It took a few seconds, and a few blinks, for Tony's vision to clear, or maybe he just thought it did, because everything was white. White ceiling, white walls, white bed with white pillows and white blankets tucked up around his chest. Pale, diffused white light that made up for the lack of windows. White bandages around his ribs, and on the cut and burned spots on his fingers when he held them up in front of his face, flexing his fingers to check that they were still there, still functional.
Even the rope around his wrists binding his arms together was white.
Tony sighed. He'd known he wasn't in SHIELD medical, because they did not waste a bed this nice on agents dumb enough to get themselves injured. And if it was the Avengers who'd found him a nicer place to crash, one of them would be here, and his restraints wouldn't be quite so pretty. Since he was alone, and these weren't Coulson's 'you really fucked up this time, Stark' handcuffs, he was still not out of the woods.
Time to do a quick inventory.
On the positive side, breathing was no longer an agony, and he no longer smelled like he'd been living in the trunk of a car in the tropics for a week or more. He was clean, his wounds had been tended, no one was standing over him with a gun, and he was in a location that at least made a pretense at safety. That was good. He'd take all of that.
On the negative side, his clothes were gone, and he did not, repeat did not, own bright red silk bikini briefs, so he might be wearing someone else's underwear.
That whole “sexual slavery” thing was looking more and more likely. He'd be surprised, but that did seem like the way that his luck was trending.
Carefully, he pushed himself up, pausing to let a wave of dizziness pass. His stomach growled, and he ignored it. He sat there for a second, waiting, but there was no sound, no reaction. No one came, nothing happened.
But now that he was upright, he could see a pair of folded jeans and a black t-shirt lying on a white table across the room. And that was enough to get him out of bed, risking death in red bikini briefs, because clothing was always good. Especially since, unlike the underwear, the rest of the clothes could've been his. The jeans were battered but clean, and the t-shirt was an AC/DC concert tour shirt.
It wasn't easy getting dressed with his hands bound, but he managed it somehow, and it wasn't the most awkward morning after he'd ever had. And man, that was the saddest thought he'd had in a long time.
There was no way to get the shirt on, not with his hands bound together, but he felt a hell of a lot better now that he had pants on. Amazing how a simple pair of jeans could feel just like putting on the armor, because if he was going to die, if he was going to have to die, he should at least have goddamn pants on.
Tucking the shirt into his waistband so he would have it later, he considered the ropes. The knot was ornate, and overly complicated, but he could work with it if he could find the goddamn ends. He twisted his wrists, and took a deep breath.
That was what worried him the most. The fact that breathing didn't hurt. That nothing hurt, not the way it had, and he remembered it hurting quite a bit. His hands were still a battered mess, but the ribs? Even bound the way they were, it should hurt a lot more than it currently did.
And that meant either someone had intervened with some healing, or he'd been out of it for a very long time. He wasn't sure which of the two options that he liked less, but he wasn't overly fond of either of them. Of course, he was standing around in someone else's goddamn underwear and chewing on some ropes in a non BDSM context, so he probably shouldn't be happy about the whole situation.
Then something dropped over his face, soft and light, a cloth, it was a cloth, and he had an instant, a bare second, to panic, before large, heavy hands were closing around his arms, lifting him off of his feet.
Tony lashed out, kicking and flailing, his whole body arching in the grip, because he had been alone, he was sure he'd been alone in a room with no visible doors and there had been no one there, and now he was being carried, the grip on his arms wrong, something wrong, he wasn't sure what, or why, but he couldn't get free. The grip tightened as he intensified his struggles, and he felt pressure of fingers, but that wasn't right, it wasn't the right size or the right shape, or the right spread for fingers, and he was being moved against his will.
And when he was set down on his feet, when the fabric was pulled from his face, he jerked back, hard against that grip, and his vision swam with the burst of light. Blinking, confused, he stared at the familiar shape of the Iron Man armor, the helmet battered and shoulders scarred with fighting, but it was his, it was his armor that was staring him down. The Mark III.
That was bad. Before he even turned his head, before the noise began, before he was shifted forward to stand in front of the immense metal platform that held his crippled armor, before he could take in the size and shape and WRONGNESS of who was holding him, his vision was focused on the Mark III and his brain just produced a single word.
Bruce pulled his glasses off, rubbing the bridge of his nose with tense fingers. “I'm not doubting you, Jarvis. You found him twice, and that means it works, I, I just don't understand.” He tossed his glasses down on the table, and they slid over to rest against the phone that connected him with Tony's AI. “I'm trying. But I can't make sense of these readings.”
Coming to his feet, he bent over the printouts that he'd spread across the table. His headache was radiating throughout his whole body, his neck and shoulders and back stiff.
“I understand, Dr. Banner, but I cannot risk sending the data through unsecured methods,” Jarvis said. “This method is not to my liking, either, but it is all I can manage.”
“Yeah.” Bruce rubbed a hand over his face. “I do appreciate you getting me this much, but when I get the packets and print them out, it's-” There was a knock on the door, and he paused. They'd found an unoccupied lab for him to work, and if there was some lingering pocket of Hydra resistance, he doubt they'd bother to knock, but still.
He straightened up. “Sorry, Jarvis, I need to go,” he said, reaching for the phone.
“I understand, Dr. Banner. Please let me know if I can provide you with anything further.”
“Thanks, Jarvis.” Bruce cut the connection. “Yes?” he called.
Natasha poked her head in. “Hey, Doc.”
Bruce glanced up. “Ah, hey.” He rubbed a heavy hand over his eyes, blinking hard to focus on Natasha. “Sorry, I'm a little out of it here, aren't I?” He waved her in. “We have news?”
“Not the news we want.” She stepped inside and pulled the door shut behind her, but she didn't take her hand off of the doorknob. “They got a charge into that phone that Barton found, and got it unlocked. It's Hammer's, and there were no calls made. There is, however, a video file. The SHIELD techs watched it long enough to determine that it is Stark, and he's addressing the Avengers before they stopped it.”
Bruce felt his stomach sink, a hollow, empty feeling settling in low in his body. He reached for his glasses, his fingers fumbling across the wire stems. “Ah, so, he made a-” He stared down at the table. “We don't know what's on there?”
“No,” she said, and she looked tired, more tired than he'd ever seen her. There were faint dark circles under her eyes, her lush lips pulled tight. Her shoulders were against the panel of the door, not so much leaning as propping herself up, taking a tiny bit of pressure off of her body. “Coulson wants to watch it first, but we argued that the team has the right to be there.” She paused, her eyes focused on the table. After a moment of stillness, she dragged her chin back up, meeting Bruce's eyes. “Clint's talking to Thor, and Coulson's going over the situation with Steve.”
