The Corrupt and the Pure • Chapters 35-39
Chapter 35: The Plan
Slowly, the team gathered on the second level of the common room which overlooked the arrival spot of the Commander. Clint had his left wrist in a thick wrap and a fresh white bandage covering half of his forehead; Sam was limping, and even Natasha couldn’t hide a hitch in her step. Rhodey had been protected by his armor and quick reflexes, surviving with only a few scrapes just like the rest of them.
Tony had checked his armor and decompressed for a moment before the meeting he knew was going to happen sooner rather than later. His conversation with Steve had opened some wounds he had thought he had stitched shut; it wasn’t traumatic so much as bothersome, and the more he circled the moral questions the topic raised, the more frustrated he felt.
There was no easy solution, no formula to follow. People were unpredictable and irrational, and that was why Tony was a man of science rather than a humanist; there was only so much he could manipulate when it came to other human beings. Machines, however, never failed to follow logic.
When everyone had arrived, including Bucky Barnes, there was a brief silence during which everyone was waiting for someone else to begin.
Knowing how radical Steve’s thoughts had been just an hour ago, Tony took it upon himself to open the floor for discussion: “We need to locate the Commander and contain him.” It brought nothing new to the table, but it was a start. Also, ‘contain’ was a very politically correct word to use when they didn’t have an exact goal in mind.
“The sooner the better,” Rhodey agreed. “The more bodies he leaves behind, the less eager the government will be to let us handle it on our own.”
“I don’t imagine we want to explain at length how an evil copy of Captain America showed up on our doorstep,” Clint agreed.
“They would put him in some lab and cut him up,” Bruce predicted, looking uneasy. His eyes searched the people around him. “We can’t let that happen,” he added.
“We won’t,” Tony reassured him.
“That’s a concern for another time,” Rhodey said, trying to soften their resolve.
“We need to be aware of that before it becomes topical,” Tony argued. “They can’t cut up Captain America to figure out the secrets of the original super-soldier serum, but should they be presented with an exact copy to spare…” He glanced at Steve, to make sure he was backing up him and Bruce, and it looked like he wasn’t thrilled by the notion of the Commander ending up as someone’s lab rat despite his willingness to kill the man.
“In the wrong hands, that could be disastrous, so it’s better to play it safe,” Steve agreed.
Rhodey nodded slowly, falling in line with the rest of them. He was perhaps thinking of unlocking the secrets within Steve Rogers’ body in order to cure diseases and create new super-soldiers for their country to deploy against their enemies, but Tony knew from experience that such an asset would end up in the wrong hands before long. Look at Bucky, for instance.
“We need a way to find the Commander if we want to catch him – and make sure the final confrontation takes place someplace where we control the area,” Natasha said, moving the conversation forward.
“If we allow him to dictate where we cross paths, it will play in his favor,” Steve countered.
“Let’s set him a trap, then,” Tony decided. “He’ll come to us, when and where we want him to, and we’ll have the advantage.”
“He’ll know it’s a trap from a mile away,” Steve noted.
“Then we’ll use bait he can’t resist,” Tony shrugged.
Steve’s eyes flew at Bucky, which was kind of adorable. Tony barely managed to not roll his eyes.
“As attractive as Barnes may be in his eyes, it’s not as good as the thing he’s really after,” he clarified his intentions.
This time Steve’s eyes landed on the real prize, locking with Tony’s. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Tony spread his arms. “Look, I’m not thrilled about it either, but we’ve got the one thing he wants more than anything.”
“He’ll know it’s a trap,” Rhodey agreed with Steve’s earlier statement.
“I’m counting on him wanting me more than he wants to be free,” Tony said, trying not to sound smug. “He’ll risk his freedom if he thinks he has a shot at getting his hands on me.”
“No,” Steve argued.
“He’ll come –”
“I know he will – I know I would – but that’s not what I mean,” Steve snapped. “We’re not doing this, dangling you in front of him and hoping he doesn’t outwit us.”
“That’s not your call to make,” Tony countered. “We need to catch him, and if we don’t lure him out, this game we’re playing will keep on going until someone slips up – and I don’t think it will be him.” The Commander had issues with patience, but he was smart. Steve Rogers was a master of strategy and creative thinking when it came to outsmarting the problem in front of him, and eventually the Commander would find a way to get to Tony when they weren’t ready.
As much as he disliked the idea of putting himself out there, Tony knew it was the only way to draw the Commander out of hiding in an environment they could control. They just had to tread the fine line where the Commander would think he had a chance at getting him so that they wouldn’t scare him away.
“We’re not doing it,” Steve kept arguing. “We’ll think of another way.”
“I hate to say it, Cap, but Stark’s got a point,” Sam spoke up. “We need to be one step ahead, prepared for anything, and that requires us to know all the elements; if the Commander chooses the battlefield, that will never happen. We need some bait, and we all know what he’s after.” He glanced at Tony, face grim. Going against Steve clearly wasn’t his first call, but the lack of protests from around the sitting area spoke volumes.
Steve looked around, trying to get someone to back him up. Bruce looked like he was on the fence, as was Rhodey, but Tony was confident both of them would choose right; Bruce didn’t want any more casualties and Rhodey knew how to strategize.
“If Tony’s willing to do it, I say we proceed,” Natasha said finally.
Steve shifted in his seat, back ramrod straight. He looked like a man who had been betrayed. His eyes found Tony’s again, something akin to desperation in his gaze. “Can I talk to you – alone?”
“Now?” Tony countered, pretending not to know why Steve wanted a word.
“Yes,” Steve said curtly and got up before Tony even agreed.
With a dramatic sigh, Tony got to his feet and followed Steve away from the group. They entered the kitchen through a swing door designed to allow for lots of foot traffic when catering at parties. It was far from soundproof, but Tony suspected privacy was less important to Steve than was getting his point across.
