Author: Del Rion (delrion.mail (at) gmail.com)
Fandoms: Iron Man & Captain America & The Avengers (MCU) / The Matrix
Genre: Action, sci-fi, drama
Rating: M / FRM
Characters: Bruce Banner, Clint Barton, Jane Foster, Darcy Lewis, Loki, Steve Rogers (Captain America), Natasha Romanoff, Betty Ross, Tony Stark (Iron Man), Thor.
Guest appearances: The Architect, Emil Blonsky, Phil Coulson, JARVIS, The Merovingian, The Oracle, Persephone, Thaddeus Ross, Sati, Erik Selvig, Seraph, Samuel Sterns, Glenn Talbot.
Pairings: Betty/Bruce, Clint/Darcy/Natasha, Jane/Thor, implied Merovingian/Persephone
Summary: The Truce between men and Machines is threatened by a radical group called ‘the Cleansers’. Steve Rogers, the captain of a hovercraft named ‘The Avenger’, takes his crew to find the ultimate weapon the Cleansers are looking for, and reunites with an old friend whom he’d thought long dead. How is Tony Stark connected to their mission, and does a weapon exist that could destroy the Machines?
Complete. Sequel to “Creator”.
Written for: Science Fiction & Fantasy Big Bang’s Round 5.
Also fills the “free space” square on my card in Trope Bingo’s Round 2 (used trope: “au: fusion”).
Artist: raktajinos (AO3/LJ) – see banner HERE.
Warnings: Language, canonical violence.
Steve kept his eyes closed. He could almost envision it… how it had once been. From below, he could hear the sounds of New York City buzzing with life; car horns, traffic, people. His fingers tightened against the edge of his shield, the vibranium firm beneath his grip, and his uniform hugged his body like a comforting cocoon. It wasn’t the one he had worn before, but it carried some of the old colors – red, white and blue – and some less obvious symbols.
Steve gave up the illusion and opened his eyes. The city skyline was much the same, yet different. A lot like when he had awoken from the ice instead of the world he remembered just before the Machine War started.
The Matrix was so much like what he had hoped it would be, bringing to life memories that were buried deep in his mind. Of course he knew it was only an illusion; a myriad of programs and hallucinations. For whatever reason, it reminded him of Tony’s workshops, especially the ones post-Extremis.
He turned and looked at Clint standing at ease behind him. His clothing was dark, hugging his form, leaving his arms bare. He had a quiver strapped to his back and a bow in his hand – not a wooden bow, a highly mechanized one. Steve had never seen anyone use a bow the way Clint did, and the specially programmed trick arrows accomplished more than simple weapons could dream of. Anyone who had ever dared to laugh at Clint’s choice of a weapon had come to regret it in short order.
The archer’s sharp eyes regarded Steve, waiting for his response. In the time they had known each other, since that day their ship crashed in the tunnels in the real world, Steve had learned that Clint’s senses were almost as sharp as his own in the Matrix, and he saw things no one else could.
However, it seemed Clint never assumed to see everything that Steve did.
“Time to go?” Steve asked, adjusting his grip on the shield. It was still painted in the old, bright colors, with the star in the middle. He had no idea how that was possible because the shield hadn’t been ‘coded’ to him or his gear, not once, but it was always there, waiting for him, when he entered the Matrix. None of the others had been able to explain it – or how it was every bit as strong as the real vibranium had been.
“Soon,” Clint confirmed with a sharp, minimal nod, then looked out past him – at the spot Steve tended to stare at more than most.
The spot where Stark Tower used to reside, but didn’t exist in the Matrix.
Steve heard a sound from the other side of the roof they were standing on, and Natasha came into view, her red hair longer here, reaching half-way down her back. Sometimes it was curly, but today it was straight and flaming under the sun’s rays. She wore a catsuit, the black clinging to her body, belts at her waist and weapons strapped to every part of her body. Here, she was covert and lethal, her light body filled with agility that sometimes surpassed Steve’s own.
