Chapter 1: Broken Conditioning
This chapter crosses off my TSB square R1 - mind control or brainwashing! ONLY FOUR MORE LEFT UNTIL A BLACKOUT!
October 20, 1970
The deafening blast of the rifle didn’t make the Asset so much as flinch. Not when he was the one holding the gun.
And like a puppet cut loose of its strings, the target went utterly limp, a spray of blood marking the panel of the car where he’d been crouched.
It had all been so very easy. A small hole in the tire, just big enough to guarantee a slow leak, and a short five miles of following the car in the darkness through the trees.
“Howard?! What was that?!”
The second target, one that shouldn’t have been there but could not be left behind, was neutralized a moment later. She slumped down in the passenger seat, blood trailing down her face and dripping from her blonde hair.
There was really no need to confirm the kills, but the Asset did anyway. He was trained for efficiency and results. There was no pulse in either target, and their eyes were unblinking and staring blankly. Satisfied that his mission had been completed successfully, the Asset stowed the rifled across his back and headed back for the motorcycle he’d hidden back in the trees.
A sound, nearly inaudible, caught the Asset’s attention just as he was turning away. He nearly ignored it. It was the softness of the noise that made him look back, something that didn’t belong to the environment around him.
The pause in his step right before he looked over his shoulder was a moment that changed his entire life forever.
In the backseat of the car, where there should have been nothing at all… there was a car seat. And it wasn’t empty.
A baby, with dark eyes that seemed to take up half that face, was staring right back at the Asset through the rear window, as if it could see into the space where he didn’t have a soul.
The Asset could do nothing but stare.
He had no idea why he’d taken the baby. None at all.
But he had. After he’d taken care of the scene that he realized he couldn’t leave behind, torching the car and making sure that if any remains were found, they wouldn’t tell any kind of story beyond that of a tragic accident.
He hadn’t even looked at the baby once, not since he’d taken it from the car, wrapped it in the blanket that had been draped over it, and taken the bag that had been next to it in the car.
Figuring out how to transport the baby with him on the motorcycle had him glaring at the bike for several long minutes, turning the problem over in his head. Finally, he emptied the contents of the bag into the small stowing compartment in the motorcycle, then tucked the baby inside the empty bag with the blanket wrapped around it. It would have to do.
Within an hour, a few well-placed hundred dollar bills had a flimsy motel door bolted and the Asset stood over the bed that was covered in a limp, threadbare blanket. Staring down at a baby that was staring right back at him, sucking on its round, pudgy fist and making smacking noises.
Could babies be judgmental?
It turned out that it didn’t matter, because a few minutes later a faint gurgling noise preceded a scrunched face. That rapidly turned into a whine, and then a cry.
The Asset stood there like a deer in the headlights, utterly at a loss, and then he dove for the large bag that had been sitting next to the baby in the car, some forgotten part of him praying for a miracle.
He dug through the contents that he'd stuffed back inside it in a panic, glad to find that they all seemed to be baby supplies, but without the faintest clue of what to do with much of it. The tiny clothes and diapers were fairly self-explanatory, but there was a myriad of little bottles and jars and tubes, plastic packages, a folded up mat, and half of them had no written description to help him.
And all the while, the baby continued to cry, each moment getting louder.
Near the bottom of the bag, the Asset spied the can of formula powder and a glass baby bottle, and he grabbed at them desperately. His hands shook as he frantically read the instructions on the label, and he scrambled into the bathroom, praying that there would at least be hot water.
He filled the bottle to the highest point, and nearly dumped half the formula powder on the cramped counter as he struggled to get it in the bottle. He shook the bottle vigorously once he got the top screwed on, then all but ran back to the bed where the baby was wailing as if it were losing a limb. Jamming the rubber nipple into the baby’s mouth, the Asset swore to himself when the baby immediately gagged, and it took several moments before it seemed to recognize the bottle as food. Once it did, though, the baby latched on with surprising strength, those little hands coming up to inefficiently hold the glass bottle, and it sucked the milk down with great, greedy, hiccuping gulps, tear tracks still wet on its cheeks.
Sagging in his skin and nearly collapsing to the floor, the Asset was fairly certain that not even in the midst of a hail of bullets had he ever been so panic-stricken.
If the Asset had thought that the sobs of hunger had been the worst experience the night could bring him, he was grievously corrected when, with a red face and a grunt, the baby made a truly rude noise and a stench started to fill the room.
The Asset very nearly turned around and walked right out the door.
It took several minutes, but finally the smell became too much, and the Asset pulled a diaper and a box of wet wipes from the pile of supplies on the bed. Wiggling the baby out of the soft body suit it was wearing was as difficult and delicate as dismantling a bomb, and more than once the Asset jumped back when the baby made a noise. It was clearly unhappy, fussing and flailing as those little arms and legs were worked free of the clothes, fighting against the Asset with the surprising strength those tiny limbs held.
At last, however, only the malodorous diaper remained, and the Asset held his breath as he undid the tabs holding it closed.
He took one look at what was in the diaper, then looked into the baby’s face. His voice was slightly hoarse, rough with disuse when he said flatly, “That is absolutely vile.”
With a snuffle, the baby looked up at him with those teary brown eyes, lip stuck out in a pout.
Fumbling a little, the Asset opened the container of wet wipes and spent far longer than it should have taken to get them out. He layered five of the wipes on his hand, unwilling to risk it, and turned back to the baby.
Who had his feet firmly planted right in the disgusting mess inside the diaper.
The Asset stared at the baby for a few moments, frozen with shock and the sudden urge to vomit until he blurted out, “I have killed people for less.”
The Asset wasn’t willing to admit to the extremes he had gone to, avoiding any kind of contact with the diaper's contents. (He certainly wouldn't be approaching the narrow, shallow tub in the bathroom under any circumstances until it had been bleached thoroughly.)
It had been a learning experience that he hoped to never repeat.
And now, he was staring down at a sleeping baby, with absolutely no idea what to do next.
He shouldn’t keep it. That much was overwhelmingly obvious. He had no idea how to care for it, and considering the fact that he didn’t even know the last time he himself had eaten, slept, or bathed, he wasn’t even sure he could take care of himself.
It would be best to leave the child somewhere, anywhere. Surely someone else would take care of him, would find his family. Surely he had more family somewhere to care for him.
However, the longer the Asset considered the situation, the longer he stood over the baby and stared at the little chest rising and falling… the less he was willing to do what he knew would be best.
Not even twelve hours later, a day full of confusion and panic and crying and discomfort, there was no more formula in the bag the Asset had taken, and the baby was wearing the last diaper.
He needed supplies. He needed money. And… he needed to keep the baby safe.
Most important of all, he had to keep the baby safe.
Chapter 2: A Daunting Task
The Asset is faced with having to get more supplies for the baby. He is very much not prepared.
YAY FOR A BINGO FILL! This chapter fills my BBB square K3 – grocery run.
Hiding the metal arm was easy, nobody looked twice if you wore a jacket and gloves in the chilly autumn weather. Hiding the baby was another matter entirely, and the Asset finally loaded it into the bag again, wrapped in his blanket and a towel from the motel to ward off the cold.
After acquiring money (from a man dressed in an expensive suit that would wake up soon with a concussion and an empty wallet) the Asset, very carefully cradling the diaper bag with the sleeping baby inside, took one look at the baby department of the local store, then turned on his heel and walked right back out again.
He was not prepared to face those rows and stacks and shelves and displays without research.
He was also not prepared to stick his finger in the baby’s mouth to find out how old he was, but apparently that was a good way to check. If there were teeth, he was probably six months or older, and depending on what kind of teeth he had, he might be up to a year old.
It took seven minutes for the Asset to get up the courage to gingerly poke the tip of his finger in the baby’s mouth, feeling the smooth, slippery gums for teeth.
The look the librarian shot him when he yelped as those gums clamped down on his finger was nearly as frightening as the wail the baby let out when he realized that was not food in his mouth.
The Asset didn’t know why exactly he felt so bad about smuggling a stack of books out of the library, hidden in the diaper bag under the baby, but the feeling dogged him all the way to the car he’d stolen. He resolved to bring the books back once he’d read them, and only then did he stop feeling so uneasy about it.
He had no idea what he was doing. He couldn’t think, couldn’t focus over the near-deafening cries the baby was making from his little makeshift nest in the cart. There were so many kinds of everything, endless cans of formula, jars upon jars of baby food, packages of diapers stacked nearly to the ceiling, bottles in all shapes and sizes, pacifiers in a dizzying array of shapes. He didn’t even know where to start.
The baby was sobbing, practically breathless with it, only stopping to chew on his fists when they flew too close to his mouth, or to take gasping, shuddering breaths. The Asset knew he had to be hungry, the books had said babies ate every few hours, and it had been longer than that since the last of the formula ran out.
“Oh, poor thing, he looks hungry.”
The Asset stared at the older woman that had just approached, wearing a vest with the store logo on the lapel. She was peering at the baby as he screamed inconsolably, waving his fat little fists as tears streaked down his temples and into his wispy dark hair.
Feeling somewhat helpless, the Asset looked down at the baby supplies he had in one arm while he tried to focus on what the book in his other hand said. There were so many different kinds of everything, how could he possibly know which ones the baby needed? He wasn’t even really certain how old it was.
“Here, why don’t we just get him started, and you can just pay for it with everything else when you’re ready.” Reaching out, the woman plucked a can off the shelf, seemingly at random, then glanced at the diaper bag sitting in the cart next to the baby. “Do you have a clean bottle with you?”
Startling a little, the Asset nearly dropped his armful of supplies as he dug through the bag, sliding one of his guns out of sight of the woman. He pulled out one of the bottles, hoping it was clean, and handed it over.
Using a can opener that was attached to the keys in her pocket (the Asset made a mental note to get such a thing), the woman poured the creamy-looking liquid into the bottle, then carefully tucked the baby’s hands down so she could get the nipple into his mouth.
It took a second, the baby was crying so hard that at first he gagged on the bottle and the few drops of formula that leaked out of it, but then he fiercely latched onto it with a shuddering whimper. His little hands gripped the bottle so hard that the Asset wasn’t sure he would ever let go, but he didn’t mind. His ears were ringing at the sudden deafening silence, and after a moment he relaxed his shoulders that had been so tight with tension he’d been getting a headache.
“There, now,” The woman cooed down at the baby, tugging up one end of the blanket to dab at the tear tracks. “You’re just fine now, aren’t you.”
She smiled up at the Asset, and he felt paralyzed, completely at a loss as to what to do.
“You’re doing the shopping, hmm? Your first time?”
The Asset just nodded. It was true, anyway. All of this was a first.
“It’s tricky, all the stuff they need, and all these brands.” She waved her hand absently at all the rows of baby supplies. “Did your wife give you a list?”
Well, at least he had that. Pulling the little scrap of paper out of his pocket, the Asset handed it over, briefly wondering if he’d even written it in English.
“Oh, my, that is a list indeed. Alright, let’s get started, so you can get him home.”
With a sense of relief, the Asset held the end of the bottle steady as the older woman bustled around up and down the rows, piling one thing after another into a separate cart she had fetched. And if buying everything she suggested completely wiped out nearly every dollar he had, the Asset didn’t care.
An hour later, the Asset stared down at the innumerable paper bags that littered the floor of the dingy motel room, barely leaving walking space from the door over to the rickety bed.
He had absolutely no idea where to even start.
The baby did, though.
With a yowl, a grunt, and an extremely rude sound, the baby’s face briefly turned red and a stench began filling the room.
Trying to quell an immediate sense of dread that filled his entire being with disgust and queasiness, the Asset sighed and started rummaging through the bags.
Diapers. Wipes. Towel. Shampoo. Baby pajamas.
This was going to be a very long learning process...
Changing a diaper was going to be a lot faster learning process than the Asset anticipated.
He had no desire to get peed on ever again.
The tiny basement apartment the Asset found a few days later wasn't much better than the room he’d been renting at the questionable motel, but at least it was cleaner and more secure. The old woman that owned the house never left it due to her age, and there was no way she could possibly get down the stairs to the basement. A heavy duty lock on the door and weapons carefully placed all around the small space was enough for now.
The bed was just as rickety, but the Asset had found an old broken rocking chair and a crib on the the side of the road, which were easy enough to fix. Now the baby could sleep in a bed, and not tucked in the diaper bag. The Asset hadn’t dared let the baby sleep on the bed with him, not after reading about how babies could die from being smothered that way.
He had to keep the baby safe. It was his mission.
Chapter 3: Making Progress
The Asset learns and adjusts, and somewhere in there his humanity returns to him.
A month passed, and each hour felt like a struggle.
Every single day brought a new thing to learn about caring for the baby, and it was all utterly overwhelming to remember, even for the Asset.
If the baby wasn’t burped after he ate, he would spit up or sometimes scream for hours because it upset his stomach.
He had tiny, almost minuscule nails, but the Asset still had to figure out how to trim them with tiny, fiddly little baby-sized nail clippers so the baby didn’t scratch himself.
He loved movement, loved the little hammock that the Asset had securely strung in a corner, but he loved being held even more, and he loved to wrap his little fingers in the Asset’s hair and tug on it when he was nodding off.
