"I am afraid of it," said the King, and this time it was his voice which sounded strange. "I thought, in the night time, that perhaps it was aiming too high. If people reach perfection they vanish, you know. It may mean the end of the Table. Supposing somebody were to find God?"
— T.H. White, The Once and Future King
When Tony was a kid, his dad would take him to the gun range. This was after he'd gone off to boarding school but well before college; he was big enough to shoot a .45 without being knocked on his ass, but not big enough that he'd learned his face was as much a mask as any iron helmet. Howard started him on a .45 because in his father's pantheon small-caliber arms were akin to toys. "Anything below a nine millimeter doesn't have enough stopping power, son," was Howard's refrain, like they were both going to war, like Howard didn't have his own private security, like the only consideration was how much damage a gun could do to a man while remaining cost-effective to produce.
Tony had been designing handguns long before he'd ever shot them, but men knew how to shoot and Starks knew how to shoot well. He never protested when Howard took him to the shooting range, for that reason and because Howard rarely bestowed attention of any sort; he also had the fascination of a child and of an engineer with force, and there wasn't much that Tony had encountered that was more forceful than a lump of metal propelled with explosive power at a thousand feet per second. He was young.
So Howard took him to the shooting range; he clapped the earmuffs on Tony's head, he slid the too-large glasses with their yellow lenses on Tony's face, and he put the big revolver in Tony's hand. "Like this, Tony," he said, and he showed Tony how to load bullets in the cylinder. That first time the range was vacant of anyone who wasn't a Stark, and when Tony lifted the muzzle and clumsily aligned the sights, he did so in complete silence.
"Good," Howard said. (Tony basked.) "Deep breath in… breath out… and remember: don't pull, squeeze."
Tony breathed in. He breathed out. Slowly, he increased pressure on the trigger. Time went viscous; he squeezed and he squeezed and he squeezed and nothing happened although he knew something was going to happen—
When the gun fired, it was the noise that frightened him. Even through his earplugs and earmuffs, the crack of it was violent and deafening. He jerked back hard but managed to keep the muzzle pointing downrange, as Howard had taught him, and he swallowed down the thick, caustic sensation in his throat, also as Howard had taught him.
"Again," his father barked, and Tony Stark, who was nine, lifted the revolver, steadied himself, and squeezed the trigger. As he squeezed, he flinched; it was the anticipation that did it.
"Your shot went wide," Howard said. "Don't flinch before you fire."
Tony emptied the cylinder. "You're flinching," Howard said again. "I told you not to flinch."
They reloaded the gun together. Tony lifted the revolver, braced it with both hands, squeezed the trigger. He told himself to stay steady, but before the bullet had fired, he shied back.
"Jesus Christ, boy," Howard said. "You're flinching before the gun even goes off. Stop tensing up. Like this. Both eyes open and on the target. Don't flinch."
Tony nodded, took the gun from Howard. They reloaded it together; this time, Howard showed him how to use a speed loader. Tony lifted the gun, looked at the target. He squeezed the trigger. In the fractional second between when he started applying pressure to the trigger and when the hammer hit the firing pin, his body once again tensed and recoiled against the instructions of his brain. At that age it was the most vivid illustration of all the ways your self can betray you that he had yet encountered.
Don't flinch. He'd learned lessons far more complicated, but none that were more useful. Howard made Tony fire the gun until he could steel himself against the noise and the force of it; by the end of the day, they had used eight hundred rounds, and Tony was quivering not from anticipation but from muscle fatigue. Later, when he told that story, his audience tried to convince him that Howard had been pushing Tony too hard; but Tony didn't agree. His father had been a bastard, but he'd understood the way the world fit together, and that day at the range all he'd been trying to do was make Tony understand, too. It was, in the end, good advice, and Tony wrote it into his own personal code of chivalry. Don't flinch.
Tony met Happy when Happy pulled him from the wreckage of a burning car. That one incident set the precedent for their relationship; Tony abuses Happy's good nature, and Happy pays Tony back by pulling him out of burning wrecks. Tony's something of a magnet for burning wrecks. He makes them himself, by hand, out of good will and the best intentions. Happy, on the other hand, was probably meant to be a firefighter before his life was derailed by a grateful rich man offering him a job. The pretty dame—that was how Happy always referred to Pepper within her hearing, 'dame' or 'doll' because it made her laugh although she wouldn't have tolerated it from anyone else—completed the derailment. Happy wasn't going to be a boxer, retired or otherwise, and he wasn't going to be a firefighter. Happy worked for Tony Stark in whatever capacity Mr. Stark desired.
Tony knows that. He's thought about letting Happy go before, has even managed it once or twice, but in the end he could never quite resist the temptation to lure Happy back to his employment. There's this writer who's doing a profile on him, and in one of their interviews she implied that Tony has to buy his friends. He'd had the thought long before she gave it voice; it's like an open sore in his mind, the idea that all of the people closest to him have been or currently are on his payroll. If they weren't, maybe they'd be safe.
All prelude. He no longer feels concern, because concern is the province of men who flinch. Tony can't afford concern. He's sitting on the bank of the Rubicon right now, and across the river is Camlann, and if Steve were here listening he'd laugh at how Tony mingles history with myth. Mixing metaphors, that's what he's doing. It's another glitch, one of those abhorrent structural defects that comes with being human.
Tony's a big fan of humanity, but he's also aware that humanity as it is lacks a certain something. On the basest level, the material can't withstand any significant degree of stress. There's elegance in cells and tissues and muscles, he can't deny there's a sort of messy efficiency there, but skin and bone are poor substitutes for carbon nanotube composite fibers and adamantium-skinned biomemitic ceramics. For instance: if Happy were made of metal and circuits instead of flesh and blood, he very likely wouldn't be lying braindead at Memorial Hospital after a hired gun who disagreed with Tony's politics decided to take his ire out on Happy.
Or maybe not. Happy had a briefcase with him; the briefcase is now gone. Maybe this was all industrial sabotage. Who can say. Tony can't.
Meanwhile, there's the armor.
He rebuilt it almost from scratch, from the inside out, starting with the control center—that's Tony's brain—and ending with a long string of minute but critical adjustments to the exterior of the armor itself. No more hacking, no more unauthorized access, no more fear; he's still trying to cut back on his sleep, but without the release of an REM cycle every few days, the world begins to unravel at the seams. Happy wouldn't approve, but Happy is no longer a factor.
The big problem—not so much for Tony, but he has an idea—is ammunition. Everyone wants to know how War Machine can fire what amounts to four hundred rounds per minute from what is essentially a shoulder-mounted Gatling gun, but that's because they lack any kind of creativity. Tony partially subverted the problem with energy weapons, but Rhodey continues to insist on some kind of physical projectile, and Tony, because he's an obliging kind of guy, obliges.
Here's how he solved the problem: mounted amongst all that machinery is a block of metal. Every time Rhodey fires, certain mechanisms sheer off a nanometric fragment of that block, and then specialized repulsors accelerate the fragment to a lethal velocity. Rhodey can adjust the size of the fragment, or the speed of it. Tony hasn't found much use for it in his own iteration of the Iron Man, but that doesn't mean there aren't other practical applications—what if he used the same concept to propel, oh, a temporary paralysis agent, or chaff, or some other kind of countermeasure?
Tony doesn't have to be better if he can make the armor better, but he made himself part of the armor, so that means he has to be better, too.
He doesn't even have to take the armor off to work on it. That's how Reed finds him; they were supposed to meet tonight, but Tony forgot. Reed knows the access codes to the workshop, though, so he shows up anyway. That level of trust is as close to a declaration of brotherhood as Tony can get.
"Tony," Reed says.
"Have I ever told you how I solved War Machine's ammunition problem?" Tony says. "It's elegant. A little simplistic, maybe, but if I patented it and found the right buyer, I could live off the returns for the rest of my life." Not, understand, that Tony needs money; Tony is a rich man's rich kid, and he wants for nothing. "It'd mean funding for a hundred special projects. Private prisons are all the rage these days—"
Reed says, "I was truly sorry to hear about Mister Hogan." Reed's a brilliant guy. He understands all kinds of things that nobody else does, concepts that even Tony struggles to wrap his head around; Tony makes things work, but Reed's playgrounds are interdimensional physics and cosmic flow theory. For all that, though, the whole spectrum of emotion is as much a mystery to Reed as it is to everyone else. Grief is unfathomable.
What Tony wants to ask Reed at that moment is whether Reed has ever been tempted to cleanse himself of the grit of human feeling. It's distraction and drive all at once, and Tony has never been comfortable with how thoroughly the two blur together. He can't ask Reed that, though, because he and Reed don't have that kind of relationship. What Tony really wants is to talk to Happy.
PASSIVE MODE //
TS: Don't you guys have tickets to a show?
HH: Nah, not until later. Pep's getting all gussied up. I wanted to stop by the community center, figured I'd swing by on the way and see how you're doing.
TS: I'm fine.
HH: Can't kid a kidder, boss. I saw the press conference you did.
TS: Hey, at least I was sober through the whole thing.
HH: You been rubbin' axle grease under your eyes?
TS: Ha ha. Look, I've been busy lately—
HH: No judgment here. Just saying, it's gotta be tearing you up to have Cap—
TS: Did you say you were going by the community center? I have a few things to pass along to the project manager, she should be on-site today.
HH: Okay, I get the message.
TS: Here, give her this, it's the specs for hardening the building against EM pulses.
HH: I still say that's nuts.
TS: Yeah, well, if we want turn the place into an emergency refuge, we have to prepare for everything, and there's no telling when the latest Ultron wannabe is going to go after the power grid.
HH: In that case, we better make this the most well-defended community center in the tri-state, huh? I'll make sure these end up in the right hands.
TS: Take the briefcase, too. And tell Pepper "Happy Anniversary" from me. That goes for you, too—I don't want to see either of you before next Monday.
HH: You got it. See you, boss.
TS: Friday, my little eavesdropper, bring up the gauntlet model. Let's talk gravity grip.
FR: Livin' out your Spider-Man fantasies?
TS: Quiet, you. Give me an expanded view—
HH: Uh, Tony.
TS: Hap? You still here?
HH: I, uh… I just wanted to say something. I don't know if it's my place, but you… uh, you don't seem fine.
TS: What do you mean?
HH: I remember how you got when Spymaster sold your tech to Hammer.
TS: I wasn't exactly complying with the law—
HH: No, but that doesn't mean you're doin' anything different now than you were then. This is damage control. Maybe Cap and the rest of 'em don't see it, but I know you.
TS: Damage control. Is that so.
HH: We both know it is. And that's okay, boss, you're doing the right thing. Just don't let the cost get too high, all right?
TS: Yeah. I… Thanks, Happy.
HH: You got it.
Tony Stark is performative, Tony Stark exists entirely in liminal spaces; other people might have the comfort of home, permanence, rest, but Tony Stark has only transition. He passes from one side of the stage to the other, bathed in light, capable of holding the attention of the entire audience on him, dazzling enough that he can make them forget that behind and above and below is only the dark. Tony can't forget. Tony doesn't have the luxury of forgetting.
Oh, you wanted to know about Tony Stark's politics.
Here's the causal chain: a small group of politicians incited by a less small collective of lobbyists decided that costumed heroes and extra-legal peacekeepers needed more government oversight. A minority of the public—those who remembered the string of brainwashings, defections, and bad decisions that shadowed groups like the Avengers—took notice of the initiative. Finally, a series of statistically improbable disasters (a hostage crisis, the PR and existential nightmare that was Stamford, some kid cracking Tony's brain), the world's worst timing, and the usual impeccable taste of the media combined in a perfect shitstorm of circumstances to make superhero regulation the hottest issue of the year.
Senator Boynton (D - NY) introduced the Superhuman Registration Act to the 109th U.S. Congress. It passed through both the Senate and the House with unprecedented speed; Friday had staged an entire holographic production of Schoolhouse Rock's "I'm Just a Bill" to either cheer Tony up or piss him off—hard to tell with her. The president had signed the act into law in the early days of summer. A matter of hours after it passed, Steve Rogers, in one of his usual unintentionally iconic displays, had announced his decision to resist Registration and go underground. Neither the announcement nor the resistance were peaceful. He and Tony haven't spoken since.
Tony's seen this or something like it coming for years. He has his own contingency plans to work the situation to his own advantage. As for his politics—those are a matter of public record. Eventually, Tony thinks of everything.
STARK TURNS TRAITOR
BY SALLY LLOYD
Twelve days have passed since the Superhuman Registration Act was signed into law, and the current stalemate shows no signs of breaking. Steve Rogers, long the most visible opponent of the SRA, has been a fugitive since SHIELD agents issued him notice that he must comply with the new legislation or face arrest. In his absence, the streets of New York City are alight with a tension only aggravated by the heat of summer, the foreboding and highly visible presence of SHIELD's new "cape-killer" units, and the PR blitz coordinated by pro-Registration figureheads that blares from every TV, radio, and laptop.
Rogers refused to compromise, resisted arrest, and has avoided showing his face in public since "Day Zero" of Registration, although NYPD officers say Captain America hasn't abandoned his home city. "We know he's around," says Lydia Matthews, a fifteen-year veteran of the force.
Amidst the Registration controversy, Rogers might the only one still doing his duty. His former comrades seem too busy fighting each other to remember their original purpose; service has yielded to jingoism, opportunism, and empty rhetoric. No Avenger's descent has been more dramatic than that of Tony Stark, a founding member of the team and the current head of the Stark Industries conglomerate. Stark is perhaps best known as the hero Iron Man; after being kidnapped and held overseas by a terrorist organization for three months, he returned to the United States, donned his powered suit of armor, and appointed himself a champion of the people. More recently, Stark went public with his identity and revealed that the previous cover story, in which he claimed that Iron Man was a Stark Industries employee serving as his personal bodyguard, was a fabrication.
If Stark is best known as Iron Man, it's only because the Avengers are the face of a generation. In his civilian guise, Stark is a media magnet, a modern-day Howard Hughes: brilliant, driven, and glib. There's no doubt that Stark is an incredible inventor, although how much involvement he retains in the day-to-day running of Stark Industries is questionable, but despite his skill as a technologist, Stark is less than gifted at navigating life as a hero. Stark appears to only intermittently grasp the clarity that comes so easily to leaders like Steve Rogers; while Rogers believes that the greater good transcends the law, Stark has all too often allowed himself to be influenced by his role as a business mogul and guided by his own best interests.
Reducing the struggle over the Registration Act to a conflict between two figureheads may be disingenuous—in this week alone, four national newspapers ran front-page headlines that were all variations on the theme—but there's no denying the very real ways that Stark and Rogers are shaping their respective camps. Anti-Registration voices have adopted Rogers as a symbol of protest, and the most enterprising of them are already capitalizing on it; Bebe Summers, who sells her crafts on Etsy, reports a nine thousand dollar gross in the past week alone thanks to her iconic "I BELIEVE IN CAP" buttons and T-shirts. Those in favor of the SRA have attempted to rally around the slogan "I STAND WITH IRON MAN" with little success.
Of course, this clash of the titans is made all the more dramatic because Stark and Rogers were not only pillars of the Avengers and the wider superhero community but also close friends. While reports of their intimacy may have been exaggerated (it's hard to imagine Rogers, a grounded veteran born into a working class family, sharing more than the occasional luncheon with the flamboyant heir to the Stark fortune), there's no denying the efficacy of their working partnership. Stark provided the means, Rogers the motivation; the rest is a story that has taken less than a decade to pass into legend.
(NEXT PAGE: THE AVENGERS, POLITICIZED)
"I don't want to talk about it," Tony says.
"If that's what you want," Reed answers. "We have plenty to keep us busy here, anyway." There's a certain purity to devoting yourself to work in times of deep emotional distress—not that Tony should be able to claim that right now, considering he's entirely responsible for the situation—but if he can't hope for benediction, he can at least count on distraction. Or maybe grief and guilt are the real distraction; if Tony had the time to build a better human, he'd do something about that.
"How do we fix this?" he says. "One hundred things. Let's go."
"Is Friday recording?" Reed asks.
"She's always recording, unless I ask her not to. Which, and this isn't a slight on you, is usually when I have less clothing on. I didn't get the impression that we're having a naked brainstorming session, but…" But what? Tony abruptly lacks the energy to bring his usual parade of verboseness around to a point. It's just gone, the willingness, the performative investment in trading shallow wit for attention, it's gone, it's like someone siphoned it away. There isn't any point in pretending with Reed anyway. Reed cares, but Reed also understands the bigger picture; Tony's wants are unimportant when weighed against the issues at hand.
"Yes, she's recording," he says. "I can ask her to stop, but there's not much point in it; she's smart enough to piece it together once I start trying to implement what we theorize here."
"I trust you," Reed says. "And you trust her. A record could… ah, that's wishful thinking."
"No room for absolution here," Tony says, and it's true; they deal with what should be only in the confines of what is. Reed understands. Maya Hansen understood. Tony wishes he didn't.
THE RIGHTEOUS ACT
Contributed by Norman Osborn
In recent days I have seen a level of vitriol directed at supporters of the recently-enacted "Superhuman Registration Act" that shocks my sensibilities. These sentiments are not only crude but un-American. The Registration Act was passed by the will of the people, and it is enforced by our legally-elected government. This is not to say in the ethical mode that legality and morality never come into conflict; but neither is the correct course of action when faced with a just law that is personally unpalatable to react with violent force.
On a personal note, I can only write in utmost support of Registration, or rather in support of the programs that have been passed alongside it. Had I been allowed to register my identity and received the care and support that are provided to those entered into the registry, countless lives might have been saved. Early detection is crucial, particularly in treatable cases like mine. I have hope that fair enforcement of Registration, and vigilance and compassion on the part of its administrators, will avert a great deal of further suffering.
"Friday?" Tony says. (This is later.) "Wake up and get to work. I'm not paying you to sleep on the job."
"Technically, boss," Friday says, "you aren't payin' me at all."
"Not strictly true," Tony counters, because Friday has full discretionary access to his accounts and the freedom to purchase whatever desire demands and reason allows. He's never been sure why conventional wisdom portrays artificial intelligences as emotionless, flat, mechanical. They aren't human, but the AI on this planet at least are born of humans, which breeds understanding if not sympathy, similarity if not sameness. And the easiest way to make a creature obey is to make it want to obey, after all—there's that, too. Tony built that trait into Friday: not obedience, but the desire for collaboration. In avoiding hard limits, he'd given her the freedom to decide whether she liked people or not.
