Tesseract Parasitoid (page 1)
Title: Tesseract Parasitoid
Author: Del Rion (delrion.mail (at) gmail.com)
Fandom: The Avengers (MCU)
Era: Some time after the “The Avengers” movie takes place
Genre: Drama, action
Rating: M / FRM
Characters: Bruce Banner (Hulk), Clint Barton (Hawkeye), Nick Fury, J.A.R.V.I.S., Loki, Steve Rogers (Captain America), Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow), Tony Stark (Iron Man), Thor (, Jane Foster, Maria Hill, Pepper Potts)
Summary: Loki’s words to Tony (“How will your friends have time for me, when they're so busy fighting you?”) didn’t actually come true – not immediately, anyway.
Complete. Prequel to “Mindshare”.
Written for: Marvel Universe Big Bang 2012 at LiveJournal
Artist: Hoktauri (fanmix here)
Warnings: Character death (= murder), violence, language, mind-control, some spoilers for the Marvel movie universe (especially “The Avengers”).
Disclaimer: Iron Man and Avengers, their characters and everything else belong to Marvel. The movie versions belong to Marvel Studios, Paramount Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures, Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon… in short: everyone but me. This is pure fiction, created to entertain likeminded fans, no profit made.
Beta: Mythra (a ton of thanks for the great job!)
(Also, thanks to Mary (gamebird) for an early read and extra corrections!)
Feedback: Much appreciated, whether it concerns the writing or the story.
About Tesseract Parasitoid: One of my favorite scenes in “The Avengers” movie is when Loki tries to put Tony under his “spell” – and it doesn’t work. That moment is the foundation for this story.
Also, the information below found at Marvel wikia made the story much easier to write (I had already hoped this could be possible, and it is nice I don’t have to divert from fandom facts to do it, really): “A Cube would eventually develop its own intelligence, commonly influenced by the beings who had manipulated it.” [Marvel wikia / Cosmic Cube]
The Triskelion, a S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ on an island, doesn’t appear in the movie universe of Marvel (not so far anyway), but rather in some “alternative” version of the comics. Either way, I decided to use it for this fic since it gives me a real enough location for some events.
Story and status: Below you see the writing process of the story. If there is no text after the title, then it is finished and checked. Possible updates shall be marked after the title.
Written for Marvel Universe Big Bang 2012.
He awakens, once again.
He recognizes that it has not been that long since he guided the humans to understand his power, to build the portal, but something… failed. He is no longer on Earth, but neither is he in the hands of the one who wielded him.
Instead, he is imprisoned in Weapon’s Vault, in Asgard. So many other relics lie close to him, gathered by Odin, the Allfather. Dangerous weapons from other civilizations, and he has become yet another one of them, to be kept away, to be guarded.
But he senses it; a small flame, far away, a piece of himself. Growing stronger, having found a suitable host… All it will take is that small flicker of light, a spark of consciousness.
He will be free again.
Manhattan, New York, NY, USA
The music started the moment Tony set foot in the new and improved penthouse. The suit had come off, and J.A.R.V.I.S. knew to leave him alone long enough to get a drink. It had been another long day of crime-fighting, tense smiles between him and Rogers, another round of butting heads with Fury, and Agent Romanoff almost decapitated him in the battle – accidentally, he was told.
Good thing he’d really improved the neck part of the suit, seeing as so many of his enemies seem fond of wrapping something around it, or just trying to crush his helmet.
He nodded approvingly at J.A.R.V.I.S.’s play-list for today – well, his play list, to be honest, but J.A.R.V.I.S. has made the picks on what to play upon his entrance.
“Anything new or wonderful?” Tony asked.
“The suit has been taken down for repairs, and the calculations for the new energy shields are still underway, sir. It seems for now that the arc reactor’s energy output might not be enough to sufficiently hold up a desired density.”
Tony nodded. Ever since Loki fired off the Tesseract from his roof, creating a portal which nearly helped to wipe out the whole of Manhattan, he had taken it as a side project to replicate the powerful energy-shield generated by the Cube. For now, it was just fiddling with numbers and calculations, but he would get there.
He was Tony Stark, after all, and if he wanted it –
A sudden stab of pain in his chest made him grunt.
“Sir?” J.A.R.V.I.S. piped up again, something akin to muted concern in his voice. “I seem to detect you are in pain.”
“Astute observation,” Tony grunted. It passed as quickly as it came, but this wasn’t the first time. “Remind me to check the arc readings later on.” And track the pieces of shrapnel, perhaps, just in case one of them was moving around more than it should.
“Of course, sir.”
Tony sat down for a moment, leaning against the couch. Pepper would come back… was it tonight, or tomorrow? He wasn’t sure. She had told him, he had the information somewhere, but he couldn’t get himself to look right now. It had been way too long since he had been able to enjoy his penthouse in private; the workmen, again, had been crowding every corner, trying to repair the damage done by the Chitauri attack and its side-effects. There was a rather amusing video feed of the Hulk tossing Loki around like a rag doll that J.A.R.V.I.S. had recorded…
“J.A.R.V.I.S.,” he called out on sudden impulse, “play file L101-M7.”
