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Del Rion [userpic]

Chitauri Apocalypse; Chapter 23: Conviction

[show info]Title: Chitauri Apocalypse
Author: Del Rion (delrion.mail (at) gmail.com)
Fandom: The Avengers (MCU)
Era: Post-Avengers movie
Genre: Action, drama
Rating: M / FRM
Characters: Bruce Banner (Hulk), Clint Barton (Hawkeye), Jane Foster, Nick Fury, Happy Hogan, J.A.R.V.I.S., Loki, Pepper Potts, James “Rhodey” Rhodes (War Machine), Steve Rogers (Captain America), Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow), Lady Sif and the Warriors Three (Fandral, Hogun and Volstagg), Tony Stark (Iron Man), Thor
(Brief/smaller appearances: Odin, Maria Hill, Darcy Lewis, The Other, Benjamin “Benny” Pollack, Erik Selvig, Jasper Sitwell, Claire Wise.)
Pairings: Happy/Pepper, Jane/Thor. Mentions of: Benny/Claire, Pepper/Tony
Summary: Iron Man never fell back through the portal. The Avengers must deal with the loss of their comrade and move on – until Earth once again comes under an attack from the Chitauri and their new-found weapons that decimate everything in their path with unmatched power and intellect. As cities and nations collapse around their decreasing resistance, the heroes of Earth must find a way to defeat their enemy before there is nothing left to avenge.
Work in progress.
Written for: Apocalypse Big Bang, Round One (apocalypsebang at LiveJournal)
Art: Imaan (insteadofdeath at dA/DW/LJ)
Warnings: Graphic description of torture, major character death, apocalypse & invasion themes (including but not limited to: mass destruction, terrorism, holocaust, death, violence and gore), brain-washing & mind-control, language (including some remarks that could be seen as racist). Serious spoilers for the ending of The Avengers (and other random spoilers for the rest of the movies in the Avengers cinematic universe).




~ ~ ~




Chapter 23: Conviction



Flying had been his thing for the better part of Rhodey’s life; not just a job but a calling, even before the Air Force.

Then Afghanistan happened, swiftly followed by Iron Man, and Rhodey had known it was about to change his life yet he had no idea how much, exactly.

When he actually became War Machine, some time after the battle against Whiplash and Hammer’s drones, it was like turning a new page. He was still a pilot but his plane was something from a sci-fi movie, inspiring people’s hopes and dreams. Being forced to step back from that and return to the cockpit of an ordinary aircraft shouldn’t have filled him with such bitterness. It hadn’t troubled him before, but then, he hadn’t known he might never become War Machine again.

Tony’s mecha suit had done a number on the armor. When he had finally been found and dragged to a new camp by Thor, he had known it was bad. The scientists took one look at the wreckage he had been forcefully pulled out of and he could see it on their faces.

His fingers tightened around the yoke and he forced himself to let go of the wave of disappointment and helpless rage. They might be able to fix the suit, it wasn’t hopeless, and in the meanwhile he had a job to do: they had been hailed briefly from a location in the middle of nowhere and if the message had been interpreted correctly, Captain America and the other captives had managed to escape the Chitauri.

“We’re getting close!” Bruce Banner called from the back.

Rhodey knew that and didn’t bother to answer. He saw people moving from the corner of his eye: Banner and Thor, Jane Foster and Agent Hill. Pepper had wanted to come, too, but Rhodey was good at putting down his foot and Happy had agreed. If there was any news of Tony, they could wait a few hours.

Looking at the map, Rhodey started dropping the plane down, adjusting power and landing them as gracefully as possible on the rough terrain at the foot of a mountain. The Rockies rose up towards the sky beside them and Rhodey slid out of his seat to join the others at the hatch. He picked up his gun, checked it quickly, knowing as well as everyone else that this might be a trap.

The hatch hit the dirt and they cautiously stepped outside. The group had barely fanned out when there was movement and everyone pointed their weapons at it.

“Don’t shoot,” Clint Barton, Hawkeye, told them dryly then looked back over his shoulder. “Come on, rescue’s here.”

