Formatting C drive......
Installing backup file stark_ae_0133.....
"If you're hearing this, things are about to get really confusing. It means that they saved you for some reason. Heroes, huh? Can't live with 'em and you can't just up and die.
"Your—our? Man this is weird. Our name is Anthony Stark. Tony. We're a genius and a recovering alcoholic who happens to run around in battle armor. What can I say? It seemed like a good idea at the time. There's also a computer in my head, but that should be limited now, so don't worry about it unless it goes sentient. We're also probably the most hated man in the world right now, and that's pretty much all my fault. Sorry about that.
"I'm not going to tell you how you wound up like this. There's a few billion people who will be glad to fill you in, and you can always look it up online later. Knowing us, you will anyway, no matter what I say. You'll make your own judgment call there and trust me, you'll probably end up hating me too.
"What I want you to know is this:
"What we did—what I did was right. I believe that, and I'll stand by it. Don't apologize for me, because I'm not sorry that I gave it my all. The world still went to Hell, but at least I stood my ground and tried to hold the gates closed for a little while longer. I picked the lesser evil. It doesn't make it not evil, but at least it's lesser. Things happened that I didn't anticipate, and I lost everything because of it, but that's life. I accepted that. But you're not saddled down with my mistakes. I made sure of it.
"You've got a new slate, a refurbished model with a clean hard drive. Another second chance. Don't blow it the way I blew mine."
Darkness. Sweet, easy darkness. It 's easy to stay sunk in it and just float, where the world can't disturb me. The faint shift of a mattress or the occasional sound of people comes through, but it's distant, ignorable. No one needs to tell me that waking up is a bad idea. It's much better to stay like I am, where the headache lurking just behind my eyes can't reach and nothing can go wrong.
Then the voices start, and I don't have a chance in hell of escaping them. They're everywhere—on all sides, above me. Why won't they just shut up?
Why don't they leave me dead?.
"Is he waking up?"
"Elevated pulse, other vital signs normal. It looks like it."
"Stop hovering, Rogers. I swear, you're going to start clucking."
"Listen here, Hill—"
The voices blur together, mixing with the steady beep of a machine until it throbs behind my eyelids in one giant pulse. Physical sensation intrudes on the comfortable darkness. Crisp sheets that slide under my finger tips, tubes that shift with every breath, cold air against my toes. Light burns through my eyelids, no matter how tightly I shut them. And the noise levels keep rising.
Light registers, too bright, sending jabs of pain through my skull. Closing my eyes doesn't work. All I can manage is to lift my hand a few inches before it falls, too weak to finish. I can't move well enough to smother myself with a pillow, but that probably wouldn't work either.
Losing consciousness causes the pressure to ease and normal breathing to begin again.
"Will you guys just be quiet!" one of the voices—masculine, attractive, just a little bit pissed—snaps, right next to my ear. "He's waking up! Tony, come on man, open your eyes."
I try to say "no", but it comes out in a garbled jumble of syllables that sound nothing like any language
except maybe Skrullish. Darkness beckons like a siren, but the physical world has intruded too much to just step away from, no matter how much I want to. Grimacing from the headache, I crack my eyes as much as I dare. It's the mansion in Oklahoma— Too bright, too colorful, too comfortable; that's the room I'm in. It's not a hospital room. It's too homey, even for a hospice, and it doesn't smell like a hospital. Not enough antiseptic. There's enough equipment for a hospital room, and the bed has rails. Still, there's something that says house to me, though I can't say why.
The people leaning over me are just blurs of different skin tones, from dark to so pale they blend with the white ceiling like some weird post-modern art. Blinking clears grit and tears from my eyes, and the faces gain a little clarity, which at least makes me feel less helpless. I hate feeling helpless.
Less helpless right until I actually can see their expressions, at least. Some of the faces are downright hostile. Forget hostile, they're righteously murderous. The best ones are just neutral, which is actually more worrying. I've got the weirdest feeling that they've already passed judgment. I'm just hanging around for the sentencing.
Even though I'm objectively terrified, it's a distant buzz instead of the limb-freezing panic it should be. Maybe they'd dosed me with something?
Just thinking the question gives me an answer. Data scrolls past my mind's eye in a precise, perfect flow of information, a punch straight to the frontal lobe. Morphine, delivered by injection in the left arm, three hours prior. Dismissing it is as easy as thought, and it shuffles to the back obediently, a constant stream of information about my vital signs that only tug at me when something strange ticks by.
"Welcome back, hot shot."
Rhodey The darkest-skinned man in the room grins down proudly, like me being awake is some sort of a personal achievement. Maybe it is. I kind of doubt it; nothing about him suggests that he's a doctor. Insignia decorates his uniform—Lieutenant Colonel whispers the same morass of information that told me about the room. Silver oak leaf insignia at the collar—one rank up from Major, one down from Colonel—service uniform, no hat or belt, may not be acting in an official capacity. As easy as flipping open a book, the information is there: comparisons to other ranks, the meaning of the medals that clink on his chest, everything down to the thread count of his coat—fabric: wool, thread count of seventy five, durable, light-weight, quality: medium. The only thing missing is a name, and that's even creepier than knowing my own blood pressure. 131/88 "About time you woke up. We were getting worried."
"Speak for yourself,"
Maria Hill a dark-haired woman snipes. She's slim and well-built, firm body, not too large in the chest—and looks like she can bite through steel. Even though she's much shorter than the colonel, she holds herself like she was more important. Maybe she is, even though she doesn't have any rank insignia. "Some of us have better things to do than worry about, Stark. There's a war about to start, in case you've all forgotten."
Whatever answer I might have made—something about bitter harpies isn't as good an idea as it seems, maybe a little suicidal, no matter how tempting—vanishes into a coughing fit the second I try to speak. Vision blurs again as my eyes water, and the data feeds flash respiratory convulsions uselessly. The coughs turn into an all-body ratcheting spasm, lungs burning as they try to get air.
Oxygen levels low.
Fuck you very much. Tell me something I don't know.
The mattress cradles me as I roll over, choking and curling inward helplessly until someone puts an arm under my shoulders. A glass touches my lips—water, cool on my throat, easing the dryness.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Take a sip of water and try not to choke. Process data: fluoride, dish soap: brand unknown, mint: crushed, fresh. Breathe in, breathe out.
Water helps, enough that I can lean against my savior and focus on something other than hacking up a lung. One of the men—
Don Blake blond, in a lab coat, maybe a doctor—is the one holding me up. Everyone else stands back, most of them looking uncomfortable, except for the black man who's holding the glass.
Good ol' lieutenant colonel. Bless him.
Breathe in, breathe out. My throat doesn't feel as rough anymore, so I try to speak again. Hell, why not? The worst that can happen is that the hot lieutenant gives me more water. "Thank you." It hurts, and the words are thick, but I don't start coughing again. Damn. "Where am I?"
"Long story," the colonel replies. "Had a hell of a time getting you out of HAMMER custody, but you're safe. Osborn can't find us."
Someone is trying to find me. How nice. "Who?"
The little conversations that had been going on in the background stop with the suddenness of a guillotine dropping. Even the ones in back who had been pointedly not looking at me—
Pepper the redhead woman and James Barnes and Fuck fuck fuck Steve oh my god Steve—
ERROR. System stability fatally compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: .00187 minutes.
—and the two in American colors—go silent.
Shit. What did I say?
A pen clicks. The doctor props me up against some pillows and reaches for his clipboard, poised to take notes. "Norman Osborn," he prompts. His voice is weird, soft, like I'm going to bite. His chin's got a scattering of hair, as if he couldn't be bothered to shave earlier. It seems odd, worth remembering, when everything else in the room is so neat. "The director of HAMMER. You were in custody after the battle, in a persistent vegetative state from the deletion process."
His tone of voice hits me directly in the heart with
anger and helplessness and— I don't know. Something. Something bad, that curls through my stomach like sour milk. Guilt maybe, though what I ever did to him is news to me. My eyes slide away, down to my hands so I don't have to look him in the eye.
Everyone waits for me to finish thinking. Expectantly. Maybe the guillotine analogy was apt. They're just waiting for a chance to slice me up. Are they one ones I'm not supposed to apologize to? I can see why.
There's not much to think over, just a few hints and a strange dream that aren't useful at all. For all I know it could have been just a product of head trauma from the battle they'd mentioned. A hallucination. Or the deletion process? I don't think I want to know what that means.
I wish it were that easy.
Pepper The red-haired woman chokes a little. She looks ready to cry. Maybe she knows.
It's time to man up and face the news. "Tell me what happened. Please."
Pandemonium explodes like a damn volcano. Red hair flies as the redhead turns and runs from the room, hand over her mouth. The shorter woman's hot on her heels. Maybe they're lovers? That's kind of a hot thought.
Both costumed men and the lieutenant are yelling, their voices trading back and forth so fast I can't follow any of them. Recording. In the mix of it, the doctor is like the eye of the storm, calm and composed and looking so cool that I wish he'd come stand by my bed and take some of the edge off. But he just sucks it up and waits for the screaming to stop.
Just when I'm about ready to join the yelling, Doc seemed to realize that nothing's going to get done until the capes get it together. He taps his cane and
Thor's lightning flashes... Actually, I'm not sure what he does. Whatever it is, it works. A rumble rocks the room, rattling the tables and setting instruments to squealing before they return to their gentle beeps.
The capes shut up though.
That's one hell of a trick cane.
"That's enough," the doctor announces, voice soft. "Tony, what do you remember?"
"A dream. Waking up." I shrug. "Nothing before that. Believe me, I'm trying."
"It didn't work?"
ERROR. System stability fatally compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: .098 minutes.
The tallest one—another blond, with the kind of jaw that can cut stone—runs his fingers through his hair. He looks like he wants to run out of the room with the women, but he barely gets his back turned before he stops. "What's going on, Don? What the hell are you playing at, Tony?"
The doctor, at least, seems willing to take everything at face value, bless him. "You said you had a dream?" he asks, eyebrows raises. "What about?"
Is a bedside manner something that can be bottled? It's got to be worth a fortune or two.
Dutifully, I repeat what the dream said, starting with our name. There's no reason to keep it a secret, and I don't think these people will trust me if I keep back anything. Going by the looks they're shooting at me, they probably don't anyway, but I want them to. There's no one else. The thought of being turned out to face the world without even knowing my middle name terrifies me, so much that it feels like a piece of my breastbone was sawed out. Bandages wrap tight around my chest, doing almost nothing to support what I'll bet money are cracked ribs.
The morphine must be wearing off. Good. Being drugged
is as bad as being drunk sucks.
When I finish no one seems like they wanted to speak, or even look at me. The doctor had taken notes, and is still taking notes, and the other three are obviously in shock. At least the lieutenant colonel is sitting in one of the small plastic chairs that are lined up against the wall, cradling his head in his hands. The two red-white-and-blue boys aren't even pretending to be casual when they don't meet my eyes.
What the fuck did I do to them?
The shorter costumed one laughs. It's a cold sound,
like a machine would laugh that's kind of creepy. "That crazy son of a bitch," he sneers. "He knew we'd never forgive him, so he made sure— That ball-less—"
"Shut up, Bucky."
Steve Steve Steve
ERROR. System stability fatally compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: .0015 minutes.
Clear blue eyes meet mine. Azure the data feeds insist. I kind of have to agree.
It's the sort of color poets have in mind when talking about vast expanses of horizon. Gorgeous. "Are you sure there's nothing else?"
What does he want from me? Whoops, sorry, I remember it all now. Ha ha, just kidding? "Sorry."
"Not as much as I am." His face twists in a grimace. "We need to have a meeting. This changes everything. Don?"
"I'll watch him," the doctor—he has to be Don, he looks like a Don—nods. "I don't think the big guy needs to be in on this right now. He'll have plenty to say later."
No one even says goodbye when they trail out of the room. At least the lieutenant clasps me on the shoulder in passing as he goes. It's something.
Alone with just a doctor who doesn't seem like he wants to talk, my own empty thoughts and the data behind my eyelids. Peachy. The pillows fluff around me when I fall back, sending a sharp stab when the movement jars my chest. Whatever happened to that had to be brutal, for as much morphine as I've been dosed with.
Hopefully, someone will tell me about it. I won't hold my breath.
After a few minutes of staring up at the ceiling, just me and Don. With him so quiet he might as well not be there, I find out a new detail about myself: I really, really hate being alone.
Could have done without knowing that one.
Apparently my silent, half-dozing presence is so grating that even the doctor can't stand to be around me. As soon as
Steve how are you alive you're dead I saw you I killed you this is my fault my fault my fau—
ERROR. System stability fatally compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: .0061 minutes.
one of the others—the big blond Adonis—comes back a few hours later, he grabs his cane and limps from the room at full speed. After the way they'd all reacted when I woke up, I'm not surprised, but they could at least pretend to like me a little better than the average nuclear meltdown
Am I that bad at small talk?
I keep coming back to the question of what I did to them. Murder their families? I don't feel evil, but what would evil feel like? If they ever leave me alone, maybe I should give cackling a try. If it's easy, I'm probably
on the dark side of the Force at least not so good.
Watching him frown like his puppy just died is too much. I should probably feel guilty—I'm the most likely puppy-killer around, it seems—but I can't feel bad for what I don't remember. "So, Doc, give it to me straight. Is it syphilis?"
Blondie frowns. It's a fantastic frown, with inflections that suggest everything from put the cookie jar down to I'm thinking of spitting your carcass over a barbeque. It makes him even more sexy, if that's even possible. "How can you make jokes with everything that's happened?"
"Because I don't know anything that's happened, and it's easier to joke than sit around being glared at." Shrugging hurts, so I have settle for a quick grimace. "Of course, someone could enlighten me?"
"I don't know what to tell you," Blondie admits, looking guilty. Guilty is definitely an expression he doesn't do well. It must be the jaw. That sort of jaw was made for righteous expressions and biting. "It's a long story, and I wasn't here for most of it."
"Start with your name?" He blinks, and good God, he actually does have eyelashes. They're so blond that that they're almost invisible. "No, really, I've been thinking of you as Blondie. I'm pretty sure that's not the right one."
He stares at me like I've grown another head. "You really don't remember anything, do you? You sound like yourself, mostly."
"I don't remember a thing. Sorry."
Hesitation is another strange thing to see on him, but he answers anyway. "It's
ERROR. System stability compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: .0164 minutes.
ERROR. System stability comprororororororo—
A problem has been detected and Extremis has been shut down to prevent damage to your system.
The problem seems to be caused by the following file: extr_rewrite.exe
"Hey! Tony?" Someone shakes me, so hard that my head snaps. Blue, blue eyes stare into mine worriedly. His stubble is like his eyelashes, definitely there, but almost invisible.
"Stop that. Are you okay? You just—spaced out. God, don't do that to me again, okay?"
"No, I'm fine. Really. I don't know what happened." I try to grin at him, but my stomach is flopping around like a dying fish and all I really want to do is fall into him and let those rock-hard pectorals bludgeon me into unconsciousness with the force of my landing. He's even more gorgeous up close, and that name... Steve. It's one of those words that roll easily around the mouth and off the tongue, like it's meant to be said with strength—with force. With his build, maybe it is. "So you're a Steve, huh? It fits you."
Awkward again. I'm really starting to think that I did kill their puppies. The dream said everyone hates me, but I hadn't thought it was going to be so literal. "So you're Steve, and I'm Tony. Good. It's a start. How did we meet?"
"You were there when I woke up from the ice."
The answer is so immediate and straightforwardly said that I nod along for an entire three-point-seven-four-two seconds before reality kicks in and I laugh, revising my opinion of Steve on the spot. More than a porn star, it seems. Ice. Did he really think I'd buy that? "No, really, how did we meet?"
Ten-point-four-eight-one seconds of expectant silence meets the question,
Shit. "You're not joking, are you?"
He shakes his head. "I was frozen in the Arctic Ocean for sixty years before you and the other Avengers found me."
What the hell am I supposed to say to that? "That's impossible."
"How do you know? You're the one with amnesia." He's so earnest, like a puppy bringing home a dead squirrel for me. It doesn't make taking him seriously any easier. I keep wanting to look behind him, in case I see a tail wagging. I should. It would probably get me killed, but the view's got to be worth a little death.