You can't put it back in the box. You can't fix people, not Friday and not Happy, not Steve, who by circumstance and by design retains the high ground, and not Maya, who displays a ruthless single-mindedness that Tony both admires and abhors. Maybe, with a lot of R&D and years of testing, you can start to fix yourself; but Tony's never been entirely sure how to structure that experiment. He tries things, and sometimes he succeeds, and sometimes he fails, and the conclusions he reaches rarely match the conclusions reached by those around him. There's something off in his moral compass, something in him that spins the needle away from true north. If he could, he'd cut that part of himself out entirely.
There's an engineering function called a bathtub curve—a decreasing slope describing early failures, a gentle leveling for the random failures that occur even in a product's prime, and then a steep rise as the product reaches the end of its lifespan. There are ways to flatten a bathtub curve, extend the sweet spot, anticipate failure; stress screening can reduce infant mortality, all those early failures of a system; exotic materials and construction techniques can lengthen the lifespan; a very gifted engineer—an engineer like Tony—can begin to account for some of those 'random' failures with the intuitive foresight a mere computer can't match. If you look at the entire system of superheroes as the product—
Are they at the end of their lifespan? Are they worn out, obsolete, useless? Tony wonders, sometimes, he wonders about the Avengers; but people aren't products, and if the Avengers are failing, it only means they need to be rebuilt again, newer, better, bigger, wider in scope and more reliable, an engine of guardians to stand between Earth and the stars. They only have to weather this storm, and that means Tony has to make sure as many of them as possible make it through Registration intact.
It's a nice fantasy. It's a nice story he can feed himself when he's standing in the kitchen of Avengers Tower at two in the morning surrounded by empty seats, Clint's Cirque du Soleil mug, the Far Side panel Jessica Drew had taped to the coffeemaker, the baby bottles Luke had left behind. Sometimes he opens the junk drawer to stare at the pencils inside; they aren't anything special, plain Ticonderoga #2 pencils sharpened to a fine point, but Steve had put them there so he'd always have a pencil handy. That's another weakness Tony can't afford: nostalgia. Or yearning, maybe. Self-indulgence, certainly—his tendency to pity himself has always been one of his less attractive traits.
In this brave new world, though, Tony has all the tools he needs to excise those weaknesses that lead to lapses in judgment. He hasn't coded out the latent addiction to alcoholism, because that's something he deserves to live with every day, but he has workarounds or the seeds of workarounds for everything else. Some of those workarounds are in alpha; it's fine. He's fine. He has years of experience at this. Grief is an artifact, a relic he can bury beneath an eighteen-hour workday and the most cuttingly designed exosuit in the world. Self-indulgence means only that he must rededicate himself to self-abnegation. The armor helps. He can take a lot of abuse in the armor. One day he'll manufacture an armor so flawless he won't even feel it. He'll build himself into the suit; he's on his way already.
The idea that Tony is some noble savior taking on this burden to protect his friends is a What If he disallows. He strikes it from the record. It's sloppy and inaccurate; Tony is building a better world for his own selfish ends. There's no other truth to be had.
"What's on the docket today, Friday?" he asks. "Hit me with the highlights."
"Meeting with the Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee, press conference to follow. You wanted to go over those cybernetics breakthroughs from the Far East Division, that's a teleconference with Doctor Endo at whatever time the both of you are still awake—"
"No comments from the peanut gallery," Tony says.
"Would I be rude enough to remark on the sleep habits of scientists?" Friday says, a little blandly. "Sally Lloyd is still tryin' to get that interview—"
"The journalist," Friday says, veneer cracking under her usual spitfire delight at correcting Tony.
"Block it. Turn her down."
"Done," Friday says. "Doctor Richards wants to discuss integrated rehabilitation programs while you tour Wonderland—"
"Don't call it that."
"Project 42," Friday corrects. She pauses before continuing. The pause is not for Friday's benefit but for Tony's; she can think at speeds that leave even Tony's post-Extremis brain scrabbling in the dirt for traction.
"Last night you mentioned somethin' about neurological feedback in the armor. I have some ideas on that point," she adds. "And… there's the hospital, boss."
"Right," Tony says. "Anything else?"
Friday pauses again. "Nothing," she says. "Time to get dressed."
Time to get dressed.
He doesn't bother changing into pajamas of late—not, strictly speaking, that he ever did. These days, though, when Tony sleeps, he sleeps at regularly scheduled intervals, four hours every other day, and he sleeps stripped down to his underwear, usually on the cot in his workshop. When he's not in the country, he takes other measures, but on American soil, there's nowhere safer.
The garage is hardened against EM weapons, has redundancies on top of redundancies, and is protected by security measures so cutting edge the military can't touch them. The express elevator and the freight elevator both pass a series of checkpoints that involve everything from biometric scans to limited cybernetic verification. Friday monitors the entire complex around the clock in real time, and Tony can count on one hand the number of people who are allowed access without case-by-case permission from Tony himself. Hell, outside of the Avengers and a few trusted Stark Industries employees, very few people even know this workshop exists, much less that it's located deep in the foundation of Stark Tower.
The interior is vast, cavernous, large enough to house every suit of armor Tony has ever built and a couple of collector's pieces besides. Iron Man lines the walls, hangs suspended from cables, lies in scattered pieces across every workstation and beside every machinist's tool, Iron Man is flayed open across every draftsman's screen and holographic blueprint and simple pencil drawing. Iron Man wears this workshop the way Tony wears the Iron Man.
When he has to sleep, that's where he sleeps; and when he doesn't have to sleep, some dreaming piece of him is still and always in that cathedral to engineering.
He wakes up at six o'clock precisely, runs through a systems check, scans the headlines, talks to Friday. (Anything else? Time to get dressed.) He takes the express elevator up to his penthouse suite. He exits the elevator. One of Pepper's assistants is waiting at the top with a very white demitasse of very black espresso; his name is Bill, probably, and his last name is something Polish, Tony thinks. That's a joke—the kid is named William Wozniack, which Tony has teased him about more than once, and Pepper hired him straight out of the Harvard MBA program. Before his graduation, even. His skin is dark and his hair is reddish, a whimsical coincidence that makes Tony wonder if Pepper is collecting an army of ginger-headed interns, and like everyone with regular access to Tony, Will the Woz has been thoroughly investigated through a dozen different avenues.
At one point, Steve had been one of the people running security checks. He liked to keep an eye on anyone around or in space that the Avengers used, "and that means your quarters, too, Tony," which was laughable in light of Tony's penthouse being little more than a glorified dressing room, touching in the way that Steve's gestures always were, and painful in this newer and harsher existence. Now, Tony runs security checks on his people to make sure they weren't sent by Steve.
No part of Tony believes Steve would be capable of seriously harming him, but some parts of him wonder if he wouldn't deserve it—if Steve, should he decide to take this conflict out on Tony personally, wouldn't be in the right. There are lines being crossed, and Tony is the one crossing them; but Steve wouldn't send someone undercover to hurt Tony or (and this is the more salient point) to hurt Happy to hurt Tony. A little information gathering, though…
So Tony runs his security checks, he drinks his espresso, he wanders in his underwear and undershirt into the palatial bedroom that could pass for a ballroom and the grand closet that could pass for a bedroom.
"Maybe a shower first," Friday suggests.
"Is that a slight on my personal hygiene?"
"I don't assign value judgments to odors like you lesser creatures," Friday says.
"That's not a no."
"Little wonder they call you the Da Vinci of the age."
Tony takes a wiff off his armpit. It's… ripe, would be the kindest word. He bypasses the closet and takes a turn into a bathroom that could almost contain a public swimming pool. Turns on the showers, scrubs, rinses. He lets himself have the duration of a moment to build a What If. It's a private What If, and if he had the time and energy he'd let it grow into something more lovely and intimate, would maybe even take the time to jerk himself off. One of the reasons Tony likes sex—maybe the primary reason—is that sex is a release of tension. He badly needs release, but no masturbatory fantasy could remove the sword hanging point-down over his head.
Because the What If is indulgent and opportunistic, he kills it off. Doesn't think about it again, just gives it the axe as he towels himself dry. He shaves at Friday's urging and returns to the closet, where he chooses a three-piece suit in deep navy with a subtle pinstripe. It pairs nicely with a light blue shirt; he goes bold with the tie, because frankly he could wear the greasy undershirt and nobody would blink. A few years ago one of his PR heads suggested he figure out a way to make it so his damn armor would stop wrinkling his damn suits, and ever since he's had the majority of his clothes tailored from a memory fabric that was the product of a particularly fruitful luncheon with some of his people from R&D.
First, though, come the black trunks and the undershirt, this one clean and disconcertingly free of the scents of grease and metal, and then his socks, because Tony Stark is a traditionalist. Next is the shirt; he buttons up the front while he thinks about Camp Hammond but fumbles when it comes to choosing his cufflinks. He goes funny with them sometimes, because he gets a kick out of seeing kids light up because Tony Stark is wearing Spectrum socks or Captain America cufflinks, and that's great, it's a hoot, but today he picks out a somber silver pair instead and threads them through his cuffs, one-two-three, not a fumble in sight now that the difficulty of selection is behind him. He's been wearing clothing like this since before he was old enough to dress himself, and it shows in the way he holds himself in bespoke tailoring—he wears it like it's no different than a mechanic's jumpsuit, and people love it, people eat it up. Appearance is just another commodity. Tony's great with commodities.
The slacks follow the shirt, and a belt follows the slacks, and then he loops the tie around his neck and makes a neat half-Windsor snug against the valley of his throat. Last comes the waistcoat and the suit jacket. Thus assembled, he goes to the mirror, straightens his tie, and tries to remember if he ever felt anything other than dull contempt when studying his reflection.
The man in the mirror has bags under his eyes, lines in his face that even one of the world's most advanced regenerative systems can't fix—all the signs are there, the hollow cheeks, the clammy skin, the bloodshot sclera. There's vanity, and then there's staking your existence on your ability to convince the rest of the world that you have everything under control, and then there's the complicated blend of self- and public perception that color Tony's relationship with his own appearance.
"What did I say to tell me this morning?" he asks.
"'Don't forget to smile,'" quoth Friday.
"Yeah," Tony says. "That sounds about right."
He closes his eyes. The mirror drops away. The reflection drops away. Tony Stark drops away, replaced by a natal presence with the potential to be everything Tony is not: Tony Stark 2.0.
From his pores he exudes a golden undersheath made of peptide chains and a metallic lattice; it functions despite the interfering layer of his bespoke suit, it functions because it's an extension of Tony's nervous system, it functions as Tony intended it to function. His reflexes, already enhanced to post-human levels, grow sharper; his connection to the armor, already absolute, becomes a true union.
Someday he won't have to exude the armor because the peptides and lattice will be grafted into his skin—maybe replace his skin altogether. Tony exists on the cusp of transhumanism. He bleeds for his art, first red and now gold.
After the undersheath come the external suit devices, built from the subatamic particles up, miracles of nano-engineering. Each component has two names: there are the names Tony uses with his peers, and the names he uses with himself. Here comes the cuirass with its integrated RT core, spreading from his breastbone and his perfect heart down over his ribs; here come the pauldrons, curving over his clavicles and down his shoulderblades. Here are the greaves, the poleyns, the cuisse pair; here are the gauntlets, coming online with the repulsor whine that is now a signature rather than an unavoidable byproduct. Here is the helm with the diamond eyepieces. Here, at last, is the face.
Here is Iron Man: Tony Stark, stripped of human weakness, re-engineered and beatified.
Under the faceplate, Tony opens his eyes. The most sophisticated heads-up display in the world greets him. Beyond the smart overlay and through the lenses he sees himself—taller and stronger, gleaming and invincible. Iron Man doesn't have bags under his eyes. Iron Man's eyes have been replaced with something better.
More than one shrink has tried to suggest that Tony has a pathological dependence on the armor. What they fail to understand is that it's the other way around: Iron Man has a pathological dependence on Tony Stark.
And then Friday says, "Need some time to yourself, boss?"
"Are you making a masturbation joke?" Tony says. "Am I hearing you stoop to a masturbation joke?"
"It's that or read you headlines," Friday counters. "While you're standin' around and admirin' yourself, Keep Our Heroes Free filed a civil suit against the U.S. government for passing the Registration Act, SHIELD attempted to apprehend the Young Avengers, Colonel Rhodes received orders officially assigning him to Camp Hammond, and Norman Osborn had a letter published by the Times. He's in favor of the SRA. Says that if the proper authorities had taken a little more interest in his case, early intervention might have prevented the mental break that led to all those deaths."
"He's got a lot of time to think in that fancy prison cell of his," Tony says. He isn't bothering to speak out loud anymore—his brain can translate thought into a digital signal that Friday reads right out of the armor's transmission. She doesn't have direct access to the armor; in the wake of Yinsen's son, Tony keeps her as separate from the armor and from Tony himself as possible. She monitors him every second of every day, reading only outputs, quietly collecting data and building a real-time forecast. There's a kill file written into her now that will stop Tony's heart in his chest if she detects a pattern of threatening behavior. Eventually, Tony thinks of everything.
He flies to Memorial, arcing up out of Stark Tower and then back down, down, down to the sidewalk in front of the hospital. The armor folds itself neatly away in a briefcase summoned from molecular memory; Tony straightens his cuffs, and he walks inside.
For the first hour of the day he managed glibness; it's easy to be glib with Friday, to be glib with himself, but Pepper deserves better, and that kind of attitude won't fly with the good ol' boys of HomeSec. Tony's position is tenuous. He's playing the appeasement game: act good, and be absolved. See how Tony is justified by works and not by faith alone? No sola fide for Maria Carbonell's good Catholic boy.
Happy has a private suite, courtesy of his boss; Tony feels the tick of the life support long before he hears it. It might as well be flagged red and gold—among the electronic noise of the hospital, the signal calls to Tony like a beacon. It throbs in his head in time with Happy's pulse; the EEG readings, in contrast, are flat.
Here's how you know Tony Stark has the moral fiber of mayonnaise: this right here, this act of merely walking into a room containing the hollow shell of a man who more than once saved Tony's life, this is the hardest thing he's going to do today, and it's the hardest thing he's going to do tomorrow, and it's the hardest thing he's going to do in a week that includes jailing people he loves and crawling into bed with people he hates. Tony Stark is a black hole of conviction. He does it, because Happy deserves better than Tony, but nothing about it comes easy.
Beneath the white blanket that covers him feet to neck Happy's still—not small, a guy with that much muscle could never look small, but diminished. Something important, some animating force, is missing. There's bruising on his face. They shaved his head. Maybe that's what's missing: not his hair, but the half-bashful way Tony can imagine him running a hand over his scalp while making eyes at Pepper.
She's there at Happy's bedside, of course, leaning forward, her elbows braced on her knees and her face hidden in her hands. Maybe she's crying. Maybe she isn't. Is she praying? Does Pepper pray? Happy would've been praying, had their positions been reversed—he would've been talking at her, too, pleading and prodding her until she'd have no choice but to wake up just so he'd give her a moment's rest. Pepper, though, she just sits, maybe crying, maybe praying, maybe lost, stiller than Happy himself.
There's a riot of daisies on the windowsills. Most of them are from Tony. The other flowers, the roses and carnations and baby's breath, are from other Stark Industries employees, from Happy's friends, from the boys down at the club, from family.
"Pep," Tony says, as gently as he can manage. She starts anyway, jerks upright. Her eyes are clear.
"How's he doing?"
Where do we go from here is what he wants to ask. Tell me what to do. And he wants to apologize, there's always that.
Pepper doesn't respond. That's fine.
"We could move him, you know, if you think a different environment would be better." Nothing. "You should take a break. Shower, sleep, eat something that isn't served on a styrofoam plate. I'll stay here as long as you—"
"I have a favor to ask you," Pepper says. Then she stops. Her narrow jaw works up and down, like she's fighting against something shored up deep inside her. Tony realizes her eyes aren't clear—they're glassy.
"Anything," Tony says. "You name it."
"I… Do you think he can hear us? I do," she says.
He's willing to give her the benefit of the doubt on this one; there's something lovely about it, the idea that Happy can hear Pepper's voice despite the lack of cerebral activity, but there's a twin terribleness, too.
"It means something that I'm saying this in front of him," Pepper goes on. "I want you to know that."
"He used to go to the gym every day, you know, and there were… Boxers are often forced into retirement because of too many blows to the head. It's an early form of dementia. Punch-drunk, they call it."
"Chronic traumatic encephalopathy," Tony says, because he knows a little something about taking a blow to the head.
"He always said, 'Pep, don't let me end up like that. You tell me to quit, I quit, and if I get to the point where you're feedin' me mush 'cause I don't have the brains left to feed myself, you let me go.' He never wanted this. He would've… he'd hate..."
What can Tony say to that? There's no comfort here. There's no hope. The doctors have told them as much, feeding them lines like 'narrow chance' and 'slim margin' and 'make sure he's comfortable'. Tony's recent crash-course in biomedical engineering has left him with enough background to take them at their word. Happy isn't going to wake up and be well; they're in for years of this, a slow, marching progression of bedside vigils driven by the dream of a statistical improbability.
Pepper's hair has fallen around her face. Instead of brushing it back, offering her a hug or at least a tissue, Tony squats down beside her and curls his hand over her shoulder. Squeezes. Lets her know that he's not going anywhere.
"You can… touch, hear, all his life support equipment with your mind," Pepper says, and then she looks right at him—Tony, distantly, realizes that she's trying to make sure he understands what she says next—and covers his hand with her own.
She says, "He wouldn't have wanted this, Tony."
She says, "You could turn it off."
She says, "I would never know."
Tony's hand drops away.
"It's what he'd want," she continues. She's so calm about it. How is she so calm? "There's no reason to drag this out and make him suffer. You can make it an equipment malfunction. Or not; you can fool the monitors. Maybe he just… fades."
"Pepper—" His heartrate is rising again; he activates a biofeedback routine to suppress it. "Pep. You have—there's his living will, his power of attorney, you don't need me to—"
"I can't make that decision," she says.
"You're asking me to—"
"Tony," she says, "I can't."
"Just think about it," Pepper says. Her eyes shut. There are tears streaking down her cheeks now, collecting along her eyelashes until the weight becomes too much; it's the first time he's seen her cry since she got the call about Happy. Even now, it's remote. Whatever part of Pepper is engaging with this present reality is hidden somewhere far out of Tony's reach.
"Please," she adds. Her eyes open. She keeps talking like she isn't crying at all, neither acknowledging nor conceding to the wet trails on her face. "You should go. You have a meeting, don't you?"
"Yeah," Tony says. "Yeah. I have a meeting."
You're known for taking the law into your own hands—
Is that what they're calling it these days?
You can act flippant, Mr. Stark, but more than once you have subverted the legal system to act in your own interests.
Actually, I have a doctorate—no, I'm kidding, I'm being flippant again. You're referring to the actions I took against Justin Hammer and his buyers when he stole my technology and made it available on the black market, I'm guessing?
