Clint knew later he should have been taking the fight more seriously, but come on – coiffed hair, three-inch fingernails and a neon purple mermaid dress?
What, did this lady take her fashion advice from Dumbledore? No, really. She’d probably be laughed straight out of Hogwarts dressed like that.
It wasn’t like he was the only one just going through the motions, anyway. This whole “villain-of-the-week” thing was getting annoying. Turns out Thor hadn’t been kidding when he said their meddling with the Tesseract put them on the map as a planet ready for a higher form of war.
Though Clint’d been thinking more along the lines of world-ending alien invasions, not these weirdoes crawling out of wherever they’d been before now.
“You will all meet your doom today,” Witch-Lady declared, her plate-sized earrings somehow defying gravity as they swirled up with the wind. Steve was crouched nearby, waiting for her to get distracted and drop her shields. Bruce was a short distance away just in case he was needed. Natasha was distracted by the animated trees clumping their way down the sidewalk, and Clint felt pretty damn useless at the moment. His arrows weren’t getting through the witch’s shields and how the hell was he supposed to shoot down a tree?
“And Villain Stock Phrase Number Three makes its appearance,” Tony sighed. He flew towards them, Witch-Lady’s magenta aura glinting off the armor as he got closer.
It really came down to bad timing. She started speaking in Latin – bad sign number one – right as Tony swooped down near her, probably intending to hit her with a repulsor blast. She seemed completely unperturbed – bad sign number two – and smiled – bad sign number three – and a deceptively small flash of purple light hit the Iron Man helmet.
Clint should have paid more attention to that. In his defense, she hadn’t seemed all that dangerous, aside from being pretty resilient with her magic shields and all. Besides, the suit was incredibly durable. It took a lot to get through Tony’s defenses, and that tiny little flash? It shouldn’t have done a thing. It didn’t look like it did anything, because even though Tony didn’t attack her he flew off as if nothing was wrong.
Tony flew around the corner and didn’t come back. Clint didn’t pay it any mind.
Female Dumbledore looked way too proud of herself, if a little tired out. “You may have underestimated me,” she said, and Clint paused in letting another arrow fly. “But you will fall, at the hands of one of your very own.”
“What do you mean?” Steve said, but she was already gone.
At least the trees stopped moving like eldritch abominations.
Clint dropped down from his vantage point and made his way over to the others, who looked just as confused as he was. “Why’d she suddenly take off?” Clint asked, not really expecting an answer. Natasha shrugged, her focus still on the trees now toppled over on the pavement.
“Nothing about that encounter made much sense,” she said.
“Did any of you see where Tony went?” Steve asked after a few moments. Clint furrowed his brow and glanced around, just now noticing the absence of the ostentatious suit of armor.
“No idea,” he said.
“I don’t know either,” Natasha said.
“If I may,” JARVIS’s smooth voice filtered through on the comms, “I believe Sir may have been affected by a surge of unidentified energy.”
“What? What happened? Where is he?” Steve demanded.
“According to my scans, Sir’s brain chemistry was unexpectedly altered after experiencing a surge of magical origin,” JARVIS said. “Sir has prepared several protocols for such an occasion. The Iron Man suit has been locked down and awaits your retrieval.” The coordinates flashed on Clint’s watch. Okay, creepy, Clint had no idea JARVIS was on his watch. There were more pressing matters at the moment, though, so he said nothing as he followed the others to Tony’s location.
The suit stood in the middle of the street, frozen in an upright position so stiff it made Clint feel off-kilter just looking at it.
“Tony?” Steve said hesitantly, letting his shield drop as he stepped up to the armor. There was no response. Iron Man just stood there, eerily motionless. “Hey, JARVIS? Could you let Tony out of there?”
“Engaging auto-release,” JARVIS said, and the front of the suit folded back.
Tony stumbled forward, bewildered and gasping for breath in obvious distress, and Steve instinctively dropped the shield to catch him.
Only to get sucker-punched in the underside of his jaw.
Steve jerked back with a grunt, blood trickling out of his mouth where he must have bitten his tongue. Startled exclamations erupted from the rest of the group, though Tony didn’t even seem to notice them. All signs of his distress had vanished in an instant, replaced with a stare so cold he looked like an imposter. He didn’t give Steve any time to recover, jabbing at Steve’s face in a fluid movement following the initial punch, and it was only thanks to Steve’s superhuman reflexes that he actually managed to catch Tony’s wrist before Tony succeeded in poking his eyes out.
“Tony, what the hell?!” Clint yelled, dumbfounded by the sudden turn of events. What the actual fuck? When JARVIS said Tony’s brain waves had suddenly changed Clint had thought, he’s been knocked out or even something like he’s got a magic brain tumor, not Tony’s been turned evil.
“Oh, shut the hell up, Barton,” Tony hissed, though he didn’t avert his steely glare from Steve who maintained his tight hold on Tony’s arm. There was no way he’d break free from Steve’s grip and it was evident he knew it too.
“What’s gotten into you, Tony?” Steve asked, his words slurring slightly, his free hand going up in a vain effort to staunch the flow of blood from his mouth.
Tony scoffed. “My eyes were opened, that’s what. I’m sick of playing nice with people like you who pretend to be heroes. Let the fuck go of me, Rogers.” That phrasing sent shards of ice through Clint’s veins. There was no way Tony could know – Clint hadn’t told anyone, not even Nat – just how reminiscent of Clint’s time under Loki’s control this was. His eyes were opened? Wasn’t that what Selvig had said? Tony didn’t have blue eyes, so whatever had happened to Tony wasn’t the same as what Loki’s scepter had done to Clint. Still, it was too similar for comfort.
He was gonna be spending a lot of time at the shooting range later.
“You got hit by some kind of magic spell,” Steve was saying. “You’re not in your right mind right now, Tony. Let us help you.”
“Like you helped me by sending me on a one-way trip into space with a nuke?” Tony said derisively. Steve jolted away like he’d been struck again, and Tony wasn’t finished. “Don’t act like you care, like any of you do. Let. Me. Go.”
Tony lunged for the gun on Steve’s belt, but an arc of electricity suddenly struck him and he seized violently before collapsing. He would have hit the ground if Steve hadn’t still been holding onto him, and Steve glared at Natasha as she pulled away with a satisfied glint in her eyes.
“Was that really necessary?” he snapped, carefully shifting his grip on Tony so the billionaire wasn’t hanging by his wrist. Tony’s eyes had rolled back into his head, and Clint winced on his behalf. He’d been hit by Nat’s widow bites before, and damn, they hurt like hell. When they didn’t knock you out.
“We need to bring him back to SHIELD,” she said calmly as she pulled out a pair of handcuffs from her belt. Steve took a half step back, gathering Tony more securely into his arms.
“Put those away,” he said firmly. “Tony’s our teammate and our friend. We’re not going to treat him like some common criminal.”
“You’re still bleeding from the hit Tony landed on you,” Clint pointed out. Steve shot him a look.
“He caught me off guard and I bit the end of my tongue off,” Steve said. “It’ll be healed by tomorrow, it’s not a big deal.”
“The rest of us don’t have superhuman healing like you do, Cap,” Clint said. “And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be safe than sorry. It’ll only be until we’re sure he’s back to normal, right? It’s nothing but a precaution. I’m sure if Tony was his normal self he’d want us to make sure he can’t hurt himself or anyone else.”
Steve sighed in frustration, then nodded curtly at Nat. She deftly tightened the cuffs around Tony’s wrists, offering Steve a small, sympathetic smile.
“He’ll be just fine,” she promised. “Knowing Stark, he’ll have shaken this off by the time he wakes up again.”
“I hope so,” he murmured. “I sure hope so.”