Bruce flinched, the physical reaction immediate and beyond his ability to control, and he hated that. Hated that he could still give himself away that way. He folded his arms over his chest, rubbing a thumb over the rough fabric of his borrowed shirt. “Yeah, that's-” He brought a hand up, scrubbing his fingers over his mouth, over the stubble-rough lines of his jaw. “Yeah,” he said. “Um, so they sent you to, what? Talk to me?”
Natasha's eyes dropped, an expression of sadness flickering across her features. “To give you the option,” she said, and her voice was gentle. “If you want to be there, that's your right. If you want us to watch it first and give you the gist, and let you watch it alone, or when you feel you can handle it, I'll let everyone know that you're hip deep in the important stuff.” She waved a hand at the table. “Which is the truth.”
He stared down at the pages. “Yeah.” He took a deep breath, feeling the stress and the pressure and pain building. He closed his eyes, bracing his hands on the edge of the table, letting his fingers dig into the wood. The ache in his fingers, in his wrists, gave him a point of focus, something to concentrate on. He sucked in a breath, slow and easy. “Yeah.” He pushed himself up, flexing his hands. “Where are we doing this?”
Natasha met his eyes, steady and calm, and he liked this woman, he'd always kind of liked this woman. “It's okay,” he said, trying for a smile, and it felt tight and unnatural on his face. “I want to know, and I want-” His fingers twisted together, skin rubbing tight against skin. “To be with the team.”
“We want you there,” she said, immediate and firm. “But I know this is tough for you. You have the right to handle it however you need to. We've all got our ways of coping.”
“Yeah.” He pried his hands away and began sweeping the pages into a nearby folder, reluctant to leave anything out. “Can you help me with, uh, with this?”
She moved to the opposite side of the table and began picking everything up. “You having any luck?”
“No. I doubt I will, either, until I have a chance to-” He paused, frustrated, and the other guy shifted in the back of his mind, the presence digging into his consciousness like fingers sinking into the flesh of his back. The figurative monkey on his back, but his was big and green, and liable to leapfrog right beyond him, dragging Bruce along in his destructive wake.
Bruce gritted his teeth, the pressure of his jaw intensifying his headache, and the other guy subsided. Because he'd never do that to Natasha again. Not ever. He'd nearly killed her once, and she was still standing in front of him, not afraid, not disgusted, not even wary; she'd given him a second chance. He wasn't going to squander it, he wasn't going to do that again.
“I need access to the full spectrum of the data,” he said, taking the pages she offered him. She picked up the StarkPhone. “I'm getting bits and pieces, like trying to look through a massive star map with a microscope. I'm getting a good look, but the area I can see is so small as to be useless.” He tucked the folders under his arm, rubbing the stiff muscles of his neck with his free hand. “I need to get back to Avengers Tower and get a broad view of what Jarvis has been doing.”
She nodded, accepting that. “We can send you back, if you want.”
Bruce shook his head. “No, thanks. I want to be here. If you need me. If you need, you know, us.”
“We always need you, Doc.” She gave him a faint smile. “C'mon. I'd like to have us there before Coulson brings Cap in. He doesn't need to wait any longer than he has to.”
Bruce nodded. “How's he, uh, how's he holding up?”
Natasha gave him a look. “About as well as you might imagine. He's lost a lot of people. It doesn't get any easier. If we don't find Stark soon-” She shrugged, her lips going flat. “How're you holding up?” she asked, her head tipping in Bruce's direction.
“Okay.” He hugged the folders to his chest. “Fine. I'll- I've got my ways of dealing with it. You know.”
“I do,” she agreed. Eyes glinting, she gave him a smile and it was a real one. “We all do.” Her fingers brushed his arm, light on his bicep, but it was contact, and he was grateful for it. “We've cleared the buildings,” she said, and he as grateful for the change of subject. “Evacuated the science staff and the Hydra agents. We're still looking for anyone that might've been buried in the collapse of the main facility, but for the time being, it's just SHIELD dealing with anything and everything that's left.
“Coulson's setting up some living quarters for us, we'll make sure that everything that's still here won't be a problem to leave behind, and that we're not missing anything. There's another team coming in to take everything out, the science staff had personal effects in the barrack building, and Hydra had some things we'd like to take a look at. We'll be here for a few days, unless we get another lead.”
A few days, Bruce thought, long enough to discover a body or find the reason for the explosion that had rocked the compound. He just nodded, following her silently.
He didn't want to think about Tony Stark's body. About all that force and brilliance and strength snuffed out, because it didn't seem possible.
It certainly wasn't logical.
Thor and Clint were already in the small room when Natasha opened the door. Bruce slipped in, and she brushed a gentle touch against the small of his back. Bruce managed a smile for the other two men, and Thor returned it, his eyes narrowed as his broad hands played with the leather strap of Mjolnir. Clint glanced up, a battered arrowhead rolling around and around his equally battered fingers. As always, he looked first to Natasha, who gave him a brisk nod.
Bruce took a seat against the wall, reassured by the presence of the others, their warmth and their physicality, and it helped keep the other guy back. Loneliness had never worked out well for him, even though it was almost always better for everyone else.
Thor's hand landed on his shoulder, and he leaned into it for a second, because Thor could hold the other guy back when he was in full swing, and that meant Bruce wasn't alone in keeping his alter ego under control.
Steve came through the door a step ahead of Coulson, his steps brisk, his face and uniform covered in stone dust and dirt. His eyes flicked through the room, a gesture that Bruce had recently come to understand. Cap was counting heads, checking his ducklings. He did it all the time, no matter what they were doing, or where they were, every so often, Cap would just crane his head around, getting a bead on each of his teammates, locating them, memorizing their positions.
And in those moments, when Steve glanced around, when he couldn't locate someone, either on the battlefield or in the Avenger's kitchen, or here, there was a tenseness to him, a sharp tension that bordered on brittleness. Bruce wondered if he'd always been like this, or if it was World War II that had done it to him, that had burned into his head the need, the obsession, to know where his team was at all times.
Had he always been protective, even when he'd been incapable of protecting anyone?
Coulson was carrying a battered phone. “We think,” he said with no other preamble, “that Stark took this off of Justin Hammer and managed to get access to it. A call to the Avengers emergency number was attempted, but there wasn't reception enough to carry it out. It looks like he utilized the video feature to leave a message.”
He plugged the phone into a large screen and triggered it. There was a flicker, and then the screen lit up. Bruce gritted his teeth, playing with with the ragged hem of his shirt, glad for the tactile sensation.
Tony Stark blinked out at them, dressed in a Hydra uniform and looking like a building had fallen on him. Judging by the state of the room behind him, it had. Filthy and battered, a heavy bruise under one eye and blood marring his right temple, he squinted, trying to confirm that the phone was recording. His face smoothed out, and he smiled. “Okay, first of all,” he said, and his voice was a shock, so familiar and it felt like it had been forever since Bruce had last heard it. “I just want to say? If I'm unconscious in medical, and you're watching this, turn it off right now.” He stabbed a finger at them through the screen. “Barton, that means you. This is a dick move, if you're watching this while I'm injured. Turn it off.”
