"…stock is up three points. Also, Harold Saxon is now Britain's new Prime Minister."
Tony barely looked up from the boot jet he was working on. "Is that going to affect us at all?"
"I can't think why it would," JARVIS said blandly, "although we might want to keep an eye on the Archangel network."
"I thought you were already embedded in that," Tony said.
"Yes sir, I am."
"Okay, well, keep going," Tony said. He went back to work and waited to hear the rest of the day's news.
Looking back, well… What could he say? It wasn't often that JARVIS was wrong, but boy when he was, he was all kinds of wrong.
Although Tony might not have paid much attention to the change in British government, he was right there alongside everyone else the very day after Saxon took office, watching eagerly as the world prepared to make first contact with an alien race called the Toclafane.
He was in two minds about the whole thing. Mostly he kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the hoax to be unveiled. Because really? Britain's Prime Minister, so new he hadn't even been in office a full day, had been contacted by the representative of an alien race from across the universe?
Still, he couldn't deny that a small part of him was keenly excited about the whole thing. Saxon's announcement hadn't allowed for much time, but between them, he and Pepper had managed to whip together a pretty decent first contact party. Beginning at midnight, there were drinks and food and music, with lots of shiny silver stars glittering from the ceiling and disco balls all over the place. Stark Tower was just about complete at that point, although he hadn't yet connected the arc reactor to the city's power grid, so Tony figured alien contact was as good a reason as any to open the doors and host what was essentially a housewarming party.
He hardly knew most of the people there; they were acquaintances, business colleagues, celebrities, or other rich socialites like himself. He chatted briefly with Jan Van Dyne, then allowed a blonde model to kiss him for a little bit before remembering that he was supposed to be in a relationship with Pepper, whereupon he put a slightly tardy and definitely drunken stop to it. He thought he saw the lovely but deadly Agent Romanoff at one point, then Rhodey was there, steering him away from the bar and asking if he thought this whole first contact thing was for real.
"Rhodey, sugarpie," Tony said, throwing his arms out wide, "all I know is that it's a good excuse for a party. Who cares if it's real or not?"
They found out pretty quick, though, just how real it was.
They all did.
The venue for this little display was the UNIT ship that was nothing more than a poor man's version of the SHIELD helicarrier. The broadcast was live, beamed out to the entire world. And right on schedule, at three o'clock in the morning New York time, the aliens arrived.
Hushed silence fell over the partygoers in Stark Tower as they stared at the TV. Tony stood among them, just one more awestruck spectator, albeit one in a very expensive tailored black suit. The Toclafane weren't anything like what he had been expecting, just small metallic spheres that hovered in the air like miniature Death Stars, but who spoke with the voices of humans.
And for about thirty seconds, everything was cool.
"Are you seeing this?" Rhodey said. He looked as stunned and amazed as Tony felt. They stood there, staring up at the television screen that took up most of the wall, and watched as the President – not the British Prime Minister – took control of the situation and greeted the aliens.
"Seeing it," Tony said. He didn't take his eyes off the TV. "Still working on believing."
It was incredible. It was unreal. It was something straight out of every science fiction movie he had ever watched as a kid.
And then it all went to hell. At 3:02 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, one of the Toclafane assassinated the President. In a single heartbeat, he was totally vaporized.
And Harold Saxon, the bastard, just sort of smiled about it. "So. Earthlings. Basically…end of the world."
Shocked cries of disbelief and horror rose from his guests. Tony turned to Pepper and handed her his drink. "That's my cue."
A sharp command to JARVIS had the armory opened and waiting for him. He was only halfway down the hall when the AI informed him of a phone call from Phil Coulson. Half-running, still working on getting sober, Tony took the call with deep reservations. "Kinda in the middle of something here."
"We need you to come in," Coulson said. "There's a situation."
"Yeah, I noticed," Tony said. He stopped dead. Through the Tower windows, he could see Toclafane swooping through the night skies. He had no idea where they had come from, but they were everywhere; there had to be thousands of them. Behind him, Rhodey and Pepper were doing their best to calm everyone down, but he could still hear the occasional soft scream from one of his guests.
"We're putting together a response team," Coulson said. "We need you on it."
"You need me, or you need Iron Man?' Tony asked.
"Both of you," Coulson said.
And that was how Tony Stark became a member of the Avengers.
For about an hour.