On a screen soon played out a scene that Tony had reviewed a few times before; Iron Man landing, Loki entering the room from the other end of the balcony. Tony offered him a drink, stalling, although he said he was threatening. Words, lots of words, Loki looking annoyed and almost worried for a moment, and then the moment of truth; Loki’s words, “How will your friends have time for me, when they're so busy fighting you?”, and his scepter hitting his chest, a faint clinking sound echoing. Hesitance, then another try.
On the screen, Tony’s made a crack at performance issues, which made him chuckle even now – until the pain was there again, sharp, brief, deep in his chest, making him shift in the hope that it would stop. When Loki picked him up and smashed him through the window, Tony clicked his fingers and the video paused. He took a deep breath.
“Sir?” J.A.R.V.I.S. asked.
“Go back to crunching those numbers for that energy shield,” Tony ordered, then got up. He had barely touched his drink as he set it down, walking down the hall to a bathroom where the lights went on automatically. He looked at himself in the mirror, leaned over the sink, and shook his head. “I’m just getting old,” he murmured, then undid his flight clothes and stepped out of them. The arc reactor in his chest was as bright as ever, and there were no bruises on his chest. Nothing to hurt him.
But deep inside…
He lifted one hand up to touch the arc, right where Loki’s scepter did, twice. He hadn’t felt it, not really, just a slight tap, traveling over firm surface to the surrounding scar tissue.
Tony shook his head, decided he might as well shower now that he was here, began to turn – and the pain was there again. Three times, in such a short interval, was a new record. The pain seemed to grow into a heated flame in his chest, almost like when he switched out the palladium core, but more intense, riding his spine up to his skull. He was aware of moaning in pain, clutching his head, squeezing his eyes shut hard against the pain, just trying to wait it out, to focus on breathing.
Tony raised his eyes, settled his hands heavily on the sink and slowly lifted his face, looking at himself in the mirror. A smile played on his lips. He straightened, stretched his shoulders, and just before he turned to take that shower, the blue eyes that perfectly matched the arc reactor in color flickered at the mirror, taking one last look.
- - -
Locating the Tesseract was a priority. Nothing else mattered. Of course, Tony Stark knew where it was; with Thor, in Asgard.
A world away, literally.
But Tony was no fool. There were means, had to be, for calling Thor back, to make him bring the Tesseract with him. It would all be done quickly and effortlessly.
He checked the S.H.I.E.L.D.’s files on Thor, and their records for possibilities on how to summon him back if need be, but there seemed to be no such information available. He pursed his lips. What use was an Avenger who would not be present when disaster struck?
He jerked slightly at the female voice calling his name, then it registered: Pepper.
“Hey,” she went on, stepping into the room, coming over, kissing the top of his head. “Working hard?”
“You know it,” Tony said, emptying the screen with a flick of his hand. No need to let her see it.
“Was that Thor on the screen?” she asked, innocently, but no one was innocent. Once the seed had been planted, it would grow, and sooner or later… she would become a problem.
“Just going through some stuff,” Tony said as he rose and smiled that disarming smile – which of course didn’t work on her, after all these years.
Pepper smiled at him then froze, taking a small step back from where she had been about to come and embrace him. “Tony… are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he smiled, stepping closer to her. “Better than ever, in fact. I feel so… invigorated, somehow. It must be the new air filtering system that was installed.”
Pepper backed away again. “Your eyes,” she stammered.
Tony stopped for a moment. “Ah, yes, well. Contact lenses?” he offered, but his voice had dropped.
She stopped backing away, but looked tense. “Are you okay? Should I call… Bruce or someone?”
“Please don’t. We’re having such a nice conversation. I would hate to ruin the moment.” Tony stepped towards her. Again, she retreated, as if it was a game.
“I think I’ll give Bruce a call anyway. You were complaining about those chest pains, and he’s a doctor, he could take a look –”
Her words were cut off with a gasp when Tony’s hand shot out, taking her by the throat, hard. Her eyes were wide, mouth open, the last of the air in her lungs escaping in a small moan.
“I’m truly sorry, Pepper,” Tony said, cocking his head. He could almost see his eyes reflecting back from hers – or maybe it was the shine of the arc in his chest, he really couldn’t tell. “Tony – I – truly loves you, but you’re just… too smart. And that’s going to be a problem for both of us.”
He pulled her over to where a spiral staircase led down to the lower floors of the penthouse. She was struggling, but with her high heels and his hold on her throat, he had the advantage. She tried to scream, her throat working against his grip when he hoisted her up by the waist. Her legs tried to find purchase, but when he let go, there was nothing for her to hold onto. With a brief scream she fell several stories before hitting the floor with a sickening thump.
Somewhere deep inside, Tony felt bad as he leaned against the railing, looking down, crossing his fingers lightly. “JA.R.V.I.S.,” he called out, “erase the last five minutes from any security feed. File them under my private server, and run encryption on them.”
“Sir, you have just –” J.A.R.V.I.S. started, almost alarmed.
“Mute,” Tony said, annoyed, then stepped back from the railing and descended the stairs, fingers sliding over the smooth surface of the wall as he went. “Oh, Pepper,” he sighed at the bottom, looking at her body; eyes still open in horror, a small puddle of blood where her head had hit the floor. An annoyed frown creased his brow. “You knew dating a superhero was never a good idea…” Then he smiled. “Now, let’s find you a place to… stay out of sight until my work is done.”
