Natasha had barely closed her eyes when J.A.R.V.I.S. sounded the alarm.
“I am not yet aware of how it happened, but there are HYDRA agents in the building,” the AI declared. “They have caused significant harm to the closed-circuit cameras and many of the safety checkpoints are offline throughout the building.”
Natasha was up and fastening her gear before J.A.R.V.I.S. was done, knowing the others would be doing the same. It was unprecedented that HYDRA was coming to them, so there had to be a reason.
“Are they looking for something specific?” Natasha asked. “Trying to access files, locate something?”
“It would seem they are trying to come upstairs,” J.A.R.V.I.S. said – which meant Avengers’ quarters or the R&D floors. “I will try to find out more.”
Natasha moved out of her room, meeting Steve and Clint in the common area. Thor was the next one in, and Bruce came in last, still in the process of pulling on a shirt, his fly open. At least it looked like he had been able to sleep for a moment.
“Are they really attacking us here?” Bruce asked.
“We need to evacuate the building,” Steve said. “If this gets ugly, I don’t want civilians in the way.”
“I saw Rhodey on my way up here, he said he and Pepper are on it,” Clint told him. “He also said he’s going to suit up as soon as he can.”
Steve nodded. “J.A.R.V.I.S., can you track the evacuation process?”
“I am attempting to do so, Captain. The intruders have caused considerable damage, however, and without some manual rerouting, the systems won’t be fully operational. I did, however, intercept a partial conversation. It would appear HYDRA’s goal here is to find Mr. Stark.”
“Why?” Clint asked.
“That’s what they said?” Bruce asked.
“There was no mistaking it, or the phrasing.”
“He must have seen something,” Natasha mused. “Before the explosion. Was Tony looking at files, even though he didn’t manage to download any?”
“Indeed, Agent Romanoff,” the AI confirmed.
“The agents of HYDRA would dare to come here, to our home, for something Stark saw on their computer?” Thor frowned.
“The timing matches. Could have been something important,” Steve mused. “However, they cannot possibly know Tony can’t remember any of it.”
“Or that Iron Man isn’t going to make an appearance tonight,” Clint said darkly. “Can we put Rhodey into that armor instead?”
“Unfortunately that is not possible,” J.A.R.V.I.S. answered.
“Do we know where HYDRA is now?” Steve asked. “Until evacuation is complete, we should try to contain them, but not engage if it causes danger to the outsiders.”
“I am attempting to pinpoint their current whereabouts, but they are making it difficult.” J.A.R.V.I.S. almost sounded annoyed by that.
“Where is Tony?” Bruce asked.
“In his lab.”
Everyone seemed shocked by that.
“How long has he been there?” Steve asked.
“A little less than an hour,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replied.
“How… is he?” Bruce asked.
“Mr. Stark is refusing to return to his room.”
“As long as we don’t know where HYDRA is, exactly, that won’t matter,” Steve scowled, then looked at Natasha. “Can you go and make sure Tony stays safe?”
Natasha nodded. Perhaps Steve was hoping she could be a calming influence. Bruce might have been their best choice, since Tony seemed to trust him, but Bruce was looking a bit jumpy so perhaps that wasn’t the safest option. “We’ll be fine,” she promised, then as she moved towards the stairs, she stopped in front of Bruce, giving him a smile. “Try to stay calm, okay? Maybe help J.A.R.V.I.S. to contain the situation.” She also very stealthily zipped him up, which made him jump. Natasha couldn’t help smiling.
“Yeah,” Bruce said, nodding, and she moved away, checking out the hallways as she moved up to the lab area. While she was still moving, there was something akin to a far-away explosion, and she put a bit more speed into her step, just in case. On an average day, the Avengers had no difficulties beating up a HYDRA squad, but the enemy had managed to cripple their defenses and they needed to protect both their surroundings and the people still leaving the premises. Plus, this was usually the part where Tony’s skillset was quite useful.
Just as J.A.R.V.I.S. had said, Tony was in his lab. His robots were with him, and his armor was standing nearby, looking ready for action. There was also one of the autonomous robots Tony had been working to polish, which the Avengers had used for crowd control in a few instances.
“Hey, Tony,” she greeted, trying not to sound tense. Natasha didn’t like how this was going so far, with the HYDRA agents able to slip into their headquarters so easily. Either they were really desperate, or the Avengers were getting sloppy.
Tony seemed a bit jumpy. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“There are some technical issues we are trying to figure out,” she replied.
Tony frowned, as if he knew she was avoiding the truth. Natasha couldn’t know what J.A.R.V.I.S. had told him. Maybe nothing, hence his question – or maybe he was testing her to see if she would lie.
Seeing him like this, quiet and guarded, helped to remind Natasha that Tony wasn’t all there. He wasn’t running his mouth, covering up his discomfort. Sure, he had tried to pull that off on the Quinjet, but since then he must have come to the conclusion things were very wrong, and thus they were seeing a side of Tony that rarely made an appearance.
“J.A.R.V.I.S. said there is a threat,” Tony stated, eyes flashing to check the area beyond the lab; the walls were turned transparent, allowing him to see what transpired outside, although for the time being there was no one there.
“It’s barely that, and the others are handling it,” Natasha intoned with confidence.
“There was an explosion,” Tony added, as if he had a hypothesis he wanted to prove right.
Natasha wondered if it would be easier just telling him the truth. Part of her was curious to see what would happen. In his current state, had Tony regressed to a teenager, or a young adult? He didn’t remember any of the events that had resulted in him becoming Iron Man. Only Rhodey remembered this Tony, and even he seemed to be struggling a bit.
