Chapter Twenty-One: Mission Planning
The director didn't linger for long after handing the envelope to the Captain, he merely nodded at Barton and Romanoff before disappearing back into the shadows from whence he came. Tony tried and failed to not feel disturbed with the ease at which he did it, the sneaky ninja bastard and instead he turned his stare on Steve, who was gazing at the envelope with his brow furrowed slightly.
"So Capsicle, what did Ragetti give you?" He tried to inject some humour into his voice but it fell flat.
The soldier looked confused as he often did when Tony started throwing pop-culture references and with a swift flick of a finger tore open the seal of the envelope. Inside there was a single slip of paper and carefully he pulled it out, unsure as if it was going explode in his hand or not. He turned the cream coloured paper over and his blue eyes focused on the single line of curly cursive.
"It's an address..." He said bluntly.
The other five Avengers gathered around to look for themselves, the same identical thought passing through all their minds as they realised what exactly it was Fury had given them. However Tony found himself cursing under his breath as recognition set in, of course the bastards would pull something like this just to twist the knife a little deeper and further prove their point.
"Tony?" Bruce asked suddenly concerned.
The billionaire swallowed down the angry snarl that was working it's way up his throat.
"I know this place."
The curious stares intensified and Tony elaborated, a gnawing feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach.
"It's was one of mine... From back before Afghanistan, one of the weapons development plants... But after... I shut it down... " He faltered slightly, feeling the sting of old wounds being exposed to salt, the phrase 'when I was the Merchant of Death' remaining unsaid. "... It's where we did most of the government contract stuff, shady and otherwise."
Here he turned a steady gaze at Bruce and the physicist clicked on to his meaning immediately.
"It's where you developed the Hulkbusters."
His voice was cool but there was an intensity in his stare that made Tony feel like a cowed child, then almost as soon as it emerged it receded and the calm tranquillity that they were used to returned.
The billionaire just nodded stiffly and didn't say anymore on that particular subject.
"Thing is, because of what was being done there it means that the place is pretty much like Fort Knox... except y'know better."
No one groaned but he could feel the frustration in the air around them almost like a physical shroud, the question 'Why couldn't anything ever be simple?' Hanging over them, unspoken. That however didn't stop the team from plowing into the problem head first, they truly didn't understand the meaning of the word impossible and Tony had never been grateful for that.
"So, what you're saying is that the place is pretty much a fortress?" Asked Clint, devil-may-care grin affixed firmly to his face.
Beside him Natasha rolled her eyes at her partner's enthusiasm but there was the ghost of a smirk twitching at her own lips and Tony could already see her brain working around the gauntlet that had been thrown down. Beside her Thor's eyes gleamed with the thrill of a challenge, while Steve's was cool and calculating.
The billionaire nodded then frowned "Yeah... The whole works plus a few additions I added myself. Which kinda sucks because I made them to be impenetrable to scanning equipment and even if I did build something to scan it the AI running the place would recognise it as a threat and activate the defence systems. Have to be honest this is the one time I wish I wasn't such a genius"
There was a brief snort of laughter.
"Inflated egos aside..." Bruce started as Tony protested "... If we go in there we're going to be expecting trouble, so perhaps trouble is what we should aim for. Nothing is more devastating than a bit of controlled chaos as we saw yesterday."
The Avengers faces darkened at the reminder of the attack on their home but it was a fact that needed to reiterated.
"The good doctor is right. If we go in expecting to meet our foes head on we can strike first and inflict grievous damage upon them before they have the ability to react." Thor boomed out,
Steve smirked again, the smile somehow more terrifying and disturbing than his 'Captain America look of doom'.
"Take the initiative... Gotta admit I'm a fan of that plan."
"Seconded and thirded..." Natasha answered for both herself and Clint, a distinctly vicious edge to her voice.
Tony felt a genuine smile break out across his face but it quickly twisted into his trademark mischievous grin, ready to charm and devastate with a quick flick of a silvered tongue.