He paused, eyes narrowed. “If I'm awake and cackling like a loon behind you, good. You're an idiot, Stark, don't, don't let them watch this. This is why no one trusts you, because you do stupid things like this, Jesus, can we please have some dignity? Is that too much to ask?”
Another pause, and then he smiled. “Barton, you're a dick.”
Clint flipped him off, grinning. “Right back at you, Stark.”
“Anyway,” Tony said, rubbing a hand over his face, and his fingers were shaking. He made a face at them and glanced back at the phone. His eyes were unfocused, dark and he leaned back against the broken wall. “I'm assuming that you're watching this to amuse yourselves, which is, can I just say, that's not nice. I know, I deserve it, but still, not nice.”
His eyes fluttered shut, and he took a deep breath. His face shifted in the shadows, and the blood caught the glow. “I know you're here,” he said. “I know you got what I was saying, I know you were right behind me. So I made promises to a whole bunch of people that I'm expecting all of you to uphold. It's a pretty lousy move on my part, but you all should be used to it.
“The science staff has letters from me, they'll tell you what's happening. There's a kid, Harris, he was-” Tony took a deep breath, blinking hard. “He was still down here, dumbass didn't know when to call it quits. Coulson, you may want to keep an eye out for him. I need-” He coughed. “I need you to find him. He was here. He was- The only reason I got this far, so do me a favor, if I'm being a lazy ass and taking a nap? Find him. Make sure he gets out, please.”
Tony paused, took a deep breath. “Two things. If everyone's out, thanks. I knew you'd be right behind me and I risked a hundred or so lives on that. Don't ever tell me I'm not a team player, or that I don't trust all of you. Except Fury, if you're watching this, sir?” He held his fingers up in a V in front of his eyes and flicked them towards the screen. “Watching you. Still don't trust you.”
Bruce choked on a laugh, and slapped a hand over his mouth, but Thor echoed it, rubbing a hand across Bruce's shoulders hard enough to rock him back and forth in his seat. His eyes burned; he blinked hard to keep it from being more than that, because no one else in this room needed to see him fall apart, it wasn't useful, it wan't right, he knew better, but when he glanced back, Thor's eyes were bright and wet and he was smiling at Bruce, like everything was normal.
“Second thing, and this is IMPORTANT,” phone Tony said, his voice stern. “I am not kidding here. I know what you're thinking and no. Fuck you. The rules clearly state that if we're on a mission on movie night, then the right to choose the movie passes to the next movie night. Just because I was in a Hydra compound in fucking Thailand on Thursday does NOT mean it's your turn next week, Thor. Suck it up, it is still my turn, Cap's going to back me up on this, you'd better back me on this, Steve, it is still my turn to chose, and we're watching Flash Gordon. The bad one.”
He paused. “The really, really bad one. Just so we're clear.” He sucked in a breath, and his face was pale. “Okay? Movie night. Us. Flash Gordon. An' I want egg foo young this time from the Chinese place, screw it, I don't care if everyone else thinks it's nasty, I'm ordering it.” His eyes were closed, and he jerked back upright. “Running out of battery here, and, well, to be honest? I'm running out of ideas.
“Sorry, guys, think I used up my last brilliant escape plan, at least for a while.” His words were slurred at the edges, his gaze unfocused. “So I'm going to just, just wait here. I'll see you when you get your asses down here, okay? Don't-” He sucked in a slow breath, then another, and his face twisted, his hand going to his side. “It'll be fine, I'm just going to-”
The image died abruptly.
There was a long moment of silence. “Phone run out of battery?” Clint asked.
“It would appear so.” Coulson was pale, his lips tight, his eyes narrowed as he checked the phone. “I'll get the techs to make sure there's nothing else on here, pull the video file if anyone wants to review it again.”
“There's nothing of use to it,” Steve said, pushing himself away from the wall. Bruce had been attempting not to look at him, and now found he couldn't look away. Steve was staring at the blank screen, and he looked old. “Except for the timestamp.”
“Timestamp?” Bruce asked, the word slipping out before he could stop it.
“We were in the building when it was taken,” Steve said, his mouth twitching. “We were here. We got that close.”
“Doc?” Natasha said. “You have a diagnosis?”
Bruce shifted in his chair, his fingers twitching against the fabric of his shirt. “I can't,” he said, shaking his head. “Not off of a few minutes of footage, there's too many variables, I can't-”
“Bruce?” Steve asked, and his eyes were clear and bright, his eyebrows pinched, those hard lines that appeared on his forehead when he was at his limit. “Try. Please.”
Bruce let his eyes shut, and took a deep breath, releasing it in a shuddering slow push. “Probable concussion,” he said. “Breathing is labored, there's a wet note to it. The way he was holding himself, he's got broken ribs. I would've preferred he wasn't, uh, clearly about to fall unconscious at the end of that, but from what I could see, his pupils were even. He was clear headed enough to hold himself together, he was aware of the situation. Aware of his location.”
He paused. Shook his head, just a little. “He was with us. I don't know what happened, obviously, after the video went dead. But he was with us up until the end of it.” He glanced up, at each of them, meeting eyes. “Bearing anything we don't know about, he's likely still alive.”
He felt some of the tension go out of the room, but Steve was still blank, his eyes hollow and empty.
“He's still planning on making our lives a living hell,” Clint said, with a faint smile. “That's good, right?”
Steve pushed away from the wall. “Saturday at the Stork Club, eight o'clock, on the dot,” he said. “I lied, too.”
He walked out of the room without a single look back.
So, as it turned out, reason number five for kidnapping Tony Stark was not to sell him into sexual slavery (excellent) but rather to deliver him to a space cult that appeared to be worshiping the damaged remains of the Iron Man armor (to reiterate his previous impression of the situation: fuck).
At least the white slave trade would've made some fragment of rational sense.
Tony swayed on his feet, staring at the blank faceplate of his own abandoned armor. Confusion, terror, and frustration combined to make this even more surreal than it should've been. And since he was standing on an altar, face to face with the Mark III suit, battered and torn and missing most of one arm (he'd needed the repulsor gauntlet to blow his way out of Dodge that day) as an alien chanted in a language Tony didn't understand, it was pretty damn surreal to begin with. The Iron Man armor had been lost during a particularly unpleasant battle with the Skrulls, none of them had been happy to leave it behind, but they hadn't had a choice at the time. Tony had never expected to see it again, let alone see it sitting on an alien altar.
He rolled his aching head to the side, letting it loll on his neck as he stared out over the massive room. There was no mistaking that this was a temple. Weird, technologically advanced temple, but all the signs were there. Huge, arched ceilings, broad columns, massive windows that glowed with an unearthly and subdued light, and, oh, yeah, about six hundred robed aliens chanting and bowing in unison.
