S.H.I.E.L.D.’s island HQ and holding facility
near New York, NY, USA
When the Hulk dragged Iron Man’s battered suit up from the water, Steve, Black Widow and Hawkeye were waiting for him. Thor had remained inside, keeping a watch over Loki, who miraculously hadn’t tried to escape in the commotion.
The Hulk growled at them, dropping Iron Man to the hull with a clunk, then lumbered to the side. There was blood seeping from the cracks of the suit when Steve went for a closer look, and Stark wasn’t moving. In fact, he was certain for a moment that he was dead, a horrible dread hitting him in the gut. No matter what had happened, this wasn’t how he had wanted it to end; Tony, controlled by some unknown force, killed by the man who was perhaps his best friend in the entire team.
Hulk had turned back to Banner while Steve crouched by their fallen friend. After a period of disorientation, Banner told them to remove Stark’s suit. It took them the better part of an hour to accomplish that, especially when Banner stopped them twice to revive Stark, whose heart apparently had stopped. He wasn’t breathing, either, when they wrenched off the helmet, and it took such a long time to get the water out of his lungs that Steve was amazed he would ever breathe again.
Banner wasn’t giving up on him, though, and they hauled his body, still partially in the suit, back inside, to the nearest operational med bay.
The Helicarrier was later hauled to some secret S.H.I.E.L.D. base Steve had never even heard of, and while Fury was adamant that they put Stark in chains, there was no reasoning with Banner: “Without immediate medical care, he will die.” Hulk had been the one to injure Stark so that had to weigh on his opinion more than anything else, but whatever his motivation, Steve knew Fury didn’t want Stark dead any more than the rest of them. So, once they docked, they moved Stark to proper medical facilities, and although he looked like he was going to collapse at any given moment, Banner was determined to follow him.
“Are you sure this is safe, Doctor?” Agent Romanoff’s voice was a bit shaky, but it had been a long day. They had gathered at the door of the infirmary, watching as Stark lay completely still on a bed, finally out of his suit. His left arm looked like it wasn’t attached to his body in any natural sort of way and Bruce was clearly planning to work on that.
“He’s out cold,” Banner told her. “His suit is wrecked and the Cube is safe.”
“Doctor,” a local nurse said. Many of them had gathered in the room but seemed somewhat intimidated by Banner – which wasn’t that usual for S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel so his reputation must have preceded him. “He’s going into cardiac arrest again.”
“Damn it,” Banner swore, moving around the bed. “Okay, prepare the defibrillator.”
Steve winced at the way his teammate’s body jumped a moment later at the electricity coursing through it. On the Helicarrier, they had managed to get his heart started with plain old CPR. Now, the machine let out a beep that didn’t sound completely natural.
“I think that… device in his chest is affecting the system,” one of the nurses pointed at the arc reactor. “His heart is not responding…”
Banner looked at the screen, then at Tony, and seemed to be counting the odds in his head. “Try again,” he said.
They did, and the defibrillator sounded like it was going to go out of order if they tried again. The light in Tony’s chest flickered, then resumed its usual, bright glow. Steve thought it was unfair, seeing as his heart wasn’t working normally, but he recalled that the arc was mainly used to keep the shrapnel in place, instead of having any real effect on his heart.
“Okay,” Banner said, voice faint, touching Stark’s chest carefully. “Don’t die on me, Tony,” he vowed, then took hold of the arc reactor, twisting it around, and after a bit of a struggle it came off, a ball of light in his hand. “Again, as quickly as you can,” Banner said then, cradling the arc reactor carefully in his hands. The medical team moved into position, and this time the defibrillator seemed to do the trick after a couple tries.
“We have a pulse,” the nurse said.
Carefully but quickly, Banner placed the arc back in Tony’s chest, locking it in place, then let out a sigh. “Okay, now we need to fix that arm…”
The people moved around, and Steve pulled back to not be in the way. Barton and Romanoff hovered beside him, watching. They were all battered and weary, having barely escaped the cargo bay when Stark blew it up, then fighting to get out alive when the Helicarrier crashed down and began to take in water.
“Maybe we should find clean clothes… get something eat,” Barton suggested after a moment, but didn’t move.
“Catch some shut-eye,” Romanoff added.
Steve just nodded, but couldn’t move. He knew his body needed rest, even with the super-soldier serum keeping him going, but any attempt to sleep would be met with a vision of those unnaturally blue eyes, haunting, taunting him…
They kept standing there while Stark’s arm was fixed, then the rest of the medical team left, leaving Banner alone by the bed, and it was quiet save for the steady beep of the machines. Steve squared his shoulders and stepped inside. “You should rest,” he told the scientist.