It took so long to leave the little basement apartment, requiring a magical combination of a freshly fed, but post-poop baby that would allow them to at least get where they were going without some kind of foul-smelling emergency. If the Asset managed that twice in one week, it was practically a miracle.
The Asset had gone utterly, utterly still the first time the baby reached for him, made a sweet cooing sound, and smiled.
If taking care of the baby, keeping him safe and content, was difficult, it was nothing to what was going on in the Asset’s head. It felt as if his entire mind was a shattered hall of mirrors. Jagged, broken pieces of memory popped up at an increasing rate, and they were a snarled mess of horrifying, nostalgically happy, and seemingly meaningless. The Asset had no idea how to begin to understand what it all meant, no way to deal with the rush of emotion that came with some of the memories. The way some of them made him want to scream, or cry, or smile, or even sometimes laugh.
Sometimes they flickered in and out of his awareness so fast, it was like seeing a shooting star out of the corner of your eye, there but not really visible. Other times, they haunted him for days, constantly cropping up in his mind, driving him halfway to madness with the way he just didn’t understand.
The fifth week in the little apartment began in the wee hours of the morning, and it brought an unexpected and significant change.
Bucky came awake instantly the moment the baby started snuffling and moving around in his crib, waking up and working his way up to a cry. It was too early for him to be hungry, and he didn’t need changing, he just needed his pacifier to soothe him back to sleep.
Moving quickly and silently, Bucky got off the bed on the other side of the small bedroom and avoided the creaky spots on the floor, to stand at the side of the crib. He rested his hand gently on the baby’s stomach, rubbing gently while he searched for the pacifier with his other hand.
He finally found it, tucked under the edge of the blanket the baby had already kicked off, and popped it into that little mouth. With a little noise and a sigh, the baby immediately started sucking on the pacifier, and settled right down.
Bucky waited for a minute to see if the baby would wake up again, then headed for the bathroom. He wasn’t sure if he’d be able to sleep again. Some nights he couldn’t.
He closed the door gently behind himself, the little nightlight next to the mirror providing plenty of light, and he ran the water until it was warm (some of his broken memories had told him what a luxury warm water was, and it was one of the few indulgences he regularly allowed himself). Cupping both hands, flesh and metal, under the faucet, he washed his face to clear his head, reset himself in a way. It sometimes worked. He’d been dreaming, as he did a lot while he slept, and something was niggling at him, dancing just out of reach.
Sighing, Bucky braced his hands on the edges of the sink, water dripping off his face and the ends of his hair, then met his own eyes in the mirror.
He looked tired, but that wasn’t a surprise. He probably needed to trim his hair, at least keep himself reasonably well groomed. Bucky figured he could keep it long, there were plenty of men that wore it that way—
All of a sudden… he stopped. Stared at the reflection of himself. And realized… that he had a name.
He wasn’t just the Asset anymore. He… he was Bucky.
It was like he’d been launched into the air and slammed into the ground at the same time, his mind and body wrought with confusion as he stared at a face that he recognized in the mirror, a face that he could picture younger, unhaunted, with a smile.
He stumbled back, away from the mirror, but only collided with the closed bathroom door behind him and stood there, shaking, as a trickle of memories and facts and snatches of information grew to a stream, and then what seemed like a raging river.
He knew himself. He remembered himself. He knew who he was.
James Buchanan Barnes.
Growing up in Brooklyn.
A best friend named Steve.
Joining the Army.
Steve showing up, not looking like Steve.
A group of rough and tumble men that were another family.
And then… the worst memories.
A little noise, not much more than a sigh and a sleepy mewl, yanked Bucky out of the stunned stupor he was in, and he nearly took the door of its hinges as he tore it open.
The baby was twitching, a little fitful as he turned his head in his restless sleep, the pacifier gone out of his mouth again. It would be simple and easy for Bucky to pop it back in, then go back to bed, or into the living room to panic on his own.
He couldn’t do it, though. And then he couldn’t stop himself.
With trembling hands, he carefully lifted the baby out of the crib, trying not to wake him. The baby fussed a bit, arching his back and sticking out his diapered butt and whining a little as he was transitioned to Bucky’s arms. But the moment they were both settled in the creaky rocking chair, the baby quieted down and fell right back to sleep, snuggled tight into the crook of Bucky’s neck. Not a care in the world, safe in the knowledge that he was being held by someone that cared for him.
Bucky didn’t pause in the rocking, keeping the noisy chair going with one foot, absently stroking his thumb over the baby’s so soft cheek. He sat there for the longest time, rocking back and forth with the baby sound asleep in his arms, wide awake and staring sightlessly at the wall with silent tears streaming down his cheeks.
Bucky was surprised when he woke up, as he hadn’t been expecting to fall asleep. The sun was just coming up, and pale light was filtering through the dusty, filmy white curtains over the high windows.
He felt sore, a byproduct of sleeping upright in the creaky rocking chair, and he winced as he lifted his head from the awkward angle it had been in, resting on his shoulder. The rocking chair let out an especially loud squeak as his weight shifted, and the baby startled a little in his arms, those big brown eyes blinking once or twice.
“Hey, little guy," Bucky murmured, his voice rough and scratchy from sleep. "Good morning.”
With a full-body arch, the baby stretched, looking up at Bucky blearily as he yawned, then smacked his lips.
“You need a name too,” Bucky said, suddenly realizing that neither of them had had a name all this time. “I have one, now. I got it back. You need one too.”
With another yawn, the baby burbled and smiled, reaching out to grab at Bucky’s stubbly chin and the ends of his hair.
Slowly, with a feeling that it had been a very, very long time since he'd done so... Bucky smiled back.
Chapter 4: Claiming a Name
Bucky gets his and Tony's identities in order, they celebrate a holiday, and deal with their first sickness.
Researching himself, and then the Starks, was so much harder than Bucky had anticipated. Not only did he still have huge gaps in his memory, spaces where missing years, and even decades used to be, but he realized that he could see Howard and Maria Stark in the baby’s face.
Anthony’s face. Anthony Edward Stark, born May 29, 1970. Son of Howard Anthony Walter Stark and Maria Collins Carbonell Stark. Killed with his parents in a lethal car accident and fire on October 20, 1970.
Bucky had run to the bathroom in the public library and thrown up after he’d finished reading the article about the "accident" a month ago that had killed the Starks. Hearing the baby cry at the sudden, probably scary movements had only made it worse.
Later that evening when the baby was lying on a blanket on the floor, grabbing his toes, chewing on his fist, and managing to turn his lower half but not roll over entirely (he was still learning), Bucky made his decision.
Blinking those big brown eyes, the baby looked right at him, still gumming on his fist as he waved a toy in the other hand.
Bucky fought back the wave of emotion at the idea that the baby had already known his name, remembered it, responded to it. He had wondered, and now it was something he didn’t have the heart to take away. Not after everything else he’d done.
“That settles it. You’re Tony.”
Giving the toy a good shake, the baby took his drooly hand out of his mouth and made a grab for his toes again, squawking and cooing as he did so. If he hadn’t been treading such a thin line between keeping it together and falling apart, Bucky might have smiled.
“I can’t be Bucky. That’s too unique. I can be James, though. Jim if I have to.” He didn’t want to be Jim, his father had been Jim. Big Jim. With broad shoulders and arms corded with muscle from his work as a laborer.
Shaking his head to clear the memories, Bucky refocused on the baby. He'd not spoken hardly at all for the past month, short sentences here and there, but something inside himself had been unlocked along with his own identity. He still found that while talking to other people seemed a daunting task, talking to the baby was easy.
“I was thinking… Buchannan. For a last name. With the two N’s.”
The baby’s fist was back in his mouth, and he made several muffled sounds around it, his eyes squinting just a bit from the effort.
“James Buchannan. Someone might put it together. I don’t know. But… Tony Buchannan.”
The baby cocked his head, then shrieked and energetically waved both hands up and down, conking himself right on the nose with his toy. After a moment of startled silence, his little face scrunched up and he started to cry.
Shushing him comfortingly, Bucky picked the baby up and cuddled him to his chest, trying not to smile. “It’s alright, kid. You’re alright. I’ve got you.”
A minute of half-hearted cries and snuffling whimpers were all the energy the baby had to devote to the injustice of his injury. A red face and a faint grunt were all the warning Bucky got before he felt the telltale rumble in the baby’s diaper, accompanied by a rude noise and… containment failure on the part of the diaper. Which was right under Bucky's hand.
Sighing, Bucky stood up and looked down at the baby, who was determinedly picking at one of the buttons on James’s shirt and trying to get his mouth on it. “Third time today, pal. You do know your diaper has an entire front that you’re not using, right?”
Acquiring ID for himself and a birth certificate for the baby took some doing. But one of James’ nightmares had him recalling another Hydra safehouse, and one night when Tony was being looked after by their elderly landlady, Mrs. McMillan (the woman adored the baby), he made the trip and stripped the safehouse of anything and everything useful. He used the money stashed there to jump through the hoops required to get legitimate documents, some of which were surprisingly easy, and within a week or so it was done, and their new identities were official.
They stayed the rest of the month in their small basement apartment, and James only realized on the 24th of the month that it was Christmas Eve. It had snuck up on him completely out of nowhere, the days passed to quickly now that they had a routine down. Bucky had seen the lights and decorations of course, and even heard some of the music (Tony loved music, he always got excited when the radio was on), but he hadn’t made the connection. Not until he was picking up a few groceries one morning, and the cheerful person at the checkout counter wished him a happy Christmas Eve.
Even though Tony would never remember it, had no concept of what the holiday even was, James felt terrible anyway. He had memories now, of celebrating Christmas before. He remembered stringing popcorn on sewing thread and draping it around a scraggly pine tree, wrapping simple gifts in newspaper and bits of twine, singing Christmas carols at the top of his lungs, finding an orange in the toe of his stocking every year.
He… he didn’t want Tony missing out on that. And next year would be better, but he couldn’t let this year pass without doing something.
Mrs. McMillan saved the day. As soon as James got home, she spotted the teddy bear he had tried to hide in one of the grocery bags, and beckoned him inside with a knowing smile. While James changed Tony’s diaper (no breach of the containment field this time) and got him bundled into a snow suit he’d found at a secondhand store, she sorted through a pile of folded up wrapping paper she had in a drawer, and wrapped the teddy bear neatly.
“I have some goodies in the kitchen, you just give me one minute.” She told James as she tucked the present back into the shopping bags, and then brought out half a feast a minute later.
“If you need anything else, you just let me know,” Mrs. McMillan insisted firmly as she saw them to the door, James juggling the baby, the groceries, and the heavy quilted bag of holiday food that she had prepared for him. “I’ll have some family over tomorrow, but you’re always welcome, dear.”
It was tempting, but James ended up just spending the day at home. Tony had squealed and babbled as he unwrapped the stuffed bear, more interested in playing with the wrapping paper and shoving it in his mouth than the present itself. James didn’t mind at all, and at one point he even realized that he was chuckling at the baby’s antics.
It was the first time he’d laughed that he could remember.
Later that night, as Tony slowly dozed off while James rocked him to sleep, with Christmas music quietly playing on the radio, James figured that he’d never had a better Christmas present.
The new year brought with it Tony’s first illness. He woke up in the middle of the night, his little nose sounding congested, a fever making his body too warm. He was irritable and fussy, very unlike his usual sweet, happy self, and James was tearing upstairs to ask his neighbor what to do the second he heard her moving around in the morning.
“Oh, it’s probably just a cold.” Mrs. McMillan assured him gently, her soft, wrinkled hands moving gently over Tony’s too-warm face. “He’ll be all right in a few days.”
“Should I take him to the doctor?” James fretted, more than one memory plaguing him, memories of Steve being so, so sick.
“You don’t need to, I don’t think, but you can if it’ll make you feel better. He’s up to date on his shots, right?”
James went still and blinked. “Uh…”
“My granddaughter is a nurse, she’s always telling me about how important it is to get the proper immunizations.”
“I’ll um… check.” James stammered, wanting to escape as quickly as possible. “Thank you for looking at him for me.”
She patted his arm comfortingly. “Anytime, dear. Anytime.”
She was right, and Tony was just fine a few days later, which came as a huge relief to James, since he’d been on the border of panic nearly the entire time. However, he wasn’t quite able to put the matter out of his head.
Mrs. McMillan’s question about shots had come as a surprise, and while he nursed Tony through his cold, James read up on it. There had been some big strides made in the medical field while he’d been under (a lot of it totally blew his mind), and now there were immunizations that helped prevent some of the horrible illnesses James remembered from his childhood. Things like polio and measles, the latter of which he’d had himself.
James made an appointment with a local children’s doctor the next week, determined to do everything in his power to keep his son safe and healthy.
That was the most important thing.
Chapter 5: The Cost of Parenting
James makes the hard choices that come with being a good parent, and Tony says his first word.
Pyrone, the scene at end of this chapter is for you!
It also allowed me to knock off my BBB square U3 - language!
“You don’t even have his immunization card?”
James ducked his head as the nurse at the doctor’s office looked at him, disbelief and disdain in her voice.
“His mom died,” James supplied, the truth framed in a lie both coming easier and hurting more every time he said it. “It’s been hard.”
The nurse lost her skeptical, suspicious expression, now looking at him with compassion. “I’m so sorry.”
