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The Corrupt and the Pure • Chapters 23-30

Chapter 23: The Rescue

The trek out of the tunnel seemed to take forever. Dust burned in his lungs and the darkness beyond the flicker of the flare seemed deeper than ever.

They had finally rescued Tony, however, and that was worth every ache in his body, Steve decided.

Yes, he wished the battle between him and the Commander could have come to a different ending, but he realized he hadn’t been focused enough and that had left him at a disadvantage.

He needed to fix that before the next time the two of them clashed – if the Commander managed to escape the collapsing tunnel. Knowing himself and his tendency to make his way out of every tight spot, Steve didn’t bother to entertain the hope of the Commander’s demise as any kind of real likelihood.

They managed to find the mouth of the tunnel before one of them collapsed from lack of clean air. No sooner had they stepped outside, still surrounded by a cloud of dust, that their teammates surrounded them – including Tony’s armor controlled by his AI.

“What happened?” Bruce asked, alarm in his voice. “Where’s the Commander?”

“Dead, we hope,” Clint grunted. “However unlikely that is.”

“What happened?” Rhodes asked then, snapping open the faceplate – only to cough at the dust. “The whole tunnel is unstable for miles.”

Steve winced. He hadn’t really thought of the destruction while they tried to escape it.

“Thor banged his magical hammer against Cap’s mighty shield,” Tony supplied. “Last time they leveled a forest. For some reason, they seemed to expect a different result this time.”

“You really need to work on that,” Natasha agreed.

Thor looked contrite and just a bit angry. “It was not on purpose.”

“On purpose or not, we got him back,” Clint pointed a thumb at Tony – who was already proceeding towards his armor. His gait was just a smidge unsteady, but Steve supposed that was understandable, plus it was possible he was injured.

“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. greeted. “I am relieved to find you in one piece.”

“Me, too,” Tony agreed. “There’s a chip in the back of my neck. It needs to come out right now.”

The armor cocked its head slightly. “I can see it,” the AI responded. “It seems to be some kind of disruptor.”

“I know,” Tony said impatiently. “Apply local anesthetic and cut it out,” he said, turning his back to the armor without wasting any time.

“Woah, Tony,” Bruce hurried over. “Can’t it wait?”

“I want it gone,” Tony replied, voice sharp. “Just in case he shows up again…”

“We can do it back at the Tower,” Bruce tried to insist.

“It is not a bad idea,” J.A.R.V.I.S. agreed. “I do not want to cause undue damage.”

“I dug it out once,” Tony snapped over his shoulder. “Get rid of it, J.”

“I get it that you want it gone, but the wound will get infected,” Bruce attempted to reason with him.

“We won’t let him take you again,” Thor added. “You are safe.”

Tony stilled, something passing across his features. Perhaps it was wounded pride that he needed to be protected. Maybe it was something else entirely.

“Did he hurt you?” Bruce asked. “Are you injured?”

“I’m fine,” Tony murmured, eyes not meeting anyone else’s even though he didn’t seem to be avoiding it; he just found something else to look at, mainly the entrance of the tunnel. “Did you find the guard?” he asked suddenly.

“Yes,” Bruce answered. “It’s being taken care of.”

“Okay,” Tony gave a small nod, face troubled. “He tried to help me.”

No one said anything for a minute.

“Are you sure you’re not hurt?” Bruce asked again.

Tony’s expression switched over to irritation. “I’ll manage until we get to the Tower.” Whether he meant some hidden injuries or the chip, it was unclear.

“Did he hurt you?” Rhodes asked, giving Tony another once-over. His faceplate was still up so he couldn’t be seeing something the rest of them weren’t.

Tony let out a mirthless chuckle. “Not more than I made him, apparently.”

It was vague to say the least, and it made Steve uneasy.

“We’ll get him,” Rhodes promised and glanced at the others. “I’ll continue aerial surveillance and see if he pops up somewhere.” He sounded determined, but that alone wouldn’t be enough.

“Let us know if you find something,” Natasha replied, and Rhodes nodded, then gave Tony one more look and snapped shut the faceplate and took off, lifting another cloud of dust in his wake.

Tony cringed at that and wiped his face with a slightly trembling hand.

“Are you –” Bruce started asking.

“I’m fine!” Tony snapped loudly, making Bruce take a small step back. “Stop fucking pestering me.”

Everyone held their breaths until Bruce nodded and physically moved away from Tony, still looking like he doubted Tony was as fine as he claimed.

Steve was kind of curious about that, too – although perhaps not exactly in the same way as Bruce. He and Tony hadn’t had time to talk to each other yet, and it was hard to tell whether Tony was avoiding him, but the sooner Steve learned the truth, the faster he could react to it.

Just because he didn’t want to ask the question and was even less thrilled at hearing the answer didn’t mean he had the right to remain silent.

“Did he touch you?” he asked Tony.

The man’s head jerked up from where he had been studying the ground. “What?” he blurted out, looking like he had been caught unawares.

“Did he touch you?” Steve repeated.

“I think ‘hurting’ kind of covers that, Cap,” Clint mused. “Knowing Stark, he gave the Commander such a hard time they had to be butting heads – even though he looks remarkably good with that in mind,” he added, looking at Tony, searching for the same injuries everyone else kept expecting.

Well, everyone except for Steve, because he wasn’t worried about the usual violence that often resulted from being a captive. That stuff was bad, but he trusted Tony to know his way around it. What he was aiming for was different, and Tony seemed to know it – as well as Bruce, if the expectant yet cautious look on his face was anything to go by.

Tony visibly hesitated, then shrugged as if it were no big deal. “Yeah,” he said, still going on with the charade, but when his eyes glided over Steve’s figure, ever so fast, something was already changing in his demeanor.

