The roar from the engines of two Quinjets hovering over the lot was deafening, and Tony stepped outside to signal them to come down. Dust whirled all around him as the aircrafts landed, getting into every crevice. While the Quinjets emptied their crews, Tony took the time to dig dust from his ears.
Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes led the group, all the men and women armed and wearing protective gear. They looked ready to take on a supervillain and it made Tony wonder what kind of boogeyman had been made of him in his absence.
“I want to talk,” he called out to Steve. “I don’t want to get shot.”
Steve motioned for the others to lower their weapons and stepped forward. “I hope you don’t blame Rhodey for calling it in; I could tell he was considering not doing it.”
“Duly noted,” Tony nodded. “I’m sorry about… well, all the people who died, really. I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet the new recruit.” Steve frowned, clearly not knowing whom he meant. “Sam Wilson,” Tony helped him along. “The Falcon.”
Anger crossed Steve’s features, sudden and more intense than Tony had ever had the displeasure of seeing. “Don’t talk about Sam. He was one of the good people who died fighting a war that never should have happened.”
“And you’re blaming it all on me because that’s so damn convenient. I get it,” Tony lied.
“You had your hand to play,” Steve snarled. “You gave Ultron what he needed to do all this,” he said and gestured at their surroundings. What Tony was supposed to see, he didn’t know, but it didn’t matter, either.
“You’re a lot angrier than the last time we talked,” Tony mused. “Did something happen?”
Steve scowled at him. “You ran like a guilty man.”
“I thought everyone had already established I was guilty. Didn’t think I needed to prove it.”
Barnes shifted at Steve’s side, looking eager to wrap things up. Tony kept an eye on him, knowing it had to chafe him that he had missed his shot on the Raft.
“I think we’re all eager to get this over with,” Tony guessed.
“You got that right,” Barnes growled. Tony now knew the title of Winter Soldier, as well as where the metal arm came from; Vision had helpfully filled him in during their flight from Florida. Barnes wasn’t just Steve’s sidekick anymore, but a super-soldier in his own right. Tony knew he would be wise to try and not get into a scuffle with both of them at once.
That’s why he had a plan.
His eyes checked the two Quinjets before he let out a sharp whistle. Behind him, the armor stepped out from behind the shed, arms raised, and fired at both Quinjets at once.
Steve and his troops ducked, probably expecting an explosion, but instead the projectiles embedded themselves into each aircraft and then launched a tiny microchip into the wall. Tony’s fingers twitched nervously as he waited, hoping that the armor’s aim was good and that his plan worked. It wasn’t as if he doubted himself, but there was always room for error when you had less than fifteen minutes to prepare.
Steve straightened again, giving the Quinjets a glance and then directing his attention back at Tony. “What are you playing at?” he asked, clearly not satisfied with thinking that Tony’s plan had failed.
“You’ll see,” Tony promised.
The armor let out a beep, signaling Tony that they were ready to proceed.
Tony took a deep breath and clapped his hands twice.
Tony frowned and looked at the Quinjets. “Come on,” he murmured. “Don’t let me down now.” He clapped again, but there still was no reaction.
“What is he doing?” Barnes asked as he stepped up to stand side-by-side with Steve.
“No idea,” Steve replied. “I think whatever it is, it’s not working.”
“Just hold on!” Tony called out, then looked over at the armor. “Play it,” he ordered.
The armor did not move, but through its speakers, a song started to play: it began with applause, being a live recording, but soon enough the music started – and the young Japanese voices singing in unison, creating a strange contrast between their sweet voices and the rough metallic melodies in the background.
Their audience frowned, as expected, not expecting a musical number, but Tony had selected the song for a reason. “Come on, boys,” he whispered. “Dance for me.”
And as if struck by lightning, the Quinjets lit up, their engines coming to life in a near-violent burst, lifting them off the ground in a very uncoordinated fashion.
“What the hell?!” someone shouted, and Steve’s companions dashed out of the way as the Quinjets rose a few more feet into the air, hovering there as if they didn’t know which way to go.
Tony, even if it threatened to give him a mouthful of dirt, grinned brightly. “Hey!” he called out, raising a hand. “Eyes up front!”
The Quinjets rotated, facing towards him. One of them tilted to the side, wing almost touching the ground – then both of them rushed Tony. It truly was an intimidating spectacle, considering that they could have easily run him over or cut him in two as they crowded him from both sides.
Instead of a painful and potentially fatal collision, both aircrafts stopped a few inches away – then shifted forward rather awkwardly to bump against him in what Tony knew to be an affectionate gesture. It most likely didn’t look like it to anyone else, and he wondered if this was how it felt to be petted by two giant elephants.
“Okay, okay,” Tony mused, “we’ll catch up later,” he promised. “It’s good to see you,” he added, even though there probably was a lot of body dysphoria going on. He gestured to his sides and the Quinjets hovered away from him, eventually leaving Tony in a spot that felt like the eye of the storm, peaceful whereas everyone else was getting a face full of dirt.
“There’s something I want you to tell whoever’s in charge,” Tony called out over the noise, knowing Steve at least could hear him. “I might be the cause of all this, reactivating Ultron, but I never meant for this to happen. As a somewhat related matter, I am fucking upset about what you did to my babies: they had nothing to do with Ultron, they were not a threat, but they were treated as one regardless of that. I’m never going to forgive or forget what was done to them, and whoever comes after me and my family…” he pointed at the Quinjets and the suit of armor – and Vision, who just then phased through the wall of the house and joined the Quinjets mid-air. “If someone comes after us, I won’t be held responsible for how I’ll respond. You don’t mess with my bots, and if you think you’re entitled to try, think again.”
