Meeting the Avengers was cool. Seeing them in full armor, battling some villain, would have been even better, but Harley knew they hadn’t come to visit him just to show off their awesome powers. The least they could have done would have been to bring at least one suit of armor with them, but apparently Tony had destroyed his and the guy who was War Machine seemed so grumpy that Harley didn’t dare ask about his armor.`
After the weird moment in the garage, Harley supposed he should put himself to good use and lead the superheroes outside and into the streets of Rose Hill.
“Where are we going?” one of the Avengers asked. He had to be Hawkeye.
“Some place special,” Harley offered and kept walking.
“Special how?” War Machine – Rhodey – asked. Well, Tony called him Rhodey, but Harley knew he was really called Colonel James Rhodes.
“You’ll see,” Harley offered as cryptically as he could, to not blow the surprise.
Tony walked beside him, looking about. He looked the same, talked the same, but something was totally off about him. He wasn’t even giving Harley as much of a hard time as he had the first time they met.
Not a lot of people were walking around, but those who did took a second look at their group. Harley knew they probably didn’t recognize the Avengers, who were in their normal clothes, looking like anything but a team of superheroes, but after the mess with the AIM soldiers, everyone had been a bit more cautious.
Harley remembered that night well. Not only because he had saved Tony Stark’s life, which was awesome, but because so much destruction had been dealt in such a small amount of time that it took weeks for it to really settle in. Harley had had his own share of nightmares, but they, too, had passed.
He led them between buildings and one of Tony’s steps faltered, just a little. Harley smiled. They approached the crater in the ground, still surrounded by flowers and notes – and the five shadows painted on the walls. Tony hovered over the edge of the broken earth, toeing at it, but looked rather serene, considering.
“You know what this crater reminds me of?” Harley tested him. Tony just looked at him, like he didn’t care. “The wormhole in New York,” he offered, waiting to see a response.
Nothing happened. Tony’s lips twitched, as if he was bored, and he shrugged one shoulder. “I don’t really see the resemblance,” he finally said.
Harley jumped at that small detail. “So, you remember it? The wormhole?”
“I guess,” Tony replied nonchalantly.
“And going into space? Do you remember how you got out of the wormhole?” Harley didn’t ask just because he had been requested to make Tony edgy; he really wanted to know. People all over the world had been asking that question ever since the Battle of New York.
Tony’s eyes met his, steady and unwavering. He wasn’t even sweating. “I fell. There’s no gravity in space, but as the wormhole collapsed, it sucked me back in. Approximately two-hundred milliseconds slower and I would have been stuck on the other edge of space until…” Tony halted and his expression changed for a moment – then about two seconds later it all neutralized, back into the mask of calmness.
“Until you died,” Harley supplied. “Did you know you were going to die?” This time he asked the question because it might upset Tony. He didn’t want to think about Tony resigning himself to the fact he might die. He was a superhero, so it wasn’t fair he’d have to go through that. However, this was real life, not comic books, and in real life people disappeared and died way too easily.
“It was a rather likely statistical possibility,” Tony replied, as if he didn’t care either way.
“I’m glad you didn’t die,” Harley offered, taking a step towards Tony.
“Me, too, although that’s kind of obvious.”
Harley dismissed that. “After all, if you had died, I never would have learned that one thing about us.”
“That we’re connected?” Tony asked, voice a lot softer than it should have been. He didn’t make fun of Harley. He didn’t tease him and threaten to run him over. If Harley hadn’t already known Tony wasn’t himself, he would have known it now.
“Yeah,” he mused quietly, rethinking everything. “You know that you’re not okay, right?” he asked Tony. “Everything you’ve been saying and doing… it isn’t you.”
“You don’t know me very well,” Tony countered.
“Maybe,” Harley threw back at him. “Or maybe I know you too well and that’s what scared you. That I was so much like you. I bet you got bullied at school, too, but no one gave you a high-tech weapon to deal with that.” Beside them, the Avengers exchanged somewhat nervous looks. “I bet your dad left you, too.”
“That’s the sob story of every brilliant kid who ever lived,” Tony told him.
“I bet people have told you to tough it out all your life, when you’re having nightmares. So, you took the easy way out and got rid of the nightmares. Then something went wrong, but you can’t remember what, and that’s better than asking for the help no one was willing to give you before.”
“You need to work on your pep talk skills,” Tony countered, but his mask was slipping, just a little, as if Harley had managed to pry a corner loose.
“Maybe,” Harley admitted, “but at least I’m being myself. Who are you? You’re not Tony Stark. I met him, and you’re not him. You’re just some guy, pretending to be one of the Avengers – pretending to be Iron Man. You can pretend to be cool with everything, with New York and aliens and wormholes, but those memories created the Iron Man I met, and I would rather have him a hundred times over compared to you!”
Orange lights appeared under Tony’s cheekbones, out of the blue. “Yeah?” Tony hissed. “Well, too bad, because that man is gone, and he’s staying gone because neither I, nor the world, have any use for him!”
“You can’t decide that!” Harley shouted back at him. In the next moment he felt heat on his face, then a tight, bruising grip yanked him back, clear off his feet and to the side. After Harley caught himself again, he found himself positioned behind Captain America’s body as Tony sank to his knees on the edge of the crater, skin aglow with the orange light Harley had seen on that man and woman who had attacked them when Tony first visited Rose Hill.
“Tony?” the man called Bruce exclaimed. Harley wasn’t sure who he was, but if he was one of the Avengers, the only option left was that he was the Hulk. Only, he wasn’t big and green right now, and looked a little afraid to approach Tony as the man clutched at his head and groaned in pain.
