Chapter Twenty-Two: Getting to Know You
The hours flew by in what seemed like seconds not only for the pair of scientists that had holed themselves up in the lab in hardware mode but also for the rest of the team. After leaving both Tony and Bruce to their own devices the remaining members had taken to exploring the vast mansion that they had suddenly found themselves in. Some of them were looking out of sheer curiosity; others were looking for their own, infinitely more personal reasons.
Steve had never been given much of an opportunity to find out about those he had known 'back in the day', a combination of fear at what he'd find, confusion at the modern world, self-loathing and anger stopping him.
He'd been given unprecedented access to one of his good friend's home; a man who had changed so very drastically through the passage of time that he was almost unrecognisable and dammit the Captain wanted some answers as to why. He knew he wouldn't get them from either Stark (he was convinced that he would see Howard again, he was not willing to give up on him despite the colossal ass that he'd been) and now a golden opportunity to learn about his friend and his teammate had fallen into his lap. The likelihood of such an opportunity happening again was virtually zero and he was determined not to waste such a valuable commodity.
The soldier moved along the corridors with a comfortable gait, he didn't attempt to be stealthy knowing that Tony would find out what he was up to regardless of his actions and at least this way it wouldn't seem like he was trying to hide anything; he knew that would only serve to piss the billionaire off.
He had already searched through most of the lower floors, the rooms yielding very little except for the odd stilted family portrait. Steve tried not to wince at the obvious discomfort between the members of the Stark household, at the strained and forced smiles plastered across all three faces but it's a close thing. He can't even begin to imagine what it must have been like to live in such a household; he'd grown up surrounded by war and illness and that brought people together in ways you wouldn't believe.
The majority of the bedrooms on the upper floors were locked and the soldier respected that although he itched to see what was behind them. He did however find a few open doors and eagerly scoured the contents.
The first room was a large expansive room filled with a large four poster bed that was swathed in different shades of red. It looked like it had been recently inhabited if the disturbed dust was anything to go by and Steve realised that this must have been the room they had brought Bruce to the previous day. He stepped in cautiously not quite expecting what to find but somehow hoping that it would hold the answers he so desperately was seeking.
The soldier walked toward the small writing desk tucked away in the far corner of the room, figuring it was a good place to start. It was clearly an antique and was caked in dust but appeared to be in good condition even after years of neglect. With careful reverence Steve unlatched the sliding top and slid it back revealing the contents; unlike the rest of the room which seemed rather bare and impersonal despite the luxury the small bureau was stuffed full of photographs with the occasional letter interspersed among them. All the photos were of the same two people; Tony and (Steve assumed) his mother Maria. Steve tried not to think what the absence of Howard in all of the photo's meant and decided to just take in the pictures of a life that had passed him by while he slept. Most of the images were just like the stuffy and downright uncomfortable family portraits he'd found on the lower levels but every now and then there would be one genuine moment, one image that showed the real Tony underneath and his clear adoration for his mother.
The soldier couldn't help but crack a wry smile as he looked at the images of the younger Tony. For the first time since setting foot in this ghastly house he had found some really tangible proof that linked the man he knew with the child Howard had brought into the world. He could see the sass and attitude in the youngsters stance (who couldn't have been more than seven or eight) even as he had his arms wrapped around the slightly exasperated looking woman, big brown eyes (that were definitely his mothers, Tony might be the image of Howard but those sharp, liquid eyes were all from Maria) glaring at the person taking the photo.
But as quickly as the smile emerged it fell from his lips as he came to a startling realisation, just how long had Tony been putting up his snarky asshole act for? And Steve knew it was an act, it had taken a while after they'd all moved into the tower but eventually the billionaire had lowered some of his guards and started to trust them and they'd all seen that most of the snark and assholery was just a show he put on to push people away.
But if these photo's were anything to go by he'd been doing this since he was a child, a god-damn child and Steve felt his stomach twist unpleasantly with a mixture of horror and anger.
This was inhumane.
With a growl the soldier slammed down the lid of the bureau, freezing when it creaked slightly and took a deep steadying breath. Giving into his anger wouldn't help anyone right now and besides he wasn't in possession of all of the facts it would be unfair of him to jump to conclusions. That however didn't stop him feeling the slightest bit guilty about the whole thing, he'd already figured out that the reason Howard wasn't in a lot of the photos was because he had been out searching for him and he couldn't help but wonder how life would have been different if he hadn't gone under the ice.