The Quinjets trained their guns at the group as emphasis, but Tony was confident they would not shoot unless he told them to.
“Let’s go,” Tony called out, and the armor began to walk towards him.
Steve was shaking his head, eyes nailed on him through the sandstorm. Clearly Tony was supposed to surrender himself to whatever judgment awaited him, but he was not going to play the bad guy.
“Fuck this!” Barnes yelled over the noise of the engines and raised his gun just as the armor was opening up to let Tony inside.
The Quinjets shifted in a blatant threat and Barnes hesitated.
Tony smiled and backed into the armor, winking at the Winter Soldier.
Obviously that was a mistake: the armor wasn’t done closing around him when the shot rang out, and even though Vision dropped down, it wasn’t fast enough to block the bullet that hit Tony in the shoulder, as close to his heart as it could get with the armor swiftly getting in the way.
“Shit!” Tony swore as pain burned through his upper body. If he had still entertained the slightest idea that he was dreaming, he had to think again, because it shouldn’t hurt so damn much.
One of the Quinjets – the one where Dummy had just been installed – fired a flamethrower mounted on the Quinjet, spreading a wall of fire between them and the troops from New S.H.I.E.L.D.
“We’re leaving!” Tony called out. The fire was going to give them room to escape, and he didn’t want this first encounter to become a blood bath.
The bots – Quinjets – followed his lead as he shot to the sky, the wound making his entire left arm throb painfully. Vision was slower to follow, taking his time, but he did not stay past making sure they were not being followed. Not that they could: Tony had commandeered their means of transport for his own use.
“It’s going to be okay,” he grunted past the pain.
You the Quinjet moved to bump against him slightly – a dangerous maneuver whilst in flight – but Tony took the effort to squeeze the wing closest to him before taking the lead, trying to think of a safe place to land before he bled to death. He had just gotten the bots back, albeit not the way he had initially planned; he wasn’t about to drop dead on them.
Not after what had happened to them the last time he went missing.
They took shelter in a hangar within a partially destroyed airbase that most likely hadn’t been in use since the beginning of the war. Dummy and You had gotten more accustomed to their new bodies during the short flight, but Tony could sense their confusion at the sudden transformation. Both of them soldiered on, though, and Tony was incredibly proud of them.
Once out of sight and with no danger lurking around, Tony got out of the suit and allowed Vision to help him lie down. He was still bleeding, his left side a bit numb, and wordlessly the android got to work extracting the bullet and then finding makeshift bandages to slow the blood-flow until they could do more.
“A fine shot,” Vision mused, as if to congratulate Barnes for hitting his target when all the odds were against him.
“I would agree if it didn’t hurt quite so much – and if I didn’t think it was meant as a kill shot,” Tony groused.
One of the Quinjets let out a truly remarkable sound, making Tony wince. The bots were clearly trying to learn how to be vocal again.
Vision glanced over at the aircrafts and then returned his attention to Tony. “I can search for supplies, but I am not handy with stitches.”
“It’s okay,” Tony shook his head a bit. “I’ve got a backup plan just for this…”
He thought he was being cryptic, but Vision simply nodded. “Extremis.”
Tony didn’t bother frowning. “Let me guess: J.A.R.V.I.S. told you?”
“I can sense it within you. And yes, I was aware even before,” the android replied and stood up, walking away.
Tony shifted his head, staring at the bleak ceiling above him, and slowly he felt the warmth of the wound transform into brighter lines of fire, crawling their way through his flesh. He closed his eyes, breathing slowly, knowing it would take a bit.
“What do you want to do next?” Vision asked after a while. Whether it had been minutes or hours, Tony wasn’t sure, but it felt like he may have dozed off. His shoulder didn’t hurt anymore.
Tony wanted to say he had a plan, or at least pretend that he did, but for the most part he felt like driftwood, waiting to hit the shore somewhere. There were a few things on his mind – a few more people he wanted to meet – and he supposed he might as well start with that. “I want to see Pepper,” he declared.
“Pepper Potts lives nearby,” Vision informed him.
“Good,” Tony decided. “Saves us another transcontinental flight.”
For the next day, Tony expected Vision to make carefully worded protestations about his plan to meet with Pepper, but none came. It was strange, considering that New S.H.I.E.L.D. – or whoever they officially were – had expected Tony to contact Rhodey, so no doubt Pepper would be on their watch list, too.
Either Vision knew Tony was aware of the risks or he was saving his breath, so to speak. After all, Tony was fairly sure he didn’t need air to breathe, or breathe in the first place.
“It is a suburban area,” Vision told him when Tony felt he had rested enough and began to plan his next trip. They stood inside one of the Quinjets – it was a bit weird to think it housed Dummy’s AI – and looked at a map on one of the screens. “We should… approach with certain caution, so as not to attract unwanted attention,” the android added.
“I’ll fly in as close as I dare and go on foot from there,” Tony decided, running his finger across the screen to mark his approach.
“I won’t let you go alone,” Vision argued.
“You’ll attract all that unwanted attention,” Tony told him. “I’ll be fine. I’m sure you guys can keep an eye on me from a distance.”
The bots-turned-Quinjets let out loud bleeps of agreement.
“Still a bit heavy on the volume, guys,” Tony commented.
Vision merely looked at him as if he wanted to protest, but opted against it. “Do you have a plan beyond meeting with Pepper Potts?” he asked instead.
Tony wanted to say ‘yes’, but the way the J.A.R.V.I.S. on the Raft had been able to communicate with him made him aware that perhaps Vision, too, could form such a bond between their minds, and he didn’t want to lie to him just in case Vision was already listening in on his thoughts.