People began to move out from between rocks, following a path that couldn’t be seen from below. It seemed everyone was alive, although bloodied and bruised. Thor let out a choked exclamation of joy and rushed forward – past Lady Sif and the Warriors Three – until he pulled Loki’s battered form into his arms. It didn’t seem that Loki much enjoyed the embrace but he didn’t fight it either.

Among the last came Natasha, the Black Widow, and Captain America – who was carrying a limp form in his arms. Rhodey almost dropped his gun in shock, then moved forward, rushing over to them and peering at the unmoving form of the man who had perhaps been his best friend – as horrible as that sounded considering everything Tony had put him through in their time together, most of which Rhodey hadn’t deserved to deal with.

It was hard to tell whether Tony was alive or not and Rhodey looked at the blue eyes of the super-soldier for confirmation. Steve granted him a small smile. “He lives.”

“Oh, thank God,” Rhodey exhaled although he would have preferred to show some restraint. “Get him inside, we have blankets.” Tony was draped in what seemed like random articles of clothing that the others had been able to collect.

By that time Banner had hurried over as well, silent as he touched Tony’s face, his neck, then exchanged a wordless look with Steve. Whether it was relief or something else, Rhodey couldn’t tell – nor did he care.

They had rescued Tony. That was all that mattered to him.

- - -

When the news of Tony’s retrieval reached Fury, the Director seemed to be of the opinion that they shouldn’t return to the main base. “There may be a risk involved we’re not aware of, and we cannot compromise our few resources –”

“Sir,” Bruce had leaned over the screen with such intimidation that the people around him backed away a few feet. “The base has the best medical facilities available. We’re bringing him in. He hasn’t regained consciousness after being released and that worries me.”

Steve didn’t hear whether Fury replied – and if he did, it didn’t make a difference. Rhodey flew them back, Clint sitting beside him in the cockpit. The two of them were talking in low voices, perhaps going over the events on the Chitauri ship.

Near the rear of the aircraft, the Asgardians were gathered, Jane trying to clean some of Loki’s worst injuries.

“I don’t need your mortal remedies,” Loki was disagreeing.

“Let her help you, brother,” Thor thundered, not loudly but making a point. Clearly he and Bruce were in the same boat right now, not taking shit from anyone. Loki let out a long-suffering sigh and offered Jane one of his hands which looked like someone had cut into it repeatedly, from elbow to wrist.

Steve smiled and looked at Tony who lay beside him on the bench, his head resting on Steve’s thigh. For whatever reason, he was unwilling to move away from Tony. There was no danger, he knew that, but he had carried Tony this far and if there was a risk of something happening mid-flight… He couldn’t let him slip away again. They couldn’t lose him.

Bruce walked over and crouched beside Tony, checking his pulse again, counting for a moment before nodding in approval.

“Fury wasn’t pleased,” Steve said needlessly.

“He’ll get over it,” Bruce shrugged, tugging the blanket further over Tony’s still form.

“Do you know what we’re going to do next?” Steve asked carefully, voice low, barely above a whisper.

Bruce’s fingers tapped his own knee restlessly for a moment before he simply sat on the floor next to Steve’s feet, legs folded. “We’ll figure it out,” he finally replied, not really making it any clearer but Steve knew what he meant; they had to take things one step at a time and deal with whatever they came across.

- - -

Pepper couldn’t stop crying.

They hadn’t told her when the others returned, but when Rhodey showed up, she knew something had happened. She had expected the call to be a trap, that people had died, but Rhodey appeared unhurt and the way he sat down beside her, taking her hands…

“We found Tony. We brought him home.”

For the first half-hour Pepper wasn’t able to get up or otherwise move, but after that phase was over she was on her feet, rushing down hallways until she found the basement area where they had taken Tony. The room they had put him in looked more like a prison cell than anything else and she wanted to tell them to give him a proper room, the softest bed they had…

Then she saw him, really saw him for the first time, naked beneath the sheet that had been pushed down to his waist. Tony appeared to be unconscious or asleep, his back turned to the door and the wide glass taking up most of the wall by the door was like a display window. She stopped, looking at him, counting the scars and that hideous thing that covered his spine.

Bruce was in the room with several other people. He looked like he was keeping watch, following everyone’s movement as if dreading what would happen next.

“Pepper.”

