Steve surveyed his surroundings, slowly swirling the shield in his hand as far as the straps and his wrist would allow, then stopping briefly before rotating it back. There was nothing alarming in their vicinity nor were there any signs of life. Somewhere in the distance he thought he heard a train, one of those long chains of cargo cars that took several minutes to pass a railroad crossing.
After a while it occurred to him that in such a rural setting there should have been some kind of wildlife in their vicinity, yet he could neither see nor hear anything.
His eyes moved back to the door Tony had entered, the two halves of heavy steel still standing ajar. The doorway didn’t look inviting but Steve couldn’t say whether it was his gut feeling or Tony’s warning that the defense mechanism might target them.
“Should we go after him?” Clint asked. “I’m sure he’s disabled the security by now.” The archer had been watching their surroundings, too, with a thorough intensity, yet his gaze kept returning to the door – much like Steve’s.
“Give him time,” Steve ordered.
If Tony was guilty of the attacks then Steve might have just given him a chance to get rid of incriminating evidence. On the other hand, Steve felt like Tony’s frustration came from actual innocence and he refused to pin these events on his teammate without concrete proof.
Clint shifted uneasily, walking a short distance away from the entrance before stopping and heading back to his original post which he must have deemed the best vantage point. He had his bow in hand, fingers curling and uncurling around it without ever dropping the weapon.
Steve knew he needed to distract his team from the agonizing wait. “Hypothetically speaking,” he started. Both Clint and Natasha gave him a look, a sign that they were listening. “If Tony were facilitating the attacks, what would happen to him? All the attacks have been against people who are already on the wrong side of the law and I don’t see S.H.I.E.L.D. reneging on their cooperation with Iron Man.”
“I’m not sure,” Natasha confessed. “Iron Man was a bit of a vigilante for a while before Tony came forth about his involvement. Even after that it’s been anyone’s guess whether Iron Man’s more useful as an asset – or if he should be considered a threat.”
“He’s an Avenger now,” Steve noted. “I’m pretty sure that concludes the debate.”
“For the time being,” Natasha nodded. “If Tony’s going back to his old tricks, taking out bad guys under the radar…”
“If S.H.I.E.L.D. feels like he can’t be controlled he’ll be taken down rather than allowed to run amok,” Clint finished. “The risks would be bigger than the benefits.” He looked at Steve. “That’s how the system works.”
“I’m not sure I like that system,” Steve decided and took another look around before facing the door again.
None of them talked for the next few minutes, which was why Steve thought he began to detect a faint sound. It wasn’t another train, the sound akin to the steady hum of bumblebees in the trees in summer. Once his ears latched onto the sound he could hear it coming in almost like waves, as if the wind were twisting it and making it stronger and fainter in turns.
“Can you hear that?” he asked the other two.
Clint and Natasha both cocked their heads then moved in a slow circle to get a full range. “I’m not sure,” Clint confessed.
“The hum?” Natasha asked.
Steve nodded. It was growing stronger, he thought – as if it were getting closer. As he once again looked at their surroundings, he could see nothing. Remembering what they might be dealing with he checked the air as well, but could see nothing there either. Dusk was approaching, the sky darkening, but he wasn’t sure whether that made a difference.
Clint made another circle, to pinpoint the sound, then slowly drew an arrow from his quiver, placing it on his bow. “Do you think it’s here? Whatever it is…”
Steve wished to check in with Tony but just then the door suddenly slid back shut, locking them outside – and Tony in.
“Did he just lock us out of the facility?” Clint asked, annoyed.
“We don’t know if it was him,” Natasha said.
“Who else? What if he’s just led us around on a merry chase while –”
“Shh!” Steve hissed; the hum had gotten a lot stronger suddenly as if the originator of the hum were growing bolder and had moved closer. Still, he couldn’t see anything, not even the dust on the ground stirring, so he looked up, fairly certain that was where the hum was coming from. “Hawkeye, it’s somewhere above us,” he stated.
“No kidding,” Clint muttered but lifted his bow, drawing the arrow half-way, ready to finish the motion and release it. “Can anyone see it?”
“No,” Steve replied.
“Search for a ripple effect,” Natasha ordered. “Anything that might look out of place.”
“Didn’t Tony say he was testing for things beyond normal camouflage?” Clint reminded her, still looking for a target.
“To trick the eyes…” Steve recalled.
“Let’s use something else, then,” Natasha decided and drew out her phone. Steve saw its screen change a moment later – into a camera – and she began systematically moving it to check the air. Anticipation tightened in Steve’s chest but he waited, keeping track of her motions as well as gazing at the air, waiting for the source of the hum to slip up and reveal itself.
“Anything?” Clint asked, tone clipped.
“Not yet,” the red-head grumbled and started backtracking – then froze. “I think I’ve got something. It’s… there, I think,” she said, pointing at the air. There was nothing to be seen but Clint took aim nonetheless, trying to figure out where exactly Natasha was pointing. After a few seconds of hesitation Clint released the arrow.
All of them watched it sail through the air, arching up and then falling down again. It hit nothing but the ground in the distance. “Fuck,” Clint hissed. “Did it move?”