But the data is already scrolling across my eyes,
pulled from mandatory biology lessons informing me of exactly how impossible it is for a human body to last any length of time frozen. Ruptured cells, it reports. Lack of vital signs. Irreparable damage to vital organs. Freezer burn. "The human body ceases to function and dies when internal temperature reaches twenty eight degrees centigrade for a sustained period of time. Without using a quick-freeze process in an enclosed environment, you would have been dead long before you could have reached a state of suspended animation."
Well, they say you're not dead until you're warm and dead, but I don't think this situation counts.
Maybe I should have stood on my head. It might have made him stare less. "How do you know that?"
Good question. "I just do. The..." What do I call it? It's not really a memory. It's just there. "The data streams tell me. Right here." I trace where the line flows across my vision. Surprisingly, it pauses and then reverses, following my finger across the air. Huh. That's new. And it's kind of cool.
"Amnesia doesn't work like that."
Tell me something I don't know. "Looks like this kind does." He was frozen like a bucket of shrimp for six decades, and my memory loss is the strange thing?
So what if the movies get amnesia wrong. It's not my fault they're right this time. "It's laser guided. Or something. I didn't exactly choose to forget the part of my life that's personal."
Steve stares at me mournfully, like I took away his dead squirrel. The imaginary tail stops wagging. I should give him a belly rub, maybe that would help. "Yes, you did."
Both of our attention turns to the blanket covering my legs. It's easier than looking each other in the eye, I guess and the blanket's sort of pretty. It's all simple, earth-toned geometric designs, with some green for accent. Not too bad.
The seconds tick away. After a full sixty, I dismiss the countdown to the back of the feeds where it won't annoy me so much. Maybe I'd been driven crazy by information overload and that was why I did this to myself. Counting seconds of uncomfortable silence—who does that? Villains and crackpots, that's who. Or anal-retentive bastards without a functional set of social skills, but that probably counts as a villain. It shouldn't surprise me that they all hate me. They'd obviously be better off if they'd left me.
"What?" Steve's head comes up to stare at me. "No!"
Shit, did I say that aloud? I should stop asking dumb questions. "Look, I might not have any idea what's going on, but I can read the cues. None of you are happy to have me here. Are you?" It says something when he doesn't have anything to say to that. "Don can only stand to look at me when he's checking my pulse. The girls ran out—" probably not for hot lesbian sex "—and your costume-twin obviously would rather see me skewered than breathing. That leaves the Lieutenant Colonel and you, and I have to say, neither one of you seem really pleased about any of this either. You should have left me however I was."
"Why am I here, Steve?"
He fidgets. Every twist makes the chair squeak like this time it's going to break, but it never happens. Steve stares down at his laced fingers, clenching and unclenching his hands like it helps him think. Maybe it does, I don't know.
"You're a good man, Tony," he finally says. There's question mark in his voice that I'm pretty sure I don't want to know about. "I don't always get you, but you've got a good heart."
"So? What happened, then?"
A shrug makes the blue scales of his costume jingle. It really is scale mail,
like something from a fairytale picture book. I wonder where his horse and shield and sword are. "We had a disagreement. I lost. You won. That's what happened."
He has to be kidding me. All this hoopla for an argument? Weirder things have happened, such as spending a few decades on ice, but really? Is anything ever that simple? "What? Did we break up and fight over who keeps the dog?"
"Did I cheat on you?" And then all of our friends took sides? Is that why everyone hates me? Then why did I do this to myself? An elaborate suicide? But it doesn't really line up with the gates of Hell bullshit in the dream. Maybe I'm just a melodramatic ass. "I cheated on you, didn't I? Or I left you."
"What?" Steve looks like he might choke. His fair skin turns red
as the armor, which somehow manages to make him look about sixteen years old. Maybe I should cut it out with the dog analogies. He's a lot more like a kid, including the weird urge to pull him onto my lap and let him crush my thigh bones with his mass. "No, nothing like that!" Definitely a break up. A complicated one, but going by the look he's giving me, I must have broken his heart in at least three places. "You're not interested in men."
Making a pass at
Captain America Steve Rogers the world's most heterosexual man is the dumbest idea I've ever had. He has to be joking, right? Of course I'm attracted to men. A person like him walks into my sick room, all leather-covered muscles and determined chin, and tells me I don't find him attractive, that man is asking for it. "I'm interested in you."
Shit. Did he stop breathing? Target respiration at ten percent. "Steve? Are you okay?" How do you
give CPR help someone who's not breathing?
He inhales deeply, shaking his head and pulling away before I can shake him. Which is good—I don't think I could shake him. He's so big. What if he fell on me?
That's actually a pretty nice thought.
Steve shakes his head again and looks up. Now I'm the one with problems breathing. I keep forgetting how blue his eyes are. "I'm fine. That just— Surprised, but I'm really fine. Dandy."
"Did you just say dandy?" Ooh, that's not a happy glare. "Okay, you're dandy. Now will you tell me what I've forgotten?"
I wish I were surprised when he shakes his head. There's still a strip of pink across his cheeks. He'd probably punch me if I pinched them. "Look, it's complicated, and I'm not the person to explain it."
"Why not?" This is getting frustrating beyond measure. What the hell did I do, that no one wants to even tell me what I'm guilty of? "Look, I'm the one who can't remember his middle name, and I obviously hurt you and everyone else in this building. Who else is going to tell me if not you?"
"Pepper." He says it with the firmness that
people use for religion belongs to the unquestionable certainties of the universe. "She can explain it all. She might even have news clippings."
That doesn't tell me much, other than that no one wants to help me. "Great. When can I meet her?"
"I..." Sore subject, again? I just keep stepping into them.
I always do. "I'll talk to her. Maybe she'll come see you."
Maybe. Uh-oh. "What did I do to her?"
He grins, tentatively, as if he's not sure he wants to, and my stomach decides to go back to being a flopping, rolling mess again. What kind of asshole am I? Not interested in men, ha! "Let's just say that you were Tony Stark all over."
A high heel scuffs against the carpet, breaking the monotony of the medical machines and dragging me out of my thoughts. Not like they were going anywhere. With nothing to remember, it's kind of hard to think.
It's the red-haired woman again, in a sedate black skirt that's mini enough to show off exactly how nice her legs are. And they're very nice legs. She's leaning on the door, clutching her ribs like they ache under her tailored blouse. At her feet, a plain black brief case is propped up against the door. It looks like a laptop case.
How long has it been since Steve left? Eighteen hours, seventeen minutes, twenty-one seconds. It doesn't feel that long. Did I fall asleep, or is it just the drugs making me fuzzy? Morphine. I hate being drugged.
"I don't know what to say to you." She sniffs. Her eyes are bright—tears?
Why would she be crying? No one else is. Pushing myself to sit up is almost impossible with only the dregs of morphine to dull the edges of the pain, but I manage it enough to look her in the eye. It feels like a victory. "You're Pepper, right? Steve said he'd talk to you." He'd also said she'd be angry, but she doesn't seem very mad. Just sad.
She nods, smiling faintly. The redness around her eyes makes them even greener, and she's so pale her freckles stand out
like ink spots. Where else does she have freckles? "Pepper Potts. I used to work for you, before all of this happened."
"What's 'all of this'?"
Manicured fingers tap her chest. The thin cloth of her blouse shifts enough to flash bandages. "The story of our lives. I can give you the basics, but there's too much for one sitting, so I brought a laptop. It'll keep you busy while you recover from the beating Osborn gave you."
Learning the bare bones of the story and a way to look up the rest—that seems like a pretty good offer. It's better than anything Steve gave me. "Thank you."
The bed creaks as she eases in and sits at the foot. Standing tall and stately against her thigh, the laptop cases perches between us like a chaperone. We probably need one. "Where do you want me to begin?"
That's a loaded question. When you don't know anything, where to start learning everything? "At the beginning? Who were my parents? My birthday?" I can't do anything but shrug when she looks at me questioningly. "I don't know any of it."
Pepper's eyes close for a moment. "The beginning. Right." When she opens them, they're shining again, but she looks a little less depressed. Maybe it's not so bad. "Your full name is Anthony Edward Stark. Your father was Howard and your mother was Maria. Howard founded Stark Enterprises, a weapons manufacturing company. Your birthday is..."
Her voice is hypnotic, rising and falling in the cadence of a professional storyteller, or maybe someone used to telling bedtime tales. It's a beautiful rhythm, and I catch myself following the flow of her tone more than the words. I'm not really worried about missing any details. The little pieces of information slot into place like a puzzle piece, as if my head already has places prepared for it all. In a way, it does.
"And then came Registration. And 'all of this'."
It's enough to jar me out of my half-attentive doze. Blinking at her, I do my best to sit up a bit straighter. She does too—she'd started to curl forward while she sat. What do those bandages hide? "Registration?"
"It pretty much ended the world as we all knew it. You supported the act. You kept saying it was 'inevitable', and comparing superpowers to weapons." She's not even looking at me while she speaks any more. This is obviously the big stuff. "It's called the Super Human Registration Act."
Pain. Vision blacks out as something jumps and whirls in my head, data flows picking up speed. It knots and smoothes, settling into place. Information about Registration seemed to be one of things that came pre-packaged with the amnesia. Details of the law—exact wording, supporters, detractors, dates all click into place, filling out a little corner of the jigsaw puzzle in my head. There are still holes in the story, massive details missing, but the general idea is there.
"Tony!" Smooth hands press against my cheeks. Pepper peers at me from close up, eyes wide with worry. "Are you okay?"
I keep scaring them. Gotta stop doing that. "Sorry. I just— something came back. SHRA. I got it now."
Furrows appear on her forehead, little lines of worry suddenly making her seem at least a decade older. Did I put them there? She doesn't look old enough for them to be that deep. "Don said that you wouldn't get anything back. Your brain was deleted."
"I remember how to talk." Why do I keep having to point this out? "Maybe there's other things I just haven't remembered yet. What do you mean, my brain was deleted?"
"No one told you?"
"You and Steve are the only people who will talk to me." Don doesn't count. Take a deep breath isn't conversation. "I kind of get the feeling I burned down a puppy orphanage with malotov cocktails made out of kittens."
It feels good to hear her laugh. Soothing, almost. I wonder if she has children—she'd probably make an excellent mother. The bed dips as she sits down as she takes a seat, this time without the case between us. "Not quite like that, but I'm not the person to ask. I was on your side."
It seems like no one was on my side. I wasn't even on my side. "Tell me."
"That's what the laptop is for." She perches the briefcase on her lap and presses a button. With a hiss of escaping air, it pops open and starts to unfold. A touchboard folds out, with
the usual an alphanumeric set of keys glowing over its face. Three extra rows of symbols at the top settle their meaning straight into my thoughts, just like the SHRA had. The screen expands to glowing life, a swoosh with the word Stark painting itself over blackness. "There's too many details that I know I'll miss. You collected all the relevant notes and articles in a file on the desktop, so we may as well use it." Brittle, quiet laughter bubbles up from her throat. "I guess you planned for this."
I'm such a bastard. "But what about this deletion thing?"
Pepper bows her head and closes her eyes. Little curls of hair fall around her face, trailing free from the twist she's pulled her hair into.
Without thinking about it, I tuck them behind her ear. "Please. I need to know, and I have a feeling those articles aren't going to tell me."
"Don't do that." Her hand smacks mine. She looks a heartbeat away from walking out.
Okay, no touching. Obediently, I put my hands in my lap. "Please?"
Her eyes slide away from me, but she relaxes again. "At the end of the Skrull War, you were discredited and Norman Osborn end up in power at SHIELD—HAMMER, he called it." Asking about the Skrull War is just going to slow her down, so I toss a note about it into the data feeds. Pepper keeps talking, voice quiet, like someone speaking at a funeral. "He's a madman. Completely insane. To keep him from getting his hands on the list of registered heroes, you deleted every copy. Including the one in your head."
How do you delete your own head?
EXTREMIS: Sys 22.214.171.124.0
Function: Erases drives, maintaining maximum functionality and life support systems as erasure processes.
Task Status: 100% complete
Ow. Okay, so that's how. Good to know. "Oh. If I deleted myself, then why am I here—"
EXTREMIS: Sys 126.96.36.199.0
Function: Writes over and erases system files marked by EXTR_WIPE.exe while system functions at maximum capacity. Maintains system integrity by blocking contradictory data. Protects data vital to system cohesion and functionality. Replaces marked files with new data as recorded by running system.
Task Status: 5.9% complete.
"Stop that!" The heel of my hand slams into my temple in a completely useless effort to cut the aching flow of data.
"Tony!" Pepper grabs my wrists, holding them steady and, incidentally, keeping me from hitting myself again. "What are you doing? Stop what?"
"The information!" My head is still ringing, but the information's vanished back to the lowest level of my thoughts again. It hovers back there like a threat. If I ask too many questions, it'll be back, but at least it's gone for now. "This— thing. In my head. Extremis? It's trying to be helpful, I think. Telling me things."
"Is it supposed to do that?" From up close, her eyes are even brighter green than I'd thought. Or maybe that's the red rims.
"You're asking me?"
"Good point." Her hands linger on my wrist, like I might smack myself again, but slowly ease off their hold as she sits back down. The laptop is on the floor, folded back into a neat little case. It must be automatic. I bet there's shock absorbers built into that thing. If I'd made it, that's what I'd do, and it looks like I did make it. At least, my name's on it.
A deep breath helps clear my head. I'm pretty sure I'm long out of morphine, but I don't want to admit it. My chest only hurts a lot, and the floating sensation of the drugs is worse than anything my body
can do to me has done to me yet. "Okay, so I deleted my head and seem to be rewriting what's left on the old file. Terrific. So now I just need—"
The dark, short-haired woman from when I woke up bursts into the room. She glares at me, then grabs Pepper's wrist and yanks her off the bed. "You've got to see this! Osborn's on TV."
"What— what?" That guy who made me delete myself? War? Sharp jabs wrack through my me, but I manage to get my feet on the floor. "Osborn? Wait! I'm coming too."
The look the woman gives me could cut glass. Ouch, again. "You stay here, Stark." Pepper's stopped trying to pull away. Together, they dash out the door of my little sick room, leaving me all alone, without anyone to help me follow.
Like that's going to stop me.
Let's see, what do I have to work with? Lowered bedrails, a table on wheels—no help there—and a lot of floor. It'll have to do.
Every motion jarring my chest, I ease myself off the bed. It takes rolling over and pushing upwards like a toddler to stand. Embarrassing. Balance while upright is harder. Nothing in the room looks like something I can lean on, and putting weight on my arms feels like I'm breaking myself in two.
Carefully, then. Right. I can do that.
One step at a time, I ease myself towards the door. Soft, squishy carpet makes it even harder to keep my feet. Losing a half-inch surprises me the first time I take a step forward. My arms snap out, grabbing the rolling tray for support. It, predictably, rolls out from under my weight.
I hit the floor hard, jarring what I'm starting to think are broken ribs. A few other hurts make themselves known on impact, especially the back of my skull. Agony slams through me, locking me up so that all I can do is gasp and wait.
I can't wait for it to stop hurting. They'll be back soon, and I'll just be jammed back into bed. No one's going to tell me what's going on. They probably wouldn't tell me if the villagers were at the gate, demanding my head on a pike.
The pale brown rug twists under my hands as I push up to my knees. Lurching, one foot slides under me, then the other. Muscle by aching muscle, I drag myself upwards, using the bedrails to pull, until I'm back on my feet again.
Carpet is soft. Okay, check. Gotta remember that.
Now that I know to watch my feet, walking is easier. The first step doesn't down me. Neither does the second. Pain is— not negligible,
never negligible at these levels, but it's not a concern. By the time I reach the hall, though, I'm ready to lean against the wall for support, but there is a wall, so I'm still ahead.
There's no visible sign as to where the women went. Lucky me, I don't need that. A voice speaking in righteous, determined tones comes from an open door at the far end of the hall. Might as well head that way. It's the most obvious choice.
Left foot. Right foot. Don't forget to breathe. This would be a lot easier if I were still hopped up, but I know better than to wish I was. It wouldn't surprise me if the thing in my head has a trick leaning that way too, and I don't want something I don't understand messing with me more than I can help. When I figure out what it is and how it got there, that's when I'll trust it.