After that, it was easier. The nurse that had shown them back to the exam room noted down Tony’s weight (he was a perfectly healthy little chunk), his height, how big around his head was, and even made up a new notecard with Tony’s hand and footprints, and an immunization card. James tucked them very carefully into the diaper bag, but the nurse stopped him.
“Don’t put that away yet. We’ll need to mark off the ones he gets today, and the doctor might want to do a few extras since we’re not sure what he’s had.”
Blinking several times, James glanced at the immunization card in his hand. He hadn’t actually considered what he’d be using it for, and as he read over the list of shots that Tony would have to get… he winced.
He wasn’t going to like this. Neither of them were.
And yet, half an hour later after the doctor had come to check on Tony and given him a clean bill of health, and the nurse came back with her hands full of hypodermic needles… James realized that he had underestimated how much he was going to hate this.
The nurse told him to lay Tony down on the exam table, and to tuck his arms over his chest and hold them there. James froze for a moment, his stomach turning at the thought of having to restrain and hold down this tiny baby.
It made his flesh crawl, the memories of what that felt like. Unyielding metal holding him down in the torture chair while white hot pain arced into his head, burning away everything he was.
James started to shake as he set Tony down, and he had to swallow hard and mentally grab himself by the balls to do the rest of it. He did it though, forcing himself to think about one of the other memories that he’d gotten back, part of his past, and not the part that gave him nightmares. A memory of sitting at his best friend’s bedside, mopping at his red, sweating face as his breath wheezed horribly in and out of his lungs.
James never, ever wanted Tony to suffer like that.
It wasn’t bad, at first. Tony struggled a little when his arms were gently but firmly held to his chest, and James did his best to distract the baby by talking to him, and making silly faces. The first shot was done and the second needle was in the nurse’s hand before the first scream.
And then it was worse than anything James could ever remember. Worse than any of the tortures he’d been subjected to at the hands of Hydra.
“I’m sorry,” He whispered against Tony’s forehead, squeezing his eyes shut as the baby cried hard. “I’m so sorry. It’ll be over in a minute, it’ll be okay.”
Tony wasn’t comforted, and he screamed anew at the next jab, and James nearly choked on a sob.
“I’m so sorry, kid. I’m so sorry. It’s going to keep you safe later, I promise.”
The nurse worked as quick as she could, finishing the shots and putting bandaids over the tiny spots of blood on Tony’s chubby little thighs. “There, he’s all done.”
James didn’t reply, he was too choked up, but he nodded and scooped Tony into his arms, cradling him against his chest, feeling the dampness of tears on his shirt.
It was worse than even the nightmares about what he’d done as the Asset.
But that was the cost of being a parent, James realized as he rocked Tony and shushed him quietly, trying to ignore the way his head was swimming and his whole body was shaking like a leaf. Making the hard decisions that meant your kid would be healthy and safe later.
The nurse’s voice broke through the little bubble of misery around the two of them. “Um, maybe you should sit down. You’re kind of pale.”
Yeah, that was… he should sit. He was feeling kind of wobbly. The nurse guided him into a chair, and he sat there for a long time, just rocking Tony in his arms.
They left the doctor’s office a while later, Tony still red-eyed but no longer crying, and James no longer shaking or on the verge of passing out.
“See?” James murmured against the woolen hat he’d tugged over the baby’s head to keep him warm on the walk to the bus stop. “It’s not so bad anymore, right? And now you won’t get sick and end up in an iron lung or something.”
Tony just tipped his head back, looking up into the gray-white sky that was just started to drop snowflakes, and gave one last shuddery sigh before laying his head on James’ shoulder and snuggling in.
“That’s right. We’re gonna be fine. I’ve got you, kid.”
James was shaking almost violently when he jumped awake later that night, his whole body sticky with a cold sweat as his heart pounded hard in his chest.
Over in the crib, Tony made a whimpery sound of distress, and James went to him immediately, stumbling on the way, grateful for the distraction. Until he changed the baby’s diaper and saw the bandaids on the chubby little thighs, and remembered Tony’s sobs at the doctor’s office when he’d gotten his shots.
No wonder he’d been having a nightmare.
Making shushing noises, James did up the snaps on Tony's pajamas and picked him up, cradling him to his chest. He noted that the little body was a degree or two warmer than usual. It was an expected side effect, according to the nurse, but nonetheless worrisome.
After a changing and feeding, James sat in the creaky rocking chair rather longer than he needed to, just holding Tony and humming some kind of meandering tune. He didn’t want to put the baby down, he felt better when he could feel that little chest rise and fall, feel the warm puff of breath through his shirt. It was soothing, it let him know Tony was fine, that they were both safe.
Eventually, he gave up on the idea of putting Tony back in his crib, and took the both of them back to his bed. He arranged the sleeping baby carefully on his chest, pulling the blanket up to cover them both, arranging pillows on either side of himself just in case Tony tried to roll over in his sleep, and resting both hands over the baby’s back so he hopefully wouldn't try.
After making sure they were both comfortable and secure, James was finally able to drop off again, and this time, with Tony’s reassuring weight on his chest, he had no nightmares.
Babies and toddlers needed a lot of shots, it turned out, and James knew that he was going to hate every single one of them. At his nine-month appointment, Tony screamed and cried again, and James certainly didn’t sleep very well that night. But, so far, Tony never came down with a horrible, wheezing cough or a terrible red rash accompanied by a deadly fever, so it was worth it. James remembered what those illnesses looked and sounded like, remembered sitting at Steve’s bedside when they were teenagers trying to nurse him through it, and he never wanted his son to go through that.
His… son. Sometimes he couldn’t believe those two words applied to himself in that context. He had a son, a little boy that he would lay down his life for in a heartbeat, a living soul that was worth more than anything in the world. Somehow, ever since the night James had remembered himself, remembered his name, and held a sleeping Tony as he cried, there had been a bond forged that he wasn’t about to break.
He hadn’t fathered Tony biologically, hadn’t been there for the pregnancy, hadn’t seen him as a newborn. But he loved the little boy more than anything, more than he even remembered loving Steve, or his parents and sisters. Tony was the most important thing in James’ whole life, and he was going to love and protect him forever.
The first time Tony looked at him, right in the eye, and purposely babbled “Dada”… well, James had sobbed like a baby. It didn't matter that they were sitting out on the grass in the front yard, in full view of any neighbors that cared to look. James' tears ended up making the baby sob like a baby, and it took a while for James to pull himself together enough to smile through the tears. Because he really was happy. And guilt-ridden and overwhelmed and feeling so much love he felt like his heart might burst, and so, so happy.
“That’s right, buddy,” James had whispered, his eyesight blurry as he shakily smoothed the tears away from Tony’s cheeks, and twirled a bright yellow dandelion in front of his eyes. “I’m your dada. I’m your dada.”
Chapter 6: I'll Keep You Safe
James should have expected that Hydra would never let their Asset go so easily.
This fills my TSB square K2 – action/adventure! I had three BEAUTIFUL works of art that inspired me for this chapter, and you can see them here. I do not know who the original artist was for one of them, or have the original source (thanks for nothing, Pinterest), so if you recognize the art or the artist PLEASE let me know so I can credit them!
It wasn’t long after Tony turned three (to keep them both safe, James had made June 6th Tony’s birthday on his birth certificate, a week later than his real birthdate), that James came up against the first, and worst real challenge that he ever faced in his goal to keep his son safe.
He had gotten lazy. Been so busy and content with the sheer normalcy of raising Tony on his own, that he’d forgotten to be vigilant, to always let a shred of paranoia keep him aware. And he paid the price for it.
Later, James would put it together, that he’d been found out when he’d visited yet another Hydra safe house, stripping it of anything useful, money in particular. Money that he used very carefully, money that he could stretch so he didn’t have to leave Tony alone, or trust him to a babysitter, so he could get a job. (He also didn't want to miss anything. Not any of the words that Tony spoke, the motor skills he learned, his first stumbling steps, James wanted to be there for every damn second.)
Hydra had to have been watching, waiting for their Winter Soldier to turn up, because it wasn’t until after that that they turned up, and at the worst possible time. Immediately after stripping the safe house, James had taken Tony on a vacation, to a remote cabin near a lake surrounded by woods. It had seemed like a good idea, a place out of the way, private. Where Tony could play and be loud, and James could teach him to swim in the lake without having to worry about anyone seeing the metal arm that was a dead giveaway, having to explain away the long sleeve and the glove as covering for extensive scarring (which was only partially a lie).
He’d been wrong.
James had never gotten rid of his weapons and gear. He had kept them in top notch condition, always making sure they were ready if he needed them, always within his reach, but never Tony’s. That was the only thing that saved them.
James still woke at the slightest noise, he never had gained the ability to sleep deeply. He was awake and checking on Tony, sleeping on a little cot right next to his own in the cabin, when he realized that the noise that had woken him was not a natural one in these surroundings.
He had armed himself with two knives, two handguns, and four extra clips of ammo within fifteen seconds. Holding a gun in his flesh hand, he scooped Tony up with his left arm, and held the squirming, confused toddler to his chest as his eyes went on the windows and doors with laser-sharp focus.
“Tony, I need you to hold still and be very quiet, okay? There are bad guys outside, but I’ll keep you safe.”
The little boy, who James already knew was significantly more intelligent than other children his age, didn’t say a word, but wrapped his arms tightly around James’ neck.
“Good job, kid. Just hold on. I won’t let anyone hurt you.”
The two of them waited, tense and still in the relative silence, James filtering through the sounds to track their enemy.
Loud, raucous laughter quite close by had James swinging around and pointing his gun, very nearly killing the drunk idiots that were now slurring back and forth to each other as they passed the dark cabin.
Heart pounding painfully in his chest, James nearly slumped to the floor in relief, lowering the gun.
“Just some stupid people,” He murmured to Tony, rubbing his stubbled cheek against those loose dark curls. “We’re fine.”
Tony looked up at him now that the danger was past, his dark eyes serious. “Juice?”
His quiet laugh was a little jittery, but James nodded at the definitely manipulative request. “Yeah, alright. A little bit of juice, since I woke you up, but then you have to go back to sleep.”
Tony beamed, obviously very pleased with himself, and squirmed to get down.
James had just set him on his feet when it happened.
The two small windows on either side of the cabin exploded, shards of glass flying everywhere.
James had his gun up immediately, his heart stopping as he felt Tony wrap himself around James’ leg and hold on tight, burying his little face in his dad’s thigh.
Hydra hadn’t changed its tactics much in the three years since James had been under their control. The moment the windows were compromised, the door was also battered in, and James was shooting without having to think about it, muscle memory and instinct kicking in. It saved their lives.
He knew exactly where the weaknesses in the Hydra armor and gear were, and he dropped three of the infiltration squad one after the other. One of them had dropped a smoke bomb inside, and James blinked against his stinging eyes, fear nearly paralyzing him when he felt and heard Tony coughing.
“Don’t look, kid. Don’t look.”
A knife thrown straight through a pair of goggles and buried to the hilt neutralized a fourth attacker, another bullet caught the fifth, but the sixth had rushed at James the moment he entered the cabin.
A punch to the side of the head with the metal arm made the infiltrator pause long enough for James to bring up his other knife and slice through a vulnerable throat.
The relative silence was immediate, though James nearly couldn’t hear it. The smoke bomb was still hissing, smoke continuing to pour into the cabin, and there was a ringing in James’ ears that was so loud it felt like an alarm.
He waited, every muscle tensed, just in case there were more than the standard attack squad of six. But after a long minute of silence, there was nothing.
“Tony,” he croaked, his knees nearly going out from under him as he dropped his guns, reaching for the toddler at the same time as Tony reached for him.
The little boy was shaking like a leaf, tears pouring down his cheeks as he cried silently with his eyes squeezed shut.
James’ hands fluttered over Tony’s body, checking for injuries, for blood, broken bones, anything at all. Now that the danger was over, terror and the residual adrenaline rush had him shaking so hard his teeth chattered. “Are you hurt? Buddy, come on, tell me if you’re hurt.”
Tony just reached for him, unable to speak, and James scooped him up as his eyes stung and his throat ached. He stepped over bodies as he went for the door, taking the both of them out into the fresh air that wasn’t tainted with the scent of blood or the leftover smoke.
He only made it a few steps before he collapsed, his whole body trembling. Tony just clung to him, his eyes still closed tight, and James wrapped both arms around him, his voice choked with sudden tears.
“I’m so sorry, Tony. I’m so sorry. I never wanted you to see anything like this.”
The little boy was still trying not to make any noise, his lower lip quivering and his small chest heaving with restrained sobs. It just broke James’ heart right in half as he smoothed the tears on those round cheeks away. There were a couple little scratches on him, where the glass from the windows had hit him, but nothing worse than that. Relief warred with the rage that anything had happened to hurt James' son.
“It’s okay to cry now, pal. It’s okay. Just let it all out. We’re safe now.”
With a shudder that shook his whole body, Tony gasped a little bit, then just sobbed inconsolably into James’ chest.
“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” James murmured the words over and over into his son’s hair, rocking him back and forth, his entire body curled around Tony to keep him safe. "It's my fault, and I'm so sorry."
