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The Ghost Attacks (1/2)

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Story Info

Title: The Ghost Attacks

Author: Del Rion (delrion.mail (at) gmail.com)

Fandom: Iron Man & The Avengers (MCU)

Timeline: post-IM3 (takes place after “The Fervid Defense Protocol”)

Genre: Suspense, drama

Rating: T / FRT

Characters: Clint Barton (Hawkeye), Nick Fury, Maria Hill, J.A.R.V.I.S., Pepper Potts, Steve Rogers (Captain America), Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow), Tony Stark (Iron Man), Tony’s bots (DUM-E and U). Mentioned: Bruce Banner (Hulk), Happy Hogan.

Pairing: implied Pepper/Tony

Summary: Someone is attacking Tony Stark’s enemies and while all clues point to Iron Man’s involvement, Tony swears he has nothing to do with it – or his suits, or his AI. While S.H.I.E.L.D. investigates his activities the attacks continue and Tony’s forced to face the fact that either he is involved or someone’s stolen his tech and is using it to frame him.
Complete. Part of the “Genius, AI & Bots” series.

Written for: Case Story (casestory) #4

Artist: knowmefirst (banner here!)

Warnings: Language, canonical violence. Heavily Iron Man 3 compatible (contains spoilers).

Disclaimer: Iron Man, Avengers and Marvel Cinematic Universe, including characters and everything else, belong to Marvel, Marvel Studios, Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, Shane Black, Joe Johnston, Louis Leterrier, Paramount Pictures, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and Universal Pictures. In short: I own nothing; this is pure fiction created to entertain likeminded fans for no profit whatsoever.

Beta: Mythra (mythras_fire)

Feedback: Very welcome (this is my first “case” work, so I’d love to hear how the crime solving/suspense worked for everyone).

About The Ghost Attacks: This story became an unconscious ode to Tony and J.A.R.V.I.S.’s friendship and bond – and the tough choices one sometimes has to make concerning the fate of something they love.

While the “case” in this story may not be a total mystery to be solved, I tried to implement an “investigation” kind of feel into the plot with a mystery culprit and murders to solve.

Story and status: Below you see the writing process of the story. If there is no text after the title, then it is finished and checked. Possible updates shall be marked after the title.

The Ghost Attacks

~ ~ ~

The Ghost Attacks

The desert night was cold, leaving the men huddled around their fires, wrapped in robes. Gusts of wind tugged at the tents, mixing the occasional flapping sounds into the bits and pieces of conversation.

Wooden crates sat in piles nearby, protected from sand, sun and unfriendly eyes by tightly bound canvases.

When the wind ceased to blow, the night air was filled with a low hum – so low it could barely be heard, reverberating between rock formations – then became engulfed as the wind began to blow again.

The men looked around, murmuring, and a few of them restlessly adjusted their weapons.

A cloud of sand flew into the camp, typical and nonthreatening, soon to be whipped back the way it had come by the wind. For a moment nothing stirred, but then the hum was back, stronger than before – and another cloud of sand rose against the wind.

The men got to their feet, gazing into the night, yet there was nothing in the sand that they could see.

The humming grew closer, steadier, dwarfing the sound of the wind.

Unnerved by this, one of the men pointed their rifle into the darkness and fired a shot. The bullet hit stones in the distance before the sound of the shot died out.

The humming stayed.

A stronger gust of wind traveled across the land, blowing sand everywhere and tugging on their clothing, forcing the men to cover their faces and pull scarves over their mouths and eyes.

Above them the sand twirled, momentarily wrapping around a hovering form.

Two men looked up in time to see this, raising their weapons with shouts of warning in two separate Iranian languages. Various shots were fired, the form barely visible as the wind calmed and the fine sand rained down on them. One bullet bounced off the cloudy apparition, hitting one of the wooden crates.

More shots were fired, filling the night with their echoes and bursts of light. None of them hit their target. Once the firing ceased, the men could no longer see the form in the sky but the constant hum seemed to have moved further over them, closer to the crates.

The men turned, squinting into the darkness, asking one other if they could see anything.

In the pitch black of the desert night, shining circles began to appear: a dozen of them spread out evenly in a ring before a larger one appeared in the middle, growing brighter by the second.

Weapons were raised, aimed and loaded.

The largest circle brightened a fraction more then fired out a beam of energy, sending several men flying back and scorching the earth. As those who had remained on their feet returned fire, the glowing circles appeared to move – turn – and the next burst of energy hit the crates, cutting deeper and deeper into them until the weapons and explosives stored within them exploded outwards in a brilliant shower of flames.

Men screamed, stumbling away from the inferno.

As the humming sound moved – and the circles with it – a few men tried to shoot at its origin. Their bullets were ineffective and with the fire consuming their camp, the glowing circles aligned to rain fire upon the men, taking them down one after another, no matter how far they ran or where they tried to hide.

Finally, with the tents and the remnants of the crates still on fire, bodies littering the ground, the lights dimmed and the hum slowly died away.

- - -

“Sir, Director Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. is on the line for you,” J.A.R.V.I.S. announced.

“Seriously?” Tony frowned, looking up from where he had been skimming through the digital versions of Wall Street Journal and NY Times. It was just past five in the morning – an odd hour for Tony to be awake if he wasn’t in the shop – and to have a call from Fury at said hour was rather worrisome. “Is the world going to end?” he asked.

“I cannot say, sir. Perhaps if you spoke to Director Fury yourself…”

“Fine, patch him through,” Tony decided and closed the newspaper windows for the time being, the screen soon overtaken by Fury’s face – which immediately told Tony he wouldn’t like what they were going to talk about. “Can you call back later?” he asked before the other man could open his mouth to speak.

“No,” Fury snapped. “We have received intelligence that a terrorist cell was destroyed in Afghanistan within the timeframe of the last sixteen hours. You know anything about that?”

“No,” Tony stated flatly. “I don’t… do that stuff anymore. As much.” Iron Man still got jobs like that but those usually came down the chain of command Fury was most likely part of, ergo, he should have known Tony hadn’t been out of the country in the last few weeks.