“Were you looking for this kind of response?” Rhodey asked, also cautious.
“I didn’t dare to hope for this,” Bruce murmured, then looked at Harley, who was trying to see what was happening although Captain America kept holding him back. “Harley, how would you feel about coming to New York City with us?”
Harley blinked. “To the Avengers Tower?” he clarified.
Harley knew grinning at this moment was inappropriate, seeing as Tony was still on his knees and looking rather pained, although he had stopped groaning and the glow was slowly receding. “Yeah,” Harley nodded. “Hell yeah!”
Captain America – Steve – gave him a slightly disapproving look, as if he didn’t care for the language, but Harley paid him no mind. He was going on a trip with the Avengers.
Well, as soon as his mom said yes.
She had to say yes.
Tony had the worst migraine of his life for the next two hours that it took them to get back to Harley’s house, find his mother and ask for Mrs. Keener’s blessing that the kid could come with them to New York.
For reasons Tony couldn’t fathom, she said yes.
Not that he cared: while his skull felt like fracturing itself from the inside out with spikes of hot pain, Tony cared very little for what was happening around him.
“Are you sure he isn’t going to set the car on fire?” he heard Clint ask.
“Fuck you,” Tony muttered.
“It’s a valid question,” Rhodey agreed with the archer.
“We could wrap him in a fire blanket,” Harley suggested.
Tony flipped him the bird, at which Steve made a disapproving sound, but eventually they all got into the cars and started the long drive back to New York. Harley, for the time being, had been placed in the second car, and Bruce drove with Rhodey beside him while Clint sat in the back with Tony, regardless of his earlier concerns that Tony might cause a fire.
When no one disturbed him, Tony tried going over what had happened at the crater. Harley had gotten to him, surprisingly. It hadn’t even been anything special. He supposed the kid had a gift for making him come unglued.
Extremis had taken control soon after Tony started to go to a bad place, but instead of a subtle caress, it had been violent and vicious, leaving him feeling as if someone had stuck his head in an oven. It wasn’t a pleasant sensation, to have his brain cook with heat that wasn’t natural, every nerve ending on fire.
It was getting better now, slowly, as if it hadn’t happened at all, and part of Tony wanted to forget it. He wasn’t mad at Harley, either. If he wanted to be pissed, it would be at his team for dragging the boy into this, making him an instrument in their effort to prove a point to Tony – a point he still refused to see: as much as he had supposedly lost, Tony was still functioning perfectly. Save for this little hiccup, Extremis was working as it should, efficient, quick and quiet as it prevented him from becoming the wreck he had been prior to proceeding with his plan. Sure, forgetting his girlfriend wasn’t a class act, but if that was the only real problem… Tony still held onto the possibility that forgetting Pepper Potts wasn’t a mistake at all.
They stopped only a few times on the way to New York. Harley was hyper, and clearly he had taken advantage of being stuck in the same car with Thor, asking him all kinds of questions about Asgard and the other Avengers. It seemed the others had long since stopped telling Thor ‘no’ and just listened as the god of thunder went on about his exploits, as well as those of the other Avengers. He even allowed Harley to try lifting Mjolnir in the parking lot of the first gas station they stopped at to refuel the cars and the people in them.
As they finally entered New York City, it was late evening. They got stuck in traffic momentarily but finally made it to the Avengers Tower and entered the relative peace and quiet of the private parking garage. Happy and Pepper were waiting for them when they got out of the vehicles and started towards the elevators.
“Harley, meet Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan,” Natasha introduced.
As the two adults looked at the kid in confusion and fascination, Harley gaped at Pepper and then glanced at Tony. “That’s your girlfriend?”
Tony cringed a little, seeing hurt flash over Pepper’s face. “I, uh… Yeah. I mean, she was.”
“Dude,” Harley told him, “she’s way more beautiful in person than in the papers! How are you okay with forgetting her?”
“That’s something we would like to know,” Happy noted from Pepper’s side, clearly in agreement with Rhodey that Tony was an asshat for letting this happen.
Pepper gave Harley a small smile. “Thank you, Harley.”
In a move that was probably supposed to ape Tony, Harley moved over to Pepper, took her arm and pulled her towards the elevators. “We’ll make him better,” the kid promised the tall woman, leading her along. It was clear Pepper was completely enamored by him. “And if not, well… I’m single.”
Pepper actually dared to laugh and pressed the button of the elevator. As she and Harley got in, she gave Tony a look with a cocked eyebrow, as if challenging him to fight for his place by her side.
“That’s gotta hurt,” Clint noted from somewhere behind him. “A 10-year-old is stealing your woman.”
“He’s a mini version of me,” Tony defended Harley’s success. “Of course she’s…” He cut himself off. It felt strange, talking like he cared when he really didn’t – which was kind of bugging him, because maybe he should have cared, after all. People told him, continuously, that he would never have chosen to forget Pepper in the past. Even J.A.R.V.I.S. had promised to dig up surveillance material of their ‘private moments’. For some reason Tony felt like those tapes didn’t contain sex, which was even scarier, because sex he would have understood. Sex was something he remembered. This attachment he supposedly had for Pepper? He didn’t know how to deal with that.
“Are you coming?” Rhodey asked, moving towards the elevators.
“Yeah,” Tony nodded and joined the others in the elevator, staring at the smooth wall on the ride up.