Tony had not shaken it off by the time he woke up.
Worse, he refused to talk to any of them. He just glowered silently at the one-way mirror in the SHIELD interrogation room, handcuffed to a chair to keep him from trying to attack anyone again. The door was double-locked with a guard stationed outside, which seemed a little like overkill for one already restrained, unpowered man.
God, Clint felt bad about this, even if he knew it wasn’t his fault. He’d never wish mind control on anyone, much less Tony Fucking Stark. He was one of the most fiercely independent men Clint had ever met and rightfully protective of that genius brain of his. And take it from someone who’d experienced it before – mind control sucked ass.
Thank god Tony had had the foresight to plan for this sort of disaster. A world with Iron Man as a supervillain? That was a horrifying thought. Clint did not want to face off against Iron Man. He’d get blasted so hard he’d probably find himself in another dimension or something.
At least Tony didn’t have the suit at his disposal. As Iron Man he was extremely dangerous – that suit had way too many things right at his fingertips. And that wasn’t even counting the damage he could do with JARVIS’s assistance.
But Tony? He was human. He didn’t have any special enhancements, had no access to JARVIS or his workshop, and he was a very recognizable public figure. Even if he’d managed to escape them somehow he wouldn’t have gotten far, and now he was safely contained in the SHIELD Helicarrier.
The Avengers-sans-Tony were gathered in one of the debriefing rooms, Fury staring them down at the head of the table.
“Does anyone want to explain to me why we’re detaining one of the Avengers – who, may I remind you, is a multi-billionaire with some of the best lawyers in the world on retainer – in a goddamn holding cell?” he demanded, placing his hands on the table and leaning forward to look each one of them in the eye.
“Like we said, Witch-Bitch hit him with some kind of magic spell that made him turn evil or something,” Clint said with a shrug. Fury did not seem to appreciate this answer, his one-eyed glare darkening even further.
“You mean Adria, the low-level threat you all should have been able to detain with minimal problems?” he growled.
“Hey, those animated trees were hard as hell to stop,” Clint defended. A vein on Fury’s head bulged.
“They were moving at two goddamn miles per hour, Barton. A civilian could outpace them by walking at a reasonable pace. Does that sound like more than a fucking low-level threat to you?”
Clint had to concede that no, that didn’t sound like more than a low-level threat.
“You know of some way to turn him back to normal, though, right?” Steve said. He sat in his seat stiffly, back ramrod straight, no trace of any humor on his face.
Steve’s posture pretty indicative of the atmosphere in the briefing room as a whole. Sure, Tony wasn’t really the favorite of most of them (except Bruce, probably) but he was still their teammate. And he was a friend – that one abrasive friend that could lighten the mood while simultaneously making you want to tear your hair out. He was talented like that.
Regardless, Clint liked Tony, and the thought of Tony being used like this made his stomach turn. He still had nightmares of what he’d done under Loki’s control, and he’d never wish that on anyone else. Clint, at least, had had training on how to cope with torture or whatever else an enemy might try to throw at him. Tony was still a civilian.
“Not without figuring out exactly what she did to him,” Fury said. “Which wouldn’t have been a problem if you hadn’t failed to apprehend her.”
“She disappeared into thin air, Director,” Natasha said. “Even if we had managed to catch her, I don’t think it would have stopped her.”
“Well, you’d better hope you can track her down fast, because this is going to blow up in our faces if we don’t handle this ASAP,” Fury said. “Can you imagine what the press would say if they got wind of this?”
“Did anyone ask JARVIS what the protocols Tony specified did, besides locking up his access to the suits?” Bruce questioned. Steve frowned.
“No,” he admitted. Bruce nodded like he’d expected that answer.
“He probably has more flight data that could give us some insight into what happened and how Tony’s brain was affected,” he said. “We should talk to him. I don’t think we’ll get much farther without his input.”
“Well?” Fury said when no one moved. “You brought the Iron Man suit back with you, didn’t you? Someone go get it."
Suddenly the alarms went off, the red light flashing ominously. They all jumped to their feet, Fury covering his earpiece with his hand to better hear what was being said. The muscles in his face tightened, and he turned to them with a deadly serious glint in his eye.
Steve had had worse days, but this one was rapidly approaching the upper ranks.
Tony hadn’t been spotted since he’d broken out of the holding room. It was like he’d vanished into thin air. The guard who was supposed to be keeping an eye on Tony was still unconscious, and forty minutes later the surveillance team still hadn’t figured out where Tony had gone after he’d made his initial escape.
Steve had a feeling Tony’d already gotten off the Helicarrier. Either that or Tony was a lot better at hiding than any of them would have given him credit for – he was by far the most recognizable face on the ship, he shouldn’t have been able to disappear so thoroughly like this.
And yet none of the cameras had picked up on him since he’d disappeared into a blind spot. It didn’t make any sense. But then, Tony was always defying their expectations, wasn’t he? It figured he’d continue doing so under these circumstances.
He’d even managed to land a good hit on Steve. In hindsight it was obvious Tony had been faking his distress to keep their guards down, but at the time Steve had been way too concerned about him to tell. His tongue still throbbed where he’d bitten off the tip, though it had stopped bleeding shortly after they’d first apprehended Tony.
At least he wouldn’t be hard to track down. Tony had only hurt Steve because he’d caught him off guard, and now that they were prepared he really didn’t stand a chance against the combined efforts of the rest of the Avengers. Granted, they’d dropped the ball with Adria. But they fought and successfully defeated villains every other week. Tony was smart, no one could deny that, but he was only human. Once they found him they’d be able to bring him in with minimal injuries and everything would be all right.
“Keep in mind that we have no idea what Tony’s next move will be,” Steve warned, looking at each Avenger in turn. Natasha and Clint both looked peeved, while Bruce watched them all impassively. The scientist had been benched for the time being – they didn’t want to risk the Hulk killing Tony. “He’s not in his right mind right now, and that makes him unpredictable.”
“You say that as if he wasn’t already,” Natasha muttered.
“We’ll be fine, Captain,” Clint said confidently. “He’s stuck facing us, the Avengers, and he can’t even use his suit. How hard could it be?”
“Harder than you all seem to think,” Bruce murmured, but his input went unacknowledged. Bruce had always thought a tad too highly of Tony, Steve reasoned.
“SHIELD hasn’t been able to track him down, but if he’s still onboard it’s only a matter of time,” he said after a few moments. “We need to find him before anyone gets hurt. Spread out, and if you spot him notify the rest of us – we want to do this as peacefully and painlessly as possible.”
“Got it,” Clint said.
Natasha nodded in acceptance. “Understood.”
“Good luck out there,” Bruce said, and if Steve didn’t know better he would have thought there was a hint of amusement in his voice.
Stark was long gone, and none of the quinjets worked anymore. Unsurprisingly, one was missing.
Fury was completely incensed. Natasha understood how he felt – it was like Stark had spit on her skills as a spy and kicked dirt on them for good measure. Сукин сын.
“What I want to know,” Fury said, “is how one unarmed, handcuffed man managed to not only escape a secure SHIELD holding cell, move around unnoticed for almost fifteen minutes before the alarm was sounded, have the time to sabotage all but one of our quinjets, but also succeed in taking off in the last working one before any of us could fucking stop him. Did no one think to keep an eye on the hangar? Is everyone here this goddamn incompetent?”
The head of security quailed under Fury’s evil eye. “We had five agents stationed to watch that area,” he said. “We lost contact with them shortly before Stark escaped, but before that they said nothing was amiss.”
The look Fury gave him should have been saved for Stark, once they found him. It would have terrified the magic right out of him. It was the sort of look Natasha had been working on mastering for years.
Fury was truly an inspiration.
