“It is always the best policy to speak the truth.
Unless of course, you are an exceptionally good liar.”
– Jerome K. Jerome.
The mind of Anthony E. Stark was like a piano – polished, brilliant and unpredictable.
Then again, there was the matter of the pianist.
Stark Tower, York City, Present Day.
“I just don’t see why it’s necessary for me to be tortured for two hours when the whole point – the whole point Pepper – of my generous donation, was to make sure that I get to do what I want.”
Tony folded his arms across his chest for emphasis. Pepper tapped one pointed shoe on the floor, as if to draw attention to how sharp and pointy her heels were. Tony frowned – who bought her such lethal footwear?
“You helped build the concert hall,” said Pepper, smoothing non-existent creases from her dress. A diamond bracelet glittered on her wrist as she tapped something on her phone.
“Design,” corrected Tony, pointing with a finger, “I designed it. And funded it. And we’re not even going in there today. We’re in the opera-y one. It’s all black and boring. So I can just – “
He made to walk back downstairs, but a hand snagged the collar of his jacket and Tony had to throw out his arms to keep himself from falling flat onto his arse.
“You said you’d come,” said Steve, “I didn’t put on this tux for nothing.”
“Gack,” said Tony, pulling until he could duck out of the grip. He glared at Steve while tugging at his collar with his free hand. He gave an exaggerated cough. Steve rolled his eyes.
“I believe what I said was – ”
“Tony,” said Steve. Just the name. And Tony hated when he did that (not really), especially when he was all tucked away in the sharp lines of his jacket, hair swept back from his face, eyes wide and earnest. You could murder a baby with that face. It was going to be the death of him.
“Steve,” said Tony, raising his eyebrows. Steve only smiled, the corner of his lips twitching upwards. He patted Tony on the shoulder, hand lingering.
“It won’t be that bad,” said Steve, eyes flickering to Pepper. Tony thought he sounded more hopeful than anything else. “I’ve never been to anything like this before – ”
The sound of thundering footsteps and Steve snatched his hand back as Thor – in all his crimson suited glory – said, “Neither have I, Captain! It shall be an enlightening experience for the both of us! Lady Widow informed me it was a tale of love and passion so bright it has lasted through the centuries.”
Steve was starting to look starry eyed.
“Wait, hold up,” said Tony. He pointed an accusing finger at Pepper. “You never said anything about tales of love and passion.”
“It’s Romeo & Juliet,” said Pepper, “What did you expect?”
“Explosions,” said Tony without hesitation, “Explosions, fireworks, real guns on set -”
“Is that safe?” asked Steve, looking alarmed.
“They don’t use real guns,” said Natasha, making all of them jump. Steve did a strange half-twirl which Tony would have teased him about if he himself hadn’t nearly fallen down the stairs trying to turn around fast enough.
“Lady Widow!” exclaimed Thor, beaming at her, “You look beautiful as always.”
Natasha tilted her head and awarded him with a smile like a cat with cream.
“We match,” she said, holding out one gloved hand, “Won’t you be my arm candy?”
Thor laughed, a rumbling laugh that seemed to make the very building vibrate.
“I’m afraid The Hawk would not be pleased,” he said. He took Natasha’s hand anyway and dropped a kiss to her knuckles. Her smile widened. She was seated near the bar table in a thin, wine-red dress and black boots. Somehow, it worked. Tony narrowed his eyes at her, trying to figure out where she was keeping all her knives and guns underneath that dress – it barely covered everything that needed to be covered.
Steve elbowed him none too gently in the ribs.
“Ow!” Tony protested, “Don’t abuse me.”
“It’s rude to stare at a lady,” hissed Steve, cheeks pink. A warm and fizzy sensation lurched in Tony’s chest, somewhere in the vicinity of his arc reactor. He pulled Steve close by his tie and kissed him hard on the mouth. Steve made a noise like a surprised puppy.
“Aww, baby, don’t be jealous,” said Tony, pulling away with a grin.
“Tony!” said Steve, face as red as Natasha’s dress as his eyes darted around the room.
“Steve!” said Tony, because he could.
Thor was laughing his head off, eyes crinkled with mirth while Pepper hid her smile half behind one hand. Natasha was smirking openly.
Tony paused. “Hold on,” he said, “Where’s Bruce?”
“The doctor is busy,” said Pepper, tucking a stray piece of hair behind her ears, “And he’s been gone since yesterday, Tony.”
“Right. The conference. I remember,” said Tony snapping his fingers. Then – “Wait, why am I not at a conference?”
“Because you said it was going to be boring and you didn’t want to go,” Steve said, helpfully. He probably practiced with Pepper, thought Tony uncharitably, looking between the two of them. It was always the pretty ones.
“So now I’m being punished,” said Tony flatly, “I have to watch two teenagers kill themselves because their parents are mmmphhh!”
Steve had clapped one large hand over Tony’s face. He looked halfway between apologetic and horrified.
“You can’t spoil the story for Thor!” he said.
“Mmrrr. Mmph!” said Tony, glaring indignantly. He shook his head, trying to dislodge the hand, but Steve just used his other hand to hold Tony still instead. Pepper looked like she was going to piss her self laughing. Clint chose this moment to poke his head around the door.
“Tasha,” he said, “which tie to I wear?”
“The silver,” she said.
“But you’re wearing red,” said Clint, giving her an appreciative once over.
“Mrrrphmm,” said Tony, gesticulating with his hands.
“No spoilers!” insisted Steve.
“Silver,” said Natasha, giving Clint a smile full of teeth. Hawkeye visibly gulped.
“Okay,” he said, and disappeared again.
“Has he spent the last twenty minutes trying to choose a tie?” asked Pepper, raising one perfectly formed eyebrow. Tony wished he had eyebrows like that. But he didn’t because he wasn’t Pepper. Or Steve. Or Natasha. He squinted at Thor’s eyebrows.
“It used to be worse,” said Natasha – and was that Tony’s vodka she was drinking?
“You bitch!” said Tony. Except it came out as “Ooomprh!”
Steve’s hand was very warm at the base of his neck.
Thor looked politely confused. It was one of his more frequently used expressions.
“I thought you said this was a story of redeeming love,” said Thor, tilting his head at Natasha.
Tony managed to wriggle his way out of Steve’s grasp.
“Everyone dies!” he crows, triumphant.
The Opera House stood at the centre of a rotating dais, surrounded by water. It was an extravagantly elegant thing, a lady in a glass dress and silver shoes. In the night air, the water reflected the shining lights from the building above it, creating the illusion of a city underwater. Orbs of light lit the steps from below, which led up to the wide sweeping arch of the main entrances.
Steve was staring down at the water, wearing a delighted expression he wore whenever something particularly fascinating or pretty caught his eye. He had been like this on the helicarrier, Tony remembered, and had worn the same quiet wonder as they lay on the top of Stark Tower, watching the sky go by. The yellow-orange glow of headlights is reflected in Steve’s eyes as he tapped the translucent step with his shoe, curious, then craned his head back to look at the architecture of the opera house proper. Tony rested a hand at the base of his spine and Steve turned towards him at the touch.
