Meetings were boring. Waiting for a committee to reconvene after a week of meetings was a waste of time. Tony definitely had better things to be doing. He stepped out of the big veranda doors and took a deep breath of warm sea air.
Much better things to do.
He pulled out his phone. Steve picked up on the second ring.
“How are the negotiations?”
Tony leaned against the balcony railing and studiously ignored the milling lawyers and company bigwigs in the conference room behind him.
“Still planning on getting back tonight?”
“Provided I don't strangle Fujikawa's PA. You'd come pay my bail, right? The man is insufferable.”
“Pretty sure that's Pepper's job,” Steve said, entirely unsympathetic to Tony's woes. “Also, strangling people is wrong.”
“It'd be an excuse to visit California,” Tony coaxes. “I'm serious, you should just come here tonight instead, see the sights, find some food that'll blow your mind.”
“I'm sure we can find good food here in New York, Tony. There's—” Steve cut himself off abruptly. Tony could hear a steady ringing in the background.
“Is that the Avengers alert?”
He dug in his pocket for his Avengers card.
“I gotta go,” Steve said, the words faintly muffled.
Active Member Alert, Tony's card blinked at him. Code orange. Avengers Tower.
“Wait, do you need me?” The suitcase suit wasn't the fastest, but it was still faster than a plane. “I can—”
“We've got it, Iron Man. We've even got Warbird in as a third flyer, stay where you are.” And that was all Captain America now. Giving orders. Team mode.
Iron Man was part of that team.
“I can still help, Pepper can take over here—”
He snapped his mouth shut. Steve sighed into the phone.
“We'll be fine,” he said, gentler. “I'll see you tonight.”
The alarm cut out, the call ended. Someone knocked on the glass behind him, and he slid his phone and Avengers card back into his pocket, steered his thoughts toward joint projects and international cooperation.
The team was strong. They'd be alright.
* * *
“Aliens?” Tony looked from Clint to Natasha. They stared back at him, for once both equally serious.
The scene playing out on the meeting room holo-screen was really no stranger than anything else the Avengers encountered on a regular basis. It was just a little more … efficient than Tony expected. More targeted. There was a general lack of bluster and pomp. Just a simple in-and-out job. That was usually SHIELD's territory, not the Avengers'.
He watched as three actual flying saucers appeared in a burst of violet light and aimed some sort of energy weapon at the Tower. He couldn't help but wince a bit as they opened fire. He hadn't had time to fully assess the damage yet, but the gouges and burns gracing the facade were not promising.
The Avengers responded to the threat in typical fashion. Hulk barreled out a window with a roar that actually shattered glass in an opposite storefront. Thor and Clint were quick behind him, sacrificing another window to the fight. That conference room was going to need a complete overhaul, given the speed with which Thor shot out of it. Steve, Sam and Carol at least tried to keep up the appearance of professionalism by using actual doors, even if Sam's was technically off a balcony. Even watching for the second time, Tony still wasn't sure how Natasha had entered the fight. One moment Hulk was swinging at a group of little green and grey humanoids on what looked like hovering segways, and the next she was shocking one of them in the neck and vaulting over Hulk's shoulder. He could see Steve’s shield bouncing in and out of the frame and the flash of Sam's holo-blades. He leaned in and squinted at the screen, looking for details he'd missed the first time, but it was no use. Just another flash of violet light and the image went dark, the camera destroyed.
He really needed to upgrade the outer systems. He'd obviously spent too much effort on vain attempts to Hulk-proof the interior.
Still, here he was, finally back from merger negotiations on the other side of the country, and Steve, Hulk, Carol and Thor were conspicuously absent.
“Aliens,” Tony repeated. “Aliens stole my boyfriend and half my team. When did this become my life?”
Clint rolled his eyes and leaned into the table on one elbow. “Be real, man, you wouldn't know what to do with a normal life.”
“Probably not,” Tony agreed. “But still. I was looking forward to being home. We had a date and everything. It just seems so unfair.”
“We'll find them,” Natasha assured him. “Sam's been working on identifying their technology profile. Hopefully that'll give us some idea of where they come from.”
“We really don't have any more information?” Tony asked. His voice may have had a slightly plaintive note to it. He was putting that down to sleep deprivation and general jet lag.
“Nope, this is pretty much it.” Clint swept one hand wide. “Little green men attacked the Tower on little hover ship things,” the arm came back over the table, hand held a few inches above the surface, presumably in demonstration of the hovering, “shot up some of the windows,” he mimed tiny pistols, “scooped up Thor, Hulk and Cap, and skedaddled.” The hover ship hand swept away again.
“They seemed to have some pretty advanced beaming technology,” Natasha said. “From what we observed, none of the captives were able to struggle within the beam, and we must assume that effect held true even inside the ships.”
“Since they didn't go kablooie and start raining superheroes before they made it out of atmosphere,” Clint added. He made another little hand gesture that was presumably meant to indicate a Hulk and Thor-powered explosion.
“But why them?” Tony asked, ignoring Clint's continued miming of something raining down onto the table. “Why not the rest of you as well? You were all there.”
“Of course,” Natasha confirmed, signs of a frown just barely visible in the crease between her eyebrows. “We were following Cap's playbook. An unfocused attack should have collected myself instead of the Captain, and Clint was close-by. From what Sam describes, we can be fairly certain this was targeted.”
Tony started the recording again. Just the one angle to work with. He made a mental note to plant some bugs on the outside of buildings across the street too. Maybe while his contractors were fixing those windows.
“Are there any more images of the ships themselves?” He asked. “Cell phone photos, something from one of those journalists that always seems to ignore the minimum safe distance guidelines?”
Natasha shook her head. “We've got a few blurry shots but we're also fairly certain this was just a recon team. There was likely a larger ship that never broke atmosphere. SHIELD is looking for anything they can find from satellite data.”
“What about the international space station?” Tony asked, pulling up the general interface and typing a few quick notes. There was something familiar about the shape of these ships and the patterns on the uniforms. He just couldn't quite put his finger on what it was.
“It was on the other side of the planet.” Clint shrugged.
“Seriously?” Well, at least it hadn't been blown out of orbit or anything. Still. Tony poked at the holo-display keyboard a little more forcefully than necessary. “What's the point of having people in space if they can't even see invading space craft?”
“I know, right?” Clint agreed. “It's like having a guard dog that just sleeps all day.”
“An incredibly expensive, state-of-the-art guard dog. Without any teeth. All they would've been able to do was watch anyway.” Tony sighed, saved the notes to the main lab server, and stood.
“Well, I guess I'll head downstairs and see what Sam's managed to ferret out,” he said, stretching his back a bit. Even first class, even on his own personal jet, flying in a plane was just not his thing anymore. He'd have to tell Pepper. Armor-class or nothing. It wasn't like the investors and business partners he met with didn't know he was Iron Man. “Let me know if SHIELD manages to glean anything from the satellite data, or wherever it is they get their information.”
“Yeah yeah,” Clint waved. “I'm going to get a snack. No point trying to take on aliens on an empty stomach. Besides,” he grinned, “the upside to all this is that now Hulk can't try to smash me for eating all the peanut butter!”
“Just keep telling yourself that,” Natasha smirked. She nodded at Tony. “We'll keep you informed.”
“Great,” Tony said, half to himself as he entered the hall. He kept expecting Steve to interject with something about how they needed to face this as a team, or how Tony was putting too much faith in his tech and sometimes they just needed to talk to people. Which was a good point. He just wished Steve had actually been there to make it.
“JARVIS, tell Hawkeye that the peanut butter will have to wait. I need his eyes on the streets, tracking down anyone who looks like they were involved in the attack or might have seen things from a different angle.”
“At once, sir,” JARVIS said as Tony stepped into the elevator. “Should I assume you are on your way to the alien and multi-dimensional technology lab?”
“If that's where Sam is, assume away. Show me the footage again?”
“Of course, sir,” JARVIS said, and the recording popped into view as the floors ticked by.
This time, Tony focused on whatever glimpses of Steve he could get. Cap always had a plan, and he was always adapting it, too. If he'd seen something in the pattern of the attack that could help, he would've reacted to it. Changed tactics somehow, pushed for an advantage, even if it looked like retreat.
It was no use though. Steve wasn't much more than a vague red-and-blue blur jumping and diving across the screen. He wasn't even fully in the frame for most of the loop; Tony only knew he was there at all because of the shield and the occasional glimpse of a red glove.
So much for that idea. On to the next. Personal grudges. Those were always good.
“JARVIS, bring up a list of people with space-flight capability we've pissed off. Maybe someone got a hankering for revenge.”
“Would you like to specify a time-range or tactical purview, sir? Current parameters indicate over 50 possible matches.”
“Narrow it down to grudges against Cap, Warbird, Hulk and Thor, within the last year. And leave out anyone who would stick around to gloat. Unless we get some kind of pompous video demand I think we're looking at someone with a little more subtlety than usual.”
“That last requirement brings possible matches to zero, sir,” JARVIS reported, and Tony sighed.
“Yeah, that's pretty much what I thought.”
The elevator chimed to announce his arrival at the correct floor and Tony stepped out a little more quickly than he'd stepped into it. The dearth of information in this situation was pathetic. More than that, it was annoying. What kind of supervillain captured three of the Avengers' heaviest hitters and Captain America and didn't even say anything?
An exceptionally dangerous one, probably. One who'd identified the monologing tendency as a weakness that could be exploited. Or maybe someone who just didn't care about them, but in that case why such a targeted attack?
Damn it. He was going to give himself a headache.
Still, there was hope yet. Sam had half the lab lit up with tests and scans and monitoring equipment. There had to be something in all that data that would give them a clue or three.
The elevator doors slid shut with another chime and Sam turned toward him.
“Tony!” he grinned, and Tony was pretty sure that was genuine relief in his voice. “Glad you could make it.”
“Well, the airline food wasn't the best and the speed certainly left something to be desired, but it's not like I was fighting villains or anything. Seems like that's more your schedule today.”
Sam shook his head. “The way these guys operate, I wouldn't have been surprised if they picked you straight off your jet. They were definitely on a mission. I'm just glad that mission wasn't targeting you, too.”
Tony brushed that off with a quirked eyebrow and a gesture at the screen Sam was using.
“So, what have you got for me?”
Sam tapped at the keyboard, bringing up a 3D rendering of the ships.
“Well, I'm pretty sure the beaming tech they used wasn't actually tech. Not the sort you or I would use anyway. The energy splash pattern looks closest to the sort of data we get from Asgardian encounters.”
“Asgardian?” Tony sighed. Of course. They couldn't be normal aliens, they just had to use particles and elements humanity hadn't discovered yet. “Wonderful,” he said, crossing to the workstation. “Any luck tracking it?”
Sam hesitated, his fingers still over the keys.
“We might need to contact Doctor Strange,” he said.
Tony rolled his eyes and turned to survey the lab with a critical eye.
“Seriously? Let me have a go at it before we resort to voodoo, alright?”
He linked his hands together and stretched out his arms, cracking his knuckles. Strange. Pfft. Tony was entirely capable of solving this problem without resorting to magical counseling. He ambled in the direction of the central command center. Just because JARVIS could bring up a screen almost anywhere in the Tower didn't mean there weren't advantages to a set location.
“Have you tried tracking Cap or Warbird's Avenger's card?” he asked, mentally ticking off possible angles to start with.
“No, we—wait, the cards have trackers?”
“Of course they do, how else did you think we find people when they go missing?”
He turned to give Sam another raised eyebrow (not that getting a rise out of Sam was nearly as fun as getting a rise out of Steve), but caught a familiar curve of red white and blue out of the corner of his eye.
The shield. The shield was sitting in his lab. It shouldn't—
He strode over to the workbench and reached out, not quite touching it.
“What's this doing here?” He didn't look up at Sam's curious noise, couldn't, his gaze fixed on the colorful rings, the star.
“Oh, right,” Sam said, and Tony couldn't decide if his casual tone was genuine or affected. “Cap threw it right before the teleport beams fired up. He—wasn't there to catch it when it bounced back. Widow ended up pulling it out of a phone booth.”
The sinking feeling in his general stomach region was not a welcome sensation. It shouldn't matter. Steve was just as capable without the shield as he was with it, but … well. Tony wasn't used to worrying about Hulk or Thor. Not for their safety, anyway. It was hard to imagine what could really hold them, let alone do actual damage. Carol was practically a force of nature herself, when she wanted to be. And Steve—Steve always pulled through. The man had survived decades frozen in ice, had his brain taken over by the Red Skull, and made it out of a fight with actual honest-to-goodness vampires, of all things. They'd fought Galactus, and Thanos. Steve would get through this too. He'd make his plan and tumble his way out and knock down the bad guys, maybe even protect some innocents in the process. And if he couldn't for some reason, if he was held too well or incapacitated somehow, he'd be depending on Tony to get him out. That was how they worked. Disaster averted one trust fall or act of heroism at a time.
“Tony?” Sam sounded worried now. “You okay?”
Tony snapped his thoughts back to the present. “Fine,” he said. He had work to do. Saving Steve depended on finding him first.
He made his way back to the command center, shield in hand. Maybe there was some sort of radiation residue on it or something. He'd run some tests. He forced himself to focus on the data Sam had compiled. Energy readings that didn't match any profile in the Avengers database, didn't even come close to something he recognized. And even with the addition of information collected from Sam's visor, they still only had a partial picture.
He pulled up the card-tracking program, but it couldn't tell him much. Two blips in the Tower, two in the city. That accounted for the team members still in New York at least. Thor and Hulk's blips were dark, but Tony hadn't really expected anything else. Thor's card got fried on a regular basis, and Hulk had never agreed to actually carry one in the first place. Steve and Carol's cards should still be active. He expanded the search area to the rest of the planet. Nothing. The solar system. Not even a trace. Known systems, places he'd had a chance to hack surveillance or plant relays. Hmm.
There was—something. An Avengers card had at least passed through the Gamma Draconis system, but there was no record of it for hours afterward. He'd have to contact the Guardians, see if they knew why the team might've been taken that way, and what sort of tech it would take to travel that distance without dropping a signal closer to Earth.
Hyperspace was one thing, but to get five jumps from Earth before dropping a signal...
No point in dwelling on it. He sent a message to Peter and refocused on the attack itself.
“How did they get so close to the Tower? JARVIS, buddy, talk to me. What happened to the interference nodes?”
“I have no conclusive record of the distraction team mentioned in the Avengers reports,” JARVIS reported. “There is camera footage, but no corresponding heat signatures. The shuttles they used similarly did not register on any scanner. Energy readings do not match known profiles.”
Tony scowled. The magic angle was sounding more and more likely, but he refused to give in to it just yet.
“Give me everything we've got. Cross reference with the on-site database, armor recordings and whatever we can pry away from the SHIELD researchers.”
“Must I remind you, sir, that many SHIELD files require clearance levels you and Mr. Wilson do not qualify for?”
“Use Cap's clearance, or Natasha's. I'm pretty sure Fury wants Steve back on this planet, he won't protest too much.”
“Of course not, sir,” JARVIS said dryly. Tony ignored him and scrolled through the energy readings they'd gotten from Doom's stint with the Midgard Serpent.
There would be something here, or in one of the other files, or Clint and Natasha would find something. Something he could use. A dropped bit of tech. A glitch in the recordings. A tiny incongruity or an emerging overall pattern. His records were extensive, and no attack was perfect. He'd figure it out, they'd go get the team out of whatever mess they'd ended up in, and then they could all go on with business as usual. Maybe he'd even be able to convince Steve to go somewhere a little more upscale than that Brooklyn diner he always insisted on.
Really, compared to that conversation, finding a couple of teammates dragged halfway across the galaxy would be simple.
* * *
Tony started, blinked. Sam was waving at him through the interface. “You okay?” he asked.
“Fine,” Tony said. He was frustrated—staring at the same data for hours, trying to make sense of it, had not been part of his plans for the evening—but still. Nothing he couldn't handle. He took a deep breath and rubbed his hand over his face. “I'm fine,” he insisted at Sam's doubtful look.
Sam frowned, but shook his head dismissively. “It's after two in the morning,” he said.
Was it? Whatever. Not important.
“There's a problem to solve here, Falcon,” Tony told him, enlarging an image of one of the aliens on its little hoover-scooter thing. “I'm working on it.”
“You were spacing out,” Sam pointed out, insufferably logical.
“I was thinking,” Tony waved a hand. “Just because something's not in the database doesn't mean we haven't encountered it before, or that we can't figure it out.” Sam raised his eyebrows and Tony scowled at him. “There's something here, something I remember. It doesn't make sense yet, but it will.”
Sam cocked his head, his expression pensive.
“What.” Tony bit out.
“You're not the only one worried about them, you know,” Sam answered.
“Never said I was,” Tony grumbled. “I'm—”
“You've been down here for hours,” Sam continued, talking over him. “I'm willing to bet you haven't eaten much, and you worked all day. I'm tired. You are probably exhausted. And I know this is usually Cap's job, but Cap's not here and someone has to tell you when to stop.”
Tony spared a moment of attention to glare at him. He was quite aware that Steve wasn't around, and he definitely didn't need anyone else taking on the role of Tony-minder.
“Go sleep, Tony.”
Natasha appeared behind him, the set of her shoulders clearly indicating he could go willingly or have his unconscious body dragged through the halls. Tony glared at her too, for good measure, but it was a pointless effort. No amount of hateful glowering would ever be enough to budge Natasha's resolve.
“Fine,” he grumbled. “I'll just—”
Natasha shook her head and he set the tablet back on the table.
“I'm not a child with a bedtime,” he protested, and yet here he was, letting his teammates herd him back to the elevator, letting Sam push the floor button while Natasha hovered just close enough to reach him if he tried to dart away.
