“What if it’s irreversible?”
If he were a rude person, Bruce might have thrown something at Jane Foster for daring to put to words the fear they all had.
“The Tesseract went into him, thus is must also come out,” Thor replied before anyone else could, sounding far more convinced than anyone else had for days.
Selvig was simply biting the end of his pencil, staring at the calculations, medical data and test results. None of them yielded an idea on how to separate Tony from the Cube again and they could barely discern the Cube’s existence within him as it was. If not for that sudden blue in his eyes and the completely separate mind, they could have all forgotten.
Then of course there were Iron Man’s latest appearances and the significant upgrade in his energy output. Too much, almost, for the suit to take – which had made Tony lock himself up in his workshop for days on end to tinker with his most beloved project. They had left him to it, knowing he was less of a danger to himself and anyone else like that although Bruce worried about the tests Tony might be conducting on himself. Then again, if the Tesseract wanted a living, breathing host, it would make sure Tony wasn’t hurt.
That was the only comforting thought he had left at this point.
“So we have come no closer to understanding the situation, or resolving it?” Fury leaned over the table.
“The Tesseract has only yielded so many answers to us,” Loki supplied. “We cannot… force him to do anything. That delightful little display of power towards Agent Barton showed us he is not only capable but willing to protect himself and his current host body. Should he decide we are no longer welcoming of their union, I fear he will take over the body and do as he likes.”
“You ‘fear’?” Steve asked. He had been on edge for days. Bruce had meant to talk to him about the kiss and the whole mess it entailed but he never got around to it; Steve looked antagonized enough to take on the other guy and Bruce had no intentions of putting himself in that position. He cared for their leader and wasn’t about to see if the other guy could hold onto him long enough to tear him limb from limb.
Loki gave Steve a look, raising an eyebrow.
“What do you care if we lose Tony for good?” Steve went on, challenging their former enemy.
“Oh, I assume that if that happens, there will be certain accusations made that it may have been my fault, originally, although I still make no claim for that to be true,” Loki replied. He did look a bit nervous, probably because Thor had brought his hammer into the meeting and was fiddling with it again, scratching some unseen mark of dirt from its surface.
“You assume correctly,” Fury replied.
Loki sank a bit further down in his chair, pursing his lips.
“Perhaps if Tony wanted the entity gone,” Jane ventured. “If they were to argue?”
“I think Stark is in no position to argue,” Clint noted. “We’ve seen that the Tesseract can and will take over in a second, and Stark’s consciousness is of no use to him. Perhaps we’re lucky he’s been kept around for this long.”
“Which shows some kind of attachment between the Tesseract and Tony’s presence,” Jane pushed the subject.
“We could take a look at that,” Selvig noted.
“Do we really want to alert the Tesseract to that possibility?” Bruce asked. “Perhaps it doesn’t need to keep Tony around and us prodding at the subject will make the transition happen at a faster rate.”
There was silence again.
“There has to be a way,” Steve muttered, his fingers tense as they pressed against the table.
“We’ve run all the tests we can imagine,” Selvig noted. “Anything and everything we’ve dared, anyway. Unless we find a way to dig deeper, which I doubt, this is as far as we go.”
“I refuse to accept this,” Fury barked, pushing away from the table, pacing. It was odd to see him so wound up and Bruce liked to imagine it wasn’t as much that he wanted the Tesseract back and out of his sight but that he actually wanted Tony to be as he was. World needed Iron Man, after all…
The door opened and Tony sauntered in. “I wasn’t invited, it seems,” he noted.
“You were out,” Fury noted; Tony had gone for a spin in his latest modification of the suit. They had decided it was a good time as any to have this meeting, and although no place was safe from Tony’s eavesdropping, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents had found them a J.A.R.V.I.S.-proof room.
“I’m back,” Tony smirked and slid into the chair the director had just vacated, swaying it from side to side in a bored fashion. “So, what’s on the table? New super-villain? I’m itching to go and give my new suit a real test run.”
“Nothing like that,” Natasha gave him a sweet smile, which usually made Tony sit up and shut up, but now he just frowned at the agent and kept looking around.
“No? Then you must be talking about me.”
Silence followed that statement.
Tony’s face hardened just slightly. One of his eyes turned blue. Bruce thought it a good sign it wasn’t both of them. “Why can’t you just accept how awesome this is? For once no one can waltz in and steal the Cube,” he threw a rather pointed look at Loki. “There’s so much we can learn from this, so much we can do, and all you do is moan about how potentially dangerous it is. Tell them,” he gave Bruce an accusatory look. “I’m healthy as ever! Save for some mood-swings and occasional alien-talk, I’m fine.”
“And that’s great,” Bruce replied. “We’re happy for you.”
Tony’s face became passive. Bruce had known it was only a matter of time before the Tesseract stepped forward.
“You plan to eject me from Anthony’s body?” the Cube asked.
“We are worried for our friend,” Thor replied.
The blue eye regarded the room. “There is no reason for concern, but should you try to meddle with my existence in this body, I guarantee you will regret it. You are his friends and allies, save for you, Loki Layfeyson,” he noted, and Loki sat at attention again, “but I will not hesitate to protect what is mine.”
“You think Tony’s body is yours?” Steve asked, tension cutting the air like the lash of a whip.
A half-smile played on Tony’s face, and yet it was oddly detached from the emotion that should usually go with it. “Why, yes. We share it.”
“And how long before you decide he doesn’t need to be around?” Steve challenged.
Bruce felt a bead of sweat work its way down his hairline.
Both of Tony’s eyes turned blue. He leaned forward, both feet on the floor. “I like the company,” the Tesseract told them. “His mind is brilliant. The way he sees this world and yearns for more reminds me of the things I have learned of humanity while sitting on this planet. But, as you so eloquently put it… I may come to decide, eventually, that I no longer want him around. I am certain we will both regret it when that day comes.”
With that, Tony – the Tesseract – stood up and left the room. Bruce wondered if it was just him or had the air conditioning suddenly stopped working?