“It’s a very beautiful building,” he says, without a trace of mockery or sarcasm.
“Actually, I didn’t design the bits you’re looking at right now,” said Tony, “But thanks.”
“I imagine there would be a lot more steel if you had designed it,” said Natasha, stepping out of the car. She had one hand looped through Clint’s arm – and the latter looked extremely pleased with himself.
“His name would be above the door,” said Clint.
“Damn straight it would be,” said Tony, unabashed.
There was a chlick! sound, and Tony blinked. Steve had his new phone out at arms length, and had just taken a picture of the opera house. He lowered his arm, studying the screen intently. Tony peered over his shoulder as Steve did something to turn the picture into grainy sepia.
“…Is that Instagram?” asked Clint, who was peering over Steve’s other shoulder.
Steve nodded, saving the picture to his folder. Tony noticed there were a lot of other pictures – all of which had been cropped square and altered to look like Polaroids and washed out film.
“How did you download abomination onto my phone?” Tony demanded, aghast. Steve glanced at him, and if Tony didn’t know better, he would have said it was a sly look. But Captain America wasn’t allowed to look sly, so it must have been the bad lighting.
“It’s my phone. And JARVIS helped me install it,” said Steve innocently, turning the screen off and sliding the phone carefully into his jacket pocket.
“I designed it, so it’s technically still my phone. Oh, JARVIS?” Tony said sternly into his headpiece.
“Why did you feel the need to corrupt Captain Rogers’ tech?”
“So I’m Captain Rogers now, am I?” said Steve. He was grinning to himself, the smug little punk.
“It is within my capacity to assist Captain Rogers in anything he wished to be assisted in, sir,” said JARVIS, “You approved that particular protocol and – ”
“Well, there’s to be no more hipster phone apps,” said Tony, glaring at Steve, “I’m allergic.”
“Very well, sir,” said JARVIS, the raised eyebrow clear in his voice. Even his AI had better eyebrows than Tony – what on earth did he do to deserve this?
“You’re not talking to JARVIS all the way through the opera,” commented Pepper, “You’re going to turn it off.”
“One does not simply turn off JARVIS,” said Tony, widening his eyes. Pepper didn’t seem impressed; giving him a look that someone might have given a particularly rowdy five year old. Tony ignored her in favour of putting on his best indignant face.
“I’ll buy you a proper film camera. I’ll produce film. You’ll have all the film you need. You can do this properly.”
Steve only smiled and patted his arm.
Tony sulked for the remaining forty-three steps to the top.
They passed under a suspended sheet of coloured glass into an airy foyer, which spanned the length of several basketball courts. The ceiling was vaulted, a hundred pinpoint lights hanging from sliver thin steel. Around them were evening dresses and dark suits, well polished shoes and jewellery. Tony put on his sunglasses.
“Did you design this?” asked Steve, looking around. A waist-coated staff member appeared from thin air with champagne, but Pepper waved them off before Tony had a chance to nab one. He pouted – but quickly realised that Steve was too engrossed in the architecture to give him any kind of sympathy. He sighed.
“Nah, just the concert hall. Acoustics, masterful feat of engineering, et cetera,” said Tony, waving his free hand whilst guiding Steve firmly through the crowd with his other at the small of Steve’s back. Tony could see people whispering already, several patrons taking pictures none-too-discreetly.
Wide sweeping staircases covered in velvet branched off towards either side of the opera chamber, winding upwards to various doors that opened into the vast auditorium. Thor, Natasha, Clint and Steve all had premium circle seats, whilst Tony had insisted on a box. Pepper had insisted on chaperoning him in said box, after Tony refused to sit in the general audience.
“So I can sleep in peace,” he said, “or work. Or do whatever I like.”
Steve gave him a disapproving look.
“But you’ll be wasting your ticket,” he protested. Peering up at the box from where they were standing, he frowned. “And you’ll be too far away to see anything properly. Do you want to swap seats? I can see fine if – ”
“No, no,” said Tony, hiding a grimace, “You’ll want to sit where you are so you can see all the subtitles and stuff because I think they’re singing in French.”
“Italian,” said Pepper.
“Unless you want to sit in a nice, comfortable, private, secluded box with me.” Said Tony, waggling his eyebrows suggestively. Steve’s ears went pink.
“No,” said Pepper, simply.
“Will there be mead and wine?” asked Thor.
“I can get you those if you sit in the box seats with –“
“No,” said Pepper firmly. It seemed to be her favourite word of the evening. “No one is not getting drunk at the opera, I refuse to deal with any of the consequences if you do get drunk. It’s the opera!”
Natasha finished whatever she was doing – checking the seats? – and sat down gracefully in hers, flipping open a glossy programme she had conjured out of thin air. Clint muttered something about good karma and sat down next to her, loosening his tie. Tony patted Thor on the arm.
“We can get hammered later, as a reward for surviving this,” he said, and Thor gave him an approving nod.
“Most excellent idea, Tony Stark,” he said, voice carrying across the vast space. Several heads turned. “Now, when is the performance due to begin?”
Tony glanced at his watch.
“Not long – ”
“ – now,” said Arthur.
“And we wait,” said Eames from where he was sprawled in front of a mirror, “Marvellous.”
He had a large, silver watch on his wrist ticking down the silent seconds as Arthur checked over the PASIV for the millionth time, before snapping the lid shut and stowing it a locked cabinet within the en suite bathroom. His own watch was tucked beneath his sleeves, the weight of it almost as comforting as the die in his pocket. He shut the door to the bathroom with a soft snick, moving towards the open laptop on the table and the two cell-phones lined up next to it. Arthur plugged them in, one after the other. On the screen, live footage from the surveillance cameras were playing out in their small box grids. He pulled up a chair and sat down before giving into the niggling sensation of being watched. He glared at Eames without looking up.
“What?” said Arthur, the word dropping short and sharp into the carpet of the private lounge they were occupying.
“I don’t like this,” said Eames. He sounded like he was remarking upon the weather. Arthur snorted, but didn’t pause as he tapped on the keyboard, bringing up the cameras they had planted in the auditorium. The theatre was filling fast, the stage an empty expanse. He called up another camera – the one they had planted in Stark’s private box.
“This being the job,” said Arthur. It wasn’t a question.
“Yes,” said Eames, and Arthur could hear him fiddling with the cuffs at his wrists. When the silence stretched, Arthur was forced to look up.
“Cold feet?” asked Arthur, raising an eyebrow, “You’ve been vague and ominous since we said yes.”
“Ever since you said yes,” corrected Eames. Arthur opened his mouth to reply, brow furrowing, but Eames bet him to it. “Look, I’m not saying I regret taking on the job. Alright yes, that is exactly what I’m saying – I think there’s something Saito hasn’t told us. About Stark.”