“You can’t do this,” Steve said without wasting any time.
“I can and I will,” Tony argued. “We don’t have anything else. Bucky might do in a pinch, but we would have to expose him a lot more than if we use me as bait.”
Steve tried to stare him down, jaw tense. “What if we fail?” he asked the burning question. “What if he takes you again?”
“He won’t,” Tony countered. “We’ll make sure of that.”
Steve shifted, appearing uncertain – then lashed out faster than Tony could blink, fingers of one hand curling around Tony’s throat and body slamming him back against the nearest wall, hard enough to rattle nearby fixtures. “He’s fast,” Steve hissed, body pressed tight against Tony’s, keeping his toes from touching the floor, leaving him helpless in his grip. “He’s strong and smart – and most importantly, he’s motivated.” Blue eyes bore holes into Tony’s, trying to force him to cave with pure willpower.
With his air supply all but cut off, forcing his hands up around Steve’s forearm in hopes of easing the pressure, his toes barely scraping the floor, Tony was helpless. His body remembered this part, flushing with intense warmth, preparing to retaliate if it went on for much longer.
Steve must have felt the heat where he was pinning Tony against the wall because Tony could actually feel his muscles jump an instant before he stepped back and let go of him, a flush creeping over his cheeks. Maybe it was anger – or maybe it was something else – but he seemed determined to keep driving his opinion home, not backing down.
Tony held back from coughing despite the scratch in his throat. There would be bruises on his neck from this, but if they were lucky, they wouldn’t appear until after the meeting was over. He tried not to lower his posture, to show weakness, but it was impossible to hide.
“He said it to me the first time we fought: I have nothing at stake,” Steve said, a hint of desperation creeping into his voice. “With Bucky, maybe…” He hesitated, and Tony groaned, finally managing to straighten himself and breathe deeply.
“Thank you for your honesty,” he said, voice rough from the recent abuse to his throat. Steve stiffened in response to it. “You’re not the only one who’ll have my back. Just because you’re not motivated enough doesn’t mean I can’t trust the others to try their best.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Steve snapped, taking half a step forward before catching himself. “He has nothing to lose and everything to gain. Yes, he’ll walk into a trap if he thinks he has a chance – and he’ll probably be right about those odds, no matter how we play our cards.”
Tony tried not to hesitate, but honestly, he didn’t want to be kidnapped a second time; there was no way it was going to be half as pleasant as the first time, and that hadn’t been a joyride either.
“Please,” Steve begged, which was something new.
“What other choice do we have that doesn’t put innocent lives in danger?” Tony asked, even though his voice betrayed his own fears. “Worst case scenario is that he’ll find something to use as leverage and get me to walk right back into his arms. We need to make our move before that happens.” Tentatively, he laid a hand on Steve’s arm, much in the same way the man had laid a hand on his earlier. “I trust you to want to take him down, whatever your motivation is. You’ll find a fire that matches his, and you’ll have the team to back you up.”
Steve looked down at where Tony’s hand was touching him, as if mesmerized by it. Truth be told, these were a few of the rare times they touched each other on purpose, and for once it wasn’t hostile in some way.
Tony had to admit he could get used to that.
“You failed to protect me once,” Tony reminded him again. “Your pride won’t allow you to fail a second time.”
Steve nodded, features grim with determination.
“Let’s get back to the others,” Tony said then, withdrawing his hand. “Those plans won’t make themselves.”
Steve didn’t look thrilled when they walked back to the others, but after a short period of silence, he threw himself into the planning process, dismissing options left and right and weeding out potential options until they began to zero in on a plan that was ‘Cap proof’.
Tony fell silent at some point, simply taking notes, stealing glances at Steve. Was it hard for him to try to put himself into the Commander’s shoes, placing him in a mind more twisted than his own, yet eerily similar? Was it unfair of them to ask this of him?
Steve looked back at him after Tony had spent several minute debating this train of thought, meeting his eyes.
Yes, it was hard, and probably making Steve feel rotten on the inside, but rarely did anyone have this good a source of information when laying out their plans. Dealing with the wrongness of it could wait until they had the Commander safely in custody.
to be continued…
Chapter 36: The Warning
Their plans were made, and the team was – for the most part – getting some much-needed rest before they set things in motion.
Steve knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep even if he tried, so after making sure his gear was ready, he headed out to get something to eat. At some point after their meeting, the wreckage of the Quinjet had appeared back in the hangar below the common floor. Steve noticed it when he was heading for the kitchen and decided to check it out, knowing there was no way the aircraft was in flying condition after the fall.
Apparently he wasn’t the only one feeling restless: Tony was up, surveying the damage to the Quinjet, his suit and War Machine both standing by. Steve walked into the hangar area, being sure to make enough noise so as not to startle the other man. He looked around to see whether anyone else was around, but couldn’t see anyone. Not even Rhodes.
“Didn’t you just give everyone a big speech about the importance of rest?” Tony asked without turning.
Steve refused to feel guilty. “I did,” he agreed instead, walking over to stand beside Tony. “Is Rhodes around?”
“No,” Tony shook his head, then cocked it as he looked at the Quinjet. “He’s getting some shut-eye like any good little soldier should.”
Steve gave the War Machine armor another look. It looked active, eyes and chest piece glowing.
Tony followed his gaze. “I needed to get the Quinjet off the street so I borrowed Rhodey’s suit,” he volunteered. “I’m sure he won’t mind.”
Steve hummed in agreement.
Tony turned to look at him. “Chill, Cap. We’re just about as prepared as we can be. The plan is solid and we have several contingency options available if things should start going in the wrong direction.”
