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Underground

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Alas, New York

The stars were bright above New York City. It was a testament to humanity’s adaptability to even the strangest of circumstances that Tony barely noticed them anymore. They shone over the jagged edges of the broken skyline, the starlight catching on the rubble and the flitting exoskeletons of the invading species. The Chitauri didn’t mind the dark, apparently, or the hive mind back on their home planet didn’t let them mind it. Five years of occupation, and the humans still knew next to nothing what went on in that web of little bug brains. Either way, once they’d cut all human power to the city, they’d set up no alien replacement and thus—stars. And thanks to the destruction of nearly every skyscraper, Tony had an excellent view of the constellations.

Look at me, Steve. I’m marveling at the beauty of the natural world, he thought wryly as he flew low to the ground, almost skimming the debris still littering the streets after all these years.  You’d be proud if you were here to see it.

“Twenty-five percent power,” JARVIS reminded him as Tony banked onto the remains of Broadway. “I’d recommend turning back and starting the experiment again at a later date.”

“Like hell,” Tony said. “I’m almost there.”

JARVIS synthesized an approximation of tutting but otherwise stayed silent. Once the suit reached below thirty percent power, all nonessential features of the suit shut down. JARVIS finding new ways to call Tony an idiot, Tony had decided long ago, was a nonessential feature.

He landed with an undignified clunk on a street corner and winced at the sound. He’d put off upgrading the suit’s stealth for too long in favor of working on the new probe currently beeping in the suit’s left arm.  It didn’t seem like anything was around to hear him, but you never knew if a Chitauri street patrol was around until they shoved their spear through you. Tony thought he was alone, and he decided to get out of there before he could be proven otherwise. He did hate being wrong.

Tony pressed his back against the wall of a more-or-less intact building as he booted up the probe. “Tell me what I’m about to look at, JARVIS.”

“No lifeforms outside the shield detected within fifty meters. Inside the shield, sir, is beyond my capabilities.”

“Any patrols in the nearby blocks?”

“Sir, this close to the shield, the scanners see far less than human eyes.”

Tony sighed. “I know that, JARVIS. So the new filter’s not doing anything?”

“Unfortunately not, sir.”

Tony crouched below the average Chitauri eyelevel and peered around the corner. The coast seemed clear, and the last patrol he’d seen was ten blocks north and heading more so, chasing the timed charges Tony had placed throughout the city. The smallest of the Chitauri auxiliary nests was defenseless. Or, more accurately, unguarded, Tony thought as he studied the crackling silver and blue air that surrounded like a dome the twenty-story tall hive, built from the city’s scraps and the strange green bonding material that the Chitauri excreted. The sight of the hive made Tony’s skin crawl, but as long as that shield protected it, there wasn’t a hell of a lot Tony could do. Only Chitauri could get in and out of that shield. They flew through it like it wasn’t there. If Tony tried, well, the best case scenario was it would burn the suit clean away. Worst case, it fried the rest of him with it.

With one more furtive look around, Tony kept low as he ran to the outer edges of the shield. The rusted frame of an old truck provided some shelter from bug eyes. This close to the shield’s energy, Tony flicked off most of JARVIS’s displays. Something about Chitauri energy always made him go haywire. The only thing JARVIS could successfully measure a foot away from the shield was the power of the shield itself, and that was all Tony needed at the moment. “Shield power at one hundred percent. The drill is ready, sir,” JARVIS said.

Tony flicked his left wrist. A thin spike jutted out of the suit’s arm, deceptively simple and smooth. “Oh, you beauty,” Tony whispered as he extended the adamantium-coated tip into the shield wall. The shield sparked where the probe touched it, but just once. The tip held, protecting the delicate machinery inside from the shield’s defenses. The probe was the closest Tony could get to modified Chitauri tech that would actually serve a purpose without his old resources. Almost everything the Chitauri used relied on a low-level telepathic field, but the sensors that he’d been able to salvage from their speeders could be used even by a mute mind like his.

“You getting this, JARVIS?” Tony asked as data streamed into the suit’s memory banks.

“Always, sir. The readings are consistent with past probes.”

Tony smiled grimly. “Let’s change that, JARVIS. Boot up the insecticide, two percent power.”

The probe whirred gently as it fed killer energy into the shield. To borrow the incredibly simplified simile Tony had used to explain this to Pepper so she’d give him the last of the adamantium, it was like giving B positive blood to someone who was A negative. It was still blood, but the body couldn’t run on it. This energy was similar enough to the shield’s to be accepted into the structure but foreign enough that it would dissolve the bonds holding that structure together.

That was the theory at least.

“Shield power at one hundred and ten percent, sir.”

The probe’s data measurements streamed through Tony’s view filter. “What the hell? How is that possible?”

“The shield seems to have instantly adapted to the new energy source,” JARVIS said.

“Can we fry the system?” Tony asked.”Jack it the insecticide to one hundred and overload the shield?”

“The new energy does not appear to be overtaxing the system. On the contrary, sir, the shield seems to be running more efficiently.”

Tony closed his eyes and counted to ten in his head. He’d have preferred to punch something, but since his options right now were pretty much just the shield, he put ‘commit violence’ on his to-do list and asked, “Did we just fix the enemy’s defense system?”

JARVIS paused for a beat. “Technically, it wasn’t broken in the first place.”

Anger and disappointment dueled for supremacy in Tony’s heart. In the end, weariness outlasted them all. “Retract the probe,” he said dully. “We’ve got enough data to see where we went wrong back at the garage.”

“I am sorry, sir,” JARVIS said as the probe slid back into the suit. Tony crept away, keeping an eye out for any Chitauri coming back early to their nest. Then, with a sigh, he took off.

“If Pepper asks,” Tony said, “that went a lot better than it did.”

“Understood, sir.”

Tony should have headed straight back to the nearest entrance to the base, but the thought of slinking back home without accomplishing anything kept him flying. He had really thought that the insecticide program was going to do something, anything—anything besides make the situation worse. He’d try again. He’d make it work. The idea was perfect, it was just the execution that was off. He’d try again. And until he could get the satisfaction of it working, he could tide himself over with the spare charge hidden in the suit’s thigh holster, just waiting to be placed. No sense letting that go to waste.  

He landed on 23rd Street, little more than a crater in the ground. There was the twisted frame of a trashcan lying on its side that would serve his purpose well. Tony slipped the charge inside the can, covering it almost entirely with the chunks of sidewalk lying around. Only the sensor poked out, a specific shade of red light that stared back at him. Obvious to the human eye; invisible to the Chitauri. Any bug scuttling by would be blown to bits. Any human, well, if they could notice it, they could run. If they couldn’t—and anyone out here wouldn’t—the bomb was doing them a favor.

“Lifeform detected,” JARVIS said suddenly. In an instant, Tony whirled around, hands outstretched, palms beginning to glow. An infected, so dirty and starved that even though it was naked Tony could not guess its sex, stared dully at him. It was crouched on all fours, its knuckles like front legs. Matted black hair hung down past its shoulders, partially covering its naked, dirt streaked chest. Tony could count its ribs. Clenched in its mouth was a skinny pigeon, dying. It beat its wings weakly as its blood dripped down the infected’s chest.

The infected stared at Tony without fear. Fear would imply some level of understanding. Tony put down his hands, powered down the repulsors. Eighteen percent power, the bar at the edge of his vision informed him. The infected raised itself on its hind legs, its actual legs, her actual legs, and cocked her head. Its head. It helped to think of them as it. It studied Tony with blank eyes. He was not Chitauri so it would not go to him. He was not animal so it could not eat him. With no other reason to take an interest in him, it turned, falling back on its knuckles and loping away.

It had been a long time since he’d seen a middle-stage infected. He’d thought that they’d all surely died by now. Apparently not. The infection took its time in some people and raced through others.

“Sir, we must get back to base,” JARVIS said. “This is a needless waste of power.”

Tony raised his hands. His repulsors whirred on.

“This is not proper procedure.”

Tony aimed. The infected took no notice as it crawled away.

“Tony, no,” JARVIS said. It was half a command, half a plea. JARVIS didn’t ask for much these days. Tony lowered his hands.

Sixteen percent power, the bar now read as the infected turned the corner and disappeared.

“It’d be a mercy,” Tony said. He stood alone in the empty street.

“She would not think so,” JARVIS said. “Save it for those that can appreciate it.”

“She can’t think. Aren’t you not supposed to be talking right now?” Tony said as he readied for flight.

“You programmed me to eliminate all superfluous comments. Therefore, everything I say must be essential.”

“By whose judgment?”

“The most trusted judgment in the world. My own.”

Tony snorted and was about to take off (that’d be another two percent at least,he would need to take it slow and stay the hell out of any fire) when a familiar flash of blue sparked in the corner of his eyes. In a flash, Tony switched over to battle mode, hands up, missiles prepped, shields engaged, as he whirled around to face the source. And he paused. The source of the light was not a Chitauri spear or one of their riders or the eyes of one of their nastier creatures they’d brought with them through the portal. In fact, the source looked more like the portal itself, a line of blue lightning suspended in the air about as tall as Tony. It undulated getting wider and thinner, taller and shorter, like it was trying to shape itself and could figure out how.  Another portal? A smaller one? Could the Chitauri come through now without the Tesseract? It didn’t look nearly as neat as the Tesseract energy. That blue light sliced through the world like a laser; this one looked like the person on the other end was hacking their way through with a blunt knife.

He saw the curve of a head, maybe, something that could be a head, in the blue light. It thrashed and flailed like it was deep in pain. Words like shouts from so far away he heard them as whispers came out of the light. He couldn’t hear them. He cranked the volume of the suit’s receivers, and he still couldn’t make out the words. What he could hear, he didn’t understand. “JARVIS, why don’t more aliens forcing their way into our planet speak English?”

“Do you really think this is the time for wisecracks, sir?”

“Always.”

The head on the other side seemed to notice him. It looked human, humanoid at least. That wasn’t enough to make Tony trust it. The Earth’s track record with humanoid aliens was not stellar, clearly. The head said something, shouted it. Tony couldn’t hear. The light was fading, shrinking, and the thing on the other side clearly knew that. It shouted again. It almost sounded understandable.

And then, with a flash, it was gone. The air was still as if it had never been disturbed.

Tony took off.

Tony fell down.

JARVIS did not helpfully chime in to tell him that he had just reached zero percent energy. JARVIS did not need to, even if JARVIS could have. The fact that he was lying face down in a pile of rubble and seemed to have no ability to right himself was a pretty good indication of that fact. There’s got to be something in reserve, Tony thought, even as he knew there was not, of course there was not, maybe five years ago when this suit wasn’t five years old there would be, but this was now. There was not. This suit was a purely stealth outfit these days. Combat mode drained its systems.  

It wasn’t impossible to move in the suit without power. It was extremely difficult in a way that would have winded Tony when he was a healthy young man (although, let’s be honest a moment, Tony was never a healthy young man since he was pretty sure good health was not all that compatible with nightly binge drinking). So moving was possible. And if it was possible, that meant Tony could do it.

He always got blindly optimistic when he was about to die. In his defense, he hadn’t died so far. And the important thing was that he not panic. Panicking would use up air.  

“Come on, you little shit,” he muttered at his right arm, trapped and bent underneath him. If he could straighten it just a little, he could flip onto his back. It wouldn’t improve his situation much, but at least he could see things then. Maybe even look up at those goddamn stars as he asphyxiated to death.

“Straighten, straighten, motherfucker, straighten.” The suit didn’t want to move without electricity helping it along. Tough.  One inch, two inches, three, and Tony was rocking precariously before he toppled over backwards and landed with a thump on his back. “Woo! That was definitely something worth accomplishing,” he said, only partially sarcastic when the hideous bug face of a Chitauri grunt appeared in front of his faceplate.

Tony went silent and still. Both were fairly easy, considering his circumstances. Go away. Go away, he willed. Chitauri in groups were formidable. On their own, if they didn’t call for backup, they could be stupid as a sack of shit.

The head disappeared, and Tony heard a clunk clunk clunk. It was poking him with the end of his spear. Goddamn it. This was not how he envisioned dying. He always thought someone attractive would be the one the kill him. He deserved that at least. The bug face appeared in his line of site again. It appeared to be sniffing him. He’d never been so close to one of their faces while they were alive. Now that he had, it didn’t seem like an essential experience.

CLANK.

The tip of the spear bounced off Tony’s face plate. The second time the Chitauri hit, the tip stuck in one of the seams. It’d take the bug fucker a hell of a long time to pry open his mask, but Tony wasn’t going anywhere, and it had probably already called for backup. Once one Chitauri knew something, a thousand did, and they swarmed. Tony heard his mask creaking. Maybe it wouldn’t take that long.

At least I won’t have time to lose my mind. I’ll be dead before I’m infected.

The Chitauri seemed to know where Tony’s eyes were. It seemed to look into them. It seemed to smirk.

Then it definitely got knocked the fuck away by a blur of red, white, and blue.

Tony gaped up at the night sky. The moment dragged. To his left, he heard fighting. The suit’s neck was locked in place. Tony stared up and up and waited, the pounding of his heart echoing through the suit. Then it was all he heard. The world outside was silent.

Steve Rogers’ head popped into Tony’s field of vision—dirty, a little battered, a little older, but Steve, still Steve, good old Steve, the kind of face that belonged on a man you could call a good old anything without a shred of irony. He grinned down at Tony, and that was the same too. “You’ve got a knack for getting yourself in trouble.”

“You’ve got a knack for getting me out of it,” Tony said. Steve couldn’t hear. Tony knew that. He wouldn’t have said that if Steve could. He’d get smug, and self-satisfied Captain America was the worst kind.

To his right, Natasha appeared, beautiful, deadly Natasha. She seemed about as amused as Steve. About as dirty and battered too, but who was Tony to judge? Last week, he’d colored the grey hairs in his beard with one of the lab’s permanent markers and got a lecture from Dr. Wong in return on proper use of limited materials. Natasha rapped her knuckles on the faceplate. “Do you think he’s dead?”

Steve’s grinned drooped for a moment before he shook his head. “No, I can hear air going through the filters. He’s breathing. He might not be conscious, but he’s breathing.”

Tony stopped breathing for a moment. Then, after ten seconds, long enough they would know it was intentional, he started again.

“He’s conscious,” Steve and Nat said at the same time.

“Good,” Natasha added. “I’d hate to think that’d he’d slept through his stupidity.”

“Hey!” Tony protested. “Steve! Defend me!” Steve smiled. “Traitor.”

Then Steve and Nat disappeared and the next thing he knew, he was being lifted and dragged. They dropped him about twenty feet later, slightly higher than he’d been before. “You can pull your boyfriend,” he heard Nat say. “Get him underground. I’ll make sure this one didn’t have any friends.”

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Tony said as the suit started moving. He must have been on a cart of some kind, maybe even the SHIELD-issued sled that Steve and Nat had set out with six months ago for their two month trip. Pepper would be glad that they brought it back in one piece. He’d gotten the distinct impression on more than one occasion that a major reason that she was upset that they’d been gone so long is that she’d given them so many nice things that she would never get back. And, of course, feelings. Like the fear that they’d sent out their two greatest humans, metahumans, two of humanity’s greatest hopes on a suicide mission to a distant city to face an unknown threat, and if they were dead now, then what did that say for the rest of the schlubs that had survived so far? But Pepper and Tony didn’t talk about things like that, not anymore. They’d gone off the table when they’d broke up four years ago, and they had never come back on. It turns out you could say “We’ll still be friends” as much as you want, but you couldn’t turn bacon back into a pig.

Steve was alive. Natasha was alive. They were alive. Tony sounded like a dumbass right now, he knew that. It wasn’t his fault; he was still numb with relief. He hadn’t known he’d been mourning them until they had come back. The cart rattled as Steve dragged him down the deserted streets.  Tony stared up at the sky. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad night after all.

“Uh,” Steve said after a minute, right on cue to squash that ill-advised burst of hope. “Tony, can you move?”

Tony assumed his complete stillness was answer enough.

“Right. It’s just…” Steve coughed, and Tony could practically hear him blushing. “I lost the key.”

Oh. Brilliant.

“So I don’t know where the entrance is,” Steve said.

“Yes, I got that. That’s the point of having the magic key,” Tony said. Steve couldn’t hear. “Open my back panel.”

“You have to have a key on you,” Steve said, crouching beside him.

“Open my back panel.”

“Where would you keep it?” Steve muttered as he ran his hands over the armor’s chest.

“Open the back panel, Jesus, Steve.” Tony tried rocking. Nothing happened. Steve rapped his knuckles on Tony’s breastplate like that would do something. “Thank god you’re pretty.”

“Maybe the back panel?” Steve asked, and Tony was about to burst into sarcastic cheers when he looked over Steve’s head and saw the telltale blue lights streaming towards them. Chitauri riders, coming en masse. That was what they did. They weren’t much one-on-one, but if they could swarm, they’d eat you whole.

“Steve!” Tony shouted, and Steve couldn’t hear him, but he could hear the riders, and in a second he was on his feet, shield in hand. He wavered for a moment, and Tony knew what he was calculating. Fight or flight? Even if Natasha came back, and she had to be sprinting towards them right now, there were at least three dozen riders heading their way, and Tony could be no help. On the other hand, without a key in hand, the spells warding the Underground would keep warding. There was nowhere to run to.

Then the Chitauri were here, and the time for wavering was over. Steve tensed, in battle mode instantly, ready to throw his shield. And then he didn’t. “Huh,” he said instead as the Chitauri forces, about forty of their top-tier fighters sniffed the air and screeched at each other. They made no move towards the humans; they didn’t seem to notice them at all.

“I should warn you now,” a soft voice by the armor’s audio ports murmured, “I intend to be smug about saving you.”

“Wouldn’t expect anything less,” Tony said as Loki’s face appeared in his line of vision. Loki smirked like he’d heard, but his face was flushed, and he braced himself with one hand on the armor’s chest. Loki always complained about how much impromptu illusion spells winded him.

“Loki! What are you doing topside?” Steve asked, fastening his shield back onto his back.

“You’re welcome,” Loki replied. “It’s nice to see you after so long too. Please, save your effusive thanks. This spell won’t last, and I don’t fancy being caught standing around chatting when it ends.”

Steve stepped out of Tony’s sight and grabbed the cart. “Lead the way.”

“Lost the key then? I thought as much,” Loki said as the air started to shimmer around them. “You looked around too much for people who should have known you were already here.”

The view shifted slightly, and suddenly there was a subway station where there had not been one before. Tony had memorized the streets of New York long ago, but since he hadn’t activated his key, he’d entirely forgotten that the entrance had ever been there. While the Chitauri buzzed around, oblivious to where their quarry had gone, Loki lead Steve and Tony down into the cool dark, down into the twisting secret tunnels that lead to SHIELD’s New York City Subterranean Operations Base—down into the Underground.