For the next few hours, everyone was busy settling in. Tony took a long shower, enjoying the privacy of the room he was using – one of the guest rooms because Pepper was still in his master bedroom. It was strange how he still knew the room was his, that he had shared it with Pepper from the day they first moved into the Tower. How could he forget someone who had been a big part of his life for the last decade or so? His PA; his confidante; his lover…
It had to be for a reason.
After changing into a fresh batch of clothes – comfort clothes, with ragged old jeans and a worn band shirt – he ventured out into the shared quarters and found Harley in the kitchen, being catered to by Steve. The kid had a bowl of sugar-coated cornflakes in front of him and was thrusting them into his mouth in small handfuls, crunching on them happily while Steve was preparing some meat next to him.
“Are you hungry?” Harley called out when he spotted Tony.
“No,” Tony shook his head and ventured over to get himself a drink at the bar.
“Maybe you could show Harley around while I fix us some supper?” Steve suggested.
“You know we could have that delivered, right?” Tony pointed at the meat and vegetables.
“I know,” the blond nodded and pointedly kept going, placing the meat in the middle of a pan, after which he slid it into the oven and then went on chopping vegetables to probably add them to the pan once the meat had cooked for a bit.
“I wanna see the roof,” Harley declared, so Tony shrugged, picked up his drink and led the way to the elevators, leaving Harley to follow. The kid came along fast enough, hurrying into the elevator and then out once the doors opened on the top floor. Tony veered to the left, to the small flight of stairs that led them to a door and through it to the roof.
Harley stepped out cautiously and after a second’s debate rushed to the side, making an excited sound. “We’re so high up!” he exclaimed, as if he hadn’t realized it earlier. He looked this way and that over Manhattan, while Tony calmly sipped his drink and enjoyed the breeze on his skin.
After Harley had circled the roof a half-dozen times, he halted and glanced around. “So, they opened the wormhole from here?”
Tony nodded and pointed towards the exact spot. “Right there.”
Harley looked at it, then up to the sky. “And that’s where it was?”
They looked at the unassuming spot in the sky, the clouds covering the darkness beyond. The sun had already set below the horizon.
“Doesn’t it scare you, being here?” Harley asked.
“Not anymore,” Tony reminded him. He couldn’t remember being afraid, which made it all a bit harder to grasp. Perhaps eventually he wouldn’t remember he had ever been afraid. Tony was fine with that. No one needed that kind of fear in their lives.
“Don’t you feel hollow without it? Empty?” Harley challenged, still looking up. His neck had to be hurting from the angle. “You did something brave and you can’t even remember it.”
“I remember flying the nuke up,” Tony corrected him.
“But if you can’t remember the fear, it’s not the same.”
Tony was about to tell Harley he was just saying that for the sake of the argument, but there was a point, however small, in the kid’s words. “I would still choose not to remember,” he decided.
“And when you start forgetting other kind of stuff – less scary stuff? When all the big fears are gone and you want all of it to go away?” Harley looked at him, brown hair wild after being blown around in the wind. “Animals survive because they know what to be afraid of. Humans, too.”
“I’m Iron Man; I don’t need to be afraid in order to survive,” Tony told him flatly, but a small, nagging doubt chewed on the edge of his conscious mind, as if he were lying through his teeth.
Tony told that doubt to go fuck itself and leave him be.
In the days after their visit to Tennessee to meet Harley Keener, Steve sensed a change at the Avengers Tower. It was a welcome one: Tony was frequently on edge while Bruce and Harley tried to find a way past his defenses, to talk sense into him.
Steve wished they would come up with a way to do it faster. He appreciated the fact that he and Tony weren’t constantly at each other’s throats about stupid things. However, Steve would have liked that to be part of a natural growth into a team rather than this scientific intervention. That Tony didn’t talk back to him nearly as much and treated Steve as if they had been friends from the start was a firm reminder that Tony wasn’t himself.
That was before the emotional stuntedness; Steve could ignore a lot of things, but he knew how easily people became compromised under pressure. He needed to know his team and their reactions, and frankly, how Tony reacted to things these days sent alarm bells ringing in his head.
Steve had always trusted his gut to guide him through hard times, and all his instincts told him that Tony could not be trusted while he was like this.
Perhaps he was the same, and perhaps he could function in a fight, but Steve wasn’t about to gamble with the safety of the rest of his team. Tony was a wild card right now, and while Steve often played against the odds, he never did so if it felt wrong – and everything about Tony felt wrong right now.
He was on his way to the gymnastics area when he happened to walk past one of the many lab areas on the Tower’s top floors. Even without his enhanced hearing, Steve would have heard the voices from the inside – especially when every Avenger was primed to listen whenever Bruce Banner started to lose his cool.
“I don’t care, Tony! Just look at this rationally! How is this a normal response to anything?!”
“It doesn’t need to be normal, as long as it works!” Tony shouted right back at him.
Steve stopped to keep listening, seeing the door ten feet in front of him, standing ajar.
“I’m starting to agree with Rhodey that this is the palladium poisoning all over again; you don’t know when to stop. You were too addicted to the suit to stop using it when it accelerated your condition’s progress, and now you just keep erasing layer by layer all the things you would rather not think about.” Bruce sounded like he was at the end of his wits, and Steve resumed walking, going to the door and pushing it further open.
Harley started where he was sitting on a table, his body tense; clearly he sensed the tension in the air.
Bruce and Tony were standing face to face, ignoring everything else.
“They are my memories,” Tony was saying. “If I wanted to wipe the whole slate clean, it would be my business and no one else’s.”
“I know for a fact that you would never say that if you were in your right mind.”
“So I’m crazy now?”
“They’ve locked people away for less,” Bruce snapped.