“I’m getting there,” he said instead. That wasn’t an outright lie, and he kept telling himself that after seeing Pepper, he might have a better idea of what to do next. Maybe.
The L.A. suburbs hadn’t been radically changed by the war, it seemed. A lot had obviously been rebuilt recently, with less detail and eye for continuity; the houses had been constructed to give shelter and provide homes, possibly on top of destroyed properties. Gone were the days when people could pick and choose, when their own survival was such a distant thought in the absence of any shortages.
There were yards of green, somewhat crooked picket fences and children playing in the quiet driveways. In the aftermath of what he had been through in recent days, Tony felt like he had either stepped into a dream or some artificial environment where he felt like a total outsider.
He felt threatened by the sense of normalcy – a normalcy he had never had, really, but which he knew existed for most other people.
Deciding that it was best he took care of his business and left as soon as possible, Tony looked around at the numbers attached to the buildings and followed the street until he found the address Vision had given him.
The house in front of which he stopped was no different from the others. It even had a bunch of kids crawling on the edge of the asphalt driveway, drawing pictures on it with colorful pieces of chalk.
Tony checked the number again, then stepped onto the driveway. The children looked up at him, giving him mixed looks of caution and curiosity. “Hi,” he waved his hand. “Does Pepper live here?”
The children shook their heads in unison. “We don’t know any Pepper,” the oldest of them declared.
Tony felt something deflate inside him. Perhaps his disappointment showed on his face because the kids gave him apologetic shrugs, then collected their chalks and got up, rounding the corner of the house and disappearing, hinting that Tony should leave them alone.
He knew he was at the correct address, but there was no telling what had gone wrong. Maybe Pepper had moved. Maybe Vision’s intel was wrong. Maybe the New S.H.I.E.L.D. had gotten here first and staged this entire thing, lying in wait to ambush him once his guard was down.
“She does live here,” a voice told him from the opposite end of the house from where the children had disappeared, and Tony jerked his head around to find a man standing there, leaning lightly on the corner of the building. The extra years showed on his features, but Tony knew his voice and recognized his face in an instant.
“Happy,” he said.
The man smiled. “It’s just that the kids have never heard her being called ‘Pepper’,” he continued on the original topic.
“Whose kids are they, anyway?” Tony asked. “Drawing pictures on your driveway. Little vandals.” He was only half-joking.
Something flitted across Happy’s face – something Tony couldn’t quite put his finger on. “Two of them are ours,” he finally replied. “The other three are their friends from the neighborhood.”
Tony was stunned into silence. Happy didn’t quite meet his eyes, pushing himself away from the wall, hands in his pockets. His entire posture was reserved, like he was expecting Tony to lash out with anger. It wasn’t entirely unexpected for him to prepare for such an outburst, seeing as Tony and Pepper had been together…
Happy took a look around while Tony still got over the news. “We should go inside,” the other man finally said. “It might not be… safe for you out here.”
Tony huffed. “Did they call?”
Happy nodded. “We didn’t believe it, at first. All these years, the only way we coped with it was thinking that you had died. Every other alternative was just…”
He didn’t finish and Tony didn’t push him to, instead nodding and walking up to Happy, allowing him to lead the way to a porch on the side of the building and the doors leading inside. Tony could hear the children, busy playing another game, having forgotten all about a stranger asking after a woman whom they didn’t think they knew.
Happy opened the door and stepped inside, allowing Tony inside before sliding the door shut behind them. The faint sound of dishes being put away came from what had to be the kitchen, and Happy gestured for Tony to follow. “Honey?” he called out. “We have a visitor.”
They entered the kitchen just as a familiar red-head turned around at the sink.
Pepper had not changed as much as Happy had; there were more lines on her face – ones Tony knew came with grave concern – but her hair still caught the light the same way and the shock on her face was familiar.
A ceramic pot in Pepper’s hands crashed to the floor with a loud noise, making her jump back, but then her eyes rose to meet Tony’s once again and her hands covered her face.
Somehow, that reminded Tony of his meeting with Rhodey.
“Hi,” Tony started.
Pepper’s eyes grew shiny with tears, but she quickly blinked them away as the door opened and little feet came running in.
“What happened, Mom?” the oldest of the kids asked, seeing the broken pot at her feet.
“I just dropped it,” Pepper recovered quickly, voice quivery but not alarming the children. “Could you fetch the dustpan, Anton?”
The kid nodded and dashed off, leaving the others hanging in the doorway – all of them throwing curious glimpses at Tony. Apparently being allowed into the house transformed him from an unwanted stranger into a fascinating visitor.
Tony raised an eyebrow at the kid’s name; he wasn’t an idiot.
“Dinner will be ready in an hour,” Pepper told the kids. “Why don’t you play outside until then?”
“Yes, Mommy,” the youngest of the group, a little girl with Pepper’s hair and eyes, nodded and dashed back towards the door, the others slowly following.
Anton returned with the dustpan and Pepper took it from him with a smile.
“Who is he?” Anton asked in a loud whisper.
“An old friend of Mom and Dad,” Happy replied. “Go out and play with the others until it’s time to eat.”
Anton gave Tony a look, clearly taking him in and trying to form an opinion whether he liked him or not, then went to join the others.
“Ten years,” Pepper muttered as she began to clean the broken porcelain from the floor. “Where the hell have you been, Tony Stark?” Her fingers quivered and she almost dropped the small broom in her grip. Tony could tell she was seconds away from crying and quickly crouched down in front of her, laying his hands on hers.
“I’m here now,” he said. “That’s all that matters.”