He quirked an eyebrow. "So, Avengers assemble?"
Nearly two hours later found Bruce and Tony exploring the basement labs of the manor, Tony had gone over in as much detail as possible the schematics for the research base and what sort of security protocols they were likely to be dealing with and during the discussion Bruce had mentioned something about a recalibrated radiation scanner that had set his science and engineering senses tingling.
"I thought it would be useful for tracking Howard down within the compound, the nano-bots were giving off some pretty unique radiation signatures and I'm pretty sure I remember the frequencies. I figured the faster we find him the faster we can get out of there, y'know big flash entrance, quick tactical withdrawal kind of thing."
Tony had been almost giddy with joy at the idea and it was nice to feel that sense of normality even for the briefest of moments, that was until he'd realised it would involve them going down into the manors labs. Into Howard's lab. He'd almost shot the idea down completely because of that but quickly understood that if he wanted this to be done, to be finished then he would have to face down a few more of his demons.
So the two of them had delved deep into the bowels of the manor with the aim of finding something that wasn't years past it's sell by date and that they could hopefully fashion into a makes shift scanner. But Tony had to admit (and it pained him to do so) that the whole experience wasn't exactly a walk in the park, everywhere he looked he saw snippets of the past and he could feel the tension in the long, heavy silences.
So, as it turned out, could Bruce.
He could see the uneasiness and tension in his friend and he wanted to ask so, so badly, to try and help alleviate some of the billionaire's obvious discomfort (and admittedly to satisfy a small portion of his curiosity) but he was worried about triggering something unpleasant that could make the whole situation much, much worse.
The physicist watched as Tony absent-mindedly wandered around the lab, his hands occasionally brushing over the half finished prototypes and schematics with a kind of reverent awe, his eyes glistening with some deep, unfathomable emotion that was sort of melancholy in it's composition and Bruce found he couldn't keep it to himself any longer, he had to ask.
Anything to break the silence that had suddenly become stifling.
"Tony are you okay?"
The billionaire seemed to freeze as the man spoke, so lost in his memories it was as if he'd almost forgotten Bruce was even there. He turned with a sudden jerky movement and flashed his friend a quick, bright and hollow grin.
"Peachy keen Big Guy." Tony answered with obviously faked honesty.
Bruce in reply shot him. The. Look.
After a brief but intense stare-out Tony relented.
"Okay, so maybe peachy-keen was a bit of a little white lie but seriously it's nothing I can't handle. Now, we have science to be doing Dr Banner and it isn't going to do itself."
The physicist raised an eyebrow, in disbelief or exasperation Tony couldn't tell but it appeared that his usually emotionally constipated friend wasn't about to let this drop.
He was too tired to be dealing with this shit.
"Tony..." Bruce said quietly
"Listen, it's nothing against you but I'd rather not talk about the shit that is going through my head right now, just take it that I'm having a bit of a memory overload and it's making it kind of hard to focus on the problem at hand."
Tony wanted to kick himself at the slightly forlorn look on Bruce's face but right here and right now was not the time for him to start dealing with his 'issues'. The physicist seemed to take the hint and nodded albeit a tad stiffly.
"Okay, I'll leave it for now..." He said a little awkwardly "...But you have to talk sometime otherwise it will just end up poisoning you, take it from someone who has a fair amount of experience with it."
The self-effacing voice hid much darker undertones and the billionaire swallowed around the lump that had suddenly welled up in his throat at the thought of his friend having to deal with all those kinds of thoughts on his own and the dark path it had lead the physicist down. He took a moment to push those disturbing thoughts aside not wanting to imagine that feeling of absolute, crushing solitude and despair, instead he flashed a crooked smile probably looked as fake as it felt but his words were at least, honest.
Bruce gave another nod, seemingly satisfied and turned to one of the many scrap heaps and began rummaging through it for parts. After a few moments Tony eventually joined him and soon the usual banter (well Tony's banter and Bruce's exasperated looks) flew between them as if they were in their own labs and in little under an hour they had cobbled most of the components for the scanner, exhausting the visible piles of components in the process.
