Over a month passes since they put Coulson in the ground when they all get called in again, this time as an official team.
"We have a situation," says Fury as his opening line.
"I imagine so, sir," Steve replies evenly, and Tony has to suppress a grin.
"Someone went to the cops in Austin, Texas with allegations of unethical medical testing on humans. It appears he had an attack of morality and felt it his civic duty to turn state's evidence."
"Pesky things, morality attacks," Tony says solemnly. Fury levels him a long one-eyed stare before picking up a stack of folders (actual paper, paper, what the fuck) and tosses them to the center of the table.
"According to this source, the testing involved more attempts to create a super-soldier."
"Good idea," Clint mutters.
"This time they were looking for more technological solutions."
For a moment Tony has the terrifying thought that someone has somehow managed to get their hands on the Iron Man blueprints, impossible as that should be given his security systems – all of them – are seriously the most advanced on the whole planet. Maybe it's the rudimentary Mark I, grey and lumbering and born in blood and sand, since Tony hasn't yet managed to recover all the pieces from what remained of the Ten Rings.
Steve tries to hand him one of the folders, but Tony doesn't take it until it's been set down again, and when he flips it open he can't help the dramatic hiss of breath that escapes between his teeth.
"You recognize any of this, Stark?" asks Fury.
The very first paper is a SHIELD profile of Maya Hansen, older than the last time Tony had seen her but just as beautiful, her face as carefully expressionless as ever. Tony debates with himself, yes or no, takes an instant to weigh various outcomes of his next move. "Maya and I met at a tech conference," he finally admits. "Two months later she stole one of my prototypes and reprogrammed it to give her coworker ex-boyfriend an electric shock every time he went in one of the labs."
Which said a lot about her as a person, really, but Tony isn't about to throw stones there.
"When was the last time you saw her?" Steve asks.
"I don't know, maybe ten years ago? She worked in experimental technobiology, got a job at Futurepharm, the pharmaceutical company specializing in cancer research. You know how it is, boy meets girl, boy and girl try to solve the questions of the universe, girl gets bored and goes into genetics, the traitor."
"What was the nature of the experimentation?" Natasha asks Fury.
"Assuming I'm getting through all the technobabble bullshit correctly, it had to do with a computer program capable of 'upgrading' human bodies."
"Impossible," Tony says immediately, then grudgingly amends, "Improbable."
"The brain is extraordinarily complex, we've barely scratched the surface in understanding how it functions," Bruce argues, brow furrowed. "Unless – "
"Nanites?" Tony provides. "If they're only targeting very specific parts of the brain – "
"If not the brain itself then at least the cells. If there's a healing factor – "
"Forcing cell replication, maybe, Jesus Christ, it's not like one of the biggest killers of mankind is predicated on uncontrolled cell replication – "
"Maybe just hormones, then, signal transduction could bypass the brain altogether – "
"Fascinating as this is, gentlemen, save it for after school," Fury breaks in and, yeah, Tony's used to getting interrupted midstream when the minds of lesser beings start realizing they're not only out of their depth but still in the kiddie pool, but that doesn't make it any less irritating.
Bruce shoots him a look of wry commiseration.
"Stark, I want a report of everything you know about this doctor in two hours, down to whether she prefers her eggs scrambled or fried. I want all of you prepared to suit up at twenty-two hundred tonight."
"A night raid?" Bruce asks, and Steve answers, "We don't want to give the people involved enough time to purge as much evidence as they can. We don't know if they're aware that one of their own has sold them out, and the longer we take to get in there, the more likely we'll lose crucial information."
"A-plus, Captain. Banner, Stark, you'll be analyzing whatever information you get out of there."
"Become an expert in experimental genetics in twelve hours. At least give me a challenge, Fury."
Tony sees Steve rolls his eyes, but there's none of the disgust that used to be there in his expression, just friendly exasperation or something. Ten points to Team Stark.
"You'll be working alongside our best SHIELD scientists as well."
"What? No," Tony says immediately. "We don't need a bunch of noobs trampling all over everything, you're killing me here."
"Suck it up and slum it with the uneducated masses, Stark." Of course, what Fury actually means: I don't trust you, Stark, you provide a state-of-the-art security system with enough backdoors that leave just you with access to everything. I don't trust you not to withhold anything, particularly now that you've admitted previous ties to one of the primary suspects. I'm not giving you lab assistants, I'm giving you covert operatives to keep an eye on you, and also Banner, because my one eye isn't blind to the way you were immediately able to pull Banner into your orbit. I'd send Barton, whose loyalty to SHIELD supersedes his loyalty to the Avengers, to spy on you from the ceiling, but I want to at least maintain the pretense of open cooperation. Tony wonders which of the other Avengers heard all that too.
"Well, in that case, aye-aye, Captain Morgan."
Steve, who's been flipping through the meager papers, immediately begins outlining a plan of attack, and Tony lets it wash over him in favor of reading the vague profile SHIELD's managed to compile on Maya. Near-genius, distinguished in her field, not very widely published but Tony imagines it's because she's been too absorbed in research to actually bother sharing it, a medical record suggesting a psychological condition. Highly likely, Tony thinks dryly, that sort of mental shit tended to show up more often among smarter people like Maya and himself. Hell, look at Reed Richards, or Hank Pym, or even Bruce, and Tony isn't even referring to the whole Hulk thing.
There's a list of known contacts at the bottom, including a distant mother and a few cousins, an old college roommate, and –
"Well, that's interesting," Tony muses aloud, lips going numb, five-percent increase in sweat production, a momentary pain as his heart speeds up a bit. The conversation around him immediately grinds to a halt.
"What is it?" demands Fury.
"This can't be right." Although Tony hates himself for the traitorous thought that, actually, it probably is, and he isn't as surprised as he wishes he was. "Tiberius never had any interest in genetics, why would he be in here?"
"Tiberius Stone?" asks Natasha.
"Of course, what other Tiberius is there, keep up."
"You seem to know these people better than we do," says Fury. "Why don't you share with the class why Stone couldn't possibly be involved."
"Not including the complete lack of interest in genetics? He was in neuroscience. Besides, he and Maya got along about as well as oil and water. We used to take bets on who would kill whom first."
"When was the last time you saw him?" Clint asks.
"I was nineteen, his parents had just died, and he took off for Europe to find himself."
"People change," Natasha says quietly, as if Tony doesn't know that, thank you very much, but this is Ty, who'd been his best friend next to Rhodey all those years ago until everything started going wrong between them, which he pretends not to think about ever. (Obie changed, didn't he, and you'd never even thought to question – and neuroscience is the perfect gateway into human testing – )
"It's possible that he isn't actually involved and our source named him in order to cause trouble for him," Steve points out, carefully, like Tony needs a fucking shoulder to cry on, "but none of us can rule out the possibility when innocent lives are in danger."
"Yeah, guess we'll find out when we crash Frankenstein's lab."
There's more planning that Tony doesn't really pay attention to, and when Fury finally dismisses them he immediately ducks out, bullshitting something about doing some amazing science preparation that only Bruce could possibly understand, and flies off the helicarrier as Iron Man back to the Tower.
"Welcome home, sir," says JARVIS.
"Hello, honey, is dinner on the table? Never mind, just call the nearest pizza place, I'm not going to let social pressure control my girlish figure."
"Very progressive of you, sir."
Tony instinctively starts heading for the office he'd built especially for Pepper (mahogany paneling, designed according to the word of some feng shui specialist he'd consulted because he's determined to do this right) before he remembers that she's back in Malibu for the week, how much does that suck, seriously. He goes to the workshop instead and immediately gets ambushed by DUM-E and U.
"Whoa, down, boys, down. Next thing you know I'll have to potty-train you, I swear, I did not program either of you to have separation anxiety."
And if he pats the both of them before he drops carelessly into his rolling chair, no one needs to know.
"All right, JARVIS, time for some nostalgia. Pull up whatever files you have on my wilder youth, specifically 1988 through 1995."
"Shall I include your special brand of home videos?"
"I'm on the clock here, JARVIS, how dare you suggest I lose focus. What do you have on Maya Hansen from that time onward?"
"Maya Hansen, born 1971 to Rachel Wei and Alden Hansen, entered MIT at the age of 17 with a focus on technobiology, a recent field in which she became a pioneer of considerable notability. She graduated with honors and went on to become a prominent speaker at a number of medical- and technology-oriented conferences. She studied under Sal Kennedy for a time alongside you, and was guaranteed a position at Futurepharm when she chose to redirect her research."
"Tell me something I don't know, sweetheart."
"There are four instances on record in which she was brought before the ethics board under allegations of an inhumane environment for volunteer human subjects. Three of those cases were dismissed, and one resulted in probation concerning her position and funding. That too was later dismissed."
"What was the source of her funding?"
"It appears to have been military. Past incidents suggest General Ross as a likely patron, but I can find no solid evidence of such at this time."
"Keep poking around and let me know what you find." Tony spins around lazily in his chair, flicking his fingers to make a ball of light manifest that he can toss absently from hand to hand. "What's her endgame, though? She never seemed to care about the super-soldier projects before, thought the military was full of morons. Unless she thinks there's a cure to cancer in there somewhere? Because gamma radiation is totally a viable method of practicing medicine." Although, to be fair, standard chemotherapy involves some seriously heavy shit, including radiation, so.
But that doesn't feel right, non-scientific description aside, doesn't fit into the picture puzzle somehow. Maybe it's a case of Just Because I Can; now that fit Maya to a tee. Never been interested in professional fame, used to call Tony a man-child for all his diva behavior (not that he's a diva, he's just self-assured, okay), and was always one of the most intense, driven people Tony's ever met.
Tony's wandering gaze catches on a pile of steel pipe in a distant corner, which reminds him that he needs to build a more stable particle accelerator, he's lucky the first version didn't bring down the whole damn Malibu mansion, and thinking of the shield prototype makes him wonder if he should try synthesizing some vibranium.
"JARVIS, get me information on the current events around Tiberius Stone."
"Of course, sir." A pause, then, "Tiberius Stone is currently the CEO and head researcher at Stone, Inc., based out of London. His corporation produces medical technology, but there are rumors of a device in development aimed at coma patients that appears to involve the capability of directly influencing beta wave patterns. These are only rumors, however."
"And they said The Matrix was science fiction. Give me some gossip on Ty's personal life."
"He seems to have a penchant for secretaries. There have also been a few scandals involving fashion models of questionable legal age."
Tony half-smiles, wry. Good ol' Ty.
"The tabloids claim that his longest public relationship was three months to one such model, Sylvia Blanche. Beyond that, there is nothing particularly auspicious."
Yeah, he was always more concerned with his reputation. "All right, dear, write me up some Clif Notes on Maya Hansen for Fury, I've got a date with the Mark IX."
Pepper had once successfully nagged Tony into trying therapy. He'd even gone to the appointment, on time, and he'd given the guy a chance. It wasn't the therapist's fault that Tony was not only a fantastic actor when he wanted to be but had also figured out the holes in psychological theory as a bored, angsting teenager, and by the end of the first hour the poor therapist was convinced that Tony had ADHD, OCD, psychopathy, and a bizarre sexual fetish for his latest Corvette. Tony was offended by the last: he has eyes only for his armor, thanks. And JARVIS. And possibly the thing in his bedside drawer he'd modified to have twice as many settings.