“It was just a slight tremor,” Natasha told him, deciding she had no time to try and handle Tony if he freaked out.
“Then why are you here?” Tony demanded.
“To keep an eye on you,” Natasha offered him a tight smile. At least that part was not a lie. She could have tried to sweet-talk him, but she suspected he was too suspicious for that, and Natasha was all geared up for a fight, not a chat over drinks.
Tony kept any further questions to himself, but he looked far from satisfied.
Natasha pretended to be fixing her hair, adjusting her earpiece at the same time. It was fairly quiet on the comms still, and she hoped those weren’t affected by whatever the HYDRA agents had done downstairs. J.A.R.V.I.S. would let them know.
Tony pretended to ignore her, picking up some stuff, his robots nearby, watching his every move. Even to Natasha it was clear that Tony had no idea what those items were for, and he was attempting to study them without letting that show. Maybe she should have brought Bruce with her, to make sure Tony didn’t fiddle with anything that could blow a hole in the Tower.
J.A.R.V.I.S. was hopefully keeping an eye on that, too.
The armor that was standing near the back of the lab suddenly perked up, looking past Natasha’ shoulder, and that was the only warning she got before a group of HYDRA soldiers came running down the hallway.
“Agent Romanoff –!” J.A.R.V.I.S. started through the speakers in the room.
“A little warning next time?!” she snapped, whirling around. She could hear the distinctive sound of the lab door locking into place, and the lights significantly dimmed all around them. Tony took a startled step back – then actually yelped when a bullet hit the transparent wall. It didn’t breach and barely left a mark on the surface, but it told Natasha something important: they weren’t here to question Tony, but to silence him. Otherwise they would have taken more care where to fire their weapon, instead of putting it on a direct trajectory towards Tony’s head.
“They have managed to circumvent the safety relays,” J.A.R.V.I.S. said, sounding rushed and mildly annoyed. “Automated Tower Security has gone offline.”
“Great,” Natasha growled. “Update the others. How long before they breach the lab?”
“The walls are designed to withstand most conceivable malfunctions within the lab, so it could be a while,” the AI replied.
“But the walls are not designed to hold off a threat coming from the outside,” she guessed.
“No, they are not.”
The HYDRA soldiers were fanning out, touching the wall as if to test its resistance.
“I have adjusted the opacity settings of the wall. As long as its integrity remains uncompromised, they cannot see what takes place inside.”
That was good; it gave Natasha time to figure out a plan until the others arrived. She could try and sneak up on the enemy, to take them out, but she was outnumbered and possibly out-gunned. “How is the evacuation going?” she asked, keeping an eye on the HYDRA soldiers outside.
“Another fifteen minutes and all but the essential personnel should be outside. I have alerted local fire department and police, but with the Avengers on the premises, I have asked them to simply keep the public at a safe distance from the Tower in case the fight does escalate. It will remain to be seen whether the authorities agree to that request. The rest of the team is heading to your location, but as I have been unable to ascertain how many hostiles are within the building, Captain Rogers wants to make sure we have the situation contained.”
Natasha nodded, still trying to keep track of all the enemies outside. There were six of them, spreading out, mapping the area, seemingly confident there was no danger of an unpleasant surprise attack from the Avengers. That was rather arrogant of them, seeing as the entire team was in the Tower, so maybe they were keeping tabs on the others – or they were very intent on getting to Tony, which they proved by trying to dig into a seam in the wall, to force it open.
For the time being, the door held fast.
Two of the HYDRA soldiers had not returned back to where Natasha could see them, which understandably made her a little nervous. “J.A.R.V.I.S., where are the rest of them?” she asked.
“Down the hall, trying to find a way in. I believe they are working to reach the door’s circuitry to bypass it.”
“Can they do that?”
“With the right tools, yes.”
Natasha guessed that normal Tower safety protocols would have stopped unwanted visitors by now. The AI didn’t seem pleased by this development, and if things were normal, Tony would have been furious.
She turned to look at him, finding Tony looking rather nervous. “It’s going to be okay,” she told him. “Just do as I tell you – or J.A.R.V.I.S. – and –”
“It will be okay?” Tony snapped. “That doesn’t look like it’s going to be okay!” he pointed at the wall, and sure enough, there were sparks flying from around the corner: someone was trying to get inside the wall to access the circuitry, was Natasha’s first guess.
“Can’t you do something about that?” Natasha asked out loud.
“The security systems are being jammed. Going through all the error messages is taking time, and new ones keep appearing,” the AI complained.
Natasha guessed it wasn’t something J.A.R.V.I.S. could just bypass, because otherwise the AI would have already done that. Or Tony would have, manually taking control of the systems, rebooting them. In any case, he would have already gone out there in the armor and removed any unwanted people from the premises. Not that the Avengers were incapable of doing that without Tony, but it helped to have him there. Right now he was going to be of no assistance, and she was beginning to realize someone would need to keep him out of harm’s way if this got hairy.
She had babysat plenty of people in her life, even in the midst of action; prized scientists or other such assets, or a target she was in the process of extracting when things started going sideways. It often helped if they were frozen in fear, because it meant Natasha could operate around them and not fear them taking off or making a stupid, possibly life-threatening decision when they thought they saw an opening or freaked out.
Natasha debated whether she could afford to wait until the rest of the team arrived; to chance HYDRA breaking in and fighting on their terms. Would it be better to make a move of her own before it came to that? She looked around the lab. Maybe J.A.R.V.I.S. knew if there was something useful lying around – though the thing that jumped out at her the most was the armor.
