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Empire of Dirt

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The sound of a grand piano floated up the stairs, accompanied by a soft crooning voice singing Christmas carols.

Tony Stark opened his eyes.

The singing had stopped.

A moment later, a woman’s voice called out, “Tony, come downstairs. Your father and I are leaving for our trip.”

But his father was dead. Howard had died over twenty years ago. Had he forgotten to turn the holographic simulator off before passing out in the lab last night?

Swinging his legs off the giant king-size bed, Tony made his way to the nearest mirror. The face that stared back at him was a perfect replica of his 21-year-old self, a mop of dark unruly hair forever falling into defiant brown eyes. He'd been angry at the whole world at that age.

“Tony?” Maria’s voice came from right behind him, and he jumped, whirling around to find his long-deceased mother peering patiently at him from the doorway of his old bedroom. “Sweetheart, are you alright? You look a bit pale.”

“I-" His voice cracked when she reached out and cupped his cheek. No matter how intricate the holograms had been, they could never capture the warmth and life radiating from his mother. His eyes began to sting. Tony pressed his shaking hand over hers and inhaled the familiar comforting scent of Maria’s perfume.

“Oh, my sweet boy,” She sighed, gathering him into her arms when his tremors increased. “Have you been smoking again, Anthony?”

“No, I-I, none of this make any sense, Mom. How are you-" He stammered, at a loss for words.

“Maria, the car is here,” A brisk voice spoke from the doorway, and Tony lifted his head from his mother’s shoulder to see Howard, alive and well, standing impatiently at the door, suit jacket in one arm and a silver-tipped cane in the other. His gaze frosted over with disapproval when he saw Tony’s red-rimmed eyes.

“Howie, I think Tony is sick,” His mother said worriedly, pressing a palm to Tony’s sweaty forehead.

“I’m sure I don’t have to express my concerns again,” Howard replied cooly, “the boy is clearly high from whatever alcohol or drugs he took at one of his numerous-“ his lip twisted in distaste, “parties.”

“I’m not high,” Tony yelled, anger surfacing at his father's clear disdain. “This isn’t real. I’m dreaming. You guys aren’t real.”

“See what I mean, Maria,” Howard said with cold satisfaction, but Tony had stopped paying attention.

His mother had said that they were going on a trip. There had been Christmas carols. The car was here...

“What’s today’s date?” He suddenly demanded. Maria’s concerned expression was growing, as was Howard’s scowl.

“It’s the 16th, Darling,” She answered, confused. “Your father and I are leaving for our month-long Christmas vacation. We talked about this.”

“No, no, no. You can’t go!” Tony burst out suddenly, panic building in his chest. The 16th was the night of the assassination, cleverly disguised as a car accident along an empty road. The Winter Soldier was going to kill them both and-

“Honey, what are you talking about?” Maria’s confusion was quickly turning into quiet displeasure.

“You can’t go. You have to cancel the trip, Mom. There’s going to be a horrible accident, and-” Tony babbled as Howard took one of Maria’s hands and began to pull her out of the room.

“Anthony Stark!” Maria suddenly raised her voice. He fell silent, stunned. She exhaled wearily. “Sweetheart, I really don’t want to believe your father’s accusations about your drinking or drug habits, but this is ridiculous.”

“You don’t understand-“ He tried again.

“Yes, I do. Now, not another word from you,” Maria interrupted firmly, taking his face in her hands and pressing placating kisses to both of his cheeks. “Take care of yourself while we’re away, Love.”

His parents made their way down the grand staircase. Seconds later, the door slammed shut behind them. Tony heard the sound of wheels crunching over gravel.

He pinched himself on the forearm as hard as he could. The spot flared white-hot with pain. He was still facing the sleek redwood front door of his grandfather’s old family estate instead of the glass automated ones in his Malibu mansion.

He was 21 again, but the last thing Tony remembered was supporting Rhodey through his painful physical therapy after the fallout with Steve Rogers. Those memories belonged to the 46-year-old Tony Stark.

Barnes, no the Winter Soldier, was going to strike tonight.

Should he intervene? Did he really have a choice?

There was a chain of keys in on one of the drawers in Howard’s study. Tony knew by memory that they led to the old vintage cars his father kept in the basement level of the house.

He grabbed the keys and raced down the stairs.

 


 

Tony had every detail of the incident memorized in the back of his head, so it didn't take him too long to track down the white limo his parents were in. Still, it was a shock to see the car suddenly swerve wildly into the trees and a dark figure separate itself from the shadows.

Barnes’s face was hidden behind a black mask and protective night-vision goggles. A compact sniper rifle was strapped to his back. He moved purposefully toward Howard’s side of the car and tore the door clean off. The Soldier bent low and fisted his unconscious father’s shirt.

Tony staggered from his hiding spot, heart pounding so hard he could barely choke out the trigger words he’d memorized from the encounter with Zemo.

His voice was tinny in the vast night, but the Winter Soldier froze nonetheless.

Release him!” Tony shouted in Russian.

The gloved fist unclenched and Howard Stark toppled over onto the grass, bleeding freely from a cut above his left brow.

Abort mission! Terminate! Stop!” Tony tried a variation of Russian words when the Soldier made to approach his mother’s side of the car. The assassin paused.

Then, the Winter Soldier turned his masked face toward Tony.

Ready to comply,” said the Soldier.

Chapter Text

Howard's pulse was sluggish but strong when Tony heaved his father's limp body upright into a sitting position. He moaned feebly, and Tony realized that his left wrist was bent at an odd angle.

Broken wrist, but still alive and kicking. That was good enough for now.

Tony made to get up and inspect his mother’s injuries, but Howard’s uninjured hand snagged his shirt sleeve.

“My son…leave my son alone…please…I beg you...” He rasped, struggling to see through the blood dripping into his eyes from the deep cut on his forehead. Tony swallowed past the hot lump in his throat and squeezed his old man’s hand.

“He’s safe. I swear,” He promised, eyes stinging.

Maria was out cold, her body slumped against the seatbelt holding her in place. Tony pried open the door and checked his mother’s pulse jus to be sure. He breathed a sigh of relief when he felt it under his fingertips. Then, Tony did a quick search and retrieved a big clunky Nokia cellphone from the glovebox compartment. He hefted it in his hand, marveling for a second at how heavy the thing was as he made his way back to his father. Back in the 90s, Stark Industries hadn’t taken any interest in the telecommunication market yet.

He dialed the police first, quickly informing them of the accident and leaving his own name out in the report.

Then, Tony paused and considered his options. Phoning the police would surely bring about public coverage of the car accident, and Hydra would strike again if they knew the Starks had survived. He needed someone to watch over them while he dealt with the problematic Winter Soldier. He quickly dismissed the idea of calling Obadiah Stane. He'd have to keep an eye on his father's business partner in the future, but at the moment-

It came to him suddenly.

Rhodey.

He could call Rhodey.

In 1991, Rhodey had briefly been stationed at the airbase outside of New York. It would take him roughly an a hour to get there, but he was the one person in the world that Tony could completely trust. He tried a couple of different numbers until he was patched through. 

Rhodey’s voice wasn't quite welcoming when he finally picked up, and it took Tony a few seconds to figure out why. He remembered that they’d had a massive fallout due to his incessant partying and drinking after MIT, and it had been Tony's parents’ sudden unexpected death that had brought Rhodey back, but now that Howard and Maria were very much alive. Would he still be forgiven so readily?

“Tony? Are you there?” Concern had seeped reluctantly back into Rhodey's voice, and Tony realized he hadn’t said a word since his best friend picked up the phone.

“Rhodey, I- my parents h-had an accident on the freeway,” He stumbled over the words, the pressure that had been building behind his eyes finally overspilling into hot salty tears at the sound of Rhodey’s familiar voice.

“Are you alright?” Rhodey demanded quickly. Tony could hear the loud rustle of him putting on clothes in the background, the jingle of keys, the slam of a door and loud footsteps echoing down what sounded like a staircase. “I’m coming, tell me where you are.”

“I-I need you to go to my parents, Rhodey. You have to keep them safe,” Tony insisted. The Winter Soldier, immobile the whole time, had made a short aborted movement in Tony’s direction when he’d started crying as if his distress had somehow penetrated the Soldier’s programming, but he’d gone still again.

“What about you? Are you hurt?” Rhodey sounded frustrated and a little out of breath from racing down the stairs.

“Yeah, I’ll be fine, I’ll meet you at the hospital in a couple of hours,” Tony assured him, hurriedly wiped his wet face, and told Rhodey where his parents were. Then, he hung up resolutely before Rhodey could ask more questions. Tony took a few breaths to ground himself as he turned to Barnes and gesturing toward the back of the car.

Open it,” He commanded in Russian. The Hydra assassin complied.

The super soldier serum was in the trunk of the car, just as Tony had remembered. Howard and Maria had lied about going on a vacation. He grabbed the silver suitcase and slammed the trunk shut. Barnes stared at him blankly from behind his black mask. Tony could hear the sound of sirens approaching in the empty night. He took one last lingering look at his unconscious parents before turning to the trees.

Let’s go,” He told the Winter Soldier.

 


 

Tony didn't technically have a place of his own in New York City in the 90s. His parents owned a large vacation home on Long Island, several high-end apartments in the heart of Manhattan and another large mansion on the outskirts of the city, but none of them had what he needed at the moment.

But what did he need?

A padded cell with 5-inch steel walls, perhaps.

He was hardly going to get that, so he was going to have to improvise. Tony chanced a look over at the silent figure sitting in the passenger seat and sighed.

Put on your seatbelt,” He said after a pause.

Barnes did as he was told.

Tony gunned the engine.

 


 

Twenty years ago, the storage warehouse where he had kept his old shit from MIT had been situated along the East River where a new shopping mall now stood. But in 1991, it had still been an uninhabited part of Manhattan where the ships unloaded their cargo containers and druggies got their high. He’d rented one back then when it had been cool to invent crap in warehouses and lead the exciting double-lives of hipster nerds.

Two green Benjamins slipped discreetly into the hands of the suspicious owner got him the spare key and his warehouse number.

Tony had expected the rancid smell of decay and dust when he unlocked the bunker, but the place reeked strongly of day-old booze, unwashed clothes, and engine grease. Tony tripped over an empty beer bottle on his way to the light switch and put his hand over something cold and slightly fuzzy. Trying not to cringe or shriek, he flipped the switch.

The warehouse looked even less appealing now that the lights were on. He carefully withdrew his right hand from the moldy piece of apple pie balanced precariously atop a metal cabinet. A few furry bodies scuttled out of sight into the shadows.

“How did I not die from food poisoning?” He muttered to himself as he cleared out a path for the Winter Soldier to follow him inside. Something tittered and stirred in a corner, and before Tony could process what, Barnes had shoved him unceremoniously aside and hurled what looked like a small dagger in the direction of the disturbance. Tony hadn’t even seen where he’d pulled the knife from.

Stop!

Barnes froze at Tony’s command. The clawed robot in the corner was chirping loudly in confused distress, the hilt of the knife buried in one of its main joints.

“Jesus Christ, Dum-E,” He side-stepped the Winter Soldier with a hurried “stay down,” and went to check on the bot. His baby seemed fine, a bit spooked, but nothing Tony couldn’t fix with a screwdriver. Dum-E whirled hysterically and latched onto the back of Tony’s shirt when he tried to go back to Barnes and physically attempted to drag him away from the dangerous figure standing immobile in the center of Tony’s mess. At the ruckus, his other ‘children’ gradually stirred to life. U was flexing threateningly in another corner. Tony hadn’t given U wheels yet, but the portable toaster had rolled up to the Soldier’s foot and was head-butting Barnes’s ankle with a relentless fury. Barnes glanced down with disinterest but didn’t make a move to stop it. The Soldier’s programming probably didn’t even register it as a possible threat.

“It’s okay, he’s not gonna hurt me,” Tony reassured the robots and shushed them. He cleared a chair and told Barnes to sit while he dug up a temporary spot to hide the super soldier serum. Tony took the serum out of the sealed suitcase and stuffed them down a ratty pair of old woolen socks before burying that underneath a mountain of oily rags. It was snowing when he ran outside and hurled the suitcase into the nearby East River with all his might. He wasn’t stupid enough to believe they wouldn’t keep a tracker on the thing, but it was 1991, even SHIELD hadn’t gotten that far with the advancement of GPS systems that could trace where the suitcase had been previously.

When he came back in, head clearer than ever before from the shock of cold outside, Tony made his way over to a hidden shelf in the back of the warehouse and pulled out an old dusty circuit board from one of the drawers. He’d tossed his invention in a fit of anger when the system had failed to gain his father’s approval after he had graduated MIT.

Tony blew off the layer of thick dust and traced his thumb over the piece of fraying duct tape where 17-year-old Tony had written the six-letter acronym he’d come up with during a drunken fit of inspiration in messy permanent marker.

J.A.R.V.I.S.

“Hello, old friend,” He whispered.

Chapter Text

The festive Christmas decorations in the lobby of the hospital where the EMTs had taken Tony’s parents clashed horribly with the grim-faced visitors and patients. Tony pushed his way past a couple of startled nurses and caught sight of Rhodey’s familiar leather jacket.

“Tony,” Rhodey sprang up when he skidded to a breathless halt in front of him. “You look terrible. Are you alright? What’s going on?”

“How are my parents?” Tony asked hurriedly, nodding his thanks when Rhodey pushed the fresh cup of coffee into his freezing hands. He gulped down the scalding hot liquid while Rhodey eyed him with clear concern.

“Your mother is still in surgery, but they say she’s going to pull through. The doctors just wheeled Howard out a few minutes ago, broken left wrist and forearm, three cracked ribs and a minor concussion. I was just going to call you.”

Tony took a deep breath and glanced along the corridor. It was empty except for a tiny girl seated on a plastic bench a few feet away, a bulging handbag that must belong to her mother clutched in her thin arms. She looked to be about four or five years old, fiery red curls peeking out from underneath a small black hat and pale cheeks still round with baby fat. His eyes lingered on her for a long moment, mind struggling to figure out what was wrong with the picture. Rhodey huffed quietly and Tony tore his eyes away. He pulled his best friend toward the emergency exit at the end of the hall.

“Are you going to explain what the hell is going on?” Rhodey hissed impatiently when the heavy doors swung shut behind them. “Because last time I remember, we were fighting.”

“Yes, and I’m sorry about that. Everything is my fault, Rhodey, but I need you to listen to me very carefully because you're the only person I can trust right now, and I need your help. This was an assassination attempt.”

Rhodey’s mouth dropped open in a soundless gape. “A w-what? I mean, of course I’ll help you, but why would someone want to-”

“My parents were working on a secret project developing more super soldiers like Captain America for the government. They were en route to deliver a finished version of the super soldier serum tonight but were intercepted by an assassin who-”

“-set up the attempted murders as a car accident.” Rhodey finished for him. Tony could see the gears churning in Rhodey’s head. “They need protection.”

“Yes, there’s a sleeper informant in the organization, so I can’t trust anyone right now,” Tony nodded.

“Do you know who it might be?” Rhodey asked.

“I have some ideas,” Tony said coldly, remembering exactly who had been working for Hydra all along. “But they won’t make another obvious attempt on their lives until they track down the serum and confirm that everything is there. So right now, I need you to gather some of your most trusted subordinates and set up temporary protection for my parents until I can dispose of the serum and ensure their safety.”

Rhodey gave him a funny look, “Subordinates, Tones? I’m a freaking lieutenant. What subordinates?”

Right. Not a colonel yet.

Tony coughed and quickly went on, “Some of your close air force buddies? Ask them a favor? I can pay them if they’d like.”

Rhodey rolled his eyes, “Don’t worry about it, I’ll think of something. This is a lot to take in, but just one more question, how do you know all this?”

“I’m a goddamn genius, I know everything,” Tony pulled his face into the closest semblance of a heartless grin he could manage and pulled open the door. “Now let’s go get some answers from my old man.”

 


 

“Is there something you want to tell me?” Tony asked as Howard’s eyes fluttered open for the first time after the surgery. His gaze focused with some difficulty upon his son, and for a moment immense relief washed over Howard’s bruised features, his fingers fluttered against the back of Tony’s hand as if to make sure Tony wasn’t a figment of his imagination.

Then he croaked in a hoarse voice, “Your mother?”

“She’s still in surgery,” Tony said in a clipped voice. Behind him, Rhodey shifted restlessly.

“Don't bullshit me, Howard. I know about the serum, I know you were on your way to the Pentagon, so you might as well spill,” Tony continued impatiently, “Maria is seriously injured because of you. How many more of your loved ones are you willing to hurt in order to serve SHIELD’s secret agenda?”

Howard’s fingers clamped down tightly around Tony’s hand. Anger and disbelief flashed across his father’s face as he demanded, “How did you know, Tony? Have you been sneaking around in my encrypted files again? I told you not to-”

The frustration and hurt Tony had been choking down since he’d first opened his eyes to this messed up past finally erupted forth in a tidal wave of hateful words, “You think I don’t ever pay attention, do you Howard? That I’m just some stupid junkie alcoholic who isn’t worthy of the Stark name, who you're ashamed of calling a son. Well, guess what, I'm ashamed too, I’m ashamed to be your son, you selfish piece of shi-”

“Tony.” Rhodey’s hands landed upon his shoulders, stopping him mid-rant before he could spit more insults at Howard's pale face. “Now’s not a good time.”

Howard’s cold, intimidating facade seemed to crumple under his hot glare, and for one horrifying moment, Tony saw him for what he truly was: just an ordinary old man, gray hair liberally streaked with silver, and a lifetime of remorse and regret locked away behind those glassy brown eyes.

Then the iron mask slipped back into place, and Howard Stark straightened his spine like the undefeatable bastard he was, his attention shifting to focus on Rhodey. “And I suppose you would have your friend present when we talk?”

Tony poured his old man a glass of water and stabbed a straw none too gently into the liquid, “Yes, whatever you have to say, you can say in front of Rhodey.”

Howard sighed, and after a long pause, said, “I only wanted to protect you, Tony.”

“Ignorance isn’t protection, Howard.” Tony snapped. Rhodey squeezed his shoulder in warning. “I would’ve found out eventually.”

To his surprise, his old man laughed shakily, his palm pressed to his throbbing ribs. His voice was part fond and part exasperated when he next spoke, “You were always too smart for your own good, Tony.”

“The serum, Howard. I want to know why they needed to kill you for it.”

“Yes, I was getting to that,” Howard took a small sip of water, his face even paler than before, and Tony couldn’t help the tiny twinge of worry and guilt rising in his chest. “When Captain America was successfully created, Dr. Erskine and I drew twelve vials of Steve Rogers's blood for research purposes. During the war, five vials were lost to Hydra, leaving only seven in our possession. Then the good doctor died, taking his creation to his grave. Shortly after Steve disappeared, the vials of blood were confiscated and given to top government scientists in an attempt to crack the secrets to the serum. They were down to three vials when they finally contacted me in one last desperate attempt.”

“And you succeeded?” Tony asked.

“To be honest, I don’t know,” Howard admitted. Sweat was beading along his hairline now. “I created them and handed the serum off to an assigned SHIELD agents. I assume they conducted human trials and were unsuccessful because they kept coming back for modified versions.”

“And you never questioned those human trials?” Tony couldn’t keep the disgust out of his voice.

“I didn’t want to think about them, I-”

“Just wanted the money and fame. You wanted to feel important like you did during the war, didn’t you, Howard? Like what you were doing was for some greater good, instead of feeding your own selfish ego.”

