sam_storyteller: (Alternate Universe)
sam_storyteller ([personal profile] sam_storyteller) wrote2015-08-01 08:08 pm
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Marvel: The Soldier And The Hurricane

Title: The Soldier And The Hurricane
Rating: PG-13
Summary: When the Winter Soldier fails to kill Howard and Maria Stark and is taken prisoner in the summer of 1967, his salvation comes in the unlikely form of a Russian-speaking, father-disobeying, endlessly-tinkering seventeen-year-old: Tony Stark.
Warnings: Mentions of alcoholism, brief mentions of suicide; various references to Howard Stark's terrible parenting (no child abuse, just...poor parenting).
Notes: I started writing this on my phone on the bus on the way to a walk-in clinic, and I don't think I wrote a single word where I wasn't running a fever. So have fun with that. I did. :D

Also available at AO3.

***

He hadn't been drinking that evening.

He would have, but before the gala he and Tony had been in another of what Maria called their long-distance barn-shakers. He'd said something intended just to shut the kid up, he didn't even remember what, and Tony had retorted, "Well, Dad, maybe if you'd been sober for a little more of my childhood, you'd have noticed."

Howard had startled back from the phone like Tony had managed to come through it and slap him. His drinking was not something they talked about in the family, particularly not something Tony had the right to bring up. But he had, and so the gloves were off.

He'd hung up. He hadn't known how else to react. Tony hadn't redialled. And he'd gone to the gala sober and stayed that way, to prove he could. It was worryingly difficult.

If he'd been drinking, perhaps he wouldn't have felt Maria's sudden squeeze on his thigh or heard her sharp intake of breath to speak, to warn him of the man in the road. He might not have been able to handle the powerful engine on the sedan as he swerved them around the man in the road, fishtailing wildly into the shoulder, careening off into the trees. He might not have been conscious to check Maria's pulse -- steady, thankfully -- and he might not have heard the man coming down the shoulder to him.

Howard may have been a terrible father and a barely adequate husband even to his own mind, but he was a survivor and he'd had attempts made on his life before. So he grabbed the pistol from the glovebox, roared over the hood, and brought the butt of it down hard across the man's face as he bent to inspect (and likely execute) Maria.

The man's mask and goggles went flying and he turned to Howard immediately, sweeping his legs out from under him. Howard grappled wildly and they went down together, scrabbling in the wet leaves and soil, both armed, each reaching for the others' weapons.

Then the moon struck the man's face, and Howard's mind went white.

"Bucky?" he asked, shocked.

The man looked confused, which at least kept his hand from tightening on Howard's throat.

"Who the hell is Bucky?" he asked.

"This is going to hurt," Howard said, and pulled the trigger with his right hand as he slammed a little device he called the night-night-stick into the man's neck with his left. The gut-shot-and-electrocution combo made his own teeth rattle.

Bucky -- or his twin -- slumped over on top of him, unconscious, and Howard exhaled in relief.

Twenty minutes later, the sedan rolled clumsily into a service station and Howard calmly made two phone calls: one to 911 for his wife, and one to Peggy Carter, for his prisoner.

"This had better not be drunken confession time," Peggy groaned into the phone, when he said it was him.

"I just had a try on my life by a guy with a steel plate arm who's a dead ringer for Bucky Barnes," Howard said.

"Say that again?" she asked.

"Peggy, Maria's hurt and this guy is bleeding out and may not stay unconscious much longer. I need SHIELD backup yesterday," he said. "High security transport and paramedics, and someone we trust to stand guard on my wife. Fuck!" He added, realization dawning. "Tony -- "

"I'll handle it. Obie too. Hold for pickup," Peggy said, and he could hear her rushing around the room, gathering her things. "Don't be a hero," she added.

"Too late," he said grimly, as the distant wail of a siren became audible. "Tell Maria's detail to meet her at the hospital, ambulance is almost here. I'll stay here with...whoever he is."

***

Three hours later, Howard's own personal storm arrived.

SHIELD, with Peggy riding shotgun, had taken Barnes to HQ, dropping Howard at the hospital where Maria had been patched up -- two broken ribs and a cut on her scalp -- and was now sleeping under sedation. Peggy said she'd sent some local lads to look after Tony, but Tony, as Howard knew all too well, was not a child to be looked after.

"Mom!" came Tony's voice, barely settled into a man's register and high with the panic of a child. "Dad!"

Howard took the ice off his bruising eye and leaned out into the hallway. Sure enough, there was Tony, barreling down the hall like a gangling cheetah, followed by a crowd of hospital security, followed by a pair of burly SHIELD agents.

"Tony, for the love of -- " he managed, before Tony threw himself into his arms and began talking as only Tony could talk.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean it, I didn't think -- I just snapped and I didn't think you were gonna DIE -- "

"Tony!" Howard snapped, appalled at the outburst and deeply uncertain about the hug. Emotional reunions were really Maria's area. "Quiet, you'll wake your mother."

"Is she okay?" Tony asked, gulping and pulling away, drifting into the room to hover over her bed. He swallowed again, face ashen, and turned back to Howard. "Are you okay? The bodyguards just said -- "

"I'm fine, Maria's fine, just a little bruised. If you don't calm down you might not be," Howard managed, and Tony manfully got a grip on his emotions, even if he was still unsettlingly pale, trembling minutely. Howard took his arm and guided him away from Maria, to the other side of the room so that she wouldn't wake.

"They were supposed to keep you safe," Howard said, directing his disapproval at the SHIELD agents now, lurking guiltily in the doorway. "Not drive you to Yonkers in the dead of night."

Tony gave him a look, inherited straight from his mother, the kind of incredulous, derisive look that silently questioned how he had been fathered by an idiot.

"You were in the hospital," Tony said. "I was gonna come find you, Dad."

"You'd have been better off staying in Boston -- "

"Well, there's a fucking first," Tony muttered, and Howard winced internally. The fight earlier had been about that -- about Tony wanting to stay in Boston another year after graduating to work for the local Stark branch, the generally fruitless and low-profit robotics division, rather than coming back to New York to finally begin the business of learning how to run SI.

"You know the vulnerable point is always -- "

"Direct transit in convoy," Tony chimed in. "Yeah Dad, I know. I was smart about it, I was safe. I'm not a child."

"We'll discuss this later," Howard decided. "Your mother needs to rest and I have an interrogation to attend -- "

"They caught him?" Tony demanded.

"You think your old man lived this long on luck?" Howard asked. "Yes, I caught him, and now we need to find out who hired him -- "

"Can I come?"

Howard stared at him.

"Now you want to follow me around?" He managed, and saw Tony's eyes harden.

"You think I don't know about SHIELD?" Tony asked, tipping his head at the guards. "I know, Dad."

"And you think being a spy is more fun than being a man of industry, is that it?"

"I don't care about being a spy, what am I, nine? I want to know who hurt you," Tony replied.

Well, he'd have to learn sooner or later.

"You stay silent and you stay by my side," Howard said. "And I mean silent, Tony."

He kindly did not acknowledge the soft little yes! from behind him as he strode off down the hallway.

They left the guards with Maria and took their car to HQ; on the way, Howard gave him the same briefing he'd give a subordinate, watching Tony drink it in out of the corner of his eye. By the time they reached Holding, down in the bowels of HQ, Tony's eyes were huge as saucers, but Howard could see his brain ticking away, memorizing everything. There'd be no going back from this.

The boy was his pride, but lord, he could be exhausting.

Peggy didn't question why Tony was there, just gave Howard a disappointed look before continuing the brief. Her feelings on Tony were well-known and had been argued out long ago.

"Blood type matches, not that that means much," she said, handing him a hastily-typed lab report. "He only speaks in Russian."

"I heard him speak English," Howard insisted.

"Well, what he'll give me is yes, no, and asset, followed by a serial number, in Russian," she replied. " If you want to take the ball, be my guest."

Howard stood in the hall, considering. He wasn't a born interrogator and he spoke less Russian than Peggy, the current Cold War and Vanko's laughing attempts to teach him notwithstanding (Vanko -- that still cut hard -- it was a night for hard memories perhaps).

And there was Tony to consider. Watching his father try to break an assassin wasn't how he should be introduced to SHIELD, as educational as that would be.

"Nothing at all in English?" he asked, opening the door to the observation room. On the other side of the glass, Barnes (or whatever he was) sat sullenly, a prosthetic left arm hanging at his side, right arm pulled up to his chest defensively. No -- pulled up to his chest to put constant strain on the chain that went from his cuff through the table to a plate in the floor.

"No," Peggy said. "But he could still be groggy. They kept him under while they bandaged him up, not that it was easy; he seemed to need about three times the dose as normal. once he was patched up and properly restrained, they let him come round in the interrogation room. He's been quietly working on pulling the chain out of the floor. Another hour, he'll probably have it."

Tony had drifted over to the glass and was studying the man, head tilted.

"That's Bucky Barnes?" he asked.

"Or someone who looks quite like him," Peggy said.

"Huh."

"You wanna share your observations, son?" Howard drawled.

"Just the way you two always talked about him and the Captain, I thought he'd be taller," Tony said. "You know, the young colossus bestriding the world. He can't be much bigger than I am."

Howard heard Peggy snort. It was a little amusing, perhaps, seen in one light, but he didn't have time for Tony's antics right now.

"Is there any way Barnes could have survived that mission?" Howard asked, turning back to her. "That you can think of?"

"Neither of us were there, we really only know what Steve told us," Peggy mused. "Steve had no reason to lie, though, and he was a terrible actor. His grief for James was genuine, I'm sure of that. Whatever did happen, he truly believed James died."

"Do we -- dammit," Howard rubbed his face. "Do we think the Russians can clone a man already? We're decades from that if it's even possible."

"No. Can't be. They'd need to have had it in 1946 for a cloned infant to be that old now," Peggy said.

"He's got a metal arm. Could be a robot?"

Peggy gave him a dry look. "If you couldn't get a robot up and walking around by now, I very much doubt the Soviets could."

"They got a man in space before us."

"He's not a robot, Howard. You pricked him, he bled."

"So he's not a clone, not a robot, probably not some kind of evil twin. How long will it take to get fingerprints back?"

"Barnes was printed for the Army, I have a courier on the way to Army archives now, but it'll take time to find his records and compare them, even with SHIELD clearance."

Howard became aware of a subtle, ongoing noise just on the edge of his hearing, and when he turned to the glass he nearly had a heart attack.

Tony was sitting in the interrogation room across from Barnes, speaking quietly in Russian (Tony had listened more closely to Ivan's lessons than Howard had). Howard turned to the door, the whole world in slow motion, but Peggy grabbed his arm to stop him from barging in there and hauling the boy out by his elbow.

"Look," she said. "Wait."

Barnes had relaxed a fraction -- he'd stopped the constant pulling on the chain, anyway -- and was now looking confused, eyes darting back and forth behind the curtain of his messy hair. Tony was sitting more than an arm's length away (good boy!) and speaking, and Barnes was grunting and occasionally muttering an affirmative or a negative in Russian.

Howard caught words here and there -- soldier, kalashnikov, unit, father. Sprinkled in with the Russian were English words, sergeant and army and James Buchanan Barnes. Then Barnes said something Howard didn't quite catch, but Tony clearly did. So did Peggy, who stiffened.

As if he knew Howard's eyes were on him, Tony nodded at Barnes, then stood up and went to the glass, rapping lightly on it.

"He says his name is the Winter Soldier," he said, and Howard's blood ran cold.