“Yeah? Maybe we’ll get a nice, cozy, padded room together,” Tony hissed, inching a bit closer, and Bruce was starting to look a little green.
Steve turned his attention back to Harley and nodded at the door. “Go. I’ll deal with this.”
“What if Dr. Banner… you know, Hulks out?” Harley asked.
“I’ll deal with that, too, but it won’t happen,” Steve promised. “Bruce has it under control.” Well, normally that would have been the case, but Tony’s condition was taking a lot out of all of them and Steve knew he needed to find the brakes and hit them.
Harley nodded slowly and slid off the table, then left the lab and closed the door behind him.
Steve squared his shoulders – something he really didn’t need to do anymore, now that he actually had shoulders to speak of, but some habits died hard. “Gentlemen,” he said loudly. ”How about we all take a breather?”
“Fuck off, Rogers,” Tony said without even looking at him, eyes never leaving Bruce’s.
“I’m going to ignore that,” Steve stated dryly. “Bruce, I think you need a moment.”
“I do,” Bruce admitted and took a step back, then another.
“Are we making any progress?” Steve asked, to not let silence stretch for too long; that was never a good option when Tony was one of the occupants in a room, because he had a compulsive need to fill the void with something.
“None,” Bruce confessed with a tired exhalation of air. “Would you like to take a shot at him? Maybe go a few rounds.”
“I don’t see how that would be helpful,” Steve observed and looked at Tony. Before all this, they had still been an explosive combination. It wasn’t as bad as before the Battle of New York, but Tony still liked to mouth off to him whenever he got the chance. Steve had tried not to give him so many opportunities, but right now he would rather take that than the strange comradeship Tony was trying to create between them – or rather, Tony’s brain was, and whatever Extremis was doing to it. Steve would happily be his friend in the future, but only when Tony was being himself.
“Just get out,” Tony suggested. He didn’t sound as snappy as before, though, as if he were yet again making an effort to be nice to Steve.
“Why?” Steve asked, taking a step closer to Tony. “You’re part of my team. Right now, though, you’re a liability to all of us because we’re not sure what you’re going to do – or forget – next.” Something like hurt flashed in Tony’s eyes, immediately replaced by a golden burst. It spurred Steve to try a bit harder. “At the rate you’re going, I’m not sure if you’re a friend or an enemy. Who’s to say you won’t forget us – or whose side you’re supposed to be on? How long before you forget you’re Iron Man, and you let someone get their hands on your armor and technology and don’t even care? Everything you’ve been and fought so hard to become will be extinguished to nothing.”
“Kind of like you, if someone took away the serum,” Tony murmured, yet he was having a hard time holding Steve’s eyes with his own. The golden, burning tendrils were almost a constant on his eyeballs and continued to the corners of his eyes and across his temples, disappearing in his dark hair.
“At least I would remember what it was like, to be a real hero. You? You’ll just keep on remembering some empty version of Tony Stark who is of no use to anyone.” It was nasty and Steve had no idea if things would ever go so far, but it seemed to be working: the burning lines intensified on Tony’s skin and his lips tightened.
“You have no idea who I am, or what my life is like,” Tony finally snapped back, but it was a weak comeback from him, and Steve knew he had won this round. In the past, Tony would never have let it end here, but now he didn’t seem to know what to do with himself.
“I think I have a better idea than you, right now,” Steve informed him, then looked at Bruce, who nodded at him, and Steve left the lab. Hopefully he had pushed things in the right direction, because he had no idea what else he could do.
“Not now, J.A.R.V.I.S.” Tony had been locked away in his workshop for the last eight hours and he wasn’t ready to emerge just yet.
“The other occupants of the Tower are concerned.”
“Tell them I have food and water, and then tell them to get off my case,” Tony grunted, attempting to slightly adjust the closing mechanism on the armor’s left arm, but instead the entire section got jammed and Tony was ready to tear off the pieces and start all over again.
From a safe distance, the bots peered at him cautiously, and Tony gave them a look, challenging them for commentary.
“Sir, I believe their concern goes much further than your self-appointed confinement to your workshop.”
“Gee, you think?” Tony snarled at the AI and frowned at the armor.
“I had a talk with Colonel Rhodes earlier.”
“He is truly afraid of how your condition will progress from here.”
“Maybe it wouldn’t progress any farther if they stopped bugging me about it!” Tony shouted and threw the precision tweezers across the room. The bots chirped loudly and hid further behind large pieces of machinery. Tony glowered at them because none of his teammates were here to bear the brunt of his mood.
“J.A.R.V.I.S., I don’t want to get into an argument about it with you.”
“I understand, sir. However, it is my purpose to look after your wellbeing, to the best of my ability. This has gone on long enough. I should have acted after the incident with Miss Potts.”
Tony knew the AI was referring to the rude awakening where he no longer remembered the woman he supposedly loved. “What are you going to do, seal me in the armor and tell me to be a good boy from now on?” Tony asked.
“If it would help, I might. However, it does not seem a likely solution to your problem.”
“There is no ‘problem’,” Tony growled in frustration.
“Do you remember your main motivation for re-programming Extremis?”
“Other than getting a good night’s sleep?” Tony rolled his eyes. “Do you want the list ordered by significance or alphabetically?”
Instead of answering, one of the screens beside him switched on and Tony found himself looking at his own image – only he looked like hell, wearing the ‘I haven’t slept in weeks and burned the house down last night’ look he had sought to erase from existence.
“If something does go horribly wrong,” the man on the screen said to the camera, “I want Pepper to know I love her. I’m doing this for you. For us.”