"—superhuman menace. They refuse the laws of the country that they call home. They laugh at the lives they cost with their petty vendettas and quarrels—"
Norman Osborn, Someone's playing the crowd like a fiddle. He seems like he has a grudge. Is that Osborn? He sounds sane. But I guess I sound sane too, so I'm a bad judge.
The end of the hall doesn't come a second too soon. I'm covered in sweat, my shorts and loose shirt clinging to me like I'd been dumped in a pool. The room at the end of the hall is
my father's a study, or an office, done in opulent shades of red and brown, with filing cabinets and papers stacked everywhere. Sunlight shines through the lace curtains, making dust motes dance like floating bites of gold. A stepladder is home to a little television, the contrast turned up just a shade too bright. On the screen, a man with the strangest hairstyle I can imagine is obviously giving a press conference. He doesn’t seem to have any notes in his hand, but he's speaking easily. It's a close up, only showing him from the shoulders up. He's in the Iron Patriot armor. Something about his shoulders looks strange. It takes me a second to figure it out.
If I didn't know better, I'd swear he's wearing some sort of armor. Is that something else I've forgotten? Iron formal wear? It doesn't feel like it.
"—kidnapping of Anthony Stark, better known as Iron Man, from HAMMER custody has left us little choice. It is now clear that the anti-registration forces are gathering, with intent to attack the very foundations of the laws they reject. They stand against everything America holds dear—democracy, free speech, the right to walk the streets in safety, without worry that your children may be caught in the crossfire of someone else's fight.
"And so, effective immediately, HAMMER has annulled the US citizenship of all unregistered superhumans found to be on American soil, and declared them to be enemy combatants." His gaze meets the camera, and goosebumps rise over my skin. Okay, he's crazy. How can anyone look him in the eye and not see that? If there's a shred of thought in his head that's not broken,
I'll wipe my brain again I'll be surprised. "This extends to all people who knowingly provide them assistance or asylum. We are officially at war."
The television switches off.
"What does Osborn have to gain by this?" someone asks loudly from by the far wall. I'm pretty sure he's the man who was wearing a costume like Steve's before, but he's in all black now, so I can't be sure. "We're already on the run. What does revoking our citizenship do?"
"Lethal force." The woman who'd snatched Pepper away looks comfortable, leaning back against a wall with her arms crossed. Like James, she's wearing black from head to toe, but looser, more casual than his tight leather ensemble. Her face is a mask of storm clouds, which takes away from the easy air of her posture. "It means they shoot to kill, James, and no one asks if we were posing a threat at the time the trigger was pulled."
From the back it's hard to tell, but something about the set of James' shoulders says he's sneering. "You'd know about that, wouldn't you Hill?"
"Listen to me you maggot." Next to her, Pepper makes a distressed noise and grabs for her wrist, but Hill doesn't seem like she wants to listen. "I was doing what I had to do, and if your precious—"
"That's enough." Steve steps in like a referee, or maybe a kindergarten teacher. Blue leather creaks with every move. Does he ever take that stuff off? Even to sleep? "Save the fight for Osborn. We're going to have plenty of it."
"Don't." Every face in the room turns my way, before I even realize I'd said anything. Is talking out of turn something I do often? "Don't fight him. That's what he wants."
"And how do you know that?" At least the lieutenant colonel isn't ready to dismiss me out of hand. I kind of wish he'd kept his uniform on, though. It was hot. The jeans and button-up aren't a bad change, though. "Do you know something we don't?"
No, but yes, and that's going to take a while to figure out. "He wants you to fight him," I say. The doorway is nice and steady under my hands, holding me up when my legs wobble. Damn, I'm exhausted. Gotta keep going. If I stop, I'll fall. "Declaring people enemy combatants doesn't do him any good unless you're actually combatants."
"Tony." Warm and soothing, Steve's voice by itself almost makes me stumble again. I think I could fall asleep listening to him talk. Damn, my eyes are already closing. "Tony," he repeats, "you've done this futurist thing before. It doesn't work. Your way doesn't work."
I have? "What futurist thing?"
"Projecting future events using probability and logic, based on set parameters and known patterns of behavior." Pepper's jaw sets stubbornly when Steve turns an incredulous stare on her. "Tony explained it to me a few times. Anyway, he was right about everything except the Red Skull, and no one could have predicted that with the information we had."
Even I can't theorize without data. "I'm not doing that. It's just—" It's just information, and logic, and a thousand things I can't really put into words. Words connect to meaning connect to intent. Intent creates a wider pattern of possibilities, formulating into the most likely interpretation. "It's just common sense."
In a corner, almost hidden by a stack of file cabinets, someone moves. A massive blond man with metal wings on his head and a hammer bigger than my head grumbles loudly. How the hell did I miss seeing him? He's the size of a house!
"Much as I doth hate to heed of the words of a traitor," he intones, "they do have merit. The Green Goblin would not lay such an open challenge before us and expect it to go unmet."
"We have to do something!" James snaps. He slaps the face of
Steve's a large, red, white and blue round shield, making it ring like a bell. "If we just sit here, Osborn wins and the whole world ends up going to hell."
"And if we get ourselves killed, it still goes to hell!" Hill snarls. "That's a big risk to take just because you've got some cabin fever, kiddo."
Bickering starts popping back and forth, like children. No wonder the SHRA thing apparently went over like an uninflated lead balloon, if this is how they handled it. "I have a plan."
And I do. It's crazy, crouching in the back of my mind like a gargoyle on a steeple. But I can feel the edges of it. If I just stretch a little, I know I'll be able to explain it, even when I don't really get it myself. That makes sense, in a macabre sort of way. By all accounts, my pre-deletion self wasn't big on being caught with his pants down, and he left me the SHRA information, didn't he?
Futurist, ha. What a crock.
Pepper, at least, seems to listen, even if everyone else is busy glaring at each other or, like Steve, running interference. "How can you have a plan?" she asks, voice soft and tired. "You just found out about all of this."
"Up here." A tap my temple, the grab for the door when my balance starts to slide. "I think I had this covered. Before the—memory thing. I planned for this."
That gets Steve's attention. He looks up from telling Hill and James to behave. With the sunlight shining through the curtains, he looks like a weary deity, someone who's been holding the world together without help for far too long. "Don't."
"No." The force of the word makes Pepper and even James wince, but I manage to keep my hold on the door. "This isn't your fight anymore. You bowed out of it when you erased yourself."
"No I didn't!" Like an exhibit at the zoo, everyone watches us. Or like children when mom and dad argue. "I'm still here. If I'd meant to bow out, I would have just put a bullet in my head."
Steve blanches. What did I say? "Go get some rest," he replies firmly. Everything about him, from his voice to his body language says that he thinks he's being kind. But he's sidelining me before I even have a chance to find out what fight he thinks I bowed out of. I thought it was important enough that I didn't delete it. That means I have to help
Squirming, horrible guilt climbs up my throat like something from a horror movie.
ERROR. System stability compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: .037 minutes.
"I can help," I insist. "Let me."
"Pepper, Maria, take him back to his room." Steve looks away from me, and as nice as the rear view is, it doesn't make the fact that he's kicking me out any easier. "Then get back here. I'll need your help strategizing. You both know the current situation better than I do."
Together, the two women hook their arms around me and drag me backwards out of the office. Literally drag me, that is. My entire torso aches, and digging in my heels only leaves me with rug burns on them, but I put up a protest all the way down the hall. Of course, they ignore me.
Once in my sick room, they collectively dump me on the bed. By the time they get me there Pepper is disheveled and sweaty, making her thin white blouse stick to her skin in fascinating ways. More of the bandages around her chest are showing, leaking a pale blue glow where they've slipped, but she takes time to tuck blankets around me. Then she gives me a hard look from behind fallen red wisps of hair.
"Stay put this time, Tony."
Hill—Maria, that's what Steve called her—dumps the laptop in my lap. Unfortunately, she's not nearly as out of breath as Pepper. There's a lack of heaving bosom. —She doesn't really seem like the type to have a heaving bosom anyway. "Do yourself a favor and research why you're not in there," she suggests. "Maybe learn a lesson or two."
"Maria," Pepper hisses, confirming the name. "He doesn't remember. Leave it alone."
"Just because you have a bleeding heart doesn't mean I do, Potts." With a final, scornful sniff, Hill turns around and stalks out.
Pepper mutters something under her breath—are ladies supposed to know those words?—and taps the button that changes the case into something usable. Before it's even unfolded, she rushes after Hill, closing the door behind her
I glare at the laptop and its cheery blue swoosh of a logo. If I had the energy, I'd go after them, but when I push myself upright even a few inches, the world drops out from under my stomach and then tilts. Pillows cradle me as I sag backwards and close my eyes, waiting to open them again until my equilibrium comes back.
Okay, moving is a bad idea. I'm having all sorts of bad ideas today. Going by the way I'm being treated, it's a running trend.
The laptop gives a bright little chime. Cracking my eyes shows that it's finished loading. The Stark swoosh is on the background of the desktop, and the colors are done in the same pattern. At least it seems to make sense, though. Buttons, folders, icons—
all of it done to the industry standard, and better than the industry standard it all comes to me instinctively.
Might as well follow good advice and figure out why it's a trend then. Can't hurt to try.
No one comes to see me for days, according to the computer in my head. Don brings meals at first and checks my vital signs, so at first there's something to keep me from being entirely alone. But by day two, I'm permanently disconnected from every sort of machine, and the agony in my chest has faded to a dull ache. That's when the meals start showing up on a tray just inside the door, and fresh clothes with it. There's a bathroom en suite, so I've got everything I need, really.
Alone again. I really hate being alone.
The only advantage is that it gives me plenty of time to read. And boy, do I read. I read the SHRA, which is exactly like the one in my head. I read the news articles, press releases, editorials, commentary—I read all of it down to the smallest detail. Through it all, the little note in the back of my head flashes Recording, so I guess I memorize it all too.
That is never going to stop being creepy.
It's more than just articles. There's interviews and recordings of press conferences. Watching myself feels strange, and a little bit masturbatory at first. Then painful. Am I really that confident? Self-assured? Even the last videos are of someone towering with strength, the ones dated just days before the written articles titled things like Stark Goes Missing and Head of SHRA: Fugitive?.
It's like pre-delete me was some sort of information magpie, hoarding every scrap away to be kept forever. I can't begin to guess how important he must have thought it is, to keep it all together like this. I'd almost call it a scrapbook, but it's not really. It's not complete, entire lumps of time missing, pieces cut from the videos. A shrine, or a memorial, then, but an edited one.
And I know where the missing pieces are.
At the very back of the file tree, so deep that it's easy to miss, there's a folder called simply CAP. Trying to access it leaves me with a headache and entire hours gone. Every time I open it and access a file, error messages scroll across my vision and I wake up flat on my back hours later, without any idea what I saw. Obviously, it's something that the extr_rewrite.exe program is supposed to block. Probably the contradictory information the system description mentions.
I spend a whole day prodding that file like a sore tooth, trying to make it work. I'm not going to let myself stop me from finding out something I might need to know. If I'm honest, I'm mostly trying because it's obvious that a lot of effort went into stopping me. But since when have I been honest with myself?
I'll find out what's in that file. I'm Tony Stark; I can't keep myself out for long.
At noon on day eight of my Steve-imposed exile, the lieutenant colonel shows up while I'm curled up in my bed, about to take another stab at the CAP folder. He's as gorgeous as I remember, decked out in a black spandex body suit that doesn't even leave the imagination to the imagination. Under his arm is something that looks like it might have been a helmet once, before it was
run through a trash compactor crunched into uselessness.
"Hey buddy." With an upward toss, he throws the lump of darkened steel at me. "Got a job for you, if you're up to it."
Reflexes fully functional, I catch it before it hits my head and gives me even more memory problems. Up close, the helmet's in even worse condition than I'd thought. The myriad metal plates that form it are twisted and bent, wires and circuit boards snapped and poking out from whatever had damaged it. Scorch marks cross the surface, dull black against the gleaming metal. Its eyes stare up at me, creepily empty, begging to be filled with life. "I don't do recycling, sorry."
Amazingly, he laughs. The bed bounces as he plops down at the foot, bending one knee casually while keeping the other foot on the floor. "That's the Tony I know."
"You know me?" The position he's in gives me a nice view of his best assets, from the strong inner thigh muscles up to the broad chest. Yum, yum. "What, did I date you?"
He jolts backwards, a surprised laugh bouncing out of his throat. "No, nothing like that. Not that you didn't try, but I don't swing that way." Muscles in his chest and shoulders move in a way best described as delicious when he shrugs apologetically. "We were just friends."
Damn, I have good taste in friends.
"Okay, lieutenant colonel." Carefully, I put aside the helmet, turning it so it can't stare at me. "If we're friends, then let's start with names. What's yours."
"James Rhodes," he answers automatically. "You called me Rhodey."
Rhodey. It rolls nicely off the tongue. Kind of like Steve. Steve who didn't say he isn't interested in men. That's something to remember. "Great. How can I help you, Rhodey? You said you have a job?"
He nods at the remains of the helmet. "My armor is trashed from the last fight. I need you to fix it."
Is he joking? He doesn't look like he's joking. After looking through my own history for a week, it's kind of obvious that I had a flare for making things that go boom, but he can't be serious. "Did you forget that I'm not exactly my old self? Duct tape it together and it'll be fine."
Wait. Back up.
Playback: My armor is trashed from the last fight.
Last fight? So they'd started fighting the war, and playing right into crazy-eyes Osborn's hands? Why didn't someone tell me?
That's kind of a stupid question. Steve said it for them. They don't want me in this
, they think I took the coward's way out. Even if I did take myself out, that doesn't mean I have to stay out. At least it explains why no one's come to see me yet; no one wanted to break the news. Or they just couldn't stand to see me. Probably that.
"—down in the basement. Anyway, if you can't do it, we're right back where we started. No loss."
What did I miss? "Sorry, I wasn't listening. What?"
Rhodey rolls his eyes, but the tolerant tilt of his lips suggests that catching me out like that isn't new. Good to know. "I said, you built it, you can fix it. Got something down in the basement that should do the trick. Worst odds, you've got to go through MIT again and I'm out of the fight."
When he puts it that way... "It's got to be better than marinating in my own juices here." A tap folds the laptop back up into a briefcase. Just in case, I scoop it up, along with the crumpled helmet. "Lead the way, my good man."
He does. The view is marvelous. The house isn't bad either. Looks expensive, with wood paneled hallways and lush carpet. There's even real paintings on the walls, signed with the artist's name and framed to match the furniture.
Attention to detail like that has to take money.
Appropriately, the basement is downstairs. Three levels above ground, and then one below. Unlike every other door, it's locked up tight, with a touchpad and five different deadbolts. Rhodey glances back at me, then types in the passcode at full speed.
Maybe this computer thing will come in handy.
"Something down in the basement" turns out to be a set out of a science fiction writer's wet dream. Florescent lights turn on in a long, steady row, illuminating a room big enough to park six semi-trucks and still have room for loading and unloading. Boxes, bags and piles of half-assembled work litter it like a giant playroom before the maid comes in. It has everything, including an assembly section, an obvious firing range—for ballistics testing?—and a disassembly grid. One entire corner is filled with monitors and computers. The floor in that area is made of something clear and glassy, bouncing back the shine from the overhead lights.
There is a Heaven. "This must have cost a fortune."
"Probably. You never cut corners when it came to your toys."
"My toys?" I did this? Guess I hadn't been being egotistical when I'd called myself a genius. Most of this stuff is so high tech it looks like something stolen from the future. My fingers are already itching to get my hands in it, a deep urge that's settled straight into the bone. I take a step forward.
Wireless connection detected. Establishing connection.
Port 40183-bravo open. Connecting.
Speed 500MBpns. Firewall operative. Stark Enterprise OS Steel IX loading.
New hard drive configuration detected. Automatic backup initiated.
Automatic backup complete. Uploading backup drive to secure servers. Please wait.
Upload complete. Welcome back, Mr. Stark.
The ground slides back under me, just in time for it to slide back out. Rhodey grabs my arms to keep me upright, a ghost of the chest pain jarring through me. Air fills my lungs, every little breath filling my head with data as it's processed and recorded. Heart beat, temperatures, my vital signs, Rhodey's vital signs, upgrades in process, stored data, incoming feeds, GPS tracking on dozens of things around the globe. Information pings my senses from all directions, acknowledging the new connection and offering up their own wealth of data.