***

Peggy Carter had spent her fair share of time fighting bitterly with Howard; he was a man one did that with. He was arrogant, high-handed, and something of a son of a bitch, not to mention lately something of an alcoholic. So she knew from experience that while Tony and his father were audibly eviscerating each other in the hallway, it would all blow past by the time they tired of shouting. Tony was his father's son and gave as good as he got, and Howard rarely had anything other than cursing and stomping to back up his rhetoric. Let the Starks wear each other out, though she didn't blame Howard for his anger. When she saw Tony in with Barnes, her stomach had done a swoop as if he were one of her own children.

That was Tony; even now he was defending his indefensible actions by pointing out that Howard and Peggy would have stood there talking about it all night when they could have been getting to the bottom of things. And honestly, even Howard was having a hard time arguing with Tony's results.

Peggy stared at Barnes through the glass. The Winter Soldier. You heard stories. Sometimes you made jokes, dark jokes. But if this man was the Winter Soldier, and somehow James Barnes as well --

"If I don't walk away, I'm gonna strangle him," Howard said, stomping back into the observation room. "I've invested much too much money in him to kill him now."

"You have such a truly delightful way of speaking of your only son," Peggy replied.

"Right now he's my first-born pain-in-my-ass," Howard growled.

"What's the verdict? Ten with the cane and no dessert for a week?"

"Well, what the hell do we do now? He made a connection, we're stuck with him," Howard gestured at the interrogation room, where Tony was returning.

"You're going to let your seventeen-year-old son interrogate the Winter Soldier?" she asked.

"A Stark doesn't argue with results," he said stiffly. "Besides, the boy's got a diploma from MIT, it ought to have made a man of him."

"I think you are vastly overestimating the average college campus experience," she said, as Tony settled in again and rolled into Russian like it was his native tongue. Odd how Tony's French accent was exquisitely terrible (native French speakers were sure he was doing it on purpose) and his Italian was the most New York Italian she'd ever heard, but his Russian was flawless. Perhaps he really was doing the rest of it badly on purpose.

He'd always been a chatterbox, capable of talking for hours about anything that struck his fancy. But he kept his subject matter interesting, and it was a good skill for a salesman to have. Tony would do well as Howard's successor, and didn't really seem to have a genuine dislike for business -- he just liked robots more.

Now he sat in the little cell with the dangerous assassin and rambled away about his latest robot, a mechanical arm with integrated capaibilities for limited artificial intelligence. He was circling something, creating a sort of tapestry of words, intensely descriptive, and then with an almost audible hairpin turn he said, "What do you think, Bucky?" and Barnes replied, "Sounds swell."

Tony smiled. Barnes looked comically surprised.

***

Howard would probably have let Tony go on with Barnes all day, but Peggy knew that even boys of seventeen didn't often see six in the morning from the wrong side, and Howard was far too old not to have slept (she herself had gotten at least two hours, and anyway she wasn't as old as Howard). When the breakfast shift at the HQ canteen came on, she put an end to the interrogation for the moment. Barnes didn't even struggle as he was taken to a holding cell, Tony walking the whole way with him and keeping up his incessant talking; only when Tony was finally off the detention level did he sag against the wall and wipe his forehead dramatically.

"I don't mind saying that was intense," he said to Peggy, who ruffled his hair. "Hey!"

"You did very well, regardless of how absurd the entire situation is," she said. "Come along, let's have breakfast."

"There's breakfast?" Tony said eagerly, trotting after her.

"SHIELD's finest. It's institutional, but then you went to boarding school, you ought to feel right at home."

"Burned sausage and watery scrambled eggs?"

"By the truckload."

Tony ran ahead with the boundless enthusiasm of a starving teenager, once he got the unmistakable grease-and-dishsoap scent of the canteen. By the time she arrived he was loading a tray. Howard was already there, drinking coffee with the rest of senior staff -- he wasn't officially in management anymore, but he was on the board of directors, as it were, and anyway they all knew each other.

Awkward. Should she abandon Tony and join them, as was her prerogative, or should she bring Tony with -- or should she abandon them and sit with Tony as though she were a child as well?

Howard did solve that problem, at least; with a few shoulder-claps and nods he left the crowd of SHIELD agents and wove his way through the tables to her, barking "my tab" at the cashier who was ringing Tony up. The woman rolled her eyes, saw Peggy looking, flushed, and then relaxed when Peggy rolled her eyes back. Peggy was about to collect Tony when she saw him pick up his tray and make a beeline for a table of female trainees.

"Let him go, he's making friends," Howard said.

"Or he's being a pest," Peggy replied.

"That's my line, isn't it? We have stuff to talk about, Peg."

She allowed herself to be seated at a two-person table, but kept Tony in her eyeline. He was eating quickly and neatly, speaking inbetween bites, and the women were smiling.

"Taught him everything he knows," Howard said, glancing Tony's way before turning back dismissively. "Probably for the best I didn't teach him everything I know."

"Probably," she agreed drily. "How's Maria, any news?"

"She's still sleeping. When she wakes a SHIELD transport will take her to the mansion."

"Howard," Peggy said, despairing of the man. "She's your wife, don't be an ass. Finish breakfast and go sit with her."

His brows knitted. "What good'd that do?"

"It would make her feel loved."

"She knows I love her," he said dismissively. "After nearly getting myself killed for her last night, she'd better. Fine, fine," he said, as Peggy pressed her lips together disapprovingly. "I'll collect the offspring and go pick her up for the drive, she'll be happy to see Tony. Once I get my head down though, I'm coming back this afternoon, I expect you to hold the fort around Barnes until then."

"You aren't my boss anymore, you know," she said.

"Like you listened even when I was," he grumbled.

"What are we going to do if it is James Barnes?"

"Deprogram him. Someone got into his head, clearly. You saw The Manchurian Candidate, right?"

"You know I don't care for thrillers, Howard."

"Well, anyway, here's my theory: somehow he lived through that fall off the train. Maybe he caught a ledge, or it was shallower than Cap thought."

"Steve wasn't the sort to inflate that kind of thing."

"Wish we had him here," Howard said absently, then looked down at his coffee and continued. "Anyway, however it happened, the Soviets got him -- they were close to the border there -- and they put some kind of whammy on him. Wouldn't be hard, they've had twenty plus years to do it."

"You think the Soviets sent him to Yonkers to kill you?" Peggy asked. "I mean, it does have a very sort of..."

"James Bond feel?"

"I was thinking more Get Smart," she replied. Howard grinned tiredly.

"I don't know if it was the Soviets. I mean yeah, cold war, blah blah, but why kill me? A guy like Barnes has the skills to kill a president."

Peggy shivered. Kennedy wasn't so far behind them that it felt offhanded to say things like that.

"This feels more personal. I bet the Soviets sold him off to someone, and whoever it is they're renting him out," Howard continued, blithely unconcerned.

"I do think we should be worried that someone wants you dead," she said.

"Someone always wants me dead. Barnes can probably tell us why, eventually."

"Do you think...." Peggy chose her words carefully. "Steve could have survived that fall, the fall James clearly survived, couldn't he?"

"Sure. He'd done free jumps like that before. It was like he couldn't stand the idea of wasting a parachute. But we never gave Barnes the...."

Howard's eyes went distant.

"Steve said that James was being experimented on by Zola," she said. "When he rescued them, he literally took James off an operating table."

"Zola was a biochemist -- "

"Do you think he did it?" she asked, voice hushed. "Some variant of the serum, maybe -- it would explain how James survived the fall, how he still looks so young -- "

"Fuck," Howard said, and Peggy grabbed his tie before he could stand. "Carter!"

"Don't stand up, don't make a fuss," she hissed, and Howard consciously eased back into his chair. "If the wrong person finds out there's a super-soldier in the basement, it'll be Steve's blood all over again."

"How many know he's there right now?"

"You, me, the medical team, two guards -- "

"Yeah, but how many know he's Barnes?"

Peggy shook her head. "You, me, and Tony. Everyone else just thinks he's a prisoner. They don't even know he was sent to kill you."

"Unless someone in SHIELD knows who he is," Howard said. "Unless someone in SHIELD sent him to kill me."

"Who?"

"I don't know, but it's worth being paranoid. If someone in SHIELD knows Barnes is here, they may try to free him. Or kill him."

"Can we ask Zola about it?" she suggested, then dismissed the idea. "No, if he had any kind of hand in this and we tip him off, there goes our advantage."

"He was deposed pretty thoroughly after he was brought into the country. I'll look through the transcripts and see if he dropped any hints, the smarmy little bastard loves doing that. But we have to keep Barnes under our hats."

"I'll handle it," she said.

"Where will you put him?"

"You know I have ways," she said with a smile.

There was a burst of laughter from the table where Tony was sitting, and when they looked over, the women at the table were smiling, one of them resting a hand on Tony's wrist. Tony looked smug.

"You'd better go collect the future father of SHIELD and take him home," Peggy said. "Contact my office when you come back this afternoon, they'll know where to find me. Howard," she added, as Howard stood to leave. "Tony was a great help. We wouldn't know all this without him. It wouldn't actually kill you to tell him he did a good job."

"Have you met my son? He knows he did a good job," Howard said, and Peggy sighed and let it be. She'd given Tony his due praise, anyway, and he knew her well enough to know it wasn't gratuitous.

***

Edwin Jarvis was a reasonably placid man, and certainly decades of trailing after Mr. Stark and Agent Carter in various escapades had instilled in him a sort of doomed sense of calm. Still, he felt he could be excused for a little agitation when he was informed that there had been an attempt on Sir's life and that Mrs. Stark was in the hospital. He didn't really rest easy until he had met them at the door, helped Mrs. Stark into the guest room on the ground floor so she could rest easily, and seen Sir settled on the sofa in his study, also to sleep.

He was thrilled to see Anthony in among the SHIELD escort, however. Apparently he'd come in from Boston when he'd heard, like a good and dutiful son. Such a comfort to his mother to have him here, to be sure. And neither Jarvis nor Anna had seen him since the winter holiday, the tension with his father being so high over his wanting to stay in Boston.

So, having settled Sir and Mrs. Stark, he lured Anthony into the kitchen with the promise of fresh berry pie that Anna had made, her own form of fretting. Well, young growing men needed plenty of fruit, and Anna was a great believer in the nourishing properties of butter and sugar.

"I shall make a nice beef consomme for your mother, and for your father sandwiches, as he likely won't stay to dinner," she announced, as Anthony tucked into his pie. "What would you like, hm? Steak, some roast chicken, some kreplach? Shepherd's pie? None of it hard to make, I could make it all," she pointed out.

"No steak, dearest," Jarvis said, kissing the top of her head as he passed. "You know Mrs. Stark digests it poorly and it doesn't keep well. You make the kreplach and the shepherd's pie for tomorrow. I'll roast a chicken for Master Anthony and for Mr. Stark's sandwiches. You'll stay at least until your mother's well?" he asked Anthony, who nodded.

"Yeah, definitely. And I have business at SHIELD now," he added proudly, perking up as he said it.

Anna gave Jarvis a horrified look.

"Oh?" Jarvis inquired blandly, looking over the chickens he'd ordered to be delivered this morning and selecting the plumpest for roasting. "Business at SHIELD?"

"Well, Dad says I'd have to learn sometime. Or he didn't say, but you know how he looks," Anthony said, giving Jarvis a very accurate impression of Sir's "I'm indulging the boy" squint. "I got to interrogate someone this morning!"

Anna slammed a pan on the stove.

"And what does Agent Carter think of this?" Jarvis said carefully.

"Well, she can't argue with my results," Anthony said with a shrug. Anna muttered viciously in Yiddish. "You think I can't understand you, but I can," Anthony called to her. "I'm seventeen, you know, I have my degree. I'm not a little boy anymore."

"Oh, he's seventeen," Anna said to Jarvis. "He thinks he knows everything because he's seventeen!"