Natasha gave Steve one, brief look, nodded in greeting and then settled to stand beside Clint. They looked good together, Steve noted – not for the first time – and he knew that it was an ongoing joke that their Operator gave them the best toys and tricks. Considering that the two of them were in a relationship with said Operator, Steve didn’t doubt the truth behind the joke.
Behind Clint and Natasha, two more people joined them, moving with less agility and stealth than the rest of them. Bruce looked around, squinting in the sunlight; he and Jane had been working indoors for most of their trip, establishing some kind of transmitter that would speed up their connection to the Matrix.
The two of them formed the ‘scientific team’ of Steve’s crew. Most of the time he couldn’t understand a thing they were saying, but he liked to listen anyway; it reminded him of the life that he used to have, and some brilliant people he’d had the privilege to work with.
Jane shook her head, brown hair swaying softly at the motion, and looked at Steve with a half-smile while murmuring to Bruce, “How does he pull that off, seriously? That outfit would look ridiculous on anyone else.”
“You should have seen the one I used to wear,” Steve cracked. “This one is a more toned down version than what I… wore in the beginning.” The USO shows… Sometimes, if Steve forgot to pinch himself, it felt like that life was a dream; most things about his past had lost the grittiness and sharpness that separated actual memories from dreams and trips to the Matrix. “Let’s head back to an exit point,” Steve decided.
Clint was the first to move back towards the stairs, Natasha right behind him. Jane followed them while Bruce remained standing, hands in his pockets, looking out over the city.
“Is something wrong?” Steve asked.
Bruce’s brown eyes glanced at him, up and down, lingering on the shield before aiming at his face again. “You know those religious texts some cults worship? The way they… describe the moment you are faced with something greater than yourself – something supernatural, almost.”
“Yeah,” Steve replied. He had never believed in any of it, but that didn’t mean he was ignorant of them.
“I had a bit of that, the day we met. I couldn’t dissect it then, and I’m not sure I want to do it now, either. Mostly I thought you were the craziest son of a bitch I’d ever met, to let me strap you down, drill a hole into your skull and try to implant a data port into your brain. When you sat up a few days later and stretched like after a particularly long sleep, I wasn’t sure which of us was the crazy person. And then I saw you enter the Matrix for the first time,” he added.
“I thought that went pretty well,” Steve frowned, remembering. He had gone through some orientation Constructs, but he had still felt the difference between those and the real deal.
“Oh, it went better than the first trip of anyone I’ve seen,” Bruce snorted. “And then that shield was there, and the uniform, and I felt like I was looking at something I’m not devout enough to understand. That feeling hasn’t passed, and it makes me a little bit uneasy.”
Steve moved to lay a hand on the other man’s shoulder, squeezing. “Just don’t go building an altar outside my quarters; that might be a bit uncomfortable for everyone else.”
“Sure thing, Captain,” Bruce smiled wryly.
Steve left it at that, because what else was there? He knew he was the only person alive who had been implanted with the means to enter the Matrix; he hadn’t been birthed by the Machines. Well, he was also the only person alive who had seen the time before the Machines, but that was a less commonly known fact. People tended to get uneasy and give him that ‘you’re insane’ look if he let it slip.
“Have I told you of Frankenstein’s monster?” Steve mused as he and Bruce followed the others down into the building and back to a room that had a land line.
“They have that in the Matrix,” Bruce told him. It seemed the Machines had kept a lot of things the same, censoring only here and there to accomplish some intricate goal. “Are you referring to me as Frankenstein, and you the monster?”
“I guess I just like to think that we did a lot better than Frankenstein,” Steve observed. He knew the procedure could have gone wrong in dozens of ways. Almost all of them would have left him dead, brain-dead or possibly given Steve a personality disorder so severe he might have not known himself anymore. But even with all odds against them, Bruce had given Steve the means to see what lay on the ‘other side’, and he was glad they had both taken the risk.
As they reached their Exit location, the others were already gathered around a table with a black rotary dial telephone sitting on top of it. It always amused Steve how the Redpills needed to depend on old-fashioned technology to get their consciousnesses back home. So much for the future and wireless information.