This was officially the weirdest damn day of Tony's life.
“I do not know what's going on here,” Tony said to the head robed alien guy, the one whose robe was a little different, a little more ornate, the one standing at the altar between Tony and his discarded suit, “but I'm officially requesting a translator or a representative from the American embassy. Or some scotch. At least some scotch..”
The aliens on either side of him, the ones holding his arms with huge, three fingered hands, shifted him forward, and Tony stumbled, his feet scraping on the metal floor. His bound hands were lifted up and placed on the altar, and yeah, he was not a fan of that, there was so many ways that hands on an altar could, you know, end badly. He lifted one foot and snapped it out, hitting the edge of the altar and throwing himself back with all the force that his strained and exhausted body could produce, trying to rip himself out of the alien hands.
They didn't seem to notice. They certainly didn't move.
The High Priest was chanting louder now, working the crowd into a frenzy, and Tony was not surprised when he pulled a massive, glowing knife out of his robes, holding it up above his head.
“Fuck, no.” It was a flat rejection of the whole situation. “You want a virgin sacrifice, you'll have to find me when I was fourteen, because that is not happening right now, I am done with this, with all of this, and I am not dying on a fucking altar in front of the Mark III for fuck's sake, I have made exponential improvements since this piece of shit, do not even try me on this, I am not in the mood. I may not be a mutant, but I am pissed off enough right now to kill you with my mind.”
The chanting didn't even slow down.
The knife flashed, and High Priest of the Temple of Tony Stark's Busted and Abandoned Shit, and yes, that was totally what he was going to call these blue-green nutballs, bowed low over the altar. Tony struggled, his whole body a live wire of whatever force he could still muster because he might be about to die, but he was going to die biting SOMETHING, anything that got close enough or maybe kicking someone's face, he was going down fighting the entire fucking way because he'd never been smart enough to just admit that he was beaten. The High Priest turned to Tony, and Tony's guards held his bound hands down on the metal, held him still as he flailed and twisted and snarled like a mad dog, and the knife snapped up and crashed down.
It bit into the metal of the altar with a strangely liquid clang, and the bonds on Tony's hands fell away. “You are a fucking death tease,” Tony snarled at him, because his heart was going a mile a minute and that was not good for the arc reactor, not at all.
The assembled crowd cheered, leaping to their feet and waving their arms. As Tony watched, completely confused, they started to dance and the noises they made became something lyrical and lilting, a bright, happy song that echoed through the room. Everywhere, hands were folding into hands and robes sliding back on thin speckled arms as they were raised to the ceiling.
“Okay, I- I don't know what's going on here. Can someone please tell me what's going on here?” Tony asked, his voice plaintive.
The guards were lifting Tony off his feet, carrying him away from the altar, down the long path through the crowd, and the aliens were giving way, their mouths moving and their fingers fluttering around Tony's head and bare shoulders and chest as he passed, and what the hell, he was getting petted, which was very strange. Not unpleasant, just strange, and he tried to meet eyes, look at faces. Their eyes were large and dark, and their mouths were smiling, broad flat noses a darker blue-green than the rest of their skin, something like freckles across the bridges, that matched the spots on their hands and wrists. They were crowding close, reaching out, and he didn't know why, but they were talking to him, at him.
Tony and the guards and the High Priest reached the massive doors to the temple and they opened, hinges groaning with the weight, to allow the group to pass through and behind them, Tony was pretty sure that everyone was singing and doing a maypole dance or something equally strange. “Am I dead?” Tony asked Thing 1, who didn't look down at him. “No, seriously,” he said, rolling his head around to Thing 2. “I deserve the right to know. If I'm dead, you have to tell me. I'm pretty sure that's in the rules. How'd I die? Oh, tell me it was not Hammer. If it was Justin Hammer, I am taking this afterlife by force, I swear I am, because I am not going down like that. I demand to die of excellent sex, excellent booze, or a kickass battle-winning move that saves my team and preferably a good chunk of the eastern seaboard.”
Thing 1 made a whirring, chirping sound at him, and Tony frowned. That sounded familiar. Why did that sound familiar? “Pardon?” he asked, because Steve would expect him to be polite if this was a first contact situation. Of course, first contact had happened when they'd snatched him out of Hydra's tawdry excuse for a super villain lair, but that was not something that Tony had any control over.
And since no one was trying to kill him at this exact moment, he could at least pretend to be a civilized human being.
Thing 2 chirped, too, and Tony swiveled his head to look in that guard's direction. “Oh, I agree,” he said, blinking. “But you're ignoring the long term effect of palladium mining on indigenous peoples and also that, really, letting Doom get his hands on anything of the sort would outweigh any potential benefits.” He nodded, with a charming smile, and he was pretty sure the guard was smiling back, if that was a mouth, yeah, a smiling mouth? Or maybe just a set of gills? “So let's not do that. I don't suppose you guys have coffee? I would kill for a cup of coffee right now.”
The Head Priest hurried ahead of them and opened up a door in the hallway wall that Tony hadn't even been aware was there. He stepped through and the guards followed after him, dragging Tony along for the ride.
Another huge room. Tony didn't have much time to look around before he was carried over to a black topped counter and placed, with more delicacy than he expected, on a weird floating little disc, and it gave a little beneath his weight and then stabilized. He glanced down, eyebrows arching as he realized it was some sort of high tech seat, and the black counter in front of him was a lab bench, littered with trays of tools and supplies and hey, neat, alien lab goggles adjusted for human eye placement.
And it appeared he was back in kidnapping reason three: they wanted something built.
His shoulders slumped, and he looked up. Dozens of aliens were creeping forward, fingers fluttering and heads bobbing as they chatted amongst themselves. Tony glanced around. “What do you want from me?” he asked, bracing his folded arms on the counter, because there was no rescue coming for him here. Even if he was in range of someone from earth finding him, there was no rescue coming. He was in a place so far removed from home that it might as well be an other dimension. Hell, it might be another dimension, what did he know? But it wasn't Earth, and he had no idea if he was on their planet or a ship, but here he was. No one was coming for him.
And if he lived or not probably would have a lot to do with what kind of a weapon they expected him to make.
The High Priest was making shooing motions with his hands, and the aliens backed up, robes fluttering and feet tapping on the ground, and as Tony looked beyond them, he realized the room was filled with lab benches, filled with floating stools and tools and aliens.
Also a couple of hundred toaster boxes.
He blinked at the piles of boxes, some open, some still sealed, all different brands and sizes and shapes and some toaster ovens thrown in there, and there were toasters on every lab bench except the one in front of him, aliens holding toasters and disassembling toasters and putting them back together.