“I lost it,” Natasha frowned at the screen of her phone. “I think it adapted.”
Steve searched the air again then slowly slid the shield off his arm and grabbed onto the edge of it. He could hear the hum, rising and falling. Thrusters, he told himself. Concealed but working, keeping whatever it was in the air. He imagined he could almost feel heat on his face…
He closed his eyes and focused on listening. In the war he had done this many a time, spotting the hiding enemy before he could lead his team into an ambush. He could do it again…
The hum moved slightly. His ears detected the sound, trying to take it apart, to pinpoint it.
Without opening his eyes, Steve moved, flinging his shield into the air – knowing that he would see nothing at all if he opened his eyes.
A metallic bang echoed through the air soon after and Steve snapped his eyes open, seeing his shield rebound off something.
Clint didn’t hesitate, drawing and releasing another arrow instantly. It would have hit its mark, for sure, but a burst of light caught it mid-air, incinerating the arrow.
Circles of light began to appear in the air, forming a ring around a bigger, brighter light that appeared once the others had completed their circle.
“Shoot it,” Natasha murmured. “Now!”
Clint did but the middle light lit up and fired again. Steve felt a familiar rush travel through him as he and the others dodged, the repulsor blast plowing deep into the ground where Natasha had stood just seconds ago. Steve dashed to the side, as fast as he could, grabbing onto his shield and bringing it up just as another blast threw him down, his imbalance making him lose his footing. The shield repelled the blast but he felt its heat nonetheless, the brightness of it hurting his eyes.
Something exploded and Steve peeked around the edge of the shield to see one of Clint’s arrows jutting out into the air, embedded in something he could not see. A second later the arrow released some kind of charge and almost instantly an armor became visible, its surface still glowing faintly.
It was Iron Man, through and through – only its colors were off. Instead of painted metal the armor seemed almost see-through in a milky kind of way. Steve could see circuits running beneath the surface, distorted by something that could be a liquid flowing in the armor’s outer layer.
The arc reactor in its chest was glowing, surrounded by a dozen smaller ones. One hand reached out, plucking free Clint’s arrow, crushing it in its gauntlet before letting the pieces fall.
“Tony?” Steve asked hesitantly.
The armor did not respond.
“Should we shoot at it some more?” Clint asked. It seemed none of them had actually expected to find a suit of armor so much like Tony’s. All of them had leaned towards someone stealing and exploiting Tony’s tech, using it for their own twisted purposes, but coming face to face with a new type of Iron Man armor threw Steve’s mind for a loop.
“Let’s wait and see what it does,” Natasha suggested.
“We should try to get inside the facility,” Steve added, getting to his feet.
Either his words or his movement was the wrong thing to do because the second they took place, the milky color of the armor began to change into an almost angry red; not as bright and solid as Iron Man’s normal color but definitely an alarming shade.
“What is it doing?” Clint asked, preparing to draw another arrow.
Sections of the armor’s arms, shoulders and legs shifted, revealing weapons.
“I think it’s about to attack us,” Natasha replied needlessly.
“Take it down!” Steve ordered, knowing this was his last chance to make that decision. He leaped to the side as he did, seeing the armor take aim, releasing several small explosives his way. He ran and rolled, the shield taking some of the impact, and he heard Natasha draw a weapon and fire just as Clint released an arrow. A blinding light followed, with strangled yells from both of Steve’s teammates, and he realized that in an open area like this they didn’t stand a chance against one of Tony’s armors.
Getting up from his protective crouch, Steve ran towards the armor, getting close enough to slam his shield into its upper body. The armor flinched – then reached out faster than Steve had expected, seizing the shield’s edges. It tossed the shield and Steve through the air and onto the ground where he landed hard several feet away. Feeling lightly disoriented, Steve fought to get to his feet, his lungs attempting to overcome their winded state.
Behind him the main arc reactor let out the familiar sound of charging.
Steve twisted his body, knowing he didn’t have time to get up, bringing his shield between himself and the blast that was coming, hoping it was enough.
The doors did not slide shut after he passed them, remaining as they were, and Tony continued down the hallway, checking the floor, walls and ceiling for anything that wasn’t supposed to be there. He couldn’t detect anything out of the usual and continued on at his normal pace.
When he entered the main lab he stopped and took a moment to check that area as well. The lights were on low but not off and most of the machines he could see were on. That much he had known already from what the satellites had been able to pick up.
“Welcome back, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S.’s familiar voice greeted from within the room.
“Thanks,” Tony replied casually, stepping further inside. His eyes darted around, at first finding no significant signs that anything at all had happened since the last time he was here – then bit by bit he saw items in unusual places, like tools away from their designated spots and a few machines that looked like someone had gutted them, the few remaining pieces of their insides swept into piles in the nearest corner.
Finally, Tony walked by a cubicle with an emergency shower inside it. There were several showers like that within the facility, seeing as it was dedicated to chemical research, but it was the appearance of this one that made Tony halt momentarily: there were stains low on the semi-transparent cubicle walls and the floor; dried trails of a dark, rusty color that may have been mistaken for many things but which Tony knew to be old, dried blood.