“We're at less than half-strength now,” she noted. “And Iron Man is our heaviest hitter. If there's another emergency, we need to be ready.”
Because one emergency was never enough, of course.
“We told the Fantastic Four, right?”
She nodded. “And the X-men.”
He fought the urge to rub his eyes. Maybe he was tired. Didn't mean he had to let Sam and Natasha see it.
The elevator doors slid open.
“See you kids later,” he waved, but they insisted on following him all the way to his room. Had Steve sent out some sort of order Tony didn't know about? Make sure the genius sleeps? On pain of dignity?
“Are you going to stand over me until I enter REM too?” he asked, turning back to the door, but Natasha was already gone.
“See you in the morning, Tony,” Sam said. The kid looked dead on his feet. He shouldn't be having to take care of Tony too, after the day he'd had.
“Get some rest, Falcon,” he said, hand on the doorknob. “We need you, too.”
Even his smile was tired.
The door clicked shut and Tony closed his eyes and leaned against it for a moment, let himself feel the dragging weight in his limbs. Just a few hours' sleep. It wouldn't do to be delirious when they set out for a rescue mission.
He had to be at his best. For all the team's sake.
* * *
Dawn was streaking long fingers across the sky when Tony crept back down to the lab, the halls eerily quiet as he strode through them. Natasha failed to materialize out of the shadows, but he couldn't help glancing over his shoulder a few times, just in case.
It was nearly two hours before Sam joined him.
“Thought I might find you down here. You know there's breakfast upstairs, right?”
Tony hummed acknowledgment, noncommittal.
“Natasha brought bagels back from her morning meeting with SHIELD,” Sam coaxed.
SHIELD meeting bagels were not quite as coveted as Sam's mom's homemade cookies, but some days they came close.
“Okay, yeah,” Tony said, transferring data to a StarkPad. “Food it is.”
“Good,” Sam looked relieved.
“She probably smuggled them out,” Tony said, amusement creeping into his voice despite his general low mood. He'd have to move fast, especially if Thor or Hulk hadn't eaten anything else yet. In fact, unless Steve had set one aside for him—
Steve hadn't. And unless Hulk and Thor had reappeared overnight in another flash of violet light, Tony didn't have anything to worry about in the bagels department.
“Probably,” Sam agreed as they stepped into the elevator, but he didn't say anything else and Tony was grateful. It kept blindsiding him, over and over. Little things, adjustments he hadn't even realized he'd made to his routine that left room for Thor's brash enthusiasm, or Hulk's poor impulse control, or Steve's stubborn persistence. It felt wrong, being in the Tower without them.
He needed to figure this out.
First things first: Coffee. He made a bee-line to the kitchen counter and filled a mug with fresh-brewed goodness. It wasn't as smooth a blend as the one he kept in his private lab, of course, but hot, steaming caffeine was nothing to scoff at. Next, food. He peered into the bag of bagels and grabbed one of the two sesame seed ones that had survived general consumption. And—excellent. Natasha had managed to procure some whipped cream cheese as well.
Tony perched himself on a stool at the kitchen table and resisted the impulse to grab a few slices of orange and a banana just so Steve wouldn't glare at him or make him eat a salad later. He didn't actually want any fruit, and Steve wasn't there to look disappointed or threaten to go extra hard on him in training. Besides, the cream cheese was strawberry. That totally counted.
He took a defiant bite of bagel and chewed stoically, ignoring the feeling of condescending judgment boring into the side of his head. Apparently it was Pavlovian at this point.
The rest of the Avengers didn't seem to be having any such issues. Clint was rapidly demolishing a supply of marshmallow-based cereal, his gaze intent on his StarkPad. Tony couldn't get a good look at his screen. Natasha sat nearest the window, nursing a cup of tea and looking down at the city, any sign that she'd eaten already cleared away.
Tony took a long sip of coffee and braved interrupting her concentration.
“Has SHIELD found anything yet?” he asked.
“The satellite data indicates a light cruiser-sized space ship. It approached and left along the same path, but since we picked up some background hyperspace radiation that doesn't tell us much. As I'm sure you know—” the look she gave him left no doubt that she knew he'd been using her SHIELD access, “the technology profile didn't match anything we have on file. We recorded the same energy readings for the beam that delivered the strike team to Earth's surface as Falcon found for the ones that captured Thor, Hulk, Warbird and Captain America.”
“So, as far as useful information goes that's a no,” Tony said, ignoring the exasperated purse of her lips. “Fantastic.”
“We do have other options,” she said, nodding out the window. Tony leaned around her to look and—
“Why is Strange floating in the middle of the street outside our front door?”
Sam shrugged. “He said physical proximity to where the magic was used would help him get a better read on it.”
“Okay, but why is he here at all? I thought I told you not to call him yet?”
“I called him this morning,” Natasha said, staring him down, “when JARVIS told me we were no closer to an answer than when you arrived last night.”
Of course. Because Tony's AI had been developing an annoying tendency to play nanny with the team, as much as he was able. Tony felt very secure in blaming Steve's example for that.
“JARVIS, we're going to have a talk about this,” he said, because seriously.
“I only wished to aid in the recovery of your teammates in as expedient a manner as possible, sir,” JARVIS answered. “Doctor Strange's input can only add to your chances of successfully finding and rescuing them.”
“Later, JARVIS,” Tony repeated, because that sounded rather close to JARVIS-speak for “I'm worried about your friends,” which was a whole different issue to deal with. He pointed at Natasha, then thought better of it and lowered his hand.
“I know a lot more about the attack now than I did then,” he stated. “Did you want some kind of report? Filed in triplicate maybe? That's how SHIELD does things, isn't it?” A marshmallow bounced off his chest. “Hey!”
A second marshmallow hit his forehead, Clint unrepentant at the other end of its arc.
“Come on, man, we're all worried. Or are you going to tell us we wouldn't have ended up calling him anyway?”
Tony glowered at him, intent with disapproval and offended pride, but gave it up when Clint just rolled his eyes and took another bite of cereal. It was a logical next step, and it was certainly what Steve would've done in their place. Covering all the angles, and all that.
“Hah! Last bagel!” Clint crowed, grabbing it and holding it over his head, and Tony was braced and ready to dive out of the way before he remembered that neither Thor nor Hulk was there to try and grab it from him. Clint seemed to remember at the same moment; his triumphant grin fell into more of a grimace, and he slowly lowered his arm. For a moment it looked like he might even return his prize to the bag, but then Natasha leaned over and grabbed it out of his hand.
“Hey!” he protested. “I was gonna eat that!”
“Should've kept your guard up,” Natasha said, visibly unconcerned as she lifted the bagel to her mouth.
“Oh yeah?” Clint narrowed his eyes. “We'll see about that!” And he lunged across the table.
Tony sighed and gathered up his plate, StarkPad and coffee mug before Clint could knock them to the floor. The coffee table was probably the safer option at this point. He turned to hand Steve his mug in exchange for the man's plate of probably-wholesome-goodness, paused, sighed again, and reached for the coffee pot instead.
Strange. It wasn't that he disliked the man but he did dislike the feeling he got almost every time they met. Like Tony was missing some crucial bit of understanding and had no hope of gaining it.
It probably wasn't worth brooding on. He had enough to do already.
Someone—probably Clint, though sometimes Sam surprised him—had tuned the TV in the lounge to some sort of morning cartoon. Tony set his plate on the coffee table and leaned back into the couch cushions, sipping coffee and flicking through the files he'd collected. Something niggled at the edge of his thoughts.
He glanced back up at the television. There was something...
No. That couldn't be right. He started the video again. Green and white uniforms, oddly triangular helmets. He'd seen that before. In this room.
“JARVIS, run a comparison check between our visitors and Earth sci-fi media. Live action and cartoon, shows, books, movies, the lot.”
“At once sir.” Tony watched the search results pop up one streaming video at a time. That was it. The ships, the weapons, the uniforms, even the way the attack team moved—it could all be traced back to something in popular media. Something broadcast, and most of it at least ten years old. The most direct match was a kids show called “Blaster Explorers” which Tony was pretty sure he'd never actually watched but had somehow made it into his unconscious mind anyway. Commercials probably. Or too much exposure to Clint and Hulk's morning routines.
So, whoever it was that had attacked Avengers Tower had borne a somewhat disturbing resemblance to what amounted to popular mythology about aliens. Strange probably wasn't making that connection. But what did it mean? Tony'd been in the superhero business for long enough now to know that plenty of fantastic-sounding stories were based on real events, whether the author actually came in contact with superheroes or aliens or whatever, or just heard the story several telephones down the line. Which had come first? This image, or the aliens themselves?
“Doctor Strange is on his way to the conference room,” JARVIS reported, and Tony shifted that line of questioning to the back of his mind. He popped the last bite of his bagel into his mouth and once more gathered up his plate, mug and StarkPad. The sooner they got this meeting over with, the sooner they could move on to figuring out what part of the galaxy their visitors had come from.
Sam was stacking dishes in the sink, Natasha and Clint waiting at the elevator. There was no sign of the bagel they'd been sparring over.
“You know,” Clint said as Tony dropped off his plate and mug and turned toward them, “I never thought I'd miss having the Hulk around but it's waaay too quiet around here. I keep thinking he's looming up behind me and then he's not there. It's creepy.”
“I was expecting Thor to wake me up with his singing in the shower this morning,” Sam said as the elevator doors opened. “I've had 'Build Me Up Buttercup' stuck in my head for two days now.”
Tony fought the urge to hunch his shoulders up around his ears. He didn't want to talk about the emptiness in the Tower, the sense of reaching for something that wasn't there, or of waiting for a noise that wasn't coming.
Natasha just stepped into the elevator.
“Like I said,” Clint said as the rest of them followed. “Too quiet.”
Tony ignored the spaces between them, the gaps in their automatic formation, and turned his attention to the meeting. As unlikely as it was, maybe Strange could actually help. Dwelling on absent teammates wouldn't do any good.
* * *
“Good morning, Avengers,” Strange greeted them as they entered the room. “I am glad to see those of you who remain are in good health.”
“Thank you for coming so quickly,” Natasha said, sliding around to the far side of the table.
“I was happy to,” Strange demurred. “Besides, timing is crucial in these matters.”
“So,” Tony said as he settled into a chair, “what have you got for us? Any profound magical insights?”
Strange rested his wrists on the table and steeped his fingers together. The man really could be a walking cliché sometimes.
“This was not the work of an earthly magic user,” he said.
“So it is magic then,” Tony sighed. “Great.”
“Forms of elemental magic,” Strange confirmed. “They are more akin to Asgardian arts than anything else I'm familiar with.”
Sam cocked his head. “Maybe whoever it is really does have something against Thor.”
“But why take the others as well?” Natasha asked. “Most of the Asgardians we've met have focused on Thor almost exclusively.”
“I don't believe these magic users are Asgardian,” Strange clarified, “I simply think they are likely to have learned their art in some other corner of the galaxy, one that has more regular contact with Asgard than we do. They are likely to be strong in illusion and manipulation of natural forces.”
“Illusions?” Well, at least that could explain why JARVIS and Sam hadn't picked up any heat signatures. Tony had assumed it was some sort of tech in their exo-suits, but maybe not. And their resemblance to the Blaster aliens, the too-familiar look of their ships—
“They've been watching us,” he concluded. “Not just the Avengers either, they've been watching Earth. Our media, our ideas about alien lifeforms and technology.” He projected the data he'd been examining over breakfast onto the meeting room screen. The search results JARVIS had found. The points of similarity.
“Aliens that really are monitoring our TV broadcasts?” Clint slouched even further in his chair, eyebrows high as his sunglasses slipped down his nose. “What's next, mankind hasn't really been to the moon?”
“I've been to the moon,” Tony pointed out, not quite able to help himself.
“I'm pretty sure there's a conspiracy theory that you're actually an android, Tony,” Sam said, grinning. “How can we be certain you're a representative of mankind?”
“Well, you could ask Steve,” Tony smirked. “I'm sure he could provide some… definitive evidence. And if you can't trust Captain America's opinion, who can you trust?”
He ignored Clint's gagging noises and Natasha's sigh. They should be used to him by now. Really, if anything he'd expected Sam to have some sort of— wait.
“They,” he said, pointing at Strange. “You said they, and magic users. As in plural.”
“I did,” Strange agreed. “There are two distinct magical signatures. One which set the trap for your teammates and one responsible for the illusions you fought.”
“What do you mean, trap?” Sam asked. “It's pretty clear this was a targeted attack, but I don't see...”
Strange pressed his hands flat. “I assure you, this was a trap, one laid specifically for your team. The magic users responsible tied specific compulsions to your teammates. You friends could not have refrained from engaging in that fight if they had tried.”
And now they were talking about mind control. Fantastic. That was just what they needed on top of an already challenging problem.
“Do you have any useful information?” Tony asked. If his voice was a little too acerbic, well that was just too bad. “The sort that could actually get our friends back home?”
“I do have something that might help you,” Strange nodded. “Here.” He held out two lumps of clear crystal, one set in gold and the other in pewter. “These should let you know when you're close. I can't give you directions for this realm, but at least you won't be blind.”
Crystals. Seriously? It was like Strange was trying to be as annoying and unscientific as possible. One of them looked like it had a bit of dead plant wrapped around the outside and the other had some kind of beetle or something trapped in it. Tony imagined his expression fell somewhere between Clint's slack-jawed disbelief and Sam's struggle for neutrality. Natasha, of course, was far too professional to let any skepticism she might potentially feel show on her face. The fact that Tony couldn't actually read anything from her probably meant she was hiding something.
Then again, Natasha was always hiding something.
“I've tuned each of them to one of the spell casters' aura signatures. They should resonate with increasing frequency corresponding with decreased physical distance and assist you in determining exact locations for either the offenders themselves or any major workings they are undertaking.”
“So they're some kind of hot/cold device for finding these guys?” Sam asked.
Strange set the crystals down with a light click and folded his hands on the table.
“If that is how you wish to think of them,” he said. The words were a bit clipped.
Tony eyed the things and tried not to brace himself too obviously. Magical artifacts had an unfortunate tendency to surprise him by turning into shouldn't-be-possible things—changing size or shape or energy level without any reference to the laws of conservation; spontaneous combustion; heartbeats without an actual heart and speaking without any sign of a brain—though, to be fair, plenty of supposedly living, breathing, perfectly scientific humans did that last one too.
“What's the approximate distance now?” he asked. Maybe if they could narrow down the search area a bit –
“It does not translate easily into miles or light-years. The resonance is as much about time and intensity as is about distance.”
“You're saying you have no idea,” Clint said, leaning back and hooking his elbows around the corners of his chairback. “We're basically back where we started, and not any closer to getting anyone back.”
“Not quite,” Strange insisted. “These foci also contain several dispelling and disillusionment charms. If you can get them close enough to the magic-users in question, or deep enough with the radius of a major working, they can begin to undo some of the magic that may be used against you. They're not foolproof, but I find it beneficial to have as many tools as possible at my disposal when facing an unknown enemy, as, I am sure, do you all.” He leaned back. “I can also offer you the assistance of a young witch I've been tutoring. She will meet you when you are ready to leave.”
“We appreciate you taking the time to help us with this,” Natasha told him.
“Two magic users decided to create trouble directly on my doorstep, and during a time at which I could not respond quickly enough to stop them,” Strange said. “I am happy to help, and I would be remiss in my responsibilities as Sorcerer Supreme if I did not.”
Tony sighed. “I guess I'll take these down to the lab, see if I can get anything useful out of them.” The crystals were small enough he could hold them both in one hand. They blinked once against his fingers and palm, then went dark again.
“I'll keep working on the illusion idea,” Sam offered, and Tony slid him the StarkPad with a nod.
“And we'll hold down the fort,” Clint said, stretching. “What do you say, Nat? SHIELD's dynamic duo, righting wrongs and saving the world with no one the wiser? It'll be just like old times.”
Tony didn't stick around to hear Natasha's reaction. His brain was cycling too fast, too many ideas and too few connections. He swerved away from the elevator and opened the door to the stairs instead, taking them down two at a time. He needed to be doing something. If this nonsense didn't yield any results he'd prep one of the suits and head into space himself.
* * *
Three hours later, Tony was still firmly planted on Earth. The Iron Man armor was in pieces, half of it securely reassembled and half still waiting for careful inspection before he trusted its integrity to keep him safe in pure vacuum.
The crystals, he'd determined after too many tests, more tests, and re-tests, were next to useless. They blinked purple and green at exactly the same rate and gave off bursts of exactly the same levels of Alpha and Beta radiation, plus something else none of JARVIS' scanners could identify. There was no way to determine how the things were receiving whatever signal they were obviously responding to, or where it was coming from. But that was fine. Tony would figure it out eventually. Radiation had to come from somewhere. If he had to play a cross-galaxy version of Hot or Cold to find out where, so be it. Maybe he'd even get to name whatever it was, at least as far as Earth was concerned.
He was distracted from his careful consideration of the suit's oxygen circulation system redundancies by a shrill ring and a blinking blue light from his workstation. A picture of Star-Lord winked at him cheerfully.
He moved the projection of the suit to one side of the screen and punched up the call.
“You got my message?” he asked. Screw pleasantries. His brain was still buzzing uselessly, he did not have time right now.
“Yeah,” Peter looked a bit tired maybe, but Tony couldn't see any signs of injuries, or any obvious stress in his expression. Chalk up another win for the Guardians of the Galaxy, whatever it was they were doing. “I'll assume you're not in the suit, since I'm actually getting you on video. Where are you guys now?”
“At the Tower.” Tony squinted at the schematics. Maybe he could tweak things for an extra half hour of air.