Knowing that they had been here long enough, Steve raised a hand to his left ear, with an earpiece firmly in place. “Operator, call us in.”
“Roger that, Captain Rogers,” their Operator’s cheerful voice replied. Steve did not roll his eyes like he used to in the beginning: Darcy insisted on making that joke almost every time, if things had gone according to plan. When there was trouble, though, the young woman pulled herself together and that was why Steve had chosen her as his Operator. Well, she had also chosen him, seeing as not many people lined up to hang around Steve.
That only meant his crew was all the more special for the fact that they stuck around.
The phone began to ring. Jane picked it up first, as was their mutual agreement. She vanished a moment later, and Steve caught the handset as it began to fall down, carefully placing it back on top of the phone. It began ringing again just seconds later, and Bruce was the next to pick it up, vanishing as well. At the third round, Clint and Natasha exchanged looks.
“Ladies first,” Clint insisted.
Natasha gave the room a wary look, as if expecting danger the moment she picked up the handset. “I’ll see you on the other side,” she said then and leaned in to give Clint a quick kiss before picking up the phone and disappearing.
Clint caught the handset this time, set it down and squared his shoulders. He briefly looked at Steve, just as the phone began ringing again. Steve gave him a nod, and Clint repeated the familiar maneuver.
As Steve stood alone, he debated on not picking up the phone. However, such a childish desire to hide in this fake world was unnecessary when he could come visit it again, soon, and he had a duty to the people waiting on the other side. So, he lifted the handset to his ear, heard a strange, mechanical sound and opened his eyes to the bleak gray interior of the ship a moment later. A worn, faded paper taped to the ceiling greeted his eyes, with stick figures drawn onto a setting that could be described as an attempt to depict an island paradise.
“All aboard,” Darcy grinned from her chair, brown hair just as unruly as always. “Welcome back, Cap.”
Steve gave her half a smile as someone pulled the data probe from his head. The sensation was strangely cold and hot at the same time, but not really painful. He turned his head while getting used to his real body once more – not that different from the one in the Matrix, whereas the others seemed to go over a greater transformation.
To his left, Jane was already in the embrace of a large man with a blond mane of hair, her mouth moving a mile a minute as she described the success of their mission. It was clear the man did not understand most of it, but he worshipped all of Jane, including her brilliant mind. Thor was one of their natural-born crew members, and he was sworn to protect his fellow crewmembers when they were connected to the Matrix. The one thing you needed to know about Thor was that he took his promises seriously, and not just because the woman he was in love with happened to be a Redpill and went on regular visits to the neural-interactive virtual reality called the Matrix.
Steve sat up and got to his feet. He looked down at his arm, feeling the emptiness where the shield had been just moments ago. He wondered whether his shield would be waiting for him in the Matrix if he hadn’t lost it in the real world, but that was a question for another time, and he did not wish to ruin a good thing by over-analyzing it.
“We got a transmission from Zion,” another woman joined them. She was tall and dark-haired, and gave Bruce a quick, fond look before moving towards Steve with a piece of paper. “They asked us to head back, for those repairs we couldn’t do last time, and to give a report on the progress we’ve made.” Betty was their medic, something they had sorely needed before she joined the crew. Steve knew he had Bruce to thank for her being here, in some indirect way.
Steve nodded and gave her a smile of thanks. “Let’s go home, then.”
Clint and Thor moved towards the hovercrafts controls, and as the engines hummed into life, Steve laid a hand on the wall of The Avenger. Not the best ship in the world, but it allowed him the freedom to move around and feel useful once more.
“Are you feeling any nausea?” Betty asked from the side. “Light-headedness? Headaches?”
“No,” Steve replied. There had been headaches at first, but they had dissipated – probably the super-soldier serum adapting to the new object in his brain. “I’m feeling fine.”
She nodded briefly and disappeared. Bruce hung around for a moment before following her, perhaps to see if any of the equipment in their small med bay needed repairs – and to find an excuse to be around her.