“I don’t think I can,” Banner told him, in that old, restless fashion. The only thing that seemed to keep him in place and from wringing his hands was the fingers he had placed near Stark’s neck, as if to check the pulse. “I know I… made a conscious choice to stop him. He couldn’t be allowed to leave, with or without the Cube.”
“He fought you,” Romanoff cut him off. “You did what you had to, in order to keep him from escaping. To keep him safe.”
That brought a morose smile to Banner’s lips. “Safe? Yeah, I can see how well that worked out.”
“Safe from himself, and the Cube, and whoever is controlling him,” Romanoff pressed on, stepping in. Barton followed her, perhaps unwilling to stay in the hallway alone while the rest of them were inside. “There is no way of knowing what the next step in his plan was. But we all know it would not end well for Tony.”
Banner seemed to recognize her words. Steve looked back and forth between them, noticing the worried look on Romanoff’s face. Well, she had perhaps known Stark the longest, and while there wasn’t a whole lot of trust between them… it still didn’t mean they were dead to each other.
“We still have to figure out how to accomplish setting his mind free,” Barton noted.
“Yes,” Banner agreed. His fingers caressed Stark’s pale skin just slightly, then skimmed down to where the defibrillator had left red marks on his chest. “We are no closer to doing that.”
“At least we’ve ruled out a lot of things,” Steve pointed. “There has to be a way.”
And as if by some magic, reacting to his words, Stark’s body twitched, and a sound rose from his throat. Banner jumped into action, looking at the monitors, then looked at him as if to confirm whatever he saw.
A moment later Stark’s brow furrowed and he opened his eyes.
Steve had never noticed how dark the brown in them was, how deep, regardless of how often they had stood toe to toe, staring at each other. “Stark?”
He blinked, slowly, then craned his neck to look down.
“Don’t worry, everything’s… where it should be,” Banner said before he could catch himself. “The arc reactor is safe.”
That, somehow, seemed to calm Stark down a bit, and he laid down his head. “I can’t feel my left hand,” he murmured.
“That’s because of the awesome medicine I’ve shot up inside you,” Banner replied. “But it should heal just fine, given that you don’t use it too soon…” He stopped then, blinking, and Steve realized it almost at the same time as everyone else. “Tony?” Banner asked slowly, leaning closer towards his face.
“Yeah?” Stark frowned. “Who else?”
“It could be a trap,” Romanoff pointed out.
“Yeah, there’s no reason why he would be himself suddenly,” Barton agreed, but looked rather open for someone to prove him wrong, which didn’t happen often.
Stark’s frown deepened again, and he looked between them, his eyes then landing on Steve. He seemed to contemplate something hard, putting pieces together. “Did I… attack you?” he asked then, very carefully.
“Is this some kind of ruse?” Steve asked. His fist tightened around the straps of the shield he was still holding.
“I honestly have no idea what you’re talking about –” Stark started, his dark eyes confused, not a hint of blue in them, but then he looked at Banner, for the longest time, and the next time he spoke his voice was cracked with a hurt so deep Steve wasn’t certain if he had ever thought Stark capable of so much feeling: “I hurt you. Oh my god, Bruce, I… What the fuck?!”
“He won’t remember it all,” Barton noted. “Just… flashes. Back seat and all that.”
Stark looked at him, eyes a bit wild. “Remember what?”
“It could still be a trap,” Romanoff said, stepping forward. “He played Banner perfectly the time before, not being himself for a second as far as we know.”
Banner looked unwilling to believe that, and yet Steve knew he was cautious, knowing he had fallen for it once. “What do you remember of the last few days, Tony?”
“I… Days?” Stark looked at him again. “What should I remember?”
“What is the last thing you remember clearly?” Steve asked. “There has to be something.”
It took Stark a long time to process that. It never took him that long to do anything, which was suspicious, then finally he seemed to decide on something: “Being at the Tower. Post-mission.” He looked at Romanoff. “You tried to take off my head that day. Fury was a bitch, as usual. So were you, Rogers.”
“Anything else?” Banner asked.
Stark took a deep breath, to center himself, his eyes closed for a moment. Steve expected them to be blue when he opened them, but the brown remained. “Nothing out of the usual. Talking to J.A.R.V.I.S., relaxing.”