The therapist had later left a very polite message for Pepper that amounted to telling Tony never to show up at his office again, which only goes to show that too much time spent in beige-colored offices kills the radio star.
They still have several hours before the mission. Tony's alone in the workshop, muttering under his breath, when Steve shows up.
"I said you could live here, not invade my private world," Tony complains when his music gets turned down to bearable levels. "Why are you invading my private world?"
"Perhaps because you're a difficult person to pin down at any other time," says Steve mildly. "How is it going?"
"'How is it going,' he asks, as though I'm working on a papier-mâché volcano for my fifth-grade science fair. Which I never did, I made a robot that could set things on fire, which did not please Mrs. Whittington, let me tell you. It's going about as well as you can expect of a top-secret biotech project, which is to say, I must be left in complete silence to work."
Depeche Mode's bass thunders on in the background.
"When was the last time you slept?"
"You're all so suspicious, I have no idea why. What lies has Pepper been spreading about me?"
"At least a day, then."
That's creepy. If Steve Rogers is going to develop Bruce and Pepper's brand of telepathy, someone's credit score is going down. "I'm not sure you understand the severity of this situation."
Steve stares at him for a moment, then says, "Come on. I want to show you something."
"If this is about you figuring out the TiVo, then spare me."
"No, although I did some rewiring behind the television. You have too many electronics, you know that?"
"What? No, I don't, you heathen, you did the rewiring? JARVIS, get the fire department on standby."
Steve sighs. "Get up and come with me, Tony. I'm serious, not stupid."
"So am I. Am I going to have to sleep under a fire blanket from now on?"
Steve eventually manages to hustle him into a jacket, the leather worn and creased with small burn marks on the cuffs, and into the elevator. Tony's still in torn jeans and a greasy tank-top. "Are you going to tell me what's going on?"
But Steve doesn't answer, doesn't even seem to hear him except for a slight smile. Tony hunches down in the thick jacket and huffs noisily, but stops fighting until they end up on the street outside. It's late, and the night sky glows vaguely orange from the light pollution of Manhattan.
"Come on," Steve says again, and sets off down the street, smoothly maneuvering through the people still crowding the concrete and asphalt.
"Is this going to end up with pain and vows of revenge?"
"Somehow I wouldn't put it past you to manage that."
Tony isn't sure if he's just been insulted or not. "I'm serious, Cap, what's going on? I really was in the middle of something important, as in 'save the world' important, and I'd expect Captain America of all people to understand that a late-night craving for donuts usually takes a backseat to that. Not that I don't have a deep respect for late-night cravings, there's a reason the Tower never lacks for sauerkraut – "
"Tony," says Steve, "shut up and look."
Tony stops and looks, realizes that they've ended up in Bryant Park. The small café in one corner of the lawn, little more than a pagoda surrounded by a broad patio with tables and giant green umbrellas, is lit up with golden Christmas lights strung through the trees and over the umbrellas. People are still sitting at the tables under a blanket of quiet conversation, and there are people stretched out on the grass farther in, talking and laughing or reading books with tiny lights clipped to the covers. The street behind them is still loud with the general noise of a city, but it's...nice.
"What am I looking for?"
"You tell me."
"Steve," Tony says slowly, "if this is some sort of test – "
"No. No, that's not what I – look, haven't you ever just...sat?"
Tony can't help looking at him like he's insane.
"Like, sat in a park just for the sake of sitting in a park. Not to meet a business partner and broker deals or whatever it is corporate types do, just to – relax. Enjoy it."
"I have, actually. Pepper once hired this consultant who made us do teamwork exercises and learn the basics of feng shui for one's office to improve efficiency in the workplace. He made us spend an afternoon sitting in the middle of the park trying to connect with our inner selves."
"I'm sure you still haven't forgiven her."
Tony raises a hand to clap Steve on the shoulder, then thinks better of it and tucks it back into his jacket pocket. "Now you're getting it. Wait, no, Steve, what are you doing, come back here – "
Steve's heading for the little cafe, apparently completely forgetting the fact they have a crisis on their hands that could blow up in their faces - and most of Manhattan - at any moment in favor of two small, plain coffees. "Damnit, Rogers," he tries again, but the man's a goddamn force of nature and Tony ends up sitting at one of those umbrella-ed tables against his will, hands curled around the warmth of the paper coffee cup.
"I used to do this a lot," Steve tells him, gaze running over the people living their own lives around them. "I was usually too sickly to do much work, so I spent a lot of time watching people."
"That's not creepy at all," Tony observes.
"It's good practice, you know," Steve carries on as though Tony hadn't spoken, apparently determined to not get irritated come hell or high water. "When you're small and skinny no one pays much attention to you, so you can watch people. Make up stories about who they are and where they come from and where they're going."
For all the tension and even outright dislike they'd started out with, Steve still managed to connect with all the Avengers on some level. He'd taken command in the fight against Loki and it'd almost been like they've done this teamwork thing for ages.
"That sounds extremely boring," says Tony.
Steve gives him an unamused glare. "Says the fella who only gets his sun from those tanning salons."
"Tanning salons, Steve, really? Where has SHIELD been letting you roam?"
"The real world."
Tony twitches and starts playing with a napkin for the sake of a distraction. "Says the fella who jacks off to the thought of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Steve opens his mouth and Tony braces himself, wondering why the hell he let this star-spangled asshole drag him around and feeling the ghost of his father over his shoulder, but then Steve just sighs and rubs a temple with his fingers tiredly. "Hell, Stark. Tony. I want this to work, but you need to meet me in the middle."
"You want what to work? Bantering practice? Building up homoerotic tension for the titillation of the masses?"
"What? No," Steve grimaces. "I mean us, as friends. I thought we were getting there."
There is absolutely no internal fuzzies, nope. "Uh, yeah, no, I don't do friends. They're needy. They need regular food and attention, like puppies that can sass back at you."
"So Bruce is a pet, now?"
"No, don't be stupid, and if you ever imply, or exply, something like that again, I will find a way to melt your shield down into dildo molds," he retorts, entirely serious.
Steve suddenly laughs.
"…I gotta admit, Rogers, that's not something I'd have expected you to even understand."
"We did have sex in the forties," Steve says wryly, "and I was in the army when they sent us on missions in France."
"Did they still tell women that they needed to orgasm a lot so they wouldn't be hysterical? Were there fucking machines?"
"Oddly enough, I have no idea."
Tony takes a sip of coffee (eh, he's had worse) and doesn't say anything. After a while Steve begins, "Look, there are things you do that I don't agree with – "
"Golly, Rogers, that's not judgmental at all."
" – but you're a good man. The things I said before, it doesn't matter that Loki's staff was influencing us, they never should've been said. I was wrong, and I'm sorry."
"None of us were at our best," Tony hedges, "water under the bridge."
They both watch the people around them moving between the shadows and the city lights. Now that he isn't working, the weight of this looming crisis settles over Tony's shoulders like one of Obadiah's odd (and, in hindsight, creepy) half-hugs. Anticipation for the mission in a couple hours; unsettled confusion on what could possibly be going on in Steve Rogers' pretty head; awkwardness over Captain America calling him a 'good man' and not knowing what Steve actually means with that.
"So you know, if you lay a hand on my shield without permission, I will punch you in the nose," Steve says casually, and Tony barks out a surprised laugh.
It were the devil what gave us war, a pastor had spat in Tony's face when he was twenty-one and still stupid. He were the original inventor what inspired man to make his war machines.
Hey, I think I read that too. Tony flicked his sunglasses down over his eyes and smiled, shark-like. But like it also said, better to rule in hell than serve in heaven.
It's 22:27 and the team minus Bruce is sitting on the roof of a nearby building. The complex looks like a typical corporate building in the business district, modern and utterly unremarkable like its neighbors in the dull orange glow of streetlamps, save for one side being completely reduced to rubble.
"I'm not picking up any life signs. In a complex like this with an alleged secret operation funded by the military, there should at least be some scientists. Guards. A janitor," Tony mutters. "Call it, Cap."
"Black Widow, you're on recon. I want you to figure out what's going on. Hawkeye, cover her."
JARVIS' voice suddenly breaks in on the open comm, simultaneously pulling up several new windows on the suit's HUD. "Sir, I've managed to acquire the complex's blueprints from its nearest server. I cannot guarantee its accuracy, however."
"JARVIS, remind me to find you some new microprocessor swag. Widow, uploading it to your phone, you can thank me later for spoiling you."
"Most men use sports cars for compensation," she says mildly.
"Better put some cold water on that burn, Stark," says Clint, smirk practically audible.
"Sports cars are so eighties, people, this is the twenty-first century."
"Cut the chatter," Steve interrupts sharply. "How accurate do you estimate these plans to be, Iron Man?"
"Considering this is a top secret project that would piss off a few people if it got leaked, I'd say maybe seventy, seventy-five percent. It's classic, keep the official blueprints available as a decoy, hide the realones behind enough firewalls to make Anonymous a little frustrated."
"Understood," says Natasha, all business, and Steve goes on, "Bruce, wait outside for our signal. If we get into a tight spot, we'll need the Hulk, but if it's all clear, I want you to come in and help Iron Man collect every piece of information you can as quickly and thoroughly as possible."
"Got it," Bruce replies quietly. Tony thinks about all the electronic s, the sort of equipment that tends to come hand-in-hand with human experimentation, and wishes they had Thor's lightning available.
Natasha and Clint take off from the roof with a truly impressive demonstration of their agility, sneaking like ninjas across the dimly-lit open space and up to a rear entrance, avoiding the destroyed wall. There aren't any guards. Tony watches them, then switches the comm to Steve's private channel. "I feel like I should start sleeping in a brightly lit room with no concealing furniture or vents."
Tony's half-expecting to be told to shut up, but he's pleasantly surprised. "You're a teammate, I imagine they would give you the honor of a five-second warning, at least."
"If I die with an arrow in my ass, tell everyone it was actually Black Widow's Thighs of Death."
"I'll tell them you tripped over your own ego."
Tony whistles. "Rogers, you're a cruel, cruel man."
Steve laughs under his breath, the comm barely picking up the sound, and Tony finds himself smiling. Smiling, at something Captain America said, shit, but hey, it's progress. They fall silent, waiting side-by-side like particularly colorful gargoyles.
Unsurprisingly, the silence doesn't last, but surprisingly it's because of Steve. "Are you all right?"
Steve's gaze is fixed forward, definitely not looking at Tony. "You know some of these people, and now we're raiding their site for probable torture. Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," Tony answers immediately, ignoring the complicated tangle of this is all a misunderstanding and I should've known and did I ever actually know these people, I'm starting to think I have a problem here. "I haven't seen these people in years, I imagine we'd have about as much in common nowadays as noble gases and heavy metals." He's totally a heavy metal, maybe mercury. Or maybe not, that shit does weird stuff to people, all that vomiting and death. Ha, iron.
Steve makes a disbelieving sound but doesn't push the issue. It's out of character, he should be pushing and demanding answers, and Tony's left feeling slightly flatfooted. Thankfully, Clint butts in.
"I've lost sight of Widow," he says, voice hushed.
"Let's blow this popsicle stand." Tony grins, adrenaline sharpening his focus, putting him in the present moment the way he usually never is, and holds out an arm. "Let's go, Cap, although I warn you that if you cop a feel I'll be very uncomfortable."
