He groaned as he came to. Fuck, what had happened to him? His head was killing him. He was not at all looking forward to having to open his eyes. That didn’t sound fun in the slightest. No, he’d much rather lay here in whatever dark, warm cocoon he was encased in. He could feel it wrapped all around him, a gentle pressure against every inch of his body, and it was oh, so blissfully dark.
“Sir? Sir, are you there? My sensors indicate you have regained consciousness. I must recommend immediate extraction from the situation. The Avengers will arrive on scene in precisely seven minutes.”
He jerked in surprise at the voice in his ear, obviously someone speaking through some sort of communication device. It… it sounded familiar, though he couldn’t place where he might have heard it before. Well, whatever, apparently it was time to face the music.
“I’m here,” he responded, moving to push himself up and blinking his eyes open.
He almost missed the voice’s response with the new shock to his system. He had been lying in the rubble of a building that was utterly destroyed. That probably explained why his head hurt so bad, not to mention the rest of him. The cocoon encasing him turned out to be some sort of… suit? Of armor? It looked like it had seen better days, but brilliant red and gold paint held up despite the scratches and dents. What the hell?
“ETA for the Avengers is now six minutes, Sir.”
That should probably mean something to him, but he wasn’t coming up with anything. He felt like someone had shoved his brain into a blender, it was so jumbled up.
“Right, right,” he said, levering himself onto his feet and continuing to stare incredulously at all the damage around him. “And what are they, again? Or who?”
There was a pause from the other end of the line.
“I’m actually not sure who you are, either, if I’m being completely open here. Sorry about that.”
“I am JARVIS, Sir, an artificial intelligence you created to assist you in every way. The armor’s scans indicate that you have taken a blow to the head, which is the probable source for your memory troubles. Are you aware of who you are, Sir?”
He wanted to roll his eyes, if he wasn’t sure it would hurt to do so. Of course he-
“Uh… actually, no.”
“Very well,” JARVIS responded, taking this new information in stride. “Given the situation and the rapid approach of hostile forces, I suggest activating the Broken Sword protocol, which will grant me remote control of the suit and allow me to fly you out of the area. Once we have you home, I’ll explain everything.”
“Yeah, that… sounds like it’s probably a good plan. Thanks, JARVIS.”
The suit immediately began moving on its own, the knees bending just a bit before rockets activated in the boots and he was shooting into the air.
“Of course, Sir. I will have you home shortly. For now, you may like to know that your name is Anthony Edward Stark, though you prefer to go by Tony.”
He waited for a flicker of recognition, a sense of familiarity like he’d had with hearing the voice, but there was nothing.
“Tony Stark,” he murmured to himself, still feeling overwhelmed by the fact that he was now flying through the air, in a suit of armor, apparently to evade hostiles known as the Avengers. What even was his life? “Okay, I can work with that.”
Hopefully, at least some of this would start making sense soon.
Flying was an excellent distraction from the unsettling emptiness he was met with when he searched his mind and Tony much preferred concentrating on it instead. It was incredible, actually, and Tony couldn’t help but grin in wonder as he watched the scenery pass by, the ground shooting past far below. The display within the suit’s helmet showed him all kinds of information. There were readouts of the speed, elevation, and power of the thrusters. There was wind resistance and flight patterns for aircraft in the vicinity, the suit’s own course adjusting to avoid both collision and detection.
“This math is gorgeous,” he praised JARVIS. “Did I do this?”
“You did, Sir,” JARVIS answered with a tone of what could only be described as warm fondness. An artificial intelligence that could express human emotion! Something inside Tony trilled with glee. “I assisted with some of the basic aspects of the code, but the Iron Man armor is one of your finest creations.”
“After you, of course, right?”
“As you say, Sir.”
“Wow,” Tony breathed, hardly able to believe it. “I must be some sort of genius, huh?”
“You are, in fact, considered among the smartest individuals in the world, though the exact ranking is a matter of debate. You qualify as a certified genius based on IQ as well as achievements. In the last several years alone, you have successfully revolutionized three industries and invented a new element. You have received quite a number of accolades for your accomplishments, though the most notable one is a Nobel Prize for your contributions to science.”
Unreal. In all honesty, Tony didn’t know how to even begin to react to the facts of his life. He might not be able to remember anything about himself, but he still knew this kind of thing wasn’t normal.
“So, I, what? Just up and decided to create a suit of flying armor one day and go around destroying buildings? What even happened back there? And who are the Avengers? Why was it so important to get away from them?”
There was a moment’s pause and Tony could only assume it was because JARVIS needed the time to figure out how to answer his rapid-fire questions. JARVIS had said he’d explain everything Tony wanted to know once they were back home, wherever that was, but Tony wasn’t sure that he could wait that long. His mind was working too fast, trying to fit together pieces he didn’t have. He had a feeling he wasn’t the kind of person who could just sit back and let things happen easily.
“The Iron Man armor is a creation unique to you, Sir, and you have gone to great lengths to make sure it has stayed that way. The technology could be extremely dangerous in the hands of anyone with ill-intentions, and there have been several attempts by people just such as that to replicate or steal the design. You were betrayed and attacked some years ago, which is what led to you creating it in the first place. You have spent your life since then attempting to right the wrongs committed by the one who betrayed you and protect the innocent. The destruction you awoke in was caused by one of the many you fight against. Namely, it was a dictator by the name of Victor von Doom, though he fled the scene shortly after causing the explosion that you and the building were caught in.”
“And the Avengers? Are they more of these, what? Supervillains?”
“The Avengers are a law-keeping force of enhanced individuals in the employ of an organization called SHIELD. They are led by Steve Rogers, also known as Captain America.”
Tony felt a tendril of trepidation curl in the pit of his stomach.
“JARVIS,” he began reluctantly. He had to know, though, “why would I need to run from law-enforcement? Am I… Am I a villain, too? You said I protect people-“
“You do,” JARVIS cut him off firmly. “You are a hero in every sense of the word.”
His tone brokered no argument, but that didn’t stop Tony. He needed to know the truth.
“Then why?” he insisted.
“To the world, Iron Man is a vigilante at best and a villain bent on corporate espionage at worst,” JARVIS finally admitted. “You have never seen fit to reveal your true motivations, or identity, to anyone. It was not always this way, but the rise of the Avengers put you in a difficult position. Iron Man was initially offered a place on the team when it was still in its concept phase. Joining would have required you to reveal your identity, however, and digging into SHIELD eventually revealed some… unsettling information. Since you turned down their invitation to join them, SHIELD has worked to discredit your image in the eyes of the public further and further.”
“What kind of unsettling information, exactly?”
“You discovered that SHIELD and, thus, the Avengers have ties to an extremist organization known as Hydra. While you don’t suspect any members of the Avengers team of being aware of this, much less involved, you have been unable to determine just how much of SHIELD is controlled by Hydra.”
“What kind of extremist organization are we talking about, exactly? Terrorists?”
“In the 1940’s Hydra arose as a radical faction of fanatics that broke away from a larger group of already radical fanatics known as Nazis who petitioned for and even began to carry out the wide-spread genocide of the Jewish race, along with homosexuals, gypsies, and anyone who opposed them or were seen as lesser. The members of Hydra cling to an ideology of hate, segregation and hubris. They don’t care about lives, only how to further their own goals and are, in the simplest terms, evil. It was originally thought they had been eradicated in the late 1940’s by an enhanced soldier Captain America, alongside the SSR and a team of hand-picked specialists, but it appears that they were able to survive by hiding away inside the very organization forming to oppose any more like them. They are a rot that was within SHIELD from the very beginning.”
“Woah, that’s…” Not good didn’t even begin to cover it.
“You have taken out Hydra factions where you have been able, but you haven’t had the resources to impact them on a larger scale, I’m afraid. Your main focus has been fending off attacks such as the one Doom mounted and destroying caches of illegal weapons sourced from Stark Industries before you discovered and shut down the black market sales.”
“Wait, Stark Industries? Is that my company? My family’s?”
“Yes, Sir, you own it and maintain your role as CEO, though your COO, Miss Virginia Potts, takes care of most of the work of running the business. I am compiling a packet of information for you now.”
An array of windows began appearing across the HUD. It seemed Tony had a lot of catching up to do.
JARVIS eventually directed the armor lower until it slipped beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, which prompted Tony to set aside his reading material for a bit to marvel at the change in scenery. Something about the inky darkness sent a shiver of trepidation up his spine, spanning out endlessly in every direction. They were moving too quickly to pick out distinct shapes, even if there were any, and all that was left was a dark abyss. Tony felt his pulse kick up a notch, though he couldn’t say for sure what it was about his surroundings that caused him such unease.
“We are nearly there,” JARVIS’s soothing voice spoke quietly. “It won’t take much longer. It would help if you didn’t look.”
The information he’d been previously looking at returned and Tony allowed himself to breathe a sigh of relief. He still felt on edge, but JARVIS was right; it helped to not look.
A few minutes later, the armor’s hurried pace slowed, and a projected map showed Tony that they were approaching land. His brain labeled the island as New York City, Manhattan. It was just more evidence to support his forming theory that his amnesia had left him with a smorgasbord of what he did and didn’t remember. He knew that New York was a major city, that it belonged to the United States of America, that the Chinese stock market was doing well, and that renewable energy had made up 24% of the global electricity generation in 2014. What he couldn’t recall was the percentage of any years past that, who the current president was, or even his own parents’ names. (Though he’d read in JARVIS’s packet that they were Howard and Maria.)
He watched the map as the armor slipped from the open waters of the bay into some sort of pipe system. It didn’t take long to find their way into what looked to be abandoned subway tunnels. JARVIS directed the suit with ease and Tony was certain that this was a long-familiar path that the AI had traveled many times before. He must have traveled it, too, but the ancient tunnels only looked dark, damp and uninviting to him.
Some time later, a crumbling wall at the end of a tunnel slid aside with the rumbling sound of stone against stone. Tony felt a spike of excitement at that, at least. Secret door! The dark space beyond it lit up moments later to reveal what seemed to be an engineering lab-come-garage. Other Iron Man armors, looking to be in various states of antiquity and disrepair, lined the walls. Several pieces of machinery were scattered around the room, including what Tony recognized as a fabricator off to one side.
He continued to marvel at the space around him as JARVIS directed the suit toward a raised platform in the center of the room. Mechanical arms extended out of the floor and the ceiling, moving to disengage and remove the armor piece by piece until Tony was standing there in nothing more than a thin, dark leotard-like garment.
“Welcome home, Sir,” JARVIS spoke, his voice now coming from all around the room.
“This place is incredible!” Tony enthused, jumping down from the platform to better explore and take everything in.
His hands itched to dig into the various armors, to find out what made them tick and what their various purposes were. He wanted to scrounge up his own open projects to see what he was working on. Just looking at the equipment in the room, his mind filled to the brim with so many possibilities. There was nothing he wanted more than to dive right in. A flicker of blue light pulled his attention toward the desk set-up, where a screen much like the ones that’d been in the suit flickered to life.
“If you would like to take a seat, Sir, we can cover the rest of the details concerning your missing memories.”
Having to work hard to push down his desire to toss the issue of his memories aside and dive into science instead, Tony slowly crossed the room to sit in the desk chair.
Reading through the information about his life was… strange. Tony’s brain absorbed the information easily enough, but it didn’t feel like it was really about him. There was no emotional connection there, like he was reading about someone he’d never met. In all honesty, his life read like it shouldn’t even be real. For what was very possibly the first time ever, Tony found himself marveling at his own genius. His accomplishments were incredible. JARVIS clearly hadn’t been exaggerating about his ranking among the most intelligent people in the world.
Unfortunately, Tony Stark wasn’t just smart; he was a very public figure. People would notice if he wasn’t around and, even more, they would notice if he weren’t acting like himself. Tony was all for just telling the people close to him that he’d bumped his head and was having trouble remembering things, but JARVIS was concerned it might give away his secret identity if someone connected the timeline of his injury with Iron Man’s. He’d apparently been down for several minutes and that wasn’t something SHIELD would miss.
“Can I at least see a doctor? I mean, I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to just ignore head injuries.”
“There is no need. I have performed a scan of your brain and will continue to monitor the swelling. There is nothing a medical professional could do that I am not capable of.”
Tony narrowed his eyes at the nearest speaker.
“…right. Do I normally let you run my medical prognosis?”
JARVIS’s voice was full of fond amusement as he responded, “Quite, Sir. You have never been overly fond of hospitals, though that aversion certainly multiplied after your time in Afghanistan. I believe this is the only time I have witnessed since my creation that you have voluntarily wished to see a doctor in concern for your own wellbeing. It is one of the reasons I am so medically equipped.”
Tony dragged a hand over his face and heaved a sigh.
“I get the distinct feeling I’m an absolute mess.”
It wasn’t a difficult conclusion to come to. JARVIS hadn’t been shy about showing Tony every facet of his own life, including his battles with mental health, history of drug and alcohol abuse, and aversion to personal connections. In all honesty, it didn’t seem like a very happy life.
“There are certainly those who believe so,” JARVIS allowed, “but I can assure you that you have always been more put together than you appear to outside point of views. You do what you can to take care of yourself, including developing the BARF technology to help process and overcome your PTSD. While you have not always made the best decisions in terms of indulgence, you have always recognized it as an unhealthy habit. As you will have noticed in the packet, you’ve been sober for three years now, even if the world at large is not aware. You have historically put a focus on healthy eating, as well, and keeping up with a moderate regime of physical activity.”
“And yet it seems like my life is always falling apart in some way or another,” he rebutted ruefully.
“You have certainly never done anything by halves, Sir.”
Tony allowed himself a moment more to wallow before pulling himself back together and clapping his hands loudly to break the tension in the air.
“Right, then! Let’s get down to it. Do you have an idea of how long I’ll be like this? My memory loss isn’t permanent, is it?”
He couldn’t imagine having to live pretending to be his old self for the rest of his life, not without the memories and emotional attachments that made everyone and everything in it so important to him. If this was going to be a long-term deal, he’d much rather figure out a way to start over. Or at least a way to expose his memory loss without connecting it back to Iron Man. Besides, it would only be a matter of time before someone noticed that things weren’t quite right. There would be some detail he couldn’t remember, or he wouldn’t react in the right manner, and it would all come falling down around his ears. In that scenario, having hidden the memory loss would only make him seem guiltier.
“Brain injuries are always subjective to chance,” JARVIS informed in his soothing tones. “However, all signs appear to be positive. I will be able to make a more accurate prediction as I track the rate that the swelling goes down over the next few days, but I would expect that you should eventually regain your memories. It is simply too early to tell whether that will be in a matter of days, weeks, or even months.”
Tony’s shoulders slumped at the unfortunate news. He hadn’t exactly expected to wake up the next morning with all his memories back, but it would have been nice. A few days, even, he could manage. Tony just didn’t think he was going to be that lucky. Fuck, he hoped this didn’t last for months.
“Okay, so we keep all this hidden until we know what direction it’s headed. If it looks like we’re going to get stuck in a bad way, then we’ll, I don’t know, fake a car accident or something. We can figure that out later. Is it possible for Tony Stark to sneak away for a little while? Maybe take an impromptu vacation? Iron Man is obviously benched for the time being.”
“A wise choice, Sir. As for your upcoming schedule, I’m afraid Stark Industries is in the middle of an important merger. Any absences on your part over the next three days would bring Ms. Potts’s immediate attention and fury. However, I can do my best to have your schedule cleared for after such time.”
“A merger? Like, with another company? And you think it’s a good idea for me to attend even when I don’t know jack about my own company?”
“Indeed, Sir. Stark Industries has been attempting to broker this deal with Baintronics for quite some time now. Outside of the benefits it will bring SI to absorb their resources, you have a history with the CEO, Sunset Bain, that has made this project a rather personal matter to you as well. Your absence would be a glaring sign of something amiss. I can accompany you through the meetings via earpiece, as well, and provide a layer of protection against discovery.”
“Shouldn’t we at least let Ms. Potts know?”
He couldn’t bring himself to call her ‘Pepper’, even knowing that was what he normally called her. Obviously, he would have to do so to her face, but it seemed like an invasion to do it now, when it wasn’t even for show. The name was a sign of affection between the two of them, for certain, but it no longer held the same meaning for Tony. It felt… inappropriate. He was relieved when JARVIS didn’t comment on his choice.
“Ms. Potts is not well-versed in subterfuge, nor would she understand the need for it here. While she would doubtlessly be an invaluable asset in covering any slip ups you might make, it would be next to impossible to convince her of keeping your injury quiet at the possible threat to your health.”
“At least I know I have good friends.”
“The best, Sir.”
There was no trace of irony or sarcasm in JARVIS’s voice. He really thought that Tony had the best friends there could be. It made Tony smile to hear it. Yes, there was a lot about his life that seemed like a shitstorm having taken mortal form, but maybe it wasn’t all bad.
“Right, well, early morning tomorrow, yeah? What time are the meetings supposed to start?”
“The meetings will begin at 9 AM, Sir, with a catered breakfast. Your presence will be expected in the Executive Meeting Suite of Stark Tower precisely fifteen minutes prior to do a last-minute check-in with the negotiations team.”
“And where is Stark Tower, exactly?”
JARVIS might not have had a physical form, but Tony was still pretty sure he could hear a grin in his voice as the AI responded, “Directly above us, Sir. If you’d like to step into the elevator, I can transport you to your penthouse apartment.”
So, Tony’s secret, evil(?) lair was hidden away underneath a tower with his name on it that housed his multi-billion-dollar company. Awesome. Tony hoped he found a fluffy, white cat in the penthouse, but he had a feeling JARVIS would have mentioned a pet. He’d just have to keep his fingers crossed.
Sadly, there were no cats in the penthouse. Or maybe not so sadly. Tony wasn’t sure how he felt about having to pick up after an animal when he was going to be just trying to keep his own life together. He had a great time exploring his home, though. It was a bit quiet and the decorating was rather impersonal, but you couldn’t beat the views. Tony felt like he could stand with his nose pressed against the glass of the floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room for hours, just staring out over New York City.
Eventually, he managed to pull himself away and headed deeper into the penthouse to find the bedroom and massive bathroom. He stripped out of the undersuit hurriedly, suddenly thrilled by the idea of getting to wash away the sweat and grime from the battle with Doom. His eyes widened when he finally caught sight of the shower.
The tiling was lightly-colored marble, giving the space a bright, open feel, and shower heads poked out all over the place. There was a rainfall shower plate in the middle of the area, and six shower heads imbedded at various heights on each wall. Inset shelves held a variety of bath products and a stone bench along the back wall offered a place to sit and just enjoy the steam. A stainless-steel panel of controls was placed just inside the glass shower door.
“JARVIS, please tell me you can control the shower because I have absolutely not idea what any of these knobs do and don’t have to patience to figure it out right now.”
Water sprayed from the overhead spout, splattering against the ground. Tony could see steam already rising from it.
“I’m afraid it will take a minute longer for the floor tiles to warm. There was no way to quicken the process without risking a fire hazard,” JARVIS apologized.
Tony snorted and stepped into the shower stall.
“There’s never no way, JARVIS, just one we haven’t found yet.”
“As you say, Sir.”
After his shower, Tony all but collapsed into bed. The day might have been a short one for him mentally, but it had been a long, hard one on his body. He was sure he’d be off to sleep the second his head hit the pillow. Instead, his mind kept circling back to the lab downstairs. JARVIS had informed him there was another one set aside for his personal use in the building, too, not to mention the floors of SI’s R&D teams.
He’d been given a brief rundown of SI’s current projects but hadn’t been able to look into them with any detail. There was just too much else that demanded his attention. Now, though, he couldn’t seem to stop thinking about the glimpses he’d gotten. His brain swirled with ideas and concepts. All he wanted to do was to pop back out of bed and sink his teeth into the things he’d seen earlier. No amount of reminders that he had an early and full day tomorrow would shut it down. Finally, after nearly an hour of tossing and turning, Tony sat up with a sigh and grabbed the tablet that had been left charging on his bedside table.
If he was going to be up anyway, he might as well get something productive done.
“Hey, JARVIS, would you pull up the information about Baintronics again? I’d like to be as prepared as possible for the next three days.”
There was no verbal response, but the tablet lit up with the information he’d requested. Tony settled back against the headboard and got comfortable. It was going to be a long night.
In the end, he still got about five hours of sleep, thanks to eventually just passing out. When JARVIS’s voice awoke him, though, Tony felt like he hadn’t gotten any. By the time he was shaved, dressed and downstairs for the meeting, he had finished his third cup of coffee and was looking for his fourth. A stunningly beautiful woman he recognized only by virtue of photographs gave him a fondly exasperated look before getting up to pour him one from the side table.
“I suppose I should be grateful you made it here on time,” Pepper Potts said as she set the cup on the table for him to snatch up. “So, which was it this time, revolutionizing another field of science or getting a new doctorate?”
Tony frowned as he looked up from the nectar of the gods that he was currently imbibing, brows furrowed.
Ms. Potts rolled her eyes.
“What kept you up last night? You hide it well, but I’m all too familiar with your exhausted look. Watch your coffee consumption, by the way. I’m not calling a halt to these talks every time you have to make a bathroom run.”
The teasing was delivered with warm familiarity, but it only made a twist of guilt curl tight in Tony’s gut. It didn’t sit well with him that he was essentially lying to someone who clearly cared so much about him.
“Just studying up for the meetings,” he said, trying not to sound as awkward as he felt.
Ms. Potts blinked at him in surprise but followed it up a moment later with a soft smile. She reached out and lay a hand gently on Tony’s arm.
“She’s not gonna get away from us,” she murmured quietly, too low for the other individuals in the room to hear. “She’ll finally get what she deserves for how she hurt you.”
Tony was lost for a moment before JARVIS’s voice came through his earpiece with a simple, “Sunset Bain.”
Right. She was the CEO of Baintronics and had been a fling of Tony’s back during his early-twenties. She’d apparently used the access of being his girlfriend to steal several company secrets, not that it could be tied back to her enough for there to have been recourse. Ms. Potts probably thought he was worried about the acquisition going through.
“Of course not,” he said, forcing a light confidence into his voice. To be fair, he had complete faith in Miss Potts and the SI team to make this happen. “But I was up anyway and figured it wouldn’t hurt anything to take another look through it all.”
Ms. Potts shot him a knowing look, though Tony wasn’t sure what exact it was she knew, before drawing her hand back and picking her tablet up off the table.
“Well, let’s get started, then,” she addressed the room as a whole and the other SI employees immediately came to attention. “This is only the preliminary meeting for this round, but I don’t want Baintronics thinking they can get comfortable and push us for a better deal. They’re failing and have no leg to stand on, not after last year’s scandal. Does anyone have any last-minute updates they want to share?”
The meetings went well, with Tony trying to keep to the background as much as he could without seeming suspiciously silent. He was fairly certain Ms. Potts knew something was up but was just writing it off as his history with Sunset Bain. Thankfully, Bain hadn’t been in attendance at the meetings. Tony wouldn’t have known where to even begin to act if she had been. By the end of the day, Tony was even more exhausted by the constant, haunting anxiety of saying or doing the wrong thing and giving himself away. His coffee consumption could only get him so far and Tony felt like he was ready to sleep for a week. He didn’t know how he was going to manage to get up for another round of meetings in the morning.
“I’m going to level with you, JARVIS. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep doing this.”
“There are only two more days of meetings,” JARVIS assured, “and I am in the process of clearing your schedule of all but the absolute essentials past that. I have also taken the liberty of ordering food for you that will be delivered shortly.”
Despite the daunting prospect of more meetings, Tony felt himself brighten at the promise of food. Knowing JARVIS, he probably knew what Tony liked better than Tony would himself. Twenty minutes later, he had changed out of the stunningly tailored, but still stifling suit he’d worn for the meetings and into sweatpants and a plain white tank top. He felt much better lounging across his couch, eating Chinese food straight out of the container with a fork.
“I can’t believe I’m going to have to relearn how to use chopsticks,” he groused. “How did I even learn in the first place? That is not a natural way to move your hand.”
“My records indicate you learned during a three-month stint of living in Japan, Sir. I believe it was Miss Rumiko who taught you.”
Right, Rumiko. Tony had read about her yesterday, the one ex he seemed to still be on good terms with. Things hadn’t worked out between them, but it didn’t seem to be from any lack of desire on either of their parts. They kept in touch, even though their relationship had ended years ago, and got together whenever they were in the same country to eat sushi and catch up. She was married now, to a man who was perfectly content to stay at home and take care of their two incredible kids while his wife was out conquering the business world and never failed to let her know how much he loved her. Tony didn’t know how he normally felt about their relationship, but it seemed like a solid one based on his reading. They were a good match.
“So, all I have to do is avoid Asian food until I get my memories back and hope I don’t share a country with Rumiko before then. No problem. Is there anything I need to look at that came up today or am I free to collapse into bed as soon as I’m done stuffing my face?”
“Nothing actionable at the moment.”
Tony frowned at JARVIS’s phrasing.
“But something did happen?”
“I’ve been picking up some chatter from HYDRA, though not anything concrete. I’m still digging, but it is likely going to be a large threat sometime in the coming months if it is stirred up enough chatter for me to pick up on, even keeping them monitored. HYDRA keeps their activities much more under wraps than most other denizens that Iron Man has encountered. They are both a much larger and much older organization than most. It is only through their connection to SHIELD that we are aware of them at all. The fact that they seem to be planning something on such a large scale is no positive sign, but it will take time for me to learn more. I am currently attempting to track the chatter back to its source to gather more information and possibly find the system through which they regularly communicate.”
That was… not good.
“And how long might that take?” Tony asked, apprehension curling in the pit of his stomach.
“Days, at the very least. It is delicate work, if I wish to avoid detection. Even if I manage to gain access to their system, there is no guarantee of when or if I will be able to find the information needed. The access would be an incredible advantage, however.”
“Well, let’s just hope my memories are back by then. There’s no way I could manage being Iron Man without them. I’d have to relearn everything, including how to fight. Going out like that would only prove to make the situation more dangerous, I’m sure.” Even as he was saying it, though, something occurred to him. “But you could, JARVIS, couldn’t you? You took control of the armor to bring me back here yesterday. Would you be able to remotely pilot the armor?”
“Unfortunately not, Sir. By my own request, I was never given permissions to remotely access the armor’s control systems without you being physically within it. Without your presence, I can only activate the self-destruct protocols in case of one of the armors being compromised and taken by an enemy. I feared that the assurance that I could take up the mantel of Iron Man in the case of your demise might encourage additional risk-taking.”
Tony grimaced at the insinuation.
“But I’m not- I mean, it didn’t say in the packet that I… I don’t feel suicidal.”
“You are not, Sir. However, you will always prioritize the safety and lives of others over your own. Your exceptional ability to empathize and care for others has often led to putting yourself in danger for the sake of another, innocent individual. It is one of the reasons why I say you are a hero, no matter what the rest of the world chooses to believe. In this case, you have always been adamant that the world needs Iron Man far more than it needs Tony Stark.”
“But… I am Iron Man.”
“Indeed, you are,” JARVIS said warmly, sounding proud in a way that only made Tony more confused.
“So that doesn’t make any sense!”
“There have been a number of times when I haven’t agreed with your lines of logic over the years, I will admit.”
Which explained exactly nothing. But that was fine. Tony could set all that aside for the time being. Right now, he needed to be working on finding a solution for if Iron Man was needed.
“You said you didn’t have the permissions to access the suit without me in it. Could I give you the permissions? I may not have my memories, but I’m sure you could walk me through any steps that I can’t figure out of my own.”
“I could, Sir, however I am afraid you would have to access my code in order to do that and you would be unable to do so. While most of the biometric scans would be easily passed, of course, there is a verbal passphrase that you would have to be able the remember in order to say.”
“You can’t just give it to me? I mean, you know it’s me.”
“Due to certain projects by organizations and individuals such as AIM, you were somewhat concerned with the idea of a clone or other very convincing double, not to mention body possession. You were very thorough in concern to the security measures.”
“But… you were able to let me into the Iron Man labs?”
“You were never outside of my sphere of observation from the time of your injury until I was able to return you to the tower and any anomalies would have been detectable. You passed all security protocols in order to be granted access to the lab and the suits under such circumstances.”
“Just not your code.”
“No, Sir. My code is protected by the highest level of security you have ever instated for a system or place, including those designed for the Department of Defense, the president, or the United Nations.”
“That’s… I really care about you, huh? I mean, I knew I did. You’re the only thing that’s been even remotely familiar to me since I woke up in that crater and I instantly knew I could trust you, but still. You’re incredible. I’m glad I appreciate you.”
“The feeling is mutual, Sir. Tomorrow, if you’re feeling up to it after your meetings, you might enjoy visiting your personal labs. There are a few more robots there who would be very excited to see you again.”
The promise of meeting more of his creations, though JARVIS had assured him that the other AIs weren’t as advanced, got Tony through the next round of meetings with at least some scrap of good mood still intact afterwards. Ms. Potts kept sending him questioning glances, so he guessed that he and good moods during business meetings didn’t exactly go hand-in-hand. In his defense, though, the negotiations were going well. (Mostly, he was sure, because he was stepping back and letting his people do most of the talking.)
As soon as he could get away with it, he bid his goodbyes and let JARVIS ferry him away. He stopped by the penthouse only long enough to change out of his business attire before heading down to his lab levels. Excitement bubbled in his chest and he was all but bouncing on the balls of his feet as the elevator slowed to a stop at the correct floor.
“I’ve restricted the bots to their charging stations to give you a chance to adjust, Sir. Once you feel ready, just say the word.”
His personal labs, though they didn’t pack quite as much shock-and-awe as the one in the basement, were still pretty damn awesome. There were half-finished projects sitting all over the place, like whoever was working on them just stepped out to grab a coffee. Tony could instantly pick out several that were recognizable from the blueprints JARVIS had shown him of his SI projects. Several others had to be personal projects, just for fun. Tony’s fingers itched to dive in and dig through all of them, but he restrained himself.
He had even more promising things to check out.
“Alright, J,” he said with a bit of a smile curling his lips, “release the hounds!”
Almost instantaneously, a chorus of shrill beeping and trilling rose up from the opposite side of the lab and three machines on wheels came barreling toward him. They each had a single arm that appeared to make up the bulk of their frames and four wheels set into their bases. For a split second, Tony worried he might need to dodge out of the way before he got run over, but the bots engaged their breaks before it came to that. Still, that didn’t stop them from surrounding him on every side and all reaching out to tug gently on his hair, clothes, and arms.
Tony couldn’t hold back a bark of delighted laughter.
“Wow,” he breathed, running a hand over one of the robots’ struts. “These guys are incredible! How advanced are they, exactly?”
The robot behind him made an affronted sort of beep and nudged him sharply between his shoulder-blades, prompting another surprised laugh to burst out of him.
“You’ll have to excuse DUM-E,” JARVIS apologized. “He’s never taken well to not being spoken to directly. By current industry standards, DUM-E, YOU, and BUTTERFINGERS are all top of their class.”
“Wow,” Tony couldn’t help but say again, twisting around to pat DUM-E apologetically. “Okay, then. J has given you guys the rundown on what happened to me, right?”
The bots moved back into something almost recognizable as a line so they could all turn their optics on him. There were affirmative chirps all around.
“They are unable to grasp the finer details,” JARVIS clarified, “but they understand your system was corrupted and some memory lost.”
Tony’s heart swelled. That was… probably the most adorable way of looking at his condition that he could think of.
“Okay, good then. So, I’m gonna be counting on you guys to help me out,” he said to the bots in front of him. “You think you’re up to the task?”
More excited, affirmative trilling. DUM-E even did a little spin in place.
“Alrighty, then. First thing’s first. Which one of you is YOU and which one is BUTTERFINGERS?”
The way both bots swarmed him in response didn’t help him figure it out at all. But, somehow, he couldn’t quite bring himself to mind.
Tony couldn’t manage to tear himself out of the lab and away from the bots until far too late at night, and he was definitely feeling it the next morning. He firmly reminded himself that this was the last day of negotiations with Baintronics and then he’d be free to hide away until his memories returned. It wasn’t helping much.