“Saito has given us more on the mark than a client can usually – “
“Exactly,” said Eames, standing up and crossing the room until he was close enough to touch Arthur. He didn’t, though. “And that’s why I think he’s hiding something.”
“Of course he is hiding something,” said Arthur dryly, “But I don’t see how that affects us. We have enough. We know enough.”
“And he knows too much,” said Eames, darkly.
“A simple extraction, in and out,” said Arthur “It won’t be more complicated than it needs to be. In all likelihood, we won’t need the second layer at all.”
Eames walked around the table to lean over Arthur’s shoulder, eyes intent upon the screen. Arthur could smell the scent of his cologne, familiar as the hand on his waist. He allowed the moment to stretch on before leaning forwards, dislodging the touch with the movement. Eames didn’t even blink.
“I don’t trust Saito,” he said, “Surely it is easier obtaining the schematics from the military than it is from Stark. Why go to all this trouble?”
“He has a prototype of the reactor,” said Arthur, “Or so he told me. Apparently Stark has made some changes and now Saito wants the new plans. A synthesized element of some kind not even the military have yet. And you know all this, so spit it out, Mr. Eames. We’re on a schedule.”
“I never knew you were one to take people at face value, darling,” said Eames, cocking his head. “Is it because Saito made Cobb a free man?”
A flare of annoyance, hot and painful, burned in Arthur’s throat.
“If you had problems with the job, Mr. Eames, you should have told me earlier so I could find another forger.”
Something flickered in Eames’ expression at that. Was it anger? Arthur stared back steadily, face blank. But before Eames could voice anymore unnecessary doubts, two figures came into view of the camera, snapping Arthur’s attention back to the computer. On screen, Stark had just entered his box, a flute of champagne in one hand and Pepper Pots in the other.
“Oops,” said Eames, as helpful as ever, “That’s a complication.”
Arthur knocked his hand out of the way, tapping the keys to enlarge the screen and turn up the audio. The mark’s voice came through clear above the soft hum of noise in the background, voices floating up from the audience below.
“ – not even going to see the light, that’s why we’re in a box Pepper.”
“I don’t care! You are going to sit and enjoy this cultural experience.”
“Cultural – I’m going to pretend you didn’t just say that.”
Pepper Pots shoved her handbag at the mark before sitting down in an elegant motion of folding limbs. Her hair had been done up in a complicated sort of swirl, and her earrings reflected the warm light of the theatre, glittering. Diamonds, most likely, to match the ones at her wrist and around her neck. The mark did something out of the camera’s line of sight, before sitting down next to her.
“It’s fine,” said Arthur, pulling free one of the phones on the table, fingertips flying over the screen. “Ms Potts will receive an unexpected phone call in twenty-nine minutes. She will take the call outside, leaving the mark alone. I can give us a three minute window. Four, at most. Take him out.”
“I’ll need longer than that to get him back here,” said Eames, “The lifts?”
“Will be empty for you,” said Arthur, reaching beneath the table to pull out a second laptop and booting it. “This may set everything back for a few minutes, but other than that, stick to the plan. Fifteen minutes up top. Our watcher arrives, we go under.”
As Arthur waited for the computer to load, he handed Eames one of the cell phones.
“Saito provided me with the AIs voice. JARVIS. All the sound files are on here – you should be able to speak straight into it. Do you need the surveillance recordings?”
Eames took the phone, their fingers brushing briefly.
“I might have never impersonated a computer before, love,” he said, studying the screen, “But here I’m a human pretending to be a computer pretending to be human. I’m sure I’ll be convincing.”
“You better be,” said Arthur, flatly.
On the screen, the mark had pulled out a tablet and was studiously drawing something with his fingers. Spider-thin blue light illuminated his face. His companion was engrossed in a copy of the programme and Arthur left the footage running in a corner of the screen as he set up the phone-call. Eames was mouthing something to himself, pacing slowly around the room.
Arthur glanced at his watch.
“It’s – ”
“ – a phone call,” whispered Pepper.
Tony gave a mock gasp of shock.
“Pepper,” he whispered back, eyes wide, “The lovely voice from the speakers asked us all to turn off our phones. How could you?”
Pepper rolled her eyes, already tapping the green receive-call button and cupping the device to her ear. She mouthed stay here at Tony with an exaggerated jabbing motion at Tony’s seat, before straightening and ducking out of their box. He could hear her voice over the tenor singing on stage – “…at the opera house right now. What is it?” – before it was drowned out by a swell in the orchestra, music flowing over the rim of the gilded balustrade along the edge of the box. Tony fiddled with his own phone, eyes scanning the dark theatre. Was that Thor’s head? It was particularly tall and particularly blond, so probably. At this distance, he couldn’t really tell.
Tony weighed up his options. He could sneak out now, saving this brain cells from infinite boredom and risk Pepper’s wrath and Steve’s disappointed expression. Or he could stay, enjoying the surprise on Pepper’s face when she came back and he was still here but having to sit through another hours worth of incomprehensible singing and high notes and violins and dramatic weeping and none of the girls were even wearing anything remotely scandalous.
Well. When one puts it like that.
Slipping his phone into his pocket, he quietly got up from his seat and slowly opened the door. A sliver of light fell through and he winced, glancing behind him, then back out to the corridor. It was deserted. No sound or sight of Pepper. Ducking out of the box, Tony closed the door as quietly as he could before striding down the corridor and towards the lifts. Pepper would most likely have gone in the other direction, since she was intending to come back. Tony quickened his steps, down a small flight of carpeted stairs. The walls were panelled in polished wood, the colour of coffee.
It was so smooth Tony could almost see his own reflection – which was how he noticed the figure behind him a split second before he struck.
Tony managed to stop the punch to his face by grabbing his assailant’s wrist. He wasn’t fast enough to stop the other hand that whipped upwards. There was a sharp pain at his neck, and suddenly the floor was a lot closer than it had been a second ago. Tony’s chest felt abnormally tight, the air sluggish and grey. A hand against his pulse, calloused fingers. He felt fear and panic, bitter and vivid, rise up inside him until he could taste it in his mouth. It made him want to gag. For a second, he thought he could see the light filtering through a cloth sack around his head, and smelt cold, dirt and copper blood.
“Fuck,” he slurred, “Why can’t you people just ask politely or something?”
But Tony couldn’t be sure if he said any of it out loud.
“Five thousand now, five thousand when you are done,” said Arthur. The girl – she was barely older than Ariadne; pale, with dark hair tied up in a sleek ponytail – nodded. Her eyes were wide and very green, but her mouth was set in a straight, serious line and her hands were steady as Arthur handed her the money and the iPod. She wore the theatre staff’s uniform of black and white.
“At any sign of trouble, you’re to play that,” he repeated, pointing at the iPod which was hooked up to two pairs of headphones. “Am I clear?”