Chapter 7: Starting Over
James makes a promise, takes precautions to keep Hydra off his trail, and Tony starts showing signs of his genius.
This chapter crosses off my BBB square K1 – promise
And MORE ART that I was inspired by! As far as I can tell, that is the original artist, and you gotta scroll down a bit, but it's the second art on that page, you'll know it when you see it.
Once Tony had cried himself out and fallen into an exhausted sleep, James’ held him tight to his chest and got them ready to leave. He wanted to just walk away, leave the cabin, the bodies, and everything else behind, but he knew he couldn’t.
He went through the cabin quickly and efficiently, packing all of his and Tony’s things, and stripping the weapons from the bodies on the floor and hanging in through the broken window. If he’d been alone, he would have sunk the bodies in the lake, but he wasn’t going to put Tony down for anything.
Twenty minutes later, James was hiking through the woods, the big canvas bag with all their belongings slung over his shoulder, Tony still sleeping in his arms. He retrieved their crappy car from the dirt lot he’d left it in nearly a mile away, and from there he went directly to a bus station. It was a good thing he’d glanced in the mirror before he got out of the car, though. There was a spray of dried blood all over his face.
The next available bus was headed to New York, so James paid with cash and soon enough he was staring out the bus window, watching the miles pass as Tony slept on his lap. James hadn't expected to have so many regrets. Tony was going to be upset, most of their things were still at home in their little basement apartment. And both of them would miss their landlady. Mrs. McMillan was the closest thing Tony had to a grandmother, and he loved her. James would have to send her a letter, to let her know they were safe.
And they’d start over somewhere. Somewhere Tony would be safe.
The sun was just coming up when the toddler’s eyes blinked open, and though there was obvious confusion in that gaze, there was also trust as he looked up at his dad.
It just about drove James to tears. He had wanted so badly to do better than this.
“I’m never gonna let anyone hurt you, kid.” He promised as he cupped that little face in his hand, knowing that that part, at least, he had a chance at succeeding at where he had failed everywhere else.
Tony nodded, then reached out and grabbed his hand, little fingers holding on tight. “I know, Daddy.”
James didn’t dare stay one place for too long, not after that. They rarely stayed somewhere longer than three or four months, though he knew that would have to change once Tony got old enough for school. But for the time being, they managed, and made the best of it. He wanted to do some probing, find out exactly how much Hydra knew, but it was too risky for Tony. He'd just have to be more careful, always watchful, always armed and ready to protect his son at all costs. He grew a short beard and cut his hair, hoping it would perhaps throw any pursuers even a little bit off their trail, though longer hair was still popular among men.
He had to smile a little, however, when Tony insisted on climbing up into the barber’s chair as well to have his own hair cut.
“So we match.” He said simply as the barber combed water through his loose brown curls.
They spent most of a year in New York, moving from borough to borough every few months, and while they were living in a tiny apartment in Queens, four-year-old Tony made friends with the little boy next door. His name was Harold, but his mother called him Harry, and Tony found him fascinating.
Harry’s mother had been warm and inviting, telling James that she would be more than happy to watch Tony while he ran errands, and after a few weeks James was even comfortable enough to get a part time job. He got work as a janitor at a nearby office building, and added his biweekly paycheck to the stash of money he kept well-hidden and protected. Now that he knew infiltrating any more Hydra safehouses was definitely too dangerous, it was critical that he kept money coming in somehow.
Tony, though he sometimes had nightmares about the night in the cabin and always seemed to sense when James was particularly worried, was thriving. He loved having a friend to play with, and now every day when James came home from work, he smiled as he knocked on the Hogan’s door, looking forward to hearing about what adventures the two boys got up to that day.
“He’s been an angel,” Mrs. Hogan assured him one evening, opening the door to let him in and smiling at the two boys on the living room floor, their dark heads bent together as they played.
Grinning, Tony jumped up off the floor and flung himself at James. “Daddy!”
That never failed to make James smile, and he picked Tony up to hug him tight. “Hey, kid. You been having fun?”
“Yeah! Me ‘n Harry played with his racecars!”
James looked down at the floor, where the two had laid down a huge piece of paper and drawn a crude oval, clearly intended to be a race track. “I can see that.”
“I wanna drive racecars when I grow up.”
“Yeah? I bet you’ll be good at it.” He bounced Tony in his arms. “You ready to go home? I got your favorite for dinner, if you promise to eat your carrots.”
Tony whooped and threw his arms in the air. “HOT DOGS! YES!”
Mrs. Hogan laughed, “Harry loves them too, but I can’t stand them.”
James smiled and set Tony down, nudging him towards the toys. “Help clean up, then we’ll go make dinner.”
James stood next to Mrs. Hogan, and the two of them watched their kids scoop up the toy cars, making a game of it. Tony looked… so happy. So healthy, and James knew he was doing everything possible to keep the little boy safe. It was the closest thing to peace he’d ever felt.
“Thank you for watching him,” He said quietly to Mrs. Hogan. “I really appreciate it.”
“Oh, he’s welcome anytime. He’s such a sweet boy. And so smart!” Mrs. Hogan glanced at James. “Did you know he knows all about car engines? He was telling Harry earlier, talking about all the parts that make a car go.”
James smiled a little. He knew very well how much Tony loved cars, and what had led him to it. “We read a book about all kinds of big trucks and tractors a couple weeks ago, and he was fascinated by them. I got every book I could find about engines and mechanics out of the library, and he’s been eating them up.” Even the adult books meant for mechanics in training, Tony had been utterly absorbed as he soaked it all up.
Of course, Tony had also all but torn James’ metal arm off with excitement, the night he had realized what a marvel the thing was. He had spent hours sitting on James' lap, watching him move all the plates, listening to the whir of the gears, inspecting the tiny shining battery that powered it inside, even poking around inside when James opened up the access panels. It had been bittersweet for James, to see the light of fascination and curiosity in Tony’s eyes, and to know that it was something of an abomination that his son was so enamored with. It summed up their entire relationship quite well, to be honest.
“It’s so remarkable. He remembers things so well, he’s a complete sponge for information.” Mrs. Hogan smiled a little as she looked at James, bringing him out of his thoughts. “He’s really special.”
Feeling a little misty-eyed, James nodded as he watched his son and Harry pick up the last of the toy cars. “Yeah. He really is.” And he was going to do anything and everything in his power to keep him that way.
Chapter 8: When I Grow Up
James and Tony move around a lot, but Tony still manages to make a friend no matter where they end up.
Tony cried when it was time for them to move away, and James was unsure whether or not he should have let them stay a little longer. Tony had forged a really strong friendship with Harry, as strong as it got with four year olds, and James hadn't wanted to separate them, so he'd put off the move for a whole month to give them more time. He didn't know if he'd made the right choice, seeing how hard it was for Tony to say goodbye. So much so that at the end of their last playdate together, Tony’s very favorite and beloved toy racecar, the red one with the gold stripes and hubcaps, was left in Harry’s hands.
“So you don’t forget me,” Tony had said, right before Harry had burst into tears.
“Daddy, I’m gonna miss him.” Tony sniffled the next morning as they pulled away from the curb behind the moving van, and if James had been able to forget his fear and shake the memories of that awful night in the cabin, he would have stayed in a heartbeat.
“I know, pal. I know it hurts and that you’ll miss him. It’s sad to leave friends behind.” There was more he wanted to say, apologies he wanted to make, promises that Tony would make more friends. But just at the moment, watching a tear slide down his face, James didn’t think those words would bring any comfort. So instead he reached across and ruffled Tony’s hair, then held his hand and let the kid use his sleeve as a tissue as long as he needed.
After they left New York, James and Tony worked their way west and back again, and Tony managed to make friends in every new place they stopped. And in addition to that, his intelligence also grew at a nearly alarming rate, and James was hard-pressed to keep up with his son's voracious appetite for knowledge and information.
In Philadelphia, Tony met a little boy named Jimmy at preschool, and the two became friends the moment they set eyes on each other. James was in awe of the boy’s mother, Mrs. Rhodes, and learned more about parenting from watching her with her children than he had from every single parenting book he’d ever read.
The boys were both in love with science and space, and Tony decided he wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up, just like Jimmy. They would build a rocket together, and fly to the moon. “Don’t worry, Daddy, I’ll bring back a moon rock for you. Promise!”
Jimmy was the one that really let Tony’s smarts (or genius, as James was becoming more convinced) shine. Jimmy had all kinds of building sets, from Legos to Lincoln Logs to the plain wooden blocks Tony had himself. With another kid to share it with, Tony blossomed, and it wasn’t long before he started to get interesting in building more than toys.
Christmas that year was a treasure trove of small tools, little science kits, build-it-yourself things that Tony attacked like he was a starving boy at a feast. James was always scrambling after that to keep his son supplied with enough things to tinker with, else the kid would start going after the appliances to find out how they worked. (It only took the sacrifice of one can opener and one toaster for Tony to understand how electronics worked, which made him able to fix Mrs. Rhodes' shorted-out toaster oven. He was five years old and James was proud to the point of gloating.)
They stayed in Philly for eight months, long enough for the school year to finish, and James had cried on his son’s behalf on the day they moved, watching the way Tony and Jimmy clung to each other and tried to hide their tears.
In Wisconsin, Tony befriended a little boy his age named Bruce, a five-year-old kid with eyes that looked so scared and haunted that it took James right back to his time with Hydra. He didn’t get to know the parents very well, Mrs. Banner was shy to the point of being reclusive, and he didn’t care for Mr. Banner at all. The man set his teeth on edge, and James always made sure that play dates happened at his own small house rather than at the Banner’s.
It gave James a very clear image of what happened at the Banner’s home the day Bruce hadn’t been able to play, had called and insisted on only talking to Tony. After a brief conversation, Tony had stood by the phone in silence, then looked up at James with eyes that were far, far too old and told him, “I want to be a superhero when I grow up. So I can punch the bad guys and save all the kids that get hurt.”
James invited Bruce over for as many playdates and sleepovers as his parents would allow after that, and did his best to make sure the kid was safe and cared for while he was at the Buchannan's house.
Bruce loved science too, especially chemistry (how did Tony manage to find all these super smart kids?!), and James lost count of how many times he had to banish the boys into the backyard so they could set off a toy volcano with baking soda and vinegar outside instead of in the kitchen. Tony declared one day, when he and Bruce had decided to raid the kitchen cupboards to try more experiments, that he was going to be a mad scientist with a big lab when he grew up.
Moving away hurt just as much as it had the last time, but for different reasons. James had made an anonymous call to the police, relating his concerns about what was happening to Bruce at home, but he didn’t know what else to do, short of kidnapping another kid.
Tony had cried as he hugged Bruce for the last time, whispering fast under his breath while Bruce nodded, looking absolutely desolate, but not shedding a tear.
Tony didn’t really perk up until they arrived in California, and James splurged a little bit on an apartment that was right on the coast, close enough that they could see the ocean from their second floor windows. They were at the beach nearly every day, finding shells and small sea creatures, building sandcastles, and turning absolutely brown under the sun despite using sunscreen.
Tony met his next friend there, a little girl two years younger than his six years, with light red hair and freckles across her cheeks. Her name was Virginia, and James rather thought that Tony was entirely smitten by her. He saved the prettiest shells for her, always let her pick the spot where they would build the next sandcastle, and even played the part of the prince whenever she wanted to play the princess. Of course, she also ran around just as wildly and screamed just as loudly when they played cowboys and Indians, never hesitated to drop slimy, beached seaweed on Tony’s head, and didn’t for one moment put up with his tendency to try and charm her into getting his way.
“I’m gonna marry him when I grow up. After I’m a movie star.” Virginia had told James one day with the supreme confidence of a four year old. She handed him the plastic bucket full of seashells that the two kids had been finding, then scampered off to chase Tony in the surf, her strawberry blond pigtails bouncing.
James was pretty certain that if the two of them ever found each other again after he and Tony moved, that she would get her wish. Especially after Tony had watched Virginia run home one day, late in the afternoon, then turned to James and said very seriously, “She makes me happy, and I want to live on a beach and be best friends with her when I grow up.”
Another little girl captured Tony’s heart when they moved to Chicago, though in a different way. Now that Tony was in second grade, James could work full-time, and Tony spent about an hour after school at a daycare. One of the daycare teachers, Mrs. Carter, was just back from maternity leave, and her baby girl, Sharon, was Tony’s favorite part of the day. He loved her tiny fingers and toes, the way her skin was soft, the way her hair smelled, the sounds she made, the way she would hold his finger really tight, and he would immediately go running to her if she started crying.
“I’m gonna be a dad when I grow up.” Tony announced one day in the car when James picked him up. “Babies love me.”
James had to both bite his lip to keep from laughing, and blink hard to keep from crying. For one wild moment, he almost wondered if there might be another baby to kidnap so Tony could have a sibling.
It wasn’t until they got back to the East coast nearly three years after they’d left, stopping in Washington DC, that they had any complications.
Chapter 9: A Ghost From The Past
James and Tony settle in their new place in Washington DC, and a familiar face from the past brings unexpected panic.