“I’ve started the coffee running in the kitchen area, Sir.”
“You are a blessing, JARVIS. You are warm sunlight on a chilly afternoon. You are a gift unparalleled by any other. You are the sweetest of nectars.”
“Very poetic, Sir. I should also inform you that Ms. Potts has indicated she will be arriving in twenty minutes.”
He suddenly felt far more awake.
“I believe she has something she wishes to discuss with you before the meetings today, though I’m afraid I do not know the exact details.”
Tony cursed. Colorfully. This would be the first time he and Ms. Potts interacted one-on-one, with no one else present and outside of a business setting. If there was any situation in which she would catch on that all wasn’t well, it would be this one.
“Okay, okay, I can do this,” Tony coached himself. “We can do this. You’ll help me, right, J?”
“Of course, Sir.”
“Great. First, coffee. Then, figure out how not to blow my cover to the one woman who knows me better than probably anyone else.”
Once he’d downed the first cup of caffeine, he turned his attention toward running through his morning routine (as directed by JARVIS) as quickly as possible without getting sloppy. He was just finishing up shaping his facial hair when JARVIS announced Ms. Potts’ arrival. Tony hurriedly threw on a suit and headed out to meet her, hair wet and still wrestling with his cufflinks.
“I wasn’t expecting you,” he announced as he entered the kitchen area to see her sitting at his breakfast bar with a mug of her own.
She gave an amused snort.
“When are you ever? Goodness, just look at you. Come here.”
Despite the order, she met him half-way, grabbing a dishcloth from one of the draws and patting at his hair with it. Assuming this was at least somewhat normal behavior for them, Tony allowed it.
“Did you want to talk to me about something?” he asked instead, not wanting silence to hang between them and unsure what banter they might normally play at in a situation like this.
Ms. Potts avoided looking him in the eye as she gave his hair a few more pats before drawing away. She twisted the dishcloth in her hands, looking uncertain. Her shoulders were squared, though, and she forged ahead.
“I’m worried about you,” she admitted. “I know what this merger means to you and you haven’t been quite yourself the past couple days. Is… anything going on? Outside of the meetings?”
There was a bit of fear in her eyes, though Tony could be exactly sure what of. Did she think he’d be angry that she was concerned about him? Would he normally be angry about that? Did she think he would lie to her? Brush her off? Collapse into an inconsolable, sobbing heap and pour out the depths of his soul?
Unable to know exactly how he would have reacted if he had his memories, and unwilling to deal with the effort so early and on so little caffeine, Tony let a real smile creep across his face. It was nice that she cared so much about him. It made him feel special, loved. It brought him comfort to know he was the kind of guy who could inspire that kind of loyalty from his friends.
“I’m fine,” he promised her, then amended, “I just haven’t been sleeping well, as you already figured out. I keep getting too distracted.”
He let slip a self-deprecating laugh to lighten the comment when she gaped at him. Oops. Guess he didn’t usually share even that much. The surprise disappeared a moment later, though, replaced by a relieved smile.
“Good,” she said, with genuine feeling. “And, after today, you won’t have anything to worry about.”
He let out a snort of amusement, unable to help himself.
“I don’t know about that.”
Miss Potts rolled her eyes at him.
“Alright. Well, you won’t have this to worry about anymore. One less thing. How’s that? Better?”
Tony thought about the warmth in his chest, the ease of the grin on his lips.
To Tony’s utter surprise, the meetings weren’t so terrible that day. For one thing, most of the details had already been decided on and finalized, so there was only the last bit of wrap up to do, the actual contracts to sign. There was also a feeling of lightness between him and Ms. Potts that had been missing the previous days. He still didn’t feel like he could call her Pepper or lay claim to the friendship that was so clear and strong between them, but he could see why he liked her so much. She was an incredible friend, and an invaluable business partner.
Tony hoped he appreciated her as much normally as he did right now. (Somehow, he was pretty sure he did.)
Any warm and happy feelings from the day came to an end once he was in the elevator back to the penthouse, though. JARVIS didn’t even wait for him to reach his quarters before speaking urgently through Tony’s earpiece.
“Sir, I’m afraid there’s been a situation that may require Iron Man.”
“What? What kind of situation? I thought we agreed that I can’t be Iron Man right now! We agreed Iron Man was benched! I couldn’t remember whether or not I liked tomatoes when placing my lunch order this afternoon!”
“Doctor Doom seems to have gained confidence over his ‘triumph’ in the altercation where you were injured, I’m afraid. He has attacked a biology research facility in South Africa. The Avengers are on the scene, but it’s a highly populated area and they won’t be able to stop him and keep civilians safe from his Doombots. They need Iron Man’s help.”
Tony wanted to protest, to say he couldn’t help, not without his memories, but the clenching, sick sensation in his chest kept him from doing so. JARVIS had said civilians. Innocent people could get hurt, even killed, without Iron Man’s help. They needed him to be brave.
“Okay,” he said, mind whirring through all the options available to him. “Okay. I’ll be more likely to hurt someone than to be of any use piloting the suit, but you can’t use it without me being in it. We can work with that. If I’m in the suit, you can use the Broken Sword protocol even without me being injured, right?”
“Correct, Sir. All you have to do is say the word.”
Tony took a deep breath, steeling himself.
“Alright, then. I guess you should probably reverse the direction of this elevator, then. I need to go to the basement.”
Being back inside the armor was exhilarating. There was no other way to describe it. Tony felt more than just a little trepidation for the conflict that was to come, but it did nothing to dampen the sense of freedom that came with flying through the clouds, sea and land shooting past so quickly underneath him that he could barely catch a glimpse of any details. He hurtled through the air faster than any jet on the market. It felt like being alive.
It came to an end all too soon, though.
Even from a distance, he could spot the smoke of a large fire billowing up into the air. Forms that he could only assume to be Doombots buzzed around like swarming bees, crowding the research facility and out into the surrounding city area. JARVIS helpfully pulled up tags on the HUD to indicate where each of the Avengers were as the suit picked them up.
The archer, Hawkeye, was up high, as per usual. Thor was flying from one group of Doombots to another, smashing away with his hammer, while Captain America and the Black Widow fought as a team at street level. Tony frowned.
“Where’s the Hulk?”
Tony had seen a few videos of the Hulk in fights, he tended to focus on Iron Man as a target. Whether that was because of the armor’s bright colors or the Hulk had a particular dislike for him, Tony couldn’t say. He was not enthusiastic about the idea of winding up in one of those big, green hands.
“Doctor Doom seems to be using a strategy wherein several Doombots swarm the Hulk and drag him as far out to sea as they can before being destroyed, forcing him to swim back to rejoin the fight. While horrifically wasteful in terms of resources, it does appear to be an effective technique.”
“Alright, then. What’s the plan? You’re running the show here, JARVIS. We focus on Doom and ignore the Avengers unless they attack us? Let them deal with the Doombots and evacuating civilians?”
“An excellent choice, Sir. In the event of an apparent turf war between villains, the Avengers will put more of an emphasis on clearing the area while both of you are occupied.”
“If possible, we should probably try and draw Doom out toward the shoreline, too, and away from the populated areas.”
“Of course, Sir.”
The armor dipped and steered into the midst of the chaos. The facility itself was in absolute shambles. Walls and ceilings were crumbled where Doom had inelegantly smashed his way through. Because of course he couldn’t just use the perfectly good doors. Even if Doom hadn’t already dropped a building on Tony, he was pretty sure he wouldn’t like the guy. Following his trail through the wreckage of the research facility was child’s play. Tony could have done it even without JARVIS’s help.
They found Doom in one of the labs, standing in front of what looked like a bank vault’s door and doing something glow-y with his hands. Tony wasn’t able to get much more than that before JARVIS slammed the suit right into Doom, sending both of them through the wall on Doom’s other side and into some sort of administrative office. Tony winced at the additional property damage, his brain automatically calculating the probable cost of repairs.
“You!” Doom shouted in outrage, an impressive feat since Tony couldn’t understand how his ribcage wasn’t crushed by that impact with the suit. “How dare you lay hands upon Doctor Doom!”
“Oh, trust me,” he growled back, unable to help himself. “I plan to do a lot more than that.”
JARVIS was in charge, but Tony was surprised to find his own body reacting to Doom’s attacks with seemingly no input from his brain. His muscles remembered what they were supposed to do even if he didn’t. His mouth worked on autopilot to exchange banter with Doom as JARVIS drew him out of the facility and into the open air. It felt natural, far more natural than the meetings at Stark Industries. He even managed to spare a bit of brainpower to check in on the Avengers. The number of Doombots was thinning steadily. It wouldn’t be long before the heroes had taken care of them and were able to turn their attention toward the villains who were duking it out.
Sure enough, it wasn’t more than a minute or two later that Captain America came charging in, sending his shield flying at Doom and knocking the dictator off his feet.
“Enough! We’re taking both of you in.”
From his angle, Tony could see the incoming Doombot from behind the Captain.
He was already moving, though, and he could feel the moment JARVIS released control of the suit back to him. He tackled the Captain to the side just as the robot slammed into the ground with such a force as to shatter the concrete and destroy its frame. Tony didn’t even want to know what that would have done to a living being. Even in the armor, he doubted he would have come out of it unscathed.
It suddenly occurred to him that he was laying on his back, Captain America clutched securely to his chest to keep him from being crushed. He rolled to the side and released the man to jump back to his feet and aim his repulsors at Doom again.
“Take a hike,” he advised unkindly. “You’re outnumbered.”
“You would side with the Avengers?” Doom accused. “How low you have fallen, Iron Man! When next we meet, you may not be so lucky as to have rescuers to save you!”
And then, thankfully, he was on his way. Tony watched him go before relaxing his stance and turning to check on the Captain. He’d regained his shield and looked to be eyeing Tony warily from beneath his mask. He couldn’t help but notice the Captain had very blue eyes.
“You okay?” Tony asked.
“You saved my life.”
It sounded almost like an accusation and Tony could feel his own irritated scowl forming in response.
“Yeah, maybe. I hear you have a super serum or some such, so who knows? No need to thank me or anything.”
“Because letting you die would be super shitty? Because it was decent, human thing to do? What’s your problem, Winghead?”
Maybe not his best insult, but those little white wings on the side of the Captain’s mask were ridiculous anyway. Either way, the look he was getting had at least turned more assessing than warry. The easing of his scowl did little to lessen that impressive jawline, though.
“You’re a supervillain. It’s not really your style.”
Tony snorted. The Captain was lucky he was so pretty, because he certainly wasn’t racking up any point in the ‘charm’ department.
“Says you. You have no idea what my style is, Cap.”
Of course, neither did he, but he knew damn sure that it wasn’t letting other people die for his own convenience.
“You’re still under arrest.”
This time, Tony actually laughed.
“You’ll have to catch me first.”
Flawlessly, like he knew exactly what Tony was thinking, JARVIS took back control of the suit and sent them rocketing into the air.
While his body was exhausted from the day, Tony was far too keyed up to sleep by the time he got back to the tower. He headed to the lab, instead, greeting the bots as he entered and then sinking into his projects. It’d be fine. It wasn’t like he had any more meetings to attend in the morning, anyway. It wasn’t until the early hours that he managed to drag himself away, stretching a too-stiff back and shuffling into the elevator.
“Take me to the penthouse, please, J,” he mumbled quietly.
He barely noticed the journey up, only slowing long enough to yank off his clothes before falling into bed. He’d regret not showering or brushing his teeth later, but he didn’t have enough energy for that now. He fell into a fitful sleep.
It was hot, too hot. He could feel the sweat dripping down his back.
His feet burned.
His shoulders blistered.
His mouth was so dry.
He stumbled forward, squinting his eyes against the blinding brightness that surrounded him. He couldn’t see anything, just an endless expanse of blurred gold. He was going to die here. He knew it. It’d all been for nothing, in the end. The heat of the air pressed against him, threatening to cook him alive.
He wanted to fall. He wanted to lay down and just stop.
But he couldn’t stop.
He’d come too far for that.
There was too much he had to do.
“Don’t waste your life, Stark.”
He awoke with a shout, rocketing up and gasping for air. His heart raced and he scrambled from the bed, throwing himself at the nearest corner and curling up there, trying to make himself as small as possible.
He was scared. No, terrified. And he didn’t know why. He just knew he had to get away. He couldn’t go back, couldn’t let them find him again. He didn’t want to die after all that. It couldn’t have been for nothing.
“-partially cloudy with a chance of rain. Wind speeds are moderate at street level, but stronger past level fifty of the tower. Use of the party deck is currently discouraged. Wind chill is factored to be-“
The AI’s recitation instantly ceased.
“How may I be of assistance, Sir?”
Tony ran shaking fingers through his hair, managing to force his body to uncurl just a bit, even if the thought of leaving his little corner seemed momentarily insurmountable.
“Wh-what was that?”
“My diagnosis is that you’ve experienced a severe anxiety attack, triggered by a nightmare.”
“Me?” Tony tried to wrap his mind around that through the fog it was wading through. “Is that normal? For me?”
“I’m afraid so, Sir. My apologies, I should have warned you. I had hoped the loss of your memories would keep them at bay.”
Tony sucked in one deep breath after another, blinking rapidly as he tried to pull himself back together.
“It was hot,” he confided. “In the dream, it was so hot. I felt like I was burning. And it was bright, too. I couldn’t see anything.”
“Your time in the desert has not been an uncommon feature in your nightmares.”
Right. Tony had read about that, how he’d been captured by terrorists and held for three months, escaping with the first Iron Man prototype before being found wandering the desert by the military. Rubbing at his eyes, the voice Tony had heard speaking to him at the very end of the nightmare flitted through his mind once again.
“J… who’s Yinsen?”
“Dr. Ho Yinsen was a fellow captive of the Ten Rings while you were missing. Though I do not know what transpired between you, he made quite an impact. You looked up quite a bit of information about him upon your return, including a number of scientific papers he wrote. Would you like me to pull them up for you?”
Tony took another, shuddered breath.
“Yeah. I think that’d be good.”
It took him a moment, but he managed to gather himself enough to lean out of his corner and snatch his tablet from the bedside table before retreating. The screen was already lit up with the requested information.
“If I may, Sir,” JARVIS spoke again once he was settled. “I know it may not feel like it, but this is a good sign. Your brain is healing itself.”
Tony scowled down at the screen.
“It could have started with something a bit more pleasant.”
Eventually, Tony did leave his corner, his joints quite unhappy with him for their mistreatment, and went in search of food. The penthouse seemed ominously quiet in the absence of anything to do. JARVIS turned on the lights of any room he needed, but they turned off again once he left. Even the light streaming in through his many windows couldn’t chase away the lingering gloom of an empty space. As soon as he finished his yogurt and granola, what JARVIS assured him was his customary breakfast now that it wasn’t being provided in the meetings, Tony refilled his coffee mug and headed to the lab.
The bots greeted him enthusiastically and Tony felt something inside him relax. He probably just wasn’t used to spending so much time alone. He greeted them back just as happily before settling back into the projects he’d been working on the night before.
Falling behind on the work for SI would only draw more attention to him, and it wasn’t like he wasn’t still perfectly qualified. His brain remembered the math and science needed without any trouble. His hands flew across his keyboard, making notes and alterations. Overhead, JARVIS pumped the guitar riffs of AC/DC through the speakers without needing to be asked. Tony liked it. It covered up the silence.
“So,” he finally asked as he swiped away a completed project and pulled up some proposals from the R&D department that needed review, “what do we have on the books? I know you were going to clear everything off the schedule except for what is absolutely necessary, but where does that leave us? I’m sure I can’t stay too under the radar, all things considered.”
“No, Sir, ‘inconspicuous’ isn’t exactly your preferred method. You have a week-long business trip next month to perform walk-throughs at SI’s European facilities and a board meeting in two weeks. You’ll be expected to show your face in R&D at least once a week, though you are unlikely to run the risk of being discovered by anyone there. It will not raise suspicions if you fail to appear at most of your social events, however.”
Tony’s eyebrows rose.
“Really? My friends are cool with me just blowing them off?”
“While you do have a tendency for forgetfulness when it comes to time and avoidance on occasion when it comes to your friends, I refer mostly to galas and other-such events to which you have been invited but hold little fondness for. There are three this month to while you have been invited. However, even if you were in possession of your memories, you would be unlikely to attend. Unless you are hosting the event, such as the Avengers fundraiser this weekend, you generally prefer to make a donation and leave it at that. Even when hosting, your attendance is rare.”
“Wait, wait, wait. What do you mean the Avengers fundraiser? I’m actually funding the team that’s trying to put me in prison?”
“The funding doesn’t go directly to the team,” JARVIS clarified, “but rather to the recovery efforts of the communities impacted by their conflicts with other powered individuals, such as Doctor Doom, the Sinister Six, or a variety of aliens. However, for PR reasons and to encourage higher donations, the entire Avengers team will be in attendance.”
So, it probably would be best not to go. Still, the silence of the penthouse seemed downright oppressive and he shuddered at the thought of having to go back up when it was time for bed. (And, as awful as that nightmare had been, he was exhausted enough to know he was going to need sleep sooner rather than later.)
“When are the other events?”
“You received an invitation to the Annual Newgent’s Foundation for the Homeless Spring Gala in two weeks, just after your board meeting, and a Preservation of the Arts event at the MET the night before you leave on your business trip.”
Damn. The thought of so much isolation for two weeks… It’d only been a day and he felt like he was going out of his mind.
“Have I ever… met the Avengers? As Tony Stark?”
“No, Sir, though you did meet with a representative of SHIELD several times during the process of founding the charity.”
Tony nodded along, mind working even though he knew this was a bad idea. It was a terrible idea. And yet… It was Thursday. A couple of days was a shorter time than two weeks.
“So, they wouldn’t have any reference to think I may or may not be acting like myself, is what you’re saying.”
JARVIS paused before answering.
“That is true, Sir, though there will be others in attendance who you have met or had dealings with before, mostly socialites, politicians, and other business people.”
“I’m sure we can make it work,” Tony said, a grin spreading across his face. “After all, we managed to sneak it by Ms. Potts, didn’t we?”
He could almost hear JARVIS’s grimace.
The prospect of human interaction buoyed Tony’s mood immensely, as did a nightmare-free nap in the late afternoon. He hummed to himself as he worked his way through the evening. Dinner consisted of pizza delivered directly to the workshop by JARVIS and Tony devoured it. The bots kept him laughing with their attempts to help with his projects and, before he knew it, it was nearly midnight.
“I see what you mean about losing track of time,” he told JARVIS once he’d said goodnight to the bots and sent them back to their charging stations. “I really have no idea where the day went.”
“Well, you did start the day off rather late,” JARVIS allowed. “Long hours in the lab are a usual occurrence for you, though. It’s where you spend most of your time.”
Tony chuckled, thinking about the number of projects that were still on his to do list.
“With my workload? I can definitely imagine why. I think I’d like to spend some time out of it, though. What say you to a surprise, Friday morning visit to R&D?”
“As you wish, Sir. Shall I wake you at a certain time?”
“Sure, why not?” He checked the time on the display as he entered the elevator. “Let’s say eight?”
“Of course, Sir.”
Tony adored R&D. It took almost everything he had to keep from running around the floor and marveling at everything he saw. None of it would be new to him; it was just different to see the various projects in reality rather than spelled out in dry reports. As it was, the spring in his step probably left everyone who saw him thinking he’d had too much caffeine. He visited every station, examining each of the projects under the nervous gazes of his employees.
“You can relax, you know,” he told a woman who looked to be in her late thirties, a Dr. Shaw, JARVIS had informed him via earpiece. “I don’t bite.”
She gave a little titter of laughter.
“Maybe not, and I know I should be used to it by now, but I still can’t get over the fact that you come down and look over our projects personally.”
Dr. Shaw had only been with SI for five months and had been acquired from a software development company before that, according to JARVIS. All Tony needed to know was that her cybersecurity coding was gorgeous.
“How else am I supposed to know what’s going on? Besides, between you and me,” he leaned in a little bit before continuing in a stage whisper, “it’s really just nice to get to walk away from my own desk.”
She laughed again, this time even more relaxed than before.
“I can understand that. Actually, if you don’t mind, I’ve been stuck on this one function and I’d love your opinion-“
The sound of something shattering behind them had them both turning, Tony’s adrenaline spiking as his muscles instantly tensed for a fight.
“Ohmygod, you’re Tony Stark!”
The wide-eyed teenager with a broken coffee mug (thankfully empty) at his feet, gaped at him. He had messy brunet hair and a spattering of freckles across his cheeks. He also seemed completely oblivious to having drawn the attention of the entire lab space.
“Peter!” Dr. Shaw hissed in alarm as she darted around Tony. “Are you alright? Be careful not to cut yourself. Let’s get this cleaned up.”
That seemed to shake Peter out of it, and Tony couldn’t help but smile at the way his entire face immediately flushed red. He dropped to his knees to help clean up, but Dr. Shaw waved him off.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to. I just- I was going to get another cup and I wasn’t expecting to see him- I mean, you, Mr. Stark. I wasn’t expecting to see you. Here. Breathing the same air as me! Dr. Jones kept telling me you come down sometimes, but I thought he was just teasing me cause, you know, apparently, I just make it too easy for people to resist. But it’s actually you!” His look of wonder suddenly morphed into one of horror. “I’m not gonna lose the internship over this, am I? Please, I can’t afford to lose this! The scholarship is probably the only way I’m gonna be able to afford to go to college and-“
“Breathe, kid. You’re not gonna lose your scholarship, and you’re not in trouble, either.”
Relief washed over his face.
“Well, I think I can safely say I’ve mortified myself completely, now.”
“I wouldn’t beat yourself up too much,” Tony assured him. “It was very flattering. Your name’s Peter, right?”
“Yes! Peter. Parker. Peter Parker. My name is Peter Parker.” He flushed red all over again. “Someone please make my mouth stop. I swear I’m not normally like this, Mr. Stark.”
“Call me Tony, kid,” he said and then, while Peter was still too awe-struck to respond, “What have we got you working on around here?”
“O-oh, nothing much. I mostly just help out, of course, and my internship project is so far from finished it’s not even funny.”
Tony turned to look at Dr. Shaw where she was throwing the last of the broken shards into the trash.
“I’ll circle back around to have a look at that code for you in a bit, Doctor. I’m afraid I need to take care of something else first.”
She gave him a knowing smile that was all warmth.
“Not a problem at all,” she assured.
“Wonderful. Alright then, Peter, let’s get you a replacement for that coffee and then you can show me where you are on this project of yours.”
“Ar-Are you serious?”
“Absolutely. I’m always serious when it comes to coffee.”
Tony didn’t leave R&D for the rest of the day, not until it was time for people to start heading home and he knew they wouldn’t as long as he was still there. Peter had left earlier just before noon to head back to school, since the internship only covered his morning credits, but it had been an amazing time before he did. Once the kid got over his shock and awe, he showed himself to be whip smart and hilarious to boot. The design he was working on for stronger tensile-strength cabling based on spider webbing was pretty interesting, too. Tony looked forward to seeing its result, even if it didn’t work out. Failed science was still a success in its own way, after all.
He felt good as he retreated back to his own lab for dinner and more engineering. He wished he could visit the labs downstairs again tomorrow, but it would have to wait for next week. Not only would no one be there on a Saturday, but it would look suspicious to visit two days in a row when that was so far outside of his routine. Really, though, Tony couldn’t imagine why he didn’t have a space in those labs himself. Not all of his projects were so top secret that he couldn’t work on them in the presence of other employees.
That wasn’t something for him to solve, though. It’d probably make perfect sense if he had his memories still. He would just have to content himself with the situation for now and focus on what he did have tomorrow.
“So, J, what do I need to know for this fundraiser, gala, thingy? Are there people I need to know? Anything I need to do? Or not do?”
“I have prepared a packet of the listed attendees, though you should be aware that a number of undercover SHIELD agents will likely also be in attendance. It is only to be expected at such a high-profile event.”
“Right, so just assume someone is always watching. Got it. I was planning on doing that anyway. Hey, will the Avengers be in uniform? How will I recognize them?”
“The Avengers will not attend in uniform, no. Based on past events, they will likely wear suits and, in Agent Romanov’s case, a ball gown, that can easily transition to battle readiness. Such precautions have never been needed in the past, but they cannot be begrudged erring on the side of caution. Their pictures outside of uniform are included in your information packet, along with some relevant information about their backgrounds that may come up in conversation.”
Tony grinned as he spun in his chair.
“What would I do without you JARVIS?”
“Perish the thought, Sir.”
Reading about the Avengers was an interesting experience. Of course, JARVIS had given him the basics in his original briefing, but the files this time had a bit more information in them. For example, Tony’d had no idea that his father had been involved in Captain America’s creation. He had, though, and apparently people were likely going to want to talk to him about it despite the fact that Tony hadn’t even been alive during that time. Good thing any questions regarding his father could be immediately brushed aside and dismissed. He guessed having a bad relationship with the man had some benefits.
Then there was Bruce Banner, physicist and sometimes-Hulk. The snippets Tony read about Dr. Banner sent him down the rabbit hole of the man’s papers and other research and it was wonderful. It was like his day spent in R&D all over again. This man clearly had a beautiful, beautiful mind and Tony wanted to pick it to pieces. He had a sneaking suspicion he wouldn’t be able to resist talking to the man tomorrow night, even if just for a little while.
Thor was almost equally as fascinating, if only because so little was known about him. He was a Real Deal alien, and apparently one old enough to have been thought a god by the Vikings. His ability to wield lightning and fly were definitely impressive, as was the work of Dr. Jane Foster, the foremost expert on interstellar technology where Thor was concerned. Tony was disappointed to learn she wouldn’t also be in attendance.
Hawkeye and Black Widow were the two most shrouded in mystery, though. JARVIS had been able to find only a little more information on them than what had been released to the public. They were career SHIELD agents, both with rather shady pasts. Clint Barton, Hawkeye, had some tie to the circus, as well. Still, Black Widow had let Iron Man slip away a few too many times when she could have at least made it harder for him for Tony to think it was a coincidence. JARVIS didn’t, either. There was definitely something going on there.
Setting it aside to deal with later, preferably never, Tony found himself circling back to Cap. Steve Rogers was a handsome man, though Tony couldn’t help but think he looked a little uncomfortable in his own skin. At least he did in the photo JARVIS had provided. He’d seemed much more comfortable the day before when he’d faced Iron Man in full uniform. His eyes hadn’t changed, though. They were still a clear, striking blue. They looked a lot better without the distrust that had colored them while looking at Iron Man.
Tony liked them better like this.
Shaking himself, Tony pushed the strange thought aside. He must have been more tired than he thought. It was getting rather late, probably for the best if he just headed to bed.
“Shut it down, JARVIS,” he called as he headed over to say goodnight to the bots.
Then it was a short elevator ride, the nightly hygiene routine, and finally he was able to fall into bed.
He woke up in a cave.
Tony sat up quickly on his cot, breathing heavily. The movement jostled the wires in his chest and gave him a painful jolt. As if the gaping hole in his chest, filled by an electromagnet, didn’t hurt enough.
“Careful,” a gentle voice warned him.
Yinsen poured a cup of tea and brought it over, sitting down beside Tony and setting the mug on the box he’d turned into a makeshift side table. Tony snatched it up and drank greedily. It was lukewarm and edging toward cool, but it was a relief to his parched throat. He’d felt parched since he’d first woken up in this God-forsaken place.
“Thanks,” he rasped, once the cup was empty.
“You slept a bit longer this time,” Yinsen informed him, waving off the thanks. “That’s good. You need your rest.”
Tony would have laughed if it wouldn’t have caused him absolute agony.
“I’ll rest when we’re free of this place.”
Yinsen gave Tony one of his small, gentle smiles.
“We had best get back to work, then. Your device is almost finished.”
He went to stand but, as he did, his form shifted before Tony’s eyes. He grew taller and broader, his face morphing into another, no less familiar one. Suddenly, it was not Yinsen keeping him company in a cave, but Obie leaning over him as Tony lay reclined and paralyzed on the couch of his Malibu mansion. His expression was pitying, and he gave a great sigh that sent hot breath wafting across Tony’s cheek.
“Oh, Tony… You took too long. If you’d figured me out just a little bit sooner, Pepper never would have been in any danger. You could have saved yourself so much pain. That’s what happens when you don’t pay attention.”
His smile was wide and cruel, nothing like Yinsen’s.
“Some things never change, do they?”
Tony woke up not from his nightmare, but from JARVIS’s insistent calls. He was sweating, and his heart raced, but it wasn’t quite as bad as the first nightmare he’d had. Still, his hands flew to his chest, checking for the arc reactor even though JARVIS had told him it’d come out over a year ago… Fuck. Just how messed up was he?
“I’m terribly sorry, Sir,” JARVIS apologized, an undercurrent of alarm in his voice that was, by its own virtue, alarming, “but I did not feel this could wait. I’ve managed to finally discover Hydra’s plans.”
Tony definitely needed to be more awake for this conversation than he was.
“Coffee,” he grunted, throwing the covers off of himself and climbing out of the bed.
“I took the liberty of already starting a pot in the kitchen, Sir. It should be ready in just a minute more.”
Nodding his approval, Tony shuffled to his closet to pull a well-worn MIT hoodie on over his bare torso to ward off the evening chill. By the time he made it into the kitchen, he only had to wait another handful of seconds before the coffee maker cheerfully beeped its completion. Once he was seated at the breakfast bar, full mug in hand, he felt far better prepared.
“Alright, then, JARVIS. Hit me. What does the future hold?”
JARVIS, however, was in no mood for jests.
“Hydra has recovered the Red Skull.”
Tony’s brow furrowed.
“The what? Is that some kind of artifact or something? Like Thor’s hammer?”
“The Red Skull, also known as Johann Schmidt. He was the leader of Hydra during World War II and possessed super soldier-like abilities as well as a complete disregard for humanity. He was presumed to have been with Captain America when the Captain put the Hydra plane carrying a number of large warheads into the arctic. When his body wasn’t found anywhere near the crash-site, following the plane’s recovery, it was presumed that he’d been forced out of the plane earlier during a fight and perished. While SHIELD stopped looking, however, Hydra apparently did not. They expanded their search radius again and again and finally found the Red Skull. Much like the Captain, his time in the ice preserved him and allowed him to be revived.”
Tony groaned and rubbed his face.
“Okay. So, he’s a psycho. Everyone in Hydra sounds like they’re psychos. Why could this not wait until morning? Because I’m guessing there’s more.”
“Unfortunately so, Sir. The Red Skull was recovered several months ago and has since stepped back into place as Hydra’s leader. The communications I’ve intercepted indicate that he has been displeased with Hydra’s lack of progress in his absence and is planning to rectify that situation. At current, the most expeditious way to do so is to remove those prominent individuals around the world who pose the greatest threat to them. I’ve uncovered evidence that, in the next week, Hydra will be targeting members of the World Security Council, several higher-ups within SHIELD, and a number of other government officials around the world. The Avengers are also on the list.”
Here, one of the projection screens installed in the kitchen counter lit up to display the full list of names. Tony set his coffee aside with shaking hands.
“Are you- Are you sure about this?”
Of course he was. It was JARVIS. They wouldn’t be having this conversation if he weren’t sure about it.
This was bad.
“Yes, Sir. I’ve gathered enough evidence and correspondence to be absolutely certain. Hydra will remove these players from power and replace them with their own agents, already lined up. If they aren’t stopped, this could spell disastrous results for the world as we know it. Key players in the United Nations, Russia, the European Union, China, and others will all be loyal to Hydra. With that sort of influence, they would be less than a decade away from full world domination and there would be little Iron Man would be able to do to stop them, especially with the influence of ‘an unknown, global threat’ that they would be sure to use to their advantage. Projections indicate that they would be able to sway a large percentage of the public and other influential figures to their side, portraying themselves as protectors setting aside their differences rather than invaders seizing control.”
Tony cursed colorfully. Not good, not good, not good.
He was definitely awake now.
“Okay, okay. So, what are our options? We’ve got to stop them from wiping out all of these people, right? How can we do that? Do we know what their plan is?”
