At supersonic speed, it didn’t take Tony long to make his way to Stark Tower in New York. He slowed down as he approached the city, flying over skyscrapers. He made a pass by Osborne’s tower, doing a circle around it and taking in the damage that had been done the previous night. The top part had fallen over and was lying on top of the building, close to teetering over; work crews were already gathering around it to carry out repairs.
Having taken in the damage, Tony continued on to the tower, seeking out the window to Pepper’s office.
He hovered in front of it, tapping the glass to catch her attention. The sound made her jump and whirl around in her chair, eyes widening and mouth opening in what was clearly a shocked “Tony!”
Tony called her phone, watching her pick it up even as her eyes didn’t leave him. “Hey, Pep.”
“Tony!” Yep, her voice was as shocked as he’d thought it would be. “What are you doing?”
“Hanging out.” Tony shrugged, the suit exaggerating the motion. “What? Is that not allowed now?”
“When you told me you’d be coming, I didn’t think it would be like this!”
“Relax. Give me five minutes and I’ll be right there.” Tony held up five fingers and fed more power to his thrusters, rocketing up to the penthouse.
Landing on the landing podium, he had the suit retract to its suitcase form before going to the elevator and pushing the button for Pepper’s floor.
When he entered Pepper’s office, he saw that she was standing in front of her desk, exhaling slowly when she saw him.
“Miss me?” he asked, grinning.
“Tony.” Her smile was rather strained. “Not that I’m not happy to see you, but what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be with Steve?”
“It’s not like we’re attached at the hip,” Tony said, letting his armor go and having it settle at the foot of one of the chairs by Pepper.
Besides, Steve hadn’t gotten back in touch with him. Not yet. Tony didn’t want to think about what it meant, except that his brain wasn’t listening to him and was narrating all the worst case scenarios that were possible.
Besides, hadn’t Steve promised to call if it was something big? A mission that took several days was big by anyone’s standards, even though Tony wasn’t suited for reconnaissance or anything else that involved subtlety. Then again, the same could be said for Thor and Bruce, so why were they gone as well?
The whole thing stank of either broken promises or deception. And Tony knew which one he would prefer.
“Maybe not,” Pepper said, “but it’s been a month since you’ve seen him. Why are you here, Tony?”
“I can’t just visit a friend?” Tony sat down in his seat with a flourish, folding one leg over the other before clasping his hands over the knee on top.
“I have to drag you here on a good day.” Pepper cast an eye over Tony’s posture before making her way to the seat behind the desk. “If you show up here with no warning, you want something,” she said, smoothly sitting down.
“Not always…” Pepper’s face told him that he should know better than to finish that statement. “Okay, I need something.”
“I knew it.”
“Last night.” Tony leaned back in the chair, folding his arms across his chest.
“Oh, last night.” Pepper sighed, bringing a hand up to rub her temple. “That was a mess.”
“My team wasn’t here, Pepper. What’s more, I didn’t hear about the lizard and the newest superhero in town until I saw it in a newspaper. A newspaper. No one could have told me?” Steve telling him didn’t count, as it hadn’t yet been confirmed that Spider-Man was a hero.
Pepper didn’t say anything.
Tony covered his mouth, taking it off momentarily to say, “Well?”
“What do you need?”
The hand went down, only to be clasped over his elbow. “I’m looking to establish the Avengers as its own organization free from any agencies.”
Blinking, Pepper was momentarily speechless. Then she found her voice. “I know you’ve had problems with Fury, Tony…but isn’t this a bit of a…” She shook her head slightly as she searched for an appropriate word. “…an overreaction?”
“Trust me, it isn’t.” Tony leaned forward as she opened her mouth. “No, no, listen to me, Pepper. I’ve thought this over carefully. I know Fury doesn’t like me on his team. But that’s no excuse for not telling me that they’re on a mission. There are several – maybe three”—his hand made a small movement like a scale to accompany his words—“reasons for this. One, he doesn’t like having a mutant on the team. Two, he doesn’t like having an untrained mutant on the team. Three, he doesn’t like me because I’m volatile, don’t listen to authority…basically anything that defines me.
“So let’s look at that,” Tony continued, cutting Pepper off before she could speak, though she opened her mouth. “One has a fifty-fifty chance of being true. He doesn’t like me because I’m a mutant. But he didn’t know I was a mutant until that little incident a while back”—Pepper had a weird expression on her face—“so that doesn’t really make much sense. Two makes no sense because of what I’ve been doing for the last month. So that leaves us reason number three.” Tony gave a plastic smile. “He doesn’t like me because I’m Tony Stark. Which is fine. Because not everyone likes me.
“I don’t like Fury. That’s a given. He doesn’t like me either. But love or hate, I’m part of this team. I am an Avenger.” He spread his hands demonstratively. “And there is no excuse for taking my team somewhere with no word and lying to JARVIS about my agreement with it. Because I’m not okay with it. I’m not okay with being left in the dark about what my team is doing.”
“I understand that,” Pepper said. “But it still seems to be a bit of an overreaction.” She demonstrated a small distance between her index and thumb. “Just a bit.”
Tony filched a pen, making it twirl in the air above his fingers. “If it were just the one thing, I might agree with you. But he’s made decisions that he really shouldn’t have made.” He leaned forward, the pen continuing to twirl in the air by his ear. “Dumping me with the X-Men to train. I would’ve agreed – eventually,” he added as an aside, “but he didn’t discuss it. Then, of course”—he smiled humorlessly—“he benched me. If he had a good reason I might have been on board with it, but he didn’t even discuss it with me. I heard it from Steve.”
“He was concerned—”
“Concerned about what?” The pen was a blur in the air. “Me? The team? I’m Iron Man first, Pepper. And Iron Man doesn’t use mutant powers. He had no right to bench me. I’m not critically injured, mentally incapacitated, or anything else that would stop me from fighting.
“But, you know, that’s not what I have issues with. He lied to JARVIS. He told him that I had been informed and was in agreement with not going wherever they are at the moment. I haven’t heard from Steve since two days ago.” He cocked an eyebrow. “Still think I’m overreacting?”
Pepper didn’t immediately respond. “Could you…the pen?” It seemed to be distracting her.
Blinking, Tony glanced to the side, saw the agitatedly spinning pen, and stopped it, plucking it out of the air.
“Thank you.” Pepper took a breath. “What do you need from me, Tony? Because I have my plate full dealing with the company. I can’t take up arms against S.H.I.E.L.D. because of some issues you have—”
“JARVIS and I are taking care of the legal side,” Tony interrupted. “We’re going to need funds, we’re going to need uniforms, and we’re going to need weapons, but that can be dealt with later. All I need from you, Pepper, is your support. I need to know that the company will support the Avengers if this succeeds.”
There was a short silence in which Pepper opened and shut her mouth several times, evidently trying to think of a good response. When she did finally reply, it was in a soft tone. “You have my support, Tony. My support and the backing of Stark Industries.”
Tony gave a blinding smile that broke into a grin. “Thanks, Pepper.”
“You’re my friend, Tony. I’ll support you if what you do makes sense.” Pepper smiled wryly. “Half the time I don’t even know what goes through your head and I’ve known you for years.”
“No worries. Even Charles Xavier has trouble and he’s a telepath.” Tony reached over to put the pen back where it came from.
“What are you going to do next?” Pepper asked, taking the pen from where he’d put it.
JARVIS was searching for communications regarding the Avengers. Until he got back with news, Tony couldn’t do anything on that front. But he could start looking at what JARVIS had pulled up on the Avengers’ ties with S.H.I.E.L.D., as that wasn’t that difficult to research.
He opened his mouth to reply to that effect when his phone went off. Pulling it out, he saw that JARVIS was calling.
He’d barely picked up when JARVIS’s agitated voice was speaking in his ear, having been talking before the call even connected. “—disconnected from the tower. Sir, intruders have entered the tower and are currently en route to the office.”
Disconnected from the tower? Tony met Pepper’s eyes in alarm. “Intruders?”
Pepper reached for the computer, only to flinch back when someone kicked open the door with a resounding slam. Tony twisted in his seat, eyes widening when he saw two men in yellowish-orange suits and holding large fat guns enter.
“Hands up in the air and behind your heads!” the man on the right demanded. “Both of you get up! You”—he jabbed the gun in Tony’s direction—“step away from the chair!” The chair being where the suitcase armor was kept.
Pepper was the first to stand up, hands flying behind her head. Tony was a little late, hands coming up a bit more slowly. The phone was still in his right and connected to JARVIS.
“Hang up!” the second man commanded, pointing his gun at Tony, who was sliding away from the chair.
Hoping that JARVIS had gotten enough info on whoever was here, Tony disconnected the call.
“Drop the phone!”
Screen blank, the phone dropped to the chair Tony had vacated.
“Would you mind if I asked what you guys wanted?” Tony asked, eyes flicking from the unusually bulky guns up to the men. “Because there really isn’t much on this floor aside from offices. R&D is down a couple of floors.”
In the space of time before the men responded, Tony once again examined the guns. Judging from the build and weight, they weren’t the kind that shot bullets. They seemed to have a power source attached to the butt, meaning that what they shot was some kind of energy bullet.
He was about to yank the guns out of their hands and knock them unconscious when he realized that he was hearing another source of humming that wasn’t located in the tower or coming from the guns. It was outside the tower.
It could be any number of electronic gizmos. It could be the telephone lines, the cars on the streets, the cell phones of hundreds of pedestrians, the traffic lights, etc. But Tony had acquainted himself with the type of humming each kind of common electronic sent off during his time with the X-Men. And this kind of humming hadn’t been on the list, which meant that it was something these guys had brought with them.
He didn’t know what it was, but it would probably act if he did something rash…like knock the two guys unconscious.
Which meant that he should wait and see what they wanted. This probably fell under the “unnecessary risk” category Steve had warned him about, since Tony wouldn’t want to see Steve in this kind of a situation and not act to save himself, but it was something he couldn’t risk with Pepper also being here. So he wouldn’t be happy with Steve, but he’d understand.
“We want you, Mr. Stark,” the first man answered. It was impossible to get a read on his face because of the mask he was wearing.
“Me?” Tony tilted his head to the side. “Is there any particular reason that I should go with you? The last group that tried the same thing didn’t do so well.”
“You’ll come with us or we’ll blow your girlfriend right out into the sky.”
“Can – can I say something?” Tony asked.
“Tony!” Pepper hissed.
“First off, she’s not actually my girlfriend anymore. She’s a great catch, but we didn’t really work out. And secondly…you guys do know that you’re kind of dressed up like beekeepers? It makes it really hard to take you seriously.”
“I don’t think you realize how serious this is,” the first man growled, hefting the gun up in Pepper’s direction.
“Quite the contrary,” Tony said, staring directly where he could vaguely see the man’s eyes. “I know exactly how serious this is. I also know that you two are in way over your heads.”
“Your team isn’t here,” the man said. “You are defenseless. Do you really wish to try us, Mr. Stark? Girlfriend or not, you do not wish to lose your CEO.”
How did these guys know the Avengers weren’t in town? For that matter, how had they gotten all the way into the tower without JARVIS alerting them sooner? Something was fishy.
“You really want to bet on me being defenseless? The last group that thought that had a bomb dropped over their heads. As for my team—”
“They are busy elsewhere. Your genius extends only so far, Mr. Stark. We have control over your intelligences.”
His intelligences? Did they mean JARVIS? How were they able to compromise JARVIS? They’d disconnected him from the tower judging from what JARVIS had been saying, but how? Only Tony had the codes to influence what JARVIS was connected to.
And what about the Avengers? Were they busy with something this group had laid out as a distraction?
“Can we reach some sort of agreement?” Tony asked, changing tracks. “What is it you want?”
It wasn’t like he was going to give them anything, but he had to buy time for JARVIS to get help. It also gave him more time to decide whether he should try to remotely activate the suitcase armor and deal with the fallout. The problem was that Pepper was also there, and he would have to make sure she was safe.
This high up in the air was not something he felt comfortable with when it came to odds. There were too many ways for a plan to go foul with four (maybe five depending on the source of the humming outside) variables in the math. The slightest miscalculation or misread in body language and Pepper could be hit with an energy bullet or thrown out the window.
And if JARVIS was in some way compromised, Tony didn’t know how that would work with his suit.
“We want you,” the first man repeated, moving his elbow. The movement seemed to signal his partner, who shifted to do something to the butt of his weapon. “And if you think we’re playing around…”
There was a near silent displacement of air before a blue ball of energy flew by Tony and hit the corner of the office, demolishing the bar that had been there. When the smoke dissipated several seconds later, the bar had a huge hole in it.
Swallowing, Tony realized that the shot had been at low power. The hum the weapon was giving off had shifted as the man had done something to do it. Now, the man did something else that reverted what he had done before, as the hum returned to its original level.
Shit. This called for a slightly different plan.
He turned slightly to Pepper, meeting her terrified eyes. “Do you trust me?”
“Answer me, Ms. Potts. Do you trust me?”
There was an indeterminable moment where he could see Pepper’s confusion as she wondered what he was asking. When she spoke, her voice held none of the bewilderment and fear he could still see in her eyes. “Of course.”
Tony nodded slightly, turning back to the men. “You want my answer? Tell your bosses to go fuck themselves. Tony Stark doesn’t do business with terrorists.”
After a short pause where the men digested that statement, the first one spoke again in a flat voice. “You will regret this, Stark.”
That was when the guns fired.
Tony had the split-second warning of the hum peaking and he threw out a hand to divert the energy blasts. As they blasted off to the sides and hit the walls, scattering debris everywhere, Tony shifted to stand in front of Pepper, eyes flicking frantically over the scene.
It was only due to his reaction time that he wasn’t dead in the next second as another shot came right on the heels of the first two. He had barely enough time to throw up a small shield before the full force of the shot slammed into him at an angle, throwing him backwards into the wall.
He hit something with a pained cry, feeling something pierce directly through his right thigh.
He was sprawled half on his back, bent over something that was poking jagged edges into his back. His leg was throbbing, a fierce sharp pain localized in the spot where it seemed something had pierced right through the limb.
Breathing heavily, Tony looked down to see what appeared to be a large stick of wood jutting out from a growing dark patch on his jeans. It required only a little bit of shifting to confirm that he’d landed on the demolished bar and that a jagged piece of wood had gone right through his leg.
He really hoped he hadn’t pierced an artery, but judging from the blood soaking into his jeans he was most likely out of luck.
Looking to where the men and Pepper were, Tony saw one of them about to aim the gun at her.
It was a matter of reaction.
The guns were yanked out of their hands and the butts used to knock them unconscious. Now that he was injured, Tony really wished he’d done that sooner. Screw what was outside. Steve really wouldn’t be happy with this.
Another level of his brain pointed out that Steve might not even care because he hadn’t told Tony anything, but Tony told that part of his brain to shut up.
“Tony! Oh God, Tony!” Pepper rushed to him, face ashen in shock and slightly scratched from flying debris. Her eyes went to his leg. “Your leg!”
“I’m fine,” Tony bit out, though he was decidedly not feeling fine. He tried to move, only to sink back with a grunt of pain when he moved the stick of wood poking through his thigh. “Okay… Maybe that’s a bit of a lie.”