One hour. That was how long it took for them to be completely overwhelmed and defeated. One hour for the Hulk to be dragged, struggling and roaring, through the rip in the sky that led to the far end of the universe, or wherever the hell the Toclafane had come from.
One hour for New York to be left in ruins, Stark Tower crumbled into dust, along with everyone who had been inside.
One hour for the surviving Avengers to end up on board the Valiant as prisoners of the man now calling himself the Master.
For a long while nothing happened. The four of them were locked in a room that was clearly meant to be quarters for a junior officer. Any one of them could have escaped at any moment, but there were armed guards outside who had orders to shoot on sight, and no one was feeling particularly adventurous at the moment.
Tony sat in silence on the floor, his knees drawn up to his chest. Saxon's guards had taken the suit, of course, leaving him in the black dress shirt and trousers he had been wearing at the party. They had been none too gentle about it, either. He was nursing several new scrapes and bruises in addition to the ones he had received during the fighting over New York. But they hadn't discovered the arc reactor, which was one thing to be grateful for.
All he could think about was Pepper and Rhodey and Happy, and that damn tower.
He hoped they had gotten out before it collapsed. He hoped everyone had gotten out. Not that being on the street would have been much better, what with the thousands of Toclafane swarming all over the place and shooting at everyone. But at least out in the open they would have had a chance.
They might still be alive.
"Come on, guys," said Cap. They had taken his cowl and shield, but he was still in costume. "We gotta come up with a plan here."
"A plan for what?" Natasha asked.
"My thoughts exactly," Clint said. "In case you hadn't noticed, there's six billion of those things out there. Enough to lift the Hulk and carry him away."
"We can't do anything about the Toclafane right now," Cap said. "First things first. We have to find a way off this ship."
Silence filled the room. Tony looked up and saw that all of them were staring at him. "What are you looking at me for?" he said. "I had nothing to do with this. UNIT won't deal with Stark Industries." Not that he hadn't tried to get in on that action. Ever since he had learned about the Valiant's construction, he had bitched and moaned that he should have been a part of the project. Now more than ever he wished that were so. Over a year ago, under guise of his-then position of Defense Secretary, Harold Saxon himself had commissioned this ship. If Tony had worked on it, he would now know all the Valiant's secrets and hideaways, not to mention having a back door into its operating system.
The Avengers just looked at him. As they realized he was serious, their faces fell. One by one they turned away.
Their disappointment meant nothing to him. Tony tilted his head back against the wall and told himself that his friends were still alive, they had made it, they were still alive...
About an hour later, they were taken onto the bridge.
Order had been imposed on the chaos there. The bodies had been removed. The Master stood at the top of the stairs where the President had been assassinated. His wife was by his side, and a couple of Toclafane hovered ominously nearby. Up close and personal, they were almost two feet across, solid metal with no obvious means of breaching the sphere. Members of the Master's guard were arrayed about the room, all of them armed. An old man in a brown suit was sitting at the conference table where only hours before, dignitaries and politicians had waited to greet their new alien friends. The old guy looked at them all with sorrow, but said nothing.
"Well, well, well. And who exactly are you lot supposed to be?" asked Saxon, or the Master, or whoever he really was. Before everything had gone to hell in New York and they had realized how futile the battle was, JARVIS had done some digging and discovered that there was no such person as Harold Saxon. Tony had dutifully passed on the information to his fellow Avengers – not that it had mattered by that point. Whoever he was, he held the Earth in his grasp right now.
They stood before him in a row, on display. Their hands were cuffed behind their backs, and everyone but Tony was still in costume. No one spoke, not wanting to be the one to say it.
The silence drew out unbearably. Then Steve said with a touch of pride, "We're the Avengers."
The Master frowned a little, not getting it.
Tony roused himself to the occasion. If he was going to die, he might as well go out on his terms, after all. "Earth's Mightiest Heroes," he offered. When the Master's eye fell on him, he sort of shrugged, like he was downplaying the whole thing. "Well, that's what we're calling ourselves."
Recognition dawned on the Master's face. He pointed. "I know you," he said. "You're Tony Stark. I wanted you to work on the Valiant."
Right then and there, Tony took back every nasty thought he had ever had about UNIT and their contracts. "You couldn't afford me," he said coldly.
The Master smiled wide. "That's what they said!" He sounded like he had just had his fondest wish granted, leaving him happy and satisfied.