"I wouldn't dream of it," Steve deadpans, and Tony honestly isn't sure if he's joking or not as he carefully wraps an arm around Steve's waist and takes off for the complex. When no one starts shooting at them, Tony runs a second scan. Nothing.
Natasha says in a low tone, "There are signs of a struggle in the lower levels."
"Scorch marks on the walls and a steel door ripped right out of its frame. The two dead guards are a big clue."
At least they found some people.
"No sign of active hostiles," Clint adds. "There are twenty-two known fatalities so far, haven't come across anyone else. Looks like mostly night staff and security."
"Bruce, get in position. If there's a trap waiting for us, I want you ready at a moment's notice."
The interior of the building is white-walled with linoleum flooring, feeling weirdly like a hospital, with evenly-spaced conference rooms and offices bearing nameplates on their doors. Tony is acutely aware of the suit's loud, clunking walk as he and Steve stride down the halls (note to self: look into cloaking technology, or at least some stylish booties to muffle the sound), and then Steve suddenly lets out a sharp breath as they pass what looks like a conference room.
"I hate suspense," Tony mutters.
"Four additional casualties," Steve reports, and Tony peers around the shattered doorjamb to see three men and a woman in uniform sprawled all over the room. All over, with a spare human arm lying by the door, some trailing intestines, someone's brain matter splattered over a wall, and Tony has a disorienting instant involving restraints and fingers pushing into the gaping hole in his chest.
"I have a couple dead scientists in the first subbasement lab," says Natasha, her voice flat. "I'm starting to think these people weren't entirely unsuccessful in their research."
"Any survivors?" Steve asks.
"So far, no," Clint replies.
"Any bets on how long it'll take the Red Queen to doom us all?" Tony says, and, shockingly, it's Natasha who answers, "If there are zombies, Stark, you're the first person I'm throwing in their path."
"Chatter," Steve repeats, but there's no strength behind it.
"Labs one and two are clear. Seven casualties in lab three. Lab four has Hulk-level damage and definite signs of a struggle. No casualties or survivors."
"Just so you all know, there's no lab four on the blueprints."
"Naturally," mutters Bruce, and Tony puts off thinking about why Bruce automatically expects secret rooms in high-security complexes.
Steve has his shield held halfway up in caution as he and Tony bypass the elevators and head for the stairs. "Steve," Tony says on a private channel, "let me take point. My repulsors have a better chance in these halls than your shield."
Steve's too practical to argue, even with that disgruntled frown. Tony goes down the stairs first, repulsors at thirty-eight percent full power, but nothing happens. Passing through the empty labs is somewhat eerie, coffee cups left abandoned, computer monitors still running as though everyone had gotten up for a smoke break and just never came back. More scorch marks and dead bodies. They meet up with Natasha in the fourth lab where she's standing next to a wall with a hole in it, approximately the size of a Hulk fist-smash, the reinforced steel-over-brick torn up like the edges of an open tin can. Exposed wires are still sparking sporadically.
"Hawkeye?" Steve barks.
"Exhaust vent," comes the reply, and Tony imagines the giant exhaust fans usually found in warehouse ceilings.
"Take a look at those walls and the fan, if there is one. There might be some residue of something, could be useful."
"Huh," Clint mutters, which Tony translates to, Damn, that's a good idea even if I refuse to admit it.
The lab itself is square and starkly lit with a cement floor, a drain imbedded in the center. The walls of computer stations, medical equipment, and steel tables make it look like the bastard child of a military war room and a coroner's workplace; Tony would almost be jealous of all the toys if it wasn't so mad-scientist creepy.
"Sir," says JARVIS, "I'm picking up a life form."
"Guys, look sharp," Tony immediately snaps, "we're not alone here."
Natasha's back is suddenly pressed firmly against the wall, both hands ready on her gun. Steve's arm curls around the shield for the start of a throw. "Hawkeye, talk to me."
"Nothing yet." Clint sounds irritated.
JARVIS breaks into the comm again. "Approximately thirty feet at your two o'clock, Captain."
Natasha nods once at Steve before slinking towards the wall obscured by the most tech supplies, Tony mirroring her along the other side of the room. "It's the shape and size of a human," Tony reports, attention flickering between the HUD's infrared scan and the angle of his position to Natasha (43⁰ with Steve at 0⁰) and Clint (98⁰ vertically), the materials of the tech and potential collateral (bullet ricochet at 34% probability, arrow ricochet at 12%, repulsor redirection at 75%). The unlikelihood of the life form being a mindlessly insane experimental subject decreases with every second that passes, inversely proportionate to the increasing possibility the subject is insane but still capable of tactical reasoning.
"We're the Avengers," Steve announces, loud and clear. "We're not here to harm anyone. Surrender with any weapons you have on the ground and put your hands in the air."
"Please don't shoot," comes a woman's voice, and Maya Hansen slowly stands up from behind an overturned table with her hands above her head.
Oh, thinks Tony faintly, all the numbers scattering.
"Dr. Hansen?" asks Steve, and she nods, biting her lip.
"Tony, is…that you?"
A few seconds pass before Tony says, "Yeah, Maya, it's me."
"Oh, thank god," she breathes, more emotional than Tony's ever seen her, even more than the time one of her labs under Sal Kennedy was shut down by the federal government and she'd thrown an absolute shitfit. She's in jeans, a blouse, and a lab coat, totally harmless, all three roughed up and filth-streaked like she'd been mugged on the street, but when she starts to stumble in Tony's direction Natasha says coldly, "Freeze."
"Iron Man, Hawkeye," Natasha continues as she holsters her gun and starts frisking Maya. Tony obediently keeps a hand upraised, palm out, because it's easier than trying to run a new set of numbers here, and knows that Clint has an arrow perfectly aimed and ready.
"Clear," Natasha eventually declares, but her stare keeps Maya pinned in place.
"It's clear," says Steve. "Bruce, come on down."
"Keep in mind that this isn't Candyland, Jolly Green."
"I figured," Bruce mutters, but there's a note of gratitude underneath for the warning. Even so, by the time Bruce appears in the doorway, Bruce's sharp inhale at the sight of the tables and tools hisses softly across the comm.
"Dr. Banner," says Maya, a little shakily. "I've always found your work particularly groundbreaking."
Tony finally finds the balls to pull off the helmet, taking a deep breath of unfiltered air and smelling traces of spilled chemicals and overheated wiring. "You all right?"
"I will be. I'm guessing your being here isn't a coincidence."
"What happened?" asks Steve, all military authority.
"Someone stole the project we were working on. An enhancile. He – he injected himself with it, and the result…he went on a rampage. The only time I've ever seen anything like it was in footage of the Hulk."
Bruce noticeably doesn't react.
"What are we dealing with?"
"He still looks human but he's strong, he's – god, I don't know, it all happened so fast, there was so much screaming – "
"Where did he go?" presses Natasha.
"I don't know, I don't know what happened after he trashed the lab. I hid behind some of the equipment, I think he was too angry and concerned about getting out to actually notice me. I can't – I can't do this right now, I'm sorry – "
Tony steps forward without thinking. "We'll take you back with us and figure this out. It'll be fine." Of course it won't be.
"Tony," Bruce murmurs, but Tony ignores him, adding, "Clint, keep looking for anything useful. I'll take Maya back to the helicarrier and go from there."
Tony glances back at Steve and, yeah, the guy doesn't look too happy, probably upset at being usurped, but whatever. "Iron Man, take Black Widow with you."
Natasha walks in front of Tony and Maya out of the labs and back up the emergency stairs. He asks quietly, "So, what was it? Military wanting super-soldiers? Cure for cancer? Pure intellectual curiosity?"
Maya's looking more composed, more like the straight-faced scientist he remembers. "You know exactly why, Tony. Same reason you keep wearing that armor."
"To save the world and look marvelous while doing it?"
"To be better than human."
Her hand brushes against his gauntlet, but not for comfort; instead she's pressing a small vial against the repulsor in his palm and he automatically closes his fingers around it, careful. Natasha doesn't turn around.
"Love potion number nine?" he says in an undertone, and Maya's lips quirk.
"Something like that."
Tony watches Fury and Maya in the interrogation cell, his arms crossed and expression carefully blank despite the one-way glass. Irritated as he is with the man, Steve finds the blankness incredibly unsettling.
"Think she'll talk?" Clint asks the room idly.
"Unlikely," Natasha predicts.
"She'll tell us what she wants us to know." Tony shifts a little to tap silently against the arc reactor under his shirt. It's a tic Steve's noticed before.
"Meaning I'm not convinced she was as helpless as she wants us to believe."
"Damsel in distress is actually the mastermind?"
"Depends on the intended outcome of this little game."
When Tony doesn't elaborate, Steve pushes. "What outcomes are you talking about?"
Tap, tap, tap. "A demonstration of ability, a big 'look what I can do' in Uncle Sam's face, especially if she's at risk of losing funding or if there's competition out there. It could be a distraction from something even bigger going on behind the scenes. Maybe she succeeded and is now playing innocent while she releases the kraken to go wreak planned havoc somewhere. Of course, she really could be innocent, god knows her best acting has always come from the Keanu Reeves school of stoicism.
"Of course, this would be in her best interest to have been done on purpose. Assuming the enhancile works and impresses the right people, the government will pretend not to notice her violation of the Geneva Convention and will provide her with her own little secret lab with all the best toys. Otherwise, innocent or not, the military's going to let her take all the heat and she'll probably never see the light of day as a free woman again."
"I worry that you know and understand these people," snarks Clint.
Steve is sort of thinking that too but he recognizes the way Tony's spine straightens slightly and how the line of his mouth starts to curl into a smirk, having seen it every time he said something angry and sent Tony flying straight from defensive to ruthlessly offensive. He immediately breaks in, "What do you think is most likely?"
Tony's silent for a while, just staring while Fury amiably asks Maya about all those SUBJECT: DECEASED notes in the files that Bruce is currently working through in one of the labs. Steve's about to repeat himself when Tony drops his arms and heads for the door, ignoring the chorus of, "Tony, wait!" as he pulls it open.
"Stark," Fury demands, "what the hell do you – "
"My turn to chat, Fury, c'mon."
By the time Tony's taken Fury's chair at the small table opposite Maya, Fury's next to Steve grumbling to himself.
"You want me to take over, sir?" asks Natasha.
Fury grumbles some more. "No, let's see if his bullshit works. It's not like the rest of us are getting anywhere."
Tony, meanwhile, is tilting his chair back on two legs while Maya asks, "Don't suppose I could get a drink around here."
"Nope, Fury's as strict about that as a cop with a teenage daughter."
"Then it's a wonder you're not gasping like a fish on dry land."
"Touché." Tony starts kicking a leg lazily, swaying the chair. Maya's hands are folded in her lap, her gaze steady. Steve's starting to wonder if he's missing some kind of telepathic communication by the time Tony says, "So, how's Ty?"
"Still fucking his way through Europe's corporate world, I imagine. At least you always had the good sense not to shit where you eat."
"Ouch," Clint mutters. Steve internally agrees.
"Well, I had to find something unique to do when I decided to leave the direct human experimentation to you."
"Touché," she replies with a faint smile.
