A/N: This is the prequel to my other work, "In Threes." Written to: Song For No One - Miike Snow, crosspost from AO3
Full Summary: Before Steve Rogers disappeared off the face of the Earth, he agreed to an experimental procedure devised by Howard Stark that, if successful, would be used primarily for helping comatose patients wake up. It didn't appear to work, and so Howard put the project and Steve out of his mind.
So when the technology did begin to work, only Tony Stark, barely able to string three words together, was there to see it.
"Hey, listen, I'm definitely not supposed to be doing this," Howard called from over his shoulder as he piloted the plane over the dark French countryside. Steve looked down, trying to catch a glimpse of something, anything, but the dark ground below him offered up nothing, not even the lonely lights of a small village, and he swallowed roughly, feeling very, very small. He tried to ignore Peggy as she sat solidly beside Howard, her back stiff; tried not to look, tried not to think about what might happen next, what might happen if he went down there and Bucky really was dead.
"So I was wondering, might I ask you a favour?" Howard continued, squinting as he tried to make out the location of the plane. "In the interest of science, of course."
"Of course," Steve muttered absentmindedly. Bucky couldn't be dead. He would have felt it. It was just some sort of misunderstanding, he was sure. Surely it couldn't have been Bucky's unit that had gone missing, or maybe it was another Bucky. Not his Bucky Barnes, that was a common name, wasn't it? It had to be.
"It'll be for thought collection," Howard explained, tossing a paper-wrapped package back at him. Steve caught it, tore it out of its yellow packaging, examined the vial of clear liquid that it contained. "That liquid you see there contains a lot of experimental nanobots - in other words, tiny robots. They'll swim up to your brain and attach themselves there."
Steve raised an eyebrow at Peggy's back, but she didn't turn around. "Are you sure this is safe?"
"Not at all," Howard called back. "That's why it's experimental. But since you have increased regen, I figure if they start eating into your brain tissue, you'll just be able to repair it quickly enough without any lasting damage."
Steve rolled his eyes, even though the two in front couldn't see. "And this is useful for...what exactly?"
"Oh, lots of different things," Howard said noncommittally, reaching out the rub the windshield of the plane with a sleeve. "Primarily, if it's successful, for comatose patients in hospitals, as a potential way to get them out of their comas."
Steve thought that that was a good idea, but hesitated before popping open the cap of the vial. "Any other uses I ought to know about?"
"I'm sure there are plenty of other things it could be used for if this tech is successful," Howard said, pulling the plane into a smooth left turn. "Interrogation. Psychoanalysis. A bunch of other things. That's if it works, though. There's a very likely chance that it won't. That's why it's experimental. Now drink up, your stop's coming up pretty quickly."
Steve sighed, frowned at the glass vial in his hands, looked at Peggy's stiff back, then sighed again before popping the cap and tossing down the contents in one long sip. It tasted bitter and horrible, and he nearly gagged, but forced himself to swallow it down anyway. He concentrated, holding his breath, wondering if he could feel the nanobots swimming up his bloodstream to his brain, but couldn't feel anything.
"You'd better jump!" Howard shouted back at him, pressing a few buttons on the control panel and opening the exit doors. "Good luck! Come back safe!"
As Steve dove out of the plane, he heard Howard mention something about fondue to Peggy, heard her laugh. Wondered, hoped, prayed that he'd see her again.
When he came back with Bucky, Howard Stark insisted on a thorough examination of his brain to make sure the nanobots had taken, that they were working. Steve sighed, but obliged; Howard had done quite a lot of things for him, he reflected as he looked down at the new vibranium shield he carried.
Howard pushed him into a medical tent, commanding him to take a seat on one of the cots, before pulling a silvery device with a large bug-eye lens and a black screen out of his pocket. He ordered Steve to lie back, and Steve obeyed, laying his head on the thin cotton pillow provided and staring up at the flapping white panels of the medical tent.
Howard whistled a tune that Steve didn't recognise as he slathered Steve's forehead with some cold gel that smelt vaguely like lemons and antiseptic and pressed the lens to Steve's skin. Steve watched him as he rolled up his coat sleeves and moved the lens around on Steve's forehead, checking the screen every once in a while, hemming and hawing and muttering to himself, occasionally leaning over and jotting down a few notes on a yellow notepad with a blue ballpoint pen. He wondered if he and Peggy had had fondue. If Peggy had liked it, and smiled at him, and laughed.
"Peculiar. Very peculiar," Howard finally concluded, pulling the lens off Steve's forehead with a little squeaky pop and handing Steve a wet wipe to rub off any extra gel.
"What's peculiar?" Steve asked, fearing the worst. "Are they really eating my brains away? I can't feel anything."