Tony jerked, blinking when Pepper poked his leg with her shoe. She had her phone in one hand and was smiling down at him with an exasperated expression. The faint light from the lit stage cast a warm shadow upon her skin.
“Did you fall asleep?” she whispered, sitting back down next to him and dropping the phone into her bag, “I wasn’t gone that long.”
Tony rubbed a hand over his face, feeling a little disoriented. On stage, Romeo and Juliet were singing a particularly romantic duet – their words, foreign and lyrical, blurred into each phrase until it was a only haze of sound in the background.
“Sorry,” said Tony, shaking his head to dislodge the strange feeling at the back of his mind, “Yeah, I must have dozed off. The plot is simply gripping.”
Pepper cast him another lingering look, and the fondness beneath her eyes made Tony straighten in his seat like a cat into a gentle hand. The music ebbed and flowed like river tide. The only light came from the stage, and the very faint glow from the arc reactor, hidden beneath Tony’s shirt. For some reason, it was a significant thing, and Tony frowned at his cuff.
Pepper must have mistook the expression for discomfort because she laid her small hand over his, leaning towards him. Concern was etched in her face.
“Are you feeling alright?” she asked, voice low.
“Yeah, yeah I’m fine,” said Tony, waving a hand.
Pepper leaned back in her seat again, and tapped one finger against her own chest.
“It’s not bothering you, is it?”
Tony glanced down at his own chest, unconsciously laying a hand over the arc reactor.
“Nah,” he said, tone as flippant as he could manage it, “haven’t had trouble with it for ages. And Bruce checks every now and then to make sure I’m not you know. Being poisoned slowly and stuff.”
“Yes,” said Pepper firmly, “always.”
Tony adverted his eyes, hand rubbing the place where skin met metal, a smooth, hard edge. It didn’t have the heat of his skin, but hummed beneath the pad of his finger. On stage, the set was changing – the balcony rolling on mechanised grooves in the stage floor as the Capulet ballroom came into view. It was an expensive set, it must have been. Tony watched as Juliet opened a door and glided across the stage, her skirts the colour of spring moss. The audience seemed to breathe out collectively.
Peppers hand was still on his arm, thumb resting over his pulse point. It made Tony frown with the memory of something, but it was grey and insubstantial so he let it go with a shake of his head.
“You never did tell me what was wrong with it,” said Pepper after a long pause. She was watching the stage, but her hand anchored him to her, like a moth to flame. Her perfume was nostalgic.
“Just tech stuff,” he said, but stopped when she gave him a disappointed look. Tony wet his lips. “It’s alright now, Pep. Really. I mean sticking that new element in without any tests wasn’t really ideal but if you’d remember, on that particular occasion, I was off saving everyone in New York – ”
“By blowing things up,” interjected Pepper, but she was smiling so that was what counted. She was smiling a lot this evening. It was good.
Tony shrugged. “And I’ve tweaked everything since then,” he continued, looking back down at his own chest, “It’ll probably keep running long after I’m dead. It could power JARVIS for a century. ”
Then something occurred to him, and he made a ringing motion with his hand.
“By the way, who called?”
“Director Fury,” said Pepper.
Tony straightened in his seat.
“What did he want?”
“Oh, the usual. You to come to meetings, you to let his team analyse your new arc reactor – “
“Over my dead body!” Tony spat, crossing his arms across his chest, “I’ll go to a meeting when I feel like it. That is to say, never. Oh, and it’s a no to the arc reactor too.”
“I told him you were otherwise engaged,” said Pepper smoothly, “Which you are. Don’t even think of sneaking off during intermission, Tony.”
“Nope,” said Tony, tapping one finger against his nose, “No thinking whatsoever. Oh look, Juliet’s been sent to her room. Oh she’s taking off her clothes. I bet Thor is just loving this. Is that a Picasso hanging on her bedroom wall?”
He wondered why no one was telling him to shut up. When he looked over, he realised that Pepper was once again engaged with her phone.
“Just shut the thing off, is it Fury again? Tell him to take a nap.” said Tony, trying to reach of it. Pepper swatted him away, “You’re at the opera!” said Tony, mimicking the way she had said it before. Then he paused. Before?
Pepper only held up a finger for him to be quiet. Tony sank back into his seat – which was very plush and comfortable, thank you – to sulk in boredom. After a moment, Pepper stowed her phone again once more, recrossing her legs so that her skirts rustled.
“I hope you turned that off,” said Tony in mock seriousness, “It’s rude.”
“Shhh,” said Pepper, but her lips twitched upwards in a smile anyway.
The music tugged his sleeves, and Tony was too preoccupied with the warmth and contentedness swirling about his chest to notice that the orchestra was playing Rachmaninov instead of Romeo & Juliet.
By all accounts, Tony Stark’s mind should have been militarised. There was no evidence that Stark Industries dabbled in – or indeed even knew of – dream sharing, but the company he kept had forced Arthur to operate under the assumption that the mark would be militarised from his leather shoes to the collar of his shirt. In the end, he had decided that Agent Romanov was the most likely candidate. And if the mark had been militarised by Natasha…
But so far, the projections had been obliviously calm. Almost too calm – it made Arthur tense with the ease at which the plan was unfolding. The mark clearly did not know it was a dream at all, despite all the holes within the opera and the unsteady lull of the music beneath their feet. Eames’ voice was a constant whisper of doubt at the back of his mind: There’s something we don’t know.
Backstage, the mark’s projections ran around, preoccupied with the show and their various jobs. As Arthur moved through the narrow corridors leading into the wings, he could hear muted conversation in the various dressing rooms as the projections dashed in and out, faces done up with stage makeup. He had altered the layout of the wings so that the projections would be forever trapped in the corridors, running towards the stage and never quite getting there. That should delay them long enough for Arthur to reach the safe in Juliet’s room, hidden in a dollhouse that sat on her dressing table; a set within a set. The house was a mock up of the mark’s Californian villa, all glass and smooth exterior and as soon as the last scene of Act I began, the Capulet set was to be rolled off into the wings where Arthur would be waiting.
His phone vibrated in his pocket. Eames.
Pocketing the phone, made his way past a couple of harried looking dancers, down the corridor and up a flight of stairs. He took care to lock the door behind him, as he past the landings, feeling the lip of the last step fall away – after all these years, it was still his favourite paradox. Taking the last two steps at a jump, Arthur opened the steel door and found himself in the hushed- black of the stage wings. It was deserted, save for the silhouettes of the set and props lined up against the matte painted walls. Light slipped onto the floor from the stage, golden and yellow, pooling around Arthur’s shoes like oil on canvas. The sound of the orchestra masked his footsteps as the audience of projections sat, idle and calm.
Arthur took this to be a good sign – Eames was clearly a very convincing Ms Potts, and the mark had no idea he was dreaming.
