Tony stared down at the form huddled under the thick comforter, Bruce’s body curled into a tiny ball, and resisted the urge to just climb back into the bed and wrap himself around the other man. Carefully, he ran his fingers through the tangled mop of curls that peeked out from the top of the covers, then backed away, careful not to wake the other man. Despite his exhaustion from the recent battle, Bruce would likely wake up in a panic if Tony were to touch him now. It had taken the genius a while, but he had finally figured out when it was safe to touch Bruce and when touching him might send them both into a panic, Bruce’s fear feeding into Tony’s own anxiety and compounding the problem.
Tony sighed quietly; the two of them were a mess.
“JARVIS, let him know where I am when he wakes up,” Tony ordered softly once he’d closed the bedroom door behind him.
“Of course, sir,” the AI agreed immediately, sounding relieved. Tony sighed. The first time Bruce had woken up by himself, only three days after they’d started sharing a bed for the comfort of another body, he had panicked and done the only thing he knew how to do. He’d run. It hadn’t taken Tony long to track him down once JARVIS had alerted him to Bruce’s unexpected flight, though it had taken him considerably longer to cajole the other man into telling him why he’d run in the first place. Reluctant and ashamed, Bruce had admitted that he’d been betrayed before, sold out by people he thought he could trust, by those who had shared their homes with him when he’d been on the run, early on. Tony had been furious at the thought of Ross, or maybe even SHIELD, taking away what little bit of trust Bruce had still held onto after the Hulk had appeared. So Tony had made it a point to either be there when Bruce woke up, or to have JARVIS inform him of Tony’s whereabouts. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked. And right now, working was all Tony would hope for.
With a soft huff, he hit the elevator button for the labs. JARVIS didn’t say anything, and Tony was grateful for it. The last thing he needed right now was his AI disapproving of his choice of late night (or early morning) therapy. He scrubbed a hand through his hair in frustration, scowling darkly at his reflection on the elevator walls.
The lights came on when Tony stepped into the lab. His eyes were drawn to the battered abomination that took center stage in the middle of his lap, his chest growing tight with self-loathing. The Mark VII, reassembled and powered by something that worked an awful lot like the Tesseract. It had nearly killed half his team, who hadn’t realized that it wasn’t him inside the suit until it was far too late.
Tony swallowed hard, his thoughts turning towards his friends. They had nearly lost Clint, and probably would have if Steve hadn’t thrown his shield to intercept a repulsor blast, opening himself up for a direct strike from the chest RT. Only his accelerated healing powers had kept him from being scarred for life. Still, the memory of burning flesh and the bright flash of blood still made Tony sick to his stomach, and he closed his eyes, one hand reaching out to steady him as he swayed on his feet. God, he was such an idiot.
It had taken both Thor and Hulk to take the damn thing down while Tony had lain there helplessly, his own armor incapacitated by unknown technology. It hadn’t been an EMP blast – he had safeguards against that, as well as more than dozen other possible eventualities. No, whatever it had been, it was like nothing Tony had ever encountered before. There was no warning, no flash of light or buzz of sound, just sudden and complete loss of flight leaving him to plummet to the street below, the first of their team to go down.
Tony’s jaw worked furiously as he glared at the mangled suit. When he figured out the parties responsible for its resurrection, he was going to bury them. He already had JARVIS tracking down every lead, but so far the trail hadn’t led anywhere concrete. Not the Ten Rings, nor AIM, or even Hydra. And Thor had assured them all that Loki was still imprisoned in the Asgardian dungeon. No, whoever it was, it was somebody new.
Ignoring the half a dozen projects lying strewn across his worktables, Tony stalked over to the suit, snagging a heavy wrench on the way. “All right, J, let’s open it up,” he decided.
“Sir, are you certain about this?” JARVIS asked, chains dropping from a panel in the ceiling so that Tony could hook them to the armor, securing its torso.
“Have you found any reason that we shouldn’t?” he asked steadily, already reaching for the face plate.
“My scans proved to be inconclusive,” the AI admitted reluctantly. “However, that does not negate the potential risk.”
Tony snorted. “Yeah, well, it doesn’t prove it either,” he refuted. “So unless you’ve got something more concrete than that, I’m gonna crack this sucker open and see what’s what.”
“Yes, sir,” was JARVIS’ icy reply, which Tony ignored. He was good at ignoring things that he didn’t want to deal with.
Holding the wrench in his mouth, Tony’s fingers easily felt out the manual release, and the faceplate popped open with a rattle. Tony pried it the rest of the way off, tossing it to the ground as he peered inside. There was nothing there, as he had expected, but it was still kind of disappointing.