Steve was lucky enough to have usually been too busy performing for audiences and then fighting a war to have had much exposure to the politicians and businessmen behind everything, but he isn't nearly naïve enough to know it's a recent invention. He thinks about Howard, charismatic and chatty but only when he actually wanted to be, usually far more interested in the toys they brought back from HYDRA bases than the people around him. Or Fury, willing to make weapons of mass destruction if it means keeping his own projects going. He thinks about one of the YouTube videos he saw of Tony shortly before meeting him – not the one where he calls half of Congress "ass-clowns" but the press conference held immediately on his return to Afghanistan. I'm shutting down weapons manufacturing, immediately interrupted by his then-business partner's, Still talking about it, nothing decided, we'll let the public know, as though doing the right thing is something to be tempered by compromise and stock prices.
Tony said he's known Maya for years, as well as this mysterious Tiberius Stone, and now Steve's wondering how much of Tony's life has been spent playing these games. Was he born in the spotlight or did Howard ease him into it?
"Stone was lending me some of the research of his own company," Maya's saying. "His work with the PASIV had some potential to be useful with the Extremis enhancile, but it turns out that the two systems just aren't compatible."
"And that was the extent of your communication with him?" Tony asks.
"Yes, fortunately. If I had to read any more of his condescending emails I was going to find a way to break his face through a computer screen."
"You know he doesn't mean – "
"Tony," Maya says with exaggerated patience, "you have your moments of being a sexist asshole, but he's enough of a pig that even you can see it. Also he's just an asshole."
"Pity she's probably a sociopath," Natasha comments. "We could've had a coffee together."
Clint snorts. Steve wisely says nothing.
"What is the PASIV?" asks Tony, blatantly changing the subject.
"It's a device capable of linking a person and a machine to enable visual and auditory communication. Right now it's intended for patients in a coma or some sort of vegetative state, but it's still in development. He's being pretty close-lipped about it, so the little I did see was only just enough to determine whether it'd work with the Extremis or not."
Most of the time Steve feels like he's gotten a fair handle on contemporary technology, but then something will come along that sounds so much like science fiction that he feels like he's just been unfrozen all over again.
"And the Extremis is what caused a Hulk-sized blowout in your lab?"
"Was it a completed version?"
She pauses. "What do you mean?"
"The Extremis version you put in this subject. Was it complete, or did you leave out a few things?"
Steve, Fury, and Natasha all perk up.
"Why would I knowingly install an incomplete program into a living human subject?" Maya asks, but Tony's still relaxed and tilted back in his chair.
"I'm just a lowly engineer, Maya, you tell me."
"Goddamnit, Tony, my lab was just destroyed and all my colleagues were killed tonight, don't you start playing mind games with me," she snaps, eyes widening and looking suspiciously shiny under the bright fluorescent lights.
Steve glances at Natasha and sees her own eyes narrowed, visibly picking apart Maya's every twitch and facial movement, and looks back in time to see Tony lower the chair to all four feet again and reach across the table to take one of Maya's hands.
"I'm sorry," he says quietly. "I'm just trying to cover every possible angle."
"I know," Maya murmurs. "Playing when you were DM was a fucking pain in the ass."
"DM?" asks Steve, but no one else knows. He reminds himself to ask Bruce later.
"Agent Romanov," starts Fury, "please contact someone with the clearance to get Dr. Hansen to her nice holding cell, then find a way to convince Banner to take a break. Cap, I'm making it your responsibility to make sure Stark goes home and stays home."
"Don't you want him playing code monkey with Banner?" Clint asks, confused.
"I don't trust Stark to be objective right now, and you're all to get some goddamn sleep while you can before whatever escaped that lab finally shows up."
"Sir," Natasha starts to protest, but Fury talks over her. "Romanov, I know for a fact you can go three days without sleep under enemy fire and still come out the winner, but take advantage of the chance for downtime, got it? You're going to be working Hansen over soon. I want you all back here by eleven-hundred anyway."
Eight hours from now. "Yes, sir," says Steve, and makes the shrewd decision to get Tony back to the Tower before Bruce so that the two of them don't end up in one of those debates that doesn't sound anything like actual English and can't be put off, Rogers, this is science, I'll sleep when I'm dead.
Steve manages to grab hold of Tony's arm before they leave the observation room.
"Huh, I didn't know they were so straightforward in the Victorian era," Tony snipes, jerking his arm back.
"You were supposed to help Bruce get all the information you could, not take off with the primary suspect."
"You're not giving Bruce enough credit, Rogers," Tony says, sounding as serious as Steve's ever heard. "Clint's not a CSI but he's a good agent, he knows what to look for, and you were there to take care of any surprises. It seemed prudent to get Maya back to the helicarrier while she was still off her game."
"I need to be able to trust you, Stark, and I can't do that if you're going to change plans without warning. What if we were in the middle of a fight – "
"We weren't in a fight, that's the point, it was under control, I had all the variables accounted for – "
"How can you possibly account for everything, there is no way to predict something like an ambush."
"Look, I understand the importance of working like a well-oiled machine, it makes me warm and fuzzy when we act like an actual team, but trust works both ways, Cap. I know Maya. She can lie with the best of them – seriously, if she invites you to play poker, don't – but she isn't good at improvising. The more time we sat around with our thumbs up our asses the more time she'd have to invent a story that would hold up to interrogation."
"So you do think she started all this on purpose."
"I don't know yet, but I'm not ruling out any possibilities. Now, I'm going home to sleep the sleep of the righteous, and you're going to do whatever it is old men in fabulous uniforms do, and then we'll reconvene to spend the next working day debating whether or not we can trust our government and its dispersal of taxpayer money. Spoiler: nope."
Tony leaves for the loading bays before Steve can respond, armors up and takes off. When Steve tries to get him on the radio, all he receives is a blast of heavy drums and screaming guitars and a pointed, "What, I can't hear you, Cap, think I'm going through an area with bad reception, you're cutting out, what, I'll just see you at the Tower."
By now Steve's too tired to argue and takes a helicopter back to the Tower.
He manages a few hours of restless sleep, then spends another half hour sitting on the sofa in his private living room (bigger than his and his mother's tenant housing) doing nothing. After a while he decides to give it a shot and takes the elevator up to Tony's penthouse level, fully expecting to be locked out, except Tony seems to have far too much fun breaking Steve's expectations. JARVIS welcomes him in with, "Good morning, Captain Rogers."
"Uh," says Steve smartly before giving himself a shake. "Sorry, good morning, JARVIS. Did Tony come in yet?"
"He is here, yes," but something about that wording prompts Steve to ask, "Is he asleep?"
Steve waits while he glances aimlessly around the penthouse. JARVIS is silent.
"…Is he going to?"
"May I inquire as to what your interest is in Mr. Stark's activities?"
Dark marble tile gleams under Steve's boots. Everything seems to be in muted tones or gleaming chrome, sleek and minimalistic in the faint dawn light just beginning to peek through enormous windows.
""I…don't like the way our last meeting ended. I want to make sure he'll be prepared to handle our current case."
"If you don't mind my saying, Captain Rogers, this is the first time in which you've demonstrated concern over Mr. Stark's behavior while off-duty."
"There are parts of this case hitting closer to home than they normally do, I imagine," Steve says cautiously. "He's also one of our best chances at understanding what's going on before it gets worse. We can't afford to have him at any less than top form."
Steve has the unsettling feeling that JARVIS is weighing him up, considering various courses of action, making the kind of sentient choices machines traditionally aren't supposed to be capable of. But all JARVIS says is, "Ms. Potts arrived home from her meeting in Boston approximately seven hours ago. I will make sure she's made aware of Mr. Stark's situation."
Well. All right, then. "Thanks, JARVIS."
"You're welcome, sir."
Steve looks around one more time at the slickly designed room so different from his own, trying and failing to pick out objects that make it feel like a home. You'd think that since the place was built by the same person that actually meant to live in it there would be odd crannies for favorite tchotchkes, shelves made especially for favorite books, a blanket or jacket tossed haphazardly over the carefully matched furniture, but it's almost as blank a slate to him as Tony's expression outside the interrogation cell.
Pepper's hands are cool and dry, small and gentle (unthreatening) when they aren't wielding lawsuit papers. Right now they're gesturing sharply through the air, thick as it is with sharp words and frustration because Tony is – god, he's Tony, Tony fucking Stark, which means he manages to feel more raw than he would if he'd actually gotten injured on this particular mission. If it's not one fucking thing then it's always another, with him. He's feeling jittery and a little like a nervous animal looking for a hole to hide in, so when Pepper says one thing he says another and it turns into this one big feedback loop of words that can't be taken back.
Why are you acting like this, she demands, what happened, what did someone say.
Nobody said anything, it's fine, it doesn't matter, he snaps, it never did.
What is that supposed to mean?
Nothing, it doesn't mean anything. Just – just leave me alone, I'm fine.
He's fine. The first thing he does when he gets to his workshop is put the vial that Maya handed him in a hermetically sealed container. "Run every scan you can think of, JARVIS."
Of course, the results are pretty much exactly what he was expecting. Preliminary analysis suggests mechanical components suspended in a protein fluid. Chemical analysis still pending. Running advanced scans.
"You're a peach, JARVIS. Also, happy birthday, don't think I've forgotten about it, and congratulations for seven years of not killing me in my sleep," and spends the next several hours in his lab playing with alien weaponry, muting JARVIS after he keeps saying, Sir, I recommend you make use of your bed or at least the cot, Quiet Riot making his ears ring. He throws a screwdriver and something shatters on the other side of the workshop. He eyes Maya's present every so often, and hacks into Bruce's encrypted files because he needs to pick over something that isn't Chitauri or Extremis.
Dr. Selvig's notes write, the Tesseract, it's Truth, but it's also gamma radiation and an unidentified form of energy. Tony spreads his hands apart and a photo of the device holding the Tesseract blows up until it's taller than he is. The Tesseract is delicately balanced in the circular mechanical frame, which has eight spokes like a wheel supporting an extraordinary number of power dampeners and runoffs, and it all glows with an eerily familiar blue-white light. It has the same dimensions as one of the cube-shaped diagrams in his father's notebooks, the same notebook with the mathematical description of a new element.
When he glances down, the lightning bolt in the middle of the AC/DC logo on his shirt is obscured by the shine of the arc reactor.
Tony's mind is soaring with numbers, notations, making connections, mouth moving though the words can't keep up, only dimly aware of a new sound interfering with the thunder of guitars and the clanging of heavy fabrication machinery. It takes a hand on his shoulder to make him look up, and by the time he realizes it's Steve he's already twisted out and away from Steve's grasp, clapped his hands together to close down all the screens displaying the Tesseract.
"Oh. It's you." There's an approximate twenty-percent increase of tension from the usual baseline in the guy's huge shoulders. "Let me guess, Daleks? Or Klingons. Tell me it's Klingons, I've been dying to throw Thor at those guys."
Steve doesn't seem as entertained by this idea as Tony, or at least as entertained as he could be if he understood what's actually being said. "Did you get any rest?"
"I'm in the workshop, of course I did. Wait, how did you get in here?"
"Pepper gave me the passcode."
Yeah, that seems to be a theme around here. Tony's own shoulders get tighter, his belly clenching with the familiar sense of being cornered and dragged him back down to earth. "Are you two on a first name basis now too?"
"I talked to her when I got back here. She said she's worried about you, so she asked if I'd come see you," Steve explains, calmly. "And since I'm team leader…Tony, what's going on?"
