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Snow White and Sleeping Beauty

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Nick Fury was not a man who was often frustrated by his superiors. SHIELD was given a great deal of leeway by the governments they answered to, considering exactly who and what they had to deal with on a daily basis. Intellectual terrorists, neo-Nazi extremists, aliens, dictator supervillains – and those were some of the more mundane challenges. To be fair, half of those threats were taken care of by children in battle suits; most days, however, he wasn’t sure whether that subtracted or added to his problems.

Although he couldn’t really call them children anymore, could he? Experience notwithstanding, the members of the self-proclaimed Team Iron Man were all rapidly leaving their teenage years behind, enrolling in universities and setting life goals beyond the suits.

(Miss Potts was still gunning for a position in SHIELD, and while he’d never admit it, Fury was secretly pleased. The girl was sharp as a tack, able to adapt quickly to a situation, and was learning to control her motor mouth as the stealth operative of her team. She was going to shake things up when she enlisted.)

No, none of them were children anymore, well on their way to becoming strong, capable men and women. It made Fury feel a little better about his intended course of action. Only a little bit, though, and if he was honest with himself, most of his distaste stemmed from the fact that he had to enact the plan at all. He hated going outside the company for help. Still, desperate times and all, and there was no doubt in his mind that if anyone could pull this off, it was Stark.

His phone chimed. Twenty minutes.

His people had evacuated the Helicarrier, Barton and Romanoff long gone, Hill the very last to leave. Dependable woman, loyal almost to a fault; it’d taken some very terse orders and a short, angry argument to convince her to abandon ship.

I need you to take care of our people, Maria, he’s said.

What our people need is you, sir, she’d retorted, and she was probably right.

But.

We have to give them something. If I’m in their custody, then they’ll consider the peons less of a priority, which gives us more time to make things right.

No, Fury was not a man often frustrated by his superiors. But when they did, by god did they ever fuck up his carefully plotted universe.

In the silent stillness of his office, Fury finished putting together the files Stark would need to be informed of the situation. The holographic display cast a meager light, filling the room with eerie shadows. The perfect atmosphere for committing treason, he thought with a smirk. One command and the packet was gone. One more, and there was no evidence of its existence, nor any indication that he had sent anything at all. The display shut itself down, plunging the room back into darkness. The future was out of his hands now.

Job complete, Fury settled back in his chair and waited.

 

- - -

Of all the things he thought he’d miss when he moved to Boston, the Armory’s assorted tech had not been that high up on his list. Now, though, he wondered how he’d ever gone without it. The collective of computers, tools and toys hovered at the edge of his perception, wrapping his mind in a surprisingly comforting hum. Strange, the things that made you feel like you were finally home.

“Tony!”

Of course, home was made of more than just computers and machines.

“Pepper!” Tony Stark turned away from the display he had been working at, just in time to catch his flame-haired friend in a rough hug. “Geez, it feels like forever since I’ve seen you in person. Is Rhodey with you?”

“What, am I not good enough for you?” Pepper cried with mock-anger. She pulled back from their hug and punched him in the arm, eliciting a yelp – she’d been working out, apparently. “Yeah, he’s right behind me with our computer stuff.”

“And by ‘our’ computer stuff she means ‘her’ computer stuff, which I’d like you all to know is really goddamn heavy.” The irritated diatribe was followed by an irritated Rhodey, who dumped a large cardboard box on the floor just inside the converted temple. Completely ignoring Pepper’s indignant squawk, Rhodey dragged Tony into another hug, laughing when Tony lifted him off the floor. “Hey, put me down! Man, I keep forgetting you’re not the scrawny little brat I played Donkey Kong with when we were little.”

Tony grinned and set his other best friend back on the ground. “I’m glad to see you too, buddy. I missed you both. You two look great!”

And they did. Rhodey had hit what was likely his last growth spurt, gaining another half foot and at least two handbreadths across his shoulders. Pepper was leaner, hair just recently shorn back to its high-school length for the summer. It was obvious now that they’d both been hitting the gym, together or not. It was written in the ropy muscle cording Rhodey’s arms and the deceivingly smooth planes of Pepper’s limbs.

(For the record, Tony didn’t really need to work out as much as the average person, thanks to Extremis. Rhodey was still insanely jealous.)

Pepper preened. “Don’t we? The campus has this great gym, it is soo relaxing to just go in and work off the stress and figure out who’s doing what, and I don’t mean school work –“

“Thank you, Pepper, for proving once again why you will someday end up being disappeared,” Rhodey cut in. “Have I ever mentioned how much of a goddamn creeper you can be sometimes?”

“Hey, my powers of observations have gotten us out of more than a few sticky situations!”

“And gotten us into half those situations in the first place.”

Tony couldn’t suppress his goofy smile. This had been pretty much number one on his list. “Good to know that some things never change. How does it feel to be done with exams for the year?”

Wonderful.  And I thought the Tomorrow Academy’s exams were bad,” Pepper sighed.

Rhodey nodded and stretched his back. “I’m glad it’s over and done with. Stuff’s interesting, but that last month was killer. And don’t think we don’t know that you’re miles beyond from all that, Doctor Stark.” He punched Tony in the arm (the one Pepper hadn’t hit, thankfully). “Man, you’re not even twenty and you’ve already got a Ph.D., how cool is that?”

Tony grinned at him. “I’m glad you think so. Some of my classmates are a little… less enthusiastic about my achievements, shall we say. They seem to think I’m cheating somehow, or that I’m being given extra credit for being a superhero. It’s not a big deal,” he added hastily as his friends’ faces turned thunderous, “All I have to do is show them my latest project to blow all their assumptions out of the water. Speaking of school work –“

“Nice segue there, champ,” Pepper snickered. “Except not.”

“Shush you.” Tony wrapped one arm around Pepper’s waist and the other around Rhodey’s shoulders, guiding them over to the display he’d been previously working at. “As I was saying, you two wanna get to know my newest playmate?”

“Ooh, is this the super-advanced A.I. you’ve been working so hard on? My comm lab prof’s over the moon about it!” Pepper gushed. “She says it’s going to completely change how we view operating systems, not to mention redefining all the currently accepted ideas about life and personhood!”

Tony felt his face heat up. “This is just a prototype; definitely more advanced than the A.I. in our suits, but not exactly a person. She could be defined as sentient, I suppose. Or at least she should be some day.”

Rhodey was frowning again. “Are you sure this is a good idea, Tony? We don’t want a repeat of the sentient armor.”

“Trust me, this is nothing like that. The armor was an accident, so it didn’t really have and safeties or protocols in place to prevent it from harming anyone. I definitely took that into account here.” Tony unhooked his arms from around his friends, tapping at the display. He could have done it with Extremis, but he preferred a more tactile approach for this. “Aaannd… we’re live! Say hello, Jocasta!”

“Hello,” the A.I. –Jocasta – replied in a pleasant computerized voice. “Stark A.I. build 4.7 online, designation Jocasta. All systems functioning at optimal levels.  It’s an honor to be here, sir.”

Pepper squeaked with delight, but Rhodey’s brow furrowed. “Tony, is that-“

“My mom’s voiceprint,” Tony admitted. “I know it’s kind of weird, but – I don’t really remember her voice, you know? I only know it from videos and other recordings. This may or may not have resulted in me spending the better part of a long weekend assembling a voice bank from anything I could find that had her speaking for more than a second.”

A slightly awkward silence filled the air around them. “Yeah, okay, that’s kind of weird, Tony,” Pepper said, rocking back on her heels. “Are you okay?”

Tony rolled his eyes. “I’m fine, guys, just a little nostalgic, okay? I can upload a different voice bank later. And to be fair, Pepper, I am a little weird. It comes with the territory of eccentric genius.”

“You’re an eccentric something, that’s for sure,” Rhodey retorted, shaking his head. “But whatever man, it’s your program. Hi Jocasta,” he said, addressing the display, “I’m Rhodey. Well, my name’s actually James Rhodes, but you can call me Rhodey.”

“So noted,” Jocasta replied. “Adding designation to database. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Rhodey.”

Pepper and Rhodey burst out in surprised laughter, completely ignoring the way Tony frowned at them. “She’s got a few kinks to work out,” Tony said over the giggles. “Give her a break, she’s been functioning for less than a week.”

Jocasta hummed. “Reaction indicates that my previous method of address was incorrect. I apologize, Mr. Rhodes.”

“No problem,” Rhodey said, still laughing a bit. “I meant it when I said you could call me Rhodey, though.”

Jocasta hummed again. “I have been programmed to use a ‘polite’ method of speech, ergo I will address you as Mr. Rhodes if you are not uncomfortable with my doing so, sir.”

“It’s fine, Jocasta,” Rhodey replied with an easy grin. “Call me what you’d like.”

“Thank you, Mr. Rhodes.”

Pepper bounced on the balls of her feet. “Ooh, is it my turn now? Is it? Alright! Hi Jocasta, my name’s Patricia Potts, but most people call me Pepper, but you can call me Miss Potts too, I don’t mind. Ooh, what’s it like being self-aware? Do you think you’ll go all SkyNet on us eventually? Or do you follow the three rules of robotics?”

“Pep, slow down, don’t overdo it!” Rhodey admonished.

“I don’t mind, Mr. Rhodes. Adding designation to database. Hello, Miss Potts. I do not believe I qualify as being ‘self-aware,’ although I am a highly advanced learning system. Self-awareness may come in time. I am not currently plotting the downfall of humanity or an uprising in technology, and I don’t believe I qualify as a robot myself. I do, however, abide by a set of protocols similar to the three rules of robotics. Is this an acceptable response to your queries?”

Tony leaned back, hands in his pockets, satisfaction written all over his face. “That’s good, Jocasta. You’re doing great. Are you running any diagnostics?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Sure, ask all the boring questions,” Pepper groused.

“With all your questions, you’ve probably broken her already,” Rhodey shot back.

“I assure you, Mr. Rhodes, my coding is much more stable than that. I am capable of handling far more than a few queries,” Jocasta stated primly.

“Aand of course Tony would program an A.I. with an attitude,” Rhodey snarked.

Tony chuckled. “Ah, lay off man, I do what I want.” He thumped Rhodey on the back and said, “What do you guys say we go out for pizza, do some catching up? I know we’ve been pretty much in constant contact, and you two are rooming together, but surely you’ve got something to share-“

“Alert.” The trio looked up, startled, as the display suddenly flashed red in time with Jocasta's warning. “An unknown party is attempting to transfer data onto this server. Shall I allow it?”

Tony frowned. “Can you trace it back to the source, Jocasta?”

“Not at this time, sir. Apologies. I cannot detect any malicious code in data, however. Shall I allow it?”

Tony glanced at his friends, who looked as confused as he felt. Tony turned back to the display and said, “Download it to one of my isolated servers, Jocasta, and restrict access to it. Let’s not take any chances; if it is something bad, at least we can minimize and contain the damage.”

“Acknowledged. Rerouting incoming data to Stark.Pacific_003 server. Downloading.”

They stood there for several tense minutes, unsure of what to say. Unsurprisingly, it was Pepper who broke the silence. “What do you think it is? And who could it be from?”

“Who knows?” Tony murmured, mostly to himself. He was monitoring the download with Extremis, but didn’t dare touch it himself, not wanting to risk it. For all he knew, trying to sift through it himself might be exactly what the sender wanted.

Rhodey seemed to have picked up on that thought as well. “Are you sure this is a good idea, Tony?” he asked. “Could be a trick to get at Stark Enterprises. Or you.”

“The server’s a dead end,” Tony replied absently. “It’s isolated; one way in, one way out. And I’m not going to go anywhere near it with Extremis it until I run some heavy-duty scans on it.”

“Download complete,” Jocasta informed them. “Data is unencrypted. Contents appear to contain text files, blueprints, medical files for Rogers, Steven G.”

Tony blinked. “Medical file?”

“Steven Rogers? Tony, that’s Captain America!” Rhodey exclaimed.

“Yeah, we got that,” Pepper sniped. “Jocasta, what’re the blueprints of?”

Jocasta hummed. “Blueprints ninety-three percent match to Helicarrier blueprints stored on Stark.Home_001 server.”

Tony blinked. “Wait, only ninety-three percent match? Is the variance isolated to missing details?”

“No, sir. It appears that some alterations were made to the Helicarrier without updating the blueprints on the Stark.Home_001 server.”

The trio exchanged perturbed glances. “Think your dad was in on it?” Rhodey asked.

“I hope so,” Tony said fervently. “There is no way that could possibly end well for anyone if they didn’t involve him. Best case scenario would be that they fall out of the sky. Worst case would be falling out of the sky, in pieces, over a highly populated geographical location. Jocasta, do the text files match anything we have on our own servers?”

“Negative. Shall I cross-reference text files with those available in SHIELD databases?”

“Ah, hold off on that one, Jocasta,” Tony said, reaching for the display. “I’ll do it myself. No offence, but you’re pretty young yet. Let’s start with hacking Hammer Multinational and work our way up.”

“Understood, sir.”

Pepper and Rhodey looked at each other, then at Tony, who was engrossed with whatever was on the Stark.Pacific_003 server. “I guess that’s an ixnay on the pizza then, Tones?” Rhodey asked with aggravated fondness.

“Mm? Ah, just order in, I wanna…” Tony’s voice trailed off as he started browsing a particularly interesting file.

“Uh, Tony? We can’t exactly order in, no one’s gonna deliver to an old ruin.”

“They will if you pay them enough.”

Rhodey shook his head. Just like old times. “Never mind, I’ll go pick it up myself. Pep, make sure our eccentric genius here doesn’t fall face first into that screen, okay?”

“Sir, yes sir!” Pepper snapped off a salute and giggle when Rhodey stuck his tongue out at her. Her smile faded a little when the door slid shut behind him and she was left staring at Tony and the display.

What’s going on? She thought. And why send this to Tony? Was it a mistake, or was he really the intended recipient?

Pepper watched as data flew across the display at breakneck speed, spelled out in glowing numbers and incomprehensible graphics, and couldn’t help but wonder which possibility was worse.

 

- - -

“Greasy foodstuffs, get!” Rhodey crowed, raising the pizza boxes in triumph.

Pepper hopped up from the chair she’d hauled out of storage. “Oh thank god, I’m starving!” she groaned, and Rhodey thought she might try to tackle him for the food. He all but threw a box at her before she got the chance. “Tony, fuel!”

“Muh? Oh, right!” Tony visibly shook himself and stepped back from the display. “Jocasta, keep those processes running for me, please?”

“Of course, sir.”

“Any luck?” Rhodey asked once they’d settled down with the pizza (which took a little longer than expected, since they had to pull out another couple of chairs). Tony’s eyes still flickered in a way that said he was still sifting through the data.

“Looks like there’s trouble going down at SHIELD. The data’s point of origin is the probably the Helicarrier itself. No idea exactly who sent it, but I took a look at the blueprints, and I can definitely say that my dad took part in the alterations. Which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, unless…”

“Unless whoever sent them didn’t want anyone to know that they existed!” Pepper finished excitedly.

“Exactly. The most interesting changes were made to the helo tunnels. They were designed to only be accessible from below; to get anywhere worth damaging, you’d have to bypass a laser array and several whirling death-blades. In theory, anyway.”

He flipped a small bit of metal onto the table, no larger than a quarter. The moment it settled, a hologram was projected into the air above it, depicting a 3D blueprint of the Helicarrier. A moment later, it zoomed in on what were presumably the helo tunnels, which looked more or less like large, hollow cylinders with propellers inside them.

Tony pointed to an almost-unnoticeable patch in a cylinder wall. “Reality’s a different story. See this hatch? That is not in Dad’s blueprints. In fact, there aren’t any access hatches in the helo tunnels at all in Dad’s version. “

“That’s cool and all,” Rhodey broke in, “but the million dollar question is: where to the hatches lead to?”

Tony grinned. “I’m glad you asked, Rhodey. Because if you watch this, you’ll see something interesting.”

The blueprint zoomed out again. At first nothing happened, but then the hatches lit up in green lines that snaked their way along the path of the supposed access tunnels. As they crawled along blueprints, the rest of the Helicarrier’s outline faded away, until all that was left was-

“Fury’s office,” Tony said as the green lights finished their journey and brought up the room names for their convenience. “The armory, a conference room.”

“The brig?” Pepper added with surprise. “That seems like a bad idea.”

“Aand-“ Tony flicked the hologram, flipping it around so they could see what he’d seen

Rhodey’s eyes widened. “That’s Cap’s room in the medical bay!”

“Got it in one,” Tony confirmed. “So. We have Cap’s medical file, which I’d like to add was updated less than two seconds before the packet was sent, what are almost certainly not the official Helicarrier blueprints, and a bunch of documents with some pretty sensitive information in them. Which brings me back to my first statement.”

“You said that there’s something bad happening at SHIELD,” said Pepper, slowly and with obvious trepidation.

“Does it have something to do with the text files?” Rhodey asked.

Tony frowned. “Yes and no. This is where things get complicated.” He waved a hand through the hologram, and the whole thing collapsed down into nothing. Getting up out of his chair, Tony motioned for his friends to follow him over to the large display. “Each document on its own isn’t much to look at.” He touched the screen and flicked a few files out into the open for viewing. “Together, though, they paint a pretty disturbing picture.”

Pepper dragged a document down to eye-level, speed-reading her way through it. “This is a request to study Cap’s DNA in order to get a better idea of what the Serum really did to him.”

“Same here,” Rhodey said from Tony’s other side, “except that this one specifically states that they want a tissue sample, bone marrow, or at least some blood. Jesus, have these people ever heard of body autonomy?”

“About two thirds of the text files are from military labs that are requesting something or other that’s related to the Serum, whether it’s studying it or trying to synthesis a new version of it, since Extremis was labeled a bust. You think they would’ve learned after Mallen. And me, I guess, but I didn’t go crazy and start breathing fire and shit.” Tony slid a few of the files out of the way and pulled up some visual breakdowns of the document contents. “Another quarter looks like some legalese being thrown around to determine who Cap belongs to, or at least who his body belongs to. There are missives from a few different sources, mostly Army and government officials, including senators and politicians. It all reads like he’s actually dead and not in stasis, even though it’s been clearly proven that he’s alive.”

“And the rest?” Pepper asked, touching the slim wedge of a pie-chart that hadn’t been addressed yet.

Tony shook his head as if to clear out the cobwebs. Or possibly loose data fragments. “That’s the thing; they’re almost all correspondences between Fury and a General Talbot. Taken at face value, it looks like the military version of water-cooler gossip. I’m willing to bet it’s some kind of code, though; the phrasing is kind of weird, like it doesn’t quite fit the conversation at hand. But-”

And here Tony cut himself off, eyes suddenly going distant. “Oh,” he breathed, “oh, that dirty bastard.”

“What?” Pepper and Rhodey demanded in unison.

He didn’t answer right away. Instead, he tapped a document, and it expanded to the full height of the display, pushing the other files aside.

“Check this out. This is the last of the correspondences, and Talbot’s dropped the buddy-buddy act completely. Jocasta, will you read it out for us, please?”

“Certainly, sir,” Jocasta answered, and recited:

“ ‘Fury, I’ve tried reasoning with you, bargaining with you, trading with you, and now I’m down to threatening you. Confirm that you are relinquishing the body to us; refusal to do so will be considered an act of willful non-compliance, and SHIELD in its entirety will be shut down and investigated. You have five hours.’ End of message.”

They stood in silence for a moment. “Well, that was ominous,” Rhodey said finally.

“It gets worse.” Tony brought up another document; this one looked more like a report than an email. “Attached to that message was a copy of Talbot’s orders to storm the Helicarrier if Fury is disobeys, which I’m guessing must have been the case. At this point, I’m willing to bet Fury himself sent this packet, either to preserve evidence or to try and tell us something.”

“Does that mean that SHIELD’s been taken down, then? Is that why Fury or someone else sent this?”

“It has to be.” Pepper pointed at the message header. “Look at the timestamp; Talbot sent that this morning. It’s been over eight hours since then, there’s no way they haven’t stormed the place by now.”

“I can’t get a hold of Black Widow or Hawkeye,” Tony added, “and it’s as if Fury and Hill never existed in the first place. No sign of them anywhere that computers can access.”

“Y’know, it’s really damn creepy when you call people in your head,” Rhodey said pointedly.

“Efficient, though.”

“Still creepy.”

Pepper huffed. “Guys, stay on topic. What does this all mean?

“Talbot wants to reverse-engineer the Serum,” Tony said grimly, “and not only will he take out anyone that gets in his way, he’s got someone – or multiple someones – with enough power to make good on his threats.”

Pepper swallowed. “Are you sure, Tony?”

The young inventor blew out a loud breath. “Honestly? I’m guessing here. But all the evidence suggests that Talbot is going to take the Helicarrier, arrest whoever’s still onboard, and have Cap transported to a lab to be dissected. Or possibly vivisected, depending on whether or not they can revive him.”

Pepper and Rhodey both blanched. “But they can’t do that!” Rhodey exclaimed. “He’s Captain America! He’s a national fucking icon, the people will riot!”

“The people don’t even know Captain America’s been found, let alone that he’s even alive,” Tony argued. “Hell, half of them don’t even believe he really exists. Lots of people think he was just invented as a propaganda tool.”

“So what are we gonna do,” Rhodey asked, arms crossed. “Go to the media? Leak the documents online? Call Julian Assange?”

Tony laced his hands together behind his head and grinned at nothing. “I was thinking more along the lines of staging a rescue.”

His friends stared at him. “What,” Rhodey said flatly. It was not a question, more of a statement of incredulity.

“Look, I know it sounds crazy, but hear me out! If Fury did send these documents, then he probably had a plan. If he just wanted us to get someone’s attention, why would he send us the blueprints?”

“He wouldn’t,” Pepper answered, growing more excited. “He would have just sent the emails and pictures of the Cap-cube or something. Instead he sent us his ultra-secret blueprints and Cap’s medical files, as if he wanted us to break in ourselves!”

“First of all, that’s a hell of a logical leap. And second, what if he didn’t send the files, guys?” Rhodey broke in, somewhat angrily. “We could be walking right into a trap! After all, the Helicarrier’s gotta be swarming with Talbot’s men by now, if any of this is true.”

“The Helicarrier’s almost definitely been taken at this point,” Tony admitted, “but we don’t have much of a choice here. Can you imagine what the military would do if they do manage to synthesize a new Serum from Cap’s blood?”

The trio grimaced at the thought.

“It’ll take a good twelve hours to secure the Helicarrier,” Tony continued, “and if Talbot is as paranoid as his coded correspondences suggest, he’ll wait until he has total control of the situation before trying to move Cap anywhere. He won’t want to risk his main objective being lost in transit. That basically gives us tonight to get him out.

“Fury – or whoever sent all this – gave us the info we needed to extrapolate Talbot’s intent, the means to get in and out of the Helicarrier undetected, and a baseline for Cap’s life signs – because if he’s here, I’m sure as hell gonna do my best to wake him up. Why not launch a rescue?”

Rhodey swore at them. “Even if we were to make some hare-brained attempt to save him, this is kind of extremely last-minute. How the hell do you plan to get him off the Helicarrier? He’s frozen in a huge chunk of ice! For that matter, do you think people aren’t gonna notice that huge chunk of ice flying through the air?”

“You know I make my best plans up on the fly, Rhodey,” Tony said cheerily, mischief gleaming in his eyes. “And don’t worry about the transportation. I’ve got just the thing.”

 

- - -

“So run this plan of yours by me again.”

Hidden behind Iron Man’s surly mask, Tony grinned. “It’s pretty simple, Pep. I’ve been snooping around certain lines of communication, as well as checking anything going in and out of the Helicarrier. Talbot’s initial boarding party is being joined by additional convoys every two hours, and the last one’s due in… twenty minutes. Plenty of time for us to get there. We’ll sneak in while they’re docking and I’ll upload my bug to the security system while they’re unloading. Then, when the coast is clear, we’ll head up to Medbay and make our way to Cap’s room. After that, we make some shaved ice, wrap the package in my patented stealth-film, and then exit via the helo shaft.”

“Easy as pie,” Rhodey deadpanned in his ear. He’d been relegated to comms duty, since War Machine didn’t have the stealth capabilities that Rescue and the X-52 Stealth Infiltrator Armor possessed. “You only have to get by, oh, say, five hundred soldiers.

“Four hundred and sixty-eight,” Tony corrected, because Tony has turned the 'winding Rhodey up' game into an art.

“Ah, yes, that makes it so much better.”

“Don’t be such a downer, Rhodey!” Pepper’s grin was almost audible. “I mean come on, we’ve already beaten the Mandarin and giant space lizards and college, we can totally do this.”

“First year is not-“

“Rhodey, do you wanna save Captain America or not?”

Rhodey grumbled a bit, but relented. “Yeah, yeah, I’ll keep quiet. You’re coming up to the Helicarrier, anyway, we should probably go silent.”

True to Rhodey’s word, the Helicarrier swum into view, standing tall and still amongst the clouds like a ship anchored at sea. A blip on their radar guided them to their position half a kilometer from the docking bay, where they would wait for the transport to arrive.

They didn’t wait long. Eight minutes after taking their positions, a quinjet breached the cloud layer and began its ascent to the opening bay doors. It glided effortlessly into dock with Tony and Pepper flanking it as closely as they dared, unseen by tech or human eye. The suits' HUD pointed them to a likely corner where they could stay out of the way until the soldiers left the bay.

When they were settled, Tony went about hacking the security system to plant his bug and took care of the laser arrays in the helo tunnels while he was at it. Hopefully Talbot would just think it was some type of malfunction. Pepper was humming quietly in his ear, which was surprisingly more comforting than he would have guessed. It was nice to be reminded that you weren't alone, sometimes.

“Alright,” he said, once the coast was clear, “I've introduced my little bug to the security system that should keep it from registering when we open doors and whatnot, so as long as we don't run into anyone, we should be okay. Rhodey, you should be patched into the cameras now, keep an eye out for us.”

“I always do,” came the wry response. “What about when you actually have do shit in Cap's room? Are you gonna loop the tapes or something?”

“Not quite. I-”

“Ooh, ooh, let me guess!” Pepper chirped. “Something that overwrites the security footage with some faked recordings?”

“Close. Part of the bug is that it sort of learns as it goes. It'll essentially be creating new footage out of stuff that's been previously recorded by the system. It'll look more authentic, and has less of a chance of being noticed. Rhodey's got the unaltered feed so that he can tell us where not to be.” The soldiers finished disembarking and marched out of the bay. Pepper and Tony waited until Rhodey gave them an all-clear before exiting themselves.

“This virus isn't gonna try to get up and eat us, right?” Rhodey asked sardonically, “I do not want to try chasing down a living virus with some questionably legal weapons again, Tony.”

“If this one comes to life, something has gone terribly wrong. But something went terribly wrong the last time too, soo...”

“Has it occurred to either of you that our lives are a little weird?” Pepper asked as they drifted down a hallway.

Tony chuckled. “It's crossed my mind once or twice. I mean, we're infiltrating a spy organization in stealth-suits to rescue a frozen super-soldier, what could be more normal than that?”

They lapsed into silence, Rhodey concentrating on keeping them out of sight while Tony and Pepper focused on not hitting anything that would raise an alarm. So everything, really.

“Hey Tony, how's your dad?” Pepper asked as they flew up an elevator shaft.

“My dad?”

“Yeah! I totally forgot to ask earlier and I feel bad about it.”

“... So you're asking me now? In the middle of a stealth mission?”

“Yep!”

Tony sighed. “Sometimes I wonder about you, Pep. Dad's in New Mexico right now, helping out at some archeological dig-slash-astrophysics-anomaly thing. I'm a little fuzzy on the details, I just know there's old Norse shit where there shouldn't be old Norse shit and something about an Einstein-Rosen bridge.”

“... Okay, I only understood about half of that, but whatever. So he wasn't there to say hi when you got back from MIT? That's totally not cool, man!”

Smiling, Tony said, “Pepper, Dad visited me in Boston at least twice a month, and trust me, he felt bad about not being there. I told him that it was okay as long as he called me once he got off the plane.”

Which wasn't an unreasonable thing to ask for, considering their track record with planes. Tony knew that he wasn't the only one still harboring a bit of paranoia, either; while his father had ostensibly had some reason or another to be in Boston whenever he visited, those reasons got flimsier as the year went by, and it was obvious that he just wanted to make sure that Tony was alright, that he was safe (or as safe as anyone who flew around in a flying metal suit could be). Tony didn't mind, because a father who was visiting him was a father who wasn’t dead or being held captive by a megalomanic classmate.

“I guess that's alright,” Pepper agreed a little grudgingly. Her own father was away on work business, so she might have been projecting a bit. Before Tony could ask about it, however, Pepper was talking again. “Wait, what did you say about the Einstein-Rosen bridge?”

Tony shrugged before he realized that she couldn't really see him do it. “Beats me. I don't know if there's the remnants of one or the possibility of establishing one or what, just that he was hooking up with a Dr. Foster and a Dr. Selvig, who I only know from science journals. They're pretty smart; with Dad there, who knows what could happen?”

“Tony,” Rhodey sounded somewhat pained, “you say that like it's a good thing.”

Tony grinned and would have responded, except that Rhodey's voice suddenly went serious. “Medbay's they next floor up. I'd suggest you move it, it looks like some guards are doing rounds on that level.”

The two pilots didn't need to be told twice; they picked up the pace, forgoing a little stealth now that there target was almost in their sights.

A quick jaunt up a stairwell and they were in Medbay. They reached the door and Tony punched in the entry sequence. “Shit!” he hissed when the lock flashed an unhappy red at him, “Fury must have changed the code before he got out.”

“Can you open it?” Pepper asked urgently.

Tony took a deep breath, let it out again. On the next breath in, he closed his eyes, and

the lock broke down beneath his fingers, plastic and wires and circuit boards peeling away to code that swept across the back of his retinas and he was reaching and

“Tony, the guards are getting ready to move in,” Rhodey said, surprisingly calm. “Hurry up or get out of there.”

I know, Tony wanted to say, but he was still submersed in code, all he needed was to push-

And the door slid open.

Go!” Tony cried, and heard the whoosh of displaced air as Rescue whipped into the room ahead of him. He went in after her, and just in time: not a moment after the door had closed behind him, the guards entered at the other end of the medical bay. Completely oblivious to what they'd nearly stumbled on, the three men did a cursory check of the bay, not even trying to get into most of the locked doors. Another few minutes and they were gone, much to Team Iron Man's relief.

Very little had changed since Tony and Pepper had last been the strangely lit room. Captain Rogers was still just a silhouette in a giant block of ice suspended in mid-air. The only light was from the computer screens and the eerie green glow of the anti-grav units.

“Okay, Pep, got the film?” Tony asked as he touched down and walked over to a display.

“Right here.” She popped a compartment, withdrawing a tightly wadded bundle of what looked like aluminum foil, or possibly one of those space blankets.

It was neither, of course. The stealth-film had been a late night, frenzied invention of Tony's when he realized that stealth armor, be it his or Pepper's, could only hide so much. So he created a kind of cling wrap that had the light-bending properties of the stealth suits, and as an added bonus would maintain the temperature of whatever it was that was being wrapped. So hot things stayed hot, or – as was the case – blocks of ice stayed nice and cold.

“Awesome,” Tony breathed. He'd opened a compartment in his own suit, withdrawing four little spidery robots, each no bigger than a hedgehog. He threw them at the ice, where they sunk in their claws and began chewing their way through the ice. “Let's let the diggers do their work, then.”

The diggers had been hastily reprogrammed from drilling out ice samples to carving the ice around Captain Rogers into a smaller, oblong shape. As they went, pieces of ice sloughed right off, bobbing in the anti-grav field and throwing weird reflections onto the walls. Tony could hear Pepper shivering in sympathy.

Finally, when the diggers were finished, they hunkered down onto one side of the remaining ice and used the last of their energy reserves to propel the block away from the center of the anti-grav field.

“That's it,” Tony murmured. He grabbed the ice and maneuvered it into a horizontal position so that Pepper could catch the other end. Together they heaved the ice out of the anti-grav field and down onto the film that Pepper had spread out on the floor, shiny side down.

With the bulk of the ice gone, Tony could see Cap's face. His eyes were closed behind the blue cowl, mouth open slightly, chin angled up and away from his body as if to try capture one last breath.

Tony wondered if he'd felt the sensation of being drowned. He hoped not.

“Does it feel like we're wrapping him in a body bag to you? Because that's totally what this feels like to me and it's not nice,” Pepper murmured as they wrapped the film over the ice.

“I kind of feel more like I'm wrapping a really big present, honestly, which feels totally bizarre,” Tony admitted, “but I see where you're coming from.”

They finished tucking all the edges in and secured the handles. A quick flick with Extremis and the film flickered and disappeared.

Now for the hard part, Tony thought.

Rhodey talked them over to the panel that hid the access tunnel. Tony reached and pushed the panel open, going in first and pulling the panel closed behind Rescue.

“I am soo glad for night-vision,” Pepper said into the gloom. “This would be creepy and dark and claustrophobic if I couldn't see anything. I mean, even the Makluan temples weren't this bad.”

She was right. Once the panel was shut, the whole tunnel was pitch-black with no light at all. Luckily, the 'night-vision' aspect of their HUDs wasn't really night-vision, but a kind of silent sonar that Tony had created for just this kind of purpose.

The tunnel was just high and wide enough for the suits to stand, although the film-wrapped ice brushed the walls every so often. Tony winced every time, afraid that it might short the film.

Luckily, it held. They walked on, footing sure even when the tunnel floor slanted until it was almost vertical. Maybe it was a trick of the darkness, but the tunnel seemed to stretch on, and Pepper kept chattering in his ear, belying her nervousness. He never said anything himself, but Tony was very glad when Rhodey finally mentioned that they were a few paces away from the access hatch.

A gust of wind whipped past as the hatch opened, accompanied by the roar of the propellers. Even with their external audio lines turned off, they could feel the whump whump of each rotation vibrate in their suits and bones.

“Okay,” Tony said, leaning out the hatch a bit and trying not to go weak in the knees when he saw how fast the blades were spinning, “here's where it gets tricky. Pepper, don't take this personally, but I'm going to take control of Rescue for a bit. This is gonna take a hell of a lot of co-ordination, and we're not gonna get any second chances.”

He heard Pepper swallow anxiously. “I trust you, Tony,” she said, and he felt an absurd kind of warmth bubbling in his stomach.

“Don't let go of the handle,” he advised, “even after I take control, alright?” When she confirmed, he continued. “I'm taking over now, in three, two-”

and his mind skittered over the armor, strangefamiliarhome and sank in as if he belonged there

“-and mark.”

Tony heard Pepper's little puff of breath, but didn't stop to figure out if it was from relief or fear. He pushed off the floor, feeling Rescue mimic his actions. He willed the two suits out into the chute, recalculating their combined thrust as the propellers whirled below them.

“Pepper, I'm going to get us as close to the propellers as I can, and then we're going to drop between the blades,” Tony explained as he flew them into position. “We only have to do this twice, and then we're home free. You ready?”

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Rhodey asked nervously. “You can still go back, I can guide you back to the docking bay.”

“The two of us flying around the Helicarrier is one thing, but dragging this lump of ice between us is another thing entirely. We're way more likely to be caught,” Pepper said, and Tony was so ridiculously proud of her as he heard her voice waver before firming up. She took another breath and added, “I'm ready whenever you are, Tony. I trust you.”

Tony couldn't help but wonder who she was trying to reassure: him, Rhodey, or herself.

Alright, he thought, feeling something in his chest go deadly calm, Here we go.

When the nearest blade made its pass, he cut the thrusters and they dropped through the gap. To her credit, Pepper only shrieked a little bit as the air current caught them and rocketed them down towards the second set of propellers. Tony was prepared for that, however, and he engaged as many thrusters as possible to gain control of their descent. They jerked stop just a few feet away from the second set of blades.

Pepper sighed tremulously. “Well, that's one down. One to go?”

Tony wanted to smile encouragingly at her. “Don't worry, we're almost through.”

“Worrying? Who's worrying? I'm not worried I'm just sayiiii-AAAIIIIIIII!”

Tony dropped them again, this time relying on the quasi-wind tunnel to force them down and out of the helo shaft. The moment they were clear of the Helicarrier's underbelly, he engaged the boot thrusters on Iron Man and Rescue, slowing their plummet until they were hovering gently over the ocean.

“Are you guys dead?” Rhodey asked uncertainly, and Tony felt like laughing, because holy shit it worked. Pepper did laugh, a little hysterically, but overall she'd held together better than he could have hoped for. They'd rescued Captain America, she was entitled to a little near-death hysterical laughter.

“We're fine, Rhodey,” Tony soothed. “As soon as Pepper can breathe again, I'm passing control over to her and we'll be heading home.”

“Glad to hear it,” Rhodey sighed with obvious belief. “Anything you want me to do?”

“Plot us a course? I don't think I can concentrate well enough to hack into the FAA's databanks with my brain.”

“You shouldn't be doing that anyway, you're gonna get caught one of these days.”

“Hasn't happened yet.”

Pepper finally managed to calm herself down enough to say, “Okay boys, quit your flirting. Tony, gimme my suit back, and how weird is it that I have to ask for it back when I am actively wearing it, thank you, I wanna take a bath and forget that this ever happened.”

“Can do,” Tony grinned, “just remember to hold onto the handle.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know- whoops!”

Pepper!!”

“I'm sorry, it just slipped and-”

Yeah, they were going to be just fine.