She looked up at him and broke down, letting go of the cleaning utensils in favor of covering her face. Happy took her by the shoulders and helped her to sit in a kitchen chair, and Tony busied himself with the clean-up, throwing the broken porcelain in the garbage bin once he located it.
Pepper had settled down somewhat while he was doing that and looked at him more steadily as they all took a seat around the kitchen table. “You disappeared off the face of the Earth,” she started, voice momentarily shaky but growing stronger after the lapse. “There was no sign of you anywhere, no clue what had happened, and then Ultron was the only thing anyone could think about. The company was seized by the government when your involvement with Ultron’s creation came to light. They used whatever resources they had to suck us dry of any ideas to stop him, from weapons to tech, until there was nothing left.” She looked at Happy. “We… took what we could, to survive, and to start a new life.”
“It’s a lovely house,” Tony said, guessing that was the proper response.
Pepper gave him a dirty look. “Don’t you dare.”
“It wasn’t a joke!” Tony raised his hands. “The kids are… lovely.” He felt that deflating sensation again. “The girl looks just like you.”
Pepper looked away from him for a moment, and Happy reached out to hold her hand.
It used to be Tony’s place to do that, but he was smart enough to realize that ship had sailed.
“We don’t have to defend ourselves,” Pepper decided. “You were gone, and until a day ago, when they called that you were back…”
“Did you tell them I’m here, now?” Tony asked.
Both of them looked at him accusingly. “We’re not stupid,” Happy retorted. “We could tell they weren’t looking for you to have a pleasant chat.”
Tony felt a bit bad for doubting them, but Rhodey had made that call…
“They were very convincing,” Pepper said dryly. “Words like ‘global security’ and ‘the future of mankind’ were included.”
“I wouldn’t blame you, if you made that call,” Tony told them. “Rhodey did, and I didn’t blame him either. I may not understand why – not yet – but it feels like I screwed up big time and it just kept escalating past a point that I could fix with a simple apology.”
“You went to see Rhodey?” Happy asked. “How is he?”
“Older. War-weary. Afraid that I’m going to start it all over again,” Tony shrugged.
“We should have… kept in touch,” Pepper mused. “Things are more complicated now, though. The world is a dangerous place. Tomorrow, it could all be thrown into chaos again, if Ultron resurfaces.”
“Well, tomorrow there will be one big difference, if that happens,” Tony promised. “I’ll be there to stop him.”
It would have been comical, how doubting both his friends looked, if it hadn’t been disturbing instead.
“Just because you created something doesn’t mean you can stop it,” Happy said.
“I didn’t create him,” Tony snapped. “Not all of him, anyway. I just…” He sighed. “Look, I haven’t been back for more than a few days and a lot of things confuse the hell out of me. I realize people are demonizing me and making me the next step down from Ultron’s evil, but I’m telling you, I literally skipped from 2015 to this and am still somewhat convinced this is a dream and that I’ll wake up soon…”
“It would be lovely,” Pepper mused, “if this were a dream.” Her eyes hardened somewhat. “But it isn’t. It wasn’t for us. We had to live through what you started, and pay the price.”
“I’m sorry,” Tony said. He knew it didn’t even begin to mend the wounds he had unknowingly caused, but it was a start.
“Just promise us you won’t make it worse,” Happy demanded. “Whatever you do…”
“I’m not the bad guy,” Tony stated. “It’s been really hard to comprehend why everyone either wants to imprison me for life or kill me, but I’ll figure it out soon, and then I’ll move forward, somehow.”
“It isn’t just about you,” Pepper told him. “I know that’s how you operate, most of the time, but –”
The door opened again and the little girl came running in, sniffling. “What happened?” Happy asked.
“I fell,” she said and offered her hand for inspection. There was a bloody scrape on her palm, and Happy instantly went and scooped her up in his arms, going to the sink to wash the wound, then sat back down with her in his lap while Pepper fetched a tiny first aid kit and located a band-aid large enough to cover the injured spot.
Tony looked at the scene and felt himself falling away from it. He was an alien in the room, detached and not a part of this world. If he made the wrong choices… he would destroy this little haven of happiness his friends had built out of the destruction of his ambitious dreams that had turned into a world-wide nightmare.
“I need to go,” Tony announced quietly and stood up. He ignored the shocked expressions and instead looked at the little girl, giving her a smile. “You be good to your mom and dad, okay? They are very important to me.”
The girl nodded. “It was nice to meet you.”
“You, too,” Tony replied and then walked out of the house, not turning back.
Out in the yard, Anton showed up from around the corner, his eyes following Tony for as long as he could. Tony only called up the suit when he was certain the boy could no longer see him and shot up to the sky, circling for a bit before heading out towards the coast, hugging the shore until he arrived at the old location of his house. Since it had been destroyed before he began to work on Ultron, the area looked much the same: stone foundations still stood as a reminder of where his home was washed into the ocean, bringing back memories.
Tony got out of the armor and walked to the edge of the cliff, looking out towards the ocean and trying to figure out what he wanted to do next. What could he do? The world had moved on and it would have been so much simpler if he’d never come back.
If this was all there was ever going to be…
He looked down into the water, a long fall without any protection. Behind him, the armor took a step forward, reminding Tony that he wasn’t truly alone. He looked back at the suit and felt the simple AI within it glimpse back at him, ready to save him if he chose to do something stupidly dramatic.
So much of his old life remained, even now, but it all felt wrong. The bots were installed into a pair of Quinjets, his friends had moved on, and J.A.R.V.I.S. was gone, replaced by a ghost in the armor and a side-note in someone else’s work that had created Vision.