You get the next chapter early since I won't be on much tomorrow! *Blows kisses*
BBB square info in the bottom notes so I don't spoil anything!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It had been… difficult, and awkward, explaining to Tony the first time about his real parents. James had thought about the conversation over and over, trying to find the words that would make sense, that would reveal the truth without scaring the poor kid. He told Tony as much as he could on their first night in their DC apartment, explaining without graphic detail that his real parents had died because of James. There would be more, of course, more of an explanation, all the details when he was older (that terrified James right to the bone), but he had to make sure Tony understood as much as he could for now. He was already worried he had waited too long.
He never expected in his wildest dreams for Tony to look at him with those big brown eyes and say, so simply, “But you are my real daddy. You love me and take care of me.”
It had taken James a minute to be able to talk again.
Tony was smart, so, so smart, and by the end of the conversation James knew that he understood, as much as an eight year old could understand that kind of thing.
“You just adopted me, sort of.” Tony summed up simply. “That’s not weird.”
Oh, he wanted to hug the kid for that. “Kind of. When you’re older, I can explain more of it, some of it that won’t make sense yet. But if you ever have questions, you ask me, okay? I’ll always tell you the truth.”
Tony nodded, seeming utterly content with it all, and not the slightest bit upset. “Okay. Can I watch MASH?”
Huffing out a laugh, torn between relief and the anxiety of future conversations like this, James nodded. “Sure. Then we've gotta put the beds together and start unpacking.”
"You shoulda done that before you plugged the TV in," Tony commented in a sassy way, grinning when he saw his dad roll his eyes.
Though James was constantly aware of who he and his son were, and that they might in danger at any moment from any number of organizations, was nevertheless very unprepared one sunny Saturday morning a few weeks after they were settled in their new home. He took Tony out for breakfast, a celebration for unpacking their last box, and nearly ended up bolting from their new lives they had just settled into.
The diner they chose was exactly as hundreds of others were. The stools at the counter, the slightly sticky booths and tables, a jukebox and a few candy machines against the wall. The waitresses all wore seafoam green uniforms with their names stitched on the lapel, and you could smell the burgers frying from three streets over, even at nine in the morning.
James noticed it when the waitress, Maggie according to her uniform, first stopped by the booth Tony had picked out, dropping off glasses of water and menus. She was older, in her fifties, with salt and pepper hair pulled back in a short ponytail and dark brown eyes.
“Good morning, boys. I’ll be back in just a minute to take your order.”
She had a New York accent, Queens if James guessed right, and a pleasant enough smile. But there was something… familiar about her. It niggled in the back of James’ mind, an itch that wouldn't go away, and he subtly watched the woman as he pretended to look over the menu. He knew her somehow, he had to. There was something about her voice and her dark eyes that he remembered, but it wasn’t falling into place.
It bothered him all through their meal, Tony making barely a dent in a stack of pancakes that were as big as the plate they were served on. James had no idea what he was eating, distracted as he was by the waitress, and at one point Tony kicked him in the knee.
Tony frowned at him, managing to make James feel as guilty as if he’d killed a puppy. “You’re not listening to me.”
James sighed and nodded, forcing himself to refocus on the kid. “I’m sorry, buddy. You’re right. I got distracted, and that’s really rude of me. Can you tell me again?”
Tony repeated the parts that James had missed, a retelling of a thrilling and very long-winded dream the kid had apparently had the night before (James suspected it was heavily embellished), and it wasn’t until the waitress came back with the bill that it hit him. One of the other customers had just whistled and snapped his fingers to get her attention, and the frosty look she shot the guy brought the memory back loud and clear.
Peggy Carter. Peggy “hell in high heels” Carter, the woman that had put the hearts in Steve’s eyes and the fear of God into every soldier she ever worked with.
“Daddy, I need to go to the bathroom.”
James nearly jumped, but dragged himself out of his maelstrom of panic and focused on his son. “Okay, yeah, let’s do that. Then we’re gonna go, I forgot something at home.”
“But my pancakes!”
Picking up the entire plate, James hustled Tony out of the booth and threw money on the table, hoping he left enough to cover the plate that he was apparently stealing.
He didn’t take a full breath until they were home safe, the door locked and bolted behind them. His heart all but beating out of his chest, he sagged against the wall, still holding the plate of partially eaten pancakes in his hand.
Peggy Carter groaned as she sat down on the small sofa in her rented apartment late that afternoon, purse and keys still in her hands. Her feet were killing her, and she wasn’t sure she’d ever get the diner smell off her. She hated being undercover, and this particular job was going on forever.
After a few minutes, she found the motivation to do the standing and walking thing again (waitressing was awful, she was going to possibly maim whoever came up with that idea as her cover). She went right to the shoebox she kept underneath the creaky, uncomfortable bed she’d been sleeping in while she was undercover, and took off the lid. Her memory was as sharp as ever, but she still needed to prove it to herself. Prove that she hadn’t been seeing a ghost, or making things up.
Rifling through the assorted photographs, drawings, and letters, mostly featuring her children or grandchildren, she dug down to the very bottom of the box and pulled out two photographs. One of Steve Rogers, at Camp Lehigh before he’d been given the serum, the one that she’d kept on her desk at work for a long time, to remind herself to have courage. And one of the Howling Commandos, taken in a forest in Germany before they’d all stormed another of Hydra’s labs.
Peggy knew those faces, knew them as well as she knew her own, remembered their voices, their names, their histories. She had spent some of the most impactful years of her life side by side with those men, known all of them.
And there he was, right in the middle, standing between Steve and Dum Dum Dugan. Sergeant James “Bucky” Barnes, one of the best snipers she’d ever worked with, capable of turning on the charm like it was his superpower when there was a pretty girl around.
It was impossible. There was no way it could be real. But Peggy could swear on a bible that she’d seen him today, eating breakfast with a little boy that looked like the spitting image of Howard Stark.
James wasn’t sure if he felt like an absolute idiot, or completely justified in his panic as he watched Tony meticulously stack up every wooden block he had, obviously determined to build a tower taller than he was. He was halfway there, working his way from a wide base that narrowed as it went up, perfectly balanced and supported, as always, but James was nevertheless impressed.
“Why did we leave the diner so fast today?”
Oy, how to answer that one? “Well… I thought I saw someone that might not be safe.”
“Oh. Is that why we took the plate?”
James glanced at the dish on the kitchen counter, feeling an absurd guilty flush on his cheeks. “Yeah. I kinda panicked a bit.”
Tony nodded, absentmindedly sticking the tip of his tongue out the side of his mouth as he concentrated on balancing a long rectangular block on top of two stood on their ends. “The lady at the diner said you were being sus—supspish—”
“Suspicious?” James’ focus instantly got laser-intense.
“Yeah. What’s what mean?”
“When did you hear that?”
Tony dug another block out of the box, a triangle piece that wobbled when he tried to balance it on the stack. “When we were leaving. What’s it mean?”
“Uh, it means acting funny, like you’re doing something wrong and trying to be sneaky about it.”
“Were you doing that?”
“I guess, yeah. Kinda dumb of me.”
Tony took his hands away from the stubborn block, pausing a moment to make sure it didn’t wobble, then did a little wiggly dance of celebration before picking up the next block. “We should take the plate back, so they don’t think you’re supspishous anymore.”
James smiled as he watched his son, marveling at the good heart and logical mind that dwelled in so small a person. “You’re right. Should we go back tomorrow?”
“Yeah. Can we get pancakes again?”
“Sure, bud. We can do that.”
This chapter crosses off my BBB square Y4 – Peggy Carter
Chapter 10: Past Meets Future
James, Tony, and Peggy spend the afternoon together.
Square filled for my BBB, B4 – old ghosts
Here's some more lovely art with Bucky and Kid Tony by safranephesus on Twitter!
James wasn’t sure if it meant they were lucky or not when Maggie/Peggy the waitress was there the next morning. Tony took no notice of his dad’s consternation and walked right up to her, holding out the clean plate with both hands.
“We’re proving we’re not supslicious.” He said very seriously, and James had to fight both the urge to laugh, and to cover his face with his hands.
With a sparkle in her eye, the waitress accepted the plate and grinned. “Is this the plate from yesterday?”
“Yep. I wanted to finish my pancakes, but we brought the plate back. We’re sorry.” Tony's eyes were huge and his lip was very nearly stuck out in a pout, and James knew from experience it was not a face you could stay strong against.
Flicking a glance at James, the waitress ruffled Tony’s hair. “That’s very honest of you. Thank you.”
Tony apparently took that as obvious proof that the problem was solved, and beamed as he tugged at James’ hand.
“May I have a dime for a gumball?” He was doing more of that eye that thing, the doe eyes and the innocent expression he'd put on when he wanted something, laying it on thick, and James couldn’t help but smile a little as he fished in his pocket for some change.
“Yeah, sure. You can get two, but you have to save the other one for tomorrow.”
Tony whooped as he took the two coins and ran off, making James shake his head as he watched. The waitress got his attention again, however.
“He’s really sweet,” she commented, and James noticed that the New York accent had vanished, a proper English accent taking its place. And now that James had a moment to look at her, really look, he compared the Peggy in his memory to the one standing before him. The victory curls and red lipstick had been replaced by a ponytail and fine wrinkles, but age had been kind to her. She was still beautiful, still had that clever gleam in her eye, and probably just as much steel in her soul as she’d had back then.
“I knew it was you,” He murmured quietly.
Peggy smiled a little. “Likewise, although I doubted my own mind. It’s really you, then?”
James nodded. “Yeah. I… I can’t really explain why, I have to keep Tony safe from what happened to me, but… a lot of things happened. I was used for… some really bad things. The worst kinds of things. And when I wasn’t being used for that, I was put in a cryostasis tube and frozen.”
Peggy’s face blanched as he spoke, clearly reading into all the horrifying parts that James was implying.
“Tony.” She looked back at the boy, who nearly had his nose pressed to the gumball machine, apparently set on counting how many where in it. “Howard’s son?”
Feeling as if he were taking his entire life, his past, his future, and the safety of his son in his hands… James slowly nodded. “Yes.”
Peggy looked very somber, and she was quiet for several long moments. They both watched Tony, how he had to use both hands to crank the dial for the gumball machine, the way he cheered when he saw he got a red one.
“You love him.” Peggy said quietly, and James jumped a little when he realized she had been looking at him.
“Yeah. I do. More than I’ve ever loved anything. And he’s such a good kid. This whole thing, the plate? It was his idea.”
There was something in her face that James couldn’t read. “He’s smart as a tack, too, isn’t he?”
James chuckled despite himself, “Oh, yes. He's smarter than anyone I've ever known.” He glanced at Peggy, then back at Tony. “He is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“Maggie! What’s the holdup!”
“Oh, bugger,” Peggy muttered, turning and waving at the cook. “I have to get back to it. What are you doing later today?”
James felt somewhat poleaxed. “Um… nothing? Tony finished his homework yesterday, so…”
She smiled a little, and though her lips weren’t painted victory red, there was still so much of a younger Peggy in her that the years fell away. “Can you meet me here at four?”
“Sure. Yeah. Tony too?”
After meeting Peggy at the diner after her shift (James had broken out in a cold sweat as they approached, terrified that she had contacted the police or someone worse), the three of them went to the park. The whole way over, Tony chattered away, talking about a book he was reading about chemistry, words that James didn’t have a hope of pronouncing just falling out of that mouth with ease. Peggy was completely charmed, and couldn’t take her eyes off him, and Tony all but vibrated with excitement when she asked him questions and encouraged him to tell her more.
While Tony ran around the park, James and Peggy sat on a bench and talked while they watched him.
“I was his godmother, you know,” Peggy said quietly after a lull in the conversation, something wistful on her face.
James felt the blood drain from his face. “Oh… oh no. Peggy, I had no idea, I—”
She put a hand on his knee to stop him. “It’s alright. Given… things that have happened since then, I’m actually… am I allowed to be glad that this happened? That he ended up with you?” She looked at him, her dark eyes looking lost.
“Only if I am too,” James whispered back, unwilling to consider where either of them may have ended up had he not turned around that night and seen Tony in the backseat.
“He would have been Howard’s successor, I think. Set to take over the company when he was grown. But given what it has turned into, I’m glad that’s not in his future.”
“What happened?” James asked.
“Obadiah Stane runs the company now.” Peggy was looking away, but her gaze was unfocused. “He was Howard’s right hand man. And he is one of the most oily, unpleasant men I’ve ever known. Howard wasn’t even cold in his grave yet before Stane was stepping into his shoes, and turning the company into something Howard never let it become. It’s all weapons now, nothing else. All the strides Howard was making in different areas have been forgotten. That’s not a legacy Maria would have wanted for her son, Howard either. I don’t even want to think what that man would have done if he’d had his hands on Tony, that sweet boy growing up in the shadow of a man like Stane.”
James didn’t know what to say, his brain still processing everything, when Tony came running over.
“Daddy!” He looked like he was about to burst with excitement. “The kids over there have popsicles and their mom said I could have one if it’s okay with you!”
James couldn’t help but smile at the way Tony couldn’t even stand still. “Yeah, you can have one. Make sure you say thank you.”
“YES!” Tony pumped his fist in celebration and ran off again.
Peggy was laughing as she watched him go. “Oh, he’s so precious. You have done such a wonderful job with him.”
James could feel himself flush. “Nah, I didn’t do anything. He’s just like that. He’s such a good kid. He keeps me right.”