“All that might not be enough,” Steve reminded him. “We don’t know him that well, or the tools he has at his disposal. Our plan is largely based on what I would do.” The Commander had led a very different life, and Steve wasn’t entirely comfortable assuming they could set their trap based on what he could handle – especially when Tony would be acting as bait.
“Those odds will be against us no matter what we do,” Tony said. “I have confidence that we can wing it when need be.”
Steve frowned. Tony’s optimism was dangerous – and possibly false. There was no knowing whether he truly believed their chances to be as good as he said. Steve seriously doubted he was totally okay with his part in the plan, either.
“We can go over it again if you’d like,” Tony offered.
“No,” Steve shook his head and looked away from Tony, collecting his thoughts. He ended up gazing at the Quinjet which bore the marks of the Commander’s attack. Steve wasn’t certain he would have dared to brave a similar assault mid-air, which led him to wonder all over again whether they really were prepared for what the Commander had to offer.
Tony took a tiny step closer to him, leaving him standing side-by-side with Steve, observing the wreckage. “You know, even if all else fails, you can trust in one thing above all else.”
“What?” Steve asked, hoping it was something he could actually rest his faith on.
“I’m not going to let him take me again,” Tony stated. “I trust you guys to back me up on that one, but in the end, I’m used to carrying my own weight.”
Steve wanted to argue that it might not be a matter of choice. Tony must have sensed that because he turned around, looking at something behind them – the armors.
“I have a great team, but at the end of the day, there’s someone else I trust even more,” Tony told him, nodding towards the armors.
“Yourself?” Steve guessed.
“My tech,” Tony corrected. “More precisely, J.A.R.V.I.S.”
Tony’s armor shifted its head in the slightest hint of an acknowledging nod.
Steve wasn’t certain why he felt somewhat insulted by that – especially when he knew Tony had the right to think that way, and if it made him feel safer tomorrow, that was fine.
“You don’t agree, Captain?” J.A.R.V.I.S. questioned through the hidden speakers of the room. For some reason, Steve had expected the AI to use the armor to communicate, but he didn’t claim to understand the logic behind the AI’s actions.
“I don’t see how it matters either way,” Steve admitted.
Tony raised an eyebrow at him, an almost disapproving expression on his face. “You’re doubting my AI’s loyalty?”
“Of course not,” Steve denied.
Tony didn’t look like he believed him. “Look, I know he’s just a program to most people, but I know what he’s capable of doing in a pinch – and that’s saving my life. Just because he failed the first time the Commander made an appearance doesn’t mean he’ll let it happen again.”
Steve felt like pointing out that he could make a similar promise, and it was still possible it would backfire. Until they had the Commander under lock and key, all bets were off. That Tony was thinking of his tech as a security blanket of sorts wasn’t going to remove the actual danger.
“I’m glad you feel like J.A.R.V.I.S. can make a difference,” he finally said.
“You don’t think it will be enough,” the AI guessed.
Tony pursed his lips. “We’ll see,” was his response.
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Steve snapped, his frustration shining through again. “We might not get another chance. If we blow this and he escapes – or worse, kidnaps you again – there’s no knowing how this will end.”
“I’m not worried about him escaping or not showing up,” Tony replied. “He’ll come for me eventually when he sees an opening. That’s why he’s here in the first place, and he doesn’t have anything else to do – except perhaps kill Barnes, but seeing as we have him with us, there’s no doubt where he’ll strike eventually.”
“So, that leaves only the issue we’re all concerned about,” Steve said. “That he’ll outsmart us and grab you from under our noses.”
“We can play this guessing game for a long time,” Tony noted. “It won’t change the facts. We just need to react faster than he does.”
Reaction time had never been Iron Man’s strong suit, what with the clunky metal armor, but Steve opted not to say that out loud. “I just don’t want you to get too careless and forget what he’s capable of.”
“I won’t,” Tony promised. “I’m the last person you should be worried about when it comes to that.”
Steve supposed he was right, but it didn’t make him worry any less. The Commander would go to ground if he got his hands on Tony again, and if it started to look like he wasn’t going to succeed in reclaiming the man, there was no knowing how far he was willing to go.
He couldn’t actually relate to that because he had never felt like that towards another person, but he remembered the pain of hearing Bucky’s unit had been killed or captured; there had been very few things he hadn’t been willing to do to get him back.
The Commander had lived a very different life, but from what Steve had seen, it hadn’t softened his resolve – quite the opposite.
If Tony was the light at the end of his tunnel, his only reason for being…
Steve looked at his teammate, with whom he didn’t get along nearly as well as he would have liked, and wondered what that even felt like. Being so drawn to another, traveling to another realm of existence to be reunited with them – with Tony Stark, of all people.
“Unless there’s something concrete you can think of, stop worrying,” Tony ordered, mistaking his long look for something else.
Steve sighed. “Just promise me you won’t take any unnecessary risks. Like you said, he’ll try to get to you again, so there’s no reason to tempt fate tomorrow.”
“What happened to catching him in order to avoid collateral damage?”
“We have little proof he’s dangerous to outsiders when he’s not with you.”
“Now you’re just finding excuses to make us reconsider the plan all over again,” Tony accused him softly. “He’ll kill someone eventually, and each and every one of those victims will be on our conscience because we didn’t stop him in time.”
Steve knew he was right. Their plan was as good as it was going to get with their limited knowledge. All they needed was a bit of luck and a determination to come home victorious by whatever means necessary.
He just hoped it didn’t mean losses on their side.
to be continued…
Chapter 37: The Bait
Manhattan, New York, NY
Central Park, much like the rest of New York City, never truly slept. However, a dark forested area wasn’t most people’s first choice to hang out in late at night, so it made for a reasonably good place to ambush a disturbed super-soldier.
To most of the team, the park hadn’t been their first choice, but Tony declared the spot had to be somewhere he would – in theory – be hanging out sans the suit; someplace appealing for an attempted kidnapping. Sure, the Commander might approach him no matter how obvious the trap, but a public place made it less easy for him to set traps of his own, or other nasty surprises.