"Ours is not to judge, my own," Jarvis said gently, quartering an apple to go into the roast chicken. "I'm sure Anthony knows his own mind best."

"I'm not at all sure!" Anna said. "Your job is to be a businessman, Anthony! To eat good food, live comfortably, marry a nice girl -- Jewish if possible -- have pretty babies. Not running around interrogating people and waving guns and such!"

"We make guns, Anna," Anthony pointed out. "It's what we do. For a living."

"Yes, so let others use them!"

Anthony shot a tolerant smile at Jarvis. That kind of talk from Sir would have filled Anthony with bile and rage, but it didn't draw the same blood, coming from Anna. Probably, Jarvis reflected sadly, because Anthony knew unquestioningly that Anna loved him. With Sir it was more complicated.

"Well, I tell you what, I'll work on finding that nice Jewish girl, but she'll have to make kreplach at least as good as yours," Anthony said. It soothed Anna enough that she sliced him another piece of pie.

"Go on, eat it upstairs, then sleep," she ordered. "Jarvis will wake you when your father wakes."

"Thanks, Anna," Anthony said, bending to kiss her cheek. "Jarvis, save a quarter of that chicken and put it in a box for me, would you? I have a friend at SHIELD who'll appreciate it."

***

The asset wasn't sure what was happening, precisely, but he was aware that very strange things were going on, both inside his head and outside it.

His target had taken him down much too easily, much too handily. That was partly his fault; he'd underestimated the skill and speed with which a middle-aged businessman could move. But the target had also had weapons that were unfamiliar -- he'd have to report that shock stick to his handlers.

Handlers. For a second, in the dark, he'd recognized the target as a handler. His brain had somehow, momentarily, recategorized the target, and it had slowed his reflexes. He wasn't sure if the target was a former handler, but he didn't think so.

That was the problem, though, wasn't it? He was beginning to remember things, brief flashes of events in a life before, and he wasn't supposed to do that. He wasn't supposed to know if the target was a former handler, or care if he was. He was supposed to be the beautiful blank slate on which his real handlers could stamp their desires. That was what he was told by Dr. Zola.

But he had recognized the target, and the target for sure thought he'd recognized him, called him a name -- Bucky -- a ridiculous name. And the other one, who he knew from photographs was the target's son, he had said his name was James Buchanan Barnes. That he was an American, that he was a friend.

The asset didn't have friends.

The target's son had talked about Kalashnikov rifles and the Barrett M82A1M that the asset had been carrying (but not using) when he was apprehended --

That burned. He'd been taken prisoner before, of course, but usually he'd escaped in transit. This time that had not been an option. He would still get out, but it would require finesse, and he didn't care for finesse.

Why did he think that? The Winter Soldier had no preferences. To not like something was...alien to him. And yet.

The target's son had talked to him about rifles, and about a mechanical arm -- not like the one he had -- and when he'd fallen into the lull of the boy's patter, he'd been asked a question, and he'd answered in English.

He knew English, of course, he understood English. But he didn't speak it. He never had. Except now he remembered speaking it, and he remembered a man who looked like the boy, who'd spoken like the boy, who'd given him gifts. Guns and armor, black-market canned food he'd smuggled in, little treats for him and especially for Steve --

Steve. Who was Steve? Warring images, of a frail, bloody-faced boy and a tall, grimy man in battle gear.

His left arm was still useless, rendered inert by the shock stick the target had punched him with. But he drew his right arm more tightly around his knees as he sat in his cell, trying to sort out what was going on. He only realized he'd been that way for hours when he tried to uncurl at a noise in the distance and found he'd taken a cramp.

The cell was in an isolated, unused part of the building, and he had no guards, but he'd been unable to bend the bars without the use of his arm. Now he looked up and out and found the target's son again, strolling down the hallway, whistling, a box balanced on one hand.

"Hiya," the boy said, arriving at the cell. "Wow, Aunt Peggy didn't spare any expense, huh? The finest gulag for you."

The asset didn't know how to respond to this, so he kept silent, but he did uncurl his legs.

"Anyway, I figured the food here is really dire, so I brought you this," the boy said, carefully putting the box on the floor and sliding it through the bars. He scuttled back when Bucky got off the bed to investigate it.

The asset. Not Bucky. His name was Winter Soldier.

The box was full of chicken, still warm, and underneath the chicken was a layer of small potatoes crusted in salt and soaked in chicken grease. He plucked up one with his hand and ate it quickly, flinching at how good it tasted, how quick it brought saliva to his mouth. The boy sat against the other wall and smiled as he watched him eat.

"Yeah, there's nothing like home cooking, right?" the boy said. "You remember me from this morning?"

The asset nodded.

"You remember you from this morning?"

The asset squinted. The boy smiled.

"It's okay. Dad says you need deprogramming, but the good news is that I read pretty much everything about brainwashing I could get my hands on before I came down here and everyone agrees that long-term brainwashing doesn't stick great without constant reinforcement. So, even if you are the Manchurian Candidate, we're gonna un-candidate you. Sounds painful, I know, but it'll be okay."

The asset continued to eat. The chicken was amazing. Better than anything he'd had since before the war, maybe.

The boy -- Tony -- looked down the corridor, checking on something, then leaned in a little. "Listen, Dad said I wasn't supposed to get in there with you or get within grappling distance, and for good reason. But I bet that arm's giving you grief, huh?"

"Yeah," the asset tried, semi-pleased when it came out in English. Tony looked delighted.

"If I can look under the hood I can fix it -- there's nothing I can't fix if I can get into its guts," Tony bragged. "But it means you gotta stick your arm through the bars and I gotta trust you're not gonna strangle me."

"Wouldn't," the asset grunted.

"Well, easy for you to say. Or, probably not, but, you know," Tony said. "Here's the deal, though, I'm the only son of a very rich and powerful man and if you do kill me, I dunno, he doesn't like me but he's got a lot riding on me, so. If you kill me he will torture you to death very slowly. This might not actually be much of a deterrent, you look pretty hard, but I figure at least the thought'll slow you down if you do make a try."

"Won't."

"You won't try, or the threat won't slow you down?"

The asset curled his teeth back in an approximation of a smile. "Won't kill you. Chicken's too good."

Tony stared at him, then started to laugh.

"Yeah, buddy, there's more where that came from. Okay, lug the arm over here and throw it through."

He spent the evening lying on the cold cement floor of the cell, arm outstretched through the bars. But, in fairness, Tony spent the evening lying on his belly on the hallway floor, digging around in his arm with tools ill-designed for the job. Tony talked constantly, and eventually the asset started to answer, if only to give the poor kid's voice a break.

"Okay, I think I've got a handle on this," Tony said eventually. "Ahaha, a hand-le, get it? Your arm is beautiful but I can't fix it tonight. I'll come back tomorrow with a soldering iron and some jumper cables and if you promise not to kill me again you'll get your arm back."

"M'not here to kill you," the asset said. And then, with a kind of willful disobedience, "No reason to."

Tony went very still. "But there was a reason to kill my father?"

The asset nodded.

"What was the reason?"

Just the thought of the pain of the chair -- which could be made better or worse, depending on how angry his handlers were with him -- was enough to deter him for now. He stared sullenly at Tony until the boy sat up, gathering his tools.

"I'll see you tomorrow. Hey, you like hamburgers?"

The asset stared at him blankly.

"I'll bring you a hamburger. Not for breakfast though. Okay, well, seeya round, I guess," Tony said, and walked back off down the hall. A door slammed in the distance.

Bucky lay on the floor for a long time before gathering his arm in carefully to his body and inspecting it. As far as he could tell, it hadn't been harmed. Not a plate was out of place.

***

Tony returned the following day, carrying a toolbox in one hand, dragging behind him a huge sack with the other. The sack turned out to be full of pillows, some for himself and some for the asset; there were also blankets.

"Dad got miffed about the blankets but Aunt Peggy said if you were going to kill yourself you'd have done it by now," Tony announced, stuffing the pillows one-by-one through the bars, arranging some on the floor to pad the other side. He began unpacking his tools, and the asset noted with approval that he laid them out well outside his reach through the bars. He was counting them, too, and he was sure that he would count them when he packed up, to make sure the asset didn't steal any of them.

He hadn't been treated badly, here, and Tony at least cared for his comfort; the food was decent. And they wouldn't allow the target's only son, a boy who was barely grown, to sit with him and talk to him if they planned on killing him. And if he never showed them where the chair was, they could never wipe him again, which would make them far superior to his current masters. It was something to consider. Surely if the target was important enough to be assassinated, he had people Bucky could kill for him, thus rendering him useful enough to earn his keep.

Tony sat with the asset's arm in his lap, today, and worked efficiently, reconnecting wires and bringing the relays back online only after the wiring was fixed, so that Bucky wouldn't register the repairs as pain. They never did that for him normally. At least that he could remember.

Maybe Tony had a use for him. Tony would be far superior even to the target, as a master. Surely such a young man from such a powerful family needed protecting. Bucky had worked as a bodyguard before and found it pleasant. You killed fewer people and most of them were trying to kill you first.

He noticed Tony asking him more questions than he had the previous day, of course, and the angle of them told him that not all of the questions were of Tony's devising. The target was pulling his son's strings. Still, Tony was deft, and the questions seemed harmless. He answered them so long as it amused him to do so.

"So anyway -- tap your fingers on mine for me, please?" Tony said, and Bucky tapped his fingers against Tony's, one-two-three-for-five, "Great, I think there's just one more relay to go. Anyway, the prints confirmed it, but Dad says you look a lot younger than you should, which he thinks is down to some treatment you got, but I say some people are just genetically lucky. Like me," he added with a saucy grin. "What do you think?"

The asset thought of the chair and the cold, the endless cold, the way they froze him slowly to maintain optimum conditions, the cold and trembling and pain and then finally blessed numbness --

"Hey whoa, hey -- " Tony scrambled frantically away from him as his arm snapped out to grab him by the throat. He got his hand around him and grabbed his shirt through the bars with his other, but when he tried to squeeze, he couldn't. Tony knelt there, the steel hand circling his neck like a collar, huge eyes terrified but mouth set defiantly.

"Don't know if I told you," he said, "but I disengaged your torque regulator. Seemed like the smart thing to do. Means you can move, but you can't grip, at least not very hard. Handy failsafe, I see why they built it in."

Bucky snarled, panting angrily against the bars.

"Clearly I touched a nerve, and I'm sorry," Tony said, the barest waver in his voice. "But if you want my help you're gonna have to stop trying to choke me, Bucky."

He'd fucked it up now -- he'd gone after the target's only son. He'd frightened him, and his father wouldn't like that. They might kill him now. Which wouldn't be so bad, but they might send him back to his handlers, and --

He let go abruptly and withdrew into the corner of his cell, knees against his chest, hands over his face. He expected Tony to run, but the boy just inched forward, smoothing out the distended shirt where he'd been grabbed, until he was pressed up against the bars.

"Are you okay?" Tony asked gently. "I'm not gonna tell Dad. I know you just had a...a weird moment there."

"You should go," Bucky managed in English. "It's not safe."

"Why does everyone insist on treating me like a toddler?" Tony wondered aloud. "Aunt Peggy thinks I'm cute, Dad thinks I'm a nusiance and yet wants me to come spend every waking hour with him, Anna thinks fruit pies are the answer to all life's questions, and you think I can't handle a little breathplay. Honestly. I'm embarrassed for all of you, because that's how grownups feel when they see other grownups treating people like children."

Bucky bent his face into his knees, hands rising to cover the back of his head. He didn't know how to deal with this. He had no frame of reference for forgiveness.