He sighed loudly, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Do any of you at least have an idea where he might’ve gone?”
“We don’t,” Rogers said dejectedly. And it was true. They’d already asked JARVIS if Stark had tried to access any buildings JARVIS had access to, and there had been no sign of him yet. The quinjet wasn’t exactly inconspicuous, but at least it would likely tell them was where Stark chose to land – Natasha highly doubted he would be brazen enough to keep flying it for long.
Fury scowled at each of them in turn. “So in all the time you’ve spent living in the same damn building as Stark none of you learned enough about him to even guess where he might try to go?”
“I think he’s smart enough to avoid going anywhere we could find him easily,” Banner spoke up from his place at the end of the table. Unlike the rest of them he almost looked slightly amused by the whole situation. “If he doesn’t want to be found we’re going to have a hell of a time tracking him down.”
“He’s one of the most well-known celebrities in the world,” Rogers pointed out.
Banner shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. I think you’re underestimating what he can do.”
“He’s got no suit, no money, no help from JARVIS, and an entire government branch on high alert for any sign of him,” Natasha said, but Banner’s confidence made her uneasy. He shrugged.
“He’s also one of the smartest people alive. He’s insanely resourceful. We’re really lucky he doesn’t have access to that his money and suit too, or we’d all be screwed.”
Rogers’s brow furrowed. “You’re acting awfully unconcerned about all this, Dr. Banner.”
“Oh, I’m concerned,” Banner said mildly. “You’ve got no idea just how much. But I don’t think anyone here wants me turning green, so I’m trying to stay calm about it.”
The tension in the room instantly racketed up a few notches, and Natasha had to remind herself Banner would leave if he really thought he was in danger of transforming.
“We’ll find Tony, Director,” Rogers said. “I’m sure that with all of us working together, we’ll be able to bring him home in no time.”
Banner smiled wryly but didn’t say anything more. Natasha was inclined to agree with Rogers, in the end, even if Banner had a point. No one could deny Stark was a brilliant guy, but that wouldn’t be of much help here. She and Clint were professional spies, for god’s sake. IQ points couldn’t beat years of training. It was only thanks to luck Stark had gotten as far as he had.
As it turned out, Tony’s celebrity status meant almost nothing if he really didn’t want to be found. It was impressive, Steve had to admit. Even Nat had grudgingly acknowledged Tony’s ability to stay under the radar, and if she was saying it, there wouldn’t be too many people who disagreed.
He would have expected at least a couple of sightings, but so far the media had been quiet on any mention of the billionaire. Not even the more stalker-like parts of the internet had mentioned a Tony-sighting since his disappearance. Not that the public knew he’d up and vanished; that information was highly classified. It wouldn’t do them any good to have some sort of mass panic in the general population.
They’d located the abandoned quinjet, at least. It had been ransacked, though by Tony or by opportunistic civilians it was hard to tell. Anything of value was missing, including parts of the engine and all the fuel in the tank. It wouldn’t fly again, not without significant repairs.
At this point Steve wasn’t putting a lot of stock in Adria’s declaration that the Avengers would be ‘destroyed by one of their own.’ There was no Tony, no Adria, and radio silence on the supervillain front. The strangest thing happening in the city was the occasional power outage and break-ins, and that was hardly anything new, not really something worth mentioning. Any other time they would’ve taken it as a much-needed respite, but right now?
They were all on high alert, just waiting for something to happen.
“It’s been five days,” Clint grouched, drumming his fingers along the side of his bow. They were all slumped in the common room (sans Bruce, who was off in one of the labs working on something Steve hadn’t asked about) tired of looking without any sort of sign of Tony. Nat glared at his hand and he quickly dropped it.
“You’d think we would’ve at least heard something from him by now,” Steve said with a weary sigh. This was all his fault. He should have been more careful during that fight once it became clear Adria actually had some spells that could do some damage. He hadn’t taken her seriously, and now Tony was compromised. Oh, god. What if he was dead? What if Adria had gone after Tony while they were looking for him and killed him?
“I was expecting a supervillain monologue or something,” Clint said. “Y’know, since he’s supposedly evil and all right now. But he hasn’t done a thing but play a disappearing act. Worst. Supervillain. Ever.”
“You’re underestimating him again,” Bruce said where he appeared in the doorway. “I still think we should call in Rhodes.”
“Like we said before, Bruce, he’s on a military operation,” Steve said tiredly. Bruce wouldn’t understand – he hated the military with a passion, of course he didn’t have a problem with interrupting Colonel Rhodes’s mission (whatever it was – they weren’t exactly privy to the details).
Bruce was fiddling with a piece of metal, and Steve’s stomach dropped as he realized it was an arc reactor. Bruce must have noticed Steve was looking at it, because he quickly offered an explanation.
“I was trying to find a way to track the unique signatures the reactor gives off,” he said, moving further into the room and perching uncomfortably on the edge of one of the couches. Steve felt a surge of hope that was almost instantly quashed as Bruce continued. “But the large-scale reactor Tony installed to power the Tower is throwing off all the readings in New York City. I’m still looking for a workaround.”
“So he’s still in New York?” Steve asked.
“Probably,” Bruce said. “I had SHIELD run scans of everywhere else in the world they could, and we didn’t get any hits. As far as we can tell he’s most likely somewhere in the city. We just don’t know where.”
“At least it narrows it down,” Clint said.
“To a city with a population of eight million,” Natasha said.
“Which means there are eight million who might notice him and say something about it,” Clint shot back. “It’s not like he’s got a lot of options, not with all the protocols he put in place before this whole fiasco.”
Tony had been nothing if not prepared for this sort of eventuality. If Steve had to guess he’d say it was a paranoia borne from Clint’s experiences, though Tony had never told any of the them about what he’d planned out. According to JARVIS, there were protocols in place if any of them ever got mind-controlled. Tony’s were by far the most restrictive, but then he was the one with the most access in the first place.
All of his suits were locked up, completely. They could not be flown or controlled or even entered by anyone, especially Tony, with the War Machine armor being the only exception and only usable by Colonel Rhodes. In the event that Tony was in the armor at the time he was brainwashed he would not be able to leave the armor until the Avengers, Fury or Hill were present. JARVIS would no longer respond to any of Tony’s commands and all override codes were rendered useless the moment he detected the change. JARVIS would remain operational as long as it was safe for him to be – if he registered any tampering with his code from Tony or anyone else, he would shut himself down until very specific conditions were met (though what they were Steve had no idea; apparently JARVIS had been instructed to create the conditions himself and keep them a secret so Tony wouldn’t be able to exploit them. Steve had a feeling it involved a lot of brain scans). Ms. Potts had been notified of the situation by JARVIS when it first started and she’d gained full control of all Tony’s assets in his absence, as well as license to decide what, when and how to tell the public. Tony’s cards and funds all had alarms on them in case he attempted to withdraw anything, and all his properties had been locked down with orders to report any sighting of Tony to Ms. Potts and the Avengers.
It was impressive how much thought Tony had put into all of this. He’d obviously been dead serious in planning out exactly what needed to be done to limit his potential for damage. Steve hadn’t even realized just how much harm Tony could have caused if he hadn’t planned this out so thoroughly.
Steve had always considered Tony to just be impulsive, and maybe he was, but now Steve could see why people called Tony a futurist.
Of course, Tony clearly remembered creating all these conditions and he didn’t do a thing to trigger any of the alerts. They didn’t exactly do much to help with finding him.
“Director Fury has just issued an emergency alert,” Jarvis suddenly interjected, interrupting the argument starting up between the other Avengers. They were all instantly on their feet.
“Where?” Steve asked tersely, grabbing his shield. “What did he say?”
“Tony Stark has instigated an attack on SHIELD,” JARVIS said.
