The night Tony Stark dies, a hundred million stars shine for him. They watch the battle carry on and on, until abruptly, it ceases--leaving in its wake a silence so deafening it seems to unearth the very depths of the ground below.
A team stands together, but defeated. Helicopters swerve overhead.
A soldier collapses to his knees, head tilted toward the sky full of unanswered questions, and silently weeps.
* * * * *
They’re called the Zodiac, Fury had said. Tony had deemed them “The Hip-Hop Group from Hell”, because who calls themselves the Zodiac, anyway? Somehow they’d been linked to Advanced Idea Mechanics, which made them not only a threat but a nuisance--not to mention they owned a very Important and Dangerous Weapon.
“The Zodiac Key.” Fury gestured to the screen behind him in the briefing room. Steve leaned forward with interest at the same time Tony tilted back in his chair, folding his hands behind his head and closing his eyes. Steve fought the urge to roll his eyes--Tony’s lax attitude toward essentially everything was a characteristic Steve occasionally envied, but mostly found frustrating. Natasha exchanged a look with Clint, and Bruce sat quietly at the corner of the large table at which everyone had gathered.
A large photo of a--well, a key appeared on-screen.
“I don’t know what I was expecting," Tony deadpanned. Bruce smirked while Fury threw a glare in Stark’s direction.
“It’s a mystical weapon from the Ankh Dimension. It’s extremely powerful and very dangerous. I have no idea what the Zodiac intend to do with this Key on earth, but it can’t be anything good. The leader of the Zodiac, Scorpio, has control of the Key. As long as he’s got it, we’re in trouble. SHIELD needs to contain the weapon, and with any luck, destroy the damn thing.”
The large key was decorated with some sort of strange inscription, written in a language that certainly wasn’t English, and didn’t quite resemble any earthly language Steve was familiar with. “So, these Zodiac folk." Steve drummed his fingers on the table. “They showed up yesterday, wreaked their havoc until we made them back down, but the question is . . . what do they want with Tony?”
At the sound of his name, Tony straightened in his seat. “Oh, are we talking about how Hip-Hop Group kept gaining on me? Because that was annoying.”
“I think they were trying to distract him,” Clint piped up, crossing his arms in front of his chest. “Pull the wool over his eyes.”
“My eyes are wool-free, thanks. Cap’s got a valid question, though.” Tony clapped Steve on the shoulder, his hand lingering there just a moment. And it was funny, Steve thought then, how only months ago he would’ve shoved him away. Tony was oddly touchy. And Steve guessed he didn‘t mind. Especially because Tony was only touchy with people he liked. Or so Steve had observed. The heat of Tony‘s hand on his back subsided as he finished, “If they wanted my attention, they got it.”
Natasha shook her head. “Director Fury, if you saw the footage the Helicarrier took surveying the fight, you can see they’re following Tony with something. One of them is, anyway.”
“Scorpio,” Fury confirmed, “with the Key. Which is why I’m saying that Key is our main focus. If Scorpio doesn’t get what he wants out of Mr. Stark, whatever that may be--”
“Director,” Tony mock-gasped, “Are you suggesting our plan of action is to sell my lean and attractive body to the Read-My-Signs? I’m a Pisces, baby.”
“--he will turn his plan of action toward the city," Fury snapped in correction, “And with the amount of power that Key has, I may as well say toward the world. We’ve been keeping track of the Zodiac for a very long time. They love chaos. They thrive on it."
Bruce nodded. “So, what, is this Tesseract Part Two? Because if so we could use Thor back from Asgard for some man power.”
“Yeah,” Clint snorted, “if he wasn’t too busy dealing with his apeshit brother who caused the whole Tesseract mess.”
Fury began to pace a little. “Not exactly, Dr. Banner. It’s not so much how much power is stored within the Zodiac Key. It’s what the Key itself can do.”
“Which is?” Steve prompted.
Fury sighed, looking suddenly very tired. “For our purposes, Captain Rogers,” he replied, “I’m gonna say ‘everything.’”