“We need to get it out of him,” Clint said finally, his voice tight.
Steve nodded, his eyes never leaving the door as it slowly swung shut behind their friend.
“Banner,” Steve called as they filed out a moment later. “Bruce,” he repeated after the man didn’t stop and he reached out to touch his arm – not hold, because that might end unfortunately for them both.
Banner stopped with a sigh and allowed the others to pass them. “This isn’t a good time,” he said. “Especially for you.”
Steve knew he had been keyed up after his talk with Tony although he wasn’t sure why exactly. “I’m sorry if I’m… I’m working on it,” he said then, giving a small tense smile. “Maybe you have a few tips?”
“I might,” Banner smiled a bit.
They were alone in the hallway now, footsteps disappearing. Steve kept listening because he had no particular desire to talk about this with someone listening other than the two of them. “I don’t think any of this is getting easier before that thing is out of Tony for good.”
Banner nodded. “I’m sorry if I made things more awkward,” he said then. “I didn’t plan on it happening.”
“Just as I didn’t plan on the things that happened in the living room before that,” Steve admitted, blushing at the memory. They looked each other in the eye. “Look, I know it’s not going to be easy, and it seems Tony has some problems with it as well, but we need to work together on this.”
“We’re a team,” Banner agreed. It was nice he could finally say it instead of going on about what a terrible mixture they were. Well, Steve himself had thought that at the beginning so it wasn’t hard to see where Banner’s hesitation had been coming from.
“Not just that,” Steve dodged. “You, me and Tony… it’s complicated, it’s going to be in the future too, but it also might be the thing that pulls him through all this.”
Banner seemed to consider that. “Has Tony given you the impression that he’s… willing to listen to us?”
“No, not really,” Steve confessed but went on before Banner could draw away: “But I think we have a connection to him the others don’t. And he knows it, too. When he’s talking to me, I feel like I sometimes… reach him. Do you know what I mean?”
“You’re able to make him listen,” Banner nodded. “Yes, I know – or at least I pray it’s like that because if he’s unwilling to listen to us, who’s going to save him from himself?”
When Banner turned and walked away, Steve felt like they had reached an understanding.
If only they could find one with Tony.
They knew any further planning on how to remove the Tesseract would have to be done outside the tower – or S.H.I.E.L.D. premises – because Tony had access to them. Not that it was Tony they were concerned about but the consciousness lurking beneath his skin.
Bruce and Steve took part in meetings as much as they could, at least one of them present, but they also tried spending time with Tony, getting close to him, keeping an eye on what his reaction was to the meeting he had managed to walked into and what his future plans might be. Tony wasn’t too forthcoming about the latter but as long as things kept sliding to the side of intimate Bruce guessed there was no immediate danger of him just taking off.
What Tony would do if he ever took off was anyone’s guess.
“Bruce?” Tony’s voice stirred him from his thoughts.
“Yes?” Bruce shifted his head. Tony was lying beside him on the couch, his head in his lap, and Bruce found it oddly comforting to just run his fingers through the dark locks that were unruly rather than carefully combed right now.
“What do you think they’re plotting?” the other man mused, dark eyes staring at the ceiling then moving to find his face.
“Who?” Bruce asked although he knew what Tony meant. He didn’t have to admit to anything, though.
“The others. Right now. Plotting… They keep going under the radar every now and then, hiding from me.” His other eye turned blue. Bruce tried not to wince at that.
“I don’t know,” Bruce ventured. “There’s work that needs to be done.”
“Then we should be there, too .”
“You would rather be there than here with me?” Bruce knew it was a low blow but it would throw Tony’s brain off track and right where he wanted it – away from the others and the plotting on how to get rid of the blue eye and the thing attached to it.
Tony shifted, smiled, twisted around a little, breathing against Bruce’s stomach, nuzzling close. Dangerously close, but Bruce held onto his self-control and decided he would ask him to move back should it get worse. “When you put it like that…” Tony mused against his shirt.
“Thought so,” Bruce replied, trying not to sound tense or worried. His fingers resumed their idle patterns in Tony’s hair and the man didn’t insist they should do anything else. It seemed he took things much easier with Bruce than Steve but it might have something to do with the reception he got, too; Steve was far more forward and willing to enjoy the physical side of things with Tony and while Bruce wasn’t certain if they had actually fucked yet, there was much heavier petting involved. He didn’t mind, he really didn’t; he worried about the other guy, worried about how far Tony would take things before considering the consequences of his actions.
There was a beep from the side where he had left his phone.
“Dr. Banner, Captain Rogers is calling,” J.A.R.V.I.S. announced softly.
“Okay,” Bruce started to get up – only to realize Tony had fallen asleep in his lap. He smiled, moving out from under him carefully, leaving him sprawled on the couch and went to his phone. “Hey, Steve. What’s up?” he asked casually.
“How’s Tony?” Steve asked back.
“At this hour?”
“You remember we’re talking about Tony, right? He was up half the night making the new, improved suit.”
There was a moment of silence; they both knew why Tony wanted to make a new suit – and who was giving him plenty of ideas for it. The Tesseract seemed to like the idea of the suit, after all, perhaps thinking it would further protect its host body.
“Has anything new come up?” Bruce asked.
“We’re going to a meeting in a moment. Selvig said he might have a new approach to the problem although it didn’t sound like he thought it was a definite solution.”
Bruce nodded although Steve obviously couldn’t see it. “You can tell me when you get back.”
“Keep him out of trouble.”
Bruce looked back on instinct, fully expecting to find Tony on the couch, still asleep, looking innocent and worn out. Instead he jumped, dropping the phone, feeling his heart hammering as the blue eyes regarded him coolly; he hadn’t heard Tony get up and move to stand behind him.
The Tesseract crouched down and picked up the fallen phone. “He’s taking very good care of me, Captain,” he replied to Steve’s earlier line. Then he disconnected and threw the phone to the side.