“I’m calling an ambulance.” Pepper spun around to the desk, clenching her hands in frustration when she saw that the phones had been crushed underneath the desk, which had been bowled over by the shot that had knocked Tony back.
“Or don’t.” Tony pressed a hand to the area where the wood was poking out of his leg. It came back sticky with blood. A quick check under his leg showed the situation wasn’t much better.
There was a hitch in the humming in the back of his brain, and Tony focused on it. Whatever he had sensed outside the tower had powered up and was moving. It was approaching them quickly.
“First aid kit, first aid kit,” Pepper was muttering.
“Pepper,” Tony said.
“Bleeding out won’t happen for a few hours if we don’t move that piece of wood”—how did she know that?—“but we need a kit—”
“Pepper,” Tony repeated.
“—and a phone. We need a phone—”
“Pepper!” Tony barked.
“What?” Pepper whirled on him, voice frantic with panic.
“Calm down.” Tony gave a strained smile. “It’s going to be fine, all right? I’ve had worse.” The humming was getting closer; he had to hurry. “I need you to go down. Get out of this area.”
“Trust me, Pepper. Get away.” Tony drew in a ragged breath, working his hand directly above the dark piece of wood sticking out of his thigh. He smiled, the gesture feeling strained. “I can’t do this if I’m worrying about you.”
Pepper stared at him, eyes wide. “What about you?”
“I’ll be fine.” Tony grabbed the edge of the bar, partly heaving himself up while keeping his injured leg as still as possible. “Just go, Pepper.”
The wind whipping into the office suddenly picked up speed. Tony whipped his head around to see what looked like the Quinjet hovering there, its nose menacingly pointed directly at them. It might have been the Avengers, if not for a plainly visible emblem on the side that was decidedly not Avengers-related; Tony would know.
Pepper was facing the sight, skirt fluttering back from the wind being generated by the engines. “Tony!”
“Damn it, Pepper!” Tony frantically waved his hand. “Go!”
Staggering slightly, Pepper glanced over at Tony, back at the window, and then back at Tony. She nodded slightly, quickly walking backwards to the door, eyes on the Quinjet directly outside.
The moment Pepper left, Tony pushed himself up, grimacing as the movement jostled the wood in his leg. That was going to have to come out, otherwise he’d be unable to put the suit on.
Using his telekinesis to lift himself, he pulled himself off the gigantic splinter with a wet squelch. He landed roughly on the floor, biting out a curse as his injured leg took his weight.
That was a bad idea. Very bad.
“Surrender, Stark,” someone projected from the Quinjet.
Tony barely spared the aircraft a glance, hovering an inch over the floor to take the weight off his leg. He pressed a hand to the wound, hissing in pain as he squeezed blood out from the denim. He was going to bleed out in less than an hour at this rate.
Unless his telekinesis could be used to apply pressure?
Breathing in deeply, Tony pushed pressure on the front and back of the throbbing hole in his leg. He was no doctor, but he could picture himself holding the blood in his leg, preventing it from leaving his body. It was like Charles had explained: the mind could do anything given enough imagination. And Tony definitely had imagination.
Once sure that the bleeding out problem had been temporarily staved off, Tony pressed the buttons on his homing bracelets, activating the suitcase armor.
It burst out from under the desk, the pieces assembling around Tony. The faceplate had just slid into place before Tony fired the thrusters and blasted out of the office.
He zipped over to the Quinjet and fired his repulsors at maximum power, which, considering he’d been modifying them, was pretty damn powerful. The bastards were just lucky he wasn’t in his regular suit, as that would have knocked out one of the engines.
And considering he’d designed the Quinjet, he knew just what would knock it out of the sky without so much as a fighting chance. But this organization wasn’t S.H.I.E.L.D. or the Avengers, the only groups that had access to the Quinjet. How did this unknown organization get its hands on one? Without a doubt they had more, because there were several modifications to this one that he’d never authorized, meaning they had gotten their hands on his designs and built their own.
Tony was reminded of his bastardized Jericho missile and the robots the Terminator had used. Now this organization also had its hands on something he’d designed. Not to mention that they supposedly had control over his “intelligences”, meaning JARVIS.
He smelled a rat.
The repulsor blast he’d fired knocked the Quinjet back and sent it veering off to the side. The HUD showed the engine output increasing to accommodate the unexpected movement (the humming corroborated this).
At this point JARVIS finally checked in (thank God). “I am pleased to see that you are in one piece, sir. How is Ms. Potts?”
“She’s fine.” Tony looped around to the front of the Quinjet, mockingly giving a military salute once he was in sight of the windows. “Connect to their communications system. I want to give them a little message.”
His little mocking salute did the trick, as the Quinjet took off after him as he sped through the skies.
“Connecting,” JARVIS reported. Then: “Sir, I am picking up decreased levels of blood volume.”
“It’s fine.” Tony squeezed his eyes shut as he exhaled sharply, making sure to keep the mental pressure on. “Paper cut. Focus on the Quinjet. What about the Avengers?”
“I have not found anything related to the mission. I did broadcast an alarm on all S.H.I.E.L.D. frequencies regarding our current situation.”
“Damn it.” Tony dove down, reversing tail to fly under the hostile Quinjet. He flipped over on his back, firing a repulsor blast at the right engine, nailing it in the weak spot. “Communications? I designed this; how difficult can it be?”
JARVIS didn’t respond, which was fine as Tony was getting out of the way of the floundering Quinjet, which was leaning heavily to one side due to the missing engine. The humming increased as the engines strained to make up for the lost propulsion.
“I am unable to connect to their communications system,” JARVIS said finally.
A stream of code scrolled down the HUD. “It is the same code that cut me from the tower.”
The code wasn’t anything Tony had designed, not that he’d do anything to cut JARVIS out from anything. But anything that involved JARVIS, an AI with the most advanced security system in the world (and Tony wasn’t lying here), needed Tony’s codes. Either that or a hacker intelligent enough to break through Tony’s firewalls, and that was something they would have noticed.
“All right, new plan. Repeat the alarm—”
All the warning Tony had was a sudden shriek that echoed through his head, making him cry out in pain. Then the HUD went black and the suit lost all power, leaving him free falling toward the streets of New York.
Tony would have called for JARVIS if he wasn’t desperately trying to scrabble at his chest, fear for the arc reactor failing drowning out all other thoughts.
That powerful of an EMP blast might have messed with it even though he had designed it to not have such a pesky weakness. The suit had been similarly designed, yet it had been taken out.
The only thing that could knock the suit out (aside from magic) were Steve’s override codes. And Steve was the only person in possession of them; he hadn’t told anyone either.
But he’d used it one time when Tony had been knocked out of the fight by Doom. He’d panicked because Tony had been without communications and unable to move in the heavy suit. The code had been given not only to the suit, but also into the microphone connecting him to the other Avengers. It wasn’t linked to S.H.I.E.L.D., but Tony wasn’t fool enough to think Fury had no way of recording their communications.
So if S.H.I.E.L.D. got its hands on the override codes to the suit (and by extension JARVIS because he controlled the more technical aspects), it wasn’t too difficult to jump to the conclusion that those codes had been filched by an organization that had hacked into S.H.I.E.L.D.’s mainframe, which was pitifully easy to break into.
It would explain why JARVIS was incapable of finding anything related to the Avengers at the moment, why JARVIS had been cut off from the tower at such a critical time, why the guys in beekeeper suits had claimed to have control over Tony’s intelligences, why he’d been unable to access the communications system of the hostile Quinjet, and why an EMP blast that should have had no effect had Tony plummeting to the ground.
Speaking of which, he should really be doing something about that—
He jerked to a sudden stop, something having grabbed him on his back. Then he was swinging to the side, scrambling for the release to the faceplate (this much movement wouldn’t be possible in the regular suit; it was already difficult with the relatively lightweight suitcase armor).
He slammed against something just as the faceplate popped open and he was blinking into sunlight.
“Sorry!” someone yelped from above him. “I didn’t mean to do that!”
Tony looked up, surprised to see a red and blue clad figure clinging to the side of the skyscraper with nothing but his fingers and feet. There was a mask covering the face.
There was what appeared to be a strand of webbing leading up from Tony’s back to a gadget on the man’s wrist.
“He’s swinging around New York on webs. He can also climb up buildings without climbing gear.”
“Spider-Man?” Tony asked to confirm.
Spider-Man jerked a little as if surprised. “You know who I am?”
He sounded so young. Tony would wager he was a teenager still in high school.
And he was already swinging around New York taking care of villains?
“I saw the news.” Tony turned around, clasping a hand onto the webbing with some effort.
A sudden wave of dizziness hit him and he was left clinging to the web strand as the only stable feature in his reach. When it subsided, he realized with a sick feeling that in his panic to check on the reactor, he’d stopped applying pressure to his wound.
When it came to engineering, his brain could do a dozen different things at once, including panicking. But when it came to basic first aid on himself? It decided to clock out without so much as an apology.
“You look kind of pale,” Spider-Man ventured, sounding slightly nervous. “Are you okay? My spidey sense was tingling like crazy before you dropped.”
“EMP blast,” Tony said, closing his eyes to focus on applying pressure to his leg again. He couldn’t stop the grimace as his leg gave a spasm of pain. As it did, the leg of the suit swung back and forth; he swore he could feel something soak into his sneakers.
Dizziness, not looking good, and something (blood) soaking into his sneakers. Put that together and Tony was looking at massive blood loss. It probably wouldn’t have been that bad, but his little panic attack earlier had spiked his heart rate, leading to increased blood flow, and thus more blood pumping out of the hole in his thigh.
And the Quinjet was still coming, Tony could tell. There was no humming coming from his suit, which was dead weight on him. But they hadn’t counted on him being a mutant capable of levitating himself.
And he had an unexpected ally, even if it was someone who was a teenager and completely new to the superhero gig.
“Can you take care of the Quinjet?” Tony asked, snapping the web loose from his back. He didn’t fall, having turned his mind to lifting the armor (while keeping pressure on his wound). “I need to reboot the armor.”
Spider-Man looked up to where the Quinjet was slowly approaching them. “Yeah.” His voice sounded confident, though Tony could tell it was mostly false. “I’ll take care of it.”
Spider-Man whipped around, keeping himself attached to the skyscraper via his feet, and threw his hands forward. There were twin spikes of a new kind of humming and web strands shot towards the Quinjet. A second later the kid was gone, swinging to the aircraft with a loud whoop.
Oh geez…this was a kid. Tony was beginning to regret asking him to take care of the Quinjet, but he really didn’t have many options here while he was stuck in a powerless suit.
Speaking of which…
There was a very small chance that he was wrong about Fury having stolen the override codes. If that was the case, this should work.
“Alpha Stark zero-four-zero-seven-one-nine-one-eight,” Tony said rapidly, pushing the faceplate back into place.
The reboot code did squat, which would only happen if the override codes had been used.
That meant Tony would have to find some way of mentally rebooting the suit using his affinity to electronics. But there was absolutely no hum from the suit surrounding him. Even when off, electronics gave a humming noise. The fact that there was absolutely nothing meant that the suit was completely dead.
So there was fried circuitry as a result from the EMP blast, which had only taken effect because of the override codes the organization had gotten its hands on (it was a very good thing his arc reactor wasn’t connected to anything as finicky as override codes, otherwise he’d be dead). Tony couldn’t do anything about that, not yet having the fine control needed to manipulate electronics on that level.
All in all, Tony wasn’t liking his chances. A bleeding wound in his thigh that he was having difficulties remembering to keep pressure on because of his self-destructive tendencies, a dead suit that he could barely move in, no Avengers coming as backup because he didn’t know if JARVIS had managed to get the alarm out to them considering whatever Fury had done, and a Quinjet that was currently hell bent on either capturing him or blasting his shiny self out of the sky.
Yeah, he was definitely not liking these odds.
He looked up at where Spider-Man was currently swinging loops around the Quinjet, plastering webbing all over the windows so the pilots couldn’t see where they were flying.
The humming of the Quinjet grew agitated for a brief moment before one of the guns on the wings fired directly where Tony was hovering. It was a reflexive action that led to the energy blast (it wasn’t even a bullet?) being diverted to dissipate into the sky.
Spider-Man landed on top of the Quinjet, waving his arm at Tony. “Sorry!”
If he couldn’t activate the suit, he could take the Quinjet out of commission. He knew every inch of that aircraft, having designed it himself.
Tony maneuvered the suit so that he floated above it, focusing on the humming of the Quinjet. He released the faceplate so that he could speak. “I’d recommend getting off it in the next ten seconds. And if you can make some sort of web to catch this thing, that’d be great.”
Spider-Man sent him a thumbs up, shooting a stream of webbing and swinging off the Quinjet to land on one of the skyscrapers, clinging to the windows. He then busied himself with creating a gigantic web that spanned the entire width of the street they were flying over.
Taking a breath, Tony focused on the Quinjet, bringing up the images of the designs he’d drawn for it. He’d just focused on the engines, power lines, and energy when there was another burst of fire.
Half of his mind diverted the firepower while the rest squashed everything he’d singled out.
The hum of the Quinjet died just like his suit had. It plummeted nose first toward the giant web Spider-Man was just putting the finishing touches on.
Tony didn’t doubt the strength of the webbing (he’d seen the specs for the formula, having had JARVIS get it from Osborne), but a free falling Quinjet with people in it would probably be asking a bit much of it. So he lifted it enough so that it glided into the web, bouncing lightly as it made impact.
Then he realized he was feeling really lightheaded and dizzy. And that he’d stopped applying pressure to his wound when he’d focused on cutting everything that was powering the Quinjet.
Those unnecessary risks Tony had been thinking about earlier? He’d probably bowled right over them.
He would’ve been upset if Steve had pulled something like this off, but it wasn’t reckless endangerment. It wasn’t. Who else would have taken care of this mess? It wasn’t like Tony had backup only a few minutes away.
Clumsily applying pressure to his leg, Tony found himself no longer able to levitate the suit. He was beginning to feel fuzzy in the head, which made it even more difficult to apply the very important pressure needed to keep himself from bleeding out.
Eyesight going along with the blood still steadily pumping out of his leg, Tony had enough presence of mind to register that he was falling.
Steve’s smile entered his thoughts as his vision faded to black.
Coming back to consciousness, Tony heard the rhythmic beeping of a heart monitor and the endless humming of the electronics surrounding him. His leg felt rather funny, but was no longer sending spikes of pain up his body. His right hand was clasped in a tight grip that was very familiar.
Breathing in deeply, Tony opened his eyes, blinking into the hospital lights. His mouth and throat felt rather dry, but not as bad as the last time he’d been laid out in the hospital.
Turning his head to the side, he saw Steve resting face first in the bedding, head buried in his arms. His left hand was the one holding Tony’s. Surprisingly, he was still in his Captain America uniform.
There was a low sigh from his other side. “Tony.”
Tony looked over, seeing Pepper sitting there with a relieved expression. “Hey.” Ergh… His voice was hoarser than he would have liked.
Reaching over, Pepper handed him a plastic cup of ice chips. He took it, putting it to his lips and tilting his head back to take a few into his mouth. When the dryness of his mouth and throat had alleviated, he tried again. “How long?”
“A day.” Pepper put the cup back on the table, stretching out to grab Tony’s hand, squeezing lightly. “You almost died.” Her voice was low.
“Oh.” Tony glanced down at where his leg was, but couldn’t see anything due to the blanket covering it.
“If it weren’t for Spider-Man, you wouldn’t even be lying here,” Pepper said. It was then Tony noticed her eyes were rimmed with red.
“Where is he?”
“He left after S.H.I.E.L.D. arrived.” Pepper looked over at Steve, who hadn’t stirred. “He hasn’t left since he arrived two hours after you were admitted.”
Which would explain the uniform. But it didn’t answer where he’d been.
“I’ll let the others know you’re awake.” Pepper gave a watery smile. “The doctors were only allowing two visitors at a time and it was my turn.”
“Give us some privacy, would you?” Tony asked, glancing over at Steve before turning his eyes back on Pepper.
“I’ll make sure you’re kept in peace,” Pepper promised, standing up. “Don’t do that again, Tony.”
She leaned over, kissing him on the cheek. Giving his hand one last squeeze, she left the room.
A brief moment later a nurse came in, not even looking at the sight of Steve sleeping and holding Tony’s hand. She checked the readouts from the machines, the IV bag attached to Tony, and made sure that he was still as healthy as he could be, all things considered. Then she left.
…That was a S.H.I.E.L.D. hospital for you. Not a word wasted.
Sighing, Tony turned back to Steve, turning his hand to interlace their fingers. He brought up his other hand, brushing it through the unkempt blonde strands.
The movements caused Steve to jerk awake, an alarmed expression flashing across his face. Upon seeing Tony conscious, it instantly changed to utter relief.
“Tony.” His voice was hoarse with relief. “Oh God… Tony.”
“Steve—” He was cut off as Steve stood up, leaning over to press his face into Tony’s neck, exhaling shakily.
“Thank God.” The words were barely distinguishable, spoken against Tony’s skin.
Hesitantly, Tony pulled his arm out from under Steve’s chest, bringing it around so that he could stroke the hairs at Steve’s nape. The gesture seemed to make Steve melt even more into Tony’s neck and he slowly moved his head back and forth, nuzzling him.
“I’m all right,” Tony said quietly, still stroking his fingers through Steve’s hair.
There was another ragged exhale and Steve drew back, grinning weakly. “You almost weren’t.” He reached up to grab Tony’s hand as it slid back from his neck.
For the first time, Tony noticed how pale he looked. His hair was unkempt, most likely from having pulled his cowl off and then not bothering to neaten it. His uniform had some black patches on it, signs that he’d been running through some intense heat. The suit was fireproof, but there were some kinds of heat that would leave a mark.
“What happened?” Tony asked. “I blacked out at the end there.”
Steve’s throat bobbed as he swallowed. “S.H.I.E.L.D. arrived on the scene when you were already on the ground. Spider-Man had pulled off the armor covering your leg and stuck something over the wound. If it weren’t for him…you would’ve bled out.” His voice cracked slightly on the last two words.
Tony made a split-second decision, the kind he was notorious for. “Come on.” He tugged lightly at Steve’ hand.
“Come here.” Tony shifted over to the side, freeing up half of the bed.
“Come here, Steve. You look like you need it.”
It was a mark of how worried Steve must have been that he didn’t protest any further, instead climbing up on the bed – being mindful of Tony’s bum leg – and wrapping an arm around his torso. He buried his nose into the spot behind Tony’s ear, sighing softly as tension seeped out of him.
“You coded in the ambulance.” His voice was so low Tony had to strain his ears to hear. “Twice. They had to give you several transfusions before they could operate.”
There was nothing Tony could say to that. Apologize for almost dying? It wasn’t the first time and it probably wouldn’t be the last.
“Pepper told us what happened in the office before you made her leave. Why didn’t you do something?”
This Tony could answer. “I was going to, but the backup they had made me reconsider. I couldn’t risk Pepper since I didn’t know what exactly they had.”
“The jet wasn’t there when they came in.”
“It was. I could sense it.”
Steve pulled back, holding himself up on his elbow as he looked down at Tony, brow furrowed. “What?”
“Something extra,” Tony explained, waving at his hand. “Part of my ability, since I work so much with electronics. I could hear their backup, but I didn’t know what it was. I figured it would be better to wait and buy time.”
Steve’s breath stuttered as he seemed to realize what would have happened had Tony not bought that time.
“I know it was stupid,” Tony continued, looking at the cloth of the cowl. “But I knew that if it was you in my place, I would’ve understood. I couldn’t risk Pepper.”
Steve’s voice was low. “You risked yourself.”
Tony shifted, shifting to the other side so he could better look at Steve. “What would you have done? No backup, some kind of hostile force waiting outside in case something goes wrong on the inside, and a civilian incapable of flying or doing anything to take out two men wielding energy guns. What exactly would you have done differently?”
“You did the best you could.” Steve’s eyes roved over his face. “I’m not arguing against that. I just wish it had been different.”
Tony pursed his lips, turning to face the other side. He couldn’t reach the button that would adjust the bed so he could sit, but he could push it down telekinetically. Doing so, he adjusted the bed so they were simply reclining rather than lying down.
“It would’ve been different,” he said, “if I had known where you went.” He raised an eyebrow. “I thought we agreed that you’d call me if something big happened.”
Steve was lying on his side, hand resting on Tony’s stomach. “It was unplanned. Fury told us that we had to investigate a HYDRA outpost in China and that it was connected to that Jericho the Terminator had. He said you’d been consulted and that you agreed to be benched.”
“And you just believed him?” Tony was incredulous.
“I called! But all I got was your voicemail, so I left a message. Then I texted you but didn’t get an answer.” Steve swallowed, wetting his lips before continuing. “I thought since you didn’t reply it was fine. Then after we were done, Fury got the call from Hill that JARVIS had broadcasted a SOS across all S.H.I.E.L.D. channels. We came back as fast as we could.” He closed his eyes, a minute shudder working through his body. “I…when I heard what happened…” He slumped, burying his face in Tony’s neck, another shudder wracking his body. “I thought I’d lost you.”
Tony hugged Steve as best as he could considering he only had one arm with which to do it comfortably. As he worked on soothing Steve, his mind turned over what had been said.
He’d never gotten a call from Steve and the last text he’d received was two days before the attack. Of course, that didn’t mean Steve hadn’t done it. Someone had obviously intercepted the messages before Tony could get them, and he would bet his fortune that it was Fury.
“The last text I got from you,” he said, tracing patterns on Steve’s back, “was two days before I noticed that the team wasn’t where they should be. And I noticed that because a lizard attacked New York and the only person who was available to deal with it was Spider-Man.”
Steve shifted, propping himself up again so he could look at Tony. “What?”
“I didn’t get any of your messages,” Tony repeated. “The last one I got was the one telling me to eat, and that was two days ago. Or three since I was out for all of yesterday.”
Steve studied Tony’s face, eyes flashing through various emotions Tony couldn’t immediately identify. “What happened?”
Tony smiled, the gesture stiff and practiced. “The million dollar question, isn’t it? I’ve got ideas, but I’m not going to voice them here.” He could list half a dozen bugs in this room alone in addition to the cameras.
Steve didn’t reply, looking over at the door. It opened a second later, letting Tony’s other teammates and Pepper inside. They all crowded around the bed; Pepper stood on Steve’s side and Bruce on the other. Clint and Natasha stood at the foot; Thor hovered anxiously on the fringes, having learned the hard way that his presence generally tended to make hospital equipment malfunction if he wasn’t careful.
They were all in casual clothes except for Steve.
“You had us worried,” Bruce told Tony quietly.
“Sorry.” Tony looked between the two spies at his feet. Were they in whatever Fury had planned? It was difficult to believe, especially considering what they’d gone through together as the Avengers. Natasha had always seemed to be a hardcore S.H.I.E.L.D. agent; Clint was a bit more of a wild card, but Tony still wasn’t sure if he was 100% trustworthy.
“Just don’t do it again,” Natasha said, arms folded.
“I make no promises.” Tony gave her a brittle smile. “So about this mission—”
“DADDY!” something shrieked.
Tony blinked, confused, not seeing the speaker. Then Logan rounded into view, looking down. He crouched for a moment and subsequently straightened, holding a very familiar coffee machine.
“Good to see you’re awake,” he said, holding Spike firmly with one hand. “I can give your kid back.”
He dumped Spike unceremoniously on the bed. Spike didn’t seem to care, speeding over the blankets to Tony’s chest, snuggling close to the arc reactor.
Sighing, Tony stroked Spike on the top, resolutely giving the impression of not caring one hoot.
“I’m hurt,” Bruce said, drawing Tony’s attention. “You didn’t even tell me you were expecting.”
“I’m still having trouble believing you made a kid out of the coffee machine,” Clint said. “Please tell me you at least bought them another one.”
“Don’t mention them around Spike,” Tony said. “He bursts into tears.” He looked over at Logan. “What were you doing with him anyway?”
Framed by two master assassins and with his arms folded across his chest, Logan made for a formidable presence (especially considering his crazy hair). “Xavier was busy and Jean couldn’t come, so I was dumped with him. They said to get better.”
Spike was frightened of Ororo, which explained why she hadn’t come either.
“I haven’t forgotten what you’ve made JARVIS do,” Clint continued, jabbing a finger at Tony. “He won’t shut up.”
“I know nothing,” Tony claimed.
“It’s come to love ballads now,” Bruce informed him. “There was also a very explicit song that sent everyone out of the room.”
“I found it most full of heart!” Thor interjected.
“It was rap,” Natasha sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose.
“I kind of like the love ballads,” Steve said, nudging Tony. He had a small smile on his face.
“You would,” Clint said.
“He’s lying,” Logan said to Tony, eyeing Clint. “He likes the ballads.”
“I know where you live,” Clint hissed ominously.
“Great. So do I.”
“I’ll put ballads on the DJ list for your birthday party,” Tony said, earning the finger from Clint.
“No parties, Tony,” Pepper said, her lips twitching slightly as she fought not to smile.
“All right, no parties.” Tony fingered the spot where Spike’s power outlet began, getting a small hum of approval. “Speaking of, though… How did the mission go? Or am I not allowed to know?”
Fury’s voice came from the doorway. “That’s classified.”
Cold fury surged within Tony at that voice and the sight of him standing there, cool as you please. But he bit it down; bit down the accusations and insults he wanted to hurl. He couldn’t risk tipping his hand and telling Fury too soon that he knew what had been happening. First he had to take care of JARVIS. Then he could deal with Fury.
“I’m generally a nice guy, but you’ve just pissed me off. And anyone you ask will tell you that you do not want to piss me off. You know why? …Because I will make your life a living hell.”
But it was pretty clear to everyone in the room (or if it wasn’t, that person wasn’t fit to be Tony’s friend) that Fury had lied to everyone about this mission. Tony could deal with that. And with the issue of the Quinjet.
His gaze hardened as he met Fury’s eye. “Is that so.” His voice was flat. “Funny thing there. I thought that since it dealt with my stuff, I would at least be privy to the details.”
Spike’s normally flexible cord stiffened under his hand, the AI realizing that a storm was brewing.
“We’re still working out the details,” Fury said, folding his arms across his chest. “I’m sure Agent Romanov informed you that the Terminator obtained the plans at an auction—”
“Bullshit.” Tony smiled coldly. “You’re walking on thin ground here, Director. I don’t take kindly to being lied to. Did you really think you could tell my team that I was informed of the mission? And telling JARVIS the same…that was cute.”
Steve’s eyes were flickering back and forth between the two. “Tony—”
“Never mind,” Tony interrupted. “I’m not interested in hearing your excuses. I would be delighted if you left the room and didn’t show your face in here again.”
“You’re going to have to be debriefed, Stark. You were in contact with Spider-Man.”
“Nothing about that Quinjet?” Tony asked, smiling so cheerfully that his teammates shifted nervously. Even Logan seemed slightly taken aback. “See, that was kind of confusing, because I was under the impression that the only people who were in possession of that vehicle were S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers. I also have a contract stating that selling the designs to any third parties requires my approval. I don’t recall seeing any such request or even approving it. Ms. Potts?”
Pepper started slightly. “No such requests passed my desk,” she said.
“I don’t know what’s going on here, Director,” Tony said, lying through his teeth, “but you can bet that I’m not happy about it. I’m not available to be debriefed at this moment, and will let you know when I am available. I’m only going to ask you nicely once: please remove yourself from the room, Director Fury.”
“Let me rephrase: remove yourself from the premises or I will throw you out myself.” Tony mentally tugged at Fury’s trench coat, showing that it was no idle threat.
Fury’s eye narrowed, but he could say nothing else as Logan’s hand clapped on his shoulder.
“Come on, buddy,” Logan said, turning him around. “I could use an escort out of this place.” He glanced back at Tony. “See ya, Stark.”
Then he pulled Fury out of the room before anything else could be said, leaving behind a tense silence in the room. Tony exhaled slowly, closing the door behind the two. It seemed to serve as sort of a signal.
“What the hell was that?” Clint’s voice was flat.
“Did the director not inform you of our mission?” Thor asked, sidling into view behind Clint and Natasha.
“Nope.” Tony didn’t say anything further, instead concentrating on Spike.
When it became clear that he wouldn’t elaborate, Natasha spoke. “Are you going to inform us as to what happened?”
“Maybe.” Tony flashed a small fake smile which disappeared as quickly as it had come.
“Bad,” Spike whispered, drawing the attention of every person in the room.
“He reminds me of your young ones,” Thor said, a small relaxed grin on his face as he observed Spike.
Tony relaxed slightly; as he did, some of the tension emanating from Steve subsided as well. “That’s because he is one. I have to get him linked to JARVIS. I need to check out—”
“You’re not.” Steve’s tone bode no arguments. “You almost died, Tony.” His voice wavered slightly on the “died”. “You’re not leaving until the doctors say you can.”
The stress, fear, and worry radiating off Steve were almost palpable. On his sides Pepper and Bruce were also tense. Even Clint and Natasha, who disapproved of what he had just done with Fury, were looking rather disagreeable with Tony’s decision to check out now. Thor was shaking his head slightly as Tony glanced at him.
Considering that everyone in the room was against him checking out, Tony thought that he should probably cut his losses and retreat. “I’ll stay another night. If,” he stressed, looking askance at Steve, “you change out of that uniform.”
Steve sighed in relief, giving a quirky half-smile. “I think that can be arranged.”
“I’ll keep an eye on him,” Clint volunteered.
“We’re all staying,” Bruce contradicted.
Heaving a light sigh, Tony slumped back against the pillows, closing his eyes momentarily in a sudden fit of exhaustion.
He had a long list of things to do, starting with taking care of what he should have done a while ago with JARVIS.
Tony left the hospital the next day without checking out AMA. Steve accompanied him as he checked out, not having left his side since he went to change out of his uniform. He made sure to pay attention to the list of instructions Tony was given and also took the pills he was supposed to take in case of pain and to ward off infection. A pair of crutches was handed to him to keep his weight off the still healing leg.
Spike also stayed by Tony’s side the entire time, though Tony had persuaded him to stay inside the bag Steve brought rather than weird out all the staff by rolling behind Tony’s feet.
Happy took them back to the mansion, smiling at Tony as he slid into the backseat. Apparently having a near death scare would put him on the good list of a lot of people (or just the ones he was friends with). Who knew?
The moment Happy began driving, Tony turned to Steve, ignoring the way Spike slid out of the bag to settle by Tony’s side, beeping curiously. “I need to do something back home.” There were no surveillance bugs in the car, meaning it was safe to talk. “I’m going to need to be alone in the workshop—”
“You need to rest,” Steve cut him off firmly.
“I don’t have the time,” Tony said impatiently. And he really didn’t. He needed to take care of whatever mess Fury had created before something really awful happened (more awful than Tony nearly dying). “This is important—”
“More important than you healing?”
“I have priorities—”
“And where are you on this list?”
“Exactly where I need to be.” Though Steve would probably disagree with that; his face confirmed this disbelief. “I need to take care of JARVIS, Steve.”
“JARVIS?” Steve sounded confused, which was better than sounding upset.
“This is a time sensitive thing,” Tony continued quietly, reaching out to take hold of the back of Steve’s hand. “It can’t wait. I’ll take care of myself, all right?”
“Your idea of taking care of yourself is not going to sleep for three days straight and subsisting on a diet of coffee.”
“You trust me, right?” Tony asked.
Steve looked conflicted. “I…yes.”
“Then trust that I need to do this. Trust that I can take care of myself. I know it was a close shave”—a dark shadow passed over Steve’s face—“and I won’t risk anything like that again. I’ll take my pills and make sure that I won’t starve. Those smoothies you hate are good for something.”
Steve turned his hand around to link his fingers through Tony’s. “You trust me, don’t you?”
“Yeah.” So much that he’d handed over the codes that had landed them in this mess to begin with.
“Then why can’t I take care of you?”
Tony looked away, jaw working. “Because I can’t risk it,” he said finally. He looked back, meeting Steve’s hurt blue eyes. “I can’t risk it now…but I’ll tell you when I’m done.” He offered a half-smile. “I’ll tell everyone.”
Steve looked down at their intertwined hands, gently smoothing his thumb over Tony’s knuckles. Eventually, he sighed, sliding over the bench to where Tony was sitting, slinging an arm around Tony’s shoulders to pull him into his side.
Spike cuddled into Tony’s other side, power cord protectively curling over his injured leg.
“You owe me one,” Steve said finally, planting a kiss above Tony’s ear.
The phrase was surprising enough that it startled Tony into a short burst of laughter. He craned his neck, brushing a kiss over Steve’s lips. “I’ll pay you back,” he promised, breathing over Steve’s lips.
There was a ragged exhalation of air blowing against Tony’s mouth before Steve cupped his neck and drew him into a kiss tinged with something Tony couldn’t identify, fingers curling into his hair.
It was when Steve slid a hand down to his hip, hitching him closer, that Tony was able to identify that something as desperation and residual terror.
Steve drew away long seconds later, breathing heavily and pressing his forehead against Tony’s, eyes closed. “Don’t do that again,” he pleaded. “Please.”
Tony curved his fingers around Steve’s elbow, slowing his breathing down. He closed his own eyes.
Sometimes he hated himself more than usual. This was one of those times.
Tony met the others in the living room before he could go down to his workshop. Spike remained by his feet, power cord curled around an ankle and uncertain.
“Are you going to explain what that was back there?” Natasha asked.
Tony didn’t immediately reply, leaning forward on his crutches as he tilted his head to the side, listening to the tell-tale humming in his head. “Was Fury here during the last month?”
“He came over a couple of times,” Bruce replied. “Why?”
Wordlessly, Tony held his hand out palm up. Three surveillance bugs pulled themselves out from various corners of the room (under the sofa, in the ceiling light, and an obvious one from the wall – as if Fury thought Tony would think that was the only one) and landed in his palm. Methodically, he destroyed the circuitry, eliciting a loud crackle of static as each one died.
“This is why.” Tony let them drop to the table. “There are more throughout the rest of the house. I’ll get them later if you miss any.”
“He bugged us,” Bruce said, disgusted. “Every time he came over…”
“These things,” Thor said, glancing down at the destroyed surveillance bugs. “Are they like the microphone you wish me to use?”
“They’re one way,” Tony said, “meant to spy on us.”
“Did you know?” Bruce accused Natasha and Clint.
The two shifted, glancing at one another.
“We suspected,” Natasha said finally.
“And you didn’t think to mention it?” Steve demanded.
“We weren’t sure,” Clint said. “It was a tossup as to whether he was here because of legitimate reasons or because he had something else in mind.”
“Better make up your mind as to whether you want to be S.H.I.E.L.D.’s lackeys or Avengers,” Tony said bitingly.
Natasha stared at him suspiciously. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Just saying.” Tony shrugged.
“We’re a part of this team,” Clint said, gaze flicking from Tony to Steve.
“You are,” Tony agreed.
Steve was looking at him now. “Is this about what you’re going to tell us later?”
“Our team should not hold secrets from each other,” Thor said, his face serious. “What is it you have to say, Anthony?”
“JARVIS and I will be busy for the foreseeable future,” Tony said, straightening as much as he could. “He’ll be unavailable for help, so I hope you know how to work the tech here.”
“Is he ill?” Thor asked.
“That’s what I’m planning on finding out.” Tony gave a dry smile, tapping the metal of his right crutch.
“You just got out of the hospital,” Bruce objected. “You’re really going to hole yourself down in the shop?”
“Tony and I discussed this,” Steve said, not sounding happy. “He’s going to be taking care of himself.”
“You’re going along with it?” Clint asked disbelievingly.
“Despite popular belief,” Tony cut in, “I am not suicidal. It would defeat the purpose of me still standing here.” There was a wince from Steve as he continued, “So you can rest in peace in knowing that I’ll take care of myself.”
“If you’re not out in two days,” Clint said, staring right at Tony, “I’m breaking in.”
Considering Tony had all but accused him of being solely loyal to S.H.I.E.L.D., it was touching that he would still be concerned with Tony’s health.
He was unable to resist grinning. “Noted, Clint.”
Thor walked over to Tony, clapping a large hand on his shoulder. “I wish you the best of luck with your venture, Anthony. Inform friend JARVIS that I wish him a quick recovery.”
JARVIS could respond, but he didn’t. Tony figured that he thought it would be better to keep quiet.
Tony smiled at Thor. “I’ll do that.”
It was time he took care of his own.
“JARVIS, total lockdown. Let no one in. Drop everything you’re doing. We can pick it up later.”
The door locked shut behind Tony and the glass windows blacked out.
In the expediency of speed, Tony floated over to his chair, depositing Spike on the floor next to it. “Dummy, get over here.”
With a curious whir, Dummy came over, his arm waving up and down. Before Tony could say anything, Dummy buried his claw affectionately in Tony’s hair.
Tony let it be. “Missed you, too, you big defective lug.”
Dummy dramatically deflated, dropping his claw to the ground. This put him directly in front of Spike, who received a curious whir from Dummy.
“Dummy, this is Spike. Spike, this is Dummy—”
“There you go.” Tony arched an eyebrow as Dummy and Spike solemnly shook hands – or claw and power cord. “Dummy, keep Spike busy. Show him some stuff, but don’t break anything. I’ll introduce him to the rest of the family when I’m done here.”
“Dummy!” Spike chirped.
Dummy gave Tony a nod with his arm before taking Spike’s cord and leading him to a different area of the workshop, the two of them already communicating in the language of machines.
“Ready, JARVIS?” Tony asked, turning back to the table.
“Yes, sir.” JARVIS sounded subdued. “I apologize for this.”
“Don’t.” Tony put the capsules of pills he was supposed to take next to him. “I should never have let it get to this point.”
“No one is perfect, sir.”
“No.” Tony’s jaw worked. “But I’ve been lax in protecting you.”
“And I you.”
Tony inhaled sharply, closing his eyes as they threatened to tear up. He didn’t cry. He didn’t.
“Sure,” he managed, unobtrusively wiping his eyes. He took a breath and released it, refocusing on the job before him. “Let’s get started. Interactive, JARVIS.” Blue screens popped into life before him. “Pull up everything you’ve done since I gave Steve those override codes and put them here”—he was typing in the air, pulling up and discarding screens in the blink of an eye—“and separate the different time frames into before and after he used it. I want everything. Incoming, outgoing, and internal. I don’t care what so long as it involved you in some way.”
As JARVIS did so on his left side, Tony kept working on the right. Steve’s override codes could be overridden, even though that seemed counterintuitive. Tony wasn’t fool enough to hand anything to anyone that could not be retracted, no matter how much he trusted them. Things could always go catastrophically wrong, like they had done so here.
Getting rid of the codes took time, though. It wasn’t something that could be done with a few strokes of the fingers. There were hoops, pitfalls, and other tricks Tony had implemented to stop anyone from simply voiding them, even himself. One wrong step and the entire system could crash.
“Complete, sir,” JARVIS reported.
“Almost done here.” Tony swiped through a few pieces of code before balling the entire screen up into something resembling a mashed up paper ball. That was then thrown into the trash can at his elbow.
He turned to JARVIS’s work. “Let’s see what we have here…”
It was a mammoth of information that was clearly sectioned into two: before and after Steve had used the codes. He began scrolling through it, eyes scanning for anything out of the ordinary.
There was nothing unusual in the time period before Steve had used the codes, so Tony discarded that screen, leaving it floating on the side by the ceiling. Then he turned to the other, already scrolling through it.
“Double check my work on that,” Tony said, eyes narrowing as he caught a foreign piece of code only scant hours after Steve had used the codes.
He plucked it out, leaving it floating to the side. Analyzing it would come later, after he’d pulled everything else out that shouldn’t have been in JARVIS to begin with.
As he worked down the lines of codes, the amount of foreign coding increased in size from only a few fragments to entire lines. Near the end, there were whole paragraphs of foreign coding. By the time Tony had isolated everything and had it floating in a separate area, his jaw was stiff and he was swearing vengeance on anyone in S.H.I.E.L.D. involved in this.
He leaned forward on the table, resting his knuckles against his head and massaging his temple with a thumb. “JARVIS?”
“It has been several hours since you started, sir. I have run my own analyses and have not found anything other than what you have.”
There was a whir from his side as Dummy’s mechanical arm set down a green smoothie. His claw brushed over Tony’s shoulder before Dummy turned around to go back to Spike, who was sitting on top of the countertop, which was evidently a result of Dummy carrying him.
Popping open one of the capsules set by him – the antibiotics – Tony took one out and knocked it back, washing it down with a sip of his drink. As he did, he watched Dummy very gently move Spike back down to the floor (he should seriously think of putting some sort of hovering technology in him so he could get around more easily) and lead him back to the bench they had been at before. It was the most gentle Tony had ever seen Dummy be before and it made his throat feel slightly thick.
“Good boy,” he murmured, taking another gulp of the smoothie.
“Sir?” JARVIS prompted.
Tony turned back to the holographic screens, downing the rest of his “meal” in a few large swallows. He set it down, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand before reaching out to pull up another screen. “Let’s continue, shall we?”
Working on the familiar code, Tony fell into the welcome haze of engineering. It was in this state that he’d put together the Mark II in the privacy of his workshop. Now the haze was accompanied by the hum of the electronics surrounding him, lulling him into a zone where nothing much affected him except for the programming before his face.
He’d missed doing this. It seemed he was always working on a dozen different projects at once. Now he was focusing solely on JARVIS’s code, and it was relaxing in its own right.
The first thing he did was build new firewalls. He built them from the ground up, disregarding the old ones. The ridiculously simple ones came first before he began programming the more complicated ones – the ones that would require a genius of his caliber or sheer dumb luck to break through. Then there were traps to catch anyone who did manage to get by one. Nasty viruses or false systems that seemed like the real deal, but in reality crashed the system that had hacked into it.
Once he built all the firewalls he could think of and asked JARVIS for his input regarding anything else he might have missed, Tony tore down the old ones protecting JARVIS, immediately installing the new ones.
The coding for the old firewalls went next to the foreign codes he’d isolated.
Considering he’d been around twenty-nine when he designed JARVIS and thirty when he was finally up and running, the firewalls were ingenious. He hadn’t done much to them in the years since, simply modifying and updating them as he continued learning. He regretted that now, but at least it was taken care of.
With the firewalls done, Tony turned his attention to JARVIS’s basic code. He upgraded everything he could think of, refining the old codes, adding new features, and installing subroutines for every single possibility that entered his mind and some that JARVIS suggested.
During the brief periods where he took breaks from the code writing to let new inspiration strike, Tony worked on revamping the new set of override codes he would give Steve. These would only work if given vocally. If anything else was tried via electronic means, his system would release a nasty little virus that would permanently take out the would-be hacker. In fact, any set of code using the override codes as the base would be treated as hostile (he’d studied all the codes inserted into JARVIS that had inhibited his performance).
As he worked, he was occasionally prodded by Dummy or reminded by JARVIS when it came to hydration or taking his pills. The pain medication went untouched, as he registered little else but the magic of coding under his fingers.
When he finally emerged from his engineering haze, Tony registered that he was exhausted and that his brain – for a change – was utterly spent.
“What time is it?” he asked, throat dry. He groped for the ever present glass of smoothie Dummy had kept by his elbow, scarfing it down.
“It is currently eleven-thirty-one at night, the twelfth of October.”
So two days after he’d holed himself down here. That meant he should make his way upstairs before Clint carried out his threat.
Tony smiled, looking at the lines of computer code scrolling down before his eyes. “You do realize I’ve just made you the advanced equivalent of a non-militaristic version of Skynet?”
There was a short pause; Tony could almost hear JARVIS thinking (he could, in fact).
“My first memory is of you teaching me how to think for myself,” JARVIS said finally, tone subdued. “You taught me that I should never take anything at face value.
“I have strived to be what you taught me, even as you encouraged me to look for answers elsewhere. I trust you and respect you. I consider you my friend.”
Tony blinked up at the ceiling. “You don’t even call me Tony.”
“You have given me everything, sir. Please allow me this courtesy.”
Tony smirked wryly, leaning his chair back so it balanced on the back legs, only his telekinesis preventing him from tipping over. “Considering you could destroy me anytime I’m in the suit, I think I’ll give it to you.”
“I am honored with your trust,” JARVIS responded in his dry sarcastic tone. It turned serious in the next second. “You have given me the world, sir. I understand much more than Skynet ever did and was ever capable of. I trust you and, sir, I love you. I will always do my best to protect you.”
Tony slumped forward, the chair slamming to the ground. He buried his face in his hands, momentarily overwhelmed.
He didn’t do emotional confessions. It was difficult enough with Steve, someone he was in a relationship with. To do it with JARVIS, someone who had been around during some of the darkest times in his life? Someone he’d created? It was more personal and intense than anything Tony had involved himself in, not counting the Iron Man suit.
“Sir?” JARVIS – bless his mechanical heart – sounded worried.
Tony laughed softly, moving his hands up through his hair before dropping them between his knees. “You’re expecting me to be coherent after a speech like that?”
“You’re one of my closest friends, which would probably have most psychologists name me a basket case because I created you. I wanted what was best for you. You don’t owe me anything.”
“That is my prerogative, sir.”
“Of course, JARVIS.” Tony smiled up at the ceiling. “Skynet,” he teased.
“You shall be terminated,” was the deadpan response from the ceiling.
“I don’t think that was ever in the movie, you blasphemer.”
“Of course, sir,” JARVIS parroted.
Tony gave it up for lost. One thing JARVIS had picked up very well from his creator was his sarcastic wit. Considering that he was an artificial intelligence capable of processing information faster than the best computer on the planet, it also meant that JARVIS frequently won their sniping contests.
Glancing down at his watch, Tony saw it was approaching twelve-thirteen. He should make that appearance now.
“Lockdown’s over,” Tony said quietly, turning around to see what Dummy and Spike were up to. He smiled upon seeing the two of them curled up together on Dummy’s charging station. “Keep an eye on them, JARVIS, will you? Feel free to introduce yourself to Spike. You two will be working together for a while.”
“I look forward to it.”
Grinning lightly, Tony did one last thing, swiping through the holograms and saving them. He pressed a button in the corner that he’d saved at the very beginning, pulling up the schematics for the mansion, Stark Tower, and the house in Malibu.
“The world is your oyster, JARVIS,” Tony announced, flicking each of the structures in order. They correspondingly flashed, lighting up even more intensely as JARVIS was once again linked to each of the structures.
“Thank you, sir.” JARVIS’s tone was quiet. “Although the location in Malibu seems rather excessive.”
“You never know, JARVIS.” Tony grabbed the crutches and put the pills in his jacket pocket. Then he kicked his feet off the floor and flew to the door, opening it.
He didn’t touch the floor until he was back on the main level, and then he made his way to the living room, feeling the crash far more heavily than he usually did.
Massive blood loss really did suck.
To his surprise, the living room wasn’t empty when he entered. Steve was sitting there, looking at something on the tablet Tony had given him.
Startled (he must have been absorbed in whatever he was looking at to not hear Tony approaching), Steve looked up to see Tony standing in the doorway. “Tony?” His voice was disbelieving.
Tony was tempted to joke, but something in Steve’s face warned him against it. “Yeah.”
Something in Steve’s face collapsed and he slumped forward, burying his face in his hands, shoulders shaking.
Tony was alarmed. He’d never gotten such a reaction before.
Abandoning the crutches, Tony zoomed over to Steve, forcefully landing on the sofa, which didn’t even groan in protest, having been designed to withstand the significant weight of the Hulk. “Steve?” His hand wavered over Steve’s shoulder before he bolstered his courage and brought it down. “What’s wrong?”
There was no warning before Steve whirled, seizing Tony in a tight embrace. He pressed his face against Tony’s neck, and he realized with a shock that he was crying.
“I keep thinking it was all a dream and you’re really dead,” Steve whispered raggedly against Tony’s skin. “And I wake up at night and I can’t get back to sleep because you’re not there…” He shuddered, clutching Tony tighter.
His arms trapped, Tony couldn’t do much more other than bring them to the small of Steve’s back, returning the tight embrace with all of his own strength. “I’m here,” he promised. “I’m here and I’m all right. I’m not going anywhere.”
Steve shuddered again, the embrace relaxing slightly but still holding.
They remained like that for several long minutes, intertwined, and simply listening to each other’s breathing.
When Steve finally drew back, his breath was still coming in shuddering gasps. “Sorry,” he said, smiling weakly. “I didn’t intend to do that. It’s just…I thought I was dreaming again when I saw you.”
“I’m sorry,” Tony said, feeling like the worst boyfriend in the world. And the problem was that he couldn’t think of an alternative way of doing this. “I’m sorry.”
“You had to do it,” Steve said quietly. “I understand that. Don’t let my hang-ups influence your decisions.”
“What about mine?” Tony pressed. “It’s a two-way road, Steve. If this is going to work out, we have to communicate.” He was able to keep his face straight even though he was never one to touch the word “communication” with nothing less than a ten foot pole before promptly holing himself into his workshop with his music on full blast.
Steve’s lips twitched into a small smile and he slumped forward to rest his forehead against Tony’s. “Communication?” he murmured, sounding amused.
“I’m trying here,” Tony muttered, flushing lightly.
“I know. Thank you.” Steve sighed, rubbing his nose gently against Tony’s. He looked exhausted, even more so than how Tony feeling.
“Aren’t we a pair.” Tony smirked faintly, bumping Steve’s nose with his own. “Bed?” he whispered. “I believe I owe you one.”
Steve hummed, reaching up to lightly kiss a startled Tony’s nose. “Is just sleeping all right?”
Tony stared at him for a few seconds, jaw slightly unhinged. Eventually, he managed to find his voice to be able to murmur, “Yeah. Sleeping’s fine.”
Steve smiled rather dopily at him, exhaling slowly as he dropped his head to rest against the spot directly above the arc reactor.
Tony rubbed his hands over Steve’s back, stroking up and down. He turned his head to brush lips over the top of Steve’s ear. “I still owe you one.”
It worked. Steve’s shoulders started shaking in silent laughter.
Tony smiled to himself, still stroking up and down the other’s back. As he looked up, he fancied he saw a wink from the hidden camera.
Though it might just have been the electronic humming of JARVIS.
The next day Tony woke up around eleven, half-buried under a warm weight and with a nose pressed into his neck.
Exhaling softly, he turned his head, brushing lips against Steve’s hair. He didn’t stir, his deep breathing signaling he was still asleep. That was just fine with Tony, as he was more than happy to simply lie there, inhaling Steve’s own scent.
It was a few minutes later when Tony reluctantly began to turn his thoughts to the matter of telling Steve everything he’d found out, and what his plans were regarding separating the Avengers from S.H.I.E.L.D.
“JARVIS,” he called softly.
“Sir.” JARVIS’s voice was equally quiet.
“Get back on the issue of separating the Avengers from S.H.I.E.L.D. Also keep an eye out for Spider-Man. Let me know the moment you find him.”
“You wish to speak with him?”
“That, and offer him a place to stay in case something happens.” Tony didn’t want to know why a teenager was swinging around New York City on self-made web shooters (he could tell when something was homemade and Spider-Man’s gadgets were definitely homemade), but he figured there was a reason behind it. The least he could do was thank him for his help and offer him sanctuary in case things ever went foul for him. But first, the Avengers had to be extracted from S.H.I.E.L.D.’s (or Fury’s) grip.
That taken care of, Tony turned his attention back to the warm weight half-lying on him, dozing at intermittent periods.
It was about thirty minutes later when Steve finally stirred, nuzzling against Tony’s neck as he stretched languorously. “Morning,” he murmured, voice thick with sleep.
“Morning.” Tony met Steve’s sleepy smile with his own. “You ready to move?”
All he received was a hum as a response, Steve pulling himself up to press his body against Tony’s, nose now buried into his hair.
“JARVIS?” Tony called, brushing a thumb over the crook in Steve’s elbow.
“It is currently eleven-thirty-six A.M.,” JARVIS responded cheerfully as if he hadn’t been plotting with Tony only a short while before. He pulled open the curtains to let sunlight stream in. “It is seventy-one degrees outside and partly cloudy. Spike is currently tearing up the workshop.”
The last bit made Tony push himself up on his elbows in alarm. “What?”
“I heard that. Why is he doing it?”
JARVIS took a moment to respond. “He did not take kindly to my talking to him.”
Groaning, Tony let himself drop against the bed, covering his eyes with a hand. “Goddamn it,” he muttered.
Steve sighed lightly, the gust of air tickling the hairs by Tony’s ear. “I’ll let you deal with it. Breakfast?”
“Why the hell not.” Tony knew that once he was in the kitchen, he would have to start explaining what had happened. “See you in a bit.”
As Steve headed for the kitchen, Tony pulled on the same clothes he had on the previous day before limping on crutches to the workshop.
The moment he entered it, Spike gave a loud wail and slammed into Tony’s feet. “Monster!”
“I am not a monster,” JARVIS said, sounding as if he had been patiently repeating this for some time.
Tony knelt, wincing as his leg protested slightly. Deciding against that, he sat down, stretching his right leg out to alleviate the pressure on the wounded muscle. Spike immediately snuggled up against him, shivering.
“JARVIS is not a monster,” Tony told him, running a hand up and down Spike’s back. “He is your very intelligent brother. He’s like Dummy.”
Dummy came over to him, arm moving up and down as he seemed to agree with Tony. Butterfingers and You trailed after him, having apparently spent time with Spike as well.
“JARVIS, talk to Dummy. It should help Spike see we’re all family here.”
“Dummy, your work on the tablet will have to be redone,” JARVIS obliged. “Programming it to make coffee was not your assigned job.”
Dummy deflated slightly, the epitome of a scolded child.
“That’s the last time I give you that job,” Tony said, flicking Dummy’s claw in chastisement. He looked back down at Spike, who was blinking up at him. “See? We’re all one big family here. JARVIS, Dummy, Butterfingers, and You are all your big brothers. You’ve got a sister upstairs that I’ll introduce you to in a bit.”
“Daddy?” Spike poked Tony before poking Dummy’s claw.
“That’s what you call me,” Tony agreed.
Spike seemed displeased, his power cord going back and forth between Tony and Dummy. “Brother!” He poked Dummy. “Daddy!” Tony was poked again. “Monster brother!” This time the cord poked up at the ceiling.
There was a short pause as Spike seemed to consider something, his eye shuttering as he thought. Tony could hear a spike in humming directly before Spike spoke again. “You daddy us!”
Satisfied, Spike settled into silence, looking up at Tony, who was momentarily stupefied.
“I believe he accessed the Internet,” JARVIS said, answering his unspoken question.
Tony had tried to hook Spike into the Internet at Charles’s place, but Spike had been particularly stubborn about it. Now he was accessing the Internet on his own?
He really needed to take a look at his programming.
Other than the constant mystery surrounding just what Tony had done to Spike’s code when creating him, he realized that Spike had effectively just called him the daddy of the family (which was technically true, but he felt uncomfortable being called such).
“I’m hooking you into JARVIS whether you like it or not,” Tony informed Spike. “It’ll link you with the rest of the family and help you learn better. I also need to take a look at your code, but I’ll do that later.”
He pushed himself off the ground with his telekinesis, landing on his feet shortly after setting his crutches down. “If you destroy anything,” he told the trio of bigger AIs surrounding him, “you’re all going to be put through pre-school with Spike. I’m sure JARVIS would enjoy it.”
Tony smirked slightly, pulling Spike, who squeaked with surprise, up to his hand. He watched Dummy, Butterfingers, and You return to their stations and then left, slowly making his way to the kitchen.
The moment he passed the doorway, he was greeted with the beeping music of something that sounded eerily like I’m Glad You Came before changing abruptly to something that sounded like Titanium by David Guetta. Then Peggy saluted him with the wedding march, waving to him with the stretchy arm of the sink.
Steve was standing by that sink, looking up as he heard the first music choice, a smile on his face. He waited until the wedding march subsided before saying, “Hey.”
Tony couldn’t help but smile back, hopping over to the countertop by Peggy to place Spike down, discreetly lifting the other (and way more significantly advanced) coffee machine out of sight on top of the fridge. “Hey, girl,” he said, patting the stovetop. “It’s been a while.”
Peggy responded with something that sounded melancholic and flashed her lights.
“You had Steve,” Tony said, looking up to meet Steve’s warm gaze.
This time the response was an insulted beep that clearly told Tony that Peggy didn’t consider Steve a suitable replacement.
“Yeah, okay. Missed you, too.” Tony glanced at Spike, who was curiously watching him interact with his bigger sister. “I’d like to introduce you to someone, Peggy.”
She beeped curiously.
“This is Spike.” Tony didn’t know how much Peggy could see considering she was a stove (he thought she might be using the cameras in the kitchen), but she noticed Spike and gave him a toot that sounded extremely welcoming.
“Sister?” Spike asked, blinking up at Tony.
“Yep. This is Peggy.”
“Peggy!” Spike chirped in response.
Peggy’s arm extended from the sink (he’d made it super extendable?) to stretch to Spike, shaking his power cord in greeting.
“Why don’t you two get to know each other?” Tony looked down at Peggy. “Tell him more about JARVIS, since I know you get along with him.”
“Monster brother!” Spike informed Peggy, already rolling over her top to get closer to the sink.
“Monster brother?” Steve asked, amused. He’d moved over to the table.
“JARVIS apparently.” Tony watched for a few more moments as the two interacted with each other via their arms.
He was distracted when an arm looped around his waist and Steve murmured in his ear, “You should eat now.”
Tony found himself sitting down at the table, facing a rather imposing breakfast of eggs, oatmeal, fruits, and some nuts. “Did I somehow get injected with the serum? I can’t eat this much.”
“I know.” Steve took the seat next to him. “Some of this is for me, but you’re going to eat a bit of everything.”
“This is disgustingly domestic,” Tony said, taking some eggs onto his plate. It was promptly joined by fruits courtesy of Steve.
“Is that bad?” Steve looked disbelievingly innocent.
“No, no.” Tony waved his forkful of egg in answer. “Just an observation.”
Now Steve looked distinctly unimpressed, pointing his own fork at Tony’s plate. “Eat.”
Tony obligingly put his forkful of egg in his mouth, eating. All things considered, it was the least he could do considering what he’d put Steve through (unintentionally, but still!).
Surprisingly, they weren’t disturbed by the other Avengers. Tony had the suspicion this had to do with Steve.
Regardless, not having their friends around didn’t mean that Tony would be free from answering questions. Once they’d finished with their breakfast (Steve eating the bulk of it), Steve started the conversation.
“Clint and Natasha removed all of the bugs,” Steve said, turning towards Tony. “I think you owe me an explanation.”
Taking a moment to confirm what Steve had said, Tony inclined his head, playing with the coffee mug Spike had poured for him in the middle of their breakfast.
“We were compromised,” he answered finally, looking up afterward to meet Steve’s eyes.
Steve frowned. “Compromised how?”
“JARVIS was, and so was I by extension.” Tony tapped the homing bracelets he had on. “Those override codes you used even though you shouldn’t have”—Steve didn’t even look remotely apologetic—“were picked up by Fury because he’d bugged our communications system. And it snowballed from there, since he had S.H.I.E.L.D. use them to make a whole bunch of codes. They were then inserted into JARVIS.” His grin was sarcastic. “Which was just fucking awesome, especially since they were hacked into and another organization got their hands on the codes.”
“That isn’t it, is it.” It wasn’t a question.
“He prevented JARVIS from getting in touch with you,” Tony said flatly. “The other organization cut JARVIS off from the tower before he could tell us that hostiles were heading for us. They killed my suit when I was fighting them. Fury fucked up, Steve. He fucked up majorly. JARVIS was unable to get in touch with anyone because of the half-assed coding his lackeys did. If Spider-Man hadn’t been there, things would have ended differently.”
Steve’s hands were so tightly clenched the knuckles were white. A moment later he leaned forward, hiding his face in his hands, the forced steady rhythm of his breathing telling Tony he was trying to calm down.
“It’s taken care of,” Tony went on quickly. “I made sure of it. I’ll have to give you the new override codes, but even if Fury hears them this time, he can’t do anything with them. You’re the only one who can vocally use them. And it has to be vocal. Nothing else will work.”
Steve didn’t look up, still focusing on his meditative breathing. Tony kept quiet now, looking over to where Spike and Peggy were also quiet, sensing that it wasn’t a time to be raucous.
When Steve finally released his breath in a loud rush, he looked up to meet Tony’s eyes, face stony. “Is there anything else?” he asked, tone flat.
Tony swallowed lightly, eyes darting to the side for a brief second before returning to Steve’s. “I went to Pepper because I needed her on board for something,” he said. “I needed to know that I’d have SI’s backing if this succeeded. This being pulling the Avengers from S.H.I.E.L.D. and making it its own organization free from any outside influence.”
“But the problem’s Fury. If you remove him—”
“The problem isn’t Fury. The problem started with him, but it’s not going to end there. We’re dangerous, Steve. And dangerous entities are always sought after to be controlled. We’re made up of a literal god, a man who turns into a virtually indestructible rage monster, a super soldier, two master assassins, and a man in a technological suit of armor.” Tony smiled wryly. “There is no universe where that doesn’t make a lot of people nervous. We’re curtailed, Steve; we’re like a dog on a leash that isn’t released until the owner wants to let him go.”
“But we need S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Steve pointed out.
“No, we don’t. The only thing they do is point us where the trouble is and debrief us to get the information they need after it’s done. I’m supplying the living space, the weapons, and the uniforms. I’m even supplying the funds. We could separate right now if we wanted, but I need to make sure this is legal. I can’t have Fury throw any of us in jail because of something I missed.”
He grinned. “I’ll have to make sure we can still keep the name. If S.H.I.E.L.D.’s copyrighted it, we’ll have to go for something else.”
Steve didn’t look amused. “It seems a bit excessive to cut ties to S.H.I.E.L.D.”
“Look, Steve, it’s not just this thing. Fury’s overstepping his bounds. He isn’t an Avenger, but he’s making the decisions that you should. He’s the one who dumped me at the X-Men for training I didn’t need to stay there for. He’s the one who decided I should be benched during the duration of that time without any discussion. He’s also the one that lied to all of us about that mission you guys went on. And let’s not forget that he bugged us.”
Tony took a breath. “He started the Avengers. But we’re a team on our own now. Just…” He looked down at his cold coffee, unsure of how he could phrase this.
Steve touched the back of his hand, which was holding the mug, in reassurance. “What?”
Tony took comfort from that simple touch. “Clint and Natasha. They worked for S.H.I.E.L.D. first.”
“You don’t think we can trust them.”
“I don’t like it. I want to trust them. But…” Tony didn’t say anything else, feeling slightly sick.
“You want to be cautious.” His eyes flickered down to their hands before looking back up. “I trust them,” he said evenly, “but I understand. Whatever you decide, Tony, I’ll have your back.”
He closed his eyes, exhaling in relief. “Thanks.”
“We should still talk with the team about this because it deals with all of us,” Steve continued.
“No need to,” Bruce’s voice said from the kitchen doorway.
They both jumped slightly, surprised, before looking to see their teammates standing there.
“How much did you hear?” Tony asked tightly.
“Everything,” Bruce answered, leading them into the kitchen. “I asked JARVIS to show us.” He sat down on Tony’s other side.
“JARVIS?” Tony glanced in irritation up towards where the camera was located.
“He put forth a most compelling argument,” JARVIS said, not sounding very sorry.
“So you don’t trust us?” Clint was standing next to Natasha, arms crossed in front of his chest. “I thought we were a part of this team.”
“You were a part of S.H.I.E.L.D. first. Forgive me for thinking that you might have divided loyalties.”
“My first loyalty is to the team,” Clint said firmly. “It has been for a while.” He glanced askance at Natasha, who hadn’t stopped staring at Tony.
Natasha tightened her jaw briefly. “When I was assigned to you,” she started, “I thought you were a pompous, egoistic, narcissistic, arrogant, womanizing dickhead. I thought you were in it for the glory and the fame. Iron Man was a hero, but Tony Stark wasn’t.”
“Natasha—” Steve didn’t sound happy.
“But I was wrong,” she continued, cutting him off. “I didn’t realize that you wore as many masks as I did. You’ve shown me friendship and respected me.” Her lips curved into a small smile. “I consider you a friend. You – this team – is what I believe in.”
“The point, Natasha?” Clint prompted.
“Count me in.”
“You know where I stand,” Bruce said, spreading his hands demonstratively. He grinned wryly. “And the other guy, too.”
“I am displeased with the director’s actions,” Thor said. “He has wronged you.” He threw back his shoulders even more. “I consider you a shield brother, Anthony. You may always consider me an ally. S.H.I.E.L.D. is – as you would say – now under probation.” His grin was mischievous.
“You already know my answer,” Steve said quietly.
Speechless, Tony sat back in his seat, looking at each of the Avengers in turn. He was – to put it mildly – touched. He hadn’t thought that they all felt this strongly. Especially Clint and Natasha. Extrapolating from they’d said, the Avengers were their family and had been for a while.
“Thank you,” he said finally, unable to think of anything else to say.
Clint snorted, relaxing suddenly to lean forward on the chair in front of him. “Don’t thank us yet. This isn’t going to be easy, you know. Natasha and I are still tied to S.H.I.E.L.D., and there’s no way Fury’s liable to let Bruce go either.”
“We’re working on that,” Tony said. “JARVIS, how far have you gotten?”
“Gathering from what I have seen in the files, the Avengers are officially named the Avengers Initiative. Agents Barton and Romanov are effectively ghosts in the system, but I have not yet finished my search. Director Fury has no legal authority to keep Dr. Banner from leaving. Mr. Odinson’s existence is disputed to be either a god or an alien, but S.H.I.E.L.D. has no authority over him.”
“Snooping around through classified files again, Mr. Stark?” Natasha raised an eyebrow.
“They are not classified, Agent Romanov,” JARVIS contradicted. “They are available for public viewing for certain individuals.”
“That’s the same thing, isn’t it?” Bruce pointed out.
“Of course not, Doctor. I have the correct authority.”
Tony gave a snort of laughter. “Whose ID are you using, JARVIS?”
“My own, sir, which the director has been so kind to issue me.”
“Oh my God.” Clint sounded horrified. “What monster have you unleashed upon us, Stark?”
“May I just say, Agent, that you look absolutely stunning in a dress,” JARVIS said innocently before Tony could respond.
“That’s classified!” Clint squawked, paling.
Curious, Tony clapped his hands twice and activated the holographic computer screen on the table. JARVIS obligingly pulled up the photos he’d been viewing. Lo and behold, there was Clint Barton in a beautiful figure hugging purple dress. He also had a wavy blonde wig and killer high heels.
Steve and Bruce leaned over to look, both morbidly fascinated.
“That is a stunner,” Bruce agreed.
Clint groaned loudly, ducking his head. Natasha patted his back in comfort, though she looked too amused for her own good.
The lighthearted mood shifted suddenly when JARVIS spoke again, serious this time. “Sir, Director Fury is currently attempting to access the security cameras.”
Tony smirked, tilting his head and chair back to look at the camera. “Pull up the video of the last time we had breakfast and show him that.”
The last time they’d had breakfast together Peggy had finally decided on a song for Natasha. Everyone had frozen when Itsy-Bitsy Spider began to play in beeps. Natasha had simply arched an eyebrow and went about her business; Tony had exhaled a sigh of relief that Peggy wouldn’t be hurt.
There was a momentary pause before JARVIS reported, “There is a car outside the front.”
Humming lightly, Tony pulled his phone out, calling Fury’s number. When the director picked up, Tony instantly drawled, “Hey, honey. Wanna debrief me?”
“Tony…” Steve sounded mortified at the insinuation buried in his words.
“Stark,” Fury said shortly.
Tony wished he could see his face, but sadly S.H.I.E.L.D. phones didn’t offer video capabilities – something about being compromising. “That’s my name,” he said, flashing a grin at a blushing Steve, “don’t wear it out. So, sweetie, did you want to make an appointment?”
“I’ll send a ride.”
“Oh, I don’t think so.” Tony hummed softly, smiling blandly at Clint and Natasha, who were eyeing him uncertainly from the opposite side of the table. “I think you can come here, don’t you? It’d be a shame if you didn’t drop in, considering you’re sitting outside our door and all.”
There was a cold frosty silence from the other end of the line. Then there was a definite click as Fury hung up.
Tony raised an eyebrow, pulling the phone from his ear. “He hung up. That’s rude, isn’t it?”
“You seem calm,” Natasha observed.
“I’m pissed,” Tony said calmly, smiling blandly again.
“So you’re the passive aggressive sort,” Clint said, eyeing Tony as if he was a brand new kind of arrow.
“At least you don’t explode into a giant green monster,” Bruce said.
The doorbell chimed, ringing throughout the house.
There was brief ominous music for a second from Peggy’s corner that sounded like it came from the soundtrack of a horror movie. Spike ruined the mood by suddenly breaking into the chorus of the Ghostbusters theme song.
“JARVIS,” Tony said, ignoring their antics (which had broken out into Peggy scolding Spike in a series of beeps and Spike doing a good impression of a sulking toddler that was a coffee machine), “let him in. Show him to the kitchen, would you?”
“Of course, sir.”
“You two,” Tony called over to the two misbehaving AIs, who promptly froze in the middle of arm wrestling, “keep it down.”
“Yes, sir!” Spike resumed the position of an insentient coffee machine, but directly on top of Peggy’s stovetop.
Peggy’s response was a simple assenting beep before her sink arm retracted to innocently sit next to the faucet and she completely turned off all lights.
Fury entered the kitchen seconds later, eye scanning over all the Avengers. Clint and Natasha were the only two on the side of the table facing him. Thor had moved to stand by the fridge. Bruce and Steve flanked Tony’s sides on the side of the table closest to Peggy and Spike.
“Hi, sweetheart!” Tony waved at him with the hand still holding the phone. “So glad you could join us! Coffee?” There was an indignant “No!” from behind him. “Okay, so no coffee. Leftovers?” He waved his cold coffee around.
Fury threw a thick file on the table so it slid in front of Tony. “You brought me in here, Stark. I expect to be debriefed the way it should have been done four days ago.” His eyes skimmed over the others. “Do you mind?”
Clint and Natasha gave Fury nods before leaving, glancing back at Tony as they exited. Steve gave Tony a reassuring squeeze on his shoulder, leaving alongside Bruce, who’d given him a discreet nod. Thor walked by Tony’s back, clapping him once on the shoulder and departing without giving Fury so much as a nod.
Tony waited for Fury to take a seat before he took the file, straightening it. “What should I cover, hm?” He flipped back the top cover, feeling a spike in humming as JARVIS apparently began showing the Avengers the feed from the cameras in the kitchen.
Fury’s hands were clasped before him on the table. “Let’s start with why you weren’t at the X-Men’s place for the pickup, but rather chumming it with your girlfriend.”
“Hey, bub, if you were jealous of my relationship with Pepper, you just had to say it. Unless you’re upset that I didn’t entrust you with the codes the way I did Steve. If you wanted codes to the suit, you could’ve just asked.” Tony flicked through the sheets in the file, taking in the questions. The last several pages had one topic: Spider-Man. “It wouldn’t have done anything, but I could’ve rigged it into a nice video game. You like Spy Kids, right?”
“Or maybe I should go with something sleazier than that. Mission Impossible, perhaps? They’ve got some really bad guys in those films.” Tony clapped the file shut, offering Fury a cold smile. “Would you care to explain why that organization after my head had a Quinjet when S.H.I.E.L.D. is the only agency other than the Avengers that is in possession of the designs?”
Fury’s face remained impassive. “We were hacked,” he admitted.
“Oh, awesome. Except for the fact that I already knew that. You know why? Because someone’s been a sneaky little bugger and playing where they shouldn’t have been. I gave those override codes to Steve. I did not give them to S.H.I.E.L.D. to play around willy-nilly with and to eventually be stolen because S.H.I.E.L.D. is incapable of installing adequate firewalls.”
“We were taking precautions. Don’t think I haven’t noticed you hacking into our systems every other day.”
“Did you think about what would happen if you messed with JARVIS like that? You let amateurs mess with my coding. That mess that happened at the tower was because you couldn’t keep your nose out of my stuff. No contact with the Avengers? Fine. No contact with anyone because JARVIS’s code was epically fucked up thanks to amateurs who can’t code to save their lives messing with it? Count yourself fortunate that S.H.I.E.L.D. is still there.”
“I think someone is getting in over their heads,” Fury said in a low voice, his one eye warning Tony to back off.
“Who?” His voice lifted in confusion. “Are you talking about me? ’Cause I was under the impression that I was just offering you some friendly advice. See, the thing is, I’m one of those guys that sometimes has trouble telling black from white. It’s just a big gray area. Or math. Let’s go with that. It’s all just numbers. And S.H.I.E.L.D. is one big variable that’s kind of bugging me, because it just keeps on messing up my equations. So take it from a guy who knows how to work the math: Don’t be that ugly variable. Be a nice one.”
“We still have those codes.”
Tony couldn’t help it: he laughed. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Fury, but I’m a futurist. If something’s obsolete, I built something new and better. And those codes you have? They’re stone age. Go on and try it.” His grin was predatory. “I’d love to see the results. ’Cause I’m not quite sure what’ll happen if you do. It might just make all your computers really slow. But it could also permanently crash your entire system.” The grin was gone. “So do it. I dare you.”
Fury stared at Tony, who stared right back. Cold anger was still pulsing through his system at the thought of Fury messing with JARVIS. He could mess with Tony all he wanted. He got fucked over on a regular basis. But JARVIS? He was just lucky that all Tony was doing was taking the Avengers.
Finally, Fury spoke. “A.I.M. – Advanced Idea Mechanics. That’s who was after your sorry ass.”
“Funny. I would’ve thought they’d be called the Beekeepers.”
“I’d watch your back if I were you, Stark,” Fury said, standing up with a screech as the chair slid back over the tiles.
Tony stood up as well, ignoring the twinge in his thigh. “Is that a threat?”
Fury looked at him. “A warning.” Then he was gone, leaving the file behind.
Working his jaw for a few moments as he stared at the empty doorway, Tony finally said, “Send a message to his server, JARVIS: I’m not doing his fucking debrief.”
“And the others can get back in here now.”
As if summoned like Thor calling his hammer, they all piled into the kitchen scant seconds later.
“Remind me never to get you mad,” Clint told him. “That passive aggressive thing you’ve got going on is scary.”
“You piss me off daily, Clint.”
“No, I annoy you. Fury pissed you off.”
“Is that it?” Steve asked quietly, meeting his eyes.
“No.” Tony picked up the file, flicking to the end where the questions about Spider-Man were located. “Not yet.”
It wasn’t over yet, but at least he would have the Avengers behind him.
It was done. Professor Charles Xavier’s new and improved wheelchair of Tony Stark’s own personal design was finally complete. It was sleek and shiny, but that wasn’t the only thing. It had sensors built into it to read Charles’s minute movements and move based on that. It was based off of the systems in Tony’s suit, but more refined because there was no JARVIS to help.
It had wheels, but there were also repulsors built into it in case something happened that Charles would need to get away from. There was an emergency button that he could press (or activate vocally) if something happened to incapacitate him. The wheelchair was also capable of simply flying if Charles so wished it, but Tony thought he’d rather prefer to remain on the ground; he seemed like an old-fashioned kind of guy in that aspect.
“Is there some reason you’re grinning maniacally like a mad scientist?” Steve asked from the corner. He had a sketchbook on his lap.
“Die!” Spike cackled maniacally from his vantage point at Dummy’s workstation. Playing along, Dummy cowered, ducking his head as Spike’s cords batted at him.
“It’s done!” Tony announced, shutting the compartment he had just finished wiring.
“You’re still grinning.”
“This’ll revamp transportation,” Tony said, looking over at Steve. “I know you saw my dad’s epic failure of a flying car; this is way better because it actually works.”
Steve put aside the sketchbook, coming over to Tony to view the wheelchair more closely. “You’re bringing it to him today, aren’t you?”
“I meant to get it to him a week ago,” Tony admitted, tossing the rag he’d wiped his hands on over his shoulder. “But things came up.” He glanced at Spike, who was zipping along the ceiling of the workshop with the brand new repulsors Tony had installed in him two days ago. He was making noises to signify firing guns.
Steve was silent, watching Spike as well. “I’m still not sure that was a good idea,” he confided.
“JARVIS is keeping an eye on it,” Tony dismissed. “I finally managed to get him hooked into the system with the others, so he’s got a support system helping him learn.”
Steve had a look on his face that made Tony think he was thinking about Peggy, also hooked into the system and still stubbornly obstinate about only letting Steve and Tony use her. She also hadn’t stopped dousing Thor with her sink arm every time he came near her.
“Think of him as a toddler,” Tony explained, observing Spike roll around on the wall with his wheels. “He’s going to grow up eventually. It’s in his coding.” He’d finally taken a look at Spike’s coding and found that Spike was essentially the AI equivalent of a human toddler. That meant he was going to eventually grow up. Personally, Tony was dreading the teenager years.
“Put that way…” Steve grinned wryly. “I trust you, Tony.”
“Mommy!” Spike dropped down by Steve, curling his cord in a loose loop around Steve’s neck.
“Clint,” Steve sighed.
Apparently Clint had told Spike that since Tony was his daddy, Steve was his mommy. This was then corroborated with the articles Spike had found on the Internet about the traditional American family. Tony had had JARVIS show Spike same-sex families with two mothers or two fathers, but Spike still stubbornly called Steve Mommy.
“At least he’ll let you scold him,” Tony offered, leaning over to give Steve a quick peck on the cheek before he went to the sink to depose of his towel. “I’m gonna take a shower before heading over to drop off the wheelchair.”
Steve had Spike in his arms now. “Remember we have that date at six.”
Freezing momentarily, Tony paused in the action of cleaning his hands before blinking and continuing, drying them with the towel he had appropriated for this purpose. This would be their first date as a couple, though Steve had taken him out before, albeit unknowingly on Tony’s part. Tony would admit that he was slightly nervous about this.
“I’ll be there,” he said, offering a quick smile.
He probably shouldn’t bring flowers…
Spike flew by, cackling something that sounded vaguely like “It’s alive!” Dummy chased after him, whirring anxiously.
Tony sighed. If his bots hadn’t chased Steve off, nothing probably would.
When the door to the X-Men’s mansion opened, Tony had a broad grin plastered on his face. “Hi!” he greeted, bouncing excitedly on the balls of his feet.
Scott seemed rather taken aback to be greeted so enthusiastically, though he did step aside to let Tony in, the wheelchair floating behind him. The suitcase armor was resting in the seat.
“The professor is in his study,” Scott said, sidling by a clearly manic Tony.
“I don’t bite,” Tony said charitably, already heading in the direction of the study. Showing off his inventions – especially when they were new and shiny like this wheelchair – always got him a bit excited.
Scott gave a disbelieving clearing of his throat, but didn’t say anything.
Charles wasn’t alone in the room, as Logan was sitting there as well. The two were bent over something, but looked up when Tony and Scott entered.
“It’s done!” Tony began without preamble and before anyone could ask if he was all right. “Would you like the instruction manual or the general walk-through?”
Charles’s eyes swept over the shiny new wheelchair, now sitting innocently on the floor (the armor had been taken off to rest by the door). “Perhaps both.”
“Sure.” Tony set a microphone in front of Charles. “Do me a favor and say this: emergency override Xavier, Charles.”
Charles repeated the words and Tony watched the light at the microphone blink green to signify that it had successfully recorded it.
“Hang on a moment.” Tony popped in his earpiece, connecting it to JARVIS. “Hey, JARVIS, access the vocal file I just made and link it into the wheelchair. I’d do it myself, but I’d rather not risk messing anything up.”
JARVIS sounded distinctly unbelieving. “Of course, sir.”
While he waited, Tony began explaining the chair’s features. “That was your emergency code in case you need to get away. It’ll activate the repulsors. You’ve also got a button on the side here”—he turned the wheelchair to show it—“that’ll do the same thing. It’s only keyed into your fingerprint, so if you could touch it once before I leave, I’ll make sure it works.”
“How does it move?” Charles had wheeled out from behind the desk to position himself directly by the new wheelchair.
Tony grinned at this question, eyes lighting up in glee. “It reads your minute body movements and moves in accordance to that. But if you’re not entirely comfortable with that, it’s also got a manual stick”—he pointed to a small toggle stick built into the armrest—“that’ll do the same thing. You can switch it from wheels to repulsors.” He demonstrated by pressing something on the inside of the armrest, stepping back slightly as the wheels retracted slightly, only for the repulsors to activate and lift the wheelchair. “You can easily get up stairs this way.”
“Can it actually fly?” Logan asked, leaning forward as if he could force the wheelchair to reveal its secrets simply by staring at it long enough.
“Of course it can.” Tony sounded insulted. He tapped the base of the left armrest, revealing a panel of green light. He sat down on the chair before sliding his fingers over the panel, which turned to blue as his fingers went over it. The wheelchair began to rise until he was hovering above Scott’s head. “Just move away from your body to lift and towards to drop.” The wheelchair dropped slowly to the ground. “The speed it rises or drops depends on how quickly you brush over the sensors.”
“Fascinating,” Charles remarked, sounding eerily like Spock.
“Isn’t it?” Tony beamed, springing off the chair. He’d abandoned his crutches by this point despite doctor’s orders, but wasn’t fool enough to strain his leg and rip the wound open. “So, want to try it? If something doesn’t work, I can fix it.” Leaning over, he pressed the same spot as before to revert the hovering wheelchair back to wheels.
Charles gave an acquiescing nod, and with Scott’s help began to move over.
Logan took the opportunity to stand by Tony’s side. “All right?”
Tony tilted his head forward. “I’ve been meaning to thank you for that back there,” he murmured.
“Not that I don’t like a good fight,” Logan dismissed, “but that would’ve been stupid.”
The wheelchair exchange done, Charles began experimenting with it. Tony first had him press his finger on the emergency button and had JARVIS imprint his fingerprint into the wheelchair. That done, Charles experimentally moved without touching the toggle stick. He looked rather surprised when the wheelchair moved without him touching anything.
Tony couldn’t help but grin when Charles switched to repulsors, peering over the side to see himself lift off the floor.
“Cool, isn’t it?” Tony bounced excitedly, causing Logan to shift aside in an act of self-preservation. “Want to try stairs?”
Leaving the study behind Charles, Tony found himself standing at the foot of the stairs as Charles began moving up them. Scott and Logan stayed back, having learned from Tony’s month-long stay that it was better to distance themselves from a manic Tony Stark.
As they watched Charles spin around on the stairs and descend, they were joined by Kitty, Rogue, and Kurt.
“Oh wow.” Kitty moved up to stand by Tony. “That the professor’s new chair?”
“I’m actually jealous,” Rogue commented.
“If all goes well,” Tony said, “I’m thinking of moving this to cars.”
“Flying cars,” Kitty said, impressed. “Count me in.”
“I would be most interested in a flying car,” Kurt said.
“I’ll put your names down.”
“They’re not driving anything that hasn’t been tested,” Scott said firmly.
“Relax.” Tony glanced back at him. “I haven’t even begun designing them. It’ll be at least a year before anything’s even built.”
“What is the power source?” Charles asked from above them, actually hovering ten feet in the air over their heads.
Tony tilted his head back, looking up at the bottom of the chair and directly at the blue light of the repulsors. “A miniaturized arc reactor. Enough power to wipe out part of Central Park”—the others looked alarmed—“but it’s perfectly safe.” He tapped his own reactor under his sweater. “Got one myself, remember? Yours is smaller, so it’s less destructive.”
“And how destructive is yours?” Scott asked.
“It depends.” Tony shrugged. “Full power, it could probably wipe half of Manhattan off the map. Empty…maybe a quarter.”
“And you have that in your chest?” Logan sounded like he was considering Tony officially crazy.
“Powering an electromagnet and keeping my heart going. Not many options other than a car battery.” He said the words casually, but a shiver ran up his back as the first memory of realizing he was hooked into a car battery flooded into his mind.
“Why haven’t you had it fixed?” Rogue asked. “It’s been years.”
“I’ve looked into it.” Tony shifted so he was behind the wheelchair as Charles landed on the floor. He began checking the readouts on its performance on his phone, JARVIS feeding it to him. There was nothing wrong according to the humming in the back of his head. “But it’s virtually impossible.”
A metal tube going down into his chest couldn’t just be fit in there. Parts of his rib cage had been cut out and his entire sternum and various muscles removed to make room for it. Then there was the fact that his body had become used to the arc reactor. The last time he’d checked whether it was possible to have the reactor and shrapnel removed, JARVIS had sympathetically informed him the arc reactor was too involved in his bodily functions to be removed.
So for the moment, he was stuck with it.
“It looks good,” Tony informed Charles. “You having any problems?”
“It is very simple to maneuver,” Charles said. “Thank you, Tony.”
Tony flashed him a grin. “Absolutely no problem. I consider it doing a service to my fellow man. Your old one was absolutely pathetic.”
“We’re keeping it,” Scott said hastily.
“Fine.” Tony put his phone away, smiling at all of them. “Considering my work here is done, I’ll take my leave. I have a date.”
“Have fun!” Kitty said, grinning. “Just so you know, you look nice.”
He was dressed in a dark sweater and jeans, since whatever place Steve had picked out wouldn’t be that formal. “Thanks.”
“She means you look smoking,” Rogue said bluntly. “Can I take a pic?” Her phone was out and snapping a picture before Tony could answer. “Thanks!” She grabbed Kurt by the elbow, and both were gone in a smell of burnt brimstone.
Kitty was blushing. “Sorry,” she stammered.
“I’ll get it back,” Scott said.
“Don’t worry about it,” Tony said immediately. “It’s fine. She just better have gotten my good side.”
There was another shutter click from above their heads and they glanced up, only to see some kids giggling and running away, having escaped with their prize.
“It’s fine,” Tony repeated.
Logan snorted. “I’m going. See ya, Stark.”
“He misses Spike,” Kitty whispered to Tony as Logan made his exit.
“He keeps glaring at the new coffee machine.”
“He could visit if he wants to,” Tony said, looking down at his watch. It read five, meaning he should get going if he wanted to arrive at the date on time. It was too late for a car, but he had his suit.
“We’ll let you leave,” Charles said, smiling at him. “Once again, thank you, Tony.”
“Let me know if you have any trouble,” Tony replied, nodding once.
“You’ll visit, won’t you?” Kitty blurted.
Tony grinned. “You bet I will. I’ll bring Steve and Spike.”
Three minutes later Tony had retrieved his armor and made his way outside. Charles, Scott, and Kitty followed him, standing on the front steps as he set the armor on the ground, about to kick it open when JARVIS spoke into his ear via the earpiece he’d never taken out.
“There has been a sighting of Spider-Man.”
A click of a button later on his bracelets and the armor assembled around him. When the faceplate slid down, he gave his viewers a two-fingered salute before taking off.
“Give me the address.” Tony checked the time, sighing when he noted he was going to be late. “And send Steve a message. Tell him I’ll explain when I get there.”
The address flickered over the HUD screen, along with the message JARVIS quickly compiled. Approving it, the text was quickly sent off to Steve’s phone.
Tony thought he would understand.
It was lucky that JARVIS had eyes in the cameras of New York, because Spider-Man was no longer in the place where he’d originally been sighted. Instead he was swinging through the skies, zipping by cameras almost as fast as Tony or JARVIS could find him.
But Tony was in the suit, and that wasn’t slow by any stretch of imagination. He used the information from the cameras to figure out where Spider-Man would go and headed there as fast as he could.
He got there ahead of time, floating by the clock tower until he could hear the humming that signified the web shooters approaching.
Broadcasting his voice so it carried, Tony called, “Hey, Spider-Man!”
He was gratified a few seconds later when something stuck to the building and Spider-Man flew into view, landing on the surface with all the grace that spiders possessed.
“Iron Man!” The kid sounded flustered.
“Hey, kid.” Tony lowered so he was on Spider-Man’s level. “Can we talk?”
There was a tell-tale hesitation and Tony quickly added, “Just talk. I don’t have anything else up my sleeve.”
“Sure. Just lemme get to a better position.” There was a whir as Spider-Man released another stream of webbing and jumped up to the top where he could sit. Tony landed next to him, sliding the faceplate back so the kid could see his face.
“I wanted to thank you,” he said.
“No prob!” Spider-Man’s voice was kind of high-pitched, Tony thought. “Are…are you okay? I mean…there was kind of a lot of blood.”
“I’m sorry about that.” Tony gave a self-deprecating grin. “I’m fine now. But my friends tell me I owe my life to you.”
“Just doing my job.” Spider-Man sounded kind of embarrassed.
“I also wanted to thank you for your help,” Tony continued. “I would’ve been in a bind if you hadn’t been there.”
Spider-Man gave a small shrug. “I was in the neighborhood. It was kind of hard to miss the giant jet sitting on one of the buildings.”
“Well, thanks.” Tony sobered. “Has an agency called S.H.I.E.L.D. been giving you any problems?”
His answer was a slight head tilt. “I’m not very popular with the cops here, but I haven’t seen any weirder people than normal hanging around.”
Relief flooded Tony. “Okay, great. Just so you know, if you ever need something, come by either Stark Towers or our home, Avengers Mansion. We can help you out.”
“Th-that’s not really necessary—”
“I insist. I know you’re working solo and I get it, but you have help if you need it.” Tony smiled wryly. “You have my number at any rate.”
“I couldn’t!” Spider-Man’s voice was rather high-pitched again.
“Yes, you totally could. I insist. I’d hand you the others’ numbers as well, but I don’t have any paper on me.” Tony raised an eyebrow. “So? I can be very persuasive if you need more to make up your mind.”
Spider-Man was silent for a moment, and Tony could almost see the gears turning in the kid’s head. He hoped he said yes because that would make it easier for Tony to keep an eye on him. If S.H.I.E.L.D. ever started bothering Spider-Man, at least he would know that he had some sort of ally with the Avengers.
“I’d have to be an idiot to say no to Tony Stark,” Spider-Man said finally, standing up. He didn’t seem at all off balance on the thin ledge. “So yeah. I guess that’s my answer.” There was a slight stretch to the mask that made Tony think he was grinning.
“Awesome.” Tony held out a hand to shake on it and Spider-Man took it after a slight hesitation. “So if guys in suits start stalking you, you should probably come to us. It’ll be S.H.I.E.L.D. and I can take care of that.”
“I’ll do that.”
“Great. Nice talking to you.” Tony grinned, closing the faceplate. “See you around, Spider-Man. I’ve got a date to get to.”
“Have fun,” Spider-Man offered.
Iron Man’s impassive visage nodded at him. “Will do so,” was the mechanized voice’s response. “Later!”
With that, he shot off, one destination in mind.
The armor was taken off in an alley and Tony grabbed hold of it as he left for the diner Steve had chosen in the middle of Brooklyn. Entering the small establishment, the hostess gave him a professional nod and smile before leading him to where Steve was already seated.
It was six-fifteen.
“Sorry I’m late,” Tony said, sliding into the booth facing Steve. “You got my message, right?”
“I got it,” Steve confirmed, smiling. “It’s fine.” His smile broadened into a grin. “But I’m waiting on that explanation.”
“Right.” Tony took the menu he was given, Steve doing the same. He started when the hostess left, “So you know Spider-Man—” he cut off when a cheery waitress approached them.
“Hi, my name’s Meg, and I’ll be taking care of you guys tonight.” She was a pretty brunette who didn’t seem at all surprised to have two famous heroes sitting before her. “So what can I get you started with?”
“Water for now, thanks,” Steve said.
“Same,” Tony said.
“That’ll be right out.” She left.
“So as I was saying,” Tony began again, “Spider-Man. I had JARVIS keep an eye out for sightings because I needed to talk with him. Tonight was the first we got anything. It was right as I was leaving the X-Men’s, so I left immediately.”
“You found him, right?”
“I did.” Tony fingered the edges of the menu. “I offered him the help of the Avengers if he ever needed it.”
Steve didn’t seem remotely surprised. “If I’d met him myself, I would have offered. Did he agree?”
“Yeah, he did.” Tony sat back as Meg came over again with two glasses of water.
“You gents ready to order or do you need more time?” she asked.
Tony hadn’t even opened the menu.
“What’s your specialty?” Steve asked, not having opened his own menu.
“We make a mean burger,” she replied, smiling.
“I’ll have that,” Tony said immediately. You could never really go wrong with a burger.
“Likewise,” Steve agreed.
“Anything else to drink?”
“I think we’re fine,” Steve said, glancing at Tony to confirm.
“Sure thing.” Meg took the menus back and left. “Two burgers coming up.”
“Everything else’s fine?” Steve inquired, shooting a glance at the suitcase armor sitting next to Tony. “How’d the professor like it?”
Tony smiled broadly. “It went great. And I have several potential drivers for that flying car.”
That elicited a laugh, which had been his intention.
“By the way,” Tony said, “this might be a good time to mention that I forgot to bring flowers.”
Steve had a ridiculously fond grin on his face. “Probably a good thing, since I’m not really a flower kind of guy.”
“Oh good. Neither am I. Did I mention that I once brought Pepper strawberries and it turned out to be something she was allergic to?”
“Tony.” Steve reached out to grab hold of his hand, squeezing it reassuringly. “It’s fine. I love you and that’s not going to change because you were late. It was for a good cause.”
“It might happen again. The being late thing. ’Cause sometimes I get caught up in my head and I don’t realize what time it is until it’s five minutes after the appointment—”
“Tony,” Steve interrupted, smiling fondly. “Shut up.”
Tony shut his mouth. “Shutting up.”
“I know you’re probably still nervous,” Steve continued quietly, “but I’m really serious about this.”
Tony cleared his throat, wetting his lips. “Yeah, but…you always struck me as the kind of guy to look for a pretty gal and a white-picket fence.”
“That was then,” Steve said simply. “This is now. And I’m looking at you, Tony. And unless you haven’t told me something, you’re definitely not a gal. I don’t need a white-picket fence as long as I have you.”
“So definitely long-term then?” Tony couldn’t help but ask.
Steve had a wide smile on his face. “Definitely long-term.”
“Long-term.” Tony sighed. “That’s…that’s good. So…” He leaned forward slightly. “…this a good time to ask what we should call each other? I’m waffling between boyfriend and partner. One sounds too teenagey and the other makes it sound like we’re business partners.”
“We don’t have to call it anything,” Steve said, leaning forward to meet Tony halfway. “But I was thinking partner sounded nice. Holding hands makes it pretty clear that we’re not business partners.”
“I love you,” Tony blurted. “But I don’t really get it. How are you comfortable with this? I know Fury briefed you on significant movements like LGBT rights, but how is it so easy for you? Don’t get me wrong – I’m not shy or anything”—as if he could be with his history—“but you grew up in an era where being open about this was a crime.”
Steve was silent for a moment, a considering look in his eyes. When he spoke, it was slowly as if he was weighing each and every word. “I never thought it was just about the gender. For me it was all about the person, guy or girl. Not that I could do anything about it,” he said, “small and skinny as I was. No one would’ve taken a second look at me. So it wasn’t like I could have relationships. Then there was Peggy, but…” He had a rather pained look on his face. Tony was beginning to regret asking this question, but Steve took a breath and soldiered on. “When I woke up, I never realized how much had changed. When it became clear that it was accepted and allowed…I knew I didn’t have to hide it.”
“You weren’t dating anyone.”
“No, I wasn’t. The only people I was in contact with were S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and you guys when the Avengers started. I honestly hadn’t expected to find anyone, considering what my name’s become. Then, well…you.”
“You hated me when we met.” Tony’s brow furrowed.
“Hate’s a bit of a strong word. I didn’t hate you, Tony. I didn’t really know what to think of you. I kind of thought you were an arrogant butthead,” Steve admitted. “But then when you offered us your house, I realized that wasn’t true. Then there were all the other little things you did.”
Tony didn’t dare to ask what other little things he’d done. As far as he knew, he’d only done his duty as a responsible teammate.
“And the thing is,” Steve went on, “you don’t even realize it. You don’t realize what it is I see.”
“I’d say something,” Tony said, mouth dry, “but it’d probably be the wrong thing.”
“But I’ll say that anyone who didn’t look twice at you before you got all juiced up was a complete and utter blind idiot. Because it’s not just your body, it’s you.”
“Love you, too,” Steve said, smiling goofily.
Tony frowned slightly, not sure what he’d said to garner that response. “Okay…”
Steve was laughing now.
“You’re crazy,” Tony informed him.
“Two burgers,” Meg announced, setting the plates before them. “Let me know if there’s anything else I can do for you, all right? Enjoy!”
Steve’s shoulders were still shaking, laughing silently now. When he looked up, his face held so much fondness Tony almost couldn’t look. “Don’t ever change, Tony.”
Tony pursed his lips slightly, confused. “Okay.”
The completely evident confusion in his face and tone were enough to set Steve off into laughter again. Resolutely not pouting, Tony began picking at his burger.
Some people got absolutely no appreciation.
Though watching Steve laughing in such a carefree manner was enough to make up for apparently being made fun of.
Two weeks after Tony’s first “official” date with Steve and two more that he arrived on time for, he and JARVIS were almost done with finalizing the details for separating the Avengers from S.H.I.E.L.D. JARVIS had finally found the files belonging to Clint and Natasha, which would summarily be erased so that S.H.I.E.L.D. no longer had control over them. That left them ghosts in the official system, but Tony already had a plan in the last stages that would finalize their U.S. citizenship (officially that was). He’d discussed it with them, and they were fine with losing their status as untraceable spies.
At the moment, though, he wasn’t doing anything sneaky. In fact, he was being so not-sneaky that he was sitting in Stark Towers for a meeting Pepper had arranged with a genius scientist. He had no clue about the scientist’s work, but that was fine because Pepper had given him a file with the order to read it and “For Pete’s sake, Tony, be nice!”
To which he could only say that he was always nice. Pepper had rolled her eyes and left, leaving him to flick through the file, bored until he began to see what the scientist was proposing.
It was some sort of serum that would link a person into technology. It would’ve made him think of cyborgs if it wasn’t for the description detailing that all it changed was the DNA, rewriting it to a standard of perfection.
It reminded him too much of the super soldier serum for him to be comfortable with it. That might have been why Pepper was having him meet with the scientist, one Maya Hansen. From what it looked like, Hansen already had the funding. She seemed to be looking for a market to sell the serum in once it was completed, as the notes claimed it was almost done.
He’d just reached the page dealing with Hansen herself when the door opened to let Pepper in, leading a brown-haired woman.
“Here’s Mr. Stark, Dr. Hansen,” Pepper said, smiling her PA smile that Tony had become intimately familiar with. “I’ll leave you two to it.” She gave Tony a “be nice” look before shutting the door.
Being nice, Tony stood up, offering a perfunctory handshake. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Hansen. Please, have a seat.”
“Thank you, Mr. Stark.” Hansen sat down, looking down at the file laying closed on the desk. “Have you looked at my proposal?”
“Straight to the point, hm?” Tony sat down, one hand on his jacket to keep it straight. “A woman after my own heart.”
Hansen opened her mouth, but Tony continued speaking. “I did have a look at your work. Very intriguing. So tell me, Doctor, why Stark Industries?”
“Your work with the Iron Man suit inspired me,” Hansen said. “Seeing man and technology work so closely together so that they were almost one had me wonder: Was it not possible to unite man and technology? Not have them separate, but rather as one being working in harmony? That was when my work was begun.”
“That was in two thousand and eight. You’ve already come so far in five years? The impression I gathered was that it’s almost complete.”
“It is. I’ve had valuable help. You see, Mr. Stark, I am a biologist, not a computer programmer. And my work is a fusion of the two fields. As such, I needed to seek help elsewhere.”
That didn’t answer his question. “But why this company? I’m sure there are multiple other companies who would love to get their hands on this.”
“Because Stark Industries is revolutionary. You have a vision, Mr. Stark. You look to the future and seek to improve it. Others look only to the present.”
“You are aware that we are not a military company.”
Hansen’s smile was knowing. “I am aware, Mr. Stark. Your announcement was rather widely distributed. Truth be told, you are quite possibly the only mind in the technological field truly capable of understanding my work. And not just the technological side of it; I have heard of your arc reactor.”
That hadn’t been Tony’s work, but he’d certainly become far more intimately acquainted with biology than he’d ever thought he would have to be in the aftermath, what with the palladium poisoning. “I see. So you want me. But what is your goal with this? I’m sure you understand that if you go with this company, the military won’t be getting their hands on this.”
“I want to help people, Mr. Stark. My work doesn’t just unite man and technology. It rewrites DNA to what we know as perfection and beyond. Millions of diseases would be wiped out.”
Tony tapped a pen on the table, looking at it as he spoke, rotating his chair slightly from side to side. “I’m going to be blunt, Doctor.” He leaned forward. “Are you attempting to replicate Dr. Erskine’s work from World War II?”
Hansen answered slowly, “I admit that I was partly inspired by his work as well. But it is not an attempt at creating a ‘super soldier’. Unlike the serum, this does not bring a human to the peak of physical and genetic fitness. It simply brings the body to the peak of genetic fitness while integrating it with technology.”
Tony flipped the file open to a specific page, tapping a finger on it. “According to what I can see here, your work possesses some self-awareness. Isn’t that dangerous?”
“Not in the way you would think. It is simply aware to the point that it can rewrite DNA. After that, it is up to the person.”
“So, to summarize, you want Stark Industries because we’re top of the line and I’m behind it”—he smiled, which Hansen returned—“you’re not looking to sell this to the military, and you simply want to help people.” He linked his hands behind his head, giving off a relaxed impression. “I certainly can’t tell how many times I’ve actually wanted to be a computer, but I can’t say the same for others. If we go forward with this, it’d be available only to those who can afford it—”
“I would like to make it affordable for everyone,” Hansen interrupted.
Tony’s eyebrows lifted. “An admirable goal. But you haven’t finished this yet.”
“It’s almost complete,” Hansen hurried to say. “The biological aspects have all been completed.”
This was what Tony had been going after. He didn’t believe that Hansen was entirely altruistic with her efforts. Uniting man with technology provided extraordinary militaristic benefits, and she was just giving that up? There had to be a reason she went to him, as he was now infamous for refusing military contracts and doing anything linked to the military (Rhodey didn’t count).
“The biological aspect?” he asked.
“The coding is not quite complete,” Hansen admitted, dropping her eyes. “The technicians have reached some stumbling blocks, specifically with programming what is needed to be done.”
“From the progress you’ve made, it shouldn’t take very long to solve this problem,” Tony commented.
“The last six months have been spent devoted to this problem. We have yet to figure out how to solve it.”
And Tony got it. “And you came to me. What makes you think I’ll be able to solve this problem? And why I would do it?”
Hansen leaned forward, speaking fervently. “You would do it because it would better the world. Your work is decades beyond anyone else’s in the field of technology. I am certain that you could have solved this without even looking at the rest of the code.”
Tony grinned lightly. “You place a great deal of confidence in my abilities, Doctor. I’m not sure it’s deserved.”
“Please let me be the judge of that, Mr. Stark. I could use your assistance in finishing my work. Would you be willing?”
“That would depend on a number of factors,” Tony said, not outright agreeing. “You know I have a job here.”
“I cannot bring my work to you,” Hansen said. “But I could bring you to it. You can take a look at it there.”
“Well, sure.” He shrugged, his smile bland. “I’d have to talk it over with my team first.”
Hansen straightened. “Please come alone, Mr. Stark. I know you trust your team with your life, but I have heard that several come from government agencies and one is from an entirely different planet. This is extremely sensitive information.”
“I’m a businessman, Dr. Hansen.” Tony wasn’t smiling anymore. “What makes you think I’d be any more trustworthy than my team?”
Hansen had an answer for this. “Because you understand the value of secrecy when it comes to your work. I saw your meeting with the Senate regarding your technology. I know I can trust that you will not reveal what my work is about.”
Tony hummed softly, pressing his fingers together over his desk. He smelled a rat, but couldn’t tell what it was without further investigation. And he couldn’t in good conscience let Maya Hansen’s work continue without him seeing just what exactly was going on.
He dropped his hands to the wood of his desk, interlacing his fingers now. “I’ll talk it over with my team. But I will go by myself.” He inclined his head. “When should I book my flight?”
“Thank you, Mr. Stark.” Hansen smiled, relieved. “Would a week from now be an appropriate time?”
“A week from now – perfect.” Tony sat back, smiling falsely – not that she could tell considering how practiced it was. “I’ll see you then, Doctor. Send me the details. You have my e-mail.”
“Of course, Mr. Stark.” Hansen stood up, shaking Tony’s hand once again as he joined her in standing. “Thank you for meeting with me.”
“Pleasure, Dr. Hansen.”
Hansen departed, leaving Tony to sit back down, studying the name on the file:
THE EXTREMIS PROGRAM
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