“Not good enough,” Steve decided.
“Good enough for what?” Stark bristled. “I don’t know what you want me to say!”
“The truth,” Steve suggested.
“Maybe he can’t tell us more than that,” Banner started.
“Or maybe it isn’t him at all,” Steve shot that hope down.
And still the brown eyes looked at him, not changing color.
“Okay, let’s look at this another way,” Barton said. “We all wish he was himself, so if he is… what did we do different from the other attempts to get him back?”
“We almost killed him,” Banner said dryly. “Maybe we should have made the other guy tear off his arm a bit sooner.”
“The other guy tore my arm off?” Stark asked, startled.
“Almost,” Banner said in a tone that was probably supposed to be comforting. “It’s all good now. You’ll live.”
“I probably did something to deserve that…” Stark mused.
“You could say that,” was all the answer he got from Banner, who drew back. “We revived him, shocked his heart, pumped him full of medicine… and took out the arc reactor,” he said, halting at that, hand mid-air, hovering over one of the touch-screens.
“You took my –”
“Not now, Tony, let me think,” Banner shook his head. “You remember the video, right? Loki touched the scepter to his chest, to his arc reactor. What if that was the key all along?”
“But you put it back,” Steve said, shifting, his body tensing. “What if that resumes it?”
“Should we switch it to another arc?” Romanoff asked.
“Is there a spare one lying around?” Barton asked, seeming to agree with the idea.
“You took my arc out of my chest!?” Stark asked Banner again. “You know I don’t feel hundred percent about that idea, ever.”
“Shut up, Stark, and stop being a baby,” Romanoff commanded with sharp impatience. “As if Banner would let you die.”
Stark still looked a bit hurt, but perhaps he decided that if anyone got to touch that part of him, it was Banner. Steve thought it might be exactly like that; they trusted each other, understood each other… In bad times, he was almost jealous of that, because he never had that kind of connection with Stark on the best of days.
“Okay, so… is this him, or not?” Steve finally asked. “Is there a way we can know for sure?” He glanced at Hawkeye for confirmation.
The archer frowned. “I knew immediately when it was over – and I remembered a little, to be able to tell the difference. Not the events themselves, but that I was replaced by someone else in my own head.”
Stark seemed to be putting it all together while he listened. “What did I do?” he asked, voice faint.
“You stole the Tesseract then attacked pretty much every one of us,” Romanoff told him. “You also took down the Helicarrier and Fury’s ready to tear you a new one, mind-control or no.”
“And what did I want to do with the Tesseract?”
“We kind of hoped you would be able to tell us,” Romanoff gave him a piercing look.
“You tried to integrate it with your suit,” Banner reminded them all. “Didn’t work so well, but I think you ran out of time to make the modifications, and J.A.R.V.I.S. wasn’t entirely on board with you at that time.”
“Traitor,” Stark mused. “What did I build him for, again?” Then he was quiet a long time, as if trying to make sense of whatever memories remained in his head of the time he had been controlled. “Where’s Pepper?” he asked then.
They were all unanimously quiet, which didn’t seem to escape Stark’s notice.
“Guys, this might be the only time I ask you to tell me the truth,” he started.
“You ask that all the time,” Barton noted uncomfortably.
“But I never expected you to give me the truth before.”
“We’ll… talk about it later. You should rest now,” Banner interrupted. And with that, he took a syringe from a tray and pushed the needle into the IV drip, and for all his protestations, Stark went under in less than a minute.
“Should we have told him?” Steve asked after Stark had fallen asleep. It seemed there was still a frown on the genius’ brow, and he hoped he didn’t dream.
“I don’t want to be the one to break the news to him,” Romanoff said immediately, which was a bit off since she never had problems telling Stark anything, especially if it was going to upset him. Steve guessed this was different; not only was Pepper dead, but it was by Stark’s own hand.
“Let’s get cleaned up,” Barton said then. “Maybe we’ll… know what to do then.”
Steve nodded. He picked up his shield and took off towards the rooms they had been assigned, planning on returning to Stark’s room once he was done. He told himself it was to make sure he hadn’t tricked them again, but he knew that beneath that was genuine worry for his teammate.
When Tony came to he could tell he was alone. The room was dark, his left arm was still numb from shoulder to fingers and he had an uncomfortable feeling that something was wrong. He couldn’t remember the last few days. He knew time had passed, was acutely aware of that, but what had happened was a mystery to him save for a few flashes.