- - -
Bruce was working in one of the labs. It was quiet, mostly because Tony tended to give him a lot of space, should he require it.
At first he had been nervous to accept Tony’s offer to remain in New York, to work at the Stark Tower and stop hiding under any rock that was larger than him – or the other guy. As it turned out, staying hadn’t been such a stupid choice after all. He had his own rooms – his own floor, to be exact – with plenty of chances to just disappear should he desire it, or socialize, should he feel the need, and of course use the state-of-the-art technology of Tony’s R&D – Research and development – floors.
He hadn’t seen Tony for a few days but that was nothing new. If Bruce was obsessed about his own work, then Tony was worse. He had had a few talks with Pepper about it, partially to allow her to let out her frustration at how Tony hadn’t changed in that respect at all since becoming Iron Man, and partially because Bruce wanted to tell her where it all came from. Not that she probably understood it any better once he had tried explaining it.
Tony stepped through the doors very early that morning, which most likely meant he hadn’t slept at all. He had sunglasses on, which for him wasn’t that odd, even indoors, and seated himself at the work station next to Bruce’s, then pushed the chair over with his feet.
“What’s up?” Tony asked.
Bruce gave him a complimentary smile. “Nothing. Did you want to –”
“No, actually,” Tony said before Bruce could offer him a part in what he was currently working on – not that it was really Tony’s field, but sometimes he tagged along nonetheless, willing to learn new tricks. “I was wondering about something, in the aftermath of our most recent mission.”
Bruce nodded for him to continue. He hadn’t been there, but he had been following it, of course. The other guy didn’t need to go and play at every sandbox their growing line-up of villains set up.
“You know, when the next global disaster hits us,” Tony mused, “how’s the whole team going to know they’re needed? Mostly, how is Thor going to be called on duty?”
“I would assume S.H.I.E.L.D. has some secret phone number they can call,” Bruce joked.
“I checked, and they don’t have one,” Tony noted, shifting his glasses, but not enough to take them off. “I bet they are just as clueless as the two of us, and while I like the odds of that, I would rather know how to get a hold of our Asgardian brother should the need arise. It’s not like we can mount a bat-signal on top of the Stark Tower and aim it at the sky.”
“Well, actually, that might work, in a sense,” Bruce mused. “But it’s just guesswork. Have you thought to ask Jane Foster? She might know, since she’s probably spent the most time with Thor.”
Personally, Bruce would have loved that excuse to contact her; she was a renowned scientist, in a field that held Bruce’s interest, and he knew Tony would feel the same. Only, for once, Tony might not try to hit on a person, knowing what Thor’s feelings on the subject might be, and that hammer truly made you respect the man, even if you dismissed the part about a demi-god.
“That’s… an excellent idea,” Tony smiled, shifting on his chair, then got up. He clapped Bruce on the shoulder, something he often did, and turned to leave.
“If you call her, let me know!” Bruce shouted after him. If Tony heard, he made no comment, which was a bit odd… but then, Tony was eccentric at best. Bruce shrugged it off and went back to work. Maybe once he was done, he would take a look at what Tony had been tackling to re-create the energy barrier of the Cube. That would be a remarkable addition to his suit no doubt, not to mention something S.H.I.E.L.D. would like.
Maybe that was why Tony hadn’t been spreading news about it; he had a thing when it came to sharing his creations with S.H.I.E.L.D., especially when it came to things that hadn’t been designed for S.H.I.E.L.D. to begin with.
New Mexico, USA
Finding Jane Foster was so much easier than he had thought; she happened to be, of all places, back in New Mexico. Whether she was looking for Thor since she must have heard of his visit to Earth once more, he didn’t know, nor did he care. Well, if she was looking for him, then it might make things so much easier for them.
Iron Man landed in front of Jane’s current research facility, which was little more than a house with some modifications, standing at the edge of the small town – she really seemed to have a thing for those. Well, it probably had something to do with the open desert spreading out around them, and the proximity to the spot where Thor had appeared for the first time.
Tony took off the helmet, carrying it inside as he entered. “Ms. Foster?” he called out.
There was a minor clatter, and an attractive woman walked out towards the door. “Uh, hi,” she said, a bit uncertainly, looking at his attire. For someone who had spent time with a Norse god, she sounded a little anxious.
“I’m a friend of Thor’s,” Tony started. “They call me Iron Man.”
“You’re Tony Stark,” she said, a bit awkwardly, then cleared her throat, coming forward. “Can I help you with something?” she asked, holding out her hand tentatively, and he shook it carefully since the armor gave him a few extra points when it came to strength.
“As a matter of fact, I am, and I hope you will be able to help me,” he said with a smile, and it worked on her just fine. Jane Foster smiled back at him before he went on: “I was hoping to find a way to contact Thor.”
“Is something wrong?” she asked, alarmed now.
“Not presently,” Tony reassured her, “but there are a few things I would like to… talk to him about, in person if possible.”
“Well,” she said, a bit uncomfortable now, “I don’t know if I can help you with that.”