“It seems they have acquired quite a number of unused satellites left in the Earth’s atmosphere and have retrofitted them to release a hyper-focused beam of high-frequency noise that would scramble the brain of anyone caught in its path. Essentially, anyone within five miles of their targets will be left with a brain that’s been liquified. In all of the confusion, with the casualties involved, it’s unlikely that the attacks would even be able to be tied to their intended victims. The losses would be too great. They may even be able to present it as a new threat from outer space to the public. It would be devastating.”
“Could we destroy the satellites? I mean, we have the list of names, do you know which satellites are being used for this plot? Can the Iron Man armor even go to space?”
For some reason, the thought of going into space made something in his chest clench. He pushed it aside as best he could. Now was not the time.
“The armor is space-capable,” JARVIS allowed, though there was a note of reluctance in his voice. “You ensured it after an earlier incident. However, the amount of time it would take to travel to each satellite, disable it, and return to Earth each time the suit needed to recharge its oxygen tanks… Even starting now, there would be no way to get to every satellite in time.”
“Okay, and sending a notice out to everyone on the list would do jack all because even if hiding in a bunker would save them, a shit-ton of innocent people would still die.” His mind whirred. “Is there a control center or something here on Earth? Could we attack that? I mean, if we destroy the controls, they can’t fire off their death beams, right?”
“I have been unable to find a location for a central base as of yet,” JARVIS admitted, “though I am continuing to search and have narrowed down the possibilities somewhat. Any facility would be heavily guarded. Iron Man could not mount an attack against Hydra alone.”
Maybe Doom had the right idea, and an army of robot helpers was the way to go. He already had JARVIS and the bots, after all. But that was a thought for later. It wasn’t going to help him any now. His gaze caught on the date, displayed at the bottom of the projected screen.
“What if… Iron Man wasn’t alone?”
“Compile all the evidence you’ve found, including this list, and put it on an external hard drive, something easy to carry and keep hidden, a USB, if you can manage it.”
Downing the rest of his coffee, he headed back to the counter for a refill.
“Am I to take it you have a plan, then, Sir?”
Tony gave a sharp nod.
“I’ve got some work to get done today, and then I have a gala to attend. See what you can do about finding a location on Hydra’s base of operations for this plot.”
The tuxedo Tony pulled from his closet turned out to be more comfortable than he would have expected, by virtue of having been tailored specifically for him. For the same reason, it also hugged him in all the right places. Tony couldn’t help but take a moment to turn around and admire himself in his full-length mirror. The dusky blue fabric of the suit was just the slightest bit iridescent, the color just barely catching the light to accentuate his lines. Tony didn’t know who his tailor was, but they had to be worth a mint. There wasn’t even a bulge from the external hard drive he had slipped into his pants pocket. His bowtie was more obviously blue and had been crafted from feathers with the same iridescent quality as his suit. His cufflinks were sapphires set in white gold.
Even Happy’s eyebrows rose toward his hairline when Tony arrived downstairs.
“Special occasion, Boss?”
Because apparently going to a high-society function wasn’t special enough.
“Hoping to get some business taken care of while I’m there,” he hedged with a conspiratorial smile.
Happy was one of the people in his life who would immediately pick up on something amiss. Better to keep things vague, and business did sound like something that would justify him attending an event he normally avoided. Luckily, Happy seemed to agree. His brow did, however, still furrow as Tony stepped toward the back door of the limo.
“You don’t want to drive tonight?”
Right. Because apparently Tony had a problem with letting other people drive him since his parents had died in a car crash. Happy was really only along to drive the car away after he stepped out on the red carpet and bring it back when he was ready to leave.
Tony needed to think fast.
“Just grabbing something from the minibar,” he blurted, being all he could think of. Thankfully, there were little packs of nuts tucked away there beside the alcohol when he pulled open the door. He waved it teasingly in Happy’s direction. “You know the food at these things is always atrocious.”
Of all things, Happy actually looked relieved. He nodded along in understanding now.
“Those little finger things are never enough to really feed anybody,” he agreed.
Tony snorted as he stepped around to the driver’s side door. He had no idea where he was going, but JARVIS would be able to give him directions via the discreet earpiece he wore.
“They’re called canapes.”
Happy laughed and the last of the residual tension between them eased and faded. Tony slid into the driver’s seat and took a deep, calming breath before Happy had the chance to climb in beside him.
Now he just had to hope driving wasn’t the same as using chopsticks.
While Tony drove slower than he probably normally would have, at least he and Happy made it to the gala in one piece. Tony left the keys in the ignition and stepped out of the car, beaming at the paparazzi and giving them a peace sign – JARVIS’s suggestion – as Happy jogged around the car to take his place in the driver’s seat. Camera lights were flashing from every direction, nearly blinding him, and it seemed like everyone was shouting questions in his direction.
He ignored them all and made his way up the red carpet and into the event hall. There was a woman with a tablet inside the entrance, security personnel nearby, checking names and invitations with quick efficiency. She blinked in surprise as he approached, but quickly covered it up.
“Mr. Stark,” she greeted.
JARVIS’s voice murmured in Tony’s ear, “Ms. Cassandra Joyce, Events Management.”
“Ms. Joyce, how are things looking so far? We have a good turnout?”
She tapped her tablet with one finely-manicured finger before turning it around for him to see, displaying a series of real time graphs tracking attendance, donations, and similarly relevant information.
“We’re still waiting for a few more of the big spenders to show up, but it’s still pretty early. Donation projections are looking good so far.”
“Wonderful.” Tony’s hand skimmed across the hard drive in his pocket. “And the Avengers? Have they arrived yet?”
If she found his curiosity at all unusual, she didn’t show it. Him showing up on time, or at all, was apparently much more stunning.
“Captain Rogers arrived thirty minutes prior to the event, as usual, and offered to help with the set-up, and the others arrived once things got started. Unless Mr. Barton has snuck out the back door again, they should all be inside. Oh, with the exception of Mr. Odinson. SHIELD sent word yesterday that he would be off-planet and unable to attend.”
Tony forced a chuckle out past his nerves.
“Thanks. I guess I’ll head in, then.”
“Of course. Let me know if there’s anything else you need. Barring that, I’ll have my full event report in your inbox by Monday morning.”
Tony paused for just a moment.
“Make it the afternoon,” he corrected her. “You’re already working enough for a weekend.”
Her smile softened a bit and she shook her head in amusement.
“You know, some people might call you a hypocrite for not taking your own advice on work-life balance.”
“Hey, I’ll have you know I left the office by five yesterday,” he defended, unreasonably thrilled by their shared banter.
Yeah, he was definitely a people-person. He never would have survived shut up in his penthouse for long.
“And I’m sure that absolutely stopped you from working through the rest of your evening,” Cassandra allowed in a tone that suggested the exact opposite. “Enjoy your night, Mr. Stark. I’ll have the report to you Monday afternoon.”
He nodded in approval.
“And not a second before.”
There was a bounce in his step as he headed the rest of the way into the main ballroom of the gala, casting a glance around to take it all in. It was obviously a luxurious event, the space itself all high ceilings and tall windows. The floor, if he had to guess, was marble and not just the standard event space carpet or even the slightly more upscale hardwood. The décor oozed money and Tony spared a moment to wonder just how much the event had cost and if they could possibly make it back through the donations. An instant later, numbers were running through his brain, catalogued simply by spotting an object and extrapolating from there.
Apparently, they were going to make money on this. Enough to hopefully make a difference to their cause.
The people mingling around the room were all upper crust society types, business bigwigs, politicians, celebrities, and old money families. Tony spotted a few faces he’s also seen on billboards and ads on the drive here. Already, there were interested looks being thrown in his direction as he moved further into the room, eyes searching.
It didn’t take him too long to spot the ones he was looking for. Natasha Romanov, despite being a supposed super spy, was probably the easiest. She held court from a velvet tufted, wood-carved chair that she managed to effortlessly turn into a throne, surrounded by a gaggle of admirers. Even from a distance, Tony could tell her long, black dress showed off her figure magnificently. Finding her also led to finding Clint Barton, hovering somewhat nearby and looking bored as he chatted with a plain man in a cheaper suit than the ones worn by the event’s attendees, probably a SHIELD agent. His gaze kept flickering around the room, focusing on Romanov and then off to several other specific points.
Following his gaze lead Tony right to the remaining Avengers. Dr. Banner clung to the walls of the room, a glass of water in hand – an assumption Tony felt comfortable making since he was pretty sure that much vodka wouldn’t be socially acceptable, much less safe for someone whose alter ego liked to smash things. There were a couple of individuals who had approached him to chat, but the good doctor seemed to be in physical pain from the conversation, hunching his shoulders and shrinking into his rumpled suit.
Captain Rogers was on the other side of the room, a bit closer to Tony’s current position, and surrounded by older gentlemen in military uniforms. There were some younger ones there, too, around the fringes, both in uniform and suits, but the Captain’s attention seemed to be focused squarely on the older generation. That made sense, Tony supposed. Captain Rogers, more than anyone, would be able to understand the sacrifice those men had made.
Tony knew which of them he was going to approach first and turned away from Rogers to head in Dr. Banner’s direction. He eyed the two men the doctor was reluctantly chatting with. They didn’t seem to be antagonistic, but Tony wasn’t sure whether there was some history between them or if Dr. Banner was just that uncomfortable with all social interactions. He skirted the fringes of their space, listening in to their conversation before interrupting.
“-training goes,” one of the men said. “I mean, I assume you can’t just let the Hulk out to practice maneuvers. The logistics are fascinating to think about. As a military man myself, you have to understand, training as a unit makes all the difference for cohesion and success out in the field. For a specialized team like the Avengers, it must be all the more important. Between the Hulk and Thor being gone so often, it must be difficult for Captain Rogers to plan.”
Dr. Banner seemed to shrink in on himself.
“Steve manages alright.”
“Well, he is supposed to be a brilliant strategist,” the second man said, nodding in consideration, “and Thor’s been a warrior for a thousand years or something. That has to help. He’s probably used to falling in with a group.”
“Sure, sure,” the first guy agreed. “I just want to know how it works. I mean,” he turned back to Dr. Banner, “do you watch the training sessions as you? Does that mean the Hulk knows, too? How aware is he?”
Tony cringed. Yeah, it didn’t seem like they meant ill, but the two men had clearly picked a terrible topic of conversation. Tony might not be wearing the armor, but he figured he could still play the hero. Just this once.
“Excuse me,” he spoke up, stepping closer now and bringing himself to the small group’s attention, “mind if I cut in?”
Dr. Banner’s eyes widened at the sight of him before darting away. The other two men seemed delighted by his presence, though.
“Mr. Stark! Yes, of course,” the second man greeted. “You’ve put together a lovely event.”
Tony plastered a fake grin across his face.
“Well, I can’t pretend to take any credit,” he demurred. “I just have an excellent team for this sort of thing. I left everything up to them and they did not disappoint. Now, Dr. Banner, I had a question for you while I’ve got you here.”
Fear flashed across the other man’s face, followed closely behind by resignation.
“Yeah, sure, okay.”
Tony just wanted to grab him and run, give him a hug and protect him from anything that might hurt him. No one should ever have to feel so insecure.
“Your recent paper on antielectron collisions, you spent some time on the uses of positron emission tomography and positron annihilation spectroscopy in the medical field, but I’m curious if you’ve considered the merging of the two.”
Dr. Banner’s eyebrows rose, though whether it was from the topic change itself or what Tony was proposing, he couldn’t be sure. Tony’s grin did relax into something a bit more real because of it, though.
“O-oh, well, uh, PAS is still in an experimental stage, and, uh, Mr. Stark, it measures a bit differently, so I’m not sure that’s really… feasible.”
He was still clearly uncomfortable, but it was more words strung together than Tony had heard him utter so far, so he counted it as a win.
“Of course,” he acknowledged. “Allow me to clarify. What I mean is that, by using the indirect emission of gamma rays by a positron-emitting radionuclide from the positron emission tomography scanners in most hospitals, we are able to create three-dimensional renderings of metabolic activity. I see no reason why the same method isn’t being used in the application of positron annihilation spectroscopy in the respect of rendering the same for voids. Your paper didn’t include a lot of details, but it seems the current methods are rather less efficient.”
As Tony spoke, Bruce seemed to unconsciously uncurl his spine, already looking taller and more relaxed.
“You’re not wrong,” he allowed. “However, there are some health-risks that must be considered. Given their intended use in the medical field, it’s difficult to say exactly what effects it would have on the human body. There’s been some controversy recently about PET scanners and certain long-term effects. I could recommend some papers that go into more detail, if you’d like?”
His eyes, for the first time, rose to meet Tony’s and didn’t drop immediately away.
“I would like that very much, thank you.”
One of the other men coughed.
“Right, well, we’ll circle back around later. I think it’s time for another Champagne,” he said, lifting an empty glass.
Tony grinned at them as he watched them leave.
“Now, then, that’s better, isn’t it?” He sent a wink Dr. Banner’s way. “I figured they’d wander off eventually if I threw out enough big words.”
Dr. Banner gaped at him.
“What? Mr. Stark-“
“Tony, please,” he interrupted. Then, in a conspiratorial tone, “I really did enjoy your paper. I’d still be interested in hearing what reading recommendations you might suggest.”
“It was excellently written, just to begin with, and some of your theories are just absolutely mind blowing. I’ll confess, I think I stayed up way too late the other night following it down the rabbit hole. Your math is, simply put, gorgeous.”
Dr. Banner’s jaw worked. There was an almost painful look in his eyes, two parts hope, two parts suspicion, and one part fear.
“You didn’t come over here just to talk to me about my paper, though.”
“No,” Tony admitted. “I actually had something else to talk to you about, but then I overheard those two being oblivious asses and figured you wouldn’t mind an assist too terribly much.” He paused, a thought suddenly occurring. “I hope that wasn’t an overstep?”
Dr. Banner gave a huff of air that could almost, almost be classified as a laugh.
“No. Thank you for that. I’m not exactly the most comfortable at events like this.”
“Then why do you come?”
Dr. Banner shrugged.
“Because it would look bad if I didn’t? A lot of the damage that gets caused when we fight… the Other Guy does a good chunk of it. It’s not that I don’t care. People have their lives ruined, lose everything. I just- I’m not-“
“A social butterfly,” Tony finished for him when he couldn’t seem to find the right words. “That’s understandable. And I think, when you come to events even though they make you uncomfortable, that shows you care an awful lot.”
The grateful smile Dr. Banner gave him was a fragile thing and Tony felt another surge of protectiveness.
“How would you like to get out of here for a little while?”
Dr. Banner’s taken-aback surprise and red face told Tony immediately that his words had been taken the wrong way, and he rushed to correct the assumption.
“I have something I need to discuss with an Avenger,” he clarified. “I can’t guarantee that it’ll necessarily be any less stressful than things out here, but it’d at least give you a good excuse for getting away from the crowd for a bit.”
Dr. Banner coughed awkwardly.
“Oh. Yes, that’s- I’m not sure I’m the best Avengers for you to be talking to, but perhaps I could get-“
“Hey, Green Bean! I’ve been looking all over for you!”
Clint Barton came out of nowhere, inserting himself smoothly between Tony and Dr. Banner and clapping the scientist on the shoulder jovially. If Tony hadn’t known Barton already knew exactly where Dr. Banner had been standing, he might have actually bought it. Instead, he saw it as the rescue maneuver he himself had used just a few scant minutes before. His heart warmed at the thought of Dr. Banner’s teammates looking out for him. (Though he had to wonder why Agent Barton showed up now as opposed to earlier, and what exactly it said that apparently Tony was a bigger threat than the two men Dr. Banner had been all but cringing away from.)
“Everything’s fine, Clint,” Dr. Banner reassured, ruining the other’s pretense. “Mr. Stark apparently has some information he needs to pass on to the Avengers. I was just going to offer to grab Steve for him.”
Agent Barton’s demeanor changed in an instant, all of his joviality dropping as he turned serious. He gave a shake of his head at Dr. Banner’s suggestion and made a discrete hand signal to someone across the room.
“He’s busy, and nothing short of a global invasion will tear him away from getting to talk about the good ol’ days with people who were actually there. You know that. Coulson will join us in a minute.” Then, turning his attention to Tony, “Did you have somewhere in mind for us to talk?”
He did, in fact. Tony had reviewed the floorplan for the event hall with JARVIS in an effort to be prepared. He stuck his hands in his pockets and jerked his chin to the side.
No one stopped them as they made their way out of the gala and to an unused meeting room nearby, but Tony wasn’t sure they exactly drew a lot of attention with their exit. The plain man who’d been standing with Agent Barton appeared as they filed into the room, closing the door quietly behind them.
“Mr. Stark,” he greeted mildly. “It’s a pleasure to see you again.”
Right. And here was where Tony’s acting skills got put to the test.
“Iron Man visited me last night,” he said without preamble, causing all three men to stiffen.
Agent Barton’s eyes swept over him yet again as if looking for previously unseen injuries.
“’Visited’?” Agent Coulson questioned. “Not attacked?”
Tony shook his head and pulled the hard drive out of his pocket, setting it down on the room’s table.
“No. Apparently he couldn’t catch a bike messenger and I was the next best thing,” he said, attempting to lace his tone with a bit of annoyance. “He showed up at my penthouse and told me he needed to get this to the Avengers, that it was a matter of saving lives, lots of them.” His expression twisted into a grimace. “He said SHIELD wasn’t to be trusted, but that he needed the Avengers’ help.”
Agent Barton gave a bark of laughter that was far more ferocity than amusement.
“He needs our help? And he thinks we’re going to fall for that?”
Agent Coulson, however, looked speculative and Tony found himself suddenly wondering if he could be trusted.
“Did he say why SHIELD couldn’t be trusted with this information? Or what the information was?”
Tony shook his head.
“We didn’t exactly spend a lot of time chatting,” he bit out, feeling a bit defensive and using it to his advantage. “Forgive me if I wasn’t interested in asking the supervillain who broke into my home a whole bunch of questions.”
Dr. Banner picked up the drive and flipped it over in his hands.
“Did you take a look at what was on it?”
Tony almost denied it outright, saying he wasn’t interested, before thinking better of it and changing his answer at the last second.
“I’ll admit I was tempted, but no. I wasn’t about to run the risk of him finding out and getting pissed. I would suggest plugging it into a non-network connected computer to take a peek, though.”
Agent Coulson nodded along reasonably.
“We’ll be sure to do that, Mr. Stark. Thank you for passing it along and we’re sorry for any inconvenience the experience may have caused you.”
Tony snorted derisively.
“Yeah, sure. I’d definitely classify Iron Man showing up in my living room as an ‘inconvenience’.”
Agent Coulson just gave him a bland smile.
“If you’d like us to send a few agents by to check things out-“
“How about no?” Tony’s skin crawled at just the thought. “Or did you miss the part where Iron Man said SHIELD wasn’t to be trusted? As far as I’m concerned, I don’t want any of you anywhere near my tower. Except you, Dr. Banner. Consider yourself as having a standing invitation to come play in the labs with me.”
Agent Coulson was definitely giving him some kind of look, but Tony had no idea where to even begin figuring out what it might mean. The guy was impossible to read.
“The team will be sure to have a look at the drive,” he said with an air of finality, almost dismissiveness.
The air in the conference room had suddenly taken a turn for the stunningly awkward.
“Great. Then, unless there are any more villains in need of errand boys, I’m gonna get back to my party.”
Tony very carefully didn’t think of the way he left the room as running away.
Tony did a few rounds with the gala attendees after that, but the interactions all felt hollow. The socialization wasn’t nearly as fulfilling as he’d been hoping for. Everyone he talked to seemed to be watching him with a hungry look in their eyes, always wanting something, whether they said what it was or not. It set him on edge and it didn’t take him long to figure out why he apparently didn’t attend very many of these things.
As soon as JARVIS told him it would be acceptable, he slipped out the door once again and trotted down the front steps to meet Happy at the curb.
“Ready to head home, Boss?”
No, he wasn’t, but it wasn’t like there was anywhere else for him to go.
“Looks like it.”
Besides, he had a phone call to wait for.
The phone call didn’t come in until the next day, leaving Tony a jittery mess of anxiety. He’d barely been able to sleep and what little he had gotten had been riddled with nightmares and ghost images conjured up by either his imagination or his memories trying to break through. He wasn’t sure which he’d rather it be. JARVIS’s scans hadn’t shown any significant reduction in the swelling of Tony’s brain. It was going down, but slowly. He was going to be waiting on his memories for a longer time than hoped. Even with what he’d recovered so far, it would be weeks, at the very least, before he got them all back.
Knowing that it would take the Avengers time to review all the information and documents on the hard drive didn’t soothe him. He didn’t like the waiting and not knowing. At least it’d given JARVIS the time to track down the location of the HYDRA facility that was in command of the satellites.
If this didn’t work, if they didn’t believe him, he didn’t know what he was going to do. This had to work.
He’d set up a special line for the Avengers to reach him through. Or, well, JARVIS had set one up for them to reach Iron Man. It was as untraceable as such things could get, which was pretty damn untraceable. Tony wasn’t even sure if he would be able to untangle all the webs JARVIS had woven in order to insure their anonymity. But none of that mattered if they didn’t believe him and call, though.
He almost wanted to collapse with relief when the call finally came in, but that wasn’t an option. Now the real work began.
“Iron Man? This is Captain Rogers.”
“Oh, good. So, Mr. Stark made my delivery, I see?” he asked, leaning back in his chair and trusting JARVIS to modulate his voice like they talked about, just like he did with the suits.
“As if you didn’t have him monitored the entire time to make sure he did.”
Technically, he wasn’t wrong. He knew every move Tony Stark had made.
“You caught me red-handed. I assume you’ve taken a look, or else you wouldn’t be calling me.”
There was a brief pause on the other end of the line and Tony could just imagine Captain Rogers having to remind himself to be civil. He should probably consider backing down a bit on the snark in his tone to make it easier.
“You’ve made some bold accusations,” was all the captain said when he finally spoke again.
“Nothing that’s not true, I assure you. Believe me when I say I’m no happier with it than you are. You may not be able to confirm all of it, but I know, even by now, you’ll have been able to confirm some. I wish I could offer you more time, but I’m afraid we don’t have it.”
“Very conveniently, I’d say. We don’t exactly make a habit of trusting supervillains and now you’re asking us to trust you without the ability to verify it for ourselves.”
Irritation flared in Tony and he scowled, his own reminders to be civil forgotten.
“I’m not asking you to trust me,” he snapped, “I’m asking you to help me. I can’t stop what’s coming on my own. But, by all means, wait until disaster has struck, until a high-powered beam wipes out your entire team and everyone unfortunate enough to be around you.”
There was a crunching noise that cut off part-way through.
“Apologies, Sir,” JARVIS spoke up, “but Captain Rogers has disconnected.”
Shit, shit shit! What had he been thinking? Why had he antagonized the situation? What had even come over him? Now the entire world was going to be taken over by asswipe neo-Nazis and it was all his fault. It’d just been instinct, like his mouth had taken over and spewed exactly what his irritation wanted it to without any input from his brain.
“Another call in incoming. Caller unknown.”
Tony jolted upright.
He waited with bated breath the moments it took for the other person to speak.
“I, uh-“ Captain Rogers cleared his throat. “I didn’t mean to… hang up.”
His voice was still tense, still full of barely-kept-in-check anger, but he’d called back. Tony gave a great sigh of relief, suddenly giddy with the rush of it. He wasn’t going to waste this second chance.
“I shouldn’t have lost my temper,” he acknowledged. “This is just a bit of a stressful situation for me, as I’m sure you can imagine. None of this is what I’d like it to be.”
“Yes, I can definitely imagine.” Some of the tension eased in Captain Rogers’s voice, reassuring Tony that admitting the vulnerability had been the right choice. “We’d like to meet, before the team agrees to anything. In person.”
Tony chewed the inside of his cheek as he mulled over the request – more like demand. It was risky. The Avengers could easily have decided up front not to trust him, or SHIELD could have convinced them that it was all made up, and this could be a trap to capture him and bring him in. He was going to have to meet with them eventually if they were going to coordinate an attack of the HYDRA stronghold, though, and denying an initial meeting wouldn’t be at all conducive to starting off on the right foot.
“I think I could make that work,” he agreed. “Did you have something in mind?”
“Three hours from now, the north side of Mount Marcy. You should be able to find us from there. Or we’ll find you.”
“Can do, Cap.”
There was a pause. Then, “Good.”
The call disconnected a moment later, leaving Tony reeling. This was happening. It was really happening. He might actually have a chance of stopping HYDRA’s plot.
JARVIS ran about a million scans of the Mount Marcy area, both from the suit and using Stark Industries satellites, to rule out the possibility of an ambush before bringing them in to touch down in front of the assembled Avengers. Dr. Banner was there, in his non-Hulk form, but the others were all in full uniform, weapons clearly visible but stances non-threatening. Even Thor was there, meaning he must have returned sometime after the gala. Did they have a way of getting in touch with him while he was off-world? Tony had to try very hard not to let the implications distract him.
“So,” he drawled, trying his best not to let his nervousness show, “the gang’s all here.”
Captain Rogers stepped forward.
“Thank you for agreeing to meet,” he started, though the way his jaw clenched around the words indicated it had cost him something to say it. “We have some questions and we wanted to make sure any conversations between us were secure.”
Agent Barton snorted from where he was crouched on a tree branch behind the rest of his teammates, bow in hand.
“Maybe not the best choice of words.”
Tony just shrugged.
“You think I was going to let the opportunity for a pun like that pass me by?”
Clint pointed a finger at him, looking suddenly serious.
“You, I like you. Stop it. I’m not allowed to like supervillains.”
“We want to know how this partnership you’re proposing is supposed to work,” Agent Romanov cut in, stepping up beside Cap and getting them back on track. “You’ve given us this information and asked for our help, but what exactly do you want from us?”
“I have the location of the facility where the signals will be sent from, but it’s too much for me to take on my own without some drastic measures I’m not willing to resort to.” Because like fuck was he about to bomb someplace where the blast radius could very realistically wipe civilians off the map. “I want you to help me get inside, to take Hydra out or at least hold them off while I access the system and shut this whole operation down. After that, I can handle cleanup on my own.”
One red eyebrow arched as she continued to eye him.
“Cleanup?” Cap asked.
“Removing and destroying the satellites in orbit that they’re using, making sure no one else can try to pull this same thing. I’ll need to scour any trace of it from their system, of course, and see what else can be found on it. I’d be willing to feed you more intel, depending on what I find, of course, and I assume you’ll have your hands full cleaning out SHIELD of its… infestation.”
Cap’s scowl deepened.
“We’re not just going to let you play around willy-nilly in Hydra’s systems, much less hand over a whole bunch of satellites to a supervillain.”
“Okay, first of all, can we cut it with this supervillain schtick? I get it, okay. I know how you classify me. You don’t have to repeat it every other sentence like I’ve somehow managed to forget.” Nevermind the fact that he’d already managed to forget quite a few things. “And second, ‘willy-nilly’? Really? Who even says that?”
Cap colored under his mask.
“That’s not the point.”
“No, it’s not. The point is that I’m the best person on this planet to handle the search through Hydra’s servers and very likely the only one capable of extended space travel. Look, I don’t want these guys around any more than you do.”
“The point,” Agent Romanov said, “is that you could do a lot of damage with whatever is in their system and we have no guarantees that that’s not exactly what you’re looking to get from all of this. Would a Hydra-ruled world be bad for you? Yes, absolutely, but there’s nothing to keep you from trying to get as much as you can out of this in the end, and it’d leave us in a pretty shit position to be trading a Hydra takeover for an Iron Man one.”
Tony understood where she was coming from, he did, but that didn’t change the fact that he didn’t trust anyone else to do the work instead. But he could also tell they weren’t going to back down, either. He was going to have to think fast on this one.
“I know you’re not going to trust me,” started out, “but how about a deal? Or an extended deal, as it were. There’s no use arguing over the satellites when I’m the only one who can reach them, and you’ll be able to track my progress of destroying them anyway. So, you leave me be to take care of that, and I’ll back off on letting someone else do the analysis of Hydra’s servers after the initial shut down. I’ll… get you a list of people with my approval and you can pick whoever you want off of that. I don’t know, I’ll have to think about it and check them out to make sure they don’t have any ties to Hydra so we’re not just back to square one.”
Cap and Agent Romanov exchanged a look before a hushed, unexpected voice piped up from the side.
“Would Tony Stark work?” Dr. Banner asked.
Tony could have kissed him. Still, he couldn’t seem too eager.
“Do you trust him?” he asked instead, infusing his tone with the caution of an undecided party.
Dr. Banner shrugged, looking uncomfortable at being part of the conversation even though he was the one to enter it.
“You trusted him enough to pass the information to us through him. Even if it was only because he had access, I assume you checked to make sure he wasn’t Hydra first.” He paused, and then, “Besides, he seems like a decent guy. I think he’d want to help.”
Tony was a little too caught up in the rush of affection and gratitude at his words to respond right away, but Agent Barton jumped in before anyone could notice.
“Are you kidding? He couldn’t get away from us fast enough last night. I know a thing or two about uncomfortable people, and that guy? He was so jittery he had me checking exit routes.”
Well, at least they didn’t think he was involved with Iron Man.
“Would he not understand the perilous nature of this venture?” Thor joined in, his voice a deep rumble. “I have not had the pleasure of meeting Sir Stark myself, but he has been a generous benefactor for those affected by the destruction of rampant villainy. It is an admirable deed and a man who partakes in such charity must be concerned for the welfare of his brethren.”
Clint didn’t seem convinced.
“Stark doesn’t want anyone from SHIELD anywhere near that tower of his, and I’ll bet money that includes us.”
“Except me,” Dr. Banner put in tentatively. “I have a standing invitation. I could- I could go and talk to him.”
Tony might have been an outsider, but even he had at least an inkling of how big of a deal it was for Dr. Banner to be volunteering for something like this. Just judging by his behavior the night before, he didn’t take much of an active role in anything involving social interaction.
“Take Steve with you,” Agent Romanov instructed when no one else spoke up for a moment. “Stark still owns most of the historical memorabilia related to Captain America in the Smithsonian exhibit and he had a pretty well-recorded fanboy obsession in his teens and twenties. It might give you an edge.”
Well, it was too bad for her that Tony couldn’t actually remember any of that obsession. But, seeing the relieved look on Dr. Banner’s face, he had the sneaking suspicion that an edge wasn’t the only motivation behind Agent Romanov’s suggestion.
“Alright, then,” he spoke up again. “If you can get him on-board, I’ll agree to Tony Stark being the one to dig through Hydra’s data. At the very least, I can’t argue that he doesn’t have the skill.”
Cap gave a sharp nod and stuck his hand out.
“We have a deal, then.”
Tony couldn’t feel his grip through the armor as their hands clasped, but he imagined it was firm, steady, just like Cap.
“Give me a call once you’ve got an answer from Stark. You know how to reach me. We’ll make a plan from there."
He released Cap’s hand, stepped back, and JARVIS took charge once again to send them up into the sky.
Tony spent every minute of the few hours it took Dr. Banner and Captain Rogers to show up at his door panicking over how to handle them. Obviously, he was going to agree. There was no question about that, but he couldn’t appear too eager. If he agreed right away, Agents Barton and Romanov would be suspicious. Hell, Dr. Banner and Cap might be suspicious after their warnings. So, he was going to have to play hard to get. Just not too hard to get.
He was still agonizing over what to wear – not a full suit, that was too much, but the jeans and tank top he usually wore while in the lab was too casual. A button up? Maybe with the sleeves rolled up to the elbow? – when JARVIS broke in.
“Dr. Banner and Captain Rogers have arrived, Sir. Would you like to go retrieve them from the lobby?”
Tony instantly recognized the question for the suggestion it really was. He wouldn’t just let anyone come up to the penthouse, even if they weren’t here on official SI business.
“Tell them I’ll be down in a moment.”
Guess it was a button-up with rolled up sleeves over jeans after all. He didn’t have time to change. Snatching his earpiece to JARVIS off the dresser on his way, Tony headed for the elevator. By the time he reached the lobby, he was ready.