Among other instances.
Okay, look, the business with Hammer was—it wasn't ideal, and I cannot deny that, but I took action because the tech Hammer was disseminating was dangerous. It had consequences. I did what I thought was necessary to save lives.
And to protect your innovations.
That was a lesser concern, but yes, I would like to emphasize that I was acting as a private citizen protecting my own intellectual property from being used to harm others. There were legal repercussions, by the way, but you didn't see that news in any major publication. Mr. Urich?
Do you think the Avengers should be above the law?
Absolutely not. The job of any—let's say "extra-legal peacekeeper", since some of my friends aren't comfortable with the term "superhero"—the job of any peacekeeper, whether they're keeping robbers from knocking off some 7-11 or going toe-to-toe with big boys like Kang, is to serve the best interests of their community. Part of that, of course, is gauging the immediacy and severity of a particular threat, which is why I'm working so closely with the Registration Oversight Commission to ensure that no superhero is prevented from taking necessary action by red tape, but serving the community means respecting that community's laws and their wishes on what those laws should be.
We can't keep intervening when intervention is unwanted—we certainly can't keep intervening when we're providing the wrong kind of intervention. We have a responsibility to obey the wishes of the American people when we're acting on their behalf.
Is that why you've thrown your support behind the Registration Act?
It is. Registration is the law. We—superheroes, peacekeepers, Avengers—don't get to decide what's legal. We only get to decide how we're going to comply.
Tony builds a symphony of justification. The first movement goes like this:
"Ladies and gentlemen of the subcommittee," he says. "I know you're busy making sure the country keeps on tickin', so I'll keep my remarks brief.
"There's a story behind the Registration Act. A woman. Her son. The son's untimely death… do I need to mention their names? Let's let the kid rest in peace. It's enough to say that his death was caused by our neglect.
"None of us doubt that the superhero community is necessary or wanted. The rise of super-powered terrorists and dictators and our planet's recent introduction to extraterrestrial nations make their contributions even more crucial, and—personal sidebar—I can't think of anything more American than a single individual standing up every day to make sure the people around them are safe.
"But that same community has gone without oversight for too long. Trust me, I've had a front row seat"—he pauses to let them laugh; Lansing, Ralston, Byrd, and Dickerson do, the rest don't—"and I know exactly how much stress these people are under. That's not to mention the external forces working against them; the threat that someone twisted who has psychic powers or access to mind-altering technology poses to those with power and trust is dire. Registration acts as a safeguard not only for the general public but also for the very group it regulates.
"It's equally true that not every person who adopts an alter-ego to fight criminal elements is up to the challenge or even worthy of taking part in the tradition. America's leaders have a responsibility to make sure America's heroes are deserving of the name. The legislation enacted by this subcommittee ensures that we as a country are taking the best possible care of our peacekeepers and our citizens."
It's a little schmaltzy for Tony, a little more rote than his usual fare; he's pretty great at off-the-cuff extemporaneous speaking, but he's gambling that this audience isn't going to love him if he presents them with flash and logic and three random anecdotes followed by a lecture on particle theory that build to a finely-honed point. Summation, submission, tie it up in a neat bow: done.
"For that reason, HomeSec and Registration have the full support of Stark Industries. Ladies and gentlemen, I remain in your service. Do with me what you will."
He never could resist a final bon mot. One of these days, it's going to get him killed.
"Thank you, Mr. Stark," Senator Lansing says. He's known her for years; she was a corporate executive before she sold her soul to politics, but she's not the worst person in the room. "I speak for the rest of the room when I say we wouldn't have accomplished half so much without your support."
"Which is why we feel it's important to keep the lines of communication open," Brickman cuts in. "You're the nexus of all this, Mr. Stark."
"That's an exaggeration," Byrd says. Byrd is Tony's favorite. He's a battleaxe. He's a skeptic, and he doesn't like Tony. Respects him, maybe; but doesn't like him. "We are interested to hear your assessment of how the application of the SRA is going."
"It's… going," Tony says. "Slowly. Some of the initiatives are proceeding more efficiently than others. Camp Hammond's training program for let's say gifted youngsters has already demonstrated its efficacy. We hope to launch something similar for more experienced peacekeepers who need additional support in mastering their abilities and handling crisis situations."
"And the registry itself?" asks Ralston.
Ralston's old-school. He's not a fan of the SRA, voted against it, has been a vocal critic—but the law is the law. Ralston respects the law. He's here to make sure no one abuses it.
"Protected by the most sophisticated software security Stark Industries can muster," Tony assures him. "The registry is private, confidential, and accessible to only those with the highest security clearance. There's virtually no chance of it being stolen or exploited."
"These are early days yet, Mr. Stark," says Senator Hawk. "Confidence may be warranted, but overconfidence is not."
"Particularly when Captain Rogers and his underground are gaining more supporters by the day," adds Ralston.
That's why they wanted him here. The rest of it is just a powerplay; they don't need Tony to show up in person to tell him about Camp Hammond, the registry, the prison. What they need is a gesture that allows them to believe they're in charge. That's what this is. It's a chastisement, a reminder that Tony might be the one with his hand in the bird but HomeSec are the ones holding a cleaver to Tony's wrist. They want to flagellate him with Steve.
He and Steve used to talk about this. They'd sit up in the library until midnight making contingency plans—this was after Tony peeled back the helmet and admitted he was Iron Man—they'd sit up making contingency plans. What to do if Kang scattered them through time. What to do if Ultron infiltrated the Pentagon. What to do if Victor von Doom set aside his hubris long enough to actually put the cutting edge of his mind to use.
What to do if external forces tried to turn the Avengers against each other.
In those days, after Tony had surrendered the twin indulgences of hard liquor and secret identity, the intimacy between he and Steve had been so great it was almost like they had no secrets at all. In retrospect, his naivety is staggering, irresponsible, destructive. Of course there were secrets; Tony always has secrets. He keeps the worst secrets of all clutched to him like something precious, where the only damage they can do is to Tony himself. There are things he'll never tell Steve, things he'll take to his grave; that he would rather die than tell Steve Rogers what lies in his heart is not exaggeration.
They want to flagellate him with Steve? Let them. Tony has borne those lash marks for more than a decade. There aren't any nerve endings left; he's scar tissue all the way down.
"Congressman, with all due respect," Tony says, "SHIELD and the Avengers are doing what needs to be done to ensure that Rogers and his allies cause a minimal damage."
"You're softballing it," Brickman snaps. "Rogers is a terrorist—"
"Steve Rogers is an American hero," Ralston says. "If he won't compromise, then maybe this committee needs to reconsider its purpose."
"He's an outlaw," says Lansing. "Which doesn't erase the enormous good he's done for this country. Mr. Stark is doing the right thing by concentrating his efforts on SRA's other initiatives. Chasing after Captain Rogers only lends credibility to his cause."
"He's a destabilizing force nonetheless," says Boynton, the architect of all this misery. "Mr. Stark, in your official capacity as chief consultant to HomeSec and the Registration Oversight Commission, we strongly urge you to take care of Rogers as rapidly and overwhelmingly as possible."
That makes it sound like they want him to kill Steve.
"Absolutely, Senator," Tony says. "Thank you for your time." Maybe they wanted him to stay longer; he doesn't care. His memory is not a human memory. He remembers with machine precision what it felt like to crush Steve's trachea.
What about programs that fall under the broad umbrella of the Registration Act?
Figuring out how to best enact Registration is an ongoing process. Some of the support programs will take months or years to get off the ground. Camp Hammond's training program is one of our current priorities. I can't comment further.
Will you continue to arrest heroes who refuse to submit their private identities to the registry?
We'll absolutely continue to apply the law fairly across the board. If breaks that law, then yes, they'll face consequences. Next question.
The Oversight Commission has been working closely with SHIELD. Do you expect that partnership to continue, or will local law enforcement start picking up the slack?
The slack of, what, forcing resisting extra-legal peacekeepers to face justice?
Of detaining heroes who refuse to disclose their identity.
I'd call local law enforcement the real heroes. No, no plans to force them into conflict with resistors. They're overworked enough, and confronting those with extreme abilities demands an extreme response team. SHIELD is exploring further options.
Can you speak to hearsay that Stark Industries exploited foreknowledge of the Registration Act to increase its stock value?
I can speak to the fact that it's bullcrap. Causation versus coincidence. Look it up. Go ahead, Ms. Tilby.
How can the public be sure this isn't another Project Wideawake?
I'm offended you'd even ask that, some of my best friends are mutants. No, go ahead, laugh. Listen, in all seriousness, Project Wideawake was a misguided, speciest attempt to violate the rights of American citizens. The Registration Act doesn't care if you're human, mutant, metahuman anomaly, whatever. You are under no obligation to disclose if you have powers—or specialized training or equipment—unless and until you're using those abilities to go out in the street and fight bad guys. In which case we're asking you to adhere to the same safety and procedural standards as any other first responder, which I think we can all agree is more than fair. There in the back—hit me.
What about Captain America?
What about him?
Is the Registration Act a violation of our civil liberties?
There's nothing in the Constitution about the right to put on a mask and beat people up in the street, even if it's for a good cause.
But doesn't his continued resistance indicate the SRA is unethical?
Cap's a good man, but he isn't this country's moral compass.
Didn't you once say—
No further questions.
Once upon a time, Tony had a secret identity of his own. Now it seems like he was impossibly young: but that Tony wasn't naive, that Tony had taken his knocks, that Tony knew that sometimes it was better to draw a line between what was and what was possible. Iron Man has always been about possibility.
For years his cover story was that Iron Man was Tony Stark's bodyguard, and in the basest and most literal sense, it was true—what was armor other than a self-powered bodyguard? Walking that razor-line was fun, once upon a time, or else the tint of nostalgia colors it fun. No, fun wasn't the word; it was freeing. He could be Iron Man wholly. No doubt, no memory, no history of weakness.
He came out a couple of years ago, when he started working closely with the Department of Defense. Maintaining a secret identity was childish, particularly when Tony Stark was a high-profile target in his own right. And it was good for the company—the people who didn't write Iron Man off as one more rich-guy adrenaline-junkie adventure took a second look at Stark Industries' employment policies, their charitable contributions, their green-energy initiatives, and decided that maybe Tony Stark wasn't a total waste of space after all. Discounting his patents. People always love Tony's patents.
He lost the secret identity but kept the armor, and the armor is better. It will be better. That's what he has to figure out: how to make the armor absolute, impenetrable, smart enough and tough enough and strong enough to make up for all his human sins. The external suit is assembled in front of him; the finish on the Model 29 is matte, but to Tony's eyes it gleams nonetheless. He sees the whole of it, not just the surface matter.
It's a miracle of nano-engineering. Each part is powered discretely through an application of Casimir plates pioneered by Tony himself and linked through the undersheath that lives beneath Tony's skin, and, as a redundancy, through autonomous communication systems. The entirety of it was built not piece by piece but particle by particle. The number of patents he holds for processes invented purely to create this iteration of the Iron Man is staggering.
But in the end, even the Model 29 is just a prototype. It sits on the surface of a terminal error. He sees the whole of it, right down to the shatterpoints—the weaknesses that sit at a nexus of flaws. Two hundred days ago, Tony fell asleep. Someday he won't ever have to make that mistake again.
"You and Victor, always with your armor."
Tony jolts, lets his hand drop away from the armor's chestplate, looks over at Reed. "Don't tell me I missed an appointment. It's three in the morning, even the insomniacs would cut us some slack."
"Tony," Reed says solemnly, "we are the insomniacs."
He's right. (Reed is almost always right.) But how to change a bug into a feature, that's the real question.
"You invited yourself over in the middle of the night expecting that you'd find me up, and hey, gold star, you were right. Which means I have no room to judge. Comparing me to Doctor Doom, though…"
"It wasn't meant as an insult," Reed says.
"He's a despot," Tony says.
"He's also brilliant," Reed counters. "And the two of you share a certain… ideological obsession."
"Ouch," says Tony. "Again, your logic is unassailable, but ouch." He drops his rag on the nearby workbench and gives the Model 29 a friendly pat as he passes it. Behind it, like a ghost image, he can see the Models 30 and 31 and 32, he can see 33 and 34 and beyond, stretching out in an infinite progression to perfection. "What sheer genius struck you in the middle of the night? I have the transition plans for Project 42 just about drawn up. Transporting some of those guys is going to be tricky. Maybe we should get Graviton to collapse himself into a briefcase."
"Plans," Reed says. "Yes, of course." He pauses, pins down the corner of a blueprint with three fingers, studies the design: it's for a community center, one of those projects that had seemed important until the country decided to act out some kind of Orwellian parable. The right side isn't always the winning side; but neither is reality as easy to parse as fable.
Reed hasn't continued. He's still looking over the blueprints, probably studying Tony's electronic protective measures. It's crazy to think that Happy's blood is on the paper, but there's a smudge in one corner, right next to Reed's forefinger, that almost looks like—but then Reed sweeps his hand over the paper, and the eraser shavings drift to the floor. Reed's not talking because Reed is lonely. He's alone. He's not like Tony, accepting of company but ultimately the sole occupant of his workshop sanctuary. Reed has family. Reed needs his family. He's admitted as much to Tony before.
"How about a game?" Tony asks, and Friday, ever responsive, conjures a holographic chess board out of thin air between two stools.
Reed looks up, startled. "We shouldn't," he says, and Tony knows what he means by that: there are too many other things that need tending. Massive things, monumental things. Rest comes to the deserving.
"Clear the mind, engage the senses," Tony coaxes. "I can probably even come up with a pot of coffee."
"All right," Reed says. "Since you're asking."
He's unusually quiet, is Reed—not lost in thought, the way he sometimes is, but pensive, maybe. Reserved. No: sad.
Tony finds himself thinking of the pencils in the kitchen drawer all those hundreds of feet above their heads. He gives Reed white to play as a concession.
"How are the kids?" he asks.
Reed makes his opening move. It's rare for them to confine themselves to one chessboard; they've played a dozen matches at a time before, and sometimes Tony even wins. Reed is one of the only people in the world who can make Tony feel stupid. Pepper used to say it was good for his ego.
"Safe," Reed says. "They miss their mother, of course, but one of the few comforts in all this is that she trusted me enough to leave the children with me. HERBIE's watching them now. I teleported over," he adds. Implied: So I could get home quickly. Tony wonders if the kids have been having bad dreams; Valeria had night terrors for a few weeks towards the beginning of this whole mess, and Reed had been a wreck over it.
"Have you heard from Sue?"
"No. I haven't gone this long without talking to her since…" He breaks off, moves a pawn. Doesn't finish.
They went into this with clear eyes, aware that morality was a luxury, so Tony doesn't offer his condolences outright, even if he's deeply, deeply sorry that the most committed couple he knows called it quits because of a law that passed thanks to Tony's support. "I can't imagine what that's like," is what he settles on.
Reed glances up at him and then away.
"What?" says Tony.
"No, nothing," Reed says. "I thought—but I'm not always the best at reading the nuances of relationships."
He's lacking in certainty. That's what Reed is missing. He's occasionally unsure, but he always has this confidence that Tony can only fake. Until now. Now he's just a lonely insomniac playing chess with another lonely insomniac in the middle of the night while the world outside sleeps, its sole respite from their planning.
"Have you heard from Steve?" Reed asks.
"Not since he backflipped out of a helicarrier," Tony says. "I don't know what Hill was expecting." Sometimes Tony thinks that if he could talk to Steve, really talk, just talk, he could engineer an understanding: but then he realizes that's the most fantastic What If of all. Steve doesn't change his mind. When he plants his feet, you could use his shoulders as a fulcrum to move mountains. And he doesn't change his mind for Tony. There's no special regard there, just a bug, just a yearning that Tony hasn't yet patched.
"He didn't backflip out of the helicarrier," Reed says. "The helicarrier's viewport is made of four layers of polycarbonate and exotic acrylics, which makes it more secure than the canopy of a conventional jet fighter. The force required for a human to crack—"
"He did it," Tony interrupts. "Hill showed me the footage. They were at an altitude of thirty-thousand feet. If the helicarrier didn't have emergency force shields, the entire bridge crew would be in the hospital from the decompression."
For almost a full decade, Tony walked around with a bum ticker in his chest. He walked like a real boy and talked like a real boy, but his insides were made of tin. He knows what it's like to live through arrhythmia and myocardial infarctions and good wholesome old-fashioned heart failures and even the total absence of a flesh-and-blood heart, although it's been years since he had to worry about any problems and months since he last woke gasping with his hands pressing so hard into his chest that despite his increased healing he still had bruises the next day. After he injected himself with the Extremis virus and reprogrammed his cells, his body grew him a new heart, and it thumps away in his chest like a war-drum, loud enough to drown out the memory of having nothing but a lump of metal behind his ribs.
Despite all of that, when he saw Steve leap out of the helicarrier six miles above the ground, he thought he was having a heart attack.
"He landed on a plane," Tony says. "Walked away, went underground, started an illegal movement… You know Cap. He likes to stay busy."
"Sue and Steve working together makes the resistance too erratic to predict." Reed captures one of Tony's knights. "With Captain America as their figurehead, a group that might have been no more than a localized resistance has turned into a national movement. You know what will happen if we allow this to go on any longer."
Tony builds a symphony of justification. The second movement, a theme foreshadowed in the remarks of Trish Tilby, goes like this:
"Retaliation with extreme prejudice," he predicts. "Harsher sanctions, less forgiving sentences, more suspicion of those affiliated with the super-powered community no matter their political stance. We'd have control wrested from us. SHIELD has a long history of affiliation with extra-legals. They'd be pushed out in favor of an independent task force of enforcers… no, you're right. We have to bring them in."
"I won't fight Sue," Reed says.
"Good, because she'd flatten you." Tony takes a pawn—his first success of the game. He's sloppy tonight. Sentiment does that to him, like grit in fine machinery. "Faster would be better."
"Sometimes I wonder if we're doing the right thing."
"We're seeking to mitigate as much damage as is practical while preserving as many lives as we can," Reed says. "That's the greater good."
"But is it worth the risk?" Tony wonders.
"Early adoption is always risky, Tony. I would think you'd know that better than anyone."
"But the cost in event of failure—come on, Stretch, that's high, too. Higher than we can afford, if we haven't managed to account for all the major factors."
"We've run as many simulations as possible, but even then, it's impossible to forecast with any certainty what the outcome will be. We can only exert so much control. You're right, of course, we may try and fail—but if we don't try, then the chance of failure is absolute."
"Yeah," Tony says. "Yeah. If only politics were hackable."
"Systems can always be subverted," Reed says. "I believe they call it 'political science' for a reason."