Bruce took a careful breath, trying to calm himself – yet not too calm if he had managed to piss off the Tesseract and the other guy needed to jump on board.
Tony’s impassive face gave him some kind smile that was entirely too cold to resemble one more than in shape. “This would be a good time for you to start tip-toeing again, Doctor Banner,” he announced, then sauntered off towards the general direction of the workshop.
Bruce let out the breath he had been holding and watched as the skin of his palms turned back to a normal human shade of pale pink.
New York, NY, USA
“Our basic understanding of the Tesseract has not changed,” Selvig was saying. “It is still an energy source, and even with a mind of its own we have an idea – however vague – on how its powers work. All we need to do is harness it.”
“To complete the work you started before Loki’s attack?” Barton clarified.
The scientist nodded. “We know more about the Cube than we used to back then. With our resources pooled –” he gave a look towards Thor and Loki at this point, “I believe we might be able to contain the Tesseract, which would free our hands to find a way to get it out of Mr. Stark’s body.”
Steve wasn’t sure he liked the sound of that, but as long as the Tesseract wasn’t coming out on its own and Tony didn’t have a say in the matter even if he wanted to, it was up them to save him.
His earlier call to Banner worried him slightly because he was fairly certain the Tesseract had been able to monitor the call even though they had tried to keep discussions like this away from Tony and the being dwelling inside him. He knew Banner was more than capable of fending off an attack from a pissed off Cube, at least once he transformed into the Hulk, but that was no one’s desired outcome. Even Fury had given an order to avoid antagonizing Stark as much as possible.
“How long before we can build the harness?” Fury asked.
Selvig looked a bit uncertain at this point. “We have some of the technology and adequate calculations, but as long as we are not aware of the full potential of the Cube we cannot be sure if anything we build can hold it. And there is a potential risk that containing the Cube would destroy Mr. Stark’s body.”
That rendered the room silent.
“That is not an acceptable outcome,” Fury noted just as Steve was opening his mouth to object.
Selvig shrugged. “I’m aware of that, Director.” He glanced at the two Asgardians. “Perhaps we need something with more finesse. The container that was built to contain the Tesseract’s power and enable you to travel between your world and ours… could that be used to meet our needs?”
“Absolutely,” Thor nodded eagerly.
“As long as the full power of the Tesseract eludes us, we should not be too confident,” Loki noted, deflating his adopted brother’s happiness. “The Tesseract did not unveil its own mind before and it has not displayed an ability to control its own powers prior to what we have seen recently. Then there is Stark to consider – he might want to be free of the Cube eventually but as long as his mind can be accessed by the Tesseract and used to gain necessary information, not to mention control his body to execute any necessary plans to prevent our attempts of capture…”
“Were you this pessimistic when you tried to take over our world?” Romanoff mused.
Loki leaned back in his chair and pursed his lips in disdain.
Fury turned his eyes back to Selvig. “Start working on it immediately. All we have is theoretical information, old Hydra notes and scattered facts from Loki, but it may just be enough.”
Steve wasn’t certain if he was comfortable with those odds but this was the closest they had come in planning Tony’s rescue.
He prayed it would be enough because they might not get a second chance.
People started getting up and moving out. Fury gave him a quick look and Steve remained in his seat while the others took their leave. “Dr. Banner is with Stark?” Fury asked needlessly once they were alone.
“Yes,” Steve nodded. “I should get back there; the Tesseract is aware of our meeting and while I trust Banner’s ability to deal with suspicion…”
Fury’s eye narrowed, just slightly. “We are running out of time. We can’t afford mistakes on this one or we might lose both Stark and the Cube for good.” He stared adamantly at the bare table for a moment then directed the steady stare at Steve’s face. “Do you think you can persuade Stark if necessary? We cannot force him at this point.”
Steve wondered what kind of persuasion they would need – and also whether Fury knew of their involvement – then decided the latter wouldn’t surprise him at all; Fury seemed to know about everything that transpired around him. Why should Tony’s relationship with Steve and Banner be any different? “I don’t think it matters, sir,” Steve said honestly. “Whether we can persuade him or not, it’s all about what Selvig can do to separate him from the Cube.”
Fury sighed and nodded tersely. Steve took that as permission to leave. He headed out to the Stark Tower with Romanoff and Barton while Thor remained behind with Selvig, Loki and Jane. The flight to Manhattan seemed to take forever and when he arrived, it was silent everywhere. Well, it was silent almost all the time these days, tension and dread in the air.
“Banner?” he called out and the man appeared a moment later. Steve let out a sigh of relief. “Where’s Tony?”
“In his workshop,” Banner replied. “Has been there since the phone call and I’m happy to leave him there. At least as long as it’s not him but the other one…”
Sometimes they all loathed saying it and Steve wondered if this was how Banner felt about the Hulk. This entity you couldn’t control and which you would rather forget about, only it was there, persistent, unwilling to be dismissed.
“Was there a problem?” Steve asked, referring to their earlier phone call.
Banner looked to the side as if solving some kind of equation in his head, then shrugged and looked back at him. “Maybe. I’m not sure. I don’t know if Tony knows, either. The Tesseract has its suspicions and the clock is certainly ticking.” Which was his way of saying that he hoped there had been some kind of breakthrough at their meeting.
Steve hoped he could say they were getting closer to an answer and not make it sound like a wish instead of hard fact. But since that wasn’t possible he opted to say nothing at all, and Banner read it all from his face like an open book.
Tony took a look around. “I haven’t seen this place before,” he mused. They were on the outskirts of New York, far away from the buzz of the city, and had entered a facility that had ‘S.H.I.EL.D.’ written all over it.
It was a quiet place when he, Bruce and Romanoff entered, not a soul around, and Tony wondered why they were here. The Tesseract regarded the hallway, not quite on the surface but firmly lodged in a place from where he could follow what was happening. Tony was keenly aware of it, the slightly uncomfortable sensation he had grown used to over the weeks. Just like when he first had to grow used to the arc reactor in his chest; he would learn to deal with it. Maybe not the times when the Tesseract took over because he disliked not being in control of his own body, but as long as things went smoothly they could co-pilot without incident.