Fury’s eye narrowed at him. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure,” Tony snapped. “What’s with the third degree? If I say I’m not involved, I’m not involved.”

“How about the three other incidents in the last week; you involved in any of them?”

“The only incident I’m aware of is the mild chemical hazard Dr. Banner managed to create in his lab,” he retorted. “What’s this about, Nick?”

“Four incidents; all against terrorist groups and crime syndicates you’ve had a beef with in the past.”

Tony pursed his lips. “Maybe it’s just my lucky month and someone’s finally cleaning up?”

“Keep joking…”

“Are you sure your people aren’t involved?” Tony had to ask. “Shady operations like this would immediately make me think of your secret organization in the event that I wasn’t involved, and I most certainly know I’m not involved.”

Fury leaned back in his chair. “Look, Stark, I would love to believe that but after your latest clashes with AIM…”

“Has AIM been attacked?” Tony asked from behind clenched teeth.

“Not yet. We’re watching several of their remaining cells.”

That didn’t sit well with Tony and Fury had to see it in his face. “What you should do instead of playing your little spy game is to shut them down permanently – before someone else does it for you.” After Killian and the thing in Nevada, AIM had inched to the top of Tony’s (S)HIT LIST.

Fury gave him another one of those narrow-eyed looks. “Careful about what you say right now.”

“What?” Tony burst out. “It’s fucking five in the morning and I’m being accused of something I’m not involved in. Ask anyone. Ask Pepper!”

“I will. In fact, I am formally letting you know that there will be an inquiry into your every move and interaction in the last month. We will also require access to your remaining suits, your AI, your premises and expect your full cooperation.”

Tony stared at the screen in a silent state of shock that only a handful of people were capable of rendering in him – then switched off the call. “Fuck,” he muttered.

“Sir?” J.A.R.V.I.S. prompted but didn’t elaborate.

“Fucking hell!” Tony shouted, bounced up out of his chair and kicked it to the side. “What the fuck?!” he added then glared at the room for a minute to get his heartbeat back to normal – and the burn of Extremis off his skin.

“Would you like to call Director Fury back?” his AI asked.

“No,” Tony replied. “Call my lawyers.”

“Of course, sir.”

- - -

The larger of the two buildings was lit up, music pouring out. Cars were lining up around the block, limousines and town cars halting to let people enter at the gates and walk inside to the party. The smaller building, however, looked quiet and deserted.

In the shadows outside a deep hum began to sound. The reinforced glass of the windows rattled faintly as the humming increased then decreased – passing by, moving around the smaller building. At the main door the humming stilled and the darkness was pierced by dots of light; a dozen of them lighting up in a circle, the biggest one of all glowing brighter and brighter in the middle.

The burst of energy that shot out from the middle circle rammed into the door and through it, sending splinters everywhere.

A commotion broke out inside the dark, abandoned-looking building: boots thumped, doors banged – guns loaded.

The humming stopped, followed by a heavy thud just outside the destroyed doorway. Footsteps followed, entering the dark foyer.

People entered the foyer from the opposite end, one of them switching the lights on. Even as the armed men were left to squint at the sudden brightness, there was nothing to see beside the shattered remnants of the door. One of them told the other to go check the doorway – just before the heavy footsteps resumed, although there was no one there.

The men looked at each other and cocked their guns. They waited, nervously, then after five more steps one of them fired. The bulled ricocheted off an unseen barrier and continued into the wall on the right, digging deep. An instant later the footsteps continued and the men backed away, guns turning left and right, eyes blinking.

One of them took a second shot and flames burst out from the bullet hole in the wall, igniting the gas leak from a broken pipe.

Something smashed through the ceiling a moment later, humming, the sound disappearing into the night as fire alarms began to ring.

- - -

“Sit down,” Pepper snapped. It was a late hour to be in the office, which may have been making her cranky – or maybe it was the person whose fault it was that she was still in the office way after hours.

Tony was somewhat prepared to take the blame for this one but there were more important things at stake: “I’m telling you, I’m not involved,” he said, speaking fast and pacing faster.

“You’ve told me that a hundred times and I believe you. Please sit,” Pepper urged. “The lawyers are working on it. S.H.I.E.L.D. cannot just burst into our lives –”

“You know that may be true but I saw the word ‘terrorist’ adorning the latest exchange and we all know what that means.”

“What does it mean?” Pepper sounded like she knew she shouldn’t be asking but Tony was going to tell her anyway.

“It means my rights are going to fly out the window!” Tony exclaimed and finally stopped pacing. His fingers were clenching, hard, squeezing around the imagined throat of one Nicholas Fury. “Ever since the war on terrorism started, even a suspicion of being involved in that kind of activity has given the government carte blanche to destroy a person’s life. They’ll do it quickly, quietly and so efficiently that soon no one will remember you even existed.”

“You’re Iron Man,” Pepper pointed out. “They can’t just throw you in a cell in Guantanamo Bay.” She hesitated then added: “If they do throw you in a cell – any cell – you’ll just break out of it.”

“Damn right I will,” Tony agreed, glad that she was on the same page with him.

“I think they just included the word to put a spin on things and to gain access to what they want,” she went on. “Why don’t you give that to them – as a gesture of good will? We might even get to avoid the whole breaking-out-of-a-cell¬-thing.”

Tony snorted. “Right…”

A knock came from the door and Happy poked his head in. “Pepper, Nick Fury’s here.”

“What?” Pepper stood up in shock, her eyes shooting over to the door – then at Tony.

Tony spread his arms, signaling that he didn’t know what was going on.

“Escort him in,” Pepper recovered and sat back down, looking at Tony again. “Are you going to stay?”

“Depends on what he has to say,” Tony replied, not sitting down. He felt cornered as it was, with S.H.I.E.L.D. leaning on him with its entire – and rather impressive – weight.

Logically, Tony knew how bad it looked. The attacks had been systematic and thorough, and so far there were no known survivors or reliable witnesses. He had broken into the S.H.I.E.L.D. database to see the case files – then had his access blocked and asked Bruce to do it instead. Either way, he had seen the files, including the pictures and the crime scene data – all of which could have resulted from an attack by one of his suits.