“Really? I thought you'd be long gone by now.”
“Of course we're here, Quill, we're a little busy right now. Half the team's gone courtesy of some magic-wielding alien, so unless you have some bright ideas for figuring out where they are--”
“About that,” Peter said, and Tony turned his full attention to the comm screen.
“Yes?” he asked.
“We saw this hanging up during our last stop for supplies. Thought you guys might need some help.”
He reached for something off screen, and then his face was replaced by a poster. It had Steve on it, the uniform and determined expression were unmistakable. Carol stood at his side and something that looked like it was supposed to be Hulk loomed at his back, and they were facing off against something blue and furry suspended in what looked like a kind of forcefield.
“Where are they?” Tony asked. His whole ribcage felt like there was a vise around it. If Peter said he didn't know—
“Tourist trap in the Epsilon Pegasi system, right down the street from you, galactically-speaking” Peter said, and Tony took a deep breath. “If you guys can make it out to the edge of your solar system we can show you the best route.”
A set of coordinates flashed in the corner of the display, and Tony nodded, real hope making him a bit light-headed. They had a location. They could do this.
“We'll be there,” he promised. “Give me a few hours to get the armor space-worthy again.”
“Sure thing,” Peter said. He grinned. “Maybe this time we'll make it through a whole ten minutes without any of our teammates hitting each other.”
“No promises,” Tony grinned back, giddy. “We've still got Clint along.”
Peter's expression twisted into a mock-frown. “However will we cope,” he said. “See you soon, Iron Man. Star-Lord out.”
The vidcall winked out and Tony turned to the armor schematics with renewed purpose.
* * *
Strange's student turned out to be the Scarlet Witch. Tony spent most of the flight out to meet the Guardians keeping an eye on her through the Avengejet's interior cameras. Clint and Natasha seemed pretty wary of her too. He kept catching them darting little glances at her. Sam, of course, didn't have any history with her, but he seemed to catch the mood and gave her as much space as the rest of them.
She was mostly quiet, sitting in Thor's usual seat with her eyes closed. Possibly she was meditating. It was better than throwing chaos around, by a long shot. She'd certainly had a change of heart since their last meeting.
Still, they'd probably need someone with magic around, and Strange had been very firm about not being able to come himself. Tony set himself to reading everything (if such a tiny file could possibly be assumed to be called “everything”) Peter had forwarded them on Epsilon Pegasi and the people they were likely to encounter there instead of wasting time thinking about Magneto and mutant rights.
According to galactic public records, Delrun was the sole inhabitable planet in its system; much of the surface had originally been covered in wild tropical rainforest, but now the space was mostly dedicated to resorts and parks and, of course, the arena, the planet's largest and most famous tourist destination. The native species tended to be … colorful. The primary intelligent species called themselves Delruni and had apparently made their way in the galaxy by providing entertainment and generally being inoffensive enough to not be worth killing in large numbers. Most of the more recent galactic conflicts had entirely passed them by.
Tony enlarged an image of a Delruni. It held a tall black staff and wore a grey, vaguely military uniform, supposedly marking it as one of the arena's security guards. The blue fur was reminiscent of Hank McCoy or Nightcrawler, but the iridescent scaled snout was new, as was the extra set of arms. Supposedly the women had purple fur, but Peter noted they didn't tend to travel off-planet much. Something about land rights and “cultural differences” that probably translated to no one really understanding it.
“Finding anything useful?” Sam asked, leaning over his shoulder.
“Not really.” Tony transferred the data to the main holo-projector. “We're going up against the furry resort-lords of the galaxy. They've made millions entertaining the masses without pissing anyone off.”
“Yeah,” Tony agreed. “Until now. So either they're very careful and something changed, or they really are harmless and we're barking up the wrong tree.”
“Star-Lord seemed pretty certain,” Natasha said, joining them. Tony checked the security vids again. Wanda was still meditating and Clint had hunched down in his seat, eyes closed and glasses slipping down his nose. The man really could sleep anywhere.
“Peter's trustworthy,” Tony noted, “and that poster definitely had Steve and Carol on it so it's still the best lead we've got but...”
“You're worried there's a third player, someone we can't see.” Natasha narrowed her eyes and scrolled through the rest of the file. There wasn't anything suspicious there, beyond the lack of conflict.
“There's nothing about the arena here,” Sam said. “Not beyond population and income statistics, anyway. He really didn't send anything else?”
“He's probably waiting to tell us in person,” Natasha said dryly. “He does enjoy a bit of showmanship when he can get it.”
* * *
Natasha, unsurprisingly, was completely right. Peter did want to tell them about the arena in person. On board the Guardians' ship. All 10 of them in one space.
It was probably too much to ask that no one made any cracks about Galactus' Herald as they boarded, but Tony just sighed and kept moving when Rocket started in on double-dealing and brilliant plans and bet you wish you had the power cosmic now, eh Stark? As tempting as it was to just pick him up and throw him somewhere, it really wasn't worth jeopardizing the entire mission.
He did have to remind himself of that a few times. And Clint looked to be gripping his bow a little too tightly for it to be useful. Peter, at least, was welcoming, and Gamora managed to distract Rocket somehow until they could all find a place to sit or stand.
“This arena your team's gotten mixed up in, it's a sort of game,” Peter explained when they were all settled in. Videos popped up on his display screen, flashes of light and brightly colored uniforms. “Pay a fee, choose a set of powers you like and who you'd like to fight and have at it. If you don't want to fight or don't have the money to buy your way in, you watch. The Delruni have got a whole system of arenas, one of the biggest this side of the galaxy.”
“Why did they want the Avengers?” Tony asked. He shifted a bit, trying to find a comfortable position. The armor fit perfectly, but the bridge of the Guardians' ship wasn't really designed to accommodate so many people, especially when three of them were larger than the average human. He was having to put more effort than he'd expected into not stepping on Groot's trailing roots or brushing Drax's shoulder.
“New fighters,” Drax noted, and Gamora nodded.
“New powers too,” she said. “The available fighters have always corresponded with the available powers.”
“Also, you guys are pretty big names, even out here,” Peter added. “There's a draw for curiosities from Earth, and you guys are at the top of the list. Especially Hulk. People really seem to like the smashing.”
“You're saying these people came all the way to Earth and scooped up four of the highest-profile superheroes we have for a publicity stunt?” Tony asked. Maybe he should've known when he saw the poster but this was—he wanted to break something. Preferably the faces of these two sorcerers, whoever they were, but he'd accept anyone else working for them as a stand-in if necessary.
“So, what they just go around kidnapping people for this? Imprisoning them and making them fight?” Sam asked from Drax's other side.
Tony couldn't imagine any of his teammates just willingly going along with this idea. And Strange had said there was an element of coercion involved before they even got them off planet. None of the team responded well to that sort of threat, but Steve—Steve didn't have nearly as many natural (or unnatural?) protections as Carol, Thor and Hulk. Just stubbornness and pride.
Maybe he could do some damage to the arena itself. Carve it up with some ugly repulsor blasts, destroy some expensive equipment. He cheered up a little just thinking about it. Hit them in the pocketbook. They probably cared more about that than whatever minion he'd manage to get a hold of.
“Sounds like what Mojo was doing,” Clint said. He was perched on a table that seemed to serve as both repair bench and eating space. Not that Tony could judge, of course. “There certainly wasn't anyone chasing him down for pitting people against each other and threatening to blow up their planets.”
Peter cocked his head. “Is that what happened to Mojo? He met you guys? I'd heard he was out of business, but not why. Guess he bit off more than he could chew.”
“He put the control panel for his hover chair on the bottom, easily accessible!” Clint shook his head mournfully. “Sometimes I think supervillains exchange their brains for sponges when they turn evil. I mean, there I was—”
“Not now, Clint,” Natasha said. “How long has this been going on?” she asked the Guardians. She'd managed to nab one of the actual seats, a little personalized HUD projecting from its top to show her more details on the information Peter had pulled up on the main display. Tony was not jealous.
Gamora shrugged. “At least five years. That's how far back the media coverage goes, anyway. There are rumors it started before that, but nothing conclusive.”
“Lots of things happen out here that aren't supposed to,” Rocket waved a wrench at them from his pile of parts. “Officially, the fighters have contracts. Usually something along the lines of the arena will pay off their debts for a certain amount of service.”
“Steve doesn't have any debts, and I doubt Damage Control is getting any payments in Hulk's absence,” Tony pointed out.
“I'm pretty sure Odin would've said something if Thor had anything he needed to take care of,” Clint added.
“Like I said, that's the official story.” Rocket tossed a scrap of metal to the opposite corner. Even after ten minutes of watching and scanning, Tony still didn't know what he was building. “I'm sure you've all been around long enough to know the official story ain't never the truth.”
“Is there an unofficial story?” Sam asked.
“I am Groot,” Groot said, branch-arms sweeping back and forth, and Rocket nodded with a snort. Tony assumed this meant something, maybe something along the lines of there's always an unofficial story, possibly with a side of insults against Sam's intelligence. Or maybe it was a comment on the petulant way Clint kept fingering his arrows, or the meaning of life in the universe. It was hard to say, really.
“Just whispers,” Gamora said. “Few enough to be suspicious all on its own. Everyone hides something, but the Delruni arenas are either dangerously open or they cover their tracks very thoroughly.” Her eyes narrowed. “And no mention of Asgardian-style tech before you told us here. That's … unusual.”
“Asgard tends to do everything big,” Peter grinned. “Not a lot of hiding in shadows from those folks. Even Loki can't help but show his hand eventually.”
“You had no sense there was magic at work in this operation?” Wanda asked.
“How were we supposed to get that 'sense,' exactly?” Rocket shook his head. “You start talking about reality-distorting powers or things and most thoughts out here go to Thanos and the Infinity Gems, but this place was around long before that latest show-down, and we knew where they all were then.”
The tension in the room ratcheted up a bit, but no one said anything about the frankly embarrassing scuffle they'd had in the streets of New York, so Tony was going to mark that as a cautious success in inter-team relations.
“What's the security like?” he asked.
“You don't need to worry about that,” Peter said.
“What?” There was always security to worry about. “There's no way a galactic tourist attraction doesn't have some hefty security, especially a place that holds superheroes against their will,” Tony said.
“We'll take care of it,” Peter said. “I think, for this particular mission, it'll be better if you guys just focus on getting your people out. We'll take care of everything else.”
“We didn't come out here so that we could rush in blind,” Sam protested. He shifted far enough away from Drax that Tony could see his crossed arms, the determined tilt of his frown.
“You said you'd show us the best route,” Tony pointed at Peter. “This was not part of the deal.”
“We'll get you there,” Peter promised. He had his hands up now, placating. “We didn't know the attack details before. That changes things. They know who you are, so your ship's probably not the best bet.”
“I don't see how your ship is any less conspicuous than ours,” Sam waved at Drax's hulking shoulders, at Groot, bent over whatever it was Rocket was doing. “You guys don't exactly keep a low profile.”
“Sure, but the Guardians aren't famous goody-two-shoes like you guys,” Rocket said. “We just do things, and sometimes people hear about them, sometimes they don't. Sometimes the things we do don't make it to the realm of 'official' stories and children's play-toys.”
“What Rocket means is that no one's going to be surprised to see us there, whether we're on a job or just there to see the show.” Peter leaned back, his arms braced against the ship control panel. “We can get you past security before anyone recognizes you, and we can make sure you've got a ride out when you're done getting your friends back.”
They were a little conspicuous, Tony had to admit. And much as he wished otherwise, just barging in on a situation they had almost no intel for probably wasn't the best plan. Steve would probably take Peter's help. Steve would be glad of the offer. He'd probably say something like “We'd appreciate that.”
Tony wasn't Steve, and he still wasn't used to factoring more than the Avengers into his plans. The Guardians' help would smooth over the early stages, but it could create problems too. Their teams didn't have a particularly stellar (hah) history of working together. None of his team looked comfortable here, and making a hyperspace jump in the Guardians' ship, without their own transport to fall back on... But Peter was right, too.
They'd make it work. They'd have to.
“Okay,” he said. “But I want to make the initial jumps in the Avengejet. Maybe we can't take it all the way to the planet, but I'd feel better if we could bring it to the edge of the system, at least.” And if things went really bad he could use the armor's homing signal to bring it closer. Not that the Guardians needed to know that.
“Sure,” Peter shrugged. “You'll want to stay close, especially for the last jump, but your cloak should be good enough to fool the outer sensors.”
“Good,” Tony nodded. He could see some of the tension flowing out of Natasha's shoulders, and Clint leaned back a little more loosely. He wasn't the only one with concerns, it seemed. “I also want more information,” he said. “The more we know, the more we can do if something happens.” With this many people involved, something always happened. There was no point in hoping everything would go according to any plan they made. “I want everything you've got on the place. Official records, rumors, media coverage, all of it. What you sent earlier is barely more than an encyclopedia entry. I know you've got more than that.”
Peter looked to Gamora with a little jerk of his chin, one eyebrow arched.
“Of course,” she agreed, tapping something on her screen. “I'll beam what we've found to your ship's computer.”
“Okay then.” There was a beat of awkward silence. How did Steve always manage to wrap up meetings like this? Tony was pretty sure anything else that came out of his mouth was just going to be insulting.
“We'll see you in a few hours.” Natasha stood and started making her way to the door and Tony nodded gratefully, edging carefully around roots and spare parts to unknown machines and gesturing for Wanda to precede him. Sam and Clint followed, also suspiciously quiet, and Tony realized he was waiting for Thor's booming voice to break the silence, or for Hulk to push Clint to the back of the group and the bickering to start up with a vengeance after a whole thirty-four minutes of holding their tongues.
Or at least, nothing until Avengejet airlock sealed shut behind them with a quiet hiss of air. Then Clint threw himself in his usual seat and started talking almost immediately.
“Did you see the way Groot kept looking at me? I'm pretty sure he and Rocket were making fun of me the entire time.”
“Not everything is about you, Clint,” Natasha told him from the communication station. Then she smirked over her shoulder. “That probably was though.”
Clint crossed his arms and hunched his shoulders, pouting theatrically at her.
“'You don't need to worry about that,'” Sam repeated. “Do they think we're just totally incompetent or something?”
“They're offering to help,” Tony said as he ran through pre-jump checks for the nav systems. “We might never have found the place without them. We could try showing a little gratitude.”
“They're going to hold this over us forever,” Clint complained. “'Hey, remember that time we helped you get half your team back because you couldn't do it yourself?'”
“As long as we do get them back, isn't that—” The comm screen flashed an incoming transmission and Tony cut himself off to accept it.
“Ready, Avengers?” Peter asked.
A list of coordinates popped up next to him and Natasha nodded. The others buckled themselves in—Clint gave him a thumbs up and Sam pulled out his StarkPad. Wanda looked like maybe she was meditating again.
“Ready,” Tony confirmed.
“Alight then,” Peter grinned. “See you on the other side.”
* * *
Much as Tony hated to admit it, they really had needed the Guardians' help, even just to reach the Epsilon Pegasi system. It wasn't just a series of hyperjumps, there were asteroid belts to navigate, space gates to pass through, systems with automatic defenses that required passcodes they never would've been able to find in time. By the time they finally arrived, the atmosphere on the Avengejet had become just as loaded with unspoken fears and frustration as the Guardians' bridge had been. He was almost grateful to put the ship in lockdown and move over to the Guardians' cargo hold. At least it was a larger space. Tony was starting to feel just a little claustrophobic in a way that had nothing to do with the armor and everything to do with the consistent failure of reality to match up with his expectations of larger-than-life teammates looming up behind him. In more space, maybe he wouldn't be quite so surprised to turn around and not find himself face-to-chest with Thor or Hulk.
The rest of the flight was quiet and tense. They had a few hushed conversations about new details gleaned from Gamora's collection of reports, full of clipped words and dragging pauses as they realized none of it was immediately helpful. What did it matter who had won last year's grand tournament? They didn't care about discount ticket prices or upcoming attractions that didn't involve their teammates. The scant information they could find on other combatants checked out against the official story. Contracts. Sponsorships. Some had even gone back home after a while, resting on their laurels and basking in whatever fame they'd managed to garner.
Eventually they just stopped talking about it. There really wasn't much to do but wait.
Peter was thoughtful enough to provide them with a view of the route and their progress along it, but it still seemed to take an interminable amount of time to make it to the inner ring of planets. Tony caught himself holding his breath every time a patrol ship slid silently by.
And then they were there. Delrun.
It loomed large in the view-screen, the lights of docking ships and tourist services bright even under the shadows of its three moons. But the brightest cluster of lights was the arena. The thing was practically neon even from space.
“It's huge!” Sam craned his neck, as if he could somehow get a better angle on a crystal-clear holo-projection.
“You're sure you can get us in?” Tony asked. He clenched and unclenched his jittery hands. He wanted to be moving, but pacing hadn't helped when they came aboard, and now that the Guardians were in the same room with them again he'd probably end up running into Groot, or stepping on Rocket's paw or something.
“Yeah, yeah, of course we're sure, stop worrying Stark, we went all respectable and got you tickets,” Rocket sneered. “No one will even blink at you as long as you don't act like a total backwater dweeb.”
“They might need some help with that,” Gamora drawled over the comm system.
“I am Groot.”
“Right yes, you stare too much,” Rocket said. “Believe me, a gaggle of humans is going to stand out way more than say, our group would. And he is definitely going to get noticed.” He pointed at Tony. “Robots and androids and drones aren't so uncommon out here but you don't move right. And if they know what your Captain America looks like, they probably know what you look like too.”
“Well, we are human,” Clint said. “That's not something we can really help much.”