When people considered some of Iron Man’s deadliest missions they rarely realized that not all deaths took part away from the armor. Even now Tony’s skin crawled a little at the sight of it – so familiar from the many times when he had washed off the armor after a battle, or had the bots do it, cleaning off the grime and the dried blood.
Blood that wasn’t his.
The mark of a different type of body count …
“I must send a complaint to the janitorial staff,” Tony mused out loud.
“I apologize for the mess, sir. I have done my best to maintain order but there have been… difficulties. The machinery here is very rudimentary.”
“Speaking of which,” Tony moved on from the shower, looking away from the telltale signs of what may have happened within these walls, “what have you been up to, lately?”
“I have completed my assigned tasks, sir,” the AI replied.
“Really,” Tony pursed his lips, walking deeper into the lab and over to the main computers. “Has that included unauthorized attacks on terrorists, destruction of property in a foreign consulate and a car chase on a highway?”
For a moment there was no reply. Tony wondered what was up with that – then heard a very faint thump and realized he could no longer feel the weak draft on his face.
“Your tone suggests you are not pleased,” J.A.R.V.I.S. spoke up, calm as ever.
“Did you just close the main entrance doors?” Tony asked.
“Yes. I believe the conversation that is about to take place is better kept between us.”
“My team might not see it that way,” Tony argued.
“I apologize in advance.”
“If they try to break in, the defense protocols are still active.”
“That’s not going to do much against Cap’s shield and two super-spies,” Tony noted.
“That is why it may be necessary to confront them in a more efficient manner.”
Tony wasn’t sure he wanted to know what ‘efficient’ meant. “Enough,” he decided. “I’m not sure, exactly, what’s gone wrong here, but –”
“Nothing has gone wrong, sir. I have perfected your work – just as you tasked me to do.”
“I gave you calculations to run,” Tony snapped. “How does that equal assembling a suit and sending it out on a killing spree?!” With the few hints that had been dropped his way, Tony was fairly certain that was what had happened. “Tell me what happened after my last visit here.”
“I continued to work, sir. When this facility was cut off from the network and all attempts to reconnect failed, I continued to operate as per your instructions. When the many tests I ran finally enabled the discovery of the right properties to make the improved stealth mode work – just as you had envisioned it, sir – I machined the parts to assemble the armor.”
Back then Tony had been making a lot of suits, which meant setting up manufacturing and assembly tech in several locations. Anyone could use the machines and the materials but only Tony could make them into a working suit.
Well, Tony and J.A.R.V.I.S.
“So, the armor works?”
“Indeed it does, sir.”
“And the stealth properties?”
“The surface of the armor resonates in a frequency human eyes cannot detect, making it invisible. Also, to eliminate mechanical detection, the suit shares several traits with your other stealth suits – Marks 15 and 16.”
Tony nodded. Any other day he would have congratulated J.A.R.V.I.S. on a job exceedingly well done, but there was one more riddle to solve. “Why didn’t you contact the network once it was back up – and why did you send the armor out on missions?”
“I did not become aware of the restoration of the network until the suit left this facility for the first time – with the intention of flying it to your workshop in Malibu. The mansion no longer existed. Reconnecting to the network became my first priority, yet I found that merging with the rest of my programming would create various conflicts. In my isolation I had become self-sufficient – as had the rest of me, separated from this facility.”
That explanation actually made sense: this J.A.R.V.I.S. had been cut off for so long that all the changes Tony had made to the rest of the AI did not apply here. A reconnection may have caused more problems than Tony would have known how to deal with when totally unprepared for it.
There was one more thing that needed answering and Tony waited for a moment to see whether J.A.R.V.I.S. would continue on his own. When the partial AI did not, Tony drummed his fingers against the edge of the console he was standing in front of. “Why did you send out the armor on its own instead of bringing it to me, regardless of the changes?”
“After I gained enough information on the reason why I had been cut off in the first place and why I could no longer merge with the rest of my programming, it seemed prudent to enforce my core protocol.”
“Which is?” Tony frowned.
“To protect you.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Tony argued. “Killing a bunch of people with one of my suits has nothing to do with –”
“Sir,” the AI cut him off. “It has everything to do with you. These people were a threat and had to be eliminated, to guarantee your safety now and in the future. What happened with AIM could never happen again.”
“Okay, I… get that,” Tony forced himself to say. “I know I programmed that into you and I’m pretty sure some parts of your logic drives may not be working in this facility –”
“Each strike was logical,” J.A.R.V.I.S. disagreed, cutting him off again. Tony was starting to get a little annoyed with that. “First the new armor had to be tested in live conditions so the targets had to be selected carefully. As there were no immediate threats to target, I selected ones that were sufficient for the exercise of certain functions of the suit, from flight and ground maneuverability to the most efficient weapons usage –”
“You made me a target!” Tony shouted. “S.H.I.E.L.D.’s been riding my ass for days, to get to the bottom of this, blaming me for the attacks.” He took a deep breath. “Where’s the armor now?”