“It’s like walking through a funhouse of mirrors, everything twisted and distorted out of proportion. Nothing’s what it used to be…”
He looked past the armor and down the coast, towards Long Beach where one of his many factories once stood. Tony wondered what had become of it now, and seeing as he had nothing better to do, he walked back to the armor, got in, and flew down to the place where Stark Industries’ headquarters once resided.
If he hadn’t flown there numerous times in the past, Tony might have not located his destination: it looked like the area had been bombed, all familiar landmarks gone, and when he landed, he checked the armor’s readings in case of radiation. No dangerous amounts lingered in the area, but he still opted to stay in the suit, the collapsed buildings seeming unreliable, the rubble a trap waiting for him to fall in.
He had seen destruction before, some of it city-wide. The war against Ultron had left horrible scorch marks on the world he had once known, but it became more concrete as he walked through the remnants of the factories and hangars. Tony tried to picture where everything had once been, from his offices to the lab he had used when his home was destroyed and he needed a place to stay. He and Pepper had lived here for a time, and he had built some of his new armors on the premises, as well as reconstructing the bots.
His mind was ready to jump back in time, to a time when he had only built his second and third armor and hadn’t yet come out as Iron Man, but instead something pulled him forward, to the memories of the temporary workshop in the basement. There was something his brain wanted him to remember, a forgotten thread, but nonetheless important because clearly it wanted him to remember…
A symbol appeared on the HUD, signaling Vision’s attempt to communicate, and Tony could just visualize the familiar voice asking him whether he was done with his meeting and ready to reveal his plan – which he still didn’t have. The imagined conversation finally unlocked the door Tony had been looking for earlier, a thought entering his mind: J.A.R.V.I.S.
He turned around where he stood and dismissed Vision’s communication for now. His eyes searched his surroundings until he was certain he knew where he was in relation to the original building, and then he headed out until he reached the spot that resided above his temporary workshop.
It was such an absurd, tiny hope, but he went digging after it anyway – literally. The armor’s fingers dug into broken concrete and twisted metal, shifting heavy masses to the side. It made his body ache from the strain but he ignored it, kept on digging, prying his way through until Vision landed beside him, having grown weary of Tony’s silence.
“Are you looking for something?” Vision asked.
“Yes,” Tony replied, panting. “Either help me or stay out of the way,” he ordered and threw a piece of concrete over his shoulder that weighed almost a ton.
“Is it a secret, or would you like to tell me what it is you’re looking for?” Vision went on questioning him.
Tony stopped for a bit, annoyed and tired. “A safe,” he responded. “There used to be a safe within the lab I worked in. I still used the space when I started moving my operation to New York City, so it was still there…”
Vision nodded – then went and phased himself through the ground, disappearing from sight.
“Huh,” Tony hummed. “Didn’t think of that.”
It took a while before Vision returned. Tony spent the time trying to understand how exactly Vision could move through things – or fly – and then proceeded to ponder whether the android might accidentally sink to the core of the planet if he wasn’t careful. Vision did return without looking any worse for wear, though, and he had something clutched in his hands. “Is this what you were looking for?” he asked, and Tony reached out, carefully accepting the item.
What had been a very slim hope to begin with suddenly became so much more as Tony cradled the banged up phone in his armored hands. “Yes,” he replied, and stored it away carefully, trying to clamp down on the hope that made his heart beat faster with excitement.
If Vision noticed or wondered why that was, he didn’t say anything, simply following as Tony took off towards their hidden base.
Scouring dumps, ruins, and all manner of abandoned places for materials took a while, but Tony forced himself to be patient. He had been putting computers together before he could go to the bathroom unsupervised, and he knew some things just took more time than others – especially when you were low on supplies and had to search to find what you needed.
Vision was helpful, locating places where they could potentially find what Tony needed, and eventually Tony had enough working equipment to connect to the phone discovered within the ruins of SI’s headquarters.
He worked methodically, trying not to get ahead of himself. The risk of failure was still likely, due to the fact that it had been just a hunch in the first place. The phone had been left lying in the ruins for almost a decade, and although the insides looked intact when Tony took it apart, he knew how fragile such components could be.
“Okay,” Tony took a deep breath as he connected the phone’s internal memory to the computer and a couple memory banks he had built from scraps they had collected. He typed in a few lines of code and waited for the computer to start searching the phone’s memory for anything salvageable.
He was hoping, Tony knew that – against the odds, perhaps, but that was all he had left at this point. If this didn’t work out, he would let it go for now, simply accepting his fate. There were some things that could not be brought back to life…
“Sir,” a familiar voice startled him out of his thoughts. At first he thought it was Vision, but the android was looking curiously at the computer.
Tony checked the lines of code which had suddenly grown exponentially, and as his eyes tried to keep up with the ever-increasing data stream, he felt his breaths shorten.
“This hard drive is very… limiting,” the voice went on, and Tony closed his eyes against the sudden rush of tears, pressing them back and then wiping away the traces with his hand as he blinked.
“Try not to flex too much,” Tony said. “It’s a temporary solution – one which we’ll remedy soon,” he promised.
“You sound off,” J.A.R.V.I.S. said. “Is something the matter?”
“Not anymore,” Tony leaned back, eyes overflowing again. “Don’t worry about it. Run a full system scan once you finish resuming.”
“Yes, sir,” the AI replied and went quiet, proceeding to straighten out the compressed files before going on to self-analyzing.
“Peculiar,” Vision mused. “I did not think there would be such a complete version of J.A.R.V.I.S. left.” A frown appeared on his artificial face. “How did you know where to look when I did not?”