The last few weeks he had spent mostly alone in his workshop, planning and working, listening to the whisper of the Cube at the back of his mind, learning things he could implement in his work and other things that were less meaningful yet new nonetheless. The only people to join him were Bruce and Rogers; Bruce, at first, seemed cautious, but Tony reassured him nothing was wrong between them. Rogers was his usual self; it was fairly new, the touches and occasional kissing, and things didn’t get wild again like that day on the living room floor…
Tony missed it, the closeness he had briefly had with the two of them, but he didn’t feel interested enough to pursue intimacy with the two men who had been inadvertently led to know he was interested in. Now that he thought about it, he recognized the Tesseract might have had a hand in it; they had been busy sharing knowledge, just surfing around inside Tony’s brain and accomplishing things that satisfied him deeply. Outside that, human contact didn’t seem necessary and maybe Tony should look into that because while he wasn’t needy, per se, Tony had never begrudged himself human companionship.
Maybe the shock of losing Pepper was finally hitting him…
His head buzzed as soon as the memory entered and he blinked to reassure the Cube that everything was okay; reminders of Pepper, of the things he had done while not being himself, didn’t thrill either of them. They were best left alone.
“This way,” Romanoff pointed, taking a turn and leading them to an elevator. She swiped a card through the lock, the doors opening. They stepped in, the cage jerking gently as it began to move.
“So, what’s down there?” Tony asked, leaning against a wall, watching the numbers beside the doors blink as they descended.
Romanoff gave him one of her patented looks. Tony cringed; he still remembered the needle stabbing into his neck. He wondered if he would ever forget. And he had actually wanted her in his bed…
‘She lied to you,’ the Tesseract said needlessly.
Not the first person to do that, Tony reminded himself. Or the last. He couldn’t hang onto little details like that especially when they were on the same side now. Mostly. As far as he knew. Maybe he needed to talk to Fury about that one of these days because he wasn’t always sure about her motivation when it came to the Avengers.
“Is it another test?” Tony asked then, looking at Bruce for answers, knowing he might yield some.
Bruce shifted, conscious of his gaze and the way Tony wanted to be answered. “Yeah,” he finally admitted. “Hopefully it won’t take long.”
Tony let out a dramatic heave of air. “Great. A way to spend the day. How far down are we going?” he started to ask just when the elevator came to a halt and opened to another long, bare hallway. There was no one there either. Tony was okay with the crowds missing – he was good at distancing himself when he wanted to – but this wasn’t his doing nor was he in control of his environment, and he always needed to be in control of his environment even when he was totally out of control himself. Especially when he was out of control…
Romanoff walked out of the elevator, hips swaying, heels clicking. Tony looked but didn’t feel anything. Bruce was beside him, though, warm and interesting unlike her, and Tony walked closer to him, feeling his body bump against his. Bruce, as always, tried taking a step to the side to minimize the contact but Tony kept moving along with him and eventually the brown eyes looked at him, asking and wondering if he did it on purpose. He should know by now that Tony did very few things without a reason. The reasons didn’t need to be particularly fancy, mind you, but reasons nonetheless.
“We’re here,” Romanoff noted, opening a door. It hissed, thick as it slid aside. Tony looked at it, suddenly wary – perhaps because the Tesseract was wary, coming further to the surface. Half of his face tingled again. Bruce didn’t even flinch at the blue eye appearing these days, just like everyone else. It had become part of the routine.
“What’s up, Doc?” Tony called out when he spotted Selvig. The man looked at him but didn’t reply. Tony didn’t care. He looked around the space, the gadgets on the walls, trying to figure out what they were for. One never knew in S.H.I.E.L.D. facilities and he had an innate distrust for tech that wasn’t his own.
“Please step in,” Selvig finally spoke up, coming down a few steps from a low catwalk. “Right through here,” he said, pointing at what looked like a door into a cylinder of a room with semi-translucent walls.
Tony frowned. “What’s in there?”
“Just a few tests, Tony,” Bruce said from his side.
Tony gave him a disappointed look then shrugged and stepped in. There was no other door, only the one he had just come through – and that one suddenly hissed shut, sliding into place. It kind of reminded him of the cell at the Helicarrier designed to hold the Hulk. An uncomfortable feeling crept up his spine and the Tesseract pushed at his mind to take over. “Can we talk about this?” Tony tried, fighting for control.
Bruce looked at him and something in his eyes warned Tony he wouldn’t like what followed; it was as if Bruce were apologizing, not on board with this, and then Selvig pushed a button and the air hummed. Tony felt like the oxygen was being sucked from his lungs and he was suddenly unable to breath. It washed over him swiftly, dropping him to the floor and he clutched his chest in a strange need to protect the arc reactor.
“How are we doing, Doctor?” Barton’s voice asked. The rest of the team had just entered, joined by Fury, all of them regarding him.
Tony gasped; it felt like someone was pushing his ribcage open from the inside. Every nerve in his body was beginning to burn.
“Well, the machine definitely has an effect on him,” Selvig noted.
“Will it hold the Tesseract?” Fury asked.
“I guess we’ll see,” Selvig noted dryly and Tony hurled curses at him in his head although he was unable to speak. The world began to black out, then the colors went crazy, he tingled all over – and the Tesseract took over. Tony was shoved back to the passenger seat, paralyzed and harnessed into place.
“You have crossed the line, humans,” Tesseract said, picking Tony’s body up from the floor.
Thor gripped his hammer; Loki shifted at his side. “I think it is not working,” the God of Mischief observed.
Selvig pushed another button, cranking up a switch, and the air hummed more intensely.
Blood flowed into his mouth, leaking out of his nose, and then the Tesseract flared. Blue light flashed and the cylinder-shaped room exploded with a furious shattering sound. The others took cover as the Tesseract stepped out, shoes crunching the broken material.