DUM-E, the idiot, has a conical party hat strapped to the apex of his arm and is zooming around the shop kitchenette on little wheels, banging cake pans and an electric mixer.
"Ignore him, he's so excited he just can't hide it."
"Excited for what?"
Tony finds himself tapping on the arc reactor again, which is just ridiculous because he and self-consciousness parted ways years ago. "It's almost JARVIS' birthday, so that means party stuff. Pointy hats. Favors. There might be a cake, but Dummy's still practicing his cooking so I told JARVIS to have the Poison Control Center on speed-dial."
"How can JARVIS have a birthday?" asks Steve, because he's also an idiot, even if he at least has the decency to sound tentative about asking such a stupid question in the first place. Bruce had gotten it, or at least hadn't looked at Tony like he's a crazy person.
"Uh, why wouldn't he?"
"But he's not really a person, is he? No offence, JARVIS."
Yeah, saying that shit before addressing the entity in question on the matter of being offended, that's not contradictory at all. "None taken, Captain," JARVIS replies in a voice two degrees cooler than usual.
"Depends on how you define a person, doesn't it?" Tony says tartly. "You probably think 'person' is synonymous with 'human,' which is just fundamentally wrong. 'Human' is a species, and a 'person,' for all our intents and purposes, is a self-aware, individual agent capable of creative and autonomous thought. Sure, even the most complex machines that appear to be free-thinking are still operating within a set of programmed parameters like the world's most advanced calculator, but JARVIS can out-create you and Leonardo da fucking Vinci, so, you know what, JARVIS gets a goddamned birthday party if he wants one."
He wants to pull up Selvig's notes again, but since Steve isn't leaving, Tony turns to the Chitauri weapon lying in pieces set in a careful grid on the table. Last time he'd messed with it, he had removed the chassis to expose its fleshy interior run through with various thicknesses of wire and hollow chambers, and he picks up a new screwdriver and a scalpel swiped from Bruce to start prodding at it. Steve's silent, but he's still not taking the goddamn hint either, and fuck it, Tony doesn't care, Captain America can stand there until another seventy years have passed if he wants to.
"JARVIS, make a note, I want to get Bruce up here to take a look at the radiation screenings for the Chitauri stuff sometime soon."
"Busy, Cap, our banishment from SHIELD ends in, what, twenty minutes, and I want to get some of this finished beforehand."
"Tony, JARVIS, I'm sorry," Steve says. "I didn't think it through and I shouldn't have said that."
And what's weird is that it sounds sincere, like he actually means it, what is that. There's a bang, a crash, and a small chirp before DUM-E's wheeling over with a blender cup full of something vaguely creamy and bumping it against Steve's elbow. On the other side of the shop, U whistles.
"Don't make me pull this car over, children, I will wash out your vocal synthesizers with soap," Tony says loudly. U tries to pick up the thrown screwdriver, flails, and promptly drops it again. "Dear god, you are an embarrassment to all robot kind."
From the corner of his eye he sees Steve accepting the cup from DUM-E with a smile, albeit a bewildered one, and maybe he's putting on a show to prove how accepting he is, no really, watch me treat these inanimate objects like people to placate the mad scientist, but it's also possible that he, well, isn't. That he's sincere and going to give Tony wholesomeness disease in the process.
"Welp, time to go," Tony doesn't blurt out, he speaks very suavely, don't look at him like that.
"If we leave now, we'll be on time," Steve points out.
"Exactly. Need to keep Fury guessing."
Tony obviously hasn't slept, going by the darker-than-usual circles under his eyes and the rumpled shirt and jeans, the grease streaked over his forehead from running filthy hands carelessly through his hair. He's slightly twitchy, expression distant as he thinks ten things at once and talks to his robots like they're unruly children. He shoots Steve sidelong looks every so often but otherwise ignores him as he trades insults with his AI and handles various tools with the same easy grace with which Steve uses his shield, though Steve gets the impression that he's just waiting for Steve for leave.
Steve's seen footage of him at charity galas and in front of Congress ("assclowns," seriously, dear Lord) but for all his offensive charisma Tony seems relaxed with his bots in a way he never quite manages with people. Take away the armor and what are you, and it's starting to dawn on Steve that "I am Iron Man" might be more than just a rich man's ego.
"It's like nothing I've ever seen before," Bruce tells them as he flutters around the SHIELD lab, flicking his fingers over a number of computer screens. Tony had immediately appropriated one of them the moment the team trooped in and now breathes, "Holy shit."
"As far as I can tell, Extremis targets the brain stem – the part that deals with instincts, reflexes, that sort of thing," Bruce adds, seeing the general confusion. "Your breathing, heartbeat, healing, all the stuff you need to survive but don't think about, that comes from the brain stem, which is the oldest part of the brain in modern humans.
"In simplistic terms, our DNA tells different parts of the cell what proteins to use in what combination to produce certain results. Brown hair, blue eyes, whether or not you'll be a hemophiliac. Geneticists are already able to splice together the DNA from two entirely different organisms, so in theory – "
Bruce is sliding charts and holograms and god knows what else over to Tony's screen as he's talking, and Tony takes up, "So in theory, if you can program something like a virus able to automatically replace parts of your own DNA with something different, then you can effectively hack the body itself. The brain is a good place to start."
"How is that even possible?" asks Clint.
"For all your emotions and illogical behavior, the body functions on fundamental laws of chemistry, physics, and a small amount of electricity. Your ability to shoot a fly at fifty meters, grasshopper, is still dependent on your physical senses and general biology. Eyesight, for example. Balance. All of which are determined by genetics and the chemicals sloshing around inside you."
"MIT holds an annual competition in which a number of teams receive kits containing basic genetic material," Bruce muses aloud. "The teams construct everything from arsenic biosensors to banana-scented bacteria. Dr. Hansen's work is a logical progression from that."
Now, Steve isn't a stupid man. He used to take advantage of his sickly years by getting his hands on every book he could, and he's learned by now to use contemporary appliances, smartphones, and tablets with the same ease as someone who's grown up with the technology. But biology, genetics, and the finer points of computer science aren't generally the topics of even the most modern person's intellectual repertoire, so he decides to stick to what he can know practically. "What does this Extremis actually do?"
Bruce wrings his hands nervously and glances at Tony. "Some of the files we got from Dr. Hansen's lab are records of the actual experiments. There really was human testing, that wasn't a lie, and it's not…pleasant."
"Surprise," Natasha says dryly.
"I'm serious. I'm not even entirely sure what's going on, but it's…bloody. And messy."
Unexpectedly Tony's eyes slide over to Bruce as he says casually, "You need an elixir over there?"
"I cast Wall beforehand, I'm fine, thank you."
"Has Fury seen these?" asks Clint, and Bruce meets his eyes squarely as he says with a bit of challenge, "No."
"You ready to rock this madness?" Tony interrupts. "I want to know what we're looking at here."
Bruce turns around one of the screens, taps a corner, and Steve is witness to one of the most horrific videos he's ever seen. (It doesn't come anywhere near the things he saw during the war, the experiments done not just by HYDRA but the common pig farmers and tailors no different from any other man save the swastika on their arms, but it makes him nauseous, reminds him of the bodies that were sometimes still alive under all the pain and filth.)
A man in nothing but his briefs is lying on a steel table, visibly nervous. Dr. Hansen takes a syringe, presses the needle into the thick vein inside the man's elbow, and stands back. Nothing happens at first, but then the man spasms, limbs jerking, and the harsh gasping tearing itself out of his throat turns to screams as the skin suddenly splits open in a hundred gaping wounds all over his body. It only takes a few seconds for blood to start dripping steadily to the floor, all without even being touched by another person.
"The name of the subject we're after is Mallen, no first name recorded. My immediate thought was that his body…Natasha?" Bruce's brow furrows with concern. Steve turns to see Natasha's unnaturally pale expression.
"Nat," Clint whispers, brushing his fingers against her wrist, and she blinks a few times. "Your first thought was what, Bruce?" she prompts, only the thinnest crack in her otherwise composed voice.
"I thought his body was simply rejecting the virus, like an organ transplant gone wrong," Bruce explains slowly, letting the awkward moment pass and thankfully turning off the screen, "but it doesn't fit. After the subjects, uh…"
"Exploded," Tony supplies.
"Exploded, their body completely scabbed over and formed a shell not unlike a cocoon. I'm guessing Extremis is attempting some sort of physiological change underneath the shell, but none of the subjects survived long enough for us to know what that would be."
"Except for the one that trashed the lab and got away," Clint points out. "So, should we be searching for a guy looking like a giant scab running around?"
"No," Tony says suddenly with an odd sort of conviction, but he doesn't look up from whatever it is that Bruce tossed his way when everyone arrived.
"Mallen could look human or like another Hulk, which means Tony and I are no doubt going to be sacrificing some sleep in the near future." Bruce's voice is droll. "I imagine Fury will want to talk to you all anyway."
Field reconnaissance while the brains of their operation worked out the theoretical bits. Well, computers still sometimes worked too slowly for Steve's taste anyway. "We'll start looking for any incidents that might give away this fellow's location, hopefully before there are any casualties. Let me know immediately if you find anything that will help narrow down his location or give us some idea what he's capable of."
"Duh, of course," Tony mutters distractedly.
Steve internally sighs. "Just don't forget about us muscle-bound cavemen."
Tony actually blinks and looks up at that. "Yeah, all right," he says, as though he isn't quite sure how to take that. "Now go away, you Cro-Magnons."
Clint starts to say something before Natasha steers him out the door with a hand on his shoulder. Steve follows, wearing a worn but definite smile.
"What was that all about?" Bruce asks once the door closes behind the team.
"What was what about?"
"What're you thinking, Tony?"
"Shouldn't you already know that, Dr. Banner, sometimes I could swear you're a mind-reader anyway."
"Unfortunately perfection is still currently out of our reach. What is it, Dr. Stark?"
"You know, that's kind of a new one, usually I'm 'Mr. Stark' and people forget that I actually have three doctorates."
"Okay, okay, it's Extremis. If my math is correct, and it always is, then I think it, uh, reprograms the body."
"We'd already guessed that. Dr. Hansen basically said as much."
"No, I mean, it looks like it actively tells the body that it's wrong."
"And it, what, reboots the body and puts in a whole new operating system?"
"Which is why all the subjects end up looking like extras out of Dawn of the Dead. The body is essentially rejecting itself."
"Does the subject remain human, then?"
"Bruce, this is nothing like the other guy, okay? Totally different, and if you start having a crisis over the state of your perfectly intact humanity then I'm going to throw something at your adorable face."
"That wasn't what I meant, but thank you." Bruce gives him a faintly amused look. "Does the subject become, what, a cyborg? Posthuman? Another abomination?"
Tony doesn't know.
They'd play Monopoly. Tony would buy up Park Place and Boardwalk and have two hotels set up within ten minutes. Maria would laugh and Howard would say, That's my son.
Ten minutes after that, the board and fake money would be scattered over the floor, Maria would be crying, and Howard would be screaming at Tony's back as he hightailed it out of the drawing room with his heart in his throat. He'd hide in the shadows of one of the mansion's sweeping staircases, holding his favorite little robot toy – grey and simple and boxy, especially when compared to toy-Cap's bright colors – and be desperately envious of its impenetrable armor.
I wish I was like you.