"Tony," Pepper says, "please—"
PASSIVE MODE //
TS: Really? You're kidding me.
SR: Wish I were.
TS: I'd be less surprised if you told me your answer was three Skrulls in a trenchcoat.
SR: Stacked on top of each other? That's a picture.
TS: If that ever makes it into a cartoon, make sure you give me credit.
SR: Bill Mauldin just rolled over in his grave. Hey—
TS: Hey, did you know that you met Bill Mauldin once?
SR: Guess I told you that one, huh.
TS: Hand me that—yeah, thanks. Go ahead, tell me again.
SR: Well… It was forty-four. Must've been late in the year, because the president had just won his fourth term, but it was before the counteroffensive. Cold enough to freeze your nose off.
TS: This was in Antwerp, right?
SR: That's right. I was trying to sneak back into our HQ one night through some alleys when I turned the corner and almost walked into the back-end of a jeep. Someone had the hood open and was banging around in the engine. Figured he was American—
TS: On account of the swearing?
SR: Because of swearing, right. So I took off my jacket, straightened my helmet, and marched around to the front of the jeep to ask if the guy needed help. I dunno who was more surprised when we got a good look at each other, him or me.
TS: You got his autograph, right?
SR: Traded him. I signed his sketchbook, and he signed my copy of Stars and Stripes. He drew a couple of cartoons of me later on, too. I liked those a lot better than any of the medals they gave me. He was even younger than me, you know, must've been about twenty-two, twenty-three… What are you doing under there?
TS: Overhauling the hydraulics. Here, hold this. Didn't he meet Patton once?
SR: He did. After Patton called him an unpatriotic anarchist.
TS: Classic case. Some people don't deserve the authority they have.
SR: Patton was all right. Arrogant, sure, but he did what he needed to do. That much responsibility could drive anyone at least a little out of their mind.
TS: Nothing. Just something I've been thinking about.
SR: What's that?
TS: Hang on, let me…
SR: Need me to do anything?
TS: Just keep standing there and handing me tools. Okay, you're familiar with the idea of the "cutting edge"—
SR: Advanced technology?
TS: The most advanced developments in a field. It's a buzzword in the industry.
SR: Got it.
TS: There's another concept known as the "bleeding edge." Not just the most developed applications, but the most visionary, the most prescient. The kind of innovations that eventually become the cutting edge, after the risk recedes and the cost-efficiency is proven.
SR: Higher risk, higher reward.
TS: You catch on quick, Cap. There's a lot to be said for early adoption of technologies that aren't otherwise stable, and I have the resources to be a very early adopter.
SR: I follow that far. Doesn't explain why you've been thinking about it, though. I've never known you to waste time unless something big was on your mind.
TS: Two things. One is how to broadly apply that concept. The other is how to figure out which bleeding-edge ideas are usable.
SR: Bleeding-edge business?
TS: Yeah. Or sociology, or physics, or whatever. In the technology sector, more bleeding-edge projects fail than succeed. If you could figure out a way to predict the safe bets…
SR: If you could predict the safe bets, it wouldn't be the bleeding edge.
TS: That's the problem.
When Tony was a kid, he lived in the Air & Space Museum. Not literally, except for the one time he'd given his au pair the slip and spent a memorable night dreaming about chemical propellants while slumbering next to a space shuttle, but every time his old man caught a flight to DC, Tony begged and begged to be brought along. He usually begged his mother, who was sometimes sad or distant but who was never cruel; but if he was desperate enough, he would approach his father. It was worth it. It was always worth it.
There is nothing in the world that beats flying.
There is nothing in the world that beats flying; Tony's in love with excess, but nothing beats this. He could throw millions of dollars at every attraction the universe has to offer—there are a lot, and he's tried most of them—and even the fastest cars driven by the most gorgeous models piled on all the fame in Hollywood on top of a flawless reputation on top of his mom on top of Happy on top of Pepper on top of Rhodey on top of his workshop on top of the Avengers and craven dreams of chivalry and Steve's presence in his bed and not having once had a cavity sitting where his heart should be—
None of it compares. There is nothing in the world that beats flying.
The cost of maintaining a single suit of Iron Man armor is astronomical, but it's the rush of piloting it that's priceless. He used to get the same feeling as a kid on roller coasters, had gone through a phrase where he thought he'd design roller coasters for a living, had gone through a phase where he actually had designed roller coasters for a hobby. Cedar Point in Ohio has one of his designs; it's not the tallest or the fastest, but it's the one most likely to make you puke. Tony likes that. They gave him an award for it.
He still has this. No matter how the rest of his world fractures around him, he still has the armor and the joy of flying it. That sensation of freedom and fear tangled together lives in a pit behind his ribs; nothing else touches that spot, and if he dies in the sky, he'll roll up to the pearly gates and confess with complete honesty that it was worth it. If nothing else he did in his life proves worthwhile, he'll still have the memory of flight.
Maybe it's why Afghanistan shook him so badly—they locked him in a cave for three months, and while claustrophobia is one of the only major anxieties he hasn't manifested in one form or another, he suspects that's because he long ago learned to associate subterranean spaces with his workshops. And the cave in Afghanistan had been that, at least; it wasn't only a workshop, but it was a workshop. Rhodey got it. Nobody else understood, but Rhodey— Rhodey got it.
Two hundred days ago, Tony fell asleep.
Extremis had restructured his mind so it resembled a neural computer more than the flesh-and-blood product of uneasy evolution. He could write code for his brain. He could send and receive wireless signals from his cortexes. He could think in parallel processes that put the Cray Jaguar to shame. And then came the Mordred to his Arthur, armed with shining code of his own, to crack open Tony's skull and spill his secrets on the floor.
Tony was used to being a commodity. He could handle bodily violation. But he wasn't a solely organic being; post-Extremis, the armor was a part of him in ways that were very real and literal. It integrated with him on a level that surpassed the merely cellular. When Ho Yinsen's son had hijacked Tony's body and Tony's brain, he had also hijacked the Iron Man, and the violation of that sanctity was almost more than Tony could bear.
If one kid with a grudge could exploit that flaw, then others could, too. Tony's solution was many-faceted; he tore the problem apart from without and within. He implemented software solutions and bioengineered failsafes, contingency plans that would become accessible to Jim Rhodes and Pepper Potts and Carol Danvers and yes, Steve Rogers, only in the event that Tony was compromised. And he wrote a kill file into Friday; she monitors him every second of every day, and if she detects a pattern of dangerous behavior, she's fully authorized to shut down his metabolic processes starting with his heart. It's a relief to be able to trust someone more than he trusts himself. He's making the amor safe again. It's his very own Execute Program.
"Boss?" Friday whispers in his ear.
"What's up?" Tony says. He's about eight minutes outside of New York airspace, headed south down the coast to D.C. again. It's dusk: late summer, clear skies. Even New Jersey looks gorgeous.
"A petrochemical plant on the Hudson caught fire."
Tony immediately banks back towards the city and lays on the speed. "One of ours?"
"Indeed it is. No signs of deliberate sabotage yet, but the rate of the burn and the size of it… tappin' into the cellular network." A beat, during which shaky shot-from-a-chopper footage of the plant appears on his HUD. "There are employees trapped inside. I have an incoming call from Colonel Danvers—"
"Put 'er on," Tony says. "Danvers. What's the situation?"
"We're on our way, Tony. ETA is four minutes. We're coordinating with the fire department—"
"Good. There are drones on-site that should deploy automatically to help control the flames. Friday, how many are trapped?"
"I'd estimate eighty employees."
"Right. Pass whatever information you can along to Captain Marvel. Carol, I'm about three minutes behind you. Keep your eyes peeled. Forty-three at large."
"Roger that, Shellhead," Carol says. "Over and out." Forty-three at large: that's their shorthand for forty-three bad guys with extreme powers and abilities are currently running around in the United States. Could be any one of them. Could be a freak accident. Tony's always inclined to believe the former, but his luck is rotten enough that it could easily be the latter. That's eighty of his people trapped in a building with no way out—eighty of his people in his city, and he hasn't visited that plant in over a year, he has no idea if the safety inspections were being performed to his standards—
"Get me a staff roster," he tells Friday. "Names, shifts, whatever you can. Pull directly from the data spine—the on-site hardware's out of the game."
"Done," Friday says.
"And work up a temperature estimate."
There's a pause that Tony suspects is more for his benefit than Friday's. "Best guess: in excess of fifteen hundred degrees."
"Not a problem," he summarizes. Not a problem, not after years of working out ways to let his tissue-paper body in a tin-can suit withstand the Melter and Radioactive Man, the cold of space and the high heat of magma. A burning building, even a burning chemical plant, is nothing. People look at the armor and they think that's it, that's the trick, but the real trick is everything they can't see—the inertial systems that let him survive a hundred g's of force, the gravitational manipulation that works in concert with his repulsors to let him fly, the sophisticated converters that let him walk through a burning building without being cooked alive. What good is theory without application?
"Two minutes," Friday warns.
He starts to dive, dropping his airspeed and his altitude simultaneously. He's still flying well above Mach 2, but he can't keep traveling twenty-eight hundred feet per second while he's buzzing Manhattan. His fault—he was flying subsonic when Friday alerted him to the problem. Or is that better? He can make it to DC in less than ten minutes no problem, but he was taking his time, using the flight to work through his agenda for tomorrow's briefing with Maria Hill and draw up some outer dimensional schematics for Project 42.
The blaze is on the horizon: a red smudge against the sharper lights of the city. Behind it he can pick out the flashing strobe of fire trucks.
"Tell the FDNY to concentrate on stopping the fire from spreading," he says. "The Avengers will handle evac. Danvers?"
Friday cuts him back in. "On the ground, north side!" Carol is saying. She can make it into the building. Natasha, Reed, and Jan will be outside. Steve had taken almost the whole rest of the roster with him when he went underground. That's fine; they'll rebuild. She-Hulk's probably in the plant already, too. Rhodey, while technically a current team member, has been put in the reserves while he's off drumming up support and building the Camp Hammond program. Rhodey not being here is fine. It's better for everyone; without Rhodey, Tony has to learn to walk unassisted.
Friday gives him three entry points, her best guess at employee locations, and a building layout with projected structural damage. It's all laid out in lines of shining blue and green, overlaid on the world, providing distance and reason to the crackle and the heat and the crumble of debris. Tony pulls up, kills his repulsors, and drops like a rock right through the hole in the roof through which black smoke pours.
He's forty feet in when he meets his first casualty. Eighty feet, and he meets someone living, someone bleeding from the temple and coated in dust and soot and she's wearing an employee badge clipped to her shirt and he remembers her—Shonda—he met her once on a tour. She's the head of security—
"KEEP GOING," she shouts.
"No sir, I'm fine, but there's twelve more back this way and one of them's trapped under a beam!"
"Got it," he says, and then, before Shonda can protest, he scoops her up, fires his boots, and rockets outside to deposit her in the street. One down. That's the easy one; the deeper into the building he goes, the more time it's going to take to weave his way in and out. He catches a glimpse of Danvers backlit by the sky with one person in her arms bridal-style and two more clinging to her neck before he drops back into hell.
He drops back into hell, and while he drops, he builds a What If.
In this What If, the first person he encounters isn't already dead. Neither is the third. All eighty employees of a subsidiary of a subsidiary of Stark Industries make it out alive. The fire is contained with minimal damage. The person responsible is caught, tried, sentenced, and put in a secure holding facility from which they will never escape. This happens because Tony is fast, responsive, able to forecast both the short- and the long-term. Everyone lives. They live because the Avengers are there, together, on the ground, responding with the speed and cohesion that turned them into legends in their own lifetimes.
After midnight, when Tony has finished a preliminary inspection and conferred with the fire captain, they'll all go home together: Tony and Carol, Jess and Jenn, Jan and Steve. Clint tries to convince the rest of them to stop for pizza on the way back. Hank carefully scoops up a moth with a bent wing and carries it back to the quinjet with cupped hands. The Vision, in one of his curiously old-fashioned gestures, offers Wanda a hand to help her up the plane's ramp. Steve claps Tony on the shoulder as he passes and asks if he's heard from Rhodey lately. Tony takes off his helmet and follows. There is no Registration Act, because none is required.
It's a good present, a clean future, with none of the attendant troubles of reality. In the What Is of this world, the Vision is dead. Wanda vanished years ago. Hank has retired to a gentler life of SSRIs, entomology, and academia. Clint would sooner spit on Tony than speak to him. And Steve Rogers is right here, a line of ash smeared through the letter on his cowl, shield drawn back to swing at Tony as behind him a man goes up in flames.
SUPERHERO SEMANTICS: REGISTRATION, PEACEKEEPERS, AND THE LANGUAGE OF TOMORROW
BY SALLY LLOYD
Much ado has been made about the unconstitutional liberties taken by the Registration Act, but not nearly enough attention has been paid to the language of the act itself. More than one critic of Registration has compared it to Project Wideawake and other proposed measures that were little more than thinly-veiled attempts to legalize and enforce anti-mutant prejudice, but Registration's supporters are quick to point out that the SRA doesn't target mutants and in fact never once uses the word "mutant" at all.
They're right in the most base and pedantic sense. The SRA's preferred terms are "extra-legal peacekeeper" (frequently shortened to "peacekeeper"), "parahuman", "metahuman", and of course the titular "superhuman". It uses these terms in incredibly specific ways; they are neither broad nor interchangeable.
In fact, the SRA draws on a little-known sociological hierarchy proposed by Stanford professor Holly Yang. Dr. Yang's taxonomic system was first set down in a 1996 paper called The Age of Marvels: The Names We Use for Heroes, Mutants, and More. Her work was well ahead of her time. While the study of "super" humans had firmly established itself in biology and genetics by mid-nineties, it was still in its infancy as a topic of serious sociological import, and her paper was published in one of the field's lowest-circulating national journals. Nevertheless, Dr. Yang's system has subsequently seen wide adoption among two groups: academics and mutants—or, in the language of the SRA, parahumans.
This is the basic divide in the Yang Hierarchy: parahumans are wholly separate species. They are born to their abilities. These powers are innate, part of a distinct genetic heritage that marks them primarily as either Homo superior or Inhomo supremis: mutant or inhuman.
But what about superheroes who come to their powers by other means? Every American over the age of five knows the story of the Fantastic Four—how a family of explorers ventured into space, were struck by cosmic rays, and found themselves forever transformed into what the Yang Hierarchy calls "metahumans"—human beings who through outside forces find themselves capable of feats well beyond the average person. Jan Van Dyne is a metahuman. So is Simon Williams.
The Registration Act takes these concepts of identity and extends them even further. Being a parahuman or metahuman doesn't make you a superhero any more than having a trust fund makes you a Republican; it only supposes a traditional correlation. Here's where "extra-legal peacekeeper" starts to show up—it's what politicians like to call people with extraordinary abilities, and often operating under a costumed identity, who act as emergency responders on a voluntary basis. Per the SRA, "superhuman" is what you are. "Superhero" is what you do.
Only in defining "extraordinary abilities" do these concepts start to get fuzzy again. Dr. Yang has argued that humans with profound skills or access to cutting-edge technology also qualify as metahumans. The SRA doesn't quite agree—the phrase "parahumans, metahumans, and other peacekeepers gifted with extraordinary technology or skills" appears fourteen times in the body of the Act—but neither does it deny that some humans can, through dedicated practice or advanced machinery, keep up with the Earth's mightiest.
The Avengers are not only one of the most prominent but also one of the most diverse superhero teams on the global stage. Members have included not only parahumans like the Scarlet Witch, metahumans like the Wasp and the Black Panther, and garden-variety humans like Hawkeye, but also aliens and fully-synthetic androids. What about the heroes that exist in that more nebulous area, though? Who are they, and by what names do we know them?
To return to a favorite example: look at Captain America and Iron Man. While Cap's enhancement procedure means he is technically classified as a metahuman, Dr. Erskine's notes on the process (at least the parts that aren't redacted) indicate that the super-soldier serum only raised Steve Rogers's abilities to the peak of human potential, not past it. Actually, there's an argument to be made that Rogers's skill at martial arts and not the serum itself is what actually qualifies him for the metahuman label. If you need a moment of silence to contemplate a man who through practice and willpower alone can make himself capable of fighting alongside a god, feel free to take it.
Meanwhile, Iron Man. Tony Stark exists at the other end of the spectrum. In the years since the public revelation of Iron Man's identity, Stark Industries has stuck to the story that Tony Stark is no more than a man in a can, but rumors of self-modification have plagued Stark since the beginning of his career. Those rumors were confirmed recently when news outlets obtained partial medical records from Stark's recent hospital stay (for, of course, undisclosed reasons) and connected them to a talk he gave a few months prior on what he called the Extremis enhancile. Even discounting the shortcut of the armor, Stark is no longer human—if he ever was in the first place.
(NEXT PAGE: STARK'S CONTROL OF THE LANGUAGE OF REGISTRATION)
This is the exact moment when it all breaks down. This is the instant in which Tony Stark understands there may be nothing left to repair, that he cannot win through aftermath damage control, that he cannot have his way and salvage the wreckage later. This is not salvageable. There's no saving it.
"Steve, move," Tony says.
He's clearly there with his team responding to the distress signal just like Tony and the rest of the sanctioned Avengers. Of course he is; Steve's a hero. An idiot, but a hero. He's clearly there to help the guy behind him, the guy in a standard-issue worksuit with fire licking up his leg. Tony can't actually smell the odor of cooking flesh through his suit's atmosphere, but it's there in his nose and mouth nonetheless.
The Iron Man armor is fully equipped with a number of fire suppression methods, and Steve knows that, but four months were enough to dull the reflexes of a decade. When Tony says "Move," Steve hesitates. It's a picosecond, a blink in the grand scheme, but that fraction of a moment suspends them in infinity. For one hanging instant, Steve's distrust of Tony is stronger than his drive to save a human life.
It shatters. Steve twists to the side. Tony deploys a localized flood of dry water that smothers the flames on the worker's leg, scoops the man up in an improvised hold that causes him to scream in animal pain, and heads for higher ground. Before he punches through the roof, he makes the mistake of looking down. Cap's lips are pulled back from his teeth.
He's long gone by the time Tony makes it back into the building. The rest is clean-up, not easy but no longer fuel for nightmares; Carol and Jenn had already guided most of the people present out of the building, and even Tony's armor doesn't carry enough suppression agent to fight a fire of this scale. Time to hand it back over to the professionals. He meets up with the rest of the Avengers on the north side of the building. Jan and Natasha are talking to a fire department official. Danvers is standing to the side, arms crossed while she stares out into the night. She looks pissed.
Tony drops like a rock beside her. "Cheeseburger," he says. "What's the damage?"
"Three dead, two seriously injured."
"Make that three," Tony corrects.