Meaning that they were going to have to broaden their search for those last few vital parts.
Tony headed to the far side of the laboratory where there was a pile of sheet metal stacked against the wall and began hauling them aside causing a raucous amount of noise. He often remembered Howard using the gaps behind them to hide important things and it appeared that this was one of the older spots. As he cleared the last of the metal aside Tony peered down into the small gap to see what had been concealed and felt the breath leave his lungs like he had been punched.
The billionaire had known from a young age that his father was not a sentimental man.
But for whatever reason he'd kept this.
And dammit he could feel those evil tears pricking at his eyes again.
Bruce, noticing the sudden silence cautiously crept over to where his friend was standing, a worried frown on his face.
"Tony, what's wrong? Did you find...?"
"He kept it..." Tony broke in, his voice weak and slightly in awe "After all those years, all that bad blood he kept it..."
The physicist was now thoroughly confused and he peered around his friend's still form to see what he was focused so intently on. In the small alcove surrounded by metal debris and other mechanical flotsam was a small combustion engine mounted on a plinth, Bruce's mind suddenly recalled something from Tony's file and realisation dawned.
"Is that...?" He asked, somewhat shocked.
"Yeah..." The other man replied "It's the first engine I ever built..."
Tony was sitting in his bedroom casually disassembling and reassembling one of the toys his mother had gotten him the previous day. He appreciated what she was trying to do but he was just so bored . Summer holidays officially sucked. He checked the bolts on the Evel Knievel stunt bike once more and happy they were secure, revved it up and let rip. The small bike skittered along the carpet before slamming into the closed wooden door of his bedroom at full speed and not for the first time the youngster wished it was him riding the bike.
The young Tony grinned in triumph and went to retrieve the toy from its resting place, just about managing to not jump when a sharp rap came at the door.
Jarvis's voice sounded through the wood and Tony bounded back from the door with a slightly guilty look on his face, the elderly butler always seemed to know when he was up to no good. The youngster quickly made sure that all the evidence of his tinkering was hidden before he answered.
"Here Jarvis, come in."
The door slowly creaked inwards and the familiar figure of the Stark family butler appeared in the open doorway. There was an uncertain look on his face that Tony had never seen there before and immediately didn't like, Jarvis knew everything; it was an impossibility to his young mind that there was something that would make him uncertain. The look however quickly faded and he smiled that old, worn smile that Tony was so used to; affectionate but at the same time long suffering.
"Your father wishes to speak with you."
Tony froze at that, his father never wanted to speak to him about anything. The last time they had 'spoken' about anything had been that time where he'd been once again caught in his lab looking for spare parts; he could still feel the sting of the tongue lashing after that particular talk. He turned fearful eyes up at the elderly man, whose expression softened slightly.
"You are not in trouble young master, of that I can assure you."
This confused the young child, his father never wanted anything to do with him unless he'd done something wrong; this was a fact that had been conditioned into him over his five and a half years of life.
Jarvis didn't reply but still had that omnipotent look on his face he always had when he knew that although Tony may not like what was about to happen it was in his best interests. Reluctantly Tony got to his feet and brushed himself down, knowing that if he arrived looking anything but his best then his father would be annoyed and moved toward the doorway, steeling himself for whatever he was about to face. The butler placed a reassuring hand on the child's shoulder and escorted him down to where Howard was waiting.
The youngster tried not to shudder as Jarvis lead him toward his father's basement lab but he knew that the older man felt the tension held in his small body. He gave Tony's shoulder a reassuring squeeze and then knocked on the heavy, reinforced door to the laboratory, both of them waiting for the invitation to enter.
Tony shoved down the feeling of dread as Jarvis pushed open the door and steered them inside his hand firmly planted on the child's shoulder. Whether it was a show of support or just a means to an end Tony didn't know but he was grateful for the grounding touch. As usual his father was sat behind the main workbench his face shrouded in darkened goggles and a welding torch grasped in one of his hands. For a moment it didn't even seem like Howard had even noticed they'd entered and then with one sharp movement he turned to them, eyes zeroing in on the youngster.