There was a soft scraping noise, and Tony added, "Anna sent you a slice of pie. Sorry you're gonna have to eat it with your hands, Aunt Peggy forbade a fork. I tried to bargain her up to a spoon and she told me not to teach my grandma to suck eggs. I'm not sure what that means but it did stop me so, point to her I guess."

Bucky looked up. There was another white waxed-paper box sitting on the inside of his cell. He reached out with his flesh hand, tugging it towards him by a corner, and opened it. Very carefully he lifted a piece of the latticework crust and put it in his mouth, crunching down on it. It gave him just a hint of sweet syrup and tart berries, and it was still almost more than he could process.

"S'good," he allowed.

"Yeah, I know, right?" Tony said. Bucky uncurled a little, enough that he could hold the box in one hand and eat with the other. Tony didn't even flinch. Bucky ate in silence, deeply engrossed in this pie, until Tony asked, "So how old are you, anyhow?" and he replied without thinking, "Twenty-two."

"My best friend Rhodey's about your age, he's at the Air Force Academy now. Wow, you enlisted when you were eighteen, I guess?"

Bucky looked at him askance, unsure how to answer that.

"That makes sense, what with the war and all," Tony said.

Bucky closed his eyes against the bright flashes of memory -- being handed a uniform, a gun, a platoon of men to command. Troop transports and battlefields and a previous imprisonment, escape and triumph and a loose knot of cameraderie pulled tight by Steve --

"Hey, you didn't finish your pie yet," Tony's voice broke through the haze, and Bucky realized he'd been sitting that way for several minutes, eyes shut, box clenched in his flesh hand. He took another bite, in case Tony was suggesting it be taken from him. Food was a very effective control, his handlers knew that.

"Anyway, if you don't pull anything funny -- we won't mention the choking seeing as how you failed against my genius -- then Dad and Aunt Peggy say next time you can have something to do. Some books or crosswords or something. You like crosswords?"

He wasn't sure what one was. He blinked at Tony bewilderedly.

"Well, I'll bring you a book of 'em, and some comics," Tony decided. "You want anything else?"

Bucky shook his head, uncertain what he could possibly ask for. Tony shrugged.

"If you think of anything, I'll be back tomorrow morning," he said. He put his tools away, counting them subtly but carefully, and then shoved the rest of the pillows through the bars of the cell. "Seeya, Bucky," he called as he left, and there was the distant slam of the door again.

Bucky ate the rest of the pie, savoring it, and used his fingers to scoop all the crumbs out of the box, licking them up carefully.

***

Tony came back the next day, but he said he couldn't stay that morning; he brought with him a book of crosswords and a pencil ("Dad said no pens, sorry") and a huge stack of comic books with the staples removed from the bindings.

"I got Strange Tales and Marvel Tales," Tony said, handing him neatly sorted piles. "Amazing Fantasy, Journey into Mystery -- that one's new, it's really good -- and a ton of old Batman and Superman. And," he said, offering a bound book, "The whole collected Captain America. Supposedly all of the Captain America comics were based on true stories but I dunno, you'd know better than I would."

"Not necessarily," Bucky muttered.

"Well, they might jog your memory," Tony said.

Bucky had lain awake last night thinking about this, and now he set the comics aside, making sure to keep back from the bars so Tony wouldn't feel threatened -- or at any rate so he wouldn't have to watch Tony back away skittishly.

"You think I'm that guy," he said.

"We got fingerprint proof," Tony said. "We don't know what happened yet. Maybe you do?"

Bucky shuddered. "If I am, do I get to stay here?"

Tony stared at him. "Get to? You're in a tiny cell in a sub-basement SHIELD doesn't even use anymore. If you're Bucky Barnes, you get to leave here."

"Go where?"

Tony shrugged. "Probably a hospital to start. Maybe a SHIELD barracks eventually."

"But not back?"

"Back to whoever brainwashed you? No," Tony said. "Dad's trying to figure out who they are now. They're our enemies, Bucky. You're our ally. We have a common interest in destroying the people who hurt you."

"There was a chair," Bucky whispered.

"A...chair?"

"They put you in it and it hurts, and then you don't remember."

Tony's look was naked horror. "Do you know where it is?"

He shook his head. Even if he did he'd never tell. They might think he deserved it and put him back in it.

"Listen, okay, if you know who put you in the chair, even if you don't know names, if you know faces, we can help you," Tony said, stepping closer to the bars. Stupid kid, he was gonna get himself killed. Bucky backed away. "You don't have to say now, but the sooner we know -- they want my dad dead, Bucky. Just because you didn't manage it doesn't mean someone won't. And he's an asshole but I kinda prefer him alive."

If he told this boy that Dr. Zola was the one, that other faces came and went in a blur but Dr. Zola was always there...if the boy knew about Zola, he wouldn't be safe.

"Tell your father," he said.

"Tell my father what?" Tony asked.

"No. I'll. Tell him. Not you. Him."

Tony looked hurt. "Oh. Okay. Well, I'll go get him. Might take a while, he's barely been home since. Lots of meetings and things. But I'll find him and you can talk to him. Instead of me."

"Not safe for you," Bucky tried. A little of the hurt faded.

"Well, read your comics, do some crosswords, I'll get Dad," Tony agreed. "But if you're trying to get him down here to kill him you and I are gonna have some problems, buddy."

Bucky nodded, and when Tony walked away he came forward, pressing his face to the bars to watch him until he was out of sight.

He set the comics on the edge of the thin padded ledge that functioned as a bed (the pillows the night before had made it much easier to sleep). The Captain America book was on top, and he opened it carefully, looking down at a random page. A little boy in a blue jacket yelled "Cap, look out!" as a mustachio'd man in an SS uniform bore down on a man with a white star on his chest.

"They turned me into a kid!" an outraged voice rang in his ears.

"Aw come on, Buck, everyone knows it's just propaganda," another voice responded, and he had that dual image again -- the tiny man with the shock of strawlike blond hair and the tall man in uniform, battle-weary but smiling.

Cap. Cap had been his friend. Steve. He remembered Steve. Not vividly, but if he concentrated he could almost smell him, almost hear his voice again. If he'd known Tony's father, and he thought he had, and if Tony's father was only middle-aged now, then Cap should still be alive. Steve should be here, somewhere, in this maze of half-remembered people, half-known memories. Steve would never abandon him. Steve would have come before Tony, even, to see him, to save him.

Suspicion twitched at the base of his skull, but the asset ignored it for now. Nothing to be done from the cell. The target would be returning and he might be able to bargain his way free, and then he could find out where Steve was, or if any of this was even true. And with Zola dead, if there was no more chair, if he was no longer held back by programming and the blank whiteness of the wipe, then no-one could control him and he could find out what he wanted regardless of whether he used peace or violence to get it.

The thought of defying Zola terrified him, but the thought of never returning to the chair had a stronger lure.

The target arrived that afternoon, looking wary, carrying a thick nightstick on his belt.

"Tony said you wanted to tell me something," he said. The asset watched him warily.

"I remember you," he said. "Sometimes. Little bit."

The target's eyes softened just slightly, but he didn't let his guard down.

"Where's Steve?" the asset asked.

The target frowned. "He died. Shortly after -- shortly after we thought you had."

"Oh." The asset digested this. He sat back on his bench. "There's a chair."

"Tony told me. They put you in it, and then you forget."

"And then after, they put you in the cold," the asset said. "You freeze and freeze and when they take you out, it's all different."

"Cryogenics," the target muttered. "Damn."

"Not for everyone. Just for -- " me, he wanted to say, but he couldn't. "Just for you. After the chair."

"Just for you?" the target asked, looking thoughtful. "You can survive sub-zero suspended animation?"

He didn't know what that meant, but it was clear that was what the target wanted to hear, so he nodded.

The target drew closer -- not quite close enough, but nearly. "Who puts you in the chair, Bucky? Tell me who he is and I can stop him."

"Zola," the asset said. The target rocked back on his heels.

"Arnim Zola?"

"Dr. Zola. Some others, but always Dr. Zola. He comes and talks. To you. Before the chair. He tells you what to do."

The target rubbed at his mustache, ran a hand through his hair. "Zola. I might have known."

The way he said it, the way he acted, brought home to Bucky what he'd done -- the target knew Zola, probably knew where the chair was already, or knew where it would be hidden. He'd given the target not only the keys to his torment but a way to replace his master, and he was filled with sudden, instinctive fear.

He hit the bars before he even knew what he was doing, arms outstretched, grasping for the target, a low guttural moan of pain and rage in his throat. The target danced backwards, out of his way. Bucky slumped against the bars, letting his arms fall, and couldn't stop the whimper of fear from passing his teeth. He dropped to his knees, whining.

"You've been very helpful, but you're not coming near my son again if this is how you behave," the target said. "I'm going to handle Zola. Him and everyone who's put you in the chair. Then I'll come back here and we'll look after you, because Steve would want that. And if we can't fix you I'll put you to proper mercy."

Bucky knew what that meant, and a part of him craved it.

"Thank you," he managed, guttural and heartfelt.

***

Tony did come back, that evening, with more chicken (with stuffing this time) and news to report.

"I don't know what you told Dad, but it must have been huge," he said. "He and Aunt Peggy had a war summit with Mr. Dugan and a couple of the other old guard, the really old guard. I wasn't invited. Teenaged boy can't keep his trap shut," he said, rolling his eyes as he handed the food through.

"You should be careful," Bucky said.

"What, around you? Come on."

"Outside," Bucky said. "It's dangerous. For you now. If he knows you know where I am, he'll hurt you too."

"Who?"

Bucky huddled back a little, and Tony sighed.

"Fine. Look, I'm...compact, okay, but that doesn't mean I'm not strong." He flexed, grinning, until Bucky gave him a hesitant smile back. "I'm a good shot, and I know how to take care of myself. Ask Rhodey if you don't believe me. Metaphorically, I mean, he doesn't know you exist yet. You'll like him, he's more straightforward than me. Anyway, I can look after myself, been doing that since boarding school."

"Be careful," Bucky said around a mouthful of food.

"I always am," Tony answered. "So how'd you like the comics? You need any help on the crossword?"

They spent a companionable evening, even if Tony did most of the talking (and most of the crossword). And at the end, like usual, Tony said "See you tomorrow" and left.

But he didn't show up the following day. Nobody did. No food was brought. Nobody came, not to ask him questions or talk with him or take him away to be wiped.

Nobody came that day or the day after.

He had plenty of fresh water, though he began to hoard it just in case, keeping the stopped-up sink full. He had no food, and the hunger was unpleasant, but he knew how long he could go without, and it was a long time.

If Zola had won, if he'd defeated the target and killed Tony and his Aunt Peggy, then Zola might leave him down here to starve to death, or he might be leaving him here until he was too weak to fight back, as punishment.

He decided if the water stopped, he'd hang himself with one of the blankets. If the water didn't stop, he'd let himself starve.

In the meantime, he had the comics Tony had brought him, and the crossword puzzle book. He read each comic book meticulously, particularly Captain America, before he started on the crosswords. They were frustrating, but at least they distracted him from the hunger and the fear.

Very late on the second day, at least as far as he could tell, the door down the corridor slammed and there was the sound of running feet.

"You're still here," Tony panted, as he skidded to a stop. "Oh, am I glad to see you still here."

"Where would I go?" Bucky asked, relief filling him. Tony looked pale, and he had an assault rifle strapped to his back and a pistol in one hand, ludicrously violent objects to be given to a teenager.

He also had the key to Bucky's cell.

"I thought Zola might have found you. Everything's gone to shit," Tony said, holstering the pistol. "Okay, big guy, moment of truth time. If I let you out of here I need you to help me get out of here. Zola's got half the organization heiling Hitler and the other half are trying to help Dad get control back."

"He let you come?"