Shaking his head and immediately halting that particular train of thought before it became too morbid Steve moved back from the bureau and into the centre of the room. He briefly contemplated stopping his self imposed mission but then decided against it, he wasn't a quitter, never had been and he would see this through to the end despite the personal discomfort. It didn't take him long to search the rest of the room despite its size and aside from the bureau the wasn't anything else that warranted a real look, it was all mostly feminine toiletries and clothing. What had unnerved his during his search however was the distinct lack of anything related to Howard. From everything he'd seen and heard he'd assumed that his friend and his wife had a fairly solid relationship or maybe that was yet another fallacy that had been projected to the outside world.
Steve retreated from the room closing the door behind him with a quiet click and headed down the corridor in search of the next open room. After a few minutes of searching he found another open door and with the same cautiousness he showed when entering Maria's room the soldier walked inside. Immediately Steve felt a smile tug at his lips because there was absolutely no mistaking whose room this was, even if the circuit boards mounted on the walls and the small pieces of robotics on the shelf hadn't made that abundantly clear. His smile broadened as he stepped further into Tony's childhood room his sharp blue eyes roaming over the contents, casually noticing the wealth of Captain America memorabilia mixed in with crude schematics drawn by a child-like hand.
It appeared that the billionaire hadn't always disliked what he'd stood for and for some reason that made his heart feel light and heavy at the same time.
Steve picked up one of the designs noticing the familiar looking chassis and could help but marvel at his friend's innovative mind even as a child. What had to be the first draft of DUM-E shone up from the page, a testament to what was to come.
"Find something interesting Captain?"
The soldier dropped the paper in shock and spun around trying not to look like a kid that had been caught with his hand in the cookie jar, Natasha had her usual neutral expression on her face but he could see the glimmer of amusement in her eyes.
"Uh..." He replied lamely.
The spy cracked a smile at that and walked into the room to stand beside him.
"Trying to find out more about Stark I see." There was something in her voice that reminded Steve of a mother grizzly.
"I uh... Yes. It seemed like a good opportunity."
Natasha didn't say anything but smiled mysteriously and gestured for him to follow her which Steve did without question; when the Black Widow asked you to follow you followed. The two of them left the upper floors and headed down into the bowels of the house, Steve growing steadily more confused as Natasha led him through what seemed to be a maze of corridors. She finally came to a halt outside an nondescript looking door and pushed it open leaning against the doorframe as she motioned the super soldier inside. He shot her a puzzled look and she merely shrugged in response.
"I found this place last night." Was all she said.
Unlike the rooms upstairs Steve somehow had the feeling he was intruding but Natasha was insisting and he trusted her with his life. Slowly he stepped inside and as he rose his gaze the soldier felt his breath catch in his throat.
There were pictures everywhere.
The walls were literally covered in photographs and while not all of them were of Tony there was certainly a lot containing the billionaire. Steve gazed almost wondrously at the photographs happy at finally finding what he had been looking for, he could see the different sides of his friend from the rebellious youth to the distinguished (ish) scholar. His eyes zeroed in on what appeared to be Tony's graduation photo; Maria was standing there looking wary but proud but it wasn't Howard that stood on Tony's opposite side. The man was several years older than Maria and had a slightly worn look to him, not scruffy exactly, just muted around the edges slightly but he had the same proud look on his face that Tony's mother did and if the arm slung around the man's shoulder was anything to go by then the billionaire was just as happy to have the man there. Steve's eyes combed across the walls and everywhere he looked the man appeared in the photographs along with Tony and every time regardless of age the look of happiness on the younger man's face was genuine.
"Who is he?" Steve asked unable to hide the curiosity in his voice.
Natasha smiled softly, that rare gentle smile she usually only reserved for one of them when they were doing something she secretly found adorable.
"He used to be the Stark family butler, he pretty much raised Stark when he was a kid."
"Used to be?"
The spy's smile turned sad. "He passed away just before Stark's twenty-first birthday, just as he was inheriting Stark Industries."
Steve felt a pang of sorrow at that, Tony lost a lot of important people at a time he wasn't really emotionally ready to deal with it but then again was anyone ever really ready for it? He'd had his own experiences with loss and even now the ghosts still haunted him, Tony was probably no different.
"That's too bad, I would have like to have met him. I'm sure he would have some interesting stories to tell." He kept his voice painfully neutral while Natasha gave a quiet laugh.
"That sounds correct; from what I've been told he was quite an interesting man. He'd have to be to have such a lingering effect on Tony Stark."
"Lingering effect?" Steve sounded confused.
Mischief danced in Widow's eyes and she merely clicked her tongue in slight annoyance at his apparent obliviousness.
"The man's name is Edwin, Edwin Jarvis."
The Captain's eyes bugged out of his head slightly as he made the connection and he was pretty sure his jaw had dropped open.
"You mean...? Tony always said it was just an acronym."
Natasha gave him the look, the one that screamed 'are you some kind of idiot' and just folded her arms across her chest.