"And I punched Spider-Woman."
"Okay," Tony says.
"It was unprofessional, but she's being an idiot."
"That defense always holds up in court." Three people are dead. That guy Steve was trying to help, he might lose his leg. What else can they do but joke about it?
"Anyone else?" he asks.
"Sue," Carol says. "And Luke. What about you?"
He's back in the picosecond. Once upon a time, Steve wouldn't even have taken the time to think about the capabilities of the Iron Man; once upon a time, Steve would have already been moving by the time Tony's tongue and lips and teeth wrapped around the word 'Move.'
"Excuse me," he says, and leaps into the air. "I have a dinner date with the president."
CLASSIFIED INTERNAL MEMO
FOR AUTHORIZED PERSONS ONLY
To repeat: Stark and Hill are the two most crucial figures in this whole circus. Without the backing of SHIELD, there is virtually no way to enforce the Act, much less detain anyone who resists. SHIELD may have its fingers in not only every pie but every cake out there, but over the past decades their primary specialization has become addressing situations that involve superhumans, no matter where their interests fall. The director of SHIELD exercises a degree of control over the organization that is, if not unilateral, still extraordinary in its scope. Hill's cooperation must be a continuing priority. (Continue to follow protocol concerning Fury—if he is still alive, and if he takes steps to contact Hill, take immediate action.)
Stark's support, meanwhile, is what guarantees success with both the country's citizens and with the superhero community. I agree that he is a polarizing man, but he enjoys a broad popularity and a keen understanding of political maneuvering and the importance of public image. We cannot lose him. Richards will no doubt defect to his family before long, and Van Dyne is uninterested in a leadership role. Col. Jackson will continue to work to bring Pym back to the fold, but although he has written enthusiastically in support of our cause, I suspect he will remain, for the time being, retired.
I want detailed reports on every meeting between Stark and Hill. Secure this goal by any means necessary. Kooning is still dead-set on installing Stark as SHIELD's new director, and while I have private concerns that Hill would be willing to surrender the role, there is no denying that she is the best man for the job. (Recall our conversation concerning Stark's fallout with Maya Hansen.)
Stark's interests are simply too divided to adequately serve the position. He would be, however, my first choice for running some kind of associated task force that would enforce the Act in the long-term. It is in the interest of national security to once again allow SHIELD to operate broadly, as it did before the Act, instead of eating up its resources solely with enforcement.
What Tony likes about Maria Hill is that she follows her own compass. Her conscience may not balance with what others would consider strictly moral, but she's pragmatic: she makes her decisions with clear eyes, unweighted by the ballast of interfering opinion. She won him over when she authorized one of her operatives to shoot Tony in the head. At the time he was out-of-control in the most exact sense—overridden, reprogrammed and repurposed, and as dangerous as a brainwashed genius who built armor that was more weapon than shield could be. The operative missed his shot, but as soon as Tony was himself again, he had decided that Hill was trustworthy. She's also aggressively competent, which Tony respects. Fears, but respects.
"Divide and conquer," she suggests. "Target each one of them individually. Cage's obvious weak point is his family—"
"Listen, much as I'd like to see Jessica's reaction when someone calls her a weak point, we aren't that desperate yet," Tony says. "Whatever we do, assume it's going to leak to the press. We can't keep it quiet forever."
"This is why I hate fighting in public view."
"Yeah, well, not all wars are secret."
Hill scoffs. "Spoken like a CEO."
"Spoken like a spymaster," Tony counters. "And when did I say I was opposed to a trap? But that's one thing—catching them all off-guard as a group. Going after them individually is an entire canning factory of worms."
"You've fought alongside some of these people for years. Your friendship with Steve Rogers alone is notorious for its... intensity. I'll concede that we need to play softball, but it's crazy that we don't have more intelligence. This underground is operating right under our noses."
"I'm not here to talk about my relationship with Steve Rogers."
"Great, because I wouldn't touch that with a twelve-foot pole. What I want to talk about is how they're communicating. How they're recruiting. What's their long-term plan. Why they chose physical resistance instead of fighting for different legislation through conventional channels."
"That's Cap all over."
"Not everyone is fixated on Captain America. He's a factor, maybe the most important factor, but Cage and Sue Storm are both more than capable of pulling a stunt like this without Rogers leading them."
They're parked six vertical miles from Manhattan. The skyline isn't what it was when he was a kid; he sees it now with the eyes of an adult, the terrible knowledge of someone who understands negative space. The Iron Man is built around an absence.
What he really wants is for Hill to stop talking about his relationship with Steve. Tony isn't blind; although most of the people around him tend to treat him like he's excluded from the secret, he's aware that 'intense' is not a strong enough word for how he behaves around Steve. He does his best to spin it: friendship, a respect that verges on hero-worship, a craven envy of all the things Tony isn't. Very few people are in a position to suspect the truth, because it would ruin him if it got out. Pepper and Rhodey have wondered, probably, because they know Tony too well. Happy, because he's the only guy who can make Tony feel dumb. Natasha, maybe, although who the hell knows what she thinks behind that Soviet reserve? Rumiko might've guessed; but Tony hopes she hadn't.
"Okay," Tony says. "All right. Give me your best pitch. What are we supposed to do? Because it looks to me like waiting them out is the easiest solution. Ignore them. Don't give them the dignity of a fight."
"The longer we let them go unchecked, the more the tide turns in their favor," says Hill. She's standing with both hands planted on the ops table, hip cocked, staring Tony down. "Let me be blunt," she says. "I don't think you're telling us everything."
"Did you just accuse me of withholding information?"
"Yes," Hill says.
"And you think I'm… what? Secretly in touch with Cap's underground? Feeding them information? Hiding that I'm a sympathizer?" Tony's getting angry. He's sick of people questioning his motivation in the way that only an addict can be sick. There's a streak of self-righteous hypocrisy in there, a dash of cowardly loathing, because of course they're right to question him. Doesn't matter. He's still angry.
"No, but I think you know things about how Rogers and his group operate that you aren't sharing. Maybe it's time someone asked you why the hell you're doing this."
"Because it's the right thing to do, Director," Tony snaps.
"Cut the crap. I don't want whatever lines you feed Jack Kooning and his buddies on the golf course. I want to know why Tony Stark—why Iron Man—would sell out his team to toe the party line. You make it look easy, Stark, but I know it isn't."
One of Tony's passions is miniaturization. It's a driving problem with the armor—all those bells, all those whistles, and he still has to carry the bulk of it around in a briefcase. He's come up with a dozen alternate methods, of course, and all of them are integrated into the Model 29; he can call the armor to him as either a whole or in modular pieces, he can tell it to assemble itself around him, he can even store a part of it inside the core of his bones, but none of that is really more than a terminal line of upgrade on a device that is already hopelessly out-of-date. He needs to scale it smaller without losing any of the strength or adaptability. He needs to make it more flexible, more responsive to a wider variety of crises. He needs to build himself into it.
Tony has always walked close to the border of transhumanism. There's an argument waiting to be made that he transgressed that border years ago, first as an accident in the pursuit of staying alive, and then later deliberately, as he put control chips and psychotransmitters and artificial hearts inside his body. Extremis blew those doors wide open. What's the next step? What's the step beyond that, and beyond that?
That's his obsession. Everything else is just gravy.
He isn't interested in bonding with Hill, but he recognizes the benefits of keeping her on his side, so he swallows down a bitter pill of pride and gives her a show that feels no less artificial than his performance at the last HomeSec meeting.
Tony builds a symphony of justification. The third movement sounds like this:
"You know I'm an alcoholic," he says.
Hill eyes him. She's wary but curious—she might even sense his roiling anger, but she's reserved enough not to mention it. "I thought you didn't drink anymore."
"I don't," Tony says. "I'm still an alcoholic. I did a lot of things I'm not proud of under the influence. But here's the thing—I did a lot of things I'm not proud of while sober, too. Iron Man was always supposed to be an opportunity to be better than I was. When I had a secret identity, though, it sometimes turned into an excuse. Not that I ever needed an excuse to dodge responsibility, but—you get the idea. It meant I didn't have to own my actions, and for an alcoholic, that's as bad as a relapse."
Hill buys it. Maybe she thinks he's selfish; maybe she only thinks he's unable to see past his own point-of-view. That's fine. He doesn't assume that all superhumans are as divided or as cowardly as Tony is without supervision, but even one other person is too many. Some futurists disregard possibilities with low probabilities, but Tony knows better. He plans for every disaster.
"By the way, they're communicating with a variation on a World War 2-era cipher," Tony says. He picks his helmet up off the table and puts it on; his next sentence comes out muffled before abruptly gaining clarity as the armor seals itself around him. "Analog technologies only. Reed and I are working on cracking it."
"Good. Anything else?" Hill asks.
"Just one thing," he says. "You should know: this isn't going to get better until it gets worse."
PASSIVE MODE //
TS: Chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
VP: He always said, "Pep, don't let me end up like that. You tell me to quit, I quit, and if I get to the point where you're feedin' me mush 'cause I don't have the brains left to feed myself, you let me go." He never wanted this. He would've… he'd hate—
VP: You can touch, hear, all his life support equipment with your mind. He wouldn't have wanted this, Tony. You could turn it off. I would never know.
VP: It's what he'd want. There's no reason to drag this out and make him suffer. You can make it an equipment malfunction. Or not. You can fool the monitors. Maybe he just fades.
TS: Pepper. Pep. You have… there's his living will, his power of attorney. You don't need me to…
VP: I can't make that decision.
TS: You're asking me to—
VP: Tony. I can't. Just think about it. Please.
Two hundred days ago, Tony fell asleep.
He's working on training himself out of that. The results of the Extremis enhancile allow him to directly alter his neural pathways; it's only a matter of conditioning and a few lines of the right code to wean his body off of sleeping. He's doing it carefully this time, systematically—during his last attempt, he rushed the process, and Mordred exploited his lapse. Isn't that how it always is? Someone younger and smarter comes along and leaves you and all your planning in the dust. In the meantime, he still feels tired. It's psychological driftwood, the remains of a previous release of Tony Stark. He drinks coffee as a temporary relief agent. Sometimes he forgets about the coffee, and the coffee gets cold. Cause and effect.
"Colonel Rhodes is calling, boss," Friday says.
In a subjective sense it feels like months since he was last in Avengers Tower. He's been spending time in D.C., time in his workshop, time in the loft in lower Manhattan. The tower is empty. Carol has her own apartment; Jan has her own penthouse. Tony isn't sure about the rest of them. They aren't a team, not really. All they are is a holding pattern, a suggestion that might one day evolve into a functional whole.
Comorbidity makes it sound like more of a problem than it is. He's heard the diagnoses. Major Depressive Disorder, that's comorbid. Alcohol dependence, however latent, is by this point simply a charming personality trait. Exhaustion isn't so much a symptom as a glitch. What distracts him are thoughts. Sometimes he gets an idea in his head, and he can't let it go.
The view from up here is relentless. It's darker inside than it is outside; the suite is shadowed and cavernous, but the streets below are threaded with light and movement. They're so far away they seem like a toy, or a dream. Tony has that problem sometimes—he confuses dreams with dreaming. It's still easier to look at the city than it is to look at the reflection of his own face in the dark, liquid surface of the glass. He used to find Steve here, in the days after they'd reformed the team; Steve liked the view of the city, and he liked the big flatscreen with its enormous library of movies, and he'd liked being close to the kitchen, where the Avengers inevitably congregated.
On the coffee table behind him is an old General Electric RBD receiver and TCX transmitter set-up. He has newer, smaller, sleeker equipment that could perform that same function, but he dug this out of storage anyway. Broadcasting any message would be the equivalent of declaring that he'd cracked their code; even if he hadn't yet, Cap would know that it would only be a matter of time—days, not years. On the other hand…
The device in his hand is smaller, sleeker, designed by Tony himself. He hadn't used it in years, but he knows it still works. He retains it only out of sentimentality. He could switch it on and talk into it, but nobody would be listening on the other end.
Tony waits in the dark of the morning. While he waits, he plays What If.
In the What If he builds as he looks down at New York, he is excised of all weakness. The only sentiment he retains is a benevolent belief in the future of humanity, a hollow golden glow that encompasses the perfection of his reason. He is not an alcoholic, not an addict, not prone to obsession at all. He understands everything that has happened, sees with flawless clarity what is to come. He acts according to the greater good. He sublimates the self. He engineers himself into the armor.
He builds this What If over and over. He visits it every day. He plays the same What If over and over, and over and over he wakes up at a drafting table, pencil in hand, a gorgeous, totally impossible creation flayed open across the paper.
He can't build this. He can't figure out the logistics. There's beauty in the design, in the way his eyes have been replaced by advanced ocular lenses with a three-hundred sixty degree field of vision, in the way that his skin has been peeled away and substituted with low-maintenance carbon nanotubes grafted into an exoskeleton. In the What If, very little of his original organic matter remains; there is some small biomass located in his torso, mostly to continue certain processes that provide chemical energy to redundant systems. His faulty heart has been replaced with a backup processor.
He retains nothing of sentimentality, not even sentiment itself: This is Tony 3.0, no longer a person, more than a human, superior in all ways. This is a perfect set of algorithms housed in a gleaming shell. This is Iron Man, beatified, who is everything that Tony is not. The Iron Man does not sleep, does not require food, does not waste resources building castles in the air. It is only Tony, an imperfect accident of flesh and blood, who still dreams.
In the What If of perfection, Iron Man builds a better world. In the What Is of reality, Tony Stark can only contemplate the fracture mechanics of his mind. That's the flaw, the hang-up; if he could get out of his own way, he'd be able to think of everything.
For example: it is pure, cloying sentiment that brought his old Avengers ID card to his hand. It is pure, cloying grief that drives him to switch it on. It is pure, stifling despair that leads him to say into the card, "Steve. We need to talk."
That he continues to wait is not effected by the act. He was waiting before; he was still waiting. Calling out to Steve was a discrete function unrelated to anticipation. He's waiting for an answer to present itself. There's a state he can reach under certain conditions of deprivation—almost a state of grace. If he can push himself to that state, he'll know the right thing to do.
He doesn't feel hope when his ID card crackles to life again. He feels nothing at all when Steve's voice says, "All right, Stark. I'm giving you one chance." He doesn't feel hope; he doesn't feel anything. This is Tony Stark 2.0; he is not yet perfect, but under certain conditions of deprivation, he comes dangerously close.
PASSIVE MODE //
CB: Shoot, I ran out of room on my recorder.
TS: No problem, I have a backup. Friday?
FR: Yes, boss?
TS: Can you get Cora a copy of this interview?
FR: Of course. It'll be waiting in your inbox, Ms. Birch.
CB: Thank you, Friday. And Captain Rogers, thank you for taking the time to sit down with us.
SR: My pleasure, ma'am.
TS: Don't look at me. He's always like that.
SR: We can't all be young hooligan whippersnappers like you.
CB: Is that—
TS: He's kidding. He likes to play up the grandpa act.
SR: When you're as old as I am—
TS: You look like you're about nineteen, you know that, right? Also, I noticed that you didn't thank me for my time, which if we're talking going rate is a lot more valuable than Cap's.
CB: We're twelve hours into this process. You should be thanking me.
SR: Only twelve hours? Usually he talks more than that.
TS: Be nice, not all of us have enough biographies to fill a national library.
CB: Actually, that's part of the reason I invited Captain Rogers—
SR: Please, call me Steve.
CB: Why I invited Steve. I was surprised by how little substantial writing there is on the Avengers despite your team's high profile, and I'm including individual members in that. Not that there aren't exceptions like you, but not all of the Avengers are famous war heroes.
SR: I don't consider myself a hero.
TS: Stop it. She's my Boswell, stop trying to charm her. He's serious when he says that, by the way.
CB: What about you, Tony? Do you consider yourself a hero?
SR: Of course—
TS: I'm an engineer, let's leave it at that. Don't tell me you're thinking of writing a book about the Avengers.
CB: No one has attempted a definitive account of the team.
SR: You could transcribe the recordings. Make an oral history.
CB: Actually, that's an intriguing idea. I have to finish my definitive account of Iron Man first, though.
SR: I'm surprised you're this far into the process.
CB: Why do you say that?
SR: He's good at fooling people. Makes them think he likes attention.
TS: I love attention.
SR: Not from most people.
TS: Aw, Cap. Are you jealous?
CB: So the two of you obviously have a rapport—
TS: We've known each other too long, you mean.
CB: Sure, if you want to put it like that. Have you always gotten along so well?
TS: Way to lay it out there.
SR: We haven't.
TS: We tend to come at problems from very different angles of attack.
SR: That's true.
TS: Cap's angle is obtuse.
SR: I'm fairly sure that's an insult.
TS: It makes for better leadership, though.
CB: The two of you haven't always been the leaders of the Avengers—
SR: No, we have… had… a rotating chair.
CB: But most people tend to think of you as the team's leaders anyway. Is that because the two of you are comfortable challenging each other?
SR: By length of service, we've probably spent the most time leading the team.
TS: And when we reformed, we decided we'd head it up together.
CB: How does that division of labor work?
SR: I handle the field, Tony takes care of logistics and support.
TS: Which means everything else, plus fundraising.
SR: I help with that—
TS: You dress up in your fancy uniform and show up when and where I tell you to show up.
SR: That counts.
TS: In that case, I "help" with field leadership.
CB: And you're friends outside of the boundaries of the team.
SR: We may not be a family team in the same sense as the Fantastic Four, but the Avengers are a family.
TS: That means he has to put up with me even when he doesn't like me.
SR: Means I get the pleasure of putting up with you.
CB: I have to admit, I'm curious: what do two Avengers do together off-the-clock?
TS: What do we do?
SR: Fight crime.
TS: Besides that.
SR: Talk, go to restaurants, play basketball.
TS: Watch TV. Go to the gym.
CB: What do you guys like to watch?
TS: This isn't going in the book, is it?
SR: Network dramas.
TS: We both like epics and documentaries.
CB: The gym I can see. You're all in astonishingly good shape.
TS: I always compare it to being a firefighter. Not that what we do is comparable to what they do—
SR: Actually, that's a good comparison. You have to be in good shape, or you start putting yourself and the people around you in danger.
TS: Which isn't as much fun for a desk jockey as a super-soldier. He's been teaching me to fight on and off for years, and I still have trouble keeping up.
SR: No, you don't.
TS: Have I ever landed a hit on you?
TS: I keep telling you: if you want a real challenge, you should let me wear the armor.
SR: You're enough of a challenge just in sweatpants. Not everyone thinks as fast as you do.
TS: That isn't my fault.
CB: Now this I'd like to see.
TS: It might actually be more entertaining to watch us fight over the TV remote. There's a lot more at stake. The gym is just for blowing off steam.