She turned, facing Steve Rogers who hadn’t even gotten out of the uniform yet, the blue surface torn at places, dried blood and dirt marring it yet the wounds had already healed and turned to faint bruises.

“You found him,” Pepper said, seeking re-confirmation.

Steve nodded then looked in through the window, his eyes following every person inside like a hawk – the same way Bruce was doing. She wondered what they saw, what they were expecting to happen.

Finally the other people left, leaving only Bruce inside and Pepper rushed in, not waiting for an invitation. She was distantly aware of Steve following her in but it wasn’t important.

Sitting on the edge of the too-hard mattress, Pepper carefully touched Tony’s cheek. It was slightly cold to the touch and she pulled the sheet up. Looking at Tony’s face without the goatee that had persisted for what seemed like the better part of his adult life was strange. The thick, dark eyelashes were the same, though, his nose, his jaw, the unruly hair he sometimes didn’t bother to tame.

Another wave of tears rushed Pepper’s eyes and she leaned over Tony’s form, burying her face in his shoulder and cried. She dimly noted a strange smell on his skin, almost like antiseptic but slightly alien, yet refused to let it bother her.

“Pepper…” Steve started.

“Give her a moment,” Bruce interrupted. “She’s waited a long time for this moment.”

She didn’t reply, or tell Bruce how right he was; she didn’t have the words or the strength for them. Pepper simply focused on the warm exhales of air where her fingers were still on Tony’s face and the slight rise and fall of his upper body.

- - -

Tony regained consciousness slowly. His head ached, in- and outside the base of his skull. To accompany that he also had a feeling something was wrong.

His mind rotated backwards, to the last thing he could remember.

The battle.

He had taken down War Machine while his creations and the Chitauri took care of what remained of the human army that had tried to overpower them. The Asgardians had slipped in close and he had felt the axe cut in with power that wasn’t human – nor was the blade it carried.

He had thrown them back, securing their victory.

He had been bleeding.

Tony’s hand shot down to his stomach. He felt bandages where the injury had been – where The Engineer had burned the wound shut, temporarily stopping the bleeding. The pain of the memory made his blood boil.

Bandages…

Tony opened his eyes, looking at the room. The Chitauri had no bandages, had no use for such things. What little materials they had found for Tony…

He rolled onto his back, feeling the harness press into a mattress. He kept moving and came to the edge of a bed, sitting up, knowing he wasn’t on the ship anymore.

Wasn’t in the stasis tank, either, his mind subdued against his will. He hadn’t wanted it, hating the sensation of drowning before his mind would shut down and allow his body to heal. He recalled the captured enemies watching, the brief spark of resistance in his mind, but The Engineer had seen it coming and put him under.

There was no tank, no Chitauri, and Tony was perfectly aware of what must have happened: the captives had escaped. They had taken him with them. Why he was still alive, he wasn’t sure, but they would pay for their mistake.

The door opened and armed guards entered. They carried the emblem of S.H.I.E.L.D. on their chests. Fury followed them, along with Agent Hill, and soon after the Avengers gathered there with their new allies and friends – and Pepper.

“You’re awake,” Fury noted needlessly and shot one hand out to stop Pepper from approaching, pushing her back. Happy and Rhodey stood behind her and Happy reached out to hold Pepper by the waist, a strange expression on his face.

Love. Concern.

Tony huffed. “How long did you wait, Hogan?” he asked. “Was our bed even cold yet from my absence before you climbed into it?”

Happy paled – as did Pepper. However, Pepper appeared horrified and on the verge of tears instead of deep shame.

“Give them a break,” Rhodey snapped, pushing in and shoving Fury’s hand to the side, unstoppable as he approached. “If you knew what everyone’s been through, you would be happy they found some goddamn peace with each other.”

“Rhodey…” Pepper murmured.

“We’re going to settle this, once and for all,” Rhodey went on furiously.

Tony rose to the challenge – literally – by standing up, throwing the sheet to the side.

Rhodey’s posture changed just slightly, his eyes shifting. “Would someone bring him some goddamn clothes!?” he snapped, not moving his eyes from Tony although they may have wavered back and forth a little.

Tony had never been daunted by a little nudity. He was beyond it now. His broken body, made whole again – improved – wasn’t a concern. “How’s the suit?” Tony asked, teasing.