"Stark tells us a lot of things, doesn't always mean that they're true or at least mostly true."
Steve couldn't argue with that they all had the secret sentiments; ones that they didn't share with anyone unless they absolutely had to. This whole situation had uncovered a lot of home truths for them all not just Tony and it was still an adjustment period for the entire team but if it was the one thing the Avengers could be relied upon to do it was adapt. Suddenly feeling as if he'd wasted too much time the super soldier turned to Natasha his previous discomfort completely forgotten.
"We should go and see how far Bruce and Tony are off being ready."
Widow, and it was definitely the Black Widow, nodded understanding an order when she heard one. This was something they could come back to at another time, right now they had a mission to prepare for.
Bruce wiped the sweat from his brow and didn't even bother attempting to hide the triumphant smile. After hours of hard work the scanner was finally, finally finished and everything looked like it was working within parameters. He cast his gaze over at Tony whose face was covered with a welding mask and coughed loudly to get his attention. There was a moment where he thought Tony hadn't heard him over the noise of the welding torch but then suddenly it was silent and the billionaire was lifting up the mask.
"What's up Big Guy?" There was a slightly manic edge to his voice.
The physicist held up the scanner and walked over to his friend to allow him to take a look.
"This is about as ready as it's ever going to be."
Tony grinned brightly and ran the torch between his hands clearly unable to sit still as he examined the scanner, he didn't touch but he didn't really need to; he trusted Bruce's judgment even if the man himself didn't always.
"Looking good. I've nearly fixed all the damage to the suit as well so not much longer and we'll be ready to rock and roll..."
Tony paused a second as if suddenly tongue tied and Bruce's brow knitted together.
"Tony...? What's wrong?"
The billionaire didn't answer right away staring at the suit with glassy eyes, his hand clenching tightly around the welding torch.
"What if this goes wrong?" Tony's voice was filled with self-doubt.
Bruce grimaced, the thought had crossed his mind but he hadn't really wanted to make an issue of it, it was in his nature to be pessimistic but he had faith in his friend, his friend who always seemed to get the job done no matter the odds.
"It won't." He replied sounding much surer than he felt.
The billionaire levelled him with a stare as if trying to pick apart his words, the manic gleam in his eyes from before gone and replaced with something else, something darker.
"It won't Tony." Bruce re-iterated.
"But what if it does? We'll be criminals forever and I can't do that to you guys."
Bruce snorted softly and ran a hand through his hair. "Most of us are already criminals Tony or did you forget that?"
Tony pursed his lips in unhappiness; he'd either forgotten that particular piece of information (unlikely) or he'd chosen to ignore it.
"Bruce if things go bad, I mean really bad and you end getting separated from us or you have to run... I... Uhm well go to Grand Central, locker 317. There's an electronic lock, code is 6747336."
"Whoa Tony, what are you talking about? I don't understand." The physicist looked genuinely concerned by the sudden serious tone.
"I. I made a contingency plan when you and the rest of the team moved in. There was a high possibility that something like this whole situation with the WSC would happen eventually so I prepared. I set up safety boxes for all of you with money, fake passports, etcetera so if you wanted to go, escape, whatever you could."
Tony was very pointedly not looking at Bruce, he didn't want to see the look on his friends face knowing that it was probably a mixture of pity and anger. He was startled a moment later when a warm hand placed itself on his shoulder and drew him into a tentative hug. The billionaire felt his face heat at the beyond awkward gesture but he returned it with honest enthusiasm.
"Thank you. I mean I'll probably never use the damn thing because I'm not going anywhere if I can help it and I'm sure the others feel the same but it's... It's a relief to know it's there if I ever need it." Bruce murmured his voice low and filled with quiet awe.
Tony smiled nervously into the other man's shoulder and then pulled away, trying to cover up his awkwardness with his usual brash facade.
"Don't worry about it Big Guy, it was the least I could do."
The physicist rolled his eyes. "What, you mean besides the high tech labs and five star apartment? I honestly don't know what I did to deserve all this kindness."
It was the billionaire's turn to roll his eyes at the apparent stupidity of Bruce's comment. "You've all put up with my shit and not run screaming. It's more than most people have ever given me and... y'know it's... appreciated."
Bruce smiled in response "Yeah, right back at you Tony."
There was a moment of comfortable silence, a lot of words unspoken flying between them before they both turned back to their respective projects. Tony grinned as he pulled down his mask and flared up the welding torch again setting to work on the Mark 5 while Bruce began to clear away the debris from the scanner deep in thought and deeply touched by the gesture. He knew that he'd never need the safety box, he wasn't intending on going anywhere, but at least it was there and if it made his friend feel better then he'd let him have it.
It was the least he could do