“You know… I have no idea how you’re here.” Peggy said quietly, shifting her gaze to him. “I have no idea how you’re alive, looking almost exactly as you did then. I can tell looking at you that you’ve been through something… truly horrific. And it hasn’t escaped me that you’re wearing long sleeves and a glove in the middle of summer. But I don’t think I want to know why. And I don’t need to know how or why you have Tony.”
James closed his eyes briefly and swallowed hard. What would she think, if she knew the truth? What he had been, what he’d been turned into, what he had done?
The sound of his name, his old name, who he had been, sounded so very strange. “James. I go by James now.”
“James, then. Look at me.”
It was hard, meeting her eyes. With the ghosts of Howard and Maria Stark hovering so close.
“I can see, very clearly, exactly how happy that boy is. That he is well cared for. That he is loved, so very loved, and that he loves you right back.”
James blinked as his eyes stung. “I’m trying so hard. I promise.”
“I know. And it shows.” With that, Peggy rose to her feet, groaning a little. “Oh, I need to stop taking on undercover missions. I think I’d prefer taking down Hydra and Nazis to facing another lunch rush.” She smiled up at James, who had stood as well. “Just keep doing what you’re doing, James. You’ll both be just fine.”
And with that, she walked away, going over to Tony for a hug (and probably getting popsicle juice all over herself) before leaving the park entirely and not looking back.
James slowly sat down, somewhat taken aback at her abrupt departure, feeling all kinds of topsy-turvy from all that had happened in the past couple of days. It was a lot, and he let himself turn it all over in his mind. He had no concerns that Peggy might out him to the authorities (okay, he had some concerns, but they were just part of the anxiety and paranoia he always had), she would have asked more questions if that had been her intention. Despite all the years that had passed, James knew she was still the Peggy Carter he'd known before, and he trusted her. He'd have to make sure to write sometimes, taking care not to reveal any information that would tell of his and Tony's whereabouts in case it was intercepted. But he knew she'd appreciate it.
Eventually, James gave himself a shake, and called Tony over. The kid, who was on the swings, took a flying leap off at the apex of his arc (James’ heart briefly stopped) and ran over. “Is it time to go?”
James was staring at the previously white t-shirt that was now so liberally stained with red drips and smears that it was without hope.
“Is there any part of your shirt that you didn’t get popsicle on?”
Craning his head curiously, Tony looked at every bit of his shirt that he could see. “Nothing here,” He finally concluded, poking at a clean section of shirt at his side.
James sighed, and scooped him up with one arm. “You’re a mess. No more white shirts for you. Between crawling into every engine you find and looking like a murder scene right now, I'll never be able to keep up with the stains.”
“How are you supposed to know I enjoyed my popsicle if I didn’t get it all over me?” Tony asked cheekily, and James bopped him on the nose.
“Come on, you sassy kid. Let’s go home.”
Chapter 11: Trying Hard
James makes an apology, makes sacrifices, and is reassured that it's all worth it.
This chapter crosses off my BBB square K5 – apology
Tony got to pick the next place they moved to, after spending some time just outside Baltimore, Maryland, and he chose Boston.
“It snows in Boston.” He informed James matter-of-factly, leading James to momentarily wonder what exactly he’d been shoveling during the winters they’d been somewhere that got snow.
They were old hands at packing things up now, and it only took a few days to get everything ready to be put on the moving truck. But before they could go, James had a stop to make.
Tony stayed overnight at his friend’s house (Carol was the kind of tomboy that made James think very fondly of his sisters), and her best friend Maria was there too. James had a brief moment of sympathy for Mrs. Danvers when he dropped Tony off, who immediately went screaming towards Carol and Maria on the porch, then drove away before the poor woman could change her mind.
The drive to Long Island gave him far too much time to think, for memories to swamp him, and by the time he was driving up to the gated cemetery some ways back behind the old Stark mansion, James was a mess.
He found the grave marker easily, a huge black marble headstone over the two graves, with the names “Howard Anthony Walter Stark” and “Maria Collins Carbonell Stark” engraved deep in the smooth surface. And below that, in smaller letters, "Anthony Edward Stark."
James stood there in the dark, his head bowed, his mind swirling with the kinds of thoughts that he usually buried away where only the nightmares could reach.
“I’m so sorry.” He whispered to the cold headstones. “I wish it could have been different. I’m sure you would have been better parents for him than I am. I’m so sorry I took that from you.”
With a shaking hand, he pulled a little wallet-sized photo out of his pocket. In it, Tony was smiling hugely, his brown eyes sparkling with laughter as he held up nine fingers in front of the messily-decorated birthday cake James had made for him a few months ago.
“He’s so smart. He’s way smarter than anyone I’ve ever known, and he’s only nine. He can look at something and instantly figure out how to take it apart and make it better. He’s doing math that blows my mind, and reading high school textbooks about science and physics like they’re the best kind of adventure story. He loves music and drawing and watching dumb sci-fi movies, I can’t keep him out of car engines to save my life, and more than anything else in the world he wants to build robots. I’m gonna get him a building kit for it for Christmas, the biggest one I can afford. He deserves it. He deserves the entire world. The only reason I’m who I am now is because of him. Taking care of him is the one thing that healed me from whatever Hydra did to me. It’s the only reason I’m alive.”
Exhaling unsteadily, James rolled the photo into a tight scroll, and tucked it down against the base of the huge shared headstone, burying it an inch in the cold ground so the dying grass obscured it.
“I’m doing my best to take care of him. I’m trying so hard. I know you’d do better, but… I promise I’m doing the best I can. I’m so sorry.”
“Dad?” Tony murmured into the dark, from where he was sleeping on his mattress in their new apartment in Boston, the rest of their furniture and belongings still stacked against the walls.
James was on his own mattress on the other side of the room, cataloging the noises of their new place. “Yeah, kid?”
“You’re a really good dad.”
James opened his eyes, froze for a second, then had to struggle not to tear up. “You think?”
He heard Tony nod and roll over, snuggling down into his covers. “Yeah. You try real hard, all the time. And even when I mess up, you still love me and take care of me.”
James was so losing that battle not to cry. “I do love you, bud. More than anything.”
“I know. That’s why you’re a good dad.”
James had no way to know it, but Tony grew up to be exactly the kind of person he was supposed to be, with all the benefits that came with having a parent that loved him unconditionally and supported him always.
James’s dry humor paved the way for Tony to be snarky and sassy as could be, but there was a softness to it. He was supremely self-confident and sure of his self-worth, especially in front of others, but he also knew he had a safe place to go if he ever felt doubt. He had no need for a hard, protective shell to keep himself and his heart safe, as he might have needed had he grown up differently.
The little boy that James Buchannan loved with his whole heart grew up to be the young man that James Buchannan still loved with his whole heart, and Tony never doubted, for a single moment, that his father would do anything and everything to make sure he had every chance to succeed in whatever way he wished.
When he was ten years old, Tony heard about a summer science camp for advanced kids that sounded like a dream come true. He told his dad about it, not expecting to be able to go (the camp was expensive), but James had made it happen. He took extra work as often as he could, knowing how much an experience like that would mean to Tony. (And if he happened to kip in the woods nearby for the three weeks of the camp, secretly keeping an eye on Tony just in case, that was nobody’s business but his. Hydra-driven paranoia was a hard thing to shake.)
When he was twelve years old, Tony discovered that his enjoyment of music was more of a passion than a mere hobby, and James arranged for piano lessons. Tony was something of a prodigy, grasping the nuances of music with ease, and for his thirteenth birthday, James was able to get him a secondhand electric piano that they could take with them from place to place when they moved.
And when he was fourteen, with braces on his teeth and pimples on his face, James made sure that Tony was able to go to MIT, exactly as the kid wanted. Tony was smart, so, so smart, the most brilliant mind James had ever even heard of. He had blown through regular school at such a pace, even while taking the most advanced classes, and although it took the better part of a year, James was finally able to convince the university to take a chance on a fourteen year old kid. And not only that, but Tony worked his butt off in order to secure a scholarship.
It involved a lot of sacrifice, including one that made James more worried than anything else: staying in one place for long enough that Tony would be able to finish school.
For a short time, James even considered leaving. He weighed the dangers, the pros and cons, the chances that Tony would be safer if James wasn’t with him. He even brought it up one night, soon before Tony’s first semester started. He should have expected the unyielding stubbornness that he got back.
“Absolutely not.” Tony said simply, picking up the remote for their small TV as if that had ended the conversation entirely, ignoring the way his voice cracked a bit (he was really detesting that part of puberty).
“Tony,” James groaned, letting himself fall onto the other end of the sagging couch. “Come on, just… just think about it for a minute. Think how much safer you’ll be.”
“I don’t care, Dad. It’s not worth it.” A quick flash of those brown eyes, but it was long enough that James could see the vulnerability in them. “You’re not leaving me here alone.”
“That’s not what I want either, and I promise you wouldn't be alone. I just… I have to keep you safe, bud. That’s more important to me than anything.”
“So you’ll stay here to protect me. Hey, you could be my personal bodyguard. I bet the professors would even let you sit in during the lectures, if you do that murder face.”
James rolled his eyes. “It’s not that bad.”
Tony replied in a sing-songy way, that was all the more comical for the way it cracked in the middle, “Yes it iiiiiis.”
They were quiet for a time, idly watching an episode of The A-Team on TV.
“I just want your future to be everything you want it to be,” James finally confessed into the space between them. “With your mind, kid, you can do anything.”
Tony didn’t fall for the truthful flattery, just fixed his dad with a steady-eyed gaze. “And I’ll do it with you there, or not at all. So drop it, old man.”
James sighed, and reached out to ruffle Tony’s hair. The curls were growing in again and he managed to mess them up quite satisfactorily before Tony grumbled at him and swiped his hand away. “Lemme alone!”
“You’re a gigantic pain in the neck, you know that right?”
Tony just smirked, clearly pleased that he’d won the argument. “I get it from you.”
Chapter 12: Demons in the Dark
The nightmares never get less terrifying, but Tony always has his Dad's back.
James was there, every single day, for the entirety of Tony’s time at MIT. He was there the first day, helping Tony find his classes, double-checking that he had all his supplies, making sure they stopped for lunch. And while he didn’t actually sit in during the lectures, he did sit outside in the hall and wait, skimming through a textbook about physics so he’d at least understand some of what Tony talked about.
One night about halfway into Tony’s first semester, James was jolted out of sleep by one of his nightmares. They didn’t happen near as often as they used to, but it was still pretty horrible when they did, and he often didn't sleep afterwards
Yawning, he wandered towards the kitchen, trying to shake the unsettling leftovers of his nightmare, and found Tony already there.
Tony knew exactly what had his dad up, and he looked sympathetic. “Hey. Nightmares?”
“Yeah. Don’t get ‘em a lot anymore, but they’re still…”
“Nightmares.” Tony finished for him.
“Yeah. How about you, what are you doing up? You’ve got a class at ten.”
Tony’s eyes glinted and his grin was practically maniacal. “Science.”
James snorted, but he smiled too. “Is it good science if you’re doing it at three in the morning?”
“Are you kidding me? That’s the best science!”
They fell into a comfortable silence, Tony making the two of them toast while James poured them each a glass of milk. He sat at the table brooding (a byproduct of the nightmares) while Tony doodled a few notes on a pad of paper. As the minutes passed, however, rather than feeling better, James only felt worse.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Tony said quietly after a while, and James glanced over to see his kid looking at him steadily.
He swallowed hard, looking down at his hands, metal fingers interlocked with flesh. As the years had passed, ever since those first few hard months when Tony was a baby, Tony had figured more and more into James’ nightmares. All of them were bad, any nightmare in which Tony was in danger was enough to have James waking up in a cold sweat, and he couldn’t rest until he’d gotten up and just watched his son for a while. Watched him sleep, listened to him breathe, proved to himself that the kid was okay.
Tony had caught him once or twice, looming in the doorway, but instead of being scared, the kid would just get up and come right over, and wrap his arms around James’ waist. “I’m okay, Dad.” He’d always whisper. “We’re both okay.”
The worst dreams, though… were the ones in which James had lost himself again. When he found himself trapped, a prisoner in his own body, his mouth muzzled against his screams as he watched his own hands raise a gun, a knife, a garrote wire, or sometimes no weapon at all. And abject terror would flash in Tony’s eyes as the Winter Soldier came towards him. Came to kill him.
Shaking, James dropped his head into his hands.
“I keep waiting, you know.” He whispered, his voice breaking.
Tony’s voice was full of concern and worry. “For what?”
“For you to really think about what I did. To realize what I am.” Tony knew everything. He had for over a year now. He knew about how he'd come to be in James' care, what happened to his parents, what James had done when he'd been the Winter Soldier. James had held nothing back, and there wasn't a day that went by that he didn't think at least once that he was going to lose his boy because of what he'd done, and who he'd been.
There was a moment of silence from Tony, then, “You mean the part where you’ve raised me like an absolute model parent for the past fourteen years?”
Sniffing, James shook his head, trying to press on his eyes hard enough to stop the ache of tears. “No.”
“The part where you still have horrific nightmares about what was done to you, and what Hydra forced you to do?”
With a shudder, James shook his head again.