“What part of SHIELD?” Clint said irritably, not up to dealing with generalities.
JARVIS was silent for a few seconds before responding. “I have now lost communication with Director Fury and all other SHIELD contacts. It would appear the attack is on the New York City headquarters and all online systems.”
“Fuck,” Clint said, and even though Steve didn’t appreciate the foul language he couldn’t help but agree with the sentiment.
By the time they arrived at the NYC SHIELD headquarters, it was already in a state of complete chaos. Steve could tell even before they entered the building that the situation was out of control, even though there were no visible enemies. If Tony was the orchestrator it was most likely more of a digital attack, anyway.
Inside the alarm was blaring, but it sounded all wrong - it stuttered, stopped, then started up at an even more rapid pace than before. Static and glitch-like tones clashed with distorted music through the speakers. The lights (the regular ones, not just the alarm lights) flashed and flickered in an unpredictable, disorienting pattern.
“I need to leave,” Bruce groaned, his skin already taking on a slightly greenish tinge, backtracking right back out the door after only a few seconds. Steve didn’t blame him. This set his teeth on edge, made it difficult to focus, and he wished he could follow Bruce back out. The super senses really didn’t help his situation any. Good thing none of them were prone to seizures.
“I feel like I’m on drugs, and not the good kind,” Clint said, holding his bow in a death grip. Commander Hill, who’d been with a group of agents near the front desk, noticed them and hurried over, looking completely frazzled.
“Oh, thank god the Director’s call got through,” she said, motioning for them to follow her. The flashing and sounds seemed to get even louder as they exited the lobby and entered the more secure parts of the building, and with a start Steve realized the music was being broken up by… was that moaning?
If there had been any doubt about Tony’s involvement before, that cleared it up. Only Tony would choose to add pornography to his hacker soundtrack.
“Did you think it didn’t get through?” Steve asked.
“All outgoing calls from SHIELD are being redirected,” she explained, her face twisting slightly, “to, uh, phone sex lines. And infomercial lines, when the… sex lines… got backed up.”
Clint looked like he was about to crack a very impolite joke, though he bit it back when Steve shot him a sharp glare. “So what exactly is going on?” he asked instead.
“SHIELD’s servers have been hacked, as you can probably tell,” Hill said. “They’ve been making this racket for around thirty minutes, but we’re pretty sure Stark wormed his way into the system unnoticed a while ago. We have no idea how, except that we’ve been expecting him to try.”
“You knew he was going to hack SHIELD?”
“Well, considering he’s been the one strengthening our firewalls for a couple years now we knew he’d probably be able to get himself in if he really wanted to,” she said with a wince. “But we didn’t think it would be so extensive.”
“How bad is it?” Natasha asked.
“Bad would be an understatement. He exploited a weakness in our systems to unleash a permanent denial-of-service attack on almost all our routers, and we can’t access them to check for sure but we think a lot of our servers were bricked as well,” Hill said, her jaw ticking.
“What does that mean?” Steve said, confused. He had a feeling ‘bricking’ meant something else, but all he could think of was Tony smashing a brick into computers while laughing maniacally. Hill looked annoyed, but she paused her briefing to clarify.
“It means he destroyed a lot of our equipment remotely, basically. It’s kind of hard to explain, but essentially he replaced the hardware settings with a corrupted version that doesn’t work, and it’s unfixable.”
“That’s bad,” was all Steve could think to say. Hill rolled her eyes.
“Yes, it’s bad. God, the only thing that would make this worse is if Stark chose to dump all those files online. There’s no way he wouldn’t get a copy of everything before he started destroying things. It seems like he’s aiming to obliterate our tech – he’s even set off a few gas leaks around the building, and thanks to his attack the system to fix them was broken.”
They came to a stop in Fury’s office. Fury was yelling into his cell phone, his eye nearly bugging out with rage. The moment he noticed them he jammed a finger onto the screen and shoved the phone into one of his pockets.
“Avengers!” he barked. “Stark was spotted on site five minutes ago and has so far evaded capture. I need him apprehended yesterday. Go find him!” He waited only a second before taking a threatening step forward. “Did you not hear me? Go, go, go!”
“Split up,” Steve said quickly. “We’ll cover more ground that way. Keep your comms on and let the rest of us know if one of you finds him.” They nodded in acknowledgement, and all took off in different directions.
Steve had a bad feeling about all of this. Obviously Tony had just been biding his time, probably preparing for this attack while they were looking for him. Steve may not know the inner workings of technology enough to understand exactly what Tony had done (He’d picked up on how to use it easily enough, but he’d never gone looking into the details of how it actually worked), but there was no way he would have been able to launch an attack on this scale without a lot of forethought.
And Tony had actually come in person to the headquarters. There was something he wanted here, and whatever it was, they couldn’t let him get it. He had no idea just how deeply Tony had been affected by the magic – was he just looking to kill or destroy the Avengers specifically, or was he aiming for something like world domination? – and it would be stupid to assume he didn’t mean any true harm.
“Damn it!” a very familiar voice snarled, and Steve skidded to a stop outside an unmarked door. He kicked it open, and there he was.
Tony stood alone in the middle of a room lined with empty shelves, breathing heavily through clenched teeth. It looked like it had been cleared out recently, if the disturbed dust was of any indication. Weapons, Steve’s mind supplied. Tony had come here for weapons, the kind that were so dangerous not even SHIELD used them without a very good reason. Thank goodness Fury must have predicted Tony’s intentions and removed them ahead of time.
“If it isn’t Captain America himself,” Tony sneered, pointing a gun-like object at Steve. He froze, eyeing the weapon. He had no idea what it did or if it even worked, but he’d read about Tony’s past. He used to make weapons for a living. He’d made a suit of armor in a cave while severely injured.
Whatever that gun did, Steve didn’t want to be on the other end of it.
“Tony, please, stop this,” he said, not holding any hope that his plea would actually make it through to Tony. Sure enough, it didn’t; the dark, empty gaze he fixed on Steve was so unfamiliar it struck him just how different Tony was like this. This wasn’t the man he’d become friends with. This was a stranger in Tony’s body.
“Why are you still pretending we’re friends?” Tony said, casually reaching for his utility belt and starting to rifle through it, though his eyes stayed fixed on Steve. “I know you’re not stupid. I know you’ve hated me since before we ever met, no thanks to that backstabbing spy’s profiling.”
“I don’t hate you,” Steve protested, taking a step forward, torn between watching the gun and what Tony was looking for in his belt. Tony calmly raised the gun a little higher and Steve stopped.
“I’m not stupid either, Rogers,” Tony said. “Look, I’m done falling for all the cheap tricks and lies SHIELD and you Avengers have up your sleeves, got it? None of your blatant manipulation is going to get through to me. Good job getting all of SHIELD’s best toys out of here before I showed up, by the way. I didn’t think you’d be this fast to move it considering how dangerous it all is, but kudos, you’re not all complete morons.”
Tony still hadn’t shot him. A small flicker of hope reflamed inside of Steve’s chest – maybe Tony was still in there, keeping himself from doing anything too permanent. Steve slowly took another step forward, and another when Tony continued to just stare at him, and another –
Tony flicked a Christmas ornament out of his belt. Steve barely had time to raise his shield before it shattered on the ground and the overwhelming odor of chlorine assaulted his senses. His throat was on fire, tears streamed from his stinging eyes, and by the time he could see clearly enough to move Tony was gone.
“Chloramine gas,” Bruce said. “You’re lucky you have such a fast healing factor, or it would have taken at least 24 hours for the irritation to clear up.”