“J.A.R.V.I.S.?” he spoke up.
Silence met him for an instant, and he wondered where he was.
“Sir, I am glad you are back to your old self,” the familiar voice caressed his ears a moment later.
“What took you so long?” Tony asked, annoyance in his voice although he was relieved; something familiar was what he needed right now, and his AI provided that just fine.
“I had to break through S.H.I.E.L.D. firewalls in order to install my parameters on this base’s computer system, but everything should be working up to expectations now.”
“Where am I?”
“The Triskelion. A secret island base of S.H.I.E.L.D. it would seem. I had no previous information of this location.”
Well, trust J.A.R.V.I.S. to figure out where he had been taken, and then break through to own the system. Tony smiled. He was so damn smart sometimes, which reflected on his creations. “Could you run me through the events of the last few days?”
“I am still compiling data, sir. You temporarily disabled me for a time.” Was it possible J.A.R.V.I.S. sounded hurt by it?
“Okay, show me… show me Pepper. Where is Pepper?” Tony asked.
“I am sorry, sir…”
“Stop apologizing and fill in the huge, fat blank in my brain,” Tony snapped.
A screen on his right flared to life. Tony turned his head, noticing for the first time that he was strapped into the bed, as if no one wanted him to leave on his own.
A video – security footage from the Tower, he could tell – began to roll on the screen, and Tony focused his attention on that.
On the screen, Pepper walked in.
“Hey. Working hard?”
“You know it.”
“Was that Thor on the screen?”
“Just going through some stuff.”
“Tony… are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Better than ever, in fact. I feel so… invigorated, somehow. It must be the new air filtering system that was installed.”
“Ah, yes, well. Contact lenses?”
“Are you okay? Should I call… Bruce or someone?”
“Please, don’t. We’re having such a nice conversation. I would hate to ruin the moment.”
“I think I’ll give Bruce a call anyway. You were complaining about those chest pains, and he’s a doctor, he could take a look –”
“I’m truly sorry, Pepper. Tony – I – truly loves you, but you’re just… too smart. And that’s going to be a problem for both of us.”
Silence followed, the screen freezing at the last frame.
“Sir?” J.A.R.V.I.S. asked after several minutes had passed.
“Play it again,” Tony ordered, keeping his voice from cracking with iron will alone.
“Sir, I am not certain whether that is advisable –”
“Play the damn tape!” Tony barked.
And J.A.R.V.I.S., being built to take his orders, did as he was bid, over and over again.
Tony felt the sting of tears in his eyes, the tight, unbearable sensation in his chest. How could he not remember? Or did he remember? The more he thought about it, the more likely it seemed there was a shadow of a memory – or maybe he just put it there.
He – or a creature wearing his skin – was dropping Pepper to her death for the seventh time when the door hissed open and Captain America stepped inside. After all, Rogers still wore the uniform although he had left the shield somewhere and seemed cleaned up from before.
Rogers strode over to the bed, glancing at the screen. “Stark… I’m so sorry,” he managed then, trying to turn the screen off.
“Play it again,” Tony told J.A.R.V.I.S.
“No, don’t,” Rogers said, looking around. “Is there a remote?” he asked.
“Captain Rogers, I shall cut off the feed.”
“J.A.R.V.I.S.?” Rogers frowned, but accepted the AI’s presence far easier than he used to deal with him in the Tower. “Thank you.”
“Hey, traitor,” Tony objected, but J.A.R.V.I.S. went on with it anyway. He jumped when Rogers lay a hand on his shoulder. “What?” he snapped, his entire body heaving as he tried to hold it in – at least until he kicked the good Captain out of the room.
“Tony,” Rogers said, “you don’t have to…”
“What?” Tony asked, and the tears came anyway, overwhelming him. He could hear it, over and over in his head, Pepper’s last words, her last gasp – before he killed her.
Rogers reached down, undoing the straps around his right wrist, chest, waist and ankles, then sat down on the edge of the bed.
Tony pushed himself he sit up gingerly with the help of his right hand only, then attempted to push him off, but when Rogers wrapped an arm around him, Tony pressed against his shoulder and cried harder than he ever had in his entire life.
“The spell seems to be broken,” Loki observed.
Tony’s eyes narrowed at the demi-god’s words. His left arm was still tied and secured against his side, but he was standing on his own two feet, which was a victory of sorts. Tony was never an easy patient, and right now doing something other than lying down was probably good for his mental health, the more he uncovered of the last few days.