“Anything you can tell me about him will be fine,” Tony smiled, shifting slightly. “Our team is… well, there was no time to exchange contact information the last time we parted ways.”
She laughed, short and sweet, then focused again. “Well, he explained the Yggdrasil to me,” she started.
Tony raised an eyebrow.
“A tree of the universe. Hold on, I have a drawing here somewhere…” She went round to a part of the building that looked like her office. “I don’t think that it’s really a map, mind you,” she went on again, “but he did mention something about… Heimdall. He’s someone who watches over the worlds, and controls the Bifrost – that’s their means of travel.”
“It got destroyed after he left you the last time,” Tony told her.
“Oh,” she said, suddenly looking quite upset. “That does explain why he has not returned… well, not until recently.”
“If I manage to contact him, I shall see to it that the next time he drops by, he shall also visit you.”
She smiled at him, then located the paper, and true enough, Tony didn’t think it was relevant, although it amazed him that S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t have this picture in their records. Guess they hadn’t had time to get a hold of it.
However, Heimdall… “Thank you so much,” he said, bowing his head. “You have been of much help to the Avengers.”
“You are most welcome, Mr. Stark,” she smiled back at him, no doubt hoping that Thor would indeed drop by soon.
Yes, perhaps he will, Tony thought as he stepped outside and put his helmet back on. Sooner than you think. And if not, I shall pay you another visit, in case you forgot to tell me something.
For now, there was no reason to harm her, if everything went as it should.
He took off, heading out to the desert where he knew one of the Bifrost’s entry points had been – and still was – located.
- - -
Hacking his way into a few satellites that the Stark Industries didn’t already possess wasn’t a problem – even with J.A.R.V.I.S. running in safe mode, since the AI still seemed to take offense at Tony killing Pepper. He didn’t want that to become public knowledge until his work here was done.
So, he cracked the codes and sent a message to the sky, although he didn’t think that would work. Even if the message reached Asgard, by some miracle, there was probably no way for them to intercept it. It was a way to pass time, mostly.
What he hoped would work, if the word on this Heimdall was correct, was a message burnt into the ground over a couple square miles:
THOR, WE NEED YOUR HELP.
- IRON MAN & co.
It was quite simple, really, and he had no way of knowing if it would work, whether anyone was watching on the other side of the universe, but he had scripted it over the area where Thor had first appeared on Earth, so there was a chance…
He grabbed some snacks, got comfortable, and waited.
As it turned out, he didn’t have to wait for very long.
That very night the skies took a sudden stormy look that hadn’t been in the forecast, and Tony smiled, putting on his helmet. His hair was almost rising with the electricity in the air, and he stood, waiting, as lightning began to crash above him. And then, with a flash of blue light, a figure came down from the sky. It was almost like the reverse of Thor and Loki leaving Central Park, months ago, but Tony didn’t remember such an ache in his chest then.
Now, he switched to offensive mode and waited for the dust to settle just a little…
Thor stood there, a capsule containing the Tesseract in his hand, his hammer in the other. The last of the wind made his hair blow back and forth, his red cape billowing, making him appear truly god-like.
Tony had no eyes for him, though. The aching burn to be united inflamed his veins, making him take off, to extend his hands, to let loose. Thor went down with a mighty groan, rolling on the ground after Iron Man’s attack, then scrambled back to his feet. He was half-way up when Iron Man was on him, kicking him back down, then reaching for the fallen container. “Thanks for bringing it all this way,” he noted.
“Iron Man, what is the meaning of this?” Thor growled as he got back up. “You summon me here, and attack me… Where is the enemy?”
“You’re looking at it,” Tony said inside the suit, the small smile in place, then lifted his hand and gave Thor all the firepower he had along his whole arm. It sent the God of Thunder rolling in the dust and Iron Man took off from the ground, his mission one step closer to completion.
A red warning light flickered only briefly before he heard it himself and Mjolnir crashed against his back with such impact that it sent him careening back to the ground. He twisted, protecting the Tesseract as he fell, then picked himself back up. “Bad move,” he told Thor.
The hammer was already back in Thor’s hand. “I do not understand, my friend. Why are you doing this? Tony…”
It made him stop, only for a moment – long enough to shift the big guns in place and target them at the ground. He didn’t really stand a chance at close combat, he could admit that much from their last fight, or it would be a huge risk at least. He could take care of this much more cleanly.
Without a word, although a reply burned hot on his lips, he fired, and the ground gave beneath Thor, sending him plunging deep into the earth, the rest of the collapsing walls burying him. Certainly it would not hold him, but it would slow him down considerably.
Carefully picking up the Tesseract, Iron Man held it to his chest as he took flight again, leaving the smoking, broken remains of the New Mexico desert behind him.
Thor’s fist hit the table so hard it shook. “We must find him.”
“That is our top priority,” Fury reassured him.
“He has the Tesseract,” the Asgardian needlessly reminded them. They were all aware of that.
Steve observed the table with intensity, then lifted his head. Banner was quiet, which wasn’t unlike him, but he had been staying with Stark and perhaps blamed himself for not seeing this coming. “What does he want the Tesseract for?”
Banner shifted at his words as if he had been poked hard in the side with something. “He’s been… planning on duplicating the energy shield the Tesseract placed around itself. I didn’t think he actually planned on using the Tesseract itself. He knows how dangerous the Cube is in the wrong hands – or any hands.”