“Dr. Banner!” he greeted jovially as he crossed the marble floor to the pair loitering by the security desk. “I’ll admit, I wasn’t expecting you to take me up on my offer so soon! Or to bring a friend.”
He winked, just to make sure they knew he wasn’t upset by the addition. Maybe he would have been, in other circumstances, but there was no reason to get things started on the wrong foot. Dr. Banner gave him a small, subdued smile.
“Call me Bruce, please, Mr. Stark,” he said, pushing his glasses up where they’d slipped down his nose. “And I’m afraid we’re not here to play around in your labs.”
“Then I’ll have to insist on you calling me Tony. Again.” He let a bit of sharpness enter his gaze but kept his smile in place. “Why don’t we talk in my office? If you’ll follow me, Bruce, Captain.”
He led them back toward his private elevator. It could drop them off on the executive floor instead of going all the way back up to the penthouse. The two Avengers fell in with him, Cap picking up his pace a bit to walk beside him.
“Just Steve is fine, if you’d like,” he offered with a bit of an awkward smile.
It would have been impossible not to see the discomfort there. Tony pat him on the bicep as they boarded the elevator.
“How about we stick with Cap for now,” he suggested gently, not wanting to give insult. “Ask me to call you Steve again once we know each other a little better.”
Relief flooded Cap’s expression before he scrambled to cover it up.
“I, uh, I’m sorry we didn’t get to talk at all last night at the gala,” he tried for.
Someone, probably Agent Romanov, had clearly coached him on playing nice. It probably would have worked better for someone else. Cap didn’t seem to have had much practice with it.
“I left a bit on the early side,” Tony allowed him.
That, and Cap hadn’t had any interest in talking to anyone under the age of eighty. Tony didn’t hold it against him, but there was no real polite way to point it out. In truth, Tony had skirted the fringes of Cap’s little cluster and listened in to some of the conversation but hadn’t done anything to insert himself into them. It would have been too suspicious when he’d already had the conversation with Bruce and Agents Barton and Coulson.
The three of them fell into silence until they were safely inside Tony’s office and he’d shut the door behind them.
“Now,” he said, tone becoming more serious as he moved to sit in the chair behind the desk and his visitors sat in those in front, “I’m assuming this has something to do with whatever Iron Man had me pass along to you last night? Please tell me you didn’t plug it into a mainframe-connected computer and let loose a virus.”
“No, we didn’t,” Bruce assured him, “but you are right that this has to do with the drive. It contained information about an upcoming global threat that Iron Man wants our help taking care of.”
Tony’s eyebrows rose.
“You’re telling me a supervillain came to you for help protecting the planet? Is it some kind of turf war? Is that why he was so adamant about not trusting SHIELD?”
Bruce winced and exchanged a glance with Cap, turning over the reins of the explanation.
“SHIELD has been compromised,” Cap said. “I don’t want to alarm you, but the situation is rather dire.” He leaned forward, placing his elbows on his knees, expression betraying a deep shame and anger. “Hydra is back. They never really left, actually. They’ve been growing inside of SHIELD, and elsewhere. They- They have a plan. One that could kill a lot of people.”
To hear it said aloud was chilling, especially in that tone Cap was using. Even already knowing, Tony couldn’t help the way his heart clenched. It was probably a good thing, since it made his reaction all the more genuine.
“But you’re gonna stop them.”
His voice wavered as he said the words and he cleared his throat, trying to shake it off.
“We are,” Bruce told him softly, “but we could really use your help.”
“Me? What can I do?”
“We need someone we can trust to go through Hydra’s server after we hit their base. There are going to be project files, mission reports, experiment records and all sorts of administrative paperwork. We need to be able to extract the information that’ll help us take out their other strongholds and the rest, well, it would be best to destroy it, to keep it out of the hands of anyone who would use it for their own ends. We don’t trust Iron Man, but he’s agreed to leave the server alone if you’re the one to go through it.”
Tony was silent for a long moment, weighing his options and playing it off as shock.
“Iron Man,” he enunciated carefully, “wants me to go through Hydra’s server? Why in the world would he pick me? Because, let me tell you, I had quite enough of him when he broke into my house.”
“Actually, uh, I suggested you. I think he agreed because there’s no denying you’ve got the skills and he’s reasonably sure you’re not Hydra.”
“Damn right, I’m not Hydra!”
“So, will you help us?” Cap asked. “We’re not asking you to be in any active combat zones. We’ll bring everything you need here. Or, if that’s not possible, we’ll fly you out after we’ve already cleared and secured the area. You won’t be in any danger.”
Tony bit his lip and looked away from them.
“I can’t really say no, can I?” he finally settled on. “But I don’t want to be around Iron Man. I don’t trust him, and I sure as hell don’t like him. He stays the hell away from me and my home.”
That would hopefully make it easier for him to maintain his dual identities, at least. Cap gave a sharp nod.
“I think we can manage that. Thank you, Mr. Stark. You’re gonna make a world of difference.”
After that was settled, it didn’t take much longer for Iron Man and the Avengers to come up with and agree on a plan of attack. Iron Man divulged the location of the base, an old castle in Sokovia, and the other information he’d found about it. Red Skull’s second in command, it seemed, was a man named Baron von Strucker – who had a penchant for human experimentation, both on willing and unwilling subjects. He had branched off from just attempting to create super soldiers into stimulating all sorts of super-human traits in his test subjects. Honestly, just reading through some of the material had been enough to turn Tony’s stomach.
Nevertheless, the base was heavily guarded by both standard Hydra personnel and an unknown number of these meta-humans. There was no way to avoid a fight to get inside. As soon as Hydra figured out they were there, they were going to go all out. SHIELD, the pieces of it that weren’t made up of Nazis, weren’t going to be in any shape to lend support, either. Through Agent Coulson, the Avengers had coordinated with Nick Fury, the director himself, to do a clean sweep and initiate the removal of all Hydra affiliates while the assault of the base was happening. They couldn’t risk Hydra being given the chance to slink off and hide.
They needed to be stopped for good.
Iron Man and the Avengers would approach the base using stealth as far as they could before launching into a full assault. The point would come when they had no other choice, Tony knew, but it would help not to give Hydra too much of a warning that they were on their way. He and the team still didn’t trust each other, of course, though he was probably a bit closer to doing so than they were. To be fair, he had more information. All they had was a few years of thinking he was a villain and trying to hunt him down for it. They just had to get through the one fight, though. They could manage that, Tony hoped.
Thor and Iron Man would be air support, with Thor tasked with using his lightning to break through the force field barrier surrounding the central grounds of the base. Cap and the others would be the distraction, of sorts, to keep Hydra from noticing that Iron Man was slipping inside. (Though he was sure that one of them, probably Agent Romanov, would be slipping in after him to keep an eye on him.) They would focus on taking out and subduing Hydra’s forces, locating and taking into custody both Baron von Strucker and Red Skull, while Iron Man found their server terminals and introduced a malicious virus to corrupt their signal with the satellites and communication frequencies to keep them from calling for help.
There was a lot that could go wrong, but at least it gave them solid goals to aim for. Tony thought Cap had put it well by saying, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” As long as it ended with Hydra being stopped, he wasn’t picky about the details. With the plan in place, he and the Avengers agreed to meet in Sokovia in two days’ time. It would give them time to prepare, but, mostly, it was to ensure SHIELD had time to get everything in place for their house cleaning.
Tony spent the time working on a way for Iron Man to start getting rid of the satellites while he as Tony Stark was busy sorting through Hydra’s systems. It wouldn’t make sense for Iron Man to wait for him to finish before getting started. He settled on nanotechnology, in the end. It wasn’t the most elegant solution, but it would work, and he had most of the items needed already available to him. Essentially, he was crafting nanite bombs that would be discreetly launched into space, targeting the Hydra-occupied satellites and devouring them upon impact. Once the materials were consumed, the nanites would form together and deactivate. Tony would have to go up and clean them out of orbit later, of course, but it meant ‘Iron Man’ would be removing satellites while Tony Stark was under the watchful eye of the Avengers.
Once he was done with Hydra’s systems, he’d be much freer to head up and take care of both the nanites and the remaining satellites. In the two days before the attack, he and JARVIS were only able to craft six of the bombs. It wouldn’t be nearly enough to clear out all the satellites, but it would be a start, though, and that counted for quite a bit. JARVIS would be able to fabricate more while the assault on the base was happening, too. Even later, the method would be more efficient than trying to dismantle the satellites by hand, the only difference being that Tony would be there to collect the nanites immediately.
That wasn’t something for Tony to worry about now, though, not when he was touching down on Sokovian soil at the coordinates where he was supposed to meet the Avengers. He was the first one there, but that wasn’t surprising. He’d intended to be. He felt restless, jittery. JARVIS would be handling the combat itself, of course, but this would be the most serious situation Tony had been in since he’d lost his memories, very possibly even including before he lost them. The fate of the world relied on their success and that was a lot of responsibility to have resting on your shoulders. It probably didn’t help that he’d woken up each of the last two nights from nightmares.
He took a few deep breaths and tried to calm his racing heart.
“Am I usually this nervous, J?”
He felt hot, even though he knew the suit was perfectly climate controlled.
“Not so acutely, Sir. However, you do have a history of more heightened anxiety than you seem to have experienced since your injury. I am sure it makes the difference seem vaster.”
That didn’t do much to make him feel any better. Luckily, he didn’t have to think about it for long as the Avengers’ quinjet came into view and touched down carefully in the clearing. It was one of the larger transport models, built to accommodate vehicles as well as having holding facilities for captives. They would need them for Red Skull and the Baron. The Avengers disembarked, Cap guiding down a motorcycle and Agents Romanov and Barton atop an off-roader. Tony was guessing she would drive while he shot. Thor and Bruce followed them, Bruce shuffling along with his nervous, slightly uncomfortable air. Tony noticed with idle curiosity that he wasn’t wearing shoes, probably to save them from destruction when he transformed into the Hulk.
“Iron Man,” Cap greeted.
Tony nodded his acknowledgement.
“Glad you all could make it.”
He might have said more, except that another person emerging from the quinjet. Cap followed his gaze, shifting awkwardly.
“I asked a friend of mine to join us. I figured we could use all the help we could get. Iron Man, meet Falcon.”
The man stood tall and wore a serious expression that reminded Tony quite distinctly of Rhodey, though he couldn’t say why. He hadn’t even met Rhodey, not since he’d lost his memories. There was a metal pack of sorts strapped to his back that JARVIS quickly analyzed, throwing up the details on the HUD for Tony to glance over.
“Those are EXO-7 Falcon wings. I see where you got the name.”
His tone was carefully neutral, betraying nothing. Apparently, they were a project he’d completed for the military, tested and piloted by a small team of pararescue troops. It’d been decommissioned, though. Those wings should have been locked up in storage somewhere.
“I’d say it’s a pleasure to meet you,” Falcon said as he came to stand by Cap’s side, “but considering you’re wanted by almost every government in the world…”
Tony have a disappointed click of his tongue.
“There’s just no accounting for poor taste,” he lamented. “Though, just so we’re clear, if you turn out to be Hydra, I won’t hesitate to shoot you out of the sky. Preferably while you are very high up.”
He stared Falcon down, something he was sure was much more intimidating through the glowing eye slits of the armor. To his credit, Falcon didn’t flinch, but JARVIS was still able to track the uptick in his heartbeat at the threat. (He probably also wasn’t aware that Tony would be able to find out his real identity in a matter of minutes by pulling military records.)
“Good thing I’m not Hydra, then,” was all he said in response.
“Good,” Tony agreed.
Thor swung his hammer idly by the strap, looking impatient.
“Shall we begin, then? I will rest far better once these wretches have been wiped off the face of this realm.”
Cap, mouth set in a grim line, nodded his assent.
“Yeah, let’s get this taken care of.”
Hydra figured out they were there sooner than Tony would have liked, but that didn’t stop them from crashing their way through the front door. He and the Avengers worked well together, though, even Falcon. Tony attributed most of that to JARVIS being the one in charge. Even not being in control of the suit, it was an exhausting fight.
The first wave of defenders were the standard Hydra foot soldiers. They were well-trained professionals, but still didn’t stand much of a chance against powers like Captain America and the Hulk. Their advantage came more from numbers than overwhelming strength. The Avengers held their own against the odds and continued gaining steady ground until they were close enough to the force field for Thor to fly up and begin calling his lightning strikes upon it.
That’s when Hydra let loose their dogs, Strucker’s enhanced test subjects.
The first one on the scene had been barely a blur, moving too fast for the eye to track. Even JARVIS was barely able to keep up with whoever it was with the suit’s sensors. It was still too slow to be able to react to their movements. Tony had still been trying to decipher a pattern in their movements, hoping to be able to predict where they would be instead and aim there, when the next individual arrived. She was a young woman in a tattered red smock and a matching jacket. Apparently, she was going for full coordination because red energy swirled around her hands, lashing out at them.
Then there was the man in black leather tac gear, mask over his face and a gleaming metal arm. He moved with grace and power and hit hard enough to give Cap a run for his money. He fought with guns and blades instead of magic or whatever it was the girl was using, and he was far more coordinated in his strikes. Of the three of them, he was the one Tony would guess to be the most highly trained.
Even after Thor brought down the force field surrounding the base, they weren’t able to get through. True, Tony probably could have made a run for it and pushed through without the Avengers, but he found himself reluctant to do so. It would leave him on his own against who knew what other tricks Hydra had in store, not to mention that it just wouldn’t feel right to abandon the team. He knew he needed to get in there to shut down communications, but it could wait another few minutes.
Luckily, Thor rejoining their troupe was just enough of a distraction for JARVIS to nail the quick one with a repulsor blast that knocked him to the ground where Black Widow pounced and used her Widow Bites to make sure the white-haired young man wouldn’t be getting back up anytime soon.
The lady in red hadn’t liked that.
The upside was that she seemed to drop any pretense of strategy. The downside was that she seemed more than willing to take her rage and pain out on any and all of them, screaming near-incoherently as she did so. She threw Hulk hard enough to knock down several trees, no small feat.
Agent Barton finally managed to put her down with an arrow loaded with tranquilizers.
With only the man in black and more foot soldiers remaining, Tony felt comfortable forging ahead, well aware of Black Widow shadowing him along his progress and Hulk bounding after them to begin quite literally tearing down the walls of the base.
Their top priority was locating and apprehending Strucker and Red Skull. They were the driving force behind this whole thing. And Tony needed to find the server room and shut things down. He and Natasha split up as soon as they were inside. The others wouldn’t be far behind her. As soon as they got that last Hydra enhanced taken care of, they’d follow and be able to provide backup.
Tony kept an eye out on his surroundings as JARVIS scanned the building and found the server room. More Hydra agents popped up to try and stop him, but none of them lasted very long. He was surrounded by computer banks in less than two minutes. After that, it was just a matter of plugging the suit into the system via one of the cables designed especially for this purpose, and then he was taking control, diving in deeper.
As expected, the base had already sent out a few distress calls, but nothing that would make a difference to their fight. Mostly, they were to SHIELD facilities, and Tony hoped that the agents there were already preoccupied with Fury’s housecleaning. It was going to be a hard enough job even without a heads up. Tony took a moment to scramble all their out-going frequencies. He didn’t question why he knew how to do that without JARVIS needing to walk him through it.
After that, he dug for the thing that had brought them all there in the first place. Project files flew across the screen of the HUD, picked up and discarded as soon as they weren’t what he was looking for. He would have time enough to go through them later. He had a feeling that there was going to be a lot of things here that made him feel very ill.
By the time he’d located and scrubbed the launch codes, the targeting algorithm, and any and all uplink connections for the satellites, a good chunk of time had passed. The sounds of gunfire and fighting from overhead had fallen silent and he could only assume the invasion was over. Tony let himself slump forward to rest the forehead of his helmet against one of the data banks, just as much exhausted as he was relieved.
“You’re not gonna power down or something, are you? I don’t know where the restart button is.”
Tony jumped and whirled, palms coming up and repulsors charging at the sound of the unexpected voice. He only barely managed to keep from shooting Agent Barton in the face. The agent looked startled and raised both hands in the universal sign of ‘I give’.
“Yeesh. Jumpy, aren’t you?”
Tony forced his arms to lower, taking several deep, calming breaths as he did so. His heart was running a mile a minute and it was a less-than-pleasant sensation.
“I didn’t realize anyone was here,” he admitted.
Agent Barton grinned and dropped his hands, leaning casually up against the wall as he did so.
“Yeah, you seemed pretty focused. I’ve been here a little over half an hour, actually. I told Rogers I was watching your back in case any Hydra agents had managed to hide out, but really I just didn’t want to help with the cleanup.”
Tony arched an eyebrow skeptically, even knowing the other couldn’t see it.
“It wasn’t to make sure I wasn’t betraying you all?”
Agent Barton shrugged.
“How would I have known if you did? It’s not like I could see whatever you were doing in there and you were hardly moving, just your hands, a bit. Hell, for all I know, that’s exactly what you did.”
“You seem awfully calm about the possibility.”
“What difference would it make? We’ll know soon enough once Stark gets in there and starts digging around. Even if you covered your tracks, I’m pretty sure he’d be able to pick up on it.”
Tony cocked his head to one side.
“So, you think he’s smarter than me.”
He tried to sound insulted by the idea, but he was honestly mostly curious about the answer. He didn’t know much about how other people saw him. Agent Barton gave him another shrug.
“I think he probably thinks he is.”
The words could have easily been disparaging, but Tony didn’t think that was the agent’s intent. He was more of just… making an observation.
“Well,” Tony said as he headed for the door, “I guess we’ll find out.”
The others were scattered about the property, Thor guarding the prisoners that weren’t high enough of a priority to be loaded onto the quinjet right away. Bruce, back in charge of his body, was poking around some of the lab spaces with truly lackluster enthusiasm. Tony could hardly blame him, when he looked like he was about to fall asleep any second. The transformation probably took a lot out of him.
Agent Romanov, Falcon, and Cap were on the quinjet, now parked in front of the base. Tony stomped up the metal ramp with Agent Barton on his heels. The three enhanced individuals were laid out in what looked to be a medbay, all restrained to their cots with IV’s of what Tony could only assume to be some sort of sedative. Cap was there, sitting on a bench near the black-clad enhanced and looking absolutely wrecked. He’d pushed his cowl back off his head, leaving his blond hair a mess, and his face was lined with pain and guilt and anger so intense it had Tony’s steps faltering.
“What did I miss?” he asked, mind already running through the possibilities.
Had someone on the team been hurt? Was there bad news on the SHIELD front? What had happened?
“Nothing you need to worry about,” Falcon told him in a clipped tone as he stepped into Tony’s line of sight.
Agent Romanov appeared behind him, wiping her hands of what Tony had a sneaking suspicion was blood.
“Strucker’s been secured,” she told him. “We have him in holding, but Red Skull managed to slip away. Either he got out right when the assault started, or he was never here in the first place. We weren’t able to set eyes on him. Hopefully Stark will be able to find a way to track him in Hydra’s system, but I’ll be asking Strucker some questions about it. We’ll get him one way or another.”
Tony cursed, though JARVIS thankfully didn’t put it through the suit’s speakers.
“That’s less than reassuring, considering you didn’t even know he was back until I told you.”
Agent Romanov didn’t even twitch, which he had to give her props for, even in his anger.
“We’re more informed now,” she told him impassively, “and we have plenty of leads to follow.”
She didn’t offer to keep him informed of their progress, which was understandable. He was a one-time ally out of necessity. Still, it would have been infuriating if he didn’t know he would still be handling all the information. If they needed Iron Man, he could be there. It’d worked out well enough this time, after all.
“I’ll be watching,” he informed her before casting once last look around the craft and stomping his way back out.
He needed to get back to the tower before the Avengers sent for Tony Stark to be collected and brought to the base. It was going to be no small task. It’d be best not to waste any more time.
“Get us out of here, J.”
The Avengers called him, Tony Stark him, during the flight back and he barely managed to get back, get the suit off, and make it up to the penthouse before Agent Barton and Falcon arrived to collect him. At least he assumed it was Falcon. He wasn’t wearing the wings or other gear anymore.
“Sam Wilson,” he introduced himself with a smile that was friendly and warm. “I’m a new addition. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Tony shook his hand.
“I’ll admit, I wish the circumstances were a bit different.”
Sam nodded in understanding as they boarded the quinjet, a smaller one than the transporter the team had taken for the assault.
“Definitely. It’s hard to believe Hydra’s back, I’ll admit.”
Tony shrugged, settling his bag and the gear he’d brought for the hacking onto one of the bench seats.
“I think it’s more that they never really left,” he said.
“Either way,” Agent Barton called from cockpit, “they’re not gonna be around for much longer.”
Tony certainly hoped so.
He settled into the back of the quinjet with Sam as Clint got them in the air and set their course. A silence settled between them, not quite uncomfortable but with a definitely undercurrent of unease, for several minutes before Sam turned to face him, a serious set to his expression.
“I should warn you, you’re probably gonna see some pretty rough stuff in Hydra’s files. We’ve cleared the base, of course. It’s all secure, but we’re not sure what kind of records you’re gonna come across. Even just what we found on sight was… pretty bad. I know there’s nothing that can really prepare someone to witness the darker sides of humanity, but I wanted you to be able to brace yourself.”
It was unexpected, honestly, though Tony wasn’t sure why. He was just a civilian, after all. Yes, the file JARVIS had given him said he used to make weapons and that he’d been kidnapped and held by terrorists for three months, but there was no reason for the team to think it went past that. Of course, even as Iron Man, Tony doubted he had seen much that would stand up to human experimentation. (At least, he certainly hoped not. And it wasn’t like it was the kind of thing that got less horrible with more exposure.)
“Thanks,” he said, and he meant it. “I… I can’t say I haven’t been concerned, about what I might come across.”
Sam reached across the little aisle between their seats to place a comforting hand on his shoulder.
“If you need to take a step back from it, at any time, that’s okay. We need the info that’s in those files, but we don’t want you hurting yourself, either. We understand that this isn’t the kind of thing you usually do.”
Tony somehow felt smaller and more fragile at his words, for all that they were comforting and kind. It wasn’t fear of what he would find, but some acute sense of vulnerability at being given permission to feel it. Without realizing, Tony had been shoving all of his uncomfortable thoughts to the back of his mind and doing his best not to focus on them. It hadn’t been a conscious decision, but he’d been putting the mission, the objective, first and not considering the toll it might take on himself.
Tony dropped his gaze to his lap and was surprised to find that his hands were trembling.
“No, it’s not,” he admitted, “but getting that information could save lives and that’s worth me being a little uncomfortable, I think.” Sam opened his mouth to object, but Tony forged on. “I’m not saying I might not need to step away for a bit, or that I’m not going need an entire bottle of scotch to bleach my brain with once I’m done, but I understand how serious this is.”
Sam’s hand on his shoulder gave a little squeeze and then withdrew.
“I know you do,” he said softly. “We all do. This is more than even the team is used to dealing with, definitely more than anything I’ve had to deal with before. So. If you ever need to talk, just know I’m happy to listen. Or any of the rest of us. I’ve heard you and Bruce get along pretty well.”
Tony snorted half-heartedly, trying to wrestle his emotions back unto check.
“We’ve met each other twice, and both times we just wanted something from the other. But… his papers are pretty impressive. Maybe, when this is all over, he and I will actually be able to sit down and talk some science.”
Sam smiled at him.
“I think he’d probably enjoy that a lot.”
The mood, when they arrived at the Hydra base and were greeted by Bruce, was somber and awkward. Tony had anticipated the seriousness of the situation, of course, but the awkwardness of it came as a bit of a surprise. At first, he thought it was just Bruce’s natural discomfort with social encounters, but it quickly became clear that it was more than that.
“Steve, Natasha and Thor took the captives to a SHIELD facility that’s been cleared of the Hydra infiltration,” Bruce informed him as he was led into the base. “Thor will return once they’re secured. Natasha and Steve will be staying on.”
Tony frowned. Agent Romanov, he understood. She had interrogations to conduct. Cap didn’t really seem the interrogation type, though. Unless they were trying to pull some bad cop, good cop routine, but Tony had a sneaking suspicion that wasn’t going to be very effective on Hydra agents. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a justifiable reason for him to pry for more information there. Sam hadn’t told him much on the way over, and Clint had told him even less.
“Was any of the server equipment damaged in the attack?” he asked instead, since that was meant to be his priority here.
“No, but Iron Man was in the system for a while; we can’t be sure exactly how long. He shut down communications, though. That much we were able to confirm. He was supposed to sever the connections between this base and the satellites Hydra planned to use for the attack, which he’s now gone to start taking apart. We assume that’s the case, but we’d appreciate you confirming it.”
“I should be able to manage that. All I’d have to do is check where they should be. Unless Hydra was using a very unusual set-up, it shouldn’t be difficult.”
Which would be true, even if he didn’t already have the answer. Bruce opened the door for him into the server room, since Tony would hook into the system using his own computer.
“If you could find out where else he might have gone in the system, too, that was one of Natasha’s concerns. He could have removed things he didn’t want us to know about, either for his own use or because he was somehow involved. Or he could have left something.”
Not that Tony blamed them, but wow, the Avengers did not trust Iron Man.
“That’ll be a bit more difficult,” he admitted, “if not impossible. I’m good, but so is Iron Man. That’s how he hasn’t been caught yet. Hell, you can tell just from his armor that he’s no slouch in the tech department. He knows how to cover his tracks.”
Bruce nodded in understanding, probably having expected the answer.
“Just do what you can and we’ll be extremely grateful.”
“That, you can count on.”
He set his bag down on the table someone had dragged into the server room and pulled out the laptop he’d brought along.
“Other than Iron Man’s activity, is there anything else specific I should be looking for? Some way you guys want me prioritizing the search?”
Here, Bruce’s awkwardness became even more pronounced and he shifted uncomfortably.
“A couple things, actually. Red Skull got away during the attack, so our top priority right now if trying to find out where he went. The longer he’s out there, the more damage he’ll do. The other thing… try and look into anything involving the Winter Soldier.”
Tony’s brow furrowed, trying to place the name without success. Whoever the Winter Soldier was, he hadn’t been mentioned in any of JARVIS’s briefings.
“Sure thing,” he agreed instead of asking for more information. “I’ll see what I can dig up.”
“Anything you find as far as location leads go, we’d appreciate you forwarding them here,” Bruce continued, sliding a piece of paper onto the table. “It’s a secure terminal, so you’ll have to go there first and set up your access, but then you should be able to just upload any files you find like a Dropbox. Agent Hill will be monitoring and processing anything you leave there. She can be trusted.”
Tony nodded along, already committing the long string of numbers to memory.
“And Tony,” Bruce spoke again, waiting until Tony looked up. “Thank you.”
The sincerity in his tone inspired warm feelings in Tony’s chest, even while something inside of his twisted awkwardly at the sentiment.
“Anything I can do,” he brushed it off. “I’ll jump right on it. The sooner I get done, the sooner I get to go home.”
Between him and JARVIS, they’d make short work of Hydra’s system anyway.
Tony thought he’d been prepared.
Well, really, he’d just had so much else going on that he hadn’t really focused on the implications of what he might find in Hydra’s systems. Even after the talk with Sam, he’d thought he could handle it. It was just words, information. He’d sort through it and do what needed to be done, judging the hell out of the sick bastards and being glad that they’d been brought down.
He was wrong.
“You, uh, sure you don’t want me to go get Sam, man?”
Tony nodded, not opening his eyes or lifting his head from between his knees. He was squatting outside of the door to the server room, trying to take deep, calming breaths so he didn’t vomit all over the floor while Agent Barton hovered nearby.
“I’m fine,” he managed to choke out.
Agent Barton snorted.
“Yeah, you sure look fine. Maybe loosen the grip on your hair a little bit, huh? It looks like it’s about to come out at the roots.”
Tony tried, he really did, but his fingers just didn’t want to cooperate. Fuck, he was so stupid! He hadn’t even managed to make it an hour. At this rate, they were gonna kick him out just because he couldn’t pull himself together enough to do his damn job. At least JARVIS was still going through it all, so progress wasn’t completely halted. His attention was divided, though, since the first nano-missile had been launched at the satellites. Tony needed to get back in there. He needed to find Red Skull. Someone had to pay.
He nearly jumped out of his skin when rough hands brushed against his own, guiding them firmly, if gently, out of his hair.
“Come on,” Agent Barton coached him. “That’s it. Nice and easy, now.”
Tony sucked in a deep breath, nearly choking on it, but allowed his hands to be drawn away.
“They were just kids.”
Agent Barton made a sympathetic noise.
“Kids are always the hardest,” he commiserated softly.
“They- They-“ but Tony couldn’t say what, exactly, Hydra had done. It was too much, too horrifying. There was no way he could put it into words without it searing his tongue the same way the images had seared his mind.
Agent Barton settled down on the ground beside him.
“You don’t have to talk about it. I mean, I know they say talking helps and all that, but you don’t have to do it right now, with me, if you’re not feeling up to it.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes while Tony concentrated on his breathing.
“I thought I was ready,” he confessed finally.
It was all the more embarrassing because Agent Barton had been there when Sam had given him the talk. Tony felt sick. Agent Barton bumped their shoulders together gently.
“You’re never ready, not for shit like this,” he said. “Trust me. I’ve seen as much as anybody and it never gets better. You learn to compartmentalize, but it still catches up to you. It’ll stay with you, too. We signed up for that; you didn’t. If it weren’t for how badly we need the info out of this system, and how well it’s protected, we never would have considered bringing someone like you in. You’re a civilian. You shouldn’t be exposed to this kind of thing.”
Tony turned his head to give Agent Barton a look.
“Right. Because I’m such a delicate flower.”
Outside of Iron Man, he’d still been the Merchant of Death, still been held captive and tortured for three months by terrorists. He might not remember any of those things outside of the glimpses his nightmares gave him, but that didn’t mean he hadn’t been through them. He wasn’t a different person.
Agent Barton snorted.
“That just means you’ve already seen more of this shit than you ever should have had to. We signed up for this. You didn’t.”
Tony knew it was supposed to be comforting, that Agent Barton was saying it was okay for him to be so affected by things. All Tony heard was that he didn’t belong.
Which was true, he supposed.
Tony Stark was a civilian. Iron Man was a vigilante at best and a villain at worst. Neither one of them had a place among the Avengers.
Not that Tony wanted one. He wasn’t in any position to even consider something like that. There was something about the rejection, though, no matter how vague it was, that stung. He wasn’t even an option. Tony didn’t know why it affected him so much, but it did. He was probably just feeling raw and vulnerable from his first foray into Hydra’s files. He needed to get himself back under control.
“Any tips for the compartmentalization?” he asked, instead of letting on to his feelings. “I’m gonna waste a lot of time if I keep winding up out here every hour.”
“Nothing that’ll work just right off the bat, but try and keep the end goal in mind. It’s not easy. Hell, it’s not even much, but remember that you’re doing this so that we can make sure it never happens again, so that the people who did it will have to face justice.”
Tony nodded a bit before climbing back to his feet and steeling himself to re-enter the server room.
“Thank you, Agent Barton. I know it might not seem like much to you, but I appreciate it.”
Agent Barton shrugged, giving Tony a wry grin.
“Don’t mention it. Seriously. I don’t want it getting out that I have a soft side.” He hesitated a moment and then spoke again, “And call me Clint. I hear you and Bruce are on a first name basis now, and I appreciate what you did for him back at the gala. So. That makes you a pretty alright guy in my book.”
It was surprising how much the words warmed him.
“Clint, then,” he agreed, unable to resist the smile that tugged at his lips.
The work didn’t get easier from there, but at least Tony managed not to have any more breakdowns. Clint played the part of a glorified secretary, refreshing his coffee and keeping him company, so that at least not everything was awful. After a few hours, though, he left on another coffee run and it was Sam who showed back up several minute later.
“Natasha asked that he head over to SHIELD for a bit,” Sam explained. “Hydra had some enhanced on sight when we arrived and Natasha doesn’t want to waste any time by having to interrogate them separately herself.”