The video froze as Tony’s hand reached for the camera, and Tony blinked, mulling it over.
“You did all this for Miss Potts, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. spoke up. “Not just for yourself. If you cannot remember her… what is the point of all this?”
Tony chewed on the inside of his lower lip, feeling tension growing inside him. “Shit,” he finally muttered. He knew he could dismiss it, easily. He had been in a bad place, and that that moment caught on film had been some kind of half-assed farewell if he died during the procedure. Tony didn’t even remember saying that.
The nagging doubt was back, though, and Tony kept staring at the screen, as if it could provide him with the ultimate answer to all his questions.
“Play it again,” Tony finally ordered J.A.R.V.I.S. “All of it.”
Tony watched himself – a haggard, broken version of the man he was now – spill forth his concerns and fears. His eyes were haunted the way Tony’s weren’t anymore. He spoke with a tremble he had no desire to feel.
“A trauma needs to heal, and if it cannot, things will just get worse. So, I’m blocking it. I deserve to be able to sleep at night; to go into the city I grew up in and be able to look up to the sky. I want to be able to not be afraid all the time,” the Tony on the screen said, then swallowed, and his emotions clearly took over him as he stood up. The camera kept following him. “If something does go horribly wrong, I want Pepper to know I love her. I’m doing this for you. For us.”
Tony closed his eyes.
He dug deep – so deep it felt like he was getting a brain bleed – and recalled a night, his terror at waking up, surrounded by flames that burned him but didn’t really hurt him. He had looked for Pepper, afraid she was caught somewhere in the inferno, and the idea alone had almost thrown him into another panic attack.
Tony gasped and felt his skull burn from the inside out. The pain of it made him fall off his chair and onto the floor, and for a moment he could hear nothing but the rush of his own blood.
When he came to, Dummy and You were hovering nearby him and J.A.R.V.I.S. was calling out his name.
“Sir, Dr. Banner is here.”
Tony blinked and looked up, finding Bruce pushing past the bots, looking worried.
“What happened?” the scientist asked, crouching down.
“I fucked up,” Tony admitted, voice hoarse. The thread was slipping away from him, to a false calmness, and he wrestled himself up, using Dummy as a crutch. “J.A.R.V.I.S., play the video again.”
Tony had summonsed them all to one of his laboratories. No one knew what it was about when they entered, for which Thor was glad: oftentimes he was the last to be informed of certain things, as if he were a halfwit not worthy of their trust.
As they entered, they found Tony seated on one of the tables. He looked worse than he had in a long time, and Bruce stood beside him, face tight but not from anger this time.
“Will you tell them, or shall I?” Bruce asked Tony as everyone stopped to await the news.
“There’s a reboot sequence,” Tony spoke up without further encouragement. He looked at them all, as if memorizing their faces. His eyes lingered on Lady Pepper, however, and on his friend Rhodey. “That’s a simple word for a very complex programming insertion to the already complex code of Extremis in my system, but you don’t need to know anything about that. I realize… Okay, I haven’t realized a whole lot, because I’m physically unable to remember those things.”
Pepper gasped a little and covered her mouth with her hands, eyes wide. Thor wished to offer her support, but knew better than to do so; Midgardian ways often forbade strangers, and even friends, from comforting one another, even in their time of need. Thor was still learning when it was acceptable to cross that line.
Tony looked uneasy, looking them all over again, then his eyes landed on Harley. “You’re right, as much as I hate to admit it. You’ve all been telling me for weeks, and I’ve… elected to ignore your advice. I’m sorry. In case this doesn’t work out, I’ve at least said that much, by way of apology.
“We don’t need an apology as much as we need you to be yourself,” Steve volunteered, and Thor nodded in agreement.
“Your mind must be healed, but your way of using science will never achieve that goal,” Thor spoke up.
“Yeah, I get that,” Tony agreed a bit irately. “So, all big speeches aside, I’m going to try and undo the programming I installed to block certain things from my mind.”
“What do you mean, ‘try’?” Rhodey asked. “Aren’t you certain you can do it?”
“Oh, I can do it, for sure,” Tony replied. “Whether I actually survive it is another matter entirely. You can’t put your brain through that much stress on a daily basis. It could cause permanent damage, leave me a vegetable, or wipe my entire memory – what’s left of it, anyway,” he added belatedly.
“It’s not worth the risk,” Pepper said at once.
“Miss,” Tony started, then caught himself and carefully said the next part: “Honey, I did this for you. For us. I never told you, obviously, but even I’m not stunted enough to think that losing the most important person in my life is an acceptable cost of not having so many nightmares.”
Tears slid down Pepper’s face and Rhodey finally did what Thor had wanted to and wrapped an arm around her in support.
“What are the odds?” Natasha asked.
“Pretty good, because it’s me,” Tony said. “But if it turns out I don’t pull through, I guess I wanted to thank you for not letting me forget the important bits.”
Thor was moved by this, as were the others, clearly.
“You’ll still be an Avenger, after all this is over,” Steve swore.
“Don’t make promises that you cannot keep,” Tony told him wryly and slid off the table. “J.A.R.V.I.S., prep the machines.”
“Yes, sir,” the phantom voice answered from all over the room at once and several computers came alive around them.
“You’re doing this now?” Pepper asked, suddenly alarmed.
“No time like the present,” Tony said, as if it were a joke, then wiped the cheer from his features. “If I do not do this now, there are no guarantees it will work later. Not as effectively. Also, I might chicken out.”
“We are here to support you,” Thor promised.