"He kinda doesn't know I'm here," Tony admitted. "He called home and said he couldn't come get you until the fighting stopped, but I know you hadn't eaten in days and that wasn't okay. Hey, so, if I let you out, can I count on you to only kill people I tell you to kill and not kill me until we can get to the garage? I mean you have a really deeply vested interest in not going back to Zola, right? Can I trust you?"

Bucky nodded, shortly.

"Well, it's not like I've got a choice," Tony said, as he unlocked the door. "I'm not leaving you here to get collected by Hydra when they sweep the place and you're starving, right? There we go, bribery. Remember that burger I brought you? There's four more like it if you don't kill me."

"Not gonna kill you," Bucky said, with a roll of his eyes. "Gimme the rifle."

Tony hooked it over his head and tossed it to him. "Let me take point, I know where we're going."

"No," Bucky said.

"Look, I would love to use you as a human shield, but -- "

"I go first. Zola thinks I'm on his side. His people know me. Not to shoot me," Bucky pointed out. Tony blinked at him.

"Good point. Okay."

"Climb on," Bucky added, and crouched.

"You're fucking kidding me."

"Climb on, cover our six. Easier than making sure you're still behind me. I can carry," Bucky assured him.

"Well, what the hell, if I'm going to die I'll go out riding a super soldier to freedom. Dad's gonna murder me one way or another anyway," Tony said, and wrapped an arm around Bucky's chest, knees gripping his hips. Bucky tucked his left hand under Tony's thigh, raised the rifle with his right, and broke into an easy run. He'd carried heavier men longer distances, and it felt good to stretch his legs.

Tony guided him down two empty halls and up a flight of stairs before they heard the shouting. On the main level of SHIELD HQ it was chaos -- agents shooting at each other, pockets of resistance holding barricades down hallways, bodies on the ground. Bucky dodged among them, trying not to draw attention.

Two sharp shots rang out behind his ear, and a man off to the left dropped to the ground.

"Nice," he said.

"Thanks. Turn right," Tony replied. "Dad's in command center, and there's a secure passage out of the building from there. Besides, he might need me."

"To do what?"

"It's also where the electrical relays are. If I can get in there I can black out any area where Hydra's dug in. I can close fire doors. Lots of mischief you can get into when the power grid's at your fingertips," Tony said. Bucky slid past the hallway that Tony wanted him to turn into, firing as he went, and three Hydra agents dropped before he circled back to actually turn. A fourth opened fire but Tony returned before he could get the rifle up, and the man fell among his comrades. Bucky vaulted the bodies before anyone else could show up and kept going.

"FRIENDLY FRIENDLY FRIENDLY," Tony began yelling, as soon as they turned right again, hitching his body up to make himself visible. "STARK INCOMING."

"COPY," someone yelled back, and Bucky tore past a pair of SHIELD agents, through a double-door and into a dimly-lit, circular room full of people. A lot of guns were suddenly pointed at him, but they lowered as Tony slid off his back.

"Brought you a present, Dad," Tony said, as Bucky took up a defensive position by the doors.

"Tony, what in the name of -- " the target yelled.

"No time, where's the access hatch to the electrics?"

"You can't be here, you're a child -- "

"Dad," Tony said, and even Bucky could hear the weariness in his voice, "You've been telling me to grow up since I was eight. Make up your damned mind if you want a kid or a business partner because I'm tired of trying to work out which one you want at any particular moment. Now I can black Hydra out and give your boys a fighting chance or I can evacuate and you can shut your mouth about my responsibilities. Up to you."

Everyone was staring at both of them. The target, Bucky noticed, was turning red.

"Relays are that way," he said, pointing at a far wall.

"Good choice," Tony replied.

"We're not done with this conversation."

"You picked grownup. That means we are if I say we are, Mr. Stark," Tony said, and ducked behind a low metal door before the target could reply.

***

It was late afternoon before the battle was decisively won. Bucky was actually starting to feel a little dizzy from lack of food by the time the headcount came in. All agents in HQ were accounted for, either dead, in custody, or on side. Field agents were still being recalled, but it looked like Zola had focused his attentions on administrative agents, handlers, and managers; loyal agents were securing bases across the country or sealing off those they couldn't. Zola himself was in the wind, but he was more or less alone in the wind, and there were already agents giving chase.

"Peggy'll catch him," the target -- Howard, he was Howard, or maybe Mr. Stark -- said, sipping cold coffee as he took in reports. "She's got his blood scented."

"What happens then?" Tony asked, sitting crosslegged on one of the command desks, rewiring a flashlight that had been broken in the fighting, apparently just for something to do.

"He's tried and executed as a traitor," Howard said. "Maybe a spy, I'm not sure of his citizenship status. I'll pull the trigger myself."

"I don't think they do firing squads anymore, it's all electric chair now, Dad," Tony said.

"Good, we've both got training in that field. You build the chair, I'll throw the switch."

"Don't mind if I do," Tony said. "So can we go home now? Mom keeps calling the emergency contact line and Bucky hasn't eaten since dinner on Tuesday."

Howard turned to Bucky. "You tried to kill me a couple of days ago."

Bucky shrugged. "Was a couple of days ago. Different now."

"Dad, come on. His arm's still disabled, and we can't lock him back up, that's pointless and stupid," Tony said.

"You wanted to be a grownup, Tony, don't whine at me for favors," Howard snapped.

"Fine. Mr. Stark, I'm requisitioning James Barnes as a Stark Industries bodyguard."

"Requisition denied."

"Too late, I asked Aunt Peggy, she said if he hasn't shot me by now he probably isn't gonna," Tony said.

"I wouldn't," Bucky felt compelled to add.

"Really? I'm close to it myself," Howard said, and Bucky narrowed his eyes. "Fine. You get a furlough. A cooked meal and we'll, I don't know, handcuff you to a bed for the night or something. As soon as the shit stops hitting the fan around here, we're gonna be a lot more systematic about this."

Tony beamed at Howard. "Come on," he said to Bucky, leading him towards the secure elevator. "Get a fresh gun, I'm serious about the bodyguard thing, it's about time I had one."

***

Mrs. Stark was still more or less confined to bed, but at least now it was the upstairs master bed, so it wasn't hard to sneak Anthony's new guest up two flights of stairs and into the spare room next to Anthony's room, especially since the young man was quite stealthy. The upstairs maids didn't bother with this floor, since it was almost entirely given over to Anthony, who didn't like "people touching his stuff" and who had to learn to keep a workshop clean at any rate, according to Sir.

Once their guest and Anthony were settled into the guest room with a large platter of roast beef, Anna's finest biscuits, and a veritable tureen of chicken soup with kreplach, Jarvis set about locating some clothing for Master Barnes, using approximate measurements. He was taller than Sir or Anthony, but about in Anthony's weight class, which made things slightly easier. Thank goodness for the personal shopper at Barneys, who knew Jarvis of old and could be relied on for understated fashion.

"This is what comes of letting him grow up," Anna said, taking out butter to thaw for tomorrow's breakfast pastries as Jarvis hung up the kitchen telephone. "Guns and assassins in the attic and who knows what else!"

"I'm afraid it's not something we had any control over, darling," Jarvis pointed out.

"And now the whole thing has come down around their ears," Anna continued. "Nazis! In Manhattan!"

"Yes, but Sir has clearly taken this situation in hand, and you know Agent Carter is managing things, which can only be for the good," Jarvis said reasonably. "Besides, young Master Barnes is by all accounts entirely under Anthony's sway and rather excessively violent when he wishes. I'm certain he wouldn't allow any harm to come to Anthony or to us. And you know I have been known to resort to fisticuffs," he added, raising his arms and striking a boxing pose. It never failed to make Anna laugh, and the loss of his dignity was a small price to pay for Anna's laughter.

"Ah, see, she's in a good mood," Anthony said from the doorway, and Jarvis stepped aside to let him and his companion into the kitchen, carrying their emptied dinner plates. "Anna, it's resolved, I can never marry. Your kreplach is in fact unattainable by mortal man."

"Buttering up an old woman," Anna declared. Anthony settled himself on a stool and, after an awkward look around, Barnes sat on the next one. "What are you snooping for, snoop?"

"Cookies," Anthony said placidly.

"You made the chicken," Barnes said abruptly to Jarvis, who was already taking the cookie jar down off the shelf.

"Indeed I did, young master Barnes," Jarvis replied.

"S'good chicken."

"Thank you. A wise chef appreciates those who take pleasure in his work."

"Pie was good too."

"Ah, now that was Anna," Jarvis said, offering him the jar. He looked at it like it might explode, until Anthony leaned across him, took three, and put one in his hand.

"Thank you. For pie," Barnes said to Anna, who pinked and wiped her hands on her apron.

"Everyone likes a nice pie," she said. "You like peaches? I never made a peach pie until I came to America. Mrs. Stark is partial."

"I don't know," Barnes mumbled.

"You will. Everyone likes Anna's peach pie," Anthony said loyally.

"Tomorrow I will make one," Anna said. "And you will have new clothes," she added to Barnes, and then to Anthony, "and you will stop running around with guns."

"Yes, you can fix the Bentley instead," Jarvis suggested.

"What's wrong with the Bentley?" Anthony asked.

"When you fix it, we will have known," Anna said. Anthony looked to Jarvis, who shrugged.

"It's pulling left and eating petrol," he said. "Your father keeps meaning to look at it but he's been distracted lately."

"No kidding," Anthony said, as Barnes nibbled on his cookie, watching each of them in turn with keen curiosity. "You can help, Bucky. Hand me wrenches and stuff. It'll be nice. Normal."

"Normal," Barnes echoed, as if he was testing out the word.

"Well, normal for us," Anthony added.

***

Sir slept like the dead that night and well into the following morning. In his wilder days he had still never been one to sleep until two; both he and Anthony were morning people, even when morning was a brutal punishment for the night before. An early start on the day meant a leg up on the competition, after all.

But by all accounts (mostly a phone call from Agent Carter) it had been a very long two days for Sir, so Jarvis let him sleep and waited for him to ring for breakfast, which slowly became the possibility of lunch.

Instead, when Sir did finally wake, Jarvis found him lurking on the catwalk of the garage, still in his dressing-gown, watching Anthony take the Bentley's undercarriage to pieces. Barnes was warily fetching and carrying for him, listening intently whenever Anthony explained to him what he was doing.

"Is there actually anything wrong with the Bentley?" Sir asked him, when he approached.

"Not as such, but it doesn't do to let men of his age be idle," Jarvis replied.

"Are you keeping an eye on Barnes?"

"Should I?" Jarvis asked blandly.

"Don't give me that dumb servant bull, Jarvis, it didn't work when I hired you and it sure as hell won't work now."

Jarvis smiled. "Just so, Sir."

Sir turned back to his son. "Barnes has a long road ahead. But I think he's proved himself. Someone's gotta be able to follow where Tony's running and I think I'm officially out of that race."

"With due respect, Sir, you may no longer be what Anthony needs," Jarvis agreed.

"I'm not sure I ever was," Sir said pensively. "Damn sure wasn't what he wanted."

"Children don't come with exploded diagrams."

"Not having a diagram never stopped me," Sir said. "It's not having all the variables that screwed me up. Screwed us up." He rubbed his face. "Barnes is making me remember being a better man than I am now."

"Oh, I don't know, I've never thought you were a particularly great man," Jarvis said, poker-faced. Sir shot him a glare. "Cleverness is no substitute for character, Sir."

"Nobody's ever accused me of having character," Sir agreed.

"If I may tender some advice on matters outside the running of the household and the current fashion for narrow ties," Jarvis ventured.

"Give up on the ties, Jarvis, I'm not wearing skinny ties."