“You can if you have disguises,” Peter said with a wink. Groot and Drax loomed behind him, mildly terrifying helpful smiles on their faces and strange bundles of fabric and tech in their arms.
Natasha shifted into something just shy of a fighting stance. “I'm going to regret turning down that SHIELD assignment, aren't I,” she sighed.
As it turned out, the Guardians' ideas about disguises were disappointingly low-tech. A helmet that made Natasha look like she had some actual feline DNA spliced in somewhere. A cloak with a deep hood that hid most of Sam's uniform but left the beak-like visor visible. A feathered purple mask and plumed hat for Clint. Peter insisted the ensemble was the height of fashion on Delrun, but Tony was pretty sure he just wanted to put Clint in feathers. From Clint's expression, he was pretty sure of that too. Wanda took one look at the suit Drax offered her and magicked up her own solution—one of the Delruni. And for Tony, Rocket offered up a gadget that would supposedly make him look like a service bot to security scans, with the added feature of a holographic paint job.
“You are not sticking that to my armor,” Tony told him, arms crossed.
“What, you want to set off every alarm in the place as soon as you step through the doors?” Rocket asked. “Cause if this is a guns blazing mission all you had to do was say so. I got way more interesting toys for that.”
“That's the back-up plan,” Peter said. “And Iron Man, you really will set off all the alarms. That thing in your chest would probably set them off even if you weren't wearing the armor. This is the best idea we've got.”
“Fine,” he allowed, grimacing as Rocket pressed the thing against the chest plate, right under the arc reactor. The things he did for Steve.
Clint snorted. “You look like a steel C-3PO knock-off.”
“And you look like a tropical bird,” Tony said with a glare.
“Oh, good,” Rocket patted the device. “It covers everything. For a second there I thought you might just be walking around with a giant target on your back.”
Tony reached back to check the shield was still secure. It wasn't as though the thing came with a carrying case, and Steve would need it.
“Thanks,” he said, grudging. Rocket just snorted.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” he waved, already moving on to poke and prod at something Drax tried to wave him away from.
Tony turned back to the vid screen and tried to ignore the thread of worry snaking through his thoughts—the idea that Steve might not be in any shape to fight, that Carol and Hulk were both prime candidates for experiments he didn't want to think about and the super soldier serum had always been on that list too. It was an arena. There were posters. Secret science experiments, cliché as they might be for aliens in flying saucers, didn't match up with a galactic pit-fight attraction.
They passed the last ring of patrol ships, the planet looming ever larger, the glow of the arena complex separating into individual lights.
If only they had more information. Usually by now he'd have at least three different ideas for every possible outcome but with this there were too many unknowns. Just a big cloudy obstacle in his thoughts, full of questions with no answers.
He hated not knowing things.
Someone jostled his shoulder and he realized he'd crossed his arms, his hands clenched into fists.
“You okay?” Peter asked, sotto voce. “I know this can't be easy, but you seem …” he trailed off.
“I'm fine,” Tony said. He tried to relax his shoulders at least. The rest of the team didn't need him broadcasting his worry.
“He's just mad his boyfriend got kidnapped by aliens right before their big date,” Clint said. He didn't even look up from his arrows.
“It was a date,” Tony sputtered, “there was no special significance—what?” The Guardians were staring at him.
“You guys are dating?” Peter asked.
“Yes?” It couldn't be that surprising, could it? Clint had been the only member of the team to have any sort of real reaction to the news—Thor's booming congratulations didn't count—and he'd mostly just wanted them to stop making out in the common areas. (Steve had been disappointingly in favor of that concession, at least when the rest of the team was around.)
“That explains a lot,” Rocket said.
“I am Groot.” Groot nodded solemnly.
“Don't worry about it,” Peter said, clapping Tony on the shoulder. “I'm sure you guys will have a great time.”
“I'm not—of course we'll—who is even flying this thing, aren't you supposed to be talking to security officials or something?”
“Gamora can handle it,” Peter waved dismissively. “She always gets better rates than me anyway. I can't decide if she just has better negotiations skills or if it's because everyone's terrified of her.”
“It's because no one cares about your code name, Star-Lord,” she told him, exasperation clear even over the comm line. “You waste too much time trying to convince people to use it.”
“Oh look, we're docking,” Peter waved at the view screen, ignoring Rocket's snickering. “Any last minute questions? Concerns? Rocket gave you the tickets?”
Natasha held up the thin strips of polymer.
“Better give them to the Scarlet Witch,” Peter nodded at Wanda. “She looks native, they'll expect her to do the talking.”
“You'll be fine,” Peter assured her. “They want people to come here. Just tell them you're vacationing from the outer colonies or something.”
The ship settled into the waiting space smoothly, and Peter switched off the viewscreen and bounded over to the cargo bay door. Tony wished he could feel a bit of that excitement instead of the churning dread in his stomach. If they were caught before they even get past the gates, if they couldn't find wherever it was the fighters were kept, if they couldn't find one of their teammates, if, if, if …
He squared his shoulders and forced the doubts to the back of his mind. Move forward, not back. They could do this. They had to.
The others formed up around him, Natasha and Clint on his right and Sam on his left, Wanda slipping into place on Sam's other side.
“Let's kick some Delruni butt,” Clint said.
“They won't know what hit them,” Sam agreed.
“Remember,” Peter said as the door slid open, “just concentrate on finding your people. We'll take care of everything else.”
Two steps off the platform and Tony was already horribly, pathetically certain that just finding their missing teammates in this mess was going to be more than enough to worry about. Not that they couldn't have handled it all if they had to, of course, but this wasn't New York, it wasn't Earth, it was a riot of color, noise and alien tech. He spent a good five minutes distracted by the effort of blocking incoming advertising transmissions to the armor (how did they even get in in the first place? Maybe he should've spent more time on software than hardware) and prioritizing the scans to focus on architecture and electric systems instead of the cyberized specifications of nearly everyone they passed.
By the time he was able to spare attention for more than interior systems and making sure he didn't run into anyone they were through the security checkpoint and walking down a long hall of shops and kiosks. Wanda carried Strange's crystals at the head of their makeshift mess of a group, sometimes hesitating at a crossroad or stopping to close her eyes. Tony would swear she was listening to them, but he didn't really want to think about how much this mission probably depended on her magic. He turned his attention to the inside of the arena instead, trying to find some sort of reasonable, scientific clue that might give them a lead. A lead that wasn't based on one mutant woman's grasp of chaos.
The walls and ceiling were carved out of a stone he didn't recognize, intricate designs etched into archways and columns, and the merchants spoke languages the armor couldn't hope to translate but Tony somehow understood anyway. They practically pounced on anyone who even vaguely glanced in their direction, hawking a disordered combination of relics and tech, what looked like purple fruit alongside blocky lumps of unpolished precious stones and tiny hovering drones. No one seemed to find their group suspicious, though, and not even the most eager merchants looked at Tony. It seemed service droids weren't classed as prospective customers.
“Cover me,” Natasha murmured, and peeled off into the shadowy space between a food vendor and a booth stuffed full of devices Tony itched to get his hands on. Clint leaned against the food counter and started chatting with the proprietor while Sam poked experimentally at what looked to Tony like a more portable version of the shield generator on the Guardians' ship. Maybe he could get Peter to buy one for him after all this was done.
He edged closer, cataloging the shop's inventory. They could come back, maybe. Intergalactic relations, know-thy-enemy, there were all sorts of reasons they could come back. Or another trading port, this place was for tourists, Peter or Rocket would have to know—
An alert blinked urgently at him, breaking through his musings. Steve's Avenger's card was back online, and Carol's too. Both signals came from less than 800 meters away. Tony set the armor to figuring out more specific location details, opened the cards' comm links and hoped.
“Cap! Steve, can you hear me? Warbird, you there?”
No answer. Tony bit his lip. There were any number of reasons they might not be able to answer. But the card had to be on them. The signal wouldn't send without a corresponding biosignature.
But just in case.
“I gotta say, Cap, as far as reasons for being stood up go, 'I got kidnapped by aliens' is a new one for me. Trust you to find a totally blameless excuse for missing dinner.”
Still nothing. But the cards were moving now. Side by side.
Energy readings for the entire range of the armor's sensors spiked, and Tony stumbled a bit, trying to figure out what was happening. Vid screens popped on, the arena logo flashing at him, and then—
“Now, in Pit 13,” boomed a voice of some sort of loudspeaker, “Honored Guest Vladirik faces off against that illustrious Earth duo, the fearsome Warbird and avenging Captain America!”
And there they were. A little pale, maybe, but not injured. Tony could at least be thankful for that. Carol floated at Steve's side, The determined set of her jaw just a touch more angry than Steve's stoic glare, but instead of the furry blue thing in a force field they were facing off against someone red and scaly with long claws on each of his six fingertips.
And fire, that was definitely fire glowing in his palms.
“Well, that looks familiar,” Clint said, but Tony wasn't really listening. Steve didn't have the shield. He didn't even have boots—
Vladirik leaned back and threw a ball of flame straight at Steve's face.
Steve was already moving, but there was no way he could simply out-run the blast zone, not in such a small space. The impact of the flame on sand lifted him off his feet, and—Warbird caught him. They arced over the other half of the arena and dove toward the ground again, dropping to the packed earth of a raised platform.
There were little darts following them, and Vladirik was stalking forward, the flames growing higher around him.
“This way!” Tony said, and took off running before any of the others responded. The screens were on practically every flat surface, but there had to be a live version somewhere. Surely—door. He tried the handle and it opened smoothly onto a stairway landing. He shot up to the next level without bothering with the stairs themselves. 600 meters. There was a sign for pit 13 on the wall, “Warbird and Captain America vs. Vladirik” blinking a bright blue underneath it. One more level.
“Tony—” Sam called, but Tony was already airborne again. They could get this over and done with now, there was no point in waiting any longer. He pushed open the last door and stepped into the stadium.
And there they were, in the flesh, dodging around boulders and vaulting over expanses of sand.
He really wished Steve had the shield. It wasn't doing anyone any good strapped to Tony's back.
Still, that was a problem he could fix. He tore his eyes away from the fight and focused on the stadium.
The HUD told him there were shields over the arena itself, but that was no problem. There would have to be a switch somewhere, or if all else failed he could simply overload them.
“I'm going to try to compromise the upper barrier,” he told Steve and Carol. Not that they showed any sign they was hearing Tony. They were a little busy.
The others came through the door behind him in a jumble of limbs and crooked hats and flapping cloaks.
“What are you doing?” Sam asked, but Tony was already moving again. The armor calculated the most likely weak point to be just at the edge of the crowd, in an alcove halfway between where he stood and the arena itself. He forced himself to jog instead of flying, slipping around knots of cheering aliens and taking the steps down two at a time.
There was a guard a few levels down from the alcove, but he seemed well distracted by the fight. Tony slipped into the tight space and hoped his disguise held. Getting captured himself was not part of the plan.
It wasn't a power node or a control station, not the sort he was used to anyway. There was no sign of anything like electricity being used at all, just a shimmering jumble of symbols and random stones and feathers and crystals.
“Wanda, I'm going to need some help here.” He turned back to the stairs to wave her over. A purple glove clamped around his wrist and Clint hauled him around.
“What are you doing?” he whispered.
“You're going to blow the whole mission!” Sam hissed over Clint's shoulder.
“Steve and Carol are right there,” Tony protested. “Wanda gets rid of the barrier, I can go grab Steve, Carol's fully capable of getting herself out, they'll probably know where Hulk and Thor are. Done! Mission over, everyone goes home.”
“And how many guards and annoyed fans do you think are going to be on our tails and blocking our way if we do that?” Sam asked
“That guy has some kind fire-energy-bolt power that turns boulders into powder and Steve doesn't even have his shield. He's going to get himself hurt, how will that affect the mission?”
“Dude, chill,”Clint said. “Cap's fine. He hasn't got a scratch so far.”
“Natasha's working on getting more complete blueprints,” Sam insisted. “You and I can both track their Avengers cards. When the fight's over we'll figure out where they're holding all the fighters. That's how we'll get everyone out of here.”
Tony shook his head. That was exactly the sort of waiting game that would screw them in a situation like this.
“The cards didn’t come online until right before the fight. Wherever they're being held, the cards don't work there—”
The barrier flickered, and Tony spun back to look at alcove. Wanda had apparently moved on with his plan while they argued. Her two real hands glowed crimson, and the symbols were darkening, the shimmer fading. One of the feathers looked burnt.
“It's working,” he turned back to Clint and Sam, then to the arena. “Can you hear me Cap? Warbird? The barrier should be destabilizing. Any second now.”
And now he was pretty sure Steve could hear him, because he shouted something at Warbird and leapt for one of the little target drones, completely ignoring Vladrik's posturing and fire-waving. He pointed the drone at the force-field as the beam fired again, the blast splashing green over the faintly blue dome. Then Warbird slammed her shoulder into the same spot and long cracks appeared, jagged and black-edged. One more round from the drone and the whole barrier dissipated like smoke.
Tony was half-way down the stairs before he realized Clint and Sam weren't trying to hold him back anymore. They were shouldering through the crowd, pressing closer as the more prudent of the spectators tried to make it to the exits. He switched over to the Guardians' channel.
“Guardians, we've had a change in plans,” he reported.
“What's going on?” Peter asked. “All the fight showings just went down.”
“Tony got a little creative with the mission parameters,” Sam reported. “The pit 13 barrier's down, the fighters are lose.”
The guards were definitely paying attention now, some of them urging the crowd up and away from the pit and others stalking forward, staffs raised and sparking. Warbird punched one of them straight in the snout and used his staff to disarm two more. Then she dropped back to the sand and gave Steve a boost up to the stadium level, just in time for him to sweep aside some reinforcements.
Peter's swearing was almost enough to make Tony wish he'd thought to warn them sooner. Whatever. They'd cope. Rocket had wanted to blow things up anyway.
Some of the guards were sprouting arrows, and Tony was pretty sure at least a few of them fell victim to the shock of Natasha's wristbands. The time for disguises was probably past, and Steve needed his shield.
He launched himself up out of the crowd and dove for the pit in time to see Steve knocked back into it by a beam of purple light, too-like the original teleport beams for Tony's peace of mind. And then there were more beams, chasing Warbird as she dodged through the air, now over the stadium, now over the pit.
He scanned the crowd, the guards, trying to figure out the point of origin, but it was no use. Their best bet until they could find whatever that was was just to get everyone in a defensive formation and hold on until the guards were all down or the Guardians showed up, whichever came first.
“I'm gonna deliver Cap's shield,” he told the others. “Falcon, see if you can figure out where those purple blasts are coming from, that's our primary target.”
“You got it,” Sam replied. Tony caught a glimpse of red wings off to his left.
“Bogey on your four o'clock, Iron Man,” Clint reported, and Tony turned just in time to take a drone shot as a glancing blow instead of a straight-on attack. It was still enough to set the armor off-course, alarms blinking at him.
“Oh for—” he flipped upright and blasted the thing, but it veered out of the way. He powered up both repulsors and tried again. This time it took the brunt of the attack full-on and crashed satisfyingly to the stone stadium flooring.
“Much better.” He swerved back to the pit, keeping an eye out for more drones, more purple beams and—and Steve was laughing at him. Laughing at him and not paying sufficient attention to his surroundings, Tony was sure.
“If you get hurt now I will have no sympathy for you,” he sniped down the comm line. “Do you hear me? None whatsoever.”
“You're not exactly looking like yourself, you know,” Steve answered, which, okay, fair point. Tony wasn't sure what a flying service droid looked like but it probably wasn't nearly as sleek or intimidating or fashionable as the armor. But hey, Steve was smiling at him from over the cowering form of Vladrik, now apparently without firebending powers. There were a lot of things Tony would sacrifice for that smile. Fashion wasn't even high on the list.
“I've got a special delivery for you,” he said, landing in the sand with a hop. He reached back for the shield. “You should really be more careful with your things.”
“I'll keep that in mind,” Steve said, grinning. But then his grin fell, and he was bounding forward, focused on something behind.
Tony turned to see a Delruni in a dark cloak, a little shorter than the guards, but all four hands glowing faintly violet as they sketched shapes in the air. He powered up the repulsor in his free palm again.
“You, I think I do want to hurt,” he said. “You—”
“Get down,” Steve yelled, and then his shoulder slammed into Tony's chest and Tony found himself stumbling backward as another wash of purple light rippled toward him.
Steve wasn't going to get out of the way in time. Tony reached for the shield again, but it had jolted out of his hand, too far away now to do either of them any good.
The light washed over Steve, and he was gone before Tony could even say his name. He couldn't even see the steady blip of Steve's Avengers card in the HUD anymore. For a moment he just stared at the space where Steve had been.
Then he rolled back to his feet, and charged. The figure was already dodging Clint's arrows and holo-blades from Sam's wings, the attacks apparently coming too fast for them to complete another spell.
Well, that was fine with Tony. He launched off the sand and fired a few rounds of repulsor blasts into the sand around the spell-caster's feet. They stumbled, slipped.
By the time they hit the ground, Tony was there, one powered-up palm just inches from the scaly snout poking out of the hood. Natasha dropped beside him and secured the creature's hands with a few efficient motions. The last of the guards went down to one of Carol's punches and the rest of the team closed ranks around him.
“You seem to have some rather familiar moves,” Tony growled. “We'd like to talk about your recruitment strategies.”
“Yeah, we hear there have been some violations of interplanetary peace accords,” Sam added. “Something about kidnappings and forged contracts?”
“And discrimination against unpowered combatants,” Clint quipped. “Let's not forget that.”
“Clint,” Natasha sighed. How she managed to convey her affectionate disgust without even twitching Tony would probably never figure out.