Desperately, I grab for anything I can to stop the flood before it knocks me out.
Apply Filter: OK_Lab_Sensors
Apply Filter: OK_Lab_ Network
Apply Limited Filter: OK_Lab_Mainframe vol 1-3; minimize data to vital stats.
The flood slows to a trickle, and I can breathe without knowing the CO2 content of my air again.
Rhodey pats my cheek, peering at my eyes with a worried frown. "Did anyone ever tell you that your eyes go freaky when you do that?"
"Not really, but I don't remember ever doing that." I'm pinned against his chest. It's a nice chest, too. Very nice. Firm. I almost don't want to pull away from it, but he's obviously out of my league anyway, even if he'd liked men. Pushing away from him hurts in a very literal fashion, though. My chest aches, not liking when I use the muscles in it to lift myself off.
He's kind enough to let me regain a little dignity and stand on my own two feet, without any extra firm support. Damn. "While we're on the subject, what was that, anyway?"
"I think my brain connected to the lab." Blinking clears some spots from my eyes enough to make my way through the clutter to the big computer, and a rub does even better. There's a creeping sensation in the back of my head that I wouldn't necessarily need them to navigate, though. The computer would be happy to help. "I think I forgot to turn something off. It just sort of slapped me with too much information."
"Extremis was supposed to be down." Rhodey follows me through the mess, hissing when he stubs a toe. "That's what hologram-you said."
"I'm alive, aren't I?" The floor by the computer banks starts to glow with a Stark swoosh that looks exactly like the one on the laptop. A screen? It's big enough to lie down on and have room to stretch. "Maybe it's a limited connection. The system seemed pretty tailored."
"Whatever you say. You're the genius, I just fly."
There's a line of little felt booties at the edge of the oversized screen. Figuring that they're there for a reason, I slip a set on over my bare feet. Rhodey does the same without asking. Has he been here before? "I'm not a genius any more. Just a guy."
"Sure. Fix my armor and you can call yourself Tinkerbell for all I care."
When we step onto the screen, it lights up under our weight, little puddles of white spreading in ripples. There's a standard desktop arrangement in one corner, with a normal monitor and system. Next to it is a tablet the size of a hardback book.
Why have the mega-monitor when there's a working system?
Picking up the tablet provides that answer, partially. It unfolds into an upside down T-shape. The top is a perfect copy of the floor-screen, and its arms are a full keyboard. Four little dots of white flash where Rhodey and I are standing, one for each foot, apparently to give a reference point. I guess working with normal sized equipment wasn't enough.
"I must have had a size kink." The screen proves to be touch-sensitive, and the files organized in a completely logical layout. Okay, I lie, they're pretty random actually, marked with alphanumeric labels that don't mean a damned thing to me. A quick look-through shows me everything from weird cat pictures to novels on PDF. They unfold under us, filling the floor with absolutely nothing useful. "And I liked puzzles."
Rhodey snorts. "Won't hear me argue either of those. So, can you use this baby?"
"I don't know." Deeper and deeper into the file tree I dig, barely glancing through the folders before moving on. "I'm not even sure what it all is, much less— hello, darling, what are you?" At the very bottom of the file tree, more than fifty folders in, is the only file name that's made sense yet. "Dear Tony v3.0. Huh."
Two of the white dots move to bracket the folder. When I turn around, Rhodey's standing over it, staring down like it's a grave. "That's something important," he says, voice suspiciously thick. "Version 3.0, that's how he'd think of it."
"He", not "you". How depressing. Even though it's true. "A new model that won't repeat the mistakes of the old?" Rhodey doesn't actually turn his head to glare at me, but I get the feeling it wants to. "That's what it is. What it's meant to be, anyway. New models aren't always better. Sometimes they're just new."
I tap the folder.
Files unfold, neatly categorized and labeled, the exact opposite of the chaos in the rest of the file bank. Basic Armor, Extremis Armor, Specialty Armor, War Machine, SHIELD, Skrulls and, just like the laptop, CAP. Not being a complete moron, I ignore that last one and open the folder marked Basic. More folders unfold, and we're back to the impossible labeling. At random, I select one of the files—it's a dot-irn extension, that doesn't ring any bells at all— and give it a double tap to open.
In the body of the screen, blueprints and specs unfold into a suit of armor, layering over one another until a fully rendered, 3D version is laid out. Notes and hand-written equations are scratched down in the margins, impossibly tiny, without any indication of what they might refer to.
To my eye, the specs are obviously missing key portions, entire wiring systems, circuitry diagrams, operating system information. The files aren't meant to be a guide, they're meant as a personal reminder, and as a red herring for anyone who gets this far. Just from one look, it's obvious that some of it's just flat-out wrong. Someone else would notice too, but it might lead them to discard the whole thing. If it were me making it,
and it was, there's subtler errors in there too, things a lot more dangerous than just using steel in the flight unit casing.
Under our feet, the entire rendering is laid out in larger than life detail, the armor stretching across the screen. The notes are in teacher-hand, big enough to read at a distance, but not ridiculously large. There's probably a stylus somewhere for writing. I'll have to search for it later.
Rhodey takes a step back, kneeling down to look at a helmet model the size of his torso. He puts a hand down to balance himself and the helmet expands into an exploded view, layers unfolding and stretching out over the full length of the screen. When he looks up, it's with a grin. The expression doesn't hide the tears that are still in the corner of his eyes, but it's probably polite not to mention them.
"Man, you have got some kick-ass toys."
The eyehole of the helmet's exterior metal faceplate is directly under my foot. In the expanded view, there's even more notes visible, written along the edges of the metal, information on alloys and temperature limits, results of stress tests and flexibility. "I guess I do, don't I?"
It takes me about an hour to realize that the latest War Machine armor is simpler than the Iron Man armors, and probably better for it. Every schematic of Iron Man is a constant work in progress. It's designed to be changed around, upgraded, re-hauled and torn apart at a moment's notice. The electronics and computers are so finicky, they must have needed constant attention to keep them at their best. Even keeping the damned thing clean
was a chore looks best done by taking it apart. And if it's already in pieces, there's no point in not upgrading.
In contrast, War Machine is made to take a beating and still get Rhodey home, then be wiped down with a rag and put away for next time. It's hardy, durable and all around the better piece of equipment. Iron Man wouldn't have survived being turned into the scrap metal Rhodey's delivered to the lab.
Rhodey holds up a gauntlet made of what appears to be gunmetal, but a quick analysis by the labs scanners reassures me that it's a lot more complicated than that. Good. Gunmetal is too brittle. "Can you fix it?" he asks, waving the wrist unit back and forth. It only has a tenth of the range of motion it should, meaning the rest of the gantlet moves in pathetic little circles. "I won't lie to you man, Osborn pulled one hell of a trick one on us. I'm lucky I was able to make it back this far without help."
"You're lucky you made it any distance at all." I turned a twisted piece of slag over in my hands, trying to figure out what it used to be. Giving up with a shrug, I tossed it backwards into the heap of unrecognizable bits. Sorting the parts into the main grid is easy enough to do while talking, so I do it. Touching the cool, slightly rough surface of the armor with my bare fingertips feels good, like coming home. "The files say thing was designed to hold up under a nuclear blast. What happened, anyway?"
"A nuclear blast."
Osborn isn't No one could be crazy enough to set off a nuclear bomb. He has to be joking. Looking up from my work, I meet Rhodey's eyes.
He's not joking.
I can't breathe. "What happened?" The sensors guide my hands, letting me sort with only half of my attention on it. "How many people died?"
"No one, thank God." He looks as tired as I'd feel if I'd been caught in a nuclear blast. His eyes were distant, looking at something I couldn't see. "Three days ago we were following a lead on one of Osborn's old flunkies. A defector that he'd dumped on an old aircraft carrier in the middle of the Atlantic. Thought maybe we could rescue the guy, convince him to go public, put the Goblin down."
"It was a trap?"
"It was a trap," he confirmed. "The whole thing was a set up to catch us out. Thor did... Something godly, I guess. Covered everyone on the ship when the bomb went off. I was in the air. Didn't have time to get down there—got tossed around pretty bad, almost had to swim home."
I think what I'm holding is the chest plate. It looks sort of like a chest plate, if chest plates have creases in them. "Did you go see the doctor for any injuries? Bad as this thing is, I'm amazed you're not bleeding."
"Thor cleared me for the flight back here." With that impossibly confusing statement, he crouched down to my level. "So? Can you fix it?"
"I think I'm going to have to recreate it." Holding up the chest piece, I show him the places where the metal's almost useless. "If I put you back in this, I can't guarantee it'll work like it should." And it'll shatter like a glass house in a hurricane, but that's not worth mentioning. He just survived something that could level a city. The man needs to hear good news. "A whole new set up will be better."
"Got enough of Tony Stark in you to do that?"
I don't know. Do I? Do I even want to be that person again? The one who ruined everything
by trying too hard? "There's only one way to find out."
Dropping the remains of the chest plate to its spot on the grid, I reach for the touchpad and the stylus I'd found tucked in an empty coffee mug full of pens and pencils. "It'll take me a day to work out the specifics. You saw the files—they're a mess at best. And I don't know how the production will work, so I can't give you an estimate on that." Data scrolls past, informing me of the lab's capabilities, but it's still up in the air. A lot of it is going to have to be done by hand. Wiring the automated systems can handle. Programming is a human task.
That's probably why it's my weak point. "Anything you can think of that I should change from the last model listed?"
He grins widely, like a little boy
on Christmas morning getting a gift. "I can always use more guns."
Remembering how many guns his suit already had, that's hard to believe, but I add a note. After a second of thought, I add one about G-forces, and to double-check the radiation shielding. Might as well make sure the next nuke is easier to hold up against.
Dealing with armor, at least, doesn't feel so much like being blindfolded in a dark room trying to find a dropped thimble. The pieces turn easily in my hands, information about them rising up without any of the pain or tug other things give. Some of it's from the wireless connection, data from the mainframe flowing so smoothly that it's hard to tell when it's my thoughts and when it's just data. But most of it comes from me, ingrained and intact knowledge that it's good to have. Having tools—my tools, in my workshop in what I'm pretty sure is my house or the house of someone who really loves me—gives me someplace to firm stand.
Now all I need is a long enough lever.
"What else is going on, Rhodey?" My feet lead me back to the giant screen, where the latest set of schematics for War Machine are laid out in pornographic detail. It brings the itch back to my fingers, but I force myself to stay on task. Rhodey needs armor now. There's just no time for me to make a set from scratch, no matter how much I want to. "You're the first person who's come by to see me since Steve tossed me out. Fill me in."
"Not much," he admits, sitting down backwards on an office chair at the edge of the screen. "A lot of talk, but we don't have any ideas. Osborn's got us by the short and curlies, and he knows it."
"It's a war of images." Copper plating, what the hell was I thinking using copper plating in the face plate? One dunking in an inconvenient lake and he'll turn green, and there's no way it would hold up against any sort of rough treatment. That has to be a herring. So what did I really use? Do I have a spectrometer in here? "We're the bad guys here. As long as the public agrees, there's nothing we can do."
Wheels squeak in protest as Rhodey rolls back and forth. "For a guy with amnesia, you seem pretty certain about that."
"Had time to read up." Can I reroute those wires in the shoulder? A few tweaks there and I can increase mobility 20%. "A week with nothing else to do. There's stuff missing—files I can't get into, holes in stories about things it's obvious the public never found out about—but I can at least see the gist of it. And the gist of it is that we're screwed."
"I thought it was. So what's happening that no one's telling me about?" I drag and drop a redundancy system on the shoulder cannon firing mechanism into the trash. It's interfering with the overall efficiency of the unit, and I can put another one in to replace it when I redesign the shoulder plates. "Or that no one's been here to tell me about. I haven't even seen whoever drops off my food."
"Dr. Strange has one of his people on that. They're discreet." The flat, almost mechanical way he says that makes me glance up, but Rhodey has one hell of a poker face. Not even a trace of a smile gets through.
Maybe I don't want to know. "Alright. And what about everything else?"
"Cap's come to the same conclusion you have." Rhodey folds his arms over the back of the chair. I wish he'd stop posing like that. His shoulders are distracting. "War of words, war of images. We're trying to get Osborn to take himself down, but it's not easy. He's—"
AVENGERS PRIORITY TRANSMISSION. PREPARE TO RECEIVE SIGNAL.
A tiny red communicator is in Rhodey's palm before the computer even finishes relaying the announcement. I'm quicker though. Before he can turn it on, the mainframe's accepted the transmission and is playing it through the speakers.
"War Machine, this is Away Team Alpha. Come in, War Machine. Jim, if you're there, pick up the line!"
Steve's voice rings through loud and clear, and more than a little angry. Shit. What went wrong now? It can't be me. I've been cooped up all week.
Rhodey sits up straight, a puppet whose strings were pulled. "Got you loud and clear, Captain. What's going on?"
"We've got a situation up here. Strange and Thor are bringing in wounded. Beta Team is six hours behind. Alpha Team will be six behind them. After this we're on radio silence until farther notice."
"Wounded?" My voice is so loud it echoes off the high ceiling. Corpses dance through my head. James, who never even looked me in the eye, but who couldn't have hit thirty years old yet. Pepper, who'd been kind to me. Maria, who hadn't, but who doesn't deserve to die. "What do you mean, wounded? Radio silence? What the hell happened?"
"Jim." Worse than yelling, Steve's voice goes quiet. "What's he doing on the line? He's supposed to be safe in his room."
Safe in his room. Like a ten year old kid when Mom and Dad are arguing. "You can't keep me locked up! This is my fight too!" Maybe it's more my fight than everyone else's. I'd been the one who let it get all out of control. "I'm not staying out of it."
Brown eyes roll upward, as if Rhodey's speaking to the ceiling. "You told me to get repairs done. Meet my repairman."
More silence, then a soft swearword. "Fine. Do what you need to do to get back online. But don't let it go farther than that."
While I fume, Rhodey just shrugs as if Steve can see him. "You know how well that always works."
"Yeah, I do." I can almost see Steve shake his head in annoyance. "We'll talk when I get back to base. Tony, don't do anything half-cocked. Captain America out." The line closes before I can say anything else, like what kind of prick he is to try and keep me locked away.
Under my fingers, the tablet buzzes, flashing an announcement that I've been holding my finger down on an item for five minutes. Do I want to turn on tap and drop?
Sighing in disgust, I click no and send the circuits to the side to be looked at later. "I feel loved."
"Don't blame him." Rhodey slumped forward against the chair back again. "He's always that way. You two were going pretty rough before
the thing at the courthouse—
ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: .0034 minutes.
—he went underground, and now you can't even hash it out. With the amnesia thing, I mean." Black gloved fingers slide restlessly over the back of the chair. With the lab supporting my usual five senses, I can see the silvery wiring that laces through the cloth. That must be how the armor transfers muscle movement to command lines. There are probably pads on the inside of the body suit that measure the impulses sent to his muscles through the nervous system. Gold mesh would be a better conductor. I wonder if I can talk him into it.
"He was fine when we talked before. Nice." Yeah, gold mesh is definitely the way to go.
Getting lost back in my work is easier than dealing with the sting of Steve's rejection. Okay, so we'd disagreed.
Badly. That doesn't mean I'm useless. I've got everything I need right here to build another Iron Man suit. I can at least run rescue relays. If normal, non-powered people can be useful, why not me?
I can help, damn it, if he'll get off his high horse and let me.
Thunder sounds overhead, so loud that it rattles the pens in the mug even all the way down here. As if in response, Rhodey stands up.
"Yeah, well, Steve's good at being nice, except when he isn't." Ripples of light flare around his foot as he taps my note about the under armor. "No gold, Tony."
"No." But he says it with a laugh, which at least takes the edge off. "Look, I'm going to see if Blake and Strange need help up there. You just stay down here and work on the armor, okay?" More ripples as he taps his foot again. "And no gold. Serious. I meant it before, I mean it now."
Watching Rhodey leave hurts, but looking back at my work helps. At least I can do this. Steve doesn't want me fighting, but I can make sure Rhodey, at least, goes back into battle prepared for anything. Even for another nuclear bomb. Someone like Osborn doesn't seem like he'll stop from using something just because a few million people are in the way.
Don't go off half-cocked. Not going off half-cocked is what started it. If I hadn't thought things all the way through, there's no way I would have done half of what the papers say I did.
