The grey static faded away to show a very dirty, but very pleased Tony Stark. The youth, several years older than the previous video, grinned triumphantly at the camera, dark eyes bright and captivating.
Steve recognized the almost manic gleam in the child’s eyes, having seen it countless times in the adult Tony’s eyes after a difficult project. Steve smiled as young Tony lifted his screwdriver in the air and swiped at his curls, leaving behind a large streak of grime across his forehead.
“It’s finished, Aunt Peggy!” he exclaimed, bringing his gaze down to the large engine resting on the floor of a large workshop.
“Well done, Tony dear,” Peggy’s voice cheered from behind the camera. “It’s marvelous.” The child practically oozed pride and happiness as he stared at the camera.
“Where’s dad?” he asked, bouncing slightly where he sat, his head turning to gaze off camera. The hope in the dark eyes was obvious, and Steve’s heart went out to the child, hoping, no, pleading, that Howard was there to marvel at the boy’s accomplishments.
“Is that a completed engine?” Clint piped up, eyes narrowed at the screen.
“Yeah,” Bruce replied slowly, “but it looks like it has…”
“It’s a V16,” Natasha supplied. Steve looked to her, brows furrowed. “That’s not possible,” he argued.
“Not in the 1940s, Cap,” she responded. She nodded to the screen. “It’s a transverse V16 midmounted with its transmission mounted in the middle of the V16,” she explained.
“So,” Steve said slowly, turning to look at the screen, “it’s a V8 sandwich.” Natasha just nodded. Steve stared at the small boy on the screen, hair and face covered in oil but shining with accomplishment. Well, Steve reasoned, they all knew Tony was a genius.
He was pulled from his musings when the boy perked up and called, “Dad! Look, it’s –“
He was cut off by the man entering the frame, his feet unsteady beneath him, and a drink in his hand. Steve stared as Howard Stark stumbled up to his son, literally looking down at the child with a frown.
“Took you long ‘nough,” he slurred, nodding at the engine and sloshing some amber liquid onto the floor. He paused, his shrewd eyes observing the engine. “Wha’ is this piece o’ crap ‘nyways,” he mumbled, glaring at the engine.
“Howard,” Peggy clipped, her tone sharp.
“It’s a V16, Dad!” Tony piped, looking up at his dad with wide, earnest eyes. Steve’s stomach clenched at the desperation in his voice and eyes, the hope falling away quickly as he gazed up at his father. “I made it all by myself,” he added, a hopeful smile forming on his lips.
“And it’s wonderful, baby,” Peggy said, her voice strained, the camera stepping closer. Tony gave her a half smile before turning back to Howard. “Dad –“
“It’s not good ‘nough!” Howard yelled, his voice slurring and his drink sloshing dangerously in his loose hand. “How’re we s’pposed to find –“ the man hiccupped violently.
“…Steve with tha’,” he finished, swaying slightly. Steve’s eyes grew wide as he stared at his friend.
Bruce and Clint turned to Steve, an identical look of horror on both their faces.
“Howard,” Peggy said again, “that’s not something Tony should –“
“No!” he cut her off, gesturing wildly around the work shop. “This is the utmos’ prior –“ he hiccupped again. “…p’iority. I don’ have time to deal with useless pieces o’ junk,” he spat, venomously, glaring down and gesturing at Tony again.
Steve’s heart utterly shattered at the desperate, hopeless, and broken gaze of the child as he stared up at his drunken father. “Dad,” Tony pleaded, tears filling his eyes. “Dad, I promise,” he sniffed, rubbing his nose with an oily hand. “I promise I’ll help you find the Captain,” he finished, tears spilling down his face. “Please, Dad just –“
“Are you crying?” Howard yelled, taking a menacing step toward his son.
“Howard!” Peggy cried, setting the camera down haphazardly on a nearby surface. The lens shifted down, showing the Avengers just Howard and Peggy’s legs, but a full view of Tony, who still sat on the floor next to his project, desperately wiping his face.
“Wha’ did I tell you ‘bout crying,” the man howled, taking another step toward his son. Peggy moved to intercept the man, her legs coming to stand protectively in front of the child.
“Stark men are made of iron, An’tony,” Howard spat, appearing to struggle with Peggy. Howard’s hand brought down the glass into view of the camera, looking as if he was going to throw it. “Howard, don’t –“ Peggy began, her torso coming into frame as she reached for the glass before it could fall.
She didn’t catch it in time, and the glass shattered against the floor of the workshop, amber liquid spilling and glass flying in all directions. Tony flinched away from the harsh sound, a strangled sob escaping his throat and more tears spilling down his face.
Steve watched in complete horror as Howard Stark used Peggy’s distraction to his advantage and took a step forward, his hand coming down to slap Tony across the face.
The sound of his hand hitting his son’s face sent all four Avengers to their feet.
“Howard Anthony Stark!” Peggy screamed, turning and dragging the man away from Tony, whose hand had come up to cover his smarting cheek. “What did I tell you about this!” she shrieked, succeeding in pushing Howard back several paces before shouting, “Jarvis!”