“Tony-” His father swayed a little, his face completely void of any color now. The words were like physical blows, carving deep bleeding grooves into Howard’s exposed skin. Tony felt a grim satisfaction for managing to hurt him the way Howard had been hurting them all these years.

“I think that’s enough for one night,” Rhodey interrupted as he stepped past Tony and eased Howard onto his back. He tucked the covers over his shaking form and pressed a hand over Howard’s sweaty brow. Rhodey frowned, “He’s burning up. I’d better call the nurse.”

Tony was left alone with the labored sounds of his father's breaths.

“This batch of the serum used up the last of Steve’s blood,” Howard rasped, half-delirious with fever and the post-operation drugs, “I've spent my whole life perfecting it.”

“Yeah?” Tony did not look up. His old man’s silent plea was obvious in the heavy silence.

“Then maybe it’s a good thing that nobody ever finds it," Tony ran a hand over his exhausted face and moved toward the door. “I’m going to check up on Mom.”

“Tony.”

He paused with his hand on the doorknob.

“I have made many mistakes in my life and have many regrets, but you…you were never one of them.” Howard exhaled shakily, “you are, and always will be my greatest creation, Tony. I want you to know...I need...you to understand...”

Tony clenched his teeth against the hot sting in his eyes and tightened his fingers over the doorknob, the sharp unforgiving edges digging spots of pain into the flesh of his palm. Blood pounded in his ears, a dull rushing roar over the harsh rattling of his heart behind his ribcage.

“Get some rest, Dad.” He closed the door behind him.

 


 

“You alright?” Rhodey found him standing outside his mother’s room, silently watching the nurse fuss over her unconscious form. Tony took several deep breaths and turned to smile at his concerned friend.

“I will be,” He said tiredly.

“I can stay and watch over them. You should get some rest.”

As if he could. Tony still had a huge problem sitting in his storage unit waiting for him to get back to. He’d ordered the Winter Soldier to stay before rushing to the hospital.

“Tony, you know you’re not alone, right? I’m here.”

“I know,” He reached out and squeezed Rhodey’s arm. He’d pushed Rhodey away once before, insistent upon doing his vigilante thing alone, but not this time around. He’d learned his lesson. “Thank you, Rhodey.”

The nurse smiled at them when she slipped from Maria’s private observation room. Her shiny coppery hair glimmered like dying embers in the fluorescent light, and Tony suddenly realized what had been nagging at the back of his mind since he’d seen the red-haired girl with the big handbag.

She had been too still, her movements too calculated and precise for a child her age. He had caught a flash of familiar vibrant green eyes beneath the black hat.

It couldn’t be.

Rhodey jumped when Tony rushed after the nurse.

“Excuse me, have you seen a little girl? She’s about this tall, red hair, black hat, and blue dress. She had a brown handbag with her,” He demanded. The nurse shook her head, visibly alarmed.

Rhodey rushed after him when Tony dashed over to the hallway where he’d first spotted her. The child was nowhere to be found.

“Rhodey, I need your car keys. Right now.”

“What’s going on?”

“The girl. The little girl who was sitting here half an hour ago,” Tony yelled, fisting Rhodey’s jacket. He yanked the keys from Rhodey's lax fingers. “She’s one of them.”

“One of whom?” Rhodey called after him, utterly bewildered. “Tony! Where are you going?!”

 


 

When Tony got back to the storage units, the manager was face-down on his table. Tony spared a hurried second to verify that the man was indeed still alive. His pulse was sluggish under Tony’s fingers. He grabbed the baseball bat leaning against the corner and raced back to Rhodey's car. It wouldn’t be much against a trained Red Room assassin, but he was hoping for the element of surprise to be on his side, and preferably the Winter Soldier as well.

The door to his storage unit was ajar. Tony kicked it open with a resounding bang, the heavy bat held in front of him like a battle ax.

The small redhead girl looked up from where she was rifling through Tony’s messy sock drawer, a bag of the super soldier serum clutched in one tiny hand. Under his incredulous eyes, she slipped it into her oversized handbag. A few feet away, the Winter Soldier was sprawled face-down on the ground, body seizing with what looked like painful muscle contractions. Tony could see a dart of some kind sticking out of the side of his neck.

She zipped her bag shut and stood calmly, managing to exude an air of great menace in all of her 40-inch glory.

Tony tightened his fingers over the handle of the baseball bat.

“Natasha.”

Chapter Text

Technically, they opened at seven, but the little diner on the outskirts of New York City didn’t get a lot of customers in the wee hours of the morning, especially not in the winter months when the sun didn’t fully rise until eight or nine, so Barb was thoroughly taken-aback when she heard the sound of the bell signaling the arrival of a customer out in front.

It was a young man, dressed in a too-thin shirt and shivering from the heavy snow, his eyes too wide and face too pale. It made him look younger than he probably was, eighteen or nineteen, about the age of her son when he had passed away. Barb sighed and cleared her throat to catch his attention.

“Coffee?” She called out, and for a moment, the boy looked completely lost, as if his mind hadn’t quite caught up to his body. Then, running a hand through his messy brown locks, he nodded jerkily and took a seat in one of the booths by the window. She went to retrieve the pot of fresh coffee her husband had made from the kitchen.

“Kid’s probably a drunk or junkie,” Ed muttered in disgust, not bothering to look up from the morning paper. Barb briefly saw the big blocky letters on the front page before Ed turned to the sport’s section — Howard and Maria Stark Injured in Car Accident.

“Don’t say that, Edmund,” She reprimanded before heading outside to pour some coffee for the poor boy. He was hunched in on himself and staring unseeingly ahead, the fingers of his left hand drumming erratically on the grey tabletop. He flinched when Barb set down the cup of coffee.

“Want something to eat?” She asked kindly. He shook his head jerkily at the same time his stomach growled loud enough for Barb to pick out beneath the soft crooning soundtrack of Elvis Presley her husband kept on a never-ending loop in the diner. She smiled when he ducked his head, ears slowly going pink under her scrutiny.

“Come on back, son, you’re the only customer and my knees don’t feel like walking the distance today,” Barb motioned for the boy to follow her into the kitchen and turned on the stove, “there’s nothing a fresh pot of coffee and some fluffy eggs won’t fix.”

“Tony,” He mumbled, wiping at his wet hair with a sleeve and taking a seat in one of the chairs, “my name’s Tony.”

“Barbara, but you can call me Barb,” Barb smiled and placed the pot of coffee at his elbow, “help yourself to as much as you want, Tony.”

The kid gulped down two cups of black coffee before his shoulders relaxed a little, and for a few minutes, there was only the sound of sizzling eggs and bacon between them. Barb introduced her husband when he shuffled over to check on them and steal some of the hot coffee, but Tony didn’t seem too keen to open his mouth again.

She set the cooked eggs and bacon in front of him and said, “I’ve got chocolate pancakes too if you want some, it's my mother's recipe.”

“Thank you,” He smiled a little at her words and forked a piece of golden egg into his mouth. Barb hid her chuckle when his eyes widened and began shoveling food into his mouth like a boy his age ought to. She exchanged an amused look with her husband, who grudgingly shook his head at the sight.

“You and your strays,” Ed sighed, lips quirking a little.

“Slow down, son, there’s more where that came from,” Barb reminded gently. He stuck out his empty plate with a sheepish look two minutes later and she dutifully piled more onto it. He ate slowly this time, stopping to properly chew his food, and Barb was glad to see a bit of color returning to Tony’s pale cheeks.

“Whatever you’re dealing with, it’ll be ok,” Ed’s words surprised them both. Her husband was busy squinting down at the crossword puzzle at the back of the newspaper, his reading glasses perched haphazardly over his nose.

“How do you know that?” The kid bristled, dark eyes suddenly alight with a mixture of guarded pain and anger.

“When you have lived as long as I have, boy,” Ed growled, pausing to aim a glare at Tony, “you learn that humans are a lot more resilient than they're given credit for. Whatever thing is giving you grievances is going to pass, and you will go on."

"You have no idea what I'm going through," the boy muttered darkly, and it was as if a ripple had passed over his face and Barb was suddenly looking into the eyes of a much older, more defeated man.

“It can’t be worse than losing a child, can it? And I'm still chugging along.” Ed pointed out, and Barb placed a hand over her husband’s thin shoulder, silently offering her strength and support. The fight in the boy seemed to go out at the quiet words.

“It’s alright, you don’t have to apologize,” Ed interjected before Tony could open his mouth, “the pain will always be there, but you find ways to cope, and with time, it becomes a comfort in some way, reminds me my boy Waylon had been here once.”

“What would you have done if you were given a second chance?” The kid asked with an almost desperate air. Barb piled some pancakes onto Tony's plate and squeezed his shoulder comfortingly. "What would you do if you had the chance to prevent that from happening?"

Ed frowned, “that’s a dangerous road to go down, kid, thinking about the 'what if.'”

Tony bit his lip, looking disappointed at his answer.

“But if I did, I’d try my hardest to change things,” Ed continued, not looking up from his crosswords, “we owe it to them, hell, we owe it to ourselves.” He heaved a heavy sigh and met Tony’s eyes, “we can’t change the past, boy, and it ain’t any good dwelling on it. You and I, we live in the present, and that's the only part we can influence.”

“I lost some really important things last night,” the boy swallowed and said with some difficulty, “things that can do a lot of harm in the wrong hands.”

“What are you, James Bond?” Ed snorted, ignoring his wife's light swat.

Tony’s mouth twitched a little, “something like that.”

“Well, in that case, Mr. Bond, what are you still sitting here for? Go hunt down the bad guys and save the girl,” Ed chuckled.

“The girl is kind of where the problem is,” Tony confessed, rubbing at what looked like a puncture wound on the side of his neck.

“Aren’t they always?” Ed shot back, and the kid finally smiled at this.

“You need something for that, honey?” Barb asked, fussing over Tony's injury like she’d done in the past with her own son. The familiarity of it made her heart ache, but it was a good kind of ache, and she welcomed it like an old friend. Tony shook his head but his smile was still filled with silent gratitude as he stood and offered to help with the dirty dishes.

“You have no idea how much I appreciated this meal, Barb,” He said quietly as they dried the dishes between them, “how much I needed to hear those words from someone.”

“Well, you know where to find us, dear,” Barb smiled back and reached out to smooth back the boy’s unruly hair away from his eyes, “come back for a meal any time.”

“Preferably when you’re less of a wet blanket, kid,” Ed cackled, "and you can help me with the crosswords next time."

“Of course,” Tony grinned, bright and energetic for once.

The bell over the front door chimed to signal the arrival of people, and Barb unconsciously turned to the clock on the mantel. It was barely six. They usually never got customers this early.

“We sure are busy today,” she mused, drying her hands and slowly making her way out of the kitchen.

“Wait, Barb,” Tony called after her, suddenly sounding panicked.

The front of the diner was oddly empty. Barb rounded the counter and blinked at the sight of the small expressionless redheaded child standing there. There wasn’t an adult in sight.

“Are you lost, darling?” She asked kindly. The child lifted her arm and Barb’s vision went dark.

 


 

Tony caught the old woman when her legs gave out beneath her, head lolling onto his shoulder like a puppet with severed strings.

“No, don’t hurt him!” He gasped when Natasha sidestepped him gracefully and headed to the back where Ed was sitting. Pulling Barb into his arms, Tony stumbled after her, only to be greeted by the sight of the old man slumped over the table, spilt coffee dripping slowly over the pristine table cloth like dark blood.

“You have the serum, what more do you want from me?” Tony’s voice cracked, “they had nothing to do with this.”

Natasha regarded him calmly.

“I didn’t kill them,” She said finally, “just a tranquilizer dart. I am only allowed to kill the targets in the mission.”

“They’re like sixty years old, tranquilizers are probably going to kill them anyway, your little murderess,” Tony hissed, shakily checking Barb’s pulse after setting her down gently in one of the chairs. It was weak but still there. He exhaled and buried his face in his trembling hands, the all-consuming panic attack he’d experienced after waking up with the Super Soldier Serum gone starting to catch up again.

“So I’m one of those targets, then?” Tony finally asked when the shaking subsided.

“No, Howard and Maria Stark were,” Natasha said, “I was deployed when the Asset failed to track down the serum.”

“Then why you were at the hospital?” Tony asked.

“Keeping an eye on the targets and waiting for you to leave the warehouse,” She said cooly, “do you really think the Asset’s missions are not monitored? It has a tracking chip implanted in the prosthetic arm that allows its employers to track it at all times.”

“He, not 'it,'” Tony stressed, glaring at the child.

"Why are you telling me all this?” He demanded, his fingers itching to reach for his phone. If Hydra were aware of the Winter Soldier’s whereabouts all this time, he doubted Barnes would still be waiting for him in that storage unit in Manhattan.

There was a pause before she opened her mouth again, and this time, Natasha sounded less certain, “before, you said you could help me get away from all this. Did you really mean it?”

Tony was utterly taken-aback by the question. He could vaguely remember making that promise before he passed out from the tranquilizers in a last ditch effort to stop Natasha from taking off with the Serum, but he hadn’t really thought his words through. He wanted to help her, but there was so much Tony didn’t know about the former Russian assassin. Natasha’s past had always been shrouded in shadow and smoke even after they'd become friends. But right now, it wasn’t the hardened woman staring up at him, it was the wide-eyed child who had been forced to experience too much in too short time, and Tony found himself dropping down to kneel in front of the little girl.

“I promise you, Natasha, I will do everything in my power to keep them from you, but-”

“I still have the serum,” She interrupted, peering at him patiently.

“You still have the-” Tony blinked, unable to believe his ears, “really?!”

“It’s in the car outside,” She pointed toward the front of the diner. Then, turning to Tony with her small hand still outstretched, Natasha said, “the serum in exchange for freedom from my employers.”

“Deal,” Tony breathed, taking her hand tightly in his.

 


 

“Why do you call me that?” The little girl trotting at his side asked as they carefully closed the doors of the diner behind them.

“Call you what?” Tony returned absentmindedly. He was still worried about the kind old couple lying unconscious in the back.

“Natasha, it is not my name,” She said, stopping beside a car in the empty street.

“It’s not?” Tony realized his mistake a second too late. Of course she wasn’t named Natasha. The Natasha Romanov he knew was one of many alias she used at the time. Thinking hard, he said, “It could be. Do you like it?”

Natasha shrugged and pulled open the car door. “If you are thinking about calling an ambulance for the owners, I suggest doing so after we get rid of the dead body.”

“What dead body?” Tony asked just he saw the slumped form lying in the backseat of the old van.

“Relax, it’s my handler,” The little girl said, climbing into the passenger seat. “I had to poison him or he was going to report back to the other party about the Asset’s whereabouts, and about me.”

“Not gonna lie, but you are actually terrifying,” Tony told her. Natasha smiled thinly, the bloodthirsty expression only slightly ruined by the baby fat in her cheeks. Tony tried to smile back but didn’t feel like it convinced anyone.

“We’ll come back for your car after we get rid of the evidence,” Natasha decided.

“Whatever you say, boss,” Tony sighed and started the vehicle.

They dumped the body into the concrete mixer at a construction site that Natasha guided him to just as the sun began peering over the horizon. Then, Tony drove them to a remote area and under Natasha’s watchful gaze, lit a small fire with the lighter Howard had given him as one of his sixteenth birthday presents. He turned to her and held out a hand expectantly. She handed over the Super Soldier serum, and one by one, they placed the bags over the fire and watched the liquid sizzle and hiss, blackening under the heat.

“That’s the last of it,” Tony said, exhaling and feeling a monumental weight lift slowly from his shoulders.

It will always pass, Ed had said. To a degree, he had been right.

“What now?” Natasha asked quietly.

Tony looked at her, saw the same fear and uncertainty reflected back at him, and gently took her hand. She had made her choice, and now it was time for him to make his. Natasha was too young to be sent off on her own, no matter how certain Tony was of her survival. No, he would have to keep her at his side, but how? A stray thought entered his mind, Maria had always lamented never having a daughter… and with his parents alive, his previous freedom growing up would surely become more restricted. Tony could use someone to distract Howard and Maria, and keep an eye on them at the same time. It would be killing a whole bunch of birds with one stone.

Taking a deep breath, Tony asked, “how do you feel about changing your last name?”

Chapter Text

When Tony finally drove them back to his storage unit, it was well past noon. He was exhausted from the crashing adrenaline and lack of sleep. The four cups of coffee he had chugged along the drive did nothing more than make him extremely jittery and flop sweat behind his balls.

“Holy...” The words died in his throat when Tony lifted the metal door and found half a dozen uniformed men lying motionless around the Winter Soldier who sat with splayed legs in the middle of the corpses, long brown hair clumped with what Tony strongly suspected was drying blood.

“Hydra came to reclaim their weapon,” Natasha murmured as she calmly took in the bloodbath and the prone Soldier, “It seems that they failed.”

At the mention of Hydra, Barnes’ head whipped up, his dark empty gaze zeroing on the little girl at Tony’s side with scary intensity.

“Little Spider,” The Winter Soldier hissed in Russian and went for the gun on the nearest corpse.

Tony flinched violently when the bullets whizzed past him, the rapid firing of the handgun deafeningly loud in the confined space. Jaw set mulishly, the Winter Soldier emptied the first clip into the wall where Natasha had been standing a second ago. He ignored Tony’s alarmed yell and rose ominously to his feet. Tossing aside the empty gun, the Soldier wrestled one of the semi-automatic rifles from a dead Hydra agent and slowly made his way over to the shadowy corner where Natasha had disappeared into.

“Don’t do this,” Tony didn’t know what gave him the courage to jump in front of the brainwashed assassin, but when the hard, unyielding barrel of the rifle pressed warningly into his sternum, the Soldier did not pull the trigger.

“Stand aside,” The Winter Soldier said coldly.

Heart hammering in his chest with renewed hope, Tony lowered his voice and said as soothingly as he could muster, “sun’s gettin’ real low, big guy…”

The gun lowered slowly as the Soldier studied him in silence. Tony tried to smile, but the next second, the man’s combat boot connected solidly with Tony's midsection and all the breath left his chest in one massive whoosh as he crashed head over heels into the storage boxes.

“Alright, I’m fresh out of ideas, Sputnik,” Tony panted as he rolled to a messy stop next to a crouching Natasha. He wiped sweat out of his stinging eyes and wheezed, “you got anything?”

“Really, you were really dumb enough to think that setting sun bullshit would work on the Asset?” She rolled her eyes at him.

“Language, you little gremlin!” Tony scolded as he got back onto all fours with difficulty, “also, I leaned that from you.”

“Liar, I would never teach you something so pointless,” Natasha dismissed. She pulled something out from beneath her dress and said grimly, “There is no other option, Stark. We must kill him.”

“No, no killing!” He gasped, yanking the dart from her tiny fingers. To his horror, she produced another one almost instantly.

“What the hell do you have under that dress, kid?!” Tony wrestled the second poisonous dart from Natasha, grabbed her around the waist, and dove to avoid the flurry of bullets from the pissed Winter Soldier.

“We are only making him angrier!” Natasha yelled. She cried out in pain when the Soldier tossed aside his gun and grabbed her roughly around the wrist with his metal hand, plucking the small child from Tony’s arms. He pulled a thin serrated black knife from an ankle holster, and ignoring Natasha’s struggling efforts, pinned the little girl against Tony’s metal work table.

Tony’s voice shook through the trigger words. He hated the way they sounded past his bleeding lips, but the Soldier froze nonetheless, his blade poised inches from Natasha’s pale, wide-eyed face. The Winter Soldier’s hand was shaking around the knife when he gritted out in Russian, “ready to comply.”