Steve felt an unpleasant weight settle on his chest.

“Cap?” Sam called out, clearly seeing something was happening.

“I think I’m missing something,” Clint admitted.

Natasha gave a slight shake of her head, keeping the archer from asking more questions. Either she knew what they were referring to, or she knew well enough to leave it alone for now.

Bruce looked tempted to repeat his question from before, but he bit his tongue against it.

Tony had gone back to looking at the ground, eyes tracing the marks War Machine’s takeoff had left.

The longer Steve’s brain mulled over the fact that the Commander had sexually assaulted his teammate, the worse he felt. Not just the knowledge and the effort it took not to picture it in his mind, but also the fact that every time Tony looked at him from now on, he would be reminded of it. No matter how casual he tried to play it off, Tony’s body language was getting more obvious by the second, and things like these…

He had to get away from Tony before he made it worse, Steve decided.

to be continued…

Chapter 24: The Guilt

When Cap set off like he had suddenly found himself standing on fire-hot embers, it startled Tony. He had expected a stoic nod and a tension in the jaw area, but storming off?

It made Tony feel filthy, not to mention angry, and his hand shot out before he could think it through, grabbing onto Steve’s arm to stop his escape. The muscles tightened beneath his grip and the blue eyes flashed to check his face.

“What’s the rush, Cap?” he asked, voice tight – fingers tighter. He knew he couldn’t hurt the man, but oh, how he wanted to. “Can’t stand to be in my presence, knowing what happened? Grow up,” he snapped, anger pushing to the surface. “I don’t care how it makes you feel – how spectacularly it fails to reach the standards of your approval – but you don’t get to just walk away like my presence if going to taint you somehow.”

Something flickered over Steve’s expression. “I don’t think that,” he snapped back. “I just thought it best to remove myself from your presence because every second you spend looking at me, you’ll be reminded of him – and what he did.”

Tony blinked. “You’re not him.”

“Do you know the difference?” Steve challenged.

“I do,” Tony informed him, voice sharp with tension. He noticed he was still holding onto Steve, and forced his fingers to uncurl from around his arm. “You’re not him,” he repeated, lowering his gaze – not because Steve reminded him of the Commander, but because he had severely miscalculated the reason behind Steve’s escape from the scene. He refused to be embarrassed, though, because eventually Captain Righteous would come around and find some way to blame Tony for what had happened, or at least find him repulsive for allowing himself to be held captive and then sexually assaulted.

He would look at Tony and wonder why he hadn’t put up more of a fight, and the natural logical jump would be that perhaps he had wanted it, on some level.

The silence from around them was getting suspicious, and Tony snapped out of it, looking around at the rest of their team. They wore several different shades of confusion on their faces, and Tony was in no mood to explain – nor would he want to, even when the mood passed.

Steve seemed to be thinking along the same lines and started walking towards the Quinjet parked a short distance away. He was still stiff with tension, but at least he moved like the man Tony remembered fighting alongside. The Commander didn’t have a limp, exactly – he was too much of a supersoldier for that – but there was a definite difference between how they moved around.

Fewer threats of violence, too.

“Tony,” Bruce started.

“If you ask me again whether I’m fine, I’m going to punch you in the face,” Tony threatened, not even looking at the other man.

“We should get going,” Natasha said, a bit louder than necessary, to get them moving.

“Aye,” Thor nodded. “I shall join War Machine in the sky, to see whether we can locate our villain.”

“Don’t hold your breath,” Tony muttered, not being too optimistic. Captain America wasn’t so easily caught, and that was something the Commander shared with him. If he was still alive, he would find his way around unseen. The chances of him having died in the collapsing tunnel were small at best, but one could hope…

Thor took off, his magical hammer leading his ascent into the sky. Tony watched him go, then turned his gaze towards the waiting Quinjet.

“Let’s get going,” he decided. “I need to get the chip out of my head, and if that’s not happening here…”

“I would much prefer sanitized equipment, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. agreed through the armor’s speakers.

Tony cast Bruce a quick look, knowing the other was itching to add that he needed to be checked for injuries. That wasn’t the first thing on Tony’s list, although he would appreciate a shower and clean clothes.

He debated sending J.A.R.V.I.S. to join Rhodey and Thor on their patrol, but decided against it: the AI didn’t seem anxious to assist in the search for the Commander, and Tony would rather keep an armor handy, just in case…

They set out towards the aircraft as a unit, the armor’s motions loud enough to discourage any random conversation. Tony made sure to make himself as inaccessible as possible; he was less and less in a mood to talk, despite being safe.

He needed to get this experience out of his system. Nothing like a good reboot…

Steve was already sitting inside the Quinjet, staring at the opposite wall. His expression was hard to read, and he seemed startled when Tony walked up the ramp, the others following him. He must have known they would join him sooner rather than later, so maybe he had just been deep in thought.

Tony was glad he couldn’t read his mind, just in case.

Clint moved to the front of the aircraft, clearly to pilot them back to the Tower, and Tony quickly selected one of the seats away from the others, wanting to be left alone. The armor followed him, and Tony welcomed the clunky suit as a makeshift barrier.

Bruce didn’t seem to get the hint: he dodged past the armor and selected a seat opposite from Tony, strapping himself in.

Tony sighed and followed his lead, taking a page from Cap’s book and staring at a wall for the entire duration of the flight. Soon he could surround himself with familiarity and an environment that was purely under his control. He would feel a lot better once that was the case, and he couldn’t wait to get there.

to be continued…

Chapter 25: The Homecoming

Avengers Tower,
Manhattan, New York City, NY

As soon as the Quinjet had landed and docked, Tony was on his feet and moving, leaving everyone else in the dust. He entered the workshop on the hangar level and swept his fingers over the control panel at the door, locking himself inside. J.A.R.V.I.S. could let Mark 45 in later, but for now Tony needed some privacy.

“Dr. Banner is requesting access,” J.A.R.V.I.S. notified him less than a minute later.

“Tell him I’m busy,” Tony said. “Think you can remove the chip for me?”

“I think Dr. Banner has more dexterity than I do,” the AI retorted.

“Well, I could use a mirror,” Tony mused.

“Please, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. pleaded.

Tony stopped and sighed. “Fine.”

He heard the door unlock long enough to let Bruce inside.

“You’re here only to help me get the chip out,” Tony informed him.

Bruce froze mid-step, looking uncertain. Tony stared him down, body half turned away from him. He wasn’t being defensive, exactly – no reason for that – but it seemed to be unnerving the other man.

“You should be checked out, just in case,” Bruce started.

“I’m fine,” Tony told him. “Granted, I’ll be better after a shower –”

“Tony,” Bruce cut him off. “Someone needs to take a look at you.”

“No,” Tony refused sharply. “Are you helping me with the chip or are you getting out?” He stood his ground, unrelenting, and eventually Bruce sighed and nodded, looking around.

J.A.R.V.I.S. lit up one corner of the workshop, suggesting it as a good place for the procedure. Tony headed over there, pulling off his shirt to get it out of the way. He tossed the garment in the nearest garbage bin, knowing he would never wear it again.

Bruce followed him, a bit skittish but nonetheless picking up necessary equipment as J.A.R.V.I.S. verbally guided him: antiseptic wipes, gauze, dressings, a scalpel, and tweezers.

Tony sat backwards in a chair and leaned over the back of it, rolling himself to the left until he was under a bright light. “Scan it,” he ordered, certain that J.A.R.V.I.S. knew what to do.

A holographic screen appeared beside him, slowly forming a picture of his head and neck, the highlighted shape of the chip showing up clearly in the image. Bruce dug out his glasses and put them on, then got some disposable gloves and pulled them on his hands before stepping over and pressing his fingers against the back of Tony’s neck, feeling around.

“It wasn’t too deep the first time,” Tony said. “Dug it out once…”

“I can’t see any sign of that,” Bruce noted, puzzled.

Tony grit his teeth. “Extremis. I’m amazed the chip survived that…”

Bruce looked like he was going to ask, but Tony reached out and plucked the scalpel from the table suggestively.

The other man dismissed it with a purse of his lips and went for the antiseptic wipes instead, cleaning the area before accepting the blade, then with a steady breath he cut into Tony’s skin, not even asking whether he wanted a local anesthetic.

Tony curled his fingers around the back of the chair and forced himself to breathe in, trying to minimize the pain. It flared when the scalpel made the cut, but it was such a fine blade that it merely stung afterwards.

Bruce reached for some gauze to stop the blood from sliding down Tony’s back, then carefully dug into the wound with the fine tweezers. That part hurt, and no amount of inhaling was going to make it vanish, but Bruce had clearly found his target on the first try: Tony felt him pulling something out, the object dragging against the sides of the wound, and then he heard it being lowered onto the table with the tweezers. His eyes checked for it, locating the chip, bloody and intact.

“Analyze it,” Tony murmured to J.A.R.V.I.S. “Make sure it won’t work as a tracking device.”

“Yes, sir,” the AI responded instantly.

“Do you want me to stitch this up?” Bruce asked, pressing a fresh layer of gauze against the wound to stop the bleeding.

“Sure,” Tony shrugged. The motion made the wound sting, and he tried to be still while Bruce went to retrieve the items he needed to patch him up.

Five stitches later, Bruce cleaned the area and dressed the wound.

“I need to shower,” Tony announced.

“Try not to get the wound wet,” Bruce warned him.

“I’ll re-dress it after,” Tony promised.

Bruce didn’t say anything, but he was giving him a long, imploring look.

“I’m fine,” Tony said again. He was bruised – Bruce could see as much – but that was all. Well, that was all anybody was going to see, the rest of it was something Tony needed no one else’s help with. Extremis had fixed up the real injuries the Commander’s anger had caused, and the ones he had sustained afterwards weren’t life-threatening.

Before Bruce could mount an actual argument, Tony stood up and walked out the workshop door, taking the back stairs to his room to avoid the rest of the team. Within his own quarters, he felt like letting out a sigh of relief, and for a few minutes he just wandered around, touching his stuff and moving things around – then moving them back to their original spots.

This was his space and he was in control of it. A home… or, as close to home as any place was at the moment. The Commander had got in there once – by appearing out of thin air – but he wasn’t going to be so lucky again. So, it was reasonable to feel safe for the time being.

Once he had established that in his mind, Tony moved to the bathroom, stripping as he went and discarding the rest of his clothes in the trash. Before stepping into the shower, he covered the bandage at his neck to protect it while he showered.

The warm water felt heavenly on his skin. Everything around him was familiar, and when the silence started to get to him, he turned on the sound system and ordered J.A.R.V.I.S. to play the last couple days’ worth of business news to distract himself while he washed his lower body.

It seemed the world hadn’t even realized he had been missing, and that was how he preferred it. One question would lead to another, and in case they managed to somehow get rid of the Commander, there was no reason to tell the world they currently had two Steve Rogers’ walking around – especially when one of them happened to be a little insane.

“Mark 43 is awaiting repairs,” J.A.R.V.I.S. informed him when he was done toweling off.

“How bad is it?” Tony asked.

“The damage is extensive, but nothing you won’t be able to fix.”

Tony nodded. He would look into it once he’d had a chance to unwind and maybe catch up on sleep.

“Sir?” J.A.R.V.I.S. enquired softly a moment later.

“Yes, J?”

“I am sorry I wasn’t able to prevent you from being taken.”