Half-cocked my ass.
I only ever go off fully-cocked and loaded.
The first set of instructions are being processed and prepared for a simulation run by the time I drag myself up from the lab. It's almost fifteen hours later, according to my Extremis. Somehow, I'd forgotten to sleep and eat. Whoops. My body is making me pay for it, with aches and pains in places I thought were much closer to healed.
But I got the first done and ready. Five hours to eat and grab a nap will be plenty of time, and I'll be able to run the program. Then Steve can see how cocked I am.
"Tony!" Don hurries as best he can toward me as I reach the base floor, leaning heavily on his cane. "Where have you been? Strange said you haven't eaten your last three meals, and you didn't sleep."
One day, I really want to meet this Strange person who has 'his people" spying on me. " I was in the basement. Working on something. I just lost track of time. I'm fine."
An odd expression of regret crosses Don's face, wrinkling his forehead for a moment. "You're good at that," is all he says, turning around. "Since you're up, you might as well come to the kitchen. There's pancakes, and I want to be sure you eat a full meal before going back to your toys."
Food sounds good. Really good. My stomach agrees, growling loudly as I follow Don across a sitting room to a magnificently appointed kitchen. It's bright and cheery, done in chrome and white, with red accents on the appliances. It's also gigantic, easily big enough handle
an entire catering crew or two an entire team, instead of the lone elderly man watching something cook on the stove. Don goes to stand by him, chatting amiably.
The little breakfast table looks odd and out of place, set off to the side next to a bank of windows that are just showing daylight.
This isn't the sort of kitchen people eat in. Being out of place doesn't stop it from also being loaded down with food—pancakes, syrup, fresh fruit, sausage, bacon, orange juice, milk... Anything anyone could ask for. And it's confusing.
How did they get all of it when we're supposed to be hiding? Or is that another thing I'm supposed to keep my nose out of?
Seated alone with his back to a wall, Steve looks like he's been through a war. His hair is still spiky and dark from a shower, and he's wearing a clean pair of jeans and a t-shirt, which helps. But a bandage is plastered over his cheek and he's hunched like his ribs hurt him.
Weighing my choices, I choose a place at a right angle to him. We don't have to stare at each other across the table, and we won't accidentally bump shoulders. As nice as bumping shoulders sounds, I'm still angry with him.
He'd been so nice to talk to, after I'd woken up. I need to know what's changed, and I'm not sure I want to know. Maybe he's just remembered that we're fighting. Great for him, but not fair when I can't remember a damned thing. If he's holding things I don't even remember doing against me, there's nothing I can do but wait for his snit to be over with.
I hope it doesn't take too long. He's had a year living off-radar to get it out of his system. I'm still trying to figure out why I did it.
Looking over my choices, it hits me that I have no idea what I like to eat. My diet the past week was bland, and I think it was supposed to be, but it hadn't done anything to tell me what kind of food I like. I recognize everything, but nothing strikes me as good, or particularly wanted. I can't call up the taste of sausage, even though the smell is close to heaven. The different syrup choices are a mystery. Even the fruit options are just fruit, without any positive or negative associations.
A plate of pancakes scrapes the table as it's pushed at me.
"Eat," Steve says, mouth pulled down into a frown. "Don said it's important that you don't skip more meals."
"I was busy in the basement. You know, doing what you didn't want me to do." Still, I move a pancake off the stack to my plate. Now, syrup. Maple? Blueberry? Damn it.
The red jar of strawberry preserves moves towards me next. When I look up, Steve is looking pointedly away, fiddling with his bacon. Bastard.
Strawberry it is, then. The worst that can happen is I'll hate it. Or I could have a violently allergic reaction, but Steve doesn't seem like the sort of person to stealth murder, and I'm sure someone would have thought to tell me about a deathly allergy. Pepper doesn't hate me, so she would have warned me. Right? Just in case, I make a small puddle of the preserves at the edge of my plate and dip just a small bite of pancake into it, prepared to spit it back out if it's awful.
The flavor explodes over my tongue, sweet but slightly tangy, and not at all cloying. Definitely not awful. Hopefully not fatal. I make a pleased sound and pour a generous amount over the rest of the pancake. Since the preserves went over so well, I take a few fresh strawberries from the fruit bowl too. Clearly, strawberry pancakes are a Good Food. It's only one thing in a long list of discoveries about myself that I still have to make, but it's a decent start.
A quiet laugh from Steve's corner of the table makes me look up from my newfound love. He's smiling, just a fond little turn of the lips. I admit, my heart melts a little. Other body parts, however, do not do anything so gentle as melting. Stern and fierce in his blue costume, he looks like something off of a porno cover. Now? He needs to skip the porno and go directly to bed, wet hair and all.
I think I whimpered. I'm not even embarrassed by it.
Steve is oblivious. Damn it. "You always liked strawberries," he explains, tapping his fork against the edge of his plate. "I was pretty sure that wouldn't have changed."
Our previous conversation ticks through my thoughts. Okay, according to Steve, we weren't together, According to Steve, we weren't together, so it wasn't a break-up. We argued—that must have been Registration? So what was before that? "You seem to know a lot about me. Did we know each other well?"
His smile drops away. "I thought I did."
I wish I could turn back time and just let the topic go. But I need to at least know the shape of the life I'm putting back together. If I want to put it back together, that is. "How did we know each other? Pepper gave me some articles... We shared a team?" The Avengers—a group of heroes. I don't feel much like a hero.
"I don't want to talk about it."
The half-eaten strawberry-slathered pancake doesn't look very appetizing any more, but when I move to push the plate away, Steve scowls. It's worth taking a bite to make that go away. "Please. I need to know."
His arms bulge as they cross. Basic anatomy reassures me that it's probably not meant to be aggressive, just an unavoidable side effect of being able to bench-press a half a ton. "Read up on it. You have the lab—Google it."
"I have, and that doesn't tell me anything useful. Just a lot of facts." Except that a lot of people are strangely gleeful about fictionalizing our private lives. I could have lived without knowing that. "I want to know what we were. Friends? Business partners? Just teammates? You said we didn't sleep together, and that's about all I have to go on."
At first, it doesn't seem like he's going to answer. He shifts food around on his plate, not meeting my eyes. Like last time, my brain starts counting the seconds of awkwardness. I really wish it wouldn't do that.
But then he looks up, and I swear I forget to breathe. He really is that gorgeous. My head feels like it's being compressed into a tennis ball, but there's no pain. Just the computer, whirling away at all the data. How did I fight on the other side of him? "We were friends. Good friends. And then Registration happened."
And we ended up leading different sides. That... explains a lot. "Do you trust me?"
"With my life." Steve's eyes drop back to his plate, and the pressure in my head lets up. My chest still feels tight, but I guess that's not going away. "To make the right choice against bad odds... I don't know."
I spear a piece of pancake and hold it ready on my fork. "Then let me help." When he opens his mouth to argue, I stuff the pancake inside. Automatically, he starts to chew, giving me space to speak. "I know I'd be a liability in battle, and I don't have anything to fight with anyway. But let me know what's going on. I can do more than just repair Rhodey's armor on the sly and use up the medical supplies."
When Steve finishes chewing, the question he asks surprises me. "Have you seen the news?"
Of course I haven't. I've been working on War Machine. So I shake my head. "Does it have anything to do with the transmission yesterday? The wounded?"
"Damn it." Steve's fork twists in his fingers, dancing around the knuckles in a nervous habit. "The President was attacked by a suicide bomber." Before my stomach can hit rock bottom, he speaks again. "The attempt wasn't successful. The President made the man explode. It's all over television."
All over television that I would have seen if I hadn't been face-down in a computer all night, he means. "You mean the man exploded." That's what suicide bombers do, right? They explode.
Steve shook his head. "No, I mean the President looked at him, his eyes glowed, and the bomber exploded. Or it looked like he did." The tired tone is back. When was the last time Steve slept?
There's irony in that question. "It must have been a trick. Probably Loki, but it could have been something else. But the whole federal government is panicking. State of emergency's been declared."
"Osborn is going to take the presidency, isn't he?" If I were a power-hungry crazy ex-villain who'd fallen into one of the most influential positions in the world, I'd be aiming higher. "If they've made the President look superpowered, and all non-registered are non-citizens, that's the next logical step."
"You're attributing logic to the Green Goblin?" Steve asks, raising his eyebrows. "The man who uses pumpkin bombs?"
Maybe he has a point, but I do too, damn it. "I'm attributing logic to Norman Osborn, the man who has us all pinned up here and who just successfully discredited the President and declared a state of emergency."
Steve stares at me. I think he's forgotten to eat. At least, he hasn't touched his plate since I force-fed him some pancake. He rests his forehead in his hand, fingers making his wet hair stick up at even crazier angles. "I hope you're wrong. I really do."
I hope I am too, but hope doesn't count for anything these days. "When you called in— you said there were injuries?" I've been so deep in my work that I hadn't even found out who had been hurt. "Casualties?"
"No casualties, thank God, and mostly minor wounded." He stabs a piece of melon with his fork and takes a bite, instead of using his fingers like a normal person. "Black Widow has a fractured ankle, and Bucky caught a bullet with his arm. His regular arm, I mean. Luke has a minor concussion, which had us worried for a while. Rescue has a few scorch marks from the explosion, but nothing serious. Natasha's the one who'll be out of action the longest, and she's already threatening to use her crutches as weapons."
I don't recognize many of the names, but the injuries sound reassuringly minor. "And you?" I reach over to tap his bandaged cheek. "You didn't say anything about this."
Steve sits back in his chair. One of his arms is still around his ribs, so they probably are hurting him. "Shrapnel and a few contusions. I'll be fine in a day or two."
That sounds familiar. "Right." Somehow, during the conversation, I managed to eat a whole pancake and a small bowl of fruit. My stomach's still making audible protests, but it's manageable. Or at least ignorable. The sausage smells too good to keep ignoring though, so I grab a link. Someone would have mentioned if I'm a vegetarian I don't eat meat, right? "And you habitually slouch, too."
True to form, Steve sits up straight, without a visible sign of pain. 5 minutes, 32 seconds until posture returns to previous conditions. "And you habitually eat breakfast. I don't think I've seen you eat this much before noon in years."
He's seen me before noon? Often enough to notice my eating habits?
That's probably not what it sounds like. I poke a sausage at him. "I'm trying to figure out what I like to eat, since everyone's being so informative. Besides, I have five hours to kill before a test run on War Machine. There's no reason not to eat."
With a half-hearted grin, Steve shakes his head. "Tony Stark, justifying eating instead of working. I never thought I'd see the day."
"I didn't think I'd see another day at all." Sausage, it turns out, tastes exactly like it smells, which is amazing. Maybe not dying of my own stupidity was worth it.
Vote's still out on that one. "So what's our next move then, Boss?"
"Don't call me that." He still looks gloomy, but not as world weary as he had been.
"Then what would you prefer? Mr. America? Captain?" This is fun, just talking to Steve, bantering. It's like Rhodey, but different. "Hot Stuff?"
Exactly as planned, Steve rolls his eyes, and the tension on his forehead vanishes. "You're incorrigible."
Six hours later, the sun's hitting zenith and the War Machine test is winding down. According to the computer, the changes I made will work out. I just have to create an on-board operating system to run it all at once—or find a copy of the old one. Something as complex as a suit of battle armor is too much for one man to handle on his own. If I get desperate to shave hours, I can probably salvage some code from what's left of Rhodey's scrap heap, but I don't want to risk trying to pull it from a physically damaged system. It would be too easy to overlook something.
Physically exhausted and still aching, I set the hardware to process and take the tablet back to the cot in the corner to do a quick search for a useful copy of the War Machine OS. The bed's still rumpled from my nap. With things hashed out between Steve and I, at least a little, I'd actually been able to pass out and catch a few hours of sleep on it. There's probably a few dozen other rooms I could have used, but the computer in the lab was programmed to wake me when the simulation was ready to run. Anywhere else, I might have ended up trading precious work hours for sleep. I've already lost a week of productivity, three more hours just isn't going to happen.
Remembering how behind I'd gotten, I set a subroutine to scan for any relevant news on the airwaves. If Osborn just took down the President, he's not going to waste any time on the next logical move, and I want to hear it in time to tell Steve I told you so. That'll be a good moment.
A better one will be when we take Osborn to the cleaners.
Files unfold. I think I've gotten the hang of the system. It's not as random as I'd thought. There are five drives, and Vl-sd9 is the one with the goods. Anything with a number that's divisible by two, three or seven is trash or porn, and everything that matters is exactly five digits. What's left holds the real stuff, and the higher the number, the more important files it holds. It's a bit more complicated than that—sub-trees have a different system that seems to be based on roots, and there's something about the alphabetic designators that I haven't cracked, but it's only a matter of time. It's a little embarrassing that the system is so simple.
Since I'm looking for what Tony thought of as the most important thing in the world, I head directly to the highest folder that matters: 99,997z.
There's only one file, a video. Going by the preview image, it's one of the Extremis recordings. Those look like my hands, holding the Iron Man helmet from the last sets of interviews. What the hell?
Highest level folder, it's probably the most important thing in the world.
Curiosity killed the genius. Double-click and play, jump to the center so I can see exactly what it is. Maybe it's information on Osborn, maybe an explanation of why he did any of this. I'll take whatever I can get. "—almost feels like losing. Or we might as well have lost if this is what it costs—"
ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: 12.0263 minutes.
The screen is black. Nothing. Frowning, I scan backwards through the file, but it's just more of the same. Why would I keep a blank video on here? Is it like the errors in the armor layouts, or is this some form of encoding that I'm going to have to invent again? If that's the way every important file is, it's going to take me a day to open them, damn it.
Next file down: 99995r. Maybe it'll have something for me.
One hundred and sixty seven folders later, I finally hit the jackpot. Both the War Machine and Iron Man systems are in the same folder with a third OS called JARVIS, all of them miraculously complete. I'll only have to update the code to allow for the changes I've made; everything else will snap in as cleanly as it was meant to. Unless something else happens, Rhodey will be in the air in time for the next battle.
And I won't. Steve didn't say that he doesn't want me to fight with him, but he didn't deny that I'd be a liability. That says everything. I'm not Tony Stark; I just look like him. And I don't even look like Iron Man.
There's still plenty of time—two days—before War Machine's parts finish processing and I'll get to start on assembly, so I keep working my way through the files. At this level, everything is about Iron Man, War Machine, the Avengers... The entire superheroic life, put down in binary. Copies of SHIELD files that don't look legally made, Quinjet specs, notes on powers and possible side-effects—there's a red flag for internal damage on Power Man. With unbreakable skin, it's easy to see why. Still nothing personal though. Not that I was expecting a diary, but for a man entranced with keeping everything recorded, I sure managed to keep the most important things in my head.
I'm fully half way down the file tree when the door to the lab opens. There's a pile of boxes blocking my view, and I almost tap the sensors to find out who it is. But I don't think I need to. I already know. Instinct, maybe. Or blind luck.
Quick answer: it's not Rhodey.
"So, I know you well enough that you can unlock my lab." The trees keep opening under my fingers. If he bothers to look, he can probably see the whole thing play out on the floor-screen, but I doubt he will. Steve doesn't strike me as the prying type. "What can I do for you?"
Silence. After a few seconds of it, I get impatient to find out if I'm right. A quick query hooks the cameras directly to the wireless, so I don't need to get up. Lo and behold, I am right. Steve is staying back close to the door, eying the grid that still has what's left of War Machine laid out in it. There's only enough left to almost tell that it's supposed to be human-shaped. The helmet, chest plate and hip joints were completely useless, but I should be able to put the rest back together enough to work as an emergency backup. Steve stares down at it. The angle of the cameras is too high to make out his expression.
So, the sixty-four billion dollar question is: Does he have the key because he's Captain America? Or something else? What else does he have?
"I came to talk. Everyone's still resting, but I can't seem to settle. I thought..." His voice is so quiet, I have to use the audio receivers to hear it properly. "But I'm not sure what to talk about."
"We used to talk a lot?"
"All the time." He kneels down to look at one of the pieces of slag that used to be a shin guard. I don't even know how Rhodey managed to wear it. His legs are thicker than mine, and it's been bent too much to fit me. "When I first got out of the ice, I needed to talk a lot of things through. Iron Man was a big help. He kept me from giving up."