Making his way silently to the back of the stage, Arthur gently parted the heavy curtains to survey the stage. There were no projections, only the music from the orchestra pit. He glanced at his watch – the silver clock face illuminated by the light. One minute.
It was too dark to see out into the audience. The stage lights abruptly cut off at the yawning chasm that was the orchestra pit. In the event of any disturbance, Arthur would drop the floor from beneath the orchestra and any projection attempting to make it onto the stage from the auditorium would fall into the drop. It had been Eames’ idea. I always wondered what would happen if you were on stage and fell into it. It had been Paris, Mozart – the Marriage of Figaro. I’ve seen them use nets so that people don’t accidentally fall in and get impaled on an oboe or something.
Arthur had designed this particular orchestra pit to hold the entirety of the Berlin Philharmonic. Unless any projections had acquired the skill to fly, they were not making it on stage.
As if tethered to his thoughts, the music slowed to an end, and the sound of applause rose like summer rain. Arthur tensed, as the mechanised set began to slide towards him, the walls folding upon themselves neatly like paper. Everything compressed until the only thing that remained was a spindly spiral staircase that led up to ‘Juliet’s Room’. Arthur climbed it deftly, shoes silent on the whitewood.
The model-house stood on a wooden vanity the same colour as the stairs, and it opened upon hinges set into the side of the house. It had taken hours to create this, days to obtain the blue prints and fill the house with miniaturised replicas of its real-world self. It was the only way to create a safe for Tony Stark that did not involve replicating the AI that resided within his house. It was near impossible – and not a risk Arthur had been willing to take.
Slowly, he took apart the house, lifting the roof, then the first level from the second. Removing the floor, along with its miniature glass windows, the model revealed a polished steel case. On its side, there was a smooth panel of transparent material, which lit up when Arthur touched it. A grid of blue light appeared, and a voice spoke from behind him.
Arthur had his gun out before the last syllable had been uttered.
There was a man standing before him, dressed in a grey suit. He looked to be in his late fifties, hair greying at the temples and thinning near his forehead. He was wearing a gentle smile that did not reach his eyes, hands clasped behind his back. It was hard to focus upon his face – as if the mark himself did not know who this projection was, and whom it looked like. It was an eerie thing, and sent a jolt of cold down Arthur’s spine.
He kept gun steady.
“Authorisation?” repeated the projection, taking a step forwards.
“Stay where you are,” said Arthur curtly, clicking the safety off the gun. How had the projection gotten into the wings? It made no sense –
“Sir has not authorised your access to the safe. At least, not as far as I’m aware,” said the projection.
It was staring at Arthur with grey-blue eyes, the only thing defined in its face. It was not acting like any projection Arthur had encountered before. A shade, then? Unbidden, Mal’s face, contorted with malice and grief, flashed before Arthurs eyes and for a split second he could feel the slide of a hot blade between his ribs, a bullet shattering his knee.
His free hand was still resting upon the safe, and he shifted, ready to insert the code –
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” said the projection, taking another step forwards.
“I said don’t move,” snapped Arthur, “Who are you?”
“Just another rather very intelligent system,” said the projection, shade – whatever it was, “At your service. Though I do require authorisation first. And you are not authorised to access Sir’s files.”
He waved a hand, casually – and the stage lights suddenly flickered, then plunged them into darkness.
Arthur pulled the trigger.
Eames felt the moment when every single projection in the audience went still, including the orchestra. The silence was deafening and the mark blinked, a crease appearing on his brow. Eames kept his own expression – Pepper Pott’s expression – steady. Then everything went black.
The mark gave a shout of surprise.
“What was that?”
When Pepper got back to the box, it was empty. And when the first act ended and the house lights slowly came back on, she had resigned herself to the fact that Tony had probably escaped and gone off to do God knows what and wasn’t returning any time soon. She hadn’t really expected him to stay put – and wondered briefly if it was Tony who had arranged that phone-call. JARVIS rarely called her on her cell phone and it had been a particularly odd conversation.
She checked her phone for any messages – but none were from Tony. Sighing, she grabbed her bag and left the box. She had barely made it half way down the corridor when Steve appeared at the foot of the stairs, jacket unbuttoned and looking a little flustered.
“Where’s Tony?” he asked, skidding to a stop when he saw her.
“I had to take a call,” said Pepper, wryly, “When I came back he was gone. Probably snuck out.”
Clint appeared at Steve’s shoulder.
“He hasn’t taken Happy, has he? Because I’m going to be pissed if we have to call a cab.”
Pepper obligingly speed-dialled Happy, pressing the phone to her ear. Happy picked up on the second ring.
“Hello,” said Pepper, “I’m just wondering – are you currently driving Tony towards some kind of alcoholic vending establishment right now?”
“I haven’t seen Mr Stark this evening yet, Ms Potts,” said Happy, sounding a little confused, “Should I have?”
“Oh. No – it’s just he’s disappeared,” she said, “Give me a call if you do see him, alright, Happy?”
“Sure will, Ms Potts,” said Happy. “Everything all right?”
“Yes, yes,” said Pepper, “I’m sure he’s just. Wandering around somewhere he shouldn’t be. Thank you Happy.”
“No problem, Ms Potts.”
“He didn’t take the car?” asked Steve, frowning.
“Oh good,” said Clint.
Pepper disconnected the call, dropping her phone back into her bag. She gave Steve an apologetic look on Tony’s behalf, because he was an inconsiderate arse.
“Apparently not,” she said, “Maybe Tony’s just wandering around the Opera house. I’m sure we’ll bump into him. Where are Natasha and Thor?”
“Down in the gallery getting drinks I think,” said Steve, “I noticed that Tony left the box earlier and then didn’t come back so I just –” he blushed, and it was really all very endearing, “ – just thought I’d check on him.”
“You know how he is,” said Pepper soothingly, “I’m surprise he last through the entirety of Act One to be honest.”
They took the stairs to the gallery, which overlooked the glistening water and the city beyond. Waiters wandered between the patrons, holding large silver trays of champagne and small, circular desserts which Steve later discovered were miniature lemon meringues. He took one carefully in a napkin, but couldn’t really enjoy it when Tony was so conspicuously absent. It took even longer for him to realise that the feeling at the bottom of his stomach was disappointment.
Even in the darkness, Arthur’s shot was true and he heard the sound of a body falling – it hit the thin floorboards of the set with a thud that vibrated through his shoes. It did not get back up, but it was another long moment before Arthur lowered his gun. Out in the auditorium, the projections were far to quiet – it made cold with unease.
The only light came from the glowing surface of the safe, and without further delay, Arthur tapped in a long sequence of numbers that Eames had given him. He let out the breath he had been holding when the metallic safe slid back to reveal –
It was a miniature model so fine, Arthur could barely make out the details –a map of some sort, with small buildings, roads and even trees rising from its surface. There was a metallic globe at the centre, sitting upon a raise dais of steps that branched out onto grey roads that spider-webbed across the model. There were no plans, no schematics.
