"So what do you think?" Buffy asked, fidgeting with her coffee cup. They'd drunk of the beverage better known in certain contexts as Willow-accelerant and shared the relevant deets; time to get down to the nitty gritty. "Am I just imagining things? Or do you think I'm on to something?"
She looked pleadingly across the breakfast table of her apartment at her oldest female friend. She knew how it all had to sound; even if her suspicions were true, why wouldn't someone have noticed before? Like, as in years before? Tony Stark didn't exactly surround himself with stupid people, and some of them were even magically inclined. But there were too many signs to ignore. Maybe they'd just all chalked it up, like she had at first, to crazy advanced science?
For all she'd quoted Clarke's Third Law at the billionaire inventor the first time she'd taken him along on a hunt, Buffy had completely overlooked what was going on right under her nose. No wonder he'd made such great vamp bait. She'd have to tease him about that, sometime. After the news settled.
Willow leaned forward over the table, eyes wide with the usual excitement of a babble-worthy discovery. "No, it makes so much sense," she replied. "You aren't the only one who noticed the vibranium effect-- the reactor and the shield both made me feel like--" She shivered, then made a sweeping-away gesture in front of her, as though clearing away cobwebs. "Like they were giving off some kind of tactile magical field. And from what Thor said about Mjölnir and the Bifrost...."
Buffy nodded, shortcutting the explanation. "Made from alien metal, forged with magic, yadda yadda. Like the Troll God hammer, times ten."
She'd seen JARVIS' shaky footage of Thor 'bringing the hammer down' on Steve, and gaped in amazement as most of the blow's destructive energy had been deflected into the surrounding forest. She'd never even heard of a magical artefact that could do that, never mind a mundane metal Frisbee. 'Vibranium' was SHIELD's explanation. But that couldn't be the whole story; not by a long shot.
Even if vibranium was magical all by its ownsome, that didn't explain the way Tony could absorb severe impacts to his armor without much more than a bruise to show for it-- or the way the shield always ricocheted right back to Steve's hand no matter how far or how fast he threw it. And how many scientists had given up on copying Tony's achievement in miniaturizing the old-style arc reactor, never mind the shiny new kind? The only one who'd ever managed it was Vanko... and there'd been extenuating circumstances in his case.
"Right," Willow bobbed her head in an enthusiastic nod. "So if you're getting the same vibes off this Extremis stuff? You know what you always say about coincidence."
"The only two things I don't believe in: coincidence and leprechauns." Buffy blew out a breath, not sure whether or not to be relieved. She'd almost hoped she had been imagining things; this was going to increase the interesting factor of her world several-fold, and she'd been living in pretty interesting times already. "I checked Pepper, too, when I was playing crash test dummy. She does have a little extra to her aura now, but not nearly as much as he does. Which I guess makes sense; he only had to tweak her nanites, he didn't need to build them from scratch."
"How's she doing, by the way?" Willow asked, momentarily distracted by another subject that had been close to her heart since awakening the Potentials. "You said she fights a lot like a new Slayer--?"
"A new Slayer who already has a black belt, maybe," Buffy agreed. "She says she never took more than basic self-defense, so I can only guess it's from the base Extremis programming, but once she practiced some she got a handle on it pretty quick. We upgraded her from picking on girls her own size to bigger targets last week; Clint likes to tease about Steve's old-fashionedness, but he did fight with female soldiers before, and he's just so earnest about training her. Actually-- and don't you dare tell anyone, not even Xander-- he even makes me feel like springing to attention."
Willow grinned at that, though she conspicuously didn't promise anything. "And what about Mr. Stark? Has anyone else figured out what he did yet?"
"Not that I've seen," Buffy said, "but then, there hasn't been much opportunity. He keeps a lot of his exercise equipment in the labs, so as not to waste time when he's working, and when he fights with the team it's usually in the armor. Plus I think he's paranoid about hurting someone while he works out the new kinks in his reflexes, even moreso than Pepper; he won't even spar with me, and since Pepper and I are the only ones who know...." She shrugged. "That'll change when Faith gets back, though; she challenged him to a match the last time she was here, and she won't take no for an answer. And you can bet your mocha sprinkles they'll have a pretty big audience, so someone's bound to notice he's started punching out of his weight class. More than he did already, I mean."