Tony halted, then began folding the damp towel in his hands. “That’s alright,” he said and unfolded the towel to hang it to dry.

“It is not alright,” J.A.R.V.I.S. insisted. “I failed. I should have done more.”

“Live and learn,” Tony replied. “I think we all underestimated him a bit.”

“That is a human flaw. I should be above it.”

“Give yourself a break,” Tony ordered.

The AI made an unhappy sound, clearly not agreeing, and Tony knew he would do more the next time they crossed paths with the Commander. “Are you alright, sir?” he asked at length. “I have noticed some… signs, as well as understood from your exchange with Captain Rogers that the Commander may have –”

“Stop,” Tony ordered before the AI would say it. He knew J.A.R.V.I.S. didn’t understand the stigma that was associated with the word, nor would he readily grasp the sometimes-complicated matter of victim blaming and the shame that was related to being said victim.

“If you are injured,” J.A.R.V.I.S. pressed.

“I am not injured – not the way one would think, anyway,” Tony told his AI. “I am not broken. There’s nothing to put a Band-Aid on, save for the little operation Bruce performed on me.”

“What about another kind of injury?”

Tony thought about that for a second, then dismissed it. “I don’t want to talk about it – and I refuse to deal with it before I’ve had a good night’s sleep.” He needed to have a level head, clear his thoughts. Everything felt strangely out of place, still, even in the familiar space, but he knew that would pass. It had to. He wasn’t going to start freaking out over this when he had barely batted an eye at three months of captivity in Afghanistan.

Well, okay, he may have batted an eye – and then some – but he could always go and fix up Mark 43 if things started to get overwhelming. Tinkering helped, even when it wasn’t a cure-all.

Besides, he wanted a working armor between himself and the Commander the next time they crossed paths.

to be continued…

Chapter 26: The Clarification

The gym was silent when Steve entered. He could hear the soft hum of the air conditioning, and as the door snapped shut behind him, he felt isolated in the large area. ‘Confined’ wasn’t the word he might have used, yet bit by bit he began to feel the suffocating tension taking over him, as if the air were being sucked out and his body was starting to feel the effects.

He dropped his shield to the floor with a loud clatter, then strode towards the other end of the room, eyes nailed to one of the punching bags innocently hanging from the ceiling. He approached the unwary target, fists poised to strike long before he was within touching distance, and the first impact of his knuckles against the bag seemed to rattle up his tense arm.

Steve took a breath, trying to force the tension out of his body, but when it wouldn’t budge he simply opted to punch it out of his system.

He was still wearing his uniform when he started, which made him unnecessarily hot underneath it. Piece by piece he stripped sections of it, never stopping for too long, the swinging punching bag taunting him to hit again, harder – like he meant it.

After the serum, Steve had gotten used to punching the living daylights out of any target, but this one held together amazingly well. Tony must have designed it just for this purpose, even though Steve knew he was far from the mindset he usually achieved while training.

Right now, he was just angry and frustrated about how things had turned out with the Commander. So far there had been no report that he had been found – dead or alive – and Steve sensed this was far from over.

He would need a clear head the next time they came face to face.

His attention shifted back to the bag in an attempt to channel his energy. Bottling it up wasn’t going to be helpful and would do him a disservice –

“Did the bag make a ‘yo mama’ joke?”

Steve froze mid-punch and looked to his right. Over his own breaths, which were coming sharp and loud, and the punching sounds, he hadn’t heard Tony come in. There he was, though, wearing worn, baggy clothes that screamed comfort, watching Steve almost warily.

“Just working out some tension,” Steve replied, taking a decisive step back from the swinging bag.

Tony raised an eyebrow. It was obvious he had showered recently, and Steve wondered why he wasn’t in bed; he couldn’t have found much rest during his recent ordeal. “You’re bleeding all over the place,” Tony finally commented, and Steve instinctively looked down at his hands.

His knuckles had torn in several places, blood smearing his hands. He didn’t feel more than a slight sting of pain as he looked at the damage his body hadn’t gotten a chance to heal while he kept pounding at the bag.

“Are you okay?” Tony asked, voice softer than Steve was used to.

“Shouldn’t I be the one asking that?” Steve countered, stepping further away from the punching bag to find something to clean up his hands before Tony could complain about bloodstains on the floor.

“Maybe,” Tony admitted. “You’re the one who’s letting his angst get the best of him, though.”

Steve gave him a look from the corner of his eye. He was feeling cautious, although he wasn’t sure why – well, other than the obvious reasons. “Why are you here?” he asked, finding a towel inside a supply closet. His blood left dark marks on the gunmetal gray fabric and Steve wondered if it would ever come off in a wash. He noticed an embroidered ‘A’ in one corner of the towel – an insignia clearly representing the Avengers.

Tony took his time answering the question: “I didn’t feel like crashing, oddly enough,” he said. “J.A.R.V.I.S. said you were here, feeling agitated.”

Steve huffed at the choice of word. It wasn’t how he would have described his current mood. “I would have expected you to go in the other direction.”

“Why?” Tony asked, stepping towards him as if to prove a point.

“Because of what happened to you over the last two days,” Steve bit out, not wanting to say it. Tony most likely wanted to forget, and Steve didn’t want his temper to boil over because there was nothing he could do to fix it before they located the Commander again.

“You’re still thinking I can’t tell the two of you apart?” Tony stated, slowly proceeding towards him again. “That being around you is going to be a constant reminder of him?”

Steve swallowed and stared at an array of workout equipment on the wall, keeping his eyes from flicking over to Tony.

“I can tell the difference,” Tony claimed sharply, his voice rising. “Look at me, Rogers.”

It wasn’t the order, or that Steve wanted to prove him wrong; he looked at him because he knew Tony would find a way to make that happen, one way or another, and both of them were too tired to drag this out.