Abruptly the smile fell away. "You killed some of my Toclafane," the Master said. He sounded almost petulant then. There was no way to tell if the sudden mood swings were real or just an act. And that was the heart of it, Tony thought sickly. The Master, whoever he was, was utterly insane. There was never going to be any reasoning with this man, or any kind of rational discussion. "You tried to stop me."
"Yeah, well, better get used to that," Clint said. It wasn't a bold statement of defiance. It was a quiet promise.
"Oh no no no no no," the Master said quickly. He trotted down the stairs and came over to stand in front of them. "I'm the one who gets to say that. Because this is my world now!" He looked at the old man sitting at the table. "Isn't it, Doctor?"
The old man remained silent, but he did not take his eyes off the Master.
"Are we still…" The Master gestured to the television equipment that was still set up toward the rear of the room. "We can do a live broadcast, right?"
Tony tensed up. A live broadcast now could only mean one thing: an execution. The only question was, who would it be? He suspected it would be Cap, leader of the group, and obviously the strongest. Far too dangerous to be allowed to live.
Which…wow. It sure sucked to be Steve Rogers. He had survived Hitler and the Red Skull, only to die like this, after being unfrozen for less than a month.
"Yes, sir. Just give me a moment." One of the guards began to fuss about with a camera. Another began struggling with a large light.
The Master looked back at them. "So," he said. "The Avengers. It's not a bad name, even I have to admit. Kind of…catchy."
"Sir, we're ready."
"Excellent!" The Master beckoned the guards to come closer. "Bring it up here. I want the whole planet to see this."
"It's okay," Steve said quietly, so only they could hear – and the man in the brown suit, but he hardly seemed like an adversary, so it didn't much matter. "People will remember this. They'll fight back."
"Great," Clint sighed. "I always did want to be a martyr."
The light was set up, and the camera began rolling. The Master stepped toward the camera, beaming his wide, happy smile. "Peoples of Earth! Your Lord and Master speaks to you now. By now I hope you have all seen that resistance is futile, and that your best chance of survival lies in surrender. However." He dropped his voice, and now he just looked sad. "There will always be those who think they can stand against the tides of change."
He paused dramatically, then flung out one arm, indicating where the Avengers stood. "Look at them! I want you to see these…superheroes. These Avengers. Who thought they could stop me."
Tony's heart began to pound. Surreptitiously he tugged at the cuffs about his wrists. He did not want to die, not like this, just randomly executed with no chance to fight back.
"I want you to see," the Master said, "what happens to those who try to defy me."
He half-turned away from the camera, toward the Avengers. As he pivoted neatly, one hand reached inside his suit jacket. Tony braced himself for a gun, but instead the Master pulled out a slim metallic device that looked unlike anything he had ever seen before.
"Good-bye," said the Master. A beam of light shot from the device in his hand and speared Clint Barton right through the heart.
Without a sound, Clint crumpled to the ground.
The Master faced them fully now. "Who's next?"
Natasha breathed heavily, her face deathly white. Steve's jaw clenched, but he gazed steadily at the Master. Tony looked straight ahead, his hands curled into fists behind his back, mindful of the camera's eye still trained on him.
"Oh," the Master said, as though something had just occurred to him – when in fact this little play-acting scenario must surely have been his plan all along. "Actually. I almost forgot." He took a couple steps forward. "I was going to offer you a job, Mr. Stark. I know you don't build weapons anymore, but have you ever thought about building ships? An entire fleet of them, in fact?" He smiled. "Obviously I can't pay you in money, but I have a sneaking suspicion that money's just become worthless anyway. However, I can pay you with your life, and the lives of your friends here." His smile became a triumphant smirk. "I think I can afford that."
Tony said nothing at first, still very aware of the camera. He couldn't help it; his entire life had been lived in the public eye. By now it was ingrained in him to behave this way, standing tall and acting as though he did not see the lens.
His answer now was obvious. He had to say no. A definite no, along with some witty, cutting retort. Something that would earn him the quick, painfree death Clint had just received.
But he couldn't do it. Enough innocent people had died today; two of them men he had barely begun to know, men he had been part of something with, for such a brief time. He could not condemn Natasha and Steve to that same fate. Not when it was in his power to save them.
And there was Pepper and Rhodey and Happy to think of. They might still be alive. They might be out there right now, watching this. What would it do to them to see him killed on live TV? If they knew he was still alive, it would give them hope. Maybe even enough for Rhodey to take War Machine and join up with what was left of SHIELD and form a resistance.
