Tony opens his eyes.
That's surprising in and of itself, mostly because the last time he'd been conscious, there was screaming and blood and he was on fire. Literally, on fire and you don't just get over something like that. He reaches up a hand, automatically searching for hurts and another gentle one catches his own, puts it back down on his chest.
What happened, is what Tony means to ask, but his voice comes out in a raspy whisper, no real words. There's a cup at his lips, but instead of water, a chip of ice is all he gets. It's probably for the best. He would have gulped greedily at any water offered, been sick right after most likely but with the ice he has to suck, pries the water out of it grudgingly.
"What happened?" he's able to get out this time. He'd closed his eyes again because the light had hurt. Now he slits them open more carefully, can see a blurry figure hovering over him.
"There was... trouble."
"I know your voice," Tony says, tries to make more sense of what he's seeing. The fuzzy shape resolves into a man with a weathered face and little glasses.
"You're that teacher," Tony says. He wants to sit up but moving wakes agony all along him. He grunts, grits his teeth.
"I'm sorry. I would give you something stronger for the pain but it might be dangerous. Here." The man offers a little pot and Tony frowns at him, isn't sure what he's supposed to do, but the man mimes taking a big sniff and then holds the pot under Tony's nose.
Tony breathes in. The pain recedes, grows a little indistinct. It doesn't disappear completely like it would if he were given Corporation meds but it makes it bearable at least. "Thanks. What is that?"
"They have a healer here. She does what she can. I didn't ask what was in this, I was a little afraid to." The man smiles. He has a nice, kind smile that Tony likes. "I wasn't sure you'd remember me."
"You were part of my morning routine," Tony says. He liked going to the school, seeing the kids playing in the small yard outside. They were allowed to play until they were twelve, until the Lesson started. Tony doesn't remember ever being that young, doesn't know if he ever was.
"You remember what I said to you?" the man asks.
"You said that I was a good man," Tony says. It seemed a little odd at the time. Tony had been apologizing for hovering because most people were unsettled by the presence of Angels, fearing they were always on official business.
"I would say, of course I'm good, I'm a chosen representative of the Corporation."
"And, you would say, someday I would know the difference between what you said and what I thought it meant."
The man smiles at him again, nodding. "Yes. You proved yourself. I knew you would."
Tony doesn't really remember what happened. Just the screaming, the fear. He thinks something happened at this man's school though, the one he would linger outside. "What-?"
"One of the teachers was instructing the children in the old Math, the old Science. The Corporation found out, sent, as you call them, representatives. You were among them. You tried to save her."
"Did I?" Tony asks, although he's sure he knows the answer from the state of him. "Did I save her?"
"No," the man says, looks a little sad and lost for a moment before he raises his head. "You tried though. It was important that you tried."
"What's your name?"
He's got an ugly, twisting gash on his right shoulder. His ribs are taped up, thankfully only bruised and not broken. One of his eyes is still a little bloodshot and the other has a circle of fading black. What's most jarring is that while his right wing sits extended from his body, perfect although a little dirty, his left is just gone, nothing left but a gauze wrapped stump.
Tony's a little unbalanced because of it, wobbles on his way back to bed. Yinsen eases inside his room a little while later, can probably tell that Tony's been up by his expression, seen what's happened. "We were waiting till you were more able to ask if you wanted the other one removed?"
Tony just blinks at him for a second. "The other what?"
"The other wing," Yinsen says, grimacing.
"What? No! Why would I want that? If you lost your arm, would you want the other one to be lopped off too?"
"A single arm is still useful. A single wing, not so much," Yinsen says, as infuriatingly calm as always.
Tony doesn't know how to explain to someone like Yinsen, that they might as well have taken his arm. His wings are a part of him, as much as any limb and to lose one is devastating. He can't see the wing left as useless but he supposes he could see why Yinsen would think as much.
"You know, your ability to fly, all of the Corporation’s Angels, defies the old science," Yinsen continues, conversational. He has a certain patina to his voice that has Tony relaxing despite himself. "It should not be possible. You should require hollow bones and a rib cage that extends as far outwards from your body in front as the wings extend behind."
"There's a lot of shoulds in what you say," Tony says. "There's also a reason the old science is just that, old science."
"The Corporation wills it, and it is so," Yinsen says, shaking his head. "It has nothing to do with its merit. That is something you will come to see, in time."
"I suppose so," Tony says. "I know I've asked before and you've been very clever in avoiding the subject, but I'd really like to know where we are."
"The Wastes," Yinsen says. "That's what the Corporation calls it, doesn't it?"
Tony sits back, a little thrown. He'd assumed they were still in the city, just hidden somewhere. He supposes that was naive, that there's nowhere really to hide in the city.
"You didn't know?" Yinsen asks, looking puzzled.
"I haven't been outside this room. How would I know?"
"I apologize," Yinsen offers. "I did only avoid the subject because I thought you weren't quite ready for it, that you wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"I can't go back," Tony says.
"Not despoiled as you are, no," Yinsen agrees. "Not with the way you defied them. If you did, they would kill you as an example to others."
"Cast out," Tony murmurs.
"You are not the first. You will discover that soon, also."
“What does that mean?” Tony asks, wondering how it can possibly get worse for him.
“I will help you as much as I can. I have to be honest, you may not survive the next few days.”
“What’s going to happen?” Tony asks.
“You are about to throw off the yoke that the Corporation put around your neck. It is a bad business. I have only seen one survive it.”
“Rest now, while you can.”
Tony closes his eyes.
“Yinsen was sure you would come back to us but I did not have his faith. It’s good, it means your will is strong,” she says in a way that sounds factual and not like a compliment.
“What just happened?” Tony asks, allows her to help him ease upright and takes a battered metal cup when it’s offered to him. It’s water this time, not ice, but it’s luke warm and Tony only manages a few sips before he has to set it aside. It hurts to swallow and his mouth tastes sour.
“They used chemicals on you to keep you pliable of mind. They’re addictive over time and you have been without them for some days now. It will be like a fog lifting, or so I’m told. You’ll be able to think clearly, think for yourself. That’ll be a nice change, no?”
The woman’s voice is wry and Tony realizes that she doesn’t like him, doesn’t approve of his presence. Despite his injury, he scares her. “What’s your name?” he asks.
“I’m not a danger to you.”
“I’ve heard that before.”
“Is everything alright?” another voice issues from the doorway and Tony leans a little more sideways so he can see a woman with red hair and distrustful eyes. “Aldona?”
“He lives,” Aldona says. “Yinsen will be pleased.”
“Yinsen should stop taking in strays,” the second woman says. “Was this Angel’s life really worth losing his-”
“Natasha!” Aldona hisses, makes a sign at her that Tony doesn’t know the meaning of.
“Where’s Yinsen?” Tony asks, a little nervously. The second woman, Natasha, looks like she wants nothing more than to cut his throat and be done with him.
“He’s sleeping,” Aldona tutts. “He watched over you for three days without rest. He will be annoyed that you chose to wake without him.”
“Three days? I was only talking to him an hour ago,” Tony says, because he swears he’d taken nothing more than a short nap between his last conversation with Yinsen and now.
“The sickness takes time from you,” Aldona says.
“The demons are restless with him here, like they can sense him,” Natasha says, jerking her chin in Tony’s direction. Tony knows that she’s talking to Aldona, but he can’t help asking the question anyway.
“Surely you’ve heard of the demons in the Wastes,” Aldona says, pausing in wiping over Tony’s hands and face with a damp cloth.
“Uh, yeah. Kid’s stories mostly,” Tony dismisses and Aldona and Natasha look at each other significantly. “I mean, I know the Wastes are full of the cast out, thieves and killers but-”
“Don’t speak of that which you don’t understand,” Aldona snaps, stepping away from Tony and throwing the cloth into a bowl set by his bed in disgust. “Look what they did to you, what they took from you and you still speak of us like we’re lower beings.”
“Aldona,” Natasha says and there’s a gentleness in her face that disappears when she regards him. “Do you really believe that?” she asks, tilting her head like she’s seeing something entirely new. “That anyone tossed from the city is a criminal?”
“They are,” Tony says, but slowly. It’s what he’s been raised to believe and up until a few days ago, he had no reason to question it. The teacher at Yinsen’s school though, she’d only wanted to teach the children something outside their experience, bring perspective. She hadn’t harmed anyone but the orders had been clear. Termination, not banishment. Tony, for the first time in his life, hadn’t been able to fulfill what was requested of him because he’d seen the woman smiling at her students, at Yinsen.
She hadn’t been evil and Tony hadn’t understood.
Tony rallies, raises his chin because he doesn’t want the women to see his internal struggle, but he’s starting to think that what Aldona said is right. His thoughts are becoming sharper, clearer. His mind is a series of streets that the mist is rolling back from and he’s starting to see that they don’t only lead in a single line, but branch out in every direction. “She broke the Law,” he says, because in the eyes of the Corporation she had and he was duty-bound to uphold it.
Except he hadn’t.
He finds it eventually, just stands and breathes deeply. Outside there is a small cluster of buildings and more people, all practically dressed and hollow-cheeked. They eye him with trepidation, more than a few gazes catch on the stump that curves over his left shoulder. It’s daylight and Tony leans back until his spine creaks, blinks at the empty sky and wonders at the lack of Angels, such a common sight in the city that the absence feels odd.
The people are starting to clump together, whisper as they snatch looks at him. Tony can tell that he’s making them nervous with his presence. He’s used to that even inside the city, the Angels designed to be awed and feared but there’s a defiance in these people that’s missing in the city.
Tony retreats back into the warehouse, gets turned around when he tries to find his room. He ends up in another he could’ve sworn was his by the location but it’s full of detritus. He enters anyway, curious about the random jumble inside.
This is where Yinsen finds him, sitting on the floor, surrounded by relics of a bygone era. Tony knows it’s taboo to so much as touch old technology but it fascinates him, wires and circuits and metal, so unruly compared to the clean lines and unapproachability of the Corporation’s tech. The Corporation’s tech is so sterile and this-
“Tony?” Yinsen says, hunkering down next to him and pushing his glasses up his nose with a knuckle.
“This all fits together somehow,” Tony says, grabbing a pile of odds and ends and holding them out to Yinsen, frustrated. “I mean, I can almost see how but it’s like a language I have no frame of reference for, a code. If I only had a starting point I could figure it out.”
“Tony, what are you doing?” Yinsen asks gently, takes a large, blocky clump of metal and wires from Tony and turns it over in his hands. Yinsen has goods hands, steady and agile. Tony thinks maybe the neat little stitches holding his shoulder together are his doing.
“I have no idea,” Tony says, starts to laugh, the sound almost hysterical. “I have no idea.”
“You might need more rest,” Yinsen says, starts trying to take the other parts out of Tony’s hands but he curls them into his body, almost protective.
“I need a way to make this all... make sense,” Tony says. His mind had been reeling, a jumble of new information, old nightmares and so much pain but it all settled, all quieted as soon as he touched these objects, starting prising them apart and trying to fit them back together again.
“If I promise to find you something that will help later, will you rest now?” Yinsen bargains.
“Ugh, you’re such a pest,” Tony says, sets the objects he’d gathered up aside grudgingly and lets Yinsen tug him to his feet. He still loses his balance easily. He’ll get used to the loss of his wing eventually, but as he’s thinking that he’s looking at the items scattered at his feet and wondering if maybe there’s a way to-
“Tony, come,” Yinsen urges.
“Where did these come from?” Tony asks, tracing circuit lines with his fingers, letting diagrams make sense in his head in a way that nothing else ever has.
“Tasia kept them. She found a way to keep the damp out of the room they were in and tended to them like children. She said if we lost these books then we lost ourselves. We couldn’t trust the Corporations network, that it was changeable but these books were not.”
“The teacher who...” Yinsen’s face clouds over for a moment, pained, before he seems to rally and offers Tony a proud look. “They’re helpful?”
“More than that,” Tony breathes. “I think I found my new religion.”
Yinsen barks out a short, surprised laugh. “Don’t let the Corporation hear you utter such blasphemy,” he mock-scolds.
“What? They’ll want me more dead?” Tony asks, wry and Yinsen shrugs, pulling a you have a point face.
“How can people live in the cities, knowing this is out here, that people are out here?” Tony muses as he tinkers. Yinsen joins him, watches avidly as Tony pries apart old technology and starts fitting it back together in different ways. An idea is forming in his mind and he sets aside his work so he can clear a space on the floor, start sketching in the dust.
“Here,” Yinsen offers, unearthing a box from the depths of his clothes. It rattles as he hands it over and Tony raises an eyebrow when he shakes it off and stubby pieces of chalk fall into his palm. “I was saving these for the children but...” His face clouds again and Tony feels an ache deep down that he could have lived oblivious to this type of suffering, of loss. “People in the cities like their comfortable lives, their full stomachs. They don’t want to know that there are those that suffer so that they can continue to live as they do.”
“Is that all it is?”
“No,” Yinsen says. “They live in fear as much as we do. The difference is that their cages are gilded.”
“You worked in the city though. You were safe. Why did you risk yourself for me.”
“I had nothing to stay for,” Yinsen says. “I could help you and I believe you can help these people.”
“They’re scared of me.”
“They’re scared of what you represented. The wing is a reminder. If you would let me-“
“You’re not removing it,” Tony says. “I have another idea. I won’t look like the angels they fear for much longer.” Tony draws as he talks and Yinsen tilts his head, watches what emerges.
“You’re making a new wing?” Yinsen says. “It will not work.”
“It would if I had some kind of a power source.”
“You don’t though,” Yinsen points out.
“Yeah, I know. That’s a problem for a different day.”
toys. It looks nothing like the Corporation tablets but there is enough of a resemblance, as old as it looks, for Tony to recognize what it is. It’s a dead thing in his hands, a relic, but he sees potential and adds it to the stash of items he’s starting to think of as his to tinker with later.
When he returns to what he’s started calling his workshop in his head after wolfing down mystery meat that he’s not going to question the origins of, there’s a man he hasn’t seen before waiting for him.
Tony freezes in the doorway because the man has the bearing and graceful stance of a Corporation Guard, the foot soldiers that the Corporation uses when sending Angels in would be too dangerous or flashy. Foot soldiers are still enhanced, but in different ways and Tony’s heard they were used for quiet assassinations when the need arose within the Capital.
He isn’t dressed like a Guard though. He’s wearing what looks like cobbled together tactical gear from different branches of the Corporation military, a scavenger’s ensemble. “So, you’re the pretty bird with the broken wing,” he says. His voice is roughened but his eyes are canny.
“You have me at a disadvantage,” Tony says.
“Is that you swearing at me or your name?” Tony asks.
“You’re funny.” The man snorts, an indelicate sound as he moves about the space. He’s careful not to touch anything which Tony appreciates. Many of his pieces are at the delicate stage, the wing the most prominent and nearly formed. It’s this that Clint pauses over, face thoughtful. He hunkers down so he can look more closely at the harness Tony has fashioned, still not touching. “This looks... interesting.”
“It’s going to be fantastic looking but useless if I can’t find a way to power it,” Tony admits. Clint is at ease inside this place, which tells Tony that he belongs here, possibly more than Tony does.
“I might have a way to help you with that,” Clint says, squinting up at Tony. He has a bow slung across his back and a quiver of arrows. It’s an old-fashioned weapon but Tony appreciates the need for it out in the Wastes. It’s manual and the ammunition is retrievable. There’s no risk of the weapon being out of charge like the Corporation’s sleek guns. The string on the bow can break but Tony figures this man would know how to fix that, and fix it fast.
He still itches to get his hands on the bow, make it better, stronger, more. He can’t believe how dulled down he was, how the Corporation’s drugs muddled him. Tony now can’t remember a time where he didn’t look at something and want to take it apart, improve it and put it back together again.
This is who he should have been all along and he never knew it.
"Natasha and I smuggled a stash of weapons out of the Capital. We buried them outside the town for safekeeping."
"What kind of weapons?"
"Looked like the kind of stuff you'd use to level a place, not leave anyone standing." Clint says. When Tony gets up, meaning to make Clint take him right that minute, Clint holds his hands up. "There's a small... well, big problem."
"Right after we stashed the stuff a demon took up residence by it, like he knew what was there. We haven't been able to get close since, which is a pity because we were hoping someone like you would be able to rig the weapons to destroy the rest the Corporation is stockpiling for a rainy day."
"So? We'll talk to him. Impress upon him the importance of me getting my grubby mitts on this stuff."
"You can't talk to a demon," Clint scoffs.
"Did you think you could talk to an angel before Yinsen dragged my sorry ass back here?"
Clint frowns at that, scratches the back of his head. "Just, when he bites your head off, don't say I didn't warn you."
Finally, it stops roaring and looks at Tony in an almost quizzical manner before something truly amazing happens. The demon shrinks down, the green fades into a human pink and there's a man standing in front of Tony, naked and rumpled. He's squinting like he's used to wearing glasses and is looking a little unsettled.
"Are you crazy?" he finally grumbles.
"I'm starting to think maybe I'm the only sane person around," Tony says, not allowing his surprise at this turn of events to show at all. This seems to puzzle the man even more.
"I have um... pants. Can I trust you not to do anything while I go put them on?" the man asks, eying Clint warily.
"Sure," Tony says, completely guileless and the man hesitates before he trots off to a small, ramshackle building that looks like it would fall over if someone sneezed on it.
The man comes back and he's wearing glasses, a shirt that's mostly crumpled and mis-buttoned and ill-fitting pants. His feet are still bare and his face is still puzzled as he approaches. "Look, what-?"
"I'm Tony." Tony offers his hand and the man looks at it for a moment like it might be some kind of trap, before he relents and shakes.
"Bruce, good. I'm sorry my friend went for a shoot-first approach. I'm more a meeting of the minds type myself."
"Clearly," Bruce says, looking pointedly at the one wing Tony has left.
"Well, getting out from under the effects of the Corporation's drugs, I'm starting to discover the true me," he amends and Bruce begins to look less wary and more amused. "Can all the...?" Tony starts to ask, doesn't really want to call Bruce a demon to his face so settles on, "-you guys do that? Become human again?"
"No," Bruce says and he sounds truly regretful. "I've developed a serum that works temporarily for some of them. I'm trying to synthesise something a little more permanent but I have... limited resources." Bruce flails his hand towards the building he'd retrieved clothes from that can be only charitably referred to as a shack.
"We make do with what we have," Tony says. "You seem to be doing an admirable job."
"The serum isn't stable. If I'm not calm I..." Bruce holds his arms out and up and waggles them, a somewhat hilarious impression of his former appearance.
"Calm is boring," Tony says, patting Bruce on the shoulder. "We're possibly going to have need of you being..." Tony repeats Bruce's impression and this time the other man laughs, surprised. "Now, apparently there's some items I need buried right next to your lovely abode and my friend has been unable to approach."
"I was wondering why he kept coming back," Bruce says, waves for Tony to follow him. Clint is standing up now, watching them warily.
"It's cool. We're all friends," Tony calls and Clint looks exasperated and impressed at the same time.
"You're not like any angel I've encountered," Bruce observes as Clint trots over to join them and Tony dogs his heels over to the shack.
"That's because we're all drugged out automatons most of the time. I'm thinking my personality is a lot more abrasive than the Corporation would like."
"You seem pleased by the prospect."
"What can I say? It's good to be me." He turns to Clint and waves at the churned up earth by the building. "I hope you brought a shovel."
Clint and Tony are dragging the large crate they'd unearthed when Clint stops, shading his eyes from the dying light of the day. "C'mon, man, no slacking," Tony grumbles.
"There's smoke on the horizon," Clint says.
"In the direction we're going?" Tony asks, a sinking feeling in his stomach.
"Dammit," Clint grunts. "Double-time, now." Despite the weight, Clint starts jogging and Tony has no choice but to follow. He's a fit guy but Clint sets a brutal pace. Tony's pretty sure he's only able to keep going on pure adrenalin and fear.
When they're close enough to see the blackened buildings, Clint drops the ropes attaching him to the crate and sprints forward, Tony following at a more sedate pace. Tony's whole body feels like lead and his brain has kicked off a mantra of be okay, be okay, Yinsen, be okay.
It's clear whatever happened here is over now and Tony makes for his building, having to pick his way past bodies and crying people. He would try to help them but they shrink away from him when he comes closer and he figures the best thing he can do for them is steer clear, let the survivors do what they can.
The warehouse, unlike most of the other buildings, is mostly intact. Outside is a pile of objects and Tony spares a moment to pick over them, sees it's the wing he was working on, some other odds and ends he'd set aside and the tablet. Tony shoves debris away from the door and squeezes inside, sees that there's more internal damage than external. Some of the support beams have collapsed and walls sag inwards, making the whole place pretty unstable.
"Yinsen?" Tony calls, knowing without a doubt it must be the teacher that's been lugging his stuff outside, the only one who knew how important it was to Tony. Tony makes his way towards his workshop because it's the only place he can think he'll cross paths with Yinsen. He has to take a circuitous path because parts of the building are impassable and he almost misses Yinsen completely, only catches a glimpse of a limp hand when he's carefully edging over a pile of rubble. "Yinsen!"
The building might not have collapsed straight away, it's the only explanation Tony can think of for Yinsen being underneath part of a wall. Tony frantically digs down, unearths the rest of Yinsen. He's breathing but it sounds shallow and laboured. Tony pats Yinsen's cheek gently and Yinsen cracks open an eye that's glazed with pain.
"Tony," he rasps. "I'm glad you were not here."
"I'm not," Tony says. "What happened?"
"They sent soldiers from the city to burn us out. They were looking for you. I heard the soldiers talking in the central language. People of the city had heard of you refusing to obey orders. They wanted to string you up, make an example."
"I'll show them an example-" Tony grits out but Yinsen's hand finds his shoulder, squeezes although there's not much strength behind it.
"I knew when I saw you that you were a protector. That you would keep our people safe. You may become a symbol to others that they can change also. Don't ruin it by being rash."
"Me? Rash?" Tony huffs.
"Stay. Finish your work and protect our people," Yinsen says.
"I'll make you a deal," Tony says when Yinsen's breathing becomes more ragged. "I'll stay if you do."
"Ah, Tony, that is not a deal I can make. I will be joining my wife soon."
"Maya. The teacher you tried to save. She always said you were a good man, that she could see it. She was right."
"I'm not... I can't..." Tony starts, is unable to finish.
"Tony, you must be careful, they left..." Yinsen's voice fades out with his last breath and Tony chokes out a pained denial, tracing shaking fingers down Yinsen's face.
"They left what, Yinsen?" he sighs.
"They left someone behind for you," a voice says and Tony doesn't have time to turn around before he's picked up and thrown through a wall.
Tony presses a hand to the center of the harness forlornly when he's clipped in, where the power source will eventually go. He doesn't have a lot of time for regret though as the Angel follows him out of the building, dusting himself off as he goes.
The soldier kind of blinks when he sees the wing assembly, but recovers quickly from his surprise and lunges. Tony ducks and weaves but he catches a blow to the cheekbone and the guy hits like a hammer. Tony knows he won't be able to take much from this guy, but he also resists fighting back. He knows his brain was muddled by the Capital drugs and he wants to give this guy a chance to get past that if he can.
The Angel has no such compunction. He's fighting to put Tony down and Tony's aware that he's about to do it when something whistles by his face. The guy grunts and there's an arrow sticking out of his shoulder. He snaps off the end, grimacing, then scans the area.
His eyes widen and Tony turns just in time to take the arrow meant for the guy's chest in his forearm. It hurts like a b-tch, but Tony is glad all the same, still resolved to not ending the guy if he can help it. The Angel's looking at him. "Why did you-?" he starts to ask and that's when something hits him from the side.
"Bruce, no, put him down!" Tony yells at the giant green monster that's holding the now unconscious Angel up by the ankle, looking like he's a hair's breadth from smashing him into the ground repeatedly. Bruce huffs, then drops the Angel like he's disinterested. He lumbers off, scattering people as goes. He makes his way to one of the smaller buildings that's collapsed inwards but has a lot of people trying to burrow through the rubble. They flee, but creep back slowly when all Bruce seems to be doing is lifting parts of roof and digging out people carefully.
Tony smiles, then turns to his would-be assassin.
"I would really appreciate it if you wouldn't throw yourself in the firing line," Clint says, appearing from nowhere beside him, bow still held loosely by his side. He winces when he catches sight of Tony's arm, says, "I'll get Aldona."
"For him first," Tony says, waving a hand at the Angel.
"You'd better hide him somewhere," Natasha says, also appearing out of thin air and seriously, Tony needs to learn how to do that. "They accepted your presence grudgingly and that was only because they knew you'd tried to save Maya."
"Clint?" Tony says, tone wheedling and Clint sighs heavily.
"Fine, you get his feet," he grumbles. "Tash, get Aldona for us would you?"
Before they separate, Tony says, "Oh, and, Yinsen's..."
"We know," Natasha says, mouth a hard line. "I told him you would be the death of him. I wish he'd listened."
Tony's surrounded by disassembled weapons when Clint and Natasha seem to have had enough of biding their time and come storming in. "Well, that's just fantastic," Clint huffs, flailing his arms around the space. "I thought we were bringing those back to protect us, not for you to just take everything apart."
"I've left a couple of these bad boys intact," Tony says, waving a screwdriver at the parts. "Do you really want to go down that road though?"
"We might not have a choice," Natasha says.
"Fantastic, so we just blow each other up. Everyone loses."
"That's not-" Clint starts to say but Tony waves him silent.
"We might be in a position to make sweeping change at some point in the future, but we're not there yet. You think one box of these will be a deterrent to them? How many missiles do you think they have?"
Natasha and Clint are silent, wearing matching grim expressions.
"We need them to know that they can't just come after us, and I'd like it if the people in the Capital that decided to, could come join us."
"You're talking about revolution," Natasha says.
Tony pinches his index finger and thumb together, leaving a small space. "Little bit, yeah."
"They'll just send another raiding party, flatten us and make sure they leave no survivors this time," Natasha says.
"They're going to send another attack, that's inevitable, but there will be no flattening. They won't even get near enough to us to threaten the flattening."
"How do you figure?" Clint asks.
Tony smiles as Bruce sticks his head in. He's stayed in their makeshift village, has set up a lab inside its borders. The populace treats him warily but with growing acceptance. "Hey, perfect timing," Tony says. "How goes the negotiations?"
"They're on board," Bruce says and Clint and Natasha are frowning at them both.
"Who's on board? On board what?" Clint presses.
"Kids, it's about to get very interesting around here."
It helps that the guy's blonde hair is matted down with old sweat so he basically, grimily, fits right in.
"The stories they tell us, the stuff they want us to believe..." Steve says. His voice is a nice baritone when he's not being threatening. Tony's not surprised they never crossed paths in the Capital, even amongst the Angels there were different classes. He sees the upper echelons now wanted everyone to strive for that next class up, even amongst those regarded as being the very top. It was a ladder that was endless, disappearing into the clouds.
"You feeling a bit... less foggy?" Tony asks. That's the only way he can think to describe it, like a mist had been lifted from his mind and he was able to see clearly for the first time in years.
"You saved my life," Steve says, a hand reaching out, hovering just over Tony's wrapped arm. Aldona had tutted and even refused him pain medication, said he deserved to suffer for lumping her with another broken bird. Surprisingly, it was Natasha that had snuck him the good stuff. "I didn't deserve... why did you do that?"
"I wanted to give you a chance to see what I've seen. I'm trying a new thing, revolution in tiny increments."
"What happened to you?" Steve asks, turning with his eyes flitting to Tony's now powered wing. He hasn't tested it out yet, doesn't know whether it will hold his weight. He and Bruce have had long, winding arguments about just why anyone with the wings can and whether something Tony has manufactured will hold up.
"I failed someone," Tony says, thinking of Yinsen, thinking of how he'd buried his own grief to help Tony, to make him understand. "I don't intend to do it again."
"Am I a prisoner?"
"Do you feel like one?" When Steve doesn't answer, Tony sighs. "You can head on back to the Capital, if that's what you really want."
"What are you going to do?"
"Me? I think I'm going to stick around," Tony says. "Got a few ideas on how to improve the place, make getting water easier, crops, functioning power grid, that kind of thing."
"You're going to be a farmer who provides power," Steve says, blinking with confusion.
"Engineer," Tony says and when Steve looks a little blank, he says, "Yeah, that's something new too. I looked it up. That and a scientist. I kind of like the ring of those."
Tony finds Clint at the front edge of the crowd. He's doing that thing where he shades his eyes and squints into the distance so Tony knows he can see better what's going on out there. He pokes Clint in the ribs until Clint huffs in exasperation. "You could just ask me."
"Where would the fun in that be?" Tony asks.
"Y'know, I think we should put you back on those Capital drugs. Without them, you're a menace."
"Sweet talker," Tony says, grinning. He likes being called a menace, likes that his days are no longer rigid and he along with them. He's stretching out into himself, filling all the spaces that were left cold and empty by the drug regimen and obedience training. He's shrugged his old self off much like Steve's ditched his blanket, unafraid to show his true nature despite the risk of judgement.
"Did you, uh... did you recruit a bunch of demons?" Natasha asks, appearing at his side.
"They prefer the term mutationally challenged citizens," Tony says down his nose and Natasha just raises her eyebrows as Clint slides him a sidelong glance that's more amused than anything else.
"Those mutationally challenged citizens are smacking Angels out of the air like it's nothing," Natasha says.
"They're not going to kill anyone, just make it clear that those guys will meet a very resistant and variable force if they try to come at us."
"They're retreating," Clint says, a little awed.
"Ours or theirs?" Natasha demands, ye of little faith that she is.
"Theirs," he answers. He turns to Tony, crinkles around his eyes dug deep and says, "Whatever uncharitable things I said about you, I totally take them back."
"You said uncharitable things about me? I'm shocked!" Tony says, pressing an overly dramatic hand to his chest over his now active chest plate. It's warm under his fingers, the weight of the second wing reassuring.
"Shut up," Clint says but he's laughing now.
Tony notices the people that were around them have shuffled away, which can only mean one thing. "Steve, how did you like the show?"
"How did you get the demons to defend you?" he asks, bewildered.
"Because they're not demons, they're enhanced individuals like you and me. They're just a little more... volatile than the Corporation liked so they were cast out. They were people that signed up, Steve, that wanted to serve like we did. They wanted a better life for their families."
Steve looks frankly heartbroken and Tony can't help but sling an arm across his shoulder. Clint and Natasha move away from them, heads together, probably grumbling about not getting to fight and Steve looks tentatively pleased that Tony is willing to make contact with him.
"Look, I can't say that everyone in this settlement is pure, that there weren't a few people that were tossed out of the Capital because they did break valuable rules. Think about the kids you watched playing yesterday though, the countless other settlements like this one in the wastes, the horror stories about the demons and then try and tell me we haven't been lied to our whole lives."
"They'll be back," Steve says, looking towards the distance where there's just a settling dust cloud.
"We'll be ready. We'll spread the word. We'll probably have some setbacks but I figure any failure is a chance to learn. I like being free to think what I like and learn what I like, how about you?"
Steve looks pensive for a moment, before he nods slowly.
Tony notices movement out of the corner of his eye, sees it's Bruce in his large, green form lumbering towards them. As he runs, he shrinks down, skin flooding pink. He falters a little when he's mostly back to normal size, slaps a hand over his crotch and slows to a careful jog.
"First thing on the to do list, pants that expand and contract with our good friend Bruce there," Tony says.
Steve laughs. It's a nice laugh, one Tony can definitely get used to.