Tony stared him down, jaw tense. It was as if he didn’t dare to back away even when he started to feel the inclination to do so, because it would make him reveal just how uncomfortable Steve’s presence made him. Steve let him off the hook eventually, allowing his gaze to break away. He didn’t want to upset Tony by looking completely away, though, so he checked out the rest of his body instead, looking for hidden clues of his mistreatment.

Adding fuel to the fire…

“He said he didn’t want to hurt me,” Tony spoke up suddenly, voice back to that soft, private level. Steve wasn’t used to hearing him talk like that – they hadn’t spent enough time together for that to happen. He was more used to bravado and attention seeking, but Tony wasn’t raising himself above everyone else right now.

“He did, though,” Steve said in return, feeling like Tony wanted to have a conversation instead of an exchange of jabs they were more prone to deliver.

A tight little smile passed Tony’s lips. “I made him,” he admitted. “I tried to reason with him, to find a way out that didn’t include broken bones on my part. Didn’t work, so I pressed in the other direction. He stopped playing nice, eventually. Decided that I didn’t have to like it – that I would learn to accept it over time.”

Steve was starting to feel sick all over again.

Tony looked into his eyes, and Steve wondered whose face he was seeing. “I wouldn’t have fought back nearly as much had it been you,” he said, gaze unwavering.

Steve blinked and wondered whether he had sustained some kind of hearing injury during the battle. Then the floor began to fall away beneath him as his brain pieced that information together, connecting it to those unwanted images of the Commander forcing himself on Tony. “Why would you say that?!” he finally burst out, taking a step back like Tony had physically hurt him.

Tony blinked, then shrugged, looking like it wasn’t anything inappropriate. “Felt like you needed to hear that.”

Steve contemplated trying to throw up, just to get the impending sensation out of his system. “I would never –”

“Oh, I know,” Tony started with a smile, then froze. “You wouldn’t?” he asked, and it was almost like hurt flashing in his eyes, which was totally inappropriate considering the topic.

“No!” Steve proclaimed, voice a bit higher than he was comfortable with. “I could never hurt you like that.”

Tony nodded then looked at his bare feet, which shifted uncertainly on the floor. “Great,” he murmured. “Just… needed to make that distinction, in case you were wondering.”

“I wasn’t,” Steve reassured him, although he was starting to feel like they were approaching the subject at very different angles. “I’m sorry I didn’t defeat him,” he added, feeling like this was a good time to get it off his chest. “I should have stopped him the first time.”

“No reason to be sorry; J already apologized, and that’s plenty enough.”

Steve frowned. “No offense, but he’s just a program.”

“He’s more than that,” Tony retorted, seeming to perk up a little. “Next time, it will play out differently.”

“There won’t be a next time,” Steve swore. “I promise.”

Tony gave him a smile that was a little patronizing. “Thanks,” he said, and it truly sounded like he was telling Steve what he wanted to hear.

“I mean it,” Steve insisted.

“I know,” Tony said, with a bit more honesty. “I just don’t want you to think this is all on you, or that you need to do this alone. Just because he’s your wicked double from some alternate reality doesn’t mean you’re the only one who gets to fight him. He’s not your responsibility.”

Steve looked away, feeling a bit mulish. “How come it feels like it is?” he muttered.

“Maybe because you know you could have ended up just like him?” Tony guessed. It startled Steve, who honestly hadn’t thought about it like that, but it didn’t seem to be a stretch for Tony. “I talked to him,” the other man said. “He told me things about his life. Not much, mind you, but enough for me to form an opinion.”

“Which is?” Steve asked even though he wasn’t sure he would like the answer.

“That deep down, you two are the same,” Tony said, which actually contradicted what he had claimed before – that Steve and the Commander were not the same. “He got dealt a bad hand, and that put him in a place neither of us can picture in our worst nightmares. But there’s a part of him that…” Tony halted and frowned, as if doubting himself suddenly. “I think he’s trying to reconnect with the man he used to be. I’m thinking me – the other me – was helping with that process, driving him on.”

“He has a funny way of showing his gratitude,” Steve stated dryly.

Tony’s answering smile spoke of years of experience. “Sometimes, you hurt the ones you love, whether you mean for it to happen or not.” He then stuck his hands in his pockets and turned around. “Try to get some sleep, Cap,” he called without looking back at him. “The fight isn’t over yet.”

Steve watched him go, dried blood making his skin itchy and stiff. He felt a call to get back into punching the bag, to drive this conversation out of his head, but he decided to leave it.

Gathering his gear, he headed out to the room that had been assigned to him before he ever entered the Tower, and even though sleep was the furthest thing from his mind, he knew he needed to rest and regain some semblance of control before he faced Tony again.

Or the Commander.

to be continued…

Chapter 27: The Strategy

Come morning, half the team was up at the crack of dawn, getting into a safe routine of exercise that momentarily managed to drive their attention away from the big issue. Rhodey went on a run with Sam Wilson, who had tried to locate Steve before they left but wasn’t successful, so it was just the two of them.

“I can’t imagine what this is like for Cap,” Sam noted as they paused for a drink and a bit of a stretch.

“We’ll all be feeling a lot better now that Tony’s back,” Rhodey mused.

Sam nodded, then gave him a look that was almost cautious. “What do you think happened between them – Tony and the Commander?”

Rhodey felt his expression grow grim. He had laid awake most of the night, thinking about that – thinking about the things that had gone unsaid, but which were clearly there.

Things he didn’t want to think of, because it meant someone had violated his friend in a way he didn’t know how to heal. Not that Rhodey had known how to help Tony when he came back from Afghanistan, either; to this day, he knew he had completely mishandled their conversation when Tony first pitched him the idea of the suits – not that Rhodey had known what it was all about.