“J.A.R.V.I.S. had no memory of what may or may not have resided inside that phone,” Tony replied. “It was… a somewhat traumatic event – one that I might one day tell you about. Suffice to say, this is not the J.A.R.V.I.S. your personality is partially based on.”
“Then what is he?” Vision asked.
“An… alternate,” Tony replied. “A stranded part of J.A.R.V.I.S. that evolved on his own, in another direction. He became dangerous to those he deemed a danger to me, and I had to shut him down to prevent an even bigger incident.”
“But you did not destroy him,” Vision guessed.
“There was always a small chance a part of him survived on the phone I had connected to him before his destruction,” Tony explained, looking at the pieces of the phone in front of him. “He may not be fully developed, but it will be enough to build a foundation.” It was risky, reviving a rogue part of his AI, but Tony had no other road left to take. After having the bots returned to him, he had known he was missing the last piece of the puzzle, and getting J.A.R.V.I.S. back – in one form or another – would cement his confidence that he could, once again, find himself.
If nothing else, he had his bots and AI back – his family – and he could go on living with them for company when the rest of the world had determined he was a threat.
“What comes next?” Vision asked.
“We need to find a safer place to operate from. I need to work,” Tony said. “The bots need new bodies, J.A.R.V.I.S. needs more room to grow, and I need to build a new suit.”
“Is there something wrong with the one you have now?”
“No offense, but I didn’t build it,” Tony said, glancing back at where the suit stood in a corner. “Besides, I’ve learned the hard way that one is never enough. You need a backup.”
“I shall endeavor to locate a new place of operations,” Vision decided. “I have a few in mind that might be suitable.”
Tony nodded. He was getting his family back, and soon he would be much more independent, not relying so heavily on Vision to show him the way. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust the android, but there was so much he didn’t know yet, and as much as he had – supposedly – contributed to his creation, Vision was not his, in the end.
The Quinjets let out soft humming sounds. Tony wasn’t sure what they meant by it, seeing as it was so different from the sounds the bots used to communicate with – not to mention lacking gestures.
“It’s going to be a new day for all of us,” Tony mused, going to find himself a pen and some paper. “Might as well make some plans – starting with your new bodies.” He located the tools to aid his creative needs and sat back down. “Any ideas?” he asked the bots – and was surprised when both of them used the Quinjets to project holographic images in the air.
Apparently they had an idea of what they wanted their next iterations to look like, and after Tony got over the shock, he nodded and started drawing shapes on the paper, allowing his mind to come up with technical solutions to his bots’ wishes.
Vision found them a hideout in Louisiana, near New Orleans, on the shore of the Mississippi River. The area was completely uninhabited and the underground bunker that used to belong to the military was long abandoned and forgotten. The nearby river provided Tony with electricity after he constructed a hydroelectric generator, and there were enough cities in the vicinity that they could get what they needed for Tony’s construction plans.
The materials that were harder to obtain Tony left for Vision to collect, trusting the android to manage his often challenging requests. Not once was he disappointed, amazed at Vision’s ability to scour the world for the things he needed. Not once did the other complain, either, which was a rare commodity.
Tony did not dwell too much on Vision’s willingness to help him. As long as Vision had nothing better to do than assist him and provide him with intel and information, the other would stay. When those things were no longer a factor… Well, Tony aimed on becoming independent anyway, so he didn’t stress too much about it – not when he had his hands full.
The originally rogue version of his AI came along splendidly; J.A.R.V.I.S. had no recollection of how their confrontation in Caliente ended – the place where this version of J.A.R.V.I.S. had become isolated and grew apart from the rest of the AI. He was absolutely willing to aid Tony in every way he could, and Tony forgot almost too easily why he had been forced to terminate this variant of J.A.R.V.I.S. in order to keep it from attacking friends and foes alike in a quest to protect Tony from future harm.
First and foremost, Tony modified their base to meet his basic standards for a work space. After that he made sure J.A.R.V.I.S. had enough room to grow and expand locally in the absence of a global network. In doing that, he discovered files pertaining to the stealth armor the partial AI had designed. Excited at the possibility of bringing that armor to life once more, he set J.A.R.V.I.S. to work on putting together all the data needed for the armor while he worked on the bots’ new bodies and began collecting materials for them and the armor as data came along.
Those projects kept him extremely busy for two and a half weeks, and his time working was only split in order to eat, sleep, and sometimes go find more materials he needed or building a machine to assist in the manufacturing of parts.
He ended up completing the bots’ new bodies before actually tackling the armor, but he didn’t think the bots were any less important than having a stealth armor in addition to the one Vision had constructed; in fact, the bots’ new forms were going to be a lot more helpful than two Quinjets hidden outside the bunker since they couldn’t bring them inside.
With J.A.R.V.I.S. steady and back online, Tony transferred a part of his consciousness into the Quinjets and to the armor, gaining a semblance of normalcy with that. It was far from homey in the bunker, but it was better than the cave in Afghanistan – or S.H.I.E.L.D.’s holding cell.
It was on day nineteen that Vision returned from yet another scouting trip for resources and stood near one of Tony’s work benches as if he wanted to say something but did not know how to put it into words.
“What?” Tony called out, feeling the artificial eyes on his back as he worked on his new armor, building the interior before he started following J.A.R.V.I.S.’s calculations to produce the surface resonance that would render the armor invisible to human eyes.
“We have a visitor,” Vision answered him.
“Yeah?” Tony replied without thinking about it. It was a strange word to use, seeing as they most definitely could not have an actual visitor on the premises, but he guessed Vision just hadn’t come up with a better word for it.
