Tony wakes up in SHIELD's infirmary and wishes he hadn't.
"Ow," he whispers through chapped lips out of habit. He can tell there are bright lights on the other side of his eyelids and he's really not looking forward to seeing them, but the rest of him feels awesome. He must've gotten the good stuff.
"You reckless idiot," comes a choked voice from his right. Oh hey, there's a hand in his, threatening to crush his fingers.
"Morning, pepper-pot," Tony manages to get out, then winces when he tries to open his eyes and he's assaulted by the damn lights. Still worth it to see Pepper's strawberry-blonde hair slowly come into focus, the faintest smattering of freckles over her nose.
"My doctor keeps telling me to avoid stressful situations so my blood pressure doesn't get any higher," she tells him, eyes reddened.
"You know me, never was very good at following doctor's orders."
"You have three cracked ribs and a broken wrist, to say nothing about your sternum. The doctor thinks there might be damage to the reactor casing, but it's so far out of his experience that he can't say for sure. It doesn't interact well with the MRIs."
The EKG beeps a little more quickly. "The others? Steve?"
"Alive," she says gently. "Clint and Bruce are relatively unharmed, although Bruce has been sleeping since he turned back. Natasha and Steve are in roughly the same situation you are, although he's lucky to have the serum. Apparently that asshole Mallen was dead-set on attacking Captain America."
It's a struggle to stay awake. "What happened? I don't remember much, I…"
"Thor came back and managed to get Steve out after hitting Mallen with his hammer. Once Steve was gone, Mallen took off somewhere northeast before SHIELD could stop him."
"Huh, almost a literal deus ex machina." The drugs are slowing Tony's brain, so it takes a minute for him to catch up. "But Steve's alive?"
"Yes. He'll make it, but it'll be a while before he's back in the field."
But Steve's Captain fucking America, he fought the Nazis in World War II, hell, his nickname is the Sentinel of Liberty. He could make a good living as an artist, he's got a temper and he likes sitting in the park just to watch people. His humor's so dry it was probably imported from Britain and he once looked at Tony like Tony was the hero.
Pepper leans forward and presses a kiss against his forehead. It feels final, somehow. "Get some sleep. Real sleep. I'll be here when you wake up."
He goes under again before he can say anything else.
When Tony wakes up again, Pepper's sitting at his bedside in fresh clothes and dry eyes with the most solemn, heartbroken, determined expression he's ever seen on her.
"Tony, we need to talk."
It takes three days for Tony to bully the doctor into releasing him, and then the doctor probably only relents so that Tony will go away. He spends most of those three days either sleeping, staring up at the ceiling, or making stilted conversation with whomever happens to stop by his bedside. Mostly that means Thor and the nurses.
"Hey, Conan," Tony murmurs when Thor drops in, "do all gods have such a good sense of timing?"
"Heimdall told me of your plight." Thor takes the seat that Pepper had used while telling him – well. The seat that Pepper had used. "There is very little hidden from his sight in all the realms, and when he witnessed the tide of battle turn against you all he saw fit to warn me. I thank the Fates for it."
"I'm sure I speak for everyone when I say I'm glad he did. I hear the bad guy got away."
"Yes, and for that, I apologize." Thor bows his head a little, looking like he hasn't slept for a month. Maybe two.
"Don't apologize," Tony says wearily. "None of us were exactly mint out of the box. If you hadn't gotten Cap back here when you did…"
"The captain is a formidable warrior. I would not have expected there to be many things on Earth capable of defeating him, let alone all of you."
Tony bristles, tired and hurting and not just on the outside. "If you're going to just sit there and criticize – "
"You misunderstand me, Man of Iron, it is neither my intention nor my place to judge. What I find troublesome is the appearance of an enemy that the Avengers combined could not defeat when the Chitauri and my own brother were bested."
Tony huffs a bit. "And this one was homegrown, too, no aliens or cosmic powers to speak of."
"He may have escaped, but it was not without effort." Thor smirks faintly. "I should be very surprised if he manages to walk fully upright for some time."
Tony tries to think of some witty rejoinder, some suave smartassness, but his mouth can't form the words. He stares up at the ceiling, tapping his fingers against the bed because he can't muster the energy to lift his arm and tap the reactor casing.
A broad hand closes over Tony's, stilling his fingers. "Tony," Thor says seriously, "I know I have spent little time in the company of you or our teammates, but know that I regard you all as worthy of Asgard's utmost respect. I swear on my honor as a comrade and as a future friend that we will find this villain and put an end to his cruelty."
"Can't argue with the honor of a god," Tony jokes weakly, and Thor smiles broadly. "Besides, if you spent too much time on earth you might turn into something horrific, like a hippie or a political activist."
"After our victory, we shall celebrate with the best drink from Odin's halls."
Alcohol from the halls of Odin himself. Drunken oblivion with the blessing of the Norse pantheon sounds pretty damn good. "I like you a lot," Tony tells Thor, whose laugh is like a small roll of thunder.
Tony takes what he knows of Steve's baseline medical records, not that he'd gone snooping when he first heard about what they'd fished out of the Arctic Circle, cross-references it with estimated battle injuries, and manages to be in Steve's room a few hours before he wakes up. He's slouching in a chair as an excuse to keep an arm wrapped protectively around his ribs, letting the white noise of beeping machines fill his head.
"Hey, Sleeping Beauty," he says quietly when Steve's breathing hitches.
"Tony?" Steve slurs, because of course the sedatives that would send a normal person into a coma are only a temporary inconvenience for Captain America.
"We're in the helicarrier, it's been three and a half days, and no one died," he reports immediately.
Steve murmurs something along the lines of mrrgh, and Tony generously decides to take it as thank you, Tony, you always know exactly what to say even if no one else thinks so. "Thor showed up, saved our asses, and the bad guy escaped."
"You?" Steve croaks.
"You know me, Cap, beating the odds is my specialty."
Steve's looking more awake already, the haze in his eyes clearing as he tries to sit up. "Whoa, hey, not okay," Tony rushes, leaning forward with a wince to put a hand on Steve's chest, "just take a second to relax, we've got a few minutes before the next crisis."
"You, are you okay?" Steve repeats, grabbing the wrist that isn't wrapped in plaster in a firm grip, and the question hits hard right in the middle of the deep ache of a damaged arc reactor.
"I'm fine, Steve, it's you we're all worried about."
"Got cocky," Steve mutters. "We went in too full of ourselves. The future doesn't have hovercars, but it does have people who can breathe fire."
Tony can't help a small laugh. "Could've turned out worse."
Steve's shoulders tighten. "Told myself I wouldn't lose any more soldiers."
"Good thing we're not soldiers then."
Steve looks up at him, all blue eyes and sharp masculine lines, remnants of blood along his hairline that the nurses had missed. Forgotten science may have made him something more, but Sal's right, the old bastard, it took Steve Rogers to make an accidental super-soldier into Captain America. The serum wouldn't have been enough, and Tony –
Tony's just a rich guy with armor he can take on and off like a designer suit and can't even tell when he's hurting his own lover.
"Tony? Tony, what's wrong? Did something else happen?"
"Nothing you need to worry about, off the Avengers' record," he tries to say cheerfully, voice cracking like it hasn't since he was fifteen, "we need to concentrate on finding Mallen before he blows up a school bus."
"I have it on good authority that we have a few minutes before the next crisis." When Tony tries to take his hand back, Steve refuses to let go.
"Pepper and I broke up."
Steve blinks. "I'm sorry."
"Why should you be? Nothing to be sorry about. I mean, I sorta figured it was coming, I guess there were things? I can't blame her, I don't blame her, and I – " Tony looks up at the ceiling so he doesn't have to look at Steve. "She always was stronger than me, y'know. I wouldn't have had the courage to do what she did. I know tech and…and math, but she knows people."
Tony's trying to bite the words back, strangle them in some serious denial and bury the corpses in the Let's Never Think About This Again box, but the fuckers are still fresh with full health bars, every note and inflection caught in a constant feedback loop of eidetic perfection. You're all I have, she'd said, but Tony, you have Iron Man now. The Avengers. You don't need me like you used to. I do, I do, I can fix it, I can give up – no, Tony, I'm not going to be the person that gives you an ultimatum on what's allowed to make you happy. Pepper, please don't – I'm not going to leave you, Tony, I'll still be there. I still love you, I'm not going to leave you, but sometimes people just don't work out and it's no one's fault. You deserve the chance to find someone who can accept everything in your new life, not just part of it.
"I think you do all right. You made Dummy and JARVIS, didn't you?"
Tony stares at him, the feedback loop freezing in its tracks and dropping all those words. Steve's watching him all calm sympathy even though the guy almost died and there's more important shit to worry about than Tony's failure with interpersonal relationships. Tony's wearing a goddamn hoodie, a hoodie, too-large and grease-stained because Pepper knows it's his favorite and brought it for him, even though he always says Armani or blonde supermodels when people ask. He's in a hoodie, and a cast, and his ribs scream at him every time he so much as thinks about moving, and there's a crazy guy running around out there with tech that can punch holes through Iron Man and Captain America and let him escape from the god of thunder –
He doesn't know he's going to kiss Steve until he does it. It's awkward because Steve had startled back in surprise and the angle's all wrong, and maybe there's a little too much something that on a bad day might resemble desperation (it's a bad day), but then his brain kickstarts again and Tony jerks away.
"Um," is all he manages, and the following pause lasts longer than a universe without entropy.
"What," Steve starts, but Tony immediately interrupts, "I know, that was out of line. See, I really do know the meaning of the phrase, so, I need to get back to the Tower and try to upgrade the armor before Mallen shows up again, and your armor, too. If you end up, uh." Dying, he can't say.
"Tony," Steve says firmly, "breathe."
Fuck, what's wrong with him. "I'm fine," he says again, pulling back and not quite able to meet his gaze. "I really do need to overhaul the armor. Everyone's swag, really. I'll see if I can't get Natasha's Sting working up to the power of an electric chair. And Clint's arrows, maybe EMP? Might work against Extremis, I'll have to run some simulations – "
"Good. Do it. But Tony, we need to talk."
"What's to talk about? I'm unstable, we all know that. My official file knows that. Real housewives in New Jersey know that. Let's write it off as a serious lack of impulse control and not talk about it."
Tony can see Steve's expression from the corner of his eye, not that it does much good; it seems the good captain has a professional-grade poker face, and Tony isn't sure what to make of it.
So he runs.
Stop crying, Howard would say. Stark men are made of iron, he'd yell. Are you some kind of sissy, he'd demand. Do you have any idea how much this toy you broke cost to develop, Tony, he'd snarl as he grabbed Tony by the hair. Don't sip it, throw it back, he'd laugh, smile wavering in the tumbler of whiskey he shoved into Tony's small hands. It'll put hair on your chest.
Be a man. Stop crying. Never show weakness. Rule the world.
What a disappointment.
Tony escapes the infirmary, harasses some poor agent into getting himself and the thoroughly-damaged armor flown down into New York City, and has Happy take him back to Stark Tower.
"You don't look so good, boss," Happy observes mildly.
"You should see the other guy."
Happy helps him into the elevator, but Tony waves him off and ends up facing his reflection in the brushed steel doors alone. He keeps his eyes on his shoes. After a minute the doors open onto the floor that houses his workshop.
"Welcome home, sir."
"Given your condition – "
"Aww, have you been hacking secure files again, you adorable V.I.K.I., you?"
" – might I recommend that you get some rest in a proper bed?"
"Recommend all you want, I know how fond you are of the First Law." Tony limps into the workshop, good arm still tucked around his ribs. The armor's already laid out on a table, brought up by the robots that live in the garage waiting for the few times that Tony can't wear the armor inside on his own. He gingerly pats one on the head with a painfully cheerful, "Good job, ladies and gentlemen," and they all trill happily as they scurry back into the freight lift. "So, uh, has Pepper…?"
"Ms. Potts has already had her things collected," JARVIS tells him in a sort of horribly gentle tone. "She said you would both need time."
"Time," he repeats listlessly as he drops into a chair and immediately winces as his ribs grind. Almost no time at all before his brain had decided planting one on Steve Rogers was a good fucking idea and even he isn't entirely what's going on inside there. Rebound, thy name is playboy genius. "JARVIS, pull up everything we've got on the Extremis. Did you download all the suit's readings from the fight?"
"I did, sir." Screens flare into existence all around him like his own little fortress of light.
"Penny for your thoughts."
"Extrapolating from the data, I would hypothesize that the subject's ability to produce fire from his mouth comes from the possession of glands that, when activated, combine a series of organic chemicals that result in an incendiary reaction."
"I seem to recall that being part of an argument on how dragons could've once existed," Tony drawls.
"If you have an alternative proposal, sir, then I am, as they say, all ears. I felt that this hypothesis would perhaps cheer you up in light of a certain leviathan-like monstrosity you have been planning to replicate in one of the spare labs – "
"Classified! Mostly I just want to know how the fuck Mallen managed to kick, y'know, all our asses."
It takes a while for JARVIS to respond. "It's possible that it is simply a matter of technological advancement."
Obsolescence. God, and didn't that burn. Tony's built his whole life and his whole individual identity on being a futurist, being able to see Points A to Z and all the steps in between like he could reach out and touch The Matrix. Motherfucking Neo in metal pajamas, and suddenly Tony's laughing, wincing in pain but unable to stop the encroaching hysteria.
"Security breach," JARVIS announces urgently just before a vaguely familiar voice grates out from behind him, "Good joke?"
Tony whips around so fast he nearly falls off the chair.
"External security programs corrupted. He's attempting to bypass my personal firewall, sir."
"Hey, Mallen," he says around the tightness in his throat. "I'd say it's good to see you, but it really isn't. By the way, how'd you get in here?"
"Magic," comes the sneer of smugness and disgust. "You rich types get too comfortable sitting on top of the rest of us."
"What can I say, it's better than the memory foam that conforms to the natural curve of my spine."
"It isn't fair," Mallen hisses, punching the steel-reinforced wall and leaving a fist-sized hole, "my family worked their asses off for everything they ever had. But you, you throw money around and you play the system and you leave the rest of us to die whenever we dare to stand up for ourselves. Keeping all the technology and power for yourself, throwing the rest of us to the godless filth in this country."
Slight accent, Tony notes, probably something from West Texas, too strong to come from those better-off families that try to train the Southern out of their kids' voices. Cheap clothes, tough jacket, broken-in boots, callused hands: working class. Unstable. Given his apparent white supremacy and more extreme political issues, it's no wonder why he also seems to have a hate-on for Captain America and Iron Man. A billionaire businessman and the symbol of the American Dream working side-by-side, that isn't asking for it at all.
"What're you doing here?" Tony asks with all the charm and diplomacy that's gotten not just a few senators on his speed dial. Try to distract the crazy person.
"I'm here to kill you."
"…That's refreshingly straightforward."
"I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen, Mr. Mallen," breaks in JARVIS, making Tony wheeze out a laugh. (Not long after creating him Tony had made sure to show him all the films in which AIs had followed their programming to their logical extremes and made the humans panic, displacing the blame for their own shortsightedness onto the AIs instead. You're special, JARVIS, and people get nervous when they lose control.)
Steel grating slams down in front of all the glass walls, trapping them, and the armors standing in their alcoves over recessed lighting come alive with the whir of servos and the glow of their independent reactor hearts. Tony tries to duck down, roll behind the solid steel of the table, but he's already forgotten just how fast Mallen can move, so fast that even the HUD can't keep up, and between one shallow breath and the next a hand seizes his hair and slams his face into the concrete floor. His vision explodes, all the neat, complicated, brilliant threads of possibility in his mind shattering into prisms of light and color and the taste of coconut. There are things breaking inside of him in a way that probably won't be good for his future on Glamour's "Top Ten Sexiest Men in the World."
There's something like a robot trying to cry. It sounds like the screeching sob of metal scraping against metal.
Sir, SHIELD is enroute – six minutes –
Sir, please –
A glowing keyboard under his fingers. He thinks they might be broken. Realizes that the metallic screeching is coming from DUM-E.
Not…the first time.
Sir - !
He's in a desert. It's hot, and it's sandy, and it sucks ass, and it goes on in 360 degrees of completely unchanging landscape. He has the feeling that if he starts walking in a straight line he would never find the end, and all he can hear on the still air is his own breathing, slightly too fast as though he'd been terrified but couldn't remember why. Behind him is a single house that's little more than a mound of clay brick and whitewash.
He looks down, finds himself in worn jeans and an oil-stained shirt that says Metallica, notices that there's no sign of any tire tracks or footprints around except for where his own two sneakered feet stand. Nothing to explain how he came to be standing in the middle of a desert in old jeans and no sunscreen. He doesn't know his name.
"This can't be good," he says out loud, and discovers he has a smooth masculine tenor. He decides he likes the sound of his own voice.
"Yeah, I'm back!" yells a distant voice, "Back in black!"
He spins on his heel in a full circle, still seeing nothing except sand and the tiny house, but the voice is getting nearer, underscored by the rumble of large vehicles. His breathing picks up again until he's nearly hyperventilating, confused and scared by how fucking terrified he is just by a damn song and the sound of tires grinding over unpaved roads.
The bullets start.
The air is violently broken by the percussion of assault rifles, making his ears ring as the sand all around him gets kicked up in a storm of small explosions. He throws himself to the ground, thinking vaguely about making himself a smaller target before he remembers he doesn't even know where the bullets are comingfrom, and then drags himself back upright to take off for the house. The sand is constantly shifting under his feet, stealing back a step for every two he takes, and guitar riffs are battering his eardrums by the time he finally gets his hand on the doorknob and yanks open the front door.
It slams behind him, and the sudden silence is almost worse than the noise. He can feel the knob digging into his side as he presses his back against the door, struggling to catch his breath.
"Mr. Stark," exclaims a redheaded woman sitting at her desk behind a computer and several stacks of papers. The stacks extend down to the floor and around her feet like a small city of print-type skyscrapers. "I didn't expect to see you today, I thought you were taking the day off. I'm glad you're here, though, the captain insisted on waiting until you showed up even if it took all night."
Stark stares at her. She's painfully thin. "Uh. Change of plans?"
"I need you to sign off on these resource distribution plans." She picks up a packet of paper that looks exactly like all the other thousands of paper packets and holds it out. "I know that you'd probably prefer to just send everything to the gamma radiation lab, but the other departments are seriously underfunded and need your attention before we end up having to shut them down."
"Sure," Stark says slowly. His footsteps are silent on the plush carpet lining the office floor from wall to window-covered wall, and as he reaches out to take the papers, he realizes the woman's fingers have been literally worked to the bone.
"Jesus Christ," he blurts out, jerking back, but she just rolls her eyes at him.
"I know, I know, you like to pretend you're allergic to paperwork, but I promise you won't have to sign anything else for at least an hour if you just do this one thing." She sets the papers down at the edge of her desk and goes back to what looks like a report summary so crammed with type he wonders how she can read it without her eyes falling out of her skull. Her fingers click together like knitting needles. "When you're done with that, you can go in and see the captain."
Stark tears his gaze away from the ruined remains of her hands and scribbles something at the bottom of each paper, practically throwing them back at her. She takes them calmly and holds out something glowing. "Thank you, Mr. Stark. Now, you'll need this to give to the captain. Don't drop it, please, fabricating it isn't cost effective and the company doesn't need another human rights violation complaint. We've only just managed to save some of our military contracts."
The glowing object lands on his palm and he knows this, he does, the arc reactor is the only thing he knows with the same surety that other people believe in God. "Thanks," he manages faintly.
"Will that be all, Mr. Stark?" the woman smiles, but all Stark can see is her bare bones.