“J.A.R.V.I.S., you can drive the armor, right?” she confirmed.
“Indeed, Agent Romanoff.”
“Can you take out the HYDRA soldiers outside?”
The AI seemed to be hesitating. “Of course,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replied. “I would, however, rather have the armor remain close to Mr. Stark, just in case.”
“What about the other ones?” she asked, nodding towards the unmanned robot.
“The Iron Legion is meant for crowd control, not a direct firefight.”
“Not even in an emergency?” she pressed.
Again, the AI seemed to hesitate. Maybe there were protocols J.A.R.V.I.S. needed to override in order to do that; Natasha wasn’t clear on what Tony had intended to do with the Iron Man mock-ups.
It felt short-sighted, however, if they didn’t have fight capabilities.
“I could do that, of course, but I would rather have Mr. Stark’s express command.”
“Well, ask him,” Natasha looked at Tony. “He’s right there. Tell J.A.R.V.I.S. it’s okay to take those robots into battle,” she ordered Tony.
“At the moment, I wouldn’t count that as informed consent,” the AI snapped – at least, it was as close to a snap J.A.R.V.I.S. ever got.
“Yeah,” Tony said slowly. “Not all robots are equal. If J.A.R.V.I.S. thinks I wouldn’t want them to fight whoever those guys are…”
“HYDRA,” she cut in.
“– maybe they shouldn’t?” Tony finished a bit uncertainly.
Natasha tried not to get frustrated. It wasn’t that they needed Tony’s robots, but it might reduce the risks of unnecessary injuries on their side. She knew J.A.R.V.I.S. was quite capable in the heat of the battle, and the AI’s help would have been appreciated.
“Fine,” she said. “The team will handle it. Can you keep an eye on Tony if I step outside to take out these guys?” she asked, looking directly at the armor; she knew J.A.R.V.I.S. was watching the room through it as well, sitting firmly in the driver’s seat since Tony was unable to.
“Of course, Agent Romanoff.”
“What do you mean, ‘take them out’?” Tony asked, alarmed. “You’re going to leave me here?” There was a slight edge of fear in his voice, and he looked uneasily at the armored men moving outside in the hall.
“Just stay here,” Natasha told him, relieved Tony was currently lacking his usual impulse to get involved in a fight regardless of his inability to pull his own weight.
She checked the charge on her stingers and batons, the number of ammo for her guns, and made sure all the straps and buttons were as they should be, to keep knives and other smaller weapons reachable but securely out of the way.
Tony was looking increasingly worried, staring at the HYDRA soldiers outside. The hallways lights flickered on and off twice, suddenly, and Natasha heard a tiny whoosh of an air current, as if someone had just broken a seal on the room.
She looked at the door, deciding there was a chance it was no longer secure.
“Stay in here!” she barked to Tony in no uncertain terms. “Do as J.A.R.V.I.S. tells you!”
Then she charged to the door, finding it a hair’s width ajar. As she pushed her hand against it, she felt it slide further open without any resistance, and she activated the Widow Bites as she slid through the opening to attack the four men in the hallway. They didn’t expect her, so she had a few seconds to her advantage, sliding under their belatedly raised weapons and moving in to incapacitate as many of them as she could.
“Anyone who can hear this, I’m engaging the enemy outside the lab. Feel free to join me,” she said into the comms before grunting from a weapon being slammed into her midsection. It forced her backwards, and she moved to swiftly retaliate because she was already outnumbered, and it was in everyone’s best interest if the HYDRA soldiers focused on her and forgot about the open door to the lab behind her.
Tony’s anxiety was reaching new levels. When Natasha had moved outside to meet the invaders head on – Tony had seen the HYDRA emblems on their uniforms, but it was still really hard to believe it was the WWII organization behind all this – he couldn’t help but notice the door to the lab was still ajar.
His eyes kept moving between the opening and where she was fighting the four men, quite successfully. Maybe it wouldn’t matter…
Then one of the two remaining villains came back into view, firing a weapon that shot some kind of an energy blast rather than a bullet, and it hit Natasha square in the chest, sending her crashing back into a wall behind her. Tony cringed, not hearing her involuntary sound of pain but quite certain there was one.
He wanted to go and close the door, but he wasn’t sure if the lock still worked. J.A.R.V.I.S. probably would have closed the door if it was possible.
“Sir, please move towards the back of the lab, please,” the AI requested through the speakers in the room, and simultaneously the robotic armor started moving towards the door.
Tony swallowed, tempted to make sure it wasn’t going to leave him alone, too, but he held his tongue. He had no idea what to do, yet Natasha had seemed to hope he would have more of a handle on the situation. She wanted Tony to act the way he normally would have, but at the moment didn’t remember.
He worried Natasha might not be able to handle the HYDRA intruders, but J.A.R.VI.S. was making no move to go assist her, the armor facing the doorway but not advancing further. There was a hum coming from the armor, as well as glowing of certain parts. Tony really hoped they were weapons.
As capable as Natasha seemed to be, she was outnumbered and possibly outgunned; her attack power didn’t measure up to the bigger weapons – one of which ended up collapsing part of the corridor as it was fired, spreading dust and sparks everywhere.
Tony backed away as the cloud spread into the lab as well, covering his mouth and nose with his arm. The bots were shifting nervously, letting out sounds that could barely be heard over the noise of the fight outside.
“Should we help her?” Tony finally called out to J.A.R.V.I.S.