She'd heard about his one man assault in Miami, and it had reminded her of the early days with the Scoobies. How many times had a 'scared guy with a rock' been the one to make a difference? She hoped Tony never lost sight of that resourcefulness in all his enthusiasm for self-upgrades.
Willow thought about that for a second, eyes glazing over a little at the mental images, then shook her head. "If he's fighting Faith? Yeah, it'll be pretty obvious, especially once she figures out he's holding back on her."
Buffy smirked in agreement, then cleared her throat and refocused the subject. "Okay, so back on topic. You think he's what, some kind of mage-smith?"
The corners of Willow's eyes crinkled up a little, like she wanted to roll her eyes or smirk and couldn't quite decide which. "That's fantasy game terminology, Buff. How much time did you spend with Andrew last time you were in Scotland?"
"Wills," Buffy rolled her eyes at her. So he was a good cook, so what? And he kind of grew on a person. He was a lot less stressful to hang with than some of the old guard Giles had been forced to cooperate with to keep the ISWC rolling, anyway. Buffy was gladder about her secondment to SHIELD and Stark Industries every time she visited. "Seriously. What is he?"
"In technical terms? What I'd call an 'enchanter'," Willow replied.
"I'm guessing you don't just mean he's kind of charming when he wants to be?" Buffy said, wryly.
Willow chuckled. "More like an engineer slash alchemist who imbues the weapons and gadgets he constructs with magical powers. In Mr. Stark's case, and probably his dad's, without even knowing it, which is more possible than you'd think. You said he gets lost in big projects, right? Tends to get in a groove and spend days in his lab without noticing, and come out of it exhausted but kind of riding a high with some amazing new invention to show for it? That would totally fit; it's not magic the way we're used to dealing with it, pulling energy from the environment or petitioning a higher power, it's more taking your own personal energy well and focusing it down to a sustained pinpoint. Like-- like a blowtorch, not a bonfire. It's a completely different way of conceptualizing magic, a lot older, really-- but weirdly, a lot more suited to working with technology. Ms. Calendar would've been fascinated."
Willow sounded a little wistful as she wound up her infodump; and Buffy wondered, as she always did when the technopagan was mentioned, how all their lives might have been different if Angelus hadn't killed her. There was a lot of water under that bridge, though, and for once, Buffy was in a place where she wouldn't want anything about her life to change, even if fixing the past was a possibility.
"When you say older, you mean old like the Scythe?" she asked, glancing over her shoulder at the weapon rack near the front door where the silver and scarlet weapon rested.
Willow nodded. "Before people started using rituals and experimenting with stinky herbs, they still had willpower-- and there aren't any short circuits for that, like there are for most other kinds of magic. It's a lot less dangerous to the novice because of that; when I said 'high', I meant more like a runner's high than the addictive stuff I got mixed up with. You just have to spend a lot of time at it, which is why a lot of the Muggleborns-- you know what I mean-- turn up in jobs that require a lot of hands-on focus. Like smiths. Or religious orders; the first runes of power were supposedly carved by scribe-enchanters."
"Runes," Buffy repeated, thinking of blocky, indecipherable letter-shapes carved in rock-- and the computerized gibberish Willow wrote like a second language that might as well be runes for all Buffy understood of it. Which reminded her of the way Tony had altered his own Extremis to avoid the heat spike problem, replacing it with some kind of computer interface thingy instead. Not to mention the AIs that Tony had been building since he was seventeen.
"...Would programming languages count as runes?" she asked, feeling the hair stand up on the back of her neck.
Willow gasped, eyes widening as she caught on, clapping a hand over her mouth. "Hecate's light! JARVIS," she blurted.
"And Dum-E, and Butterfingers, and U," Buffy reminded her. Anybody that had interacted with the trio of mobile mechanical arms on more than a casual basis knew they had personalities and individual will; add in the idea of magic....
"No wonder I've never even heard of another AI as advanced as his," Willow whispered. She'd spent a lot of time fangirling about Tony's chief AI on her last visit to the Tower. "And no wonder JARVIS had problems after the Malibu servers went down. Goddess. I'll have to check, but... I bet JARVIS has a soul. He didn't just lose code, or storage space; he lost part of himself when that happened."