“Oh, then you must mean the part where, despite the fact that you were brainwashed and conditioned to the point of inhumanity, you still managed to single-handedly claw yourself back from that. While taking a care of a newborn baby that was a living, breathing representation of everything you lived in fear of and hated about yourself.”
“You’ve never hidden the truth from me. Ever. You’ve made sure from the time I was a kid that I understood as best as I could what happened. And you know what?”
“What?” James whispered, unable to look up.
“As far as I’m concerned, you have no need to be forgiven. But if you still want it? Then I forgive you. For all of it. And I will tell you that as often as you need to hear it.”
He felt like he was choking on his regrets, the shadows of the nightmare and his own memories like a vise around his throat. “It was my hands, Tony. My hands that—”
“Yeah, sure, it was your hands. But it wasn’t your mind, was it, and it wasn’t your choice. You know what was your choice? That every single moment afterwards, you used those hands to protect and take care of me. So don’t go there, Dad. Because you’re not gonna convince me that you’re a bad guy, no matter what you or anybody else says. Every action that you have ever made, every decision from the moment you walked away from that car with a baby that you didn’t leave to die, has been made with the best of intentions. And I’m never going to be told otherwise, because those are the facts. And I’m a science nerd, so you know how much I like my facts.”
Tears were dripping down James’ arms and making puddles under his elbows. He felt Tony sliding napkins over to soak them up, but the kid didn’t say anything about it.
After a few minutes, he finally managed to pull himself together, shoving all the bad things away into the back of his mind and locking them up. Tony was right there again with a fresh wad of napkins for him to wipe up his face.
“I don’t deserve you, Tony. I really, really don’t.”
“Too bad, old man. You’re stuck with me.”
James huffed a broken attempt at a laugh, wiping at his eyes with the napkins. “I guess now I’m just sorry you’ve got such a broken down old man for your dad, kid.”
Tony shook his head and took a bite of toast. “I’m not. You kidding me? You’re the strongest person I’ve ever known, or even read about.”
James smiled faintly, looking down into his glass of milk while he clenched the napkins in his hands. “You think so?”
“I know so." He could feel Tony's eyes on him. "I’m the person I am today because of you.” The sincerity in his voice was so pure it almost hurt.
Crap, he was gonna start crying again. “All I ever wanted was for you to be safe and happy.”
“Well, you know what?” Tony’s gaze was rock steady when James finally looked at him. “Mission accomplished.”
James wiped at his eyes again, blaming his unsteady emotional state on the nightmares. “Thanks, kid.”
“And you’re not really old, either.” Tony added, absentmindedly dipping the crust of his toast in his milk, at which James give him an odd look. “You only just barely started going gray.”
James ran a hand through his hair, that had indeed just started going silver at the temples. “It’s weird.”
“Not any weirder than the rest of you.” Tony jotted down another note on his pad of paper, then gave his dad a quick wink as if he hadn’t just sat there and witnessed a complete emotional breakdown. “Oh, don’t forget, you promised to teach me how to shave tomorrow.” He ran a hand over the sparse hair that had finally started growing on his face.
With a laugh that was shaky, but nonetheless real, James nodded, feeling all the love in the world for the teenager sitting across from him. “I won’t forget, kid. Promise.”
Chapter 13: Fess Up
Tony enters a competition, finds an old friend, runs into a problem, and gets a job. James is very proud.
The next year just as the new semester started, Tony came home in a fit of excitement so great he nearly crashed into the wall. The little boy in South Philly, Jimmy, that Tony had been best friends with years ago, had come to MIT too and the two had a few classes together.
Jimmy (who ended up going by Rhodey within a week, since he didn’t like Jimmy anymore), became a near-permanent fixture in the Buchannan household almost immediately, over for dinner more nights than not, and when Tony wasn’t at home, he was with Rhodey in his dorm. They got along like a house on fire, and at times strongly reminded James of his own best friend he’d had at that age. With fewer fistfights in alleyways, of course.
Part of Tony’s second year at MIT was a robot building competition, and he’d entered it with that familiar gleam in his eye.
“I’m gonna make the best bot ever,” He would mutter to himself, making sketch after sketch of his plans, while James alternately dozed on the couch and watched the manic energy his son always exuded when he was inventing.
A month or so into his efforts, however, Tony came up against an obstacle that he couldn’t manage to find a way around. James knew something was wrong when he came home from work at his day job to find Tony pacing around the living room, his hands in his pockets, scowling fiercely.
“Bad day?” James asked, leaving his wallet and keys on the coffee table and yawning.
“It’s alright,” Tony answered distractedly as he scrubbed a hand through his hair, clearly irritated and anxious.
James sat down on the couch and propped his feet up, grabbing the newspaper to peruse while he relaxed for a bit. He read an article, his eyes straying over to Tony every so often, but the pacing didn’t stop, and that deep frown didn’t let up.
Finally, James folded up the newspaper and set it aside. “You’re fooling nobody, pal. Now come on. What’s up?”
Tony shrugged, and seemed to make a concentrated effort to stop pacing and look more relaxed. “Just problems with my robot project. I’ll figure it out.”
James knew his kid better than that, though. He knew when Tony was trying to be evasive, and he wasn’t that good at it. “C’mon, kid, fess up. I know there’s more to it.”
Tony opened his mouth, probably to deny it, but James just raised his eyebrows and Tony’s shoulders slumped as collapsed in the threadbare easy chair adjacent to the couch. “Fine. It’s just… some of the materials I need are kind of expensive. And I don’t have enough in the provided budget to buy them all.”
“And you need all of them, right?”
“If I want it to be what I’m imagining, yes.”
James thought it over for a minute, then stood up and stretched, feeling a satisfying crack in his back. “How much more do you need?”
Tony fidgeted a little, his eyes darting away. Finally, once it was clear James would wait for the answer as long as it took, he mumbled, “Two hundred.”
Well, it could be worse. “You know, I’ve got that day off once a week, and with you being so busy with this project, maybe I can put in some extra hours at work. And someone always needs a handyman.”
Tony was shaking his head. “Dad, no. You already work two jobs, I’m not letting you drive yourself to exhaustion just because I’m too dumb to figure this out.”
Stepping over and leaning down, James cupped Tony’s chin in his hand and tipped his head up. “Hey. We don’t talk like that. You are the smartest person I have ever met in my entire life, and on top of that, you’re my son. You could be dumb as a post and I’d still be proud to be your dad. So don’t you ever say anything like that ever again. I’m proud of you, you are so smart you scare me sometimes, and I will do whatever it takes to make sure you succeed at anything you ever want to achieve.”
Tony’s big brown eyes were misty with tears, a clear sign that he was stressed out if his emotions were bubbling that close to the surface. “But it’s not fair. You already work so hard…”
James sat on the arm of the chair and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. “So do you. School is your job right now, and I see you hitting those books every night. I’ve heard you talking with Rhodey, using words I don’t even understand, that manic light of inventing in your eyes. You have a job, and you work hard at it. So let me do my job as your dad and make sure you have what you need.”
“It’s just not fair.” Tony whispered, leaning into the half-embrace.
“I know, kid. It’s not. But we’ll be alright. We can do anything together, right?”
A smile was finally coaxed out on that young face, and Tony nodded. “Right.”
James ruffled his hair, appreciating the fact that the teenager still let him, and smiled back. “Any chance you remembered to stick the pie for dinner in the oven when you got home?”
Tony went very still, then raised guilty eyes to look at him. “Ummm…”
James laughed and hauled both of them to their feet. “It’s a tuna fish night then, I guess. Good thing I hid the good chips last time I went shopping.”
Tony gave him a shove as they went into the kitchen, barely managing to shift James' solid bulk. “I knew you got the good chips, I knew it, I could smell them! You butthead!”
To be fair, James should have expected that Tony wouldn’t let it go. The kid came home a few days later, looking like he was both excited and nervous, but he beat his dad to the forthcoming question.
“So… don’t be mad.”
Oh, that made James want to sit down. “Okaaaaay?”
Tony took a deep breath. “I got a job today.”
James also took a deep breath, reminding himself to let Tony finish before he reacted. He set aside the wooden spoon he’d been stirring the spaghetti sauce with, and leaned against the counter. “You did?”
“Yeah. Just a part time one, less than fifteen hours a week, but it’s something.” There was something hopeful and anxious on Tony’s face, and James really, really hoped that was a good thing.
“What’s the job?”
“My practical engineering professor knows this mechanic, and gave me a really good reference. The guy wasn’t too happy about it when he saw me, said I was too young, but I convinced him to let me try.”
James was simultaneously proud and worried all to hell, which was what 90% of parenting was. “Yeah? I’m guessing it went well.”
Tony beamed. “He said I did things with a wrench he’d never seen before, and that I could come in for three hours on week days. I can either help with paperwork or the cars, depending on what he needs.”
James had to smile a little. “You sound excited.”
“I am! It’s my first real job, y’know? And it’ll help with money.”
The stubborn set of his chin told James everything he needed to know. “You’re absolutely sure it won’t affect your school work?”
“It won’t. It’s only three hours every day. I can make it work. And this way I’ll be pitching in, so you won’t have to get another job.”
With a sigh and a smile, James squeezed his son’s shoulder. “You know I would have done it, and happily.”
Tony put his own hand on James’ forearm and squeezed back. “I know, Dad. But you don’t have to do everything. You count too. And I can help.”
Unable to resist, James tugged Tony into his arms. “It astounds me every day how good a kid you are.”
Tony’s voice was muffled in his shirt as his arms came up around his dad. “I’m not that good.”
“Yes you are. And all that goodness inside of you just might change the world.”
"You're such a sap."
"Says the fifteen year old that still cries when he watches The Fox and the Hound."
James just grinned at the pinch he got for that comment. He sorta deserved it.
Chapter 14: The Way of the Future
Tony works his way through several degrees and makes plans for his future, and James has his back.
Three years at MIT earned Tony not only a Masters degree in physics, but also a doctorate in mechanical engineering. It was unheard of, especially considering how young he was, and if James cried like a baby, watching his son walk up to accept his two degrees, that was nobody’s business but his. He was so proud, and his body could barely contain it. Every sacrifice, every extra shift at work, every late night or early morning, every month spent pinching pennies to make sure Tony had enough for his school supplies… it would have been worth it anyway, but this?
It was the first time that James really, truly felt that he’d done something right, all those years ago. When instead of walking away and possibly leaving that baby to die, he’d turned around and made a different choice.
James and Tony’s apartment was small, which meant it felt approximately the size of a sardine can once the entire Rhodes family and Tony’s prize-winning robot, Dum-E, were all crammed inside waiting for the graduates. But James wouldn’t have changed it for the world.
“Okay, you gotta hold still, just for a sec, I know you’re excited and you wanna meet everyone.” James was saying as he tried to affix a cardboard graduation cap on the end of Dum-E’s claw. “How that kid managed to program you so that you act like a puppy I still don’t understand. Okay, there go, go on.”
Rolling away on wheels that Tony had just installed a month ago, the bot proceeded to poke and prod at everyone in the house, but nobody minded. And when Tony and Rhodey arrived, still wearing their caps and gowns and holding their degrees in their hands, the nearly bone-crushing hug that Tony bestowed on James was the best thing he’d ever felt.
After MIT, a whole host of other colleges and universities came calling, clamoring to be the next success story for the boy genius. Berkeley won out (Tony ended up covering his eyes and doing eenie-meenie-miney-moe with his top three choices, much to James exasperation), and once again, the two Buchannans picked up and moved cross-country.
James had been turning over all kinds of thoughts about Tony’s future, ever since the kid had turned thirteen and effectively proven that he was smarter than every single teacher in the surrounding schools. He firmly insisted that Tony would be the one to pick what he wanted to do, and made sure to leave every option open.
Including (and it scared James out of his mind to think of it) revealing to the world that Tony Stark, the son and heir of legendary inventor Howard Stark, was alive, and ready to make his place in the world. Now that he was eighteen, that possibility was greater than ever.
The two of them went so far as to research what Stane Industries was all about (it had been changed over into Obadiah Stane’s hands entirely a few years after the Stark’s deaths and he hadn't wasted time making it known), and James was a little relieved when he glanced up from a magazine article about Stane Industries' relationships with foreign powers. The tight look on Tony’s face wasn’t anything like the hungry, curious expression he wore when he found something that he was interested in.
He caught James looking and sighed a little. “Dad, what if I don’t want to do that?”
He gestured to the newspaper article he was reading, under a black and white picture of bombs and missiles with STANE stamped on them. “Weapons and stuff.”
“Then you do whatever you want, pal. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. What’s our rule?”
Tony smiled a little, and glanced at his dad. “We choose.”
“That’s right. So take your time. Think about it. Think about what you love, what you’re good at. Maybe it’s this, and maybe it’s not. And once you choose, we’ll make it happen, no matter what it is. And if you decide later that you want to choose something else? You can. You can always change your mind, and we’ll make it happen, no matter what it is.”
Looking relieved, Tony’s face broke out in a real smile at last. “Thanks, Dad.”
Four years at Berkeley produced two more PhD’s, electrical engineering and astrophysics, as well as a Bachelor’s degree in computer science that Tony insisted was probably going to be the most valuable of them all. He had patted Dum-E and the new companion bot, U, and promised, “Computers are the future, Dad, just you wait.”