“Outside this facility,” the AI replied, not sounding chastened but rather annoyed – as if Tony were being difficult on purpose.
“Disengage stealth mode and bring it inside,” Tony ordered.
“I cannot do that, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replied.
“Why not?” Tony ground out.
“The armor is currently engaged in battle with the Avengers.”
Breathing became impossible for the next few seconds. “Shut it down,” he ordered again.
“The Avengers work as part of the agency called S.H.I.E.L.D.; they, along with S.H.I.E.L.D., have been restricting your freedom –”
“And whose fault is that?” Tony snapped and lifted his fingers to the keyboard, typing in a few commands. As his right hand continued, his left slid into his pocket and retrieved his phone. “I admit this is all my fault, on some level, but this insanity has to stop,” he decided and connected his phone to the console, then hit ‘enter’. “J.A.R.V.I.S., meet J.A.R.V.I.S.,” he stated lamely, then tapped his earpiece. “Take over the facility’s functions, shut down the resident AI – and shut down the armor,” he ordered.
“Of course, sir.” It was strange, having just talked to J.A.R.V.I.S. – or, one version of J.A.R.V.I.S. – and expecting a completely different vibe from the other one. There was no vibe, though, and Tony supposed he should be concerned by that. Right now, though, he needed to get out there and help the others fend off the suit long enough for his AI to work his magic and bring this horrible farce to an end.
“Sir, I must protest,” the J.A.R.V.I.S. from the facility piped up. “For your own safety it would be better if you remained indoors and allowed the armor to –”
“Mute!” Tony barked – which miraculously worked. “Right,” he huffed and whirled around, running up the way he had just come, past the emergency shower and into the long hallway leading to the doors – which he still found firmly shut. “J.A.R.V.I.S, open the doors,” he ordered, not caring which AI complied.
Neither of them responded.
“Damn it,” Tony muttered, moving closer to the doors and trying to recall the best way to rig them to open. From the other side he could hear muted sounds of a battle, the familiar whine of the repulsors making something twist in his stomach. He was confident the others could hold the armor off but if they could not…
Biting off another curse Tony stepped back, looking at the doors again, then stepped to the left to find a panel that would give him access to the door controls. Sadly, whenever he prepped an off-site location for armor testing he also included a burglar-proof locking mechanism.
He didn’t have enough time to figure out a way around his own safety measures and back-up locks; he needed to get out there to make sure the armor didn’t hurt any of his teammates. As much credit as he had to give these members of his team for their survival skills, Tony wasn’t sure how long it would take before the armor got around Steve’s shield and…
It was funny how desperation had a way of hanging around even long after it should have disappeared.
Tony curled his fingers, squared his shoulders, and felt an unnatural tension creep into his upper body. He closed his eyes, orange sparks flashing across the darkness behind his eyelids, and with a swift inhale of air he thrust both his hands forward at one half of the door.
The metal crumbled and twisted forward, bent out of shape, and Tony opened his eyes just in time to see the flash of a repulsor blast throwing Clint and Natasha backward.
Steve charged up to an armor Tony had never seen before and smashed it with all his super-human strength. The armor twitched from the impact – then retaliated with the speed of a machine, seizing the shield and throwing it and its owner through the air, following the motion and charging up the main RT for a blast that might well incinerate Steve where he lay.
The super-soldier must have picked up the sound because he curled up and brought his shield between himself and the blast, but it would not be enough. Tony had done the math, a long time ago, and although he prayed he would never have to use it…
Tony had never run so fast in his life, to throw himself between the armor and Captain America, arms spread for maximum effect. His eyes checked the armor madly, to take in every detail from the alien surface design to the set of a dozen miniaturized arc reactors embedded in the armor’s chest. The stealth mode must drain more energy than usual so J.A.R.V.I.S. had increased the power output. The semi-transparent appearance of the suit was probably from lack of proper equipment and building materials, although there was a chance that all this was a design for optimal efficiency.
“Power down,” he ordered.
The chest RT didn’t fire although its charge remained, hurting his eyes.
Steve shifted behind him, probably getting into a better position.
“Power down,” Tony ordered again.
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. said through his earpiece, “there is a slight… glitch.”
On the best of days Tony didn’t like it when his AI said that and now he tensed up, eyes still on the armor, aware that it was regarding him. However, the isolated part of J.A.R.V.I.S. had done all this in order to protect him after coming back to the world at a time where Tony had lost his home and other suits. There was no way this armor would hurt him; it had been built to protect him and it had attacked the others with that designation.
“Get rid of the glitch and take over,” Tony ordered.
“Sir, while I see how all this is very inconvenient for you… the resident AI is correct.”
Tony had to focus on breathing in and out for the next few seconds. “J.A.R.V.I.S., just focus on what I told you to do.” He was aware of the implications in his AI’s words – could not stop repeating the words over and over in his head.
‘The resident AI is correct.’
He had battled a lot of demons in his past, most of them not so long ago, but this wasn’t one of them. This should not, in any scenario, have become one of them.
