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Tony remembers coffee. He remembers pancakes and spatulas and the sweet taste of syrup and sugar. He remembers the whir of Dummy against his side and Jarvis’ amused sigh. He remembers warmth. He remembers family. When he opens his eyes, there is none of that. There is pain pulsing sluggish blood over his skin, the air bleeding blue from the arc reactor’s light, and the air cakes ice into his lungs. There is darkness on each side, north, south, east, and west, and above him is a world turned navy by the arc reactor, but it only reaches so far. There is darkness beneath him and darkness behind his eyelids. It’s almost like being underwater.

He doesn’t move for a long time, tries to sort out the lost circuits in his mind. The workshop is his last fully formed memory: Dummy pressed against his side, blocking his attempts to fix Iron Man’s gauntlet by begging attention, and Jarvis commenting on the meetings he is missing today and how Miss Potts will be most displeased, especially since he keeps ignoring his phone. That’s it. It just. Stops. He rewinds the film, searches for tears, but there’s nothing between the light of the lab and the dark of this world, nothing to explain how he got here, nothing but question marks popping up in the spaces solutions should be.

Trying to move is like asking for disaster. His head roars, the numbers white out, and he’s left blinking ringed zeroes out of his eyes. The pain is localized around his temple, hungry and with little red claws, and when he reaches up to investigate, his fingers return sticky with blood. His lungs hurt with every inhale, but that might be the ice hanging in the air, tiny pieces of shrapnel ready to tear into him.

Shifting first one arm and then the other, he finally manages to sit up. The vantage point affords him little; there is nothing to discern beyond the darkness and his breath hangs suspended in the light of the arc reactor. He rubs at it, his fingers casting ghostly shadows that merge with the dimness.

“Hello?” he calls, voice a fizzled match. He coughs, tries again. “Hello? Is anyone there?”

Silence stretches out both sides, but Tony realizes that there is something new in the quiet. The clink of metal shifting over metal, of wires improperly wrapped, of steps gentled by suspension coils. He crawls backwards, slow at first, but the silence starts building noise, one echo at a time, and the world explodes with light. Tony throws up an arm, eyes burning, but his ears are filled with the call of machinery pumping gasoline. The floor shakes and Tony tries to turn but it’s too late now, the noise is all around him, howling out symphonies he knows so well. There’s a snarl of metal grating and fire blooms in Tony’s shoulder as he’s forced down against the ground. It expands and focuses, driving the breath from him, catching the scream he meant to give and making him swallow it. He tries again, gasps in air, thick and wet, and finally the scream bubbles past his lips, drowning out the hiss of pistons. He claws at whatever it is, his fingers sliding over rusted bolts and slick metal. When he finally gets his eyes on it, when the pain allows him to reboot his vision, there is the head of a goddamn pick sticking out of his shoulder.

Groaning, he pulls at it, pushes, but every movement sparks a new wave of agony. The pick digs deeper and then is wrenched out and Tony rolls onto his side, curling instinctively as he clutches at his arm. The blood slides slick over his neck and down onto the cold floor and when he can supply the solution for two plus two, he allows himself to uncurl and face this threat.

Above him, breathing fire and steam and shadows, is a robot. Or what would pass for a robot if Tony hadn’t revolutionized the process. Its legs are uneven slabs of wiring and circuitry, twisted chunks of metal failing to cover the exposed insides. The chest is barrelled and clunky, gas running down from a bright silver cube thrust into the center. Hands have been forgotten in lieu of the bloodied pick and a torch – who puts a torch on a robot? – and its face is a mockery of Iron Man’s, spray painted gold and hot-rod red, the eyes burning shades for fuel. It screeches with every step it takes.

“Aren’t you ugly,” Tony says, sucking in gulps of air. The robot bends back, lifts the pick high, and Tony twists his body to the side as it comes slamming down. The robot’s head turns on rusted springs and Tony needs to get his footing.

“I think it’s a little unfair,” Tony starts, ignoring the blare of pain equations in his mind, and clambering to his feet, “that I have to go up against this junk of metal. I mean really. Whoever built you did a piss poor job if I ever saw one. Are you bleeding gasoline? While carrying a torch?”

The robot hisses steam at him and straightens, each movement jerkier than the last, and Tony shoves the pain down, shoves the need to find a place and pass the fuck out, because regardless of the poor design, the monster of metal and fire still has a one up on him. It’s not squishy. It’s not going to go down just because Tony mocks it. Tony dances backwards as the robot advances on him. His mouth opens before he can stop himself, a desire to point out every flaw overwhelming common sense.

“You tried to recreate Iron Man, didn’t you? Were the reference pictures from the Mark I? How did you even manage to get a hold of that? The Mark I was clunky as shit and looked like someone slapped it together with scraps strewn about a cave. Oh wait.” The robot lunges forward, the pick sailing through the air. Tony dodges around it and feels his mind gearing up. “Look at you, you’re just disgraceful, your everything is showing, have some modesty. If you stop this, I’ll take you home. I’ll introduce you to Dummy and Jarvis and we’ll outfit you with something that looks like hands and won’t rust from blood. When was the last time you were washed?”

The robot screeches and rears up. Tony darts forward, the numbers flashing behind his eyes for guidance, and grabs a handful of wires in the pick arm. He tugs them out, ducks out of the way, and watches the arm come unattached at the seams. It falls to the ground with an angry clatter. The robot staggers to the side, off balance for a moment, and Tony moves in for the other. But before he can grab them, before he can follow through with what the numbers promise, the torch comes online.

Tony has never been one for the smell of burnt flesh. It catches in the filtration system of the Iron Man armour and it takes him days of inhaling fresh coffee grounds to even get the itch out of his nose. This is no better, except the smell is supplied with a healthy dose of oh god oh god ohgodgodgod and Tony scrambles for a handhold. The gasoline creates a danger behind him and the torch is a wall in front. He grabs wires, starts tugging without care, the numbers scattering against his fingers as he pulls. The robot hisses, stomping back and away, and Tony ducks under the fire that spirals toward his face.

There’s a clank, a shiver of noise in the air that sizzles, before the other arm rips off, tumbling to the floor with an ungraceful clatter. Tony claps his hands together, ignores the bite of agony leeching numbers from his mind, and circles the damaged bot. It follows him, swivelling around on mismatched legs to keep him in sight. Smart then. Probably a shitty AI system implemented to allow for mission protocols. The cube is brighter than the lights that had flicked on, a shimmer that gathers and pulses life. Tony mulls over grabbing it, damaging it, but that’s impossible without a weapon of some sort.

He steps lighter, lets his mind figure out the weaknesses. The bot is shuffling backwards, back to where it came from probably, and Tony backs off to allow it that option. The bot stops, something shifts over in its fire streaming eyes, and Tony has two seconds to dodge as it barrels past him. Pivoting, he takes off after it. The bot doesn’t stop, keeps going, pistons firing frantic as its legs work. Tony doesn’t know where it’s going, doesn’t know what changed in the master code, but the bot screams as it picks up speed.

There’s a boom as the bot runs full tilt into a wall. Pieces fly off; the gas ignites and twists the metal black. Tony grounds to a halt, throwing up his arm as fire coughs into the air, lapping eager at the gasoline. When the smoke clears, the remains are warped into a scorching pile, glowing ruby still. The silver cube is a charred grey heart, lost of life.  

Tony allows his body to collapse. He rocks back on his ass, legs splayed as stares at the mess. What had driven the bot to do that? Most AI’s have a self-preservation code created, only overridden by the creator themselves. What was it that the bot held; what was it that Tony could possibly have learnt from this creation that its creator drove it to death?