“She's not going to tell you anything,” Warbird spoke up. “Did you really think you could just walk in and demand answers? Nobody here cares about treaties or human rights or any of that. They wouldn't be here if they did.”
“You should listen to the fighter,” the Delruni said. “All you're doing here is wasting your own time. Soon reinforcements will arrive, and then you'll have all the answers you could ever want, even to questions you haven't thought of yet.”
“There might be some issues with that,” Tony told her. He yanked the disguise hologram node off the armor and punched up a display of the footage Rocket was streaming over the comm link. The Guardians' diversions were working beautifully. “It looks like whoever does security for this place has really been falling down on the job. Such a shame.”
She narrowed her eyes at him.
“You're the rest of that team Sorcerer Magnus was going on about. With the monster and the Asgardian.”
“That's us,” Clint told her. “Heroes for all occasions, even interplanetary kidnappings.”
“Especially when it involves our own people,” Sam added.
“So, important question for you,” Tony leaned closer. “What did you do with Captain America?”
“He's back where he belongs,” she sneered.
“He belongs with us,” Tony snarled back.
“It's the cavern, isn't it,” Natasha said, and the spell-caster's eyes darted over to her. “The one under the arena. That's where you keep the prisoners.”
The Delruni set her jaw and looked away.
“Well, that's clear enough,” Clint said. “How do we get in?”
“There is no way but by magic—” she started.
“There's a passage between it and each of the pits,” Carol interrupted, and the spell-caster's mouth snapped shut.
“Magic would probably be faster,” Sam noted.
“The teleportation spell requires an anchor,” Wanda noted. Only 4 limbs now; she must have dropped her glamour at some point. “Attempting to travel that way without careful planning could be disastrous.”
“Like, halfway inside a wall disastrous?” Sam asked, and she nodded.
“And we can't trust this one,” Tony said. “We'll have to get there the old fashioned way.”
Carol cocked an eyebrow. “What, walking?”
“No, blowing things up.” Tony gestured at the nearer door. “Hawkeye, Falcon, see if you can get that open.”
“What about her?” Clint asked, nodding at their fallen enemy.
“I can make certain she doesn't follow us,” Wanda volunteered. Her hands were glowing again.
“She's not human,” Tony reminded her, but Wanda just shrugged.
“It's not a matter of physiology.”
“Fair enough,” Tony said. He turned to Carol. “How're you holding up?”
“Glad to see you, definitely.” She elbowed him, not that he could feel it through the armor. “It's been a while since you had to come save me, yeah?”
“Have you learned anything about this place? The people that run it? The prisoners?” Natasha asked her.
“We were told some of the fighters have contracts,” Tony put in.
“Maybe some of them have contracts, but I certainly never saw one.” Carol grimaced. “I can't imagine anyone's here willingly.”
“Considering how they grabbed all of you, that does seem more likely,” Tony agreed.
Wanda joined them, the Delruni magician flat on her back and still in the sand.
“I cannot guarantee she will not be revived, but we should have time to look for your friends,” she said. “Provided, of course, that this sorcerer Magnus doesn't take too close an interest in us.”
Tony tried not to think about that too hard. Hopefully Steve, Hulk and Thor would be easy to find. The roster of fighters they'd seen had been … lengthy.
“Have you heard of him before?” he asked.
“No, but he is likely the illusionist who concocted your teammates' capture,” Wanda frowned. “The Delruni's interest in the Avengers is evident enough, but I cannot think why your team was targeted specifically. There are many closer options, if they needed new prisoners.”
“So you think there's another reason.”
“Yes,” Wanda confirmed.
Great. Well. First things first. Maybe his repulsors or Carol's strength could help with the door.
“Got it!” Clint yelled before Tony could suggest anything. The door was cracked open, a foot of dark hallway showing through.
“Didn't even have to blow anything up,” Sam added. Natasha just shook her head.
“Come on,” she motioned to Carol. “Someone has to show the boys the way.”
* * *
If Tony had ever had any single thought to criticize Natasha's intelligence-collecting abilities (which he hadn't, obviously) it would have vanished by the end of their trek through stretches of featureless stone tunnels. The armor couldn't get a good scan on anything, and from Sam's puzzled expression he wasn't getting anything either, and yet she and Carol led them unerringly, without even pausing at intersections.
Natasha had a mind like a steel trap, clearly. Maybe a vibranium trap. That would be more spy-appropriate, probably. Incredibly strong, extremely deadly, and utterly, entirely silent.
“This should be it,” she said, stopping in front of a door that, as far as Tony could tell, was no different from any of the innumerable other doors they’d already passed.
Carol kicked it open and led the way into what was presumably her former prison.
“Oh, craptastic,” Clint said. “How the hell are we supposed to find anyone in this?”
It wasn't like any prison Tony had ever seen before. There were no bars, no cameras or cells or forbidding guards in uniform. The air was warm and humid, and practically everything he could see was either green or brown. It was a forest. A jungle with people as tree ornaments, or some sort of weird fruit or something. Some of the people he saw looked like the tree-cell they were held to had actually grown up around them, making a perfectly matched depression for them to fit into. One alien had only their face visible, and Tony couldn't tell if the iridescent jewels over their tall forehead and down their long nose were supposed to be part of their skin or were this mess of vegetation's idea of flowers.
There was no way to know quite how big it was, either. Initial scans fizzled out only just beyond what he could see.
“The plans indicated a space taking up several square miles,” Natasha told them.
It would be impossible to find their teammates in this just looking from tree to tree. And of course, a quick check revealed that Steve's Avengers card still wasn't working. Neither was anyone else's. At least their radios still seemed to be functioning.
“Split up?” Sam suggested. “There's no way we can cover all this in one go otherwise.”
“Teams of three,” Tony suggested. “Two fliers and one spy each—”
“I call Falcon!” Clint raised his hand.
“—and we'll meet back here in 20 minutes if we haven't found anything,” Tony finished, glaring at him. Not that Clint could see that through the helmet, but it was the thought that mattered. “Sam and I should be able to keep track of the distance we've covered and put together some sort of map if we need to.”
“The Scarlet Witch and I can probably cover more ground on our own,” Carol suggested. “We can take the outer edges, not so far we're off your maps, but enough to extend the search area.”
Wanda nodded. “I should also be able to find each of you, should I need to, now that I'm familiar with your auras.”
Tony tried not to cringe too obviously. Auras. Really. It was too much.
“Radio check-in every 5 minutes,” Natasha ordered. “If any one of us doesn't check in, we all come back here to regroup.”
“Yes, fine,” Tony sighed. It was the sort of mother hen thing Steve would've insisted on. Annoying, but ultimately safer, especially in an unknown environment like this one.
“I'll go on the other side of Hawkeye and Falcon,” Carol said. “I don't suppose you have an extra radio for me?”
Natasha handed her one.
“Everyone good?” Tony asked as Carol tucked the device into her ear. They all nodded. “Okay then. Team bird-names on the right, Team uh—red? On the left.”
They took off, Clint somehow perched on Sam's back and Natasha standing primly on Tony's boot. He thought about locking the armor joints in his right arm to hold her in place and thought better of it. She wouldn't thank him for that.
Carol gave him a little salute before sweeping off on her own, Wanda following her lead with a flash of red light on his other side. Tony tried to tell himself that it really was the best plan. They needed to cover a lot of ground. They needed to find three particular people. And they probably needed to do it fast, before anyone realized they'd gotten this far.
Still, flying under the canopy, dodging between trees took most of his concentration. It would've been nice to be able to really look, too. Instead, he set the armor scanning for anything that even looked like it could maybe be one of his teammates and put his trust in Natasha's eyes. If anyone could make sense of the dizzying expanse of forest, it would be her or Clint.
Ten minutes later, when none of them had found even a hint of Steve, Thor, or Hulk, he was starting to flag a little.
“Hey, I think this one's awake!” Clint reported. “Hey, yeah, you, we're looking for someone, any chance you've seen a guy in red and blue tights running around? Or a giant green monster who punches things? Or a god of thunder?”
Tony re-set the parameters on the armor's scan and tried to push it further, chewing on the inside of his lip as he waited for Clint's report. He really wished he knew what it was about the place that mucked up his diagnostics.
“He told me to go away and leave him alone,” Clint said after a minute. “You'd think the guy would want out of here.”
“It's hard to care about much when you're on the tree,” Carol told them. “There's something about it that just … makes you want to stay put. Every time I've thought about getting out I was in the arena.”
“Sounds like a drug,” Sam commented. “Or a compulsion maybe. Strange said one of these guys put a compulsion down to make sure You, Cap, Thor and Hulk would be in that fight. Who knows what else that kind of power could do.”
“Maybe,” Carol agreed. “I think—wait. I think I found him, I think I just saw Steve.”
Tony stopped in midair, hovering.
“Where?” he asked, shoulders tight, already trying to triangulate her position. No use. The scan results fizzled out less than 400 meters out.
“About … a mile and a half northwest of our starting position. Can you track the comm signal?”
“Not here, not for very far anyway,” Tony adjusted his grip around Natasha as the armor calculated the most likely region. “Stay there, we'll try to get closer.”
He set a course and flew faster, as fast as he could manage swinging around tree trunks and under drooping boughs, only slowing down when the HUD indicated he was within the area Carol should be. And with her, presumably, Steve.
It was a long few minutes of circling before Carol's communicator showed up on the armor radar. He followed the signal for a few heartbeats, then caught a flash of American flag out of the corner of his eye.
“Steve!” Tony pushed more power into his jetboots and swept around the curve of another small grove, chasing that hint of red, white and blue.
And there he was, hanging against the dark bark just like the others. Tony flew closer and set Natasha down in the grass next to Carol before pulling up to hover in front of him.
No response, even when he touched Steve face, shook his shoulder.
“I haven't been able to get a response from him,” Carol said.
He pushed at the vines, then pulled, but they refused to budge more than an inch.
“Come on, there's gotta be a way to get you out of here,” Tony muttered to himself. He tried a repulsor blast further up the tree, but the vine just jerked and tightened down again, all sign of the burn healing over in seconds. Natasha's knives and widow's bites produced similarly disappointing results.
“Damnit. I did not cross over 200 parsecs to be defeated by a tree. A tree that can't even talk.” Tony circled the thing, looking for weak points up and down the trunk.
“There must be a release of some sort,” Natasha opined. “He was in the arena not too long ago.”
Magic. Something to break the spell.
No. It was too ridiculous.
Still worth a shot.
Tony flipped up the faceplate and stabilized himself against the trunk. If this worked he might never hear the end of it.
He kissed Steve full on the lips before he could spend any more time thinking about what he was doing.
Still nothing. Even asleep Steve should've had some reaction. This was something else.
“Guess this isn't that sort of magic,” he said, clearing his throat a bit. His face felt a bit hot. He snapped the faceplate back in place.
“Just as well,” Natasha smirked. “We'd have to find someone willing to kiss Hulk.”
“Do not even joke about that,” Clint hollered over the comms.
Tony circled the tree again, studying the vines that held Steve in place. They didn't stop in the tree's crown. They kept going, up and up.
“Stay here,” he told Natasha. “I'm going to see if there's some sort of plug we can pull. Don't leave him alone for anything.”
“As if I would,” she retorted.
Tony shot up above the canopy and punched up every scan he could remember installing. The energy readings were—high. Much higher than the little peaks he'd been getting down in the forest. The network of intersecting vines looked like tracings on a motherboard, and they pulsed with an even, unified beat that corresponded with the energy fluctuations.
Or veins. A heartbeat.
“Warbird, think you can lend a hand up here?” he asked. She rose up through the leaves to hover beside him.
“What do you need?”
“The vines. They lead somewhere. They get energy from somewhere. Falcon, Hawkeye, can you get above the canopy? I think our real task is … higher.”
“Holy—I see it, Iron Man,” Falcon replied. “Tech seems to work better up here too. I'm getting a read on the armor and Warbird's comm and I know we're at least two miles away from you guys.”
“Try to find the connecting nodes,” Tony ordered. “If we can compromise those, maybe we can actually start getting people out of here.”
“License for destruction,” Clint drawled. “Thor and Hulk will be sad they missed out.”
“I'm sure we'll be able to find more things for them to hit,” Tony returned. “Let's make sure they're in a position to swing first.”
He followed the pulse of energy, Carol sweeping along beside him. There. A knot of vines, half-hidden by leaves but definitely different. Two energy patterns, both converging on that point.
“This is it,” he told Carol. “This is where the vines on Steve's tree are getting energy from.”
She dove lower while he scanned the thing. The 3D model the armor produced was a little fuzzy, but if the energy readings were right—
“There's something here,” Carol reported. “On the underside, it looks like … grass, maybe. Or ivy or something.”
Tony ducked down under the canopy again, bidding a sad farewell to the armor's renewed utility. The scans were back to not telling him much, but it certainly looked like a weak point. Wiring that could be ripped out, maybe.
He stuck one armored hand into the slim gap between two vines and tugged at the tendrils. They struggled, and that was just disturbing. He pulled harder, wrenching his handful out of the knot until they broke free entirely, falling limp in his grip. A spike in energy fluctuation, then nothing. He grabbed another handful, Carol reaching in beside him, and this time the whole knot shuddered, vines loosening and falling slack around them.
“Something's happening,” Natasha reported. “The restraints are moving, I think I can get him down.”
“Do it,” Tony ordered. “I'll be right there. Falcon, Hawkeye, look for knots. Destroy the stuff inside them, that's our best bet.”
“You got it, Iron Man,” Sam agreed, and Tony jetted back along his path, back to Steve.
There was a dull thump and a rustling of leaves, like the whole forest was shaking.
“Uh, guys?” Clint said. “I think we might have another problem.”
“What—” but Tony didn't have to ask, because a line of black dropped down from the canopy and tried to strangle him. By the time he'd gotten it off and assured himself it was truly down the trees were moving and bugs the size of his fist were crawling over the forest floor.
“Avengers, assemble on Cap's position!” Tony yelled, dodging more of the black things. The dead ones definitely still looked like vines, but they moved like snakes. They even hissed. He didn't want to know what they would do to his unarmored teammates. He took off again, swerving in sudden zigs and zags to avoid being hit by limbs the size Hulk's arm.
“Way ahead of you Iron Man.” Sam's voice was strained over the comm, but a moment later Tony saw a flash of red break through the canopy to his right: Falcon, with Clint clinging to him like a monkey. Somehow, Clint's hat was still attached to his head.
“Captain America secured.” Natasha sounded a little distracted, but they were all busy now. “Look out for the ones on the ground, they jump.”
“Noted.” Tony blasted one of the little things, only to have it jump out of the way before the shot hit. There was no sign of Wanda. Tony had to assume she'd heard the orders and was just … doing something magical probably.
“Scarlet Witch, if you can hear this, now is probably a good time to come find us,” he tried over the comm.
Nothing. Well then. First things first. Steve. Then they could look for Strange's student.
He banked around one more small grove and he could see Natasha, coolly shocking back everything that came within five feet of her position as Steve's guard.
Steve himself was crouched in the dubious shelter of a fallen tree, still barefoot and weaponless. Tony skidded to a stop next to him and flipped up the faceplate.
“Hi,” he grinned, watching an answering smile crinkle at the corners of Steve's eyes. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“About time you showed up,” Steve told him, poking at Tony's entirely-armored-and-therefore-not-tickleable ribs. “What was the hold-up, did Clint lose his glasses again?”
“I keep telling him he just needs to invest in a few more pairs, but does he ever listen? Also, we may be several hundred light-years from Earth and this place is huge. Just as a side-note.”
Steve's smile really was worth quite a few sacrifices on Tony's part. Maybe not quite another diner-level-date sacrifices, but still.
Then the man grabbed him by the shoulder and dragged him in for a kiss. Or at least, that was what would've happened, Tony was pretty sure, if Clint hadn't swung by Tarzan-style at the moment and nearly taken his head off.
“Watch it,” Tony yelled after him.
“Oh, I'm sorry,” Clint hollered back, balancing precariously on a so-far-non-threatening tree limb. “Were you two having a moment? Because believe it or not I think there are more important things happening right now!”
“One minute,” Tony grumbled. “The universe can't just give me one minute to work with here?”
The tree Carol was … there was no other word for it, she was beating it up, gave a creaking moan sort of noise as it toppled over.
“I dunno, Tony,” Steve teased. “That sounds perilously close to time travel talk. Weren't you saying that was logically impossible last week?” He'd managed to slide his shield off Tony's back and was already stepping out into the fray.
Tony sighed and flipped the faceplate back down. Mission first, proper reunions later. As always.
He shot back up to the canopy level and started shooting down the creeping black vines that were trying to catch his teammates by their ankles or wrists. Attacking trees. Some days he really wished his life was just slightly more normal.
“Where are they coming from?” Carol asked. She tackled a branch that was swinging at Natasha and broke it off. The tree just kept swinging, trunk twisting awkwardly. “Can we cut off the source or something?”
“Well, the vines come from the trees. The bugs also seem to come from the trees,” Clint said. “I hate to break the news here, but we are kind of surrounded by trees.” An explosive-tipped arrow blew a chunk out of some tree roots, sending beetles flying everywhere. A disappointing number of them kept scuttling when they landed.
Steve jumped onto Carol's felled tree and scrambled for higher ground, knocking vines and beetles both with his shield. One of the beetles latched onto his leg and he kicked it off with a grunt. Tony repulsored it while it was still in the air.
Steve was wincing a bit when he turned back.
“Fine,” Steve insisted. “I think those pincers have some sort of numbing agent in them.”
Right. Because that was nothing to worry about. Tony tightened his circle of defenses, swinging closer to Steve, who spared a moment of attention to glower at him.