"Iron Man?" All the older articles referred to Iron Man as my body guard. I'd assumed it had been a flimsy disguise, and I had been Iron Man, even then. "I thought I was Iron Man."
The sag drops back to the pile as Steve reaches for a new piece. "You are. I just didn't know it back then." He laughs. It feels good, round and solid. When was the last time he laughed? "I just thought Tony Stark was some distant playboy who paid the bills. But Iron Man was my best friend. We talked about a lot of things."
"We must have done it a lot, if you're here." It's easier to speak to him like this. I don't feel pinned by his disapproval, and it's harder to get lost staring at him. Actually, no it's not, because every time he bends over to pick something up, Extremis reports increased respiration and heartbeat
as if I didn't notice and the camera zooms in. But he doesn't need to know that. "So what happened?"
"I don't know.
What to say to that? "Did we talk during the Registration thing?"
"We tried." He shakes his head, running his fingers over War Machine's faceplate. "We should have tried sooner."
Can't argue with that. I've completely forgotten my files—it's open to something I don't even remember tapping. Multi-tasking around Steve is harder than I thought it would be. "You seem like you're a good guy, Steve. I don't know why I did what I did, and I can't apologize for things I still don't understand." Warning boxes pop up on the screen. I'm gripping the tablet too hard, and it's confusing it. Carefully, I put it down before I can break it. It's one piece of technology in here that I don't want to try and recreate. I don't have time to recreate it. "But I will apologize for one thing.
"I'm sorry that I cost you our friendship." This, I can say honestly. The nostalgia and pain in his voice when he talks about how he and I were friends, the awkwardness—whatever Registration may or may not have done, it broke at least one thing irreparably. "I'm sorry I took that away from you, whatever my reasons for doing it."
"I should have gone to you. Asked what you were doing. Tried to reason with you. Or just listened." He keeps running his fingers over the faceplate, tracing a shape that's not quite right for it. With a start, I realize that he's tracing Iron Man over War Machine. "Instead I flew off the handle. We both made mistakes. It takes two to argue."
"It takes two to do other things, too." Clang. He drops the helmet in shock. I have to laugh. I can't not laugh. "Does it bother you when I say things like that? I can stop." I don't want to stop, but it would only be polite.
"No, it's fine." He tips his head back and smiles in the direction of the cameras, as if he knows I'm using them. "It's just surprising. I never thought you'd be—you always seemed straight. There was a new woman in your bed every other night for a while. I guess I just never thought about it."
"Maybe I had too much to lose."
And I don't have anything to lose now. Rhodey seemed okay with it, at least. Not that Rhodey is the be-all of my world, but he's the only person willing to call me a friend. I don't have a business, good name or money to lose anymore, or even memories of it. So why not take the plunge?
"I think I know what you mean." Steve looks around. "If we're going to talk about this, I'm not telling it to a camera. Where are you?"
"Cot along the north wall, near the coffee bar." Total control over the lab using my brain is, in a word, awesome. I adjust the lights so the brightest ones mark a path for him. "Just follow the road."
"The yellow brick road over the rainbow?"
"Huh?" What rainbow?
He laughs quietly. "Never mind." Steve appears around the boxes, and from the amused way he's eying the coffee pot, there's something I don't know. "It's something else you need to catch up on, when we have time."
Thoughtfully, I shift my feet to make room. "Have a seat. We'll gossip about our co-workers, and you can catch me up on what I've missed."
"I missed it all too, you know." The bed sags under his weight. The man is a ton of pure muscle. "I woke up and Danielle Cage already had her first birthday."
When he sits down, I take it upon myself to stretch my legs over his thighs. There's no reason I should refuse a decent foot stool, and it's not like he's using his lap. "I thought you were underground with them. Rhodey said you stayed off-radar for the past year."
Steve frowns, and thank God it's not the self-righteous expression of disapproval that can make talking to him hard. No, it's deeper, more worried than anything else. "No,
I was dead. Sort of.--
ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: .0049 minutes.
"—Crossbones on the courthouse steps?"
ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: .0197 minutes.
"That must have been in those files Pepper gave you."
ERROR. System integrity compromised. Reconfiguring datatatatatata—
A problem has been detected and Extremis has been shut down to prevent damage to your system.
The problem seems to be caused by the following file: extr_rewrite.exe
"Tony?" My head snaps on my neck as Steve gives me a good shake. "Tony, wake up!"
I groan as the world starts to filter back to me. The entire room is dark—did I shut it down? I don't remember. "Ow— ow, I'm awake! Stop that!"
"What just happened?" The running lights are coming one again, one by one, as if doing some sort of check. In the flashing overhead light, Steve's worried face seems impossibly close. Kissably close. "You just started having convulsions, and then the room went dark and you collapsed."
"Divide by zero." Oh, God, my head aches. It's like the pressure from before has come back a hundred fold, and this time it means business. "System shut down. Blue screen of death." That's the second time something Steve's said has caused me to have a total restart. Last time I remembered, but this time it's all a blank. He opened his mouth, and then there's just white noise. "I think that my brain's Extremis thing doesn't like you very much. It keeps doing that."
"I don't like it either." The lights finally come all the way back on, and the wireless connection flares back to life. In my lap, the touchpad flashes the Stark logo again, cheerfully rebooting with the rest of the lab. Steve looks worried sick, and he still hasn't moved away.
It takes me a second to work out why he's so close. He's cradling me in his lap, like some hero out of a B-movie. Okay. Okay, I can handle that. It's unexpected, but nice. Really nice. "Neither do I, right now. That hurts."
"What set it off?" Steve's eyebrows pinch together. "Computers don't shut down for no reason. We were just talking about— oh." The pinch vanishes, changing out for something I can't name. "Last year."
"Must have been pretty bad if it makes me reboot." I give a squirm, but Steve doesn't seem interested in letting go, and it's nice to be held. His chest is as solid as it looks, and when will I get this chance again? "There's a few files that do the same thing. I'll figure it out. It's just a glitch."
"Yeah, just a glitch." Steve doesn't look like he believes it, but there's nothing I can do about that. "Look, Tony, I..."
More awkward silence. Damned if I'm going to let the count down start again. "You... What?" How did he get eyes that color? They're gorgeous. Azure. My brain can stop with the poetry any time now. "What is it?"
I freeze as his lips touch mine. It's just a hint of a kiss that lasts not nearly enough time before he pulls away. "I'm glad you didn't jump in a volcano."
This program is unresponsive, but not currently a threat. Leaving it running could cause a fatal instability in system integrity. Would you like close it, or wait?
WAIT! Don't you dare shut down on me now!
He kissed me.
He kissed me. "I am, too." Breathe, Tony. I'm acting like an idiot. "Not interested in men, huh?"
"I didn't think you were." Oh God, he's blushing. It's the most amazing thing ever, even better than turning on lights with my brain. "Look, this... It's not easy. Things are strange right now. But I want to be your friend again."
And here I was just thinking that Rhodey's the only friend I have. "Maybe more?" His ears are even turning red now. "Come on, you can't kiss a guy and then say you want to be friends without expecting a follow-through."
"Not you, at least." He kisses me again and— okay, yeah, I can definitely get used to this. "We'll talk about—"
"Incoming Transmission on data channel CNN. Filter: Norman Osborn. Breaking News."
Both of our heads jerk up towards the speakers. There's no monitors nearby to switch to the broadcast, but the sound comes through loud and clear. "—of HAMMER, Norman Osborn, after the incident in Washington, D.C. last week, has temporarily assumed the position of President of the United States of America. Janet Wallis is reporting live from the White House Lawn—"
I knew it. I fucking knew it. Someone like Osborn wasn't going to let a perfectly good presidency be filled by someone else. Steve and I both scramble off the cot, some system process pushing me into action on instinct I don't remember . I need to find out where Osborn is. If he's in Washington, we might have time to figure out his next move. If he's dropped off the radar, he's already started it.
While I jump boxes on my way to the mainframe and its satellite resources, Steve is already standing in front of an intercom system that I'd barely even noticed. "This is an Avengers priority alert." His voice sounds over the speakers, creating an odd double-echo effect as Extremis relays it to me .00000012 of a second after Steve says it and before the intercom repeats it. I don't think human ears could even pick up that delay. "Emergency meeting in the kitchen in ten minutes. If you're conscious and you can get there, do it. I repeat, this is an Avengers priority alert. Ten minutes, people!"
I already have the satellites up and connecting in a window over the folders I'd been flipping through. It's going to take 96 seconds I don't have to hack my own satellites, but if I don't take the time, it's bound to be traced. Unless the people at HAMMER are morons, that is, and morons don't manage to get themselves into the US Presidency. "Does that include me?"
"You're an Avenger, aren't you?" Steve gives a long look that I can't make myself hold. "Ten minutes, Tony."
He thinks I'm an Avenger—still an Avenger? Even if he trusts me, how does that work? What's Iron Man without the Iron? "I'll be there. With whatever I can grab off the satellites."
Steve nods and darts out the door. The keyboard clacks under my fingers, three command lines scrawling across the screen at once as I work my way through the firewalls. I've got the Stark Satellites up and running. Can I get into the HAMMER system without being detected? It won't hurt too much to try. Minimize Program—
The folder tree I'd forgotten about when Steve arrived sits in the middle of the screen: 10001a. It only has one file, a link to a mapped drive.
Backup Drive (Z) ready to connect.
The kitchen is full of people. Some of them I can recognize, either from the articles or from when I first woke up, but I don't have any clue about all of them. They range from a man with a bird on his shoulder to someone in a red cape sitting in midair and someone made entirely out of rock. The spandex is the least confusing part of the crowd.
Maybe having a computer in my head isn't so strange after all.
My mind goes back to that mapped drive link that I'd found while running the satellites. I didn't click it. Maybe I'm afraid to, I don't know. It could be nothing—I don't know how the system works, what it's a backup of. If I'd wanted to delete myself, I would have started with the backup copies, wouldn't I?
I do my best to stay back, out of the way. For want of a friendly face, an open piece of wall near Pepper will have to do. Her hair has lost a few inches, and there's a lump of what's probably bandages under her blouse on her left side. Everyone else who's seen me has done some version of glaring, but she smiles tiredly and makes room.
"I'm surprised you're here." The left side of her face is sunburn red and peeling. "Does Steve know?"
"Steve told me to come." Everybody is still milling about and finding their groups, which are distinct. In the far corner, a handful of high school aged kids stay close together, heads bowed as they talk. The anti-Registration forces take up most of the center. People who don't belong to either group line up against the walls. At the front is Steve, Thor, Rhodey and a handful of other people I don't really know except from the files. I didn't even realize this many people were in the building. "I was there when he heard the news."
Maria Hill takes Pepper's other side, watching me with a glare. "Well, if it isn't the rabble."
"Let it go, Maria," Pepper sighs, resting her head back against the wall. "I did."
"What?" I already knew Hill is angry at me, but what did I do exactly? "Pepper?
"It's under the bridge, Tony. You don't want to know." She closes her eyes.
"And won't care anyway," Hill adds with a sneer. "Bastard."
Hill, obviously, is willing to talk. Or at least to spew vitriol, which will be unpleasant, but informative. "Hill? Just tell me."
"Why should I?" A few people nearby catch wind of the conversation and glance our way, then look back to the front again. I miss my wireless connection. It would be so much easier to keep track of everything. "I'm tired of people being angry at me for things I don't remember."
"Why should I tell you anything?"
"You want to fight, don't you?" One of her eyebrows arches. Really, she's as gorgeous as any of the other women in the room, but it's hard to tell when she's glaring at me like this. "I can't fight with you when I don't even know why we're fighting. Give me a break."
"Maria—" Pepper hisses, grabbing her arm. "Don't."
That seems to be the turning point. "You slept with us. Both of us," Hill announces smugly. "Me first before you went on the run, then Pepper while you were running. What do you have to say to that?"
This is a trick question, isn't it? "Did I make any promises?" The women glance at each other. Aha, success approaches! Or a dual punch to the face. One of those options.
Pepper shakes her head, her shorter hair falling from where she'd tucked it behind her ears. "Not to me."
Hill's expression clouds over, her triumph definitely taking a blow. "No."
So they're mad at me— no, Hill is mad at me, since Pepper has moved on—because I had casual, no-commitment, Possibly-Dying-Any-Day sex with them, and didn't keep commitments I didn't, in fact, make. "I don't get it."
Pepper pats my hand. "Don't worry about it."
I don't exactly have much choice but to not worry about it, because that's when Steve finally takes his place on a rigged platform. Why? He's already taller than everyone except Thor.
"Alright, Avengers, is everyone here?" Steve makes a show of scanning the crowd. He probably is actually checking everyone's attendance. There's no list in sight, but he gives a little nod every time he meets someone's eyes that probably means he's counting them off. "I called this emergency meeting because there's been a development. Not all of you may have heard yet."
It's amazing how quiet the collected group of people is.
A teacher could dream of having such an attentive class. The only noise is the buzz of people who heard the news already as they make worried comments to their friends.
Steve stands straight and tall, like a monument before the gathered heroes. It's easy to see how Steve managed to take so many people underground with him. Looking at him up there, it's impossible to imagine him losing at anything, even when his opponent is the government. Charisma rolls off of him in waves.
Why did I think that I have a chance with someone like him?
"Most of you know how the last mission went. Some of you were on it, and the rest saw the news. Last week, Norman Osborn and Loki were able to implicate the president as an unregistered superhuman. We'd hoped it would stop there, but it didn't." The room collectively holds its breath as Steve pauses. Even I do, and I know what's coming. It's a kind of magic.
"Earlier today, the Green Goblin took over the White House, using last week's incident to explain it." Gasps and curses sound from the gathered Avengers. "I know, I know. We thought something like this would happen, and it did." He meets my eyes across the room and nods.
What am I supposed to do? Nod back, and try not to look at the glares sent my way? Some of them probably think I did this too.
"We hoped it wouldn't, but it has," Steve continues. "And now we have to prepare. Osborn has the power of the entire country behind him. There's no telling what he might do. We need to prepare for everything."
At Steve's side, Thor takes a step forward. He seems mostly to be speaking to Steve, but every now and then his eyes fall over the audience. Steve isn't the only one with charisma. "Osborn is not alone. As long as my devious brother stands with him, there is no telling what damage they may do."
"Loki doesn't work for free, does he?"
Jessica Jones one of the women near the font asks. She's tiny compared to everyone else and especially next to Power Man, who stands beside her, but she's wearing what can only be described as a costume—a white bodysuit. With a toddler on her hip, the look is incongruous, and a little terrifying. Definitely not a woman to cross. "How did Osborn pay him off?"
"And isn't Loki a chick right now?" Power Man asks. "Do I even want to know what that's about, or is it a god thing?"
Steve's expression goes strange as he looks at Thor, who shrugs in turn. "My brother will have his reasons. It is a game we have used to our benefit before. Many are the advantages of the female form, both in battle and in other pursuits. He is no less dangerous for having taken another's shape."
I don't want to know, I don't want to know, I don't want to know...
Power Man seems to be having the same thoughts I am. His hands come up placatingly. "Just asking, man, just asking."
Tension seems to flow along gender lines as the men and women look at each other, the men clearly uncomfortable. More then one woman is glaring. Even Pepper looks at me as if I'm about to say something stupid. How suicidal does she think I am? The only person who seems to regard flipping sexes as no big deal is Thor. Maybe it's his idea of a wild Saturday night up in Asgard.
Thank goodness, Steve doesn't seem like the kind to dwell. "In answer to Jewel's question," he continues, voice firm enough to break the tension, "we don't know yet why Loki is working with him. It could be in trade, or it could just be that he's a god—she is a goddess of chaos, and Osborn is the most chaotic thing going."
My mouth opens before I have a chance to think twice about drawing attention to myself. "What does Osborn want out of this?" Everyone, even the toddler, twists to look at me. Masked, uniformed, civilians—if they had the ability, I'd fry in their glares, and it shows. "He can't maintain a position as interim president forever without serious changes that Congress won't buy into, or by another revolution." My eyes stay on Steve. At least he doesn't look like he wants to dance a jig on my grave. "So what's his end-game? If we figure out what he wants, we'll know his next step."
"You're the futurist! You tell me!" someone shouts from the crowd. Without the cameras, I can't pinpoint who. Not that it matters. They all think they're right to hate me. Why fight it?