Howard looked at him as if he'd just said he was ready to defect to Nazi Germany. "No, don't be silly," he said after a moment. "They're not eating your brains. Your brain is completely fine."
"Then...what's wrong with me?" Steve asked, sitting up and fiddling with the crumpled up wet wipe.
"Nothing's wrong with you, per se. The nanobots are in place, everything's fine in that regard." Howard held out the screen, let Steve look at his brain scan, explained that the tiny green blips - which Steve thought were just specks of dust - in the wrinkled folds of Steve's brain matter were the nanobots. "I knew the nanobots needed an incubation period, but when I tested them on rats and dogs, they'd already started transmitting signals within five hours. Granted, they weren't very interesting thoughts, and were mainly pictures, pictures of food and bones and rubber balls or the like, but they definitely should have begun transmitting signals with you by now."
"Are you sure they're working?" Steve asked uncertainly, looking at the green specks again and wondering how this was possible.
"They are," Howard affirmed. "If they weren't working, they wouldn't have hung on to your brain. They're definitely on. They just aren't...giving me any data."
"Is there any way to get them out?" Steve wanted to know. His fingers, without him being aware of it, had torn the wet wipe to a tiny pile of damp shreds.
"Short of me cutting out a good amount of your brain tissue, or until they stop working, no," Howard said, sighing and standing up, stowing the device and his notes back into his coat. "And they'll only stop working if you die; they run on energy generated by the motion of your blood flowing. So, as you can see, unless you can manage to get yourself killed, there's no way to get them out. I haven't thought that far ahead yet."
"I see," Steve said, standing up as well and picking up his shield. "Well, I suppose that's that, then. I'd better get going, if you don't mind, see how Bucky's healing up."
"Of course, of course," Howard said, waving him off, and Steve quickly left the medical tent, wondering if there was any possibility that Howard was lying, that he could see all his thoughts at this very moment from another of his high-tech devices hidden inside his coat. Steve shook his head to clear it. He tried not to think about it as he stepped into another tent where Bucky was resting, pasted a reluctant smile on his face, and put the issue of the nanobots from his mind.
The next time he thought about them was as he was hurtling towards the icy ground and dark water of the Arctic Circle. Sure, he was thinking about Peggy and how he'd probably never see her again (and he thought probably, because surely there was some possibility), and then he got to thinking about her fondue-ing with Howard Stark in Paris, and that led him to thinking about the nanobots that Stark had implanted inside his brain.
He took a deep breath as the ice floes and dark water came rushing up at him, braced himself for impact, and wondered if this meant he was finally free.
Years later, Howard Stark carried his new baby son into the nursery he and Maria had designed especially for him. Its walls were painted a lovely, creamy blue, and it had a beautiful view of New York City with its rising skyscrapers. A nice summer breeze blew through the slightly open window, filling out the gauzy white curtains like sails, and Tony looked at the glittery buildings and the little mobile of airplanes above his head as his father set him down, gurgling happily and reaching out to try and touch them.
Howard grinned and bent down to press a soft kiss to the soft, downy curls on his son's head, and smiled as he enveloped Maria in a hug. Over her shoulder, with the smell of her jasmine perfume in his nose, he looked around the nursery, at miniature toy table designed like a motherboard circuit, plastic tools and blocks lying in tubs along the wall for when Tony was old enough to sit up by himself and play with them. Howard was determined he would be an engineer when he grew up, and had outfitted the nursery with some of his older experiments, the ones with large parts that children and babies couldn't choke on.
Unless those children and babies in question were particularly determined, he thought, as he took a glance over at the crib. Anthony, not even three days old, already had that determined set about his mouth, the very one that had made Howard fall in love with Maria.
Maria giggled against his shoulder. "This baby has more gadgets than a Samsung factory," she teased him, and Howard bent down to tickle her cheek with his mustache. "What does he even need with all this stuff anyway?" she asked, pointing towards a silver device with a huge lens and a black screen adorned with green specks connected to a monitor embedded in the wall; the monitor was projecting the pattern of green specks like spots of algae in an ocean floor aquarium. "Does that even work?"
Howard wrapped an arm around her, resting his head on top of hers as he looked at the green-spotted monitor and thought about Steve Rogers for the first time in years.
He shrugged. "I don't know if it does. But at any rate, he'll have some pretty glow in the dark lights to look at."
She nudged him in the stomach with her elbow. "That's if he ever stops trying to figure out a way to get himself up to play with the airplanes," she said, laughing. "Look! He wants to hold one."
Tony gurgled at them from his bassinet, waving his fists up in the air, and Howard smiled fondly down at his son, turning away from the monitor and any thoughts of Steve Rogers, wondering if his life could get any better than this.