“The serum will take care of it, Tony, I really am fine.”
“Uh huh.” Tony aimed carefully at a branch that was getting awfully close to knocking Sam out of the air and let loose a sonic attack. “What happened to your boots, anyway?”
“They took them away after the first time I got loose,” Steve admitted. He threw the shield in Carol's direction, taking out a few beetles that had managed to crawl up a tree trunk.
Tony tried to force sense out of that statement.
“I had a pair of those helper bots in them, for morning training” Steve explained, reaching out to catch the rebound. “That's how I got free.”
“That worked?” The helper bots were pretty simple; only a few functions and limited range. He'd designed them mostly for target practice or very basic file retrieval tasks.
Steve knocked aside another jumping beetle and back-flipped out of the way so Tony could blast a reaching vine out of existence.
“They don't always use the teleport beams. Sometimes there's just a guard escort. We were on the way back from the arena and I took a chance.”
“Risky,” Tony said, and was that Steve rolling his eyes at him? It totally was.
“You're one to talk,” he said.
“I have armor,” Tony reminded him. “You don't.”
“Yeah, because you definitely limit your risk-taking to times you're wearing the armor,” Steve retorted. “Didn't I catch you testing potentially explosive materials in the lab last month? I don't remember seeing any armor that time.”
“Are you guys going to stop bickering anytime soon?” Clint asked. “It's a little distracting.”
“Oh, let them be.” Carol turned and grinned at Tony. “They wouldn't know what to do with themselves if they couldn't push each others' buttons.”
“Maybe our fearless leaders could spare some attention for figuring out what to do about all this?” Sam complained. “We're getting nowhere, this is endless.”
“Captain America is barefoot in a hostile environment and you're not the least bit concerned?” Tony asked, but he stopped zig-zagging around and studied the movement on the forest floor for a moment. There had to be a pattern they can exploit. There was always a pattern.
Steve stepped up to help Natasha with a particularly persistent vine and a new collection of iridescent insects flushed toward them.
On the other side of their makeshift warzone, Sam clipped the canopy with a wingtip and only managed to stay flying thanks to a quick holoblade defense and a shot or two from Tony.
As long as he didn't touch anything, nothing moved in his direction.
“Everybody stop moving,” Tony ordered. “Pick a place and stay there if you can.” Steve froze, throwing motion arrested mid-turn, and Natasha went so still Tony almost lost track of her in the mess of falling leaves and swinging vines. Carol and Sam hovered in place, Sam offering a hand to Clint when his perch on a branch proved unstable no matter how little he moved.
The trees slowed, the vines curling without purpose. Even the beetles seemed uncertain. They were milling … there.
“It's the empty ones,” Tony reported. “Trees with no prisoners, some kind of proximity detection system.”
“Great,” Clint sniped. “How are we supposed to get anywhere if we can't move?”
“If we don't touch any of the boundaries...” Tony started, and Steve nodded agreement.
“We've got enough fliers,” He moved his arms experimentally, but nothing dropped out of the canopy to stop him. “As long as we can avoid touching the ground or the foliage, we should be fine.”
“That won't be easy with these things so close together” Carol said, but she was already offering Natasha her hand.
“Better than wading through,” Steve said. Tony decreased power to the boot jets until he'd sunk low enough that Steve could get a good grip on the armor. As soon as his feet left the ground the beetles rushed for their position. Tony concentrated on keeping Steve balanced instead of taking a few more repulsor shots. No need to drag this out any more than they already had.
“We should find Wanda.” He scanned for her communicator, but it wasn't in range. “We're probably not getting out of this place without more magic.”
“Wanda?” Steve frowned at him. “You don't mean the Scarlet Witch?”
“Strange sent her with us.” Steve probably knew him well enough to guess he was rolling his eyes, right? It wasn't like Tony'd ever made a secret of his feelings on mysticism. “Seemed to think we couldn't handle all this on our own.”
“I wonder where he got that impression,” Carol said dryly.
“Hey, Natasha was the soul of courtesy!” Tony protested. “I barely said anything.”
“He intimated that your reception of the foci he provided indicated a severe deficiency in magical understanding,” Wanda said, floating into their midst. Apparently her whole body glowed faintly red when she did that. It was only mildly unnerving.
“Can't really argue with that,” Sam agreed.
“Considering they're lumps of crystals with bugs and plants in them—” Tony cut himself off. “Why didn't you answer your comm? And why can't I get a scan on it now, did you—”
Wanda held out her hand and he stared mournfully at the broken pieces of the earpiece in her palm.
“I'm afraid it was damaged during my attempt to free one of your comrades,” she said. “Or at least, I assume he is one of your comrades. He is certainly from Earth, and his aura is … interesting. The spells should take hold soon, if you would like to see him for yourselves.”
Tony frowned. Thor was from Asgard and Hulk was pretty recognizable, but there wasn't any reason to assume these people hadn't captured other heroes from Earth too. It would make things more complicated, but they should still help.
“Take us to him, Miss Maximoff” Steve ordered.
“Of course, Captain.” She nodded and beckoned for them to follow.
Wanda had made it further than Tony expected. Their flight covered nearly a mile of dense forest, trees sometimes growing so closely together they had to skirt the entire section. Just as he was beginning to think she was lost the scenery around them changed: bigger trees, sturdier, taller. The prisoners were bigger too, some of them even bigger than Hulk. None of them responded to shouts for attention, and with each one they passed he adjusted his arm around Steve's torso, trying to hold him tighter without actually bringing the whole of the armor's strength to bear.
“Here,” Wanda said, speeding up slightly. There was a red and green glow ahead, and they swept around a looming grey shape that nearly blended in with the bark of its prison to find … Bruce Banner.
There were magic symbols carved all around him, and Strange's crystals pulsed urgently from the center of an intricate design at his feet, but it was definitely Bruce. Hulk's pants were held in place only by the too-thick wrap of his vine-shackles. Even as Tony watched his eyelids flickered, eyes opening to stare back at them blearily. The crystals gave one last flash of light and went dark. Another breath and the symbols around him went dark too, and the vines started to loosen. Wanda caught him before he actually fell and somehow managed to shrink his pants to a more Bruce-reasonable size at the same time.
“I believe we should be able to rest a moment here,” she said. “The foci have a minor neutralizing effect and will keep the defenses at bay.”
“And we could probably all do with a moment to really catch our breaths,” Steve agreed.
They settled back down to the forest floor, Sam and Carol's expressions of concentration mirroring Tony's own thoughts—if Wanda was wrong, they'd want to move fast.
Nothing sprang out to attack them. Steve slipped out of his hold and took Bruce from Wanda's grasp, checking him over. According to everything the armor could tell Tony, Bruce was fine.
“Dr. Banner,” Tony waved awkwardly. “I was starting to think we wouldn't be seeing you again.”
“Oh, you know me,” Bruce smiled wanly. “I never have had the best timing.”
“Wait, are you saying that's the Hulk?” Sam asked, and Tony had a brief moment of confusion before he remembered that Sam had never actually met Bruce. He'd pretty much been Hulk the entire time Sam had been an Avenger—the scientist behind the monster wasn't much more than a name in a SHIELD file to him.
“It's kind of a long story,” Bruce told him, wincing a bit as he straightened. “What mess have we gotten ourselves into now?”
“Oh, you know, kidnapped by aliens, gladiator fights, magic, nothing we haven't seen before except you know, usually not all at once.” Clint said, flippant. “Or, well, Big Green has seen them at least.” He frowned. “Man, I was looking forward to watching him smash this place up.”
“Are you alright?” Steve asked, ever the concerned leader. “They didn't ... force you to change somehow, did they?”
“No, no, I don't think they were expecting me,” Bruce said. He took Sam's proffered cloak gratefully. “The guards seemed pretty surprised anyway. But even the one with the magic, she couldn't get me to change back, so eventually they just left me alone.” He patted the tree trunk. “Whatever it is that keeps prisoners calm in these things is pretty strong.”
“Is it permanent?” Steve asked, and Bruce just shrugged.
“Guess we'll see,” he said. “That'd be pretty ironic, wouldn't it?”
Some of the tension bled out of Steve's shoulders and he guided Bruce over to a moss-covered rock to sit down. Nevermind that he should probably be sitting down himself, Tony thought, following. Sam joined them, holding out his hand to make proper introductions with Bruce, and Tony let the pleasantries fade into the background as he took stock of the team. Natasha was stretching a little, ignoring Clint's suicidal attempts to tickle her with one of the feathers off his hat. Carol hovered near Wanda's shoulder, watching her smudge out symbols and runes with motions that left flakes of ash floating in their wake. Steve was a solid presence at his side, hovering over an amused-looking Bruce. Tony opened up a small compartment in one of the gauntlets and offered Steve a radio. They should have brought more; Tony just hadn't expected Bruce instead of Hulk.
Still. Three teammates down, one more to go. The one that should have been the easiest to find, really.
“Any idea where Thor is in this mess?”
“I never saw him,” Steve gripped the shield tight and looked to Carol. “Did you?”
She shook her head. “I can't think they'd ever risk him in the pit. I don't think it would hold him.”
“Then why would they take him,” Clint asked. “I mean, that's what these guys do, right? Take people for pit fights.”
“That can't be the only reason,” Natasha argued. “This place is too elaborate to have entertainment as its only goal.”
“They may not have been interested in Thor himself,” Wanda said. She frowned and plucked at the end of one long glove. “The magic here, the level of power required to sustain a working this size and scope—no single magic user would be able to contain it. Even a group would require alternate sources of power.”
“Mjolnir,” Tony deduced. “They wanted Mjolnir as a power source.”
“That does seem the most likely scenario.”
“And you can't have Mjolnir without Thor,” Sam said. “Not unless you want him showing up uninvited and angry at some point.”
“So!” Clint clapped his hands. “Any ideas on where we might find him or his hammer? And please don't say search every tree or inside the creepy nest nodes because I don't even want to think about how long it would take to check every single one of those things.”
“No, the objects of power would need to be easily accessible in case of changes.” Wanda spun in a slow circle, eyes closed like she was trying to listen for a faint sound. “There must be a central location. It would be large, and likely nearby.”
“We could go back to the tunnels,” Carol suggested. “Use the crystals to find another likely place.”
“The plans I found are clearly marked,” Natasha disagreed. “The nearest rooms are guard barracks and supply closet.”
“Maybe they're labeled wrong,” Sam said, but Wanda was already shaking her head.
“If we had passed it I would have felt it, or at least felt the presence of its outer wards. But this,” she gestured at their surroundings, “this place was the only door that even hinted at significant magic.”
“You're saying it's in here with us somewhere?” Steve asked.
“It does seem most likely,” Wanda confirmed.
“The energy source,” Tony suggested. “The nodes get energy from somewhere, we could follow that path, see what we find.”
Steve looked from him to Wanda and okay, that rankled a bit. It was a good idea! It was the only idea they had. The Scarlet Witch might be their current expert on all things magical, but that didn't mean regular old logical thought couldn't carry the day.
“It will be easier to travel above the canopy as well,” Wanda said, and Steve nodded in agreement.
“Worth a shot. Lead the way, Iron Man.”
* * *
It was trial and error for a while, following the pulse of power from one knot of vines to the next, but they soon fell into a rhythm, the shared data from the armor and Falcon's visor giving them a clear (if not exactly direct) path that led them deeper and deeper into the space, further and further from their only known exit.
Tony was not looking forward to retracing their path. Especially not with whatever would probably be chasing them after they got Thor and his hammer out.
At least Thor would be loud. There weren't even any birds in this place. What sort of forest didn't have birds? The silence was getting to him. He switched outgoing comms to Steve's radio only.
“So, the way I see it, one rescue mission across the galaxy, life-saving heroics, I should get to pick where we go to dinner.”
Steve just shifted his balance slightly. Tony was about to try another topic when he finally spoke up.
“I dunno.” His tone was teasing. “I did push you out of the way of that teleport beam earlier. And I saved you from getting kicked in the head by Clint.”
“Several hundred light-years of travel, Rogers,” Tony pointed out. “I impersonated a C-3PO knock-off for you.”
“But you had help,” Steve returned. “And I'm pretty sure Clint's got you trumped in the disguise department.”
“Peter got a good laugh out of it.”
“The Guardians are here?”
“Mn. They're running distraction and keeping security occupied.”
Falcon changed course to follow their latest bearing and Tony veered to the right a bit.
“You really shouldn't leave like that, you know. I don't think the rest of the team deals with it very well.”
“Oh?” Steve sounded rather smug for a man whose continued health depended on Tony's ability to carry him over a murderous forest.
“They were so distraught they took to smothering me with mothering in self-defense.”
He chanced a glance to the side. Steve looked entirely too pleased at this pronouncement.
“You told them to do that didn't you.”
“You're an important part of the team, Tony. They know that.”
“How do you manage to be so insufferable from the other side of the galaxy? You're impossible.”
“Pretty sure that's you, Tony.”
“Does anyone else see that?” Clint asked, interrupting their chatter. “There's something … big … out there.”
Tony zoomed in on the visual ahead. There was something rising out of the mist, even above the canopy. He switched the rest of the outgoing comms back on.
“Copy that Hawkeye. Whatever that is, my readings say it's our most likely bet on a central location. The energy levels are increasing the closer we get.”
“I believe you are correct, Iron Man,” Wanda agreed. She held out Strange's crystals. They were pulsing steadily now, the tempo stepping up at regular intervals.
In a few minutes they could make out the shape of the thing, a truly colossal tree, towering over the rest of the forest, its top branches brushing the stone of the chamber ceiling.
“Great,” Clint said. “How the hell do we get into that?”
“We could always try the door,” Natasha said. Tony could hear her smirk. On closer inspection he saw it too: a stone archway protruding out of the trunk. There was some sort of pattern set into the wood under it, too.
“Fair enough,” he said, and adjusted his course to land in front of it. The dive felt longer than it should have, but up close the archway did appear very door-like. The pattern turned out to be a four-by-four grid of 15 tiles and one empty slot; each tile was painted in bright primary colors: A blue swirl, a red arrow, a yellow starburst and a green teardrop. There was even a handle carved into the wood beneath the lowest row.
Sam pulled on it experimentally. Nothing changed.
“No keyhole,” Carol observed.
“Some kind of puzzle, maybe?” Tony suggested. Steve was running his hands over the stones in the arch, presumably looking for weak joins.
“Probably a magical one,” Clint sighed. “Man am I looking forward to getting Thor back. He could just blow through this stuff, no problem.”
Steve stepped back and shook his head.
“I don't think that's an option for us here.”
“If it were merely a matter of power, it wouldn't hold him,” Wanda said. She touched one of the tiles and the red arrow on it turned white. She hummed to herself.
Fire sketched a pattern in the air before her, flared briefly and went out. All the tiles blinked white, then reemerged in a different order. Wanda tried the handle, but it still wouldn't budge.
“Perhaps ...” She stepped back and spread her hands wide, crimson flowing down her arms. The twisting red steam spread over the tiles, tendrils seeking purchase. And then they … went in somehow, like dust into a vacuum cleaner. The tiles rearranged themselves again and Wanda actually growled.
“Problem?” Steve asked.
“It does not behave like any magical lock I've encountered,” she admitted. “It consumes any power I employ to neutralize it. I'm not certain disabling it is possible without a specific ritual we have no way of discovering.”
“If there's was one thing I've learned being Captain America, it's that very few things are actually impossible,” Steve said. “And between the mutants, magic, alien technologies and Tony Stark, those boundaries are pushed on a fairly regular basis.”
“Such confidence,” Tony muttered, but he couldn't help the goofy smile tugging at his lips. Of course, now Steve was looking at him expectantly, so it'd be nice to have a few ideas about now. “You know what this reminds me of?” he asked, stepping close enough to touch the tiles. It was a rhetorical question but Bruce answered it anyway.
“Those little sliding puzzles with bits of a picture on them?”
“I was thinking sudoku, actually, but that works too.” He slid a yellow starburst tile sideways into the empty space, then flicked a blue swirl where it had been. Both tiles stayed white, the design just barely visible. “There are four of every shape except the arrow.” He shifted a few more tiles. If he was right—he was. There was a red arrow painted into the top left corner slot of the square.
“You're thinking we need to put one of each tile in a line,” Carol said, catching on. “Couldn't it also be all the same-colored tiles in one row?”
“If this doesn't work we'll try that next.”
He stepped back to check the pattern again and all the tiles flashed white; when they settled back to normal they'd all moved again.
“Looks like you're on the clock,” Sam said.
“Because of course there's a timer,” Tony sighed. But that was fine. He was right, he knew he was. Everything else was just speed, and that was easy enough to compensate for.
It took two more tries, but there was a rhythm to it and on the third attempt he found it. The last green teardrop slid into place and the grid flashed green.
He tried the handle and the door slid open obligingly, revealing a faintly illuminated tunnel.
“After you,” he waved at it, and Steve led the team into the dimness.
The low glow inside was just bright enough that Tony could still make out the tool-marks in the hewn wood. There was a noise too, growing in his skull, a kind of buzzing that set his teeth on edge. It made his neck tense and his eyes hurt, made him want to lash out, to break something with his bare hands. He was pretty sure he wasn't the only one hearing it either. Carol had her hands clenched into fists, and Sam kept rubbing his eyes.
“A repulsion ward,” Wanda murmured. “Weak, but still effective.”
“Keep going, Avengers,” Steve urged. He strode forward, shoulders straight and steps sure. If he was bothered at all, he wasn't showing it.