"I'm not." Holding Steve's eyes, I do my best to mimic the man I used to be, the one I only know about through other people and video recordings. Thor's turned his head to stare at the wall instead of at me. Great. What did I do to him? If I slept with him too, I'm going to need to have a serious discussion with my libido, because this is insane. "I'm not. He was. Tony Stark. I'm just the guy down in the basement now."
"No, you're not." Steve says it quietly, but it pulls the attention away from me, and I can breathe again without feeling like I'm walking up to the chopping block. "But it's a good question. Does anyone have any idea where this is going?" He looks out over the collected heroes. "What about those of you who still have civilian lives out there? Any rumors?"
Spider-Woman A dark-haired woman in bright red and yellow spandex raises her hand. "All of my contacts have gone underground. Not just underground, but they've pulled the dirt in after them. I can't get a peep from anyone."
Other people in the room nod—I guess their outside people had done the same. Steve frowned and glanced at Rhodey, who shrugs.
Dressed in a long sleeve blue button-down and a pair of jeans, Rhodey still manages to look like a military man. "We've all been put under lock and key, and told to sit tight and wait it out, and it's been that way for a while. You know we're not given our marching orders until the car's half way down the drive. No one knows anything there, either." His expression mirrors Steve's as a testament to unhappiness at the news. "I hear that the top of the food chain isn't happy, but Osborn managed to worm his way in through SHIELD's old charter by declaring a state of emergency and suspending Habeas Corpus. Everyone thought that it'd be Nick Fury stepping in if the President was compromised."
"Because that would have been so much better," a man complains. "So we just wait, and hope he doesn't hit us where it hurts?"
"It's all going to hurt, son, no matter what comes next." To his credit, Steve doesn't glare at the complainer, though the muscles in his neck and shoulders bunch alarmingly. "We're Avengers. We'll handle this. Everyone keep their eyes and ears open. No one goes off without full backup. If you've got a civilian identity still under wraps, keep it up as best you can, but don't take any chances. Any questions?" No one seems to have any, so he nods. "If anyone has any later, you know how to find me. Meeting dismissed."
People start filing out. Pepper gives me a sad smile as she passes me. Maria snarls in my direction. At least she didn't slap me, I guess. The wall's comfortable enough that I keep leaning against it, closing my eyes so I can't see when people send me dirty looks. If I wait them out, I won't risk having to talk to any of them when I leave.
I should go back to my lab and find something to do. No one will track me down there, except maybe Rhodey or Steve. Or whoever else has the key. Does Maria? There's a nightmare. The War Machine OS still needs tweaking, and I can probably do something with the Stark and HAMMER satellite networks. Set up some sort of relay system. At least it would be useful.
The room's emptied enough that when someone clears his throat, it's obviously directed at me. Cautiously, I open my eyes to find Steve standing there, a careful five feet apart. I guess that kiss didn't mean much. "You weren't up front with us."
"Was I supposed to be?"
"You usually are," he starts, then pauses and shakes his head ruefully. "But you wouldn't know that. Sorry."
"Don't mention it." Did he really kiss me, less than an hour ago? It doesn't feel like it. Why would he? Even talking to me probably gives him trouble, or will as soon as everyone realizes that he's not yelling. "What can I do for you?"
Steve looks like he wants to ask something, but he stuffs his hands in his pockets and stays back. "You said you were going to do something. I didn't have a chance to ask you about them before we started. What did you find?"
Ah, business. Being useful. It's something. "It's more what I didn't find. I looked on the sat system. Larges bodies of men are hard to move in secret, so I figured that if anything big is up, it'll show." Steve nods seriously, actually paying attention. After the hostility of the meeting, it relaxing. "HAMMER forces aren't moving, which means whatever is in the works, it's not going to be impulsive. Osborn isn't going to risk everything flying by the seat of his pants."
"Every minute he buys is another one we have to prepare." No matter how encouraging his words, Steve doesn't look pleased. Neither am I. We can have years, and it won't do us much good if Osborn surprises us. "Let me know as soon as you find anything else."
Not if I find anything else. When. "You seem awfully sure I'll find something."
He shrugs, and it does wonderful things to his chest. No t-shirt in the world could disguise those muscles. "You always find something. You're Tony Stark."
"No, I'm not. I used to be." Behind him, Thor and Rhodey are talking about something. Both of them are watching Steve and I, for probably completely different reasons. My attention turns back to Steve. He's a hard man not to look at. "I'll do my best, but Tony Stark is dead. He doesn't seem like he was the type of person you'd want on this anyway."
Something about the look Steve gives me sends a slithering guilt through my chest. His brows lower, and I get the feeling he'd look away if he were that type of man. "He's not the man we want on this. He's the man we need. I have faith in you."
The man they need. Does he really mean that? "If I could reboot myself again—get Tony back, just like he was, give you back that guy in all those interviews and broadcasts... Would you want him?"
"Do you know something?" Like magic, the force of Steve's personality turns on me. Suddenly, it's as if I'm the most important thing in his world. How did Tony give that up? It would have been worth breaking a few laws to keep Steve's friendship.
"No, I don't. Hypothetically. Would you?"
It's not a question I have any right to ask by any stretch of the imagination, but Steve looks like he's considering it. "You've been my best friend ever since I woke up from the ice," he says slowly. "I miss that. And if we could talk about what happened—why things got this bad—I'd like that too."
"Even if it meant you weren't friends anymore?" It hurts to hear, but I think I need to hear it. Those files could be nothing. They could be everything. "If it really were over?"
He nods. "Even if. It would be better to know the truth than to leave things unfinished."
"What about what happened in the workshop? Even if that were gone?"
For the first time in my memory, Steve hesitates, hurt marring his expression. "That's not fair, Tony," he accuses, voice quiet.
"Nothing about this is fair." This is too much. The hallways have cleared by now, right? I can probably make it back to the basement in peace. I step past him, careful not to brush him since he's put obvious effort in to not touching me. "I hope I don't disappoint you, Steve. I really do. I'll let you know if something changes."
He doesn't come after me. I wish I could pretend I'm not disappointed.
Three days later, War Machine is up and running, on the last legs of installing the modified OS while I finish piecing together the finger joints on the right gauntlet. Steve hasn't been down to the lab. No one has, except Rhodey and, once, Pepper checking to be sure I'm alive. Steve hasn't even peeked in, which I can live with. Sort of. I want to know the answer to that last question, the same way a terminal patient wants to hear the news. I already know the answer. If I could just get it done and over with, I'd be able to move on to answering more important questions, like what to do with that drive.
I still haven't looked at it. I know, I'm a coward. What else should I do? If I look, and it's—there, I'll almost have to use it. I don't know if I want to be that man again. I've seen the news, I've talked to Rhodey. I've even read the damned Wikipedia article. Tony had it all, and he blew it repeatedly. He was a walking time bomb of trouble, and you never knew when he would go off. Having all of that back wouldn't change that everyone hates me, so I'd still be in the same boat, just with more baggage.
But Steve said it himself. They need Tony Stark. Tony got them into this mess, and then bailed out and left me holding the bag. Even if my life depended on it, I couldn't pilot the armor like him. Maybe I would have the learned reflexes—walking and talking come easily enough, so that was probably retained too. But battle experience? Ability to plan ahead? Knowledge of my enemies? I'd be a disaster in a tin suit.
At least HAMMER hasn't so much as twitched. Even the media industry moguls seem to be holding their breath. No dire predictions of doom or sunny projection of a bright future have touched the airwaves. Just long silences and reports of no change in Washington. Something's coming. Something big. The few times I've gone up for food, everyone is tense, and it's not just because of me.
I hate waiting even more than I hate being alone.
The door chimes a full sixty seconds before it opens. That's something else I've changed—for some reason, the motion detector had been turned off. Maybe because Extremis has full access to the house, instead of just the lab's little network. With the warning, I have time to put down the miniature screwdriver and raise my magnification goggles before Rhodey comes in.
"Hey buddy," he grins. He's wearing his spandex flight suit. No matter how hard I tried, I'd never managed to convince him to use a gold mesh. "I hear you've got something for me."
Thank God for Rhodey. He accepted that I'm not the man he knew with more grace than I could have asked for, and doesn’t seem like he resents me for it. If it weren't for him, I might have just used the damn file already. Tony, at least, seemed like the kind of person who didn't mind being hated and alone. "I'm working on finishing it up. You're just in time."
He nods, eyes wandering over the completed suit on its rack. The armor is built so that it's going to keep him upright even if he's unconscious, and I made a point to burnish it the same gunmetal color that his older suit was. "Looking good. Looks more like what I'm used to than I was expecting. You usually do a lot more changes."
That makes me wince. "I used a basic layout from the files and worked off of that," I explain, flipping down my goggles again so I can finish the gauntlet. The thin leather gloves I'm wearing making handling miniature tools difficult, but one hard scrape across the knuckles was all it took to convince me to wear them. "You needed a working suit now, not whenever I finished tinkering. Don't worry, I'm already planning a total re-haul. You'll get your new toy."
"I can always count on you." The overhead cameras zoom in as Rhodey takes possession of a stool just behind me. "Have you started working on a new suit yet, or are you going to do the same thing? Build from an old one first?" He's grinning and happy, completely oblivious to the way my stomach's turned to rock. "It'll be good to have Iron Man back up and running, I gotta tell you. We're going to need the back up."
"I'm not Iron Man." There's something wrong with the joint. It's not as flexible as it should be, and the screw isn't sliding in smoothly. I back the screw out and try again. "I'll provide the hardware, you fly it."
Rhodey's expression darkens. "Whoa, hold up partner. What do you mean, you're not Iron Man?"
I'd thought he'd accepted that I'm not who I look like. My mistake. "I'm not. I don't have any experience flying a suit like this." The screw flattens down against the surface of the joint seamlessly, and when I test the mobility it's as smooth as if I'd oiled it. Perfection. "This isn't the time for a beginner to jump in the fight, Jim."
"Still, I assumed..." The way he stares at my back pickles between my shoulder blades. "You've been Iron Man for years. It's part of you. Even now, I can't imagine you doing without it. Don't tell me you're not making a back up, just in case."
"Just because I'm making a suit doesn't mean I'm Iron Man." There, gauntlet done. I flip up the goggles and turn to toss it at him. With trained precision, Rhodey snatches it out of the air before it can bean him in the shoulder. "I'm only making it because I might not have a choice. If something goes wrong, I can at least fly wounded to safety. That's all. It doesn't even have a weapons system. I don't want to risk shooting someone because I don't know how to hold my trigger finger."
That little change had made Iron Man faster to put together than War Machine, with its heavy-duty firepower. I'd completed that this morning, while the last piece of War Machine was cooling off and the OS was compiling. Still hadn't taken it out, though, and I don't know when I will. I need to talk to Steve about it, first, and who knows when that'll happen.
"Yeah, that's what Pep said about Rescue, and look at her now," he comments absently, making a show of looking at the gauntlet. "You'll come back to it. Maybe you don't remember, but your body will. It's not something you can walk away from, and I know you Tony. You need to help people."
Better to ignore him, then. The overhead system beeps a happy announcement that the installation is complete. War Machine's ready to go. I grab up my tools and stuff them into my pockets, gesturing him over towards the suit. "Go ahead and put it on. I want to make sure everything fits, and then you're going to take it on a test run." He sits up straight, like a kid spying some shiny new toy through a window. "If that's alright with you."
Rhodey shrugs, and I can almost hear him mentally counting the discussion off. "Man, you know I'm game for anything you throw at me." He hops off the stool, gauntlet in hand. "What did you change? Is this the same as the last one?"
This is going to be fun. "Better." Grinning, I make sure the work area's clear. "War Machine, assemble!"
Working out the secrets of the magnetics that created the automatic assembly for Iron Man had taken six solid hours of work, but it's worth it to see Rhodey's expression of panic as the armor shivered and flew through the air to assemble around him. "Tony," he shouts, voice thick and flat coming through the armor's voice concealment system. He stares down at his hands, inspecting the improved firing systems and the new style of joint. It's a little weird to see the armor move in ways that are so perfectly human. "Tony, you crazy son of a bitch! I though the self-assembling trick took your technomancy routine."
"Nope, just magnets." My cheeks hurt from grinning so broadly, but I can't help it. It's the first thing that's really gone right since I woke up. I'm allowed a little bit of glee. "Get upstairs and test it. You've got more power now, so be careful. I've got the surveillance satellites over this area turned to a loop, so as long as you're careful about ground bounders, you should be able to hit Mach 3 without trouble."
"Put it through its paces, Jim." War Machine is too heavy to jump in surprise, but I almost leave the ground at Steve's voice behind us. He's in full Captain America regalia, except for his cowl, and damn if it doesn't look good. "We want to be sure it's ready to go when Osborn is."
I'd gotten so caught up in having done something right that I'd missed the motion alarm and the cameras. "Yeah," I agree, turning my attention back to War Machine. As big and clunky as it looks, it's graceful, even on the ground. That makes me proud. He won't be able to sneak, but he's not going to walk around like a ton of bricks either. A quick thought and a set of nearly invisible back doors slides open, revealing a tunnel. "Give it everything you've got. That should open up about three miles away from the house, if the plans are right."
War Machine's eyes glow dull red as Rhodey looks back and forth between Steve and I. The jets whine as he lifts off. "Sure thing. Be careful while I'm gone, Tones."
Somehow, I don't think he's trying to tell me not to hit myself with a wrench. "When am I not careful?"
Dumb question. Steve and Rhodey both laugh, and with a burst of firing jets, War Machine is off.
Steve stays back at the edge of the workspace I've cleared, arms crossed. Without his cowl on, he looks young, too young to be leading a motley group like this against a whole country. If I didn't know that he'd fought in a world war, I'd wonder if he's even up to the job. But I have a feeling that war is one of those things that ages you early.
Whatever he's here for, it's not going to be pleasant, so I start cleaning up the evidence of my work instead of looking at him. Now that War Machine is out of the way, maybe I can design something to give Steve an edge against Osborn's suit of armor. "So, what can I do for you? Microwave break upstairs?"
A short, quiet laugh comes from Steve as he shakes his head. "I've been thinking about what you asked me," he says, taking a step towards me. "I never really answered."
Coincidentally, my gathering of tools takes me away from him. "You don't need to." Yes he does. Or at least, I need to hear it. But Steve's a nice guy. He doesn't deserve to be forced to break someone's heart like that.
Ha, break someone's heart. "I know what you're going to say, and I can't blame you. I wouldn't want me either." I don't want me, either. How could I expect Steve to give any weight at all to one little kiss? Especially since, going by Pepper and Maria, I'm good at not giving any weight at all to a lot more than that. "It's okay. I understand."
Steve stares at me, frowning in confusion from the far side of the area. "No, I don't think you do. I wasn't going to say anything like that at all."
Oh. "Then what were you going to say?" It can't be good. Neither option is really a decent one. I balance a good, old fashion wrench in my palm for a moment before stuffing it away. With all the electronics and microscopic tools I have in there, there's something reassuring about the basics.
"At least look at me while we talk."
Sighing, I turn around and cross my arms, mirroring him. "I'm looking."
It's still easier to talk to him while using the cameras. He's so there, as if just by standing still and jutting his jaw stubbornly he somehow becomes more real than everything around him. Archimedes would have been proud to stand on Steve Rogers.
"You keep saying you're not Tony," he starts, and I have to bite my tongue to keep from interrupting him. "And it's obvious that you believe it. But when I look at you, you're still the man I knew. You still talk like Tony, act like Tony—I bet you haven't eaten since yesterday, Tony never remembered to eat when he was close to finishing a project."
Guiltily, I look back over at the main work table, where a sandwich is probably inedible by now. I think Rhodey brought it yesterday. "That doesn't prove anything."
"It proves that you're still Tony. The real package, what's underneath the last ten years." Leather creaks as he shifts his weight from one foot to the other. "So it's not fair to ask if I'd want Tony back, because I already have him."
"My memories, then." I can't keep looking at him. It makes me want to tell him about the files, ask what he thinks I should do, since he seems to have all the answers all the time. Instead I turn my attention down to the loose leather bag in my hands. "If I had my memories back, we'd still be arguing, and you wouldn't have kissed me. Tell me that's not true."
