to pause for breath. He chewed at the cloth in his mouth, and growled softly. He was too angry to be scared, and he worked at staying angry. He reached the end of the hallway and squirmed around the corner before he stopped again. This time he could hear the murmur of Obi's voice, deep-toned and smooth. There were pauses, but he couldn't hear the other person. Obi would lie and they would go away. Tony took a deep breath and howled as loud as he could despite the stuff in his mouth.
Obi's voice rose, and there was a scuffle, and then the unmistakable sound of his own palm units firing. Tony struggled to pull himself up against the wall. He heard a rapid beat of footsteps, muffled by carpet, and then Obi appeared. His jacket was torn and the blue glow of Tony's arc reactor showed through the shirt. His hands were lit with the palm units. "Stupid, stupid boy!" He did something that released the rope holding Tony's feet and dragged Tony up by one arm. "You've been nothing but trouble all your life." He pulled Tony in front of himself. "I'd kill you now if I didn't need a shield."
Tony dragged his feet and did his best to slow Obi. He got another slap in the face for that. There was more noise and voices. He recognized Steve's and tried to shout a warning. Steve was strong, but the palm units... Steve wasn't an oak tree.
And then they were standing in a room that had one wall blasted open, letting in sunshine and a view of trees and dirt. Tony didn't see a body, so he hoped that Obi had missed. The palm units had been measured and calibrated for his hands, not for Obi's meaty paws. He heard Steve, this time clearly enough to make out the words. He couldn't see him, which was smart. Stay away, stay safe. Tony remembered hunters leaving a rabbit as bait. Smart wolves don't take bait.
"Give yourself up, Stane," Steve shouted. "Right now, you're in a lot of trouble, but you can get a good lawyer and be out in a few years."
"Oh, yeah, sure," Obi said. He dragged Tony closer to the hole in the wall. "I have a better idea. How about you let me go, or I blow Tony's head clean off?"
"Adding murder to your list of crimes isn't really a good idea, Obi. I thought you were smarter than that." Daddy! Tony's eyes widened at the voice and he howled and kicked. "Tony!" Daddy shouted, "I'm all right and so's your mother. We're going to get you."
Obi made a noise deep in his chest, a very creditable growl. "Over Tony's dead body! Jesus! What is it with you Starks, don't you know when to lie down and die?" He lifted his right hand and blew away more of the wall. Tony slammed an elbow into Obi's midriff and fell to the floor, hitting his sore head one more time. He looked up to see Obi aiming a palm unit at his face. "Goodbye, you little son of a bitch." The palm unit whined. Tony stared directly into Obi's eyes.
"No!" Steve and Daddy shouted at the same time. Tony heard a lot of banging noise, and a sort of humming whir. Obi's head fell off and the rest of his body went in the other direction. Tony blinked. Steve's shield was lying on the floor, with blood on it. Obi was lying on the floor in several pieces, with more blood. The arc reactor was still glowing. He looked the other way. People were running toward him. Steve had on beautiful red, white and blue clothes. Daddy had an equally beautiful gun which looked like it was laser-guided and he really wanted to see the specs on it. There was a red-haired woman, and a bunch of men in black uniforms. He didn't know who to look at first, but then Steve got to him and held him tight, and kissed him on the cheek, and he smiled behind the cloth.
"Tony's sleeping now," Steve said. He carefully shut the door to Tony's suite. The doctor's examination had showed there wasn't any serious injury, but he was suffering from mild concussion and assorted bruises as well as emotional shock. "You'll have to come back and see him later," he told Nettie and Teddy.
"That's all right," Nettie said. "We wanted to talk to you."
"You did?" Well, yes, they probably wanted to thank him. "You know, I wasn't the only one there. Your father was very brave."
Teddy frowned. "Of course he is, Starks are made of iron. Except for their hearts. Mamma says Starks have hearts like tiramisu. You know."
"Oh. Yeah?" Tony liked that dessert, and it was served quite often. Soft and sweet. "Well, his heart is fine, the doctor says he just needs to rest."
Teddy straightened and looked stern. "You kissed Tony."
Steve felt himself blush. "Well, it was... you know, I was just glad he was all right."
Nettie and Teddy both stared at him. "Tony says he's going to marry you."
Steve's cheeks went even hotter. "Girls... you know... Tony doesn't understand these things. Men can't marry other men. It's the law. And anyway, Tony's too young to marry anyone." And WHY did he add that. He wanted to bite his tongue.
Teddy frowned. "That's a stupid law." She sighed. "I guess I have to become a lawyer."
Nettie bit her lip. "I could be President? But maybe a senator would be more fun."
"Girls, the law isn't going to change just so Tony can marry me!"
Teddy looked at Steve as if he was stupid. "Well, of course not. Other men must want to marry men, too. My Ken doll always looks happier with his friend Alan than Barbie." She grabbed Nettie's hand and began pulling her down the hallway. "We'll go ask Jarvis how to change the law. He knows things."
Nettie said, "You just wait and see."
Over her shoulder Teddy called back, "And don't break Tony's heart before we do!"
Steve shook his head and sat back down on his chair to wait for Tony to wake up. He chuckled. Him marrying Tony? Absurd. Really. Tony was cute, but... no, never happen. Not in a million years.
You know... the girls were Starks.