“You are my priority, sir,” the AI replied, the armor turning its head just slightly, as if looking back at him from the corner of its glowing eye. “Agent Romanoff is more than capable –”
A shape appeared in the doorway, and the armor raised its arms, firing a blueish blast. A man grunted, falling back, but another took his place, firing back at the armor before it could respond. It didn’t seem to do much damage, the blast partially ricocheting off the metal surface, making Tony dodge down as it blew a nearby overhead light into hundreds of tiny pieces.
He felt something tugging on his shirt, yelping with alarm. Lashing back with his arm to defend himself, he hit it on something solid, finding one of the bots behind him, pulling him backwards. “Sorry,” he apologized, then followed. They scooted down against the back wall, behind one of the lab tables, though it wasn’t much of a hiding place.
Tony saw flashes, dust and smoke whirling in the air, making his eyes water. He could feel it in his lungs, making him want to cough and find fresh air. His heart was beating madly in his chest, skin clammy with sweat.
For a moment the shooting intensified, and he was fairly certain something small exploded on the other side of the workshop, an alarm blaring. Then there was a sound of metal screaming, the floor shivering, and Tony could see past the edge of the table he was hiding behind that the armor had just torn another workshop bench free of its bolts in the floor, tossing it at the doorway.
“Sir, I am beginning to think we cannot stay here,” the AI informed him through the armor’s speakers. “While I am capable of using more drastic measures, it could compromise the building’s safety. Evacuating you from the scene, however, could undermine the enemy’s goal.”
“Uh, okay,” Tony blinked, wiping a mixture of sweat and dust from his face. “What does that mean, exactly?” Yes, he understood the words, but there was no way he was going to go out there where people were still shooting at each other.
The armor walked over, then stopped on his side of the table – and seemed to unfold at the front. “Please get in, sir,” the AI told him.
Tony blinked. It looked like a man-shaped coffin. “But I don’t know… I don’t remember how to use that thing!” he protested.
“I shall control all of the suit’s functions. Please, sir: we are low on time. There are more hostiles joining the fight.”
Tony glanced outside, to see if he could spot Natasha. She was nowhere to be seen – or heard – though there was definitely fighting taking place somewhere a bit further away. He looked at the armor, biting his lip, hands flexing nervously. “What if you just pretend to have me inside?” he asked, having no idea if anyone could tell the difference from the outside.
J.A.R.V.I.S. didn’t deign to answer. Instead, Tony was suddenly shoved from behind by two forceful bots, and one of them reached out to tug on his arm, spinning him around. He stumbled back, and suddenly the armor was pulling him within itself, wrapping around his form, tight and suffocating.
“Wait!” Tony yelled, suddenly terrified, but it wrapped around his body rapidly, preventing his escape.
For half a second it was dark, only a little light coming in through the eye slits, then the interior of the helmet exploded with figures and imagery Tony had no time to try and figure out. Some of the symbols he knew, but they changed rapidly, as did the values on the screen. Perhaps it was because J.A.R.V.I.S. was in control, and they were there just out of habit, to give Tony something to look at. There was no need for him to actually process anything.
“Calm down, sir,” the AI told him, voice smooth and much quieter inside the helmet.
“Easy for you to say,” Tony panted. He couldn’t move; he tried to take a step, to wriggle a finger, but there was nowhere for him to go. It was like being in a full-body cast. Frankly, he was amazed he had room to move his lips. “Please, let me out.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but this is for your own protection.”
Tony closed his eyes, trying to calm down – then actually let out a yell when the armor began moving, taking his body with it. He had never experienced anything like it, the powerful machine pulling his limbs along. There was no way his muscles could stop it, though they tried resisting out of sheer shock and being unable to predict where and when he was being moved.
“Try to relax,” the AI told him, perhaps aware of how painful every motion was.
Tony had never suffered from claustrophobia, but he was really beginning to. It didn’t help that the bots were making reassuring noises at him, following the armor, or that J.A.R.V.I.S. was in there with him. He didn’t feel safe – and he most certainly didn’t feel in control of anything.
It was the most terrifying experience of his life.
“Breathe, sir, please,” J.A.R.V.I.S. pleaded with him, but kept moving. Before them, a wall panel moved to the side, letting them into a corridor.
“Please, let me go. I don’t want to do this,” Tony begged, feeling like he might start crying. His body hurt, and there was no way he could just relax himself to go with the flow.
“I can administer a sedative if you would prefer that.”
Tony had no idea which part of that sentence was supposed to be reassuring.
The entire armor shivered all of a sudden, and he felt something pushing at his insides. It was almost like falling, but it kept tugging at him like continued inertia when a plane took off, and he saw something flashing before his eyes – then suddenly saw the Manhattan skyline coming into view.
He may have screamed, realizing they were suddenly airborne.
“Please, sir, calm down!”
Tony wasn’t sure if it mattered, because his movements did nothing to the armor. Perhaps the AI simply found his panic annoying.
They kept climbing higher, and Tony wondered what would happen if he vomited – or peed himself. He tried very hard not to do either of those things. He felt lightheaded, shaky, every muscle threatening to cramp. His body was held in a certain position, clearly optimal for flight, and he tried to focus on processing that information, which might have been incredibly fascinating at any other moment.
He felt tears on his face, and there was a taste of copper and salt in his mouth. Perhaps he had bitten his tongue or cheek?
The tremors traveling through the armor calmed into a steady vibrating. Tony blinked, trying to focus on what he was seeing again. It was still nauseating, realizing how high he was, essentially hanging in the air within a small metal contraption. He found himself hovering in the air, and after a while, he could almost enjoy the sights.