The buzzing rose with every step they took, an almost-noise, and he squeezed his eyes shut against it. Then, just as it became unbearable, the tunnel grew lighter and widened, opening into a circular, high-ceilinged area. Very high-ceilinged, Tony realized, taking in the graceful arches of spindly walkways and too-narrow stairs which wound up, around and across the area above them. There were runes up there too, like the ones that sometimes made themselves known on Thor's hammer. They glowed, mostly greens and blues with the occasional flash of red or violet. He couldn't see the ceiling from down here, though it was possible it was just obscured by the vague grey mist that hung over the place.
“Is this the tree trunk? It's hollow?” Bruce spun in a slow circle, staring up at it all. “How is it still alive?”
“I'll give you three guesses,” Clint said, “but my money's on 'magic'.”
The armor scans returned useless gibberish; not limited readings, the way they had before, just—unreadable. Simultaneous readings of high energy spikes and no power at all in the same space, records of radiation and ultraviolet light that were clear one moment and gone the next. Tony refocused on looking at what was actually in front of him. Trying to make sense of what the armor was feeding him would only give him a headache.
In the center of the room stood a series of pedestals, each surrounded by a shifting ring of swirling magic. Five objects, laid out like the points of a star. The magic soared above them, twisting and swooping in a climbing column that lit the entire space.
“Thor!” Sam glided over to one of the left-side points. Tony squinted through the glare. It was Thor, laid out on a raised platform, still in full armor. Mjolnir lay at his side.
“Well, that's not creepy at all,” Clint said, peering over his still form. “Is anyone else getting a bad feeling about this?”
Tony moved to examine some sort of orb, dark enough that it seemed to absorb some of the light from the spells around it. He circled it, ducking low to look under the little pedestal and keeping his hands behind his back. This looked a bit more complex than the map of pulsing energy in the forest prison. If that had been a circulatory system, this was the brain and heart combined.
“What do you think?” Steve asked, voice low.
“I think I'm tired of not knowing what's going on,” Tony murmured.
Steve sighed. “I meant about getting Thor out.”
“No idea, this is the realm of fairy dust and dreams.” He couldn't even read the inscriptions on these things. They were inside a tree. A tree that should not, when it came down to it, have this much space inside it. His hopes that the power transference system would lead to a problem he could tackle head-on were being systematically torn to shreds, despite his success with the door.
“How'd you get the barrier on the pit down?” Steve asked.
Tony nodded at Wanda. “Our lovely Scarlet Witch did that.”
“Okay, he is definitely not just sleeping,” Clint said, and Tony spun around.
Clint, it seemed, had no qualms about touching systems he knew nothing about. He'd reached through the glowing light and was poking at Thor's face with one finger.
“What are you doing?” Tony stalked over to him. “You could've set the whole thing cascading, who knows what that would do to him?”
“Nothing happened!” Clint said, defensive, but he did pull his hand back.
“We don't know how any of this works,” Steve said. “At the least you could've set off more alarms or another defense system.”
“Okay, I get it!” Clint slouched and fingered the fletching on one of his arrows. “You don't want me to touch him, I won't touch him.”
“You did no harm,” Wanda said. “This is a very stable ritual. It will take more than an inquisitive archer to disrupt it.”
“Hah!” Clint stuck his tongue out at them and Tony fought the urge to wipe that smirk off Clint's face by listing the implications of Wanda's statement. Steve just shook his head.
“What would disrupt it?” Natasha asked.
“I'm … not certain,” Wanda admitted. “I've never seen a working this complex. And the forces involved are quite formidable.”
“Great,” Sam groaned.
“What about all that?” Carol waved at the expanse of space above them.
“The runes are burned into the living wood.” Wanda touched a finger to one of the nearest shapes. It squirmed under her finger. “For these artifacts, they would need to bleed off power regularly,” she told them. “I will need to examine the underlying structure—”
“We can't just smash it? Blow it up?” Clint was already fiddling with his quiver, cycling through arrow-tips. “That works for everything else.”
“The forces involved—” Wanda wrinkled her nose. “Disturbing the foundations of this place could result in a maelstrom of magic.”
“That doesn't sound good,” Sam said, backing away from the axe he'd been examining.
“We would likely be torn apart before we could even attempt to rouse your comrade,” Wanda agreed.
“So what are we looking for?” Steve asked. Tony was pretty sure he was covertly staring at an engraved shield on one of the pedestals. He'd have to get a better look at that himself.
“Any sort of pattern in the framework, a continuous design.” Wanda gestured at the glowing symbols. “Anything of this size must have a repeating theme to tie it together.”
“It's a helix,” Bruce said. They all turned to him. “The shape of it.” He gestured at the glowing shapes above them. “Double-helix. It's not human, but it's definitely a DNA pattern of some sort.”
“The powers, in the arena.” Carol flew halfway up the height of the column of light and peered at it as if she could decipher its purpose just by looking. “This is how they do it. It's magic but it's still—”
“Genetic splicing,” Bruce said, nodding. “That must be it.”
“How is that possible?” Genetic manipulation in the service of monster creation was practically villain stock and trade, but temporary splicing? That was definitely a new one in Tony's experience.
“You said it reacted to your presence when you attacked it?” Bruce asked.
Natasha nodded. “It seemed like a defense system. Vines to capture and beetles to incapacitate.”
“Or an immune system,” Bruce suggested. He squinted at the rune Wanda had touched. “Adapting, neutralizing threats. I bet if we stayed here long enough it'd find a way to use us, even if we weren't attached to the trees.”
“Now there's a scary thought,” Sam muttered, and Tony had to agree. An evolving organic network the size of the forest? Not something he wanted to contemplate too closely.
“So what can we do to get Thor out?” Steve asked, ever practical.
“I don't …” Bruce turned to Wanda. “Is there any way to tell which markings relate to Thor, or even to these objects? If we can manipulate the pattern around them...”
“Yes, these are the newest renewed.” She pointed to a blue shape. To Tony's eyes it mostly looked like a wobbly circle with an X through it but presumably it held some deep occult meaning. “A containment ward. It links to this,” she indicated a red squiggle, “a rune for power transference. I cannot guarantee they are linked to the Asgardian specifically, but disrupting that link would change enough to give us an opportunity.”
“We'll need to know how many of those pairs there are,” Bruce said. He stole an arrow shaft from Clint's quiver, and started sketching in the dirt with it, ignoring Clint's stuttered protests.
Steve nodded to Carol and she took off, counting under her breath but still audible over the comm.
Tony crouched down next to Bruce. “What are you thinking?”
“Retrovirus.” Bruce shrugged. “Well, that's the idea, anyway.” He looked to Wanda. “If I give you a pattern, can you build a spell around it?”
“If I can't, do you have another plan?” Wanda asked, lips curving into a smile. “I will certainly try.”
“We'll need a distraction,” Bruce added to Tony. “Keep the system busy so it can't put all its effort towards getting us out of here.”
“And it couldn't hurt to free a few more prisoners,” Steve agreed from over Tony's shoulder. “Iron Man, Falcon and Warbird can destroy some more of those nodes you mentioned. The rest of us will stay here in case of trouble.”
“What?” Tony crossed his arms and set his shoulders, which was as close as he could get to letting Steve know he was glaring without lifting the faceplate. “If you think I’m leaving you here you are incredibly mistaken.”
Steve didn't even blink. “This isn't up for debate. We need a distraction team and you know what to look for. This place doesn't have much use for you and Sam as prisoners and Carol will be on her guard. And someone has to stay and make sure anything that shows up can't interrupt Bruce and Wanda. The three of us should be able to fend off anything major until you make it back.”
“32 rune pairs,” Carol reported, alighting on one of the lower walkways. She looked expectantly at Tony. “Ready?”
“We'll keep Steve safe for you,” Natasha drawled.
“Yeah, go make some trouble,” Clint waved at him. “We've got it covered.”
Steve just gave him a look. A don't you trust your teammates, Tony? look. It was massively unfair.
“Fine,” he grumbled. “But you'll let us know the second any trouble shows up.”
“Of course,” Steve nodded. “Remember, 5-minute check-ins.”
Tony just waved acknowledgment and took off, flying back down through the archway and wending his way back out of the living tunnel. Distraction. Well then. Maybe if he caused enough chaos whoever was in charge of this place would show up for him first. At least they wouldn't be going after Steve or Bruce any more then.
Neither the repulsion ward nor the door offered resistance getting out of the tree. He broke through to the forest and pushed on up through the canopy, Sam and Carol at his heels.
“Try to keep up,” he snarked at them, and blasted the nearest node a few times.
Carol grinned. “Lowest score has to buy the pizza when we get back?” she suggested, already diving for another bundle of knotted vines.
“Sounds good to me,” Tony agreed. Sonic blasts seemed to work pretty well, and up here resistance was minimal—just the occasional reaching vine, easily dodged. He could see glimpses of the forest floor, response bugs milling aimlessly around the base of their 'home' trees, looking for an attacker they couldn't sense.
“One of us should probably tell the prisoners where the exit is. Falcon?”
“You got it.” Sam dove into the trees.
“I've got 5 already,” Carol crowed.
“Wait, are we keeping score?” Sam asked. “Guys, I can't buy pizza for Hulk and Thor. I'll be broke!”
“Then I guess you better win,” Carol told him.
“Besides,” Tony added as he fried a few more seeking black vines for good measure. “Bruce doesn't eat nearly as much as Hulk. It's Clint you really have to worry about.”
“I know you're telling the truth, but it still feels like you're making fun of me,” Sam retorted. “No, it's—just keep going that way and you'll reach the door eventually. I can't guide you the whole way, there are more—”
“Problem?” Tony asked. “I'm up to 17, Warbird.”
“This is like herding cats,” Sam complained. “Yes, I know, everyone wants to get out, just follow the group and try to stay away from the vines and bugs—”
“Good practice for leading superhero teams then, but here,” Tony aligned his path with where his makeshift map showed the door to be and pushed the armor faster, dropping blinking flares every few seconds. “Not exactly a trail of breadcrumbs but you get the idea.”
He reached the edge of the forest and turned back, working to meet Carol's path of destruction halfway. They wouldn't be able to get to every node this way, but they'd definitely make a dent.
A tremble ran through the nearest vines, energy readings pulsing faster through every node in scanner range.
“Guess we're having some effect,” Sam noted.
“That, or Bruce and the Scarlet Witch are about to bring the ceiling down on all our heads.” Carol dove beneath the canopy and another pulsing tangle went dark.
“That's just what we need, another problem.”
Tony chanced a scan of the area above them, just in case, but the stone seemed solid enough.
Another tremble, quickly followed by a flash of white light bursting up through the leaves.
“Oh shit,” Clint's voice crackled over the comm. “You guys might—”
“Cap?” Tony shot down a knotted node and picked up the pace. 25, 26, 27. He was skipping a few on the way, but getting closer to Steve's position was more important.
“Stay where you are,” Steve barked down the line. “We've got company, but we can handle it.”
Tony was pushing the armor's limits and speeding back the way he'd come before Steve even finished his sentence.
“Copy that,” Sam said.
“I copy, Cap,” Carol chimed in. “Iron Man—”
“Iron Man, do you copy?” Steve demanded.
The central tree loomed ahead of him, the crown throwing off a dizzying array of flashing lights, as if the markings on the inside were somehow moving through the outer bark. Some of the still-intact nodes were glowing too, red or blue and white hot at the centers.
“I heard you, Cap.” He knocked out a few more tangles of vines for at least a semblance at following orders and the things exploded, raining bits of charred vegetation in every direction. “What's going on in there? It looks like the Fourth of July out here.”
“Kind of busy here,” came the reply, shortly followed by a low hiss Tony was pretty sure was Natasha and a strained, “Maybe if you hurried up and did your job you wouldn't have to ask” from Clint.
Tony didn't bother with the door this time. If light and energy was getting through the side of the tree, he could go that way too. Magic wasn't going to get the best of genius engineering today. It took a few well-placed short-range missiles, but soon there was a hole big enough to force the armor through.
The room beyond was decidedly less peaceful than when he'd left. Walkways smoldered and spindly bridges lay shattered on the ground. Clint was crouched on the remains of a staircase, arrows leaping from his bow to spread nets and electric shocks and the occasional explosion among the mob of aliens attempting to converge on Bruce and Wanda. Steve and Natasha were dodging in and out, ice shattering against the shield here, a reptilian-looking creature falling in a tumble of twitching limbs there.
There was something … off about their opponents, but Tony couldn't quite put his finger on what it was.
A figure floated in the center of the space, someone that looked more human than most of the people he'd seen in the crowd or trapped in the forest. Human-looking face, human-looking limbs, with a touch of what Tony was coming to identify as “Asgard” in the long flowing robe over ridiculously shiny chainmail shirt. Thor would probably tell him the Nine Realms were wide and varied and composed of many diverse cultures, but Tony was pretty sure Asgard set the fashion standard. Sorcerer Magnus, presumably.
Tony marked his target and dove.
He had to change course almost immediately, cutting jet power and dropping a few feet to avoid colliding with something bat-like and vaguely translucent. A sonic blast slammed it against the flaring rune on the wall and he took off again, pushing for the Asgardian. If anyone was controlling this mess, it would be the one who dressed up like he thought he was a god.
He charged the palm repulsors and took his shot.
It never hit. Something flared bright, too bright for Tony to be able to see it clearly, and he was pushed back, riding a shockwave that was far out of proportion with his attack. He managed to turn the landing into a sliding stop instead of an undignified splay of limbs, but it was a near thing.
He was saved from the further embarrassment of getting smacked in the face with something large and spiky by the timely intervention of Steve's shield.
“I told you to stay where you were!” Steve snarled. He didn't even turn to look at Tony, all his attention on the crowd in front of him.
“After what happened last time you said that?” Tony knocked back the two nearest enemies and readied another sonic blast. “I am not leaving you to fight alone, I told you that!”
“Hey, genius,” Clint broke in. “Every time you guys destroyed a node? We had a few less baddies to fight.”
“Magnus is using the powers drained from the prisoners,” Natasha added.
A feathered missile streaking toward her blinked out of sight, soon followed by the tentacle-wielding monster Steve had been fending off.
“43!” Carol counted over the comm.
“You could have said that,” he protested. Not that he would have stayed away anyway, but he could have set some charges or something if he'd known.
“You—” Steve shook his head and then waved angrily at where Wanda and Bruce were crouching inside a ring of crimson magic. “Make yourself useful and keep these things off them.”
“Gladly,” Tony snapped back. A force-field should do the trick, and with another layer of protection maybe Wanda would stop looking up every few seconds and then asking Bruce to explain again.
Bruce himself was looking a little irritated, and Tony wondered again just how far away the Hulk might be. They needed Bruce right now. Tony was no geneticist. He could see the pattern in the notes Bruce had scratched into the dirt, the numbered runes and the way they fit together, but that didn't mean he understood it.
“How's it coming?” he asked.
“Well, we've got a plan. The first few sets went well enough, before all this showed up.” Bruce nodded in Clint's direction, and Tony realized that several of the symbols around the trunk's circumference were glowing yellow now. The changes stopped just above the first walkway. “We came back to double-check the diagram and got, uh, trapped.”
“With sufficient time I can adjust the others, as long as I can get close to them,” Wanda said. “But I cannot guard against attacks, fly, consult with Doctor Banner and work such magic all at once.”
“Luckily, I can multitask,” Tony assured her. He set up his force-field and took a picture of Bruce's sketching. “This look right?”
He projected a copy of the picture next to the original and Bruce nodded.
“Take her up there, I'll stay here and let you know if the pattern goes wonky.”
“Wonky? How very unscientific of you, Dr. Banner.”
Bruce smiled wryly. “Genetic engineering isn't usually a matter of colored lights and connect-the-dots finger-painting, Tony.”
“Do not leave the ward circle,” Wanda ordered him, but Bruce shooed her away.
“Go, get this done. I'm pretty sure they can't hurt me too much before the other guy shows up anyway.”
“Not your most reassuring moment,” Tony told him, but Wanda was already stepping up onto one of the armor boots and grabbing his shoulders. He took off for the next numbered set of symbols, dodging flying monsters and what looked like sticky spider-web on the way.
“I will need both hands for this,” Wanda informed him as they drew close to the inner wall, which okay, that complicated things a little bit. The walkway for this part of the room was splintered and swaying dangerously. Definitely not a reliable foothold. He hooked one arm around her waist and used three repulsors to keep them both level while she leaned forward.
Something smacked against the force-field and he gritted his teeth. It would just have to hold. The noise of the battle around them intensified, the armor registering threats getting closer and closer, even as Clint and Natasha changed position to flank them.
“You will not have Thor,” Magnus declared even as his translucent army slowly dwindled. “He serves Karnilla’s purpose now.”
Tony ignored him. He’d thought the person behind all this was above monologing, but maybe the guy just really did believe they couldn’t touch him.
Not that Tony’s attempt to attack him had done anything to counter that belief.
“Bruce says to reverse the order on numbers 19 through 25 to adjust for the bit of the wall you blew through, Tony,” Steve reported.
“Got it, Cap.” He relayed the message to Wanda and she grimaced, shaking out her hands.
“This is using more magic than I expected,” she said.
“Well, hang in there,” Tony encouraged her. “I’ve seen you in a fight; there’s not much in the galaxy that can match your strength of will. Leave everything else to me.”
He pulled up Bruce’s diagram in the HUD and highlighted the ones they’d already changed.
“Fourteen to go,” he told her, already gliding around the edge of the column of magic to get to the next pair. “One more set and we’ll be halfway there.”
This time, Magnus took a personal interest as soon as Wanda touched the ward sign. Six spheres of magic the size of his head, heading straight for him.