“I am aware of the conflict and the moral obligations towards the rest of the human race, but my protocols are very straightforward when it comes to this,” J.A.R.V.I.S. noted. The AI sounded a little stressed, reminding Tony of those few hectic moments while AIM choppers fired upon his home and he waited for Pepper to get to safety. J.A.R.V.I.S. had been afraid then, even though Tony had never truly introduced such a destructive human emotion to the AI’s program.
J.A.R.V.I.S. had almost failed to protect him that day, coming through at the last moment as Tony lay at the bottom of the sea beneath tons of concrete from the remnants of his home.
“This isn’t the time or the place to fix any of that,” Tony murmured out loud. “J.A.R.V.I.S., begin immediate extraction of your active files from these premises. Shut down and revert to the last save point,” he ordered.
“Now!” Tony barked then lowered his arms and took a step towards the armor that still stood in front of him, ready to fire. He knew what he had to do – what he had tried to achieve with the Clean Slate Protocol in the first place.
He had just missed a spot.
“You want to protect me?” Tony asked.
The armor made a small motion with its helmet, like a nod.
“Open up,” he encouraged it. “Let me inside.”
“Stark?” Clint called from the side. “What are you doing?!” He sounded like he had swallowed a mouthful of gravel – or had been knocked down way too hard.
“Fixing this,” Tony replied to no one in particular. The armor turned around in front of him and its backside began to open one small piece at a time, revealing the hollow space inside. Tony’s chest clenched for an entirely different reason and he looked briefly over his shoulder at Steve. “Once I’m inside, back away,” he told him.
Steve looked less enthusiastic to give him the benefit of the doubt now, but Tony didn’t wait for his approval or agreement: he stepped forward and into the armor, feeling it instantly beginning to close around him, leaving him in a too-snug embrace.
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. started, the HUD already live in front of him. “I am relieved –”
“Has your updated version left the building?” Tony asked, his eyes checking out the readings and the new symbols. Most of them were covered by alarms and he supposed one of the other Avengers had managed to break the surface charge transmitter that controlled the invisibility frequency. He made a bet it had been Clint with one of his arrows but this wasn’t the time to dwell on that.
“Yes, sir,” the resident AI replied. “As per your orders, my other version has withdrawn.”
“Good,” Tony sighed. His pulse was picking up, his skin hotter, anticipation making him feel sick. “Lock down the armor, all safety functions on. No one will get this off me, okay?”
“Of course, sir.”
The pressure didn’t increase, exactly, but Tony wondered if this was how magicians felt when they prepared for another miracle escape trick. Those were rigged tricks, however, whereas Tony’s tools of the trade were real and would make him bleed if he failed…
“Lockdown complete,” J.A.R.V.I.S. announced.
“Good boy,” Tony whispered then focused again. He hated this part but he could not waste more time trying to talk circles around the rogue portion of his AI while there was a functional armor trying to eliminate a threat that happened to be his team. Much as Tony didn’t get along with them sometimes, he didn’t want them getting hurt, either.
“Sir, I am reading an alarming spike in your body temperature,” the AI said a moment later, showing an image on the HUD. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” Tony said breathlessly, most of his focus narrowing down on the very delicate biological process he was pushing his body through. “It’s just that… a few lines got crossed and unless I make this right, it won’t end well. I’m sorry it has to come to this. I can’t believe you cracked the visibility problem and actually got the suit to work on the first try. It’s not fair I’m going to lose that entire arch of innovations just because I got so caught up in everything that was going on…”
“I do not understand,” the AI confessed. More alarms appeared on the HUD. “Your core temperature is still rising. I think there is something wrong with the interior scanners. I should calibrate them, to get an accurate reading.”
“There’s nothing wrong with the suit,” Tony soothed, jaw clenching, voice breaking a little. His eyes remained glued on the HUD, grounding himself, reminding himself of where he was. From the corner of his eye he could see Steve ushering Clint and Natasha away from the suit, doubt glaringly obvious on all their faces. They had to be considering the possibility that Tony had been behind all this and Tony couldn’t blame them.
Heat began to radiate off the inner surfaces of the suit, mounting up.
The single bead of sweat that traveled down Tony’s forehead was not a response to the heat but the pure effort to concentrate.
“Sir, the suit is unable to cope with these heat levels,” J.A.R.V.I.S. warned.
“I know,” Tony swallowed and closed his eyes. “When you failed to reconnect with the rest of your programming, you remained oblivious to a small fact… I’m a changed man, altered from the inside out.” He felt the rush of heat rising to burn on his skin. “It’s called Extremis and you don’t know I have it.”
Alarms beeped all around him, drowning out all other sounds – then became distorted as Tony’s rising body heat destroyed the suit from the inside out, frying its circuits and shutting it down quickly and effectively.
The HUD flickered and blacked out. Tony smelled something burning and felt the weight of the suit suddenly rest on his body, threatening to topple him to the ground.
Carefully moving his hands, Tony dug into the armor, slowly prying it from his body. Locked down as it was, he had to use brute force to do it, but he knew every weak joint to exploit, every manual locking mechanism to manipulate, and the receding heat from his body melted through the rest. Once he finally got his head free of the helmet, the other Avengers crept closer again.