“This is all some sort of elaborate prank, isn't it?” Tony said. “This is... What, did Clint put you up to this? This seems like something he'd do. Am I in Chicago? The last time he decided to make my life a living hell I ended up in Chicago.”
And then the High Priest put a toaster down in front of him.
Tony looked at the toaster, and then up at the alien, who looked oddly hopeful for a thing with no eyebrows. He looked back at the toaster. “You're kidding. You are FUCKING KIDDING ME.”
The aliens started babbling at each other, gathering around to gesture and chirp and point at Tony, look at Tony, discuss Tony. Tony sat very still, and the High Priest held up a hand. Everyone went silent, and the alien waved a hand in the air.
A holographic display, amazingly detailed and pristine, snapped up on the counter, making Tony jump. He leaned in, frowning as what was clearly a puff piece on the Avengers and Stark Tower started to play. Clint and Thor were laughing at each other, Clint perched on a counter and Thor leaning against the wall as Calcifer the toaster rolled back and forth between them. There was no audio, but Tony determined that he would, in fact, kill them both when he got back home.
Because they were showing off his goddamn toaster, and that would appear to be why he'd been kidnapped by space aliens.
“Okay,” Tony said, taking a deep breath. “You want me-” He placed his hand flat on his chest. “To make this-” He put a hand on the toaster in front of him. “Like that?” He moved his other hand up to point at the Avengers' toaster, which was currently launching toast in the air for Clint to pick off in midair with arrows. Tony moved his 'this toaster' and 'that toaster' fingers together. “Same?”
The High Priest was nodding, the movement large and exaggerated, like a horse throwing its head around, and Tony understood that it was trying to make its intent clear. They wanted a Calcifer toaster.
“You're fucking kidding me,” Tony said, and let his head fall to the bench in front of him. “You do realize that I hold 423 patents. I built the most advanced AI ever. Armor that privatized world peace. A flight stabilization system that was light years beyond anything anyone had even dreamed of. I created an element. I miniaturized the ARC REACTOR with a box of SCRAPS in a CAVE.” His head snapped up. “And you have dragged me off my home planet because you want my toaster.”
The High Priest pointed at the hologram, all but vibrating with eagerness.
“I will punch Clint in the face so hard that he will have to pry his teeth off the back of his skull,” Tony said.
He reached for the toaster. “Fine. Great. Let's do this crazy thing.” His fingers brushed it, and the room went completely nuts. Tony repressed the urge to scream and throw himself back off of his fancy floating stool, because there were aliens everywhere and they were talking and fluttering their fingers around his head and shoulders and brushing his beard with delicate touches and he was pretty sure that was laughter.
It was all very disconcerting.
He held himself very, very still until it died down, until the Head Priest had taken a seat across from him, until the mob of aliens had somewhat disbursed. They stayed within range, of course, curious, hopeful eyes and moving mouths and amazing fingers as they returned to their work. Tony tried to ignore how they were staring, but yeah. A little disconcerting.
Okay, totally fucking disconcerting.
Tony fumbled at his waistband, and was glad to find the shirt was still tucked there. The High Priest turned to a thin, willowy alien that was approaching the bench, and Tony took the moment to pull the shirt on, because hey, not half-naked, that was good. He was reaching for something that he was pretty sure was a screwdriver when the head alien reached across the bench, depositing a familiar cup on the counter in front of him. Tony stared at it.
He'd never been so happy to see the Starbucks logo before in his life.
“You got me coffee.” He refused to take his eyes off of it, it might disappear. Cautiously, hope making his heart pound, he reached over and picked up the cup. It was warm to the touch, and he pried the lid free. Steam rose from the surface, curling over the edges and filling the air with the familiar scent of a dark roast Sumatra blend. Tony wanted to cry.
It could've been poisoned, and he would not have cared.
He took a sip, tentative as he could make the gesture. The liquid spilled across his tongue, and he moaned. “Okay,” he managed. “We can be friends.” Risking a burnt tongue, he chugged half the cup without so much as bothering to breathe.
Coffee. He wanted to cry. Somehow, things didn't seem nearly so bad all of a sudden.
And it was perfect, it was the perfect cup of coffee, it was just the way he liked it. At this point, he would've drunk a lukewarm cup of instant Folgers with some non-dairy creamer, but it was a miracle, this was a miracle, because it was perfect.
He froze, cup at his lips. It was perfect. It was... Exactly the way he liked it.
Tony pulled the cup away from his mouth, rotating it to check the marks along the side. It was perfect. It was just the way he took his coffee. His eyes narrowed. There was a little star after the sugar notation, a gesture he was familiar with from the Starbucks across from the Tower. Maybe it was used company wide, but he'd never seen it used at any other Starbucks, or maybe he hadn't been paying attention, because really, once the coffee was in it, and on its way to his mouth, the cup was just a delivery system.
But something was there. Something...
Tony stared over the edge of the cup at the hologram that was still playing on a loop. His eyes narrowed as he considered the image. Slowly, his movements careful and precise, he put the cup back down on the workbench. “That,” he said, looking up at the head alien, “is not the kitchen. That's my workshop. No one films in my workshop. Hell, I usually don't film in my workshop.”
He took a deep breath, his mind spinning. “There is no way you picked this up from a transmission. There's not even a chance that you pulled this from Jarvis' data banks. So where, exactly, did you get this?”
The High Priest blinked at him, the movement of the translucent lids slow and deliberate. His mouth worked, and that soft, rhythmic sound washed over Tony. Tony shook his head. “I don't understand.” He pointed at the hologram. “This is my home. My people. How did you get this?”
There was no reply that he could understand.
Frustrated, Tony turned back to the image. Tried to think. Caffeine, that was his friend, and lack of caffeine had been why he'd been so goddamn stupid up until this point. Because he didn't believe in coincidences and he didn't believe in chance, but mathematical surety was a myth told to children who were seduced by the idea of theory.
The how and the why, the possibilities weren't nearly so important as the fact that he could remember the physical layout of the room. He half lived in that workshop, he knew every inch of it. He could see the workshop, and lay the image over it. Find the point of origin, based on the angles, on the set camera, he could lay it out and see-
See the small object lying on a shelf above his primary workbench. A small object he'd placed there, within sight and out of immediate reach, an object he could see clearly now, as clearly as the first time he'd picked it up, when it had lain in his palm, a child's toy or a nuclear warhead, a puzzle to be solved.
His eyes snapped open. “Fuck me.” He turned to the High Priest, who was still sitting there, patient and calm and still, waiting, waiting for Tony's goddamn stupid brain to catch up. “Wow. I am a moron. I broke my own prime rule. When you find some alien tech lying in a goddamn fucking alien trash dump, maybe you shouldn't. Bring. It. Home.”
But he had. He'd brought it home and brought it to the workshop, and it had sat there, inert and ignored, but he'd brought it home. Into the heart of Avengers tower, he'd brought that thing back.