“You fools think your primitive attempts would capture me?” he snarled, wiping blood from his face.
Bruce was still on the floor when the others started to get up, backing off, ready for a fight.
“Banner?” Rogers asked, nervousness cutting his voice. His eyes kept darting back up at Tony, wary.
Bruce groaned, a tearing sound cutting the silence. The Hulk was coming out to play.
Tony knew that wasn’t good but he could tell the Tesseract didn’t care. “I tried explaining my intentions to you and yet you attack me!”
“You have taken our friend; we will do whatever it takes to free him,” Rogers noted, shifting his shield.
Banner was starting to grow, his features long gone, joints popping and his skin a steady shade of green.
“Then I am certain you are willing to die for him as well,” the Tesseract replied. “I am not to be toyed with.”
Tony struggled. This was going too far, he didn’t want to hurt his teammates – including the two men he had just a tad bit more feelings for than brotherly love required.
As a reply he was shoved further back with frightening ease, and suddenly all of Bruce’s fears and Rogers’ cautious remarks started to make sense. Well, to be honest they had just hurt him, probably in some half-assed attempt to separate the Cube from him, but he didn’t think it warranted such threats on the Tesseract’s part.
The Hulk roared, the others moving away from him swiftly. Only Tony’s body remained where it was, the Tesseract unconcerned with the rage monster’s approach.
“Hulk!” Rogers roared. “Don’t hurt him. He’s… still a friend.”
“You think this creature understands you?” the Tesseract taunted. “All that rage. Basest of emotions…”
The Hulk stopped in front of him, breathing loudly, eyes scanning a familiar face. Then, quite suddenly, he growled and jabbed a thick finger at his chest yet not strong enough to damage the arc reactor. “You give Tony back!” Hulk demanded.
In his dark corner Tony stirred at the words. How did the Hulk, of all people, comprehend what was going on?
The Tesseract smiled. “I am a part of him, you green menace. If you do not like it, I shall destroy you along with your rebellious friends.”
The Hulk stomped, growling again, inching closer, forcing Tony’s body to retreat or risk being stepped on. “Give Tony back! Hulk not smash.”
“But this is my new home; I cannot leave it,” the Tesseract dared to make him smile.
“Not Cube’s home; find new home, outside Tony.”
“This is honestly the longest discussion I’ve heard anyone have with the big guy,” Barton’s voice whispered from the right, making the Tesseract jerk his head. An arrow was aimed at him from where Hawkeye had perched himself on a catwalk to get a better vantage point. “You ready to listen to the friendly suggestion from our green friend or do we have to persuade you some more?” he asked then, seeing that he had been noticed.
The Tesseract looked beyond the green figure; the Avengers had spread out. Selvig and Loki were nowhere to be seen. Fury had a gun in his hand where he stood near the main entrance, which was now bolted shut.
The Tesseract let out an annoyed snort. “You think you can challenge me?”
“We would prefer you just give up and hand us our friend back,” Fury tried to negotiate.
“Friend?” He laughed. His lungs still hurt from before, but it didn’t seem to reach the Tesseract’s notice; like he was ignoring the pain, bypassing it, although it was very much there. “Anthony is not your ‘friend’; you use him, just like the other Avengers. They are just the means to an end, someone you can count on to do your heavy lifting.”
“They know that’s what they’re needed for,” Fury said. “To fight the battles I cannot.”
“And when those battles are no more?”
“I’m afraid there will always be one of those coming our way,” Fury replied unhappily.
“Yes,” the Tesseract mused. “You would be out of a job otherwise.”
“Oh, my work doesn’t end there.” Fury’s dark eye flickered, just a little, but the Tesseract didn’t miss it; Romanoff, now in full Black Widow mode, came approaching from behind, no doubt to tase him. He had a brief flash of memory of this happening before, only he was in the suit and she hit him with something that shut down the armor, but he couldn’t pinpoint when that had happened, and he would most certainly remember that.
The Tesseract whirled and the sphere of energy was there, throwing her back and making the Hulk take a step backwards as well. One of Hawkeye’s arrows hit the barrier, exploding upon contact. To his credit, Rogers didn’t try his luck with the shield. Thor, however, had lifted the hammer and it came flying through the air, making the barrier shudder but not getting through. With an annoyed roar the God of Thunder summoned Mjolnir back to his hand.
Fury fired two shots at the barrier then seemed to come to the same conclusion as everyone else; they were not getting through.
“You can tell it’s not Stark fighting,” Hawkeye noted. “Too much defense. Is that all you’ve got?!” he then raised his voice in challenge.
It wasn’t; the Tesseract raised his arms and the barrier expanded like a blast wave, hitting the room around him, sending all of them flying back through the air until they met a wall or another solid enough object to take their weight. The Hulk and Thor crashed through surrounding walls, debris flying in the air as the wave faded, the excess energy receding and crawling back to the Tesseract, seeping into the skin. The arc reactor burned bright in his chest.
Afterwards it was quiet but slowly the others got to their feet. It wasn’t a surprise Rogers was the first stepping forward, dust on his uniform, the shield clutched close to his arm. “Tony, if you can hear me… you have to fight. This isn’t you.”
The Tesseract cocked his head, considering the words.
Tony wanted to scream inside. Try as he might, it was like clawing at air; he wasn’t hitting anything, nor getting any closer to seizing control. All those absentminded fears that this might happen, coming more from others than himself, were true. He was a mere vessel. His mind was obsolete. Dispensable.
“Tony,” Rogers went on again, looking like Captain America in his uniform and cowl, but sounding like Steve. “You can do it. You can fight. I know you can. You can still end this.”
“Sometimes there isn’t a way out,” the Tesseract replied, making Tony start. It was Rogers’ words, thrown at him after Coulson had died and Loki had escaped, their team scattered. The Tesseract must have dug that out from his memory. It was yet another ill reminder that he had no control over what the Cube was doing.