Tony had to wonder how many times they had to hurt him to brand that command so deeply into the man’s psyche that it still remained after each mind wipe.

“Let her go,” Tony commanded, voice cracking.

He approached them cautiously, and when Tony eased his fingers around the Winter Soldier's wrist, past the gloves and pressing against shockingly soft and warm skin, he could feel the man’s thundering pulse underneath. That little detail was a glaring reminder that this was a man, made of flesh and blood, not a machine, a man that Steve Rogers loved with all of his being.

A tear slid free from Natasha’s red-rimmed eyes, leaving a gleaming wet trail along her temple and disappearing into her fiery red hair.

“Bucky,” Tony whispered the nickname, his thumb pressing soothing circles into the soft skin of Barnes’ inner wrist, “please let her go...”

The Winter Soldier abruptly released the knife. It clattered to the ground and Natasha was up in the blind of an eye, kicking the man sharply in the shin and throwing her arms tightly around Tony’s aching abdomen. He put a hand to the back of her head and felt the scared little girl muffle a loud body-wracking sob into his shirt. Tony’s other hand was still around the Soldier’s wrist, keeping him tethered to the spot. The vicious rage seemed to have left him, and when Tony finally gathered the courage to meet his gaze again, those blue eyes stared back at him blankly.

“Really, nothing? Damn, and here I was hoping for the same effect as Rogers when I said the magic word,” Tony bit his lip. He squeezed the Soldier’s wrist gently and said in Russian, “stay.”

Tony managed to pry Natasha loose from around his waist and hoist her into his arms where she immediately buried her face in his neck, hot tears soaking the collar of his sweaty shirt.

“Shh, it’s gonna be ok, baby girl,” Tony patted her awkwardly on the back as he rocked side to side. No matter how much training she had gone through, Natasha was still just a six-year-old child. He hummed gently and carded his fingers through her soft red curls. They stayed like that for a few more minutes before she calmed enough to stop hiccupping hysterically every five seconds.

Natasha drew back and aimed a watery, accusatory look at him, “I told you we should have killed him.”

“No can’t do, little Russian psycho. He’s not the enemy,” Tony said firmly. Natasha sniffed and let out a big shuddery sigh as she went limp in his arms again. She pressed her soft wet cheek against Tony’s stubbled jaw and peered at the motionless assassin staring back at them.

“What do we do now?” Natasha asked, rubbing at her left eye with a small fist.

“I don’t think you’re gonna like what I have in mind, sweetheart,” Tony murmured.

Natasha glanced down at the dead bodies on the ground, her little arms still wrapped tightly around Tony’s neck, “you want to find the guys who ordered the killing of your parents, don’t you?”

“You know, I really do think we were meant to be siblings, Nat,” Tony pressed a soothing kiss to her temple, “what do ya say we go visit that concrete mixer of yours again?”

Natasha sighed.

 


 

“How’s this?” Tony held up the beaker of blue liquid for the little girl to examine. He couldn’t recall the exact shade of blue the Super Soldier Serum had been, but he reckoned it didn’t really matter as long as it looked good enough to bypass Hydra security.

“It looks fine,” Natasha confirmed and handed him the empty, unmarked blood bags they had stolen from the nearest hospital. Surprisingly, they had not encountered any police resistance along the way. The little office at the entrance of the storage units had been empty when Tony and Natasha drove past to dump their first load of enemy corpses. He had a strong suspicion that Hydra had something to do with the absence of law enforcement in the area. The lack of disturbances was definitely to their advantage, but Tony couldn’t help but wonder what they did to the owner that Natasha had knocked unconscious yesterday.

While Tony busied himself filling up five bags of blue copper sulfate solutions with the help of his robot children, Natasha went to town on the pile of tactical gear they had stripped from the Hydra agents, wiping off blood and isolating the less bullet-ridden pieces. She had made friends with the portable toaster and was in the middle of a very one-sided, very animated conversation as she scrubbed vigorously at the helmet in her arms. Tony stopped trying to eavesdrop on them after Natasha ranked her fifth favorite way to kill a person as ‘heavy metal poisoning.’ The other four were also poison-related. Tony was really starting to see a pattern here.

The Winter Soldier sat across the table from him, gazing quietly off into the distance. There were dark purple shadows beneath his eyes and a line of sweat was starting to form along his temple. He looked as exhausted as Tony felt.

“Hey, why did you want me to find two whole sets of gear?” Natasha asked suddenly.

Tearing his gaze away from Barnes, Tony cleared his throat, “uh, we’re gonna need some extra help with this mission, kiddo.”

“What extra help?” Natasha set aside the helmet and wandered over. Tony carefully laid the five duplicate Super Soldier Serum bags inside the silver briefcase they bought from the corny magic shop thirty minutes from Tony’s storage space. It looked pretty convincing if Tony was to be honest with himself.

“Trust me, you’re gonna like him,” He smiled and slammed the briefcase shut.

 


 

“Christ, Tones, please tell me you did not kidnap a child,” were the first words out of Rhodey’s mouth when he took in their battered and bruised appearance. The two of them were sitting outside a 7-Eleven with a huge bag of McDonalds takeout between them. Tony had decided to leave the Winter Soldier in the car for safety reasons. Besides, he had not reacted at all when Tony asked him if there was anything he wanted. Natasha was sucking on a jumbo-sized milkshake on the bench next to him, her chubby cheeks bulging as she peered silently up at Rhodey’s distressed face with calm green eyes, a pink Disney princess themed Band-Aid taped over her left eyebrow.

“Want some fries?” Tony asked, holding up a few lukewarm potato wedges like a peace offering to the gods.

“Tony, did you call me out here in the middle of the night because you kidnapped this child?” Rhodey, the rigid, no-nonsense old fart, persisted.

“No, Rhodes, but thanks for the ringing endorsement, this is Natasha,” He rolled his eyes and winced when it made his dizzying headache considerably worse than before. Come to think of it, he might be coming down with a concussion. Natasha took a large noisy pull on the straw and let out a quiet burp. Tony smiled, “Nat, meet James Rhodes, aka Rhodey. My best friend, moral compass and nagging wife all rolled into one awesome package.”

“You still haven’t told me who she is, Tony,” Rhodey stressed, folding his arms over his chest. Natasha took one of Tony’s outstretched peace fries, pried open the lid of her shake and dipped it inside. Tony silently shook the rest of the fries at his best friend. Rhodey sighed and took them when he realized Tony was not going to stop. Tony wiped his oily fingers on a napkin and motioned for Natasha to lift her chin. Still chewing, the little girl complied. He gently wiped the melted milkshake off her face. Rhodey’s expression softened slightly.

“You might want to sit down for this,” Tony patted the bench next to him, but Rhodey chose to sit on Natasha’s other side instead.

“Oh my God, Rhodes, I did not kidnap her!” Tony rolled his eyes at the suspicious look on his best friend’s face and nudged the little girl beside him, “tell him I didn’t kidnap you, Sputnik.”

“He didn’t kidnap me,” Natasha muttered past a mouthful of food.

“Ok…” Rhodey still didn’t look convinced, but he did open his palm for Natasha to pluck more fried off of, “so, why did you call me out here to the middle of nowhere, Tony?”

“How’s my mom?” Tony asked, draining his seventh cup of coffee of the day. It tasted like crap, but at least it was keeping him semi-awake.

“She’s stable, still unconscious, but the doctors say she’s going to wake up soon,” Rhodey said, “your dad’s business partner came by, you know, the one that looks like Jeff Bridges. He dealt with the hungry press outside.”

“Is Obie still there?” Tony demanded, feeling a stab of alarm.

“Yeah, but I have a few trustworthy friends from the academy watching your parents. Oh, and a Miss Peggy Carter also dropped by. She said she was an old colleague of your dad’s? She and your dad's partner both asked me where you were, but I lied and said I didn’t know,” Rhodey said, frowning at Tony’s strong reaction, “what’s wrong? You think they have something to do with your parents’ assassination attempt?”

“Peggy too, huh?” Tony bit his lip, “Honestly, I don’t know if they knew anything. I just…it’s been a lot over the past twenty-four hours, Rhodey.”

“Tell me about it,” Rhodey whistled low under his breath, “how are you holding up, Tones?”

“I’m fine,” Tony said, trying internally to come up with the best way to convince Rhodey to join them. He was about to open his mouth when his parked car let out a loud angry honk.

“Oh shit, almost forgot about him,” He flinched and shot to his feet, “come on, Nat, you can finish eating in the car. We don’t have much time left.”

“Who? Did you kidnap someone else? Tony, what is going on? Who’s in the car?” Rhodey stood as well, clearly alarmed by Tony’s erratic behavior. Tony ignored his question in favor of picking Natasha up in his arms and one-handedly packing away the rest of her half-eaten burger. A middle-aged woman let out a scandalized gasp when she spotted the three of them. She put a hand over her young son’s eyes and quickly shuffled off after giving them a scathing look.

“Seriously? I forgot how homophobic the nineties were,” Tony muttered under his breath before yelling loudly after them, “what? Never seen two men with a kid together? Well, lady, you’re gonna hate the year 2015, I’ll tell you that! Also, Captain America’s most likely bisexual just so you know!”

“Tony,” Rhodey grabbed him by the arm, jaw clenched, “your zipper’s open.”

“Oh,” He looked down at where his pink flamingo patterned, boxer-covered crotch was making a valiant escape out of his jeans and was currently merrily saluting the world.

So...he might have just flashed his junk at an innocent lady and her young son and then yelled at her for being a homophobe.

“Yikes,” Tony said in the ensuing silence. Rhodey sighed.

“I should zip up,” Tony cleared his throat and passed Natasha over to him, “here, hold my kid.”

 


 

“This is insane!” Rhodey exclaimed when Tony finished telling him the story, minus the time-traveling component. Nobody knew that bit.

“Hey, what did I say before we got into the car?” He tapped his thumb over the steering wheel to the loud Led Zeppelin song blaring from the radio, “we leave that hurtful, judgmental attitude of yours outside, remember Rhodes? This is a safe space.”

“Cut the hippie bullshit, Tony, you can’t just expect me to go along with this! Someone has to be the voice of reason and make sure you don’t kill yourself!” Rhodey yelled, his arms tightening around Natasha who was seated in his lap instead of the backseat with the silent Winter Soldier.

Tony glanced briefly back in the rearview mirror and said in Russian, “put on your seatbelt, Soldier.”

“Does he only speak Russian?” Rhodey frowned, following Tony’s gaze, “also, why are you babysitting the scary dude who was sent to kill your parents? Shouldn’t we call the cops?”

“And hand him straight back to Hydra all wrapped up like a pretty present? Hell no,” Tony muttered and turned a corner on the dark empty country road, “look Rhodey, I don’t have the time or energy to explain everything to you right now. You just have to trust me. We won’t get another chance like this.”

“Like what?” Rhodey whispered as their car came to a jarring stop.

“That there,” Tony got out of the driver’s side and pointed to the massive Hydra aircraft he and Natasha had found a few miles away from the storage containers.

“What the hell?” Rhodey breathed as he wandered over to the dark stealth plane, Natasha still held securely in his arms.

“They sent a tactical team to retrieve their weapon, which is currently sitting in our backseat, and this,” Beckoning to his best friend, Tony lifted the trunk of the car and pulled out the silver briefcase. “This was why they sent the Winter Soldier after my parents.”

“You’re going to give the Super Soldier Serum back to them?” Rhodey asked in disbelief.

“No, relax. Nat and I burned the real serum. This here is a dupe that I made with a bit of shit in my lab,” Tony said, shutting the briefcase and setting it on the ground beside him. “We only need it to convince them that the Soldier’s original mission was successful and give us a chance to infiltrate one of Hydra’s headquarters.”

“And how are we going to do that?” Rhodey narrowed his eyes.

“Sputnik, we talked about this, you know the drill,” Tony said, snapping his fingers to get the little girl’s attention. Natasha rolled her eyes and wriggled out of Rhodey’s arms. She stomped a few feet off and turned her back resolutely to them.

“No peeking, baby girl,” Tony called cheerfully after her and dropped his pants. Rhodey was now staring at him like he had just completely lost his mind. Grinning, Tony tossed him one of the Hydra uniforms in the trunk of the car and clapped him forcefully on the shoulder, “suck in that gut and suit up, Rhodes. We’re going on an adventure!”

 


 

“ETA six hours,” Tony said and put the plane on autopilot. He hopped out of the pilot seat and wandered to the cargo bay where his three passengers were silently seated. Natasha had passed out from exhaustion the minute they lifted off and was breathing evenly in Rhodey’s arms, her cheek pillowed on his chest. The Winter Soldier was seated stiffly across from them, his hands on his knees and back ramrod straight. Tony sighed and grabbed a bottle of water from the wall. He unscrewed the cap and approached the motionless assassin cautiously.

“Hey bud,” He tried to smile as he held up the bottle, “want some water?”

The Soldier did not even look at him. Tony exchanged a glance with Rhodey who was watching them with a worried frown. He lifted the bottle to his own lips and took a sip, pasted on an even more inviting smile, and held it out again, “See? Not poisoned. Come on, you don’t want to get dehydrated.”

Still nothing.

“Alright, let’s reconvene at another time,” Trying not to feel disappointed, he stood. The Winter Soldier lunged at him when he turned to leave, and Tony barely muffled his shout of alarm when the man’s flesh hand wrapped around his wrist in an iron grip.

“Everything’s fine,” Tony hissed at Rhodey when his best friend tensed and made an aborted move toward the gun next to him. Heart pounding, he turned back to the Winter Soldier. “I’m not trying to hurt you, just wanted to give you some water, ok? I promise.”

Dark blue eyes flickered to the water bottle in Tony’s hand. The Soldier swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing silently. His blank gaze settled on Tony’s face, but he did not let go. Tony was suddenly hit with an idea.

“Please don’t kill me if I spill water on your clothes,” He murmured as he lifted the water bottle to the Winter Soldier’s cracked lips and poured a bit of its contents into his mouth. The Soldier swallowed obediently, eyes fluttering shut. Tony fed him about half of the water in the bottle before he decided it was enough. if Barnes had been recently pulled off the ice for the mission, it was not wise to give him too much of anything.

“That wasn’t too bad, was it now? You did great,” Tony praised, setting the bottle aside and patting him awkwardly on the shoulder. The Winter Soldier was still watching him with hooded eyes.

“Gotta let go of me,” Tony said, trying to fill the silence between them, “daddy needs both of his hands to fly the plane.”

It took him a further five minutes to escape the death grip around his wrist, but when he did, something flickered over the Soldier’s face before his expression smoothed into nothingness again. Tony took a deep breath and carded shaky fingers through his hair.

“Wow,” Rhodey said drily from across the cargo bay, “you two really got the whole Beauty and the Beast thing going on, huh?”

“Hey, Belle’s not so bad, and that film won an Oscar,” Tony muttered, distracted. He exhaled heavily and wisely put some safe distance between himself and the Winter Soldier.

“So, what are you going to do with them after this?” Rhodey asked, shifting cautiously and easing a sleeping Natasha into a more comfortable position. Tony reached out and gently tucked a red flyaway curl behind her ear.

“I’m going to keep them,” He said with a shrug, “both of them.”

 


 

“This is such a stupid idea, Tones,” Rhodey murmured as he pulled the mouthguard over the lower half of his face and put on the night-vision goggles. With all the tactical gear over his face, he was nearly unrecognizable. Tony silently memorized the number on Rhodey’s lapel — NX609. His own uniform read NX615.

“Hey, don’t fucking jinx it, asshole,” Tony muttered back as he secured his own headgear. Natasha was a tiny tense shadow beside him. Tony bent to give her a silent thumbs-up. She squared her shoulders and lifted her skirt to show off the poisoned darts and array of mini throwing knives she had strapped to the pair of black shorts underneath.

“Jesus Christ, kid. Remind me to teach you not to show your knickers to every boy you meet,” Tony sighed, resisting the strong urge to palm his face.

“Did you just say ‘knickers?’” Rhodey asked incredulously. Tony flipped him off and turned to face the silent figure standing behind him. Barnes was frowning, had been since Tony covered up his face with the Hydra gear.

“Hey Handsome, Rhodey and I are NX609 and 615. Remember to wait for my signal, ok?” He said, catching the man’s right wrist and pressing his fingers over that sliver of bare skin, “I promise we won’t leave you behind.”

The setting sun was starting to turn the distant clouds red when their plane touched down on the airstrip in the Hydra base deep in the Russian mountains. He picked up the duplicate briefcase and handed it over to the Winter Soldier, “time to earn us that Oscar for Best Actor.”

 


 

They passed through Hydra security so smoothly it was like a dream. But then, who would really doubt the two uniformed Hydra soldiers walking diminutively behind the actual Winter Soldier and a Red Room agent in training?

Tony made sure to keep his response at a minimum when one of the men nodded at him and briefly inquired where the rest of the team was. That potential conversation was snipped in its bud when the Soldier turned his dead-eyed stare on him and the Hydra agent swallowed before he stammered a quick apology and ushered them along.

Tony kept his grip on the gun in his arms as they followed the Winter Soldier into a wide bunker. He noted the thick metal door and its massive spring bolt as it clicked shut behind them with grim finality. The room was mostly empty except for the cruel-looking chair in the center and a few scattered monitors. The scientists and Hydra soldiers froze when they spotted the Winter Soldier. A tall, mustached man in a red Russian Armed Forces beret stood from his desk and approached them.

Tony understood about half of the clipped Russian words that came tumbling past his lips. He was asking something about a mission report. The Winter Soldier lifted the briefcase in his right hand and tossed it onto the nearest table, making a few stray scientists jump at the loud bang. The man’s thin lips lifted in a small satisfied smile when he eased it open and saw the five bags of blue liquid nestled inside.

“Good, Soldier,” He said softly in Russian. That Tony understood.

“Go sit,” The man, a young Colonel Vasily Karpov in his prime, Tony just realized, said gently, jerking his chin at the machine in the middle of the room.

The Winter Soldier hesitated for a fraction of a second, his gaze flickering to Tony who had no choice but to shove him forward with the end of his gun. Karpov watched the brief interaction with his hands folded behind his back, dark eyes unreadable. Tony swallowed thickly behind his headgear and shoved Barnes again.

“Escort him to the Chair, NX615,” Karpov ordered Tony before turning to Natasha, “Hello, little one. Hydra appreciates the Red Room’s willingness to offer their aid.”

Tony kept his attention partly on the conversation behind him as he guided the Winter Soldier to the mind-wipe machine. Barnes’ blue eyes flickered to him again, this time the panic and fear was painfully evident in his pale, gaunt face. Tony bit his lip behind his mouth guard as the men in lab coats fell upon the seated assassin like vultures upon an injured animal.

“Move aside,” One of the scientists rudely elbowed him out of the way.

The Winter Soldier’s eyes were still glued to Tony as they began to roughly strip him of his bullet-proof armor. He was close to hyperventilating, Tony could tell, when they shoved him onto the seat and closed the metal clasps around his wrists. A loud hollow ringing noise was starting to take over inside Tony’s skull as he stared at their eager sadistic smiles. Barnes made a strangled sound of distress in Tony’s direction, the tendons in his neck straining as he struggled uselessly against the bindings. His eyes were wet and pleading.

“Answer when being spoken to, NX609,” Karpov’s annoyed voice across the room briefly penetrated the fog of fury that had settled over Tony’s senses, and he looked up to see Rhodey’s shoulders tense at the angry Russian words and Natasha grit her teeth, fingers starting to inch toward the weapon stash under her skirt.