Once they began to get into position, Steve called the local police department and informed them that the Avengers would be attempting to apprehend a dangerous individual in the park, and that it would help if it were closed to the public. That call blew the cover off their plan, obviously, but it was better to get the civilians out of the way in case things escalated.
Besides, closed park or not, Tony felt pretty vulnerable as he strode down a path with a Starbucks coffee and a box of Munchkins from Dunkin’ Donuts in hand. After initially stepping within the park grounds, he hadn’t seen a single person, and with the sun rapidly dropping, the lengthening shadows made for a creepy setting. Every sound of leaves brushing against one another or a twig snapping in the distance made him tense.
“Everything is looking good, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. commented through the earpiece. Tony couldn’t hear any actual sound from the team or the suits, but he knew they were out there.
Tony didn’t bother replying, seeing as he could at least try to hold onto the illusion that he was simply taking a stroll through the abandoned Central Park very late at night – not setting a trap for a rogue super-soldier.
He arrived at a tiny little pond and stopped to look at the still water, slowly sipping the coffee. Every now and then the wind would stir the surface and the ripples caught the rays of light from the nearest lamp. There was a single bench near the water’s edge and Tony considered sitting down.
Someone came walking along the path behind him before he could make up his mind. Tony felt himself become tense despite his attempts not to, but the footfalls went past him and continued on, away into the growing darkness. He told himself he was becoming paranoid, which wasn’t going to help him pull this off. Sure, the team was close, but there was a reason why he had considered all other options before volunteering as bait – no matter how willing he may have sounded.
In these circumstances, apprehending the Commander as quickly as possible was worth the risk.
Of course, there was no knowing whether the super-soldier would take the bait, and if he was going to take it tonight.
Tony didn’t like all the ‘what ifs’ that they were dealing with. Their outcomes were beyond his ability to manipulate, and the best he could do was to prepare for all the ones he could predict. They had contingency plans in place for tonight, too, but they were only as good as their imagination and Cap’s educated guesses because their opponent was a stranger to them, no matter his close ties to Steve.
His coffee was almost finished, and Tony tightened his fingers a fraction around the cup, feeling the fading heat through the paper.
“You’re going to get cold, dressed like that,” a familiar voice commented from behind him, and Tony went still like a rabbit desperately hoping for the predator to pass it by.
“I have eyes on target,” Clint said over the comm, volume set low so that it wouldn’t distract Tony too much. “Where the hell did he come from?”
“Approach with caution,” Steve ordered, voice already a couple notches too tight. Tony had hoped it would take a bit longer for him to reach this level.
Tony turned slowly, facing the man who had appeared behind him like a ghost from non-existing mist. He had found a leather jacket to pull over his uniform, but it didn’t really hide anything at all; it was simply a distraction, to let him pass in the crowd without drawing too much attention.
Keenly aware that the Commander could have chosen to step much closer before alerting Tony to his presence, instead of choosing to halt about ten feet away, Tony tried to calm his nerves and play it cool. “Munchkin?” he asked, raising the box of treats still held in his hand.
The Commander’s eyes went for the box as if it were a ticking bomb, evaluating it for several seconds before raising his gaze back to Tony’s face. “How much time do we have before the others make their move?” he asked, letting Tony know he was fully aware of this being a trap – or he didn’t know for sure, but assumed that was the case. After all, it didn’t sound like he was fishing for information, though Tony wouldn’t have put it past him.
“What makes you think we aren’t already surrounded?” Tony challenged him, slowly moving to the side and setting both the near-empty cup and the box of Munchkins on the bench.
The Commander didn’t take a nervous look around. In fact, he seemed perfectly at ease, regarding Tony with intensity that didn’t leave room for keeping an eye on their surroundings. It was a bit unnerving, prompting Tony to wonder whether the Commander had such a perfect plan to get out of this situation that he didn’t need to worry about the other Avengers.
“You know how this is going to end, right?” Tony asked, instantly beating himself up for sounding nervous.
“No,” the Commander responded and took a step forward. “It’s all in the wind – and so it shall remain until I am dead. Before I draw my last breath, the odds may be against me, but I’m used to that. I’m used to winning no matter the obstacles set before me.”
For a moment, Tony could envision Steve Rogers as he was before the serum, tiny and frail, claiming that he was never going to stop, never surrender – never compromise. In his own way, the Commander was still upholding all that.
“I’m not coming with you,” Tony said. “If you had played your cards differently at the beginning, who knows what could have happened, but we’ve come too far for that to be an option anymore.” It might have been easier to say ‘it was never gonna happen between us’, but that may have also been a lie. Tony knew himself well enough to not rule it out, although he had his doubts when it came to the Commander.
Still, the Commander had claimed he was capable of redeeming himself, and Tony knew a thing or two about that…
It might have been the possibility of a second chance that may have eventually paved the road to a very different outcome, but that had all shriveled away in the tunnel, and there was a hint on the scarred face that the Commander knew that, too.
“I could apologize,” the Commander suggested.
“I don’t want an apology,” Tony retorted.
“I know,” came the somewhat subdued reply. “Nothing’s changed, though,” he added, taking another step forward. For now, Tony stood his ground, no matter how strong the urge to back away from the Commander. “You’re still the only thing that matters, Tony,” the Commander stated. “You’re the reason I’m here.”
“I’m not responsible for that,” Tony argued.
“No,” the Commander agreed. He took a third step forward, quickly closing the distance he had originally left between them. “He died and left me to deal with the realization that I should have done more – should have made the hard call and chosen to deviate from the conditioning HYDRA had me subjected to over the years. I should have chosen him while I still had the chance.”
For the first time – or so it felt – the Commander was saying ‘he’ and not ‘you’ when talking about the Tony from the alternate world. Perhaps he was finally beginning to see the difference – or this was a masterful deception to make Tony think that and thus lower his guard.
“I’m not him,” Tony said, trying to figure out which it was, eyes locked on the Commander’s face. “I’m sorry you lost him, especially when things were so… unfinished between you. But I’m never going to replace him. I refuse to be your reason to excel in this world – or the cause of your downfall.”
“That’s not up to you,” the Commander stated. “What I want is directly linked to what I need, and that is hardly anything someone other than myself gets to influence.”
“Doesn’t mean you’ll get it,” Tony reminded him. “You can want all your little heart desires, but at the end of the day, everyone chooses their own boundaries and how to enforce them, and mine are firmly wedged between us.”
There was a slight clench of muscles near the Commander’s jaw, speaking of impatience and anger. Tony grew wary, knowing he was walking on thin ice as it was. He was supposed to play for time, to give the others a better chance at getting into position and capturing their target, and while getting beat up was one way to distract the Commander, it wasn’t the option he was most fond of.
“Doesn’t matter,” the Commander muttered, almost as if to convince himself of something. “I didn’t see it before – and you don’t see it now. But you will.”
“People forcing their ideas on me has never worked,” Tony warned the Commander and took a few steps back. Their conversation could turn into open hostility in less than a second, and he knew he had allowed the other too close as it was; people could move fast when they wanted to, and a super-soldier moved faster than anyone else.
“I could give you things,” the Commander promised, advancing once more, matching Tony’s pace as he moved away. “No one would ever touch you again, hurt you. I could give you pleasure. Companionship.” There was something akin to earnestness on his face, a flash of genuine desire behind all the venom and harshness.
“I don’t want it,” Tony refused. “I’ve seen what you’re capable of, and that’s going to taint everything good that might come in the future.”
“Because people don’t change?” the Commander snorted – then shot forward, one fist gripping the front of Tony’s clothes before he could finish drawing in air.
Tony stumbled slightly, leaning back as far as the hold would allow, and felt the tip of his left shoe grow wet. His eyes shot down and he realized he had been one step from walking into the pond before the Commander reached out and stopped him. Damn.
“You changed,” the Commander said, pulling Tony forward slightly, keeping him on dry land.
Tony couldn’t help but look at him, locking their eyes. They were talking about the other Tony Stark again, but Tony didn’t doubt for a second their histories were all that different from one another.
“You turned your life around,” the Commander went on. “Out with the old, in with the new resolution to save the world. A phoenix rising from the ashes of his own shame.”
Not so different at all…
“Don’t I deserve the same chance? To redeem myself?” the Commander asked.
“Do you want it?” Tony asked, knowing he was indulging the other and undermining his own attempts to build a wall between them. “Redemption isn’t easily come by, and some things… they can never be undone.”
The blue eyes searched his, as if seeking an answer to a burning question. Perhaps it had to do with the one thing Tony might never be able to forgive, even if the Commander did choose to change his evil ways.
Before the Commander could reply, there was a rustle of leaves and a quick hum of vibranium as a shield came cutting through the night air, flying past them and hitting a tree on the other side of the pond, rebounding to the right, hitting another tree trunk and then flying back past their other side to its owner’s waiting hand. “Let him go!” Captain America ordered, standing there like a bull waiting for the trigger that would make it charge at its target.
Tony didn’t have time to say a word before he was spun forward, placed as a human shield in front of the Commander, a firm forearm pressing against his neck.
“That has never been my intention,” the Commander replied coolly. “What makes you think I’d be willing to let him go now that I have him?”
The Captain’s eyes narrowed, lips tight. He didn’t look at Tony directly, but no doubt there was a round of ‘told you’s waiting in there somewhere.
They just had to survive this ordeal in order to get there.
to be continued…
Chapter 38: The Ploy
“Let him go,” Steve repeated, his center of gravity shifting lower. If it was clear to Tony he was seconds away from attacking, it had to be glaringly obvious to the Commander.
“No,” the Commander refused. “I was weak twice before, compromising, letting him go. Someone may have called it the right tactical choice, but it didn’t aid the efforts to reach my goal, which is getting him back.” His hold on Tony tightened fractionally, prompting Tony to dig his fingers into the arm holding him prisoner, ineffectively trying to keep the air flowing into his lungs.
Asphyxiation meant weakness, and weakness led to an inability to defend himself – or even make a run for it when the opportunity arrived. The Commander would know that, of course, so maybe it was intentional and not just a by-product of his obsessive need to get his hands on Tony – literally and figuratively.
“You’re never getting him back,” Steve retorted. “In fact, you never had him in the first place. You can keep someone prisoner, but it’s just an illusion that it would make them yours.”
The Commander snarled. “Did you read that in a book somewhere? A S.H.I.E.L.D. manual? I know you never loved anyone – didn’t have the chance. Bucky, perhaps, but it was never the same.” He shifted his head and kissed Tony’s temple, clearly to make a statement. “I’ve made mistakes along the way, but he was never one of them. Breaking into another world to get him back was my only option to repent for the fact that I wasted my first chance with him.”
“I think it’s safe to say you blew it in this world, too,” Steve noted, tone harsh and condescending. It was obvious what he was talking about. “Maybe you had a chance to win him over with your sob-story of how HYDRA fucked you up inside, but raping him just proved you’re nothing but rotting ideals on the inside. You’ll never be capable of being someone he would want.”
The Commander snarled, shifting forward, almost dumping Tony to the side in order to get his hands on his double, but then he halted, clearly realizing what he was doing, and pulled Tony more firmly against him. “Well played, Captain,” he congratulated Steve. “You of all people know how short our tempers are with the right trigger.”