Later on, Steve found himself on the roof as he often did. Stark Tower technology was overwhelming at times to the average person, let alone the Man out of Time. Tony had convinced him (and everyone) to move in, anyway, so there it was. And it was fine, most of the time. Except when Steve needed some downtime and there was a blaring flat-screen television here and a talking robot there. And it made him miss home--his real home, back in 1943.
‘Man out of Time.’ That’s what Loki had called Steve. And this was one of those days Steve certainly felt it--what the heck was an Ankh Dimension? Steve was just fine trying to figure out this dimension, thanks very much.
“How’s about a nightcap, Cap?”
Steve couldn’t help the small smile making its way onto his face, breaking free of his furrowed brow and set jaw he’d had all evening. “Sure,” he said to the voice behind him, and he hadn’t even finished saying the word before Tony Stark’s arm was obnoxiously flung in front of him, drink in hand.
The contents of the drink didn’t much concern Steve. It wasn’t as if he could get drunk, at any rate. He muttered a “thanks” before taking the glass from Tony and downing a sip. Scotch whiskey trickled down his throat. He could hear Tony breathing next to him, their shoulders close to touching.
“Ms. Potts not with you tonight?” Steve asked. Not wanting Tony to get the wrong idea (Steve wasn’t even sure what ‘wrong idea’ he was thinking of), he added, “I mean, um, you know. Friday night. Surprised Mr. Tony Stark doesn’t have plans.”
He heard the rustle of Tony’s shrug beside him. “No Pepper. She, uh. She had things.”
It didn’t seem as though Tony wanted to speak of the matter further, so Steve let the conversation fall, down down down through the night air, and let it replace itself with an amiable silence.
They did this a lot. Just stood in each other’s company, drinking in the quiet of the night. At first it had been awkward, Steve recalled. Heading out onto the roof for some air in the dead of night, to get away--to find that the one person you’d never really hit it off with had come up to do the same.
This was how they’d reconciled their differences from almost a year ago. Drinks on the rooftop with only the stars watching.
Steve turned slightly, watching as the moonlight outlined Tony’s profile, his every little movement in silver-white. While the man usually walked around in ostentatious sunglasses and ridiculous suits, tonight he was in a simple t-shirt and jeans, brown eyes shining, nothing to cover them up. Steve shuddered a little in spite of himself, despite the warmth of the night.
“Tony,” he said, and his voice came out a little shakier than he’d intended.
And then Tony looked at him, those same big brown eyes now focused on Steve and Steve alone, and oh, crud. “I, um.” Steve kept thinking how there were things he wanted to say--things he’d been meaning to say for a while--but they all fluttered out of his mind at that moment.
So instead, he pressed on with their semi-nightly ritual. “Tell me,” he said quietly, bashfulness rising to the surface of his tone, “Tell me what I’ve missed.”
Tony threw Steve one of his trademark half-grins before turning his attention to the sky again. “Okay,” he said. The usual joking highs-and-lows in his voice were absent, replaced with a soft naturalness Steve only heard on these nights. “So, we’ll start off like always--the war, I don’t need to tell you about--but it ended in 1945, victory by the Allies, Truman replaced Roosevelt in office . . . Also, National Velvet came out. Real tear-jerker. But only if you like horses . . .”
Cap squinted up at the stars for a moment before letting his eyes fall closed to the sound of Tony and History. He pondered idly Tony’s reasons for doing this--if anything, he was first to make sure Cap was the brunt of his little jokes. But in these moments, with just the two of them, it was like they were connected somehow--two insomniac super-freaks--and maybe there wasn’t always a joke to be made of that.
Tonight was like any other--the stars, and the swirling of Tony and History--until it wasn’t.
Until, like lightning, the Zodiac brought chaos through the darkened sky, and the battle began.
* * * * *
“Is it me, or do these guys take their costumes very seriously?”
There was fire and battle and through the smoke and the sounds of people screaming, Tony Stark was joking.
Taurus was battling the Hulk--an apt match, considering Taurus was nothing short of a gigantic bull. Hawkeye was shooting arrows left and right at Aquarius and Leo; Black Widow and Cap were dealing with getting the civilians smack dab in the middle of it all to a safe location.