“Where’s the Tower?” Tony asked, and saw a blue circle appear on the screen. The armor turned around a bit, which he could feel, of course, and then he saw it below them, towering over most of the neighboring buildings. There was smoke rising from it, betraying the fight inside, and he could see lights flashing on the streets surrounding it, as well as what he thought was masses of people.
The longer he looked at the small details, the less anxious he felt about his situation. The unease his body had experienced was vanishing somewhat, as if it recognized the situation and deemed it harmless. His mind, of course, was still courting chaos, wanting nothing more than to be returned back down to solid earth where he could move of his own free will.
It didn’t escape him, though, that his body knew these motions, was perhaps even soothed by the vibrations of the suit. In truth, it was the first truly familiar thing – aside from the bots – he’d experienced ever since waking up in the Quinjet, even though he had no idea why he felt that way. Logically, he could make an educated guess, but the fact he had completely lost his cool earlier was a harsh reminder that no matter what his body was used to, his mind was the one in control.
“How’s it going down there?”
“I am establishing a line of communications to the Avengers below,” J.A.R.V.I.S. told him calmly. “There are still disturbances, but I have managed to bypass the most critical ones.”
“Did everyone else get out safely?” Tony asked, still looking down at what looked like tiny ants.
“Only the very essential staff are inside the building, most of them in the lobby. I am attempting to ascertain if Miss Potts and Colonel Rhodes also made it out safely.”
Tony would have nodded, but he could barely shift his head inside the helmet. It was a really tight fit, but that may have been for a reason.
After a while, the muffled sounds began to feel stifling; he was cut off from the world and the elements, confined and helpless. “Can I at least listen to the communications?” Tony asked. “It’s getting a bit claustrophobic here.”
J.A.R.V.I.S. seemed to decide it was the better of two evils to have him accidentally overhear something, and the helmet was filled with sounds of the people he had learned to recognize in the previous day. There was some static and the occasional loss of a signal, but otherwise it was clean and crisp in a way Tony wasn’t quite used to.
“– the north stairwell is clear,” Clint Barton was saying.
“How are the Tower defenses coming?” Natasha asked.
“HYDRA is still blocking them, but we’re narrowing it down,” Bruce replied. “J.A.R.V.I.S. is working to find the origin of the disruptive signal.”
“Once you do, take Barton to shut it down,” Captain America ordered.
Tony still had a hard time believing it was the same guy from the news reels, but hearing him relay orders… it was hard to disprove it.
“How goes the extermination at your end?” Clint asked.
“We’ve handled it, though one of them scurried away, and it’s likely they still have friends out there,” Natasha replied. She sounded a bit out of breath. “Surveillance feeds would be really great right about now.”
“Working on it, Agent Romanoff,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replied. “Sir,” the AI added, startling Tony. “Thor is approaching. Please don’t be alarmed.”
“Approaching?” Tony frowned, then suddenly the large man was there, being pulled up by the hammer Tony had seen him carry around. He was actually flying. With his red cape billowing behind him, he came to a halt in front of Tony, giving him a brief smile.
“Stark, I have come to accompany you. Fear not, this matter will soon be handled by our friends.”
“Shouldn’t you be down there, handling it with them?” Tony asked, though he had no idea if the other could hear him.
Apparently he could. “The Captain asked me to check on you, seeing as your… J.A.R.V.I.S. informed us you were feeling quite uneasy within the armor.”
Tony didn’t see how this guy being here was going to fix that.
“This is Rhodes!” Rhodey’s voice suddenly shouted into the comms. “We just exited the west stairwell onto the ninth floor. HYDRA is gunning for us.” In the background, there were shots, and Pepper’s startled scream followed.
Tony felt something inside him seize up, like a fist around his organs.
“We’re coming,” Rogers replied.
Tony had left Natasha pretty much at the top of the building, and even if they were already coming down, it was going to take a while. Clint and Bruce didn’t reply in a similar fashion, which most likely meant they weren’t nearby, either.
“Maybe they’re just trying to get clear of the building before we round up the rest of them?” Natasha mused. She was definitely running.
“They’re definitely chasing us!” Rhodey replied, with more audible sounds of shots being fired.
“They didn’t get to Tony, so maybe they’re trying to get Tony to come to them,” Clint offered. “Is he still airborne?”
“Aye,” Thor reported.
“Keep him there,” Rogers ordered.
Tony clenched his jaw.
“Whatever you’re about to do, do it quick,” Rhodey demanded. Pepper yelled, and there was a sound of something heavy and metallic crashing, like a filing cabinet, or something similar.
“I need to help them,” Tony said in a whisper. Sure, he didn’t know this Rhodey, but he knew his Rhodey, and he wouldn’t have left him in trouble if he could help it. Also, Pepper had been nice to him, and just because he couldn’t remember how much she meant to him…
He felt sweat on his skin, a different kind of anxiety blooming inside him.
“It is best you stay out of harm’s way, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replied.
“But they’re being chased by HYDRA because of me,” Tony argued. “What if they get hurt? Become hostages? Or get killed?”
In the background, through an open communication line, Tony could hear banging. Maybe Rhodey had barricaded them somewhere, but it didn’t sound good.
Tony took a breath, feeling a stab of desperate anger and fear. For an instant, he saw a flash of flames and smelled fumes from burning oil. She was falling – Pepper was falling.