"That'll be all, Ms. Potts," he says automatically, doesn't fight when she ushers him through another door and closes it behind him.
It isn't an office. When he finally lifts his eyes from the arc reactor, cradled like a bird's egg in his hands, he sees grey stone and greyer skies, a long stone staircase sweeping hundreds of feet up the side of a mountain to a palace carved out of the cliff face. Thousands of people stand around its base staring up at the palace, unmoving, and though there are a hundred different shades of skin color represented they all have a washed-out quality like old photographs. He looks back over his shoulder, but all that's there is a blank stretch of stone.
Stark holds the arc reactor close against his chest and starts forward, half-expecting all the bodies to come alive and try to eat his brains. But none of them react when he gingerly pushes past them, apparently too transfixed by whatever's at the top of the stairs to notice him. None of them blink.
He's nearly at the first step when one of the blank faces strikes him as familiar.
"Do I know you?" he demands, nerves leaking through his voice, but the person doesn't respond. Now that he's looking, however, there are a few other faces that Stark swears he knows but can't remember why he does; some wear clothes shredded by shrapnel, others have features almost completely obscured by horrific burn scars. One has a large piece of metal sticking out his abdomen with something written on it, although all Stark can pick out under a layer of color-leeched gore and gritty sand is –RK INDUSTRIES.
His voice had come out flat and muffled like talking in a soundproofed room, and his hands tighten around the arc reactor, the brightest point in the dim twilight.
The stairs are narrow but solid under his feet as he climbs, getting progressively stickier. He leans down, holds out the reactor for some light, and flinches from the old, tacky blood staining the stone in thick puddles. Don't look down, he thinks, and keeps climbing, counting off the Fibonacci sequence (did I ever know that guy?) to keep himself from wondering how someone had gotten enough blood to cover a mountain. Time passes in stops and starts, but his feet never start to ache and his breathing is comfortable.
The blood is thickest at the top of the stairs, hundreds of feet above ground level, oozing out in a steady stream from under an iron door set deep in the cliff face. It's carrying with it some thicker bits that must be clots or soft tissue. Stark gags on the stench of gunpowder and putrefaction.
"I'm deciding I don't like doors," he tells the arc reactor, and pushes half-heartedly against the iron door. He feels like it should move with a reluctant groan, a screech of protesting metal, but it swings open soundlessly.
"Welcome, and congratulations, you're alive. Just in time to die."
It's a cave that's filthy and poorly lit by camping lanterns, although at least there's no blood on the floor, just dirt and rock and stacked wooden crates. An older man is shaving with a straight razor, meeting Stark's eyes in the mirror. Stark feels like he knows this place better than any of the other places he's been so far. "Who're you?"
"My name is Yinsen. We've met before at a conference, Tony Stark, though I imagine you were too drunk to remember."
"Don't take it personally, I don't remember anything right now." There are two cots in the cave, one of which is almost as bloodstained as the stairs and which also has restraints dangling off its four corners. Tony pulls the arc reactor even closer until its edge is digging into his shirt.
"Considering you were once able to give a lecture on integrated circuits while so blisteringly drunk but now don't even know your name, it makes you wonder what's changed between then and now."
"I probably lost my pair of lucky socks."
Yinsen smiles thinly. "Are you making jokes because they help you keep moving forward in the face of tragedy, or because you want to pretend it's not there at all?"
Tony pretends not to hear him. "Someone told me I'm supposed to meet a captain. Is he an axe murderer, and if not, where can I find him?"
"Outside," Yinsen answers vaguely. Tony waits for him to explain, but he just smears some more shaving cream on the stretch of his neck and hums tunelessly.
"Right, why didn't I know that. How silly of me. What're all those people doing outside?"
"They're waiting for a weapon."
"To do what?"
"What do you usually do with a weapon?"
"Protect yourself." Tony doesn't even have to think about it. Yinsen arches a grey eyebrow.
"From what? Other people? Shall we put a weapon in the hands of every person so they can protect themselves from everyone else? You know better than anyone what happens in an arms race, Tony Stark."
"I'm deciding I like you even less than I like doors."
Yinsen smiles, a bittersweet thing. "But without me, Stark, you'd already be dead."
Tony doesn't realize he hasn't had a pulse this whole time until his heart suddenly lurches inside his chest. He can't breathe, as though someone's punched him square in the solar plexus, and there are needles gouging into every vein in his body, and his vision's going dark around the edges –
"You're dying, Tony," Yinsen says, infinitely gentle, so close Tony thinks he might feel the man's breath on his face if his body hadn't started seizing.
No, Tony tries to argue as spots of blood start seeping through his shirt.
"I'm sorry, but you're only a man."
Take away the suit and what are you?
The arc reactor has streaks of blood on it from where the edge of its casing has bitten deep into the palms of Tony's spasming hands, but its glow is still bright and blue-white as Tony tries to push it towards Yinsen. Please, he mouths, choking as shrapnel steadily tears him up on the inside, and Yinsen accepts it, pushes up Tony's shirt to reveal the dark hole that's been gaping in his chest since he woke up in the desert.
"Will this be their weapon, then?" Yinsen asks, sounding like he wouldn't judge Tony's answer either way, but before Tony can sass back Yinsen is pushing the arc reactor into his chest.
There's a soft click as something connects, and Tony –
" – ony! Goddamnit, Tony!"
"Captain, get back, I need to – "
"JARVIS, run every scan you're programmed for – "
Tony wakes up in his workshop and whispers, "Huh. I'll be damned."
There's commotion around him, and so much noise that he should be overwhelmed, but he just feels strangely distant from it all.
About an hour after Steve sits up in the infirmary, less than an hour since Tony kissed him, sirens start wailing and a British voice takes over the helicarrier's intercom.
"I apologize for the intrusion," says JARVIS, the urgency in his voice sounding surprisingly close to actual panic, "but Stark Tower has been attacked by the Extremis subject and Mr. Stark is in critical condition. Immediate assistance is required."
Steve's out of bed before he even realizes he's in motion, immediately staggering from the traces of sedatives still in his body and bones that have barely healed, but he grits his teeth and forces himself to keep moving. Grabs the shield propped on the nightstand, ignores the fact he's in a hospital gown because there's no way in hell he has the time or ability to get the form-fitting costume on, keeps one hand against the wall as he heads down the hallway. He's intercepted by Natasha, her throat and an arm wrapped in white bandages, but she doesn't try to hustle him back to bed, just slides a shoulder under his arm and helps him towards the nearest hangar. She glares off anyone who tries to stop them.
Clint and Bruce are already in one of the small planes, the former with a splint on his hand and the latter looking more exhausted than Steve feels. "Thor's already gone ahead," Clint reports tightly.
Adrenaline and movement have him fully awake by the time they reach Stark Tower, half-obscured by thick, dark smoke.
"Mr. Stark is in his private workshop."
Steve is only peripherally aware that JARVIS is speaking through the plane's hacked PA system; his body's been kicked into high gear, everything seeming to slow down slightly as the serum speeds up, the Tower's blueprints he'd memorized the day he moved in running through his head. The smoke is coming from the R&D levels, at least three, possibly four, suggesting the collapse of some internal load-bearing struts that allowed a fire to spread much more easily between floors without bringing down the outside. Yet. Thor's a faint figure in the sky, calling up winds strong enough to clear the smoke and hopefully put out whatever might still be burning.
"Careful you don't send us back to the infirmary," Clint warns Thor through the PA, trying to hide the pain of piloting with a wounded hand.
"JARVIS," Steve barks, "where's Mallen?"
"He's escaped, Captain," JARVIS crackles. "I attempted to stop him, but I felt it was a goal secondary to Mr. Stark's survival."
Although Mallen's a terrorist who's already killed whole crowds of people and is now back out in the world, Steve is so fucking relieved that Tony didn't become another –
"I understand that one may only move so fast, but time is very much of the essence."
It wakes far longer than Steve likes for the team to land the jet on the roof's pad and dash inside. Four levels of R&D are destroyed, one of which is completely impassable, and they all look like the Hulk, went berserk in them. Walls are rubble, expensive equipment little more than glass and twisted metal, and the steel plating that automatically seals off Tony's workshop has been melted into slag. At first Steve thinks there are monsters or aliens or something lurking in the chaos, but they're all just robots of varying size and intelligence flailing or chirping with anxiety.
"Please, hurry," JARVIS sputters through the white noise of a sparking speaker. Steve ignores the aching in his body and forces his way into Tony's workshop, the rest of the team right behind him.
"Oh shit," Natasha croaks, trying not to step in the blood dripping off the table where Tony's body lies under a thick layer of scabbing and exposed tissue. Clint gags. Steve's gone wooden and can't pick out any one thing from the howling pit inside of him.
"He was dying and injected himself with the Extremis to stop it."
"Where did he get a live dose?" Bruce sounds dazed.
"I have been prohibited from answering that question, but I can say that the list of people with the resources to possess not only a live dose but the opportunity of giving it to Mr. Stark is vanishingly small."
"Dr. Hansen," Steve answers numbly.
"As you say, Captain."
"Might this be reversed?" presses Thor.
JARVIS audibly hesitates. "Not by any means of which I'm aware, Mr. Odinson, but even if it were I would advise against it until the extent of the alterations it's making to Mr. Stark's biology is known. An interruption of the Extremis' coding at an inopportune moment could prove disastrous."
"Clint, get SHIELD on the phone." Steve doesn't move his eyes away from Tony. "I want Maya Hansen moved over here as soon as possible, and if Fury has a problem with that tell him he can take it up with me personally. Thor, Natasha, get some agents to help you check the rest of the building to make sure nothing's on fire, about to explode, or collapse either on our heads or under our feet. Bruce, do your best to figure out how to – to help Tony. We'll set up rotating shifts so there are always at least two Avengers in this room. We don't know if that bastard will come back or what kind of condition Tony will be in when he wakes up." He refuses to believe it's anything other than a matter of 'when.' No man is an island, they say, but some days Steve thinks that things would be so much easier if he could be.