“Yeah, about that,” Tony moved to look at Steve and Thor. “There is a small chance… A tiny, tiny chance…”
“Of what?” Steve asked impatiently. It was proof of his concern for the wellbeing of their shield-brother, and Thor fully joined him in it.
“Extremis may fight back,” Bruce said when Tony remained quiet. “Tony only needs to feel afraid for a micro second and we may lose the opening to access Extremis’ coding.”
“What can we do to help?” Steve volunteered at once.
“I cannot be sedated, to be on the safe side,” Tony explained. “The whole thing is painful, but if Extremis decides to fight back, I’m not sure the restraints will do it.”
Thor knew that Tony was stronger now than he had been before. He nodded in understanding. “You need us to ensure you do not harm yourself, and that your machines can finish their work,” he guessed.
“I’m not all that worried about me hurting myself, as much as, you know, going hot and blowing up the entire floor, but yeah, something like that,” Tony said airily, as if he had no interest in actually thinking about it.
“We will have to clear the room and seal it, to be on the safe side,” Bruce went on when Tony moved to the side, to work on one of the computers. “However, if things get too… hot… I cannot be trusted to keep my cool. Everyone else has to leave. However, I think Thor at least should be able to withstand whatever happens.”
“I’ll stay with you,” Steve said, his tone brooking no disagreement.
Bruce started: “I’m not sure if –”
“Tony’s my teammate. I believe I can choose for myself, knowing the risks,” Steve remained adamant, and Thor understood how he felt.
“I’m touched, Cap,” Tony spoke up from the side.
“If Extremis is as strong as you think it is, it might take more than just Thor to keep you still,” Steve noted.
While Thor could disagree with that, he knew his strength could easily hurt Tony, and it might be better if Steve were there, to even the load. “We have a plan, then,” Thor finalized.
Bruce nodded, accepting it, albeit with a shadow of concern. “Steve, go suit up; your uniform should be able to take most of the heat,” he said. “The rest of you… we’ll keep you up to date, as much as we can.”
“Tony,” Pepper said, stepping forward as the others began to move towards the door in uneasy silence.
Tony turned to face her, a torn look on his face; he still did not remember her, yet he was willing to risk his life for a memory that was not his at the moment. “It will be okay.”
“And if it’s not?” Pepper asked. “Then what?”
“One step at a time,” Tony told her, and raised his hand as if to caress her face, then drew it back. “I’ll see you on the other side.”
Pepper nodded, slowly, then bit her lip and turned. Rhodey and Happy were waiting for her at the door and guided her out, not giving her a chance to turn back and change her mind.
Steve returned a short while later, suited up. He looked tense yet determined, like so often when they faced a battle.
“Calibrations have finished, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. spoke up. “Would you like to try the sedatives?”
“No, bypass them,” Tony ordered and then moved to the table he had been sitting on earlier. He glanced at Bruce, who nodded, then looked at Steve and Thor. “Last chance to walk out of here, gentlemen.”
“We’re here to see this through,” Steve promised.
Thor nodded his agreement.
Tony let out the breath he had been holding then opened his mouth: “Seal up the lab. Prepare for overheating.”
“Yes, sir. Miss Potts told me to tell you she loves you. She is also planning on telling you that to your face once this is over.”
Tony gave a rueful smile at the message. “Anyone else?”
“Colonel Rhodes is telling you that you’re making the right choice. Agent Barton noted that you’re being a big baby, and that you’ll be just fine.” Tony chuckled and lay down on the table. “Young Mr. Keener hopes you’ll be okay,” J.A.R.V.I.S. went on.
“Tell Harley that he gets one of the suits if I die,” Tony promised.
“Do you have a preference for which one, sir?”
“No. And for the record, I’m not planning on dying today.” Tony squared his jaw and tapped the table, from which metallic restraints slid out, snapping around his wrists and ankles. Another set of restraints appeared at his neck, closing firmly around it. “Nice and snug. Okay, fire it up. I can hardly wait –” His words were cut off with a cry of pain as the table shifted beneath his head and several needles appeared out of it, stabbing into his flesh in-between the restraints wrapped around his neck. “Fuck,” he swore, and Bruce moved over fast, pressing his head down. A hasty look from the scientist drew Thor and Steve over to the table and they got on both sides of it, gingerly settling their hands on top of Tony’s body.
“This is going better than expected,” Steve dared to say as Tony merely shivered beneath their combined weights.
Tony’s visible skin was wet with sweat and his eyes were screwed shut, jaw tight to prevent another sound.
“Accessing data,” J.A.R.V.I.S. spoke up from above them. “Pain receptors have been triggered; adrenaline levels rising; bio-scan suggests amygdala is responding to fear and pain, sending information to hypothalamus.”
“Just hold on, Tony,” Bruce said softly, eyes trained on the nearest screen.
“Are we close?” Thor asked, not knowing how long this would take.
“No,” Bruce replied tersely, then suddenly Tony’s body jerked and the temperature rose several degrees around them as his body lit up with orange light. “Shit!” Bruce yelled and jumped back, lifting his hand off Tony’s forehead. Thor didn’t have time to see, but he assumed the other man had burned himself.
Steve quickly shifted, moving to press Tony’s head down, his gloves protecting him from the heat.
Tony’s eyes snapped open. The natural brown and black were completely overtaken by the molten colors and the restraints around his wrists screeched and bent slightly under the pull of his body. Thor pressed down harder on him, then caught both of Tony’s arms as the man wrenched his wrists free of the restrains with a cry of pain and rage that wasn’t entirely human.
Steve moved to hold down Tony’s chest as well as his head, glancing briefly at Thor. “You got him?”