Had he approached Tony’s delicate state of mind differently that day, it might never have been Tony in that suit.

Whether that would’ve been better or worse, he would never know.

“Let’s head back,” he said finally, and Sam nodded.

After they had showered and changed, they met back at the kitchen for breakfast. One by one everyone else showed up and kind of lingered, and it was obvious they were waiting for something.

When Tony arrived, dressed not in a dress shirt and pants but worn jeans and a loose hoodie, Rhodey wondered whether he should ask if he was okay. He could see Bruce giving him that exact same look, then opening his mouth, but Tony was already scrunching up his face before a single word came out.

Bruce shut his mouth, and Tony moved to get himself a cup of coffee, then fetched ingredients for what would be one of his power smoothies.

Steve was the last to arrive, which seemed out of character for him, but he looked like he had gotten some shut eye so that was definitely a change for the better.

“I think we need to sit down and have a talk,” Natasha proceeded to say once everyone had something to eat – or in the case of Rhodey and Sam, had finished their breakfast already.

“Agreed,” Tony surprisingly accepted. He finished making his smoothie, then moved towards the sitting area and everyone else migrated there in his wake. Steve brought up the rear and seemed uncertain whether to take a seat or not until Tony gave him a look and Steve sat down meekly in the closest available spot.

“There was no sign of the Commander, right?” Clint spoke up first.

“Nay,” Thor replied, frowning. “Not in the tunnels, nor did we stumble upon his escape route.”

“That’s to be expected,” Natasha sighed. “If he’s anything like Steve…”

Rhodey spotted Steve’s face darkening a shade, but he said nothing. “We need to figure out what to do next,” he stated. “We need to find this guy, and either bring him in or take him out.” His eyes swept the group for protests, of which there were none. “What’s his next move? Does he have a Plan B, or can we expect him to keep coming for Tony?”

“He knows we’ll be on our guard now,” Steve mused, not looking at anyone. He looked like he was focusing intensely on a single spot in the carpet, but perhaps he was just trying to think of a way to predict the Commander’s plan.

“Maybe he’ll do the smart thing and give up,” Clint suggest half-heartedly.

“He won’t,” Tony said slowly, and all eyes turned to him – except for Steve. Tony was also studying the floor, and Rhodey knew for a fact his brain was working hard. “His only goal – his only reason for being – is to restore what he had in his life. Apparently, that includes being with me. He’s obsessed and driven, and sees no reason why I won’t, eventually, come to see this from his point of view.”

Tony raised his eyes, looking at the ceiling instead. “I think, however, that I know where he might be focusing his energy if gaining access to me proves too difficult.”

“Do share,” Clint encouraged.

Tony hesitated, eyes moving to gaze at Steve. He remained quiet until Steve raised his eyes to look back at him. “He’ll try to find Bucky Barnes,” Tony finally revealed.

“Even we don’t know where he is,” Sam frowned. “How’s he going to find the guy?”

“Why would you think he’ll go for Bucky?” Steve asked, as could be expected. Rhodey didn’t know every detail, but he knew the story of Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes’ friendship – and had also seen a memo or two tying Barnes and the mythical Winter Soldier together.

“Because in his world, the Winter Soldier killed me,” Tony explained. “If he’s trying to rebuild his life here, eliminating the potential risk of that happening again should be way up on his to-do list.”

“Can the Commander find him, though?” Natasha asked, sounding doubtful.

“We have no way of knowing how much the Commander knows about the Winter Soldier,” Tony said. “There’s no knowing how many similarities there are between our worlds, but unless he’s stupid enough to brave the Tower’s security system without the interference of the Tesseract’s power, that’s what his next move will no doubt be.”

Steve nodded slowly. “It makes sense.”

Rhodey wasn’t so sure, but he guessed that if Steve approved, and this was Tony’s take from spending time with the Commander, they should trust it. “How do we find Bucky Barnes, then?” he asked out loud.

Steve looked at Tony, like he was holding all the answers right now.

“With science,” Tony replied. “J, how are the search parameters coming?”

“Loading, sir,” the AI responded. “Shall I begin the search once ready?”

“Yeah,” Tony nodded. “He may have gone to hiding, but unless he’s holed up in a bunker somewhere, I’ll find him,” he stated confidently. It wasn’t as if they had many other alternatives, Rhodey knew.

to be continued…

Chapter 28: The Fallback

The Commander wasn’t very pleased with himself.

He had allowed the Avengers to track him down and take Tony from him. It was only fair he was still healing from the injuries he had sustained while escaping the collapsing tunnel; he needed a reminder of his failure aside from the emotional disappointment.

Rationally, he knew he had mishandled his first encounter with Tony. He should have tried to be more patient, to win the man over, but there had been no time to adjust.

He could try to make Tony happy once there were no threats to them being together, be it Avengers or someone else.

Knowing that Tony’s team was going to close ranks around him now that they had him back, there was no way to move to reclaim him without risking a confrontation with the other Avengers. His freedom was just about the only thing Steve had right now, and he knew better than to risk losing it when the odds were stacked so badly against him.

In the meantime, he could work towards a secondary goal; it would ensure that his future with Tony would be free of at least one threat.

He had already seen that their worlds were not the same, but there were some risks Steve would rather not take. It was obvious he would have his hands full reining in Tony’s resistance, and he didn’t need unpredictable factors working against him.

All things considered, it was better to ensure Bucky wouldn’t be a threat to them the way he had been in Steve’s own world. The action he was planning on taking was drastic, but it was a sacrifice he had to be willing to make to ensure that he wouldn’t be met with that same sight one day in the future, with Tony lying dead in their bed and Bucky telling him it was for Steve’s own good.