Only, he hadn’t been there, so Fury should have just taken his word for it and trusted him for once.

Of course, the fact that his armor was such an obvious culprit made him wonder if someone was trying to set him up – one of the possible benefactors being S.H.I.E.L.D. itself. If they got their hands on his tech…

“Miss Potts,” Fury greeted as he walked in, closing the door. “Stark,” Fury added, barely nodding his head.

Outside, Happy hovered beside Maria Hill; they proceeded to stand next to one another, looking equally grim and tense, their backs to the door as if they were guarding the people inside.

“May I start by stating that your recent actions are highly unprofessional, considering Mr. Stark’s status as a S.H.I.E.L.D. consultant and a known member of the Avengers, not to mention bad taste and a violation of several of his rights.”

“You may say that and I will tell you that I don’t care how our actions come across, although I’ll try to take it all into consideration if and when Mr. Stark proceeds to work in collaboration with us to solve this matter,” Fury replied and sat down in a vacant chair in front of her desk.

“You mean when I allow you to get your sticky little fingers on my tech?” Tony retorted. “I don’t think so. I also didn’t think we would have to have this discussion.”

Fury snorted. “Don’t think I’m enjoying it.” He eyed Tony up and down. “Where have you been for the last four hours?”

“Here, in my shop and… oh, yeah: having a video conference with my army of lawyers.”

“So you weren’t in San Francisco where the consulate of Costa Brava was attacked two hours ago?”

Tony blinked. “No,” he stated although it shouldn’t have been necessary.

“Was any of your tech in the area?”

“Not to my knowledge,” Tony sneered back.

“How about without your knowledge?” Fury cocked an eyebrow.

“No,” he replied – or maybe he hissed because he was really getting fed up with the twenty questions. “Why would I want to attack some South American consulate?”

“Because they were storing some illegally obtained SI weaponry on the grounds, ready to be shipped down to Costa Brava – no doubt to boost the mercenary uprising going on in the area.” Fury paused for dramatic effect. “Does that sound like something you might do?”

“It does – but I didn’t do it so back off.”

Pepper was biting her lower lip as if she were starting to doubt whether to believe Tony’s word. He gave her an incredulous look, at which she just shook her head little.

“I don’t like this situation any more than you do but I have to deal with it – or someone else will,” Fury noted. “I know you and I’ll let your attitude slide – for now – but I need you to start cooperating or this whole mess will start to look increasingly worse.”

Tony opened his mouth to argue – to once again tell everyone who would listen that he wasn’t involved – but Pepper was giving him that imploring look and Tony finally sat his ass down in the chair next to Fury’s, fixing the man with a withering look. “Right now I have one functional armor and another in the works. You’re free to examine them both – in my presence. You’re also free to take a look at J.A.R.V.I.S. in case you think I’ve secretly set this all up so that I can be in one place and the armor in another.”

After Florida, he knew he couldn’t play the ‘if I’m not in the suit, the suit isn’t going anywhere’ card anymore; S.H.I.E.L.D. knew his AI could control the suits enough to beat up Extremis-enhanced soldiers, which meant J.A.R.V.I.S. could very well go pull solo missions around the world.

“Anything you need, you ask. I’ll be present at all times, to make sure you don’t do anything we haven’t agreed to. Good enough for you, sir?” Tony knew tossing in the title came off more as an insult but he didn’t feel particularly good about any of this – even when he had to admit that perhaps Pepper was right and that was why he was offering an olive branch in Fury’s direction.

“That’s a good start,” Fury accepted, leaning back in his chair, crossing his fingers over his stomach – appearing far less threatening that way. Tony knew the look, remembering it from the little chat they’d had on his balcony when he was still fighting the palladium poisoning; Fury was trying to be his friend and Tony should remember not to trust in it blindly because it was most likely a bluff.

Tony gave him a brief smile, which at no point reached his eyes – and both Fury and Pepper took it for what it was.

- - -

Seeing as he had gotten as much from Stark as he could hope to achieve in one day, Fury took his leave and Hill fell into step at his side, leaving Happy Hogan standing alone at the door of Pepper Potts’ office with a small scowl on his face.

“Any new developments, sir?” Hill asked.

“Stark caved; we’ll have access to him, his suits, and his AI,” Fury said.

“With him looking over our shoulders, I assume?” Hill guessed. Fury favored her for a reason, even when she sometimes questioned his actions along with those of others.

“That means he’s on his toes. Also, he’s nervous,” Fury added.

“So far it looks like he has an alibi.”

“And that isn’t about to change but we’ll look into it anyway, to make sure,” Fury ordered. It was procedure, and if they didn’t check his recent whereabouts, Stark would get suspicious that they knew something he didn’t.

“Do you think he’s involved?” Hill asked as they stepped outside and walked towards their car.

“My gut says he is, although I’m starting to believe that he isn’t aware of it himself,” Fury confessed.

“Meaning, sir?”

“For now I’m thinking it’s possible Stark didn’t sanction these attacks. If someone’s ripping off Stark’s technology – and trying to set him up – we’re going to see him make his move soon and start his own investigation.”

“Are we going to stop him?” Hill asked, stopping as they reached the black SUV.

Fury sighed. “That’s the $64,000 question.”

“He’ll get in the way of our investigation,” Hill noted. “He’ll try to cripple it, too, if he starts to look like a prominent suspect.”

“More than he already does?” Fury cocked an eyebrow.

“You said you don’t think he’s guilty.”

“Stark doesn’t know that,” Fury noted and got in the car, waiting for Hill to get behind the wheel so that they could take off. The mess in the Costa Brava consulate needed to be sorted out and after that he needed to find people on whom he could rely but whom Stark would also trust enough to let close to him.

After all, there was a chance Stark was behind all this and if that were the case, Fury needed his best people on the job to rein him in; he couldn’t just arrest Iron Man and expect for that one to stick. Besides, it would benefit no one to turn Stark even further against the system or drive a wedge between S.H.I.E.L.D. and one of the few superheroes willing to put their lives on the line to protect the world.