And Tony was making jokes. Because what else was there to do when JARVIS kept saying, “Sir, the Key will instantaneously disrupt the functionality of this armor on contact,” and “Sir, I’d advise that you keep maximum distance from the being identified as Scorpio--”
“Not the plan, JARVIS,” Tony muttered, because, well. It wasn’t. “So, tell me.” He circled Scorpio in the air. “What inspired this little outfit? The orange hood is as nice a touch as any, if not a little Halloween-y.”
Scorpio’s yellow eyes narrowed. “You know not of the power you face. I hold the Key to the future. With it, I can do anything.”
“That’s cute. But do you have the key to my heart?” Tony kind of wished his batting eyelashes were visible behind his helmet. He was just about to give JARVIS the mental note to add clear visors to the latest Iron suit he was working on, when he realized upon landing that he was a small case of Surrounded.
“Tony,” was Cap’s voice ringing through the communicator from somewhere a few blocks over, “We’ve got SHIELD copters above us at the ready. You have the plan down, don’t you?”
Tony nodded, bracing himself, repulsors lighting up. “Sir, yes, sir,” he said.
“You just need to distract them all long enough for the rest of the team to come up from behind. Once we’ve got them, SHIELD will get a hold of the Scorpio and the Key. Okay?”
Taurus was advancing on him, and it didn’t look as if Gemini was slowing down either. “Uh, right. Yup. Can you do that thing where you hurry, though? Because--and I never thought I’d say this in my life--I’m literally surrounded by Zodiac signs. They’re out to get me. I’m going to be having nightmares about this.”
“We’ll come and get you, Tony. Just hang in there.” Captain America’s voice had transformed itself into Steve’s--a little less rough around the edges, and oddly reassuring. “We’ll get you. I promise.”
The last words startled Tony in their personal heaviness--a promise. He didn’t have much time to reflect, though, for JARVIS was adamant: “Sir, I really don’t think the suit can effectively absorb--”
“Uh, JARVIS, I’m more focused on that bull’s very large horns.”
Aquarius chuckled. “Give up, Iron Man.”
“Oh, are we going to have a cliche talk about how I’m going to lose? How about we just skip that and just get to the fighting? It’s two in the morning. I have a business meeting at eight--not like I ever go to those, but hey, I could have.” Tony whirled around to toss a repulsor blast in Saggitarius’ direction (a repulsor blast at a zodiac sign. The weirdness factor concerning this whole thing was, in Tony’s opinion, ridiculously high).
But the thing about zodiac signs is that there are quiet a few of them. And as Tony felt Leo’s burly arm clip itself around his neck, he realized that coming out of this completely in-tact might not be an option. And he knew full well Hulk was battling a few of them, too judging by the “SMASH!” sounds emanating from a little ways off.
“Avengers, this is Agent Maria Hill. Iron Man is surrounded; is anyone available for back-up?” the communicator in Tony’s suit buzzed, and if he hadn’t been too busy kicking Taurus off him he might have sighed in relief.
But then, he heard it--when he had a moment to listen, it was deafening--the screaming of civilians. Some on their way home from work, most likely. Others wandering the New York streets at night like any lost person has ever done. It grated against Tony’s ears, sharp.
“I’m fine,” he sputtered, twisting to elbow Leo in the face, “Having having a blast. You guys who’re with the--argh--civilians stay put. Hulk’s got a few of these low-lives covered--ow. Sorry, did I offend?”
Natasha, scoffing: “Tony, seriously. We--argh--are on our way. There are six kids trapped under a--Hawkeye, look out!”
“Cap, what’s your call?” Clint shouted.
“Just . . . everyone stay in position.” Steve’s tone was firm, quieting everyone else--he had that effect, it always seemed. “Tony, I swear, we’re almost--”
But suddenly Tony couldn’t hear Cap’s voice anymore; he couldn’t hear anything, and suddenly he was flying, flying fast but not of his own volition. A new, dark, unwanted energy was seeping through his armor, through his skin, and JARVIS was saying something that sounded like key but the screech of the air around Tony was drowning it out, and he was falling--falling up, up, up, up and it all seemed so very familiar and he knew; he knew how this would end, and he wondered if Pepper knew what he wanted her to know, or any of his silly Super Secret Boyband members knew even half of what they wanted him to--and Steve. Tony wanted to hear Cap--no, Steve’s voice again, his voice with a promise, because even if he didn’t make it out alive at least in the end wouldn’t have to be . . . wouldn’t have to be . . .