The loud sound of a hand connecting with skin brought Tony’s attention back to the Winter Soldier. His head whipped violently to the side as one of the lab coats delivered a stinging slap to his face.

“Be still, dog,” The man hissed in Russian.

When the Soldier next lifted his head, the person behind his eyes was no longer there. He did not try to look at Tony again. The piercing ringing noise in Tony’s ears was rising to a crescendo.

“Alright, fuck it,” He said and lifted the rifle. Tony took aim and pulled the trigger.

The man who had slapped Barnes crumpled to the ground, half of his head blown away in a spray of red and white. Tony had not fired a weapon without the aid of his AIs for a long, long time, but standing this close and with the element of surprise on his side, taking care of a few Hydra scientists was like shooting fish in a barrel.

Karpov yelled something from across the room and suddenly there were soldiers dropping in from the ceiling. Tony heard more gunshots, shouts and screams, but he ignored them all. Taking a deep breath, he threw himself at the computers securing Barnes to the chair. A bullet ricocheted off of the side of his helmet and Tony stumbled. The computer was one of those crude old things with ancient codes in tiny green Russian script.

“Shit,” Tony yelled, ducking again when another bullet hit a little too close to home. He pressed a couple of keys, and when nothing happened, abandoned his plan and scurried back to the trapped Winter Soldier.

“Hey, now’s probably a good time to channel your inner Hulk, babe,” Tony whispered to him encouragingly. Barnes snarled and ripped the whole armrest off on his left side, and using his metal fingers, pried his right wrist loose from the shackles.

“Go get ‘em, Terminator,” Tony offered up his own gun. Well, it was more accurate to say that the Soldier ripped it out of his hands before he could offer it, which he totally would have.

All around them, the red emergency lockdown lights and alarms were going off like crazy. Tony sneaked a quick glance at the heavy metal door and crawled back to the computers, empty-handed.

“Come on, brain. Don’t fail me now,” He murmured and got to work cracking the lockdown code. He was almost done uploading the commands when he heard the loud sound of a gun being cocked.

“Get up, SHIELD agent,” Karpov, bleeding freely from a cut on his left cheek, aimed the barrel of his handgun between Tony’s eyes and snarled.

“Hey, I’m not affiliated with those assholes,” Tony couldn’t help but snap back. Karpov kicked him in the stomach. Tony winced and reluctantly got to his feet. The man wrapped an arm around his neck and pressed the gun to Tony’s temple.

“Drop your weapons, or I will shoot your accomplice,” Colonel Karpov yelled in heavily-accented English at Rhodey and Natasha who both paused and turned to face them.

“Sorry guys, I really hate to be the cliché damsel in distress, but yeah I’m gonna need a little hel— ” Tony groaned when the arm around his neck tightened, choking off the rest of his words.

“You are one ugly damsel, I’ll give you that, Tones,” Rhodey panted, frowning as he laid the gun at his feet and pulled off his goggles.

“You too, little one,” Karpov switched to Russian, his eyes narrowing at Natasha who seemed to be having a huge internal struggle weighing whether Tony’s life was worth parting with her weapons.

She eventually lowered them with a thunderous scowl and held up her hands.

“The ones beneath, too,” Karpov snarled, “remove them all.”

“She’s a little girl, for Christ’s sakes, don’t make her undress in front of a whole bunch of grown men, you perv,” Tony yelled, wincing when the gun dug deep into his skin over his temple.

Tony registered movement in the corner of his vision, and Karpov twisted them to face the Winter Soldier who had stood up, his expression unreadable behind the curtain of filthy brown hair.

“Soldier, I command you to kill them,” Karpov said, his voice shaking a little, “did you hear me? Kill the SHIELD intruders. Now!”

“Do you have the trigger words memorized?” Tony piped up suddenly.

“What?” The Hydra sleeper agent behind him froze, “how do you know about— ”

“Yeah, that’s just laziness on your part,” Tony said as the Soldier advanced on them.

Karpov pulled the gun from Tony’s temple and let loose a few wild shots at the Winter Soldier. One stray bullet clipped his metal shoulder. Barnes jerked at the impact, but it did nothing to deter him. Tony used the distraction to head-butt the man and shove him away. He was half-blinded by the ensuing pain, but it was worth it when the Winter Soldier stalked past him, yanked away the gun, and with cruel efficiency, snapped Karpov’s wrist with his metal hand. He tossed the weapon aside and grabbed the screaming man around the throat. Tony was on all fours, head throbbing and trying not to puke up the half-digested McDonalds rolling around in his protesting stomach when the shrill screams suddenly cut off with a wet, ominous gurgle, leaving them with the steady drip drip drip of something in the distance that Tony was two-thousand percent sure was blood.

“I’m ok,” He said when Rhodey helped him upright. Even with the splitting headache, he still managed to choke out, “there’s a little red book somewhere in here, leather bound with a star on the cover. Anybody seen it?”

“This?” Natasha’s voice bobbed closer. Tony slit open one eye, and for a dizzying moment, he managed to focus long enough to see it.

“Yeah, that’s the one,” He smiled at her when she handed it over, “thanks, sport.”

Tony patted Rhodey on the arm and hobbled over to the Winter Soldier who was still standing immobile over Karpov’s corpse. Tony tried not to look at the man’s mutilated skull when he took the Soldier’s human hand and began to methodically strip the blood-soaked glove off of him. Barnes did nothing to stop him. When he was done, Tony wedged the small notebook into Barnes’ palm and pulled out his old man’s lighter.

He held it out to the Soldier, “come on, it’s time we set you free. Want to do the honors?”

The Winter Soldier stared blankly at him, lax fingers warm against Tony’s. He sighed and took Barnes’ hand between his own. With a bit of fumbling between the two of them, Tony managed to flick the flame on.

“Together then,” He decided and lit the small ledger on fire.

They watched in silence as the bright orange tongues licked at the pages, slowly blackening them and turning the terrible secrets written there into grey dust. When it became too hot to hold, Tony forced the Soldier’s fingers to let go. The little leather book dropped to the ground, its pages gone, and its covers burnt beyond recognition. Barnes’ fingers were still tangled in his, but the Soldier made no move to pull away.

Tony stomped out the flames when he deemed it thoroughly cooked and looked up with a bright grin, “well, that was a super sweet ending to such a violent tale, wouldn’t you agree?”

The Winter Soldier was still staring at him, but his expression had softened considerably.

“Hey Sputnik, you doing ok?” Still smiling triumphantly, Tony called out to Natasha. He turned to look for her and the dizziness that had briefly subsided came back with a vengeance. Tony saw Rhodey’s alarmed face before the ground came rushing up to meet him and everything faded to darkness.

When he next woke, Tony was carefully cradled in someone’s arms. He groaned and spotted Rhodey walking a little ahead of them. The acrid scent of smoke and fire was overwhelmingly strong, but so was the cold crisp mountain wind.

“Where are we?” He lifted his head from its spot against the Winter Soldier’s shoulder.

“About to get into the plane that took us here. Your homicidal friends wouldn’t leave without burning the entire place down,” Rhodey murmured, twisting to smile wearily at him, “you got any additional requests before we lift off, Tony?”

“Nah,” Tony slurred with a laugh, head lolling back against the solid warmth of Barnes’ chest as he closed his eyes, “take us home, flyboy...”

Chapter Text

When Tony next opened his eyes, it was to the sight of Natasha’s face inches from his and magnified in all its prepubescent glory. He yelped and flinched back against the pillows of…his bed. Somehow, they were in Tony’s childhood bedroom at the Long Island mansion. The little girl was dressed in one of his old AC/DC shirts, the thing big enough to function as a dress. Wordlessly, Natasha handed him a glass of cold water from the bedside table. Tony gulped it down gratefully.

“How long was I out?” He croaked after catching his breath.

“Almost an entire day,” The little girl informed him, wriggling off the bed and wandering over to Tony’s closet. It was then that he noticed he was clad only in a pair of boxers. They were navy blue and had tiny orange T-Rexes on them. Tony hadn’t worn them since he turned eighteen. He cleared his throat and asked tentatively, “uh, Nat, you didn’t happen to have—”

“Undressed you? No, Rhodey did. He made me stand outside,” She told him without glancing up. Tony’s breath of relief was rudely cut short by a t-shirt to the face. Natasha hurled a pair of rumpled jeans at his head and said, “get dressed and come downstairs. I’m hungry and all you have in this old house is chocolate.”

“Where’s Barnes?” Tony asked when he finished putting his clothes on. He followed her down the grand staircase.

“Who?” Natasha asked.

“The Winter Soldier,” Tony answered. They rounded a corner and stepped into the living room. Tony’s jaw dropped. The hardwood floor was covered in a layer of crumpled tinfoil chocolate wrappers, and sitting in the corner of the kitchen, slumped against the oven, sat Barnes—

—who was missing his left arm.

“What the hell happened in here?” Tony hissed down at the little Russian girl. Natasha blinked calmly up at him, “would you believe me if I said a gang of raccoons broke in and demolished all the candy?”

“Did they also chew his metal arm off?” He pointed to the motionless man and snapped. She shrugged and let out a chocolate-saturated belch, “they could’ve. Raccoons are very intelligent and they have sharp teeth, Stark. Maybe they thought it would sell for a good price on the black market.”

“How did you...” Tony trailed off. Upon closer inspection, it was apparent that Natasha had somehow hacked the man’s arm clean off at the shoulder, leaving behind a sliver of metal stump and wires that were still sparkling a little. The edge of the cut was even, so Tony suspected that she had found the modified chainsaw from his old basement R&D lab.

Damn it. How was she more terrifying as a toddler?

“You tranquilized him again, didn’t you?” Tony accused, crouching down in front of Barnes’s prone form. He was conscious and glaring balefully at the little girl hovering over Tony’s shoulder, but his muscles weren’t working properly.

“Yup,” Natasha said, popping her ‘p.’ She bounced restlessly on her toes, probably the result of all that excess sugar.

“Give him the antidote,” Tony ordered, getting to his feet and heading over to rummage in the fridge. It was empty as it always was when the Starks were out. The Long Island estate only served as a temporary vacation home, and was void of all occupants except for the gardeners who came every week to trim the hedges. Maria usually called the servants in advance if the family were expecting to spend any time there, after which they would stock up on supplies and make sure everything was presentable by the time the Starks arrived. Tony was actually kind of grateful that Rhodey picked this spot instead of the old family estate. It would be difficult to explain to the servants who his two new homicidal friends were.

“Where’s Rhodey? Is he grabbing us food?” Tony asked. He swiped a finger over the thick layer of dust gathering gathering over the countertop and muffled a loud sneeze in the crook of his arm.

“He said he had to report back to the airbase, so I’m guessing no,” Natasha said. She quickly scuttled away from the Winter Soldier after sticking a second dart in the side of the man’s neck.

“Where did you put his arm?” Tony asked as Barnes shook the stiffness out of his three remaining limbs and crawled clumsily to his feet.

“It’s on a truck headed to a packing facility in Utah,” Natasha said calmly, “Tracking device, remember?”

Right. He had forgotten about that little detail. Tony swiped a hand over his exhausted face, “thanks, kiddo.”

Before Natasha could reply, the Soldier teetered dangerously to the side and knocked into the rack of various searing pans, setting off a merry cascade of deafening noise like a Fourth of July fireworks display. Tony shot forward and grabbed the man before he fell back down onto the hardwood floor again. Up close, Barnes still smelled of smoke and blood from the destroyed Hydra base. Blended in the mess were also the scent of burnt leather, metal lubricant, and unwashed man musk. He wrinkled his nose and turned to Natasha.

“We’ll scavenge for food in a sec,” Tony promised, wrestling the Winter Soldier onto a nearby chair, “but we need to get him out of these leathers first. Grab me some extra clothes from upstairs?”

“I don’t think yours are going to fit him,” Natasha pointed out. She was right, of course. Barnes’ shoulders were considerably wider than Tony’s.

“There should be some old MIT sweatshirts somewhere in my closet,” He replied, trying not to feel too emasculated at the words, “improvise, Sputnik.”

She muttered something in Russian and disappeared round the corner, leaving Tony uncomfortably alone with Barnes. At a loss for what to do, he pulled out a drinking glass from the nearest cabinet, rinsed it clean, and filled it with water from the tap. The Winter Soldier did not react when Tony set the glass of water at his elbow and retreated back to the safety of his sink. He pulled out a second glass, tinted purple this time, and placed it under the stream flowing from the tap again. The repetitive motions gave Tony something to do while Nat rummaged through the mess of clothes in his room.

He’d washed his way through an entire cupboard when Barnes set the empty glass on the counter next to Tony and said quietly, in English this time, “you shouldn’t turn your back on someone who can kill you.”

Tony lost his grip on the bowl in his hands. It plopped down into the sudsy water and splashed his shirt with soapy droplets that quickly absorbed into the cotton material, leaving dark patches eerily resembling blood. He hadn’t heard the man approach.

Heart pounding and mouth dry, he twisted slightly, “Do you want to kill me?”

Barnes’ gaze roamed over the two sets of knives within arm’s reach before settling on Tony’s tense face. The small flicker of human emotion that Tony had witnessed back at that destroyed Hydra compound was still absent behind those empty blue-grey eyes, but he didn’t look angry either.

“No,” The Soldier said quietly.

“Great,” Tony smiled stiffly.

It was something of a relief when he heard the distant shuffling sound of footsteps out in the hallway. Natasha was going to rescue him from the awkwardness of taking on Barnes alone.

“Nat, what took you so long?” Tony turned to ask, but it wasn’t Natasha who had appeared in the doorway. It was a man, tall, silver-haired, and dressed in a black trench coat and clutching a large paper bag of groceries to his chest. Tony’s mouth flapped soundlessly a few times. Of all the potential candidates, he would have never guessed—

Edwin Jarvis removed his bowler hat and smiled, “Hello, Anthony.”

 


 

The Stark Family’s old butler set the bag down on the kitchen island and shrugged out of his long coat. He wore a bespoke suit underneath. Tony stood awkwardly by the sink with Barnes, staring almost unbelievingly at the man who had raised him for most of his childhood years. Jarvis’ face was lined with wrinkles, but the air of aristocratic poise was unaffected by time and—

“You grew a mustache,” Tony blurted out almost accusatorially. Mostly, he was just at a loss for words. Jarvis paused in the middle of rinsing his hands at the tap on the opposite side of the kitchen and lifted a thin brow.

“Yes,” The old butler said primly, “and you are now apparently raising a child with another man. As you are well aware, things change, Anthony.”

The Winter Soldier’s eyes flickered to the set of cutting knives at his elbow. Tony caught Barnes' wrist before the man could react and squeezed warningly. He frowned, “what child?”

“The one on the stairs,” Jarvis replied calmly, “she threw a pair of sweatpants at me when I opened the front door.”

At the words, Natasha slinked into the kitchen on silent feet. Tony sighed and beckoned her over to him. He wasn’t sure how much Jarvis knew about the situation or whether the old butler recognized who Barnes was behind all that matted hair and stubble. He decided to play it safe and asked cautiously, “so why are you here?”

Jarvis gestured to the bag of fresh produce sitting on the kitchen island. At Tony’s side, her fist bunched in his loose pajama pants, Natasha’s stomach rumbled like an old tractor engine.

Tony’s own mouth watered at the thought of food, but he quashed the strong urge to listen to his stomach and said instead, “Jarvis, I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to be here. I’m sort of going through something right now.”

The old man sighed and crossed over to the defensive trio with a few long, graceful strides. With a resolute tug, Jarvis pulled the boning knife that Tony had definitely not seen Barnes grab out of his hand. Tony stared in stupefied disbelief as his former caretaker selected another long thin blade from the rack and handed it over to the Winter Soldier.

“This one is more appropriate for dicing tomatoes,” Jarvis said cooly. Then he turned to Tony, “whatever is going on here can wait until after you three get some food into your bellies.”

Natasha’s face lit up at the mention of food. Barnes had already wandered over to examine said tomatoes lying on the kitchen island. He cautiously speared one with the end of the knife and dragged it across the countertop, leaving a long train of red juice. Tony kind of felt like he was that tomato — bruised and bleeding all over. Jarvis was still watching him expectantly. Natasha’s stomach gurgled like the cookie monster again.

He pinched the bridge of his nose and gritted out, “Fine."

 


 

“Peggy was worried about you,” Jarvis said when Tony joined him by the sink with the plates after dinner. “She was afraid the men who had tried to harm your parents would go after you next, so she sent me to check up on you, Anthony.”

“So you just happened to be loitering in New York at the time?” Tony shot back. He didn’t mean for the words to sound so angry and bitter, but the residual resentment from his childhood years had resurfaced with a vengeance.

“I came back when Ana passed,” He said quietly, “which you would’ve known had you read the letters I sent you.”

Tony hadn’t read them. They were gathering dust in a box somewhere. When the first letter had arrived from England, he had vowed never to read it. It was easier to hate Jarvis for his abrupt departure from Tony’s life than to listen to his explanation and feel the weight of abandonment. It had happened when he’d turned eleven. Tony was over it by now.

“You didn’t even say goodbye,” The words slipped from his lips before he could stop himself, hurt and accusatory, like a child. Ok, so maybe he wasn’t over it. The idea was mortifying, but Tony kept going, “You just slipped away during the night and I never saw you again. No explanations, no warning whatsoever!”

“I explained in my letter—”

“No, explain it to my face, Jarvis. I think I at least deserve that!” Tony yelled. He winced guiltily and turn to look at the two assassins who had been silent for a while. He found Natasha draped like a tiny starfish on the fur couch half-visible from the kitchen sink, sound asleep. Barnes was also passed out, most likely from sheer exhaustion, next to her, his haggard face hidden behind a grimy curtain of brown hair. Jarvis followed his gaze, but there was no judgement or suspicion in his expression, just mild curiosity.

“I don’t want to cause any rifts between you and your father,” Jarvis began tentatively.

Tony laughed bitterly, “trust me, Jarvis. There is already a rift the size of the Mariana Trench between us. What you say is not going to change anything.”

“Howard asked me to leave,” Tony’s old butler admitted, "He said that he was going to be there for you from now on and that a boy should bond with his real father. I respected Howard as a friend and colleague, so I agreed. He suggested that it was best if I left without telling you, to make things easier.”

Color rushed to Tony’s face, “That son of a—”

“Anthony!”

“That selfish asshole!” He ground out between clenched teeth, positively shaking with anger.

“It didn’t sit right with me, and I thought the letters would be enough to explain that I didn’t just abandon you,” Jarvis insisted gently, putting a light hand over Tony’s shoulder, “I never wanted it to turn out like this. You were like a son to me. Ana and I were there when you received your degree from MIT.”

“You went to my graduation?!” Tony gaped, “My old man was passed out drunk somewhere in Las Vegas.”

“Howard is not perfect, but I think he did genuinely try to be there for you,” Jarvis said. He didn’t sound very convincing to Tony.

“Goddamn it, you’re gonna make me cry,” Tony sniffed, rubbing at his watery eyes with an angry fist. “You know what, I’m going to hug you now, Jarvis.”

The old man let out a surprised ‘oof’ when Tony tackled him. They were nearly the same height now, but he felt ten years old again when Jarvis hugged him back. Their little emotional moment was successfully ruined when the Winter Soldier staggered into the kitchen and threw up all over the counter like a sick old cat.

“Oh dear,” Jarvis said, concerned.

“Yeah, I probably should have put him on a liquid diet first,” Tony observed as an afterthought. He turned to the elderly man and cleared his throat, “you don’t happen to know Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes from the 107th, do you?”

“I’ve heard stories of him from Mr. Stark,” Jarvis said, already walking over to fill a cup of water for Barnes to rinse his mouth with, “I was in Switzerland at the time Captain America and the Howling Commandos were touring through Italy.”

“Yeah, well, don’t freak out,” Tony braced himself internally and continued, “but this is him, Sergeant Barnes. Hydra took him in the forties, made him into a Soviet killing machine and sent him after my parents yesterday.”

Jarvis dropped the glass of water into the sink.

Tony tried to smile as he added hurriedly, “don’t worry, I think we’re sort of friends now.”

As if on cue, Barnes puked again.

 


 

“I am not cut out for this,” Tony told the ceiling of the bathroom. He chanced a peek at the naked figure in the shower. Barnes was just standing there like a sad, vomit-covered statue. He hadn’t even turned the water on.

“Dude, wash yourself,” Tony yelled at him, miming rubbing motions over his own chest and head. “I am not giving you a bath, Barnes. You are a grown-ass man forty years older than me. I am not your male nurse!”

“Young sir, is everything alright in there?” Jarvis asked on the other side of the door. “The little one has woken up.”

“Don’t worry about it, Natasha is actually a Red Room trainee, you don’t have to baby her,” Tony shouted back before screwing his eyes shut and squaring his shoulders. “Fuck, you owe me so much, world.”

Then, he tugged open the glass door grabbed the shower head.

 


 

When they were finally done, Tony marched into Howard’s study, hacked off the lock on the glass cabinet where his old man kept his best alcohol with a meat cleaver from the kitchen and chugged half a bottle of scotch while Jarvis and Natasha watched from the doorway.

“Don’t.” Tony said before Jarvis could open his mouth.

He drank some more, belched, and stomped out of Howard’s study. Barnes was fashionably dressed in a white shirt and bomber jacket, his long brown hair still dripping from the shower.

“You’re not allowed to try and kill me again after what we just went through, because if you do, I will haunt that perfect ass of yours for the rest of your life, Barnes,” Tony told him vehemently.

“It’s just a penis, Stark, it’s not like you don’t have one,” Natasha snorted from behind him.

Tony turned on her, "I don't like seeing penises that aren't mine." 

There was a delicate pause. Then Jarvis asked, “So...now what?”

“We’ll need a new place, preferably somewhere off SHIELD and my parents’ radar,” Tony murmured. He buried his face in his hands. 

Jarvis cleared his throat, “Right, I think I can help with that.”

 


 

Tony filled Jarvis in on the situation as much as he could on the drive to Brooklyn. The man had purchased a large brownstone apartment back in the forties when he had thought of moving permanently to the US with his wife Ana. The plans eventually fell through, but Jarvis had kept the apartment under an alias from his espionage days.

“It’s not as big or fancy as any of your father’s mansions, but I think it could work as a temporary space for whatever it is that you need to do, Anthony,” Jarvis closed the front door behind them and flicked on the lights. It had bare essentials and was mostly empty.

“It’s perfect, Jarvis,” Tony breathed. His eyes were shining as he took in the exposed brickwork in the brownstone apartment that would become so popular in a couple of years.

It took a while to move the items Tony needed from his bullet-ridden storage container to their new place, but by midmorning, he'd mostly emptied out the bunker. Natasha was fiddling with a pair of nunchucks in a corner while Jarvis whipped on an apron and began to sweep up the accumulated dust.

Tony pulled out the heavy circuit board that was the heart of J.A.R.V.I.S. and smiled a little to himself. How cool was this? He’d be introducing the human Jarvis to his beloved AI system in a few hours if Tony played his cards right. Technology in the nineties was sadly primitive compared to the nano stuff he had been dabbling with, and although it was frustrating, it also opened up endless opportunities. The prospective patent profits alone would be staggering.

“What are you doing?” Natasha asked when Tony dumped the cardboard box of computer parts onto the concrete floor of the apartment.

He picked up one of the clunky circuit boards and studied it. Tony could probably salvage the parts and reduce the size of the thing to a thousandth of what it was now with the added bonus of more storage. It wasn’t going to be as good as the stuff he planned to use for himself, but it would still rake in a ton of money and probably jumpstart the computer development team at Stark Industries. Maybe in a few years he could wean the company off of weapon development and introduce the alternative path of AI intelligence and smartphones. It would take time and patience on his part, but if there was anything to be gained from being young again, it would be putting a stop to the death and bloodshed before they even had a chance to occur. He refused to be known to the world as the Merchant of Death again.

“I’m taking us to the future,” Tony said.

 


 

It took him an embarrassingly long time to notice that Barnes was gone. Tony had been so focused on building a DIY computer system sophisticated enough to house JARVIS and the subsequent upgrades that he hadn’t even heard the real Jarvis calling his name until Natasha walloped him in the back of the head with a dusty pillow.

“Anthony, I don’t think Sergeant Barnes is in the brownstone anymore,” Jarvis said with a frown.

“What?” The words set off the alarm bells inside Tony’s head. He scrambled to his feet. “Where did Barnes go?”

Natasha shrugged, “he was here a minute ago.”

“Shit, we have to find him,” Tony shrugged on his jacket and ran for the front door. “Let’s spread out and search the nearby neighborhood. He can’t have gone far.”

“What do we do when we find him?” Jarvis asked, also putting on his overcoat.

Tony shrugged, “uh, I don’t know, lure him back here?”

“With what?” Natasha demanded, “he’s not a stray cat.”

“I don’t know, figure it out,” Tony groaned, fisting his hair in frustration. “Just go with Jarvis and don’t poison him again. I know you want to, but he’s been stuck with enough hypodermic needles in the past two days to last a lifetime.”

Natasha scowled and turned to follow Jarvis down the left fork in the street. Tony took the right.

It quickly became apparent that the surrounding neighborhood was not the most expensive piece of real estate in New York City. There were foreclosure signs over several empty buildings and most looked like they had been built at the dawn of time. Others had enough graffiti over their walls that Tony could no longer discern the color of the original brickwork underneath.

He had been right when he’d said Barnes wouldn’t get far. Tony found him standing in front of a faded wooden door on the second floor of an abandoned apartment complex three blocks from the brownstone, shoulders hunched and a hand hovering uncertainly over the rusty doorknob.

“Bucky?” Tony called out to him cautiously. The stairs creaked ominously beneath his feet when he put weight on them.

Barnes was less dangerous now that Natasha had hacked off his metal arm, but Tony was still weary around the man. Barnes could still do some serious damage with his three remaining limbs. He turned slowly to face Tony at the sound of his name.

“Did you used to wear newspaper in your shoes?” Barnes asked quietly. He looked a little bewildered, as if the words had just come from someone else’s mouth instead of his own.

“What?” Tony blinked.

It was such an odd question that he had a gut feeling it was the tattered remains of James Barnes who had just spoken, not the Winter Soldier.

“I think you have me confused with someone else,” Tony said gently, “Come on, let’s go home.”

Barnes surprised him by saying, “but this is…home.”

He gestured to the chipped paint on the flimsy wooden door.

“Is it really?” Tony moved closer.

Steve had mentioned something about the two of them growing up in Brooklyn, but he hadn’t paid much attention to those stories back then, too busy getting wasted and tinkering with his suits to really get to know the man behind the shield. Tony was never close to Rogers the way Natasha had been. 

Barnes’ arm twitched as if he wanted to reach out and knock. There was an excruciating pause. Then, he curled his fingers into a fist and backed away.

So Tony knocked for him. Two gentle but firm taps of his knuckles against the decaying wood. They waited, the air between them pregnant with anticipation. For a wild moment, Tony thought that Steve Rogers himself would appear in the doorway, golden-haired and blue-eyed, untouched by time. The seconds ticked by, and with it the strange magic that had briefly ensnared them in its hold faded away, leaving Tony standing awkwardly on the second landing of a dilapidated apartment building barren of life.

Barnes exhaled quietly.

“I’m sorry,” Tony said. He meant it this time.

Barnes didn’t reply, but he did go along willingly when Tony took his empty left sleeve and half-coaxed, half-guided him down the steps. He paused again at the entrance of the alleyway behind the apartment building. There was nothing but a wall full of graffiti and a lone dented garbage can, but Tony had a feeling that Barnes saw something more, something that was meant for his eyes alone. Then, like it’s predecessor, the moment passed and whatever ghosts that had led Barnes there relinquished their grip and retreated into the faded bricks.

Chapter Text

Tony didn’t know just how much of an asset having Jarvis really was until Natasha tugged on his sleeve one night and asked out of the blue if they had a pair of handcuffs.

He frowned. “Are you going to arrest somebody?”

“No, stupid, I need them to sleep,” She rolled her eyes and turned to Jarvis, “do you have any?”

“No, but I think I have a better idea,” He said with a gentle smile. Tony watched the old man take her by the hand and shepherd the little girl back to bed. A few minutes later, he returned to the balcony where Tony was patiently waiting and sighed.

“What was all that about?” He prompted, pouring his butler a drink. Jarvis took the glass, examined the amber liquid, and downed it in two swallows. He grimaced and joined Tony by the bannister overlooking the empty garden outback.

“It’s an old tradition of the Red Room,” Jarvis explained after a morose pause, “they shackle the little girls to their beds at night. I assume it becomes a habit over time and she finds it hard to sleep without restraints.”

Tony inhaled sharply at his words. “So you actually had a pair of handcuffs with you?”

“No,” Jarvis’ smile was solemn, “I tied my watch to one of the bedposts. It was a gift from Ana for our twentieth anniversary. I figure having some pressure around her wrist would help.”

“Smart,” Tony approved before adding, "I still can’t believe you of all people used to go around fighting Hydra agents with Peggy Carter.”

Jarvis smiled at that, “you know, I actually met a grownup version of our young Natasha in the forties. It did not go well.”

Tony whistled and poured him some more scotch from his old man’s finest stash. Jarvis definitely deserved the drink more than Howard.

“Did she beat you up?” He asked, curious.

“No, but she did threaten, rather cheerfully, to kill me on several occasions.” He sniffed, “although Miss Underwood was a spectacular dancer. I went undercover with her at a fundraiser once. She almost killed your father. And Peggy, too. Multiple times.”

“Wow,” Tony laughed. “This I gotta hear.”

Jarvis lifted a brow. “It’s a long story.”

Tony mirrored his expression. “We got time.”

“Very well, then,” Jarvis gave in with a resigned smile, “it all started when your father slept with what he perceived to be a Hollywood actress…”

 


 

“I can’t believe you managed to track down the landlord,” Tony murmured as he glanced around the dusty kitchen. There was a rat peeking out at him from one of the cobweb-strewn cupboards and he was pretty sure something and their extended family lived in the mattress in the back room. It had hissed at him when Tony kicked it a few minutes ago, setting off a glimmering mushroom cloud of dust and debris in the afternoon sunlight streaming in through the broken window.

Simply put, Captain America’s old apartment was a shit hole.

“Well, the original landlord died of a heart attack seven years ago, and with no one to replace him, the city took over,” Jarvis informed him, neatly sidestepping a ginormous pile of bird droppings in the cramped living room.

“So we’re buying from the city then?”

“Well yes. The representative said she would happy to sign things over,” Jarvis paused delicately before finishing, “to your father, that is.”

Tony sneezed. Not the dust’s fault, though it was thick enough to choke a healthy person to death, no he was allergic to the mere mention of his father’s name. “What, why?”

“Perhaps your somewhat of a loose-cannon depiction over news media outlets had something to do with it,” Jarvis sighed heavily, “however, I was able to persuade her in the end.”

He extracted a folded piece of paper from the breast pocket of his suit and smoothed it out on the only clean surface in the whole building.

“How?” Tony breathed, staring down at the fine black print and the familiar spiky signature on the bottom of the page. “You forged his signature, didn’t you?”

Jarvis cleared his throat. “Well...”

“I could kiss you, you sly old bastard,” Tony grinned, bumping his shoulder into Jarvis.

It was smart move, albeit somewhat risky, but Howard rarely went over his personal accounts, and even if he did, the amount agreed upon for the apartment building was so insubstantial his old man would probably dismiss it on sight. Stark Senior spent more than this on a single bottle of wine. Tony would come to do the exact same thing later on in life, but for now, he had about forty dollars to his name and had recently been forced to scrap for parts in dumpsters all over Brooklyn like wee little Peter Parker did. Karma was a bitch alright, but the prototype circuit boards for his AI system were pretty much completed at this point. All he needed now was a solid chunk of time to run the software and iron out all the kinks.

“You think Barnes is gonna like what we plan to do with this place?” Tony asked his butler in the silence. Jarvis squeezed his shoulder. His blue eyes were kind as he replied softly, “how could he not?”

 


 

Their plans for the new year were ruined by a call from Peggy Carter. His parents were being discharged from the hospital a week earlier than the date leaked to press. Jarvis was understandably worried when she demanded that Tony come to pick them up with her. Even at the ripe old age of seventy, Peggy was still probably the sharpest woman, no, agent in the entire world; and there was no chance in hell, according to a nervous Jarvis, that she would not see past Tony’s lies. He was no match for her.

“Then, I’ll bring someone who is,” He shrugged. Their eyes flickered simultaneously to the little girl at the kitchen island. Natasha, chewing slowly on a fresh apple and dressed in yet another one of Jarvis’ tasteful ensembles (navy checkered skirt and white cashmere sweater with tiny brown lambskin boots), glanced up coolly. Tony sent her an awkward little wave that she decidedly did not return.

“That would be a monumentally bad idea, young sir,” Jarvis whispered out of the corner of his mouth.

“Why? Because she tried to kill my parents?”

“That, and the fact that she used to be a Red Room trainee. Peggy does not do well around them. She can sniff them out like a dog, I swear.”

Tony twisted to give the old man an incredulous look. “You make her sound like a human lie-detector slash transformer.”

“What’s a transformer? Is it indestructible and can kick a man through a solid brick wall? Because Peggy can,” Jarvis said drily, “Ana thought she was a actually a circus strongman in a wig before she met Miss Carter.”

“Kudos to Ana for coming up with that terrifying imagery,” Tony beckoned to the tiny assassin, “so, what do you think would be a good backstory for our little Russian terror?”

“What do you want, Stark?” Natasha asked, winding her way between them like a cat. She settled next to Jarvis, who had rapidly ascended to the top of her favorite list of live people. Tony didn’t really want to know who was on her other list. They looked a lot like grandfather and granddaughter sitting side by side like that, and an idea suddenly occurred to him.

“Ok, so maybe not the whole Red Room thing first. We can mention that later, maybe after filing the paperwork,” His mind churned desperately as his mouth continued to vomit forth bits and pieces of a possible plan, “orphaned, which is true but also garners sympathy points. Umm, how about from Ana’s side of the family? She’s got green eyes and red hair.”

Something wistful and melancholy passed over Jarvis’ lined face as he ran a gentle hand over Natasha’s shiny coppery locks.

“Ana and I would have adopted you in a heartbeat, my dear,” He said quietly.

“If anything ever happens to you, I’m going to kill everyone in this room and then myself,” Natasha returned sweetly without missing a beat.

“Not to be a stick in the mud and all, but I’m the only other person in the room,” Tony pointed out with a frown. He lifted an eyebrow at Jarvis’ soft indulgent smile as the old man brushed an affectionate kiss atop Natasha’s head. His old butler winked. “Then you’d better make sure nothing happens to me, Antony.”

 


 

“Why can’t I wear my dress?” Natasha complained as she stared at her sullen reflection in the mirror.

“You mean the one soaked in the blood of your fallen enemies?” Tony shot back sarcastically. He was seated on the desk behind her, dressed in a simple suit jacket, black trousers, and comfortable loafers. “Sorry squirt, but I burnt it in a dumpster fire out back the day we arrived.”

Jarvis looked vaguely apologetic as he fiddled with the crinkled wrapping paper at Tony’s side, “there weren’t many stores open that sold children’s apparel. I had a rather limited supply of colors to choose from. However, I did modify the undercarriage to allow for maximum weapon capacity, as per your instructions, Natasha.”

“Thank you, Jarvis,” Natasha smiled sweetly up at him. Jarvis smiled back. “You are very welcome, young lady.”

“Undercarriage? What does that even mean?” Tony pinched his nose in exasperation. “Also, you’re not the Alfred to her Batman. I’m your Batman. She’s Robin at the most, because I clearly can’t pull off those short shorts.”

Natasha smirked and made a show of slowly twirling in her new coral pink dress. Jarvis clapped his hands together jovially at the sight. “Lovely, absolutely lovely. You can’t even see the weapons hidden underneath.”

Tony choked. “Where did you get your hands on weapons, plural?!”

“In Peggy’s old drawer of undergarments at your father’s Manhattan apartment there’s a secret compartment full of guns and knives, oh and a medieval battle axe. It’s Norwegian I believe,” Jarvis replied absently and rushed forth to carefully remove the curlers from Natasha’s red hair. He made minor adjustments with a few bobby pins and finally applied the clouds of hairspray.

“How big is this underwear drawer?”

Jarvis paused long enough to make full eye contact. “Oh, very big.”

“You know what, I’m just not going to ask why Aunt Peg has a drawer of underwear at my old man’s place,” Tony palmed his face and sighed, “so, you are positive you can babysit Barnes for the duration of our absence?”

“Of course,” Jarvis smiled, “I quite enjoy his company. Very quiet man, the sergeant is. I’ve been reading to him in my off-time and I think he rather likes it. We’re having a delightful tomato, red wine and chorizo risotto tonight. It's my mother’s recipe.”

“Try not to propose to the guy before we get back, ok?” Tony patted him on the shoulder, “Here’s a homemade taser just in case he suddenly flips out and tries to strangle you with his feet.”

“Right,” Jarvis grudgingly accepted the small object Tony handed over. “Well, off you go, young master. Your father and mother await! Say hello to our dear old Peg for me, will you?”

 


 

“Anthony.”

“Aunt Peg.”

“You look fed, watered, and semi-sober,” One of Peggy’s neatly plucked brows rose behind the pair of red vintage sunglasses as Tony stepped out of his father’s black Mercedes-Benz and leaned his hip against the side of the vehicle. They were both waiting for the company limo carrying his parents to pull up to the house. Behind Tony, hoards of employees were prepping the mansion for the Starks’ arrival. Unbeknownst to them, Tony and his gang of misfits had just vacated the premise mere days ago.

“Where’s Chief Sousa?” Tony asked.

“In Florida visiting our offsprings and their subsequent offsprings. You know how his joints react to the cold New York winters,” Her eyes settled on the small red-headed girl in the passenger seat, “I suppose this is the long lost grandniece Mr. Jarvis talked so fondly about over the phone.”

“Natasha,” Tony introduced with a jerk of his chin, “this is Agent Peggy Carter of SHIELD.” There was a brief moment of silence between them before Tony admitted quietly, “she’s actually a Red Room trainee, Aunt Peg. I found her after the accident. I’m sorry we lied over the phone, but I figured you deserved to hear the truth in person.”

Peggy gave no visible reaction to his words aside from the thinning of her lips and the tightening of fingers around her walking stick that Tony was almost positive was a custom-made rifle masquerading as a cane. Peggy was still wearing heels, albeit sensible ones, but no one in Tony’s experience wore heels AND needed a cane to walk. Her sharp gaze flickered to Natasha who stared blankly back, her small face impassive.