“So either it is that, or he’s working with someone,” Agent Romanoff, the Black Widow, said. “Where are we on that?”
“J.A.R.V.I.S. is mostly inaccessible to us at this time,” Fury replied. “We’re working to penetrate the system and perhaps get a clue as to how this started.”
“Maybe we could go back to the Stark Tower, see if we can dig up anything there. Perhaps a hint as to where he’s gone to hide,” Banner suggested.
Steve nodded. “That is a good idea. We might be able to uncover something there.”
“Perhaps we can find a hint as to where Pepper has disappeared, too,” Black Widow said, surprisingly. “She’s been missing for several days.”
Fury nodded. “Go to the Tower, and keep in touch. We need to find him as soon as possible, before this whole affair gets out of control.”
If anyone asked Thor, it already had, but he nodded grimly and followed the rest of them to a Quinjet. Hawkeye and Black Widow sat in front while the others took places in the back. Thor still looked like he was nursing some battle wounds, emotional rather than physical, and Banner kept shaking his head.
“Banner, it was not your fault, any of this,” Steve told him, holding onto the straps in the ceiling as the Quinjet took off from the Helicarrier and sped off towards New York.
“I know,” Banner noted, “but when he walked down to the lab the other day I thought something was off…”
“Were the means to contact Thor the only thing you talked about?” Steve asked.
Banner nodded, then looked at their immortal friend. “Was Ms. Foster well?”
Thor had raced out to see her once he realized Stark had paid her a visit. It must have taken some of the temper out of him, since he didn’t break anything with his hammer once he arrived at the S.H.I.E.L.D. base. “She was well,” Thor nodded. “Stark treated her well, with nothing suspicious about his behavior. Jane said he simply wanted to be able to summon me back to Earth.”
“Well, he knew you would use the Tesseract for that,” Banner continued.
Thor just nodded grimly. “We must find it,” he said needlessly.
Steve craned his neck to look out the front windows. Hawkeye and Black Widow were quiet all the way until they made a somewhat precarious landing on top of the Stark Tower and found their way to a door leading to the stairs. It refused to open, no matter what, so eventually Steve and Thor physically removed it from its hinges.
“J.A.R.V.I.S.?” Banner called out once they were in. “Can you locate Tony for me?” He said it so easily, so informally, that Steve’s eyed softened. They were friends, Banner and Stark. They had worked together, lived together, and that Banner had not seen this coming… Well, they still didn’t know what they were looking for, exactly, and what was the cause of all this, but it wasn’t like Stark to just… do something like this, when he knew it would piss off a whole lot of people. Well, maybe that part, but the people he was hurting were his friends, his allies, and Steve didn’t think he would do that.
“I am sorry, Dr. Banner, but I am… unable to assist you at this time,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replied a moment later, sounding almost hesitant.
“Well, thank you, anyway,” Banner said solemnly, disappointed.
“If I may request that you go down a few more floors,” the AI continued quite suddenly. “There is…” He didn’t go on after that, and with a quick look over his shoulder, Banner shrugged and went on down until he neared the bottom.
“We could have exited the stairway a lot sooner than this,” Black Widow noted. “Why did J.A.R.V.I.S. guide us –”
She ran into Steve’s back, words cut off.
Steve sniffed the air. “Can you smell that?”
“Your perfected human senses serve you better than our own, I’m afraid,” Banner noted.
Steve didn’t know about that, but he could positively smell something. “It’s like… a dead animal or…”
“Does Stark strike you as someone who keeps dead animals under his staircases?” Hawkeye noted from the rear of the group, looking down over the railing.
“Not one bit,” Steve agreed and continued down, moving past Banner who suddenly didn’t seem all that willing to go down any further.
They must have moved down several more floors before Steve could see something, the smell much stronger. Dried blood and death, the beginning touches of decay – something he was only too familiar with. At the very bottom, pushed into a corner beneath the stairs, lay a body.
“Oh no,” Black Widow gasped, stopping, a hand on her mouth. Banner had stopped as well.
Thor and Hawkeye followed Steve down as he crouched under the stairs and gently as possible pulled out the body. He froze for a moment, remembering her so well.
“Pepper,” Banner said in a choked voice.
“She’s been dead for… several days at least,” Hawkeye observed. “Maybe… she fell, or something.”
“She wouldn’t have ended up under the stairs if she fell down here,” Steve noted darkly, closing the glassy, sightless eyes with his gloved fingers.
They carried her body out in Thor’s cape, which he insisted they should use, and laid her out on the floor. They were at the bottom of another set of stairs, spiraling up to the penthouse area.
“There was blood on the floor there. Someone wiped it off in a hurry,” Hawkeye noted, pointing.
Steve walked over there, noticing a few smears left, a faint smell, and looked up. He was standing in the middle of the spiral, so if she had fallen, or someone had pushed her down…
“Perhaps Stark isn’t acting alone, or of his own free will,” Black Widow said in a hushed voice. Steve looked at her, the cold, emotionless face filled with sorrow. He recalled she had worked with Pepper, when she was undercover in Stark Industries, so that might explain the attachment.
