"Tony, was that Dr. Banner I saw in the meditation room upstairs? You told me the Avengers were meeting in Central Park today for SHIELD business, then splitting up to go back to what you were all doing before."
Tony Stark looked up at his better half, standing in the doorway to his workshop with elegantly arched brows. "Didn't take as long as I was expecting to send Thor and his brother back up the Rainbow Overpass. And-- right, I probably should have asked." He cleared his throat and assumed his best half-serious pleading expression. "He kind of followed me home, dear; he has nowhere else to go. Can I keep him?"
Pepper bit her lip on a smile. The loss of Agent Agent had hit her harder than it had him; he'd figured she'd understand his desire to keep a vulnerable new friend close. "Is he likely to destroy any more rooms in the tower? Just so I can be prepared for any fallout that might require talking to the press, you understand. Although-- if it's not Avengers business, what are you up to down here?"
Her smile faded as she eyed the holographic screens projected in the air in front of him. Half a dozen video feeds displayed footage of the invasion and the various recovery and reconstruction efforts that had already begun; official damage and casualty estimates scrolled in the gaps between the images, accompanied by a multicolored welter of maps and charts.
"Just checking something. Do these numbers seem off to you? I think they seem a little off," Tony replied, reaching up to flick one report in particular to spin it around and magnify it for her convenience.
Pepper scanned down the latest SHIELD fatality count, lips pursed; he could tell when she'd reached the bottom by the way her expression tightened. But she didn't seem as surprised as he'd felt when he'd noticed the pattern. "I had some idea of how bad it would be, given what I saw on the news while it was happening and the urban density of the area, but... Tony, I wouldn't call this off, I'd call it horrifying."
She sounded a little... indignant, maybe, or disappointed, as though he'd just committed an offensive faux pas. Tony knew that expression, having faced it before, but hadn't meant to provoke it today. "Of course it was horrifying," he hastened to explain. "The bad guys did their best to steamroll right over us, and if things had gone even a little differently, they might have. They clearly didn't care that most of the people they were attacking weren't legitimate targets for anyone but terrorists, and there were far more of them than a six-man band should have been able to defeat. Which makes it a little curious that the post-battle reports are starting to suggest... hey, JARVIS? Pull up the last report, too, and the one before that."
Two more digital docs lit into being at the edge of the display; Tony lined them up with the first one with a quick sliding gesture, shunting them over in front of her. "Here, see for yourself."
Pepper stared at him with a searching gaze for a long moment, then dropped her eyes to the reports, scanning the relevant lines of text. Then her eyes widened. "The zone estimates?" she said. "Are those....?"
"Downward corrections in casualty estimates after initial high figures aren't unheard of," he nodded. "Remember 9/11. As hideous as the final death toll was, it was only a fraction of initial estimates; they kept revising it downward for weeks after the event. But the final counts were very much in line with the physical layout of the destruction-- who was where at the time the jets struck the towers. Not the kind of thing you'd usually expect to see with more widespread, random destruction like this-- think natural disasters. But if you look at a projection of the estimates on a map... J?"
A map of Manhattan zoomed into being between the report screens and Pepper; a large, roughly circular red blotch highlighted Midtown, darkest where it centered on 200 Park Avenue and lightening the further one moved away from Stark Tower. That represented the initial estimates; a gold stain layered over the red area next, a little smaller and squared off at the corners, representing the second. Then the third one appeared, cast in blue, its shape clearly not remotely random.
"Was there something-- different about those streets?" Pepper asked, brow furrowed in puzzlement as she eyed the sharp demarcation lines of the resulting image. The color had faded gradually toward the edges of the first estimate map, the casualties at a lower density away from the initial portal, but the final map was almost the same shade all the way across, much more compact.
Tony pointed to one of the other map screens, magnifying it with an expansive gesture, and then overlaid it atop the casualty map. In green, a zone representing the invasion forces assembled by a SHIELD analyst matched up almost exactly with the blue parallelogram. "I heard Cap tell the cops to set up a perimeter on 39th-- this edge, here-- and I'm assuming you'd find the same police presence on the other sides as well. But no matter how many boots they had on the ground, a good chunk of the invasion force was airborne. So why wasn't a single Chitauri corpse or piece of tech recovered past that line?" He traced a fingertip across the image again, scattering glowing pixels. "The leakage in the initial reports all turned out to be civilians who were evacuated by first responders during the attack. That wasn't a line in the sand; it was a selectively permeable invisible brick wall."
"But... that's a good thing, isn't it?" Pepper asked.
"Maybe if we could be sure whatever caused it isn't going to end up wielded against us," Tony said, grimacing. "It wasn't anything we were doing. And it wasn't SHIELD-- they don't have the tech for it, and if they did, one would hope the World Security Council would've been a little less trigger happy. I've been having JARVIS scan the available footage to see if we could find some way to account for the effect, but no luck so far; there's a lot to go through." He pointed to the video screens still flickering through the invasion imagery, showcasing a ground's-eye view of the battle.
Pepper glanced between the screens, taking in the chaotic activity: cops in uniform escorting distressed civilians; others firing on Chitauri soldiers; a flash of Cap and Widow, scattering the aliens like a human bulldozer--
"Wait," Pepper lifted a finger to point at the screen. "Who was that?"
"Who was who? J?" Tony glanced up, prompting the AI. Had Pepper seen something he'd missed? Well, it wouldn't be the first time; there was a reason she'd outlasted everyone else in her position in his life-- all her positions in his life. "Rewind this one a sec, and freeze the image?"