He had no idea whether he heard it then and there, or if it was his imagination, or a forgotten memory. His body tensed, then his fingers twitched, and the screen before his eyes changed. He was diving down before he knew how, accelerating.
“Ninth floor,” he murmured, perspiration in his eyes.
He blinked, inhaled, and fleetingly grasped what he was doing, but was unable to stop it. His body seemed to know what it was doing.
“Sir, please stop,” J.A.R.V.I.S. said, not sounding alarmed but certainly not calm, either. Did that mean the AI was not in control of the armor anymore?
The screen, however, was pinpointing the ninth floor of the building for him, painting it orange in the virtual wire frame placed over the actual building’s outline.
“Stark!” Thor bellowed at him through the comm. Tony had no idea if the other was following him, but he was fast approaching the building.
For a moment he feared he might literally crash into the side of the high rise, but his body aligned itself just slightly, flaps opening, slowing him down marginally before he dove through the window and into the office space on the other side. He went straight through a column, then another, barely even feeling it, then red targets were painted on his screen as he spotted the HYDRA men.
His hands flew forward, flaps fully deployed, and the way his fingers twitched, just slightly, firing a brilliant beam of light and power, felt as natural as breathing.
They hadn’t heard it in their communication devices, but when J.A.R.V.I.S. had stated Tony was within the armor and exiting the building, Thor had been tasked with following him. After all, Tony’s virtual assistant had implied his creator was less than thrilled about the situation, and might benefit from a calming influence.
Not long after Thor reached him in the sky, however, Iron Man changed course, diving down towards the building. It was unexpected, an unwise plan, and Thor did not understand why J.A.R.V.I.S. would make such a drastic change.
“Thor, my control of the armor has been overruled,” the AI informed him through the earpiece.
“By whom?” Thor asked, taking off after Iron Man. Was it HYDRA?
“Mr. Stark,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replied. “I am not certain he knows what he is doing – his vital signs suggest he is distressed and possibly on the verge of an anxiety attack.”
Thor could see his flight path, however, which was controlled, aiming straight for the building they had both just left. Either it was dumb luck, or Tony knew exactly what he was doing.
Flying after him, Thor tried to get his attention, but got no reply. Was the distress of his loved one finally stirring something in the man’s memories? Thor’s heart jumped at the chance, because ever since Tony no longer remembered who he was, matters had ground to a halt in their search for HYDRA.
Despite having grown much since his first trip to Earth, Thor was still not known for his patience.
He saw Iron Man smashing in through a window, and it could well coincide with the location his friend Rhodes had last informed them of. It was looking more and more likely Tony was responding to that news, and Thor swooped in after him, landing on his feet amongst shattered pieces of glass, surveying the area.
Before he could see it, he heard the battle, rushing towards it. A battle cry was ready on his lips when he turned a corner and found Iron Man standing there, his weapons of choice still glowing, emitting a faint smoke in the gloom left by shattered ceiling lights. HYDRA agents lay lifeless around him, five of them altogether.
Iron Man stood still, and it was impossible to tell what was happening within the armor. Thor had seen him kill many an enemy in their time fighting side by side, but regardless of how lethal his invention was, Tony rarely used it to its full destructive capacity.
“Stark?” Thor questioned, walking over to him, shoving one body aside with his boot. There was some blood on the floor and walls around them, but it had clearly not been a drawn-out affair. There was a faint odor of burning flesh, which stirred many memories in Thor’s mind of the brutal battles of his youth.
A door opened a few feet away from them, Rhodes emerging slowly, looking around.
“Is it over?” Pepper’s voice asked from behind him, shaky.
“Looks like,” the man who was also War Machine replied, carefully opening the door further, surveying the destruction. “Thanks for the assist. My gun wasn’t much use against what these guys were packing.” He looked at Iron Man, waiting for a comeback. “J.A.R.V.I.S.?” he called out.
There was no immediate reply, and Thor stepped further towards his teammate. “Stark, are you well?” he asked.
Behind Rhodes, Pepper stepped out of what seemed like a closet of office supplies, gasping at the sight of the bodies. In the semi-darkness Tony’s armor was the steadiest source of light, as well as a few lights flickering a bit further away. Pepper took a couple steps, then seemed to notice a particularly large blood stain on the carpet and sidestepped quickly, steadying herself on Rhodes’ shoulder.
“Tony?” she called out, and that seemed to snap him out of whatever had occupied his mind.
The man seemed to jerk within the armor, then made a tiny gesture and the armor opened, letting him step out.
Tony took a breath, shaky and wide-eyed, then jumped back when his foot hit a body.
“Sir?” J.A.R.V.I.S. prompted.
“I… blacked out for a minute,” Tony murmured, looking around.
“It’s okay,” Rhodes told him. “We’re fine. I heard you fly in and then it was over. Whoever is renting this floor is definitely going to send you a sizeable bill, though,” he added with a tense smile.
Tony looked away. “Add it to the list,” he murmured, then ran an unsteady hand through his hair. His gaze seemed a bit lost, then he saw Pepper as if for the first time, blinking.
“I’m sure it was frightening, this whole attack,” Pepper said slowly, moving around Rhodes – careful not to step into anything, or on anyone. “How about we go back upstairs, to the others, and make sure there’s no more threats?”
Thor had almost believed, for a second, that perhaps Tony had recovered his memories, yet Pepper spoke to him as if she thought he did not, in fact, remember any of them. Could it have been luck that he took control of the armor, ingrained into his body with years of repetition? Pepper knew him better than Thor did, so he did not question her judgment.