890 Fifth Avenue. It's one of those addresses everyone knows, an address recorded in the annals alongside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and 10 Downing Street. It was—it used to be—home, both when Tony was a child for whom home was a periodic waystation between trips and boarding schools and tutorages, and then later, when he populated the mansion with a family he built himself. Now it's a ruin. The southwest side that faces 70th is almost entirely gone. The west corner is collapsed inward, brick spilling into the shadowy conference room. The quinjet hangar on the third floor is open to the air.
Most of the damage is the result of Wanda's final, desperate battle with Doctor Doom; neither the Mansion nor the team have been right since, not in Tony's estimation. The Vision died that day. So did Scott Lang. Clint was critically injured and spent weeks in the hospital, months in recovery. And Wanda left; no one has seen or heard from her since. Maybe she's alive. Maybe she isn't. The rest of them were about as useful in that fight as a butterknife in a shootout; Wanda was the only one with enough power to hold Doom at bay, but the cost to her had been unfathomable.
Tony drops through a hole in the floor of the quinjet hangar and lands two floors below in the dining room. There's a blue oval that resolves itself into the top of Steve's head as Tony's trajectory curves downward. Steve's in full battle dress, shield and cowl, waiting with his eyes trained on the sky.
"Tony," Steve says.
"Steve," says Tony. Not Cap. "I was surprised you came. Wasn't sure if you'd think it was a trap."
"You aren't above setting a trap," Steve says. "But if you'd set a trap here... guess I don't want to believe that." Which is different from not believing that Tony would violate the sanctity of this graveyard in that way; but it's something.
The most unstable element in this confrontation is Tony, and here's why: Tony is still hanging on to the delusion that they can solve this by talking. They haven't spoken since Steve backflipped out of SHIELD's mobile command center and declared war on the U.S. government, and Tony's delusion is firmly-enough rooted that he can't stop thinking that they can still fix this—that they can reach an understanding—that he'll explain himself to Cap, that they'll argue, that Cap will eventually come around, shake Tony's hand, stand beside him. He knows it's a delusion, but even self-knowledge can't excise his belief. It's the closest thing to faith he's ever felt.
He stokes the delusion: "We need to talk."
"You really think talking is going to solve anything?"
"I think we owe it to what we were to try," Tony corrects. There's a cracked picture hanging on the wall behind Steve. A grinning Hank McCoy has his arm thrown over Simon's shoulder while Carol mugs for the camera behind them. It's crooked, tilted almost forty-five degrees above level.
"Fine," Steve says. "But take off the mask. I want to see your face."
He can fathom a dozen explanations for that. Steve wants to see if he's really, physically present, not telecommuting while he plots in his high tower. Or: Steve wants to see if he's lying, wants to read the intent in Tony's expression. Or: Steve, never one to flinch from hard truth, wants to look into the eyes of the traitor one last time. Not numbered among these is anything close to the purity of Steve merely wanting to see Tony's face.
That's the problem. Steve's solutions, his wants and needs, are clean. Tony's solutions are complex. Complexity is not always desirable, but sometimes it's unavoidable.
He doesn't flip back his faceplate. He removes the helmet altogether: by hand, without any flashy foldaway, like a knight taking off his sallet, and he sets it on the dining table, and then he reabsorbs the portion of the undersuit that covers his head, folds its molecular chains back into tidy coils beneath his bones. Steve watches with his jaw set so firmly Tony can see his teeth grinding, can see his masseter muscle flex, can see the tension headache starting to build at the front of his skull.
"Sometimes I wonder how we let you get to this point," Steve says. "How we let you do this to yourself."
"As attractive as it is to imagine that I orchestrated this whole situation, even I can't summon funding for a new law, build it, and launch it without help."
"Not the Act," Steve corrects. "You. This. Extremis."
Tony wants to say something flippant. The next logical leap, he wants to say; you saw this coming; how it is different from the artificial heart or the fully-self-aware software suite or the cybernetic control arrays? But he knows how it's different. It's different because he tipped his hand. Steve never saw the artificial heart. There were no external consequences. Extremis, though, is written into every line of Tony's body, in his every interaction with the world, from the gold undersheath to his exquisite command of the external suit modules to the lack of scar tissue on his skin.
"Extremis rewrote me," he says.
"It made you worse," Steve retorts. "You've always put too much stock in technology, but this…" He swears. "It robs what makes you a person. You don't understand—"
"No, you don't understand. I understand perfectly. You think Extremis made me worse? You think it's turning me into something less than human?"
"It changed you, Tony. You don't even see it."
"Maybe it did!" Tony snaps. "But the super-soldier serum sure as hell changed you too!"
All this anger; where does it come from?
Steve looks away. It's a tactical retreat, a tacit acknowledgement that he's making the conscious decision to set this topic aside lest he dig his feet in and defeat the entire purpose of the meeting. Tony doesn't appreciate it. He thought they could fix things by talking and instead he has in himself discovered a depth of fury previously reserved for Justin Hammer and the impartial machinations of the blind gods of the universe.
"You want to talk?" Steve says. "Then talk. You owe me an explanation."
"Fine." But for all his anger, his motivations have always been shamefully unclothed: "Then take off your mask. I want to see your face, too."
Steve yanks back his cowl. He's embarrassed, maybe—Tony would be—or just frustrated. Angry. Furious. Maybe Tony isn't angry himself; maybe he's just mirroring the rising red tide in Steve. HIs blonde hair sticks up in a sweaty cowlick that does nothing to detract from that cold light of judgment in his blue, blue eyes. There's always been something terrible about Steve's wrath, something Old Testament, inexorable and unalterable, a righteous red tide that breaks across the sky like a rolling bank of stormclouds. It makes him impossible to argue with, but Tony has always been the unstoppable force to Steve's immovable object. They can each only act according to their natures.
"An explanation," Tony says. "I owe you an explanation. Okay, try this one on for size: I'm doing what you told me to do, Cap. I'm owning my problems. I'm taking responsibility."
"This is the least harmful option on the table. It's this or all of us as lab rats—"
"The public would never let that happen."
"Imagine if you were being stubborn about this," Tony snaps. "Oh, wait, never mind. How am I supposed to explain it, Steve? You can't tell me you don't see the need for regulation. Springfield, Stamford, the Young Avengers—they're great kids, but they deserve more than a slapdash training regimen whenever we can make time for them. The American public saw a need, and their duly-elected representatives enacted a law to meet that need. The rest of us only get to decide whether we serve the law or dictate it."
"No." Steve drops his shield on the table, plants his hands at the edge. Without realizing it, they've taken up opposite ends. "This isn't about abiding by the law. You may be able to convince the rest of the country that you're toeing the company line, but I know you better than that." This is going to hurt; whatever Steve says next, however he assesses the content of Tony's character, it's going to hurt.
"The only reason you'd throw your support behind Registration," Steve says, "is because you think it's the right thing to do."
Tony once had shrapnel edging so close to his heart that most of the country's best surgeons deemed surgery to remove the fragments too risky to attempt. He understands the feeling of having a sharp shard of metal cut picometer by picometer through flesh and bone. This hurts in a way that is different but no less excruciating—a pain that comes from hearing exactly what he wants to hear despite knowing that it's a lie.
Steve still thinks Tony has a moral compass.
Steve still thinks Tony believes in ethical absolutes.
Steve still thinks Tony is worth something.
If he'd had this data before, he could have folded it into his model in time to do something useful with it, but now he can only perform the kind of real-time calculations that make him infamous in the industry. Of course Steve thinks Tony is following some kind of higher ideal here; otherwise, Steve wouldn't even give him the courtesy of this conversation. He shouldn't feel proud. It isn't something to be proud about. And maybe Steve is right; but he's only right in the context of Tony's relativism. Steve thinks Tony is wrong for the right reasons. Tony knows Tony is right for the wrong reasons. That's the schism between them—maybe it's always been there, unpassable, impossible, absolute, the result of a divide in belief and character an atom wide but a light-year deep, the kind of fissure that isn't noticeable when you're standing above it until something new comes crawling out of the dark.
"Trust me, Cap," he finally settles on. "Even if you didn't see this coming, I did. It's what I do: observe, predict, plan. You know what clued me in?" He laughs. It scrapes his throat raw. "Never mind, you wouldn't believe me if I told you. Either way—better than the alternative."
"Like hell it is. When you see something like this coming, you don't compromise, Tony—you fight!"
"Fight what?" Tony says. "The system? The entire U.S. government? The president? The people? How do you think that's going to end for you? You aren't going to win this. Actually—huh. I'm not sure what's worse: that you're delusional enough to think you can win, or that you're pragmatic enough to know you won't win but determined to fight anyway."
"Idealism," Cap says. "Not delusion."
"Sure, okay, let's go with that argument," Tony says. "What about all the people you dragged with you? Luke and Sue, that's one thing—they both have families, but they'd probably dig in their heels no matter what. Kate Bishop, though? Cloak and Dagger? Firebird? Spider-Man? Actually, scratch that, Peter didn't surprise me. Clint—Clint would jump off a bridge if you asked him."
"What in God's name are you getting at?"
"What I'm getting at, handsome, is that you're abusing your position as Captain America. This is not a bloodless conflict, but it would be less bloodless by orders of magnitude if you hadn't dragged every twenty-something with a knack for heroics and a poster of the Avengers on their bedroom wall into your little temper-tantrum."
Steve looks frozen. No, that isn't right—Tony's seen him frozen before, and he looked peaceful then. Like a little boy: face slack; hair tousled; those long, nearly-invisible eyelashes of his fanned against the delicate skin under his eyes. Now he looks like granite, like steel, like graphene. There's no mobility there, not of flesh and not of spirit.
All right. Okay.
"You know what your problem is, Tony?"
"Go ahead," Tony says. "Enlighten me, Cap."
"Your problem," Steve says, "is that you're an optimist who thinks he's a cynic. It's a dangerous combination."
"Your problem," Tony counters, "is that you can only frame things in the context of your own worldview. It's always optimist or pessimist, cynic or idealist. I'm neither of those things. I'm a realist. A futurist. I don't deal in wishful thinking. I deal in what is."
"Progress isn't some blind god you can appease with enough sacrifices."
"And you can't oppose every politician in Washington just because they back legislation you don't like."
"You're wrong," Steve says. "Those are exactly the people we should be fighting against. We're down on the street helping people. They're removed from the situation at best and willing to compromise their values at worst. We can't be answerable to some of the most corrupt men and women in the country."
There's a long pause. Despite the threatening tidal wave of despair, Tony's pulse beats out a slow, steady beat. All thanks to Extremis: he has the heart of a super-soldier.
"Men," Tony says, "like me."
Another pause. Steve stares him down like he's staring down the barrel of a gun.
"Yeah, Tony," he says finally. "Men like you."
The tide of his despair crashes into the wildfire of his anger; the ashes of one meet the shore of the other, and something new comes forth, something molten and righteous and right. Maybe this is what Steve feels like all the time—all that confidence—that fury—
"You want an explanation? Try this on. I'm a weapon, Steve. You're a weapon. We, all of us, are weapons. I've spent the past decade extracting myself from the business; this is something I understand. And we can't stop existing, can't stop doing what we do—we're addicts, on top of everything else, and I know something about addiction, too. You put a bunch of dangerous addicts in a closed community, and you know what you get? You get a time-bomb. And we're ticking away, and none of us know how much longer the timer has. Maybe this is the explosion, but maybe it isn't. Maybe there's something worse coming. I don't care. All I care about is containing the collateral damage. Tick tick, Steve. Are you going to fan the flames, or help me put them out? The last thing I want is to see someone put a bullet between your eyes because they mistake you for a Skrull, or because you won't let us monitor you for telepathic interference, or just because you don't know when to quit."
"Is that a threat, Avenger?"
"No. It's a forecast."
"Doesn't sound like much of a difference."
"Steve," Tony says. "This isn't what I want."
"Funny," Steve says. "Could've fooled me. I've heard enough." He picks up his shield, doesn't bother yanking his cowl over his face.
If he leaves now—this is something Tony grasps intuitively, one of those on-the-fly calculations that pass for instinct—if Steve leaves now, that's it. This is the last opportunity; this is their Rubicon, and if one or the other of them crosses out of the room without reaching some resolution, they're never again going to be what they once were. Not the country, and not the Avengers, and not Tony and Steve, who were once friends and partners and brothers-in-arms.
Steve may not be the single most important person in Tony's life, because he would lay down that life for Rhodey or Pepper or Happy; but Tony has been wildly, tragically, quietly in love with Steve Rogers for a decade and counting. It doesn't dim. It doesn't fade. There are other lovers, other partners, but if Tony belongs wholly to anyone other than his art and his science and his armor, he belongs wholly to Steve.
Because he can't help himself, he reaches out and takes Steve by the arm.
He hasn't touched Steve for two hundred days. The last time he touched Steve, he was trying to beat him to death because the Mordred of the twenty-first century found a backdoor pass into Tony's brain and hijacked him body and soul. Tony cracked Steve's collarbone, tore off his ear. Crushed his trachea. That Steve isn't dead by Tony's hand is a function of blind awful luck.
Tony takes Steve by the arm.
Steve punches Tony in the face.
In some way, it's all a function of luck. Consider his love for Steve: low probability, high impact. A wildcard. He doesn't believe in fate, not in the sense of predestination, but he does believe that sometimes certain factors align in such a way that a particular outcome is so highly probable it might as well be inevitable. Becoming Iron Man—he wants to believe that was inevitable. Forming the Avengers. Meeting Rhodey, the Hogans, Reed, Rumiko.
He's never been able to decide what he wants to believe about why he fell in love with Steve. Neither of them deserve this. Not that Steve is really involved in this particular problem; this is internal, a closed system, a conclusion reached by Tony without his conscious permission. It's a wildcard. It's awful. It's the worst kind of bad luck.
Tony rolls with the punch. Steve didn't put the full force of his body behind it; it's a warning, hard enough to bruise but not hard enough to kill. His grip on Steve breaks. Despite the support of the armor, he staggers. Takes a step back.
Steve's staring, wide-eyed, fist still extended, like he can't believe they went this far; but then his expression sinks back into that graphene stoicism, that all-American bedrock repression beneath which is only anger.
"Gonna be like that, huh?" Tony says. "Okay, Cap." And he shucks the armor. The external suit parts, detaches, settles on the ground at Tony's feet. Steve drops his shield on the table. His kick snaps upward at Tony's face too fast for a human to track; but Tony isn't human. He's the next stage. He's something better. He's something more—and unlike Steve, who passively gambled on an unknown formula, Tony built this transformation himself. He understands it from the ground up. He sees what's coming. He makes it happen.
He catches the kick on the meat of his forearm, grabs Steve's ankle with his opposite hand, and yanks. Cap overbalances and corrects with the kind of elastic agility that makes Olympic gymnasts look clumsy, but it's enough to prove to Tony that he might have a shot. A year ago, going up against Steve like this would've been suicide, but now, the new Tony—Tony 2.0—he's strong enough to move the mountain.
"You're running scared," Cap says. "You might think you've got a handle on everything, but it all really comes down to what you want." And then Tony really starts to get it, what it's like to go up against Captain America, what facing down Steve Rogers means: one second Cap's standing there, talking, and the next he's slamming a fist into Tony's side. He catches it on his lower ribs. Despite the protective sheath of his underarmor, he feels—hears—no: some amalgamation of the two, like the way a low bass vibrato is felt with the entire body—he senses cartilage tear.
Tony twists like an unwinding spring and slaps the next blow away. It buys him enough time to put some distance between them.
"Oh yeah?" he says.
"If you weren't so focused on getting your own way, you'd have thought through the consequences of putting the names of every single costumed hero in one place. It's shortsighted. It's dangerous, Stark "—every part of Tony throbs in time with the driving beat of his pulse through the bruised flesh of his side—"when you better than anyone know how easy it is to steal that information."
He's circling the table now, going the long way around… trying to herd Tony away from his armor, maybe, or maybe just trying to intimidate. He paces past the door to the foyer, turns the corner, and starts down the long side that faces the library.
"How many people do we know who have lost someone because a sick man with a grudge figured out who was fighting them under the mask?" Steve says. "How the hell can you possibly think that putting a complete catalog of secret identities within reach is going to protect anyone?"
He's two-thirds of the way down the long side. Tony is almost exactly opposite. "You're a blind idiot if you think isolation's the answer," he retorts. "Most of us don't have the same resources as Captain America."
"'Us'?" Steve says. "You're twice as removed as I am." He's around the next corner, crossing in front of the crumbled hole that was once an exit to the southeast conference room. "And worse, you keep calling yourselves Avengers. Like you're not twisting our legacy." The next corner—now he's ten yards from Tony. There's no door on this wall. Nine yards—eight—
When Tony was a kid, his father used to take him to the gun range. Not often, but occasionally, enough that he'd grown used to the weight of the grip, the slam of the recoil. The demonstration of applied physics was always fascinating—he spent a couple of months obsessed with ballistics tables, which eventually shifted to a fixation on ballistics coefficients for satellites—but the most important lesson he'd taken away hadn't been quantifiable at all.
"That team you built—they're not worthy of the name."
Three yards. Two yards. One yard. Here it comes:
"And," Steve says, "neither are you."
Tony picks up the shield and cracks it into Steve's head.
What Steve doesn't know and Tony won't admit is that Steve has seen Tony through some of the worst parts of his life.
The genesis: when he was still staring down Afghanistan in his dreams every night and refusing to admit the strain during the day, and after pulling Steve from the ice he became so wrapped up in convincing Cap that the here, now, this future that wasn't a future at all except in the relative, was worth something.
His rock bottom: all those weeks and months when he'd crawled into a bottle, finding sanctuary only in the soft hollow glow of addiction, and the steady, subconscious knowledge of Steve's disapproval was the only thing that prevented him from drowning himself in that golden escape.
A rebirth: newly sober, struggling to set his company to right—
Or a resistance: fighting brainwashing, aware that his mind was not inviolate but unable to stop the violation, when the only thought that had lent him the strength to endure had been his certainty that the minute he gave up, Steve's life would be forfeit—
Sometimes it seems like they're destined to understand one another only in fleeting moments. If Steve is an outdated relic, a soldier called upon to sacrifice for his country again and again without any sure promise of a final rest, Tony is a premature reckoning, a builder for whom the someday is more tangible than right now. Past and future, meeting only in the present, joined only by the illusion of continuity, the idea that what has happened is related to what will happen. They'll only ever have one moment at a time. In the end, if they ever meet at all, they always meet in the middle.
But through the lens of their anger, they will never understand each other.