It was probably a bit more information than Sam should have been sharing, but Tony was glad he had.
“In that case, I’ve got some files she’s probably going to want to see,” he said, typing away at his laptop to bring up and separate the files from the others. “How would you like me to send them over? I assume it’s not also going to Agent Hill.”
He’d found the information on Pietro and Wanda Maximoff pretty early on, but only because he’d been actively looking for it. They’d been volunteers for an experimental program after their parents had been killed in some conflict. Even considering that trauma, though, Tony had a hard time feeling sympathy for anyone who volunteered for an organization that did the kind of things that Hydra did. Part of him hoped they didn’t know.
The other one, the one with the metal arm, was more of a mystery. There were a few mission files that Tony’d managed to find, but his history lay under much heavier encryptions than the Maximoffs’ had. Tony had set it aside in favor of covering more ground. There would be time to come back to him later, since he was already in custody.
He’d intended to pass the information on at the end of the day, along with the other non-time-sensitive files he’d found, since there was no reason for him to know there was a need for it, but Sam’s comment gave him the perfect opportunity to get to it early.
“Um, I’ll check.”
Sam pulled out his phone and stepped out of the room to make the call, leaving Tony alone for the time being. He decided to take the opportunity to check in with JARVIS. The AI was keeping in touch via window pop-ups on the computer, of course, but Tony missed hearing his voice.
“The nanite missile launches have commenced, Sir,” JARVIS responded over the earpiece Tony still wore. “The first of the satellites has been 72% devoured with completion estimated in the next ninety minutes.”
“Great, and the other missiles are lined up and ready to go?”
They couldn’t launch from the tower, of course. That might raise just a few too many flags for Tony and JARVIS to retain his cover, but apparently he had a launch site already set up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and two in the Atlantic for what JARVIS has described as ‘security purposes.’ Honestly, after learning about that, Tony had a hard time blaming the Avengers for not letting go of the supervillain title. The evidence wasn’t exactly stacked in his favor. Nonetheless, he was grateful for them. Those sites made things a lot easier.
“Of course, Sir. There are no schedule delays at this time. I will alert you of any changes.”
“Right. Good. Thanks.”
Tony pressed his lips together to keep himself from saying anything more. He didn’t know when Sam would be back, but it probably wouldn’t be good if Tony was talking to someone when he did. This was a top secret project he was working on, after all, and not one was supposed to know he was there, though Pepper had been informed he was off doing some work for SHIELD. Even if it he was allowed to be contacting anyone from the outside world, no one really knew about JARVIS outside of Pepper and Rhodey. It was hard, though. JARVIS had been a constant comfort and presence since he’d lost his memories. Even through the meetings and gala, Tony had not felt so separated from him.
He plucked away at his work, only making minimal progress, until Sam returned with a secure email account Tony could send the information to. Tony forwarded over what he had on the three captives while Sam watched on with an odd expression. It rankled Tony, made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. There was something about it that was just… off.
“What?” he finally asked, unable to stand it any longer.
Sam, to his credit, didn’t try to play it off or pretend nothing was going on.
“You didn’t find much on the Winter Soldier, did you?”
It was asked in a way that suggested he already knew the answer and Tony frowned at him.
“No,” he confirmed. Then, following his quickly-growing suspicion, “What aren’t you guys telling me about him?”
Sam took a deep breath and glanced over his shoulder at the closed door to the server room. He seemed to be weighing his options in his mind, though Tony had no idea what those options were.
“The Winter Soldier is Bucky Barnes.” He didn’t pause for Tony to react, which was good since Tony had no idea who that was. “We still don’t know how, but Steve is sure it’s really him. And if anyone would know, it’s Steve. They never found his body, after all, and, if he really has been active since the Cold War, then the timeline matches up.”
It was obvious that Tony was expected to have a reference to go with the name, some reference of who Bucky Barnes was and how big of a deal this was. Maybe he was a public figure of some sort? Tony would have to ask JARVIS if he had any information on the man and do his best to bluff in the meantime.
“As far as I can tell,” he said, choosing his words carefully, “Hydra wasn’t overly interested in recording who he was before he was the Winter Soldier. He wasn’t a person to them, not like the Maximoffs. He was just a tool. He was given a ‘Subject Number’ that he’s occasionally referred to by, but I haven’t gotten a hold of any of the earlier records for him. I don’t have access to Hydra’s full system, though, just what they have at this base, and it’s entirely possible that the records aren’t here. I could try and concentrate on that a bit more? I’ve been a bit more focused on safe houses and other facility locations, but if I stop dividing my attention…”
Sam looked torn, but he was already shaking his head.
“No, we need to find Red Skull. That should be the top priority. As long as Barnes is in custody, we have the time to get to that information later. It’s not ideal, but I’m pretty sure nothing with Hydra ever is.”
Tony gave him a smile that probably looked a lot more like a grimace.
“No, I’m pretty sure you’re right about that. I’ll keep a background search running, though, and I’ll bump it up to top priority as soon as Red Skull is taken care of. If I find something in the meantime, I’ll send it along straight away like with the other Hydra locations.”
“Good. That’s good.” There was a moment of somewhat awkward silence between them. “Making any progress on those?”
“Nothing that’s close enough to have been a convenient place for Red Skull to flee to. Agent Hill has access to everything I have found, though, so they can still be cleared out. I assume you guys will be heading out to take care of some of the other bases at some point, yeah?”
“Thor and a team from SHIELD have already raided one of them,” Sam confirmed. “It’ll go a bit quicker once these interrogations are wrapped up and Natasha and Clint are back in the field. We won’t leave you unprotected, though. Don’t worry. At least one Avenger will be here with you at all times.”
A paranoid voice in the back of Tony’s mind wondered if it was really protection or surveillance that they were offering. He understood, of course, but it didn’t make the feeling any more pleasant. It made something deep inside of him ache like an old wound and he rubbed at his chest absent-mindedly.
“I’ll admit I wouldn’t be too thrilled staying in a place like this by myself,” he admitted instead, chuckling at the end to make it seem more like a joke.
Sam glanced around tiredly.
“I’m with you there, man,” he commiserated. “This place gives me the creeps and I’m not the one having to dig through all their dirty secrets.”
Tony cracked a smile at him.
“Yeah, it’s probably a good thing I have so much work to do. I don’t think I’d be able to sleep with all this in my brain anyway.”
That drew a frown out the other man, though it was more concerned than disapproving.
“We’re not asking you to work around the clock,” he clarified, as if Tony might not realize. “This is important, but we don’t want you hurting yourself just to get through it all. You’ve got to take care of yourself, too.”
“Clearly, you don’t know much about how I work.”
As soon as the words left his mouth, Tony paused. He didn’t know much about how he worked, either. It wasn’t like he’d done any really serious or captivating projects since the accident. He’d done what needed doing for Stark Industries and then played around with a few things for fun, but that was all. Sure, he’d worked late, but it was only because he got caught up in things. There was no evidence to suggest that he regularly drove himself into exhaustion, except that was exactly what he had been thinking of when he’d spoken. Was he picking up on something about himself without really being aware of it? It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that sort of thing had happened in an amnesia case.
“Regardless,” Sam broke through his thoughts, oblivious to his inner turmoil, “don’t work yourself into the ground. We’ll get Hydra. Chances are we won’t be able to keep up on the ground with what you’re finding in that server anyway. Not to mention that there are, you know, laws and such against us letting you work around the clock.”
It was really… nice, how much Sam seemed to genuinely care. It reminded Tony of Pepper’s concern about the deal with Baintronics. He gave Sam a soft smile.
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
It was a little bit easier, after that, to get back to work on the database.
Things fell into something of a routine as the days passed. Tony continued to work on extracting information from Hydra’s systems as the Avengers took turns on ‘babysitting duty.’ Tony’s words, not theirs. Even Thor took a rotation of spending a few hours in Tony’s company, asking surprisingly intelligent questions and seeming to soak up the information Tony gave him like a sponge. Tony found he liked Thor quite a bit. He liked all of them, though he was still a bit wary of Agent Romanoff. She’d spent her entire shift silent and watching him with an unsettling gaze.
The only one who didn’t make an appearance was Captain Rogers.
That made sense, Tony supposed. Once he’d done the legwork of finding out who Bucky Barnes was, it wasn’t even that much of a surprise that the good Captain was sticking close to his long-lost best friend’s side. He wasn’t willing to lose Barnes again. Tony still hadn’t been able to dig up much information on the Winter Soldier. He got the impression that most of it was kept off-digital record, not just off of this particular server. Most likely, the original records had just never been copied over into a digital format. It was entirely possible that laziness or procrastination was now the only thing standing between Tony and getting the information he wanted. It was horrifically frustrating.
There was still plenty of information he could get to, though, and it was almost overwhelming in its sheer volume. This was the sort of task that would normally have been handled by a whole team of individuals, but Tony and JARVIS were on their own. That was okay. Hydra’d had their fingers in a lot of pies and Tony was just trying to sort and catalogue it all as best he could. JARVIS was an absolute blessing, making all of it a million times easier. Tony didn’t know what he would have done without J, probably have lost his mind.
Not that he wasn’t heading in that direction anyway.
If it’d been up to him, Tony probably would have just kept on working on the database until he collapsed and passed out. The Avengers turned out to be a bit too motherly for that to fly, though. It started with Sam coming to usher him away from the server room for a late dinner that first day and then Bruce drawing him into a talk about science until he announced it was time for bed. A bunk-style arrangement had been set up in what Tony assumed had once been guard-housing and he resigned himself to not being able to slip away to get back to work. And he’d been okay with that, at first. Sure, he expected to have some difficulties falling asleep, but that wasn’t exactly the worst thing ever.
The nightmares were definitely worse.
Tony tossed and turned, vague, ghostly images haunting his subconscious. They weren’t as clear as some of his earlier nightmares, back at the tower, but they were definitely more frequent. He could feel something building up. On the third night after his arrival, he dreamed of the cave once again, of a knife cutting into his chest so Yinsen could pull out tiny shards of metal, of the beatings, of the water, of that tiny, glowing coal being held over Yinsen’s tongue. He woke up screaming and nearly took a dagger to the face as he scrambled mindlessly out of the bunk. Luckily, Clint was more clear-headed upon waking up than Tony was.
“Shit,” Clint cursed, dropping the knife and reeling backward to put some space between them, clutching his chest. Both Bruce and Sam were hovering nearby, having been roused by the noise, looking concerned but not yet interfering. “You okay? Hurt?”
Tony panted, struggling to get his hammering heart back down to a reasonable pace.
“Sorry,” he gasped out in apology. “Sorry, I-“
He trailed off, unable to string together anything more than that. Even with most of his attention focused on pulling himself back together, though, he couldn’t miss the looks being exchanged between the others.
“Hey, it’s alright,” Sam said, stepping forward and talking control. “I’m gonna ask you to breath with me, okay? Try and match your breathing to mine. Like this: in… out… in… out…”
He crouched down next to Tony, who’d wound up sitting on the floor at some point, and when had that happened? Sam’s breathing was exaggerated, his chest rising and falling far more than was needed, but it made it easier for Tony to latch on to the rhythm. Matching it was a struggle, but he finally managed to synchronize their breathing. After only a few minutes, he was settled enough for the embarrassment to grab hold.
“I, uh, I didn’t think that would happen here,” he said, clearing his throat and jumping a bit in surprise as Bruce placed a plastic water bottle down beside him.
“Hey, man, no worries,” Sam soothed, voice steady and warm, reassuring. “The stuff you’ve been looking at these past few day, we probably should have expected something like this. This place is pretty much the physical incarnation of nightmare fuel.”
Tony laughed humorlessly. He flapped his hand in the air uselessly, trying to encompass the entire castle surrounding them.
“I don’t much like all the stonework,” he confessed.
Bruce made a curious noise, then quickly flushed with embarrassment.
“It reminds me of the cave,” Tony answered his unspoken question, the words just tumbling out of his mouth, “in Afghanistan.”
Which, he was surprised to note, was actually true. There were still large swaths of that time missing, but he could actually think back and remember bits of it. The smell, for one thing, he could definitely remember. The earthy dampness had clogged his nose and mouth with every inhalation. And there was always a chill in the air. It hadn’t been freezing, but it was enough that Tony hadn’t ever felt quite warm. There had always been discomfort in his fingers and toes unless he and Yinsen were working with the forge.
He startled badly when a hand touched his shoulder and Clint backed away immediately, guilt written all over his face.
“Sorry,” he apologized, sounding like he really meant it. “I shouldn’t have done that, definitely know better.”
“No, no, it’s fine. I just… wasn’t paying attention.”
Clint made a sympathetic noise and Sam was nodding along readily.
“I’m not sure what all is really feasible,” Bruce entered the conversation, “but I’ll look into getting you some other accommodations. It won’t be as convenient, but maybe there’s a lodge or something in the nearest town. It’s only about a forty-five minute drive.”
“Don’t,” Tony protested. “I’m fine. Really. I just need some time to adjust.”
Bruce didn’t look convinced.
“It’s been three days. We’d be happy to do it, Tony. Really. You shouldn’t be forced to stay here if it’s causing you stress.”
Deciding this wasn’t a battle he needed to fight while sitting on the ground, Tony pulled himself painstakingly onto his feet.
“Nobody’s forcing me to be here,” he said firmly, doing his best to drive the point home. “I’m here because I want to be, because you need my help to make sure these sick fucks can’t hurt any more people. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve managed to hurt too many already.”
The Avengers exchanged glances, concerned frowns still in place.
“Just don’t push yourself too hard, okay?” Sam advised. “You’ve got to take care of yourself, too. There’s nothing wrong with needing to take a step back. I work at the VA, you know, and I see a lot of soldiers come back and get frustrated when they can’t just jump right into civilian life. It’s a process, and it’s a long one, especially when traumatic experiences are involved.”
His expression was so earnest that Tony had to drop his gaze and look away. Sam and the others had been nothing but nice to him, far more so than he deserved when he was deceiving them. He very well understood the necessity of lying to them, but it still made him feel guilty. Not for the first time since his arrival, he wished fervently for his memories back, if only to have one less complication.
“I’ll keep that in mind. Let’s just… get back to bed.”
Tony spent the rest of the night staring at the wall beside his cot, only rising when he heard Sam and Clint stirring for their morning workouts.
“Hey,” Sam broached the silence as he watched Tony work. Tony couldn’t be sure of what time it was, but his stomach was hopeful they were nearing lunch. “I don’t want to overstep or anything, but are you seeing anyone, professionally, about what happened to you?”
Tony kept focus on the screen in front of him.
“No, not really.”
At least, he was pretty sure that was the case. JARVIS probably would have mentioned if he was. Sam was quiet for a moment.
“Did you talk to anyone once you got back?”
That, Tony had no idea of. He assumed he did, but it wasn’t like he had any details to give Sam if he dug for more information. He gave a noncommittal noise instead of answering directly and didn’t need to turn and look to know that Sam’s brow was pinched.
“You should consider it,” Sam prodded. “Therapy can be a huge help with processing. I could recommend some people, if you wanted, but they’re mostly in D.C…”
He seemed to be waiting for some kind of blow back, tensing for Tony to snap at him, though Tony couldn’t imagine why. He sighed, his shoulders slumping. He didn’t want Sam to think poorly of him.
“Sure,” he agreed tiredly, turning just in time to see Sam quickly hide his surprise. “I can’t guarantee anything, but a list sounds like a good place to start.”
Sam positively beamed at him.
Agent Romanov showed up at the base the next morning, the start of Tony’s fifth day, with a very sullen Captain America alongside her. Cap was quiet and clearly distracted, but still managed to muster up a smile when he greeted Tony.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here for your arrival,” he apologized. “I’ve… had a lot going on.”
Tony immediately waved off the apology.
“I know enough to understand,” he assured. “I wish I was able to find more information for you.”
Cap swallowed roughly, looking pained.
“I’m almost glad you didn’t,” he confessed unexpectedly. It was probably the exhaustion. He definitely looked like he could use a nap, maybe even more than Tony himself, who’d barely caught a few hours since his nightmare the night before last. “I don’t know how much more of what they did to him I could stand to read.”
“I don’t blame you.” Tony grimaced. “How are the efforts coming along with the other strongholds?”
Here, Agent Romanov interjected, being the one who was more plugged into that entire process. Even if Cap normally would have been more involved with it, it was obvious where his attention had been the last few days.
“The information you’ve pulled so far has been a huge advantage. Of course, by now word has spread and they’re starting to go to ground.”
Something about the way she said it was leading, like she was searching for some reaction. She wasn’t suspicious, but more as if asking if there was anything he could do to help with the search. He mulled it over for a moment before answering, leaning back in his chair at the improvised dining room the team had thrown together and wrapping his hands around his mug of coffee for warmth.
“Their communication network has been crippled, since I was able to pass on their usual methods and codes to your Agent Hill, and they can’t know which locations are secure or not. It’s obvious that not all of them were listed on the server here. I mean, I’m assuming I would have heard if you guys found Red Skull, if only to direct my attention toward other things, but there’s no way I can think of to figure out where he’s run to. They’ve been keeping some things off the books, I know, either physically written down or as a verbal-only secret. There’s nothing I can do about that. Unless the agents you were interrogating were able to give you leads like that, I don’t-“ He cut himself off. “Well…”
Agent Romanov’s gaze sharpened.
“What is it?”
Tony chewed the inside of his cheek, considering it. There wasn’t any evidence that he’d found to suggest it was the case, but if it were his system, it’s what he would have done.
“If I were to undo what Iron Man did to cut this base off from sending or receiving connections with other Hydra servers, it’s possible they would try and access it.”
“And why would we do that?”
“Because then we could leave something for them to find,” Agent Romanov answered.
“Yes, exactly. Obviously, it’s not a sure shot, and we’d have to come up with something appealing enough to catch their attention if they decided to take a look, but it’s worth thinking about. Drawing them out might bring you more success than painstakingly hunting them down.”
Cap mulled this over.
“Red Skull might have a superiority complex like no one I’ve ever seen, but he’s no idiot. He’s not going to be lured out easily.”
Tony shrugged. It wasn’t like he had all the answers. This wasn’t exactly his area of expertise.
“As I said, it’s something to think about. I should be getting back to it, though. Let me know if you decide on anything.”
With that, Tony stood, refilled his mug, and concentrated very hard on ignoring Agent Romanov’s eyes following him as he left the room.
The team headed out later that day to raid another of the bases Tony had located, leaving only Bruce behind with him. The base was some distance away, actually in another country, but they would make it there and back with the quinjet before the day was through, barring any unexpected complications. It was easier for the Avengers to go, though, rather than SHIELD personnel. While Hydra had been purged from their ranks, the chaos and loss had left SHIELD scrambling to fill a lot of holes and they were spread thin just managing their own affairs.
Obviously, a few SHIELD personnel had been spared for the cause, accompanying one or two members of the team out in their previous raids, but this base was on a slightly bigger scale. Still, the team shouldn’t have any problems handling it. They were well prepared. Bruce certainly didn’t seem worried. He hovered just behind Tony, watching him work with mild curiosity.
“Your methods are fascinating,” he finally commented.
Tony couldn’t help but smirk a little.
“Yeah, well, I’m told I’m a genius.”
Bruce snorted, even though it was more of a joke than he could possibly know.
“So I’ve heard. I have to say, you’re living up to the title. I’m no programmer, but I can tell the things you’re managing are well outside of the ordinary.”
“Hydra’s server was well protected, but the structure once you’re inside isn’t terribly hard to navigate,” Tony demurred. “Any desk jockey intern would be able to handle it if it weren’t for the encrypted files. It’s those and the sheer volume that are taking up most of the time.”
Bruce made a sympathetic noise.
“It’s a good thing we have you, then.”
That warm, nagging feeling in Tony’s chest was back.
“I’m glad you asked me. I mean, I appreciate that you thought of and trusted me with this. It means a lot.”
A small, embarrassed smile stole across Bruce’s face.
“You’re a lot different than what I would have expected,” he confided in Tony. “I don’t… watch a lot of tv or pay much attention to the news, but I read some of the scientific journals. Even there, you’re portrayed a certain way. I think there’s a grandiosity to you that people get distracted by, I don’t know. I don’t think I’m explaining this very well. Just. I appreciate what you did for me back at the gala. I hadn’t ever really thought about what it might be like to meet you in person, but I definitely wouldn’t have thought you’d be so nice.” His smile turned chagrined. “In my experience, not many people are.”
Tony ducked his head and looked away.
“I don’t think I’m particularly nice, really. I just try not to be an asshole.”
Bruce’s bark of laughter seemed to surprise even him.
“Well, I’d say you’re managing it well enough.”
Bruce made sandwiches for lunch and Tony ate his while he worked. He and Bruce traded science talk back and forth, but they kept it light so as not to distract him from the job he was actually there to do. It was good, almost fun, if Tony ignored the subject matter of the material he was sorting through. It was menial work, really, especially by this point. Hydra used the same few encryption styles on most of their files, which meant that Tony had to break it once so that JARVIS could load the encryption key, and then every file after that which was encrypted in the same way could just be handed over to the AI.
JARVIS stuck to the background, of course, so that he wouldn’t be noticed, but he was always present. Tony still ached to be able to talk to him more freely, but he’d gotten more used to the idea of keeping other company. It didn’t feel so lonely with Bruce there beside him to chat with. They were making good headway with the satellites, too. The nanites were doing their jobs perfectly and Tony was really looking forward to being done with Hydra’s systems so that he could fly up with the suit and watch them work personally.
For now, though, he was stuck in a windowless server room, beneath a chilly, stone castle that had until recently been occupied by Nazi sociopaths bent on world domination. It was very much something to be said to Bruce’s credit that his presence made it at all a bearable situation. Bruce and the coffee, of course.
Tony desperately wanted sleep, but he knew that doing so would just mean a return of the torturous nightmares. If he could push through just a little bit longer, he hoped he’d be exhausted enough to sleep through the night and not dream at all. He wasn’t at all sure that the Avengers wouldn’t make him leave if he woke them up screaming again. Their concern was touching, absolutely, but he had a job to do, and being completely cut out of Hydra’s server by being taken off the project wasn’t high on his priority list. For everything he was sending SHIELD’s way, JARVIS was making a copy and adding it to his own system.
‘Iron Man’ might be restraining himself to just taking care of the satellites for the moment, but Tony was pretty sure he’d be more than enthusiastic about wiping whatever was left of Hydra that the Avengers hadn’t gotten to yet off the face of the earth. Heck, now that he’d proven himself in a couple combat situations, Tony might not even wait until all his memories came back. He was feeling more comfortable in the suit and there was no question that JARVIS could handle the combat itself.
There was just a freedom to being inside of the Iron Man armor that reached down into the core of him. It was liberating, even if he couldn’t put words to exactly what he was being liberated from. He felt powerful, safe, protected. He felt like he could do anything when the armor encased him. He could help anyone. It was a heady feeling, and one that ensured he understood why he did this on a regular basis, why he was Iron Man.
For now, though, he had work to do.
It was nearly dinner when the other Avengers arrived back at the Hydra base, uniforms dirty, a bit bloody and bruised. Showers and new clothes cleaned them right up, though, and Bruce spent the time preparing a stir-fry from some of the supplies that’d been flown in. Apparently, he was well-versed in cooking over a small camp burner. Tony could tell there was a story behind that and was dying to ask, but he didn’t want to raise suspicions and instead kept his mouth shut.
When the rest of the team joined them, they all looked tired, with the exception of Thor, and there was a heaviness to their moods even past that. Even Thor’s boundless enthusiasm was muted, though. Whatever had happened during the taking of the base, it hadn’t been good. They weren’t talking about it, and Tony was pretty sure that was because he was sitting there. It made the air in the room stifling with the tension, uncomfortable as it seemed to press in on him from every side.
Finally, unable to take it anymore, he stood from his chair, picking up his nearly-untouched plate as he went.
He didn’t meet Bruce’s gaze, couldn’t look at any of them.
“I’m just gonna eat downstairs,” he said, meaning the server room, “try to get some more work done, give you guys some privacy.”
“Tony-“ Sam started, but Tony was already gone.
He didn’t need their platitudes. He knew when he didn’t belong.
“It’s not like I thought I was a part of the team or anything,” he told JARVIS quietly, stabbing at a piece of zucchini with his fork. “I mean, I know I’m not. I don’t even think they’re my friends. It’s just… They’re really nice and-“ he switched tracks abruptly, mid-sentence, “I haven’t really been interacting with people. I got too caught up in how much I liked the company.”
“Perfectly understandable, Sir,” JARVIS comforted steadily from the open computer. “The Avengers have shown themselves to be both accommodating and supportive. It is human nature to take solace in that where it is provided.”
Tony popped the zucchini into his mouth and munched on it grumpily.
“I’m not one of them, though. Hell, I’ve barely interacted with Agent Romanov or Cap at all. I think Sam is just used to taking care of people with his counseling at the VA.”
“If I may, Sir, you have always been very adept at reading people. There have been exceptions, of course, but generally only in cases where the other party is very skilled in deception. I have not seen any evidence that such was lost with your memories. If you have felt a connection with certain members of the Avengers team, I would be inclined to put stock in those feelings.”
“What am I doing, J? Really? I was supposed to stay home and bide my time until my memories came back. Now I’m in the middle of this absolute clusterfuck of a situation, flying by the seat of my pants.”
“Life has a way of impacting even the best laid plans and throwing them out of whack. In my experience, your quickness and desire to do what is right and to jump to the defense of others also puts you in a more precarious position than most. This is not what we planned, no, but what you are doing has already saved many lives.”
Tony frowned down at his plate.
“Then why don’t I feel better about it?”
JARVIS was silent for a moment.
“You are being exposed to a large amount of negative stimulus,” he finally answered. “The contents of Hydra’s files are, with absolute certainty, having an impact on you psychologically. Studies also suggest a sense of ‘loss’ and lack of direction in many cases of amnesia, especially in those like yours where a significant amount of personal information was lost. Coupling that with your struggles to get proper sleep, and it’s somewhat expected that your mood would drop. You are in a high stress situation and your body hasn’t been afforded the ability to really recover from it.”
“I guess that makes sense.”
Another moment of silence passed between them, this time on Tony’s part.
“I miss you, J. You and the bots. How are they doing?”
“You are missed in the Tower as well,” JARVIS reassured. “YOU has been refreshing the coffee mug on your desk every two hours, dumping out the old one and refilling it. DUM-E has been practicing new smoothie recipes, though not all of the ingredients have been edible, and Butterfingers has been cleaning and reorganizing. They understand your absence, though.” A pause. “They are very proud of what you do for the world, Sir, as am I.”
Tony wasn’t sure why hearing that made him so uncomfortable, maybe because he didn’t feel like he’d done anything to be proud of. Even if Tony Stark had done a lot for the world, he hadn’t. He felt like he was just a guy who got dumped into the body of somebody else and was now taking credit for everything they’d done. He didn’t deserve that praise. He hadn’t earned it.
“Thanks,” he said, feeling like the sentiment was wholly insufficient. “Let the kids know I’ll be back soon, okay? I think we can get through the rest of this material in just a few more days, don’t you?”
“Indeed, Sir. Considering the progress we’ve made so far, three more days should be more than enough to complete the analysis and cataloging of this server.”
Putting aside what was left of his dinner, no longer hungry, Tony settled in at the keyboard.
“Let’s see if we can’t shave off a bit more, then, shall we?”
Unexpectedly, it was Agent Romanov who came to retrieve him a few hours later. She slipped through the door into the room so silently that Tony didn’t even notice her until it was already closed again. Her gaze, as usual, was sharp and assessing. Tony did his best to ignore the way it made his skin crawl.
“Everything settled, then?”
She nodded, watching him.
“If I asked you to do something,” she began, not answering his question, “would you be willing to keep it from the others?”
Tony’s fingers paused over the keyboard and he turned to face her fully, suddenly warry.
Her lips pursed, forming a thin line that was the only hint of her displeasure. She leaned against the wall beside the door and crossed her arms. Tony was pretty sure she could snap him in half if she wanted to.
“The Red Skull was at the base today. He and Steve fought, but he managed to get away before Thor could get to them. He’s in the wind again.”
Tony’s brow furrowed.
He really wasn’t sure where this was going. For a wild moment, he wondered if they were somehow having two different conversations. Or maybe it was just a secret agent spy thing. That certainly seemed like a decent possibility.
“If we keep chasing him, he’s just going to find a deeper and deeper hole to hide in until he can set a trap for us. He knows Steve won’t give up.”
“So, you want to draw him out.”
“Your idea to plant something for them to find in their system has merit.”
“But the rest of the team doesn’t approve? They want to do something else?”
Agent Romanov watched him for a long moment before seeming to find whatever she was looking for.
“They feel like it comes with too many risks, which isn’t entirely untrue. It’s just also our best shot.” She uncrossed her arms and took a step forward as she continued, “The only thing that would draw Red Skull out is the opportunity to get his hands on something he can use.”
Tony didn’t understand, and then suddenly he did.
“Or someone, you mean.”
There was a small twitch of her brow.
Most of his time in Afghanistan might have still been lost to him, but just the idea of that threat hanging over his head again filled Tony with dread.
“You want to use me as bait,” he clarified, hoping against hope that he was somehow wrong. He knew he wasn’t, though.
Tony Stark was undeniably attractive bait. With his skillset and history, he could definitely see how he would be a useful asset for Hydra to have under their thumb. They were probably chomping at the bit to get back at Iron Man for him and the Avengers ruining their plot, anyway. Having a genius inventor would go a long way in helping to make that happen. New weapons, better systems, gear and planes and gadgets of all sort; the possibilities of what they could use him for were endless.
“Steve has headed back to SHIELD, to stay with Bucky, but the others and I will be here. Once you’ve left a trail in the system, it wouldn’t be a problem to inform them. You would not be unprotected.” Her countenance softened. “I know it’s a lot to ask. You’re a civilian and you’ve already seen more than most. I won’t lie and tell you there isn’t a chance of things going wrong. You’re too smart to believe that. No one here wants you to get hurt, though. If you don’t want to do this, I’ll respect that.”
It was like going through a list of buttons to press so he would agree. Still, underneath that, Tony felt like there might be some genuineness to what she was saying. Maybe. At the very least, he was pretty sure she did mean to keep him as safe as she was able. It didn’t do much to make Tony feel more comfortable with it. There was absolutely no part of him that wished to become subject to some of the things he’d read about in Hydra’s files. Somehow, he imagined he would have a far worse time than he had with the Ten Rings.
He didn’t see them catching up with Red Skull and taking him down by continuing the way they were. Maybe it would be reasonable to say no, to put his concern for his own safety first, but… Tony had the opportunity to do something to make a difference, to help in a way that only he could. Hadn’t he just been thinking that he hadn’t done anything to earn JARVIS and the bots’ pride? Hadn’t be been wishing, even just a little bit, that he could?
“What did you have in mind to lure him out?”
They had to be subtle about it, of course. Red Skull was smart and exceedingly paranoid. He wouldn’t trust that whatever they put in from of him was real without some convincing evidence. They couldn’t just hand him something on a silver platter. No, Tony was going to have to weave in a trail of breadcrumbs and hope it was enough. Hydra was going to have to find him on their own. Anything less and they wouldn’t bite. It had to look like Tony and the Avengers didn’t know they were giving up the information.
The plan was two-fold, then. Tony would lead Hydra to the knowledge that the Avengers were occupying the previously-attacked base and, separately, to the fact that he was the one working on Hydra’s server. It was a complicated mix of digital hints and dropped clues, but he managed it. At least he hoped he had. It was tough to figure out what level of computer skills Hydra might have readily at their disposal or if they were even trying to get back into the system. Tony settled for ‘accidentally’ tripping an alert on one of the encrypted files that would ping… well, someone, at least, that it was being accessed.
After that, it was just a matter of waiting. Tony wouldn’t be able to tell if Hydra accessed the network unless they changed something, but that was unlikely. Still, he had JARVIS keep a look out. In the meantime, he continued to make his way through the remaining files.
Agent Romanov had the far more dangerous job, in Tony’s opinion, which was informing the team once the trail had been set. Tony wasn’t there when it happened, both by his own desire and Agent Romanov’s recommendation, but Clint showed up shortly after when she was supposed to do it, expression pinched.