“Fucked up, thanks to you,” Rhodey snapped.

“Okay, I think that’s enough,” Fury started.

Tony’s eyes moved over his old friend’s shoulder to the man who had pretended to need him, once. Of course Tony’s life had been easy for Fury to discard, to throw away when it best served his interests. “And what do you have to say, Fury?” Tony narrowed his eyes at him.

“I need you to explain how exactly you fit into the equation,” the Director shot back at him, just as unshaken as always. Nothing touched him, nothing mattered to him.

“You really haven’t figured it out yet – or are you all in denial?” Tony asked. His eyes searched the group, wary expressions, fear in some cases – and then they landed on Bruce, which was… painful.

“You need to let us help you,” the scientist started, voice soft, on the right side of broken, pleading, and Tony felt his chest tighten. Once upon a time…

“I don’t need your help. Not anymore,” Tony replied, moving to take a step back but the bed was right behind him so he couldn’t do that.

“Whatever they did to you –” Fury started.

“You have no goddamn idea!” Tony shouted, pushing forward until he was practically leaning against Rhodey, because somehow stepping past him seemed like a waste of effort. “You left me behind, sir. I delivered the killing blow and that’s where my usefulness ended in your book. All those years and speeches about doing something greater and I bought it. I forgot that I was being used and was fine with it –”

“Tony, that’s not true,” Steve started from the side where he stood with Bruce.

“How do you know?” Tony snapped. “You were cruising in the ice, Capsicle. And when you came around, you were the new golden boy, the one true soldier the world would ever need. Celebrated. Perfect in every way and ready to serve the country and her interests once more. I was obsolete, I always had been, but I pretended not to notice that. If I kept myself busy enough, it wouldn’t catch up with me. I though maybe fighting alongside a living legend would change that but I was just as disposable as before.”

“Tony, my God, stop saying that!” Pepper interjected, voice broken, tears in her eyes. “You were a hero –”

“As long as I served my purpose,” Tony faced her. “Tell me, Virginia, how long you thought it would last? You had the company, you had kept it going for years. You were invested in it, deserved to have it. How long before I became the rock weighing you down, the kind that had to be dug out? How long before you realized you had just been dragging out the inevitable for years?”

“They really fucked you up,” Rhodey murmured and Tony moved his eyes to focus on the face next to his. Their chests were brushing, the arc reactor throwing a glow between them.

“They just took the blindfold off,” Tony told Rhodey then regarded the room in general. “I made promises before, about killing every last one of you. That hasn’t changed.” The armed men lifted their weapons, slightly, as if he was going to make good on that promise right that instant.

Fury looked almost disappointed. “I think we’re done talking for the day.”

“My friend,” Thor pushed forward as the others begun to file out, only the Avengers appearing to want to stay, “they have twisted your mind. You are not the Tony Stark I knew.”

“You didn’t know me; you wanted to kill me, just as much as I wanted to bash in that thick skull of yours,” Tony argued. “We stood in each other’s way. Just because we fought the same enemy… And he really wasn’t the enemy, was he? You wanted to save Loki, to coddle him, to defend his actions.”

“I’m not certain I would call it ‘coddling’,” a familiar voice teased from the back as Loki entered the room. He and Tony regarded each other for a long moment.

“You look healthy,” Tony finally offered.

“No thanks to you,” Loki sneered. “Then again…” he halted, frowning. “I think you’re not being entirely honest with us.”

“What do you mean?” Steve asked, taking a step forward. At the back of the room, securing the doorway no doubt, Clint and Natasha both shifted, alert.

“Tell me, Stark,” Loki went on musing, “did you send your suit to set me free, or was that just a glitch in its programming?”

It was Tony’s turn to frown. The God of Lies, that’s what they called him, but why would Loki make up something like that? He bowed his head slightly, closing his eyes, reaching out.

“What do you mean, set you free?” Thor demanded to know.

“Is that how you escaped?” Clint pressed.

“I had already killed my guard but the suit opened the door for me,” Loki explained.

Their voices grew muted as Tony reached out further, through painful static which might have been caused by some damage to the harness – or his brain – when he was taken out of the stasis tank. Finally he reached the Concordia unit, moving through it to access the small suit and…

He opened his eyes and let the air out of his lungs.