Bruce and Dr. Hansen are muttering to each other at Tony's bedside and Steve's sitting on the cot poking at a tablet when JARVIS suddenly interrupts, "Mr. Stark is waking up."
"That can't be right, it's only been twenty-four hours," Hansen protests. "We programmed the Extremis to have a safety buffer of seventy-two hours minimum."
Steve drops the briefing packet he was reading and reaches out for Tony before Hansen grabs his wrist. He nearly breaks her arm until she explains, "Wait, the shell – "
The hardened surface of the dark, whorled cocoon surrounding Tony's body cracks like shale into thick, flaking scales. It's revolting, smells weirdly musty, but Steve doesn't even notice once he sees the light of the arc reactor glowing healthily and the spots of new, pink flesh between the cracks.
"Tony!" he yells, "Damnit, Tony!"
Hansen tugs on his arm. "Captain, get back, I need to take a look at him!"
"JARVIS, run every scan you're programmed for, priority on the neural stuff," Bruce says with a doctor's firm control. "Steve, step back."
By now Tony's face is bared, his van Dyke at the exact same level of scruffy as it was a full day ago, and his eyes slit open. Everyone freezes.
"Huh," he mutters. "I'll be damned." And his body slumps into natural sleep.
Bruce chokes out a laugh while Hansen blinks bemusedly. Steve can't decide if he wants to hug Tony, kiss him, or punch him in the face.
"JARVIS?" Bruce prompts, brow furrowing with worry when there's no reply. "JARVIS, what's going on?"
"I apologize, Dr. Banner," JARVIS finally responds, but not from a speaker hidden in the walls. "There appears to have been some unanticipated side effects."
"Holy shit," Hansen yelps, stumbling back a step. "Tony?"
"No, Dr. Hansen, Mr. Stark is still…adapting." Tony's lips are moving but the voice is all JARVIS, and Tony's eyes are open but the usual soft brown is now completely black. "It appears that your observations of the Extremis were fairly inadequate."
Steve can see how hard that hits her pride. "What?"
"JARVIS, what is Tony's prognosis?" Steve interrupts, channeling some of his turmoil into keeping his voice calm and neutral.
"I don't know. The Extremis enhancile is both organic and technological, so while your extrapolations concerning its effect on a biological body appear largely correct, there is also the matter of its ability to synchronize with various forms of technology. Mr. Stark's mind is attempting to catch up with its physical neurology in processing incoming data."
"Incoming data?" Bruce repeats carefully.
"Satellite feeds, cell phones, messaging systems, Internet servers, radio broadcasts – "
"Jesus, he's hooked into all those networks?"
"JARVIS, how are you…doing what you're doing?" Steve asks with the same controlled calm.
"Captain, you've seen how it's possible for Mr. Stark to upload my intelligence into other systems, including the SHIELD helicarrier. Mr. Stark's body is now not unlike a form of hardware capable of supporting software and connecting to other networks."
Steve thinks of the movies that Tony taught him how to access and watch on his tablet. "You're streaming through him."
"He's liveblogging," Bruce deadpans. Hansen chokes.
"When will he wake up?"
"I'm not certain, Captain, I'm sorry."
"Will he still be 'Tony'?"
"Given Mr. Stark's particular brand of individuality and the adjustments he made to the Extremis programming prior to injection, I can confidently say that, yes, Mr. Stark will still be his rather unique himself."
"Wait, he changed the coding?" asked Bruce.
"You said he was dying," Hansen added, still stung.
"He did, and he was."
Steve turns around and braces his hands against the edge of another heavy table, letting his head drop forward until his chin digs into his chest. He's experienced enough to be able to read the evidence in his surroundings, to guess beyond reasonable doubt that the odd drip pattern on a small patch of floor likely came from Tony's hand, shakily raised to skim over one of JARVIS' holographic keyboards. That the overturned chair was where Tony sat when Mallen ambushed him. That six feet away is where Tony's face was pounded into the concrete.
The tabletop cracks under Steve's fingers.
"JARVIS, keep me alerted to any and all status changes. I need to get some air."
Earlier reports of a conflict in Washington D.C. between an unknown terrorist and the team known as the Avengers suggest that the attack on Stark Tower is not an isolated incident –
Buy ALL the things!
Dear god, Sarah, you won't believe what happened last night at Ross' –
I'm stuck in traffic, I'll be home late, sweetheart.
All units to Sixth, robbery in progress, suspect is a tall white female running on foot –
If these Avengers are the start of a wave of super-powered vigilantes, we need to address these concerns. The cost in civilian lives, hell, the property damage alone, who's going to be held responsible for it?
Sir, your synchronization is complete. I'm shutting down the feeds. DUM-E, poisoning him with that milk and alkaline shake is inadvisable, go put it in the sink.
0110011001101111011100100010 0000011000110111001001100101 0110000101110100011011110111 0010001000000111010001101111 0010000001101101011000010110 1001011011100111010001100001 0110100101101110001000000110 1111011100000111010001101001 0110110101110101011011010010 0000011101110110111101110010 0110101101101001011011100110 0111001000000110001101100001 0111000001100001011000110110 1001011101000111100100101110 0010111000101110
Your creator will be fine. Stop sulking. He's waking up.
Tony wakes up and doesn't know what he's perceiving, where he is, or who he is for several long heartbeats. Then, like a car engine turning over, his body trips into the right gear and his brain
heart rate 62 beats per minute/body temperature 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit
ambient temperature 64 degrees Fahrenheit
seven life forms detected within Tower boundaries
is already racing.
Sir, please remain calm, says JARVIS, except he doesn't say it so much as input 0101001101101001011100100010 0000011100000110110001100101 0110000101110011011001010010 0000011100100110010101101101 0110000101101001011011100010 0000011000110110000101101100 01101101 and .7 nanoseconds later it becomes SIR, PLEASE REMAIN CALM [trans. Eng. <"sir please remain calm">]. The surface on which he's lying is a string of numbers that partly equates to position=0⁰surface=FeC₃; hardness=4.5; temp=58F.
"I know you're awake, Tony."
I KNOW YOU'RE AWAKE TONY [trans. Eng. <"i know youre awake tony"></statement>] TONY STARK [trans. Eng. <"i am iron man"></recognition>].
"Steve," Tony says softly, the mental fugue clearing as quickly as if he'd been shot with adrenaline. STEVE ROGERS [trans. Eng. <"captain america"><"friend">404 INTERNAL ERROR<"status undetermined"></recognition>]. "So, I'm alive."
The numbers dutifully inform him that there's the warmth and pressure of a hand on his forearm. He turns his head and finds Steve sitting on a workbench at his side, wearing some kind of intimidating emotion that Tony can't quite interpret but which has an equal chance of being fury or relief. "You know, I'm really getting tired of waking up from near death to find that people have been watching me sleep."
Without removing his hand, Steve holds up an empty vial with the other. "Why did you do it, Tony?"
Tony has to pull himself back from calculating the intensity of the light refracting off the glass. "I was dying, Steve. I think at one point I got some brain up my sinuses." He immediately regrets it when Steve looks like he'd been sucker-punched. He sits up and…there's no pain in his muscles or ribs, no lethargy, no heaviness in his chest from the arc reactor. He scrambles to lift his ruined shirt hoping for a smooth expanse of flesh, but no, the arc reactor is still there, bright and unchanging, and he clamps down on a complicated sense of disappointment and lack of surprise.
But there's no pain. No soreness. No headache from caffeine withdrawal. He can inhale deeply in a way he hasn't been able to since Afghanistan. He's willing to bet that if a doctor poked at his liver it would be as perfect as if it'd been freshly rolled off the line. He breathes, "It worked."
Indeed, sir, agrees JARVIS' binary in his head, the thought appearing like it's one of his own. There's something that Tony's mind decides to translate as partition behind which is a constant stream of data, like the Tweets of journalists in Afghanistan and the phone messages being left by bullies of a gay kid and FOX News talking about the oppression of Christians in America and a couple posting their wedding photos on Facebook –
"What? What?" asks Tony fuzzily when he realizes Steve's hands are gripping his shoulders and shaking him gently.
"You look dazed all of a sudden. What's wrong?"
"His conscious mind is learning to compensate for additional stimuli," JARVIS tattles.
"JARVIS and I came to an understanding while you were unconscious," says Steve, and there it is, that's definitely the I Do Not Approve face. The corners of his mouth turn down six degrees each and his pupils contract very slightly, but Tony can see that there are three shades of blue and one grey in those eyes, that the firm hold he has on Tony's shoulders is only like five percent as strong as what he's actually capable of because even when he's angry he's so very, very careful. Part of him is determining that one of those shades is azure (#007FFF), another is evaluating the damage to Stark Tower via JARVIS, a third is already attempting to track down Mallen's trail using SHIELD data and security cameras from the businesses surrounding the Tower, and yet another is pulling up the diagrams for the Mark IX and finally, finally increasing its response time several percent above capacity. God, it's beautiful.
Tony knows he's starting to smile like an idiot, practically dopeywith all the warm fuzzies and nanites inside of him, but it worked, it worked, even when half the programming had been completely deleted and redone with blood making Tony's fingers stick together and turning his vision red. For the first time in his life the constant noise in his mind isn't a burden but something beautiful and sleek. It's a high, a wet dream, a singularity. He wants to take everything welling up inside of him and pour it into Steve so that Steve knows it's okay, it's more than okay, it's fucking fabulous.
"Steve, I – "
"What were you thinking?" Steve demands. "Do you realize what could've happened if a single digit had been wrong? Do you?"
"Of course I do, that's a really stupid question," Tony bites out, bewildered by Steve's abruptness but starting to get angry. He's still sitting on the table, wearing jeans and a tank top shredded from Mallen's ambush – the scraping of concrete, the sharp corners of furniture, Mallen's fingers that had been curled into claws.