“Let’s find out,” Banner said in a rough, ruthless voice and started up. He stopped a few floors up, in the main area where they had all confronted Loki after the battle. Of course, the windows had been replaced and there was no more rubble on the floor. “J.A.R.V.I.S.,” Banner called out next, stepping over to a small work station, “we found Pepper. Can you show us how it happened?”
“I am sorry, Dr. Banner…”
“Okay,” Banner sighed, squeezing the bridge of his nose. “Okay,” he said again after a while, putting on his glasses, sitting down, then started typing on the eloquent virtual keyboard that appeared on a horizontal surface. “Before he came to talk to me, what did Tony do… J.A.R.V.I.S., can you tell me if there is something you can show me? Did Tony act differently? Was something wrong with him? Did he meet with someone who… upset him, maybe?”
“My security protocols are preventing me from…” There was silence, as if J.A.R.V.I.S. was straightening himself out. “Please view his medical records.”
Banner opened those, the others gathering behind him. “Anything?” Steve asked. He didn’t trust the AI on the best of days, finding it odd that something coming from a motherboard could be so smart, like an actual person.
With a frown on his face, Banner scrolled the page, tapping at some places, then exiting again. “There’s nothing… no, wait; he’s had chest pain.”
“Was he going to have a heart-attack?” Hawkeye asked.
“No, that’s not… it’s a bit out of place, but J.A.R.V.I.S. has taken note of it on several occasions after the Chitauri attack. And they all peaked about two days before he came to see me.” Banner rubbed his face. “I wish we could access the security feed. J.A.R.V.I.S. must have seen something.”
“Do you think Stark is keeping us deliberately in the dark?” Steve asked.
“Well, J.A.R.V.I.S. keeps telling me I’m not allowed to know things he would have done for me in the past – like locating Tony.”
“Let me take a look at that,” Black Widow said and replaced Banner on the seat. She tapped commands, waited, tapped again, then contacted S.H.I.E.L.D., telling them to start working on Stark’s hidden files. “There are a lot of encryptions. He doesn’t want us to see something.”
“Why not just delete whatever it is?” Hawkeye asked.
“Perhaps he wants us to know something,” Banner mused.
“Shall there be a secret password?” Thor asked, impatiently handling his hammer.
“I hope so,” Black Widow said, although she didn’t seem to think they would get in with just one such word.
Steve stepped back and looked around. “Well, is there something else we can do while we wait?”
“We could look around,” Hawkeye suggested.
They did just that, but a search of the Stark Tower – or rather, the penthouse area since the Tower itself was too huge for a quick search – left them with empty hands. However, it seemed S.H.I.E.L.D. and Banner were getting somewhere. “It would seem J.A.R.V.I.S. is being jammed, put into a mode where he can’t work as he should,” Banner said as they returned to the floor where he and Black Widow were still working. “We’re close to cracking the code to disable the lock-down, and when we get there…”
“He will tell us everything?” Steve asked.
“I hope so,” Banner nodded. “Or at least I’ll be able to access a lot more than I can now.”
“And if that does not give us answers?” Thor demanded.
“Then –” Banner started, but a symbol appeared on the screen, and he turned back towards it. “JA.R.V.I.S., are you up?”
“Yes, Dr. Banner,” the sophisticated voice replied. “You have successfully decoded the restriction protocols Mr. Stark placed on my programming before he left.”
“What’s going on with Stark?” Steve asked, to move things along.
There was no reply.
“Is there a specific wording required?” he inquired then.
“No,” Banner replied. “J.A.R.V.I.S., can you show to us what caused Ms. Potts to…”
“That file is… Mr. Stark doesn’t want others to see it, but I shall try to explain while your friends from S.H.I.E.L.D. work on that.” It was odd to hear someone talking so calmly about S.H.I.E.L.D. breaking into them – mostly because Stark always fumed about that. But the AI sounded almost relieved, if possible.
A screen on the side flickered to life, replaying a video named L101-M7. On screen, Iron Man landed, the suit was taken off, and Stark faced Loki who was stepping into the room.
“Is this…” Black Widow frowned.
“Must have happened before the portal opened,” Banner looked at the file. “The date and time match up with that. We were all still on our way.”
They watched as the two men talked, a faint smile on Hawkeye’s face, and then the scepter was raised, to tap against Stark’s chest, once, then a second time. Soon after Stark went flying through the windows and a flash of red and gold soon followed him while Loki attempted to remain standing and avoid collision.
“Is this an answer, or a riddle?” Thor frowned.
“He tried to turn Stark, but it didn’t work. Why?” Steve asked.
“By the sound of it, he hit the arc reactor with that thing,” Hawkeye pointed out.
“That must have deleted the effect,” Black Widow agreed.
“There may be another answer,” J.A.R.V.I.S. supplied, and another video was played, much more recent, taken from a bathroom, it seemed. Surveillance, Steve could tell. He looked more closely.
Stark was looking at himself in the mirror, getting ready for a shower. Steve really would have preferred not to watch – until Stark’s entire body twisted, his face scrunched up in pain, eyes closed, until a moment later he stood, quite unaffected, and met his own eyes in the mirror, a smile on his lips. The picture froze.