Steve didn’t look consoled in the slightest. His scleras were still bloodshot. He’d lost the cough just a few minutes after the gas dispersed. Now he just sat there dismally, looking like Tony had crushed all his dreams and put them in a blender for good measure, and Bruce couldn’t help but feel bad for him. This mess was palpably hitting Steve a lot harder than it had any of the rest of them, like he thought he was the cause of Tony’s allegiance shift.
At least they were taking Bruce’s warning about Tony more seriously now. It was slightly vindicating, though the circumstances weren’t worth it – Tony had singlehandedly shut down SHIELD’s system of operation and evaded capture by the Avengers for the second time in less than a week.
And they’d all touted that Tony was just one man, and not even an enhanced one. Really, they should have known better – normal was a word that should never be used to describe Tony. Neither Clint nor Natasha were technically superhumans and they seemed to have a lot of faith in their talents, so why did they think of Tony differently? This would have gone much more smoothly if they’d been smart about containing him in the first place. He’d like to meet the guy who had the bright idea of using an electronic lock to lock the room they’d put Tony in.
But it wasn’t like they ever asked Bruce what he thought they should do. He wasn’t naïve; he knew he was really just around for the Hulk’s capabilities. Tony was the one who’d really valued Bruce’s input, and where was he right now? Oh, right, he’d been brainwashed.
Bruce liked the team a lot better when Tony was a part of it.
“He was right there,” Steve said for the third time, staring at his hands. Bruce sighed, awkwardly giving Steve a light pat on the shoulder.
“Don’t beat yourself up too much,” he said. “Tony’s a brilliant guy, and he’s had days to plan things out.”
“I shouldn’t have been taken down by something like that so easily, though,” Steve persisted.
“And I’m telling you Tony knew that was a weakness of yours and exploited it,” Bruce replied, running a hand through his curls as he tried to figure out the best way to phrase it. “Look, Tony makes a lot of your gear, right? He was talking about gases a few days ago and how vulnerable most of the team is to them. His Iron Man suit filters the air so he’d be fine if he was in the armor, but the rest of us? Even the Hulk could probably be affected by vapors, if they were concentrated enough. He was hoping to find a way to patch that weakness a day or two before he got his brain messed with, so it’s really not a surprise that he’d use that particular method to incapacitate you.”
It really was a dangerous weak spot, considering how easy it was to obtain or create dangerous gases. Sure, the most lethal ones were harder to get, but for anyone with a passing knowledge of chemistry it wouldn’t be difficult at all to make something hazardous. Chloramine gas had been a smart choice on Tony’s part – it was ultra easy to make (most likely that bulb he’d thrown had consisted of two separate containers of ammonia and bleach respectively), cheap, the components could be purchased at pretty much any store with cleaning supplies, and it caused a significant reaction even at low levels of exposure.
“Why didn’t you say something about this before?” Steve asked sharply.
Bruce let out a harsh breath, forcing himself to tamp down the spike of irritation Steve’s tone instigated. “Maybe because none of you seemed interested in hearing what I had to say in the first place?” Steve opened his mouth to protest, and Bruce held up a hand to stop him. “No. Don’t even try to deny it. I’ve been telling you guys right from the start that Tony was dangerous to underestimate, but all of you got stuck on the fact that he doesn’t have access to his armor and that somehow meant he wouldn’t cause a problem. It’s like none of you remember how and where he made the first Iron Man suit.”
Steve looked chagrined, but didn’t give in. “But he’s always been so flashy. We didn’t expect him to just disappear and work from the shadows like this.”
Of course, because Tony would be stupid enough to face a team of highly trained individuals including superhumans head-on.
Bruce was going to need about five Tylenol to deal with his headache at this point. The door burst open before he could reply, Clint and Natasha making their way into the med room with matching expressions of annoyance. He didn’t need them to say anything to know their attempts to find Tony had been unsuccessful.
Big surprise there.
“SHIELD’s down for the count until they can repair all the damage Tony inflicted,” Natasha said. “They won’t be able to continue offering support in searching for him, not for months at current estimates.”
“God fucking damn it,” Clint cursed, earning himself a stink-eye from Steve. He ignored it, viciously pulling his jacket off and hurling it against one of the stiff-backed chairs in the corner of the med room.
Any sense of tranquility Bruce had managed to summon while it was still just him and Steve vanished, and he rubbed his forehead in a futile attempt to dispel some of the pressure in his head. He’d felt so off-kilter since Tony’s initial disappearance. The tension skyrocketing in the room really wasn’t helping.
“I think it’s on high time we called in Rhodes,” Bruce offered when it became clear the others were just sulking in silence. If he’d had his way they would have gotten Rhodes involved back when Tony made his initial escape from SHIELD, but naturally Bruce had been the only one who’d really realized just how much help they were going to need in recapturing Tony. Steve raised his eyebrows.
“I thought we agreed we shouldn’t distract him while he’s on military operations unless it was an emergency,” he said. More accurately, Bruce’s vote had been vetoed, but it wasn’t worth arguing over the semantics.
“And at what point do things count as an emergency?” Bruce shot back. “The downfall of an entire spy organization, even if it’s temporary, doesn’t? I think we’re way past the point where we should have contacted him.”
“Let me get this straight,” Rhodey said, steepling his fingers in front of his mouth. “Tony got hit by a magic spell that turned him evil. He then managed to escape from a top-secret spy organization that’s supposedly one of the best in the world, came back a few days later and singlehandedly destroyed all their tech, and disappeared again even with the goddamn Avengers focusing on bringing him in. And not one of you thought to call me before now? Oh, I don’t know, maybe before he took SHIELD off the grid? Am I hearing this right?”
Damn it, maybe Rhodey should have accepted the invitation they’d extended after the Battle of New York to join the Avengers after all. Fuck conflicts of interest and military contracts, was he really supposed to accept being kept in the dark like this?
They were all gathered in the Avengers Tower common room, the TV playing the news on mute, as they’d explained the situation to Rhodey. He’d been there within hours after Rogers had called him, and he’d only taken that long because he’d been on the other side of the world at the time.
Well, at least they seem somewhat remorseful. Minus Dr. Banner, who looked mildly vindicated by… something. Whatever. Rhodey didn’t have enough fucks to give to figure that puzzle out.
“We knew you had other responsibilities,” Rogers said. No. No, no, no.
“Uh-uh. Not happening. You are not playing that card with me,” Rhodey snapped, jabbing a finger in Rogers’s direction. “I’m the liaison between the military and Stark Industries, for god’s sake, and you didn’t think this was important enough to get me involved immediately?”
“Can we please skip the dogfighting and start working on the problem at hand?” Barton said impatiently. Rhodey raised his hands in surrender, because Barton was right – every second they spent fighting was one they could be using to get Tones back.
“Yeah, let’s,” he said. “So, which of Tony’s properties have you checked so far?”
You could have heard a pin drop, and Rhodey dug his fingernails into his arm as he came to a depressing conclusion. These morons hadn’t checked any of them, had they? Oh, hell no.
“Please tell me you at least checked the rest of the floors in the damn tower and the NYC Stark Industries offices,” Rhodey pleaded. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to bear it if they’d been that lax in their search.
“Of course we checked those places,” Barton said, clearly offended. “And JARVIS would have told us if he entered any of his properties.”
“We’ve also gone to every place he’s frequented in the past and discreetly looked into all the major science and engineering companies in New York,” Romanov added.
“He’s still in the city,” Banner offered. “I’ve been working on finding a way to trace his arc reactor to narrow it down further.”
Good, they weren’t completely incompetent. Just prone to underestimating Tony, which didn’t actually come as that much of a surprise.
“Okay, well, did you get a list of the rest of the properties under Tony’s name from JARVIS or Pepper? Or of the stuff he owns under aliases? A lot of those won’t have the monitoring equipment to know whether he’s been there without going to the physical location to check,” Rhodey said.