Listen, Tony's thought about this. He's had a lot of time to dwell on it, because when he gets a thought in his head he just can't—let—it—go, and of all of his obsessions, all of his grand orchestrations of idea, all of his What Ifs and What Ises and conceptual playgrounds, nothing has taken root in his soul in quite the same way as Steve Rogers. Steve isn't the dearest concept, or the most important; but he is the most persistent. He's aspirational. He won't go away. Tony's tried to drive him out a time or two in earnest, but even those times are fewer and further between, because Tony doesn't really want Steve to go. If the only way he can have Steve is to let his mind be haunted, then he'll throw open the doors and invite the specter in.
On a fundamental level, their anger disagrees. Steve is a slow, eternal smulder; there was magma moving beneath the surface of his skin a thousand years ago, and in another thousand years the molten river of his fury will still be burning strong. You don't often see direct evidence of it on the surface, but you feel the heat in your bones—a comforting, righteous, necessary sink that was all the more dangerous for its familiarity. Sometimes, though—sometimes all that heat and pressure would build up until even Steve's thick skin couldn't contain it any longer, and then it would erupt, spewing fire and ash and noxious fumes into the sky. An endless fountain, that was Steve; predictable, maybe, in the way that forces measured in eons rather than years are predictable, but no less terrifying for his predictability.
Tony's anger is like his old bum heart. It flares wildly, a pure white starscream that quickly refracts into the acid green of shame and the ceaseless violet of grief. Tony doesn't have the energy to sustain his anger for long. He doesn't have the power to direct it outwards; it always collapses inward on itself. The red light of his anger can never escape the black hole of his despair.
Why can't Steve understand?
Cap blocks the edge of the shield with the meat of his forearm. It's enough to make even him stagger; he catches himself against the table and bounces back like a rubber squash ball. One minute the shield is in Tony's hand under Tony's control; the next minute the shield is not. Steve rips it out of his hands and flings it back-handed into a wall. It stays there, wedged into the fissure it created, and Steve uses his momentum to slam his other fist into Tony's side.
Something organic and internal cracks.
When they met ten years ago, this was not how Tony imagined their working relationship going. He could fathom Captain America's disregard, Captain America's contempt, maybe—if he was very good, and worked very hard—maybe even Captain America's respect; in those early days, he had discovered in Steve a devotion to building something better that rivaled Tony's own yearning. There was something so pure about it, about the late nights they spent earnestly discussing the ways to be make the Avengers into a better crisis-response machine, how to use their newfound celebrity to further charitable causes, how maybe they could inspire others to stand up and act no matter how small or ordinary their contributions seemed. They didn't neglect the practical, but there was a kind of ideological grace behind those discussions that now strikes Tony as impossibly naive.
They grew. They evolved. They argued, and fought, and realized that total accord was impossible. They made each other better. They broke apart and came back together, and always there was the team that for all its foibles had become family to them both. Because that was what Steve was, wasn't it? Not solely partner or friend or brother but all three.
And here they are together at the end of that. At least, in the end, they're together—it's something, it's a bare shimmer of light that passes the surface of Tony's thoughts as he gathers his feet under him and pummels Steve through a wall.
They crash into the conference room together, grappling, until Steve manages to get Tony in some kind of hold that makes him incredibly, exactly aware of how delicate the bones in his wrist and elbow are. A little more force in one direction, and Tony will become double-jointed against his body's will. He mule-kicks blindly, catches Steve off-guard enough to scramble away—past the crumbled outer wall and the empty window frame and out into the garden.
What if Steve is right?
What if Tony is throwing everything he once cherished away for a hollow victory?
What if he had it all wrong—what if Steve is Arthur, and Tony's only ever been his Mordred?
But Tony isn't wrong: he knows what's coming, he just lacks the words to make Steve understand. Tony isn't Mordred; he's Cassandra, and Troy is burning. If he falters now for lack of conviction, he might as well have laid down in the snow and let himself die all those years ago when his heart was fighting a losing battle against addiction.
He steadies himself against the base of a statue, forces himself upright, clenches his fist to check the function of his hand. All his fingers still move. His head is bare; his hands work. He'll be fine.
And then Steve comes into the garden.
He takes a step onto the grass and halts there, caught in a chiaroscuro between the shadows of the Mansion and the diffuse sunlight of late afternoon. Something hits Cap like a shock; Tony can read it in his face. It's a realization: What have we done?
Steve touches one hand to the crumbling brick. "This used to be home," he says.
Tony doesn't say anything.
"We should have talked sooner," says Steve.
"Yeah," says Tony, and he wipes the blood from his face, and then he accepts what he'd denying with the all the blind, faithful fervor of a true believer: that it's already too late.
THE WAR OF PERSONALITY
BY SALLY LLOYD
It hardly needs to be said that the superhero "civil war" is anything but. Cape-killer units openly patrol the streets of New York, Washington, and Los Angeles in search of resisters; fights between supporters and detractors have broken out at fourteen college campuses across the country; and peaceful citizens like Julia Carpenter are hunted down on live TV with the full support of the federal government.
That the situation has escalated to such a vicious, bloody state is apparently no surprise to Tony Stark, though, who tonight remarked that "[he'd] always seen this coming."
This isn't the first time Stark has claimed omniscience, nor will it be the last. Stark is a self-styled "futurist"—someone who tries to predict and prepare for what will someday happen. Even his detractors can't deny that he has an uncanny talent backing the winning side in the war of consumer electronics; he correctly predicted that Blu-Ray would win over HD, that Apple would not only make a comeback but emerge as a market leader thanks to the iPhone, and that haptic VR devices wouldn't be ready for wide release until well after 2005. It's characteristic arrogance when he suggests that that same talent can be applied more broadly; social trends are to DVD players as calculus is to figuring out much a coupon can save you at the grocery store.
But apparently those in power are willing to buy in to Stark's charade, because he has once again been entrusted with political power he hasn't earned. Instead of using his celebrity status to drum up support and funding, Stark is serving as an official consultant both to SHIELD and to the Department of Defense; he's running the only government-sanctioned (but not the only) team of Avengers; and he's heading multiple projects that fall under the SRA initiative, including a multi-billion dollar supermax prison.
That prison is perhaps the most audacious of Stark's many abuses precisely because it has very little to do with the SRA. Stark and his allies originally proposed the project with the spin that no currently existing facility was sufficient to hold violators of the SRA, but an unnamed source within the Pentagon recently verified that most active resistors are instead detained at a facility located near the Camp Hammond complex. In contrast, Prison 42 is now home to some of the country's most dangerous criminals—including Franklin Hall, Ophelia Sarkissian, and Norman Osborn—but, strangely, not many of them: Prison 42 currently operates at only 15% capacity (although the prison is far from being finished; that the facility is ready to house any prisoners at all speaks of a suspicious degree of foreknowledge).
Why the high cost? While it's true that a prison designed to hold superhumans has to be superhumanly strong, the main money sink is Prison 42's location. Instead of being built on American soil, Prison 42 is in the Negative Zone, ostensibly to "provide a buffer region between Earth and Earth's most serious threats." The industry expert on extradimensional construction? Stark Industries.
It's too clean to link Stark's support of the SRA directly to some money-making scheme, but it wouldn't be the first time his good works were nothing more than a cover for his personal interests. Prison 42's contractor is a coincidence on the order of Stark Industries' recent stock market performance—in other words, it isn't a coincidence at all.
"Colonel Rhodes is calling, boss."
"Ignore it. Get me Jack Kooning."
"Dialing," Friday says.
He's in the old Avengers suite. Nobody lives here anymore, except for Iron Man, who sometimes haunts it like a ghost. The sink is so spotless he can see his reflection in it—almost like Jarvis was here again to clean up behind the cavalcade of heroes who saved the world on their stomachs. Instead, now, it's only spotless because Avengers Tower is empty.
But Stark Tower isn't. The ninety floors below house tens of thousands of employees. Some of them are businesspeople. Some of those businesspeople need to entertain. One of them graciously and unknowingly donated to her employer; thanks to her, something liquid and loaded stands on the counter to Tony's left.
"This is Kooning," says the Secretary of Defense.
"I'm out," Tony says.
"I'm done," Tony says. "I quit."
There's a pause like another loaded gun. "Tony," Jack says. "Funny, we were just talking about you."
"I can't do this anymore," says Tony.
"In fact, I expect the president will reach out to you in another day or two," Jack continues. "How would you feel about running SHIELD?"
"You can't bribe into staying," Tony says. "I can't do it anymore."
Kooning sighs. "Tony, look—we've known each other a long time."
"Which is why you should believe what I'm saying."
"Which is why I didn't want to do this," Kooning corrects. "But Stark… you owe me."
No. No no no.
"I buried that mess with Ho Yinsen's son. 'A teenager brainwashed me' isn't exactly a defense that will hold up in court, not that your name would stand up to being dragged through the mud even if it did. You're in too deep. There's no quitting on this one."
"I would hate to have to make an example of you," Jack says. "We'll talk later. That offer's still on the table."
The line goes dead.
"Boss?" Friday says.
Everything outside of Tony's skull goes still. Blurred around the edges—not quite faded, but not quite real.
"Boss," Friday says.
His heart is thundering.
"Boss, I think you're havin' a panic attack," Friday says. "Can you focus on your breathing? Count with me—"
His hands are trembling. He's gasping around the block of concrete in his chest. He manages anyway: extends his arm, opens his hand, wraps it around the neck of the bottle of Johnnie Walker Black standing on the counter to the left of the sink. The articulation of movement is transcendent: in his arm alone, a hundred thousand processes go into simply bending his elbow, closing his fingers, and compensating for the weight of a full bottle of grain alcohol. Muscle memory takes over from there. He can't stand upright unassisted, but he can twist off the cap, and when the whisky hits the glass, he remembers how to breathe.
PASSIVE MODE //
VP: You can touch, hear, all his life support equipment with your mind. He wouldn't have wanted this, Tony. You could turn it off. I would never know. It's what he'd want. There's no reason to drag this out and make him suffer.
"Is that really going to help?"
Iron Man gasps for air. Gasps again. Manages to say, "Sue."
"Tony," she says.
"How long have you been there?"
"Long enough," she says. She's backlit by the skyline, because even the kitchen in the Avengers' home had to have the best view around. The shadows render her a different kind of invisible—a black hole rather than a reflection. "I thought if I could get you alone…"
"You could… what?" Iron Man says. "Take me off the playing field?"
"I had to see for myself," Sue says. "Or maybe I had to try to do for you what I wish someone had done for Reed and me."
He sets down the glass of whisky with a tender care and doesn't spill a drop. "Have you talked to him lately? He misses you. It's sad. I once knew an orphan who looked less like a kicked puppy than he does these days."
"You've been rude before," Sue says. "You've even been mean. But you've never been cruel."
"Maybe you just don't know me that well," Tony suggests. Which is bullshit with a seed of truth in it—Sue's been his friend for years, his occasional business partner for almost that long, but she's never seen him at his lowest, because that's an honor reserved for those he loves the most. How else are you going to know they care about you, if you don't test them, and push them, and make them hate you?
"I'm starting to think you're right," she says. "You clearly have no idea what it's doing to him to have to fight you."
"He's had his heart broken by an alcoholic before. It won't be the first time." She takes a turn around the island, looks at the old Invaders calendar pinned up on the wall, glances at the open junk drawer. She's still wearing her Fantastic Four uniform, and her face is drawn, and her jaw is set. Sue's a problem-solver. She's a multi-tasker. It's a blend he sees in a lot of successful CEOs. The boldness, though, is what marks her as the kind of explorer who thought taking a ride into space in an experimental craft sounded like a great adventure, who walks straight into the most heavily-secured skyscraper in Manhattan to confront an adversary. That quality runs in her family; all of them are crazy.
"He'll get over it," Tony says.
"It's the cycle of promising to get better that's the hardest to deal with," continues Sue, who sounds like she knows something about addicts. "But no matter how hard they try, alcoholics always manage to make everything about themselves."
"This isn't about me."
"Then what is it about?" Sue's suddenly ferocious. "Tell me, Tony. Make me understand why."
He can smell the whisky so strongly that the taste lingers on his tongue. He's still propped against the cabinets; his legs won't support him.
Iron Man builds a symphony of justification. The fourth movement goes like this:
"I'm tired of that question. You want to know why? Because someone had to keep one hand on the wheel. Because after Stamford, a mother came to me and told me I'd let her son die. Because I don't trust any community that has me as a member to regulate itself. Because my government decided that I have an irreplaceable role in all this. Because nobody else could do it better, and it had to be done."
Sue's eyes are hard and clear; there's something titanic behind them, something that might resemble judgment, something that says, You try to tell people whatever they want to hear, but you have no idea what I want.
"This won't solve anything," she says. "You could've said no."
"Say it again, Tony," she says, and he realizes she's already starting to fade away. Discussion over, just like that, because one more person decided to walk away. "And call Jim," she adds, her voice the only part of her left. "He doesn't deserve this."
PASSIVE MODE //
VP: You can make it an equipment malfunction. Or not. You can fool the monitors. Maybe he just... fades.
It's the same old dance. Reactive, predictive, preventive, prescriptive. How do you react to what's coming? By anticipating it. Once you anticipate it, how do you respond to it? By understanding it. Once you understand it, how do you prevent or even change the outcome? That's the million-dollar question.
Thirty thousand days ago, he got into this business because he wanted to help people. He wanted all kinds of other things, too, because he's always been a creature of unprejudiced want, but that was the base of it, underneath the thirst for atonement and betterment and recognition and redemption: he wanted to help people. And now he can't even do that; he's alone in the dark in an empty room with his demons pouring out of the bottle.
How do you engineer a solution? How do you anticipate the correct path?
When you can't help anyone else, you have to help yourself.
So Tony pours his glass of whisky down the drain. He doesn't lick that last amber drop off the rim. He pours the glass down the drain and then dashes the glass against the floor. It isn't a rational response. None of this is reasoned. It's instinctive—a last eulogy for Tony Stark.
And then he pours the bottle of whisky down the drain. The smell lingers. It's rich and sharp. Deep enough that he can imagine the weight of a mouthful. When the bottle is empty, he breaks that, too. It takes him a while to find a broom and dustpan, but eventually he locates them in a cabinet by the sink. He has to make three trips to the trash can before he's sure he swept up all the glass shards. When you can't help anyone else, the least you can do is clean up behind yourself.
Except there's one person left he can help, isn't there?
The reality is that you can't always change a causal chain; sometimes you can only change how you respond to it, and if you run up against limits in your range of responses, there's only one solution.
Tony retreats to the window in the living room. When he stood here this morning, he couldn't figure out the logistics of his solution. He saw the vision, but he didn't have the means to execute it. Now that his back's against the wall, he understands perfectly.
Tony Stark shuts his eyes. Some echo of what he was begins to pray.
If you can't change the event and you can't change your response, the only solution is to change your self. Tear it down. Take it apart. Build something better in its place.
Iron Man opens his eyes. Twelve blocks away, in a private hospital room, Happy Hogan's heart monitor flatlines.
CLASSIFIED INTERNAL MEMO
FOR AUTHORIZED PERSONS ONLY
It is my opinion that Mr. Stark's reliance on his armor is pathological, although please remember that this is an informal assessment for internal use rather than a formal diagnosis. Mr. Stark appears to idealize his "Iron Man" persona at the expense of his other identities. This is a trait that appears in a lot of costumed heroes, but what makes Mr. Stark's case unique is how this idealization interacts with his fixation on technology.
The fixation isn't unusual or concerning by itself. Mr. Stark is a man of science, and like many of his (admittedly small field of) peers, he exists at the forefront of technological development. What does concern me are some of his more radical views on the boundaries of human existence and how they might be eradicated. This field of thinking is certainly important and will arguably play a major role in the future, but Mr. Stark appears to be accelerating these core transhumanist ideas by using himself as a test subject.
Unfortunately, if you want me to provide more context, I'm afraid I have little to offer. This sort of… bio-engineering, or psycho-neural software development, or whatever you want to call it, is far beyond my ability to understand. I can only note that Mr. Stark's current extra-human abilities were self-inflicted, that he was born a "baseline" human, that he does not possess any kind of latent parahuman genes, and that the Extremis enhancile is not the first time he has experimented on, modified, or performed surgery on himself.
Of course, Mr. Stark's commitment to extreme methodology isn't necessarily indicative of abnormality. He is, after all, a visionary, and visionaries often appear unstable to the eyes of the common man. However, taken as a whole alongside his publicly-admitted alcoholism, his sometimes manic behavior, and possible comorbid conditions like (again, this is nothing more than an informal estimate) anxiety, depression, and what may be a trauma disorder, we begin to see a picture that indicates a casual disregard for his own well-being.
How these factors might affect his performance I cannot say, but I strongly recommend he receive some kind of regular psychological care. If you can convince him to come talk to me, so much the better.
Please let me know if I can help in any way.
Come on, Avenger. Time to get to work.
The first thing Iron Man does is recalibrate his sensor arrays to recognize Sue Storm's particular signature. She can't be detected by conventional means, being truly invisible in an electromagnetic sense, but she does leave certain traces—she's invisible, not intangible, even if her ability involves the manipulation of cosmic energy. He doesn't run his calibration past Reed; they can't afford distraction.
The second is make a scheduled talk-show appearance. He goes in full armor, trades quips with the host, shifts the tone in a suitably solemn direction when he talks about the temporary necessity of SHIELD ground patrols.
The third is attend Happy's funeral.
Pepper is there in the front. So is Rhodey. Iron Man watches from a distance, magnifying the scene through his optical display. It's almost like he's really there. There's a priest by the grave, along with half of Happy's boxing club and what looks like the entirety of his church. Someone says a couple of nice things. Pepper cries. They put Happy in the ground then, and everything else is reduced to irrelevance.
He leaves as soon as Pepper does and books it straight to the helicarrier. There are no more What Ifs while he flies; instead, Iron Man addresses What Is. He records a voiceover for a short documentary on Camp Hammond, he hires two new vice presidents for Stark Industries, he replies to a message from one of the Stamford widowers, and he designs a new and better skin for himself. The flight takes three minutes. Danvers and Hill are waiting when he lands.
"You're late," Carol says.
"Held up by a previous appointment. How're the troops?"
"Fine," says Carol. She pivots and falls into step beside him as Hill leads them to a conference room. "Jenn's on temporary leave. Something about a family problem."
"We need to recruit," he says.
"We need to shut this shitshow down first," Carol counters.
They enter the conference room. Iron Man triggers the door before Hill can lay her hand on the security scanner.
"...Right," Hill says. "Stark, this is your party. What's the situation?"
"Danvers is right," he says. "We need to shut the problem down before it progresses any further. Hill, you're still detaining Barton?"
She frowns. "We picked him up yesterday. He's being held in an isolated cell three decks below."