"Of course, Sir."

"Go on."

"Anthony has, on occasion inexplicably, always desired your approval. His lack of resentment is perhaps a testament to his character, but all men lose patience eventually."

"What's your point?" Sir asked.

"You seem to believe your chance is past," Jarvis said. "But Anthony still wants a father. I should take advantage of that weakness, were I you."

Sir considered him, leaning on the catwalk railing.

"Tony," he finally called down, and both Barnes and Anthony looked up, Anthony smiling warily when he saw his father. "You figure out what's wrong with it yet?"

"I don't think there's anything wrong with it," Anthony called. "But she's a beauty to pull to pieces."

"Well, see if you can't soup it up a little as long as you're in there," Sir said. "Yell when you're done and I'll come have a look."

"Sure!" Anthony said, pathetically eager, and Jarvis caught Barnes's eye, smiling mostly to himself. Barnes nodded solemnly at him and turned back to Anthony, listening to him ramble about increased fuel efficiency and zero-to-sixty capabilities.

***

The SHIELD civil war, as many of the agents had taken to calling it, was short but intense, and Peggy felt that she deeply lived every second of it. She'd lost friends in the initial skirmish -- some turncoats, some dead, many both -- and while she'd never liked Arnim Zola she had grown used to him. Now, hunting him felt uncomfortable, and that made her angry.

How dare he come into her house, at the invitation of the US Government, and corrupt the edifice she'd spent her life building? How dare he violate SHIELD this way, when SHIELD had been her first clean breath of air since the war?

So she hunted him, with Howard's blessing and encouragement, and with the passion of her own convictions driving her onward. With the Hydra cell inside SHIELD in tatters, there were very few places he could go to ground, and she was burning them out one by one. It was tiring, and not without its perils, and she was beginning to feel her age.

Never more so than when she called Howard's office line and Tony answered.

"Howard Stark's office, Tony Stark speaking," the boy chirped, and Peggy felt a headache begin spiking behind her left eye.

"Anthony, are you meant to be answering your father's private line?" she asked.

"Well, I figured it was you or Mom, I mean who else has this line?" Tony asked, and she supposed he had a point. An awful, frightening point, but nonetheless, a point. "You catch der fuhrer mark 2 yet?"

"No, though not for lack of trying," she sighed. "Where's your new best friend?"

"I think you mean my bodyguard," Tony said with exaggerated dignity. "He's on the firing range, terrorizing your remaining loyal subjects."

"And your father?"

"Getting lunch," Tony replied. "He left me in charge. I think. He didn't say I wasn't, anyway, which is nearly the same thing."

"You. In charge."

There was a moment of silence, and then Tony said in a much smaller, younger voice, "He's acting kind of weird, Peggy."

"How so?" she asked, immediately alert.

"He's been...really nice," Tony said. "Agreeable. I don't think he's been drinking at all. And he told me I did a good job. He never does that."

"You very frequently do, though," she said sadly.

"I know that! But we had a system that didn't acknowledge that," Tony said. "It was a functional system and now he's messing it all up, it's weird."

"Anthony, the system you had was not functional," she said. "It was efficient, but it wasn't functional."

"Seemed to work okay on my end. Anyway," he added, as Peggy marshalled her wits to try and address this problem, "you didn't call to hear about how my dad's lost the plot. What do you need?"

"I'm not sure," she sighed. "Every trail's gone cold. He can't have many resources left, but there are a lot of places for a man to hide in Manhattan, let alone the wide world."

"Do you think he'd run far?"

"No. Arnim doesn't like trains. He doesn't like public places at all, really; the longer he spent at SHIELD, the worse he got. Germophobe," she said. "But we've already got eyes on the hospitals and major medical centers. Sterile places with lots of private rooms."

"Whoa. I didn't even think of that."

"That's why I'm SHIELD upper management and you're unemployed," she said.

"I suppose technically that's true," he answered thoughtfully. "What about communications? He must still have a few loyal troops who got away, and if they want to coordinate a break-in to get the rest out, they need some way to talk to each other."

"The FBI is monitoring several SHIELD lines of communication," she said neutrally.

"Hoover must have creamed his pants when you said he could."

"They're outdated, we just gave them to the FBI on the off-chance. I've been trying to get rid of some of them for years. This has been a very brisk and efficient spring cleaning," she sighed.

"Can we look at call volume statistics? See where there's been a spike?"

"You'd need an army of analysts working around the clock for a week."

"Someday, computers will do this all for us," Anthony said confidently.

"Call me when you install your own personal ENIAC," she replied.

"I will, I have big plans," he agreed. "You're watching the power draws on SHIELD boltholes, right?"

"Well, we have eyes on all the boltholes themselves. It's taking a lot of manpower."

"Zola's a scientist. He needs power -- for radios or phones or whatever, but also for lights and lab equipment and he was heavy into computers. He went out to Lawrence Livermore to see the IBM 1360, didn't he?"

He had, Peggy remembered that. Howard had gone with him, bitching about chaperoning the clammy-handed little goblin the whole way.

"He was messing around with semiconductors, but in a...an intentional way," Tony said. "Dad had him to dinner a couple of times. He and I talked about the new PDP-8 he bought. We had one at MIT hooked up to a wireless transmitter for Dummy -- "

"Dummy?" she asked.

"It's what I was calling the, you know, the arm."

"Ah yes, the arm," she said, smiling. The arm was all Tony had talked about for the past year, mostly. The arm and girls.

"Anyway that thing ate power so hard we used to dim the lights at Harvard. I mean, it might not be any better than posting guards, but reading a meter's got to be more efficient."

"And SHIELD's off the main grid," she said, realization dawning. "SHIELD power on this coast is provided exclusively through Stark Industries. Howard has a plant in New Jersey. All the readings are there."

"I'll go -- "

"No, Tony," she said immediately.

"But Peggy -- "

"This is SHIELD business, my business," she said. "I'm closer to the plant and I can get there faster than you. Howard would scream blue murder if I got you anywhere close to this operation."

"But you'll tell him it was my idea, right?"

Peggy rubbed her eyes. "Yes, I will. Look, call ahead to the plant and tell them I'm coming, feed them a line that I'm going to have to restart a couple of grids, so that I've got a cover for checking them all. That'll be a huge help to me."

"Huh, switchboard operator," Tony said sullenly.

"Yes, well, we'll discuss your career options later, Napoleon Solo," she said. "I'm off to New Jersey."

"Aunt Peggy, be careful," he said, and she hesitated before hanging up. "Zola really messed Bucky up."

"I've dealt with Arnim Zola for twenty years," she said. "He's a cunning little creep, but when the lights go out he's a coward, Tony. Remember that."

"I'm not a coward."

"No, darling boy, you're not," she agreed. "Now find your father, tell him what we talked about, and tell him I'll call in with any news."

She was vaguely troubled by the cast of Tony's conversation as they sped past Trenton, heading for the Jersey coast. She knew this area well, though it had changed significantly since the war; little towns popping up all over, fueled by the post-war boom. The Stark plant was on the water, north of Toms River, but for a year she'd lived at Camp Lehigh, not far from Fort Dix. That was where the SSR had trained its supposed army of would-be super-soldiers. After the war -- some time after -- they'd gone back to build SHIELD there. She'd never liked it; the ghosts of Abraham Erskine and Steve Rogers seemed thick and suffocating. Howard hadn't liked it either. They'd moved to HQ after about a year, as soon as Howard could get it built.

The plant manager at Toms River was expecting her, confused but obedient as she asked for readouts from the Stark-supplied SHIELD bases. Storage units and working bases, some safe-houses, relay stations, weather stations up and down the coast. Nothing stood out, not at first, not until she asked for the total output and got a number much larger than she expected.

"What else is Stark supplying from here?" she asked.

"Nothing," the plant manager said, confused. "We're a dedicated plant. We don't even sell the surplus back to the state."

"Not like Howard Stark to pass up the opportunity to make a buck."

"I'm just the manager, ma'am," the man said, shrugging. "Maybe he's expecting higher demand in the future."

"Aren't we all," she murmured, doing some quick sums in her head, looking back and forth between the individual unit readouts and the overall power draw. "You're generating more than you're accounting for, though."

"What?" he asked, taking the papers out of her hands. "Holy Jesus -- uh, sorry, ma'am -- "

"My thoughts exactly," she said. "Is this new?"

"It has to be. We might have a bleed somewhere."

"Or someone's tapping the power," she said, and the manager frowned.

"We're a secure station. Not a lot of people know we're here."

"Could they be tapping from one of the SHIELD bases?"

"No, the draw would show up under the base's power use, if that were the case. They have to be tapping from here, and for this amount, they'd have to be close," he said. "I suppose they could be getting in through the Lehigh pipeline -- "

"Lehigh?" she asked, alarmed.

"Sure, the plant was originally built to supply Camp Lehigh, and Fort Dix through Lehigh. We haven't actually been supplying them for years, not since the new HQ was built, but as far as I know all the hardware's still in place. We still keep an eye on it but we don't actually check the readings -- hey, somebody look at Lehigh, get me a printout," he yelled, and after a few minutes, a sheet was thrust into his hands. "Yeah, there, see?" he said, pointing at a graph at the top of the sheet. There was a flatline and then a spike, dating to two days ago. "Someone turned on the lights at Lehigh. All the lights," he added, with a low whistle. "Mr. Stark didn't approve this."

"Mr. Stark hasn't heard about it yet," she said. "Thank you, you've been very helpful."

"But what do we do about Lehigh?" he called as she left. "Should we shut off the line?"

"Don't do anything! Don't worry, I'm taking care of it!" she called over her shoulder.

***

They found a lot, at Lehigh, but they didn't find Arnim Zola.

Peggy took a squad through the old armory, down into the SHIELD offices. Two traitors were standing guard -- on an empty bookcase, of all things -- and once she'd shot them in the knees and gagged them, she found out why. There was a slight puff of warm air emerging from the cracks around the fake bookcase, and she could feel a hum in the walls when she swung the door behind the bookcase open.

Downstairs, in the dark, the men she'd brought with her, loyal, long-serving SHIELD veterans, began to swear.

"The fuck is all this?" one asked, shining his flashlight down row on row of IBM processors.

"There's some pretty intense HVAC going on up here," another one called from a catwalk.

"Yeah, whatever he was doing, it was gonna put out a lot of heat, all these processors."

"How did he get the money for all of it?"

"Nazi gold."

"That ain't funny."

"Wasn't trying to be. Something like thirty million went missing after the war. Didn't all go home in the pockets of privates working recovery. Hey, Agent Carter, wasn't Zola -- "

"Swiss," she said from the floor, standing in front of a large bank of monitors. Only one was lit. It read TRANSFER PROTOCOL INTERRUPTED and below that, EXECUTE AT 72% - X / RESUME - R. "Yes, he could easily have raided Nazi accounts in Switzerland. Either before we brought him here or after."

"What was he doing down here?"

Peggy hovered her hand over the keyboard, then tapped X. Execute at 72%.

The lights came up and the humming processors began to whirl and clack. There was a moan like Hell itself opening and then a slurred voice.

"Wss nrr mmd?"

"Oh, no," she said.

"The everloving FUCK was that?" one of the men yelled.

"Shut up, Grimm," she ordered.

"Whrr miii?" the horrible voice, Zola's voice, slurred. It was a parody of speech, an awful, brain-damaged cry of confusion.

"Whsss?" it asked.

"Arnim," she said.

"Mmmmmeeeee," the voice managed. Dhe was going to have nightmares about this.

"Arnim, you're in the processors," she said.

"Peeeeeeeeeeeee -- " it seemed to stall out and then fall silent.

"Arnim, I need to know where the other you went," she said. "Can you tell me?"