“I’ve met the likes of her before,” Peggy finally said. “How can you be certain that this is not just another part of Hydra’s infiltration plans?”

“She handed the super-soldier serum back to me,” Tony pointed out, “and killed her handler. I would think that counts as going rogue by the Red Room’s standards.”

Visible alarm flashed over her face. “And where is the serum now?”

Tony slipped his hands into his pockets and shrugged. “I destroyed it.”

Peggy’s hand relaxed a little around the handle of her walking stick. “Good. That reminds me. I need to have a very strongly-worded conversation with your father about his shameless lies involving Steve’s blood. Again.”

“Please tell me you’re going to punch him in the face,” Tony urged. He leaned down and smirked at Natasha who was still watching Peggy with an unreadable expression, “I’ve only seen it happen once, and it is literally the stuff of legends.”

“I might,” Peggy smiled tightly. To Tony’s surprise, she held out her hand to Natasha, “You can call me Aunt Peg too, if you’d like.”

“Why?” The little girl asked in a monotone, her eyes guarded.

Peggy shrugged airily. “Anthony trusts you, and against all my instincts and judgement, that, apparently, is enough for the time being. Although I will be interrogating you thoroughly once the Starks are settled.”

There was a tentative pause between the three of them. Then, Natasha reached out and gently placed her small hand in Peggy’s. Tony smiled and met the woman’s grudging gaze of approval.

“So how is he settling in with you, our Mr. Jarvis?” She asked conversationally.

“Like a pro.”

"Really?” She glanced at Tony, “because he sounded extra constipated over the phone.”

He examined his cuticles. “Hmm, I’ll remind him to eat his collard greens when I get back.”

“It’s a sure sign of his flimsy attempts at lying,” She narrowed her eyes at him. “You’re hiding something else from me, Anthony. I can feel it.”

“I’m hurt, Auntie Peggy,” Tony said in a simpering tone, batting his lashes at her and clutching his heart. He and Jarvis had both decided that under no circumstances was anyone to find out about the Winter Soldier. Not even Peggy. “You know I would never keep secrets from my favorite aunt in the whole wide world.”

“I am your only aunt,” Peggy said waspishly.

“What can I say, Jarvis is loyal to the Starks,” Tony shrugged. He tried not to sound too smug.

“The Starks? Heavens no, he would have ratted your father out to me in a heartbeat,” Peggy said tartly. She peered at him sideways through her dark lenses, “it’s you he’s willing to go the extra mile for.”

“And that is why Jarvis is my copilot,” Tony smiled, ignoring her suspicious frown as he dashed forth to intercept the shiny black limo rolling up the winding driveway.

 


 

The dinner, as it turned out, was a private affair, with only Peggy, Tony, and Natasha in attendance. Obadiah had high-tailed it out of there after dropping Howard off with some half-assed excuse about plans to spend the Christmas holiday in Cancun with his third wife. Tony was pretty sure the main objective of the trip was to find his fourth wife.

Tony pushed the food around on his plate while his dad sat at the head of the table in stoney silence, one of the manservants hovering at his elbow the whole time and diving for the eat utensils every time Howard needed assistance cutting up his food. He kind of wanted to laugh at his old man’s pinched face, but Tony reckoned that was too much of a dick move, even for him. Peggy ripped into her steak with the same pent-up fury simmering beneath Tony’s skin, but Maria was too busy doting on Natasha to notice the tension at the table. Peggy had agreed on keeping up the mysterious grandniece front for now, and after peppering Tony’s face with affectionate kisses and exchanging tearful greetings, Maria Stark had directed all of her passion toward the quiet little girl hovering at her son’s heels.

Peggy dragged Howard into the den for a private conversation the moment they finished dessert, and Tony, bracing himself for the inevitable confrontation soon to follow, retreated up to the study for the remainder of his old man’s expensive liquor. He was drinking straight from Howard's bottle of 1811 Château d’Yquem when Maria appeared in the doorway.

“Your father is going to shit himself when he finds out that you opened this,” Tony’s mother murmured, picking up the bottle of wine and examining it. He watched in amazement as she lifted it to her lips and took a long drink. Maria sat down on the edge of the desk next to her son and sighed. Now that he really looked at her, he could see the dark patches of fading bruises on her face beneath the foundation and makeup. His mom was still healing from her near-death experience, but trust Maria Stark to still look fabulous no matter the situation.

“They’re fighting again,” She informed him.

Tony glanced up from his hands, “Oh yeah? Did Aunt Peg punch him? He deserves it, you know.”

Maria stared at him long and hard before asking, “Tony, are you aware of what happened the night of the accident?”

“You knew about his side projects, didn’t you?” Tony peered back at his mother, “Mom, you’re crazy smart. Don’t play dumb and try to lie to me like Howard.”

“We only wanted to protect you.”

He waved a dismissive hand, “I’ve heard that argument already. Try something else.”

She cupped his face between her soft, warm palms and sighed, “Anthony, I love you more than anything in the entire world. You are my baby boy, and there is so much you don’t know about your father’s work.”

“You mean SHIELD and Hydra? And that Howard is still secretly trying to recreate the super soldier serum that Aunt Peg specifically instructed him not to, and that his newest attempt was the every thing that almost got you killed?” Tony asked bitterly, “yeah, I know all about that.” He met her wide eyes and shrugged, “three guesses to who called the paramedics for you and Dad.”

“You were there?” Maria asked in disbelief.

Tony didn’t bother with a reply. Instead, he turned to address the small figure standing outside Howard’s study and said, “Natasha, I can see your shadow on the carpet.”

“Took you long enough to notice, Stark,” Natasha sniped when she strode inside and hopped onto Tony’s lap with the familiarity of a favorite pet. Not that he dared to refer to her as anything but “Queen Badass.”

“I’m learning, okay?” He groused, flicking her affectionately on one ear.

Maria watched their interaction with a small curious smile. “I take it you’re not really Mr. Jarvis' grand-niece.”

“Nope, Red Room assassin,” Natasha revealed casually as she fiddled absently with one of Tony’s diamond cufflinks. Maria’s jaw dropped. In hindsight, Tony probably shouldn’t have led by example earlier and revealed her identity to Peggy so cavalierly.

“So, Mom,” Tony said, pasting on his sweetest smile and clutching the little girl tightly to his chest, “what do you say we make it official and adopt her, hmm?”

 


 

“Absolutely not!”

“Howie.”

“I get it, Maria. You’ve always wanted a daughter, so you’ve said a million times. But I thought letting you dress Tony up in those little pink lacy bonnets and gowns for a year was enough to scratch that itch—”

Tony gawked. “You guys dressed me up as a girl for a year?!”

“What’s the harm, Howie?” Maria demanded with an exasperated frown, “she has no family left. The Red Room tortured the poor girl and cuffed her to the bed every night. We can give her a stable home and a proper childhood—”

“What’s the harm?” Howard shouted, gesticulating wildly from his seat on the sofa, “She was sent to kill us, Maria! If you want something to dote on, get a dog, or a couple of flamingos, but not this!”

“She’s not a pet!” Peggy and Maria yelled in unison before turning to Tony for support. He took a careful breath and opened his mouth. 

“So we’re just going to gloss over the fact that I was an unwitting crossdresser for a whole year some time in the seventies?”

Howard buried his face in his hands.

 


 

“I’d say that went well,” Natasha deadpanned the moment Tony slammed his car door shut and silenced the muffled commotion coming from the house.

“If by ‘well,' you mean my dad accusing me of secretly working for Hydra and still refusing to treat me like a goddamn adult and acknowledge his mistakes,” Tony snarled and gunned the engine. The wheels of the Mercedes-Benz screamed over the gravel path as they flew down the long driveway leading out of the Stark’s Long Island estate, “yeah, it went fucking splendid. Pardon my French.”

They sped past snow-covered country road for a few moments, the peaceful scene outside blurred into a endless expanse of white and black in the night. Tony’s pulse pounded along with the deafening music from the modified radio on the dash. He had made the thing when he was six, and Howard had it installed in his favorite car, but was it really his dad’s idea or Jarvis’? Because it was Jarvis who had allowed him to ride in the passenger seat when they went for ice cream at Tony’s favorite place in the city. They had driven back with Tony’s DIY radio blasting on high and the summer breeze dancing on his six-year-old face, melted ice cream drying in sticky lines down his arm. Most if not all of Tony’s fondest childhood memories were with Jarvis, not Howard.

“I’m sorry,” Natasha said quietly.

“What are you talking about?” He demanded, frowning as he turned to the little girl riding shotgun. “Why are you apologizing?”

“It’s my fault they’re ostracizing you,” She stared solemnly back at him.

Tony decided to pull off onto the side of the road and put his blinkers on. It was starting to snow again, the flecks big enough to cast little flickering shadows in the beam of light the Mercedes projected out into the night. Natasha’s face was stoic even as Tony turned to grin at her. It was a joke. It had to be. She was just messing with him again.

He ran a hand over his face and sighed, “Jeez, squirt, didya swallow a dictionary when I wasn’t looking?”

“It’s ok. I didn’t plan to stay long anyway,” Natasha reached over and patted the knuckles of his right hand, clenched white around the steering wheel. “They should have had more children, Tony. You would have been an amazing big brother.”

“You’re not leaving,” He swallowed past the burning knot of frustration in his chest and snapped desperately, “screw Howard. We don’t need him. We have Jarvis, and Rhodey, and Barnes. We’ll make our own family, Nat. Hell, I don’t even need the Stark name. I can take up my mom’s last name, Carbonell.”

“I’m not worth it,” Natasha said quietly, “no offense, but Tony Carbonell sounds a little weird.”

He glared at her. “You take that back, Sputnik.”

“I already said ‘no offense,’” Natasha pointed out, starting to frown.

“Not that part,” Tony rolled his eyes, huffing indignantly, “you are worth more than you know, Natasha.”

“How are you so sure?”

“Because I’m a goddamn genius and I just do, ok?” He said stubbornly before leaning over and planting a clumsy kiss on the little girl’s forehead. She blinked at him, puzzled.

“That makes it official. You’re family now, so no take backs,” Tony insisted with a fierce scowl. “Now cheer up, if we go over the speed limit, we might be just able to get back home in time to interrupt Jarvis and Barnes’ little dinner date.”

“Ok,” She said after a pause, the tension on her face fading a bit, “but only because of Jarvis.”

He beamed and ruffled her carefully styled hair, but before Tony could restart the car, a police vehicle with its lights flashing and siren wailing flew past them heading in the opposite direction. Three more NYPD squad cars followed in close pursuit.

“Wonder what that’s all about. The only house up that lane is my old man’s. Do you think Aunt Peg and my mom finally snapped and strangled Howard after years of pent up rage and frustration?” Tony mused as he watched the squad cars grow smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror. Natasha pulled a little contraption out of her dress, stuck her head out of the open window, and inspected the retreating police vehicles through the eyepiece.

“Those license plates are custom-coated to bypass surveillance cameras,” She told him.

“What?”

“Those aren’t real police officers, Stark,” Natasha explained as he twisted in his seat to follow the dim lights winding up the driveway toward Stark Mansion.

“You know, I’m almost tempted to just let Hydra take him,” Tony admitted, but he was already fumbling for the keys in the ignition. Natasha put a hand on his shoulder and said drily, “that’s no way to set a good example, big brother.

He side-eyed her, “I know you were being sarcastic just now, but that was actually a super cute moment.”

“Tony, your dad’s about to die,” Natasha reminded with a sigh, “again.”

“Fine, we’ll go save that expensive bag of dicks for the second time this week,” He rolled his eyes and pulled the car back onto the road, “Goddamn it, I was really looking forward to some of that fancy risotto.”

 


 

The wrought-iron gates were wide open when Tony and Natasha arrived. The house was strangely quiet and the only hint of movement came from the dancing lights of the police cars parked haphazardly on the lawn out front. Tony’s loafers crunched on broken glass as he took the steps leading up to the mansion. Natasha grabbed him by the back of the jacket and motioned for Tony to retreat behind her.

“Don’t make me tranquilize you,” She mouthed at him when he rolled his eyes at her and pouted.

“Fine,” Tony mouthed back, allowing her to take the lead, "knee caps only, okay?”

“No promises,” The little girl said as she screwed on the silencer to the handgun she pulled out of her dress. Then, without another word, Natasha slipped into the dark house. Two shaky heartbeats later, Tony heard the quiet click, click, click of her gun going off three times followed by three distinctly muffled thumps.

Gritting his teeth and keeping low to the ground, Tony moved inside. The ground beneath his feet felt slick to the touch. He didn’t need to look to know that it was congealing blood. A body lay slumped next to the umbrella stand and when he reached out with trembling fingers in a valiant attempt to find a pulse, her skin was cold to the touch. In the dim light spilling from the second landing, Tony recognized her as the girl who had brought him his dinner that evening. Maria had mentioned something about her first day working for them. He could hear distant voices coming from the kitchen, but Natasha was nowhere to be seen, so Tony took one of the spare golf clubs from the closet next to the front door and pocketed two golf balls just in case.

Peggy, hands bound and gagged, was slumped in a kitchen chair with two of the fake cops standing over her. Howard and Maria were not with her. Tony glanced around and noticed the six foot tall china vase standing across the hall from his hiding spot. Obadiah had gotten it as a present for Tony’s parents’ thirtieth anniversary and it had instantly become a favorite of Maria's. He whispered a silent apology to the Chinese artisan who had birthed the absolute beast of a vase and his mom before throwing his entire weight into the thing. It hit the ground with a resounding crack that echoed throughout the house like a gunshot.

Tony tightened his clammy fingers around the golf club, mentally counted the eleven seconds it would take for one of the intruders in the kitchen to make his way over, and swung outward with all his might. The end of the club met an unsuspecting face and the Hydra agent crumpled to the floor, unconscious and possibly needing a trip to the dentist. Tony ducked when a bullet ricocheted past his ear, pinged off the surprisingly sturdy vase, and disappeared into the darkness. He heard a piercing scream of agony and made a mad dash for the kitchen, fearing the worst, but it was the other assailant who had made the sound, and rightly so because Peggy had broken free from her bonds and had pinned his left hand to the kitchen counter with a boning knife through the palm.

“Jeez, Aunt Peg,” Tony groaned as he clubbed the man over the head too, but it was a mercy clubbing this time. He checked her over and asked, “are you injured?”

“No, you?” Peggy shook her head and adjusted her neat grey curls.

“Nope,” Tony pulled out the two golf balls in his pant pocket and offered them over. She snorted at that and grabbed the entire rack of kitchen knives before jerking her head at the back stairs and motioning for Tony to follow. Swallowing nervously, he set the balls in the fruit bowl and trailed up the steps after her. The floorboards above them creaked and Tony had to grab Peggy’s wrist when Natasha appeared on the landing, her dress soaked through with blood on the left side.

“Not mine,” She dismissed when Tony opened his mouth.

“Where’s my mom?” He asked instead.

“In the study,” Natasha said, discarding an empty clip and grabbing another from the seemingly endless supply closet under her dress.

“Is that my Smith & Wesson?” Peggy squinted down at her. Natasha nodded. She smiled approvingly down at the little girl, “keep it. A woman needs a high quality firearm.”

“Does she though?” Tony muttered behind the two as Natasha pushed the doors leading to the study open. Maria ran to embrace him the moment she spotted Tony, a litany of apologies spilling from her lips. He gently shushed his mother and hugged her back. Howard was slumped on the floor next to his shattered liquor cabinet, the bottle of wine Tony had not finished earlier that night wedged between his thighs. He had a bruise forming over one eye and a split lip. Tony limped over to his old man and sat down next to him in all the blood, sweat, and grime.

He nudged Howard. “Still think I’m a Hydra agent in disguise?”

“Jury’s still out,” He said after a contemplative pause. Both Maria and Peggy turned to glare fiercely at him. Peggy’s hand inched toward the knives again and Howard coughed weakly, “I’m joking, ladies. Only joking.”

Tony wrestled the wine bottle out of Howard’s fingers and finished the drink in three long gulps. He tossed the bottle at the nearest corpse and jumped when its arm jerked, a pained groan rattling out of the still living intruder. Natasha shot the man in the head before he could even roll over, spattering the two nearest Starks with small bits of blood and brain matter.

“I said knee caps only!” Tony sputtered, gagging.

“Oops,” Natasha said flatly as he twisted and retched all over Howard’s lap. Tony’s dad took one look at the mess down his front and vomited as well. Maria threw her hands up and walked out. Peggy grimaced and backed away. Natasha grabbed the box of tissues from the desk and tossed it at Howard. Tony’s old man gingerly dabbed his chin clean.

“Well, I guess that does it then,” He sighed wearily and met her calm, green gaze, “welcome to the family, young lady.”

Chapter Text

Just when Tony thought he had seen it all, out jumped a younger version of Phil Coulson with a full, thick head of hair and Nick Fury with both eyes intact. It was bizarre to say the least, standing in the back of the press conference room next to Coulson who was strangely chatty as Howard picked Natasha up in his good arm and walked up to the podium where Maria was waiting for them. Natasha, ever the talented actress, put both her arms around his neck and smiled sweetly at the hundred or so reporters gathered below like salivating flies to a fresh carcass. Tony grimaced and looked away.

“Why aren’t you up there with the rest of them?” Fury asked, interrupting Coulson midway through an absolutely ‘breathtaking’ story about his weekend fishing trip.

“I’m not the one being adopted,” Tony shrugged, “besides, why would I want to miss the chance to meet my Aunt Peg’ subordinates, Nick?”

Fury’s lips thinned, much to Tony’s delight. He’d almost forgotten how fun it was to mess with the future SHIELD director. Coulson, still young and learning to perfect the indestructible pokerface he would come to procure, smiled when Tony thumped him on the back.

“Boys, behave,” Peggy reminded lightly from her spot next to Tony. Coulson paled immediately and took three neat steps away from the source of trouble and mayhem formally known as Anthony Edward Stark. He hung his head and muttered a quiet “sorry, ma’am.”

“Aww, he was just starting to like me, Aunt Peg,” Tony whined under his breath. He winked at Coulson who frowned and did not return his smile.

“Stop trying to corrupt my interns, Anthony,” Peggy said in his ear. “He is not here to keep you entertained. My men are here to make sure nothing goes wrong at your father’s press conference.”

And wasn’t that a sobering reminder. They had suffered two attacks from Hydra in the past two weeks and his parents were still bruised black and blue from the car crash. There would be even more repercussions after this very public and very bold move from their side, perhaps even deadly ones. He watched Obadiah Stane lean in to whisper something in Howard’s ear. His father nodded, flashed his trademark smile at the cameras, and motioned for Maria to follow him off the stage as Obadiah took over the duty of fending off the vicious reporters.

It felt weird seeing him as the loyal Stark Company employee and his father’s close friend again. Tony hadn’t forgotten how Obie had pulled the arc-reactor out of his chest and left him to die all those years ago. He would have to keep an eye on Stane in the future, Tony thought as he followed Peggy out of the conference room

“Ooh, how about ‘Talia?’” Tony heard his father say even before Peggy pushed her way into the lounge. He was sprawled on a brown leather armchair with Natasha perched in his lap and Maria sitting within touching distance on a loveseat. The little girl shrugged and said, “Tony calls me Natasha.”

“Do you like it?” His father inquired. Natasha frowned at him, “names are just aliases. They don’t mean much beyond that.”

“They mean the world, darling girl,” Howard exclaimed wildly, meeting Tony’s amused gaze across the room. He couldn’t help but smile at his father’s exaggerated indignation.