“You think I’m taunting you?” Steve raised an eyebrow. “I’m telling you the truth as it is, and I think you know it, too, if your reaction is anything to go by.”
The Commander was silent for a few seconds. He shifted his hold on Tony, moving his arm so that he could wrap his fingers around his throat. He didn’t squeeze, and dared to caress his thumb across Tony’s skin, as if comforting him. “It hurt you, didn’t it?” he said to Steve. “Knowing what I did to him… Did it make you feel dirty? Like you had partaken in the act somehow simply because you’ll always remind him of me, no matter how this ends tonight?”
“You don’t,” Tony protested, and Steve met his eyes for the first time since this uncomfortable conversation began. “I told you…”
Steve nodded slowly, but he didn’t look like a person who had been convinced.
“Maybe it’s fortunate you never had any desire for him, because I guess I ruined that for you, too,” the Commander taunted, fingers tightening just slightly, clearly punishing Tony for his words.
Steve looked a little sick.
“It wasn’t you,” Tony called out despite the obvious warning signals from the Commander.
“Maybe not, but with enough time…” The Commander squeezed harder around Tony’s neck and nailed his gaze with Steve’s. “The first time you fail at being a perfect person, you’ll see a shadow of that look on his face. And it will grow and intensify as time goes by, because he’ll realize that we are the same, deep down. Same faults.”
“No,” Steve ground out and moved to attack.
Tony opened his mouth to protest, but no sound came out, and then the Commander dug his free hand into a pocket of his jacket and withdrew something. It resembled the disc that had dropped Tony the first time they met, but this time he threw it at Steve. On a normal day, Steve would have been ready for it, but he was reckless right now, provoked into an attack, and the Commander’s aim was true: the disk latched onto Steve’s exposed neck and Tony could almost hear the static traveling through his body.
Steve jerked and fell down with a pained grunt, body twitching and trying to fight the weapon that was no doubt meant to disable him upon contact.
“Two can play at this game,” the Commander sneered and turned around, dragging Tony along, clearly intent on leaving Steve lying there, jerking on the ground.
“Indeed!” Thor’s voice called out, and he dropped from the sky right in front of them, startling them both. The Asgardian did not wait, punching the Commander hard, his fist almost catching Tony’s cheek in the process. The Commander jerked back, dragging Tony along, the pressure almost crushing his windpipe for an instant before the other let go.
Thor reached out to jerk Tony away by his arm, the force threatening to dislocate the limb but also prevented him from following the Commander all the way to the ground. “Go,” Thor ordered, shoving Tony in the opposite direction. Feeling once again like a kid being tossed between bullies, Tony fought to remain on his feet, his throat burning as he swallowed and drew air into his lungs.
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. called out via the earpiece.
“Alive,” Tony said, coughing violently after the tiny word.
“I can see that,” the AI replied. Somewhere above them, Tony heard the hum of repulsors.
Behind him, he could hear the Commander and Thor clashing. He turned to look over his shoulder, just in time to see the Commander releasing his shield from his back and bringing it forward just as Thor gave a mighty swing with his hammer.
“Shit,” Tony swore before the pressure wave exploded from the collision point. He was thrown backwards and onto the ground, rolling over his shoulder and almost twisting his neck in the process. His body thudded in a harsh landing, and as he happened to look up, he saw Steve’s body and shield tumbling away as well, helpless against the brutal force that managed to level several trees and one lamp post nearby. The water in the pond splashed violently and some of it landed on Tony before retreating back to the sunken area where it belonged.
“Does he never learn?” Clint swore across the comm.
“Someone get to Cap, remove that disc,” Natasha ordered.
“I’ll go,” Sam Wilson volunteered.
“Let me handle it,” Rhodey argued. “I’ll be better protected in the suit in case those two decide to do that again.”
Tony cleared his throat, trying to find his voice in order to tell his AI to get his suit down here so that he could get inside its relative safety, but before he could, he heard Thor grunt in pain as the Commander delivered a series of kicks, punches and strikes of his shield that left the God of Thunder reeling. With one more roundhouse kick, the Commander forced Thor to take a step back – which left him on the muddy, soaked edge of the pond. The Asgardian slipped, and with a spectacular flap of his cape, went down into the water.
The Commander followed and hauled his shield high before smashing it right into Thor’s face.
Tony grimaced: the force would have been enough to crack a man’s skull wide open and then some, and unsurprisingly the Norse God didn’t get up. However, Thor always boasted how tough he and his people were, and Tony wordlessly ordered him not to be dead since that would obviously put his ancestors to shame.
The Commander stepped out of the water, eyes searching for Tony, but before he could move towards him, War Machine dropped out of the sky. The ground rolled beneath the impact, but Rhodey didn’t wait for the element of surprise to fade, attacking the Commander without a snappy comment or an ounce of hesitation.
Rhodey didn’t go for a repulsor – which would have been Tony’s first choice – instead firing the big gun on his shoulder. Several bullets hit the Commander in the shoulder and upper left arm, and Tony imagined he saw faint sprays of blood in the weak light as the Commander staggered back – then dodged down and attacked War Machine before he could fully compensate.
Tony’s mind screamed at Rhodey to take a step back even if it would unbalance him, to put distance between himself and the Commander, but Rhodey was too intent on standing his ground.
Clearly, he had never had the displeasure of being hit with the famous vibranium shield, and Tony let out a tiny yell as he saw his friend’s head get knocked back by the impact as the Commander struck him under the armored chin with his weapon.
War Machine staggered back a couple steps, giving the Commander time to haul off and strike the minigun with the edge of his shield, almost cutting the weapon in two and effectively disabling it.
Tony saw a section of the armor’s shoulder rise, another weapon preparing to fire, but up close all the Commander needed to do was get his shield up and keep it there to fend off the new attack. A few of the tiny rockets propelled back, almost hitting Falcon who was dropping down from the sky to help Cap. Sam yelled and swerved to the side, almost crashing to the ground before catching himself and landing hard on his back.