- - -

“So, did Fury give you the whole deal?” Clint asked then stuck his tongue into the gum in his mouth and blew a huge bubble. Steve’s eyes followed its inflation – whereas Natasha pulled a knife from a sheath on her thigh and stuck the sharp end against the gum, popping it and leaving Clint to clean up his face while Natasha wiped her knife clean with a distasteful look.

“Does Fury ever tell anyone the whole story?” Steve finally mused.

“Good point,” Clint agreed. “I just don’t see why we’re doing this…”

The elevator came to a halt at the bottom floor and they stepped out, Steve assuming the lead instantly. He was dressed in normal clothes – jeans, a leather jacket – but his shield was at his back, singling him out from everyone else. They walked down the industrial hallway until they got to a door that didn’t look special – but which had a complex looking locking mechanism on it and several cameras tracking the hallway outside it.

Steve looked up at the cameras, clearly expecting them to be there. For someone with his past, Clint was surprised how well he was adjusting. “May we enter?” the blond asked, still looking at the cameras.

“Password, please,” a familiar voice demanded through hidden speakers.

“Please, come in,” a softer English tone followed almost instantly and Clint heard the door unlock.

They walked in just in time to see Tony Stark throwing a tantrum: “You can’t just welcome someone into my secret lair, J.A.R.V.I.S.! I asked them for a password.”

“There is no password, sir,” the English voice replied. Clint knew it belonged to Tony’s AI but it still shocked him how it sounded like another human talking. Not that he had expected anything less, knowing who had built it.

“Maybe you’re not invited in, either,” Tony huffed then looked at the arrivals. “So, Fury sends you to spy on me? Seriously, if he thinks this will work as a team-building exercise he’s so mistaken.”

“He thought you would get skittish around a bunch of agents you didn’t know,” Natasha told him.

“Way to sugar-coat it,” Clint snorted and took a look around. It seemed someone was looking back at them, too – mainly, two robot-arms on wheeled platforms; there was no other way to describe the way they kept tilting their hands/heads, depending on how you wanted to look at their anatomy. Slowly they moved closer, letting out a series of inquiring bleeps.

Tony glanced at the robots then snapped his fingers at Steve. “Show them the shield.”

“What?” Steve frowned.

“They like the shield. Shiny, made of a rare metal. If you’re nice I’ll let them polish it for you,” Tony rattled off, pointing his thumb back at the robots.

Steve looked at them as well then slowly undid the straps of his shield and brought it in front of him, holding it carefully as if he expected someone to try to steal it from his grasp.

The robots made a sound close to cooing, rolling closer. One of them looked like it was admiring its own reflection in it.

“Fanboys,” Tony rolled his eyes.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Captain Rogers” the AI stated. “You, too, Agent Barton.”

“You are J.A.R.V.I.S.,” Steve said, gazing at the ceiling as if looking for another camera. “We were told to… expect you.”

“Of course.” There was something close to a huff in the AI’s voice. “I am aware that the recent incidents are reflecting badly on Mr. Stark, and suspicion has risen as to his involvement in said accidents. I can assure you, however, that he is not involved. Neither have been any of the available armors – or myself.”

“Did he make you say that?” Natasha asked, giving Tony a look.

“No, Ms. Rushman.”

“It’s Romanoff,” Natasha corrected.

“Oh, I know,” the AI replied.

It was Natasha’s turn to frown.

“What are they?” Steve asked suddenly. The robots were still there, closer to him than before, definitely looking at themselves in the shield’s reflective surface. One of them gently touched the vibranium, flicking its claws against it, then drew back at the sound it made – only to roll closer like a child growing bolder.

“Dummy and You,” Tony gestured. “My bots. Just toss your shield over there somewhere and they’ll leave you alone,” he added, pointing at the back of the room.

“It’s fine,” Steve replied although he looked to be on the verge of squeamish and amused. He even dared to reach out and touch one of the bots which immediately made it look up at the super-soldier and snap its claws as if in question.

“They don’t bite,” Natasha murmured and moved past Steve. She reached out to pat the bot Steve had touched – only to have it pinch her thigh hard enough to make her jump.

Tony chuckled. “Yeah, they remember you as that woman who was undercover and stuck a needle in my neck.”

“For your own good,” she replied.

“So they keep telling me.”

“And for your own good now, please tell us now if you’re leading S.H.I.E.L.D. around on a merry chase,” Natasha added, not putting a whole lot of subtlety into it. “If you respect us at all –”

“I’m not involved!” Tony snapped, his good mood instantly gone. “I know how it looks and I don’t actually mind all those things happening; a few less people who have me on their hit list,” he stated. “However, I don’t like how it makes me look nor the accusations certain people have been making.”

“You’re not guilty until they can prove otherwise,” Steve spoke up, now actually cradling one of the bot’s heads against his thigh. For a robot, the other looked kind of envious – in between admiring its reflection in the shield.

Tony snorted. “Tell that to Fury.”

“That’s why I’m here,” Steve shrugged one shoulder.

That got Tony’s attention. “You what?”

“Fury didn’t call me to be here but I was following the investigation and didn’t like how they were handling this.”

“I thought the investigation was pretty high clearance,” Natasha said, looking a bit surprised.

Steve shrugged again, not exactly looking embarrassed. “I’m Captain America. When I ask certain people to look into something for me… they tend to do it.”

Tony blinked – then chuckled. “Okay. Good to have you in my corner, Cap.”

Steve gave him a brisk nod. “Until proven otherwise.”

“He is innocent, Captain,” J.A.R.V.I.S. said.

Tony groaned. “Gee, make me sound more like a…”

“But you are, sir.”

“I know, but ‘innocent’ is stretching it a little.” He looked at the three of them. “Look, I’ve pissed some people off – especially after becoming Iron Man – and I’ve done things. However, this low key shit just isn’t my thing and if Fury can’t see that then I can’t help him. I haven’t gone over to the dark side, as tempting as that is sometimes.”

Clint supposed they could all agree on that – even Steve, by the look on his face.

“So,” Tony went on, “are you here to report back my every move or are you interested in actually catching this guy?”