“Well?” Loki raised an eyebrow.

Tony was aware of the logic, saw the calculations and decisions: his final effort to get free, to avoid the tank, hadn’t gone unnoticed. That last burst of message to his creations, to his children, had left its mark long after his mind was controlled and shut down by The Engineer. The suit had counted on Loki’s release to ensure Tony’s safety, which it had in a roundabout way. Damaged, the suit may have had trouble doing that on its own…

“Means to an end,” Tony finally offered.

“We saw you fight them,” Steve was the next to speak up. “The Chitauri.”

“Children not wanting to see a dentist put up more of a fight,” Tony countered. “What you saw was…”

He remembered the pain, the burning of skin.

It made him recall the day they cut off the suit, so long ago…

A hand on his shoulder jarred him out of it; Rhodey was looking at him, dark eyes sad. “Let us help you,” he started.

Tony’s hand shot up fast, taking him by the throat, lifting him up. He was stronger, better. “I stopped needing your help the day you left me floating in space,” he sneered and threw Rhodey back. Thor and Steve caught him before he could fall to the floor.

“Tony,” Bruce stepped forward, making Tony start slightly. He had expected the man to leave, to avoid this confrontation. “If we had known… We would have come for you, no matter where you were. We waited for as long as we could.”

Steve looked incredibly guilty at those words, when Tony happened to look at him. Well, he had known it would be Cap’s call. Their leader. The man they were supposed to trust.

How well had that ended for Tony?

“Let us help you,” Bruce implored him, voice still soft, face so vulnerable, like that day in the lab.

Part of Tony itched to give in to him, to let Bruce do what he wanted.

He had come too far, though.

It was too late to make amends, to ask for forgiveness.

Tony turned his back on them all, crawled back onto the bed and sat there, staring resolutely at the wall. He heard them leave, slowly, one after another until the door closed and locked firmly behind them.

- - -

“He’s insane,” Benjamin Pollack decided once everyone had reviewed the security feed of their confrontation with Tony three times.

“He spent five years as a captive of an alien race hell-bent on traveling all the way to Earth to destroy us,” Bruce argued. “If that doesn’t mess you up… And we have no way of knowing what was done to him. That thing on his back and what you described the Chitauri doing to him on the ship – it appears they can control him, or at least shut down his mind.”

“You forget that he created the mecha,” Agent Hill noted. “He created the machines that have been destroying human civilization even before the Chitauri bothered to come out of their ships.”

“All a very good plan,” Bruce tapped the edge of the table. The feed began to run again and he muted it with a flick of his other wrist. “Every move has been precise. Effective. But,” he added thoughtfully, “not effective enough.”

A wall of voices met his words.

“What do you mean?” Steve asked, louder than the others, making them fall silent.

“He could have ended this in a few weeks, if he wanted to. Crush the opposition, have the mecha destroy every last branch of government and military.” Bruce lifted his hand from the table to his lips, then to his glasses, tugging them off, closing his eyes. “If he wanted to do that, he would have gutted us instead of letting this drag out. He knew where the Helicarriers were, which means he probably knew everything else worth knowing. That he stalled…”

“Maybe he wanted to savor his victory,” Natasha offered.

“He’s not savoring anything from that cell,” Hill snapped.

Pepper gave her a particularly nasty look at her choice of words but Happy managed to keep her silent. The two of them had been close yet hushed after Tony’s comments on their relationship, which was now very obvious to anyone who cared to look. Bruce didn’t begrudge them that, and knew no one else really did either. He knew he might have tried something with Betty once again had she not died in the first wave of attacks…

Clearing his throat, Bruce pulled himself back to the present – and the fact that they had just been offered their greatest chance at victory. “I think,” he started slowly, “that Tony’s still in contact with the mecha.”

A deafening silence followed before Fury’s eye seemed to bulge slightly out of his skull. “Would you care to repeat that?”

“When Loki asked about his means of escape, it looked to me like Tony was reaching out. He seemed to be confirming Loki’s story. That leads me to suspect that he’s mentally linked to them – proof of which we’ve possibly seen before. We just didn’t dare to go that far with our assumptions.”