The footage reversed course, back to the tableau it had shown the moment Pepper lifted her finger, then stilled. It was from a security camera focused down one of the marked streets-- the equivalent of 39th on the far side of Stark Tower.
Tony blinked as a tall, oddly blurry figure wearing a grey cloak stepped into a gap between two of the police vehicles parked on the street, then lifted something that resembled an oversized walking stick and gestured along the line of the median. He couldn't see any detail of what the man was doing; the digital footage grew jerky and pixilated as the end of his stick intersected with the camera's line of vision, and didn't improve for several seconds, effectively obscuring his movements. When the footage finally cleared enough to at least start making out figures again, the man in the cloak was nowhere to be seen.
Tony had seen a grey cloak like that, once. Long ago: before Afghanistan, before his parents' deaths, before MIT. He could still remember the sound of his mother's weeping. And what his father had said, afterward, upon realizing what the visitor's words had implied.
What his mother had given up, before marrying his father. And what that decision had cost.
No belated statement of faith tacked onto a film reel and discovered decades later could quite make up for that day: Tony's earliest memory of Howard Stark looking at his son as though he were lacking. It hadn't been the last, or the only excuse he'd ever used-- Howard had grown even more obsessed with a particular product of mundane near-wizardry known as Captain America, after that. But one never forgets one's first.
"...Tony? Tony, what's wrong?"
He blinked, suddenly aware of pain in his hands where he'd clenched them so hard his fingernails had driven into his palms, and the ache in his jaw where he'd been unconsciously grinding his teeth.
Well. Good thing Bruce was the one holding back the Hulk, not Tony, or they'd be adding another room to the remodeling schedule. He took a deep breath, carefully unclenching his hands and relaxing his shoulders, then cleared his throat. "Ask me that again in a minute. Jarvis, quick scan for any more disruptions like that one? Anywhere in the city. Pixilated or snowed-out feeds that follow the appearance of a grey-cloaked individual?"
"Searching feeds... Analysis completed, sir. Displaying relevant time indexes."
The other muted video feeds still playing scenes from the battle abruptly swept to one side, minimized down into thumbnail-sized icons; in their place, several other images gleaned from the fringes of the fight appeared. The repeated presence of police barriers testified to their locations; the recurrent figure of a cloak-wearer wielding some kind of focus object-- not all of them bore staffs, like the first guy, but all of them had something-- testified to their nature, as well.
It was what he'd thought. Fucking wizards. Fucking Wardens.
He'd mentally sidestepped the problems of Thor's hammer and Loki's illogical abilities by telling himself that sufficiently advanced technology would of course look a lot like magic; besides, neither Thor nor his adopted, crazy-pants brother had appeared to have any problem with Earth electronics. But there was no getting around what the grey-cloaks represented. He did realize his reaction to them was also illogical... but he'd never had a reason to be grateful for magic in his life. It was grating rather strongly against his nerves to find that suddenly a possibility.
His palms started to throb, and he deliberately unclenched again, shaking his head. "Facial recognition ping on any of them?" he gritted out. Not that he was expecting much, given the little he knew, but....
"One, sir," JARVIS replied. The first clip, the one Pepper had identified, drew up front and center again, expanding to highlight the slightly blurry face. A DMV photo projected next to it, identifying the man as a resident of Illinois. "One Harry Dresden, who advertises in the Chicago phone book as a wizard."
Tony barked a laugh; he had to wonder how well that had gone over with the ultra conservative, isolationist establishment his mother had run away from. Probably about as well as his Iron Man announcement had with SHIELD. The irony was almost enough to give the guy the benefit of the doubt. Almost.
If his mother had never given up her magic... but he'd never know. Wasn't capable of knowing, due to the effects of pre-natal lack of nurture on a particular rare genetic expression. Of course, he probably wouldn't have JARVIS, or Iron Man, or a thousand other necessities in his life if he was... but no matter how much he told himself that, it didn't stop the ugly curl of emotion in his gut and the bitter taste on the back of his tongue. The fact that he couldn't even really blame his mother for her choices, or complain about the results without looking like an over-privileged asshole, only made matters worse.
"A wizard?" Pepper asked, skeptically.
"More things in heaven and earth, Horatio," he replied, shaking his head. "I hate magic. Can't do it, can't explain it with the laws of physics as we know them. I've tried. But that doesn't make the effects any less real."
"Are you serious?" Her eyes widened. "That wall was a spell?"
"As a heart-attack." He'd never told anyone about that part of his past. Contrary to popular belief, not every psychological wound benefited from the talking cure. But for her, he would.
Pepper swallowed, then glanced back at the screens. And... didn't ask.
"I'm going to assume that isn't widely known for a reason," she said, frowning more deeply. "Would you prefer I be the one to make the call?"
"Call whom...?" It was Tony's turn to stare in disbelief.
"Mr. Dresden, of course," she said. "I know you; you're not going to let this go without some attempt at an explanation, but if you'd rather not talk with him yourself, and you don't want to explain it to Fury...."
"Have I told you how much I love you yet today?" he blurted, closing down all the open screens with a wave of his hand.
"I'll take that as a yes, shall I?" she replied, expression softening into a wry smile.
"Eighty-eight percent of one, at least," he snorted, with a self-deprecating grin.
Distraction complete, she stepped up into his personal space, sliding her fingers up over his chest; he allowed it, palms cupping her shoulders, hopefully not leaving any stains that couldn't be washed out. Then he greeted her properly, the first time since he'd left their apartment that morning.
Magic or no magic, everything else could wait.