“Zoom in,” Banner commanded.
J.A.R.V.IS. did just that, and in the mirror, above the shine of the arc reactor…
“His eyes are blue,” Steve said needlessly. “Can that be a trick of the light?”
“I would say it isn’t,” Banner answered. “Did I mention he was wearing sunglasses – indoors – the day we talked? Which was the day after this, the following morning. Only a few hours in between…”
“The video involving Ms. Potts death is available to you now,” J.A.R.V.I.S. announced.
They all jumped a little.
“Play it,” Steve ordered.
The time on the security feed placed the events between the moment in the bathroom and before the time Banner said Tony came to see him. Pepper walked in, greeting Stark, then backed away from him. They all watched in horror and disbelief as he grabbed her, and dragged her to the steps – then dropped her to her death.
There was a deafening silence afterwards.
“What the hell is going on?” Hawkeye asked after a bit.
“Did anyone notice, when Tony talked, that he spoke of himself as ‘Tony’, then corrected ‘I’?” Banner asked, rewinding the video to that moment.
“What does that mean?” Thor asked.
“Why did J.A.R.V.I.S. show us that video from his confrontation with Loki?” Steve added.
Banner looked like he was working the same fact over in his head. “He wanted the Tesseract, that much was obvious. His eyes remind me of what happened to those whom Loki… forced over to his side,” he said, more carefully now, glancing at Hawkeye, who didn’t look happy about the reminder.
“But Loki could have not been here, and he no longer wields the power of the Tesseract,” Thor scowled.
Banner tapped the screen, and again they saw the same scene from the day the Chitauri attacked, the scepter tapping against the arc reactor. Over and over Banner played it, then just sank his face in his hands. “We have to find him,” he said then. “He killed Pepper. There is no way Tony would have killed Pepper. Not of his own free will.”
“Is it possible someone else is controlling the Tesseract?” Black Widow asked. “Someone who could have gotten access to Stark?”
Thor thought that over for a long time. “I do not see how that is possible, for the Tesseract was well guarded. Yet we do not know who gave Loki the scepter before he came to Earth.” That seemed to trouble him.
“Perhaps we should find Stark and find out,” Hawkeye suggested.
Steve nodded. “Can we find him?”
Banner looked at the room in general. “Can you find him, J.A.R.V.I.S.?”
“Mr. Stark cut me off after he realized I have become compromised,” J.A.R.V.I.S. said in his usual tone of voice, not happy or unhappy. “He has a mobile version of my program, to keep his suit operational, but I believe I shall be able to give you his exact location nonetheless; there are many tracking devices in his suit, should anything happen. He has not cut off all my access to them.”
“Could he be that careless?” Hawkeye frowned.
“Selvig said, when I met him on the roof, that he was aware of his own actions. That was how we were able to shut the portal,” Black Widow told them. “Stark knew we would come after him, and he should have deleted all the evidence J.A.R.V.I.S. has just shown us, but he’s left them here, hidden, and even allows us to track him down.”
“Breadcrumbs,” Banner mused.
“From a children’s story,” Black Widow smiled at him. “Two children, to avoid getting lost in the forest, leave a trail of breadcrumbs behind them. Of course they don’t realize the animals will eat the crumbs, but in this case…”
“We shall find Stark, and bring justice to him,” Thor nodded.
“He might not even know what he’s doing,” Hawkeye noted, his voice low.
“Let us hope so,” Banner said, getting up, “because if he remembers this…” They all knew he meant Pepper, more than anything else.
“Mr. Stark is currently staying in a small Stark Industries-owned testing area/storage location in northern Wyoming. I have sent the coordinates to your Quinjet.”
“Thank you,” Steve said, nodding his head at the nearest screen.
“Keep us posted,” Banner ordered as they got up.
“Should we…” Black Widow hesitated for a moment, looking at the stairs.
“S.H.I.E.L.D. will take care of her,” Hawkeye promised his fellow agent, and they all climbed back to the roof, the outlook of the mission grimmer if possible.
Stark Industries testing and storage area
Tony looked up from his suit as an alarm started flashing on the far wall. “J.A.R.V.I.S., I’m so disappointed in you,” he shook his head, then looked down at his handiwork. He was ready, but he had hoped to avoid the confrontation with the Avengers if possible.
“A Quinjet has landed, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. – a separate mobile version of the AI – announced in his ear. “The Avengers are approaching.”
“Let them come, but lock the doors. Let’s not make this too easy,” Tony said, then started putting his suit back together where he had taken it off for modifications.
The others must have been pissed because it didn’t take all that long before the building was shaking and he could hear Thor through the rather thick walls of concrete and reinforcement. Lightning sparked on the other side of the innermost door, and it burst open with a final kick from the Captain.
Tony cocked his head slightly, standing up, Iron Man’s suit coming to life.
“Iron Man!” Thor bellowed. “Hand me the Tesseract at once!”
“Woah, big guy; get out of bed on the wrong foot?” Tony joked.
“This isn’t a time for jokes,” Captain America told him firmly, stepping up. “Where have you put the Tesseract?”
“Somewhere safe,” Tony told them, through Iron Man. J.A.R.V.I.S. was still running diagnostics, but he was positively pulsing with power.