“So, I hear you’re being a moron,” he began, clearly not pulling any punches right from the start. “I thought you were supposed to be a genius.”
There was real anger in his tone, too, and Tony froze, suddenly afraid.
“I… I just want to help.”
Clint gave a bark of laughter that didn’t sound at all amused.
“Don’t you think you’ve helped enough?”
The mental image of a man flashed through his mind, older, a brunet like him but with hair that was white salted at the temples and an expression twisted by exasperated disappointment. Tony flinched, his elbow banging painfully against the lip of the table and jostling his computer. Instantly, Clint’s demeanor changed, backing off a holding his hands up as if to show he was unarmed.
“Hey, it’s okay. Sorry. I just- got a little caught up. Look, I know how Natasha is, she can be very convincing, but you don’t have to do this. You’ve already given us more leads and information on Hydra’s whereabouts and operations than we ever could have hoped for. You don’t have to put yourself in danger. It’s too reckless, and that’s coming from me.”
“I’m not doing this because Agent Romanov convinced me to,” he denied. “I mean, she did convince me, but I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do. This plan has a far better chance of working than just chasing after any and every lead we find. Besides, it’s done now. The trail is out there.”
“Yeah, Natasha told us. That doesn’t mean you have to stay here and put yourself in more danger, though. We could take you to another location. Home, maybe, as long as you were willing to stay out of sight until this thing plays out. Nobody’s saying it’s not a good plan, or at least the best one we have at our disposal, but it’s one hell of a risky one. For you most of all.”
Tony lifted his chin in defiance.
“I knew what I was agreeing to. If I leave, my access to the server will be compromised. I’ll still be able to get in, now that the connection capabilities have been restored, but I won’t be able to get in as deep or move as quickly as I can when I’m right here. Besides, Hydra is supposed to think I don’t know that I undid Iron Man’s block. If I suddenly up and leave, that’s going to look pretty suspicious.”
Clint mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like, “worse than Steve,” before rallying his next defense.
“Natasha and I are literally super spies, Tony. Don’t you think we could manage to get you out of here without Hydra noticing?”
Tony just shrugged.
“Maybe, maybe not. But we won’t have to run the risk of them noticing if I don’t leave.”
“And what if they attack while you’re here, huh? What if they decide what they could get from you isn’t worth the trouble of getting to you and just bomb the place with all of us inside? What if they decide it is worth the trouble and we aren’t able to stop it? Red Skull has managed to get away from us twice now. He’s a slippery bastard.”
Tony grit his teeth, doing his best not to think about it.
“I know,” he settled on. “Despite what you may think, I do realize the possible consequences. And I appreciate that you guys are so concerned about my safety. I mean, it’s really touching, but I know what I agreed to.”
Clint threw his hands up in defeat.
“Fine. Then you should also know that we’re not gonna be fucking around when it comes to actually keeping you safe, then. You’ll have someone with you at all times, even more so than us just coming down to hang out with you while you work. If one of us tells you to do something, you need to do it, no questions. If they attack and we tell you to run or to hide or to take the quinjet and get the fuck out of here, you do it. Understand?”
Tony wanted to argue that he wasn’t going to just leave them to Hydra’s mercies, but he knew it would be pointless. Clint had no idea he was Iron Man, and he couldn’t know.
“Understood,” he agreed instead, lying through his teeth.
It turned out the Avengers took their new protection detail very seriously. Cap returned, and Tony might have accidentally walked in on the dressing down he gave Natasha if he hadn’t heard the yelling even through the thick stone walls that made up the entire fortress. He beat a hasty retreat, figuring coffee could wait. After, Cap came to talk to him personally, giving it one last shot to talk him into leaving. Tony politely refused. He wasn’t going to put them in danger and then just leave them to it.
Then came the guard detail. The Avengers still had to make a show of tracking down leads, but they did their best to make sure at least two or three of them were on-site at any one time in case Hydra showed up. One of them was always, always with Tony. If he thought he didn’t have much privacy before, it was all but nonexistent now. The only times he was in a room by himself were when he showered or went to the bathroom, and even then whoever was on duty would be waiting just outside the door. It felt like being in a prison.
Not that Tony found it in him to really resent it. They were just trying to keep him safe and their precautions couldn’t even be considered all that paranoid when Hydra was concerned. They weren’t just silent sentinels, either, though Natasha mostly was. The others had at least warmed up to him enough that his time in their care was pretty enjoyable. His productivity suffered as a result, but that seemed a fair enough price to pay. He could stand to spend an extra day or so getting through the last of the data if Red Skull was coming to them.
Thor was fascinating, as was Asgard, and he was very patient in explaining their sciences to Tony now that they had more time. It was obvious that Thor was no scientist among his people, and there was enough of a terminology difference that it required some juggling from both parties, but he knew enough to blow Tony’s mind more than just a little bit. He promised, once this was all over, that he would introduce Tony to his ‘Lady Jane’, who would be much better equipped to answer his queries. He seemed quite sure they would get along well, and not just because of their mutual love for coffee. Thor also seemed quite pleased when Tony revealed he was already a fan of Jane’s work.
Bruce, Sam and Clint, of course, he already had a rapport built up with. They just eased more into it. He and they were still learning about each other, and it sometimes showed, but it was comfortable most of time. Tony just had to be careful to steer clear of topics that might have to do with his life. He could manage that.
It was Cap who proved the most surprising. Tony had felt the most drawn to him from the start, and yet he was one of the Avengers Tony interacted with the least, even now. In the two days that followed Tony setting up the trail in Hydra’s systems, Cap had been back to SHIELD both days, checking in on his newly recovered friend. When he was around the base, he kept busy with reviewing the security measures on hand and devising new tactics for the team in case of an attack. He spent hours on it, always still up and at it when the others went to bed and the first one awake in the morning. He had the super serum, Bruce explained, and that meant he didn’t need as much sleep as the rest of them. Still, Tony didn’t think it was good for him and was well aware how hypocritical it was of him to be thinking that when he was barely sleeping himself.
Tony approached Cap shortly after his return from SHIELD on the morning of the third day, waving Clint away as he entered the ‘war room’. It’d once been an office of some kind, maybe, but Cap had converted it into a small planning area with maps, a tablet holding the information Tony had already sorted through, and a million other little things he thought might be useful. It was where Cap seemed to live whenever he was at the fortress.
Cap stood the moment Tony walked into the room, hiding his surprise poorly.
“Mr. Stark, what can I do for you?”
He looked tired, Tony thought. Not exhausted, maybe, but definitely tired.
“Have lunch with me.”
It hadn’t been what he’d planned to say but, then, he hadn’t really had a plan to begin with. Cap’s surprised look was back.
“If I’m forced to take regular breaks from my work to eat and rest, then you should be, too. Come on, I’ll make us some sandwiches.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Stark, but I’m kind of in the middle of something right now. We need to be as ready as we possibly can if Hydra comes around.”
“I told you to call me Tony. And it’s no problem,” Tony agreed easily, strolling further into the room and throwing himself into a chair on the opposite side of the table. “I can wait. Anything I can help with?”
“It’s just, you know, Clint already left and I’m supposed to be with an Avenger at all times so I guess that means your stuck with me until you’re ready to leave this room.”
Or until one of the others passed by, but Tony was hedging his bets that he could get Cap out of the room before then. Sure enough, after another moment of flabbergasted staring, Cap’s shoulders drooped and he heaved a sigh.
“I guess I could set this aside for a bit,” he admitted.
Tony beamed at him, jumping to his feet.
“Great! Let’s go, then. I know a great spot.”
After securing themselves some sandwiches and snacks, because the serum had apparently replaced Cap’s need for sleep with a need for more food, Tony led the way up to one of the fortress’s towers. The fresh air was a bit chilly, but still a relief after so many hours shut away behind all that stone. As long as they stayed in the warmth of the sun, it wasn’t too bad at all.
“So,” he broke their only-somewhat-awkward silence after a bite of his sandwich, “what do you do when you’re not superhero-ing?”
Cap gave him an odd look.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s not like you can be Captain America all the time. I’m not asking for like, a list of your friends and where you hang out, but, I dunno, what’re your hobbies? What do you do for fun?”
Cap frowned down at his first sandwich, already half gone.
“I don’t… I mostly work, I guess. There’s always something to be done,” he shrugs. “I can make a difference, so I try to do that as much as I can.”
He didn’t seem too upset over it, but Tony’s eyebrows still rose.
“But you take breaks, though, right? Like, a vacation every once in a while? A long weekend?”
“Not too much of that in my line of work, I’m afraid. The bad guys don’t take time off, so neither can we.”
He dug back into his sandwich while Tony frowned at him.
“It’s not just you, though. It’s not like the world would be completely undefended if you took a few days to yourself.”
Cap’s smile was indulgent as he reached for another sandwich. Tony still hadn’t taken a second bite.
“There aren’t exactly that many super soldiers in the world.”
“We seemed to have survived well enough when you were in the ice,” he defended. “I don’t see why that would be any different now.”
“I wish that were true,” Cap lamented, “but the fact of the matter is, after the team formed with the invasion of New York, more and more super powered individuals started showing up. By that point, Iron Man was already on the scene. Now there’s Doctor Doom, the Wrecking Crew, mad scientists, crazy guys like Task Masker or the Vulture, Hydra.”
He heaved a sigh. Tony couldn’t blame him. It still didn’t sound like a healthy work-life balance, but it was definitely understandable. Truth be told, Tony would probably be doing the exact same thing.
“Sounds like you’ve got your hands full.”
Cap chuckled a bit.
“Yeah, but we manage.”
Tony took another bite, chewing thoughtfully before asking, “Why are the Avengers the only team we have? I mean, you guys can’t be the only ones who want to make a difference. Russia has the Red Dynamo and I know there are a couple groups getting together in different parts of Asia, but the US is a pretty big place.”
“That’s not really my area, honestly. I brought Sam into the fold, but I mostly just stumbled across him and only reached out with the invite because of Hydra and needing all hands on deck. You’d have to ask Director Fury about anything else, and good luck getting any answers out of him.” He considered it for a moment. “It’s a good question, though. Wouldn’t be a bad idea, and some of the vigilantes out there could have some potential if they could be brought in under a bit of supervision.”
“Yeah, not anyone like the Punisher, of course. That guy is… a loose cannon, to say the least. He’s dangerous. But there are some others. There’s this one guy in Queens, actually, goes by the name of Spiderman. Honestly, he looks like he’s running around in some cast-off pajamas, but he does a pretty good job. I’ve seen a few YouTube videos of him.”
“Spiderman, huh? Does he have extra limbs or something?”
“No, but he can shoot webs!” Cap seemed genuinely excited about the idea. “And he can climb just about anything. There’s one video where he’s climbing straight up the glass windows of the Oscorp building.”
Tony had no idea what that building was but climbing up shear glass certainly sounded impressive.
“And you think he might be a good fit?”
“Maybe? He seems like a decent enough guy, and the people in that neighborhood definitely love him. But he’s still pretty new on the scene, and what do I know about how to pick superheroes anyway?”
“More than you think, I’d bet,” Tony said, leaning over to bump their shoulders together.
It felt good, natural. He was at ease with Cap, almost like they’d been friends for a while instead of just barely being able to consider each other acquaintances. It was strange, but not bad, he didn’t think. Maybe they could even become friends. He thought he’d like that, even after he got his memories back.
It felt even better when, as they were throwing out their trash back in the makeshift kitchen before getting back to work, Cap gave him a soft smile and said, “Call me Steve.”
Only a few hours later, Hydra attacked.
Hydra was using some sort of cloaking technology that Tony hadn’t seen mentioned in any of their documents and the team hadn’t been expecting in the slightest. The attackers were on them before the team even knew they were there. It wasn’t a large force, but it was enough to cause confusion and do damage. Thor was off leading another charge on a remote base with Sam and a SHIELD team, so there were only four Avengers on-site that Hydra had to worry about.
The Hulk didn’t waste time in making an appearance. Tony didn’t get to see much of the fighting, though. Almost as soon as it started, Agent Romanov grabbed him and started leading him out of there. It was part of the plan, and it wasn’t like Tony could do much without the JARVIS-piloted Iron Man armor anyway, but it still rankled. Unfortunately, they didn’t get far.
Red Skull and an additional squad of goons was waiting for them when they emerged from one of the escape tunnels. Tony had no idea how they’d figured out which one he and Agent Romanov would take, but somehow they’d managed it. Agent Romanov put up a hell of a fight, and Tony did his best to help, but it wasn’t enough.
They got Tony first, unsurprisingly, and he felt the pinch as a needle was stuck in the side of his neck. Whatever drug they injected him with, he was out like a light. By the time he regained consciousness, he had no idea how much time had passed. His head pounded and his mouth tasted like something had crawled in there and died. Not pleasant. He wasn’t tied up, but the ground beneath him was hard and rough.
Cautiously, he blinked his eyes open. The light was, blessedly, dim, but he could make out most of the room as he pulled himself up into a seated position with a soft groan. His body was not appreciating its recent activity. The floor, what he’d been lying on, was cement, as were the walls and ceiling. Three of the walls were also cement, but one, presumably the door, was made up of metal bars. A metal slab jutted out from one wall with a thin cushion on top, a bunk, and a toilet and sink were tucked into one corner. Tony supposed he should be grateful for even that much accommodation, considering some of the conditions he knew Hydra kept their captives in.
He crept cautiously closer to the bars, peeking out through them to find out what else he could see. His cell opened out into a hallway, and he could see cells just like his lining the other wall. In the cell directly opposite him, he could just barely make out a familiar figure. Unlike him, Agent Romanov was shackled to the rear wall of her cell. She was slumped to the floor with her arms above her, held by heavy metal manacles. Her head hung forward, red hair covering her face so that Tony couldn’t be sure if she was awake or not. She’d been stripped of her weapons, but she looked mostly uninjured from what little Tony could tell. He hoped that was the case. With her arms above her head like that, her shoulders were going to be giving her enough pain as it was.
“Hey,” he called quietly. “Are you awake?”
There was no response. Well, she’d probably been injected after he was, if they’d used the same drug on her, so he guessed it made sense it hadn’t worn off yet. He’d just do what he could to be useful in the meantime. He stood up slowly, giving his body time to adjust. He felt a bit off-balance, but it wasn’t too terrible, he supposed.
The first thing he did was map out the dimensions of his cell. He wasn’t sure what the going-size usually was, but he had a bit of space, five paces by five paces. It was probably designed less for the captive’s comfort and more so that multiple guards could enter without getting in each other’s way. He inspected the walls, the bunk and its padding, the sink and the toilet for anything that might be a weak point. He took his time with it, being thorough, and then he did it again. As long as he kept busy, he wouldn’t think about what would happen if they couldn’t escape.
Not that he had high hopes.
Agent Romanov still hadn’t stirred by the time he was through, which was a bit concerning. He called to her a few more times, but there was no response. He could just barely make out her chest moving with each breath, though, so at least he knew she was still alive. What if she was more injured than she looked, though? Had Hydra knocked her out with a blow to the head, maybe? Could she have a concussion and be in a coma instead of merely unconscious? He couldn’t be sure he’d be able to make out blood in her hair from this distance.
The worry wormed its way through his chest, burrowing deeper with every minute that passed. He tried to stay calm, to consider his options. There was nothing he could do for Agent Romanov at the moment, not when he couldn’t even get to her. He had no way of contacting JARVIS, and he wasn’t sure what the AI could do even if Tony was able to initiate contact. He had no idea where they were, how long they’d been unconscious, how far they’d traveled. JARVIS would need a way to track them. The Avengers were just as much a dead end. They hadn’t had a clear path to the Red Skull in the first place and Tony was willing to bet Red Skull was doing even more to cover his tracks this time than he had when he’d hidden previously.
Agent Romanov was a spy, though. Maybe she had a tracker in her uniform, or even embedded somewhere on her body. That was something to hope for, even if Hydra still could have found or jammed its signal. It would still be a place to start.
Tony had probably been awake for an hour or so when Red Skull finally appeared. There was the sound of a heavy metal door from somewhere down the corridor, and then the tromping of booted feet. Four armed guards appeared, assault rifles in hand and led by Red Skull himself. It was… an intimidating sight, to say the least.
Tony hadn’t really had the time to absorb Red Skulls appearance during the earlier confrontation, too caught up in the desperate drive to escape and survive. Now, though, there was nothing to distract from the jarring, blood red color of Red Skull’s skin stretched too tight over his head. It was certainly obvious where he’d gotten his name from. He was dressed in black leathers, long coat flared out behind him and Hydra’s insignia emblazoned over his breast. His hands were clasped behind him, shoulders back and spine straight, but his expression was neutral, possibly even a bit pleased.
“Mr. Stark,” he greeted in a voice that sent shivers down Tony’s spine, “a pleasure to have you with us.” His eyes slid to the opposite cage. “And Agent Romanov… You will find I am not a fan of childish games. You can quit your pretending.”
Tony watched with wide eyes as Agent Romanov slowly raised her head, eyes flinty as she glared at Red Skull. She’d been awake the whole time? Or at least part of it?
“It was worth a shot,” she said easily, giving their captors a grin that was all teeth.
Red Skull ignored her, turning his attention back to Tony.
“I have heard a great many things about you, Mr. Stark. They tell me you are a very talented man.”
His voice was congenial and smooth, but there was something in his intonations that screamed of underlying madness. The hairs on the back of Tony’s neck stood on end.
“Where are we?” he demanded, though the effect was somewhat weakened by the fear that managed to slip into his tone. He was doing his best to hold it together, but he knew the kinds of things Hydra did to people. He was terrified. “What do you want from us?”
Red Skull watched him with cold calculation, assessing, deciding his worth.
“You were the one going through our server, were you not?”
Tony wasn’t sure how to answer. There wasn’t any use denying it, but it felt like a trap. He risked a quick glance at Agent Romanov, even though he was sure Red Skull would catch it. Her expression was closed-off, giving nothing away.
“I was,” he admitted slowly.
Red Skull grinned.
“Our technicians tell me that you made short work of many of our encryptions, though you did stumble and falter a few times. Still, it showed admirable skill. You carried on your father’s legacy of making weapons, yes?”
Tony’s heart pounded so hard he was sure they could all hear it beating. He swallowed a few times in an attempt to push down the fear and panic that was settling in. He should have listened to Clint and let them move him to a different location. It wouldn’t have stopped Hydra from attacking the base, though, and who could say if Hydra wouldn’t have just killed the team if they hadn’t found Tony there? What if they had killed some of team?
“I stopped,” was all he could think to say as panic clenched around his heart.
Red Skull didn’t seem bothered.
“Not to worry. It is never too late to start again.” He gave a brief pause, possibly for dramatic effect. “Hydra could use skills such as yours, Mr. Stark. I would see us returned to our former glory and then surpassing it. Hydra has been stuck in the shadows for far too long. It’s time that changed. Past time. If you choose to side with us, your reward would await you, a place of honor and privilege in our victorious new world. Your company, your assets, those important to you, would all be kept safe and protected.” Here, he gave Tony a meaningful look. “If you refuse, well, we will simply take what we want from you by force.”
He really thought Tony would agree to help them? After the things he’d seen? He resisted the temptation to spit in Red Skull’s face. That definitely wouldn’t end well for him.
“What are you going to do?” he bit out instead. “Brainwash me like you did with Barnes?”
Red Skull chuckled, amused by his anger.
“Nothing so barbaric, I assure you. I’m afraid the methods used on the Winter Soldier simply aren’t survivable by a baseline human such as yourself. We have other ways, though.” Then, to the guards, “Bring them.”
If Tony hadn’t seen Agent Romanov fight during their attempted escape, he might have been insulted when three of the guards went to her cell and only the last one came to retrieve him. As it was, he thought that was probably prudent caution on their end. He allowed himself to be led out easily, not seeing the point in struggling. It wasn’t like he’d be able to overpower them anyway. Agent Romanov apparently didn’t agree.
There was a commotion from inside her cell, and Tony instinctively turned to look, only for his guard to strike him hard enough in the back to send him to the ground. Inside Agent Romanov’s cell, she had one arm wrapped around a guard’s neck in a chokehold while the other two were shouting and pointing their guns. She grinned widely as she snapped his neck with a sickening ‘crack’.
The guard fell limp, sliding to the ground as she released him.
“Alright, boys,” she taunted, “who’s next?”
One of the remaining guards flipped his rifle around and struck her across the face with the butt of it. Her head whipped to side, slamming into the wall behind her. It kept her stunned long enough for them to remove her chains and cuff her hands behind her before hauling her onto her feet. Red Skull watched on impassively through it all.
“That was not a wise choice,” he informed her calmly once she’d been dragged out into the corridor with them.
The skin on her cheek had been split from the force of the blow and dripped blood, but she didn’t seem the least bit bothered.
“I think I’ll manage to live with it.”
Red Skull gave a disappointed tsk, like a parent confronted with a child’s foolish choices.
“That is only if you live at all.”
Tony and Agent Romanov were escorted to a room that could only be described as a torture chamber. The tiled floor sloped gently toward the drain in the center of the room and two metal chairs sat opposite each other, about three meters apart, on either side of it. Tony was forced into one, his arms secured to the armrests and his ankles to the legs of the chair as the same was done to Agent Romanov in the other. She fought them, of course, and, while no one died in the struggle, she still managed to get her teeth on one of the guards’ ears and rip a chunk off. He howled in pain as he stumbled away, clutching the bloody wound.
One of the two remaining guards went to strike her again, but Red Skull held up a hand to stop them. He gave Agent Romanov a long, slow look as the injured guard left the room.
“It doesn’t have to be this way, you know,” he told her. “I know the work you once did. You could do it again. Hydra would be happy to welcome someone of your skillset into the fold.”
She spat the chunk of ear out at his feet.
“Very well,” he said. “I had hoped you might see sense, but I will admit I didn’t expect much. You will still be of use to us, nonetheless.” He turned away from her and faced Tony. “Now, let me explain to you how this is going to go. I am going to make a request of you, Mr. Stark. If you do what I ask you to or give me the information I want to know, you and Agent Romanov here will be returned to your cells and given food and water for the evening. If you do not, we will drench Agent Romanov with water and send electrical currents coursing through her body. We will start with five milliamperes, enough to cause only a mild shock with some loss of muscular control and increase it every time you refuse.”
Tony should have seen that coming, actually. I made sense, suddenly, why Hydra would put them both in the same room, why they had taken Agent Romanov in the first place. He’d thought they were going to torture him. This was… This was so much worse.
“Tony,” Agent Romanov’s voice cut through the air sharply, “I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me, okay? I’m trained for this.”
Red Skull chuckled humorlessly.
“Oh, Agent… No one is trained for this. Perhaps you will prove studier than most, but you will be broken in the end. So, Mr. Stark, shall we begin?” Tony clenched his hands around the arms of the chair, bracing himself. “Where are the Maximoff twins and the Winter Soldier being held? I would very much like my assets back.”
Tony froze, startled. He did know that, actually, but only because JARVIS had been in SHIELD’s systems to find out. He certainly wasn’t supposed to know. No one had told him, and he hadn’t asked.
“I-I don’t know.”
Red Skull stared at him for a long moment, disapproving scowl in place, before nodding to one of the guards. There was an industrial-looking, sturdy hose winched up on the wall by the door and the guard began to uncoil it, not saying a word.
“I don’t!” Tony insisted. “I was just there to go through the server! I don’t know where they took any of the prisoners!”
The water was turned on and it blasted Agent Romanov hard enough to knock her back in her chair. She took it stoically enough, but Tony didn’t think it was just his imagination that the guard seemed to aim for her face more than any other part of her. Fuck, it must seem like drowning under a waterfall…
By the time they turned the water off, she was gasping for breath, hair plastered flat against her head and rivets of water dripping onto the floor. Her head fell forward so Tony couldn’t see her expression as she breathed carefully, and she didn’t fight at all as the guards attached the electrodes to her. Tony’s heart pounded in his chest. He didn’t know what to do. Obviously, he couldn’t give Red Skull the information he wanted, but he couldn’t just let them go on hurting her.
“Please,” he tried, not even ashamed to be begging so soon, “I really, really don’t know where they are. I-I know it’s a SHIELD facility? I mean, I assume it is, because SHIELD took custody of them, but I promise you I don’t know!”
Red Skull gave him a grim smile.
“I believe you,” Tony let out a breath of relief, only for it to catch a moment later, “but that is not how this works.”
He flicked the switch himself and Agent Romanov’s head snapped up, eyes wide, as her entire body went taught and jerked violently until he flipped the switch again. She sagged in her chair, going limp.
“Oops,” Red Skull said, sounding almost gleeful. “That was a bit more than 5 milliamperes. I believe it got my point across, though.”
Tony couldn’t even look at Red Skull, couldn’t take his eyes off of Agent Romanov’s form as she pulled herself back together. Her expression was stony, determined. Tony was shaking like a leaf, eyes watering, and he wasn’t even the one getting electrocuted. She pinned him down with a steely glare.
“I can take this,” she told him, brokering no argument.
Tony felt like he might throw up. This was all his fault, wasn’t it? He’d been the one to suggest the idea to lure Hydra out. He’d been the one to leave the trail and then insist he had to stay at the base even though he knew he wouldn’t be any help in an attack without his suit. If she hadn’t been trying to get him out of there, Agent Romanov would never have been captured and put in this position. He had done this to her.
“I’m sorry,” he managed to choke out.
Agent Romanov never got the chance to respond as Red Skull flipped the switch again. A small grunt escaped her before she managed to bite it off. She was so strong, impossibly strong. Tony wished he were half as strong as she was. Maybe then he could find a way to stop this.
“None of that now,” Red Skull chided mockingly, once he’d turned the electricity back off. “We need to stay focused. I asked you a question, Mr. Stark. Where are my assets?”
“I don’t know!”
He flipped the switch again. Agent Romanov’s body jerked.
They were escorted back to their cells what might have been hours, but certainly felt like days, later. Well, Tony was escorted. Agent Romanov’s unconscious and still trembling body was dragged between two guards. Her muscles continued to jerk and spasm erratically even after she’d passed out and the electrodes had been removed. The guards tossed her unceremoniously into her cell, not bothering to chain her back up. As soon as they were gone, Tony slid down the wall of his cell to sit on the floor, legs unable to hold him up any longer.
Agent Romanov was silent in the other cell and unmoving apart from the twitching of her limbs. This time, Tony knew she wasn’t faking it. By the end, she’d been screaming with each round of electricity that Red Skull pumped into her. Tony could still hear the sound of it knocking around in his brain. He’d struggled and fought against his bindings, pleaded with Red Skull to stop it, but it hadn’t been enough. They’d only stopped once Agent Romanov passed out for the third time and couldn’t be woken up again. It was only temporary a temporary reprieve, though. Tomorrow, they would be right back in that room, Tony was sure of it.
Tony hadn’t moved by the time Agent Romanov stirred. She groaned quietly, so softly he wouldn’t have heard it if they hadn’t been sitting in absolute silence. It was impossible to know what time it was or even how much time had passed. The lights hadn’t turned off and Tony had a sneaking suspicion that they weren’t going to. The more disoriented they were, the better it would be for Hydra. He watched on, feeling oddly numb, as Agent Romanov painstakingly pushed herself up off the floor and dragged herself over to the wall to slump against it. She leaned heavily against the stones, eyes closed and breathing carefully.
She looked terrible, in all honesty. Her skin was pale, and her lips were tingled blue. Tony couldn’t quite tell if her shivering was from the electro-shocks still having an effect or the cold. She’d mostly dried off by this point, but her hair and clothes were still damp and clinging to her. It was probably freezing.
“You should wrap yourself up in the cushion from your bunk,” he advised her, hardly recognizing his own voice. He sounded distant, despondent. “It’ll help keep you warm.”
She rolled her head to look at him, gaze as sharp as ever even with drooping eyelids. She watched him for a long, silent moment before reaching for the cushion. Her movements were stiff and slow, but she managed to get the cushion wrapped around herself. Tony wondered if he should offer her his shirt so she could change out of at least some of her wet clothes.
“This wasn’t your fault, you know,” she said once she was settled again.
Her voice was steady as she watched him and Tony had to look away, dropping his gaze to his hands where they lay in his lap. Guilt weighed down on him like a physical force. Maybe it was all the stress catching up to him, but he felt tears prickling his eyes again. He’d cried earlier, while Agent Romanov had been screaming, while he’d been begging them to stop.
“They could have killed you.”
He heard her shuffle a bit but didn’t look up to see what she was doing.
“Most things in my line of work can,” she said easily. She would have sounded as casual as if they were having a friendly chat in a café if it weren’t for the way her voice scratched. “They set you up for a guaranteed failure. It’s a strategy used to make individuals more likely to give information later on. The interrogator starts with something impossible for them to give or achieve and punishes them severely so they will do anything to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Of course, because she didn’t know that he knew. Red Skull might have picked that question thinking Tony wouldn’t be able to answer it, but he had been. He just still chose to keep it to himself. He almost let Agent Romanov die just to make sure Hydra didn’t know where their enhanced soldiers had been taken.
Agent Romanov must have seen something in his face or posture, because she spoke again a moment later.
“Whatever they do to me, Tony, it’s on them. It’s not on you. Do not give them what they want, not even to save me, no matter what it is.”
This time Tony did look up, staring at her with round eyes, mouth open in surprise. That was the first time she’d called him by name.
“I do know,” he blurted out, because she deserved to know, “where the twins and Barnes are. But if I told him, he’d attack, and I can’t let that happen. I chose to let them hurt you.”
He felt like vomiting as soon as the words were out of his mouth. Having them out in the open like that was so much worse than when they were just bottled up inside. He swallowed convulsively, his whole body trembling. This was all his fault and now she knew and was going to hate him. Which she should. He deserved her hatred. He was just as much of a reason for her suffering as Hydra was.
He’d just sat there with the information that could’ve saved her while she screamed. He’d spent the entire time staring at her face, seeing what it was doing to her, and yet he’d still done nothing. He was despicable. How could any decent human being do something like that? Who was he that he’d managed to hold back? He should have just given Red Skull the information. SHIELD was sure to be keeping the facility protected. Maybe they were spread a bit thinner than usual, but the attack might even have been SHIELD’s chance to capture Red Skull himself. If he’d just-
“Good.” Her voice made him snap back to attention, only to find her nodding at him decisively. “That’s better than I expected then.”
He gaped at her, struggling to wrap his mind around the sudden, sharp turn the conversation had taken.
She settled back against the wall of her cell, eyes half-lidded and managing to look somehow pleased despite the evident signs of recent torture.
“I wasn’t sure you’d have the strength to hold back, once they started asking for things you could give them,” she confessed. “This actually makes me feel better.”
“But… I let them torture you.”
Her lips twitched.
“And you put on a very convincing show of not having what they wanted. Keep that up. Tomorrow, they’re going to give you something easy, something mostly harmless that will come with a small reward. Give it to them. After that, they’ll ask for something they can use. They’re going to hurt me. They might hurt you. Whatever happens, don’t give in. We’ll talk more tomorrow night and I’ll try and figure out a plan. Do you think you can handle that?”
Tony honestly had no idea.
“I can try. Can I… Can I ask you for something?”
She hummed in acknowledgement, but the day was catching up with her and Tony thought she was probably heading toward sleep pretty quickly.
“Can I call you Natasha?”
An amused huff escaped her.
“If you hold out against Hydra, you can call me whatever you want.”
Tony didn’t so much fall asleep that night as his body crashed. He’d already been exhausted from not sleeping regular hours, but all the stress and fear from the day wiped out any reserves of energy he might have had left. If he’d had the brain power to spare with everything else that’d happened, he might have expected the nightmares to rear their ugly head.
The man smiling down at him was broad and tall, with dark hair and a beard. He was practically jovial as he showed Tony the stockpile of weapons, his weapons, they had amassed. He didn’t seem to speak any English, but the man standing with Tony, Yinsen, translated. Tony wasn’t paying attention to what they were saying, though. He was staring around at the bustling camp, car battery clutched to his chest like a mother clutching her newborn babe.