“We must evacuate,” Agent Hill took a step away.

“What would it matter?” Steve mused, making her halt. “If he contacted the mecha to save him, he would have already summoned them here.” He raised his eyes to look at Bruce. “He can’t kill us all with his bare hands, so he would need the mecha to help him. But if they haven’t come yet… Are we getting through to him?”

Bruce turned that over in his head. “Possibly. I wouldn’t dare to go that far but I want to talk to him again. Alone,” he added. “I think certain people bring out the worst sides of him and we had so little time together he doesn’t have an axe to grind with me.” He looked at the others, seeing guilty looks and stubborn expressions.

Steve nodded, though, which finalized it.

Pepper sniffed and let out a shuddery breath of air. Her eyes kept following the video that was still rolling soundlessly on a screen in the middle of the room. “If you need any help…”

“I’ll ask for it,” Bruce promised. He also knew that Pepper might not be the right person to talk to Tony right now, but luckily she seemed to know that as well.

With one last look at the people in the room, Bruce walked out. He stopped by the kitchen, getting some food, then walked down to the restricted area. There were a few guards down there and no one else, thick doors ensuring that Tony couldn’t just walk out.

Those walls and doors would wouldn’t stand a chance if the mecha came for him, though.

Bruce tapped a code into a lock by the door and entered. Tony was still sitting on the bed, facing the wall, as if he hadn’t moved in the hours since he first woke up and talked to them.

“Are you hungry?” Bruce asked, setting the plate down on the far edge of the bed, careful not to move too close; he remembered a time, not too long ago, when he couldn’t bear to be close to other people. Tony had to be feeling the same – at least when it wasn’t on his terms.

He heard Tony sniff and slowly turn his head, staring at the plate. It was hard to tell from his expression what he was thinking but then he reached out, snatching a piece of bread from the plate and brought it up to his face, inhaling sharply as if he had missed such a simple smell.

Bruce wondered when he had last eaten. Five years ago? Could that be possible?

“They didn’t have food that I could digest,” Tony mused as if reading his mind. He nibbled on the bread, a couple days old but better than nothing. Better than most things people had to live on these days. “Half the time I expected them to open me up and… do something to my stomach, you know?” He munched on the bread a bit longer and Bruce didn’t think to distract him from such a simple pleasure.

“You survived, though,” he mused after a long while, leaning against a wall, still a good distance from Tony yet not too far to seem like he was avoiding him.

Tony lowered the remaining piece of bread and looked at him. “I did.” His eyes wavered, moving to the side, looking at a scene Bruce couldn’t imagine. It seemed his entire body shuddered in memory.

Bruce had plenty of those memories himself.

Tony looked back up at him again after a while. “Why are you here?”

“You know why,” Bruce replied.

Tony played with the bread in his fingers and then lifted it to take another bite, munching carefully. Before all this, he would have probably not even touched such a simple piece of food. “What do you want to know?” Tony asked then, turning his head towards the plate as if searching for another treat.

“What’s that thing on your back?” Bruce asked bluntly.

“I call it a harness. I don’t know what it is, exactly.” He chuckled then, a dry, humorless sound. “I know exactly what it is… I upgraded most of it,” he mused and snatched an apple from the plate. It wasn’t exactly fresh but still edible. Tony turned it in his hand, the bread still in the other one. “You never understand how limited a human body is until you take the next step along the evolutionary ladder.”

“Is that what you did? Or had done to you?”

Tony froze again, that same shudder traveling across his body. His eyes were truly pained the next time he looked at Bruce. “Just ask,” he forced out the words with visible effort.

“What did they do to you?” Bruce asked. He dreaded the answer, wasn’t sure if this was the right time, but at least Tony was talking and not threatening to end his life.

Tony’s gaze wavered again. He took another bite of the bread, attacking it almost viciously, swallowing with some difficulty. “The Engineer,” he finally said, then laughed shortly, abruptly, as if it were an inside joke no one else was supposed to get. “It’s fucked up, the name they chose to give him – the way it was translated to me. Irony, I suppose.” He ate the rest of the bread, still toying with the apple in his free hand.