Of course, he had no idea where to start looking for Bucky in this world. He had learned some crucial facts about him from his conversation with Tony, as well as the things Steve’s double in this world had stated, about HYDRA being gone. Obviously, Bucky – or Winter Soldier – was in the wind, and it was a daunting mission to locate him when even the people native to this world didn’t know where to begin.

Well, that was not true: a man of Tony Stark’s intellect always had ideas, and if he put his mind to it, he would come up with a solution.

Which meant Steve had to beat him to it, in case Tony guessed where he would be headed next. Tony might not see it as an imminent threat, but the sight of him dead was still seared into Steve’s memory, and he didn’t want to see what happened if and when Tony and Bucky crossed paths, alternative history be damned.

He had lost Tony once, and no force in the world was going to repeat that if Steve could prevent it – pre-emptive strikes included.

The rest of the world was collateral damage in his attempts to unite with his lover, and beyond Bucky, it was largely up to Tony how many people had to die before they were together.

All who got in the Commander’s way… would come to regret it.

to be continued…

Chapter 29: The Pursuit

Avengers Tower,
Manhattan, New York City, NY

Steve stopped in front of the door leading to Tony’s work space. The slow inhale of air was meant to steady his nerves, but he still felt a certain tension in his shoulders as he released it several seconds later. So much for that…

“You are free to enter, Captain Rogers,” J.A.R.V.I.S. spoke up suddenly.

Instinctively, Steve looked up to find a camera in order to address the AI. “Thank you.” He hadn’t been waiting for permission to enter, but it was good to know he had it.

The door slid open rather than swinging wide, and Steve stepped across the minimal threshold, trying to appear like there was nothing odd about his visit.

There wasn’t, of course: he was here purely on Avengers business, as could be expected of him. The nervous tension was something that had been following him around since they got Tony back, and he wished he could just sweat or bleed it out of his system, then move on. He had never dwelled on anything if he had the option to soldier on. Maybe what he needed was a good distraction, and finding Bucky would be just that.

“What’s up, Cap?” Tony called out, and Steve turned slightly towards him, trying to assume a nonthreatening pose that wouldn’t prompt Tony to tell him to relax.

“What’s the status on locating Bucky?” he asked. It was hard to walk the line of professionalism; if possible, he would have been out there himself, trying to track down his best friend. As it happened, Avengers stuff kept interfering with that, but now that Tony was working almost solely on finding Bucky… It was hard not to feel excited and a lot more hopeful than he had before.

“Nothing yet,” Tony reported, bringing something up on one of the screens that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to Steve. “I have the search parameters in place and J.A.R.V.I.S. is working overtime to implement them.”

“It is my pleasure to help,” the AI stated, just in case anyone doubted it. “We are making a simultaneous search for the Commander, just in case he surfaces again.”

Steve nodded and looked at Tony. The man was cradling a piece of his suit in his lap – clearly a project he was tinkering with while the computers worked.

“We’ll find him,” Tony told him reassuringly, clearly taking Steve’s silence for something it was not.

“I hope so,” Steve replied, knowing he had to keep his thoughts focused on the reality of the situation instead of hoping for the best possible outcome. His eyes swept the screen again, trying to make sense of anything he found there. The numbers and digits were moving too fast, though, and he wondered if he was glimpsing J.A.R.V.I.S.’s inner workings just now.

“The world is a lot more connected than it was in your time,” Tony told him – something Steve had learned both to appreciate and loathe since he came out of the ice.

“Dare I ask what kind of methods you’re using to find them?” Steve mused. He had a feeling it might go against what he believed was fair play.

Tony made a facial expression which confirmed his supposition. “I think you might be better off not knowing.”

That answer was actually worse than Steve had expected, and he felt a sudden burst of responsibility. It was partially due to his own failures that they had to be doing this, so he should know what means exactly Tony was employing to find Bucky and the Commander. “Tell me anyway,” he said, keeping his voice firm.

Tony looked like he would rather have not, but then he shrugged and put the armor part aside, tapping a command into a nearby keyboard that was filled with symbols Steve couldn’t imagine matched the normal keyboard layout. “As much as I hate it, I found a very useful tool in HYDRA and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s leftovers: the Insight Satellites.” He brought up a graphic image of the entire planet, highlighting several satellites in orbit.

Steve suddenly understood why Tony had felt he was better off not knowing.

“They’re fully equipped for a search like this,” Tony went on. “After the events of D.C., I personally made sure only I have access to the satellites, to prevent future HYDRA attacks.”

Steve nodded slowly, knowing that short of destroying them altogether, that was possibly the option he was most comfortable with. “Zola’s algorithm is gone, though – right?” He had to ask, because he had almost died – again – to stop HYDRA from fulfilling their plans, and that algorithm was something he didn’t want anyone getting their hands on, ever again.

Tony must have heard that plea in his tone because he shifted his chair away from him, just slightly. “What was left of the algorithm is isolated on an offline drive. I’ve been going through it, and there are a few interesting things there, coding wise…” He held up a hand before Steve could protest. “I want to avoid a genocide just as badly as you do, Cap. I’m not studying the algorithm to put it into good use as it is, but simply taking viable parts to where they can be safely implemented – like looking for Barnes right now.”

“Playing with fire is what it is,” Steve protested.

“Not the way I’m doing it. Trust me.”

Normally Steve would have told him he didn’t; Tony was known for taking things in a direction that other people didn’t necessarily agree with, but in their current situation, he felt like he had to cut him some slack. At least Tony had told him instead of being secretive about it.

“I don’t need Zola’s algorithm to tell me who the enemy is,” Tony went on. “Also, predicting who’s going to be a threat one day? No one can do that for sure. Good people turn bad, given the right circumstances – just like bad people get better once they’re appropriately motivated.”