His weapons were supposed to protect people. They were supposed to help soldiers stay alive and keep innocent people safe. These guns, though, these bombs and heavy artillery… They were going to be used to take the lives of the people Tony wanted to protect. They already had. They’d killed those soldiers riding in the convoy with Tony. Had any of them survived? Had Rhodey?
“He says, if you build them the Jericho missile, they will let you go.”
Tony tuned back into the conversation to find the large man beaming at him, holding out one hand to shake, to close the deal. Tony took it, knowing he didn’t have another choice.
“No, they won’t.”
Tony wasn’t in the desert anymore. He wasn’t anywhere he recognized, actually, and yet, somehow, he knew it was his Malibu home. Another large man leaned over him, but he was bald, and his beard was white. He wasn’t smiling.
“You always manage to wind up in the same situations, my boy… One of these days, you really ought to learn. That heart of yours leads to nothing but trouble.”
Tony frowned and sat up slowly from where he’d been reclined on the white sofa.
“I just want to do what’s right, Obie.”
Right, Obie. Obadiah Stane. His godfather, business partner, and the man who’d tried to kill him.
Obie tutted his disappointment.
“You’re too soft,” he told Tony, though not without a certain fondness. “You care about other people too much, never enough about yourself. If you’d been a little more selfish, maybe I wouldn’t be dead.”
“I…” Tony wasn’t sure what to say. “I had to.”
At least he thought he did. Obie had tried to kill him first, hadn’t he? Tony had only acted in self-defense. So why did he feel so guilty about it?
“Why are you here?” he asked the long-dead man.
Obie reached out to ruffle his hair, just like he used to do when Tony was young.
“To keep an eye on my golden goose, of course. The Ten Rings were supposed to kill you, you know, but I guess it turned out for the best that they didn’t.” Tony was suddenly on his back again, reclined too far on the sofa to be comfortable, unable to move and Obie’s breath hot against his ear. “You still have one last egg to give.”
Tony jerked awake, sitting up far too quickly and making his head feel light. As expected, the lights throughout the cell block were still on, and Tony blinked rapidly to clear his vision. Sitting up on his cot, head bowed, he did his best to get his breathing back under control. He wrapped his arms tightly around his torso, mentally chanting that it was alright, that the arc reactor was gone because he’d had it removed, not because Obie had ripped it out of his chest. A glance over at Natasha’s cell showed her still asleep, facing the wall so as to best block out the light. That was good. She needed her rest. Tony would have felt even guiltier if he’d come out of his nightmare screaming again and woken her.
Thinking back on the nightmare, Tony realized it was the first one he’d had somewhere other than Afghanistan. Somewhere distinct, at least. He’d dreamed of Obie before, but it hadn’t been at a particular location. The edges of the dream had blurred and fuzzed out a bit in his mind’s eye, as dreams were wont to do, but he could still remember Obie’s face just a few inches away from his own. A shudder ran down his spine. The whole scene had seemed to be half-memory and half-fantasy, all mixed together. He wasn’t sure what was real and what was fake without JARVIS to confirm for him.
Tony wondered what the AI was doing, considering his disappearance. What JARVIS trying to find him? Of course he was. The question was how, and if he had any chance of managing it. In all honesty, JARVIS was probably far more competent than Tony himself right now. It wasn’t so much a question of JARVIS’s abilities so much as the feasibility of him being findable at all. If they hadn’t been able to find Red Skull before, what was the possibility that JARVIS would be able to track him down now? Even if he was able to, who would he tell? JARVIS certainly couldn’t come after them himself. Maybe he would send the information to the Avengers from ‘Iron Man’. That would be a decent strategy, but it still hinged on the promise that JARVIS was able to find them in the first place.
Tony dragged his hands over his face, rubbing his eyes roughly. They stung from the lack of sleep and the crying he’d done the day before. He was so exhausted… What time was it? How long had they already been in this hell hole? Tony dropped his hands and leaned back against the wall, eyes closed. The lights up above shone red through his eyelids.
The truth was, Tony couldn’t rely on JARVIS or the Avengers or anyone else coming to get them. He could hope for it, yes, but he couldn’t rely on it. If he wanted to be able to make up for putting them here in the first place, for letting Natasha be tortured, then getting them out of here would be a good start. It would be nigh impossible, but he’d done it before. Hell, he even remembered doing it now. Hopefully, this time, he’d just manage to make it happen in a shorter time span than three months.
He didn’t think Natasha had that long. Red Skull didn’t come across as a very patient man.
Tony managed to sleep some small amount through the rest of the night, but it was closer to dozing than anything else. He roused as soon as he heard Natasha stirring and they attempting to quell both their thirst and their rumbling stomachs with the water from the sink taps. They were back on their bunks, seated and waiting, by the time Red Skull showed up. Four guards accompanied him, one of which was new. The one who’d gotten a chunk of his ear bitten off by Natasha had a white bandage taped over the area and glared balefully at her through the bars of her cell. The two uninjured guards from the day before carried trays with food on them. It looked like yogurt and a prepackaged cup of cut fruit, nothing particularly special, but Tony’s stomach grumbled at the sight. He hadn’t eaten since his lunch with Steve and it’d been at least a day since then.
“Rest well?” Red Skull asked as he stopped between their cells, directing the question Tony’s way.
It rankled, how obviously Natasha was just a tool to him, leverage to be used to get what he wanted from Tony. He wasn’t even pretending to try and get information out of her, too. Of course, it was probably obvious to all of them that it would be a useless endeavor if he did. She’d never give anything away. Tony, on the other hand, appeared a much more malleable subject. Maybe that was something they could use to their advantage.
“I’ve slept better.”
Red Skull spared him a close-lipped, condescending smile.
“I hope you’ve come to understand the risk of displeasing me, then. Things do not have to be so difficult for you.”
Tony glared at him.
“I just have to give you what you want.”
“It is not so hard as you make it seem,” Red Skull comforted. “Let’s start with something easy today, shall we? If your answer pleases me, both you and Agent Romanov will be given breakfast.”
Tony eyed the food trays suspiciously. This was what Natasha had been warning him about last night. He was supposed to give them the answer they wanted this time, but it wouldn’t do to give in too easily. He had to at least make it look like a struggle.
“How do I know it’s not poisoned? Or drugged?” he challenged.
Red Skull chuckled.
“Is that what they did to you in that cave in the desert?” Tony reared back in surprise, which only seemed to amuse him further. “Did you not think I would know about that? I am very aware this is not the first time you’ve experienced captivity, Mr. Stark. I will confess some curiosity, if only because the available information about it is so scarce, but that is not what I shall ask this morning. Here, you may examine the containers yourself. They are sealed and have not been tampered with.”
At Red Skull’s gesture, one of the guards stepped closer to Tony’s cell, allowing him to reach through the bars to pick up each container and examine it closely for perforations and other evidence of tampering. When he was finished, the other guard did the same. The containers were clear, not that it was evidence of anything, not really. There were still plenty of ways for them to have slipped drugs in. The spoons could be coated with something, for example. The containers could have been opened and resealed.
Tony risked a quick glance Natasha’s way, receiving a short nod that he supposed was the signal for him to proceed. His stomach was tying itself in knots begging him to get on with it.
“Alright,” he said finally, when he was as satisfied as he was likely going to get. “What do you want to know today? Something else I can’t tell you?”
He didn’t bother to keep the bitterness out of his voice. If anything, it would only lend to his image of not having had the information.
Red Skull’s gaze bored into his own.
“Why were you chosen to work on our systems, Mr. Stark? I found it rather interesting that SHIELD didn’t keep the project in-house.”
Tony’s eyebrows went up in a show of genuine surprise. He’d been trying to think of possible questions Red Skull might ask, but that one hadn’t occurred to him at all. It was definitely something he could answer, though. He shifted uncomfortably, making a show of being undecided on it and glanced at the food again.
“It’s okay, Tony,” Natasha piped up, voice gentle and soft, like she was giving him permission. “It’s not a secret.”
Tony swallowed and hesitated a few more seconds before finally giving in.
“It was Iron Man’s stipulation, as far as I know. He didn’t trust SHIELD and the Avengers didn’t trust him, so they compromised on me.”
Red Skulls eyebrows, or where they would be if he had any, rose.
“Iron Man’s?” His gaze was predatory, and Tony’s skin crawled at being the subject of it. “And what is your connection to him, then? Are the rumors true? You built his suit?”
“Not that I can remember,” Tony snapped, careful not to lie in case they’d be able to tell. “He broke into my house and gave me a drive of information that needed to get to the Avengers because he knew I was going to a gala with them and I would have access. Next thing I know, the Avengers are in my office asking me to take a look at your system. Iron Man didn’t even suggest me, Dr. Banner did. Iron Man just agreed to it, from what I was told.”
Red Skull’s lips thinned, but Tony was pretty sure he bought the story. Hopefully.
“Very well,” he said after a long moment. “You may have your food.”
The guards approached again, passing the containers and spoons through the bars once Tony and Natasha had each backed away. Natasha didn’t waste any time peeling her fruit cup open and spooning some into her mouth, but Tony was more hesitant. He was hungry, yes, but he was suspicious, too. He ate a spoonful of yogurt while Red Skull and the guards watched on before asking, “So, what now?”
“Well, you can’t exactly expect me to believe you’re just going to leave us to it for the day. What comes next?”
Red Skull chuckled again.
“I find there’s something about you I quite like, Mr. Stark,” he admitted. “I can’t stand most Americans, but you… I do hope we’ll be able to work together in the future. Finish your breakfast. Then we will talk about the rest of the day.”
The words did little to make him feel any more secure, but there wasn’t much he could do about that. Natasha didn’t seem bothered by it, though, so Tony accepted the non-answer and continued eating. His eyes swept over their guards, committing to memory what weapons they were wearing, how many and where. It might come in handy at some point. He needed to be paying attention to every detail he could if he wanted to get them out of here.
When they were done and the trash and spoons collected, Red Skull commanded that they be brought out of their cells again. Natasha didn’t fight this time, but her hands were still cuffed behind her while Tony’s were left free. They were led back to the same room as before and once again strapped into the chairs. Tony had a feeling he knew where this was headed, and he didn’t like it one bit.
“Now, then,” Red Skull began, pacing between them with his hands clasped behind his back. He really did have a soldier’s stance. “We shall use the same system as yesterday. If you give me what I ask for, you and Agent Romanov will be returned to your cells and dinner will be provided at the appropriate time. If you do not, I will spend the day entertaining myself with Agent Romanov’s screams.”
“Why?” he couldn’t help asking. “Why torture her? Why not me?”
Not that he wanted to be tortured. He was the one who landed them here, though. It seemed only right that he should bear the punishment for their capture instead of her.
“It is quite simple,” Red Skull answered, taking on a tone similar to that of a teacher educating a young but eager student. “Humans are, at their core, empathetic creatures. It is an evolutionary failure that takes a great amount of time and commitment to overcome. Humans care, especially about individuals they are familiar and get along well with. By torturing Agent Romanov, I get just as effective a result as if I were to torture you, perhaps even more effective, without any of the risk of damaging you. You see, Mr. Stark, you are quite a coveted engineer. Eventually, not now, I foresee a great partnership between us in which you design and build new equipment for Hydra’s ascension into our rightful place of ruling this world. For that, your hands would be quite valuable, wouldn’t you say?”
He paused, clearly waiting for an answer, and Tony was left with little choice by to grit out a, “Yes.”
“So, if I were to take a hammer to each of your fingers, to the bones in your hands, to your wrists, that would quite hamper your ability to perform at your best for Hydra later on, wouldn’t it?” This time, he didn’t wait for a response. “There is no such risk with Agent Romanov.”
“You asked her to join you yesterday,” Tony couldn’t help but point out, even though he knew it probably wasn’t a good idea.
Red Skull smiled indulgently at him.
“And I was sincere in doing so. You wouldn’t know about much of her history, but her skills are remarkable. She was trained very well. However, as you heard, she declined my offer. Had she accepted, she could have been tested until her loyalty was proven. Now, though, I simply wouldn’t be able to trust it. Her value is lost to me, except, of course, as a way to you.”
Tony almost wished he hadn’t eaten the provided breakfast. He was probably going to end up vomiting it all up anyway.
“You’re a sick fucking bastard.”
Red Skull seemed unbothered by the insult.
“You are not the first to have thought so,” he confided. “I am a visionary. I do not see the world as it is, but as how it could be. And I am dedicated enough to do whatever it takes to elevate the human race to its true potential. Such intentions are often misunderstood.”
“I will never work for you.”
“A mindset we will simply have to convert you from. Enough wasting time, though. You have so much animosity and you don’t even know what I’ll be asking for yet. It may not be as bad as you think.”
Tony snorted in disbelief.
“Who is your contact as SHIELD? Who is vetting the information you pulled from our system?”
Tony glared and stayed silent. Red Skull gestured for one of the guards to pull the hose down from the wall.
They were taking a break and Tony sagged forward in his chair, water dripping from his hair to run down his face. He’d vomited after all, much to Red Skull’s obvious disgust, and the hose had been turned on him to help ‘clean him up.’ He was shivering with the cold and hating himself for even being able to think of his own discomfort when Natasha was suffering so much. After all, the only reason they were on this break at all was because she wasn’t staying conscious enough for the torture to be effective.
A Hydra doctor, or at least a scientist of some kind, had been shown into the room to check her over and give an estimate of when she might be able to be roused. It’d bought them a twenty-minute reprieve, but only because Red Skull had decided than a different method might prove more effective for their afternoon. Tony really, really hoped they didn’t involve a hammer and any of Natasha’s fingers. Pulling himself back upright, he swept an assessing gaze over his fellow captive.
Natasha was limp in her bindings, head lolled back at an angle that looked downright painful. Her breathes were coming in short little bursts, too rapid for something not to be wrong. Like yesterday, her body was twitching entirely outside of her control. At some point during the morning, Tony was sure, she had to have lost control of her bowels, but repeated hosing downs had washed any evidence away before it could be spotted. That had to have been a relief. She deserved to be able to keep at least that much dignity.
Tony himself had been promised a bathroom trip before things resumed, and he was hoping it came sooner rather than later. He doubted he’d be able to find some miracle way of getting them out, but seeing a bit more of the compound would at least give him more information. That was something they sorely needed at this point. When he’d been stuck in that cave, he and Yinsen had tracked every inch between where they were being kept and the exit. They calculated exactly how many steps and how long it would take them to get out of there in the suit and how many guards they were likely to encounter on the way there. So far, Tony and Natasha didn’t even have a rough idea of how many guards were in this base.
With their guards staying mostly the same from yesterday, excepting the one Natasha had killed, it was tough to tell how many were among the base’s ranks. Even now, one was still in the room with them, leaning against the door and looking bored. He was a blonde, though it was a much darker shade than, say, Steve’s, and his nose looked like it had been broken at some point and not quite reset before it healed. Tony hoped he got the chance to break it again before all this was over. The guy took far too much pleasure at being in charge of the hose.
For now, though, Tony just needed to bide his time until he could come up with some sort of a plan. He hoped Natasha had enough time left for him to manage it. The repeated electrocutions had to be hell on her body, her heart especially. Every shock weakened the muscle just that much more. One of these times it was going to be too much. Tony couldn’t let that happen. He wouldn’t let that happen.
When he was finally collected for his bathroom break and released from his binds, Tony’s legs very nearly didn’t hold his weight. The guard scoffed, rolling his eyes and grumbling as he wrapped one meaty hand around Tony’s bicep and hauled him out of the room and down the hall. Stumbling after him, Tony did his best to take everything in. They passed several rooms similar to the one they’d just come from, thankfully empty but clearly set up for torture. One had what looked like a meat hook hanging from the ceiling. The next hallway, however, held a mix of lab spaces and offices which did much more to pique Tony’s interests.
It was on that hallway that they stopped, the guard accompanying Tony into the restroom but thankfully letting him enter the stall on his own to take care of things. It was a pretty standard stall, as far as Tony could tell, with a toilet paper holder on one wall and a little waste basket attached beside it. There wasn’t anything he could use. Natasha could probably figure out a half a dozen ways to escape with only what was here, but Tony just didn’t have that skillset. He did run his fingers across the seams of the toilet paper dispenser to see if he could somehow pull off the sharp, plastic teeth and secret them away to get to Natasha later, but no such luck.
Out of ideas and knowing he would soon be out of time before things started to look suspicious, Tony finished up and left the stall to wash his hands at the sink. The guard, this one a redhead, watched him with an impassive expression before escorting him back to his cell. Tony let his feet drag a bit as they passed the lab spaces, attempting to catch a glimpse of anything obvious they might be working on, but there was nothing he could identify on sight.
What he did notice, though, was that almost all of the equipment looked pretty outdated. The space itself was large, at least for anywhere that wasn’t a major corporation, and there were eight scientists bustling around, including the doctor who had come by earlier to check on Natasha. Judging by the number of beakers and other glassware in use, their project was at least somewhat chemistry related.
It was something, Tony just wasn’t sure if it was something he could use.
Red Skull was already present by the time they got back to the room and he watched on impassively as Tony’s guard shoved him back into his chair and re-tied him. Natasha was still unconscious, at least as far as Tony could tell. Red Skull’s gaze followed his own, but there was no hint of pity or remorse as he took in Natasha’s state.
“This could all end right now, you know,” he told Tony, still looking at Natasha and not at him. “This doesn’t have to go on.”
It was tempting. It was impossibly tempting. It wasn’t like Red Skull was asking for a list of the Avengers’ weaknesses, or the secret identity of their newest member. He was asking for Tony’s contact in SHIELD. Whoever they were, they were probably safely ensconced in some SHIELD facility, still managing the data Tony had sent. Hell, they might not even be a real person. SHIELD was a spy organization, after all. It would make total sense for them to make up a fake agent for Tony to send his info to, if only so he couldn’t out any of them in a situation just such as this one.
If Maria Hill was a real SHIELD agent, she had to leave at some point. She had to have a home, maybe even a family there waiting for her, kids or a partner that HYDRA could use as leverage, a sick mother, a down-on-their-luck cousin. Hell, maybe Hydra would just try and take her and interrogate her the same way they were Natasha and Tony. He couldn’t risk that.
He hung his head in shame and Red Skull sighed disappointedly.
“Very well, then. We shall proceed.”
That night, Tony’s nightmares were vicious and awful. He dreamt of being a small boy with a bloody lip, staring up into faces only a few years older than his own and wishing with everything he had that there weren’t hateful eyes staring back. He dreamt of being at MIT and thinking he had friends for the first time in his life, only to overhear the conversation about how stupid they thought he was, how naïve to think they were interested in anything other than his money. He dreamt of a confrontation that ended with fists and tears until a ROTC cadet had come charging over and driven the ones he’d thought were his friends away.
Tony woke with tears in his eyes, sobbing over an old wound he hadn’t even known he carried.
“I thought we could try something different today, shall we?” Red Skull asked, once they’d been escorted to the room and secured in their respective chairs, though Tony’s arms had been left curiously free.
They hadn’t been given the option of breakfast that morning, just sustaining themselves on the water from the sinks in their cells, and Tony’s stomach was tying itself in knots. Despite her best efforts to appear otherwise, Tony could tell that Natasha was flagging, too. It’d only been two days, technically only one full day, and yet it felt like they’d been here a week or more. Tony’s time in Afghanistan had never been like this.
The Ten Rings had waterboarded him, yes, shoved his head down into that frigid barrel and held him there until he was gasping, but it hadn’t been like this. The time hadn’t warped. Or, it had, but in the opposite direction. The days had felt too short there, like he didn’t have enough time as he and Yinsen raced to complete the suit before they were found out. There was something for him to actively do there. With Hydra, the only thing he could do was bite his tongue and do his best not to spill any secrets.
“What did you have in mind?” he snapped, temper short with his hunger and exhaustion.
He knew it wasn’t a good idea, but he was just so fucking tired, physically and mentally. Maybe, too, there was something about the memories now knocking around in his head. There were memories from his childhood and from MIT, though by no means complete, and they were all filled with anger and violence and the constant struggle for just the barest hint of acceptance and approval. So, yes, it was a terrible idea to antagonize their captors, but Tony didn’t have much of a brain-to-mouth filter left.
Luckily, Red Skull didn’t seem to take too much offense, though he did frown disapprovingly.
“You have shown yourself to be surprisingly resistant to answering my questions. It has been an unexpected discovery in one who has led such a sheltered and pampered life as yourself, whatever brief dalliance you had at the hands of that terrorist group. I must admit I’m somewhat pleased by the discovery. I can appreciate someone with a spine. Zola never had one, but he was a brilliant man, and so I put up with him.” He seemed to get lost in thought for a moment before coming back to himself. “Today I will ask you no question. I simply wish for you to solve this.”
A tablet was held out to him, the screen already bright, and, despite the way it made his skin crawl to do so, Tony took it cautiously. It displayed a long equation, making Tony’s brain immediately start running down the blissful paths of familiar math and science. He scowled as he reigned himself in, pulling back to glare at Red Skull.
“What is this for?”
Red Skull’s lips curled in evident amusement.
“You don’t know?”
Tony glared and turned back to the equation, this time letting his brain run a little further. He made a few notes on the screen, but only to help him keep track of things. They were disconnected enough that he didn’t think they would help anyone else along in the process of figuring the math out for themselves. He didn’t think he’d be able to solve it without a few notes, anyway. He might be a genius, but there was still only so much that even he could keep up with. He was about halfway through the calculations when it finally clicked.
“This is for rocket propulsion.”
The gleam in Red Skull’s eyes was unsettling.
“Hydra’s air transports could benefit from some upgrading,” he allowed. “We had some plans working already, but they were on the server the Avengers so unhelpfully pilfered from us, so I’m afraid we’ve had to start over. It would be a terrible thing for our enemies to have a backstage view of how our equipment works.”
When Tony didn’t say anything further, Red Skull gave him an indulgent little smile.
“You will not be giving us anything we don’t already have by solving this. Our scientists have already done so. This of it more of a skills assessment, a test, if you will. We already have all the answers; you’re just being graded on your performance.”
So, it was something like what they’d pulled the day before in exchange for breakfast. Tony wanted to look to Natasha for confirmation but resisted the temptation. If Hydra thought he was relying on her too much, that she was calling the shots and he was just following along, then they might decide to go ahead and kill her to get rid of her influence. He wouldn’t put it past them. He had to make this call on his own.
He hesitated a moment more and then got back to work. When he finished, he wrote the answer along the bottom of the screen, not happy about it but seeing little alternative. If he could buy Natasha even a bit of a reprieve, he needed to take that chance. It wasn’t like he’d designed a whole new jet for these bastards. He’d given them a piece of the puzzle, whether they already had it or not. It might even build up their confidence in him a bit more.
In all honesty, Tony would far prefer it if they gave him projects instead of asking him questions. Science was what Tony did. It was a deeper part of him than any memory. With a project in front of him, he could stall for time. Hell, he could possibly even sabotage things, build something to get them out of here like he had in Afghanistan. Of course, he had a feeling that building a massive, powered suit would be a lot harder to do here than it had been in that cave.
He handed the tablet back to Red Skull, who smiled thinly, barely even glancing at the screen before handing it off to the broken-nosed guard.
“Have Dr. Miranda review his results and compare it to our own.”
The guard have a quick salute and headed out. Tony refused to look at Natasha, afraid of what he might see on her face if he’d made the wrong choice. Red Skull, at least, seemed very pleased. It wasn’t a comforting thought. None of them spoke until the guard returned some minutes later with the tablet tucked under his arm and give Red Skull a short nod of confirmation. Red Skull practically beamed.
“Very good, Mr. Stark,” he practically purred. “You made excellent time in solving it as well, under what was estimated. I’m impressed, and rather hopeful this is just the first step in a fruitful partnership between us.”
Tony scowled, but said nothing. Instead he dropped his gaze to the floor, doing his best to project reluctant submission. Red Skull didn’t seem bothered. Instead, he retrieved the tablet from the guard and swiped through some commands.
“Let’s see how you do on something a bit more challenging while lunch is prepared.”
Hydra’s second project for him was code breaking. It wasn’t one of the ones that’d been on Hydra’s files, but it was impossible to tell what the file they wanted decrypted contained until he’d actually decrypted it. Hydra had apparently already run in through their crack box, a glorified computer that did nothing but hold encryptions and their keys so that files like this one could be run through. If the crack box contained the code used, the file could be decrypted automatically. Most militaries around the world used them, so Tony supposed it wasn’t exactly surprising that Hydra would have gotten their hands on one. The box had wielded no answers for them, however.
“We already have a team working on it,” Red Skull assured him, “and they will manage to break it eventually. I am confident you can give me results faster, though. Your company also provides encryptions to the US military and other intelligence agencies, does it not?”
It did, some of which JARVIS had told Tony he created himself. Mostly, though, they were crafted by a carefully assembled team who specialized in that sort of thing. Tony was the one they normally tested their encryptions against. Hell, for all Tony knew, this could be one of theirs. Was that another part of the test? Would Hydra give him a code they thought he already knew the answer to in order to see if he was stalling? He wouldn’t be surprised. But there was no way they could know how involved he actually was in the encryptions coming out of SI. Even if this was an SI code, they couldn’t be sure it was one he was familiar with, not to mention that crack boxes had been invented for a reason. People couldn’t retain that many codes and their keys just knocking around in their brain. Tony was a genius, but that was stretch even for him.
Whatever games Hydra was playing, there was nothing Tony could do about it. Lunch still hadn’t arrived, and he was reasonably sure that it wouldn’t if he refused to complete this task, no matter that he had done the previous one. The file they wanted decrypted was a short one, at least. It was most likely some sort of message, as far as Tony could guess from what little information he was about to glean. The question it all came down to was how damaging the message could possibly end up being.
Unlike with the equation, there would be no getting out of this one without copious amounts of notes. Code breaking was a fine art and required trying many different equations for every solution. It wasn’t something he could manage in his head and even putting down the bare minimum would leave enough of a trail for Hydra’s people to follow. There was no question about him solving it first and then deciding whether or not to tell them what information it contained.
His mind churned, turning over the possibilities, trying to look at it from every angle, trying to find a way around giving Hydra what they wanted. He was tired, though, beyond exhausted. His brain didn’t want to work the way it normally did, and it was distracted by his rumbling stomach even past that. The only meal it’d had in the last 48 hours had been vomited back up. The promise food was… impossibly tempting. And not just for him. Natasha would need to eat, too.
He hated himself for it, but he got to work.
In some sick twist of fate, lunch turned out to be pre-packaged sandwiches and bags of chips. Red Skull allowed Tony to examine them before accepting them and even to pause his work to eat. If he was worried about Tony refusing to complete the project once he had food in his stomach, he didn’t show it. The was no reason for him to be, anyway. Tony was well aware it wouldn’t take much on Hydra’s part to bring it back up. The silent threat of it hung heavy in the air.
Tony bit into his sandwich, forcibly not thinking about the sandwiches he’d shared with Steve just the day before yesterday. Everything had been so different then, so much brighter. Tony had actually been naïve enough to think he might make it through this whole experience largely unscathed. He knew, logically, the he was seeing that time through the rose-tinted glasses of an even worse situation, but it didn’t matter. His nightmares, the horrors of the Hydra files, the tension of hyper-vigilance, none of that seemed to have touched the moments when he and Steve had shared that terrace and eaten while they talked. Tony very sincerely wished he could be back there.
He couldn’t run from his reality, though, and soon he was back to work.
The encryption was a message, after all. He’d been right. It wasn’t addressed or signed, but the content of it left Tony staring at the screen for a few minutes, trying to process. He still didn’t know whether or not this was one of SI’s codes, but he was reasonably sure it was one of SHIELD’s.
‘Iron Man has agreed to provide data. Files in transit.’
Given the circumstances, it would be a tough sell that the message was affiliated with any other group. It made sense that SHIELD would be so desperate to get one of the Avengers back that they would turn to Iron Man for help, especially when their specialist had disappeared with her. Perhaps SHIELD thought Iron Man would be more receptive to their request for help because he’d agreed to Tony working on the project. They had no idea that the Iron Man they were communicating with was actually JARVIS, and that he was very invested in getting Tony back.
It was a relief to know that JARVIS was working with SHIELD to try and find him. Tony’d known JARVIS would do his best to search, but there was something heady about the proof of it. It was still unknown if the two forces would make any progress in being able to find them, but at least they were looking. That was a lot of resources aimed their way.
Red Skull seemed far less pleased with the news.
“What, exactly, is Iron Man’s stake in all this?” he hissed once Tony had passed the tablet over and he’d seen the message.
“Perhaps he doesn’t like the idea of you being in charge any better than the rest of us,” Natasha drawled.
She’s recovered quickly during the break Tony’s work had bought them. She was getting her color back and she was definitely more present mentally. She had a spectacular bruise that’d crept across her temple and there were the others littering her body from the previous afternoon’s rough treatment, visible only because Hydra had stripped her to a tank top and boy shorts, and she’d refused Tony’s shirt when he’d offered it the night before.
Her head snapped to the side as Red Skull backhanded her across the face. Blood splattered across the floor from her split lip.
“Mind your mouth,” he spat at her, “or I will not be so kind in granting you relief as I have been. You are insignificant here. Do not forget it again.”
Natasha pulled herself back upright and glared balefully at him but said nothing further.
“Return them to their cells,” Red Skull barked on his way out the door. “I will deal with them later.”
Tony didn’t like the way Natasha’s expression turned grim at the prospect.
“Iron Man being involved changes things,” Natasha told him as soon as they’d been left alone in their respective cells. “It raises the stakes.”
“What do you mean?”
“Iron Man was the one who found out about Red Skull’s plan with the satellites, the one who led us to him, but then he disappeared up into space to deal with the hardware aspect of things and Red Skull only had the Avengers to deal with again.”
“But now he’s back.”
“And what seemed like a one-time thing now looks like an ongoing problem, a big one.”
Tony considered that for a moment. He could definitely see where it wouldn’t be a preferable situation for Red Skull. The Avengers were a problem on their own but adding Iron Man to the mix gave them a technological edge they hadn’t had before. He wasn’t just extra firepower. He was the one who shut Hydra’s communications down and basically rendered their base marooned during the Avengers attack. It was his information that had revealed Hydra’s presence inside of SHIELD and led to them being taken out. If Red Skull knew any of that, which, at the very least he could guess, then he had to know Iron Man was far more competent at rooting around in their systems than SHIELD ever had been. Without Hydra’s undercover agents, Red Skull couldn’t even keep track of how far SHIELD was getting or sabotage Hydra’s efforts, either. Of course he was on edge about a long-term partnership between SHIELD, or at least the Avengers, and Iron Man.
“So, what does that mean for us?”
“I don’t know. If we’re lucky, it keeps him distracted and means he doesn’t have time to mess around with us. He’ll just keep us locked up while he deals with things.”
She didn’t sound like she found that possibility very likely.
“And if we’re unlucky?”
“Then we become the target for his anger and desperation and things get a whole lot worse.”
Tony shuddered. He couldn’t imagine things being worse than they already were. Maybe he could make himself a bit more of a target somehow, mouth off some to draw the attention away from Natasha. He could handle taking a bit of heat if it meant keeping her alive. Hell, he’d rather be taking all of it. Natasha would probably have a far easier time figuring out a way for them to escape.
“Tony,” Natasha spoke up again after a few moments of silence, “I need you to promise me something.”
Cold dread pooled in the bit of Tony’s stomach at the look in her eyes.
“If they kill me-“
“They won’t!” Tony rushed to assure, even though he couldn’t be at all certain of that. “We’ll figure something out.”
She held up one hand to stop him.
“If they kill me,” she started again, tone firm, “I need you to promise me you won’t try to be the hero. The team is coming for us, but if they get here too late, you have a better chance of surviving than I do. You’re more valuable.”
Tony’s hands were shaking.
“I’m not gonna let you die here.”
The sharp lines of Natasha’s face softened.
“Promise me, Tony.”
“Only if you promise you’ll do everything you can to keep yourself alive.”
Her chuckle was quiet, but at least it was there.