Thor just nodded.
Tony twisted from side to side, managing to free his legs: the material of his pants had burned away up to his knees, still smoking, the metal of the restraints melted and twisted. Thor put more weight into his hold, knowing they needed to keep his upper body as still as possible.
Heat kept rising from Tony’s body and warnings began to appear on the screens.
“Can you cope with the temperature rise?” Bruce asked from the side, his injured hand wrapped in a cloth.
“For the time being,” the AI responded.
That did not sound promising to Thor, and he looked down at Tony’s face. His teammate’s mouth was working as he gasped for air, eyes wide and unseeing. His legs kept kicking, to free himself, but Thor held him still, hoping he was not hurting him too much. Steve stood his ground with similar determination.
“Reboot sequence complete,” J.A.R.V.I.S. let them know. “Extremis is activating. Shut-down in progress to prevent damage to the active systems.”
“Should we let him go?” Steve asked.
Thor noted the needles had not yet withdrawn, although screens were going blank all around them, the ceiling lights flickering above them.
In response, Tony jolted again, almost throwing them both off, a scream cut off half-way as if someone had robbed the air from his lungs. The needles withdrew from his neck, just before the machinery jerked into stillness, as if broken. Thor felt the heat increase beneath his hands and he heard Steve’s sharp intake of air; his gloves were smoking where they were pressed against Tony’s skin. Tony’s clothes were succumbing to the heat, burning off his body, and the table gave a dangerous whine beneath his continued struggles.
“Bruce?” Thor called out. “Is this supposed to happen?”
“The Extremis might be having difficulties obeying the new commands,” Bruce guessed, voice alert. “Can you hold him?”
Thor looked at Steve, whose face was tight with pain he instinctively wanted to draw back from, yet forced himself to endure. “Steven, let go; I will hold him.”
“I can do it,” Steve replied.
“There is no reason to hurt yourself further,” Thor reassured. “However, if you could remove the needles; I fear our friend may yet hurt himself on them.” After all, the needles were long and sharp and had not completely sunken back into the damaged table.
Steve finally let go of Tony, moving to inspect the needles, then tore the mechanisms clear off the table. His shoulders were rigid with pain and Thor thought he caught the smell of burned flesh, but he had to focus on Tony, who was trying to vault himself off the table now that Steve’s weight was off him.
Thor grappled to get a better hold of him. Not knowing what else to do, Thor pulled Tony firmly against his chest, one arm around his waist, the other around his shoulders, keeping him pinned. “It will be over soon,” Thor told him.
Tony struggled and breathed hard and irregularly into his ear. The heat increased, yet Thor endured it – would have endured it even without the Asgardian armor he had chosen to wear today – and eventually Tony’s fingers gripped at him, desperately, his mouth open in a soundless scream. With a last wave of fire it was all over: Tony’s body cooled down and he sagged against Thor, still jerking slightly from time to time.
The table protested beneath their weight and Thor pulled back from it, taking Tony with him, and surveyed the area: the lab was a mix of burned, melted and smoking equipment. Steve had ripped off one desk and had propped it up to block some of the heat, to protect himself and Bruce. Both of them emerged, burns on their skins. Bruce looked a little green, but he was holding off a transformation into the Hulk.
“Tony?” Bruce called out.
Thor looked down at their teammate. Tony’s legs were not completely holding him up and he was still clutching at Thor’s upper arms, face pressed against his shoulder. “Are you well?” Thor joined Bruce’s concern as the scientist moved over and peered at Tony.
In his arms, Tony coughed, then lifted his head, blinking blearily. It was amazing that through it all, considering the heat, his body hair had not suffered in the slightest. Truly man’s technology sometime rivaled the magic known in Asgard. “Ouch,” Tony finally said and moved back, almost falling to the floor as he released himself from Thor’s embrace. Both Bruce and Thor reached for him, to soften his fall, guiding him to the floor.
Steve joined them, looking relieved. Tony looked up at him, eyes lingering on his hands for a moment before he looked around the lab with half-vacant eyes; he still seemed a little out of it. “Did it work?” Steve asked.
“I hope so,” Bruce said and crouched down to be at Tony’s eye-level. “How do you feel?”
“Like burned toast,” Tony commented, looking at him, then down at himself. “Burned toast with no toppings. Pathetic.”
Bruce smiled. “Welcome to my world.”
“For some reason you look way better waking up naked in the midst of destruction. It’s a good look on you.”
“We’ll get you something to wear,” Steve promised. “Did it work?” he asked again.
Tony looked up at him again, blinking, then jumped a little as the lab door was forced open – forced, because it had partially melted from the fire. One of the Iron Man suits stepped aside and let the other Avengers and Tony’s friends into the lab.
“Wow,” Harley said, looking around, then spied a look at Tony. “That’s…”
“You can just say ‘wow’ again and be done with it,” Tony suggested, then looked up at Pepper, who had come in with the others, and his features froze.
For an instant Thor feared it had not worked. Perhaps Extremis had battled the change and won. Or could it be Tony’s condition was worsened and they had simply not noticed that yet?
“Help me up,” Tony croaked at Bruce, who offered him a hand and pulled him to his feet. Tony was still shaky, but he ignored it; all he noticed, once he was up, was Pepper, and he stepped towards her. “I’m so sorry,” he started, voice cracking, and Pepper rushed the remaining steps to him. Tony drew her into his arms, holding onto her tightly. “I’m so sorry, Pepper,” he said into her hair, and she cried, clutching at his naked body with a desperation Thor had seen all too often. It was easy to tell Tony was crying, too, and Thor looked away, to give his shield-brother the privacy of this moment he deserved.