His shoulder gives an angry throb and he hisses as the numbers flash angry at him. His left arm is thrumming pain, his shoulder fighting to clot the blood and his forearm and elbow singed a crackling black. He breathes through his nose, wills himself not to think about it, not to complete the algorithms that clamour for his attention, and rips off the long sleeve on his right arm. He fashions a makeshift sling, bites his lip so hard it bleeds when he moves his arm to settle in it, and sighs in relief when some of the weight is removed. He has to take a moment, has to clear the darkness from his eyes, and then he struggles to his feet.

When he approaches the robot, the metal has cooled. He stays away from its charred head, eyes scratched out black. He advances and darts back again, each time moving closer until he’s kicking the hunk of metal. There’s nothing but messy wires and messier metalwork, twisted together into a monster even Frankenstein would balk at. Tony crouches, bats the pain from his mind carelessly, and starts digging through the remains with his good hand. The metal still carries a heat, but it’s minimal and if there’s anything in here he can salvage, he will use it. The arms are back where the bot dropped them; he’ll have to knick the torch for a weapon.  

Sitting back on his heels, Tony thinks. The numbers run in the background as he goes over the reel again, tries to pick up the discrepancies. The workshop had been normal, but – no, do not count the whole, go for details. He picks at the image in his mind, twists it around but it’s a Rubix Cube with the colours all grey. He’d been working on a new design for Steve’s motorcycle and another batch of Clint’s arrows, the holograms behind him bright with different parts and calculations. He flicks his head, the image spinning until it focuses on him. He had been at the bench, Dummy curled beside him, chattering away with the blender bumping against Tony’s arm every third chirp. He had been working, his hands busy with the delicate curve of the gauntlet. He had been working –

The film runs out and Tony sighs in annoyance. He scrubs a hand through his hair and looks back down at the mess before him. The robot had the initial design, it had the workings of becoming something great, but it had lacked originality. He reaches forward and pries the face off, the metal thick in his hands. He turns it around, looks for an inscription, numbers, calculations, anything to give him an edge. There are words scrawled on the inside but they’re funny, not any language Tony is familiar with. He peers closer, traces the letters with his eyes, files them away for future analysis. He flips the faceplate over again and stares down at a starkly familiar face.

“Focus,” he says, tossing the plate away and begins working on removing some of the panels. The wires are a congealed mess of capillaries, veins, and arteries no longer working, all crawling toward the breastplate and the dead heart that kept the machine alive. Tony jams his foot against the edge, ignores the rushing in his ears, and yanks the plate up and off. It shrieks as it comes loose and Tony almost falls backwards. Beneath is more complexity. Each wire converges into seven thicker ones, and all except two are still connected to the large greyed out cube in the center. He leans forward to investigate, poking it with the edge of the breastplate. It doesn’t react and Tony gnaws on his lip. Organic matter might reactivate it, but this cube is something he needs, he can feel it. Closing one eye, he reaches out and stabs the cube with his finger.

The air pumps silence and nothing happens. Tony waits, finger pressed against the center, waits, waits, and – there. The silence stretches, makes space for a new sound, before sucking back into place. Tony lifts his finger and turns, crouched still, the breastplate his only real defence now. There’s a click and the dimness parts for more light, spiralling into place around another goddamn robot.

This one is sleeker, meaner, wires and panels loose around a cat like frame. A chainsaw mouth opens wide, riproaring to life. The body is peppered with thick metal plates, but it’s still not complete, its exposed insides heaving with electricity. A silver cube sits in the middle of its forehead and four legs tipped with knives paw at the ground. Its tail lashes, panels splitting and shifting to accommodate its motions. The ears are speakers, wide and black and fathomless. Camera eyes swivel toward him, the creak of its movements cracking lightning. Tony shifts his weight and the cat crouches, snarling sparks.

Tony raises a hand. There was a time, long before he hit puberty, before he met Peggy, before he accepted that his father didn’t care, that he tried and succeeded in creating a creature robot. It had been for his mother, a small dogbot that was shiny panels and salvaged parts. It had taken Tony weeks to perfect it, had sent him sneaking into his father’s study to paw through his notes to try and match the math.  It had kept him awake at night, fingers dripping oil and heartbeat thundering with exhilaration. When the dog had sat up on its wired haunches and barked, Tony had fallen off his chair, exhausted laughter mixing with the ringing noise of a mechanical Pomeranian.

He had Dog for three days before his father knocked it from his mother’s hand, shattering Tony’s dreams of owning an animal, bot or not. He looks at this one now, at the lash of its chained tail, at the slant of its eyes, at the thick panelled paws, and feels resentment.

“Here, kitty, kitty,” Tony whistles. The catbot jerks, hissing saw blades. Tony cocks his head to the side. “Your creator went a bit further with you, didn’t he? Are you smart? Do you understand what I did to your brother?” Tony stands, slow, easy movement. The cat fake lunges, air whistling between its knife claws. “I’m going to do that to you. I’ll dismantle you easy, you’ve already given yourself away. You’re big, you’re scary, but there’s one thing you don’t have going for you, kitty cat.”

Tony grins, gets his foot under the breastplate. “You weren’t made by me.”

The cat screams, rushing him. He flips the breastplate up and it slams into its face. Tony takes the advantage, shifting his momentum and dodging around the claw that snatches for him. The cats’ back lacks protection, the wires alive and writhing around each other. The head and shoulders are the most reinforced, which, considering that is where its heartbeat hammers, is understandable. Tony grabs the flexing shoulder, heaves himself up, and holds tight with his thighs. The catbot stalls, sparks spitting from its metal lips, whiskers itching with lightning. Tony makes sure his seat is sure and looks down at the mess he has to deal with.

“Let’s see what makes you tick.” The wires are thickest just before the shoulder panels, clear casings showing the copper blood that pulses electric. The cat bucks under him, twisting sharp to the left and Tony plunges his hand into the messy undergrowth. His fingers close over a thick tangle of wires and, when the cat banks right, he yanks.

Shrieking, the bots’ tail lashes out. Tony chokes as it curls tight around his throat, tugging him up and away from the mess of electric veins. He claws at the hold, sucking in air desperately. His thighs are the only thing keeping him stationary, but the tail is corded metal, links tight and impenetrable. Spots flicker in his eyes, thick rings that pulse and shiver. Gasping in another sharp breath, he shoves his hand down, grabs more wires and starts pulling, tugging, messing up the inner workings, destroying streams of code, mucking with protocol. The catbot thrashes, tail tightening to a point that Tony can’t get anything in, can’t even scream, his hand fighting marks into his own neck in an effort to get under the hold. And then he’s being thrown backwards, the desperate clamp on his throat gone, and he hits the ground on a broken inhale.

The cat howls, ragged lightning spitting from its back. Tony can’t get a breath in, can’t fight the hysteria that his brain is shrieking, can’t get the numbers to stop cluttering him with oxygen charts. The catbot twists, turns and snaps, bleeding electric. It can’t get a position on him and Tony finally, finally, gets that first breath fully in, and it shakes him apart inside. Water bubbles in his ears and he shakes it away, breathing, breathing, air, air, air. When he can see again, when there’s nothing but the howl of machine parts failing, he pushes himself up. The catbot is stock still, panting fumes into the silence. It twitches with every jolt of its broken wiring. Then its ears swivel, focusing on Tony, and its eyes are scratched out holes that scream nightmares.

There’s no finesse in its attack. The cat can hear him breathing, can pinpoint his location with an internal equation, and takes advantage of it. Tony can’t force his body back, can’t twist out of the way, and the cat is on him in seconds. Its claws bite wounds into his shoulders, tear down and over his chest, ripping material and skin and muscle. Tony gets his arms up, both of them, bangs them into the metal on the cat’s chest. Its stomach heaves with loose wires and he grabs for them, frantic. It breathes gasoline against his neck, teeth vibrating with the need to tear into him, and Tony finally gets a hand in. The wires are slick with leaked fuel and he slips, loses his hold, and the catbot crows its triumphant.

Tony slams up a knee, catches the cat in its hind legs, buckling the system there. He gets a better handhold this time, tugs and tugs, dragging the sticky wires out. The cat puffs steam, a pathetic mewling whisper, and ducks its head. Tony doesn’t think; he let’s go of the wires and grabs for the cube instead. There’s a crack between the panels and the cube itself, enough for him to worm his fingers in, and the cat is stock still over him, claws flexing gashes into his skin. He gets a hold, looks into those expressionless eyes, and yanks.

The air rents with a vacuum shriek and the bot topples sideways. Its body comes apart at the seams, wires huffing out the last of the sparks. The eyes roll away, the ears puff and spark, the claws oxidize, still shiny with his blood; everything about the creature dissolves into random parts, waiting to be assembled. Tony stares at the grey cube in his hand, in his greasy fingers, and starts laughing.

The cube falls to his chest and he grabs his hair. His chest thumps, ticks, thumps, ticks, erratic against his breastbone. He can hear blood in his ears, a rush of metal against his tongue; his fingers blister with the touch of lightning. He feels delirious. His lungs stutter with fatigue and his eyes burn gasoline fumes. He doesn’t want to do it anymore. He’s done. Tapping out. Throwing in the fucking towel.

His laugh whines out of him. “Let me go home.”

The words are lost in the dimness above, fluorescents heavy with dust and that weighty silence that never leaves. The silence is where the danger lies. Tony stills the hiccup in his chest, the laughter against his tongue, and waits. Before, the cube had brought another out. This time – this time, Tony doesn’t think he’ll get the heads up.

His body is leeching adrenaline so he sits up, hisses at the stretch of wounds reopening. His shirt is a mess, thick gashes framing each claw mark, oozing slow but sure. He rolls his right shoulder, forgets momentarily and does the same to the other. He sucks in air, sharp, almost bites through his tongue. His makeshift sling is gone. He can fashion a new one, but regardless of the gashes in his shirt, it’s the only armour he has left.

The silence is getting to him, his ears straining for noises that should be building. He tucks the cube into his pocket and stumbles to his feet, clutching at his arm, and trying to alleviate the pain. His body shakes with each step, catching in the silence. He makes his way back to the first robot, kicks away the cords still attached to the cube’s greyed out skin, and tucks that one into his other pocket. And now comes the hard part.

He needs a weapon, an armour, anything that will help distill the darkness and create a doorway out. He needs to create a smoke signal that will alert others to his position; he needs fire and explosions and mechanics. He looks down at the mess of wires and confused metal plates, and clears out the rusted numbers that clog his thinking. He’s not out of the running yet.

There is very little he can salvage from the first robot, its wires glued together by fire and force. He grabs the breastplate, filling it half full with anything he deems useful. He pries off metal panels, circuit boards, tears into copper and wiring, hollows out the insides and stockpiles the gems. He drags it back over to the cat when he’s done, and then sets off for the arms. He still wants his torch.

While he works, his senses sit in high alert. He’s jumpy as shit and any time the air shifts, he’s turning toward it, searching for that new threat. The silence beats down on him, heavy as any gaze, hiding shades and monsters in its corners. He gets the torch off, careful of the four gas canisters against the sides. He twists the mechanism around and tries to learn what he can. He’s watching through the creators’ eyes, stripping completed forms down to schematics, leaving the plans behind for the theory, crunching numbers and finding loopholes. He turns it this way and that, flips it upside down and digs inside, finds hidden wires looped together into a mashed heart. It just needs that spark.

The silence stretches and snaps and he turns toward the break. It settles back into place but there’s something here now, another threat that he can’t find yet but has a location on him. He doesn’t like losing all his cards before he even has a chance to see the hand, but if that’s how this is going to pan out, he can work the angles. He looks back down at the torch, at the mechanics of it, and decides it’s enough.

Running back to the cat, he works in earnest, stripping out all the parts he knows he needs now, the schematics flickering to life in his head. He doesn’t know how much time he has left, can’t discern when the next threat is going to come at him, but he has to work with what he knows.

The cat gives him the other tools he requires. He uses smaller chunks of metal as makeshift screwdrivers and hammers. He guts the torch, jams a hand bar inside, and slips his arm inside. It sits heavy on him, the bite of loose plates scraping against his skin. He hefts it up, flexes his fingers around the bar, and turns on his heel, pointing it into the shadows. The metal slips and he feels the sting. His arm won’t survive if he has to deal with the shrapnel inside. Blinking, he switches tracks and brings up possible solutions, starting with reinforcing the outside and smoothing out the inside. He scraps it; too much time taken and too little equipment to make it successful. The next is finding a material that he can wrap around his arm. He looks down at his tattered shirt, hesitant to part with it. His eyes skirt past his pants and land on his shoes.

Maybe…

He tears the soles out, slaps them over his forearm and wraps a thin strip of fabric around to secure it. When he slips his arm back inside, the metal bites the soles, leaving his skin safe and whole. Grinning, he hefts the torch up and swings it, the pressure folding into the protection around his arm. He’s lacking footwear now, but the ground is solid concrete, nothing sharp aside from the metal fragments of the bots he’s destroyed.

Now that the basic skeleton is complete, he works on outfitting it. The wires from the catbot he strips and tangles together, setting up three larger coils before knotting together eight smaller ones. He creates a pressure plate for turning the torch on and off, connecting it carefully to the hand bar on the inside. Biting his lip, he starts on the delicate work, fingers flicking precisely over the connections. Each one needs to be perfect or he won’t have a chance again. The silence is building, eager sound held at bay by something Tony has yet to face. The hairs on the back of his neck prickle and he halves the original completion time. Making sure the wires are secure on the arm, he sucks in a breath and hikes up his shirt. The arc reactor bumps blue against the original dim light.

Connecting the first coil is like being punched in the chest, hard, by a fist of impossible steel. He breathes through it, connects the second, and almost goes down. The third one settles everything out and he can breathe again, stuttering in until he can see clearly. The eight others connect at certain points along the three larger coils and, when Tony is finished, he slips the torch on and squeezes the pressure plate.

Fire snarls out with a scream, the gas canisters on the side shaking. Tony releases and the fire gurgles as it’s lost. He has a weapon.

“Bring it,” Tony says. The silence mocks him.

He starts walking then, careful, the torch up and ready to be deployed. The concrete beneath his feet is chalky, kicking up dust with every step. The walls reach into the darkness, the ceiling obscured by a blanket of shadows. The lights that had flickered on when Tony faced his first opponent seem to have no true location, just beaming down that thin halo over the floor. The room itself is large enough that it could fit a shopping mall inside. Not the larger ones, but one of sizable area. The arena itself is slightly circular in proportions and Tony pokes at the wall.

Searching garners nothing, just that the thick concrete wall is of the same composite mixture as the floor. Some of it is crumbling away, but as Tony brushes at it, it turns solid beneath his fingers. He’ll have to find another way out. Walking the perimeter will take him about half an hour, if he can ignore his wounds that long, and he’s sure to run into the next big bad on his expedition. He’s uncertain how many more he’ll have to face, if there is an entire army just waiting for him to flounder. He’s uncertain how long he’ll have to wait to be rescued, or if he really is alone. He’s uncertain how he got here and how he’s going to get out.

Hefting the torch, he walks into silence.

He’s only about ten minutes in when he hears a strange scuttle disrupt the quiet. Turning fast, he presses his back against the wall, eyes scanning bleak surroundings. There is nothing though, no disruption of dust, no snarl of jaws waiting to bleed him dry, just that strange hiss of movement over the too still air that had been stalking him since he arrived.

“Keep it together,” Tony says and the silence swallows his words.

The air scratches again, mechanical legs over hard concrete, and Tony closes one eye. The sound is contained, close to him, but not in front of him. He swings the torch to the side, quickly turns his head to the other, but empty space is his only companion. The movement increases, what sounds like at least fifty bots scrambling over each other in a mad dash. He doesn’t know where; the sound is getting closer, and it’s as though it’s right above –

Tony jolts and jumps away from the wall. “Fuck, fuck, has living with that bow toting Barton taught you nothing? Always look up first. Zero stars, Stark.”

When he turns his torch on the ceiling, the shadows have been slain and are bleeding out little red dots. They are all cluttered around where he’s standing, bright pinpricks of red glowing eerie in the dimness. The scuttle starts again and Tony steps back, faster, faster, but the red spots follow him. He realizes they’re eyes. Bright swivelling camera eyes that tear into the darkness just as easily as their scurrying legs sew up the silence. And the robot can cling to the ceiling. Fuck. His next opponent is goddamn Spider-man.

His hand is sweating inside the torch and he calls out, “Come on, I’m sure you want to get in on this action, I’m sure you want to tear me a new one for dismantling your predecessors and turning them into scrap metal. Hiding in the shadows really isn’t your thing and frankly, I’m insulted that you wouldn’t just attack me from the get-go.” Comprehension clicks over in his head. “Wait, you were watching me, weren’t you. Gathering intel. How many of you are there?”

There’s a snarl, garbled clicks and shrieks, and a cluster of the red dots falls from the ceiling. It lands with a clunk, throwing dust into the air, and Tony is staring at what amounts to a large mechanical spider. There are still too many lights above him, more of those things clinging, but at least he’s not fighting an army of Spider-men.

The robot stands about chest height, mechanical abdomen bare of any armour whatsoever. The head is smaller than the rest of the body, consisting of eight bright camera eyes that reel information into its abdomen where it’s collected and assumingly broadcasted. Thick satellite antennas jut from its backside, electricity running up and over them. Spiked clamps make up its mouth and close with a shuttering speed that is too fast for Tony to calculate the first try. But it’s the legs that catch Tony’s eyes, the legs that spark the recognition in him. Eight limbs stand tall and awkwardly away from the main body, carrying it off the ground. A tiny cube is installed into each leg, a glowing silver that Tony is beginning to despise. But his eyes stick on the design, on the way the legs are basically backwards arms, the toes made up of three long toes. It’s a pattern he recognizes so well that it causes him pause, costs him precious seconds, because how, how.

That’s Dummy’s design.

The spiderbot arches its body up and forward, cable squealing as it’s released from its reel. Thick extension cords grab for his legs. He doesn’t manage to dodge in time, going down with a harsh exhale. The torch sputters against his arm and he holds it up, points it at the spider as he’s dragged quick and efficient over the floor. He doesn’t have time to take precise aim, he can’t compensate for the strange angle he’s being dragged, he doesn’t even have a chance to think anything aside from kill it with fire, before he’s closing his fist over the pressure plate. The fire spews out with a terrible hiss, spiralling into an inferno that covers the entire creature.

The spider shrieks as the fire catches in loose packets of oil that aren’t sealed correctly. The cables slacken around Tony’s legs, allowing him to scramble back and away as the spider scuttles this way and that, the fire licking up its body. The metal starts dripping, the wires collapsing together and sticking, and the spider thrashes wildly. A cacophony of noise starts above him, angry jitters and clicks, and the spiderbot throws itself back against the wall, sending dust and concrete flying everywhere. It continues to shove into it, and Tony realizes it’s rolling, it’s trying to put out the goddamn fire, Jesus Christ, these things are fucking smart.

Before he can get three steps in, two more bundles of eyes detach from the ceiling and fall, landing with pistons clanging. He turns to them, curses himself, and has to back away. The burning spider whines low and then collapses, the wall crumpling around it. Beyond its smouldering corpse is bright light, thick air wafting in and fanning the flames. Tony sucks in a breath, feels that flash of dirty hope that he never tries to think about, and tunes back into the fight.

The two new spiderbots are circling around him, keeping up a constant chatter that sets Tony’s teeth on edge. It’s not just the legs that are familiar, it’s the goddamn language the things are speaking. There look to be only three more spiders on the ceiling when he casts a glance up, but a bundle of those lights look bigger than the rest, heavy in a sense that Tony doesn’t want to think about. The spiderbots chitter at each other and lunge as one.

He ducks under a grab by one leg and almost collides with the other. His hand squeezes the pressure plate and spiderbot one jumps back, fire snapping at its face. He falls under spiderbot two, feet scrambling to stay beneath it. It stomps around him, bases thunking heavy and far too close to Tony’s body as a whole, but its unprotected abdomen is above him now. It’s complexity and lightning contained, just like its cat predecessor, and Tony shoves his hand in and yanks out whatever he can find.

There’s the hiss of displaced air and a thick cable catches around one of his legs, yanking him away with an angry jerk. He feels something spasm in his knee, punching a shout out of him, and the cable squeals as it drags him toward the pincer mouth of the other spider. He hefts the torch and sends it skittering back and away. The things are fucking learning.

He keeps the fire on the second one as he arches his head back. Spiderbot one is moving drunkenly, its legs shifting and falling under it. Heavy ropes of wires drag along the floor, spitting sparking fuel over the floor. It crashes into the ground before pulling itself back up, mechanical antennas waving wildly. The other spider hasn’t reeled him in yet, snapping angry jaws at him as it tries to move around the fire. He hears more than sees two more spiders detach from the ceiling. When he looks up, eight large dots still hide in the darkness, bleeding soft.

The new spiderbots swarm him immediately and he sends a lurch of fire straight above. The spiders hiss as they back away, and one spiderbot detaches to attend to its wounded companion. Tony jerks against the wire still holding his leg and, as he feels it tug him closer to the waiting pincers, lets the numbers run.

The solution hits him three point two seconds later and he cuts off the fire. The spider not holding him lets out a crow of triumph, scrambling toward him on unstable legs. There’s an answering warning, a straight up screech of despair as Tony waits for the spider to land on top of him before lighting it up. It’s a risky move, a stupid move, could get him killed, but he needs to thin out the herd. The spiderbot goes up just like the other, fire catching against leaking wires. It’s a ball of condensed flame right above Tony’s head and the heat is unbearable, and Tony ducks his face against his shoulder, feels blisters bubble up against his ear and neck. It shrieks and runs, feet scrambling frantic over the concrete. It finds the same wall as its sibling, slamming repeatedly against it, and Tony ignores it in favour of the one slowly dragging him to his death.

It stalls when Tony turns the torch on it, hissing in annoyance before letting the wire go slack and retrieving it. Tony doesn’t move, wary of this new tactic, and the spider fake lunges at him before circling him slowly. He follows it with his whole body, sitting up to get a better aim. That’s when he sees that its sibling is repairing the other one. Fuck.

He yanks off one of the canisters, ignores the burns that peel back his skin. He yanks open the top, tosses the cap to the side. The spiderbot crouches, its abdomen arching up and out, and the cable sails toward him. He ducks as it speeds past, tossing the can of gasoline at the tail end of it. The cable snatches it up and the spider starts reeling it in, curious at its catch. Tony grins. He waits until it’s almost at the mouth, until the can will do the most damage, and lets the fire roar to life on the thin trail it left behind. The fire races toward the spider and it has a moment to howl, to shriek in anguished certainty, before it blows. The explosion blasts heat against Tony’s face and his scream is drowned out by the fire burning away into silence.

Tony takes a minute, clearing the bubbles from his eyes. Standing takes a lifetime, focusing an eternity, and ignoring the blistering of his fingers and angry pull over his cheek and ear is a herculean task. The other two spiderbots are stalled in the repairs, the healthy one stepping in front of its sibling, and this is freaking Tony out. The spiders are strangely intelligent, learning his movements before proceeding, adjusting for previous attacks, and correcting errors as they go along. And now – now they are protecting one another, much like that of a family. He’s uncertain what level of AI they have, but the fact that they have AI of this caliber at all sends a frightened chill down Tony’s spine.

There’s a rumble above him and Tony forgot, shit, shit, and lights flare as the ceiling is lit up with dazzling lights. Above him, crouched in the thick rafters of metal and sheets, is a spiderbot with an abdomen the size of a truck. Its legs grasp at the ceiling and the metal bars, and its eyes are CCTV’s zooming and focusing on Tony. It lets out a gargled snarl, and Tony can’t even start running before cables are shooting down at him, catching him around his waist and one of his legs, yanking him up and off the floor. He scrambles at the cords, lets the torch set them alight, but nothing deters it. It doesn’t have pincers, but a thick crushing jaw lined with jagged metal, its tongue licking fire. He fights with the panic, tries to clear out the cluttered warning warning pulsing in his head. He can do this.

The cables are carrying him up faster than he can come up with a plan and he hefts the torch, ready for one last stand. He’ll go down fighting, dammit. And then his eyes catch on the canister, on the way it shivers almost full of fuel. He scrambles to get it free, ignores the way his fingers want to recoil, and almost loses it. He can feel the heat bleeding off the massive spiderbot, can taste the fumes in the air, and breathes it all in deep.

“Say hello to Shelob for me,” Tony says and chucks the canister into the spiderbots gaping maw.

There is a moment of stunned silence, the spider blinking all eight eyes at him, before the mouth slams closed. The explosion rockets through every wire, every plate, catches against the insides and turns them liquid and sloppy. The cables slacken around him and the panic paints his vision red. He gets a cable around his arm, feels the cord go lax, and starts falling. His fingers slip against the heavy metal, blood painting the outside brilliant red as he falls. The spiderbot shrieks, its entire body caving in as the fire sucks in oxygen, licks up the fuel, wipes off its mouth, and goes for more. There’s a terrible crackle and the abdomen blows up. The ceiling gathers most of the flame, most of the concussive force, before snapping outwards and reaching for the sky with a boom.

The explosion makes Tony lose his grip and he’s scrambling for a hold, for anything but the torch hinders him as he falls. The cables are scant inches from his fingers and he’s falling too far, falling too fast, he’ll die without the armour (thirty seven), he needs to find a handhold (twenty nine), but he’s clutching at air. He kicks his legs out (twenty two), flails his arms out (nineteen), and something catches. A cable wraps thick around his injured leg, jerking him to a stop with a vicious snap, and something gives in the soft muscle of his knee. He’s screaming but he’s fighting to get a better hold, letting his vocal cords do their own thing as he gets another cord around his wrist. He ignores the curl of pain crouched in the corner of his vision as he gets his leg free, dangling by his wrist. He carefully lets the cable snake through his hand, bites his lip to shreds at the bloody skin being torn off with every inch.

When his feet touch the floor he collapses. The ceiling above him is smouldering debris and brilliant blue tinged sky. He can’t get a solid breath in, his hand leaving smeared bloody fingerprints over the floor, and his knee thrumming a painful beat he can’t follow. The ceiling creaks dangerously, all that dead metal smouldering hot and precarious above him, and Tony wants to sob. He grits his teeth instead, uses the torch to sit up, and has to take a second to clear the zeroes from his eyes.

Tony jerks up, eyes immediately going to the space where the other spiderbots still lie in wait. The two of them are dead though, red eyes black and silver cubes expired. They are sweetly tucked against each other, metal legs entwined. They died in fear, in uncertainty, and Tony feels his lips curl bitterly. He killed their mother, their queen. It makes something flutter in pain in his chest. He looks at them and he doesn’t see machines.

The ceiling gives another threatening groan and Tony knows he won’t get his damaged leg under him in time before the ceiling crumples like wet paper-mâché. Yanking off the torch, he works on getting disconnected, sucking in ragged breaths as the power jolt nearly knocks him out. Once he’s free, once the torch is beside him, and he can flex his fingers, he takes another look at the ceiling. He has about three and a half minutes to crawl his way free before all of his fighting is for naught.

Dragging himself across the floor lacks dignity, but if he’s right, his kneecap just blew out as he was falling so he doesn’t care. Every shift hurts, every pull drags, every move makes him want to curl into a ball and just give up. He puts one hand in front of the other, digs with his damaged fingers for any type of handhold. The wall looks leagues away, miles and miles that he doesn’t seem to be covering. Fiery metal slams down beside him and he rolls without thinking, stares at the smouldering remains of a foot panel. He looks at the wall. He’s not going to make it like this.

Standing sends him reeling and he has nothing to stabilize with. The pain is a constant blare in his head and when he finally convinces his body that, yes, it can support his weight long enough to get out of here, he tries again. His leg buckles the first step and he climbs to his feet again, convinces himself all over, and this time manages to get a shuffling ten feet before his knee gives. But it’s progress, he’s almost there, the wall no longer a daunting task. His fourth time gets him to the spider siblings, and he uses one of the legs as a support beam while he catches his breath. The spiders are tangled up in the wall, leaving very little room to just walk through and he contemplates just how he’s going to do this. The numbers tell him it will include pain. A lot of pain.  

He gets about half way through their tangle of limbs, using the legs and various chunks of rock to support himself, when the ceiling gives that final warning. Rumbling rips the silence and Tony scrambles, but he’s moving too slow, allowing for too many safeties. Gathering his legs under him, he grabs one of the spider’s legs and vaults over the remainder. He lands on the other side in a heap, brain shutting down as he hits the ground. He doesn’t know how long he was out when he wakes up, just that the exit is partially blocked by dense rubble and twisted metal.

When he turns to look at his new resting place, his knee gives a sharp jerk. Groaning, he stretches out, his skin tight and brittle around freshly healed scabs. He can’t feel his hand. His shoulder is a mess of dried blood and leaking new. The skin around the right side of his face is blistered and angry and touching it brings tears to his eyes. His throat is scratchy with thirst and his stomach actually lets itself be known, though it’s almost drowned out when Tony tries to sit up.

He finds himself in a hallway, walls a depressing white, and grating under his hands. The ceiling is at least clear to him, fuzzy lights flickering with sputtering life. Doors stretch down both sides, most ajar and holding darkness. The silence is less here, interrupted by the hiss of technology, and it’s never been a sweeter sound. Tony smacks his lips and sucks in a breath. Standing up. He can do standing up.

 “Okay, no, fuck, fuck.”

Sitting on the grating, he stares down at his knee. His lips twist. He needs a makeshift crutch, something to cover for the loss of functional limb. He glances at the hole in the wall, can see one of the legs mostly uncovered by rubble. It’ll take time. But as nothing has attacked him yet, maybe he has it.

 Crawling over, he gets his fingers inside the seams, starts plucking wires free and disconnecting bars. When he yanks free the last cable, the leg tumbles to the floor, a thick mess of panels and joints. There’s a greyed out cube sitting pretty in the knee and he pries it off, tucks it in with the other two secreted in his pocket. He’ll need to strip it down to the knee joint for it to be usable.

Fog creeps over his vision as he works and he tries to toss the pain equations away whenever his scalded and bloodied fingers squeeze too hard. It takes him nineteen minutes, but he finally manages to strip most of the thigh away, leaving the knee and leg for his use. Propping the metal against the wall, he climbs up it, standing on one leg. Getting the joint under his arm, he lifts it and it screeches forward. Noisy, but usable. Tony grins. “One star, Stark.”

Using his metal leg, he treks down the hallway, peering into doors as he shuffles by. Many are offices, gutted and unusable. He comes across what looks like a lunch room and makes a beeline for the vending machines tucked in the corners. The glass casing of the food machine is cracked and broken, and he uses the leg to bash in the rest. Tucked inside are candy bars and chips, mouldy donuts and dried up crackers. He reaches in and grabs the chocolate bars, grabs the chips. He forces himself not to look at the expiration dates.

The machine beside is a cooler, and getting it open takes both brains and brawn. The side code is easy enough to hack, allowing him access within seconds, but the door sticks, rusted over with disuse. Getting his fingers in the cracks, he tugs, pulls, yanks until it gives under the pressure, sending him tumbling back against the floor, his metal support crashing with a clang. Tony stares up at the ceiling, letting his mind think of all the fun ways he could blow up a vending machine, before checking to see if he won. Water bottles hang in the coiled spaces, beautiful, gorgeous water, and Tony ignores his crutch to crawl forward and grab twenty.

The first splash of water against his tongue makes him groan. He doesn’t pace himself, which, he should know better by now, Steve always lectures them about this, but it’s like finding sleep after a three day stint in the lab. He can’t stop, won’t stop, and the water splashes down his chin and over his shirt. His stomach rolls, he gags, and then he’s throwing up water as his body rejects it. Gasping, he leans back against the machine and lets himself calm. The itch in his throat is increased tenfold by his body refusing the water, and he stares down at the army of bottles around him.

“Fine, Steve, you win, I’ll pace myself,” he says, cracking the top of another. He takes small sips and the euphoria of it makes him shudder. He tears into a chocolate bar and bites off a chunk, closing his eyes as he leans back and rests.

The reminder of Steve paints his thoughts with a warm bed and warm hands, relaxation and the closest thing Tony has to love. He tries to remember how Steve sounds, but his head is full of chittering spiderbots and the screech of metal against metal. He tries to remember his scent but his nose clogs with gunmetal oil and leaking gasoline. He bangs his head back against the vending machine and reminds himself that Steve will find him. Steve always finds him. 

Why is he always the damsel in distress in those scenarios? 

Refueled and armed with another bottle of water, Tony marks the lunch room with a small x in his head. He’s getting a map of the place, a layout, and hopefully he’ll find a goddamn exit. The ceiling’s explosion had given him hope. Now he needs a place to direct it to.

Shuffling along the hallway, he turns the corner and recoils, hard. In his path is another mechanical spider, this one slumped against the wall. Its cubes are greyed out and Tony sucks in a relieved breath through his nose. It’s larger than the others, almost the full height of the hallway he’s standing in, and its body is actually armoured where the others hadn’t been. Further down the hall is another, its legs curled under it in death. Tony realizes killing the queen had destroyed the others. He’s almost glad for the popped knee cap now.  

 He studies the remains but doesn’t touch it, keeping a safe distance from the limbs that are sprawled into the spaces. He’s uncertain if contact will revive them and he’s in no condition to figure that out. Getting around it takes time, the greyed out cubes taunting him. He has to remind himself that he has three, he has enough. When he bypasses it, there’s a long stretch of glass wall. Through it is a factory floor and there are hundreds of those spiderbots, all in various states of repair. Their cubes are burned out though, dead camera eyes rolling in their heads. Tony stares, flicks off numbers in his head, and they looked to be building themselves. The queen, the one he destroyed, had been controlling them all. She had been the master control. Tony feels sick.

“Where am I?” he wonders aloud, touching the glass. There’s a computer terminal flickering with life just beyond the army of spiders, and Tony gnaws on his lip. He keeps reminding himself that contact might restart them, contact might transfer over files needed for the spiderbots to revive, he can’t risk it. But the flickering light is pulsing, calling, asking him to learn. He closes his eyes, runs the percentages, and shakes his head. He has less than a one percent chance of survival if those things come alive again. But –

Tearing himself away from the wall, he moves as fast as he can down the hallway, until the glass wall of tempting treasures is hidden behind a cracked corner. He leans against the wall and opens his water bottle, takes a sip. That had been a production line. Were there others? Were there three other rooms filled with catbots and Mark I’s? Where is he?

This hallways has more rooms, the doors bashed in or rotted off. But it’s a single white door that’s locked that catches Tony’s attention. Tony leans against it and it groans, the bolts rusted and weak. He lets the numbers run as he contemplates the area he’s in as a whole. So far, he’s seen an arena a good fifty feet high, a production line of spiderbots, a lunch room, and what amounts to a head executive’s office right in front of him. The place has been abandoned for about five years, the lights on their last leg and many of them no longer holding on. But there’s a life here, the bots are proof of that, and someone had dropped him right in the middle of it. If his calculations are right, which they always are, he’s underground. Getting out is going to be a bitch.

The numbers come back complete and he shifts his weight, leaning both himself and the leg against the weaker part of the door. There’s a shriek, the bolts ripping away from the wood with a last ditched effort to cling, and the door falls through. Tony catches himself before he goes with it, coughing at the swirl of dust that digs into the air. When he blinks it away, he’s looking into what is indeed an executive office. Oily light shines off the oak desk, the chair plush and black. He steps light, eyes scanning the interior. There is a couch off to the side, thick leather heavy with down, throw pillows lined up neatly along the sides. A rug of plump thread squishes welcome under his feet and the desk is neatly organized folders and pens. A laptop sits shut and solemn in the center of the desk. Files cover the far wall, each earmarked with a number, and there’s something off about the whole scale of it. He realizes when he gets to the center.

This room is clean.

He whirls, fear climbing up his spine a heady drug. The silence crushes down on him and he stumbles, breath panting out of him as he waits for it. The tick tick of electricity muffles the eager quiet and he calms the rush in his veins, calms the clarity flicking over his eyes. He needs to get out. Now.

The leg thumps against the floor as he makes his way out again, ignoring the itch to turn around, ignoring the need to go through every inch of that office and find what he needs. There are monsters in the shadows there, traps spring loaded and ready for him to trip up. He won’t.