The Commander sneered and took half a step back from War Machine, blocking a couple punches before he swiped some blood from his left arm and smeared it all over War Machine’s faceplate with his right, temporarily throwing Rhodey off. It gave him just enough time to adjust his shield and bring it down on the arc reactor in the armor’s chest, a shower of sparks filling the air between them before the power source shut down.
“Okay,” Sam said, voice carrying over the comm, “somebody wanna give me a hand here?” His eyes were on the Commander while his hand was reaching for the disk on Cap’s neck. He seemed to know he wasn’t exactly a match for the Commander, especially with the beating the others had just received.
The Commander sent his shield flying before anyone else could intervene, and Sam ducked reflexively, almost making it out of the way. Tony heard the weak sound of the shield hitting the back of his head, sending Sam face-first into the grass. Tony could hear him groaning, so at least he wasn’t dead, but the Commander seemed to decide he was no longer a threat as he turned back to look at Tony, face grim.
“J!” Tony called out, refusing to admit his tone was getting a bit panicky. He could blame it on the bruises on his windpipe if anyone asked.
Mark 45 landed between Tony and the Commander as if the AI had been waiting just for this moment to make an appearance. The armor came prepared, however, because no sooner had it landed that the chest piece fired, the beam catching the Commander right in the chest and pummeling him backwards.
Tony climbed to his feet, feeling a bit woozy, but he would have had to feel a lot worse not to be able to reach the safety of his armor.
“It is over, Commander,” J.A.R.V.I.S. informed the fallen man through the suit’s speakers.
The Commander spat out a mouthful of blood and got back to his feet.
Tony hesitated, eyes calculating the distance between himself and the suit, as well as the crucial seconds it would take him to get inside and for the suit to seal itself shut and become operational. In his current state, he wasn’t as fast as usual, and the Commander wasn’t going to just stand there and wait for him to be ready.
J.A.R.V.I.S. had to know that because the AI didn’t open the suit to welcome him in.
“You can take him out, right?” Bruce asked over the comm, dread in his voice. The Hulk was their final straw if all else failed, and seeing as Natasha and Clint were still recovering from their previous encounter with the Commander, the pickings were getting pretty slim. Bruce would take the stage if need be, but it wasn’t ideal in the middle of Manhattan with only one target for the big guy to beat up.
Barnes had reluctantly agreed to help if it came to it, mostly for the sake of eliminating the threat posed against himself, no doubt. Steve hadn’t wanted to risk it, though, knowing the Commander’s past with the Winter Soldier. Seeing as the rest of their team had some trust issues on that front, too, Barnes was also standing back, only to engage if all other options were exhausted.
Whether they would deploy him before the Hulk…
Mark 45’s repulsors whined in response to Bruce’s worried question, preparing to fire, and Tony took a step back, knowing the suit needed all the room it could get to maneuver.
“Get in the air and don’t let him get to his shield,” Tony murmured, knowing J.A.R.V.I.S. would catch it.
“Yes, sir,” the AI said and moved to comply.
Instead of even trying to go after the armor, the Commander launched forward towards Tony, with speed that was truly frightening for a guy who had already gotten his fair share of beatings.
Tony looked up, fast enough to make his neck ache, to see that J.A.R.V.I.S. was trying to compensate, but after a certain point the danger of hitting Tony grew too great and the AI opted not to fire. Tony, of course, would have made the shot, but his priorities often clashed with his AI’s, and seeing it demonstrated at a time like this made him want to scream a few profanities.
A whoosh reached Tony right before the Commander did, and the super-soldier went down in front of him. The familiar thud of Cap’s shield hitting a body was like music to Tony’s ears. He looked up to see Steve crouched on one knee, tearing the partially loose disk from his skin before getting to his feet and leaning forward.
“J.A.R.V.I.S., get Tony out of here,” Steve ordered.
“But –” Tony started.
The Commander groaned and lifted himself to his hands and knees.
Tony took a couple steps back and heard the armor fly over him, then land right behind him.
“Sir, please,” J.A.R.V.I.S. pleaded.
Tony grumbled but stepped back into the waiting cocoon, breathing in carefully as it closed around him. His throat felt swollen and talking was painful – as well as swallowing and breathing too deeply.
Outside the armor, the Commander and Captain America were facing each other, both missing their shields for now. It looked like that for the time being, both of them had forgotten Tony was even there.
J.A.R.V.I.S., however, had not, and Tony let out a startled yell as the armor fired up and shot him up to the sky, away from the fight that was still very much happening.
“J, we need to help Cap,” Tony protested.
“Your safety comes first,” the AI argued.
“I’m safe inside the armor,” Tony pointed out. “If it starts looking bad, we’ll re-evaluate the situation.” Really, he was in no condition to have a pointless argument with his AI.
J.A.R.V.I.S. didn’t respond, and Tony would have banged his head against something if he could have, but as it were, he was a passenger inside his own suit until his AI decided to hand over the controls.
Seeing as it had come uncomfortably close to Tony being taken by the Commander again, and how he had dispatched War Machine, Tony kind of saw how J.A.R.V.I.S. might argue the battle field wasn’t the best place for him.
That didn’t mean Tony had to like it, or even agree with it.
to be continued…
Chapter 39: The Captain
Steve was back on his feet and ready to kick ass. The disc that had paralyzed him was gone, the skin smarting where it had been attached to him. He was determined not to let the Commander use such a weapon against him again, because the fight had clearly taken a turn for the worse while he was out of it: Thor floated in the water of the pond, unconscious; War Machine was down, chest sparking; Sam had been groaning into the grass beside him when Steve snapped out of it.