Amid her efforts to keep Howard back, Jarvis appeared in the frame, his face carefully blank, making his way to Tony.
“Come, now, young sir,” he said softly, bending to help the child. Steve watched Tony as the child just continued to stare, heartbroken, down at his engine, ignoring the man.
In the background, Steve heard Peggy continue to berate Howard. “What would Steve say if he were here,” she shouted at the man. “How dare you continue with this ridiculousness! That is your son, Howard!”
Steve physically flinched. He should have been there, he berated himself. This wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been gone, he thought.
“Tony,” Jarvis finally whispered, tugging on the child’s arm. “Let’s go,” he said, managing to get the youth’s attention. Tony looked up and sniffed, his face hardening in determination. He nodded stiffly, wiping at his face again with his shirt sleeve.
His shirt. Steve actually cried out when he realized that Tony was wearing the same blue Captain America shirt he had been gifted several years prior – the color a very faded blue, the material thin and warn, now fitting his larger frame.
Jarvis led the boy closer to the camera, the last image showing Tony’s resolutely blank face before Jarvis’ hand blocked the lens and the screen went blank.
The room was filled with silence except for the hard breathing of four very angry Avengers. Steve finally sat back on the couch, covering his face with his shaking hands, willing himself not to cry. Bruce crumpled down beside him, his frame shaking.
Steve could hear Natasha whispering quietly to Bruce, no doubt trying to calm the man. Clint was silent. Someone sniffed.
“How old was he?” Bruce suddenly asked. Steve looked up to see the man looking to Natasha.
“Nine,” she replied, looking back to the screen, as if she could still see the small child. “At nine years old, Tony Stark built the first working V16 engine. Five years earlier,” she added, looking back to Bruce. “He built his first circuit board.”
Steve let the information sink in, the brilliance of Tony’s mind overwhelming him slightly.
“That’s where he was,” Clint said suddenly, bringing Steve’s head up again to look at the man. Clint, in an uncharacteristic gesture of sorrow, held his head in his hands, his eyes squeezed shut.
“What?” Bruce asked, looking as confused as Steve.
“Yes,” Natasha responded cryptically, laying a hand on Clint’s shoulder.
“What?” Bruce repeated, looking to Steve now. He shrugged.
“Howard missed Tony’s birthday,” Clint clarified, not looking up from his position. “Because he was searching for Cap.”
Bruce paled. Natasha looked resigned. Steve felt…overwhelmed. He recalled Tony, young, tiny, innocent Tony, pleading with his father, promising his help with finding…me. Steve hated himself.
This was the reason Tony had hid those movies, Steve realized. ‘I hope it hurts,’ he had said. It did. It burned, ached, and bruised, Steve thought. Bruised…Steve’s stomach clenched as he remembered the horrible sound of Howard hitting Tony.
“What did I tell you about this,” Steve repeated quietly, remembering Peggy’s words. Bruce looked to him in confusion. Steve only had eyes for Natasha, however, who still sat with her eyes trained on the screen.
Natasha turned to face him, eyes dark and angry. She nodded.
Steve just stared, aghast. “How?”
Natasha closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. “The files we have on Stark did not explicitly state that…” she fell silent before gesturing to the screen. “That that happened, but from the few sources we recovered and the brief psychological analysis we had done on him, it was agreed that Tony Stark suffered from at least a minimal amount of child abuse at home.”
Steve returned his head to his hands. How could Howard have done that, he wondered morosely. The Howard he had known wouldn’t have ever…
‘The Howard you knew and the Howard I knew were very different people.’ Tony’s warning words several months ago rang in Steve’s mind. He had asked the man about Howard’s death – finally mustering the courage to face the question – and he had received a very dry and emotionless answer. When asked why a son would care so little about a father, Tony had responded as such.
Steve cringed at the truth staring at him from the television.
“How often?” Clint asked, his voice tight in anger. No one answered. He looked to Natasha, but she shook her head. “Jarvis?” he asked, looking up.
The AI was silent for several moments. “I am unsure, Agent Barton,” Jarvis finally responded, his mechanical tone contrite. “There are no hospital records to reference, and Sir resolutely refuses to answer any questions regarding any incidences.” Steve didn’t think he was imagining the bitter and angry tone infused in the last word.
As unrealistic as the feeling was, Steve was suddenly very glad that Tony had an AI to look after him now. He didn’t think this Jarvis would allow any harm to come to Tony without doing all in his power to stop it, including calling for help.
But Tony didn’t just happen upon Jarvis, Steve realized sadly. He made Jarvis. He created the computer because there wasn’t anyone else to take care of him. Because I wasn’t there, he thought bitterly.
That can change, he thought forcefully, looking up to meet the gaze of Bruce, Natasha and Clint. It has changed.
“If you are ready, Captain Rogers,” the AI said, his voice almost wary.
As ready as I’ll ever be, he thought grimly, now terrified of what he would see next.
The blank screen flickered on.