The chest piece was next, and Tony growled under his breath as it refused to budge, the metal twisted in on itself, melted and warped from Thor’s lightning and Hulk’s fists. Tossing down the wrench, he whirled around, heading for the blowtorch. He’d tear the damn thing apart, one way or another.
The lights flickered, and Tony’s hand froze. “JARVIS? What the hell was that?” he demanded. “I mean, seriously, is there a glitch? No, actually, there can’t be a glitch. This sucker’s powered by an arc reactor. Which, I might add, I made.” The lights flickered again and Tony glared at the ceiling.
“I am uncertain,” JARVIS admitted, his tone uneasy. “None of my scans are indicating any problems.”
Tony turned to look at the disassembled armor, but it was still where he’d left it, the pieces he’d torn away scattered below it. He looked around for the bots, but they were still huddled in the corner where they’d been ever since he’d brought the mangled mess into the workshop. Dummy noticed his scrutiny and lifted his head, giving a series of shrill beeps, his arm waving agitatedly. The bot was freaking out.
Grabbing the torch and wielding it in front of him threateningly, Tony approached the armor. The suit remained unimpressed, and Tony scoffed. “Yeah, that’s what I thought,” he muttered, more relieved that Bruce was still asleep and unaware upstairs than he should be.
Igniting the blowtorch, Tony carved into the suit, slicing it apart at the seams. When the armor failed to react in any way, he relaxed marginally, tuning out the stressed bots automatically. They made the same distressed noises when they knocked a smoothie off the counter or otherwise made a mess. Unfortunately, though, that just gave his mind license to wander. Which inevitably led him back to the battlefield.
If he was completely honest with himself – and he was, almost viciously so – this wasn’t the first time the Iron Man technology had been used to hurt people. There was Obie and the Iron Monger, then Vanko with his legion of armored warriors. Even that moron, Killian, had enhanced his version of Extremis to take on Tony and his Iron Legion. All in all, the armor didn’t exactly have a smooth track record. Maybe those asshats up in Congress were onto something after all.
But the worst thing was how personal this particular attack had been. This wasn’t some villain with an overinflated ego and a personal vendetta against Tony attacking with some half-assed attempt at duplicating his technology. This had been one of his suits – a suit he’d designed and built – used to attack his team and the people he cared about. This went beyond personal. And the bad guy hadn’t even bothered to show his face. Seriously, what kind of self-proclaimed villain didn’t show his ugly face, if only to gloat? It was infuriating.
And now Thor was mad at him, Steve was stoically hiding the pain he was still – super healing or not, the injury had been bad – Bruce was practically in a coma, and Natasha and Clint had gone to report back to SHIELD. The fact that they hadn’t returned yet wasn’t exactly a good sign.
Tony could just imagine Natasha’s report right now. Something along the lines of ‘I-told-you-so’, he was sure. Not that he didn’t deserve it; he had been phenomenally stupid to believe for a moment that all traces of the Mark VII had been destroyed when it had self-destructed during the Mandarin’s attack on his mansion. After all, it had been the helmet’s survival that had allowed him to reassure Pepper that he was indeed alive, if really cold and really far away at the time. So why would he have assumed that the rest of the suit had been destroyed?
Still, whoever had restored the armor hadn’t just repaired it. They’d returned it to its original state. That, combined with the fact that its eyes had been glowing blue, meant that Toy was forced to consider that magic might have been involved, as much as the very idea made him scoff in disdain. Magic didn’t exist. It was nothing more than tricks and even the seemingly real magic was simply science that he didn’t understand yet. Something had to make the damn thing run. Which was why Tony was tearing the Mark VII apart in the first place.
“Sir!” JARVIS’s voice cracked through the workshop, louder and more anxious than usual. Which meant that he’d been trying to get Tony’s attention for a while now.
“What? What’s wrong?” Tony asked, mildly concerned by JARVIS’ urgency.
“I am not sure, sir,” the AI replied. “But Dummy, Butterfingers, and You went offline eight minutes and thirty-seven seconds ago. I have been unable to establish a connection to them to perform a scan or attempt a reboot.” There was a hesitant pause, and Tony sighed.
“What else?” he asked, not sure he really wanted to know.
JARVIS hesitated for another moment before speaking. “When I was unable to get your attention, I attempted to alert the Avengers. I was unable to raise any of them.”
Tony stiffened, torn between anger that JARVIS had tried to get help from the team and concern that his inability to do so might be part of a much larger problem.
“Has your access been cut off?” he demanded, though that shouldn’t be possible. JARVIS was more secure than any other computer system in the world. He ran on an entirely closed network. After SHIELD had managed to get past him twice, he had worked with JARVIS to upgrade his systems, and had given JARVIS the ability to defend himself from all of them, Tony included. SHIELD hadn’t gotten in since the upgrades.