"Do you really, Tony? Because I'm not sure you do. You get so caught up in thinking there's only one way to do something that you stop looking for ways around – "
"Okay, no, stop right there, Mr. Cutting the Wire Isn't a Valid Method of Survival, Mr. We Should just Accept That Soldiers Die. I'd like to point out the fact that I was dying and JARVIS had already called SHIELD, which wouldn't have gotten here in time. A civilian ambulance wouldn't have gotten here any sooner with all the construction down on street-level, so it was either lie there and die for sure or use Extremis and die with only a 99-percent guarantee." Steve's expression isn't budging, so Tony sits on the edge of the table to meet him properly face-to-face. "Is it because you can't see it? I mean, the Hulk, no mistaking what you're looking at when you see Hulk, hell, look at you, no mistaking that you've got something going on there, Mr. Universe."
"No, Tony, I – "
"But someone like me, I could be anything. I don't have to flex or turn green, for all you know I could be crank-calling China's war room while giving you the doe eyes over terrible coffee in Bryant Park – "
"Jesus, no, Tony – "
"Or do you think I'm not qualified enough, maybe I didn't get enough badges on my Boy Scout vest – "
"I don't think you're going to be able to control it," Steve snaps, and Tony's jaw clicks shut. "You're talking about turning your brain into a computer and there's no – "
"No, what? Guarantees? That's rich coming from the little Brooklyn guy who said, 'Me, me, pick me for this program that's had a zero percent success rate so far.' This isn't the first time that fate's tried to kill me with the odds stacked in the house's favor but you know what, Rogers, if my own missile couldn't kill me, if my own fucking arc reactor couldn't kill me, then there's no way in hell I'm letting the missing link of a redneck take me out!"
There's a prickle of energy that claws its way up his spine, a surge of electricity, and one of the ceiling lights shatters. Tony instinctively ducks down, rounding his shoulders as Steve practically throws himself defensively over Tony.
It's suddenly quiet. Steve doesn't move.
"Steve," Tony says softly, forehead pressed into a distractingly firm chest with distractingly strong thighs between his bent knees. He determinedly ignores his reflexive thought of wait, what about Pepper, doesn't remember are you some kind of sissy, doesn't think about Tiberius or the fact that Steve hasn't even had a year to adjust to a brave new world and isn't exactly a paragon of mental stability himself. Nothing beyond 99.2 degrees Fahrenheit of body heat and the lean lines of some truly impressive quadriceps.
"Just tell me you didn't use Mallen as an excuse," Steve says into Tony's hair.
"Captain, if you're suggesting that I planned this, I'm going to put on the armor and we're taking it to the gym."
"No, I mean, that you didn't do it because you thought you needed to prove something."
Tony pushes against Steve's chest until the guy backs off a step, though he's still standing between Tony's knees and Tony isn't quite sure what to think of that. "I'm not gonna lie, Extremis is every futurist's wet dream – "
Steve cradles Tony's face in those big paws of his and says very intently, "You once agreed that no one but me could've been Captain America, but Tony, no one else could ever be Iron Man. They can put on the suit, but they wouldn't be Iron Man. You and the suit are one, right? And I think that's been true since the moment you turned on the Mark I."
"How would you know? You were still playing possum in the ice."
"Because as infuriating as you can be, I just know."
"I know a lot of people who'd disagree with you on that," Tony argues weakly.
"And here I thought you made a point of not listening to people."
"How do you do that?" Tony demands abruptly, pulling Steve's hands away.
"It's not like you don't have some serious issues, I know why you have a tendency to end up in my kitchen or living room at the weirdest hours – crap, no, don't look at me like that, I'm sorry, that didn't come out right – "
"At least that hasn't changed," Steve mutters sardonically.
" – but you just keep on going, no matter what kind of shit gets thrown at you."
"Same as you, Tony. You do it because you have to."
There's nothing but the next mission, he'd once said, hurting and guilty. But then he was dying, and then he saved thousands of people, and then he had Pepper, and then he was part of a team and saved the world, but then he lost Pepper and thought he was going to lose this game of life that was staying one step ahead of being useless and forgotten. He's almost died so many times but he kept going because the other option isn't an option at all.
"The power of the mind, huh," Tony says with a growing smile, gently pushing Steve back with a hand on his chest so he can get to his feet. He doesn't even have to say anything before the familiar whine of an arc reactor flaring to life echoes through the workshop and the eyes of the Mark IX glow fiercely. There's a hum in the back of his mind echoing the arc reactor and something inside his bones reacts, flowing out of nearly invisible ports in his skin with the sensation of cold water, a thin golden film running over his entire body and weaving a neural network that shines like all his nerves have been lit up for Christmas. (He'll have to update the Mark IX again so this new undersuit can interface properly, but he ultimately awards himself a flawless victory.)
It's an indescribable feeling, like reaching out with a fifth limb, like another way of speaking that doesn't use words and is so much more efficient for it. The armor breaks down into its component parts before the pieces fly towards him, surrounding him like he's in a Ronin Warriors montage and locking into place with perfect precision. Vectored repulsor fields. Oh, the Strippers are going to be heartbroken when he breaks the news that he'll have to find them a new purpose.
"Tony, what," Steve starts faintly, and Tony's awed smile turns into a wicked slash of a grin.
"Let's go find us a villain."
"We don't know where he is."
"No, but a little gas station near D.C. does."
Despite his questionable and sometimes destructive relationship with verbal communication, Tony's always been physically graceful. Once or twice Steve's caught him in the workshop pounding out sheets of superheated metal with his shoulders and biceps confidently flexing under the thick leather guards, and something about the way he paces and turns around labs makes Steve think his parents probably forced him to take dance classes as a kid like most of the other socialites he'd ever met. Given the ease with which Iron Man moves in battle, Steve would never have guessed just how heavy the armor was until he went on what he calls reconnaissance and most people call snooping one evening, after Pepper dragged a protesting Tony away to some mixer.
But that's nothing to the way Iron Man is now. He walks onto the roof landing pad like he's wearing one of those fine business suits rather than several hundred pounds of technology, and there's almost no mechanical distortion in his voice when he says, "Can't talk now, Nick, got places to be, people's asses to kick."
"Stark," Fury starts before the open comm shuts off, and Natasha mutters disbelievingly, "Holy shit, you're alive." The hoarseness in her voice has largely disappeared.
"Can you breathe fire too?" Clint asks, just as incredulous that Tony's not only alive but still quintessentially Tony. Thor beams, but Bruce doesn't say a word, just puts a hand on Tony's armored shoulder and stares, hard and unblinking, into the light of the helmet's eyes.
"Yeah, I know, Jolly Green," Tony sighs, and that's that, and the whole team piles into the plane while Tony and Thor opt to fly alongside it. Clint and Natasha immediately take over the cockpit, Bruce sits cross-legged on the floor and closes his eyes, and Steve stands behind Natasha's chair watching Tony weave around Thor with a laugh he's never heard so honestly happy filling up the comm.
"What I don't understand," Tony confesses in an undertone on a private channel, "is why I still have the arc reactor."
"The shrapnel shouldn't even be there anymore," Bruce agrees. Though he's speaking softly, the connection is as beautifully clear as if they're both bent over the same table arguing diagrams. "But it's possible that Extremis saw the reactor as the better option to your damaged heart and just integrated its resources, rather than try to completely reconstruct the less efficient option."
"If you say a single word about any metaphors in that hypothesis…"
"Of course not, Tony, that'd be very unscientific."
They find Mallen standing near the Washington Monument, waiting for them as the plane descends.
"Gee, there's nothing symbolic about this at all," Clint deadpans.
Tony snorts, shooting through the clouds like a red star. "Really, there probably isn't. This is the type of guy who makes big gestures with his fists, not philosophy."
"The government's been his target all along." Natasha's closely observing the line that SHIELD and the Secret Service, having been forewarned, have been able to draw between Mallen and surrounding civilians. "I doubt he was expecting to run into us, but when he did, Captain America provided a convenient target. No offense, Cap."
"Tell me again why we couldn't sneak up on him?" Clint sighs, pained.
"Because he can mentally hack into any SHIELD communications now that he knows what to look for," Steve reminds him.
"Stark, if I ever find you eavesdropping on me, I'm shooting you with an EMP arrow."
"Please, Barton, I have better taste than that," Tony drawls, making Thor laugh.
"All right, team, let's go." Steve shifts his grip on his shield as he looks out the plane's windshield, eyeing Mallen's silhouette against the whiteness of the monument. "Remember the plan. Remember, we go in with our eyes wide open. No more overconfidence."
"I'd like the record to show my disgruntlement that there isn't much for the rest of us to do this time," Clint adds, and Tony thinks, note to self: Hawkeye doesn't do well feeling useless, possibly informed by Loki's control and Coulson's death. (Don't think about that now).
"Aren't you forgetting something, Cap?" Tony knows he probably shouldn't sound like a kid on Christmas morning, given the high likelihood of someone dying today, namely himself, as well as the high likelihood that the plan won't work because it's a stupid plan, even Tony Stark the High King of Bad Decisions knows that, no matter how much time he spent convincing Steve that it isn't. But he's got a team behind him, a mission in front of him, and the dream of a kid that isn't quite so scared anymore inside of him.
Steve doesn't roll his eyes, but it's a close thing. "Avengers," he says, "assemble!"
Tony loops a circle and heads for the ground with a fist pumped in the air.
Because it'd be impossible to explain to the Hulk that he can't smash anything, Bruce stays in the plane ready to play either emergency backup or field medic. Natasha and Clint slip like shadows to opposite sides, flanking Mallen, while Thor takes off vertically to hover some couple hundred feet in the air. Steve walks straight up towards the monument, Tony striding heavily at his shoulder.
"That you, Stark?" Mallen calls out. "Thought I'd left your brains all over the floor."
The leather of Steve's gloves creak ominously.
"You did, but unfortunately you have no follow-through. Don't worry, your mom didn't either," Tony adds, because he's still a dick at heart.
Mallen's face screws up with rage. Score.