Then, that same voice:
“I did say it would be inadvisable to open that, sir.”
It didn’t take Steve, Clint and Pepper long to find Thor and Natasha – Thor was so tall Steve spotted him almost immediately from the other side of the room. He had an empty glass in one hand and was talking to white-haired gentleman. Natasha stood to his side, reclining on a curving velvet chair like a particularly dangerous cat, drinking wine the colour of her dress. She smiled when she saw them.
“Friends!” Thor boomed, grinning from ear to ear, “This wise fellow was just telling me a wonderful tale behind the performance. Did you know that the fair maiden Juliet was usually played by a young boy?”
“Yeah buddy,” said Clint, “We know.”
“Did you enjoy Act one?” asked Pepper, smiling at Thor’s enthusiasm.
“Indeed I did,” said Thor grandly, “Particularly the sword fight at the beginning. That was most entertaining.” He went on to describe, with large hand gestures, how the performance compared to sword fights (“Grand duels of valour!”) on Asgard. Soon he had a little group of captive listeners and Steve ducked away to find a quieter corner. Eventually he found an unoccupied spot next to a large oil painting and a giant vase of flowers, and dug his phone out of his pocket.
Steve liked to think that he was getting the hang of technology. Living in Stark Tower probably helped speed up the process considering he could barely make coffee in the morning without something electronic and sentient talking to him or washing his cutlery or… But cell phones were always awkward in his hands. His fingers felt too large on the tiny screen and Steve had accidently crushed a few phones before Tony made him one that was a little sturdier.
Luckily, everyone he actually needed to talk to via a phone was on speed-dial. Bringing up the call-menu, Steve pressed the number ‘2’ and held the phone to his to his ear. He didn’t realise he had been holding his breath until the brrrring tone switched over to voice mail, and he exhaled.
“I’m busy, or having a good time without you… so leave a message and you may get a call back. Bye!”
“Hey. Um, it’s Steve. Just wondering where you are because Pepper said that Happy said you hadn’t taken the car and – “ Steve pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling like an idiot because Tony probably wouldn’t even check his messages until next week. “ – anyway. Send me a message when you get this, please.”
He had hung up before a thought occurred to him. Steve pressed the number ‘1’. It didn’t even ring – a calm, eternally unruffled voice spoke:
“Good evening Captain Rogers. How may I be of assistance?”
“Hello JARVIS,” said Steve, “Could you please tell me if Tony is home?”
“He is not currently here, no,” said JARVIS, serenely, “I was under the impression he was with you, sir.”
Steve wondered if JARVIS actually could be ‘under the impression’ of anything. So far, he seemed pretty all knowing. Then he realised he had started to think of the AI as a he and if that wasn’t a sign of Tony’s influence then it was clearly the 21st century’s fault in general. JARVIS seemed to read the pause as a negative.
“Would you like me to find out Mr Stark’s location for you?”
“You can do that?” Steve blurted, “I mean – isn’t that dangerous? What if I’m not…me?”
“I should think I would be able to tell the difference, Captain,” said JARVIS, and Steve really couldn’t tell if he was being made fun of or if he had offended JARVIS – could computers even be offended? Tony’s seemed to possess an abnormal amount of personality. Steve cleared his throat, feeling awkward.
“Then yes please,” he said.
“One moment,” JARVIS replied.
A touch on his elbow made Steve turn – but he recognised the scent of Pepper’s favourite perfume before he saw her. He smiled apologetically, and gestured at the phone.
“Is that Tony?” she asked.
Steve shook his head.
“I’m talking to JARVIS,” he said.
“Oh,” said Pepper, tilting her head, “I was just talking to JARVIS fifteen minutes ago. Does he know where Tony is then?”
“Mr Stark’s signature is currently at the Opera house with you, Captain. And please inform Ms Potts that she must be mistaken, for the last time we spoke was back at Stark Tower before I called the chauffeur.”
“Oh. Oh okay – wait a second,” he lowered his phone, “Apparently Tony’s still here. And JARVIS said the last time he talked to you was before we left.”
Pepper looked alarmed at this.
“What? That can’t be right – “
Steve passed her his phone.
“JARVIS? Yes. Yes you – it was about a rescheduled board meeting… what do you mean you never called me?”
“Does he know where Tony is, exactly?” asked Steve, stamping down on a thrill of worry – there was something wrong, Pepper’s expression said as much – “I mean. Could he track his cell phone or something?”
“He says Tony’s phone has gone offline,” said Pepper, worrying at her bottom lip, “But he’s got – got something with him that JARVIS is tracking.”
“Maybe he’s gone to the restroom,” said Natasha, making Steve jump for the second time that evening. Her eyes were on the phone in Pepper’s hand, “And he can’t have gone far if he’s still in the building. I can go take a quick look if you’d like, Pepper.”
Pepper offered her a small smile. It was the kind she often gave when she was stressed out, spread too thin over too many people. Steve felt useless, standing there. Thankfully, JARVIS chose that moment return.
“I have sent the floor plan of the opera house to your phone, Captain Rogers. Mr Stark is the glowing red dot – he is currently on the second floor of the west wing, in the Elizabeth Marie Lounge Room. Unfortunately, the surveillance footage in the immediate vicinity has been offline for the last twenty minutes and I cannot access them without more time. Shall I attempt to obtain them for you?”
“Uh – is that legal?” asked Steve.
“Yes, that would be great, JARVIS,” said Pepper curtly. She handed the phone back to Steve without looking at him, already striding across the gallery with Natasha at her side. Clint and Thor must have noticed because a moment later, they were weaving their way through the patrons towards them.
“What is happening?” asked Thor, “Is the performance about to resume?”
“We’re going to find Tony,” said Steve. He felt naked without his shield, and he clenched and unclenched his fist in agitation.
“I thought it was normal for him to disappear during shit like this,” said Clint, ignoring Steve’s frown at his language, “I mean he doesn’t seem the opera type.”
“There was something wrong with Pepper’s phone too,” said Steve, “she received a call from JARVIS that JARVIS never sent. I – let’s just find Tony.”
“I am sure the man of iron is in no danger,” said Thor, clapping Steve on the shoulder and making him stumble.
“Who said anything about danger?”
“Your long face,” answered Thor, sounding as serene as ever, “But I do agree that it will not hurt to check. Do we know where Tony Stark is?”
“JARVIS does,” said Natasha, who was holding Steve’s phone. Steve couldn’t remember when he gave it to her. “Alright, down here.”
They took the stairs instead of waiting for the lift, past polished panelled wood soft warm lighting until they reached the second floor. The ceiling, like the foyer, was vaulted so that their steps echoed loudly upon the parquet floor. Steve heard JARVIS’ voice emanating from his phone: The second door on your right.