He fumbled on the workbench, grabbing something that felt like paper, thin and sleek and flexible. As if knowing what he wanted, the alien pushed a small object closer to his fingers, and he picked it up. The High Priest reached out and rotated it, setting one end against the page and wrapping Tony's fingers around the slim metal rod. Experimenting, Tony pressed down and was gratified to see the dark mark that followed the contact. His hand moved over the sheet in front of him, and he sketched it out in a couple of sharp, brutal strokes. He held it up. “You made this.”
The alien looked at the image of the small object, the one thing Tony had wanted, the one thing he'd needed, the one thing in Bartonia that he hadn't been able to leave behind, hadn't been able to risk letting Fury find, the one and only object that terrified him. The one thing he'd buried in an armload of bigger, brighter, more eye-catching trash, to camouflage his true intent. And nodded.
“You made this,” Tony said, feeling numb. “Your people. You made this, and then I opened it. I- Saw. And I broke my own rule and I took it home and left it sitting on my fucking workbench, and somehow, somehow you've been using it, you've been able to see me through it. You've been watching me.”
He stared down at the drawing, dizzy with it. “You've been watching me for months.”
The alien reached out and covered the image with one hand. And offered the other to Tony, making a gesture that he interpreted as 'come here.' He stared at the High Priest. “You've been watching me.”
The hand stayed there, hanging in mid-air, patient, waiting, and left with no choice, Tony took it.
Steve's boots pounded down the hall, empty and echoing and so like a tomb that he couldn't breathe. The air was thick with chemicals and decay and something that he didn't want to think about, didn't want to even consider, because it was like burning hair but worse, acrid and sharp and nauseating.
He was moving, and trying to be quiet, but time was running out, they'd told him, they'd told him no one came back, and they'd said it with pity in their eyes, the flat, broken acceptance of men who'd seen their friends and comrades die, because any pity they had left, that was all the pity left in this world. War had no pity, not for them, not for anyone, and it was perhaps miraculous that they could manage any pity for Steve.
Or perhaps they knew what he would find, in this tomb for the dead and dying. This tomb that threatened to swallow him, the echoes disappearing into cold silence. Maybe they'd saved the last of their pity for a man who'd come so close and still lost everything.
Ahead, in the dark shadows of the corridor, a form came pelting out of a side room, huddled down over a heap of paper in his arms, a bag clutched close to his chest. For an instant, they both froze, Steve at one end, the unknown monster, a creeping evil with shuffling feet, at the other. And then the Hydra scientist was running away, disappearing into the darkness, and Steve didn't care.
He only cared about the room the thing had left.
Running full out now, not caring for noise or if he was spotted or caught, he just ran, legs churning out the distance faster than he'd run since that first day. Since the day he'd run down the Hydra agent who'd shot Dr. Erskine, his new body strange and uncertain and barely controlled. He ran now, faster than he'd ever run, and it was worth it.
The room was awash in blue green light, sickly and sickening, and Steve could see the table across the room, see the form lashed to the metal, and his breath died in his lungs. Stumbling, tripping over his own feet, he fumbled across the room, grabbing for the edge of the table, ignoring the smell of blood and bile and something he couldn't identify, something that terrified him.
He was shaking as he grabbed the straps, ripped them free, the bolts pinging across the floor like projectiles. “Bucky,” he managed, wanting to sob, to cry, he'd come so far, he'd come all this way, risked everything, and it was worth it, because Bucky was here, still alive, thank God, thank God. “Bucky-”
Steve froze, his hands gripping the fabric of the uniform, and he was shaking, he was coming apart, because the face was wrong. It wasn't Bucky, it wasn't his best friend, lying on the table, waiting for him.
It was Tony, his eyes open and blank, his lips rimmed in red, and there was nothing left of his chest, it was hollow and empty and a gaping wound where the arc reactor should've been. Steve scrambled at the skin, trying to push down, but the blood was cold and tacky beneath his fingers, and there was no fixing this; Tony was dead, and Steve couldn't let him go, couldn't do anything but listen to the screams and know it was him making that noise.
Tony's eyes were blank and empty and the front of Steve's uniform, the first Captain America uniform, the one that was a joke and a prop and a lie, was spattered with blood, with Tony's blood, and he couldn't let go, he couldn't let go and he would be buried here in the concrete tomb that Hydra had built for them both.
He came awake on a scream, silent and choked and frozen like a lump of ice in his throat, but he could hear it in his ears. The scream, and it was horrible and raw and broken.
His vision cleared, and the ghost in front of him solidified, until Natasha's pale, perfect face was a hole in the darkness. She was steady, calm, her eyes dark pools in the subdued light, and he r
ealized her hands were on his cheeks. Her thin fingers cradled the weight of his jaw, her thumb stroking his cheekbone as she whispered his name.
Steve sucked in a breath, and another, his body heaving with it, leaning into the small touch. “Sorry,” he managed after a second.
She didn't say anything, but her hands fell away from his face. He had an instant to regret the loss of the warmth, the night air almost unbearably cold against his wet skin, and then her arms were wrapping around him. He froze, startled, still trapped in the nightmare, as her arms settled around his shoulders. She pulled him close, pulled him down, ignoring the awkward stiffness of his frame.
He held himself separate, held himself together, for another moment, and it was a struggle, it was the hardest thing he'd ever done. Natasha's fingers stroked the nape of his neck, and that was it, as if that tiny gesture of kindness was enough to shatter his control.
Steve curled into her, his face against her shoulder, his arms around her waist, his whole body shuddering with the force of his grief. He wasn't aware of the tears, of the soft, broken sounds he was making, he was only aware of her shifting, aligning their bodies a bit closer, her delicate form somehow supporting his.
She was crying, he could feel it, but she didn't make a sound, didn't allow her breathing to change. He could feel her tears, where her cheek rested against his hair, could feel them in the way she held herself, the way she held Steve. She cried silently. Stoically. She cried with all her heart.
Steve didn't have her control, and he didn't want it. The fear, the grief was unbearable, a leaden weight in his chest, a clawing agony in his throat, a nausea that he had to choke down. The faces wouldn't stay seporate, they defied his attempts to catagorize his loved ones as living and dead, and Tony became Bucky became Tony and he sobbed against Natasha's shoulder as she rocked him back and forth.
At some point she began singing, her voice low and gentle and sad, the words foreign to him; he'd never learned more than half a dozen Russian phrases, but this was a lullaby. No matter the language, that was clear. He closed his eyes and curled close, and let the memories of his mother, so long dead, mix with the comfort she offered. Her voice was soft and gentle, and her hand stroked his hair, and he squeezed his eyes shut tight and tried to forget.
Steve's eyes snapped open and it was light out, the pale light of the approaching dawn, but definitely light out. He cursed inwardly, wondering when he'd fallen asleep, and how long he'd been out. At least a few hours, that was clear.