“All systems appear to be operating within normal parameters,” JARVIS replied, sounding frustrated. “That is what I fail to understand. There should be no reason that I cannot alert the Avengers.”
The lights flickered again, twice, then went out, leaving Tony in a darkened lab. “JARVIS,” he called out, peering around the workshop. There was no answer. In fact, there was no noise at all. Not JARVIS, not the bots, not the beep or computers of hum of the mini fridge. Not even the nearly unnoticeable hiss of the air conditioner.
Feeling suddenly claustrophobic, Tony reached for his shirt, trying to remove it before he remembered that he no longer had an arc reactor imbedded in his chest. He had no way to see.
“Shit!” he swore, stumbling forward, only to ram his knee into a workbench. His hands scrabbled across the work table, searching for a flashlight or something among the tools. He’d dropped the blowtorch when he’d stupidly gone for the non-existent reactor, and there was no way he was going to make his way back to that stupid armor, not when the walls were closing in on him, making his breath stutter in his chest, his lungs seizing as he tried to fight down the panic. So much for therapy.
“Wrench, hammer, nails, another wrench, screwdriver, no idea but useless,” he muttered to himself, hoping the noise would help to ground him. It didn’t really work, his voice echoing oddly in the room, seemingly louder than necessary, and a moment later, Tony – with some surprise – found himself sitting on the floor, his arms wrapped around his raised knees and his forehead pressed against them. His back was pressed to the bench, and his eyes were tightly closed, as if he could pretend that he had chosen the dark. He wasn’t very good at fooling himself, though. He never had been.
He tried telling himself that he was just being stupid. He was in the workshop, in Avengers Tower. Not in space, or some freezing cave out in the middle of fucking nowhere. There was nothing here that could hurt him. He was far too old to still be scared of the dark.
Slowly, he forced his breathing to even out, his fingers unclenching from their death grip around his knees. He kept his eyes shut and his head bowed as he fought to get himself under control, despite the part of him that was urging him to run, to find the door and escape. There was no guarantee that he could even get out the door, since it ran on the same systems as the rest of Avengers Tower.
Eventually, pretty sure that he could avoid another panic attack, probably, he lifted his head and opened his eyes. It was then that he realized that the room wasn’t nearly as dark as it had been a couple of minutes ago. The Mark VII’s eyes were glowing blue, casting a light across the floor that stopped just an inch or so from Tony’s feet.
It didn’t appear to be doing anything else, so Tony took a risk and pushed himself slowly to his feet, biting back a groan as stiff muscles protested the movement. Able to see significantly better than before, but not really willing to turn his back to the armor, Tony carefully moved backwards, keeping his gaze on the suit while his hands felt around behind him. He often used flashlights to help him see inside the smaller bits of tech, and usually they were all over the place.
A sudden hiss of static made Tony jump, and his head turned to the side. “JARVIS?” he asked unthinkingly. The only reply was a dry, rusty chuckle, emanating from all around him.
“Your invisible little friend cannot reach you now, Tony Stark,” came the words from the suit’s voice-modulator. “It’s just you and I here, now.”
Tony swallowed. “Loki,” he replied steadily, his attention riveted to the suit. “I thought you were in prison. Or maybe you still are, and that’s why you didn’t come in person?”
Another laugh, the sound bouncing around the workshop, as if Loki was testing the room’s systems, finding out where the speakers were located. Probably the cameras, too. ”Did you honestly believe that all of Asgard could hold me?” the prince taunted. ”But someone as insignificant as you is not worth the trouble of returning to Midgard at this time.”
Tony snorted. “Afraid Big Brother Thor will beat your ass again?” he snapped back. In response, the light in the armor’s eyes died, leaving Tony blinking into a completely darkened room again, spots dancing in front of his eyes.
A cold hand wrapped itself around his throat, squeezing, and Tony choked. “Hey, I remember this,” he managed, unable to keep his mouth shut. He just hoped the others realized there was something going on before Loki attacked the rest of the team. “But there aren’t any windows here.”
“No?” Loki purred in his ear. Casually, as if he were tossing a doll, the Asgardian threw Tony to the side. A moment later, he cried out as he slammed into the wall. “Oh, would you look at that,” Loki mused. Tony could practically hear the smug grin radiating off of him as he pushed himself back up, his back against the door as he fumbled for the keypad. He was pretty sure there was a manual override somewhere, if he could just find it before Loki decided to stop toying with him and just kill him already.
“And here I thought returning to Midgard for little old me wasn’t worth the effort,” he snarked back.