“Am I the only one who’s noticed he’s stark naked?” Clint observed from near the door, but he didn’t sound offended. Relief shone on his face when Thor looked at him with disapproval for breaking the tender moment.
“Get him some clothes, then,” Rhodey snapped, and Clint turned and did just that, returning with a robe by the time Tony drew back, gazing into Pepper’s eyes. Pepper framed his face with her hands, tracing his cheeks, then leaned in to kiss him tenderly.
“I love you,” Tony told her once they broke apart. “I’ll try not to forget that again.”
“You actually remember forgetting?” Happy asked from the doorway.
“Kind of,” Tony admitted, accepting the robe from Clint and pulling it on awkwardly. Pepper reached over to smooth it properly into place and tied it shut with slightly shaking hands. “It’s confusing, but I’m sure my genius brain will sort it out, eventually.”
“So you remember everything now?” Harley asked, sounding as if he feared the answer a little bit.
Tony looked down at the boy, first critically, then dropping the act in favor of a fond expression and reached out, pulling the boy against him. “Yeah, pretty much.”
Harley accepted the embrace for a bit, then pulled back, making a face. “I just saw you naked!” he protested.
“Join the rest of the world,” Tony joked and ruffled his hair. Harley shoved his hand away but didn’t seem to mind all that much.
“So, do the rest of us get hugs?” Rhodey asked jokingly, and perhaps Tony’s brain was still adjusting to the reboot because he moved forward to hug his friend, tight. It seemed Rhodey had nothing against it, holding onto him for as long as Tony let him.
Thor smiled broadly. “We have gained a great victory today, my friends!” he declared. “Iron Man has returned!”
“He was never really away,” Tony protested as he returned to Pepper’s side, holding her with one arm.
“Shush,” Pepper told him and leaned her head on his shoulder.
Tony protested no further.
“So, this is where Dr. Selvig set up the machine, while brainwashed by Loki, and opened the wormhole?” Harley mused, squinting up to the starry sky. Well, not that starry because of all the light pollution, but one could imagine.
Besides, Tony was kind of glad there weren’t any stars to be seen; the open darkness of the sky was bad enough. “Yeah,” he said, then poked at the kid. “You promised not to talk about that.”
Harley grinned, not one bit sorry. “Yeah, well, I had to make sure… In case the reboot missed a spot.”
Tony huffed and threw a couple chips into his mouth from the array of snacks they had brought up with them. This was as close to camping as it came, but Harley was content, looking up while stuffing his mouth with sweets.
They sat in silence for a bit. The sounds of life from below were a distant noise, echoing off buildings. It was calm, and Tony wasn’t sure he liked it because it left him with too much time to remember the wormhole and the vast, foreign space on the other side of it – not to mention the fear of dying there, all alone, locked inside his suit.
At least he could remember it now… not that he would have been unhappy to lose that particular memory. Well, he had gone down that road and it hadn’t gone so well, so he just had to cut his losses and keep fighting.
“I’m cold,” Harley complained finally, clutching at the jacket he was wearing.
Tony nodded and they gathered their food and blanket, taking them back down. The other Avengers plus Happy, Pepper and Rhodey were in the main living room, sitting on couches and chairs, TV droning on in the background. They all looked up as Tony and Harley appeared, and the kid immediately threw himself down on a spot that looked roughly his size, ending upside down between Steve and Thor. The Asgardian laughed and picked Harley up without breaking a sweat, planting him back down on his butt.
“Should we watch a movie, now that you guys are back?” Pepper asked.
“Sure,” Tony shrugged and placed their snacks on the table – several hands immediately grabbing for them – and then deposited himself between Pepper and Rhodey, extending his legs towards the armchair Bruce was sitting in, placing his feet in his lap. Bruce gave him a look, then pulled his shoes off, tossed them to the side and settled again, one hand resting on one of Tony’s ankles.
Tony smiled at that, then shifted a little as Pepper burrowed a bit closer to his side; she had been craving closeness once Tony had fixed his memory issues, and he gave her all he could.
“Can I pick the movie?” Harley asked. “This is my last night here, after all.”
“Certainly,” Thor agreed, and looked around to check whether someone dared to challenge his answer. No one did.
Harley grinned and took the remote, browsing through the films available to them – of which there were many. “How about Lost in Space?” he asked, grinning devilishly at Tony.
“You know that movie is crap, right?”
“Language,” Steve said from Harley’s side and looked at the summary of the movie that appeared on the TV screen. “It looks like a fun movie.”
“Tony, if you’re squeamish about the title, I’m sure someone can hold your hand,” Clint noted teasingly from where he had scooted down to lay his head in Natasha’s lap.
“Whatever,” Tony said and burrowed his nose in Pepper’s sweet-smelling hair, caressing her arm. And, just in case as the film began rolling, Bruce kept a comforting hold on his ankles, anchoring Tony to the here and now.
During the film, Tony looked at the people gathered around him and supposed that they were all worth remembering – the good and the bad. Steve met his eyes, briefly, giving him a small smile, and Tony returned it after some consideration, deciding he could snark at him later, at a better time. For now, they were all a family, brought a little closer by Tony’s failed attempt to purge himself of his demons.
It could have gone worse, he decided. A lot worse.
Pepper’s hand caressed his stomach and Tony knew this was where he wanted to be, with these people, even with the memories he would have gladly gotten rid of. It was all part of a whole, and if you took something away, it just wasn’t the same anymore. You just couldn’t know that until you had tried it for yourself.