Frankly, Steve wished his crew would stop acting as if they weren’t allowed to form connections. Steve knew, from personal experience, what waiting for too long felt like. You could lose everything in a heartbeat, and waiting for a ‘better time’ was an endless road. The way he saw it these days, after much time to polish that little nugget of wisdom, was to embrace the moment and the people in that moment.
He looked over at the Operator console where Natasha was standing behind Darcy. She was leaning in close, looking at the endless floating symbols falling across the screens in front of them; the Matrix, in all of its digital code glory. If Steve wanted to give himself a headache, he would try to decipher those codes – and fail – but at the same time it was incredible that those simple symbols created the world he had just stepped out of.
He spied Natasha’s hand resting on Darcy’s neck, fingers curling, thumb moving up along her jaw-line in a small caress. It felt strange, knowing how cold Natasha could be when something needed to be done, no matter how brutal, dangerous or gory. She wasn’t that different in real life, although she lacked the preternatural strength her avatar self had in the Matrix.
Deciding he could leave them to it for now, Steve headed down to the mess hall, got himself some of that rather disgusting goo that served as their only form of food, and sat down to enjoy it to the best of his ability. It was sustenance, and he shouldn’t think twice about it. At least he had something to eat.
One by one, the crewmembers joined him, for food or just sitting around in silence that was occasionally interrupted by murmured voices. It wasn’t like their usual dinners went, most of them loud and full of obnoxious statements, which meant they were gearing towards another pastime that united their little family.
“Tell us about it,” Jane started, her face earnest. The others waited, gathered around, as if Steve were their campfire.
Steve looked at his hands, thoughts rolling through his head. “The blue skies? The real sunshine filtered through a window of glass? The soft, clean sheets?”
Darcy moaned obscenely, closing her eyes, picturing it. She had never been to the Matrix, having been born here in the real world, and she had no idea what he was talking about, yet her imagination was better than most people’s he had met.
“Tell us about the first AI,” Clint’s voice joined them through the comm; he was piloting them towards Zion, but obviously he had been listening in.
“The predecessor of the Machines?” Steve quirked an eyebrow. “Or JARVIS, the first AI?”
“JARVIS,” Bruce decided. “Tell us about Tony.”
“Iron Man,” Darcy grinned. “It sounds so… silly.”
“It was silly until you met him,” Steve said, looking at all of them, then got lost in the memories. He was thankful to his crew, sometimes, for making him talk about the past, because that way he would not forget.
He had nightmares about forgetting.
“I met him soon after they thawed me from the ice. I was angry and sad. Depressed. I had lost everything and the world I saw around me was futuristic and almost hostile. It was not how I had imagined it, either. It wasn’t advanced enough.”
A couple people chuckled around him, but didn’t interrupt. As Steve looked around, he could see them leaning on each other or any available surface, relaxed, trying to picture what he was seeing. Jane had rolled herself up in Thor’s wide chest, and Darcy was playing with Natasha’s shoulder-length hair. Bruce and Betty were almost brushing against each other.
“Then I saw Iron Man, and it felt like that was the first thing that matched my ideas of what the future would be like: advanced technology, flashy moves, someone doing things no one else could match. He was also a superhero, in every sense of the word. When I met Tony, however – when the armor came off – we were constantly at each other’s throats.”
Clint’s voice chuckled through the speakers.
“I couldn’t stand this prideful, full-of-himself guy, who had no regard for anyone else’s feelings, and who was all about style. But he was the most brilliant person I had ever met, which was even more intimidating, and it took us a long time to get past the hostilities between us. It helped, though, that we had to save the world, repeatedly.
“I met JARVIS… well, you can’t really meet him. He’s everywhere, and he’s nowhere; in Tony’s suit, in his homes, his workshops, even his cars and phones. At first I thought maybe it was another person, and I felt deceived when I realized it was just a program. When I told Tony that, he wouldn’t speak to me for two weeks. Apparently I had insulted both his brilliance and JARVIS’ feelings, although JARVIS did assure me that he had not taken offense.