Bruce has fallen asleep slumped against a tabletop. Normally he can keep up with Tony's erratic sleeping schedule without much problem, it's practically a universal habit among hardcore scientists and starving artists anyway, but he'd kept working while the rest of the team had their post-mission naptime and is finally crashing.
Tony's too jittery to stop. Still thinking about the stress lines around Pepper's eyes and the fact that he's gotten halfway towards calling her and hung up before the first ring four times. He's broken into new files, new information scrolling in green-on-black down three screens in a semi-circle around him, new possibilities sliding into his brain like a virus.
Billions of nanotubes –
Carrier fluid –
Increased muscle mass –
Increased cognitive function –
Increased immune system –
Reprogramming of biological processes to eliminate redundancy and improve efficiency–
The future of mankind –
All it takes is a little bottle. And maybe a bit of blue-white, clean energy. "Congratulations, Dr. Erskine, we've come full circle. Tip of the hat and take a bow."
"Don't do it," says Bruce, making Tony jump. He still looks exhausted, but his gaze is perfectly steady.
"If I lost a dollar for every time I heard that – well, I'd still be ridiculously wealthy, never mind."
"It's not worth it. You might want it now, or something like it, but it's not something you can ever take back."
"That's a lot of vague nouns right there, Doctor."
"Damn it, Stark!" Bruce suddenly snarls, slamming his hands down on the table and making Tony jump instinctively. "Tony, don't deflect or pretend you have no idea what I'm talking about."
"Why would I? There's nothing to deflect," Tony replies sharply. Pointedly.
"You think I don't understand how much a person can hate what they are? All those weaknesses that ultimately come down to having accidentally been born human?"
"Bruce," Tony tries, but Bruce rolls right over him.
"You ever wonder why I'm always angry?"
Not really, honestly, because you don't always need a reason to be angry, you don't always need a sob story or trauma. Sometimes you've just got to look out your window. Turn on the television or the radio. Get online and open your eyes. "Does it matter?"
Thank god Bruce knows how to interpret Tony-speak, he thinks, when it occurs to him what that sounded like out loud.
"My dad," Bruce starts, and shit, anything that starts like that should definitely require alcohol to ease the way, "he hated me. And I hated him. He beat me because I was smarter than he was. He killed my mother and I…I watched. But I couldn't stop him."
Tony can't make himself move. He doesn't want to know this. He really, really doesn't want to know this except that…it's Bruce. Bruce, who disappeared without warning from Stark Tower for two weeks and came back without explanation, the key phrase here being, he came back.
"That's why I started working on the super-soldier serum, Tony. I hated my father for so long for letting his issues control him, I hated my mother for not being able to stop him, but I hated myself for being so weak. I thought that if I could reproduce the serum then no one would have to be in that position again. That someone would always be able to stop it. That I could.
"But I tried it, and the Hulk happened instead." Bruce's expression sends Tony's mind back to a cave with another man, his soft, I have a family and I will see them when I leave here. "The Extremis won't change anything. If anything, it only makes things worse."
"Bruce, I," Tony tries. Pauses to lick his lips. "I know what you're getting at. I do. But the Extremis – "
"Makes everything make sense?" Bruce finishes with a quirked smile. "Don't look at me like that. I knew the first time I saw you in your workshop why you prefer machines to people."
"Why, Bruce, haven't you seen the tabloids? I love people. Especially the flexible ones."
"Yes, I've seen the tabloids, by which I mean I've seen how well you play the game."
"I don't think Heffner's Playmates would say it's just a game."
Bruce actually rolls his eyes. "Don't play stupid, Dr. Stark."
"How did this become about me, by the way? I could've sworn we were talking about you."
"Yes, but for the sake of everyone on this ship I felt it was better to change the subject."
The quiet between them is awkward for the first time since Tony complimented him on his rage monster.
"You're wrong, y'know." Tony firmly keeps his eyes on the Extremis code. "It's not about being stronger than the enemy. If you have the power to make yourself more capable of doing what's right, then aren't you morally obligated to do so?"
"That depends," Bruce replies carefully, "on what you end up sacrificing in the process."
Sleepless nights. Racing thoughts. Making Pepper manage his entire company and then expecting her to come home and manage him. She smiles, all the time, honestly, and she fits with him like only the armor does, but he sees the worry lines getting a little deeper each day, the shadows under her eyes lengthening. He suddenly realizes that with all the research Fury dumped on him, having a science partner to geek out with, and his responsibility to the team, he's been spending less and less time with her. She hasn't said a word about it, she always did think he needed to make more friends and find activities that didn't end with violent hangovers, but now he's trying to figure out when he started being absent, why she hasn't said anything despite knowing that he'd drop everything in a heartbeat.
Huh. Maybe that's his answer right there.
The morning after he'd gone back to Gulmira and shot down some terrorists, after a little boy had looked at him like he was a hero, Tony stood shirtless in front of the mirror and poked at the arc reactor. His fingernails made a dull tink against its flat, clear cover as he thought about steady hands and car batteries and how the hell Yinsen had successfully managed major fucking surgery in the midst of filth and the barest supplies.
Fix it, snarled part of his mind. Such a fucking genius, standing right back in the middle of your empire, why don't you fix it.
Get a heart transplant. (Except everything could go wrong with that – if he were kidnapped and couldn't take that medication that kept a body from rejecting foreign organs, if his ribcage collapsed because most of his sternum had been removed, if his body outright rejected the new organ.)
Surgery to remove the shrapnel. (Except he's already seen several top-rated specialists about that, wrapped them up in so many confidentiality agreements it's probably illegal, and there's only a ten percent chance of success and he isn't quite that desperate yet.)
Invent a smaller, subcutaneous device. (Except he's back to the instability of his rib cage, too much bone sawed out, too much muscle forcibly rearranged so that it aches sometimes and is agonizing on rainy days.)
Invent a solvent that targets metallic objects like shrapnel and leaves organic tissue unaffected. (Which would be a challenge and a half, almost worth a try just for that, but that technology was far in his future and would require some study in the biological sciences, which sucked.)
So Tony looked in the mirror and visually mapped out the splatter of scarring across his chest, the odd bumps of muscle twisted in an unnatural formation around the reactor casing. It represented a lifetime of willful ignorance, but also an awakening. He would die if it ever flickered out, but it was also a reminder that he had a life that wouldn't be wasted anymore.
"Cap, you're not doing anything important, right?"
"Other than attempting to find a posthuman murderer, no," Steve replies as he squints at a holographic map of the States projected onto a broad screen. Austin, Texas is highlighted in red, as is a number of other locations with potential sightings of their escapee. Some of those locations were flagged after there were destructive incidents with no discernable cause.
"You're coming with me."
"Yes. Chop-chop, we don't have all day, even though I own the jet and it won't leave without my say-so anyway."
"Tony, this isn't the time to start – "
"No, Steve, this is the perfect time, because we're going to see an old friend of mine out in San Francisco. I'd be bringing Bruce if he didn't have a phobia of other scientists."
Steve's about to ask why Bruce wouldn't want to meet other scientists before common sense catches up to him. "Does this have anything to do with why Bruce disappeared for a couple weeks?"
"How'd you know about that?" Tony asks suspiciously.
"JARVIS told me."
Tony shrugs. "Imagine you're a guy that hasn't been able to stay in one place for more than a month before your mistakes catch up to you with the judicious application of explosives and a tendency to ignore civilian casualties. Now imagine living like that for years, avoiding all but the most remote and poorest communities that demonstrate how dearly sheltered many of us Americans are."
Steve remembers months spent in German and Austrian forests, the kind of cold that seeps into a man's bones at night, eating just enough to stay alive to try and preserve rations as long as possible. "So is this about Extremis? Or Dr. Hansen?"
"Are the two mutually exclusive? Sal's an interesting guy, although you probably won't like him. He doesn't have much good to say about our illustrious government. I bet he writes fanfiction about Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty defiling one another in ways symbolic of modern America's militaristic capitalism with me cast as their illegitimate love-child."
Steve wisely chooses not to touch that one. "Why are you bringing me along?"
"Because there's no way I'm facing his vegan farts alone and you're team leader, which means this is a good chance to catch you up on some of the lingo. Basically, moral support. Now come on, old man, we're not getting any younger and it's my turn to choose the field trip."
The inside of the plane, of course, looks more like a suite out of the Hilton than a plane, with a fully-stocked kitchen, wet bar, and long couches covered in buttersoft cream leather. At least there aren't any stripper poles, which Natasha had described to him after Tony ranted about Fury not respecting him properly.
The last time Steve was in San Francisco he was standing in front of a chorus line and thinking about Peggy while punching a Hitler in a crooked mustache. A lot of it looks exactly the same: trolleys still rolling over the steep hills of roads, the Golden Gate Bridge still brilliantly red-orange, the houses still standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a riot of colors. But the skyscrapers in their sleek modern lines now break up the skyline like long jagged teeth, and the city itself stretches for miles all around the bay. It takes him a while to notice the prevalence of rainbow flags, but the first pink triangle he sees makes his stomach twist hard.
"Hey, you all right, Cap? Looking a bit green there in a non-Hulk way."
"Those pink triangles, why the hell – "
"Quarter for the swear jar there, darling, what – oh. Oh. Guess it wasn't in the SHIELD briefing packets, why would it be? Don't worry, there isn't some Nazi regime going on. In the, what, late seventies? The gay rights movement reclaimed it as a positive symbol. San Francisco's notorious for its liberalism." Tony pauses. "Don't tell me you're having a conservative moment."
"What? No," manages Steve, who hadn't even been thinking about that. "It's just one thing to hear about homosexuality being legal and another to actually see it. It's something a lot of us never dreamed possible."
Tony's eyes narrow slightly, attention focusing, unexpectedly intense, on him. "Huh, well, fair enough. If you ever find yourself a cute boytoy, Cap, you've got six states to choose from to marry him and the military can't even get mad at you for it anymore. I should bring you back here sometime, we'll go to the Castro, introduce you to some people who can't kill you thirteen different ways with their pinky but could probably suck your brain out your dick."
Steve would caustically reply to that if Tony hadn't still been scrutinizing him and sounding like he's just talking for the sake of it. It isn't something he would've noticed before, the way Tony's voice gets lighter and looser when he's faking it. "Why are you looking at me like that?" he asks sharply.
Tony absently swirls the brandy in its glass. "Just thinking. It's what I do. My dad had a lot to say on the subject, you know."
It's the first time Howard's been brought up since their first disastrous meeting. Considering the fallout from that, Steve isn't entirely sure he likes where this is going. "About homosexuals?"
Tony waves a hand airily. "Sure. Faggots. Nancy-boys. Sissies. 'Gay' is the term used now, by the way."
"I get the idea."
"He had rather strict views on what it meant to be a man." Now Tony's voice is definitely off, too carefully casual to be sincere as he takes another sip of brandy. "Very strict, although he also had some rather firm views on women, kids, communists, and labor unions too, so gays aren't exactly special in that regard."
"He always was rather opinionated." Understatement, but then, few people in Steve's experience were usually willing to take on a man with money, power, charisma, and brilliance. The bitter twist of Tony's lips behind the crystal glass has him blurting out, "But you're with Pepper."
It's only the serum in his body that lets Steve hear the soft, But for how much longer, before Tony knocks back the rest of the brandy and shoots him a wide silver-screen smile. "There are seven billion humans in this world and seven billion variations on gender and sexuality. Oh look, we've arrived."