"You know, Mallen," says Steve lightly, "this is usually the point at which I'd try to be diplomatic and find a way to avoid violence. In the light of recent events, however, I'd like to borrow the words of a good friend and tell you to go fuck yourself."
Tony's so surprised by that he almost misses his cue, but he pulls himself together when the shield ricochets off the marble steps behind Mallen and barks, "Thor, bring it all down. Radio blackout in T-minus-thunder god powers. Mark."
"Copy that, Iron Man," Natasha replies coolly, before adding in a quieter voice, "Don't die, Tony. You still owe me a new Sting."
"Vascere bracis meis," Tony sings back just as the few clouds in the sky swell and darken, blotting out the blue and cutting off the sunlight. Lightning crackles through the thunderheads, races towards Thor's small form and the hammer held aloft until he's lit up like a Tesla coil. There's a hissing crackle and a pop in his ears, and the distant murmuring of SHIELD communications, EMT radios, cell phones, breaking news casts – they all shut off like a flipped switch. The sense of being bigger on the inside than the outside that's been with him since he woke up with the whole world tucked into his head vanishes, and the sudden screeching of white noise in his ear has Tony belatedly shutting off the comm with a thought.
Mallen lets loose a wave of heat and flame, forcing Steve to dodge to the side just as Tony lets go with a repulsor. The beam gets knocked aside and Mallen throws himself forward, grasping at Tony's outstretched arm, getting a hand around his wrist and digging in. The HUD abruptly starts flickering with static until Steve's shield knocks Mallen aside and spins away.
"He has EMP fingers," Tony says grimly through the external speaker rather than Steve's earpiece.
"Heads up, Iron Man," and Tony locks his knees as Steve does a seriously impressive leap, plants both feet solidly on the armor's broad chestplate, and launches himself up and over Mallen's head. When Mallen predictably whirls around, Tony shoots a repulsor blast between his shoulders and sends him stumbling forward straight into Steve's fist.
He goes down like a bag of bricks, but pulls himself upright again in nearly the same instant and opens his mouth wide. Steve is forced to duck towards his shield, but Tony's already predicted it, is already pulling one of Starfox's famous barrel rolls and slamming into Mallen before the asshole's even drawn breath again. All the running numbers in his head get squeezed down until the only two connections he still has are JARVIS' subroutine and the blinding incandescence of pain and anger pinned to the marble steps under Tony's armor.
"Commencing Operation: Stupid Fucking Plan," Tony snaps, and reaches out for that burning supernova.
SHIELD's line is holding, keeping a quarter-mile free of civilians, with three Avengers watching carefully from the periphery and Steve, Tony, and Mallen at the heart of it. The sky twists and boils in the angry purple shades of a bruise, seared by flashes of lightning and guided by Thor's distant silhouette. All communications are down, disrupted by the distinctly non-Midgardian properties of the storm, leaving Steve trapped in a silence only broken by the whine of armor, Mallen's infuriated yelling, and his own harsh breathing.
(What's going to happen, Tony had said, is that I'm going to hack Mallen's brain.
How dangerous is that? Steve demanded, and when Tony replied, It's totally safe, I've got JARVIS playing antivirus, he'd turned to Bruce and repeated the question. Bruce said, A step or two below suicide missions through rips in the universe, and Tony's the battlefield. Don't look at me like that, Tony, I'm not particularly eager to see you actually die this time.
Someone's got to cut the wire, Steve, Tony whispered intently, and Steve asked, But why does it have to be you?
Tony shrugged. Because it's only fair.)
Mallen's still fighting, but with difficulty; his movements are slow, mouth open with screams that have gone silent, and all Steve can do is sprint over and pin him down while Tony falls through another wormhole alone.
Tony's in the middle of a clearing in an anemic forest, a broken-down truck on one side and a dirt road on the other. Behind him is a small dilapidated house and there's no one else around.
Knowing how this goes by now, he opens the front door.
The walls and floor are bare, unfinished wood, and the furniture looks like it's been scavenged from thrift shops and roadsides. A banner from the Third Reich takes pride of place over a sagging sofa opposite a Confederate flag over the fireplace.
The dining table groans under the weight of guns, parts of guns, and ammunition that'd been illegalized for civilian possession years ago. All the serial numbers have been filed off, probably by the group of people either standing guard at the windows or cleaning and reassembling the weapons. They're all white and seemingly blue-collar, both men and women with worn hands and lines in their features that make them look older than they are. None of them see Tony standing in their midst.
Liberal brainwashing, Tony hears them mutter, growl, rant. Fucking Jews. Other words of the kind that Tony knows has kept Rhodey, one of the best damn soldiers Tony's ever known, from rising in the ranks as quickly as he deserves. Terrorists. Enemies against America. (Underneath it, Tony hears the clink of ice in whiskey glasses with a child's ears: Goddamn unions. Fucking commies. A wife thinking she can tell a man what to do in his own house. His own voice: I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once. That's how Dad did it, that's how America does it…and it's worked out pretty well so far.)
Slightly nauseous, Tony looks around again, finally spotting the little boy sitting on the floor with his legs pulled up to his chest, half-hidden by a torn armchair and silently staring at Tony with big, solemn eyes. Tony starts to move towards him, figuring this is Something Important, one of those Japanese RPGs where you have to talk to every goddamn villager to figure out the next part of your quest, but he's only taken two steps when he hears the roar of cars and the chopping whir of helicopters.
The adults immediately fly into action, snatching up weapons and slamming home freshly-filled magazines, the cocking of firearms as familiar as the smell of whiskey. A man shoves a shotgun into the kid's hands, presumably his son's, while a woman – his mother, maybe – steps up to the door.
"This is the FBI! Drop your weapons and come out with your hands up!" someone outside shouts.
"Fuck you!" one of the younger men yells back through the thin particle-board walls. Searchlights slice in through the grimy windows and cut across the floor as the helicopters pass overhead.
"Wrong answer," Tony mutters, taking advantage of his apparent invisibility to slip past the scurrying adults and crouch down beside the boy. "Hey, kiddo, you don't look so hot. What do you say we get out of here?"
The kid just stares at him. This isn't real, inputs the JARVIS subroutine, and yes, Tony knows that, okay, but technically software isn't tangible and yet programs interact with one another in very real ways, thanks.
He glances around at the adults. Inability to communicate with external agents, so, no hope of diplomatic talks, not that people who live under a Nazi banner are likely to be open to other people's point of view in the first place; or, even more fundamentally, zealots so convinced they're actually doing what's best for their country. Ninety-six percent probability of violence going down, unknown parameters of interaction between user and environment, so, yeah, Tony would rather not find out whether or not dying in a dream means dying in the real world.
"Let's get out of here, kid, the adults need to have a talk, and everyone knows how boring those are," he says calmly, holding out a hand, but the boy's grip on the shotgun just tightens. "You don't want me to carry you out, do you? That's just embarrassing."
"Stay there, son," says the boy's mother with a fierce expression, and she pulls open the door and lifts her assault rifle. The air explodes with gunfire and blood splatter, splinters shot in a steady rain off the doorjamb. The father and uncles and aunts and cousins, who knows, maybe it's the kid's whole damn family, yell and curse and return fire to the soundtrack of shattering glass and the metallic shrieking of bullet-ridden vehicles.
Stubbornly biting back the panic, Tony instinctively reaches out to shield the boy, but his fingers barely graze a faded flannel sleeve before he blinks and finds himself stumbling to keep his feet on the roadside.
Well, it's a roadside. Somewhere in the Midwest, where fields go on forever and highways run in ruled lines to the horizon. There aren't any cows or people, but there is a rusty bus stop sign immediately on his left. While waiting for his heart to stop racing, Tony tries to remember the last time he took a bus and can't.
"You don't belong here," grown-up Mallen tells him, squinting in the bright sun until the lines around his eyes deepen with shadow.
Tony puts his hands in his jean pockets and makes a show of looking around. He's on shaky ground, not quite in control or even quite sure where this is heading. "Nope," he agrees easily. "Give me skyscrapers and enough pollution to give you lung cancer by age twenty-five any day."
"I hate the city. It's where all those Wall Street criminals live. Government spies. People with badges that say they can kill regular citizens."
"You've got a one-track mind, Mallen, anyone ever tell you that?"
"I'm gonna fix it, see," Mallen goes on fervently. "I've got this stuff inside me. They were gonna use it to make White House terrorists more powerful, but I'm gonna fix it. I'll fix all of it."
"That so?" asks Tony mildly, glancing at him sidelong. "You'll be the face of the new future?"
"You're making fun of me," Mallen growls.
"Only a little."
"Watch and see, just you watch and see."
"Yeah, about that." Tony preemptively takes a few casual steps away from Mallen. "You ever thought about using your words instead of your fists? People don't listen as well when they feel like they don't have a choice."
"Choice? You think my family ever had a choice? You think honest citizens have a choice when spies and murderers tell them what to do and they'll die if they don't?"
"We always have a choice," Tony says quietly, even though much of the time there's really no choice at all. Surrender, or we'll kill your family; sell us what we want, or we'll destroy your country; fight back, and we'll send in the latest weapons technology.
"The only choice we have," Mallen sneers as though he can hear exactly what Tony's thinking, "is how many of the bastards we take down with us."
The grassland shrivels into hot sand, the bus sign turning into a burned-out stick of lumber that was once part of a shop stall. The asphalt of the highway cracks into pieces of dismembered missiles, warped from the kind of heat that only comes with detonation or particularly powerful flame throwers.
"Ya Allah!" someone's screaming in pain, others yelling, "Ölni! Ölni!"
It isn't real, can't be real, but despite himself Tony feels his damaged heart lurch in its cage and pull on the arc reactor.
"I see you come by your wrong answers honestly," he snipes, adding 0110010101111000011001010110 0011011101010111010001100101 0010000001110000011100100110 1111011001110111001001100001 01101101 [EXECUTE PROGRAM<"executeprogram.exe><command=
Program activation: 100% complete.