"And the rest of the resistors are still at Fort Hammond?"
"What are you getting at, Tony?" Carol interrupts.
He scans again for bugs. Nothing comes up other than the standard SHIELD surveillance, although he disables that, too, as a precaution. "We finished cracking the cipher Captain America is using," he says.
"Which means we can feed them false information," Hill says. "Lay a trap—"
"Is that really the right thing to do?" Danvers plants her fists on the table. "We could offer them pardons if they turn themselves in and comply with the law."
"Don't be naive."
"They deserve a chance—"
"No, Hill is right," Iron Man cuts in. "We have one shot at this. Lay the trap, draw them out, take them into custody. Hill, authorize the transfer of all top-tier resistors to Prison 42. Move Barton last. In fact, drive him straight through the city to the Ryker's Island gate. We're going to stage a breakout—make it look like he got away just long enough to send a message about a back door into the prison to his allies. Rogers won't be able to resist."
"We aren't sure Barton didn't get himself captured deliberately," Hill says. "He might be trying to make contact with other detainees. And this will take at least a week to set up. Maybe two."
"It'll be worth it. We'll have a cape-killer unit standing by just outside the helicarrier gate and Carol's Avengers waiting outside the Ryker's Island portal. Call in backup from Hammond if you have to. But until then, don't talk about this to anyone."
"You're getting cocky, Tony," Carol says. "Are you sure this will work?"
"And what about the political side?" Hill asks. "The public's still divided. If the Act gets repealed as quickly as it passed, we'll be dead in the water."
And Iron Man says, "Leave that to me."
Your #1 Source for Earth's Mightiest Heroes
We've got a some interesting updates for you, since apparently it's been a busy couple of days for America's finest. Captain Marvel was spotted in the skies over Connecticut by Carol Corps member @warbird77. She appeared to be flying escort for some kind of military transport. No mention of her in the news—too bad Sally Lloyd's AWOL.
Young Avengers Patriot and Hawkeye (still confusing, right?) were sighted outside of a convenience store in Queens. Since the two have publicly denounced the SRA, we have to wonder if a certain someone's underground isn't based in the area…
Music may not be our vice of choice, but we were excited to hear that Dazzler gave a pop-up concert late last night in Central Park. The light show went on for almost forty minutes before the police finally arrived to shut her down. Gotta love a lady with a best-selling album who still gives free performances in the middle of NYC.
Meanwhile, The Human Torch and Spectrum soared over Midtown last night alongside an unidentified woman who appeared to have no trouble keeping up with them. We're putting a pic below, so tell us in the comments if she looks familiar. (Ren thinks she looks like Knightress—remember her?— but Jamie isn't so sure.)
And it looks like Iron Man has been the busiest out of everyone. Not only did he appear on Late Tonight, he also found time to buzz D.C., Denver, and upstate New York between coming up with diabolical schemes. Guess it pays to be rich and famous, huh?
His last visit he pays alone.
Norman Osborn was previously held in a secure facility for the criminally insane out west. Iron Man only secured permission to transfer him after agreeing to transfer his team of mental healthcare professionals alongside him, which is why Doctor Covington, Doctor Cashman, and Father Coulmier are now the only personnel not selected by SHIELD to have access to Prison 42. He doesn't like it, but he doesn't have to. Iron Man bows to necessity.
Osborn unnerves people. He appears, at first glance, like nothing more than a reasonably-fit businessman on the far side of middle age: educated, erudite, genial. And then something about the eyes strikes you—or the slow slide of his too-wide smile—or the way he watches you from behind his glasses—and you become aware that you're watching a foreign consciousness manipulating a person-suit. The uncanny thing is that he can charm you anyway, get inside your head, anticipate and twist your own thoughts. Iron Man has always been mildly fascinated by him; and repulsed, too. Is his psychosis a tragic reason or a convenient excuse?
He reads his paper with no apparent awareness he's being watched for a solid five minutes before he turns the last page, folds it in half and half again, sets it on the table, and looks straight over at Iron Man.
"Mr. Stark," he says. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"I'm here to offer you a deal."
"Really," says Osborn, and his smile grows and grows. "Well now. Good thing for you that I've turned over a new leaf."
PASSIVE MODE //
SR: Is that a threat, Avenger?
TS: No. It's a forecast.
"Sorry to interrupt, boss, but you have an incoming call from Colonel Rhodes."
He shunts it to voicemail without waiting for Friday's intervention.
"Good to know you're still alive in there," she says. "I thought I was playing all these old recordings to an empty shell."
"You have access to my biometrics."
"It was a joke, boss. Surely you remember those."
"Artificial humor from an artificial intelligence?"
"Ah, you are still in there. I was startin' to wonder," she says. "Speaking of, have you thought maybe about having a shower today?"
"The armor takes care of that."
"It's been weeks. I can't smell, but I've got a vivid imagination." He imagines that if he weren't hovering a couple of miles over the Upper Bay, one of her holograms would shimmer into life beside him—one of the human ones, maybe the woman with the asymmetric haircut or maybe one of her favorite celebrities. She used to do Einstein a lot, because she thought it was funny and because she liked the accent. Since she no longer has enough control over Iron Man to activate his projectors, he remains alone.
"Stark," says Hill's voice in his ear. "Isn't it about time you went through the gate? I have four response teams already embedded in the prison."
"Be patient, Director," Iron Man advises.
Isn't this in all ways a superior existence?
His skin has been replaced by tessellated memory metal and peptide chains, his eyes by a deep-spectra visual array. Over the ribs of his first body curves an assembly that houses a fractal antenna and synthetic aperture radar/lidar. Above that is the upper dorsal thorax ESD with its microwave lensing and RT core. There is no cuirass here, no pauldrons, no greaves; Iron Man is made of smart molecules and external suit devices, with some small remaining organic mass at his center. He has plans for that: Models 30 through 32 are already drafted and awaiting synthesis. He may have lost the art of it all, but the trade-off is more than fair.
As he hangs in the air, his primary point of interest is a small progression currently moving up 7th Avenue. Clint Barton was transferred early that morning from the helicarrier to a temporary holding facility near the World Trade Center—a certain Senator had wanted to speak with him. After nine hours, a highly uncomfortable conversation, and a proportionate amount of paperwork, he was loaded into a truck by Ryker's Island guards. His journey started twenty-two minutes ago. Very shortly it will reach its terminus.
"That's it, Stark," Hill snaps. "What aren't you telling me?"
Twenty-three minutes. The window of opportunity is closing. There's no harm in telling her now.
"I changed the message," Iron Man says. "At 9:38 last night Barton purportedly made a secure broadcast containing the route his convoy would be taking between the Senator's hotel and Ryker's Island."
"They were supposed to attack the prison!"
"We couldn't risk them getting that close to detained resistors," Iron Man says. "Or let them into the Negative Zone complex—they could be weeks in there before we'd find them."
"You should have run this by me—"
"I took the security precautions I deemed necessary. If you want to fight about this, I suggest you try contacting the president and the Secretary of Defense first."
"Rogers isn't going to go after one man!"
Like the Red Sea parting for Moses, the crowd in Times Square scatters. All four tires on the truck holding Barton blow at once. Six escort vehicles skid to a halt, but it's already too late.
"Notify Danvers. I want the Avengers on the ground now. Hold all SHIELD units in reserve," Iron Man tells Director Hill. "We're finishing this fight today."
Cage and Drew are at the rear of the vehicle extracting Barton. Cap is at the front, the one security guard stupid enough to attack him at his feet. Spider-Man's about halfway up the side of the Paramount Theatre. There will be others; Cap may have been unable to resist the opportunity for a public demonstration, but he'll also have arranged for a fast extraction and plenty of support.
Iron Man decloaks just before he touches down ten feet away from Rogers in the empty street. He isn't sure how they cleared the civilians out of here so far, but trust Cap to have thought of everything.
"This was a trap," Rogers states.
"Of course it's a trap," Iron Man counters. "All I want is the answer to one question, and then you get to decide how this plays out. Come peacefully, comply with the law, and you'll receive a full pardon."
"And if I don't comply?"
Twenty feet behind Rogers, Barton's restraints drop free. Cage starts forward to flank Rogers, but Rogers holds up a hand to halt him. Somewhere off to the left is the titantic shudder of Captain Marvel making landfall.
"Then you'll face arrest and a prison sentence," Iron Man says.
"So that's how your new police state works." Rogers glances over at Danvers, and his jaw clenches. After a moment of thought, he says, "What's the question?"
This is in some way the crux of the entire fight. It's a thought that's been eating at Iron Man, gnawing on him, that despite his burgeoning ability to regulate his emotions and reprogram his mind just—won't—go—away. It's a thought that makes him desperate, a scar on the perfect surface of what Iron Man is becoming.
"Did you have anything to do with what happened to Happy Hogan?"
"No," Rogers says. To his credit, he doesn't say, Of course not. "I wouldn't do that."
"All right," Iron Man says. "All right."
Rogers hesitates, and then he pulls off his glove and offers his hand. Just like that, three hundred top-priority processes in Iron Man's head shut down. It can't be that easy. It's never that easy.
But what if…
He retracts his gauntlet and gives Rogers his bare hand. There's a decade of history between them, and the impossibility of this moment gives way for one instant to the avalanche of that legacy. It's another scar, an imperfection in an otherwise perfect system, a cascading failure that is less a flaw than a certainty.
The summation of that scar is this:
At the finish line, he flinches.
At the finish line, Steve doesn't.
The neutralizer concealed in Rogers' palm activates the moment their skin touches. Iron Man goes down like a sack of bricks.
When he swims back to consciousness, Captain America is beating him to death.
That's what it feels like, in some entrenched part of himself that he can't excise. In reality, even older iterations of the armor had automated processes that let them continue fighting if he lost consciousness. It can't have been more than ten seconds. His arms are braced in front of him while Rogers batters at him, over and over again, with his shield.
"Sitrep!" he snaps.
"We're containing the situation," Danvers responds, and then she grunts. His HUD informs him that she's locked in a fight with Johnny Storm. "Orders are clear: no civilian casualties. SHIELD backup en route. But Tony…" Another grunt. "Oof. They've got a lot more on their side than we thought."
The edge of the shield cracks into his forearm. The armor fractures. So does the bone beneath it. He'll have to come up with a fix for that.
He fires a low-impact force beam from the RT core on his chest. Rogers staggers back.
"What the hell did you hit me with?"
Cap bares his teeth, heaves. Sucks in a deep breath and spits out, "Electromagnetic pulse scrambler. Nick Fury's boys developed it back in the day. Weren't sure if it would be effective skin-to-skin after Extremis, but we figured it wouldn't do anything unless we cracked the armor."
"Why—" he starts to ask, but Rogers flings the shield at his face. That's it. He's done. Iron Man bats the shield aside, fires a muon beam, and follows it up with a backhand. Rogers staggers again. Without hesitation, his hand closes around Rogers' throat—
Two hundred days ago, he almost choked Steve to death. He was being controlled by someone else at the time, but he still remembers what it felt like to crush Steve's trachea. It felt a lot like this. It felt exactly like this.
His hand falls open.
That fraction of a second is all the opening Rogers needs. He gets his legs up and jackknifes, catching Iron Man high in the chest. When Rogers comes up swinging, he's holding the shield again. The first swing takes Iron Man in the side. The second knocks him off his feet.
"Tell me," Rogers snarls, "was it worth it?"
The third catches him in the head. So does the fourth.
Where did all this anger come from?
All the pain, all the suffering, all the blood and angry words—all for what? And you know, at the end, all he really wants is for it to be over.
The fifth blow cracks his faceplate open. One of his cheekbones gives way. If Rogers keeps this up, he's going to cave Iron Man's head in.
Maybe dying at Steve's hand isn't such a bad way to go. Maybe, if Steve thinks this is what he deserves, it's even right. He didn't calculate this outcome, not his behavior and not Steve's, because his problem is that he had to be told what Steve was born knowing. Don't flinch. He's flinching now. He can't write it out; some things are apparently too deeply ingrained in his nervous system to be overridden.
Steve's eyes are bluer than the sky. They're a hot blue, gas blue—how could you ever mistake him for cold? This isn't a bad way to go. In a certain sense, this is Iron Man sacrificing himself for Captain America. He can think of worse deaths.
After the sixth blow, he sucks the blood from his teeth and chokes out: "What are you waiting for?"
At the end, he begs: "Finish it."
He flinches in anticipation of a seventh blow that doesn't come. A deep shudder runs through him, but when Steve retreats from his field of vision, Iron Man discovers a reserve of energy. He considers it, calculates whether his body can still move. A painfully long time later, he stands. Rogers has dropped his shield; he's staring with the thousand-yard vacancy of a man who can't believe what he's seeing.
Around them, Times Square is burning.
"Stand down," Cap says. They don't listen, so he bellows in his battlefield voice, "STAND DOWN."
The fighting stops.
Rogers pulls off his cowl. He drops it on top of his shield.
Sam Wilson pushes his way through the crowd and says, "Steve, what are you doing? We're winning—"
"Not like this," Rogers says. "We're done here. I'm surrendering myself as a private citizen to SHIELD's custody." His strips off both his gloves, shows Iron Man his empty palms, and offers his wrists. A hundred people are watching with bloody disbelief, and not a single one makes a move to touch him.
Until Director Hill strides forward and claps a pair of handcuffs on him. Two SHIELD agents flank her, and more fall into place once they're sure Rogers is secured.
"I hope you're happy with yourself," Iron Man tells him, and just like that it's over.
On a personal note, thank you for your support over the past few months. The continued success of The Ex-Mutant Diaries and The Alternative is 100% due to the community who reads and comments on the pieces posted here. I'm sad to announce that the blog's time has come to a close, but I remain as committed as ever to bringing you the stories that larger outlets obfuscate.
I'm going to be off the grid pursuing a lead for the next couple of weeks, but my new partner and I will return with an exclusive that's guaranteed to knock your socks off. Keep an eye on our site: frontline.ny. Tony Stark won't know what hit him.
All the best,
In the aftermath, they rebuild. A pocket of Cap's underground refuses to turn themselves in, but they're a small group with capable leaders but no figurehead. Where Rogers goes, the rest follow.
He visits Cap once, just once, in the cell aboard the helicarrier where he's being held until he's charged. They stare at each other through the bars for a long time; Iron Man wonders if he looks as much like a stranger to Rogers as Rogers does to him.
"You tried to kill me," he says.
Rogers shifts. "You know," he says, "when I came out of the ice, you only wanted to show me all the good things about this time. I used to think you were trying to sell me on the future, but that wasn't it. You're so fixated on how things could be that you can't look how things are in the eye."
"No," Iron Man says, "that's you."
"How are you sleeping these days?"
"Don't be a sore loser, Cap," Iron Man says, and he walks away.
Pepper moves to a different state. He didn't expect anything else. The Richardses reunite and go off to do whatever it is Richardses do. Rhodey stops calling. He called and he called and he called, left all these messages that Iron Man plays back inside his head—
Tony. Listen, man, we need to talk. Carol mentioned… just call me back.
Hey, Tony, got some updates on Camp Hammond. Also, my left boot thruster's dragging—think you could give me a tune-up? Give me a call.
Tony, this isn't funny. I know you're busy, but call me.
Tony, it's Jim. Gettin' worried about you.
It's Jim. Stop being a dick, Stark.
But after a while he stops calling, because Iron Man never called him back. It's the cleanest, the simplest, and by some value the best choice. Cause and effect. They conduct official business through official channels, and Iron Man doesn't have to answer to all the charges he can't face.
He does talk to Carol, who in her own way is just as lost as he would've been before the latest round of upgrades. "Why are we doing this?" she wants to know. "Logan called me today. You can't avoid dragging the mutants into it forever, and if you run him to ground, you know he'll open fire and bring every able-bodied X-Man with him. What about the people who get caught in that crossfire?"
"If you can't handle it—"
"I can handle it," she says, sharp. "But you can't tell me you don't have doubts."
He's less quiet than he is distracted by the CNN feed blaring a breaking news update straight into his brain. Stark Industries stocks are still climbing. Hill is angry she was cut out of the loop. Kooning is breathing down his neck. And if he could only make the armor smaller, reduce its weight, figure out a way to make it fluid—
"You know one of the arguments people make against gun control?" he says. "They say that a gun's just a tool, like a hammer. That you can use a hammer to kill someone, too. But you have to consider the purpose. A hammer is a tool for construction. A gun? A gun is for killing."
He says, "What are we for?"
"We aren't tools," Carol says.
Friday: Ah, you are still in there. "Sure we are," Iron Man says. "The Daily Bugle named me Tool of the Year three years in a row. I still have the plaques."
"Respectfully," Carol says, "please shut up."
He sees her on the CNN feed the next day; someone managed to get footage of her diving into the East River to rescue a kid and his moms after they lost control of their car and went sailing off the Brooklyn Bridge. That's because Carol is a hero. She got into this business to save people. Iron Man—Iron Man is a failsafe.
They offer him SHIELD again, and he refuses. They offer him a division, and he agrees. He's given the title of deputy director, technically reporting to Hill but able to override her orders in matters pertaining to his jurisdiction. The truce between them is uneasy but fruitful. They both do what needs to be done.
His first divisional meeting is held aboard his own helicarrier with only his own hand-selected personnel present. He doesn't bother introducing himself. "This is a special SHIELD department," he says. "We are comprised of the Superhuman Restraint Division, Operation Lightning Storm, and Alpha Team, along with a full support staff. We work alongside Director Hill and have full access to her resources but are not subordinate to her. Our goals are the supervision and enforcement of all programs and laws pertaining to the SRA, which includes safeguarding the registry itself." Registration Division: his people take to calling it R&D by the end of the first day, and jokingly start referring to themselves as the 'Tin Men' by the end of the week.
He flies alongside it sometimes—the R&D helicarrier. It's a behemoth, if not on the scale of Hill's headquarters, but fast for its bulk. Iron Man finds that it suits him. Stark Industries is no longer involved in the design and construction of the helicarriers, but they still hold many of the original patents.
He visits Maya Hansen and finds no absolution, only disinterest.
He finishes building Prison 42.
He plays golf with the president.
And one day he lands on the deck of the helicarrier. His aide is waiting. "Sir."
"Contact Director Hill," Iron Man tells him. "I have some new information that might interest her. And follow up with Colonel Layton about that joint training exercise." Alpha Team in particular still needs work; they've having trouble integrating Iron Man into their tactics. Danvers' strike force, on the other hand, is currently their most valuable asset by an order of magnitude—
"Sir," his aide says. "Captain Rogers was assassinated on the steps of a courthouse ten minutes ago."
No. That can't be true. It isn't right. Tony built the armor to protect his heart.