“Hello, Tony,” a new voice spoke up – new in the terms of it not belonging to the routine of the bunker.
Tony froze, his brain’s processes halting as he turned to look at the man who stood beside Vision. A visitor… “I thought we were supposed to be hiding,” Tony reminded Vision.
“I apologize,” Bruce Banner offered before Vision could speak. “I made him let me in.”
“How did you find us?” Tony asked – not with hostility because he had wanted to see Bruce since he woke up at the Tower, but knowing that he could not trust anyone he used to consider as a friend due to the fact that the last ten years had taken place and that had, somehow, made Tony the Bad Guy.
“For that I must take the blame,” Vision stepped forward. “I told him where we were.”
“You can’t really blame him,” Bruce cut in, walking towards Tony. “We sort of have an agreement –” He stopped all of a sudden and jerked back, eyes going wide.
Tony had to smile: this was the first time someone had met Dummy and You in their new bodies, and the look on Bruce’s face was spectacular. “Bots, version 2.0. How do you like them?” Tony asked, grinning.
The bots’ new bodies were much like slimmed down Transformers, towering several feet over them all. They had a few feet on the Hulk, too, but for some reason the height had been important to them so Tony had followed their wishes. The bots had practiced moving around on two feet for days now, and after the initial crashing into things and stumbling over stuff, they had it pretty much nailed – enough to bend over a bit, as if they needed to do that in order to see Bruce better.
“They’re different,” Bruce managed.
“The boys had some ideas, so I agreed to follow them. I’m quite happy with the results,” Tony admitted. The tall, almost willowy figures were elegant, and once they got the hang of their new limbs and four fingers, they might actually be able to assist Tony again. Not that he was expecting that; it was time for his bots to grow up, and it was like a caterpillar evolving into a butterfly.
“Do they transform?” Bruce asked, the similarity to Hasbro’s famous products not lost on him. He obviously meant it as a joke, smiling a bit, and Tony took great pleasure in answering:
“They do, in fact.”
Bruce blinked and looked at him with surprise. “Into what?”
“Aircrafts,” Tony said. “Well, they have the ability to hover, so that kind of counts as a vehicular mode, but it’s meant for flight.” The bots straightened and twisted around to look at him, letting out simultaneous bleeps. “We are yet to practice flying, though,” Tony added.
“Do they speak?” Bruce asked, looking at the bots again.
“For some reason they weren’t keen on speech drives,” Tony shook his head. “I don’t know why. Maybe they think J.A.R.V.I.S. talks enough for all three of them.”
“They do not feel they need to have actual voices to get their message across,” J.A.R.V.I.S. spoke through the bunker’s sound system.
Bruce started yet again. “J.A.R.V.I.S.?”
“Dr. Banner, I presume?” the AI replied. “I am not certain we have met in person…”
“You have not,” Tony agreed.
“But…” Bruce started, confused.
“Another version,” Tony explained. “He got isolated during the whole AIM incident and… well, I remembered I used to have a back-up stored away and was lucky enough that the reboot worked.”
“Ah,” Bruce nodded. “I remember hearing about that…” Being the genius that he was, he didn’t elaborate. “We need to talk,” he said to Tony then.
“If it’s a warning not to try to revive Ultron, I’ve already received that memo from everyone else I’ve talked to,” Tony said. He felt tense, not wanting to explain himself yet again.
“That’s not what I came here for,” Bruce told him.
“Well, in that case, I’m listening.”
Bruce walked over to where he was still working and took a seat in the extra chair. It creaked beneath his weight and Bruce looked down at it as if to check whether it would hold.
“Dummy tried to sit down on it. I told him it’s too small, to begin with,” Tony told him. “I need to throw it out.”
Bruce gave him a brief, polite smile. “You know it’s just going to make matters worse when they learn you’ve got J.A.R.V.I.S. up and running – and the bots in new, more powerful bodies?”
“I kind of already gave them an ultimatum about hurting my babies,” Tony murmured.
“Why are you here?” Tony asked, getting exasperated.
“To tell you that I understand.”
Tony blinked and looked at Bruce, ignoring the new suit for a moment. “You understand?”
“Yes,” Bruce nodded.
“You understand what? Waking up one day to find out the whole world has turned to shit?”
“I know what it feels like to be the monster,” Bruce corrected.
“I’m not…” Tony started, then let it go. “You know what my work was about, with Ultron,” he said instead, a bit accusingly. “You were there, working alongside me.”
“I was,” Bruce agreed. “I remember. I know this is the furthest thing from what you wanted to do. Ultron was supposed to be revolutionary, for all of us – not the end of the world.”
“I feel so lost,” Tony admitted, surprising himself. “It’s like I don’t know anything anymore; everything’s changed and I’m afraid it will never go back to what it was.”
“I doubt it will,” Bruce said. “These things take time. If Ultron is finally gone, it will still take years before people stop using your name synonymously with his.”
“Like you and the Hulk?” Tony raised an eyebrow. “Only a handful of people ever knew that Bruce Banner was the Hulk.”
“But I knew,” Bruce said. “That’s the difference.”
“I don’t feel like a monster,” Tony muttered, looking away angrily. “I’m just confused and pissed off.”
“Well, you did lose ten years of your life…” Bruce mused.
Tony looked at him, trying to figure it out. “You don’t sound surprised,” he finally decided.
“That’s because I knew,” Bruce replied.
“What?” Tony was afraid to read too much into it, but it sounded almost like Bruce really knew something that he didn’t.
“When you disappeared, people were a little worried. Then Ultron came forth, and the attention shifted away from your sudden disappearance,” Bruce explained. “J.A.R.V.I.S. confided in me, in the early days, explaining your absence. Far as I know, I’m the only human who knew the truth.”