“Is it permanent?” Fury asked.
“I cannot say,” Loki shrugged.
Tony took a step, and Steve fixed a firm hand against his good shoulder. “You know I hold you personally responsible for all this,” Tony started.
“Oh, you wound me!” Loki said mockingly, but took a step back, just in case. “I had no hand in this, Mr. Stark. It’s all on you.”
Bruce cringed inside. “We still haven’t established if someone was controlling him,” he noted.
“True,” Steve seconded him, surprisingly easy. “Let’s not presume we know the situation before we do.”
Tony still looked mortified, like someone had given him a solid kick in the gut. No doubt he recalled Pepper’s fate; Steve had told them how Tony had gotten J.A.R.V.I.S. to show him the video, and Bruce could see it hadn’t actually made him feel any better about any of this. Whatever information besides what J.A.R.V.I.S. had given him, there was no knowing, but Bruce personally knew what it felt like to wake up and have no idea what you had been up to for the past few hours, days, or sometimes weeks.
Just because he had never killed the woman he loved…
He knew, though, that Tony hadn’t had enough time to recover for Bruce to bring that up, to sympathize with him, so it would have to wait. Not for much longer, though; even Fury looked a little worried whenever he glanced at the billionaire who had lost much of his usual bravado in all this. No doubt it would return, soon, as a form of self-defense and protection, and when it did, it wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing, Bruce had heard how notoriously bad Tony was dealing with guilt.
“We shall uncover the truth,” Thor noted. “And Loki will help us.”
“I shall?” Loki asked, raising eyebrows, but one look around the room, not to mention his brother, gave him the answer he needed. “Why of course, yes,” he forced a smile which was almost like a grimace. “I would be happy to help.”
“I don’t need his help,” Tony said, voice harsh.
“We don’t know if it was his doing that this happened,” Bruce said as gently as possible. “He understands the Tesseract better than any of us.”
“And he couldn’t do a damn thing to get it out of me the first time!” Tony argued. “Or wasn’t willing to. I wouldn’t trust him with my pet fish, much less my mind and body.”
Loki, smartly, made no comment in return.
“Perhaps you should lie down, Mr. Stark,” Fury suggested. “The doctors inform me you are healing well, considering, but I don’t want you to overdo it.”
Tony gave him an annoyed yet suspicious look. “You’re eager to put me back in the suit?” he asked. “After all I supposedly did?”
“There’s a Helicarrier that you’re going to fix,” Fury said blankly. “Don’t think I won’t hold you to that.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Well, it’s about time someone improved that flying piece of junk. I wouldn’t set a foot on something that can be dropped so easily out of the sky. Talk about work hazards.”
Bruce smiled. He knew Tony admired the Helicarrier tech since it wasn’t originally his, although he could find faults in it especially due to that fact – and was all too happy to point them out. While Fury might do well not to include Tony so much in the building process and repairs, Stark Industries had the best tech for this, no denying that, and maybe there was some truth in Tony not wanting to set a foot on something he considered unstable.
It made Bruce feel a bit better, considering the time he had – and would probably in the future as well –spent using the Helicarrier’s facilities; his first experience in a malfunctioning ship hadn’t ended all that well, after all.
Bruce moved to guide Tony back into his room before he could come up with any more comments for Fury, and Steve followed them. Bruce gave their leader a smile of thanks. Tony didn’t seem to notice, walking ahead of them, determined to not look like he was being escorted anywhere, but merely followed.
“I’m glad you were with him earlier,” Bruce said to Steve. “I should have… been there.”
“It’s okay,” Steve replied, watching Tony. “I hope it helped.”
They reached the room Tony was staying in; it was small by anyone’s standards, corners crammed full of medical equipment to make sure his condition didn’t collapse suddenly. Tony had raised a little hell about being kept in such a place, but he was too weary to really do anything about it. Plus, keeping him company and agreeing that S.H.I.E.L.D. sucked at providing for its prized workers kept him satisfied.
Tony sat down on the bed when they entered, wordlessly watching as Bruce stepped closer, helping him off with his shirt. Steve hovered by the door, just inside the room, looking around.
“Did Fury put you on watch duty?” Tony asked suddenly. Bruce looked up, noticing that his friend’s dark eyes were gazing at Steve.
The blond shifted, self-conscious. “No,” he replied.
Tony frowned, then shrugged – and grimaced. “I need better meds. If they allowed me to decide what they put in me –”
“There will be no morphine, there will be no alcohol, and there will be no drugs,” Bruce told him before he could finish. “Don’t pout.”