He saw Black Widow and Hawkeye glance around, looking for the Cube no doubt. Well, they could search all they wanted…
Then Bruce stepped up, and it made him stop for a moment; Bruce Banner, in the middle of all the bulked-up, pissed-off super-heroes, standing very small and human, walking towards him. “Tony,” he said, “if you can hear me…”
“Loud and clear,” he replied.
“No, not you,” Bruce said. “I have a theory, you see. Well, I’m not sure how it happened, but this isn’t you, and you might not be able to see it right now, but… I don’t want to hurt you, so please just surrender, and give Thor back the Tesseract before he tears your suit a new one.”
“Funny,” Tony noted, “you’re getting the hang of it, good doctor, but I’m afraid the Tesseract is exactly where it belongs, for the time being.”
“And where is that?” Thor asked, stepping forward. A few lamps above him exploded from the sheer electricity he exuded.
Tony wished they could see his smile. “I’m sorry for this, Bruce,” he said then, and activated the repulsors. The sheer light coming out of them was blinding, but his helmet was quick to adapt.
“Tony, please, don’t,” Bruce begged just before Iron Man raised his hands, and fired. It was magnificent, how he could have blown through a mountain. He heard Thor’s cry of outrage before he shot a beam of focused energy, and the entire under-ground building came falling down.
Iron Man flew up, through the rubble, towards the open sky – and then felt something hit him from below, hard. An angry snarl followed, and Thor’s hammer came rushing towards his head as the demi-god pulled himself up, following him. He dodged, shot up from the falling debris, Thor following him through the dust. Iron Man raised a hand to blast Thor, to send him off and to buy him enough time to exit the scene. It was a shame how quick the Asgardian had learned this time, moving to the side to avoid the blast, then came back at him.
They went at it for a fair bit, trading half-successful hits as thunder rolled above them, and Thor never allowed him to slip away completely, dragging himself along, and eventually got enough momentum to hurl Iron Man to the ground.
Tony groaned in the suit, picking himself up slowly. There was a dent in the solid rock the exact shape of his armor, and Thor landed beside him, hammer already swinging. Tony didn’t quite manage to dodge it, the blow sending him flying and he landed harshly several feet away.
“Come on,” Tony taunted him, rolling over, Iron Man waiting for a perfect moment to hit him.
He never got it because the heavy impact of Captain’s shield hit him in the head, momentarily disrupting the information from flowing, a painful ring in his ears.
There was a roar from the Hulk, then Thor was on him, striking him to the ground, and he could distantly hear Captain America telling him to not kill him.
“This will take him down a notch,” Black Widow announced, sounding like she had swallowed a lungful of dust, and whatever she shot him with definitely did the trick. The suit shut down like in a seizure, the short so powerful it made Tony see stars, and reality slipped away for a moment.
- - -
The Hulk was circling them, not having liked it one bit when Iron Man made the entire building collapse on them. Thor hadn’t even waited before flying up to catch Iron Man’s escape, and Steve was left to protect those who could not make such a quick exit. For a moment he was positive he belonged in that category as well, because buried under a ton of stone wasn’t something him or his shield could deal with.
Banner had turned to Hulk before the roof fell in, protecting Hawkeye and Natasha long enough for them to climb out, Steve going ahead of them. By the time they got to the surface, Thor was attacking Iron Man with all he had, keeping him from fleeing, and when it looked like he might have him on the ropes – which usually didn’t mean all that much when Stark was wearing his suit – Steve decided it was time for him to intervene, and used the knowledge he had gained to render Iron Man temporarily unable to move.
After a solid hit in the head, a few good strikes from Mjolnir, and whatever S.H.I.E.L.D. tech Black Widow had actually brought with her, Iron Man was down.
The Hulk had stopped growling and when Steve turned to look, Banner sat there, dirty and his pants barely hanging onto his body, but got up and stumbled over to them.
“Look at that,” he rasped. “He… did he actually put the Tesseract into his suit?”
Steve admitted he hadn’t even noticed, but in the back of the suit was a shape of a square which kind of reminded him of the arc reactor in the front.
“That explains why it took him about two seconds to bury us all,” Hawkeye noted darkly, then coughed.
“Can we take the suit off?” Steve asked. It looked complicated when it came off the way it should.
“Most of it, yes,” Banner said. “It might be a good idea.”
They did that without hesitation. Thor muttered and prowled, probably wanting to use his hammer some more, but Stark was down and Steve wasn’t comfortable with hitting a man who was already beaten.
Banner was awfully helpful when it came to dismantling the suit, more so than Hulk would have been, at least if they wanted to keep Stark in one piece, and eventually Thor came forth to release the Tesseract from its place in the suit. Steve grimaced; it seemed the Tesseract had almost burned through to Stark’s back, through the layers of metal and cloth, leaving long, twisting burn marks on his skin, as if he had been swimming with one of those jellyfish Steve had seen on Animal Planet. A little longer…
“Let’s get him back to the Helicarrier,” Steve decided, and after Stark was secure and still out of it, they took off. The hardest part of their mission was over, but somehow, when Steve looked at their friend and ally, he wondered if that were true at all.
Stark had the tendency to make everything a bit harder than it should be.
- - -