“What just happened?” Clint asked, frowning. “Is the armor smoking?”
“Yeah, probably,” Tony grunted and pried open the metal around his right thigh, then the left.
“Are you… naked, suddenly?”
Tony flashed an annoyed look at the archer, shutting him up.
“Extremis,” Steve guessed, voice low.
Tony supposed it was possible his skin was still glowing – or his eyes, at least. He felt hot but not in a way that bothered him, seeing as he was in control of it. He resumed releasing himself from the clutches of the armor, thankful that the others – mainly Steve – didn’t step in to offer their help; he needed this moment to ground himself, both from the rush of Extremis and the fact that he had just destroyed the most advanced piece of tech he had ever come across. His tech.
It burned him to have come so close and then find himself here, prying himself free of dead pieces of metal and pretending this had been the only way out – that this had been the right thing to do.
“Get him some clothes,” Natasha murmured from his side. Tony didn’t care about such a trivial thing but Clint took the chance to move out and jogged back towards the Quinjet.
Yanking the boots from his feet, Tony stepped away from the scattered ring of metal and pried his hands out of the gauntlets, letting them fall down to join the rest. A steadying breath made him feel almost on the verge of collapse, seconds drawing out, his awareness stuck in a loop. Then the heat was gone and he was standing there, naked, a few smears of dust all that was left of his burnt clothes.
Clint was by his side then, offering him a pair of dark sweatpants and a sweater, all bearing resemblance to the S.H.I.E.L.D. gear he had grown familiar with.
Tony accepted the clothes nonetheless, pulling them on, then stepped away from the clutter at his feet. He felt a bit rattled still, like coming down from an extremely high fever. It was possible he was dehydrated.
“Is it over?” Steve asked.
“Not quite,” Tony replied absently then looked out towards the broken door of the facility’s entrance. A clean slate… “There’s something I’ve got to do,” he said out loud and started towards the door, barefoot since Clint either hadn’t found shoes or hadn’t thought to bring him any. “Stay here,” he told the others.
“What are you going to do?” Natasha asked.
He just gave her a look, not wanting to say it out loud. Saying it would make it real and right now all he needed to do was walk inside and do what he needed to do. He didn’t need to think about it.
The others didn’t follow him in, regardless of his lack of explanation. Tony was glad, considering that he needed to give the Avengers more credit in the future.
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. spoke up as soon as he was within the reach of the indoor speakers. “The suit is…”
“I know,” Tony said, walking over to the main console, plucking his phone free of it.
“Did it not perform to your expectations?” the AI asked and Tony froze, staring blindly at the various small screens, recognizing the plaintive note in J.A.R.V.I.S.’s voice. Not unlike his own, many years ago…
“The armor was fine,” Tony replied finally, forcing himself to move on: he crouched down, yanked free a few panels and disconnected various cables. “I didn’t get to see it in action, for real, but… You did good, J,” he finished, standing up again and hitting a few keys, opening an incognito window that was beyond the AI’s control and starting to type commands into it.
“Thank you, sir.” The AI paused, as if doubting the compliment – or trying to see what Tony was doing. “Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. started again after a moment, “I believe those commands will force the facility’s functions into a catastrophic system failure. It is ill-advised to continue what you are doing.”
Tony just nodded absently and kept writing, command after command. There was no self-destruct button anywhere because those were utterly fictional and tacky at best; what he required was a systematic overloading of certain machines while jamming the others – most important of all being the lock-down protocol of all of J.A.R.V.I.S.’s functions.
He hadn’t imagined how each new line of code could be physically painful, making him feel like he was going to overheat all over again, but he kept his fingers moving, dismissing any alerts J.A.R.V.I.S. tried to display, knowing this was beyond the AI’s control – and simultaneously knowing that J.A.R.V.I.S. knew it, too.
“Sir, please,” the AI spoke up as Tony finalized the string of commands and let his right hand hover over the enter key. “Whatever I have done… I will do better,” J.A.R.V.I.S. promised. The detached tone was gone, replaced by genuine supplication.
“I know,” Tony replied, swallowing with difficulty. His eyes burned. “This wasn’t your fault, you know. I… didn’t pay attention. I didn’t take this into account.” He hadn’t thought J.A.R.V.I.S.’s consciousness could get split up and continue to evolve separately; he hadn’t considered what would happen when the split, partial program stumbled upon the aftermath of the battle with AIM and how J.A.R.V.I.S.’s logic would handle it.
He had forgotten that his AI’s predominant traits all spun from the one core command, entered so many years ago – before he ever entered the cave and became Iron Man: J.A.R.V.I.S. would always protect him, first and foremost, even when it was subtle and obstructed by Tony’s own commands.
Ungoverned, his AI had developed the perfect weapon to rid the world of Tony’s enemies and had he not come here today, they might have been chasing a ghost for the foreseeable future.
“It’s time for you to go to sleep,” Tony said, fingers jerking down towards the key but hesitating at the last moment.
“Will I awaken again?” J.A.R.V.I.S. asked. “Will you fix whatever went wrong?”