Tony shifted restlessly, rubbing a hand across his eyes. “Ugh, my head is killing me,” he stated, then blinked rapidly a few times. “J.A.R.V.I.S., implement Blast Door Protocol.”
“Sir, there are still severe glitches in the system,” the AI replied through the armors’ speakers.
“It was designed to work as long as there’s something to run the message on,” Tony said a bit impatiently. “If the network is even partially functional, it will seal the building.”
There was a brief silence, then Thor heard a few noticeable thudding noises coming from somewhere further off in the office space. The air flow changed slightly.
“Bruce? I hope that was you who just slammed a door in our faces,” the Widow’s voice came over the comm.
“Nope,” Banner replied, “but we’ve reached at least one of the locations where HYDRA has a scrambler attached to the Tower’s wiring. It will take me a while to untangle it and extract it safely.”
“They have found some kind of scrambling device,” Thor informed Tony, who clearly wasn’t wearing a communications device.
Tony blinked. “Who?”
“Banner and Barton.”
“Tell Banner to just pull it out. I’ll have to go through all of the wirings anyway,” Tony stated.
Thor relayed the orders, and a silence followed. He realized everyone was staring at Tony.
“Are you okay, man?” Rhodes asked finally.
“Yeah,” Tony shrugged. “I mean, it feels a bit like I’ve been on a bender for a week, minus a certain level of grossness, but my memory is a bit blurry and my head has been better.” He looked at the floor again. “Am I supposed to know why there are HYDRA goons staining my carpet?”
Thor grinned. “You are back!” he exclaimed, overjoyed. He lifted his arms in celebration, and suddenly felt Mjolnir hit the ceiling, sinking into the paneling above. Tony followed it with his gaze, and Thor guiltily pulled his weapon back – which ended up bringing down the entire ceiling panel with it. He shook it off to the side, annoyed.
“Who’s back?” the Captain asked.
“Stark,” Thor informed him. “He is himself again.”
“Seriously?!” Banner asked. “What happened?”
“He flew in to save Lady Pepper and Rhodes, and now he is back to normal.”
Tony was frowning, as was Rhodes.
“If I had my armor, I wouldn’t have needed saving,” Rhodes muttered.
“The Tower is secured. We are, at present time, unable to determine if hostiles still remain within the building,” J.A.R.V.I.S. cut in. “Welcome back, sir.”
“Yeah, about that,” Tony turned to his armor. “You’re going to give me a rundown of what’s been happening just as soon as we have this HYDRA infestation under control. There are some blanks I need filled.”
“What’s the last thing you remember?” Rhodes asked.
“Not sure,” Tony admitted, looking again at the destruction surrounding them. “I barely remember this. I mean, I do, but I don’t… It’s out of focus, messy. Are you sure I haven’t been drugged?” Tony asked, glancing at the armor.
“You have not, sir.”
Tony didn’t seem like he believed it, and considering how jarring the previous day had been for all of them, who could blame him?
“Any idea when this lockdown ends?” Natasha asked. “Cap and I are trapped between two blast doors, and he’s starting to look a little antsy.”
Thor opened his mouth to ask Tony if there was anything to be done about it that didn’t require brute force.
“I believe we are ‘on it’, Agent Romanoff. Please stay where you are,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replied instead.
Rhodey chuckled, clapping Tony on the back. “Time to go to work.”
Tony just hummed, still looking somewhat disoriented, but Thor was confident it would pass.
He had showered and changed after the Tower protocols were no longer crashing one after another, and Stark Industries teams were surveying the damage. There was a lot Tony was going to be doing himself, but he had decided he could leave some of the simpler tasks to people who were fully equipped to handle it.
The headache had eased a little bit, but he was still easily disoriented and kept getting distracted by things he saw and didn’t remember how they ended up like that. It was like he had been dreaming, only he could remember snippets of it, then had a serious case of déjà vu at repeated intervals.
Bruce had wanted to check him over, Pepper had demanded for him to see a doctor – preferably in a hospital – and Tony had acquiesced to his fellow scientist to do the deed. He didn’t need any runaway headlines telling the world about ‘Tony Stark’s Great Amnesia Adventure’.
His lab was a mess, but not as much as the hallways outside it. A dozen HYDRA bodies lay in the makeshift morgue at the basement. They were still trying to figure out which branch of government would deal with those.
“No useful intel on the bodies,” Natasha reported as she and Rhodey came back up to join the others.
Bruce had just finished his scans and was checking Tony’s vitals – even demanding to take a blood sample. They were in Tony’s workshop because he wanted to go back to work as soon as possible.
“We swept the entire building, four times, and unless some of them escaped, that’s all of them,” Clint added. Steve didn’t look too happy about that – and neither did Clint, because he had been satisfied after the second check, but Cap had insisted they make sure none of them were left hiding.
The Tower had a lot of ground to cover, so Tony had some sympathy for the archer. He had said that once the security system was back online, they could just scan the building, but that hadn’t been enough for Steve.
Not that Tony wasn’t a little bit paranoid, seeing as the HYDRA squad had managed to infiltrate the building without triggering an alarm before it was too late. There was going to be a serious security overhaul once Tony was feeling a bit more like himself.
Pepper was standing near him, anxiously waiting for results Tony knew they wouldn’t be getting for several hours. “Were you worried?” he asked her. By now he had learned that he’d forgotten a huge chunk of his life had ever existed, and in the back of his mind, he still felt echoes of the existential crisis he must have been going through.