If he died now, he would never get the chance to fight back. But if he gave in, if he let the Valiant become his new cave in Afghanistan, he would survive. He would get his chance. And the Master, like the Ten Rings before him, would learn to his despair what a mistake it was to let Tony Stark live.
"Yes," he said.
The Master held out his hands in a pleased gesture, as though he meant to embrace them all. "Welcome aboard!"
Their new quarters were far less roomy. Much more like the prison cell Tony had been expecting ever since they had been brought on board. One by one their cuffs were removed, then they were shoved through the door. It clanged shut with a sound like finality.
Natasha was the last one in. She staggered a little as the guards pushed her, but quickly brought it under control. Of her own accord, she swiftly closed the distance between Tony and herself, and punched him square in the face.
Tony reeled backward, from shock as much as the impact itself. His cheek flared hot with pain, then went mercifully numb.
"What the hell--?" He barely managed to get that much out; in a split second she was on him again, hissing in Russian, her eyes narrowed into slits.
Fortunately Steve got to her before she could land another blow. He grabbed her arms from behind and pulled her backward.
Undeterred, Natasha planted her feet, bent over at the waist, and flipped him over her head to land flat on his back.
Swiftly Tony backpedaled, bringing his hands up in a rather feeble effort at self-defense. He had seen the footage of her in action at HammerCorp, and he knew he had pretty much a zero chance of keeping her off him, but hell, he had to at least try.
In between them, Steve quickly rolled over and got to his feet. He stayed in the middle, arms held out wide, keeping them apart. "Hey!" he shouted. "That's enough!"
"You son of a bitch," Natasha said, her voice low and deadly. Coiled violence lurked beneath every line of her body. "They killed him and you just gave in."
"Yeah, I did," Tony said. He felt gingerly at his cheek, where there was going to be one hell of a spectacular bruise in a couple hours. "And you're welcome, by the way, for saving your life."
"I'd rather be dead," Natasha spat.
"Yeah?" Steve said. "Well, I for one wouldn't." He gave her a firm glare, then turned back to look at Tony. "Although I would like to know what kind of game you're playing here."
"It's not a game," Tony said. He could feel cold rage consuming him, and for once he didn't care who saw it. He didn't have to be the charming playboy anymore, and this was not a ten-second sound bite for the evening news. "In fact, it's real simple. That guy just killed thousands of people. Maybe even hundreds of thousands. And I'm not letting him get away with that, and I'm sure as hell not letting him kill anyone else. So yeah, I 'gave in.' It's what I do, didn't you know? I thought you were the one who put my file together. So pay attention. I give in, and I keep my head down, and I do my thing…and when the time is right, I burn the bad guys up and I get the fuck out."
He returned Natasha's glare. "Any questions?"
She stared at him for a long moment, then snarled something in Russian under her breath. She turned away and paced toward the corner – which was not far, unfortunately, given the size of their new cell.
"So it's all an act?" Steve said.
"You really think I would voluntarily work for him? Jesus, Cap." He was hard pressed to keep the bitterness from his voice. He supposed he should have expected it, though. Apparently his reputation preceded him to the point where even the vaunted Captain America had trouble believing when he was sincere about something.
"I've known you for all of six hours," Steve said, somewhat stiffly. "Excuse me for doubting your integrity."
"No, go ahead," Tony said. The anger was still there, but it was diminishing now, grief and disbelief and pure exhaustion taking its place. "People who've known me for six years still do that. Why should you be any different?"
Steve looked a little bit ashamed of himself then, but he did not apologize. He just took a deep breath and said, "All right. We're done here. No more attacking each other. We have to stick together on this." He looked at Tony. "So what's your plan?"
Tony just shook his head. If this was to be the new Afghanistan, then he had to remember to play by the rules. And one of the rules said that he had to behave as though everything he said and did was being captured on camera. Just because he couldn't see any cameras in here didn't mean they weren't there. After all, the ones in Stark Tower weren't plainly visible, either.
Or rather, they hadn't been.
At any rate, if there were cameras in here, he had already said too much. And if that was the case, then there wasn't any point in clamming up now, because it was already too late. But he couldn't bring himself to let go of the hope that maybe, just this once, he had gotten off lucky.
So all he said was, "The walls have ears. Probably."
Steve nodded with understanding. Natasha's mouth tightened, but she said nothing.
Tony just sighed. "Back to the cave. And this time I don't even have a box of scraps."