The hallway is blessedly calm when he steps out and he moves with a new purpose. He strikes lucky when, at the very end of the hallway, is a shining metal elevator door. His finger shakes as he presses the button, foolish hope a pulse in his chest, and when he hears the wires moving, when he hears the electric hum of an elevator following orders, he almost collapses.

The doors open and it’s an elevator, an honest to god elevator, and Tony pumps his fist into the air. His ticket out. But something stalls him, something in the back of his mind humming a warning, and he stares at the interior. He can’t leave yet. He can’t flee this cursed place. He turns and looks down the hallway, at the door he knows is open, at the hallway beyond where there is a production floor and an arena. He needs to blow it all up. He needs to destroy it so it can no longer be used.

The elevator hums music at him as he thinks. The easiest solution would be to fire up the spiderbots in the production line. Their bodies would house the concussive force needed to blow the entire thing sky high. Except his torch is buried under thousands of pounds of rubble. He’ll need another plan, perhaps a destruction button hidden in a laptop.

“Dammit,” he says, pushing a hand through his hair. “Okay, okay, no torch, no weapon, no codes, no ideas, and the best solution is in a room far too neat not to be booby-trapped. You’re back to zero stars, Stark.”

But it’s an idea.

He looks longingly at the elevator, listens to its cheerful hell music, and turns his back on it. He starts the trek back to the exec room. When he gets there, he’s cautious. He picks up a hunk of plaster and throws it at the desk, at the laptop. It skitters over the desk, bumps the laptop off center, and falls to the floor. Nothing happens, but that means shit all. His metal leg clanks against the floor, his feet whisper soft over the rug, and he’s staring down at the desk, at the laptop that he knows will be his salvation. Or his damnation.

He pokes at it with a pen, shifts it until it’s practically hanging off the edge. He listens to the silence, but it’s quiet under the hum of electric lighting. Sucking in a breath, he picks up the laptop.

Something shifts.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he chants, tucking the laptop under his arm and scrambling to get out, metal leg more hindering than helpful. But he can’t run on his damaged knee, he can’t goddamn move without his crutch. When he gets out into the hallway, there is a familiar scuttle shifting in the air now, twisting into a crippling fear that punches Tony right in the gut. The elevator is still open, just waiting for him to launch himself inside, to protect him. The adrenaline slams into his brain and he drops the crutch and runs.

His leg protests but he doesn’t care, it won’t fail him now, it will obey him, he’s almost free. There’s an angry screech, something slamming into the wall behind him and he doesn’t look back, can’t afford it, and the elevator is right there, right there. A displacement of air, the whip of a cord being dispersed, and Tony dodges to the side, knocks into the wall as a cable sails by him. He doesn’t stop moving, pushes off the wall and keeps going, and when he crashes into the elevator, he slaps a hand over as many buttons as he can.

Turning, he sees them. The hallway is cluttered with spiderbots, their legs scuttling over each other, tangling in each other, fighting with each other. Each one scrapes against the ceiling, metal skeletons completed with a bright silver cube. The lights are blocked out by their bodies, nightmares spiralling out as they swarm toward him. The chittering renders the silence and he’s frantic now, slapping the close door button over and over. The spiders screech as one, arch as one, and thick cords hiss as they’re released. Tony scrambles to the side but there’s no safety, there are too many cables, he’ll be torn apart. There’s a clang of metal against metal as the doors swish closed and Tony collapses.

He reaches up and stabs his finger into the L button, shaking so hard he’s coming apart. He can’t feel his leg, his lungs are burning, and his head is lighter than air. Priorities though. Looking down at the laptop clutched against his chest, he eases it open. Inside are those strange letters again, numbers collecting in the corners, and he squints his eyes as the elevator starts moving. The keyboard – he stalls, stares, because no. No. This isn’t right.

His fingers fit over keys he knows too well and how, how did this maniac get a hold of his keyboard design, how did this person implement it into a laptop, what is happening? He stares at the strange language that flickers over the laptop but he doesn’t understand it. Relief catches in his throat and he starts clicking around, tries to make heads or tails of the entire thing, but the cipher onscreen is something he’s never seen before. The light dings and the elevator doors open before Tony can stop them. He freezes, staring at the wall of the elevator, the wrong way around for this situation.

The silence is not comforting.

Shifting, he carefully peers around the side. The elevator has deposited him in what is basically a warehouse floor. There are empty boxes off in the corner, but that’s it. The walls are sheet metal, the roof the same, and the floor is heavy concrete. An exit sign flickers barely just off to his left, a push bar the only thing between Tony and freedom. He looks around for cameras, spots three in each corner of where he is, and ducks back into the elevator.

Wiggling back until he’s further in the corner, Tony uses the universal search shortcut, grinning when a box pops up. He types in self-destruct and the letters squiggle out. His search yields nothing and he thumps his head against the elevator wall. Thinking, he tries again: terminate. One option pops up.

He stares at the file for a long while before double clicking. Streams of code, lines of numbers, twists of unknown letters, flash before him. He touches on one, understanding rushing him. At the bottom is a space for completion. He looks over the code again, at the spiralling beauty, and hesitates.  

This is something he knows. This is something he understands.

His knee throbs and he’s dragged sharply back to reality. Shaking, he types in the last line. It takes less time than finding the damn program in the first place. His finger hovers over the enter key and with a sharp breath, he hits it.

There’s a rumble under him and he scrambles out of the elevator, falling just before the door. The elevator shrieks, cables come apart beneath it as fire tumbles below, and it falls with a howl. The laptop sparks in his grip, electricity crawling over the surface, and Tony releases it with a yelp. It sizzles in front of him, biting lightning, and Tony watches as the screen blows out. He wastes precious seconds struggling to understand and the ground rolls under him. He gets his legs under him, the ground bucking with destruction, and Tony needs to get out now. The door gives easy under his hands and he falls out into sunlight.

He’s blinded, doesn’t know where he’s going, just runs straight as the numbers allow him. There’s a concussive boom, the ground thundering under his feet, and he loses his footing. He goes down hard, rolling on hot tarmac, and the entire warehouse is groaning as it leans. He calculates the angle, realizes it’s falling away from him, and gets to his feet again.

With a resounding thud, the entire structure collapses. The area bleeds smoke, thick and heavy into the air, and Tony watches fascinated. He fights back the need to collapse, fights back the horror that he lost that amazing piece of technology, and turns on his heel. He needs to leave. He needs to find safety.

The sun bears down on him, a heavy weight that he hasn’t felt since Afghanistan. His mouth tastes like congealed blood and motor oil, heavy against his tongue and thick over his teeth. The sun has softened its harsh glow, and before him is a parking lot. Its empty park lines crash harsh over his eyes. There’s a chainlink fence around most of it, before a chunk branches off and evolves into a road.

He makes his way to the entrance, staggering steps, and misses his crutch like a lost limb. His movements are jerky and uncertain, regardless of the corrections the numbers are running on overdrive. The road burns, but he can’t quite feel it, his feet numb as the rest of him. 

There’s a mirage hanging over the road as he walks, sand rolling over the grass and nothing but blue sky in front of him. The pine trees jut out of the sand dunes and Tony has to shake away the hallucination. He sorts through the reels in his head until he manages to differentiate between Afghanistan and here. The desert blows away and the grass is dying gold around him. No wonder he mistook it for sand.

He misses coffee. He misses Dummy. He misses when things made sense.

He wonders if the Avengers caught wind of the explosions yet, if anyone has, and he hopes that he made at the least the six o’clock news. He peers up at the sun, trying to gauge time, and has to duck his head back down when his vision fuzzes. The road is a ribbon that cuts off jagged in the distance and he wonders how long it’ll continue until he finds the seam.