He struggled upwards, and next to him, beneath him, Natasha stirred. Flinching, he tried to avoid her eyes, and it worked until delicate fingers stroked his hair away from his forehead. He glanced over. Her eyes were open and clear, no sign of sleep left in her face, and she gave him a faint smile.
He swallowed. “I'm sorry,” he managed, and her smile faded.
Her shoulders rose, a faint shrug, almost invisible. “Why?” she said, her fingers coming up to smooth her hair back into place. Her eyelashes were held low over her eyes, her nose pink, tiny echoes of her tears, and he wondered when she'd stopped crying because he could still make out the tracks they'd taken over her cheeks. But her voice was soft and controlled, husky from sleep, but it didn't wobble or crack.
The way it felt like his would.
“Thank you for checking on me last night,” Steve said, moving away, and it was awkward, his face was burning, but he made it to the edge of the bed without falling over or accidentally grabbing at some part of her anatomy. “But I'm sorry, I shouldn't have-” He cleared his throat. “I didn't mean to, you know, and then, to fall asleep on you that way-” He squeezed his eyes shut. “That wasn't something you should have to deal with.”
He felt, more than saw, her move to the edge of the bed to sit next to him. She did it with grace and ease, and her hand came down, light and delicate, to cover his where it rested on the tumbled blankets. “You needed it. And you wouldn't have accepted it from anyone else,” she said.
Steve's jaw locked. “That's kind of worse, don't you think?” He jerked his head towards her, and away. “It's not your responsibility. It's not your problem, and just because you're the only woman on the team, it's worse, that-” He sucked in a breath. “I'm sorry.”
There was a moment of pause. “I'm not.” She stood. “I'm not yet so much a monster that I would deny a friend the smallest amount of human compassion."
He was already shaking his head, horrified. “Natasha-”
Natasha stood above him, her chin up, but her eyes meeting his. “When we were leaving the helicarrier,” she said, her voice soft, “going after Loki. And Clint volunteered to fly us, you looked at me.” She kept her eyes on his, and they were brilliant and sharp and proud. “You looked to me, and I nodded, and you accepted that.” She shifted her weight, and her hands flicked into fists at her side, just an instant, her control slipping for a bare moment, and then she had herself in hand again. “A man who had been trying to kill us an hour earlier, and you trusted my word, that he could be trusted. You didn't ask for explanations. You didn't demand proof or lay conditions. You took my word on that. And in the time we've known each other, Cap?” She glanced back, her face expressionless.
“That treatment has been the rule. Not the exception. You have no idea how rare that is. How much I treasure that.” She smiled a little, her lips curling up, the gesture one of shy femininity, and then it was gone. “And in all this time, this is the first thing you've needed, that I could give you. Nothing more than a comforting touch and someone to grieve with you.”
Turning on her heel, she added, “I want you to know this, Rogers. I will fight for you, I will follow your orders, I will march into hell at your back, and if I could take your pain from you right now, I would do it, gladly. Because you have always done your best for me, and nothing that happened last night will change that. You will not suddenly start treating me differently, treating me as if I'm less, or weak, or useless, because I allowed you to see that I am still human.”
“We all are,” he said.
Natasha paused, glanced back over her shoulder. “Not everyone can see the asset and the person.”
“There's no difference,” Steve said.
“Not everyone believes that. But you do. And that's why I will do this every night, if you need me to.” She paused, her lips curling. “But you must promise me one thing.”
Steve nodded, serious. “Anything.”
“When we find him, you must never, ever tell Stark I shed so much as a tear for him,” she said. Her chin came up. “He will never let me live it down.”
Steve choked on a laugh. “Of course,” he said, trying to force his face back into solemn lines. “I don't know what you're talking about. You would never.”
“That's true, I wouldn't. Coulson, Clint, of course. And who wouldn't cry for Thor? And Bruce, he's one of my favorites. Then there's you, I forbid anything from happening to you, we would all go to pieces. Stark, however, he is a constant annoyance, and I would never miss him.” She grinned at him, and it was real and warm and steadily becoming more familiar. Like she allowed him behind the mask now; she hadn't discarded it, it was engrained, it was survival, but she put it aside from time to time now. She allowed them all to see some of what was happening inside of her. “I'm going to tell him you were inconsolable, just so you know.”
“Oh, I would never expect you to tell him anything but the truth,” Steve agreed.
She flicked her head towards the door. “Come on,” she said, her voice gently. “Let's get some breakfast.”
Steve took a breath. “Yeah. Natasha?”
He wanted to ask, and when he opened his mouth, the words wouldn't come. He struggled for a moment, then let his mouth close. “Never mind, let's go.”
Her hand cupped his chin, turning him towards her. “He is alive,” she said, and it was with such conviction that he felt something horrible and foreign trapped in his chest loosen and fall away. “He is Tony Stark, and nothing so simple as a collapsing building or Hydra could possibly kill him.
“The Eastern Seaboard could collapse into the Atlantic ocean, and I am convinced we would find that man floating on a piece of the Statue of Liberty, and you know what he'd say to us when we went to collect him?”
Steve grinned at her. “Miss me?” he asked.
“Exactly right. Let's go, Cap.”
The room was big and empty, as pale as any other he'd been in since he'd woken up, the light giving the walls a pearlscant glow. The High Priest released his hand, stepping away, putting his back to Tony, and went low to the ground. From the voluminous folds of his robe, he pulled out a small cube, a twin to the one that Tony had discovered, sitting on the ground in Bartonia.
Tony stared down at it. “There's this guy,” he said, and his voice echoed through the room. “Dr. Strange. He and Thor, they discuss things sometimes, and he makes my head hurt, I don't DO magic. Let's just make that clear. Magic, me, no. Not interested. But he's a lot of fun when he's drunk, and if you hang out with Thor and don't know to cut the mead with something, anything, that isn't mead, you are going to end up drunk.
“He said, once, that if you're looking for magical objects in modern America? If you're trying to find ancient artifacts of mythical power? Your best bet is the flea market.
“Because certain things call to people. Even people who don't wield magic, who can't, who have no sense of magic. The power calls, it draws the blood, and people end up with things that seem useless and often broken. And they don't know why, but they can't throw it away, because even though it's a broken and busted useless piece of shit, the thing has WORTH. They just don't understand why, but they can't just toss it.
“So these things end up at flea markets, an endless cycle of buying other people's junk and moving it around, the object seeking someone that can understand it, wield it. Because things of power have a will.” He stared down at the little mirrored Rubik's Cube. “A thousand square yards of stuff, and that called to me like nothing I've ever seen. And now I'm stuck with it, because there is no Mount Doom for me to pitch it into, there is no place I can bring it. To be free of it.”
Tony took a breath. “All it did was show you just where to find me. Isn't that right?”