* * * * *
“Hopeless,” says Jane Foster despairingly.
Four o’clock has come and passed. The sun is creeping into the sky, and the Avengers--what remain of them at this point--are crowded around the astrophysicist’s desk chair. She peers at a computer screen behind her glasses, eyes red with tiredness. Complete with hi-tech lab equipment (and also her boyfriend the demi-god, when he needed Earthly living quarters), Jane tends to spend quite a bit of time at Avengers HQ. Many of the SHIELD agents have taken quite a liking to her as well. Her co-worker, Darcy, has also made quite the impression on the team. (She’s the only one who’s managed to draw a mustache on Natasha Romanoff’s face in Sharpie without getting her hand ripped off.) While they often bring with them a light air of positivity, this night--morning, now--is somber, weighing down everyone in the room.
“I just don’t understand. I created this portal monitor for a reason. Why is it telling me the portal between Asgard and Earth’s been severed?”
Bruce runs a hand over his face. “I hate to say this, Jane, but that might be because it is.”
“Whoa. Back up, here.” Darcy Lewis, donning her 101 Dalmatians pajamas, shakes her head a little. “J, you already said that Rainbow Bridge of Awesome was broken--”
“--Whatever. It was broken, and now this one cropped up on the edge of the Ocean of Something--”
“The Sea of Space, Darcy--”
“Okay, fine. So Thor’s been using that one, and now it’s busted, too?”
Jane buries her face into her hands. “I don’t understand. I really don’t.”
There is a painfully long bout of silence until Clint finally says, “Yeah. We’re feeling that, too.”
“I just think Thor . . .” Natasha clears her throat, averting her eyes to the ground. “I think Thor should be here. For this. He doesn’t know what happened to Sta--to Tony.”
The name has not been mentioned since 2 AM, when the pronouncement was made.
The pronouncement, in Nick Fury’s gravelly voice. The realization that Anthony Stark had fallen into the sky and wasn’t coming back. Silence greets the group again like an old friend. Natasha wraps her arms around herself. Clint sniffs. Darcy leans her head against Jane’s shoulder.
It’s Bruce who asks, “Has anyone, um. Has anyone seen Rogers?”
Clint shakes his head. “Not since earlier out on the field. He’s on the roof, I think. Think we should let him be.”
“Is he okay?” Darcy asks, her usually peppy voice sunk to a whispering low.
Her question hangs in the air, frozen. Thirty floors up, Steve Rogers stands out on the rooftop, his eyes closed, waiting for a voice he knows he won’t hear.
* * * * *
Tony Stark opens his eyes to an orange-yellow sky.
At first it’s blinding, and Tony squeezes his eyes shut, welcoming the darkness again. But the chirping of birds, the smell of--trees? Leaves? Tony isn’t sure, but it’s something close to fresh air--filling his lungs prompts him to try again.
Orange and yellow, but no sign of the sun.
Tony sits up, immediately wishing he hadn’t. His head is swimming, and the lurch forward causes a wave of nausea to settle over him. “Oh. Bad idea. Ah. No,” he mutters, his voice a choking grumble, before flopping back onto the grass again. . . Grass?
He makes the excruciating effort to turn his head to the right, seeing his helmet battered and strewn beside him. It’s then he really notices his surroundings.
Everything almost seems to sparkle in a strange springtime kind of way, except Tony knows he left New York on a brisk autumn-on-the-cusp-of-winter night.
Not to mention the trees. The trees are very, very tall--unnaturally so.
“Also,” Tony mutters, peering at some bark behind him, “purple.”
He closes his eyes again, his entire body feeling heavy, and all he can muster is one final thought before slipping into unconsciousness: JARVIS, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore...