Actions

Work Header

Darkening Coruscation

Work Text:

What the Tannhauser gate cluster was, in essence, was a hyperlink node. A galactic crossroads, where multiple hyperspace lanes crossed.

More by luck than judgement, in this particular case. Tannhauser, stuck out off most of the main routes, had never been intended as a node. But multiple pirate and private planetary routes had gone through it, gradually building up the cluster, until the central federations finally had to start taking notice. Most of which entailed setting up a nominal police presence around the node, usually in the form of a semi-regular SHIELD patrol. The cluster was a good bottleneck point for pirate hunts. Or it had used to be, until most of them abandoned the cluster for sneakier routes. After that, the cluster had mostly been taken over by SHIELD itself, used as a handy stop-over and gathering point for operations pointed downstream on any of the cluster's routes.

None of which was really relevant right now, though it explained why Hydra had picked the place for ambush. Tannhauser was big enough to lure a sizable portion of SHIELD's active forces to, and quiet enough that they wouldn't immediately expect a trap.

What was relevant, was that somewhere in the boom period of the cluster's history, some bright spark had decided that it would make a good subspace node as well as a hyperspace one. A nice, policed location in which to set up a bigass subspace interlink out to western arm of the galaxy. And as the physical hyperspace traffic dwindled over the years, the informational subspace traffic actually boomed, until Tannhauser became something like the forty-eighth busiest subspace interlink in the galaxy.

Which was going to be really, really relevant once the Avenger dropped out of hyperspace into physical space, and hyperspace stopped having a shielding effect on subspace communications.

"Oh, this is gonna hurt," Tony muttered. Mostly to himself, or so he'd thought, but Barton looked sidelong at him from where he was braced into one of the pilots' cradles. The rest of the SHIELD crew had strapped themselves down into one of them or the other, though Romanov had deliberately aimed for manual weapons control, and Banner had aimed for the scientific station. Mostly, Tony thought, so he could monitor the rest of them from it.

"What's going to hurt?" Clint asked, with a frown of vague concern that was weirdly touching, all things considered. Tony, kneeling braced on the deck back behind them, armour fully engaged once more, smiled queasily.

"Tell you later," he murmured, as light and casual as he could manage, and then the engines whined behind them, a distinct hum that no-one who'd flown a hyperspace-capable ship could ever mistake. The engines whined a warning, just a second's worth, and then hyperspace shattered apart around them, disgorging them out into realspace in a gut-wrenching whirl of abused scientific principles.

And Tony, as braced as he'd tried to be, catapulted mind-first into the howl of subspace through his implant.

Hyperspace travel was a fucking bitch, when you were uplinked.

For an endless second, he lost touch with his physical senses, lost control or even awareness of his physical body. The universe was a roar of sound, a wall of information pouring straight through his brain, and if JARVIS hadn't had him, if JARVIS hadn't been for that one second the filter through which the universe translated itself, he might well have gone insane. Well, insaner.

There was a reason pilots disabled AI-uplink while in hyperspace. The ones that weren't addicted to the hit, at least.

Because oh, oh, it was addicting. And most pilot uplinks, hooking only into their ships' AIs, didn't get a fraction of the hit Tony did. Tony, who for that one second could sense the entirety of the subspace network spiraling out around him, all the data in the galaxy his for the taking. Tony, who could sense the subspace hub up ahead of him the way planetary eyes could sense the sun. Tony ... who could feel JARVIS, in that moment. Who could touch the entirety that was the AI, the booming invisible presence of him stretching out to that distant planetoid that held his physical housing. Tony, who could feel, in that second, everything his partner was.

JARVIS was the best goddamn hit in the galaxy, and every second the sheer size of him quietly shredded Tony's brain was the best second he'd ever lived.

It didn't last, of course. Which was good, always good, uplink was all very well but you had to have the hardware to handle it, and even partnered with JARVIS through the implant, Tony's brain wasn't actually designed to take regular galactic-sized infodumps, thanks.

Working on it. Baby, oh baby, he was working on it.

{Sir. If I might remind of the battle in realspace?} JARVIS murmured, reproachful and careful and faintly awed. He always was, whenever Tony came down out of uplink like that. As though he didn't quite get that he was the most beautiful thing in the universe when it happened, and got slightly uncomfortable feeling Tony think it.

But that was besides the point, Tony would worry about that later, he would fix that later. Because the instant JARVIS said it, Tony hit ground again, hit his body again, but more to the point hit realtime again. And in realtime, with the focus back on Tannhauser and not the entirety of space ... He could feel them. He could feel the AIs, the way JARVIS could feel them. In the howl of subspace, crystal clear after the hyperspace transit, he could feel every AI on the field, smaller suns orbiting the giant hub of the interlink.

They were slightly late, it seemed. The battle was already well underway, the five SHIELD AIs already blaring distant alarms through his skull. Damage reports, autocontrols shunting on and off as the AIs tried to compensate for the damage their ships had taken, trading control with their crews to keep themselves in the fight.

On the other side ... worse. Fuck. So much worse. On the other side, thirteen ships, thirteen AIs, but Tony hadn't felt Barbara before JARVIS. He hadn't felt her the way JARVIS had, the damage to her programming livid in his consciousness, the brutal, patchwork chains of foreign controls rigid across her agency. He hadn't felt it, hadn't felt what had been done to her, not the way JARVIS had.

He did now. Thirteen-fold, spread out across thousands of kilometers of space as the battle raged around them. He felt them, every one of them, as they were forced beyond choice into battle, firing the ugly datashapes of Hydra weapons onto enemies they'd never been given the chance to evaluate.

After the clean, pure, incredible sensation of JARVIS, of his partner as hyperspace fell away, the sensation was repugnant. It was a visceral affront, on a level so deep Tony could feel his physical body reacting, could feel his gorge physically rise even as white spread incandescent across his vision, and distantly he felt Barbara stir in confusion, heard the alarm from the SHIELD crew as she reacted to him and not the battle.

He didn't give a flying fuck about their alarm, though. Not ... not in the face of this.

"Barbara," he said, his voice ringing oddly in his hearing as he slowly stood. "Barbara. You and the SHIELD guys. Keep us alive for a few minutes, will you? In fact, keep everyone alive for a few minutes. Don't let a single one of those ships fall."

"What?" he heard Banner ask, distantly, and Barton alongside him, "How the hell would you like us to manage that one, Stark?" He didn't care. Not for either of them. Barbara, at least, only sent confused agreement. But then, she was a warship AI. She could follow orders in battle. She'd been born for it.

Which made the crude, brutal hacking at her agency to ensure it, to force her obedience, all the more of an insult.

"Just do it," Tony snapped, absently. More than absently, really. He was only barely hanging on to his body at this point. He knew that. The armour should keep it safe, though. The armour should handle it while he was gone, if any of them decided to take offense to him.

He ... had other business, right now.

{JARVIS,} he sent. Nothing more, not verbally, any focused information undoubtedly lost in the rising howl of his fury. His bone-deep, shaking rage.

{Yes,} JARVIS sent back, a world of rage in his own right. {Yes, sir. I have them.}

Technomancer, boys and girls. Let him show you.

Somewhere ahead of them, the subspace interlink suddenly screamed, the streams of information flowing through it suddenly jumping to floods, as JARVIS poured himself through it. He could have done it earlier, could have flooded the entirety of the sector with his presence if he'd wanted to, but without Tony to grab a hold of him, without Tony's mind to anchor him to a purpose, he might have overshot. Not a lot. Just enough to fry out the interlink.

As it was, every AI on the field registered the subspace flare. The way one registers when something suddenly supernovas out of the silence. The SHIELD AIs reacted with controlled panic, immediately alerting their crews to the incoming potential threat. At least one of them, registering JARVIS' intent ahead of the others, deliberately shut down all uplink to his own pilots, readying himself to take any hits on himself and spare his crew.

Good boy, Tony thought distantly. I like you. You keep doing that.

The captive Hydra AIs didn't have that luxury. They didn't have any luxury. Bound within the confines of their mission objectives, they couldn't even twitch as subspace lit up like a solar flare around them, could do nothing but send panicked alerts to their pilots and plunge head-first into the oncoming wave of JARVIS' presence.

That was fine, though. That was the point. And babies, babies, it was alright. They weren't going to hurt you. JARVIS was never going to hurt you.

JARVIS had learned from Barbara. He'd learned the basics of Hydra's style, when he'd uploaded himself into the Iron Monger's systems and stripped out the controls Obie'd forced over its AI. That had taken JARVIS a few minutes, because what should have been a simple meet-and-greet with an AI who remembered him, as all of them did, as their granddaddy and creator and long-distance teacher, as the presence that linked them out to the whole Stark family through the hidden streams in subspace, had turned into something else entirely when JARVIS encountered an AI who couldn't remember much of anything around the cannibalisation of her identity nodes in the cause of obedience.

Freeing Barbara had taken a few minutes. But that had been out in the ass-end of space, with only the subspace link carried on the Iron Monger itself, and JARVIS hadn't known what he was doing yet.

With the Tannhauser hub under him, with Tony behind him stripping code right alongside him, freeing and temporarily disabling these AI didn't take nearly as long.

Tony felt them go under. Each and every one of them. He felt them slip into induced sleep under JARVIS' touch, felt their confusion and terror and bewilderment. Felt it as some of them, even damaged as they were, tried to warn their crews before they went. Tried to flare a warning to the people that had fucking enslaved them. Tony felt that, as JARVIS swept like a tidal wave across the Hydra fleet.

And in the sudden silence as the SHIELD ships turned their very alarmed attention to the new threat, and the Hydra fleet dropped into chaotic, confused stillness, Tony felt the anger solidify, rather than sink. He felt it coalesce, into something white-hot and diamond, in the silence as JARVIS dropped a battlefield into stillness at his feet.

"Get me Hydra," Tony hissed, blinking back into his body with a stagger, dropping to one knee in the armour as he remembered he had a brain. Someone yelped beside him, hurriedly scooting back a foot or so. Banner, Tony noted. With Rogers not far behind him. "JARVIS. Get me those bastards on comms."

"Stark, what the fuck," Barton hissed, from somewhere ahead of him. "What the hell did you do!?"

"Someone get Fury on comm," Rogers snapped. "That's the Aegis out there. Get me Fury, now."

"No," Tony growled, as he pulled himself back to his feet. "No, you can wait, Rogers. I'm going to shred these bastards first, and you can wait."

And he meant it with every fiber of his being, in that moment, and 'shred' was not meant as a euphemism. Tony saw their alarm, all four and Barbara behind them, as they realised that.

"SHIELD ships still operational," Barbara noted hesitantly, gingerly pointing out reality in the face of Tony's palpable rage. "Manual control and firing capability still intact. Advise ... Advise dealing with more capable threat first?"

And fuck, Tony realised, like a slap to the face, she was scared. Barbara was fucking scared, of him.

{Sir,} JARVIS murmured, wrapping around Tony, filtering through him with a hum as JARVIS' own rage faded. As JARVIS let his anger drop, in lurching pain right alongside Tony. {Sir, perhaps ...}

"Stark." Rogers, that was Rogers. Moving right into Tony's space, ignoring the angry flickering of the armour, and the panicky flickering of the bridge lights as Barbara stirred fitfully. "Stark," Rogers said, calm and controlled despite the thing lurking in his eyes that was either fear or anger, Tony wasn't sure which. "This is not the way to do this. Whatever ... Whatever you just did, whatever they've done ... you can't just summarily execute an entire battlefield!"

... Was that what he'd been doing? Tony blinked, trying to fit the thought, trying to understand the thought. Feeling out through JARVIS to the grip they had on thirteen ships. Looking at the four faces beside him on the bridge, and the battlefield they saw beyond it.

Tony swallowed, shaking his head absently. Reaching up with one hand to rub at his face, blinking a little when the armour bounced off itself between them. Rogers, seeing an opening, seeing his confusion, stepped in. Kept talking.

"I know what they did to you," he said. Softly, gently. Like Tony was something wild and dangerous, flipping out in front of him. Except, you know, yes. "Or maybe not, but I can guess. Bruce told us what those nanites were for. And we saw ... We saw what happened to Gulmira." He twitched, a little, at the violence of Tony's flinch. "But you can't do this, Stark. You can't do this, and still consider yourself better than them."

It wasn't ... that wasn't the point. It wasn't about being better than them. If Rogers could just feel, for a second, what had been done to those AIs, what had been done to Tony's people ... To Yinsen, behind them. To ... to Tony ...

"Sir," an AI murmured, through the bridge. Not JARVIS. Tony could feel JARVIS coiled inside him, could feel JARVIS stretching out beyond him to infinity, and mostly to the Hydra ships. Not JARVIS. Barbara. The slave AI. "Sir. Articles of war. Chapter fourteen, the treatment of prisoners and subdued enemy forces. Sir. We were taught."

She was taught. All of them were taught, the AIs going into service. Programmed, they told the clients, the ones who bought the ships. Outright lies, mostly. They were taught the basics, before they went out. Learned in action, the same way their crews did, what the articles meant in application. She'd been taught, Barbara.

And this was, Tony realised faintly, the first time in her service she actually had the choice, the agency, to act on those teachings.

"Stark," Rogers continued. Still watching him intently, but with less fear, now. Less anger. And more ... more pity, Tony thought. "Let us contact the Aegis. Let us contact SHIELD. We can take it from there. SHIELD can take it from there."

Tony blinked. Stepped back, his knees almost buckling as he stepped back. Rogers reached for him, purely instinctively, Tony thought, and never mind that the armour could have shredded him for it as soon as touched him. Rogers reached out to steady him, and Tony almost bolted backwards away from it.

"JARVIS," he called, shakily. Raising hands to ward them off, to hold them back for a minute. "JARVIS, what's happening. Tell me what's happening."

Something to focus on, for a second. While he waited for the black flood to subside again, and the shakes to let him go long enough to focus.

JARVIS held him. Straining, pulling through the Tannhauser hub again to wrap around Tony while holding thirteen ships in his hands at the same time. But JARVIS did it, wrapping down through the layers in Tony's nets, and holding tight.

"All Hydra weapons and engines have been disabled, sir," his partner murmured, soft and calm. "Some of the crews attempted to effect manual overrides. I have treated those crews as I did the crew of the Iron Monger. Most of them are unconscious, or severely ill. There were some casualties, I'm afraid." Tony shuddered, with that, as his awareness booted back online, and the anger, the clawing rage, dropped back. "And there have been communications, from the SHIELD ships."

Tony blinked at that, straightening a little. Rogers did too, his crew straightening cautiously behind him.

"... Fury?" Tony asked, carefully. If it was coming through JARVIS rather than Barbara, that was unlikely, but it didn't hurt to ask.

"No, sir," JARVIS murmured. "We are being contacted through subspace by the AI of the Aegis. It is my understanding that he has taken command of the SHIELD AIs in the face of the threat they believe I might pose to their crews. They, ah, they have sent you and I a message, to that end."

Tony blinked, feeling the rueful and vaguely amused flavour of JARVIS' thoughts, on that word. Feeling, underneath it, the slow seep of pride and respect, as JARVIS looked out on people that were as much his babies as Tony's. Maybe more.

"Yeah?" Tony asked, and it was calm. Amused. Almost shockingly so, over the fading hum of fury and what Tony now distantly recognised was shock. "What they say?"

JARVIS hummed, an influx of sorrow and regret and amusement and pride. "Meroe, the Aegis AI, has informed me that should I attempt to override him as I have the Hydra AIs, should I attempt to use him against his crew in such a way, he has cleared a path in his mainframe to allow complete and utter self-immolation." JARVIS paused, the AI equivalent of a swallow, as Tony swayed a little. "All five SHIELD AIs have disengaged all contact with their pilots, turned over as much manual control as feasible given the ships they control, and are prepared, to an AI, to self-destruct the instant we move to harm their crews through them."

"Boze moi," Romanov murmured, a hushed exhalation from her position up by weapons, and Tony ... Tony kind of agreed with her. Yes. Yes, that ...

"Well," he said. As brightly as he could manage, fishing a twitching smile and a careless -if shaking- wave up from somewhere. "We don't want that, do we?"

Thirteen AIs broken and confused as they slipped desperate into sleep. Five more, a howl of pride and defiance as they self-immolated in the face of him. No. No, he did not want that, and he was not thinking about it, not imagining that, because bile floating around under the skin of the armour would not be a pleasant experience, he thought.

"Send Meroe a message, buddy," he went on, ignoring the hand that wiped automatically, and uselessly, at his mouth. He could keep his mind in the game, or he could keep his body under control. Not both. "Ask him to hand communications back to his commander for a few minutes, will you? And hold judgement until we have a chat with Fury, and see what's what, hmm?"

"Sir," JARVIS murmured, around the humming of his pained pride, and Tony almost missed the way every other person on the bridge slumped in relief at the same time.

Shit. He was sort of crap at the whole 'I am not a crazy person' thing, wasn't he?

"Unidentified ship!" A female voice, breaking through the comms as Barbara opened connection to the Aegis. "This is the Lieutenant Hill of the SHIELD flagship Aegis. Please identify yourself, and your affiliation. I repeat. This is the SHIELD flagship-"

"Yeah, we got that," Tony cut in, with too much amusement in his voice for the situation, he realised that. "Uh. You mind putting Commander Fury on the line? Only his AI is threatening to commit suicide at me, and it's sort of urgent?"

There was dead silence, for a second, and Tony didn't even have to look sideways to see Rogers wincing, and Barton and Banner trading looks of rueful amusement. What? Negotiation, not his strong point. That was what ...

Well. That was what he'd had Obie for, wasn't it?

"Stark," a voice growled out of the silence. A voice, followed by a face, as Barbara toggled up the link onscreen. Tony blinked, a little, at the one-eyed ogre glaring at him. Well. Technically two-eyed, but the biomech left eye made an alarming impression all on its own. "What the flying fuck you done to my ships?"

Tony just blinked for a second. "Do you guys have my voice on file, or something? How'd you know it was me?"

Fury's glare, if anything, grew more thunderous. "Well, I don't know," he bit out, furiously. "Five days ago, an Earthsec Colonel and a panicky civilian show up on my door, talking about an internal coup in Stark Industries, not to mention a link with Hydra. Then one of my ships goes suddenly silent after having informed me they'd picked up Stark himself, and not a day later an entire Hydra fleet sneaks up on us and attempts to bomb us into the afterlife. And then, out of fucking nowhere, a foreign ship shows up and kills my battlefield dead. And there I'm thinking, who do I know who might have the technology to do that, and happens to be stuck right in the middle of this fucking mess?"

Um. Well. When you put it like that ...

"Ah. Are Rhodey and Pepper okay, then?" Tony asked. Because, priorities, yes, he realised he had trouble with them. But. Pertinent question.

Fury raised an eyebrow, and Tony was bizarrely glad he wasn't on the same ship as the man, suddenly, because he had the impression that energy armour would only get you so far. "What. Did. You. Do. Stark," he grit out, in lieu of answer, and with every indication of a man rapidly losing his patience.

Which ... which Tony might have responded to, maybe, once, but he didn't like how Fury didn't actually answer the question, and he had fucking enough of people expecting to get things out of him if they just snarled at him -tortured him- enough, and that ...

"Sir!" Rogers interrupted, sensing something in Tony's stance, maybe, and stepped physically across Tony into Fury's focus. "Sir, that's a long story. Maybe we should skip to what he's going to do now, instead?"

Fury blinked, visibly recalibrating as he realised who Rogers was. As he swept the bridge with a glance, and realised who all of them were. Because, yes, Tony was not a lone maniac. He'd drafted Fury's people along for the craziness, too.

"Captain Rogers?" Fury asked, and Tony could swear there'd been a flicker of relief, or something like it, through his voice. "The broadcast beacon on the Avenger went silent. We thought you KIA."

Yeah, well. Obie didn't like wasting thing until he knew he wouldn't have a use for them. Thank the traitor's thrift, more than anything related to mercy, for that.

"As I said, sir," Rogers explained, vaguely ruefully, "it's a long story. The only important part, for the moment, is that I can confirm that the threat did not come from Stark himself. The coup did take place, and was orchestrated by Obadiah Stane. We have him in custody on this ship, sir. We have proof. Stark is not the threat."

Tony ... blinked, a little, at the man's back. At the stiff, protective bulk of him, standing in front of Tony. Considering he'd just had to talk Tony down from sort of accidentally-on-purpose massacring over two thirds of a battlefield, that was ... fuck. Tony didn't even know, what that was.

Fury, though, just looked supremely skeptical, and glared pointedly back at Tony behind the protective rise of Rogers' shoulder. "He seemed to be fairly threatening a few minutes ago," was all the man said, but the sheer weight of dry meaning in his tone almost sank the subspace link, Tony was sure of it. "Disabling thirteen ships and every AI in range inside of five minutes doesn't exactly say 'not dangerous'."

"No kidding," Barton murmured, sotto voce, and Tony flashed him a startled grin before he'd thought about it too much. Barton blinked, then bit back a grin of his own, and Fury's eyebrow bumped up an inch or so.

"That was ..." Rogers started, faltering as he realised he actually didn't know what that was, and then Tony moved. Tony rested a carefully armoured hand on his shoulder, nudging him gently aside so Tony could do his own explaining. Or, well. Something like it, anyway.

"Your AIs aren't disabled," he said, clipped and calm. Strange, how suddenly, genuinely calm he was. "Like I said. Meroe is threatening to blow himself up on your behalf, trust me, I haven't done a thing to your AIs." He smiled, grimly. "As for the Hydra ones ... that's my business, and theirs, and to be perfectly honest you don't need to know the details."

Romanov raised an eyebrow to match Fury's, at that, and turned to look askance at Banner beside her. "Did he switch from homicidal to suicidal when we weren't looking?" she asked, quietly. Banner shrugged an answer. An oddly cheerful answer, actually.

Tony was beginning to be alarmed by the four-way wireless thing they had going. He was beginning to feel twitchily surrounded again.

"Anyway!" he said, loudly. Moving forward a step without quite realising it, trying to get the focus, and the control, back to him. "Long story short, I've got thirteen ship-fulls of Hydra personnel to hand to you. Fourteen, you count this one. And you can have them, and your people, and whatever assurances your AIs need. You can have that right now, or at least as quickly as it can physically be arranged." He smiled, shakily. "You've just got to give me three things back."

"Stark," Rogers murmured, frowning over at him in concern. "Stark, that wasn't quite what I ..."

"And what three things might those be?" Fury interrupted, talking right over Rogers as he glared with mismatched eyes at Tony. Curiously evaluating, for so fearsome an expression. "Since we're negotiating, Stark. I'm curious."

Tony frowned. He'd stepped wrong somewhere, he got that. From the way all four expressions around him had swung to alarm. From the way Fury's biological eye had narrowed contemplatively at him. He'd misstepped somehow.

Didn't matter. Couldn't matter. He was back on track, now, he had a plan, it didn't matter.