“It’s not,” Loki replied simply, disappearing. Instead, Tony was left staring at the Mark VII fully restored. No signs of the damage from the Hulk or Thor were visible, and the pieces that Tony had carved away were no longer on the floor. Tony swallowed, impressed despite himself.
The suit took a step forward, both hands coming up, the repulsors glowing menacingly. Tony decided that he really, really didn’t like being on this end of the suit.
“Such a pity that you nearly got your friends killed,” Loki’s voice whispered through the room. “Even your servant can’t help you, though he’s trying so very hard.” The repulsors whined as they charged up, and Tony jammed his finger against the touch pad, flinching as the emergency protocols activated, a needle stabbing into the nearest bit of flesh – the meat of his palm, currently – and releasing the lock when his DNA matched.
Before the door was even fully opened, Tony threw himself backwards, hitting the ground ass first as the heat and light from the repulsor beam seared his retinas, leaving him temporarily blinded again. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he hissed out, gasping even as he skittered backwards, not sure enough of his balance or the Mark VII’s location to get to his feet.
The armor clanked heavily as it stepped forward, Loki’s amusement practically palpable, even if he didn’t say anything, the Jotun bastard. No wonder his people were so hated; they were probably all dicks.
Tony’s back hit the wall, and he shoved himself to his feet, spots dancing in front of his eyes. There was no time for his vision to adjust, though. He had to move. Now. Pushing against the wall, as if that would make him move faster, Tony stumbled in the general direction of the elevator, really hoping that he hadn’t gotten himself turned around. Behind him, the Mark VII took aim again with the low grating of metal on metal, and Tony grit his teeth, his body tensing in preparation. Steve had survived a direct shot from the armor; Tony doubted he’d be so lucky.
Just as the elevator doors opened, a familiar roar echoed through the lower levels, and Tony dropped to his knees, stunned as the Hulk barreled down the hallway, crashing into the armor with another roar, the loosed repulsor beam striking somewhere above them. Tony had no idea how Bruce had managed to figure out that he was in trouble and get down here, but he couldn’t be anything except grateful, even as he pulled himself the rest of the way into the elevator, standing on shaky legs and leaning back against the far wall, keeping himself out of the direct line of sight of the hallway while he blinked furiously, trying to get rid of the dark spots in front of his eyes, one finger on the bottom button in a long row of buttons, intended to keep the door open. It probably wasn’t the smartest idea, but with JARVIS offline, the last thing Tony wanted was to get trapped inside the elevator.
When he was pretty sure he could see what he was hearing, which mostly involved repulsor blasts, crunching metal, and a bellowing Hulk, Tony peeked around the doorway. The Mark VII was lying scattered all along the darkened hallway, but even as he watched, the armor was reassembling itself, pieces sliding along the floor and flying in the air, frustrating the Hulk, who was trying to grab the pieces, only to have them disappear entirely and then reappear, attached to another piece of the armor. Tony wondered vaguely how many times Hulk had already smashed the armor, just to have it reassemble and attack again.
The armor’s eyes were glowing blue again, and Tony carefully inched his way out into the corridor, keeping his back tight to the far wall. Hulk ignored him, but the Mark VII turned to face him, and Tony was pretty sure that it would be grinning if it could.
“I see the monster has come to your rescue again, Stark,” it mocked, the electronically altered voice doing nothing to hide the fact that the words belonged to Loki. Hulk roared his displeasure, reaching for the armor, intent on crushing it. The suit rose quickly and twisted, blasting both palm repulsors directly at Hulk’s eyes. The mammoth roared in pain and fury, his fists swinging out wildly, the rush of displaced air breezing across Tony’s face.
“Hulk!” Tony called out anxiously, his voice high and worried, but the other guy wasn’t listening. Hulk roared again and Tony ducked one massive fist. Too worried about the Hulk and the Mark VII, Tony forgot briefly that Loki had more than one trick up his sleeve. He was sharply reminded of Loki’s semi-solid illusion when slender, cool fingers dug casually into his throat, cutting off his breath entirely. He made a strangled, choking pain nose as Loki slammed him against the wall, his shoulders and the back of his head taking the brunt of the impact. He wasn’t sure his vision was ever going to be straight again. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the Hulk turn towards them, the crumpled armor dangling from one lethal fist, and he realized too late what was about to happen.
“Hulk,” he tried to choke out, but Loki’s fingers only tightened, his vicious smile widening as the Hulk swung at them, obviously intending to strike the dark-haired Asgardian. Loki yanked him forward, away from the wall, then disappeared, leaving a staggering, unbalanced genius directly in the Hulk’s path. Tony felt a brief burst of agony when the Hulk’s fist connected with his skull, and then everything went dark and silent. It was probably the best rest he’d ever gotten.