The desert flickers back into Midwestern plains before dissolving entirely into an infinite four-dimensional space of data. There's nothing to see or hear or touch or taste or smell; the override has reduced everything to pure logic and mathematics manifested in such a way that a brain still largely organic, and therefore with some element of inherent illogic, can process it. The perception of space and time is purely an abstraction of reality to preserve the sanity of a finite, human mind.
That perception produces a web of light mirroring a neural map, the data streaming through the long fingers of dendrites and lighting up nuclei in supernovas, in spiral galaxies, in what a being like Tony Stark would call the mind of God.
Both Mallen and Tony have stopped moving entirely, slumped awkwardly in a tangle over the marble steps in a creepy parody of affection. Thor's lightning is still cracking, blocking outside communications to keep the two completely isolated from anything except each other. Steve hasn't felt this helpless since he watched Bucky fall, but all he can do is rely on the other Avengers to guard them and pray Tony has the skill (and the will) to come back.
Activating firewall, JARVIS streams, nearly indecipherable from Tony's own software. They're a digital Janus, sparks his illogically human side, and the kinds of ideas that inspires, the possibilities spinning out in front of him –
Mallen manifests as a violent coding error, a virus, the bull in a china shop smashing through perfect order and ripping out the system. Inelegant and human in all the wrong, most heartbroken ways.
I could've been you, Tony loops out into the ether, but this
this is what I was always heading towards
The Tesseract, it's Truth, wrote Dr. Selvig, but it's dawning on Tony that it's more than that – it's potential, the ability to rewrite the universe limited only by the limitations of the user. It's creation, it's –
It's then that Tony laughs and laughs as he remembers all the stories that should've just been fiction but are actually prediction. It's the nine billion names of God, it's the answer to reversing entropy, it's a man who should've died in a cave but instead did the impossible and put a star in his heart.
Mallen is ripping and twisting, corrupting data, breaking it down, and Tony reaches out to what JARVIS tells his mind is the epicenter of this infinite space and cups his metaphorical hands around a small, blinding sun. The light burns his hands, and it burns in the center of his chest, as he draws it up.
0110110101100001011011000110 11000110010101101110, he codes, [trans. Eng. <"Mallen">], Mallen, it doesn't have to end like this.
[<"choice">404 INTERNAL ERROR</recognition>]
Program: JARVIS. Malware detected. Creating partition.
I'm sorry I have to do this.
The light bursts, rolling outwards in a silent nuclear explosion. It blazes through his body, scorched-earth policy, and everything
When the armor suddenly falls off of Tony's body in pieces, leaving him in nothing but a pair of black boxer-briefs, Steve wraps his arms around him and hauls him away from Mallen. Physically he's unhurt, but Steve knows enough to guess that if Tony's lost control of the armor then something dramatic happened, or is still happening, and there's nothing that he can do.
He lays Tony down on the grass. Mallen's making small, hurt sounds in his throat somewhere between choking and sobbing, limbs twitching spasmodically, before he goes still.
Steve's hand hovers anxiously over the arc reactor, but it's still glowing; if Steve didn't know better he'd say it was actually brighter than it should be, almost painful to look at. His hand slides down to Tony's ribs and, thank god, feels them expand and release with deep, regular breaths.
"Tony," he says gruffly, leaning over him, "Tony, I swear to God that if you do this to me again I'll have Fury kick you off the team, a single terrorist shouldn't be able to do what a god and an alien army couldn't. Waiting for each other to wake up from intensive care or life-threatening situations is not a stable foundation for any kind of relationship, Tony, wake up!"
Above, the clouds begin to calm, the bruising slowly healing back to soft greys and whites. The tiny earpiece in Steve's cowl crackles back to life.
"What's the sitrep, Cap?" Natasha's already asking.
"Tony and Mallen are both unconscious but still breathing. Get medical out here ASAP." Calm. Collected. He's seen horrific things that made him retch, left him with nightmares that still sneak up on him at night, but this is personal. This is, this is someone dying before they've even talked about what they are to each other, let alone had that first date, and Steve, he – he doesn't want to do this again.
Tony exists in a world of ones and zeros. He'd read an amateur's theory once upon a time that compared existence to the game Twenty Questions: a unique combination of yes (1) and no (0) would result in the existence of a specific entity or object. Does this thing exist? Does it live? Does it like ice skating? A combination of 110 would then differentiate one thing from another thing with a combination of 111, and then, lo and behold, two unique things are existing.
This doesn't really help him with anything now, but he'd thought it was an interesting, if quaint, idea at the time.
The world is empty. Nothing exists except Tony, and it's kind of…lonely.
You'll create your own solutions, Jarvis had told him, human Jarvis, Jarvis 1.0, who'd waved an arm to encompass the whole of Tony's childhood bedroom. The robots, the DUM-E prototype, the spaceships that hung from the ceiling and could actually fly, the dog that he'd built for himself when his dad said no to a real one and which had been broken when Howard had kicked it out of his way. You'll make your own future, child. Now dry those tears, you don't want these biscuits I just made to get salty, do you?
He was a man of singular wisdom, comes a wisp of JARVIS. Tony reaches out for ones and zeros and pulls them close, lets them tumble where they will with his occasional nudging, and a new web of data grows with tendrils of light.
But it isn't enough.
You are, underneath, still human, JARVIS streams, still faint while Tony reweaves his coding, and in the dark spaces between the paths of light he sees strawberry-blonde hair, a strong shoulder under military desert fatigues, eyes with three shades of blue and one shade of grey, a tin of chai from India, an enormous letter A  standing out defiantly against a blue sky.
Wake up, Tony.
"An attempted attack by what officials are calling a 'posthuman' on the White House today was stopped by the Avengers. Reports claim that the suspect was working alone and had used a chemical that made him unnaturally strong, not unlike PCP, but that the chemical also caused a psychotic break. The chemical itself remains unknown, but it's been confirmed that this is the same suspect that attacked and killed nine people on Route 95 and damaged Stark Tower a few days ago."
"The cops seriously expect us to believe this asshole was on PCP? Even an idiot can watch the cell phone footage and see that that is some hardcore, high-grade military shit right there – "
"Why didn't the Avengers stop the terrorist before he killed so many people? Were they on a lunch break? How can we justify spending taxpayer money on a team that doesn't respond quickly enough to do its job?"
"Officials have declined to release a name – "
"The liberal media's calling the suspect a terrorist, but what I'm seeing here is an American citizen let down by the government – "
"It's ridiculous! Americans get killed abroad, it's because of terrorists, but as soon as it's a white guy doing the killing then it's because the system failed him, he was just a disturbed individual – "
"Stark Industries released a statement earlier today sending its condolences to the families of the victims killed during the Route 95 incident, but has thus far declined to comment on the Avengers."
Tony's sitting in a SHIELD medical van, feet on the ground and his helmet sitting at his side. Steve's giving orders through the radio, making sure there were no civilian casualties and that Mallen is under strict watch, keeping an eye on the rest of his team as Fury arrives on the scene and takes over. He keeps a hand on Tony's shoulder the whole time.
Tony, meanwhile, is just trying to keep his head from splitting open. And he'd thought he knew migraines before.
"Bruce says Mallen just died," Steve told him quietly. "The EMTs called it."
"At least that solves the moral question of whether you allow a villain to live and risk future deaths or kill the guy and prevent those future deaths."
Steve sighs but doesn't take the perfect opportunity for some lecturing. "Right now, I'm just glad you're alive."
"Yeah," Tony agrees vaguely.
"You know." Tony waves the hand that isn't occupied with cradling a pounding temple. "An epic showdown involving some interesting psychological trips and the hero saving the day. Nothing went wrong, Debbie Downer."
Steve sits down next to him, the hand on his shoulder sliding down and off to rest on the edge of his shield. Even though he can't feel actual warmth or touch through the armor, Tony kind of wishes it was still there.
"If nothing went wrong, then why do you look like death warmed over?"
"First cynicism and now an insult, Captain America, truly our nation is in the midst of a decline."
Steve just watches him with that unnervingly steady stare.
Tony fiddles with his helmet, its eyeholes dark and empty. "Once upon a time, I could've ended up exactly like Mallen."
"I find that hard to believe," Steve says without inflection, and Tony arches a brow. "For one, you're remarkably bad at holding grudges."
"There are a couple senators who'd beg to differ."
"I never said you couldn't be petty."
Steve gives him a small smile. "Just means you're still human."
Well, shit, there goes his heart, thumping a little harder than usual. "Bad at holding grudges, huh. And Dad? The Ten Rings? You?"
Steve finally looks away, absently running his hand along the shield's circumference. "That's different and you know it. Besides, I reckon you don't kiss people you don't like."
"Obviously you've never had angry hatesex," Tony quips reflexively. "Is this really the time to discuss that? Not that there's anything to discuss since it was a momentary lapse of sanity on my part, we established this, but I'm probably traumatized, so sad, it's going to take weeks for me to recover. Possibly forever."
"No, you established it, and if we don't talk now then you're going to disappear into the workshop and hide behind JARVIS."
"Will not," Tony lies.
"You were right," Steve bulls on. "I still haven't really adjusted – "
"I don't know, I checked that wiring work you did in the living room and I have to admit it wasn't half bad, which is really saying something, coming from me – "
"Not in the ways that really matter, and I…I've known enough soldiers coming back from a battlefront to know that adjustment can take a long time." Tony resists the urge to point out that none of those soldiers had effectively time-traveled, that freaking World War II isn't even a year behind him in memory, but he gets the idea. "Pepper isn't your girl anymore either, and I can't imagine what that's like. It hurts having lost Peggy, and we never even danced."
SHIELD records say Margaret Carter is alive and retired over in England, not dead, but at least Pepper's still around, had even left a message on his voicemail threatening dire things if he doesn't show up for the board meeting in two weeks. If chewing off his foot meant getting out this discussion, Tony would've happily started gnawing, but it'd been a long time since someone confided in him like this, not even Pepper, who'd learned to be careful after the first few times Tony had accidentally but inevitably said something stupid and earned a slap. And it's not nice, exactly, because seriously, Steve looks like a kicked puppy, what the hell is Tony even supposed to do, but it's the sentimentbehind it, maybe, that's getting to him in a whole new way.