“So, I revised my attitude, bit by bit. JARVIS was more human than most people I ever met because he had the capability to weigh every opinion he had. He could calculate outcomes and likelihoods, and if given the chance, he could have a discussion of morality with you that left you a bit breathless from the depths to which such a discussion could go.”
Steve thought of those long, dark nights when their latest mission was still too fresh in his mind and he needed a distraction. Tony had his lab, his bots, his work, but Steve could only work out his already sore body in hopes of hitting the hay – until he was too worn out to move.
Instead, he had sat down on the floor and talked to JARVIS.
“When they created the AI, I imagined a world filled with others like JARVIS – but they were nothing like him. They were dumb, lacked emotional depth, and while they later constructed a concept of their own right to exist, it never felt the same. Maybe it would have taken a little more time – or a little more love.”
“Tony loved his AI?” Darcy asked. “That sounds… kinky.”
“Oh, I’m sure they had much love between them,” Steve smiled. “Tony gave JARVIS the ability to grow, to advance, to learn. No matter how heated their banter got, I always knew JARVIS would remain loyal to his creator, and Tony, for his part, would never have a better friend.” His lips twitched at that, his mind jumping ahead. “I kept hoping, when I heard that Tony had gone to Zero One, that the war could be averted. I had already lived through one war, and I had no desire to see another. I thought that Tony could show the AI that humanity had more to give them than violence and discrimination – but then the bombs dropped.”
He looked at the tabletop, feeling his eyes mist a little. “I think it was better that he died that day. He didn’t have to see the war, didn’t have to feel torn to choose a side.”
“Which side would he have chosen?” Betty asked.
Steve looked up at her. “It’s not for me to judge, but I think, in the end, he felt he had more in common with the AI than the human race that had betrayed him, time and time again, to serve its own ends.”
Betty pursed her lips. She didn’t come up with objections anymore, and sat down with the rest of them, but in the beginning she had not believed anything Steve said. Maybe she thought his stories were as good as any others, or she wanted to be there because Bruce never missed these little gatherings.
“The Extremis,” Bruce spoke up when no one else did. “It enabled Tony to communicate with the machines?”
“Yes,” Steve nodded. “His connection to the suit was his main concern, but I know it went beyond that. When you can see through satellites…”
“So, you could say he became a machine at heart?” Betty ventured.
Bruce gave her a quick, warning look.
Steve, however, had had that discussion in his head a hundred times now, wondering what it would have been like should Tony have survived. “A heart is a complex thing. I think Tony just chose what was a natural extension of himself. What he was destined to become. After all…” He didn’t finish – didn’t point at himself – but he knew many people had once believed Steve Rogers had been destined to become Captain America.
A fat lot of good that had done the world, in the end…
“We should get some sleep,” Natasha finally decided. “I’ll join Clint at the controls. Thor, will you relieve us in about five hours?”
“I shall,” Thor nodded and rose, pulling Jane along with him.
“Good night,” Jane called out to them before they disappeared.
“I have a few calculations,” Bruce started.
“You need to rest,” Betty argued. “You can run the numbers later.”
It was always a toss-up whether Bruce would do as he was told; he had a vicious temper when he got pissed, like an angry beast inside him was just waiting to be unleashed. Being told what to do, when he didn’t want to do those things, was one way to bring out the uglier side of his personality. But perhaps the numbers weren’t that important, or Betty’s imploring eyes melted his defenses, because he nodded and got up, telling Steve good night and taking his leave, Betty waiting a few seconds before doing the same.
Natasha and Darcy got up next, heading in the direction of the cockpit, leaving Steve alone with his thoughts and memories. At times it felt unacceptable that his life had been whittled down to stories around a campfire, but all that time was behind him now and it didn’t really matter whether it was real or not. Well, it mattered to him, and in a way he felt like it mattered to his crew as well.
The Avenger continued to fly towards the last city of mankind, and Steve guessed he should try to get some shut-eye before they got there.
to be continued…