That threw Buffy a little; of course she treated Tony's invisible butler like a person already, but after all her years of being taught to categorize beings as protectable and redeemable on the one hand or a targetable thing on the other, it was a pretty milestone-y distinction.
"Check them all. And. Let's, uh. Let's not tell anyone else yet, okay?" she replied, unnerved. "Except Tony and JARVIS, if it turns out to be true." She'd need to think about the potential impact a little more-- and give them the option of keeping that fact to themselves. It was kind of-- significant. And scary-making, considering what the popular consciousness made of strong AIs.
Skynet. HAL. Not comparisons to inspire trust in the average American, never mind trained, paranoid secret agent types, like, oh, say, Director Fury.
Willow shook herself. "Of course. I wasn't planning to tell anyone about the enchanter thing, either-- I'm not even sure we should tell Mr. Stark."
"Because so much good ever comes of keeping people in the dark about something that important?" Buffy winced and curled her hands more tightly around her cup.
Willow cringed. "That's not what I... I was actually thinking that he's really testy about magic already, telling him it might be responsible for a lot of his awesome sounds about as fun as... as a really not fun thing. But you know, some of the problems he's had might be because he's a natural enchanter; he really is interfering without meaning to." She frowned, thoughtfully. "You're right; he needs to know. But his explosion quota is probably going to go up for awhile, you realize."
"Tony the magical mechanic," Buffy mused aloud, then blinked. "With the literally flame-breathing girlfriend. Pepper's still off balance about Extremis; this is really going to flip her lid."
"Good thing they probably have lifespans as long as Thor's now; plenty of time to adjust," Willow joked feebly. Then she sobered. "So-- I'd better call Giles, see if he can recommend any literature about enchanters; you know Mr. Stark will ask for it. When are you going to tell him?"
"He's penciled in at the lab tomorrow; and since none of the other Science Bros will be there...." Buffy aimed another pleading look at her friend.
"Sure, twist my arm, why don't you," Willow sighed, looking torn between excitement and dread.
Tony took their little... observation... about as well as Buffy had been expecting. That was to say, not at all.
Pepper wasn't pleased, either. Not because of the subject matter-- she didn't know yet-- but because Tony had abruptly gone into full lock-down mode. She'd apparently hoped she'd seen the last of that particular behavior in Malibu, but he vanished into his labs and insisted on communicating only through JARVIS for three days straight, barring even her from his physical presence.
"I don't know what you said to him," Pepper fumed after forty-eight hours had passed, "but he's missed two important meetings, and he cancelled date night, and he never does that to me anymore. Not without explaining. He promised he wouldn't."
Buffy had actually gone to those missed meetings, armed with notes from previous discussions with him on the topics at hand, and had hinted direly about Avengers business; no one had given her any trouble. Finally, after nearly a year of doing the job plus a couple of weeks of board-wrangling while Tony and Pepper had both been out of commission at Christmastime, the rank and file had stopped comparing her unfavorably with Ms. Potts and/or Ms. Rushman. But she did get Pepper's point; Tony had been much better about keeping his romantic life in order since he'd finally exorcised a sufficiency of his Ten Rings-related demons. JARVIS had confided that he was sleeping better, too.
(Though on the subject of exorcising... now that they knew what was the what with JARVIS, she needed to make extra sure no one tried that with him. Buffy made a mental note to talk aetheric defenses with Willow, like yesterday. He really was more or less Tony's kid, just one born without a body, and she was still trying to figure out ways to break that news.)
At the same time, though... Buffy also got why Tony had suddenly locked himself away: for the same reason Pepper had flinched at skin-to-skin contact when she and Natasha had first started training her, until she was sure her Extremis wouldn't get out of control and burn her sparring partners. And while Pepper really did have need to know... Buffy wasn't the one she needed to hear it from.
"It's not something that needs fixing," Buffy tried to reassure her. "I promise. This isn't-- he's not dying, no one stole his blueprints, there aren't any more terrorists breaking down doors with a personal vendetta. He has at least talked to you since he went in there, right?"
"Yes; he said there's absolutely nothing to worry about, and asked if I would take a rain check," Pepper replied, in distressed, infuriated tones. "A rain check!"