Steve takes the hint and lets the subject drop.
Sal Kennedy lives in a small house with a porch and enough vegetation to cover the majority of anything that isn't moving, with solar panels on the roof and what sounds like a solar-powered water system in the backyard. "About as off-grid as you can get near a city," says Tony as he bangs on the door. Steve hangs back a few steps, unconsciously standing straight and folding his hands at the small of his back.
Sal Kennedy himself is a man of medium height and a not-so-medium waistline under a tie-dye shirt, hair long and white, glasses small and round. He grins. "Tony Stark, I see you've finally deigned to leave your ivory eyesore of a tower. Is this a friend or a parole officer?"
"Hey, Sal, nice to see you too, long time no see. This is Steve Rogers, codename Captain America."
"A pleasure, sir," says Steve as he shakes the man's hand. Sal seems amused.
"Call me Sal or I'll have to introduce you to the wonders of psychedelics. Come in, come in. I just pressed some fresh apple juice."
Who is Sal Kennedy, Steve had asked at the beginning of the flight, and Tony replied, An old mentor, I guess, mine and Maya's back when I was still bothering to go to those academic conferences and sit through some moron butchering the basic scientific method.
The inside of the house is full of vaguely-African masks and things either made or woven from hemp fiber, including the rugs and the furniture. Sal returns with three glasses of apple juice and waves them into chairs that creak under a super-soldier's weight. "Tony, I hear you have a new playmate."
"If you mean Bruce Banner, then yes, I do, and I don't want to hear a word about it."
Sal shrugs. "If you want to risk your life every time you come within half a mile of him, that's your own decision. Not the kind of personality I'd have pegged for new best friend material for you, though."
"Which only reaffirms the wisdom of my decision," Tony retorts, still friendly but with an unmistakably sharp undertone.
"I'm just glad you've learned how to make friends beyond pigtail-pulling and D&D."
"D&D?" Steve repeats.
"Dungeons & Dragons," Tony explains. "Think Lord of the Rings, but with more math and late Mountain Dew-fueled nights. Only the cool kids play it, and only the coolest go to D&D camp."
"That's what you and Bruce are always talking about," Steve realizes.
"With a healthy side of other RPGs, it's the best form of code talking."
"It's the smart loner's escapism," says Sal, raising his glass in a salute. "Now, which one of you messed up this time, you or Maya?"
"What makes you think one of us has messed up?" asks Tony, and Sal arches a grey eyebrow.
"Because the only time I ever hear from one of you is either from the tabloids or when you've messed up and can't clean up after yourself. Elders are only ever remembered when the young realize they're not half as clever as they'd thought."
Tony quirks a brief smile. "Maya, this time."
"Should I brace myself to have another Hulk running around?"
"Something like that."
Interesting; Sal appears to have an idea what Dr. Hansen's top-secret work had been. Steve takes it upon himself to outline, briefly and without going into overly classified information, what happened at Futurepharm and a rogue human experiment.
"The super-soldier thing always did bug her."
Steve reminds himself yet again that none of this is his fault.
"So what do you want me to do about it? I was under the impression you had your own team of superheroes nowadays. Me, I'm an aging hippie that gives lectures about the evils of American imperialism to people more interested in the practical application of free love. Sometimes they're people just smart enough to realize there's some value in human experience but not enough to think it goes beyond eating food free from high-fructose corn syrup."
"I'm – we're – looking for advice. Don't tell anyone."
"And you brought Captain America for that?"
"Maya's currently in custody and Cap's leading the charge here," Tony explains. "Also I wasn't going to subject Bruce to you."
"What do you think, Captain?" asks Sal, turning to Steve and steepling his fingers.
"I'm thinking that for all the things that have changed in the last seventy years, most of it really hasn't."
Sal laughs and points at him with a thick finger. "I like you, kid. Did Tony ever tell you how we met?"
Tony groans loudly, but there's a weird tension in his shoulders.
"It was at a conference. Dr. Stark here was giving a lecture on integrated circuits as drunk as any self-respecting alcoholic, I'm surprised he was able to remember his own name when they called him up."
"You know me, I'm a man of many talents and long practice."
"I have to say, I never thought I'd have the chance to see Erskine's genius in person," Sal says to Steve. "There have been more theories made about you over the years than there are over the JFK assassination, but you know what I think? I think it was sheer blind luck that Erskine's formula worked on you."
"Considering the number of tests they put me through first, sir, it sure didn't seem like luck."
"No? Tell me about the Nazis, then. They were trying for their own übermensch, weren't they? How did that go?"
Steve leans forward to brace his elbows on his thighs, staring at his clasped hands and too aware of the weight of Tony's gaze. "Erskine said that the Red Skull had come from an early form of the serum. He said the serum enhances what's already there, not just physically, so a bad guy becomes evil and a good guy becomes, well, better."
"Makes sense, in an infuriatingly esoteric sense," Tony mutters. "With a good portion of your personality being predisposition, artificial chemical enhancement would probably also enhance that. Strong enough experiences like trauma have been shown to effect biological changes as well."
Steve has a horrifying thought. "But Bruce – "
"Let's just say that Bruce has some skeletons in his closet and leave it at that," says Tony firmly.
"Some people say the serum only worked on you through the sheer power of Erskine's determination," says Sal thoughtfully. "Hey, why not, crazier things have happened in the multiverse of science. But if that's the case, then it'd explain why no one else has been successful, especially given the general idea that the serum works only on the physical level."
"I don't understand," Steve admits.
"The power of the mind, kid. Scientists that aren't crazy enough to work in quantum physics tend to forget that."
"So if the lab team had a round of group therapy and heartfelt bonding, then we would've been able to recreate the serum," says Tony incredulously. "Or that Steve was fated to be Captain America and no one else was."
"No, I mean that Erskine's work was more well-rounded. Maya, for all her smarts, is remarkably unsubtle in her approach. She seems to think that the Extremis will work if she can just punch human biology into submission. Bruce Banner is basically a pissed-off Greek Titan. You built a suit of armor with all the subtlety and overcompensation of a tank."
"Hey, that's the love of my life you're insulting right there," Tony protests. Steve can't help a small grin.
"You know, if anyone could take mankind into the future, I'd have pegged you and Maya for it. She once told me she accepted military funding because it was the only way for her to get a foot in the door for medical advancement, and it doesn't help that she's a woman faced with a glass ceiling. You don't have that excuse, of course, so what are you doing, Tony?"
"Gee, I don't know, maybe just saving the world."
Sal dips a head in acknowledgment. "True, which, by the way, I appreciate. From what I hear, we were close to proving the determinists right and I've never liked those assholes. Too many of them in academia. But the suit you use, is that for yourself or mankind's future?"
"Why not both?" Steve interrupts, surprising even himself, but he keeps seeing Iron Man falling through the sky at the last moment like a fiery-red shooting star, the flicker of a dying arc reactor. "Does it matter when he's using it to make a difference?"
"Not until someone makes something better. Is this a path to the realization of mankind's potential or the start of a whole new arms race?"
"With all due respect, sir, there's been an arms race since the first time someone picked up a stick and used it as a weapon. You could just as easily point a finger at Dr. Erskine. The super-soldier serum was the first in a new line of potential weaponry and terrible things have come from it, but at the same time, it inspired research into new types of medicine. We've been using armor for centuries anyway and I think Iron Man is a logical step from that."
"But is it only a suit of armor? Is it only good for beating up monsters or will it end war?"
Steve sits up tall and looks Sal straight in the eye. "You know, they said World War I would be the war to end all wars. Twenty years later we have World War II. War is commanded by politicians but fought by soldiers, and if there's anything I learned from the trenches it's that it takes teamwork and trust in your fellow soldiers to survive. No one man can take away all the evil in the world, and I think it's unrealistic, disingenuous, and lazy rationalization to try to put that sort of responsibility on a single person. All we can do is our best, sir, and we're at our best when we trust our comrades to do the same. The best weapons in the world or the biggest alien army can't replace that."
"Well," says Sal after a moment, "I see the propaganda reels weren't all propaganda."
"You should see him when Hawkeye finishes the last of the coffee," says Tony, but his heart isn't in it. He's looking at Steve like he's never seen him before, like he's more than just a dumb kid from Brooklyn but not just a symbol in a spangled outfit. Even at their most antagonistic they'd fought back to back almost seamlessly on the battlefield, mostly because they hadn't a choice except to trust each other, but it had still worked. And the Chitauri hadn't stood a chance against it.
They leave Sal's place not long after that. The flight back to New York is tense and silent until they're over Pennsylvania, when Steve admits out of the blue, "My dad was an alcoholic."
Tony's suddenly fascinated by the clouds outside the window.
"He died of mustard gas over in Europe. Mom never said anything, but I reckon he volunteered for the army to get away from us. From everything. History books called it the Great Depression like it had start and end dates, but it never really ended for a lot of us. It wasn't a good time to be Irish. Or poor."
Tony doesn't have a reply to any of that, not that Steve had been expecting one, but just before the plane lands Tony murmurs, "Thanks."
Tony gives him half a smile. "Exactly."
In the beginning of this whole Initiative mess, Tony had come to the conclusion that Howard's ravings about Captain America's saintliness had been based not in truth but in the fact that of course someone Howard held in such high regard would be almost as much of an asshole. They'd probably cofounded the Judgmental Assholes League, like the Justice League if Superman swapped personalities with Lex Luthor.
But then Steve had to go and show that he has layers, like an onion, a huge patriotic onion that could make you feel like crying at the weirdest moments (not that Tony ever felt like crying, thanks, it's just how this metaphor is working out so far). That underneath Steve's bristling defensiveness there's a guy who's never looked at Natasha like being the lone female on a superhero team means she's there for anything other than being a superhero, and doesn't complain when he's drawing in the living room and someone comes in to demand his attention, and will finish leftovers rather than let them spoil even if he doesn't really like them, and takes out the kitchen trash without being blackmailed. Who does that?
Not that Steve isn't ever an asshole anymore because, god, if Tony's tongue can slice someone to razor-thin ribbons then Steve has a verbal punch to rival his actual super fist. At first it was like being slapped repeatedly in the face with his Deep-seated Issues, but things change, don't they, for better or worse.
So, there's a lot of crap going on in the big wide world. There's also the question of Pepper. Tony's currently more concerned with the latter.
"Tony, why are there roses on every surface of my office?" Pepper asks the moment she steps out of the elevator into his workshop, wearing the latest Dolce suit and three-inch stilettos and looking like she could take over the world with ruthless competence.
He tells JARVIS, "Pause everything, make a note of my place in this coding string," before turning to face her. "Why shouldn't there be," he points out, very reasonably. The sunset ones even match her hair, with their yellow-fading-through-soft-orange-and-
"I tripped over some of them trying to get to my desk. I almost broke my neck."
"Okay, so maybe I ordered a few extra. I'll get Dummy to stick them on a wall, it'll be like a three-dimensional still-life. You like still-life art, right?"
"While I respect the amount of technical talent required for still-life realism, no, not really."
"It can be an installation, then. Like that chair in the middle of that one gallery in the Smithsonian I manfully didn't make fun of."
"Tony, you whined the whole time about how if that was considered art then your workshop is on par with the Pieta."
She gives him a flat look that makes him grin.