“What my dad is trying to say is that names are trademarks and a chance to profit billions,” He explained, wrapping an arm around his mother’s shoulder. Maria squeezed his hand affectionately, but Howard lifted an eyebrow at him, “nice guess, Tony, but not quite.”

“What are they then?” He challenged.

“They are a blessing, my boy,” Howard paused for a moment before winking at Natasha, “and my girl.” She smirked. “A name is a father and mother’s hope that their child will live long and be loved no matter what future hardships life will bring,” he met Tony’s gaze and smiled, somewhat wistfully, “it is given in love and only love.”

He swallowed thickly and looked away.

"Natalia Alianovna Romanoff,” Natasha recited after a pause, “the Red Room makes you forget your past identity, but that was the name my mother gave me.” She smiled at Howard, “you can call me Talia if I get to call you Howie.”

He grinned back. “Deal.”

 


 

“Why did I have to come along for this?” Tony whined as he did his best to drag his feet in the expensive lobby carpet. Howard was hauling him along by the left forearm, ignoring Tony’s complaints with a rare display of patience.

“Because,” His old man emphasized with a jerk of his wrist, “it is very important for you to be here, Tony. And weren’t you the one complaining about me keeping you in the dark about my various projects? This is me pulling you into the light, my boy.”

“But I’m busy right now,” He groaned, clawing at his hair.

“With what?” Howard demander once they were alone in the elevator heading up to the top floor.

“You know, stuff,” Tony answered vaguely. The past few days had been so packed he hadn’t even had the chance to drive back to Brooklyn and check on the Winter Soldier in person. Jarvis had assured him over the phone that everything was fine and that Tony needn’t worry, but Jarvis was a defenseless old man in his seventies. There was no chance in hell he’d survive one of Barnes’ episodes if something were to trigger the dormant Winter Soldier persona again.

Howard narrowed his eyes, “You’re not drinking again, are you, Tony?”

“Do I look hungover to you, Dad?” He bit back sarcastically, and to his surprise, Howard smiled.

“No, you don’t,” His old man said, sounding grudgingly proud, and herded Tony out of the lift and into the executive board room.

“Then what the hell are we—” The words died in his throat when Tony saw the eleven members of the board of directors and company lawyers staring back at him.

“You’re fifteen minutes late, Howard,” Obie leaned in to hiss in Tony’s father’s ear.

“You should be grateful I even managed to drag him here with one arm,” Howard shot back, cleared his throat, and pulled out the chair on his left for Tony, who after a tentative pause, sat down. He had an inkling of what was about to transpire, and judging by the scowling faces reflected back at him, the board members were starting to understand as well.

“Shall we begin?” Howard glanced at his legal team. The blond man seated next to Tony pulled out a massive pile of paper and nodded curtly. His dad smiled, “very well then. In light of the situation, and my awesome cast, courtesy of little Talia—” he paused to show them his arm where Natasha had drawn several lumpy, misshapen dinosaurs in various colors over the cast. A few of the men, including Obadiah chuckled indulgently. Tony watched their faces intently, cataloging everyone’s minute expressions to memory. “—I have decided to step down at CEO of Stark Industries and appoint my son, Anthony Edward Stark, as my immediate successor.”

Obadiah’s smile faded. The rest of the board were starting to murmur between themselves. Howard held up a hand and waiting patiently while they slowly quieted. “No need to fear, gentlemen. I will be taking Gerald’s seat as the Chair of the Board of Directors.”

“Mr. Stark—!”

“My men have already prepared the documents. This is not a discussion,” Howard interrupted coolly, and at his words, the lawyer slid a stack of papers and a fountain pen over to Tony. “Anything you would like to say to the board, son?”

Tony swept his eyes over the grim faces glaring back at him, the old man seated three seats down from him was positively frothing at the mouth.

“But he’s still a child!” The one opposite him finally voiced his disbelief.

“Yeah, I do have something to say,” Tony found himself saying. He stood under their collective gazes and said, “Stark Industries will no longer be manufacturing weapons of war.”

They took it as well as he'd expected, which was to say, not well at all.

 


 

“That’s the first time I’ve actually seen them walk out in protest. They didn’t even bat an eye when your father threw up on the conference table after coming back from a wild night of drinking,” Howard’s lawyer said in the silence that followed when the last old white man shuffled out and slammed the glass door behind him, leaving Tony alone with Howard, his legal team, and Obadiah.

“You going to make a habit of it, Mr. Stark Jr.?” The man prompted him, passing Tony the last paper to sign.

“You have no idea, Caleb,” He ran a hand over his face and turned to Howard, who had been uncharacteristically quiet the whole time. “You sure about this, Dad?”

“Are you?” Howard returned, studying Tony with an unreadable expression. He met his old man’s eyes, “Yeah, I’m sure.”

“The stockholders are not going to be happy about this,” Obie said darkly, rubbing at his chin in thought, “They’ll assemble their own lawyers and it’s going to be a shit show, Tony. Major drops in our stocks. We’d be handing ourselves to our competitors on a silver plater, not to mention violating the twenty-year contract we have with the U.S. Military. My advice is to take back what you said and come up with a better solution, a compromise. You can manipulate the board of directors when you have a stronger presence in the company.”

Tony stared down at the smudge of ink on his left thumb and smiled bitterly, “you thinking about quitting, Caleb?”

“Quite the opposite, sir,” The blond man answered calmly, putting the signed documents into his leather briefcase. “The more legal drama there is, the more we get paid.”

“Fair enough,” Tony exhaled loudly, “I’ll think about it, Obie. Right now, I need a breath of fresh air.”

He managed to keep his calm until he was out of the building. Tony flagged down a passing taxi, crammed two hundred bucks into the cabbie’s confused hand and ordered him to just drive. Then, he put his head between his knees and started to shake.

 


 

Being named CEO of Stark Industries again was the stupidest thing to have a nervous breakdown over. He hadn’t even freaked out when the Winter Soldier had pointed the nozzle of a rifle into his chest at point blank range, and now he was hyperventilating about something that he’d already gone through in the past? Last time, Tony hadn’t even had his father backing him up. But then, he also hadn’t torn the carpet from out under their feet until he was in his late thirties, more than a decade from today.

Where was he anyway?

Tony finally glanced up from his trembling hands to assess his surroundings. The taxi driver had kicked him out when his money ran out, and Tony had been sitting on the curb of a sidewalk for the past twenty minutes, freaking out and talking to himself. He was in a suburban neighborhood full of neat canary yellow houses and white picket fences. It looked to be mid-afternoon, judging by the position of the sun.

“Want some cookies?” A voice called out from behind him.

Tony twisted to squint up at the small person standing there, silhouetted under the blue, blue sky. Long auburn hair, pale skin, and a mile of freckles. She thrust a plate at him and Tony cautiously took one. It was a chocolate chip cookie.

“Go on, it’s not poisoned,” The little girl in the lemon yellow dress ordered bossily, hand on hip. He took a bite and tried to smile at her, “it’s really good. Thanks.”

“That serious, huh?” She asked, taking a seat next to Tony on the curb and placing the plate of fresh cookies neatly on her lap.

He blinked. “What?”

“My dad used to say that nothing couldn’t be solved by chocolate and/or cookie dough. You’re still frowning, so it must be serious,” She explained, giving him a gap-toothed smile. He chuckled, “your dad is a very wise man.”

“Was,” She said, “he passed away last year.”

“I’m sorry,” Tony said sympathetically, watching as she took a cookie for herself and nibbled on the edge. He opened his mouth again, “my dad almost died a few days ago. He got into a car accident and broke his arm.”

“Is that why you were mumbling at your crotch for the past half hour?” She squinted at him. Tony blanched, “oh God, you were there the whole time?”

“I didn’t hear any of it,” The little girl shrugged good-naturedly. She pointed to the table behind them on the lawn, “I was trying to sell cookies.”

“Are you a girl scout?” Tony asked.

“No,” She snorted, seemingly fronted at his question, “those stupid girls are lame, and the cookies aren’t even that good. I refuse to join their little cult just because every other girl on this block has.”

“Hmm,” Tony took another bite of his cookie, “you’re right, yours tastes way better.”

She laughs brightly.

“You've gotten any other customers besides me?” Tony asked, stealing another cookie from under the saran wrap.

“It’s about quality not quantity. I could have only one customer and still sell all my cookies,” She surprised him by saying sagely, “so what are you so upset about?”

“I think I might have joined a cult earlier today,” Tony admitted softly. It felt good to say it out loud, even if his listener was probably only ten years old and had no idea what he was on about. “Signed my life away again.”

She frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Think of it like this,” He began, “I want to bake my own cookies, like you, but I had to join the Girl Scouts because my father was the leader before me, and he needs a successor—” Tony paused and moaned, “Jesus, this sounds insane.”

“Keep going,” The girl tells him.

“Umm, ok,” Tony thought hard, “so the evil leaders want me to sell their cookies, but their cookies are bad for people. Honestly kiddo, I really don’t know enough about the Girl Scouts to be using this metaphor.”

“Don’t worry about it, I don’t know much either,” She dismissed, “go on.”

“I want to sell my own cookies, which are good, but—”

“They won’t let you,” She finished for him.

“Something like that,” Tony nodded, hanging his head. They sat in silence for a while. She handed him another cookie and took one for herself.

“Want to know what I would do in your situation?” She asked. Tony took a bite and stared off into the distance, “pray tell.”

“I would sell lookalikes in their shape and color but my recipe,” The child said, “and then, when I make enough money out of my cookie empire, I would fire them all and make the cult my own.”

Tony choked on his cookie and turned to stare at her. “Why do I have a feeling that you’ll either end up becoming the president or a serial killer when you grow up?”

“I’d be fine with being the CEO of a company, thanks.”

“I’ll bet,” Tony breathed, thoroughly impressed.

“Virginia! Who on Earth are you talking to?” A woman yelled out of the blue and they both flinched at the sound. The girl at Tony’s side shot to her feet, “someone who’s offered to buy all of my cookies.” She smirked down at him, “right?”

“Copy that,” He said, obediently reaching into his suit pocket for his money clip. Under Virginia’s mother’s hawk-like gaze, he handed his remaining four hundred dollars to her.

“I meant ten dollars,” She frowned at him, the green notes fluttering in her small hand as Tony liberated the rest of the cookies from the plate and crammed them into his various pockets.

“First step to becoming a CEO is to think big, dear,” He advised with a wink.

“Ok then, wanna buy my bike for a thousand bucks? You look like you could use a ride,” Virginia said, folding her skinny arms over her chest while her bewildered mother sputtered in the doorway of the house. Tony squinted up at the sky. The sun was starting to set.

“Is it pink?” He asked coolly.

“Of course,” She replied.

“Perfect.” Tony pulled out his checkbook. “Full name, sweetheart?”

“Virginia Potts.”

Tony stared down at the checkbook, heart pounding in his throat. He swallowed and wrote down the name before scrawling his own signature and writing the previously agreed-upon sum. He held out a hand and said evenly, “Great doing business with you, Miss Potts.”

And that was how Tony Stark found himself riding all the way back to Manhattan on his future fiancé’s pink bike, complete with sparkling streamers and training wheels.

Fate really had a twisted sense of humor when it came to him.

 


 

“Young Sir, what are we doing here?” Jarvis finally asked after a hour of silently staring at the entrance of CalTech. They were parked across the street in an inconspicuous black car. Tony glanced in the rearview mirror at the expressionless brunet sitting in the back. “Did you really have to bring him, Jarvis?”

“I didn’t think it was a good idea to leave James alone with his thoughts,” The old man insisted, “not that it’s not good to see you again, but where is our darling little girl? Is she doing alright?”

“Nat’s at a piano lesson, mom’s having a spa day, and my old man is being uncharacteristically nice to me, which makes me think our ‘darling little girl’ might have threatened him into compliance,” Tony muttered, taking a long sip of his black coffee and turning his gaze back to the school entrance. “Also, we should refer to the brainwashed assassin in the back as ‘Bucky,' he’ll be less inclined to try and kill us.”

“He doesn’t mean that, I know you would never willingly harm us, James,” Jarvis turned to pat Barnes comfortingly on his right knee. Tony was about to come up with a sharp witty rebuttal, but then a very familiar figure rounded the corner with his nose buried in a book. Bruce still kind of looked like he was stuck in the 70s, complete with the clunky glasses, bellbottoms, and ginormous sideburns.

“Wait here,” He told his two passengers and got out of the car. Tony fell into step behind Banner. He cleared his throat and called out, “Hey, big guy.”

“Sorry, I don’t have any loose change for you,” Bruce mumbled distractedly and flipped a page.

“Do I look like I need change from you, Dr. Banner?” Tony snorted, and the man finally glanced up from his book to gape at him with wide, wide eyes. He blinked, once, and then two more times.

“You’re Tony Stark, I read your dissertation on quantum fluctuation at MIT,” Bruce exclaimed, pulling the clunky frames off his face and reaching out to shake Tony’s hand. Tony caught his paperback novel before it could tip off the crook of his elbow and fall to the pavement. “It was brilliant, I’m a big fan, Mr. Stark.”

“Tony is fine, Mr. Stark’s my dad,” He clasped Bruce’s right hand tightly in both of his own and beamed. Jesus Christ, it was good to see Banner again. “I’m glad you’re a fan. It’ll make things a lot easier because I have a proposition for you.”

To his confusion, the smile faded from Bruce’s face. He gingerly extracted his hand from Tony’s grasp and took a tiny cautious step back, “I, ah, I’m straight, Mr. St— Tony. I’m flattered, I really am, but I do have a girlfriend and we love each other very much.”

“What?” Tony’s smile slipped a notch, “I’m not trying to sleep with you, Bruce.”

“Ok, that’s g-great news,” Bruce stammered into the silence that followed. He scratched his nose awkwardly, “I apologize, Tony. It’s just, your reputation precedes you, and there was all the sudden touching and smiling, so I jumped to conclusions. I’m really sorry.”

“You know what, don’t worry about it,” Tony winced at the words, “and I’m working on changing the reputation part. And the proposition is, ah, work-related, I swear.”

“Sorry again,” Bruce said, blushing furiously. Tony waved aside his awkward apology and threw an arm around the man’s shoulders, “come on, I’ll forgive you if you treat me to a cup of coffee.”

 


 

“Nano-technology on that kind of scale, powered by an arc-reactor?” Bruce laughed and set his herbal tea down after taking a small sip, “that’s decades in the future. I mean, I read about your father’s concentrated energy project in undergrad. Back then, he said it was impossible to shrink the arc-reactor system down to the size of a car, let alone fit it in the palm of a hand. Are you saying you’ve managed to overcome the odds and revolutionize the industry all by yourself?”

“Maybe,” Tony answered vaguely. He was watching Bruce closely, gauging his every reaction. Right now, it was still at the 'complete disbelief’ phase.

“Are you from the future?” Banner teased. Tony met his amused gaze head on. He did not smile and slowly, Bruce’s grin faded as well. He leaned in and whispered, “Wait, seriously?”

Would it be a good idea to tell him? Tony had not mentioned his true nature to anyone yet. And what if Bruce then decided to ask about the gamma project? What then? Should Tony help prevent the creation of the Hulk or not? He had already altered so much of the past…

“Of course not, you nerd,” Tony laughed and crammed a piece of the warm chocolate cookie he’d ordered along with his third coffee of the day into his mouth. Relief spread across Banner’s face as he jabbed a finger into Tony’s shoulder. “Don’t scare me like that, Tony!”

“Sorry, had to get back at you for thinking I was trying to come onto you earlier,” Tony chuckled and scratched his nose. “Truth is, I’m planning on gathering a team of smarty-pants like you and changing the direction of Stark Industries. That’s why I’m here. I want to lead my father’s company away from manufacturing weapons and bombs for the military, and move us onto clean energy and computer technology. I want you to help me do it.”

His words were met with stunned silence. Bruce lowered his eyes to his cup contemplatively and breathed, “Wow. That’s a really noble pursuit, Tony. And I’m honored, but—”

“Bruce, baby, what are you doing here? Daddy said he couldn’t find you in the lab,” Tony glanced up to find a dark-haired woman in a white shirt and blue jeans leaning over their booth. She looked vaguely familiar, but his mind blanked on an actual name.

“Betty,” Bruce beamed and scooted over to make room for her. Ah, so this was the famous Betty Ross, daughter of one of the biggest pains in Tony’s ass — Thaddeus Ross.

“Having tea at ten in the morning, Dr. Banner? What are you, an old English woman?”

Speak of the devil.

Tony grimaced internally and twisted to smile up at the approaching general. “General Ross, the blame’s all mine. I ambushed Dr. Banner on his way to his lab.”

“Stark Junior?” Ross frowned, “what are you doing here?”

Tony glanced down at the half-eaten cookie in his plate. He bit his lip and said instead, “actually, I wanted to talk to you.”

 


 

“Come on, chop chop, Dad,” Tony barked at Howard the moment his father stepped out of the elevator.

“What’s all this about, Tony?” Howard asked, completely baffled, “I was having breakfast on the yacht with your mother and sister.”

“What have you become?” Tony tutted disapprovingly at him. Howard shrugged, “I’m enjoying life.” He paused to think, “have you destroyed the company already? Is that why we’re up here again so soon?”

“You wish, old man,” Tony rolled his eyes and pushed the door to the conference room open.

“Mr. Stark,” General Ross inclined his head from where he sat next to Caleb and the rest of the company board members. Rhodey, in his USAF uniform, stood and shook Howard’s hand. Tony winked at him before slowly rounding the table and coming to a stop next to Caleb. Howard’s lawyer smiled thinly up at him. Tony smirked back. They watched in silence as he pulled out the chair at the head of the table and gestured for his father to sit. He met Obadiah’s confused gaze from across the room and opened his mouth to speak.

“Gentlemen, you must be wondering why I have gathered you all here today,” He began calmly, “I alluded Thursday that I had plans to take Stark Industries in a new direction, and many if not all of you voiced various degrees of outrage. My father’s dear dear friend and close associate, Mr. Stane, cautioned me to rethink the matter, and I have, which is why General Ross is here on behalf of the U.S. Military to discuss the two trillion dollar contract I negotiated with him yesterday.”

A ripple of surprise passed through the room.

“Two trillion?” Howard asked on behalf of the board, “We already have a multi-billion deal with the government on all of our existing exports.”

“Young Mr. Stark has shown us the blueprints for new and improved target-seeking missiles, cutting-edge infiltration gear, and communication technology that he plans to develop for us in the coming years, plans that will give our country a significant advantage in future warfare,” Ross explained for Tony, “He has also handed us a list of his requests, starting with the appointment of Major James Rhodes as the acting liaison between Stark Industries and the U.S. military.”

“What else?” Tony reminded, snapping his fingers at the man. Ross shot him an annoyed look before grudgingly adding, “He has demanded that weapons and equipments be tracked via his own private GPS system to ensure that none of Stark Industries technology can be leaked to terrorist organizations, and after lengthy deliberation, the military has granted him this right as long as he shares access to the data.”

“In addition, I will personally be revamping the entire Innovations Department on the fifteenth and sixteenth floors,” Tony announced to the men in the room. Only Howard and Obadiah were smiling, the rest just looked gob-smacked.

“Here, have at it,” He tossed the StarkPhone prototype he’d put together last night onto the meeting table, "welcome to the new age, boys.”

Chapter Text

“I can’t believe that you’re the reason I got a promotion,” Rhodey moped quietly as he slouched at the bar next to Tony. He was dressed to the nines and sipping sparkling champagne from a crystal flute. The party was in celebration of Stark Industries’ recent successful expansion of the California office and the much-anticipated reveal of Tony’s first generation of heat-seeking missiles.