Now that he had gotten Tony out of harm’s way – J.A.R.V.I.S. seemed to agree on that desire and carried out Steve’s order despite Tony’s protests – he could focus on the main objective. This fight had proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Commander was too dangerous to be allowed to roam free; he had the guts and the skill to attack the Avengers as a team, and take them apart one by one, especially if they didn’t get their act together and fight as a team.
Somehow, everyone seemed to have forgotten they were supposed to work together. Perhaps the Commander didn’t pose a big enough threat for them to react to it appropriately, even though they had faced off against him before.
Now, it was Steve against the Commander, and he was determined to finish it.
The Commander wasn’t looking happy, scowling and gritting his teeth. Tony had been in his grasp, and losing him had to sting.
“This is the end of the line for you,” Steve stated.
The Commander sneered. “You think you have what it takes to accomplish that?”
“We’ll see,” Steve promised and attacked. Neither of them had their shields, which made it a fight of pure bodily strength and agility.
The Commander blocked Steve’s punch, trying to catch him in the midriff in return, but Steve quickly lifted a right knee, aiming it at the ribs of his opponent, and the Commander shifted back to avoid it. Steve pushed forward with another punch, forcing the Commander onto the defensive, and they kept at it for a while, blocking and dodging, trying to get past each other’s guard.
Steve was the one who managed to land the first jaw-shattering blow after unbalancing the Commander by swiping his supporting foot from under him. The Commander reeled back, barely keeping himself from landing on the wet grass, and he checked his jaw while straightening himself up again.
Normally, Steve would have waited for his opponent to get back on their feet, so to speak, but with the Commander there was no reason to wait. Steve didn’t need to make this fight more even in order to give himself a challenge; there already was a substantial risk that he might not win, as much as he didn’t like that fact. The Commander needed no breather, and so Steve pushed forward, going in for a kick.
The Commander rolled to the side, avoiding his foot easily enough, but he was too far over to launch an attack of his own before Steve was striking again like an angry viper.
Steve had partaken in various fights where their success was crucial to the safety of the world: stopping Red Skull, the Chitauri and Loki, and later the HYDRA Helicarriers. All defining moments where the knowledge that he had to win relentlessly pounded in the back of his mind.
This fight was beginning to give him a similar taste, even though the Commander didn’t endanger the entire world with his presence. The threat he posed was more personal in nature, and Steve couldn’t fight the sense of urgency he felt, to deal with him once and for all.
The Commander didn’t seem to have anything against that, either; with Tony out of his reach, Steve had become an obstacle in his path, and simply discarding him to the side only so that Steve could attack him again didn’t pass for an effective strategy. Steve had proven that he could be a thorn in the Commander’s side, and it was doubtful Steve’s double would overlook it for long.
Steve’s attack was fast and furious, landing a fist and a knee in the Commander’s face before the other threw himself at Steve’s middle and brought them both down on the wet grass. Adrenaline coursed through Steve’s body as he fought to regain the upper hand, but the Commander was leaning over him, pinning him down, using his weight to his advantage.
Thrashing and twisting, Steve tried to get free, but he was going nowhere while simultaneously attempting to block the attacks. It was instinct to cover his head and keep the Commander from striking him where he was most vulnerable – neck, face – but the longer he was on the defensive meant giving the other one an opportunity to strike in some way Steve couldn’t predict just yet.
So, he lowered his hands, seeking to gain leverage against the ground instead, and the Commander immediately punched him right in the face, jarring his brain and blinding him for an instant.
Steve’s hands moved blindly for a moment, forgetting what he had set out to do, but then his fingertips grazed cool metal, smooth under his touch.
The Commander hauled off again, yelling with the effort, and Steve raised his left arm in a last-ditch effort to block it while rolling to the right, reaching to get hold of the object.
“I’ll kill you,” the Commander grunted, one hand grabbing Steve’s left wrist while the other took him by the throat, squeezing as hard as his super-human strength allowed. “I will kill each and every one of you if that’s what it takes, but Tony will be mine. When there’s no one left to stand between us, he’ll see…”
Steve reached, shoulder and wrist aching from the pull, but he finally managed to grasp the metal object and bring it forward, striking the Commander with the edge of it.
The Commander roared, his grasp on Steve slipping, and Steve took the opportunity to twist free, lungs burning and body shaking with the effort, heart pounding in his chest. He feared, for a moment, what would happen if he failed to stop the Commander.
What would happen if he got to Tony again.
In that moment, it wasn’t guilt that he felt over his failure to protect his teammate before.
It wasn’t logic, either, dictating his actions for the betterment of the world.
It was anger, refined into pure rage, laced with the physical pain he was currently experiencing and the abysmal helplessness he felt every time he looked at Tony, knowing what had happened to him.
He twisted around, fingers squeezing the rim of the shield he had picked up from the ground. There was no time to calculate a trajectory or measure the distance between them; his gut told him just how far to reach as he brought the shield around like a chakram. It hit the Commander in the throat, sending him back, and Steve stumbled after him, falling upon his enemy with one knee on his chest.
The Commander was coughing and fighting for air, throat bruised and bloody, eyes filled with violence as he gazed up at Steve, scarred face twisting into a snarl despite the blow he had just suffered.
Steve didn’t blink, didn’t overthink it; he grasped the shield in both hands, lifted it up, then brought it down.
Cartilage and bone crunched, and the body beneath him stopped fighting for freedom.
Breathing hard, Steve stumbled back, leaving the shield where it lay. He felt numb, still reeling from the blow to the head he had suffered, but a part of him knew the fight was over – for good.
The adrenaline flow was ebbing, pain and exhaustion pushing through the chemical filter, and Steve walked over to the bench by the pond, sitting down heavily, allowing the shaking to take over for a moment as he pushed his cowl back with bloody fingers.
to be continued…