"The mayor's been trying to kiss up to the board for more reconstruction donations," she says, heading towards where Tony's sitting on a tall stool surrounded by holographic screens. He quickly flicks off the one full of gory, scabby photos.
"We could always donate the profits from the sale of, like, Stark microwaves or something."
"Baby bottles, actually," she corrects him, and there it is, there's that reluctant amusement that makes him reach out and put his hands on her hips because he's never really sure when an argument is going to be their last. "They're very eco-friendly. What did Fury want?"
"You know I can't say something under threat of violating national security," he mutters into her hair. "I could end up accused of treason and sent to prison in China."
"Don't worry, I'm sure I could find enough money to post bail. Or at least get your body home."
There's an odd note in her voice that Tony can't quite parse. "Someone blew the whistle on a lab doing some bad things. Fury wants me and Bruce to figure out what they were actually doing."
"Is it weapons?" she asks quietly. It's a logical question because no one knows weapons of mass destruction like a Stark, and even though he's got three doctorates none of them are in a biological science. (Not that he couldn't get one in a biological science, but who would want to spend so much time poking around soft squishy stuff that tends to show off nature's evolutionary mistakes more often than not?)
He twitches before he can stop himself, glances over her shoulder briefly. "More of a super-human sort of thing that also uses a computer sort of thing. It's all very The Bohr Maker."
"What do you mean?" he asks as he takes his hands back, starts flipping through his holograms, minus the scabby ones, again.
"Tony, there's something else bothering you. What is it?"
Oh god, she's pulling out the Kindly Coaxing voice. "Nothing, it's just, I know the scientist that headed the program. Used to hang out, get drunk and yell at each other about how stupid we thought the other's research was, you know how it goes. Not a big deal, just wasn't expecting it."
She starts running a hand through his hair, gently scratching his scalp in such a way that makes Tony feel like a cat. He wishes he could purr and briefly wonders if Pepper would be creeped out by a prosthesis that could produce the right sound. "How are you handling it?"
"Fine," he says automatically. "Seriously, Pep, it's fine, I've got Bruce helping me and the rest of the team is righteously driven to catch the bad guys here. We'll figure this out and be badasses and save the day because, hello, genius superheroes. Well, two genius superheroes, but we can't all be brawn or we'd just end up hitting everything with sticks and grunting."
"I'm worried about you," says Pepper.
Oh. That never precedes anything good. "You don't need to," he reassures, taking hold of her waist again and pulling her closer, pressing a kiss against her lips. Her hands tighten in his hair, her spine arches ever so slightly, but by the time his grip is threatening to leave wrinkles in her expensive suit she pulls away. "You can't distract me like this every time you want to avoid an uncomfortable conversation."
"I have no idea what you're talking about. No, wait, come back here, that is not a nice thing, that is the opposite of a nice thing."
"Tony, I need to get back to work and find a way to actually get back into my office without killing myself. If you won't talk to me will you at least talk to Bruce, maybe?"
"What about JARVIS? I talk to JARVIS all the time."
"JARVIS doesn't count."
"Why not?" Tony asks, bewildered and, yeah, maybe a little hurt, because JARVIS, but Pepper shakes her head.
"Just promise me you'll be careful and if you want to talk, I'll be here. I'll always be here. Okay?"
Tony doesn't know what to say to that, what to think of the sadness lurking in her faint smile, and hell, she must be the patron fucking saint of forgiveness. But before he can say anything she's already leaving, the elevator doors closing behind her. Tony feels weirdly too small for his skin.
"Sir," JARVIS breaks in gently, "Director Fury is on the line."
"Fine, let His Highness through. S'up, Fury, I hope it's more important than figuring out the whole human experimentation thing."
"Get your ass over here, Stark, our lost subject is no longer lost and is currently trying to break Washington D.C. into pieces. Bring Banner with you, we're probably going to need his particular brand of expertise."
"You heard the man, JARVIS," says Tony, heart suddenly beating faster with a twinge of pain, as DUM-E brandishes his favorite fire extinguisher and U drops his wrench again when he tries to wave his arm. "Be safe, kids, don't do anything Daddy wouldn't do," he calls as he heads up to the penthouse, and hears JARVIS say, "Experience points out that those two clauses may be mutually exclusive."
Bruce meets him on the veranda, hands in his pockets as he watches Tony walk through the rings of the Strippers.
"Ready to rock, Jolly Green?"
"As ready as anyone can be for turning into a giant rage monster," Bruce returns.
"Then c'mon, princess, jump in my arms and let's go."
"Please keep in mind that I'm neither green nor wearing armor and that the human body can only take so much wind resistance and G-forces."
"I prefer 'realist.'"
Tony laughs as he sweeps Bruce into his arms dramatically and takes off – carefully – for the Helicarrier, where Steve, Natasha, and Clint are waiting with seriously serious faces. Tony lets Bruce down, keeping a hand on his shoulder until his legs stop shaking. "Thor still at his parents' house?"
"He's left word with Dr. Foster that it's been a mess in the royal court," replies Natasha.
"Assemble," says Steve, all business as he heads towards the loading bays.
It takes the SHIELD plane an embarrassingly long half hour to get there and drop them off near the freeway. Note to self, Tony grumbles: speed up designs on the quinjet.
"Tony, get Clint up in the sky as close to the action as possible," Steve starts in his I-am-Captain-America-obey-me voice. "I want both of you to do aerial recon as quickly as possible and report. SHIELD will hang back and evacuate as many civilians as possible while Natasha and I engage the hostile on the ground. Bruce, do the usual, stay back until the hostile gets to be too much of an issue."
They find their escaped subject walking down the center line of Route 95. Mallen looks completely human, his hair in a buzzcut and his clothes simply plain jeans and a canvas jacket, but when a car careens towards him he throws out a hand and sends the vehicle flying into oncoming traffic with –
"Holy shit," Tony breathes, "that was a repulsor blast."
The comm's completely silent for a long second.
"SHIELD's doing its best to shut down the highway," Steve says eventually, "but our first priority right now is to get the people already within the perimeter away from this guy. Iron Man, cover me, aerial support. Widow, Hawkeye, try to hold this guy back, establish a line. Bruce, hold your position until we get some space between him and the civilians."
"Thor would be useful right about now," mutters Clint.
"Heads up, Katniss," and Clint has to bite back a yelp as Tony swoops down, grabs him around the waist, and takes off for the nearest rooftop.
"We've really got to stop meeting this way," Clint yells.
Steve takes off in a sprint and flings the shield up just in time to deflect what looks like a blast of fire, Christ, the guy's breathing fire. The fire spreads out around the circumference of the shield in a wall of searing heat and light, unable to reach the civilians abandoning their cars behind Steve and running for cover, and Tony shoots a repulsor beam that forces Mallen to leap back and cut off his dragon breath. Several explosive arrows force him farther back.
"Thanks," gasps Steve.
"You can buy me a drink, Cap, I – shit, roll!"
Mallen's face is twisted in a mad sneer as he jumps and brings his fist smashing down into the pavement, falling to one knee. Steve unquestioningly ducks and rolls, just in time to avoid the asphalt shattering in a wide circle with the sound of crunching cars and deafening crack of stone.
He looked like me, Tony thinks over and over, replaying the pose, the fist, that's my move.
"Mallen, let's talk this over!" Steve's yelling. "We can see you're angry over something," and there's that dry deadpan, "so let's discuss some solutions. No one else needs to get hurt today."
"Yes, they do," Mallen grins, and he suddenly spins around his heel, grabbing Natasha by the throat just as she slinks out from behind an overturned sedan. He holds her in the air, her feet kicking uselessly.
"Nat," Clint hisses down the comm before he can stop himself.
There's the crackle of electricity and she falls to the ground, rolling and getting back to her feet in one smooth movement. Mallen's clutching his wrist where her Widow's Sting left scorched burns, but as Tony watches the skin is already healing from a shock that should've been able to knock out a horse. The HUD is flickering wildly as JARVIS attempts scan after scan.
"He's fast, guys, even the armor had trouble keeping up. JARVIS estimates that the range of his fire breath of doom is thirty feet. I think it's safe to say we should avoid getting too close."
"Acknowledged," Natasha replies shortly.
Mallen's laughing, casually leaning to one side to avoid Steve's shield as though it were flying through molasses, raising a bare palm for another repulsor blast. Steve ducks just as Tony drops in front of him and matches it with one of his own. The freeway shudders from the impact under their feet as Tony lifts his other hand, blasting again and hitting Mallen square in the chest.
Nothing happens. Mallen's shirt is reduced to threads, but the skin underneath is smooth and clean and he isn't even rocked on his feet.
"Shit," Clint mutters.
"Give up, Stark!" Mallen screams. "You're obsolete now! Glorified fat-cat trash! Get the fuck out of the way or I'll blow your fucking head off!"
"You kiss your mother with that mouth?"
"Not since the criminals in the White House shot her dead," Mallen snarls. The picture's suddenly clearer: a homegrown terrorist with a grudge against The Man, desperate enough to volunteer for something that had never had a successful result (but how did he learn about a secret military project, he doesn't exactly appear to be a mastermind, who broke the red tape and ripped up the gag order). "Now the country worships the symbol of all that corruption! A country of brainwashed sheep calling him a fucking hero!"
"Stay on your toes, Cap, I think this crazy is talking about you," Tony whispers.
"Figured that," Steve mutters, then calls out loudly, "This isn't the way to change things, Mallen. Murdering innocents doesn't do anything but turn people against you."
"Yeah? Then what about my family? Slaughtered by you pigs because they dared try to take action and take America back from the Jews and corporate sharks that turned her into a whore!"
Of course. What's a domestic terrorist without some white supremacy?
Mallen seizes a tipped car with his bare hands and hurls it at Steve with the speed of a freight train. Tony doesn't think (titanium-gold alloy better at distribution of impacting force), just throws himself in front of Steve and takes the brunt of it in the chest, his boots sinking four inches deep into the asphalt from the momentum.
"Tony!" Steve yells, but Tony can't reply while his lungs try to remember how to breathe. "I'm fine," he eventually manages, nearly drowned out by the sudden explosions of Clint's arrows, the length of broken steel pole that Natasha's picked up and electrified with her Sting as she swings it towards Mallen. "Go, I'll be fine, fucking go!"
Steve takes off in a sprint and slides under another repulsor blast like a freaking baseball player stealing home towards the place his shield has fallen. Tony braces himself on one knee and takes increasingly deeper breaths until he doesn't feel like he's going to pass out, forcing himself not to panic until the HUD tells him that the arc reactor hasn't shattered inside his chest.
"Bruce," Steve's yelling over the comm, "the big guy's up!"
The Hulk's roar thunders through the air, through the ground, rattling the armor as Tony forces himself to his feet. The rockets he launches that drown the air around Mallen in smoke let Natasha materialize out of it like the ninja she is and drive a long pole through him. Mallen moves quickly enough that the pole misses his gut, but not his thigh, and he howls in pain and rage. One of Clint's arrows releases a titanium wire Tony made for him that should slice this guy in half like clay, but he shrugs it off with minor irritation and sends Steve reeling with a repulsor blast.
Everything becomes a blur of high-speed motion, the whine of repulsors, every type of arrow in Clint's arsenal, Natasha's ruthless determination, the whir of SHIELD helicopters.
Then, suddenly, the crack of lightning.