God. Rhodey needed a drink so bad right now.
“Fine,” he said, taking a deep breath to calm himself down. “Guess that’s where we should start, then. JARVIS?”
“Apologies, Colonel Rhodes,” JARVIS said, and all eyes snapped up to the ceiling (yeah, okay, Rhodey knew that wasn’t where JARVIS was located, but it was an automatic instinct) in alarm. “I am detecting interference attempts with my code and have begun my shutdown protocols. I will be unable to assist from this point on.”
Go figure. Leave it to Tony to make things more difficult right when Rhodey got involved.
“You’re a real piece of work, Tones,” he muttered under his breath, before turning to the other Avengers. “Looks like we’re doing this the hard way. We’re going to check every damn property with even a shadow of a connection to Tony, and we’re going to bring him back, no matter how long it takes.”
“Uh, I don’t think we really need to bother,” Bruce said, motioning to the still-running TV. There was a shaky video recorded by some civilian’s cell phone playing on the news, and Rhodey quickly hit a button on the remote to turn back on the sound, because that was Tony, in Central Park, surrounded by a crowd of people.
“- are all scumbags,” he was saying to an obviously unsettled audience. “And that’s coming from me. I’m not afraid to admit I’m an asshole. But the Avengers? Heroes? Don’t make me laugh. You’re all being blinded by propaganda.”
Great, just what they needed, a confused and alarmed public. This was going to become such a shitstorm.
Permanent Denial-of-Service Attacks
If your device gets hit with a successful PDoS attack, it's done for. It's not a very common attack because most attackers don't have a lot to gain by using it, but it's one of the most damaging because it can permanently corrupt your hardware.
The spike strips appeared out of nowhere. Steve was probably the only one in the car who even saw them before they hit, but it wouldn’t have made a difference even if he’d been the one behind the wheel – they were going way too fast to stop in time. And that had almost definitely been the intention. The strips hadn’t deployed across the road until they were right in front of them.
“Shit!” Clint yelled, the car swerving wildly as he fought to maintain control. The tires were hissing and the tire rims screeching as they scraped the road until they came to a smoking stop.
At least they were almost at Central Park. It wouldn’t take them more than a minute or two to get over there, barring any other nasty surprises. War Machine had gone ahead, so with luck he’d have already successfully detained Tony by the time they made it.
It was so obviously a trap it hurt, and they’d known it the moment they’d seen that video of Tony in the park. He had a plan, one they needed to take as seriously as their more dangerous missions, and they were playing right into it.
Not that they had much of a choice.
“Leave the car,” Steve said shortly and he, Clint and Natasha quickly jumped out. Bruce had elected to stay back at the Tower, reminding them that the Hulk was quite fond of Tony and was unlikely to be of any help against him (and also ran the risk of outright killing Tony if the Hulk suddenly decided to turn against them).
They were greeted by a wave of people running away from the park, some looking panicked while others just seemed uncertain of what was going on. Steve tamped down his worry that Tony had started targeting civilians – so far he hadn’t seemed to show any interest in them, but what if that changed?
Tony would never forgive himself once he returned to normal. Steve couldn’t let that happen.
The park itself was mostly devoid of people by the time they made it there, and Steve could almost immediately tell why – War Machine was down, lying worryingly still on the ground with Tony bent over him. He had some sort of tool in his hand pressed against the seams of the armor’s chest plate. A backpack rested nearby with a fire extinguisher leaning against it.
Steve resisted the urge to call out to Rhodes and make sure he was all right. He couldn’t risk alerting Tony before absolutely necessary, not when this was the best chance they’d gotten so far to take him down.
It didn’t matter, because Tony clearly knew they were there. He had that gun-like weapon he’d had back in SHIELD pointed in their direction before they could get any closer than twenty feet, and all three of them came to a halt. Tony pressed a thick-gloved hand to his chest in mock surprise, giving them a wide-eyed look.
“Wow, all of you but Brucie came? You shouldn’t have. I’m honored. Touched by how much you care.”
“Just put down the gun, Tony,” Natasha said, raising her hands placatingly. “No one needs to get hurt.”
Tony grinned, but it looked foreign on his face, unnerving. “Right, because you’re so trustworthy, Natalie. I’m sure you all have my best interests at heart.”
“We do,” Steve said earnestly. “You’re our friend. We really care about you. This doesn’t have to end in a fight.”
“You won’t be able to change his mind,” a voice chimed in from behind them, and Steve spun around with his shield raised to face Adria. She was just as ridiculously dressed as the last time they’d encountered her, this time in a red dress with cleavage down to her navel and… demon faces printed on the fabric.
Steve had never seen anything so ridiculous in his life, and hoped he never would again.
“Okay, now I’m convinced she gets her wardrobe from Hot Topic,” Clint said, and Adria’s face twisted into an ugly sneer.
“Mock me if you want, but it won’t help you get the mind of your friend back,” she said, stalking around them to stand by Tony. The smile he gave her was the most genuine one Steve had seen in a long time. It made him sick.
“Good to see you again,” Tony said to her. His weapon was still trained on them and Rhodes remained motionless. Adria was starting to mutter something, her hands fluttering in the air – the beginning of a spell. Tony noticed their concern and grinned again.
“Don’t worry about Rhodes for now,” he said. “Y’know, it’s amazing how much you all have managed to underestimate me so far. I made that suit, of course I know how to take it down. Hell, I made almost all your gear.”
“What did you do to him?” Steve asked, his fingers twitching in worry. If Tony had killed Rhodes…
Steve wasn’t sure Tony would ever recover.
Right now, though, he just looked amused. “Does it matter? He won’t be getting up anytime soon, and that’s really all that counts for now. I’d be more worried about yourselves.”
He pulled the trigger. Steve instantly raised his shield in front of himself and the two spies ducked, Natasha hurling a taser disk. Tony dove to the side. Adria, not recognizing the disk for what it was, failed to move and let out a choked scream as electricity arced around her.
Steve breathed a quick sigh of relief at the apparent failure of Tony’s weapon to fire. Tony fumbled with his gun before tossing it behind himself.
“Uh, Cap?” Clint said, his voice strangely weak. Steve gave him a once-over, not noticing any bullet wounds or other injuries, though Clint was holding one hand to his neck. Clint shakily held up a small black object with his free hand.
His eyes glazed over and he collapsed. Natasha caught him around the middle, arranging him in a recovery pose on the ground, and gave Steve a pointed look that wasn’t hard to understand.
This needed to stop, now. Steve’s heart dropped at the realization that it had long since passed the point where they could resolve this without injuring Tony. They’d drawn their punches too much. If Tony were in his right mind, he would have opened his arms wide and welcomed their attacks along with the pain they brought if it meant keeping him from hurting his friends. Steve was failing Tony by failing to stop him, no matter the cost Tony had to pay.
His new conviction set, Steve lunged at Tony, who jerked back, caught off guard. He slammed his shield into Tony’s chest and grappled with the smaller man’s flailing arms, aiming to yank them behind his back and out of reach from any other weaponry. Tony’s gloved hand reached up and clapped against Steve’s neck.
A high-pitched whine was the only warning Steve got before the muscles in his body involuntarily locked up, the hold he had on Tony’s other wrist tightening until he felt something crack. Tony let out a choked yell, barely audible above the staticky roaring in Steve’s ears. It abruptly cut off and Steve slumped forward as his muscles went lax. He hadn’t lost consciousness, but it was a near thing – there was no way that glove had a standard grade amperage, considering Steve’s almost nonexistent recovery time to an ordinary stun gun.