“I couldn’t breathe their air,” Tony went on after a moment, both hands holding the apple now, looking at it intently. “They jammed something down my throat.” He lifted his face, staring at the wall, then moved one hand up. “You can feel it if you…” He suddenly turned towards Bruce, almost falling off the bed. “You can feel it if you try.”

Bruce stepped forward, reaching out, replacing Tony’s fingers on his throat with his own. He felt it, with every breath, every swallow.

“I prayed someone would get me out of the suit before I died inside it. When they ripped off the faceplate, I hoped…” Tony’s eyes were wide, a bit glassy. “Suffocating to death wasn’t pleasant, but I thought that was better than what would come after, right? Right…” He looked up at Bruce, face hardening. “They cut off the armor,” he went on. “Burned my skin, cut into it. Careless. I kept swallowing down blood and hoping they would cut too deep, but they didn’t.”

Bruce didn’t pull away, didn’t move, didn’t reply. Tony didn’t need him to do those things, so he just kept his fingers on the other man’s throat until Tony grabbed his hand and moved it to the back of his head.

“The Engineer… He made this. Pushing things into my brain, cutting my skin open, installing the harness. When I could finally understand them, it was all over. And then The Other started paying me nice little visits.” Bruce’s fingers flexed against the harness, caressing it, feeling it, finding the edge between it and Tony’s skin. Seamless, it appeared. “Of all the people I’ve known in my life,” Tony mused, voice stopping at a shivering whisper, “I think you know best what it feels like to have someone else in your head. Someone you don’t want. Someone who’s not supposed to be there.”

Bruce nodded rigidly.

Tony blinked then smiled. “It’s not so bad, though. Elevated consciousness. I felt… No, that was after I made them, after I gave them sentience,” he muttered, looking away, grasping the apple tightly as if to tether himself to this moment. “My children, my beautiful children… I didn’t want the others in my head, but them… They belonged there. They would always be there.”

Bruce wasn’t certain but he thought Tony might be talking about the mecha.

“The Chitauri… can they still get into your mind?” Bruce asked.

Tony’s eyes were tinged with fury as he met his gaze. “The Other and The Engineer, yes. The others… they can communicate, I understand them, but they’re not in my head. I would kill them if they tried.”

Bruce nodded slowly. “You don’t like the connection, though. To the… Other and the one who made you like this, The Engineer.”

A dirty smile played on Tony’s lips. “Some things are permanent, but you don’t have to like them,” he said.

“But if the harness were to be removed –”

“You can’t remove it,” Tony snapped. His fingers squeezed the apple hard enough to make a dent and release the last of its juice. “It’s directly wired into my nervous system. Or is that why you’re here? Did Fury send you to pry for a way to kill me?”

“I think a bullet in the head would do the trick,” Bruce noted, not allowing his voice to show emotion. “A broken neck, although that would take a bit more force. A fatal wound.” Tony clearly had reasons for keeping the harness, which led Bruce to assume it was his way of connecting himself with the mecha – to allow them into his mind, and his to theirs. That would explain a lot of things they had struggled to understand about the machines.

Tony gritted his teeth, clearly not happy about being reminded of his mortality. “You know you’re all living on borrowed time.”

“Until you call the mecha in here?” Bruce challenged him. “Your ‘children’. Your creations.”

Tony’s eyes didn’t waver this time.

Bruce shifted the hand still on the back of Tony’s neck, spreading his fingers, touching skin with his fingertips. “You haven’t called them yet, which means your conviction to kill us isn’t as firm as you make it sound.”

“Would you like to test that theory?” Tony’s eyes narrowed to slits.

Bruce knew he could end up killing everyone in this base and he didn’t even need to unleash the other guy to do that. “I’m not done talking to you yet. I want to take you somewhere before you decide to deliver the finishing blow.”

Tony looked suspicious but glanced at the apple momentarily before lifting the hand holding it to his mouth, sucking the juices from his skin. “Okay,” he murmured and Bruce leaned back, heading for the door.

Fury might want to tear him a new one for this but it was out of the Director’s hands as far as Bruce was concerned. He had a feeling Tony had very few motives left to not kill them all but if curiosity and his brief companionship with Bruce helped to keep them all alive – and maybe even get their friend back – Fury would have to come to terms with that.





to be continued…


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