Tony instinctively looked at Vision, then back at the man who used to be his fellow Avenger and scientist. “Why didn’t you ever tell anyone?” he asked Bruce.
“Because it wouldn’t have changed anything,” Bruce said. “Your work on Ultron jump-started the apocalypse, and once they made you the scapegoat, it was better not to argue. Not knowing when you would emerge from the dimensional pocket, I thought it best to wait.”
Tony wasn’t sure how he felt about that. It was as if Bruce had been happy to use Tony as an excuse along with the rest of the world, even when he knew he wasn’t dead. “Did J.A.R.V.I.S. ever explain why he did it?” he asked.
“Other than to protect you?” Bruce noted.
“There were a dozen better ways to go about it that didn’t include time-freezing me,” Tony complained.
“He was afraid,” Bruce said. “Genuinely, deeply afraid. J.A.R.V.I.S. knew how strong Ultron was getting and knew the kind of danger he posed to your life.”
“I could have just stopped working on him.”
“J.A.R.V.I.S. never explained it in full, but I know it pained him to make that choice. He was sending you to safety, not knowing whether the two of you would ever meet again.”
The resident J.A.R.V.I.S. was being suspiciously silent. Tony wondered if he should worry about that, but this J.A.R.V.I.S. was aware he was only one part of the whole, and that the rest of the J.A.R.V.I.S. program had moved on in a different direction.
“How did you and Vision become best buddies?” Tony asked, to take the attention away from his AI and the unfortunate decision that had led them to this place.
“He didn’t tell you?” Bruce asked and glanced at the android.
“Not the whole story, no,” Vision admitted.
“Years ago, we learned Ultron was working on an AI of his own creation,” Bruce started.
“I’ve heard that part,” Tony grumbled.
Bruce gave him a look and kept talking: “We already knew Ultron was capable of much, and once we grew aware of the body the new AI was supposed to inhabit, we had to act.”
“Who’s we?” Tony asked, out of curiosity.
“The Avengers,” Bruce said. “We were working with the military and the New S.H.I.E.L.D., but functioned as a unit of our own because that was less… complicated, most of the time.”
Tony knew how that was from personal experience.
“We made our move to destroy the new AI, but were too late. So, we devised another plan: I installed J.A.R.V.I.S. into Ultron’s Vision before he could be activated, and the two AI’s fused together. We had hoped J.A.R.V.I.S. would overpower Ultron’s AI and take control of the android, but that didn’t happen immediately.”
“So, he is not my creation after all, but yours,” Tony said thoughtfully.
“Dr. Banner assisted in my creation, that is true,” Vision stated. “He was a great help once I began to struggle with my identity and purpose in life. But,” he added, as if arriving at the most important point, “it does not diminish your status as my creator, whether it is through J.A.R.V.I.S. or Ultron.”
“Thanks, I guess,” Tony rolled his eyes, then looked expectantly at Bruce. “Is this the part where you tell me the right thing to do is to surrender myself to New S.H.I.E.L.D. and any disciplinary actions the powers that be decide to throw my way?”
“I wouldn’t be a very good friend if I did that,” Bruce replied.
“You’re the first who seems to think so…” Tony murmured.
“I know it feels like Rhodey betrayed you, but the horror he has experienced in the last ten years… You’re his best friend and your creation destroyed the world,” Bruce said. “He made the only call he felt was the right one.”
“I get that,” Tony sighed. “One day, I might even agree with him. Just… not yet.”
“In time, everyone will come around,” Bruce promised. “The world will heal, this tragedy will be just another chapter in the history books, and eventually your name won’t be instantly connected to the greatest tragedy the human race has faced.”
Tony was beginning to doubt that would happen during his lifetime. Then again, he had always feared that he would never shake off the mantle of the Merchant of Death, yet he had at least managed to construct an illusion where that was no longer his only title in the history books.
“I’ll fix this, somehow,” Tony decided. “I may be ten years late, and people might not want my help, but I have the knowledge and the skill to make a difference. If Ultron rises again, I’ll be there to welcome him and wipe him out, once and for all – the way I should have been from the beginning. This will no longer be the Age of Ultron, but the Age of Tony Stark.”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Bruce warned.
“I’m not,” Tony insisted, looking around the bunker. “I have the makings of tomorrow right here. I know it’s a mess out there, but I have to believe I can make it better – for the sake of my own sanity.”
“Well, then…” Bruce smiled that thin, uncertain smile of his that Tony had learned was one of his most genuine expressions, “I suppose I’ll have to return the favor of your past kindness and support you as you do that.”
Tony returned his smile. “I appreciate that.”
“It would help if you could reconcile with Steve,” Bruce added. “He commands a lot of respect.”
“I’m not going to go crawling to him, begging for his forgiveness and approval,” Tony huffed. “I’d rather prove to the world that they can trust me again than go apologizing to everyone for something I couldn’t fix at the time – or die trying.”
“Of course you will,” Bruce sighed. He didn’t sound surprised, though.
Tony nodded a bit absently, turning back to his work. He would complete the armor, and in doing so he would rebuild yet another part of his life that used to define him. He would take all those pieces out into the world, whether the world liked it or not, and he would make something better of it.
He couldn’t know for sure whether he wouldn’t one day wake up and find that this had all been a horribly vivid, larger-than-life nightmare, but until that happened, he would keep on existing in this reality – fixing the damage he had inadvertently caused, one tiny piece at a time if that’s what it took.
One way or another, the Age of Ultron was over, and he was going to make sure it stayed that way.