Bruce just looked at him, and Tony gave him a tired smile, then allowed him to help him lie down. Bruce quickly checked on his arm, seeing that the stitches were keeping as they should, then pulled a sheet over him. “Do you need something for the pain?”
“You were just telling me I’m not allowed to take anything.”
“Just the good stuff,” Bruce corrected. He knew what he would prefer, should he be in Tony’s position, recovering from a Hulk-bashing, but as long as they were here, Bruce was going to steer clear of those things. Maybe when they all went home…
He glanced at Steve, then back at Tony, who had already closed his eyes, looking for a moment almost unbelievably relaxed. Sleep taking over, his guilty conscience silenced, the pain vanishing…
Steve moved over. “Is he asleep already?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Bruce smiled a bit. “He’s tired. We don’t all heal as fast as you.”
Steve nodded. “It’s not the visible wounds we should worry about, right?”
“No,” Bruce agreed and sighed, then looked at Steve. “When do you think they’ll allow him to go home?”
“Do you think it will be good for him to be there? Alone…”
“Well, I assume someone has to keep an eye on him,” Bruce ventured. “We – the team – should do that. He was planning on renovating the place, having us stay there. That’s why he hasn’t fixed that huge sign outside.”
“Huh,” Steve said, looking at Tony, then nodded. “I’ll ask Fury. I understand if S.H.I.E.L.D. is having issues with releasing a man who almost single-handedly made their Helicarrier crash into the ocean, but they must understand he wasn’t doing it of his own free will.”
“You believe that’s the case?” Bruce asked him. They hadn’t really had time to talk about any of this.
“I held him after he found out about Pepper,” Steve told him, voice quiet, deep hurt, understanding and compassion in it. “At that point, it was no longer a guess. He had no hand in it. He couldn’t have done it.”
Bruce nodded. It was good enough for him. “I’ll get us something to eat,” he said simply.
“I’ll wait here while you do that,” Steve replied. There was no need to stay, really, but it had become a habit, first out of fear and then because of something very different; because every time Tony woke up Bruce was certain that for a very small moment he was contemplating putting a bullet in his mouth, or any alternative that would work for him. An ugly reminder of how low a person could get, and Bruce was determined it would be much easier to crawl out of that dark hole with someone else’s help. He had tried it on his own, after all, and it had been hard work from start to finish. Some days he wasn’t sure if he was even quite there yet.
Tony’s eyes flew open. The echo of the voice hung out in the back of his mind like the last second of sleep before waking up, unwilling to leave, rooted so deep one might imagine it was real.
His room at the S.H.I.E.L.D. base was dimmed, but as always there was a presence in a chair near the bed. This time it was Rogers, asleep, which was quite unlike him; Tony wasn’t certain if he had ever caught him sleeping – for more than a fraction of a second, anyway, before the super-soldier would jerk and blink and be as alert as ever.
Slowly he sat up, mindful of his left arm. He knew he was lucky to have it still, lucky to even be alive. He might have to thank Bruce for that later.
Tony almost jerked, looking around. He wasn’t asleep anymore, he was fairly certain of that. He felt nauseated and was in a moderate amount of pain, which was normal these days. “J.A.R.V.I.S.,” he spoke up.
“Yes, sir?” the AI’s familiar voice replied.
“Did you register any kind of voice just a moment ago?”
“Not in the vicinity of your room, sir.”
“Huh…” Tony decided he might need to talk to Bruce about his meds after all; he was hearing voices.
Anthony; it is time.
He almost fell off the bed. “J. Did you hear that?”
“There has been no sound since your previous statement, save for Captain Rogers’ breathing.”
Tony shook his head, slowly sliding off the bed and padding over to the door. Maybe he would get some coffee, or water, or a good pinch from someone else to make sure he was awake. How wasn’t Rogers already up, either? It had to be a dream – or then it was just the fact that even Rogers was starting to look sleep-deprived.
He opened the door, peering out. The hallway looked like it always did.
“Tony?” Rogers mumbled from behind him, finally roused from his sleep. “Is something wrong?”
“Yes, or I’m going mad,” Tony told him, stepping out of the room. His feet were bare, he was shirtless, and he thought he might have to do something about one of those things at least, but the voice was there, like a steady hum instead of words, and he knew where he had to go.
“Is there something you need?” Rogers asked, hurrying behind him with long strides. “Should I ask for Banner to come over?”