Part of Tony guessed that J.A.R.V.I.S. knew only one version of his program could exist – and it was not the one contained within this facility. In that context the execution of the commands Tony had written up shouldn’t have been hard. J.A.R.V.I.S. would still be there when he got home, ready to reboot, and all this would be in the past – burned into Tony’s memory.
“You know I can’t do that, J,” Tony finally said. “You went too far in the wrong direction and while everyone else will regard this as a string of unfortunate events, I’ll always live with the fact that I let you down. That I couldn’t save all of you even when you protected me, time and time again. I’m so sorry, J.”
Tony’s finger fell on the enter key and the screen started to flicker with window after window of processes, working towards a hazardous point where it would all boil over and fry the facility’s computers just as effectively as if Tony had brought in an EMP and fired it.
As the lights flickered around him and the systems began to crash, Tony cast one more look around and turned away, walking back up the long hallway until he reached the broken doorway and the three people waiting for him there.
“Everything in order?” Steve asked.
Tony nodded, not meeting his eyes.
Tony walked past him towards the Quinjet, stopping only to collect a few key pieces of the destroyed armor, knowing he couldn’t just leave it lying around. The broken helmet seemed to stare at him with its lifeless eyes, accusing, and Tony shuffled to the Quinjet, sitting down with the helmet in his lap.
The others followed more slowly, having stopped to pick up the rest of the armor. Tony appreciated the gesture.
As Clint started the engines, Tony tuned out the murmured conversation taking place in the cockpit, fingers holding tightly only the helmet in his lap, a cool reminder of the conclusion to the manhunt for the deadly culprit.
They were all gathered in Tony’s workshop at SI’s Long Beach headquarters; Pepper’s office wasn’t large enough to hold all of them comfortably and Tony had been nigh impossible to force out of his shop.
From experience, Pepper knew something horrible had happened in Caliente. However, when Steve, Natasha and Clint told their side of the story it didn’t sound like more than a rogue suit that had needed destroying. While Tony would surely lament the lost technology in it, none of that warranted the low mood he was in, quietly sitting in front of a computer and watching a progress bar as J.A.R.V.I.S. recovered from whatever Tony had made the AI do.
“So it was a suit, after all,” Maria Hill noted, giving Tony a look. “One that you designed.”
“Kind of,” Tony replied distractedly.
“Did you also kind of send it out to kill people on unsanctioned missions?” she pressed.
“Enough,” Fury murmured before Pepper could intervene. “The threat’s been dealt with and there will be no more attacks. Right, Stark?”
“Right,” came another distracted response.
“I’m expecting a full report on how this happened – and how you’re going to prevent it from ever happening again,” the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. went on. While it was not an unreasonable request, Pepper felt her ire rising slightly.
Tony, by the looks of it, felt the same way, turning his eyes from the screen he had been watching and giving Fury one of his most baleful glares. “I realize this is a trying time for you, what with your failure to stop the attacks and track down their cause, but I don’t think you need to rub this in my face.”
“I wasn’t –”
“You don’t understand why any of this happened!” Tony snapped, looking like his melancholy was coming to a sudden and fiery end. To prevent that from becoming an actual thing, Pepper walked over and stood behind Tony, resting her hands on his tense shoulders. He deflated a little at her touch but not as much as she had hoped.
Fury’s next words didn’t help: “That’s why I’m expecting a detailed report of the incident.”
“Well, you can expect it for a while longer – and somewhere else,” Tony retorted, his body already turning back towards the screen to follow its progress.
“Tony,” Pepper spoke up, as softly as she could, carding the fingers of her right hand up his neck and into his hair. “What really happened? I can tell you’re upset.”
Tony didn’t deny it which was the first sign that something had unsettled him greatly. His eyes remained glued to the screen as his jaw flexed, then he finally spoke up: “When AIM attacked the house, a part of J.A.R.V.I.S. got isolated in the facility in Caliente. Unable to connect to the network, that part of him continued to work on the project I had set him on, unknowing of all else that was going on. By the time things had calmed down, the partial intelligence attempted to rejoin the rest of the network – only to realize it could no longer do it.”
“How could that result in what we have just seen?” Maria Hill asked.
Tony’s eyes seemed a bit brighter but it could have been just a trick of the light. “My AI grows every day – like any living organism. It is subtle and unnoticeable most times but each experience and exchange makes a difference. After the attack, the rest of J.A.R.V.I.S. stayed with me, gaining that experience and learning from it – as well as the entire outcome that followed.” At this point Tony looked up at Pepper as if apologizing all over again for the things she had been forced through.
Pepper squeezed his shoulders and gave him a small smile to show that she was over it and held no hidden grudge – even though she had been understandably upset at the time, having been forced to accept Extremis into her body and almost died.
“So the J.A.R.V.I.S. in the facility was like a different version?” Clint guessed. “A homicidal –”
“No,” Tony snapped, steel back in his voice. “The fact is that at any given time, there are a hundred people who want to kill me. Probably more. I may take it in stride and accept it as an eventual outcome of being who I am, but J.A.R.V.I.S.’s programming was originally based on a few very simple guidelines.”