"Didnnnnnnnn fnnnnnsh," it moaned. However Zola had been uploading himself into this horrifying mechanism, it had stopped at 72%.

He'd been here. They'd tripped some kind of alarm, probably at the bookcase, and he'd fled, leaving this half-coherent child behind.

"Do you know where he went?" she pressed.

"Nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn PRESS AAAAAA," it shrieked.

Peggy looked down. The monitor read FILE CORRUPTED. ABORT = A / RETRY = R ?

She pressed R instead. Arnim screamed, fell silent, screamed again.

"Jesus, Agent Carter, put it out of its misery," Grimm called.

The prompt came up again. FILE CORRUPTED. ABORT = A / RETRY = R ?

She pressed A. The whirring stopped, the humming stopped. The HVAC died. The lights stayed on, thank mercy.

"He was here," she said, as the men began to circle back to the central monitor bank. "He was here and not long ago, either. Get upstairs and search the camp; I'll take perimeter."

***

"Dad?"

Howard had taken Peggy's report that afternoon, helped put out a renewed APB, and arranged for SHIELD's tech division to head out to Lehigh to begin disassembling...the thing. Peggy had sounded shaken, describing it. He'd listened, promising the men would burn the film used in the processors, and then he'd collected Tony and Bucky from the firing range and come home. Kissed his wife, spoke with Jarvis about dinner, and went up to his study, where he was contemplating having a drink.

"Dad?" Tony repeated.

"Come in," he called, and Tony slipped through the door, shutting it behind him. Tony had loved his study when he was a little boy, perhaps for its rarity value. Howard couldn't have toddlers knocking things over in his workplace, so Tony only got in by sneakery or with Maria's help.

"Any news?" Tony asked.

"Not since the last check."

"You gonna tell me what they found?"

"Do you have level eight security clearance?" Howard asked.

"Give me a few days and I'll find a way to get it," Tony pointed out. Howard tried not to visibly grit his teeth. "I can keep a secret, Dad. I kept Bucky a secret, right? If you knew half the things I got up to at MIT, you'd withdraw the endowed chair you "anonymously" sent them when I graduated."

Howard stared at him.

"Yeah, see? I find things out," Tony said. "You might as well tell me."

"Zola has built what is undoubtedly the largest single computing device ever created," Howard said. "Two hundred thousand square feet. The memory on that thing...probably a thousand gigabytes of memory. I can't even calculate the processing power."

"A thousand gigabytes," Tony repeated.

"Yeah. With a G."

"A thousand gigabytes," Tony said, awed. "What was he doing with it?"

"Replicating himself in the machine."

Tony was silent, pale, and thoughtful.

"Can I -- "

"SHIELD techs are on their way to disassemble it. I'll make sure you see a copy of the report."

"They need to track the networking, this could be invaluable for -- "

"I told them, Tony," Howard said wearily, and Tony fell silent.

"Sorry," he murmured.

"No, that was -- I know what this could mean for your work," Howard tried. Tony's eyes lifted a little. "I made sure they knew they had to diagram everything. We can't save the tape, it's too dangerous, but everything else, they'll make full records."

"This is going to be the future, Dad," Tony said. "Computing, robotics..."

"I know that. That's why we have a robotics division in the first place," Howard said. "Just once I'd like our great twentieth-century leaps forward in science not to come from Nazi tinkering, that's all."

"So Zola's still out there."

"Peggy's closing on him." Howard looked down at his laced hands on his desk. "If the intel we get from the Zola machine is useful, you should take it to Stark Robotics."

Tony blinked at him.

"You're right. It's the future. The guns will always be there, and Obie's...he's into mass destruction in a way you never will be."

"Sorry," Tony whispered again.

"Don't be. The guns are funding the robots right now. Ten years down the line, the robots might be funding the guns. And you still won't even be thirty. Still time enough to learn the business end if robotics hits a wall. You could do worse than spend the end of your twenties getting a Harvard MBA."

"So I can go back to Boston," Tony said softly. "And work in Stark Robotics. You'll let me do that and you won't fight me."

"No, Tony, I won't fight you," Howard sighed. "But we have to get this shitshow cleared up first. Zola, Hydra -- "

"And Bucky," Tony said.

"You want to know what we do about him."

"I think given I'm nominally his keeper and he's officially mine, yeah, I should know," Tony replied. "I can take him to Boston with me, if you're worried about Zola."

"Kid, I'm worried about Bucky. He's not stable. After he told me about the chair he came at me through the bars."

"He did that to me too," Tony said.

"What?"

"It's okay, obviously nothing happened."

"He needs professional treatment," Howard said. Tony made a face. "There are men who do this kind of thing for a living. Brainwashing. Conditioning."

"I'm not sure I trust guys who do this on purpose to stop it on purpose," Tony pointed out. "He's coming back, slowly. He speaks more, his speech is better. Why should we tinker if he's fixing himself? I mean, he knows what he needs, he's not stupid."

Howard shifted in his chair, turning it away, towards the window, looking out thoughtfully on the manicured lawn outside.

"Abraham Erskine designed the serum to perform multiple tasks," he said.

"Super-strength, super-healing -- "

"No, not like that. It was designed to enhance the body's natural systems -- that's the strength, the healing, the speed. It was designed to patch genetic flaws, which is why when Steve came through the process, it cured his asthma, the heart murmur, the colorblindness." Howard couldn't fight down a faint smile. "When we finally got to talking about it, he said he just wanted to look at everything all the time, drink in all the color. Imagine your world opening up like that."

"But it did something else, too?" Tony prompted.

"Yeah. It rewrote the brain. Steve was no idiot before the treatment, but after -- with more education, more training, he could have given you and me a run for our money. Photographic memory. A brilliant tactical mind. He learned languages faster than anyone could keep up; he'd go to Italy for a week and come back speaking Italian fluently. And he adapted -- we didn't have a lot of measuring tools back then but I used to keep notes. He shook off trauma like -- like his brain just wrote it into storage and left it there. He still...felt. Deeply, sometimes. But he could put it away in a way other men couldn't. If you'd done to him what was done to Bucky he'd have just rewritten it out of his psyche."

"Is that why they had to keep wiping Bucky?"

"It may have been."

"But that's good, isn't it? If you think Bucky got a sort of serum, then he really is healing himself."

"We don't know what Bucky got. But yes. It's possible." Howard turned back to Tony. "For now, he stays here. I'm going to take him to a neurologist I know -- you remember Dr. Strange?"

"From the medical wing opening, right? He was kind of an asshole."

Howard gave him a look. "Yes, but he also knows more about the human brain than anyone else alive. He might be able to help. And when I am confident that Bucky is safe and we've done all we can, he can go to Boston with you. Until then, or until Zola's caught, neither of you are leaving New York. If I had my way, you wouldn't leave the mansion. Is that clear, Tony?"

Tony nodded, but the ashen look from earlier had left his face, and he was smiling.

"Fine. Run along. Get in touch with Robotics and find yourself somewhere to land."

Tony was half out of his seat when he paused and said, "Dad?"

"What?"

"Did something happen?" Tony's hands flexed. "Are you. Uh. Dying or something?"

Howard regarded him levelly.

"You can't blame me for asking, you're acting really weird."

"Tony, there will be maybe half a dozen moments in your life when everything turns, and your world finds a new axis. If you're lucky you'll recognize them and adapt," Howard said.

"What were they for you?"

"My first patent," Howard said, holding up a finger. "The war," two fingers, "your birth," three, and Tony's eyes widened. "And James Barnes trying to kill me."

"People have tried to kill you before."

"It's not the killing, it's the man who tried to do it. He reminds me of who I was in the war. And of Steve, who I'm beginning to realize would find some of my behavior since his death appalling."

Tony nodded, clearly uncomfortable with the confession. "I'll go, uh, call Robotics."

"You do that," Howard said, relieved that conversation was over. "Collect Bucky for dinner, I think he was helping Jarvis polish the cars."

Howard lingered in his study long enough to put away the scotch in a cupboard and check in with SHIELD; he considered putting in a covert call to Robotics to warn them that Hurricane Stark was impending, but decided to let them learn about his son the hard way.

Maria was dressing for dinner when he walked into the bedroom to change his shirt, sitting in front of her vanity with a hairbrush in one hand, and he stopped to drop a kiss into her hair. She'd pulled up the salt-and-pepper curls he loved, styling them to one side to cleverly conceal the bandage where her wound was still healing.

"I'm sending Tony to Robotics," he said. "You're in charge of finding him somewhere nice to live in Boston."

"Do they have those in Boston?" she asked, grinning at him in the mirror and, with her usual deft touch, not making a bother when he did something that pleased her.

"There must be something nicer than the rat hole in Cambridge he lives in now," Howard said, shedding his shirt and undershirt, pulling a fresh one on. "You know. Somewhere with a doorman. Buy him some nice furniture, things in matching colors. Curtains. Lamps with shades on them."

"Our standards for Tony feel low," she said with a smile.

"They can't be lower than Tony's standards for Tony," Howard sighed. "Better make it a three-bed, he'll need a study and Barnes is probably going with him."

"Have either of you consulted Barnes about this?"

"No, but you've seen him, he follows Tony around like a puppy. Even if Barnes doesn't go, a guestroom is always useful. Maybe a four-bed, what do you think?"

"I think that if you try to stuff Tony into a four-bedroom penthouse he'll blow it up inside of a week, just to spite you," she said.

"Well, maybe. You can trick him into something nice, though. You coming down? Want some help on the stairs?"

"No, go ahead; I'll make my grand entrance in a little while."

"Make sure the apartment has a dining room, he'll need to entertain people," Howard called up the stairs as he descended.

He expected Jarvis to be in the dining room as usual, waiting for the family to arrive before summoning the food, but it was empty. No Tony, no Bucky, no Jarvis...

"Anna, where is everyone?" he asked, ducking into the kitchen.

"Edwin was working on the cars, has he not come in?" she asked.

"Not that I can see. You think he's out there with Tony still?"

"It's not like him to lose track of time," she said. "Should I go and fetch them? Only the roast needs carving -- "

"No, take care of the food, I'll go," he said, and hurried through the dining room, down the hall and through the foyer, into the garage.

He was about to call out for Tony and Jarvis when he saw Jarvis lying on the ground, a little shimmering pool of blood under his head, clothes rumpled. He bent to check his pulse, feeling for the wound (shallow but broad -- scalp wounds always bled a lot regardless) before starting to rise.

"Not quite so fast, if you please," Arnim Zola said. Howard halted mid-crouch, then raised his arms and very slowly straightened. "Howard."

"Arnim," Howard said, carefully and slowly, because Arnim was standing about ten feet away, with one hand on the back of Tony's neck. His other hand held a gun pressed to Tony's temple. Tony's eyes were wide and deep, but his jaw was set, and he seemed calm. "If I'd known you were coming I'd have had Jarvis lay an extra plate for dinner."

He couldn't see Bucky anywhere. He tried to ask Tony without speaking, but Tony blinked, uncertain what his gaze meant.

"That won't be necessary; I wouldn't abuse your hospitality," Zola said. "Even though you have so terribly abused mine."

"Pretty sure we paid you for the work you did, which is more than most war criminals got," Howard said. If he could get the gun pointed at him instead of Tony, at least Tony would have a chance to run.

"The only difference between a scientist and a war criminal these days is that the winners get to call themselves scientists," Zola replied. "You think the atomic bomb was not a war crime?"

"Are we really going to argue about who's the biggest mass murderer?" Howard asked.

"No. You're right, that would be fruitless."

"Then let's hear what you want," Howard said. "You must have demands. Money? A getaway car? Ticket to Switzerland?"