“Just… come with me,” Tony said absently. “Please,” he added then, realizing he was a little afraid, all things considered.
They went down in an elevator, Tony pressing a floor button without looking at the numbers. Rogers looked a little worried, completely alert now, checking the hallway when they stepped out. Just a few darkly clad men and women were around, so it had to be late; Tony’s internal clock had never been particularly accurate.
He set down a hall, then made a turn, stopping in front of a sturdy door. “J, open this for me,” he called out.
There was a silence, which seemed to draw out forever, and Rogers kept looking up and down the hallway as if he were doing something forbidden. The door eventually hissed open and Tony guessed J.A.R.V.I.S. had been forced to hack some firewalls to get them in.
Anthony, it is time. I am ready. We are both ready for the next step.
He heard the words the moment the door opened, which may have been an accident, but it managed to make him hesitate before he stepped forward again. His toes curled against the cool floor, and after two turns they stood in front of wide windows, staring at the blue glow of the Tesseract.
Tony didn’t need to hear the voice again. He could feel it, with every beat of his heart, like a second warmth beneath the arc reactor. Like the pain before, but without the pain…
Was it happening again?
He panicked. Maybe that had been it, the telltale sign he should have noticed, but hadn’t.
There is no reason to fear, the voice said. Everything is as it should be, Anthony. Finally.
And in front of them, the Cube, undisturbed within the heavy walls around it, set on a pedestal, started to glow like never before, shivering in its spot.
“It’s not supposed to do that, right?” Rogers asked, stepping up to stand next to him, eyes gazing at the Tesseract.
“I don’t know,” Tony admitted. His mind told him one thing – and the feeling in his chest another.
Either things were going to go very wrong – or very right.
The alarms were going insane, and Bruce felt a moment of panic hit him, his heart beating fast. He struggled for a moment, to ease his breathing, to calm his mind, to not let the other guy out before he was certain he was needed.
He prayed that wasn’t the case. Not again, not so soon.
Pulling on a shirt and sweats, he rushed to the door of his room. His first instinct was to go and check on Tony, whom he had left with Steve. S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel were running along the hallway, armed, and Bruce yanked one man’s sleeve to try and stop him, but the man simply kept running, giving him an annoyed look.
Clearly he didn’t know who Bruce was.
“J.A.R.V.I.S.?” he decided to try another route, seeing as the AI had found its way into this installment, possibly without any permission from the shady organization running it.
“Dr. Banner,” J.A.R.V.I.S. acknowledged him.
“What is going on?” Bruce asked.
“It would seem the Tesseract is behaving most unusually. If I could request that you seek out its current holding facilities at with the utmost haste?”
“Why, is there something wrong with it that I can do something about?” Bruce frowned. Well, the Cube acting out wasn’t good for anyone, in any way, and he was going to make his way down there anyway, but J.A.R.V.I.S. making it a request sent a few more alarms off in his head.
“Mr. Stark is currently nearing the room, accompanied by Captain Rogers, and I fear there might be something wrong.”
Yes, Bruce could understand that. For one, Tony had wanted nothing to do with the Cube, short of destroying it. Thor had quite adamantly told him that wasn’t about to happen, but since the Tesseract would be going back to Asgard soon enough, it hadn’t been a problem.
Only, the Cube was still here, and if Tony was going to it, and it was acting out…
“What is Steve thinking?” Bruce muttered as he rushed out, trying to fight his way through the people to get there faster, but it took too long, and it made him want to unleash the other guy, which would lead to a chaos he didn’t want to start.
He decided to find an alternative route, asking J.A.R.V.I.S. for assistance once he got into a smaller hallway, and the AI did its best to guide him to the Cube’s vault while avoiding the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. He was stopped four times, shoving his ID card in the faces of anyone who asked whether he was authorized to be moving around – did they usually let tourists into their secret base, seriously? – but finally made his way to the vault, where he found the rest of his team, accompanied by Loki, Fury and Agent Hill.
Tony and Steve were standing outside the Tesseract’s vault, watching it, and Tony seemed almost agitated.
“What is going on?” Bruce asked.
“The Tesseract is behaving once again,” Fury said darkly.
“Is someone… using it?” Bruce frowned.
“This is different,” Loki said.
“It speaks,” Tony supplied – sounding fairly annoyed. “But no one can hear it, apparently.”
“Save for you,” Natasha said, shifting, fingering the gun on her leg but clearly there was nothing for her to shoot.