"Wow, you mean he actually knows what a rain check is?" Buffy's mouth ran off without her. She winced, then held up a hand before Pepper could reply. "Sorry. Seriously, though, he's not lying. There's just... something he needs to get his head around."
"That you can't tell me," Pepper repeated.
"That I shouldn't tell you. I am sorry, but it's his secret to tell, not mine." She spread her hands in surrender. On the legal side of things, Pepper could probably insist; but she prized loyalty in assistants as much as Tony did, having been in the position once herself, and Buffy knew she wouldn't.
Pepper narrowed her eyes further, tapping her shining nails against her silk sleeve, but finally gave up and pivoted on a sharp, stylish heel. "Well, then he knows where to find me," she sighed as she left.
Buffy winced, and dove back into paperwork to keep her own worry at bay.
Tony did eventually reappear, though, seventy-two hours after he'd told her not one more fucking word and stormed out of the room. JARVIS had allowed food deliveries and had reported at least two cat-naps, so Buffy knew he hadn't worked himself into a total blackout engineering state; but she was still hugely relieved when he finally stormed into her office, despite the danger signs of hair standing on end, wrinkled shirt, fresh bruises on his knuckles, and smeared grease on one cheek.
"Wow, has Pepper seen you yet?" she blinked at him. "She would drag you to the nearest shower by your ear."
"Have you been spying on us, Summers? Naughty girl!" he wagged a finger at her, eyes a little too bright with exhaustion and endorphins. "That'll have to wait, I'm afraid; I have something to show you, first."
She raised her eyebrows at him, then crossed her arms deliberately on the desk, leaning forward over the glass-topped surface she'd been using to crosscheck the latest inventory reports. "I'd say 'thrill me', but I'm afraid you'd try to take it literally," she replied, dryly, a little worried about what he might be up to given his track record of 'running before walking'. "Mr. Stark, you know the CEO prefers you conduct dangerous experimentation in the company of qualified support personnel."
He blinked at that, taken aback by her sudden descent into corporate speak, then waved the concern away. "JARVIS totally counts, and even if he didn't, Pepper did not tell you to say that. Is this about that thing you said about upgrading myself when no one was looking? I did nothing of the kind this time. I swear. I was a little freaked out, to be honest. Or didn't you notice the wide eyes, the rapid breath, the sweat glistening on my brow?"
His flourishing, back-of-hand-to-forehead gesture was interrupted by Buffy's sudden giggle; she deliberately cleared her throat at his annoyed glare, then made a go-on gesture. "Sorry-- it's just, glistening. Bluescreen moment. But I'm better now; go on."
"You are such a killjoy, I swear, what are we going to do with you?" Tony sighed, dropping his dramatic pose. "Anyway. So! Yeah, I was a little distraught, but I spent some time talking it over with JARVIS, trying to poke a hole in your theory. Or come up with a way to test it. And you know what I found?"
"I'm sure you're going to tell me," she said.
"Ha. Well, as it turns out... not a damned thing. I mean, I managed to prove to myself that you weren't full of hot air, which was a mind trip, I'll admit, but I could not think up a single immediate way I could demonstrate it to anyone else that they wouldn't just assume was some new twist on existing Stark technology." He crossed his arms for emphasis, looking vexed.
"Really?" Buffy blinked at him; that was not what she'd been expected. If she'd expected anything. "Not even, like, a sword that glows in the presence of enemies? Or, um, a ring of invisibility? Lightning from your fingertips? Shapeshifting?"
"Thank you for that trip through recent pop culture," he snarked, "but no. I mean, I probably could, but I wouldn't even have to stretch to do the same thing just with the stuff I have in my labs. Especially since..." he stopped short, gesturing vaguely toward his chest. "Nanites that light up according to threat detection software? Reflector panels, like the Helicarrier? Some variant on Taser technology? Portable hologram projectors?" He waved all that away, pacing back and forth in front of her desk. "In fact, as it turns out, I can't do much of anything that I can't also justify using current technology or known scientific principles."
He looked almost more disgruntled about that than he had in all his rants about the unpredictability of magic over the months since she'd revealed her secret identity, and she had to quickly cough into her fist to hide a bubble of laughter. Who would have thought he'd ever be on the other side of that argument? She wished Willow hadn't already taken the Teleport Express back to Scotland, she'd have had a much better idea what to say to him.