The last part sounded a bit like Tony was talking about someone he knew, and Steve wondered who that was. The Commander, perhaps?

Tony reached for the armor piece again, and the image of the satellites disappeared. Steve felt like it was his cue to leave, and what else was there to talk about? Certainly not the stuff they had said in the gym; that would have to wait until all this was finished, because Steve felt unbalanced as it was, and he didn’t need to add fuel to that particular fire. So, he just left the work area, Tony already refocused on his projects and not paying his exit any mind.

to be continued…

Chapter 30: The Hit

Tony was dozing in his lab when an electronic ping signaled the completion of the latest process and a need for his immediate attention.

He had been leaning back in a chair, legs propped up on the edge of the table, and the sudden alarm made him start and almost fall off his seat as he scrambled to react to whatever the ping was dedicated to; in the momentary haze, he wasn’t sure what kind of experiment he had been in the middle of, but he couldn’t smell anything strange as he sat up and looked around.

“J.A.R.V.I.S.?” he called out in question.

“I believe I have located James Barnes, also known as the Winter Soldier,” the AI replied.

Tony felt his mind becoming fully alert. “Show me,” he said quickly, rolling towards a nearby screen. It came to life upon his approach, displaying a map and a blinking dot, then another image that seemed to be from a security camera in a back alley – perhaps installed there by an owner who had grown tired of vandalism on his property. The image was grainy, but walking through the alley was indeed the man he had been looking for; with a baseball cap on his head and the hood of his jacket pulled up, his features were mostly hidden, but the camera caught his face at a good enough angle for J.A.R.V.I.S. to process the image.

“Any sign of our other missing person?” Tony asked as he watched Barnes keep on walking, unaware that he had been spotted.

“None yet, sir.”

“Keep looking,” Tony ordered. “Prioritize on Barnes’ vicinity, just in case he’s managed to track him down.” He checked the map, noting the man’s current location. “What’s he doing in Philly?” he mused.

“I cannot say, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replied evenly, perhaps knowing the question was largely rhetorical.

“Doesn’t matter,” Tony decided. “Keep an eye on him – and tell the team to assemble,” he added with a slight smile and spun his chair around, jumping off it the moment he was facing the door.

As he exited the lab, he heard the last of J.A.R.V.I.S.’ calm call to ‘assemble’. It created a flurry of activity, people dashing this way and that to get their gear.

“Move the armor to the Quinjet,” Tony mused, voice low.

“Yes, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. responded through the nearest speakers in the hallway.

Steve jogged up to him before Tony could make it down to the hangar. He was pulling on his uniform, shield slung over his shoulder. For a man who had been on the edge of his proverbial seat, it looked almost like he had dared to relax for a moment and was now rushing to gear up with the rest of them. “You found him?” the blond asked, wrestling his arm into the sleeve of his suit.

“Yeah,” Tony nodded. “He’s in Philadelphia; we caught a live feed off a private camera. J.A.R.V.I.S. is keeping an eye on him as we speak.”

Steve nodded, his face tense with the effort of keeping unwanted emotions from his face. He had to be excited, to be so close to getting his best friend back. “Any sign of the Commander?”

“Not yet, and there’s a possibility there won’t be, either,” Tony mused.

“We need to be prepared for it, though,” Steve insisted as they took off towards the stairs that would lead them to the Quinjet.

“We are,” Tony told him. Even when no one actively brought it up, he was certain everyone was mentally acknowledging the fact that they would cross paths with the Commander, sooner or later.

The team and their additional members had already begun to gather at the Quinjet. Bruce was the last to arrive, looking apprehensive.

“You don’t have to join us for this one,” Tony told him before he could actively start hesitating. “We’re not going there to look for a fight, and we’ve got enough muscle as it is.”

Bruce’s eyes took in the team, then returned to Tony. “You mean, you don’t want to risk the other guy getting out of control.”

“I don’t think anyone wants that if it isn’t strictly necessary,” Tony reassured him. “If you want to come, that’s fine, but I can tell you would rather not.”

“If the Commander shows up…” Bruce began.

“He won’t, in all likelihood, and even if he does, we’ve got it covered,” Tony motioned towards Steve, Thor and Rhodey – not to mention his own suit. “The Hulk would be overkill.”

Bruce cringed at his choice of words. “I’ll stay here and monitor,” he decided.

“We’ll be in constant contact. J.A.R.V.I.S. will keep you informed of any developments.”

Bruce nodded. “If the Commander does show up, play it safe,” he ordered.

“You don’t need to tell me that,” Tony responded, voice dropping. It wasn’t him Bruce should be concerned about: Tony knew just how capable the Commander was. As it happened, Captain America in his current mindset was much more of a wild card than Tony could ever be, and wasn’t that a strange turn of events.

Bruce stepped back, signaling that he was indeed staying at the Tower, and Tony turned to join the others in the Quinjet. Clint was already seated in the pilot’s chair, and Tony contented himself by finding another spot to sit down for take-off.

“All aboard?” Clint called out, already moving through the pre-flight routine.

“Yeah,” Tony confirmed. “Let’s get going before our target slips out from under our noses.”

Across the aisle, Steve shifted, and Tony gave him a reassuring look.

“Figure of speech, Cap,” he told him. “J.A.R.V.I.S. won’t let him slip away now that he’s been found. You may as well start coming up with good conversation openers.”

From the look on his face, it seemed like Steve had been doing his fair share of that. Tony didn’t envy his position, trying to reconnect with his best friend whom he had thought long dead before Steve ever went into the ice himself – a friend whose recollection of his own life was challenged at best.

At least Tony couldn’t come up with any reason why Barnes might try to kill him, the Commander’s paranoia aside. One less thing to worry about…

to be continued…


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