‘This will be over soon, Anthony,’ the Tesseract whispered to him.
No, you have to stop. This has gone too far. Tony was desperate; he could hardly hide that in his own mind and the Tesseract knew it. He felt the Cube’s annoyance, the dislike at their perfect harmony being broken, but Tony knew the Avengers – his team, and perhaps his friends as well – wouldn’t stop trying to force the Tesseract out until he was truly gone. For the first time since this all started, after the initial shock, it was like he was waking up to realize what was truly happening.
‘I did not lie to you,’ the Cube told him.
No, but you’re a stranger in my body, invading my mind.
‘There is so much we could discover together. Your limited knowledge –’
Never felt so limited until you came along. Perhaps Bruce was right; maybe a human being wasn’t supposed to be all-knowing. It was a nice dream, something to work on, but if this was the price, Tony wasn’t willing to pay it. Regardless of his feelings on how it came to be he was finally getting somewhere with Bruce and Steve, which was a bit of a miracle. The Tesseract wouldn’t hesitate to eliminate them all if need be and that was what it would take for them to stop trying to bring Tony back. There was no middle ground between success and utter failure.
“Tony, please,” Rogers tried again.
The Tesseract raised his head, blue eyes burning – and shoved Tony so far back he didn’t even remember he existed anymore.
Steve felt the urge to swear, but that never helped in battle. He would have to take the disappointment instead and try to work with that because that’s what he did and his team relied on it, too. Tony relied on it.
He had hoped the other man could fight, for one brown eye to appear next to the blue one, but the Cube was holding fast to its control over the body and mind it co-habited.
Hawkeye was back at his post and the Hulk was returning through a hole in the wall he had put there while crashing backwards. Steve’s own body still ached from the impact with the energy barrier although the serum was working on that. He could imagine how his teammates felt. It was still Tony they fought, at least in body if not in mind, and he knew all of them, including the Hulk, had no desire to injure him. Part of him hoped Tony would have put on the armor for this, to make it a fair game at least, but the Tesseract was holding its own almost too well.
Thor emerged with a growl of his own, hammer tightly in his grasp, yet he looked at Steve, waiting for instructions. He always said how frail the Midgardian bodies were, so hitting Tony with the hammer was out of the question – if they could even get past the barrier that shimmered in the air around him.
“Cap?” Hawkeye asked through the communication link.
“We have to take him down,” he started.
“How are we doing that without hurting him?” Black Widow voiced the painful question. “If we get through the barrier, we might kill him.”
“Loki might be able to penetrate it, but not without his magic,” Thor commented unhappily. Perhaps that was why the other Asgardian had exited with Selvig. At this point Steve may have accepted the risk of allowing Loki his powers, but it wasn’t up to him or anyone here.
“Cap, you need to call it,” Hawkeye reminded him.
Just then the Hulk roared and dashed forward. Perhaps the blast had put enough rage into him to make him forget whom he was fighting, or he was trying to scare the Cube out of Tony. Steve doubted it would work but it made the Tesseract turn to face the approaching threat. “Out,” the Hulk roared as he came to a full stop mere inches from the barrier, the rumble making the syllable harder to discern, a wild fire in the green eyes. He stood there, menacing, muscles flexing, body wide and making Tony’s look like a frail little thing, yet the Tesseract was unconcerned:
“I hoped to kill you as a man,” he mused, “but I suppose the monster will have to do.”
The Hulk shifted. Clearly there was much more restraint than anyone had ever given him credit for, but then, Bruce and the Hulk both had affection for Tony; a need to protect him like any other member of the team – and then some. Sure, the Hulk had almost killed Tony on the Helicarrier, but he had been wearing his armor then which made the situation completely different. He seemed fragile now, only his clothes between the tanned skin and the considerable destructive power aimed at him.
The Tesseract had no such concerns; while the Hulk still hovered, menacing but holding back, Tony’s body turned slightly, shifting the stance, his hands rising to his sides, palms up. Two balls of light seemed to rise from the skin, air crackling around the fingers. Almost like the Cube itself but circular, the small spheres hovered an inch from the skin.
Steve was starting to dislike both shapes as well as the color blue.
“Hulk,” he started to tell him to be on his guard.
The two balls of energy took flight, circling Tony at an increasing pace which looked beautiful, sucking the barrier into themselves. A shimmer seemed to radiate from his body, pinpointed at the arc reactor. Then the small spheres launched away from him, at the Hulk, and it didn’t look like much of a threat but Steve had learned while fighting side by side with Tony that the small things were often the most damaging – whether it was a weapon, missile or a cluster of shrapnel. The two spheres in question lit up the room as they exploded, blocking Steve’s ears and rendering him blind. It sounded like half the room was collapsing, a roar from the Hulk following, and when his eyes finally adjusted Steve found himself on the floor again, not even having noticed he had flown back, half-lying on his shield. Dust was in the air and the back wall had indeed collapsed. The Hulk was nowhere to be seen. Torn electric wires flashed, spitting sparks all around them, and two water pipes had broken, adding their own spray and a growing pool on the floor.
“Team, report,” Steve said then coughed, picking himself up.
“That was some blast,” Hawkeye noted, loudly as if his ears were still ringing.
“Does anyone have a visual on Banner?” Black Widow asked with concern.
“We must finish this,” Thor continued. Steve could hear him striding across the debris.
“Hulk is down,” Hawkeye reported a moment later. “I can see him, but… the big guy isn’t moving. The Cube must have knocked him out.”
That was unnerving; Steve could admit that as he climbed over a fallen concrete beam. Taking out the Hulk on the worst of days was a full-time job, even for those trained to do it. He had heard someone say the Cube’s power was potentially enough to destroy the entire planet so perhaps that explained it. He wondered how much of that was needed to fight all of them off – and how much was still in reserve; whether the Tesseract could destroy them all and not even make his host body break a sweat.