Buffy opened her mouth to say something anyway-- she wasn't quite sure what, but the situation seemed to call for it-- but he cut her off with another wave of his hand. "And don't say it's because I don't believe I can, I'm tired of that bullshit. How the hell am I supposed to believe in anything I can't prove?" He threw his hands up, then stopped in front of her.
"There's just one thing," he added, abruptly dropping the diva act once more. And then he vanished.
Not literally. She could still hear him breathing. She could still smell the eau de male sweat and motor oil he'd carried up out of his man cave. She could still see the dents where his feet had sunk into the rug before her desk. But she couldn't see him. And more importantly, she couldn't feel him.
Buffy picked the stapler up off her desk and beaned him with it, bouncing it off his see-through skull. And then she vaulted over the heavy furniture, stabbing a hand at his invisible sternum to make sure he really was still there, and still breathing. "Holy magic shield, Iron Man!" she blurted.
"Ow. Go easy on the goods, woman!" he cursed. "It works, then?"
Up close, there was kind of a blurry light-bending effect where his skin should be; he probably was using a variant on that reflector panel scheme he'd mentioned, magically bound to his aura and nanites. Imperfect, but it would make his suit very hard for regular enemies to target. And the new effect would take care of most irregular pursuers. Including, apparently, Slayers.
"Two senses out of the six," she confirmed. "Including the one you were aiming for. Take it off, already; that's giving me the creeps."
The air shivered in front of her, and then he reappeared under her hand, a wide, triumphant smile on his face. Then he raised his right wrist, shaking the bangle she'd taken for one of the Mark VIII-style suit bracelets-- which duh, of course he didn't need since he'd implanted those subcutaneous transmitters-- to show off the fine, delicate lines of writing etched into its surface.
"Are those formulas?" Buffy raised her eyebrows, snagging it for a closer look.
Tony kept beaming, apparently unconcerned at having his hand trapped in her grip-- though of course, the Extremis probably made him as strong as she was, now. "I'd finally come up with an idea how to make a shield work, blocking a particular range of-- well, never mind the details. The equipment to build it just doesn't exist yet. But it turns out, if I can envision the effects...."
"Like the imaginary inertial dampeners in your suits?" she reminded him wryly.
He gave her an arch look. "I usually chalk that up to good engineering, and living a charmed life."
"Well, you weren't far wrong. How's an enchanted life sound to you?" she snarked back, releasing his wrist.
He took a deep breath, then let it out; for a second, she could see how weirded out he really was under the layers of self-assurance, but then he firmed his jaw and was Tony Stark again, faking it 'til he made it. At least he hadn't gone through the self-destruct stage this time? She'd take that as a win.
"So 'magic' got the last laugh," he shrugged, making finger quotes. "It's not like I got a letter from Hogwarts. I still have to know what I'm doing, to do it. This stuff still operates by familiar rules, unlike whatever it is your friend's smoking. It's not going to change who I am."
"Good," Buffy replied, relieved.
"...Except, maybe, the next time Thor's brother shows up," he mused. "I ought to see about working this into some kind of restraints. Directed inward, without the invisibility function? Or, hmm, making everything outside the wearer invisible? I wonder...."
Buffy choked on another laugh, then grabbed him by the collar, turned him around, and pointed him toward the door. "Shower first. And Pepper, before you head back to the labs, or she will have your balls for breakfast."
"You say that as if it's a threat," Tony wagged his eyebrows suggestively at her.
"Thank you for that mental image," she wrinkled her nose at him. "Shall I bill the brain bleach to your account, sir?"
The door closed on his laughter-- and she turned to press her back against it, slumping against its sturdy support. She'd keep a closer eye on him for awhile, at least until he told the team; but his coping mechanisms had already kicked in. He was going to be okay, and that was the important part.
...Plus, more dangerous than ever. Good thing he was a much better man than he liked to believe.
Just one more truth left to reveal-- but this time, Tony wasn't the one who needed to hear it. Buffy cleared her throat, then looked toward the nearest camera.
"Hey, Jarvis?" she said. "Mind turning the anti-eavesdrop back on for a minute? There's something I need to talk to you about."