“I think I can agree to that.”
They weren’t lucky. Red Skull appeared outside their cells just two hours later. It had to be evening by then, at Tony’s best guess, but he couldn’t be sure.
“Bring him,” he commanded the guards before turning away.
Not “them”, but “him.” The guards approached Tony’s cell as he and Natasha exchanged a glance. Other than bathroom breaks, they hadn’t been separated since their arrival.
“Where are you taking him?” Natasha demanded, approaching the bars.
The guards, well out of arm’s reach, ignored her. Tony backed away from his cell door as it opened.
“If it’s all the same to you,” he protested weakly, “I’d rather just stay here.”
They paid him about as much mind as they had Natasha, grabbing him and hauling him out of his cell. As he was dragged down the corridor, he could hear her calling his name out behind him.
There wasn’t much Tony could do to slow them down, but he felt like he was being marched to his death. Was that what this was? Had Red Skull figured out he was Iron Man and decided to kill him and have it done with? Was he going to try and get Tony to build another suit? To mass produce them for Hydra? There was no way to know.
He wasn’t taken to the torture room, though, which he hoped was a good sign. The guards dragged him down a different hall instead, away from the labs and anything familiar he’d seen so far. Finally, they came to an open door and he was tossed unceremoniously to the ground inside before it was shut behind him.
The floor was covered by a thick carpet, thankfully, which Tony took note of as he pushed himself up again. The room was a large, dark wood-paneled office and Red Skull lounged in his chair behind the desk. As soon as Tony spotted him, elbows on the armrests and hands folded together in front of his chest, Tony scrambled the rest of the way to his feet. The anger and fury were rolling off of Red Skull in waves, even without moving a muscle. It bled into the air around them, turning the room stifling. Tony had to fight against the urge to cower away and make a run for it. He was reasonably sure he wouldn’t get far.
“I have reached the end of my patience,” Red Skull announced. “Your skillset is valuable to me, Mr. Stark, but I find I no longer have the time to spend on you. You have a choice to make, right here and right now. Either you join our cause, for which the price of a later betrayal is death, or I drag you back to your cell by your hair so that you may watch as I shoot Agent Romanov in the head, at which point you will be shipped off and thrown in a hole until such time as I deign to call upon you again.”
Tony blinked rapidly.
Red Skull roared as he surged to his feet, sweeping the contents off the desk’s surface in a show of rage before stalking forward to seize Tony by the throat and slam him into the bookshelves that lined the opposite wall. Several books and at least one breakable object clattered to the floor.
“Do not play stupid,” he snarled. “Which do you choose?”
Tony’s legs kicked out uselessly, Red Skull not even seeming to notice, and his fingers clawed at the hand around his throat. Eyes wide with panic, he scrambled for something, anything to get himself out of this situation. Pushing himself up onto his toes, he struggled for breath.
“W-what happens to R-Romanov i-if I join?”
Red Skull turned and threw him across the room, Tony’s hip clipping the edge of the desk before he went tumbling to the ground. He gave a shout of pain as the sharp, wooden corner tore into him, but he didn’t think anything was broken. Tony sucked in lungfuls of air as he lay amid the wreckage of things Red Skull had earlier cast aside. Papers were everywhere and Tony flung his arms out, hands grasping until one closed around a fountain pen. Red Skull himself stalked forward the loom over him.
“It is no concern of yours.”
As Red Skull bent down, reaching out for Tony once again, he took his chance and struck. The pen sank into the side of Red Skull’s neck.
For a moment, time froze, Red Skull’s face just a foot away from Tony’s own, expression frozen partway between outrage and shock. Tony was almost as surprised, staring at his own hand in horror where it still clutched the pen. Then Red Skull reared back, the pen ripping its way out of his neck, and the moment was broken. The howl that he let out was downright inhuman as blood sprayed from the wound. So much blood. More blood than Tony would have thought possible. It splattered down on him like rain as Red Skull wheeled away, clutching his neck in an attempt to stem the flow.
Tony scrambled backwards and away, cursing himself because now he was definitely going to die, when he saw it. There was a pistol strapped to the underside of Red Skull’s desk.
Tony threw himself at it, flicking open the clasp and pulling it free. It was an oddly familiar weight in his hands, one that he found almost comforting, if there was any comfort to be had at a time like this. He stayed low, peeking out around the side of the desk. Red Skull was on the other side of the room now, back with the bookcases and leaning against them heavily, but he seemed to have recovered at least some of his wits. Judging by the glare aimed Tony’s way, he was also very, very angry. Tony didn’t wait for him to attack, he just fired off a shot with the pistol and made a dash for the door.
Yanking it open, he darted into the hallway. There was only one guard waiting there, the red-headed one, and Tony shot him before he could even blink. Tony crouched beside the body, spending a few precious seconds grabbing the handgun from the man’s hip and snatching up his assault rifle before sprinting off toward the cell block. His hip burned with every step, but Tony knew there was no talking their way out of this situation. If he was caught now, he was definitely going to get killed, and Natasha would be shortly thereafter. They were going to have to try to fight their way out.
He’d barely made it fifty feet before more guards started appearing, probably drawn by the sound of gunfire. The first had a bright white bandage taped over one ear from where Natasha had ripped a chunk off. Unlike the previous guard, he was ready. Tony had to dive to the side to avoid getting shot, hitting the floor and rolling up against the wall. Panic thrummed through his veins, but his body worked on autopilot. He brought Red Skull’s pistol up and fired three shots. The guard fell.
Pounding footsteps and shouted commands could be heard in the distance now. His actions clearly hadn’t gone unnoticed. Tony needed to get to Natasha yesterday. He scrambled back up onto his feet, hip protesting loudly, and took off running again. He was pretty sure he remembered the right way back to the cells from here. Taking a wrong turn was likely to spell disaster for both of them. Hell, the guards might just be heading straight to Natasha by now, figuring that was his destination. His grip tightened around the pistol in his hand.
Tony whipped around a corner and came up short as he nearly slammed right into another body. He raised the gun to fire, reacting on instinct, but the other person grabbed his wrist and yanked it to the side, making his shot go wide and bury itself uselessly in the opposite wall.
“Tony! Tony, it’s me!”
Tony’s brain caught up half a second later and he sagged with relief as he recognized Natasha. A moment later, he’d thrown his arms around her in a fierce hug, practically clinging.
“Oh, God, you’re alive! You’re alive. Thank God.”
Natasha returned the hug quickly before forcing herself out of Tony’s arms and sweeping her gaze over him. He realized suddenly that he might look quite a sight, covered in blood, clutching one pistol while another was shoved in his waistband and an assault rifle was slung over his shoulder by its strap. He wondered if bruises had started forming around his throat from where Red Skull had gripped it.
“It’s not mine,” he blurted. “I stabbed him. Red Skull. There was- There was a lot of blood, but it’s not mine.”
Natasha’s eyebrows rose.
“You stabbed Red Skull?” she demanded, incredulous, before pulling herself back on track and redirecting. “We’ll talk about that later. We need to get out of here.”
She pulled the pistol from his waistband without a moment’s hesitation, checking it over quickly before nodding.
“How did you get out of your cell?” Tony couldn’t resist asking.
She spared him a tight-lipped smile.
“I’ve learned a lot of tricks in my time. You probably don’t want to know.”
Tony trusted her judgement and didn’t press the issue.
“Any idea which direction we should be going?” he asked instead. “I hadn’t gotten any further in my planning than getting back to you.”
Not that Natasha had ever been given any more opportunity to look around the base than he had, but maybe she had some secret spy knowledge that would help. Judging by her grimace, though, his hope was misplaced.
“It would help if we had some sort of distraction,” she said, dodging the question since they both already knew the answer, “something to draw their attention while we search for a way out.”
Tony couldn’t deny the bubble of admittedly inappropriate glee that rose up from within him at her words.
“I think I know just the thing.”
The door to the lab was locked when they got there, Natasha’s spy skills able to navigate them that far without being spotted again. She really was far better at this sort of thing than Tony was. He’d still nearly gotten them caught twice on the way. It felt good to be able to pull his weight by prying off the cover of the electric keypad and dig through the wires until he found the right ones to unlock the door. They slipped soundlessly inside, still on alert despite the fact that the lab looked deserted.
Natasha took up a post guarding the door while Tony moved further into the room. There were still a number of glassware still on the counter, though nothing volatile. That was fine. Tony would take care of the volatile part as soon as he located their chemical cabinet. It didn’t take him long. As an added bonus, there was a nearly-full bottle of bleach with the cleaning supplies. After that, it was just a matter of pulling out the ammonia and setting up a contraption that would give them a slight delay before dumping the two together.
He didn’t want to be anywhere nearby when that chemical reaction took place.
“Alright, we’re good. We’ve got forty-five seconds.”
Natasha gave him a sharp nod and checked the corridor one last time before leading the way out. There was really no telling where the nearest exit might be, but they could be reasonably sure there wouldn’t be one right next to the cell block, in case of escape attempts like theirs. They’d try the other direction and hope for the best.
They were still close enough to hear the glass windows of the lab shatter when the ammonia and bleach hit each other. Alarms started blaring and Tony couldn’t help but grin at the thought of how much of Hydra’s work would have been ruined or lost in the explosion. If he and Natasha didn’t make it out, at least there was that. He was starting to feel pretty good about things, actually, even with the pain in his hip getting worse with every step. The adrenaline would keep him going at least a while longer.
Natasha took point, looking for some assortment of clues that Tony couldn’t even begin to fathom. There was probably some kind of Villain Lair Standard Layout that she was working off of. Or maybe she was just guessing with each corridor she turned down. Either way, Tony was pretty sure he’d follow her to the ends of the Earth.
A second explosion shook the building enough to knock him off his feet, a nearby shelving unit very narrowly missing him as it came down. Tony was getting real tired of winding up on the floor today, but there wasn’t any time to dwell on it as Natasha was beside him a moment later and hauling him to his feet.
“What the fuck was that?”
“It wasn’t part of what you did?”
“Not unless Hydra has been overlooking some very serious safety regulations. Which, actually, I wouldn’t put past them. But I still don’t think so. The direction wasn’t quite right. It didn’t come from the labs we’ve seen.”
“Right, well, let’s not stick around to find out what it actually was, then.”
There was no argument with that from Tony and they were off again, darting through hallways and trying desperately to find a way out. Where the hell were the fucking exit signs in this place? The entire place was such a maze, OSHA would be having kittens. A sharp ‘crack’ split the air and Natasha pulled up short as a bullet whizzed past her temple.
Fear gripped Tony’s heart as Red Skull strode out of the corridor in front of them, covered in even more blood than Tony himself and pistol pointed unwaveringly at the two of them. A thick wad of bandages was pressed to the side of his neck.
“Not so fast,” he tsked, though with far more anger than his usual charm. “You’re not leaving here after all the trouble you’ve caused me. Neither of you.”
Four guards stepped out behind him, all aiming their rifles and ready to shoot. Natasha shifted subtly to place her body as best she could between them and Tony, but he knew it wouldn’t make any difference. The firepower of those guns? They’d be full of more holes than swiss cheese in a second.
“What are you gonna do, Red Skull?” Natasha challenged him, “Kill your best chance of being able to lay even a finger on Iron Man? You know as well as I do that your pet scientists would never be able to catch up to him. He’s proven that pretty thoroughly already.”
She was probably playing for time, but Tony still would have felt better if she didn’t do it by casually taunting Red Skull about shooting him in the face. Or using his alter ego like a carrot on a string. It wasn’t that he doubted her, of course. It was just… he’d had enough close calls for a good, long while.
“Dogs who bite their masters should be put down,” Red Skull sneered. “That should be a concept you’re well familiar with. Or did they tolerate such failures in the Red Room little Widow?”
“I wouldn’t consider anything that makes your life harder a failure. You should have stayed in the ice. Even if you kill me, kill both of us, your days are numbered. The team’s coming after you and there’s nowhere you can hide with Iron Man helping out. Face it, Red Skull. You’re not the hunter anymore. You’re the hunted.”
Red Skull fired once and Natasha went down hard, clutching her thigh. Tony dropped to his knees beside her. Shit, shit, shit! They were gonna die here. They were really gonna die here. Everything they’d done, all their resisting, just hadn’t been enough because now Red Skull was going to kill them. Tony was never going to get back to his tower and see JARVIS and the bots again, he was never gonna see Pepper again. He was never going to be able to look at Rhodey and search his face for the traces of that MIT, ROTC cadet that he could just barely remember.
Red Skull scowled at them, disgust written across every line of his face.
“You’re not worth my time, Agent Romanov, and you won’t be getting any more of it. Kill her,” he instructed his men as he turned away, “and collect Stark. His will not be a quick demise.”
Broken-nose guard grinned and started forward. Tony grabbed for his assault rifle. If he was going to die here, he was taking as many of these bastards with him as he could.
“Don’t,” Broken-nose guard commanded before he could bring the gun up and fire. “I don’t have any problem shooting up those arms of yours. Put the weapons down and save yourself the-“
He cut off short with a choked sound as an arrow flew over Tony and Natasha’s forms to bury itself between his eyes. He dropped like a rock.
“What the-!” another of the guards cursed.
They started shooting a second later, aiming at something further down the corridor. Judging by the arrow, Tony was really hoping, praying, wishing it was Clint. Dropping fully to the floor to keep as far out of the line of fire as possible, Tony wrapped an arm around Natasha and started trying to help her off to one side of the corridor.
More arrows appeared, though Clint must have had some kind of cover he kept ducking behind, because Tony couldn’t spot him. Another of the guards fell. Tony scrambled for his assault rifle once again, but the remaining guards were knocked off their feet as Red Skull was bodily hurled down the corridor to slam into their backs. Steve, complete in Captain America regalia with the cowl pulled down over his face, stepped into view. Tony could have wept at the sight of him.
“It’s over, Red Skull. You’re finished.”
Red Skull gave a shout of rage and pushed himself back up.
“Not yet,” he snarled.
Tony saw the gun in Red Skull’s hand, his finger on the trigger as he raised it to point at Steve, and Tony reacted without thinking. Instinct took over. The sound of the assault rifle was cacophonous in his ears.
Red Skull stumbled and fell.
Tony was quiet, sitting on the bench of the quinjet and letting Bruce check him over. He’d insisted Natasha be treated first, considering she was the one who’d been tortured for several days and then shot, but allowed it once she was taken care of. Clint was sitting with her now, their heads bowed close together and murmuring back and forth. Steve was in the cockpit, flying the transport, but Tony had caught him looking back at the rest of them repeatedly. Sam and Thor had stayed behind to secure the location while SHIELD swept in, but Bruce had wanted Natasha and Tony to be headed toward actual medical facilities as quickly as possible.
None of them spoke.
Tony felt numb, as Bruce poked and prodded at him. He answered the occasional, softly asked question by rote. There was just this heavy sense of emptiness that’d settled over him as the adrenaline had fled. It was odd, perhaps, to think of emptiness as having a weight, but it did. It pressed in on him from every side, leaving him unable to so much as shift in his seat.
He had killed people. He knew it wasn’t the first time. He remembered setting a man on fire with his flamethrowers during the escape from the cave in Afghanistan, but… Red Skull’s drying blood itched against his skin. He’d been given some wipes to get it off his face and hands, but it’d soaked through his clothes and collected around his nails. It would probably take him hours to scrub away all the traces of it.
He didn’t regret killing them, exactly, but maybe that was the problem. They’d been horrible people, people who had been complicit in his and Natasha’s torture. Red Skull himself had been a genocidal sociopath bent on world domination. So, no, Tony didn’t regret it. He just… He hadn’t even known their names.
He hissed sharply as Bruce prodded near his hip.
“Sorry,” Bruce apologies automatically, flinching back a little bit before leaning in again. “Is it alright if I push your shirt up a bit to have a look?”
Tony nodded and just went ahead and pulled his shirt up and over his head, tossing it away from him. It was a lost cause anyway. If he had his way, he’d never see it again. He hoped it got burned. It was a biohazard. Looking down at himself, Tony frowned at the dried blood over the mottled bruising. What was visible of his hip was already darkening quickly and there was a deep gash in the center still seeping blood.
“Oh,” Tony said with a sensation of detached surprise. “That must be why it was hurting so bad.”
Bruce sent him a worried glance before focusing back on his work.
“Do you know what happened?”
“Red Skull threw me across his office. I clipped his desk on my way down.”
Tony’d stabbed him in the neck just after that, though, so he thought that might make them even. Not to mention that he’d finished the job later with a spray of bullets.
Bruce gave him another look.
“Tony,” he said, still in that same soft, quiet voice, like he was being careful with the very vibrations of the air, “I think you might be in shock.”
Tony hummed in acknowledgement, nodding along.
“You know what? You might just be right.”
His eyes flickered around the quinjet and noticed Natasha and Clint both watching him now. He gave them a shaky smile. He wasn’t sure why. It just seemed like the thing to do.
“Would you have any objection to me giving you a sedative?” Bruce asked. “It would knock you out, but it would only be until the actual doctors are able to look you over. Your body’s gone through a lot of stress these past few days. The rest would help.”
Tony gave a sharp bark of laughter, startling himself.
“Yeah, sure, Doc. Whatever you say.”
He barely even felt the pinch of the needle when Bruce slid it in, and the rest of the flight was spent in blissful darkness.
He woke up in SHIELD medical, alone and connected to more machines than he wanted to count. His head felt cloudy, but he wasn’t in any pain, so he was willing to bet one of the bags hanging from the IV stand had pain medication in it. Carefully pushing himself up into a seated position, he surveyed the room more closely. It was small, with just his single bed, but that made sense for the medical facility of a government organization. There was at least a chair that guests could use off to one side. Tony couldn’t tell if anyone had been using it recently, but he doubted it. Who would have had reason to? He doubted Pepper would be allowed to visit, even if SHIELD had probably called to tell her he’d been recovered.
Unless they hadn’t told her Tony was missing in the first place. Somehow, that seemed like something SHIELD would do. Well, he was definitely gonna tell her when he got out of here. Better that than her biting off his head for not responding to any of her emails or signing paperwork. Except of course, that then she’d worry. Shit, she’d be so upset that he was in danger and being hurt and she hadn’t even known about it. Maybe he wouldn’t tell her after all. Maybe her not knowing was for the best.
Wow, these had to be some really good drugs they had him on.
Figuring that the sooner someone knew he was awake, the sooner he could get out of here and back home, he fumbled around the sides of the bed until he located the nurse call button and pressed it. Then it was just a matter of waiting. He was surprised when, just about a minute later, a knock came at his door before it was opened so a young woman in scrubs could slip inside. He wasn’t expecting anyone to show up quite so quickly. The nurse gave him a kind smile as she approached the bed.
“Mr. Stark, we’re glad to see you awake. How are you feeling?”
Tony smiled back at her automatically.
“High as a fucking kite. What are you guys pumping into me?”
Picking up the chart hanging over the foot of his bed, she made a quick note before answering.
“You’re on a Fentanyl solution diluted with Demerol, so don’t be surprised if you’re a bit delirious. Your injuries were all relatively minor, with the exception of the deep tissue bruising on your hip, but we wanted to make sure you didn’t wake up in any discomfort. Can you tell me what your pain level is on a scale of one to ten, one being no pain at all and ten being the most pain you’ve ever felt?”
Tony giggled a bit.
“Negative. Definitely a negative number. Like, at least a negative two. Maybe a three.”
She gave him an indulgent smile and jotted down another note.
“Alright then, Mr. Stark. I’m going to swap your bags out and get you started on a round of Toradol to help with your inflammation but let us know if you develop any discomfort in the next few hours.” She hung the clipboard back at the foot of his bed. “Captain Rogers requested that he and the team be notified once you regained consciousness. Would it be alright if we did so?”
Tony blinked at her. Why wouldn’t that be alright? Steve probably just wanted an update on his condition for his mission report or whatever. That made perfect sense.
“Yeah, sure. Go for it.”
She gave him a nod and another smile.
“I’ll be right back with your Toradol, then.”
It wasn’t until she was already gone that Tony realized he’d completely forgotten to ask about when he’d be allowed to leave.
Nurse Kutner, as he’d learned her name was, was back and had just finished changing out his IV bag when the door burst open hard enough to bounce off the wall with a sharp ‘smack’, making both Tony and the nurse jump violently. She whirled, pulling a Glock from a holster in her waistband to aim at the intruder, and Tony stared at her, utterly distracted by this development. Luckily, she was far more aware than he was and relaxed a moment later, tucking the gun away again.
“Agent Barton, if you keep bursting into all of my patients’ rooms, I’m going to actually shoot you one of these days.”
Her tone was unamused, and Tony got the distinct feeling any shooting that happened wasn’t going to be by accident. After a moment, though, her words sank in and his attention was once again diverted, this time to where Clint stood in the doorway, hands up in surrender and grinning sheepishly.
“Sorry. I just get so excited.”
Tony grinned broadly at seeing him. Throwing the thin, hospital blanket off his legs, he moved to stand only for Nurse Kutner to place a hand on his shoulder and push him firmly but gently back down.
“You shouldn’t be walking around just yet,” she informed him kindly before turning back to Clint and switching to a much firmer tone. “If I catch you helping him out of bed, Barton…”
“Don’t worry, Gladys.” Natasha said, appearing beside Clint as though out of thin air, even despite the crutches keeping her upright. “I’ll keep him in line.”
Nurse Kutner heaved a very put-upon sigh.
“Well, at least if I know you’re here, I know you’re not trying to get yourself sent on another mission or training when you should be resting.”
She gave a very pointed look at Natasha’s leg. Tony couldn’t see any bandages, but there was a very impressive brace holding the entire thing straight. Natasha gave a wan smile and slipped past Clint to approach the bed.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she informed Nurse Kutner before turning her attention on Tony. “Hey, there. How are you feeling?”
Nurse Kutner wasn’t fast enough to stop him this time and one of Natasha’s crutches was knocked to the ground with the force of him grabbing her for a hug. He didn’t care that she’d gone as stiff as a board in his hold.
“I’m so sorry,” he gasped into her neck, the tears welling up and spilling over before he even realized he was crying. “I’m so sorry. You would have never been there if it weren’t for me and you- you-“
Natasha’s arms finally came up to wrap around him in turn, fingers of one hand carding through his hair.
“Shhhh,” she soothed softly. “It’s alright. Everything’s alright. We got out and we’re alive. None of what happened was your fault, Tony. None of it. And the ones that were responsible are either dead or locked up now. It’s over.”
Tony let her comfort him as he continued to cry and cling to her. At some point, Nurse Kutner left and Clint joined their little huddle. He coaxed Tony into laying down again and helped Natasha into the bed with him so they could stay wrapped around each other without putting any more stress on Natasha’s leg. Then he climbed up to sit on Tony’s other side and rub his back.
That was how the rest of the team found them. Eventually, once the meds wore off, Tony would probably feel horrifically embarrassed but, for the time being, the sight of the whole Avengers team filing through his door had him bursting into tears all over again.
Understandably enough, that had Steve flying into full worried mother hen mode, trying to figure out what was wrong.
“I’m just-“ Tony gasped out between sobs, “so happy- to see- you guys!”
Bruce, who’d picked up Tony’s chart at some point, made a disapproving clucking noise.
“They gave him Demerol,” he observed. “His emotions are probably all over the place. It should work its way out of his system in the next hour or so. It looks like they’ve swapped him to a lesser pain medication now.”
Steve was still frowning, though, and that wasn’t right. Tony just couldn’t allow it to continue.
“Hey, hey, Cap, hey, Steve,” he called, repeating himself to make sure he had Steve’s attention even though he’d turned to Tony about as soon as he’d opened his mouth. “How’s your friend? How’s Barnes? I know you were worried, but it’s been- I keep forgetting it’s only been a couple days. It feels like it’s been ages.”
The skin around Steve’s eyes tightened, but he smiled and patted Tony’s shin, since Clint and Natasha were still monopolizing his upper body.
“Bucky’s doing better,” he said. “He’s still got a long way to go, but he’s doing better. He helped us find you, actually. He was able to remember a base in that general region that wasn’t in the files you were sorting through. It gave Iron Man a place to start looking and he was able to pick up on the activity there so we could come get you.”
Tony’s brow furrowed. He didn’t remember doing any of that. He’d been stuck with Red Skull the whole time.
“Iron Man? But-“
“I know you’re not his biggest fan,” Steve allowed, “and I understand why, but… I think he might not be such a bad guy after all.” At Natasha’s raised brows, he elaborated. “I’d pulled his records before you two were… taken. I think there’s something more there than what we’ve seen so far. I’m not saying we should invite him to join the team, but it deserves some looking into.”
“I do not know much about the intricacies of Iron Man’s history or goals, but he has always struck me as an honorable warrior upon the field of battle. He is not like those of Hydra or AIM, unscrupulous and savage. He is brave,” Thor rumbled. “I have heard you were very brave as well, friend Tony. Lady Natasha has regaled us with the tales of your wit and cunning before Hydra’s plots. And the good Captain tells me you were the one to fell Red Skull himself! That is no small feat.”
Tony blinked at him, momentarily thrown. Sam, just behind Thor, dragged a hand over his face.
“You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to,” he assured Tony, shooting Thor a glance that was probably meant to say… something. Tony couldn’t really be sure.
“Oh, um, it’s fine. I’m really nice and floaty right now. I don’t mind. It was… it was really shitty there.”
“Well, that’s one way to put it.”
“It was!” Tony protested. “It was super shitty! They kept wanting all this information and hurting Natasha if I didn’t give it to them, but then sometimes I could give it to them? Cause that was supposed to make them trust me? Or something?”
“You did a great job,” Natasha said, fingers still playing with the short hairs at Tony’s nape. “I was very impressed.”
Tony settled down against her again, somewhat mollified.
“I’m just glad you were able to break out of your cell on your own,” he admitted. “I didn’t have any idea how I was gonna get that door open.”
Natasha smiled down at him.
“It wasn’t my first time popping a lock like that.” Which wasn’t really an explanation, in Tony’s opinion, but she kept talking so he didn’t have the time to dwell on it. “How did you get away from Red Skull and the guards? You said there was a confrontation. You stabbed him?”
“Oh. Yeah. I stabbed him in the neck.”
The entire room stiffened.
“You what?” Bruce asked, voice tight and eyes wide.
Tony’s brow pinched. Had he said something wrong? He hadn’t meant to upset anyone. And he was pretty sure he’d mentioned it to Natasha already, during their escape. Maybe it would be better if he explained.
“I, uh- They dragged me into his office, and Red Skull wanted me to join Hydra. He didn’t seem to feel like he had much time? I’m not really sure. He was really pissed, though, and he didn’t like it when I asked what would happen to Natasha if I did. He, uh, slammed me into the wall and choked me.” Natasha’s hand slipping down his arm and twining their fingers together was the only reason Tony realized his hands were shaking. He clutched hers tightly. “Then he threw me, which is when I clipped the desk. There was a fountain pen in the debris and I, uh, stabbed him. With it. I grabbed his gun from under the desk and ran while he was distracted.”
They were all staring at him and Tony ducked his head so he wouldn’t have to look any of them in the eye. He knew he hadn’t handled it the way they probably would have, but it wasn’t like he was trained for this kind of thing.
“You are a true warrior, friend Tony,” Thor intoned deeply, and he looked up again, gaping at the approval in the prince’s eyes. “You should be proud of your deeds.”
“It’s true,” Clint agreed, nodding along sagely. “That’s fucking badass. I mean, that’s some Agent Carter level shit right there, stabbing Red Skull in the neck with a pen.” His nose wrinkled in thought. “Is it weird that I’m a little jealous?”
Sam smacked him lightly on the head.
“Yeah, man. It’s really weird.”
Clint just pouted.
“We’re glad you’re okay,” Steve broke in before they could start squabbling. “That’s what’s most important.”
Feeling warm all over, Tony couldn’t help but grin at them.
As it turned out, SHIELD had informed Pepper of his disappearance and subsequent recovery. She and Happy were waiting for him as soon as he touched down via quinjet in New York, having been escorted there by Clint, Natasha, Sam and Bruce. It was a bit surreal, how protective they seemed of him, but he could definitely appreciate it. Pepper, on the other hand, looked like she couldn’t quite decide whether she wanted to hug him or slap him.
“Mr. Stark,” she greeted.
“If you keep pulling this kind of thing, I’m going to start demanding hazard pay.”
Tony’s lips twitched.
“You want hazard pay? I want hazard pay! Or at least for people to stop kidnapping me.”
Happy grunted in agreement.
“I could deal with a bit less of that, too. Still mad at you for not bringing me.”
Tony squawked in disbelief.
“It was a secret SHIELD thing! No one else was even supposed to know where I was!”
Happy didn’t seem convinced.
“I’m your bodyguard, Tony, however little that seems to mean to you. How am I supposed to do that when you don’t bring me with you when you go into dangerous situations?”
“Well,” Natasha spoke up, smiling at them from where she’d accompanied Tony down the quinjet’s ramp on her crutches, “it looks like we’ll be leaving you in good hands.”
Tony glanced from her to the two people in front of him, who he’d barely met and yet knew without a doubt would do anything for him.
“Yeah, you are.”
He was really looking forward to remembering them. Natasha leaned over to press a kiss to his cheek.
“We’ll be in touch,” she promised, before turning and heading back toward the quinjet.
“Just as long as it doesn’t involve any more Nazis!” He pointedly ignored Happy and Pepper’s raised eyebrows as he snatched up the keys to the car and slid into the driver’s seat. “Are you two coming or not?”
The bots, on the other hand, nearly mowed him right over in their pursuit of greeting him when he stepped into the lab. He hadn’t even been up to the penthouse yet, far more interested in seeing the ones he’d missed the most. There was beeping and whirring and just general mass chaos, but Tony wouldn’t change it for the world. He felt warm and loved and like he belonged.
“Welcome home, Sir.”
JARVIS’s voice broke over him like a tidal wave and Tony felt tears prickling his eyes yet again. He felt like he’d been crying at the drop of a hat since their escape from Red Skull’s hideout.
“It’s good to be back. I missed you guys,” he said, stroking a hand down DUM-E’s arm strut. “All of you.”
“And we missed you, Sir,” JARVIS assured. “Your absence was rather longer than expected.”
Tony sighed tiredly.
“Yeah, you could say that. Thank you, for finding us, for working with the team. I… I don’t think we would have made it out if they hadn’t shown up,” Tony confessed, the admission weighing heavily on him.
It wasn’t that he was ashamed of the fact that his and Natasha’s escape attempt wouldn’t have worked without backup so much as having to face the mortality of what would have happened if things hadn’t gone the way they had. Tony didn’t exactly enjoy looking death in the face and he had a feeling he’d done that far too often over the course of his life.
“The Avengers proved themselves to be most useful,” JARVIS acknowledged. “I could see the benefit of keeping them around in the long run.”
The levity of it had Tony’s lips twitching upward in a smile.
“Oh, you can, can you?”
“Indeed, Sir. Initial assessments would suggest any ill-will on their part towards Iron Man has been greatly lessened by recent events and they may be open to future partnerships of the like. With Hydra removed from SHIELD, your original reasoning for turning down the invitation of membership no longer applies.”
Tony rolled his eyes fondly and headed toward the workshop’s couch, bots hot on his heels.
“You’re a filthy meddler, is what you are, JARVIS.”
“I’m afraid I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re referring to, Sir.”
“Of course, you don’t. I think I’m going to crash down here tonight, okay, J?”
He threw himself onto the couch, careful of the stitches along his hip, and pulled the blanket that he was relatively sure was kept there for this exact reason off the back. BUTTERFINGERS beeped excitedly and zoomed off to fetch a pillow.
“Anything you’d like, Sir. We will enjoy having you so close.”
Tony smiled softly as he settled in.
“Yeah, my thoughts exactly. Tonight, I just want my family.”
Maybe he didn’t have his memories back quite yet, but they would come. Tony had the time to wait, and plenty to do in the morning to keep himself busy until they did.
And he would have his family, old and new, beside him for all of it.
Aaaand we're done! Thanks so much to everyone who stuck it out with us. Another big thank you to temporary-teddycup for the art in the first chapter.