"I don't know if it's true. Maybe." Since my face is down, Steve looks up at the cameras, rightly knowing that I'd use them. Turning them off is easier than closing my eyes. "Maybe we would argue. Maybe we wouldn't. Maybe we should. I'd thought..." He sighs, and without a visual reference it seems to encompass everything about him. "When Registration happened, I thought that was the real Tony. That you'd been hiding that person. But now—without all of that, it doesn't seem so simple. Now I think that maybe you were hiding the person I knew, and that Tony was the false one."
"He was a bastard." Anyone can see that, and I don't have to have been there to see it too. He rode roughshod over any protest or argument, and smiled for the cameras while he did it. That's the mark of a true asshole.
"I don't know that." Footsteps sound on the concrete floor, moving toward me. A quick peek through the cameras shows Steve crossing the distance. "I just know that he was my friend, and I should have talked to him. We have unfinished business between us."
The darkness behind my eyelids is safer than seeing the bright red toes of Steve's boots when he stops in front of me. "Would you have kissed me? If I had my memories?"
The silence lasts long enough for that damned countdown to start. One day, I'll figure out how to turn it off. At 26.73 seconds he says, "No. And I'm sorry about that."
He could have told me yes and I would have believed him, because I would have wanted to believe him. I didn't think it would hurt this much. Why does it hurt? I barely know him! "Thank you for your honesty."
"I'm not done."
His boots are very shiny, aren't they? It's a strange detail to notice right now, but I can see my shadow silhouetted against their gleam. If I tilt my head just right, I bet I could even make out my face. "Go on."
"I wouldn't kiss you, because we would still need to work out what happened," he says in a soft, even voice. His hand touches the back of my neck. Resting my forehead against his is easier than even turning on the lights. "But if you and I were right here, like this, and you had your memories back?" Warm breath touches my ear, his weight shifting against me. "I would kiss you now."
Warning. Respiration increased 27.8% over normal levels. Heart rate increased 32.1% over normal levels.
Blue scale mail scrapes against my leather work gloves as I rest my hands against his chest. It's still exactly as firm as it was the last time we talked in this room. I don't dare look him in the eye. I can't. The back of my neck feels hot as it is. If I look him in the eye, it'll spread to my face. "Then why don't you?"
Peripheral vision is enough to let me see his smile. Warning. Respiration dropped to 11.9% normal levels. Stop that! Then his lips touch mine, and it's just as impossibly incredible as last time, soft and warm and oh God, oh God, oh God...
Somewhere, one kiss becomes two, becomes three, and the only reason I can even keep count is that Extremis ticks them away in the back of my mind. Steve's hand finds the small of my back, and even though I've a bruise there, I'm more than happy to press up against him anyway, my arms up around his neck. How did Tony miss this? Did he know and not care? What kind of idiot was he, to let this go at any cost?
A flare of jetboots manages to grab Steve's attention before mine. He pulls away, leaving my head spinning while War Machine completes a perfect three-point landing. Extremis helpfully shows me a graph on the intensity of the kiss and how the spikes of arousal correspond to action. What a mood killer.
"What is it, Jim?" Steve asks, all authoritative and strong. He doesn't even seem phased by the fact that he was just caught making out with me. I'm not ashamed to admit that it causes another heart rate warning to flash over my vision.
When Rhodey lifts his faceplate, his eyes are wide with panic. "We've got trouble. Osborn's on the move."
Another meeting, but this time Steve drags me all the way to the front, where everyone can glare at me together. I manage to squirm my way to the back, at least, so it doesn't look like I'm stealing Steve's spotlight. As if anyone could steal Steve's spotlight, but I'm sure I'd get called on a perceived attempt. I feel out of place, in my work-grimed t-shirt and jeans, with a bag of tools still at my hip. Everyone, and I mean everyone is in costume or some form of battle gear. Even Pepper is wearing a suit that looks like a womanly ringer for all of the Iron Man specs I've spent the past few days poring over. I wouldn't have known it was her if her faceplate hadn't been turned up. Nothing in any of the articles she'd given me had ever suggested she was a heroine, but what the hell. A girl has to have her secrets, I guess.
Hill looks far, far too happy to be cradling a semi-automatic rifle with a belt-load of guns. That's another good reason to stay towards the back. Unless something dramatic has happened, she still hasn't forgiven me, and friendly fire isn't. Sure, Steve would yell at her, but I'd already be perforated.
Rhodey's report is succinct to the point of austerity. Osborn is headed to Asgard, with every form of military he can find nearby and his not-so-little group of superpowered goons. Asgard hasn't shown any sign of taking arms, but it's hard to tell with gods. Loki is with them, as female as she was last time, and seems to be commanding a surprise army of Doombots. We have roughly thirty people and whatever the Asgardians muster. They have thousands, over half of them relatively innocent soldiers and National Guard troops.
We're so screwed.
The gathered crowd seems to take the impending fight well enough. Unlike last time, most of them stay quiet. The woman with the toddler kisses her as Rhodey finishes winding down his explanation, and Power Man puts his arms over her shoulder. A blonde woman in a SHIELD uniform near the front adjusts her guns, face grim.
At least some of us are going to die if we're lucky.
Steve takes the podium and gives everyone a moment to absorb the news, head bowed. There's a tension across his shoulders I haven't seen before. It stays when he lifts his head.
"You heard it, Avengers. We've got thirty minutes before Osborn will be in position to fire the first shot, and we're going to be there for it. I want all fliers ready to take passengers, as many as you can carry. Wounded I want to stay behind in case this is some sort of trick. You all report to Tony if the worst happens—he's in charge."
What the hell? I'm not the only one to question Steve's sudden leave of good sense. Voices rise up from every corner. Maria's glare is nothing next to the hatred Black Widow sends my direction where she's balancing on her good leg. As soon as she gets me alone, I just know I'm going to have an accident and trip over a crutch down some stairs. "Report to me?" I hiss, staying as far back as I can. No way in hell am I staying on the sidelines for this one, much less as a punching bag for the people left behind. "Are you crazy?"
"I trust you." Steve turns to fix me with a pointed look, and then turns back to the heroes. "I trust him! He'll do the job." When the objections didn't stop, he raised his voice. "We don't have time to argue! Get your asses in gear, Avengers! Take off in five minutes! Move!"
He is crazy. What have I done to earn his trust? Nothing. Nothing. But it's too late. The meeting is breaking up, and Steve is already headed somewhere else, and I'll probably never see him again. This is a suicide mission
, and I think I know about those.
Before anyone can corner me and put a fist in my jaw, I run off to follow Steve. Dim light seeps through the shuttered windows of the small dining room I catch him in. There's a table that's been moved to the side, still somehow taking up most of the space. It's large, but not large enough to feed everyone. The room could barely hold half of them. No wonder we meet in the kitchen.
"You can't do this." I slap my hand on the polished wood of the table to get his attention, watching his back as he pauses, just before making it to the other door. Thin stripes of light hit him and make the scaled edges of his armor gleam like knives. "You can't trust me, you can't make them trust me, and you can't block me out of this fight."
"I can't let you in this fight, and you know it." Steve doesn't turn around, not even so much as twisting his head to look at me over his shoulder. His hand rests on the back of one of the chairs, gripping it so hard I'm surprised that it doesn't break. "I'd be happier if I could, but the risk is too high to have this be your first battle, especially when Extremis is still giving you trouble. If you have one of those reboots in the fight, you won't come out alive."
Why does he have to throw my own arguments back at me? And how does he know about the suit? Had Rhodey told him? "They don't trust me," I repeat my argument. "And they won't follow me, even on your order. Give it to Black Widow and let me go out there and do some good."
"If you don't have their trust, now's the chance to earn it." Finally, Steve turns around. A funeral. He looks like he's about to attend a funeral. "I know you can do it."
"I can't." I've screwed everything up. Why else would I have done this to myself if I hadn't? There's no reason, no valid excuse. I messed up, I took something too far, and now I'm going to be punished by watching everyone I know die. "Don't make me do this."
"I need you to." His boots make soft scuffs against the deep piled brown carpet as he comes back my direction. He doesn't stop until he's close enough that I can smell his aftershave. "I need Tony Stark out in the field. Since I can't have that, I'll have him guarding the home front."
Invincible. Steve's invincible. He's Captain America. He can't die.
But he's going to, and so is everyone else.
My arms go around his neck as I kiss him. One for the road, one for the rest of my life. I'll never even know what I could have had now or what I did have. That hurts more than not having him would have.
Open-mouthed and gentle, he kisses back. Is he thinking the same things I am? That this is it? No, he's not a defeatist.
When it's over, it's all I can do to look him in the eye. "Call if things go to hell." He nods, of course he nods. Will he? Not like pride is getting in the way, but if he doesn't think he'd be doing anything but putting me in danger... "I'll be listening on the comm. Good luck."
One more kiss and he lets me go. "Take care, Tony." And then he walks away, going back to whatever he was doing, and leaving me with the home team to placate.
I might as well get started.
No one, absolutely no one looks happy when I step back into the kitchen. It's mostly cleared. Pepper and Hill are gone, likely to finish getting ready for the fight. James and the Black Widow are there, though, arguing in a corner. He's holding Steve's shield like a puppy with his good arm, and she keeps gesturing to it. His other arm is strapped to his chest, held immobile. Steve had said he'd taken a bullet, hadn't he? Did that mean I was going to have to deal with a grumpy Cap version 2.0?
I need to get back to my lab, find the right frequencies so I can listen in on the battle. None of these people are going to listen to me anyway. They'd all rather be at Asgard, dying with everyone else. Can't blame them. I'd rather be there too.
"Stark." Someone taps my shoulder from behind. Turning brings me face to chin with Power Man. It's a good name for him. Looking at him is like looking at a wall of muscle, topped with a scowl and, incongruously, a baby.
"Yes?" The little girl coos and reaches over her father's head, smiling happily. At least someone's happy. "What can I do for you?"
Luke Cage gives me a long, tired look. There's no sign of the concussion Steve had said he'd received, so I guess he's going out too. "I don't want to trust you. You're the reason we're in this mess."
I don't want to have this argument, so I just nod. What is he trying to do? "Seems that way, doesn't it?"
He seems surprised that I agreed. It throws him off his beat, making him stare at me for a second. Then he takes the little girl off his shoulder, holding her to his chest. She burbles and leans into him, eyes closed. Ah, to be a child. "Jess and I are going with Cap to fight. I'm close enough to better, and she'd have to be locked up to be kept out of it."
Both of them. Both of them are going to Asgard. The best that can come out of it is that only one of them dies. My stomach churns at the thought. "That's your choice."
Again, it seems like I've thrown him off balance. Cage shakes his head, looking down at his daughter like she might say something insightful. "You know, I don't like this. I don't want to trust you, but... Cap does, and it looks like I ain't got a choice. So here."
That's when he holds the baby out to me.
Is everyone here insane?
I hold up my hands and take a step back. "You're going to trust me with your kid? You hate me!"
"Yeah. I do." His eyes stay on mine, and he doesn't take the baby back. "But you used to be a damned good man, and someone's got to watch Danielle while Jess and I are out. Take her."
Reluctantly, I take the baby. It's... different. She settles against me, not as easily as she had her father, but without fuss. Her dark eyes stay on her dad while she sucks a pink princess pacifier. "You shouldn't be doing this."
"Like I said, no choice." Cage—no, Luke, if I'm watching his child, he needs to be Luke—leans forward to kiss his daughter's forehead, then he glares at me. "Don't make me regret this, man." And then he walks away. Danielle sniffles alarmingly, but a quick bounce distracts her.
A baby. What the hell am I supposed to do with a baby? What if they both die? Do I raise her? What does she eat? Drink? What about naps? I can't even remember my own childhood!
Danielle grabs my shirt and giggles as I head down to the lab. I can look things up there, find out what I'm supposed to do. And I can also set up the communicators to relay into my head. That'll work as long as I'm in the network.
It's just a baby. Taking care of her doesn't mean that I have to change plans.
The network, thank God, provides me everything I need to know about taking care of a kid. For now, I'm a babysitter. I'll worry about more when it happens. Danielle is perched in the middle of a wall of pillows on the cot, happy enough playing with one of the robots that litter the place. A quick re-program set it on a motion detector, so every time she tries to grab it, it whirls and changes color, and incidentally keeps her from falling off the bed. Cameras let me keep an eye on it all without even looking up from my screen.
The frequency coding is a bit harder. I want real time, which means sectioning off my head so I can "hear" multiple conversations instead of a jumbled blur. By the time I get it together, the Avengers are already in sight of Asgard. Which means I at least missed the touching good-byes and personal conversations.
We're almost there, get ready. Jewel, let Luke and Danny down on the north. Rescue, put Hill down in the back and go with them, Steve's voice rings loud and clear in my head, silencing three other conversations as it overrides their frequencies. Hill, I need you to play sniper. You see a shot you take it, got me?
Loud and clear, Rogers. Hill's voice is resentful, but she doesn't sound like she's going to argue.
A shriek and a chime comes from the cot. The baby had found out how to trigger the noise.
The pre-battle carries on, Steve blasting out orders like an army general. No, better than an army general. That tone of his would make even the highest ranked officer jump up and salute. He sounds like someone with the name Captain America, competent and implacable. A real hero.
There they are! Osborn and crew sighted, at two o'clock! someone announces—it sounds like a woman, but wind distorts the words enough that I can't be sure. Cap, they've got Bob with them!
Look at those soldiers! There's thousands!
Don't kill them! Steve snaps. They're not part of this. Just get rid of their weapons or drop them outside.
Ask for the moon, pal.
And then there's the battle. Sounds come in starts and stops as some people just leave the line open and others close when they're done. When I close my eyes, I can see it. Fists hitting flesh. The earth being torn as near immortals are thrown into it. Gunfire. Osborn, flying around like a mockery of Captain America and Iron Man both.
It keeps getting worse. The baby's cheery noises are just a faint echo compared to the sounds of men and women fighting and dying.
Oh my God, he ripped him in two!
Spider-Woman is down! I repeat, Jessica is down!
Rescue! Don't be an idiot! You can't take on Osborn alone!
I can't do this. I can't listen to them all dying. Pepper. Hill. Steve. Luke. I barely know any of them, but they're out there fighting my battle, and I'm here when I could be doing something useful. The cameras show little Danielle reaching for the robotic arm, smiling so widely it looks impossible.
On the comm, her father is yelling imprecations, daring someone named Moonstone to kill him.
Before I know it, I'm calling up drive Z—the backup file, the one I never could make myself look into. It unfolds on the screen, spreading out. There's dozens of files, each dated and timed. A small handful are recent, within the last few days. Those are me—not Tony, but me. Then there's a skip, and the files start up again a month ago. They're not as big as I'd expected. The human brain is complicated, but some trick compressed them. Maybe there's a base file somewhere, and this is just personal things. Tony's things.
Steve had said that he needs Tony on the field fighting. Not me. He needs a hero, even a tarnished one. One person won't make a huge difference in the war, but battles can be won or lost on the basis of one person. I'm not that person, but I know how to become him. Tony had taken a long time to reformat himself, but it didn't need to be long. It could be almost instantaneous.
How to do it? I know I'm being reformatted—extr_rewrite.exe—but how much have I lost that's irretrievable? If the data with the How to Save a Day manual is corrupted, just re-installing the missing files won't be enough, and it won't stop the rewrite from continuing. It's all or nothing.
Steve wouldn't let fear stop him from doing the right thing.
Danielle giggles again, and I open up a program.
"Well, Tony, I bet you never thought you'd see me, did you? You don't have much time, so I'll make this quick.
"You're a fucking asshole. You screwed us both over, and now people are dying for it. I found your backup files, the ones you didn't let anyone know about, and I've installed to the last one before I woke up. That's you. Going by the dates, it was the one registered just before you started the deletion program. You succeeded, by the way. No thanks for that.
"Norman Osborn attacked Asgard. They're there right now, and they're losing. So pull yourself out of your pity party and go act like the hero you used to be. There's a suit waiting. No weapons, but it'll get you to Asgard. Find someone to take care of the baby. Luke gave her to me to watch. Tell him I'm sorry I couldn't do it, but she needs her parents alive more than anything else I can give her.
"You wanted me to not make your mistakes? Well, I won't. You're not running anymore."
Formatting C drive......
Installing backup file stark_ae_0132.....