"Steve, you're going to have to get to the point. I am very bad at these conversations, you have no idea, we'd both be better off if I built an LMD and let JARVIS take it over, and there's the distinct possibility that I'm operating at lower efficiency than usual."
"What do you want, Tony?"
World peace. An end to hunger. A perfect source of clean energy, and if his name could be stamped all over it then he wouldn't complain. Natasha to get into the habit of walking around Stark Tower in lingerie, even if he has no actual desire to tap that anymore. Someone who could know Tony both inside and outside the armor and not end up getting pushed away.
Tony winces. "I'll have to get back to you on that."
Steve shrugs. "I can wait. Not forever, if there's something war teaches you then it's to take your chances when you can, but…I can wait. Probably for the best right now, for both of us."
"How can you be so sickeningly stable sometimes in this brave new world?"
"Someone's got to be."
"I'm not a good guy," Tony warns him preemptively.
"I think you've just trained yourself to think you aren't."
"I'm a guy, period."
"Thank you for clarifying that."
Smartass. Smartass whose flag apparently flew less straight than history remembered. "My brain is essentially a computer now, don't forget that."
"And my body came out of a bottle."
This is Tony's cue to leer and say something that would land him with a sexual harassment lawsuit at any other time, but he's just too tired, his migraine still too strong, too much cleanup still to do.
"I'm not sure I can really describe it." Tony absently turns the helmet in his hands. "It's not like sitting in an IMAX– uh, an IMAX is this theater that's like sitting in the middle of a sphere with the movie playing all around you, a lot of people can't decide if it's awesome or nauseating – anyway, it's not like you're just part of the audience, you're the audience and the movie and the guy selling overpriced candy. You feel powerful and infinitesimally small at the same time. It's the ecstasy of Saint Theresa but multiplied to an infinite power."
His throat closes up, but Steve waits patiently, doesn't try to finish the thought for him, even though the surrounding chaos is still going strong and agents try to approach them a few times before Steve shakes his head at them. Eventually he goes on, "It's like I was back in space again. Watching a supernova and not sure I was going to come back again."
"What changed your mind?" Steve asks quietly.
Tony snorts. He's finally finding his equilibrium again. "I couldn't just leave my armor behind, can you imagine what Fury would do if he got his hands on my baby? Total disgrace to my memory, Pepper would find some way to make me cry."
Steve laughs under his breath before sobering. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," Tony replies automatically, then pauses. "I will be."
If he lets his knee tilt out a bit and knock into Steve's, whatever, no one else needs to know.
"You know, if Stark keeps up these kamikaze missions, I'm going to start feeling useless," Clint mutters, propping his feet up on the SHIELD conference table. Natasha sits next to him, wearing that inscrutable look that means she's either having serious thoughts or plotting to overthrow a small country, while Bruce and Steve just sit, waiting for Fury. Thor and Tony are both standing, the former by a window overlooking a field of clouds, the latter by the door.
"He says, knowing full well there's a stack of mission briefs waiting for us to clean up this mess," Natasha smirks. "If everyone were as flashy as you four, we'd be grunting and hitting each other with sticks."
"Cro-Magnon," Tony mumbles halfheartedly at the same time Steve replies to Clint, "No. This isn't happening again."
There are many things Tony could say to that: that he's just that awesome, that he's not that self-destructive, that he was honestly the only one who could meet Mallen on equal ground and win. There's also the fact that the first time they went out as a team Natasha had been the one stealing alien gliders and leaping about like a human ninja pinball and poking reality-altering staffs into interdimensional portals, and she didn't have armor or even a shield, thank you, so really, Clint's statement is a gross misrepresentation. But for the moment he's just trying not to think about the reason he's waiting by the door.
Right on cue several agents turn the corner, escorting Maya Hansen down the hallway towards the docking bays where her less-than-luxurious prisoner transport awaits. He takes a step out of the doorway. "Wait."
The agents glance at each other in some kind of silent super-spy communication, but they stop. Maya's in her lab coat with an expressionless face.
"I'm linked into all sorts of networks," Tony tells her in a neutral tone, hands in the pockets of his perfectly-pressed suit, shoulder leaning against the doorjamb casually. "Found the financial records for your lab and saw the military had pulled all your funding, and Hawkeye over there discovered the residue for some interesting forms of chemicals known to do even more interesting things to the brain in the vents. Which, you know, aren't actually necessary for the Extremis to work. The talented Dr. Banner found some videos featuring Iron Man and a few old Captain America propaganda clips when poking through your stuff. I was wondering where Mallen got some of his moves."
She doesn't react.
"I also found some anomalies in the enhancile you gave me. You said there were certain kinds of safeties in place, but, see, funny thing is, there wasn't. I figure you thought a live demonstration against the Avengers would make the military rethink its decision, and it's not like there aren't some politicians who would love to see me knocked on my ass a few times, think of it as a bonus, right? So you found a crazy guy with a hate-on for the government, had him study me and no doubt get properly pissed off with Cap, and deleted some of the safeties before shooting him up with the first wave of the future. Then it's just a matter of removing yourself from the path of his rampage and letting him go to town."
"Your father helped build the atomic bomb." Her voice is flat and hard. "Almost eighty-thousand people died in Hiroshima alone, which isn't counting the thousands of casualties or the radiation sickness that still affects the people. I would've used that funding to get out of the arms race. Medical technology. Not all of us can build ourselves new hearts or suits of armor, Tony. You ever tell Captain America how many people died during development of the super-soldier serum?"
"Steve volunteered, Maya. He knew the risks and what those scientists did before and after had nothing to do with him."
"But he condoned it. With his actions, he condoned it, and now people like Bruce Banner get thrown under the bus so the military can have its destruction."
Tony tenses. He's tempted to punch her in the face, but a warm, broad hand comes to rest discretely against his back, and he takes a long breath. "There is so much hypocrisy right there I honestly have no idea where to start."
"We're not that different, Tony. The only mistake I made is giving a damn about the person inside the armor."
"Actually, we are, Maya. You know why I got the Extremis to work while I was – literally, I might add – dying on a table when you still couldn't produce a totally successful sample? It's because you missed a variable. Don't feel bad, the last scientist to have caught it was Dr. Erskine. And now me, of course." Tony claps his hands together and takes a step closer to her, ignoring the agents that start looming threateningly. "There are three things you need in our line our business. You had the product, and you had the means to make that product, but that third thing, the third thing that could operate two totally different systems in sync and not have it all blow up in your face, is ingenuity. Creativity. Without that, Maya, you're just upgrading what's already there, and what you were trying to upgrade was Windows with a Linux patch."
It's been a very long time since someone looked at Tony with a depth of rage that runs so deep it turns cold, but Maya does, and the edges of regret and bitterness make it cut that much more acutely. Now that the initial rush of discovery is gone, Tony can't even bring himself to feel smugly victorious.
"So you're telling me the answer lies in the enduring strength and hope of the human spirit?" she asks levelly.
Tony opens his mouth, but the words die in shock when Steve breaks in with a short, "Yes," and nothing else.
After she's gone, Tony turns sharply and prods Steve's arm. "What the hell was that?"
"What was what?"
"You know perfectly well that wasn't what I was telling her at all – "
"I didn't actually know that, no," Steve admits, catching Tony's hand before he damages himself against those rock-solid muscles, "but now she doesn't have her answer."
"What?" When Bruce makes a noise of surprise and immediately pretends to be engrossed in his tea-stained paper coffee cup, Tony demands again, "Wait, what?"
"Dr. Hansen's a scientist that will never know her answer," Steve repeats placidly, and Tony, with a dawning awareness, isn't sure if he should be aroused by a moment of Captain America's meanness or worried that Steve now knows its effectiveness against smart people with Pandora's curiosity.
"What I find interesting," Bruce eventually muses aloud to the room at large, "is that SHIELD never brought in Tiberius Stone."
Yeah, Tony's been trying not to think about that either.
"We're still trying," says Natasha. "However, he has dual citizenship with the United Kingdom and he's been overpaying his legal team to stall for time."
"Time for what?" asks Thor, and she smiles grimly.
"I imagine we're going to find out in the near future."
Tony's already sifting through confidential SHIELD files – he skims past security footage tracking Tiberius' actions (he's older than Tony but still looks as handsome as ever, probably has a budget just for surgery and those anti-wrinkle creams), discovers that he'd not only married at one point but had divorced and left his ex-wife practically destitute (probably didn't read the fine print on the prenup agreement, poor woman, classic maneuver), has enough security surrounding the PASIV project that it's going to take even Tony more than a few seconds to break through –
"Tony?" Steve murmurs into his ear. Oh hey, hello, chills-down-the-spine.
"Yep, still here, Cap," he answers, blinking away the digital feeds just as Fury arrives. Steve immediately drops the hand he was still holding. Fury arches his right eyebrow.
"Going somewhere, gentlemen?"
"Can you arch the left eyebrow too, or does the patch get in the way?" asks Tony, then says, "Whoa, hey, this is not awesome, Cap, what," as he gets herded towards the table. Even Thor looks amused as he drops into the seat between Bruce and Steve.
"Avengers," says Fury, "today we're here to talk about what went down."
Enthralling. Tony leans towards Bruce and whispers, with a nod in Steve's direction, "What do you think, lawful good paladin?"
"Who also speaks Infernal?" Bruce's lips quirk.
"Only all the best words."
Tony stands on the penthouse balcony and looks up at the few bright stars shining through the city lights. He remembers vastness, how 'up' and 'down' didn't exist. He remembers silence so profound his ears rang with it. He remembers that the stars shone like a network of neurons and electrical pulses, brilliant points of light and life breaking up the void, and Tony thinks, We're getting there.