He can’t actually feel his shoulder when he focuses on it, but the ripped skin of his palm still stings every time he flexes his fingers. He wonders if the trickle behind his ear is a new wound he didn’t catalogue. He does so now and has to focus on putting one foot in front of the other, step-step-stepstep and he’s not going in a straight line.

He adjusts for the limp. The tarmac is burning, heat waves playing tag over the painted white lines, and Tony turns on his heel. He almost falls, almost lets himself, he’s so tired, so done, but allows his knees the adjustment. The smoke still ribbons into the sky, but it’s further now, and he can’t see the chain link fence anymore. The road cuts off at the seam in the distance and when Tony turns his head, the other end is just as serrated, just as broken. He wonders when the road decided to trick him.

There’s a split second where he doesn’t remember which way to turn, doesn’t remember which way, the smoke curling in both directions, bleeding red and flying right toward him. He frowns. That’s not right. The smoke begins to take shape, begins to resemble something frighteningly familiar, and Tony thinks, deliriously, that this is it. This is how he’ll die. Of course one survived. Of course it’s coming after him now. He hiccups a laugh. He ran from a goddamn horde, what more does this maniac want from him?

The smoke twists into a humanoid and lands before him. There are words coming from this one but his ears aren’t working right, clogged with blood and machinery and leaking numbers. He backs away, his feet sticking momentarily, and the robot moves fluid toward him. There is no jerk of springs or squeak of steps; a hammer sticks out where its hand should be and Tony laughs, because of course.

“I have a question,” Tony slurs. The robot stalls, which, surprising. Okay. Talking. That works. “Most start with the general ‘why’, and that is a big one, but let’s not bother with that because, frankly, the answer frightens me, I think I have it figured out, and just, bad form. No, my question will be simplified: why the production lines? What were you hoping to accomplish? Your creator obviously gave you a voice box so you could taunt me, but let’s skip that and go right for the melodramatic speech about world destruction and whatnot. No, you know what, nevermind, I know how that spiel goes, let’s just get it over with. Attack me. Take me down. I promise I won’t dismantle you like everything else. Look, my torch is gone! Well, it’s been gone for a while but still, I’m sure you saw the footage from the spiders. Come at me.”

Tony tapers off and the bot approaches him, both arms out and coming straight on. It doesn’t make sense; the fact that the bot can fly gives it a distinct advantage, but it’s not taking it. Tony scatters his thoughts, lets them get caught in the circuitry before rebooting his entire battle plan. He’ll have to go with smarts because he certainly doesn’t have brawn right now. The AI had progressively gotten smarter the more he faced, which means this one will be smart. Too smart.  He has to stop thinking and just react. Spontaneity. 

The road is banked by sparse trees, which, generally unhelpful but potentially useful. His feet stick and when he looks down, there are bloody prints leading back toward the facility he blew up. He wonders if that’s how the bot found him. Stupid move, Stark.

His momentary lapse in concentration allows the bot to shorten the distance between them and Tony has to act now. It’s still talking, garbled words that begin to take on meaning when Tony focuses. But focusing on the words won’t help him, focusing on the lack of wiring or how the numbers stall in his head, crumbling behind his eyes like paper dolls, focusing on himself won’t help. Spontaneity. Now. Do it now.

Tony turns on his heel, winces as his knee gives momentarily, but he corrects for the stumble, catches the side of the road at the right angle. He’s in the trees, legs pumping but he’s uncertain for how long. He ducks behind trees, backtracks, moves in zigzags, gets himself turned around as much as he can in hopes that the bot won’t track his trajectory. The pain is a constant focus, so he turns his mind onto questions. There’s that damn why again. Why is this bot different? Why does it move so easily? Why does it have the fluidity of a human but the capacity to fly?

His foot catches a root and he goes down hard, the scream ripping from him on instinct. He clutches dead pine needles in his hand, blinks the spots in his eyes into larger circles, and has to fight not to scream again. The pain is encroaching upon his thought processes, turning him sluggish, and he can’t, he can’t, he can’t. Sucking in a sharp breath, he sobs out another, and thinks. Why does it have the fluidity of a human but the capacity to fly? All bots, regardless of how advanced their creators are, have little tells that give them away. This one doesn’t. Come on, Tony, the solution is there, the solution is –

The bot lands in front of him, soft leather boots giving way to a crouched figure cloaked in a red cape. The answer carries lightning and wind, poptarts and mead in its wake. Tony lets the name tumble on his tongue and out into open air, relief so palpable that everything else rushes back in where adrenaline once was. His arm is searing, an agony so sharp that Tony rolls, arching his back in hopes that it will stop. His head throbs, his ribs crackle; his feet feel like they’ve been melted. His knee is a mess of pain receptors and numbing agents, which is highly disconcerting as he can feel the calf below it.

“ – thony!” And there it is: noise, full on surround sound, and it’s his name of all things. He looks up at Thor, blinded still by pain, and the Asgardian crouches down. His hair is a halo of gold, the blood of his cape creating a strange counter to the shine of his armour. It’s fairytale-esque; all that’s missing are the adorable woodland creatures and music. Tony closes his eyes and Thor thunders his name, crackling in the air like lightning held.

“I’m here,” Tony says, and Thor hovers over him until Tony opens his eyes. “I’m here, I’m fine, well no, because, fuck, I feel everything. I’m still breathing, don’t know how really because I think I’ve lost more blood now than I ever did in Afghanistan, so you should probably medic. That or just pick me up, regardless I’m not moving again.”

Now that Tony is allowing the pain to become a thing, his vision is sharper, stunning colour kicked up by endorphins no longer doing their job. Thor’s face is a mask of torment and worry, dirt across his cheek and soot over his brow. He reaches out, gentling his hold, and Tony hisses at the press of his hand.

“Anthony,” Thor says, anguish marring his tone and his touch and Tony raises his good arm and wiggles his fingers.

“Ignore me, you’re the hero in this tale, Point Break,” Tony says. Thor shakes his head, touches light on Tony’s hair.

“Give me a name,” he grates. “This foe will not stand, will not breath Midgardian air any longer. I will call forth lightning from all Nine Realms, remove his name from the tomes of the world, bar the doors of Valhalla from him and his kin. Give me a name, Anthony, so I may cast this being into the darkest depths of Helheim.”

“I don’t know.” The words are bitter against his tongue, grate against his teeth and pinch his gums. False. He has a hypothesis, a name playing in the back of his head like toxic. He doesn’t know why though. The big WHY. He doesn’t understand. But all he needs is a slip of information, a time-stamp, access to a computer. He looks up at Thor and bites his tongue.  “I don’t know, I’m sorry.”

“Nay, Anthony, never apologize. It is not the fault of you but of those that dared take you from your home.” Thor shifts his weight, and his hands have a bit more force behind them, curling under his shoulders and beneath his shattered leg. “My sorrow for you cannot be described, my friend. Brace yourself, for I do not mean to harm.”

Tony tries, he locks every algorithm in place, every practical equation, but it all shatters when Thor lifts him. He knows he’s screaming, can feel the air catching and straining in his lungs, but the sun is bright as pastel watercolour, smeared at the edges and dripping off the canvas. Thor’s words are nothing but sound splattered over jerky lines and the wind catches in his hair and along his arm. He can’t move but it’s warm here, warmer than the tarmac that stuck to his feet. It tastes of safety. It smells of freedom. It feels like home. He hunkers down and let’s himself fly.