"Thank you Jarvis, you may go." He said utterly blandly.
The youngster turned wide, pleading eyes up at the butler whose face was as impassive as ever but he nodded and gave his shoulder a quick squeeze before turning and walking out of the lab, leaving the two Stark's alone.
Tony gulped and tried to hold in his fear.
"Come here boy."
Tony quelled the anger that shot through him at being spoken to, ordered like an animal and instead stumbled forward, eyes trained firmly on the ground and away from Howard's piercing be-goggled gaze. He stood at the edge of the workbench and forced himself not to fidget. The elder Stark either unconcerned or oblivious to his sons discomfort turned back to his project before speaking.
"It has been brought to my attention that I have not been giving enough notice to you and your 'gifts' , so today I am going to try and rectify that."
There was no hint of Howard's usual sneer and Tony noticed with shock that the usual smell of what he now knew to be whiskey was currently not seeping from the older man. The absence of these two things thoroughly confused the youngster and he bit his lip nervously waiting to see what his father had in store for him, past experience had predicted that it wouldn't be good.
"Your mother has told me that you have taken a keen interest in mechanics and are becoming quite inquisitive about how things fit together..." Here Howard paused pulled out a box full of parts. "Impress me."
Tony felt like his young mind had been blown, his father never wanted anything to do with him and certainly never gave him any opportunity to tinker. Suspecting some kind of trap he eyed the box warily before shooting a suspicious look at the older man, who once again had turned back to whatever project he was working on. He didn't appear to be paying attention to Tony but he knew that was about as far from the truth as it could be.
"That is of course if you want to show me what you can do."
The words were barbed and Tony felt the sting, his teeth clacking together as he bit back the retort. Wordlessly he pulled the box of parts toward him and quickly sorted through them and from what he see he had the parts for a small combustion engine. Admittedly this was a little more complicated than anything else he had built so far but he wasn't going to back down from his father's challenge.
And so he set to work.
Not that Tony noticed; he was far too preoccupied with his project, the challenge enthralling and relishing that he could, for once, get down and dirty with something more technical than a clockwork toy. He was not going to waste a single second of this opportunity as he knew full well that it may never happen again. Finally after what had seemed like half an hour to the youngster but had in fact been closer to seven Tony was finally finished. He admired his creation with a critical eye and allowed himself a small triumphant grin.
It was perfect.
He turned to his father to try and gain the man's attention but was shocked to see that the older man was already watching him intently, eyes burning bright with an emotion unseen by Tony before today. Self-consciousness flooded through the child and he quickly dropped his gaze to the floor completely unsure of what to do or say. His shock increased when he felt a large hand roughly tussle his hair in an almost affectionate manner.
Then his father spoke.
"Good job Anthony."
The words burned through Tony, not in an unpleasant way, but in a way that made his skin tingle with warmth and a bubble of pure happiness expand in his chest making it hard to breathe.
His father had complimented him.
Anthony Edward Stark.
And to the tiny five year old, that meant more than anything, anything in the world.
Tony swallowed around the lump in his throat and felt his resolve harden at the remembrance that Howard was capable of actual human emotions such as compassion. He may have been a bastard for the vast majority of Tony's life but he was still a human being, super serum or not and therefore didn't deserve to have any of this happening to him.
Some other things maybe but not this.
He turned to Bruce his jaw set like tempered steel with fire blazing in his eyes and the physicist felt himself gasp, somewhat awestruck at the abrupt change in his friend.
"Do you have everything you need Bruce?"
Bruce nodded, his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth rendering him speechless. He hadn't seen the other man look that determined in quite a while.
"Then let's get started, I want to be working on getting the Mark five online as soon as possible."
The two men said nothing more after this point, far too engrossed in radiation signatures, bio-mechanics and engineering to even notice the world passing them by.