“I didn’t see you complaining when that cute reporter interviewed you earlier this evening, Major,” Tony pointed out absently as he scribbled on a wad of napkins with a borrowed pencil from the extremely reluctant bartender. There was a spot of cream on the corner from the butterflied shrimp he’d eaten earlier. “Besides, I thought you hated being at the bottom of the military ladder.”

“Thanks for the promotion, Tones, but the idea of being tasked to contain your flamboyant ass genuinely gives me heartburn,” Rhodey sighed dramatically before leaning in to squint at the messy scrawl, “what’s this?”

“This,” Tony murmured as he set his writing utensil down, “is the millionth endoskeleton design I’ve been working on for Barnes’ prosthetic arm.”

“How is he?” Rhodey asked with a frown.

“In pain,” Tony grabbed a fresh champagne flute from a passing server, “he won’t say anything, but there’s definitely nerve damage after Natasha took a chainsaw to him. I can’t imagine dying nerve endings being a pleasant experience to go through.”

“Is there anything you can do?” Rhodey inspected the soggy bit of paper Tony had been doodling on.

“I’ve been brushing up on anatomy and kinesiology knowledge in my spare time, but even I have my limits when it comes to what I can mentally digest in the span of 24 hours. Add on top of that all the stupid, pointless parties and business social events that are now a mandatory part of my contract,” Tony muttered, pausing to glare at an elderly couple who seemed interested in coming over to introduce themselves to the new Stark Industries CEO. They retreated, looking a bit put off by Tony’s outward aggression.

“Mr. Stark,” The stern woman that used to serve as Howard’s PR chair reprimanded from across the bar where Tony had banished her to so he could have a moment of peace and quiet.

“Fuck off, Beatrice!” He yelled back. She glared daggers but refrained from further action as half of the people in the room were starting to stare.

“Let’s go outside for a quick breather,” Rhodey advised, shooting a polite smile at a furious Beatrice and escorting Tony out into the private garden of the lavish Malibu hotel they were staying in. Tony caught a brief glance of his father, who was busy chatting with a few dark-skinned strangers wearing exotic robes. Probably business men from potential import countries in the African continent who were eager to jump on Tony’s new shiny bandwagon.

“Is there a doctor who can consult for you?” Rhodey prompted him as they walked past a marble fountain with a cherub statue in the middle of the fancy waterworks.

“One that I can trust? No.”

“What about that hippy scientist you told me about the other day? Didn’t you say he had a Ph.D. in something something engineering?”

“Dr. Banner’s research and career is being funded by the military, and unfortunately I don’t exactly have the same relationship with him as I have with you," Tony sighed, “besides, I just need to finish uploading my AI to my new private network, upgrade his database, and JARVIS can do the physical simulations for me.”

“What simula—” Rhodey began, but a little boy came catapulting out of nowhere and collided solidly with Rhodey’s backside. He stumbled and stepped down hard on Tony’s loafer-clad left foot, sending them both into the well-groomed embrace of an ornamental hedge plant. Tony may or may not have shrieked and floundered like a distressed old woman before Rhodey yanked him loose.

“Save yourself, T'Challa!” Natasha, wearing a salmon pink cocktail dress and hot on the boy’s trail, shouted as the two men rounded on her and blocked off the escape route. Tony picked a dry twig off of Rhodey’s head and regarded Natasha coolly, “I see you’ve made a friend.”

“With a major lack of fine motor coordination skills,” Rhodey added as he squinted after the miscreant. Judging by the startled shouts that followed his destructive wave, the boy was barreling into people left and right.

Tony frowned at Natasha as his mind caught up, “what did you just call him?”

“Ah, there you are,” Howard cried happily from across the fountain. He waved at Tony and gestured to the three morose-looking individuals he had seen his father chatting with earlier. Howard flitted expertly through the various horticultural arrangements and clapped him on the shoulder, “Tony, meet King T’Chaka and his entourage from the country of Wakanda. Zuri, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and young Okoye—”

“Let me guess, bodyguard in training,” Tony interrupted drily. So he hadn’t misheard Natasha earlier. The teenage girl standing by the king’s side tensed, her dark eyes narrowing in wary suspicion. Howard lifted an eyebrow at Tony who shrugged and said, “I assume that of all bald people.”

Her jaw clenched visibly.

“Nice to meet you, I’m Tony,” He smirked, holding out a hand. Okoye did not take it.

King T’Chaka cleared his throat in the awkward silence and said something to the young woman in their native language. If Tony could hazard his best guess, it would probably have been along the lines of persuading her not to break his arm off and shove it where the sun didn't shine. Okoye huffed angrily and stormed off.

“May I speak to you alone, Mr. Stark?” T’Chaka asked politely. Tony glanced at his father for guidance. Howard merely said, “there’s a tiny glass house in the back of the garden. It’s for couples but should suffice for a private conversation.”

“Right,” Tony cleared his throat and turned to the king, “shall we?”

 


 

“Do you also have the sudden urge to make out in here or is it just me?” Tony asked the moment they were alone inside the stained glass dome.

“Congratulations on the new acquisition,” T’Chaka ignored his jab. Tony picked at a blade of grass he’d found in his sleeve and shrugged, “the lawyers were getting restless so I tossed them a bone to pick. They’re like a flock of vultures, or is it called a committee? I can never keep track of these things.”

T’Chaka’s lip twitched, “nevertheless, it is a grand feat that will surely strengthen Stark Industries’ presence here and overseas.”

“That’s what the board of directors are hoping for.”

“And what about you? What do you hope for?” The king inquired.

Tony met his steady gaze and lifted a hand, “Let’s see, world peace, a cure for cancer, a second chance to lose my virginity to someone other than—”

“That is quite enough, Mr. Stark,” T’Chaka interjected before he could finish. He gave Tony a long hard look before adding, “You speak as if you are not the head of a private company supplying high-tech weaponry to the highest bidder.”

“And you speak as if you’re not the king of a third-world nation,” Tony shot back, “we can talk all day about the terrible shit Stark Industries had a helping hand in the past, but what it is that you really came here to say, King T’Chaka?”

“Your company won mining rights in South Africa last year,” T’Chaka said, “shortly after, Stark Industry weapons appeared in guerrilla warfare all across the southern part of the continent.”

“I’m installing new global tracking technology on all of Stark Industries exports as of—”

“That won’t help with the guns already in circulation,” He interrupted coldly, “Mr. Stark, are you really that naive in thinking your little tracking system can solve what has been going on for centuries? Stark weapons will still make their way into the wrong hands no matter how closely you attempt to monitor them.”

“Then what will you have me do?” Tony asked, frowning.

“I do not know, but they are not ready for the new technology you are planning to unveil,” The king said quietly, “you think you are doing the world a favor but the people will merely find crueler and more inventive ways to kill each other, and when that happens, it will be on you.”

 


 

That night when everyone retired to their rooms, Howard found him neck-deep in Scotch and scribbling madly at the bar. The hotel had stationed an extra bartender just to keep Tony’s drinks coming.

“Did he berate you on the new warheads, too?” His father asked, lifting a hand to signal Tony’s personal bartender for a drink. Archie rolled his eyes and grabbed another clean glass for Howard. He leaned in curiously, “What are you working on?”

“Nothing,” Tony sighed, dropping his aching head onto the backs of his hands. His forehead felt hot and it was greasy from standing in the Californian sun all day long.

“Doesn’t look like nothing to me,” Howard said, wriggling a finger under Tony’s right armpit and managing to snag one of the doodles. “Tony, why are you designing arm prosthetics on hotel napkins?”

“It’s for Rhodey’s friend,” He lied quickly, surprising even himself with how lucid he was after downing all those drinks, “poor kid got his arm blown off in the army.”

“Did he?” Howard squinted at the messy scribbles Tony had written in the margins, “should I even ask why you wrote down, and I quote, ‘space for mini-rocket launcher?’ Wouldn’t someone who’d recently gotten a limb taken off by an explosion be averse to constantly carrying explosives on their person?”

“Aren’t you chatty today,” Tony rolled onto his side and pressed a warm cheek against the cold glass tabletop. It felt absolutely divine. “Do you ever lose sleep at night, old man?” He asked, peering up at Howard’s face.

“I will tonight, after seeing your horrible schematics,” His dad muttered, taking a sip of his gin and tonic.

“I meant the company, asshole,” Tony sputtered, fogging the cold glass beneath his face with his indignant breath. “Does it ever bother you that we’re the fuel to international warfare and terrorism?”

Howard snorted, “don’t think so highly of us, Tony. Stark Industries barely make up 30% of weapon manufacturing in the US, let alone the world. If we didn’t do it, our competitors would gladly take our place.”

“But with the new contract, we’d be topping the charts at 68%,” Tony exclaimed. Howard nudged him with a grin, “and all thanks to you, son. For a moment there in the eighties I thought you didn’t have it in you to take over the empire, but I’m glad you proved me wrong.”

“So it doesn’t bother you at all?” He demanded as he sat up to frown at Howard, “it doesn’t bother you that women and children are being slaughtered by missiles with our last name written on them?”

“So he did get into your head with all that wishy-washy crap about us bring death to their continent,” Howard accused, “Tony, T’Chaka is just angry that we’re dragging them to the future, or whatever your catchphrase is nowadays. Wakanda is just another one of those poor, divided countries we see printed on those donation ads your mother loves so much. If it makes you feel better, we can set up a charity.”

“Howard, I really don’t think you have any idea what Wakanda really is,” Tony said wearily.

How could he forget the man in the bullet-proof cat suit who had chased the Winter Soldier all the way across Europe and much of Germany? Tony had gotten a ride in one of those high-tech Wakandan jets after T’Challa found him lying shivering in the snow in that abandoned Hydra base. And if they had been decades ahead of the rest of the world, then it was probably safe to assume the same was true of Wakanda in the nineties. What Tony couldn’t figure out was why they chose to hide their true nature behind the facade of a starving third-world nation.

“I do know one thing,” Howard interrupted Tony’s thoughts by sliding his sketch back to him, “your arm design is ridiculous, Tony, there is no need for all the bells and whistles. A prosthetic limb’s only purpose is to serve its original functions. In this case, simplicity is best. You think I didn’t consider adding a jet-pack or a collapsible machine gun to Captain America’s shield?” Howard chuckled, “can you imagine Steve Rogers fighting Nazis with a machine gun?”

“He’d probably look like an angry blond ninja turtle,” Tony muttered sarcastically into his drink.

“Maybe if I had, things wouldn’t have ended the way they did,” Howard said quietly after a pause. “You ask if I’m ever bothered by all the things I’ve done in this life. The truth is, son, you won’t get to my age if you do. At a certain point, you learn to let go and focus on other things, more important things.”

“What could possibly be more important?” Tony inquired, staring at his father’s side profile.

“Well, your mother and I had you,” Howard said, turning to him with a contemplative frown, “the moment I first held you in my arms, it was like a switch had been flipped and all of a sudden everything else paled in comparison.” He swiped a hand over his lined face and exhaled, “it wasn’t easy to let Steve Rogers go, I mean by the time you were born, I was the only one who was still actively looking for Captain America. Even Peggy had moved on.”

“You stopped for me?” Tony could hardly believe his ears.

"I tried, I really did, Tony,” Howard shrugged helplessly, “but you of all people know how much I fell short as a parent, and at the end of the day, there’s no going back, no matter how much I wish I’d done it differently.”

Tony swallowed past the hot mass lodged in his throat and reached over to lay his hand over his father’s. Howard’s hand was calloused from a life of work, but it was warm and real beneath Tony’s palm.

“We still have time, dad,” He said softly.

“Of course,” Howard smiled and squeezed Tony's fingers, “you know, it’s not a bad thing to care. That means you’re more your mother’s son than mine, and we both know the world deserves more people like her.”

 


 

Later, much later, after the press conferences and one of the longest flights of his life, Tony was finally back at the brownstone. He’d gotten in at the ungodly hour of two o’clock in the morning and everything was still pitch-black outside. Dum-E whirled a binary greeting at the sight of Tony and he smiled at that. The chaotic beast that was Tony’s life outside these walls quieted to a whisper and he found it a bit easier to breath without so many eyes watching his every move.

“Welcome home, Sir,” JARVIS said, the red camera light at the end of the lab winking merrily as Tony approached.

“It’s good to be back,” He said, the familiar exchange making something loosen inside Tony’s chest. He checked the nearest screen, “how goes the upload, J? Any mishaps?”

“Aside from U tripping over every power cord and breaking three different computer screens, everything went smoothly, Sir,” The AI said cooly, ignoring the forlorn toot from U in the corner. Dum-E chittered jeeringly at the other bot and Tony clicked his tongue in disapproval at his children’s unfriendly bickering. He could hardly blame U for stumbling. The lab was a mess of wires and exposed computer parts. None of the commercial machines for sale on the market were powerful enough to run JARVIS’ software so Tony had to build his own like a city of Legos. The hybrid computers didn’t look aesthetically pleasing but they got the job done.

“Are the satellites doing OK?”

“All six are in orbit and the signals are strong,” JARVIS confirmed. Tony couldn’t resist giving himself a tiny celebratory high-five at that. After months of hard work, his private network was officially in operation. Screw the slow snail’s crawl that was the internet in the nineties.

“How’s the weapon tracking system coming along?”

“All GPS trackers are accounted for and on route to their agreed-upon destinations, Sir.”

“Good,” Tony nodded, pleased, “and what about OJ?” That stood for “Original Jarvis” (Tony’s propensity for coming up with acronyms for everything in existence was stating to get out of control). Needless to say, Edwin Jarvis did not find it amusing at all.

“Still refusing to acknowledge my presence, Sir,” The AI said apologetically.

Tony huffed out a laugh, “He’ll warm up to you eventually.”

He wandered over to the sink and lathered up his hands. The press had requested that he sign his name on the prototype missile in the last interview. The Sharpie had spilled onto Tony’s fingers and the black ink had refused to come off no matter how many times he’d washed his hands on the flight back to New York.

He stared at his wet fingers, the splotches of black set deep into the skin. Tony swallowed uneasily.

“Sir, elevated heart-rate detected. Would you prefer I play you some soothing music?” JARVIS prompted gently. Tony shook his head at the nearest camera and tried to smile, “I’m fine, bud. The others are still asleep, so let’s keep the volume to a minimum, OK?”

He dried his hands and poured himself some cold water from the lab fridge.

When you can do the things that I can, but you don't, and then the bad things happen, they happen because of you.

It came to him all of a sudden. Tony could still remember the kid’s expression as he said those words. It had been the face of a child who’d been forced to experience too much loss in too little time, and the sad thing was, Peter Parker wasn’t the only one out there. He rubbed absently at the ink staining his fingers.

“JARVIS?”

“Yes, Sir?”

“Start a new project folder for me. High privacy setting, please.”

“What shall I name it, Sir?”

Tony took a deep breath to steady himself.

“Iron Man.”

 


 

Tony must’ve dozed off sometime during the night because when he next opened his eyes, there was watery spring sunlight streaming in through the windows and a half-dried pool of drool had gathered under the numb arm that his face had been resting upon. Oh, and the Winter Soldier was sitting within touching distance. Tony shot upright, his stiff spine cracking like a sack of loose pebbles. Without a word, Barnes pointed to the fresh cup of coffee at Tony’s elbow and he gulped it down gratefully, allowing the warm bitter liquid to wash away the stale taste in his mouth. Groaning and rubbing at his aching eyes, Tony stumbled to the nearest sink and stuck his head under the cold tap. The temperature change shocked goosebumps up and down his arms but at least he was semi-awake now.

“How long have you been sitting there, Handsome?” He asked, mostly out of curiosity, once his face was dry. To Tony’s surprise, JARVIS was the one who answered, “approximately twenty-six minutes, Sir. Sergeant Barnes gets antsy whenever my human counterpart goes out on errands, so I have been keeping him company. We made you coffee.”

“And it was great coffee, thanks guys,” Tony patted the Soldier gratefully on the shoulder on his way to get more, “where is Jarvis?”

“Meeting with the contractors, Sir,” JARVIS said promptly, “he has left you breakfast in the kitchen.”

“What time is it?”

“10:24 AM, Sir. You were jet-lagged from the flight, so I thought a longer rest period would do you some good.”

“Thanks, J,” Tony nodded, drained his second cup of coffee, and walked back to the Winter Soldier. Barnes watched him as he cleared his throat and said, “since you’re already here, why don’t we take a look at that arm?”

It was as if a switched had been flipped. Barnes went rigid, the relaxed expression on his face hardening into something dark, but Tony was close enough to see the naked panic in his eyes. He shot to his feet and sent the stool clattering to the floor of the lab.

“No," The Soldier’s right hand had balled into a tight fist. “I don’t want it.”

“Sir,” JARVIS began, but Tony waved aside the words of caution and stubbornly moved into Barnes’ person space again. The tendons in his neck strained as Tony placed a hand around his bicep.

“You’ve got nerve damage, Bucky.”

“I don’t care.”

“Well, I do,” Tony said patiently, “you and I both know it’s not going to be smooth sailing forever. Hydra will try again, and when they do, I’d feel a whole lot more confident going against them with you and both of your arms on my side.”

“I could hurt people again,” Barnes mumbled, avoiding Tony’s gaze. The I could hurt you again part went unsaid, but Tony heard it loud and clear.

“You could, and since I’m a man of science, I don’t doubt that being a possibility,” Tony said calmly as he took the Soldier’s wrist and lifted the man’s hand to his own exposed throat. He held on even as Barnes tried to recoil, his blue eyes wide and chest heaving, “but you’re in control now, Bucky. Not Hydra. Not me. You. And your arms are just an extension of that control. Do you want to strangle me right now?”

“No!” The word was ripped from the Soldier’s chest. He gritted his teeth and glared at Tony.

“Then I need you to watch my back,” Tony tried to smile at him, “because no one else will.”

“Why would you want me to?” Barnes bit back, “I tried to kill you parents. Tried to kill you too...” He suddenly frowned in thought, “how did you know the command words?”

Tony’s heartbeat skyrocketed, “what?”

“The words Hydra put in my head,” The Winter Soldier growled, advancing on Tony and pinning him against the metal table with the hand still curled around his neck. He was so close Tony could feel the heat radiating off the man’s body through his wrinkled dress pants. “You said them that night I was sent to retrieve the serum. How?”

“I did my research, OK?” Tony lied. The fingers tightened and he hissed.

“You’re lying, Stark,” Barnes shook him like a misbehaving dog. “I can feel your pulse.”

Oh shit. So he was a human lie detector now?!

“Sir, shall I run the—”

“Stand down, JARIVS. I got this,” Tony wheezed beneath Barnes’ dead weight.

“Tell me the truth,” The Soldier said, voice cracking, “please.”

The raw fear in the man's eyes was what finally pushed Tony over the edge.

“I don’t...work for Hydra, I swear,” He gasped, fresh air rushing back into his burning lungs as the fingers around his throat relaxed and Barnes took an unsteady step away from Tony, the horrified realization of what he’d just done evident on his pale face.

Tony steadied himself against the lab bench, “You’re not the only man out of time.”

“What do you mean?” Barnes croaked, still hunched in on himself.

“It’s a long story,” Tony warned, messaging his aching neck.

“I don’t have much planned today,” He muttered stubbornly.

That made Tony laugh as he hobbled past the confused man to retrieve an ice pack from the lab fridge for his bruised throat.

“Then you’d better settle in because this is going to take a while.”