Tony ripped himself away from Steve, breathing heavily and pulling his no doubt broken arm close to his chest. Natasha didn’t give him any time to recover, latching around his neck and slamming him into the ground, pinning the arm with the stun glove. Steve could hear them grappling, hissing grunts and sharp exhalations telling him Natasha was having a hard time keeping Tony down.
Steve forced himself back onto his feet, and he could see Adria doing the same. Both Rhodes and Clint were still down. He moved to block Adria as she aimed at Natasha, but she managed to get one blast of magic out before he could get between them. Natasha and Tony both went flying in opposite directions, Natasha bearing the brunt of the attack and obviously winded, while Tony crumpled in a heap near Rhodes.
“Goddammit,” Tony cursed. He was in a lot of pain if his sharp, broken breaths were any indication. He didn’t sound like he was getting up for a while.
Adria was chanting again (Latin? Probably, not that Steve knew it, and wasn’t that the language wizards used?) and he ran at her, shield at the ready. Her speech quickened as he approached and her eyes widened, then focused on something behind him.
It was the only warning he got before a hissing bang began, followed by a sudden wave of powerful, wet heat. Flames enveloped him for a few brief seconds before the main blast stopped, but whatever served as the lighter fluid was clinging to his suit and heating his skin to uncomfortable temperatures. Thank goodness Tony had fire-proofed their uniforms, even if it didn’t completely block out the heat.
Tony was, of course, the source of the fire. He’d gotten back on his feet and was clutching the fire extinguisher Steve had noticed earlier in his hands, a small flame burning on a rod built in front of the nozzle. Tony’s skin had taken on a pale pallor aside from a massive bruise blooming on the side of his face and kept his arm pressed against his side. He had a look of grim satisfaction.
“Captain!” Natasha barked, and Steve refocused on Adria. Distracted as he was by Tony and the flames still flickering on his uniform, Steve had almost missed the end of Adria’s spell preparation.
He recognized the little purple flash of energy the moment it appeared in her hands. Time slowed to a crawl as he watched it fly towards him. He raised his shield to block it.
But armor hadn’t protected Tony when he’d gotten hit by it.
It had gone straight through his suit.
The spell was right in front of Steve. It would hit him dead-on if the vibranium couldn’t stop it.
He threw himself to the side. The spell passed straight through the shield, right through the air where his chest had been a fraction of a second earlier.
Adria screamed shrilly, pointing an accusing finger in Tony’s direction. He flinched back like he’d been struck, pulled his arm closer to his chest and dropped the modified extinguisher. She sounded like a petulant child as she shrieked at him. “You promised! You said he wouldn’t dodge! You said he’d just let it hit the shield!”
“I said probably, Ms. Fashion Reject,” Tony snarled. Steve didn’t give them time to continue their argument, launching his shield at her in hopes of catching her off guard. She cried out as it struck her collarbone, though it didn’t stop her from creating another spell. A portal appeared next to her and she stepped through before Steve could stop her, and when he turned around to recapture Tony all he saw was a second portal closing where the genius had been standing.
Tony was gone. Again.
“You should have contacted me sooner,” Stephen Strange said, glaring coolly at the group. An air of arrogance clung to him like the cloak around his shoulders, and Natasha gritted her teeth. She hated dealing with this man. “I should have been notified the moment you knew a sorceress was involved, especially someone like Adria.”
This SHIELD conference room was going to be considered the room of failure at this rate, if the number of times they’d gathered here in the last week was of any indication.
SHIELD was still struggling to restore their systems, which appeared to have been infected with several viruses on top of the PDoS attack Stark had launched on their hardware. The Avengers themselves hadn’t fared too badly, all things considered. Clint had woken up after only a few minutes with no visible long-term effects, and as they found out upon tearing off the front of the War Machine armor Rhodes had been awake and uninjured throughout the fight.
“An EMP blast,” Rhodes had said, looking mournfully at the broken pieces of the suit. “He knew how high the rating needed to be to overload the armor, and he melted the release clasps before I could activate the emergency release. It makes a pretty hard-to-escape prison.” Effective – Stark had likely intended to return to finish the job once he’d finished with the rest of them.
“You said you didn’t want to be involved with Avengers business the last time we approached you,” Natasha said, raising her eyebrows. Strange turned to face her directly, his gaze unnervingly perceptive. He would have made an excellent spy or detective in another life, she thought absently. An interrogator, perhaps.
“Unless sorcery was involved,” he said. “I’m fairly certain I said as much to your director.”
“Who is she?” Rogers asked.
“A Zealot,” Strange replied. “A disciple of Kaecilius and one of the few still in this realm. I believe she’s taken it upon herself to avenge the fates of her comrades.”
“But why take Tony?” Clint joined in. “How did she even do that? Why hasn’t she tried to get more than one of us on her side?”
“Because the cost of the spell is so high,” Strange explained as if he was speaking to children. “Sorcery is not a free resource. It most likely put her out of commission for several days following the casting. Besides, from what you’ve told me it sounds she did try again with Mr. Stars and Stripes. As for her choice of target?” His lips quirked up in a smile that was less than friendly. “I assumed you would have figured that one out on your own. What is it he likes to call himself? A ‘genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist’? With a powerful suit of armor at his beck and call? Of course she chose him out of the lot of you.”
“But he doesn’t have access to most of that,” Rogers pointed out.
Strange heaved a longsuffering sigh, looking and sounding like he was bearing a great burden just being in the room. “Good god. Obviously she didn’t know he’d put fail safes in place. Most people wouldn’t even consider doing something like that.”
Strange was right, of course. Natasha had come to this conclusion a long time ago. Tactically Stark was probably the most attractive target because of his resources and talent, even disregarding the ones they hadn’t considered – or known about – after his capture. Stark had been holding back on all of them.
He’d also been learning from them during their fights and training sessions, more than she ever would have believed. She’d recognized several of her moves while she’d been fighting with him and he’d definitely had an idea of what tactics she’d try to use on him, reacting faster than almost anyone else could have. Not that he was above dirty maneuvers. She had a nice, smarting bite on her hand to attest to that, and her eyes were still sensitive where he’d thrown dirt in them.
“Can you undo the spell she put Tony under?” Banner questioned.
“Obviously,” Strange said, offended. “She’s really not that powerful of a sorceress, when it comes down to it. The only reason she’s been capable of causing as much trouble as she has is a stolen text from the Sanctum’s library she has in her possession.”
“So it’s your fault, then,” Clint said brashly. Natasha internally winced – his ego was likely still smarting from being subdued by a tranquilizer and it was making him speak without thinking. Strange slowly turned to look at him, any annoyance in his demeanor devolving into frigidness.
“I beg your pardon?”
“If you’ve got such dangerous spells just lying around in your knockoff Hogwarts castle, then this is sort of your fault Tony got mind-controlled,” Clint said. Natasha stepped on his foot hard in warning; he winced and gave her a slightly guilty glance.
“Do you want me to find him or not?” Strange said. A muscle in his jaw was ticking.
Natasha pressed down harder with her foot. “Yes,” Clint said sullenly. “Sorry.”
Strange ignored the half-hearted apology. “Do any of you happen to have a strand of Stark’s hair?”
Natasha wordlessly slid a short brown strand of hair out from one of the clasps on her wrist. It had briefly caught in Stark’s hair while they’d been fighting, enough to pull out a small tuft of hair. Strange could have as many as he wanted.
He gave her an odd look, but didn’t question it. A golden web of magic stretched and warped from his fingertips as he pinched the ends of the hair, twisting until a large portal opened in front of them. No more hiding, no more games. They were bringing Stark back if it was the last thing they did.