He decided to not let that stop him. They had to subdue him and get the Cube out of Tony’s body. “Hawkeye, do you have a clear shot at the Tesseract?” Steve asked. The comm was crackling with static but they could hear each other. As long as they could coordinate, they were one step ahead.
“A moment,” came the response and Steve could see a shadow move on the far wall as Hawkeye searched for a better spot. “Any preferences? I don’t want to hurt him more than I have to,” the archer said next.
“Distract him,” Steve ordered. “I’ll try to get close enough to knock him out.” Assuming that could be done, but there was no reason to believe the Cube wasn’t restricted to Tony’s body and would have to abide to some basic rules, such as unconsciousness.
“Is that a good idea?” Black Widow asked. It wasn’t like her to question orders. “He might just fry you; he just knocked out the Hulk in one go.”
Steve’s fingers flexed around the strap of the shield. “Are there any better ideas?”
Silence met his words.
“Then it’s a go,” Steve decided.
“I shall aim to distract him as well,” Thor joined the conversation; his earpiece had the tendency to malfunction after the fight began but Tony had been fiddling with it to get past that problem. Apparently he had finally made it work. “Good luck, Captain.”
A second later Hawkeye released an arrow, aiming it at the floor next to Tony, the explosion shaking him but not close enough to actually injure. In a heartbeat Thor was there, hammer high, war-cry on his lips.
Tony – the Tesseract, but it was all Tony, movements if not reaction time – dodged to the side, rolling on the floor, fast and agile. Mjolnir hit the floor, leaving a fresh dent as if someone had detonated a bomb in it, bits and pieces flying in the dusty air. The air flashed with something between an electrical current and lightning. So belatedly that it was ridiculous the fire alarm began to ring and automatic sprinklers began to spray the room from above like a falling rain.
A sphere of light appeared, circling Tony, the blue eyes staring at Thor, sizing up his opponent. The blue sphere split in two, flying faster, then split again, and again, into a dozen small, no less intimidating spheres. They were moving so fast they created steady rings around Tony’s form, then one set out towards Thor and the God of Thunder responded by slamming Mjolnir up against it.
The resulting explosion seemed to cleave the room in two, half of the ceiling collapsing in. Steve hid behind his shield although he knew it wouldn’t do him any good. He hoped Black Widow and Hawkeye had found shelter. “Thor?” he called out when the ceiling seemed stable although several chunks were swaying precariously, hanging from wires and piping. Miraculously, the sprinkler system was still spewing water where there was some ceiling left.
There was no response.
On the side a figure moved and Steve saw Hawkeye running out into the open, bow in hand, string taut, arrow ready to fly. Steve moved his head and among all the rubble and disaster stood Tony, a shimmering barrier of blue protecting him from the destruction, the remaining small spheres still circling, slower now. He was surrounded knee-high in a neat circle, almost like a child’s fortress, only it wasn’t sand or snow and this wasn’t a game to be interrupted by one of their parents.
“Thor’s out,” Black Widow said over the comm. “He seems fine, save for some burn marks, but the blast knocked him out. I can’t free him from under the pillar that’s on top of him but I think he can wait until this is over…”
“Thanks, Widow,” Steve said and stepped out as well.
The Tesseract was following Hawkeye’s approach, the barrier still in place.
“Come on, fight,” Hawkeye was muttering. There was a faint tremble in his voice; he knew, just as well as Steve, that their two big players were out of the game. The Hulk hadn’t recovered yet and Steve had an ugly feeling he couldn’t count on him or Thor to help them. It was a good move to go for them first – something Tony would know and the Tesseract could have extracted from his mind.
Well, he should also know Steve wouldn’t just roll over and give up on him.
The blue eyes turned to stare at him instead as if Hawkeye wasn’t worth his concern. “Captain,” he said tauntingly, face unflinching. “Is this truly your idea of challenging me? ‘A man with a plan’,” he scoffed.
There had been very few times in Steve’s life when he didn’t have a plan, or didn’t see a way out forming before him. Half his team was down or beyond his reach, they were no closer to getting the Tesseract to leave Tony’s body, and it was evident their enemy knew it. Perhaps that confidence would eventually make him slip but all Steve could do was make his footing less certain and hope for a slip.
“I wished for this to end differently,” the Tesseract went on – so much like Tony, always talking. Maybe it was rubbing off on him… “Anthony has such admiration towards you, years’ worth of dreams and illusions. And you two got so close to being together; it is a shame to erase that.”
“You can still change that,” Steve reminded him. “It doesn’t have to end like this.” He was slowly walking towards the circle of debris and the barrier, shield in hand, body ready. He didn’t want to be hit by one of those balls of energy although his shield might be able to deflect the impact where the Hulk and Mjolnir had not.
“You have left me no choice,” the Tesseract observed, eyes following him as Steve started to circle the area. “All beings have a need – a desire – to survive. I am no different.”
“You don’t need Tony’s body in order to survive.”
“No, but it makes it… more pleasant, for the time being, until I burn through his form.”
It was said with such disregard that Steve had to hold himself back from attacking. With the barrier between them he would not get through, but Hawkeye and Black Widow were still out there; they might be able to change the game. Fury, too, although Steve hadn’t seen or heard from him after the first blast. He hoped the man had sought shelter and was doing his own part in finding a way out – or evacuating the building if nothing else.
Steve kept circling, mindful of his surroundings, knowing how easy it was to slip on slippery dust and pieces of broken concrete. His pre-serum form would have gone sprawling to the floor a long time ago, he could admit that much, but he knew not to get too cocky of his improved balance and reflexes. The Tesseract followed him, standing still, and Steve wondered if it hadn’t caught on to the fact that now that it had Tony’s body it could move freely, not just lie in one spot.
It pained him to think of their friend and ally trapped in there somewhere. He couldn’t see a single hint of Tony in the blue eyes or the passive face. A fear tapped against his mind – a fear that he would never fight by his side again, and a sharper regret that he would never get to touch him, to feel Tony’s lips on his own, the cocky demeanor dropping a notch once they were alone; to hear him and Bruce talk about things he didn’t understand, their casual friendship deepened but unable to grow if they lost Tony.
Determination punched him in the stomach and he knew that if it were up to his own performance, they would get Tony back. But it wasn’t in his hands: he had no means to fight the Tesseract, to do what men smarter than him had tried and failed to accomplish.
An explosion startled him out of his thoughts and he saw Hawkeye release an arrow, then another. They bombarded the area around the barrier, digging craters into the floor, sending more rubble and splashes of water into the air. The sprinklers were still going off above them, as well as the broken water pipes. Rivers ran down Steve’s face, into his eyes, but he watched as Hawkeye took another arrow from the quiver, sending it flying. What was he doing?
The Tesseract seemed annoyed by this, lifting one hand. One small ball of light moved away from the others, through the barrier, and then flashed towards Hawkeye. Steve saw the archer lean to the side, bow and arrow still pointed, letting lose one more arrow before he hit the ground, rolling, the ball of light hitting the spot where he had just stood. It blew apart one of the last standing pillars, pieces of concrete flying everywhere, a wave of energy chasing them outwards, giving them speed and more force as they hit whatever stood in their way.
Hawkeye cried out in a sudden, agonized voice, hunched over on one knee where he must have been attempting to get up and keep moving, clutching the left side of his face while blood ran from between his fingers.
“Clint!” Black Widow yelled, springing towards him, and no one could fake that level of alarm in their voice – or hide it. Steve moved as well, knowing Widow didn’t stand a chance alone. The barrier flickered, the balls of light shoved through it, spinning, ready to strike while merging into one again, and it was utter madness as Steve leapt to the side, crashing shield first into the sphere of energy and the barrier beyond it.
The entire world seemed to explode – and then they fell.
They fell much further than where the floor had been, and there was a sound like a waterfall, only much briefer, and then he hit the ground hard, the impact forcing the air out of him. Steve rolled over, breathing through the pain. He tasted blood which wasn’t new, but it usually took more than this to get there. His entire body hurt as if someone had torn off his skin and then glued it back on in a slightly different position, not bothering to smooth it into place.
He scrambled up, feeling water under his hands, pooling and sloshing. It was dark but he could make out his surroundings with the glow emanating from Tony’s body; they must have fallen through the floor to a sub-level, the wreckage of the room above fallen in with them. He couldn’t see Hawkeye or Black Widow and trusted them to take care of each other.
“Tony?” he called out, trying to find his footing.
“You keep hoping, human,” the Tesseract hissed back at him, the first hint of emotion they had gotten from him. The man picked himself up, looking a bit worse for the wear than before. The alien power within the flesh didn’t look happy, running fingers over torn clothing which had exposed the arc reactor and swiftly healing injuries. “You have tried to injure my body.”
“It isn’t yours,” Steve ground out with effort, struggling further up. His foot hit the edge of his shield and he knew he should pick it up even if crouching down didn’t appeal to him. Pain had never held him back from anything in his life, though; keeping his eyes on the Tesseract he moved downwards, almost falling over as his body protested, each muscle feeling like it was being torn in two.
“You have injured yourself,” the Tesseract observed.
“A small price to pay,” Steve noted while his fingers grasped the shield and lifted it up.
“Compared to your life?” the dark head was cocked to the side.
“Compared to Tony’s life.”
The lips pursed. There was blood in the corner of his mouth but not much, and he was sure whatever put it there had long healed – and he would keep healing… at least as long as the Tesseract was still inside. Afterwards it was anyone’s guess. The barrier had vanished although he still glowed, and part of Steve was worried the arc reactor might not be able to take the extra energy coursing through it – it hadn’t been designed for this.
Sometime between explosions and the fall the comm had gone silent. His uniform was torn and damaged, pressing against his skull uncomfortably, so he wrenched off the cowl. It fell to the ground with a faint clatter. Steadying himself he took a careful intake of air, his lungs burning along with the rest of the body. He had had broken ribs before, he knew the sensation, but it didn’t stop him from moving, from taking a step towards Tony, and another, making the other man stand back and regard him with untrusting blue eyes.
“What are you planning to do?” the Tesseract asked.
“Tony,” Steve started again, “I don’t know if you can hear me, but I know you’re stronger than this. You wouldn’t let anyone take over your body and especially your mind.”
“Anthony cannot hear you,” the flat voice told him.
Steve didn’t care, nor did he allow himself to believe it. So many times they had been saved by something none thought possible. So many times Tony himself had stepped up the game when it seemed impossible, taking that one step that separated ordinary people from heroes.
Beneath the blue… somewhere… Tony was still there, and he would hear him, no matter what it took.
Steve actually had a painful idea of what it might take but he was willing to do it, to make the ultimate sacrifice if that’s what it took to bring their friend back, for the reign of Tesseract to end. “Tony, I believe in you.”
A flash of blue escaped from the arc reactor, hitting him, taking him down to his knees. Steve wasn’t sure if he could get up again, his body more broken than he could remember it being since the serum. Whatever the Tesseract’s power – pure energy – he couldn’t fight it; as fast as his body could heal, the Cube would respond, and at this pace Steve was already losing.
“I suppose you would like to see him one more time,” the Tesseract mused, taking the last two steps separating them. Steve looked up, trying to think of something to say, something so meaningful it would give Tony the kick he needed to win. He would not be there to see it but the others would take care of him. Banner would take care of him.
A hand shot out and Steve had never noticed Tony had such a strong grip. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe it wasn’t him at all, lifting him off the ground, helping him stand. It certainly wasn’t him in those blue eyes, burning with fire, and it felt like it was spreading to Steve’s own body, burning flesh from the bone until nothing remained but a pile of ash.
“Tony, please,” was the last two words that escaped him before his lungs ran out of air, unable to pull more in.
“It is time to die, human,” the Tesseract announced.
His world began to black out, the edges burning even while he could still make out the drip of the water.
Part of him expected to feel the cold of the ice again.