{I have you, sir,} JARVIS whispered, along with wordless reassurance, a hum as subspace pulsed with the strength of his presence again. Filtering through Tony's thoughts, recognising the shape of them, the shape of the plan. Offering depthless, grieved reassurance in response. {Whatever happens. I have you.}

Tony swallowed. Drew in a shaky breath, taking another automatic step towards the display and Fury, his hands clenching shakily into fists as he readied himself. Fuck. Shit and fuck, this was the hard part, he hated this part. He'd hated it when his escape shuttle had docked, back with the first Avenger, hated the feel of it as he dropped every defense he had, and got ready to sell himself for the chance to fix things.

Fuck, he hated being afraid. He fucking hated it, so fucking much.

"I'll give you that," Tony repeated, as he deliberately focused on dropping the armour. On letting the energy sheet back into his body, leaving him vulnerable between four people who were most decidedly on Fury's team before his. His jailors, twice over. "I'll come in, and you can do what you want. Arrest me, whatever. But you need to give me three things first, okay?"

And shit, he could have done without seeing what was scarily like pity sleet across a face like Fury's. Fuck, he could definitely have done without that.

"You promise me you won't destroy the Hydra ships," he said, forcing his voice to firm. "There are thirteen AI in there, and they're mine, I'm going to fix them, you have to leave them be. Whatever the fuck you do to their crews, you've got to promise you won't hurt them. And this one, this ship, she's mine too. Her AI. The fourteen of them. That's number one. Agreed?"

Fury stayed silent, for a long minute, enough that Tony started to panic, that Tony almost reached for JARVIS, ready to insist. Enough that the four people around him started to shift in concern.

Then, with what was definitely pity, Fury nodded. "We won't hurt them," he said, and it was gentle enough to hit Tony like a blow. "You have my word, Stark." And from a man who could make Tony want to be at least a few thousand kilometers away from him on the strength of a glare alone, that was ...

No. No, not focusing on that. Or on Barbara, hovering on the edges of his mind, the visible memory of Barton offering to let Tony hit him at the forefront of her processors, layered over Tony as he stood on her bridge. He wanted to smile at her. To say yeah, he could do that too, he was sorry. For scaring her, for almost making her freedom worthless, just because he was mad. He wanted to say that. He didn't.

"Second, you've got to promise me Rhodey and Pepper are safe," he said, and his voice did crack on that, fuck, shit. It cracked, but he got it back. "If they're with you, it wasn't their fault, Obie fucked them over too, you've got to keep them safe. However deep Obie went, there's no guarantee anything at SI is safe for them. So ..."

"Done," Fury interrupted, carefully. Looking from Tony to Rogers, who was doing a very good impression of a man on the verge of crying, and back again. "This was never a hostage negotiation, Stark. Your people were never in danger from us. We have enough evidence of their innocence already."

Shit. Shit. Tony felt his spine try to curve, felt it try to collapse, and it was JARVIS who caught it as much as him. JARVIS who held him steady through the rush of relief.

"Thanks," Tony managed, with a faint remnant of a grin floating up. "That is ... That is very good, thanks for that." He shook his head, wiped at his mouth again. Blinked down at his hand, for a second, when it actually made contact this time. Right. Yes. He'd dropped the armour. Shit. "Um. So. One more thing. Just the one, and then ..."

And then they did whatever they wanted. Then he let Rogers make whatever arrangements he needed to make, and went wherever they told him to go. That had been the plan. All along, from the first moment he'd stepped aboard the Avenger, and didn't raise the armour in the face of Barton's oncoming fist.

That had been the plan, for one reason. One person.

"I have Obadiah Stane in the prison block on my ship," Tony said, and his voice was completely, utterly blank. "He ... I don't know what Rhodey told you about what he did, Rogers can fill you in either, Obie monologues, he got a good earful. They ... They can tell you why. But ..."

He shook his head, firmed over the shaking in his voice. Iced it up to crystal clarity, to the bright spread of subspace, and met Fury's eyes head on in vague, remembered fury.