"I have bigger plans than flight," Zola said. "Money, yes. Food also, and a car. Indeed. But what I want is the asset."

Howard frowned.

"The Winter Soldier," Zola said.

Well, one question answered; Zola didn't have him, and didn't know where he was. Howard lowered his head as if in thought, sweeping the darkened garage as he did so. There, in the corner, behind a car. Bucky was crouched, trembling, his whole body strung out with blind terror.

He couldn't blame him. He couldn't. A man with all his faculties, a man who hadn't been tortured and tormented by Zola, could have attacked. But Barnes was terrified of this man and with good reason.

Howard still didn't know where that chair was. Zola did.

"I know you have him," Zola said. "I know that both of you, and your lovely wife, know where he is. I want him. The Soldier, your money, a car, and I'll be on my way."

Howard cocked his head, which he knew was a warning to Tony, who at least knew his father's mannerisms if not his thoughts, and said, in his broadest New York accent, "Waddaya give me for him?"

Arnim had always hated that accent. It smacked of everything he despised: uncultured swine like Howard Stark, the ultimate noveau-riche bastard, who'd somehow managed to win the war against centuries of breeding and nobility on Zola's side. Arnim was a classist bastard; he didn't really care about race but he thought Americans were beneath him, and to have been a prisoner of them and then to have to take orders from them in their terrible accents had incensed him. And the naked capitalism of Stark Industries had always turned Zola snide and envious.

"Give you?" Zola roared, turning the gun on Howard. "I only need one of you alive, I'll give you -- "

He broke off with a huff when Tony brought his elbow down right between Zola's ribs, the way Peggy had taught him, and then thrust up, catching Arnim under the jaw. Howard dove to one side as the gun went off, hoping Anna would think it was the boys backfiring the car, hoping Maria wouldn't come to investigate.

Tony took off in the other direction, heading for the doorway, but instead of going through it he pulled the emergency power-cut lever next to it, the one intended to pull all power to the building -- they sometimes used the garage for welding or grinding or other messy pastimes, and having an all-power cut was just good safety precautions.

The garage was plunged into blackness. Howard crawled silently towards the bumper of the Bentley, or at least where he thought it had been.

"You know what Aunt Peggy told me, Zola?" Tony yelled, and Howard could have strangled the kid. There was a muzzle-flare in the darkness as Arnim shot wildly towards his son. "She said at the end of the day -- " another flare, the shots echoing deafeningly against the high ceiling.

"When the lights go out, you're just a coward," Tony finished.

Zola fired a third time, but then there was a soft noise, a metallic but oddly organic noise, like a knife slicing silk. It was followed by a whirr, and then a thud and a scream.

"Tony!" Howard yelled.

"Wasn't me, Dad!" Tony called back. A second scream; Zola's voice, muffled sharply, and a gurgle.

"Turn the lights on," Bucky said. With a click, Tony flipped the kill switch back, and the lights came up in the garage.

Zola was pressed to the floor, chest-down, head turned to one side. Bucky was kneeling on top of him, flesh hand pinning his right arm to the ground, one knee cocked back to pin his left arm, the other knee resting on his temple. His metal hand held a knife to Zola's throat.

"Can't grip great," he said, "but I got enough hold on it to gut you."

Howard heard Tony swear under his breath. Tony looked at Howard. So did Bucky.

Howard considered this carefully. On the one hand, Steve would never allow it, and in times of crisis Howard tried to at least live in the spirit of what Steve would have done, if not the letter. But he wasn't Steve Rogers, and neither was Bucky.

He should set a good example for his son, but it was a little late for that now. Tony was a man, and he had to learn that good examples were only as effective as the people who made them.

Bucky had taken a lot of orders to kill. He didn't need one more.

"I think this one's your call, James," he said. Bucky frowned. "After what he did to you, I wouldn't blame you for slitting his throat, and if you do we'll make sure it never sees the light of day. But if you think you've done enough killing, you don't have to. This one's your decision."

Bucky looked down at Zola. Both of them were breathing heavy, Bucky's face dripping with sweat and tears.

"I guess I ain't a killer by nature," he said, easing the knife off Zola's throat. He held it out to Tony, who came forward and took it gingerly.

Howard went to the tool rack and took down the coil of rope that always hung there, feeding it through a tackle usually meant for hoisting engines. He knotted the rope around Zola's wrists, moving in whenever Bucky shifted to free one of his limbs, and then looped it around his chest, then his ankles. When he was satisfied that Zola was trussed, he hooked the rope back through the chest loop and fed it back into the tackle. Tony, catching on, went to the winch on the wall and began raising the tackle, until Zola dangled neatly in the middle of the garage, fifteen feet off the ground.

"Now, you can probably grease your way out of those ropes eventually, you're good at that," Howard said. "But the fall'll break at least one of your legs. Your hip, if we're lucky. You won't suffocate or lose a limb, tied up like that, so I'd dangle for a while until Peggy shows up. She's gonna have some words for you," he added.

Zola spat at him.

"They're gonna put you in a deep, dark hole, Arnim, but not forever," Howard continued. "If you're lucky you'll get the electric chair. Course if you're unlucky, well, I hear Bucky knows of another kind of chair we could put you in."

Zola stopped struggling. He stopped moving, and his whole face drained of color.

"Nobody knows where it is now," Bucky said serenely, looking up at him. "Nobody 'cept you and me."

"Tony, Bucky, help with Jarvis," Howard said, turning away from the eerily silent Zola. With the boys on the arms and Howard struggling along with the legs, they carried him inside; Anna had heard the shots and like a wise woman had called SHIELD. Maria, coming down the stairs to find out what the power cut had been about, stopped briefly and then hurried down the rest as fast as her ribs would allow.

They got Jarvis laid out on the chaise in the foyer, the one usually reserved for lounging on gracefully at parties, and by the time Peggy arrived, he was sitting up, holding a wet cloth to the back of his head.

Peggy took in the scene -- Howard in his oil-stained white shirt, Tony scraped up and shaking, Bucky looming, Jarvis with a head wound -- and said, "Where is he?"

"Hanging out," Tony blurted, and then looked horrified at himself.

"He's in the garage," Howard said, giving Tony a stern look. "I'll go help you get him down."

Peggy and her team took Arnim out through the garage, and Howard made sure he was securely handcuffed and loaded into the back of a SHIELD armored prisoner transport before he returned inside. In the interim, apparently they'd discovered that one of the bullets had ricocheted off a car or possibly one of the garage's support struts and grazed Bucky's side; he was sitting in the kitchen with his shirt off, being cleaned with another wet towel by Tony.

"...know Zola's a monster, but even monsters have their uses," Tony was saying, carefully daubing disinfectant onto the wound. Bucky didn't flinch, but he did notice Howard standing there. "What he did with the computers could be useful. I don't think they should ever let him see daylight again, but the work he's already done, well, I'll use that." He sat up and smiled at Bucky, who smiled back. "I'm gonna make Stark Robotics the number one branch of SI. You can be my personal secretary."

"Can't type," Bucky said.

"Like anyone keeps a secretary for typing," Tony said, waving that objection away. "That's just so you can go everywhere I go. Or, maybe that'd be boring, I don't know."

"Sounds okay," Bucky informed him.

"Boston's fun, you'll like it. I mean, the trains stop running super early and the whole city's laid out by cowpath, but if you know how you can have a really good time there. And it's not that far from New York so we could come down on weekends. And I've got a really cool robot. There," he added, pressing a gauze pad over the wound. "Hold that while I tape it."

Bucky obediently pressed the pad down, and Tony began snipping lengths of --

"Anthony Stark," Howard said, and Tony's head shot up guiltily. "Is that duct tape?"

"Anna has the medical tape!" Tony protested. "This works fine! Better even."

"And how do you know that?"

"Come on, Dad, I use it all the time."

"Plumber's tape! Put that down," Howard ordered, and Tony set his jaw. "You can't duct-tape the poor man shut, Tony. Go get the medical tape from Anna."

Tony sulked, but he got up and went out to find Anna. Howard came forward, and Bucky eased the gauze off briefly so he could inspect it.

"He did okay," Bucky said.

"Tony's scrupulous when he wants to be," Howard agreed, moving Bucky's hand to cover the wound again. "Thank you for saving my son."

"Saved himself. I...couldn't," Bucky said. "Not until the darkness."

"I know," Howard agreed. "But you did it."

"But I -- "

"You saved my son," Howard repeated. "You saved a life instead of taking a life."

Bucky nodded.

"Good work," Howard said, and Bucky's lips curved briefly. Tony returned with the medical tape then, and Howard backed away so that Tony could passive-aggressively use the right tape to pin down the bandage.

***

That night, Howard was the last one to bed; he gave Jarvis the rest of the week off (he'd give him the month but he'd never take it) and Anna by extension, to look after him. After serving themselves dinner in the kitchen, Tony hustled Bucky up to the third floor to rest, and when Howard looked in on them an hour later he found Bucky asleep, Tony asleep on the chair next to him. Maria was still recovering and generally faded early, and the rest of the staff had already gone home before the shooting started. That left Howard to check the locks and close down for the night.

After he looked in on Tony and Bucky, he went back out into the corridor and pulled down the rickety stair-ladder, usually recessed into the ceiling, that led to the roof. There was a little patio atop the highest point of the mansion, with a pair of chairs and a small table -- he and Maria used to come up here before Tony was born, have some wine under the stars and bask in being, well, wealthy and powerful and beautiful, honestly. What ego, he thought with a smile, though not all of that ego was misplaced.

He'd spent years combing the arctic for Steve. He'd wanted to bring the body home, to do his fallen friend honor. They'd found the Tesseract, and once they'd found a debris field that they thought might lead to Steve's downed plane (it was a crashed German bomber all right, but not Steve's). They'd never found sign of Steve, and after Tony was born, Howard stopped going personally. After another ten years, he stopped funding searches. It was just a body. Let Steve have his peace.

Now, though...if Bucky could survive cryogenic freezing, just pop in and out of it at a whim of Arnim Zola's...

Steve might be alive. Or semi-alive, anyway. Suspended in ice, waiting to be found. Waiting to rise again.

Howard found that he almost didn't want it to be true. He didn't want to get his hopes up. And he couldn't go looking himself, not anymore. He was too old for that kind of cold-weather work, and if they found another debris field that turned out to be a false alarm -- or worse, if they did find just a body --

Bucky would want to look, though. And Tony would think it was a great adventure. Tony could use the experience too, of leading a team when your decisions might cost lives, not just dollars.

Next year. When Tony was eighteen. Howard would let a few comments slip, or he'd let Bucky come up with the idea -- better still, he'd have a quiet word with Rhodes, and have him pitch it to Tony. He'd put the boys on an icebreaker with the latest sonar mapping equipment and his old search logs.

He'd send Tony and Rhodey and Bucky off to Greenland for the summer, and while Tony was gone he'd see what the boy was up to at Robotics. If it was anything productive, he'd be sure -- well, he'd be sure it got the funding it needed, and maybe he'd make sure Obadiah didn't bother the boy too much. Tony perhaps needed a little more space to spread his wings than Howard had.

There were a lot of things Howard wasn't especially proud of, in his life, but Tony wasn't shaping up to be one of them.

"Don't fuck it up, Stark," he muttered to himself, and climbed back down to find his own bed, reminding himself he'd have to get up in the morning and cook breakfast. If he didn't, Tony would try, and Howard preferred his food edible.

"Chef," he muttered to Maria as he climbed into bed.

"Hmm?" she asked.

"In Boston. Get him a place with a private chef," he said, and she hit him with a pillow.
cephy: (Default)

[personal profile] cephy 2015-08-06 08:40 pm (UTC)(link)
OMG, this is fantastic. :D