“I get it that you want to clear your name but perhaps you should let S.H.I.E.L.D. deal with this,” Steve suggested.

“Is that what you would do?” Tony asked.

Steve hesitated – then shook his head and smiled ruefully. “People are dying and they’re pinning it on you.”

“I don’t mind the deaths,” Tony started, then seemed to decide to revise his opinion – at least as long as Steve was in the room. “All those people deserved what was coming to them but I fear this will soon get out of hand and I need to stop it,” he finished.

“Great!” Clint clapped his hands together. “What’s the plan?”

Tony looked at him. “While I’m thinking about that, I’ve gotta ask: why do you have pink gum in your hair?”

Clint swore and went to find a bathroom.

- - -

A silver Mercedes-Benz convertible accelerated past two cars, switching lanes in front of them before speeding on and dodging into the midst of another group of vehicles on the three-lane road. Horns blared and tires screeched as other drivers reacted to the speeding car that was going much faster than the 50 mph speed limit allowed.

The driver quickly glanced over his shoulder before switching lanes again, sliding in between two cars – only to restlessly move on again in order to drive faster.

The southwest portion of the Sunset Highway began to curve towards the Vista Bridge Tunnels. As if seeing the narrow space as a safe haven, the driver began to recklessly switch lanes again, causing several of the other cars to crash into each other while trying to avoid a collision with him.

A news helicopter flew over the highway, checking out the action – then suddenly swayed precariously as if hit by a massive gust of wind before settling again with some difficulty.

Below, the car kept speeding towards the tunnel like an animal fleeing to the safety of its nest hole. Faster and faster it went then swerved to the side near the mouth of the tunnel to avoid a truck, almost losing control but managing to avoid hitting the wall, passing into the softly illuminated tunnel.

The car slowed down almost instantly, the driver letting out a sigh of relief and trying to hide himself in traffic – all of that an instant before a brief burst of light filled the narrow space between the convertible and the truck, slamming the smaller car up against the side of the tunnel wall.

Traffic screeched to a halt around the accident, the nearest cars dodging to not hit the spinning wreck until it stilled and lay smoking on the tunnel floor, a crater marking the original point of impact with the wall.

- - -

S.H.I.E.L.D. agents were swarming Stark Industries. Their main focus was on the areas Tony used regularly – his current work areas and the temporary armory – but they left no figurative stone unturned. J.A.R.V.I.S. was partially offline for the duration of the investigation and that alone left a bad taste in Tony’s mouth; it was invasive and he had never allowed anyone to dig this deep into his personal files before.

He hoped Fury understood the depth of the benevolence on Tony’s part taking place here.

The bots were standing by one wall, gazing at the events. Dummy made a particularly nasty sound as one of the agents dropped Mark 43’s helmet on the floor. Tony fought not to cringe; much more of this and he was going to blow a gasket.

“Careful with that,” Steve Rogers snapped from beside him. The agent hurriedly complied to place the helmet on a table as if fearing Captain America would go over there personally and show how disappointed he was in the unprofessional handling of his teammate’s gear.

Maria Hill entered the area, brisk and stone-faced as usual. She gave Tony a look from the corner of her eye as if she didn’t deign to look straight at him. “You look a little squeamish, Stark,” she commented at length.

“Your people are giving my AI an unsanitary anal probe. How exactly should I be looking?”

“They know what they’re doing,” Hill replied.

“Yeah?” Tony perked up at the challenge. “Do they even know what they’re looking for?”

The look she gave him was withering. “You’re not the only smart person in the room.”

“Are we speaking in terms of IQ or actual prowess of –”

Hill raised her hand to her ear before he could finish, which pissed Tony off even more, but her expression told him something was happening. “There’s been another attack,” she stated then. “Portland, Oregon.”

“Well, clearly I was here, under your constant supervision,” Tony pointed out. “You did just about everything but cuff me to the table.” He lifted his hands to show that he wasn’t holding any secret gadgets.

“We’ll see,” was all she said before turning and striding back out.

“What does she mean, ‘we’ll see’?” Tony fumed. “My armors are here, my AI’s not operational and I don’t possess any magical powers to kill a person nine hundred miles away!” He looked to Steve for backup.

“Would you like to go check out the crime scene?” Clint asked.

Tony stopped his rant for a moment. “Am I allowed to go within hundred miles of that place?”

“I don’t know but I’m getting cabin fever,” Clint shrugged.

“You might be able to find clues the others cannot,” Steve agreed.

Tony nodded and snapped his fingers loudly. “J, wake up.”

Instantly the computers the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents had been using froze up and all of J.A.R.V.I.S.’s functions powered up again. “Sir,” the AI responded, then seemed to clear his throat. “I am fully online. It will take a moment to close all open connections with S.H.I.E.L.D.; they are slowing me down considerably. Also, I think device SC-19239 was attempting to create a backdoor into my system.”

Tony looked at the agents in the room – one of whom squirmed a little. “You!” Tony shouted. “Out, now. If you’re not off the premises in four minutes I’ll have my AI assemble my suit and kick you out.”

Dummy and You chirped in encouragement.

The agent opened and closed his mouth. “I had orders –”

“Out!” Tony shouted.

Mark 43 stirred where it was laid out in pieces on a table.

The agent shot to his feet and ran out.

Tony growled and then looked at the remaining agents. “The rest of you will collect all the S.H.I.E.L.D. gear on my property and cart it out. You have half an hour.”

“Mr. Stark –”

“I think I’m going to revisit my agreement with Fury,” Tony went on, dismissing the argument. “J.A.R.V.I.S., see that they leave. Also, let Happy know that he’s free to start escorting S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel from the area.”

“Of course, sir.”

“Now!” Tony clapped his hands together and looked at his fellow Avengers. “Shall we?”

“Fury’s going to be pissed,” Natasha noted.

“See if I care,” Tony replied. “I trusted him to play fair and he didn’t.”

“Maybe Fury didn’t give the order,” Steve commented although he didn’t sound like he believed it; it was more like he felt someone had to mention that option out loud at least once.

“He’s the man in charge,” Tony retorted. “Either he takes the blame – or hands it down to whoever deserves it.”