Clint was right behind Strange as they stepped through the portal, bow drawn and ready. At this point he wasn’t above taking Tony down with an arrow through the arm or leg or whatever nonlethal place he could hit. He was confident enough in his ability to land it where it wouldn’t cause permanent damage, so Tony couldn’t really complain, right?
Okay, he could, but he’d shot Clint first.
It was a dingy room they were in, though it was more sizable than Clint had expected. A basement of some sort, most likely, given the windowless concrete surrounding them on every side. Pieces of tech and machinery were scattered everywhere, torn to pieces with a large table on the far end of the room covered in smaller parts. It resembled a very rudimentary form of Tony’s workshop. Tony was bent over the table, mumbling as he squinted at whatever he was working on. One of his arms was wrapped up in some sort of basic splint. He didn’t look up immediately, just waved a hand in their direction.
“I told you already, I’d work a lot faster if you stopped pestering me,” he said, but the unconcerned attitude he displayed vanished the moment he actually glanced up and realized he wasn’t talking to Adria.
Unlike their last encounter with him, Tony was completely unprepared to deal with almost the whole roster of Avengers showing up in front of him, especially with a sorcerer in the lead. He jumped back, dropping the mess of wires he’d been working on, and barely managed to snatch a gun off the bed before they were all through the portal. Clint was prepared to take a shot or two, as long as it wasn’t another one of those damn tranqs. Whatever it took to neutralize Tony.
Turns out he didn’t need to worry about getting shot, because it wasn’t any of them Tony pointed the gun at. He pressed the muzzle against his own temple, backing up a few extra steps as the Avengers halted in their advance.
“I’ll shoot,” he said, eyes darting wildly between them all. “I’m serious. Don’t think I won’t do it if it means you won’t get your filthy hands on me.”
“Tony, please, don’t do this,” Steve implored for what had to be the billionth time at this point.
“All right, that’s enough of that,” Strange sighed, his hand flicking in a rapid pattern. Orange sparks erupted from the gun, and it vanished, Tony’s finger twitching over a nonexistent trigger.
It went smoothly after that. Nat and Steve took advantage over Tony’s startled befuddlement, wrestling him to the ground in a tight hold without much trouble. The position gave him no leverage to fight back. Strange eyed Tony critically.
“She used an allegiance reversal spell,” he said. “It shouldn’t be too difficult to undo.”
A short series of complicated motions later, Tony’s eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped in Nat and Steve’s grip. Strange nodded once, apparently satisfied.
“That’s it?” Clint said, looking at Harry Potter Version II in a new light. Fucking hell, was this really all it would take?
“I told you you should have called me sooner,” Strange replied with a hint of a smirk. “You could have spared yourselves a lot of trouble.”
“So what exactly did her spell do to him?” Clint questioned.
“What the name suggests. It essentially turned his enemies into friends and vice versa. Not exactly the most effective if you’re trying to create a new supervillain, but I imagine she assumed he’d turn on civilians as well. You,” Strange pointed at Steve, “likely would have made a better target for the spell. You consider the public to be your friend, so an allegiance reversal would have led to you targeting them. Stark’s viewpoint of them? Neutral, at best. He’s lived in the public eye his entire life and they haven’t been kind to him for most of it. From what you’ve described of his behavior – and Adria’s – she most likely didn’t get the response she was hoping for and has been aiming to hit another one of you with the spell instead of just killing you.”
It made a lot of sense, actually. The nonlethal methods Tony had been using, even though he was more than capable of creating weapons of mass destruction. The casual not-exactly-evil way he’d been talking with those people in the park. The lack of aggression towards anyone but those he used to consider allies, if not friends.
“I assume you can handle it from here – I need to leave to start my preparations to deal with the last of the Zealots if it’s all the same to you,” Strange said after a few moments.
“Go ahead,” Steve said. “Thank you for your help. We really appreciate it.”
“Tell me next time a sorcerer makes an appearance,” Strange said, and he disappeared.
Steve lifted Tony, careful not to aggravate the broken arm and other injuries, and they headed upstairs. Clint was right; they were in a basement. Turned out Tony had been holed up in a small suburban home that looked just like every other house surrounding it. Not a place they would have ever expected to find Tony, but then, he’d been subverting every one of their expectations up until this point. Clint was just happy they’d finally managed to return Tony to normal.
What the hell were the lights on for? JARVIS always made a habit of dimming them when Tony was sleeping, but right now they were blazing needles through his eyelids like he was under an interrogation lamp or something.
“J, what the fuck? Dim the lights,” he groaned, throwing an arm over his eyes, and okay, ow, bad idea. He forced his eyes open, staring at the plaster encasing his arm.
Oh. Right. Broken arm, courtesy of Captain America.
“Tony? Tony, how’re you doing?” And that was Rhodey, light of his life, jelly to his peanut butter, Robin to his Batman… Tony had the potent painkillers in his system, didn’t he? Wonderful.
“How bad is it? Am I dying? Christ, I’m dying of an arm fracture and bruises,” Tony grouched, forcing himself up into a sitting position and taking a wary look around the room.
They were back in his bedroom in the Tower, the entire cast of Avengers gathered in the room and eyeing him with both trepidation and worry. Plus Pepper, plus Happy, and Rhodey if you got technical and didn’t include him in the list of the Avengers, but that was just semantics.
God, this had really been a rollercoaster of a week. It gave new meaning to Clint’s explanation of his experiences under mind control, especially that phrase ‘it was like my eyes had been opened.’ Because that’s exactly what it felt like. A reframing of all Tony’s memories, offering clarity in the conclusion that his friends weren’t actually his friends. He… well, he still had a little bit of a grudge against some of their past action, but that was for another time.
Then there was the matter of what he’d found out about SHIELD during his stint as a cheap-knockoff-supervillain. There had been some fucking huge red flags there, and right now he wasn’t entirely sure who knew and who didn’t. He’d have more time to sift through that whole mess later – his head was way too full of cotton to work on that now.
“Tony, you idiot,” Pepper snapped, though she didn’t look truly angry, just upset. “Do you even remember what you did? You promised you wouldn’t be careless!”
“Excuse me, it’s not my fault my suit is apparently not magic-proof,” Tony grumbled, no heat in his words. “Yeah, I remember. God. Gotta say, wish I didn’t. You guys really took your time taking me down. Those protocols were supposed to make it easy for you.”
“That part is done and over with,” Natasha said. She was the only one in the room who didn’t look concerned at all. Tony would have been more worried if she had looked worried, honestly. “You’ve got your work cut out for you, if you don’t want SHIELD to sue you for damages.”
“I’ll fix it,” Tony said, waving a hand dismissively at her. He didn’t look forward to that clusterfuck of a situation, but he’d made backups when he’d broken into the system so really, Natasha was being overdramatic. It might have been for the best SHIELD had been disabled for now anyway, not that he felt like explaining that bit yet.
“How are you feeling?” Steve asked, taking a step closer with those sad puppy eyes of his.
“Peachy,” Tony said with a smile that was all teeth. “Like a bed of roses. With peaches. Also a few supermodels. And more peaches. Good god, someone overdid it on the drugs. All of you, skadoodle. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’d really like to get a few hours of sleep in before I start fixing all the stuff you let me break. SHIELD’s been sitting on their asses for a few days, what’s another couple of hours?”
“Of course,” Pepper said, smoothing down a few strands of his hair before turning to the others. “All right, everyone out. Get some rest, Tony. You need it.”
“Hell yeah, I do,” he muttered, flopping back down on the bed. He had a fuckton of stuff to do, but it could wait for tomorrow.
It was about time they finally got him back into his right mind. Tony had known right from the start that they’d underestimate him, though the fact that he’d managed to escape not once, but twice, from SHIELD had to be humiliating.
He’d figure the rest out tomorrow. Right now he just wanted a break.