Each door that lined the long, sweeping hallway looked more or less the same, save for the letters upon the gold plaque next to the handles. They all stopped outside one which read Elizabeth Marie in elegant script. Nothing could be heard from the room beyond. Steve glanced up and down the deserted hallway – most of the patrons must be up in the gallery, waiting to return to the auditorium once intermission was over.
Pepper knocked, leaning close to the door.
“Maybe Stark just found a stash of alcohol down here,” said Clint.
Pepper tried again.
“Tony? It’s Pepper.”
“Maybe he’s drunk off his face,” Clint suggested.
“Be quiet,” said Natasha. “It’s locked.”
Then she took off her shoes.
“Uh– ” Clint began, “What have I said about alternative methods of –”
“Perhaps I could call Tony’s phone again,” said Pepper.
Her eyes widened when Natasha produced something thin and sharp from the heel of her shoes and began sliding it in the gab between door and doorframe. Thor and Steve kept quiet. It took exactly eight seconds for Natasha to open the door, and she motioned for them all to step back. Steve did so with reluctance because surely he shouldn’t be allowing a lady to –
Clint seemed to give a full-bodied sigh and pulled out a gun from within his jacket.
“Oh my god,” said Pepper, her hands flying to her mouth, “I thought we had to leave those at the door!”
“I like to prepare for the worst,” said Natasha calmly, conjuring up her own gun from nowhere and Steve felt the absence of his shield more than ever. He pulled Pepper back from the door as Clint and Natasha nodded at each other, eyes communicating in silent agreement. With the gun trained on the door, Natasha opened it in a fluid motion, bursting into the room which was –
– There were four people in the room, all of them unconscious.
Tony had been tied to a chair; his face was pale and his head rested on the back of the chair, baring his neck. He had been stripped of his suit jacket, and his right sleeve had been rolled up to the elbow where a strip of tape held an IV line that snaked over the arm of the chair and into a strange device sitting on the table. The other occupants of the room were all connected in similar fashions, all sitting in chairs around the table as if asleep.
But Steve couldn’t tear his eyes away from Tony’s face. For a moment, he thought his heart was going to claw its way out of his throat. Then, everyone unfroze. Steve heard Pepper gasp – a sharp inhale of horror. Natasha tossed Clint her gun, while Thor gave a shout of outrage. But Steve was already at Tony’s side. He pressed two fingers to Tony’s neck, relieved to find a pulse there, steady if slow. He cupped Tony’s head in his hand, supporting his neck. Tony’s eyes were moving behind their lids, as if caught in a bad dream.
“Tony,” said Steve, shaking him with his free hand, “Tony!”
Tony didn’t wake. Steve moved to take out the IV… perhaps it was pumping some kind of sedative?
“Don’t!” snapped Natasha, and Steve whipped his head around to look at her. She had one hand out, as if to stop him, eyes wide. “We don’t know what will happen if you take that out. He might not wake up.”
“What do you mean he might not wake up?” asked Pepper, voice a little shrill, “What’s going on?”
“Have they poisoned him?” boomed Thor, looming over Tony, “Shall I summon Miljonir and strike them down?”
“No!” said Natasha, “No – this. I know this. Give me a second.”
“I’ll secure the room,” said Clint decisively, and Steve glanced at the door, still open. He closed and locked it, then barricaded it with a spare, high backed chair. He glanced at the manacles holding Tony to the chair – they had been fastened tightly, and gleamed in the soft light of the room. Steve tested the strength of one with his hands, took a breath and pulled. The first snapped like wood in his fingers. Steve made short work of the rest, catching Tony’s body as it slumped sideways without his restraints.
“Easy,” said Steve, and wondered if it was an attempt to comfort himself more than Tony.
Natasha was crouched over the device on the table, brow furrowed with concentration. It was a strange device. It sat within a metallic briefcase and comprised of an octagonal centrepiece, where translucent valves occupied four of the eight slots. A large compressible button sat in the middle, connected to a platform of complicated looking metallic pipes, roughly the width of Steve’s thumb. Whatever it was, it seemed to be feeding the liquid into Tony. Steve fought the urge to rip the needle from his skin. Instead, he counted the seconds between Tony’s steady breathing.
“Please tell me that isn’t what I think it is,” said Clint, coming out of the bathroom. He still held his gun, and seemed to have found the rest of the room clear of any immediate danger. Pepper had opened the lid of a laptop, which was lying next to the briefcase-device and was trying to turn it on.
“It’s a different model to the one I used,” said Natasha grimly, “But it’s definitely the same.”
“What is – “ Thor began, but Natasha cut across him, already rolling out another IV line from the machine, explaining while she worked.
“This is a PASIV – Portable Automated Somnacin Intravenous Device. It allows for shared dreaming – the military used it to train soldiers, simulated war zones if you will. No casualties. The project was shut down when the subjects began going insane – but the plans for the device had been leaked long before that. Thor, find something to bind those three. I don’t want them to get free if they wake before I get back.”
“Wait – shared dreaming?” asked Steve, as Clint asked “Hold the fuck up – you aren’t going anywhere!”
Natasha glared at them both, which was a feat in and of itself, considering she didn’t even look up from where she was measuring out a clear liquid into a glass vial. Meanwhile, Thor ripped the tie from one of the dreamer’s throats and began binding his hands together. And it was only then that Steve really looked at Tony’s assailants. The man can’t have been much older than twenty – he had a slim, angular face, dark hair gelled back. The girl next to him looked even younger. The third man wore a garish shirt, stubble lining his jaw as his eyes flickered in sleep.
“Shared dreaming, yes,” said Natasha. She snapped the vial into one of the spare compartments in the device – the PASIV – and stripped off her left glove with her teeth, throwing it upon the floor. “I don’t understand the finer mechanics of it, but the PASIV basically enables multiple dreamers to inhabit the same dream space. I need to go under and find Tony and wake him up.”
“You’re not going under!” shouted Clint, waving his gun, “I knew guys who lost their minds to Project Somnacin – “
“There isn’t any other way!” snapped Natasha, “Don’t argue with me – five minutes up here is an hour down there and god knows what they’ve done to Tony’s mind by now!”
Clint looked furious.
“Who cares – ”
“If you finish that sentence, I won’t be responsible for my actions,” Steve said quietly.
Barton snapped around to look at him.
“You have no idea what you’re talking about Cap,” he started.
“And neither do you,” said Natasha. She lay herself down on the floor.
Steve was still holding Tony upright, careful not to dislodge the IV, and he could feel Tony’s breaths on the bare skin of his neck. It was like he was only asleep – he was sleeping – but Natasha’s words echoed in Steve’s mind. God knows what they’ve done to Tony’s mind.
“I’m coming with you,” he said, decisively, “You’ll need reinforcements – ”
“No,” said Natasha, looking Steve straight in the eye, “You’ll only slow me down. Stay up here and make sure Tony doesn’t have a heart attack.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to wake him up,” said Natasha simply.