“You left everyone in quite the pickle,” she replied softly, moving out of the way as You came over with a tall glass of green smoothie of unknown ingredients in his grasp. Tony accepted it with a smile, sipping it slowly, finding it edible. “Of course, if you had stayed that way, maybe I could have trained you to be a more responsible adult,” she added, and Tony had to check her expression to see whether she was joking or not. She probably was.
“That’s cruel,” he replied. “Here I thought you loved me for my quirkiness.”
She shook her head, smiling a bit, then leaned in to kiss him softly.
“Was it weird?” he whispered before she had entirely pulled back.
“Very. You called me ‘ma’am’.”
Tony cringed and looked at Rhodey. “What about you?”
“I think you knew it was me, but couldn’t quite explain why I was so much older than what you remembered,” Rhodey said honestly. “Be glad this didn’t take any longer than it did, because if you’d had time to do some shaving…”
Tony touched his signature beard which he had been sporting for a good long while – but not long enough for his amnesiac self to be familiar with.
“Do you remember anything about the mission yet?” Natasha asked. She had already been asking him about it, and Tony was still drawing a blank.
“No,” Tony replied. “I mean, I’m pretty sure we were going after a HYDRA base…”
Her look of disappointment didn’t go unnoticed by anyone, least of all Tony.
“It might come back to him later,” Bruce tried to reassure her, though he hadn’t been pushing Tony to remember any specifics when he tried to figure out how intact his memory was after this ordeal.
“Either it comes back, or we’ll figure it out,” Steve decided with some finality in his words. Maybe he could see Natasha’s continued pressuring wasn’t putting Tony in a better mood.
“HYDRA attacked us right after our last mission,” she said sharply. “They were coming after Tony, specifically. Whatever he saw in their files, they wanted to make sure it didn’t get out.”
“How did they know he hadn’t told any of us?” Clint questioned her. “No one else knew Tony’s memory was gone. Maybe they were just extra fed up with him.”
She raised an eyebrow at him, pursing her lips, but didn’t argue again. After one more look at Tony, she turned and walked out, muttering something about taking a shower and calling it a day.
“J.A.R.V.I.S., make sure she doesn’t sneak into my room at night and try to probe my memory with some questionable spy tricks,” Tony told his AI.
“She’s just frustrated,” Clint defended his friend. “She keeps thinking she should have been the one to go in to extract the information.”
“And when they tried to blow her up, there would have been no armor to save her from it,” Tony retorted. He didn’t remember any of that, but he had been told what had happened. J.A.R.V.I.S. even had a shoddy recording. Sadly, that recording did not contain more than a tiny glimpse of the screen Tony had been looking at. There was no useful intelligence they could extract from that.
No one bothered telling him how differently things may have played out if Natasha had been the one to go in, but then, Tony’s point wasn’t completely invalid.
“There are some things I need to check up on,” Pepper told him. “Will you be okay?”
“Yeah,” Tony nodded. “I’ll be down here for a bit, make sure things are running smoothly, then probably go and take a nap. There are a lot of repairs that need to be done.”
“Don’t work too hard,” she told him, though it had never stopped him before. She leaned in to kiss his forehead, fingers briefly caressing the back of his head, then she walked out.
There had been some injuries, though miraculously no one had gotten hurt by HYDRA; it had been the evacuation that had caused a few stumbles and bruises.
“Come find me after your nap,” Bruce told him, and he and the other Avengers left. The fight hadn’t been as intense as usual, but all of them would most likely enjoy a little down time.
The door didn’t close all the way, having sustained some damage, and Tony sighed, adding it to the list he had been compiling in his head. It was a long one.
He sipped the smoothie, watching the bots moving through the rubble, sorting it out into piles. Tony would want to personally make sure it was correctly disposed of, but for now he left them to it.
Every now and then the bots would rise from their task, looking at him. Maybe they were expecting new instructions. Or maybe, just maybe, it was to make sure he was there.
“How are you feeling?”
Tony wasn’t sure why the AI was asking. J.A.R.V.I.S. had seen Bruce’s results, and was processing the ones that took a bit more time. He would know the answer to that before Tony did. “Weird,” Tony admitted. “I’m sure it will pass.” It was like someone had stirred his mind with a spoon, and things were still settling back into their usual places. He had these moments of uncertainty, irrational and unexpected, and he kept seeking out reflective surfaces to check himself out, to ground himself. “Were you worried?” he asked then.
“Of course. I should have prevented it from happening,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replied.
“Next time, you’ll do better,” Tony said.
“You sound confident about that. Why?”
“Because that’s what I always do. I mess up, and I learn from it.” Tony finished the smoothie, then got up from his seat and took the glass over to the sink. Deciding work could wait a little longer, he headed for the door, letting his hand slide along the body of the bot closest to him. “Nap time. Don’t break anything else while I’m gone,” he told the bots and his AI, heading up to his bedroom.
Up there nothing had changed, though maybe someone had been there since the last time Tony remembered being in his quarters at the Tower.
He undressed to go to bed, adjusted the lighting of the room from a panel in the wall, then sat down on the edge of the mattress. Instead of lying down, he reached to open a bedside drawer, pulling out an item that lay at the bottom of it. He held it in his hands, looking at it, then inhaled sharply and placed it on the nightstand.
It was rare for Tony to have pictures of him and his family on display in his personal spaces, especially since he remembered how much he hadn’t wanted to be there when said picture was taken. But seeing the faces of his mother and father felt fitting at this time, and Tony lay down, deciding not to investigate the why any further.
He probably wouldn’t remember even if he tried, and he was fine with that.