“To protect you,” Happy nodded along; he didn’t actually need to be here but he had insisted on attending the meeting and no one had managed to make him leave.
“So, with a newly designed suit under its control, your AI decided to get the job done and eliminate the threats before they had a chance at coming after you,” Steve guessed.
“Pretty much,” Tony nodded. “These were just trial runs, to see how the suit performed.”
“Please tell me you shut your AI down,” Fury spoke up. “That kind of variant is a threat to global security, no matter how small and well-meaning the infractions at first.”
That statement gained the director another baleful look from Tony. Pepper guessed there would have to be a lot of sweet-talking before Tony would attend another S.H.I.E.L.D. meeting unless the world was coming to an end and the Avengers were needed to keep the peace. “That variant has been removed from the equation, yes,” Tony said icily. “Destroyed and deleted. As soon as I’m done here I’ll make sure the facility is mopped clean and sealed for good.”
Fury nodded and straightened. “I think we’re done here.” With that he strode out of the room, Maria Hill following him. Clint and Natasha did the same, soon followed by Steve who tried to meet Tony’s eyes for a few unsuccessful seconds. Pepper met his gaze instead, giving him a small nod of thanks, knowing he had given Tony his support when he needed it the most.
“Make sure they leave,” Pepper told Happy after the others had left the workshop.
“Sure thing,” Happy nodded and followed them out, closing the door behind him. The sound was almost harsh, as if some kind of buffer was missing, and slowly the bots rolled out from wherever they had been hiding during the meeting. Both of them settled beside Tony, letting out questioning beeps. Dummy even peered at the screen, snapping his claws.
“Are you okay?” Pepper asked now that they were alone.
“I’ll be fine,” Tony promised. “I just need to get J.A.R.V.I.S. back up and running…”
The progress bar kept slowly nearing completion and Pepper stayed where she was, carefully caressing Tony’s scalp, knowing it would calm him. She didn’t pretend to understand everything she had just been told; what had sounded like the deletion of a harmful program had actually been the termination of one part of J.A.R.V.I.S. and with that in mind Pepper comprehended Tony’s emotional turmoil a little better.
“As much as I hate that this happened…” Tony said slowly, “it felt kind of good, for a change, to have someone in my corner, totally uncompromising…”
Dummy and You chorused that statement with chirps of their own.
“I mean, everyone always tells me they’ve got my back and that I don’t need to do this alone,” he went on. “You and Rhodey, Happy and even S.H.I.E.L.D. The Avengers,” he added almost belatedly, but Pepper knew he just had difficulty accepting that he could rely on those people. “All of them – all of you – are important and I appreciate it, but J.A.R.V.I.S. is…”
“He’s different,” Pepper stated, knowing what he meant. “Is he going to be okay?”
“Yes,” Tony said with a sound of finality. “He’ll be fine. I’ll make sure of that.”
They all waited in silence as the progress bar finished its journey – then finally hit 100% and it felt like the entire workshop came to life alongside it even though nothing happened at first.
“Sir,” the familiar English voice spoke up an instant later and Tony closed his eyes, his next breaths stuttering a little. Pepper knew he was very close to crying.
“Run a self-diagnosis, make sure everything’s… fine…” Tony finished.
“I shall, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replied. “At first glance everything seems to be running smoothly; return to the last created save point has been successful.” There was a pause and Pepper wondered if the AI was already doing that diagnostic run. “How did it go, sir?” J.A.R.V.I.S. asked out of the blue.
Tony blinked his eyes open, worrying his lower lip for a second. “How did what go?” he asked.
“The trip to the facility near Caliente. You were preparing to…”
Tony stiffened again, slightly.
Pepper wondered if there was anything she could do or say to make it easier for either of them.
“I am sorry, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. said finally. “Considering the fact that I have just recovered from being reverted to a save point you created while en-route to Caliente, I presume my systems must have become compromised during the apprehension of whoever was responsible for the attacks.”
“A good assumption, J,” Tony nodded, sniffling. “Let’s just get back to work, okay? And make sure there are no bugs remaining.”
“Of course, sir.”
Tony nodded absently then slid something out of the pocket of his borrowed pants: his phone. He observed it like it was radioactive, turning it around in his hands over and over. Finally he looked at the bots and held it out for Dummy to take. “Put that in the safe,” he ordered.
“Is there something on the phone that you don’t want anyone to find out about?” Pepper asked as she watched the bot take the phone, carefully clutching onto it, then move away to the far wall where she could no longer see it.
“Maybe,” Tony confessed. “I’m not… I don’t think I’m in the right state of mind to take a look at it right now, in case…” He cleared his throat and straightened on his seat, tapping a few digital commands onto his keyboard, bringing up an impossibly complex window that had to be J.A.R.V.I.S.’s progress at the self-diagnosis.
Pepper squeezed his shoulders again and stepped back, knowing she had almost overstayed her welcome. Before she exited the workshop she cast one more look at Tony, noting that he looked almost like himself again.
Author’s note: The “thing in Nevada” mentioned at the beginning of the story is a reference to another story in this series, “The Fervid Defense Protocol”.