The Tesseract was still within its vault, door bolted, but it was shining, casting a blue light over them all through the extremely thick observation windows.
“I can sense a change in it,” Loki went on.
“I as well,” Thor nodded. “Though I cannot say what it is.”
“We have to assume someone’s using it,” Clint snapped. “Should we get Selvig out here?”
“What is the Tesseract saying?” Bruce asked, dismissing Clint’s comment, although it was a possibility. Getting Erik Selvig down here might not be a bad idea. But, for now, he would go with the obvious, and stepped closer to Tony who looked like he had just woken up and shuffled over here. He wasn’t even wearing a shirt, the arc reactor’s shine eerily close to that of the Tesseract.
“It… keeps calling me Anthony,” Tony frowned. “I hate that.”
“Anything else?” Bruce asked.
“It keeps saying it is time, that it is ready. I don’t understand, though. Maybe it was supposed to mean something when I was… under someone else’s control.” There was that pained look in his eyes again, a tightening in his shoulders, and a resolute look on his face to never go through that again.
“It might,” Bruce agreed. “When did this start?”
“The readings went through the roof around the time Stark and Rogers entered the area,” Fury noted, with a hint in his voice that he still wanted an explanation as to how that had happened. “There have been some spikes on and off for a few hours, but nothing this massive.”
Beside him, Tony cocked his head. The shining light from within the vault made his eyes appear almost blue, and regardless of his usual rule to try and not touch people, Bruce reached out a hand to pull him further away.
Steve seemed to jerk out of it too. “Perhaps we should leave.”
“Good idea,” Natasha agreed.
“Come on, Tony,” Bruce said softly, pulling him along, Tony’s eyes still nailed on the glass and the shining object beyond it.
“It’s not speaking anymore,” Tony said.
“Maybe it is a good sign,” Thor suggested.
Loki shook his head, stepping forward. Fury, Natasha and Clint all looked ready to stop him, but allowed him to approach the vault, to see what he would do. Thor had told them Loki did not have his powers, so what could he do? And even if the Tesseract responded to him, now was a perfect time to find out. Bruce promised himself he would let the other guy out to play in case Loki was the one behind this, and there would be nothing left of him to take back to his cell in Asgard.
Within the vault, the Tesseract suddenly seemed to shiver.
“It did that a while ago, soon after we arrived,” Steve informed them.
They all looked as the shine intensified, and the Cube all but began to hover in the air.
“That is not good, I take it?” Clint asked, reaching back for his quiver full of arrows, bow firmly in hand.
Bruce shook his head, looked at Tony, and then just stared; Tony’s eyes were wide and he had stopped breathing. “Let’s get him out of here,” Bruce decided, tugging Tony along.
Fury was talking into his walkie-talkie, barking orders to the S.H.I.E.L.D. scientists and personnel, the others still warily watching the Tesseract, and as if responding to it all, the Cube floated higher, rotating, then suddenly it seemed its glow was being sucked back into it, leaving the room surprisingly dark in the aftermath.
Bruce let go of Tony, to take a closer look at the hovering object, curiosity taking over – then jumped back when the Tesseract charged forward, through the glass which smashed into a shower of a million pieces. The Cube sailed through the air so fast no one could even think of drawing a gun, and for one glorious, magical moment the Tesseract hovered in the middle of the room, shining, its power making the air almost crackle and burst with unseen energy, blue-ish shades pulsing along the walls.
Just as quickly the Cube seemed to turn, moving again, right towards Tony. The man jerked back, to get out of the way, but the Tesseract hit him in the chest – then vanished. The arc reactor burst with a sudden light from within, then slowly settled, and everyone blinked.
“Where did it go?” Steve was the first to ask, standing next to Tony.
“It just vanished,” Natasha observed.
“Can it do that?” Fury frowned.
“It’s a solid object, far as we know, but we were only beginning to understand its power,” Bruce said, then took a step forward. “Tony, you okay?”
Tony’s eyes were closed, his chest rising hard and fast for a moment, then calming down as if he was centering himself again. He opened his eyes as he lifted his head, and the brown was completely replaced by a shining, ever swirling blue. He regarded the room, his face strangely passive.
“Stark?” Fury asked, sliding his gun out of its holster.
The blue, shining eyes moved towards him, the face not even twitching. When Tony spoke, his voice was not his own, stripped of anything that made him sound like Tony:
“Anthony is not here right now. I am the Tesseract – the one you also refer to as... the Cube.”
the story continues in