They headed out after that, Tony trusting J.A.R.V.I.S. to make sure S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t poke their noses in any more places that didn’t belong to them. Tony had been cooperating, goodwill and all, but he was done playing the game and instead got into the Quinjet with the others, feeling a little naked without his suit. However, he wasn’t sure whether Iron Man would be well received right now, no matter how innocent Tony was regarding the attacks, and they were simply going to check out a crime scene, nothing more.

The flight to Portland was much shorter than driving up there would have been. Not as fast as flying one of his suits but as he had concluded before, Iron Man might not be a welcome sight at their destination.

Clint set the Quinjet down near the accident site. Two lanes of the westbound tunnel were closed and while there was yellow tape marking the area, there was no police in sight.

S.H.I.E.L.D. agents met them at the edge of the restricted area, clearly prepared to tell them to take a hike, but Steve was surprisingly good at this kind of thing, simply hopping over the yellow line and telling the men that ‘he and his team had the right to be here’.

No one argued.

Tony was kind of envious as he followed the others into the tunnel.

They didn’t have to go far before they spotted the wreckage of a silver convertible lying upside down on the tunnel floor. While it seemed several investigative teams had already been looking at the dented, half-burnt vehicle, it was the wall that drew Tony’s attention. Clearly that area had been investigated as well but Tony wondered if anyone else saw what he did: some kind of high-energy blast had hit the wall, hard, almost digging through the structure all the way to the eastbound tunnel on the other side.

Tony looked at the car again, back at the mouth of the tunnel, the marks on the wall and the asphalt, trying to calculate the speed and the force of the impact… He realized for the first time, now that he was looking for it, that the car had been blasted by the same energy weapon before it struck the wall and kept rolling down the tunnel. The height of the blast suggested it had hit the low car mid-air, lifting it up and penetrating it once it hit the wall…

“Do we know what other vehicles were nearby when the car was hit?” Tony asked.

“A truck was in the middle lane,” Fury’s voice answered him sharply. Tony and the other three Avengers turned to look as the man strode up to them from the direction of the wrecked convertible; no one seemed to have noticed his presence before. “We’ve checked the truck and there is no sign of it being rigged.”

Tony nodded and took a step to the side, backing away from the wall to imagine where the truck must have been in relation to the attacked vehicle. “Not a whole lot of wiggle room,” he decided. His eyes found the crater on the wall again.

“What are you thinking?” Fury asked. He didn’t comment on the incident in Tony’s lab or the fact that he had thrown out the investigative .S.H.I.E.L.D. teams at SI.

“I’m thinking I like this even less than I did before,” Tony stated out loud.

“Meaning?” Natasha pressed.

Tony pointed at the crater. “That’s repulsor tech. Other people might not be able to tell it apart from other high-energy weapons that have come on the market since I put on the suit for the first time, but I know what it is and I don’t like what it implies.”

“Someone’s got your tech,” Clint grumbled.

“That’s not all they’ve got,” Fury stated. “The first few teams missed it, but there’s a dent at the back of the car that doesn’t match the pattern of the incident here. We checked all available security cameras in the area and found that less than ten miles from here the driver’s perfectly normal driving pattern changed into something completely erratic – ending in the wall there.”

“He knew he was being chased,” Tony guessed.

Fury nodded. “We couldn’t get a good look at what started it but the dent suggests something may have bumped into him hard enough to leave a mark. It doesn’t match any other vehicle we could think of – mostly because it seemed to come from above. Plus, one of the cameras should have caught a collision if such a thing had happened.”

“So something knocks into him, he loses his shit and starts driving crazy – then gets blasted once he enters the tunnel,” Clint summed up. “Why wait until the tunnel if the perpetrator was chasing him down the highway?”

“It may have been a taunt,” Fury said. “The tunnel cameras indicate that the driver slowed down almost the instant he got inside the tunnel. One big sigh of relief later and his car is being slammed into the wall and ends up there. The man was dead before the impact with the wall, though: whatever shot up his car killed him on the spot.”

“Who was he?” Steve asked.

“His ID said Joseph Smith but a facial recognition search pointed to a Hans Zahre – a man wanted for his connections to European separatist movements and terrorist cells.”

Tony groaned.

Fury went on, noting his reaction with a quick look: “Several months ago he shot an RPG missile at the stage where Mr. Stark was giving a speech on how discovering and harnessing new renewable energy sources could end conflicts all over the world.”

Clint raised an eyebrow at Tony. “Guess he wasn’t a fan of that.”

“Racial separatists rarely support someone trying to bring racial equality to the table,” Tony noted. “He killed three people, permanently injuring another five, and managed to avoid getting caught. Stark Industries is still supporting the victims and their families.”

“So, you had an axe to grind with this man,” Steve summed up. “He tried to kill you.”

“Clearly whoever decided it was time for payback didn’t miss their shot,” Tony observed, looking at the car again. “So, no one saw what hit his car, chased him down the highway, and finally blasted him to kingdom come?”

Fury shook his head. “There are, however, some curious statements from a news crew that was present at the time; while they could not get any footage of the chase or the attack their helicopter fell victim to a very peculiar gust of wind that almost dropped them from the sky.”

“What does that mean?” Steve asked.

“It means there is a possibility that something flew past them near the mouth of the tunnel,” Fury stated.

“That’s speculative at best,” Tony said but looked at the crater on the wall, following its blackened, smooth edges with his eyes. “The weapon had limited space within the tunnel and still no one saw it go off.”

“Many people report seeing a flash,” Fury argued. “In the resulting chaos, however, no one was paying attention to see if an attacker left the scene. We’re taking a look at all the cameras in the area at the time of the incident, to see if they yield anything helpful.”

Tony nodded, turned, and walked over to the wrecked car, crouching to look at the mark Fury had talked about. The dent in the trunk was deep and new, far away from the edges, and Tony ran his fingers over it, gently. There was no excess paint to give him a clue as to what had caused it but the direction of the impact suggested it had come from above and it was hard to imagine another vehicle causing it.