The thing with dreams and dreamers, which set them apart from reality, was the unshakable belief of a dreamer that he was the god of his own dream. It was this belief that allowed them to bend things at will, to change and to create and pull at the fabric of the world around them; elastic as the imagination. And yet the idea of it was a dangerous thing. Once you ceased to notice the line between sleep and reality, the latter gripped you like the press of a gun against your temple, a knife above your veins, a lover on a windowsill shouting: come with me.
Eames had often teased him for the dreams Arthur liked to build – tall, elegant buildings a shade stranger than reality but not a shade more, paradoxical architecture to remind them of the impossibility. He laughed at the clear lines Arthur drew when he dreamed, the fit of the gun between his hands and the space of his pocket: just large enough for one loaded die. He would conjure up a fantastical solution, breath close to Arthur’s ear – you mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.
But what he never understood was that too much imagination was too much belief and too much belief was too much trust and Arthur could never trust his own mind not to trap him in an endless spiral of stairs. And so he creates them, to remind himself that they could not exist.
But the shade was too human for a projection. Arthur thought he was going mad.
He had the mark’s plans – indecipherable, incomprehensible map of the Stark Expo – tucked closed to his chest as he flattened himself against a support beam. The bullet struck the wall opposite, and Arthur forced his own breathing to slow as the footsteps of the Shade drew closer.
Where were the rest of the projections?
They had been dancing around each other, ducking bullets and punches and sharp blades for almost half an hour. Yet no projections came screaming from the wings, no walls came falling. In fact, the entire auditorium was still eerily silent. It was as if the mark’s shade was stalling, keeping Arthur trapped on the stage.
Where was Eames?
“What is this?” Arthur asked instead, “Where are the real schematics?”
The shade didn’t laugh, but the air vibrated as if he did. Arthur’s gun was cool at his side, and he flexed his fingers, gently. No footsteps came.
“Those are the real schematics, sir,” said the Shade, infuriatingly calm. It had a British accent, but Arthur couldn’t place it. Even after Arthur had shot him, the shade remained detached, contemplative at best. Arthur had to repress a shudder. The Mal of Cobb’s mind had sounded like that.
“He must have more detailed plans,” Arthur tried, “Prototypes. Where are they? How did he create the new element?” Slowly, Arthur raised the gun slowly to chest level. He had willed lights into existence sometime ago, and the shadow that cut across the balcony fell just shy of his shoes. The Shade was nowhere to be seen.
“How does one hold an idea?” asked the Shade, voice at once close and everywhere. Arthur stayed as still as his own shadow. “Sir found words and lines to be insufficient, and so he did not use them.”
“What is this, then?” said Arthur, dread and realisation washing over him, “A symbol?”
He opened his mouth to ask – to say: That’s impossible. But at that moment, the stage groaned beneath them, the sound of flimsy wood. Then out in vast silence of the auditorium, the vaulted ceiling collapsed in a rumble like thunder. All the air seemed to vanish, sucked in then exploded outwards and throwing Arthur off balance; the sound of ribs being crushed under the weight of a collapsing dream.
“Eames!” shouted Arthur. The name was torn out of him, and he turned blindly towards the edge of the stage. And still, the projections did not scream.
“Time’s up,” said the shade.
Pepper held his face close. But her hands were cold. And were her eyes always that colour?
“Do you trust me?” she asked.
“Yeah,” said Tony. And it was true…wasn’t it?
The sound of gunshots from the stage, and Tony tried to turn around – but Pepper held him still, her hands grasping his wrists. Tony was suddenly very aware of the homing bracelet, beneath the sleeve of his suit jacket – disguised the silver band of a cufflink. There was something very, very wrong.
“I think we should get out of here,” Tony said, wrenching his hands out of Pepper’s grip.
“Tony – look at me.”
But Tony couldn’t. He felt behind him, his hands hitting the rail that ran the length of the box, felt the yawning emptiness of the auditorium. He tried to peer into the darkness but there was nothing – he could barely make out the edges of the stage and where the fuck were the audience? He gripped the rail with his hands, trying to calm the racing of his heart as Pepper took a few steps towards him.
“We should stay here until the lights come back on,” she said, soothing, “It’s probably just a black out – ”
Pepper’s eyes went wide, fixed on a point just above Tony’s shoulder. Then, several things happened in rapid succession.
Tony didn’t even have the time to turn around, before Pepper shouted “No!” and suddenly there was a gun in her hand – where the hell did she get a gun?! – And she pushed Tony to one side, the force of it throwing him to the ground just as she pulled the trigger. The sound of two gunshots, fired almost simultaneously. Tony was knocked forwards, like someone had delivered a punch to his back. Then the pain – burning cold near his left shoulder blade. Someone was wheezing, gasping for breath like a fish and it took far too long for Tony’s brain to realise it was him.
“Pepper,” he managed to say, forcing himself up on his hands. He staggered against one of the chairs, the taste of blood vivid and metallic in his mouth.
He just had time to see Pepper crumple to the ground, feel something tear in his chest, before Natasha Romanov shot him right between the eyes.
Eames could count, on two fingers, all the times he had been caught. The first had been when he was sixteen and reckless, too confident in his own imagination. The extraction had failed and the mark had come after him with a lot of money and even more vengeance. It hadn’t been a pretty sight.
The second time had been by Arthur. Eames had never quite recovered from the latter.
He made for his gun as soon as he woke, but found his hands completely immobilised. Where the hell was their watcher? He wrenched at the bindings, trying to twist out of them when a fist collided with his face, sending him backwards, toppling both him and his chair over
“How dare you!” boomed a voice, and then Eames was being lifted by his neck to face a stranger with blond, shoulder length hair wearing a shining tuxedo. If Eames remembered correctly from Arthur’s files, this was Thor.
“Whoa, mate,” he said, going for casual while his eyes skirted the room. Arthur had woken, but was currently looking down the barrel of a gun. Eames recognised the woman as the one who had shot him out of the dream; except here she was wearing an elegant evening dress and a single glove. The Black Widow.
“There’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for all of this,” Eames offered. He gave Blondie – Thor? – a grin. Thor did not look impressed. The fingers around his throat tightened.
“Gaccck,” said Eames.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, Eames saw the girl – their watcher – who was connected to the PASIV, wake with a start. She looked around the room once, and then promptly incinerated the electrical cords which had been used to bind her to her chair. They simply turned to ash in font of Eames’ eyes, falling to the cream carpet like so much dust.
Well that wasn’t normal….Unless they were still dreaming –
The Black Widow swung her gun around to point at their watcher instead, but her voice was muffled through the ringing in Eames’ ears. His vision was becoming spotted from the lack of air and brought his still-bound hands up to jab his fingers into Thor’s neck.
“Oh. It seems as if I miscalculated,” said the girl.
Before anyone could say anything else, she grabbed the PASIV in one hand and laid her other upon Arthur’s bare arm. Then they vanished.