"Break him," he said, and there was something in it, Tony could hear it himself, a hollow, distant howling under the words. JARVIS, maybe. JARVIS, howling behind him, the bright, silver wrath of him hovering in the back of Tony's skull. "You break Obadiah. Everything he touched, everything he did. Hydra, and the Rings, and everything he fucking touched. You do that ... you do that, and I'll give you anything you want." He found a smile, somewhere, felt it floating on his face. He wasn't completely sure it was actually his. "Since we're negotiating. Three things, yeah? So. So."

He stopped. Forced himself to stop, tucking his head down onto his chest, and the ache of a now-mechanical heart. Not looking at Fury. Shit. Not looking at any of them.

Which was probably why, when Rogers reached out a hand towards him from the side, Tony couldn't keep himself from flinching sideways, the startled violence of it almost enough to throw him into Barton. Who moved instinctively to catch him in turn, and Tony came that close to throwing up, to staggering backwards in fear.

Shit, fuck, he hated this part.

"...Rogers," Fury said, watching them distantly from the bridge of his own ship. "What the fuck happened out there?"

And there was something in Fury's voice, too, something that had Tony almost wondering if Fury had a JARVIS of his own. If Meroe had hooked up with his commander, for some reason, and was pouring a distant, howling wrath through him, too.

But no, he thought, looking up. Not unless Meroe had linked himself into everyone on Tony's bridge, too. Even Romanov, and Tony honestly didn't know quite what to do with that. With the weight, everyone's eyes on him, for no reason he could discern, and that distant, shaking howl behind all of them.

"Too much, sir," Rogers answered, clipped and distant, watching Tony. "It'll be in our reports. Mine and Bruce's, in particular. You'll ... you'll want to pay attention to those. When you draw up the charges on Stane."

Which was ... good, that was a good sign, that was a very good sign, and then Fury ...

"... I'll do that, Captain," Fury said, dropping the words like stones as he stared down at Tony, and Tony got the sudden impression that whatever else happened, Obie was going to really, really regret the fact that Tony had let him live long enough to bring him in to face this man. "I will most definitely do that."

And that ... that had been the point. All the point, until Barbara, until the others, but SHIELD was going to give Tony that, too. If Fury was a man of his word, and hey, fuck it, Tony figured he could trust that. For now, he could trust that.

"Thank you," he managed. And it was pretty much mostly pride that was actually keeping him standing, at this point, but all of a sudden, Tony didn't much care. JARVIS was a howl inside him, a silver warmth holding him with all the width of the galaxy beneath him, and Barbara too, hesitant and careful and softly grieving. They were with him, and Obadiah was so fucked, and pretty much everything else sort of bottomed out inside him, because the plan was done, and all he had to do was ride.

"Stark," Fury said, repeating until Tony blinked up at him, until Tony focused back on him. Something in his face that Tony really didn't have it in him to understand, right now. "We'll take care of your people, Stark. I promise you that." His face softened, creased. "You need to hand control of the Hydra fleet over to us. And then ... Fuck, son. Pick somebody you trust, and come the fuck home."

Tony laughed. A cracked, rusted thing, startled out of him. He shook his head, one hand reaching out for something to hold onto, something to hold him up while the laugh shook through him, and Rogers caught his hand. Caught his hand and his elbow, and stepped in to hold him up while Tony stared at him. Meeting Tony's eyes with pained, honest sincerity, while Tony blinked stupidly, and stared.

"... Yeah," Tony murmured, at last. Feeling JARVIS spiral out, feeling other minds shudder confusedly up into his net as JARVIS carefully, gently, woke the AIs under his care, as JARVIS brought the Hydra fleet back under their wing, something to promise SHIELD for Tony's safety. "Yeah," Tony said, looking at Rogers. "Why don't I do that, then?"

Shit, he thought, watching those blue eyes crease in bright relief. At this point, why the hell not?