He looked at the blast marks as well and they definitely ruled out the possibility that there had been some kind of explosive in the car: the blast had gone straight through with a lot of force. A concentrated chest RT blast could do that…

Tony tried not to think about it; his suits were all accounted for and there was no way anyone could replicate one – not for decades and by then Tony would have moved onto better tech himself.

His eyes found dried blood splotches left on the asphalt after the body had been taken away. He recounted all the attacks and their targets and yet again came to the conclusion that he could have picked them out himself. There was a long list of people and radical groups that wanted him dead – or who were exploiting the last of the SI weapons on the black market; some of them stood out as priority threats and these could have been easily categorized among them.

Someone had just beaten him to it.

Tony stood up again and returned to the others. “I’m done here,” he proclaimed.

Clint and Natasha exchanged a small look whereas Steve only nodded and turned to lead the way out of the tunnel. It was like following a snowplow and Tony knew it was best to just follow Steve’s lead before someone got it in their head to stop Tony from leaving.

They got to the Quinjet and were about to take off when Tony suddenly realized Fury had followed them. “Do you need something?” Tony asked the director, who casually sat himself down, not looking like he was going anywhere.

“A word,” Fury replied.

Tony suppressed a sigh and took the seat next to him.

Fury leaned in a little – as if they were having a private chat in a crowded room. That they were inside the relatively small aircraft with two spies and a super-soldier kind of defeated the purpose of that but Tony let it go, mimicking Fury’s body language. “I’m being pressured to detain you,” Fury revealed.

“You think isolating me from the world is going to stop the attacks?” Tony asked.

“No,” the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. admitted without a pause, “but you’re involved in this somehow, however indirectly, and if the attacks don’t stop soon I won’t have a choice but to lock you up for the duration of the investigation.” He gave Tony one of those meaningful looks. “We’re going to be off your back for the next 24 hours, dealing with this latest attack and the fact that you kicked my people off the Stark Industries HQ premises. Use that time well.” With that Fury stood and strode out, and a moment later the ramp rose and Clint lifted them off the ground.

Steve leaned on the doorway of the cockpit, no longer pretending that he hadn’t been eavesdropping. “I think Fury’s trying to give you a chance to solve this,” he stated.

“No doubt he’s also going to monitor our every move,” Clint added.

“This is the only chance you’ll get before Fury’s hands become tied and he can’t give you any more rope,” Natasha finished.

“I know,” Tony answered all three of them then tapped his earpiece, giving J.A.R.V.I.S. a virtual nudge. “J, make a complete inventory of all my suits, past and present.” He should start by ruling out the obvious possibilities and then move on to more hypothetical choices.

“All suits are accounted for, either destroyed or in the current armory,” the AI replied with a delay of a few seconds, meaning he had gone over the logs again. J.A.R.V.I.S. had done it before S.H.I.E.L.D. barged in for their investigation and Tony was fairly certain that angle had been thoroughly explored.

Tony frowned. “How about the tech in development? Suit parts, schematics…” he listed – then shook his head before J.A.R.V.I.S. could answer. “I don’t just leave that stuff lying around and any truly harmful pieces are protected against unauthorized usage. Most likely we have a surprisingly good knock-off at work –”

“You need to be sure,” Natasha cut in, needlessly stating the obvious.

“Sir, I am cross-referencing all your current and past projects, just to be on the side of caution,” J.A.R.V.I.S. informed him. That would have to yield some results; people coveted Tony’s technology and that was why he kept precise logs on where everything was. Or, J.A.R.V.I.S. did.

“What if there is nothing missing from your inventory?” Clint asked after a bit.

It was a good question. Tony was loathe to admit that someone else might be close to copying his suit or the repulsor technology. It could just be the latter but some of the details about the attacks – like the attack themselves, which in some cases had taken place in a very confined space – made him unwilling to accept it as the most likely option.

Also, it took experience to control the RT blasts…

“Sir,” his AI came back on. “There is something…”

“What?” Tony perked up, body tense.

“It may just be a glitch in the system but when going over the remote locations for armor testing, the facility outside Caliente failed to respond to my query. Further examination showed that the facility went offline the day AIM attacked the Malibu mansion and has remained so until now.”

The reason why the facility had fallen off the grid was no mystery, seeing as J.A.R.V.I.S. had taken quite a hit that day and had been forced to reboot many of his functions in order to get Tony safely away from the fight.

“Is there any sign of damage or possibility of a break-in?” Tony asked while he tried to recall what exactly he had been doing in that lab.

“J.A.R.V.I.S.’s got something?” Natasha guessed.

Tony nodded. “Maybe. I have a small facility in a remote area near Caliente; a short flight from Malibu, and… I think I may have been doing some chemical research there.” He frowned as he tried to recall the exact project.

“You can’t remember?” Steve frowned at him.

“I wasn’t sleeping very well at the time and I was building suits like my life depended on it,” Tony admitted. “I’m sorry if things are a bit blurry around the edges. J, what was I working on in there? Call up the latest project,” he ordered and pulled out his phone from his pocket. Selecting an icon on the screen, Tony keyed in his code and viewed the data J.A.R.V.I.S. had pulled up. The back-up files looked fine as he browsed through them – then a word caught his attention, making him halt.

“A new stealth suit, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replied verbally to Tony’s earlier question as if taking his freeze up as a cue to start talking.

Natasha did something on her earpiece, connecting the rest of the Avengers to the frequency Tony used. He glared at her and vowed to better secure the line – again – but let it go for now.

“A stealth suit,” Tony repeated because the others hadn’t caught that. For a moment he remembered the failed experiments, wild theorizations… and how he had then moved onto the next project to let those ideas settle. He had never gotten a chance to get back to the project, what with the whole AIM mess taking precedence. “I was trying to find an alternate method for extreme camouflage. Colors and reflector shields get you only so far and I wanted to figure out a way to control visibility itself.”

“Which would make sense seeing as the attacker, in many cases, may have been invisible and thusly there are no eyewitnesses,” Steve nodded his head.