The alien glanced up, met Tony's eyes, and flicked long, clever fingers over the cube, and the room lit up. Tony jerked, his shoulders going tense, his head coming around as the room filled, image after image flickering into existence.
They were all of him.
“Okay, this is creepy. Thank you. Creepy.” He turned, amazed, as the holograms took form. It was like watching himself from a distance, like an actor playing his role.
Tony welding, heavy gear weighing him down as he wielded the torch like a weapon. Tony arguing with Pepper, their body language loud even though there wasn't a sound to go with the image. Tony fixing Dummy's servos as Steve sat next to them, talking to the bot and distracting him with pencils and an eraser shaped like a boxy little robot. Dummy stealing the eraser and tucking it away when neither of the men were looking. Tony chugging coffee from a paper cup as he kept it out of Coulson's reach; Coulson tapping a pen on a nutritional report from SHIELD that desperately wanted to separate Tony from his vices. Tony dancing, grinning wide and bright, as he figured something out and cranked the music up to deafening levels. Tony bent over the counter, grease stained fingers at work as he repaired Calcifer's internal circuitry as Butterfingers held the objecting toaster still. Tony staring at a schematic, hands in his back pockets, chin up, shoulders back, eyes narrowed, his hair held back by a pair of goggles, a streak of black across one cheek. Tony sitting on the couch, working on one of the iron man gauntlets, Clint and Natasha next to him, the two of them a comfortable heap of limbs as they argued over what movie to watch.
Tony wandered through the images, staring at them, reaching out to touch a few, letting his fingers pass through the hologram. Stopped in front of the one where he'd fallen asleep at his bench, slumped forward, head pillowed on one arm. Steve was standing behind him, his expression fond and amused. As Tony watched, the recorded Steve reached out and scooped the sleeping Tony up. Cradling him close, Steve moved towards the door. There was an instant, unguarded and unseen, where Steve rested his cheek against Tony's hair, and his smile was filled with an emotion that Tony couldn't identify, but it turned his knees to water to see it.
He sucked in a breath, slow and careful, the sound uneven to his own ears. His hand was up, trying to touch Steve's cheek as the other man moved forward, carrying his burden without complaint, without difficulty. Tony's fingers ghosted through the image, and he wanted to scream.
He turned back to the High Priest, exhausted. “You've been watching me.” he said, his eyes playing over the images. “You've been watching ME.” He waved a hand at the images. “This is what you consider important? All my plans, all my work is there, you've paid no attention to my tech, you've only been watching me.”
The High Priest turned, and Tony followed his gaze, a breakdown of the human form in holographic detail. He watched as the form, his form, moved, bones and muscles appearing and disappearing, skin and hair and tendons and veins, an anatomical model with an arc reactor jammed into the center of it. The arc reactor was there, too, the pieces assemble and disassembled, long columns of writing he couldn't decipher floating in the air beside it as it was rotated, free form and enlarged, the structure outlined and the core's elemental structure a separate image.
And beside that, the Iron Man armor.
Tony watched as the hologram was disassembled, pulling apart the circuitry and the joints and the relays, the plating and the structure and he wanted to read their notes so badly, because they were doing something, they were making adjustments, and his eyes narrowed on it, watching. Trying to understand as different materials and pieces were added and removed, reinforcing the chest and the weak areas where the plating met and overlapped, where he was vulnerable, where the relays and the electrical system was closest to the surface, where the arc reactor came into contact with the suit.
Because they were trying to understand.
He looked at the High Priest. “You were watching me. And-” Tony paused, eyes going wide. “And I suddenly disappeared. That's it. That's why-” His head jerked up. “Since I picked that thing up, I've been in the workshop almost every day. I took that two day business trip to Algiers, and there was that mission outside of San Francisco, but I was back in a day or so.
“For the last few months, I've been in the workshop. Then I had to prep for the conference, and then I went to the conference, then I got my ass kidnapped. I've been gone for...” He did the calculation in his head. “More than a week now. I disappeared, and you came looking for me.” His hand came up, covering the arc reactor. “You came looking for this.”
This. The rarest piece of tech on the planet. How many were there, a half dozen? The miniaturized ones, even less. There was the one in his chest, and there were the ones in his suits. His and Rhodey's. If they understood it, if they could track it... He looked up, meeting the High Priest's eyes. “This.” He tapped on it, and pushed his shirt up to reveal the glowing circle of light.
The High Priest reached out and tapped a long finger against the front.
Tony took a deep breath. “I don't get this,” he said. “I really wish I could speak your language. Or that you could speak mine. Why do you want me? Why, out of everything I've made, why Calcifer? Why a fucking toaster?” He pushed his hand through his hair. “The arc reactor, the repulsors, the armor. You got a good view of those, you seem to understand those, but you don't-”
He paused. “That's it. You understand those. You don't understand Calcifer. You don't get him.” Tony looked over at a nearby hologram. The holographic Tony was holding Calcifer up by his plug, utterly unconcerned by the fact that the toaster was flailing around like a fish on a hook. Behind him, Thor was all but wringing his hands together, clearly concerned for his little metal buddy. Holographic Tony was talking to him, an amused smile on his face as Dummy poked Calcifer with a long screwdriver. “You don't get us.”
He shook his head. “Hi,” he said to the High Priest. “I'm Tony Stark.” He held out his right hand. The alien blinked at it. Tony reached out with his left hand, because these people seemed pretty okay with touching him, so maybe this wouldn't get him killed. He caught the alien's hand and brought it to his, clasping their fingers together and giving it a shake. “Tony,” he repeated, touching his chest in true Tarzan style. “Tony.” He pointed at the alien, who was smiling.
“Oooo-neeeee,” the alien said, and Tony blinked. Grinned.
“Tch,” he said, clicking his tongue on the roof of his mouth. “Tony.”
“Close enough.” Tony grinned. “Tony Stark.”
“We have a problem with the percussive sounds. Okay. Ony, I can live with that, I've been called worse.” Tony pointed at the High Priest. Blinking, the alien rattled off a long string of sounds, most of which Tony wasn't sure he could produce. “Oooookay,” he said, latching onto a sound at the beginning he could produce. “Uh, Chi?”
Tony tried again, pointing. “Chi? Chief?”
A bubbling noise, and the alien fluttered his fingers around Tony's head. “Chi!” It sounded like agreement. He pointed to Tony's chest. “Ony.” To his own chest. “Chi.”
Tony nodded, and mirrored the gesture, the sounds. “Okay. So, there's that.” He grinned.
Turned back towards the door. “Come on, Chief. If you want a self-aware toaster, I'm going to need my armor back.” He threw his hands in the air. “I will go down in universal history as that guy who made kitchen appliances sentient! You with me?”
The alien glided along with him without objection.
“Fuck, yeah!” Tony told him.
“Fu-ya!” Chief agreed.
“This is going to go so poorly,” Tony said.