“I can’t stop those, my arrows are going right through them,” Clint warned below them. “Tony if you’ve got extra power—”
“On it.” He reinforced the force-field, and mapped an escape route. If the field failed, getting Wanda to a safer position was more important than what she was doing to the runes.
The blasts hit, one after another; Tony's forcefield held, and Magnus snarled.
“Try this then,” he growled, and raised one hand dramatically.
“Someone seriously needs to teach this guy not to grandstand so much,” Clint said, drawing another arrow back to his chin. “Maybe he'll—what the fuck?”
The space where Bruce had been standing disappeared, the floor crumbling out with a wave of thick tree roots.
“Bruce!” Steve yelled, flinging the shield at Magnus's upraised arms and diving for the widening pit. Tony caught a glimpse of him stuttering to a stop at the edge of the gap before the sorcerer's attacks resumed.
Wanda pulled her hands back and nodded, the runes before her glowing gold at the edges, and Tony cut power to the jets and dropped back down to where Natasha was climbing a half-wrecked staircase. He re-engaged just before they hit the platform and swooped up again.
“We’ll keep him busy, Iron Man,” Natasha promised. She had some sort of grappling hook in hand. Tony wasn’t sure he wanted to know what she planned to do with it.
“Make him waste his power, if you can,” Wanda advised as she started on the next pair, and Tony relayed the message to the rest of the group.
“That, I can do,” Clint said, a pronouncement quickly followed by sparks raining down on all sides.
Tony caught a glimpse of the shield out of the corner of his eye too.
“Bruce?” he asked.
“He was halfway to Hulk when I lost sight of him,” Steve answered.
Damn. They’d have to be fast and hope nothing else needed changing then.
Ten more rune pairs to go. He zigzagged under archways and looped around spiraling staircases. It probably wasn’t terribly comfortable for Wanda, but the fewer attacks hit them, the longer he’d be able to keep going.
Eight pairs. Seven. Six.
“Uh, I think we found Hulk,” Sam reported. “He’s ripping trees apart out here. We’re trying to get him to focus on the nodes instead but he’s pretty mad at the trees.”
The illusory fighters started to disappear more quickly, four or five at a time. Magnus shouted something with more consonants than Tony had thought human tongues capable of making and there was an answering crack that seemed to echo off every surface.
Steve stumbled to his knees and Natasha turned away, clutching her ears. Clint managed to get another arrow off before he had to scramble for higher ground, and for a moment Magnus' attention was all on him.
Three more pairs. Two. Wanda sagged against him as they rose to the last pair. Even her hair looked tired, but she pressed her hands to the bark of the tree, mouth set in a determined line.
A creaking groan echoed around the chamber, loud enough to make Tony wince even inside the suit. The spell flickered, and from the way Clint and Natasha were moving the walkways were probably shaking too.
Tony caught a flash of violet out of the corner of his viewscreen and turned to double check: the Delruni magic-user was back, shimmering with magic, her robes in disarray. She didn't seem to care about Steve though, or even Wanda, all her attention on Magnus.
“The prisoners!” she was yelling, “The prisoners are—”
The spell flickered again, now blue, now green, now—gold.
Magnus actually stopped his pursuit of them to stare at it, eyes wide, mouth half open in an expression of horror.
“—ngers can you hear me? Star-Lord calling the Avengers!”
Tony switched over to the Guardians' line.
“Star-Lord this is Iron Man, we—”
There was a very human-sounding groan, louder than it should have been, and all eyes turned to Thor.
His fingers twitched. His expression twisted into a grimace that made lesser villains run crying to their secret lairs.
“Tony?” Peter was saying in his ear, but Tony wasn't listening anymore.
Thor hauled himself up into a sitting position and opened his eyes to glare unerringly in the sorcerer’s direction.
“Magnus,” he boomed, and there wasn't much of Tony's usual teammate in his voice. This was a vengeful god.
“Karnilla will take Asgard! She will have vengeance!” Magnus insisted.
“Karnilla cannot save you now,” Thor growled, holding out his hand. Mjolnir rose from its resting place and thumped into his grip.
The Delruni squeaked and vanished in a flicker of violet as he gained his feet. Magnus hung around until Thor was actually in the air, but then bravado seemed to fail him and he drifted higher and higher as Thor soared upward, just barely bringing up a shimmering ward before Mjolnir connected.
The ward exploded, the shockwave stronger than the one Tony had met earlier and it blew through everything in its path. He quickly gave up on trying to fly through it and just curled his arms around Wanda as best he could. Drained as she was, he couldn't expect her to muster up any defenses of her own.
They hit something hard that broke under the armor, then tumbled into something else. When the pressure abated he found himself on the remains of one of the lower platforms, half-sheltered by a slab of wood that looked like it had originally been part of the outer wall.
“Iron Man? We're reading major structural damage here, you guys alright?” Star-Lord asked.
“I might need to get back to you on that,” Tony admitted, swallowing against the dread in his throat at what a blast like that could've done to his unarmored teammates, to Steve. “I don't have a visual.”
The entire place was a mess; most of the internal structures and some pieces of the outer wall of the chamber littered the ground below them. Twisting branches above them cast strange shadows over the space, but Tony could read three Avengers inside and two more approaching from over the forest.
“I'm fine,” Clint reported. “Not injured anyway, but if someone could get this stuff off me I'd appreciate that.”
Wanda pushed him away and shakily stood. Tony caught her again before she fell off the edge of the platform.
“Careful there,” he cautioned. “Widow, Cap. Status?”
“I am uninjured,” Natasha replied. A strip of rune-covered bark shifted and she emerged to wave at him. Tony was pretty sure she was lying through her teeth about being uninjured. She was definitely favoring her left side.
“I think I twisted my ankle,” Steve said. His voice was tight even over the comm. “And whatever's on top of me is heavy.”
“I'll be right there, Cap,” Carol assured him. Hulk pushed through a gap in the side of the tree and stared around.
“Hulk smash puny magic man!” he roared.
“Thor's already on that,” Tony told him. “What we need right now is to move all this stuff to get Clint and Steve out.”
From the look on Hulk's face Tony was pretty sure Thor was getting punched later, but he started picking up larger pieces of debris and throwing them back out the way he'd come in. Tony decided trying to redirect him to more specific bits of wreckage was a waste of time. He'd get to Clint if he stayed on his current path. Tony could dig Steve out himself, especially if Carol arrived to help the heavy lifting.
He carried Wanda down to the lower level and set her on a relatively stable pile of rubble.
“You're looking a bit pale,” he informed her. “Stay here and rest a moment.”
It was probably a mark of her exhaustion that she just nodded and let him move away.
He made a bee-line for Steve' position and moved a section of stairs, a scattering of boughs and leaves, part of a pedestal. Carol landed on the other side of the biggest obstacle, a chunk of tree root wedged in place by a fallen bit of walkway. Tony got most of the way under the walkway, braced his arms and nodded at her. She dragged the root away, revealing first the dusty surface of the shield and then Steve, grimacing from the other side of it.
“Thanks,” he said, sitting up with a groan. He was holding his ribs.
“Are you sure it's only your ankle that's hurt?” Tony asked, lowering the piece of walkway.
“I'm fine, Tony,” Steve insisted.
“Oh, thank God you have pants,” Clint yelled from the other side of the room.
“Hulk always have pants,” Hulk huffed.
“Iron Man?” Star-Lord prompted again.
“We're fine,” Tony reported. Sam was offering Wanda a hand up. “We're mostly fine,” he amended with another look at Steve. “We ah. We found everyone,”
“Yeah, I figured, we've got prisoners storming the docks here,” Peter replied. “I can only keep the ship here so long, the whole station's in chaos. If you guys want a ride out of here you need to show up fast.”
“Copy that, Star-Lord, we'll be there as soon as we can,”
“On the upside side, I think Thor just made a shortcut for us,” Clint said. “On the downside, it might fall down and kill us.”
Tony stared up at the place Thor had been. The clinging mist was gone along with the beam of magic, and even with the broken splinters of platforms and stairs in the way he could see the craggy edges of broken rock above them.
The cracks in the stone were spreading. A chunk broke loose and plummeted into the forest.
“Time to go, I think,” Carol said, sliding one arm behind Steve's shoulders. Tony spent a little too long staring and she gave him an exasperated look.
“Right behind you,” Sam agreed. Wanda was already clinging to his harness.
Natasha looked at him expectantly and he held out his arm with a sigh. He was better equipped to carry two than anyone else.
“Aw, man,” Clint groaned even as he grabbed Tony's other arm. “I liked our old partners better.”
“You could always ask Hulk for a ride,” Tony suggested. Carol took off, Sam close behind her, and Tony readjusted the armor's power flow. Unless Thor had simply cleared the whole way to the docks he was more likely to need quick cornering than shields.
“Hah, no,” Clint snorted. “I wouldn't—a little warning?!” he screeched as Tony took off.
“Baby,” Natasha sneered.
Clint swung his balance to the side and Tony corrected their path with a grimace.
“If you two try to bicker the whole way back to the ship I will leave you here,” he told them.
“Cap wouldn't let you.” Clint reached over Tony's chest to poke a finger into Natasha's space and Tony sighed. Steve wouldn't let him, it was true. But that didn't mean he couldn't make them regret their decisions.
He kicked up the speed and cut his swerves around reaching branches just a hair closer. Not close enough to really put them in greater danger, but close enough that Clint, at least, seemed to decide his attention was better spent on clinging to the armor.
Thor's path of destruction extended through what looked like several levels of floors and ceilings, ending in a pit much like the one they'd found Steve and Carol in. It was empty when they rose above the sand-covered floor.
“Suggestions?” Carol asked.
“This way,” Tony said, taking the lead. The Guardians' ship was a blinking green dot on the armor's rudimentary map of the arena, but it was enough to give them a direction at least. Hulk hauled himself over the lip of the hole Thor had left and surged ahead of them, bowling through a door and knocking aside the aliens on the other side of it.
There were a lot of them. Too many for even Hulk to create an easy path to follow. Tony kept his flight high and did his best to dodge anyone who looked armed. Even the stairwells were crammed with people. Kiosks had been torn down or looted or even burned. Tony locked the armor elbow joints around Clint and Natasha and pushed faster. Power levels were falling steadily. Not enough to risk the arc reactor, but enough he didn't want to get any more fights if they could be avoided.
“Groot and Rocket found Thor,” Peter informed him. “Or maybe Thor found them. They're on their way back. Tell me you're close?”
“Nearly there,” Tony assured him. “Hulk, right! Turn right at the T!”
The docks were even more of a mess than the main corridors. There were people waving tickets, shoving at each other, at least three outright brawls he could see without even turning his head. Ships were taking off with less than a minute between them, some of them still with people banging on the access ramp hatches.
“I'm guessing this won't be a tourist trap if we ever come back,” Sam observed.
“Who wants to come back?” Carol asked. “I'll be happy if I never even think about this place again.”
“Trees,” Hulk growled.
“I'm with the green guy on this one,” Clint said. “Let's have a nice, relaxing mission in a city next time. Maybe something like 'find the best pizza within five miles of the Tower'.”
“I'll buy,” Steve offered.
“If we're lucky, there won't be any magical world-destroying villains to interrupt things,” Tony gritted out.
“Are we ever that lucky?” Sam asked.
“Only on Thursdays,” Natasha sighed.
Rocket, Groot and Thor stood at the approach to the Guardians' ship, menacing anyone who looked like they wanted to barter or intimidate their way on board.
“My friends!” Thor boomed, catching sight of them. “Groot tells me you have traveled great distances to ensure my safe return to you!”
“Yeah, yeah, hurry up!” Rocket chided them, even as Carol flew past him. “And don't you even think about it,” he said, pointing a claw at Hulk. “I've got my eyes on you, you're not touching any of my stuff.”
Hulk just snorted and shouldered his way between Thor and Groot, muttering to himself. Tony swept into the cargo hold and landed as quickly as he could, letting Clint and Natasha stumble their way to
the back of the space. Sam glided in just ahead of the rest of the group, Wanda looking wane in his arms.
“We're all on board, boss-man,” Rocket said into what Tony would swear was a walkie-talkie. The cargo doors slid shut with a hiss of air.
“Hang tight, Avengers,” Peter said over the PA system. “This might be a little rocky.”
* * *
It was nearly twenty minutes before Peter declared their flight from Delrun a success. By then Thor had apologized three times for supposedly getting them mixed up in Asgardian politics and showed no sign of stopping, no matter how anyone insisted it wasn't even remotely his fault what crazy alien magicians did.
“Karnilla is a most cunning adversary,” he said, “but I had no knowledge that her reach extended so far. I must inform my father. If she has one such plan, she must have many.”
“Thor, seriously, as long as you can tell me you made the guy regret ever thinking about grabbing us, I don't care,” Carol told him.
“I assure you he is most regretful,” Thor said, hoisting Mjolnir proudly.
“Tell us exactly how regretful,” Clint encouraged him, leaning forward, and Tony slipped over to the quieter side of the space.
Wanda was looking better, and had even accepted something vaguely food-related from Gamora, but Steve's proclamation that he was fine was wearing thin. He winced every time he shifted his weight, couldn't put his weight down on his left foot without biting his lip, and had a minor scratch on his forehead that had bled into his hair a bit. But he'd just given Tony an exasperated look and said their perfectly sound teammates needed his attention more (and yes, okay, Thor and Hulk had gotten into the sort of name-calling-and-shoving argument no one wanted to see aboard a space ship, but Carol had had it under control until Clint started heckling them both). About the time Steve had accepted some kind of ankle brace from Drax Tony had decided it was just him Steve didn't want to deal with which was awesome.
He'd done his best. He'd gotten them all there, he'd gotten them all out in one piece. No one could say that his disobeying orders hadn't worked out well for them in the end. If he'd been there in the first place, maybe Steve wouldn't be looking so beat-up and vulnerable now.
He rolled his shoulders and wished he could take more than just his helmet off. If he disassembled the armor now it'd just be in the way; better to wait until they got to the AvengeJet, at least.
“You all right over there Iron Man?” Steve asked.
Oh, so now he wanted to talk. Tony watched him adjust the brace over his bare foot, a weirdly incongruous sight against grid-iron floor panels.
“Fine,” he said.
Steve gave him a look and Tony snorted and strode over to sit next to him.
“You know I'm not still angry with you, right?” Steve asked.
“Of course,” Tony said. He ignored the lightening in his chest at the reassurance.
From the look on his face, Steve probably wasn't fooled.
“So what's got you all twisted up on yourself?”
Tony bit his lip. It wasn't fair that Steve could read him so easily.
“I'm just—sorry I wasn't there, when this all started,” he said. “Maybe I could've done something—”
“Tony.” Steve sat up straight and put one hand to his shoulder. “If you'd been there you would've either gotten scooped up with us or you would've been in the same spot you were when you got back. We don't know how to fight magic like this. That's not a failing on your part.”
“Does she seem more confident to you?” Steve jerked his chin at Wanda.
“I—yes.” Tony stammered, trying to jump tracks. Not that the Scarlet Witch had been lacking in power during their encounter at Avengers Mansion, but Magneto's rigid fanaticism had seemed to hit both the twins pretty hard. On this mission Wanda had seemed a little awkward sometimes—understandable when working alongside people you'd previously fought against, Tony supposed—but she'd never doubted herself or lost her temper the way she had before.
“We've been shown a weakness in our gameplan,” Steve said. “Look at this as an opportunity.”
“You want to—” Tony sighed. Of course Steve wanted to recruit her. As if having Thor and Hulk in the same building wasn't hazardous enough. A chaos-wielding magical mutant was just what they needed. “You know if she comes, her brother will too.”
Steve arched an eyebrow at him, which okay, yes, point, not the most terrible thing that could happen. Someone with Quicksilver's speed would always be useful to have around. He'd probably run circles around the Red Skull next time he showed his ugly face. Literally.
“I hope you know what you're doing,” Tony said.
Steve grinned. “I always know what I'm doing.”
“That's my line,” Tony mock scowled, relaxing a bit.
“I learned from the best,” Steve agreed. “Now, about dinner--”
“If you make me go to that diner one more time I will walk out, see if I don't,” Tony threatened. It was automatic, out of his mouth before he even thought that maybe now wasn't the best time.
Steve just smiled at him, all warm affection. “No you won't,” he said.
No, he wouldn't and they both knew it, but it was the principle of the thing. “Sushi. Indian. Thai. Anything else,” he continued. “Black tie. Classy sportcoat at minimum. I am not eating greasy burgers and fries and apple pie while you sit there in a fucking red and white shirt and bluejeans. You are a walking cliché, I can't be seen with you anymore.”
Steve laughed at him and hauled on his shoulder, dragging him just a few inches closer.
“Whatever you want, Tony,” he said and pressed a light kiss to his temple.
Tony turned so Steve could better appreciate the skeptical arch of his eyebrow.
“Really,” he said. “Anything?”
“You did just rescue me from aliens,” Steve said, amusement thick in his voice. “I would think that deserves a few concessions on my part.”
“A few?” Tony asked. He pressed his lips to Steve's ear, relishing the little shiver that went through Steve's frame. “All the trouble I went to, and you're setting down limits?”
“I think you know my terms,” Steve said, drawing back a little with a glance at their teammates across the room. “If you ask me to endanger anyone I'll have Peter turn the ship around so we can pick up the real Tony Stark.”
“As if anyone could copy me,” Tony snorted. He leaned back in, seeking more of Steve's reassuring warmth. He was safe, they were all safe.
“Not likely,” Steve agreed. He brushed Tony's bangs out of his face and kissed his lips, then his nose, then just pressed their foreheads together and held him there, one hand on the back of Tony's neck.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
Tony smiled against his lips, the last knot of tension loosening between his shoulders.
“Glad to have you back, Cap.”