After all that, Tony expressed his assertion that he never, ever wanted to write another dissertation ever again, and took several months off just to “I dunno, find myself or something.” (It involved a lot of being a couch potato, flirting with girls at the beach, and tinkering around in his tiny garage that was basically a workshop at this point. James found it hilarious, if he was also slightly jealous.)
After all that, however, Tony figured that he’d probably better do something with all those degrees and doctorates he’d earned. So with the kind of determination that had gotten him through all his years at school, he set to figuring out what he wanted to do with his life.
“You can do anything, Tony.” James assured him, not the slightest hint of a doubt in his mind. “You can change the world. Because you’re Anthony Edward Stark, and I believe in you.”
Tony shook his head, smiling softly. “I know I can do anything. But not because I’m Anthony Edward Stark. But because I’m Tony James Buchanan, and my dad believes in me.”
Tony tried his hand at several different things for the next few years. He worked as a mechanic, a researcher, a lab assistant, he was an engineer with a few different companies, and concluded at the end of it that he wanted to be able to do whatever the heck he wanted on any given day, so he’d just have to invent a job that let him do that.
He had moved out on his own when he was twenty (not too far, however, just into the other half of the duplex James was renting), and still had dinner with his Dad every night (and sometimes breakfast, and oftentimes lunch too. James was a better cook.) He took advantage of one such night to talk it all over, shortly after he turned twenty-five.
“You think I’d be able to make any decent money that way? Just kinda taking on whatever work I want?”
James, who didn’t necessarily have the education behind him that Tony had, but certainly had a vast range of experience after working whatever job he could find for the past two decades, considered it as he rolled an ear of corn over a stick of butter. “If you marketed yourself well enough, and you really worked hard, I could see that working out. Especially if you end up with some employees, so you can do more.”
Tony’s gaze went hazy and thoughtful as he munched his way through his own corn on the cob, and James smiled absently. It was almost possible to watch the wheels in his son’s head turning, right through the dark hair falling over his forehead.
All the way through dinner Tony was only half there, dipping his pork chop into the ketchup and cutting his fries with a fork and knife. James stopped him from putting salt and pepper on his slice of watermelon, but it was a close call. He figured it would have been hilarious to watch Tony’s face when he got a mouthful of sweet, salty, and peppery.
They were halfway through dessert (apple pie, and James had finally perfected his pie crust, thank you very much), when Tony nodded, and came back to himself.
“I know what to do.”
“Yep. I’m gonna take over Stane Industries, stop the weapons development and production, and turn it all into something better.”
James jaw dropped so fast it nearly hit the floor. “You what?”
“Yup!" Tony forked another bite of pie into his mouth, looking utterly content. "It’s a flawless plan.”
James wanted to point out that it was less of a plan and more of a magical unicorn dream, but he was too busy trying to wrap his mind around it.
Tony went for it like the hounds of hell were at his back. Apparently, and James didn’t know if he was impressed or furious, the kid had been thinking about it all for a long while, how to go about claiming his birthright, but also honoring the life he’d led as James’ son. He had contacted lawyers, dug through state and federal laws, come up with a truly absurd number of contingency plans, and he was more than ready when James finally got over the shock of it all.
“Tony… you can’t. They… they’ll find out what I did, they’ll take you away from me.” James was shaking so hard he could barely breathe, the terror so great it swamped him.
“I’m not a kid anymore, I’m an adult now, they can’t take me anywhere.”
“They’ll come for me. The cops, the government, Hydra, neither of us will ever be safe again.”
There was pure steel in Tony's gaze. “Let them try. I know what you can do, Dad. Just because you haven’t touched a gun and used it since I was three doesn’t mean you don’t still know how to use them. I saw you throw a paring knife last week and nail a bug to the wall, I have zero concerns as to my own safety if you’re around.”
“You don’t understand,” James whispered, his head in his trembling hands. “You don’t know what they’ll do. They’ll think I’ve held you prisoner all these years, they’ll put both of us in the psych ward, they'll make you hate me, they’ll never believe what really happened.”
He jumped when he felt hands on his shoulders, the fear nearly making him lash out. He looked up into his son’s face, and that warm, steady brown gaze was boring into him.
“Dad. Take a deep breath. Come on. It’s okay.”
Shakily, James did as he was told, letting Tony coach him out of the panic he’d been drowning in. It took a few minutes, but finally he didn’t feel like he was going to pass out, or that his heart might beat out of his chest.
And Tony was still looking at him, still steady as a rock, a calm conviction all over his face.
“It’s my turn, Dad. Let me do this. I’m ready. It’s my turn.” Something flickered in his whiskey-brown eyes, then he said with a hint of a smile, “I’ll never let anyone hurt you, kid.”
James wanted to glare, honestly, using his own words against him was such a low blow, but he was too busy trying not to tear up. “I don’t like it.”
“I know. But I need to do it.”
“It… it really means that much to you, doesn’t it?”
Tony nodded. “Yeah. It does. For all the reasons you think, and more beyond that.”
James was silent for long moment, then finally… “Okay. Okay. I’m behind you.”
Tony grabbed his dad in a hug, holding on tight to those broad shoulders that had been supporting him for the past twenty-five years, feeling the solid comfort of arms coming around him. “It’ll be okay, Dad. I promise. We’ll make it. We always do. We can do anything together, remember?”
Chapter 15: Always There
Tony wins against Stane, Hydra makes a reappearance, and James is there for it all.
We've reached the end! Thanks to everyone that stuck around through it all! I promised you a happy ending, and here it is!
This chapter fills my BBB square, Y1 – Avengers
They made it.
It was a long road, and a hard one, and there were times when James or Tony or both were sure that they wouldn’t make it past whatever obstacle they were facing.
But they did. Relying on each other, and on people they’d found along the way, they made it.
When he was thirty-one years old, Tony finally took his place as the CEO of the newly reinstated Stark Industries. Obadiah Stane, who had fought tooth and nail against any attempt to wrest the company back out of his clutches, had unexpectedly died of a heart attack six months previously, effectively ending the bitter legal battle over the company. And with the help of a certain strawberry blonde woman with freckles and just as much determination as she’d had as a four year old in pigtails, Virginia “Pepper” Potts helped Tony and James untangle all the legal issues and red tape surrounding the issue, clearing the way for Tony to step into his rightful place. And he was remarkable.
In the eyes of the public, who had been watching the years-long and very public war with rapt attention, he was Tony Stark. The spitting image of Howard Stark (not to mention a confirmed DNA match), the genius prodigal son that had miraculously returned to guide his father’s legacy into the new century.
In private, however… Tony was who he’d always been his entire life.
Tony Buchannan. Son of James Buchannan. A product of a life that hadn’t been easy, but that had never left him wanting, especially not for the love of a parent. A man that had never had cause a day in his life to wonder if he were loved or valued. A man that still ate dinner at his father’s house every day, and often breakfast and lunch, if he could get away with it (James was still a better cook).
And his dad was always there. Wherever and whenever Tony needed him. He was there when Rhodey, who had made himself a very successful career in the Air Force, was made the official liaison for the newly renamed Stark Industries, who was providing protective gear and communications technology to the military, rather than weapons.
James was there when Tony’s very first AI, BARNES, came online for the first time and proceeded to sass at its creator within the first few minutes. (“Tony, why does your snarky AI have a British accent?” “It just felt right, I dunno.”)
He was there when Pepper came over for dinner, a ring on her finger and a smile on her face, her and Tony both blushing like high schoolers as they held hands and announced their engagement.
He was there when Peggy Carter, old and gray but still beautiful and strong, told Tony everything she remembered about his parents… all three of them.
James was there when Bruce Banner (who’d had quite the tragically interesting life, as it happened), showed up out of the blue with one whopper of a tall green tale. Harry Hogan, who Tony quickly and cheekily dubbed “Happy”, became Tony’s bodyguard when the guy ran into Tony one night getting mugged. Sharon Carter, who turned out to be Peggy’s great-niece that was following in Peggy’s footsteps at SHIELD, became the sister Tony always wanted and never had. Carol Danvers (another crazy story there), started dating Rhodey, and Tony never let either of them have a moment’s peace. All the friends from Tony’s childhood that had special places in his heart found places in his adult life as well.
The one time James wasn’t there, through no fault of his own… Hydra made their move.
They must have figured that they didn’t even have to try and get their Winter Soldier. All they needed was his son.
James remembered little over the days that followed. He was among the first to know when Tony had been abducted, the first to get the threat that he’d have to surrender himself to bargain for Tony’s life. Slipping back into the terrifying persona of the Winter Soldier came so easy it scared him, but James let it happen.
Every living person in the warehouse they were holed up in, save but one, was dead within minutes once the Asset arrived. There were a few bullets embedded in the bulletproof vest he wore, the only new addition to the old gear that he’d kept hidden away for all those years. Another bullet was lodged in his thigh, and two more had grazed his arm and shoulder. Standing in front of Tony, he was a nightmare in living daylight as the blood seeped through his clothes. He was wearing his full Winter Soldier gear, including the mask and goggles that covered most of the age on his face, his brown hair liberally streaked with gray and speckled with blood, and he waited.
Waited for an expression of horror, terror, disgust.
Instead, Tony just looked up at him from the chair he was tied to, through the one eye that wasn’t swollen shut… and smiled.
“I knew you’d come for me.”
Tony had a dislocated shoulder, broken ankle, fractured eye socket, a concussion, and needed stitches in three places, but he lived. James had made sure of that. Sitting next to Tony’s hospital bed, watching his son breathe, carefully monitoring the different machines that tracked his vitals and the IV that steadily ran medication and fluids into his arm, James kept him safe. And clung to the mental image of that smile, knowing that Tony had saved his life all over again with that simple expression. Anything else, and James knew that he would have lost something of himself, something he could never get back.
He hadn’t really believed it, all this time. Every occasion when Tony told him that he trusted James, believed in him, forgave him, wasn’t afraid of him.
It had taken one hell of an ordeal to really prove exactly how much the kid had meant it.
Once Tony was out of the hospital, he spent some time working on a secret project. He told James that he’d thought of it while the Hydra operatives had been beating him, trying to torture information about James out of him while they waited. After a few weeks, he was finally ready, and he showed the plans to James with a nervous and expectant look on his face.
James looked them over carefully, each of the meticulously drawn schematics, then met Tony’s eyes.
Tony nodded. “You’ve spent thirty-five years protecting me. Now it’s my turn to return the favor.”
A year later, when the very first gleaming silver armor went rocketing into the air, James was there on the ground with his heart in his throat… and marveled at what his son had created.
And he was there a few years later, on the day that Tony, known to the public as Iron Man, met Nick Fury, and a whole new adventure started.
Tony Buchannan-Stark and Steve Rogers were like oil and water from the moment they set eyes one each other. And James had laughed himself sick about it, the instantaneous dislike that sprouted from jealousy and suspicion on both sides.
He had accompanied Tony to meet with the other so-called Avengers Nick Fury had managed to assemble, and though he’d had a little bit of time to get used to the idea of seeing Steve, it was still quite a shock.
Steve looked exactly the same as the last time Bucky had seen him, and how the hell had he found grandpa clothes in his size?
As for James, he figured that he had been around thirty years old, physically, when he’d first torn away from his Hydra conditioning and started his new life with a baby in tow. He had celebrated his 72nd birthday a couple months ago, but the bastardized serum that Hydra had dosed him with had slowed his aging somewhat. He was fully gray and had a face of wrinkles that he was proud of, but he was also in better condition than most sixty year olds, and he was sure he had at least twenty or thirty more years ahead of him, which suited him just fine. He had two grandbabies (so far) to dote on, after all, and if he was lucky he’d get to see great-grandbabies before his time was up. (But he still wasn’t gonna wear the grandpa pants, he liked his combat boots and jeans, thank you very much.)
He and Steve had a good, long talk, covering everything that had happened in decades that had passed between them. Steve had such a long road of recovery ahead of him, a trail similar enough to James’ that he knew what his friend was in for. They both ended up clinging to each other and crying like babies, but that was what you kept a handkerchief in your pocket for.
After that, James couldn’t help but laugh as he sat in the lab Tony and Bruce were working in, watching Tony scowl in that way he had, like he was trying to set someone’s skull on fire. And Steve was glaring right back at him, all that 1940’s stubbornness still alive and kicking.
Once he got finished laughing, James broke up the argument that had started as a sarcastic remark and had escalated into a shouting match.
“Steve, you big idiot, quit yelling at my kid. And Tony, quit the attitude or you’re grounded.”
Both men glowered at him, Steve because he was obviously still convinced Tony was the source of all evil, and Tony because— “I am forty-three years old, Dad, you can’t ground me.”
“Sure I can. You’re grounded. See?”
Steve’s glare cracked and broke as a tiny smile tugged at the corner of his lips, and he looked away, rubbing at his face to hide it. Tony managed to maintain his frown, but his eyes were crinkled up slightly at the corners and twinkling in the way that meant he was working really, really hard not to burst out laughing.
James just smirked and sat down in his son’s chair, propping his boots up on the edge of the stainless steel lab table in the SHIELD Helicarrier that was flying through the sky.
Yeah. Things were gonna be just fine.