“The tech wasn’t finished. Not even close,” Tony cut him off before the others could decide this was it. “I was sleep-deprived, unable to focus, and the answer eluded me. Still does. I had J.A.R.V.I.S. running a few hundred calculations for me when I left, leaving a mess of suit parts lying around, and that was it. No one could have broken in there and made this happen with what they would have found there – not even me.” He was a bit ashamed to admit it, seeing as he thought he had been close with a few ideas: separating what one needed to do to trick human vision and mechanical recorders…

He looked at the last files, seeing that he had indeed left J.A.R.V.I.S. in charge of the calculations, the final transmission having arrived just minutes before his home crumbled into the Pacific. “It wasn’t finished,” he repeated and switched off the phone’s screen, sitting back to think it over.

“Should we check it out?” Steve asked carefully, as if he were prodding a sleeping animal.

“Yes,” Tony answered shortly. “I need to get that place up and running again and make sure nothing’s missing – just in case.”

The Quinjet tilted as Clint adjusted their course.

Tony toyed with his phone, restless despite what he knew to be a short flight. His belief that there was no way anyone could have found anything useful in that facility, even if someone had broken in and stolen whatever was left there, remained strong. Besides, when AIM’s attack started, J.A.R.V.I.S. would have sealed the facility to prevent any –

He tapped his earpiece again. “J.A.R.V.I.S., try reconnecting to the Caliente facility again,” he requested.

“Still no response, sir.”

“Are any of our satellites available to scan the area?”

“Two of them are in position.”

“See if there’s any life down there,” Tony ordered and switched his phone screen back on, his AI instantly giving him a view from above. There were clouds obstructing a direct view so Tony tapped in a few commands, changing to a different mode which showed EMR readings. “Well, hello,” he murmured to his phone.

“I do not understand, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. confessed; Tony knew the AI meant the results and not his statement.

“There’s life down there,” Tony stated.

“I am unable to detect any bio signs at this point. However, the facility should have shut down on its own.”

Tony tried to calculate how long it would be before they landed in Caliente and re-directed his eyes to the altered satellite image. “You were still crunching numbers for me when the choppers attacked the house, right?”

“Indeed, sir.”

“And when the house went down, the facility was cut off. Consider the possibility that the part of you that was working on site was cut off as well.”

“Given the rather long period of time when I was unable to return to my normal functions, it would seem unlikely any part of my programming would have maintained such a level of activity as we are seeing now.”

“Sure,” Tony said and immediately dismissed the AI’s argument. “But maybe you kept working even when unable to connect to the rest of the network…”

“After all this time, sir, I would believe that even a small fraction of my consciousness would have either run out of calculations – or solved them and…”

“And,” Tony agreed and leaned his head back against the wall of the Quinjet, allowing his mind to go there, just for a moment. “Prepare for a hostile take-over,” he ordered.

“What does that mean?” Steve asked; Tony had, for a moment, forgotten that he wasn’t alone.

“It means that potentially… Well, it could be that my AI actually solved the riddle and there may have been enough parts to actually assemble a new, untested armor. However, after J.A.R.V.I.S. was back to running normally, I don’t see why he would have kept that progress update hidden.”

“You think someone intervened,” Clint guessed.

“Maybe. Let’s go in with our eyes open and prepared for anything. Including you, J,” he added.

“Always, sir.”

“Are you sure it’s safe to take J.A.R.V.I.S. in there, given the nature of the mission?” Natasha asked.

“J.A.R.V.I.S. practically ran the facility before it was cut off so he’s our fastest way in,” Tony dismissed her concern.

“Shall I send over Mark 43?” J.A.R.V.I.S. asked.

Tony debated as he watched Steve adjust his shield and decided against it. “I have enough back-up as it is. No reason to make S.H.I.E.L.D. think I’m breaking curfew or something.” He had no illusions that his armors weren’t being watched, even with S.H.I.E.L.D. officially off the SI premises.

J.A.R.V.I.S. must have delivered exact coordinates to Clint because the man set the Quinjet down only a quarter mile from the facility. The area was just as rural as when Tony had last visited the place; it felt like another life-time ago, when he hadn’t been certain if he could ever stand beside these people again and not lose it a little. Here he was, though, serene as ever, although there was some tension present inside him seeing as there was no knowing what they would find inside the facility.

Tony started towards the doorway while the others searched their surroundings for any signs of intruders or a trap. There was nothing and nobody there, however, and Tony stopped at the firmly shut doorway, taking a good look at it. “No sign of forced entry. All the panels are intact…” He ran his fingers along the seams, checking for any abnormalities, yet he found none.

“If someone’s been here they’ve had time to cover their tracks,” Natasha noted.

“True,” Tony said then pressed one section of the doorframe. It slid to the side, exposing a scanning pad. He placed his hand on it then looked up at the embedded camera in the arc above him. He knew the scanner was only a secondary function that could be easily dismissed. His proximity, however, should get the door to unlock – if his AI was still functioning as it should within the facility. If not, Tony had many options for getting in the old-fashioned way but first he wanted to see if this would work.

After a somewhat longer delay than usual, the doors opened by a few feet – enough to let him pass inside. The hallway in front of him was dimly lit and Tony weighed his options then looked back at the others. “How about you wait here while I check the premises?”

“Why?” Clint asked, narrowing his eyes. “You got something to hide?”

Tony held back from replying in kind. “If someone’s been here – or if the inner defenses of the facility are malfunctioning in any way – you would be perceived as an intruder. I, however, should be able to get inside without trouble because that’s how the system works.”

“Unless someone’s hacked the system,” the archer challenged his theory.

“If that were the case I don’t think the doors would have opened,” Tony snapped, pointing at said set of doors.

Clint opened his mouth to argue but Steve shifted. “Go. Let us know when we can come in.” He gave Tony one of those meaningful looks. “I trust you.”

Tony blinked. Of course, given everything, it might have looked like he was just trying to cover up his tracks by going in alone. His throat tightened just a little. “Thanks, Cap. I… appreciate that.”

Steve just nodded firmly, clearly having no idea how much his words meant to Tony. Good thing the guy had no idea Tony had spent half his life idolizing Captain America.

Squaring his